On the quest for a personal Lenten journey

lent_desktopAs a young boy, living in the South Philadelphia suburb of Tinicum Township, I spent a good deal of time at St. John’s Lutheran Church serving as an acolyte.

I loved being an acolyte.  We got to wear robes like the clergy; we got to light the candles with a super cool lighter/extinguisher thing; we got to assist in the distribution of the communion elements; and, the most cool thing of all, got to ring the church bells!  I can barely put it into words how important being an acolyte was to me at that time.

When I was nine years old, we moved to New Jersey and my parents left the Lutheran tradition behind us.  After a few years with a non-denominational, community church, our family settled itself in with the local Church of Christ– an evangelical, fundamentalist tradition born out of the restoration movement.

Too say the very least, the Churches of Christ disagree with the worship practices of the main line denominations, and my services as an acolyte were not needed in my new church home.  This secretly broke my heart, but I lived to accept the fact that things were going to be different.  The old ways of my young faith were to be set aside, and I would simply have to learn the new ways of God, which were actually the old ways of God.

Confused yet?  Yeah, so was I.

My maternal Grandmother, who lived across the street from us in that South Philly, suburban row home, continued on with her faithful participation in the Lutheran tradition, and, because of and with her, I secretly kept some of the traditions of her faith in my own practices.  A very significant practice for me (not every year, I’ll admit) was the practice of observing Lent.

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What I remember about my observance of Lent was that it began 40 days prior to Easter and that I had to give up something; that was about it.

As I grew older into adulthood, I pretty much gave up the practice entirely.  I don’t have the time to give up anything.  I’m good without it.  Besides, I don’t worship that way, anymore.

About fifteen years ago, my wife and I re-examined our faith and were led to a different way of seeing God, faith, and religious practice.  We now identify ourselves as Christians who worship in the United Methodist tradition, and Lent and Easter once again play a very significant role in the practice of my faith.

This year, in an effort to grow, I determined to seek out a Lenten journey that was more personal for me than giving up caffeine, which has become my go-to item to chuck.  This year I thought that instead of giving something up, I would seek to find something to do, a path to walk that would bring me closer to God and my fellow humankind.

I was led to the House For All Sinners And Saints, where I felt invited and called by God to participate in this Lenten practice.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, whether you believe in God in your own way or reject the notion of God altogether, no matter where you are on your journey in this life, I want you to know that I am going to participate in this Lenten practice as a way to lift you up.

I don’t need you to be like me, to worship like me, to practice a religion like me.  What I do need you to know is that you are so much more than you can ever imagine, more valuable than you can ever realize, and loved beyond all measure.

During the Lenten season as many around the world reflect on where they are in relationship to God, I want you to know that you are as close to God as the air you breathe.  God is never away from you and you are never away from God.

You are loved and cherished by God because you are God’s beloved creation.  You are loved and cherished by God because you were created, in spite of all of the things you might think get in the way.  You are worthy because you are God’s beloved child–redeemed and whole and brilliant.

During this Lenten season I want you to know you are loved, and I will try my best to show it.

I wish you peace!

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Follow Scott on Twitter: @scotylang

On what you can expect when you expect something

ec22c64c1cc09e0a_3d-audience.previewA couple of months ago, about a week before Christmas, a thought occurred to me.  As I am wont to do nowadays, I condensed it to less than 141 characters (including spaces!) and tweeted it.  Here’s what I sent out to the world:

If a gift is given with an expectation of the receiver, then there is no gift, simply and exchange of a thing.

I didn’t think much about it.  Not too much comes from any of my activity on Twitter, and that’s fine with me.

But, something pretty cool happened that day.  Somehow, Pam Grier (yes, you read that right– Foxy Brown!!) came upon my tweet and retweeted it.  What that means is that she sent my little thought out to everyone who follows her.  With my name attached to it, Ms. Grier sent my tweet to over 500,000 people.

Evidently, it registered with many of those who saw it, because a few hundred of them retweeted it themselves.  I’m not sure exactly how many people have seen the tweet to this day, but I was blown away by the power of our modern-day methods of communication.

People talk listen on tin can phone communication

When I think about all of that, what occurs to me is that we really have no idea how significant each one of us truly is.  What we say matters.  What we will do on this day reverberates throughout the universe in the same way waves are created by the butterfly’s wings.

Now, that might only be a figurative statement and it might also be literal, too; I’m no scientist.  But, what I do know for sure is this: whenever we do or say a thing, after we’ve done or said it, whoever receives that piece of communication makes it mean something to them.  Sometimes that meaning is life-changing.  You never know.  What happens from there is so often out of our hands.  Even so, the next move is ours, and that move begins with us releasing our intentions without any expectations of the receiver.

Let me explain what I mean in this way.

I recently closed a production of the play, The Diary Of Anne Frank at The Media Theater in Pennsylvania.  During the run, we performed several student matinees for high school students.  Many of the students had never seen a live theater production before, and this particular play is not the easiest piece to see as your first.

Throughout the performance, they reacted as most audiences prior to them had reacted.  But, every so often some of the kids reacted to certain characters and moments in scenes in ways that most adults might consider inappropriate–laughing when you might expect a more serious attitude, murmuring to one another when you might expect silence, even occasionally talking back to a character (a character, mind you, not an actor).

Some involved in the production were concerned with the reactions of some of these students in attendance, but the more I thought about it, the more I was thrilled.  You see, these kids were engaged.  They were participating in the communication.  As far as I noticed, none of them were playing with their cell phones or whispering about how they might end up missing lunch.  They were fully engaged with the story and emotionally invested in what was being offered to them.  How could we really ask for more than that?

To have someone respond to your communication in the exact manner you expect them to limits the possibilities of how you can impact the lives of another, and how they, in turn, might surprise your own life with what they can bring to it.

Recently I decided that I’m a huge fan of mystery.  I believe that faith and mystery are such close bedfellows that any attempt to remove mystery from my life has a tremendously negative effect on my faith; not just in God, but in my fellow humans, as well.

I have found that when I concentrate on giving my communication away as a truly well-intended gift and leave what comes next to the mysterious unknowing that is another’s response, my life is richer, fuller and far more satisfying.

Now, that’s not to say that miscommunication doesn’t ever happen.  On the contrary, it happens often.  But, if I take responsibility for all of my communication, both how it is released (intention) and what meaning is made from it (someone’s response), I am, myself, engaged with the world in a way that makes for a heck of a thrill ride in this life.

I pray that my intentions bless your life.  I pray that you receive my intentions in that way.  But, no matter what, I choose to participate in the great mystery that envelops all that we do and say to each other.

I wish you peace.

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Follow Scott on Twitter: @scotylang

 

I’m A Fan Fridays! A little acoustic sunshine on a cloudy day

214 Tommy Emmanuel

My brother, Danny, introduced me to Tommy Emmanuel a few years ago via a YouTube clip, much like I’m about to do for you right now.  I can’t remember the exact piece my brother shared with me, but as soon as I experienced the one, I got lost down the rabbit hole of videos of Tommy that are on the site.

To get you started, here is one of my favorites.  It’s a brilliant arrangement of a couple of Beatles tunes that you might be familiar with.  I hope you enjoy this edition of I’m A Fan Fridays!  

Have a great weekend!  Enjoy!!

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Follow Scott on Twitter: @scotylang

On what it means to suck a lemon

gty_suck_lemon_ll_120713_wbWhen I used to teach acting at the Wanda Bass School Of Music at Oklahoma City University, I used to have my students do an exercise that was so insightful. I’d do it either in the first class session or the second at the latest. The students who really got it would have their acting craft altered in such a big-time way. (Try it right now yourself, if you like). My instructions went like this:

“Okay.  Close your eyes and allow yourself to just breathe. Concentrate on your breath for a while. Now, see a lemon right out in front of you. Keeping your eyes closed, reach out and take that lemon in your hand.  Feel it.  Feel the rind. Smell the lemon. Smell all of the smells.

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Now, lay it out on the table in front of you. Take a small, serrated knife in one hand and hold the lemon still with the other.  Cut the lemon in half.  Pick up one half and smell it now.  Squeeze one half of the lemon in one hand.  Feel the juice flow down your hand.  Now, put it to your mouth and bite it.  Suck on it.  Really taste it.”

You should have seen the faces on these students, scrunched up noses and all sorts of things.  I wish I could have gotten some of them on video.  If we would have had YouTube then, I could have bribed quite a few students.  Maybe a little pocket money?  Hah! Anyway, some would barely begin to bite down before the sensation was too bitter for them to take any longer.  Some eyes would water.  It was quite something to see all of the different reactions.  Why did they react this way?

Well, I’m certainly no scientist, but the way I understood it when it was explained to me after I first tried the exercise was that our brain just reacts.  It doesn’t know that we’re sucking on thin air.  Our brain believes what we tell it to believe!  Why was this important for acting class?

Well, what an actor has to do, if nothing else, is be believable in the role she is playing.  The reactions to the lemon juice, and everything that came out of the lemon exercise, were completely believable because they were true.  The experience was real. Even if the piece you’re performing isn’t “realistic”, you still have to be committed to the role and you must believe what you’re doing in that moment.  No one will believe what you do unless you believe it first.  No one will believe who you are unless you believe it first.

And so it is with our lives.  If you are committed to being a certain way– content, satisfied, happy, you name it– you must be committed to it.  You must believe you are that way.  See the satisfaction.  See the joy there out in front of you.  Close your eyes and bite into the happiness that is right before your eyes.    How you decide to be is the only thing, and I repeat, the only thing that you will ever have any control over in this life.  No matter what life deals out, you choose how to react.  You choose how to be.

Close your eyes and tell your brain what you see.  Tell your brain how you feel and your brain will buy it .

And so will you.

Now, go suck a lemon!

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Follow Scott on Twitter: @scotylang

I’m A Fan Fridays! Two minutes and twenty one seconds of pure happiness

illus11I’m A Fan Fridays was born out of my desire to share with the world a few of the things I think are simply out of this world–performances or works of art that have reached out and touched something deep within me, giving me pause to contemplate all of what life can truly be.

What an amazing time it is to be alive!  I will most likely never get the chance to meet Matthew Auerbach, the young man who gives this life affirming and joyous performance, but through the absolute magic of modern technology, I found this, it thrilled me, and I can now share it with all of you.  Enjoy!

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Follow Scott on Twitter: @scotylang

On when one is “Touched With Fire”–Thoughts on Manic Depressive Disorder

manic-depression-james-hammonsMost people live day to day.  They get up, live the events of their day, rejoice in triumphs, regret mistakes, look forward to a better tomorrow, go to sleep and then do it all over again the next day.  Someone living with Manic Depressive Disorder does not live that way, and the day to day can very easily end in suicide.  The world simply doesn’t spin the same for him.  The days don’t have the same meaning.

Someone suffering with Bi-Polar Disorder (a label which I basically consider a euphemism for, and less accurate than, Manic Depressive Illness) carries the dreams, hopes, plans, and experiences of his life throughout several days, or even weeks, on a continual emotional plane.  The “ups” stay up, defying anyone or anything to come along and flatten out the wonderful, creative, brilliant existence in which our hero resides when mania rules the day.

The trouble is never in the manic brilliance.  Oh no.  It comes just after;  just after the realization that the Mr. Hyde that rules the manic days has left, in his wake, a  trail of destruction and despair not unlike a small Oklahoma town after a tornado has blown through on an otherwise perfect spring night.  Very often it’s only the experts who see those kinds of things coming, both tornadoes and mania, but everyone can see the results of both.

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Wives, husbands, children, parents, friends, everyone close to you can be deeply hurt by your destructive tendencies when you’re manic and when they are left to pick up the pieces, the despair and depression can seem totally insurmountable.  Relationships can seem to be beyond repair. Debt can seem so deep that ever reaching a financially stable position again can appear to be just a very distant dream. Any true satisfaction from your job appears to be an impossibility.  Your guilt mixes with your feelings of failure and your failure begins to blend in with your questions about your relevance to the world. Those questions then bend themselves to dark resolutions about why the world would simply be better off without you in it.

You will very rarely find a note from a suicidal manic-depressive.  Plans aren’t necessarily made.  In the same way that our hero wants everything and everyone to be wonderful during a manic stage, he now wants the sorrow and regret and guilt and despair to go away, to not be his fault.  The pain that he has caused is so present now that nothing he can think of can take away the downward spiral that he feels he has caused.  These thoughts consume him constantly.  He just wants it all to stop, to be better again for everybody.

So, one day while driving home, his tears flood his eyes as he sees the minivan approaching him in the oncoming lane.  Drifting over, he heads straight on, head on, toward the moment when it will all be over.  But he can still see. And when he sees the man driving the oncoming van with his wife beside him and the children behind him screaming to turn away, he has just enough strength to pull over to his own lane just in time.

It’s time for help.

This story has a happy ending, but many end sadly.  This disease is real and can be devastating, and ignorance is our enemy.  The more we know, the more we can see.  My prayer is that we will all be willing to see with eyes of compassion and understanding before one more soul drives himself into the wrong lane, and instead of seeing that there is help ahead, drives right into the darkness.

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Follow Scott on Twitter: @scotylang

You Understand Me?: Thoughts on our desire to be heard and understood

Successful-Stock-Trader-UnderstandI’ve been having some serious discussions lately, some at Church, some with my wife, and some with my buddy.  All of which have to do with one serious subject or another.

I mention this because I’ve noticed something about myself:  If you disagree with me, it’s simply because I haven’t made myself clear enough.

Narcissistic?  Perhaps a tad!

When I realized this, it made me think about why I might feel this way.  I really don’t think it is entirely about me being so self-centered.  When I stop and think about it, I know that it’s very probable that someone may hear me, understand me, and simply disagree with me. (Why, I have no idea!  Ha!)

All kidding aside, though, when I reflect on the reason I struggle with this kind of thinking, I think it comes down to the fact that one of my greatest desires in life is to be clear, to be fully heard, and to be understood.  Don’t we all want that?  Don’t we all want to be fully heard and understood?  I think we do, but often, at least in my case, that desire is accompanied with a nice, healthy dash of wanting to be right.

How important is it, in the end, for me to be right?  I certainly don’t think that any conversation about politics, religion, or football draft picks is worth any amount of hurt feelings.

My wife and I have a friend who’s Russian.  She’s married to a man from Poland and their two boys were born in the States.  The boys speak splendid English, while Mom and Dad can only speak broken English to each other.  Talk about communication barriers!

Anyway, when we talk, she’s always saying in the middle of sentences, “You understand me?”

Sometimes I feel so sad for her.  Her greatest desire is to be understood.

So, I’ll continue to try to be clear, and at the end of the day, pray that whoever ends up on the receiving end of my communication gets my point.

You understand me?

 

 

Follow Scott on Twitter–@scotylang

Everything is temporary

snowy pathWhen I was 15, I went on a trip with the youth group from my local church.  It was a pilgrimage we took every year during Spring Break to a big youth festival in Arkansas.

This particular year was my first time on this trip; it was meant for high school students only, and I was finally a freshman, filled with pride and excitement at the idea of a week-long, parent-free trip on the old school bus.

Ah, the old school bus.  It’s one of the things that made the trip so exciting to me.  There was so much room to sprawl out, to lie down and nap anywhere you wanted.

I found the most comfortable place to sleep was on the floor, parallel with the seat and the back of the seat in front of me—right where your feet would go, if you were riding properly.  It was quiet and away from most of the light during the day. And, it was pretty tight.  I didn’t mind that; I thought it was cozy.

One day, however, I awakened to what I had discovered is perhaps my worst fear.  I was lying on my side, and when I woke up from my nap, I found that I couldn’t move my body.  It had “gone to sleep” the way your arm might if someone were leaning against it for too long.

Everyone else had gone into the rest stop, leaving me to continue my nap.  I was alone.  I called out, but nobody heard me.  Finally, I was able to relax my mind enough to will myself to roll over.  I was fine, just freaked out.

It was only temporary.

If you find yourself unemployed for a long stretch of time or even stuck in what feels like a dead end job, you begin to wonder about your purpose.  Do I have one?  Am I needed?  Is there anyone out there who needs what I can offer?

Trying to move forward can often times bring with it its own sense of paralysis—a feeling like you just can’t move.

I wonder why that is.

Do I feel paralyzed because I’m afraid of failure?  Am I afraid of success?  Those questions seem silly.  Of course I’m afraid to fail…who isn’t?  Maybe that’s obvious. But, afraid of success?  What does that even mean?

Thinking about this lately, I wonder if it means that if I finally succeed at something I truly desire, something I’ve chased after for so long, I’ll also find that what I have desired all along will not be all I thought it would be? What happens then?  What happens when the dog finally catches the car?

Each moment is here and then it is gone.

Everything is temporary.

Moments turn into days, days to months, and months to years.  So, I ask myself, are you breathing in this moment right now?  Are you loving as fully in this span of time as you can love?

Making the most of every moment seems very cliché in some ways; there are volumes of books about the idea.  But, there’s something profound in taking the time to ponder a moment and all of the gratitude that can be found in it.

Lying on the floor of that bus so long ago, I was scared of the thought of being paralyzed, but I was also amazingly grateful in the knowledge that it was only temporary.

Everything is temporary…

Follow Scott on Twitter:  @scotylang

How “Inside Llewyn Davis” got way down inside me.

One of the functions of great art is to, as Hamlet puts it to the acting troupe about to play his scene for the King and Queen of Denmark, “hold a mirror up to nature.”

Any great work of art, whether it be a painting, a play, a piece of literature, or a film, gives us something new every time we encounter it.  We go back to great art, time and again, because of what we see when we look into that mirror.  What each of us sees can be so different because of where we find ourselves on our life’s journey.  But, that’s what makes great art great– we all see different things.

As a result, conversations should ensue; opinions should be shared.  The more we talk and wrestle with what our lives are about, the more we learn about ourselves and each other; the more we learn how to live together and love each other better.

Sometimes, a great piece of art can speak to us as a group, as a society.  Other times, a great piece of art can speak to us in such a profoundly personal way it’s as though it were our own personal mirror.  For me, watching  Inside Llewyn Davis was like sitting down at a vanity.

Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film by the remarkable Coen brothers, follows Llewyn Davis, a fictional folk singer, for a week of his life in 1960.  Based in part on the memoir, The Mayor Of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk, the film explores several questions that can ring true for everyone, but most especially for those of us who make our living in the arts:

How do we sometimes sabotage ourselves?

How much does being in the right place at the right time play into our success?

What’s the difference between talent and genius?

Would we just “exist” if we gave up our passionate pursuits?

Do cats really know where they are on the subway?

Llewyn doesn’t make things easy for himself.  He’s abrasive, a bit too impulsive at times, and not especially prone to making good decisions. But it’s his music that redeems him.  At the end of the day, making music is what he does better than anything in the world; it’s what he was made to do.  I related to that.

I related to his desire to make ends meet and the lengths he goes to in order to further his career.  More than that, I related to what Llewyn becomes while in the midst of performing, transcending the moment with his full concentration firmly locked on participating in something beyond himself.  Because of that, I rooted for him.  I wanted him to keep plugging away and continue to hang in there, even though I wanted to shake him by the lapels of his seasonally inappropriate jacket and say, Dude!  You could be a little nicer, man!  Especially to the people who love you and want the best for you! You dig?

But, I also related to his frustration of feeling like he’s stuck in a vortex of bad timing and thinking that those around him might never truly get what he’s trying to communicate through his work.  By employing a very effective story-telling device, the Coens show us, the audience, a week in Davis’s life in a way that makes us question whether or not he’ll ever make it out of that vortex and whether or not he could do anything about it even if he wanted to.

As an artist, the concern that others will understand you as a person is almost never as important as the desire for your work to be understood.  At the same time, it can be a very difficult blow to the confidence when the former does not occur.  Llewyn spends some time with a married couple on the Upper West Side of New York City, both of whom are college professors.   A few different times they introduce him to friends of theirs as their “folk singer friend.”  I’ve been introduced as “our actor friend” by friends of mine a time or two, myself.  There’s nothing ill intended, I know, but I related to Llewyn’s uncomfortable feelings in those scenes.

“This is what I do for a living!” he tells the hosts and their guests when they press him to play for them around the table after dinner.  He wants it to be understood that what he does is important in some way.  He wants his work to matter.  I got that.

As the film, and thus, the single week of Davis’s life comes to an end, the audience is left to speculate on how things will proceed for Llewyn.  Will his fortunes ever turn around?

When the credits began to roll, I thought about all of the ways in which the character of Llewyn Davis and I are similar.  But, as I sat in the car after the film was over, I contemplated all of the ways in which I wanted us to be different, and how much I hoped we were different.

I felt such I strong desire to sit him down and have a talk with him; to convince him that things could change if only he would look outside of himself and care more about others; to try to convince him that his gifts were given to him so that he could, in some small way, contribute to making the world a better place; to try to convince him that he already had everything he ever wanted and all he needed to do was learn how to give it away.

Then I realized, once again, how great art can be.  I had been looking in a mirror the whole time.

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Follow Scott on Twitter– @scotylang

I’m A Fan, Fridays!

IMG_1318On the heels of the death of Pete Seeger this week, this I’m A Fan, Fridays! focuses on a couple of musicians who continue to carry high the torch Seeger carried for so many years in the folk music tradition.

Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch blew me away with a mash-up of sorts of a new song by Rawlings and a great Woody Guthrie song.

I first saw their performance of this piece as part of the Inside Llewyn Davis musical concert, Another Day, Another Time on Showtime.  The concert was a celebration of the folk music scene in the early 1960s in New York City, the time period during which the film takes place.

The concert featured a number of fantastic artists and is well worth checking out if you can get to the Showtime network.  All of the acts were terrific in the show, but I really became a fan of these two.  I hope you will as well.  Enjoy!

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Follow Scott on Twitter– @scotylang

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