Sunday, May 30, 2010

New Hope makes its name count for its members

It's hard to stumble when you're on your knees.
God will be right there to give your soul ease.

Don't worry about your enemies,
Because it's hard to stumble when you're on your knees.

When a National Day of Prayer was declared following the attacks of September 11, 2001, I don't remember what my motive was, but I attended a service at New Hope Baptist Church at 218 Chapin, just across the railroad tracks from downtown Ann Arbor. I'd like to claim that I had a noble purpose, like playing a small role in making the day of prayer for a national tragedy less racially segregated than what Martin Luther King famously called "the most segregated hour of the week" (church time on Sunday). Also, New Hope is the church that is closest to where I live. Honestly, I don't remember why I did that, and I remember little about what happened there that day.

However, after nearly nine years, I finally returned there, armed with a camera and notebook. Two strong themes that I perceived at worship were hope in the face of problems and mutual support to overcome problems and build a good life, from one's family and one's church. These were highlighted by recognition of two occasions for this time of year. They recognized those who are graduating from area high schools and universities, expressing congratulations for these students' accomplishments to date and hope for their individual futures and the church's collective future with the participation of these newly educated people. At the same time, they prayed for protection from the temptations of the world to which they will be exposed.

They also remembered Memorial Day, honoring those who had gone before, who had made possible what they have now. In particular, this church honors its founding pastor, Rev. A. J. Lightfoot, now deceased, as well as his widow, Mother Lightfoot. One of the pastors, Rev. Threet, also listed those who had died more recently.

This church has much of its history encapsulated in a photo gallery hung on the wall in the hallway outside the sanctuary. They have pictures of choirs, groups of ushers and family groups from the 1960s and 70s. They have pictures of their current leaders, including pastors, deacons, and trustees, of visits from Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1996 and from Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2008, and of their building in different stages of its development. The building that was previously on the site had carved and sold burial monuments, apparently prompting Rev. Lightfoot to coin the saying in which he characterized the church as transforming its people "from tombstones to living stones."

In the men's choir rehearsal, led by Sister Fay Burton, the singers had no printed music in front of them. However, this didn't mean that everyone was entirely free to choose any note he wished to sing. On some of the songs with which the singers were more familiar, we mostly just sang through them. But one song, titled "It's Hard to Stumble When You're on Your Knees" required dictation of notes to each of the sections. In choirs using printed music, it's often hard to rehearse the notes for only one section without the other voices joining in. When there is no music in front of you, it seems even more tempting to join in, for me and the others. Much of the music prominently featured solos. I didn't catch the names of all the soloists, but much of it was done by Sister Burton, one by her husband Deacon Burton, as well as Brother Stevenson.

I expected that I would be singing without a printed page, and that I would need to watch for signals on the fly of how many times to repeat certain sections of music, but found watching and heeding the signals more difficult than I anticipated. But there was a real payoff to a lot of repetition--some of the songs seem like they've gone on long enough, but then suddenly get a second wind, and take on renewed urgency and meaning. The processional, "Something's Got a Hold on Me," started up anew after completely stopping. And the time of greeting fellow members featured a slow build of "This is the Day That the Lord Has Made," with everyone joining in as they concluded greeting each other. As at King of Kings Lutheran Church, it seemed that everyone greeted absolutely everyone else, but this was a larger church. Add on several more times through "This is the Day," and it took a while.

The sermon by Rev. Green used Joshua 4 as its basis, in which the Israelites set up a stone memorial for those who crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land after leaving slavery in Egypt and then wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. He likened New Hope Church itself to a memorial that reminds us of those who went before us and of the God who saves us from trouble and keeps the church going. Some of his points took on a repetitive, chant-like and rhythmic quality, and at the climax of the sermon, the organ joined in while he recounted brief summaries of a number of stories of the power of God, both from the Bible and from modern times, connecting them with the words "The Same God." He thus pulled together the history of the Israelites, the early Christians, our ancestors, the founders of New Hope congregation, the graduates in the caps and gowns, and all those present.

The only white person in an African-American church sticks out like a sore thumb, and I also didn't have the male choir's standard gray suit, but I am happy that I forced my way into making this work. I was warmly welcomed by all those there. One thing that I had understood for a long time was that clapping on beats 1 and 3 is the white person's way of doing it, as opposed to clapping on the off-beats, 2 and 4. Although this stereotype may have some basis in truth, it is not strictly true. During "Something's Got a Hold on Me," I joined in clapping on beats 1 and 3. If this was wrong, I blame it on everyone else who was also doing that. Clapping during all the other songs was on beats 2 and 4.

After the sermon was the collection of the offering, which in most African-American congregations is done by having everyone walk to the front and place their offering in a box or plate. The benediction of the service had everyone join hands and sing, "Go ye therefore; teach all nations. Go, go baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost."

For those who want their worship to pass by quickly, this is not your place. From the devotion leading into the service, to the benediction, the elapsed time was about two and a half hours. For some of you, though, you might gain from moving outside of your box for a while and sticking out like a sore thumb, and at the same time, soaking in some new hope.

I may be picking up a few loose ends and making some sporadic visits over time, but this concludes the main phase of the Itinerant Chorister project. I thank all those who have read and commented on my blog, and my entries. I am negotiating with about how I should wrap up this project with them; I will definitely put some sort of synthesis here also, but its content will depend on what I do there.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cultivating right mindfulness

This week I made a visit that did not involve singing in a choir. I went to the Zen Buddhist Temple, located in a big old house at 1214 Packard St. in Ann Arbor. The heritage of Buddhism is in Asia from the founder, Gautama Buddha, and Zen in particular is from the more eastern parts of Asia, with origins at the Shaolin Temple in east-central China, but it spread also into Korea and Japan. However, most of the followers in Ann Arbor and throughout much of North America are not of Asian origin, but simply have decided that the teachings and practices of Buddhism are worthy of their belief and time.

As at least an aspect of introduction to Zen, my friend Carolyn Christopher lent me a CD to listen to--titled "Deep in the Ocean--New American Buddhist Songs, volume 2" by Nathaniel Needle, apparently a local person from Ann Arbor. It has musical tracks that depict Buddhism in a somewhat humorous way. One that really caught my attention was a calypso-style song called "Pull the Arrow Right Out." This line was repeated many times, and it was a catchy tune, so it prompted me to do a web search for "Buddhism pull the arrow right out." This led me to learn here of the Parable of the Poison Arrow. The upshot of it is that if you are facing a problem, such as being shot by a poison arrow, don't waste time and energy by asking questions like who shot the arrow, who made it, who made the poison, and others that do not help to solve the problem and may be unanswerable. Instead, pull that arrow right out! This illustrates Buddhism's status as a faith that is low on dogma, particularly in things like the origin of the world, and more focused on morals and self-improvement.

Another song was called "Truckin' on the Eight-fold Path." The Eight-fold Path is an important underpinning of the practices of Buddhism, and consists of: 1. Right view, 2. right intention, 3. right speech, 4. right action, 5. right livelihood, 6. right effort, 7. right mindfulness, and 8. right concentration. It turns out that during my visit at the Zen Buddhist Temple, the one of these that I heard most about was mindfulness.

The practice of meditation is a primary means of cultivating understanding of the teachings and spirit of Buddhism and of working toward living the ideals of the Eight-fold Path. So when I arrived, I got a really quick primer on meditation from a member named Kuman (members have a name that they use in the temple that is usually different from the one that they use outside) gave me a very quick primer on meditation posture and techniques. Most people sit on mats and round pillows that are small but quite thick and firm, although some sit on chairs. We spent a lot of time sitting and silently meditating, and also doing a few physical exercises--stretching and so forth, but there was also some time for talking and teaching.

One part of it was a reading from the teachings of Buddha, in which the part that most resonated with me was something like, "Anyone who harms someone who is simply seeking happiness will not achieve happiness himself." Since I didn't pull out my notebook to write down this quote immediately, I was helped in recreating it by finding this in a web search.

The priest of the temple, Rev. Haju Sunim, gave a talk that tied both into this reading and Mother's Day, and incorporated an actual meditation practice. She said that in thinking about our parents, we often think about the things that bother us rather than the larger picture, giving a highly slanted view. She extended this to other people as well, and asked people to think about someone they have had problems with. Then we were first asked to think of that person as being another copy of ourself, with the same desire for happiness. Second, flip that around--think of ourselves as being those other people. Finally, also think what it would be like if one of your closest friends were acting like that person. These were exercises for cultivating compassion and a type of mindfulness.

They also spent some time talking about their upcoming celebration of Buddha's birthday, which will be May 23. It is his 2554th birthday, and one member, Geehyun Kim, a University of Michigan graduate student, showed a slide show of how it is celebrated in Korea. One of the major traditions is to create lotus-shaped lanterns out of paper and plastic. They also have parades--big ones in Korea, a small one in Ann Arbor.

After the service, I went outside to the garden, where Haju Sunim was talking to a group visiting from Alma College. I was expecting more of a lecture full of facts, but instead got some hands-on experience. First, we did some walking meditation practice. We employed mindfulness again, and deliberately walked, thinking about first bringing each heel up, then bringing the foot forward, then putting the foot down heel first and rolling forward to the toe. It's actually regular walking, but done with a high degree of consciousness of each phase in the process (trying to avoid the word "step" here). The idea is that in order to understand where you have been and what you have done, you need to understand what is happening presently, and in order to understand the future also, you must understand the present.

After that, I also stuck around for a short while to do some work in their garden, also a form of mindfulness and meditation. Buddhism teaches that people often reach enlightenment through manual labor. In this case, I pulled weeds with the instruction to use both hands, or at least keep both hands near each other, so that the mind was not distracted by having one of the hands pointing in a different direction than the other.

One of the things that impressed me about the Zen Buddhist Temple is that they didn't seem to explicitly push to get people to join their faith, but they were very helpful to newcomers. Starting with Kuman giving me the quick instructions on meditation, they gave explicit announcements and instructions on what was going to happen next, such as at the end when people lined up and processed to the front of the meeting room and then back to the exit.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Music old and new

"Bless the Lord, all you his hosts,
You ministers who do his will."

This week at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, 306 N. Division St. in Ann Arbor, I think there was more music than at any of the other services I have attended as part of the Itinerant Chorister project, so here are the numbers. There were anthems by the adult choir, the junior choir, and a male quartet, five hymns out of the hymnal, and six major musical items as part of the liturgy, including Psalm 148 done in Anglican chant (chant with harmony) and the Eucharistic Prayer chanted by Rector Alan Gibson. There was also a song previewing their production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, showing next weekend, and an organ prelude and postlude. Seventeen things, besides many additional snippets as part of the liturgy.

The item of newest vintage was the main anthem by the adult choir, "Bless the Lord, All You His Hosts" by Iain Quinn, copyright 2010. The oldest seems to be "If Ye Love Me" by Thomas Tallis, from the 16th century. One other thing that I especially liked was one of my favorite hymn tunes, although with different words than I am used to. The tune is actually called Sine Nomine (meaning "without a name"); the words I am most familiar with are "For all the saints who from their labors rest," but today it started with the words "God's Paschal Lamb is sacrificed for us," as a piece of liturgy. Since it is graduation season, I will point out that one of the reasons why I like this hymn so much is that I marched in to this song for my bachelor's degree; I much prefer Sine Nomine to that dirge I won't name that people always associate with a graduation procession.

The choir rehearses in a rather unusual space. I am told that the eastern end of the church building used to be a smaller chapel, but it has since been reconfigured and partitioned in the vertical, with offices on the lower level and a space upstairs that somewhat resembles an attic, but one with a high vaulted ceiling, nice tile floor, and individual closet/lockers for each choir member's robe, plus rather large cubbies for storing their music.

Choir director Deborah Friauff is someone who does a lot of her leading by demonstrating what the singers should be doing--forming the vowels properly, making sure that the 'sts' in the word 'hosts' has all of the consonants pronounced in the proper order and at the right time, or the 'ndm' consonant cluster in the word 'commandments'. The Quinn piece was a perfect opportunity to talk about and demonstrate tapering phrases up and down again, as opposed to hitting the beginning of a phrase hard, which may be appropriate in some other music. Overhearing her working with the junior choir, while they were singing the line "O sing to the Lord with a jubilant voice," she demonstrated how to sing with a non-jubilant voice and asked them whether that worked well for that song. Organist and accompanist Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra also joined in instructing the singers regarding the hymns, and sang heartily from the organ bench.

A continuing situation in the Itinerant Chorister project is doing things that are routinely done and are second nature to those I am visiting. At St. Andrew's, the protocol for the choir processing into the sanctuary surprised me a bit. The singers enter from a side door in the front of the church, walk single file through a narrow side aisle to the back, then across the narthex and two by two down the slightly wider center aisle to the front again. In the narthex, the person alongside whom I was supposed to walk started waving frantically for me to catch up, and nearly knocked my hymnal on the floor. Another thing about singing in the narthex: At my home church, Zion Lutheran, I call the narthex the time warp, because you can't hear the organ very well there, and when people start singing there, they discover upon entering the sanctuary and hearing the organ that they are out of time with it. Therefore I stay silent in the narthex. However, at St. Andrew's, it seems different, perhaps because of a higher ceiling in the narthex or the organ being closer.

The sermon by Father Charles Witke followed the theme of the Gospel lesson, John 13:31-35, in which Jesus commands his disciples to love each other. He pointed out that this is the way that others know who are followers of Jesus. In illuminating Jesus' command to love your neighbor as yourself, Fr. Witke explained that this put forward love of oneself as the "gold standard of love." And so it seems to be for many people. He ended the sermon with "I love the face of Christ that I see."

There were some interesting features of the "Prayers of the People." Church is a place where we refer to people by their first names, even though this can sometimes seem a bit jarring. So when we were praying for government leaders, we especially held up "Barack our President, Jennifer our Governor, and John our Mayor." Later, they recited what I understood to be the names of all U.S. service members nationwide who were killed in war zones during the past week. This is something I haven't encountered at another place of worship, and illustrates a conscientious community of believers.

The bell tower of St. Andrew's is visible by sighting directly along Miller and Catherine Streets from as far down the hill as the railroad underpass.