Prairie View

Friday, July 19, 2019

Entanglement in a Stage 9 Play

Stage 9 is a theater group in Hutchinson that performs plays for a public audience.  In the near future, they will perform Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.  The person in charge at Stage 9 is Lynsey, who was a Leadership Reno County classmate.  As part of the lead-in publicity activities for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Lynsey invited Hiromi and me to participate in a public question and answer or panel-style event featuring individuals involved in inter-racial marriages, since that is one of the central issues in the drama being performed.  Hiromi was not interested in participating and I was not interested in doing it without him. I did offer, however, to write something in answer to questions if that would be helpful.  Lynsey kindly accepted that offer.

 I wasn't sure either that the inter-racial aspect of our marriage was the most significant challenge in our relationship.  Lynsey assured me that what I had to say would be appreciated even if it didn't directly pertain to being an inter-racial couple.  She gave me a bit of direction on what I might write about, and I'm not sure that I did a very good job of following those directions.  Furthermore, it's much longer than they can use.  I'm giving Lynsey permission to excerpt whatever is desired, and offering to do some re-writing if that is needed.  Posting it here was the easiest way I could think of to give her easy access.  Below is what I wrote.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a movie that was released in 1967.  I watched it for the first time early this week.  As a rule, I don't watch movies, but I made an exception here.


Hiromi and I got married with my parents’ blessing.  Getting there was not free of challenges, however, and I realize in looking back that the reservations that my parents expressed were realistic and well-founded.  I believe this “on-target” assessment on their part was possible because their perspective was largely one of openness gained from the wisdom of life experience based on a strong foundation of Christian faith.  They truly were accepting of those who were different from themselves.  Having adopted two Salvadoran children after they had ten children born to them provides evidence of this.

The only identities that would have disqualified a potential spouse in my parents’ eyes is if that person were not a Christian or if that person had been married previously, with the first spouse still living.  Since I felt the same way, this was never a source of conflict.  Hiromi was a Christian and still single by the time I met him, although he had come from a Buddhist background.  At one time, he wanted to be a Buddhist priest.  When he came to the United States, however, with papers that allowed him to begin immediately to work toward citizenship, he set out to learn something about Christian faith.  It was part of his effort to settle into American life.  In that pursuit, he attended various churches occasionally.  These experiences were not entirely satisfying, since he felt that he was hearing very little that answered questions about the basics of Christianity that piqued his interest.

Those who introduced Hiromi to Christian faith in a way that made sense to him and prompted him to embrace it for himself were people from our Amish Mennonite church near Pleasantview.  Even so, Hiromi resisted the idea of becoming a member of any specific congregation–because the idea of having different denominations never made sense to him.  He usually attended our church during this time.  I met him there for the first time during one of the summers when I left Ohio where I was teaching and returned to my family’s home in Kansas.  Others in my family had learned to know him earlier and enjoyed interacting with him.  He was always welcome at church and was never pressured to become a member.

Things intensified considerably when I returned home to attend college and I learned that Hiromi was waiting for me here.  By that time I had a very clear sense, a calling from God even, that my future lay in serving my people.  At that time, I believed it would be through teaching.  I had not quite had the nerve to pray that the Lord would keep all interference at bay, but I was really excited about the opportunity for learning and service on which I was embarking.  I saw marriage as an interference since  I was convinced that if I married I would have a career as a homemaker and not as a teacher.  Being a homemaker only was not an unwelcome prospect, but it brought into question what I should be doing “now.”  Obviously I could be a homemaker without finishing college, but I knew that if I kept alive the teaching vision in any form, I should stay in school.

At this point, Hiromi’s not being committed to any church fellowship became a major issue, given the fact that I had a growing commitment to serving my people, and he wanted a future with me.  I found rest in making it very clear to Hiromi that my future would be “here” and he was free to do whatever he wanted with that information.  I would have grieved, but I was willing to give up the relationship and the prospect of marriage rather than to give up a future of serving my people.  If I was to serve them, I would need to continue to be part of the church fellowship, and simply setting out to follow Hiromi to who-knows-where was not an option.

Long story short, Hiromi eventually joined the church I was part of, after also doing his best to allay any fears I had that he might eventually “get tired of this” and want to leave.  I did really like Hiromi and saw early on that combining our lives would nicely fill in gaps that each of us had in our ability to live well and make a worthwhile contribution to those around us.  We got married during the summer just before I finished a semester of student teaching, the final requirement before graduating from college.  I was 29 and Hiromi was 36.  We soon started a family, and I never taught school away from home again until 21 years later, and then I was involved in teaching high school for 16 years.  In the meantime, Hiromi and I homeschooled our children, and mothering and homemaking was, in general, a rewarding endeavor.  Hiromi worked hard to make a living for the family, and he never nudged me toward seeking employment outside our home.  Nevertheless, he was my biggest cheerleader when I began teaching again.

I’ve referred several times to serving my people.  After 38 years of marriage they are still my people, but they are not in every respect Hiromi’s people.  Hiromi no longer regularly attends church with us, preferring instead to attend a nearby community church.  While he did not find our distinctive lifestyle onerous, he became disillusioned with our disinterest in abandoning centuries of tradition regarding the practice of women wearing a headcovering.  While this practice is deeply rooted in Scripture as we understand it, and living by brotherhood agreements is also an important understanding in our tradition, to Hiromi it seems that superior scholarship (his, specifically) should carry the day.  Simply put, our own level of scholarship seems to us to provide sufficient justification for our practice, and, bolstered by having experienced many years of blessing in it, we see no need to abandon it.  I believe this scenario is close to what my parents imagined as a possibility when they felt some caution about our marriage.  Both my parents and I, however, proceeded in trust that the future was safe in God’s hand, and that our lives should not be ordered by fears of the unknown.

In the drama, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the prospective groom John was portrayed as a perfect young man whose only “problem” was being black.  From John’s parents’ perspective, Joanna’s only problem was being white.  In real life, most people have more than one “problem,” and it may not be the most obvious surface “problem” that ends up being the biggest challenge.

Hiromi grew up in a culture that generally places a high priority on abiding by group expectations, as did I, halfway around the world.    Gender roles are as unambiguous there as they are in Amish Mennonite society, and intact family structures, even across generations, are very common in both societies. Before we married, Hiromi’s mother had told Hiromi after one brief meeting between us that she thinks it’s wise for him to marry an American if he plans to live in America.  When we visited Japan later, with one child in tow, their hardworking habits, yet quiet, gentle, deferential ways of relating to each other seemed very familiar and endearing.  Hiromi’s mother told her sister-in-law while we were there that she is very comfortable with me as the mother of her grandchildren. Our cultures seemed like a good fit–better, in fact, than either of our cultures meshed with American society in general.

Over time, however, I learned that Hiromi was in many ways an outlier in his culture of origin. Hiromi was known as a “lone wolf” when he was a child.  Yet in school he was often at or near the top of his classes academically, and he often led the way in student government in high school and college.  His mother and her five siblings grew up with a mother who had never been married.  Yet Hiromi grew up in an intact family.  I began also to realize that on some counts I was an outlier in my culture of origin, chiefly in that I was a woman who graduated from college and already had family members born in a foreign country. Between the two of us, finding common ground was easier because of some of these things.   For example, having a spouse with a college education was important to Hiromi.  If I was going to marry someone as unlike me as Hiromi was, I was glad it was someone who was as adventuresome and willing to take on new identities as Hiromi was.  He did, in fact, merge almost seamlessly into our faith-informed culture initially.  Because we lived near where I grew up, marrying Hiromi allowed me to carry on much as I always had.

In my outlier pursuits, I had always carefully maintained my connections with my people, just as my father had done.  He went on to become a trusted leader in our group.  Hiromi obviously could not manage this as an immigrant with no community of Japanese people here to become part of.  He had language barriers to overcome.  Although English was not my first language, no language barriers were present for me by the time we met.  In Japan Hiromi was recognized for having superior academic and communication skills.  Not so in America.  My outlier status gave me communication skills and opportunities that were atypical for most Amish Mennonite women.  This situation gave our marriage similar outlier status in terms of expected gender roles for both of our cultures.

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, one of the major concerns of John’s and Joanna’s parents was for their future children. Discrimination against us or our children was never a problem to my knowledge, perhaps because we lived in a different time than 1967, but more likely because we lived in a generous, accepting family and community environment.  Our children, and now our grandchildren, are a delight to us, and they are making their own good contribution to life where they reside.

I attribute Hiromi and I having an intact marriage with many good years of life together to the blessing of God.  The glitches we’ve encountered I attribute to our being human beings who are still far from perfect and who are, in some respects, actually deeply flawed.  I believe the challenges we face are not unique to couples with significant cultural background differences.  Yet, I imagine sometimes that most of our challenges would disappear if we had both grown up in my culture.  But what would be the fun in that?  Much of the richness that we enjoy in our relationship could hardly have happened if Hiromi’s Japanese identity were missing from his persona.

Both my parents’ caution and their optimism about our marriage were well-founded.  Nothing about acknowledging that keeps me from feeling grateful for 38 years of a shared life.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Miriam And The Dance

Whenever I read Bible stories about Miriam I'm reflective about who she was and who I am in comparison to her.  When I hear these stories publicly, I wonder if others are doing the comparing as well, and I sometimes feel a little squirmy and uncomfortable.*  Here is a link to a site that summarizes the story of Miriam in the Old Testament.  The Bible passages that mention Miriam are found in Exodus 2:1-10 (her name is not actually given here, but scholars agree that the sister mentioned was Miriam), Exodus 15:19-21,  Numbers 12, and Numbers 20:1.

My reason for thinking about Miriam just now is that in the past few days I have been toying with the imagery of singing congregants in church being engaged in a dance led by the song leader.  Miriam in the Bible led other Hebrew women in singing and dancing in praise to God for his deliverance from the murderous Egyptian army pursuing the Hebrews as they crossed the Red Sea.  She was, in effect, a song leader who also led others in dancing.  "Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing.  And Miriam sang to them: 'Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.'"  Exodus 15:20 and 21.

This Exodus account appears to me to have many parallels to what I witness whenever an effective song leader (conductor) leads a responsive audience in worship through song.  I've witnessed this again the past weekend during the Kansas Mobile Music Camp*.  In a similar way, I experience it frequently during regular church services.

I often hear from others that our son Shane is an excellent song leader.  I agree (and by saying so I probably shock many of my readers with my lack of humility).  I'm pleased, of course, at his success, but I'm even more happy that under his leadership, many ordinary people are repeatedly able to participate in creating something that is truly beautiful and deeply satisfying spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.

Shane has a big voice, and when he increases his own volume and enlarges the sweep of his arm, the audience sings louder. In this mode, praise, resolve, and certainty of truth are accentuated and magnified. When his gestures diminish in scope, his voice drops, and his hand moves into a hushing gesture, the singing softens.   This effects sober reflection and, at times, lament. All these results are components of true worship of a holy God.   The tempo can be varied as well to match the message in the words of songs, faster in the former case and slower in the latter.

Singing in four-part harmony is the default singing pattern in our church.  Mennonites are quite in love with this way of singing, and most people find their place in this all-church "choir" fairly effortlessly as they grow up by simply participating regularly, usually within listening range of someone who sings one of those parts very well.  Having segregated seating (men on one side and women on the other) probably helps with this skill transmission process.

Interrupting this four-part harmony routine with an alternative is another effective way of accentuating the words sung during congregational singing.  That alternative is singing in unison.  Unison singing can sound like a plaintive crescendo or a long intense petition.  Sometimes it sounds like a shout of triumph.  Transitioning  back to four-part harmony after singing in unison feels like relief, resolution, and rest.  Shane uses these variations to good effect in leading congregational singing.  In this case, he gives brief instructions before the song begins, and people usually remember and follow the instructions.

Recently I've noticed something curious.  Even when Shane is not leading the singing and the leader gives few signals beyond keeping a steady rhythm, sometimes the audience sings exactly as Shane has led them in singing that song in the past, with volume variations. This suggests both a good thing and a bad thing.  On the positive side, people have apparently internalized the message of the words deeply enough to remember how to express the message in their singing, even in the absence of prompting from the leader.  On the negative side, they are probably not paying a great deal of attention to the leader in front of them at the moment.  Also on the positive side, when the less experienced leader hears the effect coming through despite his lack of ability to convey it in his song leading, he no doubt feels energized and motivated to keep on developing his skills.

A light came on for me when I noticed this curious phenomenon.  Good congregational singing depends heavily on the singers' willingness to sing mindfully, thereby searing the meaning of the words deeply into collective experience and memory.  When this happens, the quality of the singing can be maintained even in the absence of a skilled and familiar leader.

The dance, though, when it happens, is magical, or in more spiritual language, transcendent.  In this partners dance, leader and singers move in passionate responsive synchrony.  The effect is the same as when the ancient Hebrew women's choir led by Miriam worshiped in singing and dancing.  God is glorified.

*Below I have inserted separately many of the intrusive thoughts that assailed me in the attempt above to create a cohesive post.  I gave up on linking them decisively to the exact text in the main post to which they correspond, and simply listed them roughly in the order they occurred to me as I was writing.  I hope their randomness is not too distracting.

I may explore in a later post what I make of having the same name as the ancient Hebrew Miriam.

KMMC is a satellite event for what has happened since 2007 in Harrisonburg, VA.  That event, Shenandoah Music Camp, was organized with the heavy involvement of two former Kansans, Lyle Stutzman and Wendell Nisly.  Both of them were on staff at Pilgrim during my years of teaching there.  In a sense the KMMC event felt like the SMC event was coming home.

Singing in Amish church services is always in unison.  With roots in Gregorian chants, this singing has become symbolic of the highly esteemed ethic of group consciousness and unity which are expressed also in many other facets of Amish life.

Shane also sometimes varies his upper body position while conducting.  He tilts his head, or bows slightly, or even sways a bit from side to side.  This tendency was on display briefly during the KMMC weekend when Franklin Miller kindly critiqued publicly six different conductors after they led parts of songs in front of a gathered audience.  When it was Shane's turn, Franklin suggested that he limit his movement to his arm, which for a conductor is the main instrument of communication with the singers in front of him.  Upon that suggestion, Shane did a second "run-through" after which Franklin added a slightly rueful comment like "but we still want Shane back."  I believe he was validating a leader's unique personality and style by this comment.

I heard that Leroy H. labeled Franklin as a world-class conductor, based on what he saw in his ability to bring together a mass choir to produce a stunning performance after only a few practices.  The choir included some who have no outstanding singing ability, and who have only minimal training and experience.

The "dance" happens in our church most reliably now when Shane leads the singing.  This has not always been the case.  In the past, it happened also when Lyle S. led the singing.  In the future, I believe it will happen when some of the conductors-in-training assume leadership roles.  During KMMC, it obviously happened when Franklin led the mass choir.  I also believe it could happen now for other song leaders in our church if the audience paid more careful attention to the person who leads the singing.

Some of these next observations are offered a bit tentatively (note the abundant disclaimers and over-explanation), since I know they are very subjective.  Furthermore, they may seem to make too much of God-given gifts and natural abilities and personality, none of which are present by a person's own effort.  Am I the only Amish Mennonite who reflexively resists highlighting such things because of the potential for pride in the possessor of them and discouragement in the person who lacks them?  Also, am I the only one who is beginning to understand that when we resist this we may be robbing God of glory that He deserves?  We may be missing an opportunity for celebration and cultivation of  a spirit of gratitude as well.

Shane has a deep resonant voice, dark hair and eyes, a smooth but decisive manner, and is people-smart (a term borrowed from the Multiple Intelligences framework for categorizing individual differences between people).

As applied to song leading, this means that people can hear what he wants because his voice carries phenomenally, even if they aren't watching him for visual cues.  That's a plus in a group that has within my memory transitioned from singing without a song leader at the front in church.  His distinctive facial coloring makes his expression easy to read, so  if people are watching him, they catch on quickly what he's asking for.  People whose eyesight is diminishing benefit from this, even if their eyesight is no worse than mine.  Smooth manner?  I don't know how to describe this further, but I believe it comes naturally to him and it makes people feel comfortable.  People smart?  Ditto.  He just knows how to get people to happily follow him.  I'm not sure how or why, but the word charisma comes to mind.

Shane also cries more readily than some men do.  He cried more at his own wedding than I did, for example, so he clearly sheds tears while experiencing a variety of emotions.  This ability to feel deep emotion no doubt affects his ability to perceive how songs can be interpreted expressively.  While I doubt that Shane is proud of this, those who follow his lead in singing no doubt reap the benefits of this capacity for feeling deep emotion.

Some of what makes Shane effective as a song leader is due to positive character traits.  His open, friendly expression reveals personal integrity.  I believe this comes from appropriate humility and a heart at peace with his Creator and Lord.  Clear-eyed self-acceptance is part of the package.  Personal integrity is important in order to be an effective leader.

Perfection still eludes Shane, as it does all of us.  Witness the need for improvement that Franklin pointed out.  I'm sure he would wish to be rid of the facial tic (one raised eyebrow) that sometimes intrudes without warning.  It first appeared when he was an adolescent.  No doubt Shane could list many more imperfections and struggles with song leading than most of us know about.  This did not happen recently, but on one occasion, his young son refused to stay seated at his place in the audience when it was time for Shane to lead the singing. So he trotted to the front alongside his daddy and then wrapped his arms tightly around one leg when Shane had to let go of his hand in order to hold the song book and direct the singing.  The child must have found it overwhelming enough not to do a repeat.  After that, he stayed sitting.

Finally, what works so very well for Shane in leading congregational singing at Center might suffer in translation to other settings.  At Center, the congregation is very responsive to Shane, and the people are attuned to following his signals.  Other audiences would be less so.  The acoustics of the sanctuary at Center are great, although I doubt that all of those who helped in its construction even knew the term acoustics.  In acoustically dead sanctuaries or much bigger spaces, the effect would be less affirming.

What I've written here is not meant to minimize the considerable contributions made by other song leaders, the contributions and skills of our other sons, or the contributions of all who offer their gifts in different ways to the body of Christ, and who serve other people well in other capacities. 

For both song leaders in church and for those in the gathered group, I hope congregational singing can be an enjoyable and worshipful experience.  For all ordinary people who live for the Lord, I desire times of worship in the company of others, whether or not it involves enjoyable congregational singing.  If you've never experienced the worshipful dance though, between song leader and congregation, I hope you participate expectantly in whatever role is open to you.  In this way, you'll be ready when transcendence manifests itself in your presence.