Someone has been sitting in my chair!

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This year marks my 40th year being a ‘paid’ church musician.  I’m not quite Methushelah but, I admit, I started my career in music as a young teenager when phones were fastened to the wall and screen time meant playing with Etch-a-Sketch.  I have spent more time in church than I care to admit.  If  I wasn’t sitting on the organ bench practising and waving my arms leading a choir, I sat in a pew supporting my husband, an Anglican priest for over 50 years who’s now retired.

While I have had some long term church gigs, I was and still am a musician for temporary hire – a substitute while the church is looking for a permanent musician or when their regular church musician is away.  This has worked well for me because I’ve also worked for many years as a music producer for CBC, and because I love the freedom this arrangement offers.  I like taking the temperature of churches of all denominations,  working with the choir, and seeing how they worship.  And because of how church has changed during these years, I feel compelled to jot down these musings. It’s NOT to pour gasoline on the conversation ‘This is why I don’t go to church’, but rather it’s to start a dialogue on how churches can address some long standing assumptions and create a safer and more welcoming space for those that want to venture inside a sacred building for the first time.

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And one major problem has to do with the question of where it’s safe to sit.  No matter how many times I step through the doors of a ‘new to me’ church, I feel a certain angst in the pit of my stomach because I’m pretty sure I’ll set my keister down in a spot that will make someone mad.  It actually begins as I pull into the parking lot and wonder:  “Where do I leave my car without ticking someone off?”

You think I jest?  I remember the day I pulled into one church’s parking lot years back, and a few parishoners greeted me not with “Hello” or “Welcome” but “YOU CAN’T PARK HERE.  This is where so and so usually parks.”  I didn’t see a reserved sign, but nodded and moved my car, despite feeling sorely tempted to drive away, pick up a copy of the New York Times, and go home to listen to ‘The Sunday Edition on CBC’.  But because my husband was a guest preacher at the church, and it was a rare Sunday when I wasn’t playing somewhere,  I wanted to support him.  But it was hard for me not to burst out laughing with my distinct cackle when I saw their faces at coffee hour after my husband had introduced me as his spouse!   It doesn’t now surprise me to learn that the church is struggling with poor attendence.

After I think I’ve found a safe spot to park my car, my next dilemma is where can I sit. T-T-15777-Goldilocks-and-The-Three-Bears-Someones-Been-Sitting-in-my-Chair-Speech-Bubble

I love cosying up to a pillar if there is one, or finding a good back seat for easy escape.  Trouble is, I can never guess which seat is ‘free’.  People are creatures of habit.  They like their tea a certain way at a given time.  They usually take the same route to work unless there is a collision.  And they sit at the same dinner place.  It only stands to reason that they also like ‘their’ spot in church.   But think about it.  How is a guest suppose to know that it is taken?  B8xRcePCQAAUhaN It doesn’t even matter if the sanctuary is almost empty.  Some months ago I checked out a church that I was going to supply at for a stint.  I wanted to get a feel for the flow from a congregates point of view.  I arrived early to hear the prelude to see how the organ sounded …was it too loud, soft, where does the choir stand, etc….  There wouldn’t have been more than 15 people there when I arrived.  I bravely plopped myself into a pew, and hoped I was safe.  But a few minutes later, a woman walked down the centre aisle and before she too sat down, she asked another parishoner if this was Lucy’s spot.  Eaves dropping, I learned that Lucy had moved up north to be near her daughter – and probably would never be back.

Things get a little odder when I tell you about another church where my mom went for the first time to hear me play her favourite piece.  Again, it was at a church where you could play throw and catch without fear of hitting someone.  “YOU CAN’T SIT HERE!” scolded a rather officius “force to be reckoned with” individual.   “That’s Josey’s seat”.  The elderly woman, who was perched next to the woman advising my mom on her seating plans, said, “Yes dear. Josey died a few year’s ago but we like to keep it free in her memory.” 8290bfd59d0bf0ae19fabfcf7ff27018--angel-s-angel-wings

Does this happen in your church?  Do you know?  Do you care?  You should, because most congregations treat newcomers the same way.  So  I ask you: clergy, board members, congregants, how do you plan to change your church culture to create a safe and inviting place for everyone? How do you plan to address the stink eye that prevents people from being welcomed and comfortable to sit where they want.  I have some ideas – but what are yours?  Time to start talking, folks, or more churches will be putting up “for sale” signs, and will only have the invisible Josey’s left sitting in the pews.

 

 

 

 

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Changing Times

Riding the subway the other morning, a woman plopped herself down next to me and proceeded to take out her make-up bag.  She then applied every conceivable potion that Revlon sells from dark circle concealer, to foundation & blush.

When the eye brow teasers were removed from her bag of magic tricks I really became squeamish.   The subway was packed with no vacant seats.  Besides, it was a 45 minute commute.  It took great will power for me not to blurt out that grooming is a personal matter but I had my self censor button firmly pressed. I proceeded to get more steamed as my station neared.  The men didn’t seem to notice or pretended not to.  She was getting a few raised eyebrows from the women who weren’t botoxed & could still grimace, but no one said a thing.  NOT ONE WORD.  Is it because the bar has fallen so low on socially accepted behaviour that no one cares anymore?  Or is it because of my age and the rules & norms that I grew up with are not applicable to a younger demographic?

This brings me to church behaviour because I spend almost as much time in churches as I do on city transit. 

I  always wore a dress to church even on the most bitter Canadian winter days except for one particularly cold morning about 25 years ago.  The wind was howling and it felt like minus 1000 when waiting for the bus to take me to my church gig.  I put on trousers thinking it was the sensible thing to do.  I figured I’d be robed & at the organ bench so who would know?  That Sunday,  the organ broke down (see previous posts on my bad luck with church organs) & I had to make my way to the piano.  I was self-conscious standing in front of everyone in my pants thinking that the congregation would assume I had a first class ticket to hell.

Fast forward a number of years.

One Sunday morning when I wasn’t playing the organ I found myself in a pew supporting a clergy friend of mine.  I was sitting in front of an elderly retired priest who always attended church in full black clericals .  During communion people were  making their way up the aisle to receive the elements.  My head was lowered and I heard an audible gasp &  the words,  “My Lord, saints preserve us!”  I looked up and there were 2 people of ample proportions dressed in lime green exercise tights that were about 3 sizes too small, left nothing to the imagination, and red sweat shirts that hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine in quite some time.  I had to stifle a laugh.  Not because of how these people were dressed because frankly, I didn’t care.  The days of wearing dresses and gloves had long passed, but I was amused at the priest’s reaction.  For him, it clearly wasn’t what he had been accustomed to seeing when he had spent his days in the pulpit.

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Then there was the choir member whose Sunday morning ritual involved clipping his nails during the sermon.  His wife was the choir director.  Why she didn’t say anything to him, I’ll never know.   But I do know for a fact it drove the clergy crazy.

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Now it is all about Social Media.  I listened to a radio documentary fairly recently where ministers of hip churches, especially in Calgary, discussed the benefits of using Twitter in the actual church service.  Their enthusiasm for immediate connection to their congregation could only have been surpassed if they were announcing the Second Coming.     What was interesting to me, was that a few weeks before I heard this radio doc,  I witnessed an elderly woman tearing a strip of a young person for using their IPhone  during the service.    I started to think, do we need to get with the programme and expect our seniors to do the same or have we somehow lost a sense of being still and taking time to be holy?

Check out a few of these articles for various thoughts on this topic.  Please let me know what you think the role Social Media should play in an actual service.

http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0065.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/19/phones-in-church_n_3781132.html?utm_hp_ref=religion

http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-57593128-71/one-in-five-americans-use-phones-in-church/

Gory, Gross & Grim

horse-yuck-copy I am a vegetarian and someone who hurls at the first sign of blood so I would not be on your speed dial in a health emergency. My aversion to any and all bloody images is visceral.  As I student I worked for several  years in a fast food  joint. My compadres would rush me out of the kitchen if someone cut their fingers while cleaning chicken guts.  They didn’t want to have to clean up two messes.   This phobia of mine poses a problem as a supply organist as it isn’t my place to make editorial asides on the clergy’s bad hymn choices.  I can and do hold my nose and pound out the ‘insipid ‘In the Garden’ , which I refer to as the Andy song. (And he walks with me.  And he talks with me).  I’ll think of my cheque as I plow through the down right comical ‘A Little Less of Me’(The word ‘me’ occurs 16 times not counting all of the repeats and the ‘I’s’.  Score zilch for God or Jesus.)

Let me be a little kinder let me be a little blinder
To the faults of those about me let me praise a little more
Let me be when I am weary just a little bit more cheery
Think a little more of others and a little less of me

Let me be a little braver when temptation bits me waver
Let me strive a little harder to be all that I should be
Let me be a little meeker with the brother that is weaker
Let me think more of my neighbors and a little less of me
Let me be when I am weary just a little bit more cheery
Let me serve a little better those that I am striving for
Let me be a little meeker with the brother that is weaker
Think a little more of others and a little less of me.

The church hymnal supplement ‘Songs for a Gospel People’  has some truly horrible tunes and lyrics.  The popular41T3vceHAcL  ‘Family of God’ is one such gross out hymn.  “I’m so glad I’m a part of the Family of God,
I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood!”
There it is – ‘washed in the fountain, cleansed by his blood.’  Yes, I know why hymn writers pen these lyrics, atonement and all of that stuff, but it doesn’t  mean I have to like them! I’ve played both of these gory hymns in 3 denominations, ‘There is a Fountain Filled with Blood’  and ‘Are you Washed in the Blood’.  Proving yet again that bad taste crosses all theological chasms. 

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So clergy friends, if I happen to supply for you one Sunday in the future, please, I beg of you. keep the bloody references for another day.  I need  all of my intestinal fortitude to get through the communion images.

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Thank you to my Facebook friends who have offered some of their suggestions!  Let’s get a list going people!  Hymns that should be banned.

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http://www.puritanboard.com/f67/questionable-hymns-54739/

http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/bad-poetry-bad-theology

http://www.christianforums.com/t3120506/

Yes, shorter is often better!

I have listened to well over a 1000 sermons in my day, delivered by at least 100 clergy from all denominations.  Many of these sermons have one thing in common. They are too long!  This cliché is true.  A sermon should be like a hem, long enough to cover the topic and short enough to keep it interesting.

When I was a little girl, if I wasn’t singing in the choir, I would sit with my grandfather in the last pew on the aisle, for a quick get away after the service.    The service would start at 11 am, with the expectation that by noon you would be on your way.  Sometimes, the sermon would go on for so long, that my grandfather would tap his watch to make sure it was working or hold it up to his ear.  On the walk home he would say to me, “He certainly  likes to hear the sound of his own voice.”

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Aural memory is the shortest type of memory.  Clergy, if you have too many points, or take to long to cover your topic, you have lost the congregation. People will tune out and think about supper plans, or other activities they would rather do on a Sunday morning that might be a little more fun!  Intro, 3 points, and extro usually does the trick.

During one service, I actually fell asleep.  The sun was streaming in the stain glass window and I was wrapped in a comfy down coat.  The cadence of the preacher’s voice was like white noise.  It was the shuffling of feet getting ready to sing the closing hymn that brought me around.  I only hoped I wasn’t talking in my sleep or snoring.

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One minister told me, and he is one of the best homilist that I know, the following true story.   He was walking back from the parish hall after the ‘meet and greet’ that follows the service, to pick up his coat in the office.  He peeked into the sanctuary and saw *Jack  (not his real name) on his knees.  Concerned, he approached after a bit when he realized that Jack wasn’t praying.  “Is everything ok?” he asked.  “Well Father,  I am looking for my hearing aid.  I always take it out during the sermon.”  A humbling moment to be sure!

I frequently practice at a church in the neighborhood where I run into the parishioners that poke their head in to see what I am up to.  After pleasantries, they always tell me their priest goes on for 40 minutes.  They are old, tired, they have to go to the toilet and their bums hurt from sitting too long.  They have asked him to keep it short, but alas, he says, I can preach as long as I want to.   I have even heard two clergy wives complain about the length of their husbands sermons, with their partners in the room.   So it isn’t just me, an organist for hire that has these observations.

One more thing.  Don’t end your sermon with a salad.   ‘Let us pray … Let us go forth….

Clergy, keep them wanting more so they will comeback next week.

Do you have stories where you wanted to edit the sermon?  Please share.

The perils of a wireless mic!

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Having spent over 20 years as a radio music producer, I am very aware of the golden rule.  NEVER say anything in front of a mic that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to hear.  ALWAYS assume the mic is on, even if you are in the studio by yourself.    Every faux pas is embellished in the retelling and echoes in the halls of a broadcasting building for decades.

Most churches built from the 1950s to the present day resemble God’s living room.  Flying buttresses and domed apses have given way to auditoriums or less grand buildings where the floors are carpeted and the pews cushioned.  A large video screen is given more prominence than a cross or altar.  Because the acoustics are so poor in many contemporary churches, and the aging congregations are suffering hearing loss, clergy have to equip themselves with wireless mics like the type that pop stars wear.

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Most clergy have never been trained in mic usage.  They don’t have a producer on the other side of the glass to double-check their mic to see if it is on or off at the appropriate moment.

One particular Sunday, I was supplying for a congregation that was larger than usual because of confirmation.  There were friends and family members of the confirmation candidates and of course, the bishop was presiding.  During the playing of my fancy pants prelude, I heard voices.  Not the normal din of a congregation that chats away instead of praying or listening, but a full-fledged animated conversation.  My attention was diverted from my Bach to the details of a cocktail party that was being held later in the day.  My heart stopped when I realized it was the bishop and the rector.  Knowing both of them rather well, and their sense of humour and enjoyment of fine scotch, I stopped playing midstream, started a coughing fit so I could run out and boot it down the back stairs with my gown flying behind me.  I think it took all of 15 seconds before I made it to the rector’s study.  As I continued to cough to cover their conversation, I ran up, frisked them, and turned their mics off.     During the procession, I think both the clergy and rector matched their red vestments.

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Another Sunday, at yet another church, after the opening hymn, and lighting of the Christ candle, the Youth Pastor started in on his children’s talk.  You know the one, where the conversation is tailored more for the adults and the children are just anxious to escape and work on their crafts.  The Senior Pastor got up from his chair and went out the side door.  About a minute later I heard, and so did everyone else in the sanctuary, the unmistakable sounds of someone taking a whiz and then the toilet flushing.  I have a very loud laugh as anyone who knows me can attest to.  I think I broke something inside trying to hold it together as I was hoping I’d also hear his hands being washed.

So my clergy friends, unless you would rather your organist didn’t launch into Handel’s Water music as the Postlude, ALWAYS check your mics.

Do you have some mic stories you’d like to share.  Feel free to change the name!

Altar Call: How many times can one be saved?

I have been a church musician for over 30 years and much of that time I’ve been sitting on the organ bench as a supply organist.  Because I had a full-time job that I loved, and 2 choirs that offered programming and conducting opportunities, it was the perfect mix.  I could keep my fingers in shape and have various ‘religious’ experiences.  Through the years I have played for pretty much all denominations, from the smells and bells of the high Anglicans to the bible thumping Baptists. I’ve listened to a thousand sermons, if I have heard one.   And the reading from John 14 vs:2   ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions’  has to be true.  Some congregations feel that they will be the only ones in heaven.

Rev%20LovejoyOne particular Sunday I was supplying at a church where I was very familiar with the personalities of the congregants.  It was an evangelical church with a decent choir and a respectable number of bums in the pews.  The senior pastor was away and a guest minister (whom I shall name) The Rev. Thurston Narcissist, was going to be the homilist.

Before the service began, as was the practice of this church, a prayer was given with the choir to prepare for the service.  Heads were bowed and he began to wax eloquent, not asking but telling God that souls were going to be saved today.  Though my head was bowed, I opened my eyes and caught him re-arranging his pompadour as he was offering up his blessing.  The choir filed out and he took me aside and said, “During the altar call, keep playing ‘Just as I am’.   It gets them every time.”  Being a musician for hire, I do what I am told.

The sermon was long, not theologically very sound, but full of fire and brimstone. The Rev. Narcissist had one of those soft covered bibles, with gold trim on the edges and where Jesus speaks in red.  He made a mighty wallop as he hit the pulpit to emphasize a particular sin that would damn you for all eternity.  Then came the altar call.  I think he was using it as a measure of his success.  The more sinners that walked up the long aisle, the more he could justify his cheque.  I started playing.  After about 2 minutes, still no soul ventured up the aisle.  He took off his jacket, removed his tie, and took his hanky from his breast pocket mopping up a brow that was bathed in sweat.   I glanced in the mirror trying to catch his eye.  How many times could I sustain a theme and variations on this tune.  Finally, *Polly (not her real name) saved the day by getting saved…yet again.  I had played before at this church and witnessed her salvation at least 4 times.   I was happy that this meant that the service was drawing to a close as the deacons came forward to lay their hands on her.  But it did give me pause.  Yes, I believe in conversion experiences, that people can be ‘saved’.  But I am putting it out there.   You can ask forgiveness for your sins, anytime, all the time, but can you be ‘saved more than once?

All thoughts welcome.