Thursday, August 26, 2010

Am I Doing What I Am Called to Do?

The question of what I should do with my life has been floating through my various vocational choices since I graduated from college, married Beth, and started making phone calls about getting gigs. My initial dilemma was after a job interview I had with a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia resulted in a real offer of a church music job as we were getting ready to marry in June 1972. One week before our marriage, the offer was tabled as the church considered someone else, and we decided to strike out on a performance career-- self-employed, self-motivated, and self-confident.
Today I am in my 8th year of directing a church music program, and the question of my calling is constantly before me. I am in a very supportive environment, and people are used to my doing well, so that's not it. Rather, there always seems to be another line of musical work that seems more romantic, more creative, or more satisfying.
Well, last week I realized that I was where I should be. Our church music department sponsored a music conference for cross- and multi-cultural music ministers. We started a year ago contacting other like ministries, and focussing on the other churches in our immediate orbit, the New City Fellowship churches. From direct promotion to the creation of a songbook, the initiation of a web site for NCFMusic to the planning of the event itself and the creation of materials and a line-up of seminar leaders. The pastor, Randy Nabors, was supportive but not directive. He attended the plenary sessions and gave a morning talk. The pastor of NCF-East Lake also gave a passionate homily on Friday night about the throne of God and all kinds of people approaching it together.
The conference was successful on several levels. Attendance is usually the first thing people think of in reference to success, and we had 60-70 attendees at a 2-day event. Some came from as far away as Phoenix, Miami, and Atlantic City. Others were local walk-ins responding to a self-created radio spot on a small AM black gospel radio station.
But attendance is not the only measure. The excitement of praise is a powerful reviver, and we had strong, sustained praise sessions without apology or unnecessary rationalization. ( I hate it when music conferences talk and talk about praise!) I was struck by the limits of our facilities at New City, and I made an effort to lay out the Fellowship Hall to invite fellowship and musical interaction. We set up a band of stage gear and mics, and the folks took over all the time. It was cool.
The racial mix was nearly perfect. The churches were mostly conventional denominational congregations, and this was not a charismatic event as such although I've been to charistmatic churches that didn't dance and shout like we did.
I could go on, but I also spent some time writing out a speech to give to the group. "Musicians not Magicians" was a challenge to us a church worship leaders to be realistic with our talents and resources in cross-cultural music because we can't just make a yellow silk scarf red, musically speaking.
I felt fulfilled, useful, creative, and I felt like I was doing something that is not mainstream yet, but promises to be a growing need in the US as people of color continue to grow and the the dynamic of racial divides becomes more and more defining. I felt like a person of faith who looked for a city that God is building, not the culture.
I am thankful to God for giving us a strong time together, structured but not limiting and definitely spiritually envigorating for all.
I still dream about doing other things; I may even do something different in the next decade. But this week I was doing what I have been called to do.
Oh, and we even made money.

Friday, July 23, 2010

All in the Family

Last week Beth and I went north for a family reunion in the small western Pennsylvania town of Beaver Falls. This is near the home of my father, Samuel Smith Ward, age 98. Part of this event was to see him, take pictures, and sing together at the home of my brother Paul who is Daddy's primary caregiver.

I am still relaxing in the afterglow of this blessed time. As we converged on the student apartments at Geneva College where the reunion was held, household by household, we awkwardly greeted those to whom I am related. The unique blend of familiarity and strangeness is universal, I think, as siblings, in-laws, cousins, grandchildren, and other related persons chat and move into funky digs. But when we finally began to grow to a significant number and met for supper in the commons, there was a happy tone to this meeting as folks ate and caught up on our lives.

Samuel and Rosalie Ward were married in 1937. My mother went on to glory in 1997, and that is the last time we gathered. My oldest brother is 69 and he and his wife came from Edmonton, AB. Some of the family were unable to attend, but the ones who did were entertained in some new ways.

1. The siblings are old enough now to be thinking about their own physical and economic life span. Some of our conversations were about health issues.
2. The children of the siblings ran the event. My son Kirk and his cousin Sam led our worship service on Sunday, and my nephew Matt Vos gave the message.
3. Since all the siblings are musical, there was spontaneous singing and playing guitars, ukeleles, keyboard, and even bass. This time, though, more of the music came from other sources than my father's old camp songs. We ended up doing some standard jazz and folk songs. Joel Ward even attempted Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady" accompanied by cousin Marcus. During the talent show, my son Kirk sang a parody called "I Still Haven't Found how to be a Ward" based on the familiar U2 hit. It was dedicated to all the patient In-laws!
4. Our grandchildren were dominant! They played games, bounced off the walls, got hurt, and all the stuff we love about kids.

Although it is not unusual for our gatherings, there was little or no structure to the reunion. A couple of things were planned like dinners, worship, and a talent show, but mostly we just flowed. On Saturday morning a walk to a local playground became a combination of kids playing and adults talking and laughing together in sociological serendipidy. (Right, Matt?)

Everybody's talking about the next one, and those of us who live down south are feeling the call to host it. Next time we will have more convenient tables to sit at, and a shift system for meals so we can interact with more people. I also think that some more active opportunities for hiking, biking, swimming, and a game room would be great.
We are back home, but I am living in a new sense of warm contentment. I am loved, I am part of a wonderful group of growing generations, and I am glad.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Battle for Artful Worship

It's been several months since my last entry. The sabbatical I took is a fleeting memory as the Christmas season led into a new year and new challenges. I got a call this year for a church music directorship in a suburb of Chicago and it made Beth and me think about what we wanted in life as we turn 60. Ultimately we could not seriously embrace the thought of leaving Chattanooga, NCF, and deep emotional roots for a church outside our tradition and in the cold north.

This weekend was a real battle for grace and faith, as several artistic mistakes were made in the 830 service, and then a scheduled choir anthem was faced with dwindling participants. The anthem was quite ambitious-- a Richard Smallwood tune called "Anthem of Praise." Our adult choir continues to be a fickle exercise as folks have compelling circumstances in their lives, and we continue to specialize in a contemporary gospel repertoire that blacks are disappointed with and whites are challenged beyond their cultural comfort zone. Some choir members, it seems, are just too tired to get up and sing Sunday morning.

Throughout the years as a travelling musician who was guest in several churches for choir clinics, I now remember the worried brows of local music directors, and the easy reassurance I gave them. "It will be all right. Let's have fun!" I would prattle. "But I just wish Mike and Theresa could be here. They are such an important part of our choir," the director would sigh.

So this winter our pastor and I have started talking about the choir's options. He has encouraged me to think about scaling back to a seasonal choir that only sings 4 months a year-- Christmas season and Easter season.

But after the 830 yesterday when I was so discouraged and one of my old friends asked me how I was doing, I said not so good. As my friends tried to reassure me, I would not be comforted. "That's it," I declared. "No more contemporary gospel. It's too hard."

A few minutes later another friend spoke to me and I shared my continuing malaise. "But the music is great, Jim. I'll pray for you that you will be strong and the Lord will help you." "Well, would you pray for me right now," I said simply.

She put her arms around me and prayed like a warrior. It was a blessed moment.

As we started the next go-round, I made a couple of instrumental instructions to help with the bad performance, and looked up at the choir loft. 2 sopranos. And one alto I saw, retreating into the congregation. It's too hard. I looked out and saw 10 regular choir members in the 1100 congregation. Something is wrong here.

But the service began with electric energy and by the third song, the congregation was literally bouncing in sections. Shouts and clapping resounded off the walls. In these moments the congregation doesn't realize that I am fighting back at principalities and powers. I don't know about the other singers and players-- they probably don't feel the burden as acutely.

"I'm desparate for you," as the song says. I am at the end of my resources, and I am crying out for help as I sing, change settings, harmonize, listen for balance, stay in the groove, and watch the song leader. I am crying and the Lord is hearing. One unusual boost comes in the form of 8 other singers who come up at join us during the Smallwood anthem. They are guest from Montgomery who are starting a church and came up this weekend to see how it's done. Most were African American and they darkened the choir's sound and look. It was ironic how God raised up an army of fresh recruits while several of our regulars sat wearily in the congregation, uninspired and unmotivated. My wife even overheard a woman behind her singing the anthem with us. She turned to thank her and she said, "yeah, I should be up there." I'm not the only one in a battle.

After Trent Cory's "My Joy" we drop into a grand 6/8 for Kirk's hymn, "Jesus My Great High Priest." The pace and tone of this song are determined, steady, prayerful, theological, reassuring. My reaction was weepy and sobbing at times. Is this the way soldiers are on an offensive?

"Now I approach the throne/and I have confidence/ For Jesus my great high priest/ offered his blood and died." I am lifted by this word from my God, the object of my praise. What a swirling, colliding passion worship is. It takes such work, it has such profound disappointment, and it offers such comfort, all at once. And the reminder of this song is that Christ enduring death on a cross with much greater cost.

I have no conclusions from this experience. It is just an experience, and I am still tearful as I write about it. Part of me wants to change our worship, to make it more compatible with the skills of our congregation, to edit out the stress and the ridiculous demands of contemporary gospel music with all its virtuosity. Part of me wants to gently craft a new style for our slow moving congregation that is slightly more mid-tempo. Part of me wants to relieve myself on the relentless march to Sunday with smaller praise teams, and fewer choir anthems.

But I still have no conclusions yet. The battle continues for artfully, skillfully performed worship music. So for today's pictorial illustration, I chose a scene from Pilgrim's Progress.

About Me

My photo
I am a person who is perceived as youthful, although I am in my late 50s. I play and sing music, and it tends to keep me in the culture, like a lot of young people do. I am a "high I" on the DISC Behavioral Test, which means I'm optimistic, enthusiastic, a team player, and I motivate others toward goals. I don't like exercise, but I have a high metabolism, so I don't tend to be overweight at this time in my life! I have recently been doing moderate exercise and physical therapy for a shoulder condition.