Friday, June 18, 2010

Happy Father's Day

The weather has been hot and muggy leading up to Father's Day. We're also approaching the longest day of the summer, which has both fallen into a pattern and seems to be flying by.

In honor of the holiday, we'll be singing several of the great hymns about fathers: "Children of the Heavenly Father" and "Faith of our Fathers." I'm expecting to hear enthusiastic singing on such old favorites!

I just finished reading the Percy Jackson novels this summer. They're excellent children's literature. (If you enjoyed Harry Potter, I definitely suggest that you check them out.) But rather than being magical, the stories are about demigods, children of the Greek gods. The overarching plot involves the rebellion of demigods in the face of the indifference of their immortal parents. The story draws out the contrast between the greek gods with their uncaring, distant relationship with their mortal children and the loving Father depicted in so many Christian stories. Greek demigods might truly claim to be "playthings of an angry god" while we view ourselves like the characters of "Children of Eden" - rebellious children of a loving Father. The image and the relationship of Father are always complex, but we are fortunate to have one who guarantees us unconditional love.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Several times on the blog we've commented on the fact that so many of our favorite hymns were originally composed for children. It's an easy and dangerous trap to fall into nostalgia for a golden age, but we have to keep a broader picture of history when we look back. On my trip to Minnesota I picked up several boxes of old hymnals, from 50 to 100 years old and more. The quality of the music and the lyrics varies widely. To believe otherwise is to imagine that every big band sounded just like a Glenn Miller recording. Only the great hymns have survived to be reprinted in modern hymnals.

Furthermore, many of the hymnals for "children" in my collection are actually hymnals for families and schools. They're meant to be sung as part of instruction in faith for people of all ages. That's been the purpose of hymns since the times of Martin Luther (and last Sunday we sang one of his great hymns, "Salvation Unto Us Has Come").

We should also recall that 19th century education rarely extended to high school, much less college. Adolesence is a modern phenomenon, so that "children's music" would hardly be necessary in an age when adulthood came even earlier.

Related to that, we have also seen changes in our understanding and tastes in art, architecture, and literature. How many of us can "read" and comprehend the stained glass windows in our own church? How many schools still teach the same canon of literature and language that our grandparents learned? Again, it's easy to sound like a cantankerous old man, but I recognize that computers alone represent a massive skill set and level of learning that students today have. So many things have changed, and our emphasis in many areas of life have shifted.

In many ways, our hymnals (and obviously to a greater extent the Bible itself) represent a constant, unchanging set of instruction and belief. They're a great treasure, and it is our privilege to keep those tunes and texts alive today.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What a sound!

I know that the summer schedule has its defenders and detractors, but after yesterday's service I want to add my voice to the list of strong supporters! It was so great to be home to a full church and such a great sound on this morning's hymns. I know the church was full in part because of graduation, but it really created hopes for me that we can continue to have full pews of congregants with their voices raised in song together.

It also helped that we sang some old favorite hymns, of course. "Jesus Shall Reign" has been echoing and replaying in my own mind since the service. It was an inspiring way to end the service. I hope the rest of the summer goes as well!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Marching and Dancing, Part 2

My last entry focused on the marching and military themes of some of our recent hymns, but today I want to focus on the second part of my title: dancing. Our communion hymn on Trinity Sunday was "Come, Join the Dance of Trinity," and the poetry and imagery of the text were a poignant contrast to the march tunes we've sung lately.

Perhaps my mind was on the beautiful spring weather that day, but when I read the text of the dancing, interweaving trinity the image that sprang to my mind was of a May Day celebration, with a crowd skipping around a Maypole. The inclusive call to dance also brings to my mind wedding receptions - the one social occasion where people of all ages (and dancing abilities) will head for a dance floor together. To dance is to embrace the duality of rhythm and freedom. Unlike the lock-step of marching, we can all move to the same rhythm but in our own way, with our own step, unified but individuals. That's such a beautiful image of a dancing trinity: three in one and one in three.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Dancing and marching

During my vacation, I remembered something about our hymns for Pentecost and Trinity Sundays that I meant to note on the blog. Many of the songs we sang those weeks contained military references: "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to name two that I recall (but I believe there was at least one more with a similar reference). In recent years, we've become uncomfortable with such aggressive language; indeed, some of these hymns were omitted from the ELW, presumably for that very reason.

There are certainly reasons to tone down such rhetoric, but we also lose out on part of our heritage and history. We also miss the chance to discuss the poetry and imagery such language can also represent - the final battle of the Book of Revelation, for example. We are also meant to wage a war for hearts and minds of converts, are we not?

For some reason, the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" always brings to my mind an episode of "Little House on the Prairie." (I believe it was the finale, but I may be wrong since it has been so many years.) The town's people are being evicted from their homes, with the whole town being forced to move. I can't remember the details of why exactly - some faceless and sinister "corporation" is behind the whole thing, as I recall. Anyway, the reason it's relevant is that the community chooses to blow up all their homes and buildings before walking, riding, and marching their way out of town with the remainder of the possessions. As they march, they sing that hymn, and it represents their fortitude, their rectitude, their positive attitudes in the face of adversity. They stand up and do what they think is morally correct, waging their personal battles of faith, and they do it without acts of violence, of course. The image has stuck with me for years for its emotional impact. To stand up for what you believe is to be a Christian Soldier, and I think that's worth singing about.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

On the trails this Sunday

This Sunday I won't be in church. I'll be running the Deadwood-Mickelson Trail Marathon in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The weather forecast is promising, and it should be a beautiful morning to run the route through the Black Hills.

It's always amazing to me how long it seems like I've been away from the church when I take a week off. The service becomes an ingrained part of the rhythm and pacing of life so that it's absence becomes notable. If only my running could always be such a consistent part of my week!

It reminds me of Aristotle's famous quote about excellence being not an act but a habit. We can only reach great accomplishments through consistent preparation and practice, which is not that different from becoming a musician. High quality repetition and practice make us better, including better at understanding our faith.

My iPod will provide music of all kinds for me during my run this week, and I look forward to getting back to the usual Sunday service next week!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Summer season begins

Public service announcement:
Worship is at 10:00 this Sunday! We've gone to our summer schedule, so make sure to arrive on time.

We're also changing our setting of the liturgy to setting 2, which will be familiar from last summer. It has a bit more casual and modern sound that I think is appropriate for the summer season. I hope you enjoy its return. I also hope that the new tune causes you to refocus on the text and purpose of the liturgy once again. It can be an important chance to refresh our focus on the words of the Kyrie and Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus.

These prayers are so important that they are repeated weekly, but ironically that very repetition can distract us from noticing their message. They become a kind of mantra, worthy of study on their own. We approach the liturgy anew each week, with our changing moods and experiences, but they are the constant in our week, the musical rock upon which we build the service. I may have said it before, but renewed focus on the text and meaning of the liturgy is a call worth repeating.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Practice, practice, practice

When I switch to the piano, it always seems to catch the ear of the congregation. I think that's one reason that so many people commented on this past Sunday's prelude. Since it's my first instrument, I always enjoy the opportunity to play some of the classical repertoire during the service from time to time.

By popular demand (or at least thanks to a few quite vocal requests), I'll be playing the Beethoven variations again as the prelude on July 4th. The more I think about it, the more excited I am to have the luxury of revisiting and polishing the performance. After all, one of the frustrations of a church musician is the lack of practice time. Every week there are 4 or 5 new hymns, a prelude, postlude, and offertory (in addition to the repeated liturgy). That much polished performance repertoire could represent as much as half a semester for most college students.

So in addition to trying to balance musical styles, volumes, registrations, a church musician is always trying to balance the difficulty of the service music. A virtuosic prelude gets paired with a simpler postlude; a newly learned offertory is played the same week as a more familiar prelude. For me, summer means a bit of a chance to catch up, to explore new repertoire, and to keep planning and learning.

John Lennon famously said that life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. Similarly, church music is what you play while you're struggling to learn and plan for the week ahead! I just hope and work to enhance the worship service, remembering that it's not a recital, and that next week is just around the corner so I'd better get back to practicing.