Sing with Passion: an Ode to Our Church Musicians

Apr 26, 2024

by Rev. Randal K. Lubbers
Associate Pastor for Families & Faith Formation
St Paul Presbyterian Church, Johnston

And the more gratitude you have for the moment, the more you can be absorbed by it…. All we have is this moment. And it means the world to me. To pull all of that air into my lungs and then blow it out into a saxophone for the crowd to hear. I’m so grateful… (Mark Rivera, sideman with Billy Joel, Foreigner, Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, Paul McCartney, and many others, in his book Sideman: In Pursuit of the Next Gig).

It started early. Mostly in church. It blossomed in the sixth grade. I started singing in “Youth Choir” conducted by Dr. Lawrence Van Wyk. All the grown-ups called him “Prof Van Wyk” or just “Prof” because he taught at Northwestern College and conducted the A Cappella Choir there. He was an icon. In sixth grade I called him Dr. Van Wyk.

Back then, anyone who sang in the high school choir (starting already in the freshman year) would be more-or-less expected to move up to the Senior Choir with the grown-ups. So, there I was, a skinny 6’4” kid, standing next to the same elementary school principal—he was all of 5’7” or so. Just three years earlier, he would have been calling me “into the office” and chiding me for some smart aleck thing I’d done or—more likely—said. On the other side of me was an auctioneer with a big, booming voice to match his big burly shoulders. Perhaps surprisingly, he was in the tenor section too. “A bass,” Prof often teased, “is just a lazy tenor.”

We were rehearsing one of Prof’s favorites, an anthem we sang most every year, “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Now I’m pretty sure we were hitting all the notes just right, but yet something was missing. We had no passion. Prof was nearly crying in frustration, asking us, “Don’t you know what you’re singing about? Can’t you feel the words? There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.” He implored us to sing with feeling, with emotion, with “weeping and wailing….”

Amazing how these things happen.

When our time came in the service, we did indeed… Sing. With. Passion.

Sweat was dripping from Prof’s bald head. Tears of joy flowing from his eyes. We were really singing and really praying too; and, some of us, even crying as we sang: Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again… There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

I hadn’t thought of that story in quite a while. And, then, I was watching Billy Joel’s concert at Madison Square Garden on CBS. I was in awe of the boundless joy exuding from the face of the saxophone player, Mark Rivera. This man—who had played these totally in-the-vibe interludes more times than one could count—was not only a fabulous sax player but he was a man who was so obviously in love with life, in love with the music, in love with the moment. Seeing him play brought happy tears to my eyes. Such passion.

Everyone who sings or plays for the public will tell you, every venue, every audience, every night is different. Great musicians feel the audience and adapt. Peter W. Marty, senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, says the same is true in the church. He writes,

Every time a congregation gathers, a new community must form. Even if the assembly just met the previous week, its character has altered. Various component parts have shifted. Bodies have aged, however slightly. New joys have walked in the door. Fresh sorrows have settled into a back pew. Two tenors from the choir are missing….

It’s our musicians who pay attention to all the nuances of our new-every-Sunday community, who listen—really listen—and know what’s going on. And when they’re in-the-groove, suddenly mystery and spirit and oneness appear and we suddenly find ourselves “…enveloped in lovely ways by the resonant voice of the church singing together” (Marty).

Now I’m at my stereo, playing “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “New York State of Mind” and especially listening to the saxophone solos. Earlier I was listening to Beth Nielsen Chapman who sings with such soul and passion and heart. Even earlier I re-read the article by Peter Marty, “In praise of church musicians,” from The Christian Century (April 2024).

And all the while I’m thinking, “How can I express this joy and gratitude and grace? How can I express what I’m feeling right now?”

Yeah, I can write pretty good, but I cannot express the depth of this. It can only be sung. From life’s first cry to final breath. I’ll praise my Maker. I’ll sing, and I’ll feel what I’m singing.

So, to all our church musicians, I can only say, “Thank you.”

Thank you—for surely there are times when you feel discouraged and think it’s all in vain, until the Holy Spirit revives your soul again. Thank you for leading us into the place where we feel and believe and really grab ahold of the words and the melody and the harmony and, yes, even the jazzy groove of God’s grace.

Thank you, and keep making it real for us.