Welcome to Big Old Goofy World . . . a place where I can share my thoughts, hopes, and dreams about this rock that we live on and call home.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

In the Whisper . . . a Shout

There is a tendency to speak of unpleasant or nasty things in a whisper . . . to speak about things that upset us is done in a whisper . . . to speak of things that embarrass us is done in whispers . . . to speak of that which we do not want to acknowledge publically is spoken in whispers.  It is in whispers that we utter that which we hope no one else will hear . . . and, hope that we will never have to explain.  In the whisper there is the hope of secrecy.  It is with the whisper that we quickly pass over the guilt in hopes that the past is quickly forgotten.  In the whisper . . . we hope no one hears or remembers.  In a whisper . . . we long to forget.

Sometimes, though, a whisper becomes a shout.

I recently came across a whisper that shouted out.  Several years ago I read Neither Wolf nor God: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder by Kent Nerburn.  It was a wonderful book written by an author who has written sixteen books, thought I doubt if too many people have read him.  Having read that book I was curious when I saw that he had a new book, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky . . . which turns out to be the third in a trilogy . . . of which Neither Wolf nor Dog was the first.  The title caught my attention as I am a sucker for anything related to Native American . . . knowing the author raised my curiosity . . . so I bought the book and began reading.  The book begins in the soft voice of a whisper that comes in a dream.  A terrible secret is revealed . . . and the adventure begins.

What starts as a whisper  . . . becomes a shout!

Montana is a land rich in Native American culture, history, and presence.  There are eight official tribes recognized by the state of Montana.  There are seven official reservations recognized by the federal government.  Years ago the legislature of the state of Montana created a constitutional charge to the educators and people of the state that Indian education was a requirement for all students in kindergarten through twelfth grade in all subjects.  A part of my job at the university where I work is to provide professional development in Indian Education for All for educators .  The Native American culture, history, and presence is a big part of our lives here in the state of Montana.  Yet, outside of the glaring “bad news” that popular media likes to report about Indians, most of it is spoken in a whisper.

No one—in particular those of us who are white—likes to talk of the royal treatment  that was and continues to be perpetuated upon the Indians.  Winners get to write the history books . . . but, they often leave out the perspectives of others . . . especially those who get the short end of the stick.  Yet, the whispers become shouts, and what was attempted to be done to the Native Americans of our nations was nothing short of a holocaust . . . the wiping out of a people.  From the herding and storing of the Indians on reservations to shipping their children off to boarding schools to indoctrinate them into the “white way” is nothing short of ridding a nuisance with the penalty of death.  The whispers are slowly being spoken out loud . . . the truth is beginning to be heard.

Now, I have read about the boarding schools . . . not a place where I would have wanted my children or any children sent to be “educated”.  I have read the many treaties that were signed as promises that were broken.  I have read a lot of the stories, from both sides, and in the end it is pretty sad how our nation rose up to try and rid our country of the Indian.  Having said that, I was not prepared for the whisper that became a shout in Nerburn’s most recent book . . . the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.

In Nerburn’s book he learns of the asylum for insane Indians as he is searching the resolution of a recurring dreams that disturbs his sleep and peace of mind.  It is a part of Native American history he . . . as apparently the majority of Americans . . . is aware of.  Yet, it existed in all of its dark, cruel, and inhumane presence in the small community of Canton, South Dakota . . . though it was spoken about in a whisper.  Closed in 1934, the main building was razed and eventually the community hospital was built . . . a golf course took up the remaining property . . . and, there are no historical markers acknowledging its existence.  Except for a small cemetery pretty much out in the middle of nowhere near the golf course . . . and, that is only acknowledged due the diligent work of Harold Ironshield who lobbied to have the cemetery set aside with reverence in honor of those who died at the asylum.  All the records were destroyed.  The community refused to speak.  Everything was spoken in whispers . . . the hope was to forget . . . to bury it forever.  Yet, the truth of the matter is, those who have suffered injustice will find their voices . . . the whisper becomes a shout.

The truth of the matter is that there were no “insane” Indians.  Instead the asylum was a warehouse to store unwanted and misunderstood Native Americans.  There was nothing about the asylum that worked towards healing and restoration for those who were supposedly insane.  The majority of those who were committed to this snake pit died . . . their only release from captivity was to die.  To read more about the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians read Pemina Yellow Bird’s penetrating article, Wild Indians: Native Perspectives on the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians; or, read The Hiawatha Diary as neither one paints a pretty picture of the atrocities that occurred there.

Someone once said that history has a tendency to repeat itself . . . that it was not linear, but circular.  Our history as a human race . . . reflected through periods of our own nation’s history . . . is one of what psychologist Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger points out as being “death-making”.  In simple terms, that which a society does not value is put to death . . . it is removed . . . buried . . . and, whispered about.  Wolfensberger points to those groups within society—in particular, those with disabilities, that are not valued as being put into the process of “death-making”.  His most poignant example of this is pre-World War II Germany and the Holocaust . . . differentiate, separate, remove, destroy.  He is adamant that this still happens today . . . he likes to point this out in the way that the elderly are viewed by society today.  He raises some interesting points that should make us all stop and think.  Yet, what he describes in his experience and research creates a shout out of the whisper of how the Native Americans have been treated for generations. 

What we don’t value . . . we get rid of.  Growing up with two siblings with disabilities I witnessed how devalued they were by the communities and society in which we lived . . . segregated education, services, recreation, and now group homes.  They were not treated like everyone else . . . and, after my brother was in an accident in which he broke his leg, the doctor refused to surgically repair the leg because, and I quote, “He has never walked and will never walk . . . why waste the time.”  This is the start of “death-making”.  I have seen the same attitude towards my own son who has a disability.  I have seen it in the treatment of those who are in nursing homes.  I have heard it in the whispers about people who are not white . . . racially different.  There seems to be a whole lot of whispering going on . . . and, it is scary.

The whispers cannot go on.  Voice must be given to those who are caught behind and in the whispers.  The cycle of history must be broken.  The whisper needs to become a shout.  People shout to be heard over all the other noise . . . people shout to be recognized and acknowledged.  Sadly, though, most of us are more comfortable with whispering . . . it is less offensive.  Less likely to piss someone off who might hurt us.

Yet, God also speaks in whispers . . . speaks to us in subtle ways . . . opens our eyes in ways we are not expecting.  So it was as I was reading Nerburn’s The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo . . . the whisper became a shout.  Softly and tenderly God is speaking to me . . . pleading to me . . . to rise above the whisper . . . to stand up to “death-making” . . . and, to shout out for all of God’s children.  God created all of us in God’s own image . . . we are all the children of God . . . God loves us for who God created us to be . . . and, without each and everyone us we can never fully realize God’s dream of wholeness and holiness.  Who are we to ignore the will of God?  In our voice the whisper can become a shout . . . and, God’s kingdom is that much closer than it was before.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Vision of Eternity?

“Organ playing is the manifestation of a will filled with the vision of eternity.”
(Charles Marie Widor)

In the “Century Marks” section of The Christian Century (March 19, 2014) there was a little blurb titled Name That Tune that confirmed what I already suspected about church organist . . . they like to slip in unexpected tunes into the worship services that they are playing.  According to the blurb, “At least half of the churchgoers in in the United Kingdom claim that they have heard their church organist occasionally slip in unexpected tunes, from popular songs to advertising jingles and theme songs from TV programs or movies.”  I would imagine that the same statistic is true here in the colonies of the United States of America. 

In my thirty-some years of serving as a pastor in churches I have had approximately a third had organs as the primary source of music in their worship services.  Of those churches, two-thirds of them had pipe organs . . . expensive pipe organs.  I am well acquainted with organs, especially in worship services.  Even though I have had my suspicions about organists sneaking in unholy music into the worship service, I feel pretty safe in saying that none of the ones where I served ever snuck in a secular tune.  Yet, at the same time, being unmusical, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.  According to the blurb in The Christian Century there are a lot of reasons that organists slip in this unholy music.

The article suggested that often the reason for the addition music comes from either playfulness or revenge.  One organist played Money, Money, Money by Abba while the offering was collected during worship.  Another played Roll Out the Barrel at a funeral for person known for drinking . . . the organist got fired for this one.  Another organist, at odds with the congregation’s elders, played a thinly disguised rendition of Send in the Clowns during a procession at worship.  I had to smile and laugh . . . smile and laugh because there are a whole lot more songs that I would love to be seen slipped into a worship service . . . slipped in and then see if the congregation got the humor in them.

I have always wanted to use the tune of Doris Day’s Que Sera, Sera during the benediction.  It has always been a benediction I would love to use, but have not yet had the nerve to use . . . Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be—Amen!  I have always thought that it would be neat to have the organist play a drum roll and cymbal crash whenever I used a joke in the sermon . . . sort of like an old vaudeville act . . . but never could convince an organist to do that for me. 

One of my favorite scenes from a movie that involved a church organist was in the movie The Big Chill.  A group of college friends have gathered years after graduation for the funeral of one of the group’s friends.  The group is sitting in the sanctuary as the funeral is nearing its completion.  The organist begins a very solemn recessional tune . . . very church-like . . . that leads into the Rolling Stones song, You Can’t Always Get What You Want.  Catches everyone off-guard; yet, at the same time, so perfect . . . so beautiful . . . so fitting.  And, it was played on a church organ.

Now, I am not an idiot when it comes to music.  The organ has not only been used for church music.  In the mid to late seventies the organ started showing up in that devilish rock and roll music.  Some of my favorite artists . . . like Neil Young . . . Crosby, Stills, and Nash . . . and others . . . used the organ in their music.  Sporting teams, especially hockey teams, use organ music to spur their fans on . . . who among us have never heard the “charge” from the organ at a sporting event.  That is the one thing that I think in missing from the local big city’s baseball team and park . . . an organ.  Nothing beats singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame to an organ.  Yet, the organ belongs to the church.

Once, during a particularly warm summer morning . . . and, having an older organist . . . I started my sermon only to be interrupted when the organist fell asleep, dropped her head onto the organ’s keyboard letting out a terrible howl out of the organ.  After a good laugh, we went on . . . but, that was an event that was talked about for months afterwards . . . no one remembered the sermon, but everyone remembered the organist nodding off during the minister’s sermon!

As a minister, I love the organ.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart said, “To my eyes and ears the organ will ever be the King of Instruments.”  Charles Marie Widor said, “Organ playing is the manifestation of a will filled with the vision of eternity.”  Yet, the organ is a dying breed in the church.  There are fewer and fewer people learning to play the organ . . . and, sadly, the organist playing today are quite old.  The organ is being replaced in the church . . . replaced by drums, electric guitars, and a variety of other instruments.  People just are not playing the organ any more . . . especially in the church . . . and, it is a sad, sad day in the church.  But, I have to agree with Ezra Pound when he says, “If I could believe the Quakers banned music because church music is so damn bad, I should view them with approval.”  If the organ is going to be integral musical instrument of a worship service it should be done well.  Trust me when I say that I have endured many hours of organ music that was better left buried than played by organists . . . shoot, if they could have mastered “charge” I would have been happy.  Some of the organists I have endured took to heart the psalmist’s words of “making a joyful noise unto the Lord!”

God likes us happy.  The music that adorns the worship that we offer to God should be happy.  Whether it is played on an organ, piano, guitar, or drum . . . it should be happy.  It should reflect an act of praise . . . reflect gratitude . . . reflect that we are tickled to death to be in relationship with a God that showers us with such a radical love and grace.  The instrument does not matter, what matters is the attitude of those lifting up the noise . . . I mean, music.  Organs are cool . . .pianos are a nice second . . . but, in my heart, any music that reflects the joy I feel is more than adequate.

Organ music as a vision of eternity . . . yeah, I have sat through a few organ recitals that felt like an eternity.  Any music has the ability to be a vision of eternity . . . but, in the hands of a competent organist, the organ has the ability to truly reflect eternity . . . you just have to listen.  It is not the instrument . . . it is the attitude and heart.

So, What Do You Watch?

The voice on the other end of the line kind of offended me.  “So, what do you watch?”  That was the question she asked.  My response . . . I don’t watch.  The line of inquiry about my television viewing habits was a little offensive because all I was doing was attempting to remove certain “free” services off of our Direct TV subscription.  Apparently, before any services can be removed, a person must be grilled to unmentionable heights before those services will be removed.  She wanted to know . . . “So, what do you watch?”

I don’t.

This story started several months ago when I was notified that the area cable company that provided us our television, Internet, and phone service was dropping the rural community where we live.  With that notice I was served with the challenge of finding comparable services before being dropped into the no-service land with no means of contacting the outside world.  That was nice of them to provide the warning . . . besides, for several years, I had been hinting to the family that we could do better.  I was wrong . . . not completely wrong, but I was wrong. 

There was nothing comparable for the price that I was paying.   Turns out I already had a good deal despite only 40 viewing channels, sporadic telephone service whenever the wind blew (which in Montana is a daily occurrence), and semi-fast Internet service for just under a hundred dollars.  In the few months I was given to find something to replace the service, I kept running into dead ends.  I could find great telephone and Internet service, but no television service.  There were no cable companies that serve our rural neck of the woods . . . only satellite companies like Direct TV.  Plus they were nowhere comparable in price . . . I was going to pay anywhere from 50 to 100 percent more just for the privilege of being connected to the outside world.

As I stated above, I have not devoted even an hour a month to viewing television programming . . . I basically do not watch television.  I have not watched television a whole bunch in over a decade.  The only exception to that rule is when the University of Nebraska football team is playing a game on television . . . but living in Montana, that is few and far between.  Occasionally I watch a show on the public station if it is something I really want to see . . . but, I have since learned that a lot of the programming that is offered on the local PBS station is also available on their website . . . so, why pay for it, plus I can watch it when I want to watch it.  The bottom line is simple . . . I do not watch enough television to spend nearly a hundred bucks a month for the privilege of having my mind be made to mush.

Now, there are others in the house that do watch more than an hour of television a month.  The wife told me I had to consider them, too, when making the decision . . . so, being the nice guy that I am, I bundled the whole kit-and-caboodle together . . . and, it came with a free three-month subscription to the movie channels like HBO and Cinemax.  They called it the “premium package”—something like a couple of hundred extra channels of these movie stations in which people can watch recent movie releases, order movies to watch on demand, and basically get lost for a couple a years just trying to figure out which channel is which.  I really didn’t want the free package, but they insisted that we try it . . . after all, it was for only three months.  After three months I could drop it if I didn’t want it.

Of course, Direct TV doesn’t tell you when your three free months are up.  There are no bells or ringers that announce that the three months are up.  There are no emails letting you know that the offer has expired.  No phone calls.  Not even a snail mail notification.  Nothing!  That is when the whole problem began.

Upon receiving the monthly billing statement I noticed that we were suddenly being charged an extra 50 bucks.  Examining the statement closer I saw that we were now being charged for our “premium package” . . . a “premium package” which, after polling all the inhabitants of the house, was not even being used.  With this increase our so-called services had now doubled what we were paying prior to having to make the switch.  As squeaky tight as I am when it comes to money . . . well, this was unacceptable.  Thus my call to cancel the “premium package” . . . something I had been assured that I could do when we signed up for this privilege of being connected to the world.

First, I was put on hold with mind-numbing Muzak.  Finally a real human-based voice spoke to me.  I explained what I wanted to do . . . remove the “premium package” . . . and, was told that she would have to transfer me over to another department because she did not have the authority to deal with that issue.  More Muzak . . . suddenly I was longing to be in an elevator far, far away . . . and, then, another voice.  For a second time I explained that I wanted to remove the “premium package” from my service.  I was greeted with pacifying “uh huhs” . . . and, “I will need to transfer you to another department to get this done.”  Yeah, you know it . . . more Muzak.

Then the voice . . . the voice that I was assured would remedy this issue, free my wallet of its assault, and life would return to normal . . . and, no more Muzak.  For the third time I explained what I wanted to do . . . remove the “premium package”.  No sooner had I mentioned canceling the service that the person on the other end of the line began her interrogation . . . pleading and teasing with new offers . . . and, finally a “fine, we can do that.  Could you please hold while I make a few changes on your account on my computer . . . enjoy the Muzak while waiting.”

I expected the counter-offers of new deals.  I expected the questions about why I no longer wanted the “premium package”.  What I did not expect was the inquiry about what I do watch on television.  I doubt that she expected me to answer her with “nothing”.  There was a pause on the other end . . . “Nothing?” came the reply.  Nothing.  I do not watch television.  I have my reasons . . . primary is that it is a mind-numbing experience that brings no value into my life . . . there are other things that I could be doing . . . more productive things, more mind-expanding things.  Also, I do not need to be told what to think which seems to be where most people get their information from . . . sixty-second sound bites that are thrown out as the definitive authority on all we humans are supposed to know.  In actuality it is really no one’s business why I do not watch television.  I just want the darn “premium package” that is costing me an extra 50 bucks a month . . . which no one watches . . . off of my bill!  Plain and simple . . . put that to Muzak!

I do not care whether or not other people watch television.  I do not care what other people watch on television.  I have my own opinions about television and television viewing.  I believe that it is like any other tool that when it is used correctly it can be beneficial . . . but, it really is no one’s business what I watch on television since I really don’t watch anything on television.  And, I should not be treated like some sort of cretan because I don’t watch television.  I spent thirty minutes defending myself when all I wanted to do was to remove a subscription off of my television service . . . something that only took two minutes when they actually got around to doing it. 

Key the Muzak . . . are you listening?  Isn’t that what watching television is? Visual Muzak?  Oh . . . I’ll save that rant for another day.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lift Me to Paradise

Good Lord, up above, can't you know I'm pinin'
Tears all in my eyes?
Send down that cloud with a silver linin'
Lift me to Paradise

Show me that river, take me across
And wash all my troubles away
Like that lucky old sun, give me nothin' to do
But roll around Heaven all day

(“That Lucky Old Sun” by Beasley Smith, and Haven Gillespie 1949)

There are days when life is more than any of us can deal with . . . where we are ready to throw the towel in before we even get started.  I had one of those days this past week.  The morning began way too early and with little sleep after our son had spent a night fighting with seizures all night . . . the alarm rang way too soon to announce the start of another day.  Then there was the usual trek to the university through the darkness of the morning with all the other sleep deprived commuters in a winter that just doesn’t want to let go.  Then I was greeted at work by an email telling me that a co-worker in Helena had been killed in an auto accident . . . and, also her son.  Then at lunch in the university cafeteria one of the international students suddenly fell . . . seizures . . . and was hauled off to the nearby hospital by ambulance.  All this and it wasn’t even half-way through the day yet!  I was ready to call it a day.  It is in those moments of being overwhelmed that we roll our eyes to heaven, lift up a prayer, and beg God to “lift us up Paradise.”
Well, here it is . . . five days later . . . and I am still here. I am no closer to ridding my life of all its frustrations, crises, hassles, depressions, mistakes, or hard work and making it to Paradise.  Yet, the prayer is still there.  Now, I know what Mother Teresa said . . . “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle.  I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”  And, I know that the music of the faith is filled with songs and hymns asking God to come and rescue the faithful from a world of woe . . . and, we are still here.  I guess it just feels good to complain whether it is in the words we pray or the songs we sing . . .

Good Lord, up above, can't you know I'm pinin'
Tears all in my eyes?
Send down that cloud with a silver linin'
Lift me to Paradise

Show me that river, take me across
And wash all my troubles away
Like that lucky old sun, give me nothin' to do
But roll around Heaven all day

Like Mother Teresa said, I wish God didn’t trust me so much.  I worry about my son and his battles with Epilepsy . . . it is wearing me out . . . it is wearing us out . . . and, we never seem as if we are ever winning the battle.  It is shocking to receive news about someone you know . . . in their early 40s . . . who you had just communicated with days earlier . . . is suddenly gone because of an accident.  It is scary to witness a stranger fall to the ground, bang their head on a table, and lay motionless while recovering from a seizure before the next one comes.  Pile on top of that the frustrations of work . . . the busyness of life . . . a winter that won’t let go and a spring that won’t fight . . . and, it gets to be a little overwhelming.

Then, as I was driving to the big university to work one morning this week, I heard Louis Armstrong singing That Lucky Old Sun.  Now there is something about ol’ Louie’s raspy voice that always grabs my attention and listen . . . he is one of my favorites.  There in the darkness he lamented the difficulty of life . . . the hard work to make it . . . the boringness of routine . . . trying to make relationships work.  All the while he is looking up at the sun . . . that lucky old sun that has nothing to do but roll around heaven all day.  He longs for that too . . . no worries . . . no cares . . . just to roll around heaven all day.  He pleads to God, “Lift me to Paradise.”  Kind of peculiar that I was hearing this after I threw up my own cryptic prayer of release after a hard day.  Amen, Brother Louie . . . amen!

I guess it is a pretty common prayer.

As I said, I am still here . . . still in Montana.  Guess God figures that Montana is pretty close to Paradise . . . even in the lingering winter . . . and, who am I to argue with God on that one.  I suppose Brother Louie wasn’t yanked up into Paradise when he released this song in 1949 because he was around for a long, long time after its release.  And, I suppose that the majority of those who have thrown that prayer to God didn’t get any closer to Paradise than when they prayed it.  Yeah, I know what the Bible says about asking God for anything in prayer and God will give it to us . . . but, God must have some unwritten parameters that most of us are unaware of . . . the fine print of theology that most of us do not take the time to read.  And, yeah, I know that God will not give us more than we can handle . . . but, God pushes the limits of that promise pretty close.  Maybe God shouldn’t trust us so much.  Plus I know that maybe God is teaching me a “life” or “faith” lesson . . . but I don’t think that I am that ignorant or thick-skulled that it feels like I am on a roller coaster.  So, to be honest with you, I am not going to buy into the ready-made answers of faith that we, the faithful, like to tell ourselves to ease our disappointment that we are not rolling around in heaven with no worries or cares.

Nope, I’m not going to buy it.  I am not going to buy it because I do not believe that Paradise . . . that heaven . . . that the kingdom of God . . . is some destination way up there in the clouds.  Paradise is here . . . right now.  It is wherever I experience the presence of God and God’s love and grace . . . I do not have to wait until I get to heaven to know that presence . . . to know that love and grace.  I know that this is true because I have experienced it for myself.

The co-worker I had known for several years suddenly and shockingly dying in an accident . . . there were others who spoke words of comfort . . . who offered hugs . . . who joined me in my shock.  In the struggle with my son’s Epilepsy . . . I have my wife and together we continue to support one another and our son . . . who have not given up no matter how tired or worn out we get.  With the international student . . . others join me in coming to her aid . . . others cared for her . . . others let her know that she was not alone.  In brief moments of care and support others let me know that I am not alone in this journey through life.  In those brief moments of care . . . and, I suppose love . . . I was reminded that I was not alone.  In those brief moments a crack split the veneer of reality allowing the light to break through the darkness and expose a little piece of Paradise . . . a sliver of holiness . . . the presence of God.  Because of that it is okay that I am still here . . .

There may be those who want to argue with me about the kingdom of God . . . Paradise . . . heaven . . . being here and not off in some far off place, but I am not going to argue.  I am not going to argue because I believe that God is not going to dangle a holy carrot before our faces and lure us into something as wonderful and beautiful as Paradise.  No, I believe God is going to let us have the gift now.  We just have to be open to seeing it, experiencing it, and working for it right now.  Sometimes we are just too busy, sometimes we are overwhelmed with life . . . but the fact is, we have all experienced it . . . in a simple word of encouragement . . . in a smile . . . in a hug . . .

It is a beautiful world.  Though ol’ Louie was a little depressing with his song That Lucky Old Sun, he also reminded us how close we really are to Paradise when he sang What a Wonderful World.  It truly is a wonderful world . . . Paradise.