Rethinking Church Staff Singers

Bright afternoon sunshine and cool breezes surrounded Glynda as she approached her favorite coffee shop, Java Corner, in Evansville. Having moved to St. Louis a year and a half before because of her husband’s promotion, she was finally able to get away for a week to visit old friends in the city that was her home for much of her adult life.

Glynda was delighted to see Jenny again in the place where the friends had shared many conversations about children, husbands, priests, politics, and their favorite topic, the St. Barnabas Choir. The music of the Church was not the only cord that bound them together, but it was the strongest and most precious. Glynda began singing in parish choirs in the second grade. She took piano lessons and sang in school choirs and civic choral groups through college. She began college as a music major, hoping to teach high school chorus. Her passion for choral music was lifelong, always singing, always volunteering, from helping as an accompanist at the high school, to serving as a youth choir director at St. Barnabas, to working in the music library at the church.

Of all the directors Glynda had worked with, she loved Jenny like no other. At 52, Jenny was just a few years older than Glynda. Their children were roughly the same age, and both women knew the challenges of husbands who traveled frequently for work. Jenny, having considered seminary and the priesthood, took a very pastoral approach to her leadership of the music ministry at St. Barnabas. One day, after arranging the folders of the 40 choir members in their slots, Glynda observed Jenny standing in the choir room. Jenny moved from one folder to the next, placing her hands on each one and whispering a few words. When she saw that her friend was still in the room, Jenny explained, somewhat sheepishly, “It helps me prepare for rehearsal to take a few minutes and pray for each of our choir members. So much happens in their lives that they entrust to me. When I decided not to pursue the priesthood and instead become a choir director, I promised God that I would seek to be a pastoral musician, first and foremost.”

Glynda knew the truth of Jenny’s words. Though her family was active in church during her childhood, Glynda drifted away from active involvement when college work became burdensome. It wasn’t long before inactivity from leadership led to spotty attendance at worship. By the time Glynda married Brian she was so out of touch with the Church that the couple decided to be married in a park. Soon, financial struggles and the adjustment to married life brought her nearly to a point of despair. One rainy Sunday Glynda found herself driving to St. Barnabas, an Episcopal Church that she had passed each day on her way to work, but had never considered attending.

Glynda found a place near the center aisle. The congregation around her seemed friendly and welcoming. Several members reached out to her, suspecting she might be a visitor. She was impressed by the choir, and she noticed a remarkable expressiveness in their singing, especially in their leadership of the liturgy and hymns. When the organ began Now Thank We All Our God, the retiring procession, tears rolled down Glynda’s face as her voice began to soar with the congregation in one of her favorite hymns. A twinge of hope rose in her spirit as she began to feel connected once again to God’s love for her and His open arms of comfort and strength.

As the procession passed Glynda’s pew, Jenny noticed the emotional response to the hymn from the young woman. She also couldn’t help but notice the beauty and clarity of Glynda’s voice.

Jenny waited in the corner of the Narthex as worshipers found their way out of the nave. Finally, Glynda emerged and was heading toward the door to the parking lot. “Hi, I’m Jenny. I am the music director, and I noticed that you visited today. I want you to know how delighted we are that you came. I hope you will come again.” “I am sure I will,” Glynda responded, “and I must say the choir sounded very nice.” Jenny continued, “We are all volunteers, and I have to tell you that I have never worked with a more loving family of caring servants of the Church. I have been here at St. Barnabas now for 12 years, and I think I love this choir more every day. …I couldn’t help but notice that you have a lovely voice… would you consider visiting with us on Thursday night?”

Glynda demurred, “Life is pretty hectic these days… my husband travels… kids are busy…” Encouragingly, Jenny said, “Please know that you are always welcome… we keep extra folders at the ready every Thursday night. I’m going to set one aside for you, because I really hope you will come, if not this Thursday, sometime in the future.”

Glynda returned to worship the following Sunday. Two weeks later she found her way to the choir room on a Thursday night. A few weeks later, Glynda, wearing her choir vestment, was introduced as a new member of the congregation. Brian and their children were at her side. The children were scheduled for Holy Baptism. A year later Brian became a member of the Vestry Finance Committee.

Though months had passed, Jenny and Glynda fell into a warm conversation as if they had never parted. “How do you like St. Louis?” “Is it fun being there, with all the things a large city has to offer?” Have you taken your boys to a Cardinals game?” “Does Brian like his new job? Is he traveling as much?”

Finally, excitedly, Jenny asked, “Tell me about your church… didn’t you join Atonement? …I hear they have a fantastic choir there. In fact, I think I heard them sing an Evensong at the last AGO convention.”

“Well, yes, the choir is quite good, but I haven’t participated since the first few weeks we were in St. Louis,” Glynda said, with a touch of sadness in her voice. “I feel pretty awkward saying this and, frankly, I am a bit ashamed of myself for letting this happen, but Brian and I have fallen out of the church habit.”

Taken aback, Jenny said to her friend, “My goodness, Glynda, the church and church music have never known a more devoted servant than you! Why? How?” “What happened?!”

“When we first moved to St. Louis, I was delighted that Atonement was so close to our house. I had heard the choir was outstanding and I was very impressed -as I told you when we were in transition- by everything I heard on the Sundays I visited. I didn’t even mind when the director asked me to audition… I think it is a good idea for the director to know every voice.”

“The choir has 12 staff singers, mostly college students who are music majors. I had never personally experienced being a part of a church choir with paid singers -I guess we didn’t really need to do that at Barnabas- but I thought it a great idea. The young voices are lovely and, being in music school, they are at the height of their training, unlike middle-aged singers like me who are many years removed from voice lessons!”

“So, the “scholars” come at 6:30 for rehearsal. The rest of us come for our rehearsal that is scheduled for 7:15, but we ‘extra cast members’ -as the director calls us- usually wind up waiting for the scholars’ rehearsal to finish. Then, we all rehearse together for an hour or so. On Sundays, the scholars sing an Introit, chant the Psalm, and sing an a cappella work during communion. The choir, all together about 25-28 voices, leads the liturgy and hymns and sings an organ-accompanied anthem at the offertory. Do you know how I long to sing something a cappella? I asked the director if the full choir could sing an a cappella anthem one day. He quipped, ‘Oh, that is for the scholars… I can’t take the risk that the big choir would lose pitch on something as perilous and exposed as a cappella music!”

“Honestly, Jenny, I found myself feeling like a second-class citizen that crashed a rich neighbor’s party. I am not a professional singer, but frankly I probably could be. I have sung numerous solos in community choruses and at St. Barnabas. I have sung in symphony choruses and in project groups all over the Midwest …and I am deemed not qualified to sing an a cappella motet in my own church?”

Jenny stared thoughtfully into her coffee cup, trying to stem the sadness and anger swelling in her mind in defense of her friend. “Have you and Brian looked at other churches?”

“Yes,” Glynda responded. “I finally dropped out of the choir at Atonement. I honestly don’t know if the director even noticed that I was gone… I never received a call or any follow up from him, and we never heard a peep from the priest or anyone else when we stopped going to church.” “The other churches nearest to us use a lot of contemporary praise and renewal music. I tried to tolerate it, but I just couldn’t. I told my story to the high school choral teacher to see if she had any ideas. She had heard similar things about Atonement. She told me about Sacred Heart downtown that has a very fine choir, but that’s a 30 minute drive from the house. I want a church I can pour my heart into. It would be hard to do that fighting St. Louis traffic for an hour each round trip.”

“You know, Jenny, the staff singers are probably good kids, but they don’t involve themselves in the liturgy. Half of them are looking at their phones during the scripture readings. The director inasmuch said he uses the scholars for the communion anthem because he doesn’t have to worry about the kids taking time to go to the altar for communion. The whole thing feels like a performance, not a ministry.”

“So, what are you and Brain doing now,” Jenny asked, fearing what she was about to hear. Glynda replied, “I can’t remember the last time we went to church. I am not one to sit out in the pews, and I feel like there is no place for me to get involved in a congregation with good liturgy, good music, and a welcoming spirit. I want to grow as a disciple. God has entrusted me with talents and gifts. He has given me a passion to use them. I wish He would open the door to make that possible. I don’t care if I never sing a solo again in a church service, but it hurts too much to feel like persona non grata when I go to rehearsals and to worship. For now, I’m out.”

Glynda is not alone in her feelings of disenfranchisement from meaningful participation in the life of the Church. As the leader of numerous community, semi-professional and professional civic choral ensembles for over 40 years, I have had hundreds of conversations with choral singers about their musical relationship to the Church.

The conventional wisdom is that many Americans, particularly those under the age of 40, have lost interest in the work of the Church. Some claim that the Church is too liberal. Some claim that the Church is too conservative. Some claim that the Church is irrelevant, or not entertaining enough. Some claim that the rise of the Internet and other sources of 24/7 information have rendered the Church unnecessary as a place of social connection and meaningful involvement.

I believe this conventional wisdom to be completely wrong. As theologian and Episcopal priest, John Claypool, once said in my hearing, “The spiritual needs of Man and his thirst for God have not changed. The compelling narratives of scripture have not changed. The power of the heart to be transported in prayer and praise has not changed. The open arms of Jesus and His promise of eternal life have not changed. What has changed is the Church, and not for the better.”

The use of staff singers to support church choirs has become more and more a common practice in recent years, especially in congregations of mainline churches in large cities. It is a practice I have employed myself in congregations that I served as Music Director. When managed properly it can be a tool that enables ministry to deepen and grow, but there are very real risks that present when the employment of paid choir singers becomes a crutch for the director of the choir, or becomes an impediment to the ministry element of music ministry.

What are the advantages of paid staff singers? What are the disadvantages? How can a music ministry program be structured in ways that empower the advantages while avoiding the perils?

Advantages and Opportunities

A program of staff singers can serve to strengthen and diversify the repertoire of the parish choir. Knowing that there will be one, or two, or three strong voices in each choral section gives the director the assurance that more ambitious repertoire can be used.

The use of staff singers helps promote a consistency of leadership for the parish choir in the Sunday liturgies. Choral presentation in worship is not a performance, and beautiful singing should never happen for any reason other than the glory of God. That said, singing that is distracting because of poor quality, just as a poorly prepared homily or poorly trained acolytes, can become a very real impediment to worship and meditation.

The presence of a professional core of singers can help the parish choir recruit strong volunteers. There are many experienced choral singers that will be attracted to one program over another if they are assured that the choir will be singing excellent and diverse repertoire and that it will be sung well.

Many college students struggle to make ends meet. Music students often have the added expenses of building a library of books, scores and recordings. Receiving a stipend as a staff singer is often the only way young men and women can afford the gas money, and the time away from other employments, to be involved in the Church at all. Likewise, there are many older well-trained singers who rely on the staff singer stipend to make ends meet enough to participate in music ministry or to be able to attend services.

Serving in the leadership role of a choral scholar can be excellent hands-on training for young men and women who might consider either a full-time or part-time future vocation in music ministry.

Perils and Disadvantages

The employment of staff singers can become a crutch for music directors in the areas of volunteer recruitment and leadership. When the music director is assured that enough tenors will be present for rehearsal, there is less urgency to recruit, train and empower volunteer singers. Likewise, if a director is assured the “parts will be covered” by the scholars, no matter what else happens, or who appears or fails to appear for rehearsals and services, there is less pressure to properly prepare and train the volunteer singers.

When handled poorly, the presence of staff singers can contribute to a feeling on the part of the non-paid choir singers that their contribution is discounted, or in the words of Glynda, that they are second-class citizens, persona non grata. As was the case in our story, even the most dedicated church volunteer not finding a place of meaningful service is at risk of becoming inactive and drifting away from involvement entirely.

Though it is hard to begrudge the modest stipend received by most choral scholars, especially in a world where senior clergy salary packages for medium-sized congregations can run over six figures, the expense to a parish music ministry can be significant. The average stipend for a staff singer now is $40-$50 per call. At $45 per call for 40 weeks of Wednesday/Sunday, and adding in 10-15 feast days, extra rehearsals and outreach concerts, the annual cost per staff singer could be around $4000 to $5000 per year. That would put a quartet of singers in the range of $16k to $20k per fiscal year. Twelve staff singers at this rate would be $48k to $60k per year in expense to the congregation. Such funds would support an entire staff of children’s choir directors and accompanists. $20k to $60k per year could be the difference between an organist/choirmaster and separate organist and choir-master staff positions.

The presence of a paid core of singers may contribute to the unfortunate concept that choral music in the Church is a performance to the congregation. Soren Kierkegaard’s image of corporate worship as a drama where the congregation is the actor, the clergy and musicians are the prompters, and God is the audience is the model most of us in liturgical traditions follow. The first responsibility of the choir then, is the leadership, enabling and empowering of the song of the congregation in liturgy and hymns. The presentation of choral music is a distant secondary responsibility of the choir. When the choir sings alone, it must do so on behalf of the “great choir” -the congregation. When an ensemble of “rented leaders,” often with little connection to the life of the congregation beyond their hire, presents the anthem, it is a greater challenge for that mystical drama to unfold.

Specific Recommendations for the Use of Staff Singers

Understanding that every circumstance is different, with a heart of humility I offer these suggestions from my own experience and observations in the hope that the Church will grow in the integrity of her witness and in the urgent work of evangelism and discipleship.

1. I encourage music ministry leaders to honestly assess whether staff singers are truly necessary. Quite frankly, a congregation with 250 or more in attendance on a Sunday morning probably does not need to employ choral staff singers.

2. Consider whether the funds which would be used for staff singers could be better applied to the building of the choral program when used in a different way. For example, instead of spending $12,000 on staff singers, would it be a better investment to employ an associate choral leader with a specialty in training and quipping volunteer singers? If such a leader could attract 6-10 volunteer singers through his/her work, the investment would add many singers rather than a few. Also, there is a strong possibility the volunteers, and their families, attracted through the choral program, would be candidates for church membership, possibly assuming leadership roles in other areas.

3. I suggest avoiding descriptions of paid choir members that separate them from the choir’s community. Specifically, I avoid “soloists,” “scholars” or “section leaders.” “Choral assistants” is a term that perhaps communicates more a servant role for the staff singers.

4. I strongly suggest the job description of choral assistants be prioritized as enablers of ministry. In the most effective use of staff singers I have experienced, it was understood that section leaders would be the first to arrive to rehearsals and services, and they would be expected to remain until every member of their section had departed. Part of the job description was to contact any member of their section by phone or email in case of an unexpected absence. Section leaders were expected to report any ministry needs to the music director and/or clergy. In rehearsals the section leaders’ primary role was to welcome, support, teach as needed, and encourage the volunteer singers in their charge.

5. I suggest that paid choir members be considered last, not first, for special ensembles and solo opportunities. Specifically, I believe there should never be a choral selection sung in any worship service by the paid singers alone. I am not opposed to auditioned or select ensembles, and it is likely that paid singers would be an integral part of such ensembles, but the use of the “soloists” alone communicates a caste system in the choir that tears away from its unity and its sense of servant community.

6. Staff singers should be expected to fully participate in every part of the choir’s communal life of worship and service. The reader might be amazed at the number of staff singers around the country who are allowed to leave worship after the choral music is completed. I recommend that staff singers be expected to participate fully in the life of the choir… attending all portions of all rehearsals and participating in social events. I believe staff singers should be expected to fully participate in the liturgy, making the sign of the cross, standing for the gospel reading, and kneeling as appropriate. While no one should be compelled at any time to partake of the Eucharist, I do believe staff singers should go to the altar with the choir and receive a blessing. It goes without saying that reading materials, cell phones and tablets should never be allowed in the choir stalls.

7. My final suggestion might be the most controversial of all. If a staff singer is uncomfortable fully participating in a religious service, he/she should not be a part of the leadership staff of the Church.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen staff singers sitting and reading novels during the Holy Gospel and the Eucharistic Prayer. While it is true that all of us are in different places along our spiritual journey on any given day, the opportunity to serve God in His holy house is a privilege and a trust. It is not a gig, and it should never be allowed, by music staff, by clergy, or by committee, to be reduced to one.

Jenny and Glynda’s visit at the Java Corner is, of course, a created event, but the words they spoke and the story that is told is very real. With every passing year I hear more and more such stories of voices filled with song knocking on the church door praying to gain admittance.

My purpose here has not been to speak against the practice of paid choral singers. I have been a paid choral singer in church at times and I have employed paid choral singers in a number of congregations I have served as music director. I would not be opposed to doing so again in the future.

I do believe, however, as I have sought to illustrate here, that the practice comes with very real perils. It seems in recent years that the downside of employing paid choir singers is becoming more common to the detriment of music ministry in the service of the Church’s mission of worship and witness.

With humility I ask my colleagues to prayerfully consider these thoughts, and I warmly welcome your response and comments.

PROFESSIONALISM

On the day I turned 40 years old I was a professional church music director. I held a master’s degree from a state school with an average music department, and I had 23 years of experience. My annual salary and goodies package approached $100,000 a year.

On the day I turned 50 years old, I held a doctorate from a conservatory, and I had 33 years of experience. The total of my salary and goodies package from the church I served as music director was a $200 gift certificate presented on Christmas eve.

Was I a professional church musician at age 40 and a non-professional at age 50? My choir at age 50 was markedly better and presented more challenging and diverse repertoire. My preparation for rehearsals was roughly the same, if anything more intense for the church at age 50 because the music was more interesting.

Every fall during the late 1970s, hundreds of singers on average would audition for the 200 places in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus directed by Robert Shaw. Many of those singers were newly minted masters of music from America’s finest music schools who, if chosen for Shaw’s chorus, would move to Atlanta upon graduation, wait tables for rent, food and date money, and sing as a volunteer in the “greatest choral laboratory the world has known.” Amateur musician, professional waiter? Professional musician paying the bills waiting tables?

A couple of conversations this week set this carousel spinning in my head. I know a 9-year-old young man who sings in a very fine boy choir. The boy choir is in residence in a church that enjoys the men and boys choir tradition. He is paid $3 per service to participate in the liturgical choir. My first thought was, “How cool! What a great opportunity for a young man to sing fine church music and pick up some money along the way.” But, as time goes on I am gnawed by other thoughts, “What is the boy learning about art? …about God? …about service to God and to His creation?”

The other conversation this week was with a gentleman discussing how different communities value choral music. One community was dismissed as not being very supportive of the art: “A city that large and it doesn’t even have one paid-membership chorus?” The clear implication from the gentleman is that a chorus with paid singers is valued at one level, while a chorus of unpaid singers is valued at another.

A long standing Minnesota-based choral organization, unless something has changed, is comprised almost entirely of singers who hold music degrees, and/or are employed as music teachers, church musicians, and vocal instructors. They volunteer their talents to the famous choir. So, an amateur chorus filled with professional musicians is a… a what?

The aforementioned Robert Shaw once said, (pardon my wincing) “…music, like sex, is too precious to only be performed by professionals…” The great master is known as America’s most ardent advocate for the volunteer chorus, but he is also credited with creating the world’s most famous full-time professional chorus. The Robert Shaw Chorale from 1947-1967 was a chorus where singing in the chorus was the full-time-with-benefits employment of the members. A good thing? Absolutely! Please do not surmise from any of the above discussion, or from the fact that most of my career has been built leading groups of volunteer singers, that I am not an advocate of choral groups with paid members. In fact, the opposite is true. Our own organization, The William Baker Choral Foundation, has a design in our long-range-plan for a new ensemble where all singers will be paid.

What I find myself choking on is the idea that one form of choral group is better than the other, or that one form of choral experience necessarily produces a better product. I think it is very true that some singers in ensembles of volunteers might bring the attitude: “You can’t impose all of that discipline on me. I am a volunteer!” On the other hand there are paid choral singers who will build no bonds of emotional investment with the singers around them, with the music or with the audience. It is a gig. Sing your three rehearsals. Hit the dress. Rock the performance. Deposit the check. On to the next.

The other, and more important, issue that I choke on is the idea that a chorus is “professional” if singers are paid, and “community” if they are not.

I believe, rather, that the distinction of a “professional chorus” lies not in how checks are circulated, but in how dedicated the singers are to each other and to the choral sound, how well-trained they are before the audition and how well-led they are following the audition, how ambitious and diverse is the repertoire, and how excellent and consistent is the quality of the concert product. The Choral Foundation’s Summer Singers choruses in several locations is my idea of the community chorus, dedicated certainly, but community in construction and purpose.

I consider our Choral Foundation Festival Singers ensembles, and similar organizations around the country, to be a “professional-level volunteer chorus” -ensembles of both professional and non-professional musicians come together for the purpose of creating a professional experience and product. Often times the sound of these groups is equal or stronger than many ensembles of all-paid singers. In fact, I believe there is a unity and expressiveness that becomes possible only because the singers are not paid. The motivation is the beauty, not the check.

I began with a personal note, and so I will end with one. I believe that the talents and training we all have are gifts freely given by He Who breathed life into our nostrils. We should never, ever, approach our art as an entitlement or our abilities as something we own. Rather, they are treasures entrusted for a time to our care.

Of all the jobs I have known, I despised none like I did the one with the big salary I had when I was about 40. By contrast I have never loved a job like the one I have now… making music at a professional level with dedicated volunteer singers.

May we each be professionals in our disciplines and commitment, but may we never be anything other than amateurs -quite literally, lovers– to our art, our audiences, our composers and each other.

Just Don’t Get It

Luke 16: 19-31, The Rich Man and Lazarus

Staring down over five decades immersed in scripture and music, it is hard sometimes to avoid musical renderings of a text. Reading the famous Gospel story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, I hear the boys barbershop quartet from Henderson High School in Chamblee, Georgia, circa 1975…

“Dip your finger in the water… come and cool my tongue ‘cause I’m tormented in the flames.” The famous passage from the 16th chapter of Luke is one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables. We have an unnamed Rich Man who wears beautiful clothes and gorges himself at feasts. Outside his gate lies a poor man named Lazarus. (In Greek the words seem to suggest Lazarus is “dumped” at the Rich Man’s gate.) Covered with sores, Lazarus can’t even fend off the dogs. The story implies that the Rich Man ignored ample opportunity to intervene.

When both men die, the Rich Man, now burning in Hell, sees Lazarus at the bosom of Abraham. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to bring water and comfort. Abraham replies that such is not possible, for there is a great chasm between them. The Rich Man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers still alive. Abraham replies that the brothers will not believe a man risen from the dead as they have already ignored the warnings of Moses and the Prophets.

Pretty obvious where this goes, don’t you think?

  • Poor=Good
  • Rich=Bad
  • Treat the poor well and receive your reward in heaven
  • Treat the poor badly and be tormented in the flame
  • Maybe we should all raise our tithing percentage to the Church, for fire insurance if for no other reason
  • Maybe those of us who trust in God while living large should rethink the excess of our lifestyle

It is amazing, when you think about it, how much Jesus talks about money. Journeying through Luke’s chapters 15 and 16 we hear the famous parables of the widow’s coin, the prodigal’s inheritance, and the dishonest manager. We have been told that it is not money in and of itself, but the love of money that is the “…root of all evil.”

I would ask us to consider carrying the idea one step further. I do believe any form of blessing… money, talent, fame… can also be a curse. Having such things provides enormous resources for doing good. It is hard to support the building of hospitals, universities and cathedrals if you have no funds to contribute. No, being rich in and of itself is not bad. What matters is what you do with riches.

Ideas two and four of my cozy list smack of a works theology that, though popular and self-serving for the Church to proclaim, flies in the face of a gospel of grace. Can any of us do enough to be deserving of salvation and a home in Abraham’s bosom? No. Our service to the poor is not a quid-pro-quo, but a response to the unmerited grace offered to us in Jesus Christ.

Should we in (as) the Church be always assessing our lifestyle in the context of our daily living? Absolutely! One of my favorite hymn verses is from the early 20th century American clergyman Harry Emerson Fosdick:

Shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.

I would suggest another level here that, much of the time, even in the Church, or especially in the Church, we just don’t get. I think the larger question is “What is it that defines us?”

Even with the fires of Hell searing his face, the Rich Man didn’t get it. Did you notice how he commanded Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him water. Then, when that didn’t work, he commanded Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Even though Lazarus was comforted in eternal joy and the Rich Man condemned to eternal torture, the Rich Man still saw Lazarus as his servant.

One of the richest and most godly men I have known in this life lived as simply and humbly as the poorest person you would ever meet. Quietly, he sought to use the resources he believed that God had entrusted to him to help people and to make the world a better place. Sometimes that meant giving money. Sometimes that meant choosing not to give money, but to use money and its lessons for teaching values.

I have known hundreds of others who have used their wealth, whether modest or great, to define themselves in the context of others. Sometimes, like the Rich Man, this has taken the form of opulent living. Sometimes it has taken the form of undue and improper influence. Often it has taken the form of building and bowing to one false idol after another.

I think we can find something of this in every one of Jesus’ parables that focuses on money. One of the most vivid is the story of the rich young ruler who comes to follow Jesus. Jesus replies, “Cool. Go sell all of your stuff, give the cash to the poor, and let’s get started!” But the parable tells us that the young ruler went away sad because “he had great wealth.” It was not the wealth itself, but how the wealth defined him that resulted in the sadness of the rich young ruler.

Jesus calls us to be defined in Him, heart and soul, mind and spirit, with all that we have, all that we have been, and all that we ever hope to be.

Fortress Jesus

The bartender says, “Tell ‘em to come and have a drink.” The Church says, “Please step away from our door!”

It was a bright, sunny Thursday morning in the central business district of a small Kansas town. A middle-aged man, attired for his task in a crisp white shirt, cuff links, dress trousers, polished shoes, and long tie, approached the door of the oldest and largest outpost of a mainline Protestant church in the town.

The staff parking lot was full, but there was no sign of life around the building. The stone and brick structure looked to be around 100 years old. The grounds were nicely kept. Near the large doors that likely opened to the narthex was a sign. The name of the congregation was at the top of the sign followed by the names of two clergy and the times for services and Christian education. The lower part of the sign featured a bright electronic message of “We are Happy You are Here!”

The visitor walked around the church building looking for an open door or for signs that would indicate the location of the church office. There were none. However, he did notice a mailbox near a door on the side of the building. To the right of the door was a speaker with a single button below.

The visitor pressed the button.
“___________ Church,” said a female voice from the speaker.

“Good morning,” the visitor responded, “My name is____. My choral group is presenting a concert of sacred music here in town. I have some flyers and a poster I would like to leave for your music staff.”

“Please wait,” said the disembodied voice.
After a few seconds the voice in the speaker spoke again. “We do not accept solicitations. Goodbye.”

A bit flabbergasted, the visitor pushed the button again and said, “Ma’am, I am not selling anything. I just wanted to drop a flyer for a free sacred concert for your music people. They can judge whether they wish to post it.”

The disembodied voice, now with a tone of harshness, spoke again: “I told you we do not accept solicitations. Please step away from our door!”

The visitor was, of course, myself. The bright spring day was last Thursday. It is not important to report the name of the church or the town.

I walked away trembling. I felt that I had been reprimanded for trespassing. I felt I had been scolded like a ten-year-old who went into the wrong old lady’s yard to retrieve a baseball. I felt like I had been lied to by the cheery electric sign.

As I have on a thousand occasions in my almost forty years serving the Church, I felt tears falling on my face in grief for the kingdom. How have our priorities become so tragically corrupted?

I honestly wasn’t that upset about the concert flyer. When I served congregations as music director I didn’t always post or announce everything that was handed to me.

I also understood the need for security in any public place. It is only prudent and responsible these days to assess the purpose of anyone seeking entry, especially if there are children present on the campus.

Still, the question must be asked what an exchange like the one I experienced last week says about the Church and about the kingdom of Jesus Christ. I came to the door of the church with a flyer for a concert. What if I had been the victim of a stabbing and was bleeding and begging for a call to 9-1-1? What if I had come bearing a broken heart, seeking spiritual guidance? What if, after 20 years away from the Church, I had just learned that I was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was coming in panic and desperation to “get it right” with God.

Is it really true that the Word of God says, “Come unto Him all ye that labor and are heavy-burdened?” Really? Or, does it really mean, “Come on Sunday morning at 10:30 with a thirst not for salvation, but for a pledge card to complete. Otherwise, ‘Please step away from our door!?’” “Of course, we will allow you admire the electronic welcome sign as you walk back to your car.”

After this first stop I approached 15 additional churches with my flyers. Of the total of 16 I visited, there were only five where the location of the office was clearly marked. Four of those were either closed or no one responded to the door buzzer or my knocking. A number of times, in the churches where I did manage to summon a human being, the person responding came to the door and chatted, mostly friendly, outside the building. I only entered two of the 16 church buildings.

On one of those I had found an open door under a sign that said, “Sanctuary and Church Offices.” I followed signs through a narthex to a door, up a flight of stairs and to an office at the top of the stairs. A friendly volunteer pointed to another office down the hall and mentioned that to be the “Church Office.” In that office a woman was typing away at the computer. Without pausing in her typing, and without looking in my direction, but with a friendly voice, she asked how she could help me. I stated my business. She replied, “Sounds great. Just leave it there on the counter and I will see that the choir director gets it.” I said, “Thank you.” She didn’t reply. I left. I am certain she never looked on my face.

 

The other building I entered had an unmarked open door near what looked like a multi-purpose room. I entered and walked toward a lighted hallway. As I entered the hallway, a collared man I assume to be a pastor greeted me and asked my name. I told him my name and my purpose. He thanked me for stopping by, took the flyer, looked at it and asked about our music, where we were from, why we chose to visit his town, and what church I attended at home. After a few minutes of conversation I thanked him for his hospitality. He mentioned that he would love to come to the concert, but Saturday nights are hard for ministers. I shook his hand and left feeling, at long last, that I had visited a house of God.

I met up with my college-age son, who had been getting a lesson retail politics by posting flyers on bulletin boards and in shop windows while I visited churches. I asked him how it went. He said, “Almost everyone took a flyer. Some put them up, but others took one and said they would put it up later. I don’t know if they were just being nice or will really post the flyers.” My son replied “yes” when I asked if all of the business owners seemed friendly.

The restaurant and bar people were really nice. One guy at the Louie Bar told me to tell the choir to come there after the concert to have a drink. He joked, ‘If they sing a song for me, I might buy everyone a round.’”

A couple of decades ago, in my hearing, Baptist-turned-Anglican theologian John Claypool spoke at Candler Seminary about the hemorrhaging of members suffered then -and being suffered now- by mainline churches. He said, “The spiritual needs of Man and his thirst for God have not changed. The compelling narratives of scripture have not changed. The power of the heart to be transported in prayer and praise has not changed. The open arms of Jesus and His promise of eternal life has not changed. What has changed is the Church, and not for the better. Oh, dear God, we pray for a revival of our trust in You, and for a renewal of our purpose.”

The bartender says, “Tell ‘em to come and have a drink.” The Church says, “Please step away from our door!”

Shame on us! Lord, in Your mercy, forgive us!

Spiritual Language

Though well aware of his noted character idiosyncrasies, I was a big fan of the late political writer and language enthusiast, William F. Buckley. In fact, this very day I have a copy of Buckley’s delightfully humorous Lexicon on my night stand. The Lexicon is a small dictionary of unusual words, defined and illustrated from Buckley’s writing.

Like Buckley, I have a profound disdain, nay even disgust, for anything that smacks of political correctness. The very thought of molesting the meaning and beauty of hymns that have spoken hope and salvation to a dozen generations of the Church fills me with horror. Doing so to serve passing political trends and to bow to the extortion of the perennially aggrieved is even more reprehensible.

It is from this perspective that we address the language of the spiritual and the use of the spiritual in concert performances of serious music, and in the worship of congregations who have a serious interest in all things worthy. (Trust me, many do not.)

In the past few decades we have seen a rush of the African-American spirituals appearing in school concerts of all sorts, in the programs of choral societies, and in the music recommendation lists from church hierarchies. The theme is “The music of these populations has been ignored for centuries. It is time to make reparation and include this music in services, disproportionately if necessary.”

This is the core of Orwellian political correctness: The reality and truth of the matter must be laid aside to protect the political sensitivities of one group or another, or to assuage the feigned guilt of those in the perceived majority. I believe such a patronizing approach to be the most racist of all.

The question then presents, “Should we perform spirituals, and if so, why and how?”

Anyone who has even glanced at my career knows the answer to the first question. Yes, I believe that we should perform spirituals for the same reason that we perform the music of Bach, Byrd, or Brahms. The worthy spirituals say things that need to be said with great power and depth. They say those things in ways that no other art form can say them. They are born of a different seed, but the flower is as beautiful in its way as anything that comes to us from the great European masters.

We must, however, recognize that not every example of the spiritual laid before us is worthy in the integrity of its rendering, just as we recognize that not every piece coming to us from the European masters is worthy or appropriate to our purpose. In fact, extra care is needed with spirituals and American folk music because we do not have the privilege of knowing them in authentic form. We must rely on, and make judgements of, the renderings that are created for our use. Just as editors are responsible to balance practical and historical concerns in preparing choral arrangements, those of us who present this music in services and concerts must take equal care.

As to how to do the spiritual, I believe the music must be approached with the same level of commitment and scholarship that we would expect to invest in music of the English Renaissance, or the symphonies of Beethoven, or the chansons of Clement Janequin. Thus, we must be concerned with issues of language, phrasing, metrical architecture and rhythmic structures.

I believe, uncompromisingly, that language must form the core of our understanding of those rhythmic structures. Therefore, until we comprehend how the language of a choral piece works, especially in the context of language origins, we cannot accurately comprehend how the piece should work rhythmically.

This is a great challenge in the case of the spiritual. The West African languages from which the form descends is foreign to English-speakers because of the absence of hard consonants. The language of the slaves was further modified by exposure to Haitian French and Caribbean Spanish, before landing in the American South where the rhythms of British English were blended with the emerging tongue known today as a Southern accent.

We can prescribe basic tools of enunciation that give us the flavor of the language… absence of hard ending consonants, absence of diphthongs, modification of R-controlled vowels and bright consonant sounds. These methods enable us to approach the sound of the melodic material in ways that reveal the metrical spirit of the music. We can also apply information that we have learned from isolated communities that had very little exposure to media until about 1970. Though not completely authentic because of the passage of time, the singing of these island communities off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia still give us greater insight than had been previously available.

Which brings us back to the political ramifications of performing this music.

I have been asked -more times than I wish to recall- whether a “white choir” can legitimately perform music of the African-American tradition. My answer is, “Yes, with proper scholarship.” A choir whose artistic profile is based in the traditions of the European masters is just as worthy to sing spirituals as the Paris-based Le Concert d’Astrée is worthy to sing the music of Austrians Mozart and Haydn.

That said, race relations in the United States in the second decade of the 21st century are still so raw and overly sensitive that one runs the risk of being accused of appropriating the music or performing it in caricature. Unfortunately, to some people, hearing “…when I comes to die…” the choir appears to be speaking/singing “improper” English. The truth is, to not sing it that way is to perform the music in a historically inaccurate dialect.

It is understandable that the leaders of primarily Caucasian choirs are reluctant to step into such a political morass. There are many wags and judges whose lack of information is only matched by their quickness to point their fingers. There are many African-American conductors who shy away from authentic language in music of their own heritage because they do not want their chorus members to feel the prejudice of those who do not have accurate historical information. Moses Hogan, the great interpreter of the spiritual at the end of the 20th century, once told me, “It is just easier sometimes not to open that question.”

Hopefully, the day will come at last when the authority of the scripture, the genius of the poetic insights of the unnamed authors and the power and beauty of the music will be allowed to speak with its own voice. In the meantime, with a nod of understanding to those who choose another path, I will thumb my nose at political correctness, stand for the historical integrity of this God-given music, and take my lumps from the artsy- smartsy crowd.

 

When I comes to die… When I am alone… When I wants to sing… Give me Jesus!

Plastic Heart

“I will take care of you, little buddy, because I made you …I put your heart inside.”

The words were spoken to a soccer-ball sized saber-tooth tiger perched on the back seat of the rental car between my son and his older sister. The tone of my youngest child’s voice was one of love and care, so filled with simple tenderness that my eyes glistened as I observed the scene.

I think one of the reasons I was so moved by the exchange is quite selfish. I know that childhood moments like these are soon to be gone. Zachary’s voice already shows signs of broadening. He is nearly as tall as his sister. He has noticed that the female of the species seems different in pleasing ways. Sweet affections for stuffed animals is a train rapidly leaving the station. As Daddy, a role I have cherished in life above all others, I am going to grieve watching that train as it disappears around the bend.

Of course we all know the build-your-own bear-dinosaur-tiger is a marketing gimmick. The scene is a kid- friendly restaurant in Florida, serving ridiculously expensive food surrounded by animatronic criters very large and very loud. After dinner, parents can buy the stuffing and an animal form. Children fill the form with the stuffing. Then they say a poem and do a dance before kissing a plastic heart and placing it in the chest of their newly created friend. The beast is bedecked with cute clothes and off the family goes to the cash register.

If it is a scene to tug the hearts of sentimental parents, then okay. Sign me up. You only live once on this earth and a dose of sweetness in a harsh and coarse world is worth 40 bucks every now and then.

The scripture teaches us to come to God with simple childlike faith and a heart opened to be filled. It further teaches us that God has “woven us together in our mother’s womb.” I love that imagery of God’s knitting needles carefully, individually, lovingly, tenderly sewing each of us together one at a time.

With all my heart, all my will, all my soul, and all my spirit, I believe this to be true.

And, being true, this reality brings very real implications for the Church and for those of us who are the Lord’s hands and feet in this world. For if we are individually and intentionally made, then not only is the Church an institution “ordained of God that shall endure until the end of time,” it is a body woven together of intentionally and lovingly created creatures.

Martin Luther is one of my favorite characters in history for many reasons. The fact that he changed the world is an important reason but, to my mind, not the most important. He was more than brilliant. He had a wicked sense of humor. He was a beloved teacher. He was a consummate family man and a warm and generous friend.

More than anything else, Luther was filled with purpose and passion. He didn’t make a rational, measured decision to throw down the gauntlet of Reformation. He did it because he had to. As one of the threads that knitted the Church together, and with a heart bursting with creative love, Luther was compelled to bring renewal. The fact that he could be at risk for imprisonment or execution was, by comparison, inconsequential.

My prayer for Reformation Sunday is that the Church will go about the work of the Kingdom in the knowledge that she is lovingly woven together of living, created threads. I pray that every one of us who serves the Church will have a greater awareness of our purpose and that we will be filled with such passion that, like Luther and the reformers of old, we will feel compelled to bring renewal to the Church.

I have always wanted to be like Martin Luther. I have always wanted to be scholarly, faithful, courageous, and passionate. I have prayed to be poured out for the Kingdom of God and the Church of our Lord Christ.

But today I want to be more like my young son. I want to reclaim the simplicity and tenderness that I believe God showed me when He took my form, filled me with stuffing, held my heart in His hand, said a little poem, danced a little dance, and placed my heart inside my chest.

“I will take care of you, buddy, because I made you …I put your heart inside.”