I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan for 21 years now. I got into him when I was 16, and didn’t look back. I had heard of Dylan as a protest singer – I knew he was famous for his connection to and empowerment of social causes in my parents’ generation – but my interest was always in his more personal work. I was a teenager after all, and a particularly angsty, lovesick one at that.
I skipped “Blowin’ in the Wind” to get to “Girl of the North Country.” I passed up “With God on Our Side” so I could soak (and sulk) in “One Too Many Mornings.” I fast-forwarded “Chimes of Freedom” to sing “To Ramona.” I wasn’t drawn to social causes: I was interested in self-expression and authenticity. And girls. Sure, Dylan was apparently the voice of a generation, but to me he was a lone pilgrim, singing ragged, dirty songs of love and loss like nothing I’d heard before. He expressed frustration, exuberance, annoyance, longing, giddiness, and wariness – all with a weird, snarling articulation. Teenage me was all in on this strange troubadour.
Twenty years is a long time to listen to someone. Eventually you get around to those songs you passed over the first hundred times around – not because you matured or became a better person (let’s not kid ourselves). Perhaps out of boredom, you go back and try to discover something new among the old. Your ears just start tuning into things you hadn’t noticed before.
A few days ago I got on a plane and, with time to spare, I decided to give some of those “cause songs” a shot. I queued up the last album of Dylan’s acoustic folk era, “Another Side of Bob Dylan” and dug into a signature tune called “Chimes of Freedom.” In all my years of listening to him, I’d only heard this song a handful of times. But this day I decided I would actually listen. What emerged was a lively tone poem to divine justice that completely caught me off guard.
What Dylan calls the “chimes of freedom” are literally bolts of lightning flashing in the sky above him. The storm drives the young singer towards shelter. He stares out from under the eaves of a building, watching the lightning, and what he sees are not human slogans, but streaks of celestial electricity. And every bolt he witnesses, Dylan calls a chime of freedom – a divine signal to the outcast and world-weary that help is on the way.
“Tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed,
for the countless confused accused misused strung-out ones and worse,
and for every hung up person in the whole wide universe.”
This fifty year-old song that has been in my periphery for two decades just now broke into my consciousness. For the first time I finally hear my favorite singer belt out this paean to the God who responds to the profound longing for divine redemption and salvation. After years and years, I finally have ears to hear.
One Sunday morning after worship, I was in the sacristy with a long-time acolyte. She was beside herself and could not wait to share. “Do you realize what we just said?” she asked.
“Just now!” she said, “In the prayer right after communion we said that we are living members of the Body of Jesus!”
“Yes, we did.”
“I’ve been coming here for years,” she said, “And this is the first time I’ve ever really heard that! We take communion and we are part of His Body!” She had tears in her eyes as she marveled at the grace of God, like chimes of freedom, flashing before her and telling her she belonged more fully than she could ever have imagined.
It took years for her ears to tune into this great truth. Thank God we say it every week so she could finally hear it.
This is grace. The grace of repetition is that it recognizes we need to hear the Gospel over and over again before our ears can be tuned to the truth of it. God knows we need repetition if we are ever to really hear. We need to witness and say the same things over and over and over and over. We need to tune things out so that we can tune back into them. We need to get bored so that we can get restless, and in our restlessness seek out new truths in the old songs.
This is not a polemic, by the way, against innovation in worship or spontaneous prayer – nor is it meant to be one more lame apology for a dying liturgical tradition. There can be something profoundly snobby about insisting that people will eventually like traditional Anglican worship if only they sit through it enough times – or that less rigid, more spontaneous, accessible worship expressions are inherently cheap and shallow. It doesn’t have to be either/or. You can love the ear candy that is the Beatles and the challenging rasp of Bob Dylan at the same time. The fact that you can immediately hum “All You Need is Love” does not somehow make it less sophisticated or potent than the mercurially wordy “Chimes of Freedom.”
But the fact remains that many of us engage in a worship that needs to be repeated beyond comprehension before we are able fully to comprehend it. As we meditate this month upon tradition, it might be helpful for us to recognize what a large part repetition plays in the life of our tradition. Episcopalians are prone to self-mockery, saying, “We’ve always done it this way.” But tradition is one of the three legs of our much-vaunted dogmatic stool, and the truth is, repetition has helped us figure out what we really believe, and who we really are. In the repetition of our tradition, new understandings emerge.
I was first drawn to the authenticity of Dylan’s stubborn loneliness, and only much later realized I also loved the authenticity of his prophetic voice. Likewise, I was first drawn to my church through their stubborn intellectual spirituality, and only much later realized I also loved the stubborn adherence to centuries-old prayers and rituals. It was only through repeated listening and faithful engagement that I was able to figure out what I really believe, who I really am.
We are not exactly who we were yesterday. Every time we choose to trust in and surrender ourselves to our inherited ritual, we open ourselves up to finding something new in the old songs – we hold out the hope that we may yet have ears to hear Jesus anew in the well-worn places of our prayers. When we accept the value of repetition in worship, we open ourselves to the chance that we will gaze upon those chimes of divine freedom flashing, and we conjure the possibility that this time we will know they flash for us.
The Rev. Phil DeVaul serves as Rector at the Church of the Redeemer in Cincinnati.