Singing the Catechism

In 2006, we introduced Concordia Publishing House's new Sunday School curriculum, Growing in Christ, to our congregation in California. We did that for several reasons, but probably the biggest reasons were that it followed the flow of the church year and that it was distinctly Lutheran. One of the ways that the curriculum is distinctly Lutheran is its regular connections to Luther's Small Catechism. As a part of that, I was so pleased to find that on the CDs which accompany the student materials in the lower level there were newly composed tunes for singing the words of the Small Catechism. The first quarter had sections from the first article of the creed. The tunes were catchy and memorable.

The one downside, I thought, was that the translation used for these recordings is just a little different from the catechism translation published by Northwestern Publishing House and generally in use in the WELS. When we are dealing with texts to be memorized, consistency and uniformity is usually a plus. It makes me think of Luther's comments in his preface to the Small Catechism:

In the first place, let the preacher above all be careful to avoid many kinds of or various texts and forms of the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, the Sacraments, etc., but choose one form to which he adheres, and which he inculcates all the time, year after year. For [I give this advice, however, because I know that] young and simple people must be taught by uniform, settled texts and forms, otherwise they easily become confused when the teacher to-day teaches them thus, and in a year some other way, as if he wished to make improvements, and thus all effort and labor [which has been expended in teaching] is lost.

Also our blessed fathers understood this well; for they all used the same form of the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments. Therefore we, too, should [imitate their diligence and be at pains to] teach the young and simple people these parts in such a way as not to change a syllable, or set them forth and repeat them one year differently than in another [no matter how often we teach the Catechism]. From

On the other hand, I realize that our translations must adjust over time so that they might remain understandable and memorable. I know that I learned the words of the catechism slightly differently than I teach them today (but I've re-learned them in the new version). And both are different from the way my parents learned them, and in a completely different language than my grandparents learned them. So while the translation issue is something I'm aware of, I'm not too concerned about it. I have thought that if a student of mine were able to learn the words of the catechism by heart and they happened to use a slightly different wording, I wouldn't make them re-learn it using the official WELS translation. 

790004.jpg So I haven't made much use of these recordings—yet. But I'm now thinking that perhaps I should. In the most recent quarter of Growing in Christ, the section of the catechism on the kids CDs is The Sacrament of the Altar. The CD has been playing in our van's stereo for about 10 weeks now. And Lydia, our three year old, loves to sing along with it and pretty much has the whole section memorized. It's like pulling teeth to get my 7th and 8th graders to memorize these words, but a three year old sings without hesitation, "What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ…" She will even sing these words outside of the car, while playing around the house. And if I start singing a phrase, like, "Where is this written?" She will sing, "The holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and St. Paul write…" (I just tried it and that's exactly what she did.) Even Isaiah, our two year old, will sing along with parts.

And then, just this morning, I was teaching Bible Class on the Lord's Supper and when I started reading a section on Communion from the Small Catechism, I could hear the melody in my head as I read the words. This has even helped me.

So I decided that it would be worth it to purchase the whole collection and to encourage others to do the same. You can purchase the recordings on CD from Concordia, as well as in a printed songbook. Or, you can download the whole thing or piece by piece (much more expensive) in iTunes or on For just $7.99. That's really nothing when I think of how much it is worth to me to have these words of faith imprinted on the minds and hearts of my children.

Strings & Choir

Yesterday I attended another performance by the Bruce Nehring Consort of El Paso. This one featured Charles Gray, a violinist and conductor from St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, and substitute violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra.

The concert focused on choral and orchestral works of Haydn and Mendelssohn. 2009 is the 200th anniverary of Haydn’s death and Mendelssohn’s birth.

Once again I was impressed with the Lutheran music. The concert began with a double choir Sanctus by Mendelssohn. Later on they also sang a Kyrie by Mendelssohn and Herzliebster Jesu (O Dearest Jesus) in a setting by John Ferguson.

One thing that especially struck me this time is just how much a difference good acoustics make. Professor Gray spoke about a few of the pieces—sans microphone or sound system—and you could hear him just fine. I just thought to myself how much easier it would be to preach in such a space. I know that the ideal acoustics for music are not the same as for speaking, but I regularly feel like I need to shout in order to be heard. 

Bruce Nehring, the director of this group, is a consultant in church acoustics and pipe organ design. He is apparently very concerned about the acoustics of the spaces in which they perform. He had actually received some criticism for using churches for many concerts—not only because much of the music was originally written for the church, but also because the churches were frequently spaces that enhance the sound of the music. Here is a quote from the program from yesterday:

“This belief in architectural proportions to musical sound piqued Nehring’s interest in using spaces not usually thought of as concert halls which led to his use of the Union Depot for concerts.”

The Union Depot is El Paso’s train station, built by the same architect as Washington D.C.’s Union Station.

Bruce Nehring Consort

Last Friday night Sara and I went to a Christmas concert here in El Paso called the "Navidad de Las Luminarias." It's an annual event put on by the Bruce Nehring Consort, "El Paso's Professional Singers and Chamber Players." It's a sacred music concert and is held at the chapel at Loretto Academy. It was really quite good, and I appreciated the selection of music. Here are my favorites:

I think this was the first time I've been to a sacred concert that was not a part of our church or schools. Like I said, I really enjoyed it and appreciated it. But I did notice that the pieces that were the most edifying, the deepest (and I think, the most beautiful) were the ones written by Lutherans. Lutheran pastors like Cyriakus Scheegaß (1546–1597) and Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608). Lutheran cantors like Johann Kuhnau and J.S. Bach. So much of this kind of music was created for the church by her servants, and while it's fun to listen to it today by "professional singers and chamber players," it makes me a little disappointed that many—including Lutherans—are completely unaware of the musical heritage of the Lutheran church. IIt would be a shame if we relegated this rich heritage to museums and community groups dedicated to furthering "the arts." Shouldn't such music be most and best used in places where it was originally conceived—where the music's original purpose of teaching and comforting the saints could continue even today? 

That's not to say Lutherans no longer write and perform good, spiritually edifying music. There are many good things happening all over the place—though it's harder to find in outlying areas (like West Texas). There have also been a few wonderful efforts recently to encourage this very thing. One is the Singing the Faith DVD, which helps to teach people about this heritage and why it's important. The other, more recent project, is the DVD Children Making Music, which encourages us to pass our heritage on to the next generation. Ultimately, encouraging young musicians is the best way to make use of and carry on the rich music of the past and to encourage the development of similar music for our day—music written to carry the proclamation of the gospel, to sing the faith into the hearts of God's people.

Seminary Chorus

I’ve received a number of comments on the recording of the Seminary men singing the Agnus Dei. One of the reasons I posted that clip was to give a preview of what we’re going to have here on Easter Sunday, when the Seminary Chorus is going to be in Modesto for Easter Sunday. They will be here as a part of their tour of Nevada and California.

Some people have commented that this was just what they needed—especially on a busy Wednesday in Lent. It brought me back to those lenten Wednesdays at Sem when I lived up in Kewaskum, about a 40 minute drive from school. Classes went from 7:30am to 12:30pm, when we would quickly eat lunch in the cafeteria. I would then drive up to West Bend to work until about 4:00, then rush home so that I could teach catechism to a couple 6th graders at St. Lucas. As soon as that was done I had to get back in the car and drive down to some church in the Milwaukee where the Seminary Chorus was singing for a 7:00 service. When I finally got home around 9:00 it was time to get started on preparing for another day of classes.

Chorus2Those were long days, but I remember how much I appreciated being able to sing with that group. The songs we sang were, I assume, encouraging and edifying to the people of those congregations. But the message of Scripture carried by those songs was encouraging and edifying to me, and it was just what I needed on those long days of Lent.

The first time I heard the Seminary Chorus was in high school. The year was 1995. That spring was also the last time the choir toured California, but they also made a stop in Minnesota at my home congregation. As a sophomore in high school I was already on track towards the pastoral ministry. I was in my second year of Latin and knew exactly what I needed to be ready for MLC. But hearing the Seminary Chorus in concert solidified my desires and made me look forward to wearing those blue robes.

Humanly speaking, the Seminary Chorus had a large part in my becoming a pastor. It sparked the interest in a curious high schooler, encouraged a busy seminarian, and I’m looking forward to next Sunday when I pray they will again encourage a Californian congregation as they celebrate the resurrection of our Lord.

Agnus Dei

One fond memory I have from the Seminary is the daily chapel services. In particular, I remember singing the Agnus Dei once a week during Lent. We sang it in Latin, usually in four parts. Very often the organist stopped playing so that the student body sings acapella.

The chapel services at the Seminary are now available by podcast. I downloaded a recent service in which they sang the Agnus Dei, and cropped it out for you.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace. Amen.

WLS Daily Chapel Podcast

Rejoice in God My Savior

As I mentioned in a previous post, this year’s children’s Christmas service was based on the hymn, "O Jesus Christ, Your Manger Is". The service took place last Sunday, the day before Christmas Eve. One of the highlights from that service was the singing of that hymn, with the first stanza sung by the kids (K–8). Another highlight would be the preschoolers singing "While by the Sheep". I had been going into the preschool room for the last couple weeks to help the 3- and 4-year-olds learn that one. It was so much fun to do that and to get to know those kids a little better.

But I would have to say the highlight of that service for me was another of the songs. It was a setting of the Magnificat (by James Chepponis). The kids and the congregation sang the refrains, and the verses were sung by a group young women from our congregation, mostly high school-aged. The six of them sang the verses in two parts. They prepared it with minimal rehearsal time in the past couple weeks. All of these girls are ones I have had in our junior choir (which we don’t have this year because there aren’t enough voices). But I have always been so impressed not only by their lovely voices, but by their willingness to sing and try different things. I only hope that these girls will continue to use and develop their talent. That can be really tricky for a high school student if their school doesn’t offer, or they aren’t directly involved in another music program at school.

The Magnificat itself is something that continues to grow on me. One thing that impresses me is how much this New Testament song reflects the language of the Old Testament psalms. It shows, I think, the familiarity that pious Jews had with the psalms and how connect the whole Bible really is.

O Jesus Christ, Your Manger Is

This year’s children’s service is based on Paul Gerhardt‘s Christmas hymn, "O Jesus Christ, Your Manger Is." It’s not the most common Christmas hymn. It’s probably not on everyone’s favorites list. But in my opinion there are few that are better. As I was doing a little research I happened upon an article about Paul Gerhardt’s hymns from the Forward in Christ a few years ago. The article is written by Prof. Theodore Hartwig. I thought I’d share a portion of it with you.

Many of Gerhardt’s 17 hymns in Christian Worship are much admired and much used. It would be a credit to our worship practice if another of his hymns, much neglected, won its deserved place in the sun. It is the Christmas chorale “O Jesus Christ, Your Manger Is” (CW 40).

On reading this hymn no one can fail to notice its childlike quality and its focus on the central truth of Christmas: God coming into human flesh. The excellence of the text is matched by a tune of calm, confident serenity that was composed by Gerhardt’s friend, Johann Cruger.

Any commentary on the first stanza simply gets in the way of its beauty: “O Jesus Christ, your manger is My paradise where my soul is reclining. For there, O Lord, we find the Word. Made flesh for us—your grace is brightly shining.”

The second stanza tells how the eternal God condescended to our low estate. The third stanza sings of the comfort gained from Christ’s birth. The fourth raises this comfort to the higher bliss reserved in heaven.

The final stanza bids each believer to turn away from this world’s distractions and keep heart and mind fixed on Jesus. It’s a matchless meditation: "The world may hold her wealth and gold; But you, my heart, keep Christ as your true treasure. To him hold fast until at last A crown is yours and honor in full measure."

We should be grateful that the world has not added this hymn to the roster of carols blared from loudspeakers at scores of shopping centers. When the world touches holy things, it unfailingly cheapens them. Praise God that we possess this hymn exclusively as our own.

I might note here that this year is the 400th anniversary of Paul Gerhardt’s birth. There have been a number of celebrations and commemorations throughout the Lutheran church over the past year to remember and give thanks for such beautiful hymns.