Memories light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories of the way we were
Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another for the way we were
Marvin Hamlisch, Barbara Streisand
The beer was empty adn our tongues were tired
And running out of things to say
She gave a kiss to me as I got out and I watched her drive away
Just for a moment I was back at school
And I felt that old familiar pain
And as I turned to make my way back home
The snow turned into rain
Our psychic life may be lived at different heights, now nearer to action, now further removed from it, according to our degree of attention to life.... It is memory above all that lends to perception its subjective character.
Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory
Last night I began reading Alfred Kazin's lovely memoir, A Walker in the City. Kazin writes beautifully about the neighborhood in Brooklyn in which he grew up, describing it with words that evoke so well one's senses. His memories are powerfully shared.
Halloween is, for many adults, a day of memory. Perhaps we remember our children, now grown into adulthood, in their costume of choice heading out into the streets to Trick-or-Treat, or heading to some neighborhood carnival - a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a princess, a color crayon. Maybe we think even further back to our own childhoods - cold October evening in Minnesota when five blocks seemed like you were visiting the border country with some strange neighborhood, and candy, which was otherwise so difficult to come by was freely bestowed on you by strangers.
Memory, at its best, when enjoyed and savored, but not clung to excessively, can make us more perceptive, more sensitive, can help us pay more attention to life and deepen our subjective appreciation of it. Memory can hone our subjective sense of touch, making us more aware of the pain, angst, the beauty, the joy of living.
With Faith and With Feathers,
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
I am not an artist, or at least not a visual artist. I cannot paint well. I do not sculpt. I enjoy working with words, and have occasionally attempted to put them together in the art of poetry, but I would not say I have created “art.” I am not an artist, yet I have continued to nurture a deepening appreciation for art. At its best, art enlarges our capacity for experience. It deepens our capabilities for richness of experience.
This summer I had wonderful opportunities to view great art in New York. Here I want to share a few of the pieces I viewed interspersed with quotes that speak to me of the essential value of art for life.
“A moment of beauty makes us quiver through and through, reverberates through our being, touches foundations, an experience that ripples through sensation, feeling, thinking, action, ethics.” Michael Eigen, Contact With the Depths, 8
“Curiosity, and awe, a respect for complexity, the disposition to identify empathically, the valuing of subjectivity and affect, an appreciation of attachment, and a capacity for faith are worth cherishing.” Nancy McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 45
“The intrinsic value of human life lies in the capacity for feeling and in the experience itself…. To maximize the richness of experience is to maximize the quality of human life” Charles Birch and John Cobb, The Liberation of Life, 168, 173
With Faith and With Feathers,
Sunday, August 17, 2014
So much has been said and written this week about the deaths of Robin Williams and Michael Brown. I hesitate to write more. Yet I have seen very little written that makes any connection between these two heartbreaking events. I think there is a connection. Both deaths have brought to light pain that often remains silent.
The suicide of Robin Williams brought to light the fact that even among the most successful there can be pain. Looking at the world we often envy the rich, the famous, the successful. We imagine that their lives might be cushioned from some of the pain and sorrow of the world. To be sure they need not worry about where their next meal is coming from or about where they are going to sleep away from the elements. Materially they are doing well. When compared with the suffering endured by the hungry, the displaced, the refugees in war-torn countries, the suffering of the well-off may seem minimal. It would do us well not to try and compare human suffering in ways that minimize the very real pain of persons regardless of their social, economic or cultural status. Robin Williams suffered. He was in pain and the pain overtook him, overcame him. In pain, he ended his life.
The psychoanalyst Michael Eigen has said, “there is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real time.” We all experience pain in our lives, in one way or another. We experience loss. We experience grief. We experience disappointment. Our task is to try and find constructive ways to deal with it. It is not always an easy task.
Obviously, not all pain gets dealt with constructively. We would not call suicide a constructive response to the pain in life, though making judgments about a suicide after the fact is pointless, and can even be rather heartless. After a suicide, we need to find constructive responses to the pain of those grieving. We need to mourn and celebrate the life that has been ended.
In Ferguson, Missouri there seems to be some non-constructive response to pain. Protests can be a constructive response to social pain. Looting is not. But make no mistake about it, the death of 18 year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American, shot by a white police officer, has revealed deep pain in our society. There is pain and anger associated with injustice. This pain and anger is deeply rooted in our history. There are details to this case that continue to come to light, and we will learn more in the days ahead. What we know now is that an unarmed 18 year-old is dead, shot by a police officer in the line of duty. It has brought out of silence deep pain rooted in the history of race relations in our country.
Thinking about this pain that we don’t always see, but that has come to light in recent days, I think about some of these wise words.
All tremble at violence; all fear death. Seeing others as being like yourself, you should neither harm nor kill. All tremble at violence; life is held dear by all. Seeing others as being like yourself, you should neither harm nor kill. (Buddha, The Dhammapada, 129-130)
Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scraped-up elbows. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed. It would be great if we could shop, sleep, or date our way out of this. Sometimes we think we can, but it feels that way only for a while. To heal, it seems we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross, and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us. To be honest, that sucks. (Anne Lamott, Stitches, 10)
Seeing that all experience pain, we need to muster the courage to stand with the hurting. It is not always easy. Sometimes it just plain sucks. We should seek to do no harm. We should develop gentle souls. We should seek to be healers.
With Faith and With Feathers,
Monday, July 21, 2014
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
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
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
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.