posted Oct 26, 2014, 9:32 PM by Andrew Warner
updated Oct 26, 2014, 9:44 PM by Andrew Warner
Faith is, in part, a journey. And to say that my journey to Plymouth Church is rooted in its music is misleading at best, but that's not to say that music isn't important. I would describe myself as an amateur musician, in the classical French sense of the word, meaning 'lover of'. I'm a self-taught musician and have been playing music nearly my entire life. Producing, recording and performing music with various bands over the years, including my current seven year run with The Vitrolum Republic, is something that helps to define who I am. And looking back, my faith journey has been guided by music.
I grew up in Grafton, WI, and attended St. Francis Catholic Church in downtown Cedarburg. It's a gorgeous building, built in 1870, with large vaulted ceilings and beautiful stained glass murals. A choir riser was adjacent to the altar, and I looked forward to the Sundays in which the choir would be present in force. In the early to mid-90s, the choir was led by a wonderful and talented music director, and the music they created -- especially the a cappella renditions of hymns -- were some of the most beautiful music I had ever heard.
But as beautiful as the music was, I began to view Catholicism in a new light. My cousin Jenny and her partner Cindy announced that they would be getting married, and that they had chosen Plymouth Church as the setting. Located near UWM where I had been attending college, I had known of it's existence but didn't know about it's Open and Affirming stance. To attend that wedding, officiated by a woman, in a space that 'felt' like a traditional church, was extremely refreshing. It also highlighted some of the stark differences between Catholic dogma and my own beliefs. It was also my first experience of the UCC, and it was a good one.
But while the seeds of UCC were planted then, they took some time to germinate. My wife, Sue Lawton, and I were invited by some good friends of ours to visit Elmbrook Church in Waukesha. I had been in a band with one of them and he was excitedly telling me about how they integrate music into their service, with electric guitars, bass, drums and a choir to excite worshipers. It's not like the stuffy old church experience I was used to, I was assured.
So we came and checked it out. What a production! Indeed, this was not my typical church experience. The thing I remember most, however, was the guest preacher. He was a theologian and was going to spend the next four weeks covering the shortest book in the Old Testament, The Book of Obadiah. I had never heard anything from the Bible discussed in such a historical context, nor analyzed with the depth of a college level course. It was a fascinating experience. But after the four weeks were over, my wife and I came for what we would come to understand as a typical worship at Elmbrook and were completely turned off by the message and the pageantry of what could be considered our local equivalent of a mega-church.
Our next experience with the UCC came courtesy of my future brother-in-law. He told me that his church, St. Peter's UCC in Saukville, was trying to start up a kind of big band-style worship band, called the St. Peter's Praise Band. He invited me to come play with them on bass and I, in turn, invited my Elmbrook friend to play on drums. For a few months we rehearsed, performed during service and even 'toured' to Baraboo to play an event. It was an interesting experience to play that style of worship music, but the entire experience still didn't feel right for me spiritually. Sitting in our big-band-style music stand booths, emblazoned with the St. Peter's Praise Band logo, felt overstated for a place of worship.
As my wife and I bought a house and moved to Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood, settled down and started our family, we discussed getting our children baptized and finding a faith community for them to grow up in. We both thought again of Plymouth Church and began attending. When I heard Andrew describe the church as the 'liberal wing of liberal Christianity' during a sermon, I knew then that this was a place who's theology was aligned with our own.
And moreover, the entire church experience was one that was rooted in the familiar for us: a gorgeous 100+ year old sanctuary with beautiful stained glass murals, the familiar structure of the service, and traditional hymns led by an amazing music director who brought that same level of professionalism and talent to worship music. My ears were filled with lush harmonies and musical arrangements with a wide variety of classical instruments, guitar, piano, bass, and organ which were a pure delight to take in.
For me, the music was a gateway to the rest of what Plymouth had to offer. Over time, I began to appreciate just how well the music selection augmented the church's ministry. And one of the most moving experiences I have ever had at Plymouth involved an a cappella rendition of "We Shall Overcome" involving the entire congregation's voices in unity; I don't know if I'll ever be able to make it through that hymn without being moved to tears.
Since joining Plymouth, my wife and I have become increasingly more involved with the church. I currently serve on the Board of Christian Education and last year lent my own musical talents to worship in the sanctinazium while my wife has found joy in volunteering with the Burmese Immersion Project and has begun teaching in Sunday School this fall. Being a part of this community is spiritually rewarding and I can't think of a better outcome of Plymouth Church's faith practice of inspirational worship. One's spiritual journey is never over, but there is comfort in attending service at Plymouth that is rooted in a rich musical heritage, and it's one of the things I most look forward to at worship on Sundays.