Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Thoughts on a Vocation of Music Ministry

For a long time now I've been marinating various thoughts about worship. New bits keep getting added in, but I've struggled to synthesize it all. Today I'm going to take another stab at it, because I was inspired by the group that was leading worship at Mass today at Christ the King chapel.

By habit, my children and I usually sit near the music ministry when we go to Mass at Franciscan University (which is where Christ the King chapel is). So I had a bird's eye view of the group, especially of the leader.

I noticed lots of little things that told me he was aware of his purpose in leading the congregation. He was intent on the priests, watching for his cues. Intros were not belabored, and served well as cues for the congregation to join in. His musical skill was developed to the point that he lacked self-consciousness and instead was watching to see if the music was serving the need well. For example, the guitars began picking the Agnus Dei accompaniment, but as the congregation joined in and the guitar was drowned out, he switched to strumming and got the severely lagging congregation moving together again. At one point he flubbed an entrance (I believe it was to the Sanctus), but he carried on in such a way that it really didn't detract from the experience of worship. We were almost all of the way through Mass before it dawned on me that all of his song selections were modern praise and worship style songs. I am pretty comfortable with this style (and he chose songs I've known for decades), but what I am noting is that there was a sort of seamlessness between the experience of worship and the specific pieces chosen to aid that worship. The group also did a beautiful and unpretentiously Latin and modern Anima Christi as a communion meditation. It was a delight to pray this Mass with capable music ministers freeing me to express my prayer to God with joy, and I specifically hovered around after Mass to be able to thank and encourage the guy.

I note these details in mental contrast to those experienced a week or so ago in the same context with another leader. This young man was leading alone, probably because at the beginning of the semester before music ministry groups are formed, they take whom they can. Painfully different. He announced all the songs as "not found in" either pew hymnal. His style was much more of a soloist than of a leader, to the point where the feeling was conveyed to me that the music and the liturgy were like two separate experiences. He would play music; we'd go back to the liturgy. He'd play more music; we'd hear Scripture. He'd play more music; the priest offered prayer. It felt disjointed. I didn't for a moment doubt this man's sincerity or his desire to worship God. But it was clear to me that something was missing there.

That something is what I've been meditating on and marinating in for who knows how long now. Intuitive person that I am, it is far easier for me to say "There it is!" than to be able to describe what "it" is. But I think it is fair to say that there is a personal quality, a spiritual quality to leading worship that is vital, or integral to the call to do so. And I also know I'm not writing about this because I'm all that interested in worship theory. Well, not true. I am, actually. But only because I realize this is a personal call God extends to me, to change my life. All theory is really a personal call to conversion for practictioners, or it's meaningless. Don'tcha think?

As a worshiper in the pew, I know the value of this unnamed quality in a leader. The analogy always in my mind is music ministry as a vehicle. It is there to gather worshipers together and bring them to the throne of God so that they may encounter Him there. It does not exist for the musician's self-gratification, in a sort of otherwise-pointless trip all over town so that everyone can see how cool the inside of the vehicle is. However, it is also a disservice to God's people if the vehicle is so broken down that they would be better served by walking on their own. Keeping in mind that Mass at Franciscan University has exposed me to literally hundreds of music ministry teams over the last 14 years, I would say that the vast majority of my experiences of Catholic music ministry has reminded me of an ox cart or a lumber wagon that God's people were asked to get out of and help push up the hill to the throne of God. I do not say that as a complaint, because far be it from me to not prefer that to having no access to the Sacrifice of the Mass at all. In fact, there is a certain strength and humility that is built up inside of me from this "pushing." 

But the fact is, there are times when I am weak and I am tired. If I have to help push, my spirit feels sad and it languishes. Sometimes I feel too crushed to be able to try. I vividly remember one such time I came to Mass in this state. This was at my own parish where my friend Joe plays the organ and directs our choir. After an extremely painful day that left me feeling I wanted nothing more to do with people ever again, I deposited myself in my pew. It felt strange for me to be there, actually, because of how often I am either singing with the choir or cantoring, but it happened to be a day off from both for me. Thank God, there was no ox cart I had to push. As I heard Joe play, and heard the cantor's voice, it was like stepping into a very quiet, very powerful Porsche and being zipped right to God's throne where I could *splat* land in a heap before Him and spend the entire hour being loved back to life. I came home healed and ready to risk again, aware that I had been like the man lowered in front of Jesus by his four friends through the roof of the house, entirely powerless to help myself that day to what I most direly needed.

It's not about excellent music. Or, if it is about excellent music, then we have to define what excellent music is. I'm not the person to judge excellent music in any technical sense because I have no musical training beyond a middle school strings program and the basic music class required of all Lutheran high school freshmen. So I tend to glaze over at high-brow debates over what makes good music good. I don't even do so well in the sacred music cat fight arena. I know and respect the fact that the Church has given us certain parameters, but for the most part I am a Transcendence-Utilitarian. In my mind, if music takes us to a place of transcendence, takes us to the throne of God, or at least does not block us from it, then it is good. There's not going to be some insanely intense peak moment with every musical experience of worship, and that's ok. Because just like strength is built up by pushing ox carts, so faith is built up in the presence of God by living in a reality we know rather than feel, sometimes. There is also an inherent danger for music ministers if there is an expectation that they have to deliver something to make worship worthwhile. I have occasionally found this a difficulty in my experience of charismatic worship, especially in Protestant circles where there is no certain sacramental and liturgical pinnacle for which to aim. In such a case, sticking with the vehicle analogy, worship leaders are under more pressure to make the trip go somewhere significant. I used to believe that liturgy was like shackles, but in reality it is our freedom as worshipers. It's the encounter is at the throne of God where He speaks and gives us Himself. We do need to be filled with expectation for this, but it is an expectation of Another, not the self; it is of something we experience through where we are all going together.

So, what does it take? What is that unnamed quality? What did I witness today in that music ministry team? What have I experienced in my own parish, and most importantly, how is God calling me to conversion right now through this long marinading process?

Well, I don't have the one word label. I wish I did. If you know it, don't keep it a secret from me. 

But like everything that comes from God, I think it is very simple to grasp, and a life-long process to carry out. Maybe this Scripture summarizes it: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself" (Mk. 12:30-31). Here's how I'd explicate that. You cannot love with something you do not have, so the first call is to be in command over one's heart, soul, mind and strength, over oneself. That's self-mastery, or freedom. A person with true freedom knows belonging: he was created by and for Another who is Love, total affirmation. It is the paradox that we do not really have ourselves if we have not given ourselves completely away in surrender to the One who made us. ("Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it." Lk. 17:33) The second call follows from the first: We give to others what we have received. Freedom knows belonging; and the free person loves and invites others to belonging and freedom, just as he has received it as a gift.

With this Scripture as a springboard, it seems to me the first call, the first need of a music minister is to be a worshiper. This rightfully acknowledges the gift given, directs the freedom one has attained back to God. This presumes all of the musical ability and practice that frees him/her to worship with voice or instrument. (I am reminded now of the simplicity of the one-sentence tutorial I was given to prepare me for the first time I lead worship by myself at my pre-Catholic fellowship. It was "Just stand up [in front of everyone] and worship God!") The second need is for the minister to invite the congregation to enter into the experience of worship with him. In other words, the minister needs to know where he is going and beckon "come with me." And that place needs to be the throne of God, the presence of Christ in Word and sacrament. The music minister is like John the Baptist, not pointing to himself nor mumbling something inarticulately, but clearly pronouncing "Behold, the Lamb of God!" so that the people can respond with their hearts to the only One who can give life.

But of course this is not just about music at Mass, because I don't believe God gives compartmentalized gifts or calls, and worship is about living, not only liturgy. It seems that each aspect of our vocation shapes all of who we are. "I am going to the throne of God; Come with me" is to exude, does exude, begins to exude, from everything we are and what we do. We don't just issue a call, we become the call. And we cannot of course compel anyone to follow, because the Holy Spirit fuels that response from within the sanctuary of the individual soul.That's a completely separate domain.

How then does this call "exude"? I think there is another key word in that passage from Luke: your. As in, Love the Lord your God with all YOUR  heart, soul, mind and strength. We are unique individuals, and that is exactly how God wants us to love and serve. We cannot compare ourselves with others for any sense of direction for ourselves. This is part of freedom, I believe. One of my favorite quotations is from Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete: "When you are no longer afraid to be yourself in front of other people, then you are really free. Otherwise, others determine you." In the individual/community balance, the fulcrum is love. And the circle is complete.

We can trust His divine orchestration to meet all of our needs. Maybe what it boils down to for me is the reality of the cliche that what we are given, we are given to share. Because part of how God meets all the needs out there is for me to return freely to Him all He has put inside me.

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