“Let everything that breathes praise God.” (Psalm 150:6)
“For the Giver, for the gifts, Praise, praise, praise!” (Al Carmines)
I begin each Sunday morning service with the words of the Psalmist, “this is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I believe this affirmation sets the tone for the words and music to come. A progressive faith is a joyful faith, born of commitment to loving God in the flesh and blood world of domestic life, politics, abundance and poverty, aging, and sickness and healing. A progressive faith is affirmative, grateful for what has been, but delighted to be part of God’s next adventures and willing to support God’s vision in the world and our lives.
The heartbeat of progressive faith is a sense of God’s diverse embodiment in the world. God is known in many ways and through all the senses, and God’s praise is sung by many voices, both human and non-human. On Cape Cod, where I live and pastor, I remind our congregation that God’s wisdom is reflected in the flying osprey, the shimmering waves of Nantucket Sound, the sporting of whales, the hymns of coyotes, the laughter of children, and the compassionate sighs of older adults. The varieties of religious experience call forth hymns and songs, emerging from the varieties of cultures, personality types, and religious expressions. Our worship and song reflects this diversity. We join in sacred worship traditional and contemporary, North American and African, and European and Asian. We chant hymns from Taize and melodies from Iona, and dance to “Siyahamba” (We are marching in the light of God), sometimes in the same service.
It has been said that when you sing you pray twice, and our singing is a lifting of our hearts to the ever-living, ever-moving, and ever-abundant God. Our music moves us, joining body, mind, and spirit and heart and hands. Our music emerges in dialogue with our theological adventures and reminds us that we can embody a creative synthesis of Reformed, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Mystical, and Progressive in the same service and in the same faith. Being Progressive invites us to expand rather than contract our images and language for God. While my preference is for inclusive, non-gendered language, I have come to realize that using images of rock, wind, fire, waves, as well as male and female, Father and Mother, expresses the larger visions of our faith. Our faith is about more, not less, and a larger understanding of God’s movements in our lives and in the world.
Music grounds our theology in embodiment and song. The hymns we sing in their variety of culture and emotion remind us that theology is concrete, dynamic, and living. Theological abstractions, whether articulated by liberals or conservatives, can never describe the mysteries, ambiguities, and wonders of human life. In our songs, we find ourselves laughing, dancing, and sometimes crying. We discover that progressive means openness to the varieties of religious experiences – we can anoint with oil, pray under our breaths, pause for silent prayer, and shout our joy, all in an inclusive and open-spirited environment. Our commitment to various types of music gives permission to experience the full range of experience, defying the stereotypes of liberal and conservative, mainline and evangelical, contemplative and Pentecostal.
Let me conclude this brief meditation with words from Al Carmines’ “God of Change and Glory,” also known as “Many Gifts, One Spirit.” I believe these words capture the spirit of progressive music in sacred community.
God of change and glory, God of time and space,
When we fear the future, give to us your grace.
In the midst of changing ways give us still the grace to praise.
Many gifts, one Spirit, one love known in many ways.
In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise
One Giver, one Lord, one Spirit, one Word
Known in many ways, hallowing our days.
For the Giver, for the gifts, praise, praise, praise!
God of many colors, God of many signs,
You have made us different, blessing many kinds.
As the old ways disappear, let your love cast out our fear.
Freshness of the morning, newness of each night,
You are still creating endless love and light.
This we see, as shadows part, many gifts from one great heart.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, Massachusetts and the author of over thirty books, including Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel; and A Center in the Cyclone: 21st Century Ministerial Self-care. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org