Saturday, January 9, 2021

For the worship service this week, I am honored to have collaborated with two women who have helped make my time here extra special: Susan Shewmaker and Lydia Ellis.


Anytime I needed to be away or was planning to take vacation, Susan was the first person I’d call. I met her on my very first Sunday, and I quickly learned of her many years of experience as a part-time church musician – all while she was working full-time as a K-12 music educator. Newly retired from both of these roles, she was interested in keeping her skills up and helping out where she was needed. It didn’t take long for me to realize I could “unplug” and not worry about anything at church when I was on vacation; Susan would very ably handle it! In addition to our love of music, Susan and I share a dry, self-deprecating humor, and we’ve enjoyed many good, hearty laughs over the years. Thanks for always being there, Susan!


I think I was about a month into my job when Jim Stewart came to find me in the choir loft after worship one Sunday. “There’s somebody I want to introduce you to,” he said. He took me into the Fellowship Hall, where I was greeted by a woman seated in a wheelchair and a HUGE smile on her face. At that point, Lydia was nearing the two-year anniversary of her fateful strokes. I wish I had a quarter for every time someone has said to me, “It’s too bad you never heard her play the flute!” I’ve always been struck at (and a bit envious of) Lydia’s determination, confidence, and perseverance. Whether it’s setting a goal of walking a bit further unaided, or re-gaining muscle tone in her “bad leg,” or finding a Native American flute that she can operate with one hand, Lydia just never lets down until she has conquered her quest. Thanks for inspiring me, Lydia!


I wish I could name and write a paragraph about everyone at this church that is dear to me. But that would turn into a multi-volume memoir! Suffice it to say, I will miss Susan, Lydia, and the scores of other folks from The Presbyterian Church of Danville who have loved and supported me. All y’all (!) will always be in my heart.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Epiphany Carol: We Three Kings of Orient Are

If you were asked, “What’s your favorite Christmas carol?”, I bet you could easily name at least a half-dozen songs that are meaningful to you. But what if you were asked, “What’s your favorite Epiphany hymn?” Perhaps you’d have to pause and give it some thought.

The familiar “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is probably the most well-known Epiphany hymn. (Admittedly, though, many folks consider it a Christmas carol.) We sing it most every year around The Day of Epiphany on January 6. The Companion Volume to the Glory to God hymnal explains some of the historical significance of the hymn:

The images behind this 1857 text have long colored the way Christians read the account of the coming of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12). The biblical account says only that they were “from the East,” a vague term that could include Arabia, Mesopotamia, or regions beyond. They are also said to have studied the stars, a detail that combines with the distance they have traveled to characterize them as Gentiles rather than as dispersed Jews. Their inferred royalty may have been connected with their respectful treatment at the court of Herod, but it may also have resulted from an effort to make these visitors fulfill the prophecies that Gentile kings would pay homage to God’s Anointed One. Already by the time of Justin (c. 100-c. 165), Christians were referring to these sages as “kings,” and their number was fixed at three because of their three gifts. This number was assumed in Western Christianity at least by the era of Origen (c. 185-c. 254), though the Syrian Church thought there might have been as many as twelve! By the early Middle Ages, names were assigned to each of these three characters, who not only appeared in the general mystery plays but also had their own subgenre of “three kings plays.” After Frederick Barbarossa transferred their supposed relics to Cologne in 1162, the cult of the Three Kings continued to thrive, finding expression in folk customs and beliefs. Even the Reformation was unable to dislodge much of the religious affection for them.

In a performance note from 1863, the hymn’s author and composer – John Henry Hopkins, Jr. – specifies that the three inner stanzas are to be sung by three male soloists, each representing one of the three Kings: Gaspard, Melchior, and Balthazar. They are to sing the first and last stanza together, and the congregation is to sing the refrain. Well, 158 years later in 2021, we are only partially obeying Mr. Hopkins’ wishes in our inclusion of this hymn in today’s Christmas 2/Epiphany service. The three inner verses are indeed sung by soloists, though they are not all males. And, the congregation from their living rooms, cars, or wherever (!) is invited to join in on as much or as little as they’d like. A brass trio also adds harmony to the refrains, with each of the trio’s members taking on a solo quality of the inner verses as well. (Hopefully John Henry Hopkins, Jr. won't mind too much.) Happy Epiphany!

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Mary's Magnificat


In today’s gospel passage from Luke, we hear the familiar pre-Christmas story of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary. He tells her that she will conceive a child (a great surprise to her!) and that her baby will be the holy Son of God. It’s a familiar story that we hear every year at this time.

The part of the story we don’t get in this excerpt is Mary going to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is also unexpectedly pregnant. During this visit, Mary delivers a monologue that has come to be known as “Mary’s Song of Praise” or simply by the Latin name “Magnificat.” The full text of Mary’s Magnificat is:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

Our hymn today is a contemporary paraphrase of Mary’s Magnificat called “My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout.” Carl Daw writes about this text, “From the very beginning it is evident that this is no tame paraphrase of the Song of Mary. It identifies with, and draws energy from, the deeply revolutionary implications of what it means for the mighty to be put down from their thrones and for the lowly to be lifted up.” Interestingly, the first three stanzas address God while the fourth stanza shifts its focus to address other people of faith. Here’s the text in full:

1 My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
and my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
so from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.

2 Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me,
and your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and to those who would for you yearn,
you will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn. (Refrain)

3 From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
there are tables spread; every mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn. (Refrain)

4 Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise which holds us bound,
till the spear and rod can be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around. (Refrain)

For me, it’s a powerful re-rendering of Mary’s song with an ever-helpful social justice bent. The refrain especially foreshadows what we all know is about to happen (“the dawn draws near”) in the coming days of Christmas (“the world is about to turn”). Enjoy!

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Advent -- Light and Dark

One of the paradoxes of Advent for me has always been the notion of light and dark. Each year, as we march our way through the season, we grow closer and closer to the winter solstice – the longest night of the year. Or, said another way, the day with the least amount of light. At the same time, week by week, we add more and more light to the Advent wreath. We decorate our homes and Christmas trees with lights. Many folks add candles to their window sills. As the world grows darker and darker, we work hard to make our lights brighter and brighter. All of this, of course, in anticipation for the coming of the Light of the World on Christmas.


This idea is further explored a bit in our hymn today, “In the Depth of Winter’s Darkness.” It was written almost exactly 30 years ago, on December 19, 1990, by PC-USA ruling elder Joy F. Patterson of Wisconsin. This was an unfamiliar text to me until this year, and we’ve chosen to pair Patterson’s text with the familiar tune of the Christmas carol, “Angels From the Realms of Glory.” For me, the dark/light imagery is even more prevalent with the contrast of this peppy tune. Here’s the full text:


In the depth of winter’s darkness, lost in gloomy shades of night,
all humanity stands watching, waiting for God’s promised Light.
Alleluia, alleluia, come, Lord Jesus, quickly come. 

Now the time of preparation—with repentance, hope resolve,
let us ready minds and spirits for the Christ who comes in love.
Alleluia, alleluia, come, Lord Jesus, quickly come.

Once he came, and still he’s coming, mystery both new and old—
what the hour of his new Advent prophets and not known or told.
Alleluia, alleluia, come, Lord Jesus, quickly come. 

Doing justice, showing mercy, praying, praising, let us wait
so that we may greet his coming ready for the Daystar’s Light.
Alleluia, alleluia, come, Lord Jesus, quickly come.


As our days grow shorter and shorter (and darker and darker), I hope this text helps illumine your Advent path. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 5, 2020

"Prepare the way, O Zion"


Our Advent hymn today comes from the Scandinavian country of Sweden. “Prepare the Way, O Zion,” first published more in 200 years ago (1812) in Stockholm, is considered one of the great Advent hymns to emerge from the Church of Sweden – a former state church and the largest Lutheran denomination in Europe. It was originally seven stanzas in length but is now most often published in the 3-stanza version that we have in Glory to God.


For me, this is one of my earliest memories of a hymn specific to the Advent season. As an organ nerd, admittedly, it could well be the organ arrangement I remember that features the melody played in dissonant intervals meant to imitate the “honking” of a semi traversing the open road – a nod to an earlier version of the hymn’s title: Prepare the Royal Highway. However, I also appreciate the hymn’s rhyme scheme and multiple Biblical references.


The hymn’s author, Frans Mikael Franzén, employs the same rhyme scheme throughout each stanza of this hymn, each consisting of four lines – three for each individual verse and a common fourth line refrain that follows. The three verses published in our hymnal are:


Prepare the way, O Zion, your Christ is drawing near!
Let every hill and valley a level way appear.

Greet One who comes in glory, foretold in sacred story.
Refrain: O blest is Christ who came in God’s most holy name.

He brings God’s rule, O Zion; he comes from heaven above.
His rule is peace and freedom, and justice, truth, and love.
Lift high your praise resounding, for grace and joy abounding.
Refrain: O blest is Christ who came in God’s most holy name.

Fling wide your gates, O Zion; your Savior’s rule embrace,
and tidings of salvation proclaim in every place.
All lands will bow rejoicing, their adoration voicing.
Refrain: O blest is Christ who came in God’s most holy name.


You’ll notice in each stanza the first two lines rhyme with each other – near/ap-pear; a-bove/love; em-brace/place. Franzén then uses internal rhyme (meaning there’s a rhyme scheme within the same line) for the third line of each stanza as well as the fourth line (refrain) – came/name. In the case of the third line, he takes the rhyming a step further and uses a two-syllable internal rhyme each time – glory/story; re-sounding/a-bounding; re-joicing/voicing. In my opinion, this gives the text momentum as the stanzas move along.


Finally, the text’s Biblical references make this a perfect hymn for the Second Sunday of Advent and the readings from Isaiah and Mark. In the first stanza, we get a reference to the prophetic voice of Isaiah (“foretold in sacred story”) as well as allusions to the Old Testament reading, Isaiah 40:1-11: A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain...’ (vs. 3-4). This same sentiment is later expressed by John the Baptist and written about by Mark in today’s gospel reading, Mark 1:1-8: As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight...’” (vs. 2-3).


I hope singing this hymn today will help enliven your Advent journey a bit. If you listen closely, perhaps you’ll even hear a couple of those “semi honks” in the musical offering!

Sunday, November 29, 2020

JS Bach's "Wachet Auf..."


One of my favorite organ pieces for the Season of Advent – J. S. Bach’s Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme – opens our service this week. The German title is often translated “Wake, Awake, a Voice is Calling.” After all, isn’t that sentiment partly why we live so fully into Advent? We are urged to be alert and prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ.


This chorale prelude of Bach’s comes from his collection known as the “Schübler Chorales,” so named for the engraver – Johann Georg Schübler – who published this set of six chorale preludes towards the end of Bach’s life (around 1747). None of the six pieces in this collection began their lives as organ pieces. Instead, they were movements from some of Bach’s many cantatas that he wrote during his tenure in Leipzig. Bach selected these six movements to be transcribed from their cantata (three musicians, often two instruments and a singer) to pieces for organ (one musician).


In Wachet auf..., you’ll notice a catchy, dance-like theme at the outset (played by the right hand) paired with a harmonic framework (played in the pedal). In the original cantata, this would have been high strings/violins and low strings/cello, respectively. The left hand remains unneeded until several measures into the piece and then only sporadically throughout. This is because the left hand is playing the part of the original cantata movement that would have been sung by a singer; in this case, a tenor, who would have sung the chorale melody phrase-by-phrase in the original cantata. So, when the chorale melody comes in, the left hand plays in the tenor register on a trumpet stop. No doubt Bach specified one of the loudest stops of the organ for this “voice” as a means of painting the text of the chorale: Wake up! A voice is calling!


I hope this piece helps you begin this season with a smile. I find it hard to listen to without doing so myself!

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Christ the King Sunday

If you are an avid reader of this blog, you may recall a post here a few months ago describing the beginning of the Season of Pentecost. (See Well, here we are some 5+ months later at the conclusion of the season – in a liturgical day known as Christ the King Sunday. It only seems good and orderly to conclude the season in a similar way to which I began it here.


As the longest season of the liturgical year, Pentecost starts 50 days after Easter and ends the Sunday before Advent begins – a day also known as Christ the King Sunday. In some ways, CtK Sunday is the church’s New Year’s Eve because the new liturgical year begins next week on the First Sunday of Advent. The Episcopal Church’s online glossary describes CtK Sunday as “celebrating Christ’s messianic kingship and sovereign rule over all creation.” This denomination also offers a prayer on this day that God, “whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords,” will “Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.”


But where did Christ the King Sunday come from? (After all, there’s no mention of this liturgical day in the Bible!) Believe it or not, Christians have only been celebrating Christ the King Sunday for just under a century. It was established as a Catholic feast day in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. David Ouzts explains:

In the aftermath of World War I, Pope Pius noted that, while hostilities had ceased, true peace had not been restored to the world and the different classes of society. His first encyclical (a papal letter sent to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church) after the war was Ubi arcane Dei consillo (“On the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ”) in December 1922. He deplored class divisions and overt nationalism, and he maintained that true peace may only be found under the Kingship of Christ as the “Prince of Peace.”


In 1925, the pope formally introduced and established the Feast of Christ the King in his encyclical Quas primas (“In the First”): “When we pay honor to the princely dignity of Christ, men will doubtless be reminded that the Church, founded by Christ as a perfect society, has a natural and inalienable right to perfect freedom and immunity from the power of the state; and that in fulfilling the task committed to her by God of teaching, ruling, and guiding to eternal bliss those who belong to the kingdom of Christ, she cannot be subject to any external power.”


I think you will find the service music this week that exemplifies this notion of Jesus Christ as King over all. I’m grateful to Casey Tibbles for her artistry and collaboration. May the music enrich your Christ the King Sunday, and... Happy New Year!