Missionaries of Music

23 09 2009

A Time magazine article from Dec. 3, 1979, tells the story of Sister Anne Marie Bickerstaff, an Episcopal nun who had moved to Haiti in 1951 to teach at a missionary school.  Over the years, she worked with her students to develop their musical abilities, and eventually raised enough money to fund an orchestra, concert hall, and music school (among other things.)  Very, very cool.

I actually discovered this article tonight, after reading the first chapter of Taking It to the Streets: Using the Arts to transform your community, by J. Nathan Corbitt and Vivian Nix-Early.  In the foreword to the book, Tony Campolo recalls his reactions to the Haitian orchestra project (side note: I assume the above-linked article is referring to the same orchestra that Campolo mentions below, although he does not give enough details to know):

“I was somewhat shocked.  When I considered the incredible poverty of this poorest of all nations in the Western Hemisphere, and when I thought about the massive malnutrition that plagues the children of the capital, I instantly concluded that the money would be better spent on things other than music.  That was before I saw the symphony orchestra perform in an outdoor sports stadium…As I watched the impoverished populace react to the music, saw the ecstasy and pride in their faces, and the sense of dignity that the music generated among these people, I realized that the nuns had done the right thing.”





Worship in the Storm: Psalm 29

22 09 2009

BK01Lately, I have lapsed in my Lectio Divina readings.  However, I recently discovered that my fifteen-minute break at work is the perfect amount of time to read a chapter from David Crowder’s book Praise Habit.  Then, I can meditate on the psalm as I return to my shirt-folding. Yesterday was my first day to implement this plan, and I read Psalm 29, appropriately enough during one of the worst floods in Atlanta’s history.

God‘s thunder sets the oak trees dancing
A wild dance, whirling; the pelting rain strips their branches.
We fall to our knees—we call out, “Glory!”

Above the floodwaters is God‘s throne
from which his power flows,
from which he rules the world

On Sunday, I attended a new church and through a series of events, ended up talking with one of the pastors for about half an hour before the service began.  She had just returned from a mission trip to Gulfport, Miss., where her group had done relief work for Katrina (yes, it’s still going on.  And apparently, UMCOR is the only remaining NGO in that particular area that is still receiving money to provide services)  She told me about a Catholic church they had visited in Waveland, Miss., whose gorgeous sanctuary had been demolished during the hurricane.

St. Clare's Catholic Church - before and after

St. Clare's Catholic Church - before and after

How eerie.  The first thing you notice, of course, is the difference in the church building.  But look again at the tree, and the way it has been twisted completely around.

The NIV translation of Psalm 29 reads, “The voice of the LORD twists the oaks.”

But what of the Message translation?  How can this transformation possibly be described with the word “dancing?”  That wording conjures up the image of a sardonic puppeteer-God who forces us to dance while we are, in fact, contorting in pain.  What kind of God is that?

To me, the Message translation highlights the tension inherent in worship.  Yes, we worship in freedom and with joy.  But true worship also requires that we recognize the omnipotence of God, and that fact can be rather frightening.  This is why Scripture tells us to “fear God:” not because we need to cower  in terror at his presence, but because we should humble ourselves and kneel before our God!

In the context of this particular Psalm, we (humans) are not the ones doing the dancing.  We are simply watching God at work, and responding by recognizing his power within the events of the world.  We are exhorted to “ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.”

Here, too, I think we can learn from the example of Saint Clare’s.  Following the storm, they put up a sign that testified, with one simple sentence, the power of God as they had experienced it:

st-clare-sign





The Lunatic Gospel: Genesis 18-19

18 09 2009

Click here to read the full text of Genesis 18-19.

"Abraham and the Three Angels," by Marc Chagall

"Abraham and the Three Angels," by Marc Chagall

Reading these chapters, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words, thousands of years later: “When you do it unto the least of these, you have done it into me.”

Also, Paul’s teaching to the Hebrews: “Some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

When the three men appear near Mamre at the beginning of Chapter 18, there is no indication that Abraham recognizes them immediately as angels (or even God Himself). And yet, he practices radical hospitality, preparing a feast for them with his best calf and an abundance of the finest bread. Then, in Sodom, Lot’s hospitality is ultimately what saves him and his daughters. When he invites the angels into his home, he does not immediately know that they have come to foretell the city’s destruction; he simply accepts them as his guests and protects them at all costs (even giving up his virginal daughters to the angry mob???)

We can learn from these example, practicing such hospitality to all who come across our paths, as well. I am particularly inspired by the importance that the New Monastic movement places on hospitality (i.e. the Rule of the Northumbria Community includes a vow of availability to the people around them; the Potter Street Community and other similar communities have procedures in place to welcome anyone who happens upon their house). It is much harder, I think, to practice such hospitality and openness as individuals. I’m reminded of an interesting article published last fall at Jesus Manifesto, which I read as a challenge to today’s church to rethink the way we do hospitality, especially in light of the current economic crisis.

Leaving aside the overall implications of Abraham’s dialogue with the Lord (which in itself is an amazing passage) I want to look for a moment at the word that keeps coming up over and over again: righteous. Abraham keeps pleading on behalf of the righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, and God seems to be in agreement that the righteousness of 10 people would make up for the wickedness of everyone else. So what’s so great about righteousness?

I often tend to equate righteousness with legalism (i.e. the Pharisees, who obeyed the very letter of the law, were considered righteous). Righteousness is about doing right. Right?

Not necessarily. The Old and New Testaments agree that true righteousness is about faith:

“Abram believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
– Genesis 15:6

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe”
– Romans 3:21-22a

As a final note, I would like to say that reading these two chapters brought back great memories of Amity’s youth, and one in particular who always said that her favorite Bible story was about “Lot’s wife who turned into salt. That’s so cool!”

(originally posted 12/24/08 at http://thelunaticgospel.blogspot.com)





The Spiritual Practice of Editing

18 09 2009

Godspace is running a series on “spiritual practices” in an effort to reclaim the everyday spirituality that can infuse all of our lives, if we will just let it. Guest authors have been writing in on such topics as diverse as unemployment, mothering, drinking Chinese tea, coloring, and driving.  It’s a great exploration of how to, in the words of Eugene Peterson, “take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”

One post that particularly caught my eye, by Marcus Goodyear, examines editing as a spiritual discipline, posing the question, “If your life were a manuscript, how much editing do you think it would need?”

Goodyear distinguishes between cursory proofreading and serious editing, and explains Stephen King’s formula that the difference between a first and second draft should be about 10%.   At the end of the article, he concludes with “The more we say no to what is not necessary, the more we can say yes to what is necessary and fruitful.”

I love this.  And although he’s framed the issue into a particular context, the idea is not new.  Like any good spiritual practice, it has simply gained new life.

I often joke with family and friends (right before I tear apart their papers) that I’m a “mean editor.”  But, like many writers, I’m notoriously bad at catching my own errors.  Either I’m so set in my ways that I can’t approach the piece with fresh eyes, or my mind compensates and corrects the mistakes  … but those edits never make it onto the page!

So to me, the spiritual practice of life-editing also necessitates some form of accountability.  In finding an accountability partner, I seek out those who can be fresh, honest, and constructively critical.

After, I’m just a work in progress.





Settled

18 09 2009

Well, it’s been two months now, and although I miss Louisiana deeply, I’ve noticed that Atlanta is starting to feel like home.  Here’s why:

1. My socks don’t match.  You know about the laundry machine monster that eats socks, one at a time, so that you can never find a matching pair?  Well, when it came time to pack up our boxes in Ruston, I somehow managed to find almost all of them again.  But we’ve kicked off our shoes enough times, done the laundry enough times, and avoided doing the laundry enough times, that my socks have started to separate.  Yesterday, I wore a blue-and-white sock on my left foot and a plain white sock on my right (I did the best I could–better than green and purple or something, right?)

2. I survived rush hour. To be more specific, I successfully merged onto I-85 in bumper-to-bumper traffic and then moved over 4 or 5 lanes within half a mile in order to get off at the right exit.  Given my irrational fear of driving on the interstate, I would say this is a huge accomplishment.   In any case, it made me feel invincible for the rest of the day.

3. Our futon is already well-used.  We waited a few weeks before finally breaking down and buying a futon, and we have enjoyed it ever since.  It does need a new mattress, as there are already indentations the places where we sit  It has twice been used by house guests, first by my sister and brother-in-law, and one week later, by one of my very best friends!   And just three evenings ago, I spilled a can of Diet Mountain Dew on it (Note to self: NOT a good idea.  Taking the cover off of a futon mattress is way more trouble than it’s worth).

4. I found an orchestra. When I arrived at the first rehearsal,  I didn’t recognize anyone and didn’t know what to expect.  What if I couldn’t hang with the Atlanta freelancers?  What if they did rehearsals differently?  What if the music threw some curveball that I wasn’t prepared for?  What if “concert black” meant something different here than in Louisiana?  But as we began playing the first song, I felt all my anxieties melt away into a feeling of familiarity.

5.  My planner is full.  I have determined that, to a certain extent, being busy makes me feel fulfilled.  Or at the very least, involved.  Last weekend, between work, orchestra rehearsals, auditions, church services, and teaching commitments, I hardly had time to breathe… and I wouldn’t have it any other way!





Review: North! Or Be Eaten!

17 09 2009

image002Andrew Peterson, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, has recently ventured into the world of children’s fiction, through a fantasy series called The Wingfeather Saga.  I just finished reading Book 2 of the series, North! Or Be Eaten!, and discovered, to my joy, that Peterson’s writing is every bit as quirky and profound as his songs.

First, a disclaimer: I jumped into the middle of the series.  Not having read Book 1, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness , I couldn’t quite find my bearings in Peterson’s strange fantasy world and had to read the first page several times before it started making sense.  Who were all these people?  Nia, Janner, Tink, Leeli, Podo, Peet, Artham, Nugget … how were they related?  And what the heck was a toothy cow?

At first, I worried that this was just going to be another “journey story” that would throw together completely unrelated events under the guise of a journey  (From the title, I’m sure you can guess what direction they were headed).  But I wanted desperately for there to be more to this story than a destination.

Throughout the novel, Peterson remains faithful to his musical roots.   When the Igiby children stop and do their homework, they are not learning science or math, but the Three Honored and Great Subjects: Word, Form, and Song.  Janner excels in writing (Word), Tink in drawing (Form), and Leeli in music (Song).  The last subject, in particular (Song) is manipulated by the forces of both good and evil, and this musical dichotomy sets the stage for the final showdown.

Yes, there is a final showdown.  (Warning: spoilers ahead.  I’ll try not to reveal too many details, but I was so blown away with the ending of the book that I have to talk about it).  Throughout the novel, there is talk of building up armies for an epic battle: Gnag the Nameless and the Fangs versus Gammon, the Florid Sword, and the Kimerans.

But when the final fight actually begins, the Igibys find themselves in the midst of two other, unexpected battles: one involving Podo and one involving Tink.  These are battles of the heart, and it is in these encounters that Peterson’s writing becomes incredibly poignant.  As in the beginning, I found myself rereading pages at a time, this time not out of confusion, but in awe.

It is difficult to avoid comparing this novel to its literary predecessors (The Chronicles of Narnia, in particular, comes to mind).  But North! defies comparison; its symbolism is subtle, unique, and somehow magical.  Peterson goes further than simply retelling the Christian message in fantasy-land.  Instead, he is able to represent it artfully (but not exactly) and move his reader to a heightened understanding of the original story.

I love that the book does not end with the happy cliché of the Igibys reaching their final destination (although they are certainly getting close).  The narrative has shifted; although they are in the final leg of the physical trip, it is apparent that their spiritual journey has just begun.

Yes, it is a “journey story,” of sorts.  But, more than that, it’s a story of hope and transformations and art and mercy and good and evil.  And sea dragons.  And toothy cows.





Orchestra (of Christ…)

17 09 2009

February 2005. Reno, Nevada. National High School Honor Orchestra.

Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid orchestral suite opens with a serene piccolo solo, evoking a sense of the open prairie from which the story emerges. Throughout the National Orchestra Festival, we spent seven hours a day (at least!) in rehearsal, preparing for our final concert at the end of the week. Our piccolo player consistently botched the solo, his instrument cracking on the high note. High schoolers that we were, we giggled at the sound, and then as the week went on, we rolled our eyes. (Will he ever get this right??)

Our conductor looked at us sternly and said, “You are an orchestra. During this part of the piece, the piccolo might be the only one playing, but we are all in this together. You all need to be hearing the song in your head and envisioning the melody beforehand. And when we start to play, I want you to give him your undivided attention and silently cheer him on. No matter what happens, we are in this together.”

Four and a half years later, I remember that speech clearly. I remember taking his words to heart and holding my breath at the opening of the song. I don’t, however, remember whether or not the piccolo player nailed his solo. I guess it didn’t matter.

UNC Orchestra

As I played in the Cobb Symphony Orchestra last week, I couldn’t help but marvel at what a wonderful thing it is to play in an orchestra. In what other context can 100 people come together so singlemindedly to create such beauty? There is a certain kinship — a camaraderie — that arises from playing music together. We speak a common language and are bound together by what can sometimes become a transcendent experience. For that reason, although I definitely missed the familiar “Shreveport circuit” musicians, I felt more at home last week than I have so far in Atlanta.

I can’t help but wonder if the orchestral experience is perhaps one of the truest expressions of the body of Christ? Allow me to take a little bit of liberty with 1 Corinthians 12:

Now the orchestra is not made up of one instrument but many. For if the whole orchestra were only made up of percussion players, then where would the melody be? Or if the whole orchestra was just a trumpet player, what would happen after the fanfare finished?

But God has placed each of the players within the ensemble, just as he desired.

The violinists cannot say to the clarinetist “We do not need you.” Because who will take her place for Rhapsody in Blue? Nor can the tuba players make fun of the piccolo player when he misses a note.

On the contrary, the old adage is true: An orchestra is only as strong as its weakest player.

God has composed music for this ensemble, orchestrating the melodies to weave in and out through the various sections of the orchestra, so that each part is essential to the whole. And if one player makes a mistake, the whole orchestra suffers with him or her. And if one player nails a particularly difficult or beautiful solo, the whole orchestra applauds.

You are each individual musicians, and together, you are the orchestra of Christ.