Pastor's Blog

My wife is a Midwesterner.  As such, she was not taught to speak the correct way.  She always said “wah-ter”, but it’s pronounced “waw-ter”.  We drink “root beer” (double O as in “food”);  she drank “root beer” (double O as in “wood”).  And although everyone knows root beer is “soda”;  my wife called it “pop”.  I spent the early part of our marriage fixing her speech impediments.

You know I’m kidding, right?  We did have our share of laughs as we discovered our differences of pronunciation and perception, and my wife’s speech gradually changed because of immersion in our East coast culture.

Culture is the way of life that you learn among the people you grow up with – the way you see things, hear things, interpret things, understand things;  the way you speak and behave and respond.  Most of your culture isn’t formally taught;  it’s absorbed.  We do what those around us do;  we observe and mimic.  That’s how we learn life.

Most of us assume our own culture is the way everyone does those same things until we encounter others who were raised differently.  At first, the differences are quaint.  But if we are surrounded by or immersed in an unfamiliar culture for any length of time the discomfort of continued difference can be annoying, angering, and may even generate hatred and hostility between two parties.

Maybe some cultural practices are important.  But wouldn’t it be silly to hate someone because they insisted on ordering “pop” instead of “soda”?

Let’s kick things up a notch.

What about people who think only pianos and organs and traditional hymns should be used in church as opposed to people who like contemporary music played with electric guitars and drums?  Would it be silly to not be able to get along because of those differences?

I’ve seen a lot of energy expended and a lot of ink-spilled by traditionalists arguing that drums are of the devil, that syncopated rhythms are morally debauching, and the contemporary Christian music is spiritually empty and devastating to the church.  I have concluded that most of that is overkill – an argument over whether God wants the beverage called “soda” or “pop”.

Does God even care?

Jesus said,  “By this will all people know that you are my disciples – if you have love for one another.”  The identifying mark of Jesus’ followers is love for one another.  Getting people to love one another through their differences is what I’m shooting for as a pastor.  Isn’t that where genuine love is the most difficult but also the most important to cultivate?  Anyone can love the person with whom she has commonalities and agreement.  The real power of love must be exercised when you don’t agree, when you find yourself at the opposite end of a spectrum from another soul.

God’s concern is not our musical taste, but our ability to love and bless people, even if their culture differs from our own.  Jesus doesn’t say “love each other’s music”.  He doesn’t even say “learn to love each other’s music”.  And he doesn’t even say “try to learn to love each other’s music.”  You may never love their music!  But you must still love each other – seek to understand and accept each other, differences and all.  
Love is the great stretching exercise for the soul.

When you read in Revelation 7 about the great multitude before the throne of God, the crowd from every tribe and language and nation, all clothed in white, waving palm branches, praising the Lamb for the salvation of their souls – what language do you think they will be using?  What bodily gestures?  What tunes?  What rhythms?  What style of music?

Does it matter?

Over my thirty-plus years in ministry one of the most troublesome issues has been what evangelicals call “worship wars” – the conflicts that arise over music in the church.  They’re nothing new;  in my reading I’ve found such conflicts back as far as the 16th and 17th century – and I’ll bet I wouldn’t have to look too hard to find it earlier than that.

Why such a fuss over music?

I believe it boils down to disagreements about the proper balance between the rational (thought) and the emotional (feeling) in our spiritual lives.  Both thinking and feeling are blended into all human existence, but they are blended in different proportions and with different emphases in different people and among different groups.

For some, the rational is more important than the emotional.  For others, the emotional component is more important than the rational.

Those who lean more to the rational end of the spectrum tend to see those who lean to the emotional side as lacking self-control, more given to mere animal instincts.  Those who lean to the emotional end of the spectrum see those on the rational end as stiff and robotic – machine-like.  Each side sees its own component as definitive of human existence, and each side sees the other as missing an important component of “humanity”.

People that fall on different places on this spectrum will develop and gravitate to different forms of Christian worship and different uses of music. 

Human nature being what it is, we get comfortable in the circle we understand and uncomfortable with those who perceive and practice differently from us.

And human nature being what it is, we respond to the discomfort of difference by claiming that our own way is right, and the other way is wrong.  If you’re in the evangelical world, that means you demonstrate that your way is biblical and “of God”, and the other way is not.

That, in my opinion, is what the “worship wars” are all about.

Evangelicalism has resolved the difficulty, I think, by simply dividing into different groups, each practicing their own way and keeping their distance from the other group as best as they possibly can.  Maybe that’s the best we can do in a fallen world.

I’ve chosen a different route in shepherding the flock entrusted to me.  I’m trying to find a way to bring people from the different ends of the spectrum together, trying to get them to work together, trying to find a way to get each side to appreciate the other and work peaceably and cooperatively with the other – trying to find a sort of “middle ground”.  It’s one of the few ideals that I haven’t allowed reality to rip from me just yet.

More important than doing music “the right way” is loving one another.  This and not our style and form of worship is the hallmark of a true follower of Christ.  At least according to Jesus . . .

"I am astonished at the foolish music written in these times. It is false and wrong and no longer does anyone pay attention to what our beloved old masters wrote about composition. ... I have often walked out of the church since I could no longer listen to that mountain yodeling."

This was from a discussion between two professional musicians about the “new” church music.

In 1651.

Church music seems to have always had a way of generating emotional fireworks.  In the years that I have served as pastor, Mountain View has experienced two “splits”, and both times issues surrounding music were involved.

I have found musicians to be emotionally-oriented temperamental people.  They communicate emotions through the performance of music and music speaks to them.  Musically-oriented people feel quite strongly about music in all its fine details.  Music is very important to them.

Most of the conflicts I have observed (or navigated) regarding “church music” involved people serious about music getting impatient with those who weren’t -- or people who didn’t understand music misunderstanding or misinterpreting those who did. 

I am not a musician, but I was exposed to a lot of music as a kid.  My dad’s taste in music was broad:  Beethoven, Herb Alpert, the Swingle Singers, Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, the Kingston Trio, Dion & the Belmonts, the Platters, the Landmark Baptist Quartet, the Hopper Brothers and Connie, the New Christy Minstrels, Chuck Berry, and Georg Friedrich Handel.  I think the only thing we didn’t listen to was opera – and I got a little of that from Bugs Bunny cartoons.

In my parents’ home, music wasn’t taken seriously.  It was for fun.  And music was fun if it was cool.  Singing parts sounded cool – whether it was a rock ballad or a church hymn – and my dad taught us to hear and sing parts.  It sounded cool when we sang together as a family in the car.  And it was fun.  But I never learned to read music, and never saw a need to.  I didn’t take it that seriously.  It wasn't supposed to be work.  It was supposed to be fun.

As an adult, I still like cool music, but I can live without it.  I tend to use music as a distraction.  When I run, I listen to music to distract me from pain and discomfort.  When I study, I use orchestral music (my secretary says it sounds like a funeral home!) as white noise to block out any voices or conversations so that I can focus my attention.  When I drive I don’t listen to music;  I listen to talk radio.

And I don't want to fail to say that I loathe musicals.  Though I found “The Greatest Showman” acceptable.  The music in it was pretty cool.

And I don’t listen to Christian music – contemporary or otherwise.  Except at church.  Music just doesn’t play that big a role in my life.  It doesn’t play that much of a role in my spiritual life.
My approach to Christian spirituality is on the rational “Spockian” end of the spectrum, and Spock couldn't care less about Bach or rock.

I have wrestled for years with how to shepherd people who are different from me – people to whom music is crucial.  Maybe even the central thing in their practice of the faith.
I would prefer that they perceive things the "right way" -- the way I do -- that emotions are secondary and that a rational understanding of truth is what matters. 
Music doesn't matter.
Emotions don't matter.

But then I am haunted by the thought:  “How would you like it if they insisted that you learn to perceive things the way they do?”   And I find myself in the place of trying to appreciate, love, work with – and serve -- people who are quite different from me;  people to whom music is an indispensable part of life – of their spiritual life.  I must try to understand them without really understanding them.

I’m getting better at it, I think.  But I haven’t always been successful in that venture . . .

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