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Improvising Tradition

Just now as I sit down to write, I’ve come from singing my daughter to sleep. It is one the best parts of my day.  Even if other things are aggravating, or exhausting or dull or depressing, singing at night – all carols this month – somehow sets thing aright.

I sometimes think what a lovely gift it would be to be sung to sleep every night. I’m not much of a singer, but in that small space between my daughter and me, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is my full attention on the song and the feeling of its embodied practice and presence, emotion and mind all nested together. The words and music form a cradle of comfort and wisdom and point to something larger and older than me, than her.

Singing carols, or folk song, or nursery rhymes is partly a matter of keeping a tradition alive. In my own spiritual practice is also means a constant improvisation. I don’t want to hand on a tradition romantically or uncritically. I’m constantly toying with and changing the words of songs that I sing. I need the words to make a cradle not a noose.

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This morning I opened some mail and I found a new book, fresh from the printing press. The Hypenateds sounds for sure like a book for me. I mean one of the worst opening questions I ever got on a job interview was from a seventh grader who asked (prompted, no doubt, by his parents): “Why do you hyphenate your name?”

“Well,” I said, letting my bewilderment rattle around in my head and quickly trying to gather my wits. “Why do I hyphenate my name.” (I think I probably repeated the question in something more like a statement.) It wasn’t that I had not thought about the choice. I’d spent endless hours thinking about it. But it wasn’t usually the first topic out of the shoot, in a standing-room-only meeting with 30 or 40 youth and their Sunday school teachers and parents, in a church where I was under consideration for a call to become the youth minister.

When I recovered, I said, “Well, theologically my name is a symbol that honors my past and my family of origin and also honors my commitment to my husband and our partnership in marriage.” No one looked very satisfied with this answer and in all honesty the questions continued on a down-hill slide from there. I kid you not.

It’s a longer story for another day, but suffice it to say that they voted not to call me. It was one of the best rejection phone calls I ever got, although for three or four days I literally lost my voice, and could not speak.

My choice to hyphenate my last name was indeed an improvisation on tradition. The most apparent tradition was to take the name of another when getting married. If you are a heterosexual female in white Euro-American culture, it meant you took your husband’s name, and almost never the other way around. I didn’t reject the cultural tradition altogether. I can see how changing a name and sharing a name are important gestures to show the changed relationships and promises that marriage entails. Yet these practices also mean a loss of identity and subsuming of name and recognition that made me less than comfortable.

So I improvised the tradition to make a place for myself and to honor my past and my future. I wanted the naming to fit the change we were hoping to embody. I was part of a new tradition which had been adopted by a lot of white feminists (and other women and men) in the 1960s 70s and 80s. It remains a practice even now. It lives alongside other improvisations, and less critical uses of naming traditions.

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For me the practice of changing words in songs began in college.  Like the impulse to hyphenate my name, the impulse to change words is profoundly motivated by making a way into the tradition, making a cradle and not a noose. It is about finding a way to live in a tradition that doesn’t do irreparable harm to my self-understanding, or that of others. Is violence inevitably part of change on any level?  Does my changing words of hymns, carols, psalms or other texts do harm the tradition itself? Those who authored it?

Buried in these questions is a deeper more perennial concern for how we encounter the other, that which is “not me.” This is a question, which haunts the history of Christianity, and one, which has been near the heart of some recent shifting. In the last decade or so – in evangelical and mainline churches – a movement has been taking shape which has come to be called “emergent” or “emerging” Christianity. It asks: How does the church live with the traditions it has inherited? And what does harm or needs resistance? How does one live faithfully with and for Christ in a postmodern world?

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In that book which showed up in my mail this morning, the editor Phil Snider says about this new emergent movement in the book’s Introduction, “what was taking place under the umbrella of ‘emerging church’ wasn’t an entirely new way of being church or of being Christian. Rather, the emerging moment helped Christians from a variety of contexts to (1) encounter wider Christian traditions that have come before and (2) consider ways to reappropriate these traditions in creative, authentic, and culturally accessible ways” (xix).

Contributor to The Hyphenateds and my friend, Tim Snyder wrote about his experience as a “Lutheran poster child” and as one of a handful of young leaders who began the “Netzer Co-Op,” an alternative worshipping community which engaged in living, working and building community with each other and the homeless living in downtown Austin, Texas. He writes about “improvising with tradition.” His story has more than one beginning.

One of the beginnings came when Tim and a friend figured out that their college campus chapel was left unlocked all night. They began to gather there with others for worship where they “ended up facilitating creative worship with prayer stations, labyrinths, and the arts.” And each week they “sought to create a brand-new space using patterns we discovered to be helpful frameworks for our lives” (128).

Not unlike my now-second-nature efforts to change language of songs and texts to name God more authentically, and to make a way into a sometimes inhospitable tradition, Tim says about the Co-op: “In those early days our ambitions were simply to create the kind of space where we could express our faith and doubts about what it means for us to be young adults with various kinds of spiritual convictions” (128).

It would be easy to write off both the Netzer Co-op and my improvisation with traditional songs and scriptures. For that matter it would be easy to write off most improvisations as lamely self-preoccupied, or blatantly self-absorbed, or even flat-out idolatrous. However, it seems we are in really good company when it comes to improvising tradition. Many prophets, iconoclasts, and Jesus, especially Jesus, took this path. And sometimes it was a noose not a cradle that came as the reward. Yet what we have in our hands at the end of the day is a tradition and a context for practice, and we have to live with the questions, risks and doubts that are part of the tradition, and we also get to improvise what rises up out of that space.

That space is like the cradle I create when I sing my daughter to sleep. It is a gift to be in such a space. And it is not unlike a gift of grace that waits just now . . .  not unlike someone singing me to sleep after a long and trying day. Can you hear it?

 

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