Monday, November 27, 2017

Advent Counts Us Down to Christmas

10. . .9. . .8. . .7. . .6. . .5. . .4. . .3. . .2. . .1. . .

Who doesn’t love a good countdown?  Not long ago countdowns were nail-biting,edge-of-your-seat preludes to launching a new rocket into space.  Today, “Alexa” will set an alarm that sound like it came out of a science fiction movie to let you know your dinner is done.  The church’s liturgical year is another counting device we use as we count off the Sundays after Pentecost.

At this time of the year, everyone’s favorite countdown tool is the Advent Wreath which we use to count the Sundays in Advent that lead to Christmas.

Advent used to be regarded as a penitential season, so much so that altar paraments were purple - as they are in Lent.  More recently, Advent has become a time of hope and expectation wherein we anticipate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, but also his coming in glory at the End Times.  Now we use the color blue. A practice that is believed to have its roots in Scandinavia, blue represents hope, but also transcendence and mystery.
The Virgin Mary is usually depicted in blue.

There may be ancient practices harkening back to pagan times, but for us this evergreen adorned circle, which first began to take form in 16th century Germany, is filled with Christian significance.  The circle of the wreath represents Christ’s eternal victory over death, the evergreens remind us of eternal life and the importance of being faithful, and the lit candles represent the light of Christ in the world.

Some traditions use elaborate liturgies for the lighting of the candles.  They may have individuals or small groups lead litanies, they may assign special emphases to each candle (hope, prophecy, joy, promise, e.g.), and they may sing hymns.  These traditions can be pleasing and meaningful, but they are local practices, traditions rather than rules.  In fact, the use of an Advent Wreath is completely optional and is not required for Christian worship at all.

This year, at St. Mark’s, we will allow the wreath to speak for itself so that the candles will already be lit when we gather for worship.  One candle will be lit on the first Sunday of Advent, then two candles on the second Sunday, and so on.  Finally, on Christmas Eve, the center candle (also called the Christ candle) will burn brightly at the center of the wreath.  In our modern age of oil-filled candles we will not be able to see their gradual melting, but we can still participate in the “countdown to Christmas.”  Those who would like to meditate on the wreath might use the words from hymn no. 240 – Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah.

10. . .9. . .8. . .7. . .6. . .5. . .4. . .3. . .2. . .1
Christmas Eve Poinsettias

Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

Some of the information for this article came from the following article:

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Daily Prayer at St. Mark's

Sunrise in Wisconsin - photo by Laura Olson

For centuries Christians have gathered on Sunday mornings for worship, but they have also gathered during the week and at various times during the day for daily prayer.  The ages old pattern of praying at certain times of the day continues in monasteries and other religious institutions throughout the world.  Why should St. Mark’s be any different?

Monks Praying Vespers - Wikipedia

St. Mark’s now offers two opportunities for Daily Prayer at the Church: Evening Prayer on Tuesdays at 6:00 p.m. and Morning Prayer on Fridays at 11:15 a.m.  The services are brief (30 – 45 minutes) and are based on the services of daily prayer in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. They include readings, canticles, hymns, and prayers. There is no sermon or teaching.  The words from scripture and liturgy speak for themselves.

Looking for a quiet place during the week? These services include silence after readings, songs, and prayers.  Prayer can’t be a dialog if we do all the talking!

Readings are taken from the daily lectionary in ELW.  This lectionary is unique in that it is tied to the Sunday lectionary.  The readings for Monday – Wednesday comment and reflect on the readings from the previous Sunday.  Readings for Thursday – Saturday prepare us for the coming Sunday’s readings.  This lectionary is an excellent resource for your own private devotions.

Saint Mark’s Cantor, Tony Cruz, leads the services.  The services are not held in his absence.  If in doubt, check with the church office or contact Tony.

Would you like to be a reader and/or assist in leading the prayers?  Please let Tony know.

Come join us as we pray for the world, our community, ourselves, and the church.

The Moon of Florida - photo by Andre Cruz

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Our Work Is Our Prayer

Rothschild Book of Hours: Commas, Words, and ART!

Some prayers are meticulously crafted - poetic in their delivery of each comma and carefully weighted words.

Other prayers are extemporaneous “help-me-Jesus!” pleas for aid.

Some prayers are works of devotion.

It’s this last category that is best known to church musicians.  Rehearsing is the labor of love that allows us to lead, or contribute to, the church’s song.  When we gather for choir rehearsal, our simple act of coming together is a prayer. 

Warming up is part of our gathering rite.  It’s a signal that we’ve met to set aside our individual voices and sing together our Soli Deo Gloria songs - to unify our voices as a metaphor of Christian unity.  We listen to each other, matching pitches, tone, and breathing.
The lion's share of our congregational song comes from ELW.

Then we tackle the music – liturgy and hymns being first.  As we sing, the words that we sing on Sunday begin to take hold in our hearts.  Choir members have reported waking up in the middle of the night with an intertwined text and melody from choir rehearsal stuck in their heads, becoming their prayer in the night watches.  The music of the assembly is formational and we are blessed to get a double dose of it – the first dose on Wednesday and the second on Sunday.
Sunday morning warm-up with the Festival Choir
Finally, we rehearse the music that we will sing alone on Sunday morning.  This piece of music, sung only by the choir, goes by different names in different churches - choir anthem, special music, and offertory to name a few.  I love that St. Mark’s calls this piece the “musical offering,” a gift of praise to God.  But we don’t just offer ourselves on Sunday morning, we offer ourselves from the moment we begin rehearsing a new piece. 

There’s a lot going on at any choir practice including fun, fellowship, rehearsing, planning, and more - but the entire process is a prayer of love and devotion.
Choir practice is prayer - but it's also fun!

All singers are invited to participate in the Festival Choir at St. Mark’s!  We especially need sopranos and altos, but we’re always willing to take on new tenors and basses.  We rehearse in the music suite on Wednesday evenings from 7:30 to 9:00, and again on Sunday morning at 9:00.  Talk to any choir member if you are interested!  Tony Cruz, St. Mark’s Cantor, is always happy to answer your questions about singing in the choir and ringing handbells.

Come sing with us.  
Come pray with us.

Acknowledgement for Rotxschild Book of Hours Photo:
By E2v - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo of ELW (from out 2007 dedication) by Bill Daugherty

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

RISE: Remember Well the Future

“When God closes a door, he opens a window.”

I’ve never liked that expression.  Beyond the fact that I’m pretty sure it has more basis in pop theology than in what the Bible actually says, who wants to crawl through a window where a perfectly good door stood just moments before? 

When a door closed this summer, I was very happy that another door opened. The “closing” door was not attending classes at Trinity Lutheran Seminary this year.  The “opening” door was a chance to attend the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians biennial conference in Minneapolis!  I’ve been a member of several denominational organizations for musicians, but ALCM is my absolute favorite. The worship services, plenary sessions, musical events, and educational workshops are always of great value!

Sunday, July 9th, was my travel day.  It felt good knowing that I was leaving St. Mark’s in the capable hands of Jane D.  Not only do I appreciate her technical ability, but I know that she loves the St. Mark’s community at least as much as I do.

Monday started early with three back-to-back choral reading sessions.  Reading sessions are important for choir directors.  They usually work like this: attendees receive a packet of music and, with the guidance of a leader, everybody sings through the music together.  This is a great way to gauge the difficulty of a new piece and decide if it’s something you want to “take home.”  Music publishers usually provide the review copies free-of-charge.

Worship is one of the best features of ALCM events.  The service started outside with an Affirmation of Baptism utilizing handbells and the chorale “To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord” (christ, unser herr Lutheran Book of Worship 79). When we were all in the church, the Gathering Hymn was the ALCM-commissioned “God Alone Be Praised.” James E. Bobb, Assistant Professor of Music – Organ and Church Music at St. Olaf College, was at the console.  His improvisation on wie schön leuchtet was so energetic that I wanted to stand to sing when we got to the hymn – but it was during communion so I kept my seat.  With 360 singers in attendance, it took some time to prepare and serve the Lord’s Supper.
Opening Eucharist at Augustana Lutheran Church

Chad Fothergill’s plenary sessions on “Re-Membering the Role of the Cantor” was a centerpiece for this four-day gathering.  He examined the historic role of Cantors and helped us take a critical look at our roles in leading the church’s song today.  I’m looking forward to the publication of his presentation so that I can review it more deeply.  Daniel Schwandt was a co-presenter, but was not present because of a family emergency.  Even so, his presence was clearly felt.

A Window at Westminster Presbyterian
Tuesday found us engaged in Morning Prayer at Westminster Presbyterian Church, only a couple of blocks from the hotel. Morning Prayer was followed by valuable workshops.  I attended a post-plenary discussion of the afore-mentioned topic, “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing” - a workshop geared toward reenergizing church publications such as bulletins and newsletters.

Tuesday’s final event was a hymn festival featuring the National Lutheran Choir and organist David Cherwien.  I never miss a chance to hear him play.  Yes, his playing is superb, but he is also one of the most creative church musicians that I know of when it comes to engaging people through hymns.  He takes everything we learned from Paul Manz to a new level.

Wednesday began with a plenary session by the poet-hymn writer Mary Louise Bringle. The topic was “Re-Forming Congregational Song: the Identity-Relevance Dilemma.  It was an interesting look at various denominations and why they sing what they sing.  Not surprisingly, we hold a great many hymns in common.

Following the plenary, there were more workshops. I attended “Liturgical Theology for Church Musicians” and “Getting It Right: Understanding How to Legally Use Music and Technology.”  St. Mark’s uses music from a variety of sources, so it’s important that someone understand how to record and report so that composers, arrangers, and publishers are able to continue to provide the church with new songs to sing.

The final event on Wednesday was a visit to St. John’s Abbey, a Roman Catholic community, school, publishing house, and church in Collegeville, Minnesota.  We received the warmest of welcomes and participated in an ecumenical worship service which I won’t soon forget.  Father Anthony Ruff, OSB wrote eloquently about this experience in a blog post that I hope you will take the time to read: 

I’ll save you the google search! “OSB” is Order of St. Benedict.
St. John's Abbey

St. John's Abbey
St. John's Abbey

We concluded the conference on Thursday morning with a closing Eucharist at one of my favorite churches – Central Lutheran in Minneapolis.  Mark Sedio is the Cantor there and I am always checking Central’s website to see what he is doing. The service featured his choral work “Rich in Promise.”

There was so much more that I could write about.  If you are a Lutheran Church musician and are not a member of ALCM, I can’t commend this organization to you enough.  Even if you never attend a conference, you will appreciate the extraordinary quality of its publications “Cross Accent” and “In Tempo.” Our Facebook group is one of the best resources available.

There were lots of other activities: networking, casually sharing ideas and experiences over great meals, performances, beautiful venues – the list goes on.  I am grateful that St. Mark’s realizes the importance of providing for continuing education opportunities.  Yes, I am personally enriched by these events, but they help me to more fully lead the church’s song at St. Mark’s.

It won’t be too hard to catch up on the work I missed at Trinity this summer.  I’m glad this door opened! 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

St. Mark's Is A Site for the American Guild of Organists Southeast Region 2017 Convention

One reason the American Guild of Organists exists is “to advance the cause of organ and choral music, to increase their contributions to aesthetic and religious experiences, and to promote their understanding, appreciation and enjoyment.”  (Want to know more about the purposes of the AGO? Visit and click the “About” tab.)

I would like to personally say “Thank you” to St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church for your part in helping us to fulfill our purpose.  For the last two years our local AGO chapter has worked hard to sponsor a convention for the Southeast Region of the guild. Conventions include workshops and concerts that provide education and inspiration for our members.
Sunday night included a hymn festival at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd
On Monday of the convention, June 12, 2017, we spent the entire morning in San Marco between All Saints Episcopal Church, Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church, and St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Special thanks goes to Loree M. and to Mark and Lynette W. who served as hosts by pointing the way to restrooms, directing conventioneers to the nave for sessions, and helping as needed.  They were truly gracious and met each person with a smile.

St. Mark’s was the location for a workshop on body mapping which teaches musicians how to map (align) their bodies for better physical well-being, better practice, and better music.  It was led by Rhonda Cassano who has been a member of Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and currently teaches flute at the University of North Florida. Ms. Cassano has also appeared at St. Mark’s with the San Marco Chamber Music Society. 
Rhonda Cassano teaches Body Mapping

Another workshop at St. Mark’s was led by Dr. Cara Tasher, Director of Choral Activities at the University of North Florida.  Her engaging presentation gave choral directors tips on getting the accuracy and expression they want from their singers.

Finally, Donald McCullough led a reading session at St. Mark’s.  Reading sessions are an important part of any convention because they introduce new music to directors.  Each participant receives a packet of music and then we all sing through each title. The session included several pieces composed by Mr. McCullough who is a well-known composer, Director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and the Organist and Choirmaster of Jacksonville’s Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.
Don McCullough conducts a reading session at St. Mark's

The program book
I chaired the program book committee.  Our book had to include schedules, concerts, workshop descriptions, artist and presenter bios – and lots of other things.  I am really happy that our cover featured the photography of our own Bill D.

All these events happened at St. Mark’s. Thank you to St. Mark’s for making your space available.  As your Cantor, I am always happy and proud to share our facility with my AGO colleagues.

Raúl Prieto Ramírez at St. Augustine's Catherdral Basilica

Thank you also to the St. Mark’s Foundation.  Their gift to the convention of $1,000.00 was one of the first gifts we received.  It partially funded a concert by Raúl Prieto Ramírez who came from Spain to play a thrilling concert at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Augustine.

The full impact of conventions like ours can never truly be knows.  Organists and directors take new techniques and ideas home to their own churches, schools, and other venues.  They teach them to their students and share them with colleagues.  It is a great gift not just to the individual organist, but to the greater church and to the community.

Photos of Rhonda Cassano and Raúl Prieto Ramírez were taken by a member of the Central Florida AGO Chapter and are taken from Facebook.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Seven Not-in-any-Particular-Order Reasons to Experience the Easter Vigil

The Testing of Abraham by Lauren Sohacki
The service begins outside where the new fire is lit, passed to the Paschal candle (also called the Christ candle), and from there passed to individual worshipers.  We move into the darkened church, encircle the pews, and give thanks for the light of Christ.

The Exultet (also called the Easter Proclamation)

Forms of this chant, led by the Cantor, have been sung in Christian churches for seventeen centuries!  Today’s Lutheran version includes dialogue between the cantor and the assembly as they sing, “This is the night!” together. 

The Vigil Readings
The Old Testament is full of stories of God protecting and providing for God’s people.  We’ll hear many of them tonight.  Our tradition is to present the readings through poetry, dance, art, drama, and any other means that will convey the story.  Each story is followed by a musical response that may take the form of a hymn, psalm, or music by the choir.
Lisa Brott danced the Creation story in 2013

In Lutheran tradition, the gospel acclamation is a communal act.  For the Vigil, our acclamation starts with the joyful ringing of bells as the lights come up in the nave and the altar candles are lit.  The organ crescendoes to join the bells. With happy voices we all sing “This is the feast of victory for our God!”

The Easter Vigil is a unique time for baptism.  One of the things that happens during Lent is preparing new Christians for baptism.  Even if none are held, we can all take the time to remember our own baptism and be thankful.

Alleluia Returns to Worship
On Transfiguration Sunday we buried the alleluia.  It has been sitting in a box under the altar these past forty days, so it’s especially joyful when sung during the gospel acclamation.

Our worship during “The Three Days” reminds us that Christ calls us to love one another, takes us through the passion, then proclaims the resurrection.  Can you think of a better way to complete this journey than gathering as an “Easter people” around the table of the Lord?


It is likely that the sunrise service grew out of the Vigil tradition.  In many places the Vigil began at sundown and lasted into the early hours of the morning – we will be done a lot sooner than that! This is truly the most celebrative liturgy of the year. Please come and be a part – and don’t forget to bring a bell!

Saturday night, April 15th, at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What's In the Box?

As you enter the nave for worship, what do you see that is different from just a few weeks ago?

One thing you’ll notice is that the color purple is all around you.  The cross behind the altar and the cross that leads the procession are covered with purple.  Even the pulpit, where the gospel is proclaimed and preached, has a new purple covering.  It is said that this rich color reminds us of repentance. It is also known to have been an ancient color for royalty, so it also signifies solemnity.  Repentance and solemnity are two of the hallmarks of Lent.

As this forty day (excluding Sundays) season begins, you might also hear some things you haven’t heard recently.  St. Mark’s long-time tradition has been to change the Holy Communion setting, including its complementary liturgical music, with each new season.  This year we took that a step further by introducing Holy Communion Setting Nine from Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

The Kyrie (“Lord, Have Mercy”) is deeply reverent with hints of jazz that give it a soulful, contemplative bent.  The Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) also has a lushness that can’t be rushed. (Listen to the organ under the second syllable of “Ho-san-na.) As we get further into Lent, we’ll likely introduce the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”).

Interestingly, when setting nine first appeared in some provisional materials, many thought it would be too difficult for congregational singing, but recent discussions on social media show there are places where it has become a favorite setting.  Scott Weidler, the past Program Director for Music and Worship in the ELCA, has this to say:

Knowing that, during the ELW development, some thought setting 9 was too difficult . . . I (among others) predicted that it would take a while for it to be really noticed and become learned and loved. Here we are -- 10 years later -- having this conversation. I love it!

There is something else about the sounds of Lent, something more conspicuous by its absence than by its presence – and that is the ancient acclamation of praise, “Alleluia.”
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and the Imposition of Ashes (Wikipedia)

Many liturgical churches hold a custom (the practice is a tradition, there is no liturgical mandate to eschew the word during Lent or any time) of “burying” the Alleluia during the season of Lent so that its first utterance at the Easter Vigil is especially joyous.  At St. Mark’s, our tradition has become one that includes ringing bells in darkness as the altar candles are lit, the organ fills the nave with an exuberant eruption, and we all sing that first “Alleluia” together.

So, on Transfiguration Sunday we sang an eleventh century hymn to honor this practice that dates to at least the fifth century:

            Alleluia cannot always be our song while here below:
            Alleluia our transgressions make us for a while forgo;
            for the solemn time is coming when our tears for sin shall flow. (ELW 318)

As we sang, the assisting minister carefully folded a banner with that wonderful word emblazoned on it, then laid it in a box.  When we conclude our Lenten journey, when we come to keep glad Easter with the faithful saints on high, we’ll sing it together with all of the joy of those who are redeemed.

Now you know what’s in the box. 

The box is resting under the altar. It was made by the son of Phyllis Green as a temporary vessel for her ashes during her funeral service.  It was given to St. Mark’s to be used in the same manner for future funeral services.