A Guest Post by Ken Michell
This is the sixth in a series of posts engaging with the sermons in Leaps of Faith: Sermons from the Edge. This post is a reflection upon a sermon entitled “Let Heav’n and Nature Sing!” (pp. 69-77). The Scriptural text for the sermon was Luke 1:26-38, 46-55.
In a practicum assignment in my doctoral program, Dr. Lester Ruth commented, “there’s no such thing as extemporaneous prayer.” The majority of our prayers, submitted to the Holy Spirit, have their roots in our learning and education as well as our past experiences of worship. What we improvise, seemingly spontaneously, is largely a function of the formative practices that have shaped us.
Rob draws attention to this reality in Luke 1, describing Mary, first and foremost, as a disciple who is “rooted in the story of God.” The defining narrative of the Jewish people is the exodus event where God heard their cries of suffering and delivered his people out of bondage and slavery. God is the rescuer who fulfills his promise to redeem his people that is remembered in the past, celebrated in the present and anticipated in the future. Mary improvises on these redemptive and hopeful themes in her song of praise (Lk. 1:46-55).
Musicians and athletes draw on years of repetition, developing muscle memory to train their actions and reactions to become second nature. Mary, even at her tender age, bears witness to her formative development and faithful obedience. As Rob says, “disciples are called to the art of improvisation.” A theology of improvisation assumes the formative practices of faithful discipleship.
The lyrical content of Mary’s song is preserved for us in Scripture, but the melody, harmony and rhythm are open to contextual interpretation. Once again, it’s a lesson in improvisation. Musicians don’t invent new notes just as the content of Christian worship isn’t something that we make up. We have the stylistic liberty to adapt, but the message of the good news of Jesus Christ remains the same. As Rob puts it so well, we offer “endlessly new variations on the eternal theme.”
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17) and the freedom to improvise draws on the foundations of discipleship practices that ground our behaviour and identity in God’s story. Mary’s song is an offering of praise that is the artful improvisation of a disciple rooted in the story of God.
Ken Michell is Worship Director at Bridlewood Presbyterian Church in Scarborough and the 5:00 pm Music Director at Knox Presbtyterian Church in Toronto.