“This Is My Story, This Is My Song”
Meditation by Gaylord Lehman
Oasis Music Seminar
July 18, 2012
Will Willimon, former dean of the chapel at Duke, tells of stopping by the law office of one of his church members. It was the end of the day. The staff had left. The lawyer called him back to his inner office. After exchanging pleasantries, the lawyer reared back in his chair, feet on the disordered desk in front of him.
“It’s been a typical day,” he said, “full of misery.”
“Sorry,” my friend asked, “what was miserable about it?”
“My day began by assisting a couple evict their aging father from his house so they could take everything he has while he’s in a nursing home. All legal. Not very moral, but legal. This afternoon, I have been enabling a woman to ruin her husband’s life forever with the sweetest divorce settlement you ever saw. That’s the kind of things that fill my day and that helps explain why I’m in your church on Sunday morning.”
“I’m a bit overwhelmed,” Willmon said, “what on earth could I have said in a sermon that might be helpful to you on a Sunday morning?”
“Oh, it’s not the sermon I come for, Preacher,” he said. “It’s the music. I go a whole week sometimes with nothing beautiful, little good, until Sunday. Sometimes, when that choir sings, for me it’s the difference between life and death. That’s what lifts me out of my despair and renews my soul.”
Your volunteer singers may not sound like the Duke Chapel choir, but never underestimate the power and emotion that your music brings to worship. You musicians are the most undervalued parts of a worship service. Give me a good music director and a good organist and a reasonably good choir and we will have a good worship service. We ministers cannot do it without you. And I know the job is unrelenting. Your job is like mine, it’s every weekend work.
That’s what makes summer interludes like Oasis valuable. So accept this word of appreciation from one who for many years has realized that good music has often rescued a bland and boring sermon. (Feel free to applaud or say “Amen!” because I know that’s how you feel!)And there have been times when I have gotten up to preach and thought, “Wow! How do you follow music like that? Why not pronounce the benediction and go home?”
What we believe in our Christian faith has been shaped as much by song as by sermon. I can preach a sermon about Jesus’ death and the doctrine of the atonement and how the death of one saves us all. But I can’t do a very good job of explaining that. It’s beyond my comprehension. So I request the music director to follow the sermon with Gilbert Martin’s arrangement of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The anthem stirs more souls than the sermon.
As a Baptist minister all my life, after hanging it up I decided that retirement wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. So I became reincarnated as a Presbyterian. Presbyterians in our area have a number of small churches that need supply ministers, so it’s been a great fit. Therefore I have sung both Baptist gospel songs and stately Presbyterian worship hymns. I learned first-hand that when you speak of “traditional” worship, you have to ask, which tradition? Baptist? Methodist? Presbyterian? Episcopal? All of us like the hymns that reflect our background, our childhood, our heritage, and our culture.
Shortly after “official” retirement I served for several years as the associate minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Wilson. One Sunday morning, when the sermon was on spiritual renewal, the minister selected the hymn “Revive Us Again.” Of course a gospel song like that would never make it to the Presbyterian hymnal, so it was printed as an insert in the bulletin. We sang the first verse. It was terrible. I mean awful. Nobody sang. The minister interrupted the singing to ask how many in the congregation knew the hymn. Of about 300 people in church, no more than ten people raised their hands. I dare say that every one was a former Baptist!
We have to respect the power of the great old hymns at the same time that we encourage our congregations to sing the gospel in new ways. The two most prolific hymn writers of the Christian faith both lived over 300 years ago. Isaac Watts was born in 1674, a hundred years before the American Revolution, in years much closer to the original Martin Luther than to Martin Luther King. But although 300 years have past, we still revere “O God, our help in ages past” and always anticipate triumphantly singing “Joy to the World” at Christmas.
The second of those old writers was Charles Wesley. He wrote some of his hymns when George Washington was president and although a Brit who lost the Revolutionary War he still wished for “a thousand tongues to sing” and found himself “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” Great hymns. Great words.
But times change. Culture changes. Vocabulary changes. “Thee” and “thou” don’t rock anymore. Every generation must perceive and celebrate what God has done in Jesus Christ in its own way. In its own beat. We cannot rely solely on the poetry and the perceptions of past generations. So let’s hear it for the CBF for its publication of its new hymnal Celebrating Grace and the Presbyterian Church for its new hymnal Glory to God. They give us hymns in today’s language, inclusive language, in words that are sensitive to the diversity of our congregations, on themes dealing with social justice and the care of the earth. They fulfill the challenge of the psalmist to “sing unto the Lord a new song.”
We are grateful to those who write those “new songs,” grateful for those who challenge us to praise a “God who spins the whirling planets” and calls us “as partner’s in Christ’s service.” And for alerting us to see that “in the bulb there is a flower” and “a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.” The words of our praise should be as current as God’s mercies—new every morning.
Much of our cherished church music is foreign to today’s young people. They don’t sing like we do. Many have never heard anything that sounds like church music. That’s why churches have a contemporary service at 8:30 and a traditional service at eleven. The main distinction between the two is music.
My grandson is a member of an Episcopal church in Birmingham. He loves their 5:30 Sunday afternoon contemporary service. The service is pretty traditionally Episcopal except for the music. A few years ago, he told me excitedly, “Grandpa, guess what we sang in church Sunday? We sang ‘I believe I can fly.’” Hmmm—that’s from “Space Jam,” Michael Jordan, Bugs Bunny! And then I realized, believing we can fly has been around in church a long time. One of the most popular bluegrass songs is “Some glad morning, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.” And a few years ago, we mounted up “on eagle’s wings” which has something to do with soaring and flying.
We will always need to be composing new songs. So introduce us to the new. Check out the new music and then give us the best of it. But realize that in crunch time, when the chips are down, and life is on the line, we probably will want the old traditional words and music that soothe the soul.
One final story: William Sloane Coffin was a major figure in American religious life during the last half of the twentieth century. Born to wealth and privilege, as a young man he trained as a classical pianist and studied in Paris to achieve his goal. He married the daughter of famous pianist Arthur Rubenstein. But he was so multi-talented that he branched out into many other areas of life. He became a captain in Army intelligence in World War II then served at the CIA during the Cold War. Then he became a Presbyterian minister, serving as chaplain at Yale for seventeen years. There he became involved in the civil rights movement, participated with the Freedom Riders in the South and spend numerous days in an Alabama jail for his peaceful protests. I have known him best as pastor of the historic Riverside Church in New York City. During his ministry at Riverside, his 21-year-old son was killed in an automobile crash on a winter night in Boston. Coffin said that with a few drinks too many, his son failed to make a curve and ended up in the icy waters of Boston Harbor.
Dr. Coffin was asked how he handled the grief that came with the death of the son who he called the day-brightener of the family. He quickly answered that the emotional outlet was his music. Concert pianist that he was, he went to the piano and played all the old hymns and as he did so he wept and wept. That was his grief therapy.
Some years ago I attended an “Oasis” of my own one summer at Riverside Church and one night after the program Dr. Coffin invited us to the church social hall for a time of hymn singing. He played the piano, gave us a concert-type introduction, and then segued into his favorite hymn. What was the favorite hymn? “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine…This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”
Here is a great crusader for social justice and human rights and world peace, a man familiar with both the walls of a jail and the halls of power, familiar with Bach and all the other great masters, but when it’s crunch time in his own life, he sings, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”
So cherish the old while you teach us the new. In both may the Lord’s name be praised! Amen.
(This meditation concluded with the singing of “Blessed Assurance.”)