By Daniel Thomas, Church musician
One of the interesting challenges that we face in selecting music to use in worship is finding a balance between “traditional” and “contemporary” music. We all know that music is very powerful and has the ability to enhance the worship, deepening one’s connection to God and the Word, allowing one to meditate, reflect, or hear God’s message in a different way. Many people find comfort in the “old familiar tunes” they heard in worship as a child, and many others appreciate hearing a style and energy of music they hear and appreciate in the rest of their lives.
Or, it has the ability to do exactly the opposite – it can be a distraction, a hindrance, or even an annoyance during worship. This can be because the listener is not familiar with the music, causing them to struggle to follow along, or even just to “tune out.” Or it can be because the listener doesn’t care for a particular style of music – or even if they do like the style, they don’t think that style is “appropriate” for a worship service.
Many congregations, especially those with a broad generational profile, struggle with this each week. How do you honor music from across the centuries and continents while still connecting with as many worshippers as possible? This is especially true of liturgical music, which is used every Sunday for anywhere between six and twelve weeks in a row.
We made a deliberate decision to use liturgical music from the Lutheran Book of Worship for this Lenten season. This music definitely feels “old school” for many of our congregants, and I’ve heard from several that this was not their favorite selection. That said, I’ve heard similar commentary about each liturgical music choice that we make, and I know we’ll never please everyone all of the time. Fortunately, the seasons continue to change, as will the liturgies. I welcome any thoughts or comments about the music we use in service – and this summer we’ll be making quite a departure from LBW-style liturgies, so stay tuned for that!
In the meantime, whatever music is being used in our service, I can only hope that we all remember that no matter what the style, the unique and transformative power of all music is being used to connect us all with God’s word – and that we all can find that power if we keep our minds and ears open.
by Kerry Schiewek-Fremlin
When I was a child, my family went to a Pentecostal fundamentalist church in rural Oregon. It was not unusual to attend revivals and “witness” miracles. There were grand theatrics that were perfectly terrifying as a child and was the basis for an awe and fear that crept into my relationship with God. I was taught that God is a jealous and terrible Father that was so concerned about his children’s compliance that he would cause wonderful and terrible things to happen depending on how worthy one is.
At the age of 17 my parents discovered that I was gay, something that I had been trying to hide for several years at that point. I was told that there is no place for homosexuals in the body of the church.
At the age of 18, I moved out of my family home and swore that I’d never returned to church. I used to joke that if I was in a church, you could be fairly confident that hell had, indeed, frozen over.
Skip forward almost 30 years and I found myself inside of a church, not for Sunday service, but rather as part of the local gay men’s choir. I did not have a choice; I had to go in to the church for the performances. I repeated this the next year with the choir. A couple weeks after the second visit, I returned to the church for the candlelight Christmas service.
I fell in love again with the music sung. In addition, there was a very strange message being expressed at the pulpit. One thing that stuck with me was when the intern preacher said, “There is room for all at God’s table”. There were no caveats that only those that “pleased” the Lord were welcome or that I had to do something to be welcome. It was just a statement.
Well, jump forward a year or two and the “All are welcome” was still stuck in my mind. I found myself wanting to visit this welcoming place again. I finally made an appointment with the new preacher, and she was very welcoming. I explained how damaged I am and that I wanted to know if this “All” included me as a Gay man. She assured me that I am loved and that I am not damaged in the eyes of God.
I remember sneaking into the church feeling like a true fraud. However, instead of feeling marginalized, there were people wishing me peace and welcoming me. I must admit that at first it was awkward. However, it felt like a part of me was being filled with a missing piece.
A couple years later and I am immersed in the congregation at CGS and am singing in one of the choirs and also serving on the council of leaders. I no longer fear churches, and thinking about God does not confuse me like it used to. I feel loved and safe in the company of the CGS family. I don’t need to pretend to be nice or perfect or without flaws. The welcome feels like a warm hug from a loved one.
The call to be a leader at the church has been an experience that continues to bless me. I love being able to help shape the direction of CGS. I am honored to have the trust of this community and to be involved so closely with leading this church. It’s an experience that has helped me grow. Thank you for allowing me to give back in this way.
I am definitely blessed to be with others in a place where All Are Welcome.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced Him in the side?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
The season of Lent is upon us. And with this season comes a treasure of hymns that although carry melodies of sadness that lead us to reflection, also bring haunting beauty that connects deeply to our emotions. And for me, whenever I think of “Lent music”, I think of “Were You There”. This song will always be ingrained in my memory because this is one of the hymns that we used to sing quite often in my early years of choral singing back in the Philippines. Whenever Lent season came, we would almost always line this up as a choir anthem in one of our worship services. Although the arrangement and setting would sometimes vary, the lyrics and basic melody stay the same. In whatever form, it has always touched a number of us every time we sing or hear it.
According to David Bjorlin, a minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church, “Were You There” is one of the most prominent and popular of the African-American spirituals. Yet, like most spirituals, its origins are impossible to trace, borne not from the pen of an individual, but out of the communal slave experience. Also, as Paul Westermeyer notes in the companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, its first published iteration came in 1899 in William E. Barton’s Old Plantation Songs in the section “Recent Negro Melodies”, with originally containing only four verses. The fifth verse was added in the United Methodist Hymnal, along with many other songbooks.
The series of questions that forms the basis of the song is obviously not meant to be taken literally; none of us were physically present at the passion of Christ. Rather, the questions are meant to function as a form “to remember”. Yet, it is much more simple than mental recall of an event. It calls the community to remember the past to present, to bring these historic events to the now and make them part of our story. The song also calls us to remember the African-American slave experience out of which the song arose. For African-Americans, this remembering of the cross allowed them to claim the Christ who knew their suffering and stood in solidarity with their oppression.
In 2012, the lyrics and melody of “Were You There” inspired me to do an arrangement for our men’s group, Keynote Vocal Group, which we sang as part of our Good Friday Service back then. This year, we’ll get to sing it again. I hope that as you listen to it in our Good Friday Service, you’ll feel the connection and come to remembrance, not only to the passion of Christ, but also to the suffering our African-American brothers and sisters endured in their times of oppression.
-Rey Lambatin, Choir Director
Have you ever been to a Quaker meeting? A Quaker meeting (worship service) is a community of people sitting in a deep silence. There aren’t any designated pastors or musicians. The only person who is appointed is the time keeper. Together they sit in silence and expectant waiting. They wait and listen, seeking divine guidance or inspiration, offering prayers of personal thanksgiving or need, confessing or reflecting. Sometimes, the Spirit moves someone to share aloud and they trust that while the auditory sharing might not be for everyone, it is for someone.
The part of this practice that is not often talked about is the value of Quaker people to come to that meeting steeped in the Word of God. This means that each of those egalitarian meetings are preceded by a lifetime of discipline and practice. It means reading the Bible on a regular basis, talking to others (or reading their work and thoughts) about faith, and regularly practicing to be selfless.
I am not good at discipline. I once bought a new pair of jeans because the number of pants I owned meant doing my laundry once a week. And I don’t much like routine (another reason it’s not my calling to raise kids, who thrive on routine). But ever since I became a preacher I’ve been forced into a routine and discipline of reading scripture and studying God’s word.
Every week of the year I spend at least 1/3 of my time with the word of God. This always includes the Bible, usually crossreferencing many parts. But it also includes a lot of other things: books of commentary on the scriptures, podcasts, articles online, magazine and newspaper stories, and all your words in our conversations and which you put out there publicly in one way or another.
Sometimes I’m not very faithful to this part of my life. I don’t read the central scripture until Wednesday or I don’t challenge my own ideas about the scripture by reading thoughts from other authors. But when I look beyond the immediate whim of the Spirit and stay faithful to my discipline of reading scripture and all the conversation that exists around it, it changes my life.
I read these words from Paul: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” And it changes the way that I interpret the rest of my day.
I read these words of Bonhoeffer: “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” I come up with different solutions to the problems that I encounter.
And when it comes time to share myself with the world, to proclaim God’s love, to respond to another person, to serve other people, I’m coming from a completely different place. I’ve been influenced and formed by something that opens me up beyond my own ability and experience. I find that I have greater capacity for patience and compassion. I have more energy for the things that bring life and less fear of the things that break us down.