Ecologue

As we move into Holy Week, an achingly beautiful, elegiac piece, written by British composer Gerald Finzi — his Eclogue for piano and strings:

This will be one part of a program I am doing on Tuesday, April 16 at 12:10 at Church of the Epiphany — more details are found here: TCS-April 16, 2019. Please come if you’re able – sometimes the message we need to hear is said without words.

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Why Bother?

(from November, 2011 and July, 2014 posts)

I remember going into a church some time ago as a woman was putting finishing touches on the altar’s flower arrangements. I made a few admiring comments and she said that her purpose had been to recall the blood of martyrs by using the dramatic streaks of red gladiolus I was seeing, in honor of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, whose feast day it was that day and for Saints Peter and Paul, whose feast day was to come two days later.

Well, I’m sure you would have made that connection right away, but I admit it eluded me at first glance. Having read a charming book called The Language of Flowers (an enjoyable beach read), I knew that flowers carry symbolic meanings for some, and that in the language of flowers the gladiolus represents strength of character and honor.  Would anyone else seeing those flowers have all those bits of knowledge at hand?  Irenaeus….symbolic meaning of flowers… Probably not, but does that matter?  Not at all, in my opinion. Our days are filled with small connections and invisible acts that enrich our lives without us even realizing it.

Several years ago I wondered aloud with a colleague why I put so much thought into hymn choices, making key relationships with prelude and postlude music, thinking about meters for walking hymns and texts that are theologically sound, on top of relating the hymns to readings and liturgical seasons. He assured me that the flow of the liturgy was enhanced and appreciated in ways that no one would ever be able to verbalize, and I took that heart.  I remember now a conversation with another colleague about Evensong and other Daily Offices, and the comfort she found in simply knowing that prayers and music have been sung in cathedrals and monasteries on our behalf for many hundreds of years. Swirling around us at any given time is an invisible world of prayers and intentions.

I am reminded of something I heard years ago about The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson. He insisted that the miniature sets being created to simulate some parts of the Middle Earth be constructed so that even the backs of the sets – the parts never seen by an audience – were as completely and authentically built as the parts that would be seen on film.  And I read somewhere that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling created many more characters and events for her stories than ever made it into the series’ seven books.  A whole world beyond what was on the page somehow lurked behind what we were reading and made the experience all the more rich.

We may not ever be aware of the unheard thoughts – red flowers, a prelude in C minor before a hymn in Eb Major, characters that didn’t make it to the page – that thread through our lives, but that doesn’t diminish their value. I appreciate those moments of subtlety versus conspicuousness, humility versus flamboyance, poetry versus prose. Every day we might remind ourselves that the uncelebrated work of our lives still carries a beauty and importance about it.  Kindness, joy, friendship, faith…these are the often unheralded things which create a richly led life.

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Mysterious Ways

originally published March 27, 2014

Perhaps you have occasionally answered difficult or puzzling situations with a shake of your head and the words “God moves in mysterious ways.” That phrase can be a flippant or a serious answer to just about everything we don’t understand, and its popularity would suggest to me that it must have come from one of two possible sources – the Bible or Shakespeare, but surprisingly it comes from neither. Rather, it is the first line of a hymn by the 18th century poet and hymn writer, William Cowper. In the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 his text is found at Hymn 677:

God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform:
He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Cowper was a case study in woe. His mother died when he was very young, an unhappy relationship with his father caused him to enter a law practice he abhorred. He suffered from severe depression and horrifying delusions all his life, making several suicide attempts. It was while he was an inmate at the St. Albans Insane Asylum that he became a believer in God’s power to be the strength and guide he needed in his life. A prolific poet, he was urged by his friend and mentor, John Newton (of Amazing Grace fame), to write hymn texts as a form of therapy. Together they created a hymnal with nearly 350 hymns in it, many of which are still sung today. He shared Newton’s strong anti-slavery sentiments, writing poems that were quoted by Martin Luther King nearly 200 years later.

Knowing that he struggled with mental illness, I find the words of his hymn God moves in a mysterious way all the meaningful. The trust required to believe and write about God’s ability to bring bright designs (gems) from unfathomable mines (v. 2) speaks to Cowper’s ability to have hope in the midst of his anguish. The clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy (v. 3), the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower (v. 5) encourage us to trust that goodness can emerge from our struggles. The more we trust, the more we believe.

A trusting heart can understand what cannot be seen, Cowper seems to tell us. The eyes opened by faith and trust will be able to see the blessings in this stormy life. Cowper channeled his tortured mind to craft poetry. For his sake I wish he could have created without suffering, but God’s ways are indeed mysterious and I want to take Cowper’s words to heart and simply trust in the presence of goodness, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

There are a surprising large number of recordings on YouTube of settings of Cowper’s most famous words, and they come from so many different traditions. These are a few that I enjoyed. Though the first doesn’t exactly stick to Cowper’s text, it’s pretty fun:

and a more sober approach:

And then there’s this one, which just cracks me up – in a good way. If the Monkees had sung this hymn on their show it would have looked like this:

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Failure

In March of 1832 Frederic Chopin wrote a very polite letter to the concert committee at the Paris Conservatoire, requesting that he be considered for a performance on their concert series. Chopin was artistically lauded by this point in his life, but financially insecure and he really needed the concert fee. The committee turned him down.

I would like to think that the Paris Conservatoire’s committee regretted their decision sometime later! In the same vein, a dozen or so publishing houses rejected the first Harry Potter manuscript and are surely still rueing that decision. History is littered with these kinds of stories, and it’s easy to read about them and marvel at the blindness of decision-makers to real talent. We might shake our heads and chuckle, knowing who got the last laugh, but surely it stung to receive those rejection letters in the first place, and no doubt the recipients had their confidence as artists temporarily shaken.

The beginning of Lent, a liturgical season of penitence in the Christian church which began with Ash Wednesday last week, seems like a great time to think about failure. It’s a season which ends in five weeks with one colossal failure after all – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Spoiler alert, he gets the last laugh.

Not everyone has the gift of summoning entire worlds of magic from their imagination which can be shared with millions of adoring fans, as Chopin and Rowling have. Nor can we show our friends that we’ve risen from the dead. Most of us are fairly normal, workaday sorts who feel our failures deeply by questioning our self-worth. History probably really doesn’t care about our failures, but we likely wouldn’t take much pleasure anyway in knowing that we might be vindicated by history if we persevere and continue to believe in ourselves in the face of all those rejection letters. Speculating about the future isn’t a great use for our energy, but it is good to remember that success and failure are best measured by time.

Unfortunately, I have to toss in a few platitudes about failure, because they do hold a lot of truth. Those hopeful ideas about failure’s capacity to help us appreciate our successes more, to prepare us for the next time we fail, to show us who our real friends are, and to teach us about humility.

If you are still looking for a Lenten discipline, perhaps examining life’s failures through more discerning eyes will prove useful. Certainly more useful than giving up chocolate, which is a short path to failure for some of us anyway.

Chopin was harshly criticized for failing as an orchestral composer, but any of us would be fortunate to fail so beautifully.

Recent news about Big Pharma’s role in creating opioid addiction reminds me that I have left out an essential aspect of failure – the fact that failure is all too often enabled by people (and their institutions) who act out of malice, fear, greed, ignorance, lack of imagination, or pedantic fussiness (Chopin’s request reached the Paris Conservatoire after their deadline). I have to think that causing someone to fail is far worse than failing itself.

My inspiration today is the new biography of Chopin by Alan Walker. I read his three volume biography of Liszt – twice – over the past decade or so and I knew that the quality of research and his writing would not disappoint. I didn’t know that I would enjoy getting to know Chopin as a person so much or that reading a rejection letter from the Paris Conservatoire would make me so angry on his behalf!

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Breathe

As the Christian church begins a forty day journey through Lent, consider ways to incorporate more chant into your life, whether singing or listening. The quality of breathing which chant requires will carry your prayers more deeply within and further afield at the same time. The two likely beginnings of chant, after all, were as a natural amplification of the voice which allowed words to travel further in large spaces, and as a tool for meditation which combined breath and sound in an effort to internalize sacred words.

Below are two very different chants, both of which move me deeply. Each takes me somewhere else and stops me in the moment at the same time. Each connects me with an ancient wordless longing and also gives me a sense of fullness. Many of you have likely seen the first, a chant from Taize with a text by Teresa of Avila:

Let nothing disturb you,

nothing frighten you,

All things are passing.

God never changes.

But the second one is new to me, shared with me this week by a singer who honored me by saying it made her think of me. I was mesmerized the first time I heard it, almost to the point of forgetting to breathe myself. The text is Psalm 53. The power of their sound has a life-force of its own.

Peace,

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Transfiguration

(updated from a 2009 posting)

I admit it – I love Harry Potter.  I love the stories, the rich details, its complexities, and the colorful characters.  I wish I had gone to Hogwarts School myself, where among other things I would have studied Transfiguration, and learned there such skills as transforming inanimate objects into animals, along with conjuring and vanishing spells –  so useful for changing a scary thing into something funny (riddikulus!) or filling a room with flowers (orchideous!).  Sadly, we can rarely transform other things or people, much less make them appear or disappear just by wishing it so. We’re really only able to change ourselves and our responses to life’s twists and turns.

The words transformation and transfiguration are usually thought to be synonymous, equivalent to the radical changes of metamorphosis. They all point to an external change in appearance – a caterpillar-to-butterfly kind of change in form/figure. We usually save transfiguration, however, for those times when something or someone is not just changed, but also elevated to a new level of beauty. I’m not prepared to say that butterflies are always more beautiful than caterpillars, and I don’t believe there are  any objective measures for beauty anyway, but we might agree that our hearts are able to discern what is truly beautiful and transfiguring in our lives.

This Sunday is something known on the liturgical calendar as Transfiguration Sunday.  Actually, in our lovely mastery of compromise, Episcopalians celebrate this event twice. Once on the last Sunday of Epiphany (March 3 in 2019) in accordance with Protestant practice and again on August 6, in line with the Roman Catholic Church. Celebrate might be too strong a word, since I’m doubtful that you’ve sent out your Transfiguration greeting cards or planned the traditional Transfiguration meal for your family. But these dates in the lectionary ask us to remember that moment in the Bible when Jesus was suddenly filled with radiant light, while on a mountain with his disciples. He transfigured himself, dazzling their eyes with light and giving the disciples another sign that he was indeed the Son of God. And so it was that by changing himself he was able to change the hearts and minds of others.

The Roman Catholic Church calls this day one of five “Luminous Mysteries” and it is an occasion to pray with the rosary.  Luminous mystery – isn’t that a beautiful phrase?  This choral work by the American composer Eric Whitacre captures luminous mystery for me.

Changing ourselves doesn’t happen by accident. We have to want to change, and we probably have to do it without enrolling in a Transfiguration class. No magic spells, just the hard work of changing those habits that keep us stuck in the dark places of ignorance, fear and selfishness.

But if I could send you a Transfiguration card it would read:

May you be filled with luminous mystery

It’s really the only way to bring light to our world after all, and fortunately there is a spell for that!  Lumos!

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Peace,

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

The Cynical Optimist

I know I’ve been described as cynical by some, which I suppose might be partly true, but I do strive to be optimistic, and I’m not so sure that optimism and cynicism are mutually exclusive anyway. Maybe I could be a cynical optimist? The cynic in me is elated when I find I’m wrong about someone I’ve prematurely judged to be haughty or boring. The optimist in me is crushed when I discover that self-styled kind people can have layers of cruelty or ignorance just below the surface. My cynical side feels that I have gained some wisdom from life’s experiences, earning the right to feel wary. My optimistic side admires the ability I occasionally see in others to move through this life with open-eyed wonder. And that’s the side of me I want to encourage – the part that is quick to see the surprisingly special bits of life all around me.

This juxtaposition of optimism and cynicism came to me in part because of an article in a recent issue of Time magazine titled The Art of OptimismThe issue’s guest editor, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, makes a case for why “art is the antidote for our times,” and writes beautifully about art’s power to instigate engagement with others.

I was inspired as well by the time I’ve spent recently with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5, known as the “Spring” Sonata. We generally think of Beethoven as awkward and complicated at best, but also erratic, headstrong, and rude. The anger, melancholy and deafness which defined his adult life often kept him isolated, and yet his churlishness gave way on occasion to gorgeously expressed optimism. Like this:

What I know is that cynicism is easy and optimism can be hard. Cynics shut down conversations and build walls against creativity. Optimists crave new ways of interpreting a situation and cultivate curiosity.

Optimism overtakes cynicism, via Brahms and Beethoven, in a concert I’m playing with a friend this Sunday, February 24, and you are warmly invited to join us at Cedar Lane Unitarian Church at 4:00. Concert Flyer.

Peace,

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.