It's been several months since my last entry. The sabbatical I took is a fleeting memory as the Christmas season led into a new year and new challenges. I got a call this year for a church music directorship in a suburb of Chicago and it made Beth and me think about what we wanted in life as we turn 60. Ultimately we could not seriously embrace the thought of leaving Chattanooga, NCF, and deep emotional roots for a church outside our tradition and in the cold north.
This weekend was a real battle for grace and faith, as several artistic mistakes were made in the 830 service, and then a scheduled choir anthem was faced with dwindling participants. The anthem was quite ambitious-- a Richard Smallwood tune called "Anthem of Praise." Our adult choir continues to be a fickle exercise as folks have compelling circumstances in their lives, and we continue to specialize in a contemporary gospel repertoire that blacks are disappointed with and whites are challenged beyond their cultural comfort zone. Some choir members, it seems, are just too tired to get up and sing Sunday morning.
Throughout the years as a travelling musician who was guest in several churches for choir clinics, I now remember the worried brows of local music directors, and the easy reassurance I gave them. "It will be all right. Let's have fun!" I would prattle. "But I just wish Mike and Theresa could be here. They are such an important part of our choir," the director would sigh.
So this winter our pastor and I have started talking about the choir's options. He has encouraged me to think about scaling back to a seasonal choir that only sings 4 months a year-- Christmas season and Easter season.
But after the 830 yesterday when I was so discouraged and one of my old friends asked me how I was doing, I said not so good. As my friends tried to reassure me, I would not be comforted. "That's it," I declared. "No more contemporary gospel. It's too hard."
A few minutes later another friend spoke to me and I shared my continuing malaise. "But the music is great, Jim. I'll pray for you that you will be strong and the Lord will help you." "Well, would you pray for me right now," I said simply.
She put her arms around me and prayed like a warrior. It was a blessed moment.
As we started the next go-round, I made a couple of instrumental instructions to help with the bad performance, and looked up at the choir loft. 2 sopranos. And one alto I saw, retreating into the congregation. It's too hard. I looked out and saw 10 regular choir members in the 1100 congregation. Something is wrong here.
But the service began with electric energy and by the third song, the congregation was literally bouncing in sections. Shouts and clapping resounded off the walls. In these moments the congregation doesn't realize that I am fighting back at principalities and powers. I don't know about the other singers and players-- they probably don't feel the burden as acutely.
"I'm desparate for you," as the song says. I am at the end of my resources, and I am crying out for help as I sing, change settings, harmonize, listen for balance, stay in the groove, and watch the song leader. I am crying and the Lord is hearing. One unusual boost comes in the form of 8 other singers who come up at join us during the Smallwood anthem. They are guest from Montgomery who are starting a church and came up this weekend to see how it's done. Most were African American and they darkened the choir's sound and look. It was ironic how God raised up an army of fresh recruits while several of our regulars sat wearily in the congregation, uninspired and unmotivated. My wife even overheard a woman behind her singing the anthem with us. She turned to thank her and she said, "yeah, I should be up there." I'm not the only one in a battle.
After Trent Cory's "My Joy" we drop into a grand 6/8 for Kirk's hymn, "Jesus My Great High Priest." The pace and tone of this song are determined, steady, prayerful, theological, reassuring. My reaction was weepy and sobbing at times. Is this the way soldiers are on an offensive?
"Now I approach the throne/and I have confidence/ For Jesus my great high priest/ offered his blood and died." I am lifted by this word from my God, the object of my praise. What a swirling, colliding passion worship is. It takes such work, it has such profound disappointment, and it offers such comfort, all at once. And the reminder of this song is that Christ enduring death on a cross with much greater cost.
I have no conclusions from this experience. It is just an experience, and I am still tearful as I write about it. Part of me wants to change our worship, to make it more compatible with the skills of our congregation, to edit out the stress and the ridiculous demands of contemporary gospel music with all its virtuosity. Part of me wants to gently craft a new style for our slow moving congregation that is slightly more mid-tempo. Part of me wants to relieve myself on the relentless march to Sunday with smaller praise teams, and fewer choir anthems.
But I still have no conclusions yet. The battle continues for artfully, skillfully performed worship music. So for today's pictorial illustration, I chose a scene from Pilgrim's Progress.