Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday five: fork in the road

Singing Owl of the RevGals writes:

I am at a life-changing juncture. I do not know which way I will go, but I have been thinking about the times, people and events that changed my life (for good or ill) in significant ways. For today's Friday Five, share with us five "fork-in-the-road" events, or persons, or choices. And how did life change after these forks in the road?

I'm reminded of the Yogi Berra quote
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Funny...and yet descriptive, too. 'Cause that's how I roll:

Age 9: I remember trying to decide which I liked more: visual art or music? I was trying to decide where to focus my energy. (No, I wasn't overprogrammed, just a thinker.) I really enjoyed both, and liked the fact that I always had something to show for my effort after art class. But I loved to sing, and had just started guitar lessons on my 3/4 size red-and-black acoustic guitar. I liked the way that I felt more alive somehow when I sang...and so my Inner Romantic conquered my Inner Pragmatist for the first of, oh, I don't even KNOW how many decisions. I made the right call, though--I'm a decent musician, but have no discernible talent in the visual arts. :-)

Age 19: Music Therapy major or Music Education major? After much agonizing I ended up trying both and then graduating with an extremely marketable B.A. in Music. (snicker) I had a starter job in music publishing, in which I've worked on and off for my whole career, and so I decided to GRADUATE and get on with my life!

Age 29: Continue in corporate training or go to seminary? I was off to a good start as a trainer, and more-or-less liked it. Was making good money, had a lot of contacts...and was ultimately dissatisfied that it was the way I should be spending my time and effort. And it seemed that a deeper voice was speaking in me. Seminary it was. Now: MDiv or MSM (sacred music)? It was music...but I haven't stopped considering MDiv as well. Maybe my denomination will make that a bit easier for me next summer.

Age 39: Continue in church music or go back to training? I'd had a shattering experience at my First Big Church Job and was seriously questioning my calling...not to mention having a pile of debt from going back to school. Exhausted and disheartened, I wasn't sure I was willing to put myself back together and try to continue church work. And then there was The Interview. I met with the hiring committee of my present church and something deep inside me sang...and that was the right answer, the healing answer, the real answer.

Age 9-29: I think I'm gay. Do I ignore it and hope it goes away, or do I find out more about what it might mean for me? From 9-18, I ignored it. From 18-19, I fell in love and got my heart broken. From 19-29 I fought it. At 29, I fell in love with Beloved and the world opened up.

And I knew what to do.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What I believe, in six words

I was listening to an interesting Valentine's Day podcast last night (yup, I'm a bit behind...) about the six-word love story project underway at SMITH magazine. (and the ongoing six-word memoir project.) It was engaging, entertaining, fascinating. Check the link for more stories. It was begun my a six-word story by Ernest Hemingway:
For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

There's a novel in that. What economy! Up at the magazine this morning:

Morning coffee tastes different without you.
Child in hospital. Heart losing hope.
Tried men. Tried women. Like cats.
Quit my dad's dreams. Found mine.

It got me thinking...what if we tried to tell our faith stories in six words? It's harder than I thought. I have two, as of this morning:

Lutheran musician, insider, outsider. Aaaaaahhhhh, grace.
God makes, saves, loves. I try.

What do you believe? Please post!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday: sabbath of the soul

I got this today from Inward/Outward. I think it's rather wonderful.

Humility is not a matter of beating ourselves up.
It is not a question of judging ourselves
as stupid or sinful, as hopeless and bad.
Who are we to judge these things?
Humility, for John [St. John of the Cross],
is the gentle acceptance of that most tender place inside ourselves
that throbs with the pain of separation from the Beloved.
It is that deep knowingness that identification with the false self
brings nothing but further separation.
It is an initially reluctant dropping down
into the emptiness
and an ultimate experience of peace
when we stop doing
and rediscover simple being.
It is the Sabbath of the soul
when we heed the call to cease creating
and remember that we are created.

--Mirabai Starr

Our theme at my church, this Lent, is "Renewed by Floods of Grace." It's from a hymn that we'll be learning and using all season, with a wonderful text by Ruth Duck. She begins

Remember and rejoice, renewed by floods of grace:
we bear the sign of Jesus Christ, that time cannot erase.

I know a lot of people who see Lent as a time in which we beat ourselves up for being hopeless sinners. They got that impression from years of Lenten services that emphasize our sinfulness to the point of creating a distorted view of our relationship with God.

I believe it may be true, as Martin Luther allegedly said on his deathbed, that "We are all beggars." But I think that people need hope even more than they need bread (with the exception of Eucharist, which is both).

Penitence is necessary sometimes, and today's remembrance of the brokenness of our nature and our world is helpful because it locates us in reality. But we need to be careful not to leave people in the dust.

Our location within God's grace is necessary all the time.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Living on $1/day in Afghanistan

Heard a fascinating, sobering interview on The World this evening. Jennifer McCarthy is trying to eat for $1/day in Faryab, Afghanistan. Follow along with her here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust

First, some definitions.

Me: child of God, member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), seminary-educated professional church musician eligible for rostered leadership in all ways but one: I'm a lesbian who has been with my partner since 1997, who had a big church wedding in 2007. My best friend B is also a partnered lesbian, which is the one giant stumbling block in her journey toward ordination.

ELCA: Publicly proclaims this. Structured like this. Governed like this, with the next Churchwide Assembly taking place in my hometown next August.

At that Assembly, voting members will decide whether or not to adopt as ELCA policy a social statement entitled "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," which has been crafted over the last two years by a task force which was convened to study and articulate a proposed ELCA position on matters of human sexuality. The catalyst for this discussion is the disagreement on issues pertaining to homosexuality:
  • tolerance/recognition/blessing of committed same-gender relationships
  • ordination of homosexual persons in committed same-gender relationships
I suspect that service on that task force may be the most excruciating, thankless job in history. I honor and thank its members for their careful, respectful work.

Along with the draft of the Social Statement, they have proposed recommendations for action by the Churchwide Assembly which take place in four steps, each succeeding step considered only if the one before it has passed:

Step one asks the Churchwide Assembly whether, in principle, it is committed to finding ways to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships.

Step two asks the Churchwide Assembly whether, in principle, this church is committed to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.

Step three asks this Church whether, in the future implementation of these commitments, it will make decisions so that all in this church bear the burdens of the other, and respect the bound consciences of all. This means that any solution that serves only the conscience-bound positions of one or another part of this church will not be acceptable.

Step four proposes how this Church can move toward change in a way that respects the bound consciences of all. It recognizes that such respect will lead to diversity of practice. However, the majority of the task force believes that the conscience-bound lack of consensus will be respected most faithfully by providing some structured flexibility in decision-making so that congregations and synods may choose whether or not to approve or call people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve on ELCA rosters.

My bishop notes that

In this way, the assembly will decide whether to create "space" for congregations and synods to publicly recognize and hold accountable the relationship of same-gendered couples (step one), and (step two) whether our Church ought to find ways to allow the rostered ministry of such persons.

The task force acknowledges that conscience-bound faithful Christians find themselves on different sides of this issue. The task force also acknowledges that we are bound not only in our own consciences but in love to the conscience of the other. Because of the lack of consensus in our Church, the task force believes that we need to respect our differences and accept the different places in which the baptized find themselves. The recommendation affirms that our distinctive positions on this issue should not be church dividing. No congregation will be pressured to call any pastor they do not wish to call.

Now...all that having been said, what do I think? Mostly, I think they've done a good job. Their recommendation includes a reference to Luther's declaration, while speaking in his own defense at the Diet of Worms, that he was bound in conscience by the Word of God and that "It is neither safe nor right to go against conscience." The report continues,

The emphasis of "conscience-bound" is not on declaring oneself to be conscience-bound. Rather, we are bound in love by the conscience of the other--that is, we recognize the conscience-bound nature of the convictions of others in the community of Christ. For Lutherans, the reality that people hold convictions from deep faith that may be in conflict with the deep faith convictions of others is not merely a procedural or political difficulty. As sisters and brothers in Christ we bear one another's burdens. For one member to suffer because her or his conscience has been offended is for all of us to suffer...the task force asks members of this church to join them in a commitment to honor conscience-bound decisions. However, the recognize that such honoring may lead to some diversity of practice within this church. ...nevertheless, the task force invites this church to continue and even deepen its ability to concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements.

In other words, as conscience-bound Christians, each of us is entitled, after prayerfully sweating out our own theological position, to say with Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me." But we need to recognize that it may cost us everything. And this task force wants very much for us to remember that, while we're all living in our own deepest truths, we must try to trust that others are also doing so...and to take their commitment as seriously as our own, that we might not break the Body.

I have to say, that's a large thing to ask of anyone...especially a member of an oppressed minority or (I must admit) someone who's staked their life's work and their soul on a particular position, whatever that may be. Ay, there's the rub. But that is part of what I love about being a Lutheran--these conversations are serious, and we're all asked to do the hard stuff.

Finally, toward the end:

Most, but not all, members of the task force believe that it is undesirable and unrealistic to continue with existing policy in its present form. They feel this approach would fail to honor the conscience-bound lack of consensus in this church. They also believe that continuing current policy does not serve the mission and ministry of this church in instances where a member in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship is the person determined to be best suited for a particular call...though no policy can be fully in accord with this church's diversity of convictions, the majority of the task force believes that the conscience-bound lack of consensus will be respected most faithfully by providing for some level of structured flexibility of decision-making.

In other words, they're:
  • recommending a "local option" scenario, while
  • asking us to remember that we're all members of one Body of Christ and
  • recognizing that this will be painful for most people, to varying degrees. No one gets everything they want.
Seems pretty positive to me...which is an evolution from my initial "justice is justice, dammit" standpoint. Viva la revolucion, and all that.

It's funny--though I want to, I still can't quite trust that that bigotry and lack of understanding aren't at the root of the "anti-change" position; however, I can recognize that it isn't necessarily productive to demand that people change their hearts and minds, This Instant.

Kahlil Gibran once described pain as the "cracking of the shell that encompasses your present understanding." I think that this document acknowledges that everyone, on every side, needs to be willing to experience that cracking bear the pain for the sake of their sisters and brothers, for the Body of Christ. That's vigorously Christian. I like it.

I also like "gift and trust," and think it can only be positive for all relationships to be lived out in the light of long as the "public accountability" is offered in the same spirit of public support that is offered to hetero relationships. Their careful definition of "conscience bound" is helpful, as well, I think--it demands that we take seriously the conscience of the Other, as much as our own.

This is an evolutionary, but not a revolutionary position. Pragmatically speaking, I think this has a chance of appealing to everyone enough to move the church forward. I'd like that. I want my friend B to be ordained; she has a clearer call to it than almost anyone I know.

Also noted--from what I've read thus far of the Statement, it seems a bit grimmer than it might be; not so much emphasis on the "sexuality as created gift" part as on the "we're sinners saved by grace" part. Bit of a buzz-kill. :-)

And, admittedly, though my rational mind sees this effort as positive (assuming, of course, that it's passed by the Assembly next August) part of me still screams "Now! Now! Full inclusion and recognition NOW! Justice!" Because it's true that "separate but equal" is usually neither.

But, in our human framework, justice almost never rolls like God's waters in a mighty stream, matter how cathartic and satisfying the idea of it is. Usually it arrives an inch at a time, and that because some folks really put their backs into it.

I think that the Task Force did. I hope that the voting Assembly will think so, too, and will be brave enough to allow the shell around our Church's present understanding to crack.

I'm cautiously optimistic.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Your damaged angel-in-waiting

Here's an interesting article on Wally Lamb's work with prison inmates who want to write.

In writing, as in life, voice is crucial.
Your voice has been honed
by your family, your ethnic heritage,
your neighborhood, and your education.
It is the music of what you mean in the world.
Imitate no one.
Your uniqueness -- your authenticity -- is your strength.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Beloved and I saw these extraordinary musicians on Sunday night. Click the link, play the video and TURN IT UP.

It's been awhile since I've felt like my very heartbeat was altered by a musical experience (usually I keep things at a sensible, "protect my hearing," "don't irritate the neighbors" level). Coincidentally, one translation of the group's name is "heartbeat."

Brilliantly revealing of Japanese culture. Joyous. Arresting. Adjectives fail.

SEE THEM if you get an opportunity!

People of the Book go sailing

One of my favorite movie lines ever is from the comedy "What About Bob?" Bob (Bill Murray) is multiphobic, almost panphobic, and has stalked Dr. Marvin, his therapist (Richard Dreyfuss) to his vacation home, hoping for some attention and help. Anna Marvin coaxes Bob onto her friend's sailboat, with this result:

For Bob, this brand-new experience is a defining moment--it becomes part of his self-descriptive narrative. And that's where the "funny" lives. Because he's only experienced one aspect of what it is to be a sailor...he's literally all tied up in knots.

Well, as for me: I'm a reader! I read! Reading is central to my makeup.
  • Fiction and poetry teach me to imagine new worlds, and to see the one I'm in more clearly and completely.
  • The Bible shapes me, along with academic-type study of various subjects. I get all excited about things like historical/critical interpretation, about peeling away the crunchy intellectual layers to find the chewy center.
  • I understand music most immediately through listening, but also through navigation of a printed score. I don't seem to have much of a "jam" gene; rather, my bent as a singer or a conductor is to combine the forces of imagination/imagery, textual interpretation, historical understanding, and music theory. I try to understand the pieces and then do what they ask of blow into the "sails" of the song. At its best, it's as alive as a jam session that really cooks; it's just a somewhat different path to the same destination.
I was at a choral workshop recently with Craig Arnold. He said that it's our job, as singers and conductors, to understand what's on the page and to bring it to our voices, our faces, our bodies, whatever it takes to fully present the message of that particular piece of music.

The page as a bearer of meaning...a means to an end, not an end in itself. Hmmm...interesting.

If you've ever sung in (or heard) a choir that has rendered a piece of music completely, you know what that "bringing to life" feels like. It's as if everyone is moved by the same gust of wind at that exact moment, and we're all sailing. Conversely, if you've ever sung in (or heard) a choir that sort plods through their piece, you also know what I mean. Like Bob, we can get sort of tied up in knots--so focused on what our next note/consonant sound/vowel sound/dynamic marking is that we miss the deeper meaning. It's easy to keep our heads down and just look at the next thing in front of us. But it doesn't make very interesting music. If you're singing "alleluia" with a frown on your face, that creates cognitive dissonance for the listener, who then frowns with you. And the "alleluia," which was the point of the thing, gets lost.

We Western types are, in many senses, People of the Book. We read to discover, to understand, to learn. I don't think this is problematic, in and of itself; it's one of our points of origin, a characteristic of growing up in the Western world.

However, if we get stuck to the page, we miss out on the geist of the thing.

Music from oral traditions is passed on in a very different way. For example, in many parts of Africa, a child wishing to learn to drum starts out by listening to the drummers of his (yep, usually it's a guy thing) village, who repeat complex, polyrhythmic patterns beneath the improvisations of the master drummers. The child might be a listener for a l-o-n-g time before he's given a drum and a simple pattern to play. As the child's ear and technique improve, he's allowed into the more complex workings of the ensemble. This takes years, and there's no paper involved anywhere.

Folk songs of every culture are handed down by, well, singing them. Simple, memorable melodies with simple accompaniments (if any) are handed down, generation by generation by making music together. Again, no paper.

The beauty of the paper is that it's able to transmit a large amount of complex information pretty economically. It's researchable, it leaves time for pondering, and often, it charts more than one possible route to its destination. But paper is only a starting point; the music doesn't live until it lives in our bodies.

I know that my choirs sing better when they can get off the page. More and more, I'm making opportunities for that to happen--having a longer curve of rehearsals, so that we can memorize (or get close to memorization of) the mechanics, in order to enter into real conversation with our congregation/audience. There is generally some grumbling about this; most of us are middle-aged, and memorization takes a bit more effort than in those halcyon days of our youth. :-)

But it's not just about the freedom of movement and communication we gain by not having to hold music. There's something intangible at work here, too. It's about having the discipline to turn ourselves into artists...into sailors. If we don't somehow internalize the message of the page (music, poetry, Scripture), we won't have access to it when its moment comes.

We study so that we may practice well. We practice so that we may participate in the creative process of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we study and practice so that we may live.

Madeleine L'Engle talked about her piano practice as a way both of preparing herself and of inviting the Holy Spirit's presence...of readying herself for that moment in which the Holy Spirit would come:

Hugh and I heard Rudolf Serkin play Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata
in Symphony Hall, many years ago.
It was one of those great unpredictable moments.
When the last notes had been lost in the silence,
the crowd not only applauded, cheered, stamped, we stood on our chairs.
This doesn't happen often in Boston.

But if Serkin did not practice eight hours a day,
every day,
the moment of inspiration,
when it came,
would have been lost.
Nothing would have happened;
there would have been no instrument
through which the revelation could be revealed.

I'm not suggesting that church choirs should practice eight hours a day. But I AM suggesting that, as conductors, we must invite our singers into the adventure of the thing; that we never let the phrase "just a church choir" pass our lips; that we take seriously their commitment and artistry; and that we help them to prepare themselves musically (mechanically, intellectually, spiritually) for that moment of inspiration--the moment in which the Spirit comes.

I'm suggesting that we take 'em sailing.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Friday five: raindrops, kittens, kettles, mittens

Songbird of the RevGals writes: In a week of wondering how various things in our family life will unfold, I found myself thinking of the way Maria comforted the Von Trapp children in one of my favorite movies. Frightened by a thunder storm, the children descend upon her, and she sings to them about her favorite things, taking their minds off the storm. So, let's encourage ourselves. Share with us five of your favorite things. Use words or pictures, whatever expresses it best.

Up-front bonus answer: As it happens, Songbirds question comes from my favorite movie, of which I know every word. My first time seeing it was in utero, at the Coronado Theatre in Rockford, IL--and my family watched it together on TV (as it got shorter and shorter, edited to increase commercial time) every year. It was the first video...and then the first DVD I bought. Much better when viewed in its entirety!

Now, on with our program:

1. Home. My wife, my pups, the colors and clutter and comfort of our house. More musical instruments than we can play, my stack of "to read" books, photos of loved ones, our very eclectic CD collection and an absolutely gorgeous kitchen table (expands to seat 10 friends). Snuggling up together (all 4 of us) to watch a movie and have some hot kettle corn & a cold diet coke.

2. Making music. I have the privilege of leading three musical groups, two of them choirs, and it's terrific. I plan the music we'll work on, some guidance, some criticism, some encouragement, some insight; they bring their generosity and goodwill and sense of humor. We make something beautiful, we mess up, we laugh, and we grow together. Fantastic.

3. Hammock/book/beer in a warmer,slower season than this one--or a crackling fire/marshmallows/cocoa. First activity is solitary; second is best enjoyed with loved ones!

4. Discovering a new, wonderful author. I heard of John Updike's death a week or so ago, and realized that I'd never read anything he'd written. This seemed like a situation that should be remedied. I bought this book, which is intelligent, insightful and harrowing. It opens me, in that way really good writers can. And he's got a long list of books to savor.

5. Scandinavian baked goods. If it's beige, sweet, and flavored with almonds chances are good I'll like it. It's not just the sweets themselves, though they're wonderful. My (Norwegian!) grandma worked in a Swedish bakery and always had a treat for me when I came in. I miss her! Krumkake, skorpa, sandbakkels, pepparkakor, kransekake...mmmmmm.