Monthly Archives: October 2015

Singing from the Sacred Harp


Last weekend I was in Sitka for the All-Alaska Sacred Harp Singing Convention, a gathering of around 35 singers from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and Texas. The “sacred harp” refers to our vocal chords, which we tune, as the Biblical King David did his harp, to sing praises or laments. What a joyful noise we made! Over the course of the weekend, which began with a singing school on Friday night, we sang more than 100 songs from the Denson Sacred Harp songbook and some from the revised Cooper book. My vocal chords are fried but my soul is satisfied.

Many years ago, Kari Lundgren, who organizes the singing convention in Sitka, gave me a button with the words, “Who sings prays twice.” My Monday musing for this week has to do with those words. To me, it means that there is both an interior and an exterior aspect to this kind of singing. The exterior part is obvious. We sing out loud (and usually very loud) for each other. Because it is arranged in four-part harmonies and sung a cappella, we need each other to make the whole. We arrange ourselves in a hollow square with each part on a side, and we sing into the center. It is not typically performance music. To someone listening from outside the square the music sounds either beautiful and moving or discordant and disturbing. Sometimes we invite an outsider to sit in the center of the circle and feel the music coming from all four directions. It can be a transformative experience.

The interior aspect is less obvious but nonetheless real. As one of the leaders said last weekend, this music sinks into your soul and works on you. It does something that is difficult to describe in words. The songs are old hymns, full of religious language that most of us would not subscribe to except in this music. Some experienced singers know many of the songs by heart and sing them from that place in their heart where the songs live. I’ve come to realize that it both is and is not about the words. The words are like fingers pointing to the moon. They help us see where the reality is but are not in themselves the reality.

What does this have to do with prayer? How could one pray with all that racket going on? To me, praying is communication with the Divine Presence. It can take many forms, and it can happen anywhere. It happens for me especially in singing from the sacred harp.






What does your resting face communicate?

Last week while visiting the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond with my friend, Rita Willet, I was struck by the similarities among sacred figures of many different cultural/religious traditions. The serene expressions of various Buddhas, the fierce visages of Japanese temple guardians, the adoration reflected on the faces of maternal figures holding their infants—we found these themes repeated as we meandered through the South Asian, East Asian, African, and other sections.   We wondered what it would be like to have an exhibit of these figures together. What would that say about humanity, or rather the relationship between humans and the divine?

A parallel rumination I have had lately has to do with a person’s “resting face,” that is, their face when no one is looking, when they are not actively interacting with anyone. I have spent many interesting hours watching people, especially in airports. I study their faces as they sit, walk, or run. Maybe airports by their very nature bring out frustration, worry, and stress; I see a lot of unhappy expressions. Once in a while, though, I encounter a beautiful, content face, and it makes me feel happy. Then I wonder what my own resting face communicates.

I remember years ago reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s words about the spiritual practice of a half-smile. I tried relaxing my mouth, turning the edges up ever so slightly, and bringing my attention to an internal smile. It worked, and I have used it (not as regularly as I’d like) ever since. It’s about being mindful, being in the present moment. In my musings today I went back to find those words.

“To meditate well, we have to smile, a lot… I always say that a smile can be a practice, a kind of yoga practice. Yoga of the mouth: you just smile even if you don’t feel joy and you’ll see after you smile that you’ll feel differently. Sometimes the mind takes the initiative and sometimes you have to allow the body to take the initiative. Sometimes the spirit leads, and sometimes the body can lead.” 

In another place he says:

“When I see someone smile, I know immediately that he or she is dwelling in awareness.  This half-smile, how many artists have labored to bring it to the lips of countless statues and paintings?  I am sure the same smile must have been on the faces of the sculptors and painters as they worked.  Can you imagine an angry painter giving birth to such a smile?  Mona Lisa’s smile is light, just a hint of a smile.  Yet even a smile like that is enough to relax all the muscles in our face, to banish all worries and fatigue.  A tiny bud of a smile on our lips nourishes awareness and calms us miraculously.  It returns us to the peace we thought we had lost.”

For me, today, the new piece is thinking beyond what the practice does for me and considering the effect it might have on others. I discovered that Thich Nhat Hanh has written about this as well:

“If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.”

As a Quaker, I also sometimes wonder what my worshiping face communicates.  I usually close my eyes during worship in order to focus inward, but sometimes I look around the room, not only looking at the feet intersecting the circle in various ways, but at the faces.  I see expressions that reflect worry, pain, peace (some very deep peace).  Then I smile and close my eyes, breathing in peace, breathing out love.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace ( Berkeley, California:  Parallax Press, 1987).

Power Outages

Last week we experienced an electrical power outage that lasted 3 days.  We made do: we lit a fire in the wood stove; we cooked on the propane stove; we lit candles; and we hauled water from a rain barrel to flush the toilet.  All this made me think about power sources and how they can be disrupted. In our case, there had been an early, heavy snow that caused trees to fall across power lines. It took days for the line workers to cut trees, repair transformers, etc.  When the power was finally restored I realized how much I take it for granted and how much our lives depend on it.

It made me wonder about spiritual power outages. In those times when I feel disconnected from God, is it because the power has gone away, as it seems, or is it that some metaphorical trees have fallen on the lines?  What do I need to clear away in order to restore the connection?

What does Meeting mean to you?

When you tell non-Quakers that you are “going to meeting,” do you encounter blank stares? One of our young Friends told me that he just says he’s going to church rather than try to explain what a meeting is. A Friends United Meeting pastor recently posted an article suggesting that we reconsider the word “meeting,” as a verb form rather than a noun.   I think he meant that meeting it isn’t a place but an action. Whom or what are we meeting? he asked.

Here are his ideas:

As a Jesus-centered meeting, we are meeting Jesus. As we sing, pray, listen and wait it is Jesus that is our focus.
-We are also meeting each other. Our worship community is meeting in worship, fellowship and service
-We are also meeting the larger world around us, following in the footsteps of Jesus by meeting needs, demonstrating love and giving of ourselves.
Rethinking “meeting” as a verb may help us understand better why we are here and what we are supposed to be doing. 

While many in our liberal, unprogrammed meetings may take exception to some of his words, I think we would all agree to most of what he says. Quakerism is radically counter-cultural in focusing on the community rather than the individual. It is also deeply mystical in affirming that we can encounter, or meet, the Divine when we gather together in worship.

When you are asked “What does Meeting mean to you?” Do you think of the place where meeting happens? Do you think of an entity that is trying to tell you what to do (like “government”)? Or do you think, “In what ways do I connect with Spirit, with other Quakers, and with the larger community? “

(quotes from Bill Clendineng, “Thee and Me”, Plainfield Friends, September 17, 2015)