Sunday, March 7, 2010

Liturgy & Hymnody Review: Contemplation & Creativity

Owens, Sam Batt. Songs for Contemplative Worship Set 1. Fenton, MO: Morning Star Music Publishers, 1998. 56 Pages. Full Score. $25.00. 1-800-647-2117. (LH) Owens,

Sam Batt. Songs for Contemplative Worship Set 1. Fenton, MO: Morning Star Music Publishers, 1998. 56 Pages. Vocal/Keyboard score. $2.00. 1-800-647-2117. (LH)

MacBeth, Sybil. Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007. 106 Pages. Paper. $16.95. (L)

"Mysticism begins in the mist, centers on 'I' and ends in schism." Pithy, huh?

A wise seminary professor spoke those words at the beginning of a class I visited as a guest. They've always stuck with me. We are reminded of the dangers of seeing God apart from Christ or apart from how He has promised to interact with us.

He has given us the command and invitation to pray. We are given to be baptized, hear His Word, repent, examine ourselves, feed on His Body and His Blood, and love and forgive as He has loved and forgiven us already. The Lord works through means. The Holy Spirit creates faith where and when He wills.

This is the specific Christian worldview from which I have examined two resources, both artistic. One is musical. The other extols drawing your prayers.

I really like the creative idea that the hear of Praying in Color. The artistically inclined among us could draw their prayers. Read Scripture, think of those around you in need of prayer, and "verbalize" those prayers in pen, ink, marker, crayon, etc. instead or orally. Doodle a name or a prayer request and adorn it when words fail you.

My concern? The subtitle: Drawing a New Path to God. I am not sure if that was the author's idea, an editor's idea, or the marketing department's idea, but it is a bad one. It smacks of mysticism and could give the false impression (not taught in the book) that one could approach God apart from Christ through our own merit, worthiness, or artistic skill. :)

I will also take issue with "Father-Mother God" (7). This kind of artistic prayer seems to me to be playful, creative, and childlike. It need not have to be perceived as "irreverent" (57).

The updated Paraclete website informs me that this book has now become the central book for a host of resources for adults and children.

I'm not convinced that this idea (drawing prayers) is necessarily "a new prayer form" (back cover, et al). Those who are gifted iconographers have long rejected the term "drawing" in connection to icons, instead prefering "writing an icon." Perhaps that would be inspiration for the author to write a sequel!

Back in 1998, the Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod released Hymnal Supplement 98. It was our Synod's first exposure to the music of Taize. Sam Batt Owens' Songs for Contemplative Worship could be characterized as "Episcopal Taize." It has the same emphasis on brief, meaningful, repeated texts, learnable melodies, and flexibility (dare I call it improvisationable?) when it comes to instrumentation, harmonization, and the like.

I do not favor the practice common in some circles (both "contemporary" and liturgical) of extended periods of singing songs, or refrains (usually at the beginning or before a service) with the express purpose to manipulate emotions, mood, or "opening the heart to receive a deeper sense of God within" (inside front cover). Yes, it is true that "Music can be a gateway to mediation." Music is a tremendous tool. And it should be used responsibly. Using it to achieve a pre-conceived psychological reaction is an abuse. It would teach that music is a means of grace, something Scripture does not support. Mysticism must be avoided.

And so I come away from my time with this collection of songs/refrains with a different idea. Why not use this perfectly good and edifying music in other ways? How about future use as psalm antiphons, congregational refrains while singing psalmody, as liturgical graduals, or selections to teach Bible verses to children?

"Create in Me" is an idea test candidate, as it is a verse from Psalm 51.

"Come Redeemer" would be ideal for use in Advent or Lent, as it prays, "Come Redeemer, come. Come, Redeemer, come. From Adam's fall come save us all. Come, Redeemer come." In the proper context of the Church Year, this would be very meaningful.

"Jesus Christ Is Born" would be ideal for the Christmas season. "Jesus Christ is born for us: noel, noel, noel, noel; come to save us all from sin: noel, noel, noel."

Musically, I am impressed at the wealth of instrumental parts found in the full score. Consider "O Lord, My Shepherd, a setting of Psalm 23. There are three lead instrument parts, one for brass, one for handbells, three sung descants, melody, and keyboard accompaniment. Individual parts may be reproduced for instruments.

By the permission of the publisher, purchasers may reprint the melody/lyric parts of these twelve songs for congregational use (54-56).

I'm not sure what the response was to this publication over the last decade, but the lack of a "Set 2" or more in this series may be an indication. In a revision/reissue, the publisher may wish to seek a new title and introduction, especially one that recommends other uses for these compositions.

The Lord has promised to interact with us in Word and Sacrament. He delivers His gifts. Art and music are among these gifts, but like prayer, they are not means of grace and should never be confused as such.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.