Monday, December 28, 2009

Lights and Stables

This season I've had the opportunity to sit for a few minutes at least a couple of times and just stare at the lights. On the eighth night of Hanukkah we turned out all of the electric lights and watched the candles burn down and our big activity was trying to guess which candle would last the longest. Mostly we just watched the flames flicker. If you are nearsighted and take off your glasses, there is a lovely light blur.

Both on the solstice and on Christmas eve after the service, I plugged in the lights on the Christmas tree and just sat and looked at the tree. I don't have blinking lights, but I do have some shiny ornaments so there is a glow around the tree. Each ornament on the tree has a story, but on these occasions I was mindful of my need for light and peace. When the days are short, we need the light, because it gives us hope.

And one night when I woke in the middle of the night or early morning and looked out the window, there was the light of the moon on new fallen snow—that is the oldest of the lights of the season. There is a glow of moonlight on snow that is unlike any other, except it reminded me of the first line of one of my new (to me) favorite Christmas hymns that uses the text of the poem by Richard Wilbur. Two years ago, my friend Marty who is a midwife was preaching on Herod's killing of the boy children on the Sunday after Christmas and I added a verse 2, and sang it as the offertory anthem, using the setting by David Hurd. I'm going to suggest that that this be included in next year's Christmas Eve service, as I've just found two lovely choral settings of the text, by David Hurd and by Michael Larkin.

A Christmas Hymn ~Richard Wilbur

A stable lamp is lighted whose glow shall wake the sky;

the stars shall bend their voices,

and ev’ry stone shall cry.

And ev’ry stone shall cry,

and straw like gold shall shine;

a barn shall harbor heaven,

a stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city shall ride in triumph by;

the palm shall strew its branches,

and ev’ry stone shall cry.

And ev’ry stone shall cry,

though heavy, dull, and dumb,

and lie within the roadway to pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken and yielded up to die;

the sky shall groan and darken,

and ev’ry stone shall cry.

And ev’ry stone shall cry,

for stony hearts of men:

God’s blood upon the spearhead,

God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,

the low is lifted high;

the stars shall bend their voices,

and ev’ry stone shall cry.

And ev’ry stone shall cry in praises of the child

by whose descent among us the worlds are reconciled.

[for the Sunday after Christmas, insert/add as v. 2 ~my text, not Richard Wilbur's]

In dreams Love sends a warning;

to Egypt they will fly.

The dark shall hide their passage,

and ev’ry stone shall cry.

And ev’ry stone shall cry,

when children die for fear of power lost or broken:

The hope of justice near.

On Christmas eve, I got to read this verse in our service of music and word:

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

That, along with the poem, started me thinking about the words stable (noun) and stable (adjective), and how a stable is not the beautiful, pristine place that artists have depicted over the centuries for the birth of Jesus, but how having stability, being stable, is something that we need and don't find when we airbrush over the realities of the stable, its smell of manure and hay, its dirt and the implications of the poverty that caused it to be used as a nursery for a human baby. This of course does not even consider the cries and groans and blood and mess that go with giving birth. (Listen to Labor of Love for a wonderful musical depiction.)

Being stable means being grounded, standing firm, and enduring over time. I think that our glossing over the dirt is akin to our inflated and often disappointed expectations of the season. This year I was so aware of many friends and people confronting loss and grief and pain and suffering and even death, and how we bump up against the reality of unhappy family dynamics and a world where joy, peace and love just are not always evident, despite our desires and greetings of the season.

Yet in the stable, with the smell of fresh hay, we can also remember the summer day when the hay was cut, the green straw and the flowers that were bound together and dried. My brother raises hay, and the best hay will keep most of that life-giving essence to nourish the animals through the winter. Most gardeners will be delighted to have composted manure because it will promote life and growth. So the stable with its smells of hay and manure can, if we just let it, bring us into touch with our own stability and the cycle of life, light and hope. Like light, what the stable brings is hope.

As I was contemplating this verse again I noticed, of course, that the word stable is not there, but only implied. So, I backtracked and looked up the Greek for this verse.

The Greek word for manger, transliterated as phatne, like its English counterpart, derived from the French and Latin, comes from the root "to eat." The Italian command, "mangia!" (eat!) comes to mind. No wonder the hospitality of the table is so prominent in Jesus' teaching. He absorbed it from a very young age.

The Greek word that we translate as "inn," transliterated as kataluma, is defined as "an inn, lodging place, an eating room or dining room." In the two other places that it appears in the New Testament, it is translated as "guest room," and those refer to the room where Jesus ate his last supper with the disciples.

A little further research suggests that perhaps the manger where Jesus was laid was perhaps not in a barn, like we would envision, but one possibility is that the place where travelers stopped and untied the burdens from their animals (kata means "down from" and luma means "loose or untie") was a cave on the edge of town.

When I traveled to China to adopt my daughter, we drove out into the country and visited a peasant farm, as a way to understand where it was likely that she might have been born. All of the rooms had dirt floors. Next to the kitchen, which is a loose description of the small square room with the clay oven and a brazier for cooking, there was a room where the animals lived, and on this prosperous farm there was an enormous hog. A similar possibility, some archeologists suggest, for the location of the manger where Jesus was placed, was in a situation where the animals were kept on the ground floor of a house, while the family lived on the second floor. If there were many other guests or elder family members in the guest room (kataluma) above, then space was made near where the animals ate and were kept below.

Today, as I think about that manger and stable, however it may have been configured, I pray that we can be stable, standing firm and grounded in the hope and light of the child whose birth and life that Christians celebrate. May the hope and light of the stable bring you to the knowledge of God's stable, steadfast, and enduring love.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bells for Peace and a Silent Center

On the first Sunday of Advent this year, my church choir had the pleasure and privilege of being/singing the prelude for one performance of the Huntington Theater's production of A Civil War Christmas, and then we got to stay for the show.

The show, which closed this weekend, featured music of the period, including a musical setting of the poem by Cambridge, MA poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that he wrote in reaction to the Civil War: Christmas Bells. Nowadays hymnals leave out the verses about the cannons of the Civil War, and I had not heard the whole of the poem in context, so I looked up a collection of Longfellow's poems. The irony of this poem about bells ringing the songs of peace on earth was pointed out in the play, because in the South during the Civil War bells no longer rang out in carols of peace from churches and town halls because the bells had been melted down to become cannon balls.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!
While I had heard the tune that they used, it was less familiar to me and somehow more haunting than the one I first learned, and it has stayed with me these past few weeks. I found versions by Harry Belafonte and Sarah MacLachlan that I liked, although neither of these captured quite the pure despair and simplicity and hope, that I had heard in the play.

Unlike Longfellow, the bells that I've been hearing lately have mostly been ringers in front of a Salvation Army kettle, not so loud and deep, but jangling, not singing of peace, but of need.

So, peace on earth has been in my thoughts in recent weeks and the ironies continue. The President of the United States announced that he was escalating the war in Afghanistan on December 1—I listened to the last of his speech on my way home from a service that I participated in for World AIDS Day. Hm, what if we took the money we're using for war and devoted it to medicine for the millions dying of AIDS? Did you know that AIDS is one of the leading causes of death for women worldwide? (Interesting side note: both Belafonte and McLachlan use some of their artistic work toward the health of women and children in Africa, including fighting against AIDS.)

Then the irony was heightened as President Obama went to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace prize. He noted in his speech, "But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars." You think?

I didn't hear him live and I had to search hard to find the text of his speech to read it because on Thursday I was busy helping a loved one check into the hospital because she suffers from a disease that may in fact be a perfect example of the mockery of peace on earth. Crohn's is an autoimmune disease, which means the immune system goes haywire and attacks the body or doesn't protect the body correctly when something else attacks the body, or sometimes both, at once. The increase in such diseases is attributed partially to the increasing amount of environmental toxins we create and spread and ingest, and her flare-ups, though this was a more extreme one, are almost always related to periods of high stress.

She is Jewish and we virtually lit the first candles of Hanukkah while she has been in the hospital (virtually meaning no flame—too many people on oxygen). So then my thinking of peace took a personal and a Jewish turn. The Hebrew word, shalom, while usually translated as peace in English, really has a broader meaning, more like holy wholeness. Hospitals, in contrast, really are about sickness, not about health or wholeness. Hospitals are about care, often and maybe usually intrusively and noisily provided, not about rest or quiet. Saturday, after my third day of just visiting her in the hospital, I was so jangled I came home absent my own quiet center, my own piece of peace on earth.

And in despair, I bowed my head: 'There is no peace on earth,' I said.

On Sunday morning as we began choir rehearsal our choir director began with a prayer as he always does, but today after he said, "let us pray," he paused. He held that pause until it became pure silence, and in that moment before spoken prayer, not measurable in time by clocks, but only by the sense of the Spirit moving among us. As I sat surrounded by friends and people of faith and preparing to sing and to worship, I was both surrounded by and filled with peace.

God is not dead, nor does God sleep.

May we each find our way, through prayer, through music or poetry, or through your own path, into peace and wholeness and centeredness, especially in this season where the bells are not always singing the songs of peace on earth.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Wait List-It's Advent

So, it's Advent.

It's waiting time.

I've been re-reading some wonderful writings on the spiritual value of waiting, for example, see A Spirituality of Waiting by Henri Nouwen, also found as "Waiting for God" in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.

I often describe myself as a patient person, but Nouwen really has me pegged this year—I'm tired of waiting: I want to be doing something. In particular, I want to be doing that which I spent the last five years in seminary preparing to do: I want to be a pastor. I want a church to call me to their pulpit.

Now, I'm not unemployed, for which I give thanks, and the work I do is important to the stability of the agency where I work, and we do good work on the behalf of elders in the community. But I don't know whether I am so unlike Zechariah and Elizabeth in some ways (Luke chapter 1): I've been doing good, but this isn't all that I want to be doing.

Perhaps you too are also waiting for something: for a job, for the economy to improve, for peace in the world, for love, for a child, for some project to come to fruition, for health care reform, for a cure, or even for Christmas.

As I often do I looked to music and the poets whose lyrics are set to music to hear what they have to say and I assembled this song list—a wait list. (Most of these are available on iTunes: see this iMix, except as noted.) The music led me on…

Wait list: It's Advent



When One Door Closes

Carrie Newcomer

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Sufjan Stevens (worth getting the physical box set for the graphics)

Holy Spirit Come To Us


Come On Come On

Mary Chapin Carpenter

Sitting, Waiting, Wishing

Jack Johnson

Waitin' For A Superman

Iron & Wine

Waitin' On A Sunny Day

Bruce Springsteen

I'm Waiting for Jesus

Thomas A. Dorsey

Wait for the Light to Shine

Nashville Gospel Singers

Wait for the Lord


God of Still Waiting

Composer: Alfred Fedak, Text: Carl Daw (I have a personal recording and couldn't find a public one available, but this is a lovely piece of music)

For God, My Soul Waits in Silence

Marty Haugen

Love Is Waiting

Brooke Fraser

Wait and See

Brandon Heath

If Not Now

Carrie Newcomer On new CD forthcoming, but demo available now

O Come, O Come Emmanuel


I noticed that several of those songs were inspired by Psalm texts, so, in hopes of a word from God, I looked to one of the grumbling Psalms.

Psalm 27

Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

That's right! Let's just call God to account!

Oh, but what's this in the next verse?

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Wait for the Lord… Isn't that what I'm having trouble doing??

Okay, maybe the prophets can help us have a little foresight about this time of waiting. Isaiah is very popular during Advent, after all. And prophets often get right in God's face about the issues that are on their minds.

Isaiah 40.26-31

Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? God who brings out the host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because God is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.

God does not faint or grow weary; God's understanding is unsearchable. The Lord gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Well, that's something at least: "those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength," but how does that happen? I'm glad that God is not weary, but I am.

My favorite passage in Romans chapter 5 then came to mind, as I memorized it in the King James version:

… we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope makes not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.

Okay, but enough of the tribulation, patience, and experience, already. I need a little more help to get to hope. I pushed a little further ahead in Romans to chapter 8.

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

I don't have so much patience anymore, and I don't even know what or how to ask at this point. But the next verse covers that.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs and groans too deep for words.

Okay, I don't know about you, but I can do sighs and groans. Perhaps gasps and shrieks as well—don't you think that's what happened when the angel approached Zechariah, or Mary?

In "Waiting for God," Nouwen writes,

Waiting, then, is not passive. It involves nurturing the moment, as a mother nurtures the child that is growing in her. Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary were very present to the moment. That is why they could hear the angel. They were alert, attentive to the voice that spoke to them and said, "Don't be afraid. Something is happening to you. Pay attention."

But there is more. Waiting is open-ended. Open-ended waiting is hard for us because we tend to wait for something very concrete, for something that we wish to have. Much of our waiting is filled with wishes: "I wish that I would have a job. I wish that the weather would be better. I wish that the pain would go." …

But Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary were not filled with wishes. They were filled with hope. Hope is something very different. Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes. Therefore, hope is always open-ended.

I have found it very important in my own life to let go of my wishes and start hoping. It was only when I was willing to go of wishes that something really new, something beyond my own expectations could happen to me.

Is it that I have been wishing and not waiting? Yet I didn't include "When you wish upon a star" on my wait list of songs—insightful of me, don't you think?

Once again, I am reminded to turn it over to God, that I have been called by God, that hope is the journey I am on.

And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God's purpose. (Romans 8: 27-28)

May all of us be able to wait with this hope in this season.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Epitaph: Rich or Real?

I ran across a short article the other day contrasting Joel Osteen's book It's Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God's Favor
with Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. This past Sunday afternoon I decided to peruse their offerings: each of them offer an introductory chapter on the web and each has video presentations available on iTunes. At the end of the afternoon I have to tell you, it was as if I had been living in parallel alternative universes as I read or listened to first Osteen, then Ehrenreich. Certainly you would not think that they both lived in the same country at the same time.

In my own years away from God and from the church, one of the things I did was to participate in the personal development movement as a training consultant and distributor for the Phoenix Seminar on the Psychology of Achievement by Brian Tracy. Brian Tracy was a powerful advocate for The Law of Attraction, which Ehrenreich dismisses as pseudoscience. But based on my own experience I can say that Osteen, Tracy and Ehrenreich all give us some of the truth and also ignore some truth. The Law of Attraction works: you do attract into your life the kind of people and results that you think about or focus on. The year I focused exclusively on monetary success while using the Phoenix Seminar in my business, I earned a quarter of a million dollars. The Law of Attraction, however, is not all powerful. After that year of working seventy to eighty hour weeks away from home, I decided that having no friends, a bad relationship, no outside interests and ever larger dust bunnies at home wasn't worth that kind of focus on monetary success, and, consequently, I have not earned that much money in a given year since. But the next year was also a year that the economy was tanking in New England, and people weren't hiring training consultants any more. Which was cause and which was effect?

The Law of Attraction did not actually control the recession then or now. That is the truth that Osteen and Tracy ignore. Osteen's new book apparently counsels "patience," but his essential message that God wants you to have material wealth has not dimmed.

Ehrenreich takes on Osteen as a target in her book, because she talked to people who were gulled in the subprime mortgage fiasco, and are ashamed to say so, because it not only means that they were foolish, but that they don't believe enough in the way that Osteen tells people that they must believe. Ehrenreich is quick to say she's not a sourpuss, and is not a pessimist, but she wants people to be realistic and understand that magical thinking is not the answer. Ignoring reality is what got us into the current economic mess and Ehrenreich is convinced (and convincing) that magical thinking will not get us out.

There’s a difference between being willing to take on really difficult things and being overly optimistic. I’ve taken on many things that turned out to be extremely difficult. I didn’t take them on feeling, 'Oh, I’m going to ace this.' I took them on thinking I was just going to do my damnedest, whether it was some sort of outdoor adventure or an intellectual task. That’s a very different spirit. It’s not, 'I’m going to win because I know I’m going to win because I’m wonderful and God loves me so much.' It’s thinking 'This is so important, I’m going to die trying.'

Now in my internet wanderings in the same afternoon I also came across Open University Courses at Yale University and Dr. Christine Hayes has this to say in her introductory lecture about the Hebrew Bible:

The Bible abounds with human not superhuman beings, and their behavior can be scandalous. It can be violent, it can be rebellious, outrageous, lewd, vicious. But at the same time like real people, they can turn around and act in a way that is loyal and true above and beyond the call of duty. They can change, they can grow. But it's interesting to me that there are many people who, when they open the Bible for the first time, they close it in shock and disgust. Jacob is a deceiver; Joseph is an arrogant, spoiled brat; Judah reneges on his obligations to his daughter-in-law and goes off and sleeps with a prostitute.

The subject matter in the Bible is very adult, particularly in the narrative texts. There are episodes of treachery and incest and murder and rape. And the Bible is not for naïve optimists. It's hard-hitting stuff. And it speaks to those who are courageous enough to acknowledge that life is rife with pain and conflict, just as it's filled with compassion and joy.

In contrast Osteen starts his sermon with this creed:

(from ITunes Podcast Joel Osteen #442: Silencing the Voice of the Accuser)

Hold up your Bible, say it like you mean it: This is my Bible, I am what it says I am, I have what it says I have, I can do what it says I can do. Today I will be taught the word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart is receptive, I will never be the same. In Jesus' name.

Hm, well … In fact, I would imagine that in the audience of 38,000 people listening to Osteen, that if the Bible says that someone is treacherous, a rapist, or a thief, that Osteen is correct in having people say "I am what the Bible says I am." Odds are that someone is treacherous, etc. Yet I suspect that he never identifies any of his audience in those texts, if he ever preaches on the texts about how we are enmeshed in conflict, pain and deceit.

I think that, oddly enough, it is Ehrenreich, who is not a preacher, who may be pointing us to something similar to Jesus' Third Way: thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, meaning that we have an obligation not to expect the kingdom just to appear, but to make God's kingdom real here on this earth—and to make something real requires being realistic. Of course, I would love to wave a magic wand and make it happen, but I'm quite sure that there are no magic wands giving us our every desire in the Bible and in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom."

The real question is what motivates us to do the work of the kingdom, and what do we learn or understand the work of the kingdom to be? Does Jesus ask us to be rich? I don't find that text in the Bible. Rather Jesus asks us to care for the hungry, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, those in prison.

One of the techniques used in personal development seminars is to have you write your own obituary or epitaph. What would you like people to remember about you and your life?

Also in my wanderings this week, I came across this musical answer to that question by Country Music Award winner Martina McBride (check out Amazon's offer to get a free mp3 download by CMA winners—this was my choice).

In my daughter's eyes, as sung by Martina McBride

(composed by James Slater)

In my daughter's eyes I am a hero
I am strong and wise and I know no fear
But the truth is plain to see
She was sent to rescue me
I see who I wanna be
In my daughter's eyes

In my daughter's eyes everyone is equal
Darkness turns to light and the
world is at peace
This miracle God gave to me gives me
strength when I am weak
I find reason to believe
In my daughter's eyes

And when she wraps her hand
around my finger
Oh it puts a smile in my heart
Everything becomes a little clearer
I realize what life is all about

It's hangin' on when your heart
has had enough
It's giving more when you feel like giving up
I've seen the light
It's in my daughter's eyes

In my daughter's eyes I can see the future
A reflection of who I am and what will be
Though she'll grow and someday leave
Maybe raise a family
When I'm gone I hope you see how happy
she made me
For I'll be there
In my daughter's eyes

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us

I have often found that music opens the way for the Spirit to speak to me, and that artists' conceptions of the scriptures—poetic, musical and visual—bring me to deeper understanding. Last year I created a very successful workshop on Psalm 23 combining various Psalm translations and poetry, musical compositions and interpretations, and visual images: Listening Anew to Psalm 23. Since I was doing it with a group of people whose average age was close to 90, all of whom could recite Psalm 23 (KJV) by heart, it was impressive how this led us all into a richer appreciation and ownership of this Psalm of comfort. We learned some of the original Hebrew, and shared some memories and our own artistic interpretations of the Psalm.

This success made me think that perhaps I could do this with some other central scripture passages for Christians, and have a series that I could take on the road to local churches, for Lenten reflections or for a study series.

So I've been trying to find a similar way into the Lord's Prayer, the Pater Noster, the prayer that Jesus taught us.

My first hurdle, as someone who has a strong commitment to inclusion and welcome, is the traditional translation that starts with "Our Father" as the way to refer to God. Because learning and singing the Hebrew text had opened up Psalm 23 for me, I decided that perhaps the original language of this prayer might be a place to start. While I had heard some people translate "Our Father" as Abba, which is more like Daddy than a formal Father, that still wasn't so helpful in the inclusion part.

Then I happened upon a CD by the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE) called Ancient Echoes: Music from the time of Jesus and Jerusalem's Second Temple. On the CD there is a setting of the Aramaic Lord's Prayer: Abwoon. In the CD liner notes was this helpful note about translating the Lord's Prayer from Aramaic to English:

All the Semitic languages—including Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic—use a root system that allows one word to hold multiple meanings. Thus, a tradition of translation arose in the Middle East that led to each word of a prophet being considered on many different levels of meaning.

So, in keeping with that tradition, I began to think that I needed to look for translations that captured the layers of meaning in the prayer.

Those liner notes also reference the work of Neil Douglas-Klotz and gave his transliteration and translation from the Aramaic and his website, where you can hear the Aramaic spoken.

Abwoon d'bwashmaya

O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos/ you create all that moves in light.

Nethqadash shmakh

Focus your light within us--make it useful: as the rays of a beacon show the way.

Teytey malkuthakh

Create your reign of unity now--through our fiery hearts and willing hands.

Nehwey sebyanach aykanna d'bwashmaya aph b'arha.

Your one desire then acts with ours, as in all light, so in all forms.

Habwlan lachma d'sunqanan yaomana.

Grant what we need each day in bread and insight: subsistence for the call of growing life.

Washboqlan khaubayn (wakhtahayn) aykana daph khnan shbwoqan l'khayyabayn.

Loose the cords of mistakes binding us, as we release the strands we hold of others' guilt.

Wela tahlan l'nesyuna

Don't let us enter forgetfulness

Ela patzan min bisha.

But free us from unripeness

Metol dilakhie malkutha wahayla wateshbukhta l'ahlam almin.

From you is born all ruling will, the power and the life to do, the song that beautifies all, from age to age it renews.


Truly--power to these statements--may they be the source from which all my actions grow. Sealed in trust & faith. Amen.

That reminded me of an alternate translation of the Lord's Prayer from A New Zealand Prayer Book (Harper Collins, 1997) that we used one season in church that captures different layers of meaning, and I found it again:

The Lord's Prayer
Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth!

With the bread we need for today,
feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another,
forgive us.
In times of temptation and test,
strengthen us.
From trial too great to endure,
spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil,
free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever. Amen.

Part of my hope is that people will really listen to these words if presented in different ways, and understand the layers of meaning in words that may have become rote, and be moved to apply them in their lives.

Now, I have found several interesting settings of Abwoon/Abwoun besides the one by the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble

Catherine Braslavsky on 99 Perfectly Relaxing Songs

Lisa Gerrard on The Silver Tree

Indiajiva on Sacred Ragas

But, otherwise most of the settings I've found use very traditional translations of the text. For example:

Pater Noster - Settings of the Lord's Prayer by The Choir of the Abbey School

The Lord's Prayer (Deliver Us) by Selah

Lord's Prayer by Second Chance

The Lord's Prayer, composed Albert Hay Malotte, sung by nearly every pop, country and classical singer (pick your vocalist and look...)

Do you know of any other translations with good musical settings?

Folk singer Susan Werner does offer a different interpretation or perhaps a commentary in Our Father (The New, Revised Edition), but I think I either need to keep looking or start composing so that we can have music that that uses these texts with deeper layers to bring us into this prayer. I'd welcome your suggestions.

If you are interested in a Lenten series (now that's planning ahead isn't it?) on Owning/Knowing the Scriptures through the Arts that as of now would include at least 3 sessions (evenings/hours) on Psalm 23, the Lord's Prayer and the Beatitudes, let me know. [Leave me a comment with some way of being in touch with you.]

In the meantime, as I continue to study this prayer that might more aptly be called the prayer for the followers or disciples of Jesus, I found this web resource on the Disciple's Prayer, that I recommend to you. And I offer this hope for today based on the translation, coined by theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz: May God's kin-dom come on earth as in heaven.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Considering All Saints Day

I'm not going to church this morning. I guess I'm boycotting All Saints Day. Growing up as a Baptist, I certainly didn't mark the day—it was a discovery of later years that Hallow-e'en was the eve of something called All Saints Day. The Baptist church that I attend now is a lot more ecumenical than the one I attended as a child, and today includes a celebration of All Saints' Day, perhaps a piece of high church that we've adopted, but frankly it is not one that makes sense to me, either liturgically, theologically, psychologically or historically. It will include lighting candles and naming the names of the dead, whom people name as saints. The wide variety of saints may include Martin Luther King Jr., Julian of Norwich, Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, St. Francis and someone's grandmother or brother. But that seems a mish-mash and today as I stay home, I'm attempting to figure out why it bothers me.

I understand the need to grieve and I do note those anniversaries, birthdays and death dates, of those I still grieve, and it's true that Protestant church ritual, unlike Jewish ritual, does not have a regular place for it. So perhaps this is intended to fill that need for some. Jews say the Mourner's Kaddish as a part of every Friday evening service, and mark the
Yahrzeit (anniversaries) of those who died. Interestingly, the Mourner's Kaddish does not speak of the dead or of death, but of God and of life.
Although Kaddish contains no reference to death, it has become the prayer for mourners to say. One explanation is that it is an expression of acceptance of Divine judgment and righteousness at a time when a person may easily become bitter and reject God. Another explanation is that by sanctifying God's name in public, the mourners increase the merit of the deceased person. Kaddish is a way in which children can continue to show respect and concern for their parents even after they have died.

The opening words,
yitgadal t'yitkadash, were inspired by Ezekiel 38:23 when the prophet envisions a time when God will become great in the eyes of all the nations. The response of the listeners to the first lines of the mourners is a public declaration of the belief that God is great and holy: Yehei Shmei rabba mevorakh l'olam ul'almei almaya (May His great Name be blessed forever and ever). This response is central to the Kaddish and should be said out loud.
I understand the need for rituals around mourning—Jewish rabbinical tradition really has provided much for us to consider in this regard, yet I think that their weekly prayer as a community with all those who mourn for the dead is not the same as remembering the dead—it's being with those who are alive and grieving. That is what makes Kaddish useful and powerful, and is perhaps the kind of ritual and liturgy we might adapt in Protestant churches. The Beatitudes come to mind, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted…"

Having grown up in the American Southwest, I was somewhat aware of the Mexican celebration on this day:
El Día de los Muertos, but since it seemed a part of the prevalent Mexican Catholicism I didn't realize until later its much older roots in the history of the Aztec peoples of Mexico.
More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate. A ritual known today as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. …

Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

"The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic," said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. "They didn't separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures."
This seems similar in expression to the healthy psychology around mourning of the Jewish tradition—death is with us, and we need to celebrate life and the holy.

In the Roman Catholic tradition
All Saints Day began as a commemoration of those who died as martyrs.
It is instituted to honour all the saints, known and unknown, and, according to Urban IV, to supply any deficiencies in the faithful's celebration of saints' feasts during the year.

In the early days the Christians were accustomed to solemnize the anniversary of a martyr's death for Christ at the place of martyrdom. In the fourth century, neighbouring dioceses began to interchange feasts, to transfer relics, to divide them, and to join in a common feast; as is shown by the invitation of St. Basil of Caesarea (397) to the bishops of the province of Pontus. Frequently groups of martyrs suffered on the same day, which naturally led to a joint commemoration.

In the persecution of Diocletian the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each. But the Church, feeling that every martyr should be venerated, appointed a common day for all. The first trace of this we find in Antioch on the Sunday after Pentecost. We also find mention of a common day in a sermon of St. Ephrem the Syrian (373), and in the 74th homily of St. John Chrysostom (407). At first only martyrs and St. John the Baptist were honoured by a special day. Other saints were added gradually, and increased in number when a regular process of canonization was established; still, as early as 411 there is in the Chaldean Calendar a "
Commemoratio Confessorum" for the Friday after Easter.
Remembering people who were martyred for the faith seems different to me than just remembering the dead or those who are "saints." Canonization of saints is yet another thing I don't quite get theologically as a Baptist; saints in the hierarchy of communication with God not being part of the premise of the priesthood of all believers that is a central Baptist tenet. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Protestant Reformation started on the eve of All Saints Day because the veneration of the saints was one of the things that had gotten entirely out of hand in medieval Catholic Europe.

Among the Reformed Protestant church traditions (Lutherans, Presbyterians and other Calvinists)
Reformation Day is marked on October 31 as the anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517.
The fact that Reformation Day coincides with Halloween may not be mere coincidence. Halloween, being the Eve of All Saints' Day might have been an entirely appropriate day for Luther to post his 95 Theses against indulgences since the castle church would be open on All Saints' Day specifically for people to view a large collection of relics. The viewing of these relics was said to promise a reduction in time in purgatory similar to that of the purchase of an indulgence. Dr. Luther may have been shrewd in his choice of that day to post his theses.
It thus seems somewhat curious to continue celebrating All Saints Day in the Reformed tradition…perhaps my Lutheran and Presbyterian friends can help me out on the theological basis of this? Certainly Calvin did not believe in the veneration of the saints, and lies in an unmarked grave so that his relics could not be so celebrated.

Christians who are less closely tied to the Reformed traditions think of saints and the Reformation differently. This excerpt from an online
"American Christian" history lesson remembers the Reformation and defines saints.
In October folks with widely differing points of view celebrate widely differing events. Some celebrate Hallowe'en/All Saints Day with its emphasis on goblins, witches, and other such beings. Those who celebrate the Reformation honor saints as defined by Scripture: "...the saints and faithful in Christ which are at Colossi..." (Colossians 1:2) One of those saints/Christians was Professor Martin Luther. What did he have to do with us that we celebrate October 31st as "Reformation Day"?

One hundred years after God used Wycliff to awaken men to the realization that the Word of God should be the foundation for men's lives rather than the proclamations of the Church of Rome, another man, this time a German priest, Martin Luther, arose to refute the heresy that men's salvation came through the church and "good works" rather than "by grace through faith and that not of ourselves." Luther, too, translated the Word of God into the language of the people.
While this is simplistic, it may be deeper knowledge than most American Christians have about this part of our history. For the Christians who take only the Bible as the focal point of Christianity, and I hesitate to call them Protestants because they are fairly well removed from the historical knowledge or thread of the Protestant Reformation, the point of the Reformation was that people gained access to reading the scriptures themselves. Saints are "the faithful in Christ."

I have to confess that my own childhood understanding of saints would perhaps fall in this vein. "Saints" was not a singular proper/capitalized noun; we were collectively lower-case saints or sinners. "She's a saint," might be an exclamation about someone who did something very kind, but not often, because we understood that human foibles precluded that title for most of us. Thankfully, outside of fire and brimstone sermons, sinner was equally infrequently used in everyday language.

When I looked up Baptists and saints, I found this: Among the
primary distinctives of the Southern Baptist denomination is this view of saints:
Perseverance of the Saints - Baptists do not believe that true believers will fall away and, thereby, lose their salvation. This is sometimes called, "Once saved, always saved." The proper term, however, is the final perseverance of the saints. It means that real Christians stick with it. It doesn't mean the believer won't stumble, but refers to an inward pull that will not allow him to quit the faith.
Well, I am a Baptist, if not a Southern Baptist, but am not quite so creedal. If I persevere, it is God's grace that sustains me, not some amorphous "inward pull." But perhaps all saints day for me is really just not a useful, separate, annual celebration. If I am a saint, although I would never call myself that, but I mean that since I am a faithful believer in the teachings of Jesus Christ, I need to recognize and celebrate that every day, not once a year. Since in our lives as a community we need to be with those who mourn, then let us do that more often and more intentionally in our community rituals and gatherings. Since we need to remember our history and our stories, let us make time to remember those people whose lives have contributed to ours. Each of these are important enough that we should not mush them together on this one day of the year and otherwise forget that we are faithful believers, that those who mourn are always with us, and that people's lives and stories are important to us all of the year.

That also means of course that we wouldn't have to save this great song for one day a year either! (text by Lesbia Scott, adapted, from the
New Century Hymnal #295)
I sing a song of the saints of God,
Faithful their whole lives through,
Who bravely labored, lived, and died
For the God they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And another a shepherd in pastures green;
They were saints of God, if you know what I mean,
God, help me to be one too.

They loved their God and they lived that love.
It was loving that made them strong.
They did what was right, for Jesus' sake,
Lived justly their whole lives long.
And one was a prophet, and one was a priest,
And another was slain by a fierce wild beast;
There's no earthly reason, none in the least,
Why I shouldn't be one, too.

They lived not only in ages past;
There are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is filled with living saints
Who choose to do God's will.
You can meet them in school, on the road, at sea,
In church, in a train, in a shop, or at tea;
For the saints are folk like you and like me,
And I mean to be one, too.
Blessings on us all, non-saints and saints alike.