Chancing Chant
December 3, 2011, 4:36 pm
Filed under: life of Spirit, practice | Tags: , , ,

Chanting scripture has changed my prayer life.

Nearly two decades of my work has been about the power of music in its performative mode, yet it always surprises me when music teaches me something new in this mode (by which I mean in its relational, embodied, and multidimensional manner in which insight, unexpectedly, arrives). On the one hand, such things make a scholar feel silly. We, too, get seduced into the shackles of expertise. We lapse into presumption of knowing all about our subject of inquiry that we can forget there’s always more to learn. Especially in what Jean-Luc Marion would call theology, as opposed to theology—apophatic nod to God in the first, cataphatic nod to God in the second. (Yes, I want you to look up those words).

On the other hand, these things give more credence and faith in what we already know, at least if what we’ve written/learned is true. If it’s true, in other words, it will continue to lead into new learnings. And so, in this case, I’m pleased to be surprised once again. My basic argument has been that music will forever extend the boundaries of theological knowledge, theological discipline, precisely because its manner of teaching/learning is performative—primarily relational, embodied in oral-aural form, multidimensional in self and community, so never to be written entirely in stone where it would become simply a fossil. Therefore, if theologically-curious folks are really interested in knowing more about what Spirit is about, they should do so in the performative mode of music. It will confirm and refine any theological knowledge you think you have.

But…what’s all this about, you ask, 2-3 paragraphs in? This is a scholar’s befuddlement, sharing that chanting scripture has altered my prayer life for good.

A bit of backdrop, to set the stage. While attending the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco, I took Sunday morning “off” as Christian Sabbath, identifying a Eucharist service I could attend on the early side of the morning. Two public busses and a bit of a walk later, I found myself in a community of dancing saints—those living and stewarding a liturgy of Word and Sacrament, those ‘written’ or painted on the rotunda of the church building showing ways of loving God in loving neighbor, the world over. It was a blessed morning—though also a bit of a pain the derriere, which I won’t go into—the conclusion of which was being invited into the community’s practice of weekday morning prayer. I received the prayer book, a book of musical liturgical offerings, an anointing of hands & spirit to then be on my way.  It seemed such an extraordinary invitation that I actually accepted it. What a preposterous idea—to pray at 11 a.m. most weekday mornings with a community in whose worship I had been nourished one Sunday morning in November. So be it.

The liturgy is a familiar one, at least for a Presbyterian who had been shaped as a closet-Episcopalian for nearly ten years: opening sentences, opening song, contemplative silence, sung Psalms, silence, canticle, scripture, prayers, closing song, closing sentences and benediction. The Gospel reading comes with attention to the Daily Lectionary, revised standard version (I think we call it). Whatever text for the day now arrives into my e-mail Inbox from Convenient, for all kinds of reasons. What is unfamiliar is the chanting.

This community’s worship practice might best be described—granting I only know a glimpse/sensation of it—as ecumenical-intertraditional, Eastern orthodoxy in contemporary voice. Incense was ‘lit’ at the sacristy. Bells open and close times of silence. Vestments—though they presented with a sense of Ti-Die hippiedom—distinguish leaders. Actual ordained clergy are difficult to identify. An open-hearted community of lay leadership this is. The life of the liturgy, as I experienced it, came through what they call “paperless music,” intoned and led singing in which pitch is determined on the spot and everyone really does sing. Those who are obviously musical, in strong voice, and those whose gifting does not seem to include musicality, also in strong voice. Because it is for praise of God, not aesthetic limitation. “Paperless music” places the performative aspect of music, shared, before all else. Just like I have written. Just like I learned in my own journey of theological formation. This community allows its liturgy to be shaped primarily by the performative, by the participation of its Friends.

So weekday mornings has found me in a quiet space with some privacy, entering into this liturgical practice, feeling silly while I sing the opening sentences (both parts), sing the O-Antiphon of the week, sing the Psalms. I’ve even experimented with chanting the Gospel, as invited by the order of worship to do so. You know what I’m learning? The ancient ones of our Christian tradition were on to something mysterious, wise, counter-intuitive to us today.

The liturgy itself invites the leader to sing in telling places. When asking us to pray for our enemies. When inviting us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. Places of highest vulnerability, deep woundedness, spiritual resistance. We sing, with shaky voices out of tune, perhaps out of synch with what God really intends. We offer voices into vulnerable space.

Chanting the Psalms has been the most remarkable for me, however. As long as I can remember, I have felt dissonance in reading the Psalms. Sometimes the poetry seemed flattened in the tools (historical-critical, exegetical) I was asked to bring to them. Sometimes the language refused to be flattened and was simply violent, full of lament, raw. Difficult to let in during a devotional period of listening. Following this liturgical practice, I began to realize I’m finally opening to the Psalms as they were intended, perhaps Intended. Songs. To be sung. Companioned by others. And it’s changed how I receive scripture as well.

I’ve increasingly wrestled over the years with how to read my own Scriptures, mostly because they seem so abused, so often, that I hesitate to join my efforts into the abuse. I can only take about 1-2 sentences at a time when most of my communities require whole chunks, pericopes (pah-RICK-oh-peez) we call them, in which historical legitimacy or validity may be argued. I’ve been choking for years on that much Word, eaten that quickly. And the Psalms in particular. They are simply too vivid to read quickly, within liturgy or for my own sustenance.

Except when they are sung, I’m learning. I’ve sung eight days’ worth of Psalms, learning the chant-style of this practice community, and the Psalms are going in. I feel them. I sense them. I don’t understand them but I am nourished by them. Eight days. Only eight days and I found myself weeping this morning, encountering my own scripture for the first time in a long time. It’s like it was an old friend, finally finding the window my soul had been scraping at for years.

So what if chanting scripture is not some Catholic or Orthodox practice we Protestants needed to excise in order to be true to sola scriptura, sola fides, sola gratis, but an ancient wisdom with shaping force for spiritual maturity and path to new life? What if the Wisdom of God, playing in the face of the Creator for as long as there’s been Life, comes into embodied form in us when we offer our voices in prayer, praise, and word in this fashion? Is it worth it to you to feel silly, feeling you can’t sing, yet chant Holy Writ until it nourishes you past your mind, your theology, into Wisdom somehow intimately inside you?

I dare you. 🙂 Chanting will change your prayer life, for good.


Being a Christian…in Your Time of Life
November 26, 2011, 10:25 am
Filed under: identity, life of Spirit | Tags: , , , , ,

“You cannot be a Christian alone.” I have heard this numerous times, doubting it only half of them. When I was growing up, fiercely differentiating from my family and previous shells of identity, I heard it from those grieving my growth. I could no longer grow toward spiritual maturity as I was—I needed to find out what Christian meant “alone” or “apart from them”—so I insisted I had to be Christian “on my own.” After college, I heard it from my new pastor in Pasadena, observant of my struggle to be shaped by a congregation in exchange for the nourishment such community was providing. I recognized that my wilderness years in college of “being on my own” with respect to faith community were just that—wilderness years—but I struggled to understand new directions within an aging congregation. I was being nourished, blessedly so, but felt both inadequate and a bit confused.

In graduate school, I heard it as rationale for common worship, for deepening of faith identity as a Reformed-Presbyterian Christian in a rapidly changing church and world. “You don’t know what Christian means, except for when and how other Christians show you,” I learned. Most recently, I heard it from an author and “friend of God” I met recently at Table. She runs a food pantry out of her church in a large American city, a way of being at Table in which she learns regularly that you need other people to be Christian. She describes them as she encounters them: “the wrong people” whom we must embrace. Outcasts. Those who do not fit “our” norms. In her gentle, sardonic style, she quips, “The thing that sucks about being a Christian is that God actually lives in other people.” (Sara Miles, Jesus Freak, xvii). “You cannot be a Christian alone, by yourself, on your own.”

For the first time in a long time, however, I find myself asking questions of this truism again. What does it mean, exactly? Does it mean “without other Christians”? Does it mean “without other people?” Or does it mean simply what it says, “not alone, by yourself, on your own?” If it’s the latter, you see, it opens up all of nature, Creation. You can be surrounded by the natural world and “feel companioned,” potentially in the power of the Spirit of Christ, the uncreated Word of Creation, unconstrained by other human beings at all. What exactly does the truism hold to be true?

Listening to scripture, tradition, their interwoven voices within my own tapestry of faith, I’m beginning to think one’s “time of life” or “stage of development” figures in greatly here. [Note of aside: I prefer “time of life” because it has a little less sociological or psychological undertow to it. “Stage of development” brings its ordering obsessions to bear on something that is gift and gift alone. Faith is the gift, and assessing the perceivable quality of your gift in contrast to others’ gifts remains suspect for good reason in all kinds of cultures. Gentle nod with respect to James Fowler (Stages of Faith), but assessing where you are on his ladder of stages seems less important than simply being thankful you’re on the ladder at all. Assessment may even push you right off the ladder without awareness that you’ve fallen.] I think the truism in my attention here speaks to all the meanings I’ve suggested, depending upon Spirit’s intention and direction along the way. Allow me a bit of leeway to say more, albeit with some contexts outside of specifically Christian discourse.

A friend of mine from some time past felt a pull to explore Buddhist tradition(s). She is Christian and her husband is Buddhist. Her embodied experience offered her sensations and images leading her in this direction, from the inside. From the outside, where I could observe and listen, it looked like this invitation was one to strengthen their marriage, to offer avenues of open-hearted conversation about religious-philosophical traditions that were completely absent in their home, up to that point. The invitation seemed to feed a hunger within both of them, in other words. So, as her spiritual companion in Christian community, I began to listen and pray for guidance on how to be in support of Spirit’s intention. I became curious about what Buddhist communities were right here in town. I began to do a little research. Lo and behold, I discovered a Buddhist center less than 10 miles from home. Had never known it was there! Essays from the Journal of Buddhist-Christian Studies found their way to my Inbox, so I shared them. I shared what I was receiving, and suggested we visit the Buddhist center. “If you want to know about Buddhism,” I reasoned, “You need other Buddhists to show you what and how Buddhists do what they do. You cannot be Buddhist alone,” I heard myself say. Her husband practiced in such a way as to disagree with that argument, but then her interest in the Center drew him into the Center. His path deepened as their conversations deepened. He became a leading contributing member at the Center, strengthening their community and practice, strengthening his own. He arguably became a better Buddhist, whatever that might mean, because of being around other Buddhists.

So was that a Christian overlay or imposition onto another tradition or does the truth within our truism figure into spiritual practice, regardless of tradition? As I prayed and listened to that question, I began to find all kinds of Buddhist texts on spiritual friendship, “friends on the path,” as the “whole of the spiritual life.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities, Parallax Press, 2002; Subhuti, with Subhamati, Buddhism and Friendship, Windhorse, 2004). It seems within multiple lineages of Buddhist teachings, one cannot be Buddhist on one’s own. It seems to be a Buddhist truism too, though in contrast to many Western practitioners of the teachings.

Therefore, part of the wisdom does seem to be that beginning a spiritual path requires living with “its tradition and practitioners,” to know all that it may entail. Particularly as one is beginning, it is crucial to be around others on that precise, same, traditional-path. To jump back into my own circles, then, one needs other Christians to know what being Christian looks like, how to access traditional resources, how to be held accountable to a tradition’s wisdom and truth. When I was learning what it meant to be faithful, my parents and my congregation were teaching me what it meant to be Christian in a Reformed-Presbyterian fashion, albeit with a bit of Baptist and Brethren nuances in the mix. (My parents’ communities before we became Presbyterian). My friend’s invitation to begin exploring Buddhist traditions-practices required being with other Buddhists. The location also strengthened a long-duration Buddhist: her husband.

But what if you’re on the other end of the path, in your eighties, with decades of lived experience in a particular tradition? I’m thinking of my grandmother who was raised Brethren, became Evangelical-United-Brethren, then became United Methodist. She raised four boys in a local congregational setting, accompanying the choir her husband (my grandfather) directed, and taught in Sunday School. She was a staunch leader in the congregation and lived her Scripturally-inerrant faith to the end. After more than fifty years of marriage, her husband died and her sons with their families lived in locations across the country. She thrived in her retirement community but lived alone. I learned after her death that most evenings, she would spend evenings “alone” but very much in God’s presence. She spoke with God, cooked with God, laughed with God, cried with God. God was her Beloved, though she was ostensibly alone. Clearly, given her decades of church-association, she was still within the circle of Christians. But by that time, she didn’t need other Christians to be Christian, herself. Shaped so long in the discipleship way of Jesus Christ, she could be Christian alone. I find myself asking, therefore: If you’ve steeped in decades of Christian tradition, been shaped by other Christians for most of your life, can one be a Christian living as a hermit in nature? Can you spend most of your time alone, even be asked by Spirit to live a solitary life, in order to be most faithful in your life as a Christian? The Desert Fathers and Mothers would say yes. So would Thomas Merton. Being alone yet not alone at all…when the time of life is ripe so to do.

The middle of the path, at least as I’ve been given to know it, may also mean one cannot be a Christian without other people, people who are not Christian at all. Or even worse, those who are Christian but not in a manner you find legitimate yourself. So how does that work, then? People who are not Christian, who do not practice or believe Christian things that you find essential…they are shaping you into a better Christian? That proposition goes against the grain of most Christian propositions, as we hear them in smaller community-life and global media. We need non-Christians to know our own Christianity?

Two lenses may help flesh this out a bit. The food pantry of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church offers a good glimpse. Sara Miles experienced a radical conversion into Christian discipleship by receiving the sacrament of communion. Such polite talk for how she experienced it, describes it herself. She might say: she ate Jesus, found Jesus inside of her, and became more like him, almost against her will. She was hungry, wanted to be fed, wanted the water of baptism in the end. A year after her conversion, she became baptized, the same weekend she began to gather the poor, the homeless, the hungry to the Table of the food pantry. Her stories tell the age-old collision of Jesus’ people—these outcasts—colliding with the nice congregational membership of a class-conscious artsy community intent upon liturgical reform of the Episcopal Church USA. In various ways, she learned—again and again, as she continues to learn—she needs these other people, those not recognized by her own precious worshipping community, to be Christian. I almost wrote “to be radically Christian,” but really, is there any other kind? You cannot be Christian without other people.

My stories are different, as some of you already know. Finding myself a “bride of Christ,” confronted with learning what in the world that might actually mean, I’ve discovered that I cannot be Christian without being in compassionate companionship with Tibetan Buddhists, Modern Orthodox Jews, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, perhaps now even Muslims and perceived-pagans of contemplative practice. I have been returned again and again to Christ, to see him anew and be shaped in my prayer life anew, only as these others live their tradition’s wisdom, ask me questions of mine. As paradoxical as it may sound, I cannot be Christian without these other people.

So in answer to my queries: I do believe it is impossible to be Christian alone, but with the Spirit, nothing is impossible. For those who love God. Some of us need to be pushed outside of Christian communion, to serve the common good. Others of us resist being outside, to our own detriment, captivated in our own fears. Others of us need Christians to show us the way, deepen our path. Even others of us find ourselves completely alone for a time, only to discover that we’re not remotely alone. All has simply been cleared away for Spirit to get a clean swipe at us, to shape us anew in ways we could never have expected, or hoped.

So with an impish smile, I’ll leave you alone now. Go be a friend of God, go be Christian, in your learning, in your response, in all you do.

Culture Shock 101 at the Table

I have been thinking about ‘culture shock’ lately. Not the real kind, by which I mean the “travel, adjustment, return home” variety that many students experience after a lengthy “study-abroad” experience. Or that a military service-person knows who trains at home, is deployed to Afghanistan and ‘adjusts’ to survive, then returns home again. Both of those are noteworthy, marked with an intensity that does not match my meaning here.

No, the ‘culture shock’ I have been thinking about comes within environments of higher education in which one leaves a ‘home’ environment of some kind, voluntarily enters a different-but-related community committed to learning and critical exploration, then returns back to the home environment in which some kind of sense-making has to occur. During a recent campus lunch with students, I landed in a conversation with several levels of what could only be described as ‘culture shock.’ The remarkable thing—the element that seems worth musing about here—is that it was clearly a shared culture shock.

So here I’m going to share a secret: faculty experience culture-shock with students just as students experience culture-shock with faculty or institutional learning environments. Let me tell you one of my own favorite stories of culture shock. A couple of you will know this already, as I shared it at lunch, but your body-language of surprise and bemusement taught me it might be worth sharing more broadly.

About five years ago, I was teaching an introductory-level course on spiritual disciplines and educational ministries. One element of the course was exploration and commitment to a particular spiritual discipline of choice—either student chosen practice or, strangely-said but recognizable, practice-chosen student. A discipline, in other words, that seemed to make a claim on a student’s learning somehow. Each student was to identify a discipline to which s/he would commit, then weekly, ‘accountability groups’ of that practice would check-in with one another, to reflect on the practice and the learnings.

As faculty, it was my responsibility to sculpt the definition of discipline wide enough to include aspects of classical Christian disciplines most students hadn’t considered as ‘disciplines’ before—hospitality, contemplative practices, generosity, manual labor/work/service, artistic expression, etc.—and narrow enough that purely scriptural-centered disciplines could be chosen as well, such as devotional-reading, praying the psalms, etc. Some of our community require highly structured disciplines within highly literal nuances of the Word; others of our community are urged by Spirit to risk less-structured disciplines with more flexibility, different nuance and dimensions. As faculty, it’s my job to create space for all to learn.

Imagine my surprise when a student from West Virginia announced his spiritual discipline would be hunting. This may not surprise some of you at all. Me? I was horrified. Talk about culture shock. I could not have imagined that any Christian would choose an activity that required taking life in God’s creation. I was also horrified because when I reviewed my hand-written definition of a spiritual discipline there on the dry-erase board, I had not specified: and does not do harm or does not take life. [And remember, for those who may not, my own, more recent Christian tradition is Brethren, peace-church ancestry. Roots still in Nicene confession, but through the River-Brethren faithful…] Ultimately, the student’s request/announcement had to stand. I had established the boundaries and what he said was clearly within them. Culture-shock.

What do I remember of the feeling of this experience? As I’ve said: horror, but one that went both ways. I felt an incredible, negative energy directed outward toward the student who named the practice and inward, toward myself for not articulating more clearly an important distinction I still hold true (i.e. that spiritual discipline is about life-giving commitment to a practice in which Spirit shapes our hearts, minds, souls toward the image of God, the Christ, within each of us). This negative energy could be described as sadness, a bit of anger, disbelief, desire for distance, etc. I also felt guilty. Not only the ‘easy’ kind, meaning: I had crafted a learning environment found wanting, in my own view. But also a complicated kind: I was now participating in a conversation and learning situation that went against my own convictions. I felt in a bind, one I had both chosen and not chosen.

The class took its course over the next three months, with the student committed to his practice and with me listening alongside, feeling a bit helpless and not a little divided. It was uncomfortable, probably for both of us. By the end of the course, however, the student admitted with a smile that his practice was not about the hunting at all. It was the only time he and his son had together all week. It was the only time they could share the quiet beauty of nature and talk about God as father and son, amidst lives overrun with responsibility and challenge. I remember feeling relief, but also a kind of wonder and appreciation of the student and his articulate experience. I knew and felt more of a glimpse into his world, because of this experience and because he had let me see it, know it. For my part, I can say that this was probably one of the most significant events in my own professional development, one which has grown me the most, expanded my heart and mind the most, not to mention my capacity for carrying two contradictory positions in my spirit at the same time. My definition of spiritual discipline now clarifies “must do no harm; must not take life” whenever I make use of this curriculum, but I’m wiser and thankful for the unwelcome ambivalence of culture-shock received. I didn’t change my belief, in other words, but I learned a lot about a lot of things—different norms for communities equally Christian and faithful, my own teaching vocation, role in the classroom, dynamics of Spirit-led teaching (discomfort, sustenance of the discomfort, a-ha moment when a larger frame appears, articulation or interpretation of this larger frame of reference…),different ways of being with another faithful while not sharing worlds, etc.

So what am I trying to say here? I’m not sure all I’m saying, but at least this: one of the most significant challenges for any learning community rooted in an orthodox Christian confessional tradition and committed to Spirit-led renewal is keeping as many voices that want to be at the table at the table. Just like any good family drama, heated disagreements without tempered humility and grace result in blusters of indignation, pushing back from the table and storming away, perchance with slammed doors. Sometimes such distance is necessary to regain perspective, to blow off a little steam. But then lament and grief also become necessary: a voice has left the conversation that requires as many voices as God desires—which is all of them. Had I slammed down the rules in my own conviction, the student would not have articulated the heart of his own practice, nor would I have learned to trust Spirit’s tether in the teaching of us both. The task was one of sustenance and listening, not proclamation and posturing.

The felt-challenges of staying at the table, however, are most usually refused in today’s political-ecclesial climate. Most of us are not trained nor desire to sustain the felt-ambivalence of learning with those whose life or ideas or beliefs or presence contradicts something deeply held within our own. Rarely is the experience of such costly-but-natural-discomfort named either. Rarely are we encouraged to sustain the feeling of discomfort or guilt or risk for participating in something perceivedly against our own dearly held beliefs or against our own home community norms.

But until more of us learn how to carry that weight—yes, that cross—then we’ll just have more and more of what a dying church already has. Until more of us surrender to God’s sovereignty and learn to listen unreservedly and with sustained grace, we’ll continue to ‘feed’ tribalizing factions who profess Christ with their lips but refuse to welcome the least of these as Him to their tables. On the other hand, the better we get at rooting our faith in Nicene confessional tradition, moving in Spirit-led directions, the more culture-shock we will face. The better we get at bearing up under this increasing weight, with grace and humility, the stronger and more worthwhile our conversation will be, the more we’ll know how to share this complicated but expansive Feast with all who hunger.

Yes, food for thought. Blessings upon you and yours, no matter where you live, or what your community’s norms are about hunting. 🙂 I welcome you to the uncomfortable but life-giving learning Spirit brings for all who yearn to be at the Table.