I began serving as Chaplain to St Mary’s College at Durham University at the start of 2013. By this summer’s close, my tenure will end. When I began working full-time at St John’s College at the start of this academic year as a lecturer and tutor in theology and ministry, Mary’s allowed me to reduce my hours to a meager 3.5 per week—this is not enough time to do justice to the chaplaincy post. It is time for someone else to rise to the task.
I am tremendously grateful that the leadership at Mary’s has allowed an ordained Baptist minister (from America of all places!) to provide pastoral support to students and to lead the fortnightly worship services alongside the beloved Chapel Choir. For the entire Mary’s community, I give sincere thanks.
Some of the Challenges…
In reflecting back over the past two and a half years, there are a number of challenges I can recall. Obviously, it was extremely difficult taking on this post while finishing a book that I was (perhaps insanely) writing while simultaneously writing a PhD thesis. And yes, it was quite challenging for a free church minister to lead Evensong and Communion services following a worship guide based loosely on the Book of Common Prayer (though I admit to preaching longer than the standard Anglican expectations!).
I think the greatest challenge, though, was the lack of time for getting to know well a wider range of students.
I have led two other university ministries. I was full-time in both of those posts, and I remember pounding my weekly calendar full of more one-on-one meetings than humanly possible, all for the sake of building genuine relationships with students. Seven hours per week (and the 3.5 hours per week this past year) are just not enough to allow for such an intense schedule of meetings. And here in the UK, a minister has only 3 years—rather than 4 in the US—to reach out to students before they fly off into the “real world.”
Some of the Joys…
The chaplaincy work afforded some unique joys as well as challenges, of course.
Though I am solidly “free church” in my roots and theological persuasions, I am so delighted to have been allowed to minister within a liturgical worship context. The insider perspective has been so enriching for me, theologically and ministerially.
I joke about being long-winded as a preacher, but in fact, the chaplaincy post has made me less so. Though I still preached 15–20 minutes at Mary’s (quite a bit longer than the standard), I prepared those messages acknowledging time constraints that free church folk often do not need to worry about. In doing so, I think I have been forced (happily) into a practice of tightening my homiletical speech. There is an economy of sermonic wording I hope to maintain (though I will still likely gravitate to the 30 minute mark!).
I have also been introduced to an entire new world of music. The European choral tradition (that includes some extraordinary Russian composers as well) is something for which I will always be no more than an auditory novice. I will likely remain more comfortable with the praise choruses and hymns of the British and American Evangelical traditions. But I will from now on search YouTube during Advent for worshipful choral performances in England’s hallowed chamber halls.
I do not want to forget the camaraderie I have enjoyed with fellow staff at St Mary’s and with the other University Chaplains. I do not want to forget being corrected about how to properly pronounce “Van Gogh” at a high table formal dinner. I do not want to forget preaching in Durham Cathedral for the Carol Service, or the laughter with students over my mishaps in leading a liturgical Eucharist service, or the shared sense of painful grief at a memorial service for a student we lost to tragedy.
So… St Mary’s College: Thank you. This “chaplain” will miss you.
I’ve long been a fan of Sandra McCracken. Over the years she has developed a really specific voice, through writing songs, playing concerts, house shows and hymn sings, and being part of a grassroots movement to reintroduce and revive old hymn texts to a younger listeners and churches. I have heard her talk about growing up in a home with a dad that loved rock and a mom that loved church music, you can hear that marriage come through loud and clear. In my mind she is also one of the most respectful Christian musicians I know. By that I mean, respectful and aware, careful and caring, of the texts she approaches and the audiences she plays for. On April 14th, she releases her latest album, Psalms, a collection of original songs mostly inspired by the biblical Psalms, many geared towards and able to be sung by a congregation. (Like this one, which our small church plant recently sang on both Palm Sunday and Easter!)
I got the chance to meet Sandra almost two years ago in Philly for Bifrost Arts’ The Cry of the Poor conference where she first met most of band featured on this intimate and at times both triumphant and fragile bunch of songs that was recorded over a few days in a Brooklyn loft (band and loft featured in non-album track video below). Since the conference, she’s become the worship pastor for a new Anglican church plant in Nashville, TN, St. Mary of Bethany Parish. I go the chance to talk with her last month about this new album
Hopeful Realism: Tell me about how this new record came about.
Sandra McCracken: Vocationally I’m making a shift towards church music. I’ll still do the singer-songwriter stuff but I think my job is church music right now. I think that without the artist thing that I’ve been doing for the past 18 years, I wouldn’t be doing the same kind of church music if I didn’t have that. My church music is fueled and shaped by all of that, but right now there is a little bit of electricity around investing my resources into the church catalogue and pulling old hymns and theology from old hymns, the richness of all of that into something that is artistically accessible to people. There is a lot I don’t know about it, but that’s kind of thrilling to me too.
HR: What have you learned from doing retuned hymns stuff and playing with folks like Indelible Grace? What parts of that have informed your new calling as a congregational worship leader?
SM: The richness of the theology in those hymns has helped me be a human being. It helps you through life changes and gives a lot of structure and context for faith. They are singable and they’re still around for a reason: [songs like] It is Well with My Soul & Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Some of these songs and tunes really anchor us to what we believe in a profound way.
There are some new contemporary worship songs that are being written that may have the emotionally quality, which is really important, but they’re “concept-concept concept-concept.” All biblical concepts, that just aren’t linked in a narrative form. which is what the hymns do so well. It’s been interesting to observe that.
I’ve been touring with All Sons and Daughters this last month and really learning a lot from them about sing-ability. Initially I was really trying to find my way in. But I’ve been profoundly affected by singing their songs each night and by being drawn in to a very inviting worship style that is less wordy, but also still theologically rich. I’d like to learn from that, and do more of that. I’ve been trying to figure out, in a local context, “What are the songs that our people need to sing?” Sometimes that may translate to the larger Church as well, often it probably will. But it has to start locally, incarnationally.
HR: What has writing and performing kids music (Rain for Roots) taught you about being worship leader and writing songs for corporate worship?
SM: Kids are really honest critics and there is not any pretense about how they respond to something. Learning and understanding sing-ability by writing for children’s voices is one of the best schools I’ve been to for songwriting. You get to ask: “Can they sing it? Do they want to sing it? Is it fun to sing? Do they want to sing it again? Is it too high?” Kids tend to have higher voices but their ranges are similar to what would be in an old hymnal: C to E. It is very interesting how all those pieces fit together and inform other contexts. That work has been incredibly relevant to how my writing has changed in the last 3-5 years.
HR: I’ve noticed on All Your Works Are Good (Psalm 104), the beginning sounds like one of the Rain for Roots songs, kind of didactic and sing-song-y, profoundly simple, in a good way. That one really stands out to me because it’s surprising how simple it starts and then how it blooms into something really emotive and big. And I think the guitar and instrumentation does that as much as the vocals or lyrics.
SM: I wrote that one at a songwriter retreat with Julie Lee and Jill Phillips. We’ve done some regular writers’ retreats, and that came out of our first one.
HR: Tell me about a song from Psalms that particularly sticks out to you or that you’re most proud of.
SM: Each has a story and an approach. I’ve been pretty regularly been playing My Help, My God at these shows and talking about how the Psalms have been teaching me how to pray. I went through a season where I didn’t feel like singing, that was a valley of sorts, and when I came out of that the only things I wanted to sing were Anne Steele hymns, some of my favorites that felt safe and honest. And then I would sit with the Psalms open at the piano or kitchen table and start making up melodies and singing segments pretty spontaneously and not for an audience or for the sake of being recorded. But realizing that this practice was teaching me how to pray and have an honest conversation with God that has a width of the human experience and even the confusion of the both/and as the Psalms present life: “Why have you forsaken me?” and “How long is this going to be?” and “I put my trust in You.” So Psalm 42, which My Help, My God was written from, is a good example of that range.
Another example of how kids music has informed this music, is that the chorus is kind of high, my daughter would sit next to me at the piano and she would play those high notes and sing that with me. The song wound up be really shaped around her voice and the experience of sitting there singing together. Even the subtle little “T” sound in “trust”…there are so many ways to express your heart with the aid of music and the complexity of all those things coming together.
That was one of the first songs that we recorded in those two days in Brooklyn. In the performance, you can hear that my voice breaks up at the end. We just played it through and that’s how it landed. And then I left the room for a while. It’s intense to enter into these texts and to do that with a band I’ve never played with and to feel the energy of the band and vulnerability of saying those words out loud, even though they’re not my words, and maybe especially so. Because they feel like they’re resounding and enduring words, they give you a profound sense of intimacy with God and the feeling that you’re being seen and honored in whatever your experience is. Whatever you’re going through, there is a place for it within the story of Scripture and the Psalms. And that access point is an enormous gift to us.
HR: That resonates a lot with me, right now. I’m writing a Lenten sermon on Jesus reusing the psalmist’s words “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” from the cross for this Sunday. I came back to this one passage from Ellie Wiesel’s Night, where he’s headed for what he thinks will be his death and the Jewish burial prayer his dad pray’s “May His name be celebrated and sanctified”is on his lips even as he can’t conceive of God being there to hear. You wonder, “where is that coming from?”But the psalms somehow build us in with this language we don’t even know we have. They did that for Jesus and they do that for us.
SM: [The language of the Psalms] is spacious. There’s room for you to enter into it, stand up and walk around, it will hold us in those moments. I’m grateful for that.
HR: How has being the worship leader at an Anglican church interacted with these psalms and the liturgical song that closes the album?
SM: Working in that context and planning a liturgy every week since August has really helped my creativity, because you have a lot of structure around the liturgy. The passages are already chosen. It’s not like I’m planning a show, I’m trying weave the music into the liturgy and the worship experience in a way that it enhances, and is not a distraction, isn’t abrupt…I’ve learned quite a bit. I don’t have a liturgical background, it’s all really new to me, even the church calendar, there are layers of creativity that you can explore within that structure.
It is all yellow in the Deep South. The Pollen-Apocalypse is upon us.
As a result, my 6 month old son, Leland, has been a sneezy, snotty, runny-nosed, and congested mess. He is not breathing well, therefore he is not sleeping well. He is not sleeping well, therefore he is whiny, exhausted, frustrated, and miserable. Because he is all of the above things, his mom and dad are weary.
Enter the bulb syringe. Affectionately referred to in our home as the “nose sucker.”
Leland hates it. It is pure torture for him. In his 6 month old mind, it is literally the worst thing in the world. I pin him down and suction crud out of his nose. He wails so hard I wonder if he is going to stop breathing. But if I stick with it, I’ll help him.
Strangely, I take no pleasure in the event itself, but I’m glad that I do it. He needs it and I’m his dad.
Further, I know what is best for him. I have a perspective he could never have. I also know what is best for our entire household, because I’m sensitive to how his allergies wear out his mother, and how they might have an effect on his brother.
I willing put my child through difficulty he neither understands or enjoys precisely because I love him.
Turns out, by the way, that I’m not the only Father who does this.
Please don’t think this account of why suffering comes to us is the only way to explain it (it’s not). Or that it explains every situation (it doesn’t). Perhaps not all suffering we experience is what my friend Matt calls, “soul making.” But it is a way to think of it.
One angle of vision on a very complex subject.
In the case of the nose sucker, it should be added that in the misery of it all, I’m with him. Giving all the comfort I can. Speaking tender words.
When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Sometimes I imagine a simple conversation between Jesus and all of us.
Jesus: “It is finished.”
Us: “What is finished?”
Us: “But you don’t know what I’ve done.”
Jesus: “Yes, I do. And now you know what I’ve done.”
Us: “But have you seen the evil and sin and death in the world?”
Jesus: “I have. And this is what I’ve done about it.”
Us: “This is a strange way to solve that problem.”
Us: “But I feel so far from you.”
Jesus: “Still finished.”
Us: “What if I’m not sure?”
Jesus: “I am sure.”
Us: “For me?”
Jesus: “For you.”
The finality of Christ’s work is a hard for us to believe. The life a faith can be a hard, murky struggle. But that doesn’t mean things are unfinished. To learn to believe, live in light of, seek the application of, and rejoice in, the finished work of Christ on your behalf is the basic task of the Christian life. And it’s not an easy thing to do.
But it’s the main thing. We do not move on to another thing because there is no other thing.
“Hence it is that the Psalter is the book for all the saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.”
Martin Luther, “Preface to the Psalter” in Luther’s Works, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 255-56.
If the idea of “hopeful realism,” the namesake of this blog, has been of any interest to you, please check out this video. My dear friend and poet, John Castling, has written a poem that captures the essence of a faith realistic enough to accommodate the horrors of a world stricken with death, disease, and violence, yet hopeful enough to accommodate the emptied tomb of Jesus through which New Creation and the eschatological age to come are penetrating our world. This is a poem about praying to God while grounded in the mesmerizing, complex world of of his self-revelation in Scripture, a revelation that is honest about pain, war, disillusionment, yet also about miracles, wonders, and divine rescues.
John is accompanied by my other unusually talented friends Hannah Bayley and Seymour Jacklin. The video editing and directing is done behind the scenes by Crystal Sherbondy. So proud of this piece of work, and so happy to be able to worship with these folks at Kings Church Durham.