Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lessons from a Harmonium

The gentleman who let me borrow a harmonium.
The sacred musical instrument of India has taught me several lessons and I've only had it for two and a half days. Yes, you heard that right. This instrument is teaching me.

The first lesson might be considered a bit of a stretch because it concerns the circumstances of acquiring the harmonium, but just roll with it! My housemate is Sikh and I was curious as to how the Sikh worship, so I asked to go with her to the gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) one Friday. There I heard a harmonium being played for the second time in my life and I fell in love all over again (the first time I heard it was at a Houghton Chapel service when the mystical group Mandala played). I determined right then and there as I watched the kids play during the service that I wanted to learn! I talked with my housemate and she said I could ask the leader. So, a few weeks later, I went to the gurdwara again and before helping the women in the kitchen with the cooking, we asked about the harmonium.

And he said we could borrow one of the harmoniums to take home and practice on for a week! So, I came back on Sunday and did just that. Now, I have to wonder. If some strange person came into your church and asked if he/she could learn to play guitar, would you lend them one? "If someone takes your coat, do not withold your shirt from them." I do believe that this particular group of Sikhs have shown me what this looks like!

The second lesson I learned was that a 10 year absence from reading music is painfully felt! I only remembered my notes between middle C and G. Everything else required me to count up or down from those! And forget about remembering any keys other than C Major!

A gorgeous harmonium with lots of stops!
My loaner one is not nearly as handsome.
The third lesson is closely correlated. If one wants something badly enough, one will work at it! I never enjoyed piano lessons and hated practicing, but I have been practicing for an hour each day since getting the harmonium... and I printed up scales to practice. Yes, I am voluntarily subjecting myself to practicing scales!

The fourth lesson was one I was hoping I wouldn't have to learn. I am still incapable of doing two different things with my hands. The pumping hand wants to pump with the same rhythm as the notes, rather than providing a steady stream of air to the inner bellows... I will be working on that!

The last lesson I have learned is that even while learning to play an instrument, it is possible to lose yourself in the music. I am currently learning to play five taize songs and after the first few times through, I am able to sink into the music and pray the words as I sing them. Mandala combined Gregorian chants with the harmonium, and I am combining Taize music with it. Either way, the instrument is truly well-suited for devotional music and I am so excited to continue learning it and learning from it!

Friday, May 17, 2013

That Dang Mammon (Part 2)

[And he speaks again]

So, I was thinking about “mammon”.  A weird word . . . not a typical occupant of our everyday vocabulary; but such a great word . . . foreign, exotic, mysterious.

“Mammon” is Aramaic in origin (actually, it has an uncertain Semitic root, meaning “wealth, property or profit”.)  We know it only in the New Testament, in the words of Jesus. Obviously His hearers knew it well enough because He did not have to explain it to them.

To us, however, the term sounds a mysterious, even sinister, note—I mean, remember when your mother would inveigh against “the evils of mammon”. (No? Well, maybe she should have.)

Anyway, the very fact that this word is remote and impersonal renders it safe and non-threatening; i.e., the absence of familiarity allows us to treat it as something to which we need give little attention.

The fact of the matter is, however, the business of “mammon” happens to be pretty serious stuff. Jesus drew a very stark line: “Either God or mammon. One or the other. You can’t serve both.” In this text, Mt. 6:24, money is personified as an object of worship.  “Wealth in itself is not bad—but if you serve it as a slave serves his master, then your professed loyalty to God is a sham and you are fooling only yourself.”

Jesus used “mammon” in the cryptic story of the dishonest manager. Now, this guy was not held up as an icon of virtue, but he did reveal that he was teachable. He took quick action with the mammon at his disposal to cut some deals and prepare for the crisis that lay ahead of him.

You see, the sneaky, conniving steward eventually realized that he was going to have to face his Master. In the end, what he did with the money (which, admittedly, was less than stellar) showed that he understood the power and authority of the Master and the scary fact that a personal accounting would be required of him. The Master was impressed that the steward wised up and took care of business before it was too late (Lk. 16:1-8).

In the first part of this three-part series, we explored briefly the relationship between our central theological touchstone, the resurrection of Jesus, and the practice of “taking up an offering” (Paul made the connection first!)

In this second part, we want to press a little further into the utterly radical nature of Jesus’ view of money. His teachings on the subject are hard precisely because they run against everything we have been taught about growing wealth, being successful, preparing for the future, etc.  

Indeed, Jesus’ portentous take on “mammon” grabs us by the nape of the neck and gives us a good shake. He was not kidding around. Though He did not apparently advocate vows of poverty for everyone, He did promote eternal Kingdom values that simply don’t allow much room for building earthly empires.

(Parenthetical interjection: This discussion is not really about spending and saving and debt and credit and insurance and preparing for retirement and all that. I gladly leave this financial stuff to Dave Ramsey . . . who does a very good job with these important issues.

This is also not about whether Jesus was for or against capitalism or socialism. In spite of the claims of some, His ministry was not about setting up any sort of economic system.)

Jesus hit the money issue hard. He knew full well how easily it takes His place in our hearts. He knew how easily swayed we can be by the allure of wealth and all it promises. He knew that the condition of our heart and the status of our faith are revealed in the way we handle money.

He knew the lies that human society perpetuates; i.e., namely, that money brings power, promises security, and buys prestige—chimerical temptresses that lead to destruction.

The quintessential countercultural radical, Jesus simply did not share the priorities of the world He came to save (imagine that.) He came to seek and to save the lost, not save for a rainy day. He came to make disciples, not make wealth. He came to establish a Kingdom beyond this world, not build an empire.

Here are a few more crazy things He said . . . .
“Money won’t buy you everlasting comfort . . .” The “I Got Mine and I’m Good” outlook just doesn’t work very well (Lk. 16:19-26).

“A great retirement plan will not get you into heaven . . .” Actuarial tables do not account for eternity. The “Bigger Barn Retirement Plan” won’t get you there (Lk. 12:16-21).

“Invest your treasure in things that last . . .” Saving and spending wisely are good practices, but at some point you’ve got to put your money where your faith is (Mt. 6:19-21).

“Manage your money wisely—then God will know He can trust you really valuable things . . .” (Lk. 16:9-13).

“Stop worrying so much. Do you really think it all depends on you?” Really, where is your faith?   (Mt. 6:25-34)

“Trying to be good is ok, but it is pointless if you’ve made your stuff your god.” (Lk. 18:18-25)

“I want your offerings, but I want more than that.  I want everything you’ve got.” I want you, and your heart, soul, mind, and strength. I want your trust, your commitment, your loyalty, and your love . . . everything (Lk. 21:1-4).

“There is one thing that is more valuable than anything you can imagine” (Mt. 13:31-32; 44-46). Not one of us will find greater worth in God’s eyes because we had a lot of money or cool gadgets or the admiration of others. He will know His people by the fact that they seek His Kingdom above everything else.

But, of course, all of this is so strange, foreign, exotic, and unreasonable. Could it be that Jesus simply did not understand the economic exigencies of we face today?

What do you think? Was He simply out of tune with the realities of our world? I mean, He was on earth only a few years. He did not have a family, career, debts, and other responsibilities . . . and He lived a long time ago. Don’t you suppose He would change His advice if He were here now?

It comes down to a simple choice: either we take seriously what He said and figure out how to apply His teachings to our lives . . . or we carefully excise those parts of the Bible and dismiss them as archaic and irrelevant.

My sense is that He is hoping that we will wise up before it is too late.

Drawn by the ideals of the Savior—yet still a struggling captive of a broken world, I am, as always,


Monday, May 6, 2013

High Church, Low Church

This last Sunday I experienced the extremes of the high/low church spectrum. I went to an Episcopal church and a Quaker meeting. It was an enlightening experience on both counts, but one that left me saddened.

The service I went to at St. Luke's was small. Very small. We sat in this beautiful sanctuary and while the liturgy was reverent and I felt peace, I also felt like I was participating in the end of something. An era of stained glass windows and white-robed ministering servants seemed to be fading away. There were maybe 30 people in the congregation, most white-haired and in the waning years of their own lives.

Unlike the later service I had attended at St. Luke's the previous week, this service followed Rite I in the Book of Common Prayer and had no majestic organ, chanting, or singing. The readings were solemn, the homily short, and mood less joyful. Of course, I love how communion is done in high churches. We knelt before the altar, shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters. Humbly, we accepted the bread with two hands and ate. We were served the wine from a communal cup and in submission we drank from the hands of the ministering servant. In this particular expression of communion, there exists so much meaningful symbolism of humility, submission, servanthood, unity, and...communion! If I could take only one thing from the high church, I would probably take the method of communion. But for the rest, somehow this great, high church with its soaring arches is crumbling beneath the relentless onslaught of the entertainment mindset of [post]modernity.

After St. Luke's, I went to the Quaker Meeting House. From the extreme high church to the extreme low church, this was an entirely new experience for me. I had been invited to come to Meeting after attending a Peace benefit meal earlier in the week.

Excuse this digression, but the peace benefit reminded me that although I am pacifist, I do not have the same "fuzzy feelings" about pacifism that so many present seemed to have. This is not the community in which I fit. I care about peace and nonviolence, but I do not see my role in this process as picketing, signing petitions, or talking down aggressors. There is a place for those, but I do not see myself as joining in this way. But back to the Quakers.

Before the beginning of the "service," there was a time of instruction. This particular one was about "clearness committees," a Quaker concept from the 1660s used for personal discernment. Perhaps I will write another post on this, but for now my observation was merely that I find it interesting that although there are no homilies (no shepherd implies no homily!), the Quakers have gotten around this by having these talks beforehand.

I noticed another thing. Quakers do not have a creed and are against such statements of belief and yet similar to the distinction between the American and the Canadian constitutions, it seems that the Quakers have merely a collection of documents and ideas which do form a somewhat informal creed. Pamphlets on clearness committees, books on community, posters on the "rules" of living a Quaker life. It seems it is still not possible to have a body of people join together without some consensus on purpose, beliefs, and rules.

The meeting itself was characterized by silence. At times, someone would stand up with some insight to share. Most often it was an observation on what had happened during the week. Other times, it was a reflection on something that struck them. This is where I realized that Quakers are not all Christocentric. No Scripture was shared, but a story from Gandhi's life was and the thoughts of a "universalist" Quaker author. Although we were all sitting together, it was such a lonely experience. The silence was not a communal silence, but an individual silence. The words shared seemed like merely words ringing into the silence. I wondered if people were even listening to each other.

Had I not had a wealth of my Protestant experiences to draw on, I'm not sure how I would have made it through an hour of almost entirely unbroken silence and certainly not week after week. I spent this time praying, singing songs (in my head), and quoting Scripture (again, silently), but without the reservoir of songs, Scripture, and an active relationship with God to draw on, it would have been a very empty time for me.

My experience after the meeting was very good though. Ironically, of all the churches I have visited, this one was the only one to really get it "right." I was invited to join them for a potluck and one of the women took me under her wing and talked with me at length. We discussed the history of the Quakers and the various branches (there are some more Christocentric branches), the beauty of liturgical services, and various other topics. It was most enjoyable and if this had been a Christocentric church, this would have been enough to make this place my home, but... alas, I am still left to continue my quest for a spiritual home in Kalamazoo.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Intellectual Virtues Attack a Culture of Anti-intellectualism

Philip Dow's book, "Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development" is an excellent complement to J. P. Moreland's "Love Your God with All Your Mind." Where Moreland's is a book directed to the philosopher or the philosophically minded, Dow's book is the everyman's introduction to the intellectual virtues. Filled with amusing anecdotes and solid historical examples, Dow brings the potentially dense philosophical ideas to the masses, and the educator in particular.

But let me not carry on in this formal vein. Basically, Mr. Dow, as I better know him, was one of my high school teachers. I admired him from afar and when I got to have him as my U.S. history teacher, I drank in what he had to say. My views of U.S. history are still highly influenced by what he taught me (specifically the role of Protestantism in the nation's development!), but even more than that it was his ideas regarding intellectual virtues that stuck with me.

I entered my undergraduate days at Houghton College with an understanding that intellectual curiosity was not merely the characteristic of a freakish nerd (although, that description might be apt... after all, who's writing a review of a book on intellectual virtues for the fun of it?), but was a desirable trait and indeed one that ought to be honed further. Before Shirley Mullen, our beloved college president (and I'm serious when I say that she's well-loved!), told us to become lifelong learners, I had already heard and absorbed this message from Mr. Dow.

I focus on intellectual curiosity because this is what really stuck with me, but I recall very clearly the emphasis on intellectual honesty and carefulness because these were spoken of at length while we worked on our senior research projects. In "Virtuous Minds", Mr. Dow expanded on my understanding of these concepts with a connection between intellectual carefulness and glibly accepting gossip and pointing out that one's thinking habits can positively influence one's experience of life, not just the outcomes of particular scenarios.

Unfortunately, I still felt like there was something lacking with the book. There were only passing references to Postman, Moreland, and a few other thinkers whom I think have a lot of really good things to say on the topic of current anti-intellectualism and I would have liked to have seen a more in depth treatment of this topic.  I understand that this was not the primary purpose of the book, but any book that seeks to promote the intellectual virtues should at least somewhat address some of the theories regarding its lack in contemporary culture. The book fairly dripped with the ideas of Chesterton and Lewis (much to my delight) and I would have liked to have seen some of the ideas of these other authors more incorporated.

I began by comparing "Virtuous Minds" with Moreland's "Love Your God..." I read Moreland's book a few months ago and it blew my mind. It was everything I needed to hear. I devoured that book! You see, in the intervening years between college and now I felt like I had lost the intellectual community which had surrounded me since... well, since kindergarten! I suddenly felt adrift in a sea of anti-intellectualism. Moreland encouraged me not to give up on my individual intellectual pursuits of lifelong learning, but it was Mr. Dow's book that encouraged me not to give up on the general state of intellectual virtues in society.

What Mr. Dow's book did more than anything else though was to point out how the pursuit of the intellectual virtues results in loving God and loving my neighbour. Ironically, "Virtuous Minds" was more effective in showing me how these virtues result in loving God than Moreland's "Love Your God with All Your Mind"! "Virtuous Minds" showed me the connection between being fair-minded and being a good listener (and the value of that). It reminded me that how we treat other people's ideas is as important as how we treat other people, since their ideas are part of who they are. And the conclusion that the purpose is to become intellectually virtuous rather than merely doing intellectually virtuous things was very apropos.

So, whether you need a kick in the pants to jumpstart your pursuit of knowledge or a reminder on the importance of the intellectual virtues, I highly recommend both "Love Your God..." and "Virtuous Minds".