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.

I was never that good at math…

I was never that good at math, at least not since my high school algebra teacher, Mr. Hoskins, accused me of having my father do my homework for me while I was out sick (he just couldn’t believe that a GIRL would come back from a week away with all her equations completed — and why did he think my mother called every day to get the homework assignment…and clearly, he never ever met my father if he thought that HE had done the homework…and clearly I still have unresolved issues about this episode).    And so imagine my surprise when I realized that my life and even my journey of faith has been limited and in some ways derailed by a series of equations that I held to be truths.

But as I continue to spend my last few days of  quiet considering the meaning and manifestation of God’s call in my life,  I am now ready to add a new understanding to my recent acceptance that the equation call does not equal bliss is true. Another new idea for me:  God’s call does not relate my response to the divine call  in a one-to-one-relationship.That might seem obvious to some, but as I think and pray about it, I realize that it has not been obvious to me.  I am the kind of person who takes a psychological test or fills out a spiritual gifts inventory and wrapping_paper-equationshas a result that is nearly equal in all categories. This has left me tied up in knots, waiting for that one right answer to the intense tug that God exerts on my life, waiting for one gift or ability to shine through the pack and say “This way.”  I have continued to wait when perhaps I was ready to move, simply because I was waiting for one, unified response.

As a musician, call and response always meant something very specific to me — it means a type of singing, most often used in spirituals or folk music, where the cantor or leader sings a line followed by the congregation singing a response. This is different from the teaching method often called “lining it out”, where the leader sings a line and then the congregation repeats that line, eventually learning the whole song.  In call and response singing, the relationship between call and response is one-to-one.  An example that most of us will know is the spiritual “Swing Low,  Sweet Chariot“.  In its original form, the line “Comin’ for to carry me home” was most often sung by the assembly, that is, it was the response to the line before.  Today we rarely sing it that way.

Silly me, I thought everything operated that way.  God sings; I sing in response. As often happens, though,  I was totally wrong. That one to one relationship isn’t even true in the musical form of call and response.  Yes, of course you can see it as one call and one response, but the truth is that the leader issues the call and then the multitude provides the response.  Not a one-to-one relationship after all, really.

Along this journey of discovery, I’ve released a lot of human ideas about a lot of things.  I’ve allowed my understanding of the possibilities of what an answer might be to expand, I’ve worked hard to release human limitations and opinions, I’ve sat for months and years in a place of not-knowing and not-planning — just to allow the call to speak clearly and to minimize the manipulation and influence that can come from my human self.  And through all that, I have believed that I was waiting to hear with clarity the ONE thing that I was supposed to do in answer to that call.

Now I know that  I had another bad equation in my head.  That equation:  God’s call = single, clear response = wholeness. Much of my life has been a quest for wholeness as I continued the work of repairing the fracturing of spirit that was my youth.  But I misunderstood; I misunderstood the equation and I misunderstood the meaning of wholeness.  And once again, it took Parker Palmer to make it clear for me.  In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker stands with Thomas Merton in believing that there is a wholeness hidden in all things and that our intuitive knowledge that such wholeness exists leads many of us to seek places where we can understand that truth (for Parker, it is the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota).   And then he adds this reminder:

Wholeness does not mean perfection:  it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.  Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness — mine, yours, ours–need not be a Utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.

Silly me.  Oh, so silly me.  The real equation looks more like this: many gifts = many responses = one call = wholeness.   I had it all wrong.   God sings, and I sing in response, but I do not sing just one song.   My musical response will be more like that of Bobbie McFerrin — one voice as a lot of different instruments, making one beautiful sound.  One voice, many sounds, one symphony in perfect harmony…that is my hope for today, anyway.


Call does not equal bliss…

I’ve been struggling with some tasks and responsibilities in my life lately, things that I have committed to do and things for which I have a great deal of talent, but things that, well, are really part of a life I walked away from many years ago.  I’m getting them done, but I am not very happy about it.  And I keep asking myself, and some others suggest to me that perhaps this discomfort springs from the fact that while I’m skilled at these tasks, perhaps I am not called to do them.  Perhaps I am in fact giving in to my over-functioning self by taking them on, perhaps my participation is blocking someone else’s access to their own bliss, that bliss that comes with answering their own call.

Maybe. All those things are possible.  But that doesn’t seem to be the answer.

A couple of weeks ago something became clear to me:  the idea that accepting and executing our calling is supposed to feel good is, well, to be nice about it, poppycock.

You see, I, like many of my time and place, have fallen victim to the ethos created by such books as Marsha Sinetar’s Do What You Love, the Money will Follow (a favorite in New Age circles) and the more practical but equally navel-staring  What Color is Your Parachute, both volumes revised and updated and reprinted and read by who knows how many Americans all in search of a calling (whether or not they know and use that word in that open-doorcapacity).  And only now am I smart enough to understand that Jesus didn’t say, “Follow me and you will be happy and your work will be fun!”  Maybe it was in the Apocrypha and I missed it, but I’m pretty sure that even those in the Red Letter movement can’t find that quote.

Is all of this effort really just about feeling good and being happy?

Sometimes there is just work to be done.  Sometimes we have the skill for it but not the joy in it, sometimes we do not have the skill but the work must be done anyway and so we had better find the skill. When we agree to live in community, we agree to take part in the work of that community.  We really do not have the option of picking and choosing according to our “bliss”.     It is called growing up and accepting responsibility.  It is what  is meant by the Zen Buddhists saying:  “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Really?  Well, yes I do believe that.  But on further examination, I have realized that not all places are the right places to exercise our gifts.  What if a place is just the place to remind you that you have a particular gift, but not the place where that gift will find its full use and life in the world?  What if, as a wise friend said to me, your gifts just aren’t meant to be deployed THERE, where ever THERE is. What if….what if…what if…

Sometimes you hit a wall.  Maybe it means you’ve taken a wrong turn in that maze called Life. I’m not afraid of walls…but it is sometimes difficult to know which walls to demolish and which walls to walk around.  Sometimes that decision is particularly difficult when you are also surrounded by open doors.

Maybe there is a big difference between “being happy” and the meaning that comes from answering God’s call in your life.  Maybe “call” does not equal “bliss”, maybe it equals meaning.   Meaning, unlike bliss, carries no promise of happiness and comfort.  I think the answer to that one is a big yes.

All of these changes in understanding, when mixed with a lot of other influences in my heart and my life, are leading me to a moment in time where I hear the call on my life very differently.  It will be interesting to see just where this door leads.


Say yes to life…

In my early days as a cantor and church soloist, I worked in a congregation affiliated with Unity School of Christianity.  It just so happened that that was also my denominational affiliation at the time.  I always think about those days around the New Year, because I do miss the rhythm of having a New Year’s Eve Service and church party every year.

One of the things Unity used to be best at was the creation of simple songs set to familiar, catchy tunes that would stick in your head and just never ever leave.  While singing and worshiping there, I often had the opportunity to lead the congregation in such great works of the sacred music genre as Carmen Moshier’s  “Say Yes to Life”.   The lyrics were deep and meaningful:


Say yes to life,
Say yes to life,
Say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes|
To life.
Say yes to life,
Say yes to life
Say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.


Say no more no’s,
Say no more no’s,
Say no more no’s,
Say no more no’s,
Say yes to life,
Say yes to life,
Say yes!

(Repeat refrain)

In case you can’t tell, as I recount this to you, my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek.  But this song was a big favorite with both the minister and the congregation — they particularly liked the opportunity to yell “Say Yes!” at the end of the song.  I suppose you just had to be there.

But today, as I try to gather my thoughts and my projects for the beginning of 2013, I regret to admit that I have had Carmen’s big hit running through my brain all day long.

You see, it occurs to me that for a lot of reasons that I won’t bore you with, I’ve been saying a lot of no’s.  I know that may be hard for some of you to believe, those who know me as a person that rarely says no to anything and a person who seems to yes when I probably should say no.  But believe me, I have been saying a lot of unspoken no’s, making a lot of choices that were not in keeping with my calling and my beliefs and what I know I should be doing.

And I’m here to say this to 2013:  this is the year of yes — a lot of real yes’s, the kind of yes’s that I have only recently learned to say.  This is the year of yes even when that yes is not popular, or when that yes causes me to be out of step with those around me, or when that yes looks crazy and makes me feel like I’ve put myself on the outside.  This is the year of being true to my calling,  a calling I am much better able to discern and understand when I am not so busy saying no when I should be saying yes (oh my, won’t the grammar check on this blog go crazy over that last sentence).  This is the year when I say Yes to God, not just to the people around me.

I have no idea where this change will take me, but it is a change whose time has come.   So to quote the great sage Carmen Moshier one more time, 2013 is the year when I say no more no’s.  Say yes to life, people, say yes.

A travelling exegesis…

I am probably the only person you know who would choose to procrastinate about a writing project by writing something else.  But here I am.  And even though the rest of my time today will be devoted to finishing my first ever exegetical essay, part of my mind is thinking about travelling.

Everyday when I sit down at my desk, I have in front of me souvenirs from some of my most memorable and formative trips…my bear who stands on his head acquired on a Thanksgiving trip to Berlin, my bear with tree from Madrid (the symbol of that amazing city…I think a theme is developing), my miniature Arena from my summers in Verona, a commemorative tile of the many Aidas I saw there, and my two favorites — a beautiful single blue and white tile decorated with images of dancing whirling dervishes and a small replica of Christus Pancrator from the Chora Monastery, both remembrances of my trip to Istanbul two years ago this Thanksgiving.  A lot of my most memorable trips happen over the Thanksgiving holidays, and I’m about to set sail (so to speak) on another one in just a few days.

I am, after 30 years of waiting, going to Israel.

I have a lot of complicated feelings about this trip.  The timing is inconvenient, I have a lot going on and a lot of obligations to complete.  I don’t really feel like travelling…I have a lot of work over the next month…I like to have the holidays at home…I’m going to miss my dog…I’m going to miss two weeks in a row at church…the list goes on and on and on.

And then, I look at my whirling dervishes and my fake piece of fresco…and suddenly I am standing in the middle of the Hagia Sophia with the bright lights and the smells and that feeling of eternity that comes to me when I stand where so many before me have stood in worship.

On my worst days, those days like today when I don’t know why I am doing what I am doing and when my sense of faith and connection seems a distant memory, I remember those moments and I hold on because I have stood where other Christians have stood in faith and I have felt their presence.  I have worshiped alongside the memory and spirit of the saints who have come before me.  And remembering that history and those traditions is a large part of my living faith.  As quoted in the introduction to the book Walking Where Jesus Walked:  Worship in the Fourth Century Jerusalem (by John D. Witvliet and published by the Calvin Institute), former Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams once wrote:  “…there is a sameness in the work of God….We are not the first to walk this way; run your hand down the wood and the grain is still the same.”  I find great comfort in that thought.

The time will never be right. There will never be a clear enough space in my schedule; there will probably not in my life time be peace in that part of the world.  And something deep in my soul says that no matter how tired I am now or how much I have to do, I can no longer wait to make this pilgrimage.

The time is now.  It is also time to finish my paper. know what she wants

Backing in the front way, or new tricks for old dogs

I’m thinking about the past few weeks of my life and all I can see is my beagle, Gracie.  There she is, right in front of me.  I want her to go some place that she doesn’t really want to go, but she has forgotten her wilfulness for a moment and she is focused on me — I have a toy or a treat (most likely, a treat).  Very slowly, I move towards her and because she is in food-anticipation-mode or play mode, she backs up so that she can maintain an ever-perfect focus on the object of her desire.  And, then, before she knows it, she is where I want her to be — surprise!

Gracie…you know what she wants

Lately, this seems a lot like the dance I’ve been doing with God.  In this scenario, God is playing the role of dog Mommy (me), dangling some treat that seems overwhelmingly desirable before me, and sadly, I appear in a the role of the manipulated beagle.  Over the past week, it has finally settled into my consciousness that in my life I have backed in the front way — the name I have given to this process of thinking that you are backing away from something all the while you are about to embrace something about the thing you think you are escaping, some unimagined something that you would perhaps say was unwanted.

Whatever I call the process, I thought that I was doing one thing, heading in one direction, while  God  headed me in another.   Yes, I know, I am certainly not the only one to experience this, but this is my moment so please forgive me if I say something obvious…nothing that follows came easily or in an obvious way to this old dog (me, not Gracie).

The only real clarity that I have at the moment is this:  that of the process in which I am participating is not following the path nor producing the results I expected.  Here’s what I have come to know over these past few days.

Item 1:  On some level, participating in the world of music had become so unpleasant for me that I was (without articulating it or planning it) willing and maybe a little anxious to completely walk away from everything I worked to build and be over the past 20 years.  And I made choices that announced that willingness, even though I myself did not receive the frequency on which I was broadcasting.

Item 2:  There is a different purpose and plan afoot than I imagined or perhaps even want to imagine.  This has become clear as I have moved through these past weeks of piecing together what I considered to be a new life and new direction.  Time and again, pieces of my living that I thought I was done with have re-installed themselves in the puzzle-gram that is Me.  Again, I know, not a new experience; not even news in my life, but more of a boomerang than I expected.

Item 3: That this awareness of the disconnect between my perception of the plan and the reality building around me has left me tired, frustrated, angry, and sorry to say, willing to walk away into the forest and build a hut (of course, taking my faithful beagle with me).  Oh, and did I say, really, really crabby and argumentative?

Item 4:  That walking into the forest with my beagle and escaping is not an option, although a hike might be a good idea.

Item 5:  That continuing to live in a place of frustration with what is also is not an option.  I cannot quit; I cannot leave; I cannot force my transformation or the transformation of others; and in the true spirit of the re-imagining exercise we have undertaken in my church community, the thing I must transform is my frustration.  This may be very, very difficult.  Right now, it seems totally impossible.

Personally, I’m not at all certain that I have the strength (insert any number of platitudes that I would say to someone else who uttered those words).  And yes, I understand that it is in the nature of my current studies to question everything and even to feel despair at the magnitude of the task before me.  But frankly, God, I really didn’t imagine what it seems you have in mind.   And right now, I don’t have the trust and surrender of that cute little beagle face when it looks at me;  now, I’m feeling tricked because there wasn’t a biscuit.

But I do have the Psalms.  I have a great understanding of the Psalmist’s rage right now…I just don’t have the poetic skill to use poetry to work out the emotion.  So I’ll let the Psalmist do it for me, and pray that I can move on to another emotion soon and as I cling to the words of my professor, who pointed out that you really only get so angry with people or deities with whom you have an intimate relationship already.  And now, from Psalm 10, verse 1: Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?.  If you want more, click here — yes, someone has compiled a list for those days when you need a good anger prayer.

And now, I’m going to take Gracie for a walk.  And I’m pretty sure that I will come back, this time.

Creating a new rumor…

All summer, ever since the end of Calvary’s 150th anniversary weekend at the beginning of June, there has been something new….something new just out of reach, not visible, not clearly felt, not yet arrived…but there and clear enough to hold my attention now for a couple of months.  And the only framework my conscious mind seems to have with which to understand that feeling is through a story I heard told by John Bell at a recent conference.  I know that I won’t get the details right, but that is how it goes when you repeat a story…you repeat it through the lens that has meaning for you.

It seems that on one occasion Rev. Bell was doing yet another workshop in a dying church in Edinburgh.  His mission was, as always, to help even the smallest most desperate church understand that they could worship through song and worship with vitality…no matter their size, no matter their resources.  And so he worked with the small congregation, teaching them some of the wonderful songs he carries through the world, songs of Africa, songs of Latin America, songs of Asia, songs of faith.   This was another church that felt they were dying…no new members, just fewer and fewer of the faithful, fewer and fewer people to keep the lights on and the flame burning.  They thought of themselves as a failing church; they were known in their town as a failing church.

Nothing really out of the ordinary occurred during the workshop, but the little church kept singing long after he was gone.  They liked the songs, they liked the feeling of authentic worship that he had introduced to them. And then one day, two ladies of the congregation were shopping in a local shop.  They had just come from some event at church, where they had been singing songs, and they saw behind the counter a young man from Africa.  After striking up a conversation about how he came to be in Edinburgh, one of the ladies said:  “You should come to our church…we sing songs from your country.”

And the young man came.  And then he told other people.  And more people came.  And, over time, the little dying church that learned to sing the songs of the world became known as that lively church where they sang and worshipped with joy.

The people of this church created a new rumor about their community.  They said no to the rumor that they were dying; they created a rumor of life, and it was so.

Usually, I would tell you this story to illustrate the power of music in worship, or the power of musical expression in general, but that’s not the reason today.  You see, I realize that I am deep in the process of creating a new rumor about myself and my life and my calling.   These past months, even the smallest decision, the seemingly most mundane, has taken on an importance I have never experienced — all because I am aware that I am creating something.  For the first time in my life, I undersand the respect that this creation process deserves.

And so, I have turned down singing invitations, familiar vacations, and so much more this summer to stay local and to prepare…it has been a summer devoted to cleaning out closets and bookshelves and my spirit.  Much of it has been very, very uncomfortable. Much of it has been emotional, difficult.  But all of it has and is vibrant with life and awareness…the awareness of creation and, well, the excitement of a new rumor.

In the past, I would have just thrown everything out.  Now, I have things and people in my life that I value, that represent important parts of my Self and my reason for being.  Creating a new rumor at this time means holding on to what is dear and genuine and adding the new that is to come.  I am simultaneously enlivened and apprehensive, but I know that I stand on solid ground.

And as part of that new rumor, I am beginning a second blog….Sevierly Baptist.  I wanted a place to write that is devoted solely to this new adventure and this beginning of this new rumor.  I am, at last, going to complete a seminary education.  So, while you will continue to hear about my world of music and faith at this address, you can read about my academic adventures and just what it is like to be a Baptist attending an Episcopal seminary at the new location.

I hope you will stay tuned.  I hope that you will hold with me the excitement that a new rumor can bring.  And I am grateful for all of you out there who have participated and will continue to participate in this act of creation.

It is never about the high note…

Music is, in so many ways, all about the phrasing.  When you experience someone as a “very musical” performer, the technical musical thing that is happening is phrasing–phrasing that best showcases the emotion or meaning of the music being presented.  For the best musicians, phrasing becomes like breathing and requires little thought.  Most of the rest of us work at it most of the time.

But one of the most important things we learn, as we learn to phrase, is this rule:  the high note is hardly ever the point of the phrase.  This rule applies to singers and to instrumentalists;  the most important thing about a phrase is its destination…and it is usually not the highest or most exciting note.  Phrasing is a journey, a conversation, something organic.

So when I picked up my devotional book this morning (The Song Forever New:  Lent and Easter with Charles Wesley) I was excited to see that the readings continue through this week, a week referred to in the liturgical calendar as the octave of Easter (octave here referring to the 8 days after Resurrection; in music, referring to an interval  of a perfect 8 steps).  I couldn’t help draw the analogy with what I know musically:  the high note (Easter) is definitely not the destination of the phrase that we call the Gospel narrative.

Why “the octave of Easter”?  Well, an 8-day feast of celebration has been common in liturgical practice since the earliest days of Judaism (Lev. 23:36); 8 was considered a sacred number, a number of completion.  There is an entire system of greater and lesser octaves in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic church.  This particular liturgical octave provides us with is the same as the gift of the liturgical calendar itself:  a framework for remembering and meditation, a framework to help us navigate our way from the high note (Easter) through the rest of the phrase (life). The octave of Easter let’s us take a breath (literally, for those of involved in leading worship during Holy Week) and remember the personal encounters of those who met the Risen Christ in those first chaotic days, and to think about the power of the Resurrection in our own lives and just how we can participate in and bear witness to its transformative power.  The greatest part of the phrase is yet to be sung, sung when we live into the promise of Easter.

And so, for the next eight days, we practice the discipline of remembrance once again. Paul Wesley Chilcote, the author of The Song Forever New, takes as his text for the day John 20:11-18…for today is the day that we remember the women who found the empty tomb and offers this hymn written by Charles Wesley (remember, a hymn is the text, not the song…but if you want to sing this after you read through it, the best tune is that used for  Come, Ye Thankful People, Come, a hymn tune known as St. George’s Windsor):

Happy Magdalene, to whom
Christ the Lord vouchsafed t’appear!
Newly risen from the tomb,
Would he first be seen by her?
Yes, to her the Master came,
First his welcome voice she hears:
Jesus calls her by her name,
He the weeping sinner cheers.

Highly favored soul! To her
Farther still his grace extends,
Raises the glad messenger,
Sends her to his drooping friends:
Tidings of their living Lord
First in her report they find:
She mus spread the gospel word,
Teach the teachers of mankind.

Who can now presume to fear?
Who despair his Lord to see?
Jesus, wilt thou not appear,
Show thyself alive to me?
Yes, my God, I dare not doubt,
Thou shalt all my sins remove;
Thou has cast a legion out,
Thow wilt perfect me in love.

Surely thou has called me now!
Now I hear the voice divine,
At they wounded feet I bow,
Wounded for whose sins but mine!
I have nailed him to the tree,
I have sent him to the grave:
But the Lord is risen for me.
Hold of him by faith I have.

Hear, dear followers of the Lord,
(Such he you vouchsafes to call)
O believe the gospel word,
Christ hath died and rose for all:
Turn you from your sins to God,
Haste to Galilee, and see
Him, who bought thee with his blood,
Him, who rose to live in thee.

May we, too, like the Magdalene and the women at the tomb, hear the call and believe.  Blessed Easter Monday to you all.

Those little God moments…

For the past 48 hours, I have been in Atlanta attending a conference called “The Singing Church,” sponsored by the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.  In these past 48 hours, I have sung more church music than I ever imagined possible, I have experienced more different types of liturgy than I imagined existed, and I have had a chance to listen to and meet some people whose books have guided my thoughts and my learning and my transformation over the past three years.

I have participated in five separate worship services, sung to guitar, piano, organ, drum, and hung (Korean string instrument that is a little like a cello); I’ve sung in English and Spanish and Ghanain and Swazi and Korean;  I’ve sung music from El Salvador and music from South Africa and music composed for worship by people standing in the room with me.  I have considered the weighty questions of just how do you create a joint musical experience between two worship groups of very different culture; I’ve considered just how do you preach about a Psalm and how do you plan music around that preaching;  and how do you pray a Psalm and work that prayer into the music and liturgy of your worship; and finally,  such questions as who should hold the authority to guide the creation of a music worship plan for an individual congregation.

In short, I have had the gift of two days to ponder the big questions of worship leadership and liturgy formation.  And I have learned and experienced more than I will possibly be able to process today or maybe even next week.

And, I was blessed with a God moment.

A God moment, for me, is one of those moments of awareness…when the beauty and strength of my relationship with God is totally undeniable and blots out everything else that is going on around me.  I have been known to also call this a Jesus moment and there may be, for me, a difference between the two feelings, but I couldn’t explain the difference right at this moment.  Usually, when I have a God moment, I sob — generally, I sob happy tears, but I do really sob.

And today, sob I did.

I’ve been to a couple of these music conferences now, and at both, the final event on the agenda was a full worship service, including music, sermon (or homily, if you prefer) and communion.  Yes, it I usually start sobbing during communion.  At the last conference, the words that set the waterworks in motion were from an African refrain translated by John Bell:

Come, bring your burdens to God,
Come, bring your burdens to God,
Come, bring your burdens to God,
For Jesus will never say no.

And today, it was this simple refrain, by someone I have not met, Leon Roberts:

Jesus is here right now.
Jesus is here;
With this bread and wine
His peace you’ll find,
Christ Jesus is here right now.

Simple words set to simple music, to be sure.  But the key to open the doors of my heart and soul nonetheless.

You see, I had just listened to a homily by the teacher who was the reason I came to Atlanta:  Dr. Don E. Saliers, an author you might have seen me write about before.  It was a homily about the power of music crafted on the text from Revelations 5:6-14, not exactly hard to do as it includes the text we now associate with the close of Handel’s Messiah:  “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain”…but masterfuly and joyfully done and and full of faith and hope.  You see, I got to experience first hand what I had suspected:  Dr. Saliers is a man in whom faith burns bright.

Sometimes, seeing that makes me sob for joy.  And today was one of those days.

So I will spend the rest of this afternoon savoring my God moment.   It will be a while before I feel verbal enough about the experience to really explain it…but for right now, feeling it is just enough to keep me going.  And for this, I give thanks.


Playing catch-up…

I would be the first to admit that I feel like I spend most of my days playing catch-up to those around me:  especially in terms of my reading and thinking about my faith and my calling.  I have, for most of life, done things in reverse order…I was an adult before I was a child, I had my old age before my youth (although I’m guessing I’ll get a second run at the old age thing), I worked as a librarian before I studied library science, I sang professionally before I studied singing, etc. etc. and so forth and so on.  And now, I am coming to see that I have lived a life with a fairly low-key, lay-minister orientation, long before I ever confronted and accepted my need to study and deepen my faith and my ability to share that faith in a more formal setting (yes, that means a seminary).

Yes, I have spent much of my life playing catch-up; looking over my shoulder at what I don’t know to support what I am already doing; worrying that the bright and penetrating light I see at any given moment was seen long ago by those around me and that they are simply being polite as they listen when the words of my discovery come tumbling out of my mouth in torrent of revelation.

So, now you know why I am always reading something (or several somethings)…looking for language, looking for the tools and the education that I think that I don’t have but desperately need so that I don’t make some naive mistake, as I did once at a dinner party in from of some very smart people.

It is important to know what you don’t know.

One of my favorite choices of reading material to help me in this quest is the spiritual biography of others…these works are generally very helpful for me, giving me language and process and and well, leaving me feeling not quite so alone in some of the things that are happening to me and around me and within me.    I seem to be drawn right now, in particular, to the works and lives of a group of female Episcopal lay-ministers who over the years have written and taught and served their communities of faith and the wider community of the world of faith without the benefit of ordination.

First and foremost in this group for me right now is the teacher, writer, and church historian Diana Butler Bass.  It was with one of her books that my friend and I began our morning reading program; it was one of her books that I was reading when I decided to join the Calvary Baptist Church; it was one of her books that I was reading as I started to really feel this strong pull of faith on my life.  And so it only seems fitting that it would be one of her books that right now provides the fodder that fuels my thinking, at a moment that I suspect is equally pivotal for me.

The book of this particular moment is her Strength for the Journey:  A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community.  I expected the book to move me; I did not realize it would fill in so many blanks for me (if you don’t understand what I mean you need to read Pastor Amy’s sermon from our current series, The Rules of Improv, by clicking here).  So far, it has been almost an academic year’s education in itself, in terms of the language of faith it has taught me and the opportunity it has given me to see my own faith experience played out in someone else’s life.

In this book, Dr. Bass tells the story of her own faith journey from childhood Methodism through evangelical fundamentalism to a life of faith within the  Episcopal denomination, and…well, the end of the story hasn’t been written yet.  And she tells the story within the framework of the life of the various congregations in which she has worshipped and served as a lay leader along the way.  It is an amazing portrait of a faith journey that is contemporary with my own…and it speaks to me in ways that I understand.

There are some very important things I discovered in this book, most of which I will write about later (such as what it means to be an evangelical vs. what it means to follow what she refers to as the via media, the middle way), but today I am pondering the similarities in her experience recovering from the pain and doubt that came from being involved in the kind of power struggle and chaos that comes from a church struggling to find a new voice (particularly when there are those who don’t want that new voice or any new voice), with my own after a similar situation.  She, like I, took some time off from “church” (although I think I took far longer as a respite), and she, like I, in the most unexpected place, found a healing and a spiritual home.   She explains the experience much better than I ever could:

At the beginning I felt drained and confused.  Not quite knowing what path to take, I simply put one foot in front of the other, attending to my spiritual life through the practices of faith.  Slowly, by reading the Bible, worshiping every Sunday, and working at homey parish tasks, I began to understand the Christian life in new ways.  I think that was true for all of us.  By practicing faith together, the good folks of the Church of the Holy Family (substitute Calvary Baptist Church here if we are telling my story) became brother- and sister-pilgrims, an intentional family of faith on the verge of birthing a new congregation.  We were only vaguely aware that this was happening or that we stood so close the Spirit’s tremors of re-creation.  But we were profoundly aware that we needed one another in the order to get to wherever God was taking us. (pg. 124)

Bass has mirrored my own experience and taught me about a trend in church life all at the same time…the change from congregations made up of establishment churchgoers — those who are Presbyterian because their family has always been Presbyterian and who attend the same church in the same neighborhood where they have always lived and that believe in denominational loyalty — and congregations made up of intentional churchgoers, those for whom every thing about their lives from their personal identity to their worship choices to their family structure has been researched tested and chosen.  For the intentional churchgoer, denominational loyalty and physical location mean little — they seek a gathered community of disciples, not an extension of their neighborhood or country club.

See, I’m always doing things backwards…I was living a trend and I didn’t know it.  But now I have language.  Thank you Dr. Bass, you’ve helped me catch up just a bit more.