Sunday, May 27, 2012

Life review by means of musical memories

I purchased a CD featuring  Zamfir on his pan flute. I had been looking for it for a while. Wonderful stuff. When he played  “Lara’s Tune,”  I was transported back to the Student Union at Wichita State University in the late 1960s. My husband had died a few years earlier and I was taking summer school classes towards a master’s degree in English to improve my work prospects.  I had four children to support. 

I left for Wichita, about 60 miles away, early in the morning before the children were awake.  They had to get themselves up and make their own breakfast and lunch.  I returned shortly after lunch. But there, in the Student Union, “Somewhere my love,” or Lara’s Tune,  the theme song from the dramatic movie Dr. Zhivago floated from the juke box every noon as I ate my solitary lunch of one hamburger.   My thoughts were not with Dr. Z’s search for his lost Lara, but with my children, alone at home, wondering what they were doing, and why I wasn’t with them. 

That little return journey into the past reinforced for me that music, in any form,  is always more than just a group of notes set to a beat. Each remembered piece is a powerful symbol that evokes our inner journey, the part other people can’t see.  

When I was a child I learned “The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me.”  That little tune still evokes good memories of vacation Bible school sword drills and flannel graph lessons. 
“The little brown church in the valley” also brings back good memories of driving in our over-packed car to church on Sunday mornings with everyone but Mother and the baby singing  “There’s a church in the valley.” We sang gleefully,  shouting with childish gusto at  the chorus:  “Come, come, come, come, come to the church in the valley.”  We were singing in parts. We were a family. We were whole. 

But on those trips Dad also sang Heimatlieder (Songs of heaven). They had a dimension I never understood until decades later. These hymns sung with great feeling by the Mennonites in the Ukraine during the  1917-19 Revolution and the famine that followed expressed a longing to move to a better place where  hunger, illness,  sorrow,  violence in indescribable forms,  and death would be no more. 

I remember best  Meine Heimat ist dort in der Hoeh” (My home is up higher), but my immigrant father sang many more of these songs  in the car and with the congregation in the little church we attended about twenty miles away, a good hour’s travel that included a ferry boat ride. Those songs said, “Get us out of here, Lord. Life is too painful.”

Growing up were songs we learned in school, all very British and Canadian.  “D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay?”   We children knew nothing about Peel’s red coat or hunting foxes with hounds, but we sang with abandon about him, the  Men of Harlech,  and the Minstrel Boy who went off to war with “his father’s sad harp slung behind him.” 

The romantic music   of my youth like The Blue Danube, Skater’s Waltz, Beautiful Dreamer, and many more still makes me fairly swoon. Life was opening up. Life was delicious.  A  young man who had taken my fancy whistled “Mexicali Rose” every time  he strolled past our yard.  I rushed to the gate when I heard him coming. 

I recall the youth fellowship choruses  during my Saskatoon days, also the piano music,  Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, my husband and I listened to together after the children were in bed – relaxing yet uplifting. 

When daughter Christine was dying she and I  played the Singing Nun’s “Joy Is Like the Rain,”  until I was sure we would wear the record out. That recprd  will always be  comfort but also a  sorrow.

As I get older I find myself turning to the old hymns and Gospel songs I sang earlier in life. They show me a well-worn path to God’s presence.  I still wait for the rolling basses to come in at the chorus of  “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.”  And I sorrow for congregations who have never learned to sing four-part harmony and never heard a huge congregation sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” while knowing that you belonged to these people and that these people were yours. 
Hymns teach theology like preaching never can, especially those sung so often the words are imprinted indelibly on my mind. When we elders hear only praise choruses, sometimes with a disturbing beat that hurts our eardrums,  or even just the chorales  first sung  during the Reformation period, we feel disoriented.  We have lost powerful symbols of our faith that regularly drew us into the presence of God.  These old Gospel tunes  remind me of the familiar Lord to whom I committed myself years ago. 

Life review is an important exercise as we age I am told by gerontologists.  It can be done in many ways.  Through remembered, or re-entered music, is just one, a good one.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Trying on the future for size

Whenever I find too many familiar names in the obituary section of the paper, I go to the dark corners of my closet and gingerly haul out Death once again to try on for size. 

I’m sure most people my age at some time try on this certain future for size.  We know the past. Sometimes it was a good fit, almost like a new Spandex girdle. Other times it was way too big, too small, too heavy, too light –and we wished what we were experiencing would go way.

One thing about the future is sure: Our lives as we knew them here on earth will be over.  Our bodies will end up, possibly in a coffin, possibly cremated, but as dust, somewhere. And we have questions and concerns. 

I think of my young uncle who with his family was lined up against the wall to be shot by the revolutionaries in the political upheavals in Russia in 1917-19.  Decades later, he remembered thinking: “One of those bullets is meant for me. Will it hurt?” 

That’s the question I ask as I think of death, exact time unknown: “Will it hurt?”   “How long will it take to die?”  “And after death, what happens?” 

I listened to a gerontologist, whose specialty is end-of-life issues, lecture recently at LifeVentures, an enrichment program for older adults.  He assured us that dying didn’t need to be a long, agonizing journey. Hospice has the means to alleviate pain.  But, still, I feel like Woody Allen, who said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I prefer to live. I still have too much on my bucket list.

Unfortunately, there is no trial run for death like there is for childbirth. When our first daughter was born, the intense, gripping pains of end-stage labor took me by surprise. I felt I was being torn apart.  Before the birth of our second daughter  I told myself boldly that I was going to do this the natural way and experience this baby’s birth without anesthetic, at least not as much. Preparation helped me control the birthing process to a certain extent.  

So here we are, this growing group of aging men and women,  trying on a certain future for size. We read the daily obituaries as if religiously obligated.  Which ones are younger, which ones older? When will our name be here?  Who will care? 

Our culture mixes sex with everything, some totally unrelated to it. Food, cars, vacations, toothpaste, whatever.  I keep thinking we will soon get ads for coffins with a voluptuous, semi-clothed female draped over them like lounge singers over a grand piano.  

Yet I doubt that because our society hesitates to talk freely about death or have a close association with the process unlike another age when poets wrote much and often about death. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote, “Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality.”  
Dying now takes place in hospitals and hospices, away from daily life—too scary, too intimidating.   Our society doesn’t want to think that there is a time when we have to leave this world, yet in Fanny J. Crosby’s (1820-1915) old, but familiar words, “Some day the silver cord will break. Some day my earthly house will fall.” 

Yet a fast surf through TV stations will show shooting after shooting, bludgeoning after bludgeoning, by any and all means.  People drop by the dozens, covered with fake blood. 
I don’t have the urge to die.  I still have too much I want to complete. Yet I know the future holds this step. So what is death?  It’s  another stage in the journey.  It’s as much a part of life as birth. It separates me from my body, family, friends, but not from God.  

Heaven is outmoded  thinking, according to some  people, like last year’s car models. Yet I think of my mother, who in her last years yearned for death and what it would bring, assured she would see my father once again. She thought of that as heaven.   

Our society would like to dispense with both heaven and hell.  I’ll admit  I don’t see heaven in terms of wings, halos, and strumming golden harps while strolling down streets of gold. Yet when I think of  how wonderfully  intricate and amazing our bodies with their souls are, I find it hard to believe dust is the end.   As a Christian I see death as a journey toward God into eternity. "I know that my Redeemer lives!"   And it’s not up to me to judge who will get there.

And with that assurance, I can shove  Death back in the closet corner  once again.   

Monday, May 7, 2012

Why Bibles wear out

I’m for a multi-laypreacher system, yet not a multi-pastoral system.  That would surely mean many needs would get dropped.

After almost nine decades of listening to sermons, I think I have a right to express an opinion. My  first sermon-listening experiences took place in the little Mennonite Brethren Church at Laird, Saskatchewan – but only during the summer.  During the winter we children attended the United Church of Sunday school and a worship service only rarely. A frozen river between where we lived and the church meant winter travel was impossible. 

This Laird congregation was a small group of Kanadier, Mennonite  descendants of  the first wave of immigrants to Canada in the 1870s, and a smaller number of Russian Mennonite Brethren, who came in the 1920s.  Services were held in German in the mornings and English in the evenings – a good tradeoff.

“Do you have a word from the Lord for us this morning, Brother Funk?”  the church leader asked my father when our family entered the small entry way.  Long distance telephone calls  were too expensive in the early 1930s and letters too uncertain.  A good preacher always knew if God had been speaking to him during the week, knowing he might be asked to preach.  

Yes, Dad a message from the Lord in his Bible and his heart.  He had wrestled it out for several weeks, maybe even months, while stocking shelves in his grocery store, dusting cans, waiting on customers, watching the weather.

He worked at it like I do a blog – while baking chicken for lunch, knitting a square for an afghan, walking, resting.  His sermons came out of his life experiences with his customers and his early life in the Ukraine. I  have only one of his sermons one he preached to me one Sunday afternoon in Edmonton before his death, while he was sitting on the living room couch and I took notes.

This sermon came out of his life and had to do with how the wind affected the the windmill his father owned and operated high on the hill in Rosenthal near Chortitza.  It had to do with the similarity between the wind and the Holy Spirit, and that he, as a miller, couldn’t control the direction of the wind. The application was clear:  you can’t control the working of the Spirit. Don’t force the mystery of how the Spirit works.

I grew up when Bibles got worn out – literally. I showed my father’s Bible to my son James recently. The cover is crudely patched with tape and artificial leather.  I can still see him, sitting at the table,  wetting his thumb with this tongue, before turning the page, which resulted in deeply gouged pages.  Passages are underlined, explanations added in the margins, and the book itself  full of clippings. A Bible used this much fell apart. 

The Bible was my father’s source of inspiration, and he worked hard to connect it to life – to  discrimination, prejudice, and the need for making personal peace with Christ as Savior.  After all, he had been an ordained deacon/evangelist in Russia. Whether he succeeded is not for me to judge.  He preached what he thought he had to say.

To preach every Sunday with a message that enlightens, inspires, challenges, comforts,  is a tall assignment – especially one that  meets the specific needs of  the congregation for that time. 

I have been reading Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. I was struck again by how rich his language was – studded with gems of similes, metaphors  and symbols arising from the life of the Israelites.  He  spoke to a specific situation:  Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon will capture  you and take you away, don’t flee to Egypt,  you will return.  Jeremiah knew his God and knew his people and he tried to bring a message from the Lord for the people.

The lectionary is a good idea – but not when it binds the preacher. The present professional pastoral system is a good idea – but  I look for the surprise sermon by someone who has been working on a word from God for weeks, maybe months.  I keep looking for the church leader to ask a man or  woman coming into the building, “Do you have a message from God for the people today?”