Stories Matter

The author and poet Barry Lopez once said, “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” Over the last eight or so months, the staff of In Touch Magazine has been privileged to tell the stories of many wonderful people who God has used in a mighty way. If you haven’t already checked out our special micro-site, click on the image below and read more about them.

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We were also able to work with the amazingly talented team of professionals in our ministry’s broadcast department to produce five videos, one for each month of the project. For the folks who aren’t as into words as we are, we thought these were a great way to experience the stories and hear the hearts of the people we featured. I thought I’d collect them together here as well.

The last month’s special report–The Searcher–will be coming out in September, and with it, the project comes to a close. Looking back over it now, I can see just how much I’ve grown–both as a Christian and as a writer, and I know without doubt that none of this would have been possible if God hadn’t been in it from the start. We all had to decrease so He might increase.

Bret Lott writes in his book Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian, “What I saw in [Carver’s] work was that in my own, I had to be the last one heard from in this pile of words I was arranging, and that humility was the most valuable tool I could have, because the people about whom I wanted to write mattered so very much more than the paltry desires of the writer himself. They mattered so very much more than me. My job was to get out of the way.” Here’s to hoping that with these pieces and others I’ll write, I can somehow manage to do just that—get out of the way.

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Michael and Jessica Beates (June–The Special Needs Community)

Rhonda, Faith, and Hope Slinkosky  (July–The Orphan)

Dot Hutcheson and Howard Webb (June–The Widow and Widower)

James Murray (July–The Prisoner)

Scarlett Rigsby and Truth (August–The Needy)

Life Is More than Food

I value healthy eating, but by the seventh mention of bowel movements, I totally checked out. I’d gone to a baking class to learn about something I considered complicated—making bread. But I got a lot more than that for my eight dollars. In addition to learning about all things yeasty, I was also treated to a dissertation on the evils of pre-packaged foods and forced to listen as the teacher waxed rhapsodic about the unfathomable joy that could be mine if I made everything from scratch. Like buy-grain-in-bulk-and-grind-your-own-flour-in-a-mill-from-scratch.

To quote Hall and Oates, “I can’t go for that. No can do.”

Don’t misread my reticence. I’m not one of those people who eschews anything to do with good nutrition. In fact, I avoid fast food as much as possible, drink plenty of water, and eat my veggies. (Seriously, I actually like Brussell sprouts.) But to spend nearly every waking moment of my life thinking about what I eat and how I should buy, store, and prepare it is beyond my ken. If you’ll forgive me the dead metaphor/bad grammar super combo, it might be some folks’ bread and butter, but it ain’t my cup of tea.

Image from wisegeek.com
Image from wisegeek.com

Hecks to the yes, I value wellness. As a person who’s lived with multiple sclerosis for nearly ten years, I know what it feels like when your body turns traitor and refuses to work the way it should. But expending such an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy in the name of good health makes me wonder if the term “quality of life” has as many shades of meaning as Kool-Aid has uses for Yellow No. 5. To me, a life spent checking labels and prepping food to squirrel away in Tupperware boxes doesn’t make me want to do the Cupid Shuffle or “go tell it on the mountain.” I love to eat delicious, wholesome meals, but if I have to make a choice between spending my life creating them or crafting poetry, the latter will win. Every single time.

In C.S. Lewis’ masterwork, The Screwtape Letters, the title character (who just happens to be a demon) advises his nephew to tempt a person with gluttony. He says, “We can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern” by “concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess.” In other words, Lewis says, the desire for a perfect slice of toast or ideal cup of tea can never be fulfilled, and in searching for it, a person’s stomach “dominates” his/her life to the detriment of everything else.

I still want to learn everything there is to know about baking bread—but not so I can fend off some invisible specter of illness or fear. I want to bake to help feed the hungry, to teach my future children the value of making something with your hands, and to welcome others to my table to fellowship. After all, what good is lifetime spent filling my stomach with good things only to wake up one day and discover my soul is empty and my heart starved?

Decanting the Divine

According to scientists in Sweden, when we sing together, our voices aren’t the only thing that harmonize. Apparently, our heart rates do, too.

According to their research, “as the members sang in unison, their pulses began to speed up and slow down at the same rate.” The reason for this is fairly obvious. Directors will indicate where choir members should breathe as well as how quickly and loudly we should be, and when we do these things in unison, our hearts begin beating at relatively similar rates.

But that’s not the most interesting part.

They also found that “the more structured the work [is], the more the singers’ heart rates increased or decreased together. Slow chants, for example, produced the most synchrony. The researchers also found that choral singing had the overall effect of slowing the heart rate.”

I’ve been a musician (both instrumental and vocal) for a large portion of my life, and I can tell you that I’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand. When everyone is locked in on the conductor, fully focused on making a performance as perfect as it can be, and attentive to details like diction, phrasing, and dynamics, the feeling borders on rapturous.

I feel connected to something larger than myself both physically and emotionally in these moments. I’ve often told people that it’s like catching a wave. As the music develops, it carries me with it from crest to trough as the measures roll blissfully past. There are some pieces I’ve sung (especially in churches built with good natural acoustics) where the last note hangs in the air like a poignant memory. And as we listen to it fade away, I can look around and tell my fellow performers experienced the same thing I did. It’s all silent smiles and faces blushed and beaming. For the briefest of moments, we are transported somewhere else, and I can’t help but think that it’s something approaching heaven.

Image from gracechurchnc.com
Image from gracechurchnc.com

Something similar to it happens in 2 Kings 3, king of Israel, Jehoshaphat, and the king of Edom all approach the prophet Elisha to inquire of the Lord. He tells them, “As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, surely were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not look at you, nor see you. But now bring me a musician.” The next verse has long fascinated me. It reads, “Then it happened, when the musician played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him.” By listening to music, he is connected to the divine and is given a prophesy by almighty God Himself.

When we worship God with music, I believe we open ourselves up the same way Elisha did. When we are focused on giving Him the praise that is His due, I think we receive something as well, something we define as a “synchrony” though the term hardly does the sensation justice. I believe we are decanting something of the divine, and the joy we feel is just a heady taste of what awaits us in glory.

In Ezekiel 11:19-20, God speaks through His prophet who says, “Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God.” As Christians, we have been granted a “heart of flesh” that is sensitive to the still, small voice God uses when He speaks to His children. And worship is one way we can feel the beating of that “one heart,” the one perfectly aligned with His will, and know without doubt who He is and who we are in Him.

In case you’re in the mood to hear something beautiful, I leave you with one of my all-time favorite groups, the Soweto Gospel Choir, singing “Hosanna.”

What do you think about music? Is it something larger than us, something that gives us meaning….or are you of the mind that we give meaning to it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

No Ifs, Ands, or Buts

Last Saturday evening, my husband received a cryptic text message from Stan, a friend and fellow trombonist. It was something straight out of The Matrix, an indecipherable garble of letters and numbers, and Wayne decided he’d have to tease Stan about it at church the next day.

He wasted no time and shouted across the orchestra room, “Stan, what are you doing butt dialing me in the middle of the night?”

The older man’s head whipped up, a deep furrow creasing his forehead, and he snapped, “Son, you ought not talk like that in the Lord’s house.”

Wayne looked at me, panicked—like a kid who’d forgotten his one and only line in the school play. He stammered and sheepishly asked, “What did I say? ‘Butt’?”

“Worse than that,” Stan replied. “I’m not mad, but you just shouldn’t use sex talk here.”

Then it clicked in my head, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I kept on even though my gut hurt and tears filled my eyes.

“Wayne,” I said, trying to catch my breath, “he thought you meant ‘booty call.’”

A few beats later, Wayne got the joke as well. Then the only one not snickering was Stan. It was then my rather unenviable job to explain the difference between “booty call” and “butt dial” to a man thirty years my senior. It was uncomfortable to say the least, like having to tell your teacher the meaning of a dirty word when she (and you) would be better off if she remained blissfully oblivious. But, thankfully, by the time I finished, he was shaking his head and laughing too—a deep, whole body chuckle that made his shoulders shake.

Several years ago, I taught ESL classes and enjoyed many zany moments like this. And if there’s one thing those amazingly determined students taught me it’s that words matter. Especially when they have different connotations. For example, when it comes to her body, a woman would much rather be described as “voluptuous” than “chubby.” The same holds true for someone who’s good with money; I’m willing to bet “thrifty” is much preferable to “stingy.” (I wouldn’t know as I’m as prodigal as they come.)

And vocabularies, unlike currency, don’t always convert well. Consider the word “fag.” Say it in England, and a Brit will go looking for his pack of smokes. However, it’s disrespectful on this side of the pond. And you better not call your bag a “fanny pack” when you’re looking for some bob to pay for your fish and chips. It will end with you being roundly mocked.

Words also morph over time, changing their colors as easily as a chameleon does. The word “awful” once meant “full of awe” (something wonderful and amazing.) Now, it’s the last word you’d use to describe the Mona Lisa. Same goes for “manufacture.” It’s original meaning was “made by hand.” Now that term only applies to mass produced junk coming from the bowels of a factory. That’s why the sentence, “The awful manufactured lamp made my house look bright and gay” means something radically different than it did a century or so ago.

Yeah, words matter—no ifs, ands, or “butts” about it.

Pulling a Culinary Hat Trick

I have to admit it. I’m actually kind of proud of myself. Why? Because I did something that allowed me to accomplish three very domestic acts in one fell swoop.

1. Grow something edible in a garden.

2. Use it to make something homemade.

3. Post it to Pinterest.

I don’t know why I feel the urge to do the third one. Maybe my rather diminutive feminine side decided to assert herself today for some reason, like the time when a group of girls asked me who my favorite New Kid was. I didn’t have one, but I noticed no one seemed to be taking Jon or cutting his picture out to put in their lockers. I figured I could use their old copies of Tiger Beat and help myself blend in with others of my kind at the same time. (Kindness and thriftiness double combo!) But enough of that….

What did I grow, you ask? Tomatoes and green peppers! (There are also jalapeños, habaneros, and some watermelons out there.) The onions, zucchini, and garlic are from Publix, but baby steps to “domestic goddess status,” I guess. You can put other veggies in there, too, but these were the ones suggested to me by the friend who gave me the recipe.

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To turn all this scrumptious produce into homemade marinara, all you need to do is roughly chop everything into bite-sized pieces, like so…

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Then cover the veggies in a liberal coating of olive oil, kosher salt, and black pepper. However, roasted garlic is a little different. All you need to do for it is cut the tip off to expose the bulbs. Then cover it in olive oil and wrap each head up in its own foil pouch.

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Put all this deliciousness in the oven (set to 350 degrees or so) for about thirty minutes or until the veggies are soft.

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Let them cool off just a bit and then put them in a food processor with the bulbs of roasted garlic, a handful of fresh basil leaves, and some of the juice from the pan.

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Blend until combined. It can be as smooth or as chunky as you’d like. However, since I’m freezing some of it, I opted for “well blended.”

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Spread the sauce out to let it cool. Then you can either can or freeze it to use whenever you want to make a fresh pot of pasta. Honestly, it’s not that much work, and it tastes amazing!

And now, I can go watch baseball with a clear conscience. Thank goodness.

The Church of Baseball

This weekend, a small kerfuffle commenced over two symbols carved into the dirt on the back of Busch Stadium’s pitching mound. One was the number six, placed there in honor of Stan “The Man” Musial who died on January 19th at the age of 92. The other was a cross. It’s appearance shouldn’t be surprising since the St. Louis Cardinals are one of the most openly Christian teams in all of professional sports. Fifteen or so players as well as head coach Mike Matheny are believers, and their faith was the subject of a new book written just this year.

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However, “One fan, Michael Vines, said he was ‘shocked’ when he saw the ‘inappropriate’ images because he said Busch Stadium is ‘a place of hallowed ground not just for Christians, but for Cardinal fans of all religions, including none at all.'” A series of phone calls followed his complaint, and in the end, the Cardinals’ GM, John Mozeliak, ordered that both symbols be removed. The cross for obvious reasons and the 6 because, according to reports, someone said “it looked suspiciously like a Jesus fish.” Le sigh. And the first day the symbols weren’t there was on Christian Family Day. The irony of it all is positively delightful.

So….wait. A book discussing the team’s faith and an entire day devoted to Christians (one that has been advertised for months beforehand) is kosher. And it’s okey dokey to accept money from believers who attend the game, but the symbols on the back of a mound must be nixed toot sweet? Call me crazy, but that seems a skosh hypocritical. It’s like the scene in Casablanca where Captain Louis Rennalt attempts to appear shocked that gambling is going on at Rick’s Café American….and then collecting his winnings before closing the place down at the Nazi’s behest.

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Bill McClellan, a writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote an op-ed this weekend titled “Uneasy feelings about the cross on Busch Stadium mound” in which he states, “I look at photos of that cross etched on the mound and I get the same sort of uneasy feeling I get when I hear the phrase ‘homeland security.’ It used to be ‘national security.’ Why did ‘national’ morph into ‘homeland’? It happened about the same time politicians started wearing American flag lapel pins.”

Really?!?

He goes on, equating the feeling to the same slick nausea that churns in his gut when he thinks of terrorism, the NSA surveillance program, and George Orwell. And he closes this gem of fallacious writing by saying, “The tribute to Musial seems harmless. Not so the cross. Does religion need to be that prominent in a baseball game? I’m not pretending it’s a big deal. But still, I have an uneasy feeling about a cross etched on the mound.”

So, in his mind, the cross poses the same threat to America’s security as enemies both foreign and domestic. But that’s quite a stretch, especially considering the fact he praised this year’s team by saying they’re, “the nicest Cardinals team I can recall. At least, the players appear nice from a distance.” Also, if he’s so concerned about the dystopian world in Orwell’s 1984, shouldn’t he be defending the placement of the cross on the field (and the freedom that allows it to be there) rather than supporting the “Big Brother” decision to have it removed? I sometimes wonder if the kneejerk reaction to anything that remotely smacks of Christianity doesn’t keep some folks in our country from thinking the matter through clearly.

And let’s be serious here for a moment. Both Mr. Vines and Mr. McClellan are forgetting something true baseball fans understand—If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Cardinals currently have the best record in baseball (53 and 34) and are, as I type this, beating the snot out of the Houston Astros 8-1. The starting rotation is rock solid; the lineup is hitting like gangbusters. Five men were selected to participate in the 2013 All-Star Game, and every player on the team is happy and honored to be a part of an historic and well-respected franchise. In other words, they’re like “Me and Mrs. Jones”—they got a good thing going on. So quit gnashing your teeth and enjoy the second half of the season, dudes.

I am a Christian who also happens to be a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I’m thrilled that I can root for a team of stand-up men who play the game skillfully and serve God both on and off the field. I would love nothing more than a religious symbol on every base and Scripture written on the walls of the dugout. However, even if I only believed in “The Church of Baseball,” I would still support the cross and 6 on the mound. Why? Because they’re Hippocratic; they do no harm. A true fan supports whatever gets the game in the “W” column as opposed to the “L” and worries more about team morale than its iconography.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your reaction to this situation and all the people who have weighed in thus far. Can we even have a legitimate debate about religion again in this country anymore? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

A Weary Pilgrim Headed for the Hollow Square

In Zora Neale Hurtston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie describes the moment she falls out of love with her second husband by saying,

Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just some thing she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further.

While it’s nothing so dramatic as all that, it is the only way I can think to describe how I feel about church music right now. Corporate worship, as I have always known it, has fallen off a shelf inside me.

I’m not judging, casting blame, or saying one form is superior to another. If you’ve found a way to worship that connects you to God, I applaud you. Keep singing, playing, clapping, or banging a tambourine for all you’re worth. But with regards to the “worship wars,” I can’t muster the strength to choose a side any more. The argument has left me hollowed out and deflated. No matter the packaging or presentation, all worship feels consumption-based to me right now. It’s all well-manicured voices,  sterile words on a screen, and a congregation that just follows along. No matter what church I go to, worship feels too big. Too glossy. Too plastic. To my ears, it’s shiny sound without a soul. I don’t know why.

But it makes me ache.

I’m hungry for something authentic, something real and raw and unmistakable. I want to worship in a way that is focused on devotion, not performance. For too long, I’ve just accepted it. I’ve told myself, “This is just the way it is now.” But still, I find myself longing to lift my voice, my hands, and my eyes to God in the middle of a group–not in front of them or in lockstep behind someone else telling me what to feel.

IMG_1818Maybe that’s why the tradition known as Sacred Harp singing appeals to me so much. It’s certainty different from much of what I’m used to. For one, politics and denomination wars are not allowed inside the house, and part of me rejoices at that.

Another thing I admire is that despite its long tradition, the music remains relatively unchanged. As you can see by the picture I took, it uses shape notes. And what’s even better is that everyone sings. With gusto and in harmony. And while the pitch is relative, it always seems to work out. One doesn’t “lead” per se. The person who directs stands in the “hollow square,” as they call it, keeps the tempo and cues when necessary, and everyone has a chance to lead at least once. Also, this isn’t a service in the traditional sense. There is no preaching like there is on Sunday morning, just music. It’s something many of the participants do in addition to the activities at their church.

I’m still in the first stages of learning about this interesting community of musicians, but after having participated in one singing, I can honestly say that they are passionate, about the music if nothing else. Some of the people I met were lifelong Christians–everything from Primitive Baptists to high church Anglicans. I also shared dinner on the grounds with a woman who openly declared, “I’m not religious.” But there was something she loved about the  music, perhaps the gritty realness of it, that kept her coming to participate. If that diverse a group can get over themselves to sing, there must be something to it. And I intend to find out what it is.

I’ve begun my research into the history of this musical style and it’s people with several resources. The first is a comprehensive historical work called The Makers of the Sacred Harp by David Warren Steel and Richard H. Hulan. Hopefully, it will explain the origins of the songbook, how the music is composed, and all the other technical aspects I want to learn about. And for a more sociological piece exploring the diverse community, I’m diving into I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah!: Community, Spirituality, and Tradition among Sacred Harp Singers by Laura Clawson.

I’ve also procured a copy of a documentary two Sacred Harp singers recently produced titled Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, which looks to be a treasure trove of stories and sound. And I am the happy, proud owner of a copy of The Sacred Harp hymnal, which I hope to be able to study in detail as I learn about how the songs in it have been composed and their respective histories.

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Part of this exploration is because, well, I’m happiest with my nose in a book. A researcher by nature, I find the answers to a great many questions I have by taking the longitudinal view of things and combing through what has already been said. The answer is usually somewhere in the middle.

The other reason is because I’m hoping to put down roots somewhere. I’m tired of shallow worship and simple faith. I’m desperate for something I can’t yet define. Sacred Harp very well may not be it. I’m well aware of this. I know that no system of worship, no matter how “right” it is, can be a substitute for God and a relationship with Him. But I’ve been stirred. Something in me has been overturned, and my soul is disquieted. It’s time to go wandering, to be a pilgrim again. The answers are somewhere I’m not, so I go to suss them out.

Here’s a brief video I shot on my iPhone at the singing I attended. There are much better ones out there, ones with better video and sound quality, but I wanted to share a little of what I experienced that afternoon.

If you’re interested in Sacred Harp singing, I’d love to hear your thoughts and learn from your research. Maybe we could even meet one day to sing together. I’m also hoping to hear from others on the state of worship in America. Do you think I’m way off base feeling this way? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Please share them in the comments section below!