Tag Archive | choosing music

Reflections on a Musical Memory

Christmas Mountain Village SignLast week Mim and I spent four days at our Christmas Mountain timeshare in Wisconsin Dells. Four days is the longest we’ve been away together in years. We had a wonderful time, just relaxing and being thankful we could celebrate our one year wedding anniversary.

As I was enjoying my first real vacation day on Monday, I opened up the magic cloud that follows my computer wherever it goes, and started listening to an album called “Instrumental Songs of Worship for Quiet Moments.” I sat down on the couch and looked through the window at the trees just beginning to turn from dark green to light red. I was going to start reading my book, but I noticed that a symphonic version of an old, old hymn was playing, “The Old Rugged Cross.” As I listened to it, I remembered playing that hymn on a little electronic organ at a Bible camp 56 years ago. I think I was 10.

Mims Reed Organ

Mim’s grandma’s pump organ

Before I explain the significance of that memory, let me give you a little family background.  My mom grew up with a small reed pump organ in the farmhouse. I never saw that organ, but I imagine it was similar to the one Mim’s grandmother had, which we now have at the base of our stairway in our condo.

Sometime after my mom and dad married, they bought a used upright piano. That’s the one I grew up playing. I remember my mom talking about how much she missed having an organ. At that time, in the 1950s and 1960s, electronic organs had become popular. Mom finally saved up enough money to buy a Lowery organ. It had two short manuals and a one-octave pedal board. Mom had negotiated a deal that included our old upright piano as a trade-in.

The night before the organ was to be delivered, I spent all evening playing the piano, for what I thought would be the last time. I was excited about getting an organ, but I knew I would miss the piano. I was saying goodbye to my 88-key friend by playing through all my piano books.

Old upright piano

My mom’s upright piano

The next day, when I came home from school, I was ecstatic to see the new organ, and also to see that the old piano was still there. My dad had bought the old piano back from the delivery men for $50. My dad got a good deal – he paid less than the original trade-in value – because the delivery men were so happy not to have to load the big old upright onto their truck.

Although the piano was my old friend, the novelty of the new organ captured most of my attention for the next few years. The organ came with ten free lessons from the WardBrodt Music Store in Madison. After those lessons were used up, I switched to taking both piano and organ lessons, alternating weeks, from our church organist. The ten free lessons from WardBrodt broadened my repertoire considerably. I’m sure my church organist teacher would never have taught me “The Beer Barrel Polka.”

(It’s a good thing I learned it because a friend of mine, who plans ahead, has requested that I play “The Beer Barrel Polka” for her funeral!)

Lowery Organ 2

A 1960s era electronic organ by Lowery – just like mine.

The following summer, between fourth and fifth grades for me, our church youth group spent a week at Willerup Bible Camp on Lake Ripley in Cambridge. The previous week’s campers had rented an electronic organ for the chapel, and it was still there. Since the camp director knew I was taking organ lessons, she asked me to play a solo for a special evening service toward the end of the week, a service that would include all our parents as guests.

I chose to play “The Old Rugged Cross.” The hymn had two flats, B and E. I always remembered to play the B-flat, and sometimes remembered the E-flat. It wasn’t my best performance, but I was still proud of the fact that I was the only kid at camp who knew how to play an organ.

After the service, my mom asked me why I chose to play that hymn. I didn’t really know why. I guess I kind of liked the melody, and I knew lots of people liked the song. I couldn’t think of any other reason I had for choosing it.

I think my mom’s question had a profound impact on me. For the past 50-odd years, I have always thought carefully about what music I play on either the piano or organ – whether it’s for background music during the dinner hour at the Cambridge Country Inn and Pub or for a worship service in church.

For example, the Scripture readings for last weekend included two stories about God’s grace. The first one was about Jonah, after his whale adventure. He preached to the people at Ninevah, they repented, and God decided not to punish them. Jonah was mad that God had changed his mind. He wanted God to punish them as they deserved. The second story was the parable Jesus told about the landowner who hired people to work in his fields. Some worked all day, some just a few hours, and the landowner paid them all the same wage. The laborers who had worked all day weren’t happy. It wasn’t fair. The disciples also had a hard time seeing the fairness in Jesus’ parable.

Mom looking down at me

I’m pretty sure my mom’s looking down at me, listening to me playing in church…

So what music did I choose for a prelude?

I wanted to suggest the ideas that we need to try to understand what God is telling us, just like the disciples were trying to understand the real meaning in Jesus’ parables, and that God’s message this week is about generosity and grace. I cobbled together an arrangement of three hymns – “Open My Eyes,” “He Giveth More Grace,” and “Amazing Grace.”

I’ve been accused of taking my music selection process too seriously. Maybe I do. Occasionally I choose to play something simply because I like it, but that’s only when I can’t think of anything that relates directly to the Scriptures of the day.

At least I know that if Mom is listening up in heaven to whatever I’m playing, I’ll have a good answer for her if she asks me why I chose to play what I chose. And I’m sure she’ll approve.

Marian at Messiah organ 3

And I have a very good reason for playing what I’m playing!

Thinking too hard

Abbey and me thinking really hard about something

Abbey and me thinking really hard about something

Sometimes, I think, I think too much. I think too hard about choices as I try to determine what is best. For example,  today I’m trying to decide whether to write my blog about what some inmates said the last time we shared a worship service in the jail chapel, or to write about some new insights I gained last week about why “Christ the King Sunday” really can be relevant to us today. Or, can I relate the two thoughts to each other, and avoid having to choose one or the other… I think I’ll try that.

Marian at Messiah organ 2Every week I think a lot about what music I should play for a prelude and postlude in church. I think the prelude is particularly important for setting the tone for the service, to invite the people into a sense of readiness for the worship experience that is beginning. To help me select music that is appropriate, I study the Scriptures that will be read, I consider the hymns the pastor chose for the service, and I sometimes search out Internet resources for music suggestions related to the themes associated with the lectionary readings for that week. (If I’m short on time, I look back in my files to see what I played three years ago, the last time the same Scriptures were read.)

Last Sunday was “Christ the King Sunday” – the last Sunday of the church year. (Advent, the beginning of the church year when we look forward to the birth of Christ, starts next Sunday.) Last Sunday was also the Sunday before Thanksgiving – a national holiday rather than a church celebration, but with spiritual significance nonetheless. Almost every year, I choose to play Thanksgiving music rather than “Christ the King” music. My rationale has always been – what relevance does “Christ the King” have to us today? It’s much more important to think about being thankful to God for all the blessings in our lives than to ponder the image of Christ as a king.

This year, our music director selected a new song for the women’s choir to sing – “O Christ, What Can It Mean for Us?” by contemporary hymn writer Delores Dufner, OSB. Here are the words.

O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?
What royal face have you revealed whose praise the church would sing?
Aspiring not to glory’s height, to power, wealth, and fame,
you walked a diff’rent, lowly way, another’s will your aim.

You came, the image of our God, to heal and to forgive,
to shed your blood for sinners’ sake that we might rise and live.
To break the law of death you came, the law of love to bring:
a diff’rent rule of righteousness, a diff’rent kind of king.

Though some would make their greatness felt and lord it over all,
you said the first must be the last and service be our call.
O Christ, in workplace, church, and home, let none to power cling;
for still, through us, you come to serve, a diff’rent kind of king.

You chose a humble human form and shunned the world’s renown;
you died for us upon a cross with thorns your only crown.
But still, beyond the span of years, our glad hosannas ring,
for now at God’s right hand you reign, a diff’rent kind of king!

Delores Dufner, OSB, b. 1939, © 2001, 2003 GIA Publications

Jesus head 2

Jesus Christ, a different kind of king

The words of that song gave me something to think about. As a “diff’rent kind of king,” Christ came “to heal and to forgive.” Christ is a king who said, “the first must be the last, and service be our call.” Christ, through us, still “comes to serve, a diff’rent kind of king.”

That’s something to think about! And it transitions nicely into our discussion in the jail worship service a week or so ago.

About a dozen women inmates plus the chaplain and myself were sitting in a circle. The chaplain asked each of us to share with the group what we were thankful for. The young woman seated on my right said she was thankful for a second chance. The fact that she was in jail meant that she was given the gift of some time to think about the direction her life was going, and that when she left jail she would have a second chance, the opportunity to begin her life over again. Several other inmates voiced similar thoughts. After we all had shared what we were thankful for, we went around the circle again, each of us praying for the person on our right. We ended the service by serving communion to each other, and singing the hymn, “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ.”

As usual, my spirits were uplifted by sharing this worship experience with the women in jail. Christ is a king who loves every single one of us, forgives us, and gives us second chances. And Christ, “a diff’rent kind of king,” can be seen in every single one of us, as well.

Dr. V. Raymond Edman addressing the students of Wheaton College. I was there, sitting in my assigned seat. September 22, 1967

Dr. V. Raymond Edman addressing the students of Wheaton College. I was there, sitting in my assigned seat.
September 22, 1967

One more thought. (See, sometimes I think too much.) Another personal association I have with “Christ the King” goes back to my college days.

At Wheaton College, students were required to attend a half-hour-long worship service in Edman Chapel every morning, Monday through Friday. We had assigned seats, and attendance was taken. On September 22, 1967, (I was a sophomore) the speaker was College Chancellor, Dr. V. Raymond Edman. The title of his talk was “The Presence of the King.”

Dr. Edman described his experience of meeting the emperor of Ethiopia, His Majesty Haile Selassie. He explained in detail the court protocol that was followed, and then he related that experience to how we should approach coming before the presence of Christ the King – how the Bible says we should “Be still and know that I am God.” He talked about how we should be quiet when we enter the chapel, and how we should quiet our minds as we prepare to listen to what God has to say to us.

As Dr. Edman was making that point, he suddenly stopped speaking and fell to the floor. As Billy Graham said at his memorial service a couple days later, he had moved into “The Presence of the King” as he was speaking.

Here’s a link to both the text and an audio recording of “The Presence of the King”  http://www2.wheaton.edu/learnres/ARCSC/exhibits/edman/. The ten-minute audio version is the actual recording of Dr. Edman delivering this message in Chapel.

Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.

Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.
In his chapel address, Dr. Edman described walking through this long room, bowing, and being beckoned to come forward to talk with the emperor.

I guess how we approach being in “The Presence of the King” is appropriate to think about on Christ the King Sunday, or any time we approach God, whether we’re at home, work, church, or even jail.