And Now For Something Completely Different!

*Note to any reader – if you can tell me how to convince WordPress that I REALLY TRULY want paragraph breaks, and to please stop taking them away every time I put them in, I would be truly grateful.  I spent longer trying to get WP to recognize my line breaks in this blog post than I did actually writing the post, and I’ve given up for tonight.

I have been slammed with a head cold for the past few days, and it has not put me in a blogging frame of mind.  My thought processes have been moving very slowly, and my energy levels have been sufficient only for the bare minimum – shower, dress, eat, opera rehearsal, that kind of thing.

Over the weekend I roused myself long enough to take my daughter to a local production of the ballet Swan Lake.  I was startled to realize that the only ballets I’ve ever been to were The Nutcracker, The Nutcracker, and The Nutcracker.  I think of myself as being more cultured than that, but apparently not when it comes to ballet.

Now, I know that if you want a complex and thought-provoking plot, you go to a play or a movie (or read a book), and if you want a beautiful spectacle, you go to an opera or the ballet.  But if you’re not all that into people leaping about in tights, I now present (because I have nothing deeper to say at the moment) …

The Plot of Swan Lake

Act I:  Bad Sorceror steals princess.  Turns princess into Swan Queen.

Act II:  The prince is a man now!  Party!  Dancing!  Dancing!  Dancing!  Dancing!  Dancing!  Dancing!  Dancing!  Dancing!  Dancing!  He must choose a wife.

Act III:  Look! Swans!  And Bad Sorceror who is now a black swan or hawk or something.  Look! Swans!  (repeat for approximately six hours)
The prince is here.  “She has the most glitter – therefore it is True Love.”

Act IV:  The prince must choose a wife.  Here are some options.  A girl!  Another girl!  Another girl!  Another girl!  Another girl!  Another girl!  Another girl!  Lots of girls!
He chooses … the Bad Sorceror’s daughter!  She is the swan princess, right?  No?  Crap!  Red lighting, thunder, badness.  Run away, run away!
Act V:  Back to the pond.  Look!  Swans!  (repeat for three hours)
It’s you, my glittery love!  Oh no.  Bad sorceror.  Badness, badness.  But he dies, yay!  Swan Queen is a girl now!  Kiss kiss.
(Alternate ending:  Everyone dies!  Sadness.  Curtain.)
End:  Bow.  Bow again.  Bow again.  Bow again.  Bow again.  Bow again.
You’re welcome.

God Be In My Head

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.
–Sarum Primer, 1558

God be in my hands when I pull the blanket up over my silly son’s head, just the way he likes it.

God be in my feet when I’m tramping across campus to another rehearsal.

God be in my eyes when I’m driving to the grocery store late at night to buy eggs to make cookies because I said I’d bring them to class tomorrow, and there’s no time in the morning.

God be in my words when it’s an hour past bedtime and my daughter is still wide awake.

God be in my mind when I’m doing my taxes and wondering where the money will come from.

God be in my waking, which comes too early.

God be in my sleeping, which comes too late.

God be in my head when I fold socks and underpants and shirts in silent prayer, and forgive me this one night for being too busy to fold my hands.

To Err Is Human

This morning I did not go to church.

I did not read my Bible.

I prayed quite a bit, but I didn’t sing any Christian songs.

Not so many years ago, I would have been pretty sure there was a sin in there somewhere.  Staying home on a Sunday morning when you didn’t have a fever or something gross and contagious was simply not done when I was a kid, at least not in our family.  Granted, my dad didn’t have the option of skipping church for anything less than the most dire circumstances because he was the pastor.  But it wasn’t just being the preacher’s kid – most of the kids in my Sunday School were in the same boat.  No fever?  No vomit?  Quitcher bellyachin’ and put your good shoes on, we’re goin’ to church.

It’s not a bad pattern, all things considered.  There’s even Biblical precedent for it, when we’re reminded not to “forsake our own assembling together, as is the habit of some.”  Or, in modern English, “Don’t skip church, like SOME PEOPLE, you know who you are.”

There are plenty more good patterns where that came from.  “They received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  Read your Bible every day!

“But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he meditate day and night.”  Twice a day is even better!

As a teenager, I was never quite sure just how much Bible-reading and church-going was enough, so I decided to err on the side of caution and did it ALL.  Somewhere along the line, though, the myriad well-meaning instructions drowned out the true voice of those Scriptures.  There are so many books, so many sermons, so many words about the forms of our faith.  There is immense value in those words, and I love reading about how other people have brought rhythm and structure to their days with their disciplines of faith.  But it’s easy to get so lost in the form that we forget the eagerness and the delight that are meant to be the driving force behind the daily study.  So quickly we fall into going to church because it’s Sunday, instead of going because the Church is going to be there.

When this habit starts being built more of guilt than of joy, I think it’s probably all right to break it now and then.  Today was one of those days.  I had a major musical performance planned for the afternoon, and I found myself gripped with an unexpected attack of nerves.  This was well past queasy-tummy territory and approaching immobilized.  I dropped my children off at church, and then I came home.  I sat in the sunlight and read a book.  I prayed a little.  I had a late breakfast.  I prayed a little more.  I realized that I was useless at the moment, so I set my alarm for 45 minutes and got back in bed and pulled the covers over my head.

Not too surprisingly, God found me under my blankets, and I emerged feeling considerably better about life in general and the upcoming concert in particular.  Was that church?  No.  But was it sin?  I still have to say no.

In erring on the side of caution, I have spent over thirty years erring on the side of law.  I think it is time to err on the side of grace.

Shhhh.

Silent.

Quiet.

Still.

Peaceful.

Not synonyms, although there is quite a bit of overlap to their meanings.  I am finding that not-talking is not the same as quiet, and that silence is no guarantee of stillness.

I come from a rich tradition of words – beautifully crafted, mentally stimulating, deeply expressive words.  Words to explain, to clarify, to enlighten, but also words to shape, to influence, to steer.  Sometimes words that obscure, words that camouflage, words that sanitize.  And when the evangelical movement is having a bad week, its strength is its weakness, and this facility with words becomes weaponized – barbs and rebuttals and shotgun blasts of language that leave gaping holes in targets and observers alike.

Let me be clear – I don’t want to cut myself off from this tradition.  As long as I have mental capacity and breath in my body, that breath will be voiced in words that make sense.  I simply am not wired for “God is good, God is great, Hallelujah (repeat 47 times)” – I am wired for words.

I think, though, that I might do well to take a cue from my musical life, where the rests are nearly as important as the notes.  If there is no silence, the notes quickly become a barrage of noise.  The quiet passages are necessary for the loud ones to be appreciated, and the softer melodies have beauty all their own.

I need this quiet.  I have come from so many years of noise – church services where I am cowed into unresponsiveness because of the deliberately constant noise.  (God forbid there be “dead air” on a Sunday morning.)  My “quiet times”, not too surprisingly, have come to reflect this constant motion, and my prayers and reading are so full of words that there is no space left for listening.

I want to find out what is in the silences, and perhaps more importantly, what is not.  I need stillness more than I need words sometimes.  Now if only I can get myself to stop talking…

Holy Scrub-brush, Batman!

When I first started looking into the Friends tradition, the concept of sacramental living made immediate sense to me.  Even as a child, I had a sense of lingering holiness about everyday things like trees and fields and books, although I couldn’t possibly have articulated what I felt.

Making laundry a prayer seems obvious, if I just remind myself.  The folding and sorting can be a quiet, domestic form of worship.  The feel of the cloth is soothing under my hands, and the rhythm of folding becomes a liturgy of socks and shirts.

Balancing the checkbook takes a little more thought, but I can find God there too.  The numbers and logic are satisfying, and it’s not a huge leap to imagine that God must find an exponentially greater satisfaction in the ordered rhythms of molecules and planetary systems.

Even driving can be its own meditation (as long as I pay attention to the road, of course).  I am learning the welcome discipline of shutting off the litany of work-related concerns, and replacing it with a conscious gratitude for the trees and fields and open sky on my way to work.

That said … if anybody figures out how to sacramentally scour burned rice out of the bottom of a pot, come on over to my house.  I will give you a scrub-brush and let you meditate the hell out of my pots and pans.

Echoes of Mercy, Whispers of Love

One of my favorite things about exploring the concept of sacramental living is that all of a sudden, God is everywhere.  Not just in the usual way of being everywhere at all times – I can see him all over the place now.  Strange places, like in novels and on back roads and in cups of hot tea.  (Not literally IN my cup of tea – although if I’m going to take the omnipresence thing seriously, I guess he kind of is, so I’ll just let you work out your own theology on that one.)

Tonight I heard echoes of God in my rehearsal for a classical concert on Sunday.  I’ve worked with the mezzo-soprano many times before, so she’s used to my ability to follow a soloist, bending my musical interpretation in that dance of give-and-take that all good music should be.  The viola player has heard me play, but we’ve never performed together.  He is phenomenal, to the point that he scares me a little, and I was nervous about working with him.

Then he drops this compliment on me.  (I’ll give it to you verbatim, and then I’ll translate.)  He says to my singer friend, while eyeing me, “She’s really good at that, the [he sways in place for a second, waving his hands back and forth with his viola tucked under his arm] – you know, instead of counting.”  If you don’t speak Musician, that probably didn’t impress you as much as it did me, so here it is in normal-person English:  “She knows when to follow and when to take the lead, and she values the line of the music more than staying precisely on tempo.”

Coming from the principal violist of the local symphony, who is not generally known for scattering compliments around, that completely made my day.  I appreciated it partly because I was so relieved that it had gone well, but also because that is one of my core values as a musician.  All of my professional piano playing is with other musicians, and I want that flexibility to be a hallmark of my playing.  It’s important to me that people be able to play the way they want to play, without having to fight me for it.

I’d never heard it phrased that way, though:  “Instead of counting.”  When I thought about it, I realized he was right.  Once I’ve learned a piece well enough that I can keep half my attention on the other performer instead of my own hands, I’m not really thinking about “ONE-two-three-four” any more – I’m hearing lines and shapes and tone colors, making the music dance and bend, never quite the same as the last time.  When we reach the end of a piece and we have to play the last few notes together, I really don’t care how many beats Brahms said to play them – I care about these three notes with this violist at this performance, and if that turns out to be 3.4 beats instead of 3, that is fine.  If we decide that it just needs to hang there until he runs out of bow, even better!  (That’s what we settled on, incidentally.)

As I drove home from rehearsal, the words “instead of counting” kept rolling around in my head, and eventually I remembered where I’d heard them.

Love keeps no record of wrongs.

Love doesn’t count.  Love bends and flexes and dances, so that this love for this child, this friend, this hurting colleague or joyful neighbor or hungry stranger, is exactly as it’s meant to be at this moment.

Count less.  Listen more.  Find God where you least expect him.

My Do It!

“The opposite of faith is not doubt; rather, the opposite of faith is believing you are in control.”

– Tom and Liz Gates, quoted in “Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity”

When my daughter (now 13) was a toddler, she wanted to do everything for herself – put on her socks, feed herself, put on her own seatbelt, and she probably would have plunked her tiny little backside in the driver’s seat if I’d have let her.  Her constant refrain was, “MY do it!”

It’s embarrassingly easy to see myself in her, but as adults we’re encouraged to be self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-motivated, self-centered … whoops, scratch that last one.  Independence is seen as a virtue in our culture, and “My do it” sounds a whole lot like “I did it my way” and “Have it your way” and “Army of One”.

I had never really thought until today about how this independent streak informs my prayers.  I feel like I’m asking God for strength, wisdom, and guidance.  The words sound like I am.  But I wonder how many of my “God, grant me guidance” prayers are actually a thinly-veiled “God, I’m gonna run things now, OK?”

I don’t want to minimize the importance of action and responsibility – I’m not advocating passivity.  I wonder, though, if my faith might be healthier if my prayer was simply,

“Dear God: YOU do it.”