Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bringing the orchestra back from the dead

I have an old recording of a Canadian band playing something called the “Ha! Ha! Ha! Polka.” There appears to be a tuba, a piccolo, an accordion and (I think) a guitar - some sort of percussion as well. The recording is from the 20’s and is very scratchy. Were I to wind up an old gramophone in the church on a Sunday morning and lower the needle onto a spinning old shellac '78 record we would discover, hidden beneath the patina of cigarette smoke, finger prints and car pollution, the last evidence for the existence of these four individuals carved into little grooves in a soft medium. Somewhere along the line The Good Time Gang sang and played in front of an surprisingly simple machine which converted the vibrations of their voices and of the sound of their instruments into an inscription on the medium of the record disc. Get a microscope out and you’ll see those little ridges and bumps running inside the groove. As any audiophile will tell you, the ambient background makes itself heard too – not only the echo from the walls of the room but the very space is represented in the background noise – now decayed and marred by time but still present – meaning that you can, in fact, hear the room.

It wasn’t the only monument they left. I suppose there are gravestones somewhere. There could be relatives. But let’s play with the idea, shall we, that this little shellac disc is essentially ‘it’ – the only way in which the voices of these men - their words, the movement of their fingers over strings and keys, the wood, brass, reeds and even the very room they were in - will ever “leap again into life”. There we are, in church on a Sunday Morning and the Rector is playing an old record on a gramophone and the Good Time Gang are singing the Ha! Ha! Ha! Polka. In the third pew on the Gospel side of the church, one of our parishioners is feeling nostalgic. Her father had old ‘78’s like this – dance bands and ballads. Further back in the church, somebody who is very old feels a bit miffed since we’re all treating the music of his youth as if we were unearthing a dinosaur bone! “I’m not dead yet”, he mutters. We could ‘imagine’, along with the emerging music, the musicians themselves – in cheap suits - a not terribly good Canadian ensemble in Montreal or Toronto struggling to make ends meet in a day when better bands were getting all the good gigs. Albert the tuba player, with a flask in his tuba case and an eye for the ladies, Karl the piccolo player, chronically indebted – the only one who’d ever played ‘real music’ before some personal reversal sentenced him to a life in low clubs and speakeasies. All dead of course - a musician's life was never meant to be a long one.

When I was the Rector of the Advent in Montreal I was on my way out the front door of the church when I noticed a little cardboard box that somebody had left on the front steps of the church. It contained a small collection of very strange things which had belonged to a lady of considerable age – personal items and bric-a-brac. The word ‘Church’ was scrawled in red marker on the outside of the box. Somebody, clearly, had died and the family had been emptying out her apartment. They wanted this and that and may have argued over a few items but eventually the lady’s worldly belongings were boiled down to a box of things which nobody cared to possess. These were placed anonymously on our front steps in the hope that we could do something with them since it seemed a shame to just ‘bin them’. The Church can use them. Not! The box was binned, of course - almost immediately – the items were of no use to anybody. That’s the way it works. Our ‘artefact’ is never particularly noble, useful or beautiful but somebody in the family feels just a bit queer tossing the last bit of Granny’s life into the garbage. And so they pass the box on to the church in the hopes that her artefact may prove useful to somebody because they don’t want their grandma to just ‘dissolve’ or to go ‘poof’.

Our artefact - it could be a piece of graffiti in a prison cell or a note in a baptismal register indicating our birth in the parish of X or Y with a later note fifty pages later registering our death and inhumation in the parish cemetery.

The Jews in the time of the emperor Hadrian believed that there was a single part of the body which never corrupted. It was alleged to be a bone in the spine – variously described as being at the base of the spine or the base of the skull. They called it the ‘almond’ and they believed it could not be destroyed. From this almond seed God would remake the human person at the Day of Resurrection. A conversation is recorded between a Rabbi and the Emperor with respect to the ‘luz’ (almond in Aramaic) or indestructible bone in the spine:

"Once God has softened this bone with the Dew of Resurrection, it will become as yeast is to the dough, and from it the body will be built. The same body that decomposed will be reconstructed….'And the almond shall blossom' refers to the luz (nut) of the spinal column. Hadrian, (may his bones be crushed), asked Rabbi. Joshua ben Hananiah, saying: 'From which part of the body will the Holy One, blessed be He, in the Time to Come, cause man to sprout forth? ' He answered: ' From the nut of the spinal column.' Said he: 'How can you convince me?' He thereupon brought one before him; he put it in water, but it was not dissolved; he let it pass through millstones, but it was not ground; he put it in fire, but it was not burnt; he put it on an anvil and began beating it with a hammer, but the anvil was flattened out, and the hammer was split, but all this had no effect"

It was not until the middle ages that the presence in this indestructible artefact within our spines was demonstrated (to the rabbis’ satisfaction) definitively not to exist. The suspicion remains, however, that there must be some part of us which must be left – some bit, some spark, some unmeltable kernel. It is no surprise, then, that some men over time have yearned to possess, create and leave in their wake some artefact of their existence. Any leisurely walk through a city cemetery will provide us evidence of tombs inscribed with the names of great families, their conquests and triumphs. We all tend to go on rather too long with eulogies at the funeral of a family member. We attempt with our words to carve something on stone – to pin a remembrance to the river bed so that the current will not take it away.

Being 49 years old is close enough to 50 to give me pause. I can look around me and see a certain amount of evidence for my existence. I have a twenty-one year old daughter in Montreal with fond or at least mixed memories of me. She can tell me stories that even I have forgotten. I can Google myself on the internet and find rather a lot – most of it from my Montreal days. I can tell my daughter a story about when she was very little and when we lived in a small town in northern Quebec. The story brings back the smell of the place - the wilderness made up of stumpy black spruce anchored in endless bog, the smell of diesel fuel, babies brought to their baptism in traditional smoky-smelling native-tanned moosehide swaddling bags. Not all of the recreation will be completely accurate, but with attention and with love that world leaps into being.

Jesus appears in the midst of his disciples at ‘sundry times’ between the Resurrection and the Ascension. His words, his promises, his challenge to the world all vindicated by his Resurrection. He shows himself as the ‘first fruits’ of the Resurrection which is to come – one which includes us, and the fact of which give us the possibility of a wonderfully fearless life lived here in the flesh and in the world and the possibility of tremendous courage in the midst of trouble. I am not about to make a pillock of myself by embarking on what I might imagine the physics of Resurrection to be. It is, as Paul declares it to be, ‘a mystery’. But I would try to provoke a little extra courage on the part of each of us. We do not need to worry about leaving an artefact. If nobody remembers us much after we’re dead it doesn’t really matter. Let our house crumble! Let the grandchildren undervalue our worldly goods and pitch them into the skip. Let the gentle earth fill in the spaces where we built our houses and planted our cabbages. It really doesn’t matter. We’re back in the church – now - listening to the Good Time Gang playing their polka. Let’s start there.

Being created in the Image of God means that there are a few God-like things which even we are capable of. Adam can ‘name the animals’ – it’s one of the things God lets him do. And even as crooked little creatures we know what it is to pay attention to something. That gift of love and attention which we provide is the lion’s share of what brings the Good Time Gang to life in our minds for a brief period. It’s just a small spark, isn’t it, but we know it to be true nonetheless. Even as creatures and not the creator we know what it is to execute a rough analogue of life giving imagination.

This is God’s world and its existence is guaranteed not by the stony bits that endure all storms – by hard little molecules which can never be wiped out. Existence is God’s gift – life, both passing and eternal, issues from his love and his attention.

So what do we proclaim as the basis of our hope? Ourselves? Our molecules? Our bones? Our strength? Our resistance to change? You know as well as I do that, that with the exception of a few Pharoahs and perhaps Chaucer, time and change will eventually win out. Even their names will eventually be remembered no more.

No, we proclaim God’s love for men and women, girls and boys. We proclaim the presence of his Spirit within these little clay pots we call our bodies and our personalities and the small portions of time we recognize as our earthly lives. Our lives are sustained by him – our future in his hands – who fills all things, sustains all things and directs all things to their full and perfect Ends.

Be of good cheer. Christ is Risen – the Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

Monday, April 23, 2007

The transformation of an altar.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

If you've not yet seen The Lives of Others (Das Leben Der Anderen) then this is the week to see it. Not because the film will be withdrawn any time soon - it's playing in a large number of movie houses and I doubt there's any risk of it being suddenly withdrawn. No, it was the juxtaposition of Sunday's first reading - the story of the conversion of St Paul in the 9th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles - with the theme of the film which prompted me to suggest that you see it this week.

The main character, Gerd Weisler, is a senior Stasi agent in search of subversives within the artistic community in East Germany. The film is set in the year 1984. Mikhail Gorbachev has yet to come to power in the Soviet Union and there is, as yet, no respite from the normality of well-supported surveillance of potential dissidents within the artistic community. Weisler is shown at work during interrogations and while teaching students at a Stasi training school. A true zealot, his orthodoxy allows for none of the personal lapses and retreats into humour sometimes seen among his colleagues.

He is presented with the case of Georg Dreyman - 'one of our best playwrights' - and told that here is an individual above reproach - creative and popular but still a true believer in Socialism and the GDR. Weisler is dubious and takes on the project of finding out the truth - believing that there must be some chink in his armour somewhere.

As the surveillance progresses, it is the interrogator himself who finds himself vulnerable. His fellow officers of the The Ministry for State Security who claim that they are the 'sword and shield' of the people prove to be craven and sloppy individuals attempting to preserve their own niche in the bureaucracy. It becomes clear that Dreyman has been targeted by a government minister with romantic designs on the playwright's girlfriend. Weisler is offended by this intrusion of personal jealousy into the work of the State and so commits his first lapse in discipline, allowing Dreyman to become aware of the minister's interest. His own orthodoxy proves a fragile thing, however, and this first lapse ends up opening up the floodgates. Weisler begins to hear the words being spoken in the apartment he has wired with microphones rather than merely listening to them. His zealotry is exposed for what it is - fear and insecurity - and a better man begins begins to emerge within Gerd Weisler.

Those who are proud to be our 'sword and shield' and who spend their time inspecting the belief and practise of others for signs of weakness or impurity should wonder whether such a divided vocation has its origin in love or in fear.