Going to church to wake up

by Pamela Grenfell Smith

Four thousand miles from home, in a city where I didn’t speak the language, I’d staggered off the plane more than a week ago but I still couldn’t get myself in focus. Then we went to a concert. The first piece was Gregorian chant, a familiar passage from Wisdom. Hearing it, tears came to my eyes and extra air somehow returned to my lungs. In the music and text I rediscovered myself, my own inner voice, my capacity to act.

Liturgy – even this small dose of liturgy - can wake us up, take us from clock time to kairos-time, re-situate us as active listeners. Singing, responding, we’re put back together, restored again to our own capacity for what social scientists call agency - an idea that is studied in all the human sciences and generally means the capacity of people and groups to act independently towards their own goals.

Personal and shared agency comes and goes, and has to be discovered, re-discovered, nourished, and reflected on. After the birth of my first child, I had a lot of trouble pulling myself together. We had moved – three thousand miles – leaving behind a crowd of friends and a job I loved. Alone all day with a much-loved baby, I spent a lot of time staring at walls. I hesitate to say that I was depressed, but I was certainly befuddled. At some point our daughter got strep throat and had to be given antibiotics on a strict schedule; I remember looking out at some lawn or other and thinking, this is serious. I sure wish there was someone who could take responsibility for this. And then: HEY. THAT WOULD BE ME. Behold the re-discovery of agency.

Routine and befuddlement aren’t the only potential threats to my capacity to act independently towards goals I have chosen, my sense of agency. Also on my list: pain, fatigue, grief. Meditation helps me know, name, and muffle these inner neighbors – when I find enough agency to meditate.

Let me name another threat to agency, a massive one that we may all have in common: overwhelmedness at the complexity and pace of change in our understanding of the world. I hear overwhelmedness in the voices of those who look on the sorrows of the world’s peoples - the destruction of its ecosystems - the suffering of its creatures – and find themselves believing there is nothing they can do to help. I hear it also in the voices of those who are overwhelmed by social change and respond with anger and resentment.

These failures of agency, these twin passivities of hopelessness and rejection, are toxic to us all. Is there a way we can hold them up into the healing power of the Gospel? Agency is social-science talk, so let’s reword this in God-talk: we are co-creators with the Holy One of this holy world. Day by day, minute by minute, the future is transformed by our choices and by our failures to choose.

And so I return to the capacity of liturgy to call us back into ourselves. Sunday morning is a powerful tonic for my own sense of agency – so much so that I’ve come to think that one of the roles of the parish church’s liturgy is to re-articulate and re-energize the human capacity to choose and act. Corporate worship is always an urgent, transformational opportunity to restore the people of God. We gather, sing the songs, speak the words, tell the stories, raise the prayers, and become more fully able to choose and act in Christ.


Pamela Grenfell Smith is a storyteller and hymnodist in Bloomington, Indiana. Find her hymns, projects, and liturgies at babayaga.org or friend her on Facebook to hear about her knitting and her grandchildren.

Plastic Christ: songs of absence

by Derek Olsen

My daughters, 10 and 8, are approaching the end of their first year at a Christian school. It’s been a bit of a shift for us, moving from the public school system. One of the chief things we’ve been adjusting to is contemporary Christian culture. While the school is non-denominational and has a roughly even blend of Roman Catholics and Protestants (and, yes, both are equally puzzled by the appearance of our Anglo-Catholic girls who don’t fit any of their paradigms!), there is a general embrace of the evangelical-flavored Christian subculture.

When my younger daughter arrived in her second grade class, she was quickly asked whether she preferred TobyMac or Justin Bieber. It was a culture question: do you participate in “Christian culture” or “secular culture”? Predictably for her, she said, “Neither one,” messing with their simplistic paradigm. (I still don’t know who TobyMac is…)

I do understand the desire behind the construction of a distinctly Christian subculture. Parents who choose to go in this direction can feel secure knowing that their religious values will be reinforced by the culture their children consume. It represents a way to conform externally to the same kinds of entertainment as the broader culture, but without the culture’s more problematic content. That's their choice; that's not the road that we have taken.

While there can be something very comforting about a “safe” Christian subculture, in the end I find its intention to insulate Christian culture from the broader culture misguided and ultimately dangerous. Yes, there are philosophies and attitudes antithetical to Christianity and Christian living in modern culture, especially in pop culture. Yes, there are songs and movies and such that I don’t let my girls listen to and watch. But ignoring them won't make them go away; attempting to hide your children from them is not a tenable long-term strategy. We regularly discuss the lyrics of the songs on the pop station in the car on the way to ballet, and I model for them what it looks like to listen and critique, noting what is both positive and negative.
More generally, though, we do a disservice to our work of evangelism, and to our own deep wrestling if we ignore what the culture is saying generally, and in particular what it is saying about and to the church.

images-1.jpegI drove the girls to school in my wife's car this morning. The radio was on, and, in an attempt to avoid the disc jockeys’ gossip about the latest pop princess, I switched over to the CD. I didn’t know what Meredith had in there; as a result, the soundtrack for our drive to school was Suicide Commandos’ “Plastic Christ”:

Do you believe,
Praying to a plastic Christ,
Do you believe,
That God will hear your cry?
Do you believe
In eternal life?
Do you believe
That you will never die?
Do you believe,
Praying to a plastic Christ,
Do you believe
That God will save your life?

The name of the band might tip you off to the fact that this is not a Christian group; half the moms in the second grade class would probably freak if they even suspected its presence in our car. However, there is no doubt that the lyrics wrestle with fundamentally religious questions.

My wife and I have never been into pop music. For my part, I find most of it musically and philosophically anemic. I much prefer the Goth and Heavy Metal from my youth, and, these days, much of the new music I listen to is best characterized as Industrial.
Industrial and its related genres like EBM (Electronic Body Music) aren’t all that common here in the US; it tends to be a more European and continental phenomenon. Nine Inch Nails is probably the best-known American representative of the genre. Like metal, it's best listened to at loud volumes; like Goth, it tends to wrestle with emotion, meaning, and aesthetics. Characterized by a heavy use of electronic instrumentation, sampling, and computer manipulation, as a genre it investigates the philosophical hole at the center of industrialized society in a post-certainty world. That is, in the aftermath of the 20th century when we saw the two great pillars of the Western social contract, the state and the church, fail humanity in dramatic fashion, where do we turn now for certainty, authority, and meaning? One possible answer is a Nietzschian nihilism trending towards hedonism as exemplified in the lyrics of folks like Marilyn Manson and Thrill Kill Kult. And yet, there are also much more articulate and nuanced approaches that explore humanism, spirituality, and post-Constantinian faith. Particular standouts for me are Assemblage 23 and VNV Nation.

While I'm sure some of the parents at my children's school would be scandalized by our choice of music, I see it asking some deep and important questions that the church needs to both hear and be able to answer. The lyrics to “Plastic Christ” can be read in at least two ways. One interpretation can see it as straightforward mockery of a simplistic faith. A better interpretation, I think, reads it as deeply ambiguous. The act of posing the question—rather than simply making an assertion—invites the listener into the question itself. Do you believe this, or don’t you? It invites soul searching. My answer is, naturally, “yes”—but the act of investigating the question, seeing how I qualify and interpret it, is an exercise worth conducting.

At its root, I see this song as participating in a body of songs in this genre that grapple with the question of the presence and/or absence of God. Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours” and VNV Nation's “Gratitude” spring quickly to mind as other examples. We can, like the Christian subculture, try to duck the question. Or, as people of faith in but not of the world, we can listen to the question with integrity and attempt to respond to it in kind.

Indeed, I find this season of the year, as we walk through the last days of Lent and move towards the cross in Holy Week, the question of the presence or absence of God in the midst of suffering to have a particular poignancy.

Assemblage 23, brain-child of Seattle-based Tom Shear, confronts listeners directly in the catalogue of his own deeply personal struggles with this issue in “God Is A Strangely Absent Father”:

Depend on me
And I will let you down
Repeatedly
You'd think you'd have learned by now
In your hour of need
I'm nowhere to be found
And while you bleed
I'm indifferent

[Chorus] God is a strangely absent father
His back is turned perpetually
All the orphaned sons and daughters
Abide in their suffering


That is the first verse and the chorus; there are two additional verses in the same vein.

What do we do with this? Some would simply write it off as modern impiety. But is that the best we can do? I’m a grown-up—I’ve heard blasphemy and impiety, but what I’m hearing here is pain. I’m hearing someone who has looked to God for solace and hasn’t found it.

First, I choose to treat this song as an honest question that people—particularly seekers—bear in with them through our doors (if they make it that far). Do we have an honest answer for them? If Tom Shear walked into your parish, sat next to you in your pew, and asked you point-blank questions about where God was in the world and in our lives, would you be able to give him an answer that doesn’t sound glib in the face of personal pain?

Second, hearing his lyrics remind me of others. Try on these:

[God,] Take your affliction from me;
I am worn down by the blows of your hand.
With rebukes for sin you punish us;
like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us;
truly, everyone is but a puff of wind.

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears.

For I am but a sojourner with you,
a wayfarer, as all my forebears were.
Turn your gaze from me, that I may be glad again,
before I go my way and am no more.


Or, perhaps, there’s this set:
Lord, why have you rejected me?
why have you hidden your face from me?
Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the
point of death;
I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.
Your blazing anger has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me;

They surround me all day long like a flood;
they encompass me on every side.
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
and darkness is my only companion.


Recognize them yet? If not, here’s your final clue:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?

O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest.


These impious lyrics, these words which Jesus uttered from his own lips in his last moments, are all from the Psalms. That’s Psalm 39, 88, and 22 respectively. Usually psalms of lament will have sections like this, then make a turn that praise and thank God for his presence and salvation. Psalm 22 does this, and the end speaks of the vindication of the sufferer.

But Psalms 39 and 88 lack this completely. The sections I’ve excerpted contain the ends of both psalms. There is no happy turn. Psalm 88 literarily leaves us alone and in darkness.

Hearing “God is a Strangely Absent Father” gives me new ears to hear these psalms again. It helps me to be confronted and challenged by these scriptural words which confess the experience of divine absence spoken by unknown Israelites sometime over 2,500 years ago. It reminds me that our tradition made the deliberate choice to include and retain these psalms as words to be heard for posterity. These psalms give us no glib or easy answers, and they take on new poignancy as words from the cross itself, words spoken by the dying Christ.

In turn, the psalms lead me back again to the song, and ask me how I would hear it if it appeared under the rubric “psalm of lament”? Does it really sound so foreign alongside the words of the psalms? The psalms remind me that this is no new song—songs of absence have been sung by believers and non-believers alike throughout recorded religious history.

How often are we guilty of trying to shelter the church from the difficult words of Scripture and, in so doing, lose hold of the very passages where we see our forebearers—and our Lord himself—wrestling with these same hard questions that do not resolve themselves with easy answers?

If we were to cut ourselves off from the music and the art (and—dare I say it—the Scripture?) that asks us the difficult questions, does that makes us safer or more complacent and ultimately more afraid to face the hard questions ourselves?

As we enter the last days of Lent and the period of Holy Week, Jesus calls us into a place of suffering. It’s a suffering very much experienced in the world around us—as well as in our selves. Sometimes we are blessed by the power and presence of God in these moments.

Sometimes we’re not.

Sometimes we need to ask with Jesus “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sometimes we need to hear it and take it seriously from the lips of those around us.

Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves on the vestry at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc.

Singing the Lord's Song

by Donald Schell

What is it we’re really doing together in church?

Actually what do we think we’re doing together in any human community or collaborating group?

How do we find our God-given humanity in community?

And what’s the natural connection between church activity, especially in worship, and other human activity?

Through forty years of priesthood, I’ve found these questions keep getting bigger and more interesting. Some church colleagues seem to hear a judgment or skepticism I don’t intend when I ask these questions.

In fact though, I’m grateful the questions don’t ask themselves from an alienated skepticism. They show up with a mostly enjoyable, usually patient, not-knowing, a Godly Play sort of wondering. My wondering continues to renew my hope. My only impatience is to see on regularly on the watch for human creativity, courage, and compassion wherever they shows up, and when we glimpse this Trinity, wherever we catch its movement, to sniff the air for a trace of the Spirit of Jesus.

With a bit of intuition, a handful of hunches, and my small bundle of discoveries, following the questions’ energy feels as exhilarating and anxious (and as charged with wild energy and human hope) as chasing after tracking dogs who’ve found a scent of a child lost in the woods.

But this story doesn’t begin in the woods. Early one recent morning my wife and I drove up the Interstate to join our daughter walking from her house to the community center pushing her daughter, our eleven month grand-daughter Hannah in her stroller.

At exactly 10 we arrived at the center. Apparently the building had once been an elementary school, but the long deserted hall felt far too quiet for a school. There was no one in sight, and no voices except bulletin boards announcements of yoga classes, support groups, art classes, various kinds of lessons, and community interest notices.

Then our daughter opened an unpromising classroom door on a startling blur of adults and small children shaping themselves into a large human circle on the carpeted floor. The cinderblock walls resonated with parents’ and children’s voices. Their circle almost touched the walls of the square room, but as we slipped off our shoes, and unsnapped Hannah to lift her out of the stroller, moms scooted to make places for us in the circle just as Jenny, the Music Together teacher, began a rhythm.

Ellen and I smiled at each other seeing our granddaughter’s bright, expectant eyes. This is what we’d come for. Everyone joined Jenny, the teacher, slapping our thighs and then the floor in front of us in time. As we slapped, we all also followed Jenny rocking side-to-side or forward and back.

No, wait. If I smooth over this part of the story, we’ll lose something important. As soon I wrote “everyone” and “we all,” what I was remembering was the children, mostly younger, who happily watched or wandered (walking or crawling) within the circle. Most of us were slapping the floor and our thighs, but somehow song and movements, watching and wandering made a single whole.

Building on a rhythm we were making together, Jenny shifted seamlessly to the greeting song that Maria and Mateo’s mother and grandmother and all the regulars knew. Ellen and I learned the song quickly and joined easily. Jenny called out the children’s names so our song greeted them one by one, and after we’d sung a greeting to each child, Jenny led us singing a generic welcome to the mothers, to the dad, to the two grandmas, and to the grandpa (me).

Jenny modeled another gesture and song, and we followed her. Our singing and movement unfolded with few spoken directions or none. Intermittently the smaller crawling and walking children participated singing and clapping or moving with us. Sometimes they stopped to look and listen.

I thought frequently about peripheral vision, how we use our peripheral vision to sense the presence of those around us, guiding ourselves to caution or trust. I watched myself watching the group, relishing my recent learning that the rods of our peripheral vision are over a thousand times more sensitive to movement than our central vision. I watched the group, even the wandering little ones, watching each other in peripheral vision, taking in the movement and feeling of the leader and the circle. We were collaborating, not only by following Jenny’s lead, but with that eye and ear consensus you can spot watching and listening to an a cappella group or a string quartet.
Jenny laid a basket of egg-shaped shakers in the center of the circle. Grownups and children crawled and toddled out to share them around the circle, leaving any additional shakers clumped here and there inside our perimeter. Jenny started us singing, “Mary wore a red dress, all day long.” The few of us who didn’t know it learned the song quickly by ear. Jenny led us playing at different rhythm patterns and gestures with the shaker eggs. Then she asked parents to call out a favorite activity of their child. Pairing children’s names in paired verses around the circle we sang favorite activities like “Maya eats bananas” and “Seth loves funny jokes” to our tune, “Mary wore a red dress.”

And Hannah meanwhile had crawled to the middle of the circle where the basket had been.

Our daughter had told us that Jenny (like all Music Together teachers) asked that visitors participate because having all the adults model participation was intentional in the learning process. In 1995 just after St. Gregory’s San Francisco moved into our new church, we had two Music Together morning classes like this in our worship space each week. I’d glimpsed them at work when I had reason to go into the church, but I’d kept my head down, not wanting to interrupt. The memory I carry from those glimpses is sight rather than sound - young mothers and small children seated in a circle in our big rotunda, altar space, and even seated, kneeling or cross-legged how they moved together to mark a rhythm. That was my memory - the peripheral glance and unfocused seeing of a circle just like this one. Oh, I also remember a small feeling of regret that Music Together wasn’t something we’d known to do with our children. So this time, I’m grateful that our daughter’s doing it with Hannah.

In the fifteen years or more since I’d known Music Together as our church’s tenant I’d been looking for ways to develop congregational and community music making, especially singing together. As we were developing Music that Makes Community, we kept asking ourselves:

- How can we free people to sing who didn’t know that they could?
- What gives people the courage to own their voices and a shared song?
- What moves people to improvise and create and share a new song?

Over those years I had (and continue to have) the privilege of working with skilled musicians to recover and share the wisdom and practices of traditional oral transmission music making. Over that decade and a half occasionally someone would mention Music Together. Then recently I’d watched my friend Emily Scott leading workshops on making oral transmission, paperless music with children. Emily is the founding pastor of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn and before that had been my founding program director for our Music that Makes Community project. As she was beginning St. Lydia’s, Emily supported herself as director for children’s music at First Presbyterian Church New York City. For that work she’d combined practices we’d developed together with what she’d learned from subsequent training in Music Together. Recently Emily had suggested I take a good look at Music Together to learn from their practice, so our daughter’s invitation to visit Hannah’s class came at a great moment.

Woops, we just left Hannah in another moment. No regrets about my digression, except that I just now left Hannah in the middle of the circle with egg-shaped rattles in every direction. So –

- what happened as we continued singing and keeping time with our shakers was that Hannah crawled to one shaker, picked it up, spun herself from crawling to sitting, picked up second egg in her other hand, dropped both, crawled again to another shaker and then another, and then settled in front of her grandmother, took a shaker in each hand, fixed her eyes on Jenny, and began to shake her eggs to match the simple rhythm of the group. I felt, as grandparents can, like I was falling in love with this small person. I loved that she’d felt, and seen, and heard the invitation in the music. I loved that she’d taken a shaker in each hand. I was astonished at the ordinary human brilliance that allowed her to keep time with us. And I was touched to the heart by the peaceful, rapt look on her face watching Jenny lead us.

Was this a musical moment? A human moment? I’d say it was emphatically both a musical moment and a human moment. And there’s more.
Peter Brook, the great theater director said, “ A holy theater not only presents the invisible but also offers conditions to make its perception possible.”

Obviously the Music Together class wasn’t theater, but it was moment that offered conditions to make seeing the invisible possible, so I’d venture to call it a holy moment.

The movement, the gestures, and the music Jenny was guiding us through brought us and Hannah to that moment, so if not theater, were these classic building blocks of ritual making a liturgy? Again, the simple answer would be, “of course it wasn’t liturgy.” But the simple answer misses something of God’s unsolicited presence in our simplest shared rituals.

The Russian priest and liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann said, “Worship is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.”

What is the deep reality of the world? The “conditions that make perception possible” the “vantage point” we’d arrived at showed something unexpected at the very heart and center of our world. Not the inevitable threats and troubles that fill the news, not the self-doubt and self-protection that diminish and sometimes paralyze us, not the monstrous deformity of envy and malice that destroy others, but a little child leading us by finding her place in the circle of humanity.

Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Mark 9:36-37.


The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Star of wonder, star of night

by Maria Evans

O star of wonder, star of night,
star with royal beauty bright;
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light!.--Refrain, "We Three Kings of Orient Are"

John Henry Hopkins, Jr., forever altered how we view Epiphany and the Magi when he wrote "We Three Kings" in 1857, because his carol created a theology to go with it.

What we understand about the Magi is pretty sketchy, at least in terms of guidance from the Gospels. We essentially know there were Magi, but really, we presume there were three because only three gifts are mentioned. There could have been many more. It's only by tradition that we know them as Balthazar, Melichor, and Caspar (or Gaspar, in some renditions)--derived from a Greek manuscript probably written in Alexandria around 500 A.D. But it was the then-Deacon Hopkins who gave them voice for the first time, and a theology to accompany their gifts..."Gold I bring to crown him again," (the ruler of Christ's Kingdom)..."Incense owns a deity nigh," (the Son of God)...and myrrh's "bitter perfume" symbolizing the Crucifixion. Thanks to Hopkins, we have connected Gaspar to gold, Melchior to frankincense, and Balthazar to myrrh.John_Henry_Hopkins_Jr_full_size.jpg

Likewise, parts of Hopkins' life seem shrouded in mystery. He was the son of the Bishop of Vermont. His father later became the 8th Presiding Bishop. In a time when the role of deacons was less uniformly understood, he chose to be a deacon for 22 years, only accepting Holy Orders to the priesthood upon the urging of his bishop. He composed music, taught music at the General Theological Seminary, wrote poetry, and designed stained glass windows. Two U.S. censuses show him living with the family of a friend. About the only in-depth view we have of him comes from a biography written shortly after his death by The Rev. Charles F. Sweet, "A champion of the cross, being the life of John Henry Hopkins, S.T.D." It reads in that rather flowery way that Victorian biographies tend to read, so it's hard to interpret. He never married; although we can never know for sure, one can't help but wonder if, in another time, he'd be considered or assumed part of God's Rainbow Tribe.

Yet this man that we only seem to know superficially, left a legacy by giving depth and breath and voice to the most important figures in the Epiphany story--through a song, that, in some ways sounds older than it is. Had we been asked to recite all we know about the Magi from rote, it would not have the attraction, nor the joy. Almost all of us can sing at least one verse of "We Three Kings" (and maybe even the childhood parody, "We three kings of Orient are, tryin' to smoke a rubber cigar. It was loaded and it exploded, that's how we got this far.") I've never seen a person sing "We Three Kings," who didn't start moving their head from side to side, or a smile not cross their face. It seems that even singing the hymn creates a mini-Epiphany in itself.

Epiphany is a season of wonder and discovery--to travel in search of something or someone we're looking for, and our only way of recognizing Christ in it is, "We'll know it when we see it." It's a pretty inefficient and sometimes confusing and tiring way to go about things--sometimes it even comes with danger should our search be fruitful, choosing to go home another way--but when we discover Christ in it, our weariness almost instantly turns to joy. What are the songs that give depth and breath and voice to your own journeys to discover Christ, when the road is not well-mapped?

More on Hopkins and drawing from Trinity Wall Street


Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Changing the familiar

by Linda Ryan

I had the radio on last night, listening to my favorite classical station as I tried to drift off to sleep. The announcement came over the air that the next selection would be the perennial favorite, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Oh, great, I thought. Just what I need. That old hack I've heard so many times I can practically sing along with it. In fact, that's precisely what the announcer suggested. I turned over and tried to pretend I was in the Cotswolds or perhaps down by the river back home, anything to take my mind off that impending da-da-da-BOOM.

Then the music started. My eyes shot open and so did my ears. Yes, all the notes were familiar, familiar enough to sing along with, but they sounded so different. The conductor had done something I hadn't heard before; he had speeded it up! Instead of the more usual ponderous pace, the music almost danced. It bounced instead of plodded, seemed bright instead of dark and dense, and it even seemed to be a half-tone or so higher in pitch. I can't remember when I've enjoyed hearing that piece more. I forgot about going to sleep, I was mesmerized instead. Who would have thought that a few beats per minute could make such a difference!

This morning I couldn't shake the thought of how different an old hack could sound with just a small bit of change and the imagination (and courage) to actually take the chance. Then I thought, if Beethoven's Fifth can sound so different, what other things that seem sort of hackneyed and ponderous or even just too familiar might be dragged out, brushed off, shaken out and set down in a different way?

I thought about the gospels. Why the gospels I don't know, but the thought popped into my head and stuck. Now, I've heard a lot of sermons based on the gospels, some better than others, and none particularly memorable except for one that dealt with the mathematical computations of precisely how much wine Jesus made from water at that wedding in Cana. Quite a few of them took the same track: Jesus taught about what God wants of human beings, healed the sick and broken and died for the sins of the world so that those who believed (or believed the right things) would go to heaven and play harps when they died, otherwise they would go to hell and be crispy critters for all eternity, or thoughts to that same effect. Gospels are supposed to be good news, but it seems it is only good news if one follows the doctrines and dogmas of the church, says the right prayers, does the right actions, supports the church physically and financially and tries to convert the whole world to one's own particular brand of theology. Where's the good news there? "Join us, accept Jesus and get your ticket to heaven punched, trains leaving every half hour on the half hour from Track 42."

Not being a priest, preacher, Biblical scholar or even theologian, I can't tell anyone how to make the gospels pop the way that conductor did with Beethoven's Fifth. Maybe it would be by presenting them as really good news -- news that gets people excited (like winning a lottery) or make the heart feel good (the rescue of an endangered child or pet). Maybe it would be stressing that Jesus didn't go around condemning people or asking them to repent before healing them or informing them that they weren't beyond God's love -- if. Maybe it could even be that repentance really follows belief, not the other way around, and that the repentance is something that people really want to do once they believe, if they only have a good reason to do so.

Maybe a few beats a minute doesn't mean much (unless it's a heart that's already in trouble), but it can make all the difference in pulling back the dusty velvet curtains and letting the sunlight into a piece of music. Maybe giving people a reason -- or an example -- of what difference there can be in their lives if they hear a gospel that really is good news. Maybe if we got back to the Christians in the earliest days of the church who follow the words of Jesus, "[E]veryone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). There's nothing there about pounding people over the head with the Bible to prove to them what sinners they are, nothing about having to say the Jesus prayer or go about in sackcloth and ashes or with a whip called a "discipline" in hand. All it is is a commandment to love -- and if that happens, the rest will fall into place like the familiar notes of Beethoven's Fifth.


Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter

Advent: a holy and a broken hallelujah

by Sam Candler

Alan Light has written a book about my hero, Leonard Cohen, titled The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah.” Actually, the book is really about how the song “Hallelujah” (written by Leonard Cohen) became so powerful.

I have yet to read the book, but I will. In one way, I don’t need to read it, because I already know the song. The song is said to have been undiscovered until Jeff Buckley resurrected it; but I, and many other Leonard Cohen fans, sure knew it. We have heard Cohen himself sing it in different ways. He is said to have written some 80 verses of the song before deciding on the four that occur in his album, Various Positions (1985); he has sung others since. And whatever the number of verses, one of those verses will always be:

There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah!

Advent, and even Christmas, can be times for brokenness. Broken toys, for instance. There will be some broken toys this Christmastide, startling introductions for children to the way the rest of their lives will be.

Broken promises. Maybe it was a gift that you were promised last year. Maybe it was something you promised several months ago that you just cannot fulfill now. Broken plans. One family member wanted to visit one in-law, but the other family member had another in-law in mind. Maybe some illness prevented the perfect plan. “My water has broken,” she said. That means a birth is coming, doesn’t it? Advent is, indeed, about a birth coming, but something has to break first.

The season itself is broken, isn’t it? We don’t know whether we are supposed to be still lingering over Thanksgiving, or being joyful, or refraining from singing Christmas carols because it’s not really Christmas yet. Are we supposed to be happy now, or preparing for something else? We don’t know.

Well, in the midst of whatever has broken this December, let me assure you that something holy is here. In fact, the most holy pieces of our lives are often the most broken pieces. I mean our hearts, our lives, even our hopes and dreams. We’ve all lost things in our life’s journey. I believe that what makes a place holy is that we have lost something there; we have given up something. What makes a life holy is that it knows how to lose things. One reason graveyards are holy is because they represent lost lives. Churches are holy because we give up things there; I hope we give up our lives there.

The Hallelujah that emerges from brokenness is a holy Hallelujah; it is a genuine Hallelujah. That’s why the Book of Psalms is so full of Hallelujahs; those psalms are as much about sadness and loss as they are about hope and victory. They are holy.

So, don’t be afraid if something breaks this Advent, of even if you break something. That brokenness can be an occasion for holiness. It can be an occasion to sing Hallelujah. When Jesus came into the world so long ago, the world itself was overturned. Mary said “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” In fact, the power of sin was broken. The power of death was broken, simply in that miraculous birth. In the end, brokenness is the real reason we sing Hallelujah: the brokenness between God and humanity is healed! The division is made one. God is made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord. Hallelujah!


The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. His sermons and reflections can be found at his blog, “Good Faith and the Common Good”.

Part 3: Common Mind and the Mind of Christ

by Donald Schell

We’ve titled our new All Saints Company book of liturgical music and hymns, “One Heart and One Song,” a line from the 19th Century English hymn, “From glory to glory advancing we praise Thee, O God,” which in turn translates a prayer from the ancient Liturgy of St. James. One heart and one song. Human solidarity begins in our ancient ancestors’ ability to sing together. As recently as the American Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Viet Name War Movement, and South Africa’s ‘Revolution in Four-part Harmony,” we’ve seen music bind people together to face injustice the threat of violence. And then strangely, we silenced our songs. And perhaps not so strangely, church assemblies got grayer and quieter and fewer visitors stayed to sing. What songs do people have in common? A verse of “Amazing Grace,” “Happy Birthday to You,” a verse and a half of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and maybe “Auld Lang Syne.”

I’ve promised fellow neuroscience geeks some building blocks for a natural theology of community, human formation and some startling new hints of what God is doing in our singing. First I want to suggest that the two crucial formational issues (human formation and Christian formation alike) are:

what binds us together? and
how can we, born in community, be inspired to individual creativity, courage, and compassion?

In theological terms we’re asking:
what makes solidarity reconciliation or
what undoes the bondage and the killing solidarity of scapegoating violence

In this our music-making matters ultimately, and traditional, pre-literate ways of sharing music may help us notice what makes us warring tribes and what draws us together in one heart and one song.

Before we learned to read text and music (those of us who do), people learned by mirroring. And yes, mirroring can cement mindless solidarity against an enemy or a scapegoated other, but mirroring is also essential to positive communication, communion, fellow feeling, and so to compassion. St. Paul said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” because we become Christ by imitation.

Imitation is the core of creativity and the source of our finding freedom to act as we need to. As jazz musician Clark Terry says, “Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate,” or as we used to say it in Music that Makes Community workshops, “Imitate, Repeat, Improvise.” Imitation births relationship to one another, and in the mind of Christ, the imitation that makes us not clones, but more uniquely ourselves, imitation can take us to that freedom we find in the Spirit of the Lord.

Either way – the ground of imitation is in our embodied sense of another person’s intention and presence, what Mario Iacaboni writes about in Mirroring People, the Science of Empathy and How We Connect With Others, Iacoboni, an M.D. and a pioneer neurological researcher at UCLA lays out the emerging brain research that identifies specific neurons and kinds of neurological connection we share with some other primates, with whales and with dolphins and elephants. These nerve paths (and the particular kind of nerves, mirror neurons) allow us to feel or sense directly in our own bodies the affective state of our fellows (and some other mammals). In wonderful, page-turning scientific argument, Iacoboni describes experiments that make very good sense, and guides us through the logic of what they prove. Iacoboni and Frans de Waal (below) are lead researchers in the emerging science of empathy/compassion.

As a pastoral theologian, I’m grateful that both are also realistic about how mirroring can lead to competition and sometimes violence. But both see in our ability to take the role of the other, to feel the other’s experience, an inborn (I’d say God-given, but that’s not their argument) basis for the kind of communication that makes community possible.

In The Age of Empathy, Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, Frans De Waal comes at connection and community formation of character as a primatologist, observing and experimenting behaviorally with our primate cousins. Like Iacoboni, English is de Waal’s second language and like Iacoboni, he writes elegant, clear English. The two books make an intriguing complementary pair. Iacoboni gives us a guided tour of the brain (ours and those other mammals). De Waal observes and describes behaviors (our own and other animals’) that our mirroring brains make possible. Like Charles Darwin (whom he quotes), de Waal argues that cooperation, collaboration and compassion contributed as much to our evolution as competition. Like Darwin and Iacoboni, he acknowledges the sometimes violent character of our primate cousins (and other mammals whose behavior is shaped by mirroring/imitation), but his work is a thorough corrective to earlier primatologists who argued that we were descended from purely, and unalterably violent primates.

In the previous essay, I mentioned Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals, The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, which marshals evidence from neurology and paleontology, from cross-cultural studies in language development in infants, and from archaeology to argue that human language and community evolved from our ancestors’ ability to make primordial melody and gesture, that is that music and movement, fundamental building blocks of ritual, were essential in the formation of primal human communities. Gesture and melody allowed our earliest human ancestors to collaborate for survival. Mithen argues that human language came from music, sentences came from melodies, and finally articulated words emerge from sentences. Mithen’s evidence also invites us to notice that rationality is rooted in feeling. Whether we want to see that feeling is the vessel for articulated meaning, or (with Parker Palmer) to invite and encourage ‘thinking with the mind in the heart,’ Mithen’s evolutionary evidence makes it clear that rationality and logic rest on melody and feeling for the energy of their meanings.

In the last essay, I suggested that in Cognition in the Wild Edwin Hutchins offers scientific observation and (so good natural theology) to support Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori calling individual salvation “a heresy of our time.” How can science address a question of heresy? The PB is pointing to a theological heresy that contradicts good sense anthropology and neurology.

Over the last three hundred fifty years, the Enlightenment discovery of human rights and the essentially ‘thinking’ self of Enlightenment philosophers like Pascal and Descartes, has become something else - the triumph of individualism or me-ism. Hutchins helps us begin to see how the self or ‘I,’ of my thoughts and personal purpose emerges from our communication. Self comes to be in community. Thinking is interactive and conversational. The community that’s working together is essential to thought. For serious individual thought, we carry on a conversation with internalized voices of others to help us think.

Hutchins observes groups outside of a laboratory context making complex decisions, using seagoing navigation as his wild, non-lab environment. He sees ‘self’’ as a kind of local center, free but also born to and inseparable from a wider human system.
We have lots of new brain research on the areas of the brain and connections among them that we’re engaged in when we’re making music, working together, feeling compassion or affection. Oliver Sacks, Musicphilia and other recent books on the neurology of music-making and listening observe that music-making changes a musician’s brain. It makes so many more neural connections between the parts of the brain that together shape what we call ‘music’ that a pathologist doing an autopsy will recognize visually the brain of a music-maker. Meanwhile, in a parallel discovery, Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman in How God Changes your Brain, Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist tell us that praying to a judgmental, condemning God actually measurably decreases the richness of brain activity and makes us less creative, less flexible, and dumber while praying to a compassionate, forgiving God opens new neural pathways and makes us smarter, more creative, and more flexible in our thinking. How are these two observations connected? I’m hearing neurological and electro-encephalographic evidence that, on the way to compassion and one heart, whoever sings prays twice.

Two more remarkable books for anyone who has hung in to the end of this – David and Eric Clarke, editors, gathered the papers from the first International Conference on Music and Consciousness in 2006, in Music and Consciousness, Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, and Daniel Siegel gave this neuroscience beginner a belated but very welcome guided tour in his Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology that includes a working description of ‘mind’ that he developed to bring together a forty person interdisciplinary team of neuroscientists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, organizational theorists, contemplative practitioners, parenting researchers and religious teachers. Siegel offers us this, “A core aspect of the mind can be defined as an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” “Embodied and Relational” jumped out at me right away.

And what Siegel rights about is the plasticity of the brain, the reshaping of how we remember and how we choose from seeing one another, being attuned to one another, making fresh choices.

Mind. Mine, yours, or ours? Of course it’s all three and “embodied and relational” points us to how WE have the “mind of Christ.”

See also Part 1 and Part 2.


The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Part 2: Thinking together

by Donald Schell

My older daughter and I were exiting the Imperial War Museum in Manchester (U.K.) where she lives. It was bright outside from the late afternoon sun playing on the network of deepwater canals that surround the museum. By the water people in and around a half dozen or so pubs were singing, all of them, singing - team songs, or “She’ll be coming round the mountain,” or hymns. By the colors they were wearing we could see that fans of Manchester United (Man. U.) and fans of Glasgow’s Celtic Football Club were singing at one another from full pub gatherings, a scene and song of dueling solidarities, pub and club gatherings trying to out-sing one another across the echoing canals. And then sometimes unexpectedly one group’s song would good-naturedly answer another which the first group would receive with a gale of laughter. But the air was so charged with energy that I asked a fisherman quietly casting into the canal whether he thought there’d be trouble after the game. “No,” he said, “it’s two Catholic teams. Today all this competition friendly.” It would have been otherwise with Man. City of the other Glasgow team playing.

We’d spent the day with another kind of conflict, compelling historical displays portrayed the war that had devastated Europe. I wouldn’t imagine myself to be a fan of a war museum, but my father, my daughter’s grandfather, flew a B-17 bomber in World War II. Dad returned from the war with a new vocational goal, to become a physician. When I was old enough to ask him about the war, he’d only say, “I came back wanting to save lives if I could.” Dad was in medical school when I was born, and then a physician until he died, and from the brief words I just quoted, I learned that the father I knew would only talk around the edges of the war – his love of flying or his decision to become a physician. Partly he guessed that my childish curiosity was eager for war stories and heroism. He’d seen horror and loss. But I also wanted something else. I knew I’d come from him, been born from the desire that he and my mom had held while she was in California and he was a continent and an ocean away flying daily through anti-aircraft fire. I wanted to know more parts of him because I carry them and him within me.

How within me? Within me like a feeling before thought that moved me to leap out of our car and run up the hill to break up a fight – three kids had set upon a fourth. They’d pinned him to the ground were banging his head against the concrete. I left my wife and child in a risk-taking folly that may have saved that fourth kid’s life. Where did it come from – my dad – both the pilot and the physician - breathed life into me in that moment. Where does our conscience come from? What gives us courage to act ?

My daughter and my visit to the museum moved us closer to hearing and feeling something of the startling experience of my dad’s learned competence, feeling and imagining a bit of how a twenty-three year old officer would fly a heavy bomber and be responsible for his plane and crew or how that very young man might have felt seeing friends’ planes torn from formation next him with anti-aircraft guns and flak to fall from the sky. We wanted to glimpse something important about someone we loved, something that he was reluctant to describe.

Two pairs of eyes and ears and our conversation responding to the displays made them real for us in another way.

I got another glimpse into my dad from Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist,” a New Yorker article about bomber pilots and ICU physicians and nurses

The article tells how effective a simple checklist was in reducing infections in the Intensive Care Unit, but it begins with the horrifying and enlightening story of the expert test pilot crashing the first completed B-17 bomber prototype early in America’s preparations for World War II. At the time, the big B-17 with its 4 supercharged engines and all sorts of other advances was the most complicated airplane ever built. The post-mortem on the wreck revealed that the expert pilot had skipped a step in the start-up procedures, a switch that needed to be switched on - just wasn’t. Whenever you see a movie of pilot and co-pilot going through a start-up checklist, your finding the solution the B-17 engineers found to consistently engage knowledge and procedures too complicated for any one person to hold dependably in mind. “Fuel pressure?” “Check.” “Right flaps?” “Check.” And so on.

Writers like Atul Gawande in “Checklist” and The Checklist Manifesto or like Edwin Hutchins in Cognition in the Wild offer us both experience and scientific thinking we can use to support our Presiding Bishop’s warning against “the great Western heresy –“

—that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. . . That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being.

Because beyond idolatry, the great Western heresy distorts the ultimate value God our creator really does place on every individual person. The heresy imagines a isolated individual freedom and agency that simply doesn’t exist. Human personhood is always born from community and grows and is nurtured in community. An ordinary human community or the miracle of the Body of Christ is no aggregation or sum total of separately existing people. When we’re talking about human nature (and so also about redeemed human nature), Nurture and Nature are inseparable, and, as Stephen Mithen argues compellingly in Singing Neanderthals, the communities that make humanity, that make collaboration, language and articulated thought even possible, begin with our capacity to read one another’ faces and bodies and come to common understanding in the simplest cultural and ritual building blocks – expressive melodic sound and gesture.

Solidarity and bonding together and even our hope in God’s work of reconciliation can go awry. Manchester United and Celtic pre-match singing won’t lead to a riot or war. Other pre-match singing might. But whether for good or ill, the bonding and collaborating that make us human begin in song and gesture - before we knew our mothers were different from ourselves, the gazer and the gazed on, the singer and the listener were one.

Human formation happens in nurturing community and so, of course, Christian formation does too. The rapidly emerging neuroscience of cognition and consciousness and new studies in anthropology and primatology have much to teach us about what we do together that brings us to common mind and to the possibilities of individual and personal discovery that come from our common mind.

In these first two parts of this series, I’ve sketched what may appear to be an air castle, some broad strokes to claim that we are together before we stand alone, that and pointing to research that singing and gesture birth language and the possibility of individual thoughts. In my final piece, I’ll tour some highlights of the scientific research that should inform our theology and practice of community and person going forward.


The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Part 1: Journeying to the Song and Gesture

by Donald Schell

Headwaters are places of beginning and ongoing generation. Headwaters can be huge like the Blue Nile Falls, where the Blue Nile begins in a wild rush of falling water a rising cloud of spray that make a lush riverbank in the arid Ethiopia of our first human ancestors. Or headwaters may be tiny and look insignificant like the divided rivulets flowing off ridges in the high Rockies, half flowing east into the Missouri and on to the Gulf of Mexico and half south and west into the Colorado and down though the Grand Canyon where dams and viaducts divert it from the sea to Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
In 2004 and 2005, not yet knowing I’d begun searching for headwaters, I was obsessively asking musicians and composers what they knew of traditional, pre-literate music-making. Did they know of anyone composing music in the old forms? I was looking for liturgical music including chants and new hymns that our congregation could sing together in dim candlelight. Working to problem-solve for that service prompted me to wonder what we might learn from the ways people sang together in evenings not just before electric lights, but before printed music and texts. Spirituals, work songs, world music, summer camp music, ancient liturgical music fell into this category. What about Russian and South African choral folk traditions? What was happening with rhythm and melody? How did these forms find energy in dissonance and resolution in harmony without notes on the page? What basic underlying forms made it easy to learn by ear and join in? Repetition obviously, but more than that; What intuitive strategies for making musical and textual variety kept structure evident to people so they they could sing tune and words moment to moment?

In 2005 Yale School of Sacred Music sent Emily Scott to All Saints Company for a summer internship. By then I had found a dozen and a half composers around the country for her to interview by phone, people who were interested in the questions of traditional forms or for other reasons were asking similar questions to mine - what kinds of singing would draw everyone in and what beauties we might find in old ways of singing?

Emily and I talked at length and developed a series of observations and questions to ask the church composers we hoped would help us. Emily took extensive notes from the rich conversations and distilled from them an initial description of the old way of singing. Then she called the composers back to describe what she was hearing, and found eight composers whose enthusiasm for the conversation told us they wanted to join in creating something new, robustly congregational and musically satisfying from these inherited forms – simple melody, call and echo, call and response, layered, and rounds.

In late spring of 2006, All Saints Company gathered those eight composers for a working retreat at St. Dorothy’s Rest, an Episcopal Retreat Center, in the redwoods north of San Francisco. There I scrambled to edit and re-edit words from scripture, from mystics and poets so the composers could find new music in or for the words. Together we reflected on their fresh work, sang it together in workshop as it was born, tried it different ways, and offered impressions and ideas, all the time shaping our thinking about the forms. By the end of the retreat we had about fifty short new pieces of music, and with that core of a book, Marilyn Haskel joined Emily in soliciting more music adding about a dozen more contributors from around the country, and from the core work and further compilation, in 2008 Church Publishing published Music by Heart, Paperless Songs for Evening Worship.

At the composers’ retreat, Ben Allaway, made the astute observation that litereate people buying a book of pre-literate formed music would still be tied to the page - without coaching, they’d photocopy to leaflets or project the music on a screen when we knew a skilled leader could teach it by ear and in the moment. So with Music By Heart still on the press, we held our first Music that Makes Community Workshop Intensives, three days of teaching participants the practices of leading what we were calling “paperless music.” As of this March, we’ve had sixteen more of these three day workshops around the country and our ten or so leaders/teachers have continued to discover as much as the seventeen workshops’ four hundred seventy-five participants about music and leadership and group dynamics and the creativity of the Spirit. Our Eighteenth workshop will be this June in St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

The workshops and this way of singing drew on theological and process discoveries we’d made in forty years of mostly unaccompanied congregational singing in a college chaplaincy, a small town congregation and in founding St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco. We mirror the leader, as St. Paul says, ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ.’ Singing together is a crucible for our undeclared collaboration in learning – a practice in which we discover that ‘we have the mind of Christ.’ Dynamically and literally, singing forms us. We breathe one Spirit together in common in-spiration. We listen to one another. We negotiate and discern leadership. We practice forgiveness. We create together. We ride the sparkling currents of consonance and music-energizing dissonance. And all singing, but particularly the old way of singing, shapes minds and bodies in community. Singing is a practice of reconciliation and at-onement. It also births individual freedom as we learn together to trust the voices God gave us.

The challenge of finding composers to make new music for a candlelit evening liturgy plunged us into startling discoveries of how it felt to learn music relationally, how a leader modeled the music and gave it away, and how people singing claimed the music as their own and lived into their own authority as music-makers. I felt and saw this in people’s faces and bodies. In singing together, something powerful emerged in embodied relationship and a common mind. Singing emerged and grew in face to face embodied relationship. Even with years of sung liturgy behind us, this felt like a discovery – not better music, not always even different music, but a musical path that had taken us into the forests of humanity’s earliest days. We’d stumbled on to the fresh, cold spring of human embodied consciousness and community, the gushing headwaters of the great river of our liturgy and shared meaning.

Through these last seven years of gathering shared leadership teams from a dozen or so wonderful musicians to lead seventeen Music that Makes Community Workshop Intensives, I’ve become a hungry reader of neuroscientific and anthropological studies that point to music and gesture at our beginning.

What made human community, speech, and articulate thought possible for our first human ancestors? How did we form groups that could hunt stronger and more dangerous prey? How did we care for our slow maturing babies? What made it possible for us to work and think together? How are freedom and individual thought and imagination possible when we’re so dependent on groups for our survival? We can touch this holy genesis in singing.

In secular neuroscientific research, primatology and studies of other mirror-neuron- equipped mammals, music research, therapies for stroke damaged brains, and more; we’re making daily new discoveries about human formation that inescapably inform our best understanding of Christian formation.

Any regular listener to NPR or reader of The New York Times or any viewer of TED talks will hear, read or see countless leads to new books sharing discoveries of the workings of our minds and consciousness. Learnings are coming to us from human and primate behavior, from neurology (especially in our new capabilities to monitor blood flow and electric impulses in our living, working brain) from watching how brains recover from strokes, from new understandings of the unique workings of differing kinds of human minds and differing ways we learn.

In the two essays that follow, I’ll offer additional hints that finding a common mind points to an antidote to the heresy of individual salvation in the theological truth that communities birth individual people (more truly and deeply than complete individuals aggregate to make a collective whole). And then I’ll offer a quick tour of some accessible books on neuroscience research, hoping I’m not the only complete natural theology geek who reads the Episcopal Café.


The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

What is the future of traditional church music?

By George Clifford

Recently, I’ve participated in, or overheard, several conversations about church music. A well-known, respected authority on Episcopal liturgy openly declined to attend Morning Prayer at a conference we both attended because the service included Taizé music. These experiences evoked memories of conversations in my former parish between parishioners who wanted a variety of contemporary music (Taizé, jazz, guitars, praise choruses, etc.) and those who wanted only traditional music (i.e., classical, chant, or from the 1982 Hymnal).

By way of confession and disclaimers, although I don’t like to sing I do enjoy listening to music, especially classical, jazz, and sacred music. I suspect that I’m far from alone in not enjoying singing. I grew up in a home in which people did not sing.

Occasionally, somebody in the household would listen to recorded music on either a large record player or tabletop radio. But mostly music was not part of my childhood. However, I frequently attend symphony concerts, often listen to classical music at home or while working, and particularly enjoy hearing sacred music played on a good organ or performed by competent musicians.

In retrospect, I realize that I grew up in a transitional time. Before Edison, music always entailed a live performance. When people wanted music, they generally had to make it themselves. Except for a small number of wealthy people who could afford to employ their own musicians, an opportunity to hear professional performers was a rare treat.

Beginning with the development of first recorded music in the late nineteenth century and then the transistor radio in the 1950s, music became increasingly accessible and portable. Today, amateur musicians in almost every possible venue (I’ve even seen a shower with a built-in radio) have to compete with the availability of music performed by professionals accessed via the internet, an iPod, or numerous other electronic devices.

A music historian might helpfully revise my thumbnail sketch of that transition, but in broad outline, western society (perhaps the whole world) has transitioned from people who had to make their own music to people who can enjoy the best music of others on demand.

So what might this transition imply for The Episcopal Church (TEC) and its worship?
First, our expectation that worship attendees sing, is, apart from worship, an unusual, often unique, expectation in twenty-first century America. In other settings, people typically consume rather than perform music. Many of the tunes used in our worship are at least a century old and the lyrics are often older. In short, people are unlikely to be familiar with the music unless they regularly attend worship for decades.

Consequently, the singing in most worshiping congregations – based on the anecdotal evidence of personal observation and conversation with others – is desultory; more than a few attendees either sing perfunctorily or not at all. Familiar service music, used almost every week, probably constitutes the most common exception to that generalization. Even in a congregation where people actually lift their voices in praise and worship, careful observation usually reveals a sizable minority who, if they participate, do so less than enthusiastically.

Second, teaching our hymnody and music is becoming progressively more difficult because relatively few Americans read music. Their ranks are swelling as public schools reduce or eliminate music education programs in the face of severe financial constraints. If doubtful about the veracity of this assessment, observe a congregation struggle with an unfamiliar hymn that requires an ability to read music in order to follow the text correctly.

Third, our music, unlike our spoken liturgy, less and less resembles the “lingua franca,” i.e., today’s music. This shift departs from our Anglican heritage in which worship music married classic and contemporary lyrics with both popular secular tunes and contemporary sacred compositions. Compounding this problem, scriptural allusions in the lyrics, once familiar to most people, are increasingly unintelligible to a people for whom the Bible is a strange and unfamiliar text.

Fourth, some Episcopalians and others, individuals like me, are dinosaurs who appreciate the traditional music found in most Episcopal congregations. The demand for this type of music has not completely disappeared, although the growing scarcity of organists is an ill omen for its future. Done well, traditional church music fills an important niche. However, too often we dinosaurs decide which music to use, unintentionally (at least I hope it’s unintentional) leaving people unfamiliar with our music, or who prefer a different style of music, feeling marginalized or even unwanted.

Fifth, perhaps most importantly for a denomination concerned about its dwindling numbers, non-traditional church music speaks to many twenty-first century Americans with an emotional attraction and power they do not experience with traditional church music. Contrary to the impression I have sometimes received in Episcopal settings, we do not worship our music; our music is in fact intended to assist us in our worship of God. Again relying on anecdotal evidence, a substantial majority of rapidly growing megachurches utilize non-traditional music in their worship services. As much as the idea makes me uncomfortable, perhaps many Episcopal congregations should emulate the musical practices in some of these rapidly growing congregations.

Let me hasten to add three suggestions. First, much contemporary “Christian” music (e.g., most praise choruses) are insipid and vapid. We Episcopalians are an intelligent, godly people. Let’s borrow tunes (legally!) and then write our own words. We Episcopalians also have some great musicians. Let’s compose new, catchy tunes with good words.

Second, let’s recover the time-honored practice of adapting contemporary secular music for use in worship, marrying style and tune to sound theology. There’s nothing inherently profane about rap, hip hop, country and western, or any other style of music (regardless of how much I might wish that were not true!).

Third, the hymnal era is rapidly ending, probably has already ended. Almost twenty years ago, I chaired the Logistics Advisory Group of the Department of Defense Armed Forces Chaplains Board (the Board consists of the Chiefs and Deputy Chiefs of Chaplains from the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force). The Armed Forces Book of Worship (BOW), the hymnal and worship book published for use in the U.S. armed forces, was out of stock. We recommended against republishing it and the Board agreed. The first reason for our recommendation, not germane to the Episcopal Church, the growing variety of religious groups represented among military personnel (200+ Christian groups, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Baha’i, Hindus, Wiccans, etc.) made preparing an inclusive resource impossible. The other two reasons for our recommendation are pertinent to Episcopalians. No way exists to incorporate new music into a printed resource; the constantly growing stream of new music would make a new BOW out of date almost before publication. Equally significant, increasing numbers of youthful worshipers preferred songs projected on a screen to holding a hymnal.

Two hundred years ago, denominational hymnody functioned as a unifying and educational force that transcended parish lines. Today, the church faces a stark choice. We can persist in mandating the music that I love, congratulate ourselves on holding to tradition and consistency, and watch our numbers continue to decline. Alternatively, we can embrace present reality, accepting (even if begrudgingly!) that new styles of music speak to many twenty-first century people in a way that traditional music does not and that projection is replacing printed resources. I believe that the second alternative, done well (and of course we Episcopalians do everything well), is the only viable choice that encourages growth both in numbers and spiritual depth.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

The poetry of Handel's Messiah

By Kathleen Staudt
This shopping season, I’ve already received two videos of “flash mobs” singing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus in unexpected public places – a mall food court, at Macy’s in Philadelphia, to the accompaniment of the Wanamaker organ. (See them here and here In these videos no one seems to be offended by “Christian” content – there is wonder and delight in the music – in both cases performed by very able singers! Something hopeful and exciting has burst in on the mundane, and people seem to appreciate it. I think that these videos capture not only the fun of this kind of guerilla culture-event, but also the hopefulness that is carried in the words and music of that particular piece. And it has got me thinking of how important Handel’s Messiah as a whole has been to my own formation over the years.

A recording of Messiah was the first “adult” Christmas present I remember receiving. I was 16, and had sung a few choruses from Messiah in high school chorus. My parents gave me the Robert Shaw Chorale’s performance, my very own – probably the first classical album I owned, too. I cried when I opened it. I hadn’t realized how much I really wanted to be able to listen to this music.

Why did I like the Messiah so much as a young person? I think I was responding to the way that it uses the poetry of Scripture to tell a profound story, without insisting on belief or professions of faith. It was a time of my life when I was beginning to ask what it meant to be a Christian in a world where not everyone was Christian, and especially what it meant to be a thinking person who embraced Christian belief, and with it Christian hope?

I already knew the Bible pretty well from my Presbyterian Sunday school upbringing , and I was also a universalist (still am) in my thinking about the salvation on offer to us from a God whose mercy surpasses ours. . To me Messiah, performed in all kinds of secular contexts in the Easter and Christmas seasons, seemed to present Christian faith in a broad, nondenominational but deeply committed way. I still look forward to hearing the whole thing performed at least once a year. Familiar as it is, it is also poetic theology at its best. The music carries and interprets the words, and all the words are from the Bible. The text and music work together, revealing the radical hope that is the underlying thread of the Biblical story. And perhaps most strikingly, in this oratorio that tells the story of Jesus, the majority (not all, but the majority) of the texts are taken, not from the gospels but from Hebrew Scripture.

The librettist of Messiah was a Balliol educated Shakespeare scholar named Charles Jennens (1707-1773). He was a staunch Protestant but a “non-juror – i.e. he refused to recognize the Hanoverian dynasty that was ruling England. He was a huge admirer of Handel, and evidently a devout man, steeped in Scripture and in the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer. Disillusioned with the earthly king, he seems to have placed his hope in the promise of God’s kingdom coming on earth. (and so in words most of us can sing: the text from Revelation: “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever.”)

As a poetic text, the libretto of Messiah is both lyrical and distinctively “Anglican” in feel; like the Book of Common Prayer it stitches together pieces of Scripture in a way that creates a theologically grounded narrative. But this isn’t simply Christian triumphalism: these same Blblical texts, in their original context in Hebrew Scripture, invite us to a way of reading the whole of “salvation history” as told in Hebrew Scripture as an essential part of our ongoing story as Christians.

Within Hebrew Scripture (the “Old Testament”) the overall story is of a God who desires to redeem his people, and does so by calling them out to be a “chosen people”, bound by covenant and formed by joyful obedience to the law. In various ways, and at various points in history, they disobey, fall away from the promise, and terrible, hideous things happen. Sometimes they heed the call to return, but in the era of Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, 722- 520 BCE, the story is of their repeated failures to the messengers of God, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah especially, who warn them that the failure of rulers and people to live faithfully will ultimately result in disaster. The destruction of Jerusalem, and the exile in Babylon are understood as God’s righteous punishment of Israel, and the ultimate return from Babylon and rebuilding of the temple is seen as evidence of God’s abiding mercy and love for God’s people.

Underlying all of this is the theology of a Creator-God, a God of both Justice and Mercy, reliable and intimately engaged with history. The prophetic voice known as 2nd Isaiah (which begins at Chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah) dates from the time when exile is ending and those exiled from Judah are being called to return. Speaking to the remnant of Jerusalem, those who have stayed behind, the prophet predicts that there will be a path through the wilderness, leading back to Jerusalem, and the glory of the Lord will be restored to its rightful place in the Temple: “Comfort ye, my people.” He says on God’s behalf . . . “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. . . every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed (see Isaiah 40: 1-11). By beginning the whole oratorio with this text, Jennens/Handel remind us how central to all of Scripture is the story of Exile and Return – the recurring plot of a God who ultimately desires healing and restoration, despite human perversity. And following ancient Christian tradition, they imply that the coming of Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy.

The other theme from Hebrew Scripture, perhaps more alive for those in the 18th century than for us now, is the prophecy that the restoration of Jerusalem will involve the restoration of a thoroughly righteous king in the Davidic line: the Messiah. This is a tradition that viewed the reign of David as a golden age, when the king and people were faithful to God and lived in security and prosperity. They look forward to a ruler chosen by God and in intimate connection with God, who will preach peace. So the longing for Messiah joins with the postexilic theme that the chosen people are chosen to become a “light to the nations” – a beacon to all and a manifestation of God’s will for the world.

There are also apocalyptic themes but again couched in Messianic hope. Despite assaults by surrounding nations, despite world politics, as long as Jerusalem remains faithful to God, she will be preserved and will become ultimately the city of God, the place where God’s glory dwells. (In the later chapters of Isaiah and in postexilic prophets (Haggaie, Zephaniah, Micah), there is the expectation that after great trial, God’s kingdom will be restored, the temple purified, and the Anointed one will come.

So that’s the framework, the story as told in Hebrew Scripture. And I think Handel’s Messiah is sensitive to that poetry of exile, return, and ultimate hope.

While our Jewish neighbors are still waiting, we believe that Messiah has come, and that the era of the reign of God has begun, despite persistent human efforts to thwart it. We are waiting for the fulfillment of this (A Jewish friend once remarked, wisely, that the season of Advent is the time when the spirit of Jewish and Christian tradition are most closely connected—paradoxical as this seems.) What does it mean to believe, claim, proclaim this? I think that is the theological question that Handel’s Messiah is raising and exploring, for an audience that is mostly Anglican, highly educated, and wary of superstition and doctrine. So, arguably, he is somposing for a “modern” even secular, audience. Messiah carefully resists two common traps in Christian readings of the Old Testament throught the New. First, it is not dispensationalist (i.e. between the “old dispensation” ruled by an angry Old Testament God, and the “new dispensation” of grace and mercy, ruled by Jesus and excluding the Jews) No: Messiah presents the whole of Scripture as telling a continuous story of the divine mercy that longs to lead people out of darkness into light, out of death into life, to a final, confident Amen.

This is also not a piece that preaches Christian triumphalism: Many people listen to Messiah, whether they believe in the Christian story or not, and respond to the message of radical hope it carries. The emphasis of the story is apocalyptic, proclaiming the triumph of God and– a sense of the “fullness of time” -but it does not exalt a cultural and political Christianity trampling down more primitive faiths or knocking down the idols; it is not Constantinian or triumphalist. Rather, with a calm that belongs to the Age of Reason it demonstrates how the text of the Bible presents prophecy that is fulfilled in good time. It looks ahead to the reign of God – not to a human empire, but a time when human sinfulness is overcome and the reign of God is established (where Christ is, in the word’s of Revelation: “King of king and Lord of Lords) And he shall reign forever and ever.” Whether you believe it or not, it is a compelling story.

As for literary form, the basic approach in Messiah is juxtaposition: this is how we construct lyric poetry, as opposed to narrative or didactic poetry. Jennens had a narrative in mind – the story of salvation history. But he tells it by juxtaposing texts from Scripture. Isn’t this also how we do theology in our Anglican liturgical practice? Many of our most beloved services work through juxtaposition of Scriptural texts. Think of the readings at the Easter Vigil, or the beginning of the burial service, or , from the 20th century, the telling of the “whole story” in the service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

When we get New Testament texts in the first section of Messiah, they are usually juxtaposed to Old Testament texts, illuminating, interpreting them. So we have, for example, Isaiah 40: 11: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” alongside Jesus’ words: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden. . . “ Each text interprets and validates the other. We have Jesus bringing in the New Covenant of grace – the theology is not explicit but it is expressed in the music, in the joyful chorus: “His yoke is easy, his burthen is light.”

Handel and Jennens could assume that their audience knew the Passion story, But whether you know the story or not, the poetry of the juxtaposed Scriptural passages carries it. The piece is not interested in any questions about personal belief or salvation or “who’s in and who’s out” . Rather it is interested in what “Kingdom of God” might look like –the fulfillment that has been promised all along. That is the focus of Parts 2 and 3 of Messiah, summed up for many in the music of the Hallelujah chorus -- very positive, focusing on coming of God’s kingdom on earth. The emphasis here is not on individual guilt or repentance, but more on divine suffering and victory for the sake of “us” – a universal human restoration. So the Passion story sings out as the fulfillment of the Chosen One’s calling using the prophet Isaiah’s descriptions of the Suffering Servant (He was despised and rejected. . . a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”). Salvation has come. It is for all. And it has all been done for us. “I know that my Redeemer Liveth” – the Easter section begins – using a text from the book of Job. And it ends by giving life to the cryptic words from Revelation: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” and the singing of an endless and cosmic chorus of Amen.

But the texts that stay with us most through the haunting familiar music of Messiah are from Second Isaiah . They tell of the hope of God’s people in the time of exile, as they awaited deliverance from exile and the return of a good king in the line of David. It is the hope we proclaim as Christians, believing that Messiah has come. It is ultimately, for the librettist of Messiah, a paradoxical, universal hope for all humanity: – rooted in ancient prophecies of exile and return: “Comfort ye, my people. . . . The People that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. . for unto us a child is born, . . . and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Like sunlight through an open hand

By Martin L. Smith

I learned Abbey Lincoln had died as I was sitting down to write, and all other ideas for this column disappeared like smoke. I was plunged back into the experience of encountering this great African American artist. Encounter is the right word. A friend of mine who had been a jazz singer knew her and persuaded me to come to a concert in the early ’90s when she resumed her singing career in America. After an emotionally shattering, electrifying evening we joined the admirers amassed in the lobby of her hotel. As she paused at the elevator door she looked right at my friend and me and crooked a finger in summons; we were to come up to her room. Running a gantlet of incredulous and envious looks, we obeyed. We stayed very late and the conversation was a privilege never to be forgotten. From then on, no concert was to be missed: we were expected. I would take flowers from the garden to be put in her hotel rooms. Sometimes she dedicated a song to me during a concert. Now it all comes flooding back.

I don’t hesitate to call these encounters religious experiences but of course not overt or intentional ones. Religious experiences can be any encounter that throws our settled state into healthy disarray, tears down curtains drawn over inconvenient experiences, lights the fuse that leads to dreams we are refusing to act on, jolts us into awareness that there are yearnings and sufferings we are refusing to admit are part of the adventure of being fully human. We didn’t go to Abbey’s concerts to be amused or entertained, to be flattered or soothed. We risked being shocked, judged, even mocked. We would be moved, but not by decking ourselves momentarily with borrowed sentiments. All we knew is that things wouldn’t be quite the same with our selves after a concert. Things had moved around and moved on. There had to be changes.

Religious experiences are ones in which we have a direct experience of something authoritative, something greater than ourselves that has the right to claim our—there’s no other word for it—obedience. In religious experience we don’t feel in command, picking and choosing what suits our fancy. We are being spoken to. We must listen; and if we fail to respond, we risk failing and harming our hearts. I can’t help associating Abbey’s singing with the words that record the impact of Jesus on those who encountered him. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) In Abbey’s case, she sang as one having authority, and not as the entertainers. She dared to enact—God knows what price she paid for this vulnerability—a range of emotions and experiences that were authoritatively real, and not necessarily convenient or acceptable, and certainly not suitable for the whole family. Sometimes we felt burned and injured by her anger and scorn, and sometimes flooded with a tenderness that we recognized to be quite simply the thing we most long for from God and from one another, and to discover within ourselves.

I really can’t help thinking of her as a clue to what Jesus must have been like. The impression he made on people comes to us through stories whose outlines are blurred in translation from translation. And yet, faded as the colors are, we do get a sense of someone speaking with an authority that is completely different from those who speak to us of God at second and third and fourth hand. We are living through an epoch in which second hand religious authority, ‘the authority of the scribes’ is steadily melting away. Some holders of religious offices may still attempt to command obedience by dint of their rank or accreditation, but these attempts are palpably less effective than they have ever been. We can’t be ordered to believe anything. We have no alternative but to identify the voices that are speaking to us at first hand, with immediacy and freshness from their own struggle with the mystery of God, and these voices won’t necessarily be measured and rated as unoffensive to the general audience. We need voices that are willing to risk scorching people, not just warming them – voices that are unafraid of paining us and opening us right up.

In one of her own songs, “Throw it away,” Abbey invited us to the self-imparting life of openness; “Give your love, live your life, each and every day and keep your hand wide open. Let the sun shine through.” This throwing away is the same as Jesus’ invitation to give ourselves. And like Jesus, she knew that the outcome of this risk is not depletion, but a strange fullness, “ ’cause you can never lose a thing, if it belongs to you.”

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

Drumming in church: some first steps

Daily Episcopalian will resume regular publication on Wednesday.

Updated with this video:

By Jacob Slichter

I am one of several percussionists at Saint Paul’s Chapel in New York City. Under the guidance of our music director, Marilyn Haskel, we accompany congregational music with hand-percussion instruments. Visitors from out of town often come up after the service to express their interest in introducing hand drums and percussion to their churches back home. “How do we start?” Here are some of the principles that have guided us at Saint Paul’s.

Find instruments that cover a range of timbres—Eager as you may be to rush out and load up on drums, this is can be an expensive mistake. Consider instead building a palette of timbres, one that includes such elements as blocks, bells, shakers, tambourines, finger cymbals, etc. Let your current musical repertoire and the acoustics of your worship space inform these choices. In any given space, certain instruments will speak clearly, others will be easily lost, and still others will prove unwieldy. Many stores have an exchange policy, which will allow you to audition different instruments until you find those best suited to your particular environment and music.

Start where you are—While the percussion instruments you bring into church may have their origins in West Africa, the Amazon, or the British Isles, you are free to make whatever music you want with them. Alas, many concern themselves first with the question of learning authentic rhythms, but this can wait. Listen instead to the music your congregation is already making and begin there. Listen to the mood and personality of the music, to the natural ebb and flow of the groove (that mysterious element that makes you want to move your body as you listen), to the shape of the rhythms already present in the melodies.

Then think about how you can support these elements. Simple, easy parts can always do the job; even beginners can make great music right away. Listen to and then answer the melodies and countermelodies, support the bass motion, and so forth. Resist the urge to “liven things up” with percussion; music that works well is perfectly alive. What it wants is support and accent, not a personality transplant. Learn to listen thoughtfully, a skill infinitely more valuable than hand speed and dexterity. Give me the percussionist with hands of clay and ears of gold any day.

In time you’ll gain a natural sense of how rhythms from other musical traditions can be imported (perhaps with modification) into your church’s musical repertoire. At Saint Paul’s, we play a percussion postlude, an excellent time to strut out rhythms from West Africa, or, as we’ve done, from the drumbeats on James Brown tracks.

Always pay attention to the acoustics of the worship space. A cathedral where each note reverberates for several seconds may call for a sparser accompaniment than what you can get away with in a room with a carpeted floor.

Prepare—I favor making rehearsal attendance mandatory for anyone who wants to play. If possible, members of the percussion ensemble should be able to take the instruments home for individual practice.

In the best case, the ensemble (or lone percussionist) would have a chance to rehearse with singers, but if that’s not possible, make sure to sing through the music before coming up with parts. (I did a workshop at St Gregory’s Church in San Francisco, famous, among other things, for its use of liturgical dance. There, we danced through the various steps before coming up with parts that supported the dancing.) Ask yourselves, “Is accompaniment even necessary for this piece?” (While you’re at it, get your organist/pianist to ask herself the same question!) Why rob the congregation of the chance to hear the glory of their unaccompanied singing?

Use rehearsal time to plot out arrangement ideas such as staggered entrances of the various percussion instruments. Practice maintaining eye contact with each other. Establish the framework for improvisation. “Do an extra little something on the high drum during this section,” etc. If possible, practice with a metronome. Even better, make the additional purchase of a cheap Dictaphone and listen back to yourselves so you can make adjustments.

Be Givers, not Takers—Music joins your congregation in community. Let the percussion support, empower, and open up that experience. Be members of that community, not performers looking for an audience’s admiration. The minute you think of yourselves as performers, you cut yourself off from the congregation. The result will be playing that overwhelms or otherwise obstructs their musical experience.

Let your whole body listen to the congregation around you. Feel what they are feeling. Let them speed up and slow down if that’s what they have to do. Herd them together when they stray apart from each other, but avoid becoming rhythmic enforcers who club the congregation from joy into obedience. Remember that sometimes the most exciting thing a congregation can experience is the sound of their own voices, unaccompanied.

Don’t pick up a drum to get your ya yas out. Pick up a drum (or set it down) to bring the full pleasure of music making to those around you. As you feel their pleasure, you will have found the true power of drumming.

Jacob Slichter is a writer and musician who is a member of St. Paul's Chapel/Trinity Church Wall Street. He serves on the board of All Saints Company, where he has consulted in the development of Music That Makes Community, and he leads drumming workshops for interested congregations.

Face to face

By Donald Schell

What St. Paul hinted at it in I Corinthians –‘Now we see in a glass darkly, then face to face: now I know in part; then I shall know even as I am known’ –he left to the writer of I John to speak plainly, ‘Beloved, we are already God’s children, but what we will be hasn’t appeared yet; what we know is this: when He comes we shall be like Him, for we’ll see Him as He is.’
More than ‘believing,’ seeing is becoming. Mirroring makes us who we will be.

Participants in a Music that Makes Community workshop feel the energy of that becoming when they learn by mirroring generous musicians like Ben Allaway, Ana Hernandez, Marilyn Haskel, Eric, Law, Lester Mackenzie, Emily Scott and Scott Weidler. In January and February All Saints Company will offer the eighth and ninth of these three day workshops at San Francisco’s and St. Louis’s Episcopal Cathedrals. Three years into this work discovery continues for both leaders and participants.

My own role exploring “What God’s doing in this music” has me reading and re-reading primatologist Frans de Waal and Neurologist Marco Iacoboni, scientists whose research could challenge the church to ask how liturgy and music-making in liturgy trains us in compassion and shapes us for community in mission. If our humanity emerges from empathic communication, and if singing together is older and more essential to our communities than language, as Steven Mithen argues in Singing Neanderthals, how can we do it better?

For millennia before we had printed texts our ancestors learned music from face-to-face mirroring. Many of us learned songs this ancient way at summer camp and maybe from learning some spirituals and work songs, or savoring world music that brings us living choral folk traditions from Africa and elsewhere. There are musical treasures that would be very, very difficult to learn without words and notes on paper. But singing by mirroring, learning without paper touches something profound in our God-given humanity and taps a primal root of human community.

Reaching to feel and see this deep synthesis of practice, reflection, and theory, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched (and of course listened to) Stanford University’s Talisman A Capella singing ‘When he comes’ (from the I John text) to nursing home residents in Capetown, South Africa.

Naturally enough the nursing home setting of Talisman’s song reminds me of my wife’s University of California doctoral research, a qualitative study of the daily meal interaction between nursing home caregivers and residents. One day Ellen was discussing her research with Leonard Schatzman, the groundbreaking sociologist on her dissertation committee. Ellen said, somewhat apologetically, “I’m really just interested in what happens locally, at the bedside and in the hallway outside the patient’s room face-to-face. I don’t know what to make of the big institutional stuff higher up.” Dr. Schatzman’s responded simply, “Ellen, face-to-face is all there is. It’s face-to-face all the way up.”

Watching Talisman’s singers key off one another face-to-face, we see and feel their faces and bodies communicating what they’re singing, and then, as the camera takes us to the faces of the old people in the home caught up in their visitors singing a song they know and love, we catch another glimpse of the community-shaping power of face-to-face.

But what about global politics? Does face-to-face music-making have anything to do with the big questions? Or is it simply that global systems and politics live beyond the reach of compassion? How does the coming of the tender baby’s kingdom change systems? To bring it home, what’s face-to-face got to do with conflict and change in the Anglican Communion? Schatzman’s point, of course, is that even presidents and archbishops change (or don’t) by what they see, feel, say and do face-to-face.

Singing together doesn’t change us all at once any more than a single encounter with an openly gay Episcopalian changes a homophobic Anglican. Friendship and the discovery of grace come with repetition. Face-to-face singing and learning music to pray together in liturgy changes us ripples out to generous leadership and creativity that emerge among us as we count on one another to hold tune and words. We used to know this culturally. Civil Rights movement songs like ‘We Shall Overcome,’ changed the people who sang together and echoed in hearts and minds facing fire hoses and police dogs. It’s courage, ‘heart’ that we find when we offer even tentative voice to sing what we’re just learning and eventually to stand in front of the group and take a turn as leader.

Another Talisman YouTube vignette takes that practice to echo life and death politics as Talisman sings ‘Hosanna’ at an Easter Monday liturgy at Regina Mundi in Soweto. We watch privileged Stanford students risking hubris. As pleasingly rainbow-colored as they are, these kids singing a Soweto hymn in a Soweto shrine and sanctuary of the anti-Apartheid movement are among the most privileged young people on the planet. They know that. They’re also a typical college mix of skeptics and agnostics with a smattering of cultural Jews and Christians. Singing at a mass at a shrine where anti-Apartheid martyrs’ funerals were celebrated, Talisman’s singers find legitimacy from their willingness to open their hearts and sing the music as they received it. Their singing steers clear of the hubris of claiming suffering they haven’t known. Just watching, we can feel and mirror how the music itself and the people they’re singing to enlarge their experience and ours. Talisman risks singing a mystery that’s stronger than their religious skepticism and we can feel that they sing a history that has now touched and changed them.

And at the end of clip, the camera gives us of a black South African congregation who lived through the terror and bitter politics. Again we’re mirroring the congregation’s skepticism, as we wonder, ‘what do they/we think of this?’ and then…communion, and gratitude at what the singers have seen and felt, what they have learned and sung.

Face-to-face we recognize authenticity.

Baby’s brains are primed to discern faces. Even an abstraction, a highly stylized pair of eyes, nose and mouth holds a baby’s attention. All of us began to discover who we and how we care by seeing ourselves in the faces, voices, and gestures of others like us. And in glimpsing their tenderness mirroring us, we longed to become what we saw. Our adult’s consciousness still involuntarily tips our eyes sideways to discern a face nested in print ;~)

Seeing isn’t believing, it’s becoming, and, as Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa insisted, we become both human and holy by seeing and by learning. ‘Gnosis,’ esoteric, fully defined knowledge for the few can’t build community. Learning together face-to-face does build community.

Imitatio, the imitation of Christ, is our becoming, our becoming like him who is, by the grace of God, our being. Repetition, mirroring, our simplest, most primordial building block of human learning puts us face-to-face, where compassion is born, where conversion and formation really happen.

Am I stretching too far to take this to politics and to our Anglican Communion?

Whether in church or in our workshops, when I’m singing in our familiar ecumenical, progressive mix of LGBT and straight church musicians and clergy, I find moments when I must give thanks again for the pioneering courage of our middle-aged and older gay who risked coming out. Coming out is face-to-face. I know it a little when I declare myself a divorced and remarried priest. Face-to-face takes us to the specific incarnational particulars of humanity. Who would we be without the sometimes joyful, sometimes disquieting experience of knowing people well when they tell us the next piece of their story and experience? Face-to-face changes us all.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

A plea to Bishop Alexander in compiling a new hymnal

Prologue
A host of resolutions are passed every three years at General Convention. Of these, only a few ever receive air time. And we all know which ones they are: the wedge issues used by seasoned culture warriors Left and Right to energize bases and attract new recruits. And yet, every three years, at least a few changes get made that rarely if ever get talked about but that truly move the church to its foundations. These shifts are rarely obvious but are comprehensive in scope because these are the changes that affect the people in the pews—whether they’re aware of it or not.

One of these resolutions was passed three years ago with little notice or fanfare. This resolution, known to history as 2006-A077, is only four lines long yet invalidates and replaces some twenty pages of the Prayer Book, affecting every Sunday morning service in the Episcopal Church. I speak of the change to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Another such resolution was passed this summer.

Bishop Neil Alexander of the Diocese of Atlanta submitted a resolution to begin the process of compiling a new hymnal for the Episcopal Church. It was Resolution B004. While not quite as big of a change as a new Prayer Book, a new hymnal will change the very sounds of Episcopal worship—from what service music we sing, to what hymns we use to worship. And singing is prayer too. What we sing shapes how we understand ourselves, our gathered church community, and God as well.
This is no insignificant change. This will change the very words we use to worship. This matters.

The Plea
Bishop Alexander, members of the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music, and those who make decisions regarding the shape of this future hymnal:

As you begin this weighty work, I submit three suggestions. They are interrelated. While each can stand on its own, the combination of the three will, I believe, seize the unique opportunities that this moment offers in the realms of spirituality and communication. First, restore the hymnody of the Daily Office to the place that it deserves in our life of worship. Second, establish a commission uniting skilled linguists and liturgical poets to create the new definitive Modern English translations of these texts. Third, whatever works this commission produces—do not copyright them.

On the Hymnody of the Daily Office

The Book of Common Prayer intends for the Eucharist and the Daily Offices—Morning and Evening Prayer with their attendants, Noon Prayer and Compline—to function hand in hand. The Holy Eucharist is “the principle act of Christian Worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” (BCP, 13); the Offices are the principle acts on all the other days, taking a secondary place on Sundays and feasts. With the success of the ’79 Book of Common Prayer, however, rarely are the Offices heard in our churches. Rarely are their patterns taught. Rarely do devout laity—not to mention clergy—take prayer book in hand at the hinges of the day to link hearts and hands and voices in this ancient Anglican rite.

The more recognition we give it in official materials, the better. Anything we can do to increase its visibility enables it to continue shaping Episcopalians in the ancient patterns of prayer, East and West, and blessed by our Anglican forbearers.

For our Offices derive from the classical eightfold hours of prayer, and continue their legacy. Of these, the three major Offices, Matins, Lauds, and Vespers, had special hymns for each season, often referred to collectively as the breviary hymns. The majority of these have been in constant use for over thirteen hundred years. Through the rise and fall of empires, languages, and peoples, these hymns have reinforced fundamental Christian principles and shaped how we understand the pattern and purpose of the liturgical seasons. They images they deploy, the Scriptures they borrow, have become inextricable parts of the fabric of the Western liturgy. To ignore them, to lose them, to misplace them is to consciously cultivate an amnesia of the meaning behind the deepest patterns of the liturgical year.

These hymns—they ground us in what it means to walk the year with Christ.

And I wonder if you, Bishop Alexander, felt a pang as I did when at Convention you saw the proposal for a Creation Cycle within the Pentecost season? Did you—a musician and liturgical historian immediately think of the weekday hymns for Vespers in the Time after Pentecost that extol the wonders of the earth and its creatures, remembering in turn each day the wonders God wrought in the first week of Creation? Imagine—a resolution calling for the composition of something that the Church has already used continuously for well over a thousand years, if only we can remember.

Of course, for those who know, many of these hymns can be found—either whole or in part—in our present 1982 Hymnal. (Only two of the Vespers creation hymns appear, Lucis Creator optime, 27-28, and Immense caeli Conditor, 31-32) Several even offer the option of singing the ancient words to either a plainchant melody or a more recent chorale. But they are, in fact, hidden. No symbols denote them. No preface identifies them. They languish unless discovered by chance.

A Translation Commission

Several times in our past the breviary hymns have been discovered anew and restored to the English-speaking church. The greatest advocate on their behalf is certainly the renowned translator John Mason Neale, Anglican priest and gifted poet. No less than 45 hymns in our current hymnal are direct translations of his; he is a silent partner in at least a handful more which are themselves adaptations of his efforts. His works and our great debt to him on their account should never be forgotten—and yet it is past time to build upon his foundation. His poetic diction is not ours. His deliberate archaicisms are today’s incomprehensibilities. It’s time for new translations to be done.

As no new Neale seems apparent on our horizon, a team of both skilled linguists and accomplished liturgical poets will need to collaborate upon this task. Both will be required to achieve the goal: accurate, sober, and faithful translations of the originals that will yet thrill both ear and mind, consonant with the originals in tone, style, and yes even meter, yet in lucid modern English.

Please, I beg you, shun the notion of paraphrases! Root out with relentless fervor that suggestion of “improving”, “updating”, or “making relevant” these treasures! After all, thirteen centuries of continuous use point to a relevance that transcends any decade’s favored talking points. (Remember Urban VIII and observe what he failed to see!)

Without Copyright

If such a commission were to succeed in its task, its value to the Church could only be enhanced by foregoing the process of copyright. The American Books of Common Prayer have all been published into the Public Domain. Nothing could be more fitting than for such labors to likewise be given into the keeping of all. John Mason Neale himself once stated, “I am very glad to have this opportunity of saying how strongly I feel that hymn, whether original or translated, ought, the moment it is published, to become the common property of Christendom; the author retaining no private right in it whatever” (Joys and Glories of Paradise, preface [1865]). I’ll let lawyers argue the finer points of intellectual property till the cows come home; in this case I agree with Neale.

The treasury of Christian prayer, whether spoken or sung, is the patrimony of all—our modern achievements no less so than our eldest treasures.

Furthermore, in this internet age, ideas, efforts, and even translations spread on the basis of their availability and merit. Should such a commission succeed as I imagine it could, should its works be made available to all, its works would quickly find a home not just in our denominational hymnal but in bulletins, servers, and databases around the world wherever Christians use English in worship. High quality public domain translations could offer a new gold standard, supplanting inferior options due to the combined powers of quality and availability.

Would this cut into Church publishing’s profits? I don’t know. Would it be a contribution beyond value to the faith? I know it would.

Conclusion

Bishop Alexander, your hymnal resolution is one that looks forward, both to the contemporary world and to the future. Your calls for the church to “explore sensitivity to expansive language, the diversity of worship styles, the richness of multicultural and global liturgical forms” are calls to look around at the contemporary world and to look forward to our common global future. Only the last call to explore “the enduring value of our Anglican musical heritage” looks back. I pray that as you look back to see what value the past will play in grounding the future richness of our global faith, you will consider these liturgical gems that over the ebb and flow of empires and peoples and languages have formed countless Christians ever deeper into the mind of Christ.

Sincerely,
Derek Olsen

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

“What part does your spirit play in your music?"

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Being who you are won’t always please your parents. The American film classic St. Louis Blues depicts musician W.C. Handy (1873-1958) as a pioneer, betraying his minister father who believed “there are only two kinds of music, the Devil’s and the Lord’s.” In marrying hymns and gospel music to blues and jazz, Handy became a legend known as The Father of the Blues. His memory has been honored annually for the past 28 years at the WC Handy Music Festival in his northwest Alabama birthplace.

Many musicians who have played for years at the festival describe themselves as feeling like they rejoin their family each summer. Indeed, their exquisite improvisations sound like they never cease practicing together, yet in the community of this spirited festival each shines forth their special talent as an individual artist. Like Handy, many had an overriding desire to make music as if there really was no choice, no matter how much their fathers discouraged their career decision.

“What part does your spirit play in your music and how does your music play on your spirit?” I asked seven male musicians who agreed to talk with me in a roundtable discussion for an hour between gigs. Their responses debunked the myth that “men are out of touch with their emotions,” added a new dimension to my week, and gave me some life lessons to share.

Drums: “Music is a musician’s whole life. It’s what you are rather than what you do. Spirit is everything. When I play, I open up my whole self to let it out. Communication is so important; you can’t do the music without relating to other musicians like an unspoken promise where you want to express yourself but encourage others to do the same – opening to possibilities of sharing everything we are. I’m hesitant to say that I’m channeling the music, but I think that selflessness happens to all of us at points during improvisation. We compose, the music is out there, and then the moment is gone which makes it all the more precious. Music is like life.”

Keyboard 1: “Yes, and being perfect ruins it. You have to take risks or the music wouldn’t be real. I think of it as the “Zen style” of playing which can get me into the zone – that’s the spiritual part of it. The worst thing I can do is to think too much about it.”

Vibes: “Swing is spirit and swing is everything. It gives back, lifts me up and always is there when I need it. There is mystery in the improvisation. It’s not about the instrument you play but about the humanity in the person.”

Trumpet: “My wife is an artist; we are speaking the same language in different mediums which is spiritual for me. It doesn’t really matter what your instrument is although trumpet – a wind instrument – gives me a chance to have a true voice, which started in 6th grade. Paradoxically, I’m not a trumpet soloist; I must trust and be with others to see where they’re going in community.”

Sax: “I’m a creative writer and the principles are the same as in art and music – contrast, design, color in the broader sense, and organization. To stay the course in a different professional way of life requires faith and tapping into the creative spirit every day. Music is a religion with a different language. Music is spirit and must be followed; spirit follows spirit.”

Trombone: “The spirituality of music is like group therapy for me. I couldn’t play when I had cancer, and I thought I would go crazy. Music keeps me on course.”

Bass: “I’ve played music as long as I can remember, and it gives me a direction even though I don’t think of myself as a man with goals. I’m spontaneously composing when soloing; when the others join me there’s a certain vocabulary we all use with phrases we know but never said before in the same way.”

Later I spoke with two other keyboardists. One said, “My music has started to flow through me from a secret place only God knows. It feels like I have come “home” to a place all of us look for. I do much of my work in prisons, churches and other places I can talk/sing about spiritual concerns. It’s dangerous if God is only in our heads; He starts to sound an awful lot like us.”

The second reflected, “Music will exalt anything to which it is attached – God, family, sex, hamburgers. It is a spiritual force second only to love. King David made it a requirement that the 4,000 Pharisees he dispatched to spread the word of God’s kingdom had to be musicians largely because music transcends language and speaks directly to the spirit.” As St. Augustine is credited with saying: ‘He who sings prays twice.’”

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Christian vocation and The Cowboy Junkies

By Greg Jones

When I was an adolescent, coming of age, thinking about who I wanted to be "when I grew up," God sneaked up on me. As I look back now some twenty years from the time when I began to really consider "my future," as one so often does in college, I can recall a number of these moments when God slipped into my thoughts. One of them involved a band who I heard play in Raleigh on the campus of N.C. State.

Twenty years ago I was fascinated by the Cowboy Junkies' album, The Trinity Sessions. The album was a blend of rock, traditional Americana and gospel, and it was recorded in an old church with a single microphone. The lead singer had an angelic voice, and the gentle sound of the band was deeply engaging for me. Several of the songs became instant favorites for me, but the one which got hold of me was the traditional gospel tune, "Working on a Building." The song's lyrics are few, and all center around this sentence: "I'm working on a building, it's a Holy Ghost building, for my Lord, for my Lord."

The song got through to me in those days and achieved the Lord's goal of stimulating within me a desire to offer my life to more than my own personal goals and uses. As Peter wrote to the earliest disciples of Christ, "let yourselves be built into a spiritual house." (1 Peter 2.5) Indeed, I feel that our entire goal as disciples is to allow the Holy Spirit to build us up, and the world through us, into the house of God - wherein God may abide with His people.

That's what it means to me to follow Christ in discipleship and mission. Episcopalians, listen, we're working on a building, a Holy Ghost building, for our Lord, for our Lord. As the old song concludes, "If I was a singer I tell you what I'd do, I would keep on singing and work on that building too." Let us make that our song together, a song of birth pangs, growing pains, and ever building joy in Christ Jesus.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

Immanence, transcendence, guitars

By Derek Olsen

Worship wars. Nothing is guaranteed to get more hits and generate more comments on my blog than worship wars. So many chattering keyboards and so much passion expended reminds me that, more often than not, something more than “taste” or “preference” is truly at stake. However, in all too many discussions of worship likes and dislikes the conversation stays at the surface and dissolves into personal preference and subjective aesthetic opinions. I know—I’ve done it myself all too often.

Recently, however, a discussion came up concerning church music on guitars and, in particular, the music of the St Louis Jesuits. You may have never heard of them, but if you’ve spent a few years around a liturgical church like ours, I’ll guarantee that you’ve heard samples of their music: “Gather Us In”, “On Eagles’ Wings”, “Here I Am, Lord”, “One Bread, One Body.” In the midst of the discussion, I got to thinking that instead of remaining at the level of a surface reaction, it was worth digging deeper—getting to the meat of the liturgical spirituality at work underneath, driving these arguments.

As the first major proponents of popular music styles in a vernacular idiom for Roman Catholic worship, the music of the St Louis Jesuits holds an appeal (and a disdain) for some not based on its musical or theological properties. For what it’s worth, I think the musical and theological qualities of much of this repertoire is rather limited. However, it is of immense symbolic importance, especially for Roman or Rome-leaning people of a certain age (read: Baby-Boomers) who were coming of age at the time of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath. That is, their attachment to the music is due to what it represents–the American Catholic Church getting to do things its way, a new generation literally getting its voice heard and overturning old ways of doing things. Now that a new “new generation” is rising, certain elements are in classic backlash mode and despise the Saint Louis Jesuit style music for precisely the reasons their parents loved it. Being on the cusp of Generation Y, I’ll admit to having one foot in this camp.

To avoid dwelling in knee-jerk generational generalizations, though, I’d rather cut to what I see as the real reason why this is a fight–and why such a fight should exist.

It’s not really about guitars and folk songs or not-guitars and not-folk songs; rather, what lies at the center of the argument (as I see it) is competing notions of immanence and transcendence and their place in divine worship. Should church music sound like secular music? Why or why not? Speaking personally, I like guitars quite a lot whether it is in classic country or the virtuosity of Van Halen, Hendrix, Gibbons, Morelli or others. But that doesn’t mean I want to hear that style of music in church. I generally don’t like American Folk Revival music from the 60’s and 70’s anyway; I especially don’t want to hear that style in church.

For me, it’s too immanent; I crave something more transcendent. Some have argued that people can generally be grouped as Platonists or Aristotelians. That is, they either have a sense of reality as something “out there” or of reality as something “really here” intimately bound up with the nitty-gritty of life. I intuit that the same is true of spirituality. Some find their connection with God as the God who is immanent and bound up in the holiness of mundane existence. Others find that connection in the God of the transcendent who is “out there” and Other and speaks a word of challenge against what we think is our mundane existence.

Both sorts can learn from each other; both sorts need to learn from each other. But a basic orientation one way or the other will still endure.

I’m the second kind. I’m a Platonist by natural inclination. I find God “out there” and in the transcendent and in the different and in the things that shocking me out of my business-as-usual way of living and, through those experiences, can find God and the Holy in the mundane and the everyday in the ways that I can identify God shocking and surprising me towards transcendence.

As a result, I want my worship to be transcendentally oriented. I want it to help me get in connection with the God “out there” so that I can learn the feel, the touch, the taste of the Other and transcendent God in order that I might recognize that same God in my daily eating, breathing, and moving. Chant is to the ear what incense is to the nose what stained glass and icons are to the eye: culturally conditioned signs of the transcendent but—cutting through the culturally-based significance—vehicles that truly assist me to touch the face of God.

That’s why I don’t want guitars in my service.

And that’s why I understand that other people want them—and need them.

The other side is that I sang for a couple of years in seminary in a Catholic Mass choir that did Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation with a guitar front-and-center. I’ve served and preached at folk services. I’ve even led with guitar in hand a Taizé-style service with guitar and recorder.

Yes, there can be a place for the guitar. Yes, it can be done well, reverently, worshipfully.

But it’s not my taste. And when I’m choosing a congregation where I worship, I will choose a service without guitars.

Derek Olsen blogs at Haligweorc, and is looking for a church home near Ellicott City, Maryland.

Communication begins in song

By Donald Schell

Two days after walking, singing, and praying with eleven Anglicans and one Lutheran across a hundred and fifty miles of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, my wife and I flew to Malawi, Africa where we’re driving distances on two lane highways crowded with pedestrians, heavy trucks, and bicycles (often laden with multiple riders or huge loads of charcoal for market) to visit community-based responses to Malawi’s AIDS crisis. When we turn off the pavement, we bounce along dirt tracks to visit village home-based care (HBC) programs, orphan feeding programs, AIDS education programs, ARV (anti-retroviral programs), and other locally generated responses to the AIDS crisis. Our Spanish pilgrimage and African project visits feel like one, and music is part of what makes that so.

My wife Ellen is the International Programs Director for Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance. Her day-to-day work is communicating with Malawi leadership (typically via email) on project development. Annually she visits to talk with local coordinators who are skilled in program and capacity development and with them she visits as many projects as possible.

Today our plans have changed, cutting short our last day’s visits in the Lilongwe (central) region. The husband of GAIA’s southern region project officer died last night, so we’re driving down to Blantyre this afternoon for the funeral tomorrow. Sr. Gertrude, GAIA’s central region coordinator will join the wake before the funeral, a whole night of singing to send the deceased man on with blessing, an old African custom that fits well with Christian hope and practice. Gertrude is a Roman Catholic. Alice, whose husband died, is CCAP (Church of Central Africa, Presbyterian). I’ll wear my collar to the funeral tomorrow, as other Anglican clergy will. Baptists and Living Waters (African Pentecostal) Church members will join the singing. African Christians take easily to ecumenism. And tomorrow’s funeral will be full of singing. Mourning or joy, sorrow, or hope – African cultures greet all with singing.

Prayer and singing have greeted us at nearly every project we’ve visited. Four iterations of All Saints Company’s "Music that Makes Community” workshops – two in San Francisco and two in New York with another coming up in Iowa have me listening carefully for how people make the music we’re hearing.

Here’s a typical scene: a lead singer makes a quiet opening call and sets up a rhythm with her or his feet, the group responds with feet shuffling in simple step laying down a gentle but steady percussion. The leader then offers a strong call – singing out the central refrain. A couple of other leaders join in harmony and they sing it through to a moment of sung cue when the whole chorus joins in – sometimes forty singers. Leaders continue to improvise. The melodic and harmonic paths are known and give a frame for improvisation. The English words we hear are about our visit, about the work the people are doing together - caring for orphans or doing AIDS education, and they’re nearly always about the grace of God, and giving thanks. The music practices shared authority. Learning and singing are completely continuous. Harmonies weave men and women, boys and girls together.

In all the fractious debate in our Anglican communion, we have managed, at least sometimes, to remind ourselves that ‘communion’ isn’t something we make or earn. Sometimes, at least, we remember that communion is what we do together that makes us one. I hope bishops at this summer’s Lambeth Conference will remember that communion is neither an enforced human artifact of pure unity nor a reward for agreeing that everyone like us is right and everyone not like us is wrong. But can we find our way without singing together when music is an essential nutrient in the fertile ground from which communion springs? Does this sound like overstatement? I do mean it.

Walking the Camino we began each day with teaching our group (eight out of twelve of us speaking no Spanish) the Padre Nuestro, The Lord’s Prayer in Spanish. We found this a surprisingly grace-filled exercise in old-fashioned rote memorization. It gave us all a way to pray with our Spanish sisters and brothers when we attended pilgrim masses along the way. And our pilgrims prayed the prayer, phrase by phrase as they walked (and sometimes we sang too, even walking alone).

Singing (like our day by day memorization of the Padre Nuestro) offered us freedom and trust in a caring relationship growing from learning by imitation. Each morning before our daily Padre Nuestro, our group sang together, exploring treasures of hymnody that recall the way to God as journey and pilgrimage. We also drew daily from Church Publishing’s soon to be released Music By Heart, Songs for Evening Worship. Music by Heart is All Saints Company’s first published contribution to a church-wide and international recovery of music we learn by ear and by heart. In this we gratefully follow John Bell’s lead. From the Iona Community he and others in other settings are also at work building community by singing together.

In Music that Makes Community (with a conscious nod toward traditional singing and African choral folk music) we’ve worked with a group of musician-liturgists from around the U.S. commissioning, collecting and teaching people to lead congregations in the music that comes to us by hearing and imitation, listening that takes the mind directly to the heart.

But what has this got to do with communion? In his book Singing Neanderthals Stephen Mithen argues compellingly that melody and ritual gesture were the fertile soil of humanity’s primal communication and community. Speech began in tonal expressions of hope, request, urgency, frustration, command accompanied by demonstrative gestures. Primal sentences expressing desires, fears, requests, warnings, and exhortations were the sea from which living words and powerful abstract ideas emerged. There’s a good summary review of Mithen’s book on-line in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology – Mithen’s book fits beautifully with Louis Weil’s (Liturgy Professor at Church Divinity School of the Pacific) observations, “Our bodies are the instruments of prayer,” and “The meaning of the ritual is learned in the experience itself.”

Human communication begins in singing together. Language, which began singing, has been our essential means of discovering and describing truth. Our church crisis is the crisis of a “not-listening process,” the opposite of singing together. Our divisions deny the personal and relational quality of truth. We’ve fallen to thinking with the mind in the head rather than in the heart. (“Thinking with the mind in the heart” is Parker Palmer’s insightful appropriation of the Eastern Church’s teaching in the Philokalia that true prayer begins when we pray with the mind in the heart.)

Music is communal, and making music together builds relationship (and shares authority among all who sing or play). I’ve heard this shared authority and community making in the kitchen at Wendel’s Guest House where we’ve been staying this week in Lilongwe. The guys in the kitchen sing and talk as they work, trading musical phrases, familiar songs, ideas, and gossip back and forth.

And every project we’ve visited – school, church, or village has greeted us with song (and often song and dance). Women, men, and children’s voices begin in simple response to a refrain, drums support and encourage, bodies move. Words and tunes are modeled by a leader, picked up by the group, and improvised. ‘We sing a song of welcome, welcome our dear vistors, welcome dear GAIA!’

Singing is a natural and graceful practice of community building and spiritual formation. Imitation and memorization give us a framework of relationship and a means of thinking together.

Where has music gone in Western and particularly American culture? Why do we imagine that there are people who can’t sing?

Our technologically shaped, individualized culture has forgotten that truth is ultimately relational. Could this relational (and musical) quality of truth be what makes the Nicene Creed more believable to some people when it’s sung together rather than when it’s said? Singing together enacts what the creed teaches – that God in Trinity is a perichoresis (the Greek word for a circle dance that the drafters of the Nicene Creed used to describe the personal and relational quality of the mystery of God).

At dinner here in Malawi we were talking with a distinguished Malawian physician who did her advanced training in the Great Britain. ‘People in Europe and America don’t seem to notice how fragmented their societies have become,’ she said. ‘Here in Africa we assume that we are in relationship with everyone. We talk. Your society is framed to minimize person to person contact, to make it all optional or by choice. One week in England I decided to see how little I could talk to people I didn’t know. I bought a weeklong bus pass that I had only to flash to the driver to get on the bus. I used the automated teller. I shopped for my groceries without saying a word.’ She wondered what we are doing when we allow ourselves to choose whom we will be human with.

So, we argue in written prose (not even using the melody of our face to face speaking voices). Do we actually believe we can enact church union without singing together, without the gestures and movements that make sacraments?

Unlike today’s church, Jesus didn’t think music was a decorative luxury. When looking for an image for an unresponsive generation, he pointed to the people in the marketplace annoyed with the children playing at ‘weddings and funerals.’ What sort of generation doesn’t welcome the kingdom? A commerce-preoccupied marketplace culture that can hear the prophet weeping and won’t mourn, and can hear the messiah piping and singing and won’t dance. It’s no surprise in Mark and Matthew’s accounts of the Last Supper, to hear Jesus and the disciples singing a hymn together before they went out to the mount of olives, that is, before their teacher went out to face betrayal, imprisonment, torture, and death. Seeing what was coming, Jesus didn’t offer his disciples a last word, after he’d taught and shared the meal again, he sang with them, making a community to gather God’s strength and blessing. Liturgical scholars tell us they probably sang Psalm 136 that night, a hymn of victory to mark the end of the ritual meal with a celebration of God’s unfailing love in the face of adversity.

Commands or exhortations to sing come up repeatedly (and emphatically) in the epistles – Romans 15:4-14; I Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:11-21; James 5:8-18; and the apocalyptic vision of God’s triumph in Revelation is also punctuated with song (Revelation 5:9; Revelation 14:3; Revelation 15:3). Two of the most powerful theological formulations in the New Testament – John 1 (‘In the beginning was the Word…’) and Philippians 2 (‘Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus…’) claim theological authority for the community’s hymns.

Music is relational and of the moment. Listening to one another as we sing, our music unfolds in time, in breath, and in rhythm. Timeless ideas, concepts without heart cannot live or build community. Truth that is not relational marginalizes and kills for the sake of ‘consistency.’ Our world came to be in song lines, hearing and imitating, call and response, and improvisation. Singing is humanity’s original listening process, knowing the other in love.

We can’t make music without sharing authority. Everyone contributes to a consensus of pitch and rhythm. Our primal language counts on my relationship to you and yours to me for us to work together. Any language in which I can be all alone in my right opinion or doctrine has severed itself from the human root of music and gesture. We may suspect the other churches in the communion don’t get our ‘baptismal covenant’ but it looks to me like our grassroots, democratic church, for all the important discoveries it HAS made about relationship and love, needs the nurture of much more African-style singing.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company, working for community development in congregational life focusing on sharing leadership, welcoming creativity and building community through music. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.

"Singing Nana" and the Stone Soup song

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Our grandchildren remind us that children are born with an innate joy in music. Four-year-old Lily has found her voice in creating tunes and lyrics, which she sings in her bath or first thing upon waking. Her sister, Nola, 3, quickly learns words to songs on the radio concerning adult concepts of love and yearning, which she loudly belts out as if on stage. And John, 3, is a guitar player who wildly strums his made-up pieces usually ending with the ABC song. They call me “Singing Nana” and frequently ask for my rendition of the WWII songs my mother taught me when I was their age.

Curious about children and music, I consulted the musicians at my church, St. Columba’s, in Washington, D. C., who shared some stories and their passion for their work with me.

The music program at St. Columba’s began in the 1970s, when rector Bill Swing and nursery school director Sylvia Buell wanted to give younger people a voice in the congregation and something meaningful to do in church. Over the years this first choir grew to include a Primary Choir (grades one and two), Boy and Girl Choirs (third through eighth grades) and The Gallery Choir (ninth through 12th grades). Parents and grandparents became involved in helping kids get to church on time to meet their responsibilities, obligations and commitments.

One of the program’s goals is to keep the innate joy of music alive. In an atmosphere of fun and encouragement, a group success is a personal triumph, which gives children a sense of well-being and dignity. No one ever is told they have no talent or don’t sing well; sometimes a child sings “off key” because they want to hear their voice distinct from others. Even when they don’t have vocal range, they expand their abilities if not discouraged or hurt by criticism. The youngest singers learn basic rudimentary diction and how to sing at their own level in a group. Soon they outgrow the fear of singing in front of the congregation, and this self-confidence spills over into dancing, acting and other areas of their lives.

Play, movement, drama and service are all part of the nursery school’s approach to music. For example, learning the Stone Soup Song several weeks ago involved the following steps:

1. Identifying the beginning, middle and end of the Stone Soup story and committing the song to memory.

2. Cooking the soup while learning about different vegetables and how to prepare them.

3. Experiencing the adage that many hands make light work and whatever one brings to the pot is a gift.

4. Examining the finished product in individual cups to learn about science and math.

5. Sharing the soup with neighbors – the church’s ministry for homeless men – to understand what joy in life is all about.

6. Eating yummy vegetable soup (well, almost everyone participated in that last step).

Music helps self-regulation as children figure out how to move and understand their bodies, including how to sit still. Then you can create your own songs. The following example is one my granddaughter, Lily Gordon, sings in her bath:

The wind blows softly and it pushes me to you.
It is time to go now,
I am ready to go now to kindergarten. I am ready.
I have to go now but it is more about me than it is you.

What can parents and grandparents do to promote music at home? Here are recommendations from the pros at St. Columba’s:

1. Sing to your baby while in the womb. She or he will recognize the song after birth.

2. Make as much music available as possible. Have a basket of musical instruments – xylophones, drums, shakers, violins and keyboards – and encourage noise and loud singing. Pots and pans with a wooden spoon will work too.

3. Turn off the TV and encourage all the family to participate in the fun. We learn best in relationship with each other. Remember that a child’s natural expression of joy isn’t necessarily convenient for parents, so make spaces for it.

4. Help children memorize songs. We own a song when we sing it by heart.

5. Provide opportunities to hear concerts and musical plays at an early age, but if your child wants to leave early – leave!

“Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.” – Shinichi Suzuki

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. She teaches a course on congregational leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary.

The fragility of fine things

By Roger Ferlo

It was about 20 years ago, soon after I turned 35, that I decided it was time to learn to play the cello.

It turned out to be a religious decision. I had just become the rector of a small parish that had, so to speak, been through the wars. Nothing to do with the organist, thank God. The conflict centered on the rector who preceded me, a priest whom I have never met but whose parish I am sure I would have joined had I come to town as a lay person. He was one of those brilliant, charismatic sixties priests who had spent his early career in college chaplaincy, and happily never recovered. He brought his edgy, transgressive theological style to a parish that thought it was ready for it but really was not. The impact he had made as a writer, teacher and preacher had been extraordinary. Clearly, people’s lives had changed because of his ministry. But like most of us, he was also very good at excusing his several personal failings by theologizing them, and some parishioners loved him for this—that is, the ones who stayed.

It all fell apart in the end. The evangelical bishop refused to officiate at this third marriage, and basically forced his resignation, which made the parishioners feel that they were being besieged for their liberal views by the know-nothing fundamentalist right-wingers in the diocese, although it was clear to more level-headed people that even the present bishop’s more liberal predecessor would have been hard-put to accept the third marriage.

Anyway, by the time I showed up, many people were licking their wounds and loaded for bear, and the bear was me. So I took up the cello, figuring that would be cheaper than therapy and more rewarding in the long run.

In all the turmoil of the parish in those first years I was there, the music didn’t come easily. But I discovered that though I wasn’t great at this, I wasn’t all that bad, and as the weeks and months went on, the music began to center me. In a chaotic life, it became my one means of self-discipline. In the more difficult moments in that parish it became my only means of prayer.

But it was not just the music I loved when I played the cello in those days. I loved the sheer feel of the instrument in my hands. The shape of it, the sheen, the exquisite purfling, the absurdity of that scrollwork at the top, the flaming wood grain on the back, the miraculous way that inert slice of board could burst into the sound of a living voice. I didn’t play it so much as cling to it.

That clinging almost undid me. I was in my office one day, chatting with a parishioner, when the parish secretary called up the stairs to me that the cleaning lady was at the door. She had just come from the rectory, and was pretty distraught, something about my guitar falling over when she was vacuuming, and how it had broken in half, and could I come down and help her pick it up.

The news hit me like a sucker punch. I tried to put a good face on it, and act professional with my parishioner, but she saw right through me. I rushed out of the office, ran up the hill to the rectory, slammed into the living room, and there it was—the cello was on the floor, its neck broken off and splayed to one side. A large splinter remained attached to the body, with a piece of purfling jutting out like a broken finger bone. The poor cleaning lady was standing there crying, because she thought that it could stand up by itself on its pin, and she had only left it that way for a second, and was it worth a lot of money, and she didn’t mean to do it—

As you might imagine, I wasn’t feeling very pastoral at the moment, and I’m amazed I didn’t just fire her on the spot. All I wanted was for her to go home, and to leave me alone with—well, with the body. I realize now with some embarrassment that that’s how I thought of it. I found myself crying wretched tears of grief and loss, anger and frustration, because the one thing that had empowered me to endure what seemed to me in those early days the unremitting pressures and betrayals of parish life now lay in pieces on the floor in front of me.

Of course, I had lost all sense of proportion, both about the parish, which was full of good people, and about myself. As my cello teacher told me on the phone when I called him in panic, that in spite of appearances I lived in a pretty musical town, and he knew an excellent luthier, and in his long experience what was broken could often be fixed—

Wisdom. I love music teachers. I visited the cello in the shop a few days later. It had been completely disassembled, and its cracked face was now being painstakingly patched from within—the long, narrow cracks disappearing as if by miracle, the damaged inlay matched and restored so skillfully that only an expert could detect the difference. It took months and months, but when the work was done, it really could be made to sing again, cracked and patched and scarred, but whole.

Now you might expect that I want you to see in this story a parable of death and resurrection, But that’s not exactly why I’m writing this, although whenever I pick up my cello I see in its cracks and patches the history of my ministry in that place, which went on to be enormously productive and satisfying.

No, I tell this story because I know God works through us in our music and art. What musicians do with their various contraptions of wood and strings and pipes and wind brings us so close to things divine that it can steal our breath away. But I also know that no matter who you are, and whatever name you bear—Monteverdi or Mozart, Hampton or Hindemith—however good you are at what whatever you do—your finest achievements are but fragile things, as fragile as the wood of my long-suffering student cello.

It is so tempting to carve for ourselves idols out of such fragile wood, to make of our art another god, to pursue our music just for the music’s sake. In the hyper-competitive hurly-burly of our professional lives, all of us succumb to the temptation of thinking that in the end it is only the music that really matters, or the sermon, or whatever bottom line our jobs force us to toe. But there is no other God besides me, says the Lord. Everything we do and say—any music we have the grace to make—we make in the shadow of the cross.

Now there is wood that endures—that rough and jagged piece of executioner’s wood lifted high like Moses’ serpent in the desert, standing up by itself on its own pin, drawing all the world to itself like a sure-footed compass. All our talents, all our losses, all our triumphs, all our failings—the cross draws everything we are and everything we do into the searing truth of the wounded and resurrected Savior—the Holy One patched and scarred as we are, yet living, breathing, triumphant and loving.

Life can be hard. What is broken can truly be fixed, my teacher told me. It’s not true for everything, perhaps, but it is true for this. In the end, it is the cross that matters—that living sign of redemption about which we can do no other than lift our breaking voices in song, and tune our broken instruments in sounds of endless praise.

The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. He was trained as a Shakespeare scholar, and frequently leads audience discussions on religion and drama for the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, DC.

An opera for Epiphany

By Marshall Scott

I sit at my computer, listening. I’m listening to an opera – one of two that have become annual rituals for me. One has become part of my reflections for Holy Week. One has become part of my preparation for Christmas. I sit at my computer, listening, and the tears start.

Have you seen a Child
the color of wheat, the color of dawn?
His eyes are mild.
His hands are those of a King,
as King he was born.
Incense, myrrh, and gold
we bring to His side.
and the Eastern Star is our guide.

I am listening, as is my custom, to “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” by Giancarlo Menotti. “Amahl,” an opera in one act, was a Christmas tradition when I was small. It was written for television, and was first broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1951. In the years since it has been performed in a variety of settings. Each year it is a part of my preparation for Christmas.

Have you seen a Child
the color of earth, the color of thorn?
His eyes are sad.
His hands are those of the poor,
as poor He was born.
Incense, myrrh, and gold
we bring to His side.
and the Eastern Star is our guide.

I suppose we should consider “Amahl” an Epiphany story, really, rather than a Christmas story; but perhaps that’s an artificial distinction. (There was that year, after all, when we didn’t take the crèche down until the Feast of the Presentation.) If you’re not familiar, it is the story of the encounter of Amahl, a poor and crippled shepherd boy, and his mother, with three kings and their one long-suffering attendant. The kings follow a star to seek a child. With them they bring rich gifts, including gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When the mother asks about the child they seek (hoping, really, it might be her own son), they sing about the Child.

The Child we seek holds the seas
and the winds on His palm.
The Child we seek has the moon
and the stars at His feet.
Before Him the eagle is gentle,
the lion is meek.

As a Christian, of course, I know the Child they seek. I trust they will see him. And yet I am moved powerfully by the images they present. This Child is born both king and poor, both gentle and sad. In his tiny palm he holds storms; indeed, the universe revolves around him, from the most distant to the most familiar.

Choirs of angels hover His roof
and sing Him to sleep.
He’s warmed by breath.
He’s fed by Mother
who is both Virgin and Queen.
Incense, myrrh, and gold
we bring to His side.
and the Eastern Star is our guide.

Again, if you know the work, you know that it does have its conflict. Amahl’s mother, oppressed and obsessed with their poverty, and anxious for Amahl’s welfare, is overcome. She tries to steal a little gold “for my child.” She is, of course, discovered and seized by the attendant. Crying, “Thief!” and fending off Amahl’s attempts at defense, he brings the woman roughly before the kings.

I know something about that. Oh, I know I don’t share that sort of poverty; I’m not that big a fool. At the same time, I remember, as I try to be Benedictine myself, that St. Benedict wrote, “The life of a monk ought always to be a Lenten observance.” Enough of my spiritual life has been affected by St. Benedict and by Walter Hilton that I have some idea just how I am impoverished. The fact that I haven’t stolen gold just like Amahl’s mother doesn’t allow me to pretend I haven’t stolen other things, less tangible perhaps but no less precious. I have often enough had to remember, from the Prayer of Manasseh, “I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned; and I know my wickedness only too well.”

I know, too, the embarrassment and the fear of being exposed. I have experienced my own interim times of judgment, just as I believe I will ultimately face the last judgment. And so as her character cringes on the floor, I cringe with her.

And with her, year after year, I sob, astounded, as a king sings,

Oh, woman, you can keep the gold.
The Child we seek doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone
He will build His kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter.
His haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning
He will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life
and receive our death,
and the keys to His city
belong to the poor.

This is grace indeed. This is indeed the promise of new life, established in the child king. This is a hope so counter to the ways of this world: a king who walks among his people, who does not take his riches from the struggles of others, who builds his kingdom on love and not on power. How amazing, how confounding that these three kings have sought, and will find, this child king whose kingdom is so different from their own! And so, the mother sings through her tears, and I through mine,

On, no, wait…take back your gold!
For such a King I’ve waited all my life.

I will not tell you the rest of the story. I you’ll listen for yourself. And with twelve days in Christmas, and more in Epiphany, there is time.

Each year I journey again with a boy, his mother, and three kings. How wonderful the child they seek! How wonderful the child they will find! How wonderful to know the child they found, and to know that he transcends all their imaginings, and ours.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

The Silent Voice

By Steven Charleston

Luciano Pavarotti died. His amazingly vibrant, soaring voice is silent. Around the world millions of people will mourn his passing, even if they knew very little about the art of which he was a true master. Pavarotti became synonymous with opera for many people who had never imagined they would care for his art form. He welcomed them to a part of their life they did not know. Part of his genius was not only in his singing, but in his ability to translate that singing into a message the whole world could hear.

Now his voice is silent. In tribute to this great man, I would invite us all into that silence.

If Pavarotti was dedicated to bringing art to the people, what does his silence have to tell us? At the very least, it should remind us that the effort to share in artistic expression with other human beings is not a peripheral concern for us, but a central issue for the values we proclaim as the church. Justice, community, human dignity: these are the same issues underlying the arts. Pavarotti brought art to the people. What does that mean to us? It means Pavarotti enriched other human beings, those who were deeply aware of his art and those who were only curious. He expanded our range of appreciation and, therefore, of contact. He demonstrated how art can unite us as much as it can inspire us. Pavarotti built community out of the thin air of song. He drew people of widely different walks of life to a single stillpoint of sound. His legacy reminds us that communities are not just bound together by rules, money or power: at our best, we form community through the beauty of our difference and the breadth of our imagination.

The silence should remind us that as the arts go, so goes community. In fact, you can chart the demise of community in America by charting the slow death of its artistic soul. The massive cutbacks in school art programs have robbed generations of children of the option of human expression. As usual, the first to feel the impact are those who can least afford it. The abandonment of our public commitment to art has diminished us. The arts are not a luxury for spiritual life, but a necessity. Art is not just a set decoration for the affluent, it is a voice. It is the people’s voice. The arts are the medium of the poor, the defense of the dispossessed, and the champion of the marginalized. Throughout history the oppressed have found freedom in their right to speak through theater, music and the visual arts. Art is not just for the privileged few. It is for every person, perhaps most especially for those who’s other choices are so limited. Young men and women who have very few chances in life discover strength in the authority of their talent. Art liberates the individual. When we starve the arts, we starve hope. We starve justice.

The silence is growing. Voices are being stilled. It is not a trivial thing to speak up for the support of art in America. It is a liberating thing. People who care about justice must care about the voice of justice: the arts that embody our collective voice as a people of God. That voice of justice finds its resonance in cultural diversity, its authenticity in freedom and its message in the human spirit. If we lose it, we may never get it back. And that’s why the death of Luciano Pavarotti is such an important opportunity for us. Not only to honor the passing of this renowned artist, but to support the principle that guided his career. Pavarotti brought his art to the people. He believed that art belongs to the people. It is their voice. His death prompts us to ask : by whose right is that voice denied? Who benefits when the arts grow weak? What is the real cost of denying access to free expression to a nation’s people? Is it time for us to stop looking the other way while school art programs are starved for support? The passing of Luciano Pavarotti urges us to speak our answer.

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and keeper of the podcasting blog EDS's Stepping Stones.

The Gospel of James

By Heidi Shott

Just yesterday morning, I was thinking about what to write for my monthly deadline at the Café. Several times a day I get flashes of ideas for essays – the commonplace moment somehow connects to some big idea - but then the phone rings or someone says, “hey, did you pick up my shirts at the cleaners?” or I get a pop-up on feedreader with a story about a cop in Glasgow who was attacked by an octopus and I can’t help but click. These interruptions make it hard to be faithful to all the ideas that present themselves for consideration.

But some ideas are more tenacious than others. There’s something in the way they keep rising to the top of my mind that makes them hard to ignore.

The James Taylor concert falls into that category.

In March for his birthday or perhaps in June for Father’s Day, (sadly, I can’t remember) my sons and I bought my husband Scott two tickets to see James Taylor in August. The plan was he would share the second ticket with me.

So one evening a few weeks ago, 50 miles from our quiet village, we sat down to a table at a lovely restaurant near the Civic Center in Portland. The young waiter asked if we were going to the concert.

“S’pose you have a lot of middle-aged people in tonight before James Taylor?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he grinned and concentrated on opening the wine.

Over the last 20 years we’ve been to a lot of events at the Civic Center. Once years ago I paid for my sons to ride the elephant at the circus, then they chickened out so I rode it with one of their friends. I’m against elephant riding in general, but I’d bought the damn tickets. We’ve seen Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Hornsby. We’ve gotten backstage passes to see the Barenaked Ladies twice because our only famous friend, Ned Steinberger, is a friend of the bass player.

As we took our seats on the floor of the Civic Center, eerily near the spot I bestrode the elephant, we saw that the place was sold out. It was sardined with people of the boomer persuasion. We played a game of spotting people under 30 with the couple to my left (you can do that in Maine). “There’s one!” chirped the 50-something engineer-type beside me.

“Well, yeah, she’s under 30, but look, she’s with her mom,” Scott said.

“Right,” he said, disappointed, “doesn’t count.”

“Our son is here,” said his wife. “He’s 32. But he won’t sit with us.”

One night in the lazy summer of 1982 - the summer Scott and I painted the barn on my family’s farm, played a lot of badminton and didn’t do much else - we drove to Saratoga Performing Arts Center to see James Taylor and his band. Most people were on the lawn with their blankets and buckets of beer, but we had tickets inside. It was a great show but I didn’t notice that anyone in the audience seemed particularly old, including James and Karla Bonoff who opened for him.

At this concert, however, there was no opening act, no band, just James Taylor, his guitars, and a fellow musician playing various keyboard instruments to complement the show. He started out with a wave and hello and launched into “There’s Something in the Way She Moves.” He had all 8,000 of us from the intro. His untouched voice; his deft, self-deprecating manner; all was a balm. Just about everyone in the room had either come of age with or grown up with these familiar songs, depending on their place on the boomer continuum.

I remember first hearing “Fire and Rain” played by my brother Jim, ten years my senior, around 1970. By the time I started high school in 1976, I was listening to “Greatest Hits” every night as I nodded off to sleep. “You’ve Got a Friend” was the last song on Side A and my record player would click off all by itself. The cover of the “JT” album spent several years mounted on the wall next to my bed. He still had hair back then.

In college, Scott and I listened to “Flag” and “Dad Loves His Work” on the 15-hour road trips between school in Boston and his home in West Virginia. After we were married and terribly lonely working as teachers in Micronesia, pining for mail and books we hadn’t already read, two copies of “That’s Why I’m Here” on cassette arrived from different friends on the very same day. Years later, I listened to “New Moon Shine” over and over during those first quiet winter months of doing little else but sitting and nursing our twin sons. This extended soundtrack of my life, our life together, is an odd and precious thing.

It’s crazy to think that this man who I don’t know nor will ever meet and, moreover, have no desire to ever meet, has accompanied me through these last 35 years. At the concert an alarming number of people felt compelled to shout personal greetings to him, which he absorbed graciously. The concert ran three hours with four encores. We got our money’s worth certainly. We had a nice dinner out, alone, like a real couple on a date. We talked about the first concert 25 years before in Saratoga when it took us 45 minutes to find the car, back when we never suspected we’d be together all these years later.

As a person of faith, I can’t help but wonder what it is about James Taylor – this gawky, bald, 60 year-old - that draws 8,000 busy middle-aged Mainers to buy tickets and sit on folding chairs in a dusty ice hockey rink/monster truck arena…and to be able to hold that attraction for 40 years. As someone who thinks a lot about marketing the Church, I can’t help but wonder what we’re doing wrong. The song that we’ve been gifted with is a million times sweeter than “Sweet Baby James.” If you read the Gospels with a fresh eye, it’s hard to escape that the person of Jesus is wildly attractive and charismatic. Read the Gospels cold, and you know why the fishermen of Galilee dropped their nets to follow. Talk about backstage passes!

But what are we doing in this Episcopal Church of ours? On what are we focusing our attention? We’re not so great at crafting an achingly sweet soundtrack that draws people back again and again and again.

One of the most disheartening stories I ever heard as a diocesan communications officer was from a single mom who had stopped going to one of our churches. Bumping into her after not seeing her for a few years, I asked why she’d stopped attending. She told me that she’d arrived one Sunday with her two daughters and someone caught her before she sat down to remind that it was her day to provide snacks and juice for coffee hour after the service. Her life was complicated at that time and she’d forgotten.

“I panicked,” she told me. “I had exactly $25 in my checking account, but I was too embarrassed to tell the person who chided me for forgetting. That I didn’t have any money wouldn’t have occurred to her in a million years.” Though I knew this woman was doing better now, I could see how much it cost her to recount the story. “I grabbed my girls, drove out and bought juice and crackers, and set them up in the parish hall. Then we left and we’ve never been back.”

If only we knew how to flip the switch to be better at this stuff. If only we knew how to absorb the winsome attractiveness of Jesus and offer it freely to everyone – people we agree with and people we don’t, people we find interesting and people we don’t. In the James Taylor model, despite his addictions and demons so publicly chronicled, there’s a guilelessness, a generously proffered gift, a constancy over time, that his admirers are drawn to. It’s not a bad model after all.

That night James sang:

“The secret of love is in opening up your heart It’s okay to feel afraid But don’t let that stand in your way ‘Cause anyone knows that love is the only road”
It sounds so dumb when you see it on the page, but it doesn’t when you hear it sung in a sweet and familiar voice. In that way, it’s a little like being a Christian. I’m open to ideas for how we can work on our song.

I started this column last night with my laptop in bed. I was going great guns when Scott said, “Time to turn out the light.” So I woke up this morning and finished it. I’m just glad I remember who to send it to.

Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. She is also communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development. Heidi's essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

You are the music,
while the music lasts

Continuing our "Episcopalians go to camp" theme begun yesterday...

By Roger Ferlo

Orkney Springs, Virginia is not an easy place to find. The trip south from the District seems designed to test your nerves. You start off on the DC Beltway—trial enough—and then you lurch onto the notoriously congested I-66, which you have to follow all the way to the end (a prospect that must haunt the nightmares of daily commuters), where it turns south on I-81 toward Woodstock. You then find yourself deep in Shenandoah country, passing road signs directing you to the Luray Caverns or the Skyline Drive. But you resist temptation. You make a right turn and then another right and then another right (or was it a left?) through gorgeous rolling hills until you finally stumble your way onto a steep incline of a road called the Orkney Grade, which will funnel you and your motorcar straight into the nineteenth-century—to the old mineral spa known as the Orkney Springs Hotel, owned lock, stock and water barrel by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

It was not always thus. For years Virginia Episcopalians owned the acreage to the west, where they long ago built a retreat center and an outdoor chapel—Shrine Mont, they call it, as close to building a cathedral that this die-hard low-church diocese will ever come. But folks must have had their eye on the hotel down the road for a long time, if only for fear that it would fall in on itself. It wasn’t until 1979 that the Diocese managed to purchase the ramshackle place. And now, completely refurbished in the simple style to which it has always been accustomed, it can sleep as many as 600 church people at a time. It’s a vast white-painted wooden pile five storeys high, each level completely ringed by its own complicated stretches of porch and outdoor stairs—an Escher print in 3-D, Shenandoah style. Virginia parishes vie fiercely for preferred weekend slots, when parishioners recover from the long drive on the interstates by gathering for fellowship in the Ladies Parlour on the second floor, or sharing potpie and cornbread dinners in the vast refectory hall, or submitting themselves to some serious lecturing or other sorts of pious carryings-on in the elegant third-storey ballroom with its floor to ceiling windows and its wide and gracious balconied porch.

Since moving to Virginia from New York City three years ago to teach at the seminary in Alexandria, I’ve been invited to Shrine Mont several times. I’ve preached from the curious stone pulpit in the outdoor chapel (which looks a little like a congealed lava flow), and I’ve lectured on art and the spiritual life to generously attentive crowds in that lovely ballroom. I’ve hiked up North Mountain to the fire tower surmounted by a cross, and eaten my share of canned fruit salad and pulled pork in the dining hall. It’s good to find a church spot where people remember to keep relatively quiet and to behave themselves and to say their prayers and to be nice to one another—behaviors that might seem pretty trite and obvious if they weren’t at such a premium in a church otherwise sorely bedeviled by lawsuits and name-calling and furious divisions. There’s a kind of country ordinariness at Orkney Springs that gives you a sense that church might go on being church even in spite of church.

I am prompted to thoughts like this because I just got back from spending a week in residence at the Orkney Springs Hotel doing something that had absolutely nothing churchy about it. For the past seven years, a remarkable cellist named Dorothy Amarandos, now in her 83rd year, has all but single-handedly organized a week-long music camp at the Orkney Springs Hotel—a summer camp for geeky adults. There were 48 of us this year, most of us middle-aged and older, many of us still relative beginners wrestling with this most recalcitrant and noble of instruments. When you look at the roster, you see that all of us were pretty successful type A personalities in high-powered jobs (there were five MD’s in the room, for starters). And yet there was nothing more humbling than what we had agreed to do last week, as we made ourselves vulnerable to each other and to our teachers in that most exposed of venues—a public recital. Learning to play the cello as an adult can be an isolating and lonely business. It’s seldom about success as we usually have experienced success. Few if any of us will ever get to a place where we would call ourselves cellists rather than cello players. The noise we make can be excruciating—no wonder we tend to keep our doors closed. And yet coming together like this for a week, guided by Dorothy and her immensely gifted colleagues, we all gave ourselves permission to break out of our lonely practice rooms, to play in consort with others—performing in trios, duets, and even in a full-voiced choir of 48 instruments, strains of Beethoven and Vivaldi echoing off the walls of that elegant third-floor ballroom. We were all engaged in kind of a secular ubuntu at Shrine Mont this past week.

As I say, there was nothing churchy about any of this, except, of course, that everything we did with and for each other in that quaint and gracious hotel was, at least for me, anyway, sacramental. In such a setting, prayer takes care of itself. On the last day of the workshop, there was a solemn little ceremony where Dorothy presented each of us with a certificate of congratulations. It was a sweet gesture, and touching to watch each of these highly accomplished people sheepishly come forward to accept our teacher’s simple tribute. The certificate included an epigraph from T.S. Eliot—“you are the music while the music lasts.” That line evokes for me the experience of that week in Orkney Springs, and the gift of quiet and hospitality that the diocese offered us in allowing us to use this gentle space. Sometimes the church does get it right.

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in time and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. There are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” from Four Quartets

The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. He was trained as a Shakespeare scholar, and frequently leads audience discussions on religion and drama for the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, DC.

Advertising Space