I love a song by Charles Ives called "Songs My Mother Taught Me."
I love the words. I love them because my childhood was full of bittersweet songs . . . things like, "The Hymn of Promise." Words and lilting tunes that my mother used to bind up the frayed edges of our young years - the napless afternoons and temper tantrums melting into thoughts of her, leaning over us, singing.
My first memory is my mother singing, dancing with me in the nursery . . . or the kitchen? I'm not sure about that detail. But she sang to me and we danced.
Here is the Ives song:
The Ives song says, "Now I teach my children each melodious measure . . ."
One of the first things I did as I studied music education was to transcribe folk songs that my mother sang to me, but that I could not find in a book. I transcribed two from my mother and one from my grandmother. I did the transcription in my own hand and when my students learn these tunes and begin to read and write them, I tell stories about my mother and my grandmother . . . and you should see their sweet faces. Enthralled. Surprised. "Mrs. T. has a mother???"
One of my favorite weekend pastimes is to listen to the Prairie Home Companion show on national public radio. My father has always loved the rambling stories of Lake WoeBeGone told by Garrison Keillor, and so we grew up hearing these outlandish bits of prose as we rode along in the car on Sunday evenings, when the Saturday broadcast would run again.
Today I was driving home from a rehearsal and just happened to stumble on yesterday's broadcast of Prairie Home Companion, and the guest pianist was talking about Charles Ives.
I turned the volume up.
He said, "We're going to share a Charles Ives song. People tend to get nervous when they see Ives on the program - afraid of the dissonance. This song is uncharacteristically lyrical, though. And I know you'll enjoy it."
I knew what it would be . . . immediately. I love all of Ives' writing, but many people find this song to be touching in a way that much of his work isn't. It's surprising.
Everybody is full of surprises. Unperceived beauty. Unexpected poetry.
This is the biggest secret I've learned as a practicing church music director - Everyone is full of surprises.
I find that any assumption I make about anybody I'm serving is built on sand and will topple over. People are wonderfully complicated.
You know, I spent my childhood and some of my young adult years running from bees. They have stingers. But look closer - beautiful. Nature is full of examples like this. I find myself particularly drawn to spiders' webs at sunset. They span out between the branches of a particular tree in the back yard, and every sunny evening they light up like threads of crystal.
For me, most things come back to music.
I wrote earlier about my mother singing when I was a child. That has been a very important thing for me . . . the memory of somebody caring enough to sing to me. Some of my own children have nobody to sing to them but me, and I wish they had songs at the close of every day.
My mother's songs carried me all the way through a college career in music, even when we disagreed with each other or struggled as a family.
And so I reached my senior piano recital and played Chopin, Debussy, Beethoven, and Scriabin. The minister of the church I was working for at the time came up to me after the program and said, "I could see it in your face. They're like children to you, aren't they? You couldn't pick a favorite piece of music if you tried! You love them all."
Through ripped pages in the practice room and long hours of slow, methodical work, I loved them all. Even when the work wasn't working . . . . even in my frustration.
Loving other people is not easy. Why? Why isn't it easy?
Because they are full of surprises. Because they are other and apart from ourselves. Because we have to search for their uncharacteristic lyricism when we have disagreements.
This is the second best secret I've learned while practicing church music.
If you search for the beauty in another person, you are going to find it 9 times out of 10.
We can't please everyone. I wish we could sometimes because it would eliminate so much conflict . . . but we just can't.
We can't please everyone, but we can find a way to appreciate almost anyone.
I cling to this. I cling to the idea of loving my students and the parishioners I serve the same way I loved the music for my senior piano recital - without reservation and even in the middle of frustration and struggle.
I fail at it every day at least once.
I do this because I'm human.
You are, too. And so you will fail at this, too, sometimes . . . if not often.
That's ok. The point is not to be perfect - the point is to move toward God. And God loves other people.
Sometimes we move in to take a picture of the perfect little honey bee because it's beautiful, but it's scared of us . . . and so we get stung. That doesn't make the bee any less beautiful. But it leaves a lasting negative impression on us. We wait until we heal to go visiting the bee hive again.
It's alright to be serving other people, searching for the beauty in each of them, and to mess up or get hurt. This is normal in human relationship. We can expect it. And there is no shame in it.
It's alright to take a break for healing when it's needed. When we become close enough to express affection as a community, there will be friction and disagreement. But we can handle it. We were built that way . . . able to overcome with the all-present grace of God.
Friends, I am almost writing this to myself as a reminder because I trip and fall all the time . . . because I get stung almost daily and have to rest before returning to my work.
But I'm not afraid of the dissonance like I used to be . . . . because I know what to expect in all of God's created people: an uncharacteristic lyricism.
Keep shining your light. Rest when you need to. Love without worrying.
Peace & Goodness,