Thursday, September 1, 2011

Culture Wars: Prayers and Public School

I work at a church in Hernando, MS as a music director, and the local high school is a few blocks down the road from our church. Many of the youth in our church attend that high school and adjacent middle school, and there is one thing on their mind right now: the freedom to pray publicly in our public schools. In the middle of August, the Wisconsin-based freethinking organization Freedom From Religion Foundation received an anonymous complaint from a DeSoto County School family regarding the district's tradition of letting a student lead a (presumably) Christian prayer before each sporting event. FFRF wrote to the district's superintendent asking that the district ban these prayers per several rulings from the US Supreme Court, and now, many DeSoto-based families are raising Cain on the issue. Grassroots efforts are attempting a flash-Lord's Prayer, if you will, following the national anthem at the schools' football games, and another local effort entitled Take a Knee will meet at the DeSoto Courthouse to protest this rule. Even churches from beyond our region, such as First Baptist Dallas, are weighing in on the issue.
Of course, this is not what I would call a "debate" as the commentator names it, nor do I think that this is fair, unbiased reporting. I've heard from several people the argument that the Constitution does not guarantee freedom from religion, and therefore rulings like the one that affects DeSoto County Schools are unconstitutional. I don't know if I agree with a statement like that. Hear these words from Thomas Jefferson, written in The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.
"That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or good, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief: but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise dimish, enlarge, or effect their civil capacities."
Religion is a highly personal and touchy subject, and the public school is a place funded by your local, state, and federal tax dollars where people of all creeds come for an education. Without making an official written or verbal statement, those funds can quietly sanction an official religion in your school if only one faith's prayers are invoked; that would violate your First Amendment rights by establishing or promoting one religion. And honestly, do you want your government financing your faith? I don't. Render unto Congress what is Congress', and stay out of my church.

That said, the democratic experiment works - in theory - because the voice of the people decides the law of the land. Therefore, if the majority of people in your constituency are Christian, should not therefore your public school, funded by your predominantly Christian populace, allow Christian prayer? Therein lies the blessing and curse of democracy. The majority speaks and makes policy; the minority must go along for the ride. Who protects the atheist minority's right to not practice religion? You can't tell the atheist student to pack up and go to another school; most private schools are parochial. But can a small minority tell the majority what to do? Perhaps we can find some kind of middle ground. Since a public school is a secular, multi-faith environment, should not a Jewish student, a Muslim teacher, and an atheist member of administration all be allowed, at one point or another, to offer some kind of invocation?

On a side note, I am a choral director, and much of the music available for me to perform is sacred, even Christian. If I worked in a public high school, would I have the freedom in the name of academic growth to program a Bach cantata on my program? On the one hand, such a work would expose my students to the music of a watershed composer who played a vital role in the development of the Western musical tradition; on the other hand, such a piece would be unmistakably Christian - Lutheran, at that - and could offend non-Christians. In the classroom, where do you draw the line?

The people behind the Take a Knee campaign are citing II Corinthians 7:14 for their work: "if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land." I never liked the use of this verse to rally a secular nation. Use this verse to rally the Church, where the people in that institution are ostensibly God's chosen people. Above all, rally in love. To call the chairwoman of FFRF a "skank from Wisconsin" is not written in love or humility (that comment was left on one of the previously linked news stories). Your students are not bound for hell or a purpose-less adulthood for attending a school where public, open prayer is banned, and your students are not forbidden from forming their own prayer groups. They cannot, by rule of this land, subject everybody to Christian prayer under the banner of DeSoto County Schools. And let us be honest: if the inability to pray over a school loudspeaker angers you more than your county's homelessness or unemployment rates, then I would suggest that your priorities are in the wrong place. Humble yourselves indeed.

Finally, our schools should not be such a treasured place of worship that to lose the non-existent right to public prayer would cause such an uproar. The church is to be our base of praise. Our own homes are to be our places of prayer. When we Christians pray in a public place like a school, a courthouse, or a house of the governing body (and we will), let us pray discreetly in these places. Our Father in heaven can do without the pomp and circumstance; He wants our humble hearts.

O God, may we not be a loud, proud, or arrogant people; may we be a people that prodigiously shares loves and relentlessly seeks justice in the name of Jesus.

Until next time,

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fear mongering in the Church

Are We Witnessing America's Last Days? from First Dallas on Vimeo.

Watch this video before you read any further. It is a trailer for a sermon series to be held at First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX. Matthew Paul Turner of Jesus Needs New PR wrote a lengthy article on this video, so I will make my thoughts brief.

It is no coincidence that Dr. Robert Jeffress will begin this series on the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorists attacks; First Dallas uses every trick in the cinematic book - from brooding music to patriotic symbols - to stir up a paranoid faithrioticism (Mr. Turner's word). This video makes you feel fear and paranoia, all in the name of Jesus. Or America. Or First Dallas. I can't decide which one.

Since when should the Christian pledge such a strong allegiance to the United States of America? While I am no anarchist, I cannot support such close ties between Church and State. I can't see any example of Christ instructing His disciples to so closely ally themselves with political authority and sovereignty. Render to Congress what is Congress's, and walk the discipleship road to the Kingdom of God. A sermon series such as this one makes me wonder if this church loves America more than they love Jesus.

Furthermore, I didn't realize that churches send out advance copies of the sermon to receive reviews, as if it were a Hollywood movie. Neither Jesus Christ nor her disciples need the endorsement of Gov. Huckabee or the Dean of the Moody Bible Church. The Word of God is. God is the great I AM. You do not need to sell your product to me. If you have to win the praise man to make disciples, than you do not know the glorious joy of Jesus Christ. If you have to make your product look beautiful, then you do not offer the true Jesus.

And beginning a sermon series entitled Twilight's Last Gleaming on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 is sick. It's shrewd marketing. It manipulates our emotions and fuels our fears. I pray that this church would repent of its fear mongering, and I hope that Dr. Jeffress would bring a message of hope and love instead.

Until next time,

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Back to School!

We're here! We've made it though a hot summer, and students have returned for the 163rd session of Rhodes College. Classes begin today at Rhodes College, and I couldn't be more excited. I'm teaching one class this semester, Music: A Sound Experience, and I'm eager to apply the lessons I learned when I taught the course in the spring. I have a clearer understanding of what does work and what does not work for my students.

I love to teach; it's one of my most heart-felt passions in life. My job requires me to do so much more than impart a series of facts that will paint a chronological narrative of Western Classical Music. I seek to invigorate minds and to encourage my students to ask, "Why are we studying classical music? What purpose has it served civilization in the past? What is its purpose now?" I want my students to understand that music does not exist in a vacuum; music has been and will always be a product of people - the people who write it, perform it, produce it, and consume it. By the end of this semester, my students will hopefully be able to distinguish a Beethoven symphony from a Stravinsky ballet, but more importantly, they will know why we have placed music and certain so-called "masterworks" on the pedestals of immortality.

I love music. There has been one constant in my life, and that is music. Even before I knew Jesus, I knew music. Music allows me to express my story, my thoughts, my fears, my joys. When I hear music that I love, I want all my friends to hear it; music, therefore, builds community. We build community when we sing in choirs and play in bands. We build community when the symphony shares their final product to an audience. Music is not a luxury for the rich or a commodity to be bought and sold; music is vital to life. If you believe that music is but an elective for your life, then I challenge you to suffer an entire day without hearing music on the radio, on the TV, on your computer, on your iPod, and even in your head.

I love people, and I especially love college students. People aged 18-23 have a curious energy to them; their questions are more urgent and sincere than most people. There is an openness to learn things that adults don't have and children don't quite appreciate (although we all can learn a lesson on learning from children). Whereas the child blithely, persistently asks "why?" or "what is that," the college student asks these questions with more purpose and intent. These young minds are eager to grow and to become their best. You don't succeed in college unless you want to learn and grow, and I am blessed to teach at a college full of those students.

I love Rhodes College. I do. It's my alma mater, and it's my home. I love my students and my colleagues on faculty. I love the architecture that surrounds me when I walk through the Quad. My heart skips a beat when I hear the rumblings of the giant bell in Halliburton Tower swing on its axis, and then a deep, brassy tone peels across campus and into Midtown. I spent four years as a student at Rhodes. Now I'm beginning my second year as a teacher at this institution.

It's a scandal to have life so good.

Off to school! Wish us all luck and Providence.

Until next time,

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Thoughts on 26

There are a pile of dirty dishes and glasses looming high in my kitchen sink, and since we do not own a dishwasher, somebody's hands will be lucky enough to wash all of them clean. I figure that 1:00 AM is not the time to clean the kitchen, and the dirty dishes are going nowhere. The men of The Johnson Estate hosted a birthday gathering for my 26th birthday today, and those dirty dishes are a reminder of the Mexican food we ate, the margaritas we drank, and the silly games we played late into the night. Tonight was a night full of laughter and close friends; that's how it should be. Tomorrow, those dishes will be a reminder to me that I share a home with four wonderful men, and it is my honor and pleasure to serve them, to love them, to do life with them.

I am surprised at what a significant age twenty-six appears to be; I am now on the second half of my twenties. My thirties are not too far away from me, and today's opening convocation at Rhodes College reminded me that I am (thankfully) no more a teenager. This is the first time in seven years that I am living at the same address and in the same room for more than two years, and I am working the same jobs this year that I was last year. I gifted myself two birthday presents: a new MacBook Pro and the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (I am ashamed to say that I was genuinely excited to purchase this book). I've even gone through an entire package of dental floss, and upon finishing the first, I promptly opened a second one. In a word, I am growing up, and a number of anxieties accompany that reality.

Every so often, I think to myself, "Am I watching the best years of my life float away?" After all, I am 26 and I have never been in a serious dating relationship, while many of my college friends are married with kids. I have not spent a significant time of my life living in another country, but many of my friends have, either through mission work, employment, or school. I don't have a full time job and I still rent a home, while many of my friends are already home owners. Sometimes, I think that I have yet to grow up because I see my buddies living such mature lifestyles; I often wonder if I'm living a glorified, collegiate bachelor's life that sometimes likes to dress up nicely for work.

Then I think of all that I have done. I have been to three different countries on three continents, and I will add a fourth next summer. I claim the supreme privilege of calling the inner-city neighborhood of Binghampton my home. I have performed in Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Cannon Center, St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and Canterbury Cathedral. For a year, I served as a teaching fellow for one of the congregations of our neighborhood's house church network. My work has taken me all over the country and to the farthest reaches of the planet.

And today, I turn 26. My life is just beginning. My hopes are radiant, and my goals are larger than Goliath himself. Though the prospect of true adulthood frightens me, I am eager to grow, to learn, to sing, and share, and to laugh in the coming twelve months.

But in the meantime, that pile of dishes isn't cleaning itself, but it can wait till the morning.

Until next time,

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lessons on LGTB Bridge Building from The Book of Acts, Pt 2

Previously, I wrote a meditation on a lesson learned from Acts 8 on the subject of building bridges with the LGBT community. We saw how Philip placed a greater emphasis on proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Eunuch; he was less concerned with correcting the Eunuch's sexual identity. Today, we look at Acts 10-11, in which Peter receives from God a vision of a sheet filled with unclean animals. God commanded Peter to eat of the animals on that sheet, and he responds, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." God says back to him, "What God has made clean, do not call common." For the longest time, I thought that God was telling Peter and the rest of Christendom that it was now okay to eat these unclean foods, for Christ has come to fulfill the Law. Indeed, that is a part of this story, but there is another component to the vision that teaches us how to build relationships with other people.

At the beginning of Chapter 10, we are introduced to a man named Cornelius who is a Centurion in the Roman Army; we also learn that Centurion was a devout believer. God instructs the soldier to travel to Joppa to find a man named Simon (who is now called Peter). Faithful Cornelius packs his belongings and makes his way to the port city, and four days later, he finds his man. This is what happens next between Cornelius and Peter in Caesarea.

And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, "Stand up; I too am a man." And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. And he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.
And Cornelius said, "Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing and said, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.' So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord." (Acts 10:23-33, ESV)

Context is needed. Jews and Gentiles were never supposed to mingle with each other; the old Law of the Torah declared Gentiles an unclean people. That means that Peter the Jew and Cornelius the Roman (Gentile) should never be friends. Furthermore, early Christians and Romans didn't get on well either, yet we have a Jewish Christian and a Roman Christian sitting "in the presence of God." God called Cornelius, the Roman Christian, to visit the Christian Jew named Peter, a command that violated so many social norms and the covenant of the Torah. In fact, the Greek word that we translate as unlawful in v. 28 is athémitos, and another translation of that word is abomination. We've seen this word before in other passages from Scripture, from the Torah in fact.

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Leviticus 18:22, ESV)
It was an abomination for Gentiles and Jews to associate with each other. It was unlawful for men have sex with other men. These words, for the Biblical person, had the same meaning. God tells Peter, "Do not call common that which I have made clean." Before we jump to the conclusion that Bible clearly says that homosexuality is not a sin, let's step back to look at the bigger picture. Just as the ancient Jewish Christian no longer needed to fear the threat of defilement from being in the same room as a Gentile Christian, we no longer need to fear, judge, or exile the members of the LGBT community from our churches or presence. God has declared them clean, just as He has declared straight people clean. Many people, however, are loathe to associate themselves with members of the gay community; fear drives many possible relationships a Christian could have with a gay man or woman.

"What do I say if they ask if homosexuality is a sin?"

"What if my gay friend dates another dude?"

"My gay neighbors invited me to their wedding this fall. I'm afraid that if I go, I will validate their sinful relationship."

"My daughter just came out to me. What do I do?"

"My gay co-worker just asked me to have a drink with him at a local bar. Is he hitting on me?"

Love is not the foundation of those questions; fear and anxiety is. God says in His Scriptures to not call common or unclean that which he has made clean, and Jesus commands us to love one another. Peter and Cornelius did the unthinkable for people of their generation; they sat together in the presence of God. What will we do? How will we act? Will we define people by their sin? Or will we see who each person can be, whether straight, gay, bi, transgendered, or questioning, in the person of Jesus Christ?

Until next time,

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lessons on LGBT Bridge Building from The Book of Acts, pt. 1

I am reading through the Book of Acts for my devotionals, and I would like to share with you what I have learned in this reading. I will share my thoughts in two parts, with each edition focusing on one story in the Acts. For this post, let us look at Acts 8:26-40.

This is the story of Philip and the Eunuch. As Philip travels through the wilderness south of Jerusalem, he encounters a Eunuch from Ethiopia, and as you are aware, a eunuch is a castrated male, either by choice or not. Philip encounters the Eunuch as he tries to make sense of a Messianic Prophecy from Isaiah, and the Eunuch asks Philip to explain it to him. Beginning with the prophets, Philip shares with this man "the good news of Jesus." The Eunuch, overcome with the joy of the Lord, commands the chariot to stop by a pool of water, and he asks Philip to baptize him. Philip is only happy to oblige; he baptizes the man on the spot. The story ends with the Eunuch rejoicing on his journey, and the Holy Spirit bears Philip away to another place.

Wikipedia teaches us facts about eunuchs that are important to this story. The most obvious of these facts, as stated earlier, is the individual's lack of genitals; the eunuch would typically be castrated at an early enough age to stunt the production of testosterone, therefore keeping his physical appearance more boyish and his voice at a higher pitch. To state another obvious tidbit, he would have been unable to have sex with anyone, and he therefore would not be able to produce an heir. The eunuch, therefore, is not quite a man, but he is not a woman either. He is between genders. Wikipedia also notes that eunuchs have traditionally held a place of honor and trust in the court of royalty. Since a eunuch would be unable to produce an heir that could potential usurp the throne, the king could trust him with state and personal secrets that he would otherwise keep to himself. We know from Acts 8 that this eunuch was a servant of the Ethiopian queen Candace, so we know that he had a position of power and authority. One imagines, and wikipedia confirms this, that any eunuch would also have been a target of humiliation, ridicule, and degradation.

In this story, Philip sees this Eunuch, a true pansexual, studying Scripture, and when the Eunuch asks for Philip's wisdom, he freely gives it to the Gentile. When the Eunuch asks to be baptized after hearing the Good News, Philip does so immediately. No where in the Scripture does Philip berate the Eunuch on the validity of his confession, nor does the issue of the Eunuch's gender stand in the way of his baptism. Philip invites this man who transcends gender into God's Kingdom, and the Eunuch enters into God's courts with joy and thanksgiving.

The application of this teaching is immediate, particularly for those of us who are trying to reach out to our local LGBT community: do not allow alternative notions of gender to interfere with the work of making disciples. Some of my friends are quick to create a stance on homosexuality to use as a sort of shield; they want to be ready to remind our gay neighbors that their lifestyle is a sin. Philip, on the other hand, does not allow the Eunuch's gender, or lack thereof, to stand in the way of Christ's Gospel, nor does he make any attempt to rescue the Eunuch from his lifestyle in Candace's royal court. He simply proclaims the good news to the man, baptizes him, and sends the Eunuch on his way. (In fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church traces their origins to this Eunuch!) For Philip, the only position upon which stood was the Truth that good news is for all to hear!

To be clear, I do not believe that this Eunuch was gay; his very biology rendered him asexual. There are those who do believe that the word Eunuch could also mean "homosexual," and we could debate the semantics of the original language all we would like. It won't get us far. What we do know, as Philip himself seemingly knew, is that his convert was a man who transcended gender, just as many members of the LGBT community transcend gender in their own way. From drag queens, butch lesbians, effeminate gay men, pre-op and post-op transgender individuals, the gay community presents a diverse understanding and subversion of our dualistic notions of gender; even the reality of a man being attracted to another man calls into question the mainstream understanding of masculinity. This Eunuch in Acts 8 is only another part of the ongoing discussion surrounding gender and the Bible.

In short, Philip challenges all of us who are working to bring Christ's Gospel to our local LGBT community. We should not focus our energies on creating and standing behind an official position for or against homosexuality; rather, our primary work should be rooted in Christ's command for us to love one another and make disciples. That twink at your local gay bar might be the next great leader in planting churches, but if you place a greater emphasis on his sexuality over his potential in Christ, you may never release him to do the work that God designed for him to do. Look at Philip. He cared less about gender and more about Jesus, and in so doing, he indirectly took the Gospel to sub-saharan Africa through one of the oldest Gentile churches in history.

In the second part, we will consider Peter's vision in Acts 10-11 and his visit with Cornelius, the Gentile Christian.

But until next time...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Day 4 in DC: The Kennedy Center

Howdy from Washington DC! This is my final night in the city; we head home tomorrow afternoon. This will not be my final DC blog post, as we will enjoy a tour of Mt. Vernon in the morning and a visit to the Ford Theater at lunch time. Yes, my friends, we are cramming as much activity into this trip as we possibly can.

Before I share my experience of singing at the Kennedy Center with you, let me first discuss a matter of great importance: Washington’s weather. We’ve enjoyed just about every kind of weather condition that lies between the extremes of summer heat and Arctic cold. On our first day, we enjoyed a beautiful, sunny day with temperatures in the mid-70s. On Saturday we felt the consequences of a cold front that blew through the night before, and though sunny, it was only in the lower fiftys. More importantly, winds were blowing at 34 miles per hour all day long; that is no exaggeration, my friends. Yesterday, it was a tad warmer, but cloudy and muggy. Today’s original forecast promised another 70 degree day, but in fact it was rainy and never got above 55. Tonight, it’s supposed to snow 1-3 inches. You’re going to need to reel it in, Washington.

The most important thing for today was our performance in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center, and it truly was a remarkable experience. Our rep included “Homeland,” arranged by Z. Randall Stroope and based on a tune by Holst. We sang Barber’s Agnus Dei, a setting of that text to the same composer’s Adagio for Strings. Following a set of three Copland songs sung by Rhodes’ very own Prof. Larry Albert came two choral works from Copland’s The Promised Land: “Stomp Your Foot!” and “The Promise of Living,” the latter of which features the tune “Zion’s Walls.” The center-piece of our program was René Clausen’s Memorial, a major work for choir, orchestra, and baritone soloist in memory of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and senseless violence everywhere. This all-American concert was a moving experience, one in which we had to embody a wide spectrum of human emotions. Needless to say, Memorial was the most draining. This morning was our first and only rehearsal with the orchestra, which consisted of members from the Marine Band, Army Band, and other members of the armed forces. True to form, once we added the orchestra, we found new meaning in our repertoire, most especially Memorial. An orchestra adds so many colors that a piano simply cannot.

As musicians, we always strive to connect to our audience in order to bring them a powerful, universal message through the artistry of our music. We singers receive the added benefit of using words that someone else wrote to capture emotions, but a composer will use craft the music to highlight certain sentiments. In many cases, the musician must work hard and invest himself in the music, whether he plays the oboe or sings bass, but occasionally we cross a piece of music that seems to possess us, and we become helpless against its power to tell a story. Memorial is that work for me right now. Cast in four movements and played without break, Memorial takes us on a spiritual journey that recalls the events of September 11, 2001 and leads us to a multi-lingual meditation on hope, healing, and mercy. Clausen used English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic texts – the languages of the most prominent religious communities in the West, the languages of victims and transgressors alike on 9/11 – in prayers for peace. But before we we seek peace, Clausen first takes us through horror by musically recreating the attacks of that dreadful morning. Words fail to describe the feeling of using my voice to illustrate falling towers, planes exploding, people jumping to their death, prayers left unanswered, hope collapsing; at the end of the attack sequence of Memorial, I was sweating, my heart racing, and my soul pained. So often, the people expect music to capture the beautiful in life, but occasionally, we must represent the ugly as well. Clausen did this well in Memorial, and I left the Kennedy Center feeling as though we did his work justice.

To sing the phrases “Lord have mercy” and “Lord shine your light upon us” in five languages is a profound call for ecumenical peace. Using the language of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in these prayers directs our vision to the God of our common ancestor, Abraham. Using the prayers of people of a different color, nationality, creed, or ethnicity forces us to seek a common ground within ourselves. Yes, many religious texts contain confusing, contradictory, violent passages that, upon first glance, violate our own rational sense of well being and respect, but within these sacred canons we find words of hope, healing, faith, and mercy. We all share in those desires; not a soul on this earth does not wish to be loved, respected, or cared for.

Tonight, we celebrated well. Tomorrow, we return to Memphis. Wednesday, it’s back to the grind. I’ll give one last update tomorrow.

Until next time,

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Day 3 in Washington DC: Jaws and the National Cathedral

Howdy from our nation’s capital. Day 3 comes to an end, and we accomplished many good things today. It began with a three-hour rehearsal in preparation for tomorrow’s concert. All singers suffered from tired bodies and voices, but most were able to muster the heart to create a worthwhile, productive practice. A few of our singers were struggling with lost voices for one reason or another, and spending the majority of the day in song could not have been good for their voice. Ah, but we will gladly suffer for our art, that is for sure. Following rehearsal, we enjoyed a quick tour to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the North Lawn of the White House. They were nice places to visit, but I could only bring my mind to focus on today’s concert at the National Cathedral. It was our penultimate concert, and I would argue our most important performance. It’s the last concert that we will give in which we are the only performers, and we were performing in a national landmark. Furthermore, the Washington DC Rhodes Alum Chapter hosted a post-concert reception for us, so I had the honor to see some old friends from college. Overall, I thought it was a good concert with some of our best singing, but I will say that nothing compares to the acoustics we enjoyed yesterday at St. Patrick’s Church.

We stayed for a lovely Choral Evensong service after our concert, and it was a true high-liturgy Anglican event. An all men and boys choir provided the music, C. V. Stanford’s Service in C serving as the music for all the canticles. The music was most enjoyable, and it brought back memories of singing evensong services in England with the Rhodes Singers and at West Market Street UMC in Greensboro. The homily was also most pertinent; the Reverend Gina Campbell gave a word regarding today’s appointed readings from Leviticus 19 and Matthew 5. In these texts, the people of God are called to be perfect, to be holy as Jesus is holy, and in the Leviticus reading, there is also an injunction to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus would quote this verse later in his ministry (Luke 10:27), and Rev. Campbell linked these two themes together in one poignant message. Two lines stand out to me from her teaching.

“We as a nation excel at hate, intolerance, and violence...”

“This kind of perfect love cannot come from ourselves. We must drink from a perfect source.”

Rev. Campbell noted that we all have enemies, and she argued that the most dangerous enemy was the enemy of our thoughts (i.e., our beliefs and opinions). Jesus calls us to love even our enemies, the people who force us to walk one mile or who strike us across the face. Jesus calls His people to love the employer who downsizes an entire division in the name of corporate profit. Given our concert tomorrow that will feature Rene Clausen’s Memorial, a work that calls for peace and love of enemy (“Lord, we condemn them to your mercy”), it was a most appropriate sermon to hear. In my own life, knowing that there are people against whom I carry significant grudges, it was a healthy reminder to love even the people who have committed sins against me. I call to mind Matthew 18. Jesus forgave me a 10,000 talent debt, so surely I can find a fraction of that grace to release my neighbor from a 100 denarii debt that he owes me.

And Rev. Campbell clearly stated that this love does not com from within us; it cannot. We are not capable of this perfect love, and in fact Jesus does not expect his people to be perfect on their own merit. The Greek word that we translate as “perfect” in Matthew 5:28 is the word telios, which literally means complete, or whole. “Be complete, as your Father in heaven is complete.” This comes only from Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is calling us to a life of faith and discipleship, not legalistic trappings and slavish obedience. My own readings from Galatians come to mind, where Paul reminds that young church to not submit to the curse of the law but to stand firm in the freedom of Christ. Because of Jesus, we are free, we are complete to love perfectly.

Who would have thought that this tour would have been such a spiritual experience? Ah, but that is the nature of music.

I think I mentioned it yesterday, but the students have come to call me (Prof.) Jaws. Tonight, that name morphed into Jawsus, the Mesharka born of the Sturgeon Mary, but after running with that gag for awhile, I decided that it would be best to lay it aside. Jaws, however, is still alive and well.

We have one final performance and it’s the reason we came to DC: The President’s Day Choral Festival at the Kennedy Center. Should be fun! The choir sounds great, and we’re all excited to perform some wonderful music.

Until next time,
-Prof. Jaws

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Washington Tour Day 2: Jesus with Machine Guns

Howdy from Washington DC! Today is the close of Day 2 of our tour in the capital, and I promise that my abs have received a great workout from the non-stop laughter that we share on the bus. I’ll share more on that later, but for now, a brief synopsis.

We left our homestays in Vienna, VA to sing a pre-Mass concert at St. Patrick’s Church, the oldest church in Washington DC. This church was built in the early 1800’s to provide a place to worship for the city’s growing Irish Catholic population, so when you walk in the narthex of the church, you see a large shamrock on the floor. The acoustics of this church were phenomenal, and most of our music for this tour is a capella. We had a small audience, but this was a concert where the joy was found not in performing for people but rather for the space. The music itself was the joy – as it almost always is – but the space provided an extra boost to an already beautiful selection of music. As my choral tastes lean towards smaller a capella  anthems, performing in spaces like St. Patrick’s brings sheer joy to my ears and heart. I could tell that the ensemble loved the sound and space as well.

Following the concert, we stayed for a brief Mass, and the minister’s homily centered on the role and character of the Virgin Mary. You may recall from some of my Advent posts last December that she is a figure that very much interests me, and her role in the Christian salvation narrative seems to divide the Protestant faithful. While we are happy to admit that she gave birth to Jesus, Protestants as a whole are reluctant to call her Mother of God or an especially blessed woman. The minister reminded the audience – and especially our mostly Protestant choir – that the Catholic Church does not worship Mary, but rather the Church gives her proper respect and honor. They ask her to pray on their behalf as we ask people we see as spiritual giants to pray for us.

Afterwards, we ate lunch at the Post Office Pavilion, and then we had another tour of the Smithsonian. Today, we poked around the National Museum of American History. For me, it wasn’t as interested as the Natural History museum, but it’s hard to compete with galleries of dinosaurs and diamonds. That said, I did see the original American flag that Francis Scott Key saw when he penned “The Star-Spanged Banner.” What a cool part of our American story! We also looked at galleries of valuable musical instruments, American pop culture, and the history of the American presidency.

Tonight we had a three-hour rehearsal in preparation for Monday’s concert at the Kennedy Center. We are pairing up with two high school choirs, one from Memphis and the other from Jacksonville, FL, and both choirs sounded terrific! As I listened to the combined ensemble, it was difficult to distinguish high-school voices from college voices. We have much work to do in the following 9 hours of rehearsal, but I am confident that the show we give on Monday will be musically exquisite and poignant for our place in American history.

And finally, if there is one thing about choir tours, it is generally accepted as a universal truth that the best moments are shared not on the stage but rather on the bus. The boredom of the road, that Limbo in which you dwell as your travel from one place to another, is the nurturing place for so many unexplainable dialogues, monologues, and one-liners. For those of you who have been on tour, then you know the feeling. For the rest of you, if I say either, “This is my pew, and you can’t have it” or “I’m Jesus, and I have machine guns. Pyu. Pyu. Pyu,” then you as my reader will shake your head. If you were a member of the Rhodes Singers, then you would understand. Oh, and my name is now Jaws. Don’t bother in asking; it’s pointless. Rar. Rar. Rar. Rar. Rar.

Performance tomorrow at the National Cathedral, 3:30 PM, free and open to the public. Come on and hear some good music!

Pyu, pyu, pyu, and until next time,

Friday, February 18, 2011

Day 1 in Washington DC

Howdy from Washington DC! It occurs to me that it’s been a long time since I’ve last updated the blog, but I’m blessed to lead a busy, fulfilling life teaching, singing, playing, conducting, living, and breathing music. I said earlier tonight that if you make a career out of music, then you have little time for any other hobby, including writing!

I am in Washington DC with the Rhodes Singers on their annual choir tour, and we just finished day one of the tour. We are here until Tuesday afternoon, and our tour coordinators have filled every day with plenty of activities related to our visit to the nation’s capital. The two focal points of our visit are the two main performances. One is on Sunday at the National Cathedral, a free concert from 3:30-4:00 PM that is open to the public. We will perform a wide variety of music, from the gospel arrangements of Moses Hogan to Biebl’s exquisite Ave Maria. Monday brings our other performance, a President’s Day Choral Festival at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in which the Rhodes Singers will join with other choirs from across the country to perform works by Copland, Barber, and Rene Clausen. It is a concert for peace, and we will sing Clausen’s Memorial, a piece written after the 9/11 attacks. Monday’s concert should prove as one of the most meaningful shows that I have performed. I will save any further comments on those concerts for their appropriate days. For now, let me recap our first day in DC.

We started the day early; by 8:00 AM, we were on our bus from our Alexandria, VA hotel towards the heart of Georgetown. Once we got there, we were given four hours to roam the city, and since we were only a 15 minute walk from the Metro, roam we did. I led a group of Singers to the National Mall to wander about the Smithsonian. A smaller group left to explore the National Gallery of Art while my group went to the National Museum of Natural History where we saw dinosaurs, precious stones including the Hope Diamond, and bugs. My inner five year-old manifested himself; I rushed to any exhibit that had buttons to push with insatiable glee and excitement. Fortunately for me, my group of students – being true Rhodes students –either shared in my enthusiasm or laughed at me along the way. We later regrouped with the smaller band that left for the art gallery to return to our coach in Georgetown. After a quick lunch at La Madeleine, we were on our way to the National Cemetery at Arlington.

The National Cemetery is a sacred space for this country, no matter your creed. It had been years since my previous visit, and I had forgotten the enormity of the place. Seeing history marked in tombstones grand and small made me think of the great sacrifices that men and women have made to insure the freedoms we enjoy today; it also made me think of the sacrifices of soldiers’ wives and children who lost fathers, husbands, and brothers to war. War is ugly, and Arlington cemetery is a beautiful, solemn reminder of the reality of battle. I witnessed a brief portion of the burial ceremonies for a high-ranking Air Force officer. I did not catch the name of the deceased or his rank, but given the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the occasion, it was clear to me that this was an important figure to our country. He received a 21-gun salute, Taps, full military honors; it reminded me of my dad’s funeral, who received similar honors, though on a smaller scale on account of his inferior ranking to the individual being buried today (still a formidable Lt. Col.).

The highlight of today – and perhaps of this trip in regards to extra-musical activities – was joining three students from the Rhodes Singers to participate in a Laying of the Wreath ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. All the elements gathered together to create for me an emotionally intense experience. The wreath we laid boasted the school’s colors, red and black, and a ribbon with “Rhodes Singers” written on it. Will, a baritone in our choir, and I were the ones to physically lay the wreath at the tomb, so we were the two closest civilians to the Honor Guard and the Tomb itself. We were accompanied by two members of the Honor Guard who instructed our every move; their polished shoes, well-pressed uniforms, and solemn demeanor suggested a sense of duty, honor, and discipline that I lies beyond my undestanding. My friends, I cannot begin to describe to you the mix of emotions I felt in those moments. There was within me pride in the military heritage of my family and our country, and it was considerable honor in laying a symbol of Rhodes College at this important national monument. There was sadness as I recalled the passing of my own father, a soldier who was not forgotten yet passed on like all who went before him. There was the weight, the gravitas of the entire ceremony, and I felt an immense burden to perform the ritual with honor and respect. It was, for me, a moment where I set aside my own wants, needs, and feelings in order to represent the entire Rhodes Community as we honored the fallen heroes of our country. To do so at the side of two soldiers was a humbling, transformative moment.

We closed the day with a performance at a local church, and we shared our small concert with the church’s youth choir. They themselves were kicking off a tour, and they gave a home concert first. It was a joy to sing after these talented youth, and it made me think that my entire professional choral career began with New Zion Youth Choir at Alamo Heights UMC.

And now, I crash in bed, and tomorrow promises a full day of rehearsals, a morning performance, a motorcoach tour of the city, and many more stories, jokes, and laughter to be shared.

Until next time,