Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Book review

The New York Times recently published a review of Robert Wright's new book The Evolution of God. I've put it on my potential reading list, but I think it's number 3,428 on that list. It might be a while. So for now I'm simply reading reviews and second hand accounts as something to think about.

Wright's premise that God has "evolved" is prima facie heretical, of course, but our understanding has evolved, our religious practices and tolerances have changed, and of course our church music has been altered over the years.

I was thinking of two particular instances at Bethany. First, Pastor gave a sermon on the use of the word "father" in the Creed's first article. There is one word that we certainly understand differently today than the ancient Israelites, or even than our parents' and grandparents' generation. The fact that Mr. Mom is a cliche catch phrase demonstrates the chasm of connotation from even such trite fare as "Leave it to Beaver." In popular culture, father has gone from an all-knowing, benevolent dictator of the household who vanished daily for a mysterious "office job" to a kinder, gentler (perhaps too often bemused and fumbling) presence in the home. What should the metaphor of God as father mean to us today? Father as we see it today or as it was meant 50 years ago? Or 2,000 years ago?

We've also been discussing contemporary music, of course, and this week's service music stands in stark contrast to each other. Wednesday night we'll hear Buxtehude and Bach, while on Sunday we'll hear Aaron Copland and PDQ Bach, a transition from the 17th century to the 21st.

The book and its premise are meant to be controversial, but I hope people use that controversy to spark creative, deeper thinking and insightful discussions about the changing nature of religion and society today. If the title makes its way onto your nightstand, be sure to let me know what you think about it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Christmas in July

On our journey through the Creed this summer, we have reached the recounting of the nativity: "He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary." Naturally, this gives us an excuse to sing "Joy to the World" in July.

I decided to extend the musical theme with the prelude. We can't have Christmas music without at least a nod toward Advent, right? So the prelude on Wednesday night will be Dieterich Buxtehude's "Chorale Fantasia on Wie Schon Leuchtet," known to us as "O Morning Star How Fair and Bright."

Buxtehude is an important name in organ music history. He was an organist and composer in Lubeck, Germany, in the late 17th century and was one of the greatest composers of the mid-Baroque era. His works had great influence on the next generation of better-known composers, including Telemann, Handel, and especially J.S. Bach. The prelude I'm playing is one of his best known works, and it develops the entire text of the hymn in a highly ornamented style. You might even open your hymnal to follow along.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Unorthodox sources - Part 6: Sing! Make Your Own Kind of Music!

To my ears, it sounded like the Gloria went better for the congregation as a whole this week. I hope that hearing David sing through it as the prelude was helpful, and thanks David for agreeing to do so.

Too often, people say that they "can't sing." Perhaps they were even told that by a music teacher or a friend, and what a shame! In my years of summer stock theatre, I often worked with actors who had never before been in a musical and came in calling themselves tone deaf. Two weeks later they were competently contributing to the chorus. We can't all sing the lead roles, perhaps, and we may not be comfortable as a solosit, but that's no excuse to avoid joining the congregation in song or singing in the shower or whistling while you garden.

We read one of my favorite psalms today, and it's truly a shame that we didn't sing this text:

You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.

On a similar note, Pastor's message for the children about the uniqueness of every shell and grain of sand and person reminded me of some song lyrics from the Mamas and the Papas:

Nobody can tell ya
There's only one song worth singin'.
They may try to sell ya,
'cause it hangs 'em up
to see someone like you.

You've gotta make your own kind of music;
Sing your own special song.
Make your own kind of music,
even if nobody else sings along.

And that reminded me of a concert version by Barbra Streisand, where she paired it with another song:

Sing, sing a song.
Sing out loud; sing out strong.
Sing of good things, not bad.
Sing of happy, not sad.

Sing, sing a song.
Make it simple to last your whole life long.
Don't worry that it's not good enough
For anyone else to hear.
Just sing, sing a song.

The hymn that stuck with me today is "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name!" I've been humming it around home all day. I hope everyone else is following the psalmist's injunction to dance and sing praise to God.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Come early on Sunday

We have a unique prelude this Sunday I hope you'll want to hear. I know that the liturgical music this summer is less familiar, and even from the organ bench I've been able to tell that some portions are going better than others. In particular, the verses of the Gloria are considerably quieter than the refrains. In response to that, I've asked David to sing the Gloria as a solo for the prelude this Sunday. It will give everyone a chance to open their hymnals and simply listen and follow along before singing it a few minutes later. My hope is that it will boost confidence and aid participation in the service.

Sunday's service includes an old favorite hymn, "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name!" Any hymn with an exclamation point in the title needs to be sung loudly and proudly! The metaphor of God as king is certainly common throughout the hymnal, but my favorite imagery from the hymn is the end of the last verse: "We'll join the everlasting song, and crown him Lord of all."

Music often punctuates the most emotional moments of our lives. In musical theatre, characters break into song to express grander emotions than words can convey. It reminds me of Alice Ripley's speech at this year's Tony awards, where she read this quote from John Kennedy (at 1:26 in the YouTube clip):

"I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit."

These words border upon overwrought when she shouts them, but just think how much more powerful they would sound if set to music. Music, religion, philosphy - the fine arts and the humanities long outlive any politician or general, and someday we will break into song and join the chorus of heaven. Sunday morning is just one more practice for that eternal song to come.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Change in perspective

The musical Jekyll and Hyde includes this lyric: "One rule of life we cannot rearrange, the only thing constant is change." Of course, all our discussion lately about contemporary music, new liturgical settings, and so on are a question of how much change is appropriate and when. How much of the past should we cling to? How do we keep the best of it, while still evolving and growing over time?

Those questions were in the back of my mind this afternoon when I sat down to read Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter. I'm certainly not a linguist, but I'm perpetually fascinated by both language and history. This book explores the origins of our modern language as well as its quirks and eccentricities.

What I most noted, however, was a two-page summary of the progression of the English language, beginning with Beowulf in Old English and passing through a whirlwind of historical highlights, including Chaucer's Middle English writing, Shakespeare's plays, the King James Bible, Samuel Johnson's dictionary, and Jane Austen. Somehow that progression seems neat, orderly, even teleological - English is constantly changing while also improving until it reaches "the end" sometime in the 19th or early 20th centuries. In McWhorter's words, "...somehow there seems to be an idea that the process had an inherent end point, beyond which we are not to go. It's as if somebody somewhere had been endeavoring to meld...the English we have right now, that they officially declared themselves finished sometime not long ago, and that from now on, we are not to mess up their creation."

That's not much different from the progression of music we could expound: Gregorian chant, Monteverdi, Bach (Luther), Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Brahms, Chopin, Wagner, Debussy...and then we're done. We don't need pop, rock, blues, jazz, 12-tone, atonal music, or any of the other oddities that the modern world has given us...or do we?

We'd never give up the diverse wealth of 20th century literature, but we might pick and choose some of the best from each decade. Similarly, we need to sample music of the modern styles and eras, being judicious in our standards. The jumble and confusion we experience is a problem of perspective. It's too easy to pigeonhole the 18th century because we only know a handful of names, dates, and facts about it. The 1960s are considerably harder to summarize because it's such a recent lived experience; we haven't yet decided what was the best and what was the worst, what will last and what will fade away.

The debate itself is where the value lies when it comes to modern music, so don't be afraid to make suggestions or comments anytime. You'd hate to leave the process to the "experts" only, wouldn't you?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

This Saturday

Readers of the Plain Dealer will not have missed the news, but I want to help spread the word that the East Wing of the Cleveland Museum of Art is open for regular hours beginning on Saturday. It's a perfect "staycation" destination, or a place to visit before heading to a park or a farmer's market, or even just a nice break from yard work.

The space is devoted to more contemporary art, but that includes work stretching back into the 19th century so don't worry: it isn't all just paintings of colored dots or Pollock-esque splatters. In fact, I was thrilled to discover that the museum has one of my favorite Rodin sculptures the Age of Bronze in the southern most room of the new wing.

I've seen several castings of the work, including one in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In fact, when I lived within walking distance of the MIA I would visit the museum at least monthly and always stop by to see this statue. To me, it's an enigmatic work. Is the figure in agony or ecstasy? Is the left hand holding something? Does the lack of an object in that hand symbolize something lost? Is there a glimmer of hope? My little art history helps me spot the contrappasto stance Rodin chose, and the goofy side of me wonders if the model simply forgot to have his V-8. In short, it makes me laugh and think - what all great art should do. (By the way, I've done a fair amount of research on the sculpture so I do know the "right" answers to some of these questions. But I wouldn't want to spoil the experience of interpretation for you. After all, sometimes personal experiences of art should trump the artists and the academics - a position I'm sure Umberto Eco would be proud of!)

So much of art history is based on religious symbolism and understanding. After all, Michelangelo's Pieta is meaningless if you can't instantly realize that it's Christ and Mary being depicted. Knowing the lives of saints and Greek myths adds layers of understanding to a visit to a museum. In other words, remember that church isn't the only place to learn more about religion, and music isn't the only art that aids our understanding. On returning to church on Sunday, you might even observe the stained glass windows in a new way.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The human side of Christ

Pastor's sermon this week mentioned the musical Jesus Christ Superstar as doing something radical in its depiction of the human side of Christ. I think we'd all agree that popular culture has done its best to portray that side of Him in literature and film in the past fifty years.

Gibson's Passion and Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ both focused on the physical incarnation, with minimal interest in the divinity. Conspiracy theorists of all kinds have postulated the survival of Christ's descendents through Mary Magdalene. The blockbuster Angels & Demons is just one of the many versions of that theory, and the film Dogma poked all kinds of fun at religion in general, while fitting into the same category with its idea of a "last scion."

But the most hillarious (and completely fictional) story of Christ is the novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. I have recommended and given the book to many people since I first read it, and it has received universal acclaim.

Much like Rufus complained in Dogma about being left out, Lamb begins from the premise that Biff is an unknown disciple. He refers to Christ as Josh, and chronicles their adventures for the "missing" childhood that the Gospels tell us so little about. I won't ruin any of the plot for you, but suffice it to say that it's full of laughs (and a few lessons) and would be the perfect summer read for a hammock or the beach, or the couch on a rainy day.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What is contemporary?

As I mentioned about the music this week, Joanne and I contributed some music with a distinctly more modern sound - Joanne singing with a more modern, pop style and me playing a jazz piano arrangement. Both drew some positive comments, which we're always glad to hear. Feedback from the congregation does factor into music programming, because we always hope to provide a variety of musical sources so that the Gospel message can be carried to listeners of all kinds of backgrounds.

There were other examples of contemporary texts and tunes during the service, however, that may have gone overlooked. In fact, with the exception of the postlude (from a Handel organ concerto), the entire service was drawn from American sources post-1850:

"Faith of Our Fathers" was written in 1874 and played the funeral of Franklin Roosevelt.
"This is My Father's World" is an early 20th century hymn about the beauty of upstate New York.
"Stand up, Stand up for Jesus" was based on a YMCA sermon of the late 1850s.
"Eternal Father Strong to Save" is often referred to as "The Navy Hymn." It originated in the Civil War era, and it was played as part of the funeral ceremonies for both JFK and FDR.

To a casual listener, there isn't a great deal of difference between some of the hymns of Luther's era and the hymns of the American hymn writing tradition of the late 19th century. Why is that exactly? For starters, the four-part chorale is both familiar and highly singable for most Lutherans. In other words, stylistic similarities make it easier to sing 900 different hymns (notice that different hymns every Sunday don't trouble us the way that a new liturgy every week would).

I encourage you to read the entire page of the hymnal, including the dates of composition, composers, and writers. Try to learn more about them - by reading here or elsewhere and by asking questions. A broader awareness can only deepen the meaning of the hymns, and it also can remind us that superficial similarities can be deceiving.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Father's Day music

I want to highlight two musical moments for this Sunday's music.

First, Joanne will be singing a solo, "Peace Be Still" during the offering. With the absence of the choir over the summer, it's wonderful that some of our members will volunteer to sing and enrich our services. We can honor God and our fellow congregants with offerings of music as well. When you prayerfully consider your own contributions to the church, be sure to ask if God has blessed you with gifts that you can share. We're always happy to welcome "special music" as well as new choir members!

Second, I'll be playing an arrangement of "This is My Father's World" during communion. It will be a jazzier sound from the piano than you normally hear from me. That's partly an homage to my father, who always appreciates an eclectic music mix. It's also become a part of my own music philosophy to seek out worthy music in all styles.

On many Sundays, we hear Bach and Luther, classical music and chorales. Joanne and I have prepared two decidedly more contemporary pieces for this week, and I hope you enjoy.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Faith of Our Fathers

As part of our summer liturgy, we're singing the hymn "Faithful Hearts and Voices Raise," which will be better known to most people as "Thank the Lord, and Sing His Praise." Since Father's Day weekend is approaching I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the rewrite of this hymn is an abomination of poetry and the English language in the name of political correctness against the imagery of God as Father.

That isn't to say that Western Civ and American history aren't full of repression and over-representation of the male perspective. No one would argue that. Nor am I here arguing that striving to recognize that paradigm bias is a good thing; we should indeed strive to combat it. One of my favorite pastors from years past would end the service with a blessing "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother and Creator of us all." Some people loved it, some disagreed, but I hope all agree it has a worthy goal.

My problem with ELW 204 is twofold. First, it's impractical to expect congregants to flip open a hymnal for a liturgical piece that they have known and sung for years. We've had a generation who has known no hymnal other than the LBW, and so we all trip over the new words and rightly grow frustrated.

Second, the new text mangles the English language by starting in the imperative mood, exhorting the congregation to sing, spread the good news, and rejoice. In line three, however, the text reads "Send us with your promises." Whom are we addressing with that imperative? Well, God, it would seem by the following "Lead your people forth in joy." That leads me to ask why we aren't capitalizing "Your," why we think people will understand the shift in address in line 3, and also (to a lesser extent) who we think we are to address God with an imperative verb. (Didn't a voice from a whirlwind have something to say about such hubris in the book of Job?) It's simple laziness to replace 3rd person masculine pronouns with the 2nd person imperative. It's just bad text, despite any noble intentions. I think it was originally piece of music, but I'd rather see it gone than mangled. Your thoughts?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mom's only rule

Growing up, my mom often said that the only truly important rule was this: No whining. She repeated it as a mantra, and it applied everywhere - at home, Scouting activities and trips, and her classroom. You could respectfully disagree, you could choose not to participate, you could even argue (in a civilized tone), but you could never, ever whine, because it was both irritating and ultimately unproductive.

I thought of my mom's mantra this Sunday when it was announced that we would be singing a new liturgy for the summer. (If you're attending Wednesday night services, you are even singing two different liturgies this summer.) I think it's a shame that for many people that prospect elicits groans, complaints, or even whining.

I always find it interesting when people object to change. After all, the modern world is supposed to be characterized by change, and for the most part change brings good things to our lives - the changes of marriage or birth, new inventions, new homes, new jobs - these are often joyous occasions in life. Unfortunately, these positive changes carry with them an implied negative - birth and death, the old technology that disappears, the old home or job left behind. The economist Joseph Schumpeter called it creative destruction. We celebrate the new but sometimes mourn the old. It's important to keep both costs and benefits in mind; give change a chance before you pre-judge it with a knee-jerk whine.

New liturgies are good for several reasons: They prevent stagnation and create musical interest. They provide an opportunity to expand our musical repertoire. They put long-time members on the same footing as visitors, which can help create empathy and a welcoming, helpful attitude toward newcomers. They renew our attention to the text and prevent rote recitation. Some people might argue that the music is more contemporary or even "better" (by which they often mean more to their liking or in line with their taste, and there's nothing wrong with that either).

So be open minded and give the music a try. Boldly sing a few wrong notes while you learn the tunes. I promise no one will point or laugh at you during church, and you may decide that you like the new sound. Provide your feedback and input anytime - comments, emails, or in person - just remember, no whining!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Praise to the Lord (and a bit of Latin)

This Sunday we continued our way through the creed, reaching the Latin word omnipotentem. It's such a great word: omni, meaning all, and potent, meaning power or ability. Compare it with stem cells that are called pluripotent (having many powers/abilities) or ambassadors who are said to be plenipotent (full of power/abilities - at least we hope the best ones are). Only God is described as all-powerful, a semantic distinction that I think is both meaningful and purposeful. Isn't it fun seeing your vocabulary grow at church? And now we can all confidently recognize the opening words of the Creed: Credo in unum deum, pater omnipotentem.

In less geeky matters, I've been humming "Prase to the Lord, the Almighty" to myself all day. It's such a lyrical, singable hymn that can brighten an entire day. You may have noticed a moment in verse 4 where I played unison melody for the text "Let the Amen, sound from his people again." It's one of my favorite moments because it reminds me of the St. Olaf Choir singing F. Melius Christiansen's arrangement of the hymn.

I found a YouTube video of a very good high school choir singing that arrangement. (Apparently St. Olaf has taken down some videos due to copyright, so I couldn't find one of them.) It's about 4 minutes long, and I guarantee it will lift your spirits to hear it - and maybe even sing along.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The New York Times overlooks the music

This morning I read an article in the NY Times about a young boy who decided to join a church and brought his family back to worship. It's a puff piece, but a nice article about this boy's devotion and what sounds like a welcoming congregation and devoted parents. However, I found the complete omission of any mention of music to be the more interesting part of the article. What is this boy's favorite hymn, I wonder?

While practicing this morning, I was thinking of the story and the goals of church music. In the preface of his book Singing with Understanding, Ken Osbeck lays out four basic objectives for congregational singing:
1. To unify a congregation in worship, prayer, and praise.
2. To teach and reinforce spiritual truths.
3. To provide an outlet for expressions that are difficult to verbalize.
4. To create the proper mood for the message and the other activities of the service.

I hope that all these goals will be met this Sunday. We'll be singing one of the greatest hymns ever written, "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" (ELW 858). The text was written by Joachim Neander, a famed author of approximately 60 hymns in the mid 17th century. His texts are almost exclusively celebratory and optimistic, including two others in the ELW: "Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty" (533) and "All My Hope on God is Founded" (757).

The hymn we'll be singing celebrates life and joy, an outpouring of emotion that can only be sung. If we were to speak such words they might likely sound stilted, embarrassed, or ironic. But set to music, they allow our voices to unify and the tune to soar in prayer.

The first verse ends with a call to worship: "Let all who hear now to His temple draw near, joining in glad adoration!" Perhaps that's the kind of music and text (and attitude) that could attract a young man and his family back to church.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Back in the Buckeye State

I've returned from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, where the weather was unseasonally cold, gray, and dreary, not at all the beautiful days at the lake that I had been hoping for. But it was a wonderful visit with friends and family, as well as a chance simply to relax and be away from home for a few days.

On the drive back through Indiana, somewhere near South Bend, I noticed a billboard for a regional website www.artseverywhere.org. I know most of my readers won't be attending any of their events, but I do love the fact that the site exists and has such a great name. Art is (and should be) everywhere around us, and it only reinforced one of my original goals of this blog: to share more information about the arts in greater Cleveland. So I'll be redoubling my effort to find local events, and I ask you to send along any events that you find particularly worthy as well.

I heard Garrison Keillor quote Ben Jonson today, "Art hath an enemy called ignorance." In troubling economic times, arts organizations can struggle for funding to the point that their existence is threatened. Schools focus on the "core curriculum" and trim music and art budgets. That only reinforces the importance of church music. Some of the greatest musicians of all history were church organists, J.S. Bach being the most prominent. Gregorian chant gave rise to the earliest systems of written music. Furthermore, Vatican City is bursting with some of the greatest sculptures and paintings of history.

It's not only Christianity that has inspired great music and art, of course. The temples of Ankar Wat, the pyramids of Egypt, the calligraphy of the Quran - art and religion have a symbiotic relationship around the world. The arts can inspire and educate us, buttressing our faith with liturgies and hymns. Those are good reasons to sing out on Sunday morning and for me to get back to work planning for this Sunday's services. See you in church!

Monday, June 8, 2009

This summer we're asking ourselves what we believe by discussing the Creed. I'm a firm believer that if a sentiment or belief is worth expressing, you can find a musical theatre production that fits the occasion perfectly. The best theatre exists to show us the heart of humanity - what we share in thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. (That isn't to say the music belongs in a worship service, of course, just to mention that inspiration can take many forms!)

With the opening of the Creed in mind, I scrolled through my ipod selections and came up with just a smattering of thoughts. Sure it's a long list, but I could come up with dozens more, as I'm sure any of you could too with your own play lists. Hum along if you can, and make your own list of songs about beliefs and convictions. Let music from all possible sources inspire you every day. Leave a note about a song that rouses your spirit.

From Spring Awakening, the story of teenagers struggling through adolescence in a religiously repressive community:
"I believe there is love in heaven, and all will be forgiven."

From Hair, the ultimate protest statement of a generation:
"I belive in God, and I believe that God believes in Claude. That's me."

From Miss Saigon, a woman expresses her longing for her lover to return:
"I still believe you will return. I know you will. My heart against all odds holds still...As long as I can keep believing I'll live."

From Wicked, the musical that turns The Wizard of Oz on its head:
"I do believe my life is changed for the better. Because I knew you, my life is changed for good."

Last, from our old friends from a previous post, The Altar Boyz:
"One beam of light is enough to see where you're going.
One wrong turn is enough to lose your way.
One choice is all you have to make.
One ounce of faith could save the day.
I believe."

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Lingua Latina - Part 2

(Those of you with sharp eyes will notice the difference between Linguam Latinam and Lingua Latina and wonder if my typing skills have failed me. Alas, no, the Latin language is rife with inflections - little tacked on endings like the -m in this example.)

The Creed is one of those five "ordinary" mass parts that I would love to have our congregation recognize, in particular its opening line: Credo in unum Deum. (That is, I believe in one God.) Many of the preludes and communion pieces that I will play this summer will be based on some of the oldest Gregorian chants of this one line of text. Be sure to notice in the bulletin when that is the case, so that your ears can start to catch the famous opening line of the Creed. The marriage of music and text can make both increasingly meaningful, I hope, so that the prelude loses its role as "background music" and becomes an elevation of prayer.

Since this entry is about Latin, I don't want to skip the point that "credo" does give rise to the modern English word "credit." But there is a vast difference between the two beliefs. I'm currently reading a finance book that spends an entire chapter on the philosophy of theories and belief. The author takes great pains to point out that his book exists to establish the truth (and hence belief) in only declarative statements that can be verified through prediction and experimentation.

The word credit (to trust or believe in the repayment of debt) is to say that by your due diligence and research you believe that someone will be capable of repaying. Similarly, to say that you believe in the theory of evolution is to say that in your mind the preponderence of the evidence is on Darwin's side. These are examples of belief based on knowledge and perhaps even understanding or comprehension. To declare a belief in God, however, as in the opening line of the Creed is to say simply that you trust, not to say that you in any way know or understand.

Why do we need Creeds? Because Christianity has a complex, nearly incomprehensible doctrine of the trinity, of a God who is fully human. We can't wrap our minds around that; we can't prove it. But we can lay out its tenets in words and song: Credo in unum Deum.

Friday, June 5, 2009

This Sunday - from Minnesota

That's right, this blogger is packing up and heading out of town on vacation for a week. I'll be back in Minnesota visiting family and friends, leaving the Bethany congregation in the capable hands of our choir director Cassie.

Thanks to the Internet, the blog won't be silent this week, however. I've prepared some entries in advance, and I may find the time to post more from the road. I hope that you keep the example in mind for your own vacations, though. Even if you can't join us in worship because you've left Cleveland for a time, you can still know at least a little bit about the worship and music experience back home. We'd love to hear comments from your travels - like postcards back to the church!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Public Radio - Part 4, This I Believe

Last night was our first Wednesday night service of the summer and also the beginning of Pastor's weeks-long series of sermons on the Creed. Like all new ventures, it had its bumpy moments. I think most of those present would agree that ELW 411 need never be sung again, for one thing. The text may have been perfect, but the tune left much to be desired. Overall, though, the service was a great start to the summer.

In case you haven't noticed, I'm geeking out over the Creed this week. Pastor mentioned that in some quarters there is an anti-intellectual bias against the Creed, that it represents the imposition of beliefs. The Speaking of Faith interview that I mentioned earlier this week (and you really should listen to it when you have some time) takes aim at that argument. The guest points out that we have to be able to pass on an orthodox set of beliefs to future generations. What better way than to write them down in poetry and set them to music? The Creed provides a wealth of material for anyone interested in theology, history, poetry, or music. For a geek like me who loves all four, there is no better topic.

My other public radio topic for today is Edward R. Murrow's series titled This I Believe. He started the famous project back in the 1950s, but NPR has been replaying select essays from it. The project has also seen a renaissance with new essays being collected. Their website has a plethora of material. It's fascinating to hear how people strive to sum up even one belief and compare it to the beauty, simplicity, and depth of the Creed.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Summer Changes

Sometimes when I'm starting to write an entry and want an accompanying image, I'll just type a keyword into Google Image search and see what comes back. The word "change" brings a variety of images: Obama's campaign and an attack on Congress, a homeless man, climate change in various guises, an ostrich with its head in the sand, the famous Gandhi quote about being the change you wish to see in the world, and this simple photograph of a cityscape. I don't want this blog to be political or controversial, and I find something beautiful in this simple, unexpected image. It presents the word almost on a blank canvas - is it an imperative verb or a noun? Is it inevitable or suggested? Attacked or promoted? Political or personal? Change is all around us every day, in ways great and small, wonderful and terrible, mundane and profound.

Somewhere in the middle of all those scales come the changes in worship this summer. We have a new schedule, a new experiment with Wednesday night worship, and new liturgical settings. None of these is outrageous or radical (at least I hope no one thinks so), and they present an opportunity to take a fresh look at worship.

A person close to me sometimes worries about the danger of "vain repetition" during the church service. By doing the same thing week after week, the words run the risk of eventually becoming meaningless. The same kyrie and gloria roll off our tongues with nary a thought of the text. The new liturgical settings this summer provide an opportunity to grow not only by an increase in musical repertoire but in a theological perspective. Perhaps the new melody will emphasize a word you've never considered important or maybe the change will just catch your attention and keep you focused on the deeper meaning of worship.

New music can be challenging, but I hope that reframing it as an opportunity to grow in faith and musicianship will help you embrace these minor changes with enthusiasm, the same way you embrace the change of seasons and the coming of summer.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Public Radio Part 3 - Creed Kick-off

For most of this summer, Pastor will be preaching on the text of the Creed. If you want a jump start to thinking about the power, meaning, poetry, text, and theology of the creed I suggest you check out Krista Tippett's Speaking of Faith episode titled "The Need for Creeds." Her program is a weekly discussion that is among the most reasoned and intelligent religious dialogues today (or at least that's my humble endorsement of it). That particular installment discusses the hundreds and thousands of Creeds throughout history and lays a great foundation for the discussion that is ahead for us in the coming weeks.

I've been anticipating this summer's services because the Creed is an endlessly fascinating doctrinal statement. So many words in it reflect a battle against some long-forgotten heresy so that the text can represent the heart of our faith. (Incidentally, that's one more reason that the text is arguably more powerful in Latin, in which it lies closer to the intent of the authors.) The words that we can recite from rote memory every Sunday present a bold list of claims about creation, the nature of Christ, the doctrine of the trinity, and so much more.

The Creed is also poetry, though, and as such is closely related to music. Every congregation falls into its own cadence and rhythm for reciting the statements of faith. One of my favorite moments in the Nicene Creed is the insertion of the words "in glory" in the clause "He will come again, in glory, to judge the living and the dead." The extra rhythm of that triplet, with a slight accent on "glo" gives the phrase a beautiful lilt that transforms it from prose to poetry.

If you're not interested in listening to the entire program from Speaking of Faith, at least check out this Maasai Creed that uses the imagery of African tribes to describe the ministry of Christ. It's unusual, even foreign, yet inspiring and intriguing. I hope many of you will join us every Wednesday and Sunday this summer to join in the discussion and the music.