Sunday, April 13, 2014

New hymn, particularly suitable for a week ago.

Frankly, this week has rotted.  I have had too many occasions to let my temper flare.  (Yes, I have one.  It's not pretty.)  Typically that anger is directed at myself for my own incompetence, as was sometimes the case this week (I have control of mostly nothing in my life right now, so I get particularly wrathful against myself when I screw up one of the things I do control).  Very few people have really experienced my anger directed against them.  By the grace of God, a few of them are still friends.  This week produced some angry, or at least argumentative, moments directed less at people than against events, or in some cases memories of events -- a past where those who were putatively leaders in my church of raising ranted on about childless married couples (like, um, us) being in rebellion against God or some such rot in one case, and the spoilage of baseball in another, as witness yesterday's rant over on the other blog.
Fortunately, though, the rages of the week somehow did not prevent me from fulfilling the third part of my Lenten task for this year.  I took on the assignment of reading two books (not related to class assignments) and writing two new hymns this lent, and thankfully I can now say the hymn part of that is done.  (One book is read, which is described in the previous entry in this blog.)  I'm fudging a little, to count a set of responses for the Eucharistic Great Prayer of Thanksgiving as a hymn, but the same work is involved, so there.
Last week's scriptures, Ezekiel's dry-bones encounter and the raising of Lazarus, started the percolation of the idea.  It took a while for the ideas to shape themselves into verses, with the result that the hymn in its final (so far) form finally took shape and demanded my attention about midnight last night.  Fortunately my iPhone was nearby and I could type it out in the "Notes" app until I could record it here.

Rise up, old bones, return to life,
Take sinew, flesh, and breath;
Give witness to the power of God,
A power that overcomes death,
A power that overcomes death.

Rise up, dear friend, return to life,
No longer in the grave;
Give witness to the love of God
That drives a Savior to save,
That drives a Savior to save.

Rise up, old church, return to life,
No longer drowned in fear;
Give witness to the word of God
The world refuses to hear, etc.

Rise up, my heart, return to life,
No longer bound in sin;
Give witness to the grace of God
And let a new life begin, etc.

The tune of choice for right now is DOVE OF PEACE, probably best known with "I come with joy to meet my Lord."  This hopefully explains the repetitions and "etc."s in each verse, if you know the tune.  Hopefully the Ezekiel and Lazarus parts are clear enough; the two latter verses bring that idea of returning to life forward to our own church and self.  (It's possible I had the PC(USA) specifically in mind when verse three developed.  Possible.  Maybe even most specifically in the last two lines of that verse  And it might even be possible that the "world" that "refuses to hear" might just include other domains of Christianity.  Just maybe.)  I'm not opposed to other tune suggestions.  It would be good to find a tune collaborator at some point if I'm going to keep doing this, so if you know any such person feel free to connect me to them or vice versa.

So anyway, there 'tis.  It might be a little too specific for wide use, but make of it what you will.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Commentary: Tainted Glory in Handel's Messiah

Marissen, Michael.  Tainted Glory in Handel's Messiah: The Unsettling History of the World's Most Beloved Choral Work.  New Haven: Yale, 2014.

It's that time of year.  Across the USA, we are approaching the time of year when countless church choirs will be breaking out their trusty old G. Schirmer editions and warming up the old vocal chords to crank out their annual rendition of the chorus for Easter Sunday.  They might bring in trumpets or timpani for support.  They might bring in members of the congregation to sing along.  And in many cases the congregation will stand, because that's what you always do, even if nobody is sure why.  Whatever the combination, voices will cry out:

HAAAA-le-lu-jah! HAAA-le-lu-jah!  Ha-le-LU-jah! Ha-le-LU-jah! Ha-le-EHHHH-lu-jah!

Yes, that chorus (which is officially titled simply "Hallelujah") will be busting out all over.  It was heard plenty in concert halls back in December, when the whole oratorio Messiah (no "The," please) got its annual workout.  But for Easter the churches largely take over, and this one chorus is the principal object in most cases (although some churches may substitute or add the later chorus "Worthy is the Lamb").

Those singers and directors might not want to read Michael Marissen's new book.  Tainted Glory in Handel's Messiah: The Unsettling History of the World's Most Beloved Choral Work presents a case that the oratorio, perhaps to the disappointment of millions of Americans, is not a product of American evangelicalism, but indeed a reflection of a pervasive anti-Jewish sentiment found in religious discourse of the eighteenth-century England in which it was created.

Biblical students nowadays cannot escape confronting the idea that parts of the New Testament, reflecting the situation of the communities in which they were created, contain a decent amount of rhetoric that is at minimum quite inflammatory in its anger against the Jewish population from which those communities were being gradually but firmly separated due to their insistence on this backwater rabbi Jesus as the long-expected Messiah.  This contentiousness between Jew and "Christian" (as the term eventually came to be) continued as the latter spread out from Palestine and began to be found in parts both east and west.  Eventually, though, those Christians picked up a rather significant ally: the Roman Empire, at least once Constantine decided to appropriate the faith for his own purposes.  At that point Jewish-Christian contentiousness became a rather lopsided affair.

Nonetheless Christianity did not suddenly give up its complaints against Judaism.  Instead, too many times over the centuries it used its power to act out on old grudges.  The history does not need to be recited here; crusades, inquisitions, expulsions dot the landscape of time.

Marissen is quite detailed in explaining the particular context of anti-Jewish sentiment in the England of the 1700s, which may have surprising origins for some.  As he demonstrates, such arguments were pervasive in English theological thought, as reflected in numerous commentaries penned and in wide use during the period.  Believe me, if you read this book (which you should), you'll learn more about those commentaries than you ever imagined you would.

These are significant because, as it turns out, they were important in the creation of the libretto of Messiah; the librettist Charles Jennens had them in his library (and even contributed to the publication of some by subscription) and in some cases used the wording of those commentaries for certain scriptures in his libretto instead of the King James Bible or the Book of Common Prayer, from which most of his text was taken.  These wordings matter, as these commentaries use them to direct the reader's interpretation of these selected passages towards a kind of gloating in events such as the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70.  Handel's musical setting of those texts at times does its part to enhance or reinforce the text and the baggage contained therein.  In turn, early critics of the oratorio (one of whom is no less than John Newton, the author of "Amazing grace") read those anti-Jewish gloatings into their understanding of Jennens's libretto and Handel's music. All of this is traced in minute detail.

This isn't a review: I'm not going to go into huge detail because I think you need to wrestle with the book yourself.  But the detail is immense, deeply researched, and cogently argued.

Marissen has taken a lot of flack for this bit of research since it first began to appear on the musicology-conference circuit.  I heard him give two presentations of this research as he was developing it: one at a conference of a group then called the Forum on Music and Christian Scholarship, and one at the meeting of the American Musicological Society, the flagship organization in the field.  The response to this research at the former was sober, perhaps pained, but respectful and mostly about what the proper response should be.  The response at the latter was more contentious and somewhat dismissive.  Later, the journal of that latter organization published a vile bit of character assassination thinly disguised as scholarship directed against that paper.

All of which is to say that Marissen has taken some shots for this research, and in the book he is quite determined to answer his critics.  The argument is thorough, sometimes dense, and not an easy read, but it needs to be read.

Christians aren't given permission to be mindless.  We don't get to read scripture without understanding the context in which it was born.  We don't get to ignore the virulent anti-Semitism expressed by heroes of the Reformation like Luther.  We don't get to ignore the particular nastiness of Wagner's attitudes towards Jews.  We don't get to cherry-pick the products, intellectual or artistic, of history without being liable for the baggage they may have accumulated.  That doesn't mean we give up scripture.  That doesn't mean we don't study Luther.  That doesn't mean we don't listen to Wagner's music (well, I don't personally, but that is a different issue -- who has time for a six-hour music drama?).  But you don't get to pretend the issues aren't there.

The book is in two parts: one an essay containing Marissen's basic argument, the other a detailed analysis of the libretto in full.  The book is actually not terribly long, which is probably well enough as it is dense and detailed, and the libretto analysis itself is well worth the price.

Go get it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

La rappresentazione dello spirito e il ricercatore dello spirito

Of late in driving about nearby I see signs advertising a "Spirit-filled Bible Study."  I have no idea what this means.  Bible study is a good thing.  I'm not quite sure where the "spirit-filled" part fits in, as if somehow the actual Holy Spirit would ever be absent from a serious and genuine attempt to read and study the Bible.

The title refers to this musical work, one of the best titles ever if nothing else in musical history.  "Dialogue of the soul and the body" was a pretty common literary type as well.  This isn't quite that, but for whatever perverse reason the allusion appealed to me, if for no other reason than one of irony.

Nothing so lofty as this, no...

Spirit-seeker: O Lord, send me your spirit.
Spirit: Yo! I'm right here.
Spirit-seeker: I yearn for the touch of your spirit, O Lord.
Spirit: Still right here.  Is there something in particular you're looking for?
Spirit-seeker: Lead me, O Lord.  Guide me by your Spirit.
Spirit: Excuse me, have you not been listening?  "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" 
Spirit-seeker: Give me a double portion of your Spirit, O Lord.
Spirit: Huh?  What?  You want me to say everything twice?
Spirit-seeker: I long to feel your Spirit, Lord, in this dry and barren land.
Spirit: So you want a feeling, huh? Go feed the hungry and see how that feels.  
Spirit-seeker: I want to be filled with your Spirit, God! Lift me up! Raise me higher!
Spirit: You want to be lifted up? Go lift up others.  Care for the sick.  Sit with the dying.  Loosen the bonds of the oppressed.  
Spirit-seeker: Why can't I feel your presence, God? Why do you withhold your Spirit from me?
Spirit: Are you spiritually deaf? I'm not here to be your amphetamines.  I'm here to remind you what God has already commanded you to do.  It's all over the Bible already.  You say you love that book, but I am starting to wonder if you've ever read it.  And yes, that would help a lot if you really want to be filled with me.  
Spirit-seeker: Are you there, God? Why do you withhold your Spirit from me?
Spirit: When you tell me why you withhold your service from me, then you'll get your answer.  Get out there and be Christ-like, act like you actually follow Christ.  Stop sitting here whining about somebody else filling you with anything.  Go be a Christ-follower!  That's where you'll get full of me! What will it take to get you to hear me?  Go minister to the least of these!
Are you listening???
Spirit-seeker: O Lord, send me your spirit!
Spirit: <facepalm>


Wednesday, March 5, 2014


I am a bit depleted today.  Nothing major, but the cough I keep thinking is gone keeps coming back.  It's almost spring break here, which means the last mad push to get stuff done before then.  We had a seventy-degree day Sunday, followed by a couple of inches of snow on Monday with temperatures getting down around eleven degrees that night, and now warming somewhat again.  I had an eye exam yesterday morning, which involved having my eyes dilated, and I always forget how debilitating that is to me until it happens.  It's only a three-hour drive home but I couldn't do it with the bright sun reflecting off all that snow.  Chapel this morning involved singing Allegri's Miserere, not that difficult a work but rather long and involved.  So yeah, "depleted" is a good word for today.

It's probably just as well I got "ashed" twice today -- at chapel on campus this morning and at church this evening.  I don't know if the psalmist of Psalm 51 had any concept of being "depleted" among all the talk about a "broken" and "contrite" spirit, but I'm going to go with it as fitting.

But my mind wandered, as it often does.  Ashes are an interesting symbol to have smeared cross-like upon one's forehead.  The saying about "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is typically invoked to point to the ashes as a reminder of our finiteness and mortality, and theologically that's all fine and good.

I can't help but think of ashes in other contexts, though, contexts that have more to do with our need to repent.

Lac-Megantic, Quebec, July 2013

Ashes, of course, come from fire.  Something is consumed, and ashes are what remain.  In many traditions historically, and even today, ashes are the final condition of the human body.  Hence the reminder of our mortality.

Other things, of course, are burned to leave ashes.  For the Ash Wednesday observance, tradition dictates that the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday observance provide the ashes for this year's Ash Wednesday.  

Ashes are also sometimes the product of burning for other purposes -- a log in a fireplace, for example, to warm all those around.  

Or sometimes ashes are the result of human folly.  Because of our all-consuming need to consume, we go to greater and more destructive extremes to find fuel for our consumption.  We fail, though, to see how destructive that fuel can be, and assume we need no greater caution with stuff that turns out to be even more flammable.  And so, a train derails and explodes (so powerfully that it was visible from space), and destroys most of a town in Quebec.  

Then it happened in Alabama.

Near Aliceville, Alabama, November 2013

And North Dakota.

Casselton, North Dakota, December 2013

And in New Brunswick (that's in Canada, for those geographically deprived about Canada.)

Near Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, January 2014

For a change, here's one that didn't explode or burn.  That's the good news.  The bad news is this was smack in the middle of Philadelphia.  Too close for comfort to millions of people.  Potentially an awful lot of ashes.

Over the Schuylkill River, January 2014

It doesn't have to come from an oil train, or even a pipeline (they've been blowing up too).  Maybe it's acres upon acres of Amazon rainforest, burned off to clear land for cattle grazing.  Maybe its a Salem witch trial.  Maybe it's acres of wildfires destroying homes that had no business being built in a wildfire zone.  Maybe it's Auschwitz.  

So much destruction, intended or carelessly encouraged.  Ashes.  Signs of our fallibility.  

Ashes remind us of our mortality, that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  Maybe ashes should also remind us of our own need to repent.  Not merely confess, but repent.  Change.  Stop doing what we're doing.  

Our fires don't seem to purify, do they?  All too often they do seem to hasten our mortality, instead of merely reminding us of it.

Friday, February 28, 2014


One of my most recent Facebook statuses was along the lines of "did you ever feel the need to march, but the band is playing in 7/8 time?"
Despite a few musically-minded literalists getting in the way, I wasn't actually speaking of marching to a Brubeck-esque meter.  Do you ever have that feeling of something or everything not being bad, not by a long stretch (it would take a lot, after the cancer treatment, for me to say things were going badly), not really anything being wrong, but somehow everything just ... feels off.
I can't really point to any one thing.  Classes are going o.k.  The internship has slowed down a good bit, but nothing really unpleasant is going on there.  My health, aside from a nagging cough that seems finally to be easing off a bit, is about as good as it's ever going to be.  It feels like opportunities are shutting off or falling through rather than opening up, though (again) it's not as if I can point to any specific example of such a thing.
And yet, whether waking in the morning or going to bed at night, or in the middle of studying or socializing or whatever, everything feels ... just a bit off.

Swinnnnngggggg...and a miss.  So seems life.

It's the kind of thing that only shows up in odd, out-of-the-way things, like the fact that is, on the last day of February, the first time I've blogged since the last day of January.  I've started two or three, but they don't get finished.
I can't shut up when I have nothing to say, and I can't utter a peep when there is stuff demanding to be said.  I feel like a stranger to myself.
I can only guess that it's my middle-aged self's way of dealing with the kind of uncertainty that was (I thought) in the past.  Let's see, there's March and April left in this term, then the May term, and then, provided I don't screw up, I should graduate on May 31.
And then...?

Quit grinning at me, you hateful little thing!

You see what I mean.
I can put my Pastor Information Form (hereafter PIF) out there.  I can scour the opportunity listings daily.  I can try to get on the supply-preaching lists around here (there's no real benefit to moving anywhere without a call at this point).
And...?  The uncertainty is still there.
I jumped into this fool's errand without a real net, so to speak, and now starts the free fall.
There are certain things I know I can do.  I can preach.  Your mileage may vary, but I can write and deliver a sermon, and it can be good.  I can lead liturgy.  I would not necessarily say I'm real smooth and seamless at this point, and I'll still be terrified the first time a real baptism comes along, but I can do it.  I can teach.  I knew that coming in.  Those are all good things for a preacher to be able to do.  Other of the daily tasks of the preacher I can learn quickly enough.  A little brushing up on Robert's Rules of Order may be needed, to be sure.
I'm nobody's idea of an associate pastor for youth, or children, or "families" (wouldn't that be called, you know, an associate pastor?).  I don't think anybody who knows me well would expect that.  That does eliminate a lot of the first-call opportunities out there.  What it leaves behind is a lot of small churches.
I am o.k. with that, as long as it's not a go-broke-for-God expectation (I'm not asking to get rich, but a living wage needs to happen) and as long as there is decent access to health care (that cancer is going to be hanging over me for a few years yet).  I can be bi-vocational if need be, particularly if there's a small college or juco around that could use someone to teach music appreciation or a similar course (that would actually be kind of appealing).  I'm not setting any geographical limits on where I'm willing to go (my wife may have other ideas), even though I can already hear God cackling and plotting to put me under ten feet of snow in Montana.
There are certain things I won't do (aside from those ill fits noted above), but not that many.
Intellectually I knew this was coming, of course.  While I have my benefits, I'm not the kind of candidate who's going to stride right off the graduation platform on Saturday and into a pulpit on Sunday (unlike some of my classmates).  I'm kind of an acquired taste, and finding the right fit won't be an instantaneous thing.
Still, entering the Stage of Unknowing is no fun, and no more bearable now than upon graduation with that Ph.D.  And, as far as I can tell, it's leaving me feeling just a little bit ... off.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The (fill in the blank) is dying!

If you slide down the front page of this blog to the mini-biography it displays, you'll discover (or be reminded) that I'm a musicologist by training, who walked away from a perfectly happy career in academia to set off on this fool's errand.  I have no regrets about doing so, even as I also assert the seemingly contradictory assertion that I loved that particular vocation.  To be clear, there's plenty about academia that any academic could happily do without, much as there is plenty about the church vocations that any pastor or any other staff member would just as soon skip.  Still, I freely acknowledge that but for this swerve I'd have been quite content to live out my days in Lawrence, Kansas, getting fat and happy teaching and writing and hopefully lasting long enough to be able to afford tickets to Kansas Jayhawks basketball games.

One of the oddly amusing aspects of this swerve (except when it's no longer amusing) is the degree to which I seem to have traded one dying field for another.

*Note: though plenty of musicologists work in other musics besides classical, for this post I'm placing  myself within the framework of the classical music tradition.  It was where my research resided, it was most of what I taught, and put most simply, it was my first love.  

See, Mozart still lives!

It is something of a sport among cultural critics to proclaim the death, either present or imminent, of classical music.  Whether in the New York Times or The New Yorker or The New Republic, somebody desperately seeking a way to fill column inches decides to whip out the latest round of ugly-looking statistics and proclaim in tut-tutting tones The Death Of Classical Music.  The latest round, possibly set off by declining attendance numbers at the Metropolitan Opera (or perhaps predating those stats? I'm not entirely sure), appeared in the online magazine Slate, authored by someone named Mark Vanhoenacker, frankly added nothing new to the argument.  Stats were cited with due reverence, anecdotal evidence was elevated to the level of holy writ, blah blah blah.  This of course touched off the predictable volley of rebuttals to the presumed thesis; one of the more interesting appeared in The New Yorker, posted by one William Robin, which if nothing else appropriated the clever quote from Charles Rosen ("The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition") and a fun visual aid, depicting various examples of classical music's presumed death throes through the ages, all the way back to 1324, before classical music, technically, existed.  It was dying before it was born!

The volley of articles of course is in turn filled out by panicked Facebook statuses and tweets, which provoke rebuttal Facebook comments and tweets, which in turn provoke oh-so-self-righteous defenses of the classical-is-dying claim, and so on and so on.  Eventually you're better off just popping in a CD or calling up iTunes and listening to some actual music.

I kid because I care.  This is perhaps not quite perennial, but pretty routine in the classical music field, and it is necessarily (and properly) part of the warning anyone who wants to study classical music, whether with ambitions to be a performer or teacher or researcher, needs to hear before making that commitment.  Indeed, one could argue that my departure from the field was in its own way a favor to some young rising musicologist who could make the move to a tenurable post at one of the better music schools in the country.  (You're welcome.)

I also kid because, as it turns out, I didn't really escape the narrative by pursuing this fool's errand; the terms merely changed.

In case you haven't heard, the church is dying.  You can hear it from the likes of neo-Calvinist (why don't we just call these people fundamentalists and be done with it?) Mark Driscoll; a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who foresees Christianity eradicated in Britain within a generation; by others who claim to welcome its demise (of course, if you follow that link you'll see that the author is really about something else with his claim); and if you flip the Google search to "Christianity is dying" you'll quickly get to the likes of Richard (A Little Pedophilia Never Hurt Anybody) Dawkins, who would be truly pleased to see it go.  The point being, you don't have to look very hard at all to find a lot of talk on the subject of the church's demise.

Having lived with it for many years in the classical realm and now settling in for a lifetime of dying in the church, it has become obvious to me that there are some definite similarities in the x-is-dying narratives:

1. Both the church and classical music are perceived as having been "dominant" institutions in the United States for a time.  In both cases, the extent of that dominance is probably overstated.  The church might have been able to build itself big buildings with tall pointy steeples and pass a lot of Sunday blue laws at its peak, but looking at the shape and trajectory of American history it's fairly questionable to what extent the church actually had any influence; far more, it seems, that the church in these here United States was shaped, prodded, and to some degree absorbed by the culture it thought it was redeeming.  Classical music, similarly, was never quite so dominant as its would-be undertakers like to claim.  To the degree that one thinks of the widespread availability of, say, live orchestral music, it's hard to argue that there's been a better time than now, when one can find orchestras -- and good ones at that -- in places like Richmond, Tallahassee, and other small to mid-sized cities where such a thought would have been laughable a hundred years ago.  They may not be full-time orchestras, but they are there.  Also, one can suggest that whatever cultural clout classical music may have had at it peak was squandered much as the church's was.  When classical music actually had "mainstream" radio access with the likes of Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra or other such broadcast outlets, did the establishment seek out brilliant young composers writing daring new stuff, exploiting modern orchestral capacity in vivid and thrilling ways?  Ehh, no. Toscanini and his ilk (and yes, even Leonard Bernstein in his TV shows and other broadcasts) whacked the country over the head repeatedly with the (European) (male) canon, and even when some (male) Americans did break through they turned out to be susceptible to the same cultural clotting as Beethoven and Brahms and the lot.  Opportunity squandered?  Check and check.

My man George Chadwick wasn't canonical enough for those snobs.

2. In both cases the substance of the thing is too easily confused with the institutions that have maintained it over the years.  Is classical music dying?  No.  Are certain classical music institutions -- orchestras, opera houses, recording companies -- dying?  Yep.  While this is tragic for those whose livelihood and security depends on those institutions, propping up the large, unwieldy apparatus of the Grandiose Philharmonic isn't necessarily the answer for sustaining classical music in the twenty-first century any more than bringing back steel mills and blowing up more mountains for coal mining is the best way to sustain the American economy in the twenty-first century.  Likewise, the model of the First (Insert Denomination Here) Church with a program for every party and every party its own program, might just not be the best way to be about the business of doing Christ's work in God's world these days.

2a. Furthermore, maybe a bit of forced adjustment might just unleash a bit of creativity on the part of both institutions.  Maybe an orchestra using Google Glass might just be one way to provoke interest in yet another round of Beethoven's Fifth (if that's such a desirable aim; it is, after all, a pretty strong piece of music despite its massive overplay), if an orchestra is game for it.  Maybe sermons as starting points for extended dialogue via Facebook or Twitter or whatever comes next (even face-to-face!  gasp!) can be a lifeline for the people, if a preacher can get over the presumption that cell phone = distraction.  Maybe the increasing prominence of empty chairs in the concert hall or empty pews in the church prompts both institutions to think outside the walls, going where people are?  Maybe instead of singing "Silent Night" in a darkened sanctuary with candles on Christmas Eve, we throw open the doors and hit the sidewalks to sing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"?  Or maybe we find ways to invite the world into our burdensome buildings so that all people are being served by them, not just us select few?

3. Both get accused of being old and gray, predominated by the elderly pining for the Good Old Days. This is often true.  So what?  You got something against old people?  You age-bigot, you.

At any rate, the confusion factor above is worth repeating.  Classical music is ... well, music.  It isn't the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Philharmonic or the Emerson String Quartet.  Neither is the church the big building with the tall pointy steeple on the corner of First and Main.  It is people, even if the people themselves forget that sometimes.

Hey, I've got nothing against the Emerson String Quartet.  They're really good.

All that having been said, I am no futurist.  Here I cop C.S. Lewis's line about the future being something we all get to at the rate of twenty-four hours a day, not a place reserved for favored heroes.  Futurists in both classical music and church will no doubt go about making grand pronouncements about What Must Be Done To Save The Church/Classical Music.  They'll generally be wrong.  No one will hold them to account.  And the cycle will repeat itself.  Some churches will go towards a different kind of service, and after an initial boost they'll start sinking even faster than the fussy old "traditional" churches.  Some orchestras will go heavily into "pops" performances, and after an initial boost they'll lose their novelty and keep right on sagging.

Tomorrow I will be attending something called NEXT Church.  A regional gathering, to be precise, mostly because it happens to have landed more or less in my front yard.  I am going mostly to be skeptical, for reasons hinted in the paragraph above.  I will be watching intently for any signs of ageism, urgency to pronounce last rites on the church, panacea prescriptions to Save The Church, or anything that smacks of the above.  Don't go there with me.  I've worked in a dying institution before, and lived to tell about it.

UPDATE, Feb. 4: So I went.  I can wish it well, but I don't see the fit for me there.  Just to clear that up.  As I think I snarked in some past post, my particular talents and interests probably render me more of a PAST Church type.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Don't go out there by the river, where bright angel feet won't tread...

I couldn't quite figure it out.  Why did this morning's service have me so out of sorts?

Today's lectionary featured Matthew's account of the baptism of Jesus.  Not an unfamiliar text.  Perhaps the most interesting part of it was John's disavowal of Jesus's request -- "you should be baptizing me" and all that.  There was also Psalm 29 and a longish bit from Isaiah.  None of those are terribly bothersome scriptures.

The hymns weren't necessarily the problem either.  OK, so "Shall we gather at the river" is a bit old-hat for a recovering Baptist, even if it was highly fascinating to both Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. The others were new to the Presbyterian hymnbook, so at least interesting to hear the first time.  The anthem was that thing from O Brother, Where Art Thou? in which I have difficulty finding coherent and complete sentences, but that's also old-hat by now.  So the music wasn't it, either.

The baptism itself was a wonderful event, even if from my admittedly distant perch I was beginning to wonder if the child was going to kick his way out of the grasp of both parents and pastor.  Baptisms are wonderful events, to be celebrated, right?

It took a while to dawn on me that my trouble wasn't anything in the liturgy so much as the headline that formed its backdrop this week.

Maybe you missed it in the midst of the "polar vortex" or the shocking revelation that the governor of New Jersey is a bully.  But near Charleston, West Virginia, a chemical plant managed to bust a leak and disgorge a whole lot of chemical spillage into the Elk River.  More pointedly, the spill happened just a short distance upstream from one of the primary intake points for the state's principal water utility.

The particular fun of this spill is that the chemical in question (Crude MGHM, used for washing impurities out of coal), seems to be a bit of a mystery chemical to way too many people.  No way to text for its toxicity in water; not a lot of clarity on just how toxic it is to drink or breathe or shower in or any such thing.  It's clearly enough to smell bad and to make some folks near the spill sick, and apparently enough is known to tell folks that even boiling the water, that old purification standby, doesn't work in this case).  But one has to wonder just how much thought went into letting a plant that works with such a chemical regularly get upstream of a water-utility facility in the first place.

All the more lovely is the absolute silence of the corporation that owns the plant, Freedom Industries (what a bitterly ironic name; is this what "freedom" means anymore, one's freedom to dump all over another and get away with it?).  Their website, in case you're wondering, has diddly-spit to say about the spill.  At any rate, residents in and around Charleston can't drink the water.  Or bathe in it, or prepare baby formula in it, or anything other than flush with it.  (At least they can do that.  Yikes.)  Such is the desperation of the situation that police got called in to guard a shipment of bottled water to Wal-Mart.

Amidst this, I wonder how many churches in the Charleston area were observing the Baptism of the Lord today?  Did any baptisms have to get cancelled?  Or were fonts getting topped up with Aquafina or Dasani?  Would today's baptism have been possible if that kind of spill had happened here in or around Richmond?

Maybe this kind of thing is why those creation-informed liturgies took over Advent on this blog.  Or maybe it's just the cavalier way we ignore the precious stuff of creation or let it be devolved into mere fodder for our conveniences or for somebody else's profit, which leads us to where we are, with the substance that is essential to not only, you know, living, but also to one of the two generally accepted sacraments in the Christian tradition becoming little more than a waste dump for liquid toxins.

What does it take to get us to care, church?  What does it take to get us to treat God's creation as, well, God's creation?  What does it take to get us to shout down and call out the damnedness of those who oh-so-piously preach against "getting political" when it comes to something so basic as what we drink to keep ourselves alive, and get on with the business of righting what we have so long wronged?  How many water sources have to get despoiled by chemical spills or fracking or tar sands extraction or who knows what other foolish and greedy process before we Christians will get angry enough to scream so loud about it that we drown out the idiot duck guy in Louisiana or the neo-Calvinist fear mongers or those others we get so heated up about?  Seriously, what the Hell is it going to take?

Yeah, dammit, I'm angry.  If you're not, perhaps you might want to pay more attention.