Tuesday, February 12, 2013

From the Timmins Daily Press to the Sagrada Família

When I was a kid in northern Canada, some Sunday mornings I would go with my minister dad to the local radio station, CKGB Radio, where he would do a live radio show, “Thoughts from the Book”.  It was located in the offices of The Daily Press, a building in an Art Deco style in downtown Timmins, Ontario.

The buildings of that mining and lumbering community that old-timers still call The Porcupine Camp favour function over architectural flights of fancy. But that building somehow tugged at my heart and stirred my imagination. For reasons that my 7-year-old self could not name, it filled me with simultaneous calm and excitement, joy and longing.

Strange though it might seem, I was thinking of that old Daily Press building as I stood in front of the east entrance of La Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona last fall. The figures sculpted over the arched doorway, with faces, hands and bodies both down-to-earth and yet exalted; its exuberant forms, both stately and playful; and its story of creation, birth, death and resurrection carved into graceful curves and arches staggered my imagination. It is a poem in stone, a visual and tactile symphony.

I could have stood there all day.

The repeating vertical lines of the Daily Press building had a rhythm to them, like an elegant ballroom dance, a fox-trot perhaps. The Sagrada Família is full of rhythms, whirling, like waves of the Mediterranean that Gaudi so loved, or like a whole company of flamenco dancers, stamping and clapping in syncopated time.

I’ve spent my life (so far) building small cathedrals in words, music, rhythms, melodies. Well…maybe not cathedrals. Chapels. Small places that invite people to congregate and offer praise to the Creator. The craft of words has given me a language in which to appreciate some of the richness of the architecture that is all around us.

A child living in a company town gets the message that life is business:  you learn a trade, you earn your keep. But I sensed, even as a hockey-playing 7-year old, that there is more; that all around us, as if they are the only ones who see The Play, the hills are standing in silent ovation, clapping their hands.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In Which Andrew Sets Sail on the Good Ship Oikoumene

 Crete, August 2012


Right after the slam comes the sound of a dulcimer.

Of course a dulcimer. Somehow a dulcimer feels at this moment exactly, cosmically, right.

        Then, just for me, Joni Mitchell starts to sing,

 The wind is in from Africa, and last night I couldn’t sleep…

Maybe I missed the announcement about a beach concert? I’m confused. Then I am yanked into wakefulness by the next


        It all comes back. I am at the Orthodox Academy of Crete, near the city of Chania on the fabled island of Crete. We non-Cretans aren’t used to dealing with sea-breezes and shutters, and haven’t yet noticed that those charming hooks embedded in the outside wall are there to keep the shutters–


        Why on God’s green earth am I here again?

         I open my eyes and look out the window. There, sparking like all the diamonds in the world, lies the Sea of Crete. The early morning wind has risen to a quiet roar, and I hope that it will blow away yesterday’s stifling heat. Yesterday I tried to keep on working through the afternoon heat. Big mistake. You don’t mess around with the late August sun when you’re in Greece.

        Both the Central Committee and the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches are here for a week of meetings.

        They are working through a crowded agenda, from theological statements and position papers on moral and political issues through to Bible study passages for the upcoming 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea in late October, 2013.

            Maybe it will be cooler in Korea.

I am now working as Worship Consultant to the World Council of Churches. I have been sent to the WCC as a missionary by the United Methodist Church, U.S.A., which has long supported this position. Wendy and I moved to Geneva, Switzerland just over a year ago. We got rid of some of our Stuff, put some into storage, and moved to Switzerland, followed by shipping crates full of Useful in Switzerland Stuff.

           Our arrival was timed perfectly: the middle of the summer –  les grandes vacances – during which northern Europeans visit southern Europe, the southern Europeans visit Northern Europe, West goes tripping to Asia, and Asians visit North America. It’s a bit like a Toronto street sale where everyone else buys each other’s Stuff.

Les grandes vacances meant that there was no-one to ask about How You Do Basic Things in Switzerland. A story for another blog.

A large part of my work with the WCC involves working with both individuals and committees to plan, organize and help lead worship services. Services of prayer of all kinds are a regular part of life at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, and might be as small as two or three gathered together in the chapel in the morning before a day of work begins, or as large as 250-plus under a canopy for evening prayer here at the Orthodox Academy of Crete.

My colleague, Rev. Sabine Udodesku, and I have enlisted the help of some of the young adults who are here as Stewards – volunteer interns sent by their churches to gain ecumenical formation and experience. Besides being an invaluable help with all parts of a sometimes very technical operation, with simultaneous language interpretation in English, German, Spanish and French, they have spent several days together in biblical and theological study before the arrival of the committee members. Some of them were also willing to form a little choir to help with leading congregational singing.

Yes, that’s Wendy, in the choir. Within the calm demeanour and the singer’s stance is a woman singing a bit of the melody with the two sopranos, helping the altos with their part, and listening to the tenors to figure out where in the chorus they are losing their part.

One of the many challenges of cross-cultural and interdenominational prayer is balancing the commitments and loyalties of the various groups represented. Why should we sing my song and not someone else’s? What languages do you use? Why should this prayer, this reading, this song be in this language and not another? For people used to having their own language – English, for example – be the language of choice, singing, reading and praying in many languages can be a profound and moving experience of Pentecost. But Pentecost presents challenges. How do you make sure that people understand? Even with the best will in the world, singing six verses of a hymn in Tamil is a daunting experience to a non-Tamil.
And so you have to interpret, to translate, to use gesture, to use visual, symbolic actions, all in order that we all are communicate clearly. You must always remember that, even when you think you have said something clearly, it is not always understood in the way that you hoped.

And then, you must remember this: there is no song that everyone knows. Songs that are widely known and old-hat in one region are likely new item in another. A Korean congregation will lovingly sing an early twentieth-century missionary hymn that dropped out of use in England by the mid-forties. There is no common canon.

And how are you going to sing it? What is your unspoken expectation of what will happen when we all sing the hymn? Performance practice is not just a subject for musicology academics. Where a North American Methodist group sings holding hands in a circle, a Pentecostal Latin-American might want to dance. Where a group from Taizé might sing a chant many times, a Reformed congregation stands in solemn song and sings verse 1, verse 2, verse 3, Amen.
No one will feel completely at home in an inter-confessional, intercultural service. There is no moment where we can all relax together and just sing. Everything is new and strange to someone; there will be something new to learn.

This all brings me back to the picture above. The small group that you see is drawn from all around the world. Five minutes after this picture was taken, everyone headed off to do other duties at the Academy. In those five minutes, we tried to bind them together into a group that would lead an Orthodox hymn in Armenian, a song in Korean, a German chorale and a Latin-American praise chorus. An hour after this practice, 250-plus tired and hungry committee members will come from a day of meetings to go to dinner at  the very Mediterranean hour of 9:00.
But first we will have a half-hour of prayer together. 
The service will try to balance languages and church traditions, styles and theologies. We won’t get everything right. Someone is sure to come up afterward to correct our pronunciation of “Kyrie,” or tell us that the language we sang in was Catalan and not Spanish. And we want them to. Because that’s how we learn from one another.

For all of us, leading worship in this setting is scary, exhilarating, exhausting, sometimes painful, and always hard to perform gracefully. Something like swimming in the Mediterranean across the road from the Orthodox Academy of Crete.

Yes, I brought home some bruises.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Coming soon...

"Come pluck a riddle from the lute; bake bread as Word raised high!"

This blog will be a forum for new ideas about congregational song. Andrew begins posting in Fall 2012, so come back soon!