Music at Gloria Dei: Finding New Language to Experience our Faith
I’ve been at Gloria Dei for just over six years and I’m always amazed at how unique this community is. Lots of things catch my attention, but toward the top of the list are a real sense of welcome, and our creativity and willingness to explore our faith together in new ways.
I’ve been thankful to take part in a variety of roles and projects here, but my strongest passion is in music. I’ve led the worship team at EpicOneEight since it began, and I recently started leading music for Water’s Edge. I was also able to help curate new liturgical music this fall for The Table. I love this role because of the opportunity to be creative and work with other amazing musicians, but also because I believe our songs have a big impact on how we understand our faith.
In some ways I think about music itself as having two basic parts - the actual sound and the lyrics. Both of these can convey an idea, thought, or emotion on their own, but used in combination they’re a powerful force.
Each worship gathering at Gloria Dei has its own sort of identity and calls out for a specific energy in its music. For me, that energy has little to do with style or age (though those components are important, often surprising, and help shape the sound).
Even though a song like “Breathe” is only a handful of years old, something about its piano intro and reflective tone carries a depth that ties The Table to generations of faithful people. But the banjo-driven “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” a la Sufjan Stevens, helps a familiar, traditional hymn feel like it was made for a group to sing with each other in a circle around a fire.
When it comes to the lyrics of our music, I like to think first about what words, language, and symbols mean, especially the ones that go along with our ideas of “church.”
Reza Aslan, author and religious scholar, once wrote, “religion... is the language we use to express faith. It is a language made up of symbols and metaphors that allows people to express to each other (and to themselves) what is, almost by definition, inexpressible.”
Paul Tillich argued that religious language must be understood symbolically. Sufi mystics describe this language as “a signpost to God.” My point? Words are hard, complicated, inefficient things.
And while it’s no secret that our world is changing, so is the collective understanding of faith and religion. We have a long history of words, stories, and songs that we can use to communicate our experience of faith. But the challenge is that we have such a wide variety of life experiences and perspectives that sometimes we use the same words and mean something different. And sometimes the words that we have internalized - or learned to say in a certain situation from those around us - aren’t really our own words. Or at least they aren’t the words that we mean to say, they’re just the ones that we have.
When we say “everything happens for a reason”, are we saying that’s the only way “God’s plan” would work out? Or do we really mean, “I’m so sorry that this is happening. But I know that you’re strong, you have a great community around you, and you can make it through this. You might even learn or experience something that will be helpful in the future.”
Sometimes we mean the latter, but we don’t know the words.
So when I think about the songs we sing, I’m looking for music that will help us open things up and add to how we understand and describe our faith experience. In curating music for worship, the exciting part for me is that there are so many places where people are telling our story (and sometimes they don’t even know it)!
When I hear Mavis Staples sing “I wanna get it through to you, you're not alone,” I can’t help but be reminded of the way God is with us through each other. So let’s sing that together.
When we sing Ben Grace’s take on “For Everyone Born,” I hear a bold affirmation of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. This might be a small way our congregation can continue to live out our welcome statement.
When I hear John K. Samson tell the story of an oak tree that existed “long before” a number of cultural events in his hometown of Winnipeg, it reminds me of the long history of people trying to sort out this God stuff.
When we sing, we probably don’t all believe every word, or on any given day our own experience might mean we can’t sing. But we still do it together. It’s one of the ways we continue to remind each other about the God who is the essence and center of our community.
You can listen to a spotify playlist that inspires Chris as he selects music for Gloria Dei Worship.