Geneva Gigues--NOT Dirges: Ways We Fake Solemnity and Joy in Worship
Early in my adult life, I was a commercial photographer, working for magazines, corporations, medical industry, shipping, and I had a university client. While setting up lights and equipment for a photo shoot in a university classroom, I heard singing down the hall, singing of the praise chorus, worship song variety, energetic and happy.
“That’s the only place on this campus,” snorted the marketing director, “where those kids don’t have to think.” What followed were mocking and derisive comments from the art director, the registrar, and the student and faculty subjects for the shoot, leveled at the campus ministry and any student stupid enough to participate in it. The students continued singing. I continued setting up my gear and making test shots. Their intolerant rant continued. I stopped. Though it could jeopardize future work for a lucrative client, I felt compelled to speak. “I’m one of them,” I said. Awkward silence followed. I resumed my preparations. Some time later after the shoot, while I put away my gear, the registrar came up and apologized. “I tried being a Christian once,” he said. “It just didn’t take.” We talked.
This episode offered me two roads. Keep silent and do my job, and thereby passively align with the shameless mocking of the sophisticated university staff who had hired me, or align with a room full of college kids singing the praises of Jesus. They were choruses with little depth and had significant theological components missing. God made the road clear. I want to align with his people, whatever stage they are in their grasp of the riches of Christian worship and singing. “I am one of them.”
SOLEMNITY OR JOY
I want to be like Augustine, listening in on the singing of the early church: “How greatly did I weep in thy hymns and canticles, deeply moved by the voices of thy Church so sweetly singing.”
Or like John Bunyan while yet an unbeliever, eavesdropping on four Christian women chatting at their laundry. “They spake as if joy did make them speak,” he recorded, and later immortalized them as the four virtuous women at House Beautiful.
I doubt that Augustine or Bunyan would have been overly impressed eavesdropping on solemnity. I believe we must recover awe and reverence in our corporate worship, but if our solemnity is not the prelude to overflowing joy at the grace of God in Jesus, it may simply be a caricature of reverence. Dour formalism can pass for solemnity for some of us, so can sophisticated detachment, boredom. Even depression could pass for solemnity.
Both joy and solemnity can be faked and have their counterfeits. Wise, self-aware Christians will ask themselves the hard question: Which pole am I most prone to? We see the ecstasy of the other guys and call it fake joy, superficial, unsophisticated. They see our solemnity and call it dead formalism, boredom, spiritual rigor mortis. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we are not.
Which one is retained when the Church shifts from caring about the authority of the Bible to caring more for the authority of new cultural ideas? The liberal progressive church that long ago abandoned the gospel of Martin Luther and the Reformers, still retains much of the appearance of reverence and solemnity in its worship services.
I’m frequently in European cathedrals, abbeys, and parish churches, most of them hollow shells of their former theological distinctives. But even though they have abandoned their spiritual convictions, in their formal gatherings, they retain the façade of reverence and solemnity. For most of us, solemnity is far easier to fake than real joy. Pharisees were great at solemnity in their worship.
We are in grave danger when we consider ourselves to have more in common with the progressive liberal church because of music style than we consider ourselves to have with churches that are passionate about the gospel and yet, at this stage in their understanding, use the entertainment ethos and pop contemporary music.
What will make the nations say, “The Lord has done great things for them”? Is it, “Wow! Look how solemn they are.” No! It’s joy, “shouts of joy” in our worship.
The elitist, power-monger critics of Calvin’s ministry and the Reformation sneered at vernacular psalm singing, calling their songs “Geneva gigues.” There’s a reason why they didn’t call them “Geneva dirges.” Gigue melodies were joyful dance music for the common peasant. Clearly, Calvin’s critics wanted more solemnity not more joy in Geneva’s sung worship.
The Devil is, no doubt, elated over all this. Here we are in the very act of worship thinking we are better than other Christians and churches who don’t do it our way. He is giddy, beside himself with glee.
Let’s switch that exuberance around. We will be compelled to “sing to the Lord with cheerful voice” when our singing springs inexorably from gazing upon the beauty of Christ. When we sing because we are so bedazzled by the stupendous glory of Christ in the gospel, then, and then only, will the war cease, battle over. We will be so entirely smitten with wonder at who Jesus is and just what he has fully accomplished in our place in the gospel of free grace, that singing in worship will flow from the deep well of transformed hearts, minds, and tongues. Overwhelmed by the person and work of Christ, we can join our hearts and lips in sung worship of the Savior in ways that will lavish love and generosity on those with whom we differ.
Only when we love, not only our neighbor, but our Christian brethren, yes, even the ones who vastly disagree with us on how we sing in worship, only then will the war be finished.
How we worship matters. But why we worship matters still more, and the fact that we worship with people from every tribe, kindred, people and tongue, matters first and last. Joyful singing because we have come more to love as we have first been loved by Christ—this matters above all.
Hymn writer Matthew Bridges thrills our hearts and joyfully invites us to join him in such a heavenly anthem:
Crown him with many crowns,
The Lamb upon his throne.
Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns
All music but its own.
Weary of in-house warfare, together let us long for the day when “the heavenly anthem” does, indeed, “drown all music but its own.” But we must tune our hearts, our minds, and our ears to what such a heavenly anthem would sound like. Such an anthem will be high above us, out of our reach, and will require “all that is within us.” Surely, such an anthem must be closest to how God himself sings, closest to the psalms, closest to the hymn Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and his disciples sang at the Last Supper.
Crown him the Lord of peace,
Whose power a scepter sways;
From pole to pole, that wars may cease,
Absorbed in prayer and praise.
The more enthralled we are with the Redeemer, the more we are truly “absorbed in prayer and praise” of the “Lord of peace,” the sooner our worship wars will cease.
All hail, Redeemer, hail!
For thou hast died for me;
Thy praise shall never, never fail
Let’s recommit ourselves to singing the way God sings and the way we will be singing “throughout eternity.”
Douglas Bond is author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) and twenty-seven other books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours in Europe. His latest book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To), from which this post is an excerpt, is available at bondbooks.net/shop; order today and receive a free Rise and Worship cd.