Commentary

Some people’s junk is other people’s treasure

The church saves what some of us think is valuable; some don’t share our values.

From our bedroom window I could see unfamiliar cars lining both sides of the street for the entire block. A few minutes later I discovered there were signs posted on Cedar Avenue announcing “Estate Sale Today.”

The press of people at the sale, all day long, was quite unbelievable. My wife and I soon added to the crush. Lemming-like, we walked across the street to see what was inside. My prejudice was immediately confirmed. It was other people’s junk. I escaped after only five minutes. (Okay, I confess. I currently own an Orvis Fly Rod that came to me through a moment of weakness at an estate sale at the old Danish American Center.)

On Sunday morning, when I walked my dog before going to worship, there were people sitting in their cars — and standing in line — waiting to get into the estate sale (it opened up again at 10 a.m.). My cynical side kicked in and I thought, “Are estate sales an alternative form of worship?
What a great way to start a new congregation! Just post a sign saying, ‘Estate Sale Today,’ wait for the people to flock in, and then reveal the ancient treasure of the Good News we have to share.”

There are perks to being a retired pastor. I get to experience many different worship communities. My two most recent were Jacob’s Well, a new ELCA congregation in our neighborhood (a community effectively reaching an emerging generation) and St. Joan of Arc, a progressive Roman Catholic congregation that creates a tremendous traffic jam every Sunday morning, with people of all ages who love their worship.

I found that both worship communities were stimulating and welcoming, but neither congregation embraces traditional forms of church music or historic hymnody. The praise band and soloist have replaced the traditional hymns and choral anthems that in my past have been my experience of Christian worship.

As I was leaving one of these services, I had the disturbing thought that I had spent the last 40 years trying to teach young couples that their wedding was a worship service, in which the music should give glory to God, when all they really wanted was to have their favorite love song. And now, much contemporary Christian music sounds like the love songs that they wanted in the first place.

My suggestion that wedding music should praise God and allow the congregation to participate once led an unhappy groom to kick a hole in my office door on the way out!
I realize I have work to do in learning to appreciate the music and lyrics of the praise band in worship even as I love the people who love this music.

My wife and I attended the splendid retirement celebration of Pastor Paul Tidemann, during which we heard the enthusiastic chancel choir and brass ensemble of St. Paul-Reforma-tion Lutheran Church perform “When in Our Music God is Glorified” and “He Never Failed Me Yet.” On the same day we attended a sold-out performance at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis of the F. Melius Chistiansen 135th Anniversary Concert. Five Lutheran college choirs participated. Those singing groups — representing Augsburg, Concordia Moorhead, Concordia St. Paul, Gustavus Adolphus and St. Olaf — produced magnificent music. They sang in Latin, German, English, Spanish, Japanese and the music of many other cultures.

But as I sat there, enjoying the concert, I felt some anxiety. I noticed that the majority of the audience were people of retirement age. I found myself wondering about the future of the great Lutheran choral tradition.

The ELCA’s new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, is a marvelous resource with its 10 worship settings and celebrations of life passages, with hymns from the past and present, drawing from traditions from all over the globe. The early printings have sold out quickly. Clearly at least some of our congregations are investing in the church’s sung historic liturgy, with many musical and spoken settings.

Not all among our youth are strangers to this great musical heritage. I have marveled on several occasions to see preschool children singing the Eucharistic settings of the liturgy at worship, and sometimes even while they play. Their song brought great joy to the hearts of their parents and grandparents.

Clearly, some people’s junk is other people’s treasure.

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Wheeler, a retired ELCA pastor, most recently served Bethel Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis. He continues to live in the neighborhood of Bethel Church.