Friday, July 31, 2009

Lift Every Voice and Sing

This Sunday is our summer hymn sing, a great opportunity to celebrate some of our favorite hymns and lift our voices in prayer and praise. Be sure to sing loud and strong! These are hymns everyone will know, after all, and there are few things in life more inspiring than the confident melding of voices on the great hymns of faith.

You'll be hearing a bit of history and information about each hymn on Sunday, so I won't take the time or space now for that background on each hymn. I do, however, want to draw your attention to the variety of moods and expression that our hymnal covers. We will begin with "Gather Us In," a modern tune that sums up the fellowship of corporate worship.

We will continue with the bombastic "Crown Him with Many Crowns," which will contrast with the reverent prayer of "Beautiful Savior." The mood will be lighter (and the kids will hopefully join in loudly as well) when we sing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." The service will close with two rousing hymns of faith and evangelism: "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Last Sunday, Pastor Uhle reminded us of two topics related to those last two hymns. First, it is important that churches remain growing, thriving hubs of spiritual activity and fellowship. For some people, that means volunteering with the building committee work days or altar guild. For others, it means quilters or Young at Heart activities. Of course, the church is full of volunteers and leaders, but we always welcome more. As a musician, I'd be most thrilled to see more people in the choir or playing instruments or simply providing input for the music program. Ask yourself if you can be more active as a "Christian Soldier" or if there are more ways you can contribute your voice to the congregation.

Second, Pastor Uhle reminded us that the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis is less than three weeks away. Among the topics that body will consider are full communion with the United Methodist Church, the rostering of gay and lesbian ministers, and a statement on human sexuality. All three matters are votes of inclusion, collaboration, and fellowship. My prayer during "Lift Every Voice and Sing" will be that the ELCA continues to move toward a future where truly every voice is welcomed and valued.

I won't quote the text of that hymn here, since you can read it on Sunday, but instead I'll share some lyrics from the Broadway musical Ragtime, with a similar sentiment set to a soaring tune at the end of the show:

Go out and tell the story.
Let it echo far and wide.
Make them hear you...

My path may lead to heaven or hell
And God will say what's best
But one thing he will never say
Is that I went quietly to my rest...

Proclaim it from your pulpit,
In your classroom, with your pen.
Teach every child to raise his voice
And then, my brothers, then

Will justice be demanded
By ten million righteous men.
Make them hear you...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pastor Uhle's rhetorical flourish

Since I've been ranting about language this week, one phrase from Sunday's sermon has stuck with me. Pastor Uhle delivered this nicely crafted phrase:

"God dwells in people, but those same people dwell in buildings: churches."

I love the balance of the line. The chiasmic nature of its structure, the repetition of "people" and "dwell," and the emphasis on the word churches caused by the delayed contrast with more mundane "buildings." I wonder if it was written or extemporaneous or a mix. In any case, it's fantastic oratory.

This is the kind of language that leaves me inspired for the week. His message that a church is more than a building resonates strongly in a period of church closings around us. Our church is comprised of people and language and music, but also a Sunday school and a web site and a blog and a choir and committees... The church is a mosaic of many things, all of them need inspiration and participation to survive. In other words, join the choir this fall!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Again, language is on my mind this week. As I thought about yesterday's post I realized how many people automatically precede the word "rhetoric" with the word "empty." We've all adopted the stance of the anti-hero Holden Caulfield in labelling everyone a phony, in assuming that the formal is dressed up because it has no substance.

Au contraire! Rhetoric is the art of language. Combined with grammar and logic, it forms the linguistic triumvirate of human discourse. The best hymns are based on the best poetry, and language has driven the development and understanding of religion throughout all time. For instance, Martin Luther's theses were written in the formal style of the time. The dialogues of Thomas Aquinas are practically transcribed conversations in an eloquent flourish of the Latin language.

Of course, the psalms are the best example we have of poetic language and music in the church. Consider the 23rd psalm. This web site provides five different translations of the famous text. The King James is poetry, the text that causes us to straighten our back and lift our chin. The Contemporary English Version, on the other hand, is a casual address to a Buddy Christ-type conception of God. I find it particularly interesting that the RSV and NRSV held on to the word "shall" in the first verse. They instinctively knew that for such a famous verse, people would demand the more formal language.

Why do I think it's important to hold on to both formal English (and even some Latin) in church? Because it's beautiful, it's memorable, and it demands our attention and intention during the service. Aren't those among the goals of worship?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Language in church

I've been thinking a lot about language recently. That's mostly because I've been reading a book by one of my favorite linguists John McWhorter, titled Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care. His premise, in a nutshell, is that the cultural change of the 1960s caused us to abandon our love for formal English, both written and spoken. We've replaced it with a constant search for the lowest common denominator (newspapers writing with middle school vocabularies), "authenticity" (a freedom to use casual speech and even expletives liberally in music and speech), and the common notion that great orators and the days of elocution are firmly behind us, no longer necessary. Sunday's prayers and hymns are a perfect illustration of this formal/informal divide between the generations, the difference between loving language and communicating in the vernacular.

Because of the 80th anniversary, we used hymns and prayers that have been around for many years, drawn from older hymnals of the church. This led to quite a sprinkling of "thee" and "though" and "most heartily beseeching." The prayers ended with an address to Christ, "who liveth and reigneth with thee." I'm sure there were people who asked themselves who would ever talk like that.

That opinion is perfectly natural for the zeitgeist of today, but no one would have considered such language inappropriate in 1929. That isn't because people spoke that way at all times. Certainly F. Scott Fitzgerald did not woo Zelda by saying, "I heartily beseech thee to accompany me to the speakeasy." The language was out of fashion even then; just see films of the era for proof. However, when people went to church they dressed in their Sunday best and expected to hear eloquent language and oration. People knew that there was a way of speaking in church (and other formal situations) that differed from casual conversation. One modern holdover is a wedding invitations or announcements, where the formal aspects of language still occur more regularly than in, for example, a birthday e-vite.

As for the hymns, some of the hymnals best and most cherished hymns still use a formal, more eloquent language. For example, who would want to tamper with ELW 685 "Take My Life, That I May Be"?
Take my life that I may be
consecrated Lord to Thee;
take my moments and my days;
let them flow in ceaseless praise.

It's basically a trochaic quatrain: four rhyming lines of lilting syllables. Read it aloud, and it might sound like this:
TAKE my LIFE that I may BE

That's formal poetry. That's a lyricist crafting formal language in a beautiful hymn, language that strives for excellence and yearns for inspiration from heaven. That's language and music worth singing!

PS Thanks to Mary Frances for her beautiful singing on Sunday, and also thank you to everyone for your birthday wishes.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Unorthodox Wisdom, Part 8: Television

Last week, I listened to Public Radio's "Speaking of Faith" (a show that may have come up a time or two before!) and their discussion about television. In recent years, with the advent of high quality cable drams, television has been awash in writing and acting of extremely high caliber. And many of the shows have not shied away from spiritual musings. To give just one example, Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost, offered this explanation for the show:

This show is about people who are metaphorically lost in their lives, who get on an airplane, and crash on an island, and become physically lost on planet Earth. And once they are able to metaphorically find themselves in their lives again, they will be able to physically find themselves in the world again. When you look at the entire show, that's what it will look like. That's what it's always been about.

Krista Tippett mused that the metaphor of going home suffuses the human experience. It's the theme not just of modern television but of the Odyssey and the Exodus. I would add Watership Down and The Razor's Edge to that list. One of the great themes of literature and worship is the idea of returning home. Having played organ for a funeral at Bethany last week, I'm acutely aware of how many of our best known hymns are also about our eternal home and rest.

The theme of going home does not always lend itself to hymn texts that are theologically profound enough for inclusion in the ELW and the traditional Lutheran canon. But I'll close today with a somewhat popular hymn on the theme that you may be familiar with. It is sung to the tune of the second movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony:

Going home, going home,
I'm just going home.
Quiet-like, slip away -
I'll be going home.
It's not far, just close by;
Jesus is the door;
Work all done, laid aside,
Fear and grief no more.
Friends are there, waiting now.
He is waiting too.
See His smile! See His hand!
He will lead me through.

Friday, July 24, 2009

This Sunday, turning 80

This Sunday, Bethany will be commemorating its 80th anniversary at the Triskett location. As pastor has noted, this is not the official anniversary of the complete building's dedication, but rather the anniversary of the first service held at the site. In 1929, this summer service was held in the basement because the sanctuary itself was not yet completed.

Unfortunately, the music from that first service is not known to us. We do, however, have a copy of the bulletins from November of that year, when the building was dedicated. Therefore, all of the service music will come from pieces that were played that week, nearly 80 years ago.

The prelude will be selections from "Suite Gothique" by Leon Boellmann. He was a Frenchman who was born in the German-border region of Alsace. He was a younger contemporary of the better known Franck and Saint-Saens, and the music has a distinctively modern, French sound. Because he died at the young age of 35, he did not leave a large body of music and his name is not well known. "Suite Gothique" is likely his best known piece and some would consider it a staple of the organ repertoire. I will be playing the Chorale Introduction and the Prayer to Notre Dame from the suite.

Looking back over the 80 year history of Bethany, it's interesting to see what music has come and gone, as well as what has remained the same. The broader perspective of history so often dwarfs the parochial arguments that fill our lives (and committee meetings). Incidentally, both of my grandmothers turn 80 this fall, both of them born in October, just after the stock market crash. When I was home in Minnesota, one of them told us stories from her childhood about birthdays and Christmases where an orange was both a gift and a rare treat and about the blackout drills of World War II. Such personal histories can also inspire us to strive for greatness in these difficult times and to be thankful for the gifts we have.

To go back even further in history, some of the greatest Lutheran hymns of faith were composed in the time leading up to and during the Thirty Years War, including the text "In Thee is gladness, amid all sadness, Jesus, sunshine of my heart." I've remarked before that the first book published in America (during a time of self-evident hard work, disease, and challenge) was a hymnal.

Let's celebrate 80 years of wonderful history while also dreaming and planning, reaching out to the congregation and community for many more years to come.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"This is Water"

One of the most brilliant American authors in recent years was David Foster Wallace. My personal favorite is his nonfiction Everything and More about the mathematical history and philosophy of infinity. He took his own life in 2008, and this spring a graduation speech of his was issued posthumously, titled This is Water: Some thoughts, delivered on a significant occasion, about living a compassioante life.

To an astute reader, the book is a modern rewriting of the book of Ecclesiastes. Midway through, Foster Wallace writes, "In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worship. The only choice we get is what to worship." He goes on to examine the various idols of modern life: money, the human body, power, and intellect. He concludes about each that they are inadequate for worship, like Ecclesiastes chasing the wind.

The conclusion goes further, however, by positing that the main reason these worships are poor choices is that they are default settings. He argues that people mindlessly make the big decisions of life to focus on the minute freedoms of daily life. He writes, "The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort..."

The real freedom of church and worship and music is to focus our attention, to sing and pray and meditate mindfully. Like the title metaphor, those of us who attend church regularly can be surrounded by hymns and liturgy and miss their vitality and meaning without careful, thoughtful attention.

Incidentally, since the book is a graduation speech, it can be read in less than 30 minutes. Pick it up from the library, if you're interested.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wachet Auf, Three Ways

I'm a big fan of "Top Chef," and several times over the course of every season a contestant will prepare an elegant plate of some ingredient three ways, like "shrimp three ways." Tonight, I played my musical version of that concept by playing three different versions of "Wake, Awake, For Night is Flying."

First, we sang the Bach arrangement. (It sounded like the congregation may have struggled with it just a bit, because it actually differs from the "traditional" version that we sing during Advent most years.) Second, during the offering I played a setting by Walther. He was a contemporary and frequent collaborator of Luther's, and often created florid arrangements of traditional Lutheran chorales. Third, the postlude was Emma Lou Diemer's modern, dissonant composition.

I hope you enjoyed hearing the various interpretations of the same tune over several centuries. Each of them should have stretched your ears in a different way (and I know that the postlude in particular accomplished that given the comments while I was warming up!)

Cleveland Catholics

Now that it's Wednesday, I've finally finished reading the Sunday edition of the Plain Dealer. (I remember there was a time when I subscribed to two daily papers and somehow had time to read them.) In between clipping coupons, scouring the Arts and Travel sections, and skimming the rest over the past few days, I kept thinking about the article about the closing of St. Adalbert's Catholic Church.

You can't be an engaged citizen in Cleveland lately without being aware of the challenges facing Catholic congregations, as well as the pain caused by the closing of so many churches around us. What bothered me especially about the article was the quote from a parishioner who feared that they would not be welcome because of their race. Having visited the online version of the article, the comments only worried me more!

What group of Christians, what church congregation worthy of such a title, would ever turn away new members at the door or not embrace them warmly as brothers and sisters? It would perhaps be unseemly to "recruit" new members from a closing parish, but certainly our morality and our basic human decency demand that we welcome all who come seeking to join in a worship service. These new members could contribute their own talents, personalities, experiences, and perspectives to enrich any congregation.

Welcoming new members and new generations also means adding to the musical repertoire. The discussion of this particular church focuses, of course, on traditional black music. Gospel music and spirituals sit partly at odds with traditional Lutheran hymns because of their tendency toward simpler lyrics and an emphasis on narrative over theology. Certainly, though, we can continue to make room for new tunes and texts. I can't say it's my personal strength, but it weighs on my mind regularly as I strive for diversity in our music.

The online comments have spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the racial divide and the fact that St. Adalbert's had statues depicting Jesus as a black man. (By the way, is that truly a radical idea in 2009?) We care so passionately about our imagery, language, and music in churches because they create a sense of belonging and continuity. If you don't think this issue matters at Bethany or in the ELCA, reconsider the experience of weekly worship from the position of a newcomer, consider the votes slated for the National Assembly about the rights of a minority group, and consider what we can all do to focus on fellowship and inclusion.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

New music

Church musicians often discuss the challenge of introducing new music to a congregation, and the worship and music committee is well aware of how often we do (or don't) sing every piece in the hymnal.

This week I was thinking about how contrary that is to our everyday lives. While everyone prefers some musical style to another, don't we all continue to seek out new musical experiences within those genres? Jazz musicians are always seeking the latest sound; the top 40 charts are new all the time; and musical theatre people search constantly for a new gem. This week, I found one in the new cast recording of "Next to Normal."

I mentioned the musical once before because of local-girl-made-good Alice Ripley's acceptance speech at the Tony Awards. The plot of the show is minimal: it's the story of a mentally ill woman's struggle with doctors, drugs, and treatments, as well as the strain it puts on her family and their troubled past. But its the character of this woman's daughter who has a beautiful song in Act I that describes perfectly the experience of being a musician (especially a teenage musician). It expresses the transcending nature of music, the power to lift our spirits, which is what makes it such a powerful part of any worship service:

Mozart was crazy.
But his music's not crazy,
It's balanced, it's nimble,
it's crystalline clear.

There's harmony logic,
You listen to these.
You don't hear his doubts,
Or his debts or disease.

You scan through the score,
And put fingers on keys,
And you play.
And everything else goes away.

And you play 'til it's perfect,
You play 'til you ache,
You play 'til the strings of your fingernails break.

And you know that it's just a sonata away,
And you play.
And everything else goes away.
Everything else goes away.

Monday, July 20, 2009

New music

There are a variety of good times and manners to introduce new hymns, just as there are numerous poor occasions for new music. This Sunday, unfortunately, we may have stumbled across the very worst of all possible moments to introduce a new hymn: as the closing hymn at 11:20 on a sunny, summer day, with no announcement to explain the cryptic note in the bulletin about verses one and two.

The most unfortunate part is that I think the hymn in question, "Hail Thee, Festival Day!" will be a great addition to our congregation's repertoire. It has a great march tempo, an easily learnable refrain, and appropriate texts for various festivals and holidays. Plus, it falls under my axiom that any hymn title with an exclamation point must be fun and uplifting to sing.

If I have a problem with the hymn, it is the overly complicated nature of verses one and two. Very few of the hymns in the ELW have proper verses that differ based on the season or holiday, and they are always confusing when they get scheduled. Next time we sing this hymn (or any other hymn with similar structure), we will be sure to make an announcement to help the congregation find the correct text.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear people's reactions. A couple of people after the service said that the tune itself was quite nice. I've been humming it to myself while doing some yardwork this morning. Since the hymn is officially for Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost, it will likely be some time before we sing it again. When we do, we'll try to do a better job of reintroducing the music!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

This Sunday - William Byrd's Credo

For the prelude this Sunday, I will be playing the Credo from William Byrd's mass for three voices. By hearing it on the organ, you'll be spared the Latin, but with careful listening you might still spot some of the key moments of the Creed.

The broadest thing you might notice is the three-part structure of the piece. The articles are fairly delineated, so you can likely hear the transition from Father to Son to Holy Spirit. During the second article, Byrd uses the basic motifs of descending pitches for death and faster, rising pitches for resurrection.

The musical structure is polyphonic, meaning the three voices are fairly independent of each other. They repeat similar musical phrases in a fugue-like way, while coming together in chordal structure for some of the main tenets of faith.

William Byrd's music is generally not well known, except among early music groups. He was an English composer, who lived from the mid 16th century until 1623. His personal faith is either unclear or varied over time - he composed Lutheran hymns in which he warned against the Pope, but he also composed various settings of the Catholic mass. Of course, being an Englishman of the time, he was active in the Anglican church as well. In fact, he spent much of his life as an organist, choirmaster, and composer for various Anglican churches.

Throughout his lifetime, Byrd's music was much esteemed; however, his compositions were largely overlooked from his death until quite recently. Early music scholars and performers helped bring back his music. I hope you enjoy the chance to hear the Credo, one small composition from a great composer and a chance to meditate on the text of Creed as we continue our journey through it this summer.

An organist in the pew

I had promised further reflections on my experience at St. Paul's in Missouri last Sunday, so I thought I would simply bullet point some of the things that crossed my mind during the service. Here they are, in liturgical order:
  • Singing an opening hymn as well as a long hymn of praise means there is a great deal of music right at the beginning of the service. This was especially evident since the church was using setting 10 of the liturgy, where the hymn of praise is itself based on a hymn tune. Perhaps the "opening hymn" works best as a call to worship that precedes the confession.
  • Setting 10 is a very easy setting to learn and sing, since the tunes are already familiar. It also has a good sense of continuity through the key of F major.
  • Reciting psalms can be boring, especially when mumbled in monotone. But then again singing them in a boring way isn't much better. I guess it boils down to attitude and intention.
  • After years of the LBW's liturgies and singing "Glory to you, O Lord" and "Praise to you, O Christ," Luthern congregations sound awful when asked to mumble the words before and after the Gospel. If we can't proclaim them joyfully, let's go back to singing them!
  • The entire hymnal should be transposed up at least a whole step. Ok, I know that's mostly because I'm a tenor who eyes the alto line with envy on many hymns. But the theory that people will sing out if we compose growly low notes for them hasn't worked out. Maybe if we asked people to project on some high notes, they'd take a deep breath and produce some sound.
  • Very few people at very few churches ever do listen to a postlude.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fellowship and stewardship, Missouri style

Last Sunday I attended a new church during my vacation. It is always refreshing to sit in a pew for a change and not at the organ bench. I hear the music so differently, and I can learn from that perspective and incorporate new ideas into my own playing. I'll be writing more about the musical experience of last Sunday over the course of this week, but first I want to share the primary feature that I will remember about our worship experience: the incredible sense of welcome and stewardship from the pastor and congregation at St. Paul's Lutheran in Lohman, Missouri.

On their home page, Pastor Ed Merckel writes "I wish to extend a personal welcome to you to experience the joyful life here at St. Paul's." That is clearly not lip service; it is part of the driving philosophy of their ministry. Upon first entering the church, we were warmly greeted by not only the pastor but also several members of the congregation. Before we had even reached our seats, we had discovered a St. Olaf connection with a congregant's son, shared information about our travels, and been informed of the location of the basement restrooms.

The service abounded with participation: the VBS kids sang at the beginning of the service and the children's sermon brought quite a large group of kids to the front of the church. People looked you in the eye during the sharing of the peace and communion, as if consciously acknowledging each other as members of one community.

After the service, a woman seated in the pew behind us introduced herself and said, "I don't believe I know you." In a congregation of approximately 150 people, she both noticed the newcomers among them and took the time to welcome us personally. It simply amazed me the number of times that we were greeted and welcomed. Their congregation should be a model for every other church in its dealings with guests. This is not only good fellowship but good stewardship and outreach, just part of keeping a congregation dynamic and growing.

The church building itself is lovely, as you can see for yourself, and it's located in a beautiful, hilly portion of rural Missouri, just outside Jefferson City. It's unlikely I'll ever return to that church, but it was wonderful to stumble upon such a joyful and welcoming Lutheran congregation on my trip.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

It had better still work!

Last week, I traveled across the midwest to meet family in Missouri. No, none of us has ever lived in Missouri, it was just a place to meet in the middle. On the way, I spent two nights in Springfield, Illinois. I hadn't been there for several years, and it was fun to return to the tourist sites like Lincoln's home and office as well as Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana-Thomas house.

I also stopped by Springfield's First Presbyterian Church, which is home to the "Lincoln Pew." The building wasn't constructed until after Lincoln's death, but it was the site of Mary Todd Lincoln's funeral, and the narthex of the church proudly displays the pew that the family rented in a previous building.

After being underwhelmed by the pew, I was amazed by the beauty of the sanctuary: the eight Tiffany stained glass windows and, to my surprise, a pipe organ built by John Brombaugh (his Opus 35). Brombaugh is among the major organ builders of the 20th century, and he has a local connection because one of his organs is at First Lutheran in Lorain.

I won't bore you with geeky arcana of organ construction, but I do want to share one of my favorite stories that the docent told about the pipe organ. One Springfield tourist who was used to everything in town dating from the 1860s had commented to her that it was amazing the organ still played so beautifully. To which the docent replied, "It had better still work! We just got it in 2000!"

Yes, pipe organs still get designed and installed in churches all around the world, and they're still playing some of the greatest music and hymns ever composed, whether the music is 300 years old, composed last month, or improvised during the service.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Public Radio - Part 5, Speaking of Faith

I know that I've mentioned the show "Speaking of Faith" a few times, but it's my own form of evangelizing to spread the news about such an intelligent discussion about faith and modern life. It dawned on me that I have never mentioned the host's book, which is also titled "Speaking of Faith." So any of my readers who don't want to or don't have the capability of listening to podcasts can pick up the book at the library and get at least a sampling of the show and its broad range of topics

A few weeks ago, the host Krista Tippett was discussing the Sunni-Shia divide within Islam. The guest made a comment about Islam being a religion where orthopraxy was more important than orthodoxy. He was arguing that how your religion influences your daily life is superior to any proper recitation of faith.

It reminds me of practicing the organ or piano. It doesn't matter how much music theory I know or how well I can explain the structure of a Bach fugue. At some point, I must sit down and play it over and over, working out fingering in difficult sections, until the practice results in preparation. Some pieces that I first studied years ago are still "in my fingers." Good music is a virtue, and to paraphrase Aristotle, virtue is created and reinforced through daily practice.

In the end, our journey through the Creed only matters if it changes our lives outside the church building. We've all heard it sung that "They'll know we're Christians by our love." And they'll know that by our practicing of what we preach.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Wedding music project

I need your help.

Remember how I mentioned post-vacation ambitious projects yesterday? Well, one of my projects for this summer is to assemble wedding music information, paperwork, and hopefully a brief recording for weddings at Bethany. I'm starting to make a list of music I have played or heard at various ceremonies over the years. I'm hoping that you will join me by adding suggestions of their own.

So think back to your own wedding day (or the wedding of a friend or relative): What was playing when you processed down the aisle? Did the congregation sing a hymn or a soloist sing a particularly meaningful song? Did you ever attend a wedding where you heard a spectacular piece of music?

I don't expect everyone to know the exact composer and title of everything. Hum a few bars for me and I might recognize it or be able to find it. I just want to "crowd source" this piece of the project so that no great idea gets overlooked. Leave a comment, send an email, or talk to me at church.

Friday, July 10, 2009

This Sunday...outta town

This Sunday Cassie will be at the organ bench, leading the congregation in song. I'll be with my family, camping and relaxing for a carefree week of travel. I love the recharged feeling of ambition that comes from a vacation, and I look forward to being back.

Also, just a quick note today about a book I mentioned in an earlier post. Robert Wright, the author of The Evolution of God, gave an interview to that is an interesting read. I really do need to get around to reading the actual book, I know, but I think the discussions and interviews alone have been valuable among the various "public intellectuals." Anything that forces us to think about Christian apologetics, science, history, and faith is a good thing.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Laughing with God

Regina Spektor has recently recorded the song "Laughing with God" that I think is beautiful music as well as existential poetry. If you'd like to hear her sing it, this link has a music video.

Her lyrics make me think of Voltaire's comment that God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh. And it reminds me of a line from one of Robert Fulghum's books that there is a vast difference between a lump in your oatmeal and a lump in your breast. The secret of life is knowing the difference, knowing when and how to laugh with God.

Here are the complete lyrics to Regina Spektor's song. Consider it my prayer or meditation of the day, offered for your consideration as well:

No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one's laughing at God when they're starving or freezing or so very poor.

No one laughs at God when the doctor calls after some routine tests
No one's laughing at God when it's gotten real late
And their kid's not back from the party yet
No one laughs at God when their airplane starts to uncontrollably shake
No one's laughing at God when they see the one they love
Hand in hand with someone else and they hope they're mistaken

No one laughs at God when the cops knock on their door
And they say we got some bad news sir
No one's laughing at God when there's a famine fire or flood

But God can be funny
At a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke
Or when the crazies say He hates us
And they get so red in the head you think they're 'bout to choke

God can be funny
When told he'll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious Ha ha Ha ha

No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one's laughing at God when they've lost all they've got
And they don't know what for
No one laughs at God on the day they realize that the last sight they'll ever see
Is a pair of hateful eyes
No one's laughing at God when they're saying their goodbyes

No one's laughing at God
We're all laughing with God

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pontius Pilate and Christmas

Pontius Pilate and Christmas?! How do they belong together?!

Well, last Christmas we at Bethany had a musical experiment at our Christmas services: the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ was sung at the beginning of the service. It wasn't exactly a big hit.

There are people and churches who are very interested in the ancient liturgies of the church and who can get very involved with the details of ceremony and ritual, usually involving plenty of Latin, candles, and incense. (This web page has an amusing list of comments/discussion about the Proclamation itself, while is always interesting in general on various related subjects.)

I won't try to defend the chant or the Latin or the ritual (because I don't think I'll actually change anyone's mind), but I do hope that people can recognize the intent of the text and its inclusion last Christmas. On that night, we proclaimed the historical fact of the incarnation. For instance, Jesus was born in the 42nd year of the reign of Octavian Augustus. That should make everyone pause to consider in awe of the sweep of history.

The Creed in its own way points out the historical nature of our faith by mentioning Pontius Pilate. The Passion narrative took place in a specific place and time, within the context of its location and era. When we recite or sing the Creed that mention of historical fact serves a similar purpose to the Christmas Proclamation - without the long chant.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Where to be this Saturday night

I will be out of town this week, and Cassie will be taking over the organ bench. Thus, I'll miss what I think is the best concert of this year's Cleveland Orchestra series at Blossom. Saturday night they'll be playing "Pictures at an Exhibition" and Rachmaninoff's Second Piano concerto.

That particular piano concerto was actually my competition piece one season in high school. I never did get the opportunity to play it with an orchestra, but I loved the many recitals and musicales and competitions where I played it with an accompanist. The second movement in particular is gorgeous in its lyricism, though it also has incredibly flashy and intricate passage work as well. The piece is often overshadowed by Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto, but to me the 2nd is among the most beautiful concertos ever written for the piano.

The other main piece, "Pictures at an Exhibition," is a staple of every orchestra's repertoire. I remember hearing it as a child at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. They projected huge images of the artwork on a screen that covered the back wall behind the orchestra. It was a wonderful marriage of visual art and music. The truly transcendent moment of the suite is "The Great Gate of Kiev." The music perfectly captures the sense of travel and arrival at an imposing city monument, and the climax of the music never fails to make my spirit soar. If you had to ask me to name one "secular" piece of music in which I felt the presence of God, this would be it.

If you don't have plans for Saturday night, I can't imagine a more perfect evening than a picnic on the lawn and a great night of music. Wish I could be there!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Influence and impact

I've been reading a book of Peter Bernstein's old essays about Wall Street, and one of them from 1967 discusses whether the influence and impact of a phenomenon is "baneful or salutary." It reminded me of the LBW liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving where pastors would speak or sing "It is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places, offer thanks and praise to you..." as the introduction to the Sanctus. I always loved the poetry of that verbiage.

However, that raises the question: Is it baneful or salutary to rewrite and change the liturgy to omit such "archaic" words as "salutary"? Alas (to editorialize my regret), it probably is a good idea to keep the language modern and the tunes fresh. After all, when was the last time you used "salutary" in a sentence?

I hope that the tunes of our summer liturgy are becoming familiar to your ears. Thank you, Lisa, for singing the Sanctus and Agnus Dei this morning. The congregation is sounding stronger with each passing week.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Subdued patriotism

Since last Sunday was Christmas in July, you can figure out where we are in the Creed and discover that "4th of July Sunday" is also the Sunday on which we will consider the crucifixion. That created quite a conflict in the musical programming at first.

Then I began to think that our country's mood has been more subdued and introspective, though hopeful. We face enormous struggles - economic and military, political and social. We've been mourning the deaths of a number of celebrities lately. Perhaps this is not the year for bombastic marches.

Instead, I've turned to the music of Aaron Copland for the preludes. First, an arrangement of the Shaker tune "Simple Gifts." The song has always been a reminder of the important things in life, the simple joys: family and friends in particular.

I will also be playing Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" during the prelude. It's one of his more famous pieces, having been co-opted by Olympic television coverage, movies like "Saving Private Ryan," and dozens of other uses outside the concert hall. Its origin was World War II, when Copland was commissioned to write a presumably militaristic fanfare and instead delivered a solemn paean to the everyday soldier. Copland turned the typical concept of a fanfare upside down - no longer does it convey just pomposity and triumphalism; instead it carries notes of sacrifice and determination. I think it matches our country's mood today, and it also conveys the very heart of Christianity, that a humble cross can serve as a symbol of triumph over sin and death.

On a much lighter note, the postlude is a work by PDQ Bach, officially titled "Toccata on an American Hymn for the first Sunday after the 4th day of the 7th month after the New Year." PDQ Bach is a pseudonym for the musical satirist Peter Schickele, and the title of this piece alone makes me laugh as it gently mocks our "Sundays after Pentecost." He takes a simple tune that everyone will recognize and puts it in the pedal line beneath a more traditional-sounding organ toccata in the manuals. I hope you listen for well-known song and it makes you smile on this patriotic weekend.

Unorthodox wisdom, Part 7 - Michael Jackson music in church

You may have heard of Trinity Wall Street primarily for its proximity to Ground Zero and the church's transformation into a place of respite and support in the days following the 9/11 attack. I visited again last December, and the place still contains powerful tributes to that time.

Today, however, I want to share a YouTube video of their organist playing a tribute to Michael Jackson as the postlude. The organist Robert Ridgell is incredibly talented, and I'm sure he made many people smile. Of course, if you read the comments you'll notice that he made many people frown as well. Anything out of the ordinary, and especially such a radical postlude, is sure to bring polarization and comments.

I'll admit to my ignorance of most of Michael Jackson's work. (I was only 4 years old when Thriller was released, and I spent most of my youth as a musical theatre and classical piano geek. For better or worse, rock and pop music barely registered on my radar.) The one song I've always known best is "Man in the Mirror" - one of the top downloads and best selling songs worldwide in the past week. It includes this Gandhi-esque lyric that I think most Christians would agree is a good philosophy of life:

If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.

Incidentally, Trinity also has a great web site in general ( Their music pages include podcasts and information on services and concerts. They also have a number of blogs, written by both staff and members. I think it's inspiring to see such a traditional looking church be so enmeshed with modernity and technology and the world today.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Local concerts at Trinity

Since I'm a transplant to the greater Cleveland area, I've always been eager to seek out the best sights and experiences the area has to offer, from parks to art museums, from restaurants to music. It never ceases to amaze me when I stumble across a gem that long-time residents have overlooked, taken for granted, or simply been too busy to explore. We sometimes forget the amazing things in our own backyard or put them off for "another day." Next week will perhaps give you the chance to rectify that by attending either of two upcoming organ recitals on Trinity Lutheran's famous Beckerath organ at West 30th.

The first recital will be July 6th at 4:00 p.m. That concert is one of the free events sponsored by the National Organ Historical Society, and it will feature the renowned organist Joan Lippincott. The church will likely be packed, so arrive early or be willing to stand.

If you'd prefer a smaller crowd, you can go to a much more informal program on the afternoon of July 11th at 1:00 p.m. The church is describing the event as a musical open house, with a range of performers from professionals to students. Refreshments will be for sale, and people are free to come and go for as much music as they'd like. This event would be a perfect break from shopping at the West Side Market on a Saturday afternoon. That sounds like a near perfect way to spend the day in Cleveland, if you ask this newcomer!