Tuesday, January 21, 2020

A Day in January

If I could choose one word to describe the music of Marian Hill, it would be "sultry." Jeremy Lloyd's production and instrumentation provides a perfect backdrop for Samantha Gongol's playful, flirty vocals. This duo writes songs that are made especially for those times when lovers finally find themselves alone, coating the ears with a fine velvet the way red wine does for the throat.

The spirit of their music is relationships: often about those more tender moments, or longing for there to be such a tender moment before too long, or wondering whether there will ever be such a moment again. While their style often evokes a mood of embrace, not every song is necessarily about the positive vibes of love.

The song "Same Thing," for instance, is written for a relationship that has slipped into routine. And it becomes clear that the people in this song are in the type of relationship that isn't much more than a regular meetup:
Call me up and
I'll come over
Every single time
In your driveway
Still alone, I'm
Trying to rewind
In your bedroom
In the dark, we
Play with old mistakes
After midnight
You're asleep but
I stay wide awake
Morning comes and we start over
Over again
The singer clearly enjoys what she and her partner have, but she also laments that there isn't more to it. At some point, something began to change, at least for one of them. As much as she loves their being together, she's to the point where she's identified how limited their interactions have become. Their contact is still exciting, but underneath "it's still the same old thing."

On January 23, 2005, I stood in the parlor of my hometown church. The room had begun to fill with clergy, slowly pulling on their robes and red stoles, the color of the occasion. I had my black Geneva gown ready to wear, although my own stole would wait until later, after we'd process in and I'd make promises to serve the church as faithfully as I could.

As much as I was trying to be in the moment, most of my thoughts at that point were on the details. I'd grabbed a bunch of hymnals so that when this gaggle of pastors would process in, we'd be able to sing along with the congregation. I could hear the bell choir from my new pastorate practicing in the sanctuary.

More than once, I recall marveling to myself how long I'd been working toward this event. A lot of decisions and meetings and interviews and classes over the span of seven years, all for that day. All for the placing of the stole around my own neck, for God willing a long ministry of preaching, teaching, and guiding others as best I could.

All for that day, and every day after, with God's help.

When I've reflected back on this worship service in the years since, I often like to include how imperfect it was. As concerned as I'd been with all the details of the day, I'd forgotten to get somebody to light the altar candles. I didn't notice until midway through the service. I recall being able to shake it off without much trouble, but it was an early reminder of how the small things make the difference.

Years later, I'd be waiting in line during calling hours for a funeral I'd be officiating the following day. The patriarch of the family had been suffering from Alzheimer's for a number of years, a process that had begun prior to my serving the church. But I'd done my best to visit, to provide support, to listen to exhausted and frustrated and sad family members remembering who their husband, father, and grandfather used to be.

After greeting the family, I'd wandered over to look at the pictorial composites put together no doubt with great care for the occasion to represent who this man had been to them. They'd included a photo of him, his devoted wife, and me. It was a lesson in how small things--conversations, visits, a few minutes of a listening ear or additional attention--add up, and these small things had been much more important than candles could ever be.

I listen to the recording of this service often. I can't see the imperfections like the candles or the way I ask how to kneel for when the assembled clergy are invited forward for the laying on of hands. But I can envision them. More important are the words.

The words at the start of the service are words of reflection and commissioning. They are the words of scripture, where Paul reflects on how God brings power out of weakness and how Jesus makes himself known to two despairing disciples on the road to Emmaus. And they are the words from my hometown church's pastor, a mentor who helped launch me on the path toward this moment.

Then come the words of promise, and of ordination itself. They are the words prayed as I finally figure out how I'm supposed to kneel on the chancel steps. And most importantly, they are the words that I affirm to minister impartially as best as I can, to be in covenant with the church and to always remember that I am part of something much larger than myself.

There are a lot of words spoken that day. A lot of small things that add up to something more, although they still won't capture what the years ahead will bring.

One line of the pastor's sermon comes pretty close: "If you think this is like a coronation, get over it."

There's a point in "Same Thing" where the beat stops and for a few measures all you hear is the bass. By this point, Gongol has told the story of two people happy to answer the other's call at a moment's notice; to fulfill the desires of both. This comes after the bridge, where she expresses her wish to know where this was going, if there will come a point when something more will happen, or when this routine will fade and they'll drift away from one another.

It's the not knowing that seems to cause the most anxiety. The singer loves when they're together, but where's it all going? How much longer will this arrangement go on in its current form, and what sort of moment might cause it to change? She has no answers for that. All she knows, and all her partner seems to prefer, is what they have.

As far as I'm concerned, this part holds the entire song together. There's an emptiness to it that communicates everything the song has been saying up until this point. We've heard about the hole of uncertainty the singer is eternally falling into, and now we get to spend 16 beats in it ourselves.

There was one night recently when I was in the sort of mood where listening to this song three times in a row seemed like the right idea.

By the end of the first time, I'd settled in to a quiet, reflective mindset.

By the end of the second time, I'd turned my attention specifically to my life in ministry so far.

And during the third time, when the drums dropped out and all I had was the bass, a series of quick images passed through my mind: sitting on the floor with a group of college kids as a seminary intern,  officiating a wedding in my first church, visiting a member of my second church in the hospital after back surgery, leading a drum circle for a seminary prayer group, teaching any number of confirmation classes, snippets of services led and sermons preached in the sanctuaries I've known for 15 years.

By the time these four measures are over and the singing starts again, I've taken a trip through so many days that have brought joy, but often more humility. Days full of small things, and often what seems like the same thing over and over again, yet so different every time.

Standing in the chancel making life- and career-defining promises, I couldn't hear the bass at the time. I was too bright-eyed to see where they'd take me and how I'd be expected and called to live into them. The awe of the day was too overpowering to hear it.

But the bass would come on strong in the years following. And there are days, entire weeks, even months, where I feel like I'm living in those 4 measures. I'm standing in place, unable to feel the world moving under me and unable to sense the Spirit around me. Thankfully, the singing always starts again and I catch up to how things have moved forward, usually without my help or permission.

As much as it sometimes feels like it, ordained ministry has never been the same thing. It's been the small and ordinary building and reconfiguring and rearranging into the new, again and again knocking any sense of coronation or entitlement out of me, while also equipping me for the moment as it actually is.

Thanks be to God.

(image source)

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Come Home to Emotion

I'm currently reading The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. In one of the earliest chapters, she talks about an inner voice that works against our desire for artistic exploration, which she calls the Censor.

The Censor is our "logic brain." It's the voice--perhaps an amalgam of people who have assisted in shaping these ideas throughout our lives--that tells us what is or isn't possible. In particular, it won't let us create or imagine. This voice limits us, telling us to focus on what we can see and what will help us make a living and steers us away from the fanciful.

The Censor does its best to keep us in certain modes of thinking and of addressing problems and of looking at the world, telling us that considering options outside the lines, or doing things just to enjoy them or to attempt to envision something different, isn't permissible.

We deny ourselves so much if we always choose the "sensible" over creativity. How many breakthroughs in art, in music, in religion, and in science have come as a result of people ignoring their Censor and following a different path?

Sometimes we need to see with something other than our eyes so that new possibilities can be born.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Prayer from the Riverbank

based on Matthew 3:13-17

Faithful God, how often we wish that your call to us was so plain to hear that we could not mistake it for anything else. How often we need to be reassured that we are your beloved, your chosen, your precious creation. Such audible confirmation could be the moment of turning that we need for our despair, our self-doubt, our uncertainty about the future, our sorrow at what we have done to others, our anxiety about our community or world. We seek to be cleansed by your baptism, led by your Spirit, and affirmed by your voice.

We are not without reminders and signs, if we could see them as such. In the refreshment of rain and ocean, in the peace of river and stream, you are there. In the song of nature and instrument alike, you can stir our souls to stillness or response. In the comforting or challenging words of those who love us and want us to succeed is your voice, working in tandem with our own, to help us more fully realize who we are and how you see us. And when we see and hear and connect, we find the sacred and sacramental at last.

O God, teach us to watch and listen, and to receive the grace offered in the everyday. Show us that we were always gifted by your presence, and that you have more to give. Amen.

(image source)

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Winter/Spring Reading

With a new year comes a new list of books to read.

Since I'll be writing a book the first few months of the year, time for recreational reading might be slim. But that won't stop me from trying to squeeze in a few books for fun.

Since I'll be reading and researching plenty of spirituality and theology and biblical studies, I figure that my reading list for this first part of the year needs to be a little lighter.

I'll need ways to escape and give my mind a break, rather than pile on.

So with all that in mind, here's my plan between now and summer:

  • Teach Me How to Die by Joseph Rauch
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  • Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
  • Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor
  • Drops Like Stars by Rob Bell
  • A Sketch and a Prayer by Mike Wurman
A lot of novels and some other stuff, basically.

What are you planning to read in 2020?

Here are a few suggestions if you need some.