When the people rose to sing of Jesus Christ the risen one
Did you feel the people tremble? Did you hear the singers roar?
When the lost began to sing of Jesus Christ the risen one
And we can see that God you're moving, A mighty river through the nations
And young and old will turn to Jesus
Fling wide your heavenly gates, Prepare the way of the risen Lord
Open up the doors and let the music play
Let the streets resound with singing
Songs that bring your hope, Songs that bring your joy
Dancers who dance upon injustice
Did you feel the darkness tremble? When all the saints join in one song
And all the streams flow as one river to wash away our brokenness
And here we see that God you're moving, A time of Jubilee is coming
When young and old return to Jesus
I know it would be highly unoriginal of me to critique the worship music of a Sunday church service. It seems easy for people to pick apart what they don’t like about the music at church and how it could be more to their liking. Actually, I’m probably more inclined to critique the reasons others critique worship; I’m often more uncomfortable with the nature of these criticisms than what it is people are critiquing.
So here’s a praise, a praise that will likely have some indirect critiques laden within. Now I'm smiling. This seems like the kind of thing I’d be teaching my ESL students—discerning the implied critiques of the opposing side of an issue when an author is not directly critiquing but rather praising the virtues of his or her own side. Last week’s lesson. J
Some of you church-folk probably know (or remember) the song “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?” It was one of those songs that, when it arose to church music prominence in the mid-90s (yes, it’s that old, sorry to disillusion anyone), I liked the sound of but as a worship leader had trouble leading it. This probably also reflects my changing tastes. For a while I did enjoy leading songs that, bizarre as the lyrics may have been, had a cool sound—that were in the key of E for example.
But then I grew uncomfortable with words that were a little too horizontal, too us-centered…like “here we are, singing about Jesus, look at us” or “give me stuff Lord, I’m your child and that makes me awesome, yeah.” Caricatures, yes. But some of you may know what I mean and may share my sentiments. So then I eventually preferred songs that were a little more direct and less poetic or cryptic, songs that got right to the point. “God is holy, God is love, my life is yours, you saved me,” etc. But sometimes these songs can be a bit simplistic or too narrow in scope.
Songs that, for example, express the Christian experience exclusively in terms of one theory of atonement (usually penal substitution). Or are exclusively about our emotional-feely, almost romantic-sounding feelings toward God (not necessarily bad but can be overemphasized). Or maybe songs that are repetitive and don't challenge the intellect or stir the imagination. Or just musically uninteresting or unoriginal or overly happy (there are seasons of lament in the Christian life too!).
These are my struggles, and I don’t mean to project them onto others. I often enjoy the worship experience on a given Sunday at a given church and find myself taken into a contemplative, worshipful place. But I also often find myself considering what might be misguided about the message we’re sending to Christians and non-Christians about our theology, values, and Christian experience through the lyrics of many of our worship songs. I understand if that sounds arrogant or judgmental, even if I feel I could justify the noble, pastoral concerns of my criticisms. I may need to do some more heart-checking on this one.
That said, I find myself very excited about being a part of the Christian Church and hopeful about what a prophetic (prophetic as in critical and energizing/empowering, not as in fortune-telling), love-filled, God-fearing, and hope-bringing community we could be (and often are). I guess singing “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble” on Easter Sunday in Portland last weekend was one of those experiences in worship that left me inspired, in touch with the Divine (so I think or hope), and thinking, “yes, this is it. This is our message.”
Why? I used to dislike songs that weren’t personal enough, about me and God. The pendulum has swung extremely far for me, to where I am very uncomfortable with how overly individualized the Christian experience is often made out to be. “Did You—” is a song about us, all of us, not just me and God or you and God.
Also, I believe one of the goals of eschatology (end times study) is to seek a better vision of the future of humanity that gives us a sense of hope and mission now. For me this song is a spectacular vision of what I believe God has promised—the reign of God and the reconciliation of all people.
And the song is theologically rich. I think the song is certainly open to interpretation, and you can feel and think whatever you’d like when you sing, whether your faith is a private and personal or a more public and corporate matter, whether your salvation theology is more exclusive or inclusive, or whether your theology is more liberal and social or conservative and “spiritual.”
I sing this song and see beautiful portraits painted of Biblical and theological themes such as the resurrection of the dead. I see God’s love of a very much alive creation. I see the hope that many, in this life or the next, may eventually acknowledge Jesus for who he is, not necessarily abandoning their sacred religious traditions, but seeing them perhaps fulfilled in Christ. (I know that last statement potentially causes discomfort for both Christians and non-Christians for different reasons. Apologies.)
I see in this song God’s present activity in all nations and cultures, Christian or not. I see the recognition of God’s concern for injustice and the prayer that we would be a community that “dances against” or addresses and fights injustice in all forms, in light of the hope that God will one day use restorative justice to make all things well. I see the call to unity of the various “streams” of the Christian faith for the sake of peace and God’s glory. And I see “Jubliee,” an Old Testament concept that has social implications for the economically hurting as well as being an allusion to God’s universal pardon and forgiveness of sin.
My purpose in writing all this is not to glorify a single song; I’m sure there are more thoughtful, profound songs being sung by churches. I’m not writing about a song, but about an experience I had on Easter Sunday in which the message of Easter was presented to me afresh, filling me with hope not just for my own personal “resurrection” but for the future of humankind, a future made possible by a God filled with love and who is love, a God who desires justice, who intends to make all things right and “re-create” us into a unified, reconciled, diverse human community.
And, also, a God who I believe has charged myself and others to provide a glimpse of this hopeful vision to the world now. And not just by recruiting more people to our cause, but by more boldly and effectively living out our cause with the people we already have (though all are welcome!).
Thank you God, for reminding me of who I am and who we are and who you are; may my life and the life of the Church be more and more in line with our true calling in this world, which I understand as a call to be a source of light, love, hope, reconciliation, justice, healing, acceptance, and peace.