Friday, February 10, 2017

Preparing Our Hearts and Minds to Worship

Picture it. The Cruz family household circa 1976. The oldest child (me) has recently become a teenager and the youngest-there are six in total- is maybe two years old. It’s Sunday morning and it’s time to get ready for church. In a family with six kids everything has to be meticulously planned, laid out on a timetable, and carefully choreographed if we are to enjoy the blissful ride down Everson Hill to Bad Axe Lutheran Church in rural Wisconsin.

That wasn’t how it went at all.

I’m not sure how Mom managed to get all of us ready for church on Sunday morning. (By my memory, it was mostly Mom who took charge of this.) There was always a shoe to be hunted down, Sunday school books to be gathered, clothes to be ironed - anyone with kids knows the drill. By the time we got to the church parking lot Mom would have pronounced her famous phrase – “You kids are enough to make a preacher cuss!”

But this article isn’t about getting ready to leave for worship on Sunday morning; it’s about how to prepare once you get there.
Preparing for worship may include a stop at the font.

Lutherans (and others from a liturgical tradition) tend to be quiet once they are in the nave. Any conversation is hushed and necessary. Once you sit down, what do you do? This blog post offers a few suggestions.

First, pray. The kneelers are there if you want to use one, but it’s just as good to sit quietly. Thank the Holy Spirit for gathering the people around you today. Pray for the Pastor, lay leaders, and musicians as they prepare to lead worship. Pray for the people around you. Matthew Deames, Interim Pastor of Mamrelund Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kent City Michigan, used to arrive especially early so he could walk around the perimeter of his church with the directory in hand, specifically praying for each family.
Still have time to kill? Open your bulletin and read the gospel lesson. Think about where the Pastor might go if this is the basis for the sermon. Next, read the Prayer of the Day. It contains the themes you are likely to encounter in the service. When you have the theme in your head, you will be more aware of all the places in worship that relate to it. Listen for similar words in the hymns, the readings, and the sermon.

I usually skip these two steps and go right for the hymns. I’m always a little disappointed if I know all of them. (I know. I’m weird that way.) Is there a hymn you don’t know? Look it up and read through the text - read it like poetry. When the hymn comes up later in the service, pay special attention to the introduction to hear the melody and rhythm of the text.

Look at the voluntaries – the prelude, postlude, the choir’s anthem, and see how they relate. Most of the preludes I play are hymn-based and they are chosen because they relate to the texts. Feel free to look the hymn up and use its words to prepare your heart and mind for worship.

You probably won’t be able to able to complete these steps every Sunday, but try for one or two.

The Pastor, choir, altar guild, and lay leaders are all examples of people who could use your prayers before worship!

If you are bringing children to church, your morning might be especially frantic. Don’t fret. God, and the rest of us, are just happy that you made it. I’d love to read your comments on this post. Are any of these ideas helpful? Have you found other ways to prepare for worship?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Organ Concert at St. Mark's on Sunday, January 15th, at 7:00 PM: Peter DeWitt

When St. Mark’s refurbished its organ nearly three years ago, the tonal palette was
Dr. Peter DeWitt
designed to enhance congregational singing.  A happy result of the upgrade was that our organ is also better suited as a solo instrument.  We first heard some of its exciting features in a hymn festival played by Aaron David Miller.

Thanks to a generous gift from Ruth Copeland, we will have our second opportunity to hear our organ played as a solo instrument.  Dr. Peter DeWitt will play a solo concert on Sunday, January 15th, at 7:00 p.m.  The concert will feature music by J. S. Bach, Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt, and Spanish composers whose music was prominent during the founding of the city of St. Augustine.

Peter DeWitt recently retired after 37 years as professor of music and theory at Shorter College in Rome, GA where he also served as the college organist. During that time he performed more than 100 times both as soloist and collaborator as organist, harpsichordist, pianist, singer and actor throughout the Southeast. He also performed in Germany, France, Scandinavia, Russia, England and Spain. In 2000, he presented the complete Clavierubungs of Bach in a series of five concerts. He is a past president of the South Eastern Historical Keyboard Society, past treasurer of the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, and an active member of the Jacksonville chapter of the American Guild of Organists.  He is the chair of the Jacksonville AGO’s upcoming regional convention in July of 2017.  He is especially proud of the numerous awards won by his students in organ and composition.

Our Zimmer-Colby Organ

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Ten Things I Love About My Job at St. Mark's

Last Sunday was my ten-year anniversary at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. I came into the office on November 20th, 2006 and played my first service on Christ the King Sunday.  This year Christ the King was on November 20th so my calendar and liturgical anniversaries were on the same day!

In honor of these ten years, here are “Ten Things I Love about My Job at St. Mark’s.  A word of caution: this is not a “top ten” list and the items are not being listed in any particular order. So here is my list, with just a few words about each one.

One thing not mentioned in any of the ten items is how grateful I am for all of the people who have become a part of my life during this time.  Pastor Bob Hale, our Interim Pastor, is fond of saying the important thing about being part of a church community is building relationships.  He’s right.

So, here is my list:

NUMBER ONE: Evangelical Lutheran Worship
We dedicated the new hymnal on Epiphany Sunday and I have to say that I love it.  I appreciate the variety of Holy Communion settings and I love that the introduction acknowledges ELW as “a core rather than a comprehensive resource.”  This hymnal is one of the best ones on the market.
We dedicated ELW in January 2007 with this "sculpture." People came from the pews to get a hymnal and take it back to their seats.  It was easy enough at 8:30, but we had difficulty recreating it at 11:00! Photo by Bill Daugherty.
Sunday mornings are great, but they couldn’t happen without the hard work of singers and handbell ringers in the middle of the week.  I am by myself for a good part of the week doing the work of practicing, planning, and preparing, so I look forward to Wednesday night when I am actually surrounded by people!

A choir practice selfie from earlier this year.

We worship in a beautiful space that has incredible acoustics for singing and instrumental music.  Groups that perform here enjoy performing in our space. One orchestra director pulled me close to whisper excitedly, “This room makes them sound better than they are!”  We are blessed that the San Marco Chamber Music Society calls our nave “home.”

NUMBER FOUR: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Many know that I was baptized and confirmed Lutheran (American Lutheran Church). I moved here with my family in 1980 and we started attending church at NAS Jacksonville – where I also had my first two church music jobs.  I never had the opportunity to work for a Lutheran church until I came to St. Mark’s twenty-six years later!  That means I missed LBW (it had just started catching on the in the Wisconsin country churches) and the merger that created the ELCA.  I am proud of the work our denomination does and its perseverance in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am also happy to have returned to my roots.
The ELCA is known as the church of "God's Work. Our Hands." We observe GWOH Sunday each year with a Sunday of community service.

Every denomination has its association for musicians and I have been a member of many of them.  The ALCM has the best publications, the best networking, and it’s full of people who are willing (and anxious) to share their knowledge freely. Learn more about the ALCM at

I am having such a great time with this upgraded instrument.  The original two manual Zimmer organ is still there, but the additions by Colby have vastly expanded the color palette of the instrument.  One of the best things was having Aaron David Miller dedicate the organ during a hymn festival. Read more about the upgrade in this older article from my blog:

Aaron David Miller prepares for the festival.
These kids sang every hymn!

I was telling my sister about an upcoming funeral and she thought that might be a part of the job I wouldn’t like so much. The truth is I find great meaning in every funeral service.  Having been in this community for ten years, I have played services for people that I not only know, but I genuinely love.  It is a great honor to help the church commend its loved ones to God as they become part of the church triumphant.  Funerals are sad, I know, but the music and texts are so profound that I can’t deny the impact they have on forming my faith.  I hope the same is true for others.  My desires for my own funeral are laid out in my blog.  You can read that post here:

When I was first told I would be expected to carry on the Bach Vespers tradition at St. Mark’s, I will admit that I was nervous.  Having never conducted an orchestra (except under very controlled circumstances in college), and not having many (okay ANY) major works under my belt, I knew I was in for a new experience.  I have to say that I find it extremely rewarding to present J. S. Bach’s music in the context of a Lutheran Vespers service.  I also have to acknowledge the vision of my predecessor, Jim Rindelaub. Without Jim, Bach Vespers might never have come to be.  This tradition involves members of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and many singers from the community.  It is worth preserving.

Bach Vespers 2016

We have a harpsichord that was built by our own members under the direction of Brian Stout (another one of my predecessors), a gorgeous Yamaha grand piano, shiny handbells from the Whitechapel Foundry in England, and a Zimmer/Colby 36-rank pipe/digital organ that people who should know say is perfect example of a hybrid instrument.  If the nave were a playground and our instruments were see-saws and monkey bars, we wouldn’t be able to keep the kids away.  These instruments lend their support as we sing the church’s song.

Our handbell choir on retreat.
About four years ago I started working on a Master of Arts in Church Music degree through Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH.  This has been a time consuming and costly endeavor, but I have enjoyed great support from the folks at St. Mark’s.  The program at Trinity is such a perfect fit and I am learning much from it.
Some of my friends from Trinity on campus last summer.

There is a quote, attributed to Confucius that keeps showing up in my social media newsfeeds: 

Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

Every time I see it, I think, “Yes, I’m already doing that.”

Thank you, St. Mark’s, for a rewarding ten years.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Bach Vespers 2016: Calling All Singers!

St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church continues its twenty-six year tradition of presenting cantatas by J. S. Bach in the context of the Lutheran Vespers (Evening Prayer) service with inspiring hymns and reverent liturgy.
J. S. Bach from Wikipedia

Singers from the community are invited to participate in this unique worship service with professional instrumentalists and trained soloists.

Johannes Sebastian Bach is widely acknowledged as one of the geniuses of western music and honored with the title of “the fifth evangelist” by Lutherans.  He wrote a cantata for nearly every Sunday on the church year and is known for dedicating his compositions “soli Deo gloria” – Glory to God alone.  His sacred cantatas present the gospel of Jesus Christ with grace and beauty.

"John in the Wilderness" Caravaggio  c. 1604 from Wikipedia
“Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam” was written to commemorate the birth of John the Baptist.

There is no audition for singers, but the ability to read music, along with experience singing in a choir, is important.

To secure your spot, contact Tony Cruz by email at with your name, contact information, and voice part (soprano, alto, tenor, or bass).

The rehearsal schedule follows: 
Bach Vespers Choir and Orchestra 2015 Photo by Nicki Llinas
October 8, Saturday
10:00 – 12:00
October 15, Saturday
10:00 – 12:00
October 22, Saturday
10:00 – 12:00
October 29, Saturday
(Dress Rehearsal with orchestra)
10:00 – 12:00
October 30, SUNDAY
Service at 7:00 p.m.

The first three rehearsals are in the music suite at St. Mark’s. The dress rehearsal is in the nave.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

One More Story from Columbus: Doing Art for the Church Together

Lecia Beck only recently claimed the title of artist.

She was an “A” student in all of her high school studies – except Art and Music.  She always loved doodling, but the high grade in Art was elusive so she lost interest.  The interest was rekindled a few years ago when a friend introduced her to the art from known as “zentangling.”

The art form has become so popular that it is even trademarked – see where it is described as "an easy-to-learn, relaxing, and fun way to create beautiful images by drawing structured patterns.

Lecia is also a candidate for the Master of Divinity degree at Trinity Lutheran Seminary where she is receiving the education that will prepare her for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As in her call to being an artist, her call to ordained ministry wasn’t something she discerned from the beginning. Here is the story in her own words:

 I usually point to my time in college, being involved in Christian ministries on campus, but I have actually found journal entries from high school about it!  I started college studying engineering.  I love the classes, but through working in outdoor ministry, I discerned that my call was not to be an engineer.  I took a year off of college to join Captive Free - East Lakes as the sound tech on team.  After that time, I went to Malone College in Canton, OH for a degree in outdoor leadership.  While I had felt called to ordained ministry, I have a lot in common with Jonah.  I tried to bargain with God that I would pursue full-time outdoor ministry instead.  While that did not pan out, I spent the six years before starting seminary working for the YMCA in Columbus.  I worked with many low-income families, providing afterschool childcare and enrichment and becoming an advocate for them.  Through all of that, I still felt the nagging that God was calling me to ordained ministry.  I loved my work at the Y, but it was not complete because I could not share my faith.  Finally, at a retreat weekend, I spent time praying about this call and knew that the time was right.  From the point of leaving the retreat, I began seminary five weeks later.  It has been a wild ride of learning to trust God even more and forget my need to be in control.

Lecia’s two callings recently came together when she and classmate Scott Nellis conceived of a community art project.  They drew the outline of a dove that covered three canvases and specified rainbow colors as the background.  People from the community were invited to tear pieces of magazines and glue them to the canvas – DURING WORSHIP!  During the singing, preaching, or any other time, anybody who wanted to went to the in-church art studio to work with paper and glue to create the project together.  The project was left in the worship space during the week so people could stop in at will to meditate and create.
The community art project was finished just before Pentecost and soon after Trinity Lutheran Seminary became a Reconciling in Christ Seminary - hence a descending dove against a rainbow colored background.

Scott’s daughter, Lydia, was seven years old on the day that her younger sister was baptized and Scott was grateful that Lydia could have something to do, especially during the preaching!  Together, Lecia and Lydia included a piece of the bulletin with her sister’s name on the triptych.  Lydia was happy to see it again just a short time later when her father graduated.

Lecia was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The next step in her journey finds her 300 miles away from Pittsburgh in Loveland, Ohio at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church where she will complete her internship under Pastor Jonathan Eilert.  She will graduate from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in May, 2017 before entering the ELCA’s first call assignment process.
Lecia Beck and an unknown friend.

What lessons has she learned from her journey as an artist?

“I struggled to be interested in art because I tend to be a perfectionist.  It has been a great journey for me to try to let go of that and decide what is good enough.  Inspiring community art was also a great exercise in having a vision and letting go of it.  I marveled at some of the "liberal interpretations" of colors!  While many people say that everyone can be an artist, I didn't believe them...and yet, I have learned it is true!”

Lecia Beck's Blog:
Reconciling in Christ:
Trinity Lutheran Seminary:

Monday, June 27, 2016

Another Columbus Adventure: Probably a One-Time Chance

During my second week at seminary, an email began to circulate from Pastor Shelley Nelson-Bridger seeking a musician to play for a “contemporary-ish” service on a Sunday morning.  I had already made plans to attend an Episcopal church with a very fine organist, but it sounded like the regular keyboardist was out of town, and someone who had promised to substitute had backed out.  I was sympathetic (it had just happened to me) and agreed to play – as long as I didn’t have to put in a lot of preparation time. (My work load was already pretty heavy and practice instruments aren’t always easy to come by at Trinity.)

Pastor Shelley promised a ride and lunch (in addition to a stipend), so I offered to help.  As the week went on, I found myself looking forward to it!  This would probably be my only chance to ever visit this church and town.

Sunday morning we left at 7:30 – our destination was 70 miles outside of Columbus.  We were headed for Galilee Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Russells Point, Ohio where Pastor Shelley serves as the Interim Pastor.

The service consisted mostly of standard praise choruses from the 70s and 80s, along with the traditional Lutheran liturgy.  Galilee Lutheran, named because of the proximity of Indian Lake, is a homey little church built in 1975.  A captain’s wheel and painting of a lake behind the altar enhances the identity of this lakeside congregation.

Pastor Shelley Nelson-Bridger
The singing was ably led by Pastor Shelley and Michael while the assembly happily joined along. After the service, I found the congregation to be friendly and welcoming.  If you are ever in the area, I encourage you to visit this congregation.  “Contemporary-ish” worship is offered on the first and third Sundays of the month and traditional worship is offered on the second, fourth, and fifth Sunday of the month. Their website is

After church, we drove around Indian lake.  Years ago, there were several small lakes and streams in the area. In the late 1800s, a project was undertaken which included the building of a dam and connecting the small lakes to form a single lake that fills more than 6,000 acres.  There are inlets and islands at every turn.  For a few moments, I thought I was in a seashore town like Brunswick, Georgia.  (I would love to know how many millions of dollars in annual boat sales are made in the small Ohio town.  It must be quite a business.)
The worshiping community at Galilee Lutheran Church

Lunch was at the Tilton Hilton, a charming lakeside (dockside service provided!) restaurant which, over the years, has developed floors that slant so much the tables actually have legs on one side that are longer than the other side.  It felt like a fish camp on the way to Amelia Island, very casual, with a menu of great sandwiches and appetizers.  (I enjoyed my grilled chicken wrap and we shared an order of fried onion petals.)
The Tilton Hilton - from their Facebook Page

This was probably a one-time chance to meet Lutherans in this part of the country and I am so glad that I was able to go!  Thank you, Pastor Shelley, for inviting me and for a delicious lunch! It was a pleasant and unexpected break from my studies.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Stepping Outside of the Fold and Feeling Pretty Much At Home

Even when I am out of town on vacation, I like to go to church.  I usually choose a Lutheran (ELCA) or Episcopal Church because I look forward to the Sunday Eucharist.

Today I chose differently.

James Freeman, our organ technician at St. Mark’s suggested I go to First Congregational Church to hear this baby, built by Rudolf von Beckerath from Hamburg, Germany in 1972:

The church actually has two organs.  In the chancel they have an organ built by W.W. Kimball (Chicago) in 1931.  Ample information about the organs is available at

First Congregation, an open and affirming congregation, has one of those grand church structures that inspires awe on the inside and out.  Over the doors in the front of the church are the words “Enter to worship. Depart to serve.”

The church viewed from East Broad Street

The worship service felt very liturgical!  As we gathered and prepared for worship, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A (BWV 536) floated down from the balcony. The language of the liturgy felt very similar to what I am used to hearing. For example, this prayer at the beginning of the service:

Keep, O Holy One, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love; that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness and administer your church with justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

There was no psalm, but the epistle and gospel readings both matched the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary – so we heard the story of the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus, washed them with her tears, and dried them with her hair.

During the sermon, the Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens asked us to hear Jesus’ question, “Do you see this woman?”  He said that most theologians and preachers like to talk about her history as a prostitute, but encouraged us to see her as a disciple whose actions prefigured the crucifixion.  He encouraged the assembly with these words: May Jesus’ words guide your looking and seeing the women in your life.
Inside the narthex

The hymns were “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” “As We Walk through Life with Jesus,” (written by Pastor Ahrens and dedicated to his parents for their 65th wedding anniversary), and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”  Additional music at the offering and postlude was from a concerto by Marcello with organ and saxophone.  The saxophone was ably played by Grace Gelpi, a student at Michigan State University.  It suited the solemnity of worship and felt like a special grace for the morning.

The Pastor is Rev. Dr. Timothy C. Ahrens and the Music Director is Kevin Jones, M.M.  I did not get to meet him, but admired his playing of the voluntaries and the hymns.  If you are in the Columbus area, I would recommend visiting this church. First Congregational Church is at 444 East Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio.
A beautiful banner and with a stand that is also a work of art

Did I miss having the Lord’s Supper?  Sure.  But when you are attending a Lutheran seminary where there is worship every day, the Eucharist is never far away.
The altar