I'm going to set down some scattered thoughts on a subject that has preoccupied me for a week or so: how do we sing the Lord's song in the face of the graphic, violent acts of murder in our society?
This question has come to me from colleagues both this past week (as the country witnessed the real-time murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five policemen in Dallas) and last month (after the mass shooting in Orlando).
The United States is no stranger to mass shootings, and clergy and church musicians naturally turn their attention to the question of an appropriate liturgical response.
An obvious answer is prayer. As Christians we are called to pray all the time. I think Christians find themselves praying as they learn of violent events and in the days and weeks that follow. Surely collecting this desire to pray around these events in the Prayers of the People is a good thing.
And I don't want to put words in the mouths of the clergy, but the sermon is also a possibility. Though not a requirement, I don't think. I do know Karl Barth is said to have drawn attention to the intersection of the Bible and the newspaper, and this certainly holds great homiletic potential. But this isn't really my area, so I have to leave it to the professionals.
But then what about the music?
Well, maybe after a mass shooting we could change a hymn to something meaningful. Like "Amazing Grace". That would be nice.
According to one definition not a week would go by without us needing to sing that hymn. And our call as church musicians is not to annoy people with the same hymn.
Or maybe we could find a few other options, but is having a "tragedy" hymn list really necessary?
Please don't get me wrong. I am not insensitive to the very real problem and pain of violence. And liturgical responses in the streets and cities where these events happen are absolutely necessary. But I think we must be rather more thoughtful about the intersection of our weekly Sunday worship and the CNN Breaking News banner.
A story about this: several years ago I had finished the Thursday night choir rehearsal for the Third Sunday of Advent ("Gaudete Sunday"). This particular Sunday comes at the midpoint of the Advent season and is typically marked by joy (Gaudete is Latin for "rejoice"). The music chosen for the day certainly relied on this. But the next morning 20 elementary school children were dead at wrong end of a gun. Other than the Virginia Tech shooting, this was the most deadly mass shooting in the United States. This was awful, even 400+ miles away.
And still, the music was chosen, the services were set. I remember that I made a remarks to the choir on Sunday morning before rehearsing the music again. I said something to the effect that "yes, we are all deeply troubled by the news this week, and, yes, this music is all quite joyful in tone, I know, but here's the thing -- this Advent waiting that we're engaged in, we know the result of this, and the result of this is the coming of Jesus, our Redeemer, who wipes away all tears. So, no, even in light of this kind of news, we're not going to be any less joyful in our Salvation. And this kind of joy doesn't make our grief at what happened unchristian."
As it turned out, there were extensive remarks and prayer planned for the beginning of the service toward the young children of the parish, including the reading of the names of the dead. And while I can't comment on the act's appropriateness, I do not think that it quite extinguished the liturgical ethos of the day. The pink candle was lit, the Word was preached, the Bread was broken and shared.
I've turned to an essay by James Alison called "Worship in a Violent World" which I think has something to say about all of this.
The true worship of the true God is in the first instance the pattern of lives lived over time, lives which are inhabited stories of leaving the world of principalities and powers, and gradually, over time, giving witness to the true God in the midst of the world by living as if death were not, and thus in a way which is unmoved by death and all the cultural forces which lead to death and depend on death.
As I do this church music thing a bit more, and as these violent events occur more and more frequently, I find that I have less interest in trying to reinvent the hymnody or the choral music to "fit the bill". I am beginning to believe that the Church's best response to events like these is to be the Church–in a way which is unmoved by death!
There are those who seek an alarmingly high degree of specificity in their church music in response to violent events.
One hymn writer promptly provided lines in response to last week's news. The first stanza reads:
When people die by hatred, when people die by fear, When people die defending our right to protest here, When young black men are murdered, when heroes die in blue, When people die for justice, O God, we cry to you.
But I wonder if James Alison doesn't point out the problem with this kind of creativity:
He writes of liturgy being "an ordered and relaxed way of habitually making ourselves present…to the one who is just there"
[worship] is an orchestrated detox of our mimetic fascination with each other which is the only way we are going to be able to glimpse the other Other who is just there, and who has been inviting us, all along, to his party.
If we bring in images of our mimetic fascination into our hymn singing wholesale, does this not work at cross purposes with our being able to "glimpse" God, the forgiving victim? The hymn above might be just the thing for a prayer or memorial service in Dallas, but is it appropriate at a Sunday gathering of a faith community in Detroit? I wonder if it isn't better to speak to it without needing to speak about it? The old English teacher's "show, don't tell".
Again, I am not advocating that church musicians adopt the familiar posture of the ostrich and bury their heads in the sands of complacency, but I think that the same kinds of questions we raise for our church generally should be asked of "current event" music, even if the timetable is hours instead of weeks.
I was grateful this past week for the gifts given in two twentieth-century hymns that I had chosen weeks earlier: "Where cross the crowded ways of life" (to give credit where credit is due, this is listed among the "tragedy" hymn list from Ponder Anew) and "When Christ was lifted from the earth." And the gifts of a shared lectionary and shared hymnal meant that these lines were sung by many in the Episcopal Church this past Sunday.
O Master, from the mountain side,
make haste to heal these hearts of pain;
among these restless throngs abide,
O tread the city's streets again;
–Frank Mason North
Reading "restless throngs" I could not help but see the images of the Dallas protest scattering in the streets when the first shots were fired.
Where generation, class or race
divide us to our shame,
[God] sees not labels but a face,
a person and a name.
And what more can be said about this stanza but that it may as well be the anthem of Black Lives Matter?
Finally, I think Rowan Williams and James Alison have both written elsewhere on the meaninglessness of violence. It is truly demonic in that it has no meaning.
Meanwhile, the dying and rising of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is rich with meaning, and it is this that we must place at the center of our liturgy and music.
If I may quote the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
…there’s a side of me that says we’ve got work to do…I really do believe that Jesus Christ changes lives. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be here… Change of heart is very much what I think Jesus was getting at when he said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again to see the kingdom.”
So the more I lament, the more I’m ready to go preach and go live and go help the church be the church and do our work.
Curry: ‘Jesus doesn’t allow us the option of self-righteousness’ Episcopal News Service. 11 July 2016.
I'm ready to help the church be the church too, through our song, for the sake of the world.
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