Pastor Mike asked last Sunday if I had heard that Mark, my seminary choir director and first professor of worship, had died in February. I had not, and old memories flooded in. When I shared the news with Pastor Peter, he asked, “How old was he?” We both marveled that he was only 84, which, when we did the mental math, meant he had been a very young professor. He was only 38 when I auditioned for the choir and was taught by him how to lead the various liturgies. Mark acted much older than his years.
Joining the seminary choir was the beginning of the healing of a wound. I had planned to major in music in college and, then, having been poorly and even abusively mentored at the end of my high school years, I cut myself off from a big part of who I was and am. Tuesday night choir rehearsals were the foundation of my closest relationships at the beginning of seminary. We learned Lutheran music I had never heard. We learned how to chant psalms, proper antiphons, and introits. When there was a major seminary event, Paul Manz would fly in to play, to rehearse our choir, and to collaborate with Mark, a symphony oboist.
Mark’s worship class was largely based on a classic how-to-lead-the-Lutheran-liturgy text by the sainted professor Arthur Carl Piepkorn. Pastor Peter’s father, George, was Dean of the Chapel, and he modeled for us how to move from reading a how-to manual to actual celebration in which the presider was also a worshiper. When I shared with Mark that I was driving forty minutes to a small high church parish in Mascoutah IL, he immediately grinned. The pastor there was a classmate with an additional master’s degree in sacred liturgy. Mark said, “You will learn how to do things the right way over there.”
My first two years at seminary, there were no women in the choir. Mark’s wife Sue accompanied us on my first choir tour and was an alto soloist. They had three small children, and I’m sure it was difficult to arrange childcare in their absence. Probably, a grandmother stepped in. While I was on vicarage, the choir became co-ed. Most of the women were not students but came from area Lutheran church choirs. I remember a post tour party at Mark and Sue’s after my fourth year choir tour. Things were not well, and they eventually split up. We liked them both, and it was difficult to watch. Some wanted to affix blame.
Having missed the fall semester of my second year, I stayed at seminary in my fifth spring and went again on tour. Once, again, the music was wonderful. We had hired string players to accompany us. But the dynamics were very different. Young men and women traveling together on a bus created mini-dramas. Budding romances were waxing and waning. And Mark was now divorced and a much freer spirit.
A few weeks later, the seminary chorus sang at my ordination, which was probably the grandest occasion in that little parish’s life after the dedication of a new nave the previous year. The pastor had been a bishop in one of the small synods of the miniscule AELC. He did the ordaining. Pastor Peter’s father, the Dean of Chapel, assisted along with my first preaching professor, who was a very odd bird. My seminary advisor preached. Mark and his old classmate enjoyed collaborating together again on that liturgy. Then, I didn’t see Mark again until 1993 and only once more in 1998 when I began my last degree program.
We are all works in progress… or perhaps regress. We change. We age. Those who live most of their lives in an academic setting are in an echo chamber where most people read the same books, support the same causes, and can become quite convinced that the whole world is waiting with bated breath to hear the next pearls of wisdom that must emerge from their golden mouths or pens.
At our last visit, Mark still wanted to be the professor of a 22-year-old Texan, in need of his guidance. I appreciated the foundational and restorative work he had done back in the day. But I was not that person nor did I want to be. Relationships at one stage don’t work at another if the whole basis for the relationship is the time and space you once shared in the past. God never leaves us frozen in time. We grow or die.
Dear Father, thank you for Mark and those who help rightly to form new pastors. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Put thirty-one pennies, nickels, or dimes in a bowl or box for the poor (Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard).
Pastor Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.