Monday, November 25, 2013

Choosing hymns? How?

After a service many people often share with me that they appreciated the music in the service.  I try to have a conversation about them about what music impacted them and why.  Is it familiar, some of their favourites, the style, the context, the content?   Many also ask who chooses the hymns for the service.   In many churches it is just one person who chooses the hymns, or maybe the clergy and musician work together on this task or sometimes it is a worship committee that steers the process.  For whoever does the choosing, how does it happen?  What tools and resources do they use?

I have the privilege of employment here at Robertson-Wesley, a fairly large downtown United Church in Edmonton.  I am so fortunate in so many ways including having good instruments, great musicians, and a supportive team to work with. 

For the services that take place here, we meet as a team to choose hymns.  The team currently consists of the two ministers and me as the musician.  Occasionally with a specially-themed service, a few other people join in on the process of planning the service and choosing hymns.
Although I have never calculated the percentages, my guess is that we have a fairly broad use of both Voices United and More Voices, and also incorporate new hymns that we have learned at other gatherings and conferences.  We also use some of the past United Church publications, such as Songs for a Gospel People and All God’s Children Sing.  How do we use all these resources and incorporate them into a unified service?

For all of us, the process begins with the readings and the themes we discern out of those readings.  Several times a year the three of us sit down and do some long-range planning.  We look at some of the upcoming seasons, special days, lectionary, and if we want to depart from the lectionary for certain reasons or seasons.  Then we each start brainstorming, either together as a team or individually. And so, the search begins and  I read the readings again for hints at anthems, instrumental music, and hymns. 

For me, the style of the music does not matter, as long as whatever that is chosen can be done well, will feel as authentic as possible, and fits with the readings or the theme of the message delivered. 

Where to start?  After I’ve considered the readings, most often I start with what pops into my brain because of its connection to the readings.  However, that can become a trap, because what often arrives in my thoughts are the tried, tested and true pieces that can get overused if we rely solely on this manner of choosing music.  However, I jot those down, as sometimes the first ideas are the best in the long run!  Then, I start looking through the scriptural and theme indexes in the back of Voices United and More Voices.  Did you know you can search in many data fields for material in those two hymnbooks on-line?  The entire Voices United hymnal is searchable at  This includes indexes for certain topics, authors, scriptural references and many other categories.  Colleague Paul Stott also made a concordance for Voices United.  You can complete similar searches for More Voices hymns at

Pretty soon, my list starts to grow.  I don’t discredit anything at the beginning.  Then I might go to a few other sources, including my favourite hymn writers’ collections, other hymnbooks and on-line resources, and Gathering magazine, a grass-roots worship resource of the United Church

Then I take a closer look through my “long-list” and try to create a “short-er list”!  This is where I start to examine the marriage of text and tune.  Do we know the tune?  If not, should we learn it?  How much new music have we learned lately?  If it seems like this is a really good text to use, I can also look at the metre index, which are the numbers at the bottom of the page (below the tune name), and then look at the back of the hymn book for those exact numbers to see if there is a direct metrical match to a more familiar tune.  At this point, I also take a look as to how long ago we used this hymn. I keep a record of each hymn we use and when it is used.  Is it new and bears repeating, or is it familiar and used often?  Is there a better choice?

When we get together as a team for worship planning, each of us has done some “homework” with regard to congregational music in the service.  This is the time when we share more with one another about the theme of the service, and what direction the sermon is taking.  Then we each start to make suggestions about what hymns to incorporate into the service and where they might fit the best.

Certain liturgical seasons lend themselves to creating a really cohesive thematic context for that season.  Advent and Lent particularly, due to their number of weeks and the vivid themes are times when we spend a lot of time trying to make strong connections between word and music.  The word Advent means “coming”.  We are watching, waiting, preparing, and longing for the coming of the Messiah.  This is why we try to avoid Christmas music during the season of Advent.  It’s true, Advent music feels less familiar, but it speaks to the themes of longing and waiting that Christmas music doesn’t express at all.

The process of choosing hymns can be challenging work and there are many ways to complete this process.  It also takes quite a bit of time, but in our experience people seem to think the connections we make in worship are worth the effort.  We often get feedback like “Everything fit together so well this morning!”  “Or, I love how the music commented on the sermon (or vice-versa).”  I often reply with a wink and a gracious smile, “Perhaps it was a Holy accident or some divine inspiration?”

Tammy-Jo Mortensen, M. Mus.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Yes, Lets..." a Yale Student's reflection on the RW Spiritual Arts Collective Project

Yes, Lets…
The Spiritual Arts Collective Project of Robertson-Wesley United Church, Edmonton, Alberta.
Reverend Karen Bridges put down her blue pen and picked up a red one.  Presently, she put down the red pen in favor of a black one.  And then, back to red.  When she noticed my raised eyebrows, she smiled and slid her sketchbook over the table to give me a closer look.

“Red is for important themes.”  She whispered.

The page was a pastiche of color—her notes meandering and clustering capriciously over its expanse. 

“Plenty of red,” she said, sotto voce.

We were in the midst of the first plenary on the first day of the ISM Congregations Project, and though our feet were barely wet, it was already abundantly clear (or should I say “red”) that Karen, was getting a lot out of it. 

And the casual way that Karen took the pedestrian act of taking notes and gave it panache… well, it was more then charming—it was a welcome confirmation of my best hope.  I’d read the profile for the Robertson-Wesley United Church (henceforth “RWUC”) and was impressed by the barely contained dynamism I found there.  This church, I thought, was poised to try new and exciting things.

RWUC’s website identifies Reverend Karen Bridges as their “Minister of Congregation and Community Development” a title smacks a bit too corporate until it dawns on you that Karen herself is that “and” in human form – the one that connects congregation and community.  With a double-major bachelor’s in theater and religion, over a decade of youth ministry work, a Master of Theological Studies from St. Stephen's College and a denominational diploma from Vancouver School of Theology to her credit, Reverend Bridges’ has perfected the art of transforming potential energy into kinetic energy, idea into action, notion into movement, theology into praxis. 

Add Tammy-Jo Mortensen, RWUC’s music director and Casey Edmunds, an accomplished dancer/choreographer and singer, to the mix, and performance spontaneously generates.  To introduce themselves and their church, a slide show by itself just wouldn’t cut it.  Pictures of the RWUC community appeared in counterpoint with the verses of an anthem that sang an ethic of radical inclusivity. The positive present tense-ness of RWUC’s spirit came through Tammy-Jo’s legato meditations from the piano and Casey’s encircling, gestural dance.  The cycle even included an impromptu painting that was revealed at its conclusion.

It was a risky move – it might easily have bombed.  But no—it was impressive.  Hitting the sweet spot between “too many cooks in the kitchen” and “many hands make light work” RWUC’s introduction was the product of a functioning collective of artistic minds.  Artistic minds brought together by the spirit.

And the point was manifestly evident to all present: RWUC’s introduction-cum-performance was, itself, an elegant rendering—an enactment in living modes—of the project that Karen, Tammy-Jo and Casey had come all the way from Alberta to perfect.

Spiritual Arts Collective
The Spiritual Arts Collective Project springs organically from the Matthian promise sown into RWUC’s mission statement – that "where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them," (Matt 18:20).  The project’s central premise is that collaborative creativity (where two or three are gathered) is a process that, by its very nature, summons the spirit (I am there).  The art that results gives new meaning to both church and community.

But creativity, that evanescent and unpredictable sprite, cannot be taken for granted – it must be wooed.  To this end, Karen, Tammy-Jo and Casey have been brainstorming the logistics of fruition. Fortunately, each of them has experience being an artist in a collective project, and each also has relevant administrative experience.  They’ve walked the walk so they’re prepared to talk the talk.

The fulcrum around which RWUC’s Spiritual Arts Collective Project will turn is none other than our gifted friend Casey Edmunds, who is its grant-funded program curator.  Casey will, in consultation with his colleagues Karen and Tammy-Jo, publicize and promote the project during church events, in this way assembling the curious.  He will then recruit four artists-in-residence (poets? painters? dancers? musicians? videographers?) who’s flint will ignite the gathered tinder. A premium will be placed on artistic freedom—guidance being limited to the prescription of an overarching theme.  The resulting alchemy will have 2 months to mature and form into a collaborative work of art that, upon completion, will be presented to the larger community (including but not limited to the congregation). The cycle will then repeat, making use of lessons learned.

It’s a risky move.  To be sure, there is no lack of precedent for the collaborative efforts of artists and ecclesial bodies – but unlike the sculptors and glaziers of Medieval Europe who were firmly under the thumb of their pious taskmasters, 21st century artists who have Dadaism and the avant-garde at their beck, may not be so obliging.  A collective that sets sail with little more then a theme to fill its sails and an artist at its helm, may soon find itself in uncharted waters.  The results may be threatening or subversive.  How does RWUC’s ethos square with this possibility?

When I asked Karen this question, she matter-of-factly placed her trust in the wisdom of the collective and the presence of the spirit. To hobble artistic freedom would be tantamount to clipping the wings of the spirit.  The whole idea at the heart of the Spiritual Arts Collective is that art, in its present tense, creates as God created.  Besides, are we so sure that the artist is the only threat? Who knows, maybe it is through the incendiary matrix of art and gospel that we can be recalled to the destabilizing strain within the truths that Jesus taught us.

Effective art is threatening because it is about transformation.  A similar assertion can certainly be made about the church – though in church, the threat is decidedly inflected by a community’s awareness of the love of God.  The beauty of RWUC’s Spiritual Arts Collective Project is that it yokes the artist’s personal transformative power, giving it expression within the context of a community’s corporate commitment to a God of Love, a God of Justice, a God of radical inclusion. 

It is not hard to hear the palpable excitement in Casey’s voice when the mercurial possibilities of the Spiritual Arts Collective Project brim forth. What does art look like when its spiritual and its artistic integrity remain intact?  What strange and wonderful creature is born when its DNA is woven with neither fellowship hall piety nor wine-and-cheese posturing? How will the use of sacred space alter the crucible of the creative mind?  How, in turn, will the personal imperatives of the artist’s inclinations radiate outward through the collective to influence a church community’s vision of itself?  These unknowns are at the heart of the Spiritual Arts Collective Project.  These questions are its lifeblood—questions that the RWUC team asks, no matter the answer.  It is by taking such risks that we show our commitment, as Dr. David Bartlett put it during RWUC’s plenary session, to “help people discover their souls.”

A Jubilee of Cross-pollination
It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. When the representatives of nine churches from many denominations converge from all over the United States and Canada and dive into a dialogue jump started by top-notch theologians…well, marvelous things happen.  The ISM Congregations Project is an example par excellence of a phenomenon whose product is far greater then the sum of its parts.  And since those parts are all so excellent, that’s saying a lot.

It was within this habitat of collegiality that it gradually became apparent that certain congregations could, by virtue of their particularity, be depended upon to give voice to certain theological or practical inclinations.  The chaplains from St. Olaf College, for example, brought to the table the variable of physical space, as they brainstormed ways to engage students, while the team from St. Paul’s Episcopal in Richmond, Virginia struggled with the contrasting narratives of its slave market history, and its social justice present. 

RWUC’s contribution to the jubilee of ecclesial cross-pollination was its strong bent toward movement.  Many of the week’s worship services, for example, shamelessly availed themselves of the rich addition of Casey’s fine liturgical dance.  In plenary discussions too, Karen, Tammy-Jo and Casey frequently weighed in with suggestions that privileged the kinetic, the physical, the in-the-moment quality of liturgy as embodied theology.

During the plenary discussion brainstorming the project brought by the First United Church of Christ of Northfield Minnesota, for example, Karen recommended an activity that she’d picked up in her days doing improv that she has since used to good effect in church settings.  The activity, which she called “Yes, lets…” involved a circle of participants who would take turns suggesting a simple physical movement with the word: “Let’s…”  For example: “Let’s pray with our hands.”  In unison, the rest of the circle responds with “Yes, lets...” and performs the action.

This simple activity, with its two-word title says a great deal about the Christian world-view. Like church itself, it depends fundamentally on community – on a coming together: “Let’s.”  And like church, it situates transformation within a community that affirms: “Yes.” 

RWUC embeds itself in the life of the larger Edmonton community by actively collaborating in the development of its cultural riches.  With its Spiritual Arts Collective Project the church reaches out with courage and integrity, asking the artist community to come out and play.  I think I know how the artist community of Edmonton will respond to the invitation.

“Yes, lets…”

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Karen's experience at Yale

The Spiritual Arts Collective
The experience at the ISM Congregational Projects Seminar has left a deep imprint on our Spiritual Arts Collective project, on our ministry here at RWUC and on my life. I remember the first day we gathered and Martin Jean, the director of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale, said "We are so glad you chose to participate in this gathering." I remember thinking are you kidding me? I'm so grateful you chose our project and that you have invested in our team and our congregation.

The people who participated in the Seminar consisted of 9 church teams (a minister, a musician, and a lay person) from across America and this year Canada; some of the great minds of the theological world, the music world, and the liturgy world; the faculty and staff at ISM; some of the students; and some past participants. What I realized on our last day together is that the Congregational Projects Seminar is in itself a spiritual collective.
A collective is a process that allows a group of individuals to tell their stories using all forms of expression and gifts brought with them to the collective process based on a particular theme or question. This year the gathered group of participants engaged the theme, "Hark the Glad Sound: Inviting New and Returning Christians to Worship" leading us to explore the challenge of engaging people who do not attend church -- people who live beyond the walls of the church. We were asked to consider, by Dorothy Bass, how we engage the following practices: hospitality to strangers, testimony or witness, and ritual engagement and how these practices will propel us forward in our mission lived out in our various congregational projects.

We began the collective process by telling our stories through music, storytelling, imagery, dance, and art or to put this in spiritual terms we engaged the practice of testimony or witness. As we listened to how the spirit of God is moving amongst us through ministry and mission we began to sketch a metaphorical picture, a connect the dots picture, where each story was a dot which would eventually create a full picture once connected. What stands out for me in this time of witness was how the various stories touched and connected with people within the large group. Commonalities began to emerge as we basked in the rich diversity of experience and artistic gifts amongst the participants in the seminar.

I personally had a moving moment after we share the story of Robertson-Wesley United Church. Another participant felt compelled to share with me how much our presentation moved them, and how they felt a connection with our ministry in reaching out to people with different abilities. A sense of trust and mutuality was forming in the group. The practice of hospitality was hard at work as we ate together and continued our conversations. It was such a delight to be in a place where we heard stories of new growth and possibility in ministry. Not once did I hear the words "the church is dying...what can we do?" We were being told the Good News of Jesus Christ at work in the world.
Within the stories we heard, we began to collect the gathered wisdom of the group, we began to share the gifts that God had given each one of us, some as storytellers, some as pastoral presence, some in their ability to engage others in movement and music. As we sang together our voices mingled, the spirit stirred and the breath of God was felt. I heard stories about students in Universities who are seeking and engaging a life of faith, I heard about congregations who are living out of a great richness of tradition and legacy, but who aren't feeling trapped or held back from transforming. I heard about places and spaces where God was at work in all people, all ages and all cultures, where together the faithful followers of Christ are seeking out ways to engage each other and the world with authenticity and openness.
What gathered us and grounded us each day of the seminar was God expressed and experienced in worship. Each day we entered a practice of discernment as each congregation shared their project and then invited the group to share their questions, their ideas, their wisdom and their reflections. We weren't afraid to ask the hard questions. We were challenged by the group to remember the people we serve and the people we long to connect with. Each time we left one of the presentations about a congregational project I felt my spirit soaring. God had filled my cup and it was overflowing.

Each project that was presented challenged our team to think about how we could be deepening our own practices in the Congregation. For example, how can we use the space in our narthex more effectively, how are we meeting the needs of people who walk through our doors when they speak a different language, how can we be connecting with our government and other social agencies to meet the needs of the oppressed? How can we infuse our worship so that people have an experience of God that brings them hope, that leads towards healing and reconciliation, that causes them to express and engage their faith stories. As we worshipped together I witnessed the spirit moving people to be moulded into reflections of the scriptures, I witnessed people being moved by the beauty of dance, the harmonies of voices.
One morning as we walked the labyrinth together and I witnessed people walking together, following each other's footsteps, moments were we stood together in solidarity, times when we were moving in different directions but with the knowledge that our paths would cross again, times when we touched and connected physically, all the while being held in prayer. In the silence God's voice proclaimed, "You are loved, and you are a blessing, I am calling you to use your God given gifts to reach out to others."

The collective wisdom of the group was stirring, was creating, and was moving us all to dance with freedom and compassion in the kindom of God. As we lifted each other and all whom we serve in prayer, and as ThomasTroeger lifted up the wisdom of the group in our final penary time, we were affirmed, we were empowered, and we were commissioned to go out into the world and proclaim the Good News!

In the words of Thomas Troger, our spiritual collective created a tapestry of deep understanding and appreciation of "what the living Christ displays" for we know "we are fashioned by God's hand for a life that sings God's praise". We have been called we have been chosen and we leave knowing that we are not alone. Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Spiritual Collective: The Yale Project

Robertson-Wesley is 1 of 7 churches from across North America that was chosen to attend the Yale Institute of Sacred Music Congregation Projects Summer Seminar in June 2013. Rev. Karen Bridges, Tammy-Jo Mortensen and Casey Edmunds will be heading to Yale where we will work together with the other chosen congregations and with faculty from ISM and guest faculty on the Yale campus for a week developing our proposed project. All the congregational projects are related to the theme "Hark, the Glad Sound: Inviting New and Returning Christians to Worship".
In The United Church of Canada one of our statements of faith says, "We believe in God who has created and is creating, who works in us and others by the Spirit." The collective process builds deep relationships and will be an accessible way for people to express themselves and see God's spirit at work. The collective is a process that allows a group of individuals to tell their stories using all forms of expression and gifts brought to the collective while exploring a specific issue, theme or question. The individuals who make up the collective utilize any resources available to them (such as facilitators, spaces available to them and anything else that might speak to the topic at hand). This process allows the participants to bring their whole selves: not just their minds, bodies, and creativity, but also their spirits. Through this collective process people become part of this ongoing creation and the work of the spirit. As a resource team, we want to provide an empowering safe place for participants to share their spiritual journey through storytelling,art, drama, dance, music, writing, com
munity initiatives or political commentaries. We will have 4 spiritual collective gatherings over a period of one year starting in September.

In addition to these spiritual collective gathering
every two months we will establish an
Artist-in-Residence program for four budding
artists from a variety of disciplines (i.e. a videographer, a painter, a dancer, a writer, a musician, a sculptor, etc.) who would commit to working with us for a minimum of 4 months, but preferably 8 months. Artists would be sought from Grant MacEwan College who have graduated or who are in their final year of studies. Our hope is that the artists will also help the congregations of Robertson-Wesley and our neighbouring church Christ Church in reflecting back to the people a sense of their identity and purpose through art. There would be opportunities for the artists to showcase their creations, to provide a series of 4 workshops for the community and the congregations and in return the artist would have space(free of charge) to create in, and a wide network of people to connect with while establishing their career.

The arts, and specifically music have always been a vital part of our congregation and the community in which we live. Mission and outreach has also been a vital part of our life at Robertson-Wesley. We see this project as an opportunity to bridge these two passions which will attract and engage people in the community in a new way. Casey Edmunds has been hired as the Program Curator, with Karen and Tammy-Jo providing musical and spiritual support and resources. It is time to create beauty amongst the people that will match the beauty of this building and the ministry and mission that it provides.