Monday, December 6, 2010

Failure south of the Thames, good stuff on the north

Unfortunately, the dean of the cathedral had died, and choir rehearsal was canceled. I tried to stick around and chat just a bit, but this precipitated a few more instances of "unfortunately." When visiting London, England, I had planned to visit the Thursday Singers at Southwark Cathedral. In my visits as the Itinerant Chorister, I try to make sure that I am respectful and welcome. I chose Southwark Cathedral in part because I had performed there on a choral tour in 1999; I looked online and found that their web page describes the Cathedral Choir, a highly selective choir in which the adults are at a professional level and perhaps paid. But it also described the Thursday Singers as being for those who simply enjoy singing, with no audition. Furthermore, "If you are interested in joining the Thursday Singers simply turn up at the Cathedral any Thursday in term time at 1.00pm and ask for the Song School. You will be made most welcome." There was no information on a contact person, but this sounded like it fit well with both the spirit and the modus operandi of the Itinerant Chorister. However, what I was told in person regarding people being welcome to drop in on Thursdays was almost exactly the opposite of what the web site said--this piled on top of the Dean's death meant no choir for me there. With my calling card thrust back in my hands, I departed for Shakespeare's Globe Theatre instead.

Fortunately, I had a better experience earlier that day at St. Paul's Cathedral. These two cathedrals are only about half a mile distant from each other on opposite sides of the Thames River, east of many of the sites associated with government and royalty, but west of the Tower of London. At 11 am on November 25, Thanksgiving Day for Americans, they had a Thanksgiving Day Service for the American Community in London, and my guess is that there were one thousand people in attendance, most of them American expatriates living in the area. The first procedure for attendees was to check in with the police outside and get any bags inspected.

The young people distributing bulletins were boy scouts from the Mayflower District of the Transatlantic Council of the Boy Scouts of America, so they were affiliated with the scouting program in the USA even though located elsewhere. The ushers who were in charge of the building were apparently London locals and wore formal morning coats and large medallions hung around their necks on red ribbons.

The service featured the usual suspects for Thanksgiving music: "Come ye thankful people come," "For the beauty of the earth," and "Now thank we all our God." There was a certain poignancy to this gathering of Americans away from home on a holiday that is distinct to our country. While I was there for just a few days for fun, they were there for longer periods.


One ironic thing in this gathering of Americans was that one of the statues featured in the south transept of St. Paul's is of Lord Cornwallis, who led the redcoats against Washington's army, most notably at the Battle of Yorktown. A related bit of irony came when, in his lead-up to reading President Obama's Thanksgiving Declaration, Ambassador Louis Susman quoted the United States Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal." Although it didn't match completely, the way he drew out the syllable "aaall" reminded me of the most famous voice recording of this sentence, when Martin Luther King quoted it during his "I have a dream" speech.

Something that particularly surprised me during this service was that a US Marine Corps color guard marched in carrying the US national flag and the Marine Corps flag. Then the clergy took those flags and laid them directly on the altar of the cathedral for the duration of the service. Somehow the symbolism associated with separation of church and state seems to be subject to different standards in our two countries.

The sermon was delivered by an expatriate minister, Rev. Barry Gaeddert, who started by mentioning memories of Thanksgiving from his childhood in Kansas, and the stories that were passed down about the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, which don't necessarily pass modern standards of political correctness. The centerpiece of the sermon was an anecdote about a minister who admonished his congregation to be thankful for what they had, and then started listing them--food, wealth, health, family, etc. Inevitably, though, some among them didn't actually have the things that he was telling them to be thankful for. They felt left out and eventually walked out of the church. The minister had to do some thinking and then realized his mistake. He had to boil down God's promise to us as a promise to be with us, not that problems will never occur. We are to be thankful for that as one of the blessings that we do possess, rather than forgoing thankfulness because of those things we don't have.

As we sang the final song, "America the Beautiful," I thought of the rendition of that song done by Ray Charles. He was denied many things during his lifetime, but was sufficiently thankful for his country that he put his own stamp on this patriotic song.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Return visit--King of Kings Lutheran

I went back for another visit today at King of Kings Lutheran Church, mainly motivated by my friend Carey Mack being the guest minister. Unlike the last time I was there, none of the kids started throwing shoes during the children's sermon.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wrap-up: Back to Religulous

For those looking for my report on Gladys Muehlig's funeral at First Presbyterian Church, go here.

In my original introduction to The Itinerant Chorister Project, I mentioned the movie Religulous by Bill Maher (which I recently re-watched) as something that led me to do this project, thinking that Maher had thrown out the baby with the bathwater. I tend to agree with him that the six-day creation and many other things in the Bible are not literally true. I am on board with him that Ken Ham's Creation Museum is absurd, and also that The Holy Land Experience amusement park in Orlando is not the place for me. But I take very seriously Jesus's overall moral message of loving your neighbor as yourself. Maher keeps on stating that he just doesn't know whether God exists or not. And yet with great self-assurance he berates those who do believe in God.

I was asked by a friend this week how I can believe in God when I am a scientist. In all honesty, I've had some real struggles with this. I guess I understand God or The Higher Being as being unknowable, and hope that God is merciful, at least more merciful than Bill Maher, and will not punish me for not believing the parts of books that conflict with the understanding that humans have gained through science, and even harboring doubts about some other parts of those books. I agree with Maher in his skepticism about prominent geneticist Francis Collins, who claims that there is scientific proof that Jesus existed.

In a few cases in the movie, instead of asking people to state their beliefs and debating them, he tells people what they believe, and starts debating from there. He talks to a Muslim about passages in the Koran that seem to advocate violence against non-believers. This person says that the Koran was written a long time ago and that we don't read it in the same way anymore, to which Maher answers that most people read holy texts as literal and permanent. At another point in the movie, he says to a group of Protestants that they believe in the infallibility of the Pope. One of the funniest people in the movie is Father Reginald Foster, a priest at the Vatican, who laughs and jokes about the ostentation of the buildings there and how Jesus himself would probably run away and help people somewhere else. A little later he says, "Pffft. We don't believe in Hell anymore. You're talking about old Catholicism." Maher's assumptions were being dismantled, but it was a funny part of the movie, so he left it in.

It is likely that Maher would object to the kind of faith that I just professed above, but a great many religious believers, lay people and, perhaps even more so, clergy, depart from what he would consider to be the traditional beliefs in ways similar to me. A comedian/filmmaker can't put us in a box!

Maher states that deities from non-Christian traditions, including Krishna from Hinduism, Mithra from Zoroastrianism, and Horus from Egyptian mythology share some of the characteristics of Jesus, including various combinations of being born on December 25, virgin birth, and raising someone from the dead with a name similar to Lazarus, and seems to expect that this will make people turn away from Christianity. These revelations are unlikely to faze believers who are not as hung up on literal understanding of the scriptures, who may already know about these parallels with other belief systems.

Some of Maher's arguments that I find more challenging to counter are the accusations of evil that has been done in the world for the sake of religion. While all religions will say that they are in favor of world peace, some will make it their goal unconditionally, while others may say that peace comes only through bringing all into their religion, and possibly use that to justify violence.

Yes, religion is a human institution and therefore imperfect. Yes, it has often stirred up violence in history, but I believe that was through false interpretation, or maybe over-interpretation. Yes, it has been used to persecute people as groups and individuals; again false interpretation. I'd like to see a campaign not against religion, but against false interpretation of religion. In the meantime, as in my previous post, I can't resist singing, with hope in my heart, "For all the saints who from their labors rest."

A time of sadness, but songs of hope and praise

That through all generations love might last,
As child to man, and man to child God gives,
So love, though yet all die shall live.

Ann Arbor is a transient place, in which many people arrive for a short time and then leave. Despite this, I still considered myself rather new in town after almost two years on September 26, 1994, when my divorce was finalized and my grandmother died on the same day. I found no reason to personally appear in the New Jersey courtroom where the former occurred, but I flew to northwestern Minnesota for visitation in my hometown of Crookston and a funeral in Grandma's longtime home of Gatzke. When I returned to Michigan, the first familiar faces that I saw were in the Detroit Metro Airport--the Muehlig family--Bob, Gladys, Carol, and Gary. If I remember correctly, they were returning from watching the Michigan Wolverines football team play at Iowa. They spoke words of comfort to me because of my problems, and Bob, as a funeral director, was especially familiar with grieving over death.

It was perhaps not much more than a year after that when Bob Muehlig died, and today, I attended the funeral of Gladys Muehlig at First Presbyterian Church. In a sense, the Itinerant Chorister Project was coming full circle, this being the site of my first stop. The choir that assembled had First Presbyterian's choir at its core, with quite a few other people brought in as a pick-up choir; I was not the only one visiting. Altogether, I counted fifty singers, which rivaled the number of other attendees sitting in the pews. This was testament to the tradition of the Muehlig family in church music.

This was a capable choir, highly confident, and edging into being show-offs, as evidenced by director Susan Boggs needing to shush everyone down during rehearsal in their humming beneath Sally Carpenter's solo in "Beautiful Savior." Another musical centerpiece was "He Shall Feed His Flock/Come Unto Him" from The Messiah by G. F. Handel, performed as a duet by Sally Carpenter and Lorna Hidebrandt. The service also featured the choir performing "God Fashioned Love" with text by Gladys's daughter Linda and music by her daughter Carol, and a solo performed by Kevin Simons.

For me, this is one of the greatest strengths of religion--to look in the face of sadness, without denying that sadness, and yet sing about hope. In my opening manifesto for The Itinerant Chorister Project, I made mention that the entire project was inspired as having some potential for rebutting Bill Maher's movie Religulous which, although I resonated with many of his criticisms of religion, often threw out the baby with the bathwater. One of the strongest arguments for me in favor of religion, despite its shortcomings as a human institution, is the endless hope that it instills.

The homily delivered by Rev. Melissa Anne Rogers told the story of Gladys Muehlig's life. She depicted it as mostly positive, mentioning the positive influence that her husband Bob had on the community as a funeral director, her love of travel and Michigan football, as well as how her family have stayed close. However, she also mentioned the rift that occurred at Zion Lutheran Church, where both Bob's and Gladys's families had been members for a very long time, which caused her to leave that church in the mid-1990s. I lived through much of this episode with the Muehligs, and it is an example of the dark side of religion--people using religion to get their own way, and often using the claim that they know the will of God better than others in order to make others yield. In the internal conflict at Zion at that time, claims to be representing God's will reached fearsome heights, and caused much damage to many people. I have encountered the same thing in other contexts, too, and sometimes been seriously hurt by it. The potential for religion to be used to damage other people's spirits is all too real.

The final hymn was "For All the Saints" with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (see here about my favorite hymn of all). Unfortunately, the Presbyterian hymnal has only four stanzas for this hymn, compared to the Lutherans' eight. No "But now there breaks a yet more glorious day" today. I'm not someone who cries very often at all, but put me in a funeral singing "For All the Saints" and...yeah. At my own funeral, I want eight stanzas, and for good measure, go back at the end and repeat the one that starts with "You were their rock, their fortress and their might." I mean it! In plain everyday English, too; no "thou wert" like today. [Note to readers, perhaps especially Roman Catholics--I interpret this hymn in the context of the Lutheran doctrine of the sainthood of all believers, so it's about all believers who have died.]

A couple of amusing things from today: While the clergy and choir were getting settled in, I was the person sitting closest to Pastor Melissa Anne Rogers, with the exception of Susan Boggs, who was busy at the organ console that was located between us. I realized that Pastor Melissa was trying to get my attention, and it turned out that she didn't have a hymnal and needed one. It would have been too conspicuous for her to get up and grab one, so I handed my hymnal to her across the organ console. I sat in almost exactly the same place as when I previously reported from this church, and again the fire extinguisher, book of matches, and large jug of hand sanitizer were there, although it seems that the amount of hand sanitizer inside it has been depleted. The reception following the funeral featured maize and blue napkins. I also met a man named Ben Helmke, and when I explained to him the Itinerant Chorister Project, he said that he had come up with the same idea about 25 years ago, but had never actually done it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

New Hope makes its name count for its members

It's hard to stumble when you're on your knees.
God will be right there to give your soul ease.

Don't worry about your enemies,
Because it's hard to stumble when you're on your knees.

When a National Day of Prayer was declared following the attacks of September 11, 2001, I don't remember what my motive was, but I attended a service at New Hope Baptist Church at 218 Chapin, just across the railroad tracks from downtown Ann Arbor. I'd like to claim that I had a noble purpose, like playing a small role in making the day of prayer for a national tragedy less racially segregated than what Martin Luther King famously called "the most segregated hour of the week" (church time on Sunday). Also, New Hope is the church that is closest to where I live. Honestly, I don't remember why I did that, and I remember little about what happened there that day.

However, after nearly nine years, I finally returned there, armed with a camera and notebook. Two strong themes that I perceived at worship were hope in the face of problems and mutual support to overcome problems and build a good life, from one's family and one's church. These were highlighted by recognition of two occasions for this time of year. They recognized those who are graduating from area high schools and universities, expressing congratulations for these students' accomplishments to date and hope for their individual futures and the church's collective future with the participation of these newly educated people. At the same time, they prayed for protection from the temptations of the world to which they will be exposed.

They also remembered Memorial Day, honoring those who had gone before, who had made possible what they have now. In particular, this church honors its founding pastor, Rev. A. J. Lightfoot, now deceased, as well as his widow, Mother Lightfoot. One of the pastors, Rev. Threet, also listed those who had died more recently.

This church has much of its history encapsulated in a photo gallery hung on the wall in the hallway outside the sanctuary. They have pictures of choirs, groups of ushers and family groups from the 1960s and 70s. They have pictures of their current leaders, including pastors, deacons, and trustees, of visits from Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1996 and from Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2008, and of their building in different stages of its development. The building that was previously on the site had carved and sold burial monuments, apparently prompting Rev. Lightfoot to coin the saying in which he characterized the church as transforming its people "from tombstones to living stones."

In the men's choir rehearsal, led by Sister Fay Burton, the singers had no printed music in front of them. However, this didn't mean that everyone was entirely free to choose any note he wished to sing. On some of the songs with which the singers were more familiar, we mostly just sang through them. But one song, titled "It's Hard to Stumble When You're on Your Knees" required dictation of notes to each of the sections. In choirs using printed music, it's often hard to rehearse the notes for only one section without the other voices joining in. When there is no music in front of you, it seems even more tempting to join in, for me and the others. Much of the music prominently featured solos. I didn't catch the names of all the soloists, but much of it was done by Sister Burton, one by her husband Deacon Burton, as well as Brother Stevenson.

I expected that I would be singing without a printed page, and that I would need to watch for signals on the fly of how many times to repeat certain sections of music, but found watching and heeding the signals more difficult than I anticipated. But there was a real payoff to a lot of repetition--some of the songs seem like they've gone on long enough, but then suddenly get a second wind, and take on renewed urgency and meaning. The processional, "Something's Got a Hold on Me," started up anew after completely stopping. And the time of greeting fellow members featured a slow build of "This is the Day That the Lord Has Made," with everyone joining in as they concluded greeting each other. As at King of Kings Lutheran Church, it seemed that everyone greeted absolutely everyone else, but this was a larger church. Add on several more times through "This is the Day," and it took a while.

The sermon by Rev. Green used Joshua 4 as its basis, in which the Israelites set up a stone memorial for those who crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land after leaving slavery in Egypt and then wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. He likened New Hope Church itself to a memorial that reminds us of those who went before us and of the God who saves us from trouble and keeps the church going. Some of his points took on a repetitive, chant-like and rhythmic quality, and at the climax of the sermon, the organ joined in while he recounted brief summaries of a number of stories of the power of God, both from the Bible and from modern times, connecting them with the words "The Same God." He thus pulled together the history of the Israelites, the early Christians, our ancestors, the founders of New Hope congregation, the graduates in the caps and gowns, and all those present.

The only white person in an African-American church sticks out like a sore thumb, and I also didn't have the male choir's standard gray suit, but I am happy that I forced my way into making this work. I was warmly welcomed by all those there. One thing that I had understood for a long time was that clapping on beats 1 and 3 is the white person's way of doing it, as opposed to clapping on the off-beats, 2 and 4. Although this stereotype may have some basis in truth, it is not strictly true. During "Something's Got a Hold on Me," I joined in clapping on beats 1 and 3. If this was wrong, I blame it on everyone else who was also doing that. Clapping during all the other songs was on beats 2 and 4.

After the sermon was the collection of the offering, which in most African-American congregations is done by having everyone walk to the front and place their offering in a box or plate. The benediction of the service had everyone join hands and sing, "Go ye therefore; teach all nations. Go, go baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost."

For those who want their worship to pass by quickly, this is not your place. From the devotion leading into the service, to the benediction, the elapsed time was about two and a half hours. For some of you, though, you might gain from moving outside of your box for a while and sticking out like a sore thumb, and at the same time, soaking in some new hope.

I may be picking up a few loose ends and making some sporadic visits over time, but this concludes the main phase of the Itinerant Chorister project. I thank all those who have read and commented on my blog, and my Annarbor.com entries. I am negotiating with Annarbor.com about how I should wrap up this project with them; I will definitely put some sort of synthesis here also, but its content will depend on what I do there.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cultivating right mindfulness


This week I made a visit that did not involve singing in a choir. I went to the Zen Buddhist Temple, located in a big old house at 1214 Packard St. in Ann Arbor. The heritage of Buddhism is in Asia from the founder, Gautama Buddha, and Zen in particular is from the more eastern parts of Asia, with origins at the Shaolin Temple in east-central China, but it spread also into Korea and Japan. However, most of the followers in Ann Arbor and throughout much of North America are not of Asian origin, but simply have decided that the teachings and practices of Buddhism are worthy of their belief and time.

As at least an aspect of introduction to Zen, my friend Carolyn Christopher lent me a CD to listen to--titled "Deep in the Ocean--New American Buddhist Songs, volume 2" by Nathaniel Needle, apparently a local person from Ann Arbor. It has musical tracks that depict Buddhism in a somewhat humorous way. One that really caught my attention was a calypso-style song called "Pull the Arrow Right Out." This line was repeated many times, and it was a catchy tune, so it prompted me to do a web search for "Buddhism pull the arrow right out." This led me to learn here of the Parable of the Poison Arrow. The upshot of it is that if you are facing a problem, such as being shot by a poison arrow, don't waste time and energy by asking questions like who shot the arrow, who made it, who made the poison, and others that do not help to solve the problem and may be unanswerable. Instead, pull that arrow right out! This illustrates Buddhism's status as a faith that is low on dogma, particularly in things like the origin of the world, and more focused on morals and self-improvement.

Another song was called "Truckin' on the Eight-fold Path." The Eight-fold Path is an important underpinning of the practices of Buddhism, and consists of: 1. Right view, 2. right intention, 3. right speech, 4. right action, 5. right livelihood, 6. right effort, 7. right mindfulness, and 8. right concentration. It turns out that during my visit at the Zen Buddhist Temple, the one of these that I heard most about was mindfulness.

The practice of meditation is a primary means of cultivating understanding of the teachings and spirit of Buddhism and of working toward living the ideals of the Eight-fold Path. So when I arrived, I got a really quick primer on meditation from a member named Kuman (members have a name that they use in the temple that is usually different from the one that they use outside) gave me a very quick primer on meditation posture and techniques. Most people sit on mats and round pillows that are small but quite thick and firm, although some sit on chairs. We spent a lot of time sitting and silently meditating, and also doing a few physical exercises--stretching and so forth, but there was also some time for talking and teaching.

One part of it was a reading from the teachings of Buddha, in which the part that most resonated with me was something like, "Anyone who harms someone who is simply seeking happiness will not achieve happiness himself." Since I didn't pull out my notebook to write down this quote immediately, I was helped in recreating it by finding this in a web search.

The priest of the temple, Rev. Haju Sunim, gave a talk that tied both into this reading and Mother's Day, and incorporated an actual meditation practice. She said that in thinking about our parents, we often think about the things that bother us rather than the larger picture, giving a highly slanted view. She extended this to other people as well, and asked people to think about someone they have had problems with. Then we were first asked to think of that person as being another copy of ourself, with the same desire for happiness. Second, flip that around--think of ourselves as being those other people. Finally, also think what it would be like if one of your closest friends were acting like that person. These were exercises for cultivating compassion and a type of mindfulness.

They also spent some time talking about their upcoming celebration of Buddha's birthday, which will be May 23. It is his 2554th birthday, and one member, Geehyun Kim, a University of Michigan graduate student, showed a slide show of how it is celebrated in Korea. One of the major traditions is to create lotus-shaped lanterns out of paper and plastic. They also have parades--big ones in Korea, a small one in Ann Arbor.

After the service, I went outside to the garden, where Haju Sunim was talking to a group visiting from Alma College. I was expecting more of a lecture full of facts, but instead got some hands-on experience. First, we did some walking meditation practice. We employed mindfulness again, and deliberately walked, thinking about first bringing each heel up, then bringing the foot forward, then putting the foot down heel first and rolling forward to the toe. It's actually regular walking, but done with a high degree of consciousness of each phase in the process (trying to avoid the word "step" here). The idea is that in order to understand where you have been and what you have done, you need to understand what is happening presently, and in order to understand the future also, you must understand the present.

After that, I also stuck around for a short while to do some work in their garden, also a form of mindfulness and meditation. Buddhism teaches that people often reach enlightenment through manual labor. In this case, I pulled weeds with the instruction to use both hands, or at least keep both hands near each other, so that the mind was not distracted by having one of the hands pointing in a different direction than the other.

One of the things that impressed me about the Zen Buddhist Temple is that they didn't seem to explicitly push to get people to join their faith, but they were very helpful to newcomers. Starting with Kuman giving me the quick instructions on meditation, they gave explicit announcements and instructions on what was going to happen next, such as at the end when people lined up and processed to the front of the meeting room and then back to the exit.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Music old and new



"Bless the Lord, all you his hosts,
You ministers who do his will."


This week at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, 306 N. Division St. in Ann Arbor, I think there was more music than at any of the other services I have attended as part of the Itinerant Chorister project, so here are the numbers. There were anthems by the adult choir, the junior choir, and a male quartet, five hymns out of the hymnal, and six major musical items as part of the liturgy, including Psalm 148 done in Anglican chant (chant with harmony) and the Eucharistic Prayer chanted by Rector Alan Gibson. There was also a song previewing their production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, showing next weekend, and an organ prelude and postlude. Seventeen things, besides many additional snippets as part of the liturgy.

The item of newest vintage was the main anthem by the adult choir, "Bless the Lord, All You His Hosts" by Iain Quinn, copyright 2010. The oldest seems to be "If Ye Love Me" by Thomas Tallis, from the 16th century. One other thing that I especially liked was one of my favorite hymn tunes, although with different words than I am used to. The tune is actually called Sine Nomine (meaning "without a name"); the words I am most familiar with are "For all the saints who from their labors rest," but today it started with the words "God's Paschal Lamb is sacrificed for us," as a piece of liturgy. Since it is graduation season, I will point out that one of the reasons why I like this hymn so much is that I marched in to this song for my bachelor's degree; I much prefer Sine Nomine to that dirge I won't name that people always associate with a graduation procession.

The choir rehearses in a rather unusual space. I am told that the eastern end of the church building used to be a smaller chapel, but it has since been reconfigured and partitioned in the vertical, with offices on the lower level and a space upstairs that somewhat resembles an attic, but one with a high vaulted ceiling, nice tile floor, and individual closet/lockers for each choir member's robe, plus rather large cubbies for storing their music.

Choir director Deborah Friauff is someone who does a lot of her leading by demonstrating what the singers should be doing--forming the vowels properly, making sure that the 'sts' in the word 'hosts' has all of the consonants pronounced in the proper order and at the right time, or the 'ndm' consonant cluster in the word 'commandments'. The Quinn piece was a perfect opportunity to talk about and demonstrate tapering phrases up and down again, as opposed to hitting the beginning of a phrase hard, which may be appropriate in some other music. Overhearing her working with the junior choir, while they were singing the line "O sing to the Lord with a jubilant voice," she demonstrated how to sing with a non-jubilant voice and asked them whether that worked well for that song. Organist and accompanist Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra also joined in instructing the singers regarding the hymns, and sang heartily from the organ bench.

A continuing situation in the Itinerant Chorister project is doing things that are routinely done and are second nature to those I am visiting. At St. Andrew's, the protocol for the choir processing into the sanctuary surprised me a bit. The singers enter from a side door in the front of the church, walk single file through a narrow side aisle to the back, then across the narthex and two by two down the slightly wider center aisle to the front again. In the narthex, the person alongside whom I was supposed to walk started waving frantically for me to catch up, and nearly knocked my hymnal on the floor. Another thing about singing in the narthex: At my home church, Zion Lutheran, I call the narthex the time warp, because you can't hear the organ very well there, and when people start singing there, they discover upon entering the sanctuary and hearing the organ that they are out of time with it. Therefore I stay silent in the narthex. However, at St. Andrew's, it seems different, perhaps because of a higher ceiling in the narthex or the organ being closer.

The sermon by Father Charles Witke followed the theme of the Gospel lesson, John 13:31-35, in which Jesus commands his disciples to love each other. He pointed out that this is the way that others know who are followers of Jesus. In illuminating Jesus' command to love your neighbor as yourself, Fr. Witke explained that this put forward love of oneself as the "gold standard of love." And so it seems to be for many people. He ended the sermon with "I love the face of Christ that I see."

There were some interesting features of the "Prayers of the People." Church is a place where we refer to people by their first names, even though this can sometimes seem a bit jarring. So when we were praying for government leaders, we especially held up "Barack our President, Jennifer our Governor, and John our Mayor." Later, they recited what I understood to be the names of all U.S. service members nationwide who were killed in war zones during the past week. This is something I haven't encountered at another place of worship, and illustrates a conscientious community of believers.

The bell tower of St. Andrew's is visible by sighting directly along Miller and Catherine Streets from as far down the hill as the railroad underpass.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thankful for what we have and who we are


Thanks be to thee. Glory and praise we sing to thee.

I realized this week that I've visited a few of the oldest church buildings in the area around Ann Arbor. See my previous posts on Old St. Patrick Catholic Church and Webster Church, both to the north of Ann Arbor. This week took me to the east, with a visit to Dixboro United Methodist Church, founded and built in 1858.

Because of its Methodist affiliation, its size, its rather rural location, and its age, this church reminds me of a church I went to for regular visits when I was growing up. Twice each year, once around Christmas and once during the summer, we would visit my father's home church, West Side Methodist between the towns of West Point and Oakland, Nebraska. Although the buildings are not all that similar, another thing they have in common is a steeple bell that is rung by a person physically pulling a rope (Webster Church has this too; I didn't notice at St. Patrick).

However, something very different about these two churches is what the march of time has done to the area surrounding them. While Dixboro has become surrounded by development associated with jobs in Ann Arbor and the larger southeastern Michigan metropolitan complex, West Side in Nebraska was in a Corn Belt area where farms have become more highly consolidated and people moved away, especially young people. After standing for about 120 years, the church is no longer there. Many of my ancestors are buried in the cemetery next to this phantom church.

On the other hand, Dixboro Methodist embraces both its history and new people. There are many members with long membership in this church, and even longer-standing family heritage there. But today, the service was themed on thankfulness, with a central part of it being the bringing in of members, by means of baptism, confirmation, and induction. A non-infant baptism is a rare thing in a mainline Protestant church, but they baptized Becky Horvath, an adult, along with teenager Mariam Sarit Carson. Mariam had also gone through the classes for confirmation, and was confirmed along with Molly Sanford. Rita Passage was inducted as a new member, although she has apparently been attending Dixboro for an extended period of time. Also associated with these rites were a vocal solo performed by Becky Horvath and a trumpet solo performed by Anna Little, who had been confirmed at the earlier service.

Thankfulness was depicted as one of the fruits of the spirit named in Galatians 5:22: love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. These were featured in the art work created by the confirmation students and reproduced on the cover of the church bulletin today. In his message, Rev. Dr. Tom Macaulay, District Superintendent for the Ann Arbor District of the United Methodist Church, expanded on what we might be thankful for, saying that although his message was aimed at those being confirmed, everyone else was welcome to listen in, too.

He started out by noting that faith and doubt exist at the same time among members of religious groups, so he is thankful that the Bible tells of people doubting their religion. He asked those being confirmed, and also the eavesdroppers, to remember that faith and the church are common endeavors among members--"Jesus and we, not Jesus and me." Then he asked for things that people are thankful for. Several answers involved things like family and music, but Paul Carson said "physics." This was perhaps a personal jab at Rev. Macaulay, who mentioned that his wife teaches physics while he himself knows nothing about it. This whole episode drew a laugh, but I'll remind my readers that most of your modern conveniences--anything electrical, mechanical, or electronic, depend on human understanding of physics. So, yes, do be thankful for physics.

He said that what you spend your money on is a true indicator of where your priorities lie, and that on that basis, you might not be proud of what you've done. There was a humorous story about how a shepherd knows his sheep, but he who is not the shepherd does not know them, alluding to John 10:14. But Jesus the shepherd knows his people and can transform them and make them good.

The choir is led by Janice Clark, who has worked at the church for 55 years, first as organist, and most of that time as choir director. She plans to retire this summer, but has left a significant legacy at the church. Another strong musical legacy there is left by Rev. Roger Parker, a former member at Dixboro, who composed some of the music used in the liturgy today, notably a doxology whose tune I did not know at all, but which everyone else there seemed confident in singing without music in front of them. Also, the choir is ably accompanied by organist John Wollsey, who I am told is working on degrees in both music and engineering. Again, this fits in with being thankful for physics, science, and technology, and also connects to me and my family.

The choir's anthem for today was "Thanks Be to Thee" by George Frideric Handel, with English text by Jerry Weseley Harris. There were two main worries going into this, that were fodder for discussion and practice during the Wednesday evening rehearsal. First was dynamic contrast, contrasting loud from soft and transitioning between the two. This song has many long sustained notes, which are very prone to becoming both boring and off-pitch unless they incorporate a taper up or down in volume of sound (or often both in succession). Second was one of the entrances by the men, which is sort of an echo of what the women just sang, but starts a whole step lower in pitch. This wasn't working at first during rehearsal, but with enough practice, it worked during the service. The dynamics worked out well, too, and this song offered a showcase for a nice controlled crescendo and diminuendo.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Non-violence leads to the divine

This is a double-header week for the Itinerant Chorister. See also my post on the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor.

I paid a two-part visit to the faith of Jainism. On March 24, I went with Manish Mehta to his lecture at St. John's Episcopal Church in Plymouth, in order to get some background. Then this Sunday afternoon, April 11, I took in part of the celebration of Mahavir Janma Kalyanak at the Jain Temple of Greater Detroit, at 29278 W. 12 Mile Rd. in Farmington Hills. This holiday celebrates the birthday of Mahavir, recognized as the founder of Jainism, about 2600 years ago.

In Jainism, people revere the Jina, the people who have overcome their inner enemies and reached spiritual perfection. There are 24 of them who are among the group who are revered (Mahavir being the most recent), although all Jains aspire to become Jina. Furthermore, they regard all living things as having the potential to become Jina following some cycle of reincarnation. Hence they observe strict vegetarianism, and the most devout ascetics constantly hold a cloth over their mouths in order to avoid accidentally ingesting an insect.

Along with the concept of karma, or liability for one's misdeeds, many of the ideas that I have expressed so far are held in common with Hinduism and Buddhism (although Wikipedia claims that the concept of karma within Jainism is different from within Hinduism). Indeed, many Americans are likely to confuse Jainism with Hinduism. But some things that separate Jainism are: eternity of the universe (destruction of the universe is a Hindu belief); absolute non-violence, extending vegetarianism to the avoidance of eating seeds and roots of plants because of their role in sustaining and propagating plants, and hence souls; equality of all beings, plants included; tolerance of multiple viewpoints; the universal prayer known as Navkar Mantra; the potential for each soul to achieve Moksha, or the highest level of being; each being as master of its own destiny; and emphasis on forgiveness.

Manish brought up the question of whether Jains believe in God. To answer this, he brought up several characteristics of God from other faiths that are not shared in the Jain beliefs. These include God as creator, as destroyer (as in Vishnu in Hinduism), or a merciful or benevolent God, as in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and others. The sense in which Jains do believe in God is that they see a spark of divinity in all beings, with the potential to be developed to a higher level, even to the level of Moksha, through these methods: right faith, knowledge, and conduct; meditation and penance; and reincarnation, with each reincarnation holding the promise of bringing a soul closer to divinity.

The central teachings of Jain are: non-violence, truth, non-stealing, chastity, and lack of attachment to possessions. These are observed by all Jains, but are more strictly followed by nuns and monks. Practicing Jains each decide what practices they will follow according to the level of comfort and practicality they are willing to live with.

Jainism is a minority religion in India, with 5 million adherents there, and 350,000 in diaspora, primarily in North America. Their beliefs have had much influence on Indians who are not Jain, notably Mahatma Gandhi, whose ideals of non-violence were influenced by Jainism. Certain trades have a very strong presence of Jains. Even in North America, the marble and stone trade is dominated by Jains, and they have a large presence worldwide in the diamond trade. In India especially, they tend to be in business and law, while in the diaspora, they tend to work more in medicine, academia, and engineering. What all of these professions share in common is a lack of violence toward any living thing.

This photo shows a figure of Mahavir behind the archways on the left side. The silver boxes in the foreground are containers for monetary donations, and the bells hanging from the ceiling are sounded to get the attention of the Jina.

I arrived at the temple looking for my host, Manish Mehta. The person who greeted me first, however, was a friendly man named Avi Shah. I told him who I was looking for and said that my excuse for being late was that I visited the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor earlier the same day. He was familiar with the Unitarian Universalists, and pointed out that their philosophy of non-violence coincides with the Jains. Regardless of the reasoning or supernatural justifications behind it, both of these faiths ended up with a similar purpose.

There are many small figures of the protector gods and goddesses arranged around the temple.

Whoever started the saying "quiet as a church" was not thinking of the social hall downstairs at the Jain Temple. Any social hall at a place of worship for that matter, with kids running around and playing, and people chatting. This one seemed especially spirited, though, and included people shouting and pushing to clear the way to bring food from the kitchen to the serving tables for the lunch.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Architects of fate


Free from a social code that fails
To Serve the case of human need.

"As Tranquil Streams"

It happens in all faiths, but the Unitarian Universalists seem not to make bones about it--things change, the way we see the world is different, and our understanding of the writings that came down over the centuries and how to interpret them gets some new wrinkles. Even the most conservative of religious groups are not the same as they were 500, 100, or even 10 years ago. During my experience at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4001 Ann Arbor-Saline Road, I believe I heard statements five times that boiled down to "We don't do creeds." Instead, they explain, they build their mode of faith through relationships and love for each other. The hymn quotation at the top of this post seems to capture a big piece of the essence of their thought, as well as the title of this post--another hymn had text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, saying "All are architects of fate."

I had originally scheduled to visit this choir in January, but some of you might remember that there was some bad weather on the evening of January 7, when I was to go there for rehearsal. It was so bad that they canceled rehearsal. Since attending rehearsal is a very important part of the Itinerant Chorister experience, I rescheduled, and ended up doing it this week. It was very much worth my while to go to this rehearsal, as it ended up being filled with exotic voices--hillbilly, Jamaican, and falsetto with a British accent. Plus an impromptu chorus of the Motown tune "The Loco-Motion," all instigated by choir director Glen Thomas Rideout. The funny voices actually served a purpose. The hillbilly voice, in particular the emphasis of the letter "r" and the vowels that tend to be colored by being followed by it, was used to demonstrate how not to sing. We went so far as to sing an extended section of one song in the hillbilly voice during rehearsal, in order to get it out of everyone's system. The Jamaican voice had at least some of the aspects of how we should have been singing another song. And the falsetto British voice is something I have encountered before, and seems to be a tradition carried on by proteges of Jerry Blackstone. The purpose of this one is to get diction using very wide-open, "tall" vowels--first you speak it in the British falsetto as practice. Then if you sing it while thinking about that voice, it improves your diction and yet sounds much less ridiculous than Graham Chapman in drag.

One of the traditions of Unitarians is to light a flame in a chalice at the beginning of worship, and this extended also to choir rehearsal. The chalice in the rehearsal space is decorated to resemble a tree. In conjunction with this, they have a member talk about his/her relationship to the choir; on this evening this duty was performed by Chris Petrie. One of the things that he mentioned is that now that he is in the choir, his vowels are tall. In honor of this tradition, the choir at this church is known as the Chalice Singers.

We rehearsed "How Can I Keep from Singing" arranged by Richard Walters and edited by Glen Thomas Rideout, "Sing Me the Universal" by Vincent Persichetti, probably about the most harmonically difficult pieces that I have tried during my tour of church choirs, and the highly rhythmic "I Got the Fire" by Stuart Chapman Hill.

One thing that I have learned to do on my choir visits is to find out what I should wear. In this case, there was no need to wait until the end of rehearsal, as this subject was discussed with passion at one point during the rehearsal. Apparently feelings on this subject run deep within this group. The basic rule is black pants or skirts and tops in a solid color--any color, as long as it is solid. One choir member held up examples of fabrics that were printed with patterns, and therefore did not qualify as solid colors; once again, it's not OK to wear these. Apparently it was OK, though, to wear a scarf in a different solid color. It all made me nervous that I was skating on thin ice when I later showed up in a light blue shirt with white buttons.

The rehearsal ended with a little social time, shown in the photo.

I actually attended three services. One was on Saturday afternoon and featured the installation of Rev. Lisa Presley as District Executive of the U.U. Church, which I took to be the equivalent of what would be called a bishop in many other churches. It also involved the choir leading some hymns. The other two were nearly identical services one after the other on Sunday morning.

During these services we sang a few hymns in addition to "How Can I Keep From Singing," mentioned above. This church is one of the best for participation of the entire congregation in hymn singing, and I think Glen deserves a lot of credit for this. He stands in front and directs then, and they even follow his direction in terms of volume, phrasing, and tempo! A couple of songs were sung in canon or round, including the whole congregation, and these hung together. Kudos also to Pianist-in-Residence Allison Halerz, who also played a few solo pieces.

There were two pieces to the readings. One was from Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which he scolded the churches for keeping their faith in God frozen in time. A key phrase was "God is, not was." The next was from Henry David Thoreau (see paragraph 16 here), with a key piece being "I do not wish to live what is not life; living is too dear." The place where I found a piece from the Bible was not read aloud during the service, but was on the front cover of the bulletin--"Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins," Matthew 9:17--not a saying of Jesus that many other churches choose to dwell on very much. Minister Gail Geisenhainer built on these ideas from Emerson, Thoreau, and Jesus in her sermon, giving some examples of people who had a poor perspective on things because they saw things as they used to be, not as they are, and particularly things in their past that they didn't like. "What they wanted to be away from was perpetually with them because they didn't revisit," she said. She advised everyone to do a spring cleaning of their memories and take a new look at their old experiences. "Let winds of change air out everything we take for granted."

I actually made two Itinerant Chorister visits this weekend. News from the Jain Temple of Farmington Hills will be posted soon.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter Sunday

Once again, I am simply supplying a link back to my Easter Sunday photo gallery at AnnArbor.com.

As a bonus to those who look at the blog from here, though, here is something that I experienced during the past week. On Tuesday, March 30, I was a speaker at the 5th Annual Binational Conference on Lake St. Clair. For those not familiar, the waterways draining out of Lake Huron and into Lake Erie are, first, the St. Clair River, then Lake St. Clair, smaller than the five main Great Lakes but a part of their water system, then finally the Detroit River. In the delta of the St. Clair River where it drains into Lake St. Clair, one of the largest islands is Walpole Island, and on that island, using the Canadian terminology for the people otherwise call Native Americans, live the Walpole Island First Nation. A member of this band, Reta Sands, was invited to give an opening prayer for this conference, a rare thing for a conference with a combination of scientists and policymakers. Anyway, I was able to find the same prayer online, originating from the Sioux Chief Yellowhawk:

O Great Spirit, Whose voice I hear in the winds,
and whose breath gives life to all the world,
hear me, I come before you, one of your children.
I am small and weak. I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes
ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made,
my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may know the things you
have taught my people,
the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
I seek strength not to be superior to my brothers,
but to be able to fight my greatest enemy, myself.
Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes,
so when life fades as a fading sunset,
my spirit may come to you without shame.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday photo gallery

For those who access my blog directly: This week, instead of the usual brief pointer from annarbor.com to my blog here, I'm reversing the pointer. See my photo gallery of Palm Sunday at Zion Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor.

Also, I'll recommend my favorite Palm Sunday-related movie, "Sherman's March," directed by, filmed by, and starring Ross McElwee. It is the story of a man who lives with a movie camera on his shoulder (the star is actually rarely seen) having a lot of adventures, many involving unusual women. In one section, his date with his newest girlfriend involves going to a church on Palm Sunday, followed by a visit to an ice cream parlor along with the pastor, who is lecturing them about the Apocalypse, complete with an illustrated chart, while meanwhile a person wearing a large Easter Bunny costume comes walking in. This never happens in anyone's imagination, so only in real life! Other favorite parts are Pat's idea for a screenplay, Ross's sister DeeDee telling about her surgery, and the part that somehow hooked me on this movie and this filmmaker, in which Ross joins some guys in unloading a life-size fiberglass rhinoceros from a track and placing it in its display position along a pond. It's available on Netflix, although the reviews there show that people either love it or hate it. Also note that this is the 1986 documentary, not the 2007 documentary/dramatization by the same title.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Music of Silence


This week, the Itinerant Chorister made a non-singing visit to the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting at 1420 Hill Street. The Friends are also known as the Quakers. This group does not include a choir, and their main mode of worship is silent meditation. I was there for the 9:00 am meeting, which their website says is more silent than the 11:00 am meeting. Actually, I had been there as a visitor a couple of times before over the years, and I think that this time was the most silent of any time that I have been there. The silence can be broken by any member who feels moved to give some brief message to edify the rest. In this case only one person got up to speak during the middle of the meeting, giving what he called the "March query." This consisted of a short list of questions, including "Is God inspiring the words that we say and meditate on at the meeting?" "Does a member need to be restrained or encouraged?" and "Is love visible in the things we do at meeting?"

Again, near the end of the hour, the silence was broken to ask for people's joys and concerns. Even this was met with further silence. After a little more time, people got up to shake each other's hands, then gather in the middle of the room and hold hands. However, this again was done wordlessly. After that, each person of the 22 that I counted introduced him/herself, and there were announcements. The presence of this many people at the early meeting on the first day of daylight saving time seemed to occasion surprise on the part of many of these people. A couple of them announced that they were there on an assignment for a group they were associated with at University of Michigan, and of course my presence was also exceptional. The only leadership evident in the meeting was by a person called the closer, who gives the signal when to start shake hands, gather in the middle and give the announcements. This duty was performed by Lisa Klopfer.

In chatting with Lisa afterward, she said that the later (11 am) meeting usually involves more talking, in large part because of the number of people there. She also made reference to the need for people to discern whether they have something worth saying and are sufficiently prepared before talking. That the Friends think about this is to their credit. In many churches, there is a whole lot of talking by the very few. Here, there is only a small amount of talking, but the opportunity is open to all, with the provision that they are aware that they need to make it count.

The Quakers are often inaccurately stereotyped as a result of the brand of oatmeal and cereal. I assure you that no one was there in a broad-brimmed hat, powdered wig, and starched cravat. These are people who are entirely in touch with the modern world. One of their central beliefs is pacifism, and at the end of the service, during the announcement time, one member posed the question, "What if we were to devote as much effort and resources to maintaining peace as we have to waging war?" This, along with the "March query" mentioned earlier led me to the observation that in this group, wisdom and action are sought by asking questions rather than by dictating answers and commands.

I consider silent meditation to be part of a balanced spiritual practice. Actually, we are currently in the season, Lent, in which many Christian denominations are more likely to make it a part of their practice than they would the rest of the year.

The room in which they have the meeting is very austere. It has no symbols of any kind, just wooden benches with thin, pale blue cushions on them, matching the carpet. The benches all face toward the center. There is a large picture window facing toward the north, making the small fenced garden outside visible to all except those sitting on the north side, of which there were none this morning. The ceiling is wood with beams, and the south wall is wood-paneled, while the east and west walls are white sheetrock. The upward-pointing light fixtures all seemed to angle slightly toward the south, whether intentional or not.

For some people, going into a room to be silent for an hour, or even just imagining it, might be difficult. And yes, we really did spend that time not talking, other than brief interruptions by a couple of people. When you sit in silence like that, a whole new palette of sounds enters your consciousness. There was a small incidence of people entering and leaving, a little fidgeting, coughing, and throat-clearing, some pops and creaks emanating from people's joints, and some noises from the heating system, all of which would not be noticeable in most contexts, but were evident while sitting and meditating. Even at this time of year, there was a little bit of birdsong coming from outside. I was too self-conscious to even scrawl in my notebook, as I have done in many other worship experiences by now. Traffic on Washtenaw Avenue, a block away, provided a noticeable background roar, along with the occasional vehicle right on Hill Street. Worship is a time to step out of everyday life, and I would say that hearing all of these things constitutes a step away from everyday experience.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Singing with the Flatirons as a backdrop

He died on Calvary
To atone for you and me
And to free us from sorrow's great load.


Despite the problems that I currently have, this morning I had the pleasure to sing in the choir of Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Boulder, Colorado. During a year-long job detail in Boulder in 2006, I was a regular member of this choir. This is a small church with a small staff--the ones who were visible today were the pastor, choir director, organist, and youth minister. The only one of those who had not changed since I was last there at the very end of 2006 was organist Kristina Eller. Choir members had given me gushing reviews of director Jim Myers, however, and I was not disappointed. Jim leads the choir with great energy and precision, in terms of rhythm, diction, and phrasing. With regard to phrasing, at one point, he told the choir that they sounded "tick-tocky." With regard to diction, he said, "Gotta hear the words." He helps the choir to achieve these aspects of musicianship, and through the contagiousness of his energy, gets the entire congregation to participate heartily in the liturgy and hymns. That this is one of the most participatory congregations that I've witnessed is a credit both to Jim and to the people in the pews.

The Flatirons, referred to in the title of this post, are a rock formation (large foothills of the Rocky Mountains) that are emblematic of the City of Boulder. In the photograph, they are obscured behind the clouds.

One of the interesting things about the decor of the church, that I really didn't remember from my longer time there previously, is that there are five support posts near the north wall that are hung with narrow banners in each of the colors of the liturgical seasons that are used by many Christian denominations: white for the joyous festivals of Christmas and Easter; red for some other festivals, such as Pentecost and All Saints' Day; blue for Advent, the season of anticipation of the coming of Christ; purple for Lent, the season of repentence and penitence; and green for the seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost, the times of general discipleship, praise, and learning. These different aspects of faith are a part of the idea of a balanced diet of religious activity that I alluded to here, and for me, it is interesting that the seasons of the church calendar tie together with the seasons of nature that are so important in my occupation as a climate scientist. While the chancel of the church was dominated by purple for the current season of Lent, all of the other colors were still on display in a smaller way to remind us that those are also aspects of faith that we will concentrate on in another part of the year.

There were three featured musical performances. At the opening of the service, a small ensemble of women performed "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Later, the choir performed "Saw Ye My Savior," arranged by D. Johnson, featuring a solo by Shaun Steavenson, a baritone channeling his inner tenor; it also featured Jen Merrill on the flute. Later, Mr. Stevenson performed "Consecration," arranged by C. Courtney and accompanied on the piano by Mr. Myers. This was very well performed and drew applause from the congregation, but I honestly can't remember whether applause is a usual thing in this church. Shaun is a student at the University of Colorado who makes occasional appearances at Mount Calvary.

This fairly small congregation has a "high church" tradition, and a complete liturgy, but it is all handed out in one printed bulletin, including words and music for all of the hymns. It included an extended sung Kyrie, with church member Melissa Johnson leading it as the assisting minister/cantor.

Pastor Kevin Mayer delivered first a children's sermon and then a sermon on a text from Luke 13 about a fig tree that had not yet borne fruit. The theme of this was forgiveness and repentance. The patient steward of plants keeps on tending them until they bear fruit. One of the things that struck me in the liturgy, and which I don't remember hearing before, is that after pronouncing forgiveness of sins, the pastor said, "Live in newness of life." This indeed is a promising message within the dark time of Lent.

The congregation were collecting food for the hungry within the community, and had a lot of it prominently and very neatly displayed around the altar. I'll even say that it was displayed symmetrically, as each end was topped by a case of refried bean cans and then a large 2-pack of peanut butter on top of that.

Another feature of this church that I found interesting and that is never seen in Michigan is this. The sanctuary has no air conditioning, but does have an evaporative cooling system, often known as a "swamp box." This blows air over a pan of water, so that the air is cooled by evaporating the water. It also moistens the air, and is not very effective when using Michigan's already-moist summer air. In a dry place like Colorado, though, it is effective, especially when used only once a week. Apparently this system is noisy, though, and they only run it before the service on Sundays during the summer.

For those not interested in my personal story, you can stop now. For those interested, here is the preamble to an earlier draft of this blog post:
When I post this, I'm back at home (see the warnings about this), but as I make a draft of this, I am still in Denver after travel problems. Four sources of information said that my flight was delayed by 1 hour and 10 minutes. Then when my back was turned and I was eating, it was moved back up by 50 minutes, they boarded and closed the door just before I got back to the gate. Out of a capacity of 66 people, they left 30 passengers behind. United Airlines offered abject apologies and mea culpas, plus hotel vouchers, free flight vouchers, and a new set of flights. I am now in a hotel room with Internet access, but without the notebook with the things that I wrote down about this visit, and also the camera on which I shot a few photos. These are now in storage at the Detroit Metro Airport, since they went on the flight that I did not get on.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Zion Lutheran mission to Tanzania


This week, instead of visiting a choir elsewhere, The Itinerant Chorister was at my own church, Zion Lutheran Church, 1501 W. Liberty in Ann Arbor for presentation of the experiences of the group who went on a mission trip to Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania last August. This group included me--see my earlier reports here and here. Tanzanian and African music was really not featured in this service, although I actually got to use my somewhat meager abilities on the piano to re-create one of the things that happened in Tanzania--my friend Kent Peterson played the trumpet along with me, performing "Healer of Our Every Ill." While in Tanzania, part of the purpose of playing this was to encourage the son of our hosts to continue learning to play the trumpet, and also to fulfill the expectation of the church that we were attending that we provide some musical entertainment for them.

The centerpiece of this service was witnesses from each of the nine people who were on the trip and present today. In my own, I talked about how connections with my own job, researching the effects of intensified farming on the climate of East Africa, had led me to participate in this group starting six years ago. I also highlighted the vulnerability of African people to local climate and weather because of the expense of transporting food. In doing all this, I highlighted my own status as a left-brained person. The witnesses from my fellow team members would melt a stone heart, though, especially those of Kent and his daughter Marcie.

There were also some videos shown from church services that we attended there, and one of the things that caught my attention was this: Following the service at Kanisa Kantate (Church of Singing) in Mto wa Mbu, they had some items of food that had been given as offerings to the church, and they converted this into cash by auctioning off the items. The video showed part of this process, and right at the end, they have a bid of 600 Tanzanian shillings (shilingi mia sita), or about 50 cents, are asking for a bid of 650 shillings (shilingi mia sita hamsini), and all of a sudden our host Bethany Friberg jumps in and increases the bid to 1000 shillings (shilingi elfu moja), or about 85 cents. This small amount of money drew actual applause from the group assembled.

One of the things that struck me this morning, though, was that a number of paradoxes arose out of our actual experiences and what was said this morning. I think that some of these can be accounted for by looking at Tanzania through American eyes. One of these was that Mto wa Mbu was referred to as a remote village. In the larger scheme of Tanzania and Africa, it is difficult to really back up that description. A number that was thrown out in one bit of the talk today is that its population is 15,000 people, while Wikipedia quotes the 2002 census at 16,068, and I have no doubt that it has grown considerably since then. One major reason for growth is that since then it has acquired an asphalt road that is still in good condition. This is the main route between Arusha, a major portal for tourists coming on safari, and the safari sites of the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. Also, Lake Manyara National Park is directly adjacent to Mto wa Mbu. There is an electrical grid there, although most people are living in houses without electrical service, and there is also abundant water for irrigation that comes from a stream flowing off the escarpment there--namesake of the town, which translates as "River of Mosquitos." But a lot of things make it look to us like a remote village. One that was highlighted today is the lack of even the most basic level of dental services. Other things they don't have include banking (there was one ATM which apparently didn't work), 24-hour shopping, city parks, news and entertainment media, Internet and medical services above a quite primitive level, etc. However, this did not reach the level of two previous trips that I took to Gilai Lumbwa, where there was no electricity and not even a place to drop snail mail. It was stated by the dentist in our group, Dr. Barbara Wehr of Dexter, that she trained several of the doctors from the area to back to their more remote locations and be able to perform tooth extractions with local anesthesia, and indeed these are more remote locations than Mto wa Mbu.

Sometimes we who visit from the west engage in a sort of game of one-upmanship about how deprived we are while on a trip like this. One bit of advice, though: Never try to compare this deprivation with the daily lives of ordinary people from the developing world. If you as an American try to play that game of one-upmanship, you are going to lose decisively.

Another sort of paradoxical thing: We befriended many of the people of Mto wa Mbu, but did any of us become one of them? Even though we grew some strong bonds, and they were impressed with the manual labor that was performed by these wazungu (white people), I will have to say no, because we just got on the plane and came back to Ann Arbor after two weeks. In many ways, we are better able to help the needy there by living and working in Ann Arbor. Even our hosts, Dr. Steve Friberg, his wife Bethany, and their three children, live lives that bring them in constant contact with the local people, but do not make them one with the natives. They are able to retreat to their own house, which is much more comfortable than their neighbors', take occasional vacations on the Indian Ocean coast, and biennially make months-long trips back to the USA for touching base with their family, friends, and sponsors, and expose the kids to life here. Dr. Friberg was raised as a missionary child in Tanzania, moved to the USA to complete his education, and has returned to Tanzania because of his dedication to the medical needs of people there. But he lives in a land in which Dr. King's dream of being judged not by the color of your skin has been realized to an even lesser extent than here in the United States.

Paradox #3: A couple of team members talked about the language barrier, while one said that most Tanzanians know some English. Again, yes to both, and it really depends on the level of schooling and ongoing use of English that people have. Some English instruction is provided at the primary school level, but the main language of instruction is Swahili. At the secondary school level, English is the language of instruction, and at one school that I visited, signs on the classroom doors said, "Speak English in this room." The level of competence in Swahili among our group was very low, and non existent in any of the other tribal languages that people regularly use there, such as the Maasai language. Dr. Friberg talks to the staff doctors at the medical clinics in English, in which they are fluent, but speaks to everyone else in Swahili.

I encourage everyone to go on a mission/service trip to the developing world. Do the service that you can and learn what you can, but just because you do, don't imagine that you have become one of the underprivileged people of the world. You have a long way to go in getting there.

Next week: The Itinerant Chorister hits the road, attending Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Boulder, Colorado.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Spirit-Filled and Spirit-Led Singing

"All the glory, all the praise, O Lord we praise your name."

In my last post, I mentioned that a lot of choirs have a particular song that they always use to close their concert. For various choirs that I'm familiar with they include 'The Yell0w and Blue,' 'A Parting Blessing,' 'Perfidia,' 'Behold the Lamb of God,' 'Beautiful Savior,' and 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.' The One Voice Gospel Choir takes this one step further, and closes every rehearsal by standing in a circle, joining hands, and singing the song quoted above. When I was young, we used the expression 'know it by heart' to describe memorizing a song, or perhaps a poem or bit of prose. These singers know this song so much by heart that their brains are not actually able to reproduce it. During the after-rehearsal socializing, I tried to verify that I got the words correctly to put them in the blog, and was answered with, 'I can't even remember those words now,' even though they had all sung them very easily only minutes before.

OV, as they call themselves for short, performs all of their music from memory, and as a visitor for only a brief time, I had to employ a combination of already knowing a few things, memorizing some other key things, singing on instinct, and cheating by looking at a printed page. Actually, what would be called faking it in more general musical settings is rather legitimate within the gospel music genre. So, being thus led by the spirit, I made it through the longest repertoire list of any of my Itinerant Chorister visits. We sang 'This is the Day,' 'Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit,' 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands,' 'Unity,' 'Siyahamba,' 'Freedom is Coming,' and others.

One thing that set this visit apart from most of my experience as the Itinerant Chorister is that this choir makes its home base at one church (St. Paul United Church of Christ in Saline), but performs in a great variety of settings and very frequently. At rehearsal, they handed out their upcoming schedule, which included six performances in the coming two months. Today, they were at the regular Sunday worship at Webster United Church of Christ at 5484 Webster Church Road, in Webster Township near Dexter.

First, I went to rehearsal on Tuesday evening. When I arrived, some members were recording a demo tape to send ahead of them to places interested in hosting them on a tour in England planned for this coming summer. The plea for everyone to turn of their cell phones before the recording started reminded me of an incident at another of my visits. When rehearsal was beginning for real, it was announced that I would sing and write the blog, to which the retort was, 'We'll tell you what to write.' At the beginning of rehearsal, much time was spent on announcements, prayer requests, and there was also a voice vote on whether to add a newly-proposed performance onto their schedule.

After announcements and prayer, we launched into practicing the music. The group is led by hyperkinetic director Jean Wilson, who has a strong instinct for gospel music and demonstrates her passion for it both to the choir and to those they sing for. Those who are used to singing in many other choirs will need to get used to certain things. For instance, the number of times that you repeat certain verses is not set in stone, but is decided on the fly, depending on how Jean feels about how it sounds, how the congregation is reacting, and how it feels. After all, it's not a science, but an art. We used some special effects that are taboo in many choirs. For instance, in 'He's Got the Whole World...,' there were two different spots in which we sang 'hands' with a fermata (i.e. held the note for as long as the director chose). In one case, we did the more traditional thing, holding on to the vowel 'a.' In the other case, we blew past the 'a' in a split second and instead held out the word by humming on an 'n,' something a classical choir wouldn't do.

Since this choir develops a repertoire, memorizes it, and then uses it for many performances, sometimes over quite a few years, the rehearsal mainly consisted of running through the music that they already knew, and there were only a very small number of rough spots to straighten out. That meant that I needed to catch on fast, and I tried my best.

Webster Church was founded in 1834 with funding from Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, later to become U.S. Secretary of State. The church was named after him, and later the road and the township got that name, too. This church claims to be the church building in longest continual use in Washtenaw County. Along with my visit to Old St. Patrick Church two weeks ago, I have covered two of the oldest churches in the area north of Ann Arbor and Dexter.


On Sunday morning, the plan was to have a time of performance at 9:30 am, in advance of the service at 10. However, announcements to the congregation had failed to get people into the church that early. We started singing at about 9:40 and had to convince people peeking in from the narthex that we were no longer practicing, but performing, and that they should come in and sit down.

The service featured a time spotlighting the country of Ghana, in which children helped to lead. This covered the food of Ghana, including foufou, made by grinding cassava root, the symbolism associated with the colors of the Ghanaian flag, and facts such as the gold deposits in Ghana and that it is the world's largest exporter of cocoa.

The sermon was delivered by guest preacher and seminary student Elizabeth Hoban. She explained early in the sermon that this was one of the few sermons that uses a chart (I learned after the service that she is moving into the ministry after being a mechanical engineer). She held up a chart with a pyramid on it to show the concept, sometimes used in business planning, of DIKW--data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, with wisdom being the narrowest piece at the top of the pyramid. (The back side showed an inverted pyramid with no data, misinformation, ignorance, and folly.) As further illustration of the chasm between data and wisdom, she quoted from T. S. Eliot's 'The Rock,' which includes 'The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries Bring us farther from God and nearer to the dust.' She emphasized that wisdom from Earth can ruthless and counter to our best actions, while wisdom from above serves all people.

At the end of the service, there was a call for an encore from OV, and I had to fake (or rather, be spirit-led) through a medley that included 'This Train is Bound for Glory' and 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' Refreshments after the service included some Ghanaian food.

I realize that there are likely to be some divergent thoughts about a gospel choir whose members are all white. On this, I have two comments. First, I support their message and their music because of the enthusiasm and spirit that they bring to it; they know their music by heart. Second, I also hope to sing in the choir of an African-American church. I have had difficulty in making contact with a particular church that I wanted to sing in, and encourage anyone to get in touch with me to help me do this. Also, let me know about gospel choirs that are more racially integrated.

Next week: Service benefiting and celebrating Tanzania at Zion Lutheran, Ann Arbor