Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Words (and Music) on Wednesday: Salvete Flores Martyrum

This is an ancient hymn sung as part of the Feast of the Holy Innocents which is celebrated today. Michael Haydn (1737-1806) composed a Mass and Vespers for the feast which includes a setting of this text, posted here in English translation and the original Latin.

Michael was the younger brother of the more famous Joseph Haydn. His works are firmly oriented within the stylistic conventions of the Classical period, which is a sub-period of classical music. (Confusing enough?)

Music during this time conformed to strict rules in its treatment of dissonance. Dissonance was always resolved, and always in prescribed ways. I find it striking that Haydn manages to create an unresolved dissonance between the horror of infants slaughtered and this happy, playful music. It's downright macabre.

All hail! ye infant martyr flowers,
cut off in life’s first dawning hours:
as rosebuds snapt in tempest strife
when Herod sought your Saviour’s life.

Ye, tender flock of Christ, we sing,
first victims slain for Christ your King:
beneath the Altar’s heavenly ray
with martyr-palms and crowns ye play.

All honour, laud and glory be,
O Jesu, Virgin-born, to thee;
whom with the Father we adore,
and Holy Ghost for ever more. Amen.

Salvete, flores martyrum,
quos lucis ipso in limine
Christi insector sustulit
seu turbo nascentes rosas.

Vos prima Christi victima,
grex immolatorum tener,
aram sub ipsum simplices
palma et coronis luditis.

Jesu, tibi sit gloria,
qui natus es de Virgine,
cum Patre et almo Spiritu,
in sempiterna saecula. Amen. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Music on Monday: My Christmas 2016 Soundtrack

Music on Monday is a weekly series featuring music that connects with the current events of my life in some way and that might be interesting to those who would like to learn more about classical music.

The most famous composition of American composer Morten Lauridsen, "O Magnum Mysterium" was a staple of my Christmas soundtrack this year. It transcends time-bound stylistic definitions. I love the innocence of boy sopranos on this piece, and there's a beautiful performance on a YouTube video from the 2009 King's College carol service, but this from the Nordic Chamber Choir is a better recording. When the fa-la-la-la-la around you feels false and silly, music like this captures the deep significance of Christmas. I love the way he handles dissonance, often delaying the resolution until the next phrase and sometimes not resolving it at all. The extended friction really captures the mystery of the incarnation as well as the meaning of the text. Animals, animals, were the first to see the baby apart from his parents. On a deeper level, the dissonance reflects our struggle to believe it all.

The music was composed in 1994, but the text is ancient. It's a responsorial chant from the matins for Christmas.

O magnum mysterium, 
et admirabile sacramentum, 
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, 
jacentem in praesepio! 
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera 
meruerunt portare 
Dominum Christum. 

English translation...

O great mystery, 
and wonderful sacrament, 
that animals should see the new-born Lord, 
lying in a manger! 
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb 
was worthy to bear 
Christ the Lord. 

The other piece that I can't stop listening to this year after several years of avoiding it is the David Willcocks setting of "O Come All Ye Faithful." Listening is bittersweet as I may not have the chance to play this in a grand setting on a grand pipe organ again, but I have some good memories of doing so. The pipe organ is a stirring solo instrument, but it is unparalleled as an instrument to support congregational and choral singing, and the experience of playing it with hearty singers is unlike any other. The descant on the next to last verse of this setting is so stirring that it would be fitting as the ending, but the final verse is the one that throws you back in your chair. Choir and congregation sing in mighty unison, and the organ soars into one of the most profound harmonizations I've ever heard to a hymn. It's not just rich harmony, it's rich theology. The organ delivers an entire sermon with the surprise chord on word in the line "Word of the father, now in flesh appearing." It jolts us out of mindless recitation of verses we've heard thousands of times and reminds us of the opening of the gospel of John: 
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

C S Lewis, writing in The Screwtape Letters as a senior devil advising a junior devil on how best to tempt their "patient," says this:
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. 
Matt B Redmond, in his book Echoes and Stars, says,
Music made by Christians should not sound like Clay Aiken singing for a knitting circle. It should sound like the creation of all things, the thundering weight of the fall, empty tombs, horseman of the apocalypse tramping through visions of the exiled, breaking hearts, dreams shattered, redemption birthed through suffering, the blood, sweat and tears of this beautiful and terrible world. Our music should sound like the return of the King of Kings and the making of all things new.
I don't know whether he's talking about electric guitars or pipe organs, but I agree with his words. Great congregation singing evokes an image of that army with banners. We need to be awed by God's holiness, his otherness, and we need musicians daring and disciplined enough to lead it. Yes, God became man, and yes, he is our brother and approachable. Sometimes, we need approachable, comfortable music, but not at the expense of this kind. We need music that draws us up short and reminds us that even the angels veil their faces in his presence. The stunning thing about the incarnation is that he became man and brother - he for whom music of this majesty, intelligence, and skill can't begin to be sufficient praise.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Words on Wednesday: Gloria in Profundis

Gloria in Profundis

by G.K. Chesterton

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is split on the sand.
Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all-
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?
For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.
Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

Photo:  "Cradle of Stars" by Scott Cresswell

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Words on Wednesday: Expectans Expectavi

Expectans Expectavi
by Anne Ridler

The candid freezing season again:
Candle and cracker, needles of fir and frost;
Carols that through the night air pass, piercing
The glassy husk of heart and heaven;
Children's faces white in the pane, bright in the tree-light.

And the waiting season again,
That begs a crust and suffers joy vicariously:
In bodily starvation now, in the spirit's exile always.
O might the hilarious reign of love begin, let in
Like carols from the cold
The lost who crowd the pane, numb outcasts into welcome.

Source: Collected Poems, Anne Ridler. Manchester: Carcanet, 1997

Photo by Rachel

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Words on Wednesday: On the Mystery of the Incarnation

Detail of Michaelangelo's Pietà

On the Mystery of the Incarnation 
Denise Levertov (1923–1997)

It's when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

Photo by Mary Harrsch

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Words on Wednesday: Advent

by Susan McCaslin

Resist the pace imposed.
Culture (as with malign intent)
fears the boundless.
Something (if unleashed)
might overthrow dominions
and set up a child in the Mercy Seat,
that frowning, burning babe.

Photo by David Patton

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Words on Wednesday: Advent

by Thomas Merton

Charm with your stainlessness these winter
Skies, and be perfect! Fly vivider in the fiery dark,
  you quiet meteors,
And disappear.
You moon, be slow to go down,
This is your full!

The four white roads make off in silence
Towards the four parts of the starry universe.
Time falls like manna at the corners of the wintry
We have become more humble than the rocks,
More wakeful than the patient hills.

Charm with your stainlessness these nights in
holy spheres,
While minds, as meek as beasts,
Stay close at home in the sweet hay;
And intellects are quieter than the flocks that feed
   by starlight.

Oh pour your darkness and your brightness over
   all our
solemn valleys,
You skies: and travel like the gentle Virgin,
Toward the planets' stately setting,

Oh white full moon as quiet as Bethlehem!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent, Insanity, and William Blake

The Ancient of Days, William Blake

It's my birthday and also the birthday of William Blake, English mystic, poet, and artist born in 1757 whose works were once ignored and now considered genius. During his lifetime, he was considered insane because he challenged the prevailing cultural institutions and wrote and painted with abandon. Well, that, and he also had "visions" and conversations with people who weren't there. Minor point.

It feels appropriate to read Blake during Advent since it is, if anything at all, a season of paradox, even absurdity. We look for Christ's return and celebrate it, singing "rejoice, rejoice" knowing that on December 25, we will still be bound by earthly existence and its accompanying suffering, death, and decay. All perfectly logical, right? We believe that a baby was God incarnate, born of a Virgin, crucified and resurrected from the dead. Nothing insane there. We say we are ransomed, but we have not been released. Advent rationality includes light in the.darkness, faith within fear, power within vulnerability, already here and still to come, valleys raised, mountains made low, crooked places straight. Blake, even with his visions, is no weirder than these things. He believed that to understand who we are, we have to live in the tension between "complementary opposites." His Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are flip-sides, even to the point of his writing and illustrating them on the opposite sides of one sheet of paper.
Joy and Woe    
~William Blake 
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go. 
Sounds sane to me, but what do I know?

Did Blake have visions or were they hallucinations? And what is artistic vision, anyway? Are these lines impossible, or are they truer than what our five senses know? Are these lines the secret to walking on water? Because, we believe that happened, right?
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,  William Blake

Like all good Romantic poets, Blake valued the imaginative over the rational, but Blake's imagination was all-encompassing. Everything had symbolic or metaphoric significance. His goal was "raising other men into a perception of the infinite," and he wielded his cryptic, fiery pen like a wizard's wand to bring the infinite into view.

I'm trying again to write some poetry of my own, and finding that my logical mind is my biggest hindrance. I end up writing explanations and arguments, not poetry. But, Advent is a visionary season, and it begs for wild, keening siren songs that pull us into the night to look for the angel host descending rank on rank. Do we have ears to hear them? Do we have eyes to see this?

Descent of Peace, William Blake

Ponder nothing earthly minded...

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent Begins

Ready for Silence

Madeleine L'Engle

Then hear now the silence
He comes in the silence
in silence he enters
the womb of the bearer
in silence he goes to
the realm of the shadows
redeeming and shriving
in silence he moves from
the grave cloths, the dark tomb
in silence he rises
ascends to the glory
leaving his promise
leaving his comfort
leaving his silence

So, come now, Lord Jesus
Come in your silence
breaking our noising
laughter of panic
breaking this earth's time
breaking us breaking us
quickly Lord Jesus
make no long tarrying

Photo by Michal G

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Words On Wednesday: Thanksgiving


Related Poem Content Details

Thanks for the Italian chestnuts—with their 
tough shells—the smooth chocolaty 
skin of them—thanks for the boiling water—

itself a miracle and a mystery— 
thanks for the seasoned sauce pan 
and the old wooden spoon—and all

the neglected instruments in the drawer— 
the garlic crusher—the bent paring knife— 
the apple slicer that creates six

perfect wedges out of the crisp Haralson— 
thanks for the humming radio—thanks 
for the program on the radio

about the guy who was a cross-dresser— 
but his wife forgave him—and he 
ended up almost dying from leukemia—

(and you could tell his wife loved him 
entirely—it was in her deliberate voice)— 
thanks for the brined turkey—

the size of a big baby—thanks— 
for the departed head of the turkey— 
the present neck—the giblets

(whatever they are)—wrapped up as 
small gifts inside the cavern of the ribs— 
thanks—thanks—thanks—for the candles

lit on the table—the dried twigs— 
the autumn leaves in the blue Chinese vase—
thanks—for the faces—our faces—in this low light.

Photo by Dmitry Marochko

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Words on Wednesday: "By The Rivers Dark"

I like this poem by Leonard Cohen, even if I don't really care for the recorded song. He passed away recently, and the world will be darker without his words. A young boy emailed him to ask what had inspired him to write his most famous song, "Hallelujah." His answer;  “I wanted to stand with those who clearly see G-d’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage or the heart to praise it. You don’t always get what you want. You’re not always up for the challenge. But in this case — it was given to me. For which I am deeply grateful.”

It's timely that Cohen's songs are in the forefront of the public consciousness right now. Cohen recognizes darkness in the world and voices lament without giving in to despair. There's a gritty, raw honesty in his writing that we need. There's also faith, and at a time when many in our culture are turned off by Christianity, Cohen's Jewish faith is at least keeping God in the conversation. The song is based on Psalm 137. Cohen's faith language is always wrapped in humility, and that contributes to the appeal and challenges the caricatured depiction of faith so prevalent in secular culture.

"By The Rivers Dark" is inspired by Psalm 137. Titus Techura has written a good analysis of the poetry. He calls it "a song about trying to live with the darkness in the world that reveals the darkness in the soul that longs for God."

By The Rivers Dark

By Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

By the rivers dark
I wandered on.
I lived my life
in Babylon.

And I did forget
My holy song:
And I had no strength
In Babylon.

By the rivers dark
Where I could not see
Who was waiting there
Who was hunting me.

And he cut my lip
And he cut my heart.
So I could not drink
From the river dark.

And he covered me,
And I saw within,
My lawless heart
And my wedding ring,

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark
I panicked on.
I belonged at last
to Babylon.

Then he struck my heart
With a deadly force,
And he said, ‘This heart:
It is not yours.’

And he gave the wind
My wedding ring;
And he circled us
With everything.

By the rivers dark,
In a wounded dawn,
I live my life
In Babylon.

Though I take my song
From a withered limb,
Both song and tree,
They sing for him.

Be the truth unsaid
And the blessing gone,
If I forget
My Babylon.

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark,
Where it all goes on;
By the rivers dark
In Babylon.

Photo by Teddy Kelley

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Comforting Angels

"Why do you think she's so sad?" Our sweet youth choir singer wanted me to take a picture of her giving the sad angel a hug. She was the one I wanted to hug. She restored my faith in goodness on a day when division was in the air. Our public schools were closed on election day to serve as polls, so we took our church's youth choir on a field trip. Augusta, Ga's Sacred Heart Cultural Center was once a Catholic church but is now used for concerts, art exhibits, and receptions. After learning the history of the building, we studied the statuary and the stained glass windows.

Our own church is a modern building. For the kids, this church's architecture - Victorian Romanesque with a hint of Byzantine - was impressive and foreign. Ahead of our trip, I had privately wondered how interested they would be, and I had thought our director wise to call it a mystery trip. I'm not sure they would have signed up to come if they had known where we were going. They may have only been using good manners when they listened to our tour guide tell the history of the building, but I was heartened to see their imaginations captured by the beautiful windows with their rich colors and symbolism. And the angel.

We usually think of angels as deliverers of messages or comforters themselves. We don't think of offering them empathy or compassion. But we should. Hebrews 13:1-2 says "Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

Strangers are those folks who are not like us, the people we don't identify with. Maybe they are immigrants or refugees. In that hard-to-accept passage in Matthew 25 when Jesus talks about dividing the sheep from the goats who will be sent to eternal punishment, the criteria He uses has to do with hospitality and empathy. To the goats, He said, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison, and you did not visit me." To the sheep, Jesus says that if we have done these things for others, we have done it for Him. Forget the irony of comforting an angel - we are comforting Christ.

These verses are hard for me. It's easy to be fearful of strangers. Maybe I'll be taken advantage of or hurt. Maybe. But, I can't get away from that scripture. God commands hospitality, and He does it with one of the Bible's most explicit references to eternal punishment. I think He meant it.

Last Sunday morning, on my facebook page, I saw a post from my friend Anne that broke my heart. Her husband is the rector of the Episcopal Church of Our Savior in Silver Springs, MD. They woke up to find "Trump Nation Whites Only" spray painted on their church sign and on the wall of their memorial garden which also serves as a cemetery. Their congregation is made up of over 80% immigrants. Anne and I lived across the hall from each other in college. She was Presbyterian at the time, and I was Baptist. I remember long, respectful conversations late into the night about the differences in our churches. Now, she's episcopal and politically independent, and I am a methodist republican (metho-angli-cumenical and lately-leaning-independent are probably more accurate) even though I couldn't bring myself to vote for Trump. We've stayed in touch on facebook, and engaged in more respectful conversations about our differences over the years. I love her, and by extension, I love her husband and their congregation. This hurts.

Trump supporters have suggested that the vandalism might have been done by Clinton protesters trying to make the Trump crowd look bad. Nobody can rule that out, although I adhere to the idea that if it looks and quacks like a duck, it's more likely to be a duck than a rat in disguise. White supremacy is actually a thing in our culture; it was not something made up by democrats during this election cycle. Dylan Roof was not a Clinton plant or a media conspiracy. I'm not suggesting by sharing this story that all Trump supporters are racist. But for goodness sake, folks - what is wrong with our world when two political sides stand over a wounded victim and instead of empathizing with the victim, we point at each other saying, "Not me! He did it!" The strangers in our midst are bleeding while we argue about who to blame. Why is the angel so sad? This is why.

On the other side, we have seen anti-Trump protesters do abhorrent things as well. In one of many protests, a pregnant woman experiencing an emergency was attacked by protesters as she tried to get through the crowd to get medical care. One of my former piano students was threatened by a man asking if she had voted for Trump and brandishing a handgun. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. The only thing I know to do is to pray and continue to beg our citizens to be instruments of peace. 

The story of my friends' church ended up being inspirational. Dozens of  news agencies picked up the story, and the result was an outpouring of support from their own community and beyond, including members of a local synagogue who came to worship and comfort. It reminds me of a famous quote of Leonard Cohen. "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." The world may be broken, but the light shone through the cracks in Maryland this week.

There are angels. They worship. They bring messages. They sometimes show up disguised as those we should be helping. And if they rejoice, surely they must sometimes cry. 

This hymn is ringing in my ears today.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Words on Wednesday

All Saints Day 
by Warren Leamon

A solitary tree atop a mountain rises
straight against a cloudless sky, and I remember
what the medieval painters would have seen:
a cross devoid of depth, flat from head to foot,
from nail to bloody nail, all lines of vision ending
in the innocent agony of a dying man.
We can’t say what they saw was mere distortion
(any serf knew well the depth of hill and sky);
nor can we say they saw no beauty in the world
(like us they loved lush color, reds and blues and yellows
split by smoke twisting up through icy air).
We can only say they knew too well the limits
of the flesh and caught on stark flat surfaces the truth
that haunts me now in the cold fields of November.

Leamon, W. "The Cold Fields of November." Sewanee Review, vol. 120 no. 1, 2012, pp. 30-33. Project MUSE,      

Saturday, October 22, 2016

10 Thoughts On Donald Trump And The Dignity Of Christian Women

We interrupt this music and faith blog to discuss the dignity of women. I promise we'll return to the regularly-scheduled programming after this special report. 

Dignity is the innate right to be valued, respected, and to receive ethical treatmentIt's what women lose in the wake of sexual mistreatment whether it's rape, groping, harassment, or vaguer forms of misogyny. Dignity is also what women (or any other group, for that matter) lose when fellow Christian leaders fail to defend us - we lose that sense of the very right to be valued. Thankfully, Jesus dignified women over and over. Christians on both the right and left agree with that. How I wish they all followed his example.

1. Imagine being a woman, especially a woman who has been sexually victimized, and hearing your brother in Christ say "I will defend your honor at all costs... as long as that cost doesn't mean losing a seat on the Supreme Court. In that case, all bets are off."

2. Believe it or not, God is powerful enough to handle the Supreme Court. Besides, the legal system isn't the only way to address abortion. Give God some credit. I think we can assume he has a few skills in the creativity department. It's absurd to say that we must elect a man who makes sexual liberty part of his brand in order to prevent abortion.

3. Christian leaders sometimes hurt women more than the predators. Let me put it this way: a woman is wounded when she is harassed or assaulted. She's wounded again when her self-proclaimed champions endorse a confessed predator for President. She's wounded yet a third time when those "champions" insist that she believe they are still her champions. That's an insult to her intelligence.

4. When pastors - not just remote leaders, but our own pastors - fail to lead the charge in defending a woman's honor and dignity, she feels so betrayed that she begins to believe that the whole idea of sexual purity was just a silly illusion and there's no honor to bother defending. The damage done in these circumstances is tremendous. Look, the possibility of ending up with a creepy lech for President is bad, but we've had that before. The thing that just devastates us is that this time, Christian leaders approve it.

5. Mormon men look like knights in shining armor on white steeds to a lot of women these days because they have not waffled in their unendorsement of Trump following the release of the Trump tapes and the surfacing of other things such as the time he humiliated a woman on stage at a beauty pageant. Christian men, your sisters-in-Christ are bleeding for want of loyalty from you. 

6. Those who say, "A vote for Trump doesn't indicate our approval of his character" have lost the right to tell anyone that actions speak louder than words.

7. When Christians communicate Jesus’ love for this woman and defend her dignity and sexual worthiness so passionately that she would bathe Christ's feet with her tears and wipe it with her hair, we're on the right track to the kingdom of God as well as the sanctity of life. When Christians endorse a man for President who rates her as a 10, 8, or maybe a 4, we're going to be stuck with sexual promiscuity and abortion for a long time.

8. In the wake of the Trump tapes, Kelly Oxford asked women on twitter to share their stories of sexual assault and within 3 days, she received 27 million responses with stories that ranged from fly-by gropings to outright rape. 27 millionI didn't tweet, but like almost every woman I know, I've been groped. Men, do you have any idea how common that is?  27 million is the number of wounded women's souls just on Twitter who need to hear how much God loves them and wants to dignify them. How many more beyond Twitter users? How are you ministering to them? I can tell you that no gospel message is credible if you sell my dignity for the paltry price of campaign promises made by a man who can't keep his marriage vows.

9. We have to protect our religious liberties, you say. There was no protection of religious liberty for first century Christian martyrs. Paul willingly abdicated his liberty at every turn for the sake of the gospel and thanked God for the honor of it. We 21st century Christians are no more special and deserving of protection than our first century forerunners. We are far less. God knows, we've had 2,000 years to finish what they started. Lord, have mercy.

10. We are charged by God to preserve the church - the spotless bride of Christ - until His return. He is jealous for her. This is a powerful metaphor that is is supposed to reflect the protection of a husband for his wife. But the metaphor is breaking down on both sides during this election. Christian husbands dishonor their wives by endorsing for the Presidency a man as blatantly misogynistic and unrepentant as Donald Trump. On the other side of the metaphor, when we support a man in the name of Christian purposes who disregards the things we believe are sacred, then we are not preserving the bride of Christ. Instead, we are like a medieval nobleman who marries his sister off to a boorish foreign prince for the sake of a political alliance. The bride of Christ is meant for the King of the empire and we are to defend her honor, dignity, and unity. Men, preserving unity means you don't blow off the worth of half the church.

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 non-fiction: telling 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.
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.

When the “courage to tell your story” in confessional memoir format 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.

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.