I’m thankful for church music. I’m thankful for church music that flows under the leadership of gifted, non-professional followers of Jesus in a small local church. Of course, you could also be thankful for church music led by gifted professional followers of Jesus in a faithful mega church. But, that’s not my reality. I’m especially thankful for the church music I get to enjoy in the expression of Jesus’ body God has made me a part of – small, local, and precious. May tell you why? It requires a little bit of story-telling.
Recently I spent a day down in Monterey accomplishing my “other” job – meaning my duty as a member of the Air Force Reserves. During part of that day I listened to a speech given by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force at the 2019 Air, Space and Cyber Conference, hosted by the Air Force Association (AFA).
Now, in case you don’t speak Air Force, let me give some context to the significance of this speech and its moment. The Air Force Chief of Staff is the senior ranking officer wearing an Air Force uniform, responsible for well over 650,000 Air Force personnel – active duty, National Guard, reserves, and civilians. He is also the chief advisor to our nation’s civilian leadership for Air Force air power matters, in particular the President of the United States. In short, what he says matters…a lot (Note: By way of a brief tangent, let me also acknowledge how blessed the Air Force is by the leadership of General David Goldfein. While I don’t know him personally, I know he’s a leader one can easily follow with confidence).
Not only do the Chief’s thoughts matter greatly in the life of the Air Force, but the Chief’s comments offered at this particular event carry special weight. My sense of the AFA’s annual conference is that this event has become a unique grounding point for the Air Force each year. It is one of the leading-edge moments in the annual life-cycle of the service. While technically speaking the AFA is a non-governmental organization, the audience I saw on video was awash with uniformed Air Force folks. Not only that, but it included the then acting secretary of the Air Force, our top civilian leader within the department. All this to say, this conference and General Goldfein’s speech were more than a little significant for the Air Force in 2019.
How does any of this relate to my thankfulness for church music? Hang with me…I’m getting there. As General Goldfein finished his speech, he invited on stage a musical artist named Dwayne O’Brien, a singer for the band Little Texas. Some years back, O’Brien wrote a song titled “We Remember” for the 50th birthday of the U.S. Air Force. It is now, according to General Goldfein, a mainstay of Air Force history and culture (And I’m sure he’s right. I’ve probably heard it many times without realizing what I was listening to). At the General’s invitation, Dwayne O’Brien began to sing “We Remember.” While he sang, captivating images of Air Force people cycled on the background screen – historic, nostalgic pictures, and present-day renderings of a proud service. Eventually, an Air Force choir and instrumentalists joined O’Brien, each one wearing special ceremonial-type uniforms. If you’re an Air Force member it was all oriented toward stirring your pride, tapping into your passion, and energizing your desire to serve well. Particularly because of what I’ll say next, know that – when rightly understood and entered into – I appreciate such moments. They matter for the branch of the service I’m privileged to be a part of.
As I listened to O’Brien sing and observed the spectacle of the moment, somewhere in the back of my mind the thought began to grow: “This is a religious event! I’m watching a sort of church service.” It was all there: The Gospel of U.S. Air Force dominance; a senior-pastor preacher wearing four stars exhorting the listening faithful; the liturgy of Air Force culture; a special music demonstration with a choir to back up the singer; and the language of passion and service. We even had vestments, we just call them uniforms. This was a religious moment in the “high church” of America’s Air Force warriors.
Struck by that thought, I then felt a sense of hollowness, especially hollowness tied to the song. This anthem to the Air Force – it’s heritage, it’s fallen heroes, and the country it serves – it wasn’t enough! It wasn’t ultimate; it wasn’t finally satisfying; it wasn’t lasting; it wasn’t eternal. The U.S. Air Force is important, yes, crucially so in the life of this country. But it is also, in the final analysis, a passing entity. There will come a day when the U.S. Air Force will cease to exist.
This line of thinking made me glad (again, somewhere in the back of my mind). It made me thankful. It made me thankful for what we enjoy as the body of Christ. It made me thankful for Sunday morning church singing – Sunday morning church singing at Felton Bible where we aren’t professional, we aren’t a crowd of thousands, we aren’t a congregation of influential people who are movers and shakers in any worldly context. But we are something special, incredibly so. We are special because we are created in the image of God. We are special because we are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. This means that when we, by faith, sing for the glory of God, the heavens shake! When we sing, our singing finds its grounding in eternal, tangible, unchangeable realities – God, his glory, his character, his ways, and his stupendous work of redemption. The mere 72-year history of the Air Force can’t begin to compare with the transcendent reality that undergirds Christian singing. When we open our mouths in praise of Jesus (no matter how it sounds in the moment) we by faith experience a power to change hearts, to move the universe, and to please God that “We Remember” will never touch.
This is why, as Thanksgiving and then Christmas approach, I’m grateful for church music!