TAO January 2018–Be Thou My Vision

January 2018

Be Thou My Vision

Let me ask you a question: What is the most important quality an organist needs for success? Over the course of the past several months, I have been listening to a series of auditions and interviews for a wonderful church position nearby. Each of the six candidates has been a delight to meet. They have come from a variety of backgrounds, experiences and training. They played well in their auditions. Based upon their organ solos, each of them was an attractive choice. However, none of them has been hired. Why?
Only one of them could sight read well enough to meet expectations. Only two of them could follow the choral director’s beat. Most of them could not play the congregational hymns in a way the congregation could follow. In fact, the singers frequently didn’t know when to come in! Frequently, their use of organ sound showed no sensitivity to basic registration theory or to the balance in the room. I am shocked! I am dismayed! After all, two of the candidates have earned bachelors’ degrees, and three of them hold masters’ degrees. You would think that our colleges are preparing their students for working outside the academic bubble. Ironically, the one organist who had learned to play on his own was the best of them all! He had a real heart for working with people, stating his desire “to help people worship.” His music was colorful and inviting. Too bad he was about to be transferred out of town for his day job.
It has been difficult for the committee to identify the cause of their hesitation. The technical problems I just described are not the reason they were not hired. While deficits in their musical skills were the presenting symptom, the director might have been able to work with one or another of the candidates to upgrade their skills. As we reflected on our experiences, we came to describe the common deficiency as “a lack of vision” in our candidates’ approaches to music ministry. We could hear it in their choice of music, in their preparation, and in their presentation: simply no point of view other than the notes on the page. It’s not enough to be a musician playing in church—you must be a church musician!
Church musicians must be guided by their understanding of faith and by their application of faith, through music, among the people in the congregation. The well-known hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” prays: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart, naught be all else to me, save that thou art; thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.” What was missing in our candidates was evidence in their music that God is their “best thought” or their “light.”
You might think this is awfully picky, but I agree with the committee that the choice of organists is key to the spiritual health of the congregation, so hiring someone is a significant decision with long range implications. This knotty problem has pushed me to reflect more deeply on who we are and how we prepare ourselves to serve. So, before we dive into the work ahead, I invite you to pause with me at the gate of the new year to reflect upon our purpose. Last summer, I had the opportunity to stand in front of a magnificent Holtkamp tracker in a beautiful sanctuary with twenty-five POE students in front of me. In the only event of its kind that week, we hoped to demonstrate the role of the organ in expressing the many dimensions of worship. In the homily, I hoped to clearly state the interplay between worship and music. Here is that homily, which I have adapted for this article.

It’s a Mystery to Me
Do you know how electricity works? How do airplanes fly? Can you explain the electoral college? I am sure that someone here can explain one or more of these questions, but I can’t. Unless I do some research, the answers will remain a mystery to me. How does love work? I’m not sure anyone can really explain that! Some people are curious, and others just benefit from the product. Are you curious?
The organ is a mystery to most folks, maybe it was to you when you first arrived. But now, each day you are getting a clearer picture of how it works. Just because you are learning about it doesn’t make it any the less interesting, right? Look up at this organ. How beautiful it is! There are the pipes. You know have been learning how the wind makes them sound. Some of you even know how the trackers work to start the sound. You know a lot about it now! But we don’t know everything yet.
But even if we understand everything about the organ, there remains a mystery: the music we make on it. How does music work? Teachers and performers here have spent their lives delving into learning how music works. You are learning some of our insights, and soon, you will have your own insights to share. One thing that we all share is, the more deeply we get into the way music works, the more we realize what a mystery it is.
We realize that there is something behind music that inspires its creation and makes it “go.” What is it about music that moves us and excites us? How does it do that? The spirit of music is its energy, the many different moods it projects, its character. When we listen to music, we are changed. We are encouraged, we are thrilled. Literally, we “en-joy” music. It’s our job as musicians to bring music into the world. The best musicians are partners with the music they make.
The spirit that makes music is just one part of a larger world of spirit: art, literature, drama, dance, movies. Even this week’s Comic Con is a convention devoted to a shared spirit of fun and adventure. All these art forms are part of a larger spiritual world that eventually grows to include everything that exists, whether you can see it or not. No one really can totally understand how it all works. Truly, when it comes to the universe, “It’s a mystery” to all of us! When we get to that all-inclusive point, when we ponder the spirit that moves the world, we call that mystery, “God.”
We are invited to participate in the mystery of God. That is what worship is all about. Worship is accepting the invitation to enter into the mystery of God. We do that in many ways. We designed this service to show the five main ways of encountering God in God’s mystery and how the organ helps us to connect with God. I hope you will notice how the organ uplifts and reinforces the experience of: `
• Praise: Wow! Hooray!
• Adoration: Welcome!
• Confession: I’m sorry!
• Supplication: Help!
• Thanksgiving: Thanks!
Frankly, the mystery we encounter in worship is too vague and distant for most of us to grasp. People really need help in grasping onto the Mystery, and music is one of the best ways of communicating about it. In the deepest of ways, music helps us connect with it. The profession of Sacred Musician is ancient and biblical: the most famous psalmist was King David. The psalms he wrote were used in the national worship center of the Hebrew people in Jerusalem. As sacred musicians, we follow in his footsteps. We dedicate ourselves to using our musical tools to help people understand a little more about God.
Sacred musicians combine the study of music with our study of theology, the ways of God. At its deepest level, music itself is a tool, a way of learning more about God. All of us still have much to learn, so we keep practicing our art. The art of music—expressing the mystery of God in sound. We will never be able to grasp all that it means, so may we always be able to say in the best of ways, “It’s a mystery to me!”

Ideally, following the trail from mystery to music will lead us through experiences of personal transformation, so that our personalities and our music glow with the light we have encountered along the way. The auditions I monitored last summer demonstrated how important service playing skills are. Clearly, the keyboard has many challenges that need constant development. This year, let’s make a resolution to look for that light and to bring it into our dual practice of ministry and music. So, let’s spend the next few months getting “Back to the Basics” of the ministry of repertory, registration, accompaniment, hymn playing, and sight reading. This year, “Let your light so shine…”

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