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.