"Songs of Creation" - Jonathan Goff*
When I think about growing up in a pastoral Friends Meeting and where a lot of my religious education and faith development came from, a lot of things come to mind. Being a pastor's kid for instance, and staying through the entire service instead of going into the back with the other younger kids. Being asked by Mom over dinner what was one thing I remembered from Dad's sermon that morning. Or Sunday School before worship, and the teachers that tried to find ways to bring the Scriptures and our lives into a meaningful conversation. The mixture of “aw, shucks” embarrassment and maybe some quiet pride that came with being recognized by my peers in the Meeting as being knowledgeable about the Bible. The sense of “communal raising” that all of the kids in the Meeting got and the sense of community that fostered for us. Christmas plays and Holy Week get-togethers with other local churches. The “re-Quakerisation” that I saw being pushed for by my father at the Meeting as this Baptist minister dug deeper into the Friends history and tradition. The powerful women of the Meeting, old and young, and their role as my spiritual mentors and fellow-travelers. While a lot of my personal faith and foundational stuff comes from my parents and their faith lives, much of what I know about “doing religious community” comes from my upbringing at Lost Creek Friends. But more than anything that I've mentioned up to this point, when I think about how the prior generation has handed down the tradition and call to faithfulness, one thing stands out as truly significant: my Quakers are Singing Quakers.
As a PK and now a pastor myself, I wonder if I should feel a little twinge of guilt for saying this, but sermons have never spoken to me, never been as powerful for me, as the songs of our faith. Aside from a few sermon illustrations like the Red-Faced Monkey (whatever you do, don't think of the Red-Faced Monkey! Put the Red-Faced Monkey out of your mind!) and the occasional message that really resonated, sermons have never stuck with me or shaken me like hymns, carols, etc. I love my father's preaching, and I hope my own preaching is valuable and uplifting for the church I'm serving, but a lot of key messages and tenets of faith were best transmitted to me by our songs. We sang congregationally, usually four hymns each Sunday (or three, or five, as the Spirit led) and then would regularly have “special music.” When I was growing up, that was most often some of the young women (my peers) with a gift for singing, and one of the main things that the Youth/Young Friends did as well was learn and work on songs.
If you want to know where I really got a true sense of God's care and concern for all people, it wasn't in sermons, or in the still small voice of the Holy Spirit, it was in “His Eye is On the Sparrow.” If you want to move me at the deepest level around the topic of the crucifixion and Good Friday, don't give me a moving account of the horrors and the sadness, don't preach to me about the pain and suffering Christ went through on our behalf, and certainly don't show me a Mel Gibson film. Instead, remind me of “The Three Nails” and young women singing it in a Tennessee twang and watch me mist up. And for the joy of the resurrection, sing “Rise Again” with me. If it's the light and the beauty and the peace of Christ's birth, a five-week Advent series is nice, as is prayer and moving reminders of the peace and the joy for Mary and Joseph that night. But “O Holy Night” will rock my world, and there's nothing more fulfilling about Christmas than a roomful of people singing “Silent Night” in community. “Blest Be the Ties That Bind,” “Amazing Grace,” “Pass It On,” “Sanctuary,” “Micah 6:8,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” - these and others are my worship, these are central to my faith.
I know as a Friend silence is supposed to be very important to me, the openness to the Holy Spirit's direct communication, but it's also never spoken to me at the deepest level as it does for so many Friends. For that I need rhythm, I need melody, I need music. Piano, bagpipes, organ, brass, reeds, or simply voice, the particulars aren't what's important, but singing our soul to God, that's what lifts me up and carries me to the Spirit. When I was an intern at Quaker Knoll Camp during my undergrad summers, one of the most blessed times for me during the camps was Campfire, when after the evening speaker and a small snack, the kids and adults would gather around the roaring firepit and sing together out in the cool Ohio night air, moving from more rambunctious camp songs to deeply felt outpourings to God. Afterward we would always have quiet and Open Worship, but the blessing for me was the nightly journey to that point when I and we could be so spiritually grounded and covered with the Spirit. Since then, my time at Earlham School of Religion and as pastor of Maryville Friends is helping me with the silence, and I appreciate it for what it is, the pause between the lines, the breath between the notes, the music behind and between the music, the contemplation and openness to God directly. But always, I think, my soul will sing it's way to that place of communion with God. I believe the Psalmist, would understand, and Shakespeare and Madeleine L'Engle too I think.
Jonathan Goff is a 25-year old amazed by the blessings of life. He has been the pastor of Maryville Friends Meeting in Maryville, TN since June 2009, part of the same Quarterly Meeting he grew up in. Jonathan is completing his work towards a Master's of Divinity at Earlham School of Religion after enrolling in Spring '07 and is grateful to everyone who has helped him along his journey.