By Sarah Hart
A Cacophony of Praise
I am a crazy bird lady. In fact, even as I write, I am sitting on my screened in porch, decaf in hand, listening to the vast and diverse species of songbirds, jays, woodpeckers, hummers and even waterfowl that daily come to partake in the feast that is suet feeders, sugar water, and many, many pounds of black oil sunflower seed in my backyard. A thousand different voices, all raised, singing their own songs, communicating who knows what to one another. It is a beautiful, ridiculous, hopeful, audacious, music-box-store-like symphony; one which makes me laugh and wonder. And – always – listen.
I imagine so often that this is akin to what God hears of us in our worship; our voices, the gathering of the saints in our collective beautiful, ridiculous, hopeful, audacious, music-box-store-like symphony; which, I suppose, makes him laugh and wonder. And listen.
Consider it. On any given Sunday, we gather. And one of the main components of our gathering is that we lift our voices in song, accompanied or not, to sing praise to God. While we stand in our own singular communities, we seldom are thinking about the thousands upon thousands of other singular communities doing the same. At the moment one is lifting the newest worship song, with voices crying out and hands raised, another is lifting a setting of a psalm, as a cantor sings in solo voice, then lovingly invites a congregation to join in. As an organist somewhere pipes the call to worship, another congregation is entering in with African drums and sweeping movement in the aisles. A tiny congregation with no accompanist struggles over a hymn in the out-of-date books that have seen better days but have been held by generations of seekers, while a congregation bursting to capacity is applauding, dancing hypnotically, singing the song of their Savior God. We, in the singularity of our congregations, are not singular at all; rather, in our worship, we join in praise with the countless saints, both of earth and heaven. A cacophony of praise.
The Holy Together
I grew up among the lush, green hills and farmland of Southeastern Ohio, in a small parish community, St. Bernadette’s, where I also attended school. We went to mass every Saturday or Sunday, once a week during school, and prayed the rosary every morning. Ours was a tight-knit community, the kind in which every family was involved, and knew each other, and everyone was always ready and willing to reach out to assist anyone in need. Church was something we did, and something I loved; but had you asked me then to explain why I went, I likely would have said: “because my grandma says I have to”.
My sister was in second grade and I was in first grade when we were in the children’s choir together. That was the year that our choir director decided it would be a great idea to keep a bunch of elementary aged kids awake on Christmas Eve so that they could sing at midnight mass (side note: this was the first and last year of that occurrence). My memory is a bit foggy about most of the evening (lack of sleep and too much Santa-induced excitement at fault), but I will always, always remember the beginning of that midnight service. I and my sister beside me, in our little white choir robes with purple bows (the color of Advent); a completely darkened church save for one candle, held by our priest, who called out through the midnight silence: “a people in darkness have seen a great light!”. He then lit the candle of a few people around him, and then those people lit a few held by others, and then they passed it on; on and on it went until every soul in that blessed space was holding a lit candle (even the sleepy, Santa-crazed choir kids). We began to sing “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful”, and my little heart was full to bursting as (I believe for the first time in my life) I felt part of something so very much greater than just me. Gathering was suddenly more than showing up Sunday to say “hi” to everyone, hear the Word, and sing a bunch of songs we liked (or didn’t). Gathering was, suddenly, something more: the holy together.
Something that I carry with me to this day from that night so long ago is the realization that I am not just myself. If the church is a place where “I” come, it is a place where many others come as well; it is a collective “I”. So then, there can never be only my need, my hope, my prayer, my song. It must be always our need, our hope, our prayer, our song. This is the holiness of the gathering: that we truly are the body of Christ, many parts, languages, cultures, ages and countless diversities, broken and mending and celebrating together. Us.
The Worshipping Us
So we gather for the word, for the Eucharist, for the sacrament, for healing, for belonging; and music is a huge part of any gathering experience. However, in our desire to worship as a body, there’s a very slight problem: we are all as different as night and day.
Humanity generally ponders only that which it is experiencing at the present moment. Yet for thousands of years, truly as long as man has had melody, there has been diversity in both the approach to music and the ways in which we worship. Indeed, it was the Psalmist himself who wrote:
“Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals…” Psalm 150:3-5 NIV
I’m guessing that, in David’s day, the words “lyre” and “clashing cymbals” didn’t go terribly well together. It might be akin to saying today, “praise him with piccolo and keytar”. I surmise that David recognized that styles and use of instrumentation were many and varied; yet all of them were permissible in worship (i.e., “praise Him with anything that moves you!”). Musical taste should not be a hindrance to our collective praise, David points out; rather, all worship is beautiful to the ears of God, when offered sincerely.
If David were here, I believe he would say that it boils down to this: the heart of praise does not adhere to only one musical formula. No one way of worship is better than another. By the heart of God, our worship is, simply, received.
Ancient and New
I recently received an email from a young worship leader in another country. That email boiled down to this: “the liturgical church is old and outdated. I don’t like that old music. I want new music and new life breathed into our congregation. My worship band only plays modern praise and worship music. I play electric guitar and write songs too, and my songs are the kind of songs that the church needs.”
I hardly knew where to begin. In one fell swoop, this person decided that any songs written in the last 2000 years of Christian church history stunk (which would include the psalms, all of Bach’s religious works, and pretty much anything by Charles Wesley), and weren’t worthy of being sung, and only that which was new and involved electric guitars was worth hearing, and that surely his music was the music that pleased God the most. And it’s not the first time I have heard this brand of talk from worship leaders. My dear friends, we must be careful, guarding our hearts; for Christ said “it can not be that way with you”…thinking that one of us is better than another, that a song or musician or musical style is better than another. This kind of thinking is poison. It is not a “holy together” mentality.
What is happening in any one geographic or cultural place in terms of worship is an evolution of what has happened for thousands of years prior. Our worship is an echo of what was, being brought into what is, breathed and interpreted and rediscovered as a community. So then, we can never simply address just the needs of a few. We bring the ages into our worship. Ancient and new, entwined as we remember, and give thanks, and continue to create. As the community has always done.
The truth is that the demographics of the worldwide church is MUCH different than the demographics of our own congregation on any given Sunday. So then, I believe that if we are to discuss community, and why we truly gather, then we must search within our hearts, among our companions, and with our own church. Do we gather to make just that one particular demographic of believers happy? Do we gather to showcase our new tunes, our voices, our chops? Do we gather because we want to be entertained? Do we gather to be seen? Do “I”, alone, gather?
Do we gather to welcome the stranger? Do we gather to serve the poor and one another? Do we gather to reach a demographic or culture that has been pushed aside? Do we gather to lift our praise as best we can, singing our 2000 plus years of beautiful history – both spiritual and musical – as we marry ancient and new into the worship experience? Do we gather to offer the lyre as well as the crashing cymbal?
Do we gather because the One our souls love calls us to do so?
There is Room for All
To be fully truthful, there are some birds whose songs are more beautiful to me than others. When the Carolina Wren comes, it is a lilted, happy trilling call. The Mourning Dove sends a soft, apologetic but lovely “whoo-whoo-whoo” through the early air. Woodpeckers offer a sturdy, staccato sort of call sounding do-re-mi-fa-mi-re-do. And then, there’s that Blue Jay. He is so loud, so obnoxious. He shrieks, coarsely, the bully-voice of the bird world. But the landscape of song would be lacking if any of these voices were missing, even the obnoxious jay. It is never one voice. It is many voices, one song.
In our worship – not just our “in the building” worship but our “in the worldwide church” worship – there are many different voices. We may gravitate toward some, and not toward others. This is natural, human. But we cannot dismiss any of our brothers and sisters for the ways in which they worship; in Christ, there is no them and us, no nation or denomination. For, like the birds, we gather together, to offer our praise to the God who loves us.
And how lovely that gathering, that beautiful cacophony, our millions of varying voices, our one true song must be to the heart of our God.