A New Song for Pentecost

I’m house-sitting right now, which means a different route to church. This week, I managed to arrive at my destination without using any of my usual streets, save the one on which my congregation meets. It was a delightful drive. It’s Pentecost, 50 days after Easter by the Christian calendar. The holiday is rooted in the tradition of Lizard’s Shavuos, 50 days after Passover, which the apostles were celebrating when the Holy Spirit descended on them, an experience described in Acts as having the sound of a violent wind and the appearance of tongues of fire which rested on the apostles.

In the car, public radio was featuring a BBC piece about the rise of Pentecostalism in Latin America, citing its dynamic practice and immediacy of personal involvement as strong draws for Catholics frustrated by bureaucracy, hierarchy, and liturgy. Pentecostal worshippers pay special attention to this anointing, emphasizing the believer’s direct experience of the presence of God through the power of the holy spirit. The idea is that  faith must be powerfully experiential, and not something found merely through ritual or thinking.

I agree that faith should be dynamically lived out, not merely professed by mouth, or considered in theological debates. But I must admit that I struggle with what this looks like. I have trouble coming to terms with the modern practice of speaking in tongues. I am unwilling to carelessly discount it, and have friends whom I respect deeply who practice these gifts. But whenever I have experienced it as an observer, it feels put on and I am uncomfortably caught between the reasonable doubt which doesn’t allow me to say “This is ridiculous,” and the feeling that. . . it might be.

Then again, Acts says that when the apostles found themselves speaking in foreign languages, people passing by at first thought that they must be drunk. The apostle Peter had to explain to the crowd that the apostles were actually full of the Holy Spirit. Would I be among those ready to dismiss the early church as a lot of still-drunk-the-next-morning loonies? Perhaps.

But I believe what the Lord says in Joel (as *incredible* as it sounds):

. . .I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens
and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the LORD will be saved. . .

The radio segment brought up that bit “and daughters. . even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my spirit,” and said scholars were interested the cultural shift surrounding the empowerment of women as prophesied here and put into practice by the pentecostal church. Essentially, as the denomination grows in South & Central America, and women are recognized as co-recipients of this outpouring of the spirit and encouraged to take leadership positions, the entire role of the woman in culture begins to shift. I get excited about these kinds of things; when Christian influence seems to lead to positive change rather than negative. (We’ve left a lot of dirty bathwater over the years.)

Anyway, I was thinking about the first part of the segment, where they were kind of saying the Pentecostal church was exciting and fun, and Catholic church was the same year after year, differing little even from service to service. While I value liturgy the way I value the changing of the seasons, that at a certain time we are reminded again of a certain teaching, in practice the cyclical certainty that snow again will fall and remind me of the miracle of grace covering our sins is a far cry from reading the same section of archaic writing on a given Sunday. The beauty of a spotless world, blanketed all in shimmering perfect white, the feeling in early morning of not wanting even to let the dog out, so I can savor a moment more the remarkable magic of the markless lawn; this is a tangible teaching, an object lesson in cherishing purity. Prescribed texts don’t do this work.

The writers of the Psalms tell us again and again to sing a new song, often starting theirs with this supplication.

Psalm 33:3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.

Psalm 40:3 He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in him.

Psalm 96:1 Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.

Psalm 98:1  Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.

Psalm 144:9 I will sing a new song to you, my God; on the ten-stringed lyre I will make music to you,

Psalm 149:1 Praise the LORD. Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.

Why a new song? Because we have a tendency toward autopilot. Ever driven home when you were supposed to be going somewhere else, absentmindedly forgetting where you were supposed to be headed? We can fall into the same absentmindedly meaningless repetition of religious words if we aren’t mindful, and in our boredom pilot ourselves into idol worship, looking to other things for the fulfillment we would find if we were engaged in relationship rather than religion.

The thing about new songs is that they can be uncomfortable. We can’t just belt out the words we know, or mentally compose a to-do list for later while we sing. We’re more likely to think about what we’re saying. But it also might not be as enjoyable.

The music leader today asked “Who decides what kind of music can be worship music?” Someone said “God,” but he suggested that while God commanded us to worship him, and gave us an understanding of harmony, etc. he left us with the gifts of reason and free will to decide what form that takes. Unfortunately, we haven’t always been very flexible. For a while, drums were considered Satanic, because, you know, they came from the dark continent. Many churches still choose only music which is culturally comfortable for the majority of the congregation, leaving many to join in with unfamiliar music or find somewhere else to worship. While this might not seem like a big deal, it’s exclusionary rather than inclusive. Worship music is not a neutral point.

If we are to to actually engage in worship as in a relationship, we must treat it as an opportunity to see people as he does, considering everyone’s voice equally and working to include the “Other”, rather than steamrolling through with the “Us.” This is another way to look at the call to sing a “new song”. At my church, it means being willing to sing in French, just as the large Congolese portion of our congregation worships with us in English, even though it is a struggle. We each do things which are uncomfortable so that we can share together as one body, so that we are open to understanding each other and loving each other dynamically in action. “Sing a new song unto the Lord” might also mean “break a new bread together unto the Lord,” “celebrate a new holiday together unto the Lord,” “speak a new language unto the Lord.”

For me, foryourhonor is partly about the idea of a new song, of having to write the words myself, to put ponderances in writing, and truly engage as I consider the whole crazy slew of history and culture and institutions that play into my relationship with the God I serve.

SJ

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