Music Is My Church

Having church in Nashville: the Stacy Mitchhart Band performs at the Basin Street Blues and Boogie Bar.

Music is my church, teaching is my religion. So I wrote in my last post to this blog. Much of my meditation on this formulation was about how I came to it. This post will unpack the first half of the formulation.

Understanding what I mean by "music is my church" will require a discussion of what I mean by "church." My seminary education and my years both growing up in and ministering to churches  freight the word with countless layers of meaning. Let's start with the most obvious, the symbol that leaps to the minds of most Americans when they hear the word "church": a large brick and mortar (or lumber and siding) structure featuring a steeple and cross, and containing a large meeting room in which religious services are held. My early childhood years in New Hampshire predispose me to picture a white building in the town square. If you grew up in the Northwest, you may be more likely to see shake siding; in the south, bricks.

Of course, church buildings do not always contain faith communities. In the "None Zone" of the Pacific Northwest, many such buildings have been acquired by private interests and turned into restaurants, offices, and even homes. The FX series The Shield located its inner-city police precinct in a repurposed church building. The existence of a steeple, then, no longer implies the presence of a congregation.

That's as it should be, because, as was acknowledged from the earliest days of the Christian religion, the concept of "holy ground," of a building that is uniquely sacred and only for religious use, died with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Like centuries of dispossessed Jews, early Christians worshiped in unofficial spaces, mostly the homes of church members. Some gatherings were held in cemeteries, the better to celebrate the religion's emphasis on resurrection. Only with the declaration of Christianity as the state religion of Rome did it begin to build worship spaces in large numbers. Of course, that was 1700 years ago, which has allowed for plenty of time for the idea of sacred buildings to grow, and many Christians do become attached to their churches, seeing them as places that are more holy than others. They also, though, use them as multipurpose structures, housing not just worship but also education, fellowship, entertainment, and business activities.

In this first sense, I can say that music is my church in that I attach special significance to concert halls. Stepping onto a stage to make music, I find my proprioception--my sense of where my body ends--extending to the far walls. This is the space I will fill with the sounds of my performance, and the people who occupy the seats of the space become partners in my playing. As a preacher, I applied this sense of spacial relationship to my parishioners, working to see that there was a feedback loop between what I said and the ways in which they responded to it, so that we co-created every sermon. In this sense, I can honestly say that a concert space, however small or large, takes on a sacred aspect when it is filled with a musical performance. I have experienced this on the receiving end at concerts that reached into my soul and drew me out, along with everyone around me, to become a living, breathing part of the music; and this is something I've experienced in a multiplicity of performances, including symphonies, recitals, jazz, and rock concerts.

However, as I implied above, "church" means far more than just a building; otherwise, when a church building was sold for use as a law office, coffee bar, or (in the case of the "Old Church" in Portland) a meeting and performance space, that would be the end of faith for the community that sold it. In fact, though, if a congregation is strong, and has a living, growing identity, whatever space houses it is much more tool than definer. Church communities regularly sell their old space and buy or develop new properties as their numbers grow and their identities change.

So here is a second, larger meaning of church: a community of faith. I have participated in many churches in my life, led a number of them, worked for several more, but really only belonged to a few. This sets me apart from the ideal Christian who, upon joining a church, remains a member as long as he or she lives in that community. The only church I can say has served in this sense for me is the Metanoia Peace Community which, as you may know from my previous writings about it, never possessed its own church building. Instead, it borrowed space from other organizations, meeting for most of its years in the living room of the 18th Avenue Peace House, an intentional community made up mostly of Metanoians. Metanoia was a church united by the dedication of its members to take their faith seriously and to live it consistently, though how that played out in their lives differed from one member to the next.

Most churches are, in this sense, more like affinity groups, gatherings of like-minded individuals, couples, and families whose bonds of friendship grow over time to become more like extended family. Those who have grown up in a church are likely to return to it, even after moving away as adults, to be married, to baptize their children and, in some cases, to be memorialized upon their deaths.

As I said, though, most of my experience with such communities has been as a sojourner, one who passed through for a time either because my father was the pastor or, later in life, because I became the pastor; and the one community I did choose to join (and which disbanded a few years ago after the retirement of the pastor who gave it identity and purpose) was more amorphous than one of these more localized churches. Even so, I have returned to the community to honor the passing of several of its members, and invited some from the community to my wedding last summer.

The church that is music resembles the Metanoia experience far more than that of the many local churches I passed through as pastor's child, pastor, or church musician. Musicians speak a common language, even though the music they perform may be radically different from one player to the next. They have a common understanding of what it is to perform, share in the spiritual philosophy of connection with their fellow band members and with their audience, and more importantly, in the spiritual discipline of practice to perfect their art. Practicing music has much in common with yoga: the need for concentration and focus, the need to discipline body and mind in the service of a higher goal, and the vanishing of the self into the creation of art. When musicians perform, whether it is for payment or simply for the joy of sharing, they give of themselves, baring their souls to whatever audience may be present. The sharing of music can be an intense personal testimony, an act that can profoundly move the audience.

For some musical groups, there are fixed locations that function as their worship spaces: orchestras with home concert halls, house bands for jazz clubs, cathedral choirs; but these groups typically perform in other spaces, as well, giving each of them the potential to become sacred musical space. Members of the community that is the group may have little more than a professional relationship apart from the time they spend practicing and performing together; but when they are engaged in playing or singing together, they are as intimately connected as sexual partners. It's not surprising, then, that relationships often develop between musicians who perform together, and that some groups cannot survive the romantic breakup of a couple who were both part of the group.

There is a third, more global sense in which music is church to me. I'm not talking about the institutional meaning of church, something I can dispense with quickly: there really are no musical organizations that come close to being at all like a denomination. Musicians have little patience for bureaucracy, seeing it as the necessary evil for channeling royalties to composers, lyricists, and performers, and for scheduling concerts and selling tickets. If we could find audiences and earn a livelihood without such structures, we'd happily do so.

No, when I think of the global church that is music, I'm thinking of something like the communion of saints, the sense that as a musician, I am a part of a continuously evolving organism that has existed since the first primitive human began tapping rocks together, blowing through a reed, or modulating his or her voice to create melody; and which will continue to grow and change through styles, genres, and enthusiasms as long as humans continue to exist. We are musical by nature, and when we create music, whether it is individually or as a community, we express our essential humanity. Musicians, like priests, are tasked with expressing this fundamental urge in ways that delight and transform others. When I coax a class of fifth graders into becoming part of a drum circle groove, I am connecting them with this history, this tradition, this language that is more ancient, more vibrant, than anything they will do in their math or reading classes.

Being a musician is as sacred a vocation as any form of ministry. And being a music teacher, as I will explain in my next post, is, in my mind, the highest form of that vocation; for if music is my church, teaching is my religion.


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