Sunday, September 27, 2009

Neither height nor depth, nor dogs nor trains will separate this church

"Leave all things you have and come and follow me."

One of my good friends is an enthusiast of Bouvier dogs. I never expected this to enter into the Itinerant Chorister blog, but nevertheless...on my arrival for rehearsal on Thursday evening at Northside Community Church (929 Barton Drive in Ann Arbor), I was greeted by choir member Jeff Yeargain with, "Oh, we thought you were the accompanist." Although I play piano, I am not as good as the professionals who accompany most church choirs, and it's not part of the Itinerant Chorister program. After some waiting and the start of the rehearsal, accompanist Kathryn Goodson showed up with her Bouvier named Ruby, and relaying a story of hustling to get there on foot. Meanwhile, Ruby lay on the floor and panted.

Churches are a way in which people can break down a rather large city into a more manageable community. For some, what works best is a small church. One thing is for sure: Northside has an unusually large proportion of its members singing in the choir. In fact, it was remarked at the beginning of the service that choir members actually outnumbered the people sitting in the congregation. I assure you that this was literally true at that time, although more people showed up a little later.

The choir is led by Mary Ellen Hegel and is quite well balanced between men and women, although tenors are sparse. It is also notable for featuring local operatic bass Chris Grapentine, who is also the pastor of the church. My left ear is still ringing from standing right next to him. At the Thursday night rehearsal, with the presence of Rev. Grapentine, Mr. Yeargain, myself, and some others, and the absence of tenor Al Clark, this choir would have been very difficult to beat in terms of the average height of the men's section.

This choir takes on some interesting music, and this week featured "Two Fishermen," written by S. Toolan and arranged by William Rowan; Ms. Hegel got a copy of the hand manuscript directly from this local composer-arranger. Solos in this piece were performed by Sue Wuster and Jeff Yeargain. The choral anthem came early in the service, after which the choir dispersed into the congregation, giving a good boost to the congregational hymns.

Prayer is something that is emphasized at this church, and they accepted oral prayer requests from the congregation in preparation for prayer. These requests were a combination of joys and sorrows. The prayers were punctuated by a train whistle, which took me by surprise, even though the church is only a block from the Ann Arbor Railroad's grade crossing on Barton Drive. I have spent a dozen years living only three blocks from that track, and a couple of earlier years being separated only by a small pond, and have learned that trains almost never travel on that track during the day.

The children's sermon was only partially foiled by the lack of children willing to come forward. It only takes an average-sized adult, rather than a child, to look out of place wearing Rev. Grapentine's shoes, graphically illustrating the metaphor of walking in someone else's shoes. This was drawing attention to the needs of others and promoting Ann Arbor's upcoming CROP Walk.

Given the "Come and follow me" message of the choir's anthem, I was expecting a Bible reading and sermon about fishers of men, but the theme was the first one or two of the ten commandments (I'll let others argue about where the first ends and the tenth begins, but I find it remarkable that everyone seems to agree that there are ten of them). Idol worship--the cliche is that the modern type of this is the worship of money, but sports, arts, music, and the self were also mentioned here. However, the one image of god that is allowable is humans themselves, so "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Matthew 22:21) means to give of yourself.

The final hymn was "God Hath Spoken by the Prophets" in f minor. I would like to report that the service ended with a Picardy third at the end of this hymn. However, the true ending of the service came only after the congregation had stayed to listen to the postlude performed by Kathryn Goodson. A congregation that does this values its music.

Next week: St. Lorenz Kirche, Nuremberg, Germany

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