Thursday, March 29, 2012

Fetching the Donkey

Holy Week is upon us in the world of church music. We begin the commemoration with traditional Palm Sunday activities, then move inexorably toward the darkness of the weekend, and culminate our observance with Easter's celebrations. As the leader of the worship planning for these heady events, my recognition of them is not over-spiritualized, for I am overwhelmed with the detailed planning necessary for the congregation to worship. In order for the average parishioner to have the opportunity to draw near to the stories of the final week of Jesus' earthly time, there must be invisible organization that facilitates the observance.

I have been thinking about how universal the need for organization seems to be, and how overlooked it is as an expression of "Christ-likeness." As I have revisited the gospel stories, a couple of episodes have drawn my attention in a new way.

In the first instance, Jesus is preparing to lead his entourage into Jerusalem for Passover. Peter has just reminded him that he and his colleagues have left everything to follow. James and John are jockeying for position, asking to be figuratively placed at Jesus' right and left hands. And Jesus has overruled his followers by stopping to ask a blind beggar what he wants. When he asks for his sight to be restored, Jesus tells him that his faith has made him whole, and he joins the entourage. I imagine the attention received by this beggar dismays Peter, James and John.

Then Jesus acts in a way I haven't thought about in my previous visits to this story. He announces that he has taken care of the transporation arrangements. He sends two of the disciples to fetch a donkey he has arranged to use in his entry into Jerusalem. While the disciples have been occupied with other things, the Lord has organized a live animal to use in his drama, in-keeping with prophecy. Anyone who has walked up Sixth Avenue in New York during the run of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular knows that the use of an animal in a drama calls for a lot of behind-the-scenes care and feeding. And although the disciples seem to be concerned with publicly demonstrating their great faith, Jesus alone has thought ahead and organized the activity so that the people watching the entry into Jerusalem get caught up in the drama, and do not see the invisible organization that took place in advance.

In another instance, the disciples have criticized their dinner at the home of Simon the Leper, questioning a woman who pours ointment on Jesus' head. But when it is time to plan their own Passover dinner, they leave it to Jesus to make the arrangements. It would seem logical for them to act as the event planners, for they carried the purse and knew the numbers. But the gospel story indicates that the planning was ironically left to Jesus, who was hours away from receiving a death sentence. We would find it ridiculous to ask a death row inmate to make the logistical arrangements for his last meal, but that is the position in which Jesus finds himself. Once again he acts as the organizer, telling the disciples where to go, and how to find the room he has prepared with furnishings and food.

Church choirs have a thorough knowledge of the need for organizing and preparing the elements of the story. Many hours of diligent work are represented in their three or four minutes of singing each Sunday. In addition to rehearsing, people work to collate their music and place it in their folders, to purchase that music months in advance, to move chairs and instruments and music stands, and many other tasks. In my experience, it has been rare for a dedicated choral singer to remind me of all they have given up in order to serve, or for singers to ask for a position of prominence before the congregation. It is common, however, for them to express a desire to organize and prepare so that they can do their best as an act of worship.

It is easy to observe Holy Week with no thought for the invisible organizers who make those events meaningful. Every church has ushers, flower arrangers, ordinance preparers, bulletin typers and musicians who work with great dedication. It is as if they are the large portion of the iceberg supporting below the water's surface, so that the tip of the iceberg can be visible to all who seek it.

In this year's Holy Week observance, I am expressing gratitude that in following Christ, there are those who remain unconcerned with what they have given up, or with their position at Jesus' right or left hand, but have followed Christ in his sacred task of organizing the elements needed for the vivid presentation of the story.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Musicians Without Borders

I have a device in my pocket that gives me instantaneous access to more information than was at the fingertips of President Clinton fifteen years ago. It also connects me with two billion people who carry similar devices. And this technological tool is an example of the fact that many of the presumptions with which I was trained no longer apply to my musical life.

When I was growing up in the seventies, and being educated in the eighties, the internet was yet to be created or named. We had libraries with card catalogues, and listened to vinyl recordings. Our professors, some of whom grew up in the forties, were reluctant to make the change to cassette tapes, and very suspicious of compact discs. And we were labeled and subscribed into distinct parts of the musical world. We were either "vocal" or "instrumental". Within those groups we were either "classical" or "pop", "marching" or "concert". And those groups were further stratified by voice type, pedagogical style, music education or performance emphasis, and other descriptors.

In one graduate school I attended, vocal music education students like me were expected to implicitly "declare" acceptance of a relatively new genre of choral music, the Show Choir. The resistance was fierce from the voice faculty, who demanded a similar declaration expressing loyalty to them. In another graduate school, you were known by your membership or non-membership in many different sub-groups, including strict loyalty to well-known professors, and strict repertoire guidelines.

Life in that pre-connected world was analogous to prairie farmland, punctuated only by fences, which separated the groups into their defined property lines, and silos, where the groups' resources were kept.

And the prairie of religious life, where I have spent large parts of my musical career, was among the most separated. The barbed-wire of theological conclusion kept neighbors distant, even unacknowledged. And the silos had inner chambers of decreasing size, so that the members of a group strove for inter-necine separation, always hoping to accomplish membership in smaller and smaller groups of purer and purer belief.

Musically, the analogy accurately describes the landscape. Church musicians held to firm positions regarding repertoire and liturgical practice, convinced that over the fence lay evil clothed in chord charts and amplification, or (from the other perspective) pipe organs and choir robes.

The smartphone in my pocket gives me the opportunity to lead a professional life without barbed wire. Thanks to connectedness, my last week included: communication with a friend in New York who was the harpist in the orchestra for hip-hop artist Jay-Z's performance in Carnegie Hall; attendance at a Show Choir competition where my daughter, a first-year music educator, had a group competing; meeting with one of the country's foremost Baroque violinists regarding a period instrument orchestra in Atlanta; and virtually coaching a local high school choir on French pronunciation. I was also able, thanks to the computing tools on my desk, to set several pieces of music for brass ensemble, string quartet and piano. And I was able to share some hymns I had written with other churches, along with their brass accompaniments.

And I was able to learn through those experiences of the enormous culture-changing impact of hip-hop music, and of its adoption of things from other parts of the musical world, like the orchestra in which my friend was playing. I was able to learn of the impressive stage presence and discipline of the singers in a Middle School show choir that surpassed the stage presence and discipline of many adult groups. I was able to learn about the exciting world of historically-informed performance, and refresh my knowledge of French. And I was able to hone my music-writing skill and get immediate feedback about it from other musicians. In every case, my work will benefit from what I observed in those trips beyond the fence.

Each of those opportunities would have been impossible to arrange or execute if I were insistent on living in the prairie of the past. Technology exists that can give us the excuse we have always needed to tear down our barbed-wire and interact with our neighbors. I can continue to strive for my desired standard of classical church music without expressing hyperbolic suspicion toward my neighbors who worship in a different way. My daughter can teach both classical and show choir music and skills to her students, and my friend can play the harp for multiple orchestras, if only we can understand that the silo doesn't serve us well.

Millions watched the tragic events that ended the life of a great artist last week, concluding with the four-hour funeral of Whitney Houston on Saturday. As we listened to the service, we heard one speaker who loved her as a singing actress, another who relished learning new songs with her, and others whose best memory of her included singing gospel music in church. It was an example, although tragic, of a life lived without debilitating boundaries.

All of us tend to feel protected and more clearly defined by living behind fences. But that life causes us to be disconnected people in the midst of a connected world. We are lesser for it. And the new, connected paradigm that causes us to view our neighbor's differences as enrichments rather than indictments, can enable us to remain relevant to the musical world.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Cost-benefit Analysis

I am one of many people who strenuously advocate Arts Education in our schools, churches and communities. The conversation around the proper funding of the arts is ubiquitous, and the debate has become more urgent during our economic downturn.

Public school boards and administrations face the thankless and impossible task of taking the leavings of public funds, waiting in line behind all other government programs, and distributing those funds in such a way as to teach students enough to succeed on the tests administered by the government who distributed the paltry funds. The challenge is exacerbated by the nation's religion of the marketplace, in which the fervently-held belief system includes the doctrine that wealth is the only value worth pursuing, and that fields of study that don't lead to wealth are not worthy of resources. This situation has led to a dynamic change in the goals of education, from a system designed to bring the accumulated knowledge of civilization to the minds of modern students, to a system designed to vocationally educate a new earning class. In this scenario, it is easy to see why administrators and school board members can easily discard aesthetic pursuit, and can just as easily mistake the spirit of competition in athletic endeavors for an atmosphere of educational success.

Church and community decision-makers would celebrate if they had the paltry funds available to educators. They fund their work entirely with donations, and must be daily advocates for the things they value. In their world, necessity dictates the funding of efforts that receive the highest popularity. They are frequently driven by the marketplace just like education, for expert opinion about what serves the long-term interests of the community or congregation are drowned out by the desire to produce whatever brings today's crowd to the church or community venue. In a budget that is completely reliant on donations, there is no place for the funding of activities that are designed to preserve a place in an historic continuum, or to present a bold, long-term approach to the future of the community.

Those of us who seek to advocate for the arts tend to speak from the passion instilled in us by our own arts experiences and educators. We also speak from a place of self-preservation, since we have a responsibility to our families and ourselves to earn a living. But we seldom speak from a sense of honest introspection about the value of what we do. We immediately take sides, knowing the rightness of our argument, without considering that some of the responsibility for the dim view of the arts might be ours to assume.

In our modern life of constantly judging the economic value of any subject, we tend to view the art we love as possessing a high value, and we estimate that our lives are richer for having encountered it. I would like to suggest that we take a more objective look at the art we produce. It seems to me that we sometimes produce art that has a low value in comparison to the cost of producing it. When we present songs in concert or worship that come from "pop" culture, and have a short shelf-life, we strain the economics of arts education. It costs far too much to provide a teacher and the necessary infrastructure to present a performance of the latest song celebrating teenage love, for another or for God. When we hear an instrumental effort that is not reflective of the best teaching methods, and only prepares a student for the playing of cheers for an athletic crowd, we have shown another way in which the cost-benefit analysis doesn't withstand scrutiny. Taking years of classes in an instrument, only to find the effort obsolete at the end of an athletic season is a poor way to spend precious resources.

My point is not to disparage the efforts of arts educators who are making decisions based on their own context. Rather, it is simply to point out that playing by the rules of the religion of the marketplace makes what we do too expensive. If, on the other hand, the singer in the school, church or community choir has enjoyed a strenuous, challenging and joyful encounter with Mozart or Bach, their life has been changed. They and their audience have received a priceless aesthetic product. If the instrumental student has passed through the responsibilities of the athletic band on the way to the rigors of the symphony orchestra, and has met Beethoven or Berlioz along the way, their journey has gone from "expensive" to "a bargain at any price".

As arts educators and advocates, we must ensure that our performers and audiences experience excellent presentations of art whose value is so high that it is beyond measure. We must prove to economic decision-makers that, while commercial "art" is an expensive proposition, timeless art is priceless. We must stop relying on the arguments that the study of art makes students more disciplined, more inclined toward mathematics, more valuable to the school or community. Instead, we must take the position that we know to be true: real art changes our lives, and as the years go by, it continues to change them. We are not working toward something as ephemeral as economic success. We are working toward something more real and satisfying, a life of self-actualization and growth, characterized by an understanding of real value, rather than price tags. Let's be bold enough and excellent enough to change the world through priceless art, rather than seeking to attract the world through expensive entertainment. Then let's make our case for the necessary funding, relying on Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz and countless others to be our advocates.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A New Paradigm for the Music of Worship

I took a vocational interest in the music of worship 35 years ago. As a teenager in small-town Georgia, I accompanied the soloists and choirs of my "city" church, then began to direct the choir at a smaller "country" church when I was old enough to drive. Throughout the time since those first experiences, I have observed that the music of the church, both locally and globally, has been the subject of debate more often than consensus.

I have participated in this debate, and my opinions have changed from time to time. Like everyone who takes a passionate position, my opinions are informed by my own personality type and biases, as well as those of my mentors and teachers. They are also affected by the contextual events of my life and the circumstances of the churches I have served. I cannot claim valid opinions on the music of the African-American church, although discussions with my colleagues from that world have left me with the impression that they have experienced similar debates. But my experiences within varied examples of predominantly white, protestant congregations give me ample context within which to draw some personal conclusions about the debate over their church music.

Opinions about appropriate repertoire and style for the music of the church lie on a continuum between two extremes that are equally difficult to define. For the purposes of this essay, I have defined them as emotionally-oriented and intellectually-oriented. At the extremes, the adherents of either viewpoint accept the fallacy that the two are unrelated. The repertoire represented in the discussion of either has changed over the years of my observation, but has common threads that remain present over time. In every church where I have been a member or employee, there have been a few people who were passionate about either extreme, and many people whose preferences lay somewhere between them. In church history, the codification of “Gregorian” chant, the Reformation, the Great Awakening and the Victorian Era all provide examples of similarly-framed ecclesiastical debates about worship, and how it should appropriately be done.

Emotion-oriented Worship

The emotionally-centered worshiper during the years of my youth found revelation in the emerging music of people like Bill and Gloria Gaither and others in the gospel music marketplace. The younger generation also saw the emergence of a new genre called "Contemporary Christian Music". Congregations were open to new sounds because they were thrilled to see large youth choirs made up of their teenagers. Soloists were allowed to assume a performance style that reflected secular practice, singing while holding a microphone, using hand gestures, and closing their eyes during particularly emotional moments. The repertoire used by these musicians closely resembled the style of popular music, and the change it represented was characterized by the fact that its composers eschewed traditional rules of harmony, voice leading and elegance of text, instead rendering music with a primary compositional focus on affect, or emotional appeal. This music was not evaluated based upon its adherence to the musical rules and structures that had characterized the parallel evolutions of church music and classical music. These rules and structures were, in fact, irrelevant to the worshipers and musicians involved in the development of this new practice. Rather, this music was evaluated based upon its "feelingfulness." Music became popular and widespread when it predictably evoked an emotional response, with a rationale that the worshiper must achieve a high level of "openness", that the Holy Spirit waited to relate to worshipers who were receptive while listening or singing, and that the presence of the Holy Spirit would be evident to the extent that the worshiper felt that presence emotionally.

These practices evolved further during my young adult years, and publishers began to provide more polished products for this kind of worship. The music resources churches were buying were designed to depict spontaneity of feeling in worship, but were, in fact, written using proven formulae. And the music that had been presented by soloists or choir during worship migrated to the pew, with congregational song exhibiting the same stylistic traits as the performed music.

The teenagers of the 1970s were becoming the church's young adults in the 1980s and 90s, and were exerting growing influence over the practices of worship. By the time I had reached my 30s, the churches I served had many members for whom worship was considered to be successful based upon the way the worshiper felt during the experience. Generally, I observed that these worshipers' comments reflected little interest in the history and traditions of the congregation's worship practice, nor did they express interest in developing musical programs or skills as a way of preparing for the future of the church. Rather, they worshiped in the moment, with a strong desire for a sense of closeness to God that came through the affect achieved during musical expressions of worship.

I have observed these worship practices while working in the evangelical protestant church in the "Bible Belt" environment of Alabama. But similar experiences could be observed throughout the church world. Arguably, a parallel version of this turn toward "of the moment", emotionally-oriented worship was taking place in the most historical and traditional part of the church, the Roman Catholic church in its post-Vatican II expression. The rejection of centuries of significant and complex musical repertoire, and the embracing of a new folk style of musical worship appeared to be an effort to engage the individual worshiper by conforming the language of musical expression to their vernacular, after many centuries of separateness between the persons attending the mass and the persons leading the mass. Just as the spoken language of the mass was changed in order to bring the worshipers into a more engaged experience, the musical forms were made more familiar and approachable.

As an illustration of the effect of these worship practices, consider the person who is listening to the radio and singing along. They haven't chosen to sing along with a popular song because of its adherence to the rules of musical composition, or because its words offer profound meaning that must be studied and repeated. Rather, they are singing along because it is entirely pleasant to do so. The song is approachable, pleasing, and expresses understandable feelings. Likewise, the music of the church that has served those worshipers for whom approachability or emotional expression are of primary importance has been constructed for immediate connection.

Congregations are rarely made up of people who unanimously accept these changes to historical norms. Consequently, many churches have divided into multiple congregations who meet simultaneously, each with its own "style" of worship. And in some cases, worshipers who strongly desire these musical changes have started new churches based upon this "style" choice. Since these musical practices are specifically intended to be non-historical, newer styles whose music is more "cutting edge" tend to attract their own groups of worshipers, resulting in obsolescence, divisions within divisions, or newer churches alongside new churches. When arguments have ensued between adherents of this style of worship and those who desire a more intellectual or tradition-based style, the rationale for this worship style, often called "contemporary" or "praise and worship", is relational and centered upon the worshiper. When I have been involved in these discussions, I have drawn the conclusion that these worshipers strongly desire a relationship with God that is reflected in a moment-by-moment feeling of closeness to God. They evaluate their closeness to God through their feelings, and their feelings are strong and good during this kind of worship.

Intellectually-oriented Worship

Worshipers who occupy the other end of the continuum I have described are intellectually-oriented. They are at home in theological discussion, and sense that they are part of the modern expression of the ongoing history of the church. In my experience, they have expressed discomfort with what they see as the emotionalism of "contemporary" worship, and feel disenfranchised when their own congregation makes musical choices reflecting styles of "pop" music.

I resonate strongly with the worshipers for whom this end of the continuum is a comfortable home. In my work leading the music of several congregations, I have tended to lead them toward more frequent use of classical, historical repertoire in choral, solo and congregational music. I have tended to refrain from following technologically-based trends, and continue to use the traditional resources of pipe organ and hymnal. I am not unemotional about worship. Rather, since I tend to be drawn toward more intellectually-oriented expressions of worship, I frequently feel emotional during these offerings. I am, however, reluctant to display my emotions, and am introverted during worship, regardless of the level of "feelingfulness."

During the years of my work in church music, the adherents of intellectually-oriented worship practices have tended to be philosophically led by highly educated individuals who were either in prominent preaching or teaching positions. When emotionally-oriented worship began to take a prominent role among congregations, these leaders held to their convictions about repertoire and media choices. They contended that the music of worship should be of the highest quality regarding musical and textual construction, and they contended that the worshiper should not be perceived as the object toward whom the musical expression of the choir or soloist was geared. Rather, they insisted that the musical offering was presented with God as audience. They contended that the congregation should sing with similar intent, focusing on God rather than their own feelings, and singing with the hymns and organ accompaniment that had proven to nurture congregational involvement for centuries.

The technological advances of recent decades, including broadcasting and recording, have impacted all worship leaders. In the case of every kind of worship, church members have only to turn to Youtube or iTunes to find professionally produced recordings of the music they hear in worship. Since the music of the "contemporary" worshiping church is, by definition, written to be approachable by musicians and hearers, the professionally-produced videos and recordings of the music serve as attainable guideposts for the local musicians who are working to produce this music in worship. But since it is possible for anyone to find a professional recording of most classical music, presented at a high artistic level, the musicians who lead "traditional" worship often experience the opposite effect. They cannot produce their music at the standard of the professional recording within the acoustics of their church building, using the volunteer singers of their choir. Consequently, while the leaders within the circles of church musicians who adhere to more traditional norms have given a passionate rationale for continuing these musical practices, congregations and singers have frequently found their local renditions disappointing in comparison with the easily-attainable professional recordings of their repertoire. And while the argument for viewing God as audience, and congregation as either bystander during choral or solo expressions, or participant during hymn singing, is an understandable ideological statement, the fact remains that the congregation lives in a world where they are always an audience. Music plays everywhere, all the time, and they cannot suddenly require themselves to listen passively, without evaluating what they hear. Once they have evaluated the presentation of more traditional church music to be of poor quality, it is easy for them to be convinced that the congregation will be well-served by a move to more approachable repertoire. And if that traditional musical presentation leaves them feeling no emotional response, it is easy for them to be convinced that they will be well-served by a move to more feelingful repertoire.

I have been involved in the arguments of congregations regarding adherence to the traditional worship style of the church, and have observed that there is passion among those for whom these worship practices are cherished equal to the passion of those who wish to change to more "contemporary" styles. In my evaluation, they tend to be keenly aware of the church's history and traditions, and place a high value on them. They are not unemotional, but feel most emotionally drawn to worship in which their intellect is stimulated. They desire to personally relate to God, and they evaluate their relationship to God based upon their sense that their intellectual journey has led them to a greater understanding of God. They see their intellectual understanding of classical music as an important part of that journey, and would be no more inclined to leave classical music behind than they would be to leave important theological teachings behind.

The Unresolvable Argument

The churches to which I have belonged have spent great resources expressing good will over the years of my involvement in them. They have joined the practices of countless people over many centuries in caring for the poor, bringing healing to the sick, providing for the widow and orphan, and many other activities that are part of their expression of devotion to Christ. But their last few decades have also been characterized by argument over the practices of worship, and that argument has worked against their presentation of good will in the perception of the world around them.

The emotion-oriented worshiper has argued for relevance, and a relationship with God that is as much a part of the "here and now" as are the other parts of life. The argument has included euphemisms like "over our heads" when describing complex music, or "dull and lifeless" when describing the softer, slower musical choices of the historic church repertoire. The worshiper has sought to "be fed" by worship, and has expected worship to replenish their emotional strength to face life in the week ahead. In its worst form, this argument has expressed a negative judgment of the Christian commitment of those who did not display their emotions openly and regularly.

The intellectually-oriented worshiper has argued for reverence and awe, and has not viewed music choices that were "over our heads" as disqualified, since God is the audience. This worshiper prizes an understanding of the history of the church, and seeks to adhere to its norms, rather than to begin something new. The intellectually-oriented worshiper has sought greater theological understanding during worship, and is private about emotions. This argument has, at its worst, spoken pejoratively about "feeling" in worship, suggesting that emotions were inappropriate within the context of worship, and that music that evoked an emotional response was suspect and should not be used.

My experience has never included the resolution of this argument. To the contrary, its discussion has usually led to stronger, more negative feelings between the participants. In addition, the argument is based upon perceptions that can easily become out of date, and newer generations of worshipers are confused when they hear older members of their churches involved in it. Today's younger church members have never lived in a musical world that was characterized by boundaries. They have never had to choose between two radio stations, country and rock, as I did during my small-town teenage years. All music is available to them all the time. They cannot understand arguments between two camps regarding worship any more than they can envision choosing between only two radio stations.

The worshipers in today's churches are passionate and committed. They need a new paradigm under which to evaluate their worship practices, and which does not incorporate the old, fruitless arguments.

A New Worship Paradigm

I would like to suggest a new paradigm for our decisions about how we worship musically. First, it includes the discarding of some passionately-held positions.

I suggest we discard the idea that there is an inherently appropriate musical style for worship. I do not mean to suggest that all musical choices are equal in our judgment. Music is obviously more or less complex, more or less appealing aesthetically, more or less expressive of joy or lament, more or less capably related to its text, and subject to innumerable other judgments. We will always make qualitative judgments about music. I am suggesting that we discard the argument that God is only appropriately and effectively worshiped when the music of that worship matches our particular choices. I am suggesting that I am responsible for making my own musical choices, as a music leader in my congregation, but I am not going to make the leap of hubris to a belief that suggests that all other worshipers in all other congregations should make the same choices or risk being judged to be inappropriate and ineffective. This belief is based in insecurity, and stands in the way of relationship with God and others.

I further suggest that we discard the idea that emotion and intellect are unrelated, irreconcilable motivations. I suggest that we subscribe to the obvious belief that our Creator has graciously given us both emotion and intellect. We should seek to relate to God in all we do, and, consequently, in all we feel and all we think. We should not view our feelingfulness as superior to the thoughtfulness of another, and we should not view our thoughtfulness as superior to the feelingfulness of another.

I also suggest that we discard the view that anyone or Anyone who is present in worship should be a passive observer. The fact that scripture and Judeo-Christian history emphasize corporate worship suggests that being in the congregation is an important act of worship in itself. The congregation is not expected to be passively uninvolved during the music of worship. God is audience, but so is anyone within earshot. And the fact that worship has always had a focal point, whether altar, pulpit or communion table, suggests an historic realization that God is present in our corporate midst, rather than only in our individual feelings. God is not waiting passively for the loud chord or the high note, suddenly appearing in the form of emotional outburst. God can be understood to be present in sound and silence, word and song and bread and wine; always present, and patient with the fact that we are not always receptive.

The new paradigm relies on the discarding of these old ideas, and turning to an even older one. We worship because we have chosen to follow Jesus, and we worship corporately because our journey following Christ is helped by the structures of the church. We know little about the way the first followers of Christ worshiped him, although surely they did. We have no visual or recorded evidence about what they sang. We do not speak the same language they spoke, or observe customs similar to theirs. Accounts of Jesus' temple worship usually focus on his teaching from the Hebrew scripture, but do not reflect other worship practices. So I suggest that, rather than trying to derive a format for universally appropriate worship where one does not exist, we look to the readily-available evidence of Jesus' teaching about relationship as we consider a new paradigm for the choices we make regarding worshiping together.

Jesus chose to describe his evaluation of his followers in terms of left and right, sheep and goats, emphasizing the extent to which they related to one another. He would divide them based on their striving to serve others, saying in Matthew 25,

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (NIV)

The new paradigm I suggest for the musical choices in our worship is simply this: If Christ wishes for us to share food and water, clothing and comfort with others while understanding that, through them, we are mystically and miraculously sharing with Christ, how much more should we wish to share art and beauty with one another while mystically and miraculously sharing them with Christ? As members of our churches, we are at our best when we participate in the sharing of our economic resources, because we seek to understand more fully that Christ is present in the poor, wounded, homeless, sick and imprisoned neighbor. Can we not strive in worship to share our aesthetic resources with one another, being our best selves when we offer our music to another worshiper in whom we see Christ?

The unresolvable arguments fade away in this scenario. When the emotionally-oriented worshiper suggests that the musical choice was not feelingful enough, the music leader replies in generosity, "I gave you the best I had because I saw Christ in you, and in it was a gift; the gift of opening your mind more fully to understanding the God who is beyond our understanding." When the intellectually-oriented worshiper finds the musical choice too affective, the response of the generous music leader is, "I gave you the best I had because I saw Christ in you, and in it was a gift; the gift of opening your emotional self more fully to the God who has felt beyond our ability to feel."

We are in relationship with one another as expressions of our relationship to Christ. He is our worship audience in the person of our fellow worshiper, and we are striving to meet their worshiping need for intellectual stimulation and emotional beauty as an act of serving him. We are not responding to them out of judgment or evaluation. We are giving them our best, because that is the best way we can worship God. Christ is present in them before, during and after the high note or loud chord. Christ is present in them before, during and after the intellectually-stimulating classical music.

The new paradigm suggests that our timeless God is unaffected by either our attempts to be trendy or our attempts to adhere to several hundred years of history. It suggests that our relationships with others are indicators of our relationship with Christ, whether they are built around the transactions of providing food and shelter or art and beauty, and whether they are taking place in the marketplace or during worship. It answers the questions of musical appropriateness with the question, "How are you relating to the least of these, my children and your fellow-worshipers?" It answers the concerns surrounding emotion in worship by saying, "You cannot hope to feel the way I feel. But you CAN be sympathetic with the feelings of the other worshipers surrounding you, and in doing so you can know some of the emotion of the God who bubbled over with pride when he said, ‘This is my beloved Son,’ or who cried with anguish when he said, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’" It speaks of intellectual pursuit by saying, "You cannot hope to fully know me, but you CAN know one another more fully, and in doing so, you can begin to understand the intellect of the God who numbers the hairs on your head, and whose science created the world."

The new paradigm does not offer a prescription for success in choosing musical repertoire for worship, or for the style in which the chosen repertoire is presented. It offers a new way to look into the relationships between the worshipers, and suggests that these relationships are of greater importance to God than the latest or most historical musical offerings, for they reflect the relationship between the worshiper and God.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Necessity of Beauty

The last few weeks have included several events that have exerted a profound impact on my life and the lives of the people around me. The death of my father continues to occupy my thoughts, and my brothers and I are concerned with caring for our mother, although she inspires us with her courage and energy. On the heels of that event, a substantial portion of our region was demolished by once-in-a-century tornadoes, and all throughout central Alabama people's lives have been altered. And finally, my oldest daughter has graduated from college, a happy event among the sorrow, and a reminder of the continuation of life amidst the setbacks.

In each of these events, there have been notable expressions of beauty that gave a kind of "depth perception" to my vision. Through the rawness of my experience of my father's final moments, I saw the beauty of flowers, delivered from all over the place, giving joy and brightness to the dullness of a home whose energy was so depleted. And I heard the beauty of dear friends who came a long way to play the organ and sing at the funeral, friends with whom I've shared many musical and sacred moments, who knew how to add beauty without removing holy.

When the tornadoes struck, we all observed such great destruction that it was difficult to find anything that would improve our vision. Then several choir directors got together and produced a concert full of the voices of children and adults from all over the community, whose purpose was to raise money for the victims of the weather disaster. The combination of the choirs was unprecedented, since each group has its own busy schedule. An audience of wounded neighbors rejoiced to hear the beauty of their singing, and gave generously, not only to help the effort, but to help teach the singing children that their efforts were important.

My daughter majored in Music Education, joining the family business. Prospective teachers bring their college experience to a close by serving as an intern with a school teacher in their field. Last week my daughter continued her internship with the music teacher of a school near her campus, even though her commencement took place the previous weekend. The teacher had given her charge of the Fifth Grade musical, and she wanted to see it through. I was able to attend and listen as my daughter conducted a large choir who sang and danced as she had taught them to do. The beauty of seeing my daughter in this leadership role was overwhelming, and I was emotional as I watched the expertise with which she conducted the program. During the final song, a soloist danced exuberantly across the stage, bringing the concert to a big finish. I later learned that this student was autistic, and didn't respond to the challenge of singing all that well. But my daughter had learned that he could break-dance, and had given him the opportunity to shine, adding an extra portion of beauty that no one expected.

In times of grief and despair and in times of celebration we "see through a glass darkly", failing to grasp more than a one-dimensional snapshot of the world that has become our context. And it is not just light that we need. It is beauty. Light shows us the reality of our grief more acutely. Beauty reveals that greater purposes are at work, and that all is not lost. Light is sufficient to reveal a diploma. Beauty reveals an educator who is prepared to find the best in a child, and set him free to dance and sing.

Apologists for arts education tout the practical benefits of the arts. We often hear of the positive effect of arts education on the study of math and science. Just today there is a scientific article in a prominent publication regarding the benefits of children's musical study on brain development. Certainly, these are worthy and seemingly obvious arguments. But we must not forget the more direct argument that we need art because beauty is our necessity, not our option or our frill. In the experiences of our lives, beauty helps us to see with depth perception, grasping more than a snapshot, and growing toward fullness of understanding.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Generations of Encouragement

My father passed away yesterday, twenty months after receiving a cancer diagnosis that indicated a six month life expectancy. Our family is together, walking through the valley of the shadow of the mundane, planning the service and other details, receiving the thoughtful expressions of countless friends and family, checking that everyone has appropriate wardrobe, shuffling the items in the refrigerator so that more can be added, and many other tasks that you don't think about until they become necessary.

The tasks for today included my driving out to the rural cemetery where my parents have designated their place among my ancestors, and marking the spot where my father's grave should be. My three children drove with me, and we walked around the new and old sections of the graveyard, giving me the chance to make introductions. As I told my children about my forebears, I stopped at my grandparents' graves, and told them about the special respect in which I hold my father's father.

My father was born when the country was a year into its terrible depression, when his parents were in their early twenties and trying to scratch together a farm. Two siblings were added, and the little farm eventually had five pairs of hands to do the work. In poor, rural, depression-era Alabama, adding labor was essential to farming, and all the Johnsons worked hard.

School wasn't mandatory yet, and the farm work needed to be done, but the Johnson children stayed in school. My father excelled academically, and was a class leader. He even drove a school bus. And when he graduated, he went to college. What seems like such an inevitable choice in today's world was completely unlikely in that rural setting. For my father and his brother and sister to attend college guaranteed that they would pursue careers away from the dirt road that fronted the meager farm. Their parents let them go, knowing that their farm would remain small, but their legacy would increase exponentially.

My parents married and both became teachers. And my brothers and I grew up in a family where education was a high priority. We were taught to believe that we could achieve our goals through hard work and integrity, but we didn't have to talk much about it. It was demonstrated for us. And just as the normal path of children on a poor farm would have been to continue farming, the normal path of the children in my family was to pursue academically advanced professions.

When I decided to follow my great passion for music, there were many who thought it was a frivolous idea. Surely I couldn't earn a living, or represent the high ideals of my family by pursuing something that many people considered a hobby. I might have expected my father, who by this time was a college administrator, to urge me to consider a path leading toward academic or professional recognition or financial reward. But he had learned encouragement at the same time he learned honesty and hard work, in long depression-era lessons taught between the furrows of cotton or beans.

When I decided to major in music, he encouraged me to pursue my studies at the college I chose, and he and my mother, who was equally encouraging, drove through the night to hear my performances. When I announced that my graduation would soon be followed by graduate school, he said, "We'll help any way we can," and soon appeared with a trailer to help me move.

When my schooling ended and my career took its various turns, my parents became acquainted with each place, and heard many of my performances. When times were hard, Dad was quick to remind me how he considered me to be among the richest people he knew, thanks to my many opportunities to travel and see the world, and thanks to my opportunities to interact with the great art of the ages. When life was hard, he sat and revealed his wisdom about the situation, assuring me that I was safe and cared for.

Encouragement was a rare thing during the late twenties, but my grandfather's encouragement enabled my father to live a life of achievement and success. And it taught him how to pass encouragement along to his wife and sons, consistently expressing his support and love.

Making music is intensely personal, and open to frequent criticism. I think musicians who lack strong encouragement from others probably find it very hard to pursue their passion. And I think many people seek to encourage musicians, but don't have a fine-tuned sense of how to do it. But some musicians are blessed beyond measure, enjoying the relentless efforts of a world-class encourager throughout their career. I am one of those musicians. In our last conversation, he wanted to be sure I knew how proud he was that I had conducted an opera last week, and how he wished he could have been there.

It would be ridiculous to attempt a verbal expression of the degree to which my mother, brothers and I will miss him. But his encouragement is deeply ingrained in all of us. It was acted out every day, so we have seen it so much we have memorized it. And the true evaluation of whether I have learned his life-long lesson of encouragement won't come after one of my musical performances. It will come in the lives of my son and daughters, when they feel enabled to pursue their passions, no matter where they may lead.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Where God Wasn't

I spent last week in the presence of 5000 colleagues, as the American Choral Directors Association held its biennial National Convention. Inspiration abounded as highly select choirs performed, and experts from throughout our vast artistic field shared their insights.

We were having such a good time that it was easy to overlook the news reports coming from Japan. It took a couple of news cycles for me to realize the depth of the tragedy that had befallen the northeastern section of Japan, and was spreading throughout the panic-stricken region. It has now been several days since the first tremor, and the situation grows worse and worse.

Ironically, the centerpiece of the ACDA convention program was the performance of Mendelssohn's "Elijah" by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Helmuth Rilling. If you are familiar with this musical monument, you are aware that the presentation of the biblical story reaches its denouement when the fearful prophet looks for God in fire, wind and earthquake. But, as reported in 1 Kings 19:11, God was not in the earthquake. It is hard to imagine what could have been more poignant than last week's performance of these words as set by Mendelssohn.

It takes the most amateur of historians only a few minutes of cursory reading to discover that calamity is inevitable. And, inevitably, humans are surprised by it. We live with an imaginary immunity from the unexplainable, and we seek meaning in the random. The obscene sounds of the self-righteous have already begun to blame the earthquake on God's vengeance against some group or another. But while these voices add to the sound of the calamity, other quieter voices bring the soft sound of grace.

The ancient Hebrew stories of the prophet Elijah were passed down from generation to generation as a reasonable antidote against those who for thousands of years have claimed to hear God's voice where it didn't exist. Elijah was afraid, and the calamity all around him made it worse. But after the earthquake, wind and fire, God chose to speak in a still, small voice. I'm no theologian, but it seems to me that this is more than a metaphor. If those who are rightfully afraid during this growing calamity want to hear God's voice, perhaps it can be heard in the quiet efforts of people around the world who extend aid, and in the fervent prayers of their neighbors on their behalf. It can be heard in the reactor workers who heroically stay at their post in spite of the threat of radiation. It can be heard in the hospitality of those in other parts of the country who welcome their newly homeless neighbors into their homes.

Mendelssohn's "Elijah" was performed last week in the composer's native German language. The work received its premiere, however, in Birmingham, England in 1846, and was performed in an English translation. At the point in the story where the earthquake, fire and wind have passed with no sign of God, the translator says, "And in the still voice onward came the Lord." I think it's possible to look at the Red Cross, or the other responders, or the faithful who are praying, and say, "onward came the Lord." To which we can only respond, "Even so, Lord, quickly come."