Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Music to Dad's ears . . . remix

Something still niggled when I posted “Music” earlier this month. The piece was met with energetic amens from several over 45’s, and, I would guess, the silence of the offended.

The thing still out there for me was that, for all Dad’s affirmation of the church music of his early years, he did not find faith, and he left the church pretty much as soon as he left home. I grew up with the impression that for Dad the church represented harsh rules and rigidity.

Then I ran across Denis Haack’s recent essay “None Other Lamb None Other Name.” (Check out www.ransomfellowship.com.)

“I grew up around hymns and early learned to dislike them. It was the only music allowed in our fundamentalist home. I didn’t have a word for it when I was young, but I do remember the huge disconnect that existed between the lyrics we sang and the reality of our lives. The lyrics spoke of abounding joy, rich freedom, the sweetness of God’s presence, while our lives were solemn, judgmental, withdrawn, and regimented. The hymns we sang slowly ate away at my faith…,” he begins.

Denis struggled with the disjunct between words and life. With words he realized he could not sing with integrity. Though Denis did, in time, come to profound faith in Jesus, he says he says there is still Christian music that he cannot sing. He goes on, in his article, to celebrate and expound the beauty and truth of Christina Rossetti’s 1892 meditation on Revelation 5:6, “None Other Lamb.”

Last week I reminded Dad of what he had said about the beauty of the music of his boyhood. I noticed that, for all his love of it, he did not stay with the church, and asked him to share what that was about.

Dad explored my question in vignettes of memory. Being required, even as a young man on leave from military service, to be in church any time the door was open. The embarrassment of sitting in the midst of the congregation one Sunday evening when he knew he reeked of beer and could feel the disapproving glances of all seated nearby. The same 50 songs sung over and over. Dad spoke of visits from music leaders who worked long Sunday afternoons to teach the congregation to sing even more beautifully. “The music made the skin crawl up and down my spine--the sound was that amazing. But it was all about the sound. We never paid attention to the words.” He talked about how belonging to the church obligated his dad to patronize members’ businesses. Seventy years after the fact his shock and disillusionment still penetrated his voice as he told of two church members who cheated his dad, reminding me of a time in the US when church membership was tied to status and commercial interest. He spoke of his dad’s severity and fast, harsh punishments “though I know he always loved me.” And of his mom’s mental instability that often manifested in abuse. Of how she refused to acknowledge that I could be her granddaughter, and would not come anywhere near me.

“I remember when Elvis Presley first was famous. For about 10 years your mom and I wouldn’t listen to him. The morality, the suggestive way he moved. But a day came when we started enjoying it.” Yet, says Dad, “when the church copied Elvis,” when worship music began to take on his style, “well, why would the church imitate someone like him?”

“In the end,” said Dad, “I could never make sense of faith. I still can’t. I’ve given it a lot of thought over the years, but I just can’t.”

Dear friends enjoy a 46-year “mixed marriage.” He is English, of Anglican stock; she is Irish from a Baptist family. Today, she experiences Anglican liturgy and sacramental practice as powerful, life-giving worship; while he, who grew up with it, finds it dry, mindless repetition. Dad recalls the music as beautiful, the words as irrelevant, and the community as legalistic, with a few who would even exploit the others. Childhood experiences and lasting impressions. Who knows what the faith of the adults of so long ago actually meant in their lives?

I still think we need to ask what message the medium communicates, or even what it reveals. But we must always look over and beyond form to the underlying reality. Is there integrity of faith and love that makes the words—and all the rhythms and body language—an expression of something powerful because it is indeed worked out in transformed, grace-filled, faithful lives?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Render unto Caesar...

You know how some people use Facebook, blogs and text messages to quote what they are reading? They put great thoughts out there, but I feel cheated. “What’s on Brent’s heart that led him to send that verse? How does Steve relate to this author? Does Krista relate this philosopher with the different one she quoted last week? What is happening in her thinking?” I want to hear what the person I care about, the one who wanted others to see that quote, is thinking and experiencing.

So, you friends with the quotes, this is for you. Steve, in Turkey, posted something a dead journalist called Sydney J. Harris said a long time ago. I copied the quote and have been kicking it around in odd moments ever since. What started as a quick essay three weeks ago has turned into a meandering ramble. If you are in the mood for it, keep reading. Steve, you had better read on, AND say something back. Because you got me started.

The other day, at a gathering of expatriates in Gökseke (Turkey), a woman asked about life in the Middle East. “Do you have many friendships with locals?” I tried to describe Abu Dhabi where maybe only13% of the population is local and the rest are expats from everywhere. “I have a few Emirati friends, but it is difficult. Curt has more through work.” I talked about cultural differences: how most nationals do not socialize as couples, and women do not venture out unaccompanied to meet foreigners for coffee or visit the home of someone outside of her family or tribe, about the focus on family and extended family.

My questioner’s shocked voice: “But I would have thought that at least some of the women are educated, modern, working in careers!”

UAE nationals, male or female, that I meet are well-educated and in careers. That does not mean they have adopted western patterns of dress or socializing, which is, I guess, what was meant by “modern.” With those women who do pursue friendship I dance a delicate dance of exploration as we visit the other’s home or attend weddings and other festival gatherings. We chat by email or text messages--flowery greetings and loving thoughts. Rewarding, but a lot of work with willingness among all to be confused, to feel awkward, and to forgive faux pas.

Why assume that ways different from my own are wrong, or that local women are chaffing to be more like me?

Take the covering. In the West it stands as a symbol of oppression. But where I live the shimmery black abaya is a mark of self-respect and decency. And a fashion statement that may bear a Parisian designer label. Sometimes I interrupt my bustle to sit in a coffee shop and watch the kaleidoscope of people amble by. White dish-dash and gutra, sandaled feet, flowing shirts and baggy trousers. Indian women in bright shalwars and saris, Filipinas in simple jeans and t-shirts. And, invariably, frumpy and flushed Westerners like me in wrinkled tops and crop pants. Local women glide by in elegant black. Anything could be underneath! I wonder whether they might be on to something.

Of late, Turkey has been in the news. Prime Minister Erdogan had the audacity to speak forthrightly against Israel’s attack on a Turkish flotilla bringing humanitarian aid to Palestinians in blockaded Gaza. Nine Turks were killed. America’s response: “How dare you, Turkey! Don’t you know we like Israel?” The US objects to Turkey’s growing relationships with its Middle Eastern neighbors, especially Iran, supplier of energy second only to Russia. The tone is deprecating, as though Turkey was not the fifteenth largest economy in the world and the sixth largest in Europe. As though Turkey is dependant on the US for aid, which it is not. As though Turkey’s application to the EU has not been vehemently opposed because most of Turkey’s 75 million people are Muslim. Turkey is a secular democracy with strong historic and cultural ties to Europe, but it shares borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Is it not the most reasonable thing for Turkey to cultivate political and economic ties with all its neighbors?

Which brings me (at last) to the quote Steve posted on Facebook:

"Patriotism is proud of a country's virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country's virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, 'the greatest', but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is." Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author (1917-1986)

Provocative. I come from a nation founded on concepts like the equal dignity of all human beings, inalienable rights, democratic self-determination. I love that! These ideals form part of what has enabled us to thrive and to lead in the world. The American system of law and justice that protects rights, of reasonableness that overcomes corrupt oppression—well, some days I long for those tools of my home place to set wrongs right in other dominions. But there is a dark side, too. Is the US not the nation that conspired to overthrow Iran’s duly-elected government to re-install the Shah in 1953 and protect our oil interest? Did we not arm, train and otherwise resource the people who later became the Taliban and Al Qaeda when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979? Have we not repeatedly intervened in the affairs of sovereign nations to further a US agenda with little regard for the consequences to those peoples? How many hundreds of thousands (much debated, with figures ranging from 100,000 to 1,000,000 Iraqi casualties) have died in Iraq because the individual terrorist Osama bin Ladan, former ally of the US in Afghanistan, flew commercial jets into buildings and killed 2,995 (including the 19 highjackers and nationals of 70 other countries) on US soil? Where is nobility in that? What will fill the vacuum?

Perhaps I oversimplify, but Harris compels me. Convicts me. “Greatness is not required…;” he whispers, “only goodness is.” He speaks to nations, to our political allegiance. But his truth echoes for me in arenas of culture and ethnic identity, political party and denomination. How easy it is to take such pride in our nation, church or human family that we forget humility, truth, wide-eyed delight in diversity, and generous equanimity; so that we seek only to be first, and forget to love.

“Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and unto God that which belongs to God.” (Collective gasp! Words so profound that all three synoptic gospel writers record them.) Jesus spoke in response to one of those “trick questions” that was supposed to trap the Lord of the Universe into either declaring against Caesar (sedition) or against God (blasphemy). (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26.) Allegiance to state, social group or institution is never co-extensive (nor should it be allowed to compete) with faithfulness to the Lord of the Universe.

We who follow Jesus sometimes forget that our overriding loyalty must always be to Him—to love what He loves, to hate injustice, greed and a self-protective spirit that runs roughshod over others and over truth—wherever we find it. For Jesus, “If anyone wants to be first (great), he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35.) “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you,” He explained after he washed their dirty feet. “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:1-17.)

Harris has much to say to me as a follower of Jesus who is also American, expatriate, and someone others look to for direction or leadership. Am I honest about failings as well as virtues of my nation, culture, or faith group? Do I speak meanly about those with whom I disagree? Do I forget to listen before I tell people what “should” happen? Or how things are done where I come from? Do I consider their interests and needs? How often to I teach when I should free another to make her own discovery? Do I forget to listen, period? Am I open to something different than my habit? Do I seek and celebrate beauty wherever I find it? Or ever wonder whether their way might actually be better, worthy of imitation, or at least worthy of respect?

O Lord Jesus, I confess that I critique, condemn, compete, and seek my interest even though You modeled and called me to mirror Your benevolence, charity, equanimity, and delight in the dignity of all people. I am of an arrogant and complacent people--nation, church, social class. We assume our ways and interests are superior. We strive for greatness more than we pursue goodness. O Lord Jesus, teach us gratitude that values your good gifts of heritage and identity while granting legitimacy, respect, and grace that opens doors of relationship with those not like us. Grant us longing to bring glory to You.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Music to Dad's ears...

My dad is not a churchgoer. Oh, he’s been to church. He grew up in southern parts in the old Church of Christ. He has his reasons for moving away. But he still pokes his head in the door from time to time.

The last time I was in a church with Dad happened in the months after Mom died. I think he hoped to find something to meet the emptiness of his brand-new unwanted life. It wasn’t a good experience. He couldn’t hear the sermon, and the regulars ignored us.

Dad told me that the worst part of that church was the music. I wasn’t surprised, and I jumped to my own conclusions about why. “Too modern. Too loud. Unfamiliar songs and tempos. He is unable to receive the new ways.”

Another lesson in listening. Dad elaborated, and the shallowness of my assumptions was exposed.

The denomination Dad grew up in was one that kept musical instruments out of worship. I don’t know the theology behind it, but I’m familiar with the concept. I would have thought that contributed to a somber, stoic, dare-I-say boring atmosphere.

“The music is sloppy!” Dad told me. “The congregation doesn’t know how to sing! Even the people up front don’t sing well.” I learned that when Dad was a boy, everyone in the congregation was involved in the music. Though they didn’t use them in church, many played instruments and read music. They practiced as they went about their everydays. They learned harmony and descant. They broke into spontaneous song alone and together. They mastered all the words. “The congregation was like a choir, and the singing was beautiful. It was an offering, like we cared about how it sounded to God.”

I often think about what Dad said when I’m in church. The fashion today is for the “worship team” to belt into amplifiers so loud I can’t hear the person next to me, much less the community of faith. When I look around I see that many don’t bother to sing. Maybe it seems pointless when you can’t hear your own voice. Hymnals have vanished so we can’t learn parts and harmony, or memorize words. Rich older hymns are sung at dirge-like pace.

How we express Christian community—or fail to—is a topic that fascinates me. Dad gave me this beautiful image of the community of faith at worship together, each important, each making a unique contribution. No one just a face in a crowd—or perhaps everyone was. No stage personalities.

I never was part of what Dad describes, but I miss the days before amplifiers. I recall worship leaders who delighted in encouraging the congregation to lift harmony and joyful noise, who suggested descants and harmonies, and invited us to blend our voices by listening to the people around us. No trance-like closed eyes, no one voice overshadowing all others.I remember learning, in church at the side of my more-musical friend, how to read music. Grappling to get it, working on it on my own. I remember other things, too. Occasional liturgy, praying the Lord’s prayer as a body, reciting the Apostles’ Creed, sharing prayer requests and being free to make an announcement or share a bit of good news. Has church become a spectator sport? “Sit. Stand. Watch me worship. Listen to me talk.” And what of passers-by outside the building? Do they hear corporate worship, or a single (and not-so-good) miked singer or lecturer?

So, I ask my 55-year-old self, is there something transcendent here, and worth pondering? Is there really a message in the medium, or is this a matter of taste and changing times?