Sunday, October 13, 2013

Church musician, reconstituted

Sparkling October afternoon,
Gaspingly blue sky,
Trees shouting orange and yellow glory,
Tang of fresh-pressed cider on my tongue,
Still-ringing morning song,
Neighbor kindly checking in,
Birds whistling while hanging their storm windows,
Dogs gamboling, patrolling,
          asking the neighbor dachshund where to find fresh voles at a reasonable price,
Fleece-filled hammock gently swaying,
Tender book of poetry,
Sleepy wife curled against my side:

"Thank you" is not enough.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday Five: First Times


A fun play from MaryBeth:

 

Firsts. With so many folks starting school, college, seminary, etc. I've been thinking of a lot of other firsts in my life.  Share with us, if you will:


Your first "place" - whether it was an apartment, dorm room, or home with a new spouse, the first place where you really felt like a grown-up:

 

My first apartment, post-college--the one I got all by myself. The one where I kept a hammer under the bed in case of intruders. The one where a forgotten head of lettuce turned to soup in the crisper. The one that was over a computer-repair shop. The one where I went downstairs one morning to discover that my my car had been squished by a truck in the night (and the trucker left a note, shoring up my faith in human nature). The one that my dad helped me to wallpaper, instilling in me one of my first Important Life Lessons:
never, ever wallpaper with anyone you ever want to speak to again.

Your first time away from home. Construe this any way you want. College? Girl Scout Camp? Study Abroad?

 Oooooo...Girl Scout Camp! Many interesting things were discovered:
  • Oranges impaled on peppermint sticks, through which the juice was sucked out. Mmmmmm.
  • Cliques, which left several girls in tears...and me, just mad as I watched it unfold.
  • My first earworm in memory, sung repeatedly with Julie Elswick in our tent after lights-out (listen at your own risk):


Your first job in your field of endeavor (so, not babysitting, unless you are A Professional Babysitter today).

 

I had two church music jobs while in college; actually, I'd been leading since I was about 13, but these were my first steady, paid gigs. The real job was at a campus-adjacent church, where I led Saturday night Mass from behind a guitar, with a talented teenage girl singing along. That was fun.

Less fun was the situation with our college chapel services; our liturgist (who I adored) left over the summer, and she hadn't been replaced. The sister in charge of the chapel services fully expected that I'd lead the music in her place until such time as a new hire could be made...without any sort of compensation (my first experience of the "undervalued musician" dynamic). I tried to explain to her that I'd be happy to bring my gifts and years of training to bear on the dilemma, but that I'd like to call it a work/study situation (at the princely sum of $7/hour...quite a bargain was I!), as I needed to eat that summer. Otherwise, another paying job would need to take up the hours she was looking to fill with music. Let the record state that summer chapel services were music-free that year.

Your first time hosting. Again, construed broadly, this could be a dinner for the in-laws, your first time to have guests for a holiday meal, etc.

 

My best friend/roommate and I, post-college, decided to host our church "young adults" group for a sloppy joes/beer/movie gathering one New Year's Day. This was a particularly close group of people; we spent a great deal of our free time together (one couple had got rather publicly engaged at the Christmas party), and almost all of us lived within a radius of just three miles or so.

So, that morning, as I cleaned the apartment, Roommate went to the kitchen to start cooking. We had no ground beef.

No. Ground. Beef.

This made the planned menu rather difficult to prepare. So, thought I, "I'll just go over to the grocery store and pick some up." On New Year's Day. You can see where this is going...

So we got on the phone and called the guests, inviting them to bring a pound of ground beef along, if they had one.

Every party we hosted (or attended) that year, we were given ground beef.


Your first love.That can be a person or something else!!

 

I was absolutely nuts about my elementary school music class. Singing, playing instruments, talking about music...I was absolutely HOOKED. Mrs. Ewald (to whom I will always be grateful) made it so much fun! I loved "music stations" days, where we rotated around the room, trying out various instruments and music games. I loved that she got us to bring in the instruments we studied privately, to demonstrate for the rest of the class (my first performance experience!). I loved that we frequently sang this song (expressing my nascent inner hippie):


 ...and that, every Halloween, she got out crayons and drawing paper, and had us draw this music:


Besides being fun, it opened my mind to music as a vehicle for storytelling, art and other forms of expression. Well done, Mrs. Ewald!

Friday, August 2, 2013

75 pictures are worth 75,000 words

Same-sex marriage became legal in two more states yesterday: Rhode Island and Minnesota. As a Minnesotan, this is a Big Deal in my world, and in that of many of my friends.

Yes, Ro and I will make it legal (likely in October).
Yes, I'm so full of joy about this step that my heart could burst from my chest.
But I can't write about it. Not yet. My heart is too full.

So I'll offer this instead. The joy fairly leaps off the screen and into your own heart, no?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

What I read on my summer vacation

I am rediscovering the pleasures of the essay.

It's nothing like the grievous drudgery students often feel at an English teacher's request for three pages on the use of symbolism in "Jude the Obscure" (which request, I confess, never seemed to bring me down as it did my classmates). Nor is it about Ralphie's sly ambition, hoping that a school writing assignment will fortify his case when asking for a particular Christmas present.


I'm talking about the simple joy of listening deeply to another person speak fully about something/one that matters to them, or about an event or place they've astutely observed, or about a question pressed hard against their heart/mind/spirit. (Listening as you are now, Gentle Reader. Thank you for your generosity.)

Anyway, as you know, there's joy to be found in making that quiet connection, in reflecting on what binds us, on our common experience, our shared pain, our human aspiration. I've laughed and cried with Anne Lamott often, and chuckled at the mordant Bill Bryson; however, I've always thought of myself as a fiction reader. One of those limiting labels, I guess.

I've serendipitously been nudged toward three particular literary features in the last couple of weeks, and each of them has moved me deeply. They're not just non-fiction; they're about what's true.

First, NPR correspondent Scott Simon's Twitter feed this last week, which comprised the last days of his mother's life. Simultaneously aching, gorgeous and tender, they're like grief haikus. For all its strengths and influence, I never thought of Twitter as a vehicle for beauty, until now. Read them; you'll see what I mean.

Secondly, my fiction-junkie side has been aware of Chris Bohjalian for years; I've enjoyed many of his novels, including (last month) The Sandcastle Girls, which takes place during the Armenian genocide in Syria in the early part of the 20th century. It was a great read, and it led me to look for more Bohjalian books...so I found Idyll Banter. It's a compendium of his columns for the Burlington Free Press between 1992 and 2004--observations of life in small-town Vermont. Part history, part social commentary, all of it his lens on his life and the lives of those nearest him. One of these pieces, "Losing the Library," was particularly touching to me. His small-town library was drowned by the overflowing New Haven River during a storm. In eight short pages, he packs town history, literary history, meteorology, and reporting...all tinged with grief at the loss of a beloved town resource and the hope that underlies its rebuilding:
By their very nature, libraries are generationally democratic. They cater to everyone. School and work or classes and clubs may separate us, segregating us by interest and age. But libraries remain one of the few places in this world that still bring us together...on the morning after the waters had drenched much of the library and the town gathered to try to save what remained, I saw dazed adults crying softly as they worked...not for the roads or the bridges that had been lost...but they did cry for their books...

Stories like this are generously augmented with lighter pieces such as "Dead Cluster Flies Serve As Window Insulation for the Inept" and "Surly Cow Displays No Remorse," in which he and his wife, driving on a country road near their house, are pinned down by a herd of cows. They try to chase them back toward their corral, and
a number of times I even explained that I was a vegetarian, but obviously these cows were female, and they knew they were in no danger of becoming Quarter Pounders.
His columns are condensed generosity, humor and honesty, fortified with interesting reporting and observation. Well worth a look!

Finally, and most auspiciously for me as I plan for a new choir season, I found Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others." Author Stacy Horn is a 20-year veteran soprano in the Choral Society of Grace Church, NYC. For the most part, each chapter is grounded in a major choral work; within that frame, she explores her life, the history of choral singing, the foibles of a community choir and its directors, her soprano psyche...
Jesus Christ. How am I supposed to count this? It's in seven. Is that even rhythmically allowed? 
...and the magic of finding such beauty and shared humanity in the simple act of opening your mouth and making a sound.

I actually read most of a chapter aloud to my wife, who grinned at Horn's horror-turned-to-wonder as her conductor switched her from soprano 1 (melody) to soprano 2 (harmony): after some disorientation and paddling around in the music,
I was feeling harmony. Not just singing it, but physically feeling it. It was a rush. You don't experience this when you're singing the melody. I was completely in the power of the sound we were making together and I just stood there, afraid to move, thinking, Don't end, don't end, don't end. And it took nothing. A couple of notes. A D against a B flat. That's it. Two notes and I went from a state of complete misery and lonesomeness to such an astonishing sense of communion it was like I'd never sung with the choir before.
If you've ever sung in a choir, read this book. You'll grin in lots of places, learn some things and generally enjoy the ride.  If you haven't, read this book. You'll be auditioning for choir by the weekend...and I have some openings! :-)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

We are an Easter Peeple


...as depicted by my middle school group and assorted friends, for display at our church's Easter Breakfast tomorrow. Alleluia! :-D

P.S. I'm the pink one with the brown mullet and the baton sticking out of the side of my head.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A conductor's mojo...

...described variously here. Worth reading!

Ever wonder what all that arm-waving is about?

If so, this post from the New York Times and Alan Gilbert might be illuminating.

For me, the experience of conducting is simultaneously one of suspended animation, dance and deeply analytical, multi-layered thinking. At any given moment, I'm immersed in rhythm, pitch, motion, melody, harmony, textual interpretation, phrasing, articulation, vocal technique, conducting technique, classroom management, collaboration with singers and accompanist, learning styles, teaching styles, how to ask a question, how to phrase a directive, how to paint with my arms and hands, facial expression as teaching tool, where to inject a bit of humor and where to push harder.

It's deep engagement with people, a task, an experience, art.

It's about interpreting a composer's road map, fostering my singers' abilities and inspiring something fresh. It's about inviting and leading; offering and receiving; pointing and looking; diagnosing and demonstrating; understanding and explaining; wondering and deciding.

It's choreography, storytelling, question-asking and getting people to use their heads, hearts, instruments and pencils.

It's play, prayer, proclamation, lament, exultation...in short, a deeply internal yet total out-of-body experience. Sound mysterious? It's shared alchemy that can turn black dots on a page into an experience of the sublime.

I'll let Robin Williams close, with a line from Dead Poets Society:

We didn’t just read poetry, we let it drip from our tongues like honey. Spirits soared, women swooned, and gods were created, gentlemen. Not a bad way to spend an evening, eh?


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Community as a condition of the heart

I was talking tonight with my church choir about community. We started with a reading from the writings of Henri Nouwen, in which he spoke of community as sometimes a good thing (eating together, supporting one another, sharing a laugh) and sometimes not (having to subscribe exactly to a particular point of view, or naively glossing over genuine conflict to preserve the status quo). I'm paraphrasing here, but what struck me was his starting point that community is a "condition of the heart."

I spoke of the conflict so deeply embedded in our national/global/insert-your-group-here culture...of how easy it is to find examples in which each side of a dispute is rock-solid sure that their point of view is the right one...and (here's the disturbing part) that the other side is not just wrong, but bad, and even out to get them.

There's just so much shouting everywhere.

As a person who lives to create harmony, I've found this increasingly distressing over the last decade or so. I'm deeply concerned that we're losing the capacity for rational disagreement: that so great is the need to be right that it just doesn't matter whom we demonize, whom we hurt, whom we shut out in the process.

I spoke of my relief at coming to church choir every week: we're there to train not just our voices, but our hearts as well. Singing in a choir requires humility, the ability to truly get yourself out of the way and listen, and generosity of spirit. You can't hear the group if you're trumpeting your own part so loudly that you drown it out. You won't like every piece of music that you're called to sing. Sometimes the crazy director will ask you to take a risk, or do do something that seems downright weird or silly...and singers faithfully, courageously, generously try.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not naive to the fact that sometimes, there is evil that needs to be addressed. There are p-l-e-n-t-y of times when it's necessary to speak truth to power. But I think we have to be very careful about our own motives; it's so easy to become righteous rather than loving. It happens when you're not looking.

Not listening.

Jesus asks us Christians to "love our neighbors as ourselves." Every major faith system has a tenet very much like this. I love being a church nerd because it's a place where we try to pay attention to one another...to dare to open ourselves up to a greater possibility than anything we can construct on our own.

It's risky. It's messy. And it's exactly the training our hearts need to cultivate the condition of community.

The world needs all of us to take this training seriously. And to do it joyfully!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Friday five: but how, then, shall we live?

Sally of the RevGals writes:

This has been a good week for British Methodism, The Annual Conference has discussed and debated many things and not shied away from some difficult stuff. New Ministers have been Ordained and received into Full Connexion. Add to that the fact that two amazing ladies; Alison Tomlin and Eunice Attwood have taken up their posts as President and Vice-President for 2010/2011–and that they have both inspired us in their speeches and preaching , and you begin to get the picture. In the Vice-President's Address Eunice gave an inspiring account of the type of church she wants to be a part of:

I want to be part of a church that is prayer-filled -
A church that is resourced and sustained by the Bible,
A church that can offer hope even in a credit crunch,
A church that can live well with difference and diversity.

I want to be part of a church that welcomes the wealthy, those who have power and influence -
A church that knows how to party and celebrate life,
A church that acknowledges death and speaks boldly of resurrection,
A church that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers but encourages all the questions.

I want to be part of a church that throws parties for prostitutes -
A church that welcomes those who seek asylum,
A church that longs and yearns for justice,
A church that listens to those no-one else wants to listen to.

I want to be part of a church that believes in transformation not preservation -
A church where all who are lost can be found,
A church where people can discover friendship,
A church where every person takes responsibility in sharing the good news.

I want to be part of a church whose hope is placed securely and confidently in the transforming love of God -
A church that engages faith in its communities,
A church that makes and nurtures disciples of Jesus.

A church where the story of God’s love is at the centre.
I want to be part of a church that offers outrageous grace, reckless generosity, transforming love and engaging faith.
This is God’s story Transforming Love: Engaging Faith.

My prayer is that by the power of the Spirit of God at work amongst us, it will increasingly be our story.


I want to be part of that church too, and at the danger of trying to add to such a wonderful litany of dreams/ visions and prayers I wonder which five things would you echo from or add to this. What kind of church do you want to be a part of in the 21st Century?

Bonus: Is there a hymn or a Bible passage that you would make your inspiration?

Well. That's a thinker, isn't it? Here's my answer:

I want to be part of a church that is

  1. humble–that can find a different standard of belonging than dogmatic “right” and “wrong.” That can be fully in conversation with people and institutions whose ideas, strengths, commitments are different from its own, for the betterment of all. That can admit when it’s wrong by its own standards, repent and do better next time. That cares less about its image in the world than its effectiveness in the relief of suffering and of spreading (or, at the very least, not impeding) the love of God. Talk with me about babies and bathwater all you want; I’m pretty sure that genuine love is the fulfillment of the Law. I want a church that isn’t so comfortable that it has all the right answers; that’s a kind of living death. I want a church that will recognize its own “-olatries” and work to tear them down. And could we maybe even (dare I say it) laugh at ourselves sometimes?
  2. engaged in a positive way–that truly sees the suffering/injustice within its walls, down the street, and around the world (which will require a good dose of characteristic #1, particularly in first-world environments) and wants to provide that cold drink of water to a child more than it wants to preserve itself. That seeks out the gifts of its body and brings them to bear on the problems it finds. However, the church should act within the political system of its country more as a voice of conscience than as a political power in its own right; it should be about raising questions about how we are to live together, instead of seeking power for its own sake. And–hear me now–its methods are every bit as important as its results. Scapegoating and scaring people into thinking they’re losing their grip on everything they hold dear so that they’ll support a particular political engine is hypocritical, reprehensible and, in the end, counter-productive. Witness the treatment of GLBT folks in the last twenty years as just one of many examples. We should be about tikkun olam.
  3. awake to the unfolding beauty of the world–that observes, listens, ponders and responds creatively. Where beauty is taken seriously as a characteristic of the Divine. Where the planet is celebrated and protected as our astonishing home. Where spirits open in song, art, dance and story, in response to the unbelievable gift of being alive and together under the sun, in God’s gaze, as part of the ongoing story of God’s people. Where, as the hymn says, “through the church the song goes on.”
  4. un-self-conscious about holding love of God and neighbor as its highest values. Period. Worship is vibrant, fresh, the central practice/equipment to the life of faith for all people–and I do mean ALL people–so that they may be sent out to love all the world. Not to convert them, just to love them. It must be extravagantly welcoming to everyone, as if love really does cast out fear. Doctrinal agreement and social conformity are not defining characteristics of this community; for once, it’s more about “us” than about “me.” And–don’t get me wrong–I’m not talking about a squishy “we are the world” sentiment here; I’m talking about honest, vigorous, creative, brave, get-your-hands-dirty love. Not onstage; in the trenches. And sometimes, we are the ones in need of help and teaching. Two-way relationships.
  5. hopeful, faithful, confident and patient enough to pour itself out as Christ did.


And let me just say this; it’s easy to talk about it on this level. The hard part is when we try to answer the question, “But how, then, shall we live?” Because working all this out is messy. Feelings get hurt. Dignities are affronted. Turf is impinged upon. Scabs are pulled off. Put your helmets on, people; this is a contact sport. But if those things don’t happen, from where does the growth come? Truly, if we’re not changed by the experience, what are we doing? And this is where the good stuff always comes–where we can be surprised by grace, by joy, by love.


Oh, and my answer to the bonus question? Albert Bayly's wonderful hymn does it for me (sung to BEACH SPRING):


Lord, whose love in humble service bore the weight of human need;

who, upon the cross, forsaken, worked your mercy's perfect deed.

We, your servants, bring the worship not of voice alone, but heart;

consecrating to your purpose every gift that you impart.


Still your children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread;

still the captives long for freedom; still in grief we mourn our dead.

As you, Lord, in deep compassion, healed the sick and freed the soul,

by your Spirit send us power to your world to make it whole.


As we worship, grant us vision, till your love's redeeming light

in its height and depth and greatness dawns upon our quickened sight,

making known the needs and burdens your compassion bids us bear;

stirring us to ardent service, your abundant life to share.


Called by worship to your service, forth in your dear name we go,

to the child, the youth, the aged, love in living deeds to show;

hope and health, goodwill and comfort, counsel, aid and peace we give,

that your servants, Lord, in freedom may your mercy know and live.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hedgehogs in motion

I'm feeling philosophical today. Perhaps it was brought on by five full days of sitting more-or-less in one place, listening to nature, conspicuously NOT producing anything. I'm feeling de-cluttered in a way I haven't been for about nine months. It's delicious and clean and, well, simple.

On the way back from our vacation, Beloved and I were listening to the audiobook version of our wonderful book club's next selection, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Two chapters in, it seems to me as if this is going to be one of those books I'll end up buying more than once because I keep thrusting it into the hands of all the readers in my life. You can find a synopsis at the link, so I won't bother with it here, but I have to say that Paloma–a mordant, intellectual, twelve-year old genius–will stay with me long after I finish the book. She has created a project for herself: to keep a journal of Profound Thoughts. I'll offer three of them here for your consideration:
  • (Art is) the beauty that is there in the world; things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us...grace, beauty, harmony, intensity.
Paloma understands Major Works of Art (and has a fondness for Vermeer), but doesn't see them as the only containers for artistic expression; for her, art is both ever-present (like Meister Eckhart's image of God as a "great underground river") and something that must be sought, held and practiced.

Movement is a major intellectual theme for Paloma. Her observations thus far encompass not only the way we're defined by the direction we're pointed, but the way that progress (or even the anticipation of progress) irrevocably alters us:
  • Most people, when they move, well, they just move depending on whatever's around them. At this very moment, as I'm writing, Constitution the cat is going by with her tummy dragging close to the floor. This cat has absolutely nothing constructive to do in life, and still she is heading toward something–probably an armchair–and you can tell by the way she is moving that she is headed toward. Maman just went by on her way to the front door. She's going out shopping, and in fact, she already is out, her movement anticipating itself. I don't really know how to explain it, but when we move we are in a way destructured by our movement toward something. We are both here and at the same time not here, because we're already in the process of going elsewhere.
It's not simply our attitude that changes (which we can-do Americans hold as Tremendously Significant), but our fundamental nature. Simultaneous presence and absence...if you've ever tried to hold a conversation with someone who's absorbed in their TV program/text message/insert-your-pet-distraction-here, you know what this means. But to what effect on the person who's in two places at once? Paloma again:
  • What makes the strength of a warrior isn't the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy by sending him a whole lot of signals; it's the strength he's able to concentrate within himself by staying centered.
Food for thought, no?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday five: Remember me?

Hi, everyone–it's been a while, and I've missed you! But here I am, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, redesigned and looking forward to coming back to the Reef.

RevGal Jan writes:

As I opened up my computer this morning, I directly went to my blog and RevGals to see what the newest Friday Five would be! Nothing was here, which seemed odd. Then I went to look at the calendar and counted the Fridays, and it is the THIRD Friday! How did that happen so quickly? It's my turn, so here's a quickie:


1. Do you tend to be a late person or one who is timely, arriving on time or earlier?


I'm used to being the one who runs the meeting/rehearsal/event, which means that I take being prepared and punctual seriously–it's a matter of respecting those good souls who have volunteered their time and effort for that which I've asked. It backs up on me sometimes, though:
  • I'm (unreasonably?) irritated by lateness. I know that life sometimes gets in the way, but I have a hard time not seeing habitual lateness as a sign of disrespect.
  • I drive Beloved nuts when we're going somewhere together–I'm the little bouncing animal gasping "Are you ready? Can we go? We're gonna be laaaaaaate!" She is gracious about this. :-)

2. Have you forgotten anything of importance lately?

The list of things I've forgotten lately is l-o-n-g. It's been an unusually stressful program year, and I've been in recovery mode for the last couple of weeks–and thus, not at the top of my game. But I'm working on it...and I get to go and sit beside a lake with Beloved for five days starting late next week. Huzzah, I say!


3. Is procrastination your inclination? Why or why not?

It depends. If it's a book or something over which I have creative control, I'm likely to go great guns until it's done, even months ahead of the deadline. But sometimes I have a hard time dragging myself off the couch to do another load of laundry!


4. Do you like schedules or spontaneity? Which works best for you?

I like spontaneity; I function better with schedules.


5. How do you stay on track with the various things you need to, people you must meet, etc., etc.?

My laptop has helped a lot, I think. WiFi and Google calendars and instant access to email. That having been said, I have 3 email accounts and 3 voicemail boxes to keep track of, which is a bit wearing.

BONUS: Whatever comes to mind about forgetfulness or lateness.

What was the question?



Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Strengthening your core

I was fooling around with a friend's Wii Fit a couple of weeks ago, having a great time. At one point, as the machine was evaluating my relative strengths and weaknesses, it sort of hinted at the fact that I could use some work on my core strength; limbs are pretty good, but balance...not quite so much.

Hmmm...I feel a metaphor coming on.

My home church, this Lent, is working with the theme "Come Home" in all things worship-related. We're using the story of the Prodigal Son as a meta-narrative for the season. If you don't know it, here's a version of it--a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson which begins like this:

Then (Jesus) said,
"There once was a man who had two sons.
The younger son said to his father,
'Father, I want right now what's coming to me.'

So the father divided his property
between (the younger and older sons).
It wasn't long
before the younger son packed his bags
and left for a distant country.
There, undisciplined and dissipated,
he wasted everything he had..."

I heard this particular version of the story tonight for the first time. And this stuck with me: undisciplined and dissipated. Dissipated--as if the source of the young man's unhappiness was the fact that he lost track of his core, his essential being, his connection. Dissipated--as if his very self had scattered to the winds.

Huh. Ever felt that way? Ever been distracted by something shiny or something "worthy" or just too many somethings, and lost track of yourself? Of your place in the world? Of those things which keep you tethered to deepest reality? I certainly have.

Lots of times, I've heard this story told as if the young man's main problem was active debauchery. And it's easy to hear it or to read it from a place of righteousness: "WE certainly wouldn't be so overtly selfish and sinful. What a bad boy he was." As if we were the elder brother in the story.

This translation, though, suggests to me that the young man's problem was more subtle, more passive--that he just surrendered, little bit by little bit, his essential humanity. He settled for a lesser version of himself until his hunger and desperation brought him back to his senses. He could then go back home, having lost so much and yet regained that which was truly essential. His homecoming was met with gracious abundance on his father's part.

There's a wonderful hymn by Kevin Nichols in Evangelical Lutheran Worship called "Our Father, We Have Wandered." We sang it last Sunday, and the second verse goes like this:

And now at length discerning
the evil that we do,
behold us, Lord, returning
with hope and trust to you.
In haste you come to meet us
and home rejoicing bring,
in gladness there to greet us
with calf and robe and ring.

We don't often manage that kind of gracious welcome with one another. It's sort of ironic that we so regularly (especially when in groups) react as the elder brother in the story did, lost in our own righteousness--wanting judgment to be meted out to those who have "done it wrong" in many and various ways:
  • by daring to be both gay and Christian,
  • by daring to be both divorced and Christian,
  • by daring to be both mentally or physically ill and Christian,
  • by daring to be both homeless and Christian,
  • by daring to be both broken and Christian,
  • by daring to be both doubtful and faithful,
  • by daring to admit that sometimes the only way to God is through a pig sty, or, in short,
  • by daring to admit our brokenness and to reclaim our core selves in the company of the body of Christ.
It ain't easy. We make it awfully hard on one another. Vulnerable honesty just makes everyone uncomfortable; it seems a living thing unto itself--and a threatening one, at that. It's unpredictable. It doesn't follow the "rules." Those things which make us authentically ourselves sometimes scare our brothers and sisters out of their (right) minds.

But did you notice that, in the parable, the older son is also called to remember who he is, in the context of this new turn of events? To recall his own identity as a son, a brother, a loving being in the world? He lost track of himself, too--was dissipated as surely as his brother had been--but by his own righteousness, anger and jealousy. His father invited him to remember the joy at his own core...to join in the celebration instead of sitting in judgment and resentment of his brother.

And so, whatever your own vantage point in the story in this particular Lenten season, I ask you these questions:

What is the "home" to which you return?
What strengthens your core?

And I end this post with a prayer of awestruck gratitude for a God that continues to welcome me back, despite my brokenness, despite my righteousness--who collects my scattered pieces and restores me to wholeness over and over again, and who runs out to greet me every time "with calf and robe and ring."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Coloring outside the lines

I work, during the day, for Large Metropolitan Church (LMC)--large enough to have a full-time Communications Director. Much loveliness comes of this for LMC, including and especially seasonal devotional books. The over-arching Lenten theme at LMC is "coloring outside the lines."

"Interesting approach," mused my Internal Worship Planning Geek, when I first heard it. "Wonder how, exactly, that will play out."

One way is in a beautiful devotional. It contains original art by a member; meditations submitted by staff and members; a scripture reading and a prayer for each day; and--wait for it--a coloring page for each Sunday. And the book comes with a little box of six crayons.

Genius. An invitation to approach Lent in a very personal, creative and fresh way, if a body is willing. Staff and most members who've seen it have responded with delight. But yesterday, as our receptionist offered a book and crayons to a rather elderly member, I heard her say rather archly, "Well, I'd prefer to behave like an adult."

But she took them.

And I (goody for me) managed not to make a crack about needing to have the faith of a little child. Because faith takes us to all kinds of uncomfortable places. Some of them are deserts; some of them are moral crossroads; some of them are invitations to try something a tiny bit loose and silly and joyful.

My home congregation (both midwestern and Lutheran!) did just that on Transfiguration Sunday. Our opening song was the South African freedom song "We Are Marching in the Light of God." In subsequent verses, we are "dancing," "praying" and "singing in the light of God." Our drumming director worked out some simple dance moves for everyone to do while we sang and the drummers played. This sort of thing has been a bit lackluster in the past, (we're sort of self-conscious about all that movement and exuberance, don'cha know) but not this time. Almost everyone at both services, from age 3 to 83, was moving and singing and grinning. Maybe even transfigured, in a way.

The incandescent Barbara Brown Taylor notes in "An Altar in the World" that

We need the practice of incarnation,
by which God saves the lives of those
whose intellectual assent has turned dry as dust,
who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life,
who are dying to know more God in their bodies.
Not more about God.
More God.

Sometimes when people ask me about my prayer life,
I describe hanging laundry on the line.
After a day of too much information about almost everything,
there is such blessed relief in the weight of wet clothes,
causing the wicker basket to creak as I carry it to the clothesline.
Every time I bend down to shake loose a piece of laundry,
I smell the grass.
I smell the sun.
Above all, I smell clean laundry.

Above all, I am happy for practices that bring me back to my body,
where the operative categories are not "bad" and "good"
but "dead" and "alive."
As hard as I have tried to be good all my life--
as hard as I try to be good even now--
my heart leans more and more toward that which gives life,
whether it is conventionally good or not.
There are times
when dancing on tables grants more life than kneeling in prayer.
More to the point,
there are times when dancing on tables
is the most authentic prayer in reach,
even if it pocks the table and clears the room.

And now I have a hopeful image in my head of my crusty friend at home alone, using those crayons and chuckling to herself. And my wish for you, gentle reader, is that you give it a try, too. Dance. Laugh. Sing. Remember that life is our first, best gift from our loving Creator. Don't you think it's God's hope for that life to be colorful and extravagantly vibrant?

Some deserts are of our own making. I'm just saying.

Peace, y'all.