Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Music to Dad's ears . . . remix

Something still niggled when I posted “Music” earlier this month. The piece was met with energetic amens from several over 45’s, and, I would guess, the silence of the offended.

The thing still out there for me was that, for all Dad’s affirmation of the church music of his early years, he did not find faith, and he left the church pretty much as soon as he left home. I grew up with the impression that for Dad the church represented harsh rules and rigidity.

Then I ran across Denis Haack’s recent essay “None Other Lamb None Other Name.” (Check out www.ransomfellowship.com.)

“I grew up around hymns and early learned to dislike them. It was the only music allowed in our fundamentalist home. I didn’t have a word for it when I was young, but I do remember the huge disconnect that existed between the lyrics we sang and the reality of our lives. The lyrics spoke of abounding joy, rich freedom, the sweetness of God’s presence, while our lives were solemn, judgmental, withdrawn, and regimented. The hymns we sang slowly ate away at my faith…,” he begins.

Denis struggled with the disjunct between words and life. With words he realized he could not sing with integrity. Though Denis did, in time, come to profound faith in Jesus, he says he says there is still Christian music that he cannot sing. He goes on, in his article, to celebrate and expound the beauty and truth of Christina Rossetti’s 1892 meditation on Revelation 5:6, “None Other Lamb.”

Last week I reminded Dad of what he had said about the beauty of the music of his boyhood. I noticed that, for all his love of it, he did not stay with the church, and asked him to share what that was about.

Dad explored my question in vignettes of memory. Being required, even as a young man on leave from military service, to be in church any time the door was open. The embarrassment of sitting in the midst of the congregation one Sunday evening when he knew he reeked of beer and could feel the disapproving glances of all seated nearby. The same 50 songs sung over and over. Dad spoke of visits from music leaders who worked long Sunday afternoons to teach the congregation to sing even more beautifully. “The music made the skin crawl up and down my spine--the sound was that amazing. But it was all about the sound. We never paid attention to the words.” He talked about how belonging to the church obligated his dad to patronize members’ businesses. Seventy years after the fact his shock and disillusionment still penetrated his voice as he told of two church members who cheated his dad, reminding me of a time in the US when church membership was tied to status and commercial interest. He spoke of his dad’s severity and fast, harsh punishments “though I know he always loved me.” And of his mom’s mental instability that often manifested in abuse. Of how she refused to acknowledge that I could be her granddaughter, and would not come anywhere near me.

“I remember when Elvis Presley first was famous. For about 10 years your mom and I wouldn’t listen to him. The morality, the suggestive way he moved. But a day came when we started enjoying it.” Yet, says Dad, “when the church copied Elvis,” when worship music began to take on his style, “well, why would the church imitate someone like him?”

“In the end,” said Dad, “I could never make sense of faith. I still can’t. I’ve given it a lot of thought over the years, but I just can’t.”

Dear friends enjoy a 46-year “mixed marriage.” He is English, of Anglican stock; she is Irish from a Baptist family. Today, she experiences Anglican liturgy and sacramental practice as powerful, life-giving worship; while he, who grew up with it, finds it dry, mindless repetition. Dad recalls the music as beautiful, the words as irrelevant, and the community as legalistic, with a few who would even exploit the others. Childhood experiences and lasting impressions. Who knows what the faith of the adults of so long ago actually meant in their lives?

I still think we need to ask what message the medium communicates, or even what it reveals. But we must always look over and beyond form to the underlying reality. Is there integrity of faith and love that makes the words—and all the rhythms and body language—an expression of something powerful because it is indeed worked out in transformed, grace-filled, faithful lives?


Sharon said...

I appreciate the harmonies of this remix. As a former worship leader, my experience is that it is impossible to satisfy everyone's musical tastes and expectations for quality. Because of the abundance of professional music we continuously hear, our standards can be excruciatingly high. Receiving criticism, no matter how well intentioned, after prayerfully planning and practicing is discouraging. In the area of worship music, how can we best encourage each other to love and good works? I don't think the Lord gives specific directions here. As with so many other things, I think he wants us to work out the answer together in a dynamic and grace-filled community.

Jan said...

I know what your Dad means with the disjunction between what we sing and how we live: I have always felt that we sing MUCH higher than we live. Thus I try to keep a prayer alive in choirs I direct and in myself for awareness of that. I pray that by singing words that I do not or cannot yet live viably, the idea and/or reality becomes more part of my faith and life -- and I am extremely thankful for the song and hymn writers who write with uplifting and challenging words.