Presentation made for the Northeast Minnesota Chapter, American Guild of Organists
January 25, 2014 at First Lutheran Church, Duluth, MN
Texts: Luke 9:1-6; Psalm 150
“Wash the dust.” Are you puzzled? Intrigued? Still waking up? Someone wondered if I might be addressing the fact that dusting the organ doesn’t seem to really fall under anyone’s job description. Custodians are often cautious about touching the instrument, and when you come near, you want to practice, not dust, though I bet you end up doing it more than you would like to admit. But that’s not what I want to talk about.
Jesus tells his disciples, “Whenever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” So maybe you are wondering if I am going to address the relationship between organist and pastor. There has probably been a little dust shaking from both sides from time to time, don’t you think? I am going to let my friend and colleague David Tryggestad handle that one. Good luck.
Wash the dust. A number of years ago, I got caught up in watching Ken Burn’s PBS series on jazz. It rekindled my interest in the music, more accurately set that small spark aflame. Jazz music since became a part of me in an important way. Anyway, in the introductory episode, the jazz drummer Art Blakey is quoted. “Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.” Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life. I like that.
Not long after, though, I was in the home of a pastor who is also an accomplished musician and organist. He was serving a smaller church in rural Minnesota as he was moving toward retirement. Prior to that, he had been the organist and minister of music in a larger congregation. During the visit I noticed a small placard on his wall. “Music washes away the dust from everyday life.” While my memory is a little fuzzy here, I think the quote was attributed to Tchaikovsky. What I do remember is feeling a little disillusioned. Imagine Tchaikovsky stealing from Art Blakey.
So I got the idea that this thought has been around for a bit, one of those quotes that has probably been mis-attributed countless times, or borrowed countless times. I ran into it again just this week, attributed to someone named Bernard Auerbach. I tried checking this out, but discovered that in all likelihood, the originator of this thought was a German novelist named Berthold Auerbach, who wrote, Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.
But it really doesn’t matter who said it or wrote it, or about which music it was written – classical or jazz, the statement rings true. There is something about music which reaches deep inside of us. The American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Music takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence and whereto.” In some ways it is a more elegant way of saying that music washes away the dust of everyday life.
Music is powerful. It touches the soul and spirit. It moves the mind and heart. I was reminded of this again in a poem written by the recently deceased Irish poet Seamus Heaney – “The Rain Stick.” Describing the instrument, Heaney writes:
Who cares if all the music that transpires
Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop.
I say all this as one who has little training in music. Perhaps that’s one reason I have enjoyed such good relationships with church musicians. I know you know more than me! Though I have little formal training in music, I have been moved by music, all kinds of music – classical, jazz, rock, pop, reggae, folk, blues, country, world. Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. I have had those kinds of experiences with music. I have had music whisper dim secrets that startle my wonder. I have, through music, felt like a rich man entering heaven through the ear of a raindrop. Music is a deeply spiritual enterprise, and not all my spiritual experiences with music have happened in church.
But many of them have, and it is in our churches that we openly acknowledge the spirituality of music. We find this in our sacred texts.
Praise God, for God’s mighty deeds.
Praise God according to God’s surpassing greatness.
Praise God with trumpet sound…
with lute and harp… with tambourine and dance… with strings and pipe
with clanging cymbals… with loud clashing cymbals.
You can almost hear the music in the psalm. The work you do as church musicians is important work. It is holy work. Finally we believe that it is the Spirit blowing that washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. It is our task to offer the music that lets the Spirit do his work, do her work.
Here I want to get very down to earth. Music matters. It is important because it is powerful, but in our understanding in the church it is powerful for a purpose. Ultimately the purpose of our music is to open people up to the Spirit of God so that the dust of everyday life can be washed away, so that they may be moved to wonder and to the praise of God, so that they might experience what it is like to be a rich person entering heaven through the ear of a raindrop. Jesus’ remark about shaking the dust off one’s feet is in a passage about the mission of God’s people – to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. That is our purpose, our reason for being as the church.
There is a creative tension here. Music is powerful. Good music matters. Excellence and skill matter. I have been in some places for worship where I am sorry to say if the Spirit is going to move at all in a soul, it has to do that in spite of the music. I know that is not true for any of you here! Excellence and skill matter, yet playing the organ in worship is something more than, other than, different than performance. You offer your best gifts to help others discover the gift of God that is in them, sometimes buried under the dust of everyday life.
There is another tension that exists in worship music in our day and time – a tension that frankly is not always very creative. It is the tension between the organ and other instruments in worship. We need to affirm the beauty, the power, the potential of the organ, while also being open to the trumpet, the lute and harp, the tambourine and dance, strings and pipe, clanging cymbals, loud clashing cymbals, maybe even electric guitars and drums.
Part of the beauty of the organ is its adaptability and functionality. It can make so many wonderful sounds and lead singing so well. I remember reading a few years ago a thoughtful article about just how useful an organ is for leading worship. And it can be played by one person, unlike a worship band where we are always trying to coordinate multiple people. For churches that have them, and that is many of our churches, the organ needs to be seen as an essential part of the worship life of the congregation. Your music is vitally important if we are to offer worship that helps the Spirit wash the dust from everyday life and evoke wonder, and the praise of God.
Yet the music that can move the soul and spirit comes in different varieties. Sometimes we have made excessive claims for ourselves, as if worship could not really happen without the organ. And that’s not true either. And with all that is happening in our world, the organ will never be the only game in town when it comes to worship music.
Maybe one way I can put this tension is to say that the organ is instrumental to the worship life of the church, and yes, I hear the pun. Organ music is instrumental in two senses of that word – you help make worship happen in an important and vital way. It often does not happen without you. Hold your head high. At the same time remember that the organ is instrumental, it serves another purpose, opening people to the Spirit of God, and we need to acknowledge that the music that washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life comes in other modalities.
It is a challenging time to be a church organist, but then it is a challenging time to be the church.
Pulling all these threads together, I hope you will be proud of what you do and what you offer to the church. Thank you. Because of the music you play, people are more open to God, to God’s healing, caring Spirit. I want to encourage you to continue offering your best. That you would take time today to be here says a lot about you. Congratulate yourselves. Finally, in this challenging time, be gracious and open to the experiments in worship music that are happening.
There is another passage in the Bible where cymbals are mentioned. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Paul does not think that this kind of clanging cymbal really praises God well. Music matters because of its power. It can wash the dust of everyday life away, but it does so in the service of discovering a love which holds us, which embraces us, which challenges us, a love in which we discover who we are, and for what, whence and whereto. If the music we offer is only blowing dust, and not helping discover that love, then we are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. But I am convinced we are here because we seek a more excellent way. Blessings.