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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The new "non-denominational"

Terry and I had the joy and privilege of singing for a service last night sponsored by Northwest Hospice, a memorial service sponsored and created by their chaplaincy for people who had experienced the loss of a family member or friend during the past year. The folks who ran it did so with grace and compassion, making a safe and inviting place to express loss and grief together.

They had asked me, probably as a professional courtesy since I'm the music director at the parish, to provide music for the service, and I said yes, of course. They said that it would be a non-denominational service, so could I please pick some music that would be non-denominational. When I hear that word, I think, "OK, avoid specifically 'Catholic' sounding hymns. Eucharistic hymns, "On This Day, O Beautiful Mother," "Long Live the Pope," things like that. Then I think, well, it would also probably apply to Jewish attendees, so maybe stick with the psalms and more unitarian songs about God. I think I suggested "New Jerusalem," a song I wrote based on Rev. 21, "The Cloud's Veil," the Liam Lawton piece, Janét Whitaker's "In Every Age," and "We Will Want No More," by Tom Kendzia.

The reply from the chaplain was kind, but I felt like I was a clueless child on reading it. The songs I had chosen were "more religious in nature" and what they wanted we "non-denominational" songs like "Turn, Turn, Turn", "Wonderful World", and "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

I was stunned, as you can imagine. Clearly, the meaning of "non-denominational" changed. I told them that of course I would be happy to play, but maybe they should pick the songs, and then I would play them, since I had a shaky idea about what "non-denominational" meant. If they picked the songs, Terry and I could sing them, and everybody would be happy and, hopefully, not offended.

Reflecting on this, I thought that part of my problem is that, as a Christian, I don't really know what I have to say to a non-believer about death if I cut Christ out of the vocabulary, cut God out of the vocabulary. It's not at all that I think that afterlife is the whole deal, but the meaning of life and death for me is so caught up in the love and memory of God and the gift of Christ that I guess I'm sort of speechless. In fact, I'm speechless even with Christ in the face of death, without Christ, I'm bewildered. But I began to see that music does give a way in, and how nature ("Wonderful World") and solidarity ("Bridge over Troubled Water") can both offer some comfort and suggest a way in for the lived gospel without what is for some the "baggage" of religion poorly preached and experienced. (My issue with "Turn, Turn, Turn," in spite of my almost adoring regard for the life and work of Pete Seeger, is that it helps us miss the point of Ecclesiastes, sugar-coating what Qoheleth (the teacher, or seeker, or quester) said about life, that with or without God, it's essentially "vanity," in the sense of "in vain" — meaningless, useless, pointless, ephemeral, "dust in the wind.")

The whole experience taught me something about compassion, about music, and about evangelization, I think. But interestingly, after I left the decision-making to them about the music we should sing at the service, what do you think they chose for the music?
Let me just say I had not even mentioned Covenant Hymn, but there it was, right above the insanely great Harburg/Arlen classic, which swelled my head as much as having one of my songs arranged by John Ferguson and Hal Hopson. I got over it.

So, for future reference, what would you have done? What songs would you have done for a memorial service, using the "new non-denominational" moniker and algorithm? Just in case, you know, they ask us back?

By the way, during the instrumental interludes, I wove in a quiet medley of Paul Simon's "Bookends" theme, with "You've Got a Friend" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water." And before the service, Terry sang "Safety Harbor" and "You Raise Me Up." But I'm sure you have a lot of other ideas. I'm still learning about this whole life and death thing, I guess. And learning to play some new songs, too.