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A Musical Journey as Worship

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From the start of our community project, I’ve been keenly aware that we don’t have a traditional musical experience. When, in the beginning, I wondered aloud with a friend what we would do in our gatherings for “worship”, his response was to remind me that among those who had committed to join us was “probably the 4th best guitarist in the world” …. Yes. I knew this, and I also knew that the speaker himself was a pretty competent bass player–point being, we had some tools in our toolshed. But I’d had a few conversations with Guitar Player, and I knew that he was a bit burnt out on playing music on Sundays, and I was not about to pressure him to provide something to our group that he didn’t have to give. He needed rest.

One of the things I’m sensitive to is the tendency in institutions to settle into performance ruts that require a great deal of structure and organization to sustain, and that set us up for crises when they can’t be sustained. I remember a Sunday at a church years ago, when there was no drummer available, only a couple guitars and a vocalist (we regularly had a full rock band each Sunday, with several teams on a complicated schedule): the suddenly smaller, less rock-y band was blamed for things being seriously “off” in the meeting that day. While I’m pretty sure the small band was not the problem, this is a good example of a habit becoming an issue.

So, with no musicians ready to play in our meetings, I faced a challenge: I’m not a musician, but I have a strong sense that music is somehow important for taking us away from our normal, logical, word-heavy way of thinking. (I also knew that I didn’t want to play much traditional worship music, for the same reason that I didn’t want to carry on other liturgical traditions from our history … I wanted this community to build a language and a set of practices that had meaning for our time and place, not merely continue a habitual, preferred way of being.) So I started to mine my music library, which was beginning to grow, thanks to the internet and the multitude of music-discovery sites out there.

I played songs that had meaning for me, and invited others to do the same. I picked music that moved me, and spoke to the things I thought we might be hearing from God in a particular season. But I made no effort to pick “worship” music or even Christian music. I began to set up songs by saying that I thought all love songs touch on something of the divine love for us, invoking the words from St. John: ‘We love, because God first loved us‘. What besides a touch of the Divine can explain the sudden, radical change that comes over otherwise tough and independent men and women when they sing a love song? One notable set-list stands out in my memory: I played a few Tony Bennet songs for the group. A woman responded, with some emotion, that she thought the idea of playing Tony Bennet during worship was silly, but by the time we got to Fly Me To The Moon, her defenses were down, and she got it: This was the way God thought about her.

And the group has embraced it, sharing every kind of music: classical and opera, alternative- and classic-rock, folk music and country, and instrumental music of all kinds. And yes, we’ve had our share of classic worship music, as well. Even with the arrival of a bona-fide guitar-playing worship leader in the last year, we still get plenty of opportunity to play our own music, and so to tell a bit of our own stories with songs.

Ulysses and the Sirens (John William Waterhouse), from Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, I played a set that was very much a musical journey. An old friend of mine, visiting from out of town, reflected on the power of the journey when compared with the traditional worship mode of songs that are designed to lift us up into the heavenly places. This music was on our level, almost easier to join to, because it started where we all are. He said it was perhaps the most powerful time of worship he had ever had.

The set began with Josh Garrels’ Ulysses (from The Sea In Between), a take on the original Long Journey, about a king who is separated from home by various obstacles and enemies. The journey continued with Sara Groves’ It’s True, from a Christmas concert she performed in a women’s prison–in the set, this song plays the part of the spoken affirmation, an encouragement to believe the simple truth in spite of what we see (which is no platitude when sung in front of hundreds of prisoners). The set finished with Big Tree’s Gloria (from This New Year) , a giddy love song about some of the things we think and do around our loved ones … and setting those sometimes silly things in their proper context: glory.

In my design, this journey took us through an inventory of our hopes and fears, touching down on our drive to return to a Home In God against all odds and through much despair; on the simple and hard-won truths we hold to; and finally on something of God’s playful and powerful love for us, where all melts away in his smitten gaze.

Josh Garrels Ulysses

Sara Groves’ It’s True

Big Tree’s Gloria


Written by dmaddalena

2015/02/07 at 11:21 am

Outside Perspectives

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I love to listen to radio stories / podcasts that expose me to perspectives from outside my philosophical neighborhood. This means I’ll listen to people talk about UFOs, Buddhism, car repair, magic, true crime, architecture, and stories from around the world. Often, and this is most interesting to me, I’ll hear a fresh perspective on something that I know well, and be challenged to consider things in a new way. A prime example would be opinions on the Judeo-Christian worldview from any of the above perspectives. Always interesting.

Recently I’ve been listening to Alec Baldwin, the actor, interviewing people on his WNYC show, Here’s the Thing. He’s a good interviewer, and it was fun to hear him talk to another great interviewer on the show: Ira Glass. In the piece, linked to below, there is an interesting, and surprising, moment when Ira talks about why he covers religion to the extent that he does. Short version: every other news outlet’s coverage didn’t match what he knew of the Christians in his life. Sure enough, I’ve always thought that Ira Glass’ This American Life is a great place to hear respectful stories of real people of all kinds. Including my kind.

Note: the part where religion comes up is between about 7 minutes and 12 minutes.

Written by dmaddalena

2015/01/26 at 8:20 pm

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Art and Scripture for Advent

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Dec. 6, Bruce Herman, Magnificat Miriam Virgin Mother_1_advent_image

Miriam: Virgin Mother and Second Adam Triptychs–
Bruce Herman (Permanent installation–Monastery of San Paolo, Orvieto, Italy) … from the devotional

A simple and beautiful ‘Advent calendar‘ and devotional from Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture and the Arts, combining interesting art, music, scripture, and comment from members of that community (and, in a classy touch, letting you choose to enjoy all or only some of what’s on offer). Like all good Advent calendars, this one reveals some fun and thought-provoking surprises along the waiting way that precedes Christmas day.

I also love the brave use of technology and non-traditional art. I’m inspired.

The Advent Project

Written by dmaddalena

2013/12/15 at 2:52 pm

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I Will Gaze …

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Why I haven’t looked up the dictionary definition of gazebo until now, I do not know. We’ve been thinking about gazebos for months. I just haven’t felt the need to consult the dictionary, thinking that the significance of this thing lay only in what God wanted to say through it, not in the thing itself. And it is a simple word: it is not from the ancient Greek, not theologically significant, suggests nothing profound in its sound or sense (some in our community simply dislike the word). But when I finally saw the definition this last week, it sent me spinning into a reverie about the nature of grace and revelation.

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Written by dmaddalena

2013/06/22 at 1:53 pm

Process Greater Than Or Equal To The Product

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Just cause I’m excited about the creativity thing I posted, like, minutes ago, here’s another video that is cool because the process that the artist (/vandal) goes through to make his art (/vandalism) is cooler even to me than the final product (and the final product is cool: though it’s easy to call it vandalism, it’s also unquestionably a shameless act of urban improvement). I like the idea of a process being complicated and labor intensive in service to a seemingly simple outcome. Again, this is not a life philosophy, but a catalyst for my creativity.

for extra credit, identify the common theme between this and the previous post.

Written by dmaddalena

2011/09/29 at 3:19 pm

Make It Wrong First

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The title of this post is not a new philosophy. It is a quote from this fun little video featuring Todd Barricklow, a maker of impossible bikes. Combining several appealing ideas (bikes!), the minute-and-a-half video is here because I find it inspiring. I think I could use some encouragement in the area of creativity, and this video has just the right mixture of provocation and fun.

Taken on its own, this post might seem out of place, but I see this as the first in a series of posts on creativity catalysts, inspiring perspectives on people making new things in ways I had not considered. (It’s the first in the series because it’s the last in a long list of collected videos and other sources I’ve been collecting over the last couple years … stay tuned for more.)

Written by dmaddalena

2011/09/29 at 1:16 pm