Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Irony and the Language of Faith

Last week J and I were involved in a tragic car accident in the mountains of New Mexico.  One of the bikers who hit us was killed.  It is a horrible experience.  I don’t blame either our driver or the cyclists because it was one of those accidents that just happen.  I had planned this post to be called “S**t Happens!”  But with the death of one of the 6 of us who are inextricably linked for the rest of our lives, I don’t care to be glib or humorous about such tragedy.  I mourn for the young man and his family and friends even though I never knew him.  I ache with the woman who was also badly injured.  Such incidents scar one’s life forever whether the scars are visible or not.

On the way home from NM, we blew a tire only about an hour from home.  While waiting for roadside assistance, a car stopped and man in biker attire got out and changed our tire.  He wore the typical biker’s leathers, multiple tattoos, jack boots, do-rag and a vest with a prominent cross on the back.  He was a member of the Christian Biker’s Alliance, he said. We chatted as he did his ministry to us talking about biking and faith.  His was a bold faith that said he didn’t believe in helmets since he knew he would live forever in Christ.  He said that he drove too fast for a helmet to do any good anyhow.  In a matter of about 15 minutes he had changed our tire and had deeply affected my understanding of trust in God. 

I am always moved by the faith of others.  God touches us in such different ways.  The biker’s theology is quite different from mine.  For me life is precious and a gift from God to be protected and cherished.  For this man, his life is not something to be preserved but lived to the hilt with little regard for the dire consequences of living on the edge.  It was a sobering intrusion into my neatly constructed faith circumscribed with prayer books and liturgy.  I have no doubt that his theology worked for him and for his family (his very un-biker wife waited in the car during his ministrations).  But I couldn’t help but think that this was a kind of faith that I could not subscribe to but could not deny that it was rooted in that awe and experience of a Holy One that was as powerful as mine.

Since that incident I have been trying to look at my own faith and the faith of those throughout the centuries that have been unshaken in the face of death.  I think of those who go into combat in the name of Christ—from the time of Constantine, through the knights of the Crusades or perhaps the One Hundred Year’s War over religion that changed the face of Europe and brought cleavage due to one’s faith rather than territorial boundaries.  I am deeply aware of the irony of ‘soldier’s theologies’ that has ‘marching off to war’ as a primary sign of fidelity to Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Why is it that faith in God often demands our death in order to experience life to the fullest?  Certainly Christianity has been taught that way at certain moments of church history.  But need it be that way?  Does faith in God demand extremism in order to trust God’s salvific promise?  Does faith demand crucifixion in order to image the love of God?  Or in another way of asking it: Is the Christian faith inherently violent?

The God that I experience in both prayer and worship invites me to rest, to pause in the midst of life and know the irenic when all around me is whirlwind.  It is not polemic where God is.  It is the still quiet voice where the Divine touches rather than in the wind in the hair or the exhilaration of a battle fought and won.  And it is the place where God is that demands of me the kind of examined life that returns me to peace and the absence of argument.  I cannot be what God calls me to be if I cannot allow myself to know the kind of peace that God is.

As I delve into the ways we have talked about faith for centuries, the more I recognize the language of feudal fealty in worship.  We have ‘bounden duties’ and we talk about the interplay of good and evil as knightly jousts.  We even express Christ’s renewal of Creation as salvific rather than a return to the peace that humanity often destroys. 

Perhaps a new language of relationship and peace needs to be developed rather than with such medieval words.  We need not “fight the good fight with all of our might” but learn how to describe the wondrous harmony of love.  We need a new vocabulary to describe that place where God abides in us and the goodwill that we have forgotten in name of action and ‘doing Christianity.’  We need to find a way to describe the tranquility that God engenders in us for the sake of the future of humanity.

May the souls of the departed rest in peace.  Amen

Monday, August 20, 2012

Dancing with the Holy

This is where I am staying.  I got up and went fly-fishing today.  I should amend that to say 'fly-casting' because I was able to ascertain that my fishing muscles could still remember the casting motion even though the muscles are not quite up to  long periods of use.  I am still capable of really snarling a fly line beyond the place of use and I can still hook the seat of my pants.  So all is right with the world.

Retirement it a holy thing.  It allows one to recognize failure but not get overwhelmed with having to fix it.  Normally I would have spent the rest of the afternoon trying to correct my form and bring those flabby muscles into line.  But today I am content that I have gotten to reacquaint myself with old joys and beautiful scenery.  I can come home without fish and bask in the simple pleasure that 'I've still got it' and on the next time out I will be able to cast to those pesky trout without scaring them.

Last night again we heard a concert from Music from Angle Fire.  We had decided that we wouldn't go the 45mins. away to go to the nearest Episcopal Church.  The service was way too early for vacation.  We didn't go to the local unified church service either.  But the music presentation was Joseph Hayden's The Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross.  We heard it in its string quartet form.  The concert was held in the local unified church set facing the mountains.  The concert began at dusk and the  musicians had only their desk lamps to lighten their music.  As the sun fell gradually the church--a beautifully simple open clear glassed building--darkened with the hues of the sunset.  The shadow of the cruciform timbers of one side of the nave shadowed cruciform shapes upon the clear glass of the other side of the building.  The performance was clearly "Church" for me.

The music was somber and moving.  It was designed to support the service of "The Seven Last Words" interspersing the last words of Jesus upon the Cross.  I have done the Seven Last Words service on Good Friday many times in my career but never have I heard these particular interludes.  Hayden, the originator of the string quartet, used his vast talent to bring such a momentous event to life with his music.  Program music, that music that tells a story, is really not a concept until the late Romantic era, but in Hayden's Classic-era sonata form, the Passion is experienced without comment save the Scriptural passages themselves.

It has always been difficult for me to understand which came first in my faith, music or relationship with the Divine.  I think that music was the vehicle by which I came to know the reality of God. But one does not come without the other.   I remember in my 20's making the distinction between performing and offering my music as gift to the God who made the making of music possible.

For me there is a dance with the Holy that takes place when I write, or compose or play music or teach or preach or cast for trout.  I do not dance.  I am not one who learns the steps to music or gaily trip the light fantastic.  My body is not one that easily can follow another's lead.  And I have often felt this was a sad deficit in my life.  But the dance I have learned is the dance of faith that entertains the holy and the mundane so that it creates a holistic involvement of body and mind and that whatever it is that we often call a soul.  And while I can't get my body to always embrace the actual dance steps, the mind will compensate as the heart is filled with this aggregation of the learned and practiced with the spirit of the moment that creates moments of utter bliss.

It is these moments of utter bliss that I experience as the presence of God.  And it is these moments that I savor as the revelation of the Divine One, the Creator.  It is this Creator that deserves my worship and praise.  It is this Holy One that not only reminds me of my humanity and mortality, but also reminds me of my call to Divinity and immortality.  And when in the liturgy we hear "Do this in remembrance of me" I recognize that relationship in that remembered bliss.

Yesterday we toured the Taos Pueblo, the longest continually inhabited area in the history of the western hemisphere.  I am intrigued by their culture and especially their faith which they guard from the prying eyes of those who would like to find fault with it.  It is only through the visual art do you get a hint of the depths of their relationship with the holy in their lives.  Even thousands of years ago, these people knew the beauty of Creation and set their living and worship in the center of that beauty. They absorbed the trappings of Roman Catholicism without losing their respect for their own kachinas or fetishes and talismans.  They still create pots, jewelry and carvings with the designs of these powerful totems as offerings just as surely as my music was offering to the God I recognize in my dance.  Even today, the Indians find such fulfillment in the dances of their people and the vocabulary of their unwritten language.  The recognize that their dance with their Creator is just as demanding of them as I see in the message of the Passion, or the celebration of the Eucharist.

I am ashamed of what my faith has done to theirs in the name of 'civilization.'   I am heartsick with the loss of the possibility to share what is holy together because of the acts of my people.  And I can only stand at the door of their culture and respect the dance they have made over the past 500 years to maintain a culture that reveals goodness, care and love in the face of oppression, slavery and ignorance.

Perhaps it is this that makes my dance with the Passion of Christ, my dance with the trout line, the way of the Tiwa all significant.  It is all about the remembrance that we are related, we dance different steps but to the same music--the music a Creator God instills in our hearts.  


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dancing with the Muse

It has been a while since I have written.  When life gets hectic one’s writing goes to hell.  But presently I am on vacation.  I am in the NM Mountains enjoying delightfully cool mornings in jeans and fleece and contemplating going fly-fishing this evening.  It is the first real vacation that we have had since we moved to TX. 

Angel Fire was not a destination the last time I was in the NM Sangre de Cristo’s but it certainly is now even in the summertime when musicians from all over avoid August heat, come to perform and practice.  When I was involved in the music scene during my teens and twenties, musicians often came to Taos or Colorado for the summer to perform in summer musicals or performance series for those who also fled the heat or the locals who didn’t get to enjoy such music.  But the chamber music series I attended last night was far beyond those days.  These were East Coast teachers from Julliard, Curtis and the like, performing in a concert series that blew me away.  It was the highest quality of performance that I have found outside of New York City or San Francisco. 

We gathered in a community center with folding chairs and basketball hoops hanging overhead, but with good lighting and a decent stage with a full-sized Steinway.  People in western attire—obviously summer dwellers, mostly over 55 sat enraptured by soloists and string quartets while the lightening of a mountain storm played outside. 

The muse began to loosen listening to Poulenc and Faure.  I am generally not drawn to French music, but this concert was different. The works themselves were delightful, rich with harmony that I generally don’t associate with French post romantic.  But it was the sheer musicianship of the performers and participating in their delight in playing that began to open some creative blocks in me.

I am visiting with a friend who is an artist.  She commented that such music performance loosened the muse for her too.  There is something about the beauty of the mountains and the cool nights, the specter of bears through the trees and nights when the stars seem close enough to touch that allows one to speak of the things that are Holy.

Painters, musicians, composers, authors-- artists of all kinds touch the Holy.  It is why the Greek Muses were considered gods.  It is when all one’s talents come into the presence of the Creator that we may create.  And it is that creation that motivates others to create, produce, or perform.  It is contagious.

God as Creator invites humanity to emulate God’s work.  Most musicians know when they are ‘in the zone’ just as readily as a basketball player.  Most painters know when they have been touched by the muse and so do sermon writers or bloggers.  Talking with another guest, I find that doctors have this same high when working with their patients.  I know I used to have it when I found a way to teach kids who weren’t getting it in class.  That is what I speak of when I ‘enter the Holy’.  It is the finest that I can give, it is the finest that I can conceive at that moment. It is the finest I can produce. It is the moment when ‘God and man together have sat down.’

 In my experience there is always mutuality in creating.  There is a reciprocity in writing, composing, painting, performing—a give and take to a process that from the outside appearance looks highly individualistic. But my experience is that there is always something or someone that is part and parcel of that creation. 

It can be a maddening compulsion, art. And at times it becomes a frustrating job trying to complete it when it is right.  Creativity is as much a part of me as breathing, and I believe that is true for most people who take seriously the work they do.  Creativity is as important to the farmer as it is to the painter.  It is as important to the techie or engineer as it is the musician.  They manifest themselves in different ways.  I even believe lawyers whose work is to always ‘color inside the lines’ find a type of creativity when they find laws by which their current issue can be addressed.  Scientists must be creative to understand the world about them. 

Most of the time I am writing to the reader, but there are times when I am writing what someone beyond me needs to be spoken.  Some would call that the Unconscious; I know it as something beyond the me-ness of my unconscious.  I often surprise myself with the words that emanate from my keyboard. 

All of this experience of the author of the creativity is beyond me. I call it, for the want of a better term, God.  It is the only way that I can speak of this entity that doesn’t sound like Star Trek or New Age mumbo-jumbo.  But it is real.  I experience it all too often not to recognize it as that which the great spiritual writers of any generation or tradition describe.  So many years ago I dubbed this marvelous acquaintance ‘God’ or ‘Holy’ and leaned into a tradition and a history of those who spoke of this God through the eyes of Jesus.

Do I believe everything that Christianity proclaims is truth?  No.  Do I proclaim all the doctrine of even my own denomination as holy?  Probably not.  But I have found that in Christianity I have found a way to proclaim the goodness of this God.  I have found in the embrace of this Divinity the dance with the muse.  It is a muse that allows me to proclaim goodness and to discourage evil.  It is a form of creativity that allows me to be in step with my Maker.  It allows me to invite others into the dance.  Sometimes it just allows me to sit and drink all of the creativity around me. And I can reach for the stars, breathe pine-scented air, listen to exquisite music, feast on home-made bread, and look for rainbows in snow infused streams.  And as one of my fly-fishing friends said, “I know where God goes on vacation!”

Monday, August 6, 2012

A WoW Sermon from Susan Russell

This one is well worth listening to.  Susan lights a fire under me all the time.