Actions speak louder than words as the old adage has it, and perhaps in no field of endeavor is this well-worn expression quite so applicable as in the arts. People may speak as art supporters, they may praise institutions like the local orchestra, they may even write columns for newspapers, but the ones who count the most are those who actively incorporate art into whatever enterprise they undertake. Those who demonstrate through their actions that the arts can play a significant role in human flourishing are its best evangelists. My slender efforts to endorse the arts as a civic good pale in comparison to what people who are creative—and who are expansive and generous with their creativity—can achieve.
Few people embody this action more than does the music minister at my church. His name is David Bolin, and he is retiring next month after decades of service and a lifetime of testifying to the power of art within the human act of worship.
photo by Luke Stokes
The job of a music minister in a church is a tough one. At minimum it involves leading the congregation in song every Sunday, picking the music for the choir, rehearsing it during the week, and conducting it during the service (all this while half the congregation questions your song choices). Few music ministers whom I have known can make a choir sound better than David does. And the thoughtfulness with which he picks songs for the choir to sing, and the performances that he coaxes out of it, testify both to the power of music, and to just how important the choices are of which songs to sing and what instrumental music to include.
When I first arrived at the church almost 18 years ago, a friend who was already a member described David to me as something more than a music minister. “He’s like an artist-in-residence,” he said. It took me a while to realize what he meant by this, but eventually I saw the myriad ways in which David carefully plans all of the artistic expressions that take place over the course of a worship service. It’s not unlike the level of attention the artistic director of an opera company has to devote to upcoming performance of, say, Bizet’s Carmen.
In addition to that, David Bolin is the first music minister I have known who is also an active and prolific composer. He writes music, lyrics, and music for other people’s lyrics, all of which have a distinctive power and effectiveness when performed. I’ve been fortunate enough to accompany him sometimes, playing the bass as he sits at the piano and plays for the congregation one of his own pieces, teaches them how to sing it, and even tells them what he was thinking when he wrote it. In so doing he draws everyone into the power of the music itself.
Photo by Luke Stokes
Perhaps most impressive of all is that he understands the capacity of other art forms to bring illumination into the act of worship. He writes musicals: one called A Winter Snow and another entitled A Christmas Journey are two of his creative productions in which orchestral music, vocal music, and dramatic action combine. I’m happy that my children have each had the experience of being in one of his productions. These and his other non-musical dramatic performances he stages are for the benefit not only of the congregation and visitors, but for those who are fortunate enough to take part in his productions and thereby share in his artistic vision.
I’ve written about his work before but I’ve never specifically given him the credit for the artistic vision about which I was writing. There was the time I was surprised to see ballet in a church service, but once I saw it, it seemed like the perfect way to convey the idea of reverence. I’ve written about how moved I was by his conducting the orchestra in a performance of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” movement from the Enigma Variations during the offertory of a service. Again, it never would have occurred to me that that particular piece would fit there; it’s certainly not a hymn, it’s not even church music really, but it was perfect.
He understands perhaps better than any music minister at any church I’ve been a part of that all artistic expression is a gift from God and that we shape our hearts toward God as we engage in creativity. In this, he highlights the inherently spiritual character of the arts by showing how well they fit into worship. That is to say, he shows how art is a more fundamental human expression than even speech itself. In David Bolin, everyone who wants the arts play a greater role in their lives has a wonderful model to emulate. He will be missed.
photo by Luke Stokes