Closing Words by Rev. Tom Goldsmith Volume 9

28 February 2021

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I sat in the pew on the night of my ordination contemplating the role of music in worship.  Normally a festive occasion, and my first congregation tried to launch my ministry as though I was beginning my tenure as pope, it didn’t live up to the hype because the congregation had no music program. There was no money to pay a music director whose repertoire extended beyond chop sticks. But there had to be music for the ordination, so they lured an elderly parishioner who fought alcohol addiction and was apparently once a fine singer in the years before I was born. There was evidence she had a shot of courage before unleashing her vocal effort. I did appreciate her intention although it wasn’t pretty.  

The gentleman who accompanied her, came straight from central casting. It was his first and last appearance in this rural church along the Massachusetts coast. A dour man, quite portly, a little moustache to make him appear as a maestro, he soon realized that the job ahead of him that evening was probably not worth the bucks he would receive. Maybe he should have had a drink before the ordination. 

The vocalist selected Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” a composition I have been unable to listen to since. Hearing it sung on my ordination I thought for sure that Bach never figured out how to bring it to a close. So, my thoughts wandered towards developing a new appreciation for music’s pivotal role in worship.  

The church was located in a predominantly Catholic town, like all of Massachusetts, which may be why my desperate prayers for music blessing my ministry someday were actually answered. God may have mistaken my church for a Catholic parish where all prayers get His attention.  It was a miracle of biblical proportion when I met Jerry on the beach while he was deftly using his toes to find clams buried along the shore. He shared that he was homeless, but also mentioned that he was a devoted pianist of some note. I took the bait and drove him to church to hear him play. He dazzled.  I shouted “encore,” and he obliged.  

Jerry, only a year older than I, left the Dominican priesthood and became a hippie. His long straight black hair reached the middle of his back. Although it was straight-laced New England, the board managed to come up with some scratch, and Jerry lived secretly in the church. He bathed in the nursery school water table, and either fed himself by combing for clams and mussels or as a guest at my table in the parsonage. All the Catholic High School kids in town knew him and loved him. He put together a youth chorus of 30 townie Catholic teens who performed with angelic voices regularly at my church. Jerry’s music on Sunday mornings convinced the congregation that a worship service without quality music deprived the spirit of exactly what it was seeking. He formed an adult UU choir and singing took hold of the church as though swept up in a mad craze. 

One night around 10pm, there was a knock on the parsonage door. Jerry had completed a full musical with lyrics called “The Eighth Deadly Sin.” He invited me to church for a performance. Could anyone resist despite the hour of the evening? Once inside he lit about two dozen candles as the sanctuary was otherwise dark. He sat sat down to the piano and belted out the entire musical. It might well have been the greatest musical experience of my life, right there in the same pew where I suffered through “Sheep May Safely Graze.” There was a producer in Chicago who received some early drafts of the musical and showed interest. Jerry left the next day to seek his glory in Chicago.   

But he worked his magic on my little parish. Suddenly enough money was found to pay for a decent music director.  Dorothy who lived a few towns away, auditioned, and wound up as the right person to play music and cheer up a saddened choir. A congregation can always find the money for whatever it deems important. 

A couple of years later I wound up in a church closer to Boston, about 30 miles up the road from my first church. The music director, Hope, had feigned retirement thoughts for about ten years before I got there. The Board instructed me that when I heard another rumination about her retirement, I was to seize upon it immediately. I was told to be compassionate, but to hold her in a headlock so she couldn’t back down yet again. I executed my assignment adroitly, and a search committee for a new music director was formed inside of an hour. Then troubles began as the search committee and I took extreme opposite approaches. 

Living close to Boston has its advantages. The music director at King’s Chapel, was the renown organist, Daniel Pinkham. His assistant, Larry, never got a chance to perform, and so he applied for the job to succeed Hope. We all thought he was better than Pinkham, but the search committee wanted to deny him the gig. Certain that such a talent would only stay a year at most, we would all feel bereft when he climbed the ladder in the music world. I countered: “A blessing is a blessing, be it for a year or twenty. Take each blessing as it comes.” 

Not wanting to cross the new minister during the honeymoon period, they acquiesced. I knew I would get an earful of “I told you so,” when Larry would leave. But he never did. He remained long after I departed for Salt Lake City. Larry became a leader in the UU Musicians Network, composed some hymns, offered organ recitals as fundraisers, and was more handsome than any Hollywood actor could hope to be. The music program lifted the church to spiritual heights not known before. And Larry was at his best playing for Hope’s memorial service. She liked him, too, from the moment she first met him. 

When I arrived in Salt Lake City, the music director was very talented, but also a returned missionary who remained devoted to his LDS heritage. He had delightful stories, like his grandmother being the first woman to model a two-piece swimsuit at the Salt Air. I think it was then that the next generation converted to Mormonism. His commitment to First Church did not run deep, and after a few years left for a gig at Ballet West. 

Our church then cycled through a host of music directors, ranging from a melodramatic Russian who knew no English, to a young woman whose main source of income was modeling lingerie, to a military band leader who was quite popular although he sometimes directed the choir on Sundays while in uniform. 

Quietly, as if by stealth, a new member of our church some 22 years ago or longer, mentioned he played some piano when we needed music for a skit in our Pledge Kick-off. He was quite good, and after filling the role as choral accompanist for quite some time, David took over as the music director. He built a music program that went beyond the confines of Sunday morning expectations. He offered recitals in his home, working with one of our more talented sopranos. He played for cabarets which he introduced to our congregation. He stretched the job description of music director to unrecognizable forms. Humor became his calling card; fun made everything possible. I could tell him what I needed to complement an upcoming sermon and more often than not he would say, “Well, I guess I’ll need to compose it myself.” And he did. And it was perfect. 

Close to retirement, I find myself again contemplating the role of music during worship. It’s hard to put into words, which is why I imagine we have music in the first place. It speaks to all that cannot be spoken.  

Although my ministry got off to a rocky start musically, I have been blessed with musical giants in the three churches I have served. But it’s a lot more than working with musicians who perform well. When I connect the dots, from Jerry, to Larry, to David, all three had big personalities. Only a big personality would have the pluck to throw himself fully into creating a music program that inspires, demands commitment from congregants, and has the audacity to address the spiritual needs of a bunch of intellectuals. Without a big personality, the music director is a mere piano player. 

Depending on your theology, music in worship is either a gift or a blessing. Words ring hollow without the right musical uplift. Believe me, I know. 

Tom Goldsmith