Sunday, February 28, 2010

lenten journal: worship guide

there’s a liturgy to our life
that begins with breakfast
cereal, coffee, cinnamon toast

some days the invocation
is offered by public radio
and others we speak ourselves

we exchange the reading
of our calendars, listing our
obligations and appointments

and talk of when we will
come home to one another
answering the altar call

to return and to remember
our hope is built on something
as simple as promises kept

we are blessed in our goings
out and our comings in
that pretty much covers it



Saturday, February 27, 2010

lenten journal: learn to love the questions

I woke up this morning to news of the earthquake in Chile as I was getting ready to lead a study of the Book of Job at church. And this morning followed last evening, when Ginger and I watched the new Coen Brothers’ movie, A Serious Man, which is their take on Job, set in 1967 (in the same way O Brother, Where Art Thou was their take on The Odyssey). The main character is Larry Gopnik, whose life begins to unravel about as quickly as the movie can get going, starting with his wife asking for a ritual divorce (a gett) so she can marry a neighbor. Larry goes to see the Marshak, the oldest rabbi, for advice, but ends up seeing Rabbi Scott, the youngest one, which troubles Larry because he’s not sure Scott has the experience to help him.

“I am the junior rabbi. And it's true, the point-of-view of somebody who's older and perhaps had similar problems might be more valid. And you should see the senior rabbi as well, by all means . . . But maybe - can I share something with you? Because I too have had the feeling of losing track of Hashem (God), which is the problem here. I too have forgotten how to see Him in the world. And when that happens you think, well, if I can't see Him, He isn't there any more, He's gone. But that's not the case. You just need to remember how to see Him. Am I right? I mean, the parking lot here. Not much to see. It is a different angle on the same parking lot we saw from the Hebrew school window. But if you imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn't familiar with these autos and such -- somebody still with a capacity for wonder, someone with a fresh perspective. That's what it is, Larry. Because with the right perspective you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world. He is in the world, not just in shul. It sounds to me like you're looking at the world, looking at your wife, through tired eyes. It sounds like she's become a sort of... thing... a problem... a thing...”
“Well, she's, she's seeing Sy Ableman. She's, they're planning, that's why they want the Gett.”
“Oh. I'm sorry.”
“It was his idea.
“Well, they do need a Gett to remarry in the faith. But this is life. For you too. You can't cut yourself off from the mystical or you'll be-you'll remain-completely lost. You have to see these things as expressions of God's will. You don't have to like it, of course.”
“The boss isn't always right, but he's always the boss.”
“Ha-ha-ha! That's right, things aren't so bad. Look at the parking lot, Larry. Just look at that parking lot.”
I thought about my first pastorate (I wasn’t even out of college) and my first visit to see a church member who came sporadically. I got a call that her husband had died. They had had a hard life, but they had had it together; she was devastated. He, literally, was all she had. I got to her house and she was sitting on the porch. I sat down in the chair next to hers and she began to cry and tell me how she had found him and how bad it hurt. I had no idea what to say, but I felt like I had to say something.

“I know just how you feel,” is what came out, my feeble attempt at compassion. She stopped sobbing in a snap and looked up from her hands.

“Do you really?”

“No,” I answered. “I just didn’t know what else to say.”

She began to cry again, and I sat there in silence with my hand on her shoulder. About ten minutes later, another church member, who had been a widow for forty years, drove up. When she stepped on to the porch, she said the very same sentence I had uttered, only it was informed by her life and their friendship. I was her pastor, but not her minister that afternoon.

When Marshak finally speaks in the film, he says, “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies . . . then what?”

You may not recognize the lyric printed as a quote, but if I played the drums and guitar, you could sing the whole verse and answer the question:
when the truth is found to be lies
and all the hope within you dies
don’t you want somebody to love
don’t you need somebody to love
wouldn’t you love somebody to love
you’d better find somebody to love
Cathleen Falsani (who has a book, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, that I want to read) writes in an article about the questions raised in the film,

Perhaps an answer, insomuch as there can be one, lies in something Rilke said in his Letters to a Young Poet:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves … Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way to the answer.
Or at least spend the morning sitting around a table with people you trust enough to ask the questions out loud and remember we are in this together. As Ginger quoted Pierce Pettis, from a song born of his own deep personal pain:
we’re all in this together
we’re all in this alone
My day wandered from the Bible study to errands to work and then back home, where I came in to find how the tsunamis set in motion by the earthquake had traveled as far as Hawaii while I had roamed the neighborhood. I took the trash out under a full moon on a cloudless night. What truth I know has not failed me and the hope within is thriving, thank you. Still, tonight, I am grateful that I have somebody to love.


Friday, February 26, 2010

lenten journal: congregation

God has made a habit of gathering
undesirables, the less than perfect,
or at least those as broken as they
are brazen – I could name names
but it serves just as well to look in
a mirror, or around most any room
filled with the fallen and faithful;
what privilege I enjoy I have not
earned; any hardship or suffering
I have endured was not inflicted;
what sense of belonging I have
known, what love I have found –
or has found me – came wrapped
in the dusty envelope of humanity,
fraught with fingerprints that point
to both a checkered past and a promise
that love binds us together because
it is not earned, but given and received.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

lenten journal: job's story

Over the years of writing this blog, I’ve made some connections with other blog writers. I wish I knew a better way to say it, but our vocabulary hasn’t caught up with our lives just yet. These folks are more than acquaintances because we have shared things about ourselves with each other, but they aren’t friends because we have a strictly virtual relationship, if you will. If I could find a way to become friends, I think I would choose to make a trip to Canada first to find Bill Kinnon. Something in the way he writes and thinks, and the role music plays in his life, makes me think we would hit it off swimmingly, that we would find we could trust the resonance we feel in cyber-space. That very resonance is what I’m leaning into tonight from his post about Job and Thomas.

It caught my eye because I’m beginning a four-week Saturday morning study on Job at church, using story as starting place. By that I mean, I want to start with the art of the tale, rather than see how fast we can bring our theological presuppositions to bear. What if we let ourselves begin with, “Once upon a time, there was a man named Job,” and see where that might take us. Bill has given me a great way to think about the story by sharing a quote from a sermon by Fleming Rutledge:

Now if God had answered Job in the way that we would expect, with soothing explanations and comforting reassurances, then the answer to the question, “Is there a God beyond what we can imagine?” would have to be, No. Anyone can imagine a God who does what we expect. The reason that so many people have complained that God’s answer to Job is no answer at all is that they want a God who fits their preconceptions. Job, however, is manifestly satisfied. The God who is really God has come to him and has revealed himself as the one who was already present, already at work before there was anyone to imagine him. God is the author of creation; the creation is not the author of God. This was revealed to Job by the living voice and presence of God’s own self. That was enough.
Yeah, I know I’m already jumping to the final scene before I even had my first Saturday session, but I love the idea that what “satisfied” Job, after everything that had happened and all that he had had to put up with from his alleged friends, was a God who didn’t give him the answers he expected. One of the ways Daniel Levitin talks about the songs that matter most to us – the ones that get under our skin and into our hearts – is they set the stage by offering a recognizable melody pattern and then, when we think we know where its going, take an unexpected turn in pitch or rhythm or timbre that makes us take notice: we remember the songs that catch us by surprise and expand the pattern in new directions. So it is with the melody of theology, with the songs God sings.

Bill goes on to use a quote that wasn’t far from where my mind went:
I am reminded of the children in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe who are afraid of Aslan when they first hear of him. When Lucy asks if he's "safe," Mr. Beaver replies, "Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he is good."
The Narnia scene I thought of comes from the children’s second visit through the wardrobe, all of them a bit more grown up. Lucy, the youngest, is the one who sees Aslan and runs to meet him.
“Aslan, Aslan. Dear Aslan. At last.”
…She gazed up into the large wise face. “Welcome child,” he said.
“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
However far I go, or however much I grow, there is more God than there is me. When comfort is my primary need, I love the image of falling into the grace of a God whose compassion exceeds my imagination. When I’m working to make meaning of my life, the reality of a God who is more than the answers to my questions, whose sense of humor baffles my wit, whose capacity for irony and nuance makes my story telling read like a phone book, whose tenacious love outshines anything I know experientially is disquieting. Once I get past what I know to be true and still struggle to accept: there is a God and it’s not me, the disquietude offers room to breathe and belong.
I know you can do all things
and nothing you wish is impossible…
I have spoken of the unspeakable,
and tried to grasp the infinite…
I had heard of you with my ears,
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I will be quiet,
comforted that I am dust.
(Job 42:1-6)
“I’ve really got to use my imagination,” Gladys Knight used to sing, “to think of good reasons to keep on keeping on.” The first we were breathed into existence by a God who is crazy enough to imagine us, in the first place, and tenacious enough to not give up on us. As Pierce Pettis sings,
when you rise up just to fall again
God believes in you
deserted by your closest friend
God believes in you
when you're betrayed with a kiss
you turn your cheek to another fist
it doesn't have to end like this
God believes in you
Now that’s a story worth telling.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

lenten journal: failer

Over the past several days, I’ve only been able to see bits and pieces of the Winter Olympics, partly because of my work schedule and partly because I’ve chosen other things. I’ve let my knowledge of what’s going on be fed, mostly, by the highlight reels and news blurbs. I’ve heard enough of Joannie Rochette’s story to be moved by what I read about her performance, even though I didn’t see it: she skated two days after her mother’s death in Vancouver. Tonight, the over-riding theme appeared to be near misses, or perhaps I would do better to simply say living with mistakes. Sven Kramer, a Dutch skater who set an Olympic record with his speed skating performance, was disqualified because his coach told him to change lanes at the wrong time. The South Korean women’s short track team, who had won four straight gold medals, was disqualified because one of them grazed a Chinese skater – after they had won the race. Lindsey Vonn, an American expected to medal, fell in the Giant Slalom while her teammate, Julia Mancuso, was on the course. They stopped Mancuso in the middle of a great run and made her re-ski; she ended up eighteenth. For every medalist, there are any number of stories of those who fell short of what they hoped to accomplish at the Olympics.

I was back into Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music this morning, reading the chapter, “What Makes a Musician?” The short answer is practice. Though he was willing to admit some of us have more affinity than others when it comes to playing and singing, the way one becomes an expert musician (or anything else, for that matter) is by practice.

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – anything. In study after study, of composers, players, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years . . . It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery. (197)
No doubt, everyone of the athletes I mentioned above, as well as everyone else out there with them, have put in their ten thousand hours and all the practice and expertise in the world doesn’t guarantee a gold medal, or even a mistake-free performance in the moment when it appears to matter most. As sit and watch their performances, framed by the announcers in a gold-or-nothing value system, its hard not to think of those who didn’t make it as failures. And we mean it as a bad thing. Levitin, again.
We also know that, on average, successful people have had many more failures than unsuccessful people. This seems counterintuitive. How could successful people have failed more than everyone else? Failure is unavoidable and sometimes happens randomly. It’s what you do after the failure that is important. (207)
Though he goes on to make a case for sticking to it, whatever it is, the reality of life is a string of courageous failures does not necessarily end in a triumphant medal ceremony at some point. In one of my favorite movies, Miss Firecracker, Holly Hunter plays Carnelle Scott, a woman in the last year of her eligibility for the Miss Firecracker Contest in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Her sister had won it years before and Carnelle is sure she can do the same, even though the odds seem insurmountable. When her name is called, she places fifth. In the midst of her disappointment, she gets up to march in the parade. Her sister condescendingly tells her she doesn’t have to go and Carnelle answers, “When you come in fifth place, you have to march behind the float.” Later, Mac Sam, the come-and-go love of her life says to her, “I’ll always remember you as the one who could take it on the chin.”

Not long after, she says, “I just want to know what I can reasonably expect out of life.”

“Not much,” he answers with a laughing cough.

“But something,” she persists.

“Eternal grace,” comes the reply.

If we could all sit down together and share, each of us would have some sort of “what if” or near miss moment that felt as cataclysmic as life looked to those failing Olympians we saw today. Looking back, perhaps, some of those moments proved to be life-altering and some didn’t. Tonight, though, I’m thinking more about the little failures and defeats that wear away at us the way feet have worn down the stone steps of the Boston Public Library over the years: the daily wear and tear that makes life feel as though that’s what life is. Mary Oliver says it this way in her poem, “The Wild Geese”:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Yes, it does, and it calls us not to be defined by the little collections of failures anymore than we want to be remembered by our big mistakes. Everyone of the failers tonight in Vancouver had someone they went to, someone who held them, or cried with them, someone who reminded them they were not alone. My lead in to the Olympics was Patty Griffin’s song, “Little Fire,” from her new album, Downtown Church. At the end of a day that held a failure or two of my own, I’ll end it with her words and music.
my friend come and stand beside me
lately I’m feeling so along
a flood came and washed the stones of the path away
and a hot sun turned the mud to dust

calling the sheep in for the evening
there’s a voice that calls above the howling wind
it says come rest beside my little fire
we’ll ride out the storm that’s coming in

my friend you know me and my family
you’ve seen us wandering through these times
you’ve seen us in weakness and in power
you’ve seen us forgetful and unkind

all that I want is one who knows me
a kind hand on my face when I weep
and I’d give back these things I know are meaningless
for a little fire to warm me when I sleep


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

lenten journal: practice life

Sunday night I was working at the Durham restaurant when one of the servers came to tell me that Chuck, one of our vets, was in the dining room. (It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a clinic to raise Schnauzers.) He and his wife were well into the entrees of her birthday dinner when I finally got out to their table to say hello. Our conversation bounced a round a bit, but after a while I asked her what she did for a job and she said, “I practice sports medicine and urgent care.” Who knows why, but I woke up thinking about her statement, particularly her choice of verb: practice.
“We wage war,” I thought to myself, “and we practice healing.”

Maybe its all the reading about music, or watching and listening to Bill Mallonee Saturday night as he deftly played and sang his way through wonderful songs and stories, or the pull to pick up my guitar because I have a gig with my friend, Terry, in about six weeks and, well, I need to practice.

Practice: the word came into English a half a millennium ago carrying much the same definition it does now: to perform repeatedly to acquire skill. A hundred years later, people began using it in relation to professions: “she practices law.” Yet, it was hardly a hundred years ago that people began using it in relation to faith: “he is a practicing Christian.”

I got home late from work last night and sat down with Ginger and the pups with no other intention other than to sit down with Ginger and the pups. Amidst the conversation and puppy rubbing, we began watching the ice dancing and came in just as the Canadian couple who won the gold medal began their routine. Sunday night, as I was sitting at the bar at the restaurant finishing the produce order, I got to see the last few minutes of the USA-Canada hockey game. I had the same thought in both situations, as I watched people moving across the frozen floor on burnished blades with ease and expertise: how did they learn to do that?


A number of years ago, Billy Crockett and I wrote a song called “Walking on the Earth,” which was inspired by the call to “Carpe Diem” in Dead Poet’s Society. The song began

walking on the earth for a little while
how do how do we make it count
kicking up the dust for another mile
how do how do we make it count
As the sentiment unfolded, we said
walking on the earth it’s your only trip
how do how do we make it count
there is no practice life, this is it
how do how do we make it count
I still love both the song and the movie, and, tonight I would like to make one small change to the lyric

there is a practice life: this is it.

Practice healing. Practice kindness. Practice compassion. Practice guitar and piano, harmonica and mandolin. Practice breaking eggs and painting flowers. Practice friendship and kindness and sitting still. Practice eating well and walking dogs and taking to neighbors. Practice having friends over for dinner and meeting for coffee. Practice affirming one another. Practice having fun for no particular reason. Practice singing with the radio while the car windows are down. At a stop light. With the windows down. Practice following your heart. Practice listening and praying and singing hymns. Practice talking to little kids. Practice laughing out loud. Practice asking questions that don’t have answers. Practice resurrection.

I know the last phrase because of my friend, Tim, who practices life whole-heartedly. The phrase is the title of his blog, and is taken from this poem by Wendell Berry who practices farming and poetry.
The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
Practice Lent. Practice Love. Practice Life.


Monday, February 22, 2010

lenten journal: lent and late night

somehow the night
has slipped away
without leaving the
words it promised
and I have spent
far too long
staring at a
white page in
a dark room
as though the
sheer silence of
sitting would shape
the darkness into
sentences and help
me keep my
promises for Lent
I have deleted
far more than
I have saved
but that’s true
most any day
I must sleep


Sunday, February 21, 2010

lenten journal: only connect

The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. Your brain on music is all about, as Francis Crick repeated as we left the lunchroom, connections. (This Is Your Brain on Music 192)
The story of the chapter that ended with the above paragraph was one full of connections, human more than neurological, as Levitin talked about researchers he had read and met and worked (the Crick, for example, is of Crick and Watson, the discoverers of DNA) with to do what it took to figure out what happens to our brains on music. If I knew much about science, I’m sure the names he mentions would be hall of fame ready, but his point has less to do with name dropping that it does with how one discovery or realization connected to what someone else was doing, or what questions they were asking; most of the time, the connections that surfaced showed up with at least some element of surprise.

I can’t hear the word connect without thinking of one of my favorite novels, E. M. Forster’s Howards End because connection lies at the heart of a story that tries to reach across the class lines of English society.
Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire . . . Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
Last night, Bill Mallonee sang at our church. I know Bill because of John Brashier, who was my youth intern in Fort Worth and then invited Ginger and me to help with youth camp at his own church. Bill, with his band Vigilantes of Love, sang a concert at camp. Later that year, he came to Gordon College, north of Boston, and we drove up to hear him. That night we met Christopher Williams, who became a good friend and who is a wonderful singer/songwriter himself. Last spring, John asked me to come take part in a writer’s conference at his church in Jackson, Mississippi. He also invited Tim Youmans, who had been his youth intern and is now a soon-to-be Episcopal priest, as well as a singer/songwriter. The third leader was a person named Justin McRoberts, whom we only knew through his songs – specifically his cover of Patty Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy.” Justin McRoberts is on the cusp of releasing a new project, Through Songs I Was First Undone, which is a collection of the songs that helped him make connections. I just noticed that if you preorder before February 23 (there’s still time), you get a bonus EP; Christopher Williams is singing with him on two of the tracks, one of which is the Patty Griffin song.

Only connect.

The more Levitin talks about all we have learned about how the brain functions and what neurons are firing and what processes are at work, the more there is to explore and explain. What we know best is how much more there is to know. Life and faith are no different. I can no more decide to just go about my business here in my little part of the planet than one of my neurons can decide to fire independently without cause or consequence. Both my neuron and I are inextricably connected in some ways we can comprehend and many, many others that are inexplicable and even invisible.

One of the folks connected in several ways to Bill et al. was David Gentiles, my friend who died a little over two months ago now. There aren’t too many circles in my life to which David didn’t have some sort of connection. As I was writing, I thought about a blog post he wrote a little over a year ago talking about his connection with his three daughters; the musings came about because he was listening to John Denver (on vinyl) singing “Poems, Prayers, and Promises.” The chorus catches me by surprise tonight, thinking of him.
I have to say it now it’s been a good life all in all
it’s really fine to have a chance to hang around
to lie there by the fire and watch the evening fire
while all my friends and my old lady
sit and watch the sun go down
and talk of poems prayers and promises
and things that we believe in
how sweet it is to love someone
how right it is to care
how long it’s been since yesterday
and what about tomorrow
what about our dreams
and all the memories we’ve shared
Connect the prose and the passion and love will be exalted. Gather in close and sing to each other. The connections run deep and resonant, my friends, across the hemispheres of the world as well as the brain, across miles and years, through synapses and songs, through heartbreak and hopelessness, outlasting depression and despair, holding us together because it is who we were created to be, as the old song says: we are one in the bond of Love. Patty Griffin wrote

when you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
when you forget my love
I’ll try to remind you
and stand by you
when it don’t come easy

Only connect: it’s the whole of the sermon.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

lenten journal: re-member

I was reminded of a Madeleine L’Engle story last Sunday because Jake, one of our divinity students, mentioned it in his sermon last Sunday. L’Engle spoke of a couple with a very precocious young daughter who was not thrilled at the prospect of having to share the house with a soon-to-arrive baby brother. Soon after they brought the baby home from the hospital, the little girl announced she needed to see the baby – alone. The parents were a bit hesitant, but the girl was insistent, so they agreed, but stood with the door cracked so they could hear what was happening without her knowledge. They listened as she pulled a chair over and climbed up into the crib with the infant, and then they heard her say, “Tell me about God; I’m forgetting.”

Life, faith, and memory are inextricably connected. How, then, do we remember?

Daniel Levitin is making me think. Hard. Our brains, he explains, create frameworks of understanding, or schemas, in order to make sense of the world and to give it some sort of structure and form. Because change is a constant and because our brain is constantly receiving new information, those schemas are always under revision and are an extension of memory: part of the structure the brain creates depends on what it remembers of what happened before. We remember names, dates, experiences, smells, sounds, images – to name a few – and, of course, songs. But when we talk about remembering music, we must also remember:

The most important way that music differs from visual art is that it is manifested over time. As tones unfold sequentially, they lead us – our brains and our minds – to make predictions about what will come next. (125)
As the brain give structure and form to the good vibrations, it has to do so over time, in real time, as the melody unfolds. There’s more:
Most astonishing was that the left-hemisphere regions that we found we active tin tracking musical structure were the very same one that are active when deaf people are communicating by sign language . . . We found evidence for the existence of a brain region that processes structure in general, when the structure is conveyed over time. (130)
Making music in our brain is multi-tasking at its best, as is remembering the songs we’ve heard. Making memories is much like making sense of the vibrations: the brain goes back to put back together – to re-member – what it knew before. Our faith is as old as the songs. We’ve been singing about and to Whoever’s Out There as long as we’ve been able to imagine that there is a God and it’s not us. Faith, like music and memory, is conveyed over time.

The Genesis account of how the universe came into being uses a week as a metaphor to say God didn’t just belch us into being, but took time to let the oceans flow, the mountains rise, the creatures find their places, and the sun to set. And it was good. Jesus didn’t drop into the world as a fully formed Messiah, but came into the world as a baby born in a barn and grew up over time. On the night he was betrayed, he ate with his disciples and said, “As often as you do this, remember me.” And then they sang a song together.

How, then, do we re-member who God is? How do we put things back together over time?

A number of years ago, Ginger and I got to go to Israel and Palestine. The Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives was one of the places where our guide said we could be sure we were walking where Jesus had walked. (Some of the other sites were not so verifiable.) The root systems of the olive trees there go back to Jesus’ time. I had recently been in a production of Godspell, and as I sat in the garden I remembered one of the songs I had sung:
on the willows there
we hung up our lyres
for our captors there
required of us songs
and our tormentors mirth
saying sing us one of the songs of Zion
sing us one of the songs of Zion
but how can we sing
sing the Lord’s songs
in a foreign land
The Israelites held captive in Babylon couldn’t imagine how to re-member their songs and their faith when they were so far from home. How could they put the structure of their lives back together when they were far from what they knew to be safe and secure? But that is when we need to sing most, for it is the songs and the repertoire of memories they carry in their melodies, that help us re-member ourselves, re-member our faith, so we can do what all the king’s horses could not.
A song playing comprises a very specific and vivid set of memory cues. Because the multiple-trace memory models assume that context is encoded along with memory traces, the music that you have listened to at various times in your life is cross-coded with the events of those times. That is, the music is linked to events of the time, and those events are linked to the music. (166)
Over all the years of youth camps I have done, Communion has been a last night tradition. One year, Ginger and I were at camp with John Brashier and, as we finished Communion, I put Sarah McLachlan in the CD player:
I will remember you
will you remember me
The emotion in the room was palpable. “That song is full of memories,” he said.

“It seems like a good time to unpack them,” I answered. We stood and watched as the memories rode in on the words and music and the individuals in the room re-membered themselves and put themselves back together, again.

Come, tell me about God. I keep forgetting. Let us re-member together.


Friday, February 19, 2010

lenten journal: the melody of theology

I graduated from high school in 1974, which means all my high school dances were before disco took over, which is to say we had live bands. One of my friends was on the committee that picked the bands for our dances. If they could play “Free Ride” and “La Grange” they got the gig. The little bit of recorded music that was played was saved for when the band took a break and was mostly all slow dances. The best slow dance of them all was “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. Those of us who owned the record of Days of Future Passed knew that “Nights” went on beyond the radio edit into a poem, “Late Lament,” that finished with these words:

cold hearted orb that rules the night
removes the colors from our sight
red is grey and yellow, white
but we decide which is right
and which is an illusion
I thought of the closing lines of the poem as I read further into This Is Your Brain on Music this afternoon because Levitin was discussing perceptual illusions and the brain. He used Kaniza diagram to demonstrate how our brains perceive what is not actually there.

No matter how much I tell myself the triangles aren’t actually there, I still see them. So what does that mean about what I see? Is it “there” or not? It comes down to what we mean by that word illusion. The dictionary says, in psychology, it means, “a perception that represents what is perceived in a way different from the way it is in reality.” Then it says reality means, “something that constitutes a real or actual thing, as distinguished from something that is merely apparent.” Levitin has more to say:

Perhaps the ultimate illusion in music is the illusion of structure and form. There is nothing in a sequence of notes themselves that creates the rich emotional associations we have with music, nothing about a scale, a chord, or a chord sequence that intrinsically causes us to expect a resolution. Our ability to make sense of music depends on experience, and on neural structures that can learn and modify themselves with each new song we hear, and with each new listening to an old song. Our brains learn a kind of musical grammar that is specific to the music of our culture, just as we learn to speak the language of our culture . . . Music, then, can be thought of as a type of perceptual illusion in which our brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds. Just how this structure leads us to experience emotional reactions is part of the mystery of music. (108-109)

Illusion. Reality. Perception. Actual. True.

All of them are words in common usage and, when it comes to talking about how we think and feel as we live our lives out on this planet, they become charged, even dangerous. Listen to Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
There is what we see and hear, and then there’s what we see and hear. Real and true are not necessarily synonymous. The reality is any musical sounds are made up of vibrations, yet when we hear them, we hear music: voices, instruments, melody, harmony. And we hear the same music: When James Taylor makes the strings of his guitar vibrate, we all recognize the introduction and are ready to sing along:
when you’re down and troubled
and you need some love and care
and nothing oh nothing is going right
close your eyes and think of me
and soon I’ll will be there
to brighten up even your darkest night
As I was thinking about the implications of what Levitin was saying, I remembered a book (or at least the title of a book) I hadn’t pulled off the shelf in a long time: Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Melody of Theology. I opened the book to find these two quotes as epigraphs:
Without ceasing and without silence, they praise the goodness of God, in that venerable and thrice-illumined melody of theology. – Nicephorus of Constantinople

The virtuosity (or special calling) of a person is . . . the melody of a person’s life – Frederick Schleiermacher
Perhaps, we can also say of theology what Levitin says of music: the ultimate illusion is that of structure and form as we respond to the rhythm of God, to the melody of faith. I find myself, again, at the hymn that closed last night’s post:
my life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentation
I feel the sweet though far off hymn
that hails a new creation
through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing
it finds an echo in my soul
how can I keep from singing
Faith, said the writer of Hebrews, is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Just as we are moved to love and laughter and tears by the perceptual illusion of music and melody, so are our lives called and changed by the melody of theology that knocked Paul off his horse on the road to Damascus, sent the Samaritan woman running back into town to bring people to see the man that knew her life story and still loved her, forgave Peter for his denials of Jesus over breakfast on the beach, and left Moses barefoot in front of a burning bush.
Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
The mystery of music, Levitin says, is in the “perceptual illusion” of the structure our brains impose on the sounds we hear. The mystery of Communion is in something more than the motions of passing the bread and wine to one another. The mystery of faith is in the evidence of things not seen in the melodies that are our lives.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

lenten journal: get out the map

Over the last several years, and thanks to both inspiration and encouragement from my friends Chris and Kelli, I make handmade cards. I’m not doing much of it right now, but I enjoy looking through the boxes of scrap paper I have to find bits and pieces that collage together into something beautiful. Often the cards are blank inside, but one caption I keep returning to is, “Life is a journey without maps.” It’s a borrowed idea (I wish I could remember from whom; Buechner, I think), and I love the sentiment. We have often used the cards to celebrate graduations and other major transitions.

One of the glories of the English language is words can mean more than one thing. The kind of map I think our journey is without is a directional one: a spiritual GPS. Jesus said, “Follow me.” That’s as far as the directions go. No illuminated mall map with the “X” that says, “You are here.” Then there are descriptive maps: topographical maps, for instance, that document the landscape to give an holistic view rather than traveling instructions. When it comes to the second definition, life is full of maps, or so I was reminded reading This Is Your Brain on Music. Indulge me in a couple of lengthy quotes to explain what I learned.

We can think of the (basilar) membrane as containing a map of different pitches very much like a piano keyboard superimposed on it. Because the different tones are spread out across the surface topography of the membrane; this is called a tonotopic map . . . The auditory cortex also has a tonotopic map, with low to high tones stretched out across the cortical surface. In this sense, the brain also contains a “map” of different pitches, and different areas of the brain respond to different pitches. Pitch is so important that the brain represents it directly; unlike almost any other musical attribute, we could place electrodes in the brain and be able to determine what pitches were being played to a person just by looking at the brain activity . . . for pitch, what goes into the ear comes out of the brain! (29)
Life is a journey with a tonotopic map, a map that shows how your brain listens to music, and what the map shows is we listen with all of our brain, all different parts catching their part of the melody. Very cool. Stay with me – one more quote. The tones we hear are actually the frequencies of vibrations (strings, voices, you name it) and the notes we name in our scales (our musical map, if you will) have specific frequencies.
There is a fundamental quality of music. Note manes repeat because of a perceptual phenomenon that corresponds to the doubling and halving of frequencies. When we double or halve a frequency, we end up with a note that sounds remarkably similar to the one we started with. This relationship . . . is called the octave . . . This phenomenon leads to the notion of circularity in pitch perception . . . music is often described as having two dimensions, one that accounts for tones going up in frequency (and sounding higher and higher) and another that accounts for the perceptual sense that we’ve come back home again each time we double a tone’s frequency. (31)
Two things. First, I thought of James Fowler’s book, Stages of Faith, and the way he talks about what conversion means. Growing up Southern Baptist, I was taught conversion was a one-time-walk-down-the-aisle-come-to-Jesus-turn-away-from-sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll kind of experience. But Fowler talks about conversion as ongoing and repetitive: we come to Jesus over and over our whole lives long, being born again and again and again. When we do come to those moments of profound, life-altering change, we have to take time to circle off the path and assimilate the changes, examine the tonotopic map of the heart, and notice what we are hearing, or perhaps, how we are singing in a new key.

Second, I thought of Lent, or rather the liturgical calendar as a whole: I thought of it as a scale of sorts. Each year, beginning with Advent, we set the melody for the year, counting Sundays, keeping time by marking significant events in Jesus’ life, and in the life of the church in the largest sense – the Body of Christ – repeating the cycle now for half of the church’s life, at least. Coming around again to Ash Wednesday is like doubling the frequency, like moving to the next octave, moving forward and circling back home all in one motion, taking time to reflect and observe the tonotopic map of the heart to see what part of ourselves is responding to the minor key of Lent, the restorative melody of Resurrection, the carols of Advent and Christmas, and the simple soundtrack of Ordinary Time.
I love to tell the story for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest
and when in scenes of glory I sing a new new song
‘twill be the old old story that I have loved so long
Many years ago, I had the privilege of corresponding, briefly, with Madeleine L’Engle. The last letter I received from her was a form letter sent to tell of the death of her husband, Hugh. That letter had as much to do with my learning to follow the liturgical calendar because of the way she marked time: “Hugh became sick just after Epiphany,” she wrote, “and died just before Pentecost.” She could have said he got sick in January and died in early May, but she chose to keep time, to borrow a musical term, by circling back to notes she could find on the tonotopic map of the heart. Life, indeed, is a journey with a map – a map that leads us on even as it circles around to help us find the vibrations of the Spirit that resonate in our hearts and souls and minds.
my life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentation
I feel the sweet though far off hymn
that hails a new creation
through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing
it finds an echo in my soul
how can I keep from singing
Life is a journey with maps -- and music, as is Lent.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

lenten journal: tune my heart

I’m in over my head. One chapter into This Is Your Brain on Music and my brain is reeling, trying to take in all the terms and ideas Daniel J. Levitin has crammed into the first chapter. There is enough metaphor and music in those fifty-odd pages to keep me writing all through the night, if not all through Lent.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was in second grade when I started taking piano lessons. We always had a piano in our house when I was a kid, though no one spent much time there. My mom would sit down every so often and play one or two hymns that she knew, but that was about it. She also knew she wanted me to take lessons, so I did. For six months. And it was the seventh teacher who came out to the car and said, “Mrs. Cunningham, your son has musical talent and it will come out one day, but do him a favor and do me a favor and let him quit taking piano.”

Thus endeth the lessons.

What was happening in my lessons was I was learning to play by ear, rather than learning to read music. I got some of the basics – F A C E and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (she was British) – and could pick notes out enough to play the piece, sort of, but when she would stop me because I would make a mistake, I would say, “You play it so I can see how it sounds.” I could memorize what she played and repeat it faster than I could learn to read the notes. She caught me because she intentionally made errors and then I duplicated her mistakes.

I was in ninth grade before I got serious about an instrument, which was the acoustic guitar – and I still play. And I still don’t read music. I know chords, enough theory to be dangerous, and I still have a pretty good ear. When I look at a piece of written music, it feels like I’m looking at something in a foreign language, which is a good analogy because written music has a linguistic quality. I read music about like I speak Spanish. Un poco.

My friend, Randy Brown, is the reason I’m reading the book. He and I go back to Baylor days and working together on our act for All University Sing at Baylor. Music has been a part of our friendship from the first. So when he called to say the book would not only help me understand more about music, but would also teach me some things about me, I decided to read it for Lent. He also told me the first couple of chapters were pretty heavy on science and music theory, but to do the work to get through them because it would pay off. And, even though I feel stretched and a little lost, I’m already glad I’m reading.

I’m struggling with how to speak about what I’m learning without having to recap all the technical and scientific stuff, as well as the musical stuff, to set up what I want to say. I think the best I can do is hit the high points and encourage you to get the book because he explains things very well.

Levitin says pitch, rhythm, and timbre are the three key elements when we begin talking about music. Pitch, he says, is a psychological construct that answers the question, “What note is that?” When the hammer on a piano hits the string and the string vibrates, the vibration only becomes a tone when we hear it, which is to say it is psychological because it happens in our heads. Pitch is also one of the main ways musical emotions are conveyed. Melodies are relationships of successive pitches across time that our brain can learn to recognize, even when the melody is in a different key – at a different pitch – that what we heard before.

One more definition: tuning refers to the relationship between the tone and a standard (as in tuning the guitar) or between two or more tones being played together (as in tuning an orchestra). There’s more, but I’m going to stop here and say, since I read the chapter this morning the line (and melody) that has stayed in my head is, “Tune my heart to sing thy praise.”

And so Lent begins, for me, as a tuning exercise, if you will: tuning my heart to God and to those around me, seeking to hear and recognize the melody of grace in whatever key it may come, high or low. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is a hymn that serves as both melody and metaphor for me. It is both one of my favorite texts and one of my favorite tunes, when it comes to hymns, and one that has had a significant place in the soundtrack of my life.

o to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be
let thy goodness like a fetter
bind my wandering heart to thee
prone to wander Lord I feel it
prone to leave the God I love
here’s my heart Lord take and seal it
seal it for thy courts above
There have been times when this was a jubilant hymn: Sunday nights singing with my youth group in Fort Worth; days when the song came soft and low in the darkness of my depression; times when it carried reassuring memories and seedlings of hope as Ginger and I made moves and changes together; and nights when it was the bonding melody of friendship, sitting around our living room with guitars and other instruments, singing songs we knew by heart. Each time, my heart was tuned both to God and those around me.

Life, in many ways, is something we have to play by ear, if you will: there’s no set score to follow or part to memorize. Still, our lives go on in endless song. To learn the melody we must listen and tune our hearts to sing together.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

fast tuesday

It was somewhere in the middle of the day that I remembered today was Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, meaning tomorrow Lent begins. It feels more like Fast Tuesday: it got here quickly. I know part of the surprise for me is my work schedule keeps me from doing anything during the week but work. I leave the house each morning, Monday through Thursday, about ten-thirty and get home around nine-thirty at night, which pretty much kills the day. The other part is we have not found any continuing traditions around Fat Tuesday here in Durham that have helped us make the day more of a marker. All of that said, I think it’s kind of funny that it snuck up on me because I’ve been thinking about Lent for a couple of weeks now because I’ve been thinking about my Lenten Journal, which has been my practice for several years now: I write everyday, aiming for a thousand words a day, through Easter Sunday. I’ve known tomorrow was Ash Wednesday and it still caught me by surprise, thanks to what fills up my life and makes it harder to hear, or, should I say, to listen.

I have learned over the years that I must also be reading for my writing to spiritual practice during these days. Thanks to a referral by my friend Randy, I started This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin, which promises to be quite thought provoking. Thanks to Ginger’s sermon a couple of weeks ago, I am rereading Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Thanks to Ginger’s Valentine’s gift to me, I have a couple of issues of Harper’s Magazine that always have something to surprise me and are always so eloquently written. Thanks to a study I am going to be leading at church for four Saturdays during Lent, I’ve been reading the Book of Job, and will continue doing so.

The season, it seems, is beginning with thanks, which is a good place to start.

Now, I’m going to take advantage of a chance to get a good night’s sleep.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

everybody knows elvis

One of the things I love about Kate Campbell is she has Elvis songs: not covers, but songs in which he makes an appearance of some sort. She’s not the first to do it, but he does seem to enjoy showing up in her songs. One of her songs Friday night took me back to an old Don Henley tune, “If Dirt Were Dollars,” that holds these lines in the first verse:

I was flying back from Lubbock
and saw Jesus on the plane
or maybe it was Elvis
you know the kind of look the same
Henley was mostly looking for a laugh, even if it was sardonic, but Kate is aiming for something different. And she hits her target. Here are the lyrics to “Everybody Knows Elvis,” written with Mark Narmore on her CD, Save the Day:
Everybody knows Elvis
Everybody knows Jesus
Everybody knows you look both ways
Before you cross that road

And there’s nothing new
Under that old sun
Everybody knows Elvis
But you know nobody really does

Did you know him down in Tupelo
Did you know him on that Vegas show
Did you know him when he couldn’t sleep unstoned
Did you know him when he died all alone

Everybody knows Elvis
Everybody knows Jesus
Everybody knows beauty lies
In the eyes that behold

And two things that won’t die
True love and rock and roll
Everybody knows Jesus
But you know nobody really does

Did you know him in that upstairs room
Did you know him when that rooster sang his tune
Did you know him on that hill of doom
Did you know him when they laid him in that tomb

Cause everybody knows Elvis
Everybody knows Jesus
But you know nobody ever really does
As this Transfiguration Sunday draws to a close, I find myself humming along in anticipation for the turn coming in our liturgical calendar, Epiphany moving into Lent and our picture of Jesus moving from the One Who Came to the One Who is Going to the Cross. The baby in the manger is a far cry from the Jesus standing between Moses and Elijah as the Elvis on Ed Sullivan is from the 1968 Comeback Special. Both the later versions get more dangerous.

I love Advent and Christmastide and Epiphany, when the “glorious impossible” of the Incarnation is born again in our time; moving into Lent moves us from rejoicing in the compassion of God in human form to the somber reality of Jesus’ example of what it means to be human calling us to our own more authentic and dangerous existence. Long after Magi and mangers, we are left with a Messiah who is a freaking radical. Our three-year liturgical cycle has codified and ordered the stories, sometimes skipping over troubling verses, and, perhaps unwittingly, created a sense that we know the stories and their consequences.
Everybody knows Jesus.
For Valentine’s Day, Ginger gave me a new subscription to Harper’s Magazine. I let it expire a couple of years ago, as a cost cutting measure; I’m grateful for its return. In the “Findings” section, which is a random compilation of facts and statements juxtaposed in no particular order, the next to the last sentence reads, “People tend to think that God believes what they believe.
But you know no one ever really does.
I know I’ve still got a couple of days before Lent begins, along with my practice of a daily Lenten Journal, but I’m going to start early praying for disquietude. I’m ready for a comeback special of my own, which is to say I’m ready for some gospel changes in my own life, ready to see what kind of glorious damage an untamed God can do.

Stay tuned.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

a way with words

I went to hear Kate Campbell sing Friday night, which is a good thing to do when she comes to your town, or anywhere in driving distance. Her songs are full of faith and food, hope and history – both national and personal, making listening to her a reflective and thoughtful experience. One of her songs, “The Way Home,” was a touchstone for me in some of the darker days of my depression. After hearing her sing about her days growing up in the South during the height of the Civil Rights movement, I left thinking about how it is in life that we get from there to here: how we grow up, how we change, how we ingest what is fed to us, what we choose to hold on to.

Tonight, punching around with the remote, I came across a Gaither Gospel Hour show, which always catches my attention because I love singing old hymns. In one segment of the show, Bill Gaither was interviewing his wife, Gloria, about a song she had written and she said, in answer to one of his questions, “It’s important to have ideas bigger than your life.”

Their words and music took me here.

a way with words

The psalmist may have looked to the hills,
but all I have to do is drive by Hope Valley
Elementary to find the word for the week,
chosen to challenge their charges to growth
and greatness, or at least a better vocabulary.
I wonder what word I need to hear, what
big idea might be calling me from the valleys
of my own existence to heights and depths
I have not yet imagined. Then I think of
the words I know, words I have collected
and stacked on shelves; simple, one
syllable words: peace, love, faith, hope,
trust – all of them bigger than my life,
yet they too easily become part of the
scenery, more than the content of my
character. It’s one thing to quote; quite
another to let the word become flesh.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


It has rained all day
what snow was left has lost
its frozen self in the moisture
saturating the soil at every step

I am walking down to my car
with questions lining up like
sparrows on the lines of my mind
waiting for you to answer

as you do most every afternoon
when I call to say I am walking
and you smile into the phone
and you say my name

which matters on any afternoon
though today the sparrows are
thick as thieves I am cold and
it has rained all day


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

tapping the walls

I love being married to a good preacher.

Sunday, she knocked it out of the park – or at least knocked me around a little bit, prophetically speaking. My musings tonight owe much to what she had to say yesterday.

I knew going in to church that her sermon was based on the Luke 5 passage where Jesus first gave fishing advice to the guys in the boat and then called them to drop what they were doing and follow him and “fish for people” instead. I don’t know the lectionary by heart, so I didn’t know the Old Testament reading was another favorite – Isaiah 6 – that begins with the sentence, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.” The verse intrigues me because of a sermon I heard many years ago (I cannot remember the preacher) that challenged me to see the sentence as more than a marker in time. Isaiah wasn’t describing a chronological coincidence; he was making a statement of cause: something about the death of the king opened his eyes. Though I hold no attachment to any dead royalty, something about the circumstances of my life right now brought me to the same sense of sight. These are days that rumble with the distant thunder of change.

Ginger then invoked a third voice that made for a formidable trinity (small t, but powerful nonetheless): Annie Dillard, with this quote from The Writing Life:

The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years; attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.
From there, Ginger went on to paint the scene at the shore: Jesus calling out to the fruitless fishermen to drop their nets on the other side of the boat, they can hardly get to shore with their oversized catch, and then he says, “Leave your nets (yes, that would be the ones filled with fish), follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people.”

Growing up Southern Baptist, I was taught this story was about evangelism, hook, line, and sinker. Jesus calls us all to catch people and reel them in. Fair enough. But Ginger took a step back from the whole fishing metaphor to look at what Jesus asked the disciples to do, which was, in Annie Dillard’s terms, knock out a load bearing wall. Fishing in Galilee was lousy work. I would imagine it was a career you were born into, rather than being a chosen profession. You went out everyday in your little boat (read that literally) and took your chances, unsure of the fish, the nasty little sea, and the storms. I suppose Jesus could have gotten them to follow quite easily had he asked when the nets were still empty at the end of a long night: “Your life sucks; come with me.” But he showed them what it felt like to come in with all the fish sticks Mrs. Paul could have wanted and then said, “Leave your nets and come on.”

He called them to courage: come and see.

I know my sense of God’s presence has been heightened by the courageous moves my friend Gordon has made over the past couple of weeks. He has heard Jesus’ call and he has answered. After twenty years, yesterday was his last day as pastor of his church. He resigned to see what God has next for him. He’s knocked down most every wall around him. I am proud of and challenged by my friend.

Annie Dillard is actually talking about writing as she uses the metaphor of home deconstruction, the idea being that you can’t get too tied to any one sentence or paragraph. You have to be willing to lose them all and start over. Another writing book I read years ago suggested, when it came to rewriting and editing, to find the sentence you loved best in what you had written and discarding it to prove to yourself nothing you had written was sacrosanct. They’re right, unfortunately. Of course the other side of the page is being so self-critical that none of it feels worth keeping and you become paralyzed by even the smallest thing, unable to see beyond the minutiae that fill the page.

When it comes to writing/telling/living our life stories, the metaphor works fairly well. We have certain things about our lives that we cannot imagine doing without, and some of them are things we shouldn’t discard. I have no intention, for instance, of spending my life any other way than married to the aforementioned great preacher. Beyond our defining covenants, though, we are called to be willing to leave our nets, to pull down the house, to do what it takes to go when God calls. In that year that King Uzziah died, the passage ends with Isaiah answering, “Here am I, Lord; send me.” We cannot let ourselves become so convinced that we are living our best life that we are not willing to see what else God might have for us. And we have to find a way to an “Uzziah moment” when the despairing details of life pull us to a place where we see only empty nets and long nights and have no ears for those calling from the shore.

The other piece to Ginger’s sermon had to do with the four young African-American men who walked into the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina and sat down to be served at the all-white lunch counter, sparking a national sit-in movement. That happened fifty years ago this past week. The anniversary was marked by the opening of the International Civil Rights institute and Museum in the now renovated Woolworth’s building, and a group from our church drove up there after services yesterday. I had to work, but I did hear a piece on the radio that included interviews with a couple of the men. I was taken by this clip:
“We were totally exhausted,” he said, spending time—as college students always have—discussing “society in general, specifically people we loved and admired.” They gave their parents a hard time “because of what we thought they had not done.” The young men couldn’t understand how they could live with segregation. “To us, that didn’t make sense. Why not do something about it?”

Then they realized they were judging the wrong people. “Our parents didn’t do so badly; after all, look at us. All these months we had been talking and giving our parents hell,” he remembered. And with all the opportunity in the world, “I haven’t done one thing.” To walk away would be irresponsible.
And the walls came tumbling down.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m rehashing the sermon because I need to hear it again. I can hear the voice and I’m trying to figure out which wall needs to go, and praying for the courage to knock it out and the sense to duck.


P. S. -- There's a new recipe.

Friday, February 05, 2010

rainy day

take the umbrella,
she said
but I was not going
to be
gone for long and I
don’t mind
getting a little wet
I dry
off rather quickly

the rain lasted most
all day
a background of soft
to a thoughtful day
and I
must say I concur

there aren’t many days
like this
when hope clings to me
like rain
and love runs freely
like rain
in a storm of thanks


Thursday, February 04, 2010


I’m watching midnight come and go
the same way I do most nights,
sitting at the keyboard with a glass
of wine wondering what to write
and listening to some old friend
sing me into the solitude that
sows some sort of word play.

some nights I know the very song
I want to hear, but then some
send me searching for just the right mix
of moment and memory that
lets the words start wandering
into shape and sequence singing
in harmony, I suppose

because though the house is quiet
and I am the only one awake
I rarely think of myself writing
alone; I am panning for words
on the banks with anyone
who would find simple words and
polish them into brilliance

by listening and learning from
those who have panned and penned
already, because they show how to
line up words in ways that break
open hearts in ten words or less:
I was taken by a photograph of you
how did you do that, Jackson?


*the lyric is from "Fountain of Sorrow" by Jackson Browne.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

where does the time go?

I was getting ready for work yesterday morning when I heard the teaser on NPR about a story to play that afternoon asking, “Why does time fly when you get older?” I smiled, one, because I knew I would have to find the story later to hear what they said (I don’t get to listen at work), and, two, because I have my own working theory. I’ll start with the latter.

When you’re four years old and summer seems to last forever and birthdays take forever to arrive, time moves slowly because each year is such a significant fraction of life as a whole: at four, a year is a quarter of your existence. When you’re, say, fifty-three (as I am), that same year is one fifty-third of your total life – a much smaller fraction – and that year flies by. I think it also makes a difference that a four year old has the afternoon to chase butterflies and play in the yard (though today’s four year olds appear to be much more tightly scheduled, I’ll admit) and the days at fifty-three are pretty full. I had a prep list that made my afternoon move along quite briskly, thank you.

When I got home tonight and had a chance to read the story on the NPR website, I was pleased to see that my theory of how time flies made the short list, along with a couple of other ways of explaining how we understand and remember the days we live through, which were all very interesting. There’s another reason time appears to be gaining speed, or perhaps even gaining ground, that the article didn’t mention: death. At four, and for several years afterwards, life is an unending prospect, therefore any sense of having to keep time is way down the list. Everyday feels like it lasts forever because you feel like you’re going to last forever. Again, at fifty-three, not so much. And I’m not just talking about aging.

My friend David has been gone a little over a month now. For whatever reasons, Facebook keeps inviting me to reconnect with him, which I would love to do and I have even written on his page in the last week, but the truth is I can’t. I’m out of time. Time feels shorter because I ran out of it with him. Davy died too soon, yet I am aware I am entering a phase of life where saying goodbye to friends is going to become part of the fabric of my existence with greater consistency, and I’m left wondering how time could pass so quickly as to bring us to a closing scene.

My reading of Genesis has lead me to think of Eden as Paradise partly because there were no clocks. Time was not an issue. God came and walked with them in the cool of the evening and it didn’t really matter what day it was, only that it was time to walk. Sunrise brought a new day, sunset brought a new night, each one a link in a chain of eternal possibilities. The serpent promised the fruit would give Adam and Eve knowledge and what they learned was how to tell time. Well, they learned they couldn’t tell time anything; they learned how to tell time was passing. When Cain murdered his brother and death became part of the picture, it was time for a calendar: what day it was mattered because there weren’t that many of them.

Yet, if we only think of time as the string of moments that take us from Beginning to End, we’re not getting the whole picture. When we talk about light, we can describe it as both a particle and a beam, a point and a progression. Both things are true, though we aren’t capable of seeing both things at once. Time, I think, is much the same. It is a particular moment, a sequence of events, a span of emptiness, a culmination of a lifetime, a river of existence, a circle of gratitude. Perhaps time passes more quickly as we age because we begin to understand more of what it is, more of the layers of our lives.

Then again, perhaps it passes more quickly because we begin to see how little we understand. Look at the verbs we use: we tell, take, make, spend, waste, save, do, have, lose, mark, and keep time, to name a few. Still, our predominant perspective is one of a ticking clock: we are on a limited schedule; time is running out. I’ve been reminded this week of the old gospel songs about heaven because I’ve been immersed in Patty Griffin’s new gospel record, Downtown Church. One of the songs she sings is James Moore’s “Never Grow Old”:

I have heard of a land on the faraway strand
’tis a beautiful home of the soul
built by Jesus on high, where we never shall die
’tis a land where we never grow old

never grow old, never grow old
in a land where we’ll never grow old
never grow old, never grow old
in a land where we’ll never grow old
Many of those old heaven songs grew out of the first twenty or thirty years of the last decade, during The Great War and The Great Depression. I’ve mostly thought of them as escapist, but tonight, as I try once more to understand time, I wonder if I have sold them short. Instead of wanting out of this world, perhaps they see time as a dimension, a layer of life, that is clouded by clocks in this phase of our existence. What eternity offers is a return, or better a restoration, of time in its wholeness, meant to be something full of possibilities rather than being relegated to regulating how close we are to death. OK, so that was a little esoteric. My point is we are not held hostage by the clocks counting down to this life, as we know it, coming to an end. Yes, the limits and obligations of our existence are real, but they are not the final word. One day we will get to a place where we know the four year old’s endless afternoon was truer than our sense of impending doom. What Jesus defeated on the cross was death, which means clocks don’t count when it all is said and done, and life is too short to be consumed with what’s next on the schedule.