Thursday, August 27, 2015

Learning to Breathe Again: Psalm 146

After a few years away from singing in a community choir, I found myself joining the local one when I moved to a small town in Vermont to serve as minister. It was the first time since college that I became part of a choral group that sings more demanding material, and let me tell you, I came home exhausted. We rehearsed for two hours, sometimes a little longer, and it was a stimulating and engaging experience to delve into the music selected for each program. Nonetheless, after that first night in September, my feet hurt from standing, my voice hurt from hitting a few notes I had not visited in awhile, and my gut hurt.

One of the key elements of singing is whether you can breathe well. Finding the pitch, being able to carry a tune—these are helpful, but you also have to be able to breathe so that what you are trying to sing has adequate support. Good breathing skills are needed to sing, but they take practice, and that night in September, I realized how out of practice I had become with these skills. Nonetheless, to be able to keep up with the demands of singing the music well, you have to improve your breathing skills.

When the psalms speak of praise of God, the ability to breathe is part of the act of praise. Praise and breathing are intertwined in the Psalms, and for good reason. The Hebrew Scriptures remind us, particularly in the Psalter, that we breathe only because God has given us breath.

As the Creation narratives unfold, the book of Genesis refers to the wind and breath that enlivens Creation as that of the Spirit of God being imparted. Without God’s activity, Creation has not come alive. In Genesis 1, the winds that move over the waters and the very act of bringing to life the first human is about God breathing life into Creation, humanity included. (Even the Hebrew word used for wind or breath as well as describing the Spirit of God, called by Christians as the Holy Spirit, is breathy in its pronunciation: ruach.) Thus, the 150th Psalm calls out, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord”, reminding that all of Creation breathes together the same breath of life. Thus, the 140th Psalm’s vision of God as “provider of all” refers to death as when God’s breath is taken away, such is the Psalter’s notion of how dependent we humans are on God. Thus, the melancholy of the 144th Psalm as it refers to humans as those “who are like a breath; their days like a passing shadow”.

The Psalms come from a theological worldview that ties breath and life together as gifted to us by God. Thus, in turn, the act of praise comes about because we have breath, and especially when the created finally remember with all due reverence the Creator who has given us the breath!

The failing of humanity, however, as the 146th Psalm puts it, is when we falter in remembering from where our praise and breath comes from. Psalm 146 gives a criticism here that should be noted: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day, their plans perish.” The Psalmist offers a contrary word to the way things tend to work in this world. Even though the language of “princes” is archaic, the intimation is that we should be careful where and with whom we place our hope. Do not be lulled into thinking that “the powers that be” will ultimately save you or keep you completely safe and secure. No nation or leader will deliver this. (They certainly will promise it if it keeps their throne safe for the time being, but reigns and presidencies alike cannot keep us from all harm.) Thus the contrary world of the Bible looms over the reader of the Psalm, calling upon the hearer to reorient themselves in what seems disorienting: It is in God alone that we find our hope and trust.

See the first two verses of Psalm 146. These are the type of verses of the Bible that you encourage people to memorize and keep close to heart: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” (Ps. 146:1-2) If you are able to keep these praises close to heart, and these “princes” or “powers that be” at arm’s length, you have begun to live a more authentic life, getting away from those things that may seem to sound good now, but later and inevitably run out of air.

The film Dream Girls featured a number of very talented actors, including Jamie Foxx, Eddy Murphy, and a newcomer Jennifer Hudson, who went from American Idol contestant to winning an Oscar for her first film. Each of the characters has a great deal of talent. Foxx is an aspiring music agent and promoter. Murphy is an aging performer seeking that next “new sound”. Hudson is the lead in a minor trio of women. As the musical unfolds, the characters find great fame and great hardship, sometimes with each other’s help, other times at one another’s expense. A complex web of relationships is woven of fortune and misfortune alike.

Foxx’s character turns to more shady dealings, as his enthusiasm outpaced by his desire for more power as a record company boss. Eventually, it is discovered that he is working with the Mob and stealing music from other performers. Murphy’s character finds himself turning more to heroin addiction rather than trying to reinvent himself for a changing music market. Hudson’s character finds herself demoted from lead singer to back-up and then right out of the group altogether. All the while, the great talent and giftedness of this gathering of characters goes to waste as power, drugs, and money erode their lives.

In many ways, Dream Girls depicts life, fraught with complexities, and only a few of the characters in this musical find a measure of redemption. The musical feels eerily familiar to the lives we lead, as we deal with choosing wisely or foolishly the paths ahead while dealing with the random and chaotic fallout of life’s ambiguities and travails. All the while, the psalmist sits in the back row with his popcorn, saying, “Didn’t you get the bit in my little song about not chasing the stuff that won’t last?”

The psalm turns us away from the foolishness of this world and reorients us to the way of life that helps us breathe again. The spiritual life is not just for emergencies only or the deeply pious. The Psalms are to accompany you by the bed stand, the dashboard, the cubicle at work, the places where you find a moment’s respite, just as they have been there for ancient Israel and all those generations afterward who seek wisdom. In reorienting ourselves back to God, we remember that the only gift we have in this life, the only asset is life itself. What we make of it can be wonderment as well as disaster, but we are better off starting with the simplicity of the Psalm, geared to that which helps us breathe and give due praise rather than disdain or disregard to God.

Meanwhile, back at the choir rehearsal, I found myself asked to sing one of the solos for the Choral Society concert.  To sing a solo means no matter the rehearsals, there are a number of last minute things still to be figured out. Moreover, I pray the worst not to happen: the unmanly thing of having your voice crack. The most important thing that I will need to do is remember to breathe.

One other deft movement within this Psalm is also noted. While the Psalmist appeals to the individual to turn away from the tempting personal gain thought to be found in this life, the Psalmist reminds us of whom God is. It is not enough that God’s people get themselves straightened out and reoriented to their own little journey in faith. It is also about being able to praise God, the one who is steadfast in support and care of those otherwise marginalized, usually by those same “princes” or “powers that be”. The thing to keep in mind about the “powers” that try to get us to run our lives by their desire is this: they may not last, but their policies and practices can create a world of hurt for the less fortunate of the world that lasts sometimes over the generations. 

God is not like that puff of air that disappears. God is steadfast, or “keeps the faith forever”. Steadfast is a word that the Psalmist uses that you do not use lightly in the vocabulary of the Hebrew Scriptures. To be steadfast means to be undeterred and unshakeable. Again, the Psalmist revels in the irony of human life: we chase all manner of things, only to find that they, and even ourselves, are like a puff of wind. God, the very wind of Creation, is the only stability, and so, again, the Psalmist with the popcorn in the back row says, “Pay attention to what God cares about. It might tell you something.”

The God of Psalm 146 is deeply concerned with those who are less fortunate in this life: the oppressed are given justice; the hungry are fed; the prisoners are liberated; the blind are given sight; the righteous vindicated; the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner are tended. This is the song that ancient Israel and all the generations thereafter are called to sing. Yet, it is not the “happy-clappy” music that some churches call “praise music” where you sing rather shallow words and on the fifth time, you are told “now, sing it with feeling.” No, this sort of Psalm is one that you have to learn to sing, but first you have to learn to breathe! This sort of praise music is not for the faint of heart. As Water Brueggemann observes, when ancient Israel, the community first called to this psalm’s performance, takes up the Psalm of the day, “Israel sings, and we never know what holy power is unleashed by such singing”.

Churches have such a wonderful calling to be the Church, yet sometimes, we have allowed worry to overtake us. The bitter truth: More often than not, we’ve forgotten to breathe, and our praise of God has diminished a bit. The redemptive word: Now we’re back in voice training, learning some new and challenging material. Our backs may hurt, our feet may hurt, but we are more than just tired. We might be ready to start singing.

And the psalmist speaks up again waaay in the back of the crowd, “Now you’re getting it!”

Friday, August 21, 2015

Remembering Ourselves Rightly: Exploring Ian McKellen's Mr. Holmes

Mr. Holmes is a new film starring the venerable actor Ian McKellen. In recent years, McKellen has gained new audiences as a superhero villain (Magneto in the XMen films) and a wizard (Gandalf in the two trilogies of The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings).  For decades, McKellen has worked on stage and film, lauded for his performance. Without a doubt, this new film showcases the fruitfulness of his long career.

Without spoiling key plot points of this film or its source material (a 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind written by Mitch Cullen), let me share some thoughts:

McKellen portrays an aging Sherlock Holmes, predominately in his extreme latter decades, dealing with a diminishing physical capacity with the telltale signs of forgetfulness hinting the fog of dementia slowly settling in his mind.  Some parts of the film depict Holmes at the end of his illustrious career as a consulting detective, working alone as his trusty companion Dr. Watson married and no longer living on Baker Street.  McKellen deftly shows a dapper Holmes, working away at a case that confounded the authorities, juxtaposed with the man in his elder years, living alone, save a housekeeper and her young son.  There are times when the camera closes in on the aged Holmes, with McKellen showing a man in his late winter years, and they are hard, lingering days of diminished capacities and deep regret.

The film highlights the housekeeper’s son, who finds a mentor figure in Holmes, who warms to the boy’s curiosity and even shows him how to maintain the bee hives that Holmes spends most of his daytime fussing over.  The son explores Holmes’ upstairs study and finds a folder of the old man’s writings.  He becomes fascinated by Holmes’ attempt at writing the story of a case from years ago.  It turns out that Dr. Watson wrote a version of this case, which turned out to be Holmes’ final case.  Holmes, however, retells the case, trying to understand what happened in a different light. Far from triumphant, Holmes’ recollection of these events demonstrates why Holmes retired and moved off to a largely solitary existence out in the countryside.

The film revolves around memory and the way we tell our stories.  Holmes struggles with memory, yet he is driven by his lingering regrets to regain enough of his recall that he can revisit the details of his last case.  Holmes tries a variety of treatments, including a lengthy trip to Japan to gather a rare plant said to have restorative, memory boosting qualities.  The flashbacks to the events of his last case are hard won, moments of clarity that he rushes to capture in his prose.  The housekeeper’s son presses him on details, wanting to know what happened next.  Holmes appears at times uncertain of his ability to remember as well as his fear of what his memories will reveal about past mistakes and sorrows.

 While in Japan, Holmes encounters firsthand the survivors of the nuclear bombings, wandering through society as barely acknowledged victims of war.  While a smaller subplot, the scenes of his recent trip to Japan resonated as I saw the film a few days before the 70th anniversary of the bombings.  Historians and educators continue to lament the resistance from certain quarters in public and political circles to displays and retrospectives that examine the costliness of such decisions.  Holmes staggers down the street in disbelief and overwhelmed by what he beholds.  As I watched this, I reflected on the irony that it might be safer for some that this honesty be confined to an art house film rather than in a more public venue such as the Smithsonian, where in 1995 a political firestorm ensued when a proposed exhibit would have displayed the fuselage of the Enola Gay bomber as well as artifacts and commentary demonstrating the severity of the bombing’s consequences on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. See this article:

Working with congregations, I am quite aware that churches share their memories and history quite selectively.  A church may have patterns of conflict or other upsetting incidents along its congregational history, and yet it is only after much detective work on a pastor or consultant’s part that the dynamics and distress come to the surface.  Further, a church’s history can be understood sometimes by reading the archives or the formal “anniversary history booklet” and then compared against the narratives one learns over a cup of coffee one-on-one or just listening to the buzz out in the parking lot after a business meeting.  A skilled interim minister or gifted and courageous settled pastor, and better yet, a congregation willing to work with the interim and one another can be a great corrective and healing experience for such a church, if people are prepared to journey through the fog of memory and learn from their past and own what really happened or got left undone or unsaid.
Watching Mr. Holmes, I took great delight in seeing a master actor at his craft.  I also saw an earnest portrayal of memory and what really needs to be lost and found if we are to be more faithful to ourselves and before God.  Holmes will gain a measure of peace in his late years, but only after he has faced a more sober and earnest exploration of his past.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Changing Our Questions: A first look at Rendle's Doing the Math of Mission

I just started reading this great book Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Therefore, this blog post is not necessarily a book review, though the reading experience thus far has been highly engaging and enjoyable.

The book is written by Gil Rendle, longtime church consultant with the Alban Institute and now senior consultant for the Texas Methodist Foundation (Austin, TX). I read Rendle’s work often, appreciating greatly his work in the books Journey Through the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (Abingdon, 2010) and Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders (Alban, 1998—now listed as Rowman & Littlefield, the current publisher of new and backlist Alban related books). 

With such a long career as a minister and church consultant, Rendle offers thoughtful engagements about the issues that frankly bedevil our churches and where our energy for mission gets expended (often in all the wrong places and situations). He suggests that as church structures choose to adapt to a changing context for ministry and mission, leaders and congregants will benefit from changing the questions around and looking for new ways to measure the church’s work.

For example, Rendle suggests when churches learn not to count their numbers (i.e. keeping tabs only on matters of attendance, buildings, cash) at the expense of following their mission, "Conversations are no longer about problem solving, but about possibility hunting” (p. 21).

By this point in reading Rendle’s book, I can appreciate the logic of reframing conversations. So many churches present their worries foremost that they forget to note what God is already doing in their midst. The cycle of woe and lament becomes so deeply embedded that it takes a good deal of time (and detox?) to start thinking clearly about the aims and purposes of ministry and mission.

Rendle suggests a way forward by learning to ask more perceptive questions and measuring/evaluating the outcomes rather than the usual place where churches and leaders tend to dead stop creativity and energy: at the point of wondering, “Do we have enough or can we risk enough?” For example, a food pantry ministry can seem an overwhelming burden on a small congregation, or comments can be made that wonder why we are wasting time on people who won’t become members of the church. Rendle challenges such thinking, asking us to measure more the questions of “how does this pantry help us become better disciples?” or “what would be the impact of closing down the only place in a neighborhood where food can be found when we know so many people without vehicles or accessible public transportation?”

In March 1999, an essay by the Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann appeared in The Christian Century. He challenges his readers to understand the world is in God’s hands. Therefore, any talk of scarcity ought to be understood as a contradiction to the greater truth we hold dear: God provides abundantly. He sees throughout the Scriptures the “myth of scarcity” being confronted by a veritable “liturgy of abundance”. I keep this framework in my mind constantly working with churches that present their woes far quicker than their blessings or as a search committee speaks to the profound sense of lack rather than an overwhelming trust in God’s provision, even at times of change and transition.

Now, I have another wise word to share with churches. When congregations wish to seek the way ahead, they must cultivate spaces and processes where a different sort of question can arise. Indeed, "Conversations [will be] no longer about problem solving, but about possibility hunting”.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Telling Time

Back in college, I was asked to lead a Wednesday night Bible study in my home church.  As an eager burgeoning person with a sense of calling to ministry, I wanted to take it on, even if I had less experience.  I decided to talk about peace issues and how Christians live the faith in a complex world.  In other words, a big topic that not too many people arrived at expecting to tackle on a hot August night in southeast Kansas.

I had with me a copy of the latest issue of Sojourners magazine, which featured a provocative cover image.   A similar image appears here:

As we talked about the Bible and peace, I brought out the magazine and asked people to look at the cover image.

For some around the table, they were puzzled why a wrist watch was so important.

For others, they studied the image, trying to sort out if the time shown on the watch had any sort of significance.

I shared the story of the wristwatch, found in the ruins of Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb explosion on August 6, 1945.

Many of the Bible study participants remembered firsthand experience (some even as veterans or the spouses of veterans) of the Second World War.  The curiosity about the image turned into awkward silence.

Twenty years later, I continue to look up this image and ponder the everyday juxtaposed with the horrifying and unsettling story of how the watch stopped, its hands frozen in the midst of a time now distant, yet its legacy and troubling questions remain.

It is often said, "Remember."  And to this may we keep working for peace with the resolve of "Never again."