Every Foothold

…on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, think not only on all those lives that have been lost. Think also on the living. Think on all the ways we can make a difference for those who still find themselves considered “less than” in the world.

For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.

Simon Wiesenthal

Have you ever considered what you would do if you saw it happen right next to you?

We often look at the events of the Holocaust, the genocide of 6 million people, and say that we would never allow such terrible atrocities to occur again. However, are we really certain that we would have the audacity, the gumption, the courage to do what is necessary in the face of such evil?

When someone is called a derogatory term because of their ethnicity?

When someone spits in another’s face because of the way they were born?

When laws intentionally single out one group of people to be denied rights that should be inherent to every being human?

When we see the police enforcing the law of the time and dragging men, women and children by their hair through the streets for simply being who they are?

When people are rounded up and put into camps because of their descent?

When civilians start taking it into their own hands to ensure that those who do not look like them follow what they see as the “rules”?

Some of these examples are from far back in our history. Some are not.

The point is this: genocide is never the beginning. It starts with small things. Little injuries. Involving the masses in seeing some people as less than others. Teaching that one group is better, more important, meant to lord it over the others.

God has never taught us this. God taught us that we were all made in God’s image. All equal. We are to care for one another. To stand with one another when trouble comes. And yes, to have the courage to face down such evil when it arises. In all of its forms.

So, on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, think not only on all those lives that have been lost. Think also on the living. Think on all the ways we can make a difference for those who still find themselves considered “less than” in the world. And go out and ensure evil loses every foothold.

Group Grief

The balance of new life will come, but only with the hard work that grief actually requires…

Earlier today I was at choir practice at our church. After we finished working on the pieces for the next few weeks, we started looking at music for the Lenten season, which will be upon us before we know it. And while I knew we would be doing it, there was a side effect to using the music from the 2020 Lenten season that we never got to use, one that I did not see coming: we were missing the bass part. Actually, we were just missing the bass.

It had not occurred to our Music Director or I that when we began this music, my husband was still alive and we had a full extra part in the choir. It is something we have been compensating for since starting back to choir practice last summer, but not with pieces we hadn’t looked at in two years. Oops.

Sucker punch to the gut out of nowhere. Great.

My sons’ favorite show right now is Bluey. Wonderful show. Fantastic. I cannot recommend it enough on every possible level. And I don’t even mind watching it on repeat constantly. Seriously.

The opening song lists off the main characters: “Mum!” and the boys say, “Mommy, that’s you!” Then, “Dad!” and one will quietly say, “My daddy’s in heaven.”

Oooof.

It’s a funny thing about grief that they don’t teach you in school and that our culture definitely never, ever wants to admit: grief keeps on going. For a really, really long time. Never really goes away, honestly.

It’s true that the day to day walking through it does get easier after a while, but generally, now when it hits, it hits all the harder. And man does it pack a wallop. This is true for my husband. For my mother. My father. My dad. My mother-in-law. And every single other family member I have lost.

Now here’s the part we really don’t want to talk about: not only are we individually grieving the losses of loved ones as per usual, but we as a group are grieving the loss of our corporate way of life that we lost when the pandemic hit. Much like losing a family member, this loss is complicated. On one level, many unhealthy patterns and habits of this world have been called outright. Some have even been discarded entirely, which is probably good. On another level, we all lost so many opportunities to create memories together that we cannot get back, which is not. And still on another level, we have experienced so much loss, fear, anger, separation, anxiety, aggravation, and estrangement that it will take probably at least a generation to fully process it all.

For now, the way back to some semblance of balance in our lives is a whole lot of baby steps, both individually and communally. However, one of the most important things we can do is recognize the pain when it hits. Recognize it. Acknowledge it. And let yourself or ourselves work through it. Only then can we actually start moving forward – be it in singing again or finding remarkable new ways to play.

The balance of new life will come, but only with the hard work that grief actually requires.

Straight Up Gospel

One of the simplest of his harder quotes is this: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. If that is not straight up Gospel, I’m not sure what is and Dr. King was certainly one of Christ’s preachers. Christ himself always stuck up for the people who those in power chose to denigrate, subjugate, or keep beneath their heel…

This coming Monday we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His life and legacy. And it is quite easy to cherry pick his works for quotes that are comfortable and cozy. Pleasant and snug. Ones that do not make us think too hard about the world we live in or look at ourselves with too much veracity.

Yet, if we do that, we are really doing quite a poor job honoring the man who died only 54 years ago. Who went to jail for his beliefs because they were, in fact, illegal at the time. Who was one of the top priorities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s surveillance for the last few years of his life. His words were dangerous to the status quo at the time.

Many still are.

Why? Well, the work he took part in is not finished yet.

I do not mean only that racism still exists. It most certainly does, of course. It is so intrinsically a part of who we are as a culture that divesting it from ourselves and our systems continues to be an arduous, wearisome, and exigent process. But what many forget is that Dr. King also worked to end poverty, was adamantly pro-peace, and worked to see equal rights across every line. And those works certainly still have a long way to go.

One of the simplest of his harder quotes is this: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

If that is not straight up Gospel, I’m not sure what is and Dr. King was certainly one of Christ’s preachers. Christ himself always stuck up for the people who those in power chose to denigrate, subjugate, or keep beneath their heel.

Things have not changed so much in two thousand years or fifty-five years. Those in power continue to find ways to remove rights and equity from those who are different. It is injustice, a threat to God’s justice. As followers of Christ, it is our job to root it out. To call it out. To remove it.

It should not be up to the people who are bearing the injustice to have to fight for rights that should be theirs simply because they are human. Nor is it theirs to teach all those who do not understand what it is like to endure such abominations we humans have dreamt up to hurt each other with – be they people of color, or women, or LGBTQ+, or any other child of God who is different from what someone has deemed “normal.”

It is our job, as followers of Christ to listen well, to walk with each other, and to join in Christ’s own labor of seeking true fullness of life, God’s justice, for all of God’s children. Work that Dr. King himself joined in.

What is Power?

…it was the Child of Bethlehem who broke the silence that night in Bethlehem: and his justice-filled Love will never be silenced. No matter what else the world may think they can take, the arc of God’s work in this world will always bend toward the fullness of life, empowerment, and equity for all people.

Tomorrow is Epiphany Day in the liturgical calendar, a day that should never be underestimated for what it can teach us about the realities of power in this world.

Those of us who have studied the gospel of Matthew know that the author’s key question to his readers is “you who have the power, what will you do with it?” And this query is rarely more apparent than in the narrative of the arrival of the Magi in chapter two. For there we find a paradigmatic story of contrasts between those who have near ultimate worldly might and how they handle themselves in the face of true power entering the world.

On the one hand, we find the Magi. Wise Men. Magicians. Men of means. Of a different religion. A different world entirely. Scientists, really, who manage to read the signs in the natural world and then risk life and limb and likely their own reputations to come and worship this new King. A King they somehow knew would change everything, though still yet a child. They used their position to give all that they had to him.

Compare that with the autocrat king who had been propped up on a throne: Herod. He hears someone might want his seat of power and tries to keep it the sneaky way, asking the Wise Men to give up the child’s location without realizing it. When they get wise, he throws a temper tantrum that ends in real slaughter. Nevertheless, we see some eery fulfillment of Mary’s prophecy from the Magnificat with Herod, for he does not live long after he seeks the blood of the innocent.

In the gospel of Matthew, we see what happens when the powers of this world do not get what they want – a whole lot of fear and trembling follows. They attempt to march into our holy places of safety, to snatch that which is most precious to us, to silence all who would cry out in truth.

And yet, it was the Child of Bethlehem who broke the silence that night in Bethlehem: and his justice-filled Love will never be silenced. No matter what else the world may think they can take, the arc of God’s work in this world will always bend toward the fullness of life, empowerment, and equity for all people. That is the power the Magi worshipped and served. That is the power we still celebrate on Epiphany – one that we can still work for now. Won’t you come and join us?

Take a Cup

…as we begin a new chapter in all of our stories, let us raise a toast to the days we have survived, the lives of those who have made them so memorable and complete, and give thanks for the new road that lies ahead of us.

Perhaps it is the remarkable amount of Scottish blood that runs through my veins, but New Year’s Eve has always been of great import in the McElwee household. Ever since I was a little girl, I have known that it was a night for gathering with friends. Good food. Excellent drink. Playing together. And really, really entertaining singing.

You see, as a child, my family and I used to always get together with the same family – that of my parents’ best friends, who had children about my age. And each year we would watch an old recording of Last Night of the Proms, which is the last in a series of patriotic summer concerts put on by the BBC across the pond. Of course, this recording was from the late 1970s or early 1980s, before I was born. Very grainy. Bit old school. What is more, as the evening wore on during this concert, it became clear that the patrons, especially those in the balcony, were becoming more and more “British,” as we say in my household, and nearly falling out of said balcony.

There were always two songs that we watched. Rule Britannia, with its endless verses, in order to watch said patrons falling out of the balcony. And Auld Lang Syne. Because it was New Years – and it’s what you do. Period.

First written down in its full form by Robert Burns in 1788, this Scottish poem is based on a folk song that is far older. In the centuries since, it has become the song that signifies the end of important events. That includes graduations, funerals, important concerts, and, of course, old years. The words themselves, auld lang syne, literally translated mean either “long long ago” or “days gone by.”

So this year, as we begin a new chapter in all of our stories, let us raise a toast to the days we have survived, the lives of those who have made them so memorable and complete, and give thanks for the new road that lies ahead of us.

Auld Lang Syne

Evermore Proclaim

There is no better summary of who our God, our Lord is. And no more important message to impart was we gather to celebrate God coming to live among us. For that power is a Love more powerful than this world can comprehend.

When Christmas Eve finally arrives, there is no carol more important, in my opinion at least, than O Holy Night. Quite frankly I believe there is no need to preach as long as that song is sung with the third verse being the high note (and I mean that quite literally).

In 1843, Placide Cappeau wrote a Christmas poem to commemorate the renovation of his hometown church’s organ in the south of France. Within the year, Adolphe Adam set the poem to music and the following Christmas, the song premiered with an operatic soprano soloing in the same church.

It took less than ten years for an American named John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister, to write the English version in 1855. He specifically penned the third verse to echo the call he felt in his own life to the abolitionist movement. The verse has been included or not included in hymnals and popular versions of the song for this reason, depending on the denomination and artist (as well as the time period and region).

The verse reads: Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his Gospel is peace. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother and in his name all oppression shall cease. Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we. Let all within us praise his holy name. Christ is the Lord, then ever, ever praise we! His power and glory evermore proclaim! His power and glory evermore proclaim!

There is no better summary of who our God, our Lord is. And no more important message to impart was we gather to celebrate God coming to live among us. For that power is a Love more powerful than this world can comprehend.

May we find it in our midst this Christmastide and always.

O Holy Night

The Blind Will See

There’s one kind of glaring issue though: they forgot to take into account Mary’s story within the gospels…

So, due to the way the schedule falls at our church, we moved up “Magnificat Sunday” by a week to today, because next week we will be presenting our annual Children’s Nativity. Which means that I have been saving one particular song especially for today. It is a favorite of many, but a topic of heated debate among many of my theological nerd friends. If you haven’t guessed it yet, I mean none other than Mary, Did You Know?

Written as part of a script for a church Christmas party, Mark Lowry began to develop the lyrics in 1984. However, they would not fully turn into a song until Buddy Greene completed the music in 1991. Since that time, this almost instant classic has been recorded by an astonishing number of artists across a range of musical genres.

So then why would such a popular song stir up significant controversy?

The lyrics began as a series of questions from a man thinking about what he would purportedly ask Mary if he could sit down and have coffee with her. Fair enough.

There’s one kind of glaring issue though: they forgot to take into account Mary’s story within the gospels. The part where she is flat out informed who this child will be by one of God’s highest ranking angels. The part where a prophet predicts the death he will suffer and her own pain as a result. And most especially the part where, while she is still pregnant, she prophesies the very heart of Christ’s ministry on earth.

Now, the reason I still love this song is because of the long list of attributes of who Christ is – though I will generally only listen to the Pentatonix version at this point. The power of the music as it ascribes the incredible vision of who Emmanuel, God-with-us, became on earth is beyond compare.

However, the question asked is blatantly answered in scripture. Yes. She knew. Rhetorical device or not, the song can become a bit mansplainy if you hit the wrong version.

So here is the major lesson for the day: Jesus’s mother was a prophet in her own right precisely because she was willing to answer God with a, here I am. let’s go. Jesus was God-made-flesh. However, I am also convinced that God entrusted him to Mary for a reason. That strong young woman willing to follow God even in the face of incredible derision and hardship. Who was willing to still fight for others when everyone else was demeaning her. Mary knew who she carried. And she worked her tail off to ensure that he was ready when the time came for him to say, let’s go. Mary is a hero and prophet worth learning about.

Mary, Did You Know?

Ring-ting-a-ting-a-ling

For me, I have been sitting in my own pain for a very long time and today I need a little reminder of the hope that does lie ahead. That is what this song does for me. For those of you who want that little bit of lift…

One of my absolute favorite Christmas songs comes in two forms – orchestral and pop. Like many the classics, its original conception came during a blazing hot summer in the 1940s. Although composer Leroy Anderson did not in fact finish it until the following February. The earliest orchestral version was recorded with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in 1949.

What makes Sleigh Ride a piece unlike so many others is its extensive use of the percussion section for not only rhythm, but also remarkable sound effects. Given that my own Grandpa was a trained percussionist under Sousa, that probably explains why I love this song so much.

The song was given new life in 1963 when the Ronettes recorded the first pop version using lyrics written by Mitchell Parish in 1950. Since that early recording, many other artists have gone on to create their own versions. The lyrics recall the joys of winter fun.

I feel I should acknowledge that today is just a very messy day. Outside my own window the rain is pouring down. In other parts of our country people are reeling from the devastation to their homes and businesses and churches yesterday. Everything just feels in disarray. For some, this song may feel too peppy, which is reasonable (and I have a whole bunch of other posts I can recommend for resting in hurt when it is needed).

For me, I have been sitting in my own pain for a very long time and today I need a little reminder of the hope that does lie ahead. That is what this song does for me. For those of you who want that little bit of lift, I give you Sleigh Ride.

Boston Pops

Ronettes

Bringing Good Cheer

Yet the power of this particular piece is in the music – a language that transcends every tongue…

There was a running joke when I was in high school that I would grow up to still be in handbell choir. I believe it was actually in my senior superlative or prediction, if I remember correctly. And over the years, I have continued to be involved with various bell choirs in different places and churches where I have lived.

Of all the Christmas pieces I have ever played, there is one arrangement of the Carol of the Bells that outshines them all. We originally learned it the year we were intended to travel overseas to Eastern Europe for our bell tour with my church’s high school bell choir (a trip we had to move due to everything that happened in Kosovo). I loved the arrangement so much that I have managed to get at least two other choirs to ring it since.

In truth, the carol is not very old, having been commissioned in 1914 by the conductor of the Ukrainian Republic Choir. The songwriter, Mykola Leontovych based his composition on a traditional Ukrainian folk chant and wrote it about the coming of the new year. It is worth bearing in mind that before Christianity was adopted, the new year was celebrated in Spring, not winter, and some of the undertones of the new life coming during that season were apparent in the original lyrics.

While the early song did reach our shores during the 1922 tour of the Ukrainian National Chorus, it was not until Peter J. Wilhousky wrote his well-known Christmas lyrics for the carol in the 1930s that the song’s popularity really took off in the United States. In the time since, it has been recorded using almost every type of genre imaginable.

Yet the power of this particular piece is in the music – a language that transcends every tongue, much like the love at the heart of this season that binds us together.

Ukrainian Bell Carol

Pentatonix

Lindsey Stirling

Hope and Strength

Unsurprisingly, it took less than fifty years for Christians to pick up this song, add some verses, and officially make it a Christmas carol. For us, there is nothing more steadfast or eternal than our faithful God who became flesh on Christmas…

One of my dad’s favorite Christmas carols, and one that all of us probably associate with Charlie Brown, actually came into the world having absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. In fact, the German folksong, O Tannenbaum, was originally written to compare the faithful evergreen fir tree, which is what tannenbaum means, to an unfaithful lover. And yet, a teacher and organist named Ernst Anschutz from Leipzig took that well-known tune and transformed it into the early versions of what we know today in 1824.

What Anschutz was describing, however, had nothing in particular to do with Christmas. Instead, he was drawing his singers attention to the fir tree’s use as a symbol of steadfast faithfulness. Loosely translated, the final verse of his early song read, O Tannenbaum, you bear a joyful message: that faith and hope shall ever bloom to bring us light in winter’s gloom… As has been the case from the ancients through to modern day, the steadfast nature of trees, particularly evergreens remind us of the eternal.

Unsurprisingly, it took less than fifty years for Christians to pick up this song, add some verses, and officially make it a Christmas carol. For us, there is nothing more steadfast or eternal than our faithful God who became flesh on Christmas. And as I sit here gazing at my tree lit up in our quiet house this night, it reminds me of the light coming into the world, more powerful than anything else.

Of all the editions and renditions that have existed over the last two hundred years, there is a line in a verse that really sticks with me every time I hear it: Your bright green leaves with festive cheer, give hope and strength throughout the year. Because Christmas is not just meant to last for one day. Or twelve days. Or even one or two months. Its spirit is meant to guide us the whole year through.

O Christmas Tree

Charlie Brown Version