Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 2.29

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

I spent some time at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City yesterday. As you walk into one section you see a series of displays about the construction of jazz. They talked about the different instrument groups and what roles they play, but they made clear that there are three important elements to the “language of jazz:”
• Melody
• Harmony
• Rhythm.
A strong reminder on how all music is tied together. It doesn’t matter what style of music you play, it will have it’s own language built on the foundational language of musical concepts and theory. It will build that language with the words, sentences, paragraphs and volume after volume of music on those three basic elements. Music can be said to be built by the interplay of melody, harmony and rhythm. Without getting too deep into music theory, periods, styles and all that (which is too western) let’s link those three concepts.

Music is:
the succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm. the principal part in a harmonic composition; the air. a rhythmical succession of single tones producing a distinct musical phrase or idea. -Link
Here's more that puts all these together:
Melody is what results from playing notes of different pitches - sometimes pitches can be repeated too - one after the other in an 'organised' way. Melodies are very distinguishable and are often singable. However, just the succession of pitches doesn't make a melody. Each note played has a duration. The relation between durations refers to rhythm.

But, before rhythm, lets talk about pulse. Like every living organism, music has a pulse - beats (like that of the heart). And although we not always hear it, it is always there. Do you remember when children learn to clap their hands to follow songs? There is a constant, implicit, beat that happens periodically. In some cases, it is in fact played by instruments. For example, in Australian aboriginal music it is often played by clap sticks.

But rhythm is not just a constant periodic beat. The beat or pulse is like its skeleton. Rhythm is how you inhabit the pulse. Rhythm is what results of combining notes of different durations, sometimes coinciding with the beat and sometimes not. For example, if you can notice in Reggae or Ska music, the guitar or keyboards most of the times play, at times, exactly opposite to the beat.

And, last but not least: harmony. Usually, melodies are not just played alone by a solo instrument or a group of instruments playing the same thing. Very frequently there are 'lead' instruments which play melodies (such as the voice, wind instruments, etc.) and, at the same time, others that accompany them doing something else. This relationship between different notes played at the same time is what we call harmony.

Sometimes this can be done by one instrument such as guitar or piano, but other times by several instruments (like brass ensembles). There are many types of relations between two or more notes played at the same time, but they can be classified into two main divisions: consonance and dissonance. -Link
Again- it is in the interaction of these that what we call music is made. How do we learn to do that? Beyond the obvious issue of scales and listening to your music and those you are playing with, I have a hunch that rhythm is where we need to most practice. The “rhythm” section of any band needs to be solid or the group can’t hold together. I have probably seen many a director work hard with the percussion section in order not to lose the beat, the pulse, the groove no matter what the style of music. Soloists who lose the feel of the music can potentially go off on their own leaving the band either far behind or a couple measures ahead. It is as important to learn how to feel the music as much as it is to play it.

On the website, Learn Jazz Standards, they have a post about four ways to remain mediocre- number 3 is:
Ignore working on rhythm and time.
I find that a lot of mediocre jazz players spend the majority of their time working on their solos and navigating the vast array of harmonic structures jazz has to offer. Everyone wants to be a great soloist, and you will need to work on these things if you want to become one.

But it doesn’t matter if you play the hippest lines or have the best technique if you don’t groove. If your time feel is off, and you neglect all rhythmic studies you will be missing a key ingredient for jazz [or any musical] excellence.

When it comes down to it, if your music doesn’t make people dance on some level, your music will feel off. It has to groove. Your single note lines need to groove, and your accompaniment needs to groove. If you rush or drag too much, it won’t groove.

So if you want to stay mediocre, ignore these things. But if you want to become an excellent jazz musician, start shifting some of your practice time from soloing to rhythm and time. -Link
People may not be dancing in the aisles at a concert band performance, but it must make them move internally. It must make them connect with some pulse. Rhythm is essential.

That’s where the metronome can also come into play. I have previously indicated that I am not very good at working with a metronome. I hate being that regimented. I’d rather just go off and do it at whatever pace I want to, thank you very much! Which is why I am still just barely beyond mediocre in some things. My fear has always been that the metronome will make me too tied in a mechanical way to the beat. In the meantime I haven’t learned the discipline of the beat or learned how the song’s groove moves. Until I learn that discipline I am not ready to move beyond it and bring it alive. Until I can play it smoothly while remaining disciplined, I haven’t learned it.

Music is a living thing. Musicians make those broad kind of statements all the time. But the pulse of music, the heartbeat is in the rhythm. When building athletic or physical endurance we start with a baseline. We often call that our “resting heart rate.” That is exactly where we start with the music. The metronome is the guide to where to start. As time moves on we begin in our physical training to pay attention to optimal heart rates for activities and to know when the rate has gotten out of the groove. Every athlete know the signs of that- whether they name it as part of the rhythm or not. They know the groove that works for them. Once they get it, they can learn when and how to push it.

So I am finally talking myself into using that metronome more often.

Won’t I be surprised when it actually works?


As I said a couple weeks ago, I am going to end year 2 of the Tuning Slide next week. Last year I kept the posts going and ran out of time to get it published before Shell Lake in August. This year the posts will continue after next week, but on a different scope. I will be repeating the jazz series from last summer and adding some new thoughts I have learned from John Raymond. While a lot of it will be jazz related until the end of June, I will try to also in the new posts relate them to music in general. Not to mention how this all makes us better at whatever we do.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

More Reflections on Bonhoeffer

  • The Pain:
To be working against your own country that is as deeply rooted in you as anything.

  • The Confusion:
Wishing for the defeat of your country in war in order to save it from destruction.

  • The Loneliness:
Unable to talk to many people about what you are doing and thinking out of concern for them.

  • The Grief:
That the faith you so strongly believe in has been co-opted or worse, become meaningless in the fight.

  • The Hope:
That what you are doing may bring about a resolution to the problems you are working against.

  • The Peace:
That you are doing what you understand to be the will and calling of God in your life- even if no one else sees it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Is It Really Here?

It's 5:28 am.

Do you know where your spring is?

No- don't look out the window. It might not be there and I wouldn't want you to be too discouraged.

Don't look at the weather forecast. After all to meteorologists spring started before the recent blizzards.

Close your eyes, picture daffodils and tulips; that fresh green of young plants, and play the video.




Now go back to sleep until April.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lenten Journey- Sunday 3- Listening

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship 
consists of listening to them. 
Just as love of God begins with 
listening to his word, 
so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is 
learning to listen to them. 
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Bonhoeffer was writing about what makes a “church” in this devotional classic, Life Together. Over the years before the war he had come in contact with many different styles of being church that changed his own understanding of his traditional German Lutheran training. He saw a need for a “new monasticism” in the church and incorporated that into his seminary he began for the Confessing Church. Part of such monastic-style fellowship he saw was the need to listen to each other.

Listening is hard. It takes effort to pay attention to what someone is saying to us. It has become a cliche that we spend all our time listening thinking about how we will respond instead of paying attention- truly listening. When we are not listening to respond we are not even listening. Our mind wanders, we lose track, we simply nod our head, vocalize some non-committal response, and look interested. The other person doesn’t often catch on because, in essence we are both doing the same things. We are talking around each other, over or under the discussion and not actually being in dialogue.

None of this is helpful, as Bonhoeffer saw it. It is not dialogue, it is not fellowship, it is not learning to love others. No wonder the church was in difficult times and not just with Hitler’s attempts at co-opting, taking over, and eventually destroying the church. It was boring itself to death without love because no one was listening.

Earlier this week we were driving north through eastern Louisiana and Arkansas. As we drove through those wide-open spaces of the Delta two things jumped out at my wife and me. I realized that this issue of listening may be right in front of us. The first thing noticeable was the incredible number of churches we passed on the way. We figured that in the 75-100 miles from just west of Vicksburg where we turned north we must have passed at least 50 or more churches. That averages to one every two miles or so. Not bad when you then realize we would go miles and miles with the farmland and no churches, then a cluster of them, barely half a mile apart.

Most of them were small buildings, like a majority of churches in the United States. Many smaller than houses, but on average, not much bigger than a mobile home or small sanctuary. Every now and then there would be a bigger one, but it was mile upon mile of small buildings for worship.We wondered what the story might have been? Rural people, most of them poor, no doubt, started these churches as places to be together. My wife, not knowing what I was writing about for this week, said, “They wanted someplace to belong- and to be heard.”

They wanted to be listened to! Oh, I am sure that there were enough church fights represented there as well. More like church “brawls” no doubt. Someone wasn’t listened to, someone was misheard and therefore misunderstood, someone was offended by what they thought someone else was saying, doing, or planning on doing. Theology may have been under some of it, too. But in those congregations theology was interwoven with the life, the people, the families, and the relationships. Change in theology can mean disaster to such fellowships. The search for meaningful fellowship was represented in those long string of church buildings lining the Mississippi Delta. It was almost like “house churches” except they came to “God’s House” since no one else had a large enough building.

Listen to each other, said Bonhoeffer. Truly listen. It is as important to listen to the word of your brothers and sisters as it is to listen to the Word of God.

The second thought saw what was more than obvious- the level of poverty and loss these people were living with. It was almost desolate. True- crops were not planted or growing which meant the colors were wintry drab. But the ramshackle buildings, corrugated metal sheds, the hardscrabble existence was obvious. Is anyone listening to them in their silent desolation? Is that even what it is?

Have we who have ears to hear heard that? Or are we still doing the same old thing. We think we know what they should be thinking, even as I am doing in this post. We judge what we think is going on.

And no one is listening to each other. Not truly listening. We throw words and phrases at the problem. We put our two cents worth of spin to it and go away angry or frustrated. We all then become more angry and frustrated at each other. The politics of the day then begins to take that all and spin it some more, further dividing us. One of the great disheartening results of this last election was that it appears no one is listening to each other. One side says they speak for a particular group while ignoring the needs of another; the other side says they speak for a particular group while ignoring the needs of another; and around it goes in a vicious cycle of not listening and not caring.

It is time to learn to listen to each other- not to the media, not to the talking heads and pundits, but to each other. Active listening, alive listening, compassionate listening. Am I, in this Lenten season, willing to listen as carefully to the words of my brothers and sisters on all sides of these issues as I think I am listening to the Word of God. We must have that dialogue of the needs in others. To do that, and I know I am being repetitive, we must listen.


So I am hoping to work more on that this Lent. I need to be able to hear the cries of others- on all sides of these divisive issues. I need to do that with their best interests in mind as well as the awareness that, as a Christian, I am called to affirm their concerns and then seek ways to work with them. So here are some of my guidelines for listening gathered from my experience as well as from myriad sources.

I start with one I learned a few years ago from one of my mentors, Dr. Amit Sood of Mayo Clinic:
  • Assume positive intent with others.
Give others a break. Start with a place of compassion. While words and even actions may imply poor motives, don’t always assume that. Assume that what the other person is telling us is real for them and has a positive outcome. Look for that positive intent as you talk. It may be similar to what we want. Find it and work on it.

  • Don’t interrupt and place your solution on them.
In other words, pay attention and jump in with some quick answer. Hear what they are saying- and what they are leaving unspoken. How does that connect with what I am feeling.

  • Try to feel what the other person is feeling.
Empathize. Don’t assume you understand it, especially if you haven’t gone through the same things they are going through. But keep listening for the feelings.

  • Be patient.
In a conversation with my brother on some of these issues I wanted to jump right in and let him know what I thought was right. I didn’t succeed at being as patient as I would like to have been, but I eventually began to hear what he was saying. We didn’t end up agreeing, but we could find the points where our concerns and discussion could intersect.

  • Ask questions for clarification.
In order to get to that point I had to ask questions. They were not judgmental questions (I hope), but rather seeking for clarification. These are reflective questions, “Do you mean this is what’s important to you? Does this mean you want this or that to happen? What is the most important thing that you want to see happen?” AND, be ready to have those questions asked of you.

  • Affirm areas of agreement.
Don’t get stuck on the disagreements. Find the common ground. Affirm where you are on the same page, even if neither of the answers will satisfy the other person. At least you get started.

Can I do this for the next week? Can I make sure that I slow down my tongue so that it isn't getting ahead of my thoughts? Can I turn off that inner voice that always has the right answers for every issue and let wisdom come from someone other than myself?

Tough to do, I know. But it may be the most spiritual thing I can do on any given day. A number of writers have suggested that spirituality is part of who we have evolved into because it can be a way of interacting in healthy ways with others. Religion hasn’t done well in this department, but spirituality is the ability to care and have compassion and be led to deeper understandings. In the end the most spiritually important thing we can give to another person is to listen to what they have to say without judgement or prejudice or seeking to overthrow their thinking.

It is being a vessel of peace- and the love of God.

Friday, March 17, 2017

My First Ever St. Patrick's Day




Well, sort of, kinda, maybe.




It is my first St. Patrick's Day knowing that my heritage is 6% Irish according to Ancestry.com. The majority of my ancestry is exactly what I knew it was- East European Jewish and Western European. But after that 81% comes Ireland.
  • Is that why I liked the Boston Celtics when I was a kid?
  • Does that explain why I felt at home in an Irish pub across the street from the Notre Dame campus?
  • Does it give any insight as to why Celtic spirituality has always resonated?
No, I don't think so either, but it had to be said.

I don't know how all this stuff works, but I did find it interesting that my Great Britain level was less than 1%. Just proves what the Irish have often told us- they are not really part of Great Britain.

Since I don't drink alcoholic beverages, I will have to find a different way to celebrate my first St. Patrick's Day as part of the Irish crowd. Corned beef and cabbage? Sounds good to me. Maybe I'll get some green food coloring and put it in my water. Does McDonald's still have those green shakes?

A whole new world has opened up to me.

Happy St. Patrick's Day to all!

Oh, just for fun, here again is my short video I did for the camera club on the color green.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

A 50-Year Memory: News Review

What was happening in the world in March 1967? Let's get into our own "Way-back Machine" and see what strikes me as interesting fifty years later....


  • U.S. President Lyndon Johnson announced that Soviet Union Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin had agreed to discussions between the two nations to limit the number of offensive and defensive nuclear missiles that each side would possess. The Americans and Soviets would sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons on July 1, 1968.[A good start that took many years to complete.]

  • A U.S. presidential commission recommended a reform to the American selective service system, in what was described as a "youngest first by random selection procedure". While the existing method was for local draft boards to fill their quotas starting with 26-year old men, the new system would eliminate the 4,100 community draft boards and randomly select registered 19-year old men. "If a man is not drafted at 19," a reporter noted, "chances are good under the new proposal that he would never be drafted short of total war."[Never happened!]

  • CBS Reports aired the first television news documentary in U.S. history to report on gay and lesbian issues. Hosted by Mike Wallace, and viewed by 40 million people, "The Homosexuals" "reflected the bias of the American Psychological Association... labeling homosexuality a mental illness" but also showed gays and lesbians as individuals whose civil rights were deprived. TV critics reacted differently, with Chicago Tribune columnist Clay Gowran, who called the show "garbage" and said that "it was permitted.. not only to justify the aberration but, it seemed, to glorify it", while Tribune columnist Herb Lyon wrote that it "was one of the most intelligent, mature, incisive shows ever produced."[Fifty years can make a difference.]

  • U.S. Navy Lt. (jg) Frank Prendergast became "the only American aviator to escape after being captured in North Vietnam", after bailing out of his plane and coming down off the coast of North Vietnam's Thanh Hoa Province.

  • The first demonstration of "slow motion instant replay" on television was shown to viewers of ABC Wide World of Sports who had tuned in to see the finals of the "World Series of Skiing" at Vail, Colorado. The repeating of the same scene at the same original speed had been shown as early as December 7, 1963, but the Ampex HS-100 made it possible to slow down, freeze, or reverse the action for analysis by television commentators. [The day it became more interesting to watch at home.]

  • The Soo Line Railroad, operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway in both Canada and the United States, permanently discontinued its passenger train operations as its last train, The Winnipegger departed St. Paul, Minnesota at 8:45 in the morning on the way back to Winnipeg, Manitoba. [Yes, Virginia, there were passenger trains before Amtrak.]

  • Battered by a gale, the 974-foot long Torrey Canyon broke into two pieces eight days after it had wrecked, sending almost all of its remaining cargo of crude oil (50,000 tonnes or more than 1.5 million gallons) into the sea off of the coast of Cornwall. [Long before the Exxon Valdez, one of the first really bad such events I remember.]

  • In what was described as "one of history's most stunning elections", the U.S. state of Florida became "the first two-party state in the south" as the Republican Party won 20 of the 48 seats in the state senate, and 40 of the 119 in the state house of representatives. [That's what happens when the Democratic President became a civil rights supporter.]

  • The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit voted, 8 to 4, to affirm a decision ordering the integration of any remaining racially segregated public schools in the six southern states in its jurisdiction, and to do so in time for the opening of the 1967-1968 school year.

  • In New York City, 10,000 gathered for the Central Park be-in. [A be-in? Must have been one of those hippie things, smoking dope and who knows what else! ;) ]

  • Kicking off a tour with The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens and Engelbert Humperdinck at The Astoria London, Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar on stage for the first time. He was taken to hospital suffering burns to his hands. The guitar-burning act would later become a trademark of Hendrix's performances. [A musical milestone!]

  • This picture was shot in England. 
THE picture.
The photo shoot.

    Wednesday, March 15, 2017

    The Tuning Slide: 2.28

    Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
    Last week I talked about anxiety, specifically performance anxiety and some ways to deal with it. My last point in that post was:
    • Have fun practicing!
      I do this because I enjoy it. I need to enjoy the music I make in practice as well. That is where self one learns to trust self two. Maybe I need to stop the tweaking of my plan to get over performance anxiety- and just learn to do it. No, not learn to do it- just do it. And that takes the ability to focus.
    I realized as I was summing up things last week that performance anxiety is enhanced, if not caused, by distraction or lack of focus. When I am “working on" “dealing with” my anxiety I am NOT focused on the music. Distraction causes me to lose my ability to stay on task- even a task that is simple and deeply ingrained. I found that happen several times last week when I was practicing scales sitting on the balcony. It has been my favorite place to practice this winter- the Gulf of Mexico, the birds, the wonder of the sky and beach all add a sense of peace.

    But only if I don’t focus on them.

    So I was running through one of the basic, level one scales, you know, Bb and Eb concert. Most of us can probably do them in our sleep. But not as well if you get sidetracked by something around you-
    Hey, look at that pelican..
    What a beautiful sky it is today..
    Or, well you get the picture. As soon as even the simplest thought entered consciousness, I would miss notes or my fingers would get flubbed up or I would forget where I was in the scale.

    That is a major problem of mine. I have never been diagnosed as ADD, but I sure can be easily…
    Squirrel!
    …distracted,.

    I have improved in my performance distractibility. For one I have a pair of reading glasses that focus best at about the distance of the music stand. I can’t see the movements in the audience as easily. (Chalk up one good thing for age!) I have also learned how to stay more focused on the director from peripheral vision alignment. That way I can stay focused on the music in front of me and not get lost when moving from looking at the music, then to the director and back again.

    The next step in this process is to deal with focus in practice. That brings me back to
    • planning,
    • goal setting,
    • being intentional in my schedule,
    • keeping a journal,
    • recording myself, and
    • using a metronome.
    Here is where I still struggle. I have improved in the first three, but need work in the next three. I have a hunch that if I learn to increase my overall focus in practice, I will begin to find more of it in performance.

    I can do it- any of us can. The best example of that may be that as Mr. Baca and others at the Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop have said:
    If you have six-weeks to learn something- it will take you six months. If you have six days, you will be ready in six-days.
    In the end that may be the best description of focus. Which is why goals, with timelines, are good ideas. They are self-imposed deadlines, yet not so demanding that you resent yourself for imposing them. All in all it is the working on those inner voices that can get us stuck- or soaring to new levels of ability. Focus is being able to sort out the helpful from the unhelpful, the reality from the fear, and learning how to be more in the present. John Raymond, trumpeter and Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop instructor wrote on this in a recent Facebook post.
    About 15 years ago I came to New York for the first time. My dad managed to hook up a lesson with the great Vincent Penzarella and, while I didn't remember this until my dad reminded me a couple weeks ago, he dropped some HEAVY wisdom on me back then. It went something like this:

    VP: "John, why are you here?"

    JR: "I came out to NYC to check out some music schools and I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn from the best."

    VP: "Great! Well, who's been your best teacher?"

    JR: (most likely some immature response, although my first response was much better than I would've given myself credit for back then).

    VP: "The best teacher you'll ever have is your own brain. You know when you are playing and are really in the zone, and then you miss a note. Your brain says "I messed up, oh no." The critical side of your brain can talk very loudly. But you can't be creative when your brain is critical."

    "Your brain allows you to be critical or to be creative, but you can't do both at the same time. The critical side of your brain, especially for a perfectionist in music, can speak very loudly John. You need to learn how to manage that critical side. You are going to have to learn how to talk yourself out of that and let the creative side surface."

    "Your number 2 best teacher is the music. Listen to the music, learn the music, respect the music, love the music, just as it is. It has been around for a lot of years for a reason."

    I only wish I had the maturity back then to internalize all this. Nevertheless, 15 years later and I can confidently say that these words are 100% ON POINT.
    - John Raymond
    Well, it is never too late to internalize it. That’s what these posts and the whole Tuning Slide blog is about. It is moving forward, taking risks, pushing the envelope. It is finding new ways to be a better musician, a better person, and going to new places in our own experience.

    Tuesday, March 14, 2017

    # 6,500 in14 years

    March 9, 2003-
    The starting date of this blog.

    That is fourteen years and 6,500 posts.

    It has been fun and continues to be fun. I have gotten less OCD about making sure I post something every day, but that has given me a freedom to do a bunch of different things with it.

    So, with no further ado, tomorrow we will continue with year 15 and post 6,501.

    See you then.

    Monday, March 13, 2017

    Just Asking...

    I simply typed into Google:
      • Weird Thought for the Day.
    I got several web sites and a few statements that tickled my fancy. So as not to be selfish and unsharing, here are some of them:
    • If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, models deposed, tree surgeons debarked and dry cleaners depressed?
    • Why is it that if someone tells you that there are 1 billion stars in the universe you will believe them, but if they tell you a wall has wet paint you will have to touch it to be sure?
    • Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in hospitals dying of nothing.
    • If quizzes are quizzical, what are tests?
    And one more that is old, but always topical:
    • If con is the opposite of pro, is Congress the opposite of progress?

    Sunday, March 12, 2017

    Lenten Journey- Sunday 2- In Denial

    If my sinfulness appears to me in any way smaller or less detestable
    in comparison with the sins of others, 
    I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer- Life Together

    “Thank goodness I’m not as bad as that guy over there!” These are words that clearly indicate I am in denial and most certainly on the wrong path. I am making one of the most common of hypocritical statements. Even if I try to modify it in a way that admits, that well, maybe I am sinful, that is usually just a way of allowing me to point out the sins in the other person without guilt.

    As Jesus sat down next to the woman caught in adultery he started doodling in the sand. He looked around at the men (almost certainly no woman would have been allowed in such a place) and made one of the most powerful condemnations of human judgmentalism- “Whoever is without sin may throw the first stone” and he went back to doodling. I imagine the crowd quietly slipping away.

    In the Twelve Step programs of recovery and self-help five of the steps have the person look at themselves and find out what they have been doing wrong. Many balk at what seems to be an extreme self-examination. Yet recovery and growth depend on it.
    • Steps four and five are a personal moral inventory; 
    • Steps eight and nine recommend that the person go and make amends to all they may have harmed, not looking for forgiveness, but honesty; 
    • Step ten says continue to take personal stock of one’s life and promptly admit when we are wrong.
    Rigorous honesty is deeply embedded in the Twelve Steps, not honesty at telling someone else what they have done wrong but honestly admitting to oneself and others what we have done wrong.

    That is one of the major points of Lent. This is a time to take inventory of ourselves. This is not a wallowing in how bad we are. It is not a time of self-flagellation over how we have been so sinful it is hard to believe God can even get close to wanting to give us grace. Those have been part of Lent in many times and places- and still are for many. But that can be counter-productive to living the grace of forgiveness.

    As I have often understood it, it is important to realize that I am in just as much need of grace as anyone I may meet. I got into a discussion with a colleague one time about hoping that someone even as bad as Hitler or Charles Manson could be given the grace that allows them into heaven. My summation was simply that if God’s grace is THAT big, then there is also room for me. I wasn’t trying to say there is universal salvation. I’m not sure the Hitlers, Stalins, or Mansons of the world would want to be in heaven. I was talking about the oversized, one size fits all grace of God. (Please- no theological dissertations here. It was not a statement of doctrine!)


    If I am to know grace and forgiveness- and share it with others- then I have to see my human condition. Which brings me to the Lenten questions to ask myself this week in light of Bonhoeffer’s quote.
    • How do I participate in the sinfulness I am condemning?
    This is perhaps the most difficult thing to do. It is one of those psychological insights that we often rant the loudest and with the most anger at the things we are afraid of in ourselves. "Methinks she doth protest too much!" to misquote Shakespeare, is often used to indicate just that. I must look at the ways i benefit from or encourage the things I am finding sinful.
    • How can I discover when my own defects of character are getting out of control?
    If we take the time to pray and meditate in whatever ways we find helpful, the answers to this question will be quite clear. When I'm lying awake night replaying issues; when I'm filled with anxiety about something I said or did; when I am afraid to face a situation because it hurts emotionally- those could be indications that my shortcomings are our of control.
    • When have I not treated my neighbor with the love and respect I want- and need?
    Is it the way of God- if I only treat my neighbor well only when they earn it, but not at all times; or when they stop doing what I don’t like? How about even when I am upset at them? I need to regularly take THAT inventory. 
    • When have I judged others, casting the first stone, so to speak, instead of recognizing my own shortcomings?
    It is almost a cycle, since this question takes me back to the first one and back through the list again. Such a Lenten discipline can bear incredible fruit in peace and a sense of spiritual direction. These questions can even be the start of finding our what my God's will for me is.

    Does all this mean that I cannot speak out when I see evil being done or when people are being taken advantage of or when situations and individuals are acting in ways contrary to the ways of God? Absolutely not. Part of the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was his selfless stands challenging the Nazis and the powers that be in the church in Germany. He did not mince words or soft-pedal the condemnations he was seeing. To look at oneself first is not to ignore the evil that may be happening around us. But we cannot do such challenge from a self-righteous position of being better or holier than the others. Only when we see our own self- honestly and in depth- can we begin to see the ways we are called to speak out from humility.

    But that will come later in Lent. For this week, I continue to dig around in my own soul, learning how to be more in touch with the will and work of my higher power.

    Saturday, March 11, 2017

    Playing with Pictures

    One of the wonderful diversions I get to explore on our yearly "snowbird" adventures on the Gulf Coast is my photography. As any long-time readers of these wanderings already know I have been an amateur photographer since I was 10 years old. In the winter I take a lot of pictures and play with pictures I have taken at other times in order to post them on a couple photo websites, Guru and Pixoto.

    This year I have started experimenting more fully with what are called HDR pictures- High Dynamic Range. (See after pictures for a brief explanation.) I have an iPhone app that takes these pictures as well as another app for my Mac that can create HDR from other photos. So here are some of the ones I have played with recently, just for fun. Notice how they have a more "evocative" feel to them. That's Trey Ratcliff's word. His short description and link to his page are below. Enjoy.

    Along Church Street in Bethlehem, PA at Christmas
    Sunset in Alabama.

    Alligator in the Mobile Alabama Delta.
    Brown Pelican at Bon Secour

    Close-up of the Metro-North train as it got closer than below.
    MTA Metro-North commuter train in New Jersey

    Another sunset picture in Gulf Shores, AL

    From Trey Ratcliff web page:
    HDR is short for High Dynamic Range. It is a post-processing task of taking either one image or a series of images, combining them, and adjusting the contrast ratios to do things that are virtually impossible with a single aperture and shutter speed.

    Friday, March 10, 2017

    Reflections on Bonhoeffer

    For the writing I have been doing on the Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotes for Lenten Sundays, I have been reading the biography of him by Eric Metaxas. I am learning stuff I never knew about the 1930s in Germany and re-learning things I had long ago forgotten. Three issues have struck me.

    1. Size of Germany- and how quickly Hitler took over. Literally a few months and he already had his storm troopers (SA and SS) ready to take over for the regular army. He was elected on January 31. Less than a month later, February 27 the Reichstag (Parliament) was destroyed in a fire, most likely instigated by the Nazis, though blamed on the communists. Within months of his election Hitler had managed to intimidate, legislate, and coerce the end of democracy in Germany with little to no opposition. We forget that Germany is about the size of our states of Montana or New Mexico. Consolidation of power was easier than say it would be in a country as spread out and diverse as the United States. Fortunately!

    2. Taking over the church was part of the plan. It was already a state church when Hitler came to power. He hated the church and religion and was determined to co-opt and destroy it. The Deutsche Kristens (German Christians) movement sought to make it a Reichskirche, a Nazi religion. The almost succeeded but the Nazis were too open about their "theology" and its Nazi ideology. Instead, the overall German Evangelical Church (Lutheran) continued as the state church and was marginalized.

    3. The ineffectiveness of the church in being the church. As a Christian, former pastor, religious individual, this was one more bit of data to add to what I have often seen. In general, the church as we know it has very little effect against such powerful odds. One reason is that it is easy to co-opt the church. One does not have to live in Nazi Germany to see this. Church historian Martin Marty named it "Civil Religion" in the United States. We see it every time we say or believe that we as a nation have a special place in God's favor. It is a mixing of patriotism, nationalism, and Christianity. It easily divides Christians along political and ideological lines and shoehorns theology into whatever we want it to say.

    People like Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller worked at resistance and changing the way things were going. They did not succeed. They were steamrollered out of the way, co-opted by the Nazis and their supporters in the church. They became the "heretics" while those who were twisting Christian theology into Nazi propaganda were the official guardians of "correct theology." They were marginalized by laws making it illegal to be anything but a member of the official state church.

    I am glad we have never had a state church in the United States. The general term "Christian" has often been seen unofficially as that. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have acted that way. I hope we can manage to keep from allowing religion and state to become mixed up.

    But there will be more thoughts on that in some of the upcoming Lenten Sunday posts. Back to my reading. I'll keep you informed.

    Thursday, March 09, 2017

    Some Movie Reflections (A Little Late)

    But better late than never?

    Sure, why not?

    I loved Moonlight.
    That an indie film made it to the Best Picture is almost too much to believe. That it was about the coming of age of a gay man makes it even more surprising. That that gay man is African American. Beyond belief. The acting was amazing; the plot was an interesting take on the development of the main character. Very well-deserved Best Picture.

    La La Land was overrated,but still of good quality!
    I enjoy musicals and some have been magnificent. (Chicago and Sound of Music come to mind.) This one was definitely well above average. The "jazz" theme was right up my alley.  At the same time I was not impressed by the stars' so-so singing and the way Hollywood is always so ready to pat itself on the back. I was afraid that a movie about a white jazz musician would overpower four other excellent movies with Black stars. I'm glad it didn't.

    Hidden Figures was powerful. I left this one crying with joy for what these women were able to do only 50 years ago. While there were scenes clearly meant to ease my white guilt, such as knocking down the bathroom sign, it gave a chilling vision of what racism can do to individuals- and how those individuals can overcome it. I found myself reaffirming the absolute need to address continuing issues of systemic racism and white, male privilege.

    Fences was a tour de force in bringing a stage drama to the screen. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis inhabited these characters like no other. They knew them intimately and allowed us to see their lives, strengths, weaknesses, and above all else, their humanity. I am a fan of stage drama and was pleased to see the power with which they managed to translate this to the screen without using a lot of different movie techniques- just enough to put movement into the life.

    Lion was my favorite of the year and a close runner-up in my book for Best Picture. The first half with the young actor moving across India was mesmerizing. The epic nature of the journey, a real journey to boot, was beautifully portrayed. Dev Patel has come a long way since Slumdog Millionaire and has become a top-notch actor. He has chops! This was the real tear-jerker for me. What a wondrous movie.

    I didn't see Hacksaw Ridge, but am grateful that Mel Gibson gave us a story of a conscientious objector war hero. I am going to see it on DVD. One does not have to carry a gun to be a hero, even in war. Maybe the violence was a little over the top, as some have said, but I have a hunch that any war violence will appear over the top and not even get close to the terror, tedium, and trauma of the real thing. War is hell. Sometimes some people are able to bring some life and presence into it.

    I also hope to see the other nominated movies. They sound as intriguing as the ones I have seen. In short, it looks like it was another good Academy Award season. Too bad we have to wait so long for the next one.

    Wednesday, March 08, 2017

    The Tuning Slide: 2.27- Anxiety

    Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

    I’ve written about performance anxiety before- and my 45 year battle with it. Last May I described what I have always considered my initial bout with it on a Memorial Day over 50 years ago. (I will repeat that post at the end of May, by the way.) Throughout this year I have continued to work on it and I am finding myself improving. I have sorted out some of the other issues like perfectionism, making a fool of myself, worry about what people will think, letting myself down, letting the other musicians down, letting the audience down, and on and on.

    No wonder I get performance anxiety- that’s a lot of heavy-duty baggage I carry around to every performance.

    One thing I have taken note of is that performance anxiety does not generally happen in rehearsals, although there have been exceptions. That usually happens a) in the larger groups when all of a sudden (as if I didn’t know it was coming? Right!) I have a part that stands out, and b) in a final rehearsal before a concert. In fact most of the time in rehearsal my self-improvement plan of the last two years has shown positive results for me. I am generally pleased with how things continue to fall into place. I more often than not leave a practice session feeling fulfilled and relaxed.

    But some of the signs of the anxiety still show up in the performances- overly concerned with what’s going to happen, dry mouth, some nervousness, the feeling down deep somewhere that I’m about to blow it- again. It’s not happening as much as it used to, but it’s still there and I continue to tweak my methods.

    Looking back in my notes from the Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop the other day I found this list of ways to deal with it. I don’t remember (and didn’t note) if this was from one particular lecture at the workshop or a combination of things from different places. If I am neglecting to give someone credit, my apologies. Let me know and I will give you the props for it. In any case, here is the basic note with my updates and thoughts about each as I have worked on it this past year.

    To deal with performance anxiety:
    • Don't be overly concerned about what other people think of you.
      They probably don’t even notice when things aren’t perfect. I have done some improvising- as part of the big band and at a jam session. I am looking to do more of that to help me continue to gain the skills of listening and translating it into the language of the trumpet. I am learning that when I do that, people are usually on my side and want me to do well. No one is sitting there saying, “I really want Barry to mess this up!”
    • Put the performance in perspective
      One performance in terms of whole career? It’s a lot smaller deal than I am making it. Not to mention that I am not doing this as a career. In the while scheme of things any given performance is not all that earth-changing, especially at my level. Yes, there are performances that do make a difference, but most of them aren’t. By experiencing performing without anxiety, I can learn that I am able to perform better than I thought.
    • Breathe. Be in the moment.
      I talk a lot about this- and can utilize it in many ways, except on stage! On stage it seems to enhance the concerns and anxiety instead of easing them. That probably means I need to practice my mindfulness with less depending on it. It does work, but it can’t if I focus my breathing on how I’m about to mess up. Relax- and tell Self One to just be quiet!
    • Take the emotion from the music, not the other way around.
      We are the conduit. Let the music do the talking. Let the horn speak. This is part of the focus we seek in our practice. Did I say practice? I know that too often when practicing something more difficult or a solo part, I tend to look too much on the technical quality of what I am doing. By the time I get to a concert or gig the technical part shouldn’t be a problem. I should be moving well beyond that in my practice room and into the groove, emotion, rhythm, and style of the piece. In rehearsals I should be listening to how my part fits into the greater whole. Whether it is a concert band solo or improvising in a big band piece, I need to know the emotion of the music… and all music isn’t stuck in my emotion of anxiety.
    • Think like someone else.
      Like Miles or Maynard? Well, maybe, but in reality what I almost have to do is begin to think like a person who can play the part- and play it well. I am not the bumbling musician that self one is convinced I am. I know what I am doing- again, especially if I have given practice the time and energy it needs.
    • You are a person who plays trumpet, not a trumpet player who happens to be a person
      It’s like going in a circle- I am back to the first of these ideas. My personal dignity, worth, or self is not the trumpet, t’s in being who I am. THAT is what I want to share through the horn. I am learning how to do that, which makes it easier to put the anxiety aside.
    • Have fun practicing!
      I do this because I enjoy it. I need to enjoy the music I make in practice as well. That is where self one learns to trust self two. Maybe I need to stop the tweaking of my plan to get over performance anxiety- and just learn to do it. No, not learn to do it- just do it. And that takes the ability to focus. We’ll get to that next week.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    By the way, I am going to end year 2 of the Tuning Slide at the end of March. Last year I kept going and then ran into the idea of publishing it which entailed design and editing as well as the actual publishing. This year I’m going to be going at it a little differently. I will have more to say about that in a couple weeks. The posts will continue with repeating the jazz series from last summer before heading into some new ideas. Again, more on that in a few weeks. If anyone has anything you would like me to talk about in the next couple weeks, let me know.

    Tuesday, March 07, 2017

    Hard Work If You Try It

    Monday was a truly spectacular day on the Alabama Gulf Coast. We don't normally get big waves and heavy surf. But when it happens, it is amazing! About an hour before sunset I happened to glance out and saw what I thought was a kite, although it seemed quite large for normal kite-flying, I then noticed the guy in a wet suit holding on to the lower end of the kite. What a day for Kitesurfing! Winds up to 35 miles per hour! Needless to say I grabbed the camera and my wife watched an amazing display of athletic ability.

    (Above) You get a good idea of the size of the kite- and the small size of the person. Amazing.

    (Below) The waves were rolling and this guy was making the best of it, while holding on for dear life, I am sure.

    I was never sure if the kite pulled him up off the water or whether he kind of jumped up. It didn't make much difference- he was doing somersaults while the kite just pulled him.
    I don't know how long he had been playing in the surf when I first saw him, but there is 45 minutes between the first picture above and the one below. Needless to say he was pulled quite a way west on the beach. He was not walking very fast.



    Earlier I got this picture of him as he surfed a few feet off shore. I cropped in close to show the Great Blue Heron sitting there calmly watching this crazy human.

    Hey, when we don't have wings, we have to do with what we got.

    Sunday, March 05, 2017

    Lenten Journey- Sunday 1- Trust to the Word

    Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic.
    Do not defend God's word, but testify to it.
    Trust to the Word.
    It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity.
    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    In this quote Bonhoeffer was talking about preaching. He said it to his ordinands at the “illegal” seminary he was leading during the war. Over the years he had become convinced of the importance of knowing the Word of God, not a particularly popular topic, especially in that moment of German-based theology. He had studied under the modern critical-thinking theologians and had great respect for them, but he was also a friend and follower of Karl Barth who did not feel the same way. The Bible, the Word of God, needs no defending. It is always relevant.

    Perhaps in less demanding times than Bonhoeffer lived in there is the luxury of digging into the Word in different ways, parsing the nuances. But Bonhoeffer had seen in the Black American Church a different way. There was the need to be faithful in the midst of suffering, he discovered, never dreaming in his worst moments that this idea would become so essential in his beloved homeland. To the African American experience of the early 1930s he owed a debt of deepest faith. They taught him the forever relevance of the Bible, even when it may not always seem that way.

    I have to be honest about how I look at the Bible. It is, of course, the product of its time. As I read passages about the subservient role of women in the church I know I am hearing only one side of a story- the side that did the final editing. As I read some of Jesus’ words there is a clear disconnect with other teachings of his. It is easy to twist and turn the meaning of words to fit what you need. I remember being at a youth conference where the preacher excitedly made a quote from the Book of Job. I scratched my head since that quote did not fit the book as I remembered it. So I looked it up. It was from the Book of Job, but they were words from one of the false comforters trying to explain to Job why he was suffering. It sounded good when preached, but they were words that God discounted a few chapters later.

    Everything I need to know about living a faithful life is in the book- and that, Bonhoeffer would say- is all I need to know.

    Even today in this time of division and uncertainty. Even today when some “preachers” seem to say that if you disagree with the president you are following the Devil. You are Satanic. Even today in a world that has such different views of history, creation, government, people than in the time of the Biblical authors. How then can we find the relevance?

    1. Be honest about yourself.
    Don’t think more highly than you ought to think. Your opinion of yourself will seriously impact my view of what I see in the Word. I may ignore the passages that challenge me- and emphasize how they challenge someone else. But we do think better of ourselves. Research has shown that we often think of ourselves in the top 20% or higher- even when all the evidence says we’re not.
    How can I become open to letting my own behavior be the first place I challenge and look to change?

    2. Be prayerful!
    Bonhoeffer did not see how anyone could preach without having the discipline of prayer. It was inconceivable to him!
    Bonhoeffer was not a “Fundamentalist” nor was he a “Liberal.” It is wrong to put opinions from the last 70 years into his thoughts. He was faithful! He knew what the Bible was all about, and that was not necessarily rules and regulations. It was about being in communion with God and others. That starts in and with prayer.
    How can I be more prayerful and prayerfully mindful this Lent?

    3. Be open to other points of view than your own.
    In spite of what some churches, preachers, and others may think, they do not have all the answers. No one does. A quote I’ve heard many times says If I can understand and explain God, than I’m not talking about God. Or, put another way, such a God that I can understand is not worth worshiping. There may be truth found in different opinions, something important to learn, but not everything can be true at all times. That can be confusing, sure. But in a prayerful life, we can learn discernment.
    How can I find ways to listen, explore, and seek for insights, even in those with whom I may disagree?

    4. Be willing to stand on your convictions.
    Being wishy-washy will get us nowhere. Yes, there are broader truths and understandings than I may be willing to admit. Yes, I may even be wrong sometimes in my opinions. But when it is necessary, I must be willing to stand by what I believe.
    How (and when) have I been afraid to speak my convictions?

    5. Be obedient to God’s word.
    When I discover all these things above (and others that I will add to this over these weeks), I then must be obedient. This understanding of The Word is not just (or even) an intellectual exercise. It is a discovery of what I am called to do and how I am called to live in my life. Most of the time this can be quite easy. I am fortunate to live in a time and place where that is possible. Bonhoeffer, in the end was not. The fear of many in this time- and it was a fear of others for the past eight years (see # 3 above!)- is that this could change. I need to learn the discipline of obedience now, when it is safer, so it will be a habit if it changes.
    Where is my obedience lacking or less than it can be?

    In the end, putting this all together with the world I am living in that has spurred this spiritual journey, I can perhaps look to Bonhoeffer’s mentor for a piece of advice I have heard for over 45 years:
    Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. 
    But interpret newspapers from your Bible.
    -Karl Barth
    May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to God, my Creator!

    Thursday, March 02, 2017

    The Tuning Slide: 2.26- Watching and Listening

    Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

    Sometime it is just neat to be in the audience when music is being made. Part of the discipline of being a musician is to go and hear others playing in performance. I have had a number of opportunities to do that over the past few months and have come away with some insights that I hope I can apply to my own public performance. In particular I have had the time to hear some types of music that I don’t personally play. When I go to a concert where I am hearing different types of music, I kind of mentally prepare myself with five questions. These help me focus on the music, not so much from a technical aspect but from the perspective of a music fan. These questions:
    • What’s familiar?
    • What’s different?
    • What’s new and interesting?
    • What do I like about it?
    What can help me in my own playing and performance?

    The most interesting concert for me was the Russian String Orchestra in a relatively small (500 seat) venue. It wasn’t quite like sitting by the stage in a club environment, but it was close. I very seldom get to hear strings in person. And even less do I get to hear “just strings” in person. Strings have a unique and wondrous sound in an orchestral setting. I can still remember the first time I heard an orchestra in person. I was 22 and just about to graduate from college. I spent the summer in Austria and there I heard a chamber orchestra perform in a local cathedral. I was swept away. The sound of such an ensemble is hard to match.

    The Russian String Orchestra consists of 16 string players, violin to double bass. My first thought was, “Gee, that’s about how many we have in our big band.” But there wasn’t a trumpet, trombone, saxophone - or amplifier- in sight. Which is the first thing that caught me up short; this is a 100% acoustic performance. There’s no manipulation of the sound, what is there is what you hear. It is not a “large” sound, but it does get through. It has an amazing range of dynamics. The quiet subtlety of a pianissimo section is almost breathtaking in its simplicity- and wonder. That they can easily move from that to a fortissimo that brings thunderstorms to mind is even more amazing. The ability to have that kind of control over one’s instrument is almost miraculous.

    Which is the first thing I took away from the concert. The hours of practice it takes to be that controlled in your music is critical, as I have talked about before. But to hear the results of that practice shows what a great gift it can be to the audience. Trumpet players aren’t traditionally known for their subtlety. Maybe it is worth working on that. Yes, it is difficult in a big band of brass and woodwinds to get that, but the result- for the audience- is priceless. Music is not just blasting away or developing high screaming notes or even a fast chromatic run. The silence between the notes may be just as important, which is where the subtlety can be born.

    The concert itself was purely “classical” string music-style. No pop numbers adapted for strings. It was the real deal. And, no surprise, it used all the same notes that every other band I play in uses. The rich variety of music available to us to hear and play is remarkable. On top of that, it also follows many of the same rules that I have been working on with my jazz improvisational learning, and most certainly what I find in Arban’s, Clarke, or Charlier etudes.

    The second thing I did was I listened more closely to get the groove of the music. I could pick out certain musical progressions that I am trying to become intimate with- variations on the ii-V7-I cadence found in so many jazz and popular numbers were there. So was the eight-bar phrasing at times, giving me the movement I could flow with. Hearing the music being moved around the different instruments, allowing each section and, on one piece, each member, to show off their virtuosity was entrancing. I moved with the music- and it became even more alive.

    Again, how much work goes into that? These musicians were more than proficient- they were professionally expert! Part of what they have done is to learn the music, feel the rhythm, and then allow the music to transfer through them and their instrument to their fellow musicians and to the audience. That is back to the control of their instrument (remember self one) allowing the natural development of the music to intuitively come out (remember self two.) But what I took away for me, beyond the practice and “Inner Game” thoughts, is again those three things we have talked about before:
    1. Every time you play you have a great- not a good- sound.
    2. You have great- not good- rhythm.
    3. You have great- not good- ears to hear the sound.
    All three of those came together with what I was hearing.

    The third thing that I have learned to watch when musicians are performing is how do they look? Are they just doing a job, or are they interested, engaged, even excited. I had seen that in a concert of Irish music and dancing the week before. Those young people were remarkable in their raw energy and their ability to harness it for the show. They were not polished like, say, Riverdance. But they were every bit as good. They were excited by the performance and the engagement with us the audience.

    I saw that same kind of excitement with the Russian Strings. They were having fun. Being in such a small venue I could easily watch their faces, their eyes, the movement of their bodies. I saw them look across the orchestra and smile when someone did a great job. I watched them lean into the music and get ready for the next section that was important to them personally. I saw the little communications that passed information from one to the other. They were intensely involved in the music, they liked the music, and they were excited to be able to play it.

    Part of that comes from their incredible intimacy with the music and the way they have learned to listen and work with each other. They may all be highly skilled, but they clearly know at this point in their careers that they need each other. I hope they never lose that. Part of it, too, is that they, like the Irish group the week before, truly like what they are doing. They get that from their conductor. He loved directing the music; he loved the opportunities this orchestra gives young people; he is excited by sharing it with us in the audience, even when the microphone didn’t work as well as he wanted it to. He was contagious- the orchestra caught it. The orchestra was contagious- and we caught it.

    It was a great evening of music. But it was also a great evening of learning for me and a reminder of why I do what I do with my music. Yes, it feels great to be able to build my chops and, for example, move through 12 major scales with little effort, or (Mr. Baca, Steve, and Warren take note) regularly hitting that high “C” and “D”. But if that is all I do, it will be nothing more than a selfish endeavor. It is in the performance that the true magic of music does its work. Therefore:
    • Deliberate practice to be able to give better performances. Develop the breadth and subtlety of the music.
    • Maintain the interest in finding new ways to be excited by what I am doing.
    • Stay engaged with the music and the groove in performance so it can fit together.
    • Put all these together on the bandstand or concert stage.
    • Be contagious and let the audience catch it.

    Wednesday, March 01, 2017

    Lenten Journey- Ash Wednesday- Interrupted By God

    We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.
    God will be constantly crossing our paths and
    canceling our plans by
    sending us people with claims and petitions.
    We may pass them by,
    preoccupied with our more important tasks…
    When we do that we pass by
    the visible sign of the Cross,
    raised athwart our path to show us,
    not our way,
    but God’s way
    must be done.
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer- Life Together

    Bonhoeffer. He has been much in my thoughts over the past few months. He is one of the heroes of the faith that early on had an incredible impact on me. It was 1971. I was at my first ever church camp. I was a counselor, invited by a friend, to help him lead a course on the church and war. The program leader first introduced the camp to Bonhoeffer in one of his morning lectures. Bonhoeffer was a theologian and pastor in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. He died 26 years before in 1945 in the waning days of World War II- imprisoned and executed by Hitler’s SS as the result of his participation in an attempt to assassinate Hitler. He had been a major opponent of the German Lutheran Church’s support of Hitler and the Nazi policies. He was a founding leader of what came to be known as The Confessing Church.

    He has become one of the guiding theologians on wrestling with grace and discipleship, the church and our role in the world. The Cost of Discipleship remains a relevant classic; Life Together may be one of the single best theologies of church life; Letters and Papers From Prison shows his ongoing pastoral concerns. A giant of a man.

    Over the past two months I have been writing a series of nine posts related to dealing with impressions, reactions, and concerns that have arisen for many people since the election in November. Many have described their reaction as a “Dark Night of the Soul.” I explored the Dark Night as an essential experience to getting closer to union with our Higher Power. It doesn’t matter what political or non-political situation starts the journey through the dark night. I believe many on both sides of the political spectrum have experienced this in many different ways over the past years- not to mention centuries. What is important is opening ourselves to the ways that we may be being led. I am not an active pastor any more. I am writing as a person on a spiritual journey, giving voice to my own concerns and yearnings for peace in my soul and in my land. I speak for no one but myself. (Link to the posts.)

    The question comes down to a very simple (though not easy) one for me:
    How does one live the spiritual life in the midst of cultural, social, and religious unrest?
    The answer for me started in allowing the dark night to open me up to surrender to the ways and will of my Higher Power, whom I call God as revealed in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Please note: I am writing personally as a Christian. I will talk about “God” and “Jesus Christ as Lord” and the “Holy Spirit” in this series. Lent is a Christian journey with Jesus to His death and resurrection. These, and the Jewish underpinnings of the Christian faith, are who I am. They are the language that speaks to me. But I believe the spiritual journey of the soul knows no denominational or specific faith tradition.

    The second question builds on the first:
    How does one live in the world when one has journeyed what may be called the mystical path into some form of greater union with God knowing that the ultimate union must wait until after this life?
    As I came to the end of the previous series I realized I needed to dig more deeply into those questions. I also realized that Lent is the perfect Christian season to do so! At the same time I came across a post on Facebook by “The Contemplative Monk” who described the journey of Lent:

    Lent is the church season we die to ourselves, lament our loss, fast, and pray, to be enabled to live a resurrected incarnational ‘Christ in us’ life. No one lives a resurrected life without dying daily. 

    With that in mind here’s what I hope to do in the weeks until Easter.

    I will be posting a series called “Interrupted by God” which is a phrase from the quote above. I have found 12-14 of the most commonly noted quotes from Bonhoeffer and will deal with one each Sunday of Lent and each day during Holy Week until Easter. I will be looking for direction on how to live in difficult times or even times when things seem to be going downhill far too quickly.

    In so doing I will be seeking words of
    • grace and peace, 
    • conviction and repentance, 
    • atonement and forgiveness. 
    • I will be looking for the ways that, as a follower of God, I can seek God’s will and the power to live it.
    It begins with today’s quote at the top of this post. Here is what that quote said to me as I begin Lent, 2017.
    • We need to be ready to be interrupted by God.
    It is way too easy to be busy. In my busyness, which even includes my plans on being spiritual (!), I can easily overlook the presence of God in my life. This is not a new insight. Rather it is one that has been one of those human failings that so many of us have. We can be so busy with what we think is God’s work (or not) that we don’t see the work in front of us.
    • God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans
    In my experience God does not suddenly grab me by the back of the neck and pull me Godward. Nor does God hit me with a  2x4. At least not very often. God more often just walks in front of me, crossing the path where I had been going, and getting my attention with more subtlety than we may expect.
    • Sending us people with claims and petitions.
    The subtlety is because God uses other people. For me, in my experience, these people are often those we have so easily “labeled” as the “least, and lonely, and lost.” Nice categories but what happens when the person in my path is not a least, a lost, or a lonely person, at least on the outside? What happens if it is a person with “privilege” fighting her own struggles? What if it is a person I don’t feel comfortable around? There is where this interruption by God becomes meddlesome.
    • We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks…
    We do have choice, “Free Will!” We can say no. We can continue on our way. “Yes, I see you,” we may say, “but what I’m doing is so important. I have hungry to feed, sick to visit, strangers to welcome.” These are good things, even important things. But sometimes the person right there in my path needs something from me, or perhaps even more likely, is a way for God to get my attention. But I can move on.
    • When we do that we pass by the visible sign of the Cross,
    There's always - BUT! The visible sign of the cross is what I am ignoring. The visible sign of the cross- the sign of God’s action in Jesus- calls me to live and love as Jesus did. Isn’t that what the inner journey of the dark night was supposed to teach me? But in my free will, forget it. Oh how blind we can be when we choose not to see.
    • raised athwart our path to show us, not our way, but God’s way must be done,
    Not my will but God’s be done. Amen.

    But how then do I bring this into my life? How do I discover God’s way? I must ask myself some questions. Perhaps even each day- and often each day...
    1. What is interrupting my life right now? Might that be a call from God to move in that direction?
    2. How can I learn to more clearly see the “visible signs of the cross” when I am moving through my day?
    3. Am I willing to follow the directions of my Higher Power, praying only for God’s will for me and the power to carry it out?
    As I write this I realize how big a task is in front of me this Lent.

    May I be willing to stop and see the cross-
    and the ever present promise of life!

    A 50-Year Memory: Video for March

    Four songs were #1 in March 1967, each for only one week.
    First week- the Rolling Stones and Ruby Tuesday. Jagger is his normal self.
    The next week the Supremes came in with Love is Here and Now You're Gone (not one of their top efforts in my book.
    Week three- the other British supergroup (The Beatles) showed up with Penny Lane.

    Sorry, but I gotta go with The Beatles in one of their typically quirky videos.




    By the way, the fourth song also carried into April, so I'll wait until April 1st to post that one. No fooling. I really will.

    Tuesday, February 28, 2017

    6. The Dark Night of the Soul- Through and Beyond

    Many of us might be saying as we move through these dark night times:

    • This is impossible.
    • I can’t do anything about what’s happening yet it keeps me awake at night.
    • How can I have a good dialogue with others?
    • I don’t have the energy to do what can be done.
    • I can’t find a reason to hope somedays.

    This does look and feel that way. A local church has had a statement on its outside sign for over a month now…
    Hope in an apocalyptic world.
    Says it all. Everything is falling apart. The end is near.

    And yet, an apocalypse, in Christian tradition, is not just a cataclysmic destruction- it is a prophetic revelation of what God is going to be doing. And that brings us back to the Dark Night of the Soul and the journey with God.

    Here are the ultimate questions, for me at least, in this series of the Dark Night:
    How then does one live after the Dark Night? What is the result of this journey when we get through it?
    John Drury in an essay titled The Spiritual Theology of St. John  of the Cross says:
    The dark night of sense not only overcomes evil but also infuses good into the soul.  It gives knowledge of self and one’s misery.  This makes it possible for the proficient to have courteous communication with God.  The gift of knowledge extends beyond oneself to God’s grandeur and majesty.  Knowledge of human lowliness and divine greatness produces genuine spiritual humility, from which stems love of neighbor. 
    The fruits of this journey are humility, knowledge, virtue, and love for God and others. -Link 
    Beyond that, John of the Cross doesn’t give us much of an answer. One of the more common criticisms of him is that he doesn’t deal with the every day life of a person who has experienced the union with God. Part of the reason for that is simply that such a union does not fully occur in this life. The contemplative life, one built in prayer and meditation is powerful and may even feel good. But if it doesn’t have an impact on how we live and what we do in this life, does that mean, then, that the life after the dark night is one of simply waiting around to get to heaven?

    I don’t think so. One of the reasons I don’t believe that is true is simply from my experience and the experience of others in dark night situations. I return to the spiritual journey and tools that have led me and many others- the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and their basic text, often referred to as the “Big Book.” In chapter 5, “How It Works”, the paragraph following the listing of the Twelve Steps says:
    Many of us exclaimed, "What an order! I can't go through with it." Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.
    How then do we maintain the spiritual journey once the dark night has shown us our powerlessness and our need for a “higher power”? After we have cleansed our souls, made it right with others, and taken responsibility for our own actions, then what? When we recognize our own imperfection and perhaps even knowing or unknowing participation in the darkness, what can we do?

    Step 11 says that we continually seek awareness of our higher power’s will- and ask for the power to do it. We do this through regular practices of prayer and meditation. There are some principles behind that, of course.
    Honesty
    Open-mindedness
    Willingness
    With these come humility and acceptance of life on life’s terms.

    In order to do that there are some practices that we can develop.
    Dr. Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic who was one of my mentors a few years ago, says that we need to develop spiritual practices that help keep our lives as stress free as possible. The more stress, the more likely we are to veer away from the better ways of the spiritual life. It always starts with working on ourselves- the only person we can truly change. On his blog, Dr. Sood lists some practices that help in our daily self-inventory and discovery of acceptance.
    Pick one of the practices noted below for today, or create one of your own.
        •    Today, I will consider that most people around me have good intentions.
        •    Today, I will try to gain a complete perspective before making any conclusions.
        •    Today, I will try my best to look at well-meaning intent in a previous situation where I got hurt.
        •    Today, I will keep good intentions all day long.
        •    Today, I will forgive myself for a previous unhealthy thought.
        •    Other: (create your own)
    Another idea from Dr. Sood is to get in the habit of picking a “theme” for each day. Start the day with an awareness of the theme and then look for ways to live that throughout the day. He lists the following:
    Monday- Gratitude
    Tuesday- Compassion
    Wednesday- Acceptance
    Thursday- Higher Meaning
    Friday- Forgiveness
    Saturday- Celebration
    Sunday- Reflection
    This kind of discipline can help keep us grounded in our spiritual lives. It can remind us on a daily basis that we can make a difference by how we live and treat others. What the Dark Night leads spiritual people to is a position of witness. Perhaps at times these witnesses are in the form of being the source of repentance for ourselves and our nations.

    I come now to some of the ways we can apply these to our current situation- the one that triggered this dark night in the first place. Many are still struggling with the election and its real life consequences on many people. What is interesting to me is that many of those who are feeling this way are doing so out of a real concern for others.
    • We see issues of racism and intolerance- dangerous and toxic ideas that seriously undermine who we are as a nation. 
    • We see issues of people possibly losing health care or much needed Medicare or Social Security benefits. For a nation that says it cares, this is a disaster. 
    • We see the wealthy 2% getting breaks while the potential for fewer benefits for those who can least afford it is real. For a people who claim democracy and equality, this is a witness against us. 
    • We see refugees and immigrants lumped into religious-based prejudice from people who can’t tell the difference between Muslims, Sikhs, or Hindus. 
    • The press is being unmercifully attacked as an enemy, voter suppression is a real possibility- and this from those who claim to uphold the Constitution.
    No wonder many are confused and scared.So let me start by calling us to our own living out of compassion. We need to be cautious that we do not succumb to hateful or mean reactions. We need to maintain our own integrity. We need to be able to listen to what the other side is saying. If we are truly all Americans, we need to find ways to work together. In so doing we also need to find ways to counter the prevailing “party line” of Mr. Trump, Mr. Bannon, and their associates.

    Unfortunately we are in an uphill battle. You may have discovered, as I have, that logic does not tend to win any arguments in this or similar situations. No matter what the issue, no matter what side we are on, we all tend to follow our own biases. If it confirms our point of view, we believe it, even when it is downright impossible to believe. The NRA used the “Obama is going to take away your guns” meme so powerfully that many believed it- because they believed it. We will also see in Mr. Trump the confirmation of our fears. When we do so, we need to be careful we do not fall into the same hysteria that we have seen from others. This has been difficult and I am failing at it regularly. But I keep trying.

    Underneath this we need to maintain non-violence. The lives of Dr. King and Gandhi are beacons to us. Believe it or not, there are actually studies (admittedly cautionary) that seem to show that non-violent resistance has been more successful at bringing about hopeful change than violence in many places in the world. We must not allow violence to take center stage. We must find ways to maintain the peaceful way even when others- often a very small minority- get the headlines for violent behavior.

    In the research and reading for this series, I came across this quote from Shane Claiborne in the book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals:
    Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.
    I also live with the question, “What if things do continue to get worse? What if the actions of the administration continue to undermine democratic activity, increase racism and intolerance, and even lead to violent confrontations? What if even a small part of the worst of our fears comes true?

    We must maintain our stand. We must stay informed. And I don’t mean by watching either left- or right-wing media. Take the time to follow a variety of reputable news sources that probably lean either one way or the other. New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, National Review and The Guardian can give a wide view point. You don’t have to agree with all that they say, but most of the time they do tend to be a little more balanced than (in my opinion) any of the TV news outlets of any stripe.

    After that, there are three things that those who have had some experience of union with a Higher Power through a dark night journey can and should do.
    •     Protect your soul and spirit.
      • Maintain your own spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, yoga or Tai Chi, worship, communion.
      • Don't let the negativity, hatred, or anger subvert your growing awareness of your spiritual life .
      • Find ways to put your feelings into healthy words so others may be better able to understand why you feel the way you do.
    •     Help others protect their soul and spirit.
      • Be a good listener to people on all sides of the issues.
      • Listen to the cries of all who feel least and lost on both sides, remembering that perception is felt as reality
      • Don't attack others in vengeful ways but hear the pain and fear that has led them to their position.
      • Know that we are all in this together and that we all have our biases that can get in the way.
      • Be as forgiving of them as you would want others to be to you. You are the one who can change your reaction.
    •     Bear witness
      • Some are calling this a time of resistance. Resistance is a way of bearing non-violent witness. 
      • Be cautious and loving in your witness. Just the very act of resistance can feel like a provocation to those being challenged. Maintain the peace! 
      • Speak up for the least and the lost, the stranger and the hungry, the sick and lonely. Those of us who are in some space of privilege need to find healthy ways to use that privileged place to improve the world.
    In doing this wrestling over the past months has reminded me that the spiritual life and union with our Higher Power is for this life! It is NOT a pie in the sky for someday we will be in heaven kind of message. The dark night occurs because we have experienced a significant spiritual and cognitive dissonance. This is not who we are nor is it who we want to be seen. What can this mean?

    It means contemplation AND action. It means affirming life and peace. It means resistance with compassion.

    This of course is but a small step. We can only think and act locally in our own lives. Over this time I have felt drawn to the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer many times. I am going to do a series for Lent here on the blog called Interrupted by God, a phrase taken from one of his quotes. Yes, there are certain issues with Bonhoeffer and I hope to dig through those.

    I will start this tomorrow- Ash Wednesday and continue every Sunday of Lent and through all of Holy Week. I have picked a quote for each day and I hope to be able to read more on Bonhoeffer through Lent.

    I invite you to join with me on this and continue our individual journeys to our ongoing spiritual awakening and practicing these spiritual principles in all we do.

    Blessings and grace!