Isaac Watts published his paraphrase of Psalm 117 in the early 18th century:
From all that dwell below the skies;
Let the Creator’s praise arise.
Let the Redeemer’s name be sung
Through every land by every tongue.
On January 18, 2016 my wife Collyn and I will begin a seven-month adventure of teaching and learning that will include six Asian countries, New Zealand, and Australia. In many ways this pilgrimage began for me in August of 1989 when I traveled to Ogbomosho, Nigeria in the heart of Yoruba-land to teach at the Baptist Seminary there. I came away from that experience in December five months later having learned a lot about myself. First, I knew that I wanted to continue this pilgrimage. I also learned a lot about my vulnerabilities — for example, I learned what culture shock was. I learned what it felt like in some small way for the white Iowan to be a minority – albeit a privileged minority. I discovered that I was perhaps more adventuresome and willing to take risks than some. I also found that I have prejudices of many kinds. I’m sure some of these will probably surface in the next few months.
After about forty countries and about four years cumulative out of the country, I have also learned that there is no such thing as a set agenda. Whether in the classroom, in a worship service, on the road, in social situations, things rarely go as planned (more accurately, as I understood the plan to be). I have discovered how to prepare as well as I can and then go with the flow. I find that my tolerance for usual tourism is limited and that the relationships formed in these encounters are what last. I have learned that teaching is really just an excuse to learn from ones “students.”
I am often asked if I am a missionary. At first I rejected this notion, especially when I have seen the kind of sacrifice, humility, and devotion of career missionaries. I have finally decided, however, that I am a missionary – a missionary who attempts to bring the good news of the song and worship of other cultures back home to my own context. Others ask if I am an ethnomusicologist. While I have read in this field and find the resources most helpful, I have different goals. Though I have learned many songs and experienced many worship rituals, I am not a collector of songs or a documenter of rituals or cultures. I am much more interested in providing a bridge between the worship and sung faith of those I meet around the world and the cultures of my home. I am not interested in “multiculturalism” (actually most any “ism”), but in broadening my understanding of who God is and seeing if I can be part of a process of doing the same for congregations, especially in the United States.
The hymn cited above is 300 years old. On one level it expresses a desire based on Psalm 117 that all nations should praise God. Watts’ paraphrase of this psalm – the shortest of all – is one of my favorites. The underlying political context is one of monarchy and the colonial expansion of the British Empire. While those that participated in the great mission movement of the 17th through the mid-20th centuries on the field or in countless faithful congregations in North America and Europe were a part of the colonial expansion of North American and European cultures, they also had an unbelievable impact on the dissemination of the faith. I am not one, however, who wants to spend time joining the chorus of those who critique the implied colonial motivations, the establishment of empire, cultural hegemony, or ethnic insensitivities of the missionaries of previous generations. I have encountered too many missionaries whose level of commitment, depth of faith, level of cultural awareness, and love of people are astounding. Cultural and theological hegemony still abounds for sure; but perhaps we should focus on the log in our own eyes rather than the slivers in those of past generations. The bigger question for me is what it means to have a 21st-century understanding “through every land, by every tongue.”
I’m not sure where this blog will take me over the course of the next few months. I am not one to journal, though I did record some thoughts in that African experience in 1989. I feel that this might be the time to reflect on this pilgrimage – by that I mean all of these ventures from 1989 through the present one – the last study leave I will take before I retire. One of the benefits of this kind of experience is that you learn the importance of becoming conscious of ones own social location. In my case, that is a white, middle-class mid-westerner who has had a rather privileged vocation of teaching graduate church music students for about four decades and serving generous congregations. I have a job security that few understand, and the resources of my university and a wonderful community of former students, several of whom will host me in the coming months. Basically, I have been paid to think and share that thinking in classrooms, workshops, publications, worship, and in any venue that I can get to listen to me. It is great fun. To those who join me for some of this pilgrimage, I am grateful for your interest and any comments you might share.
I hope to follow this initial blog with some reflections on my most recent pilgrimage to Pakistan in October 2015. The picture at the top is of the one of the most stunning locations on the face of the earth – the coastline near Cape Town, South Africa.