Friday, June 20, 2014

the Lord's throne is in heaven: collaboration #11

sunday, june 15, 2014 - Salt Lake City temple

What is praise?
"Here, Mom.  Sit here.  I'm going to take your picture."  

I sit.  He takes.  I take pictures then of him.

"Can I have the camera again?  I want to take a picture of the angel."

We walk around the building, our eyes riding its granite walls up beyond the triple crenelations.  Up beyond the tip of the stylized peaks.  Up even beyond the mountain behind us, where this temple's granite was quarried.  Up into the obscuring blue that curtains the starlight and the stretch of space from our daytime eyes so far below, so near the pavement gazing up.

Mijo and I are being tourists today.  Just the two of us.   He wants to see Temple Square.  Has been wanting to.  And since, for the first time in months, there's no pressing item on the calendar, no dresses to make, no reception to arrange, we stop.

Is praise the time we take?

Mijo and I park across the street from the gardens of Temple Square, outside the Conference Center where twice a year the men and women who lead our church give addresses in a two-day broadcast.

Our family has made a holiday of this semi-annual broadcast -- watching on a television screen in our local church building, sitting in the women's room with the padded folding chairs, while miles away and yet right here in front of us, there are the leaders speaking and choir singing  Not planning to, we've made of this watching a holiday, stubbornly homely, inelegant and beloved -- listening together, taking notes of the ideas that most inspire or trouble or give us answer -- amidst blanket forts and chalkboard word games and the many-years-long crocheting of a red wool throw.  We watch others of our faith on the screen, filing into the Conference Center and we stand with them to sing, but between sessions we bounce into the church gym to play basketball. And during sessions nibble on conference cookies, fruit snacks, hummus, and baby carrots.  And we've done that every year, one weekend every six months, while our children have grown up around us.  So the Conference Center is familiar in the deep sense, though Mijo has never been inside and I have only been once or twice.

The Conference Center was built to replace the old Tabernacle that held the conferences of my childhood (and my grandparents' childhoods and their grandparents'), a lovely building which is still used for the-once-a-week broadcast of the famous choir and for musical performances throughout the year.  The Tabernacle was built back in pioneer days.

sunday, june 15, 2014 - Salt Lake Tabernacle
So for historical reasons, Mijo and I first wander inside the down-turned eggshell of the Tabernacle.  A young woman in a wheelchair greets us with a brilliant smile.  Mijo and I sit down on a polished pew.  Ahead of us, a group of Japanese visitors are being shown the historic organ by an animated young Japanese woman who is serving her mission here.  Behind us a group of smiling Middle Eastern young men are sitting quietly.

"I came here for Conference a couple of times 
when I was in college," I tell Mijo.  
"It was crowded.  They kept scooting us 
closer together to fit more people in.  
And when we were all in 
and began to sing together, 
it was amazing.  
The sound kind of wove around itself.  
Re-echoed."  

Mijo nods.

We're sitting behind a wooden pillar painted to look like marble.  "Pioneers made these," I tell him.  Later at the Visitor's Center, at the Building of exhibit, Mijo will linger, fascinated at all the work those early and largely impoverished settlers had done by hand.  He tells me, "I got a tiny little flavor of what that must have been like, because of all the paint I scraped off the deck to get things ready" for his sisters' weddings. 

The new Conference Center is much larger than the historic Tabernacle.  Wood-paneled foyers soar outside the vast red-velvet auditorium.  Mijo stands before the paintings of scripture stories in the gallery on the second floor, admires the waterfall splashing down outside one glassed cliffside of the building.  Outside, the roof of the Conference Center is a mountain landscape, the tops of the city's buildings beyond like neighboring peaks.  Our guide takes us out there to walk along the channeled water courses. Across the valley, beyond the salty lake, our eyes trace a blue bumpy border, while at our back the tallest peaks rear up, rocky and unchanged.

sunday, june 15, 2014 - meadow and woodland on roof of Conference Center

When I was a child I would have said the picture of heaven was the nearest mountain outside my back door.  I could have sung to you, "How firm a foundation" pointing at that sharp-edged peak, "is laid for your faith in His excellent word!" my voice piping up higher and higher.

Mountains gathered near around the place I lived then.

Their purple chevron the rim of a glowing down-turned bowl centered exactly over our lilac-flowered alfalfa field, a dome of bluest blue streaking red before sieving down starlight.

It was to the mountains that my family, and every other family that I knew back then, escaped on the hottest days with picnics, made pilgrimage on holidays with tents and fishing tackle, resorted to for Sunday drives, climbed into seeking this year's perfect Christmas tree.  A vast temple pillared with white aspen, carpets of wildflower, sparkling creeks of heaven-fallen snowmelt, choirs of autumn colors. All of that was up there always, even when I was far below. I could see the place that hid this place even as I trudged back and forth to school down in the smoky, dusty valley at its feet.

This is the reason I always drew that purple snow-crowned triangle in every picture I made of my family.  All of us standing below it, outside our shoebox house, holding hands, a curlicue of spicy smoke rising from our chimney (like praise?) and lollipop trees on either side.

Any place we small stick-figures could make down here: always, at best, a smaller, tamer copy of the mountain.  And the mountain themselves: only wild heaven's stillest echo.

But an echo still.


monday, june 23, 2014 - morning mountains I don't know the name of, Sevier Valley, Utah

Now I live  in a wider place where the mountains are further off,  each peak smaller and isolate, not the bulwarks I once took for granite.  The mountains I see now from my Oregon home are not the motherly eminences that gathered in a ring around my childhood, but volcanic cones that could still rain down fire and brimstone, as well as the floods of ash and mud that have made a moonscape of the nearby slopes of Mt. St. Helens.   Despite their wakefulness, there are days I have to remember those mountains are there at all, disappearing as they do so regularly behind rain and haze:
Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

              "Witness," by Denise Levertov

But even when I forget the mountains rising just across the river from my present home, the mountains of my childhood are in me deep.   Almost every morning and every evening I hum mostly unthinkingly through the song my great-great-great grandpa made about the gospel banner waving, "High on a mountaintop . . . ye nations now look up! . . .   on Zion's mount behold it stand!"  I hum it to time my handwashing; cleanliness some days my nearest approach to praise.

As a child I would have said the picture of praise was a bird flying straight up and singing loudly.  Up, I would have pointed, though I knew heaven was not in the sky.

But praise was like that.
Directed the best that we knew how.

This was the reason churches had steeples.  An empty shape we build on earth, a slim pointer, making its point by failing to frame an ever wider sky.

saturday, june 14, 2014 - building site on West Mountain
Later this week my mother and I will be sitting at her sunny kitchen table discussing worship.  My daughter and I will be kneeling in the dirt of her new garden discussing life.

I grew up in a house of faith that read one as the other. If Worship: Life.  Because of Life: Worship.

I've grown up believing Life = Praise, or should.  Weeding is a prayer.  Planting seeds a hymn of hope.  The kitchen table a place of sacrament.  Not instead of our prayers and hymns and sacraments on Sundays, but those Sunday observations were a preparation for the main event which we carried out throughout the week.

I grew up in a house that mistrusted fancy flights: trying too hard to look good an obvious marker for not really meaning it.

When I was still in knee-socks, I hugged myself with delight at the prayers and speeches of a certain skinny man in our congregation, because the words he used were so stirringly beautiful.  When I enthused to my mother how wonderful these words, she agreed.  Then as afterthought, "But sometimes I wonder am I hearing prayer, or Brother Beebe?"  She may have been right -- to this day I can't remember what he was praying for, but can see his quick elbows and shock of dark hair and the adam's apple wobbling in his throat.

I came to see the stripped-down bareness of our Sunday worship (choirs made up of whoever may be willing, organists who are still learning, artless sermons taught by a different neighbor every week, no stained glass, no banners, no pageantry) as a practice meant to keep misdirection at a minimum.  So many ways aesthetics or charisma might become an end in itself, so many ways our devotion could be sidetracked by performance.

Sincerity was unadorned and ragged at the edges.

thursday, june 19, 2014 - snail shells from my married daughter's garden, beneath Y Mountain

Of course raggedness can be assumed and plainness polished from long use, but at least, the leaders of our congregation change every five years or so, rotating back into the congregation, so that no one builds up a clique of personality.  Even in our twice-yearly conference, we listen to a  multiplicity of voices, voices from various former professions, accents from increasingly diverse countries.

Because no one earthly voice is ever enough alone to echo Heaven's.

And the small lives we live keep pulling us out of ourselves into communion with one another where an honest day's work can be the fulfillment of a vow, patience a daily sacrament, where we may bow our heads to hear the beat of the sad hearts we work beside, where we may make the rare harmony of holding our tongues in peace, or may find a way to disagree with love.

And even if loaves rising like prayer, pea-vines climbing with devotion, bottled peaches like a row of candles,  even the organ swell of our children's laughing will tend to curl in upon themselves -- good bread its own end, motherhood an idol that we worship blindly -- at least in themselves all these have the daily virtue of being long works and repetitively small and never really finished.  And thus perhaps our closest approach to eternity in this life.

And the reason, the household I grew up in taught me, why Jesus taught us to pray saying Abba.  Daddy.  Dear and familiar daily parent.

Emulation as the sincerest form of praise.

sunday, june 15, 2014 - at the foot of the Christus
A journalist once asked, 
 “If you do not use the cross, what is the symbol of your religion?”

[We] replied that the lives of our people must become the most meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship. 

For days now I've been fighting symbols, sitting down each morning here trying to understand worship, trying to say what is praise?

At first I misread the eleventh psalm as a lament - how hard and frightening it is for the soul to ascend to heaven's refuge ~
In the LORD put I my trust:
how say ye to my soul,
Flee as a bird to your mountain? 
How am I supposed to launch  my  soul into praise? I thought it was asking.

Is the soul a bird? Hopeful as.  (That thing with feathers.)  Joyous.  Rising lark.  Swooping swallow.  Or small and hungry.  Furious hummer.  Or larger, hungrier.  Soul as condor.  Bloody-headed vulture waiting, circling.  Baby bird all mouth and frantic panting squeak of hunger.  Flightless  ostrich, dipping head into the sand to tend her nest.  As fearfully misunderstood as. Lazy, lying cuckoo. Limping killdeer's protective gesture of deceit.  Daddy-daycare dapperness of penguins, eggs cradled on responsible yellow feet.  The beaky ballerina of the heron.  Seagull greed.  Skittish wren.  Conscientious early robin.  Scruffy jay. Raven's elastic goink.   Peacock flagrant and libidinous.  A quarrel of sparrows, a murder of crows.  Hissing vehement geese.

I have been, could be all of these.  But in which was I supposed to wing to heaven's high hill?  And once arrived, caw or warble or shriek my praise? 

Of course, I've already known that every reading is a misreading, every translation a mistranslation.

But seriously, I had been arguing with the psalm in the direction it already meant to go.  Instead of resisting the gorgeous upward flight of praise,  I find my soul was all along supposed to be standing stalwart and small against the daily dangers who keep urging she slip off to hide out in the hills:
In the Lord I have taken refuge.
How dare you say to me
"Flee to your mountain like a bird!" 
Though even misreadings can be instructive - the place that hides the place where the true place is. 

thursday, june 19, 2014 - my daughter's new garden at the foot of Y Mountain
In my married daughter's garden, while Mijo wrestled and played tag with the new husband, we two women transplanted tomatoes and zucchini, purple beans, cucumbers, rainbow chard and sunflowers.  Before the sun rose the next morning I had to go out and admire its potential.  The garden was shadow for more than an hour and then suddenly -- I had forgotten how suddenly the sun bounces up above the mountains here -- it was full day. 

I stood there as the sun rose, watching the sunlight, smelling the soil, touching the jagged paisleys of the leaves.  I knelt to see the prickles on the first commas of cucumber, the columbine's red spurs.  Reached up to touch the juniper berries' frosty blue bumpiness.  Stood at the back fence to smell grasses drying on the foothills just above.

All this was praise.

And from the university just down the hill the carillon began to play,  All is well!  All is well! 

thursday, june 19, 2014 - columbine growing at the foot of Y Mountain

When I knelt to weed around the iris (that rainbow messenger of Olympus, that striped ribbon of God's saving promise) I caught my breath at a snail, miraculous in the patterning of its shell,  the shimmering pale blue of its richly ruffled robe, its extrasensory crown reaching questingly.  O my soul!  here you are!  because the snail is my own private icon of the soul.   Not to mention how

The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearl'd;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven—

All's right with the world!
      Robert Louis Stevenson  
But then in the days that I've been writing this, my daughter calls to say the sunflowers have failed of their tall and golden worship, their smallest questing leaves emerging through the soil only to be mowed down mysteriously.

She thinks it was the ants.

I think it may have been the snail, steady slow unthinking angel of death.  Not a picture of any truth beyond its own self-referential hunger.  Or am I wrong?

Why not?
Is this consuming of God's good green earth a snail's praise?
Or is it not?

thursday, june 19, 2014 - blue snail beneath Y Mountain
All is not well.

And yet --

And though I live in hopes that someday it will be well, shall be well, all manner of thing be well --

And meanwhile I sit down again to this morning's hungry praise, my daily quarrel with the psalms and all the broken beautiful that lies beyond them --

And that sitting down again, in hunger and a confusion of wings -- this too is praise.



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