Monday Morning, January 28, 2008
Rip Van Winkle was the envy of some of his neighbor friends up in the Castkill Mountains of New York just after the Revolutionary War. Twenty years before, he escaped his irksome wife and the tedious chores back home on the farm, wandered up into the mountain forest, chatted with some odd characters in the deep, dark woods, drank some of their hard liquor and drifted off to sleep under a shady tree. When he woke up after a nap that spanned two decades, his world had changed.
His wife died. The farm was sold. His village no longer hailed themselves as loyal subjects of King George of England. His Dutch friends, many of them hen-pecked as he had been, envied his transformation – the new life and the new world he awakened to after a twenty year disappearance. So goes the old familiar children’s tale of Rip. (Rest in Peace – ha! I just now noticed that.)
At this stage in my life, in an odd sort of way, I identify with the old storybook character. (Certainly, I’m not thinking of his marriage – mine is quite an enviable and satisfying partnership after all these years.) My identification with RVW has more to do with the world of Christian ministry; the church and pastoral leadership and worship and that sort of thing.
I was a card carrying member of the professional clergy some twenty years ago or more. Then four years ago, I re-activated the credentials and joined up once again. I took a twenty year leave of absence, immersing myself in the world of business before making a kind of come-back. I stretched and yawned and rubbed my eyes, stood to my feet, scratched the back of my skull and wandered off the hill, out of the dark forest and back into the village I’d left behind.
I woke up to a new world. Me and Rip.
Four years ago, I would have vigorously denied that I had been asleep; unplugged. I considered myself engaged. But Sunday after Sunday, same church, same folks in the row beside you and in front and back, same preacher, same ecclesiastical routines and without knowing it, you are lulled to sleep in a familiar, dreamy world of predictable ritual until someone or something wakes you up. In two decades, especially in this era of ever accelerating rates of change, the rest of the world moves on.
When Rip awakened, his children were grown, his village prospered and the government changed hands. Since I re-entered “The Ministry” four years ago, I encountered a depth of fundamental change on the order of an American Revolution. Sometimes, to this very day, I am wide-eyed in amazement; a Rip Van Winkle caught up in re-discovery.
And it has changed me.
For one – I’ve learned to worship. This Sunday would be Exhibit A.
Back in the days of the hymnal (I’m old enough to remember those), singing was a mechanical ritual. (Well, not for everyone. I remember well one pastor I worked for who Sunday after Sunday stood ramrod at attention bellowing a joyful noise caught up in praise and wonderment as though he really believed the lyric. And I think it did. It was an infectious sort of singing; and we got a taste of it then.)
But something happened while I was sleeping. I hear maybe it started in London or Australia or some exotic place way beyond the neatly manicured suburbs of the U.S. of A. A new song took hold; maybe it was the generation that followed Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa when Chuck Smith baptized Flower Children at the beach in Corona del Mar when acoustical guitars and tambourines replaced electronic organs and upright pianos. A new song grabbed hold of the hearts of believers all over the world; crossing denominational lines and ethnic boundaries and even bottled up Lutherans might dare raise up hands lost in the marvel of praise.
Some churches separate the old-timers from the new-comers. They segregate themselves into separate rooms at separate meeting times. There are delicate, non-offensive ways of saying it: Traditional vs. Contemporary. The Hymn Crowd vs. The Chorus Crowd. (Anyone who calls them “Choruses” betrays their old-school roots.) And now that I’m awake, there are countless variations on the theme. We Christians have an enormous capacity for grouping – some call it “Venue Preference.”
So here I am, back in worship. And the lyrics of an old hymn appear on the screen. “Come thou fount of every blessing,” and our worship leader draws us in. The music is first rate. The musicians so good you forget they are there. “Tune my heart to sing Thy praise.” And like a gift too long forgotten, my heart tunes in.
“Streams of mercy, never ceasing…. Call for songs of loudest praise.” Indeed.
But the next phrase hits me. “Teach me some melodious sonnet…”
That’s it. For decades the church prayed in the words of this old hymn that God would by his Spirit inspire a new song. A new melody. A sonnet – on the order of Shakespeare and Keats and Shelley in lyric and rhyme to touch hearts, new every generation. “Sung by flaming tongues above…” just like the first church, caught up the wonder of it all.
There it was. Right there in the old familiar hymn.
And as I awake, I see it happening. And it touches me. Even me.
Rip van Ken.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008