A couple of months ago, I co-taught a preaching seminar in the Rocky Mountains with fellow Twelver, Scott Hoezee, and superstar preaching colleague, Peter Jonker. On one of the days, I was asked to speak for 30 minutes on any favourite subject in preaching. I spoke with the group about using music in preaching. My father, a retired (but-not-really-retired) CRC minister, was often referred to as a singing preacher, and I have followed in his footsteps. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, Heidi,” he will often say to me, quoting Colossians 3, “as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs!”
In my conversation with the preaching seminar participants, I noted the many different ways I have used music in my messages – from the home runs of well-placed hymns, sung a capella with the congregation to the flops of my attempts to feather in my favourite musical theatre numbers from high school productions. From sharing the lullabies my mom used to sing to me when I was scared at night to covering Adele’s Hello with my very own Christmas version. From weaving Johnny Cash’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken into an Easter sermon to having the congregation listen to Charles Ives’ choral rendition of Psalm 67 (in a message on the same text entitled “Worshiping Polytonally”), where half the choir sings in C major and the other half sings in G minor.
My dad isn’t the only singing pastor who formed my faith. Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was a PCUSA minister, a children’s television superstar, and a thick thread of my childhood tapestry (a signed photograph of Rogers was taped to the inside of my locker in 7th grade – no word of a lie).
Last Thursday, I sat by myself in a small independent theatre in Kingston, Ontario, to watch the new documentary on Fred Rogers’ life, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The film opens with a young Fred sitting at the piano, talking about how he likes to think of his work with children as helping them through the ‘modulations’ of life. He said that some transitions (like the modulation from the key of C to the key of F) are more straightforward. But others (like moving from the key of F to the key of F#) are much more complicated. You have to weave through many things to get from one to the other. In the middle of his soft and thoughtful reflection, he seemed to break character, glancing away from the camera lens and toward someone in the room: “Maybe that’s too philosophical,” he said. “But it makes sense to me.”
YES!!! That makes sense to me, too!
I about gave him a standing ovation right then and there. He had just taken me to church and preached to the choir, all in one breath.
This is my job as a pastor: to help people modulate from one key of life to the next. From infertility to pregnancy to parenthood. From retirement to cancer diagnosis to death. From high school to university. From fear to faith. And sometimes from a certain kind of faith to a holy kind of fear.
As lovely as this MisterRogerian concept is, in and of itself, the idea of this blog post didn’t get clinched until yesterday when I saw this 60 Minutes Overtime piece. Twelve-year-old musician and composer, Alma Deutscher, can draw 4 random notes from a hat, and with those notes and just a minute of thought, can improvise a sonata on the piano. In this feature, she was given the strange combination of B, A, E-flat, and G. “Interesting!” she said with a little bit of glee, when all the notes had emerged. She played the notes consecutively and slowly, entered her mad minute of contemplation, and then proceeded to turn those four odd little notes into the theme melody of an exquisite piece of music.
And I thought, “These notes are my life!” In the span of eight days, I performed a wedding for a beautiful couple (B), my daughter learned to roller blade (A), a friend and former congregant died by suicide (E-flat), and we had a worship service, wherein I was able to anoint most of my congregation with oil, and receive the anointing myself (G).
I would like to think that there are times when my blogging, sermon-writing, praying, and story-telling have a way of turning the strange combinations of life events into some semblance of a melody, a song.
And still, there are times when the notes and stories just won’t come together and I must simply sit with each naked and lonely tone, hold it in the presence of God, and ask the Holy Spirit to do the composing, the modulating, and the singing.
O, God, I need You to sing.
The Lord will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
Zephaniah 3:17, NRSV