due for revision

Every once in a while, I get an urge to re-write the ten commandments. Last night was such a night — after a morning of Prayer Book, and an evensong full of tricky bits of Paul, which ended with ‘God is not yes, no, but yes, yes.’

So here, hastily done, is the latest gloss…

The Divine Word

Imagine a God who says yes.
Whose word is yes, yes. Not no.
Yes, you are my beloved.
Yes, you are my child.

And imagine we taught our children
generation after generation
to listen for God’s yes —
for God’s glorious liberating word

and we greeted them
not with Thou Shalt Not,
but with God’s deeper call,
God’s eager yes.

On our walls we might still paint the words our ancestors taught us:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul,

with all your mind and with all your strength.
Love, others too — not just the ones you like,
or the ones who are like you —
but love them all, for I, the Lord your God, am a loving God:
all creation is mine.

Imagine we taught our children the great commandments:
Rest is Holy. Rest is sacred. Remember that you need rest.
And help others to stop their busyness too —
children and parents, strangers and friends
all must be given time
to be free
to set aside the tasks of the day
to delight in love and beauty and wonder.

When there is time, we can learn to value each other:
so, honour your parents, listen and learn from them;
honour your children too: for they know the ways of God.

Imagine that we taught our children
God’s way is not of death.
Give life to others, and help them live.
God’s love for us is precious and kind.
Be kind to others, and be faithful.

Our Great God gives us all we need
so give freely, share what you have.  There is enough.
T
here is no need to fear or to lie.  You are loved —
so you are free — to speak truth, to speak kindness,
to sing God’s word and dance God’s joy.

Delight in other people’s gifts, rejoice in their riches, 
find joy in one another’s peculiar ways,
for I, your God, am a curious God —
I love to laugh and catch you off guard.
Laugh with me.

And what if we invited God to write these words on our hearts?
If we taught our children to do the same?
Then would we be miserable?
Then would we offend?

Or might we believe
that we are worthy
that we are blessed
that we are beloved?

Imagine that this is our God
who longs to give us love.

For God it is
who says Yes
who delights in our being
and longs for our joy.

improv chant (that makes community)

This is the third post on Music that Makes Community XX.  

Today, I want to explore an unlikely equation.

Lectio Divina + ancient chant + Scary Improv = a stunning way to sing psalms.

As a priest, I have always found psalms tricky.  I love Anglican Chant, and am thankful that there are places (not too far from here) that do it well.  I love plainsong, and have had fabulous experiences of small groups of people singing Compline in dark country churches.  But often, congregations set out to sing psalms in ways that just don’t work.  I’m not sure, yet, how well what I’m about to describe would work in most churches.  It would certainly take courage to try. But we can do courage, right?  For a liturgy that shimmers, it is worth it, yes?

So, on we go.

Scary Improv Psalm began simply enough.  We were invited to say together Psalm 23 — in the authorized version (which I suspect was meant to be reassuring).  In fact, this was verbal mirroring, another form of the morning improv.  The leader began, and we matched his rhythms. As we went on, leadership moved around: other voices, other rhythm emerged. Sometimes there were ‘mistakes’ — words multiplied as memory took over and we slipped into alternate versions. Then, we would come together again, speaking as one.

At first, it was our mistakes that ornamented the psalm:  an embellishment here, a collective swirl and pause there as we found our way together.  Then we were invited past accident, into deliberate action.  This is where Lectio comes in.  In the same way that you ‘listen for a word’ in Lectio, we were invited to listen for the words that spoke most deeply to us.  To listen, as the leader spoke — and then to echo the words that jumped out.

The Lord is my shepherd
Lord
Lord
Shepherd
Lord

I shall not want
want
want

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures

lie down
lie down
…….pastures
maketh me

He restoreth my soul.

And on we went.  At first it was forced: deliberate echoing.  Hesitancy.  Then, we fell into prayer. Words rose and fell — awe-filled, reserved, angry, fearful, weary, hopeful.  Sometimes, stripped of emotion: pure word.  It seemed that many of us were equally lost in our own prayers and wholly caught up in the group.  The energy rose and spines tingled.  Yet all we were doing was speaking a psalm…

When we were done and had spoken about what happened, we were invited to do it again — this time singing.

The leader began to chant the psalm — neither Anglican Chant nor plainsong. The chant seemed to owe as much to the mosque as the church, and yet it was also born in the moment.  Notes came as the leader prayed.  We were asked to join in: echoing the words that spoke to us, illuminating the text.

Before we had started, we had been given a drone: a note held as a  ‘home base’, which offered both safety and energy.  For me it was mannna. I could not imagine making up melodic lines or harmonies — though in fact, I’d had to do that earlier, in Most Scary of Improvs — but it is possible to sing back a note, to echo a word just offered.  (Really, it is.)

For much of the psalm, that is all I did.  I echoed the occasional word, on the drone, probably inaudible to all but my nearest neighbour. Then — it should not have surprised me really — what was happening in the group became more engaging than my fear.  I began to hear patterns:  there was a woman behind me with a lovely light soprano voice who embellished the text with fine filigree of gold. There was a man near by who rumbled out of the depths of the earth.  There was someone who echoed in thirds, and another who multiplied the chant with rhythmic repetitions.  It began to make sense, and I started to hear where I could fit in.

The different voices helped me find my own.  The power of the psalm and the unity of the group deepened as each person found a way to be themselves.

How many times have I said something like that?  written it?  read it in a church profile? “We find our voice as we listen to each other.”  But never had I seen the concept come so vividly to life.  Music that Makes Community also makes very good theology.

And I have I mentioned, yet, that it was also great fun?

Next post: leadership.
This is a work of evangelism.  We are not done with this yet…

turning point

This post was written for Beauty from Chaos, but accidentally posted here.
I’ve decided to leave it on both blogs, in case it was all Zadkiel’s doing.

As soon as the birds sang, Jesus slipped out of the house and went down to the stream.  Zadkiel watched him from beneath his wing, then rose to follow.  It was getting warmer, at least.  But hot days and cold nights still made for wet grass, and Zadkiel went reluctantly down the path.

By the time Zadkiel got there, Jesus was leaning against a tree, looking out at the water.  As usual, he’d found a stone, and was turning it over and over in his hand.

Zadkiel felt weary.  They were getting close now, and there were moments when he didn’t want the job he’d been given. He walked past Jesus to the water’s edge, and stooped down to trail his fingertips through the ripples.

Jesus watched him for a while, and registered his own surprise.  Usually it was the other way round:  Zadkiel watching, Jesus longing for the bright splash of grace.  He set down his stone and went to Zadkiel’s side.   The angel smiled, but did not move, and his eyes went out to the far shore.

‘Peter thinks that I am the messiah,’ Jesus said suddenly.
‘I heard.’ Zadkiel muttered.
‘I told him not to say.’
‘Yes, that was probably wise.’

Both of them, now, were trailing their fingers through the water, relishing the cool of it against the warmth of the sun.

Zadkiel looked at Jesus, cautiously, and summoned his will.  He could do this…
‘And you?  What do you think?  Are you the messiah?’

It was Jesus’ turn to look away.  He turned from the stream and walked up the bank.  He saw a dead branch lying there, picked it up and gave it a tentative swing.

‘When I was young, some of the boys would play “Messiah”.  They’d find a stick, like this, and they’d steal a pot to wear as a helmet. Then they’d round us all up, with stories of how unfair the world was, and claim that they would be the one to change it.  Sticks, pots, off we’d go to prepare for battle.’  Jesus threw down the stick he’d been swinging and turned to face Zadkiel.  ‘The thing is: I hated it.  It never felt right.  Violence breeds violence, and killing people doesn’t really tell me much about God’s love.’

‘No,’ Zadkiel said, ‘I can see that.  So, if you were the messiah?’

Jesus sat down, looked at the stream.  Further up, the women were beginning to gather, filling their jugs.

‘There was a song my mother used to sing — a sort of lullaby when I couldn’t sleep.  A song of trust in what God was doing, of light coming to the nations.’

‘Yes.  I remember.  Simeon had taught her.’

‘Simeon.  She used to talk about him.  She loved remembering that day they took me to the temple and Simeon raised me in his arms and sang, and Anna laughed and shouted that God was good.  They were so startled by it that they forgot about the doves, and went home carrying them still.  We had those doves for years.  It was one of her favourite stories.’ Jesus paused, remembering.  ‘But sometimes, if I asked her about it at the wrong moment, it felt different.  She’d say all the same things, but her eyes would be different.  She seemed afraid.’

Zadkiel turned away from Jesus, and went back to the stream.  He watched the light dance and thought how Jophiel would be noting the rhythms of it.  He wished he were anywhere but here.

‘Yes, well, Simeon said a lot of things that day.’

Jesus was getting annoyed now.  This wasn’t like Zadkiel at all.  He went to him, and put his hand on his shoulder, forcing Zadkiel to look at him.

‘What is it?  What did he say?’
‘Oh, just the usual sort of thing.  The sort of thing Peter said.  And that you would be opposed.’

Jesus laughed harshly, ‘is that all?  Well that proved true enough.  Opposed at every turn.  I’m getting used to it by now.’

Zadkiel looked relieved.  Maybe they could stop here, and go back to looking at the water?  But no. Jesus was still thinking, and when he spoke it was less bravely: ‘But there was something else too, wasn’t there? Opposition doesn’t explain the look in her eyes.’

Zadkiel looked at Jesus, and knew he would have to tell him.  ‘Simeon saw it all.  He had met so many mothers.  He told her that a sword would pierce her own soul too.’

Jesus looked confused, as he turned Simeon’s words over and over in his mind, and then he seemed to realise. ‘When we played,’ he said, ‘when it was my turn to be “Messiah”?  I never swung my stick.  I just carried it, and they followed.’

‘Yes.’ Zadkiel said sadly, ‘I remember that too.’

Jesus stood long on the water’s edge with his eyes closed, absorbing the warmth of the sun. ‘I know how it will be, then.  I think I’ve known for a while, really.  I must tell the disciples.’

Zadkiel nodded, and said nothing.  He knelt down to touch the water again, as Jesus turned and walked up the dusty path alone.

see? it is enough.

‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’

How many times have I read, told, preached the story of the burning bush?  It is one of the foundational stories for Jewish and Christian faith, and much more troublingly, for much of the history of the Middle East.  But this morning it caught me:  ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’  My breath, catching with Moses’; my heart leaping alongside his at the sheer wonder and beauty of it.

Then I found myself singing Dayenu.  I was still at the bush, mind.  Still ‘caught’ and in awe.  But in another part of my brain, the passover song was buzzing ‘Dayenu-dayenu, dayenu.’  ‘It is enough, it is enough…’

Had it been lectio, I’d have stopped here (and I did for a while), but it was morning prayer, so I knew I would have to go on.  I happily read about the sandals and Moses hiding his face.  I felt the joy of the promise of liberation  I paused again under the weight of YHVH, and thought of Eish Levanah’s white fire.  I felt the soothing hope of a land flowing with milk and honey.  And I flinched as I had to read over and over again: ‘to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Prizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.’  I remembered the anger that filled a room of seething, hormonal 15 year-olds in Rugby, as I let them ask their questions: ‘but why would God do that?  It’s not fair.  You can’t give away what belongs to someone else. Why does God start wars?’

I often carry their anger into my reading of this story.  Not deliberately, but as an embodied memory.  How could God do this?  It is not fair.  The history of the Middle East is full of pain in a thousand directions, and much of it, on all sides, is deeply unjust and unfair.  It is easy to blame, easy to simplify, easy to completely misunderstand through sheer ignorance of culture, history, belief.  I do not claim to understand it. Yet it comes to me in this passage, fighting with the glory of the burning bush.

But today, I suddenly saw my own part in it:  I want to stop with the bush.  I want to say: ‘Dayenu.  It is enough.  This is the religious moment, turning aside to the bush, to the “transitory brightness”, to the things that steal our breath away and stop us in our tracks and reveal the very presence of God.’

And I do think that is the staring point:  unless we encounter God for ourselves and help others to do the same, Christianity will be a very dry and dull thing.

But we don’t get to stop there.  We have to go on, into the awkward bit, into the stories we would rather avoid.  ‘I will give you a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Cannanites, the Hittites, the Amorites…’   I’ve read it a thousand times, but I’ve never seen it before.  Dayenu.  The land flows with milk and honey.  It is enough.

If a bush can burn without being consumed, then Israelites can live alongside Cannanites, Hittites and Amorites without mutual destruction.  Here, in this story, there is no necessary conflict:  just a challenge to our imagination, to see a world in which God’s presence is enough.  And that means that we can live alongside that things that feel impossible for us:  the clashing visions, the different theological and liturgical ways.  Even the competing needs of temperament and priorities.

Sometimes I think I have let the bright bush blind me.  I have held too tightly to my vision of the holy and felt the tension of its interruption, its opposite, the things in life that disrupt, clash, compete.  I’m guessing that I’m not alone in this, and that it is all too human a response.

The burning bush is an invitation into paradox and humility:  what should not be able to co-exist can exist freely in the mutual presence of God.  What we see and experience and hold dear is held safe in God’s presence, and the appearance of conflict, contradiction, opposition need not consume us.

I have known this.  I have even, sometimes, lived in the reality of it.  And I have often forgotten. But I had never before seen it in this story, in the paradox of wonder and terror that spins out from the telling of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush.

Dayenu was the right song for this passage.  God gives us all we need and more than we can imagine.  The clashing conflict is in our failure of imagination.  The land flows with milk and honey and it is enough.

addenda for the very observant:

yes, my declension of dayenu is wrong in translation.  I went with the theological concept of the song rather than the literal translation.

yes, the words of dayenu make me flinch as much as the second half the story of the burning bush.  The song is thought to be a thousand years old, and I’m willing to make allowances.