(expanded version of story told at Tell Us Something, PEAS Farm, 25 July 2015)
By BRIAN MARSH
It was only about a three-block walk on a chilly winter morning.
i had the privilege of helping 67 musicians from Hellgate High School move their musical instruments from their hotel north of Times Square to the stage entrance of Carnegie Hall. The Wind Ensemble, under the direction of their magnificent musical mentor, Leon Slater, was one of six high school ensembles in the nation invited to participate in the New York Wind Band Festival. My younger son, Trevor, had been a percussionist in the Ensemble for three years, and it was a thrill for me to get to share the experience with him and the whole team.
As we made our way through the labyrinthine hallways and stairways leading up to the green room and backstage area for the Ensemble’s soundcheck, i was wondering two things:
- How many seminal performers (starting with Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky himself) had traveled these same gateways to the glories of performing on this world-renowned stage? And…
- How was i going to sneak my way onto that stage under the guise of helping the percussionists set up their equipment (even though they were fully capable of doing so themselves)?
i regretted not having brought along an old black Jack Daniels t-shirt (one size too small) and some fake tattoos to do my best ‘roadie’ impersonation. But it didn’t matter. The rules for the stage might as well have been chiseled in stone like the Ten Commandments:
- Absolutely NO ONE permitted on stage besides the musicians and their conductor. And…
- Absolutely NO PHOTOS of any kind to be taken from the stage. (Matt Tipton, the uber-cool and equally magnificent band director from Washington Middle School, snuck on posing as Slater’s ‘Assistant Director’ and got some sweet ‘covert’ pics, one of which the Missoulian used for the photo to accompany their article on the Ensemble and their NYC experience.)
After wishing the musicians well, i joined the other parent chaperones in the green room to watch the soundcheck via closed circuit TV. And as the first notes of their run-through began to fill my ears, a mysterious mist welling up from the depths of my soul began to fill my eyes. Not simply because of the majestic beauty of the music or the magnificent honour of hearing my child perform in such a hallowed and heralded space. There were worlds colliding and converging within my psyche and Spirit.
It was only about a three-block walk on a chilly winter morning. But it actually was the culmination of a three-year journey through the longest, chilliest winter of my life.
. . . . . .
Three years ago that very week, my job in Missoula surprisingly and abruptly came to an end, my position dissolved primarily as part of a leadership ‘reorganization’. It was a shock to my family and the community in which i worked and lived for almost seven years. And given the unique nature of my vocation – serving as a pastor of a Christian faith community – i wasn’t just losing a job. i was losing my primary community with whom i shared and lived life in all its varieties and complexities. It was gut-wrenching and gravity-shifting to say the least.
When my wife, Kirsten, and i told Trevor and his big brother, Ian, what happened, we knew the first words that would come out of Trevor’s mouth.
‘Does this mean that we have to MOVE?’
And Kirsten and i knew in that instant that even if we had to move heaven and earth, we were not going to move until after T graduated from Hellgate.
Three years later.
Like many people in Missoula, we attempted initially to cobble together an existence to enable us to be able to stay. Kirsten continued on as a pre-school teacher, and took on a second job on the weekends and some weeknights. i drove a school bus for students with special gifts and needs, and did some fill-in hospice chaplaincy and preaching at churches as far away as Deer Lodge.
And like many people in Missoula, even all of that didn’t add up to provide what we needed to continue living in Missoula. The resentment resulting from this turn of events gradually continued to build up within me. And the shame of feeling like a failure (irrational as it seems, but real as it actually is) slowly began to consume me from the inside out.
It wasn’t until a friend of mine suggested i look into serving as a transitional interim pastor that a tiny pinprick of light first appeared at the end of a very dark, depressing tunnel. i went for the special training for transitional leaders and was connected that week to a potential job helping a community whose pastor had just retired.
In northern California.
Thankfully, the community there was open to having a transitional leader serve with them whilst commuting back and forth to Missoula (2-3 weeks in CA, followed by 6 days back home). They provided a small house for me to live in adjacent to the church campus, which became a sacred space for me, not only to rest, but also to reflect, rage, ruminate and slowly recognize more deeply the ways i was hurting. The beautiful, seaside village of Mendocino was just over an hour away (accessible only by narrow, bumpy, exceedingly winding roads), and a rocky bluff on the headlands jutting out into the Pacific Ocean became my ‘sanctuary’ for most Mondays off. Sitting before that transcendent expanse contrasted powerfully with the contained space of my ‘contemplative cell’ in Ukiah. The salt in the water and air regularly blended with the salt of my tears into an experience that was at turns chaotic and cathartic, cleansing and celebratory.
i spent more time trying to avoid these encounters with my emotions than engage them (easy to do when you’re living life in almost constant ‘maintenance mode’ and have plenty to keep you busy and distracted). But in those moments of convergence with salt and sweat and Spirit, when i chose to engage with the hurting, i was also beginning to discover (very tentatively) a pathway towards healing.
(i also became an ‘MVP’ on Alaska Airlines, and got to know where the best food and beer were located at SEATAC, PDX, OAK & SFO. Cha. CHING.)
FaceTime became my new ‘best friend’ as it enabled daily connection with my family back home. And solo time became the means for me to discover – on a new, transformational level – that each day, each interaction, each moment, each breath, each heartbeat was truly a gift to be received, cherished, and shared.
Like the day three years hence, sitting in Carnegie Hall listening to my Trevor and his friends create musical magic and transformational transcendence, performing a work with a title that reflects these gracious gifts.
. . . . . .
‘Give Us This Day’. Words historically attributed to Jesus as a part of what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer (or Our Father). A piece inspired not only by those words, but also by the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, the wise and revered Buddhist monk, author and advocate for justice and peace. Music written by David Maslanka to inspire deep personal mindfulness and spiritual awareness as the means for experiencing, embodying and enacting a Peace that can transform our lives and the world.
The piece begins almost silently, inviting the listener into a quiet, reflective space, gradually building to majestic crescendos, only to return to that meditative space, but never in the same way. Then driving rhythms and soaring-yet-menacing counter-melodies and harmonies escalate both the tension and transcendence, followed by moments of brilliant, breath-taking beauty, ebbing and flowing like the waves of worry and wonder in the Ocean of Life, each subsequent swell lifting performers and listeners to loftier, more exhilarating heights of psyche and Spirit.
Until the final climax of the piece…a re-envisioned harmonization of a melody from a chorale by J.S. Bach entitled Vater Unser in Himmelreich.
‘Our Father in Heaven’.
And in that moment, with Trevor ignoring all sense of ‘classical propriety’ with his arms flailing outward and upward, summoning a rumbling from his timpani that set the stage and earth to shaking, his head lifting towards the heavens, and the rest of the Ensemble raising their collective voices of wind/breath/Spirit in three glorious, climactic swells, it was as if that vaunted venue transformed into a Sacred sanctuary, a concert-hall-turned-cathedral whose ceiling burst open to reveal the Glory of the heavens shining down upon this sordid and oh-so-sacred Earth.
i was completely consumed in the moment, transformed by the experience. We weren’t just listening. We were levitating.
As i stood to applaud and cheer, yelling my lungs out and crying my eyes out in celebration, i marveled at all the ways that Trevor had grown over the past three years, largely because of the people who had invested so much of themselves into his life and the experiences he was lucky enough to have by staying home for those last three years of high school. i recognized in my salty tears both the wounds incurred from beyond myself and within myself and endured through the Peace that unveils itself in the midst of perplexity and pain, and the surprising wonders that are starting to emerge out of that soil of suffering. And i thought about how all the trials and tribulations of this most trying season had converged with the glimpses of grace and glory along the way into the inexpressible joy of this moment, this experience, THIS day.
And i realized something.
THIS was why i lived and worked in two time zones for two and a half years (and Kirsten gave all of herself and beyond to maintain a strong sense of balance and peace at home through it all).
THIS was why all the times of questions and confusion, shame and self-loathing, anger and apathy, loneliness and languishing, wondering and wallowing, harrowing and hallowing and hoping were somehow ultimately worth it.
THIS was why we stayed in Missoula.
Three unbelievable swells concluding an incandescent piece.
Three unbearable years leading to an uncertain Peace.
Creation. Redemption. Provision.
Accept what is. Forgive what was. Embrace what is to come.
And Love. Love. LOVE.
. . . . . .
It is only about a one-block walk on a partly-sunny, slightly-chilly autumn morning.
But it’s the one walk i miss more than any other.
Down the street where i lived for the past 10+ years to my favourite place to connect and reflect.
This is the part of the story usually reserved for the epilogue, where i tell you that all of the wandering and wondering has led to an exciting new chapter in my journey, a bittersweet departure from my beloved home in Missoula to a new adventure in a strange, yet wonderful new land.
Our house in Missoula HAS sold.
i DO have a new and exciting adventure in an equally strange, yet wonderful land (Portland, OR…where ‘the dream of the 90’s is alive’) with a diverse, warm and welcoming new community (Moreland Presbyterian Church).
My family and i are settling into that new land and adjusting to living beyond the ‘now-and-not-yet’ that had marked our existence for the prior three and a half years.
But while part of me is anticipating what will emerge from this latest move, another part of me is anxious about moving on to anywhere.
As someone who has always tried to champion the idea of embracing rather than eradicating the contradictions in life and living instead of loathing the questions, i still struggle with actually embodying those realities while feeling drawn more powerfully towards stability and security (at least as we humans have come to define and desire them, which is almost exclusively vocationally and financially, but for me is now also emotionally).
Living in ‘limbo’ can be frightening. But it has also become familiar. And that has resulted in a strange sense of experiencing a new season of clarity and stability as feeling strangely disorienting and unsettling as well.
And unlike our common cultural assumption, there have not been any transformational and universally inspirational and applicable life lessons that have emerged out of this painful and perplexing period for me. They may still be gestating in the depths of my muddled mind and strained soul, waiting for the most unexpected moments to emerge. The best i can manage (at least for now) is some tentative ‘maybes’…
Maybe reconciliation isn’t primarily a means to engage in a dreamy reconnection with those from whom life has cast you estranged. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to embrace the desolate reality of what life has cast your way, to sojourn through the deserts of rejection and pain within yourself towards the River of Life that leads to the Ocean of Love, where grace is revealed, acceptance is received, resentment is released, hope is reborn, and trust is (slowly) restored.
Maybe this new season of life isn’t the ‘perfect’ way to right all the wrongs of the past or tie up all the messy and ragged loose ends from the prior season. Perhaps it’s simply what’s next on the journey, a new chance to once again encounter and receive the present of the Presence.
Maybe the precipice between the past and future upon which i feel like i’m wobbling in uncertainty and insecurity that seems so unstable and terrifying is actually a platform called ‘NOW’.
And maybe that ‘NOW’ is the greatest Gift of all. The Gift of THIS day.
And maybe THIS realization is all i need to emerge from the mayhem of the past and the mystery of the future, and into the dawn of a new present of possibility and hope.
. . . . . .
Cheers to the ‘Zoo…to it’s indescribable beauty and indefinable people, it’s unbounded heart and unlimited soul…to the life-long, life-giving friends there who ignited new passion within me and incarnated deeper compassion to me than i could ever deserve or imagine…and to the River of Life that runs through it all.
i’m a wanderer and a wonderer. a percussive and paradoxical pastor who exists happily (and hope-full-y) at the intersection of doubt and faith. journeying with my unique and special family (my wife, Kirsten, and sons, Ian and Trevor) whilst temporarily splitting my time between two unique and beautiful places (Missoula, Montana and Ukiah, California). restless and lazy, usually amazed, always in process, i’m continually surprised and usually delighted at discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary, the ‘sacred’ in the ‘secular’, the shafts of light that sneak into the shrouds of darkness. i drum decently, surf poorly, love multicultural food, music, and community, and living in the ‘Zoo.