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God Moves in a Mysterious Way

Author Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Hampton, VA

 

God Moves in a Mysterious Way: Doing Music Ministry During a Pandemic

How does one do music ministry from home, when the church is closed and choirs cannot gather?

The answer is, you spend the first week or two scrambling to put together online worship. But, mostly, you spend those first two weeks grieving the losses.

The new musical setting for my church’s Lenten Wednesday worship was going so well; the cantors, choir, and instrumentalists had worked so hard and worship was lifting us to new heights. Gone! The handbell choir was really taking off and was excited about three pieces for Lent and three for Easter Sunday. Cancelled! The adult choir had just gotten their new Easter anthem, which would have combined organ, handbells, and trumpet. Not happening!

But then, like all things we grieve, we emerge at some point and face reality. And usually, that is when we are given opportunities to greet God face to face. 

For one thing, I sense God’s presence more now when I talk to my co-workers. I see them only online, and much less often, but, having had to talk through some very hard things, I also feel closer to them. That is God at work.

Additionally, I had initially rejected the idea of having any kind of online meeting for our musical groups, but I changed my mind and gave it a try. Technology is an amazingly sophisticated thing, but it has not figured out how to allow people in different locations to make music together online in real time. With some hesitation, I decided to start Zoom meetings for the adult choir. Would it be awkward? Would people be distracted by the disorder of my makeshift home office, with the sounds of small children screaming in the background? But, you know what? It felt so good to see each other’s faces. After catching up a bit, we watched a video together through Zoom’s “screen share” function and, with our individual voices muted, sang along with the choir in the video. It was possible to see each other’s faces as we were singing (see photo below) and it gave us a taste of what we’d been missing: that feeling of being with other people to praise God through the beauty of music. 

Before doing this, I was convinced that such profound moments of faith and community were impossible to do through the internet. Granted, it’s not the same as being in person, and I do look forward to when we can be together again. But I think part of what struck me was the surprise at just what God is capable of doing. God reached us in a way we didn’t expect, which is exactly the way God works. We work hard, but mostly we show up and wait in expectant faith. God does the rest. Even in the midst of a pandemic– isolation, anxiety, fear, and even death– God is there.

Perhaps you have had some similar experiences participating in online worship services or choir rehearsals, in other online opportunities, or even just chatting with neighbors from six feet away. In what ways has God taken your grief, skepticism, bitterness, fear, or anxiety, and turned them into ways to grow in your relationship with God?

Much love and peace to you all during this time. When we are together again, in the flesh with our worshipping communities and choirs, it will be quite a celebration.

—Ginny—

 

A few members of the Adult Choir at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Hampton, VA, join in Zoom choir rehearsal.

“God moves in a mysterious way” is the title line from William Cowper’s famous 1774 hymn.

 

Author Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Hampton, VA

 

 

 

 

 

 

A new PBS documentary highlights songs from the women’s movement. Do any of them work as congregational songs?

Musician and women’s rights figure Holly Near sings at a rally in San Francisco in the 1970s. Photographer unknown. Photo found at KPBS public radio webpages.

In the month of February we celebrated Black History Month in our churches, homes, and communities. As a leader of congregational song, I love that in February I can immerse myself in music that is written both for and by African Americans. Then March rolls around, and I’m eager to honor Women’s History Month to the same degree, but I find there is much less to choose from. There are plenty of songs written by women, of course. But how many songs are there about the experience of being a woman? What binds the female community in song? What music empowers women, and all people, to effect social change for women?

While these thoughts were swirling in my head in late February, I was delighted to hear about a new documentary from PBS: Rise Up: Songs of the Women’s Movement, broadcasting on local PBS stations in March (a regular donation to your local station also allows you to stream it through PBS Passport, their streaming service). I watched it for pleasure, and enjoyed it immensely. But I also watched it through the lens of a congregational song leader, hopeful that some of the songs would be enjoyable not just to be listened to by the original artist, but to be sung by groups of people. In this case, the groups of people I’m thinking of are not worshipping bodies (none of the songs from the documentary were explicitly faith-based), but groups who are gathering to strengthen each other to seek justice for women. This could be a rally, or a group meeting, or just a social gathering, whether it is at a church or not.

Rise Up takes viewers from the time of women’s suffrage to the present day, but most of the music is from the modern women’s movement, about 1963-1985. The first song it mentions in this time period is “You Don’t Own Me,” (1963) by Lesley Gore.

This is a song I’ve loved from my own childhood, tuning my little red radio to the oldies station in my bedroom. (Yes, I was that kid who preferred the music of my parents’ generation to that of my own.) As I watched Rise Up, I enjoyed listening to the song from the perspective of Lesley Gore herself, who was only 17 when she topped the charts with it in 1963. How empowering it must have been for teenage girls in the 1960s to hear someone their own age say that being yourself is enough! 

You may also recall that this song was resurrected thirty years later in the movie The First Wives Club (1996), in a memorable scene:

Watching Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton sing and dance, you can sense how powerful this song has been in binding groups of women together. As a congregational song leader, though, I have two critiques. First, as I watch the First Wives segment, it makes me wish the words were collective:  “You don’t own us. Don’t tell us what to say. Just let us be ourselves!” When women free themselves from what men want of them, it is not then every woman for herself, but all women together.  We have joined a sisterhood that is as loving and supportive as what the protagonists from First Wives clearly enjoy. Second, I wish the song was easier to sing a capella. There’s a key change in the middle of the chorus every time, then back to the original key for each verse. This is something that can be difficult to do without backup instruments. All the same, I can see this song receiving another resurrection for the teenage girls and women of the 21st century. (In fact, it has: Kristin Chenoweth and Ariana Grande covered it in 2019.)

One song I hadn’t heard before watching this documentary was “I am Woman,” (1972) written and performed by Helen Reddy. 

When asked about her song in a 2003 interview, Reddy said,

“I couldn’t find any songs that said what I thought being woman was about. I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that.”

Her words echoed my own thoughts on the subject.  I love that Reddy performs on stage with a simple, short haircut and minimal makeup. And, man, “I am Woman” is catchy! It makes you step out of your car feeling like you can take on the world! I’m smiling to myself as I imagine women driving to work, belting out this song in their cars, or gathering together in living rooms, singing it together with the recording. It’s easy to sing even if you don’t have Helen Reddy’s recorded voice backing you up.

When I put on my congregational song leader hat, though, and I notice again that the lyrics are individual and not collective. I want people who are singing a song of liberation to feel that they are not just being extracted from oppression, but that they are being pulled out by a loving community. I want them to feel caught into the arms of people who know their pain, who can then be their friends and partners as they start new lives. Reddy sings, “I am woman, hear me roar!” but, in my own experience, I find that roar loses energy if I’m roaring alone.

In a documentary full of great songs, the one that left the best impression on me, from a congregational song perspective, was Holly Near’s “Fight Back,” written in 1985. Unlike the two songs mentioned above, “Fight Back” was never a chart topper. But, as you’ll hear in the live YouTube clip, Near sings it backed only by hand drums, with attendees from the Michigan Womyn’s Womyn’s Festival singing along with her.

The African American Civil Rights movements had songs like “We Shall Overcome,” songs that were easy to sing while you linked arms with others, marching down the street filled with hope, energy, and maybe a bit of righteous anger. The lyrics of “Fight Back” are fantastic for a protest setting:

By day I live in terror

By night I live in fright

For as long as I can remember

A lady don’t go out alone at night.

 

But I don’t accept the verdict

It’s a wrong one anyway

˜Cause nowadays a woman

Can’t even go out in the middle of the day.

 

And so we’ve got to fight back

In large numbers

Fight back, I can’t make it alone

Fight back, in large numbers

Together we can make a safe home

Together we can make a safe home

 

Not only is the song upbeat and catchy, the words are focused on all of us working together to defeat injustice. There is some use of the word ‘I,’ but for the purpose of tying our individual experiences together, to realize we are not alone in our fear and pain. “Together, together we can make a safe home!” Near says. “I can’t make it alone.” 

In the second verse, she goes on to say that staying behind locked doors is some people’s solution, but one she refuses to accept. She won’t be afraid; she refuses to live in fear when the whole world is filled with women like herself.

Women all around the world

Every color, religion and age

One thing we’ve got in common

We can all be battered and raped

 

Some have an easy answer

They buy a lock and they live in a cage

But my fear is turning to anger

And my anger’s turning to rage

And I won’t live my life in a cage, no!

 

If you, like me, were looking for a protest song about women’s rights, written by women for women, that you can sing with little to no instrumental help, this is your song!

A running theme through Rise Up, expressed by big names like Melissa Etheridge, Gloria Steinem, and others, is that the women’s movement owed much of its success to the music. To paraphrase Etheridge and Steinem: “Music bypasses the mind and goes straight to the heart.” It was encouraging to hear celebrities speak the truth that I try to live out in my work every day.

I’m interested to hear if anyone else watched Rise Up. What did you think? And what about songs for the women’s movement? Are there any good ones that they left out?

 

 

Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

I’m back! I started a new position in August of last year and, while I didn’t plan to take a 6-month hiatus from blogging here at the Center for Congregational Song, that is in effect what happened. 

Now that the frenzy of starting a new job is starting to subside, I am finally able to take a broader look at the congregation I am now serving and express to them my main observation about who they are right now. It applies to my congregation, and perhaps it applies to your congregation as well. I also think it applies, more broadly, to the church in general:

 

We are a people in transition

The congregation I am serving has been searching for a new pastor for longer than expected, and we are feeling understandably impatient. We are deep, deep in the uncertainty of the interim period. When will the new pastor be called? Will we like her? What will he want to change? What will she think of us? We are a little like the kids in the back of the car on a family vacation. “God, are we there yet??”

Lent is about to begin, and the lectionary readings for this season are full of stories of people wandering through a period of change and vagueness in their lives, and their community’s life. As I read the Bible passages prescribed for Lent, planning and playing through music to fit each Sunday, I realize how many of our congregations are like the Israelites in the wilderness, wondering when God will finally lead them to the Promised Land. “Any day now, right, God?- We’d kind of like to get on with our lives!” Jesus, too, was sent by God into the desert to fast and pray for forty days, hence why Lent is forty days. Jesus did far less complaining about his situation than the Israelites did, but his journey was still painful. No one wants to spend several weeks alone, harassed by the devil and on the edge of starvation.

 

The Interim

The sense of impatience and ambiguity that comes through in these Lenten readings resonates with many of us who are involved with churches and congregational song. Here in the United States and many other western nations, the cultural landscape has changed dramatically since the days when families filed dutifully into church on Sunday mornings. Those of us in church leadership positions have, for some time now, been searching for new ways of being church. And, for those of us who remember the days of booming choirs and filled pews, we miss that sense of security. We long for things to feel relaxed and “normal” again.

As much as I, too, would love to hurry up and find a new normal, God was firm with the Israelites that their “interim period” in the wilderness was not something they could skip. God was not going to let them out of that desert until God knew they were ready. Many of us have stories from our own individual lives, when we were waiting and waiting for something, and as painful as that waiting might have been , it gave us time to mature, to lean on others, and to let go of the things that were not actually important. Most importantly, that period of waiting hopefully gave us a chance to lean more on God and less on our own abilities.

 

Imagine

So, this period of waiting, longing, experimenting, and even failing, is actually an invitation  given to us by God. It is an opportunity that calls especially for those with imagination, for leaders with creativity and a spark of hope. The arts are particularly suited for carrying groups of people through difficult times. As people who love and lead music, it is our unique job to guide people into an experience of worship where we can  imagine the wonderful things God has planned for us. Music, and the arts in general, help us get out of our own heads and take a leap of faith into what might be.

The adult choir at my church sang an anthem a few weeks ago that embodies what I’m trying to say here about transitions, interims, and imagination. You may know it: “Imagine the People of God,” by Mark Miller.

 

 

Imagine, Imagine the people of God

Imagine the people of God 

Believing, receiving, becoming God’s love

Imagine the people of God

 

Imagine, Imagine the people of God

Imagine the people of God 

Caring, sharing God’s love in the world

Imagine the people of God

 

Seeking the way of Jesus Christ

Trusting the courage to change

Being God’s love with neighbors and friends

Imagine the people of God

 

Imagine, Imagine the people of God

Imagine the people of God 

Believing, receiving, becoming God’s love

We are your people, O God

– Mark Miller, 2015 All Rights Reserved

Accept The Wandering

This Lent as we wander with the Israelites in the wilderness, and as we walk with Jesus in his forty days in the desert, I hope we can accept that wandering as the gift that it is. Easter Sunday will be that much sweeter if we embrace all that Lent has to offer. The next phase of “church,” whatever that is, will be more beautiful, too, for the sweat and tears we put in during this period of change. God is with us all the way!

 

 

Blogger Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

 

 

 

Eastertide

Eastertide is the season where we get to hear a little each Sunday from the book of Acts, a record of the wild experiences of Jesus’s first disciples as they went into the world to tell the good news. In the Christian liturgical tradition, Lent is the season to reflect inwardly, but in Eastertide Jesus pushes us from the nest and we find ourselves, like those disciples, bumping our way through actual discipleship in the real world.

It’s exciting, especially at first, when the memory of the risen Lord is fresh in our minds. Think of the last time you had a personal revelation, or read a book you adored; you couldn’t wait to tell someone. But at some point the newness wanes and the vigor you felt at first is no longer enough to properly fuel your work in the world.

 

Christian Community

That is, I believe, where Christian community comes in. Guest blogger David Calvert made reference to community a few weeks ago when he wrote about the Common Hymnal project. In his blog, Calvert describes how, in the age of vinyl, people would anticipate a new album coming out and then gather together to listen to it. Before recording technology, too, someone who had a hunger for new songs would have to learn the song themselves in order to enjoy new music at home. Fast forward to 21st century, when we can download albums instantly and listen in our earbuds; this is not in itself bad, but something is lost when the only way we consume music is as background noise, by ourselves.

 

Making Time

The element of community is important to our experience of music, just as it is important to our experience of the risen Christ as we go day by day through the season of Easter. I have felt this recently, in situations where I made time to be in community, face to face, with other people. As a choir director, for instance, my choir and I feel refreshed in our knowledge of the risen Lord when we work intensely on an anthem and it comes together on a Sunday morning. We hit just the right chord and there is something sacred born that is more than the sum of the individual notes and voices. As a music teacher, I felt the Lord’s presence with my three- and four-year-olds when we were dancing with colorful scarves to Saint-Saëns’ “Aviary,” and suddenly a beautiful blue jay swooped by the window. Finally, the Lord graced me with his presence last week when I dragged myself to a Vacation Bible School meeting which I had been dreading, but which, by God’s grace, became a sacred space for us leaders to open our hearts about what we wanted for our church’s children. We came up with new, risky, yet exciting things we could try to make our hopes for our children a reality. In all of these examples, God made God’s self known to us in community, because we had all made the effort to show up, week after week. It was both because of and in spite of our efforts that we experienced these moments of awe and grace.

 

God’s Work

Much of God’s work is difficult and tedious and not every gathering of the faithful produces a golden moment we can treasure for weeks or years to come, but it is because we did not neglect to meet that we gathered what needed to do what Jesus sent us out to do. This Eastertide, as you flap your fledgling disciple wings, I hope you find people to flock with, people to make and listen to music with, and wonderful glimpses of the risen Christ to carry you all through the season.

 

 

Blogger Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

 

Right now we are in the middle of Lent, the season when we take a closer look at our hearts and ask what we need to change to be closer to God. One of the many enjoyable parts of my job as a church musician is being able to sit and read (a re-read, and re-re-read) the words of the songs we sing. I get to savor the beautiful poetry in a way that you can’t while you’re singing it in worship. After reading David Bjorlin’s recent blog on songs and contexts, I became aware of several instances where the hymn I selected clashed with the context in ways I had not anticipated. Below are a few examples involving songs I love, in contexts where they served to divide– either by race, age, or sex– rather than unite us. My hope is that these stories will jog your own memory, get a conversation going, and maybe, in this Lenten season, get us closer to the beloved community God intends for us.

 

Dividing by Race

Last month my church’s adult Sunday School class was blessed to have a guest speaker come tell us about her experience in the 1950s, being one of only a few black children to integrate one of the local public high schools. Dr. Patricia Turner (video below) is in her 70s now, and she recalled for us walking alone each morning to school, where she was taunted, spat on, and pushed down the stairs by her white classmates. Some teachers even joined in calling her disparaging nicknames. Despite all this she did quite well in school, eventually earning her doctorate and having a successful career in education. The images from her testimony were still bouncing around in my brain when we began the opening hymn at worship: “Christ is the world’s true light,” with words by George W. Briggs (1875-1959). The second stanza begins this way:

In Christ all races meet, their ancient feuds forgetting.

On the one hand, this is a wonderful sentiment to follow up a Sunday School class on the evils of racism, that there is indeed a shining day when we can give and receive forgiveness for the hurt we have caused. The church where I work, however, is predominantly white, so singing these words after a presentation like that made me think how easy it is for white folks to proclaim we can let go of the past, when we were not the ones pushed down and spat upon. Dr. Turner wasn’t present in worship, but I wonder, how would the hymn have struck her?

 

Dividing by Age

In January, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., day, I taught the children in my weekday music classes the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” (video below) a favorite of Dr. King and his friends during the freedom marches of the 1950s and 60s. It’s a rousing song that I love to crank up and sing at the top of my lungs at home when I’m feeling depressed by the headlines of the day. Ain’t gonna let no hatred turn me ‘round! No lying! I launched into it with gusto for the children in my three- to five-year-old class, and I instantly thought to myself how different it feels to sing it with a group this age. “Ms. Ginny, what is hatred?” I imagined them asking. It’s hard to answer that question, since they’re so young. What does a song about hatred and bad people mean to a child? In what way are we shaping their understanding of hatred and our response to it, when we teach them a song like this?

 

Dividing by Gender

I am a part-time music minister and part-time stay-at-home mother, and I find these two jobs often overlap, since I am keen to bring up my own children to follow Jesus (and be surrounded by music!). In doing some online research recently on how much screen time is appropriate (such a huge topic for parents these days), I came across an article on television consumption and self esteem in children. The study, involving 396 children, concluded that “[T]elevision exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for White and Black girls and Black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among White boys.” I can’t say as this was a huge surprise to me, but I guess somewhere in my mind I hoped that the Miles Morales and Moanas of the world had changed this for children of the 21st century. Now I am hyper aware of everything my children consume that consists of mostly white and male characters, which, as I’m sure you know, includes all the beloved children’s Christian songs I sing them each day. “He” rescues me, saves me, loves me…. I don’t begrudge Jesus for being male any more than I begrudge Spider Man, but at some point, clearly the focus on men, especially white men, is causing harm. Where do we go from here?

 

One Positive Example

Those were three examples of ways beloved songs can worsen our divisions, but there are positive surprises in my work as well. On Ash Wednesday this year, for instance, my adult choir sang “Dust and Ashes,” with music by David Haas and words by Brian Wren (1989).

Dust and ashes soil our hands–greed of market, pride of nation.

Holy Spirit, come, walk with us tomorrow

as we pray and struggle through the meshes of oppression.

This will be the second time we’ve sung this together and we have to laugh every time because it’s so difficult to spit out all the words. Try saying “meshes of oppression” ten times fast! It’s difficult to sing at first because you don’t expect words like that in a piece of music for church. When is the last time you heard the phrase “greed of market” in a song? It jumps out at you all the more because it’s sung. The music gives the phrase more power; it allows it to pierce the heart in a way that isn’t possible when it’s just spoken. What was at first a funny tongue-twister for the singers eventually became something to really ponder, I think.

 

Rising from Ashes

Sometimes I worry that all the “he’s,” the children I’m potentially disturbing by singing about segregation, and the casual mentions of racial harmony are too much for me to sift through as just one little church musician/mother. The “Dust and Ashes” example gives me hope that our communities are bending toward justice, in spite of our setbacks. When our hearts are moved, hopefully we will then be moved to repentance and action. That’s exactly what we need to be doing in Lent. Thank goodness for words, music, and surprises: the good and the bad!

 

 

As we worked toward the launch of The Center over a year ago, we developed a set of guiding stances for the work of The Center for Congregational Song. I’d like to highlight a few of those guiding stances that I think speak to what we hope to accomplish in 2019.

 

 

HOPES

We celebrate the width and depth of variety in the church’s song throughout history, recognizing that each genre, like each culture or each person, brings unique gifts and challenges to the church.

My hope is that in 2019 The Center for Congregational Song will be a cheerleader for the church’s song and all those who work to lead God’s people in song. There is so much to celebrate, but during this time of overwhelming pain and hate it is easy to forget God’s love for us. Our events, while tackling difficult subjects and not shying away from controversy, will be places of celebration of God’s good gift of song and singing together. Likewise, our blogs, podcasts, and other content will be in the spirit of celebrating the goodness that comes from viewpoint diversity and deep listening.

 

DREAMS

Collaboration and teamwork honors each other’s different gifts and therefore makes everyone stronger by building up partnerships, strengthening relationships, and amplifying each other’s ministries.

My dream for 2019 is that the relationships and partnerships we’ve been building over the last 15 months will bear unexpected and wonderfully creative fruit. As a part of our ecumenical work to build bridges, we have been working hard to learn who is also working to encourage, promote, and enliven congregational song in every denomination, piety, and genre. This year we’re ready to begin building those bridges and already have a couple programs planned that will bring diverse groups of people together to meet, collaborate, and create.

 

INTRODUCTIONS

At its best, singing together enables unity when perhaps spoken conversation is difficult or impossible.

Our original blog team [introductions here], made up of Rosa Ramirez, Adam Perez, Ginny Chilton, and myself conceptualized the content for the blog as a place where folk would be sure to find joy, optimism, humility, grace, and contextualization. The posts, like the blog team members, would represent a variety of viewpoints and skill-sets so that throughout the year you might encounter posts that speak directly to your own ministry challenges as well as open your eyes to the challenges and thoughts of others. With that in mind, we’ve expanded our blog team for 2019 to include three more voices. Each person brings a unique perspective that will continue to challenge and inspire us. We’re excited to welcome each of these new members to our team!

 

The Center for Congregational Song, Centered in Song, Blog, Church Music, Song

Felicia Patton is a lifelong Chicago native. Felicia received an undergraduate degree from North Park University followed by two graduate degrees from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She was very active while at North Park, having served on worship teams, gospel choir, jazz choir, jazz band, and guitar ensemble. In her previous position, she was the director of traditional worship, where she directed three choirs. Felicia has continued to sing within the Chicago and surrounding areas as a solo artist and with her band, Chicago Soul Revue.

 

Center for Congregational Song, Centered in Song, Blog, Hampton, Atlanta, Church Music

Min. Rylan Harris is a graduate of Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia. While still active with the Hampton Minister’s Conference, he has recently moved to Atlanta, Georgia to pursue a Master of Religious Leadership with a concentration in Music and Worship at Candler School of Theology. He now serves as Minister of Worship & Arts at Ray of Hope Christian Church with Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale. Along with his passion for music ministry, he is a keyboardist, singer, and composer.

 

Center for Congregational Song, David Bjorlin, Centered in Song, Blog, Singing, Church

David Bjorlin is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) and currently serves as the worship pastor at Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago. In addition to his role as worship leader, David is a lecturer in worship at North Park University and a published hymnwriter. He holds a PhD in History and Hermeneutics (liturgical studies) from Boston University School of Theology. His academic interests include the history and practice of hymnody/congregational song, the connection between worship and ethics, and the incorporation of children in worship.

 

 

 

We hope you’ll join us in celebrating and collaborating. Here’s to a great 2019!

 

 

Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

 

Lessons and Carols

My church has a tradition of doing a service of Advent Lessons and Carols every year. To me, the term “Lessons and Carols” brings to mind King’s College in all its perfection, so planning my first service felt a bit daunting. I serve a small congregation with a small, but capable, volunteer choir. I knew the level that King’s produces was not attainable for us, so I embraced this as an opportunity to get creative. I ended up having a ton of fun crafting something that allows my choir to shine and encourages more active participation from the congregation. Below are some helpful tips for anyone who is still crafting Advent and Christmas services at your church.

 

Add some more prophets

Lessons and Carols is much like an Easter Vigil service in that it retells the Christian story of salvation: both services start with the Genesis stories of Creation and The Fall and end with stories of Jesus from the Gospels. As long as you start and end correctly, you can insert almost any readings, and any number of them, in between. The readings of the canonical nine Lessons and Carols connect Genesis to the Gospels via two passages from Isaiah. In my congregation, we enjoy hearing from several prophets in addition to Isaiah, which is perfectly fitting. I don’t mean to criticize the curators of those original nine lessons (okay, maybe I do), but the Israelites waited a long time for their savior! We should hear from more than one prophet before we jump to the Gospels.

In addition to it being historically appropriate, adding more prophets makes for a more exciting service. Start out joyously after the story of Creation and have the mood drop dramatically after The Fall. Then, make your congregation wait a bit before the star of Bethlehem dawns on the horizon. Jesus’s arrival will have much more impact.

 

Engage the congregation

When I’m worshiping as a congregant, I confess that I often get so caught up in the music that I miss the message. That is definitely the case when I attend a traditional service of Lessons and Carols; you’ll find me humming “Tomorrow Will Be My Dancing Day” for days afterward. I wanted to be sure the members of our congregation were engaged in the story of salvation from beginning to end, so I picked several congregational songs to fit with the additional prophetic readings. “Deep Within” by David Haas has a hauntingly beautiful melody and a refrain that is easy for congregations to pick up. The words about God writing a new covenant on the people’s hearts are taken directly from Jeremiah 31:31-34. “People, Look East” by Eleanor Farjeon is a common carol sung in Advent; most people don’t realize these words are based on the prophet Baruch (4:36). The prophet Micah also foretells a savior (5:2-4), and you can pair this with any number of Advent or general Parousia hymns (I often use “Soon and Very Soon” by Andrae Crouch). Finally, it is gratifying to hear from John the Baptist, as in John 1 where he foretells the coming of Christ. Pair this reading with “There’s a voice in the wilderness crying” by James Lewis Milligan using the ASCENSION tune.

Having plenty of congregational music also makes it easy to add in the odd musician from your congregation: flute sounds lovely on “Deep Within,” and “People, Look East” benefits from one or more brass players. Having more congregational music and musicians engages people in what is happening, and aids the service in feeling more like worship and less like a concert. If you’re doing Lessons and Carols on a Sunday morning, which we do at my church, it is fitting (and fun!) to engage your congregation more.

 

Make your choir shine

When taking a creative bent on Lessons and Carols, the more difficult job can be finding the right anthems for the choir to sing. Certain anthems have carved a special place in my heart, and my choir members feel the same way. After the reading from Genesis 3, for instance, it’s hard not to hear Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree.” “To Dust” by Karen Marrolli (a living composer!) is a new anthem that I’ve tried in this slot with much success. It makes an impression on listeners and has become a favorite of my choir. Since I like hearing from as many prophets as possible, I sometimes add Zephaniah 3:14-18 and have the choir sing a setting of Psalm 96 or 98 (perhaps your choir already knows a setting of one of those they can dust off and perform with gusto). Pitoni’s “Cantate Domino” worked well for us. Stainer’s “How Beautiful Upon the Mountains” and Carl Schalk’s “As the Dark Awaits the Dawn” work well with any prophetic passage, are fun to learn, and allow volunteer choirs to shine.

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The King’s College version of Lessons and Carols is not feasible for the vast majority of us who work at modest churches with volunteer choirs. This isn’t a bad thing. Tinkering with their version to make it fit your congregation is quite enjoyable. In the process, you’ll learn a lot more about the individuals you’re working with and the message of the service you’re planning. Happy planning, and happy Advent!

 

For more blogs by Ginny Chilton Maxwell, go to the Centered in Song Blog Page.

 

Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

 

5 Benefits of Starting a “Family Choir”

When I took my most recent music ministry post, part of my job description was to start a children’s choir. At the time, the children’s music ministry had been on hiatus for almost a decade and the number of families with young children in the parish was dwindling. The ground did not feel particularly ripe for starting a children’s choir and the task felt daunting, to say the least. After much thought I decided to start what eventually became known as Family Choir. Family Choir is for children under age twelve with an accompanying adult. We practice once a week and the children sing for church about every other month. We sing traditional hymns as well as praise choruses, music you hear on Sunday morning as well as fun Sunday School songs with movements. The group is thriving, so below I’m sharing five benefits our community has experienced by starting a Family Choir. Please add your own thoughts in the comment section!

 

1. Families stay together

From my own experience and from talking with other parents of young children, I hear that families do not have enough quality activities that they can do with their children. Many families have two working parents, and it’s not always appealing to have yet another obligation that requires children to be separated and looked after by someone else. Parents are longing to bond with other parents and have quality time with their children in an atmosphere that welcomes children and takes their needs into account. At family choir, parents and grandparents share songs from their own childhoods with the children, and children share their favorite Vacation Bible School songs with their parent or grandparent.

 

2. Family choir is inter-generational

As congregation sizes shrink (especially in many mainline churches) it is no longer feasible to split a small number of people into a bunch of age groups. Even if it was possible, I believe part of our strength as faith communities is in our ability to form family-like bonds amongst each other, where people of all ages are loved and included. Americans are also living away from their extended families more than ever before; our churches have the unique opportunity to fill that void for people. Family choir is one way to form and maintain those loving bonds.

 

3. Family choir is not obsessed with numbers

Working in a church, I often find myself becoming obsessed with numbers. How many people were in worship this week? How many showed up for choir? It’s exhausting and it drains me of my love for ministry and music. The nice thing about Family Choir is that, with myself and two other adults who were excited about the group, we had critical mass almost right away. The adults added volume to the songs and their children added energy; with those things combined, our little community had life right from the start. With such a large age range–and always with at least one tiny child present (even infants!)–it doesn’t occur to us to be discouraged by who isn’t there. There is always joy when we are making music together!

There is always joy when we are making music together!

4. Families enjoy worship more

Sunday morning music at my particular mainline church can be hard to sing for a young child, especially one who cannot yet read! In Family Choir, children are able to hear more repetitions of the songs that come up in worship and thus are able to participate and enjoy more of what happens on Sunday mornings. That’s a win for the child’s engagement in worship as well as her family’s! Added bonus: so many young parents at my church are new to my denomination, or to church in general, and they also appreciate more chances to hear the music!

In Family Choir, children are able to hear more repetitions of the songs that come up in worship

5. Family choir has a broader reach

It is not necessary that Family Choir participants establish themselves first as regular attenders of your church’s worship service. It can be very intimidating to walk into a worship service for the first time, especially if you have children in tow. It can also be intimidating, as a church member, to invite a friend to church. Family choir is on a weeknight. There are often several stuffed animals present. It’s low pressure. You can come to Family Choir and get to know the inside of the church and the people who go there before you decide you’re ready to come on Sunday morning.

 

In these five ways–and I’m sure there are more–Family Choir is doing a great job of responding to my church’s challenges, which I know are challenges many churches are facing. Whatsmore, it is not just an honest response but a faithful one. So many times we look at what our church has and say, “But we used to have so much more….” I appreciate that Family Choir celebrates what we do have. God is still very much alive in every person, in every moment. It’s an amazing thing and it’s worth jumping for joy over. Family Choir has helped me remember that!

 

For more blogs by Ginny and our other writers, go to our main blog page: https://congregationalsong.org/conversations/blog-connections/

 

Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

 

I tried to pay attention to the music at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church this year, which took place in Austin. The worship planners did a good job of blending the old and the new, and of the new I noticed–by reading through the bulletins, which are available online– that the name Scott Chard came up several times. Much of the music was written by him and he was the artistic director for worship. A quick Google search reveals that Chard is the Praise Chorus Leader at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Oklahoma City. There is surprisingly little else to be found about Chard on the internet, except that he has one studio-length album that you can purchase online or stream for free on YouTube. The album, which was released in 2013, is called Sanctus and includes re-tuned hymns as well as fully original songs by Chard himself.

 

We haven’t talked about re-tuned hymns yet among these blog posts. In the church music world, a hymn is called “re-tuned” if it is an old text with a new, contemporary-style musical setting. Everyone knows the tune to “Amazing Grace,” for instance, but Chard has written a completely new tune to go with this text. Many listeners find it jarring at first to hear such a familiar text set to a new tune. The idea behind any new tune, though, is for the timeless words to hit the listener’s ear in a fresh way. Re-tuned hymns always use a modern, popular style of music, so as to appeal to listeners whose tastes tend more toward rock-n-roll than classic hymnody.

 

Chard’s re-tuning of Amazing Grace is reminiscent of the 90’s band Guster, with its light percussion, acoustic instruments, and relaxed pace. “Crown Him with Many Crowns” has acoustic guitar played with a Spanish flair, backed by Guster-like percussion. “God Himself is There” reminded me of Sixpence None the Richer, also a 90’s band.

 

Deliver My Soul” is my favorite track. It has a driving beat and highlights Chard’s gentle southern accent. The whole album is very gentle. I would even call it chill. CD Baby, Chard’s label, says you will like Chard’s music if you like James Taylor and I would agree with that. Now that I’ve heard the album a few times I would say it stands out mostly for its inoffensiveness. Like Guster or James Taylor, Chard is very relaxed. Relaxed is good. I enjoyed listening to the album and found myself humming the tunes throughout the day. Nothing really stood out to me, though. I was hoping to find something new and irresistible. I was hoping to be inspired, or at the very least, I thought I’d find something catchy. I didn’t find it on Sanctus.

 

Relaxed and Re-tuned: Scott Chard’s album, Sanctus

Album: Sanctus by Scott Chard

Label: CD Baby, released December 2013, produced by Erick Alexander

 

 

Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

 

While doing research for my previous blog posts this summer I came across a group called “Music that Makes Community.” If you’re reading this blog it’s possible you’ve already heard of them. They are a nonprofit that works on a number of things related to communal singing, and I highly suggest you check out their website, but what I wish to highlight here is that everything they do is based on the belief that singing together is particularly effective at building community. This is an idea that may feel foreign to us in 21st century America but, in the not-so-distant past, you needed other people in order to have any music in your life at all. Before recorded music, everyone played an instrument or at least sang. Nearly everyone could keep a steady beat and hold a pitch (You have to be able to do those things if you want to create music together!). Think of how much certain songs or bands shaped who you were at different times in your life. Now, imagine you lived before recording technology was made available, and you and your friends and family had to make all that music yourself. We would all be much better musicians, (Yay!), but I’m more struck by how much more time we would have spent face-to-face with one another. I can’t help but wonder what a difference that would make in terms of belonging and community building.

 

Countercultural

Church is one of the few places that people still gather to make music together en masse. Recorded music has become so ubiquitous that we rarely even listen to music with others, nevermind sing it together; we each have our own self-curated list of songs on our smartphones which we listen to with earbuds on, keeping us from being able to enjoy even listening to music together. I think it’s pretty awesome that we church folk are so proudly countercultural that we will still sing together each Sunday morning (and during the week, too!). When we sing together, we are closer to each other. When we are closer to each other we cultivate a sense of belonging, we can provide for each other’s needs, and we can better communicate with one another. In a society that feels increasingly polarized, you might say making music together can be one way to start solving our problems.

 

Knitting Hearts Together

Creating places where people feel close to one another, where people are known and feel like they belong, is some of the most important work of the church. Communal singing is not just a fun activity, it is a way of knitting hearts together over time. When we are close to someone, we are seeing Christ in them and we are being Christ to them. If you are involved in music at your church, whether formally or informally, you are doing what Jesus called you to do. That is sacred stuff.

 

For more blogs by this author and others, go to our main blog page.