Playing the “Music” of Liturgy

Witnessed the yearly piano recital of my two oldest today in the public hall of the Waltham Public Library. Hearing their lovely melodies and inspired playing reminded me of one of my boss’ best articles on the subject of music, inspiration, and worship. Enjoy!


Katertyna Tereshchenko, Pianist by Ralf Roletschek; online at

This past summer, my 10 year-old son made a significant breakthrough in his piano playing.  All last year, I watched him practice as though practicing was just one more task on his “to do” list before breakfast.  He marched through 20 minutes of practicing just as he marched through “make my bed,” “feed the dog,” and “pack my snack.”  Where was the joy, the appreciation of beauty, the sense of accomplishment?  Masterpieces from Bach to Bizet were reduced to equal footing with readied backpacks and signed permission slips.  The tasks were accomplished.   And music was nowhere to be heard.

And so it was with surprise that I overheard my son, one day in early August, playing a new Bach piece – and it was beautiful!  Without any input from me, what had previously been merely four or eight measures’ worth of individual notes had become phrases, each gathering energy before tapering gently at the end, like the rhythm of little waves approaching the shore.  The dynamics had broadened from a perpetual  mezzo forte into recognizable fortes and pianos, even with crescendos and decrescendos.  I could hear a new-found articulation that clearly distinguished staccato from legato.   And above all there was a sense of playfulness – joy, even – in his practicing.  I could hear that he could hear the music.

What had happened?  It could be that something finally clicked, that he had passed one of those unmarked yet discernible developmental stages like moving beyond parallel play or catching a ball.  Or maybe all the rote practicing he did during the year really was necessary before he could blossom into making music.   But I wonder…  Maybe something about summer helped him finally shift out of “task mode” and encounter music as music.   I wonder if removing the burden of music as yet one more thing to do – or taking it out of the school year and away from the context of evaluation and grading, or removing from it the expectation of becoming “well-rounded” or of distinguishing himself among his peers for a future college application – enabled him to focus on music as music.  In “play mode” he was able to encounter music’s integrity, to let it captive him, to challenge and speak to him.  In the context of “play” my son was able to engage music as something beautiful and with the potential for joy.

Just as it is easy to overlook the music and reduce piano practice to the realm of “task,” so is it easy to overlook Jesus and the Gospel and to the think of the Church as just “one more thing” to do:   “But Sunday morning is the only time I have to     fill in the blank     .”  “I don’t have time to pray.”  “God loves me and understands.  Church can wait.”  And Trinity’s buildings do not help diminish an impression of “task” – maintaining our large physical plant can easily overwhelm our attentions.  But to think of the Church as a task is to miss the point of Church.  Don’t get me wrong – tasks are important, and tasks can be an expression of, and a way to deepen, our faith – but the Gospel is bigger than tasks.

What is the Church’s task?  William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942-1944, was known for his commitment to social justice and his involvement in movements to affect social change.  For Temple, a faithful church was one that got out and got involved.   And so, when Temple was asked what he thought the task of the Church was, his answer was not entirely expected:

What is the task of the Church?” he said. “To be itself and not do anything at all.  All that it does is secondary and expressive of what it is.  And, first of all, it’s duty is to be in living actuality… the fellowship of those who have received the power of the Holy Spirit through the revelation of the love of God in Christ.  It exists to be the redeemed community which worships as redeemed.

When I first read “To be itself and not do anything at all,” I wanted to object.  “Aren’t we to feed the hungry and serve the poor?  (Surely, Archbishop, you of all people would agree that we are to serve the poor!)   Aren’t we to make disciples and baptize, and to evangelize and give? How can you say that the Church’s task is to be itself and not do anything at all?”

Though at first surprised by Temple’s answer, the more I consider it, the more I like it.  Rather like, as my son is discovering, music has an integrity of its own, so does the Church have an integrity of its own.  Just as 20 minutes of practicing the piano before school can become just one more task, missing the magic that is music, so can the Church become yet another task, missing the joy that is the Gospel.   I have a hunch that the Church’s tendency to devolve toward task is why the Church feels like “just one more thing” for so many, and why they find other things to do on Sunday morning when deep down their hearts crave the things of God.

I wonder what it would look like at Trinity, if we were to take Temple’s words to heart and regard the task of the Church “to be itself and not do anything at all… to be in living actuality… the fellowship of those who have received the power of the Holy Spirit through the revelation of the love of God in Christ.”   If my son’s experience with music is any indication, when we move beyond Church as “task” and begin to see Church, not as just one more thing in an already busy schedule, but as something with integrity in itself – something to captivate us and stimulate our curiosity, to engage our imagination and affections, to challenge us, to call forth that which is best in us – then we can begin to hear the “music.”   If we move from “task” to “play,” the “living actuality… of the fellowship of those who have received the power of the Holy Spirit” will come alive.  We will begin to better discern the phrases of the Spirit.  We will discover its dynamics, and the counterpoint between the Spirit and us takes shape.  Music can begin to happen.

It may not be easy to make room for this kind of play in our lives; we may be so overwhelmed with “task” that we are unable to step away from our functioning in task mode.  But once we begin to feel and play the music, we will crave more of the Gospel and wish we had begun to develop our relationship with God earlier.  I pray that we can catch at least a glimmer of a life beyond “task mode,” and that we can find in Christ and the Church, not just one more thing to do, but the “music” that we cannot help but play again and again.

— The Rev. Todd L. Miller
Rector, Trinity Parish of Newton Centre

1 thought on “Playing the “Music” of Liturgy

  1. Pingback: Playing the “Music” of Liturgy — Like Mendicant Monks… | Trinity Newton Homilies

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