I will praise the Lord all my life,
Make music to my God while I live. (Psalm 146)
I am forty years old, and I don't know anything. My car is a mystery to me. The simplest tasks of putting nails into boards or attaching wire A to post B make me sweat nervously. In the matter of human relationships, I have played a guessing-game for as long as I can remember, and have not been above cheating. It is a wonder that I have any friends at all, or that my family has survived knowing me. For eight years I was a travel agent, directing people to cities and airports and hotels to which I had never been, sharpening my skills as a poseur with crafty telephone bravado that made me modestly successful at my work.
What I know the least about is God. And yet my life's work (I have now been longer at my parish in Phoenix than at any other consistent work since grammar school) has been in a service of trying to enable thousands of good people with lives, I surmise, far more honest than my own, to experience the touch of the Holy One through the experience of communal worship.
Many of these people, as far as I can tell, have had much more intimate experiences of God's presence than I have. This arouses in me not jealousy, but curiosity. Some of these people cannot describe moments and days of their lives without tears of joy and gratitude. Many are able to describe moments of knowing God's presence with no doubt in their hearts at all. To me, these heart-held truths are a wonder. My friends at St. Jerome's are describing to me a land to which I have never been, or been invited. And yet, they accept me, and expect me to continue in my work among them. Another mystery.
I have come to suspect that my ministry, and perhaps therefore yours, is valid not because I have been somewhere, but because I sense that we are all going somewhere together. Furthermore, it seems to me that there is a sense that what we all do together especially on Sunday is something that we need each other for: I need the gift of their faith, they need the gift of my music. And what we need each other for is not what we do on Sunday so much as what it stands for: the continuing search for meaning in the turmoil of life, for signs of God's presence, and for the courage to be healing, forgiving, reconciling disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.
Being a disciple means following in the footsteps of a teacher, and for disciples of Jesus it invariably means following in those footsteps together. Discipleship, like my ministry as I have begun to understand it, is less a matter of being something than of going somewhere, of doing a discipline. The teaching of Jesus is not that we must experience God's presence in our lives, for that presence is never anything but God's gift. It comes to us in God's time and in God's ways. The teaching of Jesus is rather that we must behave or act as though we were living in that presence at all times and with all other persons. Jesus called that presence the reign of God or the kingdom. His Jewish heritage describes its relationships as justice, that is, the way that creation (including people) acts when God is around. Those who have followed, from the very beginning, knew that the only way to hold to the teaching of Jesus was to hold to it together, and so they met around each others tables and told the stories that kept him faithful, and they told stories about him.
Christian liturgy is the discipline of acting out the relationships of the reign of God as proclaimed by Jesus and understood by the apostles, the first disciples. Christian liturgy presumes relationships of equality but not identity, unity but not uniformity, diversity and harmony. It presumes the acknowledgment of those present that God is God, and that we are not. It assumes that we are all aware both of our chosen patterns of darkness and those which are our inheritance from our equally imperfect ancestors, and it further assumes that that sin will not have the last word. Our worship assumes that God is not hidden but is jubilantly, even scandalously self-revealing, a betrothed spouse who can hardly wait to consummate the marriage. Our worship makes us aware, week by week, year by year, that God is not a concept to learn or a set of equations that can be memorized, but is reachable through repeated, metaphorical actions using the most ordinary of human things. God is something like bread and wine shared at a table; God is something like being drowned, or bathed, in water, and being rubbed with scented oil; God is like stripping naked and putting on new clothes. God is something like an embrace, a kiss, a vow, or gathering around a sick person with song and prayer and oil. God is to be found in the very urge to assemble, to sing together, to repeat the stories of Jesus, to serve one another with gifts that come from we know not where. And certainly God is like scattering again to be a word of hope and forgiveness, and a bite of bread, to everyone in need of that good news.
In liturgy, we practice being the people whom God has called us to be. The real living of it will come in our homes, at work, in school, while raising our children and voting and being of the political, economic, and social relationships that make up our lives. But the rehearsal is extremely important. It keeps us true to the path of Jesus, and helps us to look with honesty at our patterns of behavior. In learning to be a thankful people we learn to be better stewards. In welcoming each others presence and reverencing strangers, we discover our radical equalizing unity in Christ and, a priori, in creation. I begin to love not only my neighbor as myself, but I begin to see my enemy as my neighbor, and the great-grandchildren of my enemy as the neighbor of my own descendants. The earth herself becomes more precious to me, for we were forged with the same fire, we are made of the same stuff, and all her creatures breathe with the same breath, the same holy Wind, the very Spirit of God. Ritual behavior keeps us true to these course-correcting insights.
We do not tolerate, for instance, places of honor in our liturgical assemblies for the rich or the powerful. No presiding presbyter may extemporize greetings: the ritual relationship requires that we meet as equals, so that communal responses may not be jeopardized by even well-intentioned spurts of spontaneity. "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" has a place in our memory and a special rhythm to it to which even small children respond,"Amen." As a prayer, it may need revision based upon the just critique of feminist theology, but it must be revised by the Church, not by an individual, and certainly not first thing Sunday morning! In our gatherings, we all share one cup and one bread (although for most of our churches, this is a charitable euphemism), no one gets more than anyone else. We listen to the word of God and not, for instance, to the latest spiritual tome by this or that writer (although many of us tried that one in the late sixties as well.)
What are the repercussions of this for the pastoral liturgist and musician? First of all, we ourselves need to be disciples, which means not that we have arrived anywhere but that we are one the road, together, following in the footsteps of Jesus. This means we ourselves must be people of the word. We need to study the scripture, and that means reading books about the scripture, and taking classes, as well as knowing the lectionary and its principles. It means reading a gospel, for instance, and not just the fragments we get Sunday to Sunday through the year. And of course, it means being part of a community's life, and living a lifestyle that is oriented toward love, reconciliation, and healing.
A second repercussion is that we have to know the liturgy, and take its demands seriously. It is important to realize the liturgy's value relative to the rest of the community's life, and to make it a servant of the community's needs. It is always painfully obvious when a community's worship is out of touch with its real life. The singing is lackluster, maybe co-opted by professionals alone, responses are perfunctory, attention is lacking, and people leave early. But good celebrations nurture and strengthen faith. The events of people's lives, the economy, the state of war or peace, the condition of the neighborhood, the struggle to live in wholesome relationships, all of these matters must not be ignored by the liturgy. When the liturgy's power is taken seriously, when rite and preaching and music and prayer confront and embrace the world of real experience, we have the sign of a transforming community of conversion. But when there is fire in a community, there is certainly going to be heat, and such a parish may find often find itself in intense self-evaluation, as well as finding itself occasionally out of step with the local powers in order to stay in step with the gospel. Parishes which have opened the doors to women in their ministries, particularly serving at the altar and preaching, will know the pain of which I have spoken.
Being a disciple and a minister means, then, following Jesus through the discipline of the scriptures, respecting the traditions that are delivered to us in the sacred liturgy and enculturating them for the people among whom we minister. Therefore, we must be an active part of that community's life. We share with the rest of the pastoral team the role of transforming our parish, including ourselves, into a more obvious sign that the reign of God is at hand. That means calling forth peoples gifts and empowering them to use those gifts for service of one another, both inside and outside of the liturgical assembly. Ultimately, our destiny is to take our gospel daily to the streets, to invite in all who have been pushed to the outside by whoever or whatever is stronger, and bring them to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Our task is to empower the community to be its best self which is a self for others; to be, in fact, Christ.
The above was written as the opening chapter of an "unbegun book," Amateurs Only Need Apply, in 1992.