Saturday, April 13, 2013

Gently, Lord, O Gently Lead Us

This Thursday, April 11, I had my first Episcopal funeral service experience other than my father's funeral. Hemming and hawing about whether I should blog about a funeral service, I decided to go ahead and write about it. My blog, while filled with occasional article-type posts, is mainly my personal blog and I want to capture a few thoughts for myself.

Gently, Lord, O gently lead us.
Through this lonely vale of tears,
And, O Lord, in mercy give us

Thy rich grace in all our fears

In the hour of pain and anguish,
In the hour when death draws near,
Suffer not our hearts to languish,
Suffer not our souls to fear;

When mortal life is ended,
Bid us in Thine arms to rest,
Till, by angel bands attended,
We awake among the blest.

I've loved this chorale as long as I've known it. The words of Thomas Hastings set to an Appalachian hymn arranged by Shenandoah University composer William Averitt , were used at the end of his arduous, yet gloriously beautiful St. Matthew Passion. I have extracyted the chorale and used it every Maundy Thursday (with his permission). Here is a performance of this piece that I recorded at the very end of the Passion at the 2009 National ACDA convention by the USC Concert Choir, directed. by my mentor Dr. Larry Wyatt. Several years prior, I gave the premiere of the world premiere of the Passion as one of my doctoral conducting recitals.

I chose this piece as our Introit for the funeral service. I chose it because it moves your very soul. In the original performance of the St. Matthew Passion, after two hours of standing, of soloists, some atonal counterpoint, and many chorales, I remember feeling entirely spent. We were exhausted.The simplicity of the chorale and the beauty of the words gave great relief and release as we finished the Passion, yet did not heal our sapped bodily strength. It did whoever, give us spirit and strength to handle the life that came next. In my humble view, this is how we approach Good Friday in Holy Week, physically exhausted and entirely spiritually spent, apprehensive of what is to come, yet our souls asking for God to lead us into and through this lonely vale of tears and all the way to the Resurrection.

The funeral was for Mr. T. G. "Teddy" Solomon, a great benefactor in New Orleans and the local Episcopal community. I did not know him, but I wished that I'd had the privilege after hearing his eulogy given by one of his sons. At last week's Episcopal Bluegrass Eucharist, it was announced by Bishop James B. Brown that Mr. Solomon had passed away in the night. I found it amazing that on this particular day, over 600 people were gathered together in a place that he supported and helped build and that bears his name - the Solomon Episcopal Conference Center. Mr. Solomon's obituary is here.

St. Paul's Episcopal had about 750 people come through the doors on a very rainy day and about 550 were present for the service.  THAT IS HUGE for us! I hadn't ever seen so many flower arrangements in my life - probably at all funerals I've ever been to - combined! It was lovely.I did not actually go into our chapel, The Solomon Chapel, for the visitation, but tons of guests were there including our mayor, members of the Manning and Brees families (Saints), and Harry Connick, Jr. I'm glad I didn't find that out until the next day ; )
The service had tons of music so I was very busy Monday through Wednesday preparing for it.
I re-realized in so doing, that I truly love working in the church and especially the Episcopal church.

The family invited the Shades of Praise Gospel Choir to perform and they did a great job. It was nice to have them as guests. Our St. Paul's Choir sang "Gently, Lord" (above) and Love Never Fails by J.A.C. Redford with piano and cello. While also fitting for a wedding, our priest mentioned to me that it was an Easter liturgy and that this would be appropriate here as well. Have a listen to a recording of this beautiful work at the end of this post.

Through Fr. Rob, I also became familiar with several chants used for the burial service. I suppose it's possibly weird that becoming aware of and knowing these chants was exciting, but they are indeed beautiful. Roughly S-379 to S-385. While I don't look forward to people passing away, I do hope that I will sing these someday. A couple of them are actually for the graveside rites.

The Episcopal burial rites are beautifully written.

Rite I  -
Rite II -

In many instances, I prefer Rite I, but they are both beautifully written. Some snippets of the language of the Eastern Orthodox funeral service can be found. It reminded me very much of John Tavener's  Song for Athene (recording below). He used text written by "Mother Thekla (18 July 1918 – 7 August 2011), an Orthodox nun who co-founded the Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption near Whitby, North Yorkshire, and whom Tavener called his "spiritual mother" (Wiki info). I've sung it twice. It's too large a work for a small choir to do well, but I did have St. Paul's sing it once for All Saints Day and it was very moving. It's definitely one of my favorite pieces so I was pleased to be able to find fractions of its text in the burial anthems.

I wish I remembered my father's funeral in 1998 because it was also an Episcopal service, but I barely remember hearing friends and family singing hymns. I was too upset. I have no recollection of most of his service, but I do distinctly remember evey moment of the graveside gathering and rites at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, SC. I remember how comforting it was to see that friends of mine had come to the service and some to the graveside even though they did not know my father. Much later, the passage of time, a healer of the sting of loss, had smoothed the transition to a more solemn sadness which took the place of tears. It enabled me to mourn my father as I knew him over the course of my life rather than the immediacy of mourning a spirit wandering in and out of recognition and lost to Alzheimer's well before his death.

I was glad to have the experience of Mr. Solomon's funeral and I wish his family well.

Love Never Fails by J.A.C. Redford - we took it slightly slower (and also less breaths in the chant, more time with phrasing later etc.), but you can get a  sense of its beauty in this nice recording on J.A.C.'s website:

Song for Athene - Tavener
I specifically chose the YouTube recording of this at the funeral of Princess Diana. It is so very moving.

May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.

Give rest, O Lord, to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep.

The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of Paradise.

Life: a shadow and a dream.

Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Houston...We've Got a Pr.... NASA Social - POST #1

N A S A   R O C K S  ! ! !

I decided, a day or so before the deadline, to apply for the ISS (International Space Station) NASA Social that was held in Houston at the NASA Johnson Space Center. I found out that I was accepted for the event on my way to Dallas, Texas for the national ACDA (American Choral Directors Convention)!!! WOOHOO!!! So, my rejoicing and nerding out began a week before the event :-) We returned to New Orleans from Dallas on Sunday afternoon. Monday after classes, I hopped back in the car and drove straight to Houston, fortunately avoiding traffic during the entire trip. I will split this fabulous experience into a few different blog posts!

The NASA Social description is here: "Go Behind the Scenes of the ISS"

Needless to say, I was SUPER EXCITED! Back in October, I was lucky to attend the NASA Social event at the Goldstone Deep Space Network (DSN) (previous blog post here) which was an amazing adventure and a chance to learn much more about how radio astronomy works. Considering my favorite spacecraft is Voyager 1, it was the experience of a lifetime!

This event in Houston was MARVELOUSLY done! Every step well-planned and full of awesome.

Some of the highlights of our NASA Social tour included:

  • Speaking with science researchers whose work is enabled by the ISS
  • Asking questions of NASA Astronaut Karen Nyberg, European Space Agency Astronaut Luca Parmitano and Russian Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin during a March 19 press conference about their upcoming Expedition 36 to the International Space Station
  • Touring unique facilities, including:
  •      - the Robonaut Laboratory
         - the Mission Control Center - I had always wanted to see this in person!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
         - the Exercise Equipment Training Facility

    We got to Learn about:
  • Current scientific experiments underway aboard the space station and new experiments planned to launch in the future
  • Commercial and educational research opportunities enabled by the station's microgravity environment
  • How researchers study the effects of a weightless environment on the human body to help protect astronauts for long-duration spaceflight missions in the future
  • How the space station is being used to test groundbreaking, new technologies that will help astronauts safely reach new deep space destinations, including an asteroid and eventually Mars

    • Our tour opened at the Space Center Houston with a welcome from enthusiastic Joel Montalbano, the Deputy Manager for ISS Utilization. Then, we 

      moved into a small auditorium and had a terrific presentation by fabulous Liz Warren, of Barrios Technology, [ @Spasmunkey ] on the science and other activities on the ISS.  and we could ask questions about anything.

      I hadn't know it, but at any given time, there are between 100 -125 experiements going on in the ISS! The majority of what the astronauts do is scientific research.

      We then moved to our shuttle buses, for which I quickly created a Foursquare "Cool Bus" check-in :-)  #nerdmoment  Susan Henderson was the escort on our bus and she was awesome! Lynette Madison was the other escort and equally awesome! So full of information and enthusiasm for the day!

      Our first stop was Bldg 5 - the Space Mission Simulation Facility (including the recently retired Shuttle Mission Simulators, or SMS, the ISS Mission Simulator, and the Orion Mission Simulator). Here, it was so cool to walk through the hall and see various mission programs honored with plaques and pictures.

      We made our way through to the ISS astronaut training facility! This is a mockup facility where astronauts train for moving through the ISS and for problems that may arise. It was HUGE! 

      To our delight, Rick Mastracchio, astronaut, was our tour guide! What a great guy! He showed us all through the mockup and talked to us about what it is like to be aboard the ISS and the level of athletic training one needs to stay fit up in space. We got to ask him a ton of questions! He graciously took his time out to have a picture with us in small groups - so nice! He also told us "Don't press any buttons" :-)  the facility was laid out exactly as the ISS is and it was VERY cool to be walking through there, seeing what the astronauts see. This is as close as I will ever get to actual space exploration and I'll take it!

      Astro Rick showed us some computer areas and issues, how they maneuver around, alcoves, how there is as much technology on the ceiling as there is on the walls, and explained that there is constant science going on. This is one of my favorite pictures because the mockup is life-sized and you gain perspective on how the astronauts live and move within a confined setting. Just remove gravity and we're all set :-)

      There are storage facilities, labs, sleeping areas, etc. The permanent crew is six people. Astro Rick mentioned that people must get used to weightlessness and be well before launching.

      When asked how they avoid getting sick, he talked to us a little bit about how astronauts were quarantined for two weeks before going to the facility from which they would launch. 

      The actual living space on the ISS is about the 
      equivalent of one-and-a-half Boeing 747s (roughly).
      The main ISS area was put together piece by piece,
      by bolting giant modules to one other to form one 74m-long tube. Inside, most everything is built into the walls and the ceiling to provide for space to get around. To the right, you see a computer station with at least five monitors.

      Below, you see an ISS hatch diagram schematic with hatch closure directions. This also shows you how the modules are connected. Here is a link to a YouTube video of hatch closure as the crew of Expedition 33 begins their return home. It is from Nov 2012.

      The ISS moves at 17,500 mph relative to the Earth and It takes 90 min to circle the planet which turns out to be 16 complete laps every day. I asked both Astro Rick and Susan Henderson (whose husband is Astro Clayton Anderson) whether or not they knew that some people wave and say hello outloud to the ISS as it passes overhead  : )

      The above is a picture of several #spacetweeps with Astro Rick (I'm on far left) :-)

      The next post will cover our visit to Building 9 and the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. My pictures are posted on Facebook  here.

      Sunday, April 7, 2013

      Solomon Episcopal Conference Center

      It's a cool Sunday evening and while dinner is simmering, I've come to realize that I am FOREVER behind in my posts.  Nonetheless, I thought I'd write a few quick notes about today's experience at the Solomon Episcopal Conference Center in Robert, Louisiana as it set the tone for a wonderful day!
      Our Bishop, The Rt. Rev'd Morris K. Thompson and the Solomon Episcopal Conference Center invited everyone in the diocese (EDOLA) to celebrate 20 years of service and hospitality to EDOLA and neighboring communities with a Bluegrass Eucharist followed by a picnic and activities on the grounds. Brilliant! This was SUCH a fantastic use of
      "low-Sunday". I was not able to stay the whole time, but I did go up for the service. The bishop said that he was hoping for 200 people and that we had far exceeded that number! I saw an update from Canon Mark E. Stevenson this evening and it read: " Nearly six hundred people attended today's celebration at the Solomon Episcopal Conference Center. For the first time in history, three bishops of the Diocese of Louisiana vested for the same liturgy. It was a glorious day indeed!" It was a wonderful service and as I looked out onto the lake while listening to the music and the lessons, I could feel layers of stress fading away. I had to leave right after the service, but I definitely will plan on coming back and I highly recommend anyone going to the center to experience the restful and spiritual atmosphere!

      Here is a link to the history of the center.
      Bishops Brown and Jenkins were here today and participated in the service. Bishop Brown told us that Teddy Solomon, who had become involved with supporting the center in 1982, had passed away. I was struck at how amazing a moment this was - all of us here, celebrating the beauty of this place and his passing in the night. Truly, I am sure that he would have been thrilled at today's service.

      The Last Chance Bluegrass Band played for us today and while the keys were low for the singer types on some hymns, it went well and was a great idea to have them! I enjoyed hearing them.

      Everyone brought folding chairs, blankets, or used rockers and chairs provided. Children were everywhere and I even saw a CUTE PUPPY that someone brought with the family! :-) My friend Bonnie and I sat down front and sang harmony to all the hymns. My shirt was a hit! I thought that since it was a bluegrassy day, it was very appropriate :-) (Here's a link where you can get the shirt from Altar Press)
      One more picture from the service - Bishop Thompson leads us in prayer. He is a wonderful and kind man and I am so happy to have had this experience today.

      I am planning to visit the center before I go to Innsbruck this summer. I need it. I need to competely immerse myself in thought and prayer. Who doesn't these days? For many years now, I have had spiritual tuggings to further my work and service in The Episcopal Church. For the past three and a half years, it's been more pronounced and the last six months has not gone away from my thoughts. It's been much closer to the surface in my activities. The level of student counseling / listening I do has more than quadrupled in the last few years as well. I will be beginning spiritual advising soon and see where that takes me.... That is certainly a loaded topic about which I will blog some this summer when I have time in Austria! It is certainly not new and those who are close to me know this, but it's new for me to discuss out loud with more than a handful. I am currently in a stage of reading recommended books.
      I'll leave this post with one more view of the Solomon Center. Blessings to all! :-)