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.

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