Physicality and music in the experience and practice of faith

Placement Paper by Rev. Jan Andries de Boer, Protestant Church of the Netherlands visiting the United Church in Jamaica, participating in the programme ‘A New Face’ from the Council for World Mission, 6 September – 15 October 2010.

(1) Introduction to the topic
In the western world the physical part of being seems to be largely neglected in the church. We worship with our minds. Yes, we also worship with our souls. But the body is a different thing.

When singing, praying and praising at least the people in the Netherlands tend to sit or stand quiet. For me this part of our existence has always been very important and I have tried to find ways to change this situation.
Music belongs to the physical part of our being, as it is played with instruments and arouses a physical reaction. In the church in my country mostly old-fashioned music is being used, that doesn’t effect people very much. Young people experience the music as dull. As a minister I have introduced so-called ‘rock-services’. Services in which the usual hymns are replaced by songs from a well-known rock-group with Christian content, e.g. U2, played by a real rock-band. Even then Dutch people hardly dance.
We are part of the physical world. We have been created with bodies an have been made out of dust. And an important image of the church is that we are the Body of Christ. Reason enough to take this aspect of our being very serious.
Among other reasons it was the fact that Jamaicans are a very musical people that made me apply to participate at the New Face program, hoping that I would gain inspiration to use in my own context.
As a part of the introduction I like to add that it was quite a struggle to write this Placement Paper in the very short time that was given for it, considered the huge amount of material I have collected in the weeks of my stay here.


(2) Methodology
During the four weeks of being placed, first in the Kingston situation, Kingston being the capital of Jamaica and thus a real big city and then in a rural setting, I wrote down every experience that was different from what I experience ‘at home’. From those experiences I take the ones that have to do with physicality and music and compare them with my experiences at home.

(3) My context: a rational church, struggling to survive
I minister in a village in the Netherlands. The Netherlands, being a country in the ‘old world’, Europe, has a long history, in which items like the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ and the French Revolution are very important. Especially the Enlightenment had a huge influence on the world-view of its inhabitants, also of the Christians among them. It has caused a very rational way of believing, with many questions, which may discourage living faith. Questions like: how to understand this biblical story, how to interpret the miracles – those things cannot happen in reality, can they? Does God really hear us when we pray? Don’t results of scientific investigation contradict with the teachings of the church?
It is my opinion that there is no contradiction between the scientific world and the world of the Bible, since there is only one world. But a lot of questions arise, that not everybody can cope with and until now the church has generally speaking failed to find a convincing way to deal with those questions.
Especially for the established churches it is a huge challenge to survive in a context in which most people have a solid income (and do not feel very dependent of whatever what), in which the church has dissociated itself from the working class by preaching in a too intellectual way and thus does not enjoy much sympathy under the unemployed either. In short: Christianity in the Netherlands is in serious trouble, struggling to survive. Only a number of evangelic churches are doing better.

(4) Experiences in Jamaica

(4a) Physical interpretation and application of the Bible

● I felt that most (if not all) Jamaicans take the biblical stories very literally. Thus the Bible has the highest authority thinkable. In my country many people are saying that ‘everything that is being said about the above, comes from down under’, quote from prof. Kuitert. To say this in other words: although directly inspired by God, the Bible is a book written by man. This has its effect on the authority of the Scripture.

● The belief that God has become a human being and thus came into the flesh to this earth is very strong. This belief is problematic in the Netherlands, many people asking “is this possible that a person, even if this had to occur only once in Jesus, is both God and man?”

● The Kingdom of God emerges here and now as soon as people believe and follow Jesus. This is also being preached in the Netherlands.

● Many Christians in Jamaica experience the hand of God in all things of daily life. (See also under ‘Circumstances’.)

(4b) Worship

● There is a strong sense that God is present when people are worshiping. Although this is principally the same in the Netherlands, -in the Netherlands too we believe that when there are two or three gathered in Jesus’ name, He himself is present, this is experienced in a more powerful way here. There is a higher sense of holiness, as I would like to put it. An average educated Dutch person will not easily say that God is -almost touchable- present. Thus the power of the Holy Spirit is not felt as strong as possible.

● I feel that in the Jamaican situation many people are continuously praising and worshiping God in prayer, song and contemplating texts from the Bible. Thus I had to think about Matthew 5:14-16 again and again. In this passage Jesus sais to his disciples that they are the light of the world. We can be light if we are connected to God. Continuously praising and worshiping is a way of being and staying connected and thus being able to be this light.

● Greeting each other in the name of Jesus is being practised in every service. This is being done in a very physical way (hugging each other). Thus the words ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ are brought into practise. In the Dutch situation we will only do something simular when celebrating communion. And even then we will do not more then shaking hands and say something as ‘may the peace of Christ be with you’. It will certainly not take the 10 minutes it takes in Jamaican church.

● The preaching is often being done in very passionate and musical way. The preacher can even be screaming. I experienced one preacher who brought his sermon in a way that reminded me directly to the soul-artist James Brown. There was also a bass-player, a drummer and an organ-player who emphasized certains lines, spoken by the preacher. This likeness to James Brown is not strange, since soul music emerged from gospel, the singer taking the place of the minister, talking and singing about women in stead of God. Real preaching in this way is very powerful and stimulating. And the people often react with their voice, saying words like ‘amen’, ‘halleluja’, and ‘praise the Lord’. In the Netherlands most preachers are in fact giving a speech with quiet talking, giving people the opportunity to fall asleep. Many times the preacher will not know whether the listeners are getting the message, as they will hardly ever react during the sermon.

● The preaching as described above, and in some occasions the praying as well, can be done in a very dynamic way, in which the emotions grow stronger and stronger. It whips up the emotion in the congregation as it were. In my circles such a way of what can be felt as manipulating the people often is rejected, but if used in an integer way, it is useful in helping the people to come into another mood. Into a mood in which they will more easily experience the power of the Holy Spirit. Blockings are being taken away, and, talking about myself, I become joyful and open.

● One time I experienced a ‘silent prayer’. In my church this takes a very short time (I am used to take a whole minute and people consider this long), but in this particular situation (I only experienced it once) it took 10 minutes or more and many people were praying very passionate, most of them aloud, sometimes very loud or even with stomping their feet. This kind of praying does not only have a physical component, but also a musical component because of the sounds that are being made.

● When people praise while praying or singing, they often raise their arms, stretching our their hands towards God. In my country this is only practised in evangelical settings. In my church people feel shy to do so, but in my experience it is very powerful to do so. What you do with your body strengthens the thing you do with your mind.

● Although there are also churches in which old hymns are being sung, in many churches the singing is a very lively happening. People stand up, clap their hands and dance. Also very old people are moving their bodies with passion. And there are many churches with a so-called praise-team, who bring their songs very alive and making people very high-spirited.

● Singing and drums being the most physical music (because you can always sing as long as you can open your mouth, and you can always drums as long as your hands are free), also give the most pure music. This statement may be a meaning rather then an objective fact, but this meaning was confirmed as I experienced a service in a deep-rural community when there was no electricity and the drumming was the only thing that accompanied the singing. The result was very alive and very pure. Straight from the heart. One of the best musical experiences in church I ever was part of. (Video-fragment)

● In a number of the services I attended a dance group came to dance according to a choreography written to accompany a certain song. This is a way to show (and to experience) with your body what can be said or sung with words. Such a thing may be done in my context, but it happens hardly ever. I have been working with it in one of my rock-services.

● Many people are very easy to sing or to tell or show something in a service, or to pray in public, whereas many people in my context do not dare to do this so easily.

● I experienced a service in which there was an opportunity to confess personally and in spoken words. There was a man who did this and cried aloud. This is a physical way of expressing grief, not to be experienced in our churches (at least not in the churches from my denomination). Afterwards the gathered people prayed for him, stretching out a hand towards him, thus blessing him. I don’t know this practice from my own context.

● When people are praying together, they often hold hands. I experienced this at the end of a pastoral visit of a person in her home, in a hospital, at the breakfast-table and during an fasting service. During this fasting service (see below, under ‘denying yourself’) there was a prayer where all persons formed a circle and held hands while praying, and there was also a time for prayer in which the people attending the service were asked to go two-by-two and to find a place in the church to pray together, holding hands. I know this kind of praying from my own experience only from the communion service on White Thursday. Then the whole congregation forms a circle, and we pray the Lord’s prayer together holding hands.

(4c) Reaching out / Inviting in

● Mission belongs to the major tasks of the church. The most prominent kind of reaching out being done in Jamaica is reaching out in a very physical way, providing meals for the poor, providing medical help such as dental care, and providing judicial help. Above all the ‘bread and butter issues’ are of importance. In my country this kind of help is not very common. In this time of economic challenge, there are some food banks though. I think that the necessity of this kind of reaching out does also underline the importance of the church. Although we have to be very grateful that this necessity does not really exist in my country, it may also be a reason for the church not to be of a great importance in the Dutch society itself.

● I experienced a kind of reaching out when visiting a hospital with the pastor who was hosting me. He also visited patients that did not belong to his congregation, and prayed for them, without knowing what they were there for. But he prayed for instance for a belly to be healed, with his hand stretched out. And at another bed we were al praying together hand-in-hand. Both practices are physical. When I pray at a patient’s bed in hospital, I put my hands together and close my eyes. Sometimes I touch the person, but this is not a common practice in my country, though very powerful, I think.

● I experienced the above mentioned practice of holding hands while praying more than once (see above under worship). Also visiting a member of the congregation at home, and when another member of the congregation was staying in the manse, where she also slept, when we were praying together after having had breakfast.

● I mentioned a member of the congregation staying in the manse. I experienced this twice. This may be called ‘inviting in’, and is also a physical kind of helping. In fact it is physical and mental pastoral care at the same time. Some pastors in the Netherlands will allow members to stay at their homes, but most of us, including myself will not, except maybe when an extraordinary situation would occur. We are trained to ‘guard our borders’. Trained to maintain the right relation between distance and nearness. The question is: when may such a relation be called ‘right’.

● During my stay Jamaica had to cope with tropical storm Nicole, which caused a lot of damage. After the storm the pastor came to see how the land lied and spoke to many members of the congregation at the places where they live. This is a physical presence. I think that if such a thing would happen in my country many pastors living in villages would do just the same.

● I had the opportunity to visit a prison (Richmond Farm). In the person of the chaplain the church was physically present to provide all kinds of practical (physical) help. I cannot compare this with the Dutch situation, but I like to express that I respect this kind of presence highly. The chaplain could also be asked to make a phone-call with the wife, in the presence of the inmate himself, as I witnessed, which was very moving.

● A quite different form of reaching out in physical way (of being really present yourself) is being practiced by holding ‘street services’. Under the motto ‘If the people don’t come to the church, the church will come to the people’, services can be held on every spot thinkable. The street service or ‘open air meeting’ I attended, attracted some 14 people, while the preaching was directed to people who were staying inside as well. There was an amplifier and the houses having only thin wooden walls, the preaching could be heard inside. In the Netherlands there used to be people singing on the streets, but this is considered to be very out of date, and people who are passing by tend to feel sorry for those singing. The association I had during this service was the rock-service I was in the opportunity to do at a regular rock-festival, at the main stage.  As the street service, this was a service containing all the elements a service normally has: praying, reading of the Scripture, sermon, collection and benediction. This rock-service, however, was only a one time event. It was very special that I was invited to do so.

(4d) Denying yourself

● I learned that in Jamaica fasting is ‘a big thing’ as a pastor said. Every week a fasting service is being held in the congregation in Highgate were I stayed. In Kingston at Webster Memorial this was not the case, but the pastor of this congregation is also a person who is fasting at a regular basis. In the Netherlands there are some persons who deny themselves for instance alcohol during the 40 days before Easter. The practice in Highgate is that the persons who attend the fasting service, which is held between 10-13 am, will not eat or drink before the service is over. My host told me that the prayers being prayed during fasting have more power than normal. I enjoyed getting this relatively small feeling of thirst and hunger physically. After the fasting service I felt very peaceful. Being used to drink some alcohol every evening before going to bed, I also took the opportunity to deny this myself on the evening before. Denying myself some things I am used to consume made me feel stronger. And I think the pastors who told me that this physical way of fasting makes one  spiritually stronger are right.

● Other than in my country, where a minister gets the same money as a teacher at a high school, a minister in Jamaica is only getting little money from the church. A monthly allowance from the congregation and a stipend from the national church. This means that ministry itself is a form of sacrifice. This means that one really has to experience a calling to do ministry, and that it is inevitable to fail as a minister if this calling is insufficiently there.

● Alcohol is hardly being consumed by ministers here, I think.

(4e) Circumstances

● The physical circumstances are being experienced as directly related to God. This was very clear during and after tropical storm Nicole. After the storm I heard many people speaking about gratefulness to God for his protection during the storm. Thus a storm is an occasion to direct and to feel connected to God in a very special way. In my country we don’t experience extreme weather very often. People living in a fishing-village, however tend to believe in God in a way that differs from people in other parts of the country. The measure in which people are dependent on weather circumstances apparently has a large influence on the way they believe.

● Lack of means, which can also be described as physical limitations, as is often the case in Jamaica, makes it necessary to be flexible and to be able to improvise. During my visit I experienced a service in which I had wanted to play a recorded song and to show the lyrics with the projector, which could not be done, because there was no electricity. For me as a person who likes to prepare things as good as possible, this was quite a challenge and a good experience. As my hosting pastor put it: God asked Moses, who was confronting Goliath ‘what is it you have in your hand?’ ‘A sling’ ‘Use it!’ Lack of means causes people te be inventive.

● A quite different way in which the physical circumstances influences life in the church is the fact that almost all activities are cancelled as soon as it is raining. In my country it is raining very often as well, but a meeting will never be cancelled because of that reason. And although tropical rain is heavier than the rain I’m used to, I don’t really understand this.


(4f) Other

● A real physical topic is also the body being the temple of the Holy Ghost. But what struck me was the fact that the possibility of being possessed by a demon is very alive in Jamaica. Most pastors may have to deal with this and may be called to deliver a person in the name of Jesus. And, as I was told, this is a practice, that takes a lot of spiritual power, which means that the exercising of fasting and a lot of prayer is needed to be as spiritually pure as you have to be, to be able to do so. This also is another example of the Bible being taken literally, where Dutch tend to read such texts as dealing with things we leave to the psychiatrists these days. Worth mentioning in relation to this topic is also the meaning of the blood of Christ, which is seen is the main thing that purifies a person. Many Dutch people feel uncomfortable when there is spoken of the blood of Christ very often, feeling uncomfortable with the whole idea of the sacrifice of Christ (did God need a faultless man to be sacrificed to be able to forgive?)

(5) Conclusions and Insights

A question we were to ask ourselves every day during this visit was ‘How have I experienced God in this situation?’ For me this is a very difficult question, because before you can answer this question, for me there is another question: ‘how can you ever be so sure in saying that you experience God?’ I realize that this is a typical western approach, but this is the way these things are me for me. When I hear somebody saying: this is the hand of God, I think: how do you know?

But there is a way to answer this question. I have seen God in many people in need (Matthew 25). I know that also in my country there are people in need. Maybe I have to take a closer look there.  We have a good social system in the Netherlands, so people are supposed to able to take care for themselves if they are mentally alright.

I have also seen that God, that Jesus strengthens the people in their struggle towards independence and in the gaining self respect. The statues in Emancipation Park in Kingston express two people who are reaching towards heaven and are receiving their human dignity from above. (Foto C:\Users\Jan Andries\Pictures\)

I knew about the theology of liberation. Now I saw it in actu. Very strong, very good. That is theology in the very own context. Interesting to have heard more then once the story about Onesimus from the letter to Philemon having a different meaning seen the perspective of Onisemus being a slave who flew.

I recognize belief as a power to persue change. Marcus Garvey was inspired by the Bible. Barack Obama is inspired by the Bible. The Bible still is a major source of inspiration, not only because of the power of the words contained within, but also because of the fact that the Holy Spirit works through it.

I have seen God working through man, who in the middle of misery lends a helping hand for his fellow man. This is the highest form of humanity and it is the way in which God works through man, it is the Kingdom of God unfolding.

The more the need, the more the love of Christ is needed, and of course there is also need in the Netherlands. An extreme right-wing party has got a lot of the votes in my country. A party that wants to cut the amount of money we give to developing countries. A party that wants to forbid the Koran, and broaden the already very good highways. A party that is extremely selfish. We as a church must learn to see what this means for the ministry we have to offer.

Now my conclusions in relation to the topics I chose.

God is One (Deuteronomium 6:4), although He is also three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Man too is one, although we have different aspects of being: Soul, Body and Mind of Spirit. I like to look at the soul as to the way we are rooted in the Source of Being.
In the west belief is too much something of the mind. We take good care of our bodies, but not especially in relation to our belief. We can learn from the Christians in Jamaica how we can improve our religious experience by taking our bodily being into account.

I did not write many things about music. This does not mean that it would be a minor thing. On the contrary. In the heart of worship, be it in the Netherlands or in Jamaica, lies music as a means to express important feelings concerning belief. The fact is that in the Netherlands most church-music is not of our own time and does not communicate with the actual feelings of the people singing.  The words may be good, but many people are not moved by it. It does nothing to them. It is as I experienced it as a child: when I saw that we had to sing 5 verses, I thought ‘o boy, this is going to take a lot of tiresome and boring time’. In Jamaica the music moves the people and helps them to come in the right mood for worship, indeed they are themselves a way to worship. In singing they feel themselves in relation to the God they praise, not only with their voices, but also with their bodies, by moving their hands, clapping for joy, and sometimes their arms stretching out to heaven, which is in reality praising God they are adoring in the very practice of stretching out the arms. As a Dutch man I have to overcome a feeling of hesitation everytime, but as soon as I stretch out my arms in adoration of God, I feel my emotions coming. I feel the joy of worship and belief.

This is also the reason that I think it is basically alright to intensify the emotional power of speech, prayer and singing. Although there may be a certain risk the atmosphere becoming too emotional. This should not happen, so the worship leaders has to be aware of the things they are doing, they should not play with other people’s emotions. This risk is not very high, however, and so this is also a very good tool to remove unnecessary barriers in the experience of the joy of faith.

Holding hands during prayer is a powerful thing too. Holdings hands during prayer intensifies the concentration, it expresses connectedness with each other, you can feel subtle movements, so that you can feel it, if another person is feeling tension or is going to relax. Especially for the one who is saying the words this is a very good thing. It is my opinion that the power of a prayer, shared holding hands is much larger then when this is not the case. And through the connectedness with each other, the connection with God will more directly be experienced.

Fasting is another very good thing. It heightens the awareness of the body and of the power to deny oneself something, thus enlarging one’s power to work in favor of God’s Kingdom during which one also has to deny himself some things more than once. Moreover, it also enlarges one’s freedom, not being dependent on having everything on fixed times.

I think that changing the culture regarding the physicality in experiencing faith in the Netherlands should not be too hard, since the time is ripe for it. Alternative forms of religion are gaining lots of followers because of the fact that they offer more to things be experienced and religion in those forms is not only a matter of the mind. But we have the goods in store ourselves as Christians and must use them.

Changing the style of music may be quite a challenge. We cannot just imitate black church. White people are different. A good thing will be to introduce a regular moment of choreographic dance, Dutch people being not easy with being spontaneous. And I already experimented once with certain gestures that can be made with the Lord’s Prayer. Thus people may get used to use their bodies during worship. The finding or writing of good songs is a challenge of its own.

My own rock-services prove that good moving music is also in the Dutch context a very powerful way to take people into a mood in which they are willing to hear a message they think will express something relevant.

Not in the least there is the point of reaching out in a physical way. My own congregation has asked me to establish a congregational contact with a congregation in Jamaica. This will be the case with Bethel United Church in Highgate. Supporting a good cause there, will be one of the things we want to do, besides e.g. intercultural reading of the Bible, sharing our read-experiences by e-mail. We too are collecting money for good causes all the time, but the bad thing is that if there is no direct relationship it doesn’t speak to the heart. Reaching out belongs to the heart of Christian practice. We will also have to look anew at this task in our own surroundings..

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