Coincidence or God?

It has been said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Well, I need to “out” God. Many times I receive very appreciative and thoughtful comments about the Sanctuary worship music and about its close relationship to the message of the day. Truth be told, I often sit there in the service and see endless connections of the message and music that are completely unintentional. At least to me. It is uncanny how often this happens, and not just in the Sanctuary but in Modern Worship as well. I’ve been witnessing this for years, going back to the days of our former pastor Dick Leon in the old Sanctuary up the hill. So I thought I would take a moment to share a case in point, the first Sunday following the Paris attacks the evening of November 13.

A PARISIAN KYRIE. When we sing we not only proclaim God’s word and minister through the incredibly emotive language of music, but we also pray. Music in worship is also intended to support the preacher’s message but musicians have to plan far in advance and preachers don’t always have that luxury. Sometimes I haven’t a clue as to what the scripture or message will be (and Scott Dudley might say the same thing!)

In September I was looking for an opportunity to work into our fall worship services a remarkable setting of one of the oldest known prayers, the Kyrie (prayer: Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord, have mercy) from a lesser-known Mass by the French composer and organist of Notre-Dame (Paris), Louis Vierne (1870-1937) for the Sanctuary Chorus to sing in worship. November 15 was thematically “open” so I scheduled it, even though I had concerns it may be too “stern” sounding or “loud” for a prayer of mercy. I didn’t realize the connection the piece had to the Paris massacre until I was doing my final score review that Sunday morning at about 5:30am. It was as if we were praying, pleading, and, yes, demanding, for mercy and peace for all humankind with an inner gentle section calling on the love of Jesus. It was a powerful, emotive, cathartic, experience for the singers and judging from comments on Facebook or elsewhere, for many in the congregation as well.

A PILGRIM’S PRAYER. In October, I was looking for the Ministry Through Music selection for November 15. It needed to contrast the visceral Kyrie, and because the choir would be busy preparing for Christmas and Advent it also needed to be something they already knew. We had just used Stephen Paulus’ beautiful “Pilgrims’ Prayer” for a guest clinician who had worked with the choir in their annual Fall Workshop and the text is full of faith, redemption, and hope so on the schedule it went. I had forgotten that it was also sung at the funerals of President Ford and Reagan until that morning when it became a song of peace for the departed and a message of hope for the friends and families of the recent ISIL attacks. “Even with darkness sealing us in we breathe Thy name, and through all the days that follow so fast, we trust in Thee, endless Thy grace, O endless Thy grace beyond all mortal dream,” the poet writes.

OUR PRAYER. Earlier in the fall, BelPres resident composer, Alicia Lewis, had transformed an original Celtic-like melody for “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” into a choral-congregational setting with a plaintive English Horn solo. I was looking for an opportunity to include it one more time in worship before the Advent/Christmas season and Sunday, November 15, was the last chance to do so. I’ve seen the Holy Spirit envelope many in the congregation as they’ve sung Alicia’s beautiful melody with these timeless words but still was a little concerned about scheduling two slow songs consecutively. It wasn’t until we were singing it in the service that I realized the theme God had selected for the music on the first Sunday after the Paris attack: Prayer for mercy; prayer of trust and grace; an affirmation of prayer, our dialogue with God.

PENTECOSTAL PRAYER. I waited to select the hymn after the sermon until I heard the topic of the message. When told it was on the Holy Spirit I selected a hymn for Pentecost, “Come, O Spirit, Dwell Among Us,” which I usually set to the lilting tune Hyfrydol (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”) but decided to retain the original tune Ebenezer, which feels firm and demanding, more the fire of the Holy Spirit than the flowing wind one would relate to the Spirit. We sang the tune and words with vigor and conviction “Come, O Spirit, dwell among us, Come with Pentecostal power; …Help us face each crucial hour.” My worries were assuaged. “Perfect!” I thought, and was again blown away by the link to the recent tragedies in Paris, Lebanon, and Africa, and our resolve to move forward listening to the Spirit’s voice within us.

SENDING. To close the service our brilliant organist Wayne Slater selected a triumphant postlude also by the Parisian organist Vierne that soars, especially under his fingers. And so it did. It lifted me and many others up and out into the world to face another week with the assurance that God is not only with us but is working through us whether we know it or not. The selection “bookended” the service stylistically and highlighted the transformation from grief and longing for mercy and peace, to victory in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.

“We sang the tune and words with vigor and conviction ‘Come, O Spirit, dwell among us, Come with Pentecostal power; …Help us face each crucial hour.’ My worries were assuaged. ‘Perfect!’ I thought, and was again blown away by the link to the recent tragedies in Paris, Lebanon, and Africa, and our resolve to move forward listening to the Spirit’s voice within us.”

A DANGEROUS PRAYER. I thought, “Is it that theology is so broad that these themes simply pop-up at the right time or is there something else going on here?” (I am a living contradiction: a born skeptic and yet a person of faith.) Annie Duncan preached on listening to the “nudges” of the Holy Spirit. I’ve had those “nudges” before but there was nothing that felt “nudge-y” about this process. I was just doing my job. But years ago, while still in graduate school, before I started a family, while driving to a full time lumber sales job and when I was uncertain of what I was going to do with a career in music, I was “nudged” to pray a very simple prayer, “Lord, use me.” I didn’t want to spend my life in a concert hall, which seemed to be a museum for music to me at the time, and I was questioning the path I was on for a life in the “Ivory Tower.”

Years later I learned that some people call this a “dangerous prayer” because your life is going to radically change when God takes over. When I look back on that prayer time in my Datsun B-210 I am thankful I didn’t know it was so dangerous. But even if I had known, what danger could there be if God is in charge? Isn’t that what we all want? Besides, from my previous part-time church music posts I felt that music in the church, while not highly esteemed by my colleagues as the most highly artistic, worship is the ultimate use of music. (N.B. I still consider education to be one of the most noble and important careers in all of life.)

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. John 3.8. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what I am doing other than just going to work, doing my job, and trying to be faithful, day by day. Maybe you feel that way too. “Give God your best, trust He’ll do the rest,” has been my little motto. That isn’t an excuse to slack but it is a mindset that God is my silent partner even when I don’t see Him, feel Him, or touch Him. I understand that is easy to think when you work in the church but it is a universal truth and applies to everyone. As N.T. Wright points out in his book, “Surprised By Hope,” it is also God’s plan. What we do and how we do it in this world matters because it will be the basis for what we do in the next world!

COME, O SPIRIT, DWELL AMONG US. The hymn we sang to follow Annie Duncan’s sermon on following and acting on the nudges of the Holy Spirit was “Come O Spirit, Dwell Among Us . . . for tomorrow’s unknown pathway, Hear O Lord, our humble prayers.” Each day in your work place, at home, or at play, pray “Lord, use me.” Listen, and act on those impulses—yes! But also trust in your prayer, give God your best and ask Him to do the rest. Then watch what happens. You may not know until after the fact where or how the Lord of the universe has used you but I am here to tell that if you ask, He will.

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