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)