During the prelude I wondered if something was wrong with the organ. Parents’ Weekend at University Lutheran down the street from the Purdue campus [Clemson of the Midwest] was cramped with parents even seated in the choir gallery. Eventually the problem was solved. A farmer visiting his son was unconsciously crooning away with the organ chorale being played, no small feat given the fact that the melody was disguised in a decoration of trills, sixteenth notes, and other Baroque ornaments. His subconscious had detected the melody, an old hymn tune that was so imbedded in his heart and mind that he could hum along despite all the extra musical underbrush. Raised from childhood on these tunes which helped anchor his faith, he had something to trust and hold on to.
Music makes profound connections for us. It is a way we process and reflect on memories and experiences, giving us a language more subtle than words to make sense of our lives. It is no wonder that Luther considered music the highest gift God gives us, second only to the living Word of scripture proclaimed. This singular power which music exerts shapes our understanding, prompting some eloquent testimonies. Reformed theologian Karl Barth [1886-1968] summarized his massive corpus of writings by referring to the children’s song Jesus Loves Me [ELW 595]. Martyred pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906-1945] in the last months of imprisonment before his execution kept himself in touch with the church and loved ones by remembering hymns. Music is what is sorely missed now because of the pandemic.
This Sunday’s Psalm [96:1-13] encourages us (eventually!) to sing new songs as well because faith compels us to tell others about God. “Others” are not simply carbon copies of ourselves but people who have differing needs, experiences, and questions about life and death – thus new songs may well be needed to speak to their diverse situations. New songs also keep us alert to the Word proclaimed in unexpected ways. As Psalm 96 reminds us, all of creation praises of God. What does all that sound like? What kind of melodies or words encompass such cosmic celebration?
The present pandemic has caused the global community all manner of fright, frustration, and weariness as the world struggles to deal with dangerous realities responsibly and, for the church, pastorally. We long for the familiar sound of people singing, organs and pianos sounding, and folks gathering unmasked and happy in crowded pews. However, wistful memories can lead us to make unwise decisions and conclusions. The question remains: can we ever return to what we think was “normal?” A connected question needs to be pondered, too: Should we embrace life in the church “as it was?” Is that perhaps a problematic way to state what is troubling our memory-wounded hearts when we remember that we are a church constantly reforming?
Sunday we’ll hear a bit of St. Paul’s earliest letter, I Thessalonians. He is quick to tell that congregation about his fond memories of ministry with and among them. He reminds them of the good times and the bad, of the hardships and persecutions they have faced, and their determination to keep on telling the good news of God far and wide. The memories are blesséd, but they do not replace the necessity of getting on with ministry in new ways in new situations. In another letter he fully states his case:
…in view of Christ’s appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully. [II Timothy 4:1-5]
Times may be “unfavorable” at present, given Covid, but Paul’s urging is a reminder that ministry, fellowship, and above all, faithful and authentic worship of the living God happens whether or not we are inside or outside. At the moment, our wondrous gathering each Sunday morning under the pecan trees recalls memories of 19th century camp meetings where for decades Christians met in groves offering needed shelter and focus [Methodists still know a lively camp meeting tradition down toward the coast]. That sight, those experiences, I will miss. Maybe at present our song, even if only pondered in our minds, might well be ELW 315: How Good, Lord, to Be Here. And, if two or three are gathered…, well, you know the rest [hint: St. Matthew 18:20].