First, though, I would like to thank Pastor Rachel Tune, Bob White, and the Busarow family for giving me the opportunity to participate in this way. And I would also like to take a moment to thank Dr. B, who even in death is providing me a sense of guidance. During the memorial service, I was struck with the impression that, in his life, Dr. B did what he was made to do. He didn't shy from the task of passing his light on to others, but did it with dedication and energy for years and years. This past Tuesday, I received word from my agent of two more publishing houses that had rejected my first novel manuscript. That same day, my phone rang, and it was Pastor Rachel asking me to prepare something for the memorial because, in her words, I am a writer. What a great and timely reminder that when you feel you have something to offer--in my case, my writing--you must pursue it, no matter how difficult and demanding the journey might be.
So without further ado, I hope you will click on "Read More" to see my thoughts about the Wittenberg Choir experience under Dr. B as I lived it from 2002 to 2006.
“No one works harder at the Advent service than the devil.” When Dr. B said this, he meant that someone would cough at the most poignant moment of music, or a careless chorister—one of us—would kick the metal stand supporting the cross on our way in. And woe to any congregant who dared unwrap a cough drop, ruffling our performance with their rustling of a wrapper.
And although we would laugh when Dr. B would so boldly assert the devil’s presence at the Advent service (of all places), we might, on reflection, understand that the heart of this message reveals what made the Wittenberg Choir under Dr. B more than a choir experience. The real will always seek to sully the ideal. But Dr. B had an ideal—an ideal of sound, an ideal of comportment, an ideal of worship—and in everything we did, he sought perfection, inspiring us to do the same.
Dr. B also said of the Advent service that upon the conclusion of the choir’s Magnum Mysterium anthem that came mid-service, he wished the congregation would get up and leave—because, after all, the pinnacle of worship would have already occurred. Perfection achieved.
Or consider the days that came only a few times over the course of our college careers, when we would come to rehearsal in old Krieg Hall, room 300, among the tiers of rust-colored chairs, and we would, for the first time, do a run-through of that year’s Bach motet. Do you remember that feeling? How at last we were a team, those hours of arduous work paying off, where here at last—albeit with mistakes—we could hear, see, feel the whole of Bach’s design emerging. Perfection coalescing.
Or take, for instance, Dr. B’s conducting style. Though we may have joked about how his expressive hands had inspired crushes among elderly Lutheran ladies across the nation, conducting was never a joke to Dr. B who understood—who showed us—that perfection takes subtle gestures, a staid countenance, a pure focus. Perfection in motion.
It seems to me no accident that the few non-religious works in our repertoire were riddled with images of perfection: a rose complete; a moment in which a blue bird in a blue sky catches his image in a blue lake as he flies past; the crystal of peace. Dr. B knew that where there is perfection, there, too, is holiness.
There was even something perfect in Dr. B’s choice few moments of comic relief. Near the end of tour, he would always tell this joke about penguins, and though I never could remember the punchline, I will never forget Dr. B waddling around in a perfect impersonation of a penguin. There was likewise something of perfect timing in the way, come September 29, he would tell us the story of Goose Day, a story that he had learned from a restaurant placemat. And he would always inform us when he had gotten his iconic last haircut before choir tour from Ivan the barber, and how, year in and year out, he would instruct Ivan that this cut—the one audiences would be studying from behind—had to be perfect.
I’m not saying Dr. B was perfect. I’m not saying the Wittenberg Choir was perfect. But there were moments of perfection. My favorite illustration was the time on tour when we were singing Wondrous Cross and Dr. B was accompanying us on a little Casio keyboard, and in the middle of the piece, Dr. B accidentally hit a button that made the keyboard play an automatic thumping rap beat. You should have seen Dr. B’s face—as shocked and disgusted as though he were himself staring down the devil. The audience succumbed and began to laugh. And there was a moment where we who were trying to uphold an ideal looked over the edge, a moment where we could easily have let go and dissolved in laughter. But we didn’t. We, a group of 18 to 22 year-olds, kept singing.
This is what made the Wittenberg Choir under Dr. B a religious experience, for he taught us not only to value perfection but to fight the good fight in striving for perfection at all times and in all places—perfection not as its own end; perfection not as a boasting point; but perfection as the only way to approach the source of all perfection—God the Father, and Jesus Christ, his only Son.
Perfection not as its own end, but always in service of our Lord. This day, may we be assured that Dr. B is at last where perfection reigns.