Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Can We Still Call Ourselves the Church of J. S. Bach?
On this day in 1750 Johann Sebastian Bach was received into the arms of His Savior and into the blessed light of everlasting glory, where his musical genius suffers no lack of appreciation and where his goal and purpose is fulfilled without hindrance or distraction -- Soli Deo Gloria...
We Lutherans love to beat our chests in the limelight of our greatest heros (Bach, perhaps chief among them) but if we would remember him with thanksgiving before the Lord, we might also ask ourselves if the music of the average Lutheran parish is still worthy of the high ideals of faithfulness to Scripture, glory to God, and excellence in performance. I fear that the answer is a resounding "no."
In too many Lutheran parishes we are without a decent organ and without a competent organist. Sure I will hear about the cost of an organ (pipe or electronic), about the relevance of organ music to the modern day ear, and the lack of good organists (affordable, too). But, we have dug our own hole here and now we stuck in it. Look at the average congregation's budget and the amount spent on worship (music, resources, instruments, organists, etc.) and you will find it to be a disconcertingly small percentage of the total.
When I came to my present congregation the budget for worship was $1800 and this bought choir music, paid for two organists and a choir director. When all of them moved away, it is no wonder we could not find replacements. In one year we proposed going from $1800 to $12000 and the gasp in the voters assembly could be heard in St. Louis and the sighs blew so hard the pages of Bach's Bible fluttered in the Concordia Seminary Library where it is housed. But the congregation did it. And increases tripled the salary and increased the budget until today we reap the blessings of nearly 15 years of making worship not only a spiritual priority but a budgetary one as well.
I consider myself cheap but we are too cheap as a church body to put resources where the priority should be. We would not consider going without air conditioning in the heat of summer but we regularly go without an organist and the bottom line is generally money. If there are no good organists available, it is largely because nobody can make a living at it anymore. That is the fault of the congregation and our poor priorities when it comes to worship and music. If there are no good organs in our parishes, it is because we consider this tool too expensive for us (never mind the things we will find the money to support or purchase!)
In too many other Lutheran parishes, the great ideal of music that speaks Scripture has given way to music that entertains the people and gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling. We pick and choose hymns based on what folks want or like and not what the words say. We move to contemporary musical sounds because that is what people listen to on the radio and we want them to feel at home in church as they are sitting alone in their automobile with no particular place to go but music blazing all the way long. We use canned music and put in expensive audio and visual systems so that our song leader can sound like Michael W. Smith and we put images up to frame the musician and the words in flattering backdrop.
In too many other Lutheran parishes we are content with what passes and do not strive for excellence. If the Pastor thinks about it, he might read through the pericopes before Sunday morning but often not. If the praise bad has time, they may practice a little more and even out the balance between the bumping bass and the driving drums, but often not. If the pianist or organist has a chance they might practice that newer hymn but since no one really knows it and we probably won't ever use it again, who would notice... Much of what is wrong in worship is fixable with some practice, with a goal toward our best for His glory, and with desire to offer God nothing less than our most excellent effort. I used to say to my kids in school, I don't care what grade you get if you are doing your best but if it is not your best even an A is not good enough. What might be the outcome if God said that to us?
Soli Deo Gloria... It was not a slogan for Bach. It was his lifeblood. If we would honor Bach and glory in the fact that such musical genius, rich spiritual life, and dedication to his craft were formed in a Lutheran piety steeped in Word, Sacrament, and worthy music... then let us work to make sure that we are working to implement these in our parish life today... Whether the music comes from the 17th or 18th centuries or the 21st century, it needs to be our best, it needs to speak the Word and serve as musical handmaid to that Word, and it needs to glorify God and not entertain the human heart... or our remembrance of Bach will be like the uncovering of a footnote in history instead of a light that shines throughout the generations....