In a Twinkle

111215074920-santas-rielly-horizontal-large-galleryJuly has become a natural time for me to think about Christmas. I, as do many, absolutely adore the Christmas season, and I begin to long for it in the hot month of July for so many reasons. So why not?

I’m a believer.

When there is inadequate evidence to support something I want to believe–something which enriches my life in some way–I often choose to believe it anyway.  I’m good with Bigfoot, psychic powers, magic, aliens, ghosts, and God. Most adults believe in at least one of these. But what about Santa Claus?

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The Old Hymns

d11dfe5f938729b6f0c33f07632cacf1Sunday morning, I led the congregation in singing Victory in Jesus.My wife grew up singing this hymn in the Free Will Baptist church, as did my pastor.  I grew up singing all the old Presbyterian hymns.  And now we sing the Methodist hymns.  Between the two of us, we know hundreds of old hymns.  And although, this one is a new one to me, it’s one of my favorites.

And so after worship, as I shopped for groceries, I whistled this song heartily.  It’s very catchy.  In line, an older woman asked if I’d sung that in church that morning.

“Yes we did.  I’m the music minister so I had to lead it.  It’s good stuff.”

I’m not sure why I felt compelled to say that I was a music minister.  Maybe I wanted to raise my status as an authority on hymns, for what purpose I do not know why.

She nodded and grimaced a little bit.  “Yes.  It is.”

I’ve been a little manic, so I yammered on a bit until I said.  “Well it’s really stuck in my head, it will probably be stuck in your head by now!”

“No,” she said, “I have another song stuck in my head.”

“Oh yeah?  Which one?”

I expected her to talk about another old hymn:  Blessed Assurance or Rock of Ages.  I assumed because of her age and demeanor that she was an old-timey hymn gal.

She began to sing a phrase from the song.  I did not recognize it.

“It’s a new song,” she said. “I like the new songs now.”

Wow, I thought.  Am I the last one in town to prefer the traditional hymns?

She said that she knew someone from my church. I said that I knew her well.

I said that our church did some new hymns, but mainly old.  “We don’t have a praise band or anything”

She grimaced again and said, “Well, I was thinking about coming to your church, but I really prefer the new songs.”

My heart sunk at the thought of having deterred her from visiting, but I knew it was useless.  “Well, we believe that there is still a place for traditional worship in Norman.  There are plenty of contemporary services.  Perhaps we’re a dying breed.”

But I don’t believe we’re a dying breed.  I’ve read several articles that indicate that the younger folks are not finding meaning in contemporary services and like the idea of worshiping in a way that’s been done for centuries.  Something with history and ritual and character and deep meaning.  They perceive contemporary worship as a form of entertainment. They’ve spent their whole lives being entertained by adults, and they’re tired of it.

Of course, I want to believe that that is true.  I don’t dislike praise services.  They are emotionally satisfying, but liturgy and hymns are satisfying in deep ways as well; ways of praying and confessing and singing together which are as old as Christianity itself.  I don’t think it is likely that many of the songs sung in modern praise services will last centuries or even decades, and perhaps that’s not the point of them.  They come in and out in a matter of a few years, just like any top forty hit.  There are few exceptions, Sanctuary for instance.

I’m willing to admit that I have my biases, in no small part because this kind of music is what I’m trained and paid to lead.  I would not have a professional place in a contemporary service.  I’ve led them as a singer and as a keyboard player, but I definitely wouldn’t hire me.

A praise song is simple for a reason.  It’s not generally about theology, ideas, poetry, or scriptural illumination.  It’s about the act of praising, surrendering, and confessing.  This is good, but  there are old hymns that do this as well, and they don’t stop there.  They teach, they present ideas, and new ways of thinking about the scripture and theology.  There is powerful poetry to meditate on for a lifetime.

The truth is that a lot of these old hymns were contemporary praise songs at one point.  Victory in Jesus has a very simple praise chorus that people love to sing which expresses the notion that with Jesus’ help, we can conquer life’s battle’s.  I feel this deep in my soul.  I know what it is like to struggle and battle.  I know what it’s like to hand it over to God to do the fighting for me.  I know what victory in Jesus feels like.

Perhaps some of these old hymns should be discarded.  I’ve heard very compelling arguments for this; hymns like The Old Rugged Cross who’s treatment of the Cross borders on idolatry.   But I see it a little differently.

I have this kooky idea that human ritual creates power.  The more we do something together the more powerful it becomes.  These are songs which have been sung for so long by so many people that when we sing them, they ring powerfully with the voices of the saints who have passed long before us.  We hear our grandmothers’ voices and through them, their grandmothers’ voices. Can you imagine your great grandmother singing Lord I Lift Your Name On High with its difficult syncopated rhythm?  I can’t, but I can imagine her singing It is Well With My Soul (1873).  It sings so easily.  Straight forward rhythm, easy range.

The song was written after a man’s family drowned at sea.  He returned to the spot and this is what he wrote

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul

Think of the power of singing this song on the shoulders of people who grieved and found profound comfort while singing it.  I have done it, not just in church.  I have done it alone at night when I had no words to express my sorrows.   And when I did it, I could hear a chorus of voices singing it with me, because we sing it in church.

I write this not as a rebuke of new songs.  All songs were new once. There are new traditional hymns being written, too.  John Bell’s The Summons is a very fine example.  A few of the contemporary praise songs will probably stick, but let’s not abandon the ones which have proven the test of time. We do sing newer songs at my church, and there are some good ones worth considering, but I want to be connected to the Church of centuries old.  I want to speak the Apostle’s Creed.  I want to partake in the Great Thanksgiving before we take communion.   I want to hear the old benedictions.  And I want to sing A Mighty Fortress is Our God (1529).  New is not necessarily better.  Ask any wine enthusiast.


Bach’s Good Friday

mi0003738578I’m singing something a little unusual for Good Friday this year.  My church is more accustomed to traditional, gospel, spiritual, and contemporary sacred music.  Classical is rarely sung or played.  I sang an aria from Handel’s Messiah a few years ago and it was welcomed very warmly, so I’m going to try an arioso by J.S. Bach.  It requires a little more preparation and thought than my usual music.  I hope you will indulge me writing about it.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a church musician.  He wrote new music every week for his church.  Think about that.  I work hard just to prepare music that’s already been written!  Among his church music he also wrote several oratorios.  An oratorio is defined thusly:

a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices, typically a narrative on a religious theme, performed without the use of costumes, scenery, or action.

There was a ban on creating operas about Jesus, so they got around it by creating oratorios.  My mind is on an oratorio entitled St. John’s Passion.  The Passion, in scripture, is the story of Jesus’s final days.  The work is specifically an oratorio for Good Friday.  Good Friday is the commemoration of Jesus crucifixion. It is observed the Friday before Easter.  In it is an arioso (less structured than an aria) entitled “Betrachte, meine Seel” – “Consider O my Soul”.

It is an unusual work musically and I lack the musical theory knowledge to say exactly why that is other than to say it is uncommon, harmonically, for Bach and for baroque music in general.  It is full of dissonance and harmonic complexity more characteristic of much later works of romantic composers such as Felix Mendelssohn.  The text is dissonant as well.  It is clear that Bach is trying to reflect that in the music with the reoccurring minor 7th notes (D-flat in an E-flat major key) which occur 4 times.  I interpret this as the suffering of Jesus intermingled with the goodness of the day.  The last few musical phrases resolve the dissonance and it is more recognizable as Bach.  It reflects the last few phrases of the text which show the good in Good Friday and a charge to look to Jesus on the cross.

The text, which is a little archaically written,  can be broken down to a simple idea.

Consider that although it’s a hard fact to accept, Jesus’ suffering is for your highest good;  therefore, raise your eyes to him and don’t look away.

The full literal translation is as follows:

Contemplate, my soul, with anxious pleasure,
with bitter joy and half-constricted heart,
your highest Good in Jesus’ suffering,
how for you, out of the thorns that pierce Him,
the tiny ‘keys of Heaven’ bloom!
You can pluck much sweet fruit
from his wormwood;
therefore gaze without pause upon Him!

The poetic translation that I am singing is not as easy to understand, and you will see that it does not convey the ideas very well

Consider O my soul, in agony and rapture,
Although your heart with tainted joy does languish,
The highest staff is Jesus’ anguish.
For you the thorn crown that did pierce Him,
With heaven-scented flowers will bloom;
You can the sweetest fruit among His wormwood gather
Then look to raise your eyes to Him,
Cease not to raise your eyes to Him.

I will put the words up on the screen to give the congregation a little more time to contemplate the meaning.  The difficulty is exacerbated by the musical phrasing.  It does not follow the punctuation very well.

Here’s the song, sung in the original German.

To me, this song truly exemplifies the meaning of Good Friday.  The “good” of Good Friday is a troubling word for Jesus’ suffering.  It’s also called Holy Friday.  But let’s take it at face value.   “Your highest Good in Jesus’ suffering”.  That’s Good Friday.  From Jesus’ suffering, fragrant flowers and sweet fruit will grow.  God brings goodness out of suffering, both in Jesus’s life and in our own.

It took my pianist and I a little while to grasp the beauty of this song, but now that we do, it’s come together quite well.  The question however remains:  will the congregation grasp the goodness of this Friday song?


Harmonica Man

non the real harmonica man, but close enough!

When you’ve spent as much time in church as I have, you are bound to see some unusual things; emotional outbursts, psychotic breaks, attempted healings, and visitors who’s behavior is out of place because they are used to a radically different style of worship.  But this event stands out for me as the most unusual.

Every faith community has a unique personality.  Denomination is a factor, but even within denominations there are unique differences.  This community I was attending was very progressive.  It was one of the first churches in the state to extend  full welcome and acceptance of people regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.  The church is filled with thoughtful, accepting, highly intelligent, and highly educated people.  There are many professors and great thinkers who attend.  This is a very eco-friendly community. You’ll find many Prius’s out front.   The worship is beautifully, and carefully planned.  It is a very rich, innovative, and peaceful worship setting.  I greatly value my fifteen years of membership there.

But what happens in a church like this when a visitor shows up for worship who’s behavior is out of the bounds of the character of the worship tradition?  I can think of a few incidents where although we wanted to do our best to be inclusive with people’s behavior, we had reached a limit.

An older man with white hair and cowboy boots began attending one summer, and although he struck me as a little odd, he was friendly enough.  In talking with him, I learned that he was quite a bit more traditional than the average member of my church, which often brings with it a very different expectation for worship.  Most of the more conservative churches are non-liturgical, a free’er formula for worship.   The United Methodist Church is a liturgical church.  Liturgy is a formula for a worship service that has an order for it’s prayers, litanies, sacraments, sermons…and music.

One Sunday, as I was entering the church, the man was sitting on the bench playing a harmonica.  I stood for a moment to listen.  He was playing an old gospel tune very skillfully .  I nodded my approval and stepped in thinking that this was a nice way to start the morning.

The next week, he had moved his harmonica into the loggia (Methodist for foyer or lobby).  I noted this.  He was especially focused on the children, and although some were interested,  most were standoffish.  He was still in the category of “stranger” to them.

He attended sporadically for a time.  Then one Sunday, right before the service, our pastor called an emergency meeting of any man in the vicinity.  We gathered in the fellowship hall, and she shut the door.  She was visibly shaken.  She eyed the door as she addressed us.  I could see that she was trying to remain calm, but it was clear that something upsetting had happened.

She said that our visitor had approached her and the music director to ask if he could play the harmonica for the kids during the children’s sermon.  She did not feel comfortable with this.  Perhaps she was concerned that it would interrupt the very intentionally planned flow of the service, but more likely she simply had a bad feeling about the guy. A gut feeling.  She didn’t want a guy that she didn’t trust having any interaction with our children, and I believe there was a consensus in the room on this.  Plus, the protocol is that special music goes through the music director in enough time to make the arrangements in the bulletin, but Harmonica Man wouldn’t take no for an answer. There had been a  very heated argument which ended with his pronouncement that he WAS going to play and no one could stop him. Our job, the ten of us, was to make sure that didn’t happen.

I remember feeling a great deal of apprehension about this.  I’m not a very confrontational person, and the idea of responding bodily made me a little queasy.  I wondered if I would even have the nerve to do anything at all.

When the service began, Harmonica Man had positioned himself as close to the place where the children would congregate, which was in the middle of the circular sanctuary in front of the altar.  I could just make out that his harmonica was tucked in his front pocket.  I also observed the other men spread throughout the circular sanctuary.  Their eyes were never too far from him.

When the pastor invited the children to join her, we all moved to the edges of our seats.  Throughout the message, he sat patiently and quietly.  I began to wonder if the whole crisis would be averted with no action necessary, but just as the pastor was concluding her sermon, the man stood up and whipped out his harmonica.  What happened next could only have taken 10 seconds.  It was so swift, that if you had been in the middle of a private prayer, you might have missed it.

Nine men jumped from their seats and rushed the Harmonica Man.  He did not resist but he managed to put the harmonica to his mouth.  It was the shortest, most hurried parade I had ever seen, as nine men surrounded and escorted him out of the church to the tune of “I’ll Fly Away”.  The congregation must have been astonished but there was no time to observe it  because the service resumed almost as quickly as it had stopped, almost as if nothing had happened.  As if, perhaps, this was a normal occurrence.

But I had not acted.  When I saw the other nine men move, I sat put.  I guess I must have figured that nine was enough.  I felt guilty for weeks about it.  I’d be charged with a manly task, and I had failed.

After the service, I got the rest of the story.  Harmonica Man was mouthy out in front of the church, and one of our senior members, a professor, a most dignified man, put up his fists and shouted something like “You want to fight? Well, fight me!”  But there was no fight.  Harmonica Man calmed down and they all had a little chat.  He was invited to rejoin the service under the supervision of the feisty professor where he was docile for the rest of the service and in the weeks to come.

As far as my part, the story ended a few weeks later.  Our accompanist’s dad had been visiting occasionally.  One Sunday, when the Harmonica Man was absent, the pianist’s father was sitting in the exact seat where the man had been sitting, also with white hair and wearing boots.  During the joys and concerns, I stood up to speak.  I have know idea why I stood up or what I said, but I addressed whom I believed to be Harmonica Man, and then sat down. Perhaps I offered a few words of welcome.  I’m not sure.

A few minutes later, the pianist’s dad stood and addressed me back.  He was fuming.  He assured me that he was not, in fact, the Harmonica Man and didn’t appreciate the mistaken identity.  My ears rang and my face burned over this.  I had made a terrible mistake and embarrassed myself and the pianist’s dad.

After the service, I sought him out immediately to apologize.  He was very gracious, a vigorous man with a sense of humor about it all, and welcomed my apology.  I saw him from time to time when he visited.  He was always very affectionate with me, and he never let me live it down.

Of all the odd things I have witnessed in my years of church, this was by far the most dramatic, bizarre, and comedic.  I’ve turned it over in my head to consider if there could have been any other course of action.  I wondered what I would’ve done if I had been the music director.  Perhaps it would have been just fine to let the guy play the kids a tune.  I’m sure this would have been welcomed in other churches where the worship isn’t so carefully planned, but in the end, I believe I would have done the same thing.  That’s just not how we do things.  There is a time, an order, and place for music and personal sharing.  We who grew up in a liturgical setting understand this.  You don’t just walk into a liturgical church and start blowing a trumpet, or a tuba, or a harmonica.  But more importantly, I trusted this pastor’s instincts about the Harmonica Man;  and, as you might expect, I will never be able to hear “I’ll Fly Away” the same way again.