Repent

A harsh word if ever there was one.  It immediately calls to mind images of puritanical finger-pointing and condemnatory, angry crowds flinging stones at a cowering figure.

Yet, the word is sung again and again in one of the gentlest pieces I know. It’s part of a set of three short pieces which I’ll be singing with a small group on their tour in France this month: We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn.  Repent…repent…repent we quietly coax the listener.

We will walk with Mother and mourn. We will walk with Mother and weep. We will bow in solemn prayer with her While Zion’s children sleep.

And through their sacred dwellings We will march and cry repent.
In low humiliationCome low, low and repent.

The song comes from the mid-19th century Shaker tradition, and Mother would have been the Shakers’ founder, Ann Lee. Walking, dancing, marching – moving in any form was integral to their worship. To bow and to bend, as the famous Shaker hymn Simple Gifts goes. Despite their humility, pacifism and creativity, the Shakers viewed the world outside their insulated community as dangerous and humankind as essentially wicked. Needless to say, their fearfulness and fundamentalism did not pave the way for a successful future.

Yet, seeing our own community – i.e. our country – demonstrate its inability to welcome the stranger in obedience to twisted laws, and to read in The Washington Post Magazine this past Sunday about a church that divided families in obedience to a twisted theology, makes me wonder about the need for a collective, communal repentance. We all share in the guilt for our part in creating a society where these kinds of things happen.

Repent…repent…repent for the lack of love that causes such cruelty. We’ve seen images showing the cost of dividing families on our southern border and how the poor once again pay the costs of having hope for something better. In the article linked above about a Virginia evangelical church, the members who left the church talk about doing so at great costs as well. Loss of community, loss of faith, and forced separation from family members who choose to stay. The costs of cruelty are great indeed.

To see humankind as essentially wicked would be a loss for me though. It’s a world view which couldn’t save the Shakers, nor will it save that Virginia church, nor a country that labels whole groups of people as undesirables of one sort or another. Repent ..repent …repent for extremes of thought which divide and exclude .

My mind turned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer during a walk earlier this week. His path from pacifism to martyrdom is a powerful story, and caused him to resist the evil that led one German pastor to proclaim: “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.” Bonhoeffer’s pacifist beliefs turned more radical during the 1930’s and he wrote The Cost of Discipleship in 1937.  He paid the costs of that discipleship with his life in a Nazi death camp in April of 1945.

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance… Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross..  (D. Bonhoeffer)

We’ve all heard the saying that “freedom is not free.” It seems there are costs for so much that we hold dear, and the trick is to know what exactly it is we should value. Safety or truth? Truth or peace? Peace or community? Community or integrity? Integrity or kindness? Kindness or …. it’s like a huge game of rock, paper, scissors.

And so we are led, as we always are, back to our highest calling – to love. Repent… repent… repent then for all those times when our actions were motivated by anything other than love and caused us to be divided from a sense of solidarity with all of humankind.

Peace,
Sonya

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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.

 

 

Passivity

Well, being passive is not a quality we often aspire to or one that we admire in others, is it. We are a culture of opinions and strongly-held views, of action and moving forward. Those do all seem like good things, and yet…

Summer seems like a perfect time to lie fallow, to purposely be idle with the intention of increasing our fruitfulness later, and yet…

These are not times for passivity. Political and social trends require more engagement, more caring and more interaction, not less. By making a case for passivity I’m not suggesting that we be  uncaring, disinterested, or disengaged. Nor that we cultivate a “wait and see” mentality or turn a blind eye to life’s woes. I just see some merit in stepping back, giving ourselves a chance to observe the world from a little distance. Because a lot can happen when we’re passive, and a good place to start practicing is by simply sleeping.

Through most of human history we likely had two periods of sleep – with a quiet time in between.  Clocks and electricity changed our relationship to natural light and darkness, and industrialization channeled us into a more regimented existence, but some have always found their greatest creativity in the middle of the night.  A time that author Marilynne Robinson calls her “benevolent insomnia”

That world between sleeping and waking has a name – hypnagogia – and it’s been studied and appreciated for the affect it can have on creativity. Hypnagogia has been described as the shortest path our subconscious has for its communication with our conscious self. I find some freedom in knowing that I can let go of a problem and passively allow my subconscious to work things out while I sleep! How many times have you woken up with the answer, or just the right words, or a clear plan? I read somewhere recently that it’s not such a bad idea to go to bed angry. Sleeping on it can be a useful tool after all.

If we can fend off anxiety about not being asleep, we might enjoy the stillness and lack of distraction during a period of hypnagogia. It could be a time when we feel a stronger connection to our dreams and find more meaning in them. Often the solutions to problems come to us when we are sleeping because of a phenomenon that cognitive scientists call “pattern recognition.”  Our dreaming or hypnagogic mind finds links between new information and memories, because the brain is in a relaxed enough state to create new connections and neural pathways. Pattern recognition, by the way, is how we remember faces, learn language, and appreciate music. All of those things require memories from previous experiences coupled with the ability to absorb new information.

The monastic practice of rising in the middle of the night to pray during the sacred office known as “vigils” surely evolved in some part from this biological need we seem to have once had for a first and second sleep. I have to believe that monks came to those Vigils in a drowsy, yet receptive, state of passivity which helped them to absorb the readings and prayers even more.

Contemplatives talk about “resting in God,” a kind of letting go that is difficult for a lot of people, but have you ever had the experience of getting out of the middle of a problem and having the solution only then become apparent? Passivity, like sleep, has a purpose, and when we’re quiet perhaps that’s when the Holy Spirit finds its way to us more easily, speaking to us and sharpening our sight.

The word liminal is used by anthropologists to describe that time during a rite of passage when someone is on the threshold of change. People of faith use it to describe sacred places where they have an experience of God. These are in-between places, like our periods of hypnagogia. What seems clear to me is that when we are in such a place, we can’t actually do anything to hurry things along. These are times of opening ourselves up to something – whether it be change, understanding, peace, or whatever it is that we actually need.

I rest my case in support of (short-term) passivity. Read a book review in The Washington Post that happens to agree with this idea.

There is a surprising amount of music online related to the word “liminal” – bands and songs and an Icelandic festival even.  This is one I particularly enjoyed: Liminal

Peace,
Sonya

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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 Arc of Common Sense is Long

but it bends towards prosperity.      (bet you didn’t see that coming!)

Threats of global devastation should have been enough, but the common sense of developing renewable energy sources didn’t appeal to a lot of people until the short-term economics did. With fossil fuels costing more to produce than wind or solar energy within the next couple of years, if not already, and given a fair chance by government regulators, common sense around energy use just might prevail.

But common sense thinking around the economic boost that the arts can provide to a local economy? Americans for the Arts, a nearly 60-year old non-profit organization has put business minds to work conducting studies that say yes. Creating jobs, generating commerce, driving tourism – really? I’ve never put common sense, job creation, and the arts into the same sentence before. We’re not talking about blockbuster Broadway productions or Van Gogh exhibits either.

I spent a few days this week in upstate New York, where I attended a concert in one old mill town which has re-created itself by repurposing a factory space into a sprawling modern art museum. I watched the sunset in another old mill town seated next to a stunning (more so than the sunset even) performing arts center that describes itself as a place where the arts, sciences, and technology meet under one roof and breathe the same air. That one is located on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but it’s intended as a resource for the entire region, with a concert hall for the 21st century that looks like a floating wooden planet encased in glass.

Those are both relatively new investments in their respective communities. In contrast, there is a church nearby where old wealth had been invested over 100 years ago into building a glorious Tiffany-designed church. Today it stands as one of the best preserved examples of Tiffany’s artistry. The deep blues in the glass and graceful wooden carvings were built and conserved as a gift for future generations, as surely as these more recent arts centers have been. The arts are clearly a vital presence in these small towns that industry had once built and then jilted. Like cracks in the pavement where plants have pushed through, reminding us that nature always wins, this spirit of creativity seems to infuse the old and forgotten with tendrils of new energy.

Whether the conservation of the art in a once-flourishing church, or the emergence of creative communities in these previously forsaken mill towns, art and music feel like a life force that has broken through the cracks of abandonment. As any weekend gardener knows, vegetation coming up through cracks in your pavement is persistent. You can pour weed killer on those green shoots, but they’ll return somewhere else or in a stronger form that will resist your poison next time. Creativity can’t be ignored (though I’m not liking my weed analogy at this point!). More important to our bottom-line-loving world, the arts can apparently help drive an economic engine that brings new life to old places, even as they make hearts sing and bodies move and minds ponder.

For generations some people have put their wealth into art that would last far beyond them – as patrons of painters and musicians, and as builders of cathedrals and museums. How beautiful to see communities reawakening and reimagining art-filled futures in ways that just happen to make a lot of economic sense too.

Peace,
Sonya

PS   After posting this I saw an article about the impact that funding for the arts by the state of Minnesota has had on the quality of life – and the economy – of small towns there. Read it here.

PPS   The news keeps coming…an article about how the arts have helped Greece emerge from its financial disfunction:  Athens Rising-The New York Times.  One quote in particular spoke to me:  “I think everybody became more creative after the crisis, more cooperative,” he said.  Can our own country emerge from its own crisis of closed minds and cold hearts with more creativity and cooperation?  And here’s another: Measurable Benefits of the Arts

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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.

 

 

Joy

Where do you find joy, when so much right now seems joyless? The news, and the traffic, and stresses of modern life, together with all of our fears about global warming and warring factions and humanity’s willful cruelties conspire to rob us of joy. We could turn off the news and stick our heads in the sand, but ignorance doesn’t bring joy. We could shut down conversations and proclaim that the other side is wrong, but disconnecting from relationships doesn’t bring joy. We could sweep unpleasantness under the rug and hope no one notices the lumps, but evading truth doesn’t bring joy. So where do we find joy?

A few years ago I came across a story about a 110 year old Holocaust survivor and pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer, who died in 2014, just a few days before a short film about her, The Lady in No. 6, won an Academy Award.  In accepting the Oscar, the film’s director, Malcolm Clarke, said that he was struck by Herz-Sommer’s “extraordinary capacity for joy” and “amazing capacity for forgiveness.”

In the midst of an insanity that would cause most of us to lose hope – a family torn apart, a husband sent to Dachau, she and her son to Theresienstadt – she found joy in music.  “Beethoven is my religion” she said.  “He gives me faith to live and to say to me: Life is wonderful and worthwhile, even when it is difficult.”  She credited Chopin with keeping her alive in the camp, as she pulled upon the reserve of strength which Chopin’s etudes had built within her.

Alice had every reason to lose hope, and instead found every reason to hold onto it.  If her choice to find beauty and joy in a harsh world seems naïve, does feeling damaged, angry or vengeful seem like a better choice?

“It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive.” Simple words from a Jewish Holocaust survivor, so very reminiscent of another Jew, as recorded in the Gospel according to Mark.

“Music is God,” Alice tells us in the film. What is beautiful is of God. She believed in the power of music, and believed that being joyful is a choice which any of us can make. At her darkest hour, she chose to look for beauty, and in finding it where she could, hope was possible.

Where there is hope there can be joy. Leonard Cohen reminded us that “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I doubt that Alice was blind to the horror around her, and if we are living in times which seem to encourage ignorance, disconnectedness, and evasion of responsibility and truth, look for those cracks where the light gets in and just maybe that is where your joy can be found.

Peace,
Sonya

2014 Oscar winning short documentary

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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 new 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.

 

Barley

Barley is probably my favorite grain – and not because it’s a key ingredient in beer and whiskey, neither of which I like at all. I frequently use this ancient grain in soups and stews, but even so, I was very surprised to have the word “barley” stare me in the face not once, but twice one afternoon recently. What are the chances that the word “barley” comes into your life twice in the same day, in ways completely unrelated to the actual food?

While reading an article about the hymns of Richard Wayne Dirksen before writing my post last week, I learned the story behind Dirksen’s hymn tune BARLEY.  It’s not found in The Hymnal 1982 unfortunately, but I had come across the tune in a choral hymn setting titled Praise the Spirit in Creation several years ago, and I find the tune as hearty and satisfying as its grain namesake. Dirksen named it, I learned, after Mr. Barley, the Great Cat. The Dirksens had adopted a bedraggled foundling one rainy evening, and several years later when the composer was pondering a name for a new tune he had written for the American Guild of Organist’s 1992 convention, he came back to his computer to find that Barley had stood on the keyboard as he crossed to the window for some squirrel-watching.  No, the cat hadn’t typed the word “barley.”  You didn’t really think that, did you? But Mr. Dirksen saw a feline equivalent in the six “k’s” that he found on his computer screen and promptly named his new tune with six other letters – BARLEY.  You can hear the choirs of Washington National Cathedral singing it here.

Barley made a second appearance when a neighbor emailed to share that she was completely taken with a new album, one by an artist I probably would not have heard about otherwise, Lizz Wright. Hers is an earthy, honest voice, more than worthy of the earthy, honest grain she sings about in the song “Barley,” found on her new album, Grace.  It’s a text that speaks of resilience, strength, and moving forward.

The wind that shakes the barley will not shake me
The fire that takes the kindling will not take me
And the rain that floods the valley will not drown me
The hawk that stoops the sparrow will not strike me
The dark before the dawn breaks will not bind me
The wind that shakes the barley will not shake me
Like my mama told me, this I know when I see.

The musical layers of barley. Who knew?

Peace,
Sonya

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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 new 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.

Enthusiasm

Addressing the French Academy of Sciences in 1882, Louis Pasteur quoted an unnamed philosopher who had written: “I have thought for a long time that the person who has only clear and precise ideas must assuredly be a fool. For the most precious notions harbored by human intelligence are deeply behind-the-scene and in semi-daylight, and it is around these confused ideas, whose interrelations escape us, that the clear ideas gravitate, extending, developing, and germinating themselves.”

Pasteur then continued: “If we were cut off from this background, the exact sciences would lose the greatness which they draw from the secret rapport they hold with those infinite truths whose existence we can only suspect.”

A secret rapport between infinite truth and exact science…that sounds like the perfect religion to me. Writing in 2002 about his process for composing hymns, Richard Wayne Dirksen further quoted Pasteur:

The Greeks understood the hidden power of things infinite.  They bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language – the word “enthusiasm” – en theos – a God within.  The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring.  Happy is [the one] who bears a god within and who obeys it.  The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflections from the infinite.

Knowing that the word enthusiasm has its roots in the Greek for God, theos, completely changes the meaning for me. It was a word which had vaguely reminded me of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland determined to put on a show against all odds. Enthusiasm seemed to require multiple exclamation points!! My obvious joy in music-making for the church has often been described as enthusiastic, and I will now wear the mantle of enthusiasm with some pride. I see that it is a word which describes a divinely inspired joy. Exclamation points optional.

Dirksen continued: “My succinct perspective is this: when people sing together, that enthusiasm within each engenders a community-wide awareness of those reflections from the infinite. The sharing of a God within through making music puts us in unison touch with the infinite God, and intensifies our knowledge of and enthusiasm for [God]. Collectively, do we therefore embody and live our theology.”

Accessing the hidden power of things infinite by singing hymns…I believe in that. Great hymn writers, like Dirksen, know that a great hymn begins with the text. The words guide the tune’s creation and give the hymn its character. Writing online for National Public Radio, critic Juan Vidal examined his own surprising encounter with traditional hymnody as a young man:

It would do us good to revisit some of the poetry of a time so different than our own. These old texts merit our attention; for me they carry the same resonance as Shakespeare. Not only are they rich in history, they also draw us to appreciate the wonder of words. Instead of viewing the vocabulary as archaic, I’ve come to see hymns as the language of prayer, and as a way of connecting with those that have come before me.

Could anything be more important right now than connecting with others? Connecting with people next to us and those who came before? When we sing a great hymn – one with evocative imagery and bold ideas, one with a tune that moves us and perhaps surprises us too – we probably aren’t aware that we may be surrounded in that moment by people who look different from us, or belong to a different political party, or believe in things which we find uncomfortable. During a time of shared singing we are given an opportunity to simply expose our enthusiasm as a place where our best selves can germinate.  Happy new year.(!)

Peace,
Sonya

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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 new 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.