Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Unnamed Character

It's no secret that I like to write. Oh, I don't walk around with a sign or wear t-shirts emblazoned with writing slogans or even a label that says "I like to write!" but inside there's a little corner of me with a brand that says it. I told stories I made up to our preacher's daughter when she was maybe four or five and I was less than a decade older and enjoyed what they called "creative writing" exercises in school. Then for some reason I quit. Cold. I just didn't have time for it and maybe life was just to serious and adult for writing stories or much of anything now that school and college were over. But the itch was still down there, buried like a seed overwintering under the ground, waiting for a warming trend, a bit of water and a little oomph.

I've been taking an online class in creative writing for the last six weeks. It's been fun stretching myself out a bit, writing something more than just the reflections I write for Episcopal Café and the occasional essay with theological overtones, as much as I love writing those. In one exercise we had to pick a three digit number, then go to a chart where each number represented a person, a place or a thing and then write something that incorporated all three in 500 words or less. How do you take the number 735 and make something  with a foot doctor, a statue and the middle of a lake?  Other exercises were similarly interesting, but some were very difficult.

For a final submittal we had to post a story we'd been working on, 500 words or less, that we felt was something publishable or at least shareable. I was stuck; I couldn't think of a thing. I couldn't submit the first paragraph for comment in an earlier assignment because I couldn't come up with anything. Nothing. Nada. Zip. I finally decided to take a story I'd written years ago and snip out a bit of it and use that, reworking it a bit to stand alone from the original. For two or three days before it was due I took it, read it about a dozen times, changed some things and put it away until I had time to go back to it and make more changes. I thought I had it done but the morning it was due I woke up at 2:30 AM with the horrendous realization that I had made a huge error. I had a character dressed for a 17th-century ball rather than proper everyday gentlemen's clothes when he was supposed to be standing on a pier talking to a sea captain of a merchant ship just arrived from the Old Country. After lying there fussing about it, I got up an hour or so later, redressed him and then made some other changes to bring the piece down to the required number of words. One thing I didn't even consider doing was naming the main character. She hadn't been named in the original and I didn't have a reason to change that.

I submitted the piece and got feedback from the instructor. Yes, I knew the transition from the middle to the end was weak but I'd had to sacrifice most of that to meet the length requirements. Yes, it was a piece that had potential (I wish she could have read the whole thing instead of a truncated version), but one comment has stuck out for me and that was that I didn't name the main character and that naming the character would have added believability and universality. Huh. I thought I was writing about an experience, one of a thin space between several centuries of time and in which that character was simply the viewer, not involved in the action. I thought of the piece as a word painting, using words to capture a scene much as Monet used paint and canvas. He didn't name the water lilies or the bridge and his paintings had a lot of credibility, so my "visitor," "beachcomber" and "she" were just part of the scene, not more, and so she didn't need to be Jane or Tiffany or Hyacinth or something any more than they needed to be one of the water lilies, at least to my mind.

I will admit to being a somewhat compulsive namer. I name my cats things other than "Kitty" or "Tom," and I name computers and electronic gadgets. I named my cars, all except the truck I drive now which doesn't seem to want a name. The forklift at work is "Susie." Names sometimes give clues as to character or something about the person or thing named. Sometimes the name is quite indicative, other times it misses the mark by a mile. Still, people expect to have things named and so the character in my story, should have had a name, at least by my instructor's lights. I disagree. I didn't want a name to get in the way of the picture I was painting; I didn't want to remove that cloak of anonymity from her.

I think there are times when everybody feels like they need a cloak of invisibility around them, sort of like when they do something embarrassing like tripping over a curb in the parking lot of the grocery store, laughing out loud at a passing thought in the middle of a serious sermon in church or trailing a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe. There are times, lots of them. when I've wanted to wear mine and there were also times when it was ripped off by someone. Take the envelope I'd carefully left in the middle of the office floor with the name of  the one to whom I wanted the envelope given. I was on sick leave following surgery and had driven down to the office before dawn several days later to slide it under the office door where it would be seen before someone stepped on it. After I returned to work my supervisor teased me about the contents of the envelope which he had opened, thinking it was for him from Mary. Why would Mary have put her own name on the outside of the envelope when leaving it for him? It didn't make sense to me then and still doesn't, but mostly it hurt. I'd tried to do a good deed for one person and someone else had not only discovered it but used it as an object of humor not to mention handing Mary a sealed envelope that had been obviously been opened. Heaven only knows how many people he'd asked to see if it had been from them before settling on me as its originator.

I think we need a little anonymity now and then, for humility's sake if nothing else. Jesus said something about doing things quietly, like praying in private instead of standing in the middle of the church (ok, he used synagogue) praying out loud to impress people. There was also the injunction to take a seat at the bottom of the table rather than up near the head in case those seats had been reserved for others and the person would be asked to move to a place of lesser honor. Would someone have been any more grateful for a little help if I'd put my name on it instead of signing it as a a gift from God? It's a bit like the custom we used to have of leaving May baskets at other people's doorsteps; it was to give some pleasure and maybe some cheer, not needing expressions of gratitude. I miss that custom.

My character will remain unnamed, and I'll do the same from time to time. I'll consider it an exercise in humility. Maybe I should start looking for more opportunities to wear my cloak of invisibility. Think Harry Potter would lend me his? It could come in handy for leaving May baskets or...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday: a Point in Time

Holy Saturday

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

- W.H. Auden

Holy Saturday is one of those days when everything seems somewhat discombobulated in an odd way.  After the forty days of Lent the end of the period of fasting, penitence and prayer are almost over, but not quite yet.  The Altar Guild uses the morning to turn the church from stark and dark to brilliant with highly polished silver and brass and lots of flowers, and the scent of furniture polish faintly perfumes the air where the scent of the lilies have not yet reached. The place is a veritable beehive of activity, but then everyone goes home for the afternoon and the church waits, adorned like a bride for her wedding, awaiting the coming of the groom. Meanwhile the guests wait, doing their usual Saturday morning chores and running about, some of them still feeling the combined effect of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It's a day that seems to hold its breath, in a way. Like Auden put in his poem, it seems that "...nothing now can ever come to any good," yet we know that good will come, just not yet.

I sense in Auden's poem a feeling akin to the grief some of us experience when losing a friend or a loved one.  It seems that the whole world should be mourning with us, a feeling that life has either stopped or is somehow wrapped in a fog, a wispy curtain that makes things blurry and unclear. How dare people laugh or go on as if there were nothing wrong?  Can't they see that things are very wrong and may never be put right again?

With Holy Saturday, however, we have a hint (or, perhaps, a solid knowledge) that come the evening and then the next day, all will be made right again because the death that seemed so tragic and final just a day or so before has been roundly vanquished when the resurrection is discovered. But throughout the day the joy and elation of Easter is still just out of reach, as if through that veil that clouds our eyes with grief.

The Greek Orthodox, while observing Holy Saturday and Easter at a different time, nonetheless have something profound to tell us:
Today a tomb holds Him who holds the creation in the hollow of His hand; a stone covers Him who covered the heavens with glory. Life sleeps and hell trembles, and Adam is set free from his bonds. Glory to Thy dispensation, whereby Thou hast accomplished all things, granting us an eternal Sabbath, Thy most holy Resurrection from the dead. 
It is interesting how Auden and the Greek Orthodox hymnographer see Holy Saturday so differently.  Auden sees it through the eyes of Good Friday's grief while the hymnographer sees the reality of the grave that is the present but also to the future that is the promise of Easter. The balance between the two is what I believe is the crux of Holy Saturday. Even though every minute we live, breathe and move on this earth is the present moment between the past and the future, with Holy Saturday it is probably more apparent than most other times of the year.  In the present we mourn the death of a man over 2000 years ago while we look for the future resurrection he has promised us through his own example. 

I think today I will be more consciously aware of that point in time that is between times as I prepare to observe the yearly exuberance of Easter. While every moment is such a point between past and future, I think Holy Saturday's moments are probably among the most important and the most identifiable, if I choose to look at it that way. Auden's pessimistic "I thought that love would last forever" is, for me, swept away by the hymnographer's "Thou hast accomplished all things, granting us an eternal Sabbath," a promise that only love can fulfill, a promise that love has and will fulfill.

It's that simple.

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Friday, March 29, 2013.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Devil in the Details

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ -- John 11:28-44

It's a phone call or visit nobody wants but everybody receives at some point in time. Hearing of a death of a loved one or a dear friend is always hard. There's shock, there's pain and there's a feeling of unreality about it that takes time to shift and the mind to clear. Quite often the first instinct is to gather with others to mourn the loss in community, but in the end every person has to begin to deal with it on their own.

Jesus got the news but his reaction to it was a bit strange. Instead of rushing off to see his friend who was ill, Jesus seems to just go about his own business. After several days, he informs the disciples that Lazarus is "sleeping" and that he is going to go wake him up. By the time they get to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for at least four days. Jesus weeps for his friend, but then calls him to come out. Lazarus obediently comes out, still wrapped in grave clothes and everyone sees that a miracle has happened.

The story sort of plays loosely with the concept of time. Jesus gets the news, two days pass, he declares Lazarus dead and starts back to Bethany, arriving when Lazarus has been entombed for four days. He would have been buried on the day of his death; to delay burial was, in that time and climate, tantamount to inviting the unpleasant odor of decomposition (and some rather unpleasant visual signs). Jesus must have been quite a distance away or he took a rather leisurely saunter, but that's not the point of the story, I believe. The point was that if Lazarus had really begun to stink, and after four days it could have been quite a stench, then seeing him walk out of the burial cave would have made obvious the fact that a miracle had really happened. The smell proved the death, the animation of Lazarus in his grave clothes proved his resurrection.

Today in this country we seldom are exposed to the smell of death. Death is tidied up and sanitized, the dear departed, if at all possible, is dressed as if going to the office, Sunday dinner or even church, touched with just a hint of makeup to erase the pallor of death and make it indeed seem like they were just, if euphemistically, sleeping.  At one time and among some people there was a concern that they would be buried alive, so their coffins had small holes drilled in them and a piece of string was attached to a bell above the ground so that if the dead person awoke, they could ring the bell and someone would come and dig them up. There are cases where apparent corpses are found very much alive in the morgue, the catalepsy or other moribund state (thank you to my friendly neighborhood pathologist for that information) having reversed itself apparently just in time. While such recoveries might be miraculous in the eyes of the family and friends (and truly, they may be in a way we don't understand), it isn't quite the same as seeing someone who has been visibly and malodorously decomposing actually rising from the slab and walking out of their grave.

I wonder what Jesus was feeling when he stood by the tomb of Lazarus weeping. Why would he weep when just a moment or two later he asked that the stone at the entrance to the tomb be removed and he called for his friend to come out? I wonder, was he seeing a flash of his own death and entombment?  And the being summoned from the grave?

There are times when we stand by the graves of loved ones and weep, wishing so hard that we could call them forth again, even if for a brief time, but we know we can't. Perhaps, though, we can feel kinship with Jesus standing at the closed tomb of his friend Lazarus, maybe in a way the as close a kinship we can have with him as he was on this earth. We can have Gethsemane moments, share the joy of table fellowship, enjoy a good party and stand (or sit) in pain at the suffering of one we hold dear, but our feelings and emotions are out own to deal with, just as only we can know what pain feels like to us -- and how much of it we can bear. Still, we can empathize and, to an extent, share the pain of others. Perhaps that is part of what Jesus felt standing there and weeping. Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of things to come, who knows?

How could we accept the humanity of Jesus if we never saw him in very human moments, even moments just before he revealed his divinity?

And if someone only wanted to convince us of his divinity, why add all too human details?  Perhaps that is what makes the story of Jesus so believable -- the details.

 Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 23, 2013, under the title "Details."

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Music and Worship

 Commemoration of Cyril of Jerusalem

In all that he did he gave thanks
   to the Holy One, the Most High, proclaiming his glory;
he sang praise with all his heart,
   and he loved his Maker.
He placed singers before the altar,
   to make sweet melody with their voices.
He gave beauty to the festivals,
   and arranged their times throughout the year,
while they praised God’s holy name,
   and the sanctuary resounded from early morning.  -- Sirach 47:8-10

My late husband and I had a number of discussions about church over the course of our marriage. He was staunchly pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, I was Episcopalian. I sincerely tried to go along and be a good Roman Catholic wife, sitting by her husband's side at mass on Sunday, but there were so many things I found I just couldn't buy into wholeheartedly. One of the biggest was music in the church. The local masses (indeed, most of the ones I'd attended in various places) either ignored music altogether or used something that was considered perhaps "new" and "relevant." For me, it was neither. My husband told me, "You don't go to church for the music," and my response was, "For me, I can't really go to church without it."

Reading the passage from Sirach, it sounded very much like the kind of worship that I am not only accustomed to but need. The previous passage of Sirach identifies David as the motivator of the actions in today's reading and just about everybody knows how important music and praise were to David. He threw a bit of liturgical dance into the mix as well, something that caused some great friction in his home life with his wife, but he also composed psalms and songs that were part of the worship of God. David needed music; his need and ability led to his introduction to the life of Jewish royalty with Saul and eventually his own kingship. Music was David's response to God, just as it has been and continues to be for many of different faiths and traditions. Although the attribution is often debated, whoever came up with the saying "Who sings, prays twice" definitely had a very strong idea that music added another dimension to the words and intent of prayer and praise.

Churches all over have choirs behind, in front of or flanking altars, just as Sirach describes, and scarcely a great ecclesiastical event or festival (and quite a few completely civic ones) is held without bands, orchestras, ensembles, soloists, massed choirs or small vocal groups to help mark the occasion.  Over the millennia, there have been literally millions of pieces of church music ranging from simple chants to works as complex as Bach's B minor Mass or Tallis' 40-part motet, Spem in Alium  ("I have never put my hope in any other but in you, God of Israel"). Every year new songs and hymns are written to add to the repertoire, seeking new ways to connect the spirit of the human to the worship and praise of God in new and greater ways.

For my husband, words were the vehicle to God, but for me, I need music to add that extra something that connects me with the holy. I can pray in silence or even worship via the spoken word, but even then in the back of my head there's usually a hymn or a piece that I've sung running somewhere under it all.

I can draw two conclusions from my contemplation of the reading from Sirach. One is that each person has a kind or style of worship that works for them and that is as it should be. It would be a boring world if we were all the same, even in church. The other is that it is less important how one prays and worships than the fact that one does actually do both. If music is a vehicle, then let it roll.

Now I've got that hymn "To God Be the Glory" running through my head. I guess, really, it's better than a jingle for laundry detergent or some fruit-flavored drink for children. Yes, definitely much better, but I just wish it weren't so difficult to have Spem in Alium playing though.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Monday, March 18, 2011.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Teaching the Mystery

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him. -- John 6: 60-71

Jesus has been teaching again, this time not just the twelve disciples but other Jews gathered around him. He was speaking in metaphor, talking about himself as the bread of life that had come down from heaven. The crowd was confused and so were the disciples, so confused that they complained that the teaching was too difficult, too hard to understand much less accept. The usual twelve seemed to have that problem quite often, but this time, some disciples and even some of the crowd found it too much to handle and beat feet. 

Maybe it's trivial, but I had the same feeling in algebra class in high school. The teacher might as well have been talking Hittite or declaiming in Greek pentameter for all the sense I could make of equations. If I could have beat feet myself, I would have, and for much less a reason than having my teacher proclaim himself as having come down from heaven and would return there. No, my adoptive father said I had to take the class, the school said I had to take it and so I sat in algebra and tried to make sense of the incomprehensible. I have full sympathy for the disciples who must have felt the same but under very different and more life-affecting circumstances.

Why would Jesus deliberately speak so metaphorically?  In a way, it's like free kittens. Just because something is advertised as free doesn't mean it isn't going to end up costing something -- or even a lot of something. Free kittens need cat food, litter, toys, trips to the vet, all things that cost money. Jesus knew that lessons that came too easily didn't allow for growth and growth was what the disciples had to do in order to understand and then to teach others. Like the algebra teacher, Jesus had to make the brains work because parroting answers without understanding how they came to be the right answers didn't help anybody. There were going to be questions asked, and the students would have to understand the subject in order to teach others.

You know, it's still a hard teaching. Every time we take the Eucharist we are taught that this is the Body of Christ, yet how can the body be a thin, flat, cardboard-like wafer?  It's a mystery, yet we believe that somehow, some way, it really is what we are told it is. We, products of an advanced scientific and literate society, can't figure it out, yet we look somewhat scornfully at disciples more than 2000 years ago who couldn't figure it out either. We, like Peter, can profess our faith, but as far as really understanding intellectually what it is we are professing, we don't always understand it any more than most of us can figure out quadratic equations. Still, it is the belief that matters, whether we fully understand it or not.

Come to think of it, life without a few mysteries would be awfully dull, wouldn't it?

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 16, 2013.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Linen and Relationship

Thus said the Lord to me, ‘Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.’ So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, ‘Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.’ So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And after many days the Lord said to me, ‘Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.’ Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth. -- Jeremiah 13:1-11

The life of a prophet is never easy. People ask you for information and heaven help you if you get it wrong. The prophets of God have even a harder job; they get orders to do all kinds of odd, not to say weird things like giving their kids goofy names, walking around the marketplace with a yoke around their neck, or strolling around naked. Now that was a particularly nasty thing since the Jewish laws expressly forbade nudity, especially in public. No, working for God was often very difficult business but then, God was pretty selective in hiring prophets and pretty specific in giving orders to those prophets.

Jeremiah's orders in this particular reading were to buy some new underwear and then to put them on. Jeremiah was told not to wash it before wearing, but why? A good washing might remove any grit or sand or tiny particles that might scratch or otherwise cause discomfort but God said "Don't wash it" so Jeremiah did just that. Now I don't think anyone knows with any certainty how long someone would actually wear such garments between washings, maybe a day, maybe longer, so who knows how long he had it on, but after some period of time God told him to go hide it by the river. After another unspecified amount of time God told him to go get it and, naturally, it was completely ruined. The whole exercise, it appears, was to serve as a visual expression of what happened when the garment was separated from its owner and left to its own devices, just as Israel would be in the near future.

Underwear is a rather intimate thing, despite the visibility due to low-rise pants and shorts among the younger people which often show almost as much as they cover. Underwear lies between sensitive skin and outer clothing which might be rough and scratchy. Let's face it, Downy is a fairly new concept, fine linen was and still is very expensive and perhaps not all that soft, especially at first. At a deeper level, however, it's the intimacy factor that seems important in this reading from Jeremiah.

God chose Israel as God's own people. God initiated not only a covenantal relationship but an intimate one, one that only God seemed to cherish. The words God spoke to Jeremiah had anger in them, but when I read it I hear a lot of heartbreak too. Israel had been unfaithful time and time again, and each time they repented God took them back -- until the next time. I don't want to stretch the analogy too far, but in a way the Israelites seemed to treat God the way they would old underwear to be discarded as no good to anyone while they chased after what was new and perhaps more tangible and seemingly more accessible and desirable. That was their mistake, and what God promised was the consequences of their mistake. And yet, during and after those consequences, they returned to God -- until the next time.

Underwear is nothing much to us (and some of it is literally nothing much). It gets old, it gets worn, we pitch it and go to the store for a new package. The new underwear is a bit stiffer with the sizing in it unless it's washed first, but even then it takes time for it to get really broken in. Eventually, though, it has to be replaced, no matter how soft and comfortable it has gotten. What's that got to do with relationships, though?  Other than as a metaphor?

The connector is intimacy -- both underwear and relationships deal with intimacy, at different levels, mind you, but still a connection between them. God used Jeremiah's underwear to make a point. God had sought an intimate relationship with Israel just as God seeks one with us, one that is closer to us than skin. It can be a soft, comfortable relationship but it can also be a slightly scratchy one, it depends on us, not God.

So in my musing, I have to ask myself is how close do I let God get, and how much do I pay attention to the messages, whether or not they are metaphors and whether or not it seems I am being given instructions to do something that seems a bit goofy. Maybe a deeper question is what is it I need to do to make that relationship closer, more intimate and more fulfilling -- because God wants it to be that way.  The biggest question is what's holding me back? Waiting for a sale on Downy, maybe?

Meanwhile, God is waiting -- patiently.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 9, 2013, under the title "Intimacy with God."



Wednesday, March 6, 2013

An Inner Dialog

“Why MUST you be so stubborn?  You’re in there, I know it. And I want you to come out.”

 “I don’t think I’m being the stubborn one. You are. “

 “Oh, really?  I’m trying my best, you know, but you just won’t cooperate.”

“I am cooperating, but I think you may have the wrong end of the stick here.”

“Oh?  You think so, huh?”

 “Yes, I do. The idea you have is worth pursuing, but you’re looking at it the wrong way, I think, or maybe just putting it the wrong way round.”


“What is the point you’re really trying to make? What is your angle?”

(I describe what I think I want to say. I won’t bore you with the specifics)

“So given that information do you think it’s better to start with specifics and work outward (like a wide –angle lens) or start with the wider world and move inward to the heart of the problem (microscope) like you do with your TRs (theological reflections)?”

“I guess that’s been my problem. I’m not sure which way I’m supposed to go with it. It sounded so good when I was in the shower the other morning. I tried recording as soon as I was out of the bathroom, but it wasn’t anywhere near the same.”

 “That’s part of the problem. You can’t get back what’s been released. That’s why you’re struggling. You have the image of something that existed for only a moment or two in time and now you can’t remember how you got from point A to point B. Sounds like you’ll have to come up with a better way of capturing these thoughts and saving them, even in the shower.”

 “Yes, there is that, but I can’t drag my android into the shower with me, now can I? “

“No, you can’t, but you can come up with something else. Meanwhile, what are you going to do about your problem?”

“Scrap it? Put it in the file of ‘started but not finished’? Outline it?”

“That’s up to you. How important is the idea to you?  How much do you want to do something with it?  What do you want to accomplish with it?”

“Right now, I honestly don’t know.”

“Then the answer is there. Just let me sit in the ‘ideas’” folder of your computer and if you feel strongly enough about it and have some idea of what you really want me to say, take me out and try again. That’s the best I can tell you.”

“Ok, since you’re not going to be a good little essay and write yourself, I think I will follow your advice. Into the file with you. I hope we meet again –“

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mar 2 - Venite, exultemus

Commemoration of Chad of Lichfield

O come, let us sing unto the Lord;* let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving;* and show ourselves glad in him with psalms.
For the LORD is a great God;* and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are all the corners of the earth;* and the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his and he made it;* and his hands prepared the dry land.
For he is the Lord our God;* and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.  -- Psalm 95:1-7 (KJV, with markings from the BCP 1928, p. 459)

I grew up singing hymns: "Amazing Grace," "Onward, Christian Soldiers," "In the Garden," "At the Cross" and, most frequently, "Just as I Am."  We sang them all so often that it was easy for me to memorize them. Even 60+ years later I can still probably sing many of them (at least in my mind since the voice has gone to pot) without too much difficulty. 

I remember the first time I walked into an Episcopal Church. It was a brick church, rather than the wood and plaster Baptist church across the street from my house. The service was read from the prayer book in gorgeous, plummy King James English, like the Bible we read at home and church. And the music, well, that was the clincher. It was rich, some of it familiar foursquare harmony and some of it totally different with lots of words sung on the same notes but with changes of pitch at the end of the line. It was my first exposure to Anglican chant and, for me, it was one of the things that said, even at that first visit, that the Episcopal Church was going to be a big part of my life in the future. I fell in love on that visit, and even now, half a century later, it's been an enduring love. Sometimes it's been a painful relationship but something that has always drawn me back to it.

When I officially  became an Episcopalian we used the 1928 prayer book and the 1940 hymnal. At the little Episcopal church overlooking the river where I worshipped when I was at home we did Morning Prayer three or four Sundays of the month and Holy Communion once, so we used to sing the Venite, exultemus  (Venite, for short) nearly every Sunday.What with singing it so often, it didn't take long for me to learn it, as well as the Benedictus es and the Jubilate Deo, the other two standard canticles we sang every week. You know, I learned a lot of scripture as a Baptist, but as an Episcopalian I learned that chanting was one of the easiest and most reliable ways of learning scripture, as well as enabling me to pull them out of my brain even years later when I needed the comfort of familiar words and encouraging phrases in a way that evoked happy and prayerful experiences.

Reading the lessons for this morning, I was overjoyed to run into an old friend, but something was wrong. It wasn't long enough. I remember more verses being sung before ending with the Gloria. So I dug out my 1940 hymnal and, sure enough, there was more. 

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;* let the whole earth stand in awe of him.
For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth;* and with righteousness to judge the world, and the peoples with his truth. -- (Ps. 96:9,13)

There, now that's better. It seems to complete the thought so much better than the verses that follow the first seven in Psalm 95:

Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts* as in the provocation, and as on the day of temptation in the wilderness;
When your fathers tempted me,* proved me, and saw my works.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said,* It is a people that do err in their hearts, for they have not known my ways.
Unto whom I sware in my wrath,* that they should not enter into my rest.( 95:8-11).

Not quite so easy to chant, much less fit in with the exquisite praises that went before, but then, that's how psalms seem to go, almost bipolar in their composition, a mixture of joy and sorrow, praising and cursing, confidence and fear. I think that's one reason Psalms are such an important part of our liturgy. For many, they're the best (and possibly the easiest to understand) parts of scripture because they tend to speak to the human condition in all its goodness and its rottenness as well. Many folks can recite very little scripture off the top of their heads, but I venture to guess most of them have the 23rd Psalm down pat if not a paraphrase available at a moment's notice.

I'm not the world's biggest fan of the psalms, but when I remember bits like the Venite, I am a believer. Maybe it is being in touch with history and tradition both scripturally and musically, maybe it's just because music has always been such an important part of my life and the church feeds that part so beautifully, but this is one of the psalms and canticles I hold on to in my mind and my heart.

So much has changed in the nearly 50 years since I my confirmation. I'm glad to say that music is still a very great part of the service. Even though we still on occasion sing the psalms in Anglican chant, we don't do the familiar ones like the Venite. We've seemingly moved on to different kinds of music and, yes, we sometimes sing "Amazing Grace" and "Just as I Am" like we did in my Baptist church but we also do Cwm Rhondda (in several incarnations such as "God of Grace and God of Glory" and "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah") and Hyfrydol ("Alleluia! Sing to Jesus" and "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah"). We may perversely use the name given to the tune rather than always using the first few words of the hymn, but we sure don't mind re-using a great tune more than once! Still, each hymn has a focus, the same emphasis of either speaking of or a direct appeal to God, and isn't that sort of the same thing the psalms do? And, like the psalms, the hymns seem to have human emotion and character inserted in them from time to time. Perhaps that's what makes them memorable and accessible.

This morning I will probably have the canticle and the tune I learned to chant it (Walter) running through my head. I can think of a lot worse pieces of music, and perhaps it will be like a more-or-less constant prayer rising, even if I'm not totally consciously thinking about it. Come to think of it, isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing anyway, living in prayer?  Aren't we all? 

Origninally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, March 2, 2013.