Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Don't You Want to do Better?

“Don’t you want to do better”?

This was the phrase uttered by conductor, Dr. Jonathan Griffiths, while he was addressing the massed choir we participated in, preparing for our Carnegie Hall debut in New York City. At the time, it was applicable to getting a bunch of amateur choristers to do their absolute best, but it struck me that this is a question for all musicians, and indeed all volunteers and staff in the church to ask themselves on a regular basis. Don’t you want to do better?

I’ve had lots of conversations over the years with church folk. Some are perplexed why I still need to practice, that perhaps I should know how to just play anything. Some are surprised that I would go to conferences and learning events, because they have this strange idea that I might know it all already. Nope!

Many employees or volunteers in the church are life-long learners. For me, engaging in learning is really important, because I will never “know it all”. There is always something to learn from my colleagues, from reading, from listening to concerts and recordings, from going to workshops and masterclasses, from searching for new music, etc. Admittedly it shocks me when I find out that there are musicians out there who at some point stop “studying”. Don’t you want to do better? And, here’s the epitome for me, in a church setting - Don’t you want to give your best to God and to the people that you serve? As staff or volunteers, doesn’t God deserve 100% effort?

Last Sunday, I played really poorly. There were many reasons why, including much distraction by the pets there for blessing, lots of enthusiastic children, several wonderful new choristers, last minute requests, but those are just excuses for why I didn’t do my best. I was prepared, organized, had practiced, and yet, there were things that went astray. It felt like I didn’t give my best to God. Thank goodness this doesn’t happen very regularly! So, after the service, I thought, ok, get up, shake off the dust and strive to do better next week. After all, don’t I want to do better?


Tammy-Jo Mortensen,
Music Director

Monday, January 18, 2016

Music as a Meditative Practice

I went to the Taizé service that Robertson-Wesley hosted in November.
It was the first Taizé service that I had been to in a long time. And after the first chant, all the memories of why I love this style of service came flooding back to me. I used to attend Taizé services quite often, when I was in the midst of my undergrad degree. In those days, walking in to the quietness of the space, I brought in all the stresses and burdens of balancing school, jobs, and family. At the end of the hour-long contemplative service, I would walk out renewed, feeling a bit like a puddle – completely relaxed and lightened to start a new week with fresh eyes and a refreshed soul. 

What is it about a Taizé service that would achieve this rejuvenation in one short hour? Is it the dimness? The calm and quiet? The music? The heartfelt prayers contributed by anyone who wishes to pray aloud? The reading(s) in various languages? Perhaps it is all those things in combination? Of course, for a musician, the music plays a big part in any service. The simplicity of the Taizé chants, with repetition, often with a mélange of languages and harmonies is soothing for many. You can easily fit into the harmony, close your eyes and just sink into the text and the music in a different way than you can with a multi-verse, more complex hymn. I love complex music too, but this renewed experience of attending a Taizé service made me think again about the experience of music in worship. It got me thinking about other music for services which is simple but not simplistic.

Immediately a few centres that have created this style of music leapt to mind. Consider the short pieces of the Iona Community, many of which we have used at Robertson-Wesley in Sunday morning services. These minatures can act in the same manner that the Taizé chants do. They are short and carry a single message, can be used liturgically at specific points in the service, and can be easily linked to a theme, readings or sermon.

Thanks to Rev. Stephen Johann, a United Church minister here in Edmonton, I was recently introduced to the music of St. Lydia’s. This church was begun in 2008, and now meets in a storefront in Brooklyn, NY. It is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and supported by the Episcopal Church. Some of the criteria for the music used in their services is that it is simple and can be taught easily, learned by ear, and can bear repetition. They also want to make sure that the music is communal, that it represents their theological language, and doesn’t require accompaniment to “work”. They have a song-book, and music is taught by a song-leader, but the congregation goes “paperless” to spend time sinking into the music and communicating with one another.

Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is located in San Francisco, CA. While it follows some of the same parameters of the above worshipping communities, and most of the music is done without accompaniment of any sort, a variety of musical styles is intentionally chosen with a range of eras and styles in every service. They have a number of composers within their congregation that contribute to the repertoire of music used at St. Gregory’s. This is perhaps closer to our style at Robertson-Wesley. Any music, regardless of era or style is considered for use, as long as it fits with the theme, scripture, season or message of the service.

The conclusion that I came to in looking at all these centres for worship, is that there are many common threads in how they speak about music for worship. They all use melodies and texts from various parts of the world, and sing often in languages other than English. While some of these communities use longer hymns that carry more than one image, they all use shorter chants and repetitive pieces. They are all thinking deeply about language and theology, and how to involve people in communal music-making. Amen!

The next Taizé service at Robertson-Wesley will be Sunday, October 16, 2016 from 7-8 pm in conjunction with the Koinonia group.

For more information on each centre of worship:
Taizé - http://www.taize.fr
Iona - http://iona.org.uk/
St. Lydia’s - http://stlydias.org/
Gregory of Nyssa - http://www.saintgregorys.org/

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Creating Together

Recently, this quote really caught my eye (and brain):
"If you would like to establish a connection with people from another culture, it's always good to offer a few gifts as a gesture of friendship. But, an even better way to forge a lasting bond is by creating something together. Whether it's a meal, an art project, or just a spontaneous dance party, when you create with others, you build a connection that lasts a lifetime."
- From "The Social Synapse"
by Nora Epinephrine & Sarah Tonin
Upon looking up this quote – the two "authors" are fictitious, as is the “book” it’s quoted from - but the quote is still certainly worthy of thought. The quote is an item that the "Blue Man Group" puts up on the screen before every performance.
It got me thinking – how does this quote have meaning for the church?  How does it relate to being an intercultural church?  How do we offer a few gifts of friendship? 
Creating together IS giving a gift - a gesture of friendship.  By committing to creating something together with others, it is giving the gift of oneself.  It is about becoming vulnerable and opening yourself to others. It's also giving a gift to anyone who receives the creation.
Isn’t creating together what we do in worship, in worship arts, in our rehearsals and committees and pods? Even the 100-year-old space which we use to continue to create in has been a team effort – architects, engineers, tradespeople, interior designers, stained glass artists, all coming together to create something of beauty – something that feeds our souls, a place that creates ties that bind us to one another. 
How many of you have been to a camp or a retreat?  Growing up I went to several music camps.  The act of being together with participants from other geographic areas, creating together, and living a shared experience very quickly created relationships that have lasted a lifetime. 
There are several United churches including Robertson-Wesley who have been exploring the connections between the arts and spirituality and how becoming a safe place and creating something together develops strong bonds and deep connections.  Creating together can break down cultural, gender, age, and class barriers.  Using artistic media allows people to explore the deep questions, the longing of their souls, gratitude for this life and their hope for the future. 

The religious philosopher Martin Buber sums up the act of creating:
“We can only understand the true image of God when we live in community with others.  In order to create a true image, God created us in community.  In our very creation, God provides us with the potential for sharing, for reaching out to others, and for creating together with others.  We are most like our Creator, not when we create alone, but when we join others in the act of creation.  God says, “Let us...,” as if to say that in the course of creating together, shaping together, and building together we are acting in the image of God.”[i]



[i] Seymour Rossel,  Bible Dreams: The Spiritual Quest.  New York: S.P.I Books, 2003, p. 37.

Tammy-Jo Mortensen, M. Mus.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Searching for God

I have be looking for God for a long time.
I think he/she has always been there,
 right in front of me but I didn't see.
 So many miracles that it became easy for me
 to overlook the obvious.

 How God works in my life I am uncertain of,
 but I believe he/she does.
 I have had suffering, but who hasn't.
 I got through it all.
 I look back now and see that it wasn't on my own.

 People, love and pain have all been put in my life for a reason.
 Suffering doesn't mean I have been forgotten
 it means I am out of sorts with what God wants for me.
     I still suffer a lot.
     I still cause suffering.
 But I am certain that I have not been thrown out or left behind.

After years of moving around and living different lives
I found myself living across the street from Robertson Wesley Church. 
It was as as if I was being told.
     HERE!
I don't know where my faith is at from day to day,
but I do believe I probably live next door to it.
As long as I am looking for it and not past it.

                                                    Written by a Robertson-Wesley United Church Member

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sound and silence


In my role as the Music Editor of Gathering Magazine, a national United Church worship resource, I write an article for every quarterly edition on a topic pertinent to that edition. The most recent edition I was working on was about words and silence, and that led me to some musings on musical sound and silence.

It seems in society today there is always noise, and then we make more noise to compensate for and cover over the existing noise. Some examples could be: talking during the previews at the movies, or visiting at social events while there is background music, or playing music really loudly in your car to muffle the sounds of traffic. With instant communications these days, people don’t think twice about answering their cell phones in public places and carrying on one-sided conversations, or not being present to the moment, but being distracted by technology.

So, how does the issue of sound and silence apply to church services? For many people, coming to church is a social event. They see people they often haven’t seen in six days or more, therefore there is some catching up to do, there are always pastoral concerns to be addressed, and business discussions. But, when are these things most appropriate? In the foyer before the service? In the sanctuary during the prelude? During the sharing of the peace? After church at fellowship time? Where should there be sound and where should there be silence? 

For many musicians, talking during instrumental music can be a real pet peeve. Although it often bothers the musician, it may also be distracting to those who are trying to listen to the music. Talking during music seems to happen in various denominations in many parts of the world perhaps because there are many places where it is permitted or even encouraged to talk over the music. However, there are many places that talking is not encouraged, yet sometimes audience members seem oblivious to the cultural rules. What about at a symphony concert? Or a choral concert? An organ concert? Or a musical? Once, a friend told me about buying expensive tickets to a musical she really loved, only to have the experience totally ruined by two people “catching up” on personal news during the entire performance as if they were at a coffee shop. In a massed-choir concert, I also witnessed two participating choristers who had been attentive to the conductor and to the Master of Ceremonies, decided to talk through an engaging organ solo played by one of the best organists in Canada. Why does this happen?

What about those musicians who work very hard at the instrumental music for worship services? Is the offering of their gifts an essential part of worship? Anything we offer to God should an offering of our best. What can we do to encourage church attendees to recognize this offering of musicians who are following their call to musical leadership? One non-United Church congregation I played for in Montreal moved me to a whole new level of expectation of what instrumental music could be during a service. They were an ethnic-based congregation and were wonderfully outgoing people until they reached the door of the sanctuary. Then, it was time for quiet while preparing themselves for worship, taking some moments for prayer, and they let the music help them in their preparation and inspiration. That congregation also expected me to write a half-page of music notes about the hymns, instrumental music or choral/solo pieces of the day. They were really attentive and really desired to honour the gifts of their musicians. Up to that point, I had never worked so hard at all the practical parts of a church position! I am so pleased that I’ve been encouraged to continue the tradition of writing music notes here at Robertson-Wesley. The notes are meant to assist with worship, education, and help people understand how the music fits into the liturgy. I write about the composers, background information about hymn texts, explain terminology, thank additional musicians, and write about anything else that might be pertinent to the music. I hope people who read it are able to better appreciate the selections of music that day, and I certainly know I learn much in writing the notes every week!

At Robertson-Wesley, I am really fortunate that many people feel the music and the liturgy go hand in hand to create meaningful worship experiences. Does that impact how we think about sound and silence here? 


Tammy-Jo Mortensen, M. Mus.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Go Big or Go Home

GO BIG OR GO HOME


Luke 9: 1-3
"Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, 'Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, not even an extra tunic."'

 To go and follow Jesus is a risky business and there are no guarantees. But when we truly go for it...when we trust in God and follow Jesus with nothing except ourselves...doors open, things happen, people gather and healing begins. As we begin to wind down from this whirlwind of a year with the Spiritual Arts Collective we hear God calling and saying - keep going but go bigger! Bigger??? Really? AND so we the design team find ourselves debating, struggling, and seeking how we will move forward, what is God calling us to do next? As we have listened and discerned throughout this past year, paying close attention to where there is energy and passion emerging. We have been watching for where is the Spirit at work, and we know without a doubt that this project is not done yet.

It seems that we have been called to enter a second phase in this project with a vision of a third phase in sight. We have witnessed lives being transformed and relationships have been forged and healing has transpired when we invited strangers to engage spirituality and the arts with us and the artists-in-residence. As each group played together by singing, dancing, writing, painting, sculpting and eating we moved together, we breathed together, we touched each other, and our hearts, minds and souls were engaged. The participants embodied the Spirit and it worked in us and others in ways we would never have guessed.

Now it’s time to give the congregation an opportunity to engage their faith through the Arts and see our worship transformed. In phase 2 we will add Liturgical Arts Collectives to what we've already established. We will invite people to gather around a liturgical season and create something for our worship service during that season. Perhaps they will create a ritual that we will use for the 4 weeks of Advent or maybe they will create a play, a dramatic sermon for Epiphany or a dance for the season of Pentecost.

The arts can deepen our understanding of the scriptures. These collectives will help people to discover more about the parts of worship and why we do what we do. Most importantly, they will explore the faith story, embody it and proclaim it to the gathered people at worship. We will invite a liturgical artist to join us for the year and provide leadership to these Liturgical Arts Collectives.

The vision for phase three is even bigger. We find ourselves envisioning a Western Canada Conference with a theme of Embodied Worship, Expressive Faith Communities, and the Arts. We want to help others explore the myriad of ways that the arts can be used in all expressions of the Spirit at work in us and others. We want to tell our stories of faith in ways that touch people’s hearts, which moves them to respond and live out their faith in their daily lives and in their neighbourhoods.

By thinking big we have discovered that several other aspects within the church that were stalled have now opened up. By dreaming big we have diminished the usual road blocks or walls that prevent us from moving forward. When you move into the chaos of the creative process you have a choice...a leap of faith if you will… where either you jump in with everything or you don't. When we proceed with caution and baby steps we tend to maintain the status quo. When we risk it all we either learn from our failure or we create something that inspires and brings people together. We remember how many people commented that what we were proposing for this year was big, and because we took this leap of faith we have had more invitations for partnerships in the past year and each one seems to be leading us to more embodied engagement in our neighbourhood and the city. Things have shifted for us as a church. Our presence is not only noticed, but it is now being valued and we are a vital part of the neighbourhood in which we minister. Because we went big, we got noticed and we found our voice. Engaging the arts have helped us find a path upon which we are able to articulate who we are and what we value. What we have taken on this journey is our faith - Jesus asks only that we take our whole selves.

Written by Rev. Karen Bridges

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Product is in the Process

It happened again! I fell victim to believing that success is found and measured in the product. As we come to the end of our second Spiritual Collective I found myself feeling pressure about quantitative tangible results which really belong to the business world not the faith community.

The collective had come to the decision that they would have a coffee house style presentation where they would share their stories of awakening. Many were very excited by this idea. We picked the venue we set the date and began our preparations, and then it felt like it all came crashing down. One by one people sent messages indicating that they would not be able to participate in the coffee house due to work or other personal commitments.

 As a leadership team we were disappointed, and a bit dumbfounded. What had happened? Were we unclear about our expectations? Was it the time of year? Was it the result of a long cold winter? Was it just the dynamics of the group or was it the theme? The theme the group explored was “Is it enough? A journey of awakening.” There is no question that people had experienced a moment of awakening through our two months together. People left our first day long gathering energized and feeling as through they had really connected with some new people. We danced together, we sang together and we created. One of my favourite moments was when each person pretended they were an egg cracking open, and once they broke out of their shell they shared a word that described that moment for them. We also wrote one line stories as a collective group using these words. The group met again and wanted to share the things we had done in our first gathering with others, along with some of their own work, which was where the coffee house idea emerged from.

Then, several weeks later our project team sat in my office wondering what to do. We debriefed, we evaluated and suddenly these three words rang through my ears – “is it enough?” Do we need to push the group to complete what they had started? Are we doing enough to bring our vision of this project to fruition? That was our moment of awakening as a leadership team. In that moment God reminded us of the fact that our project is a collective process not a collective project.

When we create together there is no guarantee that what we create is going to become a presentable piece. Many times in the creative process you have to walk away from it, sometimes for a few moments, and sometimes we never come back to it. Creation is a work in progress there are moments when we feel connected to the piece and moments when we do not. There are moments of joy in the process and moments of frustration. Creation like faith is a journey. In our exploration of the theme of awakening the collective identified several key moments that can happen on the journey of awakening. When we reach that aha moment, that moment of awakening we can do one of three things:
• hold onto the moment and simply bask in it
• we can run away from what they have discovered or pretend that it didn’t happen
• or we can be transformed by the moment

 Our experience of this second collective reminds me of the parable of the sower from Matthew 13:1-9 where the sower sowed some seeds. Some fell along the path and the birds came and ate them, some fell on rocky ground where there wasn’t much soil and as they grew the sun scorched them. Some fell among thorns and the thorns choked them out as they grew. And some fell on good soil and produced grain. We realized that we as a leadership team needed to let go of our expectations that there would be a tangible product created by the collective, that we like the sower needed to let the seeds go and fall where they may. As faithful followers of Jesus, we are called to engage one another to be in relationship and to walk with one another on the journey of faith. We need to trust that what we offer is enough.

We met our original intensions: people gathered, they explored a theme together while engaging the arts. They created, they shared, they connected and it was enough!

 As a side note…since writing the first draft of this blog the group gathered again for closure and it turns out that they all had gone off and created something on their own which will now be shared in one of our worship services. God’s Spirit moves and the seeds grow in ways we can never predict.

Written by Rev. Karen Bridges