Rector's Blog Throwback Episode, In Service of the Melody
Editor's note: As part of our When Love Shows Up Throwback Series we are re-posting this blog post which was originally posted on October 7, 2021.
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Typically, when I ask someone what kind of music they like, they will respond with specific genres. They’ll say, “I like country,” or “I like rap,” or “I like classic rock,” or something along those lines. But generally, if someone asks me this question, I respond with artists rather than genres, “I like Dylan. Sinatra. Gillian Welch. Mississippi John Hurt.” I don’t do that to be particular or snobby – I just tend to think in terms of personalities rather than in terms of genres. I get so sucked into their voices, their stories, their eccentricities and specific points of view, that I almost don’t notice the genre.
With two exceptions. Soul & Bluegrass. I love these genres so much; I rarely care who’s playing. I mean, I love specific artists: Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley – but I could shuffle Soul or Bluegrass on Spotify all day and be a happy man.
Of course, these are two very different forms of music – one originating in a Black, urban context with roots in jazz and rhythm & blues, the other emerging in a rural White culture with roots in country & folk. But both are obsessively focused on melody. The melody is the heart of the song, and everything that happens within the song is in service of that melody – which pushes everything forward. The melody is important in most popular music, I know. But in Soul and Bluegrass it’s everything.
Listen to Aretha on the classic “Respect” – she riffs here and there, flexes those muscles a bit – but every magnificent breath she exerts serves the melody, as do the driving drums, blaring horns, and pitch perfect backup singers. Together they draw us deeper into the song so that we can feel its power all the way down in our toes.
The first time I really noticed this effect was while watching live bluegrass at a little bar in Nashville called the Station Inn. It was the Spring of 2001, and this band I’d never heard of stood in a half circle up on a bare little stage – two guitars, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and bass – ripping through a beautiful song I’d never heard but felt like I’d known forever. As the song progressed, each musician stepped forward to solo. Everyone was a soulful virtuoso, but I was amazed by the discipline of their offerings – no matter how good each performer was, they confined their solo to the melody, then stepped back into the half-circle and disappeared into the sound of the whole.
Each piece mattered, by the way. Every instrument. Every voice. They worked together in service of the song and carried it along while the melody carried them. I’m getting too fanciful about this, and I’m sorry about that but music is one of the things that helps me understand what I believe and feel about life. And this idea of these powerful, brilliant, dynamic musicians bringing their talents together to serve something bigger than themselves continues to speak to me after all these years.
Music is so important to me, but the primary occupation of my life is church. While I believe Jesus is everywhere in the world, I find him in church in a way that is unique and powerful. Because church finds its roots in unconditional love. It is a community that exists in the world as an expression of the liberating, life-giving love of God that is embodied in Jesus Christ. And yes, I know we aren’t always great at it, or even good at it. We are never flawless, and we fall short of the power of Christ’s Love. And yet it is our foundation. It’s our heart. Love is everything. Any power we have, any goodness we exhibit, any help we give, is in service of Love, or else it is hollow.
We step into our roles in each other’s lives, trying to carry the Love that carries us.
Church is in an uncertain place. You know all the reasons why, and I don’t feel like talking about them today. You know the uncertainty. But like the bluegrass or soul band – we are clear and certain about what we serve. The melody that carries the song forward is everything.
This is not an abstract idea at Church of the Redeemer. We have articulated a practical picture of how we carry our tune. It is found in our Vision Statement.
We have a vision of a worshiping community that knows Jesus and grows in love: United in relationships of holy connection and communion; Growing with people of every age, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic situation, and political persuasion; Inspired by our understanding of why we are Christian, why we are Episcopalian, why Redeemer matters to us; and Sent into the world, rooted and grounded in love, to serve all people with humility, compassion, and faithfulness.
Living into that is what our song sounds like.
And if you are reading this, you are part of the band. You matter to this song. Your voice, your instrument, your presence, your commitment, your gift, your time – it is in service of the melody that is our reason for being. Our world needs to hear this melody – our world needs expressions of Love like ours. And we are who we are because of you. You make the song better. As you go about navigating the many complexities of your week, I invite you to consider how you serve the melody. How do you contribute to your community, helping us to draw the world deeper into the Love for which we all were made?
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