Sing, Muse

Dear reader,

Please read the following poem. Then, please click the link and listen to me read it; I have of late found great value in reading poetry aloud. Once you do those two things (it should take but two minutes of your time), you are welcome to read my explanation of the poem or to interpret it for yourself. I’d imagine both will lead to similar conclusions. Finally, if you are so inclined, I would love to hear from you! Thank you in advance!

-Ryanne

First, the written word: 

Sing, Muse, of rage-

     or rather- Desire.

     Drive with twin rhyming whips –

              Name and Fame-

     up mountains toppling, rising peak,

     ever crying, out of reach,

     “On, on, onward!”

.

Harpy howl to clamoring poets’ ears

     as siren song does fall.

     Dazzling, drawing, drowning:

     divine-seeming, it pulls

     still higher, higher

     up Tow’r where language

     began and begins

     “On, onward, pilgrims!”

.

So scaling e’er, traipsing eager,

     though weary,

     worshippers seeking sanctuary

     not for rest

     but to exalt,

     that which in climbing, we sculpt:

           New relic, sainted self.

.

Oh! To be one of the many few,

     who, pious, always “onward”

     and yet- when time trickles low-

     kneeling, wonder,

          “wherefore.”

.

Wherefore place an icon made

     (like us only in its fade)

     of substance age-old, ever-new:

     Ambition dressed as Holy Muse?

 

Second, the spoken word: 

 

Finally, a brief word of explanation: 

I found myself forcing creativity today, working to compose a piece of music without passion. I was inspired only by the thought that if I finish this, it will be another successful accomplishment to my credit.

But as I realized that selfish ambition was my main motivation (at the moment), I was deeply convicted. Why create at all if what compels me is untempered ambition? What profits it to climb what a favorite author of mine calls “the Alpine Path” if I seek only to plant my lonely, temporal banner at its peak?

And, as in most moments of intense emotion, poetry happened. In scribbling and speaking this poem, I was able to recall why I write and compose: not to glorify myself but, as in the parable, to be a faithful steward of my talents. To do this, I must write to the best of my ability to reflect the true Author and pray that my words will direct minds toward the living Word.

Divided Services, Divided Body?

I love traditional worship and, as a church musician, am in favor of the whole package: choir robes, pipe organ, hymnals, etc. I once even jokingly said I’d drown myself if I ever heard “Oceans” played in another chapel.

That said, though, I am not necessarily in favor of having separate traditional and contemporary worship services. Before coming to the church I currently attend, I found myself in pursuit of a completely traditional service as I sought to avoid what I saw as the church-turned-concert vibe of many contemporary services.

But is this biblical?

I can easily make a case against a solely-contemporary worship regimen. After all, hymns provide a link to our Christian heritage, are (in general) more closely inspired by specific scriptures, and tend to be more musically complex. However, there are many skilled contemporary Christian artists who write songs packed with beautiful music and sound theology and it is not wise to ignore these for the sake of tradition.

Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion writes (in many more words) that so long as it remains rooted in scripture and dedicated to administering the sacraments, churches on Earth are encouraged to grow and develop according to their situation in time and location. Thus, while we should not forget our tradition, we also should not refuse to progress and continue to create.

Thus, the statement that we ought to remember our traditions and the belief that we ought to continue to develop our worship should not be mutually exclusive.

We may certainly choose to attend chapels or such gatherings that have the musical worship that we prefer. However, in the church, it is potentially unwise to cater separately to both extremes: traditional vs. contemporary.

I love traditional worship and do not mind contemporary when it is done with excellence, but I especially love the church services where the two are combined. I should clarify that I am not talking about contemporary remixes of the hymns; for example, when good ole “Joy to the World” becomes “JOY! UNSPEAKABLE JOY!” and is repeated for eternity, I cannot help but cringe. I am simply saying that rather than alter the hymns to make them more palatable for contemporary Christians, we should sing them alongside new songs. And, in doing so, we might bring the two extremes of the worshipping body together.

I have personally observed disgruntled older Christians in contemporary services and, although only twenty years old, I relate. As soon as the guitar and drums come in, we often lose our motivation to worship because the melodies are unfamiliar, the words projected on a screen rather than printed in a hymnal, and the music is too loud. Rather than adapt, my traditional pals and I attend a separate service that fits our expectations.

On the other hand, younger congregation members might feel uncomfortable in a liturgical service. They find the hymnals unwieldy, the music or lyrics too complicated, and the environment too formal. Rather than finding such a service reverent, they might find it stiff and distant. And so, like their older counterparts, they create and attend a service geared specifically toward their desires.

What seemed like an insignificant difference of musical preference is much more: it is a fundamental division of the church body.

In a traditional service, it is rare to see anyone under a more venerable age. In a contemporary service, primarily youth attend. There is a massive gap between generations in the church. And this is wrong; just as only featuring one era’s songs of praise does not accurately represent the span of Christian creativity in worship, hosting separate services for each worship preference does not accurately represent the body of the church, or- more importantly- the body of Christ.

The body of Christ, we are told in scripture, is united. Paul’s letters are overflowing with calls for the crucial unity of church members. For instance, 1 Corinthians 1:10:

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

Does dividing the congregation based on means of worship obey this call? Does it reveal that we are living with “the same mind” or does it demonstrate a willing, opposing judgment?

What is the solution to this division? It cannot be to abandon one mode of worship for the other, forcing all members to sing hymns or contemporary music as this would further promote disunity! It would either divide us from our heritage and thus from the brethren that came before us or it would disconnect us from the current Christian culture. Either way, choosing one exclusively is not the answer; severing the past from the present obviously cannot heal a primarily generational division.

Rather, just as we ought to bring together the generations and preferences of our congregation, we must bring together the worship of our history and our present age. Blended services are a blessing (even if it means suffering through that repetitive refrain or faking your way through a wordy hymn) because you might be suffering and faking next to a kindly grandmother, an enthusiastic college student, a smiling toddler, or a wise father. Worship is about more than music; it is about the communion of the saints. Where the members of the body proclaim truth in unity, there is worship.

Romans 12:4-5 reads:

“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

These verses, which focus on spiritual gifts, may also be applied to worship. We are individual members and, as such, carry our individual preferences. I personally find it easier to worship through the hymns, but many I know find contemporary songs more accessible. These are not doctrinal conflicts, but rather individual differences between members.

Ultimately, though, we are not called to live according to ourselves as individuals but to submit to one another. We are to bring together our gifts- and our preferences- to serve each other so that we join to become something greater: the united body in and of Christ. Combining our worship services, even if it is just once in a while, and singing praises together is a small step toward this perfect and desirable unity. Together, we might sing both beloved psalms and new songs to our one Lord, “who was and is and is to come.” And, together, we might realize fully the truth of Psalm 133:1:

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”

Beginning in the End 

I visited the catacombs today just outside of the Roman metropolis. I expected it to be creepy and a morbid part of me was excited to see some skeletons and shrouds. 

However, what I ended up finding: rows upon rows of empty tombs (the bodies in the areas open to tourists have been relocated) and frescos depicting the hope of eternal life and resurrection in Christ. It was as if, through these empty tombs, I was glimpsing a preview of a future freedom from death, which, in a place built to hold dead bodies, seemed ironic. So, as usual, I wrote some poetry to help me process this idea and truly experience through expression what I saw today. 

Please read and consider the following; though free verse, I wrote with both intentionality and emotion. 

“Beginning in the End”

Dark and cold and lonely,

Left in the grave- untimely. 

Memories dancing before eyes

Blinded to the present,

Blurred in remembrance. 

Had she ever seen at all?

Not many years:

Ten and seven

Yet few images felt recent, felt real. 

But now, though, was surely real;

This cold and dark and lonely. 

Shivering spine on harsh-hewn stone;

Shroud too thin a shawl,

The damp came next, trickled down

Baptism, immersing all. 

By this her soul was stirred

In that dark and cold and lonely. 

Something moved divinely 

And a prayer fell up from under. 

A prayer said at bedtimes past,

And sweeter now in this last. 

The words lifted her, warmed her. 

Their promise burned within her heart…

Her stilled heart. 

No longer beating with blood but hope. 

Then died the cold and dark and lonely

As she fell asleep, finally.

Yet sight renewed in bursting light

All-consuming, ever-bright.

A shock of air she’d felt before…

Not many years ago. 

Yet this was something far, far more.

No cold nor dark nor lonely

But glorious radiance only;

For a Christian tomb proves but a womb, 

And death as life’s true dawning. 

Joy of Morning

  

God’s love is like a morning,

Arising in my soul. 

A perfect, constant dawning,

So warm and wonderful.

   .

Though the earthly night surrounds,

It cannot pierce within.

Dark of death no more is found,

Nor cold of pain and sin.

   .

Day seems a bright beginning,

Yet noontide is past.

In Him it’s never-ending,

Forever, first and last.

   .

Shades of fear are put to flight,

Far from the horizon,

Where breaks forth the radiant light

Of one and only Son.

   .

Awaken and uplift your eyes,

To peer into the blaze.

Join in singing with the skies,

Their morning hymn of praise.

Whipped Cream, Etymology, and Passion

With college application essays and people constantly asking me what I plan to do with my life once I graduate, I have found myself using the word “passion” more and more frequently. I have a passion for music, literature is my passion, I want to get my degree in something I am passionate about. Heavens, just last week I announced to my family that I have a passion for whipped cream as I ate it by the spoonful. This word has slipped into my everyday vocabulary, which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it isn’t a forbidden four-letterer. However, when I used “passion” to describe my whipped cream addiction, I realized that I had committed a word crime almost as appalling as saying “legit” or “totes,” for I had taken a word with intense meaning and used it to describe a dessert topping.

So what is the actual meaning of this word? We hear it thrown around in so many ways that it is hard to say for sure without investigating its etymology, which is another fun word meaning the history of words. (Not to be confused with entomology, which is the study of insects and not quite as fun.) The word “passion” was first used in the early Christian church, taken from the Latin “passionem”, meaning “suffering” or “enduring.” The term was used in relation to the suffering of Christ at the cross. Taken by this definition, the “St. Matthew Passion” of Bach, one of my favorite musical works (seriously, I dare you to listen to that male alto and not sob at the beauty), makes much more sense and can be understood as tracing the sufferings and endurance- the Gospel of Christ- according to St. Matthew.

Passion Flower

The passion flower (shown above) is said to have received its name because of the resemblance of its corona to the crown of thorns worn by Christ, the petals to ten of the apostles, and the stem and center to the nails and wounds of the crucifixion. This is a good example of “passion” being understood by its initial meaning.

Continuing forward (if anyone is still actually interested…), by the early 13th century, the term had evolved to “patheo” in Latin and soon after “pathos” in Greek. (Starting to look a little more familiar!) The word now extended to refer to the sufferings of the Christian martyrs, following in the footsteps of their Savior. Its meaning too had expanded to included not only suffering, but intense emotion and strong desire. This should not necessarily be understood as romantic desire, as it is commonly viewed today, but the pure desire of the martyrs to live rightly and walk with God. “Passion” or its variations did not come to refer to sensual desire or romantic love until the late 1500s. In fact, the word did not even refer to a “strong enthusiasm or liking” until the early 1600s, making its common definition a recent development.

Okay, if you have stuck through my little etymology sermon, thank you. Now, let’s wrap this up nicely, shall we? I only scratched the surface of the etymology of this particular word, but I think that it is obvious that “passion” was never meant to define my sweet tooth. However, I believe that I have not been wrong in saying that I have a passion for music and a passion for literature. (Excuse my italics; I know many authors are turning in their graves as I type, but I need them!) Why? Because my relationship with music and literature match the definition of this word, regardless of its evolution.

First of all, I suffer for music and literature, not martyrdom by any means, but to some extent, there is a struggle. Paper cuts, sore muscles from playing Chopin, tired nights of rehearsals, the despair of writer’s block. Goodness, I bled one time when practicing a pizzicato section for orchestra! But despite the obstacles – from  the pen callus on my middle finger to the violin hickey on my neck-  I keep practicing and writing and writing and practicing. Do I suffer for whipped cream? No…

I also have a love for these pursuits and the desire to achieve excellence as both a musician and a writer. This desire guides me as that of the martyrs did. I want to play music to the best of my ability and the Glory of God, so I practice harder; I want to author something thought-provoking and impactful, so I journal and blog for experience. The goals are there, leading me to walk the paths to reach them, further exhibiting my passion as not just emotional, but practical.

Finally, even if passion is taken at its most basic meaning, enthusiasm or liking, I certainly have it. Anyone who has ever talked to me knows that I do not shut up once the conversation turns to books or music. Granted, this is mostly because I don’t talk to anyone who doesn’t talk about these subjects. Still, the fact that I ask to smell other people’s copies of Wuthering Heights during AP Literature and obsess over tenor voices in choir indicates my borderline-crazy enthusiasm. Although whipped cream is delicious, I don’t think there is a fandom for it.

So there you are, a brief overview of a topic you didn’t know you needed to know: the etymology of “passion” and an example of when it is appropriate and when it is not. For the sake of the English language (and apparently also Latin and Greek), please know the true meaning of the words you use and save us all from a lot of discountenance. (See what I did there? 😉 )