Sunday, July 4, 2010

You Can Say That Again

Repetition in liturgy has a bad reputation.

Yet that’s the way we learn. Saying responses week after week, the creed, familiar prayers and singing the hymns we love over and over are ways we fill our memories with basic theology. Someone once said that if the truth be known, we learn theology from the hymns we sing. I’d add, we are taught by the whole liturgy as well.

So, like it or not, there must be a certain amount of repetition in our worship. Some forms of dialogue regularly appear, for example, “The Lord be with you.”/”And also with you.” Verses of Scripture show up again and again as calls to worship or introductions to prayers. The Apostles’ Creed and other affirmations repeatedly express belief. Classic prayers are repeated from time to time and serve as models for personal prayer beyond corporate worship. Hymns and other music, of course, have a powerful cumulative impact on worshippers.

The problem is, however, that repetition can go stale very quickly and turn to mere rote. It’s easy for congregations to say the Lord’s Prayer just as they’ve said it for years without much thought—they put it on liturgical cruise-control and coast through it. This can happen with much of the liturgy. It can even happen with familiar hymns that are just “gotten through” without a lot of feeling.

Changing things constantly or bringing on everything new all the time doesn’t help. Liturgy can be flooded with “the latest and greatest,” to the end that there is little to file in the memory. There is not sufficient repetition to learn it.

I wonder when I go into a church and there is a hymnal with some 600-plus hymns, and next to it a supplemental book with another 300 songs, while on the pew is a notebook with another 50 or so congregational favorites. That approaches 1000 musical pieces available to the pew-sitter. The congregation will either focus on a relatively small number, or try to do them all and no one will really absorb any single song.

There was a time when church school children learned, even memorized parts of the liturgy in preparation for the times they worshipped with their parents. They were even taught hymns sung in the church service. I don’t think memorization and teaching of liturgy happens much any more.

So saying prayers and singing songs again and again is how we learn. Repetition plants things in our memories. Still, there is the danger of dullness, over-familiarity, routine, boredom.

One way to avoid the deadliness of rote is for the leaders, lay and clergy and musicians, to do the liturgy with feeling. I’ve heard many worship leaders, including clergy, read prayers with inflection patterns that numb the listeners’ brains. Even when leading a unison prayer, the leader should speak loudly enough with meaning so everyone else is prompted to say it with meaning as well.

When liturgy sticks in the memory of the worshipper, it can make a great difference. Here are to real-life examples.

I went to a nursing home the other day to see a woman with Alzheimer’s disease. She was not able to communicate much to me, but her daughter was there and we spoke at some length. The daughter told me that her mother was a life-long active church member, teaching Sunday school, working with deacons, and most of all singing in the church choirs. Singing gospel music and hymns of the Methodist tradition was her greatest joy. Her daughter told me that while her mother was unable to do anything to care for herself because of the Alzheimer’s, she could still sing the old songs, and she would sing every last verse. Alzheimer’s, devastating as it was for her, it could not overwhelm her songs. I thought immediately of the wonderful old hymn, “How Can I Keep From Singing?”

My other example has to do with a conversation I had with a man after church one morning many years ago. He’d asked to speak to me in private. “It’s about that Charge you give to the congregation every week,” he said. He was referring to:
Go out into the world in peace;
have courage;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Well,” he went on, “a few months ago one of my co-workers did something that undermined a project I was responsible for. And this past week I had a chance to get even with him, and I was poised to do so. But then I heard those words in my mind, ‘return no one evil for evil,’ and I held back.” With tears in his eyes, he said, “I couldn’t do it. Thanks for continually reminding me. It stuck with me.”

Repetition in liturgy allows us to reclaim some of the treasures of the past, the great prayers and hymns that have moved hearts and minds and lives in obedient service of Jesus Christ for generations, and can shape our lives, even our behavior still today.

What are the pieces of liturgy that you see worthy of repetition? What hymns deserve to be sung again and again?

1 comment:

  1. Charlotte KroekerJuly 5, 2010 at 7:13 AM

    Here is your musical commentator, weighing in to say that music can be a vehicle for making liturgy both old and new! For example, "old" texts such as the Lord's prayer or hymns can be set to new music, or familiar hymn tunes can be sung in a myriad of new ways. Music provides the means for adapting the emotional content of text to fit a season or place in the liturgy, giving a musical fit for the meaning of the text that matches its function for the worship. Musical creativity is limited only by imagination and training, and church musicians can keep that needed repetition fresh and compelling. We love the challenge! Thanks for listening.


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