Friday, December 24, 2010

The Grinch and the Shawshank Redemption

Christmas is not always a happy time for those of us who work in the church.  Advent Vespers and Christmas services alone are more work than a typical July for a church musician, and I know that pastors, secretaries, and volunteers in churches everywhere feel that same strain, as do mothers and fathers as they decorate and buy gifts.  The holiday season has perhaps become more famous for its stress than its joy.  Throw in days of shoveling, a chaotic final exam schedule, and travel plans and you have the makings of a very Grinch-like blogger.

Yesterday, I spent hours baking and cleaning and packing and preparing for services, enjoying it and yet moaning about it.  I had become a Grinch, and my Advent was no longer about preparations for Christmas but a yearning for the blissful calm of January.

Then in the evening, we sat down to watch a movie - The Shawshank Redemption.  An odd Christmas choice, perhaps, but my significant other had never seen it, and since he's a big fan of the television series "Prison Break," Netflix thought he would enjoy it.  I hadn't seen it in years.  And when the movie reached the scene where Andy plays the duet from the Marriage of Figaro over the prison public address system, I suddenly remembered what the Christmas season was about.  It did, indeed, redeem the season for me.

Music restored my calm, and helped me rediscover the purpose of the season.  In the movie, Andy says, "You need [music] so you don't forget...that there's something inside that they can't get to, that they can't touch, that's yours...Hope."

It may seem trite, but it took that reminder for me to discover again the beauty of the music and the message of Christmas.  My ears were opened again to the music, so that I can enjoy the choir and bell choir and brass and organ and piano tonight.  I can focus on the beauty and joy, and the redeemer that came to us two millenia ago.

I hope we can communicate that message with you tonight, and I hope you all have a blessed and merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Bethlehem Sunday and John the Baptist

We continue our Advent preparations.  This time of waiting is not the impatient foot tapping of the grocery store line but the pleasant work of preparing our homes for guests, just as we prepare our church and our hearts, minds, and souls for Christmas.  The call to remind us of this preparation comes from John the Baptist.  The hymns this week reinforce the lessons perfectly: On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry; Comfort, Comfort Now My People; and Hark, the Glad Sound.

These are the great hymns of Advent that we sing only once a year and hear only in church.  Shoppers at the mall miss out on such joyous texts as "Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding!...Cast away the works of darkness all you children of the day!"  That hymn's concluding verse reminds us of God's everlasting power, embodied at Christmas: "Honor, glory, might, and blessing to the Father and the Son, with the everlasting Spirit while unending ages run!"  Take note of the prayers during Advent, which reinforce these same themes.  They always include the line "Stir up your power, O Lord."

This second Sunday of Advent has come to be known as Bethlehem Sunday.  To match that theme, the choir will be singing an arrangement of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Ken Jennings.  The new tune highlights the text as a gentle lullaby.  I hope it conjures the beauty of cold, dark, starry nights.  But the song also reflects the joy of the coming holiday, as each verse reaches a dramatic climax describing God's power, before ending again in the quiet lullaby of expectation and waiting.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A moment to rant

Saturday's edition of the Akron Beacon Journal included an article (reprinted from the Cleveland Plain Dealer) that fired me up as I read it, and it still nags at me today.  It was the sad story of the planned closing of Broadway United Methodist Church in Slavic Village.  The 92-year-old church will be closing after Christmas.  In some ways, that is just one more anecdote of the challenges facing the greater Cleveland area.  Of course, church closings have become all too common around us, and they are always a tragedy.

However, what got me worked up were the quotes that implied the closing was inevitable or part of a natural cycle.  Why has this defeatist attitude been allowed to flourish in recent years?  Where would we be if past generations had seen shrinking congregations as a normal part of a cycle?  The beautiful churches of Cleveland were built in expectation of a perpetual congregation, and the church as a whole has flourished for over 2,000 years!  Why are so many leaders (clergy and laity) willing to accept defeat?

I realize that we face economic problems and that the city population has diminished significantly from its peak.  But there are still plenty of people here, and the church can play an important role in rebuilding.  We cannot simply convene for one hour on Sundays and ignore our broader responsibility to the congregation and community.  Because of that belief, I found the more hopeful quote from the article to be the comment that change is necessary.  As we see congregations and budgets shrink, as churches around us close, rather than wait for our own demise, let's seek out the lessons and opportunities to grow.  So how can we adapt and grow at this time?  How does the church stay relevant to the community?  I have my own broad set of ideas and answers - and music is part of them, of course.  I'm sure many of my readers have their own ideas too.

Maybe a first, small step is to volunteer in our own church, to attend the upcoming Vespers service, and even to invite a friend or neighbor to come along.  Advent is a season of hope, not fatalism, so let's all do what we can to create a bright future for our church.