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 café 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

Monday, January 18, 2016

Music as a Meditative Practice

I went to the Taizé service that Robertson-Wesley hosted in November.
It was the first Taizé service that I had been to in a long time. And after the first chant, all the memories of why I love this style of service came flooding back to me. I used to attend Taizé services quite often, when I was in the midst of my undergrad degree. In those days, walking in to the quietness of the space, I brought in all the stresses and burdens of balancing school, jobs, and family. At the end of the hour-long contemplative service, I would walk out renewed, feeling a bit like a puddle – completely relaxed and lightened to start a new week with fresh eyes and a refreshed soul. 

What is it about a Taizé service that would achieve this rejuvenation in one short hour? Is it the dimness? The calm and quiet? The music? The heartfelt prayers contributed by anyone who wishes to pray aloud? The reading(s) in various languages? Perhaps it is all those things in combination? Of course, for a musician, the music plays a big part in any service. The simplicity of the Taizé chants, with repetition, often with a mélange of languages and harmonies is soothing for many. You can easily fit into the harmony, close your eyes and just sink into the text and the music in a different way than you can with a multi-verse, more complex hymn. I love complex music too, but this renewed experience of attending a Taizé service made me think again about the experience of music in worship. It got me thinking about other music for services which is simple but not simplistic.

Immediately a few centres that have created this style of music leapt to mind. Consider the short pieces of the Iona Community, many of which we have used at Robertson-Wesley in Sunday morning services. These minatures can act in the same manner that the Taizé chants do. They are short and carry a single message, can be used liturgically at specific points in the service, and can be easily linked to a theme, readings or sermon.

Thanks to Rev. Stephen Johann, a United Church minister here in Edmonton, I was recently introduced to the music of St. Lydia’s. This church was begun in 2008, and now meets in a storefront in Brooklyn, NY. It is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and supported by the Episcopal Church. Some of the criteria for the music used in their services is that it is simple and can be taught easily, learned by ear, and can bear repetition. They also want to make sure that the music is communal, that it represents their theological language, and doesn’t require accompaniment to “work”. They have a song-book, and music is taught by a song-leader, but the congregation goes “paperless” to spend time sinking into the music and communicating with one another.

Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is located in San Francisco, CA. While it follows some of the same parameters of the above worshipping communities, and most of the music is done without accompaniment of any sort, a variety of musical styles is intentionally chosen with a range of eras and styles in every service. They have a number of composers within their congregation that contribute to the repertoire of music used at St. Gregory’s. This is perhaps closer to our style at Robertson-Wesley. Any music, regardless of era or style is considered for use, as long as it fits with the theme, scripture, season or message of the service.

The conclusion that I came to in looking at all these centres for worship, is that there are many common threads in how they speak about music for worship. They all use melodies and texts from various parts of the world, and sing often in languages other than English. While some of these communities use longer hymns that carry more than one image, they all use shorter chants and repetitive pieces. They are all thinking deeply about language and theology, and how to involve people in communal music-making. Amen!

The next Taizé service at Robertson-Wesley will be Sunday, October 16, 2016 from 7-8 pm in conjunction with the Koinonia group.

For more information on each centre of worship:
Taizé -
Iona -
St. Lydia’s -
Gregory of Nyssa -

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Creating Together

Recently, this quote really caught my eye (and brain):
"If you would like to establish a connection with people from another culture, it's always good to offer a few gifts as a gesture of friendship. But, an even better way to forge a lasting bond is by creating something together. Whether it's a meal, an art project, or just a spontaneous dance party, when you create with others, you build a connection that lasts a lifetime."
- From "The Social Synapse"
by Nora Epinephrine & Sarah Tonin
Upon looking up this quote – the two "authors" are fictitious, as is the “book” it’s quoted from - but the quote is still certainly worthy of thought. The quote is an item that the "Blue Man Group" puts up on the screen before every performance.
It got me thinking – how does this quote have meaning for the church?  How does it relate to being an intercultural church?  How do we offer a few gifts of friendship? 
Creating together IS giving a gift - a gesture of friendship.  By committing to creating something together with others, it is giving the gift of oneself.  It is about becoming vulnerable and opening yourself to others. It's also giving a gift to anyone who receives the creation.
Isn’t creating together what we do in worship, in worship arts, in our rehearsals and committees and pods? Even the 100-year-old space which we use to continue to create in has been a team effort – architects, engineers, tradespeople, interior designers, stained glass artists, all coming together to create something of beauty – something that feeds our souls, a place that creates ties that bind us to one another. 
How many of you have been to a camp or a retreat?  Growing up I went to several music camps.  The act of being together with participants from other geographic areas, creating together, and living a shared experience very quickly created relationships that have lasted a lifetime. 
There are several United churches including Robertson-Wesley who have been exploring the connections between the arts and spirituality and how becoming a safe place and creating something together develops strong bonds and deep connections.  Creating together can break down cultural, gender, age, and class barriers.  Using artistic media allows people to explore the deep questions, the longing of their souls, gratitude for this life and their hope for the future. 

The religious philosopher Martin Buber sums up the act of creating:
“We can only understand the true image of God when we live in community with others.  In order to create a true image, God created us in community.  In our very creation, God provides us with the potential for sharing, for reaching out to others, and for creating together with others.  We are most like our Creator, not when we create alone, but when we join others in the act of creation.  God says, “Let us...,” as if to say that in the course of creating together, shaping together, and building together we are acting in the image of God.”[i]

[i] Seymour Rossel,  Bible Dreams: The Spiritual Quest.  New York: S.P.I Books, 2003, p. 37.

Tammy-Jo Mortensen, M. Mus.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Searching for God

I have be looking for God for a long time.
I think he/she has always been there,
 right in front of me but I didn't see.
 So many miracles that it became easy for me
 to overlook the obvious.

 How God works in my life I am uncertain of,
 but I believe he/she does.
 I have had suffering, but who hasn't.
 I got through it all.
 I look back now and see that it wasn't on my own.

 People, love and pain have all been put in my life for a reason.
 Suffering doesn't mean I have been forgotten
 it means I am out of sorts with what God wants for me.
     I still suffer a lot.
     I still cause suffering.
 But I am certain that I have not been thrown out or left behind.

After years of moving around and living different lives
I found myself living across the street from Robertson Wesley Church. 
It was as as if I was being told.
I don't know where my faith is at from day to day,
but I do believe I probably live next door to it.
As long as I am looking for it and not past it.

                                                    Written by a Robertson-Wesley United Church Member

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sound and silence

In my role as the Music Editor of Gathering Magazine, a national United Church worship resource, I write an article for every quarterly edition on a topic pertinent to that edition. The most recent edition I was working on was about words and silence, and that led me to some musings on musical sound and silence.

It seems in society today there is always noise, and then we make more noise to compensate for and cover over the existing noise. Some examples could be: talking during the previews at the movies, or visiting at social events while there is background music, or playing music really loudly in your car to muffle the sounds of traffic. With instant communications these days, people don’t think twice about answering their cell phones in public places and carrying on one-sided conversations, or not being present to the moment, but being distracted by technology.

So, how does the issue of sound and silence apply to church services? For many people, coming to church is a social event. They see people they often haven’t seen in six days or more, therefore there is some catching up to do, there are always pastoral concerns to be addressed, and business discussions. But, when are these things most appropriate? In the foyer before the service? In the sanctuary during the prelude? During the sharing of the peace? After church at fellowship time? Where should there be sound and where should there be silence? 

For many musicians, talking during instrumental music can be a real pet peeve. Although it often bothers the musician, it may also be distracting to those who are trying to listen to the music. Talking during music seems to happen in various denominations in many parts of the world perhaps because there are many places where it is permitted or even encouraged to talk over the music. However, there are many places that talking is not encouraged, yet sometimes audience members seem oblivious to the cultural rules. What about at a symphony concert? Or a choral concert? An organ concert? Or a musical? Once, a friend told me about buying expensive tickets to a musical she really loved, only to have the experience totally ruined by two people “catching up” on personal news during the entire performance as if they were at a coffee shop. In a massed-choir concert, I also witnessed two participating choristers who had been attentive to the conductor and to the Master of Ceremonies, decided to talk through an engaging organ solo played by one of the best organists in Canada. Why does this happen?

What about those musicians who work very hard at the instrumental music for worship services? Is the offering of their gifts an essential part of worship? Anything we offer to God should an offering of our best. What can we do to encourage church attendees to recognize this offering of musicians who are following their call to musical leadership? One non-United Church congregation I played for in Montreal moved me to a whole new level of expectation of what instrumental music could be during a service. They were an ethnic-based congregation and were wonderfully outgoing people until they reached the door of the sanctuary. Then, it was time for quiet while preparing themselves for worship, taking some moments for prayer, and they let the music help them in their preparation and inspiration. That congregation also expected me to write a half-page of music notes about the hymns, instrumental music or choral/solo pieces of the day. They were really attentive and really desired to honour the gifts of their musicians. Up to that point, I had never worked so hard at all the practical parts of a church position! I am so pleased that I’ve been encouraged to continue the tradition of writing music notes here at Robertson-Wesley. The notes are meant to assist with worship, education, and help people understand how the music fits into the liturgy. I write about the composers, background information about hymn texts, explain terminology, thank additional musicians, and write about anything else that might be pertinent to the music. I hope people who read it are able to better appreciate the selections of music that day, and I certainly know I learn much in writing the notes every week!

At Robertson-Wesley, I am really fortunate that many people feel the music and the liturgy go hand in hand to create meaningful worship experiences. Does that impact how we think about sound and silence here? 

Tammy-Jo Mortensen, M. Mus.