Posts Tagged ‘Music’

Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.

It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.

Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.

Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*

Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.

I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.

Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God all my life.

The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.

I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.

We will definitely do this again.

One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice:

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Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Luke 2:1-20

I love Christmas music. It probably had a lot to do with being raised in the family I was. My mom is the singer, and my dad was obsessed with Christmas. One of my most enduring Christmas memories is sitting in the balcony at First Presbyterian Church. And as the lights were dimmed and the candles were lit, and as we started singing “Silent Night”, a lump would rise in my throat. I was convinced that there was nothing more beautiful in the whole world.

I still love Christmas music, which is why I was particularly intrigued by an email I got from my sister yesterday, which has Christmas songs in code. Let me read a couple and see if you can guess them:

  • The slight percussionist lad is…The Little Drummer Boy.
  • Far back in a hay bin…Away in a Manger.
  • Do you perceive the same longitudinal pressure which stimulates my auditory sense organs?…Do You Hear What I Hear?
  • Sir Lancelot with laryngitis…Silent (K)Night.
  • The apartment of two psychiatrists…The Nutcracker Suite.

There are about fifty of these, each more absurd than the last. And some of them are just downright impenetrable, but I’ll spare you those. You can find them easily enough online yourself.

It’s harmless fun, of course, but the exercise is actually counter to the whole point of Christmas. Tonight is not about a story that is available only to the select few. We’re not here because we’re “better” than anyone else, or because we have decoded the meaning of the manger. The story is available to all. From the first to the twelfth day of Christmas, we are reminded that the birth of the Christ child is something that all can celebrate: Judean shepherds. Persian Magi. There are no barriers between us and the child who was born far back in a hay bin.

That’s the gift of the ridiculous email: it takes songs that are deeply – perhaps too deeply – familiar and gives us a new way to hear them. Because let’s face it: our favorite Christmas songs tend to touch on the same things: a baby, Mary, Joseph, animals, shepherds, angels, Bethlehem, a star, and three kings. The verses may change up the order, but the song essentially remains the same. That has done nothing to shake the power this music holds on me. The danger, however, is that we domesticate the story to the point that we neglect the earth-shattering nature of it.

This year, as my iTunes worked through the familiar litany of Christmas songs, there was one that stood out in a brand new way. It’s of the pop music brand of Christmas music, released by John Lennon in 1971, just a year after the Beatles had disbanded. There’s no mention of the familiar Christmas themes whatsoever; but for some reason, it hit me in the gut right out of the gate: “So this is Christmas. And what have you done?”

A whole year has gone by since the last Christmas. Am I any different this year than I was last year? When next year comes around, will I be exactly the same? Or will the power of Christmas grab hold of me in more than just the emotionally resonant ways, shaking me to the core of my being?

And then the song hits its “of its time” chorus, which sounds awfully Pollyanna nowadays: “War is over…if you want it.” Surely we’re more sophisticated now than we were forty years ago. We know that war is never over. American troops have just left Iraq; and so, for us, that war is over. But “war is over” isn’t just about war being over for “us”; it’s about the end of war. For Iraqis, there is still a war raging. For soldiers battling the traumas of war, the battles are still aflame within. And there are plenty of places in the world where war most certainly isn’t over.

So what does it mean when we say that we celebrate the “Prince of Peace” tonight? Does the adorableness of a resting baby overtake the aspirations we hold as disciples of Christ, that we yearn, to the very fiber of our being, that war is over – not just for us, but for all? Or have we convinced ourselves that this, too, is a idealist’s dream of years gone by?

My prayer for us this night is that the music we sing and the words we proclaim would shake us, would move us, would cause us to tremble like the shepherds under the angel-lit sky. And that this Christmas would be one that would change us forever.


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Reflections on our Advent Cantata, The Christmas Light.

What do you trust more: what you see, or what you hear?

We know that both sound and picture can be manipulated. Photoshop has changed the way we see the world: any two celebrities can be stitched together seamlessly for the supermarket aisle. The same is true of sound. In the era of 24-hour news cycles, the sound byte has the power to make or break political careers.

So which do you trust more?

Daniel Barenboim, conductor and pianist, points out that the ear has an advantage over the eye. Sight doesn’t have a chance to develop until after birth; but studies have shown that we can hear in utero. We can also, he says, control the eye: “If you don’t like the way I look…you close your eyes and I disappear. But if you don’t like the sound of my voice…then you cannot shut your ears in a natural way. Sound literally penetrates the body.”

Sound, music in particular, has a powerful hold on us, even for those of us who can’t carry a tune in a bucket. We associate certain memories with songs. We may not remember important dates, but a song can find its way into our ear where it will set up residence and stay forever. If you’ve ever been on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney, you know what I’m talking about.

There is probably no time of year more intimately associated with music than Christmas. We sing carols, tune into the radio stations that play 24-hour Christmas music, put on Vince Guaraldi. But today, as our worship service centers around music, we are reminded that song has a purpose for us as a people of faith. The Psalms, after all, were the hymnal of the people of God. Scripture is full of references to singing praise: “Make a joyful noise…” “I will sing a new song…” “How long to sing this song?”

St. Augustine, the influential theologian of the fourth century, wrote that “to sing is to love.” And Martin Luther, the Reformer and hymn composer, said, “As long as we live, there is never enough singing.” Music is praise. When we sing, whether we are making a joyful note or a joyful noise, we join our voices with the choir of angels whose song filled the sky that holy night: “Glory to God in the highest!”

As we move through these final days of the Advent season, as we continue to prepare the way of the Lord, may the songs that we sing be ones of prayer and praise to the God whom we know in Christ, the incarnate, reverberating, eternal Word.


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This reflection was part of our Holy Light service of music and poetry.

We have been imagining the Season of Advent as a journey – a journey of days, as we move closer and closer to Christmas, and a journey within as we prepare ourselves to remember the birth of Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. We’ve spent some time thinking about how, before we even take the first step, we need to make sure we’re ready, and also how we can always turn back, return to God, when we’re not sure how we can keep going.

Today, as we celebrate this season in song and verse, it is the image of light that takes center stage, and rightly so. The very first words God utters in the story of creation are: “Let there be…light.” The prophet Isaiah, whose writings we read throughout this season, spoke of a people walking in darkness, upon whom a great light will shine. In John’s gospel, written in the echoes of Genesis and the prophets, Jesus himself is the light, shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. And of course the Magi, traveling from Persia in the East, followed the course of a star in the heavens to the place where the infant Jesus lay.

It is the light which is our guide for this journey to the center of God. But what happens when we get lost along the way? It’s almost an anachronistic question, this idea of being lost, now that we live in a world of GPS and smart phones and On-Star navigation systems. For ancient peoples, the idea that light would help them find their way seems right; but for us city folk where light pollution is just the way it is, what do we need with more light?

The truth is, we all know that we need light; we have just forgotten. We may be sophisticated citizens of this urban and suburban sprawl, but we also live in the home of the Georgia pine and the winter storm. It’s a marriage of inconvenience, a guarantee of downed power lines and periods of darkness. We all know the disorientation of driving at night when the street lights are out – it spooks us. We have all announced to the family that the power is out, and then promptly sat down to watch TV. We may forget it much of the time, but we know that we have come to rely on the light, even more so than all who came before us.

So are you lost? Are you trying to find your way back to the heart of God? Then I invite you to sit down, maybe even light a candle in your dark night of the soul, and whisper, sing, shout to God to give you enough light to see your way clear again. And when you do, you will be surprised to find the truth of Emmanuel, that God has been right there with us all along.


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I’ve had this tune and chord progression bouncing around for years – at least 15, by my count. Gathered with a group of friends last spring in the north Georgia mountains, I strummed the chords for a while. This is what emerged.

Now: I’ve recently gotten a copy of Mac’s Garageband software. It’s addictive. So this is my amateur attempt at arrangement. Enjoy!

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We had a wonderful, intense meeting with the Worship Ministry last Sunday (September 28), talking about Advent and Christmas as liturgical seasons and musical touchstones. When I arrived here at OPC, the custom had been in recent years to hold off singing Christmas hymns until Christmas Eve. I continued this practice, largely because I thought it was a good one. However, it has become patently clear that there are a variety of views on this topic. So: we met, everyone got their feelings, thoughts, opinions out on the table in ways that were very, very powerful and gave, I think, powerful testimony to the open nature of listening and respect that should be at the heart of all church conversations. I left the meeting with my eyes, ears, and heart open in ways, I will admit, it had not been before to other ways of seeing this conversation.

So: following the meeting, I promised to summarize what I thought the main conversation was about, post it here, and invite feedback. I can claim no ownership for any of the thoughts below except my own, so where I miss the point, please do correct me. I want honest, direct, thoughtful, respectful feedback.

The conversation raised one important clarifying point: there is no issue about the Season of Advent. All are agreed that, prior to the coming of Christmas, there is a need to engage in thoughtful (some would say joyful) preparation as the busy-ness and commercialization of Christmas continues non-stop. The issue, rather, is about the musical selections.

On the one hand, there is the point that the liturgical seasons are reflected in the music we sing (e.g. we don’t sing Easter hymns during Lent, or Advent hymns during Lent, etc.). To sing Advent music during Advent is a way of connection with ancient traditions and ancient longings for the Messiah. It is also a prophetic witness to our wider culture that Christmas is a religious feast, not an occasion for sales. It begins on December 25 and lasts twelve whole days. Ecumenically speaking (at least the “higher church” side of things – Lutheran, Episcopal, Catholic), we are also making a statement about unity in Christ. We stand in that Christian tradition of being counter-cultural and disciplined by waiting. And in a culture of instant gratification, waiting is an important Christian discipline to nurture. As Lent is for Easter, so Advent ought to be for Christmas. And worship, at the center of our life and witness, ought to reflect this witness.

On the other hand, we are already being bombarded with Christmas secular music everywhere we go in December (and even earlier – I saw Christmas decorations already up at Lowe’s the other day). What we really want is to put Jesus back in Christmas. Singing them in the car, or at home? We want to celebrate the birth of Christ with our faith community, singing joyfully together. And waiting until Christmas officially comes is no good. The wider culture has already so bombarded us with red, green, tinsel, and santa hats that, by the time 12/25 finally gets here, we’re sick of it. The last thing we want to do is to sing “Away in a Manger.” It’s no longer joyful; the culture has killed the possibility of joy by then.

As I said, I don’t claim to have touched on all of the important points above. So please do give me feedback. What have I missed? What do you think about the conversation? How can we continue the conversation? How do we move forward from this?

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