Friday, April 22, 2011

Agnus Dei guest blogger

Today's guest blogger is Pastor Kevin Born, who is the pastor at First Lutheran Church in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.  That church is my home church, where I was confirmed and where I began playing organ way back when I was still in high school.  Pastor Born is a brilliant preacher who helped shape my own faith and philosophy of church music.  I was so pleased that he was willing to participate in our Lenten discussion.  Without further introduction, I'll simply turn it over to him to share his thoughts on the theme of Agnus Dei:

"As I grow older, I am increasingly aware of the fact that the saints I know who have cashed in on their baptismal promise are growing in number.  Thus, when I sing or hear sung "Lamb of God," I am reminded that the Lamb in question is the same Lamb who will at the last host the high feast of which all our earthly feasts are at most a foretaste - the feast at which I will be reuinted with Him and all those aforementioned saints.  Call it anticipating the final Easter in the middle of this Lent."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Baldwin-Wallace Bach Festival

One of the greatest joys of living in a city is the quantity and variety of good music (and the arts in general).  Coming up soon is an incredible event right in Bethany's backyard - the Baldwin-Wallace Bach Festival.  The highlight of this year's event is the performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor on Saturday, April 16th.  But there is a wide range of performances, including some free recitals and concerts.  You should definitely visit the website and see if you can find a concert that fits your schedule!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Credo guest blogger

When I conceived this project, the model and inspiration was the famous radio series (and book) "This I Believe."  In that series, Edward R. Murrow invited submissions from an incredible range of people.  Of course, I think he had an easier time getting responses from powerful and important people!  In the spirit of casting a wide net, though, I sent emails and letters to all kinds of people that I thought might never write back.  No harm in inviting participation, right?

Well, one of the people who was kind enough to respond with a brief message was Senator Sherrod Brown.  For those of you who don't know, Senator Brown shares our Lutheran faith, so it seems particularly appropriate that he was willing to participate.

Before getting to his comments, I'll take one moment to stress the obvious disclaimer that the blog and the church take no political stance by reprinting his comments on faith.  Furthermore, invitations were sent to politicians of multiple parties at the local and national level.  As of this writing, Senator Brown was the only respondent to address the question in a personal message.  Now, here is the message the Senator emailed to me:

"My Christian faith plays an important role in my life.  My commitment to social, economic, and family issues consistently guides me in my civic duties.  For me, the New Testament's emphasis on serving the poor is profoundly important.  Jesus walked among the poor, advocated for the poor, and stressed our responsibility to the poor.  As a public servant, I work to help those who are in need and it is the most personally rewarding part of my job."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Library Lady - Gloria

This week I'm recommending a title from a very popular series, namely "The Berenstain Bears Give Thanks."  In that story the young members of the Bear family learn the meaning of the holiday of Thanksgiving.  It's a good holiday to recall in the spring because the Gloria cultivates a positive attitude of celebration.  Plus, it's so closely related to the liturgical song we sing in place of the Gloria sometimes: "This is the Feast."  Thanksgiving is always one of the biggest feasts of the year, but it still pales in comparison to communion!

The story is a great way to share the meaning of Gloria with young members of the church.  We recognize God's glory as reflected in the blessings of our own lives.  That's worth singing about every week!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Soli Deo Gloria

The Latin phrase "Soli Deo Gloria" is familiar to all church musicians.  Bach famously wrote it on his manuscripts, and many composers since then have picked up on the habit.  The picture with this post is from Handel, and you can see it has been shortened to SDG.  It can be translated as "To God alone be the glory."

This attitude pervades my own approach to church music.  I've always been uncomfortable with concert series in churches solely as concerts, and even special music during a worship service can veer dangerously toward the feel of a recital.  The purpose of music performed in a church is to glorify God and enhance worship.  Bach himself put it this way: "Music...should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the recreation of the soul; where this is not kept in mind there is no true music, but only an infernal clamor and ranting."

This Sunday the Wittenberg Choir will be visiting, and they will be fully incorporated into the structure of a worship service that still includes readings and prayers and communion.  Maintaining the liturgical structure allows us to remember that the beautiful music is not an end in itself, but a symbol, a guidepost pointing in the proper direction.  The only difference between a hymn and an anthem, or between the prelude and the liturgy is the people who are participating directly in the music.  In all cases, the music is to the glory and praise of God.  Soli Deo Gloria.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


After the Kyrie, the next piece of music in the liturgy is the Gloria.  Some hard core liturgists out there might be shocked to learn that we are even singing the Gloria during Lent.  During this pentitential season, it's usually omitted from the worship rubric because of its celebratory nature.

Personally, I think the flexibility of the worship service to aid our faith is more important than any such "rules" laid down over the years.  There comes a point when we have to ask if a rule is being upheld simply to honor tradition or to enhance the worship experience.  I recognize that the problem inherent in such a standard is that people can disagree over it, but I hope that people will understand the edifying purpose of the deviation as we journey through the liturgy.

The text of the Gloria is not drawn explicitly from the Gospel of Luke, but clearly it is based on the message of the angels in the Christmas story.  It echoes the call for peace in the Kyrie in its opening lines, and it follows a tripartite structure that foreshadows the Credo to come.  In other words, the Gloria marks a turning point in the service; in the simplified liturgical order it is the point where we move from Gather to Word, with the lessons immediately following.

At worship tonight, we'll sing the Gloria as a congregation and David will sing a solo based on several classical sources that he has arranged especially for tonight.  Also, I'd like to mention breifly my Wednesday night preludes during Lent. I've been playing slow movements from Haydn's piano sonatas and will do so for the remainder of the season.  I often do a Lenten series of some sort.  (You might recall that last year I played various selections from Bach's Well Tempered Clavier.)  It creates a sense of continuity and sets aside the season as different from the regular church year, and to be perfectly honest it also helps my planning by quickly filling six slots in a busy season!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Still aiming for 21

My quest to recruit 21 singers for Easter continues!  I really should warn everyone that I am a huge NPR geek, so I know how to lay on the guilt and just keep nagging until people step forward and support the cause.  (Last week was pledge week, so the effect is strong right now.)

We had 14 singers today, and I know a few more are committed to joining us for the holiday.  But we still need a more!  The music is ready to be picked up.  I'm making rehearsal CDs so that you can run through the music on your own first and feel confident at your first rehearsal.  We're rehearsing on Sunday afternoons, so you can just stick around after worship.  We usually have treats at rehearsal, and we always have a good time.  Please consider this opportunity for service and offering of your time to the church.

I hope you'll agree that the choir sounded fantastic singing two different versions of the Kyrie this week - a polyphonic Renaissance setting by William Byrd on Wednesday and a modern, rhythmic arrangement by Klouse on Sunday.  Why don't you join us to Make Joyful Noise for the 5 weeks left between now and Easter?!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Kyrie guest blogger

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that no one can step into the same river twice as a metaphor for continuous change in our lives.  In the same way, despite repeating the lyrics and often the tunes of the liturgy each Sunday, the meaning can still be different for each of us and can change dramatically from week to week.

A few weeks ago, my undergraduate college advisor passed away.  He was a philosopher and a wonderful teacher, who inspired a group of students on our journey through the Western Canon in St. Olaf's Great Conversation program.  His final weeks inspired a poem on his Caringbridge website, and more than anything else I could say here it is a tribute to him and to the power of the simple words of the liturgy to carry immense meaning for our daily lives:

From the land of the living
From the bedside of hospice
From the foot of the cross

...every moment precious...

Lord have mercy
Christ have mercy
Lord have mercy

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Library Lady - Kyrie

I'm back for Kyrie week!  This time I want to talk about a book for the kids and for the adults.  For the kids, I suggest the title "Mama, Do You Love Me?" by Barbara M. Joose.  It's a beautifully illustrated story about an Inuit mother and daughter.  The story is specific to the arctic, with descriptions of mukluks and puffins, so it's an opportunity to talk about Inuit culture and the geography of Alaska and Canada.

The story also relates perfectly to the theme of mercy.  The little girl begins the story by asking her mother "Do you love me?"  The mother replies with strong metaphors about the vast extent of her love.  The girl proceeds to suggest all kinds of hypothetical situations where she makes mistakes or something bad happens.  In response to each, the mother affirms her love.  Even when she is angry, she tells her daughter, she still loves her.

It's important to notice that we need mercy most when we have erred.  Mercy doesn't spring from a Zen-like calm; it isn't simply a synonym for gentleness or kindness.  Instead, mercy is most vital when there has been offense and anger.  Like children who have made a mess, we sin, and even in frustration and anger, God forgives us.

Portia makes that same point eloquently in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice."  (That's a picture of Maggie Smith playing the role; she's one of my favortie actresses!)  When she rescues Antonio in court in Act IV, Portia notes that mercy cannot be compelled in one of the most famous passages ever written:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.  It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The value of mercy is precisely that it is a voluntary gift that lies outside the law.  What a perfect metaphor for God's forgiveness of our sins!  I hope the stories help you understand and contemplate the meaning of Kyrie, and I'll be back next week.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Message in Music

I found this video by David Neff on his blog a few weeks back and have been looking for an opportunity to share the message here.  Since we recently sang "A Mighty Fortress" and the music is so entertweined with the themes of our Lenten services, this seemed an appropriate time to share it here.

The Worship and Music Committee at Bethany has definitely accepted David's call to align the hymns with the readings and message of the week.  I also do my best to find service music and choral pieces that further complement the season and meaning of the service, so that the worship experience each week is one coherent story from prelude to postlude.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Prayers of the church

Yesterday, I wrote about the Litany of Peace that begins our Kyrie.  Today, I want to mention the remaining two lines of the text.  The Kyrie turns its attention to the church and its members.  First, we sing "For this holy house, and for all who offer here their worship and praise, let us pray to the Lord."  I'm likely over-reading the text, but I've always been a fan of the word "all" in this text.  It does not say that we pray solely for members of the church or anything of the sort.  We pray for all who offer worship and praise, visitors and long time members, clergy and staff.  I'm convinced that churches need to be inviting places of peace, mercy, and inclusiveness to thrive; just as Jesus dined with tax collectors and people from all walks of life, so should we welcome all into the embrace of God's mercy.

The final line of the Kyrie is a request: "Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord."  Since this text comes near the beginning of the service, I think of it as asking for His presence throughout the rest of the service and the week ahead.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Tonight we begin the new weekly theme of Kyrie.  This is the first portion of the Ordinary of the liturgy.  It is called the Ordinary because it is comprised of the texts that are repeated every week.  This distinguishes it from the Proper, which changes every week.  Lutheran churches have moved away from most of the sung portion of the Proper, but it includes such things as the Introit, Gradual, and Collect.  We do retain it in some places, such as the communion blessing before the Sanctus, which changes depending on the season or festival.

But back to the Kyrie.  The text could not be simpler: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.  It translates simply as Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.  Thus, it follows naturally from the Confession.  Mercy is entertwined with forgiveness.

The phrase can be found in scattered passages throughout the Old and New Testaments.  For example, Psalm 4: "Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: Thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer" and in the sotry of Jesus healing two blind men (Matthew 9), they first get his attention by calling out "Have mercy on us, Son of David."

The ELCA liturgy follows the Great Litany of Peace, in which the first three petitions concern peace.  "In peace, let us pray to the Lord."  Followed by "For the peace from above and for our salvation, let us pray to the Lord" and "For the peace of the whole world, for the well being of the church of God and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord."  The text is a dramatic prayer for peace, mercy, and forgiveness.  We will sing it tonight as part of our Lenten devotion, and may it set our minds at peace as we pray for that peace to extend out to encompass the world.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Full Disclosure

This past fall, I got to see Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane on Broadway in the new musical version of "The Addams Family."  Of course, they were both brilliant.  As for the musicall, it was an enjoyable trifle.  Despite less than gushing reviews, the show is still a fun experience.

What does it have to do with this week's theme of confession?  Well, the act one finale is a song called "Full Disclosure."  It is described as an ancient Addams tradition for everyone at dinner to sip from a sacred chalice and confess something they've never told anyone.  Thanks to a mix-up, the stories lead to scandal and chaos in the household.

The show allows audience members to write down their own full disclosures, and some of the best appear on their website.  They range from extremely silly to the occasional profound thought.  A similar need to confess plays itself out in everything from cop shows to anonymous Internet comments.  Sharing our thoughts can bring us closer to each other, just as confession brings us closer to God.

It brings to mind one of my favorite poems, one that I memorized in high school.  It reminds us how important it is to confess our feelings, especially of course, words of love:

We are spendthirfts with words,
We squander them,
Toss them like pennies in the air -
Arrogant words,
Angry words,
Cruel words,
Comradely words,
Shy words tiptoeing from mouth to ear.
But the slowly wrought words of love
And the thunderous words of heartbreak -
These we hoard.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tolstoy's Confession

Tolstoy was a man plagued by existential doubt and a lifelong religious struggle.  His Confession is the story of how he faced nihilism and confusion to return to his own unique faith.  He explores science and philosophy, music and literature, and a variety of religious perspectives in his search for faith.

Late in the work, when he has returned to faith, he writes about the beauties of the rituals in church.  He tells us that "the most important words in the liturgy became more and more clear to me."  He finds beauty in the simple and honest faith of the Russian peasants, rather than the writings of philosophers.

Tolstoy recognizes the shortcomings of the church and the mistakes that are made by some people in the name of the church.  But in the stories and the music, the Bible and the liturgy, he recognizes a deeper truth that improves his life.  We all struggle with our faith at times, and Tolstoy's writings remind us that struggle can be an important part of our confession.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Library Lady - Confession

Hello!  I'm the Library Lady, and I'll be visiting every week during Lent to recommend books that relate to the themes of the liturgy.  The books I suggest will be perfect for younger members of the church to read or share with their parents, and I know that some of the choir members will even be using these titles during children's sermons.  The goal is to spark discussions among families and invite our younger members into the conversation taking place at Bethany throughout Lent.

The theme this week is Confession, so I want to tell you about a book titled "I'm Sorry" by Gina and Mercer Mayer.  The book features the well-known character of Little Critter.  In this book, he learns the importance of apologizing when he does something wrong.  Even if it's just a mistake, you still need to say "I'm sorry."  Even further, it's important to be more careful and try to do better.  That's the same thing we do at the beginning of worship when we say the confession, telling God that we are sorry for our sins.

There are plenty of other great books in the library that remind us of the importance of heartfelt apologies.  In the book "Junie B. Jones and Some Sneaky Peeky Spying," the main character learns that she's wrong to believe that "You don't actually have to mean I'm sorry 'cause nobody can even tell the difference."  In fact, a contrite heart and desire for forgiveness is an important part of confession.

Another of my favorite books on this theme is "The Berenstain Bears and the Truth."  Curious George also seems to be getting into trouble all of the time and apologizing for his mistakes.  There are lots of great books on this theme, and I hope you get the chance to at least one this week.  If you do, I hope you'll share your thoughts, and I'll be back next week with more recommendations.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Augustine's Confession

The original tell all autobiography, authored by a bishop in North Africa, is more than sixteen hundred years old.  I first read it in college, and I've enjoyed flipping back through it to reread my comments and underlinings.  What's most amazing about the book is how much we can relate to Augustine.  His temptations and sins are so familiar to a modern reader, which reminds us that no matter how much our lives have changed over the centuries human nature has remained remarkably similar.

Among the most famous passages is in chapter 8, when Augustine has decided to leave behind his sinful ways and reform his life.  But he still finds himself putting off the change:

"...I, convinced by the truth, had no answer to give except merely slow and sleepy words: At once - but presently - just a little longer, please...but 'just a little longer, please' went on and on for a long while."

Who hasn't promised to make a change in his or her life that never seems to happen?  From the diet that always starts next Monday to the career change or move and everything in between, we can relate to Augustine's struggle.

Shortly after his struggle to submit to conversion, Augustine also noted that human pleasures are satisfying primarily when they follow discomforts.  In his words, "There is no pleasure in eating and drinking unless they are preceded by the unpleasant sensation of hunger and thirst."  Feeling a bit under the weather today myself, I know that I will appreciate my health more soon.  Going through the experience of Lent makes Easter that much sweeter.  We confess in order to be forgiven, and Augustine's story reminds us not to delay but to take action.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

21 for Easter

I'm issuing an Easter challenge to the members of Bethany: Let's run out of choir robes for Easter.  That means we need 21 singers to commit to singing on April 24th.  Of course, anyone is welcome to join anytime.  We have so much great music planned throughout Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.  I think that Good Friday in particular will be a service full of beautiful and meaningful music.

But if you can only join us for services on one day all spring, make it Easter!  The music is selected, and the folders are just waiting to be picked up.  Sunday afternoon rehearsals should be convenient, and we have treats most weeks.  Make an offering to the church of your time and your voice.  Let's hit 21 for Easter.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Lenten Liturgy Project

During Lent, Bethany will be focusing our devotions around the themes of the liturgy.  You'll hear it in the music and the sermons, and the discussion will continue here on the blog.

Tonight, on Ash Wednesday, we began the series by discussing the role of confession.  Technically, confession is not part of the ordinary liturgy.  However, we do begin most of our worship services with a confession.  While humble self-examination can be a difficult challenge, I think tonight's service avoided the dreary dirge-like atmosphere that can ruin the experience of Ash Wednesday and Lent in general.  By singing "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling" during the imposition of ashes, we reinforced the theme of reconciliation rather than self-abasement.

Many of us think of ourselves as living good lives, working hard and doing our best.  So maybe the more important sins to consider are the sins of omission.  The text and the form of the Lutheran confession do not ask us to list petty sins we have commited during the week.  Instead we admit that "We have not loved [God] with our whole heart.  We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves."  Rather than being punished for mistakes, perhaps we could view the confession as a chance to acknowledge how often we do not live up to our potential.

Looking ahead, I want to mention below the dates and topics coming up.  I am so excited about some of the "guest bloggers" who have already submitted comments, and I would welcome anyone to be in touch by email or in the comments!  Join us in this discussion in our journey toward Easter.

March 9-15: Confession
March 16-22: Kyrie
March 23-29: Gloria
March 30-April 5: Credo
April 6-12: Sanctus
April 13-19: Benedictus
April 20-23: Agnus Dei
April 24 (Easter): Alleluia!

Thursday, March 3, 2011


The Epiphany season ends this week; the Brazilian Carnival begins on Saturday.  We won't have a party quite that crazy this week, but we will celebrate the Transfiguration with a range of festive music.  We open and close on big hymns to match the festival: "Oh, Wondrous Image, Vision Fair" (ELW 316) and "Immortal, Invisible" (ELW 834).  Also, at communion we'll sing "Beautiful Savior" (ELW 838), which is naturally dear to the heart of this St. Olaf alum.  For most of the hymns and the liturgy, we'll have a guest trumpet player adding to the celebration.

In addition, the choir will be singing two pieces.  The anthem is built solely on the text of Mark 9:7, "This is my Son, whom I love.  Listen to him!"  It is a very modern piece, as different as possible from the Renaissnace music of the last two weeks.  (In rehearsal, I warned the choir to beware musical whiplash as we move from style to style.)  The music has many cluster chords to give it a different sound from anything you're used to hearing us sing.  It also uses long rests to draw the listener's attention to the importance of the word "listen."  The second choir piece will be sung at communion, and it's a melodic tune titled "With This Communion We Thank You."  Even if the first piece stretches your ear too far for comfort, I know the communion piece will be a more pleasing, though still modern, tune.

The bell choir will also be playing this week, offering "Amazing Grace" as the prelude for the late service.  Our dedicated ringers are back already with only one week off.  As always, it's a pleasure to conduct such talented and dedicated volunteers!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Commemoration of George Herbert

Have you ever read the fine print on the back page of your bulletin insert?  I don't think many people notice the suggested readings and commemorations listed each week under the title "Preparing for Next Week."  If you had read this week's list, you'd have noticed that today is the commemoration of George Herbert (1593 - 1633), listed in the bulletin this week with the title of "hymnwriter."

I think that he might be better described as a poet, however.  The only hymn with his text to appear in the ELW is "Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life" - hardly a well-known hymn to us and set to a tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams hundreds of years after Herbert's death.  But the choir also sang another of his famous texts "Let All the World in Every Corner Sing" recently.  It fits so beautifully with my ongoing encouragement to Make Joyful Noise that I wanted to share the full text today:

Let all the world in every corner sing, my God and King!
The heavens are not too high, His praise may thither fly,
The earth is not too low, His praises there may grow.

Let all the world in every corner sing, my God and King!
The church with psalms must shout, no door can keep them out;
But, above all, the heart must bear the longest part.

It's great that the church officially recognizes the great artists, poets, and musicians who have helped shape our faith and worship.  Read the fine print from time to time, and you might find new sources of inspiration to guide your own prayers.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mystery man and the Gospel according to Scarlett O'Hara

I thought the new liturgy went pretty well this morning.  It's always a bumpy road at first, but I know it'll be only a few weeks before we're all confidently singing the new tunes.

Speaking of singing, I want to compliment the (as yet) anonymous male singer at first service, who sounded great belting out "How Great Thou Art."  I made a few inquiries after the service - partly in selfish hopes of recruiting a new choir member, but also just to say thanks for singing with such gusto.  As I predicted, that hymn was a popular choice; we all love to sing an old favorite now and then.  It's one of the things that makes church music so great.  At any rate, if you can identify the mystery man, email me or let me know at church next week!

Also, in honor of tonight's Oscar ceremony, I wanted to point out that one of Scarlett O'Hara's famous philosophical proclamations might be drawn from Matthew 6:34.  "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own."  (These are the things that you start to notice and think about when you're reading or hearing the same Gospel lesson for the third or fourth time in the same week!)  It's a particularly beautiful passage, though, and it has inspired so many artists and musicians that reading it is like a conversation with an old friend.

And a couple of random musical thoughts for the night, if you'll indulge me for a moment: Alan Menken was robbed by Randy Newman tonight; the songs as a whole were uninspiring, but Zarchary Levi and Anne Hathaway both surprised me with strong vocals; and hearing Lena Horne sing a few measures of "Stormy Weather" was a perfect tribute to a trailblazer and great talent.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

More Renaissance music

The choir had so much fun with Schutz last week, that we're continuing this week with more music from the Renaissance era.  We'll sing the anthem "Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God" by le Maistre, which contains a brief prayer for guidance:

Lord Jesus Christ the son of God
Thou mighty king of heaven above
From deep within my heart I pray
Be thou my guide my hope and stay.

The music is not a simple chorale, however, but the vocal lines weave together in a round-like fashion.  The altos begin the piece by spelling out a simple, minor-key melody.  It is quickly passed from section to section, and the text becomes elongated over long melodic runs before coming together in parallel thirds for the important request that forms the heart of the prayer: "be though my guide."  The music elevates the prayer to a beautiful statement of guidance and trust.

To me, the piece calls to mind the Gospel story of the road to Emmaus, in which the resurrected Christ appears to some of the disciples.  In that story, they say to him "Stay with us for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over."  The text and the music this week beautifully portray that yearning for guidance and comfort.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gleek moment of the week

After our discussion about the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, I couldn't let last week's "Glee" episode not get at least a brief mention here.  For those of you who didn't read the earlier post, I basically complained that too many singers today are affecting certain poses and styles as a false signal of emotion.  My particular pet peeve is singers with closed eyes, but in general I worry that singing has moved away from a genuine experience to artificial affects.

In last week's episode of "Glee," several character parodied this same thing when they discussed what it means to be a diva.  Rachel said, "Being a diva is all about emotion.  In fact, you feel so much emotion that it cannot be physically contained.  Sometimes you have to close your eyes and turn your head and push your feelings away -  they're that big!"  (Of course, the diva par excellence demonstrated what that meant, and it looked pretty much like Christina Aguilera singing the National Anthem).  While Mercedes offers this advice: "It's all about sassy fingers"

But sometimes we communicate best when we set aside convention and just act simply as ourselves.  Isn't that at least one reason Susan Boyle became a music celebrity?  Biblically, I liken it to the instruction not to pray too loudly in church, putting on airs to demonstrate holiness.  Just come as yourself, pray and sing sincerely.  There shouldn't be divas in church, just congregations engaged in worship together.  That's why everyone should sing the hymns loud and proud - and all are welcome in choir!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A new liturgy this Sunday: Don't worry, be happy

This week we will switch to ELW setting 1 of the liturgy.  Whenever we make such a switch, we get compliments and complaints.  (What I love, though, is that we get comments at all!)  One of the purposes of singing the liturgical texts to different tunes is to help keep them fresh and draw our attention once again so that we don't fall into mindless repetition of the texts.  I know the music might not be as familiar this week, and it might take a few weeks to feel confident with the new tunes.  But I know that soon we'll all be singing the new music as confidently and comfortably as the "old" liturgy.

The church has its own unique pace of change.  One week can bring an entirely new sound to the service, yet the texts are ancient.  There are still plenty of liturgi-geeks in the world calling this Sunday "sexagesima," even though the term hasn't been officially in a Lutheran hymnal for years and was set aside by the Second Vatican Council.  When even the Catholic church stops using a Latin word, you have to wonder if there's still any point in it!  Incidentally, I've heard it said that the only reason for the pre-Lenten Sundays to have special names was so that people could start their Lenten fasting early enough to be allowed to skip the fast on both Thursdays and Sundays during Lent.  Certainly that practice seems to be both antiquated and poorly founded on Biblical principles.

So we set aside some old practices and sing new music.  Perhaps as consolation, we'll be singing very familiar hymns, including "Children of the Heavenly Father" and "How Great Thou Art."  Even if the Gloria provides a challenge, I hope there will be plenty of singing on those well-known hymns.

But as Sunday approaches and I continue to work on the plans for Transfiguration, Lent, and Easter, I'm comforted by this week's Gospel: "And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?"  There's no sense spending my time fretting about potential problems; just keep working on the next task.  In other words, this week's Gospel to me simply says: don't worry, be happy.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Concordia Choir

If you missed the St. Olaf Choir when they passed through Cleveland, you have a chance at a decent consolation prize when the Concorida Choir comes to Akron in a week.  (Just kidding about the "consolation prize," but there's nothing wrong with a little inter-school rivalry, right?)

The concert will be at St. Bernard-St. Mary in Akron on Friday, Feb. 25th.  Tickets are $15 - 20.  The program ranges from Bach and Mozart to spirituals to contemporary compositions.  It promises to be a night of beautiful music.  For basically the cost of a movie, you could instead enjoy an evening of inspiring melodies.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Alleluia (part two)

In addition to some great hymns and organ music this week, we will have musical offerings from both the choir and the bell choir.  The choir will be giving up their usual anthem slot so the bell choir can play "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name."  I've even convinced the somewhat reluctant group to play from the front of the church so you can see them play.

During communion, the chancel choir will sing "Praise God, the Lord, Ye Christians All" by Heinrich Schutz, who was among the most important composers of the 17th century.  His music falls in the gap between Renaissance and Classical, between contrapuntal chant and four-part chorales.  In the piece's opening section, you'll hear the same motifs get passed from section to section in the choir, while the piece closes with the whole choir singing Alleluia.  To modern ears, the Alleluias shift from major to minor, along with a sharp dynamic contrast.  The piece is technically modal, but such details aren't needed to appreciate the unique nature of the music.  Incidentally, the ELW includes one hymn tune by Schutz (ELW 573, "My Soul Now Magnifies the Lord").  It's a great example of how the church has preserved the work of some of history's greatest composers.  Where else could you hear a tune by Schutz this week?

I hope you enjoy the music of the choir and bell choir this week.  Be sure to thank a (volunteer) choir or bell choir member for their dedication, and provide feedback to me on the music anytime!

Friday, February 18, 2011


It's after Valentine's Day and we can still sing Alleluia in church, because Lent is still weeks away.  Hard to believe, isn't it?  The weather this week has only made it harder yet, because the only snow drifts left in my neighborhood are the remnants of snow piles next to driveways.  Maybe that groundhog knew what he was talking about?  (Or maybe it'll be back to reality next week, but we can still enjoy it for now!)

This week we get to open and close the service with two of my favorite hymns.  The opening hymn will be "O Holy Spirit Enter In" (ELW 786), a text that seems like such a perfect opening prayer that it will also be the meditative prelude.  The composer of this great tune is Phillip Nicolai.  He was born a decade after Martin Luther had died, and he served as a Lutheran pastor in Germany in the late 16th century.  His tunes have inspired composers ever since, particularly the chorale tune we're singing this week, which is sometimes referred to as "the queen of chorales."

Our closing hymn will be "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" (ELW 631).  The Welsh hymn tune by Rowland Prichard will be well known, and the particular text here is by the prolific Charles Wesley.  I think the strong 3/4 meter has a great lilting, lusty quality that makes it a joy to sing.

That upbeat 3/4 tempo will be echoed in the postlude as well, when I play an arrangement of the Easter tune "O Sons and Daughters of the Lord" by Deshayes.  Despite being an Easter text, the hymn is in a minor key which may be part of why it no longer appears in our hymnal.  But it's a beautiful chorale, and the setting has plenty of fun flourishes for the organ and a big ending, if you stick around for it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The 4-H hymn?

As we were singing our hymn of the day, "Oh, That the Lord Would Guide My Ways" (ELW 772), this past Sunday, part of the last verse caught my eye.  Here is the entirety of the verse:

Make me to walk in your commands,
'Tis a delightful road;
Nor let my head or heart or hands
Offend against my God.

I hadn't noticed it in my preparation earlier in the week, but this verse lists three of the four H-words that constitute the four areas of personal development of the organization 4-H.  (It only took me the rest of the day to come up with the missing one - health.)  Despite growing up in rural Minnesota and despite having many friends and classmates involved in 4-H, I was never a member.  But I think the mission of the organization is pretty widely known.  Similar to the many other youth organizations, they encourage students to do their best while engaging with their community.  This is spelled out explicitly in the 4-H pledge:

I pledge my HEAD to clearer thinking,
my HEART to greater loyalty,
my HANDS to larger service,
and my HEALTH to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world.

While the text by Isaac Watts was first published in 1719, it engages in dialogue across the centuries with this mission statement.  Each of these statements is an important aspect of faith, good citizenship, and a well-lived life.

The only unfortunate thing about the hymn (from my perspective today at least) is that the phrase is negative.  It talks about preventing offense.  While abstaining from offense and sin is important, it's still only a first step.  We also need engagement and participation - in our families, community, country, and church!  To take a bit of poetic license, allow me to suggest a minor rewrite:

And let my head and heart and hands
Do service for my God.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ubi caritas et amor

"Where charity and love prevail" is among the most well-known of the Latin chants, generally considered to come from the 9th century.  It's a hymn of forgiveness and joy, peace and reconciliation, and therefore perfect for singing during communion, as we will this week.  We'll be singing the text to the more popular chorale tune, but during the interlude between the communion hymns, I'll play a few lines of the chant.  Listen and see if you recognize that snippet of chant melody from centuries ago.

Singing the hymn also foreshadows Maundy Thursday, an occasion where the text is often used.  But Maundy Thursday is many days in the future still.  The time before Lent stretches on this year, and we get to enjoy music of praise and celebration during these cold winter days.  That's why we get to end the service with "Joyful Joyful" and enjoy a postlude with the title "Alleluia!"  And the choir will be sharing an upbeat anthem of praise: "O Praise the Name of the Lord."  I hope that all of the music lifts your spirits this weekend!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Of course, you can sing!

It continues to flabbergast me how many people respond to my urgings to sing (whether in the choir, like I'd really prefer, or even just in the congregation during a communion hymn, for instance) with a comment along the lines of "I can't sing" or "My voice is just terrible" or "You wouldn't want to hear me."  It's certainly not a new sentiment, and all church choir directors face it.  Let me try to change your mind (at least a little) with a few arguments:

1. You will never meet a kindergarten-aged child who "can't sing."  They can all write and paint and play kickball like pros too.  It seems that every five-year-old is a Renaissance child with an incredible range of skills.  Where do those skills go?  When do people first learn that they can't do something, especially something so primal and expressive as sing?

2. Some evolutionary biologists claim that singing is closely related to "baby talk."  The pitch of our speaking voice and the melody of lullabies are an important part of the parent-child bond and the development of language in children.  Truly, language is music.  In English, a question will rise in pitch at the end of the sentence.  Singing is thus just an extension of something you do naturally every day.

3. We simply get better at things that we try.  I worked several summers as the music director at a summer stock theatre where some of the actors would come to the first rehearsal and announce they were tone deaf.  Just one week of rehearsals later, they would proudly be singing solo lines in the show's chorus.  (Furthermore, at Bethany, we have such a strong core group of singers that you can rely on them to help lead while you gradually improve and gain confidence.)

All of these arguments were summed up by author Amy Chua (the Yale professor now famous or infamous for her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother).  I heard her give an interview recently in which I was impressed with her charm, wit, and generally easy-going nature - perhaps in contrast to the popular perception of her.  She stressed that while she pushed her daughters to succeed in many areas, it was simply because she knew they could.  She had no time for the argument "I'm no good at math."  Rather than letting them give up, she insisted that with practice and time, her daughters would become good at math.  I'm not going to claim that I back her parenting methods 100%, but that attitude that we can succeed and excel at complicated tasks is an important mind-set.  I hope and pray that it's an attitude that can help jump start the American economy, keep churches and other organizations active and vital, and even motivate a few more people to join the church choir.

Monday, February 7, 2011

So she messed up the lyrics

I've told people that being from Minnesota originally (and therefore not allowed to cheer for the Packers) and now living in northeast Ohio (and therefore not allowed to cheer for the Steelers) meant that I could mostly ignore the game this weekend.  Neither outcome would lead to much celebration or heartbreak.  On the other hand, the musical performances and the commercials always demand a certain level of attention, and they certainly didn't disappoint this year.

Let's start with the obvious observation: Christina Aguilera screwed up the lyrics to the National Anthem.  Big deal.  We all mistakes, and what musician hasn't played or sung a wrong note or word?  I once accompanied a college recital where the singer forgot his lyrics and proceeded to replace the Italian lyrics by listing every kind of pasta he could recall.  (The memory of an Italian aria reduced to "ravioli macaroni et lasgna" still makes me laugh.)  The Super Bowl may be the worst imaginable time to forget the words, but at least they rhymed and she powered through to the end.  You've got to give her credit for singing it live and for maintaining composure.  One might wonder if next year there will be a teleprompter, or even a few helpful words scribbled on the singer's palm.

My problem with the performance wasn't her little mistake, it was the overly dramatic, self-indulgent nature of the performance.  Don't get me wrong, the song isn't sacrosanct and immune from interpretation.  Recordings of Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner can make you hear it in a whole new way.  But Aguilera wasn't trying to communicate her passion and patriotism and deep connection with the lyrics.  She was simply closing her eyes, raising her free hand in the air, and generally mimicking every performance you'll see on American Idol this season.  Singers now strike certain poses simply because it's part of the accepted theatricality of the ritual, not because it's spontaneous or motivated by the song itself.  How authentic can a performance be if it looks exactly like every other performance?

Aguilera violated my pet peeve by singing with her eyes closed.  Even at the community theatre level, actors know that you can't communicate with an audience if your eyes aren't open.  You can't engage with fellow actors, audience, or even an everyday conversation.  Just imagine if a man proposed to his wife without looking into her eyes; would it seem sincere?  Closing your eyes while singing only puts distance between you and your audience.  It's one of the reasons that so-called "praise bands" violate the purpose of corporate worship.  They strike poses to demonstrate their religious fervor, but their artificiality separates them from the congregation.

We sing hymns with our eyes open.  Partly because it's easier to see the text, but mostly because when we sing we are joining together in praise, prayer, and proclamation.  We are a community of faith, flawed and imperfect but in it together - much like our nation.  If only Aguilera had remembered that.  It would have made for a great performance, missed lyrics and all.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


It's one of the ironies of my work at Bethany, but the more time I spend planning and preparing and thinking about church music in any given week, the less I find myself blogging.  I suppose it's in part because I'm busy daydreaming and forming ideas, which doesn't always lend itself to sharing more fully-formed thoughts, the way I like to on this blog.  But as I was reading the text of this week's closing hymn, "The Church of Christ, In Every Age," its message of continuing change and mission and rebirth only seemed to urge me to keep working:

The church of Christ, in ev'ry age
Beset by change, but Spirit led,
Must claim and test its heritage
And keep on rising from the dead.

Discussing our musical heritage (while hopefully keeping it new and fresh) could be one way to describe my goals in writing this blog.  But the hymn presents a message that all members of all churches need to heed.  We have hundreds of years of heritage that we must not only honor and claim as our own but continue to test and question and refresh.  I find it particularly interesting that the rest of the hymn's text portrays the need for engagement "across the world" and "across the street."  The hymn is sometimes subtitled "The caring church" because it advocates direct engagement with problems in the world around us.

The theme of the week is justice, which requires our engagement and action.  Notice how many of our hymns mention a desire to act as a servant leader, not preaching or judging but demonstrating and encouraging a joyful Christian life.  In the words of this week's choir anthem "Let All the World in Every Corner Sing."  We can tackle difficult problems with joy and hope and songs of praise.  And we can even find time to engage with in those activities amid our busy lives and our work planning for the weeks (and holidays) ahead.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


The theme of this Sunday's service is "follow me," and we'll hear the story in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus begins calling his disciples away from their work to join his ministry.  As part of that theme, we'll be singing the hymn "Come, Follow Me, the Savior Spake."  I was reading the text tonight and realized just what a downer it is:

"Come follow me," the Savior spake,
"All in my way a biding;
Deny yourselves, the world foresake,
Obey my call and guiding.
Oh, bear the cross, whate'er betide;
Take my example for your guide."

Sometimes there is a tension in the church's message between the Good News and the theme of suffering and self-abnegation embodied in this hymn.  (The hymn only gets more explicit in verse four: "in suffering be undaunted.")  That's a tough message to sell to the world at large (and it's certainly not the kind of message to bring new singers to a choir!).

Instead of focusing on the sacrifices of faith, I wish that we as a congregation and a broader church would think about where we are leading and the example we are setting.  Are we living in such a way that anyone would want to follow us?  Are our lives made any better from our church attendance?  Are we making joyful noise and embodying the good news of God's love?

One of my favorite books is titled "Orbiting the Giant Hairball" about working creatively within bureaucracies, as both a leader and a follower.  One of my favorite analogies in the book is when the author compares the role of following to a water skiier.  The best water skiiers are active, with a great deal of flexibility and freedom of movement, yet they are always cooperating and communicating with the driver of the boat.  I like to think that Jesus similarly prefers us to be fully participating followers with a great deal of independence to find our own way behind his leadership and to enjoy and celebrate the experience.  Rather than a slow trod in single-file, doesn't water skiing seem like a more joyful and free way to follow?

Jesus' call to his disciples is not to an easy life, and the path of the righteous is narrow, I know.  But I also believe that the community of faith and God's love can make even the difficult times joyful.  Different churches and different people place a different level of emphasis on the struggles and the joy of the Christian faith.  We'll try to find a balance this week, but we will close on an upbeat note with the hymn "Rise, Shine, You People!"  I hope it sends us all out of the church as joyous followers.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

So what's your excuse now?

Lutherans are singers.  I know this.  It's encoded in the DNA of our church, and it's one of my favorite things about being an organist in the ELCA.  And yet...every church struggles for choir members and participation throughout its music program.

Like most music directors, I've heard pretty much every excuse and every explanation.  But I just want to let everyone know that we're taking away one of those excuses for the next few weeks.  We're moving choir rehearsals to Sunday afternoons.  So if you're one of the people who has told me that you're busy on Wednesday nights, or you're one of the people who just can't get yourself out of the house on a dark winter evening, now you can just stay after the second service and sing with us for another hour.  You can set aside another hour of peace and calm in your week and enjoy some time making music with friends.

If you can't sing, maybe you'd rather play in the bell choir?  We're rehearsing between the services (9:45 - 10:30).

Easter may be months away, but planning for Holy Week and Easter are currently at the top of my to do list.  I would love nothing more than to have a huge choir for that most important festival of the church year.  We have 21 choir robes to fill.  Think it over.  Make it a New Year's resolution, part of your commitment to the church - and now there's one less excuse to give it a try.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Epiphany and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I've heard from a few people that my posting habits have gotten slack this winter.  I apologize, but the craziness of the holidays were followed by busy weeks of travel.  January has finally started to settle into a rhythm, and I shall strive to write more regularly.

We've entered this year's long season of Epiphany.  With Easter falling so late, there is a long stretch between Epiphany and Transfiguration, eight Sundays that don't immediately bring to mind hymns or themes of the church.  The hymnal simply labels a number of hymns with the heading "Time after Epiphany."  It's a season of the year without a strong message or purpose, and it leads us to a grab bag of familiar tunes this week.

We'll sing "Hail to the Lord's Anointed" and "Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness," two upbeat hymns of praise.  At communion, the text "What Feast of Love" will be paired with the tune Greensleeves, likely still stirring memories of Christmas.

And we'll close with the civil rights anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing."  The song is now more than 100 years old, but it still speaks so eloquently of the American experience.  When I think of the hymn, its strong, lilting beat immediately springs to mind as a joyous march.  Rereading the text this week, though, I was reminded again of the depth and breadth of emotion and meaning packed into its three verses.  The hymn offers praise: "Let our rejoicing rise high as the list'ning skies."  But it also recognizes a difficult and contentious past: "Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast'ning rod."  After such a difficult second verse, it resolves not only with trust in God, but service to "our native land."

There is a great deal of rhetoric lately about building a more civil and understanding society.  Balancing passionate activism and advocacy with understanding and respect is always a challenge.  But it's one that Martin Luther King, Jr. and other great leaders strove to overcome.  On a grab bag Sunday in the season of Epiphany, that wouldn't be a bad message to contemplate and enact in our lives - perhaps as a late New Year's resolution for civility and compromise.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A quick New Year's hymn

It's not a church holiday or festival, but the new year deserves a hymn, don't you think?  Here's the text of one that I found online.  Just something to get us started in 2011:

Another year is dawning!
Dear Father, let it be,
In working or in waiting,
Another year with Thee;
Another year of leaning
Upon Thy loving breast;
Another year of trusting,
Of quiet, happy rest.

Another year of mercies,
Of faithfulness and grace;
Another year of gladness
In the shining of Thy face;
Another year of progress,
Another year of praise;
Another year of proving
Thy presence all the days.

Another year of service,
Of witness fo Thy love;
Another year of training
For holier work above.
Another year is dawning!
Dear Father, let it be
On earth, or else in heaven,
Another year for Thee.