Deep Wells in Desert Places

Many fears and feelings swirl around us and our communities as COVID-19 reeks havoc on our lives and communities. We may wonder—where is God? Where is hope? Are we going to be okay?

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

John 4:13-14

A reflection for The third sunday in lent

Note: I wrote a version of this reflection last fall as a part of new student orientation at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. The lectionary text for this Third Sunday Lent is from John 4:5-42 and narrates the story of Jesus meeting a woman at Jacob’s well. I revised my reflection as I thought about this ancient encounter in light of the COVID-19 crisis that continues to unfold in our communities and across the globe.

Thirst. High noon. A well. And a water jar left behind. 

Jesus is on his way somewhere else. She is collecting water. As she does everyday. Alone. At noon. To survive. 

They meet. And when they meet? So do their personal stories. And the realities of their lives. A Jewish man. A Samaritan woman. And a long history of cultural, political and religious clashes between their peoples. A long history of too many assumptions. Too many prejudices. A long history of conversations never shared, of possibilities and mysteries never set free. 

They meet at Jacob’s well. A well that holds stories. Maybe even secrets.

They meet. And when they meet. Something happens. 

Don’t be fooled by the misogynist veneer too many sermons have put over this story. Sometimes we are too quick to think and act like we know the woman in this story—what she lacks and what she needs. And yet—we don’t even know her name. How can we know what she needs if we haven’t gotten close enough to her even to know her name? And Jesus? We think we know about Jesus too…and yet…

They meet. And when they meet? A conversation. 26 verses. The longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Gospel of John. Not one of those kinds where one person is a submissive listener while the other waxes eloquent with spit-shined but unsubstantiated advice. This is a real conversation. Not small talk. A lively dance of words between two thirsty people. Words that dip and weave around complex theological topics—living water, worship, spirit, truth, salvation, the identity of the Messiah. 

The woman? She is wise in her life-weariness, and she asks questions, insists on clarifications, offers her opinions. She is bold. Fearless, in a way, too. Because she chooses to have conversation with him. In spite of who she thinks he is and in the face of all that other people have assumed she is.

And Jesus? Even as he talks about living water he is bone tired, thirsty, vulnerable—dependent upon her hospitality because he has no bucket and she? She has the water jar she carries with her everyday, and she offers hospitality—the thirst-quenching water in her jar mingling with water offered by Rachel and Zipporah and countless other women right here at Jacob’s well…

They meet. And when they meet? Something happens. Jesus—talks about living water and invites her to look again at what she thinks she knows about water. About life. And Jesus—the thirsty one who has no bucket—could it be that as she offers him water, he sees her? And sees in her the spirit and truth she bears with courage to that well everyday? Does he see in her something he needs to know about himself?

She sees him. He sees her. Shared vulnerability. Mutual regard. No distancing stares or objectifying gazes. She sees him. He sees her. Both are changed. Redeemed somehow. Jesus claims his identity as Messiah—in her presence. She is the first person in the Gospel to whom Jesus makes a bold statement of self-revelation. She is a witness. And she goes on her way—to proclaim new truth.

Many fears and feelings swirl around us as COVID-19 reeks havoc on our lives and communities. We may wonder—where is God? Where is hope? Are we going to be okay?

Perhaps we can become witnesses to Gospel hope as we encounter our humanity in unexpected ways in these uncertain days. Indeed, perhaps Gospel hope for our communities—for our world—can be found in our capacity to recognize our shared vulnerabilities and then offer to each other thirst-quenching, healing, life-restoring hospitality and care.

Jesus and the woman at Jacob’s well shared the depths of their humanity with each other the day of their unanticipated encounter. The outcome? Because of what she and Jesus shared, the woman saw something in herself she had never seen before. A new strength. A story to tell. A word to proclaim—-

May we know God’s healing presence and peace in these days. And as we come seeking water in wilderness places, may we encounter in each other the mysteries and wonders of our own fragile and beloved humanity and share with each other God’s grace and love.

Pumpkin Season’s High Happy Day

How can we encounter eternity in daily human experiences?

Forever–is composed of Nows–

Emily Dickinson

The day is here. Halloween. The high happy day of Pumpkin Season!

I love Halloween in our neighborhood. My neighbors liven up their yards with orange and purple lights, pumpkins, and other fall decor. And when evening comes? Many people will be out and about, offering candy to trick-or-treaters and trick-or-treating with their children and grandchildren. In our neighborhood, Halloween has become a grand communal affair.

Today, if past experience is a predictor, just over 200 ghouls, ghosts, super heroes, and other characters will arrive in my neighborhood seeking Halloween treats. Many of the trick-or-treaters are children from nearby neighborhoods. Their parents seem to feel good about bringing their little ones to our community.

Sheila and I have fun sitting on our porch welcoming the treat seekers. The tiny goblins are adorable. We also look forward to seeing the imaginative costumes of the School of the Arts students who make their Halloween pilgrimages down our street.

More than meets the eye

But there is more to the high happy days of Pumpkin Season than meets the eye at sunset on October 31.

Halloween itself may be the most visible festival this time of the year, at least in my neighborhood. Perhaps less known is that Halloween is one of a trio of cultural and religious ritual observances that fall during the transitional days between October and November–All Hallow’s Even (or Evening), Hallowmas (All Saints Day), Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The histories, beliefs and practices connected to each of these days vary depending on cultural and geographical location.

All Hallow’s Even and Hallowmas

All Saints Day dates to the early 7th Century and is observed on November 1 in many Christian traditions. All Saints Day commemorates those saints, now departed, who have influenced Christian faith. Many observances of All Saints Day, especially in Protestant churches, celebrate all Christians, past and present, who have died in the last year.

Some churches commemorate local “saints” on All Souls’ Day, the day following All Saints’ Day.

The historical name for All Saints was Hallowmas–“hallow” meaning “saints,” and “mas” meaning “mass,” or Eucharistic feast. Those who observed Hallowmas held a Eucharistic feast in memory of saints of the faith. The day before Hallowmas was (and still is in some places) the Vigil of All Hallows, or what is now recognized in popular culture as Halloween.

Dia de los Muertos

In some countries, for example in Portugal, Mexico, and Spain, All Saints coincides with Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents), which is the first day of the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). On the Dia de los Inocentes, communities remember infants and children who have died.

The Dia de los Muertos is observed in varied ways in Spanish-speaking countries, and at the center of many celebrations is time set aside to visit, and in some places decorate, the gravesites of loved ones who have died. The Dia de los Muertos is a national holiday in Mexico.

Encountering eternity in daily experiences

Emily Dickinson’s famous poetic line, “Forever—is composed of Nows–,” comes to mind for me as we arrive at these October/November days of remembrance.

Time, in Christian tradition and theology, has been defined, discussed, and debated over many centuries. The history of sacred and secular calendars reflects this liveliness of human understandings of time.

What Dickinson expresses in her poem reflects one dimension of this season’s trio of ritualized remembrances. Scholars think that in the poem that contains this line Dickinson wanted to emphasize how we can encounter eternity in daily human experiences.

What does this have to do with All Hallows, All Saints, and Dia de los Muertos? Perhaps the poem and these remembrances suggest that the saints are, in a sense, with us today. And we who are alive to remember them are living eternity now.

So, on October 31–Halloween to some, All Hallow’s Eve to others–we enter into a time of remembrance. In my neighborhood, we take to the streets after sunset, laughing and talking as our flashlights dance at our feet. One of my neighbors builds a fire in a fire pit in her driveway, and people stop by to visit and warm their hands.

This year, I am imagining our neighborhood Halloween sharing as a small foretaste of God’s reign. For a few hours, we will be community together, and that “now” will become a part of an anticipated “forever” where all people are free to laugh and play together.

As I write this on Halloween Eve, I lift a prayer: Holy Spirit, dance in our midst in these autumn days and inspire us again toward creating and being your Beloved Community in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.

First Sermon

I have been preaching for half a century.

I have been preaching for 50 years. Half a century. At 57 years old, I am a virtual stranger to myself if I am not a preacher. A woman. A preaching woman.

The poem below recalls my early preaching years. I practiced as a child on a captive congregation of Barbies, G I Jerrys and other dolls. The poem was published in *82 Review several years ago. My calling came early, and I have been sustained over many years as a proclaimer by God’s love and grace.

I preached my initial sermon
to an ecumenical throng of listeners
gathered on my childhood bed
in that little yellow room
in the house at 243 Winston Lane.
I was six years old.

Mrs. Beasley, wire-rimmed glasses askance.
She never stopped smiling.
Barbie and Ken side by side.
(They arrived in their pink convertible, top down.)
G.I. Jerry (I named him after my dad) in full fatigues.
He came packing
but left his semi-automatic at the foot of the bed.
Brownie Scout doll, missing her beanie and one sock,
winked a single eye at Little Red Riding Hood.
“I know my way around the forest.”
Red said nothing,
stared straight ahead. Indomitable. Wooden.
Madame Alexander, her expression plastic,
kept her eyes fixed on the conventicle
of purple-and-yellow haired trolls.
Howdy Doody looked eager, but I was not fooled.
His commitment has never been more
than mere lip service.
A bride showed up,
costumed in wedding day white.
She was alone
and kept her story to herself.
The Liddle Kiddles created the biggest stir
spilling out of their house and onto the bed
in a disorderly pile of teeny tiny arms and legs
and teeny tiny accessories galore.
My congregation was gathered.
I preached.

Perhaps all were saved that day
or maybe none at all.
We all needed saving:
wars and rumors of wars
hunger
violence
brokenness of every kind imaginable. 
But then, as now when a word is proclaimed
to some assemblages, 
no sign of response could be seen or heard
until the preacher without intending it
pulled Mrs. Beasley’s string
and she said what was on her mind:
“Speak a little louder, dear, so Mrs. Beasley can hear you.”

Posthumous Functionality?

Many of us yearn for immortality or at least to know that some residual reminder or evidence of our existence will remain when all that is left of us is our remains.

What remains–

My mother died almost three years ago. We get mail addressed to her almost every week, even from businesses and vendors who have gotten a message from me about her death.

Today when the mail carrier came to our house, our friend John was visiting. John, Sheila, and I were standing on the sidewalk out front. The mail carrier handed Sheila our mail. She thumbed through it, handed me an envelope, and said, “Can’t you tell these people to stop sending mail to your mother!”

I said back to her, “I have already told them–twice. I don’t think we will ever stop getting mail for her.”

John offered sage wisdom in response: “I guess that is the real sign of our immortality.”

We all laughed.

And I began to think about immortality. What else is a theologian to do, after all?

In search of digital immortality?

John then shared a related story about his Facebook account. Not too long ago he received a communication from Facebook asking him who he wants to “leave” his Facebook account to when he dies.

“I guess that is another way to be immortal,” John said.

I Googled “Facebook immortality.” While “immortality” did not score many hits on the search, something else did–a 2015 news headline:

Facebook introduced a new legacy contact feature in the U.S. on Thursday–allowing users to choose who can manage their accounts once they’ve died–and it’s something we should all think about activating. . . Facebook follows Google in providing this type of posthumous functionality, and we expect other sites to follow suit.

Amy Mae Turner, February, 2015
Or posthumous functionality?

Posthumous functionality. Now, there’s a concept to puzzle, if not bemuse, a theologian.

The word “posthumous” is related to “humus,” or ground.

A biblical and liturgical insight comes to mind for me when I hear the word “humus”:

You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Genesis 3:19, NRSV

The biblical book of Genesis depicts God forming the first human out of the dust of the ground. Then God puts the human in the Garden of Eden “to till it and keep it.”

We are mortal. We are from the earth. Spirit-infused, scientifically and biologically astounding dust but still a configuration of dust. And many of us yearn for immortality, or at least to know that some residual reminder or evidence of our existence will remain when all that is left of us is our remains. Or we ache for our lives to have mattered. Or we hope that when our days come to an end we will have made some sort of difference in the world.

This is not the first time in recent weeks I have wondered about what might happen in the future to all of our digital artifacts. Will technology change so much that photos and other memorabilia stored in the cloud will one day just become incompatible and irretrievable?

But I digress.

For those of us who are dust and will return to the dust, what is our posthumous functionality?

Really?

Sustaining life
Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. Used by permission.

Classical theological discussions of immortality come to mind here. Immortality has to do with what happens after physical death, with eternal life in some traditions, with the afterlife as it is understood in diverse religious traditions. Immortality has something to do with what we believe about what happens when we die.

My thinking today about immortality took a different direction as John, Sheila, and I stood on the sidewalk at the end of a workday. As we talked about never-ending junk mail and everlasting Facebook accounts, another word came to mind for me–“sustainable.”

What if we yearned for sustainability–of the earth, of communal well-being, of relationships–rather than for immortality?

I am still reflecting on what this idea means for how I live day to day. I use my Facebook account quite a bit, and I have numerous photos and documents stored in the cloud. I am writing these ideas on my WordPress blog, and I have a YouTube channel. Where will all of that data be in a decade or two? Who knows. And who knows what the digital “me” will look or sound like when the dusty me has expired.

Called to till and tend

For today at least, I find myself hoping that I can do my part toward sustaining this humus, this speck of cosmic dust we call earth–tilling and tending it so that it is healthy and life-giving for future generations. And I believe that sustaining the earth and our human community requires that I do what I can to engender justice, compassion and reconciliation in the places where I live, work and play.

John didn’t say how he responded to Facebook’s “legacy” invitation. What I know about John’s legacy is this: he lives a life of kind generosity, and I consider him kindred.

And my mom? Well, she lives on in quite a few direct mail databases. But more than that, her life is sustained in and through mine, and for that I give thanks.

dust

I am dust; to dust I shall always return.
But don’t assume as you disturb my rest

with your omnipotent kitchen broom that
I am mere debris to be swept up and away.

Remember. We are interfused, you
and I, suspended in each other,

vestigial particles of endless galaxies,
diminishing and becoming, deposited

but for a moment amid yesterday’s dinner
crumbs and dog hair. Tomorrow?

I am cyclonic, whirling through dry valleys;
And I am the cadence of the soil, eternity

dug up in a spade and sown with ordinary
mystery. Still, don’t assume I am magic either,

or that you are, except when in a distant
sun-soaked garden we tango with the departing

light and time’s muted colors bend onto our
backs and we carry life across ancient seas

to fertilize the future. Remember. You are
dust; to dust you shall forever return.

When Wisdom Is Silent

It’s noisy out there. And in here (in my heart). So hard to know what is real. Authentic. True.

Listening for Liturgy’s Strange Voices in Speech-Saturated Public Spaces

Note: I am giving the Aidan Kavanagh Lecture at Yale’s Institute for Sacred Music next week. This is a draft of the introduction to my presentation. Or perhaps it is a draft of the preface to the introduction, the primary word here being draft :).

Is that true? Really? Come on, now. That’s a Babylon Bee article, isn’t it?

I can’t believe I just spent that much time reading that post. 

How many views did I get? Only half as many “likes”? Why didn’t those other people “heart” my photo? 

It’s noisy out there. And in here (in my head). So much static. Interference. Meme-omic chatter.

Permutations and op-ed combinations “to infinity and beyond” (or so it seems).

Anybody and everybody talking about anything and everything on any and every platform.

Traffic honking. Politicians fili-blustering. Information speeding down super-spyways.

News headlines blaring. Guns firing. Sirens wailing. And people too.

It’s noisy out there. And in here (in my heart). So hard to know what is real. Authentic. True.

I think part of the noisiness is because so many of us are searching, hoping, longing, yearning for, even scrambling for–something. Maybe we long for what my mama used to call the “gospel truth.” Of course, she didn’t realize that her use of the phrase harkened back to a time when to tell the “gospel truth” meant to speak a “truth” as undeniably believable as, well, you know–“the Gospel.”

Let’s Google that. Google what? The “Gospel truth.” What is the “Google truth” about “Gospel truth”?

Truth that is undeniably believable? Undeniably believable for whom? And which Gospel? Aren’t there four in the biblical canon? Four perspectives. Four voices. Four contexts. Four portraits.

Gospel truth. From the Old English, God (good) spel (news) truth? Good news truth. Good tidings truth, as some dictionaries suggest. I like that. But who talks about “tidings” these days except at Christmastime?

And where do we look–or listen–for good tidings truth in today’s speech-saturated public spaces?

Thus the title for my presentation–When Wisdom Is Silent: Listening for Liturgy’s Strange Voices in Speech-Saturated Public Spaces.

I am curious–ironic, isn’t it, that “curious” is from the Latin, curiosus, or “careful,” from cura, or “care”–I am curious whether and how worship practices can infuse speech-saturated spaces with good tidings that disrupt the clang and clamor of the truth and knowledge power-brokers-that be. How can our liturgies be places where estranged voices can be heard and respected as proclaimers of good tidings wisdom?

[An aside–a comment, if you will–curious is related to curate which is from the Latin, curatus, which means “to take care of” which also means “spiritual guide or priest.” I Googled that, btw. A curate is a priest? To curate the truth is to “priest” the truth? Is that true, really? How does liturgy curate truth?]

Over many years, I have pondered the relationship between Wisdom Woman and the Strange Woman in Proverbs. They both call out in public places. One is praised; the other is vilified. Is it possible that liberating and healing truth is both wise and strange? That God is both wise and strange? And how do we have ears to hear either through the cacophonous discord of our public speech-making?

Thus ends this prefatory draft. Stay tuned. I know I am. Indeed, I wait in hope for the next words and sentences to be revealed…

Somewhere between Weeping and Joy

Where do we find the energy and courage to keep fishing through the weariness?

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
Psalm 30:5


Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” John 21:4-13

Weeping may linger for the night, but…

I can almost see the ancient poet, putting pen to paper: “weeping may linger for the night.”

Then a pause.

A prayer exhaled.

A comma. To make room–for what?

Let’s pause here ourselves before we respond to that question. Let’s pause and consider an old fishing story. A 2000 year old fishing story from the Gospel of John.

They ended up on the lake that night. What else could they do? After all, since Jesus had died, nothing was going right. When Jesus was with them, everything seemed possible. They could feed 5000 people with just a few pieces of bread. Water could become wine.

Now? They were tired. Tired of being afraid. Tired of risking it all. Very, very tired.

So it was that this bunch of bone weary dreamers ended up on the lake that night, only to find out that the one thing they used to be good at? Now, they couldn’t even fish right.

Throwing the net out. Dragging it in—empty. Every time, empty.

Trying to get my life together. Trying to find new energy. But coming up empty.

Seeking justice for the marginalized. Trying to find some way to end oppression. Coming up empty.

The hours ticked by, each moment bringing another doubt, until during those murky hours between 3am and dawn?

The image lingers. A boat on a lake. Morning fog creeping in. No fish in the net. Aching arms. Heavy eyelids. Then–a voice:

“Throw your nets out on the other side of the boat.”

The beloved disciple squinted through the fog. Who spoke this advice? Not somebody who knows much about boats or lakes or fishing. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? After all, don’t the same fish swim under the boat on both sides?

Some fishing people I know share the secret wisdom about their beloved pastime. “Fishing is one part skill and three parts mystery.”

The mystery? The hope? The two together make some people who come up empty through the night—keep on fishing…

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. Used by permission.

The disciples gave it another try.

They threw the net out on the other side of the boat.

In this story? Just as the disciples were ready to give up–splashing, dancing up out of the watery depths, 153 fish. 153 new dreams. New chances. Too many for one disciple or one boat to haul to shore. Enough to call us to pull together as community.

And in the time it took for them to pull in the net, dawn bent its light toward the shore. The beloved disciple could now see who was standing there on the beach calling out to them.

He shouted out to the others: “It is the Lord!”

Photo by Jill Crainshaw
Weeping will linger no more–

You and I see it in nature every day, now as then. The sun fades in the western sky but then, every morning —there it is, peering up over the eastern horizon yet again. Sunrise. Every morning.

So, the psalmist, even in the midst of persistent injustices and uncertainties looked to the east and announced: “Weeping will linger no more.”

A weary-armed beloved disciple saw it too. From a fishing boat. At dawn. Jesus. On the shore. Standing there in the morning mist.

My Lord, what a morning.

But before the morning came for the disciples? Before sunrise touches our tear-reddened eyelids with the warmth of hope?

Weeping has lingered. Is lingering. For too long for too many people in too many places in our world.

Not even a whisper of sunlight on the horizon. Or so it seems in times of persistent injustices.

So this ancient poet’s talk of joy? What are we to make of it?

Psalm scholar J. Clinton McCann reflects on his encounters with Psalm 30:

While preparing to write this essay, I heard Psalm 30:5b quoted twice. First, on the morning after the 2016 Iowa Caucuses, one of the four or five self-declared “winners” commented on his “victory” by proclaiming, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Second, I heard a sermon preached on John 11:28-44 by a pastor, who was very active in the protests in Ferguson, MO following the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr., and who remains active in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Focusing particularly on John 11:35 (“Jesus wept.”), he suggested that a primary role of pastors nowadays is to weep with victims of injustice and violence in Ferguson and elsewhere. But, he added, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

J. Clinton McCann

The contrast in perspectives is striking. McCann’s observation causes me to stumble over this psalm and my own beliefs about hope and joy. The promise of joy in the morning has to be more than a fairytale told to lure listeners into a dream-empty sleep until they awaken dancing the next morning. Doesn’t it?

These verses are more than triumphalist religious platitudes, aren’t they?

I hear the psalm calling me–calling all of us–to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.

I hear the psalm calling us to live justice and embody fierce and radical kindness as we make our way through those wilderness places that are out there between the comma and the joy.

The psalm and that fishing story make me think of my dad.

Joy lived in my dad’s life but weeping lingered there too. Most people’s lives are like that, a mixture of weeping and joy. But you might say my dad’s faith leaned “winterward.” He just wasn’t one of those people to grab hold of sunny theological answers to deep weeping questions. He insisted on putting question marks on his life in place of exclamation points.

I think my dad longed for moments when he could be astonished by certainty: “It is the Lord!” But mostly he had to be content with small signs no more astonishing than, say, what an enormous size a zucchini can grow to overnight. (And that in itself is astonishing, don’t you think?)

Still, even when my dad was weary from leaning winterward, he remained faithful to what he believed–grace is God’s free gift to all of us. And grace persists even when weeping lingers. God’s grace…a gift in joy and in weeping and in all that lies between.

A whole lot of living out of the Gospel needs to happen

in that space between the comma and the “but” in the Psalmist’s song. And that is what we are called to do in the ambiguous and uncertain liminal spaces between weeping and joy.

So, we live—we live always somewhere on the shoreline between weeping and joy. Trying to find the energy and the courage to keep fishing through the weariness, the disappointment, the anger, and the pain.

Living between the verses—or living between the independent clauses of joy and weeping—takes a certain kind of trust. Trust in God. Trust in ourselves. Trust in each other. Enough trust not to give up. Enough trust to throw the nets out into the waters one more time. And we have work to do in our communities to build that kind of trust in the midst of oppression-birthed weeping.

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. Used by permission.

So, as you and I learn to live–and believe–somewhere between weeping and joy, we lean in yet again to that old Gospel fishing tale. And we hear the voice on that shoreline calling out to us through the misty darkness just when we think we can’t keep going another minute:

“Throw your nets out on the other side of the boat.”

Don’t stop trying. Don’t stop loving. Don’t stop believing. Bend your hearts—and your actions of justice-making—toward the dawning call of God’s grace.

Weeping shall linger for a night, but…

joy comes with the morning.

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

Leadership, Artistry, and a “Sense of Place”

Like pipe organs, we learn to breathe in and with our communities. . .

I saw my neighbor, Dreama, at the community cafe this morning. Dreama is an organist. She teaches organ and provides music for Sunday worship at a local church. Dreama is an artist who is passionate about her art. Something she said about being an organist intrigues me.

“We organists are a peculiar group. We love our instrument—the organ—but we can’t take our favorite organ with us when we go out to share our work. We have particular organs we love to play, but we can only play them in the place where they live. Organs are not really transportable.”

Thank you, Dreama, for inviting me to think about how important it is that people in all professions pay careful attention to the places where we do our work. Having a “sense of place” is vital to the effectiveness of our professional endeavors. It is also vital to the life and health of the communities where we hang out our shingles, if you will, as artists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, and others.

What is a “sense of place”? Some people say a locale’s “sense of place” is shaped by the characteristics that make it unique from other locales. People are drawn to these characteristics and are connected to places over a lifetime because of experiences they have in them, whether good or bad. Communities cultivate a healthy “sense of place” when they instill in their residents an authentic sense of belonging. And an authentic sense of belonging can heal broken hearts, foster peace and inspire hope, and lead to overall communal well-being.

Dreama, as an organist, has had to cultivate an awareness of place as vital to her artistry. She plays organs in diverse locales. Each organ in each locale is unique, designed by a particular builder and then constructed, in part on site, to fit the architecture and acoustics and sometimes oddities of the space.

Author Agnes Armstrong specializes in the history of 19th Century organists and organ music. She writes that

in medieval times, a builder would move his workers and often his entire family to the site of his next organ. They might even take up residence inside the cathedral being built around them, sometimes for a year or more. There they would be devotedly occupied with building the organ. . .

Agnes Armstrong

Organs, especially pipe organs, become a part of a place’s architecture.

Organs also hold stories:

“I will never forget how I felt when I heard those first organ notes as I came down the aisle on my wedding day.”

A woman in a nursing home remembering her wedding

“I remember hearing all of Mama’s favorite pieces played on that organ for the prelude at her funeral.”

A family member’s recollection of a funeral service

Good organists develop their musical skills and expertise over their lifetimes. Amazing organists also attend to each organ’s peculiarity and to the stories, memories, and connections that are present when they sit down to accompany a choir or perform a concert.

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter, 2014.

I am grateful for the conversation with Dreama. She is an amazing organist. Her wisdom about her art reminded me to lean in to the places where I go as teacher, poet, and preacher to listen for all of the voices and stories that make a place what it is. The health and well-being of leaders and the communities we serve depends on a rich meeting or intermingling of our story and skills with the particular and peculiar stories, gifts, and challenges of the places where we serve.

Agnes Armstrong writes that “pipes in a newly constructed organ must ‘settle in’ and ‘make their own community’” within the space where they reside. We all do that when we bring our artistic and professional endeavors to a new place. Like pipe organs, we learn to breathe in and with our new communities, and in partnership with them to make music that is unique to us and that has the potential to make a difference in our world.