Serious Doubt is Faith

So what is Easter about anyway? Newly returned to the fold – but that’s another story – I’ve had relatively little exposure to the gestalt, the full experience of Holy Week. In fact, as a sometime Presbyterian, even when I was (previously) in the fold, the opportunity to embrace the richness of this journey was wanting, as the church calendar wound its way from Ash Wednesday, through Lent, to this period of reaffirmation and the full intensity of what our belief system is founded upon. Now, for perhaps the first time for me, Easter had begun to make sense. This year in particular, as St. James has continued to enrich this special season with services that celebrated each stage of this passage, the extremes that attach to the passion were brought home to me. (In truth, Nicola’s been making this point with me for some time now – but who knew she was right?)

We had the further good fortune this year to be sitting this Easter morning in St. Mary Magdalene’s (a high Anglican church in Toronto where Andrew is currently assistant organist), in culmination of this extraordinary week and in the presence of what I can only describe as the ‘full Monty’ of formal Anglican liturgy – in one of few such churches in Toronto (‘Smokey Tom’s’ being the other that comes to mind, St. Thomas’ by its less descriptive moniker). I make this particular distinction, since my expectation was that, here in this bastion of Anglican tradition (from incense and full procession, to sung scripture, prayer, and creed), I would hear, as homily, a reiteration of the principal belief upon which Christian dogma is predicated – that this is the day of resurrection.

Now, I’ve heard Father Harold Nahabedian, longtime rector of St. Mary Mag’s (as it’s affectionately called), speak before. So that his text would be a wonderful, layered piece, commentary on this fundamental truth of Christian belief – but informed by a more progressive and subtle questioning of Christian literality – was not a total surprise. But in the presence of such high ceremony and celebrated utterly surrounded by trappings of the historic and essential church, it brought home the challenge, the paradox for the 21st century Christian with which some of us struggle: just what is it that we believe and weekly reaffirm in our recitation of our creeds, Apostles’ or Nicene.

Perhaps not too coincidentally, Michael Valpy’s editorial, in this past weekend’s Globe and Mail (March 22, 2008), is entitled Taking Christ Out Of Christianity. Slightly less sinister than its title would perhaps suggest, it examines a posture increasingly present in today’s church: considering the possibility that “no miracles-performing, magic Jesus given birth by a virgin and coming back to life” should comprise the core of our belief structure. The piece, largely based on the writings of Gretta Vosper, a Toronto-based United Church minister, explores the contention that it is precisely this set of dated, historical-literal, decreasingly credible myths, doctrines, and dogma – “theological detritus” (in Ms. Vosper’s words) – that is at the root of shrinking church membership and attendance. That today’s Christian is far too sophisticated, theologically speaking, to buy into this system of beliefs and that the church’s viability is under siege – barring a wholesale, revisionist housecleaning. Valpy explains further that, at the core of her argument, is the need to not simply tinker with, modify, or modernize historic, perhaps antiquated and decreasingly relevant concepts and ritual in an effort to find some palatable “middle ground” for we folk in the pews (in the fond hope that we’ll keep showing up!). But to redefine our practices and beliefs in essential and, certainly for some, convulsive ways – not the least of which is the celebration of ‘renewed hope’ in place of a resurrected Jesus, as the central tenet of the rite of Easter.

So where does all this leave me, a reclaimed Christian and newly minted Anglican? Father Harold (in a shared and candid moment at Fellowship following this lovely service) ‘confessed’ that he’d ‘departed’ from his prepared text. Without his further elaboration, I was left to wonder: departed from what? Had he stopped short of an explicit retelling of the ‘usual’ Easter message, perhaps feeling that, like many of the modest number of theologians whose writings I’ve dabbled in lately, he is uncomfortable propagating the literalist view of the resurrection? But still pulled his punch when it came to some variant of Ms. Vosper’s rather radical stance, not wanting to risk alienation of that (likely significant) chunk of the congregation that would see such commentary as frankly heretical? I’ll not have an answer to that one.

I don’t know much for sure about my relatively recently undertaken journey, in from the wilderness as it were. What I do know is that I have been drawn to the formality, the increasing familiarity, and the immutability of the Anglican liturgy (especially the BCP). I know that the ritual ‘climb’, through the church calendar, and Holy Week in particular has lent (sorry, that was an accident!) meaning to this affiliation. And I know that less ‘mysterious’, symbolic, even poetic celebrations have been far less compelling for me. What I don’t know (among many things in this regard) is whether I need to have all this to be predicated on a ‘real’ event, to be a story populated by real people, enacting history exactly as portrayed by flawed, at times contradictory scribes, for it to have meaning for me. Somehow I think not.

“Serious doubt is faith”, Paul Tillich.

The Power of Music in the Church

The Rev. Septimus Harding in the Barchester Chronicles muses aloud: “without music, where is the mystery”; this, his commentary on arch-rival, Rev. Obadiah Slope’s homily lamenting the use of music in the C of E liturgy and exhorting his parishioners to “return to the purity of their roots” and to excise this “distraction” from their services. Fortunately for all, Mr. Slope’s fall from whatever grace he may have possessed was precipitous and final, the series finishing with Mr. Harding once again playing his cello in the courtyard outside his church/hospital – to the delight of all.

My friend and sometime traveling companion, Jay Baker, feeling no less moved and ‘mystified’ by church music, delivered the following homily a few months ago at his parish. We thought you might enjoy reading as much as I did listening to his compelling comments about the place of traditional church music in our contemporary services.

David Howard

The Power of Music in the Church

Being a coroner and a family physician for the past 32 years don’t constitute very impressive credentials for delivering a sermon. Neither, I fear, does being a chorister or even being the Chair of the Elora Festival and Singers. My friends and family complain that I preach all the time but they don’t mean this sort of preaching! I therefore want to thank our rector for his sense of adventure in turning over his pulpit to a neophyte and then leaving the country. This happens to be the closest Sunday to November 22 – St Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music and musicians.

Bless O Lord, us thy servants, who minister in thy temple. Grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer is known as the choristers’ prayer, and the implication is that as choristers, as ministers in the temple, should we ever be put on trial for being Christians, there ought to be at least enough evidence to convict us! Furthermore First Chronicles list the four characteristics for musicians in the temple to be: skill, sensitivity, submission, and sanctification. Given the artistic temperament submission is problematic at the best of times. Why the restrictions? Why the caution? Because there is great power in music. That is the theme of my sermon: “The Power of Music”.

C S Lewis, in an essay on church music makes the point very well. “It seems to me that we must define rather carefully the way in which music can glorify God. There is a sense in which all natural agents, even inanimate ones, glorify God by revealing the powers He has given them. An excellently performed piece of music, as a natural operation which reveals in a very high degree the peculiar powers given to man, will thus always glorify God whatever the intention of the performers. But that kind of glorifying is shared with the dragons and great deeps, with the frost and snow. What is looked for in us is another kind of glorifying, which depends on intention. How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and the disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry, and ambition, which precede the performance, I do not know. But it is on the intention that all depends. When it succeeds, I think the performers are the most enviable of people; privileged while mortals to honour God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall of man.”

Heady stuff, and that is only the performance. Can you doubt that Bach was a true and devout believer when he penned the St Matthew Passion or that Mozart stood firm in the belief that he was about to come face to face with his Saviour when he wrote the Requiem? In Canada today there are many composers whose music is often performed here, whose faith shines forth in the sincerity and passion of their music. Eleanor Daley, Mark Sirett, Jeff Enns come to mind as well as Barry Cabena.

St. Augustine tells us that when we sing we pray twice; once with the actual words of the hymn or anthem and again in the melody and harmony lifting the words heavenward as once incense in worship services was intended to do. The links between music and worship are deep seated; both spring from a God implanted desire to search for truth and order. God must surely love singing. The desire to sing comes to human kind almost as an instinct; albeit the ability sometimes not so naturally. Every culture has its own form of singing. Religious singing especially has the power to lift us above ourselves; stirring our minds and hearts to a greater love of God. A finely crafted hymn or anthem beautifully sung is not a performance but an act of worship and an offering to God.

Igor Stravinsky once said: “The church knows what the psalmist knew. Music praises God. Music is as well or better able to praise Him than the building of a cathedral itself with all its decorations; it is the Church’s greatest ornament.

The importance of singing in religion is evident all through the Bible. The prophetic and inspirational psalms of David were hymns to God to be sung by the people of Israel.

I tend to approach psalms much as I do single malt. There are no bad ones, many are great and some are superb but it is hard to have one favourite. It depends on your mood, your circumstances and even the weather!

Various psalms exhort the people to:

-sing unto the Lord a new song, lustily with good courage or to
-sing unto the Lord all the earth, or to
-sing unto the Lord a new song for he has done marvellous things or to
-sing unto the Lord a new song; let the congregation of saints praise him.

Music IS the one activity that we share with the angels. In some mysterious way when we sing we bring our hearts, our minds and our spirits into the presence of God

Set as we all are, in our narrow fixed reference of time and place we can never hope to appreciate the true nature of God or his universe; but through music we catch a glimpse of God’s glory. Our love of music reflects the mystery of our faith.

That sense of mystery is captured in the last verse of the hymn we will sing following the sermon:

“And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far out pass the power of human telling.
For none can guess its grace, Till he become the place,
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.”

St Paul in the New Testament, exhorts us in the Epistle to the Colossians to “Sing psalms and hymns, and inspired songs to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Hymns are the strongest expression of religion still deeply imbedded in our secular society. For many, they provide a more familiar and accessible source of teaching about the Christian faith than the Bible itself. The repetitious nature of music is an excellent tool for memory. Half remembered verses from childhood hymns remain a source of inspiration and comfort to many who would not count themselves as regular church goers or committed believers.

Elderly patients love the music from their childhood especially hymns and other sacred music. When Alzheimer’s Disease patients can no longer recognize family members or stay oriented to time and place, they can still often hear familiar music, enjoy it and even sing along. Afterwards they are invariably calmer and sleep better.

Inspirational words married to a beautiful melody can challenge our intellect and uplift our spirit. They can just as easily inspire joy, compassion, reflection, or sadness. Some hymns like those chosen for the service today can explain the nature of Christ – incarnation, sacrifice, resurrection, and ascension – a whole theological course in the five stanzas of “Lord Enthroned in Heavenly Splendour”. The hymn even uses a verse to express again the longing for understanding of the mystery of our faith”

“Here our humblest homage pay we,
Here in loving reverence bow,
Here for faith’s discernment pray we,
Lest we fail to know thee now,
Alleluia, Thou art here, we ask not how.”

Our processional hymn Praise to the Holiest in the Height” written by once Anglican theologian and then Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman is taken from the Dream of Gerontius and explains the scripture that while all are doomed to die through original sin, all have the promise of salvation through the sacrifice of God’s own son, the second Adam. The implication is that all heaven and all earth should be singing God’s praise in thanks for “that highest gift of grace”.

Our recessional hymn “O Lord Compassionate and Kind” was penned by James Greenleaf Whittier, an American poet who was actually writing about the evils and hardships of dependency on opium and I will have more to say about that particular hymn later in the sermon.

One of the greatest glories of Christian Hymnody is that it is a truly ecumenical enterprise, crossing denominational barriers and uniting Christians of every persuasion. Roman Catholics sing the lyrics of some of the sixty-five hundred hymns penned by Charles Wesley while Baptists and Presbyterians happily sing the words of Cardinal Newman. Speaking of the words to hymns, It would be very instructive if we were to habitually take a few minutes before the start of a service to read over the words of the hymns we were about to sing that day. We have already seen how powerful some of those words can be and it can be hard to concentrate on the message while we are singing – I know I find it difficult as a chorister.

From ancient times the power of music has been appreciated; power over both the spiritual and physical being. The ancient Greeks felt that the different scales and modes of music stimulated different emotional responses from fierce conflict to a desire for heavenly things or a soothing of the soul. Apollo was both the God of music and of medicine. Pythagoras, who was a physician as well as a mathematician used music to treat the emotionally disturbed and mentally challenged of his day. From the Bible too, In First Samuel Chapter 16, “and so whenever the spirit tormented Saul, David took the harp and played and Saul grew calm and recovered and the evil spirit left him”.

Entrainment, a principle of physics tells us that our biorhythms tend to synchronize with the tempo or pulse of the music. We instinctively choose slow music to calm down and faster music to energize ourselves. The Mozart effect has been studied extensively and some validity established. The premise is that students with some form of music in their course of study (appreciation or performance) score higher on verbal and math tests than those who don’t. Einstein got some of his greatest inspirations while playing the violin. He said it liberated his brain so he could imagine. England’s George the 1st felt he made much better decisions when listening to music, hence Handel’s Water Music.

Music is known to accelerate plant growth and stimulate egg production in chickens. Ultrasound, which you could think of as low monotonous music (like a very low bass line), promotes the healing of bones and soft tissues but can also shatter kidney stones. Modern music therapy is based on the premise of the healing power of music. Music has of course the power to entertain but also the power to excite, to persuade, to move and to cure.

Think of all the religions that use hymns, chants or other music as an integral part of worship. They do not do this on a whim. In church a quiet organ prelude establishes a mood of reverence and tranquility. Congregational singing seems to draw people together and medical research that I saw recently reported in the Globe and Mail (so it must be true) shows making music en masse has a mood enhancing effect. Maybe this is why we feel better on leaving church; closer to one another and more resolved to practice the beliefs of our faith. Listening carefully to a choir anthem leads worshippers to reflect on beliefs and values and the implications for them as individuals. Perhaps the most powerful force of persuasion in the church is not in the hands of the priest but in the hands of the musician! We do not begin to realize the force in our midst, shaping our lives, and our beliefs and healing our wounds.

At their last concert of the Spring season the Elora Festival Singers sang a setting of “Music, All Powerful” by A K White. Listen to some of the words:

Oh, surely harmony from heav’n was sent,
To cheer the soul when tried with human strife;
To soothe the wayward heart by sorrow rent,
And soften down the rugged road of life.

At her command, the various passions lie,
She stirs to battle, or she lulls to peace,
Melts the charm’d soul to thrilling ecstasy,
And bids the jarring world’s harsh clangour cease.

Hymns have been one of the Church of England’s greatest gifts to the English speaking world. The mid to late nineteenth century remains the golden age of hymnody by virtue of the sheer volume of hymns written. Most of our hymns this morning came from that period. They all represent in my view inspired words paired with wonderful melodies and that is why they are still sung today. Not all hymns from that era, or from our own, are inspired, and many have been deleted from successive hymnals as no longer appropriate. Gone thank goodness, is “God of Concrete, God of Steel, God of piston, God of wheel.” And too “Now thank we God for Bodies Strong” with that memorable line:

“For all the bodies appetites which can fulfillment find,
And for the sacrament of sex that recreates our kind”

(or I suppose procreates if you prefer).

I hope that neither of these was your very favourite hymn and you were not devastated by the omission. My particular pet peeve if will indulge me ranting for another minute, is over changes to the hymns that have been kept. Meaning and intention is often lost in altering old hymns in the name of political correctness in order to remove any reference to both the human and divine male from their lyrics. “Dear Lord and Father of mankind forgive our foolish ways” which we sang this morning has become “Dear God compassionate and kind, ….”. and has lost the author’s sense of benevolent paternal tolerance. “O brother man, hold to thy heart thy brother” didn’t have a chance! By the way, both of these poems were written by James Greenleaf Whittier who, as a Quaker, would have been horrified to have them sung during worship at all! In my opinion, should anyone ask, if the hymn committee doesn’t like the words of a hymn let them leave it out.

As I draw my remarks to a close, I want to quote Robert Bridges from the introduction to the old blue Anglican hymnbook: “Music, being the universal expression of the mysterious and supernatural, the best that man has ever attained to, is capable of uniting in common devotion, minds that are only separated by creeds. If we ask ourselves what sort of music we should want to hear on entering a church, we should surely say that it should be a sacred music, devoted to its purpose; a music whose peace should still our passion, whose dignity should strengthen our faith, and whose unquestioned beauty would find a home in our hearts to cheer us in both life and death. What power for good such music would have”.

In view of all this, it does seem strange to me to hear someone criticized by the comment: “so and so only goes to church for the music”. That is a little like saying “ so and so only goes to church to see the face of God” In the Book of Revelation, St John tells us about hearing a great crowd in heaven that was singing: “Alleluia, Victory and Glory and Praise to our God”. If we are going to be singing in heaven for all eternity, we had better start practicing now.

And to quote composer Paul Halley: “I can practically guarantee that in the enthusiastic singing of our next hymn “Come Down O Love Divine”, we will catch a glimpse of the dazzling brightness that IS the Kingdom of God and we will be blessed with the awesome sense of His presence here among us”.

Dr. Jay Baker
AI or CSI?
A longtime rule of research for me has ever been the keeping of an open mind. But even I registered a bit of surprise as Monty Python, Garrison Keillor, Robert Bly, Buddha, Nissan, St. Benedict, and, for good measure, Bob Gardiner, my sometime statistics prof from grad school days, all appeared to line up on the same side of the ledger – strange bedfellows (make that, bedpersons) at the best of times to be sure! And all this when I began to consider a concept Ed Leidel (small church coach) had introduced to our little group a few weeks back: Appreciative Inquiry.

In my rather rudimentary understanding, “AI” (not artificial intelligence or any other of those ‘artificial i’s’) is a process through which churches might better revision and revitalize directions in their parish; while avoiding the ‘problem-saturated stories’ that typify AI’s opposite – problem solving. By valuing ‘what is best’ in our church culture, cultivating affirmations, and dialoguing about ‘what should be’, we may develop as a community. This, versus identifying what’s wrong, getting stuck in the analysis of causes, considering solutions over strengths , and developing action or treatment plans – all notions which are rooted in the view that somethin’s broke and needs fixin’.

A basic principle of this approach (AI) is that the language we use to describe or investigate something, by its very nature, colours the way we experience this inquiry; in short, language creates reality. Ask problem-driven questions and you get negatively framed answers; pose positive queries and affirming responses come back to you. Sounds simple and upbeat enough. Right?

But what of our disparate group’s commentary on AI. Let’s begin with Bob. “No, no, NO! You start with the Null Hypothesis”, words that will ever echo as the young researcher’s mantra – the core value, as it were, of meaningful inquiry. Then would follow the lecture, punctuated with finger thrustings and pointer slappings: “Expect that nothing causes anything, that what you do will have no impact on the outcome – only then can you do good research”. Generously restated, this ‘null hypothesis’ requires that we adopt a skeptical point of view if we are to be free to make ‘real’ findings; and avoid the trap of ‘willing’ our research to confirm what we (optimistically) hope to be the case.

Perhaps a little more lyrically, Robert Bly, a dark and treasured poet of mine, has identified the need to “go into the ashes”. I once heard Bly tell the story of a swallow trapped inside a granary. The bird, seeing the faint light at the top of the silo, repeatedly flew upward, inevitably striking the clouded glass that covered his apparent (and hoped for) point of egress – falling back to the granary floor, time and again. Exhausted, terrified, no longer able to muster the energy to fly, he scrabbled around in the darkness only to find a hole, gnawed by a rat in the base of the wall. Summoning his courage he crawled through – to freedom. A Saturday night favourite, professed Lutheran, and spokesperson for Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor recently captured a similar sentiment on the Prairie Home Companion: “We need to get into trouble”; this, as he explored the Lenten dilemma faced by pastor Lindquist as he waffled (ever so briefly) between the wisdom of ‘giving something up’, the rightness of sacrificing and the humanity of offering comfort and fellowship to his fellow cleric (by accepting that glass of ‘single malt and a half’ and, in so doing, eschewing the ‘prescribed path’).

St. Benedict, in the third chapter of his Rule, cites the necessity of ‘calling the (whole) community together for consultation’, a reference to entertaining all points of view – however contrasting or incongruent or ‘negative’ – if (and here’s the essence) we’re to get the balance right. Buddha characterizes our sphere as ‘the full catastrophe’, replete with not only the ten thousand joys (presumably the positive, desired, and affirming experiences) but also the ten thousand sorrows. To deny the latter is to devalue and distort the former; to effectively delude oneself. And of all the unlikely sources of spiritual wisdom, the Nissan Motor Company many years ago adopted as central to its employment policy a practice known as ‘creative abrasion’: hiring, in pairs, people of strong conviction – with opposing points of view; not to foment dissension or discord, but to foster a full and creative assessment in decision-making.

So did you name that tune? With our run-up to Holy Week, it seemed only fitting to include in our ‘group of experts’ a most compelling, relevant, and sardonic image arguing for a balanced examination of facts: Eric Idle (in the closing scene of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”), hanging together with dozens of other victims of crucifixion, in blissful denial, as he whistles “Always look on the bright side of life”. Let’s ask the hard questions too. Choirs make wonderful music – but they do sing from the same page; a questionable footing for understanding, research, and growth.

So will that be AI or CSI – Critical Spiritual Inquiry?

David Howard