Sunday, January 29, 2012

Etta and Eva

Etta James died last week. You can’t have been at as many weddngs as I have without at least once having heard her signature tune At Last. Recorded in the early 60’s, it begins with a lush string pad setting the stage for the emotional release of the first two words. And those two words say it all. She manages – in two words – to release the pent up longing with the deep relief of one who is finally able to relax into the delight of a lifetime love. Her own life was never able to quite own that restful relief. Struggling with addictions, she was in and out of rehab a couple of times – and the hard life chosen shaped every note. Her talent was finally recognized with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and a couple of Grammy wins in the mid-2000’s. She released her final album just last November.

James was able to get to the heart of a lyric and melody and shape them to make them her own. Her most memorable songs displayed a rich, powerful voice, tinged with the pain of a life lived in longing.

There is something about a singer who can capture the pure tone of a song and make it so fully theirs, that no other version ever sounds quite right. Eva Cassidy, whom I have recently discovered, was another like that. I first heard her in an NPR driveway moment. They played her recording of Danny Boy as thematic filler at the end of an otherwise uneventful interview. The simple purity of her tone, the anguish of what was and would never be again filling every note, made me sit in the car with tears in my eyes until the last note was sung. The silence that followed was profound.

Cassidy rose to local prominence in the mid-90’s through her appearances in Washington DC clubs. Painfully shy, she prefered to appear as part of a duo or group, but as her soaring vocal ability on virtually any style of music was noticed, she was thrust into the lead role more and more often. In mid-1996 she was diagnosed with melanoma and died in November of that year in her mid-30’s, almost unknown except by a loyal following of local fans. Her eclectic style had frustrated studio executives unable to pin her down to a marketable niche, so that, even though she had recorded a number of songs and a life album, she never hit the charts. After she died, however, those recordings contributed to a rise in popularity, first in England and then, finally in America. She has become more well-known since her death than ever she was while alive.

And what sets her apart is the same ability Etta James had to capture a feeling in a melody and lyric and by doing so, make it completely her own. You can hear the pensive melancholy, tinged with deep joy on her signature songs – Autumn Leaves, Over the Rainbow, Wonderful World, Fields of Gold.

I am not sure why I am writing about these two singers of songs – except, perhaps, that I want to live my life in the same way as they sang – taking the melody and lyrics of life and singing a familiar song in a way that is undeniably mine – informed by a deep love for Jesus and gratitude for redeeming, redefining grace. Besides, if our Father knows when the sparrows fall, we ought pay attention when songbirds do.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Everything Old is New . . . Again

It seem that no matter how much things change, the more they remain the same. Here we are, barely into the new year and already it is starting to look an awful lot like every year before. The promise of heady resolutions made at the turn of the year lies largely unfulfilled in the realization that resolutions alone do not bring change.  Instead, they function like promises made to ourselves – empty unless acted upon. Turning a life is only equaled in difficulty and distance required by the skill and miles needed to turn a supertanker at full-speed on the high seas. There are exceptions, of course, but lives that can turn on a dime typically weren’t going anywhere fast in the first place.
That is why the most effective strategy for long-term life change tends to small, incremental changes that are given time to settle in before the next series. The appearance can sometimes resemble a drifting into a new way of life, but it is far from that. There is a long term strategy and direction with a high level of tactical awareness requiring vigilance and determination. Patience is required, and persistence – especially when nothing seems to be happening. It is also best to keep your eyes focused in the moment with only occasional glances at the horizon marker to make sure you are on course, and at the port from which you sailed to let you know that, indeed, progress has been made. If you try and live a year at a time, you will be frustrated - life is meant to be lived a day, a moment, at a time.
The real advantage of this strategy is that it fits the kind of people we are. Very few of us like sudden and constant change – but we can handle small changes over time that get us to where we want to go at an acceptable speed. Think of the engineers designing the freeway systems. There aren’t many sharp turns! They know that introducing a sharp turn into the 405 south would back traffic up to the Grapevine – the slow, gradual, even graceful arc of the “South Bay curve” keeps things flowing more or less at speed.
Jesus knows that we are built more for comfort than for speed – He lovingly has accommodated himself to our way of being. While He could change us instantly, He instead leads us gradually into a new way of being more appropriate to the Kingdom towards which we move. It may take longer than any of us want – but we will arrive. Another way might be quicker, but the chances of catastrophic breakdown along the way are greatly increased. So He comes along side and teaches us how to work, how to live, how to rest. And how to be where we are while heading to where we want to be.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


This is the time of year when things become clear. I speak, of course, about the air. Having lived more than half my life in Southern California, I have joined the ranks of those who prefer to speak of haze rather than smog. In fact, I am not even sure we have smog anymore – just an occasional rather dirty marine layer that lingers overlong. But with the cooperation of high and low pressure systems somewhere else and the resultant cleansing winds sweeping down upon us, we get days during the winter months that remind us of what those not blessed with our haze enjoy most of the rest of the time – crystal clear days of sharp shadows and crisp horizons, hills jutting up into the blue-blue sky, distant landscapes sharp silhouettes against the flaming sunset. It is as if we have just gotten new eyeglasses – we can see as we were meant to see! And it is glorious! Such detailed beauty usually gets rounded down, the edges softened until it is completely unnoticed.
It is as if the individual singers in this majestic choir are each able to be heard in their unique contribution to the chorus. They usually blend together so that one voice fades into another until all are indistinguishable – the sound is wonderful, but tends to mushy. But on days like today, each word, each note, each harmony, sung be each member of this cosmic ensemble is heard precisely, distinctly – without loss to the glory of the whole. The rugged basso profundo of the near hills and distant mountains have no muddiness in the deep tones of reverent awe. Their crisp richness provides a solid foundation for the playful harmonies of the tenor voices of the trees sharp against the sky, each nuance in bark and branch highlighted in  their part of the song. The baritone oaks display an unusual delicacy in this finely tuned offering. The high tenor birches almost dance in the sheer joy of the upper ranges of their capacity. Floating just above and just below them, the shrubs and grasses and vibrant flowers fill in the alto parts, giving a precisely textured counter-point to the soprano melodies of the birds playfully celebrating the music of the spheres. And then, just when it seems that there is no more music to be made, the distant, ethereal descants of the high clouds and the whispering rhythms of the wind take the symphony to a whole new level of wonder.
There is probably some meaning to be derived from all this clarity when the wind blows – some lesson to be learned. But, for now, it is enough to enjoy. And say thank you.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Decisions - with Outcomes

There are few things that are more certain in life than change. Whether it brings growth is a different matter – but change is the constant. Many changes are beyond our managing – things happen and it is our place to react or respond with whatever we have in us at the moment. The more preparation of soul and character we have done before the change, the greater the likelihood that our response will redeem the change. Without that preparation, our reaction may be less beneficial.
But there are changes that we can manage, as well. Things that we decide on and that we can shape as the time draws near. Transitions can be eased with planning and careful, prayerful thought. Not every question can be answered, but enough of them can be to reduce the chaos of what comes next. The launch into something new is frightening enough under any circumstances – the fear can be reduced by choosing not to be surprised. And by making choices.
As we make progress in spiritual maturity, the black and white, right or wrong, kinds of decisions lessen and we are increasingly left with decisions that have no right or wrong answer. We move away from punishment for having made wrong choices to an adult way of life in which there is no right or wrong choice on many issues – but there are outcomes – outcomes wrapped up in the choice itself. The choice is not between right or wrong, and may not even be a matter of better or best. And we have to choose without knowing all the consequences of every action.
And just at that moment, it seems, God removes his guidance and instead gives us wisdom to choose. It is as if He is saying, “Whatever you choose is fine. I will be with you in any event. What do you want to do?” To that extent, managing decisions becomes a matter of knowing our own heart – knowing our own desires. We do not have to worry about pleasing God with our choice – He is already pleased with us. Now what is at stake is whether we are willing to make a certain choice without knowing all the outcomes. That requires courage and confidence. In truth, either outcome is acceptable in most cases. The only question is which outcome do we want to live with? And in it all, we know that God will be with us and give us capacity for our choices.
That is why James instructs us, when in seasons of doubt, to ask for wisdom. That is what we do in these times of transition. Then, we choose. And then, we live!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Play as Trust

For the first half of my life, winter was a season of trust. I didn’t think of it in that way then - then it was a matter of unconscious redemptive endurance. We knew we had to get through it. We knew that March and April were coming - but would probably be delayed. So, in the middle of enduring, we redeemed the days. We did so as kids, and as adult children, by play. The cold froze the small lakes and ponds into acres of skating rink. The slower, smaller streams would provide miles of skating trails for a couple months of the year. Winter was the season of downhill and cross-country skiing - days spent in the wonderland of a snow-covered landscape. Hot chocolate tastes so much better when the appetizer is an hour or two tobogganing down the hills a couple of blocks from home.
Play is a wonderful way to redeem endurance. After all, you have to go through it anyway - you might as well have fun on the way! There are few journeys that are not made lighter, more pleasant - and shorter - by play. Play brings a certain lightness of step to the plod of hanging in there until it is over. If you can’t make play part of the journey, at least take time out occasionally from the journey to play. The dark season of the year calls for such playfulness. The dark seasons of our lives do as well.
Play is a deep mark of trust. Play unconsciously enters into the full and deep awareness that I am not in charge of much of anything - and that the One who is can be fully trusted to do what is right. What a frightening world I would live in if I were in charge of all things concerning me. There would be no time to play - it would all be work, effort, struggle. Life would be task. Instead, life is trust. My life is in God’s hands. It is there whether I recognize it, accept it, and live like it, or not. Play decides to enter the game of trust - knowing that it is the only game in town. Play is at the center of the celebration of Sabbath - one day in every seven in which we do not work and which reminds us that we are created and redeemed - that we are not animals nor slaves - that we are not defined by what we do but by who we are - that we have a plane and a destiny in God’s great kingdom that is beyond any of our imagination.
And so we play - and so we rest - and so we trust. He, after all, has the whole world in His hands.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Loneliness of Decision

          into the darkness
          of a future to be
          determined by
     to see a future
     that would make

Even if
     future sight
     were given
          it wouldn’t help.
There is
     no future
     until a
     choice is
gives rise
to a different
future than

In the
     loneliness of the choice
          the futures
          are not

 “I will be with you.”

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Weeping in Ramah (Matthew 2:18)

She thought it was over. Staying in Bethlehem to avoid the questioning looks of the neighbors back home, Mary and Joseph settled down to the good work of making a living and raising a son. Joseph’s skills made it possible for them to fit in without raising too many questions. Before long they realized Jesus was pretty much just like any other boy his age. The events surrounding his birth had faded to a treasured, and regularly pondered, memory.
Then out of the blue came the wise men with their wonderful story and over-whelming gifts. News of their arrival traveled fast in the small neighborhood – any thought of just going back to business as usual was shattered. And then, the angel – this time with a warning. Bethlehem was no longer safe, they must leave. Now. How do you decide what to take? How long are we going to be gone? Must we leave right now? Now! She had no time to say good bye to the few women she had become friends with.
The lights and sounds of the little village faded behind them as they began their weary way south. She wasn’t sure if she imagined it in that strange place between waking and sleeping, but the faint echo of the cries of mothers startled her into wakefulness. A shiver ran down her spine. She held the child so tightly that he squirmed in her embrace. The look in Joseph’s eyes told her she had not imagined the anguish – and that, but for the angel, it would be her cries of grief and outrage splitting the night air over Bethlehem. What kind of hatred, what kind of anger, what kind of fear, could move someone to slay innocent children – toddlers, some just learning to walk?
Simeon had warned her that the birth of her son would result in a sword piercing even her own heart. But so soon? And with this kind of pain? What right had she to be glad her son lived when so many of her friend’s sons had died? And worse, they died because he lived. Her heart ached with the battle and the shared pain. She finally surrendered to the numbing tedium of the road and let exhaustion over take her.
It was years before she could begin to understand what that night was all about - before she could place it in the  plan - before she knew what was at stake in the survival of her son and their travel into Egypt. For out of Egypt, God would call her son, and His. And begin the grand reversal. Tonight, his life resulted in death for many. One near day, his death would result in life for many, many more. He could not die this night. It wasn’t time . . . yet.