Saturday, May 27, 2017

O Clap Your Hands

Omnes gentes plaudite. Psalm xlvii.
O CLAP your handes together (all ye people) : O syng unto God with the voyce of melody.
For the Lorde is hye, and to bee feared : he is the greate kyng upon all the yearth.
He shall subdue the people under us : And the nacions under our fete.
He shall chose out an heritage for us : Even the worship of Jacob whom he loved.
God is gone up with a mery noyse : And the Lorde with the sounde of the trompe [trumpet].
O syng prayses, syng prayses unto oure God : O syng prayses, syng prayses unto our kyng.
For God is the kyng of al the yearth : syng ye praises with understandyng.
God reigneth over the heathen : god sitteth upon his holy seate.
[The princes of the people are joined to the people, of the God of Abraham : ] for God (whiche is very hye exalted) doth defende the earth, as it were with a shylde.  - BCP Psalter
1549 *

I think it's a pretty well known fact that "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast," as William Congreve once said. I know that a lot of people use music to calm down, to get energized, to use as a mantra, to meditate to, and to keep occupied while driving down the highway or sitting  and waiting for a bus. Music is a gift that humankind has been using and enjoying probably forever. Campfire sing-alongs were probably a part of prehistoric life, and it's for certain that minstrels and musicians and storytellers have always been welcome, especially in areas where entertainment is lacking. One of the earliest and most important of traditional singing were the prayers and songs from the Bible.

One of the things that drew me to the Episcopal Church was the music that I heard there. It had a depth and a richness that I didn't hear in other churches, although I'm sure many of them had comparable music. But this was music that stirred my soul, it captivated me, and it wasn't like reading a book of Victorian love poetry.  When I read the Psalm for this evening, I immediately started to smile because in my mind's ear, I heard the Psalm being sung in an eight-part rendition written by an Englishman named Orlando Gibbons in the year 1622. It was an old favorite of mine, an anthem called O Clap Your Hands.

References said that the music was composed as a graduation piece when he received his music degree, but was also a part of the Ascension Day liturgy. Now, 1622 sounds quite old, but we know that the words that he used actually came from a much older source, the 1549 Book of Common Prayer's Psalter. It encompasses the whole of Psalm 47 with the exception of the first part of verse nine, and it  closes with the Gloria Patri which used to be common practice.

I was feeling kind of droopy as I read through the readings for today in preparation for writing this reflection.  I came across this one. I decided I needed to hear it again, so I got on my trusty iPod and before they even got to the bottom of the first page, my mood had shifted and suddenly life was a lot brighter. There something about this piece that creates energy and enthusiasm and in addition,  helps me remember the words of Psalm 47. That is  one of the benefits of music — it helps us remember things that might otherwise be forgotten.

How did we learn to recite our ABCs? We sang it. In Bible school, how did  we learn our Bible verses? We sang them. Even when we got to things like English grammar and how of a legislative bill becomes a law, or even multiplication tables  were the subject of songs simple enough in melody and in words to actually appeal to young children who sang them to learn some fairly complicated words and ideas without thinking of it as learning something complicated. It was just fun.
Probably almost every religious community at some point in time sings together, whether it is hymns, Psalms, canticles, prayers, anthems, oratorios, or cantatas.  We can sing out in the world anywhere, but  people might look at us as if we were slightly deranged, but in church we can sing boldly as well as prayerfully,  and we can appreciate the musical efforts of our choirs and instrumentalists all the way from the tiny cherub choirs to the most senior choir that usually sings at the main services. Music is an important part of our Christian life, just as it is just as it was in Jesus's day. David sang the Psalms, even danced to them.  I'm sure Jesus and the people in the synagogue sang the Psalms as well. They're easier to remember that way. 

The Episcopal Church, among some others, delight in the  richness of  music. We sing Bach chorales, and hymns that he harmonized, we sang things from Mozart and a number of other great classical composers. it's stuff we don't usually hear out on the street and usually it does not have a bass line that almost obliterates the melody altogether. This is music that can be sung and not shouted. This is music that encourages thought and prayer and not migraine headaches and deafness from the volume. This is music that is a gift from God. It enables us to draw closer to God because it focuses our thoughts on God and our responses and reactions to God. It encourages us to sing with the "voice of melody" even if we can't carry a tune in a bucket.  Not everybody can be a Pavarotti, but everyone can make a joyful noise. And that's what Christianity should be about -- making a joyful noise unto the Lord our God,  the King of all the earth.

Maybe we won't hear this anthem in church come Sunday but it's one that the has been sung for nearly 400 years and it still being sung. I wonder -- in 400 years will people sing music from Beyoncé? Or Michael Jackson? Or even the Beatles? Perhaps, but I imagine that among musicians in the church, O Clap Your Hands (among others) will still be sung with joy, reverence, and enthusiasm.

So this week let's make a joyful noise,  clap our hands and sing praise to God. Maybe it will be in the shower, maybe in the car, maybe under your breath as you rush for the train, or maybe out in the in nature on a long walk, or even just sitting quietly at home. I think you'll find the joy in the energy and the prayerfulness in it. I know I do.

God bless.

*Psalm 47 from 1549 Psalter, found at St Matthew's Choir, Ottawa Facebook Post, accessed 5/25/17.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 25, 2017.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Gifts from Alcuin

I'm pretty much a child of the modern age. Although I dearly love the 17th and 18th centuries, I'm much too fond of electrical lights, indoor bathrooms, shopping malls, and books - lots of books. I'm even more grateful for electronic gizmos such as my Kindle. I have over 200 books on my Kindle, and it's lovely to know that I can put it in my purse, and no matter where I go, I've got a whole library to choose from so that I can read anywhere and on just about any subject represented in my Kindle library. Whoever invented the Kindle certainly did me a great favor, as well as the world.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, books were more common among the upper-class who could afford them. Until Gutenberg invented movable type, books had to be pretty much hand copied, which was time-consuming and meticulous task. If I think back even further I find the example of a scholar from York who lived in the eighth and ninth centuries. His name was Alcuin and he was educated, it is said, by a student of the venerable Bede, famed author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People and many other writings.

Alcuin was made a deacon of the church and was named Minister of Education by the Emperor Charlemagne. This job involved establishing and maintaining schools centered in cathedrals and monasteries, basically the only places, other than the homes of very wealthy people who could afford private tutors for their children, where education could be had. Alcuin also established a number of scriptoria where books, ancient works both Christian and pagan, were copied and thus preserved. That we have writings from this period are due in great part to Alcuin of York. He had other talents and notable achievements, but to me, his dedication to education, scholarship, and also promoting cursive writing which speeded up the copy process, make him a star in my firmament.

Today, scholarship doesn't seem to have the cachet that it had at one time. Scholars are seldom treasured now the way they were way back when. Scholars studied, and frequently they studied until they understood the minutiae of a topic or subject that to other people would find totally unimportant. But the scholars kept going, kept investigating, theorizing, revising their theories and writing their theses, dissertations, essays, and letters in order to promote conversations with other scholars interested in the same topic. These discussions would be part of the curriculum a master would teach his students, and they in turn would pass them on to their own students. A lot of it was oral, but thanks to Alcuin and his scriptorium, there were more copies of ancient writings then there had been before.

It seems to me that the world thinks very little of scholarship these days. It isn't practical. It's all well to have a theory, but if it doesn't make you any money then what good is it? It doesn't make you famous, then what good is it? You can be the smartest person in the world, but if it doesn't bring you fame and wealth and respect, what good is it? Looking at our school systems now, football players are more highly rated than the kids in the Honor Society. The captain of the basketball team is a star but the local spelling or math  champion is just a master of the game. Even the kids that are whizzes with video games are given more respect than kids who study, come out with straight A's.

As Christians were told that we need to read and study the Bible. Of course, that's something we should do, but we should also read it with more than just an eye that reads a word and a mind that says "That means precisely this." It's like Alcuin reading the texts from a much earlier time. He could report it exactly as it was passed down, but it was also understood that it represented another time and another culture, and so it needed to be read with care so that it wasn't taken to mean what it really didn't say.

We run across this now with reading the Bible. We want to be able to use it in our daily lives as a guide and a direction, maybe even a rulebook, but that's not what it's all about. One doesn't have to be a scholar to read the stories and then try to place them into a modern context. We find a number of things in the Bible that seem to tell us this is so and this is the way it is. The problem is, that many of these writings were geared for a specific time, place, and culture. As time went by some things changed. Even God changed God's mind on several occasions, which should be an indicator that maybe what we think it says is not really what it meant to the people who first heard the words and passed them on.

To be a scholar would be a wonderful thing. To be an expert who could expound at length on a topic to which they've given their lives to understand, that would be a great thing. At least I think so. But I look today and wonder where war scholars come from if they are taught that the rules are what we say they are, and they may or may not apply to us. We don't teach our children to think critically. We teach them instead to recite facts and pass tests that measure their state of being able to regurgitate facts and figures to specific questions and specific subjects and achieve a passing grade and enable to school to keep its certification. Like when reading the Bible, we need to teach our children to think, to reason, understand, most of all to be to ask questions and to consider alternative points of view, even ones that are centuries old.

I appreciate Alcuin. I think I appreciate him  more every time I think about him, because to him learning was a passion and others benefited from his passion. I think this week I may try to see where my passion for books can lead me into maybe a slightly more scholarly way of thinking. Most of all, I need to take what I learn and use it wisely and well.  I think Alcuin would approve.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 20, 2017.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

New Kid on the Block

My family got larger this week. I have a new great-grand nephew, the third great-grand nephew to go with a great-grand niece. This new kid is the first grandchild for my oldest niece and I don't think her feet have touched the ground since his first cry.

The one thing I can say about Facebook is that it gets people in touch quickly, and within a couple hours of his birth, I could see the little tyke and his beaming parents. It reminded me of when his mom's own mother was born. She was a gorgeous baby who up to be a very lovely, fine woman. I hope this little guy also grows up to a handsome and fine young man.

With the addition of this new twig on the branch of the family, my great-niece now becomes a mother, and conveniently, celebrates her first Mother's Day tomorrow. I don't think her firstborn has gotten her presents yet, or even maybe a Mother's Day card, but I'm sure someone will step up and contribute flowers or a cake or something else to honor his mother in his name. It seems to be the tradition when one has a baby. Wish I could be there to see them, but I'm happy knowing that all went well, everyone is happy and healthy, and mostly over the moon over this new little bundle of joy that's joined our family.

My new great-grand nephew has a lot of life lessons to learn. He will have to learn to communicate, first by cries, then by babbles, and finally by words and sentences. He will have to learn to move himself from the squirms and waving of infant arms and legs to rolling over, crawling, and finally walking. Then Lord help the parents when he learns to run! He will need to learn to read and write, play nicely with others, trust his family to always be there for him, love them as much is they love him, and, I'm perfectly sure, he will be taught about the love of God and what it means in his life. With one grandfather a minister and his mother a preacher's kid, I would expect nothing less. But knowing the family, they will teach him  this, whether in specific words or by example. That's the way most of us learn - by example. What we see in our families is what models us for our future lives. This little man has a lot to learn, but he has a lot of loving teachers to help him every step of the way.

Even when we are full-grown people, we are still on a path of learning, and we still depend on people to help us along the way. Whether it's a member of the family, a close friend, a mentor figure or a religious leader, or even sometimes a total stranger, we are still in the process of learning even though were further along on the path then the little man is today. We have walked the paths of learning so we can help others, from babies to seniors. We have learned to count on others to help us, most of all, to count on God.

God has been with us from our first breaths to our last ones (which we haven't quite gotten to yet, thank God).  Even when we think we are too big to need God or anybody else, we usually find that that isn't the case at all. Our view of God may change as we get older, but God is thoroughly able to grow with us, to stand and watch us as we stumble along on our own and yet be there when we call out. We never outgrow God, and God will be there throughout the baby's life as well. He will know about God, and perhaps he will teach us a few things about God too. That's one of the things newborns and small children can do, even if they can only squirm, cry and sleep. And what a way to learn! 

So this week I'll probably be thinking quite a lot about this new twig on the family tree and his extended family. It's a lovely change from the gloom and doom, the fear and the anxiety of everyday life. I will be praying that God will always be with him and those with whom he comes in contact. I'll be watching for pictures of him growing up, learning to do all the things humans do, and becoming a man after God's own heart.

So welcome to the world, little Abel. Have a long, happy, and blessed life. God bless.

And God bless us all.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, May 13, 2017.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Need for Duty

 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near’, and therefore view your needy neighbour with hostility and give nothing; your neighbour might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’ - Deuteronomy 15:7-11 (Reading for the commemoration of Frances Perkins, Public Servant and Prophetic Witness)

This week I've been considering the word duty. Duty, for me anyway, usually denotes an action or a commitment that I may not willingly undertake, but feel that it is necessary for me to do so. I have a duty to pray for people that I don't like, and that's a hard one for me overcome. I have a duty to pay my bills on time, to make sure I follow traffic laws, and to try to see God in each person with whom I interact directly or indirectly, whether or not I really want to even try.

This week duty came into even more focus with the retirement of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who, at almost 96 years of age, has performed his duties with humor, a few gaffes, but a visible support to the Queen and representative of the generation were duty was a far more common word then we use today. For almost 70 years he has stood beside the Queen, supporting her in her own duties as well as carrying out his own. I look at the Duke and I see a very elderly gentleman, with bushy eyebrows, thin hair, a man who looks very different than he did in his prime, but with a very straight ramrod back of someone who had  trained  in the military to stand tall and do his duty. He's done his duty, and the British Commonwealth, as well as Anglophiles such as myself, salute a man who represents the true meaning of the word duty. I'm sure there were times he was bored to death, having unveiled so many plaques, opened so many different events and charities. I'm sure he couldn't have been totally utterly fascinated with all of them, but he did them anyway, and to the best of his ability. That's duty.

The commemoration for today is for a lady named Frances Perkins. Up until a few years ago, I would venture to say that most Episcopalians had never heard of Frances Perkins or, as it may be, never took any note of her presence. In 2013, she did rise to prominence with her victory in the annual Lent Madness competition to wear the Golden Halo for the year. We learned about Frances Perkins then, and it seems quite proper for us to remember her now, especially in light of current situations.

Frances Perkins was notable for being the first woman appointed to a US cabinet post by Franklin D Roosevelt. She was Secretary of  Labor from 1933 to 1945 and did not just what had traditionally been a man's job, but a duty that I believe reflected her passions and more than a sprinkle of Christian values. 

Among her accomplishments were her promoting and establishing adoption of programs that helped change the lives of many people:. Social Security; child labor laws; federal minimum wage laws; and unemployment insurance. That's a pretty good list and a lot of causes in which she believed passionately.  Having witnessed throughout her life the struggles of the poor, unemployed, underemployed, and especially the plight of women in the workplace, she took her experiences combined with her Christian faith and her perceived duty, and worked tirelessly to change as much as she could for the benefit of those most in need. 

Frances Perkins saw duty when she saw people struggling to make an honest living in a world that was very much like the one we live in today, a world of 1% versus 99%. The causes she worked for and believed in have become our causes because they are now under scrutiny and, in some cases, threatened by people who may not even know the name Frances Perkins, but they certainly see those programs so dear to her heart as nuisances and as blocks to their own success and increased wealth. We see social programs being shipped away, actions that will affect the poor and the needy, the sick, and those who have the  most negligible safety nets. I wonder if the word "duty" ever comes into the conversation or even the thought of those making decisions today that affect so many millions of people, but benefits so few?  I wonder what Frances would think.

Frances was a Christian (Episcopalian since young adulthood), who saw her duty and responsibility in changing the world to make it more of what God's kingdom should be than any earthly kingdom. Jesus laid the duty on all of  us to care for the less fortunate, and even the Hebrew Scriptures make a priority of being generous and caring for the widows and orphans, the sick, and even the aliens, the foreigners. It was their duty given them by God, and they took it seriously. Whether with straight backs or bent ones, duty was laid on all and, they did their best.

So, where do we stand at this point in time insofar as our Christian duty as outlined by the very Bible that we proclaim to believe in and follow? Where the duties that God and Jesus appointed for us to do? How are we to conduct ourselves so that we can not only perform our duty, but to let with gladness and with pride, and also with compassion?  It's our duty to create this kingdom of God on earth. God said so. So it's about time we got busy and started doing our duty.

This week I think I will try to stand a little straighter, be a little more thorough in doing my duty at whatever task I'm given, and to do it because it helps not just me but other people. I need to accept the word "duty" not as something unpleasant, but something I need to do joyfully and thoroughly, and with gratitude to God for guidance and help in this kingdom-making endeavor. One voice may not be heard by all, but it certainly can call for like-minded folk to join theirs.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 6, 2017.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


It seems like, listening to the stories of some of the lives of the saints, some of them seem to have been born to be a saint. Take Catherine of Siena. She was one of a large family home it's reported that there were 25 children in all and she was probably number 25). By the time she had barely reached what we would consider school-age, she was having visions of Christ and his saints. It seemed she'd rather meditate than play with dolls or play childish games. By the age of 16, she joined what was known as the third order of St. Dominic, even though her parents still did not like the idea.

By the time of her death in 1380, she had expanded her world considerably. She was considered to be extremely wise and full of insight, and people came to her with questions and searching for answers, answers what she could guide them to finding. She was also quite a diplomat, working to resolve a schism between the two popes that were claiming papal power at the time, one in Avignon, France, and the other in Rome. She did not fully succeed in healing the breach between the two popes, but she was much admired for her tenacity and diplomacy. She was also a prolific writer, leaving us with over 400 letters.
Wise and saintly people have always been admired and revered, and their possessions, sometimes even parts of their bodies, were often kept in places of honor. They became objects of veneration and places where the sick and hopeless went to beg the specific saint for intervention on their behalf. When Catherine died, the Siennese were afraid that Rome was going to keep her and so they quietly snuck in, removed her head and thumb, and took them back to Siena to St. Dominic's Church, while her remaining remains remained in Rome. If you go to the church in Siena you will find in a beautiful case the mummified head of Catherine of Siena, and not too far away from that, you will find a reliquary containing her thumb, also mummified. In addition, we have over 400 letters and her book, the Dialog of St Catherine, also known as the Book of Divine Doctrine. It is a classic mystical work, favorably compared to Dante's Divine Comedy as representative of the attempt to express the Divine in symbols of that era.

"Relic" is a word with several definitions, but for the most part, it is defined as something from an earlier time that has some historical or sentimental value, like Catherine's head or the Shroud of Turin, George Washington's false teeth (although rather less revered as a religious icon) or the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It seems kind of barbaric to have pieces of people placed up in a place of prominence where they can be adored and used as foci for prayers and requests. Some of them are pretty gruesome. Even in our own time we still respect and revere relics, not only of saints but also other things, like memorials to famous people, their clothing or jewels, or homes or articles associated with them.  But then, we flock to museums to see the mummies of ancient Egyptians, bog people, or dinosaur bones.

It seems like were learning to make our own relics. The Declaration of Independence is a relic, as are the bowls and baskets unearthed from Native American homesites like the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Arizona. We learn from ancient artifacts, most of them outmoded, but some surprisingly useful even in modern times. We have the flag flown at Fort McHenry which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to our national anthem. We have rebuilt slave quarters to remind us of our enslavement of people of color for generations. In our churches we use a sort of outmoded technology to create images and representations in stained glass of everything from images of the early saints and martyrs to the window containing a moon rock at the National Cathedral.

Relics are things which beg to be pondered. They ask us to consider what these objects, images, and artifacts meant to those who created and used them, and then what relevance they have for us today. What do they teach us? Of what do they remind us? What do they call us to do?  We're used to thinking of the Bible (itself a relic) in those terms, but there are other things as well. And we can find glimpses of God in many of them, if we but look.

I may never get to Siena, but I have seen pictures of Catherine of Siena's head, and I can see why people would revere it. It brings her close to us today even though she lived hundreds of years ago. She is a reminder of how a simple person, simple in the sense of plain living but great service to others, can make a big difference in the world. Maybe we need a few more relics to remind us of that. Who knows? We might learn some lessons that we should have learned long ago.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 29, 2017.