John Bell has been avoiding me.
In the past few years, I’ve been increasingly nurtured by the music the Iona Community produces and distributes. But for most of that time, the hope that I would ever encounter Bell, perhaps its best-known member, had been diminishing.
Monday mornings, life gets a tad tedious here by the organ bellows. So I sneak up to the church office for some serious on-line conversation with my fellow church mice. No, I’m not worried I’ll be caught. The pastor religiously participates in some kind of ritual that involves hours of walking on a grassy field and some swift swooshes of a metal stick—these punctuated by a string of words that I never hear from the pulpit.
“We are what we eat.” Anyone who’s suffering the cumulative effect of too many ice cream sundaes knows that’s true. But when it comes to matters of spirituality and faith, I’d like to suggest, we are what we sing.
Music has the uncanny ability to burrow its way into our spiritual bones. Even when we are tired or depressed, old songs well up from within us and dance on our plaintive whistling lips. When we are old and can remember little else, we are still likely to recall the songs we learned in our childhood.
The worship bug first bit a long time ago—back in high school when I sang in “Gospel Press,” a church youth choir directed by Sonny Salsbury. But more on that later. Ever since then, my spiritual journey has taken me through various expressions of a movement some call a “worship awakening.”
To invite the congregation on a thoughtful Lenten journey, Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan, adopted a two-pronged program that sought to harmonize corporate and personal times of reflection and worship and to deepen the congregation’s understanding of the emotions of Passion Week. Our entire Lenten series prepared us for the drama “We Were There.”
It was hard to pick Marty Haugen out until he stepped up to the mike. Dressed simply and holding a guitar, he waited quietly for everyone in the chapel to settle down. Then, after first teaching us some of the responses we would be singing, he began the service of Evening Prayer. Haugen sang, “Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world” and, with a gesture, invited us to respond: “The light no darkness can overcome.” So began one of the services at the Calvin Symposium of Worship and the Arts this past January.
At 10:55 we still needed a tambourine player, someone for the castanets, and a third for the wood block. I also noticed that the tune listed in the bulletin for “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” was not the one the organist had been cued to play. At 11:01 I slipped into my seat in time to hear the last announcement and sucked in air as the liturgist shifted our focus to worship. This was not an atypical Sunday morning at Grace Church.
Celebrating Bach's Legacy to the Church: After 250 years, he still preaches powerfully through his music
Fifty years ago, on the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death, composer Paul Hindemith gave a speech titled “Heritage and Obligation.” Like Hindemith, many composers since the time of Mozart have felt some kind of obligation to Bach’s heritage—composers as diverse as Mendelssohn, Chopin, Brahms, Stravinsky, and the jazz pianist John Lewis.
I should have known better. It was, granted, quite a strange request. Almost bizarre. But I thought I could work with it. I thought that perhaps it could be made into something meaningful; something, in fact, faithful to God’s Word. Besides, it was a garden wedding—an informal setting compared to a sanctuary. Perhaps in that context it just might communicate.