I grew up in the Pentecostal Church, which is another way of saying I grew up in a tradition where we go to church to sing. This value for singing and musical expression was ubiquitous. On our way to church, we would listen to praise music; in church, I would tarry at the altar call singing “Let It Rain,” “Oh The Glory of Your Presence,” “I Just Can’t Stop Praising His Name,” and, “I Ain’t Gonna Let No Rock (Outpraise Me).” And then on our way home from the second (!) service of the day we would tune into the Dixie Gospel Caravan on the local Christian radio station. It was easy to become enraptured by the glory of it all…or to engage in rascality.
One such Tom Sawyer opportunity presented itself in my early teens. The mega-church I attended was hosting a youth rally with a “big-shot-radio-host-whom-we’re-so-lucky-to-have-kids,” named Dawson McAllister, a Christian commingling of Casey Kasem, Oprah, and James Dobson. I was itching to pull a prank, but what to do? Pouring water from the catwalk of this charismatic cathedral onto unsuspecting students was too old hat. The virtue of prudence came naturally at this moment as I lived in a tradition that both celebrated the body while distrusting it. I must exercise restraint, but pounce at a moment’s notice; that moment arrived at the morning intermission.
As students traipsed about, I walked surreptitiously to the piano on the stage, sat down behind the keys and began to play. The piece started soothingly with a slow tempo, managing to gain the attention of a few onlookers here and there without interrupting the chatter of the masses. As the emotion of the music accelerated, so did the fervency of my playing. Students returned from the restrooms and the lobby, joining the crowd watching me, at this point with rapt attention, which only reinforced my commitment to “go big or go home.” The piece and my artistic investment climaxed, consummated in my kicking back the stool, playing the remainder of the piece standing and flailing elegantly about, to the extent that one can when playing a now violently melodic meditation. Then it was all over. One could hear a pin drop, and, like a wave rushing in, the 1500 or so students erupted into applause. I felt like a patrician among plebs.
The amazing thing is that I did not (and do not) know how to play the piano; I just happened to know how to press play on the integrated CD player that plays through the piano itself. What if they had asked for an encore? Or (worse) what if they had beckoned me to sing along in effusive Pentecostal ad-libbing fashion? I didn’t actually like to sing.
You see, I was able to have the glory without the commitment.
The glory waned, however, as did my commitment to singing the antiphons of Azusa Street. In fact, I did not want to sing at all. Why sing when it finally dawns on you that your father has abandoned you? Why sing when your family ends up homeless in a Wal-Mart parking lot?
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows,
there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth,
saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (Ps.137:1-3)
“Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,” I thought, intentionally misquoting the Psalter.
Now I live in a town where it seems everyone sings. My wife and I do college ministry at a university whose Jazz band has won multiple Grammy awards. I am a curate at a parish full of musically gifted individuals, from a department chairwoman of a college music department and a rock band lead singer to a musical theatre extraordinaire and more. They are teaching me what it means to sing, and I am loving it.
Through it all, I am learning that the heart of the Christian disciple is formed between a mountain and a valley, between a valley of God’s (seeming) absence where all we can do is hang up our harps and a mountain of God’s presence, where, singing with all the saints, angels, and archangels, we cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” I am learning that the devastation of Psalm 137 must be pulled forward into the terminus of the Song of the Redeemed (Cant. 19; Rev. 15:3-4), which beckons to us as well as to God, saying:
Who can fail to do you homage, Lord,
and sing the praises of your Name?
for you only are the Holy One.
All nations will draw near
and fall down before you,
because your just and holy works
have been revealed.
Indeed, this canticle flashes like a neon sign to the mute wayfarer, beckoning him or her to walk into the Inn of praise where every bed is made for those whose words will sleep in ceaseless divine rest, the shalom of God, the Word of Peace.
Nobody understood this better than St. Augustine, with whose words we’ll end:
O! What a happy alleluia there, how carefree, how safe from all opposition, where nobody will be an enemy, where no-one will ever cease to be a friend! God’s praises sung there, sung here — here, by the anxious; there, by the carefree — here, by those who will die; there, by those who will live for ever — here, in hope; there, in reality — here, on our journey; there, in our homeland. So now, my brethren, let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil. (Sermo 256, I.2.3).
The images above are “Inferno festival 2007” (2007) from Wikimedia user Dyarnall and “Detail from the Worship of the Shepherds” (1996), a window at Trinity Church in Boston. Both are licensed under Creative commons.