Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday photo gallery

For those who access my blog directly: This week, instead of the usual brief pointer from to my blog here, I'm reversing the pointer. See my photo gallery of Palm Sunday at Zion Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor.

Also, I'll recommend my favorite Palm Sunday-related movie, "Sherman's March," directed by, filmed by, and starring Ross McElwee. It is the story of a man who lives with a movie camera on his shoulder (the star is actually rarely seen) having a lot of adventures, many involving unusual women. In one section, his date with his newest girlfriend involves going to a church on Palm Sunday, followed by a visit to an ice cream parlor along with the pastor, who is lecturing them about the Apocalypse, complete with an illustrated chart, while meanwhile a person wearing a large Easter Bunny costume comes walking in. This never happens in anyone's imagination, so only in real life! Other favorite parts are Pat's idea for a screenplay, Ross's sister DeeDee telling about her surgery, and the part that somehow hooked me on this movie and this filmmaker, in which Ross joins some guys in unloading a life-size fiberglass rhinoceros from a track and placing it in its display position along a pond. It's available on Netflix, although the reviews there show that people either love it or hate it. Also note that this is the 1986 documentary, not the 2007 documentary/dramatization by the same title.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Music of Silence

This week, the Itinerant Chorister made a non-singing visit to the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting at 1420 Hill Street. The Friends are also known as the Quakers. This group does not include a choir, and their main mode of worship is silent meditation. I was there for the 9:00 am meeting, which their website says is more silent than the 11:00 am meeting. Actually, I had been there as a visitor a couple of times before over the years, and I think that this time was the most silent of any time that I have been there. The silence can be broken by any member who feels moved to give some brief message to edify the rest. In this case only one person got up to speak during the middle of the meeting, giving what he called the "March query." This consisted of a short list of questions, including "Is God inspiring the words that we say and meditate on at the meeting?" "Does a member need to be restrained or encouraged?" and "Is love visible in the things we do at meeting?"

Again, near the end of the hour, the silence was broken to ask for people's joys and concerns. Even this was met with further silence. After a little more time, people got up to shake each other's hands, then gather in the middle of the room and hold hands. However, this again was done wordlessly. After that, each person of the 22 that I counted introduced him/herself, and there were announcements. The presence of this many people at the early meeting on the first day of daylight saving time seemed to occasion surprise on the part of many of these people. A couple of them announced that they were there on an assignment for a group they were associated with at University of Michigan, and of course my presence was also exceptional. The only leadership evident in the meeting was by a person called the closer, who gives the signal when to start shake hands, gather in the middle and give the announcements. This duty was performed by Lisa Klopfer.

In chatting with Lisa afterward, she said that the later (11 am) meeting usually involves more talking, in large part because of the number of people there. She also made reference to the need for people to discern whether they have something worth saying and are sufficiently prepared before talking. That the Friends think about this is to their credit. In many churches, there is a whole lot of talking by the very few. Here, there is only a small amount of talking, but the opportunity is open to all, with the provision that they are aware that they need to make it count.

The Quakers are often inaccurately stereotyped as a result of the brand of oatmeal and cereal. I assure you that no one was there in a broad-brimmed hat, powdered wig, and starched cravat. These are people who are entirely in touch with the modern world. One of their central beliefs is pacifism, and at the end of the service, during the announcement time, one member posed the question, "What if we were to devote as much effort and resources to maintaining peace as we have to waging war?" This, along with the "March query" mentioned earlier led me to the observation that in this group, wisdom and action are sought by asking questions rather than by dictating answers and commands.

I consider silent meditation to be part of a balanced spiritual practice. Actually, we are currently in the season, Lent, in which many Christian denominations are more likely to make it a part of their practice than they would the rest of the year.

The room in which they have the meeting is very austere. It has no symbols of any kind, just wooden benches with thin, pale blue cushions on them, matching the carpet. The benches all face toward the center. There is a large picture window facing toward the north, making the small fenced garden outside visible to all except those sitting on the north side, of which there were none this morning. The ceiling is wood with beams, and the south wall is wood-paneled, while the east and west walls are white sheetrock. The upward-pointing light fixtures all seemed to angle slightly toward the south, whether intentional or not.

For some people, going into a room to be silent for an hour, or even just imagining it, might be difficult. And yes, we really did spend that time not talking, other than brief interruptions by a couple of people. When you sit in silence like that, a whole new palette of sounds enters your consciousness. There was a small incidence of people entering and leaving, a little fidgeting, coughing, and throat-clearing, some pops and creaks emanating from people's joints, and some noises from the heating system, all of which would not be noticeable in most contexts, but were evident while sitting and meditating. Even at this time of year, there was a little bit of birdsong coming from outside. I was too self-conscious to even scrawl in my notebook, as I have done in many other worship experiences by now. Traffic on Washtenaw Avenue, a block away, provided a noticeable background roar, along with the occasional vehicle right on Hill Street. Worship is a time to step out of everyday life, and I would say that hearing all of these things constitutes a step away from everyday experience.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Singing with the Flatirons as a backdrop

He died on Calvary
To atone for you and me
And to free us from sorrow's great load.

Despite the problems that I currently have, this morning I had the pleasure to sing in the choir of Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Boulder, Colorado. During a year-long job detail in Boulder in 2006, I was a regular member of this choir. This is a small church with a small staff--the ones who were visible today were the pastor, choir director, organist, and youth minister. The only one of those who had not changed since I was last there at the very end of 2006 was organist Kristina Eller. Choir members had given me gushing reviews of director Jim Myers, however, and I was not disappointed. Jim leads the choir with great energy and precision, in terms of rhythm, diction, and phrasing. With regard to phrasing, at one point, he told the choir that they sounded "tick-tocky." With regard to diction, he said, "Gotta hear the words." He helps the choir to achieve these aspects of musicianship, and through the contagiousness of his energy, gets the entire congregation to participate heartily in the liturgy and hymns. That this is one of the most participatory congregations that I've witnessed is a credit both to Jim and to the people in the pews.

The Flatirons, referred to in the title of this post, are a rock formation (large foothills of the Rocky Mountains) that are emblematic of the City of Boulder. In the photograph, they are obscured behind the clouds.

One of the interesting things about the decor of the church, that I really didn't remember from my longer time there previously, is that there are five support posts near the north wall that are hung with narrow banners in each of the colors of the liturgical seasons that are used by many Christian denominations: white for the joyous festivals of Christmas and Easter; red for some other festivals, such as Pentecost and All Saints' Day; blue for Advent, the season of anticipation of the coming of Christ; purple for Lent, the season of repentence and penitence; and green for the seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost, the times of general discipleship, praise, and learning. These different aspects of faith are a part of the idea of a balanced diet of religious activity that I alluded to here, and for me, it is interesting that the seasons of the church calendar tie together with the seasons of nature that are so important in my occupation as a climate scientist. While the chancel of the church was dominated by purple for the current season of Lent, all of the other colors were still on display in a smaller way to remind us that those are also aspects of faith that we will concentrate on in another part of the year.

There were three featured musical performances. At the opening of the service, a small ensemble of women performed "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Later, the choir performed "Saw Ye My Savior," arranged by D. Johnson, featuring a solo by Shaun Steavenson, a baritone channeling his inner tenor; it also featured Jen Merrill on the flute. Later, Mr. Stevenson performed "Consecration," arranged by C. Courtney and accompanied on the piano by Mr. Myers. This was very well performed and drew applause from the congregation, but I honestly can't remember whether applause is a usual thing in this church. Shaun is a student at the University of Colorado who makes occasional appearances at Mount Calvary.

This fairly small congregation has a "high church" tradition, and a complete liturgy, but it is all handed out in one printed bulletin, including words and music for all of the hymns. It included an extended sung Kyrie, with church member Melissa Johnson leading it as the assisting minister/cantor.

Pastor Kevin Mayer delivered first a children's sermon and then a sermon on a text from Luke 13 about a fig tree that had not yet borne fruit. The theme of this was forgiveness and repentance. The patient steward of plants keeps on tending them until they bear fruit. One of the things that struck me in the liturgy, and which I don't remember hearing before, is that after pronouncing forgiveness of sins, the pastor said, "Live in newness of life." This indeed is a promising message within the dark time of Lent.

The congregation were collecting food for the hungry within the community, and had a lot of it prominently and very neatly displayed around the altar. I'll even say that it was displayed symmetrically, as each end was topped by a case of refried bean cans and then a large 2-pack of peanut butter on top of that.

Another feature of this church that I found interesting and that is never seen in Michigan is this. The sanctuary has no air conditioning, but does have an evaporative cooling system, often known as a "swamp box." This blows air over a pan of water, so that the air is cooled by evaporating the water. It also moistens the air, and is not very effective when using Michigan's already-moist summer air. In a dry place like Colorado, though, it is effective, especially when used only once a week. Apparently this system is noisy, though, and they only run it before the service on Sundays during the summer.

For those not interested in my personal story, you can stop now. For those interested, here is the preamble to an earlier draft of this blog post:
When I post this, I'm back at home (see the warnings about this), but as I make a draft of this, I am still in Denver after travel problems. Four sources of information said that my flight was delayed by 1 hour and 10 minutes. Then when my back was turned and I was eating, it was moved back up by 50 minutes, they boarded and closed the door just before I got back to the gate. Out of a capacity of 66 people, they left 30 passengers behind. United Airlines offered abject apologies and mea culpas, plus hotel vouchers, free flight vouchers, and a new set of flights. I am now in a hotel room with Internet access, but without the notebook with the things that I wrote down about this visit, and also the camera on which I shot a few photos. These are now in storage at the Detroit Metro Airport, since they went on the flight that I did not get on.