Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The dynamism of compassion...

which demands intelligence, not just a gooey feeling" is Karen Armstrong's topic here. Excellent!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Outrageous peace and costly grace

Let us sing songs of

--Susan Palo Cherwien

I got this extraordinary book of poetry about a month ago, after hearing some selections used as part of a gorgeous hymn festival sung by the choir in which Beloved and I met. I've since been savoring Susan's precise, vibrant extraordinary circumstance, as I tend to devour beautiful books.

I found the quote above at the end of one of the poems, and have been pondering it deep in my heart, marveling at the unlikeliness of that word pairing: outrageous peace. As is my wont, I looked at the prettiest definition most closely: "highly unusual, extravagant, remarkable."

And then I re-watched a movie tonight, and it brought me to a deeper, more difficult definition: "grossly offensive to the sense of right or decency."

The movie was Dead Man Walking. It came out in 1995, at the tail-end of my callow youth. I saw it through the eyes of a young woman, and took two things from it then: the conviction that the death penalty is wrong, and a deep admiration for Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ.

Tonight, it seems to me that Sr. Helen made outrageous peace. It deeply offended the parents whose children had died violently, violated, at the hands of the condemned man whom she was trying to counsel. It offended correctional workers, worried her mother, alienated others with whom she was working. It offended the condemned man, because she held a mirror in front of him.

And yet.

Her willingness to throw herself into the gaping maw of others' pain, to face head-on her own self-doubt, to claim unequivocally the love of Christ for all people, even society's "monsters..." This willingness of hers made outrageous peace: the condemned man faced his crime and asked for forgiveness. His family found a measure of dignity and comfort. A parent of one of his victims began to heal from his searing grief and got back on speaking terms with God. She made room for kindness within the coldest of human processes.

She made peace where there could not be peace; further, she made peace that offended people deeply. It seems to me I've heard about some of other guys who sang that song: Bonhoeffer. King. Mandela. Jesus. The song required everything of them.

It changed the world, with each of them...and the song of outrageous peace goes on.

I wonder I'll get to sing a verse...and if I'll be able to do so. I pray that I'll have the courage to lift my voice, if called upon.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Living as "we" in an "I" world

Art is the transfer of emotion from one person to another.

--Leo Tolstoy
Hmmm. Yes.

So, what's the appropriate application of this idea to church music?
  • Music can serve as "testimony"--I can tell you my own hard-won faith story through music, and I can hear yours in the same way. This is, I think, why we have so much "I" music that's done in the middle of an essentially "we" experience. It's immediate emotional connection.
  • Music is able to place us in another time/place in much the same way our sense of smell does; the scent of lefse on the griddle transports me directly to my maternal grandmother's house every time I make it. And there are a million songs that can take me directly back to high school, for better and worse. Because of this, there's an inherent sentimental attachment to any number of hymns and spiritual songs; they recall our beloved dead for a moment, and remind us where we've come from. Again, immediate emotional connection.
  • For many of us, it's difficult not to get caught up in a well-executed song of praise or lament...consider the power of the "Hallelujah Chorus," for example...or the way that we can BE "lost in wonder, love and praise" if the music leaders and congregation do "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" well. [Reader, insert your own example here.]
Here's the thing, though. Because of music's emotional power, it's easy for it to become a tool of manipulation. As soon as we worship planners forget that, the music rings false to the thinkers in the crowd. It's one of the true challenges of worship planning...not to put words into people's mouths that weren't there to begin with. Let's face it: we all come to the worship planning process with biases. It's easy and fun to plan worship that expresses my own belief and feelings. It's much harder to try to place myself in someone else's Cole Haans or Adidas or Manolo Blahniks or steel-toed boots. And so, when I'm not a little bit uncomfortable, it's time to be concerned that my own preference is holding too much sway over a community's shared worship experience.

But I suspect that many--even most pew-sitters are not approaching worship that way. They come wanting to be moved, even transported. For many people, that means that if we don't use something in their preferred style or lexicon, they don't connect with worship...which is a rather consumer-oriented approach to a community experience.

It's sort of a conundrum for me, really. It seems to me too little to hope for to just get off on worship; it should work on me a bit. On the one hand, worship should be a kairos moment, and I should be able to forget myself and my location in time/space; that's both a relief and a communion. On the other hand, how will my faith grow if I don't learn to figure out where to discover the gift in music that doesn't immediately speak to me personally? Because that also builds communion over the long term; it teaches me connection in the way that synapses connect axons to dendrites: they learn to connect by needing to connect.

If we don't experience the gap, how do we learn to cross it? And if worship includes all that we are in the presence of God and one another, isn't the willingness to weave those connections an essential part of that experience?

So, yes--music transfers emotion from one person to another. But not always without our willingness to make it happen--to be full agents of the musical experience for ourselves and for one another, to the greater glory of God. That's what makes church music a bit different: the minute we act like an affinity group, we veer off course from our deepest purpose. In the end, it's not about the music itself. It's about learning to live as "we" in an "I" world.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Beloved and I are home together this evening, having played with the pups, done a Saturdayish potpourri of keep-the-household-running things, and shared a lovely dinner. Tapping away on our respective computers, she's working on school stuff and I'm writing program notes for the next InVocation concert program. Pups are snuggled up, and we're all enjoying this:

Dvorak + Yo Yo Ma = yummy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Thoughts for the first music rehearsal of a new program year...

...from Thomas Merton:

Music is pleasing not only because of the sound
but because of the silence that is in it:
without the alternation of sound and silence,
there would be no rhythm.
If we strive to be happy
by filling in the silences of life with sound,
by turning all life's leisure into work,
and real
by turning all our being into doing,
we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth.
If we have not silence,
God is not heard in our music.
If we have not rest,
God does not bless our work.
If we twist our lives out of shape
in order to fill every corner of them
with action and experience,
God will seem silently to withdraw from our hearts
and leave us empty.