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reflections on worship, art, & justice

an essay for the United Church of Christ Musicians Association

· music,theology,songwriting

[Note: I wrote this article at the request of the United Church of Christ Musicians Association (UCCMA) to accompany my song "God Is Still Speaking" for their Summer 2020 publication Worship, Music, & Ministry. It was, quite obviously, written before the outbreak of covid-19 and the wave of actions against racialized police violence that have erupted in the United States since the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. I believe the insights still apply, even adjusting for the novelty of "Zoom church" and the imperatives of this #BlackLivesMatter moment.]

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[Above: the people of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Watertown, SD at Watertown's inaugural Pride in the Park celebration, June 2019.]

It’s Winter 2019. I am serving as the Pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Watertown, South Dakota. This small-town congregation is deep in discernment about becoming Open & Affirming of people of all genders and sexualities. Like many communities who go through the ONA process, they’re figuring out how to connect their historic faith to a deepening commitment to progressive Christian values.

As a proudly bisexual man with many LGBTQ beloveds, I have a personal stake in every church becoming ONA. I bring this up to my therapist, wondering how I best can support the church in their discernment. “Well, you’re a musician,” she says. “Why don’t you try writing a song for the congregation to sing on Sunday mornings? You’re in a unique position as their minister to put words (and music) to their process.”

When I get back to the church, I sit down at the ivory-white piano in UCC Watertown’s sanctuary, taking the church’s motto as my jumping-off point: “We resolve to Love, agree to disagree, and unite to serve, for GOD IS STILL SPEAKING.” By the following Sunday, we’re singing a new song called “God Is Still Speaking”:

In the midst of new dimensions

In the face of the unknown

In the space between what’s yet to be

And the faith we’ve always known…

God is still speaking in this place!

Let us serve one another and embrace

Every child as God’s beloved

Find Christ in every face

God is still speaking, God is still speaking

God is still speaking in this place!

I would never be so big-headed as to suggest that my song played anything but the most minor of roles in FCUCC Watertown’s vote to become an ONA congregation in September 2019. Yet music is powerful magic that works on us in secret ways – perhaps the song did make an impact, in its own melodic way. Certainly it impacted me as the author, drawing me into deeper relationship with my congregation. I suspect, too, that it impacted the 8-year-old girl who requested it every Sunday: “I love the music,” she told me. “It makes me feel like everyone belongs here.”

This reflects one of the great gifts that worship has to offer in our efforts for social justice. When we think of justice work, we often think of the public, political side of things: advocating for our undocumented neighbors, showing up to the Pride festival in full rainbow regalia, marching in the streets to demand racial justice. All of this is good and necessary – after all, Church isn’t somewhere we go on Sunday morning, it’s something we are every day of the week.

Yet I’m hesitant to discount Sunday morning outright. A seminary professor of mine, the Rev. Dr. Jay Emerson Johnson, likes to say that we are constantly being spiritually formed by the communities of which we are part. Systems of oppression form us to build walls and erect barriers, to construct hierarchies of “good enough” and “not good enough,” to act from places of fear and scarcity. Worship on the other hand can be a place of re-formation and counter-formation. By coming together to seek the presence of One Who includes and transcends all our differences, real and imagined, we catch a glimpse of God’s imagination for the world as it could be. We remember Who We Are, and Whose We Are, and what we are called to do.

The arts have a key role to play in this work of remembrance and re-formation. Rather than preaching at us about what we ought to believe or how we ought to behave, art invites us into an encounter something (or Someone). At its best, worship does the same. Both have the capacity to touch the deepest parts of us, bypassing the “watchful dragons” of our prejudices and preconceptions and inspiring us to become the kind of people God knows we can be. And when that happens, then just maybe justice will roll like river, and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24)

All of which sounds lovely, of course - but how do we do it? Alongside my song “God Is Still Speaking,” I’d like to offer two additional cases from my ministry:

  • In Fall 2016, my playwriting partner Aaron Eaves and I were commissioned to write an original worship drama for the opening of the Encyclical Gallery in Berkeley, CA. The gallery was inspired by Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality, exploring the intersections between ecology, spirituality, and the arts. When the play “I See Fire” had its first staged reading in the gallery, we invited audience members to move throughout the space during the act breaks and interact with the art on the walls as “icons,” windows into deeper reflection on the story and their own role in co-creating a better world.
  • In January 2017, a ragtag band of interfaith spiritual leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area staged a “Requiem for the American Dream” on the night of Donald Trump’s inauguration. We processed in full “clergy drag” through the streets of Oakland, CA, bearing a homemade coffin draped in an American flag and chanting hymns for the dead as we joined thousands of other demonstrators on the streets. We then held a public “requiem mass” where participants could name their griefs and fears and come together in song, prayer, and public ritual for solidarity.

All three of the examples I’ve shared were specific artistic responses to specific needs in specific communities; your community may have wildly different needs, not to mention tastes. You’re more than welcome to take advantage of the resources on this website, but I’d also encourage you and your communities to get your creativity on and make something of your own!

My therapist was right: as ministers, musicians, and creatives, we are in unique positions to put words (and music, and dance, and and and!) to a congregation’s hopes and fears and deepest dreams. We have a crucial role to play in co-creating communities where everyone can belong. Through our creative gifts, we can invite others into a deeper understanding of themselves as the children of a still-speaking God, empowering them to transform their world.

I pray, therefore, that each of you might find that place where, as Frederick Buechner says, “your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” May you be inspired to work for the Kin-dom of God. And may you find sustenance and strength in the embrace of the Creator who made you and makes in you still, now and always.

Blessin’s, --Tom

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