Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Berry’s Dad and I have a tradition that each year one of us surprises the other with a wedding anniversary getaway. This year it was my turn to be surprised, finding myself in Philadelphia (a two hour train ride from home) for three days.

The highlight of the trip (so far…) has been the Philadelphia Orchestra, which plays in Kimmel Hall, a new and gorgeous gathering space with several theaters, the largest of which is Verizon Hall, shaped like the inside of a violin, and made all of wood as a violin is.

We got two hits of fabulous music today, because the smart folks at the orchestra have opened the final rehearsal to the public at noon. So we arrived at noon along with all the musicians in their jeans and T-shirts, and heard a precise and detailed rehearsal of the Shastakovich Symphony #5. The orchestra is recording it, so the conductor, Christoph Eschenbach, was paying minute attention to each measure (“no crescendo, no crescendo!” or “I want these notes on the violas to be longer”).

We also got to see, up close and personal, the dancing style of the violin soloist, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, my new crush. I’m not that big a fan of the violin, but watching (and hearing) her play the Bach violin concerto #2 was sheer joy, especially as she was wearing corduroy jeans and a floppy green sweater, and her hair was still wet from the shower.

Tonight it was a different story. At the noon rehearsal we sat as close as possible to the front, so that we could see facial expressions and hear every word of the conductor. For the “real” concert, we were sitting in the second balcony, with a fine view of the whole stage—the big picture as compared to up close and personal earlier in the day.

Nadja (I love her so much, surely I can call her by her first name?) was wearing black pants (I knew she would wear pants) and a raspberry-colored cardigan sweater over her black top, and the hair was somehow under control. But she still danced. Man, did she dance! I will never hear the Bach violin concerto the same way again, now that I’ve heard it with her embellishments and her full-body style.

The Shostakovich blew my socks off! It was the biggest orchestra I’ve ever seen: 15 violins, 20 violas, 10 cellos, 8 basses, five percussionists (timpani, cymbals, all sorts of drums, triangles, etc.), four trombones, four trumpets, two flutes, an array of reeds and woodwinds I couldn’t see very well, two harps (yes, TWO!), a piano, a carillon—probably about a hundred musicians. And you know you’re listening to a top symphony orchestra when the conductor can get them to play so softly that you could hear a pin drop, an intake of breath, a sigh at the end of a passage. Getting 100 musicians to play loud is a snap; getting them to play pianissimo is an art.

When Eschenbach came out and mounted the podium, I realized that he was conducting without a score! During the performance, when I wasn’t distracted by the person crinkling paper, whom I wished to garrote, I was thinking about what a piece of teamwork I was watching. Without a score, the conductor had to rely on the musicians to do what they were supposed to do—come in on time and play the right notes. No way could he give everyone their entrances. He was paying attention to the nuances – the dynamics, the drama (of which there was plenty!), the feeling tone. From the rehearsal, watching the interplay between musicians and conductor, I sensed that they love working with him and they would do anything he wished. He seemed to be a gentleman and a gentle man, not the prima dona that one expects in a major symphony orchestra conductor.

When it was over, the audience was on their feet in an instant. I’ve never heard so many calls of “Bravo! Bravo, Maestro!” as I heard tonight, my voice among them. This concert hall has seating above and behind the orchestra, so that they see the musicians and the conductor face to face. One of the ushers this morning told us that those seats are reserved for “friends of the maestro” (translation: really big donors). It would have been even more of a thrill to sit in those seats and see his face, but watching the body language of all the musicians was thrill enough for me.

I must remember how important it is to feed my soul with experiences like this: live music, art, beauty in all her seductive ways. There is so much slogging in front of the computer screen; I have to remember to get up and get out now and then, to keep the joy in my heart.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"I'm Sorry That You're a Jerk"

With the Jewish High Holy Days approaching, I have been ruminating on my almost-annual sermon on forgiveness and starting over, or whatever similar theme I can link to this important time in the Jewish year. Because of certain public events and smaller ones in my own congregation, I am going to focus this year on the issue of apology and how it relates to forgiveness. The title is “Who’s Sorry Now?”

Part of the impetus for this is the astounding monologue titled “sorry” in Ntozake Shange’s play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. One woman says:

one thing I don’t need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs
i don’t know what to do wit em
they don’t open doors
or bring the sun back
they don’t make me happy
or get a mornin paper
didn’t nobody stop usin my tears to wash cars
cuz a sorry.

There are two people in my congregation who need an apology to happen between them, and my fingers are crossed that it will happen with a slight nudge from their minister (that would be me). If it does, it will be good news. (I haven’t quite figured out how to address that one in the sermon.)

And then there’s the Pope, whose non-apology to the Muslim world has my jaw on the floor. Here’s the way my local newspaper quoted him: “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages in my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.”

Hello? Mr. Pope Sir? (Or is it Rev. Pope Sir?) What kind of an apology is that? You just said “I’m sorry that you’re a jerk.” All the cute red hats in the world aren’t going to get you out of this unbelievably insensitive gaffe, this second slap in the face to Muslims.

In my book, a sincere apology begins with these four words: “I’m sorry that I…” It can’t be any other way, because any other way puts the blame squarely on the other person, with the speaker (let’s call him the Idiot Non-Apologizer) taking absolutely no responsibility for what has happened.

By saying “I’m sorry that I…” the offender takes ownership of what happened because of his or her action. It’s an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, it names what happened and identifies the result. Hopefully the subsequent conversation is about how to make things right again.

I think that insincere apology is one of the sicknesses of our current society. It pays lip service to the concept of healing a relationship, while actually doing more damage and getting the aforementioned IN-A off the hook. What’s the medical term for when medical care actually makes the person sicker? It’s like that.

Pope Benedict, you’ve got a long way to go.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Eat This Book!

I just finished reading a truly delicious book, Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. It's one of those books that fell into my lap at exactly the right time. I wrote on the blog a while ago about hearing Terry Gross interview Taylor, and falling in love with her before I even knew who she was.

Who she is: Episcopal priest, was on staff at a large suburban church in Atlanta as one of several clergy, then left for her own smaller church in rural north Georgia. Writes for Christian Century, and is a nationally recognized preacher. (Man, would I love to hear her preach some time.) And I tell you, this woman can write, too!

Here are a few tastes:
On entering the priesthood: Being a priest seemed only slightly less dicey to me than being chief engineer at a nuclear plant. In both cases, one needed to know how to approach great power without loosing great danger and getting fried in the process.

A priest is someone willing to stand between a God and a people who are longing for one another's love, turning back and forth between them with no hope of tending either as well as each deserves.

On moving away from the cacophany of city life and the dissatisfactions of ministry in a large urban church, and moving into a rural environment, and a smaller, more intimate church: The sounds outside my windows were no longer car horns and traffic helicopters but migrating geese. Like them, I had left my old home when all the food was gone.

She works her butt off as the only priest in this congregation (which by UU standards isn't all that small--probably a few hundred). Eventually she grows bone-weary, and finds that she is crying all the time. This is a deeply moving story of a pastor who discovers that she can be closest to God on her own terms, and not leading a church. While her descriptions of her growing sadness in ministry are... well, sad... they are beautifully descriptive of what we parish ministers know all too well: the transference that makes us think we are more powerful than we are, the compassion fatigue, the irritation with all the crazy-making pettiness of the church narcissists, the numbing awareness that no matter how much we do, it is never enough.

Here is one that blew me away: Along with the difficult people were the people whose feet I would have gladly washed if I could have gotten them to take their socks off. Unlike the difficult ones, these people did not ask for much from me. They tended to be givers, not takers, and if they asked for help then I knew that their resources were truly exhausted. I am not sure that I served Christ in them as much as I met Christ in them, but either way they were not the problem. The problem was that I wanted everyone to be like them.

A good mantra for survival in parish ministry: The people you think love you don't love you as much as you think they love you, and the people you think hate you don't hate you as much as you think they hate you.

I would like to share much more of this delectable book with you, but even more than that, I would love to have you go out and buy your own copy, and mark it up all over as I have. In a book like this that doesn't have an index, I make my own index on the end-papers, jotting little notes and page numbers for the wise words I find therein. It makes it a lot easier to go back and find the quotations I know are in there somewhere. My copy of this book has the end papers covered in handwritten notes.

There is sadness in watching her gradual realization that the parish is not the place for her any more, but there is also joy in being present to her discovery that her relationship with God improves a great deal once she gets out of the church. Here is my all-time favorite quotation from the book: On the twentieth anniversary of my ordination, I would have to say that at least one of the things that almost killed me was becoming a professional holy person. I am not sure that the deadliness was in the job as much as it was in the way I did it, but I now have higher regard than ever for clergy who are able to wear their mantles without mistaking the fabric for their own skin. As many years as I wanted to wear a clerical collar and as hard as I worked to get one, taking it off turned out to be as necessary for my salvation as putting it on.

You can go here to take a look at it, but of course you will buy it at your local independent book store, noting that (a) when you figure in the shipping costs, it is NOT less expensive to buy it on line, and (b) your local bookstore owner can get it for you just as fast as you can get it on line. You will understand the economics of supporting small local businesses where you live, as part of your effort to keep the local economy healthy and diversified, and to encourage sustainable living in all of its forms., Powells, and Wal*Mart are not your friends.

Bon apetit!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

I'm still alive, but too busy and tired to post anythng pithy. Instead I will post a photo of where I wish I still were (though not at 10:30 p.m., which it is now). Tomorrow or soon I will give you a book report of a truly superb book. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Trying again with a shorter post

This time I just want to put up someting short, to see if I can get the lines closer together. This paragraphi s written in Lucida Grance, size small.
This paragraph is in Verdana, which is actually a font I like a lot, also in size small.

Now I'm going to try posting a photograph. Wish me luck!

This is a picture of when it's okay for a minister to wear a baseball cap. Take that, PeaceBang!


There's a famous story in my family about the recipe my mother generously handed out, a recipe for home made Hollandaise sauce. Whenever she gave it to anyone, she would say "Any idiot can make this!"

I heard this story from my sister-in-law, who is no idiot, especially in the kitchen. Yet she never could get my Mom's recipe to work. And whenever she called my Mom to inquire about what she might be doing wrong, the conversation would go something like this:

"Hi Mom. You know that Hollandaise sauce recipe you gave me?"

"Oh yes, the one any idiot can make?"

"Um... yes, that one."

"Well, what about it?"

"Well... I just wanted to thank you for it."

How can you ask for help without admitting that you're worse than an idiot?

That's the way I'm feeling today about creating this blog. No matter how user-friendly the software is purported to be, it is not friendly to me. I have spent hours today trying to figure out how to create a posting that looks the way I want it to, paste in photos, create links, etc. Finally in the very fine print somewhere, I saw that much of what is available here isn't supported by Safari, which is my browser. (Or maybe it's the other way around...) Anyway, why don't they tell you that right up front?

So I started all over again with Firefox, and am now slogging my way thorough unfamiliar blogging software with unfamiliar browser software. I feel like a kindergartener who somehow landed in a fifth-grade class in Tokyo without having learned to read yet, and knowing not a word of Japanese.

My blogging sisters (PeaceBang and Miss Kitty) have assured me that I will figure it out eventually. I hope they are right. I hope I figure it out before I throw the computer through the window and put out a contract on whoever wrote the instructions.

(But you see, I have figured outhow to do bold!)

Stay tuned. And I might pull this post if it ends up sounding too whiny.

I promise more interesting posts later, when my hair grows back in.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


This week's Newsweek has a brief article about how the newest trend is to include dogs in wedding paties. Not as guests, mind you, but as "best men" or ring bearers or even as (get this) bouquets. Yes, some brides come down the aisle carrying a little lap dog rather than a fistful of flowers. (Though I guess in that case the dog doesn't qualify so much as a member as a member of the wedding party; more like, well, decoration.) One wedding planner in (where else?) Los Angeles was quoted as saying that 40% of her weddings now involve dogs.

My hubby tells me that he did a wedding once with a dog as ring-bearer. I think I could (barely) tolerate that, but I draw the line somewhere this side of dog as bridesmaid or best man. Come on, is this a solemn rite of passage or a circus? I refuse to add the gravitas of my role as clergy celebrant to this kind of side show. To me it speaks of disrespect for tradition, grandstanding (and God knows there's already enough of that at weddings), and not the slightest comprehension of the meaning of the ritual.

OTOH, the time will probably come when dogless brides will want to jump on the doggie bandwagon and will have to rent a dog just the way the groom rents a tuxedo. We could rent Berry out as a best man--he's already the best dog there is. And boy, could we teach him a lot about weddings!