Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thankful for what we have and who we are

Thanks be to thee. Glory and praise we sing to thee.

I realized this week that I've visited a few of the oldest church buildings in the area around Ann Arbor. See my previous posts on Old St. Patrick Catholic Church and Webster Church, both to the north of Ann Arbor. This week took me to the east, with a visit to Dixboro United Methodist Church, founded and built in 1858.

Because of its Methodist affiliation, its size, its rather rural location, and its age, this church reminds me of a church I went to for regular visits when I was growing up. Twice each year, once around Christmas and once during the summer, we would visit my father's home church, West Side Methodist between the towns of West Point and Oakland, Nebraska. Although the buildings are not all that similar, another thing they have in common is a steeple bell that is rung by a person physically pulling a rope (Webster Church has this too; I didn't notice at St. Patrick).

However, something very different about these two churches is what the march of time has done to the area surrounding them. While Dixboro has become surrounded by development associated with jobs in Ann Arbor and the larger southeastern Michigan metropolitan complex, West Side in Nebraska was in a Corn Belt area where farms have become more highly consolidated and people moved away, especially young people. After standing for about 120 years, the church is no longer there. Many of my ancestors are buried in the cemetery next to this phantom church.

On the other hand, Dixboro Methodist embraces both its history and new people. There are many members with long membership in this church, and even longer-standing family heritage there. But today, the service was themed on thankfulness, with a central part of it being the bringing in of members, by means of baptism, confirmation, and induction. A non-infant baptism is a rare thing in a mainline Protestant church, but they baptized Becky Horvath, an adult, along with teenager Mariam Sarit Carson. Mariam had also gone through the classes for confirmation, and was confirmed along with Molly Sanford. Rita Passage was inducted as a new member, although she has apparently been attending Dixboro for an extended period of time. Also associated with these rites were a vocal solo performed by Becky Horvath and a trumpet solo performed by Anna Little, who had been confirmed at the earlier service.

Thankfulness was depicted as one of the fruits of the spirit named in Galatians 5:22: love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. These were featured in the art work created by the confirmation students and reproduced on the cover of the church bulletin today. In his message, Rev. Dr. Tom Macaulay, District Superintendent for the Ann Arbor District of the United Methodist Church, expanded on what we might be thankful for, saying that although his message was aimed at those being confirmed, everyone else was welcome to listen in, too.

He started out by noting that faith and doubt exist at the same time among members of religious groups, so he is thankful that the Bible tells of people doubting their religion. He asked those being confirmed, and also the eavesdroppers, to remember that faith and the church are common endeavors among members--"Jesus and we, not Jesus and me." Then he asked for things that people are thankful for. Several answers involved things like family and music, but Paul Carson said "physics." This was perhaps a personal jab at Rev. Macaulay, who mentioned that his wife teaches physics while he himself knows nothing about it. This whole episode drew a laugh, but I'll remind my readers that most of your modern conveniences--anything electrical, mechanical, or electronic, depend on human understanding of physics. So, yes, do be thankful for physics.

He said that what you spend your money on is a true indicator of where your priorities lie, and that on that basis, you might not be proud of what you've done. There was a humorous story about how a shepherd knows his sheep, but he who is not the shepherd does not know them, alluding to John 10:14. But Jesus the shepherd knows his people and can transform them and make them good.

The choir is led by Janice Clark, who has worked at the church for 55 years, first as organist, and most of that time as choir director. She plans to retire this summer, but has left a significant legacy at the church. Another strong musical legacy there is left by Rev. Roger Parker, a former member at Dixboro, who composed some of the music used in the liturgy today, notably a doxology whose tune I did not know at all, but which everyone else there seemed confident in singing without music in front of them. Also, the choir is ably accompanied by organist John Wollsey, who I am told is working on degrees in both music and engineering. Again, this fits in with being thankful for physics, science, and technology, and also connects to me and my family.

The choir's anthem for today was "Thanks Be to Thee" by George Frideric Handel, with English text by Jerry Weseley Harris. There were two main worries going into this, that were fodder for discussion and practice during the Wednesday evening rehearsal. First was dynamic contrast, contrasting loud from soft and transitioning between the two. This song has many long sustained notes, which are very prone to becoming both boring and off-pitch unless they incorporate a taper up or down in volume of sound (or often both in succession). Second was one of the entrances by the men, which is sort of an echo of what the women just sang, but starts a whole step lower in pitch. This wasn't working at first during rehearsal, but with enough practice, it worked during the service. The dynamics worked out well, too, and this song offered a showcase for a nice controlled crescendo and diminuendo.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Non-violence leads to the divine

This is a double-header week for the Itinerant Chorister. See also my post on the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor.

I paid a two-part visit to the faith of Jainism. On March 24, I went with Manish Mehta to his lecture at St. John's Episcopal Church in Plymouth, in order to get some background. Then this Sunday afternoon, April 11, I took in part of the celebration of Mahavir Janma Kalyanak at the Jain Temple of Greater Detroit, at 29278 W. 12 Mile Rd. in Farmington Hills. This holiday celebrates the birthday of Mahavir, recognized as the founder of Jainism, about 2600 years ago.

In Jainism, people revere the Jina, the people who have overcome their inner enemies and reached spiritual perfection. There are 24 of them who are among the group who are revered (Mahavir being the most recent), although all Jains aspire to become Jina. Furthermore, they regard all living things as having the potential to become Jina following some cycle of reincarnation. Hence they observe strict vegetarianism, and the most devout ascetics constantly hold a cloth over their mouths in order to avoid accidentally ingesting an insect.

Along with the concept of karma, or liability for one's misdeeds, many of the ideas that I have expressed so far are held in common with Hinduism and Buddhism (although Wikipedia claims that the concept of karma within Jainism is different from within Hinduism). Indeed, many Americans are likely to confuse Jainism with Hinduism. But some things that separate Jainism are: eternity of the universe (destruction of the universe is a Hindu belief); absolute non-violence, extending vegetarianism to the avoidance of eating seeds and roots of plants because of their role in sustaining and propagating plants, and hence souls; equality of all beings, plants included; tolerance of multiple viewpoints; the universal prayer known as Navkar Mantra; the potential for each soul to achieve Moksha, or the highest level of being; each being as master of its own destiny; and emphasis on forgiveness.

Manish brought up the question of whether Jains believe in God. To answer this, he brought up several characteristics of God from other faiths that are not shared in the Jain beliefs. These include God as creator, as destroyer (as in Vishnu in Hinduism), or a merciful or benevolent God, as in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and others. The sense in which Jains do believe in God is that they see a spark of divinity in all beings, with the potential to be developed to a higher level, even to the level of Moksha, through these methods: right faith, knowledge, and conduct; meditation and penance; and reincarnation, with each reincarnation holding the promise of bringing a soul closer to divinity.

The central teachings of Jain are: non-violence, truth, non-stealing, chastity, and lack of attachment to possessions. These are observed by all Jains, but are more strictly followed by nuns and monks. Practicing Jains each decide what practices they will follow according to the level of comfort and practicality they are willing to live with.

Jainism is a minority religion in India, with 5 million adherents there, and 350,000 in diaspora, primarily in North America. Their beliefs have had much influence on Indians who are not Jain, notably Mahatma Gandhi, whose ideals of non-violence were influenced by Jainism. Certain trades have a very strong presence of Jains. Even in North America, the marble and stone trade is dominated by Jains, and they have a large presence worldwide in the diamond trade. In India especially, they tend to be in business and law, while in the diaspora, they tend to work more in medicine, academia, and engineering. What all of these professions share in common is a lack of violence toward any living thing.

This photo shows a figure of Mahavir behind the archways on the left side. The silver boxes in the foreground are containers for monetary donations, and the bells hanging from the ceiling are sounded to get the attention of the Jina.

I arrived at the temple looking for my host, Manish Mehta. The person who greeted me first, however, was a friendly man named Avi Shah. I told him who I was looking for and said that my excuse for being late was that I visited the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor earlier the same day. He was familiar with the Unitarian Universalists, and pointed out that their philosophy of non-violence coincides with the Jains. Regardless of the reasoning or supernatural justifications behind it, both of these faiths ended up with a similar purpose.

There are many small figures of the protector gods and goddesses arranged around the temple.

Whoever started the saying "quiet as a church" was not thinking of the social hall downstairs at the Jain Temple. Any social hall at a place of worship for that matter, with kids running around and playing, and people chatting. This one seemed especially spirited, though, and included people shouting and pushing to clear the way to bring food from the kitchen to the serving tables for the lunch.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Architects of fate

Free from a social code that fails
To Serve the case of human need.

"As Tranquil Streams"

It happens in all faiths, but the Unitarian Universalists seem not to make bones about it--things change, the way we see the world is different, and our understanding of the writings that came down over the centuries and how to interpret them gets some new wrinkles. Even the most conservative of religious groups are not the same as they were 500, 100, or even 10 years ago. During my experience at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4001 Ann Arbor-Saline Road, I believe I heard statements five times that boiled down to "We don't do creeds." Instead, they explain, they build their mode of faith through relationships and love for each other. The hymn quotation at the top of this post seems to capture a big piece of the essence of their thought, as well as the title of this post--another hymn had text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, saying "All are architects of fate."

I had originally scheduled to visit this choir in January, but some of you might remember that there was some bad weather on the evening of January 7, when I was to go there for rehearsal. It was so bad that they canceled rehearsal. Since attending rehearsal is a very important part of the Itinerant Chorister experience, I rescheduled, and ended up doing it this week. It was very much worth my while to go to this rehearsal, as it ended up being filled with exotic voices--hillbilly, Jamaican, and falsetto with a British accent. Plus an impromptu chorus of the Motown tune "The Loco-Motion," all instigated by choir director Glen Thomas Rideout. The funny voices actually served a purpose. The hillbilly voice, in particular the emphasis of the letter "r" and the vowels that tend to be colored by being followed by it, was used to demonstrate how not to sing. We went so far as to sing an extended section of one song in the hillbilly voice during rehearsal, in order to get it out of everyone's system. The Jamaican voice had at least some of the aspects of how we should have been singing another song. And the falsetto British voice is something I have encountered before, and seems to be a tradition carried on by proteges of Jerry Blackstone. The purpose of this one is to get diction using very wide-open, "tall" vowels--first you speak it in the British falsetto as practice. Then if you sing it while thinking about that voice, it improves your diction and yet sounds much less ridiculous than Graham Chapman in drag.

One of the traditions of Unitarians is to light a flame in a chalice at the beginning of worship, and this extended also to choir rehearsal. The chalice in the rehearsal space is decorated to resemble a tree. In conjunction with this, they have a member talk about his/her relationship to the choir; on this evening this duty was performed by Chris Petrie. One of the things that he mentioned is that now that he is in the choir, his vowels are tall. In honor of this tradition, the choir at this church is known as the Chalice Singers.

We rehearsed "How Can I Keep from Singing" arranged by Richard Walters and edited by Glen Thomas Rideout, "Sing Me the Universal" by Vincent Persichetti, probably about the most harmonically difficult pieces that I have tried during my tour of church choirs, and the highly rhythmic "I Got the Fire" by Stuart Chapman Hill.

One thing that I have learned to do on my choir visits is to find out what I should wear. In this case, there was no need to wait until the end of rehearsal, as this subject was discussed with passion at one point during the rehearsal. Apparently feelings on this subject run deep within this group. The basic rule is black pants or skirts and tops in a solid color--any color, as long as it is solid. One choir member held up examples of fabrics that were printed with patterns, and therefore did not qualify as solid colors; once again, it's not OK to wear these. Apparently it was OK, though, to wear a scarf in a different solid color. It all made me nervous that I was skating on thin ice when I later showed up in a light blue shirt with white buttons.

The rehearsal ended with a little social time, shown in the photo.

I actually attended three services. One was on Saturday afternoon and featured the installation of Rev. Lisa Presley as District Executive of the U.U. Church, which I took to be the equivalent of what would be called a bishop in many other churches. It also involved the choir leading some hymns. The other two were nearly identical services one after the other on Sunday morning.

During these services we sang a few hymns in addition to "How Can I Keep From Singing," mentioned above. This church is one of the best for participation of the entire congregation in hymn singing, and I think Glen deserves a lot of credit for this. He stands in front and directs then, and they even follow his direction in terms of volume, phrasing, and tempo! A couple of songs were sung in canon or round, including the whole congregation, and these hung together. Kudos also to Pianist-in-Residence Allison Halerz, who also played a few solo pieces.

There were two pieces to the readings. One was from Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which he scolded the churches for keeping their faith in God frozen in time. A key phrase was "God is, not was." The next was from Henry David Thoreau (see paragraph 16 here), with a key piece being "I do not wish to live what is not life; living is too dear." The place where I found a piece from the Bible was not read aloud during the service, but was on the front cover of the bulletin--"Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins," Matthew 9:17--not a saying of Jesus that many other churches choose to dwell on very much. Minister Gail Geisenhainer built on these ideas from Emerson, Thoreau, and Jesus in her sermon, giving some examples of people who had a poor perspective on things because they saw things as they used to be, not as they are, and particularly things in their past that they didn't like. "What they wanted to be away from was perpetually with them because they didn't revisit," she said. She advised everyone to do a spring cleaning of their memories and take a new look at their old experiences. "Let winds of change air out everything we take for granted."

I actually made two Itinerant Chorister visits this weekend. News from the Jain Temple of Farmington Hills will be posted soon.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter Sunday

Once again, I am simply supplying a link back to my Easter Sunday photo gallery at

As a bonus to those who look at the blog from here, though, here is something that I experienced during the past week. On Tuesday, March 30, I was a speaker at the 5th Annual Binational Conference on Lake St. Clair. For those not familiar, the waterways draining out of Lake Huron and into Lake Erie are, first, the St. Clair River, then Lake St. Clair, smaller than the five main Great Lakes but a part of their water system, then finally the Detroit River. In the delta of the St. Clair River where it drains into Lake St. Clair, one of the largest islands is Walpole Island, and on that island, using the Canadian terminology for the people otherwise call Native Americans, live the Walpole Island First Nation. A member of this band, Reta Sands, was invited to give an opening prayer for this conference, a rare thing for a conference with a combination of scientists and policymakers. Anyway, I was able to find the same prayer online, originating from the Sioux Chief Yellowhawk:

O Great Spirit, Whose voice I hear in the winds,
and whose breath gives life to all the world,
hear me, I come before you, one of your children.
I am small and weak. I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes
ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made,
my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may know the things you
have taught my people,
the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
I seek strength not to be superior to my brothers,
but to be able to fight my greatest enemy, myself.
Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes,
so when life fades as a fading sunset,
my spirit may come to you without shame.