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night

This year for the holidays we’re learning a 10-composition-long cantata in our church choir. One of the composition is a medley of Christmas favorites, including the Silent Night. Except in this version, the composers introduced several brilliant and sublime harmonies, which make the Night not quite so peaceful and pastel-colored. The sheep are not perfectly round, the minor, somewhat unresolved chords and counter-melodies seem to be asking more than stating.  The top line of the melody is the same, and the congregation, as they begin to sign along with the choir, won’t know to expect the lyrical hues and the questioning. We, the altos and the male voices will create that vibrancy and depth.

When we first read through the score, half-way through I couldn’t sing any longer, it touched me so. It seemed a more accurate rendition of the mood of so long ago: will this infant, so frail, so vulnerable, really save mankind? Will we be rescued from all of the evils that dwell within us by this little child? Now, hidden in the cocoon of intimacy with his mother, will he one day be called Emmanuel? The overtones make me see him through Mary’s eyes: the endless love of a parent, the awe and the timidity at the miracle of witnessing a new life, of witnessing the birth of the Savior.

Grisha comes up and I try to explain the ingenuity of the composers, to transmit even a bit of why this rendition of Silent Night sends me shivering and unable to hold a steady B. I mention that they are playing with everyone’s expectations, they’re innovators, I try to describe the majors and minors, and he nods – of course he knows all about them. Enthralled in the ancient mystery, I feel a thousand light years away from him. He is an atheist, I am a Christian. How can I possibly send my little beam of feeling across that vast expanse?

Wanting to hold on to the eternal, I aim for the door to the room where I can listen to the recording of the composition. This is a rare moment when I want to feel close to Him rather than him. But, there is a pile of dishes and, succumbing to the inevitable, I stop short and we tackle Sisyphus’ mount together. As I soap up and he brings the remnants from the table, Gri picks up, “You know, there’s an entire school of thought in the Philosophy of Music about major and minor tonalities and about how they’re supposed to make you feel. It turns out, it is not a gut feeling you have from birth – you are trained into reacting to certain sounds a certain way…” Yeah, our reaction to it is imprinted on our collective, western consciousness, I respond. He goes on: “And once you’ve identified that certain way that you’re “supposed” to react, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along and starts to play with that expectation. And then someone bends the rules further, and still further, until finally you’ve so completely neglected the way things ought, that you’re in a universe of your own. You get someone like Berg…”

Somewhat disgruntled, still, by being stuck washing the dishes while the Divine calls, I retort that I don’t see how this is a unique thought. What other option is there? That’s how all the arts evolve: you get a status quo, then there’s a renegade, then the nouveau is slowly accepted and then it becomes the new traditional. It’s a matter of exploration, Grisha suggests. Innovators in music explore alternative ways that emotions can be superimposed on sounds. Feeling like I am about to sink into the logic the way the spoons and forks are sinking into the pot of watered-down ex-macaroni and cheese, I remain silent. He senses that I am not into a philosophical discussion. I explain, that I, for one, am having trouble fathoming how talks of the philosophy of music can be superimposed onto myself, standing there up to the elbow in cold orange gloop.

He sighs. Well, that is a fair question. Thinking a little, he adds, “But that’s the big question of life, isn’t it: We’re up to our elbows in shit, and we have to rise above it, still have to think about the Beautiful and the Sublime. We have to learn be greater than our circumstances…In a way, that’s what life is all about…”

Save for the clink-clink of the forks and spoons, the evening is quiet. We ruminate on things unsaid. Outside it is night. I am silent, he hums a familiar, Christmas favorite.

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Dear God,

It’s been a while since I wrote.

Thing is, I felt like I couldn’t reach you. Maybe it was the Church that did it. With its zealous campaign to remind us that we are flawed human beings, it overshot its target and made us believe that we were completely hopeless. Some of us, who already had a good sense of our depravity, became convinced that as fallen beings we had no access to you, no place by your side and really, no place even on this Earth. Instead of being empowered we were weakened. At some point we forgot that we were created in your image, and that you created us good.

We began spending many hours of each day in ritual self-flagellation. We beat ourselves up over not being good enough parents, bad church goers, non-tithers, immoral, apathetic, un-praying and uninvolved. Not only could be not talk to you, because, after all, we hadn’t read the Bible in so many days, weeks, months, but we weren’t good enough to go to church either. We had to take action in order to at least somehow justify our existence. So we wrote to-do lists, pushed ourselves to the limit, put ourselves down and promised to do better. This all must have looked ridiculous to you.

Or maybe it was our society. Goodness, what a bunch of health-conscious, environmentally aware confused individuals we are. The world told us to eat better, to drive less, to care for the minorities among us, and instead of joyfully taking it on, we were consumed with guilt – for eating sweets, throwing away plastic cans, driving instead of biking to work, using non-biodegradable materials. There was no joy in anything we did. We were only desperately, without any real hope, trying to make this world a little bit less of a horrible place to live. And us – just a rung higher up on the unending ladder of guilt and social responsibility.

This was your enemy’s work. He took all of the good that might have been intended, and deranged it. The father of lies had prevailed, if only temporarily, at his best craft. We came to believe, I believed, that we had to earn our place; that we had to deserve it. This was impossible, and we floundered around helplessly. This is why I hadn’t written.

But lately I noticed that this idea doesn’t quite jive with what you teach. In fact, it renders the death and resurrection of your Son completely absurd.

So I just wanted to drop you a line, let you know things are getting better. I am allowing myself the joy of not thinking about guilt. You thought of that already. Funny that it took me only 20 years of faith in you to realize this. But that’s OK too. You’re probably smiling right now, maybe even rolling your eyes a bit. But hey, better late than never, and in the grand scheme of things – it’s not late at all.

It’s the perfect time to be finding the child you love.

A week and a half ago, Sunday, the kids and I went to church. As usual we were late, and as usual I made my way to an empty seat during the worship part of the service. There were empty seats on both sides, and as I often do during worship, I sang and looked around the people gathered in the sanctuary that Sunday. (The sanctuary is amphitheater-shaped, so it’s easy to see the folks below and around you.) And yes, as usual, I saw families, couples, groups of people that I knew came there together. As I raised my hands high and bellowed out praises, I felt a pang of sadness seeing the empty seat next to me. How many times had I come to church alone? How many times did I long to share with my spouse the joy of worship, of that greatest communion of believers? I wondered if the couples standing and sitting below me truly appreciated what they were experiencing there, together, refreshed and united through word and song. Yes, sometimes my husband came. But he was not with me – he would often leave before the service began, or endure the sermon, fighting sleep and boredom. Sitting next to each other but desperately alone, abjectly looking forward, we did not feel any closeness.

I also thought about Eve and her curse. Two lines haunt me often: Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. That curse is as relevant today, as it was when it was first uttered. On a global scale, man continues to dominate over woman, holding most positions of power, violating women, killing them through war, political conflict, domestic violence. And on the level of each family, each couple, the husband more often than not dominates not only because of his sheer strength and cultural/ethnic traditions, but because the woman desires him . Her desperate need makes her vulnerable, and even if the man does not mean to do so, he has control over her. In the end, she is ruled by her own desire and her desperation. The tragedy of the curse is that both people become hostages – the woman needs from the man that which he cannot provide, the man feels inadequate because the woman’s need is too great. Of course the answer is simple: the woman needs to turn to God.

Only the Lord can fill that need. But how incredibly difficult it is to change focus! All we need to do it turn, and God would heal us (Matthew 13:15). But within the context of the intoxicating draw that women feel towards men (and vice-versa), this conversion seems to border on impossible.

The singing continued, and I imagined the possibility of another man standing next to me. What if there was someone out there, who would want to live worship together? Who would understand the importance of this shared experience, who would do it gladly, openly? I glanced at the seat again. It was still empty but suddenly I fancied that I saw Jesus there, smiling and worshiping, grinning at me. It’s like He was saying, “I’ll come – take me along…” And I imagined the various scenarios from the minutiae of getting to church – buckling the kids up in their car seats, me climbing in the driver’s seat, Jesus hopping in the passenger, popping Ella and Louie into the CD player, rolling down the windows… Walking to church, me holding Leo’s hand, Him holding Vierra’s. The pain lifted. I grinned back and sang louder.

Sunday came again, and again we went to church. This time my husband wanted to go, and we went together, all four of us, as a family. The kids went to their program and we went to the worship service. And so we sat there, peaceful in the eye of the tornado of our marriage unraveling all around us. The tethers and cords that held that frail entity in place were snapping, tearing off, breaking under the strain of so many hurts. But there in that warm and well-lit place we felt safe. My husband put his arm around me, and I instinctively huddled closer. Now we looked like that stereotypical, happily married Christian couple. Now I had finally received, after many years, that which I had yearned for. But I…

I didn’t need him there anymore.

I still experience a mixed feeling of deep satisfaction and guilt whenever I recall how I convinced a girl in my youth group that a Faith No More song (namely, Land of Sunshine from their album Angel Dust) was inherently good. Being on the Leadership Team, we were given certain privileges and responsibilities. And sometimes we did music nights when we discussed various songs and their meaning/implication in our daily walk with Jesus. It was on one of those nights, when I was in charge, that I did this leading-astray.

No need to comment on the pervasive irreverence of the band, album and song (the rage and sarcasm expressed are almost palpable). However, I will say this in my defense: The song is brilliant! Not only does it target main steam mass-produced Christianity and the unexamined life, but it is completely honest in its rage. It’s not fake rage, it’s not like much music today which can simulate a certain emotion and evoke a certain feeling with carefully crafted lyrics, but lacks anything real behind it. It’s angry, it’s grungy, it’s metal, and it’s true to the core. I would dare say, it is a quintessential representation of the style.

One of the definitions of quintessence is: “The most perfect embodiment of something”. I don’t know. Maybe I’m still wrong as I was years ago when I led that young mind astray with my intelligence of the intelligent (which the Lord does frustrate, as He promised). It just seems that if something is the most perfect embodiment of something, if it’s true, even if it isn’t pretty…it’s still good. Because it’s true. Now this may logically lead me to having to confess that somewhere out there is a country song that’s so true to the country style that it too has to be good…And that may be bordering on sacrilege for me personally.

Still, having this perspective, I have been able to enjoy a much more varied palette of art, music, people, events even (like that time I cut right into my palm because I was cutting some plastic packaging, holding the knife in one hand and having the other hand right behind the very package I was trying to puncture – the quintessential example of what not to do, right?), because I can stand back and say, “That’s just perfect – it is Plato’s ideal form of (fill in the blank).”

In a convoluted way, I feel like in these moments I am coming a bit closer to God, and I see Him laughing. Hard.


Image credit: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2149/2387534678_153f52cfc8.jpg

Wondering why it’s prevalent in our society. Look – I am sick and my boss literally ORDERED me to stay home, and I am feeling guilty that I took the kids to their preschool. I feel guilty when I’m online and not working, guilty when I am working and not cleaning, guilty when I am cleaning and not spending time with the kids, guilty when I am spending time with the kids and secretly wishing they were asleep.

And then sad when they do fall asleep.

Freely you have received, freely you should give. Why is this so difficult to grasp? Notice, it’s harder to receive than to give. I think that if I or anyone else has issues with feeling guilty about everything they do or do not do, there is something about forgiveness and salvation they are not understanding.

Granted, having gone through every welfare program out there (I admit), it has become easier to receive. At first there was shame that I was there, the word “social worker” somehow never managed to leave my mouth without a cough…then it was annoying, then just business as usual. But always humbling. I have learned to receive surprise gifts from friends, unexpected road tolls paid by kind strangers, lunch covered by coworkers when my credit card was not working…Praise God, through all of these kindnesses and more (unexpected bonus that bought us food, a long-lost check coming in right when the power was about to be turned off, a huge debt – forgiven) He gave freely. And we received.

Then why does that feeling that you should be doing something else, something bigger, better, kinder…why does it persist?

And where does it come from?

This feeling strives to render the gift of freedom useless. But having understood, at least somewhat, now I chose to accept it, again. Now I am free. I should just live accordingly.

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