And a Big Grin

Photo by Bill Finley

It’s almost 11:00 a.m. on Friday, September 17, 2016.  Bill and I are seated at a table in the far end of an elongated, almost empty, hotel restaurant near the Pittsburgh airport. We’ve reserved in the quietest place possible because for the next couple hours, I’ll be interviewing Noel Paul Stookey, the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary before his concert with Peter Yarrow. Though this isn’t the meeting room we asked for, at least there’s a kind of indoor fence between us and the main dining area.  I’ve asked my gregarious husband to eat his lunch before Noel arrives, to stay and chat while Noel and I order our meals, but to please disappear when the interview begins. 

In late January I’d sent a proposal to Noel, which began something like this:

I am a United Methodist clergywoman / writer who has recently researched a curriculum piece on respecting other religions when I discovered One Light, Many Candles. That discovery led me to your recent CD/DVD, and last week I heard from the review editor at Sojourners that my review of At Home: The Maine Tour will be published.  My research, listening, and writing the review have sparked an idea for a book about your music, spiritual journey, and social justice work. 

Two and a half months, two more emails and a published review later, I heard from him.  Since then Noel and I have been emailing, but I’ve never talked with him on the phone.  His last email asked me to call him around 11:00 am after he’s had time to rest from his flight.  I’m just a bit nervous. I want to present myself as a professional writer, not a giddy fan. After all, I haven’t followed his solo music or PP&M music since the ‘60s. I’m going to keep a straight face. I dial and he answers.

“Hi, Noel, Bill and I are here in the restaurant when you’re ready to come down.  We’re way in the back, and I’m wearing a turquoise shirt.”

He adds,  “And a big grin.” 

Remember Clement Moore’s lines the moment after St. Nick comes down the chimney.  

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread

I’ve just received the verbal equivalent.

Now, four years later, our collaboration on this book goes on.  I recall the FaithLink curriculum piece that led me into this journey.  In November 2013, 130 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and its northern suburb of Saint Denis.  Most prominent in the news of the day was a mass shooting in the Bataclan (theatre) that left 90 dead.   The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility. Almost immediately anti-Muslim sentiment and violence increased globally among people who didn’t understand the difference between the Islamic religion and a militant, fundamentalist Islamist group.

Since 2007 I’ve been a part of the writing team that produces FaithLink, a digital United Methodist curriculum for study groups on current affairs and faith. After the Paris attacks, I was in line for the next issue to be written. The editors and I wasted no time deciding that the topic had to be interfaith understanding. In doing the research I ran across One Light, Many Candles, a multi-faith program in word and song presented by Noel Stookey and the Reverend Betty Stookey.  Betty had begun developing in program in her role as chaplain at Northfield Mount Hermon School, which had a religiously and culturally diverse student body. She continued that development later when she became minister-in-residence at Wesley Theological Seminary. 

That Noel Stookey is married to a clergywoman who has developed such a program got my attention.  I started reading more about them and was impressed with their depth of understanding, their spirituality, and their efforts to help us human beings “overcome our differences and see our commonality without fear of losing our spiritual integrity.”

Long story short, I ordered some of Noel’s latest CDs and started listening. I found in his solo music deeply reflective lyrics, occasional comic relief, profound but humble reverence, and beautiful melodies played by an accomplished guitarist. Two years earlier Bill and I had lost our only child to cancer.  At age 33, she left behind her husband and their six-month-old baby.  The grief was still fresh.  One Noel’s songs, “Every Flower” includes this couplet, which inexplicably brought hope and healing to me:

Some [flowers] are bent by fears they cannot see
And some are touched by love and set free

On the surface, “Every Flower” has a simple lyric, but the power of poetry, of metaphorical language, is that it works beneath the surface, reaching inner places like nothing else can, especially when it is woven into beautiful, engaging melodies and rhythms.

Another feature of Noel’s lyrics that I appreciated from the start was his reticence to using religious language to communicate about the Divine.  That appeals to me because I’m highly skeptical of the misuse and abuse of God talk, which seems more prevalent in public life than it was even four years ago.  His songs are the epitome of Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant.” 

For those of you who may have wondered why I post so many announcements about Noel’s projects and concerts on my FB page, now you know.  Speaking of which, this weekend he has been one of many artists who are giving their time and talents to Share the Journey: A Concert for Compassion to raise money for organizations that work extensively to serve and assist migrants, immigrants, and refugee families. 

On Sunday, October 18, Noel will appear in concert with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.  Tickets to this virtual event will allow you to see it anytime between tomorrow night and November 18. The orchestra will be playing some Joplin and Copeland, and Noel will be singing some of my favorites, including  “Facets of the Jewel,” which is central to One Light, Many Candles, and “In These Times,” written in 2007 but curiously applicable to right now.  

The book is also the reason I write so few blog posts, but we’re entering a phase of writing in which my research is focused on contemporary topics that may evoke more frequent posts.   I hope so.  Regardless, I’m still wearing a big grin. 

Embracing the Enemy: Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace

“After I finished my lecture, Professor Jurgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating:  ‘But can you embrace a četnik?’” writes Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf in his preface to the first edition of Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.    “It was the winter of 1993.  For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “četnik” [or chetnik] had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities.”

Only a few years earlier Moltmann had been Volf’s professor of theology and mentor at the University of Tübingen in Germany.  One of the most internationally esteemed theologians of the last decades of the twentieth century, he had known war even more intimately than Volf.  In 1944, he had been drafted into the German army and a year later had surrendered to the British. During his three years as a POW, he read the New Testament and Psalms for the first time and brought his personal  experience of war to his study and reflection. Later he wrote, 

In July 1943 I was an air force auxiliary in a battery in the center of Hamburg, and barely survived the fire storm which the Royal Air Force’s “Operation Gomorrah” let loose on the eastern part of the city. The friend standing next to me at the firing predictor was torn to pieces by the bomb that left me unscathed. That night I cried out to God for the first time: “My God, where are you?” And the question “Why am I not dead too?” has haunted me ever since.

In his lecture Volf had been arguing  that “we ought to embrace our enemies, as God has embraced us in Christ.”  So when Moltmann asked, “Can you embrace a četnik?”, his former student knew it was not a theoretical question. Moltmann had first-hand experience in struggling to love the enemy, and his question was part of what led Volf to write Exclusion and Embrace.

This 1996 book was named by Christianity Today as one of the best books of the twentieth century.  Several months ago Abingdon Press published a revised and updated edition, largely because it speaks to the hatred, conflict and the distrust of the “other” that are so prevalent around the world today.  Volf, who later founded the Yale Center on Faith and Culture and still teaches at Yale University Divinity School, wrote the first edition in a time when he believed that identity conflicts would fade as the processes of global integration would unite the world.  In his preface to the revised edition, he writes that such has not been the case: “The whole globe looks now more like Yugoslavia did on the eve of the outbreak of hostilities among its ethnic groups than like Europe when the Berlin Wall, that symbol of the bipolar world, came down and the European Union was expanding.” (1)

I’m one of the writers for FaithLink, a United Methodist digital curriculum on current affairs. This year’s Advent lessons were inspired by Volf’s book.  Although the curriculum is available only by subscription, the main essays from these lessons are posted on the Ministry Matters website:

“Violence and Peace” by Lyndsey Medford
https://www.ministrymatters.com/search/?t=a&q=Violence+and+Peace
“Deception and Truth” by Jill M. Johnson
https://www.ministrymatters.com/search/?t=a&q=Deception+and+Truth
“Oppression and Justice”  by Doug Paysour
https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9991/oppression-and-justice
“Exclusion and Embrace”  by Jeanne Torrence Finley https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9996/exclusion-and-embrace

Our times are racked by division and hatred–both stoked by fear of the other.  Volf’s book presents an alternative vision and a way toward human understanding and peace.  It’s a challenging read, but my colleagues and I at FaithLink hope that our essays provide a gentle welcome into his important work.  Mine begins with the story of the Grinch, which is not to be dismissed on December 25.  Remember that this is the 5th day of Christmas. Maybe the Grinch and the people of Whoville are still celebrating.

(1) To view Volf’s lecture, “Before Embrace,” visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5CFDY_9efU

Christmas Music and the Incarnation

steve-halama-169092-unsplash

photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

The  essay from my FaithLink for Dec. 23rd–“Christmas Music and the Incarnation”—has been posted on the Ministry Matters website:  https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9420/christmas-music-and-the-incarnation

Here are links to the songs mentioned in the essay: