Sunday, October 8, 2017

Five Years

Five years ago today (I am writing on a Thursday, October 5; the rehearsal was a Thursday, Oct. 4.) I led my final rehearsal with the College Church Chancel Choir. Three days later I was in my final services as Pastor for Worship and Music at College Church in Wheaton. I guess it's time for a few reflections . . .

In another space I have been writing about what turns out to be a related issue. Or at least, I should say, an issue that has some bearing on my ministry, my transition, and how I reflect on both. Those posts are more personal than I'll get here; here I'm more historical I guess.

In the five years since I served the church full-time, and conducted that splendid choir, I have had an interim stint with a symphonic chorus, two semesters with a college symphonic band, two-and-a-half years with a small church choir, a full year away from the choral conductor podium. I have been musical director for two campus musicals. I am now in my second month with a college choir.

I have returned to my trombone--though I'm still far from my recital chops. I play in church, sit in with the college band, had a year or so in the college jazz ensemble (trying to learn improvisation), and have even picked up a few bucks in the occasional gig. That has been fun. I even bought a second trombone!

My voice, which was at risk five years ago, has recovered. I have taken the risk of singing in public and more and more to demonstrate in the classroom and rehearsals. I put my hands on the piano with less self-consciousness (though not more skill), use my ukulele in class, and learned the three necessary guitar chords.

So, what about my vocation? What part does leadership in musical worship play in my work and relationships?

I still get calls and emails from former colleagues, with questions and resource requests for regular and seasonal services. I teach music and worship courses at Trinity, and oversee students internships in church music. University chapel personnel are gracious and welcoming of my participation and input. (Even if I am the campus poster boy for hymn-singing, I appreciate that.) Our music department is working our way to a revised church music curriculum, and probably a worship arts major. My experience in the church is considered valuable, and I have the privilege of serving churches by helping prepare young people for music and worship leadership.

I do have an unsettled relationship with the local church. Karen and I are attending a church associated with College Church, but we also take the freedom of Sundays to visit other congregations. We find it difficult to engage deeply; while we don't like to be, we are pretty much "one and done" church-goers. This is partly due to the uncertainty of my teaching gig (we're reluctant to move closer to campus without a long-term contract; and we're reluctant to grow again into a church that we might move away from), and partly due to a deep sense of loss we both carry from our departure from ministry at College Church. We long for a deeper and more sustained connection with a congregation. We hope that will again be a part of our life.

All told, while I am still very much in transition (and aren't we all, always?) the past five years have flown by and have been filled with wonderful surprises, rich blessings, and grace piled upon grace.

I am thankful.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Just when we thought it couldn’t get worse

Yesterday—August 12, 2017—the nation witnessed an alarming, disgusting public display of white supremacist/Nazi-symbol-toting protest, a predictable counter-protest, and the loss of three lives and many injuries. Social media erupted, with many (Christians and peoples of others faiths and no faith) decrying the march and calling for the deaths to be named acts of domestic terror.

Can anything good come of this? Will this be any sort of wake-up or call to repentance for a number of systemic evils that plague the U.S.? What are churches saying today? (As I write this on a Sunday morning while on vacation and not in a service.) Specifically, I wonder what is being said in the churches called “home” by the supposed 80% of white evangelicals that voted for Donald Trump—who has still failed to denounce white supremecists.

One thing to denounce the players in yesterday’s tragedy. Another to call the church to take a stand. Yet another to make a personal commitment to be part of the solution. How will I do the latter, and from what position, with what convictions, using which resources?

In the course of my typical Sunday morning Bible reading and prayer, this morning I turned again to the Evangelisches Kirkengesangbuch (from the Lutheran Church  in Lower Saxony). (It’s just how I wrap up my Sunday morning devotions and work on my German.) The opening prayer for this Sunday of the church year seems so timely. If I understand it correctly, it translates:
Give us the Spirit, O Lord, who always desires justice and will bring it about with your help: so that we, who can do nothing without you, may receive strength to live according to your will. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit forever. Amen.

Did I get that right, that word “justice” [das Rechte]? I do want under the circumstances to avoid “the right” (though it is obviously not a political reference). “Who always desires us to do what is right” would work, I guess, but there is not that verb. No, it seems “justice” is not only apt and timely, but correct. But just to be sure, I check the Book of Common Prayer.

(Something I should look into: what is the common source that results in these two traditions sharing so many collects?)  Anglicans this morning may have heard or prayed: Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord . . . Amen.

“The Spirit who always desires justice” . . . “the spirit to always think and do those things that are right.”  Yes, they come at it slightly differently, but pray for the same thing. Because what is justice but doing the right thing? There is no justice without righteousness. And true righteousness will be just.

My friends in liturgical traditions will today be helped through the pain of yesterday by prayers long established and often prayed. My free church evangelical friends will—I hope—be guided by similarly wise prayers. At my own “family altar” I find myself praying under the guidance of the cloud of witnesses, learning to pray in troubling times, and prodded to ask that I “who can do nothing without” the Lord may be “enabled [given strength] to live according to God’s will.”

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Pray for those in authority

I have again picked up my copy of the Book of Common Prayer. Advent 2016 took me again to the daily readings of the church year, which I generally follow until Pentecost—when I then dive into a more free pattern of Bible reading. I’ve had my copy of the BCP for something like 35 years (it is the 1979 edition from the U. S. Episcopal Church). As the late Mark Ashton, rector of St. Andrews Church, Cambridge (The Round Church) wrote, Thomas Cranmer produced a reformed book of worship for the new Church of England. Though it has been altered, adjusted, updated, etc. through the centuries it retains a great deal of reformation piety and wisdom. It is a thoughtful guide for Bible reading.

Though the prayers in my copy are (probably) no longer Cranmer’s, the BCP is also a rich manual for prayer. And I was reminded of its breadth, depth, and value when I began reading and praying during Advent. Looking for one set of prayers, I was reminded again of this other set of prayers. And I was ashamed to not have prayed in this way during our recent national election. More importantly, I was reminded to pray in this way for all those in political authority now and as we move into a new federal administration.

Regardless of political commitments, whether my or your candidate is out of or in the White House, this is a deeply Christian way to pray. I will say that if more had prayed in this way, things might have gone a different direction, long before our final two-party candidates were chosen.

Prayers for National Life
For our Country
Almighty God, who has given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly ask that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of your favor and glad to do your will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought here out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in your name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to your law, we may show forth your praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, do not allow our trust in you to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(language updated from the 1979 edition)

For Sound Government
O Lord our Governor, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth.
To the President and members of the Cabinet, to Governors of States, Mayors of Cities, and to all in administrative authority, grant wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties.
To Senators and Representatives, and those who make our laws in States, Cities, and Towns, give courage, wisdom, and foresight to provide for the needs of all our people, and to fulfill our obligations in the community of nations.
To the Judges and officers of our Courts give understanding and integrity, that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served.
And finally, teach our people to rely on your strength and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society; that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name.
For yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Amen.

These are good patterns for public praying. Too often in our churches we pray for leaders according to the political calendar (Right to Life Sunday, July 4, November 11, elections), or when our most cherished values seem at risk. Shouldn’t we be biblical and pray—perhaps this way, but to pray in any case—frequently?

It is not too late for me to be praying this way. And it is never too late to expect and demand from our leaders the kind of character and commitments that we pray for.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gloria in excelsis Deo: A model for balance in our singing

When two worlds collide . . .

I regularly attend a collegiate chapel which clearly is not catering to my taste. It is, after all, a worship service that students are required to attend, with music planned by and led by students, for students. I get that. In fact, I celebrate that. But when I assert that it is not catering to my taste, I am not referring to the musical style.

What I care about is the content of the typical chapel music set. Again I will say it (I don’t know where I got this phrase, but I use it all the time) “there is no praise without proclamation.” So when students are only offered words to sing that are general or vague praise phrases--however artfully put together, or not--we are not actually, you know, praising God.

Of deeper trouble to me is that many songs do not even get as far as a string of praise phrases. Because they are stuck in expositing the emotions that we have, or wish to have, in this time and place. Presumably evoked by and directed to God; but I use the word presumably intentionally.

That’s one world. The other is writing a program note for a campus performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria. And while writing about the hymn, “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” I was struck with how this ancient model might serve as a pattern for contemporary student chapel worship.

By the third century A.D., the hymn, “Gloria in excelsis” was an established part of worship in the Greek-speaking eastern churches. In the fourth century it was translated into Latin, and in this form became a permanent feature in the liturgies of western Christianity. The anonymous hymn begins with the angels’ words to the Judean shepherds:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men.”
To this simple, bold declaration, the unknown author added a rich doxological  theology in direct, exalted poetry. The resultant  hymn is still said or sung regularly in many worship traditions.

So, it has some legs. And maybe, as C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton might argue, we owe our ancestors the respect of learning from it.
The hymn begins where much contemporary praise singing gets to, and where most of it ends. With ecstatic expressions directed to God: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men. (Thus far, the familiar Luke 2 angels) We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you; we give you thanks for your great glory. There is nothing wordy, or academic, or stodgy about this. In effect, this is what much new worship music expresses. But note that neither we nor listeners nor angels (1 Peter 1:12)necessarily know what all this emotional fuss is about. Yet.

The hymn continues, and it is in the body of Gloria that actual praise is expressed. This is a hymn to Jesus, who is: Lord God, heavenly King; Lord Jesus Christ, only begotten Son; Lord God; Lamb of God, Son of the Father who takes away the sins of the world. (Have mercy and hear our prayer!) Jesus, seated at the right hand of the Father, the only Holy One, the Most High, with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Gloria is a great model for our sung worship. It is emotionally charged; it is biblical; it uses simple, direct, powerful language. It shows us Jesus as we are meant to know him, whom we approach with humble confidence. It wouldn’t hurt to actually sing this hymn . . . but I am arguing here for Gloria as a model “worship song set,” much in the way we can both say the Lord’s Prayer and use it as a  model for our praying.

Our worship will be enriched, we will actually be praising God, we will come to know Jesus more clearly, we will have ample emotional expression, and (least important of all) no matter the musical style, my taste (my thirst) will be satisfied.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Cultural Impact of Worship

So, this was serendipitous.

The day after the election I was tidying up a stack of papers – a random collection of things I’d kept over the years to use for choir devotions, my old music ministry newsletter, zingers, or whatever. (I had commandeered a binder in a recent emergency, and there was this stack o’stuff on my office floor :~)

Sorting through this material was a walk through my first few years as Music Pastor at College Church in Wheaton. And here was something that my colleague, Dave Helm, had passed on to me. It is from the November 1997 Tabletalk, by Douglas Wilson: “The Cultural Impact of Worship.” There is a lot of incendiary material in the article . . . it is, after all, by Douglas Wilson! But this is the part that Dave had highlighted and brought to my attention:

Christians do not know how to lift a glass of beer to the glory of God for the simple reason that they do not know how to sing the Gloria Patri. We do not know how to compose concertos that honor God because if the sermon goes longer than fifteen minutes we get a case of the creeping fantods. We do not know what a statesman is because we do not know what a call to worship is. (p. 59)

Interesting that this quotation would leap out at me the day after this particular national election. Could the election of Donald Trump as President be a natural consequence of evangelicals’ “willing adoption of a breezy formality in worship that has led to a host of problems outside the church”? (p. 58)

Well, it’s one way to account for why many who call themselves evangelicals voted for a person so antithetical to what evangelicalism supposedly stands for. I continue to believe that how we worship makes a difference in the world. And it might not be the difference we think it is or wish it to be.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Hurry up, People of the Risen King!

I might have left this alone, except within a couple of weeks we had the same experience in two separate churches. Both are churches with fine music programs, whose services we appreciate, and whose ministries we admire. But both sang the same song wrongly.

You ask, how can I say that a song is sung wrongly?

Years ago I heard a fascinating interview with Quincy Jones, the great musician and music producer. He holds the most Grammy nominations, and nearly 30 Grammy awards. He’s been at it a long time, for decades racking up awards for producing in many styles of music. Asked for the key to his success, Mr. Jones replied with one word: “Tempo.” Get the tempo of a song right, he said, and you get the song right.

Twice within three weeks at the end of summer I was expected to sing “Come, People of the Risen King” at a tempo that is, technically, humanly possible—but hardly optimal. Granted, since I didn’t clock either service with a metronome, I only have my subjective memory to go on. But in both places the speed of the song was fast enough to just barely get the words out. Certainly too fast to sing with real understanding or meaning. (And this is a song I know well.)

After the second of these experiences I wondered what might have driven that fast tempo. Is this how the song is being recorded? Are service planners so worried about length of service? Are we worried that people will grow bored, or have grown bored with the song? Nerves?

I rather like the song, and am responsible for introducing it in one of the churches where we sang it this summer. So I came home and did a bit of YouTubing. Predictably the leading videos are of the Gettys themselves performing the song co-written with Stuart Townend. Very near the top of the list is also Mr. Townend performing the song. Ah, there’s the definitive tempo, right?

Very singable, with both breadth and welcome. Ironically, the only really fast version I found in my quick search was by a robed choir singing a choral arrangement of the piece. It would seem there is not an unavoidable online move to re-cast the song.

But can I say the song was wrongly sung in both churches? I believe so. First, because it was difficult to sing the (excellent) text clearly. (And again, this is a text I know; I wasn’t trying to parse the text as I sang.) Second, the song at a too-fast tempo has more of an urgency than a sense of invitation to it. And only third, but importantly, the song creators themselves might be considered to be the best judge of the appropriate tempo for their own song. (I know this is not always the case, but in any case, surely we may privilege a song’s creator with knowing how it goes best?)

As we invite congregations to sing any text, let’s exercise our inner Quincy Jones, and recognize that tempo is one of the means we have to let our singing be “filled with the Spirit” and “let the Word of Christ dwell richly” in those who sing.