First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Ellicott City, Md.
Full-time professor at Hood College, Frederick, Md., and part-time church musician at First
Having the hymn I wrote for the “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday hymn contest selected as the winner was a great thrill and honor. Singing together is a time-proven way of proclaiming, internalizing, praying and celebrating the gospel message. I felt excited when I heard that there would be a new theme song for “God’s work. Our hands” Sunday, and it’s extra nice that my text was chosen to be sung in many congregations on that day and, I hope, beyond. My most published hymn-text is “Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah.”
I was inspired to write the hymn for the contest because I love the message of the slogan. I feel strongly that our “works” are the tangible way we respond in gratitude to our baptisms and God’s saving grace in our lives.
To me, grace means freedom—freedom from trying to earn salvation, freedom to be our true selves and freedom to work toward a better world where all people can live in the freedom that is rightfully theirs.
My favorite aspects of teaching music are passing on the knowledge and skills to help others perform well, encouraging their understanding and appreciation of the power of music, and helping each student find their own voice and creative spirit.
Serving as director of chapel music at the Camp David presidential retreat for 17 years was very special. I got to know and work with many fine military folks and other government officials. It was a great honor to help lead worship for four presidents and their families and friends.
Having composed more than 400 musical works, the first challenge is finding the time to write down the words and notate the music that run through my mind most of the time. The second challenge, when writing sacred works, is coming up with compositions that clearly and effectively teach and express the faith. I have felt a special calling to compose pieces that work well with smaller choirs and for organists who may have less training and experience than others. My four volumes of “Light on Your Feet” are geared toward that need.
It’s important to me to be involved in my congregation as my own active response to my baptism, but also, as one who humbly takes on the role of worship leader, it’s crucial that I’m closely connected to the people with whom and to whom I am to minister. It can’t be done remotely.
My interest in hymns goes way back to my childhood. My home church was Zion Lutheran, a country church near Fosston, Minn., whose founders included my great-grandparents. It’s now closed. We were known as a musical church; we were quite small and had no choir, so all singing was done by the whole congregation. Even as a young child I appreciated the melodies, harmonies, poetry and images that could be found in the hymns. I began playing piano for Sunday school at age 14, then organ for services at age 16. Even though I now have studied music to the level of a doctorate, I still regard many hymn tunes and harmonies to be great works of art, and I would make the same claim for the best hymn texts. At their best, hymns are miniature gems that reach us on many levels—spiritual, aesthetic and physical.
I’m a Lutheran and, even though I inherited being a Lutheran from my Norwegian ancestors, I have made a conscious choice to remain an ELCA Lutheran because of our deep theological and musical foundations, our ever-expanding commitment to social justice and, most importantly, our central message that God’s grace is for all people—no exceptions. That’s a world I want to live in.
I have been a member of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians (ALCM) proudly since its founding in the mid-1980s, and I served as vice president and then as president of [its] Region 1 for several years. The organization has been—and continues to be—an important instrument for education, inspiration and fellowship for all who take advantage of its conferences, workshops, publications and other resources, and for all those folks in the parishes where ALCM members serve.
My favorite Bible story in the parable category is the prodigal son; it’s not so much a parable as it is a mini-series. For a narrative passage, the story of Jesus walking and talking with his disciples on the road to Emmaus always jumps out at me. Opening up the Scriptures and recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread are such powerful concepts to ponder. And, for those of us who plan and lead worship, these are our primary goals and our highest calling.
I have had great experiences performing hymn festivals and solo recitals across the U.S. and in Europe, and with several symphony orchestras and other ensembles, but I am most at home in a well-planned, well-led, spirit-filled liturgy.
I share my faith by leading worship through music, writing texts for hymns and choral works, composing music to be used in worship and concerts, and writing books and articles and leading workshops on topics related to worship and music leadership. I do this all in ways that, I hope, honor God and serve my neighbor.
Congregational singing of hymns and other liturgical music is a great treasure, and we Lutherans can take great pride in our contributions to the hymnody of the Christian church. But the treasure of hymn-singing must be zealously guarded; there are many forces that threaten it, including shoddiness in writing, choosing and leading what is sung; usurping the congregation’s rightful role by overuse of soloists, choirs and novelties that squeeze out congregational participation; and just plain apathy and carelessness. We must keep our people singing—and singing worthwhile songs.
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