Winter--when cold nights make everything pretty--is on its way. I am sitting at my computer at home trying to get it together enough to figure out the general outlines of the Advent series of worship services. It is snowing, which helps. I have one of the Sufjan Stevens Christmas albums playing the background. Various anthologies and essays--by Theodore Parker and Eleanor Roosevelt among others--are strewn about the living room/office. However, it is tough getting going. There are other things going on, after all, that need attention. Of course...When is it not like that?
I try to have things line up a little differently in worship as we get closer to Christmas Eve. The first Sunday always features a ritual in which we read the passages we will be using for the rest of the season as we light the candles--one for each window for a total of six. It is (or can be) a lovely process. It does require some planning, though.
We try to change up the music as well. Last Sunday marked the third anniversary of my locally-famous "White Christmas" sermon which ended with me playing the uke and leading everyone in singing the song. That year the first Sunday in Advent was right after Thanksgiving, so we had the candles as well. It was the first time I had brought the ukulele out at a time other than summer services. I have since gotten a couple of better ones and--I hope--I have since learned to play better. However, for the sheer fun of the moment, it has been very hard to beat.
This year we sang Bob Dylan's Forever Young. It was fun, too. I played Mandolin and did the loudest singing (though my voice quit on me shortly thereafter). Matt and Conor played guitars. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. In a way, it was a perfect fit. In church, when we put aside the piano and organ for a few minutes, we tend to play three different types of songs. The first--and most common thanks to the summer series--are traditional hymns reinterpreted. Another type is the explicitly religious song. Things like chants and modern or "Contemporary Christian" hymns fall into this category. Finally, there are popular or folk tunes.
I like this last category best. Sometimes these pieces are familiar songs indeed. However, we get to see them differently. Through them our religious experience changes as well. White Christmas and Forever Young certainly fall into this category, so does Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. In the summer we sang songs like O Freedom and Michael Row the Boat Ashore. As "Special Music" (non-hymns) our youth have played things like Elephant Gun by Beirut, Rise by Eddie Vedder and I Still Believe by Frank Turner. Each time they are moved from their secular settings, they grow in meaning if only for us. In a congregation of doubters and seekers, these songs add to the language we use to talk about the transcendent. Also...they are very cool songs.
Anyway, that is what I am thinking about these days. The question with a time like this is how to interpret the holiday in ways that speak to us right now. How do we keep from sounding the same every year? The story--both the one with Jesus in it and the one where everyone wants us to buy stuff--stays the same. What changes is us.
Here is Forever Young from this Sunday. There is no uke in it, but that's OK....
Here also is the link to that "White Christmas" sermon.