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And Are We Yet Alive?

This is the title of a hymn (sung to the same tune as “Bind Us Together”) by Charles Wesley, which I discovered in our Methodist hymnal. I am familiar with benediction songs, but don’t think I had ever heard a regathering song.

I love how this song brings into focus something that we often take for granted, until it doesn’t happen–the fact that, when we get back together with others, we actually all have made it through another period of time, alive.

And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!

There are six verses to the hymn (which is on the short side, for Charles Wesley, I’ve discovered). I won’t quote them all here. I do especially like the questions and the thoughts provoked by the third verse:

What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last!

I appreciate those questions being voiced in the context of a church meeting. Stopping and looking around and realizing that not only in my own life, but in the lives of those around me, we come, not bringing amazing tales of heroics and greatness, but rather, choosing to worship together and cling to the Lord together, within the context of all of our ongoing suffererings, fears and conflicts.

Our Sunday finery might suggest a with-it-ness, but the reality is often far from “with it”. When that is the case, we do ourselves a service to make space for that brokenness and that pain and that suffering. If we think we need to cover up the troubles we’ve seen in the interlude between meeting with these brothers and sisters, if we feel like we need to be someone else–someone more exceptional and perfect–in order to show up at church, then we will neither find nor give the comfort, strength and encouragement that we were designed to give each other.

The other verses in the song celebrate the Lord’s sustaining and redeeming power, His salvation and the glad hopefulness of continuing to share in the sufferings of the cross.

And are we yet alive? If so, let’s take a good look around and actually notice what the Lord’s faithfulness has really meant for each of us since we last met. Let us consider what His faithfulness really looks like, not in some glorified, whitewashed way, but in the very real realities that each of us lives in.

image

This book is not the proper medium in which to set forth evolutionary theories of birdsong, but I must emphatically say that the bird sings first for love of music, and second for love of a lady. I put the lady second, for, if he did not love music first he would not have sung to her, and birds, like the rest of us, are a trifle selfish. What we like most we think others will like as well, hence, in a moment of unselfishness we share the object of our selfishness!”

I’m still trying to decide what I think of this quote.

Lately I’ve been enjoying reading about animals. Which is funny, because I’m no animal lover. But still, this book, The Music of Wild Birds, and another, Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin, fascinate me.

Although I’m not particularly a bird watcher, I do appreciate the background music of birds out my window as I write this. This book on birds’ music caught my eye first because of the beautiful artwork on the cover. The lovely drawings throughout are a delight, whether or not one reads or understands any of the text. And then the book kept my attention because of the musical transcriptions and dialogue about each bird and its music. I was fascinated by the thought of someone taking the time to transcribe what they heard, and then make connections between bird songs and music of human composers.

Originally written in 1904 by F. Schuyler Mathews, this edition is illustrated and adapted by Judy Pelikan. Here are some of Mr. Mathews interesting observations and connections [The text is highly interspersed with musical transcriptions, which I cannot copy here, but will indicate with an [*]:

The charm, too, of the Chickadee’s singing lies in the fact that he knows the value of a well-sustained half note, another point which should be scored in the little musician’s favor. Truly, in this regard he is far ahead of the Canary, for the latter wastes his energy splitting into hemidemisemiquavers every tone within the compass of an octave….

[*] I may be overestimating the value of a melody so meager as that of the Chickadee, but if so it becomes difficult to account for the charm that underlies the music of all great composers, for constructively considered their melodies are mere elaborations of absolutely simple themes. (pgs. 56, 57)

Concerning a bird who, day after day, sang the same melody, but at times switched it from a major key to a minor one:

[*]The Song Sparrow has the ability to render a motive in both the major and minor keys, just exactly as Verdi has done in the ninth and eleventh bars of the “Di Provenza”. ( p. 138 )

It is not a stretch to imagine that the author is reading too much “psychology” into a particular bird’s musical expression, but I, for one, found his speculation quite fun:

In the summer of 1903 I heard in Nantucket a bird which sang with charming accuracy the following first two bars from Alfredo’s song in La Traviata [*]…But this was sung in the same pathetic way in which Violetta sings it a little later in the same act, when she finds she must give up Alfredo. There is an unmistakable pathos in the bird’s song.

It is not always the case, however, that the music is pathetic. One afternoon, while crossing the downs of Nantucket, I heard a bit which was decidedly reminiscent of the song and dance with castanets in which Carmen attempts, in the opera of her name, to lure Jose away from his duty: [*]

This, it must be admitted, was not sung in quite the lively way the libretto would demand, but the melody was correct: [*]

A moment later, however, another bird spoiled the whole effect by finishing the song the wrong way, thus: [*]…Meadowlarks, and birds in general, for that matter, are prone to take unwarranted liberties with operatic scores. ( pgs. 168-170 )

I think I find the birds being discussed, and the author himself, equally fascinating. I read something like this, and am fascinated with a person who not only notices bird’s songs, but writes them down, makes intuitive connections with human music, and feels powerfully, in connection with both. As someone who thinks with feeling, it is not completely foreign to me to understand how a bird’s song could connect with such specific feelings.

[The Yellow-throated Vireo] is never in a hurry, and after singing three or four clusters of slurred notes, thus, [*] he gives you plenty of time to think the matter over before he makes another remark. At the time of the Boer War I imagined this bird was telling me all about it [* with this text:  ‘Mafeking. Modder river. Buluway. Molappo. Boer war!’] Certainly one finds the word Buluwayo fits a particular group of notes remarkably well. ( pg. 119 )

Though I’m not so good at analyzing or even always noticing birds’ music, I’d have enjoyed knowing and watching Mr. Mathews be himself. What a fascinating, interesting man he must have been to notice, in such detail and with such passion and enjoyment, the music of birds. Many thanks to Ms. Pelikan for making this book available today, and enhancing it so gorgeously with her drawings.

Streams of mercy

Streams of mercy never ceasing.

I love to listen to the CD, Deep Still Christmas, (you can hear samples here) at various times throughout the year. Last Easter I posted some thoughts that were stirred, listening to this CD on the way to my community sunrise service. The Christmas songs are mixed in with others, which are not explicitly seasonal, and I am often surprised by the things that touch my heart from that combination.

Yesterday, it was this one line from the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Streams of mercy never ceasing.

It goes on to say that the unceasing streams of mercy “…call for songs of loudest praise.” Of course, as an introvert, my response to the way mercies flow into my life is less often to break into songs of loud praise. Maybe songs of quiet praise. Or perhaps a gentle crying. Mainly, my heart just feels like it is flowing over with gratitude for the tender ways that the Lord has been and is faithful through so many painful and confusing and uncertain things I have had to face.

Last night, I was listening to a piano arrangement of the hymn, “Be Still, My Soul” as I fell asleep. It stirred feelings in my heart, in the exact place and way as the picture I have when I ponder the words “streams of mercy never ceasing”.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to thy God to order and provide;
in every change, he faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
to guide the future as he has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
his voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
when we shall be forever with the Lord,
when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

"A good place to start…

…is with the truth….Hope cannot take root in unreality or untruths.”

I am currently rereading After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith, by Denise Ackermann, a theologian from South Africa. Each chapter in the book is a letter to someone she loves. The chapter from which the above quote is taken is written to her best friend, Elfriede.

I appreciate deeply the grounded-in-reality approach she takes to understanding hope. In this post, I am going to quote various selections from this chapter, “On Locusts and Bodies”, particularly from pages 81 to 83.

First, here the author is quoting Calvin:

To us is given the promise of eternal life–but to us, the dead. A blessed resurrection is proclaimed to us–meantime we are surrounded by decay. We are called righteous–and yet sin lives in us. We hear of ineffable blessedness–but meantime we are here oppressed by infinite misery. We are promised abundance of all good things–yet we are rich only in hunger and thirst….But what would become of us if we did not take our stand on hope?

And some further thoughts:

To believe that Christ was raised from the dead is not just a consoling thought about how God has triumphed over humiliation, suffering, and death. It is in fact a contradiction of suffering and death, a divine protest against suffering. And it does not only deal with the future. Hope is sterile if it does not transform our thoughts and our actions here and now. Hope opens a future outlook that embraces all of life, everything we do and know, and that includes sickness and death.

This is a theme which I keep coming back to. Hope, if it is to be real, has got to be able to deal with and exist in the context of the realities that are. In one very real sense, hope is based in a belief that what we see is not all there is. But, in another sense, if hope cannot take into account the the realities and sorrows we actually see around us, today, then it is dishonest and unrealistic.

Hope has very little currency if it is just a ‘pie in the sky when we die by and by’, a trick masquerading as optimism covered with a religious veneer. True Christian hope is tougher, more realistic…

Yes, that’s a bit long for a post title, but it was way better, I thought, than what I’d been planning on calling this post: “Entropy and Corporate Grieving.” I’m still thinking about David Ker’s post “Bon Jovi Gets It” and the dialogue in response, which includes this comment from Codepoke:

The problem, though, is that “church” is not a whole experience. The Sunday morning service cannot begin to handle a whole-truth song. There’s no way to make 100 people deeply join in with a whole-truth song. On Sunday morning, if you present a song that complains against God, even for one line, you’re going to fragment your audience.

This is the post I was trying to write, when I got distracted on “A Grief Rabbit Trail”. It is part of my ongoing thinking about why church songs (and ultimately, the churches, themselves) don’t make much room for sadness and grieving together.

As I’ve pondered this question, I keep coming back to an illustration from a Scientific American article: “Does Time Run Backward in Other Universes?” Now, lest you think I’m smarter than I really am, I’m not. I didn’t actually understand the article. A friend was visiting me and we were doing one of the wonderful things that introverted friends can do together–sitting at the breakfast table, drinking homemade smoothies, reading. I was reading a graduation speech turned into a book. She was reading Scientific American. Periodically, one of us would speak up and share something interesting we’d just read, and then we’d both get quiet again. Personally, I think that is way more social than going to the movies together. But, I digress, don’t I?

In any case, I didn’t really understand much of the article. I kind of thought I followed the reasoning of the first paragraph:

The basic laws of physics work equally well forward or backward in time, yet we perceive time to move in one direction only—toward the future.

But, from there, I lost it (emphasis added).

The asymmetry of time, the arrow that points from past to future, plays an unmistakable role in our everyday lives: it accounts for why we cannot turn an omelet into an egg, why ice cubes never spontaneously unmelt in a glass of water, and why we remember the past but not the future. And the origin of the asymmetry we experience can be traced all the way back to the orderliness of the universe near the big bang. Every time you break an egg, you are doing observational cosmology.

I am?!?!

I could work my way into a tension headache right now trying to figure out some deeper reason why ice cubes don’t unmelt than what I thought was the self-explanatory reason that it’s warmer outside the freezer than in it (at least here in Florida).

But, I digress. Again.  My point is that most of the article did not make sense, except for this one particular illustrated sidebar, where the author was explaining entropy with an analogy to eggs:

entropy

And now I’m back to thinking about corporate grieving. I wonder if we feel lonelier in our grieving, because it feels like there are so many more individual ways to be broken and hurting and grieving than there are to be doing fine.

I remember once, when I was going through a very difficult time, I was moaning to a friend how alone I felt in facing what I was. I remember his disagreeing and pointing out some of the other very close friends who were walking with me and supporting me, at great sacrifice to themselves, in so many practical ways.

I had to agree that I wasn’t as alone as I was feeling. But still, I told him, I felt alone in what I was experiencing. I compared it to having friends holding each of my hands as I walked to the guillotine. No amount of friends surrounding me was going to make anybody’s head but mine roll. In that moment and in that suffering, it felt like my experience of grief and sorrow was mine alone. Of all the myriad ways to be fully smashed, I was smashed this way and not that way, and I felt lonely in that.

I think this _____ (is it reality? is it a belief? is it a fact? is it a cultural perception?) contributes to how hard it is to grieve corporately or to find songs that can be sung, grieving, together. Songs which make space for how hard things can be for any given person at any given time.

It’s not all that hard, I’m thinking, to come up with songs that look at all the different angles and perspectives of the one way to be pristine–to praise the One who makes me happy, to celebrate being a sinner saved by grace, to “count your blessings”. While those things are also, in some ways, unique and personal, they (and the feelings that come with them) seem to be more easily shared and understood as common to all people.

I’d guess it’s quite a bit harder to write songs that can bring people together in the feelings that come from the several ways to be slightly cracked. I think there are some, though my mind is drawing a blank. Can you think of any?

But, when it comes to myriad ways to be fully smashed, how do you cross over into that being a corporate experience? I don’t really have any answers. I’m thinking out loud here, trying to come to terms with some of the roots behind why it is so hard.

Quite often in my thinking, I keep coming back to culture. I wonder what friends in Africa would make of my comparing the loneliness of suffering to a broken egg’s higher entropy?

The comparison to there being more ways for an egg to be pristine to be broken makes sense to me, and it makes sense that there are more ways to be lonely in brokenness than in wholeness. But, I wonder, does it make sense to me because it’s the way it is, or because it’s the way my independent culture has taught me to make sense of things?

Even as I ponder and try to put words to this by comparing entropy, broken eggs and suffering, I feel like I’m getting closer to some presuppositions that if I could put my finger on them, I’d be able to question rather than mindlessly operate out of.

Does this need to matter to the average person any more than the reasons why ice doesn’t unmelt? I think it does. Because if I care about being able to suffer-in-relationship (and I do), something’s going to have to change at the level of seeing suffering as insurmountably and ultimately isolating. Part of me keeps thinking (and feeling, to be honest) that it makes sense that suffering is unique and lonely. But another part of me thinks it doesn’t have to be that way. I keep thinking that there has to be a way to grieve corporately in the communities we are part of,  even if only one member of that community is suffering at a given time.

Here are a few more thoughts from the comment thread on the Bon Jovi post I referred to above:

Songs of grief require specifics. You can be happy for a general fact, like that Jesus loves you, because it’s easy to write the backstory for that in your mind. But you can only be sad for something specific. Grief is painful, so we subconsciously need a backstory, but we don’t write sad backstories as easily. So, bringing songs of grief to a large group makes the most sense in the context of someone’s specific grief.

But we’re not used to telling specific stories of grief in public. Sunday morning is not about that, so those songs end up sounding awkward when they’re introduced. Liturgical traditions do tell the stories of Christ’s grief, so the songs make sense.

Anyway, I agree there’s a problem, but it’s not with the songs. The songs fit the environment we’ve created. Change the environment.

How to do that? Is it inevitable to see suffering as isolating? Is it universally inevitable or culturally so? Do songs of grief really require more specifics than songs of praise and joy? Or do they require more specifics because of a specific understanding of the nature of grief in contrast to the nature of happiness?

In finding this explanation of entropy with the various possible states of an egg (pristine, cracked or smashed), I think I’ve found my way not into more answers, but rather into more questions. I am hopeful that that is a positive direction for my thinking to go in on this topic.

I want to be able to grieve corporately. I want to be able to connect with my local church body and not feel like an outsider because I show up at church with a heavy heart or suffering body.

I don’t wrestle with this just for my own sake, but am also thinking of what it means for many of my other friends who I don’t think would want to be relegated to a homogeneous Sunday school class for “people who are currently miserable” in order to feel connected with in their current realities, which include a great deal of suffering.

Somehow, some way, it has to be possible in a public gathering to make space for all the realities–the joys and the sufferings–that people bring with them into community gatherings, in this case, particularly the church.

Escape from reality

Today brings a situation I’d rather run from than deal with. Deal with it, I will, one way or another. But if I could run from reality, I’d love to have this in my living room to run to:

bookshelf chair

The bookshelf chair, which I discovered via Cascades, comes with 16 feet of shelving and variable slot sizes, so that just about any book should fit one place or another.

Of course, I’d have to face reality again anyway when the £3,550 bill arrived.  So, I guess I’ll pass on this escape. But a girl can dream of being a literary-couch-potato-in-style, can’t she?

The Story of the Day that arrived from StoryPeople this morning was very fitting, I thought:

If I ran the world, he told me, I’d pretty much leave it alone & spend my time reading & I’d advise other people to do the same. Which is why I’ll probably never run the world, he said.

Light Pollution

Too much of a good thing? I’d never thought of it before, with regards to light.

Light is good, of course. I live in Florida. I’m happy living in a place where the sun shines pretty much year round. I don’t want to live in a part of the country or even a house with too little light.

But, what about having too much light? I love the sunshine all day, most every day. I don’t, however, love the sunshine enough to want it all night.

I’d never really stopped to ponder that thought until today when I read a mini review of a book called: Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark.

I love the light, but I have no interest in giving up the beauty of the night, either. The moon has been exceptionally brilliant in my night sky this week. I’ve enjoyed hanging out laundry or sitting on my porch looking at it.  But night here can never compare to places in Africa where I’ve lived, where the moon and stars did not have to compete with artificial light.

One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen was an eclipse in a town without electricity. To start out with a moon that was so bright you could see shadows, and then transition through smaller and smaller shadows until there was complete darkness, and then back again to the moon’s brightness. I remember it being a great way to spend a few hours.

Well, now I’m starting to wax nostalgic and wander from the point of this post.

The book I mention above is a collection of essays celebrating the gifts of night and darkness, mourning some of the losses that happen when night is artificially interrupted and drawing analogies to the rest of our lives from the importance of darkness.

I’ve not read the book. This quote, however, has given me something to ponder while I’m out running errands today:

Our desire for meaning keeps us reaching for greater clarity and luminosity. But we confound lucidity with kilowatts. We confuse artificial light with enlightenment. Therein lies a greater fear: that we humans might be so afraid of darkness that we, for a time, would destroy it, thus banishing the illumination that darkness brings.