Monday, July 21, 2014

Miranda Socrates

            As I noted when I last wrote here, one of my resolutions for this new year was to read more poetry.  My poetry reading has slowed, though I was delighted by William Stafford’s Sound of the Ax: aphorisms and poetry.  Here are a couple of gems.

Everything has meaning.  Be a total receiver. (35)
Before you hear the music, you do the dance. (8)

            I don’t know about making resolutions mid-year, but here’s one.  I will write on this blog at least once a month.  I need to find time to put some thoughts together in this space, while not neglecting all the other places where I need to bring ideas together.
            Over the course of my lifetime, I have tried to grow as a receiver.  I have grown in the music I listen to.  When I was younger, it was pretty strictly pop and rock.  I was much like my peers.  I have since grown to love jazz, appreciate classical and opera, and I have developed a fondness for country.  To have even said such a thing when I was in high school or college was to invite social ostracism.  Yet there is a certain beauty and truth that gets expressed well in country music.
            To be sure, there are a lot of clichés – honky tonk angels, good loving women who put up with a bit of cheating and boozing in their men (though there are limits).  Yet many country women portray rare strength and determination.
            Recently I have been listening to the music of Miranda Lambert.  O.K. not an original discovery by any means.  Rolling Stone did a big write up of her in a recent issue on country music.  Anyway, I decided to give a listen.
            One finds a generous portion of country music clichés on her albums.  In her songs there are cheating men, though she doesn’t put up with much.  Guns play a role in the music (“Time to Get a Gun” from Revolution). 
There are times when Miranda Lambert’s music digs a little deeper.  That’s the way the world goes ‘round, One minute your up, the next you’re down, It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown, That’s the way the world goes round.  I have to appreciate that image of half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown.  I have been there.  I have had days like that.  That’s the way the world goes round, at least sometimes.
Jesus shows up, too.  Now Jesus can be a country music cliché, but sometimes you can encounter something a little more real.  I ain’t the kind you take home to mama.  I ain’t the kind to wear no ring.  Somehow I always get stronger when I’m on my second drink.  Even though I hate to admit it, sometimes I smoke cigarettes.  Christian folks say I should quit.  I just smile and say God bless. “Cause I heard Jesus He drank wine, and I bet we’d get along just fine.  He could calm a storm and heal the blind, and I bet he’d understand a heart like mine.  A Jesus who reached outside the bounds of respectability seems more akin to the Jesus of the New Testament than a Jesus who likes us in our Sunday best.
This isn’t the most profound stuff around, but it is delivered with a music that swings and a voice that has melody and meaning.  There is something to dance to here, on many levels.  To be sure, Miranda Lambert is no Socrates, but it will never be said of Miranda Lambert what was said of Socrates – He had wide-se, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass.  (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, May 26, 2014

The Ache of Ministry

            One of my resolutions for this new year was to read more poetry.  I’ve met with some success.  I have been much less successful writing this blog, but I hope the different pace of summer will afford me more opportunity to write.
            Among other things, poetry helps me pay closer attention.  It connects me to my soul in unique ways.  Much of the language of the Bible is poetic language.
            One poet I have been reading is not someone new to me, but “an old friend,” Denise Levertov.  If you are unacquainted with her poetry, I commend it to you.  She writes wonderfully about faith, nature, relationships, politics – in short, about much of life.
            In a poem from the 1960s, entitled “The Ache of Marriage,” Levertov celebrates marriage while acknowledging the work it entails.
            The poem begins:

            The ache of marriage:

            thigh and tongue, beloved,
            are heavy with it

I so appreciate the sensuality present, the embodiment of emotion.
            The poem ends:

            It is leviathan and we
            in its belly
            looking for joy, some joy
            not to be known outside of it

            two by two in the ark of
            the ache of it.
I hear joy and work and the desire to embody love in the daily-ness of life together.
            The poem, though, helped me reflect on something else, the ache of ministry.  Earlier this year a member of my congregation died.  He was a relatively young man, divorced, with three children - 23, 20, and 17.  When it came time to plan his memorial service, I met with the three children.  They were “in charge” of their father’s service – the ache of ministry.
            On the day of the service, the twenty-year-old, a son came to me.  He wanted to wear a tie, but he wasn’t sure how to tie it.  That is something we typically learn from our fathers, but his father was not there.  It isn’t easy to tie a tie while it is on someone else, so I put it around my neck and tied the knot, loose enough so I could then put it on this young man.  In that moment, especially, the ache of ministry.
            The ache of ministry – the joy and work of it, the desire to embody love in the daily-ness of it.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Senate Prayer

Yesterday, March 26, I was afforded the honor of praying at the beginning of the session of the Minnesota State Senate.  I offered this prayer:

God of all peoples, intricate weaver of the web of life, seeker of justice and pursuer of peace: Here we are in this state which those who came before us called L’Etoile du Nord – the star of the North. It is an audacious statement, O God.  Yet you call we human beings to the high calling of moral grandeur and spiritual audacity, to use the wise words of Abraham Joshua Heschel.  You call us to do justice and nurture kindness.  You call us to pursue peace and seek freedom.  You call us to create beauty and tend the earth wisely.  You call us to recognize our sister and our brother in every one we meet, and to see in each person something of your image.  You call us to live with a certain humility and with compassion.  May we, today, in this deliberative body, hear your call again.  Grant us determination, courage, and imagination to respond to your call.  May our work this day help our state shine more brightly with the light of justice, shine more brightly with the light of freedom, shine more brightly with the light of compassion.  With moral grandeur and spiritual audacity, today let us pursue our calling to be L’Etoile du Nord.  Amen.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Wash the Dust

Presentation made for the Northeast Minnesota Chapter, American Guild of Organists
January 25, 2014 at First Lutheran Church, Duluth, MN

Texts: Luke 9:1-6; Psalm 150
            “Wash the dust.”  Are you puzzled?  Intrigued?  Still waking up?  Someone wondered if I might be addressing the fact that dusting the organ doesn’t seem to really fall under anyone’s job description.  Custodians are often cautious about touching the instrument, and when you come near, you want to practice, not dust, though I bet you end up doing it more than you would like to admit.  But that’s not what I want to talk about.
            Jesus tells his disciples, “Whenever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”  So maybe you are wondering if I am going to address the relationship between organist and pastor.  There has probably been a little dust shaking from both sides from time to time, don’t you think?  I am going to let my friend and colleague David Tryggestad handle that one.  Good luck.
            Wash the dust.  A number of years ago, I got caught up in watching Ken Burn’s PBS series on jazz.  It rekindled my interest in the music, more accurately set that small spark aflame.  Jazz music since became a part of me in an important way.  Anyway, in the introductory episode, the jazz drummer Art Blakey is quoted.  “Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.”  Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.  I like that.
            Not long after, though, I was in the home of a pastor who is also an accomplished musician and organist.  He was serving a smaller church in rural Minnesota as he was moving toward retirement. Prior to that, he had been the organist and minister of music in a larger congregation.  During the visit I noticed a small placard on his wall.  “Music washes away the dust from everyday life.”  While my memory is a little fuzzy here, I think the quote was attributed to Tchaikovsky.  What I do remember is feeling a little disillusioned.  Imagine Tchaikovsky stealing from Art Blakey.
            So I got the idea that this thought has been around for a bit, one of those quotes that has probably been mis-attributed countless times, or borrowed countless times.  I ran into it again just this week, attributed to someone named Bernard Auerbach.  I tried checking this out, but discovered that in all likelihood, the originator of this thought was a German novelist named Berthold Auerbach, who wrote, Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.
            But it really doesn’t matter who said it or wrote it, or about which music it was written – classical or jazz, the statement rings true.  There is something about music which reaches deep inside of us.  The American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Music takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence and whereto.”  In some ways it is a more elegant way of saying that music washes away the dust of everyday life.
            Music is powerful.  It touches the soul and spirit.  It moves the mind and heart.  I was reminded of this again in a poem written by the recently deceased Irish poet Seamus Heaney – “The Rain Stick.”  Describing the instrument, Heaney writes:
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop.

            I say all this as one who has little training in music.  Perhaps that’s one reason I have enjoyed such good relationships with church musicians.  I know you know more than me!  Though I have little formal training in music, I have been moved by music, all kinds of music – classical, jazz, rock, pop, reggae, folk, blues, country, world.  Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.  I have had those kinds of experiences with music.  I have had music whisper dim secrets that startle my wonder.  I have, through music, felt like a rich man entering heaven through the ear of a raindrop.  Music is a deeply spiritual enterprise, and not all my spiritual experiences with music have happened in church.
            But many of them have, and it is in our churches that we openly acknowledge the spirituality of music.  We find this in our sacred texts.
Praise God, for God’s mighty deeds.
Praise God according to God’s surpassing greatness.
Praise God with trumpet sound…
with lute and harp… with tambourine and dance… with strings and pipe
with clanging cymbals… with loud clashing cymbals.

You can almost hear the music in the psalm.  The work you do as church musicians is important work.  It is holy work.  Finally we believe that it is the Spirit blowing that washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.  It is our task to offer the music that lets the Spirit do his work, do her work.
            Here I want to get very down to earth.  Music matters.  It is important because it is powerful, but in our understanding in the church it is powerful for a purpose.  Ultimately the purpose of our music is to open people up to the Spirit of God so that the dust of everyday life can be washed away, so that they may be moved to wonder and to the praise of God, so that they might experience what it is like to be a rich person entering heaven through the ear of a raindrop.  Jesus’ remark about shaking the dust off one’s feet is in a passage about the mission of God’s people – to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.  That is our purpose, our reason for being as the church.
            There is a creative tension here.  Music is powerful.  Good music matters.  Excellence and skill matter.  I have been in some places for worship where I am sorry to say if the Spirit is going to move at all in a soul, it has to do that in spite of the music.  I know that is not true for any of you here!  Excellence and skill matter, yet playing the organ in worship is something more than, other than, different than performance.  You offer your best gifts to help others discover the gift of God that is in them, sometimes buried under the dust of everyday life.
            There is another tension that exists in worship music in our day and time – a tension that frankly is not always very creative.  It is the tension between the organ and other instruments in worship.  We need to affirm the beauty, the power, the potential of the organ, while also being open to the trumpet, the lute and harp, the tambourine and dance, strings and pipe, clanging cymbals, loud clashing cymbals, maybe even electric guitars and drums.
            Part of the beauty of the organ is its adaptability and functionality.  It can make so many wonderful sounds and lead singing so well.  I remember reading a few years ago a thoughtful article about just how useful an organ is for leading worship.  And it can be played by one person, unlike a worship band where we are always trying to coordinate multiple people.  For churches that have them, and that is many of our churches, the organ needs to be seen as an essential part of the worship life of the congregation.  Your music is vitally important if we are to offer worship that helps the Spirit wash the dust from everyday life and evoke wonder, and the praise of God.
            Yet the music that can move the soul and spirit comes in different varieties.  Sometimes we have made excessive claims for ourselves, as if worship could not really happen without the organ.  And that’s not true either.  And with all that is happening in our world, the organ will never be the only game in town when it comes to worship music.
            Maybe one way I can put this tension is to say that the organ is instrumental to the worship life of the church, and yes, I hear the pun.  Organ music is instrumental in two senses of that word – you help make worship happen in an important and vital way.  It often does not happen without you.  Hold your head high.  At the same time remember that the organ is instrumental, it serves another purpose, opening people to the Spirit of God, and we need to acknowledge that the music that washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life comes in other modalities.
It is a challenging time to be a church organist, but then it is a challenging time to be the church.
Pulling all these threads together, I hope you will be proud of what you do and what you offer to the church.  Thank you.  Because of the music you play, people are more open to God, to God’s healing, caring Spirit.  I want to encourage you to continue offering your best.  That you would take time today to be here says a lot about you.  Congratulate yourselves.  Finally, in this challenging time, be gracious and open to the experiments in worship music that are happening.

There is another passage in the Bible where cymbals are mentioned.  If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  Paul does not think that this kind of clanging cymbal really praises God well.  Music matters because of its power.  It can wash the dust of everyday life away, but it does so in the service of discovering a love which holds us, which embraces us, which challenges us, a love in which we discover who we are, and for what, whence and whereto.  If the music we offer is only blowing dust, and not helping discover that love, then we are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.  But I am convinced we are here because we seek a more excellent way.  Blessings.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Prayer for MLK Birthday Celebration

Because I needed to attend a denominational meeting, I was unable to participate in the Duluth-area Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration Ecumenical Worship Service.  I was invited to share a prayer and this is the prayer I shared with those gathered.

Creating, Redeeming, Sustaining God, seeker of justice and pursuer of peace:  We gather this afternoon in memory and celebration.  We remember, today, your servant Martin, whose life was all too brief, but who, in his life, taught us something about justice, taught us something about changing the world, taught us something about the beloved community, taught us something about the beauty of each person, taught us something about the power of dreams, taught us something about the strength to love.  We celebrate the way his life continues to send ripples of faith, hope, love and courage into our world.
If all we do is remember, if all we do is celebrate, we miss an opportunity that your Spirit presents to us today, the opportunity to be moved and changed in our own lives.  May our remembering and celebrating lead to transformation.  Move us in the direction of that complete life that Martin preached about – a life where we love ourselves rightly, where we engage in action to help others, and where we orient ourselves to you, O God.  In Dr. King’s own words: when you get all three of these together, you can walk and not get weary.  You can look up and see the morning stars singing together, and the children of God shouting for joy.  When you get all of these working together in your very life, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Transform us today O God, as we remember, as we celebrate.  Amen.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Remarks on the One-Year Anniversary of the Sandy Hook School Shooting

I was asked to speak at a community remembrance of the Sandy Hook School shooting here in Duluth.  This is what I shared:

             On December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, a troubled twenty-year-old young man with easy access to guns chose to take those guns into Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Twenty children and six staff members were killed.  A troubled youth, guns – a story repeated again just yesterday, a story repeated too often.
            We gather today to remember Sandy Hook and the people affected.  We gather to remember not just with our heads and our voices, but to remember deeply, to remember with our hearts, to remember with our souls.
            We share the grief of the families who lost children and loved ones.  We share the grief of a community.  We share the grief of all too many who have, in the days since this shooting, lost friends, neighbors, co-workers, children, loved ones to gun violence.  These events mark our souls.  They sear our consciences.  They leave a particularly deep impression because there is something inside of us that is convinced we can do better as a society with guns and violence.  And we should let these feelings do their proper work.  Here is what I mean, in two quotes.
            Wendy Lesser, The New American Spirituality, 180: An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality….  We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy….  The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart.  Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness.
            Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 92: If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won.  Then death, be proud.
            My faith is a faith that trusts that while death marks us, wounds us, scars us, while we feel its sting and we grieve its presence, it does not get the last word.  Healing, community, hope, love – these overcome, these can rise from the grave dug in our world by events like the Sandy Hook shooting and other incidences of gun violence.
            As the bells ring, as the names are read, as we feel our grief, as we touch our wounded hearts, our scarred souls:
o                    May our sadness transform into tenderness
o                   May our sympathies be enlarged
o                   May our love be expanded
o                   May our gratitude for what is good flame up
o                   May our insight be deepened
o                  May our commitment to what is important be strengthened
o                 May our aching for a new day be intensified
o                 May our faith, hope and love remain lively

Then death, though it often speaks loudly, then death, though we feel its sting intensely, then death, particularly death at the barrel of a gun, will not have the final word.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Poetry and the Soul

Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places….  Yet despite its toughness, the soul is also shy.
                                                            Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness, 58

            I just returned from the third and final of a series of “Soul Leaders” retreats.  These retreats were intended to provide space for the exploration of our souls as ordained or licensed leaders within the United Methodist Church in Minnesota.  We used poetry, music and art in circles of trust to welcome our shy souls, in methods based-in and inspired by Parker Palmer.
            For some, poetry is, at best, a tolerable method for exploring the soul.  For me, the opportunity to use poetry to explore my hopes, dreams, fears, longings and relationship to God is a delight.  I rarely leave a book of poems without having had my soul enlarged a bit.
            One of the delights of this Soul Leaders experience for me was that prior to each retreat some poetry was working on me already.  I brought with me some poetry that had been finding its way into my life in the days and weeks just prior to each retreat.
            In the winter, there were these lines from Rilke that I took with me:

                        How we squander our hours of pain,
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end.  Though they are really
seasons of us, our winter-
enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape,
where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home.
                        (an early version of the Tenth Duino Elegy, tr. Stephen Mitchell)

            When we met in September, it was not long after Seamus Heaney died, and I was re-reading some of his work, and when I do that I often find something I had previously overlooked.  This time it was his poem “The Rain Stick” (The Spirit Level).  The lines that held me, in particular were these:

You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop.  Listen now again.

At that retreat we did a lot of drumming
            This week, I carried with me Wallace Stevens.  I first encountered Stevens’ poetry while working on my doctoral dissertation.  My dissertation had nothing to do with poetry, but exercising late at night, I watched the PBS Voices and Visions series on poetry.  Wallace Stevens was one of the poets featured.  Stevens poetry can be challenging, but I find him worth the struggle.  Both his poems and his reflection on poetry are meaningful.
            I don’t know what drew me back to Stevens last week, just before the retreat, but something did.  Here are a couple of his reflections on poetry:

It is life that we are trying to get at in poetry.  Opus Posthumous, 185

One reads poetry with one’s nerves.  Opus Posthumous, 189

Things that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions (poems) very often have meanings that differ in nature from the meanings of things that have their origin in reason.  They have imaginative or emotional meanings….  In short, things that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions very often take on a form that is ambiguous or uncertain.  It is not possible to attach a single, rational meaning to such things without destroying the imaginative or emotional ambiguity or uncertainty that is inherent in them.                                                             Opus Posthumous, 249

This latter helps me understand not only the potential richness of poetry, but also the potential richness of Scriptures which are often poetic.
            The Stevens poem that has been sticking with me most the past few days is a late poem, “July Mountain” (Opus Posthumous, 140).  It contains these lines that have been particularly moving within me:

We live in a constellation
Of patches and of pitches

Thinkers without final thoughts
In an always incipient cosmos

The sense of openness and adventure and creativity in these lines captures something important to me, to my soul, to my relationship with God.
            I am grateful for the poetry which opens my soul.

With Faith and With Feathers,