Singing the Lord’s Song

by Donald Schell

What is it we’re really doing together in church?

Actually what do we think we’re doing together in any human community or collaborating group?

How do we find our God-given humanity in community?

And what’s the natural connection between church activity, especially in worship, and other human activity?

Through forty years of priesthood, I’ve found these questions keep getting bigger and more interesting. Some church colleagues seem to hear a judgment or skepticism I don’t intend when I ask these questions.

In fact though, I’m grateful the questions don’t ask themselves from an alienated skepticism. They show up with a mostly enjoyable, usually patient, not-knowing, a Godly Play sort of wondering. My wondering continues to renew my hope. My only impatience is to see on regularly on the watch for human creativity, courage, and compassion wherever they shows up, and when we glimpse this Trinity, wherever we catch its movement, to sniff the air for a trace of the Spirit of Jesus.

With a bit of intuition, a handful of hunches, and my small bundle of discoveries, following the questions’ energy feels as exhilarating and anxious (and as charged with wild energy and human hope) as chasing after tracking dogs who’ve found a scent of a child lost in the woods.

But this story doesn’t begin in the woods. Early one recent morning my wife and I drove up the Interstate to join our daughter walking from her house to the community center pushing her daughter, our eleven month grand-daughter Hannah in her stroller.

At exactly 10 we arrived at the center. Apparently the building had once been an elementary school, but the long deserted hall felt far too quiet for a school. There was no one in sight, and no voices except bulletin boards announcements of yoga classes, support groups, art classes, various kinds of lessons, and community interest notices.

Then our daughter opened an unpromising classroom door on a startling blur of adults and small children shaping themselves into a large human circle on the carpeted floor. The cinderblock walls resonated with parents’ and children’s voices. Their circle almost touched the walls of the square room, but as we slipped off our shoes, and unsnapped Hannah to lift her out of the stroller, moms scooted to make places for us in the circle just as Jenny, the Music Together teacher, began a rhythm.

Ellen and I smiled at each other seeing our granddaughter’s bright, expectant eyes. This is what we’d come for. Everyone joined Jenny, the teacher, slapping our thighs and then the floor in front of us in time. As we slapped, we all also followed Jenny rocking side-to-side or forward and back.

No, wait. If I smooth over this part of the story, we’ll lose something important. As soon I wrote “everyone” and “we all,” what I was remembering was the children, mostly younger, who happily watched or wandered (walking or crawling) within the circle. Most of us were slapping the floor and our thighs, but somehow song and movements, watching and wandering made a single whole.

Building on a rhythm we were making together, Jenny shifted seamlessly to the greeting song that Maria and Mateo’s mother and grandmother and all the regulars knew. Ellen and I learned the song quickly and joined easily. Jenny called out the children’s names so our song greeted them one by one, and after we’d sung a greeting to each child, Jenny led us singing a generic welcome to the mothers, to the dad, to the two grandmas, and to the grandpa (me).

Jenny modeled another gesture and song, and we followed her. Our singing and movement unfolded with few spoken directions or none. Intermittently the smaller crawling and walking children participated singing and clapping or moving with us. Sometimes they stopped to look and listen.

I thought frequently about peripheral vision, how we use our peripheral vision to sense the presence of those around us, guiding ourselves to caution or trust. I watched myself watching the group, relishing my recent learning that the rods of our peripheral vision are over a thousand times more sensitive to movement than our central vision. I watched the group, even the wandering little ones, watching each other in peripheral vision, taking in the movement and feeling of the leader and the circle. We were collaborating, not only by following Jenny’s lead, but with that eye and ear consensus you can spot watching and listening to an a cappella group or a string quartet.

Jenny laid a basket of egg-shaped shakers in the center of the circle. Grownups and children crawled and toddled out to share them around the circle, leaving any additional shakers clumped here and there inside our perimeter. Jenny started us singing, “Mary wore a red dress, all day long.” The few of us who didn’t know it learned the song quickly by ear. Jenny led us playing at different rhythm patterns and gestures with the shaker eggs. Then she asked parents to call out a favorite activity of their child. Pairing children’s names in paired verses around the circle we sang favorite activities like “Maya eats bananas” and “Seth loves funny jokes” to our tune, “Mary wore a red dress.”

And Hannah meanwhile had crawled to the middle of the circle where the basket had been.

Our daughter had told us that Jenny (like all Music Together teachers) asked that visitors participate because having all the adults model participation was intentional in the learning process. In 1995 just after St. Gregory’s San Francisco moved into our new church, we had two Music Together morning classes like this in our worship space each week. I’d glimpsed them at work when I had reason to go into the church, but I’d kept my head down, not wanting to interrupt. The memory I carry from those glimpses is sight rather than sound – young mothers and small children seated in a circle in our big rotunda, altar space, and even seated, kneeling or cross-legged how they moved together to mark a rhythm. That was my memory – the peripheral glance and unfocused seeing of a circle just like this one. Oh, I also remember a small feeling of regret that Music Together wasn’t something we’d known to do with our children. So this time, I’m grateful that our daughter’s doing it with Hannah.

In the fifteen years or more since I’d known Music Together as our church’s tenant I’d been looking for ways to develop congregational and community music making, especially singing together. As we were developing Music that Makes Community, we kept asking ourselves:

– How can we free people to sing who didn’t know that they could?

– What gives people the courage to own their voices and a shared song?

– What moves people to improvise and create and share a new song?

Over those years I had (and continue to have) the privilege of working with skilled musicians to recover and share the wisdom and practices of traditional oral transmission music making. Over that decade and a half occasionally someone would mention Music Together. Then recently I’d watched my friend Emily Scott leading workshops on making oral transmission, paperless music with children. Emily is the founding pastor of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn and before that had been my founding program director for our Music that Makes Community project. As she was beginning St. Lydia’s, Emily supported herself as director for children’s music at First Presbyterian Church New York City. For that work she’d combined practices we’d developed together with what she’d learned from subsequent training in Music Together. Recently Emily had suggested I take a good look at Music Together to learn from their practice, so our daughter’s invitation to visit Hannah’s class came at a great moment.

Woops, we just left Hannah in another moment. No regrets about my digression, except that I just now left Hannah in the middle of the circle with egg-shaped rattles in every direction. So –

– what happened as we continued singing and keeping time with our shakers was that Hannah crawled to one shaker, picked it up, spun herself from crawling to sitting, picked up second egg in her other hand, dropped both, crawled again to another shaker and then another, and then settled in front of her grandmother, took a shaker in each hand, fixed her eyes on Jenny, and began to shake her eggs to match the simple rhythm of the group. I felt, as grandparents can, like I was falling in love with this small person. I loved that she’d felt, and seen, and heard the invitation in the music. I loved that she’d taken a shaker in each hand. I was astonished at the ordinary human brilliance that allowed her to keep time with us. And I was touched to the heart by the peaceful, rapt look on her face watching Jenny lead us.

Was this a musical moment? A human moment? I’d say it was emphatically both a musical moment and a human moment. And there’s more.

Peter Brook, the great theater director said, “ A holy theater not only presents the invisible but also offers conditions to make its perception possible.”

Obviously the Music Together class wasn’t theater, but it was moment that offered conditions to make seeing the invisible possible, so I’d venture to call it a holy moment.

The movement, the gestures, and the music Jenny was guiding us through brought us and Hannah to that moment, so if not theater, were these classic building blocks of ritual making a liturgy? Again, the simple answer would be, “of course it wasn’t liturgy.” But the simple answer misses something of God’s unsolicited presence in our simplest shared rituals.

The Russian priest and liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann said, “Worship is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.”

What is the deep reality of the world? The “conditions that make perception possible” the “vantage point” we’d arrived at showed something unexpected at the very heart and center of our world. Not the inevitable threats and troubles that fill the news, not the self-doubt and self-protection that diminish and sometimes paralyze us, not the monstrous deformity of envy and malice that destroy others, but a little child leading us by finding her place in the circle of humanity.

Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Mark 9:36-37.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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