Friday, June 21, 2013

My Weekly Sermon

Last week I reviewed the previous academic year's season of activity at the organ by recalling music I had played as part of worship services at my church, complete with linked recordings and a running total of how many pieces I'd played from various centuries and countries. I wasn't that sure you'd be interested: it might have seemed a bit self-indulgent. Still, by hitting the play buttons next to the various pieces I'd chosen to highlight you could have had a half-hour organ concert if you wanted one, and maybe even discovered some music you liked, which seems like there was a fair chance you'd get something out of it.

It was a necessary and useful exercise for me, partly because I needed some time to process all of that activity while I'm resting between seasons of intensity, and also because I wanted to look back at what I'd done and reflect on that as well as think about what sorts of things I ought to keep in mind for next year. In my choices of repertoire, did I overemphasize or neglect any particular time or place; what sorts of new things did I discover this year and where might my investigations be of use in order to continue to bring good and timely music to my congregation?

I consider that an important activity. And for the past two years I've managed to record at least one piece each week that I'm playing as part of the weekend services so you can hear it as well . From September through May you can go to the Godmusic page on my website and not only see what piece(s) I'm playing this week, but hear me playing it and usually read whatever commentary I've put in the bulletin to help make the music relevant to the the people of my church, not to mention to explain why I've chosen that particular selection for that week's service. For it is indeed a part of the service, and is intended to be a support to everything else that is going on, including the pastor's sermon, the scripture, the hymns, and so on. In some respects it is like my weekly musical sermon, although unlike the pastor I usually haven't written it myself.

There are two things that are unusual about that. One is that I post my weekly offerings on the internet. As of today I still haven't come across evidence that any other church organist is doing the same thing. Their offerings certainly aren't posted on church websites. You can generally find the pastor's sermon, but often there is no evidence that they even have an organist, nevermind that person's effusions.Perhaps churches who record their entire services happen to have organ music as a part of it, but I've never seen the organ music itself on offer, especially as it is likely to be the organist himself who has to make the recording. Given the difficulties of preparing and recording a piece each week I can see why it isn't done so often.

But another reason for that invisibility as it relates to church music (and not music for the concert hall) is that this is one of the places that battle lines have been drawn in the church. Should the organist's solo musical offerings be heard? Or should we just talk over them and/or head for the door while they waft the air in a vain attempt to set the mood?

I obviously incline to the former position, given the way I've assembled my rhetoric. But a lot of folks (often of the pastoral variety) do not agree. In fact, arguments advanced against such a thing often have the effect of  putting the organist in a situation where there is really nothing they can say that won't make their opponent's case for them (which is pretty typical from a "this is the way people argue things" point of view, actually). I'm going to give it a go anyway. I can't recall any organist trying this and it's about time somebody did.

Often the argument against organ music being paid any sort of attention to is that that is simply getting in the way of worship, and that it is only the organist's ego that prompts him or her to want the music to be heard, that the organist must think they are the whole show if they want people to hear them. This is a very disingenuous argument.

For one thing, the pastor typically holds the floor, front and center (and often raised above the crowd) for at least 20 minutes and I don't recall hearing this made a case of supreme ego. Add to that that the liturgist, the person giving the children's sermon (if there is one), the choir, even the person making the morning announcements--all these parts of the service proceed in relative silence so that the congregation can actually hear what is going on. Now a case could be made that a sermon is not technically an act of worship (an argument I've heard to disqualify organ music from being part of a church service); it is really a place to stop the worship service and give an edifying talk, a word of instruction, something to reflect on, tools to interpret the scripture passage we've just heard (or just to tell you what you are supposed to think about it), but not really worship. That's ok. I'm not suggesting we abandon the sermon. I'm just saying there might be some common ground between the clergy and the organist.  How might a pastor feel if they were expected to give their sermons to rooms full of people talking over them? It isn't very likely anything that they had to say would have a beneficial effect on people who couldn't even hear them!

And yet, were we to use the same argument on the clergy we would simply tell them that the congregation wasn't there to hear them talk any more than to hear the organist play and that they needed to get over themselves. There are bigger things going on in a worship service, after all.

Now I think it is quite true that neither the organist nor the pastor is the point of a church service. But we generally feel that the work of the pastor aids us in worship, and his or her words are not simply opportunities to show off, but to help the congregation understand and experience and discover spiritual matters from a new angle, to grow in their faith. Why is it not possible that the same could possibly be true in the case of the organist? It is, of  course, possible that your organist is really an egomaniac who lives to be worshipped and uses the music and the service itself as an excuse to get approbation, but that occasional abuse does not demolish the whole argument, which is really just a plea for empathy, after all. There is, in fact, significant ground between being a self-centered prima donna and the completely anonymous provider of mainly ignored musical product: namely wanting to be treated with the same respect as every other person who contributes to the service. True, a significant portion of the organist's job is to lead hymns, accompany anthems, play quietly during prayers, or tell people with a few loud chords it is time to head for the door, but like a pastor whose medium is words, not everything he or she does needs to be participatory. We have corporate prayers, liturgical responses--and sermons. Also we witness baptisms, new members being created, and prayer concerns spoken aloud. We don't all use our voices at the same time all the time. Sometimes we listen. That isn't all bad.

In fact, part of the reason I was totaling up the eras and countries in the pieces I have played in the past year to see about balance and neglect was because I think part of my job is to introduce people to some of the vast cloud of musical witnesses this 2000 year old church has, to keep people from simply listening to instrumental versions of their own favorite hymns over and over, just as our choir director chooses a variety of styles and eras in the hymns we sing. It keeps us from simply dealing with what we already know and like and gets us thinking that maybe the church is a bit bigger than that, and that maybe we are here to worship a God of a really large creation and not simply our small selves.

So an act that many assume proceeds from the motives of a self-centered and self-seeking organist can actually be a road to opening us all up to each other, living and dead, and getting us away from narrow provincialism and the assumption that we should always have things the way we want them. Instead of the focus being on self, these musical excursions can do just the opposite and actually take one away from the self.

How's that for ironic?

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