September 20, 2023
Director of Communications and Outreach
Greetings, Bethany Community!
This week I’d like to update you on some of the continuing renovations at Bethany, and to share a piece of music which I’ve been reminded of a few times recently -- Dave Matthews Band’s musical retelling of The Passion. Before diving in, I want to apologize for this being the second time that my Wednesday Words have gone out after regular business hours. This won’t be the norm in the long-run, but at the moment I would appreciate your grace.
Power tools have been whirring away this week (they even flipped a breaker!), preparing the floor of the Sanctuary for the new carpeting now that the asbestos abatement procedure has been completed (photos in the longer Wednesday Words newsletter (subscribe here at bottom of page)). In addition to the new carpeting and refurbished balcony, our return to the Sanctuary will include new projectors -- yes, plural! Previously, a single screen to the side of the altar presented music, text, and images during Sunday Worship service; when we return to that space, however, we’ll have a fancy new screen on each side! We’ll reformat some of the slides so that text is easier to read from further-back pews, but now it’ll also be a much better visual experience for folks sitting on the right-hand side of the congregation.
Speaking of visual materials, there are some updates to the format of the bulletin, as part of a general impetus to expand both the accessibility and hospitality of Bethany’s worship service. The bulletin now includes printed music for all sung material, since the chairs in Luther Hall don’t provide convenient ways to store and utilize hymnals (although we stashed some in the back for folks who would prefer that); however, we’re going to continue printing all music post-renovation, because folks may variously struggle with handling a heavy book, knowing how to search for a particular hymn, or reading the hymnal’s small print. Speaking of which, some font sizes and spacers have been enlargened, in order to ensure that those who experience difficulty reading dense lettering can fully participate. You may have also noticed that the cover page includes a table of contents outlining the four primary phases of worship service, which can otherwise blur together in a way which disorients the uninitiated.
The details of these changes are inspired by the bulletins of high profile progressive churches such as the Boston University Interdenominational Protestant Marsh Chapel, and Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. That being said, our initial implementations are on the mild side -- for example, while an improvement, our text formatting is still not fully in line with the guidelines of the American Council of the Blind, or the even more elaborate recommendations from American Printing House. With accessibility and hospitality as guiding virtues, we will continue to make small adjustments to materials. Your feedback is greatly appreciated, and I encourage you to visit me for conversation, or to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you have questions, concerns, or suggestions. A recent, lovely idea was for the bulletin to include sketches from Sunday School kids!
The children of Bethany connect to the music I am sharing with you this week (you’ll see why at the end). Raised as a Quaker in South Africa, Dave Matthews’ pacifist philosophy motivated his immigration to the United States -- he could not reconcile making choices which would uphold apartheid, and left in order to avoid compulsory military service at his governmental coming of age. His music often engages with themes and quandaries of Christianity, notably in the song “Spoon”, which concludes Dave Matthews Band’s third official studio album, 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets. You can reference the lyrics here.
“Spoon” portrays a portion of The Passion, including Jesus’ time upon the cross, and his death -- whether or not the resurrection is also portrayed is a matter of greater subjectivity. The opening and closing verses form a frame narrative in which the narrator stirs a cup of coffee with a spoon, while contemplating Jesus’ experience throughout the inner passages. There are some other interesting elements to the song’s form: a guest banjo solo by Bela Fleck leading into a verse sung from Mary Magdalene’s perspective (in my reading) featuring guest vocalist Alanis Morissette; an extended musical outro; and, after a long silence, a special hidden passage of music which meaningfully concludes both the song itself, and the album as a whole.
There are many elements of musical craftsmanship which elevate the narrative imagery, such as Dave’s wispy head voice during Jesus’ delirium, on the lyrics “makes the pain pass by” and at later parallel moments. I also find it compelling to read the banjo solo’s concluding gesture, a heart-tugging rush from high to low, as symbolic of Jesus’ mortal death (an application of a traditional technique called Text Painting, except in this case to an implied narrative event, rather than to words which are directly sung). The following female-sung verse cues a shift in narratorial perspective from Jesus to Mary. Dave sings the concluding verse, returning to the narrator’s coffee-reflections and closing the frame narrative.
What do we make of the long musical outro? Although it accumulates tension and gravitas, I experience it as representing the stunning awesomeness of the resurrection. The long silence which follows leads into a light-hearted encouragement that “everything will be alright”. This is in parallel to the album’s brief opening track “Pantala Naga Pampa”, which begins with playful non-linguistic vocalizations, and then invites the listener to take their troubles and “let them all fall away.” These lyrics are significantly reminiscent of Jesus’ exasperation in “Spoon”, that he’s “still falling”. Read in this way, we recognize a much larger message to trust in the big picture; that Jesus’ mortal death, though a suffering in its immediate context, is deeply powerful as a transcendence beyond mortal troubles.
There are a great many more things I could say in a line-by-line close reading of the lyrics in “Spoon”, of its other musical elements, or of intertextual connections between “Pantala Naga Pampa” and their other songs, but I want to conclude today’s reflections by highlighting the closing lines of the song-proper: “come now and play, ‘till we’re laughing out loud. Come now and play.” This song was on my mind in connection to my 9/6 blog post, but also because of Pastor Cathy’s wonderful little aphorism to conclude the Childrens’ Sermon every Sunday: “In Jesus' name, we pray, and play.” In the final verse, the narrator hasn’t recovered the answers they briefly had but lost in the opening verse; but, whether they know it or not, they’ve been provided the wisdom, through the invitation of their loved ones to play and live with innocence. Whether it’s accessibility- and hospitality-minded self-evaluation, or empowering caregivers by the provision of time and materials, ministry is an avenue through which we can provide that grace, that others may let their own troubles fall away.
“When I'm weary, when I'm tired,
you remind me to keep on trying”
- Dave Matthews