Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Words on Wednesday

Not Here For High And Holy Things
by Geoffrey Anketel Studdert-Kennedy

Not here for high and holy things
we render thanks to thee,
but for the common things of earth,
the purple pageantry
of dawning and of dying days,
the splendor of the sea,

the royal robes of autumn moors,
the golden gates of spring,
the velvet of soft summer nights,
the silver glistering
of all the million million stars,
the silent song they sing,

of faith and hope and love undimmed,
undying still through death,
the resurrection of the world,
what time there comes the breath
of dawn that rustles through the trees,
and that clear voice that saith:

Awake, awake to love and work!
The lark is in the sky,
the fields are wet with diamond dew,
the worlds awake to cry
their blessings on the Lord of life,
as he goes meekly by.

Come, let thy voice be one with theirs,
shout with their shout of praise;
see how the giant sun soars up,
great lord of years and days!
So let the love of Jesus come
and set thy soul ablaze,

to give and give, and give again,
what God hath given thee;
to spend thyself nor count the cost;
to serve right gloriously
the God who gave all worlds that are,
and all that are to be. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Holy Alchemy

A wise music teacher once taught me something that is as true about writing as it is about performing. In my piano lesson that day, I was too emotive for the teacher’s taste. “If you don’t over-interpret,” he said, “you leave the possibility for the listener to interpret the music in his own way, and that creates a richer experience for him than just hearing your response to the music.” Later, I told him that he might just as well have borrowed a line from Carly Simon: "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you." This story has become a parable for me that speaks to the mystery of how art can transcend my personal perspective.

In my last post, I expressed my dismay at the trend in Christian publishing houses towards confessional writing and the paucity of good fiction and poetry. I think we get closer to the mysterious ways in which God works when we allow that mystery full play in the genres of story and poetry. I said that creativity and artistic craft can transform personal confession into something greater than the author’s limited, personal truth, and I promised to explain myself. I might be in over my head with that. Philosophers and poets have written long treatises trying to explain how art can be transcendent, and none of them have written the definitive answer. Neither can I. I can only chip away at it, a little bit at a time, and maybe get close to it.

Whether I’m writing a story or performing a Brahms intermezzo, I can only write or play from my own experience and emotion. When I play Brahms, the pathos you hear is mine, prompted by the pathos of Brahms. The goal, however, is not for you to hear or feel my pathos, but for mine to cause you to feel yours. It would be so much easier to just tell you the story of what caused my pathos, but the buffer of expressing it through a character in a story or a musical composition is what gives the readers or listeners the opportunity to insert themselves into the work. This is especially true if the artist can avoid over-interpreting as I was inclined to do in my piano lesson.

The difficult task of the artist is to surrender personal experience and emotion to something greater. T.S. Eliot wrote about crafting poetry in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates;  the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.
Transmute is an arresting word. Transmutation is a complete change of one thing into another. In chemistry, it's what happens when one element is changed into a different element either through radioactive decay or nuclear reaction. The original context of the word was connected to medieval alchemy, the science by which practitioners hoped to change a base metal such as lead into gold. It's not merely a refiner's fire that burns away the dross and leaves the silver. It's a complete chemical transformation.

When we experience dramatic life circumstances that prompt us to say, "I should write a book about that," we have essentially two choices. The first is the choice of writing the story as it happened, recording our feelings and reactions, and either letting the story be enough, or in the case of most Christian writers, turning it into a testimony of God's faithfulness through the storm. There's nothing wrong with that, and there are many very good writers of Christian memoir. I do wish, though, that more people would make the other choice. The second choice is to surrender the story and our role in it to holy alchemy. This is where novels, poetry, and symphonies are born. 
What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.
I believe that for someone who seeks to produce sacred art, the sacrifice Eliot describes is exactly what Paul refers to when he delivers that long and awe-ful sentence in Philippians that begins "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus," continues with "made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross," and ends with "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Eliot understands something here that a lot of non-artists don't. Artists who aren't making art for attention or money but because they are compelled to by an inner need tend to feel that they are giving themselves away, or losing part of themselves, not that they're engaging in "self-expression." If the word expression is at all appropriate, it's more like what is meant when we express juice from a lemon. It's draining. Remember, my job as a musician or storyteller is to create an inner experience for you using the medium of my own emotions, without drawing attention to them as my emotions. My calling is to make you the hero in the story that was originally mine until the Holy Spirit's nuclear reaction obliterated it and changed it to yours.

A confessional story always casts the writer as the hero, no matter how much he appeals to the transforming power of God. When the “courage to tell your story” results in big book deals and an appearance on Oprah, maybe it isn’t actually courage. Maybe there’s more courage in surrendering your need to tell your story and allowing God to transmute it into a song that's not about you.

There are more aspects of art's transcendence to consider - the connection that is created between the maker and the receiver, for instance. At any rate, I hope that if someone reads here they'll consider stretching themselves and venturing into the realm of story or poetry when they find themselves thinking, "I should write a book about that."

Photo by Sergey Zolkin

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Problem With Christian Publishing: Confession Vs. Literature

What would a modern-day Beethoven do within the context of our Christian artistic culture?  Instead of writing a body of musical masterpieces, he might write the story of how he became a famous performer - a revealing autobiography telling how his alcoholic father made him a musical prodigy by beating him for making mistakes, locking him in the cellar as punishment, and depriving him of sleep in order to practice more. If he were savvy, he'd write about all that suffering in graphic sensory detail. Readers would eat that stuff up. He’d write about the pain of falling in love several times with women who rejected him. He’d write of the devastation of living for years with the knowledge that he was losing his hearing. He'd write about his own alcohol dependency, his bipolar illness, and his suicidal thoughts. Always an optimist, he'd conclude with a justifying message of hope. The book would become a bestseller and then a movie. Beethoven would have his 15 minutes of fame. Considering that he was Beethoven, maybe he'd have 30 minutes.

Thankfully, he didn’t publish a tell-all. Instead, he used his experience as raw material for something greater than his personal story. He wrote a body of music that changed the entire trajectory of music history. Beethoven is why we have professional orchestras. Beethoven is partly why we have bigger, heavier pianos. Beethoven's shadow is why Schumann, Brahms, and Mahler as well as many others achieved a greater level of artistry than they might have. Every performance of Beethoven's work has been redeeming his pain and opening emotional gateways for countless performers and listeners for nearly 200 years.

I’d call that vindication.

I've been participating in a webinar for Christian writers which focuses heavily on how to work with publishers. It's a good webinar, but it has sparked my frustration about the whole world of Christian writing and publishing. Have you noticed that there are very few books being published by evangelical publishing houses that are in the tradition of  C S Lewis, G K Chesterton, Madeleine L'Engle, or Frederick Buechner? There's no literature

A great deal of  the work being published (especially by women) is chatty, colloquially-styled confession aimed for a girlfriend audience. It's pleasant; it's encouraging, but it's not going to stand the test of time. Some of those writers confess entirely too much.

Confession is indeed good for the soul, but it’s a sign of maturity to be judicious about what and with whom you share. The benefits of confession still exist if your audience is small. 

We have a fascination with human suffering - failures, difficulties, pain. Confessions sell. Publishers justify broadcasting a writer's pain with the message that God loves us and can redeem our painful or chaotic stories. That’s a worthy message, but the prevalence of this kind of writing is just so excessive. Considering that the publishing houses are profiting from it, maybe it’s even a little predatory. A writer I admire summed up this trend with one word:  Vulnerability.  Writing is another one of the performance arts, and it is certainly an exercise in courage, but there is a difference in writing with authenticity which may require some degree of disclosure, and making disclosure the whole point. Discretion is still the better part of valor.

I wonder if, in our efforts to exchange the image of Christian women as primly righteous church ladies for something more human, we have swung the pendulum all the way to the other extreme. Publishers encourage writers to keep blogs to build their platform, and the blogs by Christian women lean heavily towards branding themselves as that other extreme. Instead of virtuous paragons, the fashionable image of the Christian woman is now a hot mess - messy house, kids run amok, marital stress, addiction, etc. It's downright cool these days to shout from the rooftop how messed up you are. It's justified to glory in our mess as long as we exchange lots of virtual girlfriend hugs and append the message that God's grace is sufficient. 

God's grace is indeed sufficient. Girlfriends are good. Telling personal stories is not bad, but some stories need to be seasoned for a long time before they're ready to be published to the world, if they ever are. Two or three years is not a long time. Mature perspective doesn't come that quickly. If you're patient enough to wait on that perspective, you've got a greater chance of turning your story into something approaching literature. 

We don't remember the great Christian writers or any other great artists for their diary entries. We remember them for what they created out of the raw material of their experience, their thinking about their experience, and the intersection of these things with their faith or values. Perspective, creativity, and artistic craft can transform confession into something greater than the author’s limited, personal truth. (Tune in later for part two of this post where I explain that statement.) We are created in the image of the ultimate Creator, and I think that means we are called to live into the full limits of our artistic abilities instead of settling for easy fame. Unfortunately,  I see the Christian industrial complex capitalizing on human pain for profit rather than shepherding us into richer pastures. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Holy Cross Day

Today is Holy Cross Day in the churches that observe a liturgical calendar, and a good day to contemplate this poem of John Donne. Unfortunately, Donne did not make it easy for us to read by incorporating stanzas. Therefore, reading it in single-spaced type is just our cross to bear. (Sorry, I couldn't resist!)

by John Donne

Since Christ embraced the cross itself, dare I
His image, th' image of His cross, deny?
Would I have profit by the sacrifice,
And dare the chosen altar to despise?
It bore all other sins, but is it fit
That it should bear the sin of scorning it?
Who from the picture would avert his eye,
How would he fly his pains, who there did die?
From me no pulpit, nor misgrounded law,
Nor scandal taken, shall this cross withdraw,
It shall not, for it cannot ; for the loss
Of this cross were to me another cross.
Better were worse, for no affliction,
No cross is so extreme, as to have none.
Who can blot out the cross, with th' instrument
Of God dew'd on me in the Sacrament?
Who can deny me power, and liberty
To stretch mine arms, and mine own cross to be?
Swim, and at every stroke thou art thy cross ;
The mast and yard make one, where seas do toss ;
Look down, thou spiest out crosses in small things ;
Look up, thou seest birds raised on crossed wings ;
All the globe's frame, and spheres, is nothing else
But the meridians crossing parallels.
Material crosses then, good physic be,
But yet spiritual have chief dignity.
These for extracted chemic medicine serve,
And cure much better, and as well preserve.
Then are you your own physic, or need none,
When still'd or purged by tribulation ;
For when that cross ungrudged unto you sticks,
Then are you to yourself a crucifix.
As perchance carvers do not faces make,
But that away, which hid them there, do take ;
Let crosses, so, take what hid Christ in thee,
And be His image, or not His, but He.
But, as oft alchemists do coiners prove,
So may a self-despising get self-love ;
And then, as worst surfeits of best meats be,
So is pride, issued from humility,
For 'tis no child, but monster ; therefore cross
Your joy in crosses, else, 'tis double loss.
And cross thy senses, else both they and thou
Must perish soon, and to destruction bow.
For if the eye seek good objects, and will take
No cross from bad, we cannot 'scape a snake.
So with harsh, hard, sour, stinking ; cross the rest ;
Make them indifferent ; call, nothing best.
But most the eye needs crossing, that can roam,
And move ; to th' others th' objects must come home.
And cross thy heart ; for that in man alone
Pants downwards, and hath palpitation.
Cross those dejections, when it downward tends,
And when it to forbidden heights pretends.
And as the brain through bony walls doth vent
By sutures, which a cross's form present,
So when thy brain works, ere thou utter it,
Cross and correct concupiscence of wit.
Be covetous of crosses; let none fall ;
Cross no man else, but cross thyself in all.
Then doth the cross of Christ work faithfully
Within our hearts, when we love harmlessly
That cross's pictures much, and with more care
That cross's children, which our crosses are.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


1. I wonder if the crickets who sing their vespers in my backyard discerned their call to ministry? Or if they simply live the fullness of crickethood, oblivious to their own vocation?

2. There are passages of the Bible whose secrets can't be understood until one's hair is turning gray.

3. If you decide to read Matt Redmond's book Echoes and Stars: Pastoral Thoughts on Faith, Grief and Hope, then I strongly suggest you get a full night's sleep first and avoid alcohol for 24 hours prior to avoid intensifying the labor pains. There is no epidural for birthing hope.

4. There is no more welcome sight than a trash can when you've been walking the last mile with a plastic bag of dog poop bumping against your leg. If this sounds like a metaphor to you, then here's hoping the trash can is around the next bend of the trail.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Peace Like A River?

Photo by unskilledjourneyman is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Tropical Storm Hermine poured rain and knocked down tree limbs yesterday, but this morning brought bright sun and blessedly cool air.  Lured by the weather, I drove over to walk the wooded towpath that runs between a river and a canal near my home.

Most people go to run or bike. They wear their high tech athletic clothes and their earbuds. I go for the trees and the river. I go for the ferns in the dappled sunshade beneath a vault of river oaks and ancient pines with trunks too big to reach around. I go for the chorus of cicadas and for the Spanish moss waving a gray benediction over it all.

For the first mile, there are lots of other people sharing the trail, and I always wish for more privacy. But, at the start of the second mile where the trees grow thicker and the mothers with baby strollers turn back, I usually turn back, too...because the trail beyond is more private. No matter how many years pass since I was mugged, and no matter how safe this trail is, my heart beats faster if I'm alone and I hear the sound of pounding feet approaching from behind. Today, I walked on anyway and tried to pay more attention to the river than to the runners.

On the right side of the path, the canal flows unperturbed between its parallel banks. The outfitters that rent kayaks stay busy, and there are always crayon-colored boats on the water. On the left side of the path, the river is broad and shallow, dotted with rocky rapids and tiny wooded islands. Kayakers don't often brave the river along this stretch. Today, the whole area echoed with shotgun fire from two goose hunters who had occupied one of the little islands. They stood in their waders, surrounded by decoys, calling in their prey with artificial goose calls. Those stupid birds flew in perfect formation right into firing range. My husband is a hunter, and since there's plenty of game in my freezer, I can't feel sorry for the geese. I can't even condemn the hunters' deceit. The food chain is a dirty, bloody truth. The river is real.

When I was young, my family had a camp house deep in the woods on a bluff over another river. We spent many wonderful weekends there. I learned to impale earthworms on hooks and watched the outside sink run red as my dad cleaned the fish we caught before we fried them for supper. We shot turtles on the far bank for target practice. I remember wasps and skinned knees and the acrid smell of bug spray. In the summer, we turned on rattly metal fans and sweated until the salt crystallized on our skin. In the winter, we cut trees for firewood, and I slept under my great-uncle's WWII army blanket which sparked my dad's memories of food rations and blackout curtains. We found the arrowheads left by our Muskogee ancestors when they played their own role in the food chain. I picked up shards of broken Coke bottles around the garbage pit and made them into transparent lids for treasure holes in the ground. Life on the river was grimy, rich, and real. We called it peaceful, and it was, but it was a paradoxical peace laced with fish guts, war stories, the nightmare calls of screech owls, and broken glass.

We say we want peace, and we walk the river's bank to relieve the stress of our frantic lives, but I'm not sure we understand what we want. The river that crashes over rocks and half-submerged logs, navigates around scrubby islands, teems with the life and death struggles of fish and birds and frogs is actually not very peaceful. Still, it draws us more than the canal that serenely follows its man-made course down an unobstructed path, sporting its carnival kayaks. When the walkers on the path stop to take pictures or gaze for a while, they don't stare out over the canal. They meditate on the untamed, raucous river...and call it rejuvenating.

Maybe all of our baptisms should take place in actual rivers. My childhood tradition practiced believer's baptism which meant full immersion at an age to know what you were doing. While I'm not part of that tradition anymore, and I don't believe immersion is necessary, I still like the idea. In baptism, we act out death to an old life and rebirth in Christ. Like the food chain, death and birth are also bloody truths, and they're a lot closer to the wildness of the river than the civility of a canal or baptismal font. A new birth in Christ is not a one-time event. Baptism is only the first of many bloody births as we are continually renewed. Maybe we should acknowledge the grimness of what's to come by performing that initial sacrament out among the rocks while the water moccasins swim by and shotguns play the background music.

In the last post, I said the current theme of the blog was loss. I suppose I'm writing about the loss of an illusion. I always thought we knew what we meant when we sang, "I've got peace like a river." As it turns out, the unruffled tranquility I thought we were claiming is artificial. "I've got peace like a canal" is not going to be the next big worship song. Neither the sentiment nor the syllables work. River peace includes dangers, toils, and snares. I'm suspicious of all the websites, books, CDs, Bible verse memes, and whatever that promise an easy tranquility. They all seem to me to be an invitation to live on the canal, but we were made for more. I still believe that even when I don't see or feel Him, God is on the river, and somewhere there is an authentic repose at the end of all those bloody truths. Maybe the best we can do is to launch our kayaks on the rapids and pray for grace to navigate toward a different kind of peace.

Monday, August 22, 2016

In the realm of remains

This blog needs a reboot. It started off on the right track but took a turn off course. So, let's try again. No promises that I'll turn out an essay every week, but I'll turn out something.

For now, the blog theme is loss. We've lost two family members this summer, and I am also finally processing some other long-ago losses that need to be grieved. Maybe the tangible loss of a loved aunt and cousin were the catalyst for bringing those other mental ruins up from the depths. My recent reading is probably also feeding that catalyst. I taught English last year as a long-term sub at my daughter's school and found myself immersed in good fiction and poetry again. I had sworn off both, but in doing that, I had disowned a mother of sorts. Every loss has its parallel somewhere in literature, and story and poetry can provide perspective and shared experience. And so, I found myself reading the 13th sonnet of Part 2 from The Sonnets To Orpheus by Rainer Marie Rilke.

I enjoy Rilke in small doses. The intense brooding can be a little much, but mostly I do love this collection. This poem simultaneously makes me want to beat Rilke up and to sit down with him over a glass of wine and talk until the wee hours. That's usually a pretty good indication that it's doing what poetry should do.

To make sense of the poem, you need to know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology. Orpheus is a musician whose skills on the lyre are so great that animals and even trees follow him around to listen. He marries Eurydice, a nymph, but she is bitten by a snake, dies, and goes to the underworld. Orpheus is devastated and somehow finds a way to follow her there. He charms the King of the Dead with his music and is given permission to lead Eurydice out of Hades and back into the land of the living under one condition - he can't look back at her. Of course, he does. She is reclaimed by Hades. He is inconsolable and wanders around alone playing sad music until finally, a bunch of wild women tear him to pieces. Nice story, eh?

Stephen Mitchell's translations of the sonnets are the best I know of, although nothing compares with reading them in German, even my own (very) sketchy German. So, I've included both.

Edward Poynter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sonnets To Orpheus:  Book 2, XIII by Rainer Marie Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell

Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.

Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song.
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days,
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.

Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin,
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration,
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.

To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb
creatures in the world's full reserve, the unsayable sums,
joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.

Sei allem Abschied voran, als wäre es hinter
dir, wie der Winter, der eben geht.
Denn unter Wintern ist einer so endlos Winter,
daß, überwinternd, dein Herz überhaupt übersteht.

Sei immer tot in Eurydike-, singender steige,
preisender steige zurück in den reinen Bezug.
Hier, unter Schwindenden, sei, im Reiche der Neige,
sei ein klingendes Glas, das sich im Klang schon zerschlug.

Sei - und wisse zugleich des Nicht-Seins Bedingung,
den unendlichen Grund deiner innigen Schwingung,
daß du sie völlig vollziehst dieses einzige Mal. 
Zu dem gebrauchten sowohl, wie zum dumpfen und stummen
Vorat der vollen Natur, den unsäglichen Summen,
zähle dich jubelnd hinzu und vernichte die Zahl.

The poem is beautiful and intense, but not without its amusements.

Line 4: "only by wintering through it all will your heart survive."  Cue the sappy music: "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion. Really, Rilke? And survive? Who survives here? Eurydice stays dead, and Orpheus is eventually torn limb from limb. Seriously, who the heck survives here, Rilke? 

Is the ending positive? negative? sarcastic? No, not sarcastic. Rilke is nothing if not infinitely sincere. But if I'd written these words, they would be sarcastic.
To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb creatures in the world's full reserve, the unsayable sums, joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.
It's "joyfully" that really gets me. I'm reminded of Salieri's monologue at the end of Amadeus - "mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you!"

I'm making fun of Rilke and German Expressionism...just a little. But the poem offers poignant questions about the nature of losing.

What does it mean to be ahead of all parting? I might know a little too much about that.
What are the "momentary days?"
Can a shattered cup ring?
What is the void that requires an assent? ("complete assent" is a better translation than "perfect")
What is being assented to, and why "this once?"
Who are the muffled and dumb creatures?
What does it mean to "cancel the count?"

And questions of the myth itself:

Who would benefit most from this rescue operation from hell?
Did Eurydice even want to go?
Is Orpheus' loss of Eurydice the primary loss?
What did Eurydice lose?
Why does Orpheus get all the sympathy?
What do the wild women symbolize?

When it comes to poetry and myths, the questions are the important thing, and the answers are all negotiable. For me, the poem ultimately hinges on the phrase "this once."
Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin, the infinite source of your own most intense vibration, so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.
His assent is only complete this once, when he has fully comprehended the great void. Maybe the void is his own finitude - his own inadequacy to resurrect Eurydice. One of the qualities of both Greek mythology and Rilke is that they don't try to mitigate futility with some neatly tied up moral of the story. Futility simply is what it is.

Favorite line: Hier, unter Schwindenden, sei, im Reiche der Neige.
Translation:  Be, here, under dwindling days in the realm of remains.