Monday, November 4, 2013

Gluttony and Church Music: All I Want...

This post is a confession of sorts, so if that’s not your cup of tea, bail now.

Still here?


In Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis describes a sort of gluttony that’s not very obvious, which he calls “gluttony of Delicacy” (in contrast to “gluttony of Excess,” which is what we usually think of when we hear the word gluttony).

I’m going to quote a long passage because without it, none of the rest of this post is going to make any sense. Screwtape, the demon narrator, describes a woman ensnared in gluttony of delicacy:

She would be learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?...She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile, “Oh, please, please...all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.” You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment she is indulging her appetite she believes she is practicing temperance. In a crowded restaurant she gives a little scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says: “Oh, that’s far, far too much! Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it.” If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want....
            Her belly now dominates her whole life. The woman is in what may be called the “All-I-want” state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servant or any friend who can do these things “properly”—because her “properly” conceals an insatiable for the exact, and almost impossible, palatal pleasures which she imagines she remembers from the past; a past described by her as “the days when you could get good servants” but known to us as the days when her senses were more easily pleased and she had pleasures of other kinds which made her less dependent on those of the table.

I’ve read Screwtape Letters a number of times over the past twenty-five or thirty years. I come back to it again and again because Lewis has a way of nailing my hide to the wall through this book. Time and again I recognize my own sin and self-deceit in the people he describes.

But although this passage kind of intrigued me, it didn’t really resonate with me until a few months ago.

Now, if you attend church, you might be aware that some folks can get a bit cranky about their preferences in music for the church service. Some people love the old hymns. Some people prefer more contemporary worship songs. Some people like to rock out with a full band. Some prefer a more acoustic style. Some think the drums are always too loud. Always. For some, there’s just nothing like the piano and organ. Some like to hear a full choir. Some make fun of the onscreen graphics. Some long for the old hymnals. Some roll their eyes at every dirgelike old song the worship leader scrapes out of the bottom of the barrel. Some are offended by the very fact that the word “worship” now seems to apply exclusively to congregational singing and nothing else. And on and on it goes.

Not having any musical ability myself, I appreciate the talent and hard work that the worship pastor, singers, musicians, and tech support folks bring to the service. I couldn’t do what they do, and it’s an important part of the service.

The truth is, I never know which song from Sunday’s service I might find running through my mind later in the week, encouraging me or reinforcing something I’m learning. God doesn’t need me to like a song for Him to use it in my life.

And yet...there are songs that I love to sing, and there are other songs during which I have sometimes just been marking time, trying not to roll my eyes, waiting for the next portion of the service that I can wholeheartedly participate in.

Obviously, that’s an ugly attitude.

In my head, I don’t expect every moment of every service to be exactly what I like.

But in my heart, I was often grumpy.

So a few months ago, I was standing in church, singing a song I didn’t particularly care for, and I thought, It would be so simple for them to put together a really great song list. All I want...


There it was.

All I want...

I was right there, in that All-I-want state of mind that Lewis described.

Because what I wanted didn’t seem extravagant to me, I hadn’t recognized “as gluttony [my] determination to get what [I want], however troublesome it may be to others.”

I wasn’t wishing for a Superbowl halftime show, after all, complete with fireworks and the worship leader descending from a helicopter. I didn’t expect the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to accompany the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in our sanctuary. It’s not like I wanted a solo each week from Justin Bieber or Jay-Z or Adele or Taylor Swift.

So how hard could it be?


To paraphrase Lewis, what does it matter whether I want worship songs or hymns, piano or full band, acoustic or electric, reverent or rockin’—so long as by my insistence on my taste and my taste alone (and the seething that I indulge in when my taste isn’t catered to), I can be utterly distracted from worship, fellowship, prayer, ministry, learning, and, oh, I dunno, God?

If I’m standing in the sanctuary with my heart and mind in a critical place, I can be turned in a twinkling from worship to wistfulness to discontent to outright anger.

So where does that leave me?

Well...since that Sunday, I am still delighted by some of the songs that I find myself singing during church, and I still struggle to sing or mumble my way through others.

But lately, I just can’t seem to get indignant about any of it.

Lewis got me again. Thank You, Lord, for that.

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