“In a world that is increasingly transient, there is a strong desire for roots.”
It’s fair to say I don’t have a favorite style of music. As a music teacher, I get asked the “favorite” question a lot, and I usually don’t know what to say. I like music of high quality, regardless of the style. There’s music to study by, to run by, to sing and play with others, to enjoy on a long trip, and some that only has true expression in a large concert hall. This translates to how I lead the choirs here at BCS, and also how I lead worship at my home church.
Let me tell you about a recent Sunday at my church. While we typically have very diverse music both in style and time frame, our leaders decided to take a Sunday to explore and enjoy an entire service of hymns. We had planned about ten hymns with their surrounding stories and Scripture. For our group of musicians, it was both challenging and a refreshing change and we enjoyed the preparation (sans our new in-ear system that was a bit fidgety on the first day). I knew I was going to enjoy the service, but I was surprised at how meaningful and transcendent it was for me. Can I use the word transcendent without sounding overly spiritual or hipster? (A friend confirmed its validity as a word choice as long as I was talking about a truly significant experience and not just a good meal at an over-priced cafe.) Amidst a room filled with voices, lifted hands, and tears of joy, I sensed this deepness: that God was in those moments in a strong and unique way.
The meaningful worship and palpable sense of community spilled into animated discussion that filled the car on the way home. Carrie (my wife and fellow worship leader) and I both felt energized and inspired by the service. As we talked, we realized that we could only attribute part of what we were feeling to the music itself. I do love and appreciate many hymns, but it’s admittedly not what fills my iTunes library. This was not really “my” music. So why were we having such a powerful response?
We recalled a few other times we have felt the same way, this deepness in worship. Carrie told the story of being in Bulgaria and she sat down to play the song “Shout to the Lord.” She was joined by another girl who did not speak English, but their spontaneous duet reminded Carrie of the connectedness we have with brothers and sisters around the globe. My mind went to a chapel in the mountains of Bulgaria (a separate trip) built in the 1000’s. The group I was traveling with stood in this small but beautiful chapel and sang a familiar song. I was overwhelmed by the fact that in the same place I was standing, people had worshipped God for nearly 1000 years. Our song joined countless others in a historical tapestry making much of the name of Jesus. Finally, we both recalled the first time we performed Love Came Down with the choirs of BCS and CCS. There was a moment in the performance where the music repeats, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah.” We were singing at Hopewell Mennonite Church in Reading and my mind was overcome with an image of millions of people from all places and times worshipping the King of Kings.
Clarity started to form. These experiences were all reminders and glimpses of how big and diverse and complex the Kingdom of God really is. The fact is, I think this Sunday at church was so powerful exactly because it wasn’t my music. Singing those hymns and hearing those stories made me connect to a bigger story - to the story of my parents and grandparents, and great-grandparents and to the stories of men and women of faith in other times and contexts. It forced me out of my 21st century western obsession - myself. The significance came because of a focus shift - and isn’t that what worship is really about?
I opened with a quote about roots. My pastor spoke this line in his introduction to the service and I had an immediate and visceral response. I quickly wrote it down and knew I needed to think about it more deeply. I reflected on two ways to look at roots - nostalgia and heritage. As far as the church goes, I’m convinced the first can get us into trouble. We shouldn’t celebrate roots (musically or otherwise) just for warm fuzzies about the past. But the second way is not only meaningful but critical. I realized the need to celebrate the heritage of my spiritual roots because it brings out a thankfulness and worship deeper than the well of my own existence. It digs a foundation more sturdy and secure than my own thirty-three years can muster. It plants and positions my experience away from the shallow soil of self.
You see, this isn’t really about music, it’s about remembering. The experience at church was about remembering God’s goodness and faithfulness - not just in my own life, but in the life of those before me. Ironically, this is why we also write new songs and tell new stories - so that our children and grandchildren will know of God’s faithfulness to us. We have a responsibility as parents and a school community. We must help our students know their roots and help them dig those deep wells from which they can draw the fullness of the goodness of God. We must tell them new stories and sing them new songs so that they can know God is still faithful to His people. And we must teach them old songs and tell them old stories so that they know beauty and of God’s plan of redemption for all of His people and help them find their place in it.
Friends, this is one of our distinctives. You won’t find this mandate in the state curriculum. But the roots of faith give history its context, give numbers its meaning, give literature its beauty, give science its wonder, and give music its song. If we are truly about holistic education, we must start with the roots. And if we are truly about discipleship, we certainly can’t start with ourselves. Let’s not lose sight of the big story while we go about telling our own.
What are your thoughts? How do we accomplish this in our classrooms? In our homes? In our churches?
Two other sources prompted this blog, the story from Joshua 4 and my book recommendation for this blog - Walking His Trail, by Steve and Ginny Saint. (see my more detailed book rec here.)
Grace and Peace to you my friends!
Philip S. Warner, administrator of Berks Christian School.