Bless, the Lord, my soul…

Occasionally in life, a much-longed-for opportunity drops into your lap unexpectedly. This week, I had just such a chance — one of the brothers from the community at Taize spent an hour with us at VTS.   We had the rare opportunity to talk with and worship with Brother Emmanuel last Tuesday.

It is funny, to have known and loved the music for many years and yet, to never have learned more about the community itself.  And so I was mesmerized as Brother Emmanuel explained to the assembled participants the founding of the Taize community and the precepts of its mission.  Finally understanding the mission and intent of the community, for me at least, made the music and the worship style an even more powerful expression of faith.

I knew, of course, that the Taize community was not a typical monastery community.  I did not, however, understand that it was an ecumenical, international community.  Currently, there are around 100 brothers in the community, both Protestant and Catholic, from some 30 nations of the world. Their mission is oh so simple and yet so difficult to accomplish:  to be a living expression of reconciliation and unity in this world, and as such, to anticipate and live into the unity that is possible in the body of Christ.  They seek, through prayer and music, to connect the worshiper with the presence of a loving God, their only theological belief, and through that connection, to show the worshiper (even if for only a moment) their own ability to love God and their fellow human beings.

A typical day in the life of the community is both different and the same as you might expect in a monastic environment.  A primary responsibility of the brothers is worship and they are expected to do so three times each day.  But unlike the requirement of a more traditional monastic setting, they are not required to worship together nor do they have a specified form for that worship.  They do, as is done at many seminaries,  gather together for lunch and for a common worship taizeat lunch time.  Brothers devote morning and afternoon hours to their individual work, and that work is varied.  Some write music, some make crosses or other craft items for the store, some write books or do research — any work is accepted and the work of the brothers supports the community (which does not accept donations towards their living and maintenance).

Brother Emmanuel is a specialist in the field of psychology and religion.  He trained both in France and here in the United States.  Given his specialty, however, I was truly excited to hear his response to the questions about the purpose and origin of the music that is, for many of us, the only thing we truly know of the Taize community.

For those who do not know Taize music, the songs have certain specific qualities. First, each song represents a simple concept of faith, such as “Bless the Lord, my soul and bless God’s holy name/bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life,” and that concept is expressed in few words that are repeated.  Second, the songs are sung in a repeated series.  Third, the songs were originally composed with texts in church Latin and then translated into any language needed.  Fourth, when sung, it is right and perfect for each person in the room to sing the song in the language of their own heart.

I understood all of those qualities of the music.  And I understood this music as a type of communal or private prayer (depending on where and when you use it).  And, of course, I have my own beliefs about the theology of music and the purpose of communal singing in worship.  I, however, am not a specialist in the intersection of the fields of psychology and religion.

Brother Emmanuel offered these two observations about Taize music in worship in words that will stick with me for a long while.  One of the frequent criticisms you hear about the nature of Taize is the repetitiveness of the music.  I have long known that the very repetition that people complain about is the feature of the music that helps it become part of you, in those deep unreachable places that most need to be changed.  And, since I have most often sung this music in mainline congregational settings, I am used to finding  a 3x or 2x (three times or two times) printed next to the text in the bulletin.  But no, according to Brother Emmanuel, it is part of the worship experience that we who are singing do not know when the music will end; the repetition is part of the development of mystery.

His second observation was about the action of the music itself — in his words, the repetition and the music open up a space inside of our souls, a space into which we can invite the very spirit of God.  His image makes me think of water and the way it fills a depression created in the sand at the beach.  The music creates the space; our participation in the music issues the invitation, and in that moment of invitation we have the mystical opportunity to stand in the presence of God.

Finally, when asked about his own call and sense of vocation, Brother Emmanuel had this simple understanding to offer us all.  The mission of the Taize community, as I’ve already said, is to help all who visit to understand that the are in the presence, always, of a loving God.  You know that you are called, according to Brother Emmanuel, when you find that you can reciprocate that call — that you love God as God loves you.  And, that nothing else matters to you.  He was quite blunt — if you do not have this kind of reciprocal relationship with God, you have no business being consecrated.  He was specifically referring to those in the community of Taize, but it is a question for all of us who have ever considered any kind of service to consider.  What is it that we love?  And therefore, what is that we serve?  And is that our true calling?

I’m short on answers this dreary Saturday afternoon, but I am full of hope after my brief time with Brother Emmanuel.  And I am certainly full of questions, as always.  I did, however, in that time of conversation and worship, experience the presence of a truly loving God.

I know that people of faith experience that God in so many different ways; that is the beauty of our faith and of our human experience.  But I am truly grateful for the reminder of the Lord who does indeed bless my soul and the soul of any who will listen and embrace the love that is offered.

set free

A Musical #TBT

Usually, if I was going to have a musical #TBT, I would post an old performance picture or video to social media and let that be.  Today, however,  I want to talk about a song — a song from my past, a song that it seems is more foundational to everything I believe than I might have understood, even yesterday.

I’ve been working on letting go of some things and some relationships in my life, things and people that perhaps I have held too close for too long.  Psychologists and theologians often agree that holding too tightly  to (or, as I like to say, making an idol of…) anything is often the path to unhappiness.  Certainly, holding too tightly to one thing or another often prevents me from seeing the light and the grace of good that surrounds me.

So, I searched for some spiritual exercise to help me work on this letting go exercise. While searching through writings about the Ignatian exercises, exercises that are sometimes excellent support for decision making,   I did indeed find a prayer for letting go, but not one written by St. Ignatius.  This prayer, written by an unknown author at an unknown time, is often associated with the set freefamous Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr and associated with 12-step movements.  The prayer is wonderful, all about releasing anxiety and possessiveness and, well, seeing the Imago Dei in all people.  But  imagine my surprise, however, when the very first line turned out to be words from my New Thought past:

I behold the Christ in you

And then, my friends, the music came-a-tumblin’ down (okay, that is a joke that only people who know what I mean when I refer to the Yellow Hymn Book will get, but I’m laughing).  And with it, came not only a lesson in letting go but a reminder about the power of simply singing together.  Oh, yes, and a complete understanding of the theological currents that have brought me to where I stand, on the edge of a  ministry that combines personal spiritual direction, storytelling, and music.

That conversation is for another time, today, I want to talk about the song we sang every Sunday.  I only needed the first sentence for the whole poem to return:

I behold the Christ in you,
Here the life of God I see;
I can see a great peace too,
I can see you whole and free.

I behold the Christ in you,
I can see this as you walk;
I see this in all you do,
I can see this as you talk.

I behold God’s love expressed,
I can see you filled with power;
I can see you ever blessed,
See Christ in you hour by hour.

I behold the Christ in you,
I can see that perfect one
Led by God in all you do,
I can see God’s work is done.

Every Sunday, together, we sang these words by poet Frank Whitney (if you want to hear the music by Bill Provost that we used, follow this link) and through those words, I began to learn about the presence of God in all creation.  The text of the hymn was inspired by the text of  Colossians 1:26-27:  the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (NRSV).”

But in those days, I never thought about it as a song of “letting go”.  Letting go used to mean walking away in my limited human vocabulary.  Maybe, just maybe, letting go simply means seeing through the lens of love  instead of through the lens of our current limits as incarnated beings .  That idea is only mildly possible for us human beings,  but I think I have to try, each and every day.

So I am grateful today for a song that imprinted itself deeply on my soul and still has the power to change my perspective.  I am grateful that I can still hear the strains of those many voices singing with so much faith.  And I am grateful that I too, have let go and continue letting go, in love and respect.

A Holy Saturday Meditation: When the Sun Refused to Shine…

This morning the light dawned after the sadness and fear of Good Friday, but our hearts are sore as we remember the crucified body of Jesus lies in the tomb.  That is the meaning of this day in Holy Week, known as Holy Saturday, a day of unknowing tears that will end, I am told, with the great Easter vigil and our first knowledge of the Resurrection.  I am looking forward to participating in my first Easter Vigil tonight, an ecumenical version sponsored by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church here in DC and including members of many denominational churches in the area.

Right now, though, I’m thinking about everything we heard and saw yesterday — the humiliation, the pain, the release — the human-ness of the experience.  In last nights sermon at Christ Church, the Deacon who was preaching said it so well — maybe, after the resurrection, we might be more like Christ but tonight he is most like us.

That service, like many Good Friday remembrances throughout the world, ended with the singing of the simple spiritual, “Were You There?” and I have been thinking that, while a wonderful close to the Good Friday experience, it is a really a song for this day, for Holy Saturday.   The text and the music evoke that deep poignancy of waiting in a way that I believe could only be communicated by those who have waited for so long in slavery and with only the slightest hope of freedom.

As with many spirituals, we do not really know the source of the song or the text.  We do know that it was first transcribed in 1899 and there are reasons to suspect that the song itself predates the Civil War.  It may be derived from a white spiritual popular in Tennessee during those years, “Have you heard how they crucified my lord,” but there is no way to be certain of a relationship between the two.

Origins, however, matter only a little when you are sitting with a group of worshipers, contemplating this passage of time before the resurrection.   The uncertainty, the pain, the fear, the utter confusion of it all — and yet, I can sedise the disciples being oh so human as they hide, wondering about their own fate in the face of the events of the previous days.  We humans, we are a curious lot and I doubt that that is any different today than it was in the days of Jesus.  “Were you there,” we would ask our neighbor.   Did you see it?  Can you tell the tale?  It makes me shake all over just to think about it — to think about what happened, to think that I was not strong enough to be there, to be with him, to walk this part of the journey by his side.  They could have remembered the many promises he made to them, that he would return, that he would send an Advocate to guide them — but they did not.

The structure of the song, like that of many spirituals, is in call and response style, although we seldom sing it that way.  Using that style would, I think, bring out the kind of keening sense to the words — in call and response the gentle sadness of the music would take on a greater depth of corporate morning.  Sung as a congregational hymn, it somehow allows the personal sense of loss to overtake the magnitude of the reality that this has happened to all of us.

There are many verses to this hymn and many times individual congregations modify the text to their own use (for example the traditional verse 4, “Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?” is often omitted on Good Friday and added at the Easter Vigil).  One extra verse that does not appear in most printed versions really, to me, says it all about the meaning of this day, Holy Saturday:

Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble!  tremble!  Tremble!
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

It is hard to sit with this feeling that the sun refuses to shine, but we have all felt it.  We have all suffered loss, failure, and that time when you simply do not know what will come next.   And we all have experience that feeling of loss that comes with not being there….there in the time of trouble for someone we loved, there when we were needed, there for ourselves when we most needed our own presence.

True, all of that is true.  Like the disciples before us, however, we need not sit in the dark, furtively questioning each other for bits of information.  We, like they, have heard the promise before.  But for now, we live on in the darkness, forgetting and gossiping.

The message of the days to come, the message of resurrection and Easter and the march of days towards Pentecost is just the same as that which has already been told to us:  that all is forgiven, grace is present, and we can choose to show up at any time.  Today, on Holy Saturday, we have time to think  about our choices and to prepare ourselves to make new ones.

Blessed Holy Saturday.

A Good Friday Meditation, Pt. 2: I Crucified Thee

My emotions around the images and stories we link to Good Friday are complicated at best. That is why over and over again, words are not sufficient for me:  I must turn to music.  And while the Isaac Watts hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” speaks to the complex dance between sorry and love that is our human response to the life of Jesus, in particular the events at the end of his incarnated life,  it is Johann Heerman’s Herzliebster Jesu  ( 1630) that speaks to the incredible guilt we can feel in our human failure to see the living God before us, each and every day.

We know Heerman’s fifteen stanza hymn through a very free translation by Robert Bridges in 1897.  While Bridge’s version maintains the feel and the intent of Heerman’s work, it really should be treated as a separate work.  Bridge removed the graphic imagery of the death on the cross and replaced it with words of sorrow and guilt that we know today.  The meaning of the English text captures the essence of the German original and we have retained the original hymn tune composed by Johann Crüger around 1620 (a tune so powerful in German culture that it was used by Bach in both the St. John and the St. Matthew Passions), a tune that uses all the power of music to convey the slow, painful walk to the place of crucifixion.

In the first two stanzas, we, the singers of the text, stand with Peter:  “ Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times (John 13:37-38 NRSV).”  I think often about the crushing anguish that Peter must have felt when that prophecy became an actuality.  He loved Jesus; in the upper room that night the idea that he could have denied his friend must have seemed a great impossibility.  And Heerman captures that anguish in graphic, simple words:  “Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!  I crucified Thee.” 

The simple answer to the question, “why did Christ suffer” — because we denied him, because we failed to live into the covenant established between us and our via dolorosa God.  So much of the story of Good Friday, so many of the emotions in that story, are the human ones that we most fear:  abandonment, betrayal, and failure.  And yet, the whole point of the walk alongside Jesus during this week of remembrance is to experience all that we can, to acknowledge our darkness as well as our light — for these are the qualities that make us human.  And, it is in our full realization of that humanity that we come closest to our God,  because then and only then can we truly experience the vulnerability and the fragility that comes with the true and beautiful love expressed by the gift offered to us over and over again through the sacrifice of this night.

You see, even in this dark, dark hymn, there is hope.  Stanzas three and four describe the gift and the sacrifice offered once again through this new covenant:  “The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered/For our atonement, while he nothing heedeth/God intercedeth.”

“God intercedeth.”  Again.  Despite our failings, despite our unwillingness to see the gift before us.  God intercedes once again.

And finally, in the last of Bridges’ verses, hope gives way to gratitude.   Jesus suffered because of us;  it is a debt that we cannot repay.  And God does not expect payment.  All that is asked of us is that which Jesus commands in John 13:38 — that we remember his example and that we do as he showed us in that example; simply put, that we live into the love we have been given and think on that, not on what we need or think that we deserve:

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

Whether you hold a belief that Jesus literally died for our sins or whether you believe that Jesus walked this dangerous, incarnated human path to show us the way of love, that ultimate power that overcomes sin and death, this hymn reminds us all that the gift was great, that it offered over and over again in the face of our own guilt and failure, and that ultimately, love does indeed conquer all.

Do not be afraid of the dark tonight, for, as the psalmist promises,

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5)



A Good Friday Meditation, Part 1: Sorrow and Love Flow Mingled Down

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, as Christians everywhere entered into the annual act of remembrance that is known as Holy Week, I was singing with the choir at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, VA.   The music was lovely, the choir very, very good, and the sermon meaningful, but what stuck with me through this week of preparation and searching and devotion was the offertory anthem we sang.  It was not some famous work or some especially difficult piece — it was just a Hal Hopson arrangement of that most famous of famous hymn texts by Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”  The words were so familiar, but, instead of the traditional setting of those words to the hymn tune known as Hamburg (Lowell Mason, 1825, taken from Gregorian Chant), Hopson combined Watt’s very personal text with the tune of a different medieval plainchant, JESU DULCIS MEMORIA. The effect was haunting and brought out (at least for me) the tension between the love expressed in the event and my own human failure to live up to the commandment that event embodies — to love my neighbor as myself and to love my God as I would be loved, unto my very physical death.

Hopson includes all four traditional verses (Watts wrote five stanzas in 1707 and added a sixth in 1709, but one was bracketed, suggesting that it be left out when the hymn was used by the congregation and the 1709 version is rarely included) and makes a delightful step outside the framework of the plainchant on the words “Were the whole realm of nature mine/that were a present far too small/love so amazing, so divine,/demands my life, my all.”  And for the finale, to emphasize the dichotomy involved in this day, this “Good” Friday, Hopson returns to the end of Watt’s third stanza with a quiet statement, an awe-filled statement:  “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet/or thorns compose so rich a crown?”

The truth is that Isaac Watts did not write these words for Holy Week or specifically for Good Friday.  In 1707, Watts created “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” as a simple communion hymn; it was his way to write a hymn text to accompany his sermon of the day when he did not know of one that carried the message he wished to convey.  In our modern churches, however, where a mention of the “cross” is often considered conservative or something that might “frighten” members of the congregation, this hymn (whatever the tune) is often reserved for the days of the liturgical calendar in which a mention of the cross cannot be avoided.

The argument about whether not to sing in worship, and if to sing in worship, what to sing, is an old one, and Watts is famous not just for the texts he left to us but also because he convinced the church of his day that music was intended as a participatory form of worship, like prayer.  “When I Survey” was one of what Watts called the “hymns of human composure,” texts designed to increase the singer’s understanding of the New Testament message and designed to evoke in the singer an emotional relationship with the story being told.   This was a new idea in the worship of Watts’ day and an idea that is increasingly lost in our world of performance worship.  Listening to music performed for us may be the way of our current cultural context, but the Biblical injunction is to “make a joyful noise to the Lord (Psalm 100),” an injunction that Watts took seriously in his belief that hymn singing was an act of formation and learning as well as an act of praise.

History aside, when we gather and sing this hymn together at a service remembering the events of this Good Friday, we speak to the very personal meaning of this day and, just as Watts hoped, we think about the meaning of these events in our own lives.   It is no surprise that the text is written in the first person:  “When I survey;” “My richest gain I count but loss;” “Demands my soul, my life, my  all.”  And, given that perspective, it is also no surprise that it is was adopted as a favorite hymn by the early evangelical movements of Jonathan Edwards in America and the Wesley brothers in England.

In the words of Watts, I am invited to stand at the foot of the cross and experience the meaning of the event.  Watts does not draw us into the christwithcrownofangelspicture slowly — from the first stanza we see the magnificence of the gift and our failure to live up to the only command required of us.  In the second stanza, we are reminded that worldly things do not matter; the only story to tell is that of the sacrifice that has been made for us.

It is, for me, the third and fourth stanzas that that take my breath away.  In the third verse, Jesus was never more human, human in all the confusion and beauty carried by that word we use so often — incarnation:

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.

Sorrow and love,  love and sorrow — all met in that moment, all met in us.

And finally, in the fourth verse, an all-too-human expression of the ways in which we feel so small, so unworthy, in the face of everything we see before us — in the face of our inability to offer such a gift in return, no matter what we do:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

In the end, Watts’ hymn is indeed about the lesson of Good Friday for me.  Both, in their own way, are not only about the story before us, the walk to the cross, the suffering and the beauty of “sorrow and love flow(ing) mingled down.”  Today is a day that is all about our identity and our formation as disciples.  What will we choose this day, in response to this question that is offered over and over again?  How will we each, in the face of the cross, answer the question, “Who are you anyway?

Because today above all days, Jesus answered that question for us.  And Isaac Watts gave us words with which to remember that answer:  “Love so amazing, so divine/Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Just a thought…

Today there is sunshine and the promise of slightly warmer temperatures, but I think we would all agree that we are ready for spring. I, in particular am ready for spring as it feels to me like my winter began last June when I began the journey to have the unknown congenital defect repaired.  It has been a very long winter indeed, with only a few glimpses of sunlight along the way.

One little ray of sunshine has come this last week, however, as I have prepared to work with the Chapel Team at VTS next week and as I have, of all things, worked on Church History paper.  The first offers hope because the team asked me to serve as cantor all week (we will be doing services in the Lutheran tradition…it is a long explanation as to why).   If I am not serving the Lord through music, I am more than a little lost and I am grateful for the opportunity to exercise this expression of my faithful self with my formation community.

The second ray of sunshine has come through my work on my project for Church History — a paper on the hymns of Isaac Watts and the role of congregational singing in the Dissent movement in England.  Before you think I have gone off the musical geek cliff, I will point out that the hymns of Isaac Watts are still loved and sung by people of untitledfaith all over the world:  can you imagine Christmas without “Joy to the World”, or Holy Week without “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”  And what good Baptist, Southern or otherwise, doesn’t enjoy a good round of “Marching to Zion.”  See, you know what I mean.

Doing research for this topic is a lot like discovering the roots of your faith, my roots that are so firmly set in the songs that we sing.  So, I thought I would pause for just a moment to share with you all something I came across during my research, something that reminded me more than almost anything who I am, how I worship, and a big part of my connection with God that I have been denying.  I hope you enjoy this little bit of history.

Isaac Watts was what we today would call a Congregationalist, but he wrote and preached alongside those involved in the early development of the evangelical movement, particularly the brothers Wesley (John and Charles) who gathered the faithful into the movement within the Anglican church known as Methodism, and now known to us as the Methodist Church.    You may also recognize the Wesley brothers (particularly Charles) as hymn writers.  Like Watts, we still sing many of their hymns today.

What stirred me to remember and what I want to leave with you today is these words of John Wesley, who considered that the hymn portion of divine worship be acceptable to God and profitable to the congregation.  He urged his fellow worshippers to observe these directions when singing:

SING ALL.  See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can.  Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you.  If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find a blessing.

SING LUSTILY, and with good courage.  Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voices with strength.  Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.

Above all, SING SPIRITUALLY.  Have an eye to God in every word you sing.  Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature.  In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing; and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward when He cometh in the clouds of Heaven.

Words to live and sing by, if ever such words were written.

Ready or not, here I come…

This Friday evening, December 13, 2013 (oh, what was I thinking), there will be yet another Sing-along Messiah in the District of Columbia.  If you watch the newspapers around here, you know that during the Advent season, that if you like to sing George F. Handel’s great work Messiah, you have four or five opportunities each weekend betweensusangoodfriday2012 Thanksgiving and Christmas. So why would I bother to fill the airwaves with news about this one?

Because — on Friday evening, December 13, 2013, at the Capitol Hill Baptist Church at 7:30 pm. — I will sing publicly for the first time since my surgery.  Thursday, December 12, will be 12 weeks since that surgery;  Friday, December 13, is the fourth anniversary of my baptism.

Well, that makes for an auspicious day, doesn’t it?  But maybe God doesn’t put as much importance on anniversary dates as I do…or maybe He does.

Here is what I know on this snowy Monday:  I am so grateful to be here, writing this, living into this anniversary and yet another opportunity to sing the great texts Handel included in his famous musical statement of faith.  I am grateful for all those who loved and supported me through this event in my life; I am grateful for those who continue to walk through it with me (as I know that the recovery is not yet complete).

And I am grateful and humbled that God saw fit to keep for His use the gift of music in my life.  And I will be joyed to sing once again the greatest words I ever have a chance to sing, the words of Isaiah 40:9:

Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;[a]
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,[b]
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”

And from Isaiah 40:11:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Because in the last year, I have personally experienced both aspects of God’s love.

When:       December 13, 2013 at 7:30 pm
Where:     Capitol Hill Baptist Church
                     525 A Street NE, Washington, DC
Cost:          FREE

I know this now: singing saved my life…

If you have a passion in your life like singing or some other thing that you pursue in the face of overwhelming societal discouragement, you may have heard yourself say in response to the question why, “I must…it is is like breathing to me”.  In my case, that may very well be the truth.  My pursuit of singing, my constant efforts to be a better singer, and ultimately my deep reflection to understand why I felt the compulsion to communicate through song, may very well be the driving forces that saved my life in the face of an unknown congenital heart defect.

Overly dramatic?  Perhaps;  I am a performer after all.  But recovering from major surgery gives you a lot of time to think, particularly in these early days when the ability to focus on a real project is illusory at best.

One of the things that has become completely obvious to me (you have to love hindsight) is this:  at some level, for a very long time, I understood that there was something not right in my body.  I can see a path of choices in my life that somehow always slightly sidestepped full involvement in living.  I can see the many ways in which I managed and compensated, the physical activities I avoided, the chances I did not take.  And I can see all the little signs in the last two years of my life that said I was winding down, not as willing to act like I had much future left.

But why was singing so important in all of this?  One of the little factoids I picked up through the process of diagnosis and surgery was this:  the kind of defect that I had usually makes itself known in the early 30’s of a person’s life.   And yet, my first symptoms occurred decades after that.  The doctors were a little confused; I am not.

Singing made the difference.  This is not some metaphysical declaration about the power of song in the human soul; this is a practical declaration.  You see, the desire to sing and sing professionally and sing well and sing with expression led me to take a number of actions to make that wish come true:  daily exercise, breathing exercises, howcanIoccasional yoga practice, healthy eating practices, regular sleep routines.  All of these basic health-oriented changes I made in the name of being a great singer.  And each and everyone of them led me to a greater state of health, postponed the inevitable diagnosis, and made the surgery itself when necessary easier and less complicated.

And it wasn’t just the physical changes that the call to singing brought to my life.  The compulsion to sing and the extension  of that compulsion, the drive to understand why singing seemed for me the language of God and man combined — these things brought me to a level of self-reflection and faith that gave me the tools to face the diagnosis and the solution.  And most of all, this drive brought me to the heart of two amazing communities of faith, without whose prayers and love and support these last months and these weeks for repair and recovery would be unimaginable.

So as I sit here at my desk, gratefully entering the second week of my recovery after valve replacement surgery, and I am so grateful.  I am not only grateful to the doctors who worked so diligently to protect my voice during the surgery, I am grateful for the God that gave me my obsessive, unquenchable desire to make music with my voice.   I am looking forward to using this gift to sing your praises again very soon.

Today was a little easier…

Today was a little easier…I’m not talking about how I feel in relation to upcoming events, but how I feel about past ones.  Today is, after all, 9/11.  And today was just a little easier.

Maybe it is the fact that my attention is focused on next week; maybe it was simply the passage of time.  But today, 14th_Street_Bridge_Mas I drove past the Pentagon shortly after 9 am, as I returned from morning prayer at school, it was just a little easier.  Yes, I still turned my eyes sharply to the heavens as a plane flew overhead in the landing pattern headed toward Reagan International Airport.  Yes, I probably still held my breath a bit.  It was the same, clear blue sky.

I don’t really have any new story to tell…if you want to read what I’ve already written you can do that here and  here and here.

But, today was just a little easier. And right now it is good for me to understand that healing happens, if you just let it.  Lots of things to remember today.

The one I didn’t want to write…

I am finally sitting down to write the entry that I have been postponing for the past three months (really, has it been three?).  Last year at this time, I was so excited, preparing for the great adventure ahead of me called seminary.  And the year and the people and the classes lived up to every expectation and more.  That first great year of transformation and learning ended on what I believed would be a high note — I closed my books and went on an singinginisraelamazing pilgrimage to the Holy Land (you can read about those adventures on my other blog, www.sevierlybaptist.com).

The trip was indeed everything that I had imagined and more…both positive and not so positive.  Yes, I am forever changed by the things that I saw and experienced and the people I met and the chance to dialogue with people and the chance to see for myself the land of Israel.  But I am also forever changed by two other events during that trip — the two times that I passed out and had a seizure.

I am daily fixated on that old, old joke told in the church world about God granting miracles.  You know the one:

A religious man is on top of a roof during a great flood. A man comes by in a boat and says “get in, get in!” The religious man replies, ” no I have faith in God, he will grant me a miracle.”

Later the water is up to his waist and another boat comes by and the guy tells him to get in again. He responds that he has faith in god and god will give him a miracle. With the water at about chest high, another boat comes to rescue him, but he turns down the offer again cause “God will grant him a miracle.”

With the water at chin high, a helicopter throws down a ladder and they tell him to get in, mumbling with the water in his mouth, he again turns down the request for help for the faith of God. He arrives at the gates of heaven with broken faith and says to Peter, I thought God would grand me a miracle and I have been let down.” St. Peter chuckles and responds, “I don’t know what you’re complaining about, we sent you three boats and a helicopter.”

Well, it turns out that the fainting was a rescue boat in disguise.  After many visits to many doctors, it is clear that I have a congenital heart defect that had never been discovered.  And in a few weeks, I’m going to have that valve repaired by a very wonderful surgeon.

Until then, I’m going to keep studying and singing, and with grace of God, I will continue those things and more after my recovery — the doctors jokingly (I think) say I may sing even louder after my heart starts to pump properly.

So, I’ll be a little quiet for a while…I will have a few things to be concerned about as I work through rehab and get back to my singing life.  But if you want to keep up with what is going on, you can follow my recovery journal at: http://www.heart-valve-surgery.com/journals/user/susansevier.

And if you have a moment, please send a few prayers my way.