Sunday, June 19, 2016

gardening with my father

Dad and Mary Jane in front of their home, late May 2016.

Here is my dad and my stepmother, Mary Jane.

When my dad had open heart surgery in February I went to see him and spent five nights with him. In late May I was able to visit again for two nights, this time with Heather and the kids, too.

Because of his surgery, he has not been able to do all the things he usually does. He loves caring for the yard and it is hard on him that he is not able to do it as much as he would like these days. You can see just one shot of the lovely flowers and plants they enjoy.

On the Sunday of our most recent visit, I had the privilege of taking care of some yard work he’d been wanting to do. I put away the snow blower for the season, something he hadn’t been able to do yet. I put out a table and chairs on the front porch and brought out another chair for the back porch.  He and Mary enjoy sitting outside when the weather is agreeable.

I pruned a large flowering bush on the side of his house and fixed some edging around two of the trees in the parkway. I topped off the soil around the trees and edging, and spread some new mulch throughout the garden.

I also helped him fill up the water softener with more salt pellets and installed a new smoke alarm he purchased. He loves caring for his home and I loved caring for it with him.

It was a good day’s work that felt like play because we did it together. There are few times in my life that I have felt closer to my dad than that day just under a month ago. I loved working alongside him, sharing life together that way.

The morning after our workday, he brought out his high school yearbooks. I could gather from all the notes his friends wrote him that he was quite a jokester. His friends commented on his singing voice and I enjoyed hearing him reminisce about those younger years.

He showed me his class ring…a classic design. He graduated in 1955.

He gave it to me as a gift and I will cherish it always.

I love my Dad and did not want to leave that Monday morning. So, this is my prayer today: Father God, thank you for the blessing of being his son.   

Sunday, June 5, 2016

a prayer to be filled with the Spirit of God

A prayer. It is nothing fancy but I happen to believe God loves to answer prayer. It is a simple prayer; maybe it is your prayer, too.


Knowing you are with us by your Spirit,
may we shout and be glad.
Enliven us where we are dead.
Assure us of your presence
when we would go it alone.
Still us when all we want to do is
do, do and do without resting in you.

Impart to us the mind of the Spirit
when we become preoccupied
with human strategy
and our own limited logic.
Help us to desire
what the Spirit desires.

Spirit of the living Christ,
grant us life and peace,
the peace that passes all understanding. 
May our lives be a testament
of the life of the Spirit,
the same Spirit
who raised Christ from the dead.

In Jesus’ Name,

Friday, June 3, 2016

what to do when the church is at death's door

In 1996, my wife and I joined the staff of a mission organization called Christian Associates. In 1998 we moved to Europe where we spent 12 years working as staff to help start new churches in Spain.  I finally resigned from Christian Associates in 2014. My wife and I had spent 18 years on staff with CA (as we call it) and 16 years in active ministry with them. That is a significant chunk of time!

Flash forward to this weekend and I can honestly say it is an interesting time for me. Oasis Madrid, one of the churches we had the privilege of starting while living in Spain, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary…and at the same time closing its doors.

That sentence is hard for me to write.

Until now I have taken great pride in telling people we started a church that is still going strong. When I first heard some weeks ago that it was closing up, I was confused, sad, filled with doubt and humiliation, frustrated and angry at turns.

On Sunday a group of people who have been part of Oasis will gather to celebrate (in the words of someone who is living there now) “10 years of Oasis Transforming Lives.” Because I lack the time and money to attend (the celebration is being held in Madrid), I wrote the following reflection in hopes that some who are there will be encouraged.

Writing this felt like I was writing a farewell letter…bittersweet, sad and hopeful all at once.

I share it here because I hope it helps others in some way. I hope it reminds us that God is good, he can be trusted, there is enough hope and grace for each new day. God’s kingdom really is a wonderful place we can experience in the here and now. Receive it.



transformation by death
by troy cady

Christians have peculiar beliefs. Here are some examples:
God is one essence in three persons.
Jesus is fully human and fully God.
The Bible is God’s Word but it was written by people.

Yes, Christianity is a faith of strange mystery. Christians do have peculiar beliefs.

From a human standpoint, I think the most peculiar Christian belief is that death can be transformed into something beautiful. In fact, Christians believe that unless something dies it isn’t transformed. In other words, transformation occurs not in spite of death but rather through death. In that sense, Christians believe that death is good. This belief runs against every human instinct.

This was the very thing the first disciples could not understand. Before Jesus’ death, Matthew’s gospel says: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed…” (Matthew 16:21, emphasis added).

After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples on the road to Emmaus wondered how it could be that the one they hoped was the redeemer of Israel would be handed over to be crucified. (Luke 24:20-21) They could not wrap their minds around the fact that the Messiah would need to suffer and die. So, Jesus explained it to them. (Luke 23:27)

What was he explaining? Simply, what he had tried to tell them before: that the Messiah must suffer and die …that the predicate of resurrection is crucifixion. You never get one without the other. That is what their eyes were opened to see.

Jesus told them this in a variety of ways. One word-picture he used is particularly evocative: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24-25)

In the parable of the sower Jesus tells us how seeds make more seeds by falling and dying. The parable is a story of a person who sows seed on four types of soil. The first piece of ground is a hard path; the second is rocky; the third is infested with thorns and the fourth is good, rich soil that produces a crop “a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:8)

The Christian life is a fruitful life, but no fruit is produced without a seed falling to the ground and dying. But if the seed falls to the ground and dies, it breaks apart and there emerges the most wild, fascinating thing imaginable---life that gives more life that gives more life. A tree or plant grows from the seed that has broken apart and died. From that tree or plant, more seeds are produced. When those new seeds fall to the ground and die, more life emerges. In this way, life spreads in an uncontrollable fashion. But remember: this kind of wild life does not spread without those seeds falling and dying. Something good only comes through something hard.


I believe that Oasis is a story of life, life and more life…from death, death and more death.

You might find it interesting to know that shortly after Oasis was born it died, in a very real sense. Some of you reading this may know that originally Oasis was part of another church we started in the suburbs of Madrid called Mountainview. Mountainview began in 2002 and by 2004 we referred to Mountainview’s ministry in the city center as “Mountainview’s Oasis” while the ministry in the suburbs was called “Mountainview’s Frontier.”

Our strategy was to grow Mountainview through multiplying leaders who multiplied community groups who multiplied congregations.  Our vision was so much greater than just Mountainview and Oasis. We envisioned more leaders and more community groups and more congregations, all over the greater Madrid area and throughout Spain. Just as we had established monthly gatherings of community groups for worship, teaching and fellowship, so I had envisioned that when the work spread to other parts of Spain we would host an annual retreat wherein all the congregations that were planted throughout Spain would gather for celebration and support.

At any rate, this reproductive ethos is how we ended up with a cluster of folks in the city center and a cluster in the suburbs. But over time it became difficult to sustain both, given many factors. So, we had a difficult choice to make: which one would die?

At the time staff members Kelly and April Crull were living in the city and Oasis was really their primary area of leadership. That is when they did something amazing: they let Oasis die. I remember the meeting well. We were seated out on the back porch of our colleague’s home (Richard and Riekje Wallace). With their eyes filled with tears, Kelly and April both said they were willing to let go of Oasis for the sake of Mountainview overall.

Shortly after that, the Crulls moved to Valencia where April studied peacemaking. They left Madrid convinced that Mountainview’s Oasis ministry in the city would no longer exist. That was in spring/summer of 2005. Oasis had died before it was even born “officially” in 2006!

Here is how the rebirth happened: through more death. Towards the end of August 2005 (at CA’s staff conference), me and my family were asked by CA’s leadership to hand over leadership of Mountainview in the suburbs to Richard and Riekje while we moved into the city to work with the small band of Mountainview folks who were living there. At that time, there were only about a dozen or so folks in the city who had been connected to Mountainview.

I remember being angry at CA’s suggestion. I had been dreaming of leading Mountainview since before we landed in Madrid. Really, it was 2001 that the first ideas for Mountainview were developed (in fact, in the spring of 2001 we thought of the name Mountainview before we even lived in Madrid.) Mountainview had been on my heart for more than four years at this point. We had invested blood, sweat and tears in it. So when CA said, “Let it go” I was pissed.

“How dare they ask that!” I thought. “It’s not fair! I shouldn’t be asked to give up my baby!”

I spoke with a good friend named Hud McWilliams about these feelings. Some of you know Hud. He used to be on staff with Christian Associates and is a psychologist. I pulled Hud aside, convinced he would understand my feelings and validate my thinking. I was sure he would see the lunacy of what CA proposed we do.

Instead, Hud poked me in some sore spots and asked some hard questions. As I spoke with him, I began to see he was not going to see it my way. This frustrated me once again. Instead of finding comfort from Hud, I found more annoying questions and observations.

Hud could see I was getting frustrated and, in his gentle yet strong way, challenged me to just calm down and let go of the outcome.

With that in mind, I spoke to my wife about it. We were in our room at the staff conference; Kelly Wills and the Crulls were there.  As we envisioned what would be possible if we let go of Mountainview, Heather and I had a peace about it. We had discussed the options and at a certain moment we just looked at each other and said, “Well…what do you think? Should we do it?”

We both said a simple, “Yes.” And with that…it was decided.

I remember Kelly Crull asking, “Wait. So…you just decided right now you’ll do it?”

Heather and I looked at each other and said, “Yeah.”

And Kelly said something like: “Holy crap! I can’t believe you just decided like that!”

I think we could decide like that because the seed had already fallen and our hearts had already broken. With that breaking, new life could emerge—and that is a good thing.

Shortly after that, we joined with the large group of CA folks for another plenary session. During our time of singing together they played a (now old) song with these words:

When all around is fading
And nothing seems to last
When each day is filled with sorrow
Still I know with all my heart

He's got the whole world in His hands
He's got the whole world in His hands
I fear no evil for you are with me
Strong to deliver; mighty to save
He's got the whole world in His hands

I remember bawling my eyes out all through that song. The assurance of God’s guidance filled me with joy and deep, childlike trust.  “Everything will be alright,” I thought.  “Things fade, but God has the whole world in his hands.”

So, in the fall of 2005 we planned the transition to (re)start Oasis and from January 2006 until the summer we gathered the small group of people in the city to discern fresh vision for Oasis. Thus, Oasis as we had come to know it was born—but it took two deaths before there was life.  In the spring of 2006, I remember speaking with Kelly and April (after they had moved to Valencia) and they commented how ironic it was that a year ago they had laid Oasis to rest and thought there would never be a ministry in the city, but now God had resurrected it.

Even then, the experience of leading Oasis felt like dying and rising again and again. I am grateful to those who were part of Oasis…for your patience with me as I sometimes stumbled and fumbled my way through pastoring the church and leading the team. On more than one occasion I blew it and came down hard on folks whom I felt needed to go deeper in their life with Christ. 

I remember a few instances in particular. The first instance happened after one of our Easter retreats: I had abused my role as pastor and was intent on “proving a point” to some individuals. Fortunately, the team asked me questions in our team meeting and through their gentle observations and quiet listening I came to see that I had done wrong. I had to apologize and ask forgiveness not just to certain individuals but also to the church.

I remember the night I confessed my sin openly with the church, the sin of abusing my position, the sin of acting rashly in anger…The meeting was in the student lounge of St. Louis University and we were having communion that night. The whole church was relieved to hear their pastor say, “I’m a sinner. Forgive me.” More tear-filled confession by Oasis folks immediately followed. The service took an unexpected turn and we just shared with one another our frailty and weakness, our helplessness. The confession was raw and honest yet grace abounded in excess of the sin confessed.

What we were witnessing was the seeds of faith being blown by the wind of the Spirit, souls falling to the ground pleading mercy. As each heart broke open, new life emerged that is still bearing fruit to this day.

But the process of dying and resurrecting is never over. Towards the end of our time in Madrid there were two other “deaths” I had to undergo. The first was another confession I had to make to someone in the midst of our Easter retreat. I had spoken harshly to a woman at the Easter retreat and had to ask her forgiveness. “How could I have been so stupid!” I thought. “Forgive me. I’m an idiot,” I said to her.

That was Easter Sunday morning. The theme that year was “Hope” and that is when I realized I wasn’t alone in my stupidity. “The disciples were all idiots, too,” I thought. “We’re all just idiots, really. That’s what the resurrection is for. Jesus rose for idiots. We needn’t wallow in despair. There is hope when we see how stupid we are.” So I decided to change my Easter talk. I called it: “Hope is for Idiots.” What a relief it was to admit I don’t have it all together. We don’t have to have it all together!  Jesus has it all together for us—and that is the point.

The second death towards the end of our time involved the birth of Decoupage, a ministry that emerged from Oasis…In the fall of 2008 it became apparent that it would be good for Oasis to commission a group of people to start a new church in Spanish. At the time I thought of it as another one of the Oasis “congregations” we had envisioned. After all, the new project would come out of our strategy to multiply leaders and community groups. This multiplication would involve crossing over into the Spanish language, but I envisioned we would figure out how to link the two ministries closely under the Oasis “umbrella”.

We had asked Kelly and April to consider serving as leaders of the new project. They graciously agreed and I was excited in part because it would mean Oasis would be multiplying her impact. But after praying and thinking for some time, Kelly and April came back to the team with a vision that was clearly distinct from the vision of Oasis. They didn’t want to plant a Spanish Oasis Madrid, after all.

You can likely guess my reaction. To be sure, I listened and tried to appreciate their ideas but I felt frustrated that their plans did not match up with mine!

As I let go of how I wanted things to turn out, however, I began to see that God’s way was better. I remember sitting down with the Crulls in Plaza Dos de Mayo asking their forgiveness for my attempts to fit a square peg into a round hole. That little bit of brokenness, that death to a dream, was necessary to truly give freedom to Kelly and April to lead in a way that was obedient to the Spirit in them. To be sure, the Spirit will have his way with or without our cooperation but it sure makes life better when we let our plans go and respond to God’s invitation to join him in his plan.

Because of that, I believe Decoupage is another story of life from death. I believe Kelly and April can tell you themselves how Decoupage’s own story reflects this theme. Similarly, I believe Amy and the team in Valencia can tell you how their story reflects this theme. And, don’t forget, with Kelly and April’s move to the north there is another story of life and death to be told. That is what I see happening here. Because a seed falls and dies, more life grows and that life will bear more seed that will fall and die and grow…to fall and die and grow some more.

When all is said and done the vision of a multiplying ministry is happening all over Spain, after all…just not in the way we had planned—and that is a good thing! In fact, because of lives transformed by even a short amount of time at Oasis the vision of a vibrant, reproductive expression of what it means to be church is spreading to other parts of the world, including Latin America (through former Oasis folks). But the truth is: this is not primarily because of Oasis’ ministry “strategy” but rather because of the Spirit of Jesus calling and sending, calling and sending, calling and sending. The story isn’t a story of Oasis; it’s a story of Jesus—and Oasis just got to be a small part of that.


Which brings me to today…The funny thing is: I am still learning this theme of life-by-death today.

We never finally get it all at once that we don’t truly “get it”, do we? The Christian life is a life of repeated dying and rising again. Just when we think we are doing fine, the Spirit reveals to us one more area that needs to be crucified. When we become aware of our need, it stings at first. It always hurts, no matter how many times you’ve died inside, no matter how many times your heart has been broken. But the good news is: death does not have the last word. Resurrection is the end of the story, new life will spring up again and again and again if we will let it.

That is the trick: letting it happen, being open to it. To let something die so that it can be born again is to be the good soil wherein the seed produces a crop thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown. Too often, however, we are more like the hard path wherein we become embittered by God’s call to die to self. The rocky soil yields a similar result wherein the process of dying to self only goes so far; when the going gets tough, we lack the strength to go deeper in Christ. Our roots are shallow; we have a taste of the crucified life but it is more like being struck once on the cheek and then striking back instead of turning the other cheek and laying down to be nailed to the cross with Christ. The thorny soil is perhaps more common wherein we let the desire for money, fame or power choke out the life of God which is the death of self. In the thorny soil we put our own comfort first. We have the appearance of growing strong, tall and deep but because we do not tend to the weeds we will eventually wither with little or no lasting fruit borne of the process.

Oh, that we would be the good soil—open and ready to let the seeds fall and die deep inside, that we would allow the dream of what could be to break so that God can show us that his dreams are so much greater than ours! That is the hard part: the openness to be broken, to let our dreams die so God’s desires may flourish in us. And then to trust that, in God’s good time, what God wants to grow in us and through us will flourish without our incessant striving and wishing the crop were different than what it is…to trust that the soil only needs to practice being receptive, patient, drinking in the living water and the light of Christ, risen anew each morning…to trust that God wants to make our lives fruitful and abundant even more than we want it.

That is a challenge to myself and it is also God’s challenge to each of us. Practice being the good soil and do not worry or grieve too much when something dies. In the end, it is cause for celebration because in Christ God redeems that which dies, causing it to rise again, transformed and even better than it was before.

Who knows what will spring up because of this death? Who knows what future deaths and resurrections await? There are many more to come. Look for it. Welcome the process of death and resurrection. Be open to it, be the good soil. Do not become hardened. Do not spurn hardship. Do not become encumbered in the lust for power and fame. Be the good soil.


I mention all this by way of reminding myself to practice being the good soil. So, here is a recent confession. Here is something that is dying and rising in me lately.

I am still learning to crucify pride. When I first learned Oasis was closing its doors I was upset because I felt like a failure. What made me so upset was not so much that I had failed at something but rather that the failure was public. People would now know that I had worked on starting a church that failed. Sure, it was around for ten years—and that is not for nothing—but at the end of the day I tried and failed and I am responsible for that. I would no longer be able to say to people, “I helped plant a church that is still going strong!” In short, I have had to let go of my pride to deal with the grief of Oasis dying.

But I am grateful for this death, too. Because when something dies new life emerges. The new life does not look the same as the old life, and that is good. I marvel at what has happened since 2010 at Oasis. Already there have been deaths and resurrections, even before this “final” death. And this latest death will surely bear fruit that none of us expect.

Always remember: in God’s kingdom nothing dies that isn’t replaced by something even greater than that which died. That is why death has no power in God’s kingdom. Stripped of its sting, Christians need no longer fear death. To die is to be reborn. Death is an ending that is also a beginning. Death gives way to life.

So, I wonder, what new uncontrollable life is waiting for you, for all of us? What wonderful, wild and beautiful life will spring up? Wait for it and be responsive to God’s work. Look for it and, even when the smallest green leaf breaks through the soil, celebrate it with a feast of firstfruits.  The new life is a promise of a greater harvest to come, a reminder that God will be faithful to tend the trackless fields of his dominion.

Do not try to mold and shape what God is doing too much. It is better to let God have his way. Celebrate the countless seeds that are being planted right now. They are breaking apart and something glorious and new will emerge. This is God’s church, not ours: he has been faithful to grow it for a season but now a new time has come. Welcome this new season. I am celebrating with you all today not because of what has been, but because of what will be.

I encourage you in these next days to pray, asking God: “Father, what new work are you doing in me? What needs to die so your life can spring up new and fresh in the soil of my heart?” Look for what will be, friends, and keep on hoping.

I love you,

Thursday, April 21, 2016

when you are in a dark place

When you are in a dark place, do not fear.

The child in her mother’s womb
knows only darkness,
yet light and love surround her precious life
though she does not know it.

She makes her home in darkness;
she even grows there,
though she does not know how she grows.
Yet, being loved, she grows.

Her hope is small
compared to her mother’s hope.
Yes, she grows in hope.
Borrowed hope is strong enough in the dark place.

It seems to her that this darkness
is all there is
or will ever be.
She feels as though she sprang from darkness
and will live out her days there entirely.

she can hear and feel
there is something more.

Where is it? It seems to be here but not here.
Is it outside? Could there be an outside?
Is life there? What is it like?

She cannot name what she hears
out there in here
but that does not change what she hears:
namely, the Voice
the voices of love
out there in here—
she hears laughing and music.
They are getting ready for something special,
but she does not know they are getting ready;
to her, all that is good has been prepared already
before her arrival.

She is not ready for what is to come.
It is too much to understand right now.
It all seems so close
yet so far away.

Then, one day, when the tremors quicken
and the pain is at its worst,
the darkness will end and she will be born.

The new life is so startling
she will scream and cry—
but only for certain times, in fits and starts.
With each cry there will be countless consolations,
greater than the sum of her tears.
Every true hunger will be filled
and every deep wound will be healed.

When you are in a dark place, do not fear.
When days begin at night
they end in light.

when you are in a dark place
by troy cady

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

chagall's bar mitzvah

“This past year, when the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross coincided with Yom Kippur (the last time was 1899, the year of Chagall’s bar mitzvah, when, he tells us, he discovered he was an artist), Chagall’s work acquired for me an added resonance.”   -David Lyle Jeffrey*

Strange, this coming of
age. This no-man’s
place is at once pneuma and nomina and neither,
a space

when I am both and neither
boy and man, created or creator,
hopeful Jew nor suffering Christian—
or is it the other way around
and both ways around?

What does it mean?
That is what I ask
every now—

and again I wonder
if laughter is disguised pain,
the mended coat of the mendicant—
the joyful Slain
whose unstitched side
opens wide
to hold those who are
at home in a wilderness of wounds.

This coincidence, this coming of age,
this polarity
only comes along
every now

(and again)
in the form of troubled still water
or the storm’s calm
nor both.

I feel as if I am made of questions
that both shake or make me,
questions like:  

“How do I befriend this tension,
by tradition or creation?
Neither or both?
Do you grasp by clutching or opening up?
What will I do,
who will I be,
and who will mediate
my past and future:
me or He
who is Not Me?
Neither or both or

Chagall’s bar mitzvah
by Troy Cady

*Jeffrey, David Lyle. “The Christ of Marc Chagall”, First Things. April 2014.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

eating Cheerios with Dvorak

We are stepping over puddles on the pavement in the nature center until we reach the pathway, the packed dirt of which is softened from the recent snow alternating with rain. My slip-on loafers sink down about a quarter of an inch into the light brown mud and I try to press lightly so as not to soil the sides of my shoes. As I lift each foot I feel as though the ground is paste; the sole of my shoe sticks to the earth for a portion of a second then breaks free of the ground’s suction. I weave on the path from side to side, avoiding pools of water; my son is behind and beside me following and leading at turns.

The building just ahead looks like a home but no residents live there.  It houses a number of programs open to the public. Just behind us there is a large building with apartments for the elderly; Heather says this would be a wonderful place to live and I agree. You would hardly know you are in the city here; it is quiet and wild, though just minutes from our one-lane, one-way small urban street. 

Before we go inside the small building ahead, I do my best to keep my eyes on the path while stealing glances at the world’s natural and man-made beauty. It is early April and winter’s thaw here in the Midwest seems like a sloppy adolescent kiss, as long and slobbery as it is passionate.  Everything is both crushed and poised, emerging budded from a long March muck, forest mulch and leafless trees. To the left are two large rough wood compost bins, and a picnic table dark and damp from a season under logs that have been built into a canopy with foot-long gaps in the roof.

The tall grass appears flattened in places as if deer had lain down there recently; life leaves her imprint even when she is gone, as much in the bowing as in the standing tall. Her rising holds no meaning apart from her resting. Whether growing or grown, the contrast is both our tether and our freedom.

Some tree branches have fallen, slowly decaying, while other tree limbs curve and curl like arms of dancers warming up. To the right is a bird feeder; a squirrel directly underneath devises robbery while finches, chickadees, and robins light momentarily on the swinging perch.  The vibrancy of bird chatter and flight catches my voice. I laugh briefly in delight and am aware Heather and Nic may think I’m strange for chuckling at nothing in particular. I explain, “Oh, it’s those birds!”

As we get ready to step inside the building, I take one last look at the sky, a late morning blue, brilliant with the sun’s light. It’s the perfect day for music. That is why we have come—to hear strings from the Civic Orchestra.

This concert is number three out of four they have been scheduled to play at the nature center this year.  Each concert features a different small group of musicians from the larger orchestra. Next month there will be a small brass chamber ensemble but this month we are treated to strings.

The musicians are each from different places: Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Switzerland and, well…all over. Three women and two men, they are from diverse racial backgrounds, but they are all young. The Civic is a training opportunity, a stepping stone to those who aspire to join a professional orchestra. For up to two years, young people can experience the thrill of performing with a professional-grade outfit while receiving mentoring and continuing to work on the craft of music performance. Because the program is structured mainly as an educational opportunity the Civic often offers concerts free of charge to the public in venues all over Chicago.

That is why the ensemble is here today at the nature center. Because the music is so wonderfully performed, that is why Heather, Nic and I have come. We make our way into the back room of the center. Coming in through the double doors, we see an alcove filled with plants of at least a dozen varieties. There is a thin cactus, ten feet tall, as proud as he is prickly. The ferns are full, flush with life. Palm plants are waving their hands and long fingers every which way, as if perpetually praising. The ficus tree is delicate and gentle. Violets, agave, and aloe grace the space. The dracaena tree has spiked hair, strong and certain he’s unique.

There are two long thin sections of chairs, arranged length-wise in a bank of four on the right and six on the left in the long rectangular room. The space cannot seat more than ninety I would think but when we enter it is still slightly shy of half full.    

We take three of the four seats in the second row on the right and no one sits in front of us.  Five music stands, four chairs and a stool are arranged for the musicians about eight feet from where I am seated. The charts are prepared and I can see that one of the sheets simply says “Quintet” at the top with the artistry of notes filling the page underneath.

A Civic staff person enters the room and makes some announcements. There will be another free concert at the nature center next month and he draws our attention to more concerts in other locations in the city. The musicians enter to applause. They bow and introduce themselves then take their seat to perform a work of Mozart in a rare four-movement structure.

I am struck by the strength of their sound. Sitting this close I can hear every nuance clearly, the ebb and flow of each musical phrase. When they crescendo it is not as a voice shouting, demanding to be heard. The music is mature, humbly sure of herself. Each movement is like a season, unique and growing. The second movement feels older, slower and even more confident. Beauty is her own adornment; there is no need to fill it with frills. The third movement is a dancing pair; strike that, a group of pairs. And the fourth…the music, now at the height of maturity, sounds like it has learned the art of calling out each individual voice yet they are still one. They know how to pass the torch to each other, spreading the light. They do not clench tightly to their own part; they know how to share.

We applaud and people move to get ready for the second piece. The first violin and the second violin trade places. Now she will take the lead and he will play the harmony. The viola and cello remain seated and an upright bass is added to complete the quintet. They will play Dvorak.

This piece, they explain, was written about one hundred years after Mozart’s piece. Originally, Dvorak wrote the piece in five movements, but he felt it was too long so he cut it to four. Today’s ensemble will perform three of those four movements. With a deep bass line added to the mix, they invite us to listen closely to the difference in the cello; she serves a different purpose in a quintet than in a quartet.

Just before the music starts up again, some latecomers take their seats.  Directly across the small aisle just a few chairs away, a mother and her three-year old daughter take a single seat. The girl is on her mother’s lap.  The girl’s eyes are bright and she is lively in red.

The music begins. The first movement is grounded in a theme that repeats at regular intervals to create a sense of security. It is as if Dvorak wants to be our friend; he simplifies his musical choices so we can get to know him. Yet, between the familiarity of repetition there is enough variety to hold interest. Like a good companion, Dvorak is dependable but he improvises to remind you he won’t be chained.

During the second movement, out of the side of my left eye I can see the little girl sitting on her mom’s lap. She is enrapt by the music. As the movement ends, she applauds. As she prepares for the final part, she reaches for a small baggy of Cheerios and munches on them quietly, one at a time.

Into the final movement, the first violin passes the melody to the second. The viola picks up where the second leaves off and the cello adds her rich voice to complete the circle. As the different instruments take turns playing the lead, the bass endures as the foundation and the other strings fill the atmosphere with supporting harmonies and rhythms. Each instrument sounds with a pocket of plucking in staccato snaps while the others hold their voices elongated. They are each distinct yet one in spirit.

And the girl’s eyes follow the musical conversation. She is watching them seated but she sees them as dancing. She is smiling and her gaze is fixed in delight. Her hand reaches into the small bag and takes another Cheerio. Dvorak is her grandfather, stately yet gentle and friendly. At once, he puts her at ease and nurtures glee. This is joy.  There is wonder, a kind of playful reverence here.

And I wonder. I wonder if this could be what the kingdom of heaven is like. I wonder if this could be a parable. I wonder, here in this messy world with sunshine above and mud below, if God lives in the contradictions. I wonder, here in this place with empty chairs to make space for more full souls, here with a man who died but lives in his music, here with the next generation ablaze like fire, if narrow paths lead to wide open spaces. I wonder if there isn’t something of God in the skin colors, in the man and woman, in the young and old, in the distinct parts of the players and the unity of the ensemble, playfully passing the lead in one spirit. This is what I imagine the kingdom of heaven is like: a little girl eating Cheerios with Dvorak in a world at once confident and changing.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

mary's Rose

The vine on the lattice twisted,
the thorns circled
the flower,
opened like
flayed flesh,
deep crimson fissures.

Behold, the rose,
grown from a tender shoot,
close to the end
but larger in death
than in budding adolescence.

The wind blew
and the petals fell
to the ground
like drops of blood
to sate the thirsty earth
and live beyond death.

Somehow these petals
lift the ground’s curse
even as fresh flowers
flourish on the same lattice-work.

mary’s Rose
by troy cady