Music Communal and Mystic

Yesterday was an unusually rich day. After spending a morning working on a paper I’ll be giving next week I was off to Cambridge, Ontario, for a Bridging Communities Through Song concert. This is an annual event organized by Mino Ode Kwewak N’gamowak (Good Hearted Women’s Singers)- a drum group of Indigenous women who sing (mostly) traditional songs. They have partnered with the Waterloo Regional Police Male Chorus, an especially pertinent partnering given the fact that the police and First Nations have not usually had the best relationships, and certainly little trust. They were joined by the Rainbow Chorus, an LGBTQ+ chorus. The theme was care for water, and the program began with a prayer acknowledging the gifts the Creator has given us. The music was so very varied in genre: touching, fun and inspiring, and had the rich character of speaking from and to the community

After supper, my eldest and I drove to Toronto. She had bought me a ticket to a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert. It was the first of a three concert series called “New Creations Festival.” For the series, composers were commissioned to produce new pieces. For last evening’s concert, four pieces were performed. One was a riff on “O Canada,” the second a Trauermarsch/Funeral March, the third a piece focussing on the ephemeral character of perception, and the fourth a piece attending to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. This latter had five movements reflecting Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. The piece included a score, some improvised orchestral music and improvised singing by Tanya Tagaq. This latter is an Inuit throat singer, who is quickly becoming rather famous in Canada, and abroad. For those who have never hear throat singing, it is hard to describe. The range of sounds is beyond description; for many new to its hearing, it delights, shocks, and intoxicates. But it isn’t about sound alone. Tagaq’s body contortions to her singing allow one to see what is heard.

As she sang, I first sensed the land suffering losses: I imagined northern terrain twisting in agony at the stunning grief of environmental decay. I then visualized communities facing days upon days without children in their midst, sent to residential schools for programmatic assimilation to European culture. I heard and saw her own pain. The sounds were so utterly primal. This throat singing comes from the earth, from life – like Adam/Land and Eve/Life – and so awakened in me a kind of primal ache. It was both beautiful and strange. Words fail me, in describing it, or I fail words, but still I try. I must.

Some experiences really evade description because they strike a core so fundamental to our being that these give birth to new language, to halting words. These experiences are so dear to us that we are driven to expressing them, if even in faulting words. Perhaps this is what the great mystics knew. I am not sure that this concert was a mystical experience, but I think it is about as close to it as I am going to get. I still am processing this experience, or perhaps it is processing me….

Poetry of Naught

Some poems say no:
No I will not be ignored;
No I will not be understood;
No I will not be written;
No.

we need to listen
to such poems
through such poems

Hard silences speak
You, You the
Pause, You the
Comma, You the
Full Stop.

You may or may not be
captured by earthly languages or
heavenly tongues, but You
shape shift
that, this
poetry of naught into me
where it now
resides as
seed.

People behind People

Just last night I joined my wife and her parents in Stratford, ON to see the play “The Last Wife” by Kate Hennig. We had occasion to bump into the playwright, whose parents are friends of ours. She spoke of the surreal experience of hearing words that she had written come to life by actors. I’ve had that experience to a lesser extent in hearing liturgical pieces I have written enlivened by others. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her, but I can tell you a little of what the play was like for me.

The play was really quite incredible; a riff on the life of Kateryn Parr, the last wife of Henry the Eighth. In the production notes Ms. Hennig describes her interest in imagining the character of the too often suppressed voices of women. The play does a nice job of inviting its viewers to envisage history differently. The director nicely signals this in a couple of ways on a sparse but powerful stage. Hanging at centre stage from the ceiling is an upside down castle, and we see the back of a throne, letting us imagine life behind this seat of power, whose front is presented to the kingdom but not the audience, save at the end. These are effective signals which are further funded by images of bedroom exchanges between Hal and Parr, the everyday handles for the royal couple. We witness their day to day struggles as well as historic junctures. Ms. Hennig has done her historical homework but also advertises “viewer beware.” Poetic license is at the heart of art, which aims at something bigger than “just the facts.” So, we were invited into an alternate view of some hard historical data; we were invited to imagine history from the other side of the throne. What did this accomplish?

I was entranced. The use of colloquial language allowed me into the history in a different way; reminding me that bigger-than-life boats float in everyday waters. It invited me to think about events behind “The Event.” It reminded me that historians cannot catch it all, and there are a constellation of forgotten and little known factors that are as important as the known facts. But this decentering experience is also more broadly supported by the experience of being a patron of the theatre. The room darkens, lights ebb and flow, you see stage “hands,” people really who subtly manage the matter that sets the scene. Music comes and goes. It is hard to be “objective” in the sense intended by historians of the 19th century. Your feelings are at the fore as you consider the characters Kateryn and Henry. You begin to think about how you read all texts (the Bible, the paper, the news, emails etc) and the role of the many stage hands play in our everyday world. Someone translates texts; someone delivers the paper; someone secures a connection; someone references a source and writes an introduction. I am dependent on these many, and beholden to their choices.

Of course, Ms. Hennig made choices and we are glad for that. She chose to investigate the life of Katelyn, and she has been working on the lives of the two other Tudor Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. I look forward to her take on these characters and the experience of entering again the magic of the theatre. This is completely not my world, but it is a world that completes a part of me that is otherwise left undone. So, to her I offer my gratitude, as well as to all the thespians who venture the drama of it all.

This Side of Language

These days the squirrels
query me about the nature of life
on this side of language.

I reply that their
play displays a tongue
of their own, one
that portrays that
theirs is not mine.

And yet, yet if I look
with intention and listen
with attention I discern
their voice as mine
recedes.

This is a mystery:
to listen is to divine;
to watch is to marvel;
and perhaps to speak
of this spoken life.

Poetic Justice

Not far from my ear
I hear my tongue slicing air
with jabs of hope.

I witness world
being carved by this to and fro;
the thrust of a trust
that truth will weigh in.

I’m never sure which will win:
this incessant stab at grabbing what-is
or that ever present slip-into-not.

At least I have a
ring side seat, a treat
when television bores and
my books are too, too heavy.

Tasting Trials

It is impossible
to do justice to
taste even while I yearn
to tell of delights
tickling my tongue with
this delicacy or that.
This tantalized tongue
that tries to talk knows that
it cannot describe taste to
a “t” and so knows intimately
language that limps;
speech that works with lack.
It points, it gestures, it stammers;
but it cannot stop.
This tongue peppered with fire
refuses silence even though its words flail
as they try to fly
like chick from nest,
like dove from ark.

Reforming Language

Dear Readers, as a matter of course I do not post sermons, but I am going to make an exception this week.  I was asked to provide a 3 minute reflection on the Reformation and Language in chapel today, and thought some might be interested in reading my speaking.  Allen

In John 8:31 Jesus says:
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.

This word “word” was of such importance to John and his community, and was of incredible importance to the Reformers studying John. The Greek word for word, logos, means word but so much more. It can also mean speech, subject matter, an accounting or reckoning as well as reason or motive. While all of these words have different nuances they all point to a linguistic common denominator. Language is at the heart of being human. God spoke the world into being and we are made in the image of God, so speaking – or more broadly – communicating is being human.

Communicating was a big deal for Martin Luther. Some years ago a group of us traveled to Eisenach in the former East Germany and visited the Wartburg Castle, where Luther translated the New Testament into German. We were told that, at that time, the German lands each had a dialect. Luther’s translation of the Bible was an important step in developing standard German, which he used to great benefit in communicating the Gospel: the good news, that Jesus is God’s word to us of grace; Jesus speaks to us of the unconditional love of God; Jesus is God’s unconditional love for us. This word was at the heart of the reformation.

Unfortunately, it is very easy for us to reduce this word to an idea, an idea that we can master – rather like the times tables. But the gospel is not an idea; the gospel is an event, a happening, something that cannot be orchestrated, nor manipulated. The gospel is all about God, and where God is at work, anything is possible. God cannot be put in a box, and God’s word cannot be manhandled. This is why Luther insisted that the Church was not a Federhaus, a pen house, or a house of writing, but instead a Mundhaus, a mouth house. Scholars will sometimes translate Mundhaus as house of speaking, but I like mouth house. It sounds more problematic, perhaps a little cheeky, and besides, it is very sensual.

Mouths, after all, are the loci of taking in and spitting out. They are the location of our ingestation as well as our protestation; they are the place of the kiss, and the curse; they are the smile, the frown, they are language incarnate; language in flesh. The church is a fleshy place and a mouth house is a house that is bodily in nature. Debbie Lou has spoken often to the choir of the role the body plays in singing. Of course, the same is true in speaking. Communication is a bodily event. And so, when we think about language, we think about bodies: my body, your body, the body we call the body of Christ, the body we call the cosmos, the earth, the universe; the bodies – all of these bodies – that God loves intimately.

The church is a mouth house, but I would be amiss to neglect to point out that a mouth that never stops speaking is cacophanous; sounds begin to screech and our ears weary from too many words, from too much sound. A motor mouth church wears its hearers down; bombarding them with cliches, with half truths, with pollyanna-like pious, plastic language. It is enough to make you want to shout “Enough!”

Language, like music, depends upon silence. The space between the notes, the consonants, the sounds makes hearing them possible, makes ingesting them pleasurable, makes repeating them desireable. Language without silence is noise, and we all have enough noise in our lives.

There is a certain freedom in knowing that sometimes, sometimes we can be like God can be: quiet, and that this quietness is not a betrayal of the gospel, but intrinsic to its nature. Sometimes, sometimes, what needs to be said, for now, is nothing….

Talking up a Storm

We have some dear friends who have a delightful, precocious and beautiful four year old. She has mastered a number of significant skills, not the least of which is fluidity in English and Marathi. She comes by it honestly. Her parents, from India, are exceptionally bright and can converse in a host of languages. They have decided that Marathi is a good meeting language for A and their family and friends from India.

When A talks her beautiful brown eyes bewitch anyone paying attention. Her mom and dad tell us that when she switches into Marathi, she is able to add to her sparkling eyes that graceful, and fetching dance of the head; a kind of swaying back and forth that waltzes with the cadence of the language. Her grandparents – who live in India and visit from time to time – demonstrate the same in their deliciously accented English. But A’s parents never betray this linguistic Bollywood dance in their English, except for the odd occasion in which we see them flipping back and forth from Marathi to English in the company of confreres from their homeland.

A is like her parents. Her English is dance-less. English doesn’t seem to demand the same rhythmic sway that accompanies Marathi, or Hindi, or other languages of the Indian subcontinent. Yet, I suspect English has a host of embodied oddities – some local in character – of which I am unaware because of my proximity to it. Place seems to put its stamp on speech. I remember, for instance, the first time I was in Switzerland and heard the Swiss speaking German. I thought them to be Norwegians speaking German. Both speak in a lilt that echoes the summits and dales of their country side. Could it be that language is shaped by the geography in which it finds itself?

I’m not certain that language always mirrors the contours of its locale. But it does seem that language regularly reminds us that it is thoroughly physical. Here it slowly scans big sky and broad horizon; there it climbs hills and races into valleys. In other locales it crashes against shores’ rocks, while it clips along in short, serious sentences ordered by big city efficiency. I am told that Woodland Cree ripples like the brooks it describes and sings like the birds its names.

It is a delight to see A growing comfortably into two languages. I am quite certain more will come along in due course. And with each language we will see little more of the world in a little one who is talking up a storm as she choreographs consonants and vowels intuitively. What a delight to know that the divine Word sweeps across the world with a range of words reflecting the world’s diversity!

Don’t “Like” this Post without Reading It, Please

The other day I noted a new follower of my Twitter account. I’m not the most popular guy in T-world and so tend to scope out followers on those rare occasions when someone signs on. I was interested to find a little URL associated with my new friend and so thought I should see where it led me. Imagine my surprise to discover that at this very site I could get more followers overnight! And to think I thought I needed to write clever, or funny, or inspirational, or thought provoking Twitter tomes to coax folk to follow where I lead. It turns out all I need to do is fork out $20 (on sale!).

This rather reminds me of my otherwise wondrous experiences with blogging. Sometimes, I’ll post a blog, and within minutes will have some “likes.” “Cool,” I’ll think, “I should check out where my fans are from.” I then go to the handy-dandy tool for scouting out those scouting you out, and discover that no-one has visited my blog. They “liked” it from their blog reader, which means they (might have) read the first 50 words or so. I have since discovered that they don’t “like” my blog so much as they would “like” it if I “liked” theirs by returning the favour. All of this got me thinking (this doesn’t always end well).

Do I write for myself, for readers, or for the subject matter?

Maybe I can do all three. Probably I do. OK, I do. But it seems that one or the other takes priority. If my first priority in writing is myself (perhaps to boost my ego), then writing moves in one direction. If I write for readers (perhaps to boost sales), then writing moves in another direction. But if I write out of passion, or even vocation – because not writing seems to be a betrayal of deep longings or persistent proddings – then yet another realization emerges: the subject matter matters. It isn’t that the subject matter trumps writer or reader, but it makes a space for us to gather together. In other words, I want readers who don’t only like what I write, but read what I write because what I write about (writing in this specific post) is more important than my popularity or the reader’s enjoyment, inspiration, etc.

I suppose I have a certain luxury in not needing to make my buck with my luck at likes. Maybe I’m a romantic. Maybe that’s not so bad. At any rate, I am so happy for all who have made it this far in this rambling rant, and am quite content to find a small community of interested writers and readers to share in this journey that doesn’t end in with the full stop.

Thoughts from Eisenach

DSC01027

I am a stone’s throw away from the Wartburg Castle, famed for hosting two giants in the Christian faith: Elizabeth of Thuringia and Martin Luther. The former is renowned for her love of the poor, and the later for his witness to the message of Justification by Grace. (I should note that Goethe, too, wrote a love letter or two from this same castle.) I am in Eisenach to participate in a conversation hosted by the Lutheran World Federation on the topic of the Psalms in the life of the church. In and of itself, this is an interesting topic, but it is made doubly so in this instance because this is a gathering of people from around the globe. Together we discuss what it means to read the Bible in our contexts. The context of Eisenach, where we are staying, is especially potent because it was in the Wartburg that Luther translated the New Testament into German and in one stroke made the Bible available to a broader audience and in so doing consolidated many German dialects into what would become standard Hochdeutsche. To be here with people from around the globe is an incredible gift.

Part of the gift of being here is hearing different languages spoken. Chapel every day includes praying the Lord’s Prayer; each in their own language. Although English is the language of papers etc., it is in prayer that we fully hear the diversity that we are. There is something profound in this experience: gone is the rhythmic cadence of all praying together, and we hear instead a kind of murmuring, or perhaps one could call it a bubbling, a kind of effervescence that reflects the beauty that happens when diversity dances with unity: many voices praying the same words in different languages. We are gathered together as one, but a “one” that celebrates multiplicity in Luther’s heartland.

It is important to note that Luther didn’t translate the Bible into the language of his heart with the intention that all should learn German in order to read his translation. He felt that the Bible should be available to people in their mother’s tongue. In so doing he invites us to consider that every tongue, every culture, every people have an inherent dignity. Unfortunately too many of us live in cultures that worship uniformity over unity – cultures obsessed with the cult of efficiency. It isn’t efficient to speak across cultures and so uniformity pummels the richness that is unity in diversity. At one level, it isn’t too surprising that we trade unity for uniformity. It is, after all, hard work to enter into the thought world of people who live a different reality than mine, but to refuse that challenge is to forfeit a moment of grace: a moment I am reveling in this week. And so I invite you, too, to take time this week to reach across a divide – whether it be financial, racial, or political – to encounter difference. As you do so, accept the otherness of the other even while you hold hands in whatever small way might be possible. You will be glad you did.