Some UCC pastors speak the word and sing it, too
This month in Culture, United Church News asks you to consider two recently-released compact discs by UCC ministers. A selection from each CD can be heard online at ucc.org/ucnews/cd.
Music for quiet retreat from an over-amplified world
A review by Cliff Aerie
Acoustic and meditative, the Rev. Will Burhans' new compact disc, "Making Shadows," feels like an old musical friend that you've heard many times before, and yet it emits a freshness that is captivating. Burhans, pastor of the Congregational UCC in Charlotte, Vt., has composed several original songs, including musical settings to biblical passages (Psalms 23 and 131) as well as poets Rainer Marie Rilke and Sufi mystic Rumi.
Burhans begins his musical essay with a plaintive call to God in "Lord, Seek Me"—"Lord seek me now, give me hope when I've run out/Lord, seek me when I'm overburdened and my strength is thin/Lord seek me here, when I am far draw me near/And I will seek you too, in my life make room for you." Anyone who has struggled to understand God's will for their life is easily drawn into his plea for strength and understanding.
Burhans is a musical seeker and travels down the well worn road in his adaptation of "Psalm 23." It's a dangerous trek, not just because of the journey through the "valley of the shadow of death," but because other musicians have tried their skill at navigating such a well-known scriptural setting. With a nod to early Simon and Garfunkle, Burhans brings his musical and spiritual wandering to life in a simple yet believable way.
Simplicity is the key to Burhans' music. "What does the Lord require?"—a setting of Micah 6:8—has a repetitive, melodic TaizZ feel, while "Psalm of Assent"—a musical interpretation of Psalm 131—offers a prayerful chant in a minor key backed by guitar and flute. Both are singable and could be a welcome addition to any service of worship, either contemporary or traditional.
The CD reaches its peak with "Sent Out" based on Rilke's poem, "God Speaks to Us." Burhans' music never gets in the way of the poetry. In fact, it becomes an acoustic catalyst, bringing God's mysterious call to startling immediacy: "Go to the limits of your longing/Embody me/Flare up like flame/Make shadows I can move in." Burhans' flame is a quiet fire that casts a shadow inviting each of us to move in. One usually thinks of shadow imagery as ominous and negative, but Burhans has complemented Rilke's artistry in a compelling way, to stir the listener or meditator to a new understanding of pursuing the spiritual quest.
While Burhans' prayerful simplicity casts an underlying strength to his music, it can sometimes become repetitive, and some of his attempts at storytelling, such as "Angel Vision" and "Touch of the Master's Hand" are a little too simplistic. But when he sings his musical question—"Is there room enough in my heartÉ skill enough in my handsÉ clarity in my mindÉ strength enough in my will?"—the listener can identify with the lifelong quest for spiritual discernment.
This music is meant for quiet times when one's quiet mind needs a retreat from a noisy, amplified, overproduced world. Special recognition should be given to pianist Carl Recchia for his tasteful, understated accompaniment.
Making Shadows by the Rev. Will Burhans is available on CD for $15 at revwillburhans.com. Ten percent of proceeds benefit the Joint Urban Ministry Project of Burlington, Vt.
Musical preaching that stirs imagination, evokes commitment
A review by Cliff Aerie
If you like your acoustic music with a beat, and a little amplification every now and then, listen to "Come to the Feast" by the Rev. Christopher Grundy. A UCC pastor, Grundy has been a regular performer at UCC General Synods, National Youth Events, church concerts and regional folk festivals.
At its core, Grundy's music is really preaching. And he can preach.
The title track, "Come to the Feast," cuts straight to the chase highlighting hypocrisy that can be found in the church: "They've got bars on the stained glass/to keep all the blessings inside, locks and chains on the doors/to guard those gold crosses they hide." Then Grundy adds the prophetic but: "But there's a man in the doorway/ who lives on the street/He touches the chains/and they fall at his feet, and he says:/Come to the feast."
This CD is a feast—a bountiful table of music to stir one's imagination and commitment to faithfully embodying God's love in a world that is often closed and fearful.
Grundy's musical friends crank up the energy on "Garments of Love" by continuing to preach the need for the church to be open and welcoming: "When you're kept from the table by your race/how rich or poor you are/or who you wanna kiss/if I'm inside you'll see me reach across the gate/'cause I believe Jesus himself would live like this."
Now, lest you think Grundy only sings the prophetic note, check out the playful "Fruits of the Spirit" where he sings, "The pineapple of patience, the lime of love, the kiwi of kindness for the kind of world you're dreaming of." You can easily imagine your youth group choir groovin' on this one.
Grundy also can stir the soul with his simplicity. "Invocation" is the highlight of the album. Just 56 seconds in length, it is an a cappella, almost celtic-like chant that just happens to reflect the essence of the UCC's new identity campaign: "Speak to us God, for we are listening/Speak to us God for we are waiting for your voice/Speak to us, in our hearts and all around/tell us what can be, what can be." One can almost hear what could be—if the world would just listen.
Of particular enjoyment is the youth vocal ensemble that backs up Grundy on several cuts. They add an additional level of exuberance to an already enthusiastic music project. One gets the sense that all the musicians had a lot of fun on this project. The unannounced final track provides a glimpse into a rehearsal in progress.
One wishes the production value of the CD had a little more depth, but the energy of the music more than makes up for it. The bottom line is that Christopher Grundy's music makes you think, and even though his answer to the deep needs in the world may seem simplistic—"You have given me this body/You have given me this heart/You have given me these hands/ and all for love, all for love"—isn't love really the answer?
Yes, all for love.
Come To The Feast by the Rev. Christopher Grundy is available on CD for $16.50 at christophergrundy.com. Songbooks also are available for $19.50.
A musical campaign to stop war, teach peace and promote justice, "The Way of Peace" seeks to "overcome evil with good, hatred with love and falsehood with truth." Twenty-two songs are performed by various artists. The CD was produced by the Rev. Jerry Douglas Leggett, a guitarist/songwriter and pastor of Midnight Sun UCC in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The cost is listed as "priceless, free to all who ask" but donations are encouraged to sustain this pro-peace music ministry. Available on compact disc by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to Way of Peace Fund, P.O. Box 88205, Fairbanks, AK 99708.
The Rev. Cliff Aerie, a jazz saxophonist, is the UCC's special events producer. He also coordinates a monthly "jazz vespers" service at Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland.