Saturday, September 29, 2007

It's All About the Cross

As I have mentioned, one of the most significant things the choir can contribute to a worship service is "singing truth" to the congregation. And, as I have also mentioned, that colors my selection of new music. Every season I recieve a number of catalogs and demo discs to review. I listen to a lot of Christian "elevator music", but once in a while one of the demonstrated anthems really grabs me emotionally-in fact, I usually suddenly find myself in tears as I am listening. Invariably, it is the Truth of the lyrics that brings this about.

This summer, as I listened to the demos by the hour in the choir room, I found the one. "It's All About the Cross", by Ruth Elaine Schram, is what I call a meta-narrative anthem. It gives a "Gospel-in-a-nutshell" presentation. I especially like to include meta-narratives around the holidays, when the church is often full of visitors and Christmas-and-Easter attenders. This particular anthem stood out to me as the one that we should do on Palm Sunday, when Pastor usually gives a sermon in first person style, and our members often invite friends. It is the perfect narrative to lead us into Holy Week.

I ordered it immediately. But throughout the summer, the lyrics of that anthem ministered to me so many times, especially those times when I was feeling some discouragement, because they helped me to focus on what I was really doing by serving in my position as Music Coordinator. After a particularly tough situation, I slipped that demo disc into the boombox in my room, and felt once again the "peace that passes understanding" fill me, healing me, encouraging me, and renewing my sense of purpose.

I decided that it would make a great piece to focus the choir on their personal ministry through music as well. So, rather than hold it for Palm Sunday, I introduced it this fall, and invited the choir to make it our ministry theme for the year. They loved it! Then the Lord led me to invite Dana, a woman in our congregation who teaches the hearing impaired, to sign along with us as we sang it. Little did I know that she has especially loved doing this as a way to share Truth with some deaf friends. She helped us, but we also helped her by giving her this outlet for ministry.

Last Sunday, we offered "It's All About the Cross" in the worship service, right at the close of the service. As the choir and Dana finished, there were resounding "Amens!" from the congregation, as well as applause, not for us, but for the powerful testimony of the words.

"It's All About the Cross" by Ruth Elaine Schram

We read about creation, the world You made for us,
The beauty of the garden, sublime and glorious.
We read about the Fall when innocence was lost,
When innocence was lost.
We read of people's lives and the lessons that begin;
The consequence of evil, the wretched stain of sin;
And then, the Ten Commandments, the firm, unyielding Law,
The firm, unyielding Law.

It's all about the Cross,
And God's amazing grace,
To take us from the Fall to a Holy place!
To seek us in our helpless and fallen state,
To find us when we're lost;
It's all about the Cross!

And so, You sent a Saviour, the Lamb without a flaw,
To fully keep the letter and spirit of the Law;
To live a life that's holy, a life that pleases God.
And then the Spotless Lamb was the final sacrifice;
Our righteousness complete through the precious blood of Christ.
We finally see how far from your holiness we are,
How much we need the Cross!

It's all about the Cross, and God's amazing grace,
To take us from the Fall to a holy place!
To seek us in our helpless and fallen state,
To find us when we're lost;
It's all about the Cross!
Thank God for the Cross!

So, that's our ministry theme for the choral season. It's all about the Cross!

"When I came to you brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. " (1 Cor.2:1-2)

Monday, September 10, 2007


Where were you?

I was standing at my crossing guard post, wearing my orange vest, holding my orange flags, waiting for the children. The sky was a spectacular September blue, air dry and beautifully cool. A day when I should pay the city to work as a crossing guard, instead of them paying me.

A little boy and his mother hurried toward me, a child I crossed every day, a mother I chatted with every day. They weren't smiling. "I was watching the news while we ate breakfast", she said. "A plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, and then, while they were showing that, another plane crashed into the other building, just a few minutes later!"

"Wow! That's so strange!" I responded. " The second plane's pilot must have been gawking at the first accident. That's just incredible!"

But the mom was shaking her head. "I don't know-I don't think it could be an accident."

But it was time to cross them. Then, after the last bell rang, I jogged home and ran down to the family room, calling out to my oldest son, "I've got to see the news. I heard there was some accident at the World Trade Center where planes flew into them!"

I flipped on the TV. There was footage of something burning heavily. Matt joined me. "That's the Pentagon!", we both exclaimed at the same time. "This can't be an accident. It must be an attack," Matt said. I was still processing the incomprehensible idea that our nation might be getting bombed by some enemy-but who? News reporters, speaking in flustered, rapid fire phrases, read from memos pouring in that there might be more, more planes headed for targets in the nation's capitol-wait, did all this damage to the Pentagon come from a plane? The picture returned to the scene at New York, two towers billowing black smoke into that also-perfect September blue sky. And then, as we watched, the anchorman's eyes widened and he began to shout "Where did it go? Where is it? It came down! Oh, my God, one of the towers just came down! There must be thousands of people killed!" I had never seen the national news network people break down, become human, respond with unfeigned emotion. A female TV journalist eventually stumbled onto the set, powdery dust masking the navy-blue professionalism of her suit. "I was just out there, I had to run, an officer pulled me to safety, or I would have died!" And she burst into tears.

We watched, riveted, the rest of the morning. Another plane was down, in a field in Pennsylvania. The second tower fell. The FAA was grounding all flights. Trains and buses were halted. Border crossings were closed. Fighter jets were scrambled-we heard those, roaring overhead, reassuring and yet not. On the TV, doctors and nurses paced outside of New York hospitals, waiting for the wounded, wondering why no one came. Locally, a call went out for blood donors.

Matt was trying to pack for his move to Northern Baptist Seminary, and watch the news at the same time. At one point, watching rescuers load the injured from the Pentagon into ambulances, he exclaimed "I'm not going to Seminary! I'm going to enlist in the Air Force!"

An honorable sentiment for a 22 year old. I talked him out of it-knowing it was just the emotion of the moment.

About noon I walked outside into my back yard. The day was so perfect, with it's cloudless sky (plane-less sky), it's gentle breeze, it's warm buzz of September insects. I should not have been hearing the insects at mid-day over our busy street's traffic roar. But there was no traffic. All was as still as if we lived miles out in the country. Everyone was inside, riveted by their TVs.

Three days later, we drove Matt up to the seminary. It was not an easy time to move away from home. He and his dad drove the U-Haul, while I drove the car. Another perfect September day, the sky an enormous azure bowl over the expanses of dun-colored corn stalks. I noticed that harvest was starting-I could see the dust rising from the distant combines. And, in every farm yard, flags. Even in the busy harvest season, no one was forgetting.

In a way, it's hard to remember what it was like before the attack, because we've changed, everything has changed, so much. We think differently now, about who we are as a people, how we feel about our safety. We've been united, then divided, by how to respond.

While we were living out all this at home, our third son, Paul, newly arrived at a Youth With A Mission base in Arkansas, was experiencing it among his new friends. A few days after the attack, while all of us were still struggling with the emotions produced by it, Paul helped set up a venue in Springdale, AK, for a Twyla Paris concert. Ms. Paris performs there every fall as a benefit for her hometown high school music program. That evening, she walked out on to the stage and sat down at the piano, and proceeded to play the powerful, driving worship song she had written-"God is in control. We believe that His children will not be forsaken". And she ministered to her wounded audience through the medium of music.

This blog is about life as worship. There are times when it seems that worship is the furthest thing from our hearts and minds. But with David the Songwriter we must say "I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord!"

Monday, September 3, 2007

Control Issues

It's just been one of those weeks.

I was feeling very good about the start to the choir season, and felt like our new worship pianist was settling in well and starting to get us figured out. Then bam, life began to intervene!
My father had a stress test on Tuesday, which led to a heart catheterization on Thursday, which led to a quadruple bypass on Friday. Mom doesn't drive, and needs some other help, too, so of course I needed to help, and wanted to anyway. But as anyone who has been through this kind of family event knows, you can sometimes feel like a week just vanished from your life. That's how I'm feeling today.

Why are am I always so surprised by this? I had the same feeling last fall when a very confused six-point buck decided to charge through our front picture window, wreck our main floor, and then leave by another window. That was followed by a head-spinning few weeks of dealing with insurance claims, window companies, choosing new carpet and waiting for it to be installed (three days before Christmas was happening at my house!), all while trying to get the seasonal tasks done at the church. I thought I would lose my mind!

This morning, as I began to have a freakout about helping my parents, managing my job, and remaining available to my husband and children, I opened up my e-mail to find a beautiful devotional message from Nancy DeMoss about God as manager of the universe. I read the suggested passage, Psalm 104. And took a deep breath. I didn't have to know how to "do it all". God knows how. He runs the whole universe, without freakouts! I can lean on his everlasting arms and just move forward day by day in his strength.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Musical Offerings

Today in worship we had a father and son play a piano and guitar duet. The dad, Rich, had actually created the arrangement for them to play, based on a guitar quartet he has a recording of, and, along with it, he created a very beautiful powerpoint presentation consisting of some photos of the natural world, overlaid with the words to Psalm 8. Rich played his classical guitar, and his 15 year old son played the piano. It was really one of the most worshipful musical offerings we've had in quite a while.

It is my understanding, if I have my facts correct, that it took Rich about a year of thinking and tinkering to put all this together, since he is also a school teacher and busy dad. His wife told me he just became completely inspired to do this, and do it well. What a creative effort - the music, the creative use of the beautiful photos, the Psalm, and the computer skills to tie it all together! And the perseverence to follow through on his very inspired idea.

This is exactly the kind of musical offering I hope to see more of in our service. It was so clear to all that heard it and saw it that it was not a performance but truly an offering to the Lord.

In worship planning, we have wrestled to come up with some new terminology for the elements of our service, in hopes of making them not only more seeker sensitive, but also suggesting a new paradigm for the contents of our worship time. For instance, in years past Rich and Nathaniel's duet would have been called "special music". But somehow, in the minds of many, the word "special" seemed to then be conferred on the "performer" (another word we are trying to get away from). We really don't want to elevate those who are on the platform as being better than those who make offerings in other ways, i.e., service, financial giving, etc. Our society has caused even the church to look a little too much like "American Idol" sometimes.

Now you may be thinking, "Hey, Joyce, didn't you just elevate these guys by mentioning them in your blog? " Legitimate question! But the reason I have commented on them is because I would like to, hopefully, lift them up as an example for others-something I think they would both be a bit embarassed about. There was sacrifice involved in pursuing the inspiration that Rich recieved. Frankly, I'm sure that most of the people listening don't really realize how much time and effort it took to pull this off, and to make it look so simple in the process.

It was not a performance, it was an offering.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

First Rehearsal

We had a terrific first rehearsal last night! Several new people joined us, and we sight read through most of the music for the fall. That's always hard work for everybody, and the new people were a little shell-shocked by it, but I did have several people tell me afterward that they are excited about the new music they saw. I think having an overview of the fall anthems builds enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. When we were done, we ate and mingled, and I was pleased to see that the new folks were being welcomed by the long-time members. They seemed to be feeling right at home.
I'm struck again by the loving, caring group we have. That's really the best witness they have as worship leaders.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Tradition! Tradition! Tradition

Someone who read my last post took issue with the idea that Baptists don't wear robes. He was apparently refering to a time in the past (50+years ago?) when Baptist ministers were known to wear black robes. Historically, that is probably true, although my 35 years of experience does not support this. Many years ago, we had a pastor that wore a robe for wedding ceremonies, but that was about it.

Although I work with a pretty traditional (though moving toward a blended) worship service, we definately don't want to be a museum piece. The idea that traditional means that we should do everything in 19th century fashion is pretty farfetched. I imagine that would effectively kill our service in no time flat! No, what we are looking to do is have a "boundry-less" sort of service in terms of style. In other words, we choose music because it is great worship music and fits with the theme of the particular service, not because it was written in a certain time period. We enjoy readings, sacrements like communion and baptism, testimony, sermons given in several formats, occasional dramas, instruments of all kinds-from pipe organ to flute to drums to electric bass to violin (because instruments are, after all, neutral objects!), and fexibility in creating our worship order, because our goal is not to enshrine or glorify the past, but to magnify our God in community and preach Truth to those in the congregation. It is freeing to plan worship this way And, while we don't want to completely ignore the needs of our congregation for a "comfortable" form of worship, the service is actually for the Lord, not us! And the Lord does not operate in time the way we do!

Always, always, always our goal is to offer a pleasing sacrifice of praise to our God. If we do that genuinely, we also practice what Sally Morgenthaler has so appropriately termed "worship evangelism". In other words, a non-believer, present in our service would be drawn to God by observing the devotion of the believers expressed in their worship.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Getting Ready

The first rehearsal of the choir season is tomorrow evening, so today I really began to feel the last minute pressure of being ready. The plan is to have a "sight reading party"-since no one really enjoys sight reading-and we will also have a food and fellowship time afterwards, so everyone can catch up with each other after going our own ways over the summer. Quite a few of the choir members have told me that they are eager to get back, because the choir is their small group. They miss everyone! It is hard to be apart all summer, but I'm sure we couldn't maintain enough of a quorum to perform successfully if we went all summer.

The new music is in the folders, I have been diligently doing my conducting prep, and our wonderful new accompanist, Cindy, has had the music in hand for a couple of weeks to prepare for tomorrow. We have at least three new people who have told me they will be there, and, amazingly in this age, we are looking at ordering a few more robes, because we only have 30, and they are all claimed.

Here's my deal on the robes: I am truly completely neutral about whether we should be robed or not. I like the uniform look. I am also a little concerned that younger people might not be too keen on them, and we don't want to create a barrier to their joining. But, so far, that doesn't seem to be an issue. I personally don't wear one, as the director, because I think all that fabric flapping around while I conduct creates difficulty for the singers in seeing my beat pattern-kind of like a lion tamer confusing a lion with a three-legged stool! And, when I stand at the podium and lead the congregational singing, I think it looks better if I just wear something nice and professional. Being Baptists, we don't robe our pastors and other worship personel, like the organist, though I know in some denominations this is routinely done. So that is how I have come down on it. Once in a blue moon some one will comment on this choice, so I thought I would post my thought process here so people would know how I came tho this conclusion.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Back to Blogging

Well, I've been a complete slacker about blogging, though I started with the best intentions. But Ramon and Michelle responding has prodded me to get back at it! Thanks guys!
As Michelle indicated, I have recently become a first-time grandmother, which makes me sound sooo old. Our third son and his wife just had a baby girl, and we made a mad dash down to OK to see her. She is, of course, the most beautiful baby around, and I think this is going to be a very fun stage in my life!
I've also been working intensively to choose music for the fall and make all the other preparations necessary for the start fot the choir season. It's actually my favorite task. My overarching goal in choosing music is to help the choir "sing Truth" to the congregation every week, and preparing these pieces is a way of meditating on Truth day in and day out. I can't imagine giving this up, Ramon! I have no objection at all to contemporary services, but I would really miss the comeradery and sense of purpose that come with being part of a choir.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Beginner Again

My daughter talked me into participating in the U of I summer band this year. I haven't played in a band for 32 years, so there is an element of madness here, but I took the bait because it might be the only time that I could play in an organization with both my daughter and my father. So, it was all about the three generation thing.
There is family tradition here. My dad played tuba in the U of I bands when he was a student. I played French Horn there when I was a student. And now my daughter is a trumpet performance major there, and plays in the wonderful Wind Symphony.
The summer band allows community members to join in the fun. There are two concerts each summer, performed outdoors on the Quad. It is the typical "band in the park" fair-Sousa marches, medleys from Broadway musicals, old warhorses like Vaughn-Williams folksong suites.

However, I think you are supposed to have some competence on your instrument.

This is where I run into problems. I used to be an adequate Horn player, even though I was a vocal-choral person. Now, I stink. It's incredibly embarrassing. But I'm learning some interesting things by blatting away at the end of the section.

First, this isn't high school, and people are actually kind enough to tolerate my incompetence, instead of whispering behind my back. In fact, they are very nice.

Second, for a long time I've been in a situation where I was probably the best, or one of the best, musicians available, and playing in the band helps me remember what it is like to be the person struggling to keep up. I hope that doesn't sound prideful in any way; it's just the way things are. I think this probably happens to a lot of well -trained musicians that are serving in church settings. You get to be a big fish in a small pond. Not healthy.

Lastly, next time I try to recruit someone to choir and they say "Well, I don't know.. it's been a long time since I've done that" I'll be able to reassure them. "Look", I'll say, "it's fun. The people are really nice. And it will come back to you, if you stick it out. Trust me, I know."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Independence Day

I love the Fourth of July! My family groans a bit about the local parade-too long, too few marching bands, too many random local businesses represented by decorated cars, too many embarrassing political protesters. I really don't mind any of that. It isn't "The Music Man" or Disney World, it's just my hometown being themselves. I always stand for the flag. I always clap and tear up for the veterans. And it's a great way to get a sunburn!
Then we have the evening fireworks, which we really do up right. I especially like the ones that make my chest rattle, the more deafening the better! And, again, tearing up for the ones that go with "I'm Proud to Be an American" because, well, I AM proud to be an American.
But I have a little struggle when it comes to patriotic displays in church.
I know many people will disagree with me on this one, especially the members of the Greatest Generation. While there is certainly a place for hymns like "Eternal Father, Strong to Save", "God of Our Fathers", and "America the Beautiful", because they are prayers for our nation and recognition of God's Sovereignty, there seems to be a struggle to keep the worship service a worship service and not a nationalistic program such as one might see on the Washington, D.C. mall. Planning for this service is a delicate operation! I don't think it is the place for a color guard presentation, for instance. Some one usually wants that. I don't think we need red, white and blue decorations. The Sanctuary is very pretty as is, and we might forget to look at the Cross.
Thanks for freedom of worship, humble prayers for safety, peace, wisdom for leaders, openness to God's leading as we lead our lives as citizens-these are what I think are most appropriate for Christian citizens to offer to God on the Sunday closest to July 4th. If a foreign student is in attendance, this is what I dream they would see. I think they would feel nothing but admiration for Americans, and respect for the system that allows us to honor God this way.
Have a fun, safe, blessed Independence Day!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

About that last post...

It's unlikely that I will ever post three times in one day again, but I wanted to thank my son Grant for inviting himself on to my blog and sharing that great picture he created to illustrate the prophet Ezekiel eating the Word and and finding that it tasted like honey. Grant is working on his Master's Degree in Art Education, and finding that his class assignments give him an opportunity to express his faith and generate conversation with his classmates. Now, that's using the arts to engage in conversation with the culture!

I would also like to explain the name of my blog, Tallgrassworship. No, I don't worship tall grass! But I am a lifelong native of a part of the world that was once covered in tall-grass prairie, which once grew so high that a man on horseback could get lost in it. There is very little of it left, I'm afraid, here, where the saying is "Beans and corn, corn and beans...variety is the spice of life!" But I claim this place on the prairie as my special corner of the world, where I have deep roots, just like that grass. And I worship and minister in this particular place. So, it just seemed to fit.

My son's fabulous artwork

Hey this is a picture from my son Grant's art class. I really dig it.

Making the Leap

After three-and-a-half years serving in music ministry, I am still amazed at the interesting places this job has taken me! If you had asked me when I accepted the job if I would one day be blogging you would have gotten quite a chuckle out of me. But here I am, preparing to share my thoughts, prayers, and vision for worship ministry with anyone who stumbles across this site, and it is both an exciting and humbling experience.
My family will chuckle,too. After all, only a couple of years ago I was asking them to limit their dinner table discussions to things I could also discuss, and the world of technology was not one of those subjects! But standing still, both literally and figuatively, is not healthy for anyone. Over the last five years, as I have struggled to learn to use current technology, I have continually reminded myself that the culture is not going to "stay put" for me, and if I don't move with it, I will soon be a dinosaur!
I believe we are experiencing some of that same tension in the world of sacred music. Being open to new things (like technology) doesn't mean that I don't still use the written word to communicate my thoughts about the theology of worship, but it does allow me into the conversation that is necessary to remain in a relationship with our culture. And, in the church, being open to what might be useful for communicating the Gospel through music, while requiring the exploration of new forms, doesn't mean I will be "throwing the baby out with the bathwater", either. While I struggle to learn, grow, and discern God's desires for our particular congregation, I hope to express my thoughts about the process here. Perhaps others will also share their reflections. Let's have a discussion!