Monday, December 7, 2009

Carols - Mileposts

It is a landmark of sorts. It is certainly a marker along the path to one of my goals ...

Today, we printed pages of Christmas carols and hymns, from the developing "College Church Hymnal." It is the first time we've had something we can just hand off when people at church ask if there isn't something they could use for a party, event, or neighborhood caroling. Thanks to the careful, diligent, hard work of others in this past year, today we could print off something other than photo-copies from random sources. These are pages as they are going to look in the Hymnal. They are uniform, clean, easy on the eye ... and all ours!

We did not print the entire Advent or Christmas collection. Just those things in Public Domain, which any random group of carolers is likely to be able to sing without preparation. You could probably make a list of 15 familiar, popular Christmas hymns and carols, and find these 12 on your list.

Well, anyway, here we are. Tonight, the pastoral staff will sing from preview pages of our hymnal, at our Christmas party. Then next week, for the church staff Christmas lunch, again we will hold our own hymnal pages and sing together.

That's exciting, and the closest I've felt to seeing the conclusion of this work. Honestly, it's still not that close. But it is a landmark.

Monday, November 30, 2009


Confession: I still have a hard time distinguishing a goal from an objective. Year after year, in my annual review, I struggle with this. Complicating the issue for me, is the reality that most of my job is just putting one foot in front of the next, getting the next thing done, trying to faithfully resource Sundays. In this work, there is no down-time, and sometimes the special seasons are more burdensome than joyous.

I'm beginning to learn that my feelings about these things may be because I haven't really considered what are my goals. So, I ask myself: how long has it been since - through all the day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year - I have had my compass set by a goal? Something or things that might unify all I do, or give me perspective on the nitty-gritty, or even just let me work in a larger more significant (even more satisfying?) framework?

This fall I was confronted with this when asked to describe my "God-given goals." To tell the truth - maybe this is another mid-life confession here - I didn't even know if I had any "God-given goals." I know I have objectives, most of them imposed on me (naturally, organically, or administratively). But goals? And goals that are divinely inspired or mandated? Nope, I couldn't answer that one.

But I thought about it. I prayed about it. I looked about me and wondered "what needs to be done, that I can do, that would advance God's purposes in my vocation, and serve the church?" How would I describe them, how will I get at them, how will I know that progress is being made? And, ultimately, how will I know when I have met my goals?

So, the fall weeks have taken on a different shape for me than I am used to. I marked up my calendar to provide blocks of time each week, to work on these things. My Microsoft Outlook email inbox has my goals in a reminder side-bar. My computer nags me about the time I say I am committed to dealing with these things. Little by little, I am beginning to chip away at a few things that, were I to finish them, would be good for the church and satisfying to me. (Though, I still cannot say categorically they are "God-given.")

Probably the most significant change this has brought is a shape to my calendar. I have always been very good at ignoring the blocks of project time on my calendar - letting the urgent and routine push out the long-range. Slowly, a discipline is taking shape, to honor and use those times. So, each week I have 3 times that are devoted to the pursuit of these goals, to work on them in whatever way I can or the need requires. They are times for study, for work, for engaging others; they allow for different ways of getting at my goals, and are flexible enough that I can move among my goals (and among the various stages of each) as time and progress allow.

Advice not taken: one always reads that time should be set aside for regular "retreats" to focus on projects or goals. "Yeah," I usually huff, "right." Today I am in the first of my planned quarterly retreats for just that purpose. Each Monday afternoon is set aside for the pursuit of my goals, by reading/study/and writing. One Monday afternoon each month I am trying to get away to keep up on professional reading. (Inexcusably, some of the professional journals in my pile are over a year old.) Quarterly, I intend to get out of the office for Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, for evaluation, planning, prayer, and work on one of the goals. That's what I'm about today.

The time away is Monday afternoon/Tuesday morning, because that's how my week will work best. Monday mornings are pretty productive for me; afternoons are already devoted to my goals. Tuesday mornings are already given to calendars and planning. Tuesday afternoons we have staff meeting, so I have to be in by noon. But to give up one Tuesday morning each quarter (4 per year) is a commitment easy to honor, which should pay big dividends.

On my way to the office this morning, I made my weekly Caribou "$1 Monday" stop. It is my way of slipping back into the work week after a busy Sunday. If I can see and chat with others, great. But I take a book with me that I don't have to read, and linger over a cup of dark roast before arriving in the office. Today's book was What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami). This amazing memoir works for me on so many levels, and my only disappoitment is that it is not going to last until next Monday's stop at Caribou! Anyway, the chapter I read this morning weaves together the disciplines of running and of writing novels (Murakami is an international best-selling fiction author). It struck me, especially so today, as I take my first quarterly goals/planning retreat, that the author's focus is something I deeply need.

To sit for a period of time - an hour, even, though for his writing it is 3-4 hours - and physically commit to staying with the task at hand. Did I used to do this? Have I never? Well, what's behind is behind. One sees the wisdom of disciplining both body and mind to what is important and at hand. About the only thing I stick with for that length of time is a long bike ride. It's time I applied this to the important things in front of me.

And so, today, this has been my exercise on retreat. It isn't easy! But this afternoon I have produced something that speaks to one of my goals, and which ought to provide direction, focus, and energy to my work in the days and weeks ahead. So much to do, and so many ways to redeem the time!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Edging away from the abyss

So, we had a rough evening service recently. During the singing, I was regretting some of the choices I had made. The next day I had to deal with emails about some of those unfortunate choices. Emails I can take - they at least are not anonymous. And these were from people whom I respect highly. Well, and while it stung be talked truth to, they were not unkind. They might as well have said, in so many words (and only), "you know better." I guess they stung to the degree they implied that I might not in fact know better. There are other issues (other failures) lurking there, and this particular service was the flashpoint.

"Let a righteous person rebuke me, it is oil on my head..." (Psalm something or other) Enough said? Well, only time will tell. In the course of things, the following service had already been planned. That subsequent service was much more singable, and one of my kindly email chastisers at least took the effort to thank me for the later service. This is the kind of relationship where I don't feel I have to say (which I wanted to say) "well, I had this service planned before you excoriated me last week." Can we be real here? Just because people are correct, and kind, doesn't mean it won't hurt.

Anyway, the lessons for me are, were, have been worth reflecting on:
  • The peoples' song has to be the peoples' song. Never get in the way of their voice.
  • Some sources of new songs are valuable, some aren't. If the source isn't valuable, take it off the shelf, out of the file, and out of circulation.
  • If you don't like it, don't lead it; if you don't embrace it, don't offer it; if you don't love it, don't let others' opinions prevail
  • Beloved hymn melodies are beloved for a reason. Honor them, celebrate them, and use them.
  • If you are given the task of leading the peoples' song, then be a leader.

Boy, do I wish I could be confident that I'll not plan a sub-standard song service again. I've been at this too long to even hope that, much less pledge to be flawless. But I hope I'll blunder in keeping with prinicples (including, but limited to those above) and not by trying to please others, much less to take an easier way.

Last night was quite different from either of the previous two services. I can only speak from my perspective - that of the planner, fretter, and leader; and the one standing in the best spot to hear the people sing.

I assume that the central accompanying instrument of our evening song service is the piano. When last night's songs came together in my plan, they seemed to call for a variety of instruments different from our usual. But I assumed piano would be there at the center, as usual. But Saturday came and went with no pianist committed to the service. I had not gone through the list of all potential players ... the songs seemed to call for a particular approach to the piano ... and had not yet heard back from the final one on my list. Sunday morning I had that final "sorry, I can't do it" message. At that time, with the busy day ahead of me, those vague alternative plans in my head had to coalesce. This became exciting.

Exciting, like the time I was driving out of Minneapolis, talking to my visiting sister in my car, and very narrowly avoided rear-ending the car in front of us, at about 60 miles an hour. That kind of exciting.

But the musicians I had recruited for the service were what we now had, and they had been chosen for specific purposes. All we had to do was make the songs work without piano. Our only job was to help the congregation sing as well as they can. (And they sing, very well.)

We had our faithful guitarist, and the two singers who assist each week. It's good to work with a core! We had a harpist, a cellist, and a trombonist who also sings. So, we had a rhythm instrument, a richly harmonic instrument, a firm and musical bass, and a rich tenor instrument alternating with an alto voice - thus providing full 4-part vocals as needed. Each musician was keenly attentive in our brief rehearsal, understood her/his role, and rememered it in the service. There was variety; not just "oh this is different from usual," but variety within the service. Certainly more (and not just different) than on a normal Sunday evening.

And, my did the people sing. We heard not just sound, but words. Clear melody, and parts when they had them. They jumped pretty quickly into a new psalm setting. They sang an old gospel hymn meaningfully, a song which many know but I couldn't tell you when it was last sung in our services. They even soared on a hymn set to Londonderry Air, high E and all.

It would be a mistake to "bottle" this service; to say this was the magical key to Sunday night singing. I'll be very glad to work with the same people again when I can. But I think the key was starting with the songs which seemed right to sing that night, then considering what instruments would best serve the songs (and getting the right players), then preparing them for the task. That takes a lot more work than simply using a standing weekly group (notwithstanding that it helps to start with a core of committed musicians). But how rich for all involved.

I've learned not to take credit for a good night like this. They happen, and I celebrate it. Sure, I lined up the players, I had the vision, and we got it ready for the people. But it happened by each musician doing her/his part, and by the congregation's willingness to be led, to be released in song. We had to provide access and support. I'm afraid sometimes we bring too much to song-leadership. Somehow, this worked. And we had a sweet evening together.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Dean

There is no single "dean" of church music. Not in our day, nor I suppose in any period of history. J. S. Bach holds nearly divine status among many church musicians, and clearly his was an extraordinary life with an astonishing impact on generations. But in his day, he was "the dean of church music" to a quite small circle.
The "deans" of church music can be temporal, denominational, and regional. One might be a hymn-writer, another a composer, another an organist or music director - anyone that has exerted great positive influence beyond her or his immediate circle or place of service.
If I were to begin to list the "deans" that come to my mind today, it would be long, and it would be difficult to cut it off, and I would have to keep coming back to it, and readers would leave comments wondering why I hadn't included the most obvious "dean" ... [insert Dean of Choice here]

In fact, that's a pretty great idea: who would be your "dean of choice" in church music? Living or historical?

I am reflecting on this today following a delightful lecture with Q & A, by Dr. Donald P. Hustad. Usually when I quote Dr. Hustad, I will add, "he is the dean of evangelical church music." Well, and it is sort of hard to argue against that statement, but I will say that he is to me, anyway.
  • Every hymnal I have used in music study and in ministry, has been edited by Donald P. Hustad
  • His book Jubilate: Church Music in the Evangelical Tradition and Jubilate II: Church Music in Worship and Renewal have done for mainstream evangelical music history, what others have done for mainline and liturgical traditions.
  • With a foot firmly planted in gospel music and evangelistic crusades, he has nevertheless been a champion of both classic ecumenical hymnody and the renaissance of hymn writing in the UK and US over the past 50-60 years.
  • He continues to challenge the evangelical church to honesty and faithfulness in congregational song, without being a snob.

At 91 years of age, Dr. Hustad is vibrant and unquestionably lucid. His speaking voice is unchanged since I first heard him speak some 30 years ago. He is unfailingly gracious.

Today he spoke on the campus of Wheaton College: "On Editing Hymnals - Duty & Delight, with Some Incongruities & an Uncertain Future." I hope the College will make this talk available online. Dr. Hustad's work with hymnals spanned the 2nd half of the previous century, and his awareness of what is current is impressive. It was a fascinating journey, part autobiography, part appreciation for the work of many. At the end, there was a sense of his gratitude for this life work.

Dr. Hustad will not be with us forever, and there are others of his generation who continue to exert a healthy and abiding influence on church music and musicians. There are also of the generation behind him - and of my generation, and of that behind me - who are "the deans of church music." I am thankful for the privilege to learn from him, and them, and you, along the way.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Wendell Berry

I have mentioned Wendell Berry before, but today, coming off a relaxing vacation, I must return to him. I took with me two books of Berry's fiction, and was surprised on my birthday to receive two books of his poetry.

I knew the name, Wendell Berry, long before I had actually read any of his work. It's interesting how people know his work. Some as an essayist (especially as an articulate advocate of sustainable farming, and in defense of community and simplicty ... to over-simplify his work), some as a novelist, some as a poet. I first sought out the poet, after hearing Paul Halley's resurrection anthem, "What Stood Will Stand." In our local public library I found the collection, "A Timbered Choir," some essays (Blessed Are the Peacemakers is surely required reading somewhere?), and novels. Where had I been all this time?

Since then, my Karen and I have enjoyed his fiction. So far as we have read, all his stories center on the fictional community of Port Williams, KY, and its environs. Whether full length novels, or short stories, they all draw from and contribute to a sense of place - geography, history, and interconnected lives. The central figure of one novel (on this vacation, it was Hannah Coulter) will be peripheral in another. This never makes them "throw away" characters in any sense. In fact, the people of Port William become more real with each telling, whether or not they are central to any given book. The characters are many-dimensioned ... just like real people, and in a way we don't understand in real life if we are not fully a part of some community. And just like life, sometimes the little stories - of a single day, of a small event, of an argument - don't fit into a particular narrative, but are an essential part of a life. And that's what the collection, Fidelity, does. Fidelity was fiction book 2 on this vacation.

I always put down a Wendell Berry novel with a longing for community. But this past week, I realized what reading him really does for me ... it makes me long to be a better person.

Sticklers for theology are likely to quibble. Pshaw. The man is a Christian author, certainly, and belongs on the bookshelf of any who read Marilynne Robinson, at least.

A week with Wendell Berry is a fine way to prepare to return to work in the weeks that run up to the holidays. So, for my reflection and yours, we'll let his be the last words today:

Eternity is not infinity.
It is not a long time.
It does not begin at the end of time.
It does not run parallel to time.
In its entirety it always was.
In its entirely it will always be.
It is entirely present always.
Wendell Berry, in Leavings
(c) 2010 Wendell Berry
(Berkely, CA, Counterpoint Press)

Monday, October 12, 2009

A brief return to world music

I am a fan of global music. I enjoy hearing sounds of other cultures mixed with western music, but I would far rather hear the unadulterated music of another culture - even if that requires a bit of a stretch for my ears and taste.

In the western church, we have generally been the exporters of our music or the exploiters of non-western music. As exporters, as recently as 50 years ago we were still packaging the gospel in the hymn tunes and accompaniments of the 19th century. More recently, as exploiters, we have teaken the most easily accessible elements of another culture's music and used it as a veneer on our own. This is the essence of "pop" or "mass" culture - we see it, for example, in the difference between jazz and swing; between the rural blues and white rock & roll. Skim off the easy (accessible) bits and overuse them. (And generally don't credit your sources.) I'm not saying I don't enjoy swing ... but it isn't jazz. It's good to keep in mind the difference.

In the realm of global music, one reality is that the world is getting pretty small, and there are very few cultures that have not been influenced to some degree by western music, especially pop music. Where missionaries are now much more likely to respect the musical tradition of another culture, the radio and recorded media reach everywhere with very little effort. And indigenous musics are affected. Well, I guess that can't be helped.

Still, to the extent that it is possible to hear music of another culture, unalloyed, I like to hear it. Even when it is difficult to grasp, or only holds my academic interest and not my ears or heart, I like to hear the window into that culture. Naturally it is easier if there are some aural connections or intersections to western tonalities, structures, and instruments.

This Sunday College Church had Izibongo, the world music band from Wycliffe Bible Translators, in our services. Comprised of ethnomusicologists and other musicians, this group of 8 all played multiple instruments and sang. Through the course of the day they brought us the indigenous praise of the church in cultures as disparate as South American jungles, urban South Africa, India, and China. As familiar as Latin-tinged horns, and as foreign as parallel tone clusters from remote Brazil.

Sure, they did some cross-over, too. Going from a beautiful devotional song in Hindi, seamlessly into Andre Crouch's "Bless the Lord, O My Soul" was masterful, richly devotional, and satisfying. And when they led us in a cappella western hymns, we also did what we do well! What a great partnership, and a fine day for the church.

Monday, September 28, 2009


The weekend was spent with the Chancel Choir - or a good portion of the Choir, anyway. I'm always surprised that people will give so much of their time for Choir, and then give above and beyond at a Retreat. And stay cheerful. And then be thankful for it. It is a reminder of the greatness of this work - the church choir.

Reflections on why this is so might be apt and timely, but today I am simply thankful, and here is what for:
  • A great workshop on choral musicianship, by voice professor (and bass singer in this choir), Gerard Sundberg. His overarching theme - why shouldn't a group that sings together week after week, year after year, be getting better? What a novelty! By way of introducing two of our retreat octavos, he helped us raise our game on Accuracy, Diction, Musicality. For me, it was like attending a conducting workshop.
  • A nice new anthem introduced by its arranger (and bass singer in this choir), Greg Wheatley. His setting of the Welsh hymn "Here Is Love" (William Rees) with a Robert Lowry tune (Hope Publishing) is a lovely gospel gem.
  • New octavos for Christmas - From Alice Parker's triptych Shepherds and Angels, the carol "Behold! the Grace Appears." And from Malcolm Archer, on a Timothy Dudley-Smith text, "Gold for a Manger Bed." These became instant choir favorites, and for some I think they made the weekend worth the trouble!
  • Good refreshments, a great lunch, and a chance to hang out together without the press of a late night or a huge agenda.

Now, there were also some planning blunders. In my typical fashion, I put too much repertoire on for the event. We will do two extended works for the Christmas Festival, each about 12 minutes in length: Pergolesi (Durante?) Magnificat and Conrad Susa A Christmas Garland. They are well within the choir's reach, and we have an ample 10 more weeks to work on them. But in retrospect, I should have introduced only one of them (and it could have been either one) - and spent more time on that one, with the result of making more obvious progress on something big, rather than giving a sense of - oh, I don't know, dread? - at the end of a fire hose. I wouldn't change the way either piece was introduced, I just should not have introduced both of them.

We did have two familiar Christmas pieces which provided excellent balance, relief, and sheer pleasure. In addition to learning the earlier mentioned new octavos, picking up these old favorites "rescued" our Saturday repertoire session: "What Child Is This?" (Hal Hopson, Hope Publishing) and "All Is Well" (Smith/arr. Huff). And because of the raising our game workshop, coming back to these old friends was like hearing them anew. What fun!

For many in the choir, the highlight of a fall retreat is our service of commitment and prayer. We gather in the loft, sing, read, pray and wait in silence, and incorporate our new general anthems into this service. What a rich experience, with women and men who make each weekly rehearsal an act of worship.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The last Sunday night service in town?

I was at a social gathering about a month ago, enjoying the chance to catch up with friends from New Zealand. Guy Jansen had covered my duties during a sabbatical 5 years ago, during the academic year in which he was also covering 2 choral sabbaticals at the Wheaton Conservatory. He and Judy became good friends with many in the area, and as they were passing through town a barbecue was planned so we could all catch up with them.

Also present was a church music colleague who commented that "College Church is now the last church in Wheaton with a Sunday night service." Whether or not that is technically true, it is practically true. And this friend was simply informing me that his own church had decided to stop limping along with a struggling Sunday eve concept and attendance. (Strangely, the decision to cancel the service was made while he was out of the country! Not that he seemed to mind...) I do know that only a few years ago, when Wheaton College surveyed the colleges with which they have some relationship (staff or students or alumni), of over 100 churches in the area only 7 reported having regular Sunday night services.

I'll say right here that I have long felt it would be OK by me to be called to serve a church that does not have a service on Sunday evening. Especially if that church had multiple morning services, even in one "style." I'm not looking for a job change, don't get me wrong. But there's many a Sunday afternoon when I wish I did not have to get back to prepare and lead the evening service. (On the other hand, there are a very, very few services when I regret having done so. For which, read on.) At the same time, my Karen and I found ourselves surprised about the Sunday evening option, on sabbatical in 2004.

Our top priority while away was to be in a place where we could enjoy gathered worship, and spend Sunday evenings at home, with friends, family, and in fellowship with others in our sabbatical church home. So, imagine our surprise when from the very first Sunday away, we were drawn back to an evening service, thoroughly enjoyed our time there, and ended up in that pattern for the season. Naturally, for us, the experience was very different because we did not have responsibilities and duties in and for the service. What a rich summer we had at St. Andrew the Great, the Round Church, Cambridge, Summer Sunday evenings, 2004!

I reflect on that again today because yesterday was another of "those days." After a full, rich morning, what a pleasure it would have been to sit down to a leisurely dinner with others, no concern for the clock, no early trip back to church for the PM music rehearsal, to stay in blue jeans for the rest of the day, and to watch the sunset from our garden porch. And yet.

And yet, to work with musicians who are all about helping people sing. To stand in front of this congregation who love to sing. To hear a well-prepared sermon from someone who knows and loves God's Word and God's people. To hear and take part in the buzz of friendship and introductions after the service. To get back home with a sense that the day is complete.

College Church is the only church I have belonged to and not grown tired and disaffected with the evening service. It is the only church that has had a clear purpose for this service, and hewn closely to that purpose: gather, sing heartily, hear a well-prepared sermon, end the Lord's Day together. Not that the church at large "gets it" - we still only have about 15% of our morning attendance* back in the evening. But it is a cross-generational crowd, and man do they sing!

We may be the only game in town, but it's still a good one, and most Sundays when I get home - tired, retreating, and hungry - I'm glad we're still playing.

* To be fair, we do have another 200+ children in the building for choirs and Musikgarden classes. So that puts us closer to 30%, I suppose.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I have spent this afternoon tackling the mounds on my desk. Granted, they should not accumulate in the first place. But, given that they do, this is hardly the time to be sorting them out. Where did August go? Now with the fall in full early swing, this ought to have been long done.

A tidy desk is definitely one of those unattainable but oh so attractive objectives in my life. I admire a tidy desk. A desk that gleams when the door is locked for the night, that is a beautiful thing. But it is not my desk. As I sit at my keyboard now, to my left are the stacks of music in progress or in waiting - guitar concertos for an upcoming afternoon concert, Christmas music, anthems to be filed away, a student composer's string quartet. To my upper right (NE, so to speak) - CDs that I have just played, intend to play, or tried to play and could not. Just beyond them, phone central, behind which is a short bookshelf with things I (supposedly) need to put my hands on often and quickly: hymnals, bibles, reference books, Sibelius users manual, "Introduction to Latin" (wait, what?), and a growing stack of CDs I am unlikely to open, much less listen to, but you know, I might, I might. Atop the shelves, publishers' recommendations. (Thankfully, I am on very few of those mailing lists.) To my immediate right, the desk blotter, and now I can see its entire surface; even that much, I am ridiculously proud of, when I walk out at night and my blotter is free of paper. Continuing to the far right and behind (SE, you might say) are the working vestiges of my afternoon organizing.

Some time ago, someone helped me deal with the paper blizzard (thinking in that metaphor, it must have been in Minnesota) with the acronym TRAF: Toss, Read, Act, File. It is important to get the acronym in the right order, for at least two reasons. The one I'll mention here is based on the old saw, "the quicker you file something, the longer it takes to find it." I think I know what that means, but the practical side of that is that paper piles up on my desk! So, one does not start the process - and definitely not the acronym - from the Filing end.

Toss - this is my favorite. My recycle basket fills up fast, and it looks like I'm accomplishing a lot from the get go. I rarely have regrets about things that get tossed. If they are overdue, they generally were not that important. I hardly ever find something that makes my heart sink with regret. One of the few perqs of procrastination.

Read - my first pile, on my left, and the last one I'll get to at the end of the process. Things I should read, whether they will take a minute or hours. I'm not going to sit down now and read them, but I know at the end of the day what reading is ahead of me.

Act - this is my "oh oh!" pile. As in, "oops, I should have done this by now." It may also include things that are on my own, self-imposed, long-range projects list. It is a pile that has to be got to, though not necessarily urgently. I may be able to dispatch the Act pile right away, but in any case it will be my work cut out for me.

File - finally, what is left can be put away. Today's Files went into my choir resources (Stuff that had accumulated for rehearsals, newsletters, and my own choral development), into general files, and that sweet folder "encouragement."

Now with everything sorted, I have a clear(-ish) desk, a better handle on the resources and materials at my immediate disposal, and an agenda for getting at some important work matters. My Act pile turned out to be smaller than I feared, and my Read pile more interesting than I dared hope. (Much of the Read pile is music, it turns out. Yippee!)

So, today was TRAFic control, and a timely exercise it was. I have just ordered my autumn weeks to provide blocks of time for a weekly definition and pursuit of goals, for a protected time monthly to keep up with my professional reading, and for a quarterly session off-site - an afternoon and morning "retreat."

Now to press on, in hope ...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On my iPod

Someone recently asked me if I run with my iPod. What a frightful idea. Yes, I have an iPod. No, I do not listen to it when I run, and especially not when I am cycling. As for cycling, I can hardly imagine anything more dangerous than tuning out my surroundings while on the street, nor more depressing than tuning out my surroundings while on forested bike paths.

And as I answered my running friend, I have so many voices going in my head, I could hardly stand the competition of an iPod while exercising!

Which is not to say I don't have music going in my head when I ride, and when I run. I suppose there would be some performance-enhancement from pumping into my head the kind of music typically used for working out. I hear this in indoor cycling coaching sessions, during the winter. And, while I don't listen to that kind of music on my own, I don't mind it for 90 minutes twice a week. I get it. (Not to mention that it meant I knew at least a few songs when I sat down to "Rock Band" last winter ...)

But I find the soundtrack in my head works quite well, thank you very much, for riding and for running. My mind, as fragile as it may seem, is quite capable of setting the metronomic pace for the exercise. And what a surprise and treat it often serves up! It may be a Beatles tune, an old children's song, a hymn (lots of hymns), or a sacred anthem. I almost never set out with something particular to "accompany" the exercise ... the songs, or snatches of song, come unbidden and serve their purpose. And more often than not, I find they serve more than one purpose. In addition to pacing, getting my soundtrack from within generally ends up serving my spirit as well as my workout.

I can't say how many solo rides have ended up solving particular choral problems or issues I've struggled with. Or how often an old song, long forgotten, will come back to me fully formed. Running is a new enterprise for me, but I am finding the same to be true on foot as well.

There's a place for my iPod, and I'm thankful for it. But I'm sure glad I don't need it to provide internal motivation. I have lots to learn from those internal voices!

Anyway - on my iPod; listed here as it comes to mind, since I don't have it with me at the moment:
Podcasts from Public radio: Wait Wait Don't Tell Me; The Sunday Puzzle; Writers Almanac
Music Genres: pop, rock, classical, choral, world music, indie rock, folk, country
Surprises: Johnny Cash, The Decemberists, U2, Harry Nilsson
Favorites: Concordia College Choir (Moorhead); Paul Simon (almost everything); Christmas choral music; the last thing I downloaded
First item I loaded on my iPod: Bach Christmas Oratorio, complete (and yes, I did listen to it; I also put it on first so I could say it was the first thing on my iPod. I know - lame.)
What I'd listen to if I did ride or run with an iPod: nothing! What would happen to all those songs in my head?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Heavenly Worship

Like many, there was a time when I wondered just how boring heaven is going to be ... just one long worship service! Kids of a certain generation, in particular, had I think the sense that the unengaging services we sat through held some kind of eternal threat for us. Is that really what we had to look forward to?

(An interesting sidelight observation: To the extent that children ever actually thought this way ... or was it really just me? ... there was an interesting connection being made, that somehow our weekly worship supposedly modeled the heavenly. Which, I think it can be argued, it ought to be - or at least we ought at least to be conscious of heavenly worship when we are gathered "here below." The Orthodox aspire to this intentionally. I think we can get there in any tradition.)

Aging, if not actually maturing, I have a deeper sense of what might just possibly be in store in the eschaton, the new heavens and new earth, the new creation which we are experiencing now only vaguely, in fits and starts. Cities and rivers and fruit trees and seasons and feasting ... it boggles the mind, in a way I wish I had known enough 20 years ago, to begin to instill into my own children's imagination. I pray they are gettting that at some level anyway.

Today (and I really mean, today, 17 August 2009) the notion of a never-ending "worship" service is more appealing than ever. Yesterday at College Church was timed to the minute, and I spent the day fretting over hitting all the marks. In a church already pretty uptight about the clock, we wound it up pretty tight and put every staff person on alert as to their responsiblity to "make the services come in on time." I was a wreck. We made it, morning and evening, but am I glad we don't live like this every week.

I could never function in a church tied to a television or radio broadcast. I've seen the service outlines for some of these churches, with their cues and time-lines. No thanks. It's bad enough just trying to make a 3-service morning work without mobs forming in the narthex and parking lot, as people go and come.

So I am adding this to the arguments for a single-service congregation: let us relax, focus, and breathe as we are likely to in heaven.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Last night Bill and Kevin played the evening service. Piano and guitar, with one singer and me. While we generally have at least another instrument and maybe another voice, the makeup for congregational song was pretty typical. But the playing was anything but typical.

We are rich with resources at College Church. If I let myself, I can be smitten with the embarrassment of riches. I'm just as likely to take them for granted. I try to stay somewhere in the middle - appreciating the many who give so much for this great work, and not being apologetic that other churches would pay huge sums to get any number of our volunteers on a regular basis.

But with Bill at the piano, and Kevin on guitar, we enjoyed the subtle dynamics of two skilled servant musicians, whose primary purpose was to play so that the people can sing. Not because they can't play to impress! Kevin is capable in many styles, on every guitar-type instrument (I love to have his mandolin and his banjo involved); Bill is a repetiteur with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The men are no slouches. But each gives himself to the support of others. And, man, what they give!

It has been a while since they played together in our evening service. So in rehearsal it was a delight to be reminded what they bring - individually and in ensemble. They listen to one another, without a word changing roles and parts, complementing and drawing each other out. Kevin would pick up the melody, and Bill was immediately chording. Bill would brig out the melody, and Kevin would slip into a new rhythmic accompanying pattern - completely apt for the melody, and altogether surprising.

I don't know how much the typical singer in the pew could have said what was happening. But this interplay evoked some extraordinary singing. Our evening services tend to be laid back. They mix hymns - classic, modern, gospel - with new songs that may or may not be Praise & Worship (but are normally not identified with that genre, whatever that may be). Another planner would turn up the heat a bit in the services; and these musicians would be right there for that, too. But the beauty of their leadership last night was that even with this laid-back vibe, there was variety, energy, and a musical vitality ... a fecund creativity ... that lifted us all in glorious song.

It was something like jazz, spontaneous and responsive. It was a treat to stand in front of them and lend my very average voice to the mix, with a sweet soprano also on mic, and be caught in the middle of a beautiful night of song. Because Bill and Kevin gave themselves the way they did, we had a true ensemble of the whole - a room united in voice, heart, intent, and worship. That's glory.

Monday, August 3, 2009

More Robinson

Having finshed Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, I don't know whether to a) wish she had more fiction to spend time with, or b) be thankful that she has so carefully paced herself and only produced works of beauty. Housekeeping was published in 1980. Gilead in 2004. Home in 2008. What gifts, and what discipline to not "crank out" more along the way.

When I finished Housekeeping I knew I would re-read these books, and would buy them to re-read and share. And I am pretty sure that when I read them again, I shall do so out loud. If my Karen can stand it, or if I can find a place where neither she nor our dog, Truman, will be bothered by my croaky voice. The language is compelling, and I'd like to hear these books as well as read them.

So, the essays (The Death of Adam) came between the first 2 novels. This morning I began the last item on my Robinson Summer Reading List. It is another coffee shop book, non-fiction, published in 1989. Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution. I mean, the range of interests and subjects boggles the mind. Written as it was in the waning years of the Cold War, it is an engaging snapshot of an era. And again, it has such a balanced socio-political perspective. A rather depressing topic, to be sure, and I'm interested to see how she plays it out.

Then, I'll have to decide how to keep this kind of beauty in my reading. Thankfully, there is Wendell Berry. On vacation last week I read A World Lost, and began essays (What Are People For? 1990) Berry is a triple threat author, and it seems people know him for either his novels, or his essays, or his poetry. I have found wonder and delight in all three.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

This minister's bookshelf

Well, not my bookshelf, per se, but what I've been reading.

About a year ago my wife and I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The novel (Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2004) takes place in a small town minister's home. It is one of the most beautiful books I've read, and the author clearly knows her theology. And grace. At about that time, Ms. Robinson's latest novel was released. Home tells the same story, from the perspective of the other home in Gilead. If you don't know these novels, or her first, Housekeeping, find and read them!

This summer I set myself to reading all that Marilynne Robinson has in print. So I have read Home, and marveled again at the beauty of her prose, the insight into family dynamics, and the saturation of grace. I am now reading Housekeeping.

As my "coffee shop reading" I have just completed a collection of Robinson's essays. At least one day a week, I stop by Caribou to sit and read before entering the melee that is my office. It's a good place to bump into people, and some days I read very little. But at home there are other distractions, and I won't bump into people, so there you have it. It also gives me a chance to read and savor, and take my time with the essays. The Death of Adam collects essays apparently written during the 1990's. They are as beautifully articulated as her fiction, while being both scholarly and occasionally ironic.

Here is a Christian writing without jargon; biblical faith and language and a balanced political idealogy. She employs a rich vocabulary (I got reacquainted with Merriam-Webster most mornings!) in exquisite but unpretentious sentences. I hardly dare begin to quote her ... where would I stop? She identifies herself as a mainline Protestant, and is also a clear, winsome student of Calvin and Edwards. Her defense of these Reformed giants, and of the Puritans in their train, is stunning and delightful.

On my Facebook profile, under "religious views" I state: "Calvinist who welcomes wonder." That was before I read these essays, and I am all the more happy to stand there now.

Three quotes, and I'm done:
An indictment (my word, not the author's) - "I have heard pious people say, Well, you can't live by Jesus' teachings in this complex modern world. Fine, but then they might as well call themselves the Manichean Right or the Zoroastrian Right and not live by those teachings. If an economic imperative trumps a commandment of Jesus, they should just say so and drop these pretensions toward a particular holiness - which, while we are on the subject of divine abhorrence, God, as I recall, does not view much more kindly than he does neglect of the poor. In fact, the two are often condemned together." (p. 102, in "Family)

On theology - "Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and the dying words, and who attend to its retelling iwth a special alertness, because the story has a claim on them and they on it. Theology is also close to the spoken voice. It evokes sermon, sacrament, and liturgy, and, of course, Scripture itself, with all its echoes of song adn legend and prayer." (p. 117 in "Dietrich Bonhoeffer")

A description of a Christian (herself) - "I will make a shocking statement: I am a Christian. This ought not to startle anyone. It is likely to be at least demographically true of an American of European ancestry. I have a strong attachment to the Scriptures, and to the theology, music, and art Christianity has inspired. My most inward thoughts and ponderings are formed by the narratives and traditions of Christianity. I expect them to engage me on my deathbed." (p. 260-1 in "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion") To which I will just add - would that this were true of more self-described "evangelicals"!

Monday, July 20, 2009

From sea to shining sea

Belated thoughts on Independence Day weekend worship.

But first: an anagram for "belated" is "bleated." It's right I should keep this in mind when I write in this space from week to week.

On Sunday, July 5, we sang "America the Beautiful" in our morning services. No one I have talked with remembers this hymn being sung in worship at College Church. It was not put into the service without a great deal of thought, extended staff conversation, and personal reservation. In the end, while I know it was appreciated by many, and though it was my decision from beginning to end, I'm not sure it was a good idea.

I select hymns and choral music for morning services, based on the sermon text of the day. When things work, this gives a cohesiveness to the hour, usually without belaboring the preaching point; instead, there is a sense of complementarity between the singing and the preaching. It works.

I planned the July 5 service, along these lines, earlier than normal because I was going to be away the week the plan was due to be submitted. This gave me the opportunity to come back and look at it without the press of the planning schedule. It was only upon review that I realized, "oh right, this is the July 4 weekend." Because we often have conversations with congregants about things civic and patriotic - why don't we have a flag in the sanctuary? how come we never sing patriotic hymns? - I thought, well, what harm is there in considering a national hymn in this service? I can think of plenty of harm, actually, and believe with many that one of the great challenges and failures of the American church is mixing nationalism, patriotism, and conservative politics with evangelical faith. Still ...

Reading again the text of "America the Beautiful" I was struck that while it is a national song, it is quite clearly a prayer for our country. (Interestingly, after we sang it in service, many people commented that they could not remember having sung any verses but the opening.) Well, I thought upon reflection, what if we acknowledge the national holiday in a prayer hymn, following the time of congregational prayer. It was a given that (as is our custom) the morning prayer would include thanksgiving for the blessings of living in this land, and prayer for our leaders, justice, etc. You know, biblical content for praying for our nation. That would not comprise the entire prayer, but would be a part of it. Then we would end the prayer with a hymn (as we often do), this time a hymn of prayer for our country.

I took this question to the ministry staff. It prompted an engaged and stimulating discussion. Some of the reservations voiced were: * there is nothing Christological about the hymn (that's not a show-stopper, but it is a serious matter in our context) * can we posture the use of the hymn in a way that counters the intuitive "jingoistic" instinct of any national hymn? * though certain political types would be pleased by it, we can be sure others would be uncomfortable * what about the - not tiny - numbers of our congregation who are not Americans?

Well, it was a good discussion, and it also included good reasons to use the song. I left the meeting less inclined to put it in the service. But when it came time, and after more conversation, I decided to put it in. The pray-er in the service would set it up before he prayed ("this morning in our prayer we are going to give thanks for our independence; following prayer we will sing this hymn of prayer for our nation."), and following the general prayer and the Lord's Prayer, woud again point out its function in the service. All well and good.

In reality ... well, duh ... this really doesn't "sing" like a prayer hymn. And the force of our patriotic association was too strong for us to sing it "thoughtfully." It was a moment. Not the moment I had hoped, and not I think very effective or appropriate as Christian worship. I can think of only 3 dates that I would have tried this: Sunday, July 3; Sunday, July 4; or Sunday, July 5. July 2 would be early enough, and July 6 late enough, to "get by without it." I can't say now whether next year (Sunday, July 4, 2010) I am likely to do it again.

Still, I admire this hymn and celebrate its place in our national psyche. I am among those who would vote for it as our national anthem. One of the features that makes it weaker for use in Christian worship (Jesus has no place in it) actually strengthens its value as a hymn for all Americans. (Excluding, of course, atheists!) And my, does it teach me how to pray for the land that I love:
God shed his grace on thee; and crown thy good with brotherhood.
God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
May God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.

There are some historical or cultural problems, to be sure: the confusion of pilgrims with sternness (long and ably refuted as an unfair stereotype); the celebration of manifest destiny (ouch!); the very Euro-centric vision of it all. But I love the longing for (it is not a description of what exists, but a prayer for) "alabaster cities undimmed by human tears." It might not hurt for more people in this country to learn the verses to the full song, and enlarge our vision for the country.

And finally, I would be remiss if I did not express my thankfulness to have the freedom to not program a patriotic song in a worship service.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Let the rivers clap their hands

Why do we clap in church? I mean, applaud. Why do we applaud in church?

I was struck again, in a recent church visit, by this response of the congregation to adult immersion baptisms. It happens at College Church, too, so this is not picking on another church's culture. I can recognize and accept, at some level, that this is at least a sign of the peoples' engagement with what is going on, a celebration of the step of identification taken by those being baptized, and even an expression of praise to God. It can be all this. But is applause really the best way to express these things?

Where else and when else do we applaud? Performances - artistic, athletic, oratorical. For whom do we applaud? For those who have excelled or excited us by achieving at or above our expectations. Sure, we often applaud politely just because an event is finally over. But I mean those times when applause is sincere and spontaneous. Because whatever else may be going on when people applaud at baptisms, they are being sincere and (probably at least somewhat) spontaneous.

Interestingly, at my church - where we baptize infants as well as professed believers, and where we may sprinkle or immerse believers - there is never clapping at an infant baptism or an adult sprinkling. Does that help get at the focus or impetus for applause? Whom would we applaud when an infant is baptized - the pastor? the parents? the child, who is the least involved of all the participants? God?

If applause is an act of praise in a believer's baptism, then why do we not feel the impetus to applaud at an infant's? Baptism is a sign of grace, which is God's, so ...

No, I am stuck with the feeling that people applaud because, as with so many other areas of public discourse, we have lost a greater vocabulary of praise. I don't think we can convincingly argue that applause is a biblical response. The one - and I do really mean the only - biblical call to "clap your hands" is, famously, Psalm 47:1. Two other references are somewhat neutral, but specifically refer to nature anthropomorphically (rivers, trees clapping their hands). And these 3 references combined share a sense of God's awesome might and judgment. All other biblical uses of the verb are in the context of war, aggression, and taunting. So, not a lot of textual underpinning for clapping as an expression of praise. Go ahead and play the cultural card, but I don't think that gets us a whole lot farther.

We do have some biblical language that seems to me appropriate to the occasion of baptism - both of believers and of infants. The two that spring to mind have both been co-opted by popular culture's portrayal of rural uneducated American Chrisitianity. [Note: I am not saying the Christian church in rural America is uneducated. I am saying it is generally portrayed that way.] In those settings, the perfectly good and potentially exuberant expressions are made to look ... well, stupid.

I refer of course to "Amen" and "Hallelujah."
Amen - yes, or So be it.
Hallelujah - praise the Lord.
Hebrew words that have gone with the church into every language the church has gone, without translation, and transliterated in ways that are completely understandable to all who know the words. I have no doubt that in heaven - where the Bible suggests these words will be in vibrant use - we will hear "Amen" and "Hallelujah" in all the accents and colors of north, south, east and west. Why are we too cultured or timid to trot them out in our services?

I stubbornly, but I hope humbly, say "Amen" when someone comes up out of the baptismal water. Very few others join me in it. Well, but there are those who also don't clap then. Maybe we're just too used to spectating. Maybe I/we need to be leading and teaching and encouraging this - or some other, if there is a larger vocabulary of response.

But there is another level of response that I fear gets ignored when we have clapped at baptisms. As at a concert, we clap ... then go home. Have we done all we can do at a baptism service, whether we clap or add our "Amen"? I know I need to make one more response, and that is to somehow get to each person whose baptism I have witnessed - in person or in writing - and affirm God's work in them, celebrate personally their response of faith and obedience, and assure them of my prayer for them. This would complete the baptism service for both of us.

And it would long outlast a few seconds of, even genuine, applause. And, for that matter, the fading "Amen!"

Monday, June 22, 2009


I used to plan, prepare, and lead contemporary worship. I am at my current post because I became disenchanted with it. I told my interviewers, 13 years ago this month, "if you are looking for someone who is 'death' on contemporary music, I'm not your guy." I was (and largely remain) opposed to contemporary worship music as the only diet in a worshipers life.

Contemporary worship music has broadened in the past decade. It is no longer difficult to find thoughtful texts. Some fine melodies are being written. Accompaniments seem more varied. Some old lyrics are being re-discovered and put to new tunes. Some classic hymns and gospel songs are re-cast in engaging idioms. This would not be my metier or choice if I had to find a church to attend. But the scene has broadened for the better.

Which makes my experience in another church yesterday all the more disappointing. It was dreadful. 4 of the 5 congregational songs were known to me, each of them being from the gospel or bluegrass traditions. They were led by the standard worship band - guitar, bass guitar, drummer behind his plexiglass shield, and two singers. You know, I can't even remember if there was a keyboard, but I think not. How could this group alienate - worse, annoy - me with songs I already know?

1. They played with no variety or even any particularly interesting ideas. Chunka chunka chunka.
2. They had no particular regard for apt tempos, generally too fast.
3. In one set of 3 songs, they moved from one to the next, without key change, without interlude or introduction, with hardly a tempo change. By verse 2 of song 3, I just stopped singing; I was all worn out.
4. Curiously, the melodies of these familiar old songs were "simplified" - or somehow altered so that the little interesting bits you get in old gospel songs were removed. That had the effect of making the tunes, well, slightly foreign. I can't imagine the point of it.
5. The final song before the sermon was a contemporary song that I do not know. I think it might actually be a decent song. The band apparently knows it from some recording, because they changed up the way they played for this song, and it sounded more "produced." But it still had no variety or interest in it. Chunka chunka chunka. It was dreadful.

I won't get into how I had to repent of the bad attitude that developed towards the worship leader. I cannot know his motivation or his heart. He may not have been the musical director of the service. Maybe he couldn't help adding the little licks that brought attention to his singing once in a while. Maybe this was the B-team on a rough day. I just don't know. I don't go to services to find fault; I go to worship. I pray for charity.

I was glad for the preaching of my friend; it was to hear him, and to conveniently meet two of my grown kids for Fathers Day, that we chose this church and its contemporary service. Unfortunately, the bulletin put in our hands had the complete service plan for the traditional service earlier in the morning - that just made this unfortunate experience all the worse.

I will grant a place for contemporary worship music. And with the range of materials available now - which I do not think were quite as abundant as they were in 1996 when I left that scene - I can even imagine a viable decision to only have a contemporary service. (OK, it is a stretch, but I can imagine it.) But if it can't be done musically, unplug it, dude, and let the people call out their favorites.


Monday, June 15, 2009

On a wing and a prayer

Our first summer Sunday morning. The relaxed, civilized schedule - only two services, the first at 9:30. The day opened in glorious sunshine, with sunrise just after I woke up ... committing the dicey music plan to prayer, again.

The idea began, as so many do, with a great idea and a lot of energy, and all good intention. It was "Summer Celebration," and our first Sunday after the choir season, so let's do things a little differently. Having secured our fine professional-grade cellist, and counting on the return of our outstanding organist/pianist, the rest was just details. First: find out how many of our string players we can muster. Second: sort out what hymns would be accompanied by piano, and what by organ. Third: would cello alone cover some service music, or would enough string players be around to pull off a Prelude, or the Offering?

Wednesday, our organist calls to check in after his 3-week choir trip to China. Um, family thing ... asking for the Sunday off. To make his first visit to a month-old grandchild. What monster would gainsay that? (And anyway, realistically, was this actually a request for a day off, or an announcement that he would be gone?) OK! Plan B - pianist, full service. Now, how about them strings?

As the adult string players dropped off the list, or failed to return messages, we turned to our high school players. Now this service plan was starting to leave auto-pilot. Some serious thought had to go into making this enterprise successful. Here I am ashamed to admit that it was already past time to seriously pray about this ... but that came even later.

We came into Thursday with a list of players that included 1 adult violinist; 2 collegiate violists, and 1 really fine cellist. I found for the Prelude a simple but effective (and very musical) setting of the hymn tune HOLY MANNA. We had a very fine accompaniment for the congregation to sing "Jesus Is Lord" - strings and piano. We had a setting with strings for BLAENWERN. And I cobbled together what turned out to be a fairly effective WINCHESTER NEW. It all looked good on paper. Then I started to pray!

So, I woke before sunrise on the Lord's Day, trying to trust that this string group was going to pull off this service. We had got music out to everyone by Thursday, but our only rehearsal was Sunday at 8:30. Really, I am getting too old to keep working like this. One of these days my heart will give out, in spite of all my cycling!

And may I say here, without embarrassment, and with humility: God answered prayer. These kids were fabulous. They played in tune. The brought out melodies and accompanied well. They were prompt and cheerful. The 4 high school girls had, like I, run a 5k race the day before. I knew about 5 minutes into the rehearsal that this was going to work. When we ended at 9:15 I had the presence of spirit to thank God for his mercy. And the services bore out the rehearsal.

I do not for a moment think that God answers this kind of praying for my benefit. There are at least two greater purposes, each of them dwarfing my petty concerns and needs. For one, I believe he is merciful to his people, gathered for public worship. Second, especially with young musicians, I believe he has their growth and encouragement in his hands. And most important, I believe God protects and promotes his own glory when his people are assembled. In spite of my poor planning, or the changes of peoples' schedules, or anything else, when musicians give their best (including their best intentions) in the service of the Word, God is glorified among his people in gathered worship.

And so we humbly thank him for the privilege of being able to participate in it. And we take no real credit for it.

Monday, June 8, 2009


So ends another choir season. It has had its brilliant moments - lots more than I as the conductor can take responsibility for. I suppose it has been disappointing for some: not enough new music this year, no big event (no oratorio or evensong or festival), same old aging under-prepared guy waving his arms and trotting out tired jokes. You know, another season.

The season ended not with a bang but a ... well, no that isn't fair, not with a whimper either. I envy the music programs that manage a big to-do at the end of the school year. We do what we can, and music is deeply and widely appreciated here. In a sense, we don't need to make a big deal out of it, because it is so integral and integrated into our church life. (Though, rightly so, my current music committee would dispute that - and are appropriately pushing to see that we don't lose that integral integration.)

But, without a big event to close the season - and without an oratorio confirmed on next year's books - our final rehearsals have been laid back. To the point where our penulitmate practice ended a tad early so we could celebrate birthdays. And our final rehearsal was a dessert party at the director's house. We were, frankly, "ready" for Sunday anyway, so why not party? And what a party it was - 75 people in a standard suburban two-story with sunroom, deck and lawn. We were blessed with a beautiful evening and a room full of home-made desserts (compliments my generous wife). It was great fun, and ended after those who shoe-horned into the vaulted sunroom spent nearly a half-hour singing hymn after hymn, from memory, in parts. Nothing was "called out" ... it just flowed from one to the next, first this one leading out, then another. Most of the songs were old-time gospel songs and choruses - of the type that we don't actually sing in services here. So it was (a) surprising how many people knew the words to so many of these songs, and (b) how long this went on! It was sweetly glorious.

Sunday morning came round, and we sang in College Church's lovely understated communion service. Bruce Greer's "Delight in the Lord" (with piano, but the orchestral setting is also very nice) and Rene Clausen's "Softly and Tenderly" - the latter was, to die for. I told the choir as far as I'm concerned they could sing that every week. (I have stopped saying they could sing it at my funeral ... they sometimes seem all too eager for that.)

And then, it was over. 3 final services on our last Sunday, and "see you next season." So, no, it wasn't the choir who was flat ... it's how I feel at the end of each season.

Monday, June 1, 2009


One of my choristers has just gone (is going) through a challenging time at work, with lots of lay-offs around her. Yesterday she told me about how a recent anthem continued to serve her spirit during the worst of it. We had just sung the Dale Grotenhuis anthem "Praise the Lord, all you nations." He combines Psalm 117 (the shortest of the psalms) with some verses from Psalm 116. It is an interesting juxtaposition, and one that few would think of. I think it's brilliant, but I don't know exactly why.

Praise the Lord, all you nations, praise him all you peoples. For great is his love for us, and his faithfulness endures forever. Praise the Lord! That's it - you could memorize the entire psalm in about 23 seconds. Grotenhuis used this as a bookend to these interior verses from the preceding psalm: I love the Lord. He heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. The Lord is gracious, the Lord is righteous, our God is full of compassion. Then be at rest once more, O my soul. For God has been good to you. The text from 117 is bright, mixed meter, big; the middle section legato, slow, thoughtful. I hope this thing is still in print!

Anyway, Ms. Chorister was reading in the psalms one morning after this anthem was sung, while all this was going on at work, and Psalm 116 was on the list for the day. She hadn't worked out how the anthem text was put together, so she wasn't expecting to see the anthem text in that day. When she got to these verses, the anthem sprang to mind - understandably - and stayed with her through the day.

This is a fairly common experience, and many of you who read this have experienced something like it yourselves. I never tire of hearing it, and I am delighted when it happens to me.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


This Sunday at College Church we have a grand alignment of preaching text, complementary scripture reading, Anchor memory verse (and series), and the church calendar. I can assure you that no planning in the church offices brought these together! Our original plan was to begin the Anchor memory program in September, not January - and on that plan we would have memorized the Holy Spirit verses back in February. The preaching text and complementary reading were provided by Pastor Moody when he was still in New Haven, and the Galatians passages had to be worked around a schedule accommodating Missions and the Preaching Workshop guest preacher. The only given in the mix is this year’s date for Pentecost … it always comes 50 days after Easter!

As it turns out our observation of the day is hand and glove with the flow of this excellent preaching series in the Galatian letter. Paul asks: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:2-3) Pentecost is the historical redemptive event by which we are able to come to faith, and by which we live out our life in Christ. Let’s celebrate like it’s AD 33!

Our closing hymn for the morning is this apt prayer for the church:

Lord of the Church, we pray for our renewing:
Christ over all, our undivided aim;
fire of the Spirit, burn for our enduing,
wind of the Spirit, fan the living flame!
We turn to Christ amid our fear and failing,
the will that lacks the courage to be free,
the weary labors, all but unavailing,
to bring us nearer what a church should be.

Lord of the Church, we seek a Father’s blessing,
a true repentance and a faith restored,
a swift obedience and a new possessing,
filled with the Holy Spirit of the Lord!
We turn to Christ from all our restless striving,
unnumbered voices with a single prayer—
the living water for our souls’ reviving,
in Christ to live, and love and serve and care.

Lord of the Church, we long for our uniting,
true to one calling, by one vision stirred;
one cross proclaiming and one creed reciting,
one in the truth of Jesus and His word!
So lead us on; till toil and trouble ended,
one Church triumphant one new song shall sing,
to praise his glory, risen and ascended,
Christ over all, the everlasting King!

Timothy Dudley Smith
© 1984 Hope Publishing Co.

These words were written to be sung to the folk tune LONDONDERRY AIR.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. (Ga. 5:25) And let us be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with our whole heart! (Eph. 5:19)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I had the interesting experience of my first up-close and personal military ceremony, just a week ago. I was a young teenager when I attended my oldest brother commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps (during Vietnam). I have been at cemetaries for Memorial Day events for many years - as a band member, as the parent of a band member, and as an occasional interested onlooker. I have attended, and served, at the funerals of some veterans and been moved by the presentation of the flag, and the playing of taps at the graveside.

It's that last part that gets me now, as the father of a young man who has just entered active Army duty as a newly-commissioned 2nd Lieutenant, with orders eventually to serve as supply officer for an artillery unit. Gulp! This all is starting to be a bit too personal for me.

But I will say this - give the military credit for managing ceremony. Now, I'm glad we are past the days of gloved ushers wearing morning coats; beyond lock-step precision while taking the offering, and so on. And while I miss a degree of formality in our own services at College Church, I think we are in fact better off for not having the pastors enter the chancel from the side door, walk to our chairs soberly, and sit in unison. We are past these things, but we also have lost something in their passing.

I expect to see quite a few military ceremonies over the next 4 - 20 years. And from what I've seen so far, I can predict that they will be well planned, clearly and seriously executed, and yet not without a sense of personal touch. Not emotional and not by breaking the import of the occasion, but yet somehow personal for all their pomp and respect.

And I have to ask: can't we in the church approach our duty and delight with at least that kind of care, if not that precision? With a sense that something greater is going on here? Acknowledging that what is present and at stake is deeper, older, and more important than the cultural drive to be relevant and engaging? My son - who makes no pretense to Christian belief - delights in the settledness and history of military protocol and ceremony. That seems to match up with his generation's desire for something transcendent, rooted, meaningful and important. Do we miss them by paying less attention to ceremony?

Or is it just me?

Monday, May 11, 2009


I have long felt that being in the Anglican communion would be worth it if only for the titles. Why be the choir director, when I might be the choir master? Why be Pastor King or even Rev. King, when I might be The Right Reverend, or optimally the Most Right Reverend? How cool would that be? And just to be able to aspire to the post of Canon ...

But on a serious note, I have appreciated one particular Anglican title. I see that the term is applied and used in other ecclesiastical circles - currently or historically - but I only know it through the Anglican Church. That is the Precentor. (And the awesome Canon Precentor, which woudl be very cool.)

The Precentor's role is primarily to order, and sometimes to lead, public worship. Rarely if ever would it include the role of organist or choir master. I sometimes try to describe my role here as Precentor Choir Master. Which sounds fun enough even though it is unlikely. But in fact it is a fairly accurate, if somewhat nerdy, description. If there is any place for a "liturgist" in this free church tradition, I guess that's what I do. It's just that if I were Anglican, I'd have a cool title to go along with it.

Reflecting on this now because we are working through some changes in our morning services this year. With a new senior pastor, we have introduced a complementary scripture reading - a radical innovation in an independent evangelical conregation! We are also trying to incorporate into our services the Bible verses learned in a church-wide scripture memory program. Rather than simply have the "Bible verse moment" I have tried to place these verses apporpriately for the unfolding of the service, ideally so people can see how Scripture informs our gatherings. It has not been smooth. How much simpler the "Bible verse moment" would be!

Along with these changes, we are also re-learning and re-assigning the various service roles for the ministry staff. So the senior pastor is not doing all that our former senior did, and the others are preparing and doing more than before. Lots of change to manage! It all takes time.

If only it came with a cool title ...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Inclusive yet Discerning

I am now trying to decide what my next "coffee shop" book is, having finished Frank Burch Brown, Inclusive Yet Discerning. It proved to be a probing read, to the end. Though to my taste - or perhaps I should say, for my purposes - it is a chapter too long. Not "one chapter too long," becasue I think Brown has much to say, and he says it well. But "a chapter" because his final chapter does not seem to me to add anything or indeed even to clarify his argument. But then, I'm no philosopher.

And that final chapter is in fact "philosohical," specifically dealing with Plotinus, and him by way of Margaret R. Miles. Plotinus has never been more than an old dead Greek's name to me, and I'm still content with that. How is Plotinus a philosopher to be reckoned with? And why take the time to deal with him with all the modifiers? I feel Brown would have done as well to speak directly, especially after his excellent chapter on Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI.

"In modifying Plotinus in the way proposed above, we are recognizing a potential within earthly artistry and beauty that he hinted at, but in other ways questioned or undercut... (p. 151) OK, so why did Mr. P. got a whole chapter?

The conclusion of the chapter and the book:
From a Christian point of view, at least, that spiritually disciplined way of making music and of partaking bodily in beauty may be an integral part of our participating in the sacred, cosmic dance of a sacramental universe. As John of Damascus wrote in defense of icons, "Perhaps you [iconoclasts] are sublime and able to transcend what is material ... but I, since I am a human being and bear a body, want to deal with holy things and behold them in a bodily manner."* In seeing how the arts can participate in that bodily process of dealing with beautiful things, we likewise see how artistry and worship, while by no means identical, are (or should be) closely allied, and at times inseparable." (p. 151)
* John of Damascus, quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition,vol. 2:
The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700)
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 122.
Finally, I have already suggested to someone in another church, that this book might be helpful. But now upon completing it, I might make that recommendation cautiously, or even just suggest specific chapters. A lay reader, or a hyper scrupulous clergy, reading Inclusive Yet Discerning, may throw out an overall good thesis with the Plotinus bathwater.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Music by Anne Porter

I listen to 3 podcasts, all from public radio: Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, The Sunday Puzzle, and Writer's Almanac. My listening time is during my dog's evening constitutional, a leisurely walk around the neighborhood.

Yesterday, in the gloaming, it was Writer's Almanac, from May 1. (By the way, my wife kind of rolls her eyes when I use old words and phrases like that. Bathe, weary, dungarees, in the gloaming - I guess I'm just the child of my grandparents. There's so many rich old ways to say things.) Many of the poems at the end of Writer's Almanac are interesting, or funny, or confusing. Few have taken my breath away, and lead me to worship and wonder, as did "Music" by Anne Porter. Today, looking for the text online, I see that many have taken their cue from Garrison Keillor and are now reflecting on this work of art:

by Anne Porter

When I was a child
I once sat sobbing on the floor
Beside my mother's piano
As she played and sang
For there was in her singing
A shy yet solemn glory
My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked
Why I was crying
I had no words for it
I only shook my head
And went on crying

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

I've never understood
Why this is so

But there's an ancient legend
From the other side of the world
That gives away the secret
Of this mysterious sorrow

For centuries on centuries
We have been wandering
But we were made for Paradise
As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us
With its heavenly beauty
It brings us desolation
For when we hear it
We half remember
That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields
Their fragrant windswept clover
The birdsongs in the orchards
The wild white violets in the moss
By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it
Is the longed-for beauty
Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.

"Music" by Anne Porter
from Living Things: Collected Poems. © Steerforth Press, 2006.
Go to this link to hear Keillor read it.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Caught out

I guess that unless a blog is used for news and information, or to formally guide learners, we aren't obligated to check facts. One of my blogging sons is a meticulous speller in real life, but considers his blog informal enough to not feel obligated to proof-read and make tidy.

I fall somewhere between there. Because I know someone will tease me about my spelling (are you reading, HC?) I try to be careful there. Elsewhere I acknowledged that I may write out of my ignorance, without taking time to look up quote sources or even facts.

But last week I rather blithely offered up an excellent hymn, with my own text change. Oh well, at least I didn't try to pass off the the text tweak as part of the original hymn. But a more careful reader actually took the time to find "Christ triumphant, ever reigning" in one of his hymnals. To be fair, I also tried, but none of my hymnals include it. And Jim passed along this bit of information ...

the text in question
Priestly king, enthroned forever high in heaven above!
Sin and death and hell shall never stifle human love:
* which I changed to: keep us from your love: *
Yours the glory and the crown,
the high renown, the eternal name.
Jim wrote: "In my copy of Jubilate Hymns (2nd edition/Music Edition- 1987; #172(ii)), the 'confusing' phrase is "stifle hymns of love". The line, "stifle human" sounds like it might be from a previous version."
Or indeed it might be a misprint in the hymn page I was given. In either case, it was pretty cavalier of me to change someone's text, especially without due diligence.

Having said that, I do still rather like the proffered phrase with its echoes of Romans 8 set up by "sin and death and hell shall never" ... But that isn't my business, is it? My responsibility is to (a) confirm the text, (b) understand the urtext and/or the author's own alterations, and then (c) if I change it, get permission. Mea maxima culpa!

But still, we sing.

Monday, April 27, 2009


So, my stealth church year observation will finally take a fair shot at Ascension Day, observed on Sunday, May 24.

A couple of years ago Reformed Worship had a couple of nice Ascension hymn options. But the one we are finally getting around to is "Christ triumphant, ever reigning" (Michael Saward), to the tune GUITING POWER (John Barnard), published by Jubilate Hymns in England. I've been walking around with this hymn in my head since summer 2004. It was given to me by the lead musician at St. Andrew the Great, The Round Church, Cambridge. Don't ask why it took so long to introduce it to my hymn-loving congregation. It might just be some intersection of man's procrastination and God's providence...

Our organist, H. E. Singley, is finishing a setting for choir, congregation, brass and organ. The choir has begun to learn it in hymnbook form, and this week will see the arrangement. What a treat we all have in store. Here is Michael Saward's splendid text:

Christ triumphant, ever reigning, Savior, Master, King!
Lord of heaven, our lives sustaining, hear us as we sing:
Yours the glory and the crown,
the high renown, the eternal name.
Word incarnate, truth revealing, Son of Man on earth;
power and majesty concealing by your humble birth:
Yours the glory and the crown,
the high renown, the eternal name.
Suffering servant, scorned, ill-treated, victim crucified!
Death is through the cross defeated, sinners justified:
Yours the glory and the crown,
the high renown, the eternal name.
Priestly king, enthroned forever high in heaven above!
Sin and death and hell shall never keep us from your love:
Yours the glory and the crown,
the high renown, the eternal name.
So, our hearts and voices raising through the ages long,
ceaselessly upon you gazing, this shall be our song:
Yours the glory and the crown,
the high renown, the eternal name.

(c) Michael Saward/The Jubilate Group
underlined text is originally "stifle human" which I just find confusing

GUITING POWER is a strong tune for a majestic text, written apparently with a choir in mind - or perhaps Mr. Barnard simply had an amazing congregation capable of singing in interesting parts and with a stunning descant. Apparently the arrangement has fallen right from the tree. I particularly wanted the descant to remain intact. The congregation will hear the first 2 stanzas by the choir, and will sing the remaining three. One of the stanzas will be a cappella, with the congregation in unison on the melody. Brass parts will be in pairs: trumpets, horns, trombones.

Why we don't observe this known, given, essential part of the life and ministry of Jesus is an on-going mystery to me. We take our good time with the Passion, the Death, and the Resurrection, but fail year after year to take it on home. We speak of the exalted Christ, but don't celebrate his exaltation. We give lip service to the sending of the Spirit as the founding of the Church, but don't acknowledge our own "brithday" at Pentecost. Our heroes, the Continental Reformers, had no reservations in keeping the "Evangelical Feasts." These days are not only biblically historical, they are essential chapters in the redemption story. So for those who may say "humbug," like nephew Fred I say even though Ascension and Pentecost never put a penny in my pocket ...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Inclusive/Discerning, Probing

I am working my way through Frank Burch Brown, Inclusive Yet Discerning: navigating worship artfully. (I always include subtitles; is this just obsessive-compulsive? I think it's just a way to communicate the theme of a book, to people who are perhaps not likely to go out and read it.) Because I have so many reading assignments/projects going at one time, this one has been limited to reading at lunch or when alone in the coffee shop. That generally means a chapter (or less) per sitting, which is a very good way for me to absorb a thoughtful book like this.

Probing. That's the word. Brown is stretching this "poster child for traditional worship" to consider how inclusive I am willing to become. At the same time he is confirming my natural caution ... and giving me a nifty label for that caution: now I am being discerning, not just cautious or stuck! But ah, no, he won't let me stay there, either. The call to be discernment is really probing. This will take some time to synthesize, as my reading whip-saws me through questions, issues, history and contemporary issues.

I don't like to suggest that I know where I will land at the end of the book. It is apparent that the purpose of the book is to build a discernment mechanism that will keep me from "landing" any place in particular. That is, keep me from saying "now we've arrived." Inclusive, discerning, and probing.

From the last chapter I finished, in which Brown visits John Calvin's take on music in and outside the church: I return, therefore, to the Calvinist principle that, however rich the resources of secular music - and after several centuries now of intense cultivation, they have become far richer than Calvin ever imagined - the church must be attentive to values that enable at least some music to lift us worshipfully into the presence of God and the angels. To ignore the different powers of music in this regard is as myopic as ignoring the different uses and powers of architecture, and of language itself. Thus the church must be discerning as it searches for music that, in the larger culture, gives voice to human feelings and transformative beauty, with or without words, and in a way that can likewise be enjoyed in God, and offered up to God. (pp 112-113) As to those last 2 phrases, "enjoyed in God" refers to what Calvin called secular music; and I believe music "offered up to God" is explicitly religious music outside the church (p 105).

The quoted paragraph probes all sorts of ways. Chief among them, for me now, is the question of "who is our church music for?" What is its role or function? Does it lift us "into the presence of God and the angels," or is it more humbly designed to build up and encourage those who sing and listen? If merely the latter, then perhaps I really do need to be more inclusive. If I argue for the former, is it only to defend an aesthetic that I am more comfortable with? Understanding the issue, and answering the question, will certainly help in any discussion of "what music is worthy" in worship. [And I should mention here that the discussion in this chapter is indeed about the music qua music, and not about the content/words.] I am not the independent Baptist from the church where I made my Christian commitment. Nor am I high church Anglican. This book reminds me of the challenges of navigating music's role somewhere in the middle. Or, as I feel today, somewhere in the muddle.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Quote of the Day

From my lifelong friend. Is it original with him? These things are never original. They work best as folk sayings, anyway. Regardless: thanks, Randy, for ...

Let's put the TEMPORARY in contemporary worship.

Hey, it's Easter, and that's all I got. Enjoy it or let it raise your hackles. But try to laugh.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Enjoyment and Discernment

From this morning, sitting in the full sun, with Frank Burch Brown and a cup of dark roast coffee. Definitely the way one wants to begin the work week!

First, a word about what I perceive to be the thrust of Brown's message: Music (along with all artistic media) used in worship will change, is changing, and must change. How we navigate that change is important, and is the concern of clergy, musicians/artists, lay leadership and congregation. Do not read the following quote and mistakenly assume that the book, Inclusive Yet Discerning is a rant against new music in worship. "All a poet can do is warn."*

The risks of uncritically appropriating secular styles can be especially great when the church seeks out accessible music and media that it hopes will be attractive to youthful newcomers. Suppose, for example, that we in fact live in a society that consumes amusements at a rate never before seen in history. Suppose that Neil Postman has a point, therefore, when he argues that we are "amusing ourselves to death." [Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 19860.] Suppose, moreover, that the major entertainment corporations, the "merchants of cool," invest almost unimaginable quantities of money in researching and marketing to a teen culture that has more wealth and independence than ever before. [See The Merchants of Cool, Frontline, PJB Video FROL-1909 (Spring 2001).] Suppose, finally, that there is a genuine if elusive connection between the kind of music being marketed most widely and the morally questionable goods being sold most aggressively. It should be evident, then, why the wholesale adoption and "baptism" of commercially popular music and media for the purposes of luring youth and newcomers to church can be risky business. This is not to deny an importatnt - even key - role for popular music in church. But if popular (and other) artists are to bring their gifts to the house of worship, both they and the leaders of worship will need to exert considerable effort to discover what is appropriate.
Inclusive Yet Discerning, Frank Burch Brown, p. 45
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009)
Key words from the book and chapter titles should be considered when reading this rather personal pull-out quote ... Inclusive, Discerning/Enjoyment, Discernment. Let's none of us get too polarized, and may I grow, grow grow in this balance!
* a rather inapt quote from the World War I poet, Wilfred Owens, used on the title page of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" - the work from which I first learned the phrase te decet hymnus. Sorry, the mind is a vast mysterious wasteland ...

Monday, March 23, 2009

speaking of Ecclesiastes

Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12b)

Two more books fell into my hands this past week, now vying for my attention and equally compelling and apt for this part of my life. If I try to keep up with each of them (even if I jettison those books already in process) there will indeed be a weariness to contend with!

Along with the full pastoral staff, I was given Going the Distance: how to stay fit for a lifetime of ministry. An important subject, and always timely, it looks like a complement to the R. Kent Hughes classic Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. I'm one of the last people to turn down good advice on staying engaged and "fit" for the work I do. Here is a book that will be read in small pieces, regularly, from cover to cover.

Then later in the week, a book showed up - mysteriously and anonymously - in my mailbox at church: Inclusive Yet Discerning: navigating worship artfully. The book is not anonymous, the giver is. This is the way I do not like to receive a book. That insecure and paranoid part of me surfaces and I wonder: is this from a critic or a friend? how am I to receive and process not only the book itself, but its contents/message? and in any case, whom do I thank for it?? Well, regardless, it is by Frank Burch Brown, whose earlier work on the subject I have read but never owned. His work is in theology, worship and aesthetics, and he is always worth reading. This will be my new coffee shop book - since finishing Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters, which filled that role nicely and fruitfully.

So many books, so little time. I think maybe the message of The Preacher may be to pace myself, choose wisely, and balance what must be read with what must be done. And both with what is consistent with fearing God.

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccleasiastes 12:11-14)

The lesson I need: read on, but carefully!