Thursday, February 28, 2013

No, I'm not, really

Health issues intervene again.  Turns out surgery wasn't enough, and I get to spend the next four months undergoing chemotherapy.

Tomorrow I'll go for surgery to have the requisite port installed somewhere in my upper body.  Providing all goes well, Monday will be the first of eight infusions, every other week, in which a cocktail of chemicals I can't pronounce will be injected into my body to fight whatever cancer may remain (two lymph nodes came back positive before, and who knows what's happened in the last two months?).  Since I'll have the port I'll supposedly be relatively free to do other things while receiving those transfusions (the first, being first, will take longer, but mostly they will take three and a half to four hours each time).  Maybe I'll live-blog a transfusion.  Most boring post ever.

As always, the unknown is the monster here.  I have no idea what this stuff will do to me.  I got lucky with the radiation in the fall; it really had minimal effect at best on me.  No guarantee that will be so this time around.  It might make me nauseous.  It might make me more tired than I can bear.  It might eat my brain.

You have to understand, this would probably the one fear I have that gives me cold sweats.  My body is pretty much broken at this point.  This week it has put me through some of the most humiliating foolishness possible, in terms of a complete lack of control of things that don't make for pleasant conversation.  I've been angry, I've been depressed, I've gone through a whole raft of emotions some of which I don't even have names for.

But tell me I've got Alzheimer's, or dementia, or some similar disease, and you get a whole different person.  You don't even want to be around me in that case.

Anyway, that's not the case yet, so far as I know.  Dealing with a malfunctioning body has been frustrating and anger-inducing enough.

There are times in conversations these days when people -- friends, well-meaning people -- use words that make me extremely uncomfortable.  Words like "inspiration."  Words like "model."  So far I don't think anyone's used the word "hero," so at least there's that.

They are friends.  They have been as supportive as any human being could ever be.  They love me.  I know these things.  I certainly know there is no intent to make me uncomfortable.

Still, I cannot help but wince, or worse, when I hear or read these things.

It really isn't my place to criticize people who are trying to encourage me or lift me up.  That's being a poor recipient of pastoral care, if nothing else.  But the trouble is, I know better.

I know the doubts.  I know the regular, routine, gnawing sensation that I really can't stand this much longer.  I know the nagging fear that at some point, maybe the first transfusion, or the second, or the fifth, or the eighth, that my body will simply fold up and quit.  And I know the disturbing sensation that this fear doesn't bother me as much as it should.

I know the despair.  I know the increasing resignation, the sensation, whether it's a bout of extreme weariness or days chained to the toilet or food tasting strange, that this is just how my life's going to be from now on, isn't it?  More treatments, more bodily humiliations, more impediments to any kind of normal life, more delays in getting that damn exegesis done, more discomfort.  And these thoughts don't have answers.  Nothing comes wafting back to me in answer.  I don't remember what normal feels like anymore.

I know the hopelessness.  I know the sense that, even if this chemotherapy regimen is deemed a "success," I'm never off the hook.  One of the most likely predictors of having cancer is still having had cancer before.  I'll always be one colonoscopy away from going through the damn death spiral all over again.  And next time, who knows what kind of insurance I'll have?  Yes, there's the practical angle that spews all manner of hopelessness across the scene.  I have to say the plan the seminary offers is pretty decent, once it lumbers into action, but is quite limited, and I may be testing its limits in the next few months.

I know the doubts.  Even as I struggle to keep up some pretense of regular class participation, I know the furtive demons of presumed pointlessness.  So, really, why are you still on this damned fool's errand?  What can you possibly hope to accomplish?  You really think any church will even touch you with a ten-foot pole?  You'll be almost fifty, and your health will be a huge black hole.  "Cancer survivor," my ass.  All that is is a bullseye on your back.  And you'll be surrounded by classmates and fellow graduates, not just from Union but from all the seminaries, who can preach rings around you AND be youth workers or Christian educators and fit snugly into a nice multi-staff starter call.  

I know the hopelessness.  I know the sense that this cancer bullseye is limiting my future.  Do I dare take a call, should one even come open, in a rural area?  All along I've been prepared for the possibility of some kind of bivocationality.  I have a few past careers I could fall back on if need be.  But is my field limited by the need to be near some hospital of at least a certain capability?  Can I be a hundred miles or more away from the nearest oncologist?  Or is that a risk too far?  As if my prospects weren't already bleak enough, there's another possible limit on any future call.

I know the despair.  I know the helpless feeling that I will break, no matter how much I attempt to carry on as normal.  Or I know that I don't come equipped with a long list of references in Presbyland, to begin with; I'm struggling to find any kind of internship that won't be throttled by these ongoing health travails; if anything I'll be staggering to the finish line of seminary, if I'm even that fortunate; in other words, I'm just not going to come out of here with any kind of good new-preacher smell. While all manner of churches will be zipping off the lot with these shiny new models, I'll be the beater in the back corner.  Full circle; why am I still on this fool's errand?

So, my apologies.  I know you mean well, and I know you are trying to encourage me.  But when I hear words like "inspiration" I can't help but wince or worse, because I know all the things that are going on inside, and I know they're not inspirational.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The program trap

It's been a bit more than five years now since Willow Creek Community Church, the seminal megachurch in the Chicago suburbs, released a report of its own investigation of the success (or not) of its church model in filling the church regularly and bringing those who came to the church as "seekers" towards a fuller life of discipleship.  The church leadership was a bit floored by the results.  WCCC could put butts in the seats regularly, no problem there.  What was a problem was that the occupants of those seats were often not satisfied with the church when it came to growing in discipleship.  While the church could shuffle its participants into one of any number of well-tailored programs for activity and for developing a sense of belonging and community, those programs were not fulfilling the task of leading folks towards discipleship.  (Googling "Willow Creek Reveal" or some similar combination will turn up oodles of essays or articles or blogs on the subject.)

Some shoved off for another megachurch more stimulating or satisfying.  Some remained at WCCC, but grew increasingly frustrated.  Some simply dropped out altogether.  (Hearsay has it that a brave few, deciding they needed something that would point them towards a deeper experience of faith, turned to -- shudder -- mainline churches.  Horrors!).

I come neither to praise Willow Creek nor to bury it.  It is commendable that they have the nerve to take such an unflinching look at the lack of fruits of their labor and to be so publicly accountable about it (you can buy the book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or other such outlets).  Whether they have the resources within them to go the distance that may be necessary to transform their model into one that actually fosters spiritual growth I don't know.  What I am struck by here is that, for all the trappings of newness and "contemporary" style and the perceived willingness to "rethink everything" and transform completely the experience of church in pursuit of those precious seekers, in this respect at least Willow Creek turned out to be anything but contemporary; it was in this one way a very traditional church.

This next paragraph is directed primarily at folks who grew up as a consistent and regular participant in some kind of "traditional" church (i.e. not a contemporary program).  Evangelical, mainline, in between or past either extreme; I'm curious how many of you (and you might have to be of a particular age like for this to hold) had an experience similar to mine, growing up in a sizable downtown church in a prominent evangelical denomination (some of you will recognize which one when I begin to describe the programs).

The nursery is available as soon as one is born of course, but it doesn't take too many years to be channeled into an age-appropriate Sunday School class.  These would be present at every age and stage of development right into one's senior years if one should remain in the church one's entire lifetime.  Since Sunday mornings weren't enough backintheday, one could precede the Sunday evening service with a program called "Church Training."  (I admit I was never completely clear on what the difference was between the two, and this might have been true for the hundreds of others who made it to one but not the other.)  This primary Christian education model, again, was largely made available for every age group found in the church.

If all day Sunday wasn't enough, there were programs to draw one back on Wednesday nights as well.  Frequently a church-wide supper was the principal inducement (it was called "Family Night Supper" back then at this church).  Afterwards a passel of age-appropriate activities might be available.  Adults could be shepherded into a more in-depth Bible study; youth might engage in a kind of mission activity (taking those dinners to the church shut-ins who couldn't come, for example) or possibly a recreation time; children were generally off to their appropriate graded choir.  This, like the Christian education programs, existed all the way up the ladder, from the earliest age children could reasonably be said to "sing" together to a senior adult choir, though not all ages met at the same time.  Adult choir rehearsal finished the evening.  Youth choir typically met on Sunday nights.

Other nights of the week might include more lighthearted fellowship events for adults, a Boy Scouts-lite program called "Royal Ambassadors" (girls had the similar knockoff "Girls in Action") replete with badges and levels of achievement (I still have a bookshelf I built in RA's one year), and possibly specialized events at different times of the year.  Was I a middle-schooler with a competitive streak?  Hey, try "Bible drill" (an exercise in competitive searching for and learning Bible books and passages -- second place in the state of Georgia in 1980, baby -- by just one point!).  When you outgrew that you could try the speaker's tournament, in which one was encouraged to develop and deliver an original essay on some religious subject.  I always presumed this was supposed to be some means of identifying future preachers, but I never did get into it -- I think I was burned out after Bible drill.

In the face of so many demands on a person's time outside the church, I don't know how many churches successfully maintain such an intensive program model today.  For me, the time tension only became particularly difficult in high school, as I began to participate in activities like band or drama club that made their own schedule demands.

So yes, I was the product of a pretty thorough program of church activities by the time I headed off to college.  And when I did...I completely foundered.  I had no idea what I was doing.  What I had developed was acres and acres wide, but perhaps a half-inch deep.  I knew a lot of Bible verses and could remember a lot of Bible stories, but getting from that memorized knowledge into something that animated a more profound and vital faith was quite beyond me.  In fact, thanks to a few youth retreats spread out across my junior-high and high-school years, if anything I had the idea that a "real" faith involved some sort of highly emotionalized experience of undefined religious passion, something I could not generate on my own and that subsequent experiences of which were progressively less satisfying or edifying.

I wonder how many others had experiences like mine.  Or how many others had a different experience; one in which they were conditioned to be perfectly receptive vessels for whatever instruction or direction or, dare I say, propaganda the pastor might decide to impart at a given time.  Persons who could follow the program to a "t" but had not a whit of intellectual or spiritual initiative or even capacity for original insight.  Mind you, some churches or denominations thrive on this kind of member, but on the whole I'm not sure it benefits the church as a whole merely to spit out cogs for the ever-growing and ever-grinding machine.  Or maybe others you might be able to describe.  And I'm sure there there are many who came out of such program-oriented churches with something like a mature and working faith.

Programs are not inherently bad.  If a particular program can be a means to induce a newbie to move beyond initial enthusiasms and into a process of study, prayer, and service that leads to actual spiritual growth and maturing, and surrounds that person with fellow pilgrims for support and nurture, it can be quite possibly be a good thing.  A program is not, by itself, enough, no matter if you're at First Ultra-Traditional Church or Happy Happy Rock-n-Roll Church.

So what, then?  A church that points to the world that Christ demands we serve; that worships God in a way that engages our profound need to worship what is far greater and deeper than any comfy box we can devise for it; that confronts its members with the whole church, in all its glory and tarnish, rather than pretending to be a new and separate thing; and that prods each person towards a life engulfed in prayer, meditation upon the Word, listening intently to silence, letting mystery be mystery, and holding each other accountable for that terrifying and exhilarating pilgrimage.

Good luck finding a program for that.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

More thinking out loud on music and the church

So I have had a week to think about the Church Music Conference and all it had to offer, and to think more about the general state of music in the church or at least that corner of the church in which I am situated.

Well, no, not really.  I've had a week to try and recover physically from the trip, try to get back into my regular class schedule, discover that I wasn't necessarily totally recovered from the trip, catch up with assignments, and try not to forget everything from last weekend amidst all of that tumult.

How successful I was at the latter remains to be seen.  Still, while claiming no expertise beyond the minimum (my M.C.M. degree was long ago and not in a particularly liturgically inclined denomination, and I'm a long way from being a pastor yet), I do have some wonderings about the state of music in the (liturgical, non-Catholic, mainline-ish) church and how it can be made better, if at all.

Picking up a thread from the last post, for how many churches is it true that the song of the congregation is the primary musical focal point of the church?  How many churches can truly say that any and all of the musical activities that exist in the church -- the sanctuary choir under whatever name it may be given, any choirs for youth and/or children that may exist, the organ, the piano or any other instruments that may be used -- are primarily intended for and designed for the enhancement and support of the song of the congregation?

I have not been to that many churches in my years in the mainline tradition.  I can only go by what I have seen, and to a much lesser degree from secondhand sources -- what others have had to say about the subject.  With those caveats, I'm going to guess that the answer to the questions of the previous paragraph is a pretty small number.  Whatever good intentions might be out there, choirs pretty quickly tend to exist for their own sake.  If the choir gets through the anthem, however movingly or effectively or beautifully it might be rendered, then the choir has done its job.  Unless the pastor has gone off on a wild hair and put in some crazy unknown hymn, the choir is most unlikely to crack a hymnal at all (and I've seen some choirs where the members can't even be bothered to sing the hymns with the congregation -- an extreme and unrepresentative example, but out there nonetheless), or to do so only with minimal energy or concentration.

Here is a point at which something should be made quite clear; the impulse to "put on a show" and rely heavily on entertainment value is not at all limited to those churches which trade in the so-called "contemporary worship" idiom.  Showmanship, or performative priority, is just as much a danger in a church steeped in classical tradition and singing from the masterworks for their services as in your basic happy-happy-rock-and-roll church.  For that matter, it is a pitfall for the church with the fully-stocked graded choir program putting the smallest kids out there on a rather frequent basis in the knowledge that their unbeatable cuteness will put lots of family members in the pews and maybe even draw applause from the congregation (o.k., that's going to have to be a subject for a post unto itself, the whole applause business).  To the degree that the musical program of church becomes a butts-in-the-seats proposition rather than a songs-in-the-hearts endeavor to lead and edify those who are in those seats, maybe there's a problem.  Maybe something is out of whack.

Before you say anything; no, this is not to say that the only thing a choir can do is sing the hymns to lead the congregation.  Yes, it's perfectly appropriate for the choir to bring forth anthems in the service. To the degree that anthem "performance" becomes the choir's main or only reason for existence in the church that's a problem, but the choir can be an effective proclaimer of the word with well-chosen and well-prepared anthem material (and yes, there's a pretty good chance the message they proclaim may well stay in the memory of the congregation better than anything I say as pastor).  Personally, I don't even have a problem with a choir doing extra-liturgical things like concerts, or performances of large works outside the worship service.  Anything that makes the choir a more skilled musical instrument, so to speak, will be of benefit to the congregation that is led in musical worship by that choir.  Again, the question is one of priority.  If the scheduled performance of the Rutter Requiem or the Vivaldi Gloria keeps the choir from its primary role of worship and song leadership, then it probably needs to go, but the two are not necessarily incompatible and may even enhance one another.  It is about remembering what comes first and foremost.

I have a feeling there will be more later.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Tallahassee Church Music Conference: Day 3 and some more general thoughts

Last night proved a little too stressful to make a last post on the gathering, which might be as well since it allows for a day's reflection on the event as a whole and on music in the church more generally.  But first, some thoughts on Saturday's events:

Keynote III moved from consideration of congregational music to thoughts on the role of the choir in the music of the church.  Westermeyer's first major point, or assumption really, was one that I will hazard a guess that the vast, vast majority of church choir directors do not observe at all: the choir has to practice what the congregation wings, in such a way as to lead the congregation.  Not just when there's a new hymn or some unusual bit of service music, but regularly.  Every week.   Each hymn.

I can hear the browsers clicking off to surf new destinations now.

Westermeyer cites as a main assumption behind this that the congregation deserves musical respect.  True enough, but the claim also assumes that the primary function of a choir is to support the singing of the congregation.  I will guess that this is the really offensive part to the typical church choir director, or for that matter church choir member.  Westermeyer cited as an extreme example of the opposite the choir that sings its anthem and then leaves.  That is of course a pretty egregious example (though I do not doubt it exists in multiple places), but one hardly has to go to that extreme to find choirs that see themselves as having absolutely no responsibility towards the congregation (of which, theoretically, they are a part!) and specifically towards the congregation's singing participation in worship.

It is probably worth mentioning that the church musicians and pastors who made their way to this conference were those who already had some sympathy to that point of view, so in effect Westermeyer was, to use a dreadfully obvious cliche, preaching to the choir.  I'm guessing that in relaying this claim here, I am not.

Other issues in the final keynote were perhaps less contentious.  The choir's use of large works in worship is problematic primarily for practical reasons; they're too long to fit into the typical modern service without the sermon getting shortchanged or eliminated.  Even works like Bach's cantatas, which after all originated as service music, are not without difficulty, since the services for which they were created were two or three times as long as our services.  If you have a creative pastor and musician working together and a relatively patient congregation, go for it.

There were a lot of other points made, but I wish to move on to the final Discussion moderated by Charlotte Kroeker, director of the Church Music Institute, one of the sponsoring organizations of the conference.  The nominal subject of the discussion was "The Clergy-Musician Relationship."  Mostly I will observe that putting this last was probably a mistake; after so many good things at the conference, this provided an unfortunate opportunity to let the meetings end on a downer.

OK, I'm going off on my own here, sort of.

One of the key issues in most such relationships is that a large number of clergy have no more than a minimal understanding of music and the issues that accompany it.  On the flip side, a large number of musicians hired to lead music in the church have no training in theology, and are not specifically trained in church music.  While there are opportunities for both to repair such gaps in their preparation (such as this conference), many on both sides will decide they have "more important things to do" and the gap will remain a permanent feature of the relationship.

This gap can manifest self in many different ways.  The two members can each simply go their own way, with little cooperation or even communication.  One can take it upon him/herself simply to 'be the boss' and presume to tell the other how to do his/her job, despite the first party's complete ignorance of that job and its demands (pastors, particularly those coming into a new call, are pretty bad about doing this to the musicians who have been in place for a while, but I'd presume it can happen the other way too).  The two can end up warring over their differences, damaging the congregation in the process.  Maybe, if the church is deeply fortunate, the two will figure out that they need to listen to one another and figure out how to help one another learn what each is doing and how they can work together.

These thoughts were somewhat tempered from what they could have been by attending a service this a.m. at a church where the latter happened.  I hadn't been back to First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee at all for at least five and a half years, and not for a worship service for much longer.  I was reminded just how much the evident mutual respect and cooperation between pastor Brant Copeland and organist/choirmaster Michael Corzine manifests itself in the planning and execution of worship (although this case is different in that Corzine does have sacred music training).  I was also reminded just how much the choir of this church follows the first point Westermeyer made in Saturday's keynote. I sat in to sing this morning, and I was gloriously tired afterwards (emphasis on "gloriously").

Back to more general thoughts.  How much of the gap brings other factors into play?  For the musician, the church is quite likely his or her second job in many cases and the time and energy devoted to it will be measured accordingly.  That person will fall back on the habits that work in her/his primary job.  If the sanctuary choir ends up sounding like the local high school show choir, so be it.  Conversely, the pastor (it pains me to say this) may not only lack any knowledge or training in music, he/she may not actually care all that much about worship.  People get into the pastoral vocation for a lot of reasons.  For me worship was one of the primary reasons, but that's hardly universally the case, and I'd guess that might even be a minority position.  Faced with the gap, they're likely content to let the church musician do what they will and get on with what they consider the important stuff -- outreach, evangelism, social activism, youth ministry, whatever.  Or, when someone offers them a way to "liven up" worship with just a few guitars and drums and keyboards, well, why the hell not???

Since I'm writing this in the Atlanta airport and the wifi keeps trying to quit on me, I'll cut short for now.  You bet I plan to follow up on this later.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Tallahassee Church Music Conference: Day Two

My body decided to be petulant today. I only have so much sitting capacity these days, and even standing becomes problematic after a time.  I even resorted to listening to one session in the next room, lying with my back on the floor and my legs propped up in a chair.  And it was actually pretty comfortable, though getting up was less so.

Still, a lot of awfully good and thoughtful things happened today.  I am sure such things happened in sessions I did not attend, but of course I can only report on sessions I did attend. I will attempt to do so now.

Keynote I.  The keynote speaker for this conference is Paul Westermeyer, pastor, musician, teacher, and author keenly observant of all things pertaining to the music of the church.  The keynote is spread out over three sessions for this conference (the third is tomorrow morning).

Some of Westermeyer's observations would no doubt be challenged by some corners of the church.  He notes that all too often these days (and historically as well) music is simply a tool by which the church "sells" Christianity; it is an instrument of manipulation.  Before anybody gets their knickers in a knot, know that this is not an attack on any one musical idiom in the church; one can "sell" Christianity with Mozart and Verdi just as much as with Hillsong.  Still, the notion that music is basically a way to "push buttons" in your intended target indicates a rather secular approach to music; what is a good musical hook but a means of doing exactly that -- pushing your listener's buttons?

Another thought; if the church counts singing as one of its principal activities in worship (how broadly true that is may be a subject for another post sometime), what is the point of doing so?  Here Westermeyer turns to a broad survey of theological thought on music in the church, from biblical examples to the most prominent theologians of later times, to draw the conclusion that the purpose is twofold; for the glory of God and for the edification of the neighbor.  The former point would probably not surprise many folk, but the latter may well be unexpected.

Adapting an idea from Bonhoeffer, Westermeyer points out that it is not you who sings; it is that the church sings, and you may take part in it.  Communal song, then, would seem to be the norm.

Here's a straightforward quote: "The liturgy protects the people from the presider, and the presider from the people."  That's worth a fairly good chunk of reflection.

Another session led by Christopher Robinson, a professor at the Perkins School of Theology at SMU, addressed a "Theology of Singing, Biblically Considered."  One of his more interesting insights is that in biblical accounts of music or of singing, it is a disruptive, volatile, even dangerous thing: Joshua's trumpets bringing down the walls of Jericho; Isaiah's experience in the Temple, which he apparently found so terrifying he assumed he was doomed; the shepherds' fear, even terror, at the bursting-in song of the angels.  (Didn't include my favorite, from 2 Chronicles 5:13-14, in which the song of the Temple musicians so excited the Lord that "the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud; so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.")  Luther follows this with his notion that music "excites" or even "provokes."

Robinson appropriated a quote from Pierre Boulez, whom no one ever accused of being a church musician, to chastise musicians who never challenged themselves or their audiences: "that's not culture, that's marketing."  (Yes, Robinson's address had several points of contact with Westermeyer's keynote.)

A final couple of provocative observations from Robinson: taking a cue from the parable of the talents, Robinson draws the conclusion that the person given the talent is responsible to return it multiplied; and the claim that music is not only an advocate of the word, but music is about the same thing that the word is about.

Keynote II: mostly in bullet-like points.
The assembly or congregation consists of non-musicians who gather around font, word, and table and sing without rehearsal (the choir rehearses, but they are left for the final part of the keynote, mostly).
The church's music has been primarily (though not exclusively) vocal.
The church's music is fundamentally communal.
Quality is mandatory, but worship is what defines quality, not the concert stage.
What fits where in the service must be considered.
Acoustics, architecture, and the general character of the space matter.  (Microphones and canned music are emphatically not fixes for such challenges; here followed a quote from someone whose name I sadly did not get, to the effect that "microphones and amplifiers are weapons of mass destruction" (get it?  Mass?  heh heh...).
A quote so good I had to tweet it on the spot: congregational song as "the sounding form of the body of Christ."

It was at this point that my body refused to cooperate any longer and forced me to leave.  I also ended up missing what I'm sure was a killer organ recital.  Grr.

I also attended sessions on historical and contemporary English-language psalters, congregational song resources of the last five years, and the negro spiritual (the latter led by Andre Thomas, the eminent choral conductor and prolific arranger of such works; actually he wrote the book on the subject).  From those I got names of resources.  This is a good thing.

A sign that a conference is going well is a realization that it's going to take me a long time to think about and reflect upon the things I've heard at the conference.  I'm going to be thinking on these things for a long time.