A room for things that just don’t fit in other categories.

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 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)


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.

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,

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:

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

A different perspective…

Most of my activities lately have been devoted to changing my perspective.  I am not always been conscious of that purpose when I start out but as with most things that purpose is always clear in hindsight.  That purpose applies especially to my studies over the last year and to all of my travels too.  There is little that is as perspective-altering as a trip to Israel for a person of professed Christian faith.

So imagine my surprise (or was it frustration?) when I realized that even the things I’m choosing for enjoyment lately fall into the perspective challenging category.  After years of waiting, my old friend, composer Mark Adamo, premiered his new opera, Mary Magdalene, at the prestigious San Francisco Opera.  Mark, who writes his own librettos for his operas, followed the outlier trend in scholarship that Mary M. was, well, more than a disciple, if you catch my drift.  A not unknown perspective, but probably different for a lot of people who hear it.  I was really sorry that my schedule did not allow me to hear the opening in person, but you can read the review from the San Francisco Chronicle if you are interested.

The issue of perspective seems to plague my relax time reading as well.  I just finished the very interesting, if a bit mind-bending Liar’s Gospel by British author Naomi Alderman.  Yes, you are right, even in my relax time I don’t really stop working.  But Alderman’s book is all about perspective — she writes a story for us about what the liarsgospelministry of Jesus might have looked like to the people all around him.  She tells the story of a mother who mourns the loss of a son while trying to rebuild her life after his very public execution, all the while not really understanding just what his life was all about.  She then tells us the story through the eyes of Judas, a Judas who faked his death after the Crucifixion and went on to live in luxury off the tales of his betrayal of Jesus.  We hear perspective of Caiaphas,  who handed Jesus over to the Romans for judgement and execution.  And finally, we hear the perspective of Barrabas, the prisoner saved from execution by the choice of the crowd (Mark 15:6-15, Matthew 27:15-26, Luke 23:13-25, John 18:38-19:16), who tells not only that story but a story that continues the tale of the Jewish revolt against Roman domination up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple itself.

There is so much that I like about this book — I like Alderman’s use of transliterated Hebrew spellings of all the names;  I liked that everything about it reminded us that the roots of our faith are Jewish and linked forever with the theology of the Hebrew Bible; I liked the feeling and sense of real place that comes through each and every page (which was probably heightened for me by the fact that I was just there).  But what I really liked was the perspective of it all.  How she did it, I cannot imaging, but Alderman really succeed at putting the kind of distance into her perspective that is what each of us experiences daily as history of great importance swirls all around us.  We have no more knowledge of the ongoing importance of what we experience than does any character in this book, or in the Gospels themselves, for that matter.  We are human, we cannot possibly understand the story of faith and history in which we live.

And finally, Alderman’s book presents that kind of scholarly skepticism that I hold dear…that statement that despite all the things we can not know, despite our suspicion that not every word of this book we devote our lives to studying is absolute truth, despite the gnawing in the pit of our stomach when we suspect some story or another about the God made Flesh that we call Jesus — that none of this matters in the face of the Great Commandment, to love our God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  None of it matters in the face of the power of love.

That’s the thing about perspective — it does not change truth, but it may help us a little bit with our understanding.  And so, as I continue to mull over the many ways in which my perspective on faith and life is stretched and changed daily, I leave you with an excerpt from The Liar’s Gospel. … just in case, you, too, are looking for a little push to the way you look at life:

Storytellers know that every story is at least partly a lie. Every story could be told in four different ways, or forty or four thousand. Every emphasis or omission is a kind of lie, shaping a moment to make a point. So when, between thirty-five and seventy years after Yehoshuah’s death, Mark and then Matthew and then Luke the complier and then John the theologian came to tell their stories it was as well for them to exonerate the Romans, who ruled the empire they lived in, and to blame the Jews, whose wickedness had clearly caused the destruction of their holy city. It was as well for them to add in perhaps a line here or there in which Yehoshuah had predicted that the Temple would fall, that the city would fall. This made him look wiser, as it made the Jews look worse for not believing, even in the face of such clear evidence. Nothing happened without a reason. …

Once upon a time there was a man, Yehoshuah, whose name the Romans changed to Jesus, for that sat more easily on their tongues. There may well indeed have been such a man, or several men whose sayings are united under that one name. Tales accreted to him, and theories grew up around and over him. He became, like Caesar, the son of a god. Like the god Tammuz, or the god Ba’al, or like Orpheus, also the son of a god, it was said he died and rose again. Like Perseus, he was born of a woman who had never known a man. He was turned into a god and certain things were lost and certain things were added.

And when one peels away the gilding and the plaster and the paint that were applied to him, what remains? So much of what he said, he took from the Torah of the Jews. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is an old Jewish ideal. But Yehoshuah was unique, in his time and place, for saying, “Love your enemy.” It is a dreamer’s doctrine. Visionary, astonishing. And a hard road, in times of war and occupation. If all involved had listened to those words, matters would have fallen out quite differently. And if those who claimed to follow him later had dedicated themselves to that one thing—“ Love your enemy”— much bloodshed might have been avoided. But perhaps the idea was too difficult, for it is not much observed, even to this day. Easier to prefer one’s friend to one’s enemy. Easier to destroy than to build or to keep a thing standing. And so the Temple burned. The walls of Jerusalem fell. The people were scattered into exile in ten lands and ten times ten. And they took with them their unusual stubbornness and their distinct ways. And a book walked those same paths, from synagogue to synagogue at first, telling a tale of how miraculous one man had been and how evil those who rejected him were, and therefore bringing good news for some and bad for others. This was how it ended. And all the sorrow that came after followed from this.

Alderman, Naomi (2013-03-12). The Liars’ Gospel: A Novel (p.259- 260). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.


My Dad, Jack…

With all the reminders of Father’s Day swirling around, it occurred to me that while I have written about my mother in this forum, I have rarely if ever mentioned my father, Jack.  There are a lot of reasons for that, too many to share.  But I think that this Father’s Day it might just be time to talk about him.

I have a love-hate relationship with these so-called holidays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  After all, I grew up in the town where Hallmark was born so I have an extra special opinion about these market-originated celebrations.  Did you realize that Father’s Day has only been an “official” holiday since 1972?  Thank you, National Public Radio for that little factoid. (I understand that June 16 is also National Fudge Day).  Father’s Day, along with Mother’s Day, is an opportunity for pain and sadness and exclusion as much as it is a time for celebration and remembrance…and I share all sides of that mixed emotional swirl as I take a moment to remember Jack.  But unless you are going to hide in a hole for this week of reminders and marketing, chances are you, like me, are thinking a little bit about your dad right now, no matter where those thoughts take you.

Jack was a complicated guy and we had a complicated, if brief (by most standards), relationship.  While lots of people have a chance to work out their relationship with their dad, I did not.  My father died when I was 21, long before we had a chance to fix anything and long before I understood the depth and breadth of our difficulties.

My Dad was never really the same after my brother’s death when I was 4 years old — his tendency to drink too much only got worse, his fits of anger, and his deep deep grief took over his life and therefore my life.  The painful episodes are too many to recount and frankly they just don’t matter so much anymore.  I have at this point lived more years of my life without his fatherly presence than I lived with it and that should be enough time to gain some perspective and catch a glimmer of the gifts he gave me while we were together.

If you sense in my writing that this is not an easy exercise for me, you are right.  But its time has come.

I am guessing that those of you who know me would see a lot of similarities between me and my father, if you had the chance to meet him.  If you ever wondered where I got my easy (and loud) laugh, it would be from him.  If you’ve ever seen the flash of anger in my eyes (or worse, experienced me being REALLY angry), that probably comes from him too.  And if you’ve met Susan the autodidact, Susan the lover of information, Susan the voracious learner of all things, that Susan is Jack’s fault as well.  And the list goes on:  the me who orders the thing I have never tried off the strange menu, the me who wants to see every corner of the world, the me who thrives more on questions than answers (although answers are always a reason to ask more questions)…you can blame all that on Jack.  I didn’t inherit his blue eyes and his nose (thank you, God, for that) but I got almost everything else, the good and the bad.

That's Jack on the right, at Great Falls...

That’s Jack on the right, at Great Falls…

And the biggest gift he gave me?  That would be my love of music and probably what little talent I have for it.  It was a backwards gift — at the same time that he saw to it that I had piano lessons and ballet lessons and every opportunity to learn the craft of music in my youth, he also would regularly bluster, “No daughter of mine will be a  professional musician!”  Well, he was wrong about that one, but I have over the years come to understand why he used to put his foot down about that particular career choice.  He wasn’t right, his beliefs were based on the jazz world of Kansas City during the 30’s and 40’s instead of the world of classical music that I have inhabited, but I have come to understand why he would want to spare any child the difficulties of a life in music.  I’m just glad that I didn’t let his fears keep from experiencing the joys of a life in music.

My father did not leave this life a happy man.   He lived to see his only son die before him, his daughters make life choices he did not agree with, he lost a business and spent the last years of his life struggling after a forced early retirement.  But he was a man who always had a smile on his lips and a joke to tell, with a great big heart and an appetite for life that outpaced most…and despite everything, like all little girls, I adored him.

And maybe this Father’s Day, I will remember how to love him and say, Thank you, Daddy.  Happy Father’s Day.

Number Your Days

Holy Week, again.  This year, it seems quieter, more internal and maybe that has to do with the way we have approached it this year.  Our sermon series “Number Your Days” and our Wednesday Night Words series on Death and Dying have been thought-provoking and have encouraged personal searching and evaluation.  It is, after all, the season to ponder just what all of this resurrection and atonement stuff means in our own lives.

That said, all is not quiet and solitude.  As we begin our walk alongside Jesus through betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection, those of us in the Music Department at Calvary, along with our friends on the Mission Board, are concert flyer2013busy getting ready for our annual fund-raising concert for the Shalom Scholarship Fund.   This year we are performing music by George Philipp Telemann, music of a personal, contemplative nature…in keeping with our themes for the season. If you are interested, below are the program notes for this Friday’s performance.

If you are in town, please come and join us.  If not, maybe after you read my notes below, you will listen to the music (which can be purchased on ITunes) and maybe make a donation to Shalom.  In either case, may you have a blessed Holy Week and may Easter come to your life again very, very soon

About Tonight’s Program

The great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, once wrote: “It is not the act of a good disciple to flee from the Cross in order to enjoy the sweetness of easy piety.” Tonight, we do not flee.

We’ve called our program Number Your Days after the words of the Psalmist:  “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart (90:12).”  For those of the Christian faith, Good Friday is a yearly reminder of the hour of our own death and the possibilities of the days we have before us and our responsibility to use them well. As Christians, we gather with Jesus in that hour of his physical death, when he as the God-Made-Flesh completes His human journey. We weep for his humanity and for our own, as we wonder what is next. But even in our sorrow and our fear, we know that there is a promise in His suffering, a promise of hope and light for us. And if we are not practicing Christians, we gather simply because we are human ourselves and experience in that humanness the same trials and challenges that are part of Jesus’ story on this day.

Tonight we perform music by George Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), one of the lesser-understood giants of the German Baroque and early Classical period,because the music he created fits our contemplative theme.  Telemann composed works that were highly personal and meditative.  For example, his series Der Harmonischer Gottes-Dienst containing 72 cantatas written as meditations on texts from Paul’s Epistles was created specifically for performance in the home as private devotional music.

We offer tonight a series of works, each meant as a personal expression of the meaning of life and death, our own mortality, and the possibility of Resurrection.

Music of the German Reformation and the German Baroque

Martin Luther, the guiding hand of the German Reformation, believed in the power of music and said it most simply:  “I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone…the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music (Preface to Rhau’s Symphoniae, 1538).” Is it any wonder that this faith context created a wellspring of sacred music, such as the music of J.S. Bach ( who wrote over 400 church cantatas), and the music of C. H. Graun (whose Passion setting we performed on this series last year), and the over 1000 church cantatas written by the composer of tonight’s program, George Philipp Telemann.

German Baroque music was all about the message.  If you have ever attended a Lenten or Good Friday service and sung the great hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”, you have participated in the theology of the German Baroque hymn writer and poet, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676).  If you have ever sung the great reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” you have stood in Martin Luther’s own musical theology. The textual and music choices of each of these composers give us a clue to their own theology or at the very least the theological context in which their works were commissioned.

In our present day, cantatas such as we hear tonight rarely appear in a liturgical setting.  Even if the performance we attend is set in a church, as it is tonight, we generally will experience this music in a concert setting.  But in the composer’s day, each cantata was written for a specific liturgical purpose:  some to follow specific readings, some to preface the sermon, some to follow it as a repetition of the theme (worship services lasted several hours, even on an average non-festival Sunday).   A cantata in the 18th century usually had several movements, like an instrumental sonata, and included both arias and “recited” text, or recitative.  The voice was accompanied by a solo instrument and keyboard, or by a group of instruments. Larger cantatas might include several singers, even a chorus or participation by the congregation.   During the season of Lent, instrumental music was banned from service so Good Friday and the performance of one of the great Passion settings would be the first time in weeks that anything other than unaccompanied singing had been heard in service.

One other thing you might notice about the music of the German Baroque:  as you listen to the music tonight and read the translations, you might say to yourself, “Wait, that music sounds a bit cheery for all this talk of dying.”  Tonight’s music shows the theological influence of the early Pietist movement, a particular theology that grew in the shadow of German Lutheranism.  Pietism emphasized the personal relationship with God, through prayer and faith practice.  For many Pietist writers, prayer and the act of singing were tools used to enter into that God-relationship, a relationship that was, in their terms, an all-encompassing embrace.  Pietism speaks of a faith that is spiritual, individual, and includes all the senses.  And that union between Man and God that is fundamental to the Pietist view was a beautiful, joyful thing to be sought after and desired, even when uniting in the moment of death.  The sweet music of Telemann and other Baroque composers  is an expression of that particular understanding of faith.

The Composer, George Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)

Today, we hardly think of Telemann as a composer of vocal music.   And, as early as the 19th century, his work was considered insubstantial and at its worst, derivative; he was discounted because he wrote “too many” works (we know of around 3000).  A major composer of the German Baroque and early Classical periods, he was friends with George Friedrich Handel, and colleagues with the younger C. H. Graun and Johann Adolphe Hasse, and contemporaries with both Johann Sebastian Bach and his son, C. P. E. Bach.  Telemann was apparently a self-taught composer, and disappointed his family when he abandoned the study of the law for music making.  He composed for the great churches in the greatest German cities of the time:  Eisenach, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Frankfurt and Hamburg, with much of his vocal material created for Frankfurt and Hamburg.  After 1715, he took an unusual step in his day and began to publish his own compositions.  While living and work in Hamburg, his contract required the delivery of two new cantatas for each Sunday service and a new Passion setting for Lent, as well as composition for the secular celebrations of the city. He was responsible for the musical life in all five major churches. At the same time, he was required to deliver a new cantata cycle for the churches of Frankfurt.

Telemann was a great lover (and writer) of poetry; two of our works tonight set texts by famous theologian/poets of his day, Matthaus Arnold Wilckens (1704-1759) and Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756); the other two set texts believed to be Telemann’s own creation.

In his lifetime, his music was known throughout Europe.  His music was performed regular until the early 19th century, when it all but disappeared.  Telemann’s vocal music is only now beginning to see resurgence as scholars and performers work to create performable editions of the many works that remain.  In particular, the work of Frankfurter Telemann-Gesellschaft has been invaluable in the recovery of much work and in the continued revival of Telemann’s music.

On a Personal Note:  Seven Years Ago…

Seven years ago, before I was a member of this community, when hardly anyone knew anything about me, the wonderful, loving and faith-filled members of this church welcomed my proposal for the first Music for Good Friday concert.  That night, we performed music by Pergolesi and Donizetti, and we remembered:  we remembered the events of Good Friday, and the man who brought music into my life again, my first teacher, Michael Patterson.

Seven years later, we are here again, singing, playing and remembering, remembering the ever-present sacrifice of this day, remembering the years of worship and faith that have lived for so many years on this corner in Washington, DC.   This community of saints has, over and over again, taken a chance on my crazy ideas – they have nurtured me and hoped for me and laughed with me.  These seven years with this community have opened my eyes so that I might see and my ears that I might hear, as the favorite old hymn says.

I am most grateful for the chance to make wonderful, meaningful music here, with all that has meant to my own life and my own spiritual journey.  The fact that this program exists is a testament to the amazing openness and faith of this congregation and the spirit and guidance of its inspiring pastor, the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, and to the dedication of its staff, its lay leadership.  The hard work of our Mission Board, our music staff and our guest performers, and most especially, our talented and energetic music director, Dr. Cheryl Branham make events such as these possible.

For me personally, tonight is a little death of its own, because after seven amazing years of Good Friday concerts, this will be my last.   The formation of my own faith that has been guided by this community is leading me in directions I would have never imagined, something that is both exciting and frightening all at once.  Sometimes, to make space for something new, we must release something we cherish, and that is where I find myself on this Good Friday.  I had no idea, seven years ago, where I would stand on this night.  Next spring I will be busy working towards the completion of my degree at the Virginia Theological Seminary, but rest assured that I will take every possible moment to raise money to support tonight’s cause, the Shalom Scholarship Fund, a mission I believe in with all my heart.

As performers, we feel blessed by the opportunity to speak through music, especially the opportunity to speak for those whose voices are muted and ignored.  We hope that if some part of this evening’s music moves or inspires you, you will consider helping these students who thirst for education, who thirst to honor the sacrifice about which we sing tonight.

Susan Sevier

It’s time we had that talk…

You know, Music, the talk.  It isn’t really that I’m breaking up with you, but you can’t tell me that you haven’t noticed the change.  You’ve been very patient, but I know you must have noticed.   Yes, yes, I miss those long hours we used to spend together, too.  But I’m sure that it is better this way…this way, when we spend time together, it will be for a greater purpose or maybe just to be together.  I know it is better this way.

It’s not you…it’s me.  I’m the one who has changed.  Really.  And I hope that we can still be friends, because, well, I owe you everything.

Without these years of learning through you, I wouldn’t be who I am today.  I gained a lot of confidence working with you, I found out more about myself and my true nature than I could have found if I stayed in the businesssadmusic world.  I learned languages that stimulated my heart and my mind; I’ve traveled places and met people and had experiences I never could have dreamed of without you.   You have been a hard task master; you have forced me to look deep within myself and ask and try to answer the really hard questions of life.

But lately, I’ve come to understand that, well, I’ve given you too much power, Music.  You see, because I wanted you too much, I’ve broken an important commandment:  “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”  And that was wrong.  And that is not who I am, Music.

I know that it wasn’t your fault; it was mine.  And for a while, I thought that, well, this separation would be final and permanent.  But now I know that this is just a re-adjustment.  We need to get our priorities straight, you and I.  There are more important things in life.

That’s why I really hope we can still be friends.  You serve a purpose in my life, Music, you always have.  We just have to accept that things are going to be a little more balanced around here.  And I really think we will both be much happier for making this choice.

So I’ll keep singing and you keep doing whatever it is that you are doing.  But we are both going to remember that singing is a way of communicating, not an end in itself.  I will have a life with music, not a life ruled by music.  Look at it this way — this is the chance to build a whole new relationship. And it might just be a better one.

These talks are never pleasant, and change is always painful, but it has been coming on for a while.  Maybe if we both get clear about it, things will be just a little easier.

It was time we had this talk.  Really.