These are a few of my least favorite things: umbrellas, litter, slugs, and stinky cheese. And here’s a recent addition to the list – the word “relevant.” I noticed an advertisement in The Washington Post this past week for a concert by the Choir of Westminster Abbey at Washington National Cathedral. It suggests that this concert is: “Keeping ancient traditions ALIVE and RELEVANT in the modern world”. Who said this? Reading it made me shudder.
Expressing my dismay at this need to be relevant, I was pointed towards Henri Nouwen’s 1989 book In the Name of Jesus which warned of this very thing. For those who don’t know the book, Nouwen, specifically addressing clergy but admonishing all Christians, I believe, urges church leaders to beware of the temptation to be relevant (turn these stones into bread, Jesus), to be spectacular (show us how great you are, Jesus, by throwing yourself from this pinnacle and saving yourself), and to be powerful (which makes Nouwen wonder if we find it easier to be God than to love God).
That first one, the temptation to be relevant feeds our need, or a church’s need, to be productive, successful, competent. Relevancy requires a quantitative usefulness and measurable signs of success. Well, that pretty much defines everything I do as irrelevant. And those choir members from Westminster Abbey who rehearse and sing services daily, and then travel 3,000 miles from home to make music for an American audience? How to measure their productivity?
Fortunately Nouwen reminds the reader of Jesus’ response in the fourth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word – and for some, every musical note – that comes from the mouth of God. Nouwen believed that we are closer to the heart of God when we simply offer our vulnerable selves to God. For some, hearing a beautifully trained choir in a glorious space might not only help them to hear the voice of God more clearly, but might also call up all kinds of vulnerabilities – our irrelevancy, our lack of greatness, and our powerlessness. Hmmm…maybe that makes such an opportunity to hear a musical tradition come alive more relevant than I thought!