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Thursday, December 20, 2012

A gift

During the last several years, as our daughters have become young adult women, our Christmas celebrations and gift exchanges have changed dramatically.  There are fewer gifts, the drama surrounding them is much less and we have begun to make some sort of family outing or experience our primary family Christmas gift.  Also, since we are in the middle of a relatively dramatic remodel on the main floor of our new-to-us home in Concord, David and I are getting a new kitchen for Christmas, so there will not be many gifts under the tree for us to open this year. 

With all of this being said, I have to admit that I still do really like presents.  I like finding the perfect gift for another person, giving gifts and unwrapping and receiving them.  I like to savor the experience of revelation of what is under the tree.  I enjoy seeing other people's gifts as much as unwrapping my own.  Over the last several years I have tried to curb those insatiable desires to buy everyone I know multiple gifts and to reduce the amount of consumerism in my life.  Two years ago I gave charitable donations in honor of all the people on my list and tried to have the charities match the lives of the recipients (i.e.  I gave a donation to George Mark's Children's House in honor of our preschool director and to the Mount Diablo School District music program in honor of our church's Music Director). 

Today, I was in the church office and attempting to put finishing touches on three or four different worship services for the upcoming days and weeks, and a whole assortment of things that pastors do during the week before Christmas.  Gift giving and receiving was the farthest thing from my mind.  In the midst of my routine,  I picked up the day's mail and was surprised to find an envelope addressed to me from the Deputy Consul General of the Israeli Consulate.   In the early fall, David, a local Jewish man who is interested in interfaith conversations,  contacted me to request a meeting with some progressive Christians and some Jewish representatives from the Israeli Consulate.  I was dumbfounded as to why he would contact me (later found out he had reached out to a number of local pastors and I was the only one who responded to his request!).  As is my style, I suggested we meet face to face for coffee.  He and I spoke for a while and then we found a way to eventually invite several pastors in the area to a meeting at a local synagogue.  I did not leave that meeting with any particular sense of accomplishment nor did I think it was a meeting that was useless, but I generally feel inadequate to the task of sorting out deeply complex personal, political, theological knots between people who do not even begin to see eye to eye.  However, since I was about to embark on a pilgrimage to the Middle East and be a guest in Jerusalem, Galilee, Bethlehem and Nazareth, it seemed important for me to participate.

So, back to the envelope.  It turns out it wasn't just a card, but I could tell there was actually something inside the envelope.  Well, much to my surprise, the envelope contained a Christmas greeting from Gideon, the Deputy Consul General, and a CD.  So, I opened the CD and discovered that it was by an ironically named group, My Favorite Enemy.

 I opened the program notes and found that this group of musicians is a part of a larger organization, The Middle East Program, founded in 2002 with a vision to "build meaningful, long-term relationships between leaders from all sectors of society."  I have no way of knowing if this organization is the real deal or not, but I was deeply moved by the music and the spoken intent of the music and the organization behind it.  I was filled with gratitude that someone I don't really know well and who sees the world differently than I do thought enough to send me a gift.  I'm praying that some of the bigger gifts on my list that don't involve packages, material goods, wrapping and bows, might start to be revealed, the way this simple gift opened me. 

In peace, joy, hope and love, I wait and I watch for the lasting gifts.  Thanks, Gideon, for reminding me that they come from the most unlikely people and places. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In the face of grief, make music

Since I'm not sure this will make the cutting floor of the WomenSing website, I thought I would go ahead and post it for those of you who follow me or read my blog from time to time.  It was all I could come up with as a response to the earthshaking events of the last week.

Blog Post #3 – a retrospective on Sing an Endless “Ave”

It is with a heavier heart than I had last Wednesday evening that I am finally addressing the computer and bringing some reflections to what it was like for me to sing in my first concert with WomenSing.   I was lifted high by the beautiful churches in which we sang and the gracious hospitality of the hosts/hostesses and the audiences who came to hear us sing.  I was humbled by the preparation of sitting in a room trying to take it all in.  I was shocked at the speed with which the program progressed.  I was in awe the talent of the percussionists, our vocal soloists and ensembles and our outstanding artistic staff.  And I was sad that I was not as prepared for it all as I wanted to be, while heartened that next time I will know more, be more relaxed and continue to improve (art making is not an instantaneous gratification event!)

However,  since that evening and those initial reflections, the country has been reminded once again of the terrible toll violence can take on a community, and this time the violence found itself on the doorstep of a school with teachers and very young children.  I will not write any opinions or give any quick or vapid solutions to this tragedy, but I will admit that for a time, it made the exhilaration and thrill of making music fade somewhat into the background.  The concert became a sub-paragraph to the larger essay of life. 
However, the more I have thought about it, the more I believe that there should be an exclamation point next to music making and the role it can have in making our world a better place, and making us better people.  I know that some of you may be wondering what kind of Pollyanna life I lead or how I could be so na├»ve as to think that might even be possible.  But let me explain myself.

Our program this winter was an eclectic mix of movements from various Latin American and Canadian masses, some traditional carols and some less traveled songs by the likes of Derek Holman and Benjamin Britten.  So, for starters, regardless of one’s faith background, who could help but be moved by a Kyrie (Lord, have mercy) or miserere nobis (have mercy on us) or Dona Nobis Pacem (grant us peace)?  I guess what I’m really trying to say is that the music is still singing through me and in me, even though the concerts concluded nearly a week ago.  And isn’t that what great art should do?  These are ancient words and texts and carols and songs, and they spoke volumes in those two venues last week, and even more loudly to me in the news of a tragedy in Newtown, CT.

Also, this wonderful choral organization of WomenSing does more than put on performances, but it gives back to communities and individuals through programs like Youth Inspiring Youth (http://www.womensing.org/).  Additionally, earlier in the fall, several members of WomenSing took lunch to a group in San Francisco called Singers of the Street (http://www.singersofthestreet.org/), a choir of people whose lives are impacted by homelessness.   And what else could we do that would support communities locally and even worldwide to the gift of making music that challenges the mind, enlarges the heart and opens hands to a more generous and kind way of living?  In the words of Leonard Bernstein, "This will be our reply to violence: To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

(Addendum:  for one more story about music as activisim, go to
 http://thisweekinpalestine.co/details.php?id=1189&ed=97&edid=97 to read about the Palestine Bach Festival.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


I am normally a person who can handle a lot of activities at one time.  I multitask with the best of them.  I sometimes live by the principle of "I'm sure I can handle just one more thing."  But sometimes, I hit a breaking point.  Today is one of those days.  It mostly comes in the form of realizing that I am so far from practicing what I preach that it is downright embarrassing.

As a minister in the Christian tradition, I am supposed to guide the people through Advent toward this very important time in the Christian year and calendar:  the birth of Jesus!  Advent is a hopeful, quiet, pregnant with anticipation and meaning time.  It is a counter-cultural time.  This is evidenced by the attempts to hold off the white and gold by adorning our sanctuaries with purple or royal blue.  Some churches don't sing Christmas carols until Christmas eve.  This is not a time that tells the stories of Black Fridays of long ago, gross national product, or economic recovery.  It also is not even a time to journey up the mountain to procure the largest and most elegant fir tree to grace our living room windows.  There is no gospel of Martha Stewart's Christmas and the shepherds don't herald free gift wrapping or amazon.com free shipping and arrival of gifts just in time for the unwrapping frenzy.  Instead, we are waiting on a baby.  In the words of Ricky Bobby, maybe an " 8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don't even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent" baby Jesus. (thanks Adam Walker Cleaveland for reminding me!) 

But maybe that isn't it either.  I'm thinking that what I'm supposed to do and be during this Advent could not be further from the person I am.  Frankly, I'm a ball of frenzy focused upon all the wrong things.  When will the house get decorated for Christmas?  How will I get the gifts wrapped in time?  Where will our extended family gather for Christmas Day if my house is still a mess of construction dust, mis-matched furniture and a garage full of things that no longer fit in a down-sized property?  Oh and this is just on the home front.  Let's not even start to talk about the church and work.  Upcoming services, end of year budget process, new officers and training, and and and....  

So what will make it all stop?  What can get me in the right frame.  Well, today, for some reason, I stopped and took a picture of a piece of "art" that I have had in my home and now in my church office since the first or second year I have served as a minister of a congregation.  There was this amazing woman in that congregation, Dorothy, who was over 90 years old.  She came to the Senior Center and taught bible study because the "old people" needed her!  She had cancer but did not let it stop her.  She loved to talk about deep and important matters of life and death.  Her conversation often turned to the baby Jesus and the grown up Jesus, and the Jesus that lives incarnate in each of our hearts.  For some reason, today it just hit me how much I miss her.  I bet I have not really thought about her for at least a couple of years.  It was as if she was the one telling me to stop and pay attention to the really important matters of life and death.  

This is the piece of "art":
What a very odd stop sign.  This picture is made out of those very old Christmas cards and it belonged to Dorothy.  She had brought it to the church to be sold at the annual Senior Center Craft Fair.  No one bought her and the clean up crew was ready to toss her.  I think I paid $5 for her and said it was a good cause.  There are so many things I love about it.  First, it was Dorothy's!  Second, it is made of recycled products.  Finally, I've always just been fascinated by the story of Mary, the annunciation, the birth and her role in Jesus' life.  As a Protestant minister, I have often thought that we let the Roman Catholics steal her away or that we have rejected the adoration of Mary to a point that we've rejected all the goodness that can be found in her.  For today, I want to remember how she prepared like every other pregnant woman in the world to birth an 8 lb 6 oz wonder and how all that preparation and the shock of it all must have made her slow down and even stop from the fear, the pain, the confusion and whatever else was occupying her.  

So, I best get busy, but not with the stuff of everyday life, but with the deeper parts of living and sharing and listening and loving and knowing.  To all a blessed Advent.