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

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Next Time You Pray. . .

It has been nearly ten years since I came to St. Mark’s.  Periodically, I like to consult my job description to make sure I am doing the basic things that are supposed to help me lead the church’s song in this place.  As I read, I am reminded how fortunate I am to have a job that I truly love and enjoy.

Did you know that the people of St. Mark’s have an important task that is part of my job description?  Under the heading of “Congregation/Staff Support” are the following words:

We will pray continually for God’s gift of strength, courage, and creativity.

Your prayers in these three areas are truly appreciated, but I would like for you to add one more item – resources.

I’m not talking about money - although we need that to order new music and to maintain the organ, piano, harpsichord, and handbells.  I’m talking about people to be active in our music programs.

You may have noticed we don’t currently have a children’s choir program.  My dream is that someday we will have a fully graded choral program with choirs for early elementary, upper elementary, junior high, and senior high ensembles. Music is a perfect means to nurture our children and youth on their spiritual journeys to becoming mature Christians.  One of my dreams is that the junior and senior high choirs would embark on summer tours in alternate years – presenting programs much like The Experience (Christ Lutheran Church in Charlotte, NC) has provided for us in recent years.
St. Mark's children's choir members and their parents at a Chorister's Guild festival.
Children from St. Mark's Ark.  These Orff instrument could be a useful tool in a new children's choir.

We need more singers in the Festival Choir. The total number of singers has remained pretty constant over the years, but work commitments, family needs, and personal situations arise that affect our ability to confidently support the congregation’s singing (job number one!) and to provide musical offerings that are well-prepared, substantial, and artistic.
The Festival Choir warms up on a Sunday morning.

Eric Olson's oboe adds beauty to our worship. Photo: Nicki Llinas
It isn’t just about singers.  For two years we have struggled to maintain an entry-level handbell choir.

What is the purpose of a church music program?  Is it just to add beauty to worship?  Is it merely an opportunity for those who enjoy music to have fun?  Is it something to attract visitors to our faith community?

Church music may indeed accomplish all of these things, but our primary aim is to use God’s gift of music in the liturgy to glorify God and to edify those who gather as God’s people.  We strive to maintain music’s role as the living voice of the gospel, to assist the community in its faith formation, and to celebrate the beauty of holiness. (See the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians Statement on Worship and Music at

The gifts of all musicians are welcome at St. Mark’s.  I invite you to take part.

So, the next time you pray, I encourage you to continue those prayers for strength, courage, creativity, and resources – not just for me, but for all musicians of St. Mark’s as we proclaim the gospel.
Our Bach Vespers Choir proclaims the gospel. Photo: Nicki Llinas
Your comments are welcome!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Five Reasons I Joined A Community Chorus

For many years community choirs have been performing at St. Mark’s and each time the enthusiasm of the singers made me wish I could join the fun.

So, I recently joined the fun and cast my lot with the Orange Park Chorale under the direction of Dr. Timothy Snyder.  There were lots of reasons I joined, but in this article I will just share five.

1. To make music
It happened instantly.  Most people in community choirs read music proficiently and the folks in the OPC have a very high level of musical skills (as do singers in most community choirs).  Within our ranks there are high school choral conductors, piano teachers, music teachers in the elementary grades, church music directors – as well as every other profession you can think of.  From the simplest hymn to high church polyphony, the music gets off the page pretty quickly to become a polished, artistic performance.

2. To get a free masterclass in choral conducting

When Dr. Tim Snyder isn’t conducting the OPC, he moonlights as the Director of Choral Activities at Jacksonville University.  It’s no mistake that I chose OPC because of his excellent reputation and the fact that JU is my alma mater.  He has reminded me of many things I already knew (but that I had allowed to fall out of practice), given me some new ways to express concepts, and reminded me to pay attention to the art of music as much as I do to its mechanics.

3. To meet new people
Why are they called community choirs?  It’s not just because singers come FROM a community, but they gather to form a new community that is dedicated to a very high goal.  I have casually known some of the singers in this group for many years, but it has been a privilege to strengthen musical ties and to meet new singers.

4. To learn new music
The concert we are preparing has music from seven languages, including French.

I think I have sung French twice in my life – once in college (Claude Le Jeune’s “Revecy Venir du Printemps”) and Gabriel Faure’s “Cantique de Jean Racine” at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.  BUT, I was privileged to sit next to an alto with a gorgeous voice when we started working on Morten Lauridsen’s “Dirait-on.”  Without even knowing it, she taught me everything I needed to know.

We are also singing music in Spanish, Hebrew, Church Slavonic, and English. 

5. To know the joy of singing
The irony of my job as a cantor, leading the church’s song, is that I don’t get to sing very often myself.  Choral singing has been an important part of my life since the sixth grade – about forty years.  I enjoy conducting and teaching music and have long used the excuse that I don’t have the time to sing in a community group like the Orange Park Chorale.  Fortunately, I have made the time, at least for a little while, to experience the sense of well-being and pure joy that comes from singing in a choir.

See what this joy looks like in the OPC's two upcoming concerts:
Friday, March 11th at 7:30 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church in Orange Park

Sunday, March 13th, at 3:00 p.m. at Riverside Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville

If you’ve thought about making more time for music in your life, there are lots of options for singers in the Jacksonville area.  Each choir has its own culture, audition process, literature focus, and dues structure.  With a little research you can find the group that is right for you.

River City Men’s Chorus
Wayne Bailey, Conductor

North Florida Women’s Chorale
Kerry Fradley, Conductor

Jacksonville Masterworks Chorale
Mark Stallings, Conductor

Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Donald McCullough, Conductor

The Don Thompson Chorale
Michael Dell, Conductor

Orange Park Chorale
Timothy Snyder, Conductor

Church choirs are always looking for more singers – including mine! Send me an email if you’re interested.

There are many others that you will find with a simple internet google search.  If you’ve been thinking about making room for a little music in your life, stop thinking and start acting.  I’m glad I did.

Photos from top to bottom:
The Jacksonville Masterworks Chorale did a madrigal concert in 2010 - from their website,
Dr. Timothy Snyder
Members of the OPC hard at work - probably trying to negotiate Church Slavonic.
The River City Men's Chorus just before singing at a Jags game in Jacksonville - from Facebook.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Excellence in Worship and Music Continues As a St. Mark's Core Value

It has been 2 ½ years since R. A. Colby Organ Builders came from John City, Tennessee to begin the expansion project on St. Mark’s 1984 Zimmer pipe organ. The number of stops and colors brought the 13 rank organ up to 36 ranks. John Parkyn, our organ consultant, managed the project which several local organists say resulted in one of the finest pipe/digital instruments in the city.

Because of the expansion, the small console had to be replaced with a larger one that could accommodate three manuals (keyboards) and other controlling devices.  Per the original agreement, the Zimmer console became the property of R. A. Colby.  Shortly after the new organ was completed, the old console was loaded into a truck and taken to Johnson City.

The console recently to Jacksonville!

The Rev. Mary Holladay is the Minister of Music at First United Methodist Church in downtown Jacksonville.  A couple of years ago, she decided she wanted to have a pipe organ for practice and pleasure in her own home.  Mary’s new organ was built by James Freeman who also takes care of the organ at St. Mark’s.

To read more about the expansion of St. Mark’s organ, look at my original blog post here:

Since that time, more work has been done.  The swell shade engine had to be replaced and the “Petite Trompette” was removed, cleaned, regulated, and replaced.  A new sequence recorder was also added.  All of this work was done by James Freeman and his associate, Chaz Dewsbury.

St. Mark’s has identified “excellence in worship and music” as one of our congregation’s core values.  Maintaining a fine organ is an important part of that task.  May this beautiful instrument inspire our worship for many years to come.

Top Photo: John Parkyn overseeing the installation of a new speaker
Bottom Photo: Rev. Mary Conley Holladay seated at her new console

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Giving Thanks for Creation: Blessing of the Animals Saturday, October 3rd at 5:30 p.m.

I love stories that begin “Legend has it. . .”  That’s how I might begin speaking of St. Francis of Assisi, for legend has it that he had a special relationship with animals, sometimes calling them his brothers and sisters.  One story goes that he was preaching in a small village.  The people listened intently but Francis couldn’t be heard over the noisy nest-making sounds of a group of swallows.  Francis addressed the birds as his sisters and asked them to be quiet for it was his turn to speak.  According to the story, not only did the birds fall silent, but they listened intently to the rest of his sermon.

My first question is why would a saint talk to birds?   Then I think about the many conversations I have had with my cat, Sandbakkelse.  (OK, she talks. I obey.) I think St. Francis had better luck than I do.

Francis came from a wealthy family, but he renounced his inheritance and became “wedded to Lady Poverty.”  Remembered for his acts of charity, the prayer that begins “Lord, make us instruments of your peace,” and the great hymn “All Creatures Worship God Most High,” his commemoration has become a day to bless animals and give thanks for all of creation. (The prayer is on page 87 of Evangelical Lutheran Worship and the hymn is no. 835.)

Please join us at St. Mark’s for our Blessing of the Animals on Saturday, October 3rd, at 5:30.  The service will be held in the courtyard, and all of your animal friends are welcome: cats, dogs, snakes, birds, chickens, hamsters, and the entire menagerie.  (Yes, you read that right.  Even the snakes are welcome.)  We will also be accepting dog food and cat food to be delivered to the Jacksonville Humane Society.

Top Photo: Sandbakkelse, Her Royal High and Mightiness
Bottom Photo: Bill and Punkie with their friend at a past Blessing of the Animals service

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Call For Singers: Bach Vespers 2015

All singers are invited to participate in a Bach Vespers service presenting a cantata of J. S. Bach in the context of an evening prayer service.

Bach Vespers is in its 25th year at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jacksonville.  An orchestra of players from the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and well-trained soloists assist with this unique worship service which includes psalmody and hymns. 

There is no fee to participate.  The rehearsal schedule follows:

Saturday, October 31-10:00 a.m. – 12:00 
Saturday, November 7-10:00 a.m. – 12:00 
Saturday, November 14-10:00 a.m. – 12:00 
FRIDAY, November 20-7:00 p.m.  (Dress Rehearsal /orchestra)
Sunday, November 22- Bach Vespers Service

There is no fee to attend this unique worship service.  An offering will be taken to help cover costs for this and future services.

This year’s cantata is BWV 177 – Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ – composed for the fourth Sunday after Trinity. All voice parts are welcome! There is no audition, but singers need to have had good choral singing experience.

For more information, contact Tony Cruz at

St. Mark’s is located at 3976 Hendricks Avenue.
Photos: Top is the Good Shepherd Window from St. John's Ashfield, via Wikipedia
Bottom: A past Bach Vespers Service, photo by Bill Daugherty

Friday, September 18, 2015

Canticles of Praise and Hymns of Lamentation

Our Christian faith begs to be sung.  From “Glory to God in the Highest,” to “Hallelujah,” we have a canticle of praise or a lamentation for every moment.  We have hymns that instruct and hymns that compel us to live lives grounded in the gospel.

So many times someone has mentioned a hymn and I’ve exclaimed, “That’s my favorite!”  Most of my choirs have simply laughed when they hear me make that claim because they know I’ll probably claim another as a favorite in just a few minutes.  Usually, if someone asks me what my favorite hymn is, I’ll answer, “The one that I’m singing right now, of course!”

But this post is not about MY favorite hymns.  I’ve invited some guest bloggers to talk about their favorite hymns today.  People of St. Mark’s, you will know some of them, perhaps all of them.  In the comment section at the end of this blog post, I invite all readers to respond with stories of your own favorite hymns.

“Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Redeemer” is my daily prayer for living God’s will – not my will.  I pray to follow God in my thoughts and actions.  I ask “Thy will be done” even though I want my way instead of God’s way.

My mother, Margaret Jeneva Yost Johnson, taught me when I pray to ask for God’s will to be done, not what I want.

Margaret Walker

“Amazing Grace”
I find the lyrics so very uplifting and the history behind the composition very moving. The only questionable phrase would be "saved a wretch like me," which I believe is often misunderstood. It isn't referring to a miserable individual, but rather the challenges we all face - and He is there to save us, redeem us.

This was my father's favorite hymn. When he died unexpectedly it was the first music that came to mind - a day when the earth stood still for me. And I was comforted. At his memorial service I wanted to sing this hymn - it was feared that I wouldn't be able to do it...that I would break down in tears. I not only sang all verses, but did so with a smile on my face and gladness in my heart! Every time we sing this hymn I think of my dad and I am joyful! 

Jane, a member of the Festival Choir, St. Mark’s Ringers, and Alleluia Ringers 

“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”

When my mother was 20 years old (1922) her father sent her to a lumber camp with her husband and newborn baby, to be the cook for 40 men!  Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the winter- snowed in for months- she said that singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" is all that kept her going!  Whenever I hear it, I have memories of her and tears in my eyes. Can't even imagine that kind of work- no electric stove and 3 full meals a day to prepare!  Thank goodness times have changed and women can say, "No thank you- I'll pass on that opportunity!"

Jill, a member of the Festival Choir

Franz Josef Haydn composed THE CREATION in 1798.  At the end of the first of three parts of the composition is “The Heavens Are Telling”…the Glory of God.  This is a harmonious anthem that I learned while singing in the Touring Choir at Grove City College, where I met my future husband.  Whenever we went to his home, his mother would sit down to the piano and start the introduction.  Instantly the entire family would gather around her to sing the parts.  I was welcomed so warmly by all of them, but especially when they learned that I could sing the alto part of this song.  Even after we were married, this ritual continued for years.  Every time I hear or sing this song, my thoughts return to these moments uplifted by the spiritually triumphant harmonies of the family’s blended voices.  And someday I pray to hear the heavenly choruses lifting their voices in joyful praise, singing “The Heavens Are Telling.”
Lynette Weber

Among dozens of favorite hymns, one has always stood out as particularly meaningful to me—“Beautiful Savior”.  I remember singing this wonderful text from an early age in church and also listening to the iconic choral arrangement by F. Melius Christiansen.  I was privileged to have a choir director in high school in the early 1960’s who had been a soloist at St. Olaf College under F. Melius many decades earlier.  Dr. Dryden always ended each of our concerts with Beautiful Savior, just as all of the choirs at St. Olaf have continued to do for over a century.  What a special tradition!  I have been able to attend six St. Olaf concerts over the years and each time, hearing this incredible hymn tune has been a highlight of my life.  This heavenly music will continue to inspire me and cause grand goosebumps whenever I hear it!
Mark Weber

“Living for Jesus”
This is a favorite of Rev. Dr. Donald R. Pederson who grew up in the 40s and 50s “amongst farmers and laborers.”

Most of us were relatively on the poor scale, making just enough to live on and get by.

For leisure time, since we did not have much money at all. We did a lot of singing.  Bible camps were especially helpful, and we learned a lot of new songs.  In fact, that is where I learned this hymn “Living for Jesus.”

The chorus, that is, the refrain, summarizes all the other verses.  It focuses on Jesus as Lord and Savior.  It focuses on the atonement. It focuses on the exclusive nature of one’s relationship with God in the person of Jesus Christ.  It focuses on the fact that we live for Christ alone.

It stresses themes of the environment in which I grew up, which was the Scandinavian pietistic environment: living a life that is true, striving to please him, yielding allegiance. . .

Verse four is a grand verse:
            Living for Jesus through earth’s little while,
            my dearest treasure – the light of his smile;
            seeking the lost ones he died to redeem,
            bringing the weary to find rest in him.*

Now, what are some of your favorites and why?

Photos top to bottom:
Margaret Walker
Jill's Mom (left) and Jill (right)
Mark and Lynette Weber
Rev. Dr. Donald R. Pederson

My apologies for the white background.  This is a known blogger issue that hasn't been fixed.  Since I get to use this service for free, I won't complain!