Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Misery of My Own Making

The sun is shining. It is nice and cool (which is ticking some people off, but not me! We will all be burnt to a crisp in a few months here is Texas, so cool is just fine by me.). So, why am I so miserable?

Well, it isn't 24 hours a day kind of misery. Just a blue-sy, come-and-go sort.

Three reasons: blogs, facebook and Pinterest.

I had a little free time today (the Pope retired! Let's watch and skip morning school!). So, I visited around the ol 'net. And have decided I am not funny, not interesting and not creative. I am not writing a blog that makes people both crack up and sigh as my delicately imparted wisdom brings them to sudden revelation. I am writing a blog about why I am having trouble writing a blog.

 I have nothing big or exciting to post on facebook. I have friends who are posting wonderful posts about Pope Benedict XVI, announcing pregnancies, giving birth, writing and publishing books, ending world hunger, and so on. I have nothing much to contribute. Well, except the fact the The Monkey is driving me so crazy today that I have sat him down beside me to cut paper with little-kid safe scissors, just to keep him busy! "Mommy has a fun idea! Cut this paper up! Why? It is important! . . . You are done already? here is a pen; now decorate the paper. Why? It is fun!"

And Pinterest! Sigh, Pinterest. I love you and hate you as I love and hate facebook. Because of you, I have learned how to deep clean both my nasty washing machine and my carpets and I found a recipe for crock-pot orange chicken. I can also keep track of recipes I find on the web, and bookmark them for those few days of the month when I actually cook. But also because of you, I know what I will never, ever do - organize my closet with cute bins, sew adorable little terry-cloth swimsuit coverups, or keep a pantry full of pre-made mixes for my own homemake cookies, cakes and muffins.

Yes, Pinterest, you have revealed to me the full extent of my lack of creativity. I gaze upon your bright thumbnails and read your pithy descriptions. I even repost. But you and I both know I have not lived up to your expectations of a Pinterest-follower. I am a mere wanna-be.

There is no hiding from myself on the internet.

You would think this would make me refrain from the Big Three (fb, Pinterest and reading fabulous blogs). But, no. I will go back, again and again. Like a sheep. Baaa baaa!

Otherwise, what in the world would I write about? ;)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In Defense of Christian Music

Christian Music: good, bad or ugly?

Marc, over on Bad Catholic, has a blog today titled "5 Reasons to Kill Christian Music".

Now, before I do battle with Marc, let me point out in my defense:
  1. Marc is way smarter than I will ever be. 
  2. Marc is way younger than me (which could be in his disfavor, only see #1)
  3. I have a head cold. Or, "I hab a head colb". okay, maybe it is not much of a defense, but I am clinging to whatever I can!
  4. I am writing (and thinking) to the sounds of a 4 year old rolling marbles in a plastic chair, a 15-year old playing piano and two more sons somewhere fixing lunch and finishing school

 Marc's #1 - 1. Writing a “Christian” song reduces Christianity to a modifying adjective.

  • "German" in "German Chocolate Cake" is not just a modifying adjective. If you take the word "German" out, I would expect a chocolate cake, rich and fudgy, but definitely containing NO coconut (blech!). "German" indicates a change in the very nature of the chocolate cake. It is an identifying adjective, not merely an modifying one.
  • "forest" green and "army green" - makes a difference to your bedroom walls when choosing paint colors!
  • "6-lb-baby" and "10.5 lb baby" - makes a big difference to the mother delivering!
  • "Catholic" church and "Pentecostal" church - two modifiers that mean a big difference in liturgy!
Modifying adjectives are not evil, nor do they reduce their nouns to something less than the perfect noun. Modifying adjectives help us to understand the nouns the modify. They help give some definition.

Music cannot always be labeled, of course. There is a lot of music that glorifies God without ever mentioning God. It does not have to be blatant to be true or beautiful. And there is a danger in labeling. Some people will not trust what is not labeled (or what is labeled with different label. For example, some Christians may never listen to Mumford and Sons, as they are not labeled "Christian", so they miss out on the holy cry that echoes through some of their songs).
However, music that is labeled "Christian" is not automatically toothless and empty - the aspartame additive of the music industry.
That argument just does not hold

2. Music is already Christian.

Marc's argument here is a good one: Truth is beauty, beauty is truth, and these things cannot exist apart from the One who is the Ultimate Truth, the Ultimate Beauty. So, even very misguided music is ultimately rooted in God, and thus, is "Christian". (Be sure to read Marc's post for the fullness of his thesis).

This is really an esoteric point. Yes, Marc is right - whatever is true, beautiful, right - these things find their source in God. Thus, all music, all art, must have its source in the Creator. 

While Marc is clearly not in favor of Big Daddy Weave songs making an appearance at Mass, I would bet he would also not be a fan of a KISS song during Communion, or (shudder) the Beatles "Let it Be" (as I once heard). Not all music is equal in the way it points to God. Not all music is appropriate for times of prayer or liturgy or adoration.
While all music may find its source in God - thus ultimately pointing to God in the end - some music is a little more direct in its path.

3. “If you label me you negate me.”

Marc's argument: The label "Christian" makes a space for "Christian" things, and relegates those who produce in their fields who happen to mention God or be devout, as "Christian" artists, instead of just "artists" in general. We as Christians need to spread out and redeem the world, not hide in a hole of our own making and only preach to the choir. There is also a kick-butt CS Lewis quote in this section (and what CS Lewis quote isn't kick-butt"!).

I get you, Marc, and I agree. We are called to be in the world, and apart from the world. We are meant to spread out and diffuse ourselves in culture, ultimately redeeming the world and claiming all things for Christ - movies, tv, books, art, clothing, architecture, etc. . . If Christians only produce things labeled as "Christian", if we can only speak of our faith in set terms (God, Jesus, church, Scripture), if we can only play by using our own vocabulary, we will never win the world over. Christianity is bigger than a set of definitions and terms, more grand than what many perceive to be the boxed-in-mindset of "all those rules you guys have". In another CS Lewis reference (or maybe it is Dr. Who)  - the inside is larger than it appears on the outside.

However, labeling Christian music does not necesarily negate it. It may negate its potential impact on those who hate it, or those who want nothing to do with it, but it still has meaning for many people.

Sometimes, in the busyness of my life, I want - I NEED - Christian music.

One of the best pieces of advice I received when I was a young mother with 3 children under 5 was from a priest. I spoke to him of not having time to pray with the little ones. I tried - Lord, how I tried. But the sound of the zipper opening my Bible was like a siren call to the boys. It indicated that all hell was to break lose - right then. Frustrated with the reality that being the mother of several young children meant that meditation was less likely to happen (except in the still of the wee hours of the morn as I walked yet another sleepless, unhappy babe around the room in my bleary, numbed, sleepless Dance of the Night Baby), Fr. Bob gave me this piece of sage advice: Put on sacred music during the day, especially when I needed peace. Just by virtue of the music, it would help lift my heart in prayer as I changed my millionth poopy diaper or sat on the couch all day nursing a fussy, teething baby.
And it worked - at least some of the time. I will not pretend that every time I turned on Christian music (be it Tallis Scholars or John Michael Talbot) I was instantly transported to prayer, or able to even settle my spirit. But it worked a lot of the time, simply by drawing my mind to Christ in a blantant, obvious way. And when you are surrounded by many young children, you do not often have the time for panning for gold.
Even though I am down to only one young child today, I remember Fr. Bob's advice, and when I am harried or frazzled or unconnected, I turn to my "Christian" music to help me remember praise in ALL things - even poopy diapers.

4. As a label, Christianity becomes an excuse for mediocrity.

There is something to be said for this. Sometimes we act so grateful to have Christian things, we take whatever we can get. Even bad writing, rehashed melodies, boring tv programs. 
My favorite comedian, Bone Hampton, has a bit about this. "Just because you say "in the name of Jesus", don't make it Christian" You can't rob a liquor store, "in the name of Jesus"!"

I have read my share of crappy Christian novels - some just poor writing, some trashy (but they go to church, so it's Christian!). Art Guy and I have had many, MANY talks on the plethora of horrible art and design on items in Catholic catalogs/websites.
For example, a story about a guardian angel who looks into the "black pits" of the heathen baby's eyes and who gives thanks that said baby gets burned in a fire, because it leads to his baptism,  is a bit of a turn-off, even if it is an a Catholic (!) book. Tommie dePaola's books on "The Holy Twins" or "Las Posadas" do more the show the beauty and charm of stories of holy men and women than many labeled stories of faith.

But again, I think Marc just misses some of the point: "Writing a song under the mindset that the Holy Spirit will use that song to “reach people” is a denial that the Holy Spirit uses you to reach people, and has given you the emotional depth, the poetic imagination, the enlightened intellect, and the spiritual sensitivity to write a damn good song."

Good grief! Really? If you write a song (as a Christian), of course you hope that the Holy Spirit uses that song to reach others. It does not mean the Holy Spirit has not worked through and in you. I pray every time I approach the cantor stand that the Holy Spirit works through me - my voice, my musicianship, even my mistakes. But if I approach the cantor stand to sing Norah Jone's "Turn Me On", it is not the same as "Panis Angelicus"  - the lyrics, the notes, the chords, the progressions - they are all part of the whole package. (aaaaand, we are back to the "all music is Christian by virtue of being art" argument).
And not all writers of music sing their own music. Even those that do may have others sing that same song at a later date, and you better hope there is something of the divine in the song itself that communicates itself to others.
I have heard wonderful songs butchered by terrible musicianship, sometimes to the point that it cannot minister to anyone. But I have also heard a lot of good Church music performed by mediocre musicians, and it can still minister to people. Sometimes the words alone bring balm to hearts. Now, if those words are sung well, it can lift the experience higher.

Songs and singer go together, but can have value apart, as well. Take Marc's example of Mumford and Sons. I really dug their sound, but I being LOUSY at hearing lyrics, I did not know what they were singing! I liked the band. But when I READ the lyrics, I was transported, moved, stilled. The words were the key to opening up what my ear liked into something that transports me every time I listen.

5. “Christian” music isn’t Christian.

Marc does not want Christian music that is pop-y or bright or popular. He wants "music with teeth". Well, I hate to break it to him, but there IS Christian music out there with teeth.

And you know what, damn it! Sometimes I want the bright, the pop-y, the fun music that is about God and faith and life as a Christian. I want to crank my windows down on a warm, sunny day and belt out Steven Curtis Chapman's "Live Out Loud" or Avalon's "Testify to Love"!

Marc objects to the slogans of many Christian stations -the promise to have family-friendly music, to be "safe for the whole family", to be "positive" or "uplifting".
March says, "But “positive” — as in “positive feelings” — indicates a certain shallow happiness as foreign to Christianity as Scientology."

Good gracious, man! What are you objecting to now? Music we can turn on in the car and not be worried about the "f" word (Mumford and Sons, Glen Hansard - my favorite musicians use these words, and while I do not object to my kids listening to it with me, I certainly do not want my 4 year old hearing it, repeating it, and singing it). Or my sons listening to music all the time that glorifies the objectifying of women. Sometimes I do not want to be on-call. I want something "safe", yes, harmless, yes, that makes no bones about being Christian in focus.

And not all Christian music is bubbly and happy. "Praise You in This Storm" (Casting Crowns - I know! Don't mock!), "The Valley Song" (Jars of Clay), "Held" (Natalie Grant - I can't even listen to this in the car, because I cry buckets of tears). Anything by Rich Mullins. There IS music with teeth, even in the "Christian" genre. And there is bubble-gum. But there are finely-pointed teeth, too.

The debate of music and faith and the intersection of sacred and profane in art or music is a HUGE topic with a thousand-million opinions. Music is, at its heart, subjective. What I find beautiful is not the same as what my BFF finds beautiful. We are moved by different experiences of beauty. No, this is not moral relativism, because we are talking about art here - art is personal and one's experience of art is subjective.

The quality of music in the world of faith deserves to be examined. It should be looked at, hard. It should be prodded, questioned, kneaded, looked at inside and out, upside and backwards. But to say "All Christian music is crap" is as wrong to say "all Christian music is good". To even say "Most Christian music is crap" is simply an opinion - and a valid one for any person, so long as they realize that it IS an opinion and not everyone agrees and those people may have valid points, too.

Even if they are older, and not so smart!
(And here I end. I have spent too much time today on this, trying to hammer out a reasonable defense of my position, while my children free-range. At the moment, one is playing piano, another the bugle, the third a flute, and the youngest is yelling. Not exactly the atmosphere in which to sit and reason and think! And yes, I pray the Holy Spirit is in my words! So there!)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Academic Benchmarks

Success in school, let me count the ways! Report cards, honors classes, dean's lists, gifted-and-talented programs, academic rankings - these are all part of the arsenal of ways to figure out exactly how your child fits into the traditional academic understanding of "good student" or "smart kid".

As a homeschooling family, we do not have these things unless I, the teacher/principal/administrator, creates the standards. Or unless we join an umbrella school or a homeschool school.

I was perusing facebook (ah, facebook! My friend and my enemy) thinking about these things. A couple of friends had posted about their child's school achievements - admission to honors classes, doings in gifted and talented programs, and such - and I felt that moment of panic:

I don't have that!

I can't say those things. Or I could, and it does not mean the same thing ("My oldest son is first in his class...of one!"). I don't have an outside, third party to verify my children's academic successes, their intelligence, their place among their peers. A GPA and class ranking tells you something tangible. I did not say it was good, but it is tangible. A way to worry about how to do better or a way to sit back with relief and think, "yeah, he is doing great"!

 It is homeschooling without a safety net. At least it feels like it. I revel in it, yet it terrifies me at times. Are they really learning? Are our studies academically challenging? Does my 15-year-old write like a 5th grader? What if the grammar lessons I was feeling so good about are putting my kids two years behind their peers?

I love homeschool. I might not have started that way 10 years ago, but I have learned to love the freedom we have. I love the ability to focus on each child and their needs and abilities. I love going at their pace. I love exploring things off the beaten path. 
But that very freedom turns on me at times, leaving me up at night, wondering if I have torpedoed my children's chances to get into Harvard (not that I really want them to go there). 

One of the glories of homeschooling is that our children are not pigeon-holed. They do not live or die academically by what a set of tests says or by how well they fit into a classroom of 30 others.
But as homeschool educators, it can sometimes be scary to educate without boundries.

Two years ago, I enrolled my children for their first standardized achievement test. I thought, at the grades of 7,5, and 3, this would be a good time to see how they were doing in their set grade levels. Plus I felt they should have some exposure to standardized testing (since it is all the rage anymore). They took the proctored test in a room full of other homeschooled students. They felt pretty good about it. 

I remember the day the results envelope came. My hands were shaking. I felt like I would throw up. I mean, the results would not really label my kids to me, they would put a label on ME, at least to myself. Was I failing my kids? I mean, we do a classical curriculum, so it is not in synch with what their public-school counterparts are doing.

Was I a failure?

I finally got the nerve to open the envelope. They had done well. Better than well! I passed! I mean, they passed

I learned a good lesson that day and through that experience - not to worry so much. I usually remember it. 
Except when I am on facebook.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nightime Guilt

Here I sit on a dreary, misty, chilly Tuesday afternoon. I feel the press of all I have not done today- laundry in the washer and dryer, the blinking light on the printer reminding me we are out of paper and I did not pick any up at the store, the realization I have not sat down to email my bestie, my room which looks like a 13-year-old slob lives there, and so on.

Sometimes the press of what is not done is so overwhelming. It usually hits me at night, as I lay me down to sleep. I snuggle down in my bed, ready to drift off, and . . . BAM!

"I did not submit that form for a grant for next year's FLL. We will never get any money and get new equipment!"

"Did I even work with Romeo during school today? I have not graded papers in a week! Cookie Boy will write like a two-year-old all his life and it is my fault."

And the worst:

"HOW long has it been since we got the kids to the dentist?"

Last night was one of those nights. I keep a pad of paper and a pen on my bedside table, so that I can write it all down as it pours forth. It helps a little. This morning I had a list of to-do's to guide me through my hours.

Tomorrow begins the season of Lent.  Time to offer up and buckle down. I will continue my Lenten blog, The Teresa Project, through Lent this year.

For today, enjoy those sweets and goodies!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Preparing for Lent

Where to start today? Preparing for Lent, or the big announcement from Pope Benedict XVI? 600 years since a pope resigned from the chair of Peter. A very exciting time and one that calls for deep prayer.

A couple of worthy thoughts from the land of facebook:

As Sr. Mary Theresa just said: "Pope John Paul II remained in office so that he might show us how to suffer and how to die. Pope Benedict XVI is leaving the Papal Office so that he might show us how to live in humble honesty." BEAUTIFUL, SISTER!! Pope Benedict XVI is the 1st Disciple leading us all in this "Year of Faith" which he called under the Holy Spirit's inspiration! (from the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist).


 "The Pope is really setting a high bar for giving something up for Lent." -- Patrick Langrell (from Mr. J. Flynn's update. And I do not know either Patrick Lengrell or Mr. Flynn, but it was an excellent quote!)

Which is a perfect segue into the topic of Lent, which begin in two days from today. 

What will YOU do for Lent? 

From One Catholic Life comes this excellent blog with 101 Practical Fasting Ideas for Lent. This list was so great, I gathered the family around to show them. There were just so many things to choose from, all (as promised in the title) practical and reasonable. I mean, reasonable if you did one or two.Not all 101. That would not be at all reasonable, or sane. 

The ever-funny and thoughtful Simcha Fisher wrote this blog on Lenten Rookie Mistakes. Very good to consider these things. 

For me, I am going back to a classic: giving up (gulp) sweets. Sigh. 

Yeah, there is not anything else I can say about that.

Double sigh.

I will also be continuing by Lenten blog, The Teresa Project. Let me tell you, I did not realize what an impact last year's focus on St. Therese of Lisieux would have on my whole year.  I will tell you all about it soon, but for now, I will just say that what I began with Lent became my theme for the year.
This year, my focus will be on my favorite saint, St. Teresa of Avila. I have my books all ready and waiting to begin! 

Our family decided on a Lenten family promise. We will say one decade of the rosary together each evening. That will be a challenge, as we come and go like waves on a beach. But, one decade is do-able. 

Two days. Lots to pray about. 

Lent? Bring it on!