Unceasing Worship- A Response

Response to Unceasing Worship and Artistic Action: A Seeking of Commonality
by Dr. Harold Best
Paper and Response presented at National Association of Schools of Music
in Seattle, Washington

Much of what Dr. Best talks about centers around the positive benefits that are achieved when believers nurture a lifestyle of worship – a lifestyle that is centered, balanced, observable and firmly rooted in salvation through grace. Nurturing a lifestyle of worship ultimately informs all parts of our lives and is most readily observed in our attitudes and actions – that is, in our personal commitment to becoming the church- that community of believers that transcends personal and cultural preferences.

Romans 12:1-2 describes our “spiritual act of worship” – presenting our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. Paul admonishes believers not to conform to the pattern of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind. Certainly, seeking a commonality in what it means to worship and the appropriate artistic action will require a renewing of many minds. By extension, using this same passage, we might want to consider that it is only as we, God’s people, are transformed in our thinking about worship – how we define it, how we accept people who worship differently than we, how we grow in our own understanding of what pleases God – it is only after transformational thinking that we will be able to test and approve the pleasing and perfect will of God!

Dr. Best calls us to transform our thinking, to be renewed in our applications of what it means to be worshippers, in how we define and ascribe beauty and worth to our expressions of worship. I personally do not think that it is an accident that we are having this discussion today. I’ve thought for a long time that God has been calling us away from the narrow constrictions that we impose on the concept of worship through our denominational affiliations, our cultural precepts, often our own narrow unwillingness to see God as larger than our own world. Reading these thoughts have caused a shift in some of my own thoughts about worship or at least a sense of personal unrests as I continually confront worship. I’ll return in a few minutes to one particular part of the paper that caused me the most private concern.

I was particularly intrigued by the concept of “stylistic lockout” – that action that people in their falsified narrowness take when they assume that just this style or that style is all they need. It made me think of Rodney King’s famous cry “can’t we all just get along” although what we are discussing goes well beyond just getting along and to a new way of being. This call to diversity in worship is important and I think, part of what God is demanding of the church.

There IS a certain comfort, however, in locking out diverse perspectives. If we were to take the lock off, it would mean moving beyond our personal comfort zones. Historically, we have imposed this lock-out not only on corporate worship but individual/personal expressions. I was reminded of the struggle that Thomas Dorsey had when, in the early 1920s, he began to compose a new brand of sacred music that he called “gospel songs.” Dorsey, as you may recall, had a prolific career as a bluesman – directing the Wildcats Jazz Band and playing with people like Ma Rainey. Naturally, this first gospel music was stylistically blues tunes with sacred texts. Dorsey met significant resistance in the very church where one would have thought he’d be most welcome. I speak of that institution we often refer to erroneously as the ‘black church.’ Yet Dorsey spoke often of the many churches out of which he had been thrown. Many prongs of the black church had already left their cultural roots and imposed a new, constrictive definition of what sacred music should sound like. Because Dorsey’s music did not fit the mold, he was “locked out.” This experience, of course, is not Dorsey’s alone. We could go back to Palestrina (actually much farther back but he’s the earliest who readily comes to my mind) or we can simply look at the church across the street that has alienated its youth because the music is the too loud or too vulgar or the fact that the kids look strange. On my own campus some of the Priests were made nervous by a group of students -Campus Crusades for Christ – who have very vibrant, exciting worship that is drawing Catholic students. I found myself surprised and angered that they were considering “alternatives” to Crusades for the Catholic students out of fear that they would be drawn away from the Catholic church. This fear is based largely on the fact that Crusades is perceived as more fun. Instead of encouraging this small group of “renegades” who have limited resources, they are actually considering using more of the substantial resources that are already invested on our Catholic campus to discourage this trend.

On a personal level we often constrict our own expressions of worship by refusing to consider that God may want us to do something different in our own manner of worship. We may declare that it is undignified to raise holy hands before the Lord, that only the holiness folk dance, that only people in the choir or those with good voices have to sing. Under no circumstances are we expected to shout out praises to God. I think that is one of the things that Best alludes to when he calls us to differentiate between singing in order to worship and singing because we are already at worship and cannot contain our song. Nurturing a lifestyle of worship leads to daring worship! Daring worship causes us to shake off the things that bind us – those things that keep us locked into old ways of doing and being. Our renewed minds lead us to creative nonconformity and take us out to the edge or even beyond our comfort zones.

Corporate worship is a vital and energizing part of the Christian’s walk. However, there is an inherent problem with the corporate worship experience. It tends to absolve the worshipper of the personal responsibility that is at the core of true worship. We were created to worship – not merely in specific times or places but with all that we are and in all that we do. This is beautifully articulated in Dr. Best’s paper. In my own experience, I’ve found that churches (people) are guilty of defining worship as a noun. We often speak about going to worship as if it is a place or a time. This use of the word fuels the constrictive concept of worship that Dr. Best describes. When worship becomes a place or a thing rather than the daily process of connecting with God, it is easy for the corporate body to define and dictate the proper characteristics of that place or time. Thus, instead of the essence of corporate worship growing out of the gathering of people whose lives ARE worship – people who are already “on fire” and connected to God, the corporate worship becomes the electrical outlet into which each person must plug.

Now this is where I began to have a personal conflict with my reading of Dr. Best’s paper. He writes,

We offer art up to the Lord because He is already with us; because He has no need of artifactual work to substantiate or verify His presence. As soon as we say that God seemed closer when the music was played than when it was not, we have made the mistake of depending on handiwork to substitute for that which only the Spirit of God can suffice.

I have no cause to disagree with the statement. In fact, I strongly believe it to be true – at least intellectually. This has been my dilemma. I personally believe that a song can lead an individual to the throne of Christ. This song might be one that I sing privately as I’m dressing in the morning and praying about my day. It might be a song of preparation that is sung on Sunday morning or even one I sing with my university gospel choir on Tuesday night. From time to time, art has appeared to usher me into the very presence of God. It has lifted the veil and at times, seemed to open my spirit, to break through those hard places/ cold times when I’ve not been able to otherwise find that space of communion with the spirit. Does this mean that art has become my idol when this occurs? I don’t think so. I am more inclined to attribute this preference, this understanding of how music aids my worship, to culture.

Dr. Best states that culture is an interface of what a people believe and what they make. He writes, To the extent that they may confuse things that they believe with the things that they make, allowing the latter to inform and subdue the former, they set a course for false worship in that Truth is made subject to handiwork.

Cultural identity/cultural practices often make it difficult, if not impossible, to separate what people believe and what they make. These, in certain cultures, are inextricably bound. For many ethnic groups, mine included, music is a powerful arbiter. We all know that the power of music lies in its connections to other aspects of culture. Music’s full power is reserved for those who share its primary cultural context. In West African and much of African American life, music and religion are not separate things. They are simply components of the same activity. When I think of a worship event, music is automatically seen as part of the very fabric of that experience. In my culture, the entire religious experience – the service – has music connected to it from the beginning to the end. Music accompanies virtually all parts of the corporate worship experience. Literally, with the exception of the first half of the sermon, there is some kind of music going on. Music even accompanies a great part of the sermon.

When I walk through my campus and think of God’s goodness, a song bubbles to my lips. When the day gets too stressful, I put on a song in my office, close the door and begin to “dance” my way out of the stress and into a realignment with God. This close association of praise and music is very West African and thus, African American in its conception. And this is one of the difficulties. While I recognize and accept that worship is a continual outpouring to God, that true worship has little to do with music or style, and everything to do with living a life that is, by its nature, a sacrificial offering to God, I have difficulty separating my art from aspects of my worship. To me, and to many people I know, I, and my musical offerings to God, are one –sometimes.

As I lay in bed at 3:30 this morning, with the walls squeaking and groaning noisily around me, I felt somewhat like I imagined Jonah must have felt in the windstorm during his attempt to avoid going to Ninevah! The ideas are flowing around me and through me. I do believe wholeheartedly in the principles set forth in this paper. I know that we are, each of us, being called to a way of worship that is the essence of true love– a way that means denying myself the luxury of using my culture, my personal preferences, or my academic training as an excuse to keep closed the doors to new, fresh, inclusive worship. And so, in my personal windstorm early this morning, I circled back to an early concept –we are “created creators and imagined imaginers.” Yes, we ARE humanity/the created. And as such, we are flawed. We may truly desire to be fully open and accepting of the diversity of a diverse God. We may want to subordinate our art to the creator. However, it seems likely that we will constantly struggle in these areas. Like Paul I often find myself confronted with doing the things I know I shouldn’t do and not doing the things that I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that, I am supposed to do. Nevertheless, seeing the wisdom in the principles set forth I continue to press towards the mark of the prize of the high calling that is found in Christ.

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