Sunday, September 04, 2005

Learning to Sing our Faith

I have been thinking a good deal about the importance of learning to "sing" our faith. I notice that many of my students seem at their most passionate, seem most connected, when they are singing--particularly some catchy tune. But the culture has inordinate power to force us to sing its tune, whether one of consumerism, popularity, or impossible body images. Over against this, the church brings the historic liturgy which teaches us how to pray and what to say. From the weddings I conduct, to the funeral of my colleague's mother--the church provides us with the words, even the silences, necessary to sustain the community in its time of need.

Nobody has captured the power of this idea quite like the Lutheran theologian, Gordon Lathrop, who proclaims:
"We may teach each other to sing. When the song is bent around the ordo, when its words and rhythms gather a people to do the central things, such song may be our finest means of formation. Here, too, there is a constantly double character: Singing was once a familiar, popular folk-skill, available to everyone. Yet in our culture we hardly sing at all; we act ashamed, afraid. To teach singing is to welcome people to a thing that is already theirs, and yet to engage in a slightly countercultural event. When the words we sing are at their best – in the sung liturgy and in the great hymns of the church – they bring to expression the classic faith of the church. Yet the singing is both communal and personal enacting of that faith: we put our bodies into it. In the liturgy, when singing accompanies a communal movement into the building, up to the table, or around the font, or when a hymn receives the words that have been read, ringing metaphorical changes on these words, the structure of the liturgy is made tangibly available to participation. The singing may be one voice and many voices, an expert musician and all the people, working together in lively polarity.
The song can also be misformed. Its words may not be the faith of the church; its power may not be broken to the structure of the ordo; its mode may be the powerful performance of a few experts, essentially replicating the culture, barring participation, accentuating the people’s embarrassment or passivity. But when the musicians of the community are marked with the humility of the careful liturgical teacher, the assembly’s song can evidence the double character of fine formation. Singing in the assembly is words and bodies, the strange and the familiar, structure and participation, one voice and many voices. Singing is taught, yet it is experienced as if one is coming home.
Singing is taught; the structure of pascha is taught; liturgical roles are taught; and the catechism is taught. Where? The answer must be that the entire parish is constantly teaching. A local assembly may have a formal program for catechumens, close to the identity of the parish since the catechumenate is a major way the community lives out the ordo. But all of us are strangers, always coming anew. Parents beside their children in church, with a gentle word here, a whispered explanation there, are teaching. But when they both are before the holy gifts, with hands outstretched, the children are addressed as full participants and the parents find themselves needy seekers. Such reversals must occur repeatedly in other teaching occasions: in choirs, catechumenal gatherings, Sunday schools, training meetings for liturgical ministers. In fact, much of the life of a congregation needs to be structured around teaching and learning liturgy in a company of welcomed strangers. Justin says that “after these things,” after participation in the process of baptism, “we continually remind each other of these things” (1 Apology 67.1)."
--Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (124-125)

So, Lord, my prayer for the coming week is that you will help me to teach others to "sing".