Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times [re-covenant in a museum]

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I spent much of this week in a city I deeply love, which is also a place with which I am in the process of becoming something else.  “Visitor” doesn’t quite get there, and “stranger” never will . . .  but I’m learning the balancing act of living in, and loving, two places, while in some cases un-living and perhaps even un-loving.

It’s tough, and I’m doing it unevenly, unequally, and sometimes ungracefully.  And I’m persuaded that there’s no other way; we create and negotiate relationship, and do change rather than cut-off, by feeling our way through.  It’s a challenging thing for humans to straddle the canyons dividing “I” from “thou,” “this” from “that,”; “here” from “there” while maintaining a sense of balance and selfhood.

We simply move forward in trust, and hope that our mistakes might be small and not harmful. 

I could write a lot of words about that, simply from a personal perspective.  But what occurred to me on this particular visit is that in some way, we’re all here together.  Not in Kansas City, of course, though I’m sure the visitor’s bureau would love that.

I mean that we are ALL strangers living in a strange land right now, trying to maintain communion with what is important and beautiful from “before” even as we reach and lean and lurch our way toward an as-yet unknown “after.”

And meanwhile, we live in neither of those places—we instead exist in a “now” that is present, but undefinable.  And in this landscape, it’s hard to know how to balance the ordinariness of life—the tasks, the priorities, the conversations–with the urgent call to push back against what is changing.  And let’s be clear: what’s happening in our nation is not just change—it’s rupture.  Breakage.  It’s a negation of much of what has come before, including values.  Including lives.

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How do we continue to weave with the threads of “any given Friday” when we know that in the background, damage is being done?

How do we go on, having arrived at a place in which it is normal to eat a four dollar cupcake while reading entertainment on one’s phone, and where it is simultaneously only reasonable to be screaming in the streets and demanding change and answers in the halls of power.

If there are answers to be had to these questions, they will come through our wrestling with and bridging two realities, in those moments when we find ourselves standing atop a widening canyon, a foot on both sides.  And we will do the real work of keeping our balance, first and finally, in the ways we always have: through art—word, image, song, act—, through religion (in churches and before the altars of our own hearts), and through human encounter.

And I thus think it’s not only relevant, but perhaps imperative, to tell you that in Kansas City, right this minute, it is possible to physically weave yourself between the threads of a very old song.  Janet Cardiff’s “Motet” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is exploration of public space, of art and musical harmony, of closeness to one another and to God, of sacred music and the secular curation of culture.

And not unlike custom cupcakes and all varieties of screaming in the streets, it is a product of our social and spiritual hunger.

“Motet” is 14 minutes long.  The room contains 40 speakers, some sound panels, tall white walls, leather benches . . . and a polyphonic memory sung, dissected, reconstructed, and explored.

Though removed in time, space, and cultural context, the song is powerful.  Listeners lean in.  They pause, and then linger.  They close their eyes.  Some cry.

And meanwhile, we do the same, trying to understand what is becoming of our nation.

Writing for NPR, Alva Noë reveals his discomfort with public religion and performance art, both, asserting that “There [is] actually something creepy about [Motet]. A room full of robotlike speakers going proxy for absent singers . . . and a museum or gallery is not a sacred space. There was something almost chilling about the performance of such a spiritual offering in such a secular context.”

This same week for Breitbart, Daniel Nussbaum asserted that the National Endowment for the Arts “has become a controversial agency over time . . . [because] taxpayers should not have to fund art they consider to be against their values, or obscene.”

And simultaneously, writing for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and for Unitarian Universalism as a movement, Rev. Meg Riley said of covenant:  “I wake up in the morning feeling discouraged by the news of the day before…entire pieces of government being eliminated with no sense that anything of value will be lost; many people I know and love scared for their very lives with the new “health care plan,” news media that focuses on the ins and outs of party politics as if that is what I care most about, rather than focusing on how we are to be together and take care of one another in this time.  So our theme of the month, covenant, feels more and more relevant to me . . . [because it means] that we are all responsible to and for one another; that no one is free when others are oppressed.”

We cannot, in short, be separated from one another.  Cause cannot be separated from effect.  And none of us can be cut off from the context from which we hail—not really.  We are a people who cross borders all our lives, in our hearts if not with our very bodies.

And this is precisely the thing.  “Motet” is powerful because it isn’t separated from context.  It is in fact not divorced from anything that has come before—because it cannot be.

And this, wandering through a place that used to be my home but no longer is, is a revelation I can use.

Janet Cardiff’s exposition on infinite loop lays a song in our laps, parsed to be intimately accessible at the same time that it builds and crescendos to something that cannot be held by walls.  It has the audacity to be both right-sized for our ears and much too big to keep or categorize.

And this, friends, is not what religion has finally been brought to by secular culture.  It is, instead, precisely what we’re all achieving together, in the best moments: a faith that meets us where we are, in the confusion and fragility and human scale of “now,” which then carries us, soaring and together, into something more.

“Motet” is a recognition of all the history we have held, and it’s a simultaneous assurance for the next leg of a journey.  That the ancient song continues even amid displacement, that God may be found amid technological advances, that manna falls even amid changing invitations and varying hungers, and is here for us. still

Not unlike our covenants with one another.

That dusty word–covenant–speaks of the promises that return us to one another, and to ourselves.  The kind that are so strong that they can be redeemed even when broken.  The kind that allow us to straddle, sure of balance, the canyon between “here” and “there.”

In covenant, in “Motet,” in Kansas City: we tread familiar paths equipped with different tools, find ourselves returned to the start of all our wanderings and seeing the place with new eyes, and. know in deeper ways than we were able to before.

Sacred song in secular space is not a break.  It’s a return.

And here is its promise as best I know it:

What has come before is not gone.  It is here with us, here for us, still.  Here for the asking, for the hearing, for the singing.

This is what a sacred motet in a heartland museum can mean.  It is what the institution of church, keeping the songs of the people for millennia, can mean.  It is every cathedral with its sermon in stones, every poem, every protest, every hymn trying to name God by tugging the vibrating violin strings of our hearts.

In two days, “Motet” will close.  The song will once again fall silent.

 

But my people: it is nevertheless not too late.

It is not, yet, too late. 

j

we the people

 

on the road (OR, what I’m NOT learning in CPE this summer)

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I’ve been having some trouble with my commute.

Kansas City, with no functional, centralized public transit system, is a city of freeways.   It has byways and beltways, bridges and merges, and, as I lately am painfully aware, near-misses and sheer miracles. Also, it’s summertime, which means construction. And my schedule at the hospital often means a choice between driving at the height of rush hour or sacrificing precious hours I could spend with my family.  Or, you know.  Sleeping.

Additionally, I have discovered something: there is a lot that we take on faith in rush-hour highway commuting.

You do, anyway.  I, on the other hand, just haven’t been able to get with the rhythm. Not lately.  I want more information, you see. What is that car going to do? And that one over there? Andohmygoshthere’s a huge truck in my way and an entire lane obscured from view. And he’s braking and she’s coming over and I have to move right now but I can’t and

 

This is new. I have spent a total of seven years making some version of an urban highway commute, but until now, I never noticed the rules.

You probably haven’t either—we drive largely with our bodies, and if you’ve been lucky, there’s likely been no reason for your head to become overly involved.

Suddenly, though, I’m as a stranger in a strange land on these roads I’ve traveled for my entire adult life.  And that means the rules have become as obvious as they are impossible. And they go like this:

Make a plan. Pick your opening. Use your turn signal (this one’s a bonus for non-assholes and those who like to minimize their risk of collision). And finally—and, it should be noted, swiftly—make your move.

I’ve been struggling with all of it.  In fact–particularly on those mornings when I cross the Missouri river, take the short ramp that connects one highway with another, and then, in the space of about one minute, merge across FIVE lanes of rush-hour traffic to take a left exit–I find myself remembering days of carefree lane-changes like I’ve lost the Golden Age of Driving.

I’m sure commuting “back then” wasn’t as magical as I’m making them seem in my mind  . . .  but I do know that things were different.

Because then, I wasn’t skittish.

Because then, I wasn’t scared.

 

As it turns out, being at the scene of a major accident 36 hours before starting CPE may have had some effects. Especially when stressed. And tied to both a commute in the morning and a midday trek between hospitals. And when absolutely, bone-wearily tired.

But each day, I get up and do it again. And most evenings, I am confronted by the dreaded onramp at Metcalf and 435. Right at 5 p.m.

The main thing is, I can’t ever get on it—there is no space for me, with cars overhanging the intersections for more than a mile before the onramp, people cutting in, and two lanes merging into one just in time to fly into six other lanes (that’s on ONE side, my people) which are moving or not moving as impatience and construction and rush hour dictate.

So that’s happening, or rather it’s not happening, and it’s been taking me 90 minutes on alternate routes to travel home.

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on second thought . . .

Meanwhile, I’ve been wanting to explain to you about CPE—what I see, what I hear, how I hold those things in the charged moments, and what I do later with what remains.

I’ve been wanting to share some of the messiness in hopes that you might also see the magic.

I’ve been hoping to communicate, somehow, my fledgling understanding of what all of this means in the larger process of growing into ministry.

 

But I’m not ready yet.

 

So I won’t tell you that I’m learning about ministerial authority when I claim my space in the trauma bay, or work alongside the medical team, or stand in front of an altar in a chapel not my own.

I won’t assert that I’m learning about God in every patient room, about my faith every time I record a name in the “death book,” about myself in the moments that I spend on my knees in the chapel.

I won’t describe how I’ve learned patience in the refraining from clobbering, or perseverance in the wanting to quit.

And I will say when I struggle as hard as I have been lately with theology . . . in fact, with life . . . it’s challenging to decide whether I’m assigning meaning out of truth or out of need.

Which means that perhaps it’s suspect even to link these things.

So I won’t try.  No point.  Not yet.

Instead, I will just tell you this:

I’ve been doing CPE.

The experience, taken in total, has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I fight several battles every day. And while my toughest opponent is myself, what I’m learning is how to stand my ground with everyone else.

And that when I do that, even by myself, I am not alone.

 

And today, my people, I got on that road.

The one that leads to my home.

There were just as many cars as before.

There was no magical open space.

But then I made one.

Out of a possibility.

I hooted.  And cheered.  I made it home in 45 minutes.

And I am going–in the same way that I will definitely hold hands and invoke Spirit and be present–to do it again tomorrow.

-j

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here is what will happen ( involving a man, a motorcycle, and a bridge over the Missouri river)

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There will be a motorcyclist.

Passing you on the I-70 bridge, headed downhill over the Missouri river, he will gun his engine.

You will approve of the helmet on his head.

You will appreciate the distinctive, wide blue of his ride.

And as he disappears (from view, or just from your awareness?) you will return to Important Thoughts.

It’s good that I found the on-ramp.

I’m not sure I like the church I just visited.

I’m glad I’m meeting my family for dinner.

I have a headache.

You won’t remember coming around the corner.

You won’t understand that the mannequin-the man-whyishebleeding–is the same person you just saw.

Your mind will refuse to process, consciously, that this is a person at all, even as you act, without understanding, not to hit him to stop to get out to go to him, OhmyGod.

You will not understand, then, or later, or probably ever, how the motorcycle came to rest, alone, a quarter mile down the highway. You will be astonished, eventually, that you have left your own car running.

And now, at this moment, amid blood and broken pieces and things out of place, you will struggle to understand anything at all.

It will be surprisingly quiet.

There will not be a sign that flashes THIS IS WHAT AN EMERGENCY LOOKS LIKE. There will not be background music from ER or Law & Order. There will not be someone to give you instructions.

And so, you will wing it.

You will make an unlikely partner of the man, and he is a man, not a mannequin, not a body, as he follows you with his eyes, saying nothing. You will think, later, of a trout gasping on a riverbank.

This riverbank is made of concrete and set 60 feet in the air, strewn with debris, and no shoulder (no shoulder!?), no buffer–just two lanes and a white line and a wall.

And you. The trout’s cheerleader.

You will ask how he’s doing. You will ask if he can move. And when it’s clear to both of you that he can’t, you will still think that you are a team, you and him.

Your job in this team is to stand in front, to wave frantically as traffic comes around the corner, to jump up and down, and to yell at the 911 people who must determine, before helping you, if your square of the bridge is in Kansas or Missouri.

Your job is to plan quickly. Your job is to pray.

The man’s job is not to die.

You will say inane things like “stay with me” and “you’re gonna make it” and you’re ok, you’re ok, you’re ok.” You will know while you’re saying them that it’s not enough. Then you will say them again, jumping up and down and waving your arms for emphasis, furious with the cars, the drivers, the bridge, the minutes.

Shall I tell you that the center I reached in a state sounding a bit like “misery” first shared, via recording, that they were “too busy” to take my call?
Yes, I think I shall tell you.

 

The first responders, the real ones, the ones not standing outside of their bodies and waiting for a script and hoping not to die, those people will take forever to reach you.

Truly, it will seem like it. Three forevers.

One of sheer disoriented panic.

Two in which you try, both of you, to survive, and you wonder, as if about someone else, what the woman on the bridge is going to do about the first driver to come around the curve who is not paying enough attention to see.

And three in which you no longer have to go it alone. Three is the best. You still might all die, but now there is someone else to yell at the dispatchers, to wave to the fire trucks circling below (on the BRIDGE, my people, the bridge), and to enact, from farther back, vigilante traffic control.

DO NOT STOP THERE, you will roar at the man whose car is causing traffic to come around the corner even more ferociously than before.

I’VE GOT YOU COVERED, he will yell back—I’M GONNA SLOW THEM DOWN.

So you will trust him. And he does.

Three forevers, as best you can tell from your phone, its outgoing call log now a record of this improbable evening, takes exactly eleven minutes.

And then they come: ambulance, fire truck, police cars, SUV. They will do their actual work, and because you did not hit the man or his motorcycle, yours is done.

Cheerleading is neither recordable nor reportable.

And so, you will shake your head, say a prayer for this man, and stand to leave.

You will wonder, later, how there came to be blood on both sides of both arms, none of it your own. You will marvel, in contrast, at the cleanness of your clothing. The relative order of your hair.

But first, you will hug two strangers and high-five a third. It will feel like not-enough, not for this team, but you look into each other’s eyes, and you know. You offer each other blessings. You’ll walk away, back to your still-on, highly air-conditioned car.

And there, in flashing lights and a slump of relief, you will notice that your hands are shaking, and you will call who you call in situations like these.

You’ll pick someone good.

And she will answer. She will help.

And then, you will drive away down the ghostly highway before it reopens, before the ambulance is ready to go, before it takes the man somewhere else. Later, you will realize that you know his name, his wife’s name, his boots, his t-shirt, his blood, but you will not know what happens to him.

It will be many hours later when, at home and in the arms of the safest person you know, you can cry.

But you will. And this will help, too.

And the next day you will find, again, the shirt that you got for your older son. The one you initially thought better of—words on shirts have to be good, and these are also neon yellow. But it was two dollars, and has long sleeves, and is the right size to grow into.

Your husband keeps hanging it in your closet. You keep taking it back out and reminding him to put it with the size-up clothes.

But today you will think maybe it’s yours. Or that, for one evening on a bridge in a borderland that no one quite wants to lay claim to, it could have been.

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And, amid the everything-else that you are still trying to sort out, you will feel proud.

j