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.



During this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days, it seems appropriate to quote the Rabbi of “radical amazement,” Abraham Joshua Heschel, but the words that are ringing in my ears aren’t ones we necessarily want to hear. On the NPR program, On Being, this past Sunday a Heschel scholar addressed the concern expressed by so many who believe that religion does have something to say for our times, despite so much evidence to the contrary:

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. 

Ouch. Yet, how many people would indeed describe church as irrelevant, dull, oppressive and insipid? Perhaps not the people who actually go to church (oh, I hope not), but all too often they are true words for those who don’t go to church, and aren’t those the very people the church wants to reach?

When I was asked by the Rector of St. John’s about my vision for the music, my response was “to never be boring.” I want music in the church to be the opposite of irrelevant, dull, oppressive, and insipid. I think a lot about how to make music a meaningful part of people’s worship. The combination of music, text, liturgy, and all the individual needs, gifts and hopes that people bring to the table is a powerful one. If I think about it, celebration is at the heart of all my musical endeavors. To celebrate this incredible gift of music from God and the musical gifts given to us by great composers and musical traditions of many cultures, to celebrate the talents and new-found skills of those who participate in choirs, as well as the wisdom found in the great poetry of the psalms and hymn texts. To celebrate the beauty of all those things expressed in the impressionistic hymn text Now:

Now the silence  Now the peace  Now the empty hands uplifted  Now the kneeling Now the plea  Now the Father’s arms in welcome  Now the hearing  Now the pow’r Now the vessel brimmed for pouring  Now the body  Now the blood  Now the joyful celebration   (The Hymnal 1982, #333)

Rabbi Heschel had something to say about celebration too:

People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state–it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle…. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.

We can celebrate by simply paying attention. Now. How could a celebration like that be anything other than relevant, astonishing, compassionate, and exhilarating?



There is such beauty to be found in the traditions that connect us to other times and places, and as people who worship in a traditional setting, there can be an energy which comes from being rooted in the past – rooted in sound theology, and in liturgy and music that soars and take us along to a more glorious understanding of God. When done well, we can be nourished by the traditions our forebears created to worship God within the framework of a liturgy which speaks for a community rather than individuals.

When we care enough, we aspire to live into those traditions, whether that means decorating for Christmas or saying “The Lord’s Prayer.” The acolytes learn to carry the cross and torches with care and dignity.  Lay readers demonstrate that they’ve rehearsed their readings at home, often bringing a real sense of drama and wonder to the lessons.  And hearing and singing the great hymns and anthems of the Anglican tradition, as well as music from other traditions, will be something that stays with children throughout their lives. I’ve seen proof of that in talking to former Choristers.  Junk food can be fun, and temporarily tasty, but nourishment comes from real food, and if you’ve read anything about nutrition lately, you know that traditional grains and ways of cooking are back!

I subscribe to a listserv for choral directors on which there is periodic chatter around the appropriate use of spirituals in “white” churches. I used to follow the talk with some bemusement as I wondered how people could still worry about this in 21st century America, but recent events and political discourse have changed bemusement to concern. In one instance, a minister had emailed his musician (you see the problem already – email is never the way to discuss a problem) to say that he was disturbed by the published anthem schedule, which included a spiritual.  The minister didn’t believe a “white” church choir could sing African-American music in an authentic way, and seemed to be skeptical of singing in African-American dialect – Ain’a dat good news, for example.

There is a tradition to uphold, however, in the dialect which grew out of slavery. We honor something good that came out of the darkest part of American history, when we sing in dialect, which, by the way, is an integral part of the music, servings the music’s rhythms so beautifully. I can’t imagine wanting to iron out the dialect of spirituals to make it more acceptable to modern ears. I believe singing spirituals in dialect provides a sense of the historical and cultural context from which these songs spring, and a profound respect for the suffering and inequalities they represent.

And yet, I too have experienced the quick judgements of singers and congregations who suggest that largely white choirs shouldn’t sing music from the African-American tradition. I find that embarrassing. Not to be “white” (well, I’m actually kind of beige), but to think that somehow people believe that this music doesn’t belong to us.  In that case I would have to question whether or not a “black” church should ever sing Handel or Mozart. Spirituals and Gospel music are good. Bach and Tallis are good.  And all good things belong to everybody. We won’t excel at every tradition, but there is joy in trying.

The printed words of Ain’t got time to die , sung this Sunday at St. John’s, will embarrass some folks, but in singing them we are honoring a tradition. It is a tradition of strength and resilience, of indomitable spirit and creativity. We sing and hear the words of African-American spirituals, and we are more deeply connected to another time and place, as we are when we sing the hymns of Martin Luther, the motets of Palestrina, the folk tunes of the Shakers and the resistance songs of South Africans.


A Life in Three Parts

We often think of things in threes. Rock, paper, scissors…primary colors…Father, Son and Holy Spirit…youth, middle age, old age.  I had the good fortune to spend a week at The Chautauqua Institution in western New York this summer, and among the many wonderful speakers I heard, two spoke about a three-part progression in our quest for a life of purpose:

San Francisco chef and food justice activist, Bryant Terry, who is chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora, believes that we must “start with the visceral to ignite the cerebral and end with the political.”  He talked of the smells and sounds of his grandmother’s kitchen as transformational, emotionally connective experiences which inspired his advocacy for food justice to help people gain information about and access to healthy food. His movement from visceral through cerebral to political is inspiring and this YouTube video gives you a glimpse: Urban Organic

That same day I heard a porch talk (Chautauqua is place where books and conversations are continuously savored on one porch or another) by author Sherrie Flick, who brought her own three-part perspective to how we might shape our lives.  She talked about developing our creativity in ways which open us up to feel more empathy for others. Not sympathy, but a heightened ability to listen to others without judging, something which just might push us a step further into a movement of contagious empathy. Those kinds of sweeping cultural shifts which reveal to us our common humanity in places where we might previously have only seen differences.  Gender equality.  LGBT rights. Black Lives Matter. DACA.  Flick’s article on this will appear later this fall in Creative Nonfiction.

There is an oft-quoted mantra for church musicians who take their work seriously which defines a church musician as a pastor, a teacher, and a musician. In that order, so Eric Routley, who wrote about these three roles of the church musician, adamantly insisted. It’s parallel to the three-legged stool Anglican theologian Richard Hooker outlined – scripture, tradition and reason. And others have talked about another three-legged stool – a Sunday morning version in which liturgy, music and preaching share the weight.

As we know, it’s an unsteady seat when one of the legs is longer, and for 35 years of working as a church musician I have tried to keep the three legs of my work equally balanced. I can’t imagine how one exists without the other in fact. I can’t teach if I don’t continue to develop my own musicianship. I can’t lead people musically if I haven’t addressed their pastoral concerns in one way or another, and as a pastor I try to teach (or model) the behaviors and skills that will inform the music – e.g. caring enough about the value of music in liturgy and spiritual growth to rehearse and prepare it properly, all in the name of offering God the very best of ourselves. Of course, let’s be honest, leading choirs can sometimes be a three-ring circus instead of a three-legged stool!

One more three-part lesson to share with you.  I have become devoted to my practice of yoga the past few years and one day the teacher I work with most often used a set of three words several times during class.  The Hindu half of me felt an East meets West moment as she urged us to think of our bodies sinking into the earth while the wind of our breath moved through our bodies and our minds became as open and light-filled as the sky.  Throughout class that day she simply said:


But what I heard was:

Father…Son…Holy Spirit

And sometimes she said:


And a three-part prayer formed: May we strive to know the mind of God, as we become the body of Christ and notice more often the moving breath of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Peace.  Namaste.  Amen.






Endings of any kind are by definition beginnings of something else.  We know that from every commencement speech we’ve ever heard, don’t we!  Last week I finished my musings on the 32 parts of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  In a couple of weeks I end a self-described sabbatical by beginning work as the Interim Minister of Music at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood Parish in Bethesda, Maryland.  And these next few weeks bring us toward the end of my favorite season, summer.  Yes, in all its humid glory, August is my favorite month, in part because there are little signs of change in the sounds and light of late August that I love.  Changes that signal an ending.  The kind of ending which promises a beginning.

I’m going to take a brief hiatus from writing Notes for a New Day. I’ll return in mid-September, when I will connect this blog with my work at St. John’s. Meanwhile, should August still hold some promise of quiet for you, seize the opportunity to read a book that you won’t have time for later.  Here are some I’ve read this summer, and I happily recommend any of them to you:

A Gentlemen from Moscow by Amor Towles – An utter delight to read, with elements of mystery and history woven around the story of a man who transforms his life in surprising ways as he finds purpose.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – Because I loved the first book so much, I found his other published novel.  A lesser work, but still beautifully written.

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa – The great conductor’s genius, joy, and curiosity shine through in every exchange he has with author Haruki Murakami.

Resistance by Owen Sheers – However overused, lyrical is the only word I can come up with to describe this beautiful novel, set in Wales.  It moves very slowly at first, but as you get to the middle you realize why. You have been drawn into the very soil of the Welsh mountains, away from what others might call the “real world,” and are as much a part of the landscape as the characters.

Chesapeake by James Michener – A book can only sit on your bookshelf for so long, staring reprovingly at you, and this became the summer it demanded to be read.  It’s huge in every sense of the word, but the book that I thought was about a beautiful aspect of Maryland is actually about racism and the lingering effects of slavery on American society, and I happened to finish it the day of violent confrontation around those same topics in Charlottesville.

And a few books will travel with me for some serious porch sitting in western New York this week:

The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton – They had me with the book jacket description of a family’s “sprawling apple orchard.”  I have a particular fascination with apples and how they’re grown.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – Well, because I just need to read everything by this author.

Happy endings.  We’ll begin something new in September.





When we get to the end of something, anything, it’s natural to look back and wonder what could have been different, what should have been different.  Maybe those feelings are labeled as regrets, or maybe they’re simply insights into what has been.

So many regrets, hmmm, insights! I wish I was a better pianist, and I wish I could have more fully accessed and conveyed all that I feel about this music. Maybe I should have explored other ideas, such as serenity, courage, trust, light…

Complexity makes this music interesting, but it is the simplicity of its symmetry and repeated harmonic progression that bring people to it again and again, I think. Coming home to the final Aria, the innocence we first heard in the opening Aria becomes something else – perhaps evoking nostalgia, or weariness, or contentment.  We can’t return home, whether after a lifetime or after these 30 explorations, and have it be the same after all we’ve been through. The wisdom of old age surely knows that as it recasts any regrets into insights, and wistfulness into contentment.

I was inspired several years ago to write for another blog about the Goldberg Variations after reading an article by pianist Jeremy Denk. I quoted him in 2012 and again now because he summarizes so beautifully my own thoughts:

The [Goldberg Variations] is a lesson in many things, but primarily in wonder; the way that the tragic variations fuse seamlessly into the breathlessly comic, the way that simple scales become energy, joy, enthusiasm, the celebration of the most fundamental elements of music…[and at the end there is] a sense of completeness of everything that has come before, the rightness, and…the radiance of experience.  It gives you that rare thing in human existence: a sense that, at the end of something, it has all been worthwhile.”

That’s the message of hope that Bach is speaking to me.  It has all been worthwhile. How is wisdom gained? I would say that it is achieved by celebrating the most fundamental elements of life; cultivating patterns of healthy relationships, kindness, generosity, and by opening our hearts to God’s plan for us.


NPR’s “Goldberg Week” 
Read more by Jeremy Denk

I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.