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ALCM Conference Report (Part Two)

Sir, Madam, Cantor, We Wish to See Jesus

In many pulpits across America there is the inscription: Sir, we wish to see Jesus.  The issues with the gendered pronoun aside, this is a daunting quote for any minister to read before he or she begins preaching.  It is a pointed reminder of why we are here: to come closer to God and further our relationship with Jesus.

At the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians (ALCM) conference this summer, Chad Fothergill put forth this request to us as cantors (anyone who leads the church in song) whose job it is to enhance worship through music: Sir, Madam, Cantor, we wish to see Jesus.  It is not only the responsibility of the pastor to reveal Christ to parishioners.  The cantor must also keep this in the forefront of his or her mind.

There are various reasons why a person attends worship on any given Sunday. He or she might have recently lost their job and is struggling to see a purpose in their daily routine. He or she might be battling cancer and is searching for the strength to continue treatment. He or she might have just become a grandparent and wants to celebrate with the assembly. He or she might be looking to scripture for the right words to share with a friend in crisis. Whatever the reason, this inscription is universal to our needs: Sir, Madam, Cantor, we wish to see Jesus.

It is through a right relationship with God that we come closer to the truth. With all that our world struggles with today, racism, hunger, bigotry, violence, we don’t always know what to do. One thing we do know is that we can come to church and experience the presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament. If more people knew of this presence we might be able to build bridges through social divides instead of barriers that seclude us from each other and from Jesus.

Sir, Madam, Cantor, we wish to see Jesus.  This quote has been in the forefront of my mind since my time with fellow cantors at this summer’s ALCM conference.  It is the responsibility of anyone leading worship to have as his or her ultimate goal, the realization of Christ’s presence to the parishioner sitting in the pew.  As leaders of the church’s song, cantors must include themselves in this goal.  Sir, Madam, Cantor, we wish to see Jesus.  This goal stays at the top of my to-do list.  From picking hymns that bring artful and poetic interpretations to Christ’s teachings, to providing hymn accompaniments that enhance the text rather than detract from it, to playing prelude music that creates an atmosphere where one can center their being and focus on the fact that Jesus is indeed present, allowing the assembly gathered the chance to see Jesus in themselves and each other is my utmost desire.

As Director of Music Ministries, I am not the only cantor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church.  Anyone who participates in leading the assembly in song is a cantor.  The Sanctuary Choir serves as cantors.  The Joyful and Celebration Ringers serve as cantors.  The Assisting Minister is a cantor.  The pastor is a cantor.  The psalmist is a cantor.  Our children who get up to sing their favorite VBS songs in worship are cantors.  It is important that we all maintain the goal of seeing Jesus in our music and not how in tune our high f-sharp is, or how clean the final set of sixteenth notes in Bach’s g minor fugue is.  A high quality of music is towards the top of my to do list, but not to the detriment of worshiping our Lord.  When our offertory becomes a performance we are no longer worshiping.  We can no longer address the request: Sir, Madam, Cantor, we wish to see Jesus.

When addressing this request, another keynote speaker, Mel Bringle, suggested to the ALCM attendees that there are two poles of a spectrum that need to be addressed: Identity and Relevance.

When I speak of identity right now I am talking about our Lutheran identity as a movement within the church universal that boldly proclaims justification by grace alone through faith alone.  This is a theological identity that is not necessarily limited to the cultural traditions we have inherited from Northern Europe.  Lutherans have equally rich cultural traditions in Latin America, Asia, Africa and beyond.

When I speak of relevance right now, I am speaking of our current place in society.  Are we addressing the concerns of people in our communities?  Are we speaking to them in a language that touches their hearts?  Does society see the Lutheran church as a body that is able to address humanity’s issues in an ever-changing world?

The balance of these two ideas is something the greater church has struggled with since the beginning of organized religion itself.  The more we cling to our identity, the more we risk becoming irrelevant. We can quickly become a dusty church filled with cobwebs singing Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ to nothing but empty pews in stark sanctuaries with walls thick enough that our hymnody’s beautiful poetry never stands a chance at reaching a passerby who could be inspired to stop and experience Jesus for him or herself.  The Lutheran church is constantly trying to broaden its identity.  One thing that HCLC is doing to this end is celebrating Global Church Sunday.  On Sunday, September 17 we will have a Young Adult in Global Mission with us to preach and share her story.  We will read scripture about how the church can welcome the stranger, and we will sing hymns from all over the world.  There is a rich treasure of hymnody from all corners of the globe that take Lutheran theology and bring it to the people in a style they are accustomed to.

Erring on the side of relevance can be just as detrimental as erring on the side of identity.  We have a proud history of traditions for a reason. The Lutheran church has been around for 500 hundred years and has become one of the leading churches in America in terms of charity and helping those in times of crisis.  Seeking to adjust our traditions to every fad of the season begins to water down our theology.  In this scenario, before you know it, the Lutheran church is a sterile concert hall and performance stage where the latest cliché can be heard echoing just long enough for the next to be uttered.  We start to fit Jesus into our busy schedules as best we can rather than taking a Sabbath to listen to Jesus and learn how we should spend the rest of our week serving Him and revealing Him to others.

While it is quite difficult to maintain both identity and relevance, Mel Bringle reminds us that we need only look to one source of inspiration for the perfect balance: The Cross.

With identity on the left and relevance on the right, Jesus Christ strikes the perfect balance down the middle to form a life giving cross.  It is on the cross that Jesus shows us how to maintain an identity as Christians while remaining relevant in the only way that matters, sacrificing ourselves for those in need.

While I don’t think a definitive answer to the situations raised above exists, I do know one thing:

Sir, Madam, Cantor, we wish to see Jesus.

As a leader of the church’s song I strive to show the gathered assembly Jesus on every Sunday regardless of it being a “High Holy Day” or just another Sunday after Pentecost.  Nearly everyone who attends worship at Holy Cross ends up being a leader in some fashion.  Whether it is the ushers, readers, altar guild, children’s sermon leader, and so on, we are all critical to providing an atmosphere where transcendent worship may occur.  If we each strive to show one another Jesus, what’s the worst that could happen?  We live a more Godly life and become a little more like Jesus ourselves.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Jeremy Shoop, Director of Music Ministries

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