High Holy Days

I sing at our local Jewish temple, which is Temple Gates of Prayer in New Iberia, Louisiana.  This is a small congregation, deep in the primarily Christian area of south Louisiana.  The temple, over a hundred years old, is within walking distance of churches that are Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Church of Christ and Methodist Episcopal, with other denominations in the area (just not within walking distance).  I have sung there for over 10 years, and feel very blessed to do so.

Temple Gates of Prayer New Iberia Louisiana Temple Gates of Prayer, New Iberia, LA

When people learn this, they want to know how this Christian musician wound up singing at a Jewish church.  Just lucky, I say. I was in the right place at the right time when their previous vocalist retired, and I was willing (and excited) to tackle something new.

And so it was that I encountered a whole new world of music and of worship.  I learned the Sh’ma and the Bar’chu. I learned that while vowels weren’t exactly an afterthought in Hebrew,  they probably weren’t on the tablets that God gave Moses.  I also learned that different rabbis write transliterations (phonetic spellings) of the same word in many different ways!

I write this in the middle of High Holy Days, which encompass Rosh Hashana (the new year), Yom Kippur (Day of Attonement) and Shabbat Shuvah, which is the Shabbat that falls in between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  For Gates of Prayer, this time also marks the arrival of their new student rabbi.  As a small congregation, they are served by rabbinical students.  This year is extremely unusual as they have the same student as last year, Alex Kress.  (Most of the time there is a new student rabbi every year.)

This personnel change is unusual; most churchgoers, regardless of denomination, are used to having a spiritual leader for longer than 9 months at a time.  The rabbis may change, but the congregation must stand on its own as a community. They do so, and embrace each new rabbi with open arms and open hearts.  (This being south Louisiana, I must add “open kitchens” as well!) The rabbis become a part of the community, and I think they leave a part of themselves here.

Over the years, I’ve been asked questions members of my “Jewish church family” and my “regular church family” (and other curious souls).  I’ve often heard comments / questions about my level of participation in the service at Gates of Prayer.

“You read along with the prayers?” Yes, of course.  Prayers all go to God, regardless of where I’m standing when I pray.  The prayerbook I use doesn’t matter.  Prayer comes from the heart.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of the many I’ve learned from my years with Congregation Gates of Prayer is simply this: There is much more that draws us together than that which separates us.  We pray for peace, for compassion, for redemption and forgiveness. We pray for those we love, and we pray for help in loving those who may be hard to love.  We pray that we may be better people..  Being Christlike is doing (following) mitzvah.  Love God, do good, follow the commandments.

It’s all good.  It’s all God.

Beyond Piano Lessons

“Mama, I want to learn piano. Mama, can I take piano lessons? Mama….Mama….” I don’t remember where this obsession came from.  I just remember my childish frustration with my toy piano with painted-on black keys.  I had no access to a “real” piano, but I KNEW those painted-on keys did NOT SOUND RIGHT.

Then, too, was also the frustration of how to play songs.  I could pick things out by ear, but there had to be other ways, to put music together like I’d seen on TV.  I had been so excited to start school and adored reading, but by the second grade I had seen this other mysterious printed language that promised something even more wonderful than a story: Music!  I knew that if I could read words, I could learn to read music, I just needed someone to teach me.

One day, Mom saw something in the paper about piano lessons.  “Mrs. Clark!” she exclaimed, “why, she taught me Geometry in high school!” A phone call was made, and not long afterwards we were heading to town where I was introduced to a lovely older lady with tight grey curls, orthopedic shoes, thick bifocal cat-eye glasses and a twinkle in her eyes.  Her home was small and simple and smelled of pine, furniture oil, Cashmere Bouquet and baked goodies that I couldn’t quite identify.  Best of all, there, was an upright piano in a place of honor, right in the front room.

Mom sat with us during my first lesson.  At the end of that lesson, we all agreed that we would continue.  I went home with Eric Steiner’s Junior Approach to the Piano, and headed to my aunt’s house to practice, as she had a piano.  Within a week or two, a rental piano was delivered to our home, and Mom was bringing me twice a week to Mrs. Clark’s house.

I suppose other teachers could have guided me through learning to play, but Mrs. Clark taught me more than that.  She never hosted recitals (saying she was too old), but focused on a student learning to play whatever music they loved.  To be sure, we worked through entire courses from Eric Steiner, John Thompson, and Michael Aaron (along with Czerny’s School of Velocity and quite a few theory books), but she also welcomed anything I happened upon that I brought in to tackle.  From the Reader’s Digest Fireside Book of Folk Songs to books of popular songs and various “Greatest Hits of……” it was welcomed in Mrs. Clark’s home.

I didn’t just learn to read music and play piano.  I also learned to make graham cracker brownies (she always had a bag of these for me, and for every student after each lesson) and I loved hearing her stories of playing for the silent movies when she was a teen.  She was born in the late 1800s, and I began taking lessons from her in the late 1960s, so you do the math.  She had fallen in love with a man considerably older than she was.  They had fewer years together than many couples, but those years were precious and filled with joy.  They had one son. She saw both World Wars, and told me what it was like “back home” during those difficult years.  She listened to my joys and frustrations at school and dispensed advice without my even realizing it.  Over the years, she became more housebound, but her students brought her joy and, she said, “kept her young.”  She wasn’t able to attend church often, but would get dressed up to watch Sunday services on television.  She would also make it a point to watch every Alabama football game that was televised; Coach “Bear” Bryant had been a student of hers some years before, so needless to say, she was a huge fan of the Crimson Tide.

I learned from Mrs. Clark that making music is more than just playing in perfect time with a metronome; it’s about playing with joy.  If you miss a note, she’d say, just keep going and carry an attitude that said everything was perfect.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but playing piano for a silent movie demanded that, just as does any situation of performing live for an audience.

When I was halfway through high school, she announced that she would be retiring from teaching piano and moving away to be closer to her only son.  Before leaving, she gave me a stack of her sheet music from the early 1900s.

mrs clark music upload

I couldn’t imagine having any other piano teacher; what could they possibly teach me that Mrs. Clark had not already taught?  I could practice on my own, and did so.  I poured my focus into other high school activities and trying to figure out what to do with my life. We kept up through letters, and I was able to visit her in her new home (about an hour away) on a couple of occasions.

She moved into a nursing home when I was in college, but we would still correspond.  I was busy with classes, and she and my mom corresponded as well.  Her mind was sharp as ever, and she asked the nursing home staff what she could do to assist with recordkeeping, letter writing, etc.  Health care privacy laws were not quite as strict then as they are now, and she was a welcome help to the staff. Her one complaint?  “All these old people around here who complain all the time!”

She died not long after I had graduated from college.  I went to the funeral home early in the morning on the day of her funeral, and sat quietly in the parlor and gave thanks for the incredible gift that she was in my life.  Even today, 3 decades later, I think of her and give thanks for her presence in her life.  I didn’t realize then that her teachings were applicable to life:  Do things you love with joy. If you mess up, just keep going with the attitude that everything is fine, because it really is.

In memory of Mrs. Edna Reynaud Clark, 1891 – 1984    

Don’t Wanna!

It’s another day where my email inbox is so overstuffed with stuff that I miss even seeing half of it.  It’s metaphoric for one of the big questions of life in general:  How can I have LESS of the stuff I don’t want and MORE of the stuff I DO want?

While the internet is fairly new, this question is an ancient one.  Why is it that we seem to get more of what we don’t want, and less of what we want?  Could it simply be that we notice the “Don’t Wants” more?

The Don’t -wants scream louder. They get in our face and disrupt our best laid plans. The database crashes or the internet service at my office konks out and I hear “new cable…4 week wait.”  Illness interferes with vacation plans…and that’s just the small stuff.

Yet it’s the small stuff that can sap our energy and turn life into a palette of dull colors. We begin to notice more and more of the small stuff we don’t want and in turn, expect more of the same. Consequently, we tend to notice the Don’t-wants more than anything, and we then live a self-fulfilling prophecy.

http://www.women-at-the-well.com

This seems obvious, but is it?  Ask someone what’s bothering them and you’ll get a list.  Ask how they are blessed and they may list a few things (unless their database crashed that morning or they had a flat tire, etc.)  Perhaps it’s human nature to notice what’s wrong, but why is it human nature to go out seeking more of the same?  Is it because we feel that we need validation?  “See, I TOLD you….Nothing ever goes right!”

Neutralizing the Don’t-wants takes a bit of effort to consciously notice and acknowledge the things in our lives that we do want.  This is where developing an “attitude of gratitude” comes in. It takes some effort to not focus on Migraine Mountain and instead focus on the simple fact that “I got up this morning.”  (Some days that’s about the best I can come up with.) But it gets easier.

The first thing we notice is that we aren’t really seeing anything NEW, we’re just…seeing. Hm, if I didn’t see a car under the carport every morning, that would be a real problem. Not having a job to complain about is a bigger complaint than whining about an unfulfilling job. What’s the shortest blues song ever?  “I didn’t wake up this morning.”  You get the picture.

My feet hurt.  Thank you, God, I am able to stand.
I’m tired.  Thank you, God, I had someone counting on me today.
It’s been MamaMamaMama all day.  Thank you, God, I have children who turn to me and sometimes even listen to me!

If you happen to be thinking “oh, I’ve heard all this gratitude stuff before,” then why aren’t you taking it to heart?  Here’s a challenge:  Take the next 20 minutes and look around you, and just say “thank you for…….” and keep going.  Don’t stop, keep going even if you find yourself saying “thank you for ice cubes…for refrigerators…for garden hoses…for the garbage that I have to take out…”  Make that thank you list as long as you can, and I’ll bet you run out of time before you run out of things to list.

It might be slow at first, but keep it up.  Go out of your way to spend “Gratitude Minutes,” especially when you are feeling crushed by the Don’t-wants.  You might be surprised to start seeing more of the things you want show up more frequently.

Offer it up

Offer it up.

I can’t quite remember when my young self first encountered this spiritual concept, but I believe it was somewhere in between “Who made me?” “God made me” and Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy… By the time I was in the 3rd grade, the idea of “offering it up” for the repose of the souls in purgatory was ingrained in my psyche.  I wasn’t too sure what “repose” meant, but I well knew by then what purgatory was.  According to my teacher, it was a place where I was going to spend a LOT of time.

I had learned that suffering and misery were the currency of the spiritual realm.  No amount of suffering was too much.  In fact, no amount was ever enough, so I’d better learn to “offer it up” for some other pour soul and hope that I’d have someone else suffering on my behalf when it was my turn to be stuck in purgatory for a few millennia.

It would be several years before I dared to question this spiritual Ponzi scheme.  After all, I asked Sr. Rose in 10th grade, if Jesus paid our debt for us, why does anyone need me to make deposits in the Bank of Purgatory?  I wasn’t (regardless of what Sr. Rose thought) trying to be a smart Alec.  I simply couldn’t follow the logic of the “offer it up” concept.

It would be decades before I came to my own conclusion: We weren’t depositing spiritual currency, hoping to earn interest.  Instead, we were receiving a windfall of Grace.

My mistake was to interpret “offer it up” as a way to be pious in misery.  That always struck me as proud.  How magnanimous, to think that one could help to spring souls from their purgatorial prison! “Oh, how I suffer!” Then, there was the idea that someone other than Christ could redeem souls, even if our suffering were but a few pennies towards the payment.  A god who wanted our suffering did not seem to be the same God who regularly filled my backyard with climbing trees and flowers, or our pond with fish, or the sky with a never-ending picture show, or my family’s hearts with love. How could this “god” want to collect our suffering?

After rejecting this misery-monger god for some time, I realized I really had it all wrong.  God does want our misery, but God does not want us to be miserable.

Offer it up.  No matter what misery and pain we have, God will take it.  God will take our misery into the comforting arms of amazing love and grace, for only there can our pain (and we) be transformed. Offer pain, sorrow, misery, disappointment, loss.  Offer it all, not as penance or payment, but rather as release.  Who are we to think that we can bear such things alone?  What must we think of God, to imagine that God wants us to steep in this misery and pain? Life can be hard enough even with Divine help! Who do we think God is, to say that God gave us Christ, the Lamb of God – oh, and by the way, there’s still an outstanding debt and you can make a payment on it by suffering.  No, God can take our misery and pain and carry it all with us and for us when our human strength is simply gone.  I’m not being Pollyanna here, I’m being a realist.  There are painful, terrible things in life. Only God can take these offerings that blind us with pain and bear them, until we are able to start to see a bit beyond the darkness, and once again start to see the climbing trees, flowers, and the skies.  Come to think of it, only God can do that.

And God can only do that if we choose to “offer it up.”