#87 – Ode to Joy

Cradled in a safe space…Enveloped in a familiar joy…Transported to marvelous destinations I already know….How else can I describe my musical journey of the past weekend?

Messiah-2018-12-08First of all, Handel’s Messiah. Why does the excitement build each year as I anticipate going to the Centre in the Square to be enfolded by 120 voices from the Grand Philharmonic Choir, plus members of the K-W Symphony and soloists?

I keep pondering why this oratorio is such a must for me. The first notes of the overture and the words “comfort ye” from the tenor soloist do indeed transport me to a marvelous place I already claim.  I land back in the concert hall two and a half hours later, as the full-voice choir sings “Worthy is the lamb that was slain” with the long amen.

In the meantime, I wait for the solos “Behold a virgin shall conceive,”  “I know that my Redeemer lives,” and “The trumpet shall sound.” I hear echoes of various budding soloists from my past while listening to the accomplished ones on tonight’s stage.

I listen in expectation for the choruses “For unto us a child is born,”  “His yoke is easy and his burden is light,” and of course the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Each year I remember a snowy December night when I was in London on church business, and made the unwise decision to drive home. Furthermore, I decided to take the “back way” which I usually drove between London and Kitchener, consisting of rural roads with little traffic.

I had the CD The Gift of Messiah  with me that night.  The music in the car and the barn lights along the way somehow cradled me in a safe space and got me home….

Incarnation-2018-12-09Incarnation: Menno Singers. One other musical experience also defined last weekend for me – Incarnation, brought to us by the 50-voice Menno Singers choir. Here we were cradled in the sanctuary of an old downtown church, surrounded by gorgeous sound, whether a cappella voices or organ accompaniment.

Since it was a lessons and carols service, we sang five hymns throughout the afternoon. I loved the experience of being rocked and held by music even while participating in the music making. A headline in Monday’s Globe and Mail proclaimed “Odes to Joy: Researchers study the uplifting power of singing.” And I thought: I do believe Mennonite congregations and choirs of all sorts have known this for a long time!

I loved so many things about the Menno Singers approach, including their use of two composers from within the choir, as well as readers and soloists from the choir, as well as another well-known local composer.

I enjoyed hearing again some familiar lilting music from my childhood in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1950s and 60s, including old carols at the manger arranged by Alice Parker.

I relished being at the first Menno Singers event following the recent death of Abner Martin, the choir’s founder in 1955 and conductor for 20 years.

And – there’s lots of Advent music still to come. I’m looking forward to  Advent Jazz at Conrad Grebel University College; three more worship services at Rockway Mennonite Church; and – of great importance! – our annual Children’s Christmas Pageant.

Oh the joy!

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which annual Advent music presentations – if any – are you unable to do without?
  2. How does the music of Advent nourish your spirit?

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1To order a copy of my new book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area (containing 26 of my first 70 blogs, re-edited), email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage ($4.10 for first class mail). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

#76 – Soundings in Hope


This week, in the midst of cancer treatment, I had reason to lean into hope. Here are some “soundings in hope” I pondered.

Sounding #1:

This week I remembered Hope Bear, a pastoral care assistant at one of the congregations I served. This cuddly teddy bear resided with older children and with women for a time as they underwent surgery or struggled with trying illnesses. Hope lost an ear at one point, which I thought appropriate, since many of her recipients had missing body parts.  I gave her to someone permanently a few years back.

A woman with Parkinson’s disease sewed Hope Bear for me. Hope was one of the last sewing projects her hands could manage.

Sounding #2

I remembered a conversation I had long ago with a person with a chronic illness.  I was amazed by his wisdom, and still am.

He said something like this:

“Our society is so big on control, on happiness being defined in particular ways. But to even try to define hope is a kind of control. Because if we can define something, then we think we can measure it.  And if we can measure it, then we think we should be able to manufacture it or duplicate it.

“Maybe it’s only when things happen that we can’t control that we begin to enter into hope. Maybe it’s only when we come up against a barrier, up against mystery.

“Maybe sometimes we need to declare hope without explanation or proof, even when our experience challenges it.”

Sounding #3:

Messiah-programI remembered standing one evening as a choir sang the Hallelujah Chorus in a concert hall. And it seemed to me that we were up against mystery.  By standing and listening (or by standing and singing!), we were declaring Christian hope without explanation or proof, in spite of or perhaps because of some of our recent experiences.

As I looked around, I saw numbers of people who had endured serious illnesses, or who had come through difficult times of one sort or other. I hadn’t known whether some of these folks would ever be able to enjoy an evening at a concert hall again, much less sing such an affirmation of Christian hope.

But there we were.  I imagined us as a sort of temporary community holding ourselves and others in God’s hope.

Sounding #4:

Standing for the Hallelujah Chorus, I remembered that the first Christians relocated hope.  Hope finds its true home, they said, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. These usher in a reign of God that has no end – in which all of us are called to participate.

Sounding #5:

I’ve concluded that hope is different from optimism and positive thinking.  It’s also not the same thing as wishing. Wishing tends to focus on specific objects or outcomes, as in “I wish I would have traveled more.” Wishing can become quite a self-absorbing and self-absorbed activity.

Hope focuses instead on the larger picture, often including but going beyond human activity, as in “I hope for God’s reign on this beautiful planet.” At the very same time, hope recognizes limitations, and can actually be quite ordinary in its expectations, as in “This fall I hope to drive into the countryside to revel in the coloured leaves.”


Published by HarperCollins

In A Prayer for Standing on Tiptoe, Macrina Wiederkehr puts together our “Kingdom-loving hearts” and our “earth eyes” in describing the location of hope.  Her prayer poem concludes:

“But still we stand
on tiptoe
Owning our kingdom-loving hearts
and our earth-eyes
We lean forward
and hope.”

Sounding #6

God be with you till be meet again (HWB #430) was our sending song at church last Sunday. It felt like our local Christian community was singing itself into the hope and the expectation of God’s loving care. All week, I’ve wrapped myself in this hymn’s lyrics, enhanced by Ralph Vaughan Williams’ comforting tune.

This weekend and always, may you abound in hope!

Questions for Reflection:

  1. For you, what is the difference between wishing and hoping?
  2. What are some of your deepest hopes?

Next week: TBA

#35 – Music of Advent: Enhanced…Raucous…Sublime

In last week’s blog, I looked toward performances of Handel’s Messiah and an Advent Jazz Vesper Service with eager anticipation.  Here’s what happened.

Handel’s Messiah

Messiah-programOn first blush, the idea of “adding something” to a performance of Handel’s Messiah – enhancing it, if you will – is absurd.

But I and doubtless many of the other 2000 persons at Kitchener’s Centre in the Square last Saturday night received it that way.

Of course we heard an excellent choir and soloists and orchestra as usual.  The concert  was augmented by 13 illustrations from the 20th century Saint John’s Bible, the first handwritten and illuminated Bible since the invention of the printing press, featuring ancient inks and gold and silver leaf.

For the performance of Messiah, these images were digitized and projected on a large screen above the choir and orchestra  with animation –  twinkling stars, coloured dots, angels floating to Jesus’ birth, the earth twirling, words and images slowly forming and reforming.

Far from being a distraction, these illuminations gave me additional Bible texts – favorites of mine not in Messiah but related to its words – which added to the depth of meaning already there for me. So my experience of Messiah was enhanced…deepened…illuminated…by 21st century slow, meditative media.

The animated illumination To the ends of the earth brought the final Messiah chorus, Worthy Is the Lamb, into the 21st century for me in a remarkable way. The earth, shown as part of the universe, kept changing, twirling, enlarging, receding, becoming darker and lighter. Strands of DNA emerged from the background, as well as images from the Hubble telescope.

I marvelled at the wonder of our 21st century universe while the choir sang praise of Christ full-throttle.  Wonderful!

Advent Jazz Vespers

Love Poems from God
Available from Penguin Random House

People aged 50 to 90 gathered, and engaged with eyes closed or small smiles or very gentle foot-tapping in a meditative setting where jazz pieces on piano, brass, guitar and percussion alternated with snippets of poetry.

This year, Conrad Grebel’s chaplain, Ed Janzen, chose readings from Love Poems from God, Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, featuring mystics and saints from various traditions.

So interspersed with tune fragments  like O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Go Tell it on the Mountain  came tidbits such as: “It acts like love – music, it reaches towards the face, touches it, and tries to let you know His promise: that all will be okay…” (Rabia of Basra). Or from John of the Cross: “If you want, the virgin will come down the street pregnant with light and sing.”

The quiet meditative atmosphere  changed with Joy to the World, announced as the final piece. By the end of it, heaven and nature are raucously singin’ and rockin’, and we’re bobbin’ and tappin’ vigorously, laughing, completely energized.

Then Ed suggests that if we applaud, who knows, there might be an encore. The pianist suggests Silent Night, and we laugh.  Silent Night? After that rowdy rendition? But it works.  The mood shifts. After the raucous music of the spheres, we tap into the ever so gentle side, quietly singing “sleep in heavenly peace” to the Christ Child…quietly acknowledging the dawn of redeeming grace.

Then we greet each other, put on the hats and mitts, and head for our cars.  We open the door – and Look!

Snowflakes gently falling.  A fresh dusting of snow. A sky made light on one of the longest nights of the year.

And, as revealed to another mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, we can’t help but echo that in any ultimate sense, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

For our hearts have been tuned to the music of the spheres and our spirits have played it – heaven and nature singing raucously, with the gentlest dawn of salvation, sleeping in luminous, heavenly peace

Celtic Harp Music

Find out more about this CD at http://www.susantoman.com/

When we arrived home, the luminous peace prevailed as I played a new CD, Angels on High by Susan Toman on Celtic harp. We’d loved her sound on harpsichord at a wedding celebration in Ottawa several years back.  And now the harp…

So…Messiah enhanced…raucous music of the spheres…luminous peace….the music of Advent.

Question for Reflection:

What musical concerts or recordings have most nourished your spirit this Advent?

Next week: The Cat Project

# 34 – Michael above the Trumpets: Music of Advent

I can’t imagine our world without music. The earthed human spirit – always looking to soar – demands it. I can’t imagine the worship of God without music, some early Anabaptists notwithstanding.

I certainly can’t imagine the season of Advent without music. Our local Kitchener-Waterloo community believes likewise.

I’m not talking of course about sappy tapes in malls, meant to relieve us of our money. I’m talking about churches and choirs and ensembles of all sorts offering their very best during this season, offering up hope for us once again.

This year I’ve chosen four musical feasts for myself in addition to our weekly worship music – also beautiful – at Rockway Mennonite Church. I likely had 50 to choose from!

#1 – Amahl and the Night Visitors

AmahlLast Sunday night we sat in a familiar church sanctuary, absorbing once again the wonder of the Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, a delight for all ages.

In my opinion, one of the gifts of St. Jacobs Mennonite Church to its community is its music. Directed by one of the church’s voice teachers, this enchanting production chronicled once again the visit of three kings and a page– each with his own personality – to the hovel of the dreamy disabled shepherd boy Amahl and his feisty mother.

By the end the boy is walking…dancing…running…healed!  And off he goes with the kings to thank the Child for whom they are still searching.

I loved it!

#2 – Handel’s Messiah

My friends are of mixed opinion. Some wouldn’t miss a live performance of Messiah during Advent. Others have heard or sung it so often they deliberately choose something else.

I’m with the first batch. Each Advent I endeavour to enter the concert venue with an open spirit, wondering which arias or choruses will most nourish my soul this time.

I don’t always choose the biggest spectacle in town, such as the Grand Philharmonic Choir with K-W Symphony Orchestra at the Centre in the Square, although that’s where I intend to go tomorrow night.

One year I took in instead a Messiah Sing-along at a smallish church in a nearby city. Sam and I went because Michael’s parents invited us. Michael, a promising music student from our church youth group, sang The Trumpet Shall Sound beautifully. I was so proud that he already had the volume to soar above the trumpets, which he continues to do as part of the Elora Singers many years later.

“Michael above the Trumpets” has become my code phrase for the places to which Messiah transports my spirit.

#3 – Joy to the World – Advent Jazz Vesper Service

Advent Jazz Vesper Service

My third pick in recent years has been the Advent Jazz Vesper Service in the Conrad Grebel University College chapel – a wonderful mid-week pause in the midst of the Advent rush.   Five talented guys coming together in business suits or jeans….introducing a familiar musical theme…giving time for mind and spirit to wander with piano, drums, trumpet, flute, guitar, vibes…then building into something wonderful. Last year a meandering Joy to the World settled in me a deep sense of all is well.

#4 – Rockway Church’s Children’s Christmas Pageant

Sue on the back of “The Camel”

Truth be told, this is the one I can’t do without. Each year I wonder: which small child will sing the donkey line or the cow line or the sheep line or the dove line in The Friendly Beasts?  What humorous contemporary elements will the Middlers surprise us with this year?

For years we used the same dear old props, including a star on a pulley which our  three kings tried to follow (but sometimes got ahead of). Then we moved, and that prop no longer worked.

What could possibly be as special, we wondered? Last year we found out! One of the Dads constructed  a large wooden camel. When it came time for the kings, that camel on rollers slowly emerged from the ramp at the back of our stage…to everyone’s delight.

#5 – Music at Home

Published by MennoMedia, Harrisonburg, Virginia

Or course I complement concerts with Christmas music at home. This year I’m drawn to calming CD’s, such as Christmas Sampler (1997) in the (Mennonite) Hymnal Masterworks series. The combination of pans and flute speaks peace to me, especially in Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

I’ve also rediscovered the Christmas music of the Mennonite Hour choral groups, which the radio brought to my childhood home in the 1950’s. I wonder what would happen if the Fairview Park Mall played Audrey Shank’s solo of The Star and the Wise Men with Men’s Chorus some morning. Wouldn’t that be amazing?!

Questions for Reflection

What role does music play for you during Advent? In what ways – if at all – does it lift your spirits and restore your soul during these weeks leading up to Christmas?

Next week: Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols