Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Music Review: The Mantis and the Moon

About six months ago, I received a copy of an EP called The Mantis and the Moon in my mailbox.

In my relatively short life, I've heard a number of indie artists. Some friends, some friends of friends. Some completely unknown to me. (Full disclosure: I've met Chris Slaten, the man behind Son of Laughter, because we've known his wife since our early concert-going days.) But I've never listened to a batch of songs that so completely and pleasantly surprised me as this one.

From the Simonesque opening to the final lovely fade, I was completely captivated by both the music and the images his words evoke. As his opening stanza of "Cricket in a Jar" so poignantly expresses:

Catch the moment. The moment has passed!
This is a law of loveliness: we love what never lasts.
Try and hold it; it slips right through.
Before you know the garden's grown. There's nothing left to do. 

I am unable to recreate the euphoria of the first time I heard those words sung. Sheer joy. Parenthood is the intended target, but anything ethereal is covered here.

Bolstered by Ben Shive's excellent production, the music is made all the richer by the added instrumentation. The subtle percussion and catchy hooks help congeal Slaten's songs into your brain long after you stop listening.

The EP ended up in my car CD player and it hasn't left. It's still the first thing I turn to when I tire of NPR. Or the Classical Conversations Cycle 2 songs. (Which is often.) An added bonus: my kids love it.

Slaten is above all a talented wordsmith, and the lyrics only get richer with repeated listens. His mad-scientist combinations of allusions and metaphors floored me.

Drawing inspiration from (among other sources) an African folktale, a nature documentary, and the Grimm's version of Cinderella, these songs are all deeply rooted in Story. The Story. Whether he is waxing poetic about a musician in the middle of rush hour or the mating habits of a feathered friend, these small details turn into ardent Truths.

These songs struck me hard, and I still haven't recovered from the shock. "What trophies, degrees, or hyperboles do you line upon your shelf?" It took me this many months to write this simple review because I was afraid I wouldn't do it justice. Well, I still haven't, but here you are.

If there is any drawback, it may be the placement of the final song, which after the more upbeat offerings early on the EP left me wanting more, and it took me weeks to finally listen to all of "Partington Cove" without wanting to skip back to the beginning to hear "Grace is Gold" again. Still, once I let the lyrics sink in, I was rewarded with a beautiful rendering that perfectly captured that time when Gaines and I were only just beginning to date, often roadtripping to concerts:

Sitting side by side
on the long car rides,
we opened our souls by the seams
and married our dreams.

Now, I do know a little of the Slatens' history and how it mirrors our own, but knowing these things only made the songs more glorious. A mild-mannered English teacher by day, Chris' superpower with words is revealed and made evident in his music.

Catch him (without a cape) at a concert near you -- he'll be touring over the next few months and especially into the summer. We were blessed to be able to hear him live as part of Hutchmoot 2013, and I can say his music translates equally well through an acoustic solo act on stage. Blown away, I was!

I am grateful to have gotten a copy for review, and I request you purchase one (or twenty-three) wherever hidden gems like this are sold. Try The Rabbit Room store first, if you please. And enjoy!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Seven Stanzas at Easter

“Seven Stanzas at Easter” from Telephone Poles and Other Poems
by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Heaven IS for Real

At my 10-year high school reunion, as we all sat on the stage in my hometown school auditorium that Friday morning, a few of our classmates read a report from each alum, papers that list what we've done since high school and what we're doing now. Since there were only about 70 members in our graduating class, they actually read them out loud, right there, for everyone in the audience, along with the current crop of high school seniors, to hear.

One of my best friends from high school, sitting right behind me on the stage, had listed as his hobbies things like hiking, photography, and, finally, "cynicism." I about fell out of my chair. I think the reader didn't quite get the joke, because she just moved on to the next report. I thought it was hilarious, mostly because I tend to have those cynical tendencies as well.

Mostly, I'm cynical about goods labeled as "Christian," books and movies and products marketed as spiritual. Especially popular ones. Bestsellers. Books on Oprah. Especially books about the afterlife. Because, really, we just don't know all that much.

After my Mom died, someone gave my Dad a copy of a little book called Heaven is for Real. You've probably heard of it. I secretly rolled my eyes. But he told me it meant a lot to him, so sometime last year when I was visiting my hometown, I borrowed it. Well, it has sat on my bedside table and been shuffled around and moved covered up and uncovered and never really put on a shelf. I've ignored it for ages, sure it was just some marketing ploy or one of those sensational stories you hear about on the Today Show all the time, a near-death experience of white lights and people as angels. Well, there is probably a little of those first things in this, as in all publishers who want their books to sell. But, as I've come to discover, there is also Truth.

Last Sunday afternoon, as I was attempting to clean off some of the skyscraper-like stacks of books that were threatening to topple over onto us as we slept, I found the small yellow paperback with the picture of that goofy, smiling preschooler on it. And I read it. From front to back, in about an hour and a half.
And I cried.

People, I don't care if you read this book. I really don't. Maybe you're cynical like me. Maybe, though, you've already read it and you liked it. Good. Then you might understand what I'm about to say, or perhaps this will offer fresh insights. For everyone else, maybe you'll end this post with some books to add to your rainy day pile.

Three things that struck me as true about this little boy's story:

1. Naming unborn babies.

For the longest time it was just understood that my Mom would outlive my Dad. They planned for that, in a way. Everything was in her name, they were planning to move closer to her best friends from childhood, she was (we thought) in better health. When she passed away so suddenly in October of 2012, while my Dad was just 2 weeks out recovering from hip surgery, I sat with the questions for many months. Reading this book finally gave me peace about the "Why?" and now, I do not have to ask. I do not know the mind of God and cannot understand or fathom His ways, or why my Mom is no longer with us here, but I know He is Good.

The little boy in the book, Colton, recounted that in his "vision" or "dream" or whatever you want to call his experience, he got to meet his older sister, whom his parents had lost to miscarriage before he was even born, and he had never been told about it. (He was still a preschooler at the time of his accident.) She had no name, yet. And he told of another mother who had been reunited with her unborn child and been able to choose her name.

The story he told broke me. I can just imagine my Mother arriving suddenly, being embraced by all these children running up to her and hugging her tight. Perhaps, just perhaps, my Mom passed away first because she needed to be the one to go name all of my baby siblings, my brothers and sisters who are already with God the Father and Jesus in Heaven, waiting for the day when all things will be made new. (If you don't know, my parents lost eight babies to miscarriage or stillbirth before they finally had me. The last was my older sister, pictured above. My mother is buried next to her.)

Finally, finally, she is able to greet them and see them and give them Names.

It reminds me of a quote from another favorite author, Madeline L'Engle, from Walking on Water:
“Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos, we see despite all the chaos.”  

2. I love that Colton described what we "do" in Heaven as "homework." Yes! There is still much learning to do, and lots of work to be done, and we get to learn from the ultimate Teacher, Jesus Himself. The image of sitting on clouds playing harps has always rang false to me. More accurate, or at least a better picture, I think, is at the end of CS Lewis's book The Last Battle, where all the children and their parents and all the citizens of Narnia go on to explore Aslan's Country, learning and running and leaping higher and farther than ever before. Shortly after my mom died, a good friend texted me a portion of that famous quote from the end of the book:
And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
 We will have an infinite Father and his universe for our adventures! Further up and further in!

3. There is a Dragon. He is real. And he will be defeated! This is basically the whole story of the Bible -- there is a Bridegroom who has saved his Bride from Death, and who has gone out to fight the Dragon and He will return victorious. If you've ever read Genesis, or Revelation, you should know this, but it's just another part that stuck out to me as True. The battle, with angels wielding swords and Jesus, the Conquering King...yes.

 However, this Heaven that Colton describes in the book? I want you to understand something. It is NOT our final hope. If he was given a vision of what we call heaven, it is only the waiting room, the place described in the Bible as "Abraham's bosom" where the children of God are gathered to be with the Lord until Christ comes in his final victory. It is not the place where we get our new bodies. That comes later. When Jesus returns.

This is another assurance I've been learning about over the past four to five years, and that is, there is Life AFTER Life After Death. "Heaven," or what we normally think of as Heaven, which is the place "where people go when the die," is not the final end. The Bible tells us of a New Heaven and  New Earth, when Jesus returns in his final glory, and Heaven comes down with Him. When God will wipe away every tear from our eye and overcome the final enemy, Death. Imagine, Death will be no more! When God burns away everything temporary and remakes the universe. New Creation. New bodies. Eternity with the Father, Spirit and Son!

If you find this intriguing, and are at all interested in reading about how our perceptions of Heaven might be built more on misconstrued ideas from popular culture rather that Scripture, I would recommend these two books (note: contains affiliate links. Must feed book habit.):
There are many more books on this topic, of course, but those two have had the most profound impact on my own thinking. Also, they are written in accessible language, and the former so joyfully and the latter so optimistically that you can't help but go back and search the Scriptures for more.

Of course, to finally get this post out I had to read a bestselling paperback that is far from any kind of theological treatise, but God uses all things for His glory, even, and especially, the testimony of children.

Friday, April 04, 2014

There Will Be Butterflies

A friend of a friend is losing her unborn baby girl today. Another friend is watching cancer eat away at her little boy, though he is putting up a strong fight. I have relatives and friends struggling with loss and pain and grief. Those who are hurting and wondering how to face such a tragedy. The answer? With more Life.

After my Mom died, almost immediately, I began noticing the butterflies. It was October, so is that even the right season? Maybe. No matter, there they were. Little yellow ones. Gorgeous blue and black ones. Monarchs. Mostly the small ones, yellow or white, and I noticed them especially at the grave site. Butterflies have traditionally been a Christian symbol of the resurrection, and so I was comforted. Death is not the end. Where, O Death, is your Victory? Where is your sting?

And then I found this wonderful quote in ND Wilson's book Death by Living

Every soul waits in the wings. Every life taken in age, tired and ready, taken in youth, in shock and sorrow, taken in pain or taken in peace, every needle now hidden in shadow waits in eager silence. I see my cousin. My nephew. Many faces, forgotten by those who followed behind, known always by the Author who needs no stone reminders. He is the best of all possible audiences, the only Audience to see every scene, the Author who became a Character and heaped every shadow on Himself.

To His eyes, you never leave the stage. You do not cease to exist. It is a chapter ending, an act, not the play itself. Look to Him. Walk toward Him. The cocoon is a death, but not a final death. The coffin can be a tragedy, but not for long. There will be butterflies.
My parents were planning to retire to a home in Auburn. This past winter, my Dad finally sold the house, and so I went there to remove the last of the items before the closing. I found some especially precious objects to keep: a collection of three brass butterflies that were my mother's, and an exquisite lamp, handed down to my mother by an older relative, covered in rainbow-colored, hand-painted, gilded butterflies.They are displayed in our den, near the family sofa, a daily reminder to me of the Things to Come.