A Musical Journey as Worship
From the start of our community project, I’ve been keenly aware that we don’t have a traditional musical experience. When, in the beginning, I wondered aloud with a friend what we would do in our gatherings for “worship”, his response was to remind me that among those who had committed to join us was “probably the 4th best guitarist in the world” …. Yes. I knew this, and I also knew that the speaker himself was a pretty competent bass player–point being, we had some tools in our toolshed. But I’d had a few conversations with Guitar Player, and I knew that he was a bit burnt out on playing music on Sundays, and I was not about to pressure him to provide something to our group that he didn’t have to give. He needed rest.
One of the things I’m sensitive to is the tendency in institutions to settle into performance ruts that require a great deal of structure and organization to sustain, and that set us up for crises when they can’t be sustained. I remember a Sunday at a church years ago, when there was no drummer available, only a couple guitars and a vocalist (we regularly had a full rock band each Sunday, with several teams on a complicated schedule): the suddenly smaller, less rock-y band was blamed for things being seriously “off” in the meeting that day. While I’m pretty sure the small band was not the problem, this is a good example of a habit becoming an issue.
So, with no musicians ready to play in our meetings, I faced a challenge: I’m not a musician, but I have a strong sense that music is somehow important for taking us away from our normal, logical, word-heavy way of thinking. (I also knew that I didn’t want to play much traditional worship music, for the same reason that I didn’t want to carry on other liturgical traditions from our history … I wanted this community to build a language and a set of practices that had meaning for our time and place, not merely continue a habitual, preferred way of being.) So I started to mine my music library, which was beginning to grow, thanks to the internet and the multitude of music-discovery sites out there.
I played songs that had meaning for me, and invited others to do the same. I picked music that moved me, and spoke to the things I thought we might be hearing from God in a particular season. But I made no effort to pick “worship” music or even Christian music. I began to set up songs by saying that I thought all love songs touch on something of the divine love for us, invoking the words from St. John: ‘We love, because God first loved us‘. What besides a touch of the Divine can explain the sudden, radical change that comes over otherwise tough and independent men and women when they sing a love song? One notable set-list stands out in my memory: I played a few Tony Bennet songs for the group. A woman responded, with some emotion, that she thought the idea of playing Tony Bennet during worship was silly, but by the time we got to Fly Me To The Moon, her defenses were down, and she got it: This was the way God thought about her.
And the group has embraced it, sharing every kind of music: classical and opera, alternative- and classic-rock, folk music and country, and instrumental music of all kinds. And yes, we’ve had our share of classic worship music, as well. Even with the arrival of a bona-fide guitar-playing worship leader in the last year, we still get plenty of opportunity to play our own music, and so to tell a bit of our own stories with songs.
A few weeks ago, I played a set that was very much a musical journey. An old friend of mine, visiting from out of town, reflected on the power of the journey when compared with the traditional worship mode of songs that are designed to lift us up into the heavenly places. This music was on our level, almost easier to join to, because it started where we all are. He said it was perhaps the most powerful time of worship he had ever had.
The set began with Josh Garrels’ Ulysses (from The Sea In Between), a take on the original Long Journey, about a king who is separated from home by various obstacles and enemies. The journey continued with Sara Groves’ It’s True, from a Christmas concert she performed in a women’s prison–in the set, this song plays the part of the spoken affirmation, an encouragement to believe the simple truth in spite of what we see (which is no platitude when sung in front of hundreds of prisoners). The set finished with Big Tree’s Gloria (from This New Year) , a giddy love song about some of the things we think and do around our loved ones … and setting those sometimes silly things in their proper context: glory.
In my design, this journey took us through an inventory of our hopes and fears, touching down on our drive to return to a Home In God against all odds and through much despair; on the simple and hard-won truths we hold to; and finally on something of God’s playful and powerful love for us, where all melts away in his smitten gaze.