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Seth Little, director of worship arts at All Angels' Episcopal Church in New York City, describes how worship music can unite people of diverse backgrounds. He witnesses to the presence of mystery in worship and both the challenges and joys of his ministry amid the US racial reckoning and a global pandemic. Host: Will Shine
Link: All Angels' Church
Below are excerpts from today's Forecast about Seth's ministry. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
The blessing of discomfort
At All Angels, I started playing these fairly standard gospel tunes that I'd heard...but I struggled to feel like I was worshiping. I realised that my cultural assumption is that worship feels different than this.
And yet I can think of my friend...who's a black man who grew up in a black church that sings a different repertoire of music, probably much more like what I'm singing now, and he's like, 'I just can't get into this music' at the church where we were singing all this other stuff that I think is more of a white, contemporary charismatic cultural default.
These are cultural conflicts. So I've thought there's much to probe there in a local congregation, and here at All Angels, I think we're poised to explore that some...I think 'probe' is probably an accurate word, whether it's a medical probe or a probe into deep space. It's uncomfortable and risky and awkward. But it's exploring the edges.
I actually think there's something about discomfort that may be more authentic to the inbreaking kingdom of God than comfort. There's something about being on the edge in these liminal spaces that feels a lot more organic to the life of faith.
Mystery and unity
There's mystery involved in music, ontologically speaking. In all the arts, the aesthetic dimension extends beyond our rational faculties can grasp.
And yet it's essential. We need that. We need to engage with beauty and with emotion and raw interaction with aesthetics in a way that isn't satisfied with criticism but moves into contemplation...we need a healthy dose of mystery, of humility, to understand that we cannot get our heads around all of life and all that there is. The ontology of things ultimately is beyond our grasp. Being belongs to God.
So I think music itself transcends our understanding. One of the reasons we sing together is because it's more than we can understand in its power, which points to all kinds of mysteries in life that's really healthy.
But I also think of music as community-making all the time, literally bridging divides.
So we can have a room together of people that have all kinds of different backgrounds: homed and homeless, people that live uptown and downtown in the boroughs, people that have incredible, powerful roles in society and people that are really not sure about their next meal, literate and illiterate side-by-side. And that literally happens in our church, which is really beautiful, really challenging when you look up close, but really beautiful.
But we can sing together and are truly united in that song.
Seth Little is Director of Worship Arts at All Angels' Church in New York City.
Related work on Foreshadow:
Peacemaking through Song (Interview with September Penn)
Will Shine is a co-host of Forecast.