Friday, December 19, 2008

The irrational season

I love Mary.

I think she's the bravest human being ever. I try to place myself in her sandals--those of a 14-or-so-year-old good girl, future mapped comfortably for her, brave enough to risk everything...her husband, her parents' goodwill, her whole social circle, her daily bread, her very life, because an angel passed on a message from God...which probably was not a form even as comforting and recognizable as Dan Akroyd and John Belushi "on a mission from God."

Weird. Seriously. This strange creature just zooms in on a little Segway-cloud and asks her for everything she has: her past, her present, her future. And--get this--she says YES.

The biggest, most reverberant "yes" the world had ever known. Madeleine L'Engle described it thus:
This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason,
there'd have been no room for the child.

I love that. The irrational season. This Advent, the phrase "irrational season" feels real-er to me than it ever has before. For Americans, things are shaky. The buttresses are cracking (pardon the expression...the 5th grader in me really couldn't resist). Rational beings from every sector seem to exist in a state of barely-controlled panic as wars continue, epidemics rage, and the economy grinds to a near-halt. This is an extremely up-close-and-personal reality for several people I care about, and I'm aware of my own family's precarious position as state budgets tighten and jobs are lost, because we both work for the state. I like my house. I like knowing where my next meal is coming from.

And yet...

Reason is not the only influence here. Reason speaks in the voice of safety, of manageability, of stability. God's voice is very different. God calls us out into deep water and promises to teach us to swim. That's a radical thing. In Jeannette Lindholm's words,

Unexpected and mysterious is that gentle word of grace.
Ever-loving and -sustaining is the peace of God's embrace.
If we falter in our courage and we doubt what we have known,
God is faithful to console us as a mother tends her own.

Still more radical to me than God's call and promise is Mary's "yes." God is big. Mary was little. God, I'm assuming, had a longer view of the situation than Mary did. And she signed up for the whole thing, unhesitatingly.

We churchy types are taught to revere Mary, the Virgin Mother of God. As if her sexuality (or lack thereof) were the thing that makes her extraordinary. I think that, rather than seeing her as a prim guardian of purity, it makes sense to see her as a most open soul, generous and humble and brave. What a mighty heart she had, able to open wide enough to contain the mystery of God's presence and brilliance and grace, though her own life was thrown into such complete chaos by any practical measure.

What an amazing response to ponder deep in our own hearts in this irrational season.

We are called to ponder myst'ry and await the coming Christ,
to embody God's compassion for each fragile human life.
God is with us in our longing to bring healing to the earth,
while we watch with joy and wonder for the promised Savior's birth.

Friday five: tick tock, fa la la

Songbird of the RevGals writes:

It's true.

There are only five full days before Christmas Day, and whether you use them for shopping, wrapping, preaching, worshiping, singing or traveling or even wishing the whole darn thing were over last Tuesday, there's a good chance they will be busy ones.

So let's make this easy, if we can: tell us five things you need to accomplish before Christmas Eve.

1) Shopping. Though we've scaled w-a-y back this year, there are a few things I need to get, and I have not started yet. Bleah.

2) Godparent duty. Godchild 1 is Mary this year, in her church's Christmas program--Beloved & I will go & be with her tonight as she ponders it all deep in her heart.

3) Rehearsal. I'm almost there: choir and bells are ready for Christmas Eve and even the first Monday in January, but tomorrow morning, I'm a supporting utility infielder for my children's choir director, who's leading the kids' Christmas program. It has been an odyssey this year, but hopefully it won't be anything like THIS:

4) Worship planning. Because, amazing as it seems to me today, there will be MORE worship services after the 25th.

5) Answer 1.4 million e-mails. December, man. Sigh.

All that having been said, I'm in the stretch! Hope the same is true for you.

*<@:-)% <---Choralgirl Elf

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dropping wind chill in the big tent

OK, everyone...let's take a deep breath.

P-E Obama has asked Rick Warren to offer the invocation at his swearing in. There it is. There's sort of a hubbub about this in progressive/GLBT circles today.

Do I particularly like Warren's theology? No.
Do I think he's been an obstruction for GLBT folks? Yes.
Is it possible that this is a statement about our relative position on the Obama Chain of Influence? Maybe, but not necessarily.

Do I think we should raise a great big stink about it? No. And again, NO.

Here's the thing: if this administration is going to have a chance at reformation of the political process, we all need to accept that we're not going to get everything we want. And that, particularly as Christians, we need to remember that Brother Warren IS, in fact, a member of the same Body of Christ as we who disagree with him. That living together and working together and learning each others' stories is the only real way forward. That we have an opportunity to extend that broad welcome that we're working for ourselves. AND that a rant at this moment is probably not going to be helpful in the long run, when we want to address the issues that REALLY affect us, like legislation.

I think Lee Stranahan's got it right.

Patience, people. WHATEVER happens, Obama's election is a step forward. If he's the leader I hope that he is, he will do as little pandering to ANY interest group as possible (and that includes mine), and more bridge-building between disparate groups. He will likely not do this perfectly, but I'm willing to give him a chance.

It's early. Breathe.

UPDATE on 12/23: This is kind of cool.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas meme

I found this at my friend Ruth's place today. Fa-la, ho ho ho.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?
Wrapping paper! In my gift-giving glory days, I worked for a Hallmark store. Now, if I can get paper all the way around the gift, and a bow slapped on it, I'm pretty happy. To date, I have achieved exactly ZERO shopping for this particular Christmas. Sigh.

2. Real tree or Artificial?
Real. Frasier Fir, if possible. Need the smell. Like the short needles!

3. When do you put up the tree?
Whenever we can find a couple of unfilled hours in mid-December. Last Sunday afternoon, this time around...though, if circumstances would permit, I'd do it the old-fashioned way, putting up the tree on Christmas Eve and taking it down on the 12th day of Christmas. Oh, well.

4. When do you take the tree down?
Whenever we can find a couple of unfilled hours in mid-January...and the gumption, since this is much less fun than putting it up!

5. Do you like eggnog?
In a paraphrase of the old Alka-Seltzer commercial: "I like eggnog, but it doesn't like me!"

6. Favorite gift received as a child?
Hmmm...I'd have to go with boxed sets of the "Little House" books and five Judy Blume books, whose covers were read right off.

Embarassingly, I have a picture of me at 12-years-old-or-so, looking rather enraptured over Shaun Cassidy's first album. :-)

7. Hardest person to buy for?
My sister

8. Easiest person to buy for?
Beloved, hands down

9. Do you have a nativity scene?
Beloved collects interesting "folk art" sorts of nativity scenes; we have them from Finland, Colombia, the Maasai tribe, lots of places!

BTW...they are NOT anything like this.

10. Mail or email Christmas cards?
Mail, but not 'til's one of Beloved's favorite projects to write and illustrate a newsy account of our year. She's great at it; they're funny and warm...much more interesting than we actually are!

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?
Two words: stretch pants.

12. Favorite Christmas Movie?
We have a tradition at our house...Beloved & I watch the following together (usually all in a row) every Christmas week:
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  • A Christmas Story (this goes back decades in Beloved's family)
That'd be a three-way tie for me: I love the neuroses and music of "Charlie Brown," and the last scene where they're all "loo loo loo-ing" together (Beloved & I sent a photo card one year of the two of us doing that); love the "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" song, and like to root for his little dog; "A Christmas Story" is the single best repository of great cultural-reference lines since "The Princess Bride," and makes me laugh every time.

This scene, BTW, may be the reason I wanted to name my dog Linus; it's the most consistently meaningful cultural Christmas experience of my life:

13. When do you start shopping for Christmas?
Spotty. No good answer.

14. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?

15. Favorite thing to eat at Christmas?
Homemade lefse and pepparkakor.

16. Lights on the tree?
White, please. Red wooden beads. Ornaments in mostly red and clear-varnished wood, with the exception of Beloved's penguins and my Snoopys.

17. Favorite Christmas song?
  • Best CD Anne Sofie von Otter, Home for Christmas. FANTASTIC. Her version of "Dancing Day" alone is worth the purchase price.
  • Classical Britten's Ceremony of Carols

  • Congregation Silent Night, done simply and in candlelight. This year, we're having a harp accompany us.
  • Radio Amy Grant's "Tennessee Christmas" or Michael W. Smith's "All Is Well"

  • Choir "Before the Marvel of this Night" or the Schulz-Widmar version of "Midnight Clear," both found in the Augsburg Choirbook:

I especially like this verse, which is so relevant this year:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not
the love-song which they bring;
oh, hush your noise and cease your strife,
and hear the angels sing.

18. Travel at Christmas or stay home?

It's the most churchiful time of the year (save Holy Week), so we're in town on Christmas Eve (traditional dinner with friends between services), and usually my sister's place on Christmas Day. Big family thing over New Year's weekend, for which we travel.

19. Can you name all of Santa's reindeer?
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, Rudolph (the most famous reindeer of alllllll)

20. Angel on the tree top or a star?
Rodney the Reindeer

21. Open presents Christmas Eve or morning?
Whenever we're together is OK with me.

22. Most annoying thing about this time of the year?
Vacuous parties, the fact that the retail season now starts in September/October, and electronic trees/snowmen/santas/ reindeer/penguins/night-of-the-living-ceramic-carolers beeping out carols.

23. Favorite ornament theme or color?

24. Favorite for Christmas dinner?
Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, green been casserole (with crispy French onions), lefse, a pretty tossed salad with pomegranates, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie with real whipped cream. Mmm.

25. What do you want for Christmas this year?
  • A light that shines through these rather dark times.
  • Peace on earth.
  • Safe travel for everyone.
  • Time to sit down and just BE with Beloved and the pups.
  • Practically speaking, more memory for the we can install the operating system that I can use my new orange iPod.
26. What do you like most about Christmas?

Hope, goodwill, and great choral music!

Friday, December 12, 2008


SNORT. Love it.

Turn the prism

InVocation, like many choirs, is in the middle of its concert season right now. We had two concerts last weekend; we have one tonight and one tomorrow night. This is fun. If you've ever been in a performing ensemble, you know what I mean--months of work culminate in several fleeting concerts, and then it all begins again.

In the last couple of weeks, my thinking has been split between the fruition of this concert season and the beginning of the next one--planning with Mark (my co-creative director), ordering music, talking with instrumentalists, assembling packets of new music for singers. When Mark & I plan, we think about texts. We think about tunes. We think about performance practices and compositional styles. We think about where the music comes from, trying to use music by local composers and music from parts of the world we may never see. We think about the musical forces at our disposal: number of singers, types of instruments, timbres, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, likely concert venues. We think about musical styles...pacing of program, fit, length, difficulty, familiarity vs. freshness, and the ever-elusive "fun" factor. We try to see and hear the music from the perspectives of our singers and our concertgoers.

At the end of this process, we put this series of juxtapositions in the hands, hearts, minds and voices of our singing friends...and, for the next few months, we listen. We listen for what's working, and for what isn't. We listen for problems and for beauty. We listen to intonation, vocal technique, blend, tempo, articulation, dynamic contrast...for all the things that make it possible to get ourselves out of the way and make room for the magic to happen.

A couple of posts ago, I spoke of the alchemy of music in making connections between human beings. I love the concentrated goodwill of choral singing--a bunch of people getting together to do this thing that makes them vulnerable, that asks them to simultaneously dig into themselves and forget themselves--to work cooperatively toward something beautiful. No winners and losers. Just striving and risking and trusting and blooming, creating together.


But there's one more element of music making that makes it so...well, opulent for me. There's a way in which texts and tunes, glued together and all laid out in a row, have a way of making you see familiar stories differently. And each of the dozen singers and 150 or so listeners--every person has a slightly different experience, based on what we bring to the table.

One of the pieces in our current program is a familiar carol in new clothing. Joy to the World is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous sacred Christmas songs going; however, the complexity of the version we're singing changes the experience of the song substantially. We're singing an arrangement of the carol by local (brilliant) composer Stephen Paulus. It is not simple...and yet, it is. The dimensions of the piece are extraordinary; horizontally, it's polymetric. In addition, there are up to three different lines going on at a given moment, with layers and complexity increasing as the song progresses. Vertically, from the very first chord, it's full of great sheets of sparkling harmonic fecundity that change with every beat.

I've known it before as a simple song, hummable while baking Christmas cookies. This version is not hummable. But, as one listener at our first concert noted, "That arrangement just turned the prism for me. I thought I knew that hymn, but this version made me see it completely differently."

Richness. There are new layers of meaning hiding even in a carol we've sung since we were first able to sing. That's what serious art is all about, Charlie Brown. The RevGals' Friday Five today is about what we see (see previous post), and one of my fellow RevGals included this quote in her answer; I'll leave you with it, and the invitation to make time to reflect on the richness of the familiar in your life:

No object is mysterious; the mystery is your eye.
--Elizabeth Bowen

Friday five: in your eyes

Sophia of the RevGals writes:

This Friday Five is inspired by my husband's Lasik surgery yesterday....He'd been contemplating it for a while and was pushed over the edge by the fact that we put too much money in our healthcare spending account this year and it would have been gone anyway. (There was only enough for one eye, but the kind people at the eye clinic figured out a way to divvy up the charges between surgery and followup in January=next year's spending account). So please say a little prayer for his safe recovery and share with us your thoughts on eyes and vision.

1. What color are your beautiful eyes? Did you inherit them from or pass them on to anyone in your family?

Got Dad's eye color, I think--I'm hazel, and the color of my eyes depends on the color of my shirt! Nifty to have a wardrobe accessory that requires exactly NO effort on my part. ;-)

2. What color eyes would you choose if you could change them?

I'm happy with what I have, which is the same as what Beloved has! When I was a kid, I wanted them to be Scandinavian blue all the time; I've also grown to appreciate deep, rich brown (Linus & Lucy's eyes!).

3. Do you wear glasses or contacts? What kind? Like 'em or hate 'em?

Reading glasses, that bane of middle age. But they sure cut down on computer-related headaches, and I do like the way they look! Besides, they've been a long time coming: I remember being really jealous of Christine Lunde in 4th grade, when she got big, cover-your-whole-face, early-'80s-pink glasses; I thought they were the epitome of cool. Now I have some, too (though they're about 1/3 the size of hers, and silver). Nyah nyah.

Hee hee hee.

4. Ever had, or contemplated, laser surgery? Happy with the results?

No need, thus far. Which is good, because the idea kind of creeps me out. We dissected ox eyes in 8th grade biology, and Charlie Rutherford saved a lens to throw into Ann Gano's mashed potatoes at lunch. I've never quite recovered, and it wasn't even my lunch!

5. Do you like to look people in the eye, or are you more eye-shy?

I'm pretty direct, but try not to be aggressive about it. I like eye contact; you can learn a lot by looking someone in the eye, and there's an undercurrent of integrity and openness there, too.

Bonus question: Share a poem, song, or prayer that relates to eyes and seeing.

From one of my favorite teenage "almost a stalker" movie moments in Say Anything (John Cusack and Ione Skye--yeah, baby!):

In my "church musican" mode...

One great thing about being an alto is getting to sing the recitative in Handel's Messiah that offers such a beautiful vision of promises fulfilled:
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap as an hart
and the tongue of the dumb shall sing!

Finally, I'm also a big fan of this one, which I'll offer as a sort of benediction for today:

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
naught be all else to me, save that Thou art!
Thou, my best thought by day or by night;
waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The beauty we love

I've been a quiet blogger for the last couple of weeks. Must be December! I've been as busy as most church musicians are, this time of year, and my greatest comfort amidst the frenzy has been a poem which will figure prominently in InVocation's spring concert. It's from Rumi, long a favorite:

Today, like every other day,
we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways
to kneel and kiss the ground.

That's a lovely, incarnational theology, don't you think?

Saturday, December 6, 2008


I enjoy the radio show This American Life. It's like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get. Yesterday, I was listening to the program entitled "Music Lessons," (which I wholeheartedly commend to you; stream it here) with segments by David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and the wonderful Anne Lamott. Anne--I'm gonna call her Anne, because there's a frank and intimate quality to her writing that makes it seem like we went for coffee last Wednesday--was talking about the power of music to heal us, describing a holy moment at her church that bridged a gulf between two people:

I can't imagine anything else but music that could have brought about this alchemy. How is it that you can have a chord here...and then another chord there, and then your heart breaks open? I don't know the answer. Maybe it's that music is about as physical as it gets. Your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We're walking temples of noise, and when you add the human heart to this mix, it somehow lets us meet on a bridge we couldn't get to any other way.

YES. What a miracle to get to participate in it--to create it, to lead groups of people who are doing something so natural, so stuffed with goodwill, and so mysterious. I'm grateful. :-)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday five: longing in our hearts

A big thank you to Sally of the RevGals for this opportunity to ponder things deeply in our hearts. She writes:

"Imagine a complex, multi-cultural society that annually holds an elaborate winter festival, one that lasts not simply a few days, but several weeks. This great festival celebrates the birth of the Lord and Saviour of the world, the prince of peace, a man who is divine. People mark the festival with great abundance- feasting, drinking and gift giving....." (Richard Horsley- The Liberation of Christmas)

The passage goes on, recounting the decorations that are hung, and the songs and dances that accompany the festival, how the economy booms and philanthropic acts abound....

But this is not Christmas- this is a Roman festival in celebration of the Emperor....This is the world that Jesus was born into! The world where the early Christians would ask "Who is your Saviour the Emperor or Christ?"

And yet our shops and stores and often our lives are caught up in a world that looks very much like the one of ancient Rome, where we worship at the shrine of consumerism....

Advent on the other hand calls us into the darkness, a time of quiet preparation, a time of waiting, and re-discovering the wonder of the knowledge that God is with us. Advent's call is to simplicity and not abundance, a time when we wait for glorious light of God to come again...

Christ is with us at this time of advent, in the darkness, and Christ is coming with his light- not the light of the shopping centre, but the light of love and truth and beauty.

What do you long for this advent? What are your hopes and dreams for the future? What is your prayer today?

In the vein of simplicity I ask you to list five advent longings...

1. I long for our country to steady stanch the financial bleeding; to rediscover its own moral compass; to do justice, feed the hungry, care for the sick, and innovate our way into a new energy (both in the inspirational sense and the make things go sense). I long for our new President to step calmly into the gap and start helping us clean up this mess.

2. I long for a global religious community that values humility, compassion and reason as much as it values dogma. That's the micro, I imagine a world in which each of us could remember and take seriously the words of Wonderful Colleague: "...but I might be wrong about that." It'd be great if we could all stop grasping for the Moral High Ground, and instead reach out to each other. Not up, not down--across. I long for the wisdom and courage to live this myself.

3. I long to stay centered in gratitude, music and humor...whatever is around the next corner. The gifts of my life are remarkably abundant: Beloved, pups, friends, church community, music (choirs!), books, creativity, purpose, home, enough to eat...even in this increasingly unstable global picture, the home front is a remarkable gift.

4. That having been said, would a bag of money sufficient to pay off the credit cards be too wild a request? :-D

5. And on a practical note, I long for time. Time to walk the pups, to sit and read, to write, to sit with Beloved and just be. To get quiet enough to create and to be the catalyst for the things I listed above in my own little corner of the world. To ground myself in joyful hope, as the liturgy says.

Here, friends, is one of the great storytellers of our time, from a musical perspective, singing about longing:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008