choosing the right songs

Posted by on May 18, 2011

This past weekend’s adult Sunday School class in Wadsworth, Ohio was a new experience for me. The congregation is in the midst of a visioning and discernment process, seeking to have open eyes, ears and hearts for “God’s good plans for us” (Jeremiah 29:11). The pastor and I had put together a plan for the class, where there would be an invitation for people to share their experiences and reflections on what God is doing in their midst, and I would respond periodically with some comments and songs, reflecting on whatever was shared.

We started with a brand new song – “Detectives of Divinity” (possibly the title track for the new CD that I’m recording):

“We are detectives of divinity, we’re looking all around
For signs of God’s activity wherever they are found
God is up to something, of that you can be sure
So start the investigation, the clues are everywhere…”

I had no idea what would happen, or how it would go. But I found it to be a deeply moving time, as people shared about realities in their town, in their congregation, in their own physical bodies… searching and sharing and celebrating together the “signs of God’s activity wherever they are found”… and finding ways to sing those experiences and realities, expressing our openness and desire to see, to hear, to follow.

Choosing the right song…

A couple of weeks earlier, I had a similar-but-totally different experience. I had been asked to help to plan and lead worship at an international, ecumenical conference on mining, hosted by KAIROS. Preparing for this event was a rich experience in itself – working closely together with two colleagues – one Mennonite, one Catholic – crafting worship experiences for this event.

The conference happened on Sunday to Tuesday, May 1-3… and the Canadian federal election took place on Monday, smack dab in the middle. Needless to say, given the KAIROS funding situation that has been unfolding over the past couple of years, there was deep concern at the conference about the implications of a Conservative majority government…

In our planning for the rhythm and flow of the worship times over the course of the conference, one of the songs we had chosen for Tuesday morning was this one – “Inspired by Love and Anger.” . This choice was made well in advance of the election and the election results, but it seemed to “hit home” at that time and place in ways that we could not have imagined.

Choosing the right song…

Since September I’ve been participating in a once-per-month class on the book of Job… taught by this exceptionally excellent prof (who happens to be my brother)… and one of the things that has struck me has been the degree to which the conversation (debate/argument/knock-down-full-out-no-holds-barred-verbal-bout) between Job and the three friends has to do with “choosing the right song.” The friends are constantly quoting scripture, and Job is too… but Job is not satisfied that the texts they are quoting constitute “the right song” for the situation… Job says that his friends “mock me in song” (Job 30:9… see Lamentations 3:63… “taunt-songs”), and says instead that “my lyre is turned to mourning, and my pipe to the voice of those who weep…” (Job 30:31)

Choosing the right song…

Sean Gladding’s recent book “The Story of God – The Story of Us” demonstrates beautifully the dynamic of the urgent need to choose the right songs… depicting the people of Israel, in exile, trying to make sense of their situation… and the relationship between the wise elder, telling the story, and the young hothead/poet/musician… drawing on the resources (songs) of their tradition, and also composing new ones, debating which are the appropriate songs for this time… Psalm 137… captors (sarcastically?) requesting a song… but “how could we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?”… and the new poem that expresses such anger and desire for revenge (137:7-9)… and the ongoing debates between the young poet and the old storyteller re: which is the right song for this moment…

Choosing the right song…

A couple of weeks ago, during a “community forum” at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, I asked the gathered group how many had heard of the “Prayer of Jabez.” Lots had. Then I asked how many had heard of the “Prayer of Agur.” Almost nobody. “Exactly,” I said. When I came across the “Prayer of Agur” (Proverbs 30:7-9) a while back, it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a prayer that I need to pray, regularly. What if this prayer became a regular part of the worship and spirituality of more of our communities? So I came up with a musical setting of that prayer.

In a “Christian Nurture of Youth and Young Adults” class after the forum, the professor spoke of the importance of the songs we song, reflecting on this song – and the contrast between the prayer of Jabez and that of Agur – as an example of the “practices of formation” and “practices of resistance” that they have been discussing in their class.

Choosing the right song…

Last summer my father told me a story about his father (my grandfather) that I’d never heard before. Apparently one of my grandpa’s roles in the church was to be one of two elders sitting at the front during worship, paying close attention to what was going on – the scriptures, the preaching, the responses of the congregation – and, after the sermon, to rise and indicate which song would now be sung in response, and to lead that song. This was how worship was structured in that time and place. The “hymn of response” was not planned out ahead of time, or printed in a bulletin. It was discerned and announced by this leader – my grandpa – who had been called (somehow, I don’t know how) to exercise this leadership ministry of choosing the right song.

My father remembers, growing up, that almost every Sunday afternoon the phone would ring, and someone would have a complaint or a concern about the song that was chosen.

It’s important… and quite possibly contentious… choosing the right song.

This has come to be how I understand my own ministry and vocation… to be immersed in scripture, in prayer, in the realities of my community and the communities with which I am engaged… to PAY ATTENTION, as best I can, to what is going on and to what God is doing… to constantly ask the question: “what do we need to sing?” … and to create musical resources that can help to “build up the body of Christ” for just such a time as this.

At times this means that I am the one responsible for “choosing the right songs”… for a particular worship time, a particular concert, a particular event or occasion. Sometimes I feel (or people will tell me) that that really was the right song for this time and place, for this situation. Sometimes I don’t really know.

And often it means that I am offering songs and making them available to others who have been charged with this task of “choosing the right song” for their community. My task is to faithfully pay attention, and offer possibilities, and it is the role of others, who know their own communities, to decide… to “choose the right songs” for their context and situation…

What a joy, and a responsibility, and a blessing, to be a part of this important, contentious, mysterious process.

Choosing the right songs.