When you struggle to settle

It was an unusual experience. We were high up in the balcony of the theatre. The seats directly in front of us were empty except for a woman with exceptionally tall hair. In the next row up was a family with two children. The older, a young teen, leaned her head first onto the shoulder of her mother and then onto the shoulder of the woman sitting on her other side (an older sister home from college? a young aunt?). Eventually she curled up in her seat as best she could and appeared to sleep. The younger child, perhaps eight or ten, handed her program to her sister/aunt, took it back, handed it back again. She tapped her aunt’s elbow for attention and whispered something. Occasionally she looked at the performance taking place on the stage below her.

Two women to our left chattered in whispers. The whole audience seemed restless. I’ve never seen so many individuals leave during a performance. Some re-entered.

I was frustrated and puzzled, feeling in myself, too, the inability to settle that I could see all around me. Why? What was going on? I’d been looking forward to this performance of Handel’s Messiah. As I bussed to the theatre, I’d consciously released the events of my day to God, preparing to settle in, savor the music, and let it lead me into worship. But it wasn’t happening.

Gradually I began to understand.

In the moment the orchestra began the overture, I’d felt out of breath, trying to keep up, holding onto the arms of my chair as though to slow us down, to keep us together. To keep myself together, maybe. The music had slowed when the tenor sang “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,” and I’d breathed deeply. The choir entered, perfectly together, singing beautifully. And then we’d sped up and again I’d felt like I needed to hold on, to slow us down with my hands as though seatbelting myself in, trying to defend against a crash. Once the conductor had stopped the orchestra a few bars in and started again. I suspect the changing tempo was meant to highlight the words, to provide helpful contrast. In effect what I experienced was auditory whiplash and an unsettled soul.

Still, there were glimpses of grace—grace that I might not have seen if I’d felt settled from the start:

A single note where the tenor hung alone, opening a moment of spaciousness whose holy grace remains with me, reminding me that beyond the hustle there is a still point. Behind the rush, the show, the frothy mix of motives and emotions, Reality waits. And He is gracious and spacious and good.

My always-favorite duet where the soprano and alto remind us that “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young,” and therefore we can “Come unto him all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of him, for he is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”

And this: Three-quarters of the way through the concert, the first notes of the Hallelujah chorus sounded. Together, we stood. The people who had been restless stilled. The chatterers stopped. The teen in front of us slept on, but the two women lifted the younger child to her feet to stand with them. And as all the voices of the humans and instruments sang together, I understood all over again: Life may drag us along, stealing our breath with its speed, giving us whiplash with unexpected changes of direction or tempo. Our best attempts to make art or serve others may not turn out in the way we hoped. A performance or a project may disappoint. It is not the end of the world. Because on this truth we stand, and in this hope we once again find our center, our courage, and our voice to join with the multitude which sings around the throne:

“Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.

The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ;

And he shall reign for ever and ever.

King of kings and Lord of lords.

Hallelujah.”

 ____________________

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash.

When you need to remember the bigger story

There are those moments when the fog lifts and light peeks through and I see again the Grand Story in which we all live.

One of those moments happened for me ten days ago as I sat watching a small choir and orchestra play Handel’s Messiah. I’ve seen it performed live at least ten or fifteen times. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, singing along with it as I wash dishes. It always points me back to the Grand Story, to the place where light breaks into the darkness. But this night was different. More.

For one thing, it was being performed in a small theatre—the same size as the room in which it was first performed in 1742. The orchestra was smaller than I’m used to—only four first violins. The instruments were different too: the eighteenth-century trumpet was double the length of a modern trumpet, and have you ever heard of a violone? (It’s bigger than a cello and smaller than a bass.) But it was the preconcert talk that showed me where to look, this time, to see the brightest light.

Before the orchestra entered, four chairs were drawn up near the front of the stage, and the artistic director sat to interview the trumpeter, the tenor soloist, and the conductor. The artistic director asked the trumpeter how this performance with instruments from the eighteenth century was different than other performances, and she spoke of the leveling effect of period instruments. Even the trumpet, usually the strongest and brightest note in the orchestra, was quieter, less brilliant, one voice among all the others. Every singer, every instrument, was equal, each voice contributing to the drama that was about to unfold in front of us.

Just before the panel left the stage and the orchestra entered, the artistic director said to the conductor: “Here’s a provocative question: Do you have to be a believer to get the most out of this piece of music?” The conductor responded quickly, as though shaking off any religion that might cling to him. For him, it was a lovely piece of music that comes to life in the playing, as does any other fine piece, and that’s enough. I watched the tenor tilt his head and raise his eyebrows gently.

The players came in, instruments checked tuning, and the music began at a quick tempo. The angels came to announce the birth of the child with power and energy, the trumpet joining in, one voice among the voices of the choir of angels, adding its announcement that a King had been born. Each repeat that Handel had written into the music was played, giving us time to savor and soak in the drama.

The music slowed in the second half, and I felt Jesus’ torment as he was rejected and spat upon. I ached at my own part in the drama as I heard not only the singers, but also the violins and violas and cellos picking at Jesus, spitting in his face, plucking out his beard. What the trumpeter had said was right: every vocalist and instrumentalist had an equal voice, every one playing their own small but important part in the drama. She hadn’t warned me that the drama would come to life, enfolding me, and I would find myself aching with the alternating pain and joy as I played my part in the drama too.

The Hallelujah chorus, the dead raised incorruptible, worthy is the Lamb—the whole story was not just sung and played but lived before us. We entered it, felt it, became part of it.

There was a pause, the cry of “Worthy is the Lamb!” still ringing in the air and in our hearts. We breathed the air around the throne.

Then, slowly, the same conductor who had dismissed the truth of the story lifted his hands and held them out to each person in turn, inviting, impelling every voice, one by one, to join in the final resounding affirmation that the story is not only profoundly, shatteringly beautiful, but unquestionably true. And that the One at the centre of this drama and the centre of the throne is deserving of all my worship, all my life. The Amen began to swell as each voice, one or two or four at a time, joined in the chorus, singing all the fullness of that single, rich word. Amen: I agree with all my heart. Amen: this is true, trustworthy, the solid foundation at the centre of a shifting world. Amen: weave this truth into me, Lord, and I into it. Let it be so in me.

And in that conductor’s outstretched arms, and the response of each voice, I tasted the coming fulfilment of the promise:

“Therefore God exalted [Jesus] to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-10)

 

______________________

Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash.

Of stuffed sheep and sacred space and knowing that you matter

img_4563

I was going to write today’s post about the lines I read in Tish Harrison Warren’s liturgy of the ordinary (and yes, the first letters in the title of her book are all small letters, and the cover features the makings of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because the point of her book—which I’m loving—is to help us embrace the sacred in the ordinary.)

I was going to write about her words,

“In my tradition, Anglicanism, we baptize infants. Before they cognitively understand the story of Christ, before they can affirm a creed, before they can sit up, use the bathroom, or contribute significantly to the work of the church, grace is spoken over them and they are accepted as part of us. They are counted as God’s people before they have anything to show for themselves.” (p. 17)

Isn’t that what we celebrate at Christmas—that God came among us, gracing us with his own presence, with Himself, not because we had done anything to earn it but precisely because we couldn’t and because he loved us and wanted us to know it?

Or I was going to share the way she talks about the body as “the most sacred object on earth.” (That thought won’t let me go.)

“Sexual sin is a scandal in the Scriptures not because the apostles were blushing prigs—they were, in reality, a rather salty bunch—or because the body is dirty or evil, but because our skin and muscles and feet and hands are more sacred than any communion chalice or baptismal font. Ignoring Scripture’s teaching about the proper use of the body and using our bodies for our own false worship is a misuse of the sacred akin to using consecrated bread and wine in a Wiccan goddess ceremony.

Similarly, when we denigrate our bodies—whether through neglect or staring at our faces and counting up our flaws—we are belittling a sacred site, a worship space more wondrous than the most glorious, ancient cathedral. We are standing before the Grand Canyon or the Sistine Chapel and rolling our eyes.” (p. 45)

Isn’t this, too, what we celebrate at Christmas—that God further sanctified what he had already made in his image, breathed his own life into, and declared “very good” at creation, now taking flesh himself, joining himself to us in our flesh forever, making our human bodies not just the outer court of the temple but the holy of holies where God dwells?

But I’ve decided to share one moment where all this came together for me—the sacred in the ordinary, God’s holy presence in my own embodied longing.

I did something the other day that I’ve never done before and may never do again. There has been a stuffed lamb sitting in my cupboard for years. Its name is Shalom (Shalom Sheep if you want the full name) and my sister gave it to me soon after I moved out here, far away from family, “in case you get lonely.”

Some time recently Shalom migrated from the cupboard to sit on my bed. And on Friday morning when I made my bed, she was looking at me with such sad and lonely eyes that I couldn’t bear to leave her there. I felt like my heart was going to break if I turned away. So I picked her up and zipped her inside my hoodie, carrying her on my chest like a mom carries a baby in a snugglie. (I confess to feeling a little crazy as I did it—she’s a stuffed animal, for Pete’s sake!) But I sensed there was an invitation there for me, and the only way to hear the invitation was to step into it. So I zipped the little lonely lamb against my chest and carried her there most of the day, letting myself feel the tenderness that arose toward her. The tenderness itself was a gift that somehow overflowed into an ability to be more gentle with myself and others. But it was only that evening, hours after I’d removed the little lamb from my hoodie and tucked her under a blanket to wait while I went out in the slushy snow to listen to Handel’s Messiah that I began to see the deeper layer of gift.

I was sitting with a friend in the Orpheum theatre. The tenor had already sung, “Comfort ye, my people,” and the alto had reminded us that the child coming among us was called Emmanuel, “God with us.” The choir had sung that the child is born and the son given, and the soprano had called us to rejoice because our king comes.

And then the alto began to sing the reassurance from Isaiah 40, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom . . .” And I remembered: God carries lonely little lambs next to his heart too! God had been inviting me to understand these words from the inside, to feel something of his own tenderness toward me. He aches when he sees me ache, and he doesn’t turn away. He picks me up (if I’ll let him) and tucks me safe in that swaddling space where I can hear his heartbeat and feel his warmth, hear his quiet whispers and feel his hand move to touch my back and know that I’m not alone. And this tender care isn’t just for extreme circumstances or moments of tragedy. It’s all part of the (extra)ordinary everyday love of the shepherd, part of being his, loved and known and cared for in the rise and fall of everyday life.

The Hidden King

DSCN2737As I sat yesterday in the pew of a big city church, distant echoes played in my mind, echoes of that Sunday a couple of years ago when I’d sat with a friend on a similar wooden pew near the back of a little country church. That day, the unexpected sun had filtered through the rain-stained windows. The priest, in his white robe of celebration, had reminded us that it was the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year.

When we’d planned those few days away, I’d forgotten that they fell between the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next, between the celebration of Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent.

In the calendar it’s only one week a year, this week between the end of one liturgical year and the start of the next; off the page it can feel like more. Isn’t this where we live large chunks of our lives, clinging with both hands to the promise that Christ is King while being plunged into the reality of how this King comes, the God-man so small and silent that in those first days of his coming among us even the woman carrying him couldn’t discern his presence?

The priest raised the wafer and reminded us of the words of this King, “This is my body, broken for you.” Such a strange king he is, this King who conquers his enemies with love and nourishes his children with His own bruised and broken body.

Years have passed and faces and places have changed, but as I sit once again in this week between yesterday’s Christ the King Sunday and next Sunday’s beginning of Advent and look at the world around me, it’s the same never-old truths that still speak peace. This King who wore our flesh and sweated our blood and cried our tears will tenderly hold a reed that’s bent double with grief. This King who comes quietly among us will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.

He comes into our violent, grieving humanness, this King, entering and owning it, living it and lifting it to a place where it is no longer a barrier to entering His presence but the very place where He comes closest.

Soon I will begin again to weave crosses in red and gold to clothe the naked tree, singing along with Handel’s Messiah, finding here the words I need to receive and sing and live all over again.

“Comfort ye my people.” The voice is gentle and low, and comes with His promise: “Every valley shall be exalted and every hill made low, the rough ground shall be made level and the rugged places a plain and the glory of the LORD shall appear and all mankind shall see it together.”

And the baby comes—this one who is Wonderful Counsellor and Mighty God and Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. I need to hang out here and savour each of those names that our world needs, that need.

The angels sing “Glory to God” and “Peace” and it’s only a few short years later that the angels watch and grieve with the whole universe to see Him bringing that peace, bent and broken under the weight of our pain: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” The mocking is excruciating—“He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him if he delights in him”—but it’s the silence of unanswered prayer that is heartbreaking: “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart. . . . See if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.” The music slows and lets me linger there a while before it moves me on with that three letter word that can speak hope into the most desperate of situations. “BUT Thou didst not leave his soul in hell.”

The nations rage on but the King has risen and the choir sings “Hallelujah, for the LORD God omnipotent reigneth” and who can help but stand and join in as the Hallelujah continues? “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. KING OF KINGS, LORD OF LORDS.”

The story turns back to us and we’re raised along with Him. “Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I see a widow running to her husband—and another reunion, and another—a mother to her daughter and a son to his mother and a brother to his brother.

And while we wait, groaning, for that day, the soprano sings of Christ sitting at the right hand of God making intercession for us and, oh, don’t we need to know He’s still with us in our trouble, bringing us to His Father? Seeing him there, His people together cry “Worthy!”

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. . . . Blessing, and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever!”

The amen rolls from the bass up to the tenor and on up through the alto to the soprano and they pass it back and forth, never letting it drop, the whole of creation caught up in echoing the praise of this slain Lamb, this hidden King who will one day be hidden no longer.

I’ll be singing my way through this drama over and over as we wait for His coming. I need to remember who it is that is coming, growing in small and hidden ways, strange and strong and mysterious ways, active within me and within the world long before I can sense His presence.

IMG_0130

An edited repost from the archives as we sit again in this in-between week.

 

The hidden King

DSCN2737

We sat, last Sunday, on the wooden pew near the back of the little country church. The unexpected sun filtered through the rain-stained windows. The priest, in his white robe of celebration, reminded us that it was the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year.

When we’d planned those few days away, I’d forgotten that they fell between the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next, between the celebration of Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent.

In the calendar it’s only one week a year; off the page it can feel like more. Isn’t this where we live large chunks of our lives, clinging with both hands to the promise that Christ is King while being plunged into the reality of how this King comes, the God-man so small and silent that in those first days of his coming among us even the woman carrying him couldn’t discern his presence?

The priest raised the wafer and reminded us of the words of this King, “This is my body, broken for you.” Such a strange king he is, this King who conquers his enemies with love and nourishes his children with His own bruised and broken body.

I think of the senseless violence and another new widow and I need to remember that this King who wore our flesh and sweated our blood and cried our tears will tenderly hold a reed that’s bent double with grief. And that this King who comes quietly among us will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.

He comes into our violent, grieving humanness, this King, entering and owning it, living it and lifting it to a place where it is no longer a barrier to entering His presence but the very place where He comes closest.

I weave crosses in red and gold for the empty tree and sing along with Handel’s Messiah, finding here the words I need to receive and sing and live all over again.

“Comfort ye my people.” The voice is gentle and low, and comes with His promise: “Every valley shall be exalted and every hill made low, the rough ground shall be made level and the rugged places a plain and the glory of the LORD shall appear and all mankind shall see it together.”

And the baby comes—this one who is Wonderful Counsellor and Mighty God and Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. I need to hang out here and savour each of those names that our world needs, that I need.

The angels sing “Glory to God” and “Peace” and it’s only a few short years later that the angels watch and grieve with the whole universe to see Him bringing that peace, bent and broken under the weight of our pain: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” The mocking is excruciating—“He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him if he delights in him”—but it’s the silence of unanswered prayer that is heartbreaking: “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart. . . . See if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.” The music slows and lets me linger there a while before it moves me on with that three letter word that can speak hope into the most desperate of situations. “BUT Thou didst not leave his soul in hell.”

The nations rage on but the King has risen and the choir sings “Hallelujah, for the LORD God omnipotent reigneth” and who can help but stand and join in as the Hallelujah continues? “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. KING OF KINGS, LORD OF LORDS.”

The story turns back to us and we’re raised along with Him. “Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I see a widow running to her husband—and another reunion, and another—a mother to her daughter and a son to his mother and a brother to his brother.

And while we wait, groaning, for that day, the soprano sings of Christ sitting at the right hand of God making intercession for us and, oh, don’t we need to know He’s still with us in our trouble, bringing us to His Father? Seeing him there, His people together cry “Worthy!”

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. . . . Blessing, and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever!”

The amen rolls from the bass up to the tenor and on up through the alto to the soprano and they pass it back and forth, never letting it drop, the whole of creation caught up in echoing the praise of this slain Lamb, this hidden King who will one day be hidden no longer.

I’ll be singing my way through this drama over and over as we wait for His coming. I need to remember who it is that is coming, growing in small and hidden ways, strange and strong and mysterious ways, active within me and within the world long before I can sense His presence.

IMG_0130

Related:

Handel’s Messiah performance

Handel’s Messiah text with Scripture references

Isaiah 42

When advent feels empty

Free to be human without fear