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We are a glorious choir!

One of my favorite things about the Christmas season is listening to choral music broadcast on our local NPR station—sacred music, mostly. I also love singing that music myself, joining my voice with others. This fall I sang in two choirs. One was the Fairbanks Peace Choir, a small but dedicated mix of a few seasoned singers and many who had never sung in a choir before. The director managed to pull us together, making us sound better than any of us would alone. The other choir is the Symphony Chorus. A few weeks ago we sang a holiday concert with the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra. I stood behind the trombone section and watched the conductor as he brought in the various parts. It felt like I was inside the music as I sang my alto part, aware of the voices around me and the instruments in front of me.

A few days ago I heard a recording of that concert on the radio, and it sounded so different from the outside. It sounded good, with all the voices blending into a unified sound.

In worship yesterday it came to me that Quaker worship is something like a choir, in that we are communicating in ways that go beyond language. In worship as in singing I am aware of those around me. When the meeting is gathered, or covered, our hearts and minds are brought into a mysterious union. Also, preparation and practice are important both in choral music and worship. Here’s where the analogy breaks down: In music we rehearse each part so that in performance we draw on that practice to make the music come alive for the audience. In worship we prepare for whatever message might arise. Rather than performing a practiced piece, vocal ministry comes fresh from the prepared heart.

I was not led to speak this message out of the silence yesterday, but when I closed meeting, I said, “We are a glorious choir!”   I wonder if anyone knew what I meant.

 

Minding the Light

Last week I lit candles each night for Chanukah. I was not raised with this tradition, but adopted it since moving to Alaska where light at this time of year is so special. Lighting the candles has become, if not a mitzvah, at least a personal spiritual practice.

On Saturday I shared with a small group from our meeting an illustration I received from FWCC (Friends World Committee on Consultation) in a packet preparing us for the plenary gathering in Peru. There were three parts to the illustration: the first was a figure in the darkness holding an unlit candle and apparently searching for the light; in the second one the figure is lighting his/her candle from a lit candle; and in the third the figure is carrying his/her candle off (into the world?).

The new thought that came to me was the role of the shamash in lighting the Chanukah candles and the role of the lit candle in the illustration. The shamash is the “attendant,” lighting the other candles and making sure they stay lit. Isn’t this something like the role of elders in our Quaker meetings? Not an elevated position, but one of tending, watching, paying attention to the movement of Spirit.

 

Doggone Right

My thoughts today are on end-of-life issues for our ancient dog. She’s a 17 year old husky, and they’re not supposed to live this long. We thought she was a goner about a year and a half ago when a friend who was watching her sent us a message that Lizzie had had a seizure. By the time we got home she seemed normal, and when I took her out for a walk the next day, she was her usual perky self.

Since then we have been expecting her demise. Each morning I hold my breath as I look to see if she is still breathing. Recently she has become more arthritic and incontinent, and as I clean up after her I swear we need to do something. Then I take her out for a walk in the snow, and something within her revives. She’s a husky, after all. Snow is her milieu.

Last night at a party I had a conversation with a man who has lots of experience with aging dog issues. When I asked him how to make the decision if and when to have a dog put down, he said that whatever we decide is going to be OK with the dog. The dog isn’t going to ask for one more day, one more week, or one more month. He teared up as he told me about Ole, a faithful companion who had grown old and unable to lift his rear end. He said he knew that Ole wasn’t going to judge him for his decision. He said his way of dealing with having to put Ole down was to write a letter to himself.   Today he sent that letter to me. In it he wrote about the joy and unconditional love he had experienced from Ole. He concludes by writing:

“If he could, he’d say “Please do for yourself what I won’t be able to show you anymore–love YOU and know you’re perfect, and not just a little bit.  And start right now, with this decision. I totally trust you. ”

As I read that letter, I teared up, too. This is not easy. Lizzie is a husky, not given to the kind of demonstrative love other dogs might show. She has always been a bit aloof, but recently she has become more affectionate, nuzzling me to pet her. Lynn says, “Is she saying, ‘I love you. I love you. And I don’t have long to live, so pet me,’ or is she asking to go out?”   We never know. Are we her faithful companions?

OK, I’m going to end this on a lighter note. What do you get when get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic and a dyslexic? Someone who lies awake at night wondering about the existence of dog.

 

Homeless Jesus

I missed writing on Monday this week, but last night as I was trying to settle into sleep, the idea came to me that Jesus was a homeless migrant from the Middle East. Would he be turned away? Then this morning I turned on the radio to hear about a sculpture of a homeless Jesus, installed on a park bench near a church in Indianapolis. I went to the website for Here and Now and found a picture. Here’s the link:

http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2015/12/03/homeless-jesus-statue

The pastor of a Methodist church that had purchased the sculpture said that people respond to it in different ways. Some just walk past; some walk around it, looking carefully; some complain that the money should have been spent feeding the poor.

He said the purpose was to raise awareness. At first, it appears to be a bundle of something on the bench. Then you see that there is someone inside. Then you see the feet sticking out with marks from the crucifixion. It’s that moment of recognition that is intended to make people think.

It is so radically different from images of Jesus on the cross, or Jesus with the children, or Jesus with the sheep. For me it raises the question, “What if we treated everyone as Jesus? “ Pope Francis has been challenging Christians to refocus attention on the poor. In Matthew 25:35-40, Jesus told his followers that when they feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for those who are naked, sick, or in prison, they are doing it to Jesus.

Quakers throughout our history have been involved in these caring activities, whether or not they consider themselves Christian. But there is more. What if we truly walked our talk and sought to answer that of God in everyone? What would we do differently?

 

 

 

I’m covering my head in shame

Yesterday I chose to wear a scarf that was given to me by a Turkish friend. With its edges lovingly hand tatted by my friend’s grandmother, it was intended as a hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women. Although I did not wear it as a head covering (that did not feel right), it reminded me of the love and warmth I experienced living among Muslims in Turkey.

I wore it because I feel distress at the hate mongering I hear from politicians, which has ramped up since the attacks in Paris last week. I am appalled at the conflation of terrorist attacks with the requests for granting asylum to Syrian refugees. Worse yet, some politicians are calling for restrictions on American citizens who have chosen Islam as their spiritual path.

Today I am praying for peaceful solutions. I am sending love to my Muslim sisters and brothers. They need our support, not our scorn. Jesus has an honored place as a prophet in Islam. What would Jesus think of so-called Christians condemning followers of the Quran?  I am covering my head in shame.

 

Nothing

Today, I have nothing to write about. It has been my experience over the past six weeks that over the course of the weekend, a word or idea rises— in discussion, worship, or reading, and when I sit down to write on Monday, a message comes together. This weekend I expended some of my writing energy by composing letters to the president and Alaska’s congress people, urging them to support action on climate change in Paris in a couple of weeks.

As I was walking the dog this morning, wrapped in my warmest clothes (it is 17 degrees below zero), enjoying the low slant of the sun reflected off the snow-laden trees, I pondered “nothing.” During my years in Japan I learned the value of MU, which can be translated as “nothingness,” an important concept in Buddhism. Like the empty spaces in traditional Chinese and Japanese art, there is value in emptiness. For me, this means clearing space within where I can experience the Divine.

I first encountered the term “via negativa” in my reading for the School of the Spirit’s On Being a Spiritual Nurturer program.   What I took away from that (so to speak) was a way of talking about my experience of God. In apophatic theology, most clearly articulated by the Celtic philosopher Duns Scotus Erigena (810-877), God is known only by what God is not. Karen Armstrong writes, “In Erigena’s paradoxical theology, God is both Everything and Nothing; the two terms balance one another and are held in a creative tension to suggest the mystery which our word “God” can only symbolize.” [1]

As I write this today I picture myself as a younger adult sitting outdoors with my Dad in Cottonwood, Arizona (a much warmer place!), trying to figure out what he meant when he said, “As soon as you say something is, it is not.” He was a Baptist minister who thrived on the works of Meister Eckhart (another mystic) among others. He loved mind-bending statements. “God is no thing. God is isness,” he would say. My mother had no patience for this kind of talk; she thought Dad was losing his grip. I loved arguing with him, honing my own perspectives as I challenged his. It was a kind of Talmudic exercise. I loved it that he could fully accept my embracing the Quaker way, recognizing George Fox’s message as an example of via negativa, a mystical approach. He understood the paradox inherent in any theology and the danger in thinking we know who or what God is. He often had a difficult time, as George Fox did, in trying to convey this understanding to other Christians.

Now here I am writing a blog about nothing. He would have loved it.

 

[1] Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Random House, 1993).

Transforming Power

A word that continues to challenge me this morning is “transformation.” My grandsons, no doubt, would think of Transformers—the alien robots who can disguise themselves as various kinds of machines. I don’t think that’s what I mean. As a child, I memorized the Bible verse, “Be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. “[1] I don’t think I knew what that meant.

Quakers speak of transformation in terms of “living a life rooted in the transforming experience of the Divine.” I can relate to that. Ben Pink Dandelion, in his book, Open for Transformation: the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture, says, “We are challenged to consider how we retain an authentic encounter with the Divine, how we become a transformed and transforming community.”[2] Ah, yes, now we’re on to something.

Yesterday in our Quaker Meeting Bible study we explored the story of Elijah’s encounter with Yahweh on Mount Horeb.[3] Elijah, fleeing for his life, heads to the wilderness where, depressed and exhausted, he falls asleep. He is awakened by an angel, who offers him bread and water to sustain him on his journey. After 40 days and 40 nights he reaches a cave on Mount Horeb. He hears a voice asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answers, “I have been very zealous for the Lord.” The Israelites, once again, have forsaken the covenant with God and have killed the prophets. Elijah feels that he is the only one left and now he is afraid for his life. As he stands in the cave, there is a great wind, but God was not in the wind. There is an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake, and a fire, but God was not in the fire. After the fire there is a “still, small voice” asking him the same question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” After he gives the same answer, God tells him to return to his community. It is clear that he is not alone and that he still has work to do.

I’ve always heard this story as a cautionary tale to help us listen through the noise and drama of wind, earthquakes, and fire, to hear the still, small voice of the Divine. But what happens to Elijah when he does listen? How is he changed?

In a powerful message to the World Conference of Friends in Kenya, Noah Baker Merrill told this story of Elijah and then asked, “Friends, what does it take in our lives, when we’re running fast toward what seems like so much good work, for us to remember to stop and wait, to stay deeply connected to our Guide? Where have we gone beyond what God asks of us, and continued in our own striving and pride?”

So transformation is not something we DO, either to ourselves or to the world. Like Elijah, we may be zealous in working for change, but do we take time to listen for the still, small voice and allow ourselves to be transformed?
[1] Romans 12:2

[2] Published by Britain Yearly Meeting 2014.

[3] 1Kings 19:4-15

All Souls Day/Dia de Los Muertos

All Souls Day/Dia de Los Muertos Nov 2, 2015

As I pack away my jeweled bat earrings, my black wig, and my face paint for yet another year, I have been musing about the relationship between Halloween (originally Hallowed Evening), and All Saints Day/All Souls Day/ Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Not raised Catholic, I have never been clear about the meaning of the days after Halloween. I guess I’ve always known that it had something to do with death, but not knowing much about the Catholic saints and martyrs, I didn’t know why they were being celebrated on Nov 1. From living in the Philippines for two years I learned a little more about All Souls Day, a day for visiting, cleaning, and decorating the graves of ancestors and praying for them.

I remember a conversation many years ago with friends in the steam bath about how we deal with death—in particular, how we handle the bodies of departed loved ones. At the time, all but one of us had never experienced death close up. A Yup’ik friend was amazed at this, as in her culture the job of preparing the body is tended by family members, not relegated to professional undertakers. This led me to consider how our culture encourages us to avoid death. And while we are allowed to cry at funerals or memorial services, we are expected to get quickly past our grief and move on with our lives.   What would it be like if we had an annual celebration of the lives of those who have left us? To fill this gap in white culture, some are turning to Dia de Los Muertos.

This attraction is understandable, writes Aya de Leon in a Facebook posting today. She says, “This indigenous holiday from Mexico celebrates the loving connection between the living our departed loved ones that is deeply missing in Western culture.” However, her message to Gringos is: “You want our culture but you don’t want us—Stop colonizing the Day of the Dead.”   She points out that all people are welcome at Dia de los Muertos celebrations organized by Latino communities in many U.S. cities. She also points out that there are indigenous European cultural traditions commemorating the dead (dating from before these traditions were themselves appropriated by the Catholic Church). Her complaint is that white people are appropriating Day of the Dead customs without regard for the Latino communities in which the customs are authentically rooted.

While Quakers historically did not celebrate holidays at all, believing that all days were equally sacred and holy, we do have a longstanding tradition of memorial meetings, where we sit in quiet worship and bring up names of those who have departed. This is a far cry from the colorful celebrations of Dia de Los Muertos with the flowers, decorated altars, and dancing skeletons, but it does provide a time for collectively remembering those whose lives impacted us in important ways.

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).