Sunday, October 29, 2006

cranking up the banjo, liturgical style

This morning at the 9:00 service, we played Sufjan Stevens' "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" for the anthem at Communion. I'd been looking forward to playing this piece for months - the opportunity to play a song in church that I enjoy listening to anyway (ie, quality singer/songwriter stuff, no cheesy Christian pop) is an event worth noting. I was given the task of writing the Music Notes about the piece for the Sunday bulletin. I know this is two postings in a row in which I've put up something I've written that has to do with church...but please indulge me one more time, as I really feel strongly about this song as a quality piece of writing that achieves in structure what it intends to convey in lyrical theme.

This morning’s anthem at Communion is “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” by Episcopalian singer/songwriter Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-yan) Stevens from his album Seven Swans. The title of the song is taken from Isaiah 55:12. More “indie singer/songwriter” than “contemporary Christian pop,” Stevens scrutinizes his own faith in lush soundscapes of unconventional instrumentation and introspective, less-than-overt lyrics that hint at a myriad of emotional responses: doubt, hope, self-consciousness, joy, awe.

“All the Trees…” begins with a simple banjo line that repeats like a meditative mantra beneath the opening question, “If I am alive this time next year / will I have arrived in time to share?” This kind of lyrical tension exists throughout the piece as Stevens alternately notes the joy of God’s kingdom (“I heard from the hills a band was made”) and wonders at his own place within it (“Will I be invited to the sound?”). As the song progresses, musical layers are added in sequence to the banjo foundation. Each part is uncomplicated, but completely different from the others: a piano line, a second banjo, a chorus of women. A declaration of intent comes into focus as Stevens, over the sum of these musical parts, states with purpose, “I am joining all my thoughts to you / and I’m preparing every part for you.” Indeed, the structure of the music itself mirrors the devoted intention of the singer as these seemingly disparate pieces are “joined” and “prepared” in a unified offering of praise to God.

If you aren't familiar with Sufjan Stevens, I highly recommend listening to Seven Swans in its entirety. Even if you're not into music with religious themes, the instrumentation alone warrants a second listen. It is a challenging record that drifts beyond quirky into downright weird at times...but on the whole, I think it's absolutely mesmerizing.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

saving the pumpkin at a time

The pumpkin-picking at Ashland Berry Farm last week turned out even better than I expected. It was one of those moments that reminds me why I like my job so much and why I think the kids I work with are so great. The following is an account of the afternoon (with a few visual aids thrown in) that I wrote for St. James's monthly newsletter:

Counting Our Blessings in Pumpkins

St. James’s high school youth group is all about fellowship. Every Sunday evening, we meet to eat dinner together and participate in a fun activity, and we always end up having a good time. But as a part of the parish at large, our youth group is also a means for us to serve, to give thanks for our many blessings by sharing what we have with others.

Emily Steele is a St. James’s parishioner and former youth group volunteer leader of four years. As principal of Fair Oaks Elementary School in Henrico County’s Varina district, Emily needed 30 pumpkins for her school’s third annual Community Day on October 21. As Emily put it, Community Day “celebrates the connection between home and school” with a fun afternoon that includes “an inflatable obstacle course, games, pizza, hay rides and more.” The school needed pumpkins for a pumpkin-painting station, so our youth group offered to take a trip to Ashland Berry Farm to pick pumpkins and donate them to the cause.

Ashland Berry Farm is bustling with people in mid-October, due in large part to the deal they give on pumpkins: all the pumpkins you can carry (and take three steps) for $20. We sat in a line of traffic for 15 minutes just to get into the parking lot and stood in line for another half an hour to hop on the hayride out to the pumpkin patch. Despite the hoops we had to jump through, we found lots of ideal pumpkins once we were out in the field. Our pile grew bigger and bigger until we were uncertain we could carry all that we had amassed.

But there were lots of side comments as we counted and stacked pumpkins. “I picked this one – I’m taking it home.” “This is my favorite, I’m keeping it for myself.” “This one is perfect. It’s mine – I call it.” So we stopped for a moment. We talked about why were taking on this project. We talked about a spirit of giving, about sharing all that we have and not keeping the best for ourselves, about providing for others and trusting God to provide for us. It was quiet for a minute, and then everyone let go – literally and figuratively – of their pumpkins.

That turn of spirit marked an infectious change in the whole dynamic of the afternoon. The tractor driver of the hayride offered the front shovel of his tractor to carry our pumpkins safely back to the farm. “I’m gonna drive real slow – I don’t want to spill any of these charitable pumpkins,” he said, raising the shovel up as if the pumpkins were a sacred offering. The woman collecting money helped us get all of the pumpkins into four armloads (we had tested it out in five), and then only charged us for three. “It’s for a good cause!” she said.

In all, we gathered almost 50 pumpkins for Fair Oaks’ Community Day and loaded them in the back of Emily’s truck. Emily writes, “Thank you so much to St. James’s and their amazing youth group who have touched lives and provided smiles for an entire community!” The whole experience was a timely reminder for me – and, I hope, for our youth – that we are blessed with much, and sharing those blessings with others is really what it’s all about.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

a birthday of sorts

Today is October 15...which means this blog is officially a year old today. Not a terribly strong frequency of postings to show for it of late, but worth noting nonetheless. As was the case this weekend last year, the youth group is off to Ashland Berry Farm shortly to pick pumpkins that will be donated to a local elementary school for their Community Day. And it's the perfect day for it - mid-60s, clear and sunny.

Will try to follow up with photos and a recap of the last couple of weeks in the near future...