There was a time, I seem to recall, when a handshake was worth more than a legal contract. The hand-shakers had reached an agreement; they would stick to it, come hell or high water.
It was, in some senses, as unbreakable as a covenant with God.
But in literal fact, a handshake is simply a momentary meeting of palms.
The example of a handshake came up during a discussion of a blog posting by Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who heads the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. Rohr wasn’t writing about handshakes, of course. He was writing about how people read the Bible. Or any other sacred text.
“While biblical messages often proceed from historical incidents, the actual message does not depend upon communicating those events with perfect factual accuracy,” Rohr suggested.
“Spiritual writers are not primarily journalists… Scripture can be understood on at least four levels: literal meaning, deep meaning, comparative meaning, and hidden meaning.”
He explained, “The literal level of meaning doesn’t get to the root and, in fact, is the least helpful to the soul and the most dangerous for history. Deep meaning offers symbolic or allegorical applications. Comparative study combines different texts to explore an entirely new meaning. Finally, in traditional Jewish [teaching], hidden meaning gets at the Mystery itself. [It] encourages each listener to grow with a text and not to settle for mere literalism, which, of itself, bears little spiritual fruit. It is just a starting point.”
Four levels of handshakes
It occurred to me that the same approach might enrich our understanding of everyday events. Like handshakes, for example.
The literal level is fact -- nothing more. We shake hands. Ho hum.
The next level might be more serious, more probing. I grasp your hand a little longer. I may ask “How are you?”
At a third level, we shake hands. And I really mean it when I ask how you are. I listen, even if it takes an hour. I want to know how the changes in your life have affected you. And maybe affected me, too.
Ultimately, the handshake might imply a commitment. I will be with you, no matter what happens.
Such a commitment goes beyond mere words. Trying to define it actually narrows it, limits it, cheapens it. The commitment has to come from the heart. It is a hidden level because it is felt, not verbalized. And it works only if both of us feel it.
It takes practice to look for those deeper levels. A friend loves to dance. But is a dance just two people synchronizing the movements of their feet? Or are two souls symbiotically enhancing each other’s value?
What’s a committee meeting? Merely a record of decisions made? A social gathering? A process of learning? A collaborative search for underlying truths?
Most arguments about the meaning of biblical texts bog down at the literal level -- Elijah’s chariot of fire, Noah’s flood, Lazarus’ return from death -- rather than the deeper levels Rohr describes.
I can’t help wondering how many life situations similarly suffer from being examined only at a literal level. And how they might benefit from consideration as the visible signs of invisible realities.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Thank you for your many, and thoughtful, responses to last week’s column on singing in worship. Some of your comments were brief:
Isabel Gibson: “A lovely view of singing. Thanks to Lindy Thompson for her words, and to you for sharing her words.”
And Caroline Davidson: “This is just what I need to encourage our other choir members.”
Others took longer to share their own experience. I had started by suggesting that younger people today don’t sing. Ruth Shaver challenged that assumption: “Clearly, you've not done recess duty in an elementary or middle school recently. Granted, it's primarily girls, but I can assure you that young people today DO sing, both along with, and in imitation of, their favorite performers. Usually, it's accompanied by the gyrations of those same stars, which isn't always school appropriate!”
Tom Watson agreed with me: “I don't think that it's only singing in which the younger generations aren't as much engaged; it's instrumental music as well. In this time, governments seem quick to support technological things, and frequently anything in the area of arts, especially music, is chopped. Gone too, for the most part, are the days when families and community groups got together to make music in homes or community gathering places.”
Ralph Schmidt wrote, “I am a retired pastor but regularly do weekend supply. After an energetic sermon in late November I asked the congregation if they had any reaction to what I had said, that it was their turn. A member of the choir stood up and said, ‘Better than that, Pastor Ralph, we will sing our response!’ And they did, and it was better than any sermon I could ever talk.
“Then just last week, most of the choir was away and it was my last Sunday with them. When the “Special music” time came a wonderful kind, soul came forward. She, and the organist, now on a piano, began to sing and play (piano and guitar). The song was precious and moving. I asked, ‘Would you have another song to sing God’s love for us? If you do, I will shorten my sermon by 5 minutes.’ Two elderly men in the back of the church said together ‘Sold!’ We laughed, they sang, and God danced.”
The husband and wife team of Bernard and Brenda Dewonck each shared thoughts.
Brenda wrote, “Singing is such a key part of my life -- not just singing with others, but on my own. It isn’t a performance, just something I do anytime, anywhere. I do not have a soloist voice, but there is such a gentle lull in putting words to music.
“I too have noticed the lack of spontaneous singing with the younger generation, and I don’t really believe those who say they ‘can’t’ sing. We constantly sang to our children when they were little -- Raffi, Fred Penner, Sharon, Lois and Bram, Charlotte Diamond. I sing to our little granddaughter which always calms her quickly when she is fussy. Often in the car I will tune in to an Oldies station and let her rip. It feels so good! I couldn’t tell you the name of the song or the artist, but the lyrics come pouring out! Singing calms the soul, brings people together because we work together on creating the same thing: music, food for the soul.”
And Bernard sent along some words written by a friend, as introduction for a combined performance by three choirs, “…when all these lives blend together in that mystery which is the colourful wonder of who we all are. Yes, we can sing the notes. We can observe all the markings, and listen for blend and intonation. But in the end what comes from each of us is who we are, and we are all so lucky to have this musical vehicle to say what cannot be said any other way.”
James Russell liked my line, “We sing to build community.” But, he went on, “I think it might be more true to say ‘We sing to BE community.’ To experience ourselves at once as single voices and as one great voice at the same time. For who could be human alone, without language, without love, without others? And it seems to me that this duality at our core is essential to our humanity, and needs to be acknowledged and nurtured for us to be truly healthy. And that, perhaps, is why singing is also clearly good for our health.”
Dick Best shared his experience: “Over the years I have been involved with various groups for whom singing has been an important part of community-building – The Ecumenical Institute, Cursillo and its variants… My singing started in the church, and it has continued to be based in the various churches of which I have been a member or which I have served as a lay pastor.
“Four years ago, my wife and I moved to a community which had three United Methodist churches. I planned to visit each church to see which one I wanted to join. I first visited the one closest to me. That Sunday they had a 6-person choir singing out of the hymnal. The next Sunday, at the second church, rehearsals were announced for a Christmas cantata the choir would be presenting in mid-December. Somehow, I never got around to the third church!
“My wife comes from a different religious background, but shares a passion for singing. She can hear the first notes from a song from the ‘60’s or 70’s and identify it. She can hear a melody and harmonize beautifully with it, without any written music. She has changed churches several times, usually for one or both of two reasons: she disagrees with their theology and/or she can’t stand the high-volume, non-melodic ‘praise music’ where people stand for up to 20 minutes and very few, other than the praise team, are making any attempt to actually sing. I know some will say this is a generational thing.
‘Maybe this form of music draws younger people in, but, in my experience, it does not create community through sharing singing together. If this is the path down which the church is traveling, within a generation the church will no longer be radical in its singing.”
Judy Lochhead: “As a child I joined the junior choir at our church, and basically, the choir is what has kept me coming for almost five decades. The chance to raise my voice in song, as well as the community of people I can belong to, keeps me there, even though I have long since lost the traditional theology that I hear preached most Sundays.”
Bob Rollwagen’s congregation “celebrated its amalgamation with another neighbouring congregation. There were almost 300 people there and the sound of two congregations was joyous. You feel supported by each person present. A number of those in attendance felt the emotions they use to feel decades ago when 300 was the weekly attendance at a service.
“We now have two services weekly. They are identical except for the music. One is current upbeat modern lyrics and the other is traditional. I enjoy singing and enjoy both gatherings. It is a joy to be part of something bigger than yourself.”
A few responses are still coming on the previous week’s column, about our dog’s increasing deafness. Maggie Rogers wrote, “We are now living with our second deaf dog. We discovered the [first] middle-aged dog we adopted was deaf and then learned how to communicate with hand signals. We figured out that a name was for us, not him, since he couldn't hear it. He was not a good watch dog, since he slept so soundly. He also didn't bark, we think he had been deaf since birth and didn't know he barking was an option. He was one of the best dogs i ever had and I still miss him.
“Our second deaf dog was adopted at age 13, like yours, she doesn't miss meals and dropped food doesn't have the opportunity to hit the ground. Unlike the first dog, this one was born with hearing and lost it with age. We needed a whole new set of hand signals for her, as she didn't respond to the ones we were used to using.
“Both dogs were well-loved and the deafness was more of an inconvenience for us than for them. When we adopted them, the foster parents didn't realize the dogs were deaf, they thought they were stubborn and independent. It has been an interesting journey with them, and my life is fuller for having such great, unique dogs.”
The lectionary calls for Psalm 19 this week. But I have done that psalm so often that I decided to go, instead, with a paraphrase of Psalm 150 that Boyd Wilson, a retired minister in New Zealand, sent me in response to last week’s column on singing. On his blog page, https://earthedspirit.wordpress.com/psalms-reflected-in-prayer/, he describes his paraphrases as “reflections on prayer.”
150 Music beyond words
1. I suspect you would prefer us to make more music, with longer intervals of silence, while speaking and writing fewer words.
2. In particular, I know you could do without our feeble attempts to define your infinite being and prescribe your agenda.
3. Music is something else in the world of worship. The sound, whether of instruments or voices, is the thing.
4. From violin to double bass, piccolo to bassoon, piano and harp, trumpet, horn and trombone, drum and bell, guitar and digital keyboard, voices in every range – each and all echo your joy.
5. Composers and songwriters, poets and choreographers, whether intentionally religious or not, capture your creativity.
6. All resound praise in ultimate harmony.
7. And then there is the most sacred offering of all: the hush of our indrawn breaths in awe at your listening, inspiring, holy presence within music.
8. Let all that utters sound, all that receives your gift of life, respond in joy. Alleluia!
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,”an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet