Monday, April 21, 2014

Songs For Birds



Friday, March 14, 2014

Prose: Learning to Belong

"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another."  
-- Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Photo used with thanks to Mother Superior Jemma, and the Missionaries of Chrity ©2010; edits done by me
I have looked often at large extended families from Mexico recently come to the country I love with all of their tios and abuelitas, quinceaneras and "te amos" in tow. I have stood and watched homogeneous ethnic communities carving out stakes in our nation's urban centers, women in scarves proud of their names and of where they were born, close knit branches of my own family familiar with foods I know only from movies, and communities that seem so certain of who they are and who they were and why they are here that it seems almost like natural law; and I have wondered. As one who has always felt like an outsider, I am caught between a feeling that is at once a hymn of overwhelming envy and a tenuous waltz, a great liberation.

I am five and I am feeding ducks by the Main with my brother; my parents are telling me I am American even though I was born in a place called Okinawa that is not quite Japan and I have no memory of either place but feel it does not matter because I love the ducks and I have not yet learned how different we all are. I am ten and my grandmother is asking me if my friend Danny is white or black; the question confuses me. I am fifteen and my Church is almost all white and I am thinking: in spite of all their love, if I emptied every ounce of blood running through my heart, I would only have a few ounces of Scotch Irish blood. I am twenty, struggling to stay conscious, and while liquor induced hazes makes me feel like a part, they do not feel like they belong.

My father inspected embassies when I was a child. Travel and change were a part of how I breathed; by the time I was six the number of times I had relocated myself outweighed the number of years I had drawn breath. The name "Frankfurt" was the first that I remember identifying as a home. I loved the bees that burrowed in the ground and the calculated optimism of the West Germans. I loved Herr Becker who taught me about German fiefdoms and I loved the unlocked doors of the government neighborhood. I loved the Marine's from the embassy that dressed up like Pilgrims and turkeys and, for all the sense it made to me, could have been dressed as warlocks and dragons. But when the plane took off to take me across the ocean to a home I had never been to, my mother tells me I wrapped the stewardess' hand around mine, and never looked back. 

We are at the Lourve and my mother is showing me colors that appear to me as if they had just happened and I feel that they are already a part of me and I am not caring if the artist painted in Alexandria or Venice because, my God, it is beautiful. My mother, oft off key, is singing "the hills are alive..." and I feel like the song will be wherever I am and wherever I am going; I am one of the Von Trapps. They are holding my hand and we are walking through the main gates of Dachau, a decommissioned concentration camp, and I love them for it. Though the nightmares of the place are lingering things, I am having the feeling that I know the children that died there. I am not belonging with the Jews exactly, but the Holocaust is my national tragedy and, as much as a child of six does, I feel like I belong there. I am seeing the words "remember not to forget, remember not to forget, remember not to forget..." and, how could I?

My family taught me the art of belonging, all of them disciples of hospitality. My mother would devote herself to knowing the tastes of wherever we were and to wielding pot and pan in ways that astounded the locals. My father taught me that a dozen honestly learned words in another's tongue could change hearts and open doors and though it was not a perfect algorithm, it was not for naught. We listened to the legends of Motown and Sergei Prokofiev. They taught me to eat collards with chopsticks and called me Boy San. I was quite young when I memorized "I, Too, Sing America" by  Langston Hughes and I read it at our community center and everyone was proud and clapping. What is America? I thought later. At night, after I said Amen, I didn't know which one of these things was actually mine. 

There is a boy named Tommy and he is hiding under the trampoline. The other children do not want to play with him as he can not speak English. I do not know my friends in this moment, but I make Tommy laugh and he comes out, so I am ok. My grandmother tells me to be proud to be black but she is a proud English teacher, and I am in her home speaking like the darker children in the neighborhood that not know the piano. She tells me my words are not right, so what is there to be proud of, I think? My father puts on a uniform and it was time for work, "oorah"--it is a strange word, but it is a place he belongs. He is home and undressing, and we are biking through pristine paths saying "guten tag" to those we passed, and I saw no difference. It is all very simple and it is natural for him; he is Motzart and I am his apprentice. 

I have always felt forever caught between loving people very intensely and loving solitude very deeply. The woods were always a home to me and sometimes I would just walk and walk and walk but I never became a pine or an owl. The Church was filled with a hundred parents and brothers and sisters and I count myself incredibly fortunate to have been adopted into dozens of loving communities of the faithful around the world. I have worked with broken youth in rural Pennsylvania that have marveled at my hair and at my skin, and I have worked with others who have cursed my name and race but I love them both and, blessedly, we have more or less found that we were made for one another. 

The Sisters are from Medellin, Nairobi, Harlem, and Calcutta. Whatever passes as wagering for nuns, they are doing, and half of them are sure I am from Iran while the others swear I am from Egypt. O, to be able to trace one's roots back and back and back and to know where your fathers fell after Babel...I want to tell them that I know which part of Africa my ancestors came from, but instead I tell the truth, and then I tell them they are my sisters, and I mean it. They giggle, they pray for me and ask that I reciprocate and now they are begging me to stay for Mass. They are singing--I immediately think of Maria von Trapp and my mother--everything feels alive with the sound of music, I laugh, and I am shocked to find my eyes wet. For one who once thought himself to have nothing, I open my eyes and I see that I have everything. 

A simple woman from Albania is beloved by forgotten children in India and resonates with the whole world. Why, how? I have built my belonging by the respect and love I have been shown and by that which I invest in those around me. For me I have wondered at how it always feels like meeting lost family when I have come to ancient monasteries in Romania, in Coptic Churches in America, in black churches in DC, in Mennonite house churches in New York. It is always this feeling of reunion.

I am meeting my grandmother for the first time and I am told that once we were Seminoles; I wonder what this means or what it changes. I am closing a book and wondering if the author knew me. I am standing in Macondo before it is swept away and I am being amazed sitting by wells in Samaria. I am learning what it is to be a daughter born of rape in the Congo and what is like to grow up without a father in Appalachia. I am watching his men die in Fallujah and I am watching what could have been my family forced from their homes in Florida to Indian Territory.  I am none of these things or places or times but I plant them inside of me and they sprout; often when I need them.

I have found myself blooming in falling apart books and in the homes of refugees from Burundi, in coal country and beside the Black Sea. I thank God for everything that is in my soul and in my blood. The Son of Man Is Truth, but in this moment He Is His Father's Lingua Franca. Light itself was made through Him, and He Is Condescending to speak Greek. He Is Forgiving centurions with admirable faith that might have happily followed orders to tear down His Own Father's temple, and He Is Offering Himself to a Samaritan with bad theology. Many in His Church are happy to be alive another day and will be glad when their race is over and they can go home. I believe He Is Walking in halls beside these Sisters and, presently, He Is Finding His Way into my paragraphs. In light of all this happening, I do not that I will ever fear for my children pressing one for English or seeing rebel flags flung proudly from the backs of pick ups. I would learn these things if there is a willing teacher. Now when I say Amen and all things from the day begin to fade, I feel that I love my roots and they stretch down deeper and deeper and deeper, but in a world of absolute truths where gravity will certainly pull down all but the most faithful of mustard seeds, I still wonder what it means to be all things to all men...

I am rounding 25 hopefully and gracefully and my identity is as confused as it has ever been. More and more, I believe reunion is a choice, and it is not always an easy one. These days, though I find that more often than not,  I am loving myself and letting myself go, I am breathing in their dreams and tasting their spices, I am fumbling with their customs and offending their grandfathers--I am not deceiving myself into thinking that all men will return the kindness I try to show. But in this moment, we are laughing and falling back to the commonalities we are all trying our best to know more and more: I open my eyes, and I can almost see the country that gave me my blood. I breathe, and I can almost see my own breath in their lungs.  

My sweat belong to your hood, 
my body belongs to His dust. 
My heart--written in your poems--
I thank God He Does Know our souls.
I open my eyes and I am five,
and I find
 that I belong.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Prose: Our Dragons II, The Moon and Us

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
--Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

"Yenieta; an active member of the church teaching his student" Solomon 1988
I am a very cynical person and there are parts of me that I feel like would fly out and burn down the whole world if they could. For every hope I let escape my lips, there are one hundred questions, doubts, sneers. It can be exhausting. So in light of this, besides God's watching our first cells divide, or the sort of love that wears bristling crowns, sees a child through sweat and tears and is hung from crosses, I am skeptical in matters of love at first site.

This is only true except for the times that it has happened to me. At the risk of drifting towards esotericism or alienating the reader with my sounding very much like a crazy person, I will say only that it feels like how I think harmonic resonance works, but physics ain't my thing enough to know for sure. All that I know is that, when I play a certain note or hear a certain song sometimes something inside me stirs, and when I go to a certain place or meet a certain person sometimes, again, something stirs. 

I saw my great grandmother in his face. I heard the rugged voice that speaks of decades of lamenting and misanthropy. I felt the honesty of his beleiving he has nothing else to lose but his soul. When he prays the Lord's Prayer, it sounds like the words are his and that they are the last words he will ever say and the only words he has ever known. He knows to call me by my whole name, when I clearly introduced myself to him using the shortened version. Only the most special people know to call me by my whole name in just this way--perhaps by instinct. In short, he had me at hello.

I love a man that buys his toilet paper one roll at a time, because: he is certain he will die soon. He is hesitant to fill his gas tank all of the way, because: who will use the gas when he is gone? He is miserly with water, as he thinks using it on himself is a waste. He has known flames on his skin and known loneliness in every bone. I have a brother--my kin, heavier than blood--who has loved him through much of this and brought him to waters so he could feel free again; I am humbled by the man's bearing of his suffering and by my brother's love for the man's broken heart. 

Every time I am with this man, he makes clear that he does not deserve this kindness. We are reading the Beatitudes together. He asks me toreread over parts concerning who could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He told me that he is full of darkness and that he hopes God still loves him. He hears things that are not there, or at least that I can not hear and they tell him terrible things about himself and the world around him. I am afraid of people. You are a good boy. I trust you. I love you, he says. He is very good at breaking my heart; I try to be very good at being an instrument in healing the pains that break his.

When I feed him he is the world and I am only a moon; wiped mouths, adjusted glasses, caught crumbs, patted backs, and held shoulders fall into my orbit. I remember that any Light in me is a reflection of something better. He asks me to do unnecessary things as it gives me an excuse to touch him. I laugh, he would never admit this, I think. He begins to speak in terms of "we" and "us" and "our." I begin to love tasks that require my full devotion, each one of my fingers, all of my mind; having spent too many days of my life as a tourist giving half my breath to those in front of me, there is a peace in being undivided and undistracted even if only for the space of a meal or bath. I try only to be the moon, so that I might raise waters, change seas, or feel the weight of his gravity as it holds me, afraid of letting go. I pray that I am a small waning brightness catching purer Light when he fears God is distant. 

He gives me few laws: wipe everything I touch with hand sanitizer, wipe my ass please, help me tartar, wash your hands before you touch me, do not let me breathe on you, feed me one fourth of the bag of lentils--but not too much salt. I am compelled to do more because of the love at first site that I do not always believe in and because of Higher Laws, and the most degrading, heartbreaking tasks become psalms of rejoicing. They flood the space between us till they begin to blur and it is hard to tell who is serving who; I breathe it in and if drowning could ever be called good, this is it.

I have known him for several years, but I am quickly learning the difference between what I think I know and what I have to learn. Love is a patient and passionate Rabbi. 

We tell each other secrets because: who would we tell? and what would it matter?  He likes poetry and we read Rilke and Neruda and Rumi together; He is embarassed to show me his poems but asks to hear mine. He likes when I make fun of his farting; he tries to hide his laughter but has yet to succeed. We speak of girls and he tells me stories that make him feel like a young man again. I count his words and measure them and store them. His mouth is a collapsing cavern and his hands are withering branches; I can see the day coming when there will be a resivoir of uncollected thoughts within him that I shall never know. Part of me both fears and looks forwards to finding new ways to communicate with him.

He speaks of the dusty streets of his youth and his regrets of never having children. I tell him my regrets in allowing fear  to keep me from loving my grandfather when he began to crumble. He speaks of wild gambles and lost faith. He speaks of working around the world before deciding on a place to land:

Why did you come to America alone if everything was ok in your country? I asked
They landed on the moon, he said. Everyone in the world wanted to go to America. Anything was possible.

It is wondrous that, in the country that I love the most, a person can come with nothing and build skyscrapers and send their children to the moon. It is easy to forget the Truth in these feats: the moon can be a lonely place, and in an ocean of stars, our towers will never be tall enough. In a world where anything is possible, it is so easy to yearn for the things that I could do that I never see the things I should do. To me, trying to find satisfaction--my worth, my meaning-- solely in stacking rocks one on top of the other or placing flags on dead ones is as impossible and insane as trying to stop time by breaking my grandfather's clocks.  

I want to go back home so I can die, the hour hands catch up to him; he fears dying alone and unforgiven.
We will stay with you, or you will stay with us, we love you, Kyrie elison, we say this and hope that we mean it. We try to keep pace.

Some that crossed oceans found their dreams; he did not, and he questions whether life would have been better had he never left. He misses the nosy neighbors and distant relatives that, even if they invaded every aspect of your lives,  never left you to rot in your apartment when you got to the point where you were not able to feed yourself anymore. There are degredations of the mind that I fear to watch in others because: what if this is me? To behold it in another is an elagantly terrible thing. There are places where most people are not high school educated and there is no clean water for miles and nursing homes do not exist because: why should they? To me, this implies terribly beautiful things.

Where is his family? Why are you doing this, how will this help you? the questions are so foreign and incongruous to me in the moments after he prays for the Lord to please have mercy on him, they feel like they are from another world. We are here and this is everything that matters, I begin to say, but I don't, but more and more I believe it. I wonder how we would invest our love in the world around us if we believed there would be no tomorrow, or if we truly believed that their would be a tomorrow, and that what we did today mattered. For me, this is far from being an exact science.

He is biochemist by training, and loves formulas and solutions that I only hope to understandand for the sake of learning the language of his heart; his moments of lucidity are breathtaking. We are reading The Washington Post and watching CNN. He wants to know what Putin is doing and we learn that a woman who owed some banks a lot of money was found "mummified" in her garage after being missing for three years. It must have been gas, he thinks.

I am not a doctor or nurse and am certified in CPR and nothing else. I read blogs and books and ask people that know more about the subject, but I don't really know what I'm doing here. I know he likes to guess the answers on Family Feud. He likes when the people get excited and hug the host. He likes Drew Carey more than Bob Barker and Steve Harvey more than them both. He is happy that Drew Carey seems to be taking care of his health and has lost weight. He likes when the underdog wins. He is mischievous, he likes when they come up with totally wrong answers. 

He wants to have an all expense paid trip to Hawaii so he can have warm water wash over his crippling body and he can be free; he will not tell me when his birthday is. After the credits roll, we read hopeful words about a time where gladiators replaced gameshows for diversion, and Emmanuel is gathering children around Him and, sometimes, the man just cries. Halas? I ask. No, please, keep reading, he manages and wishes he was a child again.

A whisper escapes from his bed, and it is my name. Yes Amu? I am ready for something to be wrong. Nothing, with another pulse beside him, he falls asleep.

Laying beside him, I am able to be connected with the world around me in unprecedented ways--I am only a few motions away from knowing where my friends are eating tonight, what is frustrating them, what they are celebrating. I can Skype with a friend in a mud hut in Afghanistan, I can read scanned copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I can learn how to make my own airplane to fly anywhere but where I am. We can know so much and do so much that would shock our ancestors and make them think us close to gods, but so often the old die slowly with no one to see them go and the young desperately try to claw their way out of crippling depression, insecurity and apathy, and in such conditions man is forever compelled to ask: "where is God?"

At night, the man is letting a chilling cry come forth from the cavern and my heart shivers. Enta kowees? I ask. I can not tell if he is speaking English or Arabic or something else. I have slept alone and undaunted on the sides of lonely mountains but, in this moment, I am afraid and I begin to pray he finds The One Who Holds the World in the holier parts of restless nights.

We could search across the dark places of our moon and deep into the unknown, in stock portfolios and Communist Manifestos, but I do not think we will find Him there. I think He has given us to each other for a reason, even before sin entered into the world, so we would not so often be alone and so that through each other we might love Him. I believe in a God that loved communion so much that, though he wanted to be the first, he did not want to be the only object of our passion. From my understanding of things, we are unable to wholely gaze at Him as He Is, but he gives us signs and we, being created in His image, can be lanterns and mirrors and satellites reflecting all that He Is. Our lives are incorporated into the chorus that He sings to creation:

passion (pa-shən), n. an oratorio based on the gospel narrative of the Passion of Christ...the state or capacity of being acted on by external agents or forces, overmastering feeling of conviction,  from Latin pati, to suffer for love: (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary and The Passion of Command by LtCol. B. P. McCourt)

We are built for this. I believe in a God that has given us minds to explore all of existence and find ways to walk and shine lights in dark places. I believe in a God that allows us to love our grandfathers after they pass. I believe in a God that has given us imagination and hope that allows us to do things we should not be able to, and faith and power to do impossible things. I believe in a God that calls us to carry each other to fulfill Higher Laws, and to involve ourselves in the creation of communities in His name where loneliness can be confronted and overcome in ways that would eclipse the dreams of Hawkins and Jobs, Mao and Rockefeller, Nietchze and Angelou, you and I, the moon and us.

Confession: I struggle to forgive myself for not reading the newspaper to my comatose grandfather and for not ever attending even one of my brother's rugby matches. I fall asleep on the floor next to the man's bed and the last thing I remember thinking is that this is the strangest and most honest thing I have ever done. 

I do not quite believe in dragons, but I do believe that I do not need to travel beyond this world or its realities to find things that threaten to consume and tear apart our communion with each other and with God. I believe I have been commanded to exahust myself for the young and old that feel they are alone in the same way that so many have stretched themselves out for me. This stretching out happens in ways that are beyond me and wondrous to behold; like man taking flight, like man touching the stars, like man going beyond what our frames should allow. I think our desire to reach towards the heights of heaven is something great breathed into us and we should use it for one another. 
I believe others have already said and shown it better:

"One" written by U2, performed by Damien Rice

“We are going to the moon. That is not very far. Man has so much farther to go within himself.
--Anais Nin

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Poem: For Love of Stars

I know not if breathlessness
comes from thin air,
or awe.
I consider the wisdom 
of running alone in the dark
subject to natural law.

Morning runs yield revelations: 
a sky so bright with stars, 
it appears nearly white. 
"I have loved the stars too fondly 
to be fearful of the night."
A voice cries out in darkness,
"Run on, I AM Light." 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Prose: On Harmony and the Kingdom I, Momentum Reflection

"The first and chief use of music is for the service and praise of God, whose gift it is."
--John Plavlord

Several members of "Za Heimer,"  the music team at St. Timothy and St. Athnasius Coptic Orthodox Church
For those of you that know me or have heard my songs two things should be apparent: I have an abounding love for the gift of song, and I am not a professional. I do not practice scales, reading tabs is like reading hieroglyphics to me, I forget capos and have had to make them out of hair ties and pencils, and I am still not quite sure what playing in the "key" of something means. Any talent I have in the realm of music, any ability to create harmony, I am convinced, is God given.

So naturally, when my priest asked me if I would be interested in playing praise and worship, I boldly accepted and proclaimed "anything for the Kingdom, father!" began to shake, break out into a cold sweat, considered if it was proper to switch churches under such uncomfortable circumstances, and dry heaved the whole ride home. My team is much the same. We love people, don't get us wrong, but loving and being in front of are very different, I have found.

Our backgrounds are diverse: some have some classical music training, some cut their teeth in punk and alternative rock bands, one joined in response to a desperate message asking for more volunteers to sing. I would have bern completely happy forever playing at Marian Manor with Alzheimers patients that likely forget my performance minutes after "you'll never know dear/ how much I love you/ please don't take my sunshine away" is sung. 

But every Sunday, by the grace of God, we get up and try to give people a tune for their praises. And it even got pretty comfortable for me. Then we were asked to play at Momentum, a faith based conference hosting hundreds of people. We felt the pressure. We practiced, a lot. We laughed at our mistakes, a lot.  We forgot how we played this song or that song the last time, a lot. We were frustrated, a lot. 

Even though we are, by God's grace usually pretty decent at what we do, there was one awesome song that were the source of much of our frustration: "Build Your Kingdom Here" by the Rend Collective. We tried changing the key, changing the tempo, changing the harmonies. We tried praying, we tried listening to the live and studio versions of the song and playing along. We couldn't harmonize, the banjo and guitar were forever out of tune with one another, the singers and instrumentalists couldn't stay on the same tempo. We were certain that we just wouldn't sing it at all. 

Shortly before the first session of the conference, Father Anthony, in his infinite wisdom, suggested that we start with "Build Your Kingdom Here," easily our weakest song and one that we had never played in front of a crowd before. And we said "yes, father, of course. With God all things are possible,  obviously. We will make joyful noises. So amaze" began to freak out. But rather than give in to the panic, we did a few important things: We said yes--even though we wanted to say no; we practiced again--and it still sounded awful; we encouraged each other--even though we did not have courage ourselves; and we prayed for God to work through us--even though we wanted to pray "if there is any other way Lord..."

Let me confess something: I believe in the big miracles--parting seas, manifesting bread, walking on water, raising up those in cold graves. But, increasingly, I believe in the bigger miracles--parting hearts, manifesting harmony, walking on faith, raising up those in cold communities. I believe that despite your talents and efforts, if God wants you to sing a song, hold on, cause He will make it happen.

And that's exactly what happened. I can't explain it. At all. But we got up there and the guitar resonated with the banjo. and the participants perked up. The singers's voices rang out and echoed across the auditorium. And then something amazing happened: I looked around, listened, and realized the worship band was worshiping, Father Anthony was worshipping, the participants in the crowd were worshipping, and we were all praying in song for God to build his Kingdom in us and with us. 

I love the old hymns set to tunes that are thousands of years old and were sang ny some of the first Christians. I love the old hymns that my grandmother sings that lifted slaves out of their misery and allowed them to hope for brighter days. I love the new hymns that are played by kids who want to combine the music they love with the faith they love. I love that God has given us a gift in which we can connect with and inspire one another, and with which we can see and experience Him in new ways.

Yeah, I believe in miracles. My banjo resonates with a guitar and meshes with three beautiful voices which in turn combine with the voices of hundreds and--I truly believe-- complementing the angels and saints above to make a sound none of us could produce alone. The sons and daughters of the great empires of the Pharoahs can worship with the daughter of Irish-Slovakian immigrants who came to this country to seek a better life and a descendant of a slave who knows not where exactly his forefathers came. 

God has taken the once pagan tunes of Pharoah's court and shined his Truth into them. He has taken tambourines once used to praise rocks and African gods of death and made them instruments for rejoicing and breathing Life. He has taken banjos that wrote the soundtrack to Irish moonshiners and made them instruments of His peace. God takes a roomful of Christians who are more familiar with burned churches than most, has mercy on them, and gives them the faith for them to ask Him to set His Church on fire with holier flames. God takes us as unlike and unlikely instruments, tunes us to Himself and to his Church, and turns us into more than the sum of our parts or curcumstances.

At Momentum, we practiced a model of prayer, discipline, trust, humor, community and faithfulness that I desperately want to apply to everything I do in life. There we realized that five broken people can put aside all of their baggage, all of their discomfort, all of their burdens, all of their fears, and they can worship. We did our best to honor the gift of song, the gift of worship, that God gives us. We sang loudly--and we believed--that we are His Church and we need His power in us, and in that Truth, in that gift, there is only harmony.


Prose: We Were God's Spies II

"I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland."
--Isaiah 43:19

"Streams in the Wasteland"

I think of David first. The heart on his sleeve Psalmist has had a profound effect on both secular and religious music and I think his words continue to be relevant thousands of years later. I sometimes imagine him being born today fronting a screamo band or playing forlornly on an acoustic guitar in a coffee shop. His laments eclipse Poe himself and his praises overflow with the joy of someone discovering God for the first time. I wonder how David would stack up next to contemporary Christian artists in the same way that I wonder how John would be received next to todays average clergyman...The imagery he used in his psalms, his turns of phrase, I appreciate it in English and can only imagine how it must have felt in the language of his heart. He saw God when he walked through valleys of death and when the heavens proclaimed His work.

The culture of Christian music is a funny and beautiful thing here in the states, and maybe throughout the rest of the world, I do not know.There is a not-so quiet shift happening lately--or at least a more vocal alternative culture--but, outside of prose, there is still a pretty narrow conception of and formula used for what usually passes as Christian art: a picture of Jesus standing next to an eagle against a sky blue background; a bell choir playing silent night; a heavy guitar rift and impassioned chorus. This is true at least for the majority of art that I see and perhaps thats just because it connects with and appeals to a wider audience. I am thankful that, I think, the words I choose and and the songs I make will connect with some while others well think they are definitely, definitely, whickety-whack and will experience God elsewhere.

Certainly, I think at its heart Song of Solomons is closer to the sentiment fostered in a large bulk of commercial Christian music than say...Lamentations, Exodus, or Revelations...but even those ballads had a depth which I feel many artists are apprehensive about reaching for for fear of alienating audiences. I get it, I think. Both for pragmatic reasons of sustainability and profitability, and in a more "Kingdom-centric" view of creating music that someone not well versed in scripture can pick up on. I think there has to be balance: we do not want to drown ourselves in the unknowns, the obscurities, the intangibles, our metaphors or in what is tenuous, but we shouldn't be afraid to wrestle with them or sing them.

I think it is beautiful that a hammer can do what a saw can not and that you can see God in a way that I can not and write it down in your own tongue and share it with someone that I will never be able to connect with on any meaningful level. I didn't always, but I think all of the aforementioned things are really beautiful. They turned minds to Christ and represent truth, I dig it. As, I grow to be less of a condescending, elitist, pretentious jerk judgmental, I have grown to admire anyone that can put themselves out there and produce any sort of art. I would ask, can we do more? Can we strive for depth to compliment the explicit Truth that needs be told? Is different bad? Can we...experiment...with how we express our faith?

Can I ask if its ok if cool weird hipster indie music is wrapped in Psalms or if its ok if a weird abstract painting of a cross that-may-not-actually-be-a-cross-but-makes-me-think-the-artist-was-trying-to-represtent-the-cross turns your mind to God? Are Christian "artists" the only ones that can--and are obligated to--express to the world their belief through their vocation; and do they have to stick to the formula? Can I take it a little further and ask if we can express our faith, our love for God, our awe of God, with our bank statements or in the gardens that surround our homes? Can we be creatively and intentionally be instruments of God's peace even if we can't carry a tune?

I would like to live very much in a world where the creative expressions of our relationship with God were not so confined to a building (even though basilicas are awesome) or genre (even though mainstream Christian rock are great!) or medium (even though K-Love is awesome). I wish desperately that the same expectation that Christian musicians are priviledged to have, to make Christian music, was extended to all professions. Certainly music tends to be seen as more of an expression of one's soul and beliefs than say...accounting...but a wise Man once suggested that where our wallets lie, so lie our hearts.

God tells us that He creates new things out of nothing and makes old things better and that we can be a part of it.

 If you have never experienced a Coptic Orthodox liturgy, I encourage you to. It beautifully focuses around a number of recurring and a few shifting themes all pointing to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In the States, the hymns are sung in Arabic, Coptic, and English. It is beautiful to me that Coptic tunes that once filled the courts of those that enslaved Jews; Arabic, which at one time was a language of invaders and oppressors for the Coptic Church; and English, a language holding memories of colonialism and holding anxiety of the uncertain future, all work together to tell the story of God.

If you have never been to a bluegrass festival, I encourage you to. The banjo is a device that tells a great story: an instrument imported by slaves and made from gourds when they could find nothing else, repurposed by those that would color their faces to mock slaves in minstrel shows, then repurposed again to sing some of the most earnest, sappy, beautiful Gospel songs you will ever hear. God works and creates in instruments, and languages, and people and, for me, there is an excitement in not knowing what new thing He will do next and what He will use to do it.

I don't think that this gives us carte blanche to open up a brothel for Christ or destroy people's possessions in order to liberate them from the burden of having possessions; there is a line, I'm just not wise enough to know exactly where it is. And always, always, always there is nothing beyond redemption. It may have to change its form and trappings drastically--a murderer being changed into a saint, a Saul into its Paul--but I don't think we should disallow that God can do what he will with whatever He wills.

For me, everything that we touch on a regular basis should be irrigated by God, to open ourselves to be recreated and to crawl out of deserts. I don't think we should strive only to touch things that are safe or comfortable or established. I think some of us are called to leave the fields their fathers have left them, and some are called to remain, but regardless, we should plow deep lines across them and across our hearts so that God can move through them freely.

I am a cynic and a romantic living in the same mind; if I do not hold onto that arc of redemption, that perception that Christ is reaching towards us and begging to be incorporated into our lives, everything withers and the most beautiful prose I produce or read feels like it is missing an essential part of its existence. To me, the loveliest songs sound less and less realized the further they are from the outcome that could be: Immanuel.

God gives the gift of being able to creatively and intentionally interact with each other and the rest of His creation. We have the privilege of seeing every day like Adam and Eve; discovering new things that the Lord has done and giving them a name in a language our heart, and perhaps the heart of another, understands.  The God of the universe humbled Himself and took on our language, our culture, our skin. In that moment that changed all, He did not run from what was there or what could be, he weaved himself into it. When we honestly tune our hearts and see the tapestry that He has left that tells us "He will work with us and in us if we tune our hearts to believe," it is hard not to be amazed.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Prose: We Were God's Spies I

"We will sing like birds in the cage, we'll live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales...and take upon the mystery of things as if we were God's spies."
--William Shakespeare

"Adam and the Trees"
I love the art of song; the production, the listening, the sharing, the revising, the growth, the change, the exploration. The ability to communicate what is inside of us with one another is one of the greatest gifts God has given us, I think. And the ways in which we communicate our experience--our hopes and our fears, our insights and our resolutions, our discoveries and frustrations, our praises and laments--through the arts! I am amazed.

My mind is often divided. I live a life where the mundane and divine exist, too often, apart from each other. On Sundays, my life should be more in the divine. At work, there is less room for God. With some friends, it is easy to see the works of God. With others, I actively try to disengage from seeing. I am never so at peace though, than when I look at things through the lens that suggests that He is a father actively seeking to be involved in everything we do:

I think of Shakespeare's words written above. I think of the beauty of the idea that we are God's spies, His agent. Called to be part of a great  and holy conspiracy to look for beauty in blowing fields of auburn and in the hearts of lands that do not gently hold seeds; we would search for it in the kinship with someone who chews their food in a way that annoys us or see the beauty in a starving mother that, with a smile, offers her bread and her songs to her children. We would report our findings to God and tell him that we heard His song echoed across the world and it came in tears, paintings, psalms, gardens, maps of the stars, colliding subatomic particles, the ring of a drill in a coal mine, and the rhyme of fork and knife against plate during dinners with strangers. 

I am overwhelmed by the people I have come into contact with across the world that have taught me to see God in fields and in broken hands, in Scripture and in song, when our best laid plans come to fruition and when they are caught in winds and we run desperately after them trying our best to read the sheets of music we had written and placed before ourselves...

Our stories, and the way our stories are told, are important. Stories--the very things my grandmother drove me to hate during summers filled book reports on realpolitk in the lands of Narnia and of children knocked down by fire hoses and chased by dogs--have become a part of the way I breathe. Stories--the old ones and the unwritten, the clinical and the surreal--are so much of what makes us human and are time and again the medium used for God to express His will or nature to us. 

I would like to tell tales about the works that I see that speak to God's capacity to redeem. I would like to tell tales of how God holds us and how we realize we are held. I would like to tell tales that suggest to people that forgiveness ties us to each other and to God; that brokenness is not a permanent state; that, in fact, God allowed himself to be broken so that we could be healed and remade. If this story is told a thousand times and I am the thousand and first, I am glad if it reaches the ear of only one more or even if God is the only one that hears what I have found. 

The deserts and forests and tundras and  mountains and seas are brutally honest and often unforgiving; if you have not experienced this firsthand, I encourage you to join the birds and spend time in the quiet woods, because there is beauty in such honesty. Though their children often fall from the tops of trees, strong winds blow down their homes, and they are often caged, still, they sing. I desperately wish that were I to live a life as hard as sparrows who were never taught to sow or reap, I could still fly. Were I caged at the whim of another, I too could let my songs tell the world that part of me is free. 

The road that has brought me here is one that I could not have mapped or planned if I tried (both because I am terrible at mapping and planning, and because I am not skilled to plan such things). I have considered, I have asked for counsel, I have prayed, I have resisted, I have been cynical, I have wavered, I have been unsure, I have been unfaithful in the very smallest of things. But God has set the stars in place so that we may have a sign to guide us when the quiet woods begin to disorient, and He has caused those that fly to remember to return to their homes after the winter does its work. I is time for me to believe, to have faith, to submit, and to not be so quick to shut my eyes to His works; to begin taking on the mystery of things, to tie my songs and my prose and my breaths to God's,  to join the ranks of God's spies and to fly towards better things.