Chancing Chant
December 3, 2011, 4:36 pm
Filed under: life of Spirit, practice | Tags: , , ,

Chanting scripture has changed my prayer life.

Nearly two decades of my work has been about the power of music in its performative mode, yet it always surprises me when music teaches me something new in this mode (by which I mean in its relational, embodied, and multidimensional manner in which insight, unexpectedly, arrives). On the one hand, such things make a scholar feel silly. We, too, get seduced into the shackles of expertise. We lapse into presumption of knowing all about our subject of inquiry that we can forget there’s always more to learn. Especially in what Jean-Luc Marion would call theology, as opposed to theology—apophatic nod to God in the first, cataphatic nod to God in the second. (Yes, I want you to look up those words).

On the other hand, these things give more credence and faith in what we already know, at least if what we’ve written/learned is true. If it’s true, in other words, it will continue to lead into new learnings. And so, in this case, I’m pleased to be surprised once again. My basic argument has been that music will forever extend the boundaries of theological knowledge, theological discipline, precisely because its manner of teaching/learning is performative—primarily relational, embodied in oral-aural form, multidimensional in self and community, so never to be written entirely in stone where it would become simply a fossil. Therefore, if theologically-curious folks are really interested in knowing more about what Spirit is about, they should do so in the performative mode of music. It will confirm and refine any theological knowledge you think you have.

But…what’s all this about, you ask, 2-3 paragraphs in? This is a scholar’s befuddlement, sharing that chanting scripture has altered my prayer life for good.

A bit of backdrop, to set the stage. While attending the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco, I took Sunday morning “off” as Christian Sabbath, identifying a Eucharist service I could attend on the early side of the morning. Two public busses and a bit of a walk later, I found myself in a community of dancing saints—those living and stewarding a liturgy of Word and Sacrament, those ‘written’ or painted on the rotunda of the church building showing ways of loving God in loving neighbor, the world over. It was a blessed morning—though also a bit of a pain the derriere, which I won’t go into—the conclusion of which was being invited into the community’s practice of weekday morning prayer. I received the prayer book, a book of musical liturgical offerings, an anointing of hands & spirit to then be on my way.  It seemed such an extraordinary invitation that I actually accepted it. What a preposterous idea—to pray at 11 a.m. most weekday mornings with a community in whose worship I had been nourished one Sunday morning in November. So be it.

The liturgy is a familiar one, at least for a Presbyterian who had been shaped as a closet-Episcopalian for nearly ten years: opening sentences, opening song, contemplative silence, sung Psalms, silence, canticle, scripture, prayers, closing song, closing sentences and benediction. The Gospel reading comes with attention to the Daily Lectionary, revised standard version (I think we call it). Whatever text for the day now arrives into my e-mail Inbox from Convenient, for all kinds of reasons. What is unfamiliar is the chanting.

This community’s worship practice might best be described—granting I only know a glimpse/sensation of it—as ecumenical-intertraditional, Eastern orthodoxy in contemporary voice. Incense was ‘lit’ at the sacristy. Bells open and close times of silence. Vestments—though they presented with a sense of Ti-Die hippiedom—distinguish leaders. Actual ordained clergy are difficult to identify. An open-hearted community of lay leadership this is. The life of the liturgy, as I experienced it, came through what they call “paperless music,” intoned and led singing in which pitch is determined on the spot and everyone really does sing. Those who are obviously musical, in strong voice, and those whose gifting does not seem to include musicality, also in strong voice. Because it is for praise of God, not aesthetic limitation. “Paperless music” places the performative aspect of music, shared, before all else. Just like I have written. Just like I learned in my own journey of theological formation. This community allows its liturgy to be shaped primarily by the performative, by the participation of its Friends.

So weekday mornings has found me in a quiet space with some privacy, entering into this liturgical practice, feeling silly while I sing the opening sentences (both parts), sing the O-Antiphon of the week, sing the Psalms. I’ve even experimented with chanting the Gospel, as invited by the order of worship to do so. You know what I’m learning? The ancient ones of our Christian tradition were on to something mysterious, wise, counter-intuitive to us today.

The liturgy itself invites the leader to sing in telling places. When asking us to pray for our enemies. When inviting us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. Places of highest vulnerability, deep woundedness, spiritual resistance. We sing, with shaky voices out of tune, perhaps out of synch with what God really intends. We offer voices into vulnerable space.

Chanting the Psalms has been the most remarkable for me, however. As long as I can remember, I have felt dissonance in reading the Psalms. Sometimes the poetry seemed flattened in the tools (historical-critical, exegetical) I was asked to bring to them. Sometimes the language refused to be flattened and was simply violent, full of lament, raw. Difficult to let in during a devotional period of listening. Following this liturgical practice, I began to realize I’m finally opening to the Psalms as they were intended, perhaps Intended. Songs. To be sung. Companioned by others. And it’s changed how I receive scripture as well.

I’ve increasingly wrestled over the years with how to read my own Scriptures, mostly because they seem so abused, so often, that I hesitate to join my efforts into the abuse. I can only take about 1-2 sentences at a time when most of my communities require whole chunks, pericopes (pah-RICK-oh-peez) we call them, in which historical legitimacy or validity may be argued. I’ve been choking for years on that much Word, eaten that quickly. And the Psalms in particular. They are simply too vivid to read quickly, within liturgy or for my own sustenance.

Except when they are sung, I’m learning. I’ve sung eight days’ worth of Psalms, learning the chant-style of this practice community, and the Psalms are going in. I feel them. I sense them. I don’t understand them but I am nourished by them. Eight days. Only eight days and I found myself weeping this morning, encountering my own scripture for the first time in a long time. It’s like it was an old friend, finally finding the window my soul had been scraping at for years.

So what if chanting scripture is not some Catholic or Orthodox practice we Protestants needed to excise in order to be true to sola scriptura, sola fides, sola gratis, but an ancient wisdom with shaping force for spiritual maturity and path to new life? What if the Wisdom of God, playing in the face of the Creator for as long as there’s been Life, comes into embodied form in us when we offer our voices in prayer, praise, and word in this fashion? Is it worth it to you to feel silly, feeling you can’t sing, yet chant Holy Writ until it nourishes you past your mind, your theology, into Wisdom somehow intimately inside you?

I dare you. 🙂 Chanting will change your prayer life, for good.


Renewal and Delight — a Prayer
September 6, 2011, 9:35 am
Filed under: church renewal, delight | Tags: , , , ,

Why are you here, and where precisely is here? If you are beginning (or continuing) a pursuit of a degree in higher theological education, you will hear this question in a particular way. Perhaps something like: What led you to pursue the degree? Why did you choose this particular institution? What role did (or does) the Spirit of God play in that learning, leadings, and choice? If you do not have that context or path in your mind as you hear the opening question, you may hear it with a much larger existential pull, I would suspect. What purpose do you identify in your life, in your day-to-day activities and in the largest frame possible—earth, the universe, the cosmos—and how do you conceive of that frame, that here? What if you cannot sense any purpose at all? What then? In either case, answering such a question can overwhelm or irritate each who listen to it, especially if a) we don’t have a clear sense of the answer or b) the answer seems to change over time.

So comes the cliché many of us try to resist for fear of a relativism or irresponsibility in what we value most: context is everything. Context determines how you hear speech. It shapes your body (appearance, choices of food, even comfort levels), your mind (habits of your community and history of family narratives), and even what we might call your spirit or your soul (hopes, dreams, imagination-visions of what is possible).  Then we hear, whether as protest from the deepest places of our spirit or from the communities in which we share faith: context is not everything. Nothing is impossible for God, especially with those who love God in Mind (Romans). We have inherited deeply rooted truths, Truths, both specific and shaping, particular and reliable. This Truth is not human-made nor negotiable, not within our grasp nor conceivable by (our) small minds. “Lord, Your thoughts are not our thoughts…” an apostle said once. Given the many ‘worlds’ we now inhabit—geographical, institutional, virtual, and more—our ‘being’ or our ‘loving’ (to honor Jean-Luc Marion’s wisdom) is shaped so intimately by things of which we are barely aware, let alone conscious.

In this largest of frames and broadest of questions, I invite you to reflect briefly on what “renewal of the church” means in your own response to the questions of purpose and context.

[I mean it…take some time to listen to your breathing, ask yourself what ‘renewal’ means in your context…]

For those matriculating into the educational setting and ministry at United Seminary, “renewal of the church” that is “Spirit-led” has guided communal formation and institutional growth for several years now. Each of us laboring in this vineyard will have an interpretation or ‘take’ on the momentum that has been built—Built—in these things, the ‘why’, ‘how’, and ‘where’ of it all. Here you’ll glimpse dimensions of the response, character, interpretation I have received of these things. I do not claim it to be the way, or even a necessary meaning of renewal. I do profess its significance to be heard. If we’ve learned anything from the Spirit today, as in yesterday, it is her utter pragmatic and intimate knowledge of the difference in approach and need, in each of us, for what precisely and only the Spirit can give, available to each and all willing to open his/her heart-mind-body-spirit.

Any renewal of the church that is Spirit-led has, in its participants and its recipients, an ultimate signature of an expressive delight able to companion the suffering of self and others. Some of us call it a ‘kingdom’ quality. Others prefer the term “reign” to describe Spirit’s fruits received, harvested. Jewish brothers and sisters may name these fruits in the World to Come, result of tikkun olam or ‘the repair of the world.’ This is not to say all these terms mean the same thing or that each of us—or even each religious tradition—is all about the same thing. We’re not, and they’re not. See S. Mark Heim’s work (particularly Salvations) if you’d like to pursue that further. But in a phenomenal sense, in what can be observable and articulated in the realms of lived experience shared across irreconcilable difference, there are fruits by which we know the Spirit. There is a quality and character of being fully human invited within each and all of us. I call it an expressive delight able to companion the suffering of self and others, a descriptor of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians) that fulfill and extend human life, human capacity to be fully human, what God intended each of us to be in our particularity and to live together in our community(ies).

The tricky part, of course, is living into what is already given, right within us, right in front of you, even in the face of injustice, poverty, systemic sin or evil. Perhaps especially in the face of those things. For this delight is not a head-in-the-sand escapism from all that the world requires of us. Nor is it a communal lament and rage against what they have done to them about which we engage activism for us or ours. Nor is it even an insisted, persisted grasping of the Truth you know to be True and about which they or others seem to remain forever ignorant. No.

An expressive delight does just what it says: express itself. It flows out of you from the abundance of Spirit, rooted in your spirit’s life received in such Spirit. It is not achieved nor earned nor enacted nor learned. It is received, allowed, surrendered, released. And nothing will be as difficult or as demanding of you as learning this simple task, again and again: play your part, however small, and risk big, however foolhardy. Do the work in front of you. Listen for those voices silenced within your own body, your own home, your own faith community. Whatever you fear most? That’s the first confessional step toward sanctification, receiving your redemption in your flesh to offer as gift for us all.

These postings offer breadcrumbs that come to me for this time in shared communal life, from my own receivings of answers and unknowing in Spirit’s tether. For now, I’ll encourage you to listen in regular rotation to the facets or dimensions I know to be significant for a life of expressive delight:

  • When was the last time you were in your own body, not for satiation of some hunger-need-desire, but simply within, listening for Spirit’s touch in felt-sensation?
  • Of what does your prayer-life consist, at this moment? Solitary? Silent? Scriptural? Shared? Who knows, really knows, the struggles you are having in your own discipleship? God, of course, but who else here, to listen alongside you, challenge you, open you anew to who God is, the One-in-Three Whom you’ve not met yet?
  • About what are you curious these days? How open-ended is this curiosity? Does your faith require strict boundaries about even which voices you allow yourself to hear…or are you willing to listen to anyone who talks/rages/laments/opines with you, trusting that God will always be bigger than your fears, your doubts, your faith that will be broken open again and again or else be dead on the vine?
  • How goes the command to love your enemies? Those whose politics make your blood boil and whose faith or doctrinal belief you know is wrong? Do you feel devotion and self-sacrificial love for them?
  • When you come up against your own finitude—when you simply cannot love your enemies or you cannot seem to continue with loving the work and persons right in front of you—then how do you let yourself be led, to return yourself to the Holy Well, to the One who can do all those things if you but set your boundaries, rest in your own limitation, receive nurture in what you need? How do you relinquish control?

Renewal means many things to many people. The invitation here is to remember your own goodness as a creation of God ever being renewed, re-created, in Spirit’s time. Fallen, sinful, yes, but faithful when in your body, persistent with practice-rhythms of elation and dryness, curious and openhearted, loving, and limited. Attentive to these things, you may be startled sooner than you think with an abundance that flows out of you, strengthening your capacity to companion suffering within yourself and within the paths and practices of those next to you.

That is my prayer for us all: a life of devotion, worthy of the One who offers it to all those who receive it. That also happens to be my answer to the question of renewal of the church, Spirit-led: a prayer.