As I begin this essay, I’m watching a master at work.
He is a musically gifted conductor with a long-developed, international reputation, and an artist I’ve had the honor of working with in more than one symposium. He, like all the rest of us mortals, has a pedagogical crutch/quirk or three. The one I’m thinking of hasn’t hampered him much, but I still notice it: he has the habit of asking a very specific type of closed-end question. He just queried, for instance, “Trombones, at D, I need a little bit of what?” The “what” is a blank he’s ostensibly asking for help with, but there is only one right answer, and everyone in the room knows it. As I said, this little teaching crutch works fine for this master conductor, but it’s a minor irritant for folks like me who dislike feeling like a blind sheep,¹ so I resist it.
I’m more bothered, though, by expected-answer word formulas (incantations?) that play a part in so many churches — of a) the mainline protestant, b) the more evangelically oriented, and c) the Roman Catholic varieties. If a responsive reading or some such is specified thoughtfully and theologically soundly, it’s not so bad (although rarely truly inspiring for me). What I react more negatively to is these:
- “The Word of the Lord” ==> “Thanks be to God”
- “God is good” ==> “all the time” // “All the time” ==> “God is good”
Taking those in reverse order: I definitely do affirm that God is good all the time; I just don’t care to parrot that truth with a covey of other parrots.
And, regarding the first incantation, I might or might not believe that what was just read in church constituted “the word of the Lord” more than “the word of us.” If I perceive it to be more employed as our word than as the Lord’s, I’m hard-pressed to recite “Thanks be to God” with the same enthusiasm. Why my negative cast here? Because the “thanks be to God” utterance, at worst, could be tantamount to shading the light around God’s throne by highlighting some human misappropriation. In other words, I want to be sure that it’s truly God’s voice speaking, as opposed to some stilted, misapplied, or irrelevant phrase masquerading as God’s word.
So, whose word was it? I suppose there’s no solid answer, because communication can be complex, especially when there are many people in a room. Determining whose word it has just been may involve
- consideration of the reason(s) the particular passage was selected (be careful not to be too suspicious … and also be careful not to be too gullible!)
- awareness of the passage’s literary and/or historical context
- assessment of the relative scriptural literacy and spiritual maturity of the group
(Generally, the more literate and mature the perspective, the more a passage may legitimately be separated from its context without misunderstanding. The more developed the group, the greater the possibility that the passage might be well applied even when not heard in its context.)
Even if scripture — of which I hold a very high view — is used well, I retract from the call for expected answers. I simply don’t prefer them. They don’t thrill my soul. They don’t ignite my passion or inspire me to worship more richly or to live more devotedly. Those of you who are more trusting by nature, and more captivated more by large-group dynamics may naturally feel otherwise, but I offer these critical, introverted thoughts to help round out your thinking.
And now, with thanks for their existence and acknowledgement that their imperfections are minor, back to music and masters that do thrill my soul. . . .
¹ Feeling like a blind, helpless sheep — as though I have no initiative or insight in myself — is to be desired and avowed when Jesus is the Shepherd. Since I repudiate the notion of apostolic/papal succession (!), though, having a “pastor” ask this kind of thing of me is far less appealing.