Tag Archive | church organist

Jean: One of My Heroes

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Jean Gunnulson (8/16/35 – 11/25/16)

I met Jean Gunnulson 17 years ago. I had just agreed to be a substitute organist at the Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Church, and we were having our first music planning meeting. Four of us gathered together at 9:00 one morning in the church office – Pastor Dave, Cathy, Jean and myself.

The first thing I learned is that I wasn’t really a substitute. I was considered one of the regular organists. The first item on the agenda was to determine which Sundays Cathy, Jean, and I would each play over the next couple months. That was the easy part. Jean always played the first Sunday of the month which was the only Sunday communion was served. Cathy liked to play about once every 6 weeks. Jean and I divvied up the rest of the Sundays based on our personal schedules.

fullsizeoutput_1fbdThe next item on the agenda was to select the hymns for the congregation to sing, week by week, for the next couple of months or the upcoming liturgical season, such as Advent and Christmas. For the first Sunday in our planning window, Pastor Dave summarized the scripture readings from the revised common lectionary, and guessed at the theme he was likely to preach on. Jean came prepared with the current year’s edition of Prepare, a multi-denominational book that listed hymns that would be appropriate for each scripture reading. Jean then identified the hymns that the congregation knew and liked (or disliked) from the Prepare lists, and also which ones she had “recorded” on the organ’s midi system. Pastor Dave might suggest a new hymn the congregation could learn, and I watched Cathy and Jean debate the merits of that choice. Eventually, we all agreed upon the four or five hymns needed for a Sunday, and then we moved on to the next Sunday to plan.

In my first meeting, I was amazed at how heated this discussion became, and how long the meeting lasted. By noon, after three hours, we were all ready to go home for lunch, even though we were only half finished planning the hymns. We scheduled a follow-up meeting a couple weeks out to plan the rest of the hymns for that season. Jean may have come across as a bit crotchety in that first meeting, but she certainly was prepared, and it was obvious that she was committed to ensuring that good, appropriate music would be played at each service.

fullsizeoutput_1fc3Over the eight years that Jean, Cathy, and I shared the organist role for the church, I grew in my appreciation and love for Jean. She was a person with arthritis that was so severe that playing the organ was becoming almost impossible for her. But she was amazing at learning to adapt. Several years before I became involved, the church had invested in a new Allen digital organ. This organ was equipped with a midi device that enabled Jean to create a data file for each hymn that included an introduction and the correct number of verses. She could “record” and “re-record” the hymn as many times as necessary until it was “perfect” to her standards. If necessary, she could play and record the hymn very slowly, at the pace her arthritic fingers would tolerate. Then she could speed up the tempo when she played it back for the congregation to sing. Over the years, Jean created a library of dozens of 3-1/2 inch floppy disks that included hundreds of hymns.

One of the big challenges that Jean faced during the years that we worked together was the addition of a new hymnal supplement called Sing the Faith. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, there was a huge burst of new style church music charging across the country – contemporary hymns, praise music, and even Christian Rock. Many denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, came out with hymnal supplements to incorporate some of the best of this new music. Pastor Dave really wanted to begin to use some of this music in Cambridge. The church raised money to purchase the hymnal supplement. I had assumed that we would only use songs from the supplement on Sundays that either Cathy or I played. But Jean wasn’t willing to impose that restriction on our hymn selection for any Sunday. She spent many, many hours learning and then creating midi files for many of these new hymns. Some of them even became her new favorites – like “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.”

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Jean really impressed me by her determination to provide organ music for congregational singing as well as preludes, offertories, postludes, and background service music, despite her physical limitations. But she impressed me even more by her commitment to providing quality children’s books for the church children’s library – both in Cambridge where she played a couple Sundays a month, and a Lutheran Church in Madison where she held membership. She was constantly on the lookout for good Christian books at all reading levels. She would scour resale stores in Madison and all the surrounding towns to find good books inexpensively to buy and donate to these church libraries. (Jean had been a teacher earlier in her life.)

But what impressed me most of all about Jean was her commitment to sending boxes and boxes of children’s clothing to Indian reservations in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. She kept track of when each resale shop in the area had special sales for children’s clothing – especially the days when shoppers could fill a whole bag for a dollar or two. She would pick out warm and beautiful clothes to fill bags and bags for the children in these reservations. Then she and her husband David would box them up and ship them to the Indian reservations. Typically, they would spend more money on shipping costs than on the clothes.

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Jean’s health had been failing over the past couple years, and she passed away just before Thanksgiving. David asked me to play the piano at the funeral home for her visitation and funeral. He especially wanted me to play “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.”

David also told me that there’s a bag of children’s clothing sitting on the floor in the corner in their house. He plans to box that up and ship it to the Indian reservation as soon as he can. Jean had shopped for these children as long as she could.

fullsizeoutput_1fc4Praise the Lord!
How joyful are those who fear the Lord
and delight in obeying his commands…
They share freely and give generously to those in need.
Their good deeds will be remembered forever.
[Psalm 112:1, 9]

Thanks, Jean, for all you have done, and for being an inspiration to me. Thanks for being one of my heroes.

Shhh. I’m Trying to Quiet My Mind.

Candle orange w Be-Still-and-Know-That-I-am-GodIt’s hard to be quiet in today’s culture of constant stimulation. Worse yet, we take pride in being really busy, and we brag about our ability to multi-task.

So how can we possibly shut out the noise and concentrate on just one thing for ten minutes, or half an hour, or even an hour? How can we “Be still, and know that I am God!” as we are directed in the Psalms. (Psalm 46:10 New Revised Standard Version)

I’ve thought about that quite a bit over the past several years. I guess what prompted that subject to jump into the swirl of thoughts fighting for attention in my mind six years ago was the fact that I was starting up a spiritual retreat center at our farmhouse – what would become Whispering Winds Retreat Haven. That prospect made we wonder what I could do to help create an atmosphere at the farm where people could be still, be relatively free from distractions, and be able to focus on spiritual things.

3 candles and angelOver the last few years I’ve personalized some of those ideas to help me be focused early every morning before I start my normal daily routines and begin to deal with everything else that will jump into my day. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I start my day by reading from the Bible and a mix of inspiring books and pamphlets. Sometimes it’s hard to take time to do that, especially if I know I have a particularly busy day ahead of me, or an early appointment that I need to get ready for. Regardless of how short a time I may have for this devotional time, even if it needs to be just 5 – 10 minutes instead of the usual 30 – 40, I start by lighting one or more candles. That gives me something for my eyes to rest on when I look up from my reading. I usually light three different candles – one representing the Father, another the Son, and the third the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I have a fourth candle that represents me. It’s much better for me to see flickering candles on the small table in front of me than to notice the stack of papers waiting for me on my desk across the room.

Once the candles are lit, I start my quiet time by reading or mentally singing what I refer to as my call to worship. For a long time I kept a card in my Bible with the following words written by Sarah Young in her book Jesus Calling. It’s written as though Jesus is saying these words directly to me:

Jesus CallingSit quietly in my presence while I bless you.
Make your mind like a still pool of water,
ready to receive whatever thoughts I drop into it.

Rest in my sufficiency,
as you consider the challenges this day presents.
Do not wear yourself out by worrying about
whether you can cope with the pressures.
Keep looking to Me and communicating with Me,
as we walk through this day together.

Take time to rest by the wayside, for I am not in a hurry.
A leisurely pace accomplishes more than hurried striving.
When you rush, you forget who you are and Whose you are.
Remember that you are royalty in My kingdom.

That inspires me to be quiet and listen to what God is talking to me about.

More recently I’ve started mentally singing my own words to the praise song, “Holy Ground.”

This is Holy Ground
I’m sitting on Holy Ground.
The Lord is present
and all around is Holy.
This is Holy Time.
I’m praying in Holy Time.
The Lord is speaking
and every moment is Holy.

Floey Candles 3I’m usually sitting in the easy chair in my office. Floey is curled up on the love seat. And the candles are glowing on the coffee table. A crystal angel is bowing next to the candles. I really feel like I am in a holy place. My mind is quiet, and I’m ready to read, think, and pray. Sometimes I jot down ideas that come to me for a future blog post. Very few distractions break into this holy space.

On a related note (pun intended), I’ve also thought about what I can do as a church organist to help worshipers set aside their distractions to be totally focused on being still and knowing God during their time in church. The purpose of the prelude is to do just that – to help people quiet their minds, to be still and focus on knowing God. That’s why I try so hard to find a prelude that relates to the Scripture for the day.

Another thing that helps me get in the right frame of mind for worship is often referred to as the introit or call to worship. In the church where I grew up, the choir always sang the introit at the beginning of the service. That doesn’t happen at the churches where I play now, and I miss it. One of my favorite introits is Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this Place. Whenever I hear that, I remember that I am in a holy place. That God is present.

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place
I can feel his mighty power and his grace.
I can hear the brush of angels’ wings, I see glory on each face;
surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
[Lanny Wolfe]

At any time of the day, when my mind is spinning, and I’m thrashing about from one urgent task to the next, I sometimes remember I’m not alone. God’s here with me, too. I need to stop for a moment and take a deep breath. Maybe that’s the Holy Spirit calming me down. I think it helps that I’ve started my day being still. That helps me remember to ponder how my life fits into God’s world.

Most mornings Floey joins me for devotions. She knows this is a time to curl up on the couch, watch the candles, and be still.

Most mornings Floey joins me for devotions. She knows this is a time to curl up on the couch, watch the candles, and be still. I think God speaks to her, too.

Remembering the Saints – the most significant people in my life who are now dead

Lots of my relatives - the year before I was born. My brother Danny is sitting on the grass on the right side of the picture - in front of Mom and beside Grandpa.

Lots of my relatives – the year before I was born. My brother Danny is sitting on the grass on the right side of the picture – in front of Mom and beside Grandpa.

 

Thursday of this week is Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day. On Sunday, some churches will read a list of members of the congregation who have died over the past year. This is a time of year to remember the people who are no longer with us who have been significant to us in our own lives, and to thank God for these people.

As I was curled up under the covers in bed this morning thinking about what to blog about today, making a list of these people came to mind – not just the people who died this year, but all the people who have died who have been significant to me. I started making a mental list of them, and I realized I’d better get up and write them down – the names were coming to me too fast to remember and organize in my mind. So I got up and quickly jotted down the names as they came to me, and I realized I’d better limit the number of people to include in the blog. So I crossed off a few names and settled on 13 people for this blog (a good number for Halloween), plus one bonus. I’m still going to thank God for all the rest, too, even if I don’t tell you about them today.

Here’s the list – 13 people who have been very significant to me in my life, and who have moved on to their next life:

  1. Mom and Dad at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

    Mom and Dad at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

    Mom. I think the most significant thing I learned from my mom is about love. I always knew she loved me, as well as my siblings, her grandchildren, her Sunday School kids, the UW students who stopped in to see her at the Presbyterian Student Center in Madison where she worked, the starving kids in Africa that she read about in her mail and sent checks to every month, and everyone else who touched her life – she loved us all.

  2. Dad. My dad taught me about work. As a farmer, he knew that he was responsible for getting all the work done. If the hay baler broke, that didn’t mean he didn’t have to bale hay that day. It meant he had to figure out how to fix the baler as quickly as possible so that he could still bale the hay and get everything else done he had planned for that day. His attitude taught me to be a problem solver as well as a hard worker.
  3. Nancy. My big sister (11 years older than me) taught me to set aside some time every day to read the Bible and pray. When she went away to college, she ordered me a subscription to a children’s daily devotional booklet to help me keep on track.
  4. Helen Knoblauch. My first grade teacher was a very kind and loving person. Everyone in her class knew that she loved them. One way she showed that love was by being the kindest of all to the kid that was hurting the most that day. I remember one day when I was that kid. A leaf had blown into my eye and scratched it when I was playing on the playground after lunch. My eye really hurt and I was crying. Mrs. Knoblauch had me sit on her lap while she read a storybook to the class. That made me feel a whole lot better – so much better that I still remember it almost 60 years later.
  5. Marion Gilberts. She was our church organist and my piano and organ teacher. In addition to using the typical lesson books, she had me learn every hymn in both of the hymnals we used in church. She also gave me the experience of playing in church by having me play an offertory at least once a year. She didn’t just teach me the piano and organ, she taught me to be a church organist.
  6. Aunt Edith at the piano. (In the 1930s she married the happy little boy pictured above, my Uncle Helmer.

    Aunt Edith at the piano.

    Aunt Edith. She was the most creative pianist I ever watched tickle the ivories. She was a self-taught gospel pianist who could play any hymn she had ever heard, in any key you wanted to hear it. The only printed music I saw her use was a hymnal or songbook, yet she improvised all over the keyboard. She is still my inspiration to learn to play more by ear and to improvise.

  7. Rev. Royal Bailie. He was the pastor that confirmed me in the Methodist Church. As a confirmation gift he gave me a different kind of Bible, the J. B. Phillips paraphrase of the New Testament. That’s the only Bible that I completely wore out the binding by opening it too much.
  8. Auntie Emma. Also known as Emma Prescott. She was my grandma’s sister. I always thought of her as the most generous Christian I knew. She and her husband, Uncle Don, supported many children through World Vision and other missions. She once made a comment that I’ll never forget. She said she was glad she didn’t have as much money as one of her daughters had. Stewardship of that amount of money was more than she could imagine handling wisely. That comment has always made me think seriously about my stewardship of all the resources God has given me.
  9. Rev. Bill Leslie. He was the pastor of one of the churches I attended in Chicago for several years. I didn’t know him very well personally, but I learned a lot from his preaching. He prompted me to think for the first time about what my responsibility as a Christian is for dealing with the problems in the city, particularly the problems that resulted from the injustices that are inherent in our culture.
  10. Mark Hjermstad. Mark was a loving pragmatist, and that’s not an oxymoron. He taught me to relate to the world the best way you can. He was a closeted gay pre-kindergarten teacher for special needs children in the Chicago Public School System. We met Mark in church, shortly before his partner died of AIDS. He became one of our best friends. He always encouraged his gay friends to be as open as they could about who they were – although he couldn’t be out as a gay teacher and still keep his own job.
  11. Mary Borgerud. Mrs. Borgerud was my fifth- and sixth-grade teacher. She taught me history, geography, kindness, and generosity. She also taught me to have fun with writing. I still remember one of the essays I wrote in her class – “I’m a Little Mouse with Great Big Eyes.” We also laughed a lot together, especially when she came to live with Mim and me at Country Comforts Assisted Living for the last year or so of her life.
  12. Eileen Scott. Thanks to Eileen I’m a church organist again. Between 1975 and 1999 I didn’t play the piano or organ for anyone except myself at home. In 1999, Eileen learned that the Methodist pastor in town discouraged me from playing for a Christmas program in his church because of my sexual orientation. As a very strong take-charge person, Eileen approached me about becoming an organist in her church, the Presbyterian Church in town. Being a church organist has been a significant part of my life ever since.
  13. Selma Jacobson. I guess now I can say Selma is my mother-in-law. Shortly after Mim and I moved to Wisconsin, Mim’s mom had a stroke which left her paralyzed on her left side. After several months of rehab, she came to live with Mim and me. Despite all her physical losses, she always maintained a positive attitude and a very pleasant disposition. She lived with us for the last five years of her life, and was a daily inspiration to me to accept life for what it is, and to always trust in God’s love and kindness.

And now, for one bonus saint – Megabyte. She was the first dog that Mim and I got together, and she enriched our lives for 15 years. The one thing that dogs know better than anything, and better than anyone else knows, is how to love.

Many names are missing from this list – Grandma, Uncle Helmer, Gary, Clark, Steve, Nicki, Hiram, Joe, Donnie, and more. If I kept naming them I wouldn’t get this blog posted today. There’s also an equally long list of people who are still alive that I’m thankful for. God has truly blessed me with loads of wonderful people – and dogs – in my life. I am so thankful. I guess it’s appropriate that Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day, starts off the holiday season. Then comes Thanksgiving, and then Christmas. All three holidays are times to be especially thankful for all the good gifts God has given us.

Megabyte and Selma welcoming a new kitten into our home.

Megabyte and Selma welcoming a new kitten into our home.

Reflections on Christmas from a Church Organist

It’s over. The busiest time of the year for everyone, but especially for church organists, is over. As I look back over this holy season, what were the highlights for me?

  1. Marian playing the tracker pipe organ at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

    Marian playing the tracker pipe organ at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

    Celebrating Christmas together with our church family at Messiah Lutheran Church. I played the organ for the 10:00 service on Christmas Eve. This is the fifth year I’ve played for one of the Christmas Eve services. (I’m a half-time organist at Messiah.) The late service on Christmas Eve is my favorite. Even though the church is full, and there’s excitement in the air, it’s a peaceful time, a time to reflect on Jesus being born and what that means to us today.

  2. Celebrating Christmas together with the people of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church. I played at four services – a Norwegian Christmas Carol Sing earlier in the month, the 3:00 p.m. Christmas Eve service, the 9:00 a.m. Christmas Day service, and a special service of lessons and carols on the Sunday after Christmas. I’ve been playing at East half-time since September. This was my first Christmas with them. They provided as many opportunities for their members to sing Christmas carols as they possibly could. Music is a very big part of Christmas for this church. I liked that.
  3. Hosting a Christmas Carol Sing at Whispering Winds. This was especially meaningful because it was the last event at our retreat center before it went on hiatus. We sang for a couple hours. Then we ate Christmas cookies and talked for another hour. It was a fun evening for a great group of friends.
  4. Playing the piano for two Worship Services/Christmas Carol Sings for women in the County Jail. The women really enjoyed being able to choose what carols to sing, and they sang enthusiastically. But what was the most special to me about these services was the testimony time that came just before the singing. A common theme expressed by many of the women inmates was their thankfulness for being able to experience Christmas in jail – far away from all the commercialism of Christmas. They had time to think about the true meaning of Christ being born into the world. They felt closer to God. Some of them also saw this as an opportunity to share the true meaning of Christmas with their children during the limited time they had for conversations with them.
  5. Accompanying Mim as she sings at home. Mim didn’t do as much singing this year as she usually does, partly because her voice has been strained by a long string of colds last year, and partly because we thought we were too busy. But, this is absolutely my favorite way to spend an evening during the Christmas season.

I love being able to play the piano and organ, especially throughout the Christmas season. Nothing is more inspiring to me than to lead a group of people from the organ or piano as they sing “Joy to the World” or “Silent Night,” and to feel the love of God filling the room. It’s the same feeling – the love of God transforming the space – whether it’s a couple hundred people filling the church with their voices singing in beautiful harmony, or a dozen inmates filling the jail chapel with beautiful melodies as an impromptu women’s choir, or Mim singing alone at home. In all cases, God is with us.

Last Saturday morning when I was at church practicing the music for Sunday’s service, the pastor came into the sanctuary to chat for a few minutes. He commented that this Sunday (yesterday) was the last Sunday for singing Christmas carols. It was the last Sunday of the Christmas season. “Joy to the World” was the recessional we sang.

Now I can put the Christmas music away till next year. I’m ready. But I’m sure I’ll be just as ready to bring it out again as we approach Christmas 2013.

 Christmas Music