Monday, October 8, 2018


It was flagged by a string of “on this day” Facebook memories. Otherwise I might have missed it. No, rather I would not have anticipated it. On the day it was marked in my Bible—in the Psalms and Proverbs readings: “Oct. 7, 2012, last day at College Church.” And so there it was, my first date and day anniversary, Sunday,October 7.

Six years ago today I began life apart from full-time music ministry. Twenty-seven years of Sundays, with up to four services per Sunday; twenty-seven years of weekly choir rehearsals, planning, meetings; twenty-seven years of joy and disappointment, successes and failures, kudos and brickbats.

I thought I would take a year off to finish a master’s degree, probably return to church work, and jump into a Th.D. program somewhere, somehow. I had no idea. But then, I’ve never had any clear idea—never successfully predicted—what “the next thing” would be!

So, this seems like a good time to reflect, to be grateful, to consider the grace that has filled the past six years.

Finishing the MA in Historical Theology at Wheaton Graduate School was a thrilling year. Not since my graduate work at Northwestern had I been so satisfied and challenged intellectually. A year of reading and writing, of classroom interaction and hanging out with people a lot smarter than I am . . . yeah, that was great. And during that year, Karen and I again learned what it means to not really know how our finances were going to work out; we re-learned that no one really knows what each day will bring, and that for decades we had just acted as if we did know. It was exciting to again know that we were living by faith.

Writing my MA thesis was a dream come true. And whilst completing that work, I was surprised by an invitation to interview, then accept an offer to teach music history at Trinity College, Deerfield IL.  What I thought would be my life, back at Northwestern, was creeping into my life all these years later. A year as adjunct was followed by a year’s appointment as Visiting Assistant Professor, renewed a few times, and then this past spring turned into a three-year renewable appointment. Teaching—long a dream—has been hard and challenging and fun and rewarding. A year ago I was honored to be handed the baton for the Trinity Concert Choir. Which is above and beyond all that I could have asked or imagined six years ago.

Life with Karen gets richer and more fun all the time. But during these six years both of her parents have entered their eternal reward. She (and to a lesser extent, we) spent a lot of time back and forth between our home and her parents’. She was with each of them when they passed. Her parents’ generation of family is gone: a sobering reality as we entered our sixties.

I have learned some things about myself (chronicled elsewhere) that have put in perspective aspects, memories, and challenges of my past.  Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that some of my perceived failures were lifelong patterns related to depression; and that others were not in fact my weaknesses but the fault(s) and result(s)—intended or otherwise—of spiritual leadership. Owning my own problems, and recognizing where I have been wronged, is making my late-life career much more manageable and fun.

But the bottom-line (for now at least) is that I am truly done working in the church on a full-time basis. While I deeply miss the weekly church choir rehearsal, and the privilege of contributing to the weekly morning service, there is nothing else I miss about church work. Emphasize nothing. So it has been a special blessing to have had two small church choirs, accounting for nearly three of the six years I have been away from College Church. I have been able to work with that special beloved breed—the volunteer church choir—without the complications of church staff life. I have missed the privilege of choosing congregational music, but for my psychic health and simply as a reality of time available, these have been perfect brief godsends. Of course even now I qualify that bottom-line. Because I will not presume to know what God has in store for Karen and me; not presume that there isn’t some circumstance in which it will become obvious that I belong back in the church. I have not relinquished that part of my identity by which many still know me: pastor. But I am content, and eager to get back to campus today!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

All Psalms All the Time

Well, not quite all the psalms, and I don’t know how long this resource will be available.
A subscription to Spotify Premium is not only a self-indulgence, it is good for my mental health (the Spotify ads make me angry) and it keeps me exploring and learning new music. It is also—it turns out—good for my soul. (Though, full disclosure, as I write this I am listening to an Enrico Morricone playlist of western movie soundtracks.)

Weekly and monthly playlists show up in the many “Genres & Moods” categories. I always look at what’s on offer in the Classical Category. (For a brief post on the amazing Symphonies playlist, see my other blog.) Right after Thanksgiving a new playlist appeared: 150 Psalms in Classical Music. Brilliant! With my pattern of daily psalm readings, this is how I would engage the psalms through December.

And what a playlist! It includes Gregorian chant, Anglican chant, and newly composed chant. Genevan psalms and German Baroque settings. Settings in Latin, Hebrew, English, German, French, and more. Tracks lasting barely two minutes, and pieces up to fifteen minutes. It is a rich resource of the splendid variety of musical engagement with that most musical heart of the Bible.

Was it well curated? That’s a tough call. I came to terms with it by acknowledging that it is not called “The Complete Book of Psalms in Classical Music,” nor “All 150 Psalms in Classical Music.” Not least because of course musical settings of every complete psalm is a lot of music! Think of Psalm 119 alone—golly. But as to its including all psalms, where there’s the catch.

Because the curator of this list apparently did not take into account that the Latin Bible—while numbering psalms 1 through 150—numbers the psalms differently from the Hebrew and Protestant Bibles. (Long story there, and an interesting one, and I have to say that the Latin numbering has a supportable logic to it.)

So, for example, the list includes multiple versions of some psalms, noting only the numbering used by the composers, and in the process skips over psalms that got lost in the cracks. For example (the first one I noticed) Psalm 19 (Latin: Exaudiat te Dominus) is the English Psalm 20. So, the list has the same text in Latin and in English, but does not have a musical setting of the Hebrew/English Psalm 19 (the heavens declare the glory of God—of which there are many excellent musical settings). I won’t list the many cases; you get the point.

And in any case, even though I am a bit OCD about lists like this (“geez Louise, how hard would it be to get this right and make it complete?!?”) the playlist was such a gift to me that I would be an ingrate to find fault with it. Bravo, Spotify! Thank you! (Also, how do I get a job building Spotify playlists?) A very brief list of the composers I was surprised to hear includes Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Krzysztof Pendercki. I was delighted to hear psalms recorded by a friend, and a psalm commissioned by an organization I admire. I loved seeing the albums from which the psalms were selected (that alone will provide me many hours of exploring). The sheer variety of musical diversity within the broad category of “classical” is refreshing, stunning, and challenging.

Two takeaway thoughts about this list and the experience of listening through it. (In my OCD way: sequentially, five psalms a day. Some things don’t change.)
1—Someone at Spotify seemed to think there is enough interest is classical sacred music to warrant this playlist. Not to be snarky (really) but I wonder if it is even possible to find all 150 psalms in contemporary Christian musical styles? It would be interesting to attempt—but I leave that for someone with a higher tolerance than I have. Only, let such a list be psalm settings, not musical settings of random verses from the psalms. That is the challenge.
2—Over and over through December I was struck with the paucity of psalm singing in the churches I attend. While much of the so-called evangelical church debates what are hymns and spiritual songs, and what should be their balance in services, hardly anyone is faithfully, diligently, respectfully, historically attending to the first part of St. Paul’s injunction: sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs . . .

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.”