Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Verna Dozier's "Dream of God": Good Cop, Bad Cop

Reflection on Verna J. Dozier's The Dream of God: A Call to Return (New York: Church Publishing, 2006).

At 19, my Bible-study friends and I sometimes discussed our feelings of guilt for being upper-middle-class college kids with cars, vast collections of LPs and books, and passports. We'd review Jesus's response to the earnest young man, "Sell all your goods for money to give the poor, and follow me." Centuries before in Assisi, a wealthy merchant's son had stripped naked in the public square and gone on to minister to the poor, the sick, and the animals. But we concluded that St. Francis just wasn't a practical role model today, that our living in poverty wouldn't raise up anybody else, and that we'd do better to continue our educations and carry the Gospel forward into our professional workplaces.

Verna J. Dozier takes that same conversation deeper, but reaches essentially the same conclusion.

The "dream of God" in her book's title is a vulnerable God's dream of love, freely bestowed upon His creatures, freely returned by them. Without the vulnerability to rejection, there could be no true love -- and thus, she writes, the Cross was embedded in creation from the very start (24).

Jesus, she writes, modeled how to live out that dream. Instead of following Jesus, we've substituted worship. There's a "good cop, bad cop" angle to the book, and she calls in a team of three "bad cops" to poke holes in the Church: Thomas Sheehan, author of The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity; Albert Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity; and Lucas Grollenberg, The Unexpected Messiah: How the Bible Can Be Misleading. At least in her summaries of their works, I didn't find more than I'd long ago internalized from Tim Rice's words to the first song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's score of Jesus Christ Superstar:

[Jesus], all the good you've done
Will soon be swept away.
You've begun to matter more
Than the things you say.

Still in "bad cop" mode, she generalizes that one half of the Church's members struggle to maintain the institution while the other half "drops by on holy days to participate in an archaic ritual that has no effect on the lives they are leading the rest of the time" (108). My friend and EfM co-mentor Susan dismissed this: "How can anyone know what effect the ritual has on anyone's lives?"

What does Dozier the "good cop" offer? There's her vision of the laity as a "sleeping giant" and the signs she sees in recent history that the giant is awakening (108) -- though I think EfM's curriculum shows influence of laity and local churches throughout church history. And she offers the vision that followers of Jesus should be involved in all the "structures of society where people find meaning -- in the arts, in journalism, in universities, in city planning, in the sciences."

In her way of offering incidental insights throughout her book, Dozier tells us not to be afraid to be wrong as we try to carry the Kingdom of God into the office, because, through Jesus, God's "forgiveness goes ahead of me, and [His] love sustains me."

Now, how is that different from my favorite prayer at the end of the Rite Two Eucharist, from which the word "Mass" gets its name (from missa, sending out on a mission)? "You have fed us with spiritual food in the sacrament of His body and blood. Let us go in peace to love and serve You with gladness and singleness of heart."

I wrote about the first half of the book on my EfM class blog. Link to those reflections here.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Easter Vigil after Painful Holy Week

I'm ready for marathon singing at the 9 and 11 a.m. Easter services this morning, but the Saturday night Vigil may be my new favorite service. 

This year, the Vigil came after a particularly tough Holy Week.  Monday, both the beloved dogs in my life received the diagnosis of inoperable cancerous tumors choking off the narrow tube at one end of the bladder.  For my Mia, prognosis is some months of health with palliative drugs to shrink the tumor; Mom's Sassy, nearly 13 years old, had complications.  I spent a few hours with her at an emergency hospital Monday night, and we had some hopes. 

But Good Friday, she couldn't swallow her food or drink water, and she shied away from affectionate stroking of her face; Mom said, "It's time."  Laura, Mom's Visiting Angel, was there with us, and everyone cooed and patted her as she fell asleep, then "fell asleep."

Saturday morning, Mom and I went out for breakfast as we have for six years, and walked slowly through the sunny town square.  When we got home, Mom called out with a smile, "Here, Sassy!" 
That breaks my heart.  She had to relive the whole story, and it must happen now several times a day.

I had all that in mind when I suited up for the Easter Vigil.  The choir and clergy gathered with acolytes on our church's portico, incense scenting the clear, warm evening air.  The church was darkened. With a prayer, Father Daron blessed, prepared, and lit the Paschal candle that will be lit to start worship all year.  We entered, singing the chant, "The light of Christ / Thanks be to God," spreading light with hand-held candles. In the semi-dark, we reviewed our salvation history in chant and spoken word and collects.  All built to the Easter acclamation, full light, and music with brass.

Fr. Roger's sermon pointed out how this one service used to be the peak of the church year until around six hundred years ago.  It used to last all night.  But it still contains everything:  the movement from darkness to light, the salvation history, baptism (of a tiny infant, last night), renewal of our own baptismal vows to serve in the world, acclamation of resurrection, and eucharist with the final prayer to go out into the world in peace.

That's how I feel now.  

Here are some favorite photos of Sassy in her last year.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Black Panther: Mirror Image

A symposium in the men's room followed a screening of Black Panther. A gentleman in long flowing yellow dashiki asked how the rest of us liked "the movie." (There were other titles at other screens, but there was no doubt which movie he meant -- car loads of men and women came to Black Panther in African garb).  I didn't hear the comments others made as they left, but I said that I had enjoyed the sense of family and community.

He agreed, but said he was disappointed, because he'd anticipated action in the USA, rather than in the fictional kingdom of Wakanda.

He may have preferred the prologue to the movie. The setting flashes on the screen, "Oakland, 1992," shorthand for dead end neighborhoods, gang violence, drugs and weapons. In dialogue, the estranged brother of Wakanda's king  attributes world-wide misery to centuries of colonial exploitation, slavery, and race-based oppression.  What happens next makes a more compelling origin story than Bruce Wayne's for the movie's alpha bad guy, Erik Killmonger.  But following that, the action shifts to the continent of Africa.

I suggested that Wakanda was in fact a kind of mirror-image of the USA.  He wasn't convinced.  End of discussion.

I could have  mentioned being swept up by Ludwig Göransson's colorful score, composed with what he picked up from his month with musicians in Africa, or the delightful interplay of star Chadwick Boseman with a trove of female co-stars: Angela Bassett as Queen Mother, Danai Gurira as General Dora, Lupita Nyon'o as the spy Nakia, and Letitia Wright as Shuri, the king's kid-sister and scientist. Breath-taking vistas of paleo-futurist Wakanda and rapid-fire special effects fights were entertaining, too -- though such effects are pro forma in Hollywood movies by now, and I confess that those wear me down.

But I was most stimulated by the way the conflict over the future direction of that fictional kingdom  reflects our own deep-seated national conflicts back at us clarified, as a fable.

We Americans, too, have lived centuries in defensible isolation,  proud of our resources, wealth, military might, and advanced technology, unduly paranoid about invaders (counting down from 1796: French, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Reds, Latinos, Terrorists).  Our super-hero T'Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther, is a king whose policy is Wakanda First.  Yes, he can befriend a CIA agent, and he knows the streets of L.A., N.Y., and Seoul, but he will neither send his armies out to liberate oppressed people nor allow refugees in: "I am not king of the world; I am king of Wakanda."

I'm hardly alone in taking the movie this way.  Others I've read say that this fictional kingdom of Wakanda is the real star of the film.  David Edelstein allows that Michael B. Jordan's seething revolutionary Eric Killmonger, who wants to arm the African diaspora to overthrow the other races, is more charismatic than Chadwick Boseman's entitled king T'Challa, who determines to preserve his kingdom Wakanda in its bubble of isolation. Critic John Podhoretz in Weekly Standard  praises Black Panther's co-writer / director Ryan Coogler for putting the strongest arguments in the mouth of its radical. The final face-off between the two characters results in a satisfying, even redemptive, synthesis.

Black Panther was not in my pantheon when comic books dominated my early adolescence,  so I'm surprised to learn in a little research today that those elements that fascinated me in the movie were present from the very first appearance of the character in an issue of Fantastic Four during the 1960s.  The Black Panther was always T'Challa, king of a technically-advanced Wakanda, responsible for his people as much as for fighting the threat du jourSee the article.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

ASO Plays Kurth, Bernstein, Beethoven: Between the Ephemeral and the Eternal

Composer Michael Kurth's photo of graffiti that inspired his piece.
There's an essential mystery about live music, according to program notes by Michael Kurth, composer and bass player with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.  He writes about what he had in mind titling his orchestral suite "Everything Lasts Forever."  

The individual qualities of each performance are what make live concerts irreplaceable.  Music's delicate and never-ending balance between the ephemeral and the eternal is a source of its mystery and joy, and a temporal art form such as music has the remarkable capacity to communicate to its audience with immediacy and insight.  And its audience, in turn, is able to respond viscerally, at the moment of the art's live creation.  I hope audiences find my music appealing, ... and that the memory of the feelings they experienced stay with them for a long time -- but above all, I hope they find the joy and exhilaration of live music irresistible and keep coming back for more.   

We had a lot of joy and exhilaration Saturday night.  Atlanta's Symphony Orchestra played to a packed house. People around me looked fascinated or delighted.  In the first half, we jumped up to applaud Michael Kurth for his composition as he hugged conductor Robert Spano; and again we stood for Bernstein's First Symphony, conductor Robert Spano, his orchestra, and mezzo-soprano  Jennifer Johnson Cano.  After intermission, we cheered encouragement to young assistant conductor Stephen Mulligan who made his regular season debut unexpectedly because venerable Robert Spano went home to nurse his flu.  Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, with Jorge Federico Osorio at the piano, was much more familiar than the other two pieces, and a delight.

Years after I wrote about Kurth's piece, I'd forgotten all about it, and all about the graffiti on local landmarks that inspired each movement.  But the experience was once again just what I wrote then:    Images of feet by a tagger with moniker “Toes” suggested a foot-stomp motif that kicked off the piece.  Dancing around different sections of the orchestra, these stomps developed through different colors and moods.  A black-and-white image of a bird to which some tagger later added a red heart, inspired “Bird Song Love.”  It’s a simple song played first on celesta, repeated with new colors added on top, until it developed into something much bigger for full orchestra.  The foot stomps returned in the sweet third movement, "We Have All the Time in the World," but gently this time, to tie the piece together in a way that satisfied and charmed. (View more)

Probably more than anyone in the house, I know the Bernstein piece by heart, having listened for years to an LP of the composer conducting it.  I tensed with anticipation of my favorite moment, and then felt great satisfaction as a sweet melody rose up over the percussive "Profanation" of the second movement.  As Kurth observes, the music had its ephemeral visceral effect, apart from my life-long memory of the music.   

Ditto, for all of us, that moment in the Emperor Concerto described  by Ken Meltzer in the program:

Toward the conclusion of [the second movement], one of several masterstrokees in this work creates a moment of incomparable magic.  After a sudden and unexpected shift from B to B-flat, the soloist quietly entices the listener with fragments of the principal theme of the spirited finale, which follows without pause.

The fact that we may have heard the piece scores of times on recordings and concerts doesn't inoculate us against the effect of live music. 

Part of the superlative effect is simply acoustic, I'm sure.  Another part is the investment that hundreds of us have made to be there: money, time, preparation.  There's a visual element, as we see so many musicians intent on their separate parts, moving in concert with the conductor's hands.  Then, the music's shared.  And, as we apprehend it, it's gone.  Listening to a recording is like looking at a photo album of a loved place. For pieces I've never heard live, the recording is good; live is better.  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Bobby Short Sings Coleman and Leigh: My Personal Favorite

"Delightful!"  Dad said, listening to Bobby Short sing songs by Cy Coleman; and then, a few rhymes later, "Just delightful!"

Forty years after I first played Bobby Short's LP My Personal Property, I can't add much to Dad's one word review.  But I'll try to be more specific.

Opening with the promise that "The Best is Yet to Come," the first minute of the album exemplifies what we'll hear all the way through.

First, there's elegance: Cy Coleman's signature vamp, still used in ads today as shorthand for sophistication, is a series of chords snaking down in half-steps, lightly struck on the off-beat, with bass and brushes softly setting an ambling tempo.

Then, there's a playfulness that keeps us off-balance, surprising us from first song to last. Carolyn Leigh's first line is a bit ripe, but her idea clicks in place with the second and third rhymes (numbers highlighting the pattern of rhymes):

Off of the Tree of Life, I just picked me a plum (1);
You came along, and ev'rything started to hum (1).
Still, it's a real good bet (2), the best is yet (2) to come (1). 

Coleman sets "plum" and its rhymes on two syllables, two pitches, sliding down to suggest -- what? a tease? sensual pleasure? Playfulness, for sure.

Pulling it all together is Bobby Short's presence, vocal and instrumental.  He draws out the"m" in "plum" as if savoring something sweet; the "t" in "yet" and "bet" is percussive, contrast to the languid end rhymes. He plays rich block chords or perky little fills in the spaces between phrases, an updated version of how an opera musician accompanies classical recitative:  The music punctuates, but leaves space for the words.  Short's longtime accompanists Beverly Peer on bass and Dick Sheridan on drums discreetly offer variety and emphasis, but the words are always paramount.

Bobby plays a different character with an edge of sarcasm in his voice when he begins "I've Got Your Number":

You've got no time for me,
You've got big things to do.
Well, my fine chickadee,
I've got hot news for you!
For all the playfulness of Coleman and Leigh, Bobby can wring deep feeling from their songs, too.  I'm touched by the final line of "It Amazes Me," because Leigh has set it up so well.  She piles up rhymes, assonance, alliteration, with words in quick succession, amazes, dazzles, dazes, ways, praises, leading us to a conclusion that clicks into place as the inevitable, right, and meaningful topper:

I'm the one who's worldly wise
And nothing much fazes me,
But to see me in her eyes --
It just amazes me. 

Bobby's voice is tender, here, as he plays the sophisticated man of accomplishment who doesn't think himself lovable.

Coleman and Leigh spring their surprises on us in every number, here.  In the liner notes to the album, Rogers E.M. Whitaker says it well:

The Coleman-Leigh legend could live forever on "Witchcraft" alone.  Its glittery, stainless-steel structure, the diamond-cut-diamond humor in the wording, offer a fully equipped playground for Master Short, who knows exactly where every accent, every twist of the tongue should fall.

Just today, Mom and I had to laugh over a triple - rhyme from "Witchcraft" that we've heard dozens of times:

When you arouse that need in me, 
My heart says "yes, indeed" in me.
Proceed with what you're leadin' me to.... 
 Other examples abound from other songs.

On the other side of that line
Where the life is fancy and free,
Gonna sit and fan
On my fat divan
While the butler buttles the tea...  ("On the Other Side of the Tracks")

It's the kiss that defies every dictionary.
Tell you this, though, whatever it is,
It's very.      ("It's")

My favorite may be the one with outrageously long phrases, a dozen "-ate" rhymes (including "reprobate!") and double-entendre that points up the tension between our singer and the silent object of his attention:

I have a feeling underneath that little halo on your noble head
There lies a thought or two the devil might be interested to know.
You're like the finish of a novel that I'll finally have to take to bed -
You fascinate me so!    ("You Fascinate Me So")
I know from reading Bobby Short's The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer that he recorded this album just when this kind of song was being edged out by Bob Dylan and folk music, just a year before the Beatles made their US debut.   It's such a shame, because Coleman and Leigh were bringing new life to the tradition of Porter and Gershwin, building on the work of those pioneers to create songs even more dazzling in variety and wordplay.

I got to see Bobby Short at the Cafe Carlyle in June, 1977, but I was so distracted by not having enough cash to pay cover charge, minimum tab and required tip, that I don't recall the experience, except that Mr. Short, passing by me on his way to the piano, really was short.

When he came to Atlanta around the same time, I had reservations to see him with my mentor Frank Boggs, but I got flu, and my buddy Mark went instead.  Mr. Short invited my friends up to his hotel room for hours of talk after the show.  Reportedly, he was very kind, and pretty annoyed at how customers continued to talk while he played.  "I imagine the two or three people who are out there appreciating every word, and I sing to them," he told Mark.

He and I did sing a duet, once.  In  June 1983, he performed at Chastain Park Amphitheater north of Atlanta.  I sat with eighth graders in a back row.  Mr. Short began a famous verse by Cole Porter: "As Dorothy Parker once said to her boyfriend --."  He paused, and said, "What did she say, Atlanta?"  I shouted, "Fare thee well."  "Very good!" he said, and we continued line by line to the end of the verse, he setting it up, I finishing the rhyme.  "Who says Atlantans aren't smart?" he said, before launching into the chorus of "Just One of Those Things."  Everyone turned to look; the eighth graders were mortified. 

I had plans to see him in New York in 2005, when he died of leukemia.

This album stands out, even above his tributes to Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, and Coward.  The title song, the one with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, ends a catalogue of New York sights with this exuberant line:  "Since today I feel New York is really my personal property -- I'm gonna split it with you."

I'm happy to share the good news about Bobby Short's My Personal Property.

What a Little Sunlight Can Do

As long as I've been a teacher, I've had serious doubts every January and February about my efficacy in the classroom, my worth as a human being, and my ability to keep going to the end of the year.  I'm not the only teacher who feels this way at this time of year: after all the effort to start the school year well, and the exciting build up to the holidays, the "honeymoon is over" in the New Year.

Add to it the feeling that I've been stuck inside, that I'm just going to waste.

Add to that the church's annual budget impasse.

But today, the sun was out, the temperature was up, and the parish gave the Vestry support for pushing forward -- "We all need to give more!"

I even got out on my bike for a twenty-ish mile ride, taking the photos below, sort of a 360 degree view of the spot on the Silver Comet Trail where I turned around in Hiram, GA.  In my ear buds, NPR was playing "The Pulse," a science program that focused today on "wilderness," and I was strangely delighted by the recorded sounds of birds.

Thinking about school, I remembered that my job is to open up the young minds to reading and writing; all the specifics about compound-complex sentences and the difference between "metaphor" and "simile" are secondary, and will come.  No worry!

Let's remember all this the next time I feel so down.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Tivon Pennicott and Quartet Play Spivey Hall

Tivon Pennicott and his quartet play jazz, but they also just play.

My friend Susan and I enjoyed them Saturday night at Spivey Hall, an elegant venue south of Atlanta.  For Tivon, who grew up north of Atlanta, it was a homecoming.  He warmed up a bit before he explained to us, "I'm waiting to play until my family sits down." He smiled at the crowd of people just then sliding into our row - his dad, mom, sister, nephew, niece, and music teacher.

Tivon is a diminutive guy with a big presence and winning smile.  He could concentrate our attention on him as he alternated between passages of soft lyrical melody and some aggressive marcato passages.  I especially enjoyed a moment at the end of a Coltrane piece, when he reshaped a squiggly little phrase  into a full-fledged version of "Stardust."   He was eager to connect to us, and connect us to his friends.

One game they played was, How many sounds can you make with your instrument?  Pianist Sullivan Fortner tickled the wires in his piano, and beat the sounding board; bassist Dominique Sanders plucked the strings below the bridge; drummer Joe Saylor scraped a cymbal with the head of the drumstick and once brought out a tambourine.  Tivon himself tapped the bowl of his tenor sax, and blew air alone, without tone, for effects in a couple of numbers.

But most of the time it was just the game of improvisation that makes live jazz fun.  It's a musical, visual image of male bonding, as the guys pass around the melody the way four guys might pass a basketball and show off with it.  Tivon and his musical partners made each other laugh at musical choices, as, just when they were all ready to come in at the end of Fortner's solo, the pianist took an extra pass at the chorus.  Tivon smiled throughout the show, often stepping to one side to enjoy interplay of Fortner and bassist Dominique Sanders.

During a break, his dad chatted with Susan about Tivon as a boy, telling how he was always at the piano; sax came in high school.  The family was proud to see him traveling the world and recording his second album.  He's working hard, just playing.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Episcopalian Church at Work

Though Sunday's service was just the regular 10:30 at St. James Episcopal church, I was acutely aware how much loving attention to detail lies behind our worship -- behind in hours and centuries. The form of our worship generates meaningful coincidences both by accident and design.

[Photo: View of the church at rest, late afternoon, St. James Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA -- http://www.stjamesmarietta.com/ ]

A meditative organ piece chosen this week by organist-choir master Peter Waggoner prepared us for something solemn; bells in the tower rang out over our silence.  Peter, with the clergy, chose the opening hymn Truro, a melody from 1789 that takes stately steps upward on the lyric phrase, "Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates (436)."  The verses, written around 1600, translated around 1860 by invaluable Catherine Winkworth, take off from a Psalm about entry of "the King of Glory" through the gates of Jerusalem, and end up at a more personal plea that the gates of our hearts might also open wide for our King to enter in.

Our readings from the Bible were prescribed by scholars here and abroad who've devised and revised the lectionary since our church broke from Rome in the 1500s. They chose the readings to fit the overarching narrative of our church calendar, and to relate in some way to each other.  The collect appointed for the day by the Book of Common Prayer, likewise composed for our prayer book to "collect" the thoughts and concerns raised by the readings, also paralleled the outward-inward arc of our opening hymn:
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world:  Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.... 

By accident, two of our oldest, most frail parishioners were designated Lay Readers on Sunday.  Their conditions added resonance to the substance of their texts. Dave read about youthful Samuel ministering to old Eli saying, "Here I am."  Anna, who needed help at the stairs, read how the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.  Their determination to step up to the lectern was an image of commitment to our worship.

Our choir director Peter Waggoner wrote the chant tone that we used for Psalm 139, appointed for today.  This one expresses God's love for us in terms unusually intimate -- "You have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up.... You press upon me behind and before.... Such knowledge is too wonderful for me."  It seems of the same character as the youthful Samuel.

Fr. Roger picked up on the "light" imagery in the collect and spoke about the Spiritual "This Little Light of Mine" -- appropriate for the Sunday of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  He had learned the song as a little child, but had always misunderstood it, he said.  The light is not "mine," or mine alone; and, as every light needs an external source to stay lit, we need those words and sacraments; we need each other; we need what this very church service provides. 

Our anthem by Healey Willan, who wrote the organ voluntary at the start,  was his setting of words I recite many mornings, recommended for the daily morning prayer: "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee...." (from Isaiah).

Of course, communion is beautiful. Around 200 parishioners walked, skipped, or limped forward to the altar; clergy and lay ministers went out to those who can no longer walk that distance.

We sang two hymns, "What Wondrous Love is This?" from the early American shape-note tradition (echoing the Psalm's phrase, "knowledge too wonderful for me"), and another early tune new to me, Hymn 702.  The verses were rhymed versifications of the day's wonderful Psalm 139:

Lord, thou hast searched me and dost know
Where e'er I rest, where e'er I go;
thou knowest all that I have planned
and all my ways are in the hand.
I saw in the room many others involved in different aspects of the Church's operation and ministry -- ushers, decorators, servers, committee members, Sunday school teachers and adult education students, lay eucharistic ministers who take the sacrament to some 15 different shut ins, choir, acolytes, bell ringers, technicians.  Down the hall were those working on hospitality, and promoting our day care's big fund raiser this month.

While I felt buoyed by the service, in the back of my mind are the money worries that have nagged me as long as I've been involved in the church's vestry, about twelve years.

When the church is working well, as it was this morning, I feel like we've got to keep it going, and, should we need to chip away at the Endowment, well, let the chips fall where they may.