Orwell on the Weather

Reading the Sioux City Journal online has become annoying of late. The home page has been transformed into a flood/weather update page. But the release from the dam went up to maximum output a week ago, so flood headlines have become about as compelling as yesterday’s weather. (Today’s breaking news: Acts of Kindness!!!!!!!)

I therefore had to laugh when I read today’s entry from George Orwell’s journal (posted 70 years later to the day on this blog).

We have all been in a semi-melting condition for some days past. It struck me that one minor benefit of this war is that it has broken the newspapers of their idiotic habit of making headline news out of yesterday’s weather.

Unfortunately (and I can’t believe I’m saying this!), the latest development in Afghanistan or even Greece can’t seem to lift our local newspaper above the stupor of the everyday sameness of the Great Flood of 2011.


About That Deer I Shot …

In writing a previous essay about flooding on the Musselshell River, I said that I shot my first deer on the Musselshell. Since the essay was about the flooding and not about hunting deer, I didn’t check that sentence for historical accuracy. But after I thought about it I realized that my first deer had to be harvested in Philips County, not Rosebud or Musselshell Counties. I didn’t turn 12 until after we moved to Malta, and once in Malta, we never travelled that far south to hunt.

And this brings up the subject of memory and how it works. Based on other memory debacles (for instance, here and corrected here) I’ve thought about this quite a bit and have developed some theories. Certain memories are particularly vivid while others tend to fade into the scenery of one’s life. When something triggers a recollection of an event, that recollection naturally gets drawn to one of the vivid memories even if it properly belongs to some other context or time frame.

I have very few memories of Sheridan, Wyoming where I learned to toddle, to balance on porch railings, to tumble off porch railings, and even break my arm. (Yep, I remember that itchy cast.) I also remember the sledding hill (which I was not allowed to sled down, at least from the top). But my most vibrant memories of Sheridan were trips to Ranchester and Decker, two towns where my dad preached regularly. Ranchester, in my memory was a Norman Rockwell sort of place and Decker, with all that red dust on the roads, rattlesnakes hiding under rocks, and endless miles of open range to explore with the older boys, was a young adventurer’s paradise …

… Well, at least I think that’s the case. What I remember specifically was the gigantic slide at Ranchester burning my bottom on particularly hot days, burning grasshoppers in the hot sun with a magnifying glass (that was not my fault, by the way!! My brother, who was six years older, along with his ruffian friends instigated the whole thing – I was still swaddled in innocence, not having even started kindergarten yet), clearing the school house of rattlesnakes before we could go in and have church, and the man who ran the chainsaw store in Decker, who lived in the basement of an unfinished house, and had a Ford Bronco (or some such 4WD) with a removable fiberglass top.

Then we moved to Laurel where dad was a pastor and later an instructor and administrator at Montana Institute of the Bible. I started school in Laurel and moved to Malta halfway through my fourth grade year. Being so young, I don’t remember a lot about Laurel either. But some of the most vivid Laurel memories are associated with dad preaching in Musselshell and Melstone. Dad and my brother would take the rifles along during hunting season.

The most remarkable memory (in my mind), which is possibly my earliest clear memory, began with a false assumption. We used to go camping in the Big Horn Mountains when I was but a wee lad. I had always assumed that those trips were to the Shell Canyon on the windward side of the mountains above Sheridan. Several years ago, on a trip west Brenda and I took US 16 over the Big Horns to Worland and then to points south. It was a perfect day and we pulled into a National Forest campground (Meadowlark Lake Campground, for any nosy relatives who might want to correct this particular memory) to smell the pine-scented mountain breeze and stretch our legs. As we pulled into the parking lot I knew I had been here before. I knew which trail led to the lake and which one went to the biffies. I sat on a log fence, having a distinct impression that I had climbed up this fence and sat precariously on this log a long time ago. I went to a particular campsite and sat down at the picnic table, having a very strong sense that I had eaten breakfast at this very picnic table years before.

This experience discombobled my memory matrix, so when we got back home I asked dad where we used to take the camper when we camped in the summer. He told me we usually went to a campground on a lake to the west of Buffalo on the western slope of the mountains. That would have to be Meadowlark Lake campground. Surprisingly, I have a remarkably clear memory of that place which I thought was somewhere else.

In review, there are a couple of things worth noting. Other than the tragic grasshopper incident (which obviously wasn’t my fault!) my most vivid memories have to do with road trips. For whatever hidden psychological reason (with which a psychiatrist would no doubt have field day) my most vivid childhood memories are attached, not to where I lived, but to other places that I went. I therefore find it interesting that to this day I am not a home body. I love to travel, and if I can justify the time, I will always travel by car rather than air. I love airplanes, but I love driving far more.

And the second thing, to which I have already alluded, is that I have a handful of vivid memories from throughout my life. Those vivid memories act like magnets, and when I reminisce, I almost always attach a newly remembered event to one of those vivid memories. After that initial moment I can often redact the new memory in order to properly place it in the past, typically by a process of elimination.

I do remember several hunting expeditions, but I am quite hazy about which ones I participated in and which ones I only observed because I was too young. I’ve also heard stories around the table (such as my oldest brother’s killing two deer with one shot) and it’s easy to incorporate family stories into my own personal history. The circumstances of my first deer remain hazy enough, that I will probably never remember the details.

So in the end I appeal to the preface of a memoir written by Phil Long. His life story, as related in the memoir was truly memorable and remarkable, but he began with the following caveat that I should probably attach to this web site: Not all the stories in this book are necessarily true, although they should be.

I’m Not Buying It!

My sister sent me a link for a study done by Mercatus Center of George Mason University entitled Freedom in the 50 States. (I found the site hard to navigate. Here’s a hint: Click on the state you’re interested in and the explanation appears below the map.) I was initially flabbergasted at the results. The Socialist Republic of Iowa – a rather oppressive state in every area from child welfare laws, to highway laws, to firecracker laws, etc., etc. – gets a ranking of 13 while Nebraska, which is not weighed down with the burden of everyday legal and judicial silliness that one finds in Iowa, is ranked 23 on the Mercatus list. As a result (of the political reality, not the list) the Libertarian Party has never been able to get a foothold in the state of Nebraska. It’s not a certified political party in Nebreska, precisely because Nebraska life is already sufficiently libertarian in outlook that too few people see the point.

So why does the Mercatus Center love the Socialist Republic of Iowa and hate Nebraska? Three things jump out. First, the study is weighted very heavily toward economic issues. Nebraska has a fairly high tax rate. Mercatus seems to equate taxes with oppression. Yeah, whatever. Taxes can be used as tools of oppression, but they are also tools of services or shared responsibilities. While taxes can be abused, I refuse to be as simplistic as this study appears to be.

Second, the study complains about Nebraska’s lack of educational freedom. On this point I agree. But I would point out that government education has a long history actually rooted in the longing for freedom. An educated electorate leads to a free society. I agree that this principle has gone off the rails, but by the same token, the history (and thus the solution) is far from simple.

But the third item – and the one the study complains about the most – is simply bizarre. This study argues that Nebraskans need to give up their fundamental freedom of local legislation appropriate to the community in favor of a state bureaucracy which can undermine local freedoms for the sake of some political ideal formulated in the rarified air of the Unicameral down in Lincoln. True freedom, according to the Mercatus Institute, can only come to Nebraska when the State wrests power away from communities and passes laws (gun laws specifically) which meet some sort of standard that pleases the people doing the study.

Granted, I may not like Omaha’s restrictive gun legislation, but authentic societal freedom cannot be established when a higher government authority (in this case, the Unicameral) forces a local government to countermand the will of the local citizens in order to please people who live 400 miles away in the sand swept emptiness of western Nebraska. The genius of local government control is that if I don’t like Omaha’s highly restrictive gun laws, I can move somewhere else … South Sioux City, or Hastings, etc.

In a word, any solution (by a think tank that supposedly espouses liberty!) that involves the imposition of the larger government against the express will of the municipality has to be considered highly suspect. There is a reason that citizens of the Socialist Republic of Iowa flock across Missouri River to Nebraska to shoot off their Independence Day fireworks. Iowa citizens have lost their independence due to coercive government regulations, so they either illegally shoot off their fireworks or flee the state to celebrate legally in a place where such a celebration of liberty is still celebrated.

As Miss Liberty says: Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to escape traffic cameras and ridiculously low speed limits, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore …

Oh, on second thought, why don’t you send your “wretched refuse” up to South Dakota … they’re even more free than Nebraska.

Flooding on the Musselshell

I decided to take the scenic route home from Bozeman and went north to US Hwy 12, which follows the Musselshell River. I drove through the towns of Harlowton, Ryegate, Roundup, and Musselshell, all of which have suffered rather severe flooding this spring.

This pasture (the left side of the picture) behind the broken levee along the bank of the Musselshell River (the right side of the picture) caught my attention because of the “No Hunting” sign of the power pole. “No Fishing” may be more to the point this summer. Just to the right of the frame the cattle guard that used to sit at the road entrance has obviously been dragged up the hill, so that it didn’t wash away along with the road and fence line it was a part of.

While the actual flooding is not as dramatic as what we have seen on the Mississippi in early spring and the Missouri right now, it is far more dramatic for anyone who has grown up around the Musselshell — a gravelly, trickle of a stream which is normally deep enough to hold fish, but shallow enough to walk across.

Just to the west of Roundup highway crews were directing traffic through a spot where water was still flowing over US 12. There were several spots where the road base was obviously saturated and the road surface was beginning to buckle.

But the most poignant scene I saw all morning was this hay pasture (the front of the photo) with the normal bed of the Musselshell River in the back, hugging the distant hill. The raging waters have tossed the irrigation equipment all akimbo and, until the river subsides significantly, still has the pipe and wheels in its watery clutches. Although outside the frame of the picture, farther up the hay field the remainder of the perfectly aligned pipe and wheels still sits at the edge of the hayfield, waiting to do its work.

And, as my brother pointed out, except for a couple of warm days, this has still been a cool spring. If we get a sudden hot spell, this scene could be multiplied up and down the western states.

Of course, as a wag from a previous generation pointed out, all news is local. Driving along the banks of the Musselshell is not only an exercise in remembering my childhood. (My very first deer was shot within sight of the Musselshell River!, but I digress.) I was also thinking about the fact that all this water is going to flow through Siouxland later this summer.

Oh joy.

Two Quotes on Repentance and Dwelling in Christ

Two great quotes that come via Wilbur Ellsworth (an Orthodox presbyter from the Chicago area) and his podcast called, “Let My Prayer Arise”:

The first comes from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Psalm 51:10 (“Create in me a clean heart …”):

O God, make a fresh start in me. Shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.

The second comes from Ireneaus of Lyon (one of the Western Church Fathers who is very highly regarded by the Orthodox Church). It is an excerpt of a prayer to Jesus Christ:

For to not to be in you is not to be at all.

The Mint Bar

Years ago, sitting at Behrs’ truck stop in Belgrade, my brother-in-law told me that the best steak in the Gallatin Valley was at the Mint Bar in Belgrade. I asked him why we were eating at Behrs’ instead of the Mint Bar if the steaks were so much better. He pointed his thumb at his wife and said, “I don’t think she’d put up with it.”

I am currently in Bozeman on business and since neither my brother-in-law’s wife (who would be my sister-in-law) nor her sister (who would be my wife) were here, I decided to slum it tonight and try a steak at the Mint Bar, per the recommendation.

Actually, that’s not quite the whole story. The motel I’m staying at includes the Mint Bar and Café as one of the possible local dining options. It noted that Sunset Magazine said they had one of the best steaks in the western United States. It was the advert in the motel’s information directory that reminded me of my brother-in-law’s recommendation a couple of decades ago.

When I walked into the Mint it seemed a bit upscale for my brother-in-law, and I wondered if I might be in the wrong place. I sat down anyway and while I was waiting to place my order, I read the history of the Mint Bar. According to the back of the menu, the Mint has been in continuous business, and a local institution since 1904. During that long and storied history it was a road house, a bar, a bowling alley (the bowling alley portion having burned down). In another iteration, the vacant lot where the bowling alley used to be was used as a volley ball court. And then in 1995 (my brother-in-law, recommended this place in the very early 90s by the way) new owners bought the place, built a dining room on the vacant lot, and voila, we have the Mint Bar and Café as it exists today.

This was trouble. Far from being the sort of place my brother-in-law would frequent, it had been transformed into the sort of place my sister-in-law (the other sister-in-law, who plays in the symphony, has friends who drive Volvos, and drinks latte’s) would like. Intrepid food explorer that I am, I chose to take one for the team and try the steaks anyway. How bad can a yuppie steak be, after all?

The first thing that caught my attention was the rib eye steak. There was only one size option available, called the “Monster Rib Eye,” it weighed in at 32 oz. and cost $35. They did have a two person option, where you get the same steak, but with two baked potatoes and two salads for $52, but the rib eye itself was still the 32 oz. monster. (One measly baked potato: $8.50. One iceberg lettuce salad with radish slices, carrot slivers, and croutons as hard and old as a rock: $8.50. The opportunity to share an obscenely large steak with your significant other? Priceless!)

The strip steak (my preferred cut) weighed in at 20 oz. I forget what the Porterhouse weighed, but it was even more obscene than the rib eye. I decided to opt for the 10 oz. flank steak.

This was a risk. Flank (in spite of the name) should never be cooked as a steak. It’s the sort of cut that should be seared, then cooked in the oven all afternoon at very low heat, or better yet, barbecued, at a smoky 200 degrees all day. Flank is full of gristle and tendons and requires low heat to soften up the connective tissue. Flank steak cooked as a steak? This would be the ultimate test of just how good this steak joint really was.

Turns out it was fabulous. I’m sure I’ve had steaks as good as that one, but I don’t remember them at the moment. It was a truly fabulous meal. The meat was melt-in-your mouth tender, which was a good thing, because the meat tended to melt off from around the connective tissue, which was a gristly as ever, but easy to swallow because the meat had melted off from around it, making the connective tissue manageable. And, of course, flank is one of the most flavorful cuts of beef there is, and this was hormone free, Angus beef, which took it up yet another notch.

Along with the food they had fabulous portraits of ranchers (and prize winning bulls) lining the walls of the dining room. While I was waiting for my bill (which came with a mint – Mint Bar / mint on the bill, how utterly clever these new owners are!), I walked over to examine the portraits a bit more closely. All of them had the names of the ranchers and the name of the photographer. When I examined the fourth one I got quite a start. I could have sworn that the couple in the portrait was sitting two tables down from me. I examined the portrait, and then unobtrusively as possible, examined the couple sitting a few yards away. The portrait had been taken several years earlier, but I was still convinced the couple was in the same room.

When the waitress picked up my bill I asked her if the photos were of local ranchers. She said, “Yep. Some of them are kind of shy about it when they come into the restaurant, but others point at their picture and tell everyone, ‘That’s me over there.'”

The subjects of the portraits right here at the table in the dining room …

… Come to think of it, that flank looked awfully familiar too. It made me wonder if I was maybe eating one of the bulls hanging up on the wall.

Iconoclastic Language

Rudeness and disrespect are forms of iconoclasm, an assault upon God’s image in our fellow human beings.

The flip side of this is:

Language is the life of the human soul, projected into the world of sound; it exhibits in all their strength and delicacy the processes by which the soul takes account of what passes without and within itself.

[From Dale Nelson, “The St. Anne’s Household in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength” (Anamnesis Journal). In the first quote he’s quoting “Christian Courtesy: Grace-Filled Manners,” in Doxa: A Quarterly Review Serving the Orthodox Church Summer 2003. In the second he’s quoting H.P. Liddon in an 1884 essay on Oxford University Hebrew Professor, Edward Bouverie Pusey.]

Brueggemann on the Psalms of Lament

In Chap. 3 of The Message of the Psalms, Prof. Brueggemann moves from “Psalms of Orientation” to “Psalms of Disorientation.” (The former celebrate God for the order of creation and God’s control of creation. The latter are the laments: psalms that complain to God about how things have gone wrong.) He observes that the Protestant Church in its worship and Christians in general no longer make much use of the Psalms of Disorientation, even though our world is increasingly askew and disoriented away from its divine marker. Why?

I think that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgement of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s “loss of control.”

The point to be urged here is this: The use of these “psalms of darkness” may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life. (p. 52. Italics in original.)

A Clarification on the Use of Instruments in Church

I had a conversation related to the previous post entitled, The Instruments of Prayer, and a completely different facet of the question of using instruments in worship was raised. The previous essay dealt with the theological/liturgical question of instruments. In contrast to the rather gentle world of liturgics, music “discussions” are often played out in the sociological context of power plays.

When I wrote the essay I was not thinking about the politics of instruments, probably because I’m no longer clergy, so I don’t have to worry about those games. As a pew sitter I can content myself with disembodied theological questions that have little connection to whether the congregation is going to spring for a real pipe organ, which will take two or three years to build and thousands of dollars annually to maintain, or an Allen digital organ which is half the price (or less) of the real pipe organ and for 95% of the congregation, sounds identical to the authentic instrument.

Neither do I have to worry any longer (for a couple of different reasons) about the politics of special music. First, since I’m no longer worship leader, such things are outside my authority. Second, the Orthodox don’t have special music in worship; it’s a Protestant thing.

The Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese does have its own brand of music politics, though. Several Antiochian churches I’ve attended across the country still use music developed fifty years or so ago which is largely in the Russian tradition. Back then, due to the lack of presbyters and the widely dispersed parishes across this vast land, parishes were often left to their own devices for carrying out ministry. The closest model they had was often the Roman Catholic or Episcopal church down the road. The then Metropolitan developed a body of liturgical music in the Russian tradition which was far more western (and therefore more accessible to parishes without regular liturgical training) than the traditional Byzantine music. As a result a significant number of parishes sang this Russian style choral music with organ accompaniment (just like the Episcopalians). And, based on my very limited travels around the country, a large percentage of these parishes still do.

… which leads to a battle of competing bishops with competing liturgical sensibilities. Is the parish going to follow Metropolitan Antony (Bashir), the bishop (along with Metropolitan Samuel David) who got the Antiochian Archdiocese through the nearly disastrous days of administrative chaos resulting from the Russian Revolution, or Metropolitan Philip, who united the shattered Antiochian jurisdictions into the contemporary Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.

Many old timers hold Metropolitan Antony (with his Russian liturgical renewal) in great reverence while many not-quite-so-old timers hold Metropolitan Philip (with his own Byzantine liturgical renewal) in great reverence. How does this get resolved in a parish? Well, it typically comes down to a negotiation between “power” and “authority.”

When it comes to leadership, Presbyters (with the backing of their bishops) and pastors (with the backing of their Presbyteries) hold most of the authority in a parish. But the real power often resides elsewhere – in the choir, with the council, or at the Ladies’ Auxiliary meeting where pronouncements can be every bit as significant as a bishop’s encyclical.

If there’s no amicable agreement between those in authority and those with power, the battles of real power vs. real authority can easily get played out in the choir, especially when you’ve got two different sets of liturgical music collated by two different generations of bishops (but being bishops, both being authoritative in their own way). I have no taste for these battles between power and authority. The battles are rarely very holy (although God uses such unholy skirmishes between sinful people to accomplish his holy purposes – the Second Ecumenical Council, one of the more unholy political events in history, comes immediately to mind – I’m not opposed to politics, I just have little taste for it). And ultimately, these parish battles are pretty meaningless. When compared to the content of the Divine Liturgy, the efficacy of the Gospel, and the transformation of the people of God, music wars are pretty inconsequential.

So, what should the Antiochian Archdiocese do? Should the bishops get militant with the recalcitrant parishes and become organo-clastic? (Okay, I invented that word. Hint: iconoclastic means “breaking of the icons. I have this image of Bishop Basil, doing his best impersonation of St. Nicholas of Myra, lifting a church organ above his head with super-human strength, and throwing it over the balcony, where it shatters both the organ and the pews below … killing two birds with one stone. No longer would the poor parish have an organ, neither would they have pews, due to the crushing destruction of the organ plummeting from above. Not only would the choir (and theoretically, the congregation, but see the caveat on this point in the previous essay) have to sing the liturgy a cappella, the congregation would have to stand through the whole liturgy, just like they used to do it in Byzantium, yada, yada, yada.

Or, should the Bishops and their servants the Presbyters simply ignore the problem for pastoral reasons (no reason to cause a war over something not central to the Gospel, after all) until the old-timers die off and the not-quite-so-old-timers take over the reigns of power?

Not only do I not know the answer to that question, I don’t care! (As I said, I don’t particularly enjoy church politics.) And given the gigantic problems in my former denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (I’ll let you search the internet on your own for all the salacious and destructive details happening there), the politics of liturgical music seems like pretty small pirogues (or pretty small kibbeh, choose your turn of phrase whether you’re an old-timer in support of the Russian-esque Metropolitan Antony or a not-quite-so-old timer in support of the Syrian-esque Metropolitan Philip) and not worth losing sleep over.

Given the fact that I am now Orthodox and worship in an Antiochian parish, it makes sense that some people assumed I was talking about Antiochian church organs playing Bortniansky communion hymns in the previous essay. But that assumption would be mistaken – as I said, I care little about that. It was rather about the larger question of Bach and Pachelbel with their organs and string quartets in the chancel. Are instruments transformative of or detrimental to prayer in worship? That’s a far more interesting question than whether the Bishop should heave the organ over the balcony rail (albeit, the latter creates a far more dramatic mental picture). I’ll continue to speculate about the former and allow both the powerful and authoritative people battle over the latter.

The Instruments of Prayer

Various groups of Christians claim that instruments are not appropriate in worship, that the human voice alone and unaccompanied is the proper instrument of prayer. I first ran into this when worshipping with the Reformed Presbyterians, who base this belief on the twofold argument involving the Regulative Principle (only that which is “instituted” or “appointed” by scripture is allowed in worship) and a radical disjunction of the testaments (musical instruments are not mentioned in the New Testament and therefore are not allowed in Christian worship).

The Church of Christ also has similar strictures but I’m not privy to their theological ruminations. I suspect it’s similar to the RPCNA, but that’s just a hunch. The Orthodox Church also leans strongly in the direction of no musical instruments, although it’s not an absolute rule as it is among the Protestant groups. The Orthodox don’t approach it from the standpoint of a law or rule (like the Regulative Principle) but rather from a very practical and everyday bit of logic: The human voice is sufficient to pray (and music in worship is a form of prayer), while on the other hand, musical instruments do nothing to enhance prayer as prayer, and may even distract from it. (Remember, that music in worship should not be performance, but always prayer. But, let’s face it, whether it’s a Greek chanter, a first rate Russian men’s chorus, or a paid motet choir at the Tall Steeple Church downtown, church music always has an aspect of performance – we’re sinful, prideful humans after all.)

So even though the tradition of the Orthodox Church is no musical instruments, I’m skeptical of the proscription. Having been a pastor for over two decades I can tell you some dandy organist stories. (What’s the difference between a terrorist and an organist? You can negotiate with a terrorist. I heard that, among other places, in my seminary liturgics class.) But even with the fearsome reputation of organists, the thing that distracts from prayer more than an organist, is an a capella soloist (or worse, a “soloist” in a choir) who is supposedly just trying to enhance worship. Church singers who are absolutist about the purity of human voice without accompaniment and therefore belt it out are, in my opinion, more destructive to the sense of prayer in worship than even my two most notorious organists.

I am reminded of all this because we spent this weekend in Omaha, where among other things, we stopped by an art festival at the Countryside Village Plaza (an intimate outdoor mall at 86th and Pacific). The A. Cavallo violin store is located there. Cavallo sells hand crafted instruments and repairs damaged ones. It was closed when we were there but in the window one could see violins, violas, cellos, etc., in various states of repair and disrepair.

Looking in the window at Cavallo, in turn, reminded me of the Gibson mandolin factory in Bozeman, Montana. I have a relative (well, an ex-relative, but that may be too much information) who handcrafts mandolins for Gibson and he gave us a tour of the Bozeman facility. There is a sense of respect and even awe involved in the process of creating by hand an instrument that could rightfully be described as reverence or veneration.

Only God is Creator in the absolute sense of creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). But one facet of the divine image breathed into humans at Creation is creativity. The craftsmen at A. Cavallo and Gibson fulfill this aspect of the divine image when they create something new, beautiful, and awe inspiring from the stuff that God created and turned over to us (humans) to oversee. Being custodians of the stuff of creation demands that we don’t just bury it in the ground, awaiting the return of the master, but that we take it and transform it and multiply it (Mat. 25:14-30).

I will grant that there is something elegant and pure when Divine Liturgy is prayed with presbyter, deacon, chanter, and choir bringing their voices together in harmonious prayer. (Of course, even this is not yet an Orthodox experience, because the choir is there, not to sing the liturgy, but rather to lead the congregation in singing the liturgy – authentic worship requires full participation of all the priesthood and not just the leadership. I have yet to hear a congregation sing the liturgy, except in bits and pieces, here and there; they leave it to the choir. Can someone say, “Performance?”) But there is also something elegant and pure when a string quartet, a brass quintet, or a pipe organ leads a congregation toward prayer (and I would argue that prayer is bigger than words so that these instruments can also lead a congregation in prayer).

And it’s not just the music which comes into play when instruments are used in worship. But allow me to begin somewhere else in making this point. One thing the Roman Catholics managed to get wrong is their requirement of unleavened bread at the Eucharist. The elements of the Table have the mark of human creation on them. Both the grape and the wheat are transformed by human hands through fermentation and leavening. We start with one thing (grapes and wheat, or even grape juice and flour) but actually offer something rather different (wine and bread).

Why is this human role not only suggested but theologically vital? Salvation is a gift of God, but it is not a program imposed by God on us. Salvation is a two-way street that requires the primary divine input but also the secondary human input. (And just because it’s secondary, it’s no less important. Salvation cannot happen without the human input.) This is embodied in wine and bread in a way that is far more profound than words can say. Similarly, when we take the stuff God created (wood, copper, nickel, etc.) and turn them into something rather different (musical instruments), we are offering to God the fullness of ourselves, not only that which God created within us (vocal chords), but that which has been transformed by human creativity as gratitude to God.

Walking by the Cavallo workshop Sunday it was this divinely created raw material transformed into something different by human creativity hanging in the window, that brought me in mind of prayer and offering and what is appropriate in worship. I know I am at odds with much of the Orthodox Church on this one. But I’m sticking to my guns. While the Romans managed to miss the boat on the unleavened bread, I think they have a far more balanced and profound theology when it comes to music (at least pre-Vatican II theology – folk masses are a bit hard to stomach, but that’s another story).

Any church music, whether unaccompanied or accompanied, can be very bad, and both forms (accompanied or unaccompanied) can be gloriously beautiful and prayerful. It is also true that liturgical music badly rendered can be prayerful and powerful, shaking the very rafters of heaven (I wrote a song about this called Angels and Elders, by the way) while the most perfectly executed liturgy can fail to even rise above the chandelier because of the hard hearts of those going through the motions of prayer and praise. Forms are important because forms shape the heart. But the heart is not trapped by external forms and ultimately it’s the heart that matters. As J.S. Bach said, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”