Sermon for Ken Lovett’s Send-Off, June 26, 2011
By Peter Hill
My sermon today will be about the following topics: appreciation, Abraham and Isaac, the year 1986, the state of South Dakota, Ken Lovett, the year 1993, Native Americans, and hiding cigarettes – not necessarily in that order. And I have been warned by the Rector’s Warden herself about going over twelve minutes, so let us begin. Those of you who began attending St. Martin’s within the past ten or fifteen years may be wondering who exactly I am, and whether perhaps I got lost and ended up in the wrong church. In fact, I was born and raised in Chestnut Hill, and spent the first eighteen years of my life here at St. Martin’s. The reason I rarely darken the door of this church is that I have lived out of state since going off to college fifteen years ago.
St. Martin’s was, however, entirely central to my young life. I spent my childhood dashing around the columbarium, coloring with crayons on the leaflets during sermons such as this one, and studying the faces in the stained-glass windows, with my favorite being the one towards the back, of the prodigal son and the fatted calf (although I always thought that the calf was a lamb). In one of my parents’ favorite stories of my childhood, I came home from preschool one day with a colorful, abstract-looking drawing that I had asked the teacher to label “supernal”, a word that I had undoubtedly learned from the hymn “Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones”, one of my favorites.
After nearly 10 years of growing up in this parish family, a momentous occasion happened in 1986. I refer, of course, to Ken Lovett’s joining the St. Martin’s staff as the music director. In what would be a transformative experience for us both, Ken’s first day as choir director was my first day as a young chorister. The next ten years would be transformative for me, in that I would learn a deep love and appreciation of choral music. Transformative for Ken…in that he was transformed from a young and idealistic, fresh-from-college musician into a stressed-out, gray-haired individual, very likely on the verge of a nervous breakdown. While I can’t take all of the credit for this change, I am proud of the role that I played (I think his son Sam may have taken my place in the succeeding years). In fact, had I stayed in the choir much longer, Ken would have doubtless ended up like poor old Christopher Smart, writing poetry about his cat. (That was a reference for the choir.)
I am only kidding, of course. But growing up in the choir, first as a children’s choir member, and then as one of the first high schoolers to be allowed to join the adult choir, was a tremendous opportunity for my personal growth. Ken was constantly challenging us. Despite the fact that I was petrified at the prospect of singing solos, Ken assigned me to do so at least a couple of times a year. Even though I was not one of the most golden-voiced young choristers by any means, I muddled through as best I could, and it undoubtedly improved my self-confidence. When I was in high school, Ken asked me one day if I could play the accompaniment for the children’s choir anthem on the following Sunday, even though it had been many years since I had taken piano lessons or had performed in front of others. But I felt that he knew I could do a good job, and I practiced the piece day in and day out until I knew the accompaniment by heart.
Over the years, I gradually came to realize that the high standards that Ken set were motivating me to strive to reach a higher standard for myself. When I joined the adult choir, with a voice that was exceedingly late to change, Ken assigned me to sing first tenor, for lack of a better option. I used to take every piece of music home with me and practice the tenor line; by itself, against the soprano line, and against the bass line to be sure that I knew it perfectly. I also signed up for weekly voice lessons with Alyson so that I could make a good contribution to my section. In a way, Ken’s perfectionism shaped my own.
But I think that most of all, what I learned from Ken – and from my experience with the choir overall – was appreciation. Ken has an unparalleled ear for beauty, and I was exposed to a wonderful cross-section of choral music, from the Renaissance era to the present day. I learned to appreciate polyphony, the proper blend of voices, carefully-chosen dissonances, dynamic changes, the importance of the proper tempo. I learned to appreciate the craft of the musician, the delicate balance between soloist and choir, and the skill required to direct a piece while playing an instrument that requires all four limbs at once.
And on top of these lessons, there was another layer of personal gratitude in the fact that I had learned to appreciate these things in the first place. I appreciated that Ken had been so central to my newly-developed awareness. I appreciated that despite all of the gray hairs that I and my little accomplices had given him; despite the months spent hiding his cigarettes in an ill-begotten plan to get him to quit smoking back in the ‘80s, despite making fun of his real first name when he was naïve enough to answer us truthfully when we asked, despite making up parody versions of hymns and anthems with cleverly-changed lyrics and singing them ad nauseam during breaks in rehearsal, Ken continued to put up with us, challenge us, and expose us to beautiful music. And like many of my choral contemporaries, music has continued to be a major driving force in my life. I sang in choirs all through college, and I still listen to tapes of our old evensongs and concerts on a regular basis.
I will return to the subject of Ken before I finish, but I should say that the notion of appreciation was an easy unifying theme as I was thinking about what to say today. The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac from Genesis 22 is a familiar one, and one that I remember well from childhood Sunday school classes in the undercroft. As I grew older and more critical-minded, I sometimes found the story rather unsettling, an example in which – not unlike the story of Job – the God of the Old Testament seemingly toys with a mere mortal to see how much he can make him squirm.
But oh, the appreciation that Abraham must have felt from that day forward, to have his son – the son who had almost died at his hand – alive. In fact, we are told that not only did Isaac outlive his ancient father, but died at the ripe old age of 180. Even the Psalm for today echoes the notion of appreciation and its sister emotion, gratitude. “Your love, O Lord, forever will I sing; from age to age, my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.”…“Happy are the people who know the festal shout! They walk, O Lord, in the light of your presence.”
But I never really appreciated my upbringing until a series of trips that began in 1993. In that year, as those of you old-timers may remember, the youth group began a series of annual service trips – led by the phenomenal Jack and Barbara Dundon – to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. To say that none of us kids had spent time on a rural Indian reservation, which also happened to be the poorest county in the United States, would be an understatement. The first trip was a huge eye-opener, and the first time most of us were exposed so directly to people who had such a different lot in life. I can say without any hesitation that those trips affected every single one of us who went, perhaps me more than most.
You see, after graduating from college eleven years ago, I moved to the reservation to live. Armed with a high school teaching certification and a good dose of youthful idealism, I began work in the reservation school system, first at a tribal contract school funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and then at a Jesuit-administered school where I just completed my tenth year of teaching. Over the years I met a wonderful woman who hailed from a different part of South Dakota, and we were married three years ago, with a beautiful baby girl joining us a couple of years later. Other than that, just the thought of trying to condense ten years of living on the reservation into a few minutes or a couple of anecdotes is so daunting, that perhaps I shouldn’t attempt it. But I will say that in an odd twist of fate, I have become fluent in the Lakota language, and have spent the past few years teaching it at the school, to students for whom it is very much a second language. Hardly anyone below the age of 40 speaks the language fluently, a dire situation that I am deeply devoted to remedying.
Meanwhile on the reservation, the Episcopal Church is struggling to survive. Formerly the predominant Christian denomination among the Lakota people, the church is now shuttering many of its community parishes, probably for good. At the church that my wife and I are members of, twenty people is a good Sunday turnout, and the annual budget for the parish is around $800 a year, most of which goes to propane costs for winter heating. When there is not enough propane to heat the church, it will be closed for weeks on end. Sometimes we reminisce about our respective parishes of old, with their strong core memberships, vibrant ministries, and exceptional choirs. But we have learned to appreciate what we have out there, and what we lack, just as we have expanded our spiritual horizons to include the sweatlodge, the Sundance, and other traditional Lakota ceremonies that we attend on a regular basis.
In her wonderful book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris relates a parallel account of how life on the Great Plains made her more appreciative of a rich and stimulating life that she might otherwise have taken for granted. She writes:
For me, moving to Dakota meant entering a kind of literary desert. I left behind a job in arts administration in New York City that had allowed me to attend several poetry readings a week, and most of my friends were also writers…[But] when the deprivations of Dakota become oppressive, I try simply to accept what is the natural result of my choosing to live in isolated circumstances. All in all, I suspect that the lack of a literary scene on the Plains has been good for me…Now a poetry reading is an event in my life, a pleasure rather than something I take for granted. When I attend a good reading, experiencing what a friend once called “the relief of hearing language,” I find it as refreshing as a rain that drenches parched soil.
Perhaps I might describe my experience this morning as “the relief of hearing music.” Without a doubt our Ken has pulled out all of the stops today (an expression which, of course, refers to the act of an organist). As he plays his last notes, and conducts his last anthems, and gives one last, secret thumbs-up to his singers, I invite everyone who has been a part of this parish family for any length of time to reflect back on how one man’s gifts have enriched this community and touched so many people. There are many like me, scattered to the wind, who have been members of this church during the last quarter-century, and who, while they may not have made it back today, nevertheless have fond memories of a phenomenal music program. I speak on behalf of all of those, past and present, when I say “Thank you, Ken.”
I close with the words of Frederick Pratt Green, and the text of an anthem that we used to sing back when I was in the parish choir:
How often, making music, we have found
A new dimension in the world of sound,
As worship moves us to a more profound: Alleluia.
Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always: Alleluia! Amen.