Six Things You Can Change Right Now to Improve Your Worship Music.

I know some of you are here: you lead a small membership church, with a long history, a traditional outlook and an aging population of members. You are doing great ministry and reaching out into your communities. You see visitors regularly and have a really fantastic community to share with them. Unfortunately, your music program is suffering.

Maybe the organist plays in a style that went out in 1954. Maybe the number of singers in your choir have shrunk and they are starting to struggle with music which they used to really deliver with zest. Maybe your worship committee is obsessed with making sure the old favorites get plenty of play time, even though you know your congregants are hungering to hear something new. Maybe you have a praise team that is limping along because the charismatic guitarist and lead singer signed a contract with EMI and left for bigger and brighter things. Maybe your church split about 25 years ago because of worship change and now no one has the heart to even “go there.”

Where do you start to make the change?

1. Don’t avoid the problem. Name it. Claim it. Own it. Refuse to make excuses for it.

  • Musicians care about the music. They want to make good music. They deserve to know if they are not making good music. It is a high compliment, actually, to suggest to the musicians that their ministry is so important it is a determining factor in whether or not people stay (and let’s be honest, most musicians already believe this anyway) so don’t be afraid to hold them accountable. Invite your musicians to critically analyze their own performance and ministry.

2. Don’t start from a solution!

  • It is easy to think not only that we know what will fix the problem, but also that people expect us as leaders to have a solution handy. Instead, invite the participants to hear the same problem you hear and engage them in problem-solving. People buy into their own solutions.

3. Start conversations about worship.

  • Guide conversations away from criticism of musical style or criticism of particular groups or people. Focus on worship-what it is about, who it is for, how it works.
  • Conversations include all people involved in decisions and execution of worship. Do not have conversations “behind the backs” of musicians or music leaders. Create open dialogue and listen. This is crucial. Being open and honest about goals and concerns leaves room for people to offer their own solutions and for them to voice their own goals and concerns.
  • Have multiple conversations in multiple settings from multiple points of view. Have a conversation with only the choir. Have one with only the pianist and worship director. Have one with only the altar guild or worship committee. Have one with with only the band members. Have one with only the computer, sound and video operators. Have one with only the children’s music directors. These conversations will expand the pool of problem solvers and diffuse tension about change.
  • Again, all conversations are open-meaning: the fact that such conversations are happening is widely communicated and known. All conversations are in dialogue with one another, even though some conversations will be with specific groups or people.

4. Separate music ministry from worship leadership

  • Music has significant soul and body benefits for people. There are reasons to have bands, choirs and small groups for music-making in a church that do not have to involve weekly worship leadership. If you were to take a therapy approach to music groups and opportunities, could you do a better job creating music which is ability appropriate and which builds community? If you were to take a discipleship approach to music groups and opportunities, could you do a better job creating music which is theologically and liturgically appropriate for your community? If there are other goals besides worship leadership for the music ministry of the church, there can be other markers for success for the people involved in music groups at the church than whether or not worship attendance increases.
  • People involved in the music program of your church have needs that should not be ignored. However, when those needs drive the choice of music and music expression for worship, quality, vitality, relevance and impact can all suffer. Think about expanding the ways people can participate in music throughout the life of the church, so that worship leadership is not the sole contribution of the music ministry.

5. Get your leaders the education they need.  

  • So many worship leaders are volunteers with a talent. I once accompanied a choir whose director did not know the difference between a time signature and a tempo. She was a leader with a warm heart, passion, love for Christ and a great ear for music, but she was never going to be able to grow that choir without some more music education.
  • If the band or choir do not sound good, it may not be because of a lack of overall talent. It may simply be because their leader does not actually know how to help them. For instance, if you have an aging choir, there are some fairly standard techniques for working with those voices which the director, fresh out of college, may never have learned.* Don’t be afraid to send your leaders, paid or volunteer, to professional training events, workshops, seminars or to specialized classes and schools.

6. Tread lightly, but firmly.

  • Agents and managers make big money for a reason: we musicians have brittle egos. Creative expression is vulnerability. The art we offer is a part of ourselves. We are quite protective of it. If ever love needs to be your token, it is when you are talking music with musicians. Be generous in affirming the real competencies and acknowledging the true gifts which your musicians and leadership are lending. Make sure they can hear you are not attacking them personally when you raise concerns about music. 
  • Make sure to check your own biases at the door. It is OK if you honestly do not like the way an organ sounds or if you inwardly cringe to the lyrics of As the Deer. It is quite destructive, however, when leaders allow those personal preferences to drive worship change. Assessing the quality and appropriateness of music used for ministry is something you have to be able to separate from personal preference. Doing so will help you be able to firmly and honestly communicate why a change must be made.

*For a great article on that subject: An Interview with Anton Armstrong

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How You Can Build a Better Peace

 

 

I thought I would start 2016 with a list of single steps any one of us can take towards building a better peace.

1. Quit watching the news.

Whether you get your news online, from the TV, out of a local newspaper or via NPR on the morning commute, just turn it off. You don’t need to listen to it or watch it. The really big things are beyond your control anyway, and the vast majority of your day really doesn’t need to have an opinion on most of what you get from the news. (Seriously, you already know who you intend to vote for in the next election, and no amount of amazing punditry is going to change your mind.) If you can’t quit cold turkey, I suggest limiting your exposure to “the news” to 1 single source (newspaper, TV station, or online blog) and to only allow yourself two 15 minute sessions with it a day. Try it for 28 days and see whether you feel better or worse. 

2. Pay attention to your metaphors.

If you stop and pay attention to what you both say and hear, you might be surprised to discover how many violent metaphors American English uses: “That doughnut sure hit the spot.” “Our project is right on target.” “I always aim for the highest goal.” “Shoot me an email, and I will tackle it right away.” It might be interesting to simply record the violent images and metaphors you hear during a coffee break. I have also found it to be really challenging to monitor my own speech and intentionally choose away from a violent image or metaphor.

3. Speak up for the humanness of people.

Speak up for the humanness of groups and the humanness behind actions when others refer to them as evil. By acknowledging that those we most fear and whose actions we most abhor are human beings, we admit the depth of our own capacity for wrongdoing.  When the rhetoric is high on your facebook feed, simply remind folks of their shared humanity with the Democrats or Anglicans who drive them crazy.

This practice is particularly important to me, as in my identity as a Christian I find that demonizing other people gives me an excuse to avoid my responsibility to express mercy, offer grace, and expect redemption. It also allows me to live in the illusion that there is no hope for reconciliation. For me, not speaking up for another’s humanness is extremely damaging to both my faith and my soul. 

4. Pray for someone you actually don’t like.

This is great because no one has to know you are doing it. It can be just between you and Divinity. In whatever way it is meaningful to you, pray for a person who gets under your skin a little bit. Don’t focus on an enemy or even try to tell yourself that you want there to be a good relationship with the person. Simply pray for their well-being. 

5. Take someone who scares the hell out of you to lunch.

You remember when Shane L. Windmeyer went to a football game with Dan Cathy? Or remember when Bob Vander Plaats and Donna Red Wing met for coffee in Urbandale? Like that. Meet in a public place. Pay for the meal. Listen more than you talk.

6. Volunteer.

You don’t need the news to encounter violence in your community. All you have to do is slip under the fences surrounding your life.

  • Volunteer as victim advocate for the court system or with your local domestic violence and sexual assault service center.
  • Find out what it would take to be a Stephen Minister for the local police department.
  • Provide some sort of ongoing assistance for a family with a member in prison. Contact Women@the Well to find out how.
  • Deliver care packages to those working in the ER at 2:00 in the morning.
  • Eat one meal a month at a soup kitchen and get to know someone there.

7. Lead a book or movie conversation group.

What are some of the topics which seem to divide people around you? Find a movie or a book which addresses those topics and lead a discussion group. I recommend The Color Purple (Alice Walker), The Milagro Beanfield War (John Nichols), Mi Familia, Fruitvale Station, Indian Killer (Sherman Alexie) and The Faith Club (Ranya Idliby) The United Methodist Church provides many materials to help people lead these kinds of groups:

8. Read Fieldnotes on the Compassionate Life by Marc Ian Barasch.

9. Form an intervention group.

Gather a group of other peacemakers. Get trained in intervention, and attend school events, community meetings, and sports competitions together. Notice the gatherings of people where bullying often occurs, and practice stepping up. Not sure where to start? Look into Soulforce, the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center or contact Alan Feirer at Group Dynamic 

10. Join a singing group.

Not a rock band. Not a talent show. Not a competition like The Voice, or America’s Got Talent. Join a singing group. Singing in a group has significant physical and psychological benefits. Socially, group singing (or drumming, or dancing, or playing instruments) is a great way to play cooperatively with other people. It builds connection, social awareness and cultural competency.

As you enter into 2016, I hope this list gives you one or two ideas for ways you can cultivate peace. If you are already an experienced producer of peace, I would love to hear your best practices.

Peace

I recently wrote an email to one of my state legislators, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, asking him not to let fear get the better of compassion, by slowing and stopping the immigration process for refugees fleeing war in Syria. I received a written response from Senator Grassley, for which I am thankful. His letter closes with the following:

“America’s humanitarian principles haven’t changed. The times have changed . . . The United States is the greatest nation on earth, and we have consistently demonstrated our generosity and compassion towards those fleeing persecution. Yet, we must not let this compassion overshadow the safety of the American people in this time of crisis.”

Senator Grassley expresses an opinion that I often hear from people. It is the opinion that certain principles, like compassion and justness, are fair weather friends; that they are like rain coats and umbrellas in a world ravaged by a hurricane; that, when the real world invades our fantasies, we can no longer rely on kindness, hospitality, and mercy to see us through; the idea that peace is only possible because of those who are willing to kill to maintain it.

In 2015, I was asked to present some thoughts on the theme “Go, Be Peacemakers,” for the annual Peace with Justice March which happens during the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Below is a short speech I wrote that I did not end up giving. I have included a picture of the stole I intended to wear.

I think Senator Grassley is wrong. I don’t think the times have changed all that much at all, and I give this to him, and to you, as my response:

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PEACE.

This word. This simple, easy word. One vowel sound. One syllable. All these fat, rounded curves. What does it mean? What do the doves mean? The olive branches? The whole thing is so . . .pretty.

Isn’t it, though? Isn’t it nice? Doesn’t it make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Like a dream of a garden full of lazy bees and butterflies, where honey drips from the comb and flute-like music plays on the breeze?

Is it still nice word when you learn that this word was stitched in Bosnia-Herzegovina? After the war there? By a woman who is selling her sewing talents so she can eat? What does this word mean in Ukraine, where our United Methodist Churches are doing all they can to house, feed and tend those fleeing conflict there? What does this word mean in Democratic Republic of Congo, in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and in Garland, Texas? What does this word mean to you and me, here on this day in Des Moines Iowa?

What does it mean to call God the Prince of Peace and Lord of the Sabbath? Especially if we believe, as many of us here at least claim to, that Jesus is not merely a Lord among Lords, but THE Lord of all Lords, warlords included. Who are we to stand by and let them, then, the Masters of War tell us that peace is not possible. That peace is not politically feasible? That national security requires a standing army, an armed militia, militarized policing forces and borders with just enough permeability not to slow down the export flow of guns and other weapons to our neighbors, friends and enemies around the globe?

It may be that you don’t want to “take sides” in the ongoing feud in the Middle East, to choose Palestine or Israel, Syria or Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran. and I can understand that. Conflict is complicated. We like things to be simple.

Like taking sides, for instance, instead of loving people. Loving people, strangers, outcasts, criminals, and enemies such that we invest at least as much in building up their lives and infrastructure as we do in our own defense Research and Development. Loving people, strangers, outcasts, criminals and enemies such that we don’t care what political agenda actually wins the day as long as it guarantees neighbors have the safety and freedom to eat dinner together, and that Romeos and Juliets don’t have to lock their relationships into closets and drink public poison simply to be together. 

Because as I stand here in this garment of peace, stitched together by hands and a heart shaped and changed by the mindless fury of war, I can’t help but believe that peace can’t be some sort of light, fluffy, Kum-ba-Yah moment of sisterly love.I can’t help but believe that peace isn’t some layer of frosting on the celebration cake we bake at the end of time, but that it is instead our Jesus Christ Christian call in the here and now, in the day to day, in the moment by moment choices we  make with every single breath. It is our response to the sighing, dying, killing, hating, hurting question, “How long, O Lord? How long?”

So I would like to issue a challenge to all of us gathered here today. I challenge us to GO! To be peacemakers. To go, to do, to be whatever it takes to make this word, this simple, single-syllable word actually mean something. 

Planting Seeds

The last few weeks in worship, we have sung People, Look East.  This is a hymn that I have sung for years, but this was the first time I understood what the phrase “crowning of the year” means.  I have always had a picture of a sparkly tiara in the dark hair of Ms. New Year in my mind.  


Suddenly, as though a switch had been flipped, I realized that babies’ heads “crown” at some point in the birthing process.  It is the symbolic moment when a baby settles into a more out than in status.  The emergence of the baby is imminent when the head has crowned.  Finally “seeing” the birth metaphor in that line, seemed to illuminate the entire rest of the hymn.  It lit up and came alive in a way it never has before.
Hymns can do some amazing things that other kinds of music often don’t.  They have layered meanings, and difficult metaphors.  They speak, like the Psalms, poetically.  One of the complaints I hear is that hymns use “outdated, archaic” language.  They use big, jawbreaking words which regular people do not understand.  They are set to slow, boring music.  Yet, even a difficult hymn to sing, like People, Look East, yields treasures of meaning and understanding for years, when a great praise chorus like Great Is the Lord, simply does not, and though a song like Bless the Broken Road yields immediate emotional content that no setting of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God can convey, the ideas born from the Martin Luther text will shape us throughout a lifetime.
To borrow from People, Look East, hymns plant seeds in us, the way that Scripture plants seeds in us.  They take time, soil, light, water, nourishment, and often work to grow into the roots, stalks, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits of faith. 
As you plan worship music, program music, and music for children’s ministries, I would like to challenge you to think not just about what music is immediately accessible, but also to include some music which is a step or two beyond where we are now.  Faith and worship are lifelong practices, and we have many opportunities to plant seeds along the way, whose blossoms won’t appear for years.

From Joy to Sorrow

These past  few weeks, there was another murder spree. In fact, there was more than one. Another random selection of young people took up weapons and decided to destroy the lives of other people.  Next Sunday, many Christian churches celebrate the third Sunday of Advent which liturgically includes lighting the “Joy” candle in an Advent wreath.

That is a difficult paradox to resolve, and it is this kind of sudden eruption of the world into the lives of people that makes collaborative and team approaches to worship planning so important. When the worship we express is not responsive to events such as mass shootings, public bombings, and the unrepentant slaying of black men and women for wearing their American skin, it becomes irrelevant.

We may not like the fact that we have to compete with club sports, Target’s marketing budget or last night’s midnight finish of the playoff game to fill our pews on Sunday mornings, but that does not give us the excuse to stop trying to craft the best worship possible every single week.  Especially in times like these, times when the human experience seems particularly difficult to comprehend or bear.

The human experience is the worship experience.  The work of Sunday morning is a work of meaning-making.  A team of people who have spent weeks in dialogue  preparing for this Sunday of Joy only to wake up Friday to a world in Sorrow, won’t have to wonder whether or not to change the slides, the songs, the prayers or the sermon.  They will only have to figure out who first to call.  They will be able to get together and continue the dialogue for how a service pointed toward Joy can more deeply engage with a community in grief.  

Too often, pastors sit alone in their offices on Saturday, bleeding over a sermon or prayer that arises from the newspaper, with no mechanism in place to work with the musicians, the liturgists, the ushers, the sound engineers, the video crew, or the drama team to shift, change or alter the planned worship.

Too often, the music leader feels duty-bound to the letter and text of the cantata, and doesn’t give herself permission to revise the readings or alter the order of the songs.

Too often, music groups have not spent enough rehearsal time together to be able, without notice, to play a different song set or present a different anthem.

Too often, the children’s sermon has been a slot of storybook or Bible song, and there is no time to find something age appropriate that can help children and parents in conversation and response to sudden tragedy.

It is at these times, these times when a faithful response is especially important, that our lack of preparation shows.  It is at these times that the clockwork, fill the slot worship production mentality bears its fruit.

We show up and follow our lines, incapable of improvising on the black and white themes of the bulletin  We say the printed prayers from the book of worship and sing the songs set before us, not because they mean something, but because that is what we have been taught to do.

We watch the short video clip from “Christmas Vacation,” presented with no shift in context or aim, and at the end of the morning, our people leave, unprepared for the week ahead, their questions, griefs, anxieties and fears unanswered by the Gospel; and the best we leaders can hope for is that worship may have provided an hour’s escape from the morning news.

Be Not Conformed. Be Transformed

Often, a church can think too small when it comes to music.  Unlike a community choir, the church  has to prepare lots of different music every week.  It doesn’t get months of practice with auditioned singers. It usually gets one too-short rehearsal on Wednesday night with a group of brave people willing to say, “I think I can.”  That makes the church musician get very practical.  Rather than having a library full of multicultural and historical literature from which to browse, the church musician is often given a Scripture reference and a hymn book or filing cabinet full of music that has been purchased by the church and performed by the choir (or bells or praise band) before.

Unfortunately, that rush to prepare and present music that works often leaves a church’s musical expression rather anemic and often dated.  At a recent conference, N. Graham Standish suggested that real Christianity happens when a church can shift from the functional to the formational.  I see this in the music of many churches.  We get so caught up in making sure worship will work (function), we never get around to making sure worship has an impact (formation).

As Christians, one of our central ideas is one of transformation.  We expect to encounter the Divine and we expect that encounter will change us in some fundamental way.  If you read an interview with any conductor or teacher of music, you will hear an echo of this idea: music has the ability to change us in fundamental ways. In other words, both Christianity and music cause change in form, appearance or structure (transformation).  Their very natures kind of contradict the idea of reproducibility.

Let me tell you the story of a piece of music and a small, Midwestern church.  I was working atFirst Christian Church (DOC) in Ames, IA as the choir director and music planner.   A common theological theme at that church is environmentalism. Weekly worship planning often included some lament that there weren’t a wide variety of songs about creation care in our hymnal, and in scouring the internet and other resources, I began to think that the only Christians to have ever responded to our complex human relationships with the planet were Maltbie Babcock and Eleanor Farjeon.

Enter Paul Winter.  In my time there, several people had pointed me toward a hymn called “The Blue Green Hills of Earth.”  A musician tracked down a Unitarian Universalist hymnal and we added this song to our repertoire of congregation music.  Then a member of my choir gave me a cd of Missa Gaia(Earth Mass), compiled by Paul Winter from work he did at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York with his group the Winter Consort.  I took it home and listened.  I was struck by a few things:  1).  The choir parts were very singable-they were the kind of four part harmony that my choir was capable of producing.  2) The music was modern.  It used a lot of jazz harmony and technique as well as some interesting global rhythms. 3) It was a sacred piece of music with a message that matched my church’s concern.  4) There were not enough singers in my choir to sing all of the parts.

I began to plot and ponder, and a concert was born.  We worked for months to gather enough musicians and singers.  We invited Mary Swander, Poet Laureate of Iowa, to present readings.  We included a local children’s chorus under the direction of Dr. Sylvia Munson.  We pushed ourselves to advertise the concert as widely as we could-beyond the bulletin and word of mouth within the church community.  We even went so far as to purchase a large yard sign so drivers going by the church could see what we were doing.  The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill happened, and we had a real reason to respond.   We decided to make this a free concert to the community and to gather donations for Gulf Coast clean up efforts.

In a church with a rudimentary sound system, basic lighting and no screen, we were able to pull together a visual presentation, record a DVD and provide visual interest using levels, plants, and baskets.  We had no funding from the church budget, so we paid for this concert through support of community members, calling in favors from friends, and the amazing generosity of top-notch presenters and technicians who offered their services free or at a ridiculously low rate.  We worked our church connections to recruit singers from other choirs, and we asked people from the community, Christian or not, to come and sing.

We performed our concert, and it was a great success.  The turnout was large, the music went well, and people donated generously to the Audubon Society.  I would have been pleased if that were all we saw from that project, but there was and is more.  The music we strove so passionately to hammer out, entered us.  Every time someone mentions St. Francis of Assisi, I begin to hum “All praise be yours through brother sun.”  Whenever I participate in an act of repentance, I hear the tritone intervals of wolves howling as children sing “Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us.”  Whenever Christ is called the Lamb, I hear the harp seals singing the “Agnus Dei” movement, animals as helpless and white as newborn sheep.

I remember the faith my church had: to do something it had never done before; to learn music that is not in its Chalice Hymnal; to express its belief not just within its own walls but outside on the streets of its town.

I remember the growth my singers had: giving more than a Wednesday night to rehearsals; trying out rhythms and harmonies that were HARD; learning to rely on themselves individually to carry difficult parts and to take leadership.  I remember the fruit that bore in worship: as songs that used to be hard became easier and as a new engagement with the meanings of lyrics and musical expression started to show up.

I remember love.  It is hard not to find common ground with people beside whom you have struggled and accomplished.  We cancelled and rescheduled.  We used carpentry skills we didn’t know we had.  We cared for babies and singers who became ill.  We bore with one another’s crazy schedules and the toll that took on rehearsal numbers, and when it came right down to it, everyone involved stepped up and offered themselves to the possibility of criticism and ridicule.

We worked together and we relied on one another and in the end, we spoke truth and love to the community.  Despite emails that called us Marxists, Communists, Anti-Christian, and Evil;  despite a perception from some church-goers that we weren’t singing Christian ideas; despite a discomfort with music that was untried and new, we finally expressed the church’s understanding of Christ to a world that needed to hear.

If you find that your church’s music is somehow lacking in Spiritual vitality, I suggest thinking bigger.  Think past Sunday morning.  Think outside the size of your praise band or budget.  Think around the limitations imposed by words like “appropriate,” “well-known,” and “easy to sing.”  Think across and into another denomination’s hymnody.  Dare I suggest thinking yourself into another faith’s literature?  Think about including secular music in the process of developing worship opportunities.  Not every week, and not all the time.  Just sometimes, try to “let” something happen in your music ministry, rather than “making” it happen, and see what transformations might be born.

What I Have Learned from the Posture of Singers

When I work with a group of singers, one of the first things I note is posture.  I can ask a group to stand, and I know immediately who is ready to sing and who will need a lot of warm-up time.  I can even discern the kind of warm-up necessary.

There is a kind of casual stance that says, “I am here, but I am thinking of other things.”  That stance has little tension, but very little intention.  This singer needs a difficult technical warm up to distract the brain and focus the body.

There is a slow, encumbered movement to people who are tired and depressed.  Their posture says, “The air is too heavy.  Standing up is hard.”  The posture is collapsed and ready to fail.  This singer needs simple exercises that feel good and waken a sleepy system.

Then there are the people who stand quickly and rigidly, with a straight back and lifted shoulders.  Those are the people who are really stressed out, and whose lives are full of responsibilities.  I always look to their knees, because they are the singers who are so firmly planted, they cannot respond to changes.  These are the people that get a back rub and instructions to loosen their hips and throw their voices. 

All three postures, if left uncorrected, lead to faint, tense, stilted, and unbeautiful singing. 

A singer has to be poised to move in any given direction.  She never knows when the conductor may throw choreography her way.  A singer has to be erect, so that air can move unimpeded through the throat and pharynx.  A singer needs to balance tension and relaxation to support the breath without restricting its flow.  Therefore, the singer’s posture has to be both loose at joints, but lifted and upright across the upper back and chest.  A singer needs no restriction through the throat and mouth, so his shoulders need to be down; his cheeks and jaw need to be loose, and his voice box must be low, as when a person yawns. 

If this is true for singing, then posture must also impact our breathing day-to-day.  If we are to live sustained lines in our lives, we have to learn how to adjust our posture to make our breathing confident, elastic, expressive and beautiful.  We need to notice when our jaws are clenched.  We need to notice when a friends’ shoulders are rounded question marks. We need to ask ourselves if we approach problems with caved-in, apologetic chests, or with bodies stiff as two-by-fours, oriented solely on one particular outcome. 

Then we need to adjust our posture.   We need to realign ourselves to support the music of life.  We need to practice warm-ups that help.  Do we need something technical and difficult to focus our minds?  Do we need something simple and pleasurable to lift our spirits?  Do we need a back rub to let someone else feel the hardness growing in our souls?

Take a week and look around.  What do you see in the bodies around you?  How would you correct their postures?  How would you correct your own?