Sanctus…Some Free Associations

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of coaching an excellent, 100+ voice high school choir from Pennsylvania as they prepared to sing in a competition. One of the pieces they sang for me was a setting of the liturgical text Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy) by a young Norwegian-American composer, Ola Gjeilo.

I asked if the students knew what they were singing, and a few did know that Sanctus translated as “holy.”  No one, however, connected the elaborate setting they were singing in performance to anything that might be sung in church every week, though more than a few were undoubtedly also singing in their church choirs. I found myself explaining that the richness of the chords they were singing in the Gjeilo setting were a wonderful representation of this central part of our liturgy, when the people join their minds and hearts and voices together with the “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven.”  Maybe I crossed some church vs state line that I shouldn’t have, but a deeper understanding seemed worth that risk.

As I further reflected on this notion of the Sanctus as a point of convergence, I saw that moment in the liturgy as one where heaven and earth come together, giving us a glimpse of true communion. Liturgy emerged from my imagination in an hourglass shape – something akin to a George Herbert poem.

Coming from every direction, the people gather in church
Liturgy of the word and sermon
Creed and Prayers
Eucharistic Prayer
The people partake in communion
Renewed and fed, the people disperse into the world

If you know the works of George Herbert, then you may already have made the same free association that I did with The Altar. The “metaphysical” poets, as a number of 17th century English poets, including George Herbert, are labeled, sought to describe reality beyond what science had to teach them.  They were particularly interested in illuminating God’s relationship to humans. In The Altar, the appearance of the poem as a physical ALTAR, upon reading describes the human HEART as altar. One made of stone that is “cut” by the power of God, leading to the death of selfish will as a SACRIFICE upon this ALTAR.

A broken ALTAR, Lord thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name:
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.

Since I’ve already made a free association between the Sanctus and George Herbert, I’ll continue with a few more. From the poem’s second line:

…cemented with teares

My engineer/poet/philosopher father wrote his dissertation on concrete, so I happen to know that concrete must be kept wet in order to properly cure.  In that same way, tears strengthen the emotions we feel. Whether these are moments of sadness or happiness, love and compassion are strengthened when tears are present.

When Jesus wept, the falling tear in mercy flowed beyond all bound

Early American composer William Billings wrote a tune for these words that paints “falling tears” as clearly as Herbert draws his Altar above.  That tune is found in The Hymnal 1982 at #715, and it is beautifully used by 20th century American composer William Schuman in his New England Triptych..

I’ve come a long way from Sanctus, but our journeys are rarely in straight lines!


Hymnal Studies: Language Matters

The Once and Future Hymnal was the title of a conference I attended a few weeks ago at Virginia Theological Seminary. Though I don’t think there was any intention to make a connection with T.H. White’s fantasy novel about King Arthur, exploring human nature in connection with justice and power may well be a common theme between Episcopal hymnody and The Once and Future King. That would be something, however, to explore another day!

It was a privilege to step out of my routine and gather with colleagues from around the country, both clergy and musicians, to think about the Episcopal hymnal. Beyond privilege, it was a pleasure to hear from some of the original members of the planning committee for The Hymnal 1982, as well as from those who worked on the hymnals that have been put out more recently by the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. The Reverend Frank Wade spoke to us about some of the changes the Episcopal Church has lived through since 1982, leaving it to the musicians in the room to figure out how those changes might have influenced what we sing.

The biggest take-away for me, and many that I talked to there, seemed to be an agreement that The Hymnal 1982 remains a valuable resource for the Episcopal Church, with gifts still to be explored by many churches. The hymnal’s General Editor, Ray Glover, established a guiding principle that “we should always be able to sing what we believe and believe what we sing.” That editorial committee, which worked for more than a decade, took some risks by including a few more experimental hymns, but, with rare exception, it is indeed a book which allows us to sing what we believe, even 35 years later.

This conference was a celebration of word more than of music, however. The Episcopal Church, we were reminded, prizes questions over answers, and language in the church is most valuable when it provides access to the mystery of faith, not answers. Church at its best gives us language to deal with uncertainty, and is likely one of the few places in our culture where mystery is valued.

One of the speakers, poet and hymn writer Susan Cherwien asks herself four questions as she is writing: Is it true? Is it beautiful? Is it excellent? Does it glorify God? What are we singing out into the world, she wonders. Is it about compassion, nobility, God’s beautiful creation? She cited scientific studies which found that the part of our brains connected to smell light up when we are simply reading about a scent. Other places in the brain connected to physical activity light up when reading about running. Language matters.

Language matters to the point that even a preposition can make all the difference. Frank Wade talked about the single resolution on diversity which came out of the 1976 General Convention. That resolution expressed the belief that the Episcopal Church should endeavor to minister more fully “to” people from diverse backgrounds. Oh my, how patronizing.

Carl Daw, Episcopal priest and acclaimed author of many hymn texts, warned about the dangers of using language as a weapon instead of a tool. Those times when words are used to diminish people, which can get into the tricky area of gender-based language…definitely a topic for another day. He mused, as well, on the word “Lord.” A troublesome word in today’s enlightened recognition of all the ways that patriarchal hierarchy has not served us well. He wishes we would look more deeply at our words and reclaim some of their original meanings. So many words fall into that category: Anglican, traditional, conservative…just to name a few. “Lord,” he told us, comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “loaf warden.” The keeper of the bread. One who provides.

We were cautioned about music’s ability to hide the venom inherent in some language. Frank Wade wonders why we sing some of the wrath-filled psalms that we do, without explaining them to our congregations. Good point. Singing a refined Anglican chant setting of Psalm 149:6-9 only serves to soften a harshness I don’t think we believe. Again, we should be able to sing what we believe, and believe what we sing.

This conference was a very preliminary conversation, one that simply wondered about all that goes into planning a new hymnal, without any intent to actually begin that planning. A new hymnal for the Episcopal Church is something, by the way, which can’t happen until there is a new Book of Common Prayer, and I suggest we not hold our collective breath waiting for that to happen.

Why have a hymnal at all? How about having iPads in the pews which can access whatever the clergy and church musicians find online to create a unique worship experience? I can think of several good reasons to have an real book. The tactile message of stability which a book conveys might be more important than ever in our quickly changing world. A body of hymnody which is shared across the broad spectrum of the Episcopal Church has the ability to bind us into a community as much as The Book of Common Prayer. A hymnal honors generations of thinking and leaves room for a current generation’s contribution to hymnody, becoming a repository of tradition in a way that connects past and future.

No editorial committee, however wise, is able to know what will last, of course, and determining the quality of a hymn’s tune or a text is largely subjective. Even so, what I hear again and again when I’ve asked people why they are drawn to the Episcopal Church, is that they fell in love with the beauty of the language which shapes our liturgy, whether spoken or sung. Language matters. Great hymns have great texts. Where else in today’s culture will we hear, say, and sing words which cause our minds, hearts, and spirits to soar?

Exhibit A: Hymnal 1982 #382, tune: General Seminary


Taize: A Community of Prayer

A service of music and prayers in the style of Taizé, this Sunday, November 5 at
6:30 pm at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood Parish.

Born out of wartime suffering in 1940, a Reformed Protestant from Switzerland, Brother Roger, founded a small community of men committed to a life of service and prayer among the poverty and fear of occupied France.  He hoped the monks of this community would become “signs of the presence of Christ” and “bearers of joy.” In later years Catholics and Anglicans joined the Reformed members, and Taizé now lives into Brother Roger’s ecumenical vision in their home in the Burgundy region of France, and in their satellite communities around the world.

Since the mid-1960’s the community of Taizé (pronounced teh-ZAY) has become a pilgrimage site for mostly young people, with nearly 100,000 visitors each year now.  The music of Taizé sprang from a desire to welcome these pilgrims during worship with a simple form of chanted prayer which could reach across the many languages and religions represented by the pilgrims. Simple phrases and harmonies, repeated, sometimes in canon, became another way to pray and connect with God.

As with chanting in any spiritual tradition, the sound of the human voice sends vibrations through the body, permeating all of our cells, becoming a practice which calms the mind and frees us to listen more closely for God’s voice. The chants can be sung in many languages, but are often set with words in Latin.  As a language which belongs to no one, Latin can be a language which is available to everyone. Simply knowing that the words are holy, that they often come from the psalms or recall the life and works of Jesus, can be enough sometimes. Singing in Latin can take our focus off the text, allowing our voice to be more fully in communion with God’s voice.

In the context of an evening service which is, in part, a commemoration of All Saints and All Souls, singing the contemplative chants of Taizé can sometimes take us to a  place of darkness and grief. I hope you will allow the darkness of an evening service to create a feeling of being cocooned by God’s love. Like the healing power of sleep, change, growth, and beauty can emerge from the darkness of a cocoon. And perhaps there will be a moment during the singing when someone finds that they are drawn from their cocoon, into the radiant light of God’s healing touch.

Find five minutes, if you can, to watch this video of photos and music from the Taizé community.  Sit quietly, breathe, be present with God.

Taize-Let nothing disturb you



Maybe the Anglican service of Evensong seems frivolous, in light of the needs and suffering in this world. Attending Evensong is an interior experience, one that is personal and private. It’s also a labor-intensive service, musically rich, but seemingly passive for the congregation. A few weeks ago, a sermon (during Eucharist, not Evensong, which rarely includes a sermon) about the power of gentleness to change our culture of violence made me think, however, that it’s not so frivolous after all to spend a few minutes exploring what makes this gentlest of worship experiences, Evensong, continue to be an important part of our tradition.

In fact, it was suggested to me that I write something about Evensong and expand on it a bit in relation to a class being taught this fall to people who are interested in learning more about the Episcopal Church.  This uniquely Anglican/Episcopal experience, nurtured in just a few churches these days, is intended to be part of a daily spiritual practice, one which is part of a centuries-old tradition of having prayers said and sung on your behalf, much as monks and nuns have done in their daily services for even more centuries.

In this country very few people these days, no surprise, make the time for, or have access to, a daily service of Evensong. In the U.K. it’s a different story. Cathedral worship, and Evensong in particular, has been where the Anglican church sees growth, particularly among a younger generation who are finding meaning in mystery. One British study showed an increase of 60% in Evensong attendance in the past decade. Read more. We are fortunate in this area to have Washington National Cathedral’s daily offering of Evensong, and several other churches with weekly or monthly choral Evensong as well.

The choir’s music during Evensong is as much prayer as any spoken words and the prayers of Evensong become part of the fabric of the building. I think people can sense those prayers, soaked into the walls, when they walk into a church or cathedral. Whether spoken or sung, these are prayers which become part of the gentleness we send out into the world.

In 2013, while on sabbatical, I attended Evensong twelve times in seven different churches or cathedrals. For me, these were chances to experience glorious music written for God, sung beautifully by well-rehearsed choirs as part of a liturgy and not in performance. While I simply listened, I worshiped. I was able to absorb the beauty of the architecture around me, admire the composers’ craft, and appreciate the shape that liturgy takes in the hands of organists who have practiced many long hours.  I even failed to notice the vergers (this is a good thing) who work to make liturgy appear seamless.

On a good day liturgy can come together to create flow – a psychological term that describes a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity. In this case, the activity for me was participating in liturgy as a listener. I think sometimes we get so caught up in doing, and I am grateful for those times when I’m allowed to just be. That is what Evensong promises.

In the Episcopal Church our faith is expressed in words and symbols, in music and banners, in architecture and vestments. All of our senses will be engaged when worship is done well. But most important, our faith is expressed in the joy that radiates from each of us when we truly experience God in worship. The Episcopal Church has given us all a gift with Evensong, a way to absorb God’s gifts of beauty, to participate in corporate prayers, and to celebrate God’s transcendence.



Wonder and Song

Expectations – that is the first audible word on this bit from a video made at the World Science Festival in 2009, which I’ve shared with readers several times in the past.  It’s a video which continues to amaze me. As you’ll see,  the brain manages our expectations in all kinds of surprising ways:

Bobby McFerrin-World Science Festival

Clearly Bobby McFerrin is a gifted teacher, a supremely talented musician, and a creative thinker on all fronts.  The pentatonic scale that he is teaching to this audience (of scientists presumably, rather than musicians) is a universal building block for folk music around the world.  The music we would likely consider most comfortable to sing is often based on a pentatonic scale – that is, a series of intervals equivalent to the five black notes on the piano.  For instance, you could play Amazing grace, how sweet the sound or Sometimes I feel like a motherless child almost entirely on only the piano’s black keys.

I would never have guessed that McFerrin could so easily manage expectations and lead the audience members to unknowingly sing a pentatonic melody.  To see the brain process a musical concept like this right in front of my eyes was fascinating and I am awed by the continuing revelations through scientific study of how wonderfully we are made.  So wonderfully, in fact, that our brains seem to be hard-wired for music, thanks be to God!

This all came to mind this past Sunday when someone commented on an anthem setting sung that morning of the hymn What wondrous love is this, out of that marvelous early American resource of religious song, The Sacred Harp. We talked about the strength of that tune, and the rootedness of music which emerges from any folk tradition, and I was reminded of McFerrin’s dance through the pentatonic scale.

If you play the piano even a little, you can begin the tune on A-flat and play the whole of What wondrous love on the black notes (with one exception…your ear will tell you what to do). The sound is not exactly minor, but it’s certainly not a major key either. The tune expresses the expansive, open quality we often associate with American music, with its plain rhythms and its call to be harmonized with open fifths which refuse to anchor the listener in either sadness or happiness, but simply in strength. The text incorporates three simple expressions of faith – wonder, song and the timelessness of God’s love.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to lay aside his crown for my soul.
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM,
while millions join the theme I will sing.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be,
and through eternity I’ll sing on.

Expectations, at heart, are simply strong beliefs, and in that spirit my expectations include a willingness to live into the belief that God has lovingly designed us for wonder and song.


Risky Behavior

We were urged in Sunday’s sermon to step out of our “comfort zones” into our “stretch zones.”  As it happens, that relates to an article I’ve been working on for The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians. I’ve been talking to several musicians around the country who work for their diocese, collaborating and teaching and advising parishes, usually small ones with limited resources, about musical matters,. They are very different musicians in very different places, from New Jersey to Montana, but they were clear about a shared goal of helping everyone they work with find ways to make music an important part of spreading the Gospel. Each also, independently, wished that all the lay and clergy leaders they encountered in those parishes were more willing to take risks. To not be afraid. To step out of their comfort zones and into their stretch zones.

Of course I’ll hurt you. Of course you’ll hurt me. Of course we will hurt each other. But this is the very condition of existence. To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter. To become presence, means accepting the risk of absence.   Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince 

I think we all have a conventional notion of what risky behavior is – something dangerous to our bodies, minds, or souls. Drug abuse, driving while intoxicated, jumping out of airplanes or climbing mountains. And then we have to begin breaking risk into two categories. Those things that are simply harmful, and those that promise in equal measure the potential for creating good or harm, success or failure, presence or absence.

There are those who find themselves at a moment in time when they could or should risk something big. But who sets out to risk something really big, without having walked a road of many, many small risks first? A road that had created an inner voice saying “yes” when everyone else might be saying “no?” And who defines what constitutes your version of risky behavior anyway? Only you, of course.

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately.  What is it, who has it, how is it demonstrated? I’m convinced that the world needs more of it, but how to nurture it in everyone?  At its heart creativity is about taking risks, isn’t it?  You’d be very surprised to learn how nervous I am about the risks I take as a church musician – hardly a risky occupation by any standard.  Getting off the organ bench and teaching a new hymn, unaccompanied, to a congregation…scary.  A feminine pronoun-ed hymn with tambourine at Easter Vigil…will everyone think that’s just weird? Changing something on Sunday morning which could potentially make the service flow more smoothly, but which is different from how it’s always been done… heart palpitations. These seem like laughably small decisions, these creative risks, but they might also be nurturing a spirit of readiness for bigger risks when the world calls.

And that’s really my point. Whether it’s caution or laziness or fear which keeps us from risky behaviors, we are always better when we’re stretched – physically, emotionally, or musically. We might just open ourselves up to a more meaningful way of being in this world when we begin by risking something small.  And then, as we are sometimes reminded before being sent back out into the world at the end of a worship service:

May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short;
Grace to risk something big for something good; and
Grace to remember the world is now
too dangerous for anything but the truth and
too small for anything but love.  – The Rev. William Sloane Coffin


People move in mysterious ways

I re-read Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 book, Flight Behavior, not too long ago.  Writing about the problems of global warming and environmental degradation in what seemed a heavy-handed way just a few years go, her book now, in light of the hurricanes, floods and fires of 2017, is another clear call to change human behavior. Kingsolver also writes, somewhat more subtly, about the age-old problems of rich versus poor, educated versus uneducated, social intelligence versus academic smarts, rural versus urban. I haven’t noticed those problems going away either.

It was near the novel’s end that Kingsolver said something I have never thought about before. Her main character in Flight Behavior, the fancifully named Dellarobia, has wondered all her life why the answer to her life’s greatest difficulties has always been that “God moves in mysterious ways.”  She realizes with some astonishment that God doesn’t move.  It’s God’s people who are moving. In Kingsolver’s book, and in reality, many would argue, some people are heedlessly moving to destroy the planet, and others moving to save it.

…everything else is in motion while God does not move at all.  God sits still, perfectly at rest, the silver dollar at the bottom of the well, the question. (p. 350)

God’s wisdom is unmoving, but sometimes people need to move around that wisdom a second (or third or fourth…) time to unlock its meaning.  I had that very experience with a hymn sung at St. John’s a few Sundays ago, Come, labor on (The Hymnal 1982, #541).  It’s a favorite of mine and, though I have played and sung it countless times, new wisdom jumped out at me in the phrase No arm so weak, but may do service here (Hymn 541, verse 3).  I had never focused on those particular words before, but I appreciate the belief that all can serve God, no matter how unimportant they might consider their service. The words had always been there, but I had moved around them enough times to finally hear that kernel of wisdom.

A question we might be tempted to ask, in despair after the mass shooting in Las Vegas this week, is one which a scientist named Ovid in Kingsolver’s book also wonders: “What was the use of saving a world that has no soul left in it?” Environmental degradation, gun violence, refugees from war and famine.  Where is God in any of this? There are times to be still in God’s presence and simply listen, and there are times to move, and it is in those times we might remind ourselves that God has no hands on earth but ours. As choirs have sung: Christ has no body now but yours. No soul on earth but ours.

People do indeed move in mysterious ways, from profoundly loving to cruelly indifferent to simply evil. If we are able to see God’s wisdom as a complete and central foundation for our lives we might try to move around that wisdom, uncovering bits of it, finding those truths that have been patiently awaiting our discovery and collective remembering. It is wisdom which will move us closer to love in all its forms, from quiet to outraged.