6 things I learned in choir

  1. Sometimes you need a little help from your friends. I am grateful for those voices beside and behind me that help me hit the right note at the right time, who remind me with their singing that I should have already come in by now.
  2. Sometimes you need to ignore the people around you and do what you know is right. (I’ve been singing in choirs since 1973, so I am not talking about YOU.) But sometimes those people around you? They’re wrong. They come in at the wrong time or sing the wrong pitch. Sometimes you just have to trust that you know what you know and ignore the rest of the noise.
  3. Some truth can only be sung. A colleague on Facebook regularly posts videos of him singing accompanied by his guitar. Not so very long ago his son wound up in ICU unexpectedly and then died, leaving behind a young family. My colleague continues to post his songs but now the words are imbued with a deeper, broken hearted meaning. It is a holy thing to witness his journey, knowing that sometimes grief is so deep that all you can do is sing.
  4. Magic still happens and sometimes we get to be a part of it. We were singing one of my favorite Christmas anthems. Something happened when we sang it in the evening service. The music took us up out of ourselves. We flowed like a river. We soared towards the tops of the arched roof, carried by notes and by spirit. It was so magical that  I nearly wept in the midst of it just for the privilege and blessedness of being part of such a thing. Sometimes we take one step and step into something bigger than us, being reminded that it’s not all up to us.
  5. The end of the story seldom looks like the beginning and the difference between those two places depends, at least in part, on us. Our minister of music starts introducing our Christmas music to us in the post Easter lull of the spring. The more difficult anthems are usually train wrecks in our first readings. But after all of the hours of work, when we sing it before the congregation it comes pretty close to something like music. Yet too often in our lives we tend to judge ourselves only by our beginnings.
  6. What we focus on becomes a part of us. Two days ago we sang two Christmas concerts.  This week as I started my workweek I’ve sung alleluias in the shower and a magnificat while making breakfast. After all the repetition of rehearsal the music is now woven into my bones, ready to bubble up to the surface. With inspiring music that’s a good thing. When we are meditating upon bitterness or upon all of the ways in which we have failed having such music in our bones ready to surface isn’t such a fine thing.

For all you choir members past and present, what have you learned?

 

Limping Into Advent (guest post)

Limping Into Advent (guest post)

(Today’s post comes by way of Alicia Davis-Porterfield, writing in the Ministry and Motherhood Blog. I gladly share this with her permission.)

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned . . . Isaiah 9:2

It was dark, in those days. Very dark. Rome ruled Israel, the latest in a long line of conquerors. David’s line seemed all dried up after a succession of useless kings who led a great people to ruin. Caesar had ordered a new census with an eye toward his coffers.

The more people he could account for, the more taxes he could raise; the more taxes he could raise, the more people he could conquer. And so on and so on.

There was no one to challenge him in those days, no one who could shake the grip of the Roman Empire. Israel was a conquered people doing the will of a Caesar they neither chose nor revered nor trusted.

And so it was that Joseph put Mary on that donkey to take the long trip to his ancestral home of Bethlehem. They were not going for a great family reunion, tables laden with favorite foods and local delicacies. They were not headed home for a religious celebration with its own time honored traditions and deep roots in their faith.

They were doing the bidding of Caesar, whose command had come at just the wrong time for their lives, just when Mary’s pregnancy was coming to an end. When she should have been home in Nazareth surrounded by relatives and neighbors who could help her through the trial of labor, she was far from home, alone with only Joseph to attend her.

There was nothing about this story that seemed right, nothing that felt warm and homey and comforting. Mary got pregnant too early and under circumstances no one could believe. Joseph, confused and angry, was ready to quietly un-engage her, until an angel intervened.

And if that wasn’t enough, Caesar interrupted the whole thing with his call for a census, requiring a trip to Bethlehem, a place far from the home and family they knew. They would travel all that way, endangering themselves and the baby, so their conquerors could collect more tax money. This is not a happy story. Not yet.

If you are hurting or angry or confused this Advent season, you are in good company, at least according to the actual Biblical story. If you are lonely or grieving this Advent season, your story is their story, a people who had been conquered for centuries, wondering if God had forgotten them. If you can’t be full of good cheer and cringe at the thought of crowded malls and gift extravaganzas and to-do lists longer than your arm, you are not being a Scrooge or a Grinch.

In fact, you may know better than most the real struggle in this story we know almost too well. Perhaps those with troubled hearts might just have the ears to hear the depth of pain and longing the “holly jolly” approach has written right out of the story. This is the quiet story, not the one of hustle and bustle and ringing cash registers.

This is the story that makes room for pregnant teenagers and confused husbands and people who wonder what God is up to—or even sometimes, if God is up to anything, but who go anyway. This is the true story, according to scripture, the story that has almost been drowned out by demands for good cheer and forced festivities that actually have little to do with the nativity.

The birth of Christ was as far from a Hallmark Christmas special as it possibly could be. Don’t be snowed by the hype. If you are hurting in any way, if your heart is troubled, if you are limping instead of leaping, this is your story.

Advent is a time to prepare for the light coming into the darkness, which means that there is indeed darkness in the story. It does not have the last word, praise be to God. But the darkness is there, the struggle, the loss, the grief, the disappointment and anger–no matter how hard the marketers push to convince us otherwise.

If you are searching for that light, longing for it amidst the darkness, limping into Advent, you are not alone. The Bible tells us so.

 

Alicia Davis Porterfield serves, mothers, and writes in Wilmington, NC. After the recent death of her adored and adoring father, she is definitely limping into Advent.

 

A Small Defense of Stuff

Christmas presentsIt’s that time of year again. My Facebook feed is filling up with friends who are gleefully and gladly announcing their liberation from the cunning clutches of Christmas commercialism and consumerism. (Today is obviously alliteration day in the old writing studio.) They congratulate each other on having left the misguided mob who is blindly following the siren song of buying useless stuff for people who are buying useless stuff for them. They enjoy the company of other enlightened souls who have vowed to buy no presents that don’t involve baby goats in a third world country.

Or maybe I’m a tad sensitive.

To be clear, I love it when people give socially conscious gifts. Its a wonderful system to do real good. But I have a confession to make.

I like Christmas shopping.

There, I’ve said it.

To be clear, I don’t go into debt. I don’t buy a gift until I have the money for it and I have a budget that’s respectful of my own budget. I don’t blindly buy stuff that’s just going to collect dust until the statute of limitations expires and it can be donated to Goodwill (at least, I hope not.) But I love Christmas shopping. It brings me joy.

I haven’t taken the love languages inventory but I suspect that gift giving may be one of mine. It’s a way of acknowledging my connection with each family member. I enjoy thinking about their unique selves, what they like and how they live. It gives me pleasure to think of their pleasure in opening it.

So when you’re writing your sermons on stuff, I hope you’ll take the time to consider that, like most things, it’s not all good or all bad. It may be a mindless waste of resources and an affront to the message of Christmas.

But sometimes, for some of us, it’s the way our hearts take tangible shape in the lives of the people whom we love.

Amazon versus Advent

So the world, or at least some people, were abuzz with the news that Amazon was working on plans to use drones to deliver orders, turning three day delivery into thirty minute delivery. My first thought was that this couldn’t possibly be a good thing for birds who have enough challenges. (Do you think those birds wrecking jet engines are accidental? I think they’ve volunteered for suicide missions in a bid to reclaim their skies.)

My second thought was, why? I don’t know of many things that truly demand that sense of urgency. Blood for transfusions. Organs for transplants. Maybe rings for a wedding service.

I feel fairly certain that Jeff Bezos wasn’t thinking of the contrast with Advent when he made his announcement on 60 Minutes but the contrast is there. Drone delivered orders are about instant gratification. You don’t have to wait.

AdventAdvent is all about waiting. Not yet. Not quite yet. In liturgical churches there’ll be no singing of “Joy to the World” for a while because the lord is not yet come.

We wait for the coming of the child who is yet the lord. We wait for the full serving of the kingdom we have but tasted. We wait for God to complete the work that God has begun in us, even when we cannot see a reason for God to be working in us.

We wait for a day in which earth is filled with peace and good will towards all people. We wait for the ringing sound of a blacksmith hammering swords into plowshares. We wait for the day when weeping shall be no more and the separation of loss is replaced by the joy of union and reunion.

The waiting of Advent isn’t a passive thing, however. It’s not sitting by the door waiting for UPS to ring the bell. Our active waiting demands of us that we act as if it’s already here. We see glimmers of light in the darkness even though the sun is not yet risen.

Sometimes with clients and with friends I will invite them to sit with something. They don’t have to do anything with the thought or the question or the feeling. Just pay attention to it. Does it grow stronger or get weaker? Does the question seem simpler or more complex? Not all questions have to be answered before the music stops. Sit. Pay attention. Wait.

Do justice. Love mercy. Wait.

Our books may be dropped from the sky into our laps but wisdom follows no such schedule. Pizza and toys may come to us  in the space of a sitcom but soulmaking stretches the length of a life.

Great Expectations

They sneak up on us. They get even the best of us.

Great expectations.

And no, I’m not taking about the novel by Charles Dickens. I’m talking about what we expect of ourselves, our families and the general holiday season. This year everyone will be happy. This year everyone will be ecstatic with their gifts. No one will be sick. No one will have travel problems. No one will forget something terribly important, like Uncle Fester’s present, the rolls still in the oven or the lines for the Christmas eve drama.

This year, you think, will be different. This year it will snow at the right time, bringing atmosphere but not treacherous driving conditions. This year you’re going to hit a home run worthy of jewelry store commercials with your gift. This year you’ll make all of the holiday events you’ve always wanted to attend and enjoy every one. This year the cat will leave the tree alone and the dogs will not ingest tinsel. This year you’ll take the family picture and everyone’s eyes will be open and you will all look like you’re enjoying the exercise… and each other.

This year it will be perfect.

Or maybe not. Who knew she was kidding when she said she wanted oven mitts for Christmas?

I’m no soothsayer, but I suspect you won’t have the perfect Christmas. Mainly because there’s never been one. That is, if your expectation is for everything to go according to your best plans, for no detours, no slip-ups, no unexpected thing to mar your heavenly peace.

Holding to hopes and dreams is a fine thing but they have to be held lightly. If you hold tightly to your expectation that things must be one certain way then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and unhappiness. Things happen. Germs spread. Gift givers cannot read minds. Cats cannot resist reaching for the star(s).

So enjoy this holiday season in the best way you are able. You may decide to cut back on some commitments. You may decide that it’s the year for trying new things. Whatever you do and however you celebrate, hold it lightly. Hold to your hopes and dreams but leave room for the serendipity of the unexpected. Sometimes it’s the things you didn’t plan that become the memories you treasure most.

Or, in the cases of the germs… maybe not.

 

The 12 Days of Christmas: Surviving and thriving (Days 6-12: Punt)

Punt.

Yep, that’s my wisdom for today.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the wisdom I’d planned to have. I had such good plans. I’d blocked out the first three days of last week. No clients. Plenty of time at the office to get caught up on other tasks. I’d promised myself I’d leave no later than 4 each day to get Christmas things done… like get a tree, do shopping, finish getting the house ready for my family who was staying with me. It was such a good plan.

Monday morning  I waltzed into the office, efficiency oozing out of my pores. I started writing the sermon I was scheduled to preach Sunday night. But then I started feeling not so good. I started getting chills. I knew what was coming.

Flu.

That’s right, a rip-roaring, 102 degree fever case of the flu.  So much for my plan. I spent all week on my couch, working my way through the shows I’d recorded but had no time to watch. I discovered  I really liked The Chew. I spent a lot of time napping with my dogs.

None of which was on my list. Early in the week I contemplated my situation. None of the things I’d planned to do during the week were going to get done. It was time to punt.

In football, a coach decides to punt when there’s no real chance of gaining a first down. It’s not what they’d planned to do, but at least they could give themselves a chance to score the next time around. You’ll hear commentators talk about living to face another day.

I decided to punt. I might not get everything done that was on my list. I might not finish the touch-ups in my newly painted bathroom before my brother arrives. But the bathroom will be functional and we’ll all live. If I had to do gift cards for everyone, I could do that. I called the church to let them know that they’d better have a plan B in hand just in case I couldn’t make it.

I did wind up preaching. And after six hours of ninja shopping on Saturday, I finished my Christmas shopping. Hopefully today I’ll get a tree, and if that’s the only decorating I do, then so be it.

Because sometimes we can only do what we can do, not what we’d planned to do. Sometimes we just have to take stock of where things stand… and punt.

If all goes according to plan for you this Christmas, then blessings upon you. Enjoy it. And if it doesn’t, remember that sometimes there’s no shame in just punting. After all, you live to see another day.