Monday, November 21, 2011

How the trombone is saving me

I have a bachelor's degree in trombone performance.

That might explain a lot, I don't know. I do know that a lot of people in music ministry are former trombone players. (That is less a statistical claim than a surprising observation that continues to be borne out, the longer I do this work. Our trombones are in the closet, and only under the right circumstances do we mention this part of our past.) I have theories about why that might be so. But my favorite explanation comes from a trombone joke:
Q - what kind of "Day Timer" does a gigging trombonist use?
A - Year-at-a-Glance
Sorry, I guess you had to be there. Or be old enough to know what a Day Timer is. Or, just play trombone.

Gustav Holst was a trombonist. But you never hear him talking about it, either. According to Wikipedia (where this sentence has an actual footnote): "He also started to play the trombone when his father thought this might improve his son's asthma." Which makes me wonder, did I get adult onset asthma because I abandoned the trombone?

In the second half of my recent sabbatical, I began to spend the early afternoons, after lunch, making music in my home. I sat down to work at the piano (a lifelong exercise in self-loathing), I went to my music corner and picked up the concertina, the recorders, and the melodica - in succession, of course, not all at once. And I returned to my trombone.

Not, I must say, to "my beloved trombone." I sold that while in college, and have regretted it since the day it left my hands. I still don't like to talk about it. But I returned this summer to regular practice times on the only trombone I've played since 1975. I started playing 5 minutes or so a day - just getting the lip to work again. I dug out old exercise books and working through etudes and melodies. My time creeped up above 15 minutes a day. I pulled out all my Bill Pearce gospel and hymn solo books, though I could only play a handfull of them due to their high range. (Could I really play that high, all those years ago?! Apparently. At least no one ever asked me to stop trying.)

When I came back to work in mid-July, much of that early afternoon practice time dropped off. The piano . . . well, enough said. The other small instruments . . .  well, they're more than toys, but not essential to what I do or how I identify as a musician. But I did not want to give up my little progress on my old trombone. So, as often as I can - 4 or 5 mornings a week - before I come into the office I slip into the basement, take the horn off the stand, and play through a page of melodious etudes, then the next in a book of classic old songs arranged for trombone (it was probably really cool before I was born), and end with a tune or two from a fake-book. So: technical workout, working a tune, and improvisation. It only amounts to 10-15 minutes a day, 20 minutes on a really good day. But I find it hard, every time, to put the horn back on the stand and then get on with my day.

The trombone is saving me by making me fall in love with music-making again. The joy of just simply making music, of discovery without obligation, of failure without repercussions, of fun just for the fun of it. As my bass playing friend always said: "That's why they call it playing music."

I'll never make my living at it. The chances of anyone hearing me play alone are extremely remote. But I am deeply thankful for the gift this old beat up Bach Selmer is giving me.

Now if it can also cure my asthma, well, so much the better!

Monday, November 14, 2011

An old shoe

I admire Wendell Berry: poet, novelist, essayist, sustainable agriculture guru. I had been generally aware of him, but my interest was really cemented when I heard an Easter anthem by Paul Halley, "What Stood Will Stand." That led me to the collection of poems, "Sabbaths," and from there to "A Timbered Choir." To his novels, etc. A rich gift from a piece of music coincidentally heard at a convenion of the ACDA.
For a recent birthday, I received yet another volume of Berry poems. It is not a new collection - Traveling At Home (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1988) - but it is new to me. A slim volume with evocative wood engravings by John DePol, it takes the reader into the geography of the delightful novels, and the geography of a farmer committed to the history of a place and the integrity of the land.
Section One is a poetic essay, "A Walk Down Camp Branch." I was struck with the following passage. Berry is describing a walk he and his dog have taken over the years: There is a sort of mystery in the establishment of these ways. Any time one crosses a given stretch of country with some frequency, no matter how wanderingly one begins, the tendency is always toward habit. By the third or fourth trip, without realizing it, one is following a fixed path, going the way one went before. After that, one may still wander, but only by deliberation, and when there is reason to hurry, or when the mind wanders rather than the feet, one returns to the old route. Familiarity has begun. One has made a relationship with the landscape, and the form and the symbol and the enactment of the relationship is the path. These paths of mine are seldom worn on the ground. They are habits of mind, directions and turns. They are as personal as old shoes. My feet are comfortable in them. (p 11-12)
Some readers will, like me, have thought of another favorite author by this point. And like me, perhaps have begun to think of C. S. Lewis even before the mention of "old shoes." Already before that reference, my thoughts were toward the nature of worship and liturgy. (Occupational hazard? But also the gift of the poet; one must always ask, "is this about more than or other than  what appears on the surface?")
C. S. Lewis is not necessarily a go-to, must-read author in matters of church music and liturgy. But he is always worth considering, and often wise. At least, he was a good observer. In the first of a series of Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963) Lewis addresses concern about proposed changes to the Church of England liturgy. He supposes that many will resent the changes, and that some will even leave the church over them. He asks, "Is this simply because the majority are hide-bound? I think not." And then this: They have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don't go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best - if you like, it "works" best - when, through long familiarity, we don't have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good show is a shoe you don't notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service woud be one we were almost unaware of; our atention would have been on God. (p. 4)
Lewis goes on to caution about novelty, and the purposes that drive changes. But he stops short of insisting that the given form of the C of E liturgy is the only form he could live with. Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit - habito dell'arte. (p. 5)
Berry's observations about a casual walk that couldn't help become a well-worn path (like an old shoe) is a good metaphor for the human tendency to develop healthy habits. (When children learn to pray, they repeat what they hear their parents say. And I don't think my children were unique in being just a bit unsettled, up to a certain age, when their parents did not keep to the "liturgy" of prayers!) Lewis' concern for average, lay worshipers, is a good reminder that at heart, people want to meet God when they gather for Christian worship, and our professional innovations should keep that in mind.
And what of change that must be made, because our worship is to be always reforming? Here again, both authors have a word: Intentionality. (My summary, not a word either author uses.) The walk down Camp Branch will fall into the habitual steps unless Berry purposefully chooses another way; that is, without a specific intent, why take another way?. And Lewis, if conservative, is at least wise in his human understanding: I think it would have been best, if it were possible, that necessary change should have occurred gradually and (to most people) imperceptibly; here a little and there a little; one obsolete word replaced in a century - like the gradual change of spelling in successive editions of Shakespeare. (p. 6) Well, glacial change is hardly change at all! But his point - no doubt exaggerated - is important to consider. I need to remember that people want to feel at home in public worship, even at College Church to put on, as it were, their slippers as they gather.

Old, revisited

I ended my last post quoting Paul Simon's song, "Old." Last night my Karen and I heard Paul Simon live in concert here in Chicago. What a thrill! Having literally grown up with Paul Simon's music, I can say I am a lifelong fan. I am not a fan of pop music venues, and the rare concert of that type that I have got to has disappointed in any number of ways. But nothing about venue or crowd or sound engineering can take away my delight in hearing one of the finest pop song writers and performers do his thing.
For 2 packed hours!
Three sets, with 2 very brief breaks (surely under 3 or 4 minutes each), covered songs from his new album ("So Beautiful or So What"), from a half-century of hits (a nice "Sounds of Silence" with only guitar and voice), and some covers of others' music - all of it cool, some of it unknown to me but clearly appreciated by the crowd - including my favorite, a cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun."
When I'm 70+ years old, I hope I have the energy and the creativity to do well whatever I am meant to be doing. It won't be as a singer-songwriter. But I hope it is with vigor, generosity, and joy!

Monday, October 31, 2011


It was 1985, and I knew very little about actually doing music ministry full time. I had assumed some months earlier that I would be crafting a life that did not have music at the center. In fact, in late 1984 I was not even entertaining the notion of vocation in ministry. I told my Karen on my 29th birthday that at 30, I would symbolically put my personal set of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians up on the top shelf - a memorial toa rich and satisfying music education, and a silent witness to my amateur status. Then the phone rang, that winter got complicated, and before I knew it we lived in a different state, I was in a new career, and these people celebrating my birthday were barely known to me.

I was 30 years old, and a brand new pastor for worship and music. It was a Sunday. I was surprised that (a) they knew, and (b) they cared.

20 years later, and I was supposedly "seasoned" - ordained and now in my second church. I can barely believe that two ministries have failed to see through the sham, and here I was about to turn 50. That birthday would fall on a Thursday - rehearsal night - so my Karen agreed that a special birthday trip would allow me to miss a birthday night rehearsal. Perhaps not surprisingly (a) they knew, (b) they cared, and (c) they schemed. I was genuinely surprised one week early.

Time passes, and things change. But a vocation in church music is a great vantage from which to mark the passage of time, the changing of things. It is also (perhaps not unlike youth ministry) a vantage from which to notice . . . "man, you're old!" Especially in our fast-changing culture, there are few places in church life where one's age is so evident. A public role in worship - and people notice the hair changing color. The vairety of media to explore and discover new songs - and it's hard to keep up. The pop culture references among a staff mostly young enough to be my kids - and I'm thankful that my own grown kids help me track at least a little bit.

But it may be true in churches all over, the worship pastor that survives in that role past 50 (especially if he looks over 50!) is uniquely endangered. I can't - and don't - claim to be wise, so this is not a personal observation: but a biblical respect for those who have lived and served well ("elders" in a cultural, not an ecclesial, sense) is often no protection for the music ministry man. Even the aging hippy in a contemporary church will, ultimately, be the old guy.

Well, be that as it may, I approach another birthday with joy and satisfaction. I have a renewed perspective on my vocation. And I can even begin to see how certain limitations may make me a better minister. Not to mention, that a lot of young bucks cannot sing, convincingly, the song that is taking me to my birthday later this week:

Down the decades every year
Summer leaves and my birthday’s here
And all my friends stand up and cheer
And say man you’re old
Getting old
Getting old

Yeah, I'm right behind you, Paul Simon. And I can't wait to celebrate my birthday at your Chicago appearance!

Monday, October 24, 2011


It seems wrong, somehow, to end a long blog silence with a rant; even a mild rant. At least, I console myself, I am writing again . . .

My Karen and I got out again to City Church in San Francisco. Let it be established that our primary purpose for getting to SF is to see son Chris. Attending a service at City Church is just a delightful side benefit. We like the well ordered Reformed liturgy, the good clear preaching, the weekly communion. We like the songs the people sing, and enjoy the exceptional musicianship of the several-cuts-above-average "worship band." (It seems demeaning to call them the worship band, that's how good they are.)

I always come home with at least one new song from CCSF. This week was no exception. It was nearly a "2 new song" Sunday, except for the unfortunate, ubiquitous, iniquitous, misplaced use of syncopation in a song I'd never heard, and want desperately to have our people sing at College Church.

First, the good news. Matthew Smith's tune for an early 19th centruy hymn, "All Must Be Well" (Mary Bowley-Peters, 1813-1856). In this tune, there are two types of syncopation employed in the 6/8 meter. The first is a duple feel (2 strong pulses where you'd expect 3 flowing 8th notes). They are ideally placed on strong words: Savior, favor, healed us, shield us / Truibu-lation, sal-vation, con-fiding, guiding / to-morrow, sorrow, re-lying, dying. Not only apt for the natural emphasis on the words themselves, but aptly used for the sense of the lyric in each verse.

The second type of syncopation I will complain about shortly. But it worked here because (a) it is used sparingly, (b) it is used consistently, and (c) it actually reinforces the text: "all will be well / all is well / all must be well" in each stanza; with the words "be well" syncopated across the bar line so that the word "well" falls on the & of beat 1, rather than on the downbeat. (If you don't follow that, let me assure you that if you have sung any praise and worship music, you have sung this sycopation many times.)

Here is Matthew Smith singing "All Must Be Well" - I like it better as a congregational song, as led at CCSF.

So, if for no other reason, the foregoing is offered by way of demonstrating that I have absolutely nothing against syncopation per se (otherwise, whither music of any era?). But I do have serious disputes with the ubiquitous, iniquitous use of the praise and worship syncopation that so often [I had to go back and change the word "always" to "so often"] delays the strong syllable, and/or the important word in a lyric, placing it on a weak beat (the & of a pulse - as in 1 & 2 &, etc.]. The unfortunate victim in yesterday's otherwise excellent selection of songs is a Red Mountain Music setting (Bryan T. Murphy) of an 18th century hymn by Anne Steele (1716-1778), "Come All Ye Pining, Hungry, Poor."

Excursus - I applaud CCSF, and many other churches, for finding and using these old texts. This one is so powerful, and was completely unknown to me. I am thankful to have been introduced to it. I'll have to look for another tune (that won't be too difficult), and yet wish this one could work for me. This is so often true of the new guitar-driven hymn tunes. They could be better.

Just to give a quick picture of the issues here. (I'll claim these as my issues. But I'll argue the rhetorical issues with anyone interested in the argument.) Here are the opening 2 lines of verse 1:
Lord we adore thy boundless grace, the heights and depths unknown.
Here are the same 2 lines, with the strong syllables or important words underlined:
Lord, we a-dore thy bound-less grace, the heights and depths un-known.
And the same lines again, with the words or syllables underlined that are actually emphasized by the rhythms:
Lord we a-dore thy boundless grace, the heights and depths unknown.

Sorry, I am not making this up. Maybe I'm making too big a deal of it. To be fair, Bryan T. Murphy has written a really nice tune, that is easy and pleasant to sing. I suppose there is an affective quality to it that reinforces the "adore" posture of the hymn. I simply wonder - which came first? The text or the tune? How, in the refrain, are we left with the phrase (to use the accenting demonstration above) the Sav-ior's. Again, I want to be fair: the tune carries a feeling that I argue is completely apt for the text. And the musicians at CCSF made it work. I guess I'm just arguing that if - as is true in this case - there is all syncopation, so that no emphasis falls where it would naturally in speech, then none of the words stand out as innately more important.

Syncopation is (or ought to be) a device employed for effect. When it is used wholesale through a hymn text, in my view it undermines that text. Your results may vary. And now, here is the Red Mountain recording of Come All ye Pining, Hungry, Poor. If you listen, you will perhaps agree that given the style of Red Mountain, it is a really nice song. But me? I'd rather hear this than sing it. I'm glad to have been introduced to the song, and I shall now begin a search for a hymn tune that I feel a congregation can sing both with the mind and the spirit.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dry 'bones

An unexpected gift from my sabbatical: I found pleasure in playing the trombone.

People were a little concerned, puzzled, or maybe annoyed that my official sabbatical plans did not explicitly detail musical study during the six months. It was all very well, apparently, that I would be study theology formally, but what about the music? And how well I understood the concern, how deeply I felt the need to grow as a musician.

I found that my "best laid plans" in January had to be modified somewhat, if I was to be the best grad student I could be for the semester. "Dabbling" might be the kindest description of my personal music-making through the semester. So, when classes were done, papers were completed, and finals were taken, I replaced much of that academic time with musical time.

Over the second part of the sabbatical, when we were home, I kept this after-lunch routine: practice the piano, practice the trombone, play around on the recorders, and work toward some competency on the concertina. Oh, and explore - by way of improvising - the melodica, my newest musical instrument, courtesy Christmas 2010.

My piano skills have always been deplorable; barely survival level. I discouraged more than one hopeful piano teacher at Moody Bible Institute. I did, however, manage to complete a performance degree in trombone, at DePaul University, with some distinction. Those recital chops are a remote memory. And I rarely play in public anymore. But something surprising and wonderful happened during the sabbatical: I came to really enjoy the trombone.

I know I should have written, "I came to enjoy the trombone again." But honestly, I'm not sure I ever really truly did enjoy playing the trombone in college. I think I did for a while in the early 1990's when I played with a quintet in Minnesota. But I found myself looking forward to picking up the instrument, playing through old etude books, getting some range back, and increasing my stamina. By the time I came back to work, I was having to cut my practice time shorter than my stamina. What fun!

This business with the trombone has long been a niggling stewardship issue with me. I have a good horn, an excellent education, time and space to practice, and could easily find or make opportunities to play. That I failed the stewardship test was made clear over the past week. I had finagled an opportunity to play in a trombone ensemble in morning services at College Church. Time and again since then, people have remarked, "I had no idea you play trombone." Well, but I've only been here 15 years, and you'd have had to attend just the right services to catch me playing.

I have no idea how often I will be able to play in services, and I can hardly imagine creating other opportunities to play. But still, most weekdays, I am still finding time to pick up the 'bone and keep it fresh. (And yes, I am still plugging away at those deplorable piano exercises, too!) But now it is for the sheer joy of it, the simple pleasure of making music, even if no one else hears or wants to listen to it. And I know that is going to pay big dividends as I return to weekly choir rehearsals and other conducting duties.

Today, I snuck home at lunch time to get in my practice. It's good to have got beyond that "dry 'bones" spell, and to reconnect with what got me into music study, and music ministry, in the first place.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I confess. I have a love/hate relationship with 19th century gospel hymns.

I generally appreciate and embrace their very personal, intimate language - but I cringe at the prevalent "lover" language in them. ("Jesus is my boyfriend" is not only a 20th century phenomenon.) I love the story-telling element of the gospel - but generally feel that they are weakened by their refrains. Some are actually fun to sing  - at the same time I have to admit that this feels like a guilty pleasure.

And at College Church, frankly, we just don't sing this repertoire much. A bit in our evening service, rarely in the morning. I hasten to add: this is not a decision based on my own feelings about the hymns. There has never been a time in our morning service history when gospel hymns appeared in any significant way.

But we do not ignore them. And sometimes, don't you know, the sermon, the context of the morning, the requirements of praise demand one of these hymns.

The past two Sundays have been such services. August 7 opened with that great Charles Gabriel text and tune, "I stand amazed in the presence" (My Savior's Love). Almost everything negative I said above does not apply to My Savior's Love. It has an interesting melody, the refrain works strongly after each verse, the text is intimate without being maudlin. It is really a fine, fine hymn. But (I said to myself) it is "one of those" hymns. And so it was, until organist H.E. Singley got his hands on it! Writing parts out for trumpet and horn, H.E. scored the hymn such that the tune and text were respected, but that the whole package sounded "classical." Elevated. It was a revelation, and a powerful, joyful way to begin a communion service.

On August 14, casting about for a closing hymn, I asked the morning preacher, junior high pastor Eric McKiddie, how he'd like us to go. He shot back immediately, "can we use Hallelujah! What a Savior"? (Man of sorrows, what a name) and continued, "the second verse summarizes the point of the text ("in my place condemned he stood") and besides, it's my favorite hymn." Well, that was a no-brainer then. As with My Savior's Love, text and tune are by the same hand, in this case Philip P. Bliss. The gospel is clear, intimate, complete. There is not actually a refrain, but each stanza ends the same, "Hallelujah! What a Savior!" The dangers with this hymn is that it can either be all-out rollicky gospel, or funereal. Again, we were led through the singing of this hymn at a perfect pace, thoughtfully, majestically even. (I would never have considered Man of Sorrows a majestic hymn, but there it was!). Elevated. It was a revelation, and a powerful, thoughtful way to conclude the service.

Following confession - repentance. Trust these old hymns that have staying power. Trust your musicians. Trust the congregation. Stay out of the way, and let the gospel sing in its many forms. It will be truly elevating.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mad Respect

A kind reader sent me this link. I don't know this reader, but he obviously has a good sense of humor. And somehow he guessed that I might, too?

I provide the link to the original blog post (Gospel Coalition, Thabiti Anyabwile) in case you want some context for the video.

But if you have about 10 minutes, you can just see the video here. Do take time to watch it all the way through. There are some laugh-out-loud lines in it, and a nice surprise/touch at the end.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Interesting message, interesting tune

I've been thinking a lot lately about melody, or more accurately the need for melodic craft in songs and hymns for congregational singing. Big arena, lots of potential for disaster in it, and always the risk of pitting "my opinion" against yours.

I think when it concerns me most is when I hear song after song in student settings, with good words, interesting and apt rhythms (maybe), but directionless melodies. Non-tunes, really; often repetitive phrases with no developmental structure. And hey, I'm not exactly a music theory geek; certainly not a form & structure expert.

In a conversation yesterday with a student headed off to his freshman year of collegiate music studies, I was struck with his observation that so much more could be done in youth group music, to attract students to Christ and the Church. He was talking about preparation, and he was talking about craft. One observation that came out - why do we take such an interesting message and set it to such uninteresting tunes?

This student does not plan to study "classical" music, but "commercial." He isn't, in other words, some nerdy 18-year-old Baroque fanatic (yes, I've known those), more a "show choir band" dude. But he's thinking about the same things I'd want him to consider if he were contemplating a vocation in church music.

I am (theoretically, or at least perceived) "too old" to have an impact on the youth culture in my church or the church at large. But I hope I can still get to those who think, plan, and lead young "worship musicians" and help them see that the music really does matter. If we really have something to sing about, let's make sure it's sung in a way that is worth hearing and listening to. Let's write melodies that live up to the great words we use. Let's plant songs in our students' hearts that will stand up to the challenges of their minds, hearts, and experiences. Let's out-melody the chaos around us!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Tree of Life

I've had an odd movie-going weekend.

In the first place, that it was a movie-going weekend was odd. My Karen and I might see 2 or 3 movies a year in the theater, and if more than one is in a first-run house, that is itself unusual. The 2010 Oscar list was unusual in that for the first time ever I had seen 4 of the 10 "best film" nominations. Many is the year we just don't get out this way. So, "movie-going" is not one way to describe us!

Beyond that, though, the pairing of movies was, well . . . odd. We had long made plans to see a movie with friends on Saturday. So it was surprising that Karen suggested she would be open to seeing "Tree of Life" on Friday. Now, when Karen suggests going to see a movie, that is unusual! This particular movie was on our list at son Pat's recommendation. And it was brutally hot all week. And we were losing energy to get normal things done after work. Off we went.

There is a lot to recommnend, think about, discuss, argue over, etc., with "Tree of Life." What is the film-maker's view of life? What is this 2-hour dialogue with God about? Is it, ultimately, a celebration of life and God's place in our living? Or is it "Job" without  hope?

Well, when you see it, let's talk.

What I want to mention about it here is the rich abundance of music in the score. Symphonic, choral, sacred, abstract, maybe even a little trance? (I don't know from trance music, so that may not be right.) Brahms, Respighi, Tavener, Gorecki - it is rich. And I should have heard it coming, when I caught snatches of the "Requiem" text, but they even slip in "te decet hymnus" near the end: "praise awaits you, O God, in Sion." I did not know that music, which as it turns out, is by Zbigniew Preisner . I think I need to find a recording!

At the end, I take a rather positive view of this movie. There are strong reactions to it, including a group who walked out of the showing we attended, and others who at the end announced to no one in particular, "we should have left when those people did." Me? I'll want to see it again.

So, what was our movie the next night? We wouldn't have planned this . . . it was the new/last "Harry Potter" film. OK, whatever. But now here's the oddest part of the whole experience. The composer of original music in "Tree of Life" is Alexandre Desplat. And the composer of the Harry Potter soundtrack? Who knew? Alexandre Desplat! As it turns out, as few movies as we have seen, quite a few have soundtracks by this guy. Magnifique!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Baal, hear us!

I'm spending part of my summer days reading Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way. One of his series of "conversations in spiritual theology," the thesis in Jesus Way is that if we are to follow Jesus faithfully, we must do it his way. It is a way prepared for - anticipated by - people of faith in the Old Testament: Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah. (I'm still working my way through Isaiah.)

I am often floored by Peterson's perspective. He has long been a reading companion for my own Jesus walk and the pastoral life. I'm resisting the impulse now to detour into a history of my engagement with these books. Today I am just highlighting one section of The Jesus Way chapter on Elijah - Elijah's contention with Baal. It is a challenging consideration of worship. The following quotes (in italics) reflect upon the dramatic difference between the gyrating histrionics of Baal's priests, and the simple, direct actions and prayer of Elijah.

In Baal worship, The transcendence of the deity is reduced to the ecstasy of manipulated emotions. (p. 109) Here at the outset I need to remind myself that the danger of idolatry is not inherent in any one style or preference for worship. The challenges of "Baalism" are as real in traditional worship as they are in the latest fad worship.

"Harlotry" is a biblical metaphor that extends its meaning into the entire theology of worship, worship that seeks fulfillment through self-expression, worship that accepts the needs and desires and passions of the worshiper as its baseline. "Harlotry" is worship that says, "I will give you satisfaction. You want religious feelings? I will give them to you. You want your needs fulfilled? I'll do it in the form most arousing to you." A divine will that sets itself in opposition to the sin-tastes and self-preoccupations of humanity is incomprehensible in Baalism and so is impatiently discarded. Baalism reduces worship to the spiritual stature of the worshiper. Its canons are that is should be interesting, relevant and exciting - that I "get something out of it." (p. 110)

 This is not to say biblical worship is non-sensory. But as rich and varied as the sensory life is, it is always defined and ordered by the word of God. Nothing is simply done for the sake of the sensory experience involved - which eliminates all propagandist and emotional manipulation. (p. 111) The "worship experience" is categorically different from "let us worship God." It is the difference between something that makes sense to an individual, and acting in response to what makes sense to God. (p. 111)

The biblical language of worship is a response to God's word in the context of the community of God's people. Worship in the biblical sources and in liturgical history is not something a person experiences, it is something we do, regardless of how we feel about it, or whether we feel anything about it at all. The experience develops out of the worship, not the other way around. Isaiah saw, heard, and felt on the day he received his prophetic call while at worship in the temple - but he didn't go there in order to have a "seraphim experience." (p. 111, author's emphasis)

Oh, for the wisdom to sift these matters in conversations about worship. Well may we be concerned to "hold" sheep in the worshiping flock, or to "attract" the flockless. Our instinct is to cater to human instincts: faster! louder! softer! slower! candles! brass! jokes! video! I think the Bible teaches us:
  • that worship means to listen and obey;
  • when we are together to read scripture and pray;
  • to teach and to sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord;
  • to be thankful and to foster thanksgiving;
  • to honor the Lord by prefering one another.
How I wish that this somehow made it obvious what song or hymn we should sing at the beginning of the morning service, and how it should be accompanied! No, we are always thrown back on decisions we have to make. But I'm thankful to Pastor Eugene Peterson for the reminder that regardless how we sort out those details, we have to beware of our Canaanite tendencies. We need to stop offering "worship experiences" and keep calling people to "worship God." And all the while (as William Willimon wrote some 20 years ago) let the Bible guide, fill, and judge our worship.

Friday, June 10, 2011

How Not to

The Gospel Coalition is sort of the go-to page for the "young, restless, Reformed" crowd. Lots to read and hear there, and much, much to admire; to learn from; to stir the heart. The assembled blogsters alone make it a site worth bookmarking. TGC wants the church and the world to know about Jesus, as clearly, as uncomplicatedly, as free of stumbling blocks, as humanly and ecclesiastically possible. So, today's post. And so, the principles so clearly articulated by author Jonathan Leeman.

Asked by a church member whether to start a church for the motorcycling crowd, Leeman provides a good, clear, I think biblical response. I hope people read it.

My only response, and my purpose for thinking about it today, is to ask the question that is sort of becoming my project - "Yes, but . . . ?" If Leeman's response is helpful for "How Not to Grow a Healthy Church," are we willing to ask: "Yes, but are we asking the same questions regarding the music in our services?" Can we resist the "drift" Leeman describes, by cultivating musical "redwoods not rosebushes"? Leeman asks:
"Which would you prefer—a bush that blooms tomorrow and wilts the next day, or the majesty that rises skyward over a generation? Take your pick." And all I'm asking is - are we asking this question about music, too? That's my project.

And lest you think this means some one thing, well, stay tuned! But it does mean something, not anything.

And, by the way, if the redwood analogy seems remote, let me recommend a book that will expand your vista: The Wild Trees.As corollary reading, peruse the Bible talk about trees. Then ask the question with me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

New Song, Old World

Last week I read through Calvin Stapert's A New Song for an Old World

The premise(s) are not new: 1 - the church of today will do well to stay in touch with the early fathers, and learn from their wisdom; 2 - the world of today is much like the world of the first few centuries AD, and we do well to see how our forebears navigated in that world.

I picked up the book (finally) because it seemed to be a good introduction to a field that I expect to read extensively in, for a master's thesis. (On that, more as it develops, and over the next couple of years!)

Anticipating the heart of my nascent thesis - viz., that in considering the music of the church we tend to reject some wisdom from our ancestors, and to hold on to some perspectives from anti-Christian philosophers - this book looks at the writings of the immediately post-apostolic church in regard to music in worship, music in the home, and music's role in shaping character. Stapert draws out some consistent and helpful themes, while carefully (as a good academic!) suggesting that the main thing is to not ignore these voices in our modern decision-making.

Naturally, given my personality and my self-proclaimed position as "poster boy for traditional worship," there is much here that I would like to champion. Interestingly, it has started to have its effect in a more personal way than I anticipated. Our fathers critiqued the music of pagan entertainment cut pretty close to home, and I realize that as often as not when I am in "mindless music mode" - cycling, working in the yard, showering, etc. - the music in my head is nearly always . . . well, let's just say, it is not lofty, exalted, nor sacred. Don't get me wrong, it's not lewd or offensive either. But the point that gets to my heart is: where are the psalms and hymns hidden in my heart?

Well, a lot to think about, and a hard hard heart to be plowed. As for the academic purpose for this reading, it has presented me with a good start at the theological primary sources for my academic project. Meanwhile, perhaps the unexpected work on a more important, more personal project, will begin to have its way in me.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

single syllables

Today I enjoyed the singing of God's people in the church my Karen and I are attending during my sabbatical. Well, we enjoy this singing every Sunday. Today I had a fresh appreciation for it, with a little bit of The Anthologist rattling in the back of my ear:
Do you notice those one-syllable words? The Elizabethans really understood short words. Each one-syllable word becomes a heavy blunt chunk of butter that is melted and baked into the pound cake of the line. . . Gascoigne said that to write a delectable poem you must "thrust as few words of many syllables into your verse as may be." The more monosyllables, the better, he said.
When I read this earlier this weekend, I thought of hymns, old and new. But mostly new. I have to say that some of the new hymn writing I admire is flawed by using too many polysyllabic words. Good words; words with meaning and richness. But in the end, perhaps words that get in the way of our singing, that don't melt in our ears and tongues and hearts and souls.

Yes, I have to say that a certain personal favorite (here unnamed) gets hung up here. While another, Timothy Dudley-Smith, so often triumphs with single syllables. This morning we sang Bob Kauflin's "O Great God" and I think the only word of 3-syllables is "occupy;" by and large this very good little hymn passes the single-syllable test. One may also compare most classic hymns with (for example) some very fine hymns from the pen of the late James M. Boice. Great ideas, solid concepts, glorious themes. But, to paraphrase the emperor in "Amadeus" - "too many syllables."

And it makes me wonder: will this be a predictor of the long-term success/use of a hymn?

C. S. Lewis famously called hymns "third rate poetry set to fourth rate music." Don't go to Lewis for encouragement about church music. But I take issue with the great man. Hymn poetry is the most disciplined form I can imagine. And when it's good it is very, very good. (And to be fair, when it is bad, it is horrid.) This notion of the value of single syllable words just may be another aspect of my hymn selection matrix; I think we're on to something.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Sabbatical - I thought I'd be writing more. Full time grad school was more intense than I expected. Since the semester ended, I've been alternating between relaxing and panic about the remaining weeks. Trying to redeem the time. Reading some things that I wanted to get to during sabbatical.

And reading some surprises, too. Like Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist, on loan from my sister. I'm just past midway, and my jury is still out on whether it is to be recommended. But this passage, read last night (Wednesday night), really speaks to my present sabbatical condition:

Thursday is the day of fear. On Monday you're in great shape because you've got the whole week. Then Tuesday, still pretty good, still at the beginning more or less. Then Wednesday, and you're poised, and you can accomplish much if you just apply yourself vigorously and catch up. And then suddenly, you're driving under that huge tattered banner, with that T and that H and that U and that frightening R and the appalling S - THURSDAY - and you slide down the steep slope toward the clacking shredder blades that wait on Sunday afternoon. Another whole week of your one life. (or, in the present case, your sabbatical)

Well, it's not so bad as that, but I do get the Thursday shakes, and the countdown will soon change from "weeks" to "days." I'm enjoying a lot of reading. The Anthologist is my bedtime read. Earlier this week I finished Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I am working through some of Eugene Peterson's newer books, and Calvin Stapert, A New Song for an Old World. An introduction to western musical aesthetics will surely be started and well underway before next Thursday's "clacking shredder blades."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Except for time at home, and with family, and when we can get it, with friend, I am finding myself on the "outside" during these weeks of sabbatical.

Enjoying grad school, I nevertheless recognize that I am not only a "non-traditional student" but also that after this one semester full time, I will again become that phantasm - the part-time, occasional student. By the time I'm done with this program, I think everyone in classes with me this semester will be long gone from Wheaton College!

Long nourished by any gathering of the American Choral Directors Association, I just didn't "connect" with this year's national convention here in Chicago. Yes, partly because I was not there the whole time. And partly because of my focus this winter. Partly too, it might be said, because I'm not sure how much the glories of choral music will be welcomed, embraced, or included in my future work. In other words, I love choral music, but how much of what I hear at ACDA will make its way into the public worship of which I have a part?

Two weeks ago I had my first contact with FMCS - Forum on Music in Christian Scholarship. Sort of a throwback to my long-gone days in the world of musicology, it was a well-organized, collegial, very academic meeting with interesting papers, well presented. And I thought, "I don't really belong here anymore."

The one thing I can say about this feeling of displacement - I sense that my vocational calling to serve the church is being re-affirmed. I just wish I had a more clear (or fun?) sense of what that means!

Meanwhile I am enjoying study and reflection, and have just come up for air from a couple of days of good work on a term-paper for "Modern World Christianity." More on that later.

One highlight, though: an outing in which I was very, very much at home. The Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki conductor, sang the Bach Mass in B minor in the Resurrection Chapel of Valparaiso University. This was pure pleasure, music-making of the highest order, and worship of the deepest kind.

I wanted to embed a video of the Collegium with Maestro Suzuki conducting. But that link is disabled at YouTube. So, here is a link to a good look at them (it is not from the Mass). From there, explore the options on the right ... it looks like you could pick your way through the Mass!

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Being a student, pro tem, it was both natural and self-indulgent to take a spring break trip ... to some place warm. Meanwhile, many of my (younger, poorer, more dedicated) classmates - stuck in northern Illinois in March - made significant progress on their term papers.

Also, the time away (as much a gift to my long-suffering Karen as a self-indulgence) meant I would not attend most of the national convention of choral directors, held the same week here in Chicago.

Which upon reflection heightened for me the strange tension of this sabbatical: how will I spend my time? Music, or Theology? What is my greatest need in this study break, and what will serve the church best?

So, this was rolling around the back of my mind yesterday when I had to go through the church office. I meet weekly (away from church) with a young intern who is now part of the interim music leadership team. After our meeting, I was to speak briefly with my pastor. On the way through the office I stepped into "my" office to say hello to the other half of that interim team - a peer, colleague, contemporary - Dan, who is also a runner and cyclist.

(More on these excellent men, another time!)

I had run to my meeting with Jordan, who then gave me a ride to church. I would run home from my meeting with pastor Josh. In other words, I was not in office attire. Dan could not miss the attire, and we chatted about the beautiful day for running, and he asked about my marathon training. "I'd rather be on a bicycle today," I replied, truthfully. To which Dan said, "Oh no, you've got to keep your focus for that marathon."

And it turns out, that was the real reason I had to go through the office yesterday. Of course, Dan's comment is simply true at the level he meant it: if I am going to be ready for the May 1 marathon, I have to prioritize running over my preferred sport, cycling. I have to stay on the training program. I have to go the distance in every respect. I have to focus.

And that is a word, too, for my theological studies during the sabbatical. They may not be my preferred mode of learning and stretching and growing. But they are what I am doing now, and I have to prioritize them for the time being. I have to stay on program. I have to go the distance. I have to focus.

Which reminds me ... those three term papers don't seem to be writing themselves.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I began a sabbatical on January 10, and thought I would take a little time each week to post here. Here it is, 9 weeks into this season, already.

For now, just surfacing to note that I am no less busy than when I'm at my "day job." I am a full-time graduate student for the semester - historical theology -  and reading like crazy. My Karen and I took a spring break trip last week, and now I am on the back side of the semester. Just (of course) as the Illinois weather is starting to improve and what I really want to be doing is cycling! Yep, I should have written those term papers in February. If only.

So much to write, and I hope to get at it ... a little bit at a time.

The concept of a "sabbatical" is of course biblical, but it is exercised almost without exception on an academic model. "Deny yourself and do no work?" Well, I guess that doesn't have to mean "be unproductive." My goal in formal academic study is to focus on some theological questions and issues related to worship. This is hardly a new theme for me, nor a new discipline. But I am reading and thinking uninterruptedly, with a sense of urgency, and (for a change, a welcome change for now) guided by others. It is expanding my thinking, opening my horizons, and I believe it is equipping me for the 15 or so years I have left in full time vocational worship ministry.

Time will tell. For now, it's back to the books.