Thursday, July 12, 2018

Prelude, offering and postlude

Instrumental Music: What’s the Point? 

Recently, I’ve been pondering the role of instrumental music in the worship service.

During my various professional experiences leading music in different denominations and congregations, I’ve noticed that the variety of expectations people bring to worship extends to how they approach the instrumental music, specifically the prelude and postlude. What does this music mean to them personally? Congregationally? How do they interact with it?

Many years ago, I was invited to play for a Lutheran church in Montreal that really valued all the music in the service, and boy, I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard! Why? Because the congregation expected a very lengthy prelude (15–20 minutes). Their conversation stopped out in the foyer. When they came into the sanctuary, they expected the prelude to bring them into the realm of the sacred, to allow them to focus and use the music for preparation and meditation. This experience raised some questions: Can the prelude allow us to be still in the midst of our busy lives and block out some of the noise of the week? Can it turn our attention to the important things in our lives, especially our relationship with God and each other? Does it allow us to prepare ourselves for worship?

Other congregations, like a gathering I played for recently, may use and experience instrumental music in a different way. Is the music just for setting the mood? Or is it just for background behind the conversation?

Personally, I think the music, whether congregational, choral, or instrumental, should always enhance worship in some way by reinforcing the message, theme, readings, or season. Most musicians try to make the music relevant to what is happening in the service or in the congregation. As Luther supposedly said, “Music is the handmaiden of theology.”

The prelude and postlude play a special role in enhancing worship and theology. In his article “Prelude, Offertory, Postlude,” Rev. Frank Hughes Jr. describes the prelude and postlude this way: “Like musical bookends, they bracket everything that happens in between and are theologically related to the central meaning of worship. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the prelude and postlude are worth a library.”[1]

In an article for Ministry published in 1939 but still relevant today, Stanley Ledington speaks of the prelude as “the beginning of the service, not something used to quiet a noisy congregation.…The prelude is not for entertainment or for the purpose of displaying technique, but to prepare for the consideration of sacred things.”[2] In “What We Do and Why We Do It,” Norman Bendroth discusses the other bookend, the postlude. “The postlude captures the grandeur of God’s majesty and of the day’s worship. Increasingly, many congregations remain seated during the postlude as a fitting time of reflection at the conclusion of worship and out of courtesy to the organist or musicians.[3] Rev. Frank Hughes Jr. states that “the music at the end of the service pulls together feelings and attitudes already expressed in word and song.”  In A Sunday Guide to Worship, the authors suggest that while the postlude is not a formal part of the service, “The congregation could be encouraged in the bulletin or by the choir to remain seated to listen.”[4]

When selecting instrumental music that will satisfy its purpose, I start with these questions, first posed by Stanley Ledington. “Is it good music? Is it suitable for the use to which it is to be put? Will it draw attention to me, or will it tend to induce the proper worshipful, reverent mood?”


Tammy-Jo Mortensen,
Music Director

[1] Frank Hughes, “Prelude, Offertory, Postlude.” Accessed May 27, 2018.
[2] Stanley Ledington, “The Music of the Church Service.” Ministry: International Journal for Pastors. Accessed May 29, 2018.
[3] Norman Bendroth, “What We Do and Why We Do It.” Accessed May 28, 2018.
[4] Alan Barthel, David R. Newman, Paul Scott Wilson, A Guide to Sunday Worship, The United Church Publishing House, 1988, 104.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Choosing Sunday Scripture readings

How do we choose which Scripture readings to do each week?
Robertson-Wesley United Church uses a schedule of Scripture readings called a lectionary.  There are a few types and in the last four years we have been using one called the Narrative Lectionary.
We have been using a newly developed scheduling of reading through the Bible, Sunday by Sunday, developed originally by Luther Seminary in Minneapolis. Next Autumn we will return to using the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) guide to which Scriptures to read each Sunday.

While traditions vary from denomination to denomination, most mainline Protestant churches and Roman Catholic churches follow the RCL. This is a scheduling of readings that takes 3 years of Sundays to complete.  It seeks to both unite the Christian Church worldwide (we focus on the same Scriptures as all the others following the lectionary) and to have each congregation cover as much of the Bible as possible.  It does so by choosing 4 readings for each Sunday, allowing the worship team at a given church to focus on one, two or perhaps the theme coming out of all four (some weeks they are related directly, other weeks not so much).  This allows for flexibility (four readings), unity (majority of churches follow it) and planning guidance because of its popularity.  However, it can thin out the readings as we read only a short portion of each in a given week and each of the four come from different parts of the Bible (Hebrew Scriptures, Psalms, Christian Scriptures and a reading from a Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John)).

In the Narrative Lectionary, one reading and one Psalm is chosen for each week and the reading is much longer.  It schedules the journey through the Bible into 4 years and also gives each liturgical season one part of the Bible to dive into (instead of seeking commonality over four parts of the Scriptures).  In the Fall we looked at one story or more from the Hebrew Scriptures.  Advent through Easter we explored one Gospel account in particular, and the Spring would see us turn to the letters and other writing in the Christian Scriptures.  The summer months would be suggested readings only allowing a worship team to pick readings according to thematic work they are doing.  While resources in hymnals and other books were fewer, and we were not always on the same topic as our neighbours, we did find it exciting to delve deeper and more substantially into each story week by week.  We are glad for the experience in the Narrative Lectionary for the last four years.
(for more information see Working Preacher website)

As of the August, 2018 we will be returning to a three-year cycle of the RCL excited to return to all the resources created throughout its long history in music, poetry and art.  You can follow along by looking into a Voices United hymn book (pages 998-1012) or via a website such as the Vanderbilt Library  However, we will not read four readings every Sunday morning since we have learned the power of deeper diving and hope that choosing one or two per Sunday from the choices provided will allow us to use the gifts of both lectionaries.

Are you wondering why the Worship committee does not just choose week by week.  Firstly, it takes a long time to organize a lectionary, to ensure balance of the Biblical stories and connections with the other aspects of worship (Christmas, Easter etc.).  Secondly, we would be tempted to regularly use our favorite stories and miss out on the variety of our Biblical Scriptures.  

Rev. Leigh Sinclair

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Death of Rituals

A disturbing trend has emerged in regards to death and how we deal with it -- or not deal with it as the case may be. Time and time again I find myself faced with a grieving family, who proceed to inform me that the deceased did not wish to have a service, (specifically told the family to NOT have a service when they die!). I have also encountered many people who have lost someone close to them, but for medical reasons they are not able to attend the memorial service, or perhaps cannot afford to attend if it is out of the city, or the roads are too bad.               
                                                                                     A picture of Memorial Gardens at R-W

In times of grief, people are often not prepared and feel lost in regards with what to do next. Some people reach out to religious communities, but most people now a days, turn to a funeral home or nothing at all. Funeral homes are much better at advertising then churches are.

I can't help but wonder people actually understand what a faith community can offer them in times of need? How do we, the leaders, in faith institutions address the myth that funeral service are simply to ensure that someone's soul gets to heaven? How do we get the message out that churches are open to working with families and can provide them with a structure to alleviate the stress and provide comfort and peace?

Memorial services and death rituals are for the people left behind, just as much if not more so then the people who have passed away. When we lose someone we need to find away to move through the grieving process, we need to find a way to address the hole that is left after a loved one dies. We need to find closure, to acknowledge that this person will not exist in the same way in our life anymore. But this still doesn't explain why more and more people have decided to not have a service.

So why are people choosing to have no service after they die?
Here is a list of reasons I have heard over the past 10 years in ministry:

  • It is too expensive, not worth the cost
  • No one will come, I've out lived everyone I know.
  • I don't want people crying over me or creating a fuss. 
  • I don't like to be the center of attention.
  • Funerals are always so depressing and dreary.
  • I want people to remember as I lived not as a dead person.
  • It seems like all we do these days is attend funerals, people should just have a party instead. 
  • I don't want the family to have to plan a whole service and is too much work for them, and will be too stressful for them.
  • I'm worried the family will fight.
  • My family is not religious, they wouldn't know what to do or ask for, or know what I would want. 
There are others of course, but these are the most common. 
So why do we need rituals? Why have a funeral?
David Chidester, the author of the book "Patterns of Transcendence; Religion, Death and Dying" writes, "Death rituals are rites of passages that symbolize a change from one state of existence to another, from life to death. In this regard, death rituals can be compared to other rites of passage - birth, adulthood, and marriage -- that symbolically mark a change from an old status to a new status in the life cycle....Death rituals bridge that transition period in which the person is not recognized as living, yet not fully incorporated into the world of the dead." p. 33-34.

To put it another way, people need rituals because people need to have a safe place to express their grief and sadness while sharing their loss with others - they need to have a place where they are giving permission to express their sadness, a place where someone one shows them how to express grief. A funeral, or memorial service give people a structure to follow and meaningful actions which will allow them to honour and remember the person who has died, to tell their stories, and to express how much this person meant to them. 

What I find interesting, is that as a North American culture we are much better at sharing in our grief when someone famous dies, or when there is a major tragedy in the world. People gather on the streets, place objects on the site of the tragedy or the place where the famous person was born. People light candles and hold vigils in times like these. When famous people die we create documentaries, or write books, or make a movie about their life. People want to know more about the person who died.  

People who aren't famous are just as interesting! And people who knew them and loved them still want to know more, still discover things about their friends and families that they didn't know. 

We see death on TV and in social media all the time, yet we ignore a crucial part of the transition and closure. After the person has died, we simply want to move on, we hide the messiness and awkwardness and sadness that comes with seeing and burying a dead body. What are we so afraid of? Some people have actually told me that they don't want to talk about their funeral plans because it might jinks them, it will give them bad luck. Some people avoid talking about death because they don't want their loved ones to give in. 

My question is this: Why do we make it so hard on our loved ones after we die? Why do we render them helpless in their time of need? I find it sad that people are left to their own devices to grieve. Some isolate themselves, not willing and not knowing how to express their sadness. People spend a lot of energy trying to hide their tears, trying to demonstrate that they are strong, and independent. Some of us hesitate to reach out to the grieving family because we don't want to bother them. Some of us who are grieving do not want to burden others with our sadness and depression. 

What I have learned is that sharing stories about the person we have lost and talking about them is essential. Witnessing the ritual of  burying the remains and gathering together to remember people makes the transition more real. Death rituals help us accept that the person will no longer be there with us, and the rituals help us to incorporate our loved ones and friends into a new reality, the spiritual realm. Rituals give intention to actions, and require that we face the truth. Rituals in community provide a way for people to reach out to one another and both give and receive support. 
Invite everyone to take some time to consider what your wishes are for when you die, and I hope you will all say YES to having a service -- look at it as the celebration of a life that has been lived! It is just as important as the day you were born and every year that your birth was celebrated!

Written by Rev. Karen Bridges

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Saying No to say Yes! Make room for what matters and support our best selves!

Spirited Saturdays is a series on Christian life needing boundaries.

We are exploring how to maintain healthy, clear boundaries through maturing, self care, acceptance of our limitations and God's grace!

 Here is the presentation from the first week: Saying No to say Yes!


Monday, June 12, 2017

Rev Karen goes on Sabbatical

August 1 – October 31, 2017
In The United Church of Canada ministers are eligible to go on a three-month Sabbatical after working in a congregation for 5 years. As this is my 7th year here at Robertson-Wesley, it is time to engage a spiritual practice of Sabbath. The term sabbatical actually is derived from the biblical word Sabbath which serves an ancient human need to build periods of rest and rejuvenation into a lifetime.  A sabbatical is simply getting an extended leave from work to pursue a break from one’s regular duties.
During the month of August, I will be spending my time reading, and doing some creative dramatic writing which I don’t usually have space or energy to do. I hope to have some dramatic pieces to share in worship when I’m back, and perhaps a play for the theatre (I have a play that is 1/3 done, it would be nice to finish it.)
In September I plan to unplug from the world. I will be heading to Botswana and South Africa to go on Safari. I will commune with nature, while living a very simple life. I’m looking forward to seeing the animals in their own habitat while looking up at the stars at night in all their abundance. I will take lots of pictures, and I will not have my phone with me… (I may have a mild addiction).
Upon returning in October I will spend my time exploring and applying for different grants that the church might be eligible for so that we can continue to grow and explore new ministries here at Robertson-Wesley.

A time of Sabbath is really an opportunity to make space for God to move in my life. In order to make space, I will need to let go of a few things that keep me busy, and instead I will also spend my time being present to the simple rituals of life, like a proper cup of tea, reading a book, playing the guitar and singing, a run in the river valley, a round of golf with my father, the preparation of food! (I never have time for this one.) It will be strange to not be around all of you, day in and day out, but know that I will look forward to returning to you all, spiritually full and ready to continue what God is calling us to do. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Answering the Call: For God and Country

Eighteen. Just finished high school. A time when a pretty young girl’s head is embroidered with visions of sugar plums, thoughts of an endless future, a lacy wedding dress, a fine young husband, and a wee house with a white picket fence. And later, the pitter patter of little feet and delicious gales of laughter in a home filled with joy, with pies on the windowsill and the aroma of fresh baked bread wafting about. Instead, all she had taken for granted was forfeited. Selflessly forfeited. And she boarded a train for the west coast, watching the apple orchards whizzing by to the rhythm of the metal wheels on the tracks. It was 1944. Food was rationed. Nothing was to be wasted. All must be sacrificed for the war effort. She’d already see many of the boys from school return home, injured, some of the wounds not visible to the naked eye. Where did she find the courage to say goodbye to all she had ever known? To fearlessly step into an uncharted future to fight to preserve the freedom that had always been a given in our nation? This small town girl was soon in the big city, with many young girls from all over Canada, undergoing the rigors of military training. No more leisurely afternoon teas at the old cafĂ© on Main Street. No trips to the swimming hole on a lazy hot summer afternoon with sandwiches and lemonade in a sack. No weekend dances at the church hall. She was now one of a troop of young women, marching in perfect cadence, their faces steely with resolve. She would never go back home to the idyllic Okanagan valley, her life leading her in a totally different direction. She made a difference. This shy and gentle Christian girl, found within herself the mettle to do what had to be done. She forged ahead and never looked back. She went on to accomplish many good. things in her life. Her faith in God and her values and ethics served her well all through life to this very day. She’s here every Sunday, just over there in the background. More than seventy years later, she is still that shy and gentle soul. When she greets you, the kindness and compassion emanate from within. She instinctively knows when you need some caring words, or a gentle hug. She has always known what needs doing. And today, she sits in a pew, quietly remembering. Anonymous

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Don't You Want to do Better?

“Don’t you want to do better”?

This was the phrase uttered by conductor, Dr. Jonathan Griffiths, while he was addressing the massed choir we participated in, preparing for our Carnegie Hall debut in New York City. At the time, it was applicable to getting a bunch of amateur choristers to do their absolute best, but it struck me that this is a question for all musicians, and indeed all volunteers and staff in the church to ask themselves on a regular basis. Don’t you want to do better?

I’ve had lots of conversations over the years with church folk. Some are perplexed why I still need to practice, that perhaps I should know how to just play anything. Some are surprised that I would go to conferences and learning events, because they have this strange idea that I might know it all already. Nope!

Many employees or volunteers in the church are life-long learners. For me, engaging in learning is really important, because I will never “know it all”. There is always something to learn from my colleagues, from reading, from listening to concerts and recordings, from going to workshops and masterclasses, from searching for new music, etc. Admittedly it shocks me when I find out that there are musicians out there who at some point stop “studying”. Don’t you want to do better? And, here’s the epitome for me, in a church setting - Don’t you want to give your best to God and to the people that you serve? As staff or volunteers, doesn’t God deserve 100% effort?

Last Sunday, I played really poorly. There were many reasons why, including much distraction by the pets there for blessing, lots of enthusiastic children, several wonderful new choristers, last minute requests, but those are just excuses for why I didn’t do my best. I was prepared, organized, had practiced, and yet, there were things that went astray. It felt like I didn’t give my best to God. Thank goodness this doesn’t happen very regularly! So, after the service, I thought, ok, get up, shake off the dust and strive to do better next week. After all, don’t I want to do better?

Tammy-Jo Mortensen,
Music Director