Friday, March 31, 2017

Music for Lent: Byrd's Emendemus in melius

Emendemus in melius
Quae ignoranter peccavimus,
Ne subito praeoccupati die mortis
Quaeramus spatium poenitentiae
Et invenire non possumus.
Attende, Domine, et miserere,
Quia peccavimus tibi.
Adjuva nos, Deus salutaris noster,
Et propter honorem nominis tui
Libera nos.

Let us amend what we have transgressed
Through ignorance,
Lest, should the day of death suddenly overtake us,
We seek time for repentance
And cannot find it.
Hearken, o Lord, and have mercy,
For we have sinned against thee.
Help us, O God of our salvation,
And, for the glory of thy name,
Deliver us.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Annunciation

Donatello's Annunciation in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Love the way Mary and Gabriel are looking at each other, she in the superior position, he almost playfully inquiring.

How people were able to chisel stone and make something like this is one of life's great mysteries.

Hail, Mary, full of grace.....

Friday, March 24, 2017

Music for Lent: Rachmaninoff's Vespers Nunc Dimittis

I prefer posting videos that show some images and movement, or best yet live performances, but there simply is no better recording of Rachmaninoff's Nunc dimities (also known as the Song of Simeon) than this one, featuring Karl Dent, tenor, and the Robert Shaw Festival Singers recorded in Quercy, France, in a church there, in 1989. The CD was released in 1990 and I bought it not long thereafter. The whole CD is just magical (who knew Rachmaninoff could create this kind of stuff???) but the Nunc dimittis is my favorite.

Rachmaninoff requested that this Nunc be sung at his funeral, but for some reason this proved impossible and so it was not. Perhaps there were not enough low basses.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Being Chosen: A reflection for the 3rd Sunday in Lent

My colleague Michael Sweeney, our Director of Family Ministries at St. Stephen's, shared this beautiful reflection at our Celtic service this evening. I love how he draws a connection in his own life with the story of the woman at the well, which was the Gospel reading for today (John 4:5-42), about how God seems to put us in the right place to serve his purpose. This is a great mystery. So here is Michael's story: 

In December I shared a bit about my time in Mexico City, how I was hired via email to teach English at a private school there, how my desire for adventure and weakness for feeling chosen blocked out all rational consideration in my decision-making. So I packed my suitcases and moved to Mexico. 

The school turned out to be awful. A for-profit operation, it had grown its student body from 300 in year 1 to 600 in year 2 without adding the requisite staff or classroom space. I taught about half of the 600 hundred students, squatting in other teachers’ classrooms. When I complained to the principal that this wasn’t a very good arrangement, she offered to set up a tent in a corner of the playground. 

I’d go home each night, cook some food, and sit at my kitchen table with the seventh Harry Potter book until I was tired enough to go to sleep. My life was like the waiting room at the slowest doctor’s office in the world. I needed a shot of courage to quit, but it seemed like the doctor had forgotten about me, so I just read my book as patiently as I could. In fact, I read each sentence as if it were the last, two or three times, slowly, always covering the next sentence with my fingers so I wouldn’t cheat and skip ahead before I’d licked the bone of every word completely clean. 

It was the last Harry Potter book, and I wasn’t at all eager for the story to be over, but more importantly, I didn’t know what I would do with myself when it was over. Having another story to live in every night was the one thing that made the day almost bearable. And I didn’t know how long I’d be stuck in that apartment, waiting for the courage to leave. It sounds so silly in retrospect, that I couldn’t just walk into the principal’s office and quit, but I couldn’t. I tried twice and failed.

There’s one night that was different from all the rest. I had sautéed onions and peppers, browned some beef, and sat down with Harry Potter. I was dangerously close to the end. At one tender moment, I began to cry and closed the book. The story continued to move even though the words had stopped, like water blown from a tree after the rain.

My phone rang, interrupting the moment. I answered in Spanish, trying to sound as normal and put together as I could manage. I needn’t have bothered. The voice on the other end was broken—slurred and sobbing—the voice of my Dutch colleague Dominic. We’d spoken only a handful of times, only at work, always polite and mundane. His girlfriend had left him and he was afraid that he was going to drink himself to death. He asked me if I’d be willing—he knew it was a lot to ask—but would I be willing to come be with him?

Of course, I said, and I went. I listened to his heartbreaking story, I brought him water when he needed it, and when he could stay awake no longer I watched him sleep until morning.

I don’t know why Dominic chose to call me that night. Perhaps it was helpful that we had no history, that we weren’t especially close, that we might not ever be good friends. Perhaps he was as alone in a foreign country as I was, and there was simply no one else to call. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that I was in Mexico City that night, sitting at my kitchen table, waiting.

I know I’ll never understand God’s will, even in retrospect, but I enjoy guessing at it. I look at scripture for clues—how God puts us in the right place to serve his purpose, how the Samaritan woman, sick and tired of her grueling and monotonous chore of fetching water, met Jesus at the well, that place she didn’t want to be, and from there spread his message of hope and salvation to her whole city.

I can’t say that God used my foolishness to put me in Mexico City, or my lack of courage to keep me there. But I sure do wonder. Soon after the night with Dominic I found the conviction to quit. Were it only for that one night that I spent nine hard weeks living in Mexico City, I thank God for my time there.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Extra: Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you. 
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight. 
When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home. 
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~ John O'Donohue ~
(Echoes of Memory)

Music for St. Patrick's Day: Lunasa's Merry Sisters of Fate

Recorded live at The Burren club in Somerville, Massachusetts in August 2012.

Seán Smyth -- Fiddle, Whistles
Kevin Crawford -- Flutes, Whistles
Trevor Hutchinson -- Double Bass
Cillian Vallely - Uilleann pipes, Whistles
Ed Boyd - Guitar

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Gospel in a Nutshell

Martin Luther declared that John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life) is "the Gospel in a nutshell.” Luther, a highly opinionated man, had a lot to say in his life (he wrote hundreds of sermons, essays, commentaries, books and letters), but nevertheless for him, this one verse is the essence of the story. This is the Good News.

Personally, I don’t see why a nutshell only has to contain one verse. And so, with apologies to Martin Luther, I want to add the next verse as well: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Because as much as I like the part about the Love, I also need the reminder that the Good News has nothing to do with condemnation and everything to do with God’s desire to redeem everything and everyone, no matter how messed up things (or we) are.

In John’s Gospel, the world doesn’t really know God, and the world rejects God, preferring secrecy and doing things in the dark to bringing the good to light. Sometimes things don’t seem to have changed that much in the nearly 2000 years since. There’s still a lot going on out there that looks like a rejection of God and God’s desires for the world. And there’s a part of me that wants God to come down pretty hard on this. 

But instead, because of Love, God wants to save this crazy, broken world that I get so frustrated with. God sees hope and possibility where I see an irredeemable mess. And that, in a nutshell, is Good News.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Music for Lent: Arvo Part, De Profundis

Arvo Pärt
Paul Hillier, Theatre Of Voices
Harmonia Mundi

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuæ intendentes
in vocem deprecationis meæ.
Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit?
Quia apud te propitiatio est; et propter legem tuam sustinui te, Domine.
Sustinuit anima mea in verbo ejus:
Speravit anima mea in Domino.
A custodia matutina usque ad noctem, speret Israël in Domino.
Quia apud Dominum misericordia, et copiosa apud eum redemptio.
Et ipse redimet Israël ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.

1Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice; *
    let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
2If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss, *
    O LORD, who could stand?
3For there is forgiveness with you; *
    therefore you shall be feared.

4I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; *
    in his word is my hope.
5My soul waits for the LORD,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
    more than watchmen for the morning.
6O Israel, wait for the LORD, *
    for with the LORD there is mercy;
7With him there is plenteous redemption, *
    and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
(BCP Psalm 130)

Sunday, March 5, 2017

First Sunday in Lent: The Decalogue

Detail from a pew in the Abbey on Iona, Scotland.

This is how we begin on the Sundays in Lent at church, by kneeling and hearing the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) read by the Celebrant. We agree (Amen) and ask for God's mercy after we have heard each commandment, for we know that we have not kept them all. 

And thus we come together each Sunday in Lent to remember and repent of our sins, knowing that pardon is our is we ask for it, and so that we may continue our worship with joy and thanksgiving that indeed, the Lord will not hold our sins against us forever.

The Decalogue:

Hear the commandments of God to his people:
I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage.
You shall have no other gods but me.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

You shall not make for yourself any idol.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

You shall not invoke with malice the Name of the Lord your God.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

Honor your father and your mother.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

You shall not commit murder.
Amen. Lord have mercy.
You shall not commit adultery.
Amen. Lord have mercy.
You shall not steal.
Amen. Lord have mercy.
You shall not be a false witness.
Amen. Lord have mercy.
You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Amen. Lord have mercy.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Music for Lent: Tavener's Lord's Prayer

MUSICA SACRA Chór Katedry Warszawsko-Praskiej / Warsaw-Praga Cathedral Choir
Paweł Łukaszewski - dyrygent / conductor
Michał Markuszewski - organy / organ

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Celestial Ashes

When I was in college, I was susceptible to getting into those silly arguments about whether or not it was more important to have art or science. Twyla Tharp or the steam engine. Beethoven or a washing machine. You know. 

I always chose Beethoven (or e.e. cummings or Mary Cassatt) to the chagrin of my science-minded friends. You gotta have art to help us see the beauty of the world, I argued. They shot back that I’d be miserable in a minute without an oven and a dryer. Little did they know how uninterested I was in cooking and cleaning  - and much I enjoyed arguing.

These were, of course, false dichotomies. The world is filled with beauty and people who are tuned in to that beauty. And the world is also filled with people who notice matter and motion, who invent and create helpful machines and systems. We don’t have to choose between the internet and Appalachian Spring - it’s all there for us.

One of the places I’ve seen art and science come together most beautifully is in the saying that we are made of stardust. Both the singer Joni Mitchell and scientist Carl Sagan affirmed this when I was in high school. But even in the 1920’s astronomers were saying that our bodies and the earth we stand on are made of star stuff; they contain the ashes of an ancient stellar explosion. We and the universe are made of the same elements.

By way of those celestial ashes we are connected to the earth and to each other and even to those seven new planets just discovered and of course also to God, the source of all life and creation. We are both scientifically and poetically interconnected with the cosmos and all that is in it.


We are about to be invited to observe a Holy Lent, and we are about to have ashes rubbed on our foreheads to remind us that we came from dust and we will return to dust. We consider our mortality today, definitely.

But, as I feel those ashes smudged on my forehead, I also want to open myself to interconnectedness - with the Earth, with the stars, with God, with people everywhere, with you - as I begin my own observance of this holy Lent because too often, my sin is that I think I can go it alone.

My sin is the belief that I can save myself, that I can work my way to salvation, that I can transform myself into a righteous person through my own efforts. I forget that as a person in relationship with God and neighbor I will be transformed by those relationships and instead imagine that foregoing something that, honestly, is a luxury anyway (chocolate, wine, gossip) or embarking on some kind of personal self-improvement program for forty days will somehow bring me closer to God.

How small is my thinking. Here we are carrying pieces of the cosmos within us, of mountains and galaxies and oceans and spotted eagle rays and redwoods and Fiona the baby hippo and God and all of you, and in my vanity and my limited vision I come up with a plan to cut back on carbohydrates as a pathway to a new and contrite heart. 

Perhaps because something small feels easier to manage than exploring my relationship with the whole universe. And so I am tempted to close down instead of to open up.

But what I honestly wish to do is to stop striving to fend off things I am not sure I can control, to let all the things that come between me and God, between me and people, between me and my true self just blow where they will. What I want is to embrace my cosmic nature, to live as if I were part of all creation, as if I were connected to God and to everybody without all these barriers and conditions and especially without any notion that I might work my way into God’s heart. What I want is to expand my scope and live as if stardust, that which is from God and in everything God made and God loves, is where my heart lies and is my treasure.

The traditional disciplines of Lent are prayer, fasting, and giving alms. Many of us practice those disciplines every year. We commit to more or special prayer time. We fast from certain foods or habits. Some keep track of the money saved through that fasting and then make a gift of that amount to church or charity, so that their fasting translates into a benefit for others.

Whatever we choose as a discipline speaks to our need for repentance and pardon and the renewal of our faith in a particular way. But its easy to fall prey to a vision that we are each out there working on ourselves by ourselves, tempted to solitary self-improvement during this holy season. To become smaller, more controlled, more streamlined and self-focused. This vision is a trap for me.

And so this year I want my prayers to be for the needs of others. I wish for my fasting to be for the sake and benefit of others. I want to give alms to alleviate the pain of others. I want those ashes smudged on my face to remind me that I only have so much time to live a life in service of God and neighbor, in service of earth and sky and sea, and not simply in service of my own small self and my own small plan for self improvement. 

I am just a speck in the universe, but I am already a beloved speck called to recognize the beloved-ness of all those other precious specks with whom I share star-stuff essence. I do not need to hone my soul to achieve yet more beloved-ness nor hoard beloved-ness as if there were only a little bit to go around. The universe is full of it, and I can relax.

And in my relaxing, I can let go of my sin, the sin of stubborn self-reliance and self-absorption, of my concern with my needs (when I have so much!) and my blindness to the needs of others, and in that letting go open myself to allow God to come close to me and fill my mortal self with Divine love and grace. 

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, star stuff to star stuff. Amen.


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