Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Birthday Tree

It's Saturday morning, the first day of November, All Saints' Day.

The maple tree in front of my house is bright red. Not a rusty fall sort of red, but scarlet--a red that fills the bay window and turns the air in the living room pink. Parents of trick or treaters stopped to admire the color yesterday. The tree and the blue sky curving above it smiled benignly on the witches, superheroes, and firemen climbing my front stairs for Tootsie Rolls and Mary Janes.

In our family that tree is called The Birthday Tree, specifically, Kris's Birthday Tree. Kris, the first baby in our family, was born on a grey and rainy All Saints' Saturday twenty-two years ago. He was born at home, with a midwife, in a house that we had purchased and moved into just a month earlier. On the day of his birth, the house sheltered us, a cocoon around this new mother, new father, vulnerable infant. The next day dawned brilliant, clear and cold, and we saw for the first time the splendor of this maple tree, displayed, it seemed, just for us, a celebration of our little Kristoffer.

The tree's boughs are close enough to the ground to inspire climbing. During the summer, a couple of neighbor kids dragged a box found in an alley somewhere to the parkway in front of our house and used it to get themselves up to those first branches, so they could sit there, superior, surveying the stop sign, the intersection, the sidewalks. When our kids were small, Lon would lift them onto that low bough and stand beneath, ready to catch them if they fell, ready to help them down when they got bored.

Ten years ago, when construction trucks tore up our street, laid new sewers, and then repaved it, the tree took a bad hit. Carelessly, when no one seemed to be looking, some random piece of equipment chunked away an eighteen-inch circle on the street side of the tree trunk. I called the town forestry department. I don't know if they came out with emergency medicine for the wound. The leaves seemed thinner the next couple of summers, but the tree came back. The scar is ugly. The bark that thickened around the exposed vascular tissue of the tree is crude and gnarly. But the tree's canopy is full, deep green in the summer and celebration red on the last days of October and the first days of November.

The birthday boy called earlier this morning--earlier than I expected to hear from him today. Halloween on a Friday night means great parties for twenty-somethings. But he had awakened to an emergency: his computer wouldn't turn on. With two weeks to go on the one-year warranty, this is a good time to have this problem. I went to the internet to find customer support and turned Kris over to his sister for a happy birthday conversation. By the time I had information, Kris had figured otu what was wrong. The laptop's battery needed charging. Connected to a power source, it was fine--ready to play music so that its owner could go back to sleep.

A boy still needs his mother, I guess. We all need each other. The maple's leaves nourish the tree, and even after the leaves are shed, the tree will live on through the winter and bud again in the spring. Our lives nourish each other's and make each other's lives possible. Riches and complexity of thought and feeling come from those who have gone before and from lives all around us.

I read two nourishing stories in this morning's New York Times. After weeks and weeks of reading mostly election news--some blatantly partisan, some flatly balanced and blind to objective truth, the vivid human emotion in these stories was a relief. One was about medics and an Army doctor fighting to keep a bleeding man alive after a shrapnel attack on their post in the wilds of Afghanistan. The other told about opera-going Supreme Court justices, liberal and conservative, awed at meeting Leontyne Price at a National Endowment for the Arts luncheon in her honor. Very different settings. Life, death and violence in the first, the recollection of artistry subtly portraying these things in the other.

Dare I quote Studs Terkel who died yesterday? Or my sainted husband who loved to satirize the checkered-shirt Chicago icon: "Oh, the humanity . . . the humanity!"

Saints, a procession through the ages, of people sanctified and made holy, growing up and growing old, bleeding and dying for each other, giving life to new generations on God's good and fragrant earth.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sending Song

The congregation stood for the final hymn. There was a long, lush, legato orchestral introduction using motives from the hymn tune, followed by the tune, then the motives again. I stood in the chancel with the choir, looking out at the congregation. People's bodies moved slightly with the music. They looked up from their programs, glanced around, anticipating their cue. Their faces said, we're going to sing soon, we're going to sing this beautiful tune.

It was a vesper service on Reformation Day, and the church was packed with Lutherans. But we'd already sung the big German Lutheran hymns for the day. In the morning we had sung "Salvation Unto Us Has Come," theological statements set to a Renaissance dance tune. In this vesper service we'd sung "Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word" with ritornellos from Dietrich Buxtehude, and we had Luther by way of Bach in the cantata "Ein feste burg."

We arrived at the final hymn, "The Church of Christ in Every Age." The tune is Wareham, in long meter, from eighteenth-century Englishman William Knapp. The text is from Fred Pratt Green, twentieth-century Englishman, copyright 1971.

The Church of Christ in ev'ry age/Beset by change, but Spirit led,
Must claim and test its heritage/And keep on rising from the dead.

It definitely seemed suitable for Reformation. Wareham is a sublimely singable tune. One easy skip, everything else in stepwise movement. This afternoon's congregation of enthusiastic Lutheran chorale singers felt at home here, moving smoothly from one pitch to the next, downward, turning around and rising again. The movement goes with the text, a church always testing and searching, prodded and led by the Spirit. Yes, we can be a part of that church.

But in stanza two, the challenge appeared:

Across the world, across the street/The victims of injustice cry
For shelter and for bread to eat/And never live before they die.

Whoa. This is not a Bob Dylan protest song. There were no scratchy voices and guitars to go with these lyrics. We were still in long meter, still singing Knapp's Wareham, though inverted and given to the choir by Paul Weber, the composer of this setting. But even upside down, it's a firm, smooth and singable tune. What kind of subterfuge brought these elements together?

Lyrics more typical of a hymn appeared in the third stanza:

Then let the servant Church arise/A caring Church that longs to be
A partner in Christ's sacrifice/And clothed in Christ's humanity.

The text appeals to our longing to be like Christ. We long to be like him because he was human and bled and died for us. It is the old Christian story, and that traditional melody, with its slurs of longing, feels more at home here. A fourth stanza is about Christ healing us and showing us how to "feed the starving multitude."

At this point the setting of the hymn moved into a long 30-bar interlude, strings and trumpets all preparing the congregation to make this remarkable statement of faith:

We have no mission but to serve/In full obedience to our Lord;
To care for all, without reserve/And spread his liberating Word.

What does this mean? (An appropriate question for Reformation Day.) Those first two lines do not equivocate. God has commanded us to serve one another. That is why we were saved-not to make music, not to preach, not to hang out with out people just like us who make us feel good. Was anyone in this church full of committed singing Christians caught by surprise? Did anyone rush out and sign up to work at a soup kitchen? If we have no mission but to serve, there must also be tasks and temptations that distract us, that are unrelated to "full obedience to our Lord," stuff we just should not do. Did we somehow end a Reformation Service with Law rather than Gospel, with a command to get our priorities in order?

Or are we too easily shamed? Too quick to think we can never do enough, and therefore too quick to give up entirely?

Fred Pratt Green used up four syllables in the last line of the hymn with the word "liberating." Fitting that big and awkward a word into a meter of simple pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables is not an easy task, and this word is very obvious at the end of the hymn. He's making a point, and it's one that goes beyond the liberation of oppressed peoples. God's command to serve others is liberating for the servant as well as the served, and Christ sets us all free to praise God--in acts of love toward one another and in singing praise.

Weber's setting of "The Church of Christ in Every Age" winds up with the doxology. May praise in music inspire praise in every dimension of our life as Christians!

Go in peace. Serve the Lord.

Take that into Monday morning.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Now rest beneath night's shadow the woodland, field and meadow.
The world in slumber lies.
But you, my heart, awaking, and prayer and music making
Let praise to your Creator rise

The text is from Paul Gerhardt, prolific Lutheran hymn-writer of the 17th century. It is (obviously) a hymn for the evening. You could also call it, perhaps, a hymn for night owls, for people who cannot sleep. Though nature and the world of humans is fading into rest and quiet, the singer stays awake--not to toss and turn, but to pray and sing.

Lord Jesus, since you love me, now spread your wings above me
And shield me from alarm.
Though evil would assail me, your mercy will not fail me;
I rest in your protecting arm.

This hymn has many memories attached to it for me. This second stanza I learned as a bedtime prayer when I was a child. My father taught it to me, as his mother, I believe, taught it to him. Back any further in the generations and my ancestors would have prayed and taught these words in Gerhardt's original German. By the time I sang them to my own children, I was singing them in the slightly altered English translation of the Lutheran Book of Worship, published in 1978. The rhymes are the same, but the antiquated phrase "Lord Jesus, who dost love me" becomes the more direct "since you love me." I like the change.

My loved ones, rest securely, for God this night will surely
From peril guard your heads.
Sweet slumbers may he send you and bid his hosts attend you
And through the night watch o'er your beds

Because this was a song heard often in our house, I asked that it be sung at my husband's funeral two years ago. It had been sung at my dad's funeral twenty-two years earlier. I sang it, by myself, as I had sung it to the kids at night, when my mother-in-law, my younger son, and our pastor went to see Lon's body and to pray there shortly after his death. It's appropriate, I think, to use sleep as a metaphor for death, since we will all wake again in some way unimaginable to us now, when God's kingdom comes at last.

As I sang that stanza at the close of the Bach Cantata vesper service this afternoon, I remembered that morning--the coldness of Lon's body, our wonder at his death. My eyes filled with tears--at the choir's rehearsal before the service and during the actual performance. The tears were a moment of indulgence, of stopping to acknowledge grief that has faded, that rests in shadows of the past. I didn't stay long in that place. There were some unfamiliar fancy notes on the last phrase of the stanza that needed my full musical attention. And the whole hymn was sung in a lovely, lush new setting for orchestra and choir by Paul Bouman, who recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday.

Even as I let go of the sadness, I thought of my children, who I had prayed for and reassured with this hymn. Back in the days when I sang my children to sleep, we all crowded together under the covers for books and songs at bedtime. First there was only my oldest, Kristoffer, and me. Seven or eight years later, Kris went to bed in an upper bunk, still within reach of my voice, and his two preschool-aged siblings, Eliza and Kurt, cuddled up on either side of me on the double-bed-sized mattress below. Soimetimes Lon listened from the the hallway.

This afternoon I thought, who will sing this blessing about me? As a mother, I sang even the second stanza ("Lord Jesus, since you love me") for my children, not really for me. It was their faith, their peaceful sleep that I prayed for. After they had fallen asleep, I crawled out of the bed and went off to fight my own late-night battles with the world, ducking out from under those divine wings spread above me.

This afternoon I realized that it's time to put the memories away and start singing this hymn for me. The music this afternoon helped with that. Paul's setting of this beautiful five-hundred-year-old tune has those heavenly wings beating in eighth notes in the orchestra accompaniment and also in the unaccompanied four-part choral setting of stanza two. Singers can relax and sing easily with the support of that rhythm, carried by the reassurance of God's unfailing mercy.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Love on a lake

They don’t call ‘em Great Lakes for nothing.

A little less than twenty-four hours ago I got up out of my chair, got in the car, and with the kids, drove away from the Sunset Resort, a small, family-owned hotel where my family has vacationed for the last twenty-two summers. We had a week of perfectly beautiful days—clear blue skies, temperatures in the seventies, light breezes, welcoming water, and we left on a perfectly beautiful day, after breakfast, after an hour of sitting and gazing across tiny Figenschau Bay at the vast waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan beyond.

That view makes me feel larger somehow, makes me feel that more things are possible than I have imagined. Everything I see reaches up to the heavens and outward to the horizon and I feel certain that I can make something out of all that. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll even finish the quilt whose colors come from this stretch of water, light, and sky.

Years ago, during a troubled family vacation at this place, words from the Psalms leapt to life in the sky and clouds around me. “Your steadfast love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens.” The Creator’s love extended from earth to heaven and wrapped around all I could see, comfortably, carefully holding me and mine though the future looked frightening and uncertain.

This year, the comfort and security of that view was addictive. I sat there in my wooden chair in the sun. I sat there while little bugs (no-see-ums) bit my arms. I sat there with books, with pen and paper, with knitting, and on that last day, yesterday, I sat there with my two sons, soaking up the peace, talking quietly. We talked of our future in that place, of returning next year and years after that. We talked a little of the immediate future here at home—the start of school, the demands, the plans, the progress to be made. Mostly we breathed in the view—the sand, the pines, the rocks, the water.

Today I can still feel it, even more than I can see it, stretching within me from shoulder to shoulder, deep in my lungs. But I may not be able to a week from now. Today I’m scraching those bug bites, doing the laundry, and putting off the details of replying to emails, of getting ready for Monday, of making a list of things to be accomplished between now and the start of school. It’s hard to reconcile the coming hours of meetings and nagging, petty details with the vision of life on a Great Lake. Hard to trade that landscape of lake and sky for offices and classrooms and people. Hard to imagine that somehow, that steadfast, reaching love of God that resides in the heavens, in God’s realm, can reach me back here at home and can reach through me to a troubled earth. Yet this will be my prayer—God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

At last

At Morning Prayer today, the final hymn was "Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart." The worshippers were the participants in a regional conference of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians. The occasion was the commemoration of Catherine Winkworth and John Mason Neale, English hymn translators of the 19th century.

As the service neared its closing, I geared up for singing this great, dense, and rather long German chorale, rendered into English by Catherine Winkworth, a woman I imagine to be a lot like me. Well-educated, adept with words, respectful of the spiritual power of language, of which there are many examples in "Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart." The first stanza:

Lord, thee I love with all my heart;
I pray thee, ne'er from me depart;
With tender mercy cheer me.
Earth has no pleasure I would share,
Yea, heav'n itself were void and bare
If thou, Lord, wert not near me.
And should my heart for sorrow break,
My trust in thee can nothing shake.
Thou art the portion I have sought;
Thy precious blood my soul has bought.
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise thee without end!

The hymn speaks passionately of love for God so intense that you want to crawl inside to get close enough. I think that feeling comes in part from the melody being so tightly centered on the tonic. All but one phrase starts or ends there--like the soul always wanting to return to the Lord--despite a broken heart, great sorrow, or feelings of being forsaken.

I thought this morning, how many times have I sung this hymn in the last six months? Two or three times in worship services. Sang the last stanza on Good Friday in the Hassler double-choir setting that we do at the end of Tenebrae at my church. And I've sung it at several funerals, one just last week. I have sung from my place in the adult choir. I've sung it leading my children's choir.

With them, I took the time to explain why organists open up and let it rip when they get to the final half-stanza:

And then from death awaken me,
That these my eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, thy glorious face,
My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise thee without end!

I wanted the kids to pay attention to this hymn as they sang, and I figured anticipation would keep them sharp and focused on the thrill of the mighty crescendo of eternity.

It is a wonderful hymn. Besides the account of an all-consuming love for the Lord, it contains a straightforward, unsentimental theology of death, burial, and the resurrection of the dead, of the body, when "these my eyes"--my own eyes--will see Jesus's own face.

This morning, however, I was wondering if singing this hymn so many times put the thrill at the end at risk of seeming old. The prelude to the service, on this tune, covered the crescendo thing, pouring forth lots of sound at that part of the tune. We'd have to do it again when we sang it, and stanzas one and two, long ones, had to be gotten through first. Just the week before, singing at that funeral, despite closing the hymn book and singing that last stanza from memory, loud and hearty at the end, I wasn't feeling it so much. My thoughts were more like, yeah, another Lutheran funeral. Do we have to sing this every time?

Surprising then, that this morning, thinking about the many times I've sung this hymn lately became the key to singing it in faith and hope. The repetition made the text and tune more powerful, made the resurrection seem almost imminent. Doggone it, I thought, we keep singing about this thing--upstairs, downstairs, morning, noon and night. With children's voices, with the feeble voices of a congregation of mourners gathered for a funeral, or sometimes with a hundred or so full-throated church musicians who glory in singing out. And this isn't the only church building where this happens. What if the resurrection of the dead came right now? Right here in the sanctuary.

Nobody knows exactly when, much less how God's kingdom will come to complete fruition. I don't think--quite--that an almost-perfect unison can sing it into being. But that great love of God for his creatures--for us. the love that inspired the tender passion of the first stanza of this hymn, has great things in store for us.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Yesterday afternoon, in the sunshine, my older son spread the camping canopy over the weeds in the backyard to dry.

The canopy is a large piece of plastic--a tarp that fits over a roof-like framework of aluminum poles. We use it on camping trips to shelter our cooking and eating area from the sun and the rain. Kris and his friends had set the thing up at a Saturday barbecue--an all-afternoon, all-evening party for a large group of friends. They got rained on, and the canopy was wet when it was packed up and returned to our house. So we spread it out to dry in the sunshine before putting it away in the attic.

Spreading it out is the easy part. Folding it to the right size and cramming it neatly into the zippered bag that also holds the poles is more difficult, which is why, I suppose, the canopy was still out there on the grass when it got dark. Fireflies were out, and mosquitos, too, when I decided I would bring the thing back indoors, even if I had to do it by myself.

I got some help from Kurt (the younger son), but as we folded the tarp in halves and then quarters, I could feel drops of water on the underside. Too late, I said, the dew came up. We'll have to wait until tomorrow to get it thoroughly dry in the sunshine.

The dew came up. I'm not sure I know what this means or why this happens. From childhood I remember that the toes of my canvas PF Flyers would get soaked as I walked through the grass to get my bicycle out of the garage early on a summer morning. As an adult, I learned while camping that dry towels left on the clothesline overnight would be damp in the morning. All this is related to dew, something about water condensing when surface temperatures drop. It's a natural condition, but unless I'm camping or dealing with camping equipment, the dew coming up is not a phenomenon that affects my life, unlike, say, the network being down, or the internet being slow. Or even a thunderstorm blowing out the power for two minutes, or twenty.

Still, I like the phrase--the dew came up. But does it come up? The water comes from the air and the term for the formation of dew is dewfall. I just now learned more about all this by looking up dew at Wikipedia. There's not much to know, but the photos on the site--dew on a blade of grass, dew on spider webs--are beautiful: small, tender things supporting the weight of clear drops of water. Surface tension on the dewdrops makes them glisten and seem to move, even in a still photograph.

There are no pretty pictures of dew drops on a bright green plastic canopy. This morning, the canopy in the backyard is covered in puddles, not dew. It rained during the night and early this morning. With rain and thundershowers in the weather forecast for the next several days, getting this thing dry on both sides is going to take timing, and I suspect there are mosquitos laying eggs in those puddles right this moment. I can't see it happening, but I will feel the effects, just as I could not see the dewfall but felt the drops of water.

I prefer the dew to the mosquitos.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

New and different

One of my favorite exchanges in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice comes while Elizabeth Bennet is dancing with Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield ball. The conversation is about conversation and the need to make an effort at it, since as Elizabeth observes,
"It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together." Then Elizabeth supplies an explanation for why she and Darcy may prefer to talk as little as possible while dancing together.

"We are each of us of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb."

Darcy replies, "This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure. . . . How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say."

Darcy's protest is polite, but ironic. Elizabeth's conversation is full of clever, original remarks, and she knows it. What she doesn't know is that Darcy finds this quality startlingly attractive.

I would classify myself as one of Elizabeth Bennet's unsocial, taciturn individuals--timid about speaking unless I've got something original and insightful to say. That's my excuse for two-and-a-half months of silence from the Perverse Lutheran. Despite beginning several posts, I've had nothing to say that would amaze the entire room, much less please myself.

I write because I want to find a new way to say something, because I want to test the truth for myself and find a new connection with it. I am looking for original insight, but even in summer's abundance of sunshine, I'm leaning towards the writer of Ecclesiastes' view of things: there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecc. 1:9). Or Shakespeare's view--the same idea with an original twist: "There is nothing left remarkable/Beneath the visiting moon." (Antony and Cleopatra, IV.xiii.60) Cleopatra says this shortly before she dies.

As for the Preacher behind the book of Ecclesiastes--well, I'd have to read the durn book to comment on where he goes in the eleven chapters that follow his declaration that "what has been is what will be." I have no objections to reading Ecclesiastes, but stopping to do so now would probably keep me from finishing this post. I'm skipping to the end of the book: "Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil."

Secret? That's a word I heard in church this morning, in the Gospel reading:

"So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. (Matthew 10:26)

So God will ferret out every secret thing and will show these hidden things in a new light when they are brought to judgment. It's probably not theologically correct to describe God as taciturn and unsocial, but apparently the Creator likes to astound everyone in the room with amazing new views of stuff that is now hidden. Hey, being God, she can't help it.

Is that where Elizabeth Bennet and I get it from? Yes, there's some vanity, some false pride, maybe some prejudice, in having to discover everything for yourself There is vanity in thinking you can think what others have not thought, or that you can at least put a new twist on it. But I'm thinking the desire to do this could be part of what Paul described as being "dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus." (Rom. 6:11--the second lesson this morning)

A new creation!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Hang on for spring

Driving to church today, I thought, couldn't we just postpone the Easter season until it starts to feel like Easter?

It was a cold, gray day today. There has been little or no inkling that spring is just around the corner--or around any corner in this latitude. All the effort that goes into celebrating Easter and the Sundays after Easter seems wasted. It's like using a tiny space heater to heat the backyard.

Of course, we'd be in a pretty bad fix if we waited to celebrate Easter until we felt like it. That Easter feeling can come and go in a flash. I had it and lost it this afternoon while singing "Awake My Heart with Gladness." In stanza three, between "Now nothing ever saddens" and "The joy within my heart," I stopped feeling glad.

What happened? Well, I thought of things that do sadden my heart. I thought of dead loved ones, of loneliness and weakness and of how much energy it takes to push back gloom and find hope. Is it really there? Like crocuses or early tulips under the dead leaves? I haven't looked for those yet this spring.

I got back into the hymn in the stanza sung by the choir alone. The hymn writer's imagery is vivid in this verse. "My Lord will leave me never/Whate'er he passes through." Christ is on the move, but he's not leaving me? How can this be? Ah yes, this stanza starts with "I will cling forever/To Christ, my Savior true." I'm seeing myself hanging on for dear life, literally, as Christ charges through the dungeons of hell, breaking chains and crashing through prison gates. Yow! The hymn says "I follow him through all." In my mind, I'm like a cartoon character. My feet are not touching the ground.

The next--the final stanza--brings us to the heavenly gates. The transition seems abrupt. (Wonder how many of the original German verses were left out?) And it's not all warm, springtime, feeling happy about Easter. "Who there my crown has shared/Finds here a crown prepared/Who there with me has died/Shall here be glorifed!"

Sharing the cross, dying--that would include living through some cold and gloomy days in March--real ones and metaphorical ones.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Called to misery

I direct the 5th through 8th grade choirs at a Lutheran grade school. Last week we rehearsed music for Passion Sunday, including Psalm 31, the Psalm appointed for the day. Instead of having all the children muddle through the verses together, verses that contained some pretty big words for fifth graders, I decided to assign three of the four choir verses to soloists—to eighth graders with strong voices and good vocabularies.

So there we were, in junior high choir, rehearsing the antiphon that would precede the psalm and the psalm itself. I called out names as we sang the psalm, asking first one student, then another to sing by themselves. At verse 11, I called on Forrest.

Forrest is the backbone of my junior high baritone section—a half-dozen twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-year-old boys with changed and changing voices. Forrest is a talented vocalist and a good musician. He’s also got, well, rather a lively personality. I don’t think he can walk the length of the upstairs hall without doing something goofy—especially if his friends are watching.

The part of Psalm 31 that we sing on Palm Sunday is all about misery. Another more serious member of the choir sang:

Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble;
my eye is consumed with sorrow, and also my throat and my belly.

The choir chanted the congregational verse together, then Forrest sang:

I have become a reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those of my acquaintance;
when they see me in the street they avoid me.

He finished, and the room went up for grabs—laughter, hoots, jeers. Maybe you’re a little too far removed from junior high and adolescence to appreciate why, so let me explain.

It was as if Forrest had been tricked into saying some pretty awful things about himself—using words from the Bible. It was an uncomfortable shock—more for his classmates, I think, than for him. Forrest was focused on getting through the long phrases. His peers heard him—and the psalmist—give voice to an adolescent’s worst nightmare. If you were to paraphrase the verse for them it might go something likes this.

I have become the person that nobody likes, not my friends, not my enemies.
I am a miserable human being, so unattractive that nobody will be my friend.
When people see me on the street, they cross to the other side.

The junior high students laughed at Forrest, because of his surprise humiliation and exposure to ridicule, but they also laughed because they recognized their own fears and insecurities. When you’re fourteen and don’t have a lot of self-control, that shock of recognition may bring laughter. If they had been singing those words as a group, they probably would not have taken them so personally. But put the words of pain and embarrassment in the mouth of one representative class member—one who usually finds it hard to be serious—and the shame that the psalmist was describing was laid plain before them, right there in the room.

Last Sunday, we understood the words of Psalm 31 as a description of Jesus’s shame and humiliation, which was described more explicitly in this morning’s reading.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” asks Pilate. “You say so,” says Jesus, and he says no more. He does not defend himself. He does not explain that he is king of all things everywhere, yet different from any king ever seen on earth. Pilate offers the crowd a choice between releasing Jesus Barabbas—literally, Jesus, son of the father—and Jesus of Nazareth, and the crowd calls for Barabbas to be let go and the Messiah, son of God, to be crucified. Jesus is flogged. The soldiers of the guard put a royal robe on him and a makeshift crown of thorns. They mock this king, as he faces his own death. They parade him through the streets of Jerusalem, nail him to the cross, and at the foot of the cross, they throw dice to see who gets his clothes.

What was Jesus, our brother, thinking during all of this? What kind of thought bubble do we picture floating over Jesus’ head?

“If only they knew I’m doing this all for them.”


“We’ll see whose mocking who when I burst out of the tomb on Sunday morning.”

Sometimes we think about Jesus’ Passion that way. We focus on the divine Christ on the cross, on God having a plan that was much bigger than that of the chief priests and the Roman governor. We like to be in the know about Christ’s triumph over death. This gives us a certain confidence in the unsettling painful, embarrassing moments of Holy Week—like teens taking refuge in their pop culture coolness.

But when Jesus stood before Pilate, he was human, and suffered as a human. He did not – could not?—defend himself before Pilate. He was too weak or too shaky to carry his own cross. He was rejected by his own people, deserted by his disciples, and forsaken, it seemed, by God himself. What was he thinking? From Psalm 31:

I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind
I am as useless as a broken pot.

Who wants to identify with someone in that miserable state? Who wants to be him?

Yet shame and humiliation and suffering come to all of us, because that’s the way life is, and because we are so good at taking what’s bad in our lives and making it into something worse. We are in that miserable state, and Jesus has come to share it with us.

Recognizing that can make us uncomfortable. We may not laugh with the shock, the way the junior high students laughed at Forrest, but we may try to look the other way, try to distance ourselves from such misery.

But if we keep our eyes on that suffering and dying servant, we see a new kingdom coming into being, a kingdom in which the meek inherit the earth and the last are first, a kingdom in which caring for the least of his brothers and sisters is caring for Jesus.

He calls us to his misery, to take up that cross and follow.

Monday, March 03, 2008


My daughter, a young woman who has Down syndrome, is in the chorus of her high school’s production of the musical Crazy for You. How wonderful that she is included!


Here’s what inclusion looked like: Eliza and her friend, another young woman with Down syndrome, dancing and singing in the back row, behind everyone else. Eliza is four feet, eight inches tall. The chorus members stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of her, wearing heels. They’re of normal height. They faced forward. They did not interact with her. On opening night, from the audience, I caught only split-second glimpses of my daughter, and I had to crane my head this way and that and sit up very tall to do so.

Of course there were lots of parents in the audience looking for their children. A woman behind me said to the person sitting next to her, “Where is she? Where is she?” And then a few moments later, “Oh, look, she’s so beautiful.”

I think my daughter is beautiful, especially when she smiles with joy and delight. Did I ever get to see that look on opening night? No. I was looking through the legs of all the dancers, trying to pick out her shoes—flat Mary Janes rather than the character heels on everyone else—trying to discover where she was. I never saw her face long enough to know if she was enjoying herself.

For the second show, on Sunday afternoon, I had green room duty. During rehearsals there has been a teaching assistant present for the special ed kids. But for some reason, there isn’t one for the three performances after opening night. So I and the mothers of Eliza’s two friends with Down syndrome who are in the show have volunteered to be there to help the girls. It’s hard for them to put on pantyhose by themselves.

Yesterday’s matinee was my day in the green room. The show’s brand of inclusion looked even worse from backstage. After walking the girls upstairs to the stage when it was time for chorus entrances, I waited in the wings during their numbers. I watched them perform—two girls (one was sick) dancing by themselves at the back of the stage, behind a solid line of others. Like ugly ducklings shunted off to a corner of the room so they won’t be seen. It is an image that will stay with me for a long time.

In the dressing room before the show, the cast members—approximately 75 kids—participated in vocal warm-ups. They joined hands in a circle and listened to the director’s praise and instructions. My daughter and her friend sat on the floor outside the circle, looking on—until I made them get up, pushed them toward the other kids, and made the normal teens aware of their presence. As those kids “circled up,” nobody had thought to come over and urge or invite these two “special” girls to be part of the show community. Nobody.

I don’t know how things got to be this way. I don’t attribute it to maliciousness. I know that special needs kids can marginalize themselves and need lots of encouragement in situations that may be overwhelming for them. I know that having a teaching assistant present during rehearsals can mean that the special kids come to depend on the TA instead of becoming independent. The normal self-absorption of teenagers can mean that the regular kids never interact with, much less assist or enjoy the special ed kids. I also know that there’s so much to do in getting a show up and running that some details—like my daughter—inevitably fall by the wayside. I also know that plenty of people would take the attitude that my dismay and anger about the show is my problem, perhaps attributable to an inability to accept my daughter‘s limitations. And that I should just be happy—thrilled even—that my daughter gets to be part of the show.

Only she isn’t really a part of the show. Of course, she doesn’t realize that the audience mostly can’t see her. She wears a costume and make-up. A few kids in the cast greet her. One young man, whom Eliza knows from church, warmed my heart yesterday. When Eliza said to him, “Marek, you’re doing a great job,” he replied, “You’re doing a great job, too, Eliza.” But people in the audience can hardly see her. They don’t even have to know that she’s there.

Eliza’s high school has a Special Olympics basketball team. Every year, the special ed kids play a basketball game during the school day against another high school’s special education students. The regular kids can get out of class to go to the game and cheer, so the bleachers are full. Who would miss an opportunity to skip class? Everyone enjoys it. It’s a big day for the special ed kids, and it’s a day that the high school community points to with pride as evidence of everyone’s support for the disabled community.

It’s easy to support these kids when they are all together on a basketball team—their own community. It’s much harder to figure out how to make them part of a community that includes everyone else.

Copyright Gwen Gotsch 2008. Do not reproduce without permission from the author.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Such visions of Thee

Several weeks ago in church, I heard a prayer that included the words “Grant us such visions of thee.” The phrase reminded me of a poem from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology--the collection of epitaphs he wrote to depict the life and people of a small town in downstate Illinois.

The speaker is Faith Matheny. Matheny is a name you find in histories of Springfield, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln had a friend whose last name was Matheny. But we don't learn anything specific about Faith from the poem. Here's the epitaph Masters wrote for her:

AT first you will know not what they mean,
And you may never know,
And we may never tell you:—
These sudden flashes in your soul,
Like lambent lightning on snowy clouds
At midnight when the moon is full.
They come in solitude, or perhaps
You sit with your friend, and all at once
A silence falls on speech, and his eyes
Without a flicker glow at you:—
You two have seen the secret together,
He sees it in you, and you in him.
And there you sit thrilling lest the Mystery
Stand before you and strike you dead
With a splendor like the sun’s.
Be brave, all souls who have such visions!
As your body’s alive as mine is dead,
You’re catching a little whiff of the ether
Reserved for God Himself.

I performed this poem long ago in a staged version of Spoon River Anthology. It came at the end of the first act. The director of the production had asked the members of the cast to tell her which two characters--which two poems--they most wanted to do. Faith Matheny was my first choice, and I was happily surprised when the director gave her to me. As the only young woman in the cast and the possessor of a certain radiant quality as an actress, I knew I was going to get saddled with the Anne Rutledge poem that ended the second act of the show. I didn't think I would be allowed to be sweet and radiant at the end of both acts. It may have been a bit much.

“Faith Matheny” is the better poem. Anne Rutledge was the young woman whose untimely death drove the young Abraham Lincoln into a severe depression--or so the legend goes. In the years after Lincoln’s assassination, his law partner and biographer, William Herndon, interviewed many of Lincoln’s early friends and acquaintances. In a public lecture, he then declared Anne Rutledge to be Lincoln's first and only love. This made Mary Todd Lincoln furious, which probably gratified Herndon instead of bothering him. Historians still debate the evidence about Anne’s role in Lincoln’s life. Masters, writing in 1915, came down heavily on the sentimental side: "Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward millions/And the beneficent face of a nation/Shining with justice and truth. . . . Bloom forever, O Republic/From the dust of my bosom!"

Imagine me—a skeptical realist even at twenty-one—saying all that, and more, with a spotlight on my face and the rest of the cast in a semi-circle behind me, humming something—I don’t remember what—that was inspirational.

Faith Matheny is remarkably clear-sighted by comparison, though perhaps a little daffy. I wanted to perform that poem because I knew what she meant and I adored the way the poet’s long phrases sped along to convey that breathless thrill--the moments when you become acutely aware of God’s presence on the surface of your skin or in the air around you or in the magnetic pull between you and someone else.

I think what you’re seeing there is pure love. Love beyond human attachment, possessiveness, fierceness. Love that has all the glory, warmth and light of the sun.

“Be brave, all souls, who have such visions,” says Faith. Maybe she needed to be brave. Mystics make the rest of us uncomfortable. Did the people of Spoon River dismiss her as a crazy old lady? Was she a young woman, a schizophrenic? Or was she an ordinary person, who cooked and dusted and sat near the lamp to sew in the evenings? When I portrayed her, I did not think about what she looked like, what her life was like, whether she died old or young. I just tried to look out into the blur of lights and audience through her eyes. What she saw was more important than what other people saw of her, and she spoke as a spirit, dead, free, and urging others to recognize the spiritual reality around him. It was so much more real than the patriotic mish-mash springing from the dust of Anne Rutledge’s bosom.

What I like about Faith Matheny’s visions is that they are made of plain stuff—solitude, or sitting with a friend. They’re not the kind of visions that can be explained away with neuroscience. They’re not migraine auras or psychotic hallucinations triggered by low blood sugar. They’re social and intellectual. They come from recognizing something about yourself or another person.

I have to ask myself, when have I had such visions? I can think of one such vision I had, reading a letter that my father wrote to his parents on the day after I was born. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy,” he wrote. I was flooded with warmth and reassurance from discovering that my newborn helpless existence brought him such contentment and satisfaction. It was a vision of love like God’s perfect love, a “whiff of the ether” shared with me, a creature made in God’s image.

The prayer I heard in church asked for such visions and followed up with a phrase that began “so that we.” It asks for the power to share such visions, not from a spirit world beyond the grave but in actions in the world around us.

Visions are fine things, but it’s a material world. One of the other characters I played in “Spoon River Anthology” was Lois Spears, who was born blind, but who married, raised a family, and “went about the rooms/And about the garden/With an instinct as sure as sight/As though there were eyes in my fingertips/Glory to God in the highest.”

She had visions of the real world, and these, too, pointed to God.

Friday, January 25, 2008


I've been finding myself in couple-y situations lately. Situations where just about everyone there is part of a couple, and I am not. Switches switch, old feelings line up with more recent ones, and if I stop talking for just a minute, the self-pity thing kicks in, and kicks in hard. I feel like I did at high school dances, where you worked at not acting like a wallflower, even if that's who you were.

My perspective has shifted since then. I am now old enough to act like exactly who I am. I don't have to try on other roles. If you don't like women who are perversely intellectual or a little too bright and funny--well, you won't like me, and I may not even notice. But I've been married and I remember what it is like to talk in the car on the way home from a social event, or to slide into bed at the end of the day and not huddle there alone.

I miss the comfort. I am conscious now of the awkwardness of being the one who screws up the seating at tables set for eight or ten. I am too aware of being a widow when I talk to other women's husbands, self-conscious about being--not single exactly, but singular.

Everywhere you look the world works two-by-two. At least my world does, where people my age are sensible parents in stable marriages, living in brick houses with fixed-rate mortgages. They're like oxygen molecules; they travel in O2 pairs. They dread surprises, because these come mostly from teenage children and are seldom good.

Even the single people I know are paired up with close friends or somehow belong to groups of folks who look out for each other. People need people--someone to listen, or pretend to, as you prattle on at the end of the day.

Yes, I'm definitely feeling sorry for myself. I'm also feeling a little hypocritical. Back when my husband was alive, I went lots of places on my own. More often than not, he refused to be dragged along. And I have chattered away plenty of time today in the presence of friends, or on the telephone. I'm not alone in the world.

But I am an odd piece of the puzzle. The "plus 1" who turns even numbers to odd.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's Day 2008

Outside everything is white, covered in snow. It was pretty in the midnight darkness, quiet and lit by street lights. In the early afternoon, the glare coming in the windows aggravates my headache and makes the house seem even colder than it is.

I've read the newspaper--the New York Times online. Read about getting organized, eating better, and exercising more. Read about the need for new priorities in public health aid to Africa and for finance reform in American political campaigns. I've read about political chaos in Pakistan and Kenya. I've read Bob Herbert's piece on 1968 in America, a year I remember well. I was in eighth grade. Shortly before my confirmation day, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Shortly before graduation, Robert Kennedy was killed.

I was thirteen. My mother had told us stories of her childhood during World War II. They'd had a Victory Garden. She and her friends collected aluminum foil for the war. She had heard Franklin Roosevelt on the radio and had told us that yes, he'd had polio, but he'd gotten better and could walk.

I watched the historical events of my childhood on television--the crisp live broadcast of President Kennedy's funeral, the grainy black-and-white film coverage of civil rights marches, exotic images from Viet Nam that seemed more like a movie than reality. Even the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago--riots in Grant Park, a place I could get to just by riding the el--seemed to belong to another world. There was both evil and high idealism afoot in the world, but these things were distant, not to be tasted by a suburban girl, brought up Lutheran, brought up to be moderate, not passionate, in all things.

What does any one of us moderate, quiet people have to do with the big things that go on around the world? Yet there are things in the news that I connect with intuitively. There's Benazir Bhutto's nineteen-year-old son, thrust into the official leadership of his mother's political party, but telling reporters that the first thing he has to do is "finish my degree" at Oxford. He is reeling with grief, and way over his head in meeting family expectations. What about the frustration of Kenyans, whose votes for the opposition party don't seem to matter. Helplessness can make people angry and stupid. What about those presidential primary candidates--running hard now, facing disappointment in the near future? Does HIlary recognize herself now, or is it the Hilary of fifteen years ago that she wouldn't recognize?

A week or two ago, I received a Christmas card with the message "live in balance" or something like that. I put it on the kitchen windowsill and looked at it for several days, but then I put it away. It seemed too easy, too pat. Like calling all this snow pretty at midnight or one o'clock in the morning. By daylight, It's messy, and it will be pretty ugly by the end of the week. Reality is not a picture postcard. It's tough and unpredictable, and you fall down a lot and your feet get wet and cold, no matter where you live, no matter what you're doing--especially when you try to understand it all.