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Moving Rite Along

Every time I feel the Spirit …

Our ritual music packs a powerful punch. Because it does, it very often lands in the middle of controversy, because whoever controls the music owns the power. We've witnessed a good deal of wrestling over this. We can try to force people to sing in a language that is not their own or with words that feel awkward or nonsensical. We can try to insist that chant is the purest form of sung prayer and banish the drums and dancers. In the end, though, the Spirit moves people to sing, and there is simply nothing we can or should do about it except to get out of the way.

The National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) has a reputation for many things, but among those is a tendency toward complex ritual and somewhat quirky music at its gatherings. We used to joke that NPM would take a perfectly reasonable piece of music and arrange it in a key that was difficult to sing, that modulated at least three times, that included several languages no one knew, had at least one verse in an odd meter, and ended with a descant in a key only audible to a select breed of dogs! But when the assembly is composed of several thousand musicians, not only does it work, it becomes a matter of honor to sing it well. Sure it's a little over the top, but those members own that music.

Some years ago, a regional NPM convention was scheduled for liturgy at the local cathedral, as is often the case. The music ministry at that cathedral had never experienced an NPM assembly. They thought they would have their choir and cantor lead the singing at that liturgy. When that assembly gathered, the sound dwarfed everything in its path. It caused the archbishop to remark that he had never heard a congregation drown out the organ before. That's ownership.

Ev'ry time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray.

That same ownership can speak the cause of justice. Spirituals carry this cause clearly. From the time of slavery through the freedom movement, these songs gave passionate witness to the plight of the oppressed. They gave voice to a theology of liberation that came from a deep stirring of the spirit within. If justice was outside the grasp here on earth, surely in God's reign truth would prevail.

We took the apocalyptic literature of the biblical tradition and sent it marching across cotton fields, cane fields, corn fields, and plantations. The message was strange to the slave master because he thought, at times, he was being entertained when he was in reality being judged, "weighed in the balances" of truth and found guilty. We can hear the sounds, the songs and the protest! "Wade in the water, children," "Everybody talking 'bout Heaven ain't going there," "God's gonna move this wicked race and raise up a nation that will obey," "Satan, your kingdom must come down," "Steal away," "Swing low, sweet chariot" [Freedom's Chariot], "Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel," "Follow the drinking gourd" [Escape to Freedom]. (Rev. Otis Moss Jr., "African American Music and the Freedom Movement," in African American Heritage Hymnal [GIA 2001], 12)

Those same songs and hymns fueled and sustained a people through protests, marches, and jail cells. This music communicated what the Spirit was demanding that they do. Our chant may have pride of place in worship, but it is hard to imagine how it could ever have that kind of power.

Fire and smoke

A lack of imagination, that fear of the unknown, holds us back. Some of us fear that if we allow the drumbeat in, if we encourage the clapping and dancing, we will somehow lose our identity. In reality, it would free us to hear and respond to the Holy Spirit in a way that comes only from deep longing. When that longing for justice and freedom is expressed in song and when we own that song, we have the power to make change. The song will echo in us, and we will come to recognize the movement of the Spirit in our hearts as we are called not only to prayer but to action in the name of justice and truth. May we have the courage to stand fast in the fire and smoke of God's word, that we may be always attentive to the Spirit moving in our hearts.

Ev'ry time I feel the Spirit moving in my
  heart, I will pray.
Ev'ry time I feel the Spirit moving in my
  heart, I will pray.

Upon the mountain when my God spoke,
Out of God's mouth came fire and smoke.
All around me, it looked so shine,
I asked my Lord if all was mine.

Ol' Jordan River, chilly and cold,
It chills the body, but not the soul.
There ain't but one train
   that's on this track
It runs to heaven and runs right back.

("Every Time I Feel the Spirit" Text: Negro spiritual. Tune: FEEL THE SPIRIT, 98 98 with refrain; arr. by Nolan Williams Jr., b. 1969. © 2000 GIA) ML

missing image fileDonna M. Cole is associate editor of ML. She holds a master's degree in pastoral ministry from Caldwell College, Caldwell, N.J., and has a passion for liturgy celebrated and lived to the fullest. With degrees in microbiology and biology, she spends her "spare" time in biomedical research, marveling at the wonder of God revealed in the complexity of science.