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Context Matters: A Case for “I” in Worship

Blogger David Bjorlin is a worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago), a lecturer in worship at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago), and a published hymnwriter.

 

[In my previous post, I explored how The Sound of Music’s “Edelweiss” helped me understand that a congregational song’s theological content can only be interpreted correctly if we understand the context in which it is sung. Today’s post can be read as a continuation of that discussion.]

Pronouns

If you went into the worship supply closet at Resurrection Covenant Church (the congregation where I have served as the worship pastor for the last eight years) —well, first you should watch your step, because it’s a mess in there and you might hurt yourself. But if you managed to avoid the protruding bass amp and the rogue music stand, you’d see a battered filing cabinet. If you pulled out the first two drawers, you’d find folders full of chord charts or lead sheets for almost every song we’ve sung over the last ten years. If you started flipping through the folders, you’d notice that many of the songs’ official versions have been amended in one way or another. On some, a word or two are changed to make the song’s lyrics gender inclusive. Others have an alternative chord scrawled in to replace one that just didn’t sound right (or sounded boring). Yet, the most frequent change you would notice would be the songs’ pronouns: scores of “I’s,” “me’s,” and “my’s” are hastily cross out with corresponding “we’s,” “us’s,” and “ours’” scrawled above.

In my first few years of ministry, I was something of a pronoun zealot. Armed with a firm belief in the harmful effects of individualism and consumerism on congregational life and a v5 Precise pen, it was my personal mission to banish I/me/my from vast swaths of congregational song. Whatever the season or context, we were going to sing “we” if it killed me (us?).

While I still believe the “we” is essential in congregational song, voices from other social locations have helped me understand that even the “I” we sing—perhaps especially the “I” we sing—is contextual. Before we as worship planners and leaders can know what “I” means in a hymn or praise song, we need to explore more basic questions: Who is singing? Where? Why?

 

Who Is Singing?

One of the first lessons I needed to learn as a worship leader and planner—especially as a straight, white, male worship leader—was that my experiences and social location weren’t normative (an obvious lesson perhaps, but one that needs to be stated again and again because it is still sorely missing from many theological and liturgical discussions). The way I understand “I” is conditioned by my race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, to name but a few.

Whatever the season or context, we were going to sing “we” if it killed me (us?).

My first lesson on this journey came in seminary from the pages of James Cone’s Spirituals and the Blues. In the midst of his brilliant exploration on the central place of the spirituals and blues in the black religious experience, Cone briefly explains how the “I” functions differently in these songs. Rather than an affirmation of the solitary individual disconnected from community, he argues that “[t]he ‘I’… who cries out in the spirituals is a particular black self-affirming both his or her being and being in community, for the two are inseparable” (61). Thus for Cone, the black “I” is always (1) an affirmation of the self in the midst of the malevolent forces of racism and dehumanization; and (2) understood as an “I” in relationship to the broader community. The “I” necessarily includes the “we.”

Around the same time I read Cone, a Korean classmate of mine decided to teach our seminary community a similar lesson through a chapel service he and a few fellow classmates planned to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The songs he included in the service were replete with I/me/my language, and at the bottom of the bulletin he included an explanatory note. While I no longer have the exact verbiage, he explained that because his cultural context was so focused on the communal and familial, the “I” became a necessary assertion of one’s own commitment to Christ. For him, the Korean “I” is a countercultural statement of faith.

The “I” necessarily includes the “we.”

While these two examples focus on race and ethnicity, there are obviously many other cultural contexts that will determine the meaning of “I.” For example, how does “I” function differently—how is it interpreted differently—among women? the upper class? refugees and immigrants? people in the LGBTQ community? Obviously, this work only becomes more complex once we take into account the many ways these different cultural contexts intersect in individuals and communities, but the basic message remains the same: what “I” means depends on the “I” who sings.

 

Where?

Connected to cultural and social location (class, race, status, etc.), a person’s geographical location may also change how people understand the sung “I.” The “I” sung in a gated suburb is different than the “I” sung in a densely-populated urban region, which are both different from the “I” sung from a relatively isolated farming community. For example, in Kathleen Norris’s memoir Dakota, she describes how her rural community still loves to sing the gospel hymns where “I” language predominates, like “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “I Love to Tell the Story,” and “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Often these hymns are criticized for their sentimental focus on the individual’s relationship with God, but as one of Norris’s colleagues noted, “Church intellectuals always want to root out the petistic hymns, but in a rural area like this those hymns of intimacy are necessary for the spiritual welfare of people who are living at such a distance from each other” (166). And as many rural farming, mining, and manufacturing communities experience economic uncertainty and shrinking populations, their “I” is a reminder of the God who is always near.

Connected to cultural and social location (class, race, status, etc.), a person’s geographical location may also change how people understand the sung “I.”

Why?

Lastly, to understand what “I” means, it is necessary to understand why the “I” is being sung. That is, what is the liturgical and/or pastoral purpose of the pronoun? In my evangelical context, this is what first led me to change so many of the “I’s” in prayers of confession or songs of thanksgiving to “we’s.” My congregations were often well versed in the concepts of personal sin and individual faith, but had little concept of social sins or corporate faith. I believe this is still too often the case in many contexts, but I also understand now that broadening the scope of faith is just one of the many pastoral needs of congregations. Even in the most individualistic of contexts, there will be people there who have been worn down by personal tragedies, poor theologies, or abusive relationships that need to hear not only that God loves humanity generally (“Jesus loves us”) but that God loves them specifically (“Jesus loves me!”). They need more than a benign and aloof God who doles out provisions from a distant heaven, but the Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek after the lost one, the Woman who overturns her house to find the missing coin, the Father who runs to meet his wayward son. For those teetering on despair, the “I” is a reminder of God’s pursuant, unrelenting love for you, for me.

 

Conclusion

To be clear, our churches will always need the “we” in worship. Indeed, I continue to wonder if late-stage capitalism will make the “we” all the more important across contexts as these economic forces attempt to homogenize all humanity into the one primary identity of consumer. Yet, we can no longer live under the false assumption that “I” (or any words we sing or pray) means the same thing to all people in all places in all situations. Context matters.

Though expressed differently in every context, our worship must affirm the community and the individual, the corporate and the personal. Perhaps this is one of the lesson of our two most basic Christian creeds—the continual movement between the “I believe” of the Apostles’ Creed and the “We believe” of the Nicene Creed. We need “I.” I need “we.” May our songs reflect our faith.

 

 

Felicia Patton is a lifelong Chicago native and worship leader at Urban Village Church. Felicia received an undergraduate degree from North Park University followed by two graduate degrees from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

 

 

 

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10

Chorus:

Give me a clean heart, so I may serve thee.

Lord fix my heart, so that I may be used by thee.

For I’m not worthy, of all these blessings.

Give me a clean heart, and I’ll follow thee.

Verse 1:

I’m not asking for the riches of the land,

I’m not asking for high men to know my name.
Please Lord give me a clean heart, so that I may follow thee.

Give me a clean heart, a clean heart, and I’ll follow thee.

Verse 2:

Sometimes I am up and sometimes I am down.

Sometimes I am almost level to the ground.

Please Lord give me a clean heart, so that I may follow thee.

Give me a clean heart, a clean heart, and I’ll follow thee.

(Give Me a Clean Heart by Dr. Margaret Douroux. The Faith We Sing, #2133.)

 

Busyness

I am constantly busy between running from rehearsal to rehearsal, learning new music, and preparing for the next service or performance. That is the life of every musician and worship leader. Just as pastors are called to be leaders of the flock, we too have to submit our lives to leading our congregations, while struggling at times to maintain our own spiritual life that is focused on God and God’s people.

Church leaders often follow the liturgical calendar (also known as the church year) as a way to keep focused on the triune nature of God through the biblical story. Each liturgical season points us toward the revelation of God, the incarnation of Christ, and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. One of those liturgical seasons is Lent which lasts for forty days, not counting Sundays, symbolizing Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and the preparations of his ministry. This season marks an opportunity each year for fasting, repentance, and a time of renewal for spiritual lives. It is not a journey we take alone. Many churches participate in fasts as a community, so that they may grow together; some start up initiatives to help their congregations give back to community; others add services of reflection where they can dive deeply into the Scriptures. These are all wonderful ways that we renew and offer our hearts, minds, and spirits during Lent.

I am constantly busy between running from rehearsal to rehearsal, learning new music, and preparing for the next service or performance.

Give Me A Clean Heart

The song, Give Me a Clean Heart, has always been a favorite of mine. For me this song functions as a prayer for renewed focus. While refocusing ourselves during the time of Lent, we may better commune with God and each other with greater intentionality. If we were honest, we would admit that monotonous day-to-day tasks prevent us from being attentive to interior silence, so that we can hear God. A clouded mind can be a distraction for worship leaders, causing them to plan worship as a part of a weekly checklist, rather than taking time to discern what the needs of the community are and what the Scripture is stating.

Psalm, Felicia Patton, Create In Me a clean heart

Source: kishasdailydevotional.com

I use songs for inspiration. I listen to a song, identify the things I like about it, and then try to figure out what the song is saying. Are there any lessons to learn? Are there any topics that I should look into more carefully? For me, working this way is great practice when I am vetting what music to use in worship. A song that has been particularly inspiring to me in this season is, Give Me a Clean Heart, by Dr. Margaret Douroux. Although this song is not new to me, it took on new life when I analyzed it through the lens of the Lenten themes that I see in the piece. The melody line is as beautiful as it is intentional to showcase the dichotomy between the action of “rising” and the longing for more of a relationship with Jesus. Instead of keeping the melody line true to lyrics with a literal rise to higher notes, the melody line drops at the end of the phrase, accentuating the need. That is about as far as I will go into score analysis, but the music major in me could not resist!

 

Four Themes

There were four themes that stood out as I analyzed the lyrics of this piece. Starting with the obvious, the question that can be raised is, “what is a clean heart?” I want to empty myself from any distractions; perhaps through fasting from anything that is clouding my connection to God or not allowing me to hear the voice of God. I can also clean my heart by allowing healing. Healing is needed in many different ways that includes careful attention to our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual lives. If we are not careful, anger can cloud decision-making. Additionally, healing from disappointment and loss is important to deal with and offers opportunities for growth and reflection. Directly connected to healing is the need of forgiveness for yourself and others. This might be a time to revisit things that may have hurt or harmed you. It could also be a time to reflect on the ways you may have hurt others. Two additional ways to have a clean heart are through humility and the act of surrendering. I often ask myself, why I make certain choices when I am leading. Is it because the Spirit led me to choose them, or is it to highlight myself? Am I grateful for the gifts that God has given me? Have I thanked and prayed to God today? Am I listening to what the Spirit is saying?

I want to empty myself from any distractions; perhaps through fasting from anything that is clouding my connection to God or not allowing me to hear the voice of God.

Prayer

The second theme of this song is that of prayer. The first verse speaks as if it were a prayer with the sole request of getting a clean heart. It is not attained through materialistic things but in a way that the composer can be “used” by Jesus. This is so important, as we need to pray not just for our own needs, but that we can be better stewards and leaders. Prayer can often be distracted or relegated to a task that we are to complete each day. Intentional prayer that displays our humility and gratefulness and asks for deliverance from our distractedness is when we truly focus on hearing the voice of God and not searching for a response to our individual needs.

Humanity

The third theme is humanity. Through this song, Dr. Margaret Douroux acknowledges her humanity and the limitations of human emotions. We are not perfect, and sometimes we need help in order to hear Jesus, but we acknowledge this and allow ourselves to clearly hear, see, and follow Christ. If our minds are not clear, if we do not acknowledge our mistakes, how can we ever grow? So in this time of renewal, what actions have you seen in yourself that need to change? Have you lashed out at anyone? How can you fix this?

Dr. Margaret Douroux acknowledges her humanity and the limitations of human emotions. We are not perfect, and sometimes we need help in order to hear Jesus…

Discipleship

The fourth theme is that of discipleship. How do you follow Jesus? Clean your heart from all of the distractions that do not allow you to hear Jesus’ will. This may not always be possible, or clear, but taking some time to renew ourselves can allow us time to refocus; not just focusing on what the next steps of our careers are or our deadlines, but giving ourselves some grace to admit that we too are followers of Christ who constantly need to rebuild our spiritual lives and that connection.  Admitting my own humanity and limitations can actually be a relief to me. At times, serving in leadership can make us feel as though we cannot make mistakes while leading worship or while speaking publicly. This can sometimes make leadership like that of a coat that we wear in order to show our strength and perfectionism. However, we are not Christ, and we should take off our “coats” and focus as the composer states on having a “clean heart,” so that we can follow Jesus.

Psalm, Felicia Patton, Create In Me a clean heart

Source: superlative1.wordpress.com/