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.