No Pressure

It’s difficult to convey sarcasm in writing without naming it directly, so let me be clear about the title – it’s meant to imply a bit of eye-rolling.  It is what we say when we know we’ve asked the impossible of someone…maybe something like, “you were born to save mankind.  No pressure.”

The choir at Church of the Epiphany is singing, among many other things, a setting of the Wexford Carol on Christmas Eve. It’s an old Irish carol that originated in County Wexford and the final stanza reads:

With thankful heart and joyful mind the shepherds went the babe to find, And as God’s angel had foretold they did our Saviour Christ behold. Within a manger he was laid and by his side the virgin maid attending on the Lord of Life, who came on earth to end all strife.

Who came on earth to end all strife?  No pressure.

I’ve written before about the Dorothy Parker poem A Prayer for a New Mother, which expresses a wish that Mary just enjoy her little baby, without any knowledge of what is to come for her son. Could she just appreciate the simple and wonderful things about him? His gentleness, his smile, his beautiful eyes? Maybe she had her own plans for him, ones that didn’t entail ending all strife.

My own son was born the night the first war in the Persian Gulf began. If you remember the build up through late 1990, it was a very tense time, and our country began a massive air offensive on the night of January 17, 1991 just as I was going into labor.  As it happens, I would be having my baby at a military hospital, so that night when we drove up to the gate and the guard was told why we were there, he exclaimed, “tonight?  you’re having a baby tonight!?”

Apparently it was an inconvenient time. I wonder if Mary felt something similar when she and Joseph trudged into Bethlehem looking for shelter. As I labored, the entire hospital staff was gathered around large television screens watching a war unfold. It clearly was an inconvenient time to have a baby. I know that we’re not supposed to make deals with God, but in those hours of labor bargaining with God seemed like a very good idea indeed. And this was my bargain – make this pain end and let me have a healthy baby, and I promise that he will be a peacemaker.

No pressure, my son.

As with our children, it probably isn’t a good idea to pressure God to be what we want. Make that a terrible idea actually. My father, a Hindu, reminded us regularly that people were happiest when they wanted what they already have. In the same way, we show our love more completely when we love people just as they are. And instead of expecting God to do what we want, we might do well to instead see God in all those things large and small that change the world for the better. Which is the only place we’ll find God anyway.

A peaceful Christmas wish for us all.


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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.

St. Herod’s Episcopal Church


(Originally posted December 29, 2011)

Liturgical calendars remind us that today we are to celebrate the life of Thomas Becket, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who argued with King Henry II over issues of authority, with fatal consequences.

Issues of authority…power versus authority…these are themes that color nearly every news story and touch our lives in various ways. Christians  recently re-acknowledged the authority of a tiny babe born in Bethlehem a couple of thousand years ago. And legend, if not history, has King Herod quite fearful of the authority being placed in that newborn, seeing it as a threat to his own power and ordering the deaths of all boys under the age of two. What kind of authority did he expect that show of power to confer upon him? How to make a distinction between authority and power?  Is it simply the difference between what is bestowed and what is taken?

A good sermon usually turns at some point and takes the listener (or reader) to a place they might not have expected.  I am now artlessly making such a turn because I wanted to share again a TED (“Technology, Entertainment, Design”) Talk I came across several years ago. TED Talks, as you probably know, are forums for cross-related ideas on many topics. This particular mini-seminar is by an Italian conductor, Itay Talgam, who gives presentations to businesses around the world that “explore the magical relationship between conductor, musician and audience to achieve inspiring new insights into leadership, management, and teamwork.”  He is, in fact, exploring themes of power versus authority.

Near the end of Talgam’s 20-minute presentation (which had me laughing out loud several times, by the way), he talks about the confluence of creativity at any given moment during a concert between the architect of the hall, the conductor, the musicians and the audience. It wasn’t a difficult stretch for me to imagine that same kind of confluence happening during a worship service – the church building itself, liturgical leaders and the congregation all contributing some part to the experience. Somewhere around the 6:45 mark Talgam relates a funny story about musicians asking a renowned conductor to resign, telling him “you’re using us like instruments, not as partners.”

No surprise that there is so often more potential for fruitfulness in collaborative efforts. Who knows, there might have been a Saint Herod’s Episcopal Church somewhere in the world had that ancient king worked with the authority given to Jesus rather than being threatened by it.

Whether you have an interest in issues around power versus authority, in qualities of effective leadership, or simply enjoy music and observing the conductor’s craft I hope you will find 20 minutes to watch this highly entertaining TED talk. If you don’t have the time, let me leave you with one last thought, taken from something Talgam says about Leonard Bernstein near the end of his talk – “you can see the music on his face.”

As we cross paths with people throughout this coming new year, what will be seen on our faces?  Faith?  Joy?  Hope?  Kindness?  An invitation to explore any of those things together?  I suspect authority will be conferred upon you if so.

TED Talk-Itay Talgram


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If there is one image that sums up Christmas for many people it is the crèche. The scene at the manger that is being set up in churches and homes and communities around the world. At its heart, of course, is the baby lying in a manger, helpless and adored by all those gathered around, and it is this gathering which is such a powerful part of the story being told by the crèche. Shepherds in the field, angels hovering nearby, kings on their way from distant lands, and even the animals in a humble shed are gathering around this baby.

Something happens when people gather. It’s hard to measure, but science tells us about all kinds of health benefits associated with participating in a community which gathers around shared interests. There are potential downsides, I realize. Group-think and mob-rule have dangerous consequences, but when communities are welcoming and loving, the potential for good is unlimited. I remember hearing a story years ago about the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The people had left the rubble of their impoverished homes and gathered together to sing. Singing to create community when they had nothing else.

No one has spoken more eloquently or worked more elegantly to create community around the human voice than composer, arranger and conductor Alice Parker, who celebrates her 91st birthday tomorrow on December 16. She was interviewed by Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being in an episode titled Singing is the Most Companionable of Arts which aired recently. In it she describes the human voice in choral singing as our best tool for discovering what emotions lay beneath the surface, for overcoming the differences among us in the kind of face-to-face way that is required to build understanding, and as a means of balancing intuition with the rationality that is overly glorified by our society.

But Parker says it so much better and listening to this interview is an hour well spent:

Alice Parker interview-“On Being”

I think there is a reason that choral singing is the predominant form of music-making at this time of year. Parker talks about the incredible space that exists, when we sing about our faith, between our human story and those things we cannot understand. Singing together gives us another way of gathering around the baby. Even the angels sang that night.


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Where I’ll be:

November 27-January 1– organist/choir director at Christ Episcopal Church, Rockville, Maryland, while their Music Director is recuperating. (

December 14, 7:30 p.m. – concert with Zemer Chai, The Mansion at Strathmore. (

December 13, 15, 16 – World Bank/IMF Chorus concerts, Magnificats by John Rutter and Johann Pachelbel for choir and orchestra. 1:00 p.m. (

December 17, 10:00 – Washington National Cathedral, Bethlehem Prayer Service, simulcast (

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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.