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,

* * * * *

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!

uploadscardimage832129dac28ab9-fc8e-4462-a700-6ad2258f6f4e.giffit-in__1200x9600

Peace,

* * * * *

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.

Hypocrite!

(Sorry, this is not exactly a gooey Valentine’s Day message)

Among all the things that really, really irritate us, I have a feeling that spotting hypocrisy in others tops the list for a lot of people. Even as children we noticed when the adults in our lives said one thing but did another. We see it in our public leaders, in our spiritual institutions, and in those we love. More than irritating, it’s often angering. So easy to point the finger at hypocritical behaviors and forget, however, that holding to our moral core demands we struggle with our own hypocrisies first.

What does the word’s etymology tell us?  Hypo- , a prefix for “below” or “under” and kreis – a word coming through ancient Greek and Old French which connoted sifting or uncovering.  Its early use in connection with theater gives us a better clue, when actors interpreted the story from beneath their masks. A literal example of being two-faced.

Song provided a place for African-American slaves to point out their owners’ hypocrisy, and they sure had plenty of material there. It probably didn’t take long for enslaved Africans to understand that the Bible, used by white Americans to justify slavery, held many other stories which exposed their owners as the biggest hypocrites of all.

Songs such as Go down Moses and Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel were relatively subtle rebukes of the master’s hypocrisy, as is Lord, I want to be a Christian, but the very word itself pops up in several spirituals. There’s nothing subtle about Little Innocent Lamb when the choir passes the word “hypocrite” from soprano to alto, or the third verse of Let me fly:

Meet that hypocrite on the street
First thing he does is show his teeth.
Next thing he does is to tell a lie
And the best thing to do is to pass him by.

Just let the hypocrite pass by, or call out the hypocrisy? I don’t know, there’s often such a sanctimonious “gotcha” aspect to pointing out someone’s hypocrisy. Perhaps it would be better to put that energy into internal observations of our own self-deceptions instead?

Why do we do it? Why do we decry those things in others that we are also guilty of? Hypocrites are so easily unmasked after all. Maybe I’ll add hypocrisy to my list of things – a list that includes bedbugs, telemarketing calls, and poison ivy – which need to be waved out of existence by my magic wand. The world would certainly be a less irritating place then.

Peace,

* * * * *

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.

 

 

 

This

Sometimes a small word says a lot. Love. Help. Sorry. Less serious, but equally useful in their economy, are those words which each generation creates or re-purposes.  From my childhood, words like neat! and psych! Or more recently, dis, and currently, woke

This.

I started seeing it on Facebook I think. A four letter word that expresses a wide-armed embrace of all that is wonderful about a specific moment. Someone would write “This,” coupled with a photo, video or story of some kind that encapsulated a significant facet of human life. I’m not exactly on the cutting edge of popular culture, so perhaps this has already reverted to its normal usage – but it’s a word which says exactly what I want to say when I think about a choral piece I was introduced to last summer.

Take a listen to Jonathan Dove’s setting of Matthew 25:  Come, you who are blest   (this link will take you to a video that was posted on Facebook by the choir’s conductor)

The music was commissioned by a choir I was singing with last summer on their U.K. tour, and the recording of us was made by a fellow traveler seated in the nave of Bristol Cathedral. We went on to sing the piece at Westminster Abbey the following week, with the composer in attendance. Hard to know which part of that scenario was the most exciting – the music? the setting? the wall of sound this particular choir could create? having the piece’s British composer listening to what was almost certainly a U.K. premiere of his piece? But one word sums up what I felt when I was singing it, and what I feel even now when I hear the recording:

This.

I hope you take the time to notice your own “this” moments.

PS – Dove’s piece will be sung this Sunday at Church of the Epiphany, a place which lives more fully into the music’s text than any other church I’ve experienced:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

* * * * *

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.

External Beauty

The value of external beauty?  Well, that’s a twist on the conventional wisdom which prizes inner beauty over the superficial kind. Yet, a member of the so-called “cloud of witnesses” within the Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks, famously preached on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” and because he was commemorated on the liturgical calendar yesterday I decided to learn more.

Whether or not Phillips Brooks is a familiar name, you know his contribution to hymnody. What follows will read like a sixth grade book report, I’m afraid, but bear with me. Perhaps Brooks has something more to say to us today than an annual rendition of his O Little Town of Bethlehem would lead us to believe.

Briefly Bishop of Massachusetts until his death at 57 in 1893, Brooks is most clearly associated with Trinity Church, Boston, where he is immortalized with no less than five statues, including a particularly cophillips_brooks_by_augustus_saint-gaudens,_trinity_church,_bostonntroversial one by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (known to Washingtonians for his “Grief” statue in Rock Creek Cemetery). During his years of ministry Brooks was known for his opposition to slavery, preaching eloquently upon the death of Abraham Lincoln, and demonstrating a strong lifelong commitment to the cause of African-Americans, with anecdotal evidence of an underground ministry to Boston’s African-American population. He was credited by one biographer of Martin Luther King with having had a major impact on King’s oratory.

Brooks was clearly deeply affected by his travels to the Holy Land, his eyes and heart opened, and so many of his ideas still have resonance in these times:

  1. He inspired the architects and artists who built Trinity Church, Boston to create what one writer called “an American Hagia Sophia”, with a free-standing altar and no choir stalls to detract from the central altar (these things were changed not long after his death), and originally without a pulpit. The purity of the Early Church, real or imagined, was his ideal.
  2. His travels informed not only his architectural ideas, but also his liturgical ones.  He championed congregational singing, together with “thrilling music” and “thrilling incense”.  He believed that worship was more than prayer and praise, and also included preaching, architecture and music. His Puritanical roots were not long behind him and these were radical ideas in 19th century New England.  His first sermon at Trinity was on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” suggesting that God would rather tempt us with beauty than hold us in bondage with fear.
  3. His thinking carried a sense of ecumenism that was emerging in late 19th century America. He was open to the teachings of Catholics, Jews and Muslims, once pointing to similarities between Unitarians and Islam, and writing, “I should dishonor God if I did not believe that Islam has done good”.
  4. His was a voice of reason in the discord between science and religion, saying that “Faith would not suffer, but gain, by every discovery of truth from every science”.  He believed that the “nature of a continually active, formative force is in line with Christianity.”
  5. He was a strong proponent of congregational involvement in liturgy, not to “deny the priesthood of the clergy, but to assert the priesthood of all.”

Dozens of quotes from his writings are easily found at BrainyQuote.com and they are inspirational, words truly to live by. Some of my favorites were:

“Skepticism offers no satisfactory substitute for what it disbelieves.”

Be patient and understanding. Life is too short to be vengeful or malicious.

Christianity helps us face the music, even when we don’t like the tune.

No man or woman can be strong, gentle, pure, and good without the world being better for it, and without someone being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness.

More than 100 years after Brooks’ death, with nothing except written words to remind us of his thoughts, someone like me spent hours reading and thinking about a 19th century preacher, and found wisdom in his words. The external beauty he desired in his surroundings was a clear path to the inner beauty our world actually needs. For me, it’s not such a big stretch to Marie Kondo preaching in our current cultural climate about the value of decluttering, teaching the world that to tidy your space is to transform your life.

Peace,

* * * * *

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MLK/We the People

MLK

Sleep, sleep tonight, and may your dreams be realized…

There is plenty of evidence pointing to all the ways that the human body uses sleep as a time for healing and making needed adjustments in our brains and bodies. Until we evolve past a need to sleep it remains a necessary part of life, and during our sleep we dream. And when we dream we process ideas that we might have only vaguely been aware of during our wakefulness.

This coming Monday, when our country formally remembers the work of Martin Luther King, the word “dream” takes on even more significance.  His was a dream that came from being fully awake in a segregated and gaze-averting world, but the song MLK, performed by the group U2, expresses a hope that King’s dream will be realized during his “sleep” (as one euphemism for death goes). Healing, along with dreaming, happens while we sleep, and healing seems more integral than ever to realizing King’s dream.

If the thundercloud passes rain, so let it rain down on him, the U2 song continues. Thunderclouds seem ominous, charged with electricity and brooding power. The rains and winds they bring can be dramatic, even frighteningly violent – but ultimately the air is clearer, the dead branches are blown out of the trees, and the rains bring new life. Dreams and thunderclouds…those both feel like potent symbols of this country’s continuing struggles with racial understanding.

We the people

I had the good fortune of visiting the then new memorial dedicated to Martin Luther King on a beautiful summer evening several years ago. It was crowded, but deep thoughts were clearly moving behind reverent faces and faraway looks. It was my privilege to be there with my mother-in-law, an African-American woman who is King’s exact contemporary, and I only wished that her ninety-nine year old mother could have joined us as well.  I had seen pictures and read about the memorial, knew about the controversies that surrounded its creation, and wondered if it could possibly hope to represent the magnitude of what King gave to this country, all the while thinking that as a work of art it was hardly breaking any new ground aesthetically, and in fact it looked rather Stalinesque to me in the photos I had seen.

images

How good to be surprised. The quotes are strong and (sadly) as appropriate to our own time as four or five decades ago.  I knew there had been criticism by Maya Angelou, among others, of the expression on King’s face, but we studied it for a long time and what we saw was a man who didn’t like what he was seeing, gazing, as he is, at the conflicted slave-owner Thomas Jefferson across the Tidal Basin. Or perhaps it’s an expression of discomfort, knowing he was being called to do dangerous work that required his reluctant response, found in words of the prophet Isaiah…here am I, send me.

Arms crossed, expression stern, King seems poised to do something about the inequities around him. We slowly read each of the quotes carved into the monument’s stones and mourned the lack of such soaring rhetoric in our own time.

On the way out a park ranger heard our conversation and stopped to ask what we thought of the memorial, and we asked him in turn what his impressions were. He told us that when he had first seen the memorial, weeks before it opened, he wasn’t very impressed. As soon as it opened to the public he realized that the memorial had been missing something. People.  People walking and thinking and quietly conversing, teaching their children and asking their elders – that’s what made the memorial a success in his opinion.

From the mountain of despair, a stone of hope, so the memorial is called.  We the people, so begins the U.S. Constitution. The people, each of us one stone of hope. Each of us called to be a dreamer.

Peace,

* * * * *

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.