Dec 25, 2009

Two Different Handels

This one has a protracted intro; you can skip forward to 1:35

Dec 22, 2009


This past Sunday's New Testament reading was from Luke 1: Mary Visits Elizabeth and Mary's Magnificat. If you're like me and you've been going to church for years, it's easy to gloss over the Christmas stories with detached calm. You know it turns out OK: Joseph doesn't divorce Mary, Jesus is born, and the wise men return home by another way. Personally, I have a hard time visualizing the players as anyone other than the figurines from my childhood crèche: blonde Mary in her pink dress and blue robe: a couple of barn animals and a shepherd boy who looks like Percy Bysshe Shelley. My placid nativity diorama didn't change until Larry added a lacquered piranha and a Norwegian troll to the scene. You know, to mix things up.

But the story was mixed-up from the very beginning: the rulers were brought down and the humble were lifted up. God used the unqualified and the scandalous in his plan to enter the world; and the proud missed it. I have to be careful not to miss it myself, and for that I need to get down into the story: understand the culture and circumstances into which Jesus arrived. It took a scholar, a sermon, and a movie to do that for me.

First the scholar: N.T. Wright's study guide, Luke for Everyone, explained the setting and circumstances in a way I'd missed all these years. We all know Israel was being occupied by Rome and longed for a Messiah to liberate them. Well, the Jews were divided on how it would happen. The Sadducees didn't really believe in an afterlife, so the best was to cooperate with the Roman authorities.Peace was a kind of liberation, wasn't it? They had their token throne, and Herod sat on it. If there were a messiah, their eyes were on the house of Herod. Boy, were they off.

The Essenes had totally given up on the world; salvation was not of it. So they went out to the desert and lived in community. Like the hippies. They ate bugs, took enemas to purify themselves, and hoped Messiah would arrive via some transcendent experience. They were partly right. (About the transcendent experience, not the enemas. Enemas may purify you but they won’t make you see God). Anyway, it's a good thing they didn't have telescopes to see Hale Bopp, or it could have gone terribly awry.

Then there were the Pharisees. God had promised a Messiah, and God didn't lie. If Messiah hadn't shown up yet, it was because Israel wasn't obeying the law God gave them.  So they would do whatever it took to get messiah to come: even if it meant bludgeoning the people into obeying that law.  Oh, we love to hate the Pharisees, don't we? They were the whitewashed tombs; they got Jesus killed. But they were true believers. They hadn't forgotten God's promise.  We love to peg our modern day Pharisees, too, don’t we? They're the fundamentalists, the people who flame out everyone else as a heretic. But be careful whom you call a Pharisee.  How often I have clucked my tongue at those bible thumpers or those uber-hip Jesus followers. But as Pastor Matt Chandler said at a conference recently: "Liberal hippies versus old white guys. I've never seen the Christian world so polarized by secondary IDIOT issues." Besides, Jesus didn't arrive in the camp of the compromisers, the hippies or the fundies. He went thatta way, and none of them were looking.

That's where the movie came in. "The Nativity Story" humanized the story for me. Mary's parents were no one special. The actress who played Elizabeth was over fifty; imagine her getting pregnant sans in-vitro? The actress who played Mary was 15. (Okay so she went and got pregnant a year later, but at least she didn't parade it all over "Entertainment Tonight" like every other single-mom celeb does. But I digress.) Mary was just some unmarried teenaged nobody. If she were around today, she'd look like an Hispanic girl in the barrio, or a dropout in Appalachia, or the girl in "Precious."  I wouldn't have believed her. But Joseph did. We don't know much about Joseph, except that he was a merciful enough not to let Mary's "infidelity" be exposed and risk her being stoned to death. But the movie showed his heartbreak over it. And when an angel told him the truth in a dream, he didn't write it off as bad lamb the night before. He went with it. He trusted Mary. The movie showed their relationship blossoming in the midst of very difficult circumstances.

And into those circumstances this teenager went to hide out at Cousin Elizabeth's. Maybe Mary was unsure how Elizabeth would react. Maybe Elizabeth was unsure herself. But when Mary walked in, Elizabeth's baby kicked, Elizabeth got it, and Mary  broke into song.  Kind of like an episode of Glee.

"He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers."
Oh but there were perils ahead: the difficult journey to Jerusalem, the later  escape to Egypt, and of course the inglorious birth - not in some Gainsborough pastoral but in a cold dark cave; with no one to notice except a few barn animals, some migrant workers and three tarot card readers to notice.

To the sermon: last Advent, I visited my sister's church. Her pastor used to be a Buddhist and ran a dojo in California. When he became a Christian he never lost respect for the seekers he'd met. He was quick to remind us that the wise men were astrologers. They were reading horoscopes, my dear devout friends, and that's how God alerted those pagan new-agers: through star charts. Egads! Their methods were wrong, we argue.  But their hearts were right, God throws back in our face.

If Jesus were born today, would God tell you and me? Or would we be so proud of our scriptural purity or cultural relevance - so busy arguing secondary idiotic issues - that God would move on to Miss Eugenia the palm reader? Would Juan, the illegal-immigrant grape picker, be the only guy available to come? 

But before we despair over how blind and unlike God we are: remember that's why Christ came. Because no matter of scriptural knowledge or cultural relevance will make us more holy or groovy or like God. So God became like us.

Preach it, Linus:

Dec 1, 2009

A Million Miles Tour: Wichita to Diane

I’d never been on a tour bus. When I was young we rented a motor home from our neighbors and drove to the Grand Canyon. IT was a terrible trip. My sister and I were in junior high; the last thing we really wanted to do was be stuck on a bus with our parents.  Our older brothers didn’t even go.  My mom hated cooking on one burner, my dad hated emptying the septic tank, and he was a terrible bus driver.

But we’d been used to driving in a large van, so the bus was gonna be great. “You’ll love sleeping on a bus,” My friend Mark Gersmehl said. He was in the first Christian hair band called “White Heart.” He met my friend Brynn on tour, they fell in love and got married. So of course he has great memories of tour buses. Mark said “the motion of the bus will rock you to sleep like a baby.

Yeah, a baby with colic. The first night on the drive to Kansas, I was awake for every lurch and blip on the road.  The bus arrived in Wichita, Kansas, some time around dawn. I slept until noon.  By the time I’d awakened, Jim Don and Brent had already gone to breakfast and back.

Wichita. What was in Wichita? I could only think of that line from “Planes Trains & Automobiles. “Train don't run out of Wichita... unlessin' you're a hog or a cattle.” This was a last minute gig: some guy in Wichita heard we were looking for a venue between Denver and Arkansas, and he called our manager. He only had two weeks to put it together, so we had no idea what the night was going to look like.  The guy showed up around 1pm to give me a ride to Wallgreens. His name was Kirk; used to be a sound engineer in Hollywood. The minute he heard Don was looking for a venue, he jumped on it.  He drove me back past the mayor’s old mansion, through streets with big old houses and tire swings and front porches.  Past the boulevard of cars and old hot dog stands and under the train museum, back to the bus. It felt good to be in the Midwest.

The venue was at the Wichita Women’s Club: an old mansion that the local junior league converted for their use. They renovated it, installed an old theater, with an elegant proscenium and old theater chairs.  It almost looked like the theater where Lincoln was shot. Not to be morbid, but it was that old and dignified. 

There was a wedding taking place  we arrived. I was snoozing in my bunk when the bride and groom emerged to a hail of bird seed.  Don and Melody said they looked like they were 16. "How old did you have to be to get married legally in Kansas?" Mel wanted to know. One of the guests at our show that night was at the wedding and assured us they were out of college.  This is what happens when you get older. Anyone younger than you HAS to be in high school.

Kirk’s volunteers showed up en masse. They were young, educated hipsters; smart, enthusiastic and lots of fun. And get this:  the best prescription eyewear I'd seen. A youth pastor named Grant had a pair of prescription Rabyans, and another guy named Todd had some really hip looking frames. I know these things; my father was an optometrist. They were styling. And great people.

The show went terrifically well. Performing on a real stage helps the audience know what they are getting. And well, the audience was enthusiastic and eager and hungry for good things. There was a young couple with dreadlocks and two infants. There were some over forty types.  Hipsters and even  a few Mennonites.  They all came to see Don because they’d read his books, and I was just the whipped topping on the sundae.  This was the first night I had my T-shirts to sell and they loved them.  I really have to reserve my sense of judgment on a town, just because they made a joke about it in a movie. These guys were great.

The next night we were in Oklahoma City at a Nazarene church.  Brent forgot to tell me that the pastor didn’t want me using the word “ass.” But after the show the pastor was cool with it, he’d heard it in context. Language was going to be an issue on the tour. Different parts of the country have vastly different ideas about what a cuss word was, as I was going to find out.  I met a young man just out of college at the intermission.  He’d come to the Midwest for college and was still sort of finding his way.  I enjoyed speaking to him but he slipped out when two women came up to say hello. The next day they took Melody and I for lunch and drove us to see the Oklahoma City memorial. It was beautiful and tragic.

The next night we were in Little Rock, Arkansas. This would prove to be my worst show on the tour. No fault of the church itself. It was a great church. The head pastor had left his cush job at a wealthy mega-church to start this one. It was right in the ghetto. They bought an abandoned Walmart space in a depressed strip mall. They had a vision to reach the underprivileged. When we arrived they were in the midst of their weekly food bank distribution.  Needy families were walking out with food and clothing.  Inside, they were running an after-school program, helping kids do their homework, giving them a sense of belonging and keeping them off the street. This really is the work of the church. It was great to see that.  They treated us to an amazing dinner, too.  The chef, Larontia, had her own catering business. I caught one of the guys doing a little bowing motion to her, but when I tried to get a picture of it he wouldn’t let me. “She’ll use it against me when I need something form her.” All he allowed was a handshake on camera. They were fun, too.

But the show itself would prove to be difficult. The problems started when the crowd walked in. Don’s audience is predominantly young, 20 and 30 something white educated hipsters. And they were in the ghetto. The local police even brought a car to the parking lot to watch out for everyone. We wondered later if the audience wasn’t sure if it was OK to laugh. Because they didn’t. They were so, so quiet. Of course I may have sucked in my performance. And I myself felt kind of idiotic, standing up there talking about my middle class white-girl’s problems, when the church itself saw real life problems every day at their church. But you just have to do the show, hope it edifies someone, and work on doing better the next time.  I was sure that anything next was going to feel better. Little Rock: My slice of Humble Pie.

The next show was in St. Louis. I got to meet a friend I’d made on facebook. Kim had read my book and emailed me, and we’d struck up an e-friendship. She came early and had dinner with us. She was in charge of spiritual direction at her church, and told me a bit about her history and involvement in spiritual direction. It’s like having a mentor guide you through your spiritual life. I had been thinking I wanted to do something like that when I returned from the tour, and talking with Kim really piqued my interest. Plus I enjoyed talking to Kim. When I got home from tour I would find a box full of books on spiritual direction. Kim sent them to me.  I love my tweet buddies.

It was great being in the Midwest.  They made real goods here.  Factories dotted the landscape: places where they made shoes or furniture or cut meat.  And the trains shipped it out.  I live in LA, I don’t see real things being made. LA is a vast sprawl of services. Sure, movies get made, but not stuff you need like beef and coal and shoes.  But here they made real things.

We had a day off and Don rented a car and we drove to downtown St. Louis. We visited the City Museum, which was an old shoe factory. Some freak genius creators came up with the idea. It’s a museum/play park filled with castoff items; everything from conveyor belt dowels to abandoned school buses. It was packed with kids.  Later Don treated us to a showing of Phantom of the Opera, and we hung out with a couple of his twitter buddies.  I was really loving how twitter and facebook brought out new friends from everywhere.

Next up was Des Moines, Iowa. My friend Diane Neinhuis was coming to see me. I met Diane through the Burnside Writers’ Collective. We’d gotten to know each other through email and spent time together in Portland in the spring. I felt a kindred fun spirit in Diane.  We were allowed to bring one or two guests on the bus, and Diane got the coveted spot.  It was going to be great for Diane: she needed to get away from her routine. Oh, what with her missionary brother in law dying in a plane crash. Horrible crap like that.  But I had just completed the first ten days on the bus with a show every night, and I was tired. I didn't know if I was going to be up for guests. Any guest. Even my husband.  So I was nervous about her arrival. but the moment she showed up, she lit up the bus. She brought gifts, too. Diane is an amazing cook. home made eggplant parmesan and chocolate raspberry biscotti.  YUMM.

She would come and ride the bus for a couple of days, then get off at our next venue in Grand Rapids.  When we first made the plans, there was talk of taking a day off at our tour manager's family's summer house on Lake Michigan. But plans changed; we would drive straight through to Chicago.

We drove all night and parked the bus in Chicago, right outside Oprah's studios. The reason being, Don had an interview for Oprah radio (!!!)  Don and I had the same publicist. I asked her if she’d take a copy of my book with her to the studio.  So while Don was being interviewed at Harpo Studios,  Diane, Melody and I went walking around Chicago, checking out the cold gray day and looking for Starbucks.  When we got back and Don returned to the bus he told us that they walked into the studio and came up to the guy at the security desk. His name was Ezra, and he was reading my book! I went back later with Diane to take a picture.
From there we drove straight on to our next venue: Calvin College in Grand Rapids: Diane’s hometown. So much for Diane’s road trip. But she stayed with me at the conference center. It was like being in college again, the cinder block walls and small desks. But we had a great time. The breakfast at the conference center was great but the coffee was terrible.  Watery and bland. Diane loved it. How could she? She was Dutch. Didn't they make great coffee?   Diane and I went out and she showed me around Grand Rapids. She herself had been a student at Calvin College back in the day.  So she zipped me around the campus, on to East Grand Rapids area. We also went to her favorite sushi place and her personal Mecca: Meijer.  Meijer is like Walmart and Target rolled into one. Meijer, Diane sighed. "I just like going there and looking around. It makes me smile." Oh  you can mock the stuff from China. But some of us buy it. I got a few things.  I didn't have to worry about having Diane to play with for a couple of days.  It didn't tire me having a guest, it energized me. Well, it was Diane.  It was a balm in Gilead to spend time with her.

The show at Calvin College was going to be a challenge. I had work to do. Like: cutting ten minutes out of my piece.

Next: A Million Miles drives into winter ....