Saturday, October 16, 2010

a community through song

A note to my congregation and others:

The 2007 European meeting of the Taizé community.
Group singing is found in practically every culture.  Even in our own American society, singing brings us together in a variety of ways.  What would a birthday party be without that well-known song?  What about the seventh inning stretch without “Take Me Out To The Ballgame?” 

Just like these occasions in our secular lives, the songs of the church bring us together with a shared identity.  We give one voice to our joys and sorrows and express our wonder and awe at the mystery that is God.

As we build our congregation’s own unique repertoire of songs, we can do more to sing as a community.  One way is to introduce songs to all occasions of church life. Several of the church boards already begin their meetings with song.  We have also added singing before church meals and special events.

During November, I’d ask you to consider yet another way to strengthen our communal song.  Research shows, however counterintuitive it may seem, that once a singer is more than three feet away from another that individual sings more quietly.  Once we start to feel isolated and hear primarily our own voice, we become self-conscious and withdraw.  When we are closer to others, we hear their voices and are more comfortable adding ours.

So what can we do?  It’s rather simple.  Consider sitting closer to others in worship.  Perhaps sit where the larger groups are during worship, or invite others to sit closer to you. Throughout this month, I’ll be encouraging us to gather closer together at the beginning of each worship service.   Perhaps you’ll even want to give up your traditional seat and seek out new places. You might even experience other parts of worship in a new way.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Reading List - October 2010

A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice (The Practices of Faith Series)

Music and Theology (Horizons in Theology)

Music and Vital Congregations: A Practical Guide for Clergy1) Don Sailers' book on music and spirituality. Written with his daughter Emily Saliers, from the Indigo girls.  Don and Emily discuss family memories of how music shaped their spirituality.  Highly recommended reading!

2) Don Saliers' discussion of how music and theology impact each other.  Not a long book, but good concepts to have in mind when considering music for worship.

3) I don't agree with everything in this book. He acts like he appreciates all forms of music worship, but there is a definite slant toward classical music and traditional worship music.  What it does do well is a bring up the issue of pastoral musicianship; how church musicians should be trained and how clergy can help.

Friday, September 24, 2010

considering music and spirituality

I'll be leading a class on music and spirituality starting next month, so that's been getting me thinking about what it actually means.

I guess the questions to begin asking are:

How does music help define our spirituality?
How is music impacted by spirituality?
How can we use music to develop spirituality in congregations?
And most importantly, in the context of music, what is spirituality?

I recently heard a story from a Story Corps producer about an experience she had while doing an interview. And while she didn't speak specifically of this as something spiritual, it was hard not to feel it when she told the story.

One of her interviews brought her into contact with a 30 year old woman and her parents.  This woman was in hospice care suffering from terminal cancer and spent much of the 40 minute interview saying goodbye to her parents.  Toward the end of the interview, the producer said to the women that they had two minutes left in which she could record her personality for posterity.   To the producer's shock, the woman didn't tell a story or say anymore farewells.  Instead, she started singing "Summertime" from George Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess."

The producer remarked that for the first 38 minutes, she sounded weak and frail, like a dying person, but for those last two minutes, her voice was strong and she sounded fully alive. Later the woman's parents would contact this producer again to tell her that their daughter had indeed passed away.  The used the recording of those two minutes of their daughter singing during her funeral service, and thanked the producer for drawing this out.

I was struck by the impact of this story.  So many times Story Corps has done this to me, but the idea of this young woman using her last recorded moments to express herself through song hit me even harder.  When simple words where not enough, she turned to music and the power of song which released her spirit in a way all the goodbyes in the world couldn't.

Friday, September 17, 2010

God's Grandeur

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918.

God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;                            5
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;                 10
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Monday, September 13, 2010

worship renewal: what's the purpose of special music?

We're currently discussing the idea of "worship renewal" at our church.  I think in the few sessions we've had, this has already led to some wonderful revelations about the purpose of worship and how/when we experience it.

In our latest meeting, the topic of "special music" came up, specifically in regards to music that is presented that isn't serving any sort of liturgical or even transitional purpose.  In most churches this manifests itself as the "anthem" or "special music" or something along those lines.  The music is played/sung while the rest of the congregation listens (or not).

This is different from, say, the offertory (the music fills the space of time it takes to collect the offering) or the prelude/postlude (people are entering/leaving or transitioning into/out of worship during the music.)

So what is the purpose of this music?   Does it give us time to reflect like the reading of scripture?  Does it expand our thinking about God like a sermon?  Does it lead us to meditation like prayer?   I don't have the answer, but I feel that what it often does is put the service on hold.

There are times when this special music ties in so well with the theme, scripture, sermon,  or prayer that it seems to flow naturally as part of the service.  But I would say that a good portion of the time it seems tacked on.  It's simply there because, "that's where we always have the anthem" or "we need a second piece of music to fill the service."

What we discussed was trying to discover ways that this time can lead to active participation as well, for those who want it.  Perhaps this is a time where we invite the congregation to consider their contribution to the church's mission during the week.  Or maybe we have some sort of ritual (remembering baptism through water, lighting a candle for a loved one, etc.) and the music then provides a accompaniment to that action.

I'll post some results once we give it a try.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

new resource from Living the Questions featuring John Bell

I'm thrilled to see this new addition from the Living the Questions family. 

From their website: 

Singing the Unsung – Liberating the Song of God's People 
Featuring John Bell

Singing the Unsung is a new DVD resource designed especially for music leaders, worship design teams, and pastors seeking the revitalization of worship for the 21st century. Featuring world-renowned musician and theologian John Bell, Singing the Unsung guides the participants' reflection on the theology of the Church's song and offers practical techniques on how we can sing and pray together with integrity.
With footage from workshops and worship in both the U.S. and in Scotland, the two DVD discs include nine 30-minute video segments and introduce 30 songs from around the globe for congregational or choral use. Along with the downloadable discussion guide the sessions may be utilized as individual segments or multi-day to multi-week workshops or classes.
Their other resources have been top-notch, specifically Living the Questions (both 1 and 2), and Saving Jesus (although the background soft jazz was a little cheesy for my taste). 

I've got a copy on order and will have a review of the materials after they arrive.

Monday, July 26, 2010

our boundless god

I just came across this hymn written by Brian Wren, and I thought I'd share it.

Name unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known, Gloria!

Beautifully moving, ceaselessly forming,
growing, emerging with awesome delight,
Maker of Rainbows, glowing with color,
arching in wonder,
energy flowing in darkness and light:

Name unnamed...

Spinner of chaos, pulling and twisting,
freeing the fibers of pattern and form,
Weaver of Stories, famed or unspoken,
tangled or broken,
shaping a tapestry vivid and warm:

Name unnamed...

Nudging Discomfort, prodding and shaking,
waking our lives to creative unease,
Straight-talking Lover, checking and humbling
jargon and grumbling,
speaking the truth that refreshes and frees:

Name unnamed...

Midwife of Changes, skillfully guiding,
drawing us out through the shock of the new,
Woman of Wisdom, deeply perceiving,
never deceiving,
freeing and leading in all that we do:

Name unnamed...

Daredevil Gambler, risking and loving,
giving us freedom to shatter your dreams,
Lifegiving Loser, wounded and weeping,
dancing and leaping,
sharing the caring that heals and redeems.

Name unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known, Gloria!

(Words: Brian Wren, 1936-, Copyright 1989 Hope Publishing Co.; Music: W. Frederick Wooden, 1953- , Copyright 1992 Unitarian Universalist Association; from "Singing the Living Tradition," Beacon Press:Boston, 1993, #31.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

choosing battles

I'm increasingly aware of the importance of language throughout a worship service.  I'm a big advocate of expansive language in hymns, and I prefer newer, less archaic translations of the Bible, but I'm having a another problem.

A large percent of the choral music available doesn't fit with these ideas about expansive language.  The market is flooded with what I'd consider poor theologies based on sacrificial atonement, patriarch/monarch images of God, and a downright preference for the old hymns just rearranged without any consideration for what they mean in today's society.

So when the choir is preparing a new song, I'm torn.  When should I consider changing texts to meet the theological needs of our expansive congregation, and when should I just lay low?

I know that one faction will appreciate the effort, and I know another will miss the words that are so familiar.  I don't for one moment believe that any of the singers would say that they don't agree with the idea of changing the texts, but putting it into practice is difficult.

Another sticking point is the language used elsewhere in worship.  I'd say 100% of the printed liturgy (call to worship, prayers of confession/assurance, benediction, etc.) conforms to an expansive theology. The issue is the reading of scripture. We still read from primarily masculine influenced sources. Although horiztonal language (people talking about people) is general "inclusive,"  the vertical (God-language) is primarily masculine.

So if the language we are recieving from scripture is different from the language of the liturgy is different from the language of the hymns is different from the language of the special music, what are we saying here?  Does this show diversity or just lack of cohesion?

One suggestion from a friend was to always ensure that the horizontal language was expansive, since it refers directly to the people who will be singing and hearing the music. Then in the cases of vertical language, pick and choose depending on the number of "offending" occurrences. And in the latter case, perhaps from time-to-time we should consider flipping the gender to help us consider the text from a different perspective.

I'm guessing I'll struggle with this in every situation for a long time to come, but that, as they say, is the rub. 

Friday, July 9, 2010

New Wine In Old Wine Skins

"Laudate Dominum" from TaizĂ© is one of the community's most recognizable works.  It always struck a chord with me, and then I realized why.  The basis for this tune has been around centuries, and this variation on it continues a wonderful heritage.

La folia is one of the oldest remembered European musical themes, or primary material, generally melodic, of a composition, on record. (Wikipedia)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

another progressive Christian musician/blogger

Just ran across Progressive Christian Worship Music in a link from the UCC Musicians National Network conference (which I'm not at this year.)  It's good to see more people thinking about this and expressing their thoughts openly!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Free To Lament

There's been a lot of discussion lately about a return to lament in worship.  Maybe this is a reaction to what some consider "feel good" worship, or maybe it's the reality of all of the tragedies that we experience in today's world.

The Bible is full of lament, but looking to the Psalms is an easy place to start..
  Psalm 42:9-10
  9 I say to God my Rock,
"Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?" 
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
"Where is your God?"

Now what does this have to do with music?  I think the rich history of lament attached to music can allow people to express the pathos of lament, where, in Western culture at least, we don't openly allow ourselves to morn.  We don't raise our voices when we cry. We are taught to find solitude and to work it out on our own.  All of this repression and isolation can't be good,  so why not let it all out together?  Hymn writers have always thought so.

 A Soul Cries Out

Horatio Spafford's hymn "It Is Well with My Soul" was his way of working through grief, like a modern psalmist.  A couple of years before he penned the words, he lost his son and was financially ruined by the the great Chicago Fire.  Then in 1873, after sending his wife and four daughters ahead of him for a vacation in Europe, their ship collided with a sailing vessel and sank, killing his children.  His wife survived and sent telegram with the words, "Saved Alone."

As he traveled to meet his wife in Europe, his ship passed over the spot where the collision occurred, and he was inspired to write the words to "It Is Well with My Soul."

NOTE:  I personally find the theology in "It Is Wll with My Soul" hard to swallow for the most part, but it is a beautiful expression of this one man's grief and struggle to reconcile it with his faith.
When tragedy occurs, humans feel compelled to express their grief, and where else can we feel safe to do so if not in the church?

Why Can't We Just Lament?

The problem can be that, just like the Psalms, there is a tendency to end these lament songs with a "but everything's okay because I love God and God loves me."  It's a wonderul sentiment, but once again, it doesn't allow us just to cry.

At time like these, we can turn to another example: Lamentations
Lamentations 1:20-22
 20 "See, O LORD, how distressed I am!
       I am in torment within,
       and in my heart I am disturbed,
       for I have been most rebellious.
       Outside, the sword bereaves;
       inside, there is only death.
 21 "People have heard my groaning,
       but there is no one to comfort me.
       All my enemies have heard of my distress;
       they rejoice at what you have done.
       May you bring the day you have announced
       so they may become like me.
  22 "Let all their wickedness come before you;
       deal with them
       as you have dealt with me
       because of all my sins.
       My groans are many
       and my heart is faint."

I've been looking for songs that do the same thing. And the challenge will be gauging a congregation's reaction to this kind of "despair only" sort of approach.  I welcome suggestions.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

'Choral Reflection on Amazing Grace' by Roger Ames

One of my very favorite choral compositions ever. A serious choral work, dedicated to the children of the victims of 9/11. I try to program it once every other year.

The composer, Roger Ames, had been attempting to write a setting of the mass in the months prior to Sept. 11, but only came up with a sketch of the Kyrie (Lord Have Mercy) movement. He put away the sketch, but after the attacks of 9/11 found himself wanting to express his feelings through music. After a while, he realized this kyrie was set to the same harmonic progression as Amazing Grace (NEW BRITAIN).

I don't know why this hasn't been recorded commercially yet, but here is a YouTube video of James Jordan and the Westminster Choir College Schola Cantorum performing the work. The audio isn't amazing, and the you can just ignore the horrible video, but it still captures the emotion of the work

I was introduced to the piece by James Jordan at a summer choral workshop in 2004. He told us the story of someone who was across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001. He said that the man was watching in horror as people fell from the towers, when he claims to have seen two of them reach out to each other as they fell.

Whether this story is true or not, the fact remains that in times of great trial, we reach out to one another for comfort, and I believe that is where we find God.

Choral Reflection on Amazing Grace is published by GIA Publishing, Inc.
James Jordan's interpretation is available on The Voices of Anam Cara's CD Innisfree.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Consider This: Of the "Father's" Love Begotten

For Father's Day, here's an example of masculine imagery of God perpetuated through bad translation.

Worshipers might be family with the Advent/Christmas hymn Of the Father's Love Begotten

Verse 1

Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

So this is a pretty decent look at the magnitude of God, but look at all the he language.  It's all set up by the pesky "Father" in the opening line.

Now here's a look at the first line in the original Latin hymn by Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius.

Corde natus ex parentis

Parentis is another form of the Latin parens which translates to English as parent not father as in In loco parentis (in place of a parent). 

Now ask yourself, why, when both options are two syllable words, the latter is chosen for the hymn instead of the more correct translation?  And that translation sets up the masculine language that is used throughout the entire hymn.

I'm not against masculine language for God. A balance of masculine, feminine and gender neutral language is wonderful, but when possible in that pursuit, it's ideal to reflect the author's original intent. Something I appreciate in the printing of that hymn in the New Century Hymnal which chose to look at the Latin and create a translation which holds more closely to the original.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

expansive language

Riding the coattails of my last post, here's the United Church of Christ's page on Inclusive and Expansive Languague use.

The materials include a covenant that begins:

"We believe that the imagery conveyed by language and language itself is important and that they articulate and influence our understandings of what is revealed to us about the nature and activity of God and the dignity of all God's people as created in the image of God."

And I think it's important to note that expanisve language and imagery (I like this term more than "inclusive" because it conveys the vastness of God) doesn't mean boiling it all down to the gender-neutral, but reflecting the many aspects of god: male, female, gender-neutral, and more. 

Monday, June 14, 2010

being critical

I love the Native American saying that goes something like, "I don't know if these stories happened, but I know they're true."

I think in most progressive Christianity, being critical (def. - exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation) of what we read in the Bible is sort of a hallmark. We scrutinized over difficult theology (for example: Job!), and we ponder how we can see the love of God as it exists for us today in the words of authors from centuries and milennia ago. So why is it that in many of our churches we don't do the same thing with the words we sing?

Our Bible's most recent thoughts are from the second century BCE, but Christian thought has continued to develop. Those ideas are often captured in congregational music, so I put this challenge to my church at our biannual "annual" meeting this week, "Be critical of the songs and hymns we read and sing in worship."

  • What does the song teach us about God?
  • What does the song teach us about Jesus?
  • What does the song teach us about ourselves?
  • What does the song teach others about us?

Many Christmas carols are perfect examples of images that don't really correspond to what we're presented in our scriptures. Was it really "in the bleak mid-winter" when Jesus was born?  What about the idea of a newborn baby staying utterly silent in a cattle trough? ("The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.") 

I like John Bell's observation of the perennial Christmas favorite "O Little Town of Bethlehem."  If everyone had been recalled to the place of their ancestors for the census, hundreds or possibly thousands of people could have been flooding into the City of David to enroll.  And if your long-lost friends were back in town, would your town be lying still at night? 

I think it's a simple practice that each of us can do.  Really read the words we sing and be critical.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The problem with familiarity

I think one of the hardest parts of selecting music for worship is hitting everyone's "favorites."  Making it more difficult are the many backgrounds that make up our particular congregation.  We are dually affiliated with the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ.  In addition many of our people are  newly churched or ex-pats from other denominations ranging from Catholics to Pentecostals.

I grew up in the United Methodist Church, and pretty much everyone I ever knew in church had grown up UMC as well, so when we showed up for worship or at a church gathering our communal "song book" was based on the same set of tunes.  I always took great pride (and still do!) in being from such a music rich faith group, but what I took for granted was that we sang well because we were all on the same page musically.

Now I face the issue that the music the rests in the hearts of our congregants isn't always found in the denominational hymnal (The New Century Hymnal), so it's like introducing new music nearly every week.  Adding to that is the fact that this particular church had a period of time some years ago where one of the staff members restricted the hymns to about 20-25 "old favorites" and never strayed outside the chosen few.

So how does a pastoral musician go about discovering what the "song book" of this particularly diverse congregation is?  And how do you then engrave those songs on the hearts of the singers without totally restricting the creativity I usually associate with varying music according to the particular theme of the Sunday?  

To be continued...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Eric Whitacre "Choral Music"

Eric Whitacre's ability to capture the essence of emotion in choral music has astounded me since the first time I had the opportunity to perform his "Sleep."  A new CD of his music is available from one of my other favorite artists, the Elora Festival Singers.   This includes one of my favorite of Whitacre's compositions, an intense envisioning of Samuel 18:33 "When David Heard."

NPR has a great write-up on it with audio samples:
First Listen: Eric Whitacre, 'Choral Music'

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Reading list - June 2010

I made up my mind recently that there was no magical degree I could get that would give me all of the knowledge I'm looking for about pastoral musicianship.  I then recalled my major professor from my choral conducting degree.  We were talking to one of the other graduate students in my cohort who mentioned leaving a very highly-paid church job (we're talking AMAZING) in a city in Oklahoma.  He left to do his masters degree, and he said it was a decision whether to stay and get paid well or further himself.  To this, our professor said, "BLANK, you can buy a lot of books with that kind of money!"

So no I've just decided to create my own reading lists on the topics I find interesting in the field.  Here's what I'm reading now and what I've read in the recent past.

Bless Us Your Servants

Each time I meet with the church choir, we end with this prayer I learned while working as a chorister at a large Episcopal church in Dallas, TX.   I have amended it slightly to take some of the archaic language out, but I think it's a wonderful way of viewing music ministry.

The Choristers' Prayer

Bless us your servants who minister in your temple.
Grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts,
And what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Choristers' Prayer is attributed variously to Sir Sydney Nicholson, the Royal School of Church Music's founder  or to Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury  (1928-42)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Make the worship go "BOOM"

I've been thinking so much about the use of drums and hand percussion in worship lately.  I'm not a huge fan of the trap set in church (not that I haven't seen/heard it used amazing well!).  The problem I find is that it can drown out the other music or it forces over-amplification of other instruments and vocalists.

Hand drums/percussion seem to be a great alternative.  My wife (an ordained UCC clergy person) attended worship at Broadway UMC in Indianapolis and remarked on their effective and inclusive use of percussion during worship.  They have a box of instruments in the sanctuary (many Orff style instruments), that they allow anyone to grab from and use during worship.  I think this is an amazing idea. Let's take the musical making to all God's people.

Percussion is a pretty easy thing to add, and most people are able to pull off a simple beat without and real difficulty.  We trust them to sing in time, so why not play?

Here's a nice video of a percussion workshop at San Francisco's St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church to get you started.

Online Resources vol. 1

Here are some useful resources I've found for selecting music for worship.

  • Text Week - A great collection of materials ranging from sermon starters to suggested hymns. Links to the week's lectionary readings are also included for quick reference.
  • Singing from the Lectionary  - "Weekly song, hymn and recorded music suggestions and resources for worship - based on the Revised Common Lectionary."  The author does a wonderful job describing music selections with information about singability and theological content.
  • Seasons of the Spirit - a subscription-only, lectionary-based resource for congregational life. This includes some new music, thematic ideas, and more.
  • Suggested Hymns from the United Church of Christ  (Year C -Pentecost) - I've included a link to the most current season, but you can find other liturgical years/season by doing a little digging around in the worship section of the UCC website.
  • Lectionary Planning Helps for Sundays  (United Methodist Church) - A weekly resource from the UMC's General Board of Discipleship.