Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Boys in the Band

There is a line in one of my favorite British thriller series where a highly educated detective sergeant is listening to a distinguished professor of English literature at a very respectable college in Oxford. The professor is discussing some of the great poets of Britain, referring to several of them by name. The DS, being of a somewhat lugubrious demeanor, stated that during his time in college, the students referred to them as "The boys in the band." The professor nearly had a stroke, although sometime later in one of his lectures when the DS happened to be present while on duty, the professor did refer to the poets as “Boys in the band.”

As a teenager and a college student in the 60s the boys in the band meant groups like the Beatles. Granted, I'd never heard of those particular boys in the band until I went to college, but I liked rock 'n roll, and listened to it quite frequently. But my heart belonged to an entirely different genre and an entirely different time.

My late lamented husband, a definite pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, encouraged me to go to church with him when we were first married. I went, but two things made me stop within a year or so, which did not please my husband at all. I told him that for one thing I couldn't accept some of the theology that they preached, and I was specific about which ones. Growing up Protestant, actually Southern Baptist, it was hard to accept things like the adoration of Mary when in the church of my growing up she only appeared at Christmas and Easter and maybe, maybe a couple of times if the preacher decided to mention her in some other capacity. The second thing I disagreed with was the music. There was very little of it, and most of it was, to be honest, unpalatable to me because of the repetition of just a few favorite songs, and the fact that a lot of times, there was no music at all. I grew up in a singing congregation, and I missed the music. When I became an Episcopalian, long before I met and married my late spouse, one of the things that drew me to the church was the music. I couldn't give up on something that important to me.

I looked at names of the commemorated for today, namely JS Bach, George Frederick Handel, and Henry Purcell and I started to smile. To me, these are the guys in the band. All three of them were noted church musicians, although they did compose music for other occasions such as operas, plays, court music, and commissions for the rich and noble.

 Purcell has left us with some great anthems, Handel has left us a number of oratorios (like operas only set to Biblical or theological themes), and Bach, well, there might've been a lot of Bachs, but there was only one Johann Sebastian. These three people left us with a legacy of music that was rich, powerful, and interesting. It wasn't just singing the same word over and over without doing something different with it, it wasn't a repetitious type of music, most of it was far from simple to sing, and it layered voice on voice to create intricate harmonies that were almost like a taste of heaven.

They all lived within a relatively small time frame. They were born in 1685 for Bach and Handel, with Purcell being estimated as 1659, just a short time earlier. It was a very prolific time when these boys (plus lots of others) were active all at the same time, yet they had their differences. Bach wrote for his Lutheran church using the Germanic chorale-type harmonies as well as counterpoint. With the chorales, the congregation usually sang the final verse with the choir in a simple block type of harmony which we notice in chorales like “A Mighty Fortress.” Start singing that in a Lutheran Church and there will seldom be a dry eye anywhere. But that was only one tune out of so many that Bach wrote for the church and it has been adapted and incorporated into many other faith traditions, such as the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and others. To me, Bach is the highest pinnacle of organ music and cantatas, and I will be very disappointed to get to heaven and find him not in a place of great honor.

Purcell wrote a number of works for the church and as a youth sang as a chorister in the Chapel Royal, for which he later wrote a number of great pieces. He wrote music for the coronation of James II and music for commemorations such as St. Cecilia's day. He was an all-around composer, but he also made significant contributions to church music in general.

And then there's George. What would Easter or Christmas be without a group singing of Messiah, his oratorio that combines prophecy, gospel, epistles and even Revelation. He also wrote music for the court and his Water Music and Royal Fireworks music have become standards of orchestral performance and features at modern royal venues. Although he was born in Germany, he spent much of his time in England and became a British subject. It is, however, the music of Messiah that brings all sorts of people into the church for a listening experience and is perhaps one of the best examples of vocal evangelism. At least, I think so.

When it comes my time to hopefully rise to the pearly gates and the Golden Street stretching forth to the throne, I hope there's a lot of music going on and not just “Holy, holy, holy” sung by a group of angels singing in plainchant. I think God would probably enjoy the variety of music composed in God's honor and also as part of the worship of the church, so I'm hoping that there'll be plenty of concerts featuring the boys in the band with perhaps an angelic choir as backup singers and perhaps a choir that even us less than angelic folk can join. After all, it's all going to be praise, and, as someone once said, the person who sings prays twice.

I can't wait to hear the glorious sound that will be there. I'm glad we commemorate these three together and on this day. It's a reminder to me of the value of music and the opportunity for it to be an uplifting and inspiring form of prayer.  And that also goes for a lot of other great composers too – but they will have their days.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 28, 2018.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Lot's Wife and Me

Last week, for the first time since before the turn of the century (I've always wanted to say that), I left the state of Arizona to travel. It meant leaving my cats for four days, the longest I had ever been separated from them since their birth 11-1/2 years ago. Although I knew my best friend, who loves them dearly, would make sure they did not suffer a lack of attention during my absence. Still, I looked forward to my trip, despite the rigors of things like getting to the airport on time, getting through the TSA checkpoint, and flying to Portland, Oregon. Still, I made it through, and only got lost when I got to Oregon. I forgot that north, south, east, and west are a little different there than they are here in Phoenix. My bump of direction was completely turned around.

I had gone to visit my old friend Mouse, I say old friend because we've been good friends since we worked at the same construction site in the late1970s. We both like to read, we both love cats, love all things British, and being able to sit in our own living rooms and not be bothered by anyone other than our cats. I hadn't seen her in a long time, and I was really glad to have the opportunity for even a few days of her company, and believe me, she is excellent company.

I lived in Oregon before, but I had lived over on the eastern side, in a high desert environment that I hated. I swore I would never live in another desert as long as I lived. Surprise. Guess where I've been for the last 38 years, and where I will likely end up for the rest of my natural life. Going to the west side of the Cascades, which I'd never spent a whole lot of time in, was a treat. It was green, oh, so green, and so many shades of green. It was a bit more humid, but it cooled off at night so that sleeping was a pleasure instead of a sweaty mess. Driving up to Mouse’s house, I couldn't see the house from the road because of all the trees. Now to me, having that kind of environment is second only to having a river nearby like I had at home. But hundred-foot-tall evergreen trees, nice little flowers and plants, and an almost monastic silence except for an occasional car going by on the road was like heaven. There were no boomboxes, nothing really but the rustling of leaves and branches and the occasional chirp of the bird or other small critter. I was in tree-lover’s heaven.

One of the highlights of my trip was a journey of about 60 miles away to the ocean. I hadn't seen the ocean in so very long. I visit my river every time I go home, and spend time just enjoying it and feeling peaceful there, but I had not really spent a whole lot of time near the Pacific Ocean since about the 1970s. When we got there, it was a long walk over the dunes, and even my favorite trick of walking flat-footed on loose sand didn't prevent my shoes from accumulating a certain amount that I only found when I got home. But I walked through dunes covered with sea grasses and tiny flowers until finally there was the ocean in front of us. Another quarter-mile walk, and we found the packed sand that we could stand on and listen to the ocean.

It was a glorious day. The temperature was lovely, the sky was blue with occasional puffy white clouds, and the ocean a deep, rich blue. I was transfixed. There were people playing games around us, but all I could think about was that ocean and the peace that I felt there, and the feeling of being at home there. We stayed for some minutes before we needed to leave to get home again before dark.

As I turned and started to walk away, I felt a compunction to turn around and look just one more time. I actually did it several times. Each time I thought how hard it was to leave a place that I loved so much, and then I thought of Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar of salt because she turned around to look at a place she had lived in, loved, and would never see again.

I think we all tend to want to look back at some place that we love as we leave it, knowing that it may be a very long time, if ever, before we return to it, and even then, it will be different than on that day of departure. I can understand why Lot’s wife wanted to turn around and take one last look. Granted, God had said not to turn and look, but she did. God punished her for it, but it's always been hard for me to understand why such a drastic punishment for loving something and wanting just one more glance.

Of course, Sodom and Gomorrah, which was the area where Lot and his wife lived, was not exactly a place of godliness. It was a place where hospitality was not a rule, even though the desert dwellers expected a certain amount of hospitality from people they came across, whether in the cities or in tents. Two angels came to visit, and the men of the town, wanting to show their superiority and their power, wanted to get to know them in a way that was not common. Lot got the angels to his house and the crowd followed. Lot even offered his wife and his daughters to the crowd, but it wasn't sex they wanted; they wanted to show their contempt for the newcomers in a carnal sense. They didn't want sexual release, they wanted to shame the visitors.

That in itself makes it hard to perhaps understand why Lot’s wife would have wanted to turn around and look again at her hometown. Undoubtedly, she still had family there, and it's not easy to think of the family going up in flames as the buildings, the trees, and everything that lived in Sodom and Gomorrah did. Maybe she had to look to believe what she had been told would happen, maybe even while praying that it wouldn't. Still she turned and looked. Back at the ocean, even though God never told me not to turn around and look back, I still felt that to keep my heart from breaking I should just walk straight ahead.

Hopefully one day in the not too far future. I'll be able to once again go visit Mouse, the lovely trees, and the ocean. It was hard to walk away from such beauty, power, and feeling of God being all around. I'd like to be there still.

I know I want to go back because I know God's there just is as God is everywhere. It's just God's a little closer when I smell the salt air, hear the gulls cry, see the seagrass waving in the wind, and watch the waves roll onto the beach, and I have a very dear friend standing next to me. I hope you have some place that is as special to you as the ocean is to me.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Caf é Saturday, July 21, 2018.

Friday, July 20, 2018

When Moses Died

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (RSV)

Every life has to defining moments -- that of birth at one end, death at the other. Whether one is a Queen or the poorest of the poor, life is bordered by those two events. Of course, there are other milestones in each life lying at various points along the journey, and each life has a number of those points differing by age, culture, education, religious beliefs, and happenstance.

Moses definitely had an unusual beginning. Because Israelite babies were not welcome in Egypt, midwives were instructed to kill all newborns. Two midwives who attended Moses' birth disobeyed the orders and quietly let the child live. The birth mother told her daughter, Miriam, to take  him to the river and put him in a waterproof basket, hoping someone would find him and adopt him. That's precisely what happened. Pharaoh's daughter came for a bath in the river and went home clean and with a new baby, which she raised as her son.

In the course of Moses' life, he was raised as a prince of Egypt, but killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite to death. He fled to Midian, where he met his future father-in-law and married his wife. He took care of sheep and had a life-changing event on a mountain where a mysterious bush caught his attention. It was a turning point in his life.

Fast forward a few decades. Moses had returned to Egypt where he became God's spokesman to Pharaoh. He warned Pharaoh of the coming plagues and trials, but God had made sure Pharaoh wasn't buying it -- until they happened. Eventually the last plague was the last straw. Pharaoh's firstborn son and all other firstborns, whether human or animal, died, but all the Israelites (who had the lintels of their doorposts painted with blood) survived intact.  Moses was  permitted to lead the Israelites out of Egypt on a journey that would take them 40 years and with not a few adventures of various kinds.

There's an interesting thing about that journey taking so long. They could have gotten there in probably a quarter of the time, but God had other plans. During the time of the exodus, the whole 40 years, those who had lived in Egypt the longest and had been most infected by the long stay and the exposure to the religion and culture of the Egyptians would die on the trip, and their influence would be weakened. By the time they were ready to cross into the Promised Land, new generations would be ready to follow God. Moses, though, was another story.

Moses had been a faithful follower of and transmitter of God's will to the Israelites. He'd made one big error by doing something other than God had told him to do (striking a rock twice rather than speaking to it). As a result, Moses was told he would not be permitted to set foot in the Promsed Land with the Israelites he had led for so many years. Still, God was merciful. Moses was led to the top of a mountain where he could look into the Promised Land from a distance, and there Moses died. His body was never found lest it become a place where the people would stop and create their new land there where Moses' body would have been entombed. It's happened before and also since with other great leaders.

People become attached to places where loved ones or martyrs have died or where they have been buried (or even believed to have died or buried). That place becomes a shrine, much like the little ones we see along the road where a person has been killed in an accident or a murder. There's a little white cross with a name and imitation flowers placed around it. It's a reminder to the family who visit it on significant dates, and also to the public, who need to be reminded of the deaths automobile accidents and murders can cause. Memorials like those of the Unknown Soldiers in various countries memorialize young men who have paid the final price for their country, and becomes a place where families whose children probably never came home for a regular burial can go to pay their respects and remember their lives.

The death of Moses was a big thing for the Israelites. For years he had led them, put up with their grumblings, brought them through hardships, and kept their focus on God and the Promised Land. Suddenly he was gone, and their GPS, internet, wi-fi, and smart phone that he had been to them had disappeared with him. They didn't really have a place to memorialize him, like we do for people like Martin Luther King Jr and John F. Kennedy. Even a family tombstone in a local cemetery becomes a place of memorial to those we have loved and lost, although we often need to move away from their locale because of circumstances like job relocation and the like. Still, those tombstones are there for us to visit whenever we return.

The death of a leader can mean the death of a group or a movement. Most often, though, it means a change. In the case of the Israelites, it meant a new life in a new place along with new leadership. We have seen the results of this type of situation throughout history and still see it today. It is not always a death of a leader that produces such changes, and often there are a lot of mistakes that accompany a learning experience.  Moses and Aaron had worked hard to keep the Israelites' eyes on God, and now it was the job of a new generation to continue moving forward.

The lesson of the death of Moses is that life does not stop because one life does. There is a time for mourning the loss, but the world continues to turn, and changes happen. As Christians, our job is to keep our eyes on God, who has given us the tools to carry on and to continue to build God's Kingdom on earth. Human changes may let us down in some way, but with God's guidance and attention to that guidance, will carry us through. The Israelites made mistakes, just as we will when changes threaten us. Still, God's there and with us, if we stay faithful to God.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 14, 2018.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Spem in Alium

Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te Deus Israel qui irasceris, et propitius eris et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis. Domine Deus creator caeli et terrae respice humilitatem nostram.

I have never put my hope in any other but you, God of Israel, who will be angry and yet become again gracious, and who forgives all the sins of suffering man. Lord God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, look upon our lowliness. - Response to the 3rd reading of Matins during the V week of September according to the Sarum Rite, adapted from the book of Judith, chapter 9

I've loved music all my life. I sang hymns and TV commercials by age 3, started piano lessons at 5, sang in children's choir and started with the adult choir about the age of 12. At 10, when I was asked about what I wanted for Christmas, I told my parents I wanted a set of the recordings of Handel's Messiah. I'd read about it in a book and was intrigued, and even more so once I heard it for the first time. I've loved it ever since.

I've acquired a lot more favorites over the intervening years, everything from Rhapsody in Blue until I finally settled on favoring Renaissance and Baroque music. Like hymns and the like, I have favorites acquired over the years, especially English church music, and most especially sung by the clear, pure tones of a choir of men and boys singing in a great gothic church, the sound bouncing off the stonework and ornamented ceilings. It simply gives me chills and makes me wish so much to be present to hear it in person.

I listen to classical radio at night as I drift off to sleep. This past week, they have played one of my most favorite pieces several times, an unusual frequency for that particular piece. It was written by Thomas Tallis, one of the greatest English composers. The piece itself is composed for 8 choirs of 5 singers in each, totaling 40 separate voices. It is a fairly long piece, lasting about 9 minutes and 15 seconds, but it is so totally captivating, it seems like only a short time. Spem in Alium is adaptted from the apocryphal book of Judith, chapter 9, entitled "Judith's Prayer," and is part of the daily readings in the Sarum Rite.

What Spem in Alium does for me is to make me feel calm, reverent, transcendent, and happy. I feel my soul rising up as the music increases in volume and complexity, until it feels like it is coming out of the top of my head and rising to the very throne of God. It isn't a melody I can whistle or sing as I move around the house, but it never fails to captivate me, no matter what is going on or what I am doing. That's a wonderful thing about music. I think all of us has some piece of music that does that for us, and isn't it wonderful when it does?

Music has a history in the Bible. Jubal, a descendant of Cain through Cain's son Enoch, has been named in Genesis 4:21as the father of all those who play stringed instruments (harp, lyre) and pipes (flute). Children are taught the song about Little David he shepherd boy who grew to be a musician called to aid the King (Saul) in his melancholia. Later, David became king and danced in front of the ark of the covenant  (unclothed, which seems as scandalous to  us as it was to David's wife). David is crediting with writing psalms that are hymns to which we have no existing music, but we have created new settings for them. Psalm 150 lists instruments praising God, and is one of the favorites of composers.  Angels sang at various times, especially at the birth of Jesus. Music wends its way through the  whole Bible.

Judith is not a book that is read often, so it is unfamiliar to most. Toni Craven has written a very interesting and informative commentary on the apocryphal book which is available at the Jewish Women's Archive, Encyclopedia. Judith is a widow noted for her wisdom. This gives her some credibility with the local leaders, and she uses this credibility to set everything on the right path from which the leaders have forsaken. Chapter 9 is noted as the "Prayer of Judith, " where she begs God to give her, a woman, the power and ability to lie convincingly.  It's not a first for a woman in the Bible to use wiles and half-truths to accomplish something that would otherwise not happen, but Judith was recorded as a bit more forthcoming with what she wanted and why.  

I loved the motet long before I found a translation of it, but reading it in English makes it even more dear. The words are those of faith and trust in God no matter what the situation. Those are words and feelings that are always good to remember and acknowledge.

I heard this piece again last night as I was trying to go to sleep. Thinking of not only the intricate harmonies but also about the words, I found myself drifting off to sleep quite peacefully. I'm not necessarily recommending it as a sleeping aid, but it worked for me, at least once. Do give it a listen and see what feelings and thoughts arise in you as you hear it.

God bless.

Tallis, Thomas,  Spem in Allium, sung by King's College Choir, Stephen Cleobury, conductor. Licensed by UMG (on behalf of Universal Music); Public Domain Compositions. Found on YouTube. *Judith: Apocrypha by Toni Craven, found at Jewish Women's Archive, Encyclopedia. Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 7, 2018. This is a corrected copy.