Ten Affirmations That Energize Practice

From The Musicians Way Newsletter:

Layout 1“I think it’s beautiful to practice. I love to practice.”
-Claudio Arrau, pianist*

To be a musician is to be someone who practices.

Day after day, we musicians work in solitude to learn new repertoire, refine old repertoire, and polish our skills.

Most performers also rehearse with others, applying their solitary efforts in groups large and small.

The demands of daily practice prove too much for some aspiring artists, but affirmations can powerfully fuel any artist’s drive to work.

The Power of Affirmations
Affirmations are positive self-statements that can be uttered mentally or aloud. They help generate internal states that boost creativity and motivation (see “Positive Mood Allows Brain to Think More Creatively” in Science News).

In truth, the things we say things to ourselves before, during, and after practice have potent effects: “Self-talk can be positive, negative, or neutral, but it almost always has some influence on our behavior,” wrote psychologists Paul Salmon & Robert Meyer in Notes from the Green Room (p. 68).

The following 10 affirmations help generate positivity in practice. Try them during practice sessions and throughout each day to help unleash your creative energy. Also make up affirmations of your own, and feel free to share your experiences here.

10 Affirmations that Inspire Music Practice

  1. “I’m grateful to be able to make music.”
  2. “I open my heart to the richness of my musical adventure.”
  3. “I embrace challenges as opportunities to advance.”
  4. “I’m confident in my abilities.”
  5. “I trust in my capacity to grow.”
  6. “I look forward to today’s discoveries.”
  7. “It’s beautiful to practice. I love to practice.”
  8. “Music is my true love.”
  9. “I’m fortunate to be able to pursue my love of music.”
  10. “I’m thankful to all the people who have supported my music making.”

The “Bright Sadness of Lent”

“A journey, a pilgrimage!  Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent, we see–far, far away–the destination.  It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the kingdom.” 

— Alexander Schmemann in “Great Lent: Journey to Pascha”

ash WedThe words, “bright sadness,” captured my imagination this week after reading this passage in Alexander Schmemann’s wonderful meditation on the Season of Lent.  What can be “bright” about sadness?  What is it about sadness that can actually illuminate our self-awareness and longing for God? The readings for this Sunday, the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus, can help us form an insightful answer.

We will read the story of the departure of the prophet Elijah taken up in a “whirl of wind” to heaven (2 Kings 2:1-12).  We learn of Elisha’s close relationship with Elijah and his sadness at their impending separation. In the closing verse of the passage, Elisha sees a vision of a chariot and horses of fire coming between him and Elijah as Elijah is taken up by the whirlwind.  Elisha cries out, “My father, my father! You-the chariot and cavalry of Israel!”  All that Elisha can do is rend his clothes in grief; he has gone up with Elijah to the place of his ascension, but now he must return alone.

In Mark’s Gospel this Sunday (Mark 9:2-9), Jesus has led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. On that mountain, the disciples enter a mystery so great that they fall down in fear and can find no words for the brilliant light they see shining through the humanity of Jesus. But after that high and mysterious experience, the disciples must descend into the valley to face the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Both readings are examples of the “bright sadness.”

In his book, Schmemann suggests that the Lenten season is meant to kindle a ‘bright sadness’ within our hearts. The spiritual focus of Lent is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost or unattended. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this primary relationship in our lives. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the surprising brilliance of the Resurrection and find new confidence and hope for the living of our days.

I look forward to exploring this theme of “bright sadness” more personally in my sermon for Sunday and consider small steps we can take in Lent to nourish our awareness of God, our deepest selves, and those around us.

Update: The sermon is now posted here.


Fine Wine and Appreciative Faith

Cabernet Savignon

“All things in moderation, with a few glorious exceptions.”

– Robert Mondavi

During my summer sabbatical, I have been exploring the relationship between the creative arts and the soul’s search for God.

By “creative arts” I mean at least music, poetry, visual arts, architecture–the culinary and viticultural arts as well. Last week, Debbie and I traveled to Nappa Valley to take in the wonder and beauty of this small particle of God’s good creation and we were not disappointed. This world famous wine region is home to more than 250 wineries making it one of the most densely concentrated winery locations in the world. Today the Valley’s culinary reputation is also attracting visitors from around the world with cooking schools and exceptional restaurants – part of the reason more than 5 million people visit the Valley every year.

Robert Mondavi Winery

One of the immediate impressions that struck me from the beginning of our time in Napa, was the intentional integration of wine, food, and art at the wineries we visited.

The Robert Mondavi Winery proved to be a wonderful example of this integration.  As soon as you approach the winery, you are confronted by the fascinating sculpture of St. Francis by Beniamino Bufano (a similar sculpture exists at the west entrance of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco). We also found exceptional art collections at the Hess and the Clos Pegase wineries. With so much to do and explore you could spend weeks in Napa and just scratch the surface. But even a scratch of Napa is like a foretaste of the great eschatological banquet–beautiful vistas, cabernets and chardonnays at the peak of their perfection, and culinary creations that cause you to break out your camera in astonishment before you take the first glorious bite.

It’s interesting to me that there are many references to wine in the Bible and that most of them are quite positive. I’ve heard the arguments that what Bible talks about is not really wine, but some form of grape juice. It makes you wonder if such folks have forgotten basic science. Grape juice, left for any amount of time in a non refrigerated space will automatically turn to wine. What the people of the Bible did not have was the technology to prevent grape juice from turning into wine. At any rate, what the Bible does proscribe is drunkenness and like anything we put into our bodies, moderation is an essential practice.  Falling into a “chardonnay coma” is not exactly the way to savor and relax over a good meal with friends. The disease of alcoholism is rampant in our culture today and we need to be careful with our own vulnerabilities and those of others. The Psalmist captures a more appreciative way:

“You cause grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for people to use.
You allow them to produce food from the earth—
wine to make them glad,
olive oil to soothe their skin,
and bread to give them strength” (Psalm 104:14-15, NLT).

Grilled pork chop, creamy polenta, and honey lavender jus!

The integration of fine wine (in moderation), nutritional food, and the creative arts, provides an intentional way of helping us live more deeply into the goodness and wonder of being alive in God’s full world.  Wise is the community of faith that incorporates them in distinctive and faithful ways offering “the gifts of God, for the people of God.”


What Do Evangelicals Have That We Don’t?

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. Director of Spiritual Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas offers three positive qualities about evangelicanism today.

What do Evangelicals have that we (Progressive, Mainliners) don’t have—other than larger churches, larger seminaries, bigger attendance on Sunday, more serious engagement with Scripture, and enough passion for their faith to keep David Platt’s Radical on the best seller list for 55 weeks running?

We can sniff and comfort ourselves with pride, if we want to do that. But I am sure that was pretty much where the crew of the Titanic lived just before the ice water began to roll in over their feet.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a size thing. But we can only console ourselves for so long by arguing, “small is beautiful” or “we are too sophisticated to be popular.” “Large” may not mean “good,” but “small” is not necessarily a synonym for “virtuous” either. Sometimes, small just means “not all that interesting.”

Read the full article here, and let’s start a conversation!

Wondrous Love

From my Invitation to Holy Week on Palm/Passion Sunday:

We have entered into Holy Week, the week of greatest depth, wonder, and solemnity in the Christian liturgical year.  It is a week full of emotional highs and lows, a week that touches the depth and complexity of our human condition, our desire for love and our failure to love.

The American folk hymn “Wondrous Love” provides a central guiding question for Holy Week: “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to lay aside his crown for my soul?” We are being invited, to walk differently and live with that question this week, as we walk in the steps of Jesus’ suffering, his humility, his courage.  And we bring ourselves, as best we can, wherever we are, and we place ourselves in the midst of this man, dare we say it, in the midst of this God, whose love for you and for me, transcends the worst that we can possibly do.

Because we are being invited to walk differently and to live with that question this week, I’ve taken the initiative to “re-frame,” our worship space to help us experience that difference in the way we gather as the people of God.  One of the things that you learn in seminary, a bit of wisdom that is passed on to those who are beginning their ministries is, “When you come to your first cure, do not change the furniture. For at least five years, do not attempt to change the furniture!” Sixteen years later, I’ve moved the furniture.  Why?

This week is all about the life and wondrous love of Jesus the Christ, who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, who goes all the way to Jerusalem and the cross for you and for me.  It is a week above all weeks, when we are invited to come closer to that life and to surrender our troubled hearts to that healing love.  That’s what this simple, and yes, temporary, movement of wood, candles, fair linen, and gifts of bread and wine are meant to convey to us this Holy Week.  Jesus is in our midst.  “Walk with me,” he asks. “Stay close to me.” “Do this in remembrance of me.”

And so we will.   Maundy Thursday, we will gather with Jesus for the Last Supper, breaking bread together and seeing one another as brothers and sisters who share in the Agape feast of Christ.  Following his example we will remember the tenderness and care of serving one another in the washing of feet.  We will end that evening by stripping this altar, and placing upon it a stark crown of thorns.  On Good Friday, the dying of Jesus will appear closer to us than ever before and we will fall silent in the contemplation of so great an act of sacrificial love.  On Saturday, at the Great Vigil of Easter, the new fire will shatter the darkness of our lives as Jesus, takes our human nature through a new Passover, through the experience we call death, and he will show us that beyond death, there is always life, resurrection life, new creation, new possibilities, a new kingdom, a new world.  And on Sunday, this altar will blossom with the unbridled joy of the Risen Lord, who will remind us with his life-giving presence, that he alone is the true host of this Eucharistic feast, and will be with us to the end of the ages.

So brothers and sisters, come close to Jesus this week. Live with this question over the next seven days: What wondrous love is this, O my soul?

The full invitation to Holy Week can be heard here.


It’s Advent. Enter quickly!

I love the season of Advent, and I am sympathetic with those who try to make room in their busy lives to give this short season some semblance of recognition and practice. Advent has become something of a “Cinderella” season.  It gets squeezed out of contemporary life by the big sisters of commercial and social activity that arrive long before the 25th of December.  Advent is supposed to be a season of focus and contemplation–of waiting in hope for the renewal of our faith.

Father Gregory Fruehwirth, a monk of the Anglican Order of Julian of Norwich, writes:

The first week of Advent marks the start of a new liturgical year in Christ. It is a time of darkness, of hidden pregnancy, of waiting. The seed of the kingdom of God, the seed that will germinate at Christmas, sprout in Epiphany, grow through Lent, blossom at Easter, and bear its seven-fold fruit at Pentecost, is sown in the dark soil of Advent. The new life of God is already within us, even though we may see, feel, and understand nothing. Patience and faith are called for.

The season begins with John the Baptist, warnings about the end of time, the eventual disintegration of creation, and the nearing Day of Judgment.  It ends with the joyful promise of new creation and the awakening of transcendent life in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It is a season that calls us to a time of quiet waiting, of margin, of contemplation.  In order for such contemplative presence to be ours, we would do well to intentionally eliminate some of our more routine media-saturated moments in the day and convert them to moments of solitude and silence.

I have long advocated the practice of “Advent Walks,” just before the day ends.  The diffused twilight from the sky, when the sun is below the western horizon, gently gives way to a brisk and gentle darkness. The lights of the neighborhood are blinking on and the scent of dry burning oak fills the night sky, like a waft of incense adding mystery to nature’s daily evening liturgy.  The opening verse of the 9th century Latin chant, memorized from seminary days comes readily to mind, Creátor alme síderum, “Creator of the stars of night, your people’s everlasting light, O Christ redeemer of us all, we pray you hear us when we call.”

Advent will move too swiftly over the days of December.  Enter it quickly!

Seven Simple Words

There was a recent dust-up on the social network Facebook, when the legendary author Anne Rice publicly announced that she was giving up on Christianity.  She was giving up because she could no longer stand to listen to people who in the name of Jesus were declaring themselves righteous and declaring others worthy of condemnation. She cited sexual orientation, religion, and place of birth as common fault lines that were particularly troubling.

She would have found the Pharisee in our Gospel lesson from Luke on Sunday also troubling (Luke 18:9-14). It’s hard to imagine a more earnest, conscientious, religious person than the Pharisee. He was committed to spiritual practice, and for all appearances would have made a solid member of our own congregation! But he made a tragic mistake in his religious life–a mistake toxic to authentic spirituality.

The Pharisee “trusted in himself and regarded others with contempt.” It’s not that difficult to find similar attitudes lurking in our own hearts – toward those of another political party, religious tradition, or toward those less fortunate than ourselves, such as the poor and the mentally ill. It may make us feel good to favorably compare ourselves to others but Jesus warns us that it is a dark place to avoid. What we all need when we fail or don’t live up to our own expectations or the expectations of others is not condescension but compassion, not shame but hope.

Jesus tells us that the tax collector, who approached God without self-justification and with humble honesty, was the one who experienced genuine renewal in his relationship with God.  To “live in the truth of who we really are,” as St. Teresa of Avila described humility, is to feel somewhat naked and vulnerable.  But the parable teaches us that such honest self-definition can be quite liberating as well. To accept that we are accepted by God and to trust in the one “whose property is always to have mercy,” is to make a quantum leap in the spiritual life. Honest, heartfelt prayer, Jesus suggests, can be made with just seven simple words, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Based on similar words in Mark 10:47, “The Jesus Prayer,” has been practiced as a breathing prayer within the monasteries of the Eastern Church for centuries.  The simple prayer, “Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner,” became more widely known through the publication of a book written by an unknown Russian author in the late nineteen century.  This book, The Way of the Pilgrim, brought the Jesus Prayer out of the monasteries and into the wider world.  For a good introduction to praying “The Jesus Prayer,” see Frederica Mathewes-Green comprehensive book, “The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God.”

The Rich Soil of Anglicanism

After the Eucharist - St. Luke's West Holloway

I’m in London for the Annual General Meeting of the Compass Rose Society which begins on Monday.  Part of what I love about the Anglican Communion is its theological breadth and liturgical diversity.

For me, the Anglican tradition is less about institutional preservation  – though I believe the tested wisdom and organizational strength of that tradition is a charism worth preserving  – and more about being rooted in rich spiritual, liturgical and theological soil.  It’s the same soil that gave us Julian of Norwich, Thomas Cranmer, C.S. Lewis, Rowan Williams, and Katherine Jefferts Schori for goodness sake!  We are living in a time where we need leaders, deeply rooted in the wisdom of Jesus, to till this soil in a rapidly changing world and post-Christian context.

It was Archbishop Rowan Williams who aptly coined the phrase “a mixed economy” to describe the kind of church which might emerge if this post-Christian context is taken to heart. Traditional or “inherited” understandings of what it means to be the Church, and emerging “fresh expressions,” should ideally be seen as complementary aspects of a single coherent ecclesiology.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes in London today.

Fr. Dave Tomlinson

This morning I attended the 11:00 Liturgy at St. Luke’s West Holloway, a parish church currently led by Fr. Dave Tomlinson, whose preaching and writing  I have admired for some time (see his Re-Enchanting Christianity here). On the parish website, Fr. Tomlinson states:

“I think I’ve the best job in the world! I’ve been the vicar of St Luke’s since 2000, and I’m more enthusiastic about the job now than the day I first took it on. St Luke’s is a glorious mishmash of people – young and old, men and women, black and white, gay and straight – who have found in this place somewhere to belong, somewhere to make friends, somewhere to grow personally and spiritually, somewhere to laugh and weep together, somewhere to explore the mystery we call God. We are a church that tries to combine the rich and broad tradition of Christianity with insights and understandings from the present, and this is reflected in our theology and worship. ”

These words are congruent with what I encountered at St. Luke’s this morning.  I was warmly welcomed both before and after the service and felt quickly at home in the open and creative set-up of the worship space.  The liturgy included a judicious use of video, poetry, and music, featuring both an adult and children’s choir accompanied by piano and organ.  The theme, based on the lectionary readings, was the “God of Creation,” and Dave concluded his fine sermon with a video setting of the poem ‘Wild Geese‘ by Mary Oliver.  It takes both spiritual sensitivity and artistic skill to blend traditional and modern elements together in a liturgy like this, and as one who believes liturgy demands our very best, I was pleased to see both elements in good evidence.

Evensong at St. James, Paddington

This evening, I made my way to St. James Paddington for a traditional liturgy of Choral Evensong.  Here I experienced a liturgy more catholic in style, in a gothic space enriched by a brilliantly designed lighting system, professional choir, dignified ceremonial, and the scent of fragrant incense beckoning the faithful to raise their hearts in glad adoration of the living God.

At St. James, Paddington,  the music of Orlando Gibbons, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittus, the chanted psalm, the Biblical readings, the choral anthems, the opening and closing organ voluntaries, were faithfully offered–leading us into the Divine Mystery at the heart all things.  Two very different approaches to worship yet one Spirit inspiring and blessing us all.

Very rich soil indeed.

The Sabbath Manifesto

While doing some research for my sermon this Sunday, I came across a unique web-site titled, The Sabbath Manifesto, a creative project by a group of Jewish artists in search of a modern way to observe a weekly day of rest.  They have created 10 core principles and offer them to anyone looking for ways to develop a rhythm between work and rest in the relentless busyness of life.  Here are the ten principles offered on The Sabbath Manifesto web-site:

  1. Avoid Technology.
  2. Connect with loved ones.
  3. Nurture your health.
  4. Get outside.
  5. Avoid commerce.
  6. Light candles.
  7. Drink wine.
  8. Eat bread.
  9. Find silence.
  10. Give back.

I am helped by thinking about Sabbath both as a specific practice and as a larger metaphor to  recover the forgotten necessity of rest.  The very act of refusing to multitask seven days a week serves as a “manifesto” that we are deeply loved by God for who we are, not what we do.

A Day For Being Set Free

Think for a moment about the significance of worship on Sunday (or any other day of regular worship for that matter).  The gathering, the readings, the preaching, the singing, the breaking of bread – why do we do this week after week?  I wonder sometimes with the amount of work that goes into preparing and attending our Sunday liturgy, if we miss the significance of what it is all about in the first place.

The Gospel we will hear on Sunday (Luke 13:10-17), takes up this issue with the powerful story of Jesus healing a woman with a severe physical handicap in the synagogue.  He is challenged by a leader of the synagogue who tries to discredit his actions while elevating the Pharisees for so dutifully and faithfully following the Mosaic Law. When Jesus sets the woman “free” from her ailment, the leader of the synagogue can only say:

“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, not on the sabbath day.” (Luke 13:14).

Talk about an adventure in missing the point! Jesus holds a very different understanding of the gift of Sabbath. Sabbath is not only a day given to rest from labor, but is also a day linked to the Exodus event, when God’s people were released and freed from their captivity (see Deuteronomy 5: 12-15).  I think this is the sabbath tradition that Jesus refers to in Luke’s Gospel, a tradition that is based on compassion, deliverance, and renewal.

The Sabbath Day – whether the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday or the Christian day of rest and worship on Sunday – reminds us that we too need to stop, rest, delight, and be released from those aspects of our busy lives that diminish us.  If we are only “going through the motions” on Sunday, and not actually receiving the gift of a day to fast from multi-tasking and concentrate on relationships that really matter, is it any wonder that we feel as if we are treading water and barely getting by week to week?

Was Jesus on to something about the Sabbath as a day to experience being set free from what restricts and depletes us?  Is it possible for people who live in Fairfax County to adopt sabbath-keeping as a formative spiritual practice so that rather than being “bent over” by the pressures of our world we are raised up to see at eye level the wonder and gift of God’s full world?

This is the question I will seek to address in my sermon for this Sunday.  If it resonates with those who gather, I’ll post it here next week.