Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Hardest Thing About Teaching Music

The hardest thing about teaching music---is that if you are constructing a suitably challenging piece of music---which might include interesting vocal contours, orchestrations that both complement and contrast with the rhythms/melodies of the basic song itself, and movement that accurately reflects the mood of the piece----the students you are teaching cannot imagine this piece of music in its completed form.  And since teaching often means breaking down complex ideas/motives into their most basic components---you can't begin by teaching them everything at once---you have to give the piece to them in parts.  One week--learn just the melody---or perhaps only part of the melody if it is particularly challenging.  One week---learn the orchestration---in bits and pieces---one ostinati at a time.  Be sure a part can be performed in isolation, before attempting to layer in the next part---and while each subsequent part might be performed easily in isolation---when performed together--simultaneously---one finds the challenge greatly magnified.  And still another week---work on creating movement to reflect the music. Ask the students how should it reflect the music??  Should it reflect its tempo---so that fast movements accompany a briskly paced tune---and slower, more lethargic movements accompany a more quiet, wandering tune?  Should the movement reflect the contour of the melody----Using higher space when the melody is high---and lower space the melody is low?  Should the movement capture both these aspects at the same time---or focus on some other intrinsic part of the music entirely.  Should the movement try to capture some other--harder to name---elusive spirit of the music---some piece of the music that cannot quite be analyzed---that is more a feeling than a word??  And how---how can we really reflect what we can barely describe in words---or is it because we can't describe it in words---that we must do so in some other fashion.....The hardest part about teaching music is that what we are working towards in the class is so much more than the sum of its parts.   And all of the above processes described briefly above----they are hard work---rewarding, yes---but the reward is one of delayed gratification.  You can't really enjoy the fruits of your labor---until the labor is complete---when you spend a half hour meticulously refining repetitive rhythms on your instruments---being sure that all performers perform at the same tempo---with ears inclined towards balance---and a million other things to make everything line up just so---so that you can have a rewarding's hard work---and students can't always imagine towards what.....That comes later---when all is put together----and even then---the end product really depends on the efforts and skill of the class who have been working on it.  A conscientious class who has been steadfast and persevered through difficulties--that has used the weeks of practice to refine their talents and to strengthen their weaknesses----that has worked in good faith---even though they couldn't imagine the end product---if they work carefully on the building blocks---they can create something that is nothing short of magical.  And once they do---and if they feel that magic that happens----they are more likely to do more good work---to create more beautiful moments that we can enjoy together, as a class---in this brief little time we have with them in our little grey classroom that finds its colors in the music that fills it....  Of course, if there is a class who can't get past the idea of---this is all I see this week---so this is all there must be.  A rhythm or two performed in isolation from the entirety of the piece---is no magical thing.  And yet--they must be performed in isolation before they can be performed in the context of the entire piece if students are to have any hope of performing them accurately---in their most rewarding fashion.  And a class without faith that there is something beautiful to be made out of all of these rather insignificant looking building blocks strewn haphazardly about---a class like that can be difficult because their performance will not hold the same magic---and they will feel that their efforts (even if they were feeble efforts) were in vain.  And it will be more difficult to convince them to work harder the next time for something more substantial and meaningful.  Because until they step out on faith---that the music will be more than the sum of its parts----they won't be able to experience anything but the parts---they'll never be able to put them together and enjoy the true sum---the heart of the piece.  And that's my challenge---finding ways to build the encourage students to imagine what a song will feel like when all of its components weave in and out of each imagine the realize that the work is worth it...

As I'm reflecting on these things---it makes me hope that I can serve God as I'm teaching---even in a public school setting.  I hope that, through His grace, I can teach just a little about faith.  Because being a person who has faith----who can believe in something one can't understand right away----well that's something we all need.  To accept a Good God in a world of uncertainty, violence, and fear---we need faith.  To work hard quietly---when things aren't going well---and seem to have no hope of going well---to not throw one's hands up and say--Why bother??---we need faith.  To accomplish anything at all that lies outside the realm of the familiar and routine---we need faith.

Remember the man in the Bible who said:  "Lord I believe---but help my unbelief"  Sometimes I feel overly optimistic for hoping that I can "teach" faith---because on so many occasions in my own life---faith has been something given to me when I wasn't looking for it---even when I was foolish enough to be running away from it.  Faith itself---was not something I could manufacture for myself---God had to step in and "help my unbelief."  And surely if I cannot manufacture it for myself---I cannot manufacture it for anyone else.

Still---I like to think that faith itself---it's a part of the Real world----not the surface one that the darkness would like us to remain tangled in.  And though I can do nothing on my own---I am not on my own---and all I can hope is to somehow reflect back a tiny bit of the light that God has shown me---I know that's what God hopes for me anyways (perhaps he would prefer it not to be "tiny"--but the idea is the same) And so maybe He lovingly provides me an opportunity to do that---in a small way.  And just as I have to teach in a logical sequence from simple to complex---one piece at a time---then glue them deftly together----maybe faith can be taught-- or given if you prefer---in a similar fashion.  Maybe having the chance to teach students to be people who can believe in more than what they can see----maybe that plants the seed for them to be people who can accept a Good God who looks to redeem a world that is anything but Good.

Perhaps it's ridiculous to look for the lines God connects throughout our lives----I'm certain they are too numerous to count---too subtle to even see at times---and too beautiful to comprehend at this time.  Still---maybe that's part of growing the faith---thinking about ways that a Good God can work Good from me---even though at many times---I am anything but Good.  And the only good thing in me---is Him.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Argument for God: Why God is More than a Fairy Tale

I just saw this photo on my Facebook feed---the one that showed a billboard that compares Christianity to a fairy tale. And I'm certain that the Christian community will have plenty to say about this as well.  But---I hope that this billboard opens up a dialogue between Christians and non-Christians---I hope that this billboard presents believers with the opportunity to first of all--- behave lovingly towards people who believe differently than we do---and secondly---to respond with our own testimonies that witness to the fact that God is way more than a fairy tale.

God is more than a fairy tale....many of the arguments presented here are things that I read from CS Lewis (who was groomed to be a strong voice for atheism himself but after reading the Bible converted to Christianity) and Timothy Keller.  Before anyone completely shirks off Christianity as a fairy tale---I would really suggest they read the Bible ---"Mere Christianity" by CS Lewis---and also "Belief in God in the Age of Skepticism" by Timothy Keller.  Since the Christian community is made up of people---and because all people are messy----I am well aware that some people don't want anything to do with Christianity because they look at the actions of people who profess to be Christians---and they say:  "I don't want anything to do with the God of such a hateful person... " Understandable....many people have done horrible things in the name of God.  And all people behave in a hateful fashion at some time or other---or many times over----even when they truly do believe in God and are Christians.  Being a Christian doesn't mean that you ever stop struggling against sin and hateful behavior....being a Christian means that you keep struggling against this part of your nature because you know what Christ went through for you----that Christ took the consequences of my sin upon himself---suffered immeasurably for me---so that I could be what I was originally intended to be----a person who lives in the joy of glorifying the God who made me---who loves me....  Because I know what Christ did for me----I WANT to live for his glory----but every single second of every single day---I am sinful---and if I don't continually lean on God---depend on God for strength---I'm going to fail---I'm going to fall---over and over and over again.  But being a Christian means---God's there to catch me---God's there to love me unconditionally.  And this relationship---this unconditional love that God shows me----that is the reason I WANT to show this unconditional love to others.  But it will never be easy for me this side of heaven----and it will never be possible for me without dependence on God.

God is more than a fairly tale.  Most people can agree that there is right and there is wrong.  We might argue about what is an absolute right and an absolute wrong----but we all know there is a right and a wrong.  Anyone who says there is no right/wrong will quickly change their tune once they are wronged.  I might say to myself---there is no right and wrong in this world---but then if someone comes along and steals something of value from me-----it won't take me long to start complaining that I have been wronged.  So---there is a right and a wrong----and we expect other people to adhere to this standard of Right.

Some will say that wanting to behave a certain way is merely this objection----CS Lewis writes:  "Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger.  You will probably feel two desires---one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self preservation)  But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing that tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away.  Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them.  You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard.  The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play:  our instincts are merely the keys."  Our instincts are like our choices---I have a whole piano's worth of notes that I could play----but if I just muck around on the keyboard with no regard to rhythm or time--or tonal centers---it isn't going to sound good.  I need the sheet music---or at least a knowledge of rhythm/tonal centers--laws that govern music---for my performance to sound reasonably good.  The Moral Law is the thing inside us that tells us:  "This is the Right choice---the Good choice"  You could listen to your instinct for self-preservation all the time---you could listen to your instinct for physical gratification all the time---but if you do--if you only follow your instincts and not the Voice that directs them/organizes them/-prioritizes them----you're just mucking around--- and your life isn't going to be good..... we need the Moral Law----if we want our lives be Good.

If we can agree that there is a Moral Law---the next reasonable question is---"Who set it in place???" Did we make it up ourselves??  CS Lewis:  "Some people say that though decent conduct does not mean what pays each particular person at a particular moment, still, it means what pays the human race as a whole;  and that consequently there is no mystery about it.  Human beings, after all, have some sense;  they see that you cannot have any real safety or happiness except in a society where every one plays fair, and it is because they see this that they try to behave decently.  Now of course, it is perfectly true that safety and happiness can only come from individuals, classes, and nations being honest and fair and kind to each other.  It is one of the most important truths in the work.  But as an explanation of why we feel as we do about Right and Wrong it just misses the point.  If we ask:  "Why ought I to be unselfish?" and you reply "Because it is good for society," we may then ask, "Why should I care what's good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?" and then you will have to say, "Because you ought to be unselfish"---which simply brings us back to where we started."  I hear someone in trouble---I feel the instinct to help---I feel the instinct to save myself----I hear the Moral Law telling me:  "Listen to the instinct that tells you to help."  This is a law---a Voice---that is superior to me----that demands from me a standard of behavior that I did not set in place for myself (because I can't keep up with it)----it demands that I put aside my own need for my personal safety and look after another.  I didn't create this law---this Voice----and yet I cannot dismiss it as mere "fancy" either----it is always with me---always demanding that I be better than I am ever capable of being..........."Men ought to be unselfish, ought to be fair.  Not that men are unselfish, not that they like being unselfish, but that they ought to be."    We find that the Moral Law is a real thing---"which none of us has made---but which we find pressing on us."

There is a Standard of Right and Wrong---someone, not us, set it in what happens to us when we fail (and we will fail---over and over and over again) to live up to the Standard of Right.  What happens to us when we break the Law---or when we sin?  Most of us teach our children that there are consequences for our actions---it is easily observable to note that when we sin---when we screw up---there are repercussions---there is brokenness sown into our lives and into the lives of others.  If I engage in patterns of selfishness--and think continually only of myself--eventually I will find that there won't be anyone who can stand my company---and I will be alone, with only myself---as is fitting when one remembers that myself is all I have chosen to care about or invest in.  If I steal money or goods from a person--- perhaps I will be caught by the police and penalized in some form or fashion---perhaps not---perhaps the cost of my sin is paid only by the person I have stolen from---as they must live with an absence of funds or value  that I have left through my theft.  If I am unforgiving and vengeful---I sow into my own life hatefulness, stinginess, and an uncompromising ability to hold onto every bad thing that anyone has ever done to me---effectively paralyzing me in this hateful, vengeful place---where I am undoubtedly miserable and wretched.  Not to mention that my behavior under these parameters would make anyone around me miserable and wretched as well.  Sin has a cost---often a painful one.  The worst consequence of sin that I can imagine is separation from God.  If God is the only thing Good in this awful would it be to never know him.  To be left only with the evil in our own hearts.....A Holy Good God cannot abide sin---Goodness and Evil aren't playing some worldwide cosmic game of chess---where Good and Evil engage in easy banter as they move their pieces around the board with a sense of friendly competition emanating from their lighthearted interactions-- as is sometimes depicted in films that try to explain the relationship between Good and Evil.  Good and Evil----they're in battle---only God has really already called out "checkmate."  The game should be over----but this tension, this time between when He wins and the time when He collects---that is drawn out only for love of us....

In Christianity---we acknowledge that sin has a cost.  And it has to be paid.   Timothy Keller explains this better than anyone with his analogy of the gate.  He says---imagine that a car crashes into your gate and ruins it---leaves extensive damages---damages that will be expensive and costly to repair.  Several things could happen next.  In one scenario-- you as the owner of the property could demand that the driver give you the money to repair the gate---out of their own pocket---or through their trusted insurance company---whatever---you tell the driver that they are responsible for the damages---so they must pay up and fix what they have broken.  In another scenario---you as the owner of the property could forgive the debt.  You could choose not to demand payment---but rather pay for any damages yourself.  In either scenario---there is still damage---there is a cost to repair that damage---it's just in the first scenario the person who created that damage must pay the cost and in the second scenario the person who had that damage inflicted upon their property agrees to pay the cost.  Sin has a cost---our sin should separate us from the very Holy, Good God that we were created to glorify---to love --to fellowship with.  But Christ....Christ agreed to pay that cost.  The wages of sin is death.  Christ died in our stead.  Sin separates us from God.  Christ allowed Himself to be separated from the Father----so that we wouldn't have to be separated from Him.  Salvation isn't free----it cost a great deal---it's just that we aren't the ones being demanded to pay that price.  Christ agreed to pay it for us.  This is the gospel.  This is the Good News---that gets muddled when people try to use God for their own agendas, to perpetuate their own hatefulness and bigotries.  The Gospel Truth is that we have all sinned---we have all screwed up in more ways than we can count or even be aware of----but God still calls us Beloved---even though if God thought like man---God would have thrown up His hands and said--Fine---Live life the way you want to---You don't want to walk with me---Fine---walk it on your own---and Lemme know how that works out for you.   God doesn't do that---God sees that we break everything we touch---and so God comes down.  God becomes a baby---God lives a perfect life that we can't live---is tested in every way---measures up in all the ways that we could never measure up to----and He still stands Perfect.  He gets the "A"----but he agrees to take on the consequences of our "F"---He agrees to pay the cost of our sin---so that we can know what it feels like to be reunited with our God, our Father.  This is the Good News.  This is what we should want to shout from the mountains.  God loves us---He does not abandon us to ourselves---He comes after us---He pursues us--He pays our debts so that we can finally walk with Him.

It isn't a fairy tale.  God isn't Tinkerbell---waiting for people to clap their hands and say that "Yes, we do believe in fairies."  God is God---the Creator---the Judge---the Rescuer.....the Everything.  He is all these things and more whether we believe in Him or not.  He weaves in and out of our lives whether we invite Him to or not.  He draws us to Him in different ways--whether we ask for Him to or not.  Our God calls us Beloved---and He tries to gather us back to Him again---even though we may have already ruined everything He has already given us. Even though we might run from Him. He doesn't give up on us.  He has--as my daughter's Jesus Storybook Bible calls it:  A Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Always and Forever Love for us.  And I don't want anyone to discount this or see it for less than what it is---because what it is----is amazing.

I should call this part 1---because there's more to say here.  But I want to say to any non-believer reading this---don't dismiss God as a fairy tale---not until you really think things through.  Don't shirk the important questions---is there a right or wrong?  Who set a standard of right and wrong in place?  What happens to us when we can't measure up to that Voice that is telling us to always do better than what we are capable of?  Do I have sin?  Does it have consequences---does it have cost?  Is there someone who can/will pay that cost for me if it is too great for me to pay?  Follow the logic behind the questions---and don't dismiss God until you have studied Him and seeked after His ways.  But know that even if you do dismiss Him---He won't dismiss you.  He won't give up on you.  He will never stop loving you.