Monday, December 31, 2012

The Twelve Days

Following Christmas Day, I have been posting carols and hymns on Facebook, one each day for the Twelve Days of Christmas. Again, prompted by my reading in Walter Wangerin's "Preparing for Jesus" devotional book, I have taken December 26 as the First Day of Christmas. I'm not entirely certain how that works. That is, why isn't the 25th the First Day? Too lazy to sort that out, I've just decided that the 25th has to be the Feast Day of the Nativity, and then take Wangerin's word for the counting. Hey, I'm on Christmas break, and my church life does not (yet) require of me this level of liturgical sophistication. Would that it may, in future.

The 12th day, then, will be January 6, the Epiphany. With that date's post (on Facebook and again here), I will move on from daily seasonal songs. More's the pity!

First day of Christmas, December 26. I posted Fum, Fum, Fum because of its lyric:
On December 5 and 20, fum, fum, fum.
not thinking about it being St. Stephen's Day, which would have required this instead:
But here I have a thing with the Continental Reformers. With them, eager to observe the "evangelical feasts" - the remembrances of biblical events - and less so to honor various saints days and speculative occasions. But there is St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, with a whole chapter of the Bible given to him. So, lots to pack into the First Day of Christmas.

Second day of Christmas, December 27. I posted a fun recording of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen played by Jethro Tull. In the Lessons and Carols service I planned for so many years, the congregation's voice on this carol was always thrilling. In celebration mode, however, the funky stylings of a pop group seemed apt. The carol chosen for its lyric:
. . . let nothing you dismay, for Jesus Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day,
To save us all from Satan's power when we had gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy!
If I had found an online recording with a congregation singing, that would have been my first choice.

Third day of Christmas, December 28. Thanks to a preemptive Facebook posting (from Bryan Park?) I was reminded that this date commemorates the Holy Innocents, the children slain in Bethlehem. The Coventry Carol is the only carol suitable for such a day. It always surprises me how popular this carol is. Do people actually listen to the words? And yet for me, too - and I have"always" known the words to this - it is a favorite. Maybe that's why I have so long been materialism-adverse in this season. It raises the question, though. Since the massacre in Bethlehem followed the visit of the Magi, who technically belong to Epiphany, why this commemoration on this date, and not in January? (The same could be asked about St. Stephen, by the way.) Liturgical calendars; I'm pretty ignorant, I guess. In keeping with the folk music history and quality, I might as well have posted this video. I've never been a huge Joan Baez fan, but I acknowledge her place in my generation's music. And I'm pretty sure this recording uses a concertina, so there is that. Plus, note the arranger and conductor is none other than Peter Schickele!

Fourth day of Christmas, December 29. I just had to get What Sweeter Music into the season, and since I didn't make it fit in Lessons and Carols, that was another reason to keep thinking about music for the season, and to keep posting favorites. What was it with Robert Herrick and all his amazing nativity poetry?
    Chorus. WHAT sweeter music can we bring,
    Than a Carol, for to sing
    The Birth of this our heavenly King?
    Awake the Voice! Awake the String!
    Heart, Ear, and Eye, and every thing
    Awake! the while the active Finger
    Runs division with the Singer.
    From the Flourish they came to the Song.
    Voice 1: Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
    And give the honor to this Day,
    That sees December turn'd to May.
    Voice 2: If we may ask the reason, say:
    The why, and wherefore all things here
    Seem like the Spring-time of the year?
    Voice 3: Why does the chilling Winter's morn
    Smile, like a field beset with corn?
    Or smell, like to a mead new-shorn,
    Thus, on the sudden?
    Voice 4:                                 Come and see
    The cause, why things thus fragrant be:
    'Tis He is born, whose quick'ning Birth
    Gives life and luster, public mirth,
    To Heaven and the under-Earth.
    Chorus: We see Him come, and know Him ours,
    Who, with His Sun-shine, and His Showers,
    Turns all the patient ground to flowers.
    Voice 1: The Darling of the World is come,
    And fit it is, we find a room
    To welcome Him.
    Voice 2:                                 The nobler part
    Of all the house here, is the Heart,
    Chorus: Which we will give Him; and bequeath
    This Holly and this Ivy Wreath,
    To do Him honor; who's our King,
    And Lord of all this Revelling.
    [The Musical Part was composed by Master Henry Lawes].
    Robert Herrick
Fifth day of Christmas, December 30. Because it is an old favorite, and rarely heard, I posted The Holly and the Ivy. It just needs to be sung and heard more, and I never got it into a program at College Church. I made my list for this series on Christmas Eve. I have revised it along the way. But I could not squeeze in the other old and rarely heard option, All poor men and humble:
And here I admit my ignorance. This is obviously the traditional tune for these words. (If the internet is any judge here. I did get a classic copy of the Oxford Book of Carols for Christmas, but am too lazy to walk over and look this up :~) But it is not the tune I learned for the carol. My loss. Here repented and rectified. Marvelous text. 

Sixth day of Christmas, December 31. There is no Rose of Such Virtue is an ancient text, with many lovely settings. I first heard it in the Britten Ceremony of Carols. The only setting I have conducted is that by Robert Young, which I posted this morning. But, like many, I simply cannot shake the Britten:
Not to mention that, in a couple of days I will use another carol from the Ceremony, and didn't want my daily posts to be too Britten-heavy. Another Britten piece for Christmas might have shown up in the Lessons and Carols, and earlier in the Twelve Days. Another time. [sigh]

Monday, December 24, 2012

Lessons and Carols, 9: Happy Christmas Morning!

Changing up the order to allow the joyous Christmas morning hymn to immediately follow the reading. Happy Christmas!

Ninth Carol: In dulci jubilo
text:14th century, Latin and German (attributed Heinrich Suso)
Let me encourage you to click the text link to see the original text and the English translation.
You may wait until after presents are opened. 
music: combined settings by JS Bach and 2 Praetoriuses

Ninth Lesson: John 1:1-14

Ninth Hymn: O Come, All Ye Faithful
As Walter Wangerin started all this last Monday,  we'll use as a benediction words from his Christmas Eve devotional:
On this night it all comes true.
Every song receives its meaning.
All promises are kept.
The Lord of glory makes a doorway
Of the Virgin's tender flesh,
And comes, and slumbers in a creche.
Walter Wangerin, Jr. Preparing for Jesus (Zondervan, 1999), 127

Postlude: Angel's Dance
composed Steven Amundsen, St. Olaf College Orchestra
In keeping with the "dream team" nature of these Lessons and Carols, and the joy of the morning.
Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Lessons and Carols, 8

At King's College chapel, on Christmas Eve, you will hear a sequence of readers. Beginning with a boy chorister, the readers advance in age and "status" until the final reading from the Provost of the University. (The Lord Mayor of Cambridge makes an appearance somewhere along the way.) I love that pattern, what is does for inclusivity, and how it provides a sense of movement as the revelation, the story, unfolds. In our setting at College Church we have done something like, but ending with a staff pastor in the final Lesson. I think any opportunity to read scripture is a privilege, and would be happy to draw any of those straws.

Eighth Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

Eighth Carol: Three Kings
text: Laurence Housman
music: Healey Willan
     "Who knocks tonight so late?"
     the weary porter said.
     Three kings stood at the gate,
     each with a crown on head.
        The serving man bowed down,
        the Inn was full, he knew.
        Said he, "In all this town
        is no fit place for you."
     A light in the manger lit;
     there lay the Mother meek.
     This place is fit.
     Here is the rest we seek.
        Come, come. They loosed their latchet strings,
        so stood they all unshod
        "Come in, come in, ye kings,
        and kiss the feet of God."

Eighth Hymn: Of the Father's Love Begotten
At College Church we began using this hymn - one of the most ancient of Christian hymns still in common use - as a musical context for the congregation to recite the Nicene Creed in the Christmas Eve service. They are, indeed, hand in glove.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Lessons and Carols, 7

When I plan a real Lessons and Carols, I put things together, let the plan sit, go back to reconsider, think about a balance of styles, etc. It occurred to me here that my choral selections have all been on the rather reflective side. Today should prove a bit more lively.

Seventh Lesson: Luke 2:8-16

Seventh Carol: A Babe Is Born All of a May
text: anonymous, ancient
music: William Mathias (20th century, England)
And yes, it really should be with organ!
 A babe is born all of a may, [maid]
To bring salvation unto us.
To him we sing both night and day.
Veni creator Spiritus. [Come, Spirit, creator]
 At Bethlehem, that blessed place, 
The child of bliss now born he was; 
And him to serve God give us grace, 
O lux beata Trinitas. [O light of the blessed Trinity] 
There came three kings out of the East, 
To worship the King that is so free, 
With gold and myrrh and frankincense, 
A solis ortus cardine. [from lands that see the sunrise (the east)]
A fair song that night sung they 
In worship of that child: 
Gloria tibi Domine. [Glory to you, Lord]
A babe is born all of a may, 
To bring salvation unto us. 
To him we sing both night and day. 
Veni creator Spiritus, 
O lux beata Trinitas, 
A solis ortus cardine, 
Gloria tibi Domine. 
Seventh Hymn: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Lessons and Carols, 6

The carols featured today are what started this whole series off. Monday morning I read the first text in its poetic form in a morning Advent reading. The musical setting featured today is an item I have long admired, and I had hoped to direct it this season. One of the (many) delights I walked away from this fall. I believe I heard these two carols paired in someone else's program; I doubt this reflects my own creativity. But today I do offer two carols, and I hope the reason will be apparent. And yes, there is also still a hymn.

In my ideal Lessons and Carols, time is not an issue.

Sixth Lesson: Luke 2:1-7

Sixth Carol(s): Two Kings and The Best of Rooms
Two Kings, text anonymous; musical setting by Joseph Clokey
(random unnecessary trivia - the composer's father was Art Clokey, creator of Gumby!)
The Best of Rooms, text by Robert Herrick (16th century); musical setting by Randall Thompson (1963)
Two Kings (no video, but I'm glad this performance sung by St. Olaf Choral Ensembles is available!)
     Yet if His Majesty, our Sov'reign Lord,
     Should of his own accord,
     friendly himself invite,
     and say, "I'll be your guest tomorrow night."
     how we should stir ourselves, call and command
     all hands to work, "Let no man idle stand!"
        "Set me fine Spanish tables in the hall,
        See they are fitted all.
        Let there be room to eat
        and orders taken that there want no meat.
        See ev'ry sconce and candlestick made bright,
        that without tapers they may give a light.
     But at the coming of the King of Heaven,
     all's set at six and seven;
     we wallow in our sin.
     Christ cannot find a chamber at the inn.
     We entertain Him always like a stranger,
     and, as at first still lodge Him in the manger.

The Best of Rooms
 Christ, He requires still, wheresoe'er He comes
To feed or lodge, to have the best of rooms:
Give Him the choice; grant Him the nobler part
Of all the house: the best of all's the heart.

Sixth Hymn: O Little Town of Bethlehem 
text: Phillips Brooks (19th century)
tune: Forest Green (trad English) 
If you feel you must hear this hymn sung the way you thought it was going to sound (!) click here for a lovely setting with orchestra and the Vienna Boys Choir.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Lessons and Carols, 5

The "Lessons" of Lessons and Carols move from prophecy about a coming Savior, through the announcement of the gift of a Savior, to the birth of Jesus the Savior. The fifth lesson brings us to the New Testament, to Mary, and to one of my favorite hymns of all, regardless of the season of the year. I like how personal the "Magnificat" can be for people gathered in worship.

Fifth Lesson: Luke 1:26-38
I especially enjoy it when a female high school or college student reads this Lesson!

Fifth Carol: The Angel Gabriel to Mary Came
traditional Basque carol

Fifth Hymn: Tell Out, My Soul, the Greatness of the Lord
text: Timothy Dudley-Smith, from Mary's Song, the Magnificat
tune: Woodlands, composed by Walter Greatorex
(some readers will recognize the composer's surname as the tune name 
for a setting of Gloria Patri, which tune he also wrote)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lessons and Carols, 4

Working this series of posts has reminded me of two aspects of planning services and programs. One - there is often so much material, that sorting through the options is like being a child in a candy shop . . . on a limited budget. Two - while in most of life I don't dwell much on options, or "what might have been" once a decision is made, in a program like this I am always second-guessing selections. Oh well, that is one of the beauties of Lessons and Carols: it's a Christmas program, and it's hard to "miss," with so much beautiful music available. Also, ideally one prepares Lessons and Carols annually, and the readings don't change (or, not much) so one gets second chances. As already noted, this series is scratching that worship planning itch. It's just been a surprise to also be experiencing the self-evaluation that comes with that!

Fourth Lesson: Isaiah 11:1-10
This is one of those places with an optional/alternate Lesson. I wish we could have Ten Lessons and Carols. But then, I wonder if the Church erred when it reduced Advent from six weeks to four!

Fourth Carol: Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

Fourth Hymn: O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright
text: Philipp Nicolai (1599) trans Catherine Winkworth
tune: Wie schoen leuchtet, also written by Nicolai (adapted from an older psalm tune)
Lutherans are the only readers likely to have sung this as a congregational hymn. That's a shame, and I consider it one of the shortcomings of my ministry that even at College Church we never had the congregation try it. They could manage it. Anyway, here is a very nice men's chorus arrangement, stanza one only. Full text is linked above.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lessons and Carols, 3

When you do tune in (or click the url) to the King's broadcast on Christmas Day, you might also want to open the pdf of the service booklet. Itself a bit of classic design - elegant simplicity with lots of white space on the page - it also provides all the text of the readings and the music, historical background, etc. I happened to notice that the 2012 program is already available. And it is an exercise in self discipline to not look at that while I am putting together my own online, one day at a time Lessons and Carols.

A Service of Nine Lessons and Carols
From King's Study, Winfield

Third Lesson: Isaiah 9:2, 6-7
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
King James Version, taken from
Most of the lessons are read without abridgment, but Isaiah 9
requires so much context that it's just easier on the brain (and the heart) to cut to the chase

Third Carol: The Dream Isaiah Saw
text: Thomas Troeger, from Isaiah11
music: Glenn Rudolph
You can hear the commissioning choir's recording on Spotify. 
Type the title into the search bar there and click on the Bach Choir option. 
You will hear it there in all its percussive glory.

Third Hymn: Joy to the World
from India
from Africa
from Italy
from France

I've linked to other recordings - well, for a hopefully obvious reason. But beyond "to the world," except for Africa, I have had the privilege of being in these other places. Africa is there just because the music is so joyous, and this setting so . . . joyful! If you have time for only one, let me point you to France. So earnest it made me laugh for joy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lessons and Carols, 2

I'm making my way to the international broadcast of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel of King's College, Cambridge. I miss planning worship services, and this is one way to get at that, even if it's only for my personal satisfaction, and to keep my skills (hopefully!) sharp. And, unbound by resources, time, and space, this is sort of a dream Lessons and Carols.

A Service of Nine Lessons and Carols
From King's Study, Winfield

Second Lesson: Genesis 12:1-3

Carol: Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree 
author: unknown
composer: Elizabeth Poston

(Here is the poem sung so beautifully by the choir of St. John's College, Cambridge, in the above video)

Hymn:  O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?
text: Paul Gerhardt (1653) translated Catherine Winkworth, revised
tune: Wie soll ich dich empfangen (Johann Cruger, 17th century)
(I hoped to find the setting for choir and congregation that I know so well. But here is a fine recording of a German congregation singing the tune. English words are below the video.)
O Lord, how shall I meet you, how welcome you aright?
Your people long to greet you, my hope, my heart's delight.
O kindle Lord most holy, your lamp within my breast,
To do in spirit lowly all that may please you best.

Love caused your incarnation, love brought you down to me.
Your thirst for my salvation procured my liberty.
O love beyond all telling that led you to embrace
in love, all loves excelling, our lost and fallen race.

You come, O Lord, with gladness, in mercy and goodwill,
To bring an end to sadness and bid our fears be still.
In patient expectation we wait for that great day
When a renewed creation your glory shall display.

O Lord, how shall I meet you, how welcome you aright?
Your people long to greet you, my hope, my heart's delight.
O kindle Lord most holy, your lamp within my breast,
To do in spirit lowly all that may please you best.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lessons and Carols

Christmas Eve. Cambridge, England. King's College, 3pm. A Service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

Christmas Eve. Winfield, Illinois. King's home, 9am. The international live broadcast of "A Service of Nine Lessons and Carols" from King's Cambridge.

Our tradition is not nearly so hoary, and it is not unbroken, but this family has long enjoyed - with millions of others around the world - the worship and the wonder of this service. And it was a surprise to learn, back around 1999, that College Church in Wheaton had never "put on" a Service of Lessons and Carols. It seemed such a . . . well, such a College Church kind of service. And so it was a delight to introduce this into our series of Sunday evening December services. We ran it about a decade, and after a hiatus, the Chancel Choir revived it this year.

Without me.


And this brief run of posts is not offered as a contrarian plan to that evening. Far from it. It is just my vision for "A Service of Nine Lessons and Carols," for 2012, if I had been in a position to plan such a service, and a choir to work with. If I manage it, the series of posts will end on Christmas morning, with the Ninth Lesson, and the final carol(s).

I'm thinking of it this morning because my daily Advent reading, from Walter Wangerin's Preparing for Jesus, included a poem, the setting of which I had planned to use in this season at College Church, had I stayed put long enough. That poem, paired with another, will be featured later in their proper place. For now, to whet your appetite and to encourage you to find the December 24 live broadcast (or live-stream) and carve out 90 minutes of that day to enjoy it, I give you:

A Service of Nine Lessons and Carols
from King's Study, Winfield

Prelude: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Introit/Processional: Once in Royal David's City 


Bidding Prayer 
Jesus, God of all our hopes,
We thank you for being our Wonderful Counselor - we need you to show us the way;
our Mighty God - we need you to protect us from all evil;
our Everlasting Father - we need the comfort of being in your family;
our Prince of Peace - we need your peace in a troubled world.

Give us grace that we may seek the way, the truth, and the life.
Without you, we would wander off course - broad is the way that leads to destruction.
Without you, we would embrace error and walk in darkness.
Without you, we would remain in our sins and never know eternal life.
We praise you, that you have come so that we might have life and have it abundantly.
Just as you sent your messengers, the prophets, to prepare the way of salvation, may we prepare the traditions that nurture our spiritual lives and celebrate the dawning of your everlasting Kingdom.
Heaven and earth await that great event.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus!
taken from Wendell Hawley, A Pastor Prays for His People (Tyndale, 2010) 
Wendell is a friend, pastor, and colleague from College Church.

First Lesson: Genesis 3:8-15
"Lessons" are Bible readings, and they are the centerpiece, the focus, the main event of the service. The music hangs on the readings. So, seriously, I encourage you to read before or as you listen. Before for maximum effect, during for the sake of time! I am providing a link to each reading.

First Carol:  Adam Lay Ybounden
At the birthplace of this service, King's College Chapel, the "carols" are the items sung by the choir, while the congregation sings "hymns." 

A Lessons and Carols that included a Carol and a Hymn for each Lesson could become quite long. But not longer, I think, than 90 minutes, which is the time you'll want to set aside for the Decembver 24 broadcast. But one day at a time, I think we'll keep this pattern. Today's hymn I could not find recorded. Too bad. I think it has a haunting tune, and I love to hear the College Church congregation sing it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A childhood worship memory

In my last post I mentioned the Rev. Phillips, at the Bronson (MI) Methodist Episcopal Church. He was tall - OK, he seemed tall to me - and dignified, and warm. (Oh! maybe he is why I do not understand the supposed disparity between dignity and warmth, between formal and personal!) People liked him. My family liked him. I liked him. Because of him, I wanted to be "a minister someday."

Which I soon outgrew, but that's another story.

This story is funny because it goes against everything I have written in the opening paragraph. Except about Rev. Phillips being tall. It has nothing to say about that.

Our organist was Mrs. Billie Hunsinger. She was as proper as the minister was dignified. White haired, at least in my memory. And can you picture the classic Methodist Episcopal chancel - the altar rail, the communion table, the pulpit, and the choir stalls divided and facing each other over the open center? It's naturally difficult to get a good photo that shows this. If you've seen it you know what I mean. If you haven't, I hope you will someday. It's like the Kings College chapel, without the screen dividing the nave from the chancel, and an altar (kneeling) rail across the front.

So, that's the setting. I swear this is true. In my wildest imagination at that age, I could not have made this up. Rev. Phillips announced the hymn, which was new for this congregation. He said a few words about it, and explained that Mrs. Hunsinger was going to play it through for us.

Then he turned, and he said . . .

"Hit it, Billie."

Advent 1

My spiritual awakening traces (as far as I can tell) back to an Advent season when I was in 5th or 6th grade. We attended a Methodist Episcopal Church (yes, I remember Methodism before the UMC) in Bronson, Michigan. It was a charming old sanctuary, classic in every way, in my memory at least, and this would have been one of the last years that congregation had before it was replaced by a "totally 60's" new sanctuary. And Reverend Phillips was a charming pastor. The first thing I "wanted to be when I grow up," apart from the usual grade-school boy dream of fireman, etc., was a minister. That was entirely because of my young admiration of Rev. Phillips.

I soon outgrew that, but that's another story.

The Advent season was the only time in my home that we routinely got out the Bible and read. That was Mom. She prepared the Yule log (seriously, we had a Yule log) and we would read and light the candles. I have no idea how often this happened. It may have been only one year, but it is powerful in my memory, and tied to one particular Advent at Bronson Methodist.

What I recall is the sense of it all, not the particulars. I do know that we heard sermons from Isaiah. And . . . that's pretty much it! The readings, the fact (but not the content) of sermons, the look of the church, and a Yule log. It would be years before I knowingly put all this together; years after I had begun to understand the relationship that was stirred by the Spirit of God through the words of Isaiah proclaimed by Rev. Phillips. And it came together one Advent.

So this has been a special season for me, and consequently for my own family, all my adult life. Karen and I learned Advent worship in the Village Church of Western Springs when we were newlyweds and beginning a family. We took that into my ministry of music at Berean Baptist Church in Minnesota, where it was a delight to help move along the nascent seasonal observation there. When we came to College Church, we found a rich season well developed, and it was in so many ways like finally finding our Advent "home."

It should not, then, be a surprise that it is now, at the beginning of this season, that I begin to fully understand what I am missing during this ministry hiatus. The "ordinary" season has past, and while College Church is hardly a liturgical calendar kind of place, there is that sense of new beginnings that comes with Advent there. This year we will see that from the other side of the chancel, particularly when we attend "Lessons and Carols" as part of the season.

We have been visiting churches this fall. Not so much to "find a church" but to get to places that we had never been able to see before. But for Advent, we thought it would be a good idea to settle into one church for the four Sundays. We narrowed this down to two options, and Saturday night made our choice. It seemed like such a good choice, for all the right reasons. But you know, it was not, as it turns out. Advent can be celebrated properly in myriad ways. So when I say that this way didn't quite "do it for us," it is hardly a critique of the service or of the excellent church we attended. It should have worked on every level, and yet it didn't. So, since we never thought we'd consider this particular church a place we could settle long term, we will change course for the coming Sundays.

And, no surprise here, our other option will have a service very much like what I've had the privilege of planning and leading for decades. Very much, I am pretty sure, like that Advent season long ago in Bronson, when my spirit was stirred for the coming of Christ into my life.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The advent of Advent

This would have been my 28th season of music ministry in the season of Advent.

I've been surprised to not really miss much about my work in the church over these past eight weeks. I've kept plenty busy. (In fact, instead of writing here this morning, I should be in my study space hunkering down on my term paper!) I've enjoyed the flexibility and freedom of the weekends with my Karen. Evenings home, with my reading finished for the day, and nowhere I have to be. All very sabbatical like.

A couple of weeks ago, it began to worry me that I was not missing the rehearsal of Christmas music. Perhaps the fact that I thought of that should have been a clue to what was really going on inside. Oh yes, we have missed Thursday nights with the choir at College Church. But why was I not missing the music-making that has shaped every week of my life for 26 years? (That missing year equals two sabbaticals.)

The illusion shattered this weekend, in the most dramatic and fulfilling way. It hit (beautifully) on Friday night, when we entered the gym at St Olaf College, for the annual Christmas Festival. This was our fourth or fifth time at the Festival, which stands in my mind as the epitome, the sine qua non, the exemplar of what a church or academy Christmas Festival can and should be.

I've never dreamed of getting a choir to perform to the standards of the St Olaf Choirs. But I have always heard Christmas music there that I've wanted to introduce to my choir. My life - and my choirs - have been enriched by the St Olaf tradition, Advent, Christmas, and et cetera. This year was no exception, except that I'm not now in a position to carry the candle back to a choir of my own. And that was when I truly began to miss the work with the people who get together weekly to make music for worship.

Old Friends Some things in the Festival that we've sung in my choirs: Holst, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; Ferguson, arr, He Comes to Us as One Unknown; Christiansen, Beautiful Savior (never more beautiful than when sung by the St Olaf choirs at the end of the Festival, circling the Skoglund Arena).

New Ideas I Could Use "Awake! Awake and Greet the New Morn" (Haugen, arr. Ferguson) Here, I thought, is a new Advent hymn that people would really love to sing. And maybe for another week, even, forget that what they really want is to sing Christmas carols too early. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (arr. K. Jennings) - a newly composed melody, and a brilliant setting for this familiar text. "Night of Silence" (Kantor, arr. Ferguson) - a setting to introduce and then accompany "Silent Night." Where have I been, to have missed this 1996 arrangement?

Gotta Look This Up Some things that would be fun to learn and use: I don't "know" the Poulenc Gloria, not as a conductor or singer, but only as a listener. Hearing "Laudamus te" reminded me that I have some work to do here. Conductor Christopher Aspaas had several arrangements in this program, each of them very, very nice. But one that stood out was his pairing of the American songs, "Poor Wayfarin' Stranger" with "I Wonder as I Wander." Lovely brilliance, that. His medley "Carols for the Choirs and Orchestra: Love and Joy come to you" was beautiful, and it was nice to see an alternate to the (rightly beloved) model by Carolyn Jennings, sung for years in this Festival.

Familiar and Welcome This is the first year after John Ferguson's retirement from St Olaf. It was good to see so much of his work still in the program. Along with settings by both Kenneth and Carolyn Jennings. I sometimes forget just how perfectly Ms Jennings wrote for choirs, and how well a good church choir can handle her work. Kenneth's work is lovely and impressive, and to my ear more usually better suited to the collegiate level choir. But it is always good to hear their work. Good on you, St Olaf, for keeping this repertoire going. Karen and I were at the Festival the year Steve Amundsen's "Angels' Dance" was premiered. It was great to hear this in person again. "Day Full of Grace," another Christiansen masterwork was also part of the program.

It was a surprise to hear no world music. It was a treat to see how many students in the orchestra sang along with the audience during the carols. And it was a huge surprise to see almost the full orchestra singing along on the final number, the aforementioned "Beautiful Savior." Our seats had never been so close to the orchestra, so perhaps this is nothing new and we just hadn't been able to see it. (Thankfully, St Olaf has managed to avoid the "Jumbotron" syndrome.) But I literally every orchestral face I could see was singing - and obviously singing voice parts - as the program concluded.

It was a little strange hearing all this before the first day of Advent. But it was glorious, and it stirred our hearts, and it prepared the way for this season that prepares the way. And, as always, it was worship. We were lost in wonder, love, and praise!

Monday, November 19, 2012

A little help here?

We had sung quite a bit, and pretty meaningfully. We had been sung to, and had read part of a psalm aloud, in unison. The offering was given, and it was time for the reading of the sermon scripture.

All this without a printed guide to the service. (Don't get me started on that. Today.) The direction through the service was clear enough, and the service simple enough, that we - first-timers - got through without confusion or distraction. The young staff person got up to read, announced the passage, and real well.

And then, here's where a printed order would have helped. Or, in this context, we might have been given a cue or two on the projection screen. But there we were, the scripture read out, and the reader said:
"This is God's Word"

To which the people replied:

Well, actually, the people didn't know what reply to make. We said, in keeping with our church's custom: "Amen." Others mumbled "Thanks be to God." Most, so far as we could tell, didn't realize a response was being evoked.

We sat down, my Karen leaned over to me and said, "Whatever." As in . . .

Reader: "This is God's Word"
People: "Whatever."


Some reflections waiting for the start of a worship service yesterday:

I try not to go to a service of worship - anywhere or anytime - as a critic, a reviewer. That might not ring true, if you have read some of my recent posts. But, really, I don't go "looking for trouble." So, while there would certainly be issues I could take with the service we got to yesterday, that isn't what this is about. I just wanted to contextualize the reflections that I will eventually get to.

We know people at this church, pastoral staff and musicians, and one of the musicians welcomed us within moments of our arrival. The now-expected condolences and questions were posed, vis-a-vis my recent (temporary?!) departure from music ministry. But we sat alone, and while the musicians were finishing their prep and sound check, while the orchestra gathered, I wondered what pastors say is the role of "feelings" in . . .
* understanding and defending truth?
* in doing what one knows to be right? ("obedience" is the old-fashioned word)
* in knowing the will of God?
And what is the role of feelings in "worship?"

I think I am on pretty firm ground when I suggest that most church leaders will say that  feelings have their place in the answers to the first three questions, but it is probably "last place." And in the circles I serve in, most will insist that content has priority in worship. But when it comes to evaluating a service, and when it comes to sorting out what will get people to attend a service, feelings are given a pretty high value. Much higher than in other areas of Christian thought and living. Why is that?

Yes, feelings are important. Yes, worship that appeals only to the head, or to the ascetic [nb: not aesthetic] without an affective element, are problematic in perhaps more dangerous ways. Granted, and like you I don't much relish those as alternatives. But I want to press the question: "Why is a worship service - a single service, or a style of service - judged primarily on the feeling response to it?" And "Where is that taking us? Where will it leave us?"

This challenges me in my own responses to services, especially now as a guest in unfamiliar churches. Am I "objective" enough to get beyond how I "feel," even if I don't "like" the structure, the degree of (in)formality, the music? And if I can't get beyond my feelings here will they take a firmer grip on my ability or willingness to grapple with truth, with obedience, and with action?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Awash in sound

My friend and former colleague, Randall Gruendyke, is the campus pastor at Taylor University, Upland Indiana. In case this post finds its way to his circle, before I quote Randy I want to point out that his comment was made about a decade ago, and is not cited here to portray anything about the current or past situation of chapel music at Taylor.

Hmm. I've never begun a post with a disclaimer. Anyway . . .

Randy made this arresting analogy about highly amplified worship bands. (This will be a pale paraphrase of Randy's always well-spoken observations.) The wall of sound that is produced by a band behind amplifiers is analogous to the "rood screen" in ancient churches. That was the usually ornate screen (wood or stone) behind which the priests did the "real work" of the mass, while the people stood around and waited in front of it. Here's a picture of one of the more famous rood screens still in place:

This is the screen at Westminster Abbey, London. (And while we're here, a little tip: If you're going to Choral Evensong at Westminster, try to get there early enough to get seated behind the screen, where the choir sits. Amazing.)

So, you get the idea. All the important stuff happened behind the screen. The people not only didn't understand the mass when it was not in their language; they couldn't even see what was going on.

Randy's observation was that this is what highly amplified worship music does. It separates those leading the music from those who are supposed to be singing. Often, the visual impact is the same, with amplifiers, keyboards and other instruments between the musicians and the congregation. An altogether apt metaphor, and if you sometimes wonder why so much sound still doesn't help you engage in the singing, just think about it.

But my Karen and I had a similar experience Sunday in a very different context. The robed choir, the organ and piano, the classical orchestra - all suggested visually that this was not going to be a "worship band" service. Nor was it. (In spite of the inexplicable presence of a "worship leader" with a guitar in front of all this. I still don't get that. Was it supposed to make the traditional music feel more folksy?) But it still had its "rood screen" effect. Everything had a microphone, and the whole was amplified through an impressive speaker array. (Though elevated in a very lofty space, it was still visually very present. Sort of like a space station.)

We were awash in sound. The songs and hymns, we wanted to sing. And people were singing. But it became so monotonous.The organ and orchestra never found their way to highlight what each had to offer; the sound just sort of smushed together. The piano would have been completely lost if not for the microphones on it. Also, the violins. But rather than draw out the texture of this rich assortment of instruments, it came out as a bland stew. The impressively large choir also might be a very fine choir, but the microphones did nothing to make it sound other than a bunch of voices singing their hearts out. (Give me a struggling 12-voice choir that can hear and respond to each other, any Sunday morning.)

In the end, while we could actually sing along, the focus still was on what was happening "up front." Not surprisingly, the congregation applauded even after the hymns. Was it, after all, all about what was going on "behind the screen?"

This whole thing about the role of music to guide, lead, coax, encourage the congregation is so important. This weekend I again was reminded that it isn't like one approach naturally gets it while another doesn't. An organ can be that screen of sound, just as much as a praise band. A choir can as much as a guitarist song-leader. The main thing is to know the space we're given for worship, understand how it works best for the voice of the people, and decide how to use the space and musical resources for the best benefit of their singing.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


This is not a concession.

I want to remain on record in opposition to the use of projected congregational song lyrics without giving access to a printed melody. In the culture I live in, the ability to read a  melody is not that unusual, and if you want the greatest number of people to engage with a song as quickly as possible, you will take the extra step, the extra time, the extra expense if necessary, to provide that aid.

Don't limit your worshiping community by your own limitations. And don't worry about seeming cool. The really cool kids are doing this. (See Redeemer Presbyterian New York, and City Church San Francisco, for example.)

But if you are going to limit your singing community to reading projected lyrics, then please for the love of God('s people), try to:

* Get the punctuation right.
John Mark McMillan's "How He Loves" was new to me earlier today. I didn't realize I was singing a cool song.
            He doesn't dig poetry.
            He's so unhip that
            When you say Dylan, he thinks you're talking about Dylan Thomas.
            Whoever he was.
            The man ain't got no culture.   (Paul Simon, A Simple Desultory Philippic, 1965)
 So I didn't know if the words were supposed to be
He is jealous for me
Love's like a hurricane - I am a tree
[as they appeared on the screen]
He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane - I am a tree
[as I now see, online, is what Mr. McMillan wrote, 2009]

Hey you, putting the power-point together for the chapel, the service, the small group . . . Yeah, you! That apostrophe you added matters; it changes the meaning. And, after all, you do want people to sing with the mind as well as with the spirit, don't you? Because, you know, it is a biblical precept of worship. The same thing goes for commas and periods, by the way. Even the properly placed exclamation point. Are you theologically aware enough to employ the semi-colon?

(And for the nonce I'll resist the impulse to digress on whether the song was actually written to be sung by a random group of worshipers and not - you know - the David Crowder Band.)

* Divide the lines of text so that they scan with the musical phrases.
Seriously. If you aren't going to print the melody for us, and unless really I am the only person in the room who has never heard what we're singing, could you give just a little hint at where that musical phrase is going? You might begin by assuming a line/phrase is marked by some kind of punctuation. [see previous asterisk] Please tell me you're not just typing into the ppt slide and letting the auto returns do your work for you. Here I forget which forgettable song (and slide) from earlier today failed on this count, in a big way. For illustration purposes, I am going to pick a song I really like, just to demonstrate. Try to picture these words on a screen:
My soul finds rest in God alone, my 
rock and my salvation; a fortress strong 
against my foes, and I shall not be 
This excellent setting of Psalm 62 is helped along by some fine punctuation (which, I now see, if you're checking lyrics online, you probably won't see. Umm . . . don't take your accuracy cues from random lyric sites, OK?) If you don't know this song - well, learn it! But if you don't, you won't know at a first quick read, the kind of read offered to singing worshipers, where it's headed. But when you see it lined out properly on a screen:

My soul finds rest in God alone, 
my rock and my salvation; 
a fortress strong against my foes, 
and I shall not be shaken. (Aaron Keys, Stuart Townend, 2006)
Then, my projecting-lyrics friend, you will help the people whom you are supposed to be leading in worship. You will help them understand the meaning of this solid psalm setting; and you will help them figure out where the music is heading. And when the next verse comes around - and is also properly parsed on the screen - they will sing it better, more strongly, and with more understanding.

And I won't have to write about this again. OK? Thanks for this little chat.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


My grandparents probably never stopped to think about their denomination's business, nor questioned the nature and leadership of their church's gathered worship. (Just guessing here. I never knew my grandparents.)

My parents questioned their denomination, but so far as I know did not take issue with the nature and leadership of worship. (They're both gone now, so I can't back that up with a personal story.) They were committed to the church they were born into, so that even after it let them down, it took a life crisis for them to even think about changing churches.

My generation wanted change in the church, fought for change in the church, got power and made change in the church. This was, by and large, probably not a good thing. For the most part, as it came to worship, we mostly wanted it to be about "us."

My children's generation grew up in churches that, in fear of losing a generation, made sure church life was "all about them." These are the emerging leaders in the church.

Musing on this now because of a sermon I heard on Sunday. My Karen and I were visiting a famous "downtown" church in a big city. (I am currently not in a ministry position, and we are taking the fall weeks to get around to churches we've never been able to get to.) The service was rich, of a classic Reformed nature, good music, nicely led. Then the sermon. Ah, the sermon. Here the young pastor had a few choices to make. He could do a straight-up exposition of Ruth, chapter 1 (the Old Testament reading and the announced sermon text). He could do a riff on All Saints Sunday (a stated theme for the entire day at this church). He could tell personal stories about his own growing up in the church (which, you know, probably isn't what the average person in the pew might have looked for). What he did, was try to do all three.

Now, I'm no preacher, but I've been around good preaching all my adult life. And I don't think I'm being critical when I suggest that trying to do all 3 wasn't a great idea. It failed on at least 3 levels. (If you get my drift.) But that's not what I am writing about.

No, what struck Karen and me was that here was a young man (I mean, a really young man, and not just by comparison to us) who presumed to instruct a primarily older congregation (and I mean, a really older congregation, even by comparison to us) with a tale about theologically out-growing his home church.  And it struck us as we drove home: here is a case (I'll not say a representative sample) of someone who grew up in a church where from the beginning everything was designed to say, "this is all about you."

It begins in the nursery, where naturally really everything is all about the babies. It continues through grade school, with age segregated worship "experiences" that keep children and parents apart on Sunday mornings. It hits its stride in student ministries, which often also means continued age segregation for the worship hour. (I'm happy to be able to say that the church where I am a member but no longer on staff, does not have age-separate worship services.) Students go off to college and often continue in worship settings that are explicitly age-specific. Young. Everything about the church experience, for so many Christian youth in the U.S., is designed specifically for them and requires no effort to interact with their grandparents' or their parents' generation . . . or even their younger siblings.

Read more about this phenomenon, here. I'm just winging it. It isn't like this generation-centric approach to church life sprang up out of nowhere. 

Increasingly, young ministry personnel are taking up leadership posts of all kinds in churches of all kinds. Is it any surprise that their churches will conform to their needs, experience and taste? My generation accomplished this by force, and mostly made a mess of it. Will the next generation continue this through the exercise of entitlement?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Commonly prayed

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, all semester, the professor begins my first class of the day in the same way. Oh, there are some preliminaries, the occasional wry observation. But when he is really ready, he begins:

Oh Lord, open our lips, and our mouths shall proclaim your praise. 
Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us;
Cast us not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from us.
Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and sustain us with your bountiful  spirit. 
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.
[here may be included a brief timely topical prayer - this week, for example, for those suffering on the East Coast]
O Lord, you have brought us in safety to this new day. Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity. And in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The first day, I recognized this - and some of you do, too - as the opening of morning prayer from the Book of Common Prayer used in the Anglican communion. I appreciated the gesture that first morning, and wondered where Dr. Kalantzis's prayers would take us in the weeks to come.

But, every class session, this is how we begin. I couldn't be more satisfied, and I look forward to it each time. We're now about 10 weeks into the semester, and I simply don't tire of it. But my heart leapt when, last week, the good Dr. K. prayed before a campus lecture. I should not have been surprised to hear:
O gracious Light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven;
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, 
O Son of God, O giver of life, and to be glorified through all the worlds. 
This is the ancient Greek hymn Phos hilaron, and it is the opening of evening prayer, also from Common Prayer.

And I sat in that lecture hall, with these prayers having begun and ended my day, and said to myself, "Yes. This is the spirit of worship that I want to foster and serve." My intimacy with the Book of Common Prayer helps me "fill in the service" in my head - the psalms, the multiple readings of scripture, the wide-ranging prayers for the world and the person sitting next to you. With or without music, but simply if gloriously with music. All this was evoked for me, and as I already said, my heart leapt.

My own tradition gets impatient with "sameness." We don't like to use other peoples' prayers. We throw babies out with bath-water. I guess what I long for is the chance to demonstrate that a beautiful historic liturgy can have an "evangelical warmth." I believe this is happening in a number of settings around North America. I could really get on board with that.

Monday, October 22, 2012

More important concerns

I have just finished (by the skin of my teeth?) a course in Historical Theology, on the Early Church. That would be, for purposes of the Historical sequence, the first four Christian centuries . . . just slipping over into the fifth century. Medieval course begins on Thursday.

The reading list for this course was fantastic, and the theological ground covered in eight weeks was really stimulating. Who was Jesus? What is the Trinity? How did the church grow by engaging with heterodox ideas? What is to be done with confessing Christians who make some concession - for political reasons or for personal safely - to pagan/political religion? What in the world were all those "councils" about, anyway?

Sitting here today, near the end of fall break, and realizing that when the Church had really important things to think about, the stuff our day tends to get hung up seem kind of silly. (Like, for example, the theme of this blog: church music!) In fact, many of those same issues are still current today, still challenges within and without and against the church.

But that won't keep me from being concerned about the issues that are closest to my heart and vocation. In fact, some of these issues are also traceable to theological problems in the early church. Onward!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Where I belong

Comments I made at my farewell service, College Church, 7 October 2012:

Somewhere in a burst of glory, sound becomes a song.
I’m bound to tell the story; that’s where I belong.

So wrote Paul Simon, and while it’s a song about something else, the first time I heard it, I thought of the privilege I have of telling the story through song.

Some of you know that the sound-track of my life is driven by the music of Paul Simon. Whether it’s “feelin’ groovy” or “I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore,” or more recently:
Hey, hey, off to school we go;
You might learn something,
Yeah, you never know
My poor kids have had to hear this their whole lives. Some of you have had to decipher the arcane quotation. And I should probably apologize to the choir for all too often enjoying my own private little pop music jokes.

But when you understand that I consider Paul Simon the best popular songwriter of my generation (and therefore, of course, of any successive generation :~); and if you understand why, you’ll get a glimpse into what I value about words and music.

When I see you smiling                                             
When I hear you singing                                           
Lavender and roses                                                   
Every ending a beginning                                          
The way you turn                                                      
And catch me with your eye -                                  
That's where I belong

It’s that sound of singing, the look in the eyes of worshipers, that has given me such joy on this platform. Whether my face is turned to the choir, that little church of ardent and joyful worshipers, or to the congregation, less prepared perhaps but no less engaged in praise, that’s where I belong.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m quoting pop songs tonight. Maybe to surprise you, maybe to disarm you, maybe to guard my emotions. If nothing else, it ought to tell you that for me music in the church has never been about “what I like.”

But probably, finally, it’s just because a hymn [“Bless be the tie that binds” anyone?] or a Bible verse [“I thank my God upon every remembrance of you”] could be heard as just a cliché. And there’s nothing clichéd about my gratitude: to have served in this place, with you, rehearsing the story of God in song. That’s where I belong, and I am thankful that for so long, belonging there has allowed me to be here.  

I’ve heard that there is some more surprising music in the reception across the street. Enjoy it with me, will you? 
(It was a jazz trio - and, man, were they good!)