It is well with my soul

“It is Well with My Soul” sung by The Wartburg Choir

I know that I have lamented before about the paucity of quality content on the Internet. There is so much junk to wade through in order to find the good stuff. But there is good stuff. During the weeks of this pandemic what I am finding during this pandemic is that people are sharing content that is meaningful as they seek to reach out and stay connected. There are fewer cat videos and more videos of people helping others. There are fewer combative political comments and more inspirational quotes from spiritual leaders of all stripes. Musicians are posting live house concerts. Museums are offering virtual tours of their holdings. Libraries are offering live story time and movies, ebooks and other content.

David Brooks, in his column for the March 26 issue of New York Times wrote, “The paradigmatic image of this crisis is all those online images of people finding ways to sing and dance together across distance.” I’ve seen videos of Italians dancing and serenading each other from balconies, Baltimoreans singing the national anthem from their iconic stoops, policeman lip-synching and dancing in the streets to entertain those in quarantine, two children playing violin and dancing to a Coldplay song, and so much more. These are celebrations of life and the desire to be connected to one another. Again I quote Brooks who quotes Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, “Those videos call to mind that moment of Exodus when Miriam breaks into song. ‘It is the dance that generates the light, the women produce an energy in the light of which all participate equally in the presence of God.’”

Singing and dancing beg for us to join in. Even when we do not know the song, we feel a sense of connection as we hear and watch the singers. I have sung in choirs since I was a child. I have a profound affection for choral singing. A few weeks ago I posted a video of the Wartburg Choir singing the gospel song “Ain’t No Grave.” This week I saw their video of Rene Clausen’s “It Is Well with My Soul.” This video may be a reminder of normal times. No one is social distancing, masked up, or vigorously washing hands. These talented young people simply sing and it is beautiful, calming, graceful, sonorous…angelic. Listen and be transported to your special place of peace and calm. Come back often to listen and be changed.

There will be many changes in the world as a result of this pandemic, one could be that each of us finds the value of and time for being still and at peace. Let’s get it in our bones now so that when normalcy returns part of the new normal will be the practice of life-giving peacefulness.

The Lord is my Shepherd

Psalm 23 is the most loved of all one hundred and fifty psalms in our Psalter. We say it at times of distress, illness, and at funerals. We have relied on the comfort of its words for more than 2,000 years. I expect that as long as there are people, religious or not, they will find comfort and consolation in its tenderness and pastoral imagery. The poem evokes a timeless sense of well-being and security that only God can provide. Writing about it at this moment I feel my heartbeat slowing, and my breath steadying.

Even as we endure the daily and hourly news and precautions about the COVID-19 pandemic, we can trust in God and be at peace. Pray the psalm. Pray for calm as well as scientific breakthroughs. Help friends and neighbors, remembering that everyone, even our enemy is our neighbor. Work in the garden. Enjoy the spring weather, but away from crowds. Check in on others, especially the isolated and the elderly. Check your temperature a few times a day. Go to the doctor if you do not feel well. Do things by Internet or telephone to limit your exposure to others and to limit their exposure to you. Resist gossip and rumor mongering. I know it helps to talk, but gossip and rumors only feed our fears. Don’t glue yourself to the 24-hour news stations it will only up your anxiety.

The twenty-third Psalm is not medicine nor is it a panacea. It helps us re-center on the one that loves us most, God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whatever storms we may face in this life God is always with us. As the name of our parish rightly says, Emmanuel, God with us.

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; *
    I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; *
    he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; *
    he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his
                                Name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; *
    for thou art with me;
    thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of
                                mine enemies; *
    thou anointest my head with oil;
    my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days
                                of my life, *
    and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

If you have never memorized this Psalm perhaps now is the time to do so. Pray it throughout the day in whole or in part. Focus on what gives you comfort and turn it into a mantra or breath prayer that you repeat over and over again. Let it guide you in your waking and in your sleeping. In turbulent times and quiet times, these are words you can trust.

Preach it, Sister!

A few days ago an online friend shared the video above. It did not look promising. A choir from a Lutheran college in Iowa singing a spiritual. Bach perhaps, but would they have the spirit that a spiritual requires? Being a sucker for choral music, I clicked on the link to give it a listen. Boy was I blown away.

This arrangement is amazing. It is sung perfectly and with great passion. What really moves me is the use of sign language to interpret the piece. The entire choir signs much of the song to powerful effect. It is the young woman who stands to the front signing the entire spiritual who is amazing.

She signs as if she is preaching rather than singing the song. I do not know sign language, but her signs are more than conventional.She preaches as convincingly and powerfully with her hands, eyes, face and arms as any preacher does with words. She adds nuance, inflection, and emotion. She is like a preacher in the pulpit whose powerful voice rises and softens. She draws is in, raises us up, invigorates us, and inspires us. She seems to believe each word she is singing and signing. As much as I enjoy seeing the singers, when the camera cuts away from her I am disappointed. I feel that I am missing something that the lyrics alone do not convey.

If I were not already disposed to believe the message of the spiritual, her signing would convert me on the spot. Would that we all had the passion, conviction, and means to convey it as wonderfully as she did.

A Wounded Healer

The psalmist wrote, “My sacrifice, O God is a broken spirit;/a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” With those words and others like them we began our Lenten pilgrimage on Ash Wednesday. After the weeks of Epiphany during which we marveled at the revelation of Jesus as Messiah and Christ, it seems strange to switch to a confession of brokenness and contrition.

A friend of a friend refused to believe there was anything broken about her. She was absolutely perfect as she was. It seemed a strange thing for a seminarian to believe about herself, when we have verses like the one about that tells us God is looking to us in our brokenness. It seems important to acknowledge our brokenness; our hurts, flaws, unhealed wounds, and scars that cover the wounds. They are all part of who we are. I find it hard to believe that anyone is free of them.

What’s more we seem to need our brokenness. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” Our cracks and brokenness can be disfiguring, but they can also be what allows us to be truly human. The disfigurement can be our beauty.

None of us signs up for the wounds that we receive. Few wounds are really justified, but we have them nonetheless. We have choices about how to respond to the wounding. We can choose to keep the hurts alive with anger, envy, or righteous entitlement. We can lash out at others passing forward the pain we received. We also have the choice of saying as Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That attitude is one that transforms the wound into a balm for others. It may feel to acute to do so in the moment, but it is that stance that heals us and frees us from the burden of caring the hurt as an open wound all of our life.

Those who are hurting can recognize us by our scars. They are marks of a real life lived openly. If we choose to be a healer, they are signs of our compassion. They are signs of our willingness to sit with another and be a companion in their pain. For the cracks not only let light in, but they let out the light that is the love of God for each other.

It is that attitude that takes our wound and turns it into something beautiful. Like the Japanese potters who mend a broken vessel with gold so that the break stands out. The break, rather than detracting from the beauty adds to it. For the wounded human it also reminds us of the wonder of healing.

Saintly Love

Poor St. Valentine. He was martyred for his faith in 269. St. Valentine was beaten to death with clubs and then beheaded for his refusal to submit to Emperor Claudius’ command to give up Jesus in favor of Roman gods. Now of 1,700 years later he is linked to a Roman god in the person of Cupid, “son” or Mercury and Venus. Additionally, our modern celebration of St. Valentine’s Day has been shortened to Valentine’s Day and the martyred saint (or saints, as there are at least two men named Valentinus associated with St. Valentine’s Day) is all but forgotten among boxes of chocolate, champagne, fancy dinners, and cute greeting cards.

Among the legends and hagiography of St. Valentine there are a couple of stories that link St. Valentine with love. Early Christians were pacifists and did not serve in the Roman army. Valentine, who was either a priest or a bishop, would officiate at the marriage of Christian men and women. Marriage would help the man avoid military service to the Empire. Valentine purportedly made hearts out of paper to remind the man of his duty to God and his wife for helping him to avoid conscription. Another is that Valentine, when imprisoned, cured the blind daughter of his jailer, and they fell in love. His last letter to her was signed “your Valentine.” They are sweet thoughts, but probably apocryphal.

According to the History Channel website, Geoffrey Chaucer may have invented the modern Valentine’s Day. They write, “In his work ‘Parliament of Foules,’ he links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day–an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention. The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. When Chaucer wrote, ‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.’”

So St. Valentine became the patron of lovers, at least in popular culture (in the Catholic Church he is designated as the patron saint of beekeepers and epileptics). Additionally, his day has been coopted for commercial purposes. Not unlike how St. Patrick’s Day somehow has become associated with excessive drinking and anything green, rather than a celebration of the man who brought Christianity to Ireland.

I do not begrudge anyone their Valentine’s Day romance, but let us not forget that there was a man or men who went by the name of Valentine and died for his belief in Christ Jesus our lord. He, like so many early martyrs of the Church, died for a love more profound than one based on hormones, earthly beauty, and passionate embraces. He died for the love of God for all, even those who persecuted him and ultimately took his life from him. His truly is a love worth dying for.

At Play in 10,000 places

As Kingfishers Catch Fire–Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying, Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

I confess that I often find Hopkins’ poems difficult to decipher in their wholeness. But then there comes a line or two that is of such great beauty that I am stopped dead in my tracks. So it is with this poem, and with the lines quoted in the photo above.

I believe too often we think that after Christ’s ascension we can no longer see Christ in the world. Yet as Hopkins write Christ is at play everywhere. In the messy face of a child, in the gnarled hands of a a man in a retirement home, in the soft hands of a toddler, in the drawn face of a homeless woman, in the lovely face of a Bedouin, in the sleepy eyes of a newborn and the wondrous smile of his older brother age three and three-quarters, in the tearful eyes of one who grieves the loss of a relationship or a friend, in the joyful tears of one who has found love, in the bare feet of a boy in Mexico, in the shiny patent leather shod feet of a Spanish schoolgirl, and the list can go on and on.

Christ is everywhere and in everyone. For God is in us all. The trick for you and me is to have eyes to see. God sees it as Hopkins tells us. We seem to have scales before our eyes that are our prejudices, our fears, and our egos. These are the “original sins” that blind us to the presence of God in all people.

With the help of Jesus and those who love him those scales can drop away. Sometimes it is partially and we see as if “through a glass darkly.” Other times those scales can drop away completely and we see as if with new eyes, as St. Paul did in Damascus. It is a process that is never complete this side of the veil, but it is what Jesus calls us to as he is at play in a thousand places. Places that include your heart and mine and the hearts of all who are beloved of God. Which is, of course, everyone.

Begin Here

The human condition is such that we seem to have to learn lessons over and over again. Sometimes it gets easier and other times it seems like I am learning it again for the first time. For me I often get stuck because I cannot see how I could reach the end. To pervert an old saying “I don’t start the journey, because I cannot take the first step.”

As I approach a new task the nagging voice comes again. “Why start if you can’t possibly finish?” “You do not know what you’re doing give up now instead of wasting time.” “Who are you to think that you can accomplish this. Quit while you’re ahead.” The negative recordings installed over time play and replay keeping me stuck in place.

My ability to overcome some of this talk came from an unexpected source. It was a book that was popular in the 70s–Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I picked up the book out of idle curiosity. I was not interested in Zen Buddhism or maintaining motorcycles, but the title was provocative and the yellow cover attracted my eye. Little did I know what was in store for me.

As I read I became fascinated with the storyline of the father and son on a seventeen-day road trip and the philosophical musings of the author. As compelling as the story is what changed my life was a specific scene where Pirsig visits a motorcycle shop. He notices that the shop is quiet. Every other shop he had entered had music playing and other distractions. This shop was nearly silent. This led to a digression on Pirsig’s view of how Zen helped him learn to maintain his bike.

What I took away from his digression was a new way of looking at any project. No longer did I look to the end result, and feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of getting there, give up before I began. Instead, at my best, I could look at a project and break it down into discrete tasks. While the overall project might seem impossible each individual task was less intimidating.

One of the best examples of how it affected my life happened in the late 90s. At that time I heard about a challenge to raise money for AIDS services. The event was called the Philadelphia->DC AIDS Ride. It seemed like an important way to help raise money for organizations helping those suffering from the AIDS pandemic. But the catch was twofold. One a participant had to raise at least $2,000 in pledges. I hate fundraising, and asking people for money to help people with a disease that had lots of stigma attached added to the challenge. Second, I had to commit to bicycling 250 miles from Philly to DC on a hot June weekend. While i enjoyed riding my bike I had never ridden more than 10 miles; how could I possibly ride 250?

For both challenges I was able to reach back to the lessons from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I broke down both tasks into smaller tasks. I did not have to raise $2,000 just $100 then $500 and so forth. I did not need one big donor, but lots of small donors. I looked to my church community, family, friends and co-workers and asked for $25. Of course, some would give more and some would give less and some would give nothing at all. But by tracking my progress to smaller goals the task felt manageable.

Biking was harder. I had to set up a training schedule not really knowing what I was up to. I set a goal of riding 80 miles in one day. I figured if I could ride 80 I could ride farther if needed. I worked back from the weekend of the ride setting daily and weekly goals. Each Saturday was the long ride and each week it would get a little longer so that by the week before I would hit the goal of 80.

The weekend of the ride would be the big challenge. The distance was intimidating, The terrain was different (more hills, argh). I also worried if I was able to keep up with the other riders. But I fell back on my “Zen” and mentally set a goal of fifteen miles. That was the average distance between rest stops. All I had to do was ride fifteen miles. I would get a drink and a snack and ride another fifteen. By breaking it down in that way I was able to reach camp on Friday after riding 100 miles, then Saturday after riding 90 miles, and the finish line after riding 60 miles.

Not only did I discover I could do this “impossible” task, but I was able to do it well. If it had been a race I would have lost, but as it was a ride, I learned I was in the top ten percent of the riders. Not bad for a guy who was never an athlete.

Yes, every journey begins with one step, but oftentimes it is taking the first step that is the hardest. It takes beginning in order to succeed regardless of the task. Even when one beginning falters there are other beginnings, other dreams, other goals that may beckon us even in our failure.

Take the first step without regard for the impossibility of the end result. There is no telling what may be revealed about yourself and your life along the way.

Good Morning!

This week I received and email from a friend and former coworker, Stanley Finch. We worked together in a gourmet food shop in Chapel Hill in the early 80s. The experience Stan describes below is funny but also telling of the importance of simple courtesy not only in the workplace but throughout our lives.

Stan wrote, “I was a manager in a large, expanding gourmet food store long before those products were sold in every grocery.  Since I arrived before the store opened for the day, I entered by a back door through the stock room. There, day in, day out, was dear, even earlier arriving, Mattie, a wonderful older woman. She sat all day weighing and bagging spices, chocolate cordials, jelly beans, anything that arrived in bulk to the store rather than in neat little packages.  Always cheerful in spite of her dreary, windowless work space, we had become good friends.

One morning, my mind was somewhere else when I arrived, probably preoccupied with Christmas season sales numbers. Bundled against the cold, I walked right past Mattie. From behind I heard her growl, ‘I didn’t sleep wi’ cho!!!’  I didn’t quite get the remark and turned to my more than wise friend, puzzled. Again Mattie repeated, ‘ I didn’t sleep wi’ cho!! Don’t go past me without saying good morning!!’  After picking myself up from the floor laughing, cherishing the unusual beginning of an unexpectedly joyful day, I said, ‘Good morning dear Mattie!’

“I never again failed to salute my special co-worker each morning, no matter how distracted I may have been. For years after, in many different work settings, I did my best to greet my colleagues cordially each day. When they failed to reply, I silently repeated to myself, ‘I didn’t sleep wi’ cho!!!’ and started the day with a laughing remembrance of dear Mattie.

Mattie had it right. There is something about common courtesy, a kind greeting, a nod of recognition, or a handshake that keeps us connected with each other. That acknowledges our common humanity and need for recognition.

It is also an acknowledgement that we have in common the breathe of God that was breathed into each of us at our birth. We are all God’s people. We are all beloved of God. When we greet one another we greet the goodness of God. We are saying “Hello” to the Godlight sparkling in each other’s eyes.

Let us all remember Mattie’s wisdom and never walk by each other without saying “Good morning.”

Cat Feet

Earlier this week we had a day or two of persistently foggy weather. As whenever we have an unusual weather patterns folks were kvetching about it. I must say that at first I agreed with folks who were testy with the fog. There was a closeness and sense of being trapped. The fog even had a foreboding feel about it, as if there were something ominous being hidden in the low lying cloud.

But as the day progressed that threatening feeling started to mellow into something more benign. It was then that I started to feel that the fog was not hiding something fearful, but rather wrapping me in a cocoon where I was safe from harm. I was also safe from outside demands. I was cloaked and made secure. I used the day to stay in and read. I knew I would not be disturbed by the present world. Instead, I could slip into the world of my book (Manhattan 1937) and become one with it.  

Perhaps those who were complaining about the fog earlier in the day mellowed as I did and settled into the gift of the fog. Others, driven by the needs of their world or some inner demands, were frustrated until the fog burned off. It is not always easy to accept an unexpected gift or even to see it for the gift it is. Those of us who do see the gift can set the example for others. Rather than joining in the kvetching we can sigh with relief and gratitude and tell others how it feels to settle into the gift.

Before cars, superhighways, long commutes, and the demands of a never ending workday that is what people had to do. There was not the rush or hurry to overcome the weather in order to fulfill someone else’s agenda. There was not the race to get another thing done regardless of the cost or inconvenience. If it was foggy we lived with it and accommodated it. Similarly, when it rained we worked indoors. When it snowed we settled in front of the fire instead of proving we could overcome nature with shovels, blowers, and snowtires.

I remember those days from childhood. I remember the special treats that came with being “trapped” indoors. They included having my dad home for more than meal times. The special times when he could relax and play a game with us, because work was not calling. Or when it snowed and my parents made doughnuts with Mom’s special icing. Or when the power was out and we huddled in front of the fireplace to keep warm and also to make hot chocolate. The weather events were not something to be endured but something to be made special and even sacred by the rituals we performed.

Carl Sandburg wrote,
“The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.”

There is something to be learned from fog and other such weather manifestations. They give us a chance to change our patterns, to find other ways of being, or to make sacred new practices or revive old ones. Sit as the fog sits on its “silent haunches” and allow the fog to be a gift unbidden and without warning but nonetheless welcome and cherished for its rareness. Our opportunities are limited to savor these gifts and there is no sense giving them up, for in no time they will move on and be gone.

Something Like a Star

Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh

Those of us who are of a certain age were likely to have had to memorize and recite poems in school. I also had a piano teacher who had us memorize and recite poems and humorous readings. The point was to help us gain poise and confidence in speaking in front of an audience. Boy Scouts also had a public speaking merit badge for which we had to give a prepared speech as well as speak extemporaneously on a topic of the audiences’ choosing. Each of these had its own challenge. They also at times seemed to be from an era gone by. I felt like I was living in a period movie like “The Music Man” or “Auntie Mame.”

One of the most popular poets we were to memorize was Robert Frost. So many of his poems at mid–century seemed to inspire nostalgia for a simpler time and place than Cold War America. “Mending Walls,” “Birches,” “Stopping by a Wood on a Snowy Evening,” and, of course, “The Road Not Taken,” were all so very popular with our teachers and our parents. Reciting one of these reasonably well was sure to earn the student extra points just for picking the poem. A particular favorite of mine is “Choose Something Like a Star.” I learned to love this poem even more when my college choir sang an exquisite setting by Randall Thompson. [ Here is a link to a performance of “Choose Something Like a Star.”]

Each year near Epiphany “Choose Something like a Star” comes back to mind. It is not just the association between the starry poem and the star that guided the Magi. There is the poem’s message that calls us beyond ourselves at a time of year when it is very easy to get self-absorbed due to the cold weather and the tendency after the holidays to cocoon a bit. The poem calls me out of myself and into the wider universe where I am guided by more than my needs and wants but by a star that, like the one that led the Magi, can lead me to a place stability, hope, and truth.

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud –
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.