About Me

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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Poetry of Handel's Messiah

Also on episcopal cafe (with some discussion)

This shopping season, I’ve already received two videos of “flash mobs” singing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus in unexpected public places – a mall food court, at Macy’s in Philadelphia, to the accompaniment of the Wanamaker organ. (See them here and here.) In these videos no one seems to be offended by “Christian” content – there is wonder and delight in the music – in both cases performed by very able singers! Something hopeful and exciting has burst in on the mundane, and people seem to appreciate it. I think that these videos capture not only the fun of this kind of guerilla culture-event, but also the hopefulness that is carried in the words and music of that particular piece. And it has got me thinking of how important Handel’s Messiah as a whole has been to my own formation over the years.

A recording of Messiah was the first “adult” Christmas present I remember receiving. I was 16, and had sung a few choruses from Messiah in high school chorus. My parents gave me the Robert Shaw Chorale’s performance, my very own – probably the first classical album I owned, too. I cried when I opened it. I hadn’t realized how much I really wanted to be able to listen to this music.

Why did I like the Messiah so much as a young person? I think I was responding to the way that it uses the poetry of Scripture to tell a profound story, without insisting on belief or professions of faith. It was a time of my life when I was beginning to ask what it meant to be a Christian in a world where not everyone was Christian, and especially what it meant to be a thinking person who embraced Christian belief, and with it Christian hope?

I already knew the Bible pretty well from my Presbyterian Sunday school upbringing , and I was also a universalist (still am) in my thinking about the salvation on offer to us from a God whose mercy surpasses ours. . To me Messiah, performed in all kinds of secular contexts in the Easter and Christmas seasons, seemed to present Christian faith in a broad, nondenominational but deeply committed way. I still look forward to hearing the whole thing performed at least once a year. Familiar as it is, it is also poetic theology at its best. The music carries and interprets the words, and all the words are from the Bible. The text and music work together, revealing the radical hope that is the underlying thread of the Biblical story. And perhaps most strikingly, in this oratorio that tells the story of Jesus, the majority (not all, but the majority) of the texts are taken, not from the gospels but from Hebrew Scripture.

The librettist of Messiah was a Balliol educated Shakespeare scholar named Charles Jennens (1707-1773). He was a staunch Protestant but a “non-juror – i.e. he refused to recognize the Hanoverian dynasty that was ruling England. He was a huge admirer of Handel, and evidently a devout man, steeped in Scripture and in the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer. Disillusioned with the earthly king, he seems to have placed his hope in the promise of God’s kingdom coming on earth. (and so in words most of us can sing: the text from Revelation: “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever.”)

As a poetic text, the libretto of Messiah is both lyrical and distinctively “Anglican” in feel; like the Book of Common Prayer it stitches together pieces of Scripture in a way that creates a theologically grounded narrative. But this isn’t simply Christian triumphalism: these same Blblical texts, in their original context in Hebrew Scripture, invite us to a way of reading the whole of “salvation history” as told in Hebrew Scripture as an essential part of our ongoing story as Christians.

Within Hebrew Scripture (the “Old Testament”) the overall story is of a God who desires to redeem his people, and does so by calling them out to be a “chosen people”, bound by covenant and formed by joyful obedience to the law. In various ways, and at various points in history, they disobey, fall away from the promise, and terrible, hideous things happen. Sometimes they heed the call to return, but in the era of Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, 722- 520 BCE, the story is of their repeated failures to the messengers of God, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah especially, who warn them that the failure of rulers and people to live faithfully will ultimately result in disaster. The destruction of Jerusalem, and the exile in Babylon are understood as God’s righteous punishment of Israel, and the ultimate return from Babylon and rebuilding of the temple is seen as evidence of God’s abiding mercy and love for God’s people.

Underlying all of this is the theology of a Creator-God, a God of both Justice and Mercy, reliable and intimately engaged with history. The prophetic voice known as 2nd Isaiah (which begins at Chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah) dates from the time when exile is ending and those exiled from Judah are being called to return. Speaking to the remnant of Jerusalem, those who have stayed behind, the prophet predicts that there will be a path through the wilderness, leading back to Jerusalem, and the glory of the Lord will be restored to its rightful place in the Temple: “Comfort ye, my people.” He says on God’s behalf . . . “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. . . every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed (see Isaiah 40: 1-11). By beginning the whole oratorio with this text, Jennens/Handel remind us how central to all of Scripture is the story of Exile and Return – the recurring plot of a God who ultimately desires healing and restoration, despite human perversity. And following ancient Christian tradition, they imply that the coming of Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy.

The other theme from Hebrew Scripture, perhaps more alive for those in the 18th century than for us now, is the prophecy that the restoration of Jerusalem will involve the restoration of a thoroughly righteous king in the Davidic line: the Messiah. This is a tradition that viewed the reign of David as a golden age, when the king and people were faithful to God and lived in security and prosperity. They look forward to a ruler chosen by God and in intimate connection with God, who will preach peace. So the longing for Messiah joins with the postexilic theme that the chosen people are chosen to become a “light to the nations” – a beacon to all and a manifestation of God’s will for the world.

There are also apocalyptic themes but again couched in Messianic hope. Despite assaults by surrounding nations, despite world politics, as long as Jerusalem remains faithful to God, she will be preserved and will become ultimately the city of God, the place where God’s glory dwells. (In the later chapters of Isaiah and in postexilic prophets (Haggaie, Zephaniah, Micah), there is the expectation that after great trial, God’s kingdom will be restored, the temple purified, and the Anointed one will come.

So that’s the framework, the story as told in Hebrew Scripture. And I think Handel’s Messiah is sensitive to that poetry of exile, return, and ultimate hope.

While our Jewish neighbors are still waiting, we believe that Messiah has come, and that the era of the reign of God has begun, despite persistent human efforts to thwart it. We are waiting for the fulfillment of this (A Jewish friend once remarked, wisely, that the season of Advent is the time when the spirit of Jewish and Christian tradition are most closely connected—paradoxical as this seems.) What does it mean to believe, claim, proclaim this? I think that is the theological question that Handel’s Messiah is raising and exploring, for an audience that is mostly Anglican, highly educated, and wary of superstition and doctrine. So, arguably, he is somposing for a “modern” even secular, audience. Messiah carefully resists two common traps in Christian readings of the Old Testament throught the New. First, it is not dispensationalist (i.e. between the “old dispensation” ruled by an angry Old Testament God, and the “new dispensation” of grace and mercy, ruled by Jesus and excluding the Jews) No: Messiah presents the whole of Scripture as telling a continuous story of the divine mercy that longs to lead people out of darkness into light, out of death into life, to a final, confident Amen.

This is also not a piece that preaches Christian triumphalism: Many people listen to Messiah, whether they believe in the Christian story or not, and respond to the message of radical hope it carries. The emphasis of the story is apocalyptic, proclaiming the triumph of God and– a sense of the “fullness of time” -but it does not exalt a cultural and political Christianity trampling down more primitive faiths or knocking down the idols; it is not Constantinian or triumphalist. Rather, with a calm that belongs to the Age of Reason it demonstrates how the text of the Bible presents prophecy that is fulfilled in good time. It looks ahead to the reign of God – not to a human empire, but a time when human sinfulness is overcome and the reign of God is established (where Christ is, in the word’s of Revelation: “King of king and Lord of Lords) And he shall reign forever and ever.” Whether you believe it or not, it is a compelling story.

As for literary form, the basic approach in Messiah is juxtaposition: this is how we construct lyric poetry, as opposed to narrative or didactic poetry. Jennens had a narrative in mind – the story of salvation history. But he tells it by juxtaposing texts from Scripture. Isn’t this also how we do theology in our Anglican liturgical practice? Many of our most beloved services work through juxtaposition of Scriptural texts. Think of the readings at the Easter Vigil, or the beginning of the burial service, or , from the 20th century, the telling of the “whole story” in the service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

When we get New Testament texts in the first section of Messiah, they are usually juxtaposed to Old Testament texts, illuminating, interpreting them. So we have, for example, Isaiah 40: 11: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” alongside Jesus’ words: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden. . . “ Each text interprets and validates the other. We have Jesus bringing in the New Covenant of grace – the theology is not explicit but it is expressed in the music, in the joyful chorus: “His yoke is easy, his burthen is light.”

Handel and Jennens could assume that their audience knew the Passion story, But whether you know the story or not, the poetry of the juxtaposed Scriptural passages carries it. The piece is not interested in any questions about personal belief or salvation or “who’s in and who’s out” . Rather it is interested in what “Kingdom of God” might look like –the fulfillment that has been promised all along. That is the focus of Parts 2 and 3 of Messiah, summed up for many in the music of the Hallelujah chorus -- very positive, focusing on coming of God’s kingdom on earth. The emphasis here is not on individual guilt or repentance, but more on divine suffering and victory for the sake of “us” – a universal human restoration. So the Passion story sings out as the fulfillment of the Chosen One’s calling using the prophet Isaiah’s descriptions of the Suffering Servant (He was despised and rejected. . . a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”). Salvation has come. It is for all. And it has all been done for us. “I know that my Redeemer Liveth” – the Easter section begins – using a text from the book of Job. And it ends by giving life to the cryptic words from Revelation: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” and the singing of an endless and cosmic chorus of Amen.

But the texts that stay with us most through the haunting familiar music of Messiah are from Second Isaiah . They tell of the hope of God’s people in the time of exile, as they awaited deliverance from exile and the return of a good king in the line of David. It is the hope we proclaim as Christians, believing that Messiah has come. It is ultimately, for the librettist of Messiah, a paradoxical, universal hope for all humanity: – rooted in ancient prophecies of exile and return: “Comfort ye, my people. . . . The People that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. . for unto us a child is born, . . . and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reflections on Benedictine Values and Church Life

also on episcopal cafe

Since I’m currently serving as Rector’s Warden/Senior warden at my home parish, I am very aware of November/December as “budget season” and of course these are challenging times for churches, with high anxiety around financial matters. From a spiritual point of view, this time of year raises for me deep questions about the way we do church, whether it’s sustainable, faithful to the gospel and how we measure that. So much of what we receive from congregational development experts seems aimed at figuring out what people need and giving it to them, attracting more members to sustain what we have built evangelism as marketing (which it is to some degree) – but a model very much attuned to the culture around us.

And at the same time I’m rereading Esther de Waal’s writings about monastic spirituality for our time, and remembering that monasticism began with people who felt that the values of the church and the values of the surrounding culture were getting blended together to a point of great confusion. When Benedict established his rule in the fifth century, he was building what I think turns out to be an abiding “counter cultural” tradition of Christian living, preserving what he understood to be the central values of the gospel.

These values are not really developed in response or reaction to the culture; they simply offer themselves as guides. And so as I prepared for the November vestry meeting, I spent some time reflecting on the three vows that monks take, the vows of “Obedience”, “Stability” and “Conversatio” or “conversion of heart.” Unpacking these ideas has been helpful to me – and was helpful to the vestry, meeting about the budget in November. So I thought I’d share some thoughts about them here.

First, “Obedience,” which de Waal reminds us comes from the the Latin for “to listen.” Looking at parish life and our own lives, how do we listen for God’s guidance/ What practices orient us toward discernment rather than simply the pushing and defending of competing agendas. Where in our common life are there opportunities for study and prayer together, especially for leaders? How do we pay attention to Scripture? Listening to each other – giving each person around the table an opportunity and invitation to speak, practicing “appreciative inquiry” and other ways of discernment that help us hear one another: all of these practices, I think, fulfill the spirit of the vow of obedience. We can move toward healing if we also pay attention to the ways in which we are “not listening” in our pairhs life – to the neighborhood around us – to the needs of the world at the moment (not so much for marketing purposes as for mission and ministry). We need to pray for a deepening ability to listen. A symbol for this kind of obedience might be the Rublev icon, with what one writer has called the “listening eyes” of its three figures attentive each to the other – or another image might be building blocks, shared by a community of leaders. In her book Seeking God, Esther de Waal writes:

The Christian and monastic model for discerning God’s will in a given situation is not that of finding the solution of a crossword puzzle . . . where the answer must be exactly right, fitted to some preconceived plan. A better model is that we are given building blocks and have to see what can be done with them, using in the task all our intelligence, sensitivity and love (p. 49)

Not a solution, but a process of listening: putting gifts and ideas together and seeing what new thing comes out of that process. I like this as a model for a leadership team. Even a vestry!

The second vow, which I find fascinating despite the challenging term, is “Stability.”(Perhaps a better word for us would be “commitment” – but let’s hold the two together). – in our “cafeteria-Christianity” culture, this is the value that calls us to seek ways of staying together: not by silencing difference but by hearing and receiving the diversity of our views. . It is the vow a monk makes to stay with the same community –and let himself be formed by its challenges. The call to stability is of course a great challenge in the Anglican Communion just now but it helps me to name it in that way – not a call to “unity at any cost” where a dominant voice “wins” – it’s not a call to put up with abuse -- but it is a call to stay at the table, stay in conversation stay in relationship– not to leave—or at least not to consider leaving and going elsewhere as our first option. In parishes, “stability is a deeper value than giving everyone what they want or keeping things the same. it is an invitation to commit to being together and worshipping God in this place, to stay on rather than move on, when leadership changes. It is the value that fuels sustainable stewardship, care for one another in crisis and in conflict. It requires faith and endurance. I’d like to see leaders in congregations reflecting more on what stability looks like for them – what the challenges are, what the obstacles and rewards. The symbol we have for the value of stability is the symbol of our faith: the Cross, which tells of endurance through suffering, for the sake of the whole Body. Joan Chittister says this about the Cross and stability:

The cross is not a dark aspect of religion. It is, on the contrary, the one hope we have that our own lives can move through difficulty to triumph. It’s the one thing that enables us to hang on and not give up when hanging on seems impossible and giving up seems imperative. . . . The cross says that we can rise if we can only endure (Wisdom from the Daily, p. 148)

The call to stability might sound like a call to stuck-ness or to doormat-like acquiescence if it were not balanced by the third vow of conversatio or openness to change – the most famously challenging value for congregations. The symbols or this are the water of Baptism and the fire of the Holy Spirit. Ours is a faith that is about transformation, and as leaders we serve people best when we lead them toward this kind of openness. I like what de Esther de Waal writes about this in Seeking God:

If the vow of stability is the recognition of God’s complete faithfulness and dependability then the vow of conversatio is a recognition of God’s unpredictability, which confronts our own love of cosiness or safety. It means that we have to live provisionally, ready to respond to the new whenever and however that might appear. There is no security here, no clinging to past certainties. Rater, we must expect to see our chosen idols successively broken. It means a constant letting go. (Seeking God, p. 70)

Meditating on these vows has kept me going in this “budget-season,” and as our parish’s annual meeting, always in Advent, approaches. The reason to be in the church is to be shaped into a counter-cultural community – and I think it is a wonderfully creative challenge to look at our life together in the light of these Benedictine values of listening, stability/commitment and openness to change.