Count me among those who are quite confident that when God almighty tossed Satan from the heavenly realm, the Devil fell right smack dab in the choir loft. If one were keeping score in the last twenty years, it's music that's created a bushel full of new churches that is. We've even got a name for it--"the worship wars."
Most of Christendom, denominationally, is bloodied. Twenty years ago at least, I arrived early at a Christian writers conference and worshiped with Baptists whose week-long retreat was just ending. The favored musician, a pianist and singer who pounded through a bevy of conventional sawdust-trail hymns like "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" while hitting every last key on the piano, was a show all by himself. The music the people loved in that sanctuary wouldn't have passed muster in almost any church I've ever attended. Way too much show.
It just so happened that I ended up at his table in the cafeteria, post-worship, where I listened to him go on and on about the horror that good Baptists were permitting, music that he described essentially as "praise-and-worship," Baptist style. Even the Baptists were at war.
Of course, my people have been going at it since 1619, when the Synod of Dort ruled against the free-willers and all musical scores that weren't drawn directly from the Psalms. Even though somewhere in the New Testament, Paul say it's downright okay to sing Psalms and "spiritual songs," the watershed synod at Dortrecht determined that, in worship, only the psalms could be sung. End of story.
In 1834, Dominie de Cock stood up and held forth in the little church at Ulrum, Friesland, the Netherlands, and began a movement called the "Afscheiding" ("the separation"), thereby inaugurating a breakaway movement that eventually became the Christian Reformed Church of North America.
What was his beef? Among other things, hymns. He wanted nothing by the psalms. The denomination with which I've affiliated for my whole life is, in fact, a child of centuries of worship wars.
In a ruggedly conservative Reformed church not all that far from where I live, a young organist decided to play a "In the Garden," an age-old favorite that thousands of old Dutch Calvinists asked to have played or sung at their funerals. True story. Happened just recently, I hear. The young organist started in at worship, played it as offertory or prelude--I don't know what--and got himself blindsided when a crusty old conservative marched right up front, stood beside him, and switched off the power. "In the Garden" was not Reformed.
I know that hymn by heart, mostly. My mother used to sing it often in our house. "I come to the garden alone/while the dew is still on the roses. . .".
Some of my people--me included--consider this old favorite, well, sappy. You know--"And heeeee walks with me and he talks with me. . " Waltzy, schmaltzy fantasy running thick with other-worldly spiritualism. Unadulterated syrup. No matter if millions want it sung at their funerals, it's little more than sap.
But I just this week discovered the song was actually historical fiction. What Charles Austin Miles was imagining was Mary's Sunday morning visit to the tomb--that's what the hymn is about; it's a video portrayal of Mary's story. I must have heard the hymn a thousand times in my life, and I always thought it was being crooned by some raptured soul--"He walks with me and He talks with me/and He tells me I am his own. . ." Typical self-absorbed goo.
That I never ever considered that old hymn to be a story about Mary's visit to the grave of Jesus is an indication of the sheer power of the hymn to be exactly what that gnarled old conservative thought it was when he turned off the organ, just another syrupy rendition of "me and my sweet Jesus," the kind of tune that takes the backbone out of Christians and keeps them high with cheap dreams of streets of gold and a million haloed harpists. You know.
But it isn't that. Not really. The hymn isn't about me, it's about Mary, early resurrection morning.
What's more, that last verse repeats what Jesus told her--"Now go, leave, tell the others. Don't stay here and turn into some weepy dreamer. "Through the voice of woe/His voice to me is calling," the final verse says, a verse I can't recite because it's not in my memory, even though the first two verses are there, written in permanent magic marker.
I can't help interpret that lyric with the help of Mother Teresa, who believed "the voice of woe," the voice of the poor and suffering in the squalid streets of Calcutta were, in fact, the very voice of the suffering Christ. We see and hear him by serving the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner.
That old hymn doesn't leave us spineless at all, it commands us--as Christ commanded Mary--to go and tell, to go and serve, to go and hear his voice in the woe all around.
There's way more to that old hymn than I ever imagined.
The hot head who switched off the organ is an ogre, all right? But I know why he did it, and if I think of that old hymn the way I've always thought of it, I have some abhorrent sympathy for him. The old funeral favorite, is much beloved for all the wrong reasons. It is what Calvinist conservatives, like me, say it is, even if it isn't.
I'm confused. Really, I am.
See what I mean, that guy with the horns and cloven feet fell right in the choir loft, and we've been at war, even with ourselves, ever since. Makes my head spin.