How Can I Keep from Singing?

Music Director Becca Whitla’s Farewell Sermon

Good morning. Welcome to all of you, especially to visitors this morning. Today is my last day as the Music Director here at Holy Trinity and I asked for the chance to share some of my thoughts with you as I leave this place and begin a new and exciting phase of my life’s journey. I have been the Music Director for twenty years. Before that, I was a member of the congregation, coming to church with my parents. It has been a long time. So, in many ways I feel like I am leaving home. This spiritual home we call Holy Trinity is the building, yes, but more than that, it is you the people…all of you who are here, visitors, friends and members of the parish – the people that are here are the church. The space also holds the memories of those whose smiling faces and singing voices still inhabit this place long after they’ve died or moved on.

As I contemplate this transition and what it means to “leave home”, I’d like to reflect a little on my time here at Holy Trinity, share some the things I’m passionate about as I move into full time studies as a doctoral student at the Toronto School of Theology, and finally wrestle with the meaning of vocation especially in light of today’s readings.

Here at Holy Trinity, as well as in my other work, especially with the Echo Women’s Choir, I have, over time, become a teacher. It wasn’t what I started out to be – it was something I moved into gradually, when there was a need.

Many of you are also teachers. All of you have been my teachers. My time here has been a time of growth, a time of learning, a time of becoming and a time of teaching. The more I contemplate what it is to be teacher and a leader of song, the more I realize how much I have to learn. The dynamic between teaching and learning is a semi-permeable boundary, porous, that flows both ways.

So it is as a teacher and a community song leader that I became a student three and a half years ago in the Master of Sacred Music program at U of T and I loved it! And into that work, I poured my passionate self and I carried you all with me. What a wonderful formation I was given by simply being a member of Holy Trinity, a formation that was enriched by being trusted as a teacher and a leader.

When my son David was diagnosed with Leukemia, we had to completely re-orient our lives. It became clear thenthat my studies were very important to me. In fact they were nothing short of a lifeline. Week after week, my professors guided me back to myself – they gave me hope – by insisting that I could still bring the best of myself to the pursuit of learning. In the middle of these new strange and sometimes terrifying circumstances, I realized how deep me sense of vocation was for academic work. Every fibre of my being wanted to be learning…it literally kept me sane, kept me going.

As circumstances stabilized and as I finished my Masters degree with a challenging and wonderful study leave in Cuba with Emma, the internal nudge to consider doctoral studies became an insistent nagging. I had to do it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

But it isn’t exactly embarking on a career path that will lead to riches and security for my family. Studying theology and music is among the worst possible combinations for future employment. More than that, this step represents a commitment to the institutional church even as it dissolves around us. And yet, here I am, making just such a commitment and with immense gratitude for the vigorous support of my family.

What this all means for me academically is that I plan to do a postcolonial analysis of hymnody. In other words, I want to study what we sing in church and why. What musical treasures ought we to keep and which ones can we let go? And how can we make space for new and diverse expressions of song? How can we better reflect the world around us so that we might be transformed into a vital, growing, robust people of God? Music, and especially singing, has great power. Like other powers, it may be used for good or ill. No song is innocent – songs belong to particular cultures – they have contexts, stories, and layers of meaning. Knowing this power, I want to help imagine what songs the people will sing in the church of the future. I want to continue to help the people express themselves to each other and to the Divine, making space for the Holy Spirit to irrupt among us through our singing.

This task requires a willingness to go to some hard places, to accompany people and help them express themselves at times of sorrow, grief, anguish, lament, as well as joy and celebration. That’s what I love so much about Were You There? It doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff – the gritty realities of an unjust death, expressed here as the suffering and death of Jesus. It’s a lament that can express our collective grief and anguish at suffering wherever we find it in this death-dealing culture of ours. Are we there, walking beside Jesus and other victims of injustice or do we turn away? Of course, this particular song also represents the particular story, and cultural expression of African Americans, sung today like nobody else can sing it, by Alan and Sue, and you. And, it also embodies the same kind of insistent passionate calling to account we hear in Proverbs this morning.

So…what about those readings?

Let us hear some highlights again:

From Proverbs: Wisdom cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice. “How long, O simpletons, are you going to love being stupid? How long will scoffers enjoy the sound of their own scoffing and fools persist in hating knowledge? Listen carefully to my reproof: I will pour out my thoughts to you; my words will make clear exactly what I think of you.

From James: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. The tongue is a fire…it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell….no one can tame the tongue…

And from Mark: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

What is a fledgling doctoral student who is finally claiming a vocation of teaching and leading to do with that? I’m not sure it’s a call of vocation for me, or a reason to bury my head in the sand and say “ask the next guy.” Can I live up to Wisdom’s standards? Am I really ready to be a teacher? Am I really prepared to have me life turned upside down?

It strikes me that these are also good vocational questions for our church. Are we living up to Wisdom’s standards? Are we being good leaders and teachers for the world? And, are we ready to have our worlds turned upside down by doing the gospel we’ve professed?

I confess that this kind of soul searching makes me uncomfortable. I don’t much like it when my friends challenge me to be a better person or when I am asked to examine myself closely in my classes to find those places where I still have a sense of entitlement or privilege. In my time at Holy Trinity, I have seen that we as a church are sometimes also uncomfortable when we are challenged in this way. The voice that challenges is often haranging and annoying like Wisdom’s voice in this passage from Proverbs. Can we still listen? Can we respond to the call to self examination, remaining true to our calling as a church of justice-seekers– it is a call that asks us, “are you sure you’re doing it right?” and then insists…“You’d better be!”

These readings call us into an engagement with doubt. We are called to question. We are called to critical engagement. We are called to face the difficult stuff. We are invited to embrace our own doubt, our fear, our grief, our lamentation. We are called to be like wisdom — to be insistent justice seekers, constantly questioning ourselves even as we also speak truth to power. Wisdom says, in Holy Trinity member Ian Sowton’s hymn poem, which we will sing in a few moments: I decline your ritual offerings, give me equity for all. When will you admit my outcasts, dignify my dispossessed? Never mind your solemn gatherings–do the gospel you’ve professed.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of some grand vocation or call. Instead I believe that a calling sometimes comes in a thousand conversations and countless moments in which we might catch a glimpse of the Divine – it emerges out of our relationships and our passions. My own call is riddled with doubt (just like my faith), and yet, as I step into a new life-phase, I can say with some certainty, that I’ve never felt more called. I am called to engage doubt, even to embrace it. I am called to scrutinize myself to make sure my relationships and actions are filled with right relations, justice seeking and love for humankind and wider creation. I am called to discern the place of song in a church that is perhaps dying. Whether the church crashes and burns or rises like the phoenix, I want to be there to help lead the people’s song. Our world is in trouble and I believe that the church has something good to offer to the world. It is a call to love and to hope, even amidst fear, doubt, and suffering.

I am well aware of the many gifts that I take with me from Holy Trinity; I deeply appreciate the critical thinking, the intellectual rigour, and the commitment to justice seeking and liturgical renewal that characterize our church community. These qualities have helped to shape me as a person, as a musical leader, and now as an academic; I will carry them forward as I embark on this new phase of my life’s journey. Last week, at school, I ran into Lionel Ketola, a former member of Holy Trinity who is now working as a United Church Minister. He’s part of the Holy Trinity cell at Emmanuel College…along with me, and Susie and Jennifer. He reminded me that critical engagement is part of the baptismal covenant at Holy Trinity…are we are baptized in the name the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mother, Lover, and friend and…critical engagement.

Last Thursday Cathy Goring treated me to lunch and asked me if I would think about Holy Trinity after I’m gone. I said quickly “no” and surprised both of us. Then I said, ‘I’ll be carrying you all with me, all the time.” Whenever I lead a song, teach a class, argue with my classmates and professors, pray with others, you will be there with me, keeping me engaged.”

So now, I ask for your blessing and your prayers in this new phase of my vocation, and for my family as we look for a new church home. And I thank you. For growing with me, for letting me be your song leader, for trusting me, for embracing my family, Alan, Emma and David, for loving us. I (we) will keep loving you.

Looking back, I realize over my twenty years as music director, I can claim to have helped develop the musical life of this church. We are once again known for our celebration of the arts. More than that, we in this parish, have begun to forge a new collaborative vision of music and justice that includes a rich and diverse community musical expression in sung music from all over the world. As you go forward in your church journey without me, may you continue to celebrate the rich gifts of human expression in this way. May you continue to welcome the scary transformational possibility of engaging doubt and despair. May you be leaders in our city on the side of the dispossessed and marginalised. May you be justice-seekers and lovers of life. Oh…and keep singing your hearts out!