"Play the Song!" Balancing Ritual and Novelty
The service this week should be great. Coop is preaching on Hebrews 12. The last section builds to a boisterous, exuberant, celebratory sending out. What to do, then, with our customary but too-sedate-for-this-service song “Benediction” (SNC 288)? Do we end as we usually do? Or try something else? Aaron and I hear the voices in our heads scolding: “But we’ve always done it that way.” “Always,” in this case, being all of two years. Still, we agreed that this week we should attempt the unthinkable: ending a LOFT service without doing “Benediction.” Instead, a spoken biblical blessing and an imperative “Go in peace!” We’re both a little anxious, but we’ll see how it goes.
Ribbono shel olam, what a train wreck! There I was, breathless after two woo-hoo songs, pronouncing blessing and then sending out: “Go in peace!” I declared. Everyone just stood still. Most stared in befuddlement or turned to their neighbors, asking what was going on. “Go, in peace!” I suggested, a little more urgently. Some people begin crossing their arms. And their expressions. Aaron and I exchanged a whispered instruction and then launched into the last refrain again of “Siyahamba” in half-time. Everyone sang out, we finished, and I pleaded: “Go! In peace!” Nothing. Then a low murmur began to build until someone cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled loudly: “Play the song!” I looked at Aaron and said, “Key of D.” We played it.
Thus endeth the experiment of concluding LOFT in any other way than what folks have become accustomed to.
Who’d’ve thunk that college students—who the experts tell us practically worship novelty, who are the alleged despisers of repetition and ritual—who’d’ve thunk they’d react so vehemently to being deprived of a tradition? Then again, maybe that’s why they reacted so passionately: the “Benediction” song is nearly their only tradition at LOFT. They sense that worship of an unchanging God is somehow unfitting without a certain sameness, without ritual. They know they need it.
Sure, we pray each week, we read Scripture each week, we hear a sermon each week, and so on. But most of our liturgical actions take the shape of songs—songs that change with every service. It isn’t easy to identify common elements week to week, even when we do have them. I wonder what else we’re missing.
Pete and Molly asked today about reviving Mix & Mingle. “We miss it,” they said. Its original function (passing Christ’s peace) got lost in the frenetic fellowship it occasioned—people leaping atop and running up on chairs to greet friends on the other side of the sanctuary. So last year we decided to drop it as a regular part of LOFT. What would it mean to bring it back?
To do: E-mail team. Ask, Can we revive M&M? Give it back its old job? Even expand it? Use it to direct students to share a prayer concern or identify something for which they’re thankful? Or maybe do something else to serve the theme of the service? Brainstorm.
It’s so interesting, this clearly-sensed need for regularity, repetition, ritual; for some important things to remain the same in a rapidly changing world. And it’s not just structural sameness they’re after—that they often resist. What they want are anchoring actions, providing some security amidst all the innovation. It’s like they’re out at sea and want a few safe havens.
2/21—Working Group Meeting
Talked today at Working Group about how LOFT begins. Some weeks the leadership team—all right, the “band”—just walks up and begins to play. Other times there are announcements. Sometimes we teach new music. Sometimes we do what feels like a prelude. Is one of these ways better than another? How can we create a dramatic launch (“Here we go!”) without succumbing to the cultural forces that pull us toward making the whole thing an entertaining show? (“Ladies and Gentlemen! Your attention, please!”) The group thought we should begin with an appropriate greeting—in the Lord’s name, if not the Lord’s voice—and then remind each other why we’re here: to worship, to renew the covenant of grace between God and God’s people.
To do: Is this a possible song? Bookend LOFT with both an opening song and a closing song? Would that be too much ritual?
Spent a bit of time today playing the guitar and working on an opening song for LOFT. I think I have a decent text written, and most of the tune too. Now I gotta tweak it a bit. . . .
We talked today at Worship Apprentice training about that whole “ritual/novelty” thing. I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) by how open the gang was to finding new and authentic means of “sameness” in worship week to week. We already have the “Benediction” song and Mix & Mingle. I timidly (well, as timid as I can be) offered “The Lord Be with You,” my summer composition, as a starting point for LOFT services. I think they liked it.
It’s not quite the fixture that “Benediction” is, but we’ve begun every service this year with TLBWY, and folks have clearly responded to the introduction of some liturgical anchor points. When we start and end at the same place each week (along with a few familiar stopping places), we feel more comfortable during the rest of the service, sailing the open water, following the Spirit’s wind.