It's Memorial Day. I'm with a gathering of people as the president lays a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It's a solemn moment. Heads bow in remembrance of men and women who died so freedom and freedom-loving people might live. The president has talked about the value of an individual life, about sacrifice, love of country, love of life. Here and there, a handkerchief appears. A gray-headed mother seeks her husband's embrace. Members of the honor guard stand respectfully at attention. An old man blows his nose.
As a soldier raises a trumpet to his lips, each member in the audience anticipates an unforgettable experience, the deeply moving sound of the instrument. They know what to expect: a flawless rendition of "Taps," which is played at close of day in honor of lives spent for the common good. All anticipate the clear, pure, measured tones that speak of peace, dedication, and resolution as the strains gently wash over a thousand graves.
But there is a hideous surprise. As the sol dier activates his instrument, he begins tapping his foot. His body, once erect, loosens. The trumpet weaves with a heavy beat. Unique variations in time and tune embellish his act as he slides through the performance. People are restless. Some express shock. In a surge of anger, I shout, "No! No! Stop!"
My wife Fredonia, awakened by the noise, grabs my shoulder. "What's the matter, dear?"
"Oh," I cry, "I've had a scary dream! Thank God, it's a dream, only a dream! But it was awful!" I am wet with sweat.
It's Sabbath morning. With a friend, I'm in a beautiful new church situated in rolling, green hills, a church with an impressive membership that consists mainly of young professionals and lots of children. As we enter, I see a table covered with a white cloth. "Communion! Good!" I say to myself.
Informally conducted, the service is pref aced by the singing of "praise songs." Everyone sings. Nearly everyone. The old man seated next to me appears nervous. He's not singing, probably worried about his children.
"Nothing wrong with the songs, really," I murmur. "Simple messages." Curiously, though, I don't hear about Adventist themes: Christ's death for us, the judgment, His second coming, the Sabbath, or even heaven! Repetitive? Yes! Emphasis? Lots of "I's" and "we's." Tunes wandering over the musical score. Extra words squeezed between irregular measures.
"Lively, innovative piano; snippets of honky tonk? The praise choruses? Minimal mental content, really." I try to reconcile the apparent sophistication of the worshipers with the artless, simplistic songs.
Special music? Guest artist with recorded orchestra accompaniment. Gospel rock. Loud. Demanding beat. Mischievous flashes of backbeat between verses. Lyrics? I try, but I can't understand them.
There isn't much to the Scripture reading. Good prayer, though. Thoughtful homily. Pastor seems sincere. Handsome fellow! The bread and wine are blessed and served. Piano background music? A daring mix of swing and ragtime. "She's really pushing the envelope!" I muse as I watch the pianist.
Growing uneasy, I scratch my head and mutter to myself, "Isn't the purpose of this service to celebrate the Lord's Supper, which (says Paul) is to help us 'discern' (Greek = 'thoroughly judge, examine') the Lord's body? Unless we do that, he says, we partake of it 'to our damnation.'" Damnation? That's what he says. (1 Cor. 11:27-29).
Didn't Jesus give us the Communion service to lead us to the scene of His crucifixion, where His body and blood are offered for us? When we eat and drink the sacred symbols, do we not memorialize and accept into our innermost beings His life of love, obedience, and sacrifice? Didn't He die so we might live, to be free of sin and the baggage it carries? Isn't that what Christianity is all about?
Leaving the sanctuary, I'm troubled. My mind isn't focusing on the message, on the thrust of the sermon. I do not forget the music, however! Is this another bad dream? No. It is the residue of painful impressions from this and other recently attended services.
As we drive to his home, we talk about church and music. My friend is Mr. Congeniality, a good listener.
"It isn't just here," I contend. "Pop music, even rock, can be heard in other churches and schools, as well as on broadcasts—Christian broadcasts!"
"What they say," my friend explains, "is that Christian lyrics make pop, and even rock, OK. The snag is, most of the time, neither the words nor the music say very much."
"What gets me," I reply, "are the 'special music' selections performed by artists whose concentration so often seems to be on performing just the music rather than expressing the beauty and wonder of a truly worthy theme. The piano or recorded orchestra with that relentless beat so often overpowers the message. What we do get, of course, is acoustical gain, along with tunes that remind one of a rocket out of control, a rogue rocket!" I'm trying to be clever.
My friend looks thoughtful. "What disturbs me," he adds, as we turn into his driveway, "is what often appears to be a kind of mime, an attempt to copy the style of 'in' artists of the general culture as we 'perform' our songs in worship."
I agree. "Should we be swinging and dancing our way to the Cross and into the worship of our God?" Yes, says my friend, "Sing them as they were meant to be sung."