Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cloud of Witnesses

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us... (Hebrews 12:1, NRSV)
 
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27-29, NRSV)
 
Legacy figures prominently in the life of any family or community that has existed for more than a decade.
 
Last Sunday, Parkrose Community United Church of Christ, where I play the piano each week, celebrated its hundredth anniversary. At one point in the service, Pastor Don Frueh paid tribute to one of the oldest members of the congregation, who had belonged for a continuous seventy years. She had grown up in the church, and is now in her 90s. He then asked people to stand if they'd been involved with the church for seventy years or more (there were two, counting her), sixty years or more, fifty or more, and so on. Once he'd finished, Brian Heron, former pastor of the Eastminster Presbyterian Church, which merged with Parkrose a year ago, rose to read the passage from Galatians I quoted above, and asked who'd been involved with the church for a hundred years. The congregation laughed, but then Brian went on to ask if anyone in attendance had a connection that went back to the founding of the church, whether that was parents, grandparents, friends of the family--and only the woman Don had honored earlier could raise her hand. Her parents had been charter members. Apart from her, there were no direct connections to the founding of the church present that morning.
 
"Heirs according to the promise" was the theme of Brian's remarks, and it touched me deeply. It got me thinking about how every step I take is possible because of what the writer of Hebrews called the "great cloud of witnesses," the pioneers of the faith who made it possible for others to now be a part of it. In the case of this passage, those pioneers were all Jews, whether they were judges, kings, priests, prophets, or simply ordinary people working out what it meant to be in covenant relationship with God from day to day. This sense of inheriting one's place in life from titans of history is essential to Christianity, which is a faith promulgated through conversion rather than procreation. There is no official genetic legacy in this faith. While many are born into it, they still must decide for themselves whether to be Christians; as opposed to Jews, whose bloodline makes them what they are, regardless of whether they choose to observe the rites and practices of their people.
 
There are many spheres of life in which people move by virtue of the actions of a cloud of witnesses: professions, communities, fraternal organizations, fan clubs, trade unions, musical genres, guilds, clubs, troops, and on and on. Human beings affiliate groups that exist because founders and perfecters, many of them now forgotten, crafted them to accomplish certain purposes, then stepped back as what they had created outgrew those purposes and took on lives of their own. To play jazz, to march in a band, to gather with fellow Masons, to organize labor against management, to camp out with fellow Scouts, to join one's brothers on a keg roll, to play Mah Jongg, all these things are possible because of the work of spiritual ancestors, patriarchs and matriarchs, who did these things first and, through trial and error, arrived at the rules that define these pursuits.
 
I am indebted to a cloud of witnesses who date back to anonymous jongleurs, monks, balladeers, and minstrels who gathered and shaped the music of their time and place, gradually evolving it into songs that became the basis for western music. It was not until the Renaissance that composers with names began shaping this music into works that could be recorded and paper, passed on for future generations to perform. It continued evolving, changing, its principles altering to suit the tastes of different communities and ethnicities, until Johann Sebastian Bach finally codified those practices into a system of twelve keys. Those who followed took what he had done and developed it further, finding ways to inject more lyricism into the system, to stretch it and warp it and ultimately to break its rules, crafting works of jarring dissonance and fragmented rhythm. Subsequent generations gathered up the broken bits of theory and boiled off the harsher elements, creating a post-modern idiom more accessible to contemporary ears. Walking in the footsteps of these titans, I can pick and choose what I like to curate my own personal library of music, whether it is for my own listening pleasure or for me to share with students and audiences as a teacher and performer.
 
I am indebted, as well, to the cloud of witnesses brought to this land in chains, who carried with them the rhythms and improvisational spirit of African music. Barred from playing the drums that were their inheritance, they created other instruments from bits and pieces of rubbish, played rhythms on their bodies, developed coded lyrics that ridiculed their masters without cluing them in to how subversive they really were, songs so catchy and amusing that they could be sung by those masters, never knowing they were making fun of themselves as they sang. This music gave birth to the Blues, to gospel, to rock and roll, and especially to jazz--America's music, the culture of the slaves ultimately taking over the nation and, by extension, the world. I walk in their footsteps whenever I sit down at the keyboard to play jazz, pop, gospel, folk, soul, reggae, any of the crazy quilt of styles that make up my repertoire.
 
I walk in the footsteps of titans whenever I step into a classroom. Whether it is the music masters who conceived of and developed the modern band, or the conductors who created all the techniques I use to rehearse and lead my ensembles, or the music educators who worked out how to involve children through movement, rhythm, melody, and song, I am able to do what I do because others came before me. I have been privileged to study with some of these titans, and their indelible imprint on me is visible whenever I teach, direct, conduct.
 
Then there are the pioneers who literally made it possible for me to be here, those who created the genes that make me what I am. I'm going to close this essay with two photographs. First is a picture I took of my parents in 1998:
 
 
My father was 72 at the time of this photo, my mother 63. They were both retired, living in the house they occupy now, a craftsman house now more than a hundred years old, purchased in 1944 by my grandmother who, after the death of my grandfather, decided McMinnville was where she wanted to live out the second half of her life. My father was a minister by trade, first an American Baptist, then a United Methodist. He served primarily rural churches. He was also a naturalist, gifted with a scientific intellect and a native curiosity that he labored long and hard to impart to his five sons. My mother was a musician, an organist and piano teacher, who taught all of us to play, and insisted we had to master the basics of piano technique before we would be permitted to play any other instrument. I have followed in both their footsteps, becoming both a minister and a church musician. While I no longer preach, it is almost certain that my fascination with the outdoors originated with my father; and while church music is only a small part of how I pay my rent, teaching music is the vocation that I will practice until I retire.
 
My parents both walked in the footsteps of these titans: 
This slide was probably taken in 1943, possibly 1944. The occasion would have been my grandparents' 25th anniversary. My grandfather would have been the age I am now, 52; he would be dead within a year. My grandmother was the same age. She lived to be 97. No one in my generation knew our grandfather, though we have always lived in his shadow. He was an ordained American Baptist preacher, but he spent his entire career in education, whether in the mission schools he founded in Shanghai, China, or in the two colleges of which he was president, Linfield and Redlands. During his years in higher education, he was known as the president who knew every student by name. He was in demand as a speaker throughout the United States, and traveled extensively. And he was well-loved by his wife and children. He died far too young. My grandmother outlived him by 44 years, but never gave up her connection to him. She never remarried. Instead, she reinvented herself as a writer and academic, earning a PhD and serving Linfield as a professor and dean until her retirement. She traveled throughout the world, corresponded with thousands of people, and wrote inspirational books about retirement that became best-sellers. She was far more than a mother-in-law to my own mother, whose own mother died just before my mother's eighteenth birthday. Grandmother's influence on all her grandchildren was monumental. I believe I inherited the writing gene from her, and she always encouraged me in it, even as I sent her wild science fiction stories I had penned. Her greatest example to all of us was that of quiet, dignified, patient acceptance of her advancing age.
 
These are just four of the witnesses in my great cloud, the throng in the balcony egging me on, rejoicing in my victories, bearing me up in my defeats, guiding me through the many passages of my life. There are many more I have not mentioned here, some related by blood, most not: teachers, professors, pastors, mentors, friends, authors, leaders, counselors, colleagues. Their handiwork is evident in everything I do, and without them, I would be helpless, struggling just to survive, let alone thrive. It is a blessing that I do not have to reinvent the wheel, thanks to them; and a deeper blessing that they have approved of my modifications to that wheel, that they rejoice when I build upon the foundations they laid long ago.
 
I can only hope that I have had some semblance of their impact on the people who have encountered me over the years: students, parishioners, colleagues, readers, audiences, friends, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews, and, of course, the children I have parented. This is the only immortality I covet: that once I am gone, I, too, will be counted among the cloud of witnesses of the next generation, and even as my name vanishes into anonymity, that I will be one voice within the chorus underlying all the great improvisations yet to be performed.

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