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.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Go Big or Go Home


Luke 9: 1-3
"Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, 'Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, not even an extra tunic."'

 To go and follow Jesus is a risky business and there are no guarantees. But when we truly go for it...when we trust in God and follow Jesus with nothing except ourselves...doors open, things happen, people gather and healing begins. As we begin to wind down from this whirlwind of a year with the Spiritual Arts Collective we hear God calling and saying - keep going but go bigger! Bigger??? Really? AND so we the design team find ourselves debating, struggling, and seeking how we will move forward, what is God calling us to do next? As we have listened and discerned throughout this past year, paying close attention to where there is energy and passion emerging. We have been watching for where is the Spirit at work, and we know without a doubt that this project is not done yet.

It seems that we have been called to enter a second phase in this project with a vision of a third phase in sight. We have witnessed lives being transformed and relationships have been forged and healing has transpired when we invited strangers to engage spirituality and the arts with us and the artists-in-residence. As each group played together by singing, dancing, writing, painting, sculpting and eating we moved together, we breathed together, we touched each other, and our hearts, minds and souls were engaged. The participants embodied the Spirit and it worked in us and others in ways we would never have guessed.

Now it’s time to give the congregation an opportunity to engage their faith through the Arts and see our worship transformed. In phase 2 we will add Liturgical Arts Collectives to what we've already established. We will invite people to gather around a liturgical season and create something for our worship service during that season. Perhaps they will create a ritual that we will use for the 4 weeks of Advent or maybe they will create a play, a dramatic sermon for Epiphany or a dance for the season of Pentecost.

The arts can deepen our understanding of the scriptures. These collectives will help people to discover more about the parts of worship and why we do what we do. Most importantly, they will explore the faith story, embody it and proclaim it to the gathered people at worship. We will invite a liturgical artist to join us for the year and provide leadership to these Liturgical Arts Collectives.

The vision for phase three is even bigger. We find ourselves envisioning a Western Canada Conference with a theme of Embodied Worship, Expressive Faith Communities, and the Arts. We want to help others explore the myriad of ways that the arts can be used in all expressions of the Spirit at work in us and others. We want to tell our stories of faith in ways that touch people’s hearts, which moves them to respond and live out their faith in their daily lives and in their neighbourhoods.

By thinking big we have discovered that several other aspects within the church that were stalled have now opened up. By dreaming big we have diminished the usual road blocks or walls that prevent us from moving forward. When you move into the chaos of the creative process you have a choice...a leap of faith if you will… where either you jump in with everything or you don't. When we proceed with caution and baby steps we tend to maintain the status quo. When we risk it all we either learn from our failure or we create something that inspires and brings people together. We remember how many people commented that what we were proposing for this year was big, and because we took this leap of faith we have had more invitations for partnerships in the past year and each one seems to be leading us to more embodied engagement in our neighbourhood and the city. Things have shifted for us as a church. Our presence is not only noticed, but it is now being valued and we are a vital part of the neighbourhood in which we minister. Because we went big, we got noticed and we found our voice. Engaging the arts have helped us find a path upon which we are able to articulate who we are and what we value. What we have taken on this journey is our faith - Jesus asks only that we take our whole selves.

Written by Rev. Karen Bridges

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Product is in the Process

It happened again! I fell victim to believing that success is found and measured in the product. As we come to the end of our second Spiritual Collective I found myself feeling pressure about quantitative tangible results which really belong to the business world not the faith community.

The collective had come to the decision that they would have a coffee house style presentation where they would share their stories of awakening. Many were very excited by this idea. We picked the venue we set the date and began our preparations, and then it felt like it all came crashing down. One by one people sent messages indicating that they would not be able to participate in the coffee house due to work or other personal commitments.

 As a leadership team we were disappointed, and a bit dumbfounded. What had happened? Were we unclear about our expectations? Was it the time of year? Was it the result of a long cold winter? Was it just the dynamics of the group or was it the theme? The theme the group explored was “Is it enough? A journey of awakening.” There is no question that people had experienced a moment of awakening through our two months together. People left our first day long gathering energized and feeling as through they had really connected with some new people. We danced together, we sang together and we created. One of my favourite moments was when each person pretended they were an egg cracking open, and once they broke out of their shell they shared a word that described that moment for them. We also wrote one line stories as a collective group using these words. The group met again and wanted to share the things we had done in our first gathering with others, along with some of their own work, which was where the coffee house idea emerged from.

Then, several weeks later our project team sat in my office wondering what to do. We debriefed, we evaluated and suddenly these three words rang through my ears – “is it enough?” Do we need to push the group to complete what they had started? Are we doing enough to bring our vision of this project to fruition? That was our moment of awakening as a leadership team. In that moment God reminded us of the fact that our project is a collective process not a collective project.

When we create together there is no guarantee that what we create is going to become a presentable piece. Many times in the creative process you have to walk away from it, sometimes for a few moments, and sometimes we never come back to it. Creation is a work in progress there are moments when we feel connected to the piece and moments when we do not. There are moments of joy in the process and moments of frustration. Creation like faith is a journey. In our exploration of the theme of awakening the collective identified several key moments that can happen on the journey of awakening. When we reach that aha moment, that moment of awakening we can do one of three things:
• hold onto the moment and simply bask in it
• we can run away from what they have discovered or pretend that it didn’t happen
• or we can be transformed by the moment

 Our experience of this second collective reminds me of the parable of the sower from Matthew 13:1-9 where the sower sowed some seeds. Some fell along the path and the birds came and ate them, some fell on rocky ground where there wasn’t much soil and as they grew the sun scorched them. Some fell among thorns and the thorns choked them out as they grew. And some fell on good soil and produced grain. We realized that we as a leadership team needed to let go of our expectations that there would be a tangible product created by the collective, that we like the sower needed to let the seeds go and fall where they may. As faithful followers of Jesus, we are called to engage one another to be in relationship and to walk with one another on the journey of faith. We need to trust that what we offer is enough.

We met our original intensions: people gathered, they explored a theme together while engaging the arts. They created, they shared, they connected and it was enough!

 As a side note…since writing the first draft of this blog the group gathered again for closure and it turns out that they all had gone off and created something on their own which will now be shared in one of our worship services. God’s Spirit moves and the seeds grow in ways we can never predict.

Written by Rev. Karen Bridges

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Light Bulb Moment

I am not an UBER religious person.  I believe in God, and try to live by his principles.  I joined the United Church at 16, sang in the choir, married in the church, had my children baptized - all the normal average things.   But then I went many years without even attending.  Seemed like all my energies went into my work week, and I never took the time to think about God per se.
Now that I'm retired, and the 'BOSS OF MY OWN LIFE', I am slowly re-discovering my faith.  I renewed my membership in the church last November, and it's been a great experience to learn more and more about my faith.
I have had the privilege for some 15 months now of being the volunteer transcriber of the weekly sermons.  It gives me such a good feeling to know that many people who are not able to attend weekly services, (shut-ins due to illness, disabilities, etc.) are able to receive a 'hard copy' of the sermons.  It also really helps 'cement' the message in my old noggin to type them out and really think about the content.  We are blessed to have two Ministers at Robertson-Wesley, both of them are great speakers, and their sermons are chockfull of good messages, good guidance for your life in weekly doses! 
Like I said, I am not UBER religious, but I am learning that I too can make a contribution to this Earth, however humble. 
Recently, when the Moderator of the United Church of Canada, the Right Reverend Gary Paterson, visited Edmonton - in part to help us celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Robertson-Wesley United Church.  I was so inspired by his message.  And, of course, I then had the privilege of transcribing it.  What a blessing!  There was one part of his uplifting sermon that exploded a light bulb in my head.    It was near the end of the sermon, when he quoted from a poem by Dorothee Solle:
“Jesus, He needs you
That’s all there is to it.”
Reverend Paterson went on to say "Without you, he goes up in Dachau’s smoke;  is left hanging, is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands, gets revalued at the next stock market crash, is usurped, used up, thrown away, without you.  Help him.  That’s what Faith is.  He couldn’t bring it about – His Kingdom.  Couldn’t then, couldn’t later,  can’t now; not at least, without you.  And that is his irresistible appeal."
BOLT OF LIGHTNING to the very core of my soul !!  Perhaps it struck me so hard and with such clarity because at the age of 8, when my father, John McGrath King, Senior, a Canadian soldier, was posted to Hemer, Germany, and our family joined him there, we visited the German concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.
Bear in mind, this was only ten years following the end of WW II and all of its atrocities.  (In my young impressionable mind, I could still hear the screams, the shrieks, the crying....)  That visit, that walk through the site where millions of Jews were exterminated, had a lifelong effect on me.  I walked down into the acid pits, I saw the barracks where emaciated Jews were stacked 20 to a wooden plank, I saw the hills of grass with little white signs that merely said:  Hier Ruhen 2,500 Tote...(Here Lie Buried 2,500 Bodies) April 25, 1945.  All the signs were identical.  Only the dates and numbers varied.  Hier Ruhen 3,000 Tote....Hier Ruhen 4,000 Tote. 
As we walked, my father took my little hand in his.  We never spoke a word.  Maybe our silence honoured the dead.  The children.  The mothers.  The fathers.  The grandparents.  Lined up on the edge of acid pits to be shot or beaten to death.  Their crime was simply that they were different.
We approached a rectangular flat topped building.  My father sat down outside on a pile of stones  There were no windows.  The doors were gone.  I went inside alone.  The interior was dark and damp, smelling vaguely sweet.  Showerheads were spaced at regular intervals in the ceiling.  When I exited, I knew that I would never again play the games of an eight year old.  I had leapt from hopscotch to horror.  The chill, the odors, the imagined screams, would remain with me forever.
I ran outside to the outstretched arms of my father.   It was the only time I ever saw him cry.
When Reverend Paterson said "Without you, he goes up in Dachau’s smoke....", this memory from decades past crystallized for me.  I had always known that we need Jesus, that I need Jesus in my life.  But never had it occurred to me that Jesus needs ME!  Without US, without ME, His message burned up in the smoke of Dachau, in the smoke of Bergen-Belsen's gas ovens.  Without US, without ME, to walk my life's journey trying to live by his values and principles, by example being a conduit for others, it all meant nothing, means nothing.  It did not end there, in the smoke from the crematoriums, if YOU and I carry his message onward in our daily lives.   It must not end there!  Don't let it end THERE!
I encourage everyone to make time in your daily life to sit peacefully and talk with whomever you believe in - your 'Higher Power'.   Thank Him or Her for the many blessings bestowed upon you, the wonderful gifts that you take for granted.  Slow down and smell the roses.  Don't wait until you are retired.  Delight in the moments of life and its relationships.  Do a good job at whatever you do.  Love your family.  Be of service to others.  Jesus needs you!  He needs US.  He needs ME! 
As we embody his principles, carry his messages, surely the atrocities of Dachau and Bergen-Belsen will never happen again.
Like I said, I am a 'work in progress Christian'.  I have so very much to learn.  Reverend Paterson's sermon was life changing for me, life altering!  I hope that each and every one of you has such a breakthrough experience in your life.

Wendy King 

Monday, January 6, 2014


CommuKNITy is creating a stash of knitted bits to be used for a future bombing project. Many people besides the collective members have contributed and it is exciting to see how interested and enthusiastic people are when they hear about the project. Some are simply delighted by the idea of a group engaged in yarn bombing. Others are touched by the larger scope of the project in which a church community is embracing and fostering creativity. My own satisfaction comes from personal connections spawned by this knitting project.

I believe that strong communities are built through personal connection. As we work together I see old friendships being rekindled and new friendships developing. The drop-in knitting sessions are a wonderful combination of jovial chatter, serious discussions, mentoring, and imagining. Knitting in the balcony at church on Sunday mornings provides another sort of experience. It is a quiet meditation with hands occupied and hearts open in the company of friends.

Wherever I go, I talk about talk about the spiritual arts collective and this yarn bombing project. Three businesses in the Oliver community have asked to be included as bombing sites. Tiramisu Bistro has generously offered us space for drop-in knitting sessions. Their staff and customers are curious about our project.

My grandchildren Matthew and Caitlin have joined in the yarn bombing fun. They loved learning about corking. They named themselves the KNIT-knackers and promised to create knitted cord for us. Collective member Debbie Tyson invited a group of co-workers to join her at lunch time to knit and crochet. They work in a law office and have named themselves the KNITagators. She reported that people who have worked in the same office for years are now developing personal friendships. A third group has declared itself. They are the Three BOMBadears, three friends who plan to continue their bombing activities after the project ends.

In the New Year we will continue to gather and knit. There is much to do and all are welcome. Please join us if you are willing to knit or crochet or want to learn. We have set a schedule of knitting sessions until the end of March. Mark them on your calendar. Plan to join the fun J

By Mary Sullivan Holdgrafer