Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Blessed Jesus, At Thy Word

This Sunday, you'll get to hear several variations on the hymn "Blessed Jesus, At Thy Word."  This is one of the great early German chorales that was in the LBW but unfortunately omitted from the ELW.  Thankfully, we have the Bethany Hymnal as a supplement!  The original tune was composed by Johann Ahle, a 17th century predecessor to J.S. Bach, who adapted several of Ahle's tunes as chorale preludes.

The meditative prelude will be a modern arrangement by George Thalben-Ball.  The dissonance will create a very different sound and mood, but the melody will still be clear.  By contrast, during communion and the offering (at second service), I will play Bach's highly ornamented arrangement and Flor Peeters classical sounding version, though he lived from 1903 to 1986.  In addition, we'll be singing "Blessed Jesus, At Thy Word" as the hymn of the day.  Hearing the same tune in such a range of settings can help hear the nuances and illuminate the text.  In this case, the text lines up perfectly with that goal (quoting from the LBW version): "Let our thoughts and hearts be stirred...Jesus, send yhour blessed light; Help our hearing, speaking, heeding, That our prayers and songs may please you, As with grateful hearts we praise you.

For the choir anthem, we'll be reaching back to the 16th century for a setting of an adaptation of Psalm 118 by Lodovico Viadana.  The music is rhythmically interesting, opening with a lilting waltz, followed by a joyful march-like section, then a polyphonic fugue where each section of the choir takes its turn in leading the melody, and finally returning to the original waltz.  Listen for the meter changes and how the composer uses them to change the mood.

The text continues our fall theme of Make Joyful Noise:
Hear the sound of joy over all the earth.
God has triumphed.
God is the mighty Lord.
Songs of joy sing to God the Lord.
The foe is conquered; glory be to God.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pew Survey on Religion

It seems like every major news outlet is covering the Pew Survey on Religion in some way.  (Here is one outlet's summary.  If you prefer to read the study itself, here is a link to the Pew Forum.)  Basically, the findings are that people do not perform well on a "religious pop quiz."  We don't seem to know even the most basic tenets of our faith; we seem to led by our hearts and not our heads when it comes to religion.

I do worry about the "fairness" of pop quizzes.  I think we'd be surprised at how poorly we'd perform on any range of topics.  Furthermore, who decides which questions demonstrate religious knowledge?  If a person can recite and explain the Apostle's Creed and the Lord's Prayer, wouldn't that show at least a minimal understanding of the Christian faith?

But despite that reservation, I don't think we can see the results of this study as anything other than a call for ongoing Christian education - Sunday School, adult forum, Bethel Bible study, and, of course, music!  Church music doesn't respect the distinction between heart and head.  Soaring tunes can be matched with texts that explain and describe our faith, thereby pairing aesthetic beauty with Christian education.

Our closing hymn "O Christ, Your Heart, Compassionate" (ELW 722) this past Sunday is just one example of that blending.  For one thing, the choir sounded fantastic on the last verse descant at second service, and the hymn itself has a beautiful tune.  But the text also contains a number of allusions to specific Bible verses, and a call to ministry.  Verse three appears below as an example:

O Christ, create new hearts in us that beat in time with yours,
That, joined by faith with your great heart, become love's open doors.
We are your body, risen Christ; our hearts, our hands we yield
That through our life and ministry your love may be revealed.

From what I can tell, the survey didn't ask people if they had any hymns memorized or how music informs their faith.  That's certainly a glaring omission of one important aspect of worship!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Make Joyful Noise: The Sound of Motors and Engines

Is any one of you in trouble?  He should pray.  Is anyone happy?  Let him sing songs of praise!  (James 5:13)

A little birdie told me that people won't comment on my Make Joyful Noise themes because I list too many examples.  So today I'll limit myself to a description and one story.  I hope my readers will step up with more stories and examples of their own.

Motors and engines aren't necessarily joyful noise to most people.  I played organ at a church in South Minneapolis for a year, and the nearby airport was a recurring cause of annoying noise for the surrounding community.  I know there are certainly times and places where the noise of airports is anything but joyful, but for the most part the sounds of airplane jet engines have positive connotations for me.

For one thing, I love to travel, and the moment of departure is always a moment of excitement, with a palpable sense of potential.  The destination hardly matters to me.  I simply love the different atmosphere of a new place, and the chance to explore and experience new things.  Of course, the return trip is also a joy, and being reunited with a loved one upon his return is also a fantastic moment.  Thus, the sound of airplanes represents either hope for a new adventure or the comfort of being reunited - both joyful events that transform the jet engine noise to beautiful music to my ears.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

This, I Believe

Being back on our fall schedule means that I no longer get to hear Liane Hanson host Weekend Edition Sunday during my morning drive.  For NPR fanatics like me, the hosts became old friends, so I miss hearing her voice, her humor, and her wit during the puzzle segments.  In exchange, I get to hear Bob Edwards, and in particular I'm back to hearing the series "This, I Believe."

I've always proclaimed that my ultimate vision for the blog and Bethany's music ministry stems, in part, from this series, based on the work of Edward R. Murrow.  The radio series has moved on from sharing the historic essays to covering recently submitted work.  They share brief statements of beliefs (not necessarily theological), in the same way that I continue to invite your opinions and thoughts and feedback about music and, in particular, our fall theme of Make Joyful Noise.

Pondering and sharing our beliefs is such an important exercise that Kent State University this year required all incoming freshman to read the book This I Believe.  The opportunity to read and reflect during formative years is an important part of maturing, but it is vital that we all have ongoing outlets for such meditation.  Let the music and the conversation help inspire you during worship and during your daily life, seek out other venues as well (Bethel Bible study is one great possibility, of course), and continue to engage in conversation about belief.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Let Justice Flow Like Streams

The danger of putting a particularly meaningful hymn (ELW 717) during communion is that not enough people sing it!  I thought this hymn did a superb job of capturing the theme of engagement.  Not only does the imagery match perfectly with my latest "Make Joyful Noise" theme of the sounds of nature, but the text also brings to mind themes of the civil rights movement.  It's a reminder that the ideals of justice, righteousness, respect, and peace should pervade all political and social dialogue.

Among the things I value about the ELCA is our emphasis on reasoned debate and respectful dialogue.  Last summer's Churchwide Assembly may have had its share of contentious issues, but we had first taken years to pray and study and consider those issues from a variety of perspectives.  In this election year, I wish more people of faith were driven to collect facts and quietly reflect on motives and implications before rushing to judgment.

Rather than rambling on with my own opinions, I simply offer the full text of this hymn:

Let justice flow like streams of sparkling water, pure,
Enabling growth, refreshing life, abundant, cleansing, sure.

Let righteousness roll on as others' cares we heed,
An everflowing stream of faith translated into deed.

So may God's plumb line, straight, define our measure true,
And justice, right, and peace pervade this world our whole life through.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Make Joyful Noise: The Sounds of Nature

Psalm 148: 7-10 (NIV)
Praise the Lord from the earth,
You great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
Lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
Stormy winds that do his bidding,
You mountains and all hills,
Fruit trees and all cedars,
Wild animals and all cattle,
Small creatures and flying birds.

I have always loved to go camping and backpacking and spend time in nature.  The experience is so much quieter and calmer, but after spending time in nature we sometimes notice a new range of sounds.  There is nothing better than falling asleep to the sound of crickets or frogs, for example.  Camping in the Canadian wilderness as a child, we would often hear a beaver slap his tail in the water first thing in the morning, and nights at the lake in Alexandria were always made more special if we heard the call of loons at sunset.

Among the great things about living in northeast Ohio is our proximity to a range of great parks and biking trails.  One of my personal favorites is to hike through Cuyahoga Valley National Park to Brandywine Falls.  Rushing water can be so calming and meditative and beautiful.

Getting away from the noises of the city can reintroduce us to the beautiful sounds of nature.  But we don't have to escape to the wilderness to hear the sounds of nature.  Like the Psalmist, I find late summer thunderstorms to be a thrilling display of nature's raw power.  The sound of my dog barking (or snoring) can also make me smile.

All those sounds of nature are joyful to me for their connotations and memories, but they can also be heard as a chorus of praise.  What other sounds of nature reveal the beauty and power of God's creation to you?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Old favorites

We'll be singing some old favorite hymns this week, and they all speak directly to our theme (the second word from the new Bethany logo): Engage.  We'll begin with "Rise Up, O Saints of God!" as an inspiring call to action.  Next, the hymn "God of Grace and God of Glory" is a prayer for power and inspiration, with every verse including the imploring text "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage."  At communion, we being with "Take My Life," offering our own service and work in ministry.  That leads us to the least known hymn of the week "Let Justice Flow Like Streams."

I know that the Worship and Music Committee didn't plan it this way, but I believe this hymn progression leads perfectly to the most important call for engagement with our world.  Good Christians need to take a stand in all our thoughts, words, and deeds, working for justice and rightenousness, tolerance and peace.  Current events certainly call for all of those traits and goals.

The choir will be continuing our fall theme of Make Joyful Noise with the anthem "Sing to the Lord a Marvelous Song."  The ABA structure intersperses a joyful, rhythmic melody with a beautiful chorale section.  It should inspire us to enjoy our work and engage with the world in love and joy.

Monday, September 13, 2010

We ran out of robes!*

Rally Day was a great success at Bethany.  I heard a number of positive comments about the choir and the guest musicians; the jazz saxophone arrangement of "Amazing Grace" was a particular high point, in my opinion.  We won't hear jazz every week, but it was a great change of pace.

Now I should explain about the asterisk in this post's title.  At second service, we truly did have a choir member wearing every single robe.  At first service, however, one of our younger choir members was serving as an acolyte and therefore wearing a white robe instead.  That one lonely robe still hanging in the choir room, though, should function as a reminder that we always welcome newcomers!  (And don't worry, we have more robes on order, so we can continue to grow.)

I was also proud of the congregation's singing of "All Who Believe and Are Baptized."  You might have noticed that the tune was slightly different from the original rhythmic version that Luther would have recognized.  The hymnal is sometimes updated to a "metric version" that avoids some of the more complicated rhythms and syncopations of earlier church eras.  I could sense the surprise at this dumbed-down version of the hymn in the hesitations between phrases.  It's great that our congregation as a whole is so musically literate that we notice those changes.  So congrats to the people in the pews too, for your great singing.

I hope that the energy of this kick-off to the fall season can be continued with high levels of participation and excitement for all our ministries.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Make Joyful Noise: The Sounds of Church

Psalm 98:4 (King James Version)
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth:
Make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.

That Bible verse is one of my favorites, and the psalms are packed with similar injunctions for us to make noise and sing in joy and thanksgiving.  That sentiment is the driving force behind our music at Bethany this fall, and I want to extend that theme here on the blog.

This week kicks off my ongoing fall series titled Make Joyful Noise.  Each week I'll devote one post to a category of sounds and share some of my own thoughts on the topic.  I hope that it will spark thoughts and memories of your own that you'll share in the comments.  To get us started this week, I thought we'd discuss the most obvious place to make joyful noise: the church.

Worship services conjure up thoughts of liturgies and hymns, of course.  Some of my own favorites are "Holy, Holy, Holy," "Earth and All Stars," and "A Mighty Fortress."  Some hymns also bring back specific memories.  "Let Us Break Bread Together" always makes me think of my mom and how much she enjoys hearing me play that hymn.  "Beautiful Savior" connotes my time at St. Olaf.  "On Eagles Wings" reminds me of my great-uncle's funeral many years ago.  In fact, it's only the vaguest of memories and the only image that I can bring to mind of that day.  The power of music to influence memories never ceases to amaze me.  Perhaps you can recall exactly the music of your wedding or perhaps you simply have an old favorite that you love to hear again and again.

But we hear more sounds than that in a church.  I always associate church with the many handshakes and greetings of "Good morning" or "Peace be with you" or (on Easter) "Alleluia!"  The clink of communion glasses and coffee cups, the rustling of bulletins, and the poetic recitations of the confession and the Lord's Prayer - those sounds combine in their own symphony of praise.

Listen this Sunday not just to the hymns but to all the sounds of the church building and the worship service.  Share what you hear or tell the story of your favorite hymn.  What joyful noise do you hear among the sounds of church?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rally Day music

The fall season will be officially underway at Bethany this Sunday.  Rally Day marks the beginning of Sunday School, but so many of our other activities also follow the school calendar: Bethel Bible study, adult forum, our two service schedule, and of course, the choir.  You'll hear the choir singing throughout the service this week, reflecting our philosophy of integrating music throughout the worship service.  For starters, the choir will be singing the meditative predlue.  We're going back to the old Service Book and Hymnal and singing the proper Introit for the day.  Introits are short pieces of music that functioned as a call to worship in the old liturgy.  Some people might remember hearing them, and it should be an interesting change of pace for the meditative prelude.  Second, the choir will be singing a psalm antiphon.  They'll also be singing a descant on the last verse of the final hymn, which should end the service on a high note - literally and figuratively.  Finally, we'll be singing an anthem titled "With Music I Will Praise Thee" by the modern composer Natalie Sleeth.  The text is part of our fall "Make Joyful Noise" theme.  We've been working hard to put together all this music for a great start to the fall season.

We'll also have a pair of guest musicians from Baldwin Wallace college to help us celebrate.  In addition to the hymns and liturgy, our trumpet player will play a March by Bach as the postlude.  The prelude will be a Mozart oboe concerto arranged for alto saxophone.  I think the piece that will be most memorable, though, is a jazz arrangement of "Amazing Grace" that will be played on the saxophone during communion.  So this service represents a wide variety of music from the 18th century to today, from classical to jazz to contemporary with several well-known hymns that I hope everyone will enjoy singing.  I hope you like it all, of course, but can also find something that you'd list among your favorites.

Be sure to stop by the choir's table at the ministry fair between services.  We want everyone to be a part of our music ministry, whether that involves singing, playing in the bell choir, participating through the blog, or providing feedback and support for our work.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Give choir a try tonight at 7:00

I know I've been quite vocal about choir participation this fall (hopefully not quite to the point of obnoxiousness), but church music is a rather obvious passion of mine.  I truly think everyone should participate at some point; at the very least every member should sing the hymns proudly from the pews.  Furthermore, nobody will ever join the choir if they aren't asked, and my goal this fall is to ensure that everyone who attends Bethany regularly gets invited multiple times and in multiple ways.

Joining the choir can be great fellowship and stewardship, joining your musical talents with those of fellow members in praise.  Music has also been shown to provide all kinds of benefits from better health to better brain function from a more positive attitude to lower stress levels.  It's a chance to participate in something creative and artistic, which so many of us do all too rarely in our everyday lives.

Don't be intimidated if you haven't sung in a while.  Don't feel that by coming for a few weeks you're making a lifetime commitment.  Just come sing your best when you're able to join us.  We'll be glad to have you anytime, and I think you'll have fun too!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

An instrumentation experiment

So who was playing the piano?  I got asked that once after services this Sunday.  For the second communion hymn, the first verse was played on the organ and the rest on the electronic keyboard.  Well, the answer is that I was playing both of them from the organ console.

I've mentioned it before, but I know there are still many people who don't know about the integration of three different systems at Bethany - the pipe organ, a set of Ahlborn "electronic pipes," and the Roland keyboard.  They are all linked together with a Midi system that allows me to play sounds from any of them on the organ keyboards.  So even though you don't often see me sitting at the keyboard, you are actually hearing sounds from it almost every week.

I decided this week to make the shift a bit more obvious, partly to show off the technological capability and partly because the particular hymn we were singing was quite pianistic.  It had plenty of rolling eighth notes in the interior voices, which can sound strange and disjointed on the organ.  It was composed by Marty Haugen, who was born in 1950 and is known for composing lighter, modern fare that can be played on a variety of instruments but are particularly well suited for piano (and even guitar in some churches).  He composed the liturgy that we were singing over the summer before switching back to one of the "old settings" this fall.

In my opinion, this particular experiment was only semi-successful.  I had the keyboard volume set too low at first service, for one thing.  It was also a relatively unknown hymn so that the congregation seemed to struggle with it a bit.  (The choir will be singing next Sunday, which always helps provide a solid core sound to any hymn!)

But the whole issue reminded me of the flexibility of some composers and some music.  Early keyboard works were often composed for harpsichord or organ or piano or whatever keyboard instrument you had aruond.  Bach's Well Tempered Clavier (ostensibly a keyboard work) has famously been played by string quartets and recorded by the Swingle Singers.  This coming Sunday, we'll be hearing one of Mozart's oboe concertos played on an alto saxophone.  The variety lets us hear familiar pieces in a new way, and the change of sound helps keep our attention lest we get lulled into complacency during worship.  In that sense, I think the hymn was successful this past week, as well as the change in liturgy.  I hope you enjoyed both!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fall choir recruitment drive

For those of you who weren't at church this morning, I wanted to share the latest choir news.  We had a fantastic first rehearsal last Wednesday, with a few new faces and more than enough singers to form a strong core group.  I'm greatly looking forward to sharing our music with you on Rally Day next week.

But just because you missed the first rehearsal, doesn't mean that it's too late to join us.  In fact, we will be more than happy to welcome any and all newcomers this week Wednesday at 7:00.  I'm still hoping that we can make Rally Day a Run Out of Robes Sunday.  Give us a try for a few weeks!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Labor Day music

First, a brief public service announcement: remember that we return to our fall schedule for worship this weekend.  We'll see you at 8:30 or 11:00 this week!

Labor Day isn't a holiday that naturally matches up with any hymns in an obvious or immediate way.  Perhaps it's due to a fundamental separation between theology (which we sometimes limit to Sundays) and our everyday lives.  It's too easy for the church and its music to get separated from our vocations.  But particularly in this time of economic struggle, it's vital for the church to speak to workers, and we are all workers.  Below is the text of a non-ELW hymn that reminds us that Jesus was a carpenter.  After that he was a preacher.  The Gospels tell us of his constant work, which should inspire us to do whatever work we have to the best of our abilities and with love.

Christ the worker, born in Bethlehem,
Born to work and die for every one.
Blessed manchild, boy of Nazareth,
Grew in wisdom as he grew in skill.
Skillful craftsman, blessed carpenter,
Praising God by labor at his bench.
Yoke maker, fashioned by his hands,
Easy yokes that made the labor less.
All who labor, listen to his call,
He will make that heavy burden light.
Heavy laden, gladly come to him,
He will ease your load and give you rest.
Christ the worker, love alive for us,
Teach us how to do all work for God.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Translation, please!

This past Sunday we sang the well-known hymn "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," and I couldn't help noticing how difficult some of the language is.  For one thing, the word "fount" could hardly be considered part of the everyday vernacular.  But at least the root word is obvious in the word fountain, so we can all still understand it.

The second verse provides a much larger challenge:

"Here I raise my Ebenezer:
'Hither by thy help I've come;'
And I hope, by thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home."

What exactly is an Ebenezer?!?  Well, as the image hints, an Ebenezer is a rock, stemming from a rather obscure story in the book of 1 Samuel.  In that story, the Israelites are at war with the Philistines.  Samuel prays to God for help and protection, and the Israelites win the battle.  In recognition, he places a stone, and names it Ebenezer, which means stone of help.

So the hymn intends to remind us of God's presence and help in our lives.  Our accomplishments stem from our great gifts and endowments, mixed with our effort.  I can't help wondering if the hymn expresses that properly for us today.  Should the language be rewritten for clarity?  Should the second verse have a footnote in the hymnal?  Hopefully for at least my readers, this hymn now makes a bit more sense.

PS I'm still tweaking the blog design.  Stay tuned for more changes!