Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Worship Music and Immaturity

Musical Reformation and Emotional Maturity

Imagine a man dying of kidney failure.  Tests confirm that his cousin is a potential match.  So at the last minute, his cousin undergoes the risky procedure to donate a kidney with the hope that it will save the man's life.  It does.  And ever since, every Sunday, the two of them meet for an afternoon meal, the joy of each other's company, and to share in the experience of their "second/new" life together.

It has been many years since the surgery - several decades, in fact - and one Sunday, the cousin invites you to join them for their meal and time together.  Much to your surprise, as you pull into the driveway with the cousin-donor you see the formerly-healed man fling open the door with an ecstatic look on his face and his arms upraised in celebration.  He flies out of his house with leaps and bounds shouting at the top of his lungs and dancing in jubilation toward you.  Before your companion can fully open his car door, the man has boisterously pulled him from the vehicle in an explosive bear-hug.  He then looks at you wide-eyed and in a yelling voice recounts the basics of the story that you know already - "This is the man that saved my life by his sacrifice! He gave me his kidney!"  His shouts appear to startle the neighbors and a man down the street walking his dog.

Now remember - the surgery was over a decade ago.  And they have met every Sunday since.  So here is the question: wouldn’t you think this man's behavior odd, contrived or rehearsed, or even, in some way, inappropriate?  Yes, you would.  Why?  Because gratitude, as it deepens over time, takes a shape and expression that differs from momentary exhilaration like an old-vine Zinfandel differs from cherry Kool-aid.

We often hear people reason that if we can jump up and down screaming excitedly after our favorite team scores a touchdown, we should get even more excited and celebrate even more heartily when we come before the God, Whose Son saved us eternally by His death and resurrection!  This sort of thing works in the short term, but tends to burn out after a while. 

Certainly there are times when explosions of punctuated exuberance are called for: good news from the doctor; a returned prodigal; a jury’s verdict or election landslide.  But the rhythm of praise through normal life from week to week calls for something different.  The occasion of worship and the nature of our salvation and the ancient roots of our faith differ so dramatically and profoundly from those of a TV football game that the emotions appropriate to the one are only related to the other in very distant ways.

So why do we seem to have so little capacity for the emotional and spiritual depth needed to express our gratitude to God in worship over our lifetimes?  A big part of that answer is music.  As musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie has said, "the problem with music in worship is that its emotional bandwidth is often very, very narrow.  It tends to be 90% jolly and then 10% quiet."  According to Begbie, if we are honest, we have to admit that the majority of our religious music is "horrendously sentimental."

He has hit the nail straight on the head.  The scope and range of a thing such as 'human joy' is a thousand miles wide and across its terrain are found both mountain ranges and also deep seas, dense forests and rippling deserts.  Our music ought to ‘stretch’, train, and fit us with the capacity to bring God lasting through every season of our lives.  But this isn’t something we are born with.  Nor is it something that we are likely to possess after being raised on a diet of cotton candy radio music and skin-deep sitcom emotionalism.  The challenge of musically expressing our gratitude in worship is the challenge of growing up and achieving corporate emotional maturity.

Our temptation is to forget this; to think in overly simplistic and saccharine ways about gratitude or joy, and in frustration over our inability to sustain exhilaration [which is not sustainable in the long run apart from more and more bizarre types of stimuli], we despair and give up, rather than to persevere and grow up.  I want to encourage you to persevere as we grow up together in worship and to never let a Lord’s Day pass without obeying God’s command to encourage your church family with songs and hymns and spiritual songs singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

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