Eating the Seder, Singing Gospel

Two opinion pieces appeared this Lenten season in the on-line version of Christianity Today. The first, written by two Rabbis, argues that Christians should not eat a Seder meal as a commemoration of the Last Supper. The second, written by two Evangelical Christians, gives counterarguments to the first.

Both sets of arguments have merit. I’m not qualified to contradict either, but I am more inclined to agree with the two Rabbis.

I’m a Gentile. Specifically a Christian, born and raised in the Roman Catholic church, who later embraced Protestant traditions. My mother’s parents were born in Hungary. My father’s family came from Ireland. Maybe if I took a test to have my DNA analyzed for ancestral traits I might learn that I have Tatars, Kalanguya, or Ethiopian Jews among my forebears, but for now I self-identify as a White Gentile of European descent.

That argues against the adopting of Jewish traditions such as the Seder meal as a part of my Christian practice. The Seder, a remembrance of the deliverance of the Jews from slavery, draws on a heritage that I can’t claim. It’s possible instead that someone in my family’s past was active in persecuting Jews. The links to that past are weak or nonexistent, so I’ll likely never know.

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Sheet music for the Gospel Service

I struggle with similar misgivings when it comes to singing Gospel music. On Sunday 23 April the Gospel Choir of the Grace Presbyterian Church of Montclair will present its eleventh annual Gospel Celebration. Gospel music is powerful in its message and in its composition. And it is great fun to sing. Our rendition of “John the Revelator” alone is worth the price of admission. But Gospel music draws on the experiences of the African-American community, which has endured slavery, oppression, disenfranchisement, and denial of opportunity that I cannot comprehend.

What right do I have to sing such words of suffering, pain, and loss?

The controversy over the inclusion in the Whitney Biennial exhibit of a painting of Emmett Till comes to mind in this context. What right does a White artist have to adopt for her own practice a tragedy of such magnitude, one that played out in a community not her own? Strong arguments in support of and against the artist and curators continue to be made.

My reactions to the two activities, eating the Passover Seder and singing Gospel music, may also arise out of some unrecognized prejudices. After all, Motown was part of the soundtrack of my youth, and lately I’ve been listening to WBGO more frequently. But would I want to be a musician of color? Maybe not.

Nonetheless, if we are to bridge the gaps with people who are different from us, most importantly so that we can work together to address the ills that affect our world, we need to know and understand what brought those people to the place where they are now. Participating in a Seder meal as a Seder meal and not as a Christian practice might help. And I will overlook my misgivings and participate joyfully in Grace’s Gospel Celebration in the hopes that it will let me me understand the heritage of  my African-American friends in the choir a bit better.

What has brought people with whom I differ in other ways to the place where they are now? What opportunities exist for me to learn about them without pretending to be something that I am not or asking them to pretend to be something that they are not?

I hope you have and take opportunities to sit with those who are different from you and offer each other glimpses into your heritages and passions. What can you accomplish together once you get to know one another better?

I want to thank Krista Tippett of On Being for airing a conversation that provided some inspiration for this post.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

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In Memory of Dominick Ferrara III

Dominick Ferrara III passed away on Monday, 13 February, 2017. He was director emeritus of the Bloomfield Civic Band, having served as its director for forty-three years until his retirement in 2013. The generosity of someone who would devote so much of his life to a volunteer community band can’t be overstated.

Over twenty years ago an article in the New York Times featured Dominick and the band. The writer did not call the band an anachronism but clearly and respectfully placed community bands and their repertoire in some romantic yesteryear.

Dominick and the band’s current director, Frank Ortega, have championed the kind of repertoire that transcends time, pleases diverse audiences, keeps the band members engaged and sharp, and showcases the talents of individuals in the band. Classical transcriptions, marches, show tunes, big band  and jazz arrangements, pops favorites, and rock and roll transcriptions fill our programs. Dominick even arranged at least part of a Mozart symphony for performance by the Civic Band and the Garden State Concert Band, of which Dominick was also the director.

Dominick was generous with the time that he spent curating music for the band’s programs and conducting the rehearsals and concerts, but he was also generous in supporting and encouraging members of the band. Learning to play a band instrument was my answer to midlife angst. Before 2004 I barely knew what a baritone horn or euphonium was, let alone picking one up and attempting to play it. After only about seven months of lessons my teacher contacted Dominick and asked if he had a seat in the band for a new player. Of course Dominick said “Yes,” so on a Monday evening in September 2004 I gathered my instrument and my courage and attended my first Civic Band rehearsal.

I’m probably still inflating my achievement to say that I could play only about twenty percent of what was in the folder, but I had the good fortune to sit between two very skilled and experienced players. Weeks later Dominick insisted that I play in that season’s holiday concert. I had not experienced such stage fright in many years, if ever. To this day, over twelve years later, I still play like a middle school kid who never practices. I am still grateful beyond words for the chance to play in the band, and for Dominick’s and now Frank’s patience with the less proficient members of the band like me.

Through leading the Bloomfield Civic Band and through the Bloomfield Federation of Music Dominick helped keep alive the institution and tradition of community music making. When the Bloomfield Civic Band meets for rehearsal we leave at the door the concerns and categories and predispositions that otherwise distract and keep us apart in our daily lives. We spend a couple of hours trying to make sense of a lot of dots and squiggles. Magic happens. We make music. Periodically we get to share that music with an people who, we hope, have also left concerns and categories somewhere else and who, we hope, will be lifted and cheered by the magic of a community band.

That is my memory of Dominick Ferrara III. I am privileged to have sat and played under his baton.

Bad Religion (Ross Douthat)

I just finished reading Bad Religion by Ross Douthat. Thanks to Margo Walter at Grace Presbyterian Church​ for the referral. It’s brief and well written. Full of observations and arguments about the history and current state of American Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. Read it critically and with a dictionary nearby if you choose to read it. It might make you angry; it might open your eyes. Ancillary to the major themes of the book is an observation near the end about the state of aesthetics in contemporary Christianity: “[M]any Christians are either indifferent to beauty or suspicious of its snares, content to worship in tacky churches [a cheap shot?] and amuse themselves with cultural products that are well-meaning but distinctly second-rate. Few Americans think of religion as a great wellspring of aesthetic achievement anymore, and the Christian message is vastly weaker for it.”

I’m grateful to be able to worship in a place where experiencing and creating beauty is recognized as a means of knowing God and honoring God.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Music Is Not a Spectator Sport

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Singer-Songwriter Beck Hanson (known simply as Beck) published a book recently entitled Song Reader. In a review in the November/December issue of Books and Culture the reviewer, Jeff Johnson (himself a recording artist) made this comment: “Music is not just a soundtrack for whatever it is we are doing; if we participate in it instead of simply consuming it it will make living richer.”

The Christmas season is an appropriate time to think about our participation in music. My involvement in making music rather than consuming it came about because I wanted to do something that would cause people to think well of me. I thought and still think well of people who make music, the same way that I think well of people who are exceptionally intelligent or creative or have dedicated their lives to becoming really good at something such as a competitive sport.

As a high school student I thought that playing the guitar might serve this purpose and so I located a guitar teacher and began taking lessons. Sadly my guitar-playing career was short lived. Around the same time I observed that my peers in the church that I was attending who were part of the high school singing group were something of an elite, and so I began thinking about singing in a group setting as a way of accomplishing my goal. I didn’t act on that until I was in college, then one Thursday evening I showed up at the senior choir rehearsal. These were the people who wore the robes and sang in the Sunday morning services. I was welcomed in, despite my having no musical or voice training. To my surprise I found myself wearing a robe and singing from the choir loft the very next Sunday. Within a few months I was invited to join a smaller group, comprising mostly the younger members of the senior choir and a few others, who sang mostly in Sunday evening services. When that group held a reunion in the 1990s as part of the church’s centennial celebration I could still sing some of the music from memory. I have sung on and off in church choirs since then.

Anyone reading this probably understands that singing in a church choir doesn’t necessarily cause people to think well of you. I’d like to think that I’ve outgrown the need or ambition to have people think well of me, but the truth is that I probably haven’t and never will. That said, it is still worth observing that singing with a group is great fun. It’s also often a great challenge. The choir with which I currently sing, at Grace Presbyterian Church in Montclair, NJ, sings Bach cantatas in German, contemporary Gospel music, and classic choir repertoire by a wide range of composers.

In 2003, as the last tuition payment for our children’s undergraduate educations was in view, I saw the opportunity to fulfill another musical dream and begin studying an instrument. With the help of a friend and fellow church member I took up the euphonium and later joined the Bloomfield, New Jersey Civic Band. The photo at the top of this post was taken this morning (22 December 2013) as I prepared to play as part of a Christmas Carol sing at Grace.

Many people will say that they can’t sing. I know some people of whom that is actually true, but I think for many others it’s more a matter of being too self-conscious to sing in a setting where others might hear them. That’s sad. Like the highly processed foods that fill the shelves of our supermarkets, highly produced and highly commercialized music might satisfy our senses for a short while, but participating actively in locally produced music, even if it’s just singing hymns, feeds the spirit wonderful, nourishing food.

Take a chance. Sing. Whistle. Take up (or take up again) a musical instrument. Make a joyful noise, at the holidays and at all times.

The Sights and Sounds of Summer Reprise

According to school calendars, summer has ended. According to the segments of the local economy that generate their revenue from summer activities, summer has ended. According to the calendar there are still three more weeks before the fall equinox. Nonetheless, sunrise just before 6:30 a.m. and sunset just before 7:30 p.m. remind us that the solstice was many weeks ago and summer is, indeed, ending.

What do we still see and hear? As late as Labor Day weekend a few cicadas were still emerging and hoping to attract mates. Crickets have been heard all summer long but late summer and early fall is the time when they really seem the most noticeable. As this is being written one cricket is chirping within a few feet of the back door even though is the middle of the day.

On the subject of crickets, Jody and I had the pleasure of listening to a fine performance by the Stone Soup Symphony in Passaic’s Memorial Park on Thursday, 29th August.  The sound of an outdoor concert is not a sound that occurs in nature but it is still one of the best sounds to be heard on a summer evening. On our way home through the park the volume of the cricket chirps was substantial. Also present, although unexpected, was the call of a single katydid. I don’t recall the last time I heard a katydid in this neighborhood. It’s likely that they’ve been around but I just wasn’t paying attention.

On another trip through the park at dusk this evening (2nd September) we saw at least one bat. We saw a bat at different times and in different locations so we might have seen more than one. Just as we arrived back at home we saw what we believed to be a flock six to eight nighthawks. They will soon begin their trip south.

Mockingbirds are still around, but the only sound that they make now is the warning sound that indicates the presence of a predator in the area. A cat, not much past kitten phase herself, is raising a litter of four kittens near our compost pile. She and her kittens constantly give the local birds something to squawk about. Even one of the local northern flickers was agitated by the cats and sat on the fence giving his “kyeer” this morning.

Catbirds have been more vocal than usual. As with their cousins the mockingbirds, they may be making noise to warn of predators in the vicinity.

Noticeable changes have begun that signal the end of the summer season. Our pussy willow tree has begun to drop its leaves. The last few years we’ve noticed that it drops its leaves in late August and early September. By mid-September it is almost completely bare. The leaves don’t turn color; they either fall off while still green or begin to turn brown and then fall off. Has it been dropping its leaves this early all along and I’ve simply not noticed?  In other respects the tree appears healthy despite the large scar left by a rotting branch that fell away several years ago.

Summer’s end has never been a pleasant time for me. It’s always reminded me of missed opportunities. So as the days are shortened and the temperature begins to drop, I am reminded that I should make the most of every opportunity to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8)