Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sing Me to Heaven (Again)

Some time ago I posted this choral piece here.  Several months later a smaller choral group, with far better sound posted a cleaner version, that I thought I should place here now.  The lyrics follow.

I spend so much of my time busily rushing through life, trying to justify my existence.  Some day, I shall become dust - these lyrics in part reflect my great hope for a peaceful and grace-filled conclusion to life's journey.

In my heart’s sequestered chambers lie truths stripped of poet’s gloss.
Words alone are vain and vacant, and my heart is mute.
In response to aching silence memory summons half-heard voices,
And my soul finds primal eloquence and wraps me in song.

If you would comfort me, sing me a lullaby.
If you would win my heart, sing me a love song.
If you would mourn me and bring me to God,
Sing me a requiem, Sing me to heaven.

Touch in me all love and passion, pain and pleasure,
Touch in me grief and comfort; love and passion, Pain and pleasure.

Sing me a lullaby, a love song, a requiem,
Love me, comfort me, bring me to God:
Sing me a love song, Sing me to heaven.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Suki Kim - Teaching in North Korea

This is so moving.  The oppression of North Korea as told from someone who has lived it....

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Lost in Time Along The Cliffs of Mohr

Doolin, County Clare
It was an evening where we were, all together, lost in time - under a dark and cloudy sky in a pub in Ireland.  It will take a long time before the memory fades of that night we three shared; myself, my wife, and younger daughter. It happened this past March.

Doolin, County Clare, is a desolate, seaside windswept village that, like much of Ireland, dates to before the first century.  Even the trees here seem set firmly against time, leaning almost parallel to the ground, bent from the constant and stiff prevailing onshore sea breeze.  Twisted and gnarled, they are determined to survive the centuries, just as have the Irish people.  Through famine, religious persecution, plunder by invading armies, and abandonment by their neighbors, the Irish have hung on and survived.  Through all this time, these people have both stiffened their resolve and softened their hearts toward others.  They face their days with smiles on their faces and music in their hearts.  Irish music.

In we ducked, out of the moist and quiet night, inside to the warm pub on this cold and drizzling Irish night.  Outside lay the lonely, sparse and brilliant dark green hillsides near the black and restless sea.   The feeling is that one has been transported to a place that spans the centuries.  You seem to go missing; between the rush of today and the quiet and calm of ancient times.  We were in O'Connors Pub, the center of evening life in little Doolin, quite far from the maddening crowds.  Over the years artists and writers, including J.M. Synge, George Bernard Shaw, Dylan Thomas, Augustus John and Oliver St. John Gogarty spent time in Doolin, often in the welcoming atmosphere of O’Connors, which dates back to 1832.

Visiting much of Ireland outside of the larger cities leaves an emotion within you often, as if you have moved strangely backward into the past.  A time you cannot exactly place, but that feels refreshing and renewing.  At home, in a way.  You find yourself in conversations with total strangers, and yet the talk is warm and familiar, as if you had bumped into an old neighbor who you had not seen in a while.  And this is what the western coast of Ireland does; something within is awakened and at the same time rested in the soul.  Earlier this same day, we had visited the storied Cliffs of Mohr, home to so much Irish legend, tragedy, and music.

The Cliffs of Mohr
Along the Cliffs of Mohr
But this night, we had come to O'Connors in search of the ancient yet modern music of Ireland, as Doolin is known as a cradle of Irish music.  We were told earlier in the day by the bartender that the music would start at "Nine Tirty (9:30) pee emm".  And so we came.

Sure enough, a small band of locals gather right at the appointed time; a flutist of 65ish, with grey hair and a face at once weathered and reflective, an accordion player who could double for Robert Plant, a second flutist of perhaps 45 still wearing his work boots - looking as if he had spent the day caring for the sheep on a hillside just down the road, and a lovely young lady fiddle player - who could also have been the local elementary school teacher.  They all appeared separately over the next 15 or so minutes; sitting down and producing their instruments out of weathered cases or backpacks.  A table had been reserved in the center of the pub for them, filled with beers and ciders and coffees for the players.  There was no sheet music anywhere - this music welled up from within their hearts and minds, and eons of Irish history. 

As each member joined the group the music just continued
naturally, there were short hellos and nods of greeting, but the music itself took precedence - entertaining and playing together was their happy task.  After about 30 minutes it was time for a break, and something unique yet ordinarily Irish happened.  Something unexpected for us Americans.  Something beautiful.

During the break for the band, a man of about 75 stood up from his place with his friends in the corner and announced, "I am goin' to sing a love song for you.  I hope you won't mind my warbling.  This is a love song.  It's called the Cliffs of Mohr."

And then he closed his eyes and began to sing.  He too seemed transported to a different place and time as he sang in perfect pitch:

Lyrics & music by Dermot Kelly         

I'm sitting on the cliffs of Moher
Looking out to sea.
The broad
Atlantic swells below me
A bridge love between you and me.
The puffins cry above the tide
The seagulls glide through the air
They’re calling you back from New York City
Back home to the
county of Clare.

Come back, come back, sweet Annie
Come back for I will be there.
We'll sing and we'll play
In the old-fashioned way
On the hillside of sweet
County Clare.
When he finished, both my wife and I had tears in our eyes, without really understanding why.  There was a brief moment of quiet, and then polite applause.  Apparently, this sort of sweet solo performance is a common thing in O'Conners.

It has taken me more than a month to understand what made this evening so meaningful to me.  After returning to my busy life here, I have had time to reflect on what we all experienced that night in Doolin.  We witnessed beauty.  Beauty in the simple band of four friends making music, beauty in the windswept hillsides, and beauty in the simple words of an Irish ballad.

I am fairly convinced that we often move too fast through life to appreciate the beauty in the ordinary.  Perhaps being out of our ordinary lives that night, half way across the planet from our homes, along our willingness to just take in the evening put us in a place where beauty could find us.  But this was not ordinary beauty, this was a mysterious and sacred thing, something from another time and place altogether.  What we experienced was a partial and momentary response to the longing we all have within us.

Pastor and theologian N.T. "Tom" Wright puts it so well:
"But the present world is also designed for something which has not yet happened. It is like a violin waiting to be played: beautiful to look at, graceful to hold-and yet if you'd never heard one in the hands of a musician, you wouldn't believe the new dimensions of beauty yet to be revealed. Perhaps art can show something of that, can glimpse the future possibilities pregnant within the present time.” 
In that little pub in Doolin, we were confronted with Beauty, and it took hold of us for just a while.  Something deep and wide and completely lovely.  The future possibilities pregnant within the present time.

Maybe if we are more willing and open, beauty will find us more often.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Psalm of Life

Today, I discovered this classic poem.  It quite accurately expresses some of my thoughts and feelings at both the end of the year, and at this middle point in my life.

A Psalm of Life

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
   Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
   And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
   And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
   Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
   Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
   Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
   And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
   Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
   In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
   Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
   Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
   Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
   We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
   Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
   Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
   With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
   Learn to labor and to wait.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Subtle Sensations of Faith

I recently came across this article, which expresses well some of the essentials of a life of faith.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Norris Family Christmas Communique - 2014

Christmas Joy from Clan Norris of (originally) South Pasadena
For years, I have heard my sweet wife telling friends, more particularly new parents, that “The days seems long, but the years rush by”.  I just Googled that, and it is a Nancy Norris original, found nowhere else on the Interwebs.  As 2014 closes, we find ourselves a living testament to that idea this year.  We have no idea what happened to 2014.  But if we will just pause for a minute, we will recall it as a year packed with so very much to be thankful for, lots to celebrate, some losses to mourn, and countless moments, people and friendships for which we are deeply, abidingly thankful.  Your friendship tops the thankful list.  With that in mind, below find “A Year in the Life of The Norris’ “, as related to Dad via emails from all points on the compass, and forthwith semi-faithfully retold.

LA / Chicago / Elsewhere 
This has been a year of transition, change, and a return to one last year in beloved Chicago for Kelly.  For the past six months, she has returned to the City of Broad Shoulders to serve as a nanny for, in Kelly’s words: “two very fun boys, ages 4 and 8, and a very generous and loving pair of parents”.  Nancy and I can personally vouch for this family’s hospitality and warmth, after enjoying a late September feast outdoors on the patio at their home.  Kelly has a heart to see the world; and was also able to visit New Orleans, have great friends visit her in Chicago, and join her whole family for the Bruin / Husky game in Seattle.  What a fun weekend was that!  The past year also found her in Costa Rica for a remarkable six week immersion into the Spanish language; as well as the rain forests and tropical coastal waters.  Kelly is preparing for her eventual vocation as an elementary grade teacher here in LA, very likely with a classroom of largely Spanish speaking children.  I tell people all the time; given her caring heart and love for kids, Kelly is now, and will continue to be one of my greatest heroes.

What Rain?  Life in Seattle
Heather continues to love her life at UW in Seattle!  She is so very thankful for “my awesome, encouraging, thoughtful” Seattle community of friends.  Nancy and I have met many of these folks; they are indeed a warm, fun, thoughtful and remarkable group.  Might we all be so blessed.  She was accepted (hurray!) into the psychology program at school this past fall, and is starting to think more seriously about an additional degree in nursing after graduation.  This past summer Heather again served at YSSC Camp near Yosemite, and was filled to the brim with hard work, the beauty of Creation, and joy in serving kids and God.  Never one to sit still for long, at the dinner table when she was three years old, or today; Heather is off to Ireland soon after Christmas for a semester at University College Dublin.  Adventure awaits!

Of Faith, Service, Laughter, Joy
Nancy feels that each day is a gift.  She is thankful to continue serving as the Board Chair/Volunteer of Club 21 an agency serving families with Down Syndrome.  As a newer non-profit, Club21 is more financially stable and is growing in many ways.  More than these things, it is amazing to watch these beautiful, courageous families and children make new friends, discover learning resources, and find belonging and hope.  This must be what pure joy looks like!  Nancy has also begun mentoring young girls through Elizabeth House, a home for pregnant, homeless women in Pasadena.  And if that were not enough, during the past year she has been key in the welcoming two recent college grads in to our home as guests while they begin life in the Real World.  It has been loads of fun to have their energy, appetites, long conversations that matter, laughter, and friends grace our home in this season of their lives…and ours!  She misses the Norris girls, but since the Fall brought us together in Seattle and Chicago, her heart is full indeed.

This Wondrous Ride - Dad
And then there is Dad.  I have somehow mysteriously reached the season in life where I must admit I am well in the depths of middle age.  And this same season offers more of a long view; a perspective on all this going and coming, these great gifts in the form of two active and now adult daughters and the daily affection and partnership of a remarkable wife.   

How did we all get here, all of us, to just this place?  Where are those smallish hands of little girls I used to hold in mine, those tiny giggles from the back seat of the car, driving to some sporting event with friends.  Alas, those hands are larger now, and beautiful, and offered to lift others up, to give courage, to provide friendship and love.  Those voices have matured and become more graceful.  How has life turned out like this?  Is this just random happenstance, or might there be some great Author writing all this, making this story both often beautiful and sometimes frightening?

The answer to these questions is perhaps found within the verses a of a Christmastide sonnet (found below), entitled “Descent”, and written by our new friend Malcolm Guite, who is an Anglican priest, chaplain, poet, and singer-songwriter living in Cambridge, England.  Nancy and I met Malcolm earlier this year at a retreat in the Texas hill country, and found him a true renaissance man of great insight and hilarity.  He also is a dead ringer for Santa!  I would encourage you read this piece slowly, ponder its meaning, and perhaps share it with those you love over the Holidays.

Christmas Peace, Joy, Laughter, and Love to all from our home to yours!


They sought to soar into the skies
Those classic gods of high renown
For lofty pride aspires to rise
But you came down.

You dropped down from the mountains sheer
Forsook the eagle for the dove
The other Gods demanded fear
But you gave love

Where chiseled marble seemed to freeze
Their abstract and perfected form
Compassion brought you to your knees
Your blood was warm

They called for blood in sacrifice
Their victims on an altar bled
When no one else could pay the price
You died instead

They towered above our mortal plain,
Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,
Aloof from birth and death and pain,
But you were born.

Born to these burdens, borne by all
Born with us all ‘astride the grave’
Weak, to be with us when we fall,
And strong to save.

- Malcolm Guite


Monday, November 24, 2014

Christian Wiman & Eugene Peterson

In October, my wife and I had the unique privilege of being a part of a weekend with these two men.  I am stilling pondering the conversations.  I will try to write on more of this soon, but here is a visual beginning:

Poet and Pastor: Christian Wiman & Eugene Peterson from Laity Lodge on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Of Sea, and Sunsets, and a Land without Time

“as wave upon wave rolls in, breaks on the beach, and sinks away in the endless gray water; eternally one and ever another…life is but a moment before the ancient, primal sea.  And we are unable to turn our gaze away, for hours on end we stare over the foamy crests, outward – to where? – we hardly know ourselves, but it draws our gaze into the endless distance, out to where the sun sinks into the sea, where the waves rise, and the soul stretches out, wants to know what the eyes cannot sense – wants to know about what is beyond the grey sea – or whether it just continues on eternally like this, without and end, without a beyond, a process of becoming and passing away with neither measure nor goal – and yet as intensively as it searches, it always sees the same drama…no hope…eternal hiddenness.”

Surviving fragment of a sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from November 28, 1928

Recently, we have spent a week on the island of Kauai, enjoying warm days devoid of schedules, routine, and the seemingly endless hurry of the mainland.  Each day, we three spent a good amount of our time simply gazing out at the endless breaking waves on the beachfront; enjoying local surfers plying the waves for hours.  It’s remarkable how soothing this can be; how soft and gentle upon the busy and weary urban soul.  

In reading and conversation during that week, I learned that the ancient Hawaiians had no form of time keeping before the arrival of European explorers, and historians are unaware of any reference to their use of anything resembling a sundial to keep track of the time of day.  Hence, there were no Hawaiian words referring to precise time prior to the arrival of Europeans; before the arrival of our schedules, and meetings, and “efficiency”.  

Before we came, there were just these warm and gracious people, and this brilliant blue sky, pure white clouds, palm trees, and the sound of the endless breaking of this deep blue ocean.  Before we Europeans arrived came there were only the perpetual nightly sunsets of saffron, leaded grey, and brilliant red gracing the horizon.  Nightly gifts of Providence fading toward eternity.  

The last time we visited here was nine years ago.  Our daughters were just 11 and 14, and we enjoyed a fun vacation on two islands, engaged in all sorts of kid-friendly activities.  This time there are three of us, as Older Daughter is starting off a new post college life, away in Chicago with her new job, and tribe of warm friendships.  There is a gentle bittersweet to this trip.   Earlier this week we three took a trip back in time to a place we visited during our last stop here.  It was if we each were being drawn back to relive something deeply good and full of mercy. 

Tunnels Beach is on the far north shore of Kauai, north of Waimea Bay, where the road stops and you just cannot drive anymore.  After the Big War, there was an attempt to build a road around the north end of the island, but this is one of the wettest spots on the planet, and after months of surveying and planning and then attempting to dig into the jungle, the effort was abandoned; surrendered to nature and given back to the persistent rain and endless time of this island.  

Tunnels is also known as one of the easiest and best spots on this island for snorkeling.  We headed to the end of the road,  across to the beach, and into the blue waters; warm and gentle.  We swam out into the surf, suddenly surrounded by an abundance of ocean life right beneath us.  Reef fish of every imaginable color and size, eels slithering at arm’s length – a striking gift before our eyes.  Coming back up for air, you take a look back at the beach and are rendered nearly speechless at the vista of the deep green mountains that descend down to the beach, of palm trees, and of brilliant blue water around you.  I’m not sure if the tears in my eyes were from the salt water, or the brilliance of that view.  

Or perhaps it was the sudden and deep understand of Who it was that designed all this rich tropical beauty for us to absorb.  After just a few minutes of exploring, we encountered the gentle and constant underwater attendants of the reef – soft green adolescent sea turtles gently swimming through the tide.  We spotted at least three; each one wearing on his face what seemed to us like a soft smile as they gazed back at us - we awkward large white creatures wearing what must look like space suit snorkel gear on our faces.  I suspect those turtles know something of timelessness, as they drift softly through the immense sea. We are intruders in their world, but they tolerate us with smiles on their faces.  They have no schedules, no place to be today.
But I have a schedule.  It’s kept in my electronic calendar on my cell phone.  And on my PC at work.  It’s backed up on The Cloud, don’t you know.  I am proud of that schedule there; it gives my life purpose and meaning.  It keeps me occupied and feeling like I am making a difference.  That schedule affirms the vibration of some protestant work ethic deep within me.

I noticed something each late afternoon from our beachfront vista.  Something we dubbed “The Big Event”.  Every night, without fail, as twilight approached, the beachfront road would fill with cars and trucks, each containing a local or two just getting off work – coming to the beach for the end of the day.  And then from the rooms behind ours came more folk; the obvious tourists, dressed in mainland styles that gave away their point of origin.  Some brought beach blankets, others a bottle of wine to share, each quietly coming forth together.  Sitting and standing silently or in quiet conversation.  

And we were with them there each night to witness something simple, and timeless, and in a way even sacred.  It was sunset time.  Each night the sky would fill with colors indescribable and gorgeous.  For just those few moments at the close of the day, we were all quietly sharing a “moment before the ancient, primal sea.”  And, we were unable to turn our gaze away.   It was timeless, and beautiful, and fleeting.

And I standing there, thought of Bonhoeffer's words.  I wished that my soul could stretch out.  I wanted to know what my eyes cannot sense.  And yet, I have this strange comfort in knowing that I have seen enough in these years to feel that my life is carefully attended by the Artist of those sunsets, by the Alchemist of these seas, and that time, whatever that means, is held for me in a deep and sacred place.

I think the ancient Hawaiians, with their lack of time keeping, may have a great deal to teach me. 

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Review: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

An apology for the recent lack of content here, I propose to post more soon.  We shall see if that actually happens.

I have recently come across a remarkable book that I must recommend, with caution:

It is generally recognized that approximately one third of our adult years will be spent working.  Given this, it would seem logical that there would have been a vast number of books written on the depth of the meaning and purpose of work. 
Mysteriously, meaningful treatments of the purpose and philosophy of the Western World of work are lacking, which raises the potential significance of Alain De Botton’s, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009).  De Botton is a luxurious writer who has the ability to describe life and its ironies with poignant, gentle and touching language.  This effort is one of the most evocative and thoughtful treatments of the working life I have read, and yet, there is something profound and cosmically important missing from this otherwise beautiful book.
De Botton begins by poetically describing the world of cargo ships, their worldwide destinations, and even those whose hobby is “spotting” these giant ships and they come and go the world’s ports.  From here, the reader explores the beauty and pain, and indeed the pleasures and sorrows of a vast array of occupations, from cookie manufacturing to rocket science, to accounting, landscape painting, and logistics, among many others.  The array of occupations is diverse and fascinating.

If we are honest, most of our working lives are rather mundane and insignificant if taken on a daily basis.  The language used by De Botton to describe the working of his diverse cast of characters is sweeping and often poetic.  Who of us would not want a man of his writing skill to describe with thoughtful clarity the work we dutifully attend to each day? 

However, in the end, the reader is left flat, with a lack of encouragement, substance, meaning and purpose in this touching study of work.  After all the glowing language and intriguing descriptions, the reader is left feeling at a loss for virtually any good news about work.  Alas, from De Botton’s view, there is little purpose in the act of work; the news mostly is that of the “sorrow” side of work.  There is also a rather persistent subtle theme on the vacuous and empty soul of capitalism, which is fascinating, given the author is the son of a very wealthy European family.  

The final sentences of the book reveal a profound emptiness, which is my greatest sorrow and largest problem with this otherwise wonderful book:  “Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes from perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table.  It will have kept us out of greater trouble”.
A bit of research reveals the reason for the sad ending to this book.  De Botton is an atheist, having been raised entirely outside of any religious tradition.  So much so, that in January 2012, De Botton published Religion for Atheists, about the benefits of religions for those who do not believe in them.  Now that is fascinating; go ahead people, steal the ideas of great religions, just don’t believe any of them.

To me, a lack of belief in God is the primary trouble with this otherwise outstanding book.  In the end, our work, all of it, and all of us, are essentially meaningless.  It keeps us out of greater trouble.  How sad, to lead a life, and produce a book, that essentially in the end instructs us that all is meaningless and devoid of purpose. 

As an inspiring response to the hopelessness of De Botton, I would heartily recommend “Every Good Endeavor” by Tim Keller.
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