There’s a scene in Season 1 of Transparent between music producer Josh and Rabbi Raquel where they laugh about how different their jobs are. He talks about looking for the next new sound, something totally original that no one has ever heard before. She replies that her ministry seems like the exact opposite, “I just try to take really really really old [stuff] that people have heard a million times, and I try to make it sound new.”
That’s the conversation that came to mind as I tried to explain the phenomenon of Hamilton to my grandmother after lunch the other day. What’s so special about a musical on one of the founding fathers? And you say it’s a rap? There are roughly one thousand other articles about what makes this musical so special (here, here, and here, to cite a few) but to sum it up, it’s a fresh way of telling a familiar story that includes voices we’ve never heard so clearly before. It’s an articulation that reaches new ears. I wonder if on some level that is why so many of my clergy friends are obsessed with the “American musical.”
See, that is so much of what we do in ministry. We have heard the sing-songy Psalms and memorized the frame-able verses of Scripture; we know the big names and their general context like distant relatives on our family tree. We start to recite along with the Scripture readings or prayers before we even realize we’ve opened our mouths. In many ways, that ritual is beautiful. It has seeped in at the cellular level, so we live and breath our faith deeply, almost unconsciously. But if that’s all we’ve got, it gets stale and will crack in the light of closer examination. Not to mention, what is precious to those of us who have grown up in it is completely foreign and uninviting to newcomers with their own beloved traditions.
Now before I lose you, I don’t mean ministry involves scheming to try to come up with better marketing for the same old stuff. I mean that ministry involves an open imagination to let the Holy Spirit water the seeds of Scripture so they bloom into new flowers in our lives. I mean that sometimes saying the same thing a different way is all it takes to reach someone. I mean what I have always meant: our words matter. Our rhythms and tone and style matter not because we are in the market to entertain but because our hearts all speak different languages. Isn’t that the miracle of Pentecost–that the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples and everyone heard the Good News in their own language? God meets each of us where we are, and a little holy imagination goes along way for God’s people to catch up to God in that pursuit.
Listen to Hamilton in all it’s glory here: Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast)