Monday, August 30, 2010

The End of an Era...sort of

Yesterday marked what will probably be the final episode of my summer quest to learn the Ukulele in public.  As regular readers know, I was pressed into service to do double-duty as preacher and hymn accompanist when our usual summer musician was unable to play.  To that end, I learned a good number of hymns on the uke, and I inflicted them on the good folks of my summer congregation.  Now this is over.  Our Assistant Pastor, the soon-to-be Reverend Matthew Carriker has returned with his guitar and I return to my normal job on Sunday morning, namely preaching.  But before we close the curtain on my musical career (at least until next summer, when I take up the Bazouki), I thought it would make sense to note a few things that I learned/re-learned/experienced/understand better about worship thanks to this experience.

A.  Music is Crucial to the Worship Experience for my Congregation

Now, I realize that this is not the case in many viable worship forms.  I, for example, have had a long history of experimenting with various forms of meditation.  When I am meditating or praying, I often find music really distracting.  However, in this context, music (particularly the hymns) serves as a signpost marking off a sacred moment.  It is a moment that is participatory for most members.  It is a moment--even when played on the uke--where we are better able to recognize the sacred in each other and to see the Divine in the world outside ourselves.  This is why, when we asked people what they would like to see in their summer services, hymns topped the list.  It is also why they were willing or even excited to see those hymns performed in new ways and new forms.  I played this summer, Matt brought his guitar one Sunday and will again next week, we had a volunteer pianist one Sunday, and the congregation sang a capella a few times as well.

B. Music Can Set the tone of the Service

The last time I posted about this experience, I noted that worship is, in some sense, a folk art.  This is the case even in much more formal settings than summer services with the liberal Christians.  However, I did find that the Uke--a naturally cheerful instrument--influenced people's moods and influenced my presentation.  It would take a much better musician than me, I think, to make it sound sad, or contemplative, or quiet.  But if the purpose is praise and celebration, or liberation, than it certainly brings something to the party that other instruments do not.  Also, because of these strengths and limitations, our hymn selection was altered somewhat and the themes for preaching (or at least the experience of the sermon's message) was altered as well in either preparation or delivery.  This summer I preached about folk worship and folk art.  I also preached about liberating ourselves from our stuff and from our search for respectability.  In that way, the non-traditional nature of the instrument fit right in!

C. Performing a Piece of Music is Very Different from Accompanying a Congregation

I am very impressed by what Dr. Stephen James, our Music Director, is able to do for worship at Eliot Church.  He provides beautiful music--some original compositions--for the prelude, the postlude, the Offertory, and the Interlude.  He also is then able to switch gears and play for a group of people singing.  These are people who mostly do not read music and who have divergent opinions about how a particular hymn is supposed to go!  Somehow he is able to bring us all together and create an inviting space for us to inhabit in the singing process.  Again, this is folk music, even if it is played on a piano or an organ by an accomplished musician.  It requires a different set of tools.  More than once I found that I couldn't hear the singers over my Uke (and my own singing) and found that I had either left them behind or had to catch up!  Again, when we sing hymns those barriers break down.  Who is the performer?  Who is the leader?  There isn't one.  There is just a group of people worshiping together.

D. Worship is a folk art. 

There may be professionals involved, but ultimately we are expendable.  That's right!  I am not necessary.  Worship is a folk art and preaching is, too.  Training helps of course.  It helps musicians and pastors to read the "texts" of life in our complex society and to help people articulate the ways in which God can be seen moving through those lives.  But because we are reading texts and collaborating with fellow-worshippers it would be wrong to consider those people sitting in the pews as an audience.  We are all co-creators of the worship experience.

In addition to the musical experimentation, the smaller summer crowds meant that there were other organic changes to worship as well.  We didn't dress up, for example.  I told stories and made jokes.  People responded in different ways during the service.  Less was planned and written down.  This was certainly true during the preaching portions and during other times as well.  This isn't to say that the collaborative "folk" elements to worship aren't there at other times or in other formats.  It is true, however, that this dynamic is easy to see in the format we have used this July and August.

I have always been suspicious of professionalism in art.  I like the "outsider art" that was plentiful in the parts of Maine where I grew up but is shockingly uncommon in the part of Burbania where I now live.  I feel the same way about music.  I love a good symphony and I adore certain kinds of jazz.  However, I love the rest of it, too, from Heavy Metal to Bluegrass, even if the chord changes are few.  So, I naturally bring this perspective to my worship preferences as well.  This may seem odd for a professional minister with a doctorate in preaching, but it really shouldn't be. 

 After worship yesterday, I mentioned to the group that I had enjoyed summer services immensely this year (whether I was preaching or not).  A couple people said that they had already noticed.  "Regular Church" starts the Sunday after Labor Day.  I am looking forward to that, too.  There are many people that I haven't seen the past few months and I am looking forward to many aspects of our worship life when the bulk of the members (and their kids!) come together.  Hopefully the lessons I learned this summer will continue to find ways to influence what is to come.
It is the end of an era--perhaps--but maybe it is the beginning of a new one...

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