Storytelling at Assembly Mennonite Church, August 3, 2014
Now that I have it on paper in front of me, my temptation is to post this story on Facebook, and invite you all to just go read it there. Speaking in this space feels a lot more scary and I’d love to go hide behind one of my keyboards — piano or computer — right now. But, I am also grateful to be in front of you today with this story and a few thoughts for Assembly as we approach 40 years as a congregation.
Mothering God gave me birth and a childhood home among the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania. When I was in grade school my family moved to the home on Allentown Road that my paternal grandparents built and raised nine children in. My roots extend three hours further west to near Harrisburg where Phares and Emma Longenecker ran a farm and butcher shop with the help of their seven children, including my mother.
My childhood years, mostly spent in Lansdale, the final stop on the north regional rail line from Philadelphia, tell a story of being both blessed by many advantages and challenged to do better and be better. This story relates to my experiences among you at this 40-year old congregation, and to my hopes and dreams for our future.
When I was nine years old my family went to Jamaica for a term with Mennonite Central Committee. I was a below average elementary piano student up until this point, but in Kingston my parents found a teacher who demanded new levels of courage from me, from passing the two very large dogs on her front porch to grappling with the difficult pieces she assigned. In addition to spending many hours at the piano, my wide eyes took in both the rich culture and devastating poverty of the island. My values were greatly shaped by our Jamaican friends, as well as by the MCC and other relief and development workers we spent so much time with. I was nearly 12 when we came home, and by then my fingers could play pretty fast. Returning to wealthy, suburban Montgomery County was strange and full of culture shock. I felt really different from other adolescents in this context, a difference that felt like a great imperfection at the time.
We settled back in to my home church, Plains Mennonite in Hatfield, which will celebrate its 250 year anniversary next summer. It was at the Plains church and surrounding community that my musical abilities continued to be nurtured. I remember a particularly low point in early high school years, when it seemed clear to me that my academic and athletic gifts were not as stellar as those of so many exceptional high achievers all around me. Over time I would learn that the status of our abilities, perceived or real, in any one moment, should not define us. But at that moment, when I was wallowing in what seems now like adolescent self-pity, a desperate phone call came in at home. The accompanist had backed out of a community musical theater production. Rumor was that I could sight read music well; would I be willing to step in? That evening’s rehearsal was a busy, thrilling blur as my eyes and hands labored hard at the keyboard, but I could do it — I could play this music I had not even practiced, and I was being useful. During a rehearsal break the director came to the piano and gushed over my skills. I escaped to an empty Sunday School room and felt a strange, visceral need to say out loud between tears of relief and joy, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Like David in Psalm 138 I was so grateful. I had a gift. In the psalmist’s words, “The moment I called out, you stepped in; you made my life large with strength….finish what you have started in me, God.”
This was turning point on my journey as a musician and person of faith, though not a sharp turn. My musical work gradually took on more seriousness of purpose. In college and grad school I learned how to really practice, but my naive ability to perform with ease was threatened as I learned more and more what I didn’t know and how I did not measure up. I wanted more excellence and perfection from myself all the time, and yet it was increasingly difficult to achieve. Moments of failure were important and good, all the more so because I was given opportunity, time, and grace to improve.
A paradox emerges with maturity — some gifts fade, while others are strengthened. I’m learning, though I still need hard lessons now and then, that process matters more than perfection and relationships matter more than accomplishments. What a gift, that we are not finished individuals and that we can keep growing.
I Peter chapter one suggests a Christian journey that embraces effort and strives to something good, and that this results ultimately in love. The writer urges us to make every effort to add goodness to faith, knowledge to goodness, self-control to knowledge, and perseverance to self-control. Add godliness, and then mutual affection. And finally, add love. Love is the ultimate part of this long formula for faith. The first four attributes — goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance — seem certain to take us on a path that ends in some state of perfection or at least excellence. But instead, we are pulled back to God, to affection for each other, and ultimately, to Love. Faith, we are reminded, is not about perfection. It’s about Love.
As my formal piano studies came to a close and I realized just how many classical pianists there are in the world, and how many very good ones, a life of piano teaching began to seem like a respectable way to move forward. Moving to Chicago for my first teaching role, and to check out living close to this guy Dale I had met, brought me into some new and exciting company: a quirky group of friends connected to the Mennonite Volunteer Service Unit and Catholic Worker Movement, who worked in public health, social work, education, and community development. We worshipped in a house church, shared lots of meals, and played hours of ultimate frisbee in city parks. By the time the Chicago friends accomplished their goal of getting me to join them on a dumpster dive, I was learning that being different was ok. More than ok.
We moved to Goshen in 1995, at the beginning of Assembly’s third decade. Here I found people who were also a little bit different, a high achieving group that was ok with imperfection. Here we found a warm and welcoming community that thrilled us with strong singing and would not let us forget about the unjust ways of the world around us. It is here that I learn so much from all of you. Just as experiences and people in Lansdale, Kingston, Goshen, Princeton, and Chicago challenged me to do better and be better, so has this Assembly the past 20 years.
And yet, here I am, approaching the mid-40’s. Here we are, approaching 40 years as a congregation. I confess I don’t always know how to be better, just as we as Assembly seek each other’s vision and wisdom about who and how to be in the future. In a world full of so much hurt, what is the goodness we should be pursuing and creating, the kind of goodness that aims for Love as its ultimate message? My childhood experiences set me on an unexpected path to strengthen a craft that happens in a small, confined place. And while I’m blessed to have found a professional home at Goshen College that both includes and expands opportunities beyond this small space of the piano, I am, like Assembly, wondering how to use my gifts to more meaningfully serve my community here and the world beyond. God has not finished what was started in me. God has not finished what was started in us.
What synergy might we find between our individual moments of restlessness about how we are living out the gospel of love, and the collective wondering of this body of believers? We are, after all, ideally each other’s best resources for spiritual direction and inspiration. I offer three possible points of vision for us. These are interrelated commitments Assembly began 40 years ago, but God is not finished with us yet.
First, my hope is that Assembly always believes in the place of rejuvenation and beauty that church can be. Although church comes with much baggage for many of us, including me, we make a commitment of attendance and involvement because the moments of finding strength in worship and fellowship are so real. Flashes of imperfect beauty in music, words, visuals, preaching, sharing, and responding make me breathless every week. This precious space we have together will not become any less important as our confusing world careens towards more uncertain outcomes all the time. Let our worship and the teaching we offer and receive here always be a refuge that both heals and transforms.
Second, I hope we will continue to find new ways to extend the love we experience in this place of refuge beyond these walls. Assembly’s budget priorities are one critical way we extend love. But I know that I find it too easy sometimes to use my money and my politics as cover for not doing more with my time, which I guard too closely. With your help, I can do better. With each other’s help, perhaps our 40’s can be a time of greater personal connections with our local community. When I think of some of you, I know that in your teaching, your counseling, your medical practice, your community organizing, and in so many other ways, you are regularly moving in and among a hurting world. Others of us may easily become stuck in bubbles of academia or business or technology. As we approach our fifth decade, how can we challenge and encourage each other to be personally connected to those who are suffering in our communities, in our country, and in our world? What new project or initiative might have us relate to a school, prison, social service agency, or group of immigrants? How can our individual and collective gifts and passions be used to extend the strength of this faith community, and how might we be transformed in doing so?
Third, let’s not forget to pray. Here I speak with extra humility as I so poorly live out the spiritual discipline of prayer. But, I believe we pray in many different ways — in words, in song, in art, in craft, in nature, and in silence. We pray together and we pray alone. Indeed, when our good effort, our activism, politics, money, and relationships are not enough to transcend and transform the moaning of the earth, we must remember to call out, to ask God to step in.
At a recent Lapp family reunion, I came across a newspaper article about my grandfather John E. Lapp. The caption of a photo of Grandpa working at his desk, probably in the mid 70’s, reads, “After years of preaching peace and lobbying for conscientious objection to war, the Rev. John E. Lapp…can now devote time to studying and developing his skills at the Pennsylvania Dutch art of fraktur. The problems of war are worse than ever, he maintains, and it is the grace of God, rather than political systems, that will get the world through its civil disorders.” When I read this a few weeks ago, I wished I could argue with Grandpa — no, we can’t give up. We cannot give up fighting unjust political systems; we can’t only rely on faith! We can’t simply make art, after all, when the world is in such great need.
How often the arguments we have with others are really about ourselves. I don’t think Grandpa Lapp was actually giving up. Perhaps he was in a moment of not being able to comprehend how it all ends, just as we are in this moment now. How does this devastation in Gaza, Syria, Ukraine, Central America, West Africa, in our own communities, end?
Grandpa slowed down his political advocacy but turned to art, with words, as a form of prayer, summoning the grace of God. He made more than 500 frakturs in his retirement. The one for my high school graduation, #491, uses the words of Revelations 14:2: “And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps.” This affirmation from Bishop John E. Lapp, who for a time led Franconia Mennonite Conference in a landscape that was still not so sure about instrumental music, was a great gift to me.
Words and prayer, in and with art, help us stay rooted in faith and grace, without which seeking justice can be a lonely effort.
May our worship, our extension of love in relationships with a hurting world, and our many ways of praying, help God finish what has been started in us.
I seal this time with cloth of the colors of the Jamaican flag, a place that gave me the gift of music, a place that introduced me to a hurting but beautiful world, and a place that so powerfully connected me to people seeking justice.
And I also seal this time with a song written in 1966, by Sister Miriam Therese Winter, who I understand visited Assembly in the early 1990’s. Last weekend the Chicago friends gathered for a reunion at Camp Friedenswald, and as we sang from the Rise Up Singing songbook together, I came across this song. It became the soundtrack of my week preceding this sharing. My family may be a little tired of it.
May these words, with one verse re-written, be our collective prayer. As events in our world remain incomprehensible, may God’s Spirit blow in us, may God use our gifts and our efforts to fill the earth and bring it to birth.
Please join me on the refrain.
Spirit of God in the clear running water
Blowing to greatness the trees on the hill
Spirit of God in the finger of morning
Fill the earth, bring it to birth
And blow where you will
Blow, blow, blow ‘till I be
But breathe of the spirit blowing in me
I saw the scar of a year that lay dying
Heard the lament of a lone whippoorwill
Spirit of God, see that cloud crying (Refrain)
Over in Gaza the people are moaning
Rebels in Ukraine, they cannot lie still
Coming from south, the children are groaning (Refrain)
Spirit of God, everyone’s heart is lonely
Watching and waiting and hungry until
Spirit of God, we long that you only (Refrain)