Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Two recent experiences away from my home church

As I mentioned last week, I've recently been away on vacation.  Despite this, my thoughts have not strayed far from St. Mary's.  Today, I'd like to share my experience at two recent worship services. 

Church 1 was much like St. Mary's in repertoire, instruments and style of music.  The only major difference was that the person who played the organ and piano also served as the cantor/vocalist.

The music at church 2 was mostly hymns (ex. Holy, Holy, Holy) played on the organ.  There was no leader of song and the organist did not sing. 

Which church do you think sang more?  The answer might surprise you.

Perhaps the better question would be:  "Which church sang?"

Church number 2; a small congregation between 80 and 100 sang with vigor.  Virtually no sound came from the similar-sized congregation of church number 1. 

You may be wondering why I didn’t sing.  I did.  I was the one playing and singing by myself.  Throughout the mass a flood of thoughts, questions and unproductive criticisms came to mind.   I pushed them away and focused on how good it is to be playing at St. Mary’s.


When Fr. Rich introduced me to you 4 years ago I shared a fundamental principle of my approach toward church music:  The principle instrument in the church is the voice of the faithful gathered.   This last anecdote provides an excellent example of how you have grown to embrace this role.

I asked my cantors and substitute musicians if they would share a little about their experience while I was away.   My goal was to hear someone else’s perspective.   (Thank you to Gabrianna for sharing.)

It seemed that one of my subs was playing the Gloria a bit slower than we usually sing it.  Gabrianna correctly decided to simply go along with this tempo. That would have been the end of the story except for one thing:  the voice of the congregation was strong enough to challenge both her and the instrumentalist.

While one might see this as a problem, I interpret this as the healthy tension created by the proper balance between instrument, leader of song and congregation.  It’s like when you’re at a rock concert and the lead singer stops singing but the audience continues singing the chorus. 

This is where we are.  This is where we’re heading.  This is why I’m so excited to be playing here at St. Mary’s.



Thank you to Ryan Gorman for subbing for returning to sub this weekend.  Please don’t overwhelm him by changing tempos and singing too loudly.  On second thought:  Go for it!


Friday, August 25, 2017

The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Still Small Voice part III

(Liturgical) Note:

I’ve spent the past week vacationing in New England.  It’s amazing how time away from life in New Jersey, music, work and St. Mary’s causes me to think even more about life in New Jersey, music, work and St. Mary’s. Initially, I planned a simple vacation note such as:  “Liturgical notes and Bruce will return next week.”  Instead my vacation encounters have left me with an I-phone full of thoughts, ideas and dreams too exciting to defer.


We had just parked our car and were preparing to take our bikes to the carriage path that circles Acadia National Park.  Despite having an itinerary in hand we decided to ask a final question of a woman parked next to us. We struck gold.  Mary Ann had moved to the area about 35 years ago and often took Gus, her black lab, for walks in the park.   Mary Ann offered several tips about the park and answered multiple questions about what it’s like to leave the city and live full-time in such a rugged place.  

After about 10 minutes we thanked Mary Ann for taking the time to answer questions she has probably been asked on multiple occasions.  Her response was the big take away from our encounter:  “In light of what is going on it is important to take the time to be a little kinder to people.”


Bar Harbor Maine is a wonderful family friendly vacation town.  During the summer the population swells as part-time residents return, tourists drive in and cruise ships dock for the day.   Like many towns there is a shopping/dining district with a village green.  The focal point of the green is an old fashioned bandstand. 

One evening we were drawn to the green by the sound of a 20 piece brass band.  It was a slice of Americana.  We joined with people of all ages sitting on benches, lawn-chairs or grass. The music served as a soundtrack for a teenaged girl practicing walking a tight-rope using a band tied between two trees.  Most of my attention focused on a 4 year old boy who repeatedly enticed two slightly older girls into a game of chase by running around the band-stand.

On Saturday night we were drawn to the green by the glow of candlelight.  A poster board staked into the grass read:  

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” 

It was connected to other poster boards of similar quotes laid out in a circular fashion and connected by a ribbon.  I quickly realized it was a labyrinth: a form of meditative prayer with 4th century Celtic roots. The night was planned an implemented by a local chapter of a group called “We are Indivisible.” 


The best of the encounters happened on Sunday morning.  I/we decided to visit a Bar Harbor Congregational church on Sunday morning.  

I am embarrassed to say that I had one big reservation:  "I want to hear a real sermon and not some congregation members recap of their mission trip to East Jabib."

Well, I heard a "real sermon"; a really really great sermon.  One of the best sermons I've heard in a long time.  A sermon so good that I hope you'll take the time and clink the link right now.

The writer and preacher was a priest nor a minister.  She is the wife of the pastor of this church; Christy Benson and I thank her for sharing this with me.


What impressed me about these encounters was that they were respectful of those who would disagree.  While they challenged actions, policies and statements there was no disrespect of individuals, government officials or the government itself.  They were quiet and gentle yet persistent and persuasive like the still small voice that the prophet Elijah recognized as the presence of the Lord.  (1 Kings 19:12)

If you are interested in getting involved in the area of social justice or just interested in getting involved at St. Mary’s send me an e-mail at, see a staff member or call the office at (973) 235-1100.
Excited to be back making music at St. Mary’s,
This week’s music
Entrance                    How Firm a Foundation                    #714
Offertory                    Day of Peace                                      #523
Communion               We Remember, We Believe              in bulletin

Recessional                The Church’s One Foundation        #418

Sunday, August 13, 2017

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time How Firm a Foundation

“How Firm a Foundation, 
you Saints of the Lord, 
is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!”
                                  From the hymn in Rippon’s “A selection of Hymns”

    What is the first song at mass called?                                                                                 
 Is it an entrance hymn?  An opening hymn?  A gathering song?         A Processional? 

    What is its' function? 
To signify the beginning of mass?  To unite the people in sung 
prayer? Traveling music for the priests and ministers?
While we're at it.....

    What should one do in preparing for mass?

Now if I were writing to a group of church musicians I’d receive a deluge of comments and arguments for simply posing these questions.  Perhaps you are formulating a few for yourself.  One caveat before you read on; my purpose is neither to criticize complain nor tell you you how to spend your time in church before the mass begins.*  I offer these thoughts simply for your consideration.

Today’s first hymn; “How Firm a Foundation” (#715) might point us in the right direction.  Consider Peter trying to imitate Jesus by walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee.  He steps out of the boat promptly sinks like a rock.  Maybe that’s why Jesus called him “The rock on which I will build my church.” (Just a little scriptural humor.)  Peter is saved when he takes the hands of Jesus; his firm foundation).   Take a moment and think how today’s other hymns might connect to this scripture.

In addition to this our first hymn serves as the foundation of our participation at Sunday liturgy by helping us transition from :   
        daily stresses (i.e. the house chores, getting our kids and 
        ourselves up and ready for mass etc.) to worship.
      private devotion (i.e. meditation, quiet prayer, the rosary etc.), to 
      communal worship.

Take a moment today to consider how participating in our gathering might gently lead us towards meeting Christ in Word, Sacrament and in the faithful gathered.

Blessed to be serving at St. Mary’s,


*   I would, however, argue that it is hard to fully participate in 
     anything without adequate preparation.   
    (Oops, did I say that out loud?  J)

Please welcome Tricia Blanchard, the director of music at Vincent United Methodist Church who will be playing the organ and piano on Saturday night. 

           This weekend’s music

Gathering                  How Firm a Foundation  #715
Offertory                   Precious Lord,  Take My Hand 685
Communion              We Remember, We Believe (bulletin)
Recessional                Stand By Me #631

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