Playing with God; or, Improv with the Holy Trinity

(This post is perhaps a Part 2, or a sister to my earlier post Exploring Video as a Contemplative Practice)

Spiritual disciplines or practices change over time. Since changing careers and locations a little more than a year ago I’ve been struggling to find the spiritual practices that are right for me now. My work/community life has its structure of morning prayer, communal meals, and space for prayerful silence, but my personal practices felt uncertain. Playing guitar was part of the answer. I had returned to playing a few years ago, and in the last year, especially as I’ve been able to do more improvisation it has increasingly been evident that this was a spiritual practice. I had also started taking more pictures, and later video. This picture taking and eventually creating videos increasingly resonated with me. It nurtured and stretched me and was revealing something to me that I still don’t really understand.

During this time I’ve also experienced a shift away from a wordy life. I used to listen to a lot of podcasts, and do quite a bit of reading. And now, I’ve whittled down my podcast listening to just a few, and am often not in the midst of reading a book. I do, however, listen to a lot more music. I’ve been intrigued to notice how my Spotify playlists are almost all music without lyrics, or with lyrics in languages I don’t understand. Sound and image are feeding me where words used to. And with these sounds and images I’m engaging much more at the level of emotion and things that I just don’t understand – and am not sure I need to understand. I’m working more intuitively, which is not ever how I would have described myself in the past.

And so I’m increasingly exploring video, and guitar, and at times bringing them together to create little soundtracks for my little videos. I was driving home the other day and the realization came to me, “I feel like I’m playing with God.” Playing, as in performing, or simply childlike playing. It feels like God is providing the elements and then I find patterns and variation and manipulate and embellish these elements. The visuals that strike my camera, and the sounds that come out of my guitar all feel like gift. And I can honor this gift by, playing with them, and bringing myself to them to shape and be shaped by them.


I will admit I seldom “understand” the things I create. I don’t always know why I shoot the video I do, or why a particular scene speaks to me. Sometimes I want to dismiss these things I’m creating as the self-indulgent jibber jabber of an amateur. I’m not entirely convinced they are not, but they also help be perceive the world and my place in it. As I told my spiritual director, I’m just trying to receive the truth that is being given to me that particular moment.

I feel kinda sheepish that the tools of my spiritual practices include a digital camera, audio interface, electric guitar(s), and audio and video editing software, but that’s what they are. Some people us pen and journal, or incense and yoga mats, and I use these things. All of these tools provide for me a window into the divine, and provide an invitation to play – to do a little divine improvisation with the Holy Trinity trio.

Exploring Video as a Contemplative Practice

What is it about a video with not much happening but some grass moving in the breeze and a few bird songs that captures me, that centers me, that nourishes me? I’m not certain, but creating what I’ve been calling #QuietVideo is becoming an important contemplative practice.

Living in the pastoral setting of the woods and fields of southwest Michigan, as well as the particular beauty of the Hermitage retreat center where I work, I have plenty opportunities to partake of interesting and beautiful scenes.

I’ve taken plenty of pictures here, as well as done a few audio recordings of forest sounds, recently video has become the format that has captured my attention.

While taking still pictures can be a very valuable contemplative activity, what I’ve discovered in doing video is it forces me to stand and wait in real-time as the video is captured. I can’t just click and move on to the next shot, but I must stand there, quietly for as long as I want the shot to be. Experiencing time in place seems to be one of the critical experiences of creating video. And then, when I’m back home viewing my work, I must put in the same amount of time viewing the shots.

I started this project shooting 30 second clips. That felt like a long time to just stand there as nothing happened. I’ve moved up to 60 second clips. As I’m mostly shooting very still scenes with very little movement in the video, I feel like a minute is good length. If I had a little bit of action, or really good audio I’d consider going longer.

My tool for this contemplative practice is an older iPhone, with very little memory. I was out shooting this weekend and after 7 minutes my memory was full. This is far from ideal and naturally I covet a better camera and more memory but working within your limits can be a good practice as well. At times I will also use a hand-held audio recorder which records in stereo, and where I can also block out wind noise. So far, I’ve been very happy with doing single, still shots, so a sturdy tripod was a great investment.

A critical thing that video includes that isn’t present in photography is audio. (Fully silent video is an option, but not one that interests me at this point.) I’m very happy when a good image can be matched with good audio. I’m certain it is my affinity for and sensitivity to sound that has drawn me to working with video.

I’ve had a couple videos with bad or inconsequential audio, mostly due to wind rumble, and I’ve tried out created a soundtrack with me playing guitar. I’m not sure I’m as pleased with these as with the videos with the “natural” audio but it’s been a helpful learning experience.

I am very aware that I have very little critical knowledge with which to assess the things I am creating. I am not a cinephile, or trained in any artistic medium (excepting a year of guitar lessons). I have some awareness of design and some knowledge of my iPhone camera’s capabilities, but by and large I strive to work on awareness and instinct. Keeping my eyes and ears open and recording scenes that intrigue me even if I don’t exactly know why.

On one level I know I’m a hack just pointing my cheap phone at stuff but there is something about the experience of recording, and reviewing that makes me feel more present, more centered. It would be wonderful if I made videos that were by some critical measure “good”, but their real purpose is personal.

I’m aware of books on photography as a contemplative practice, but I’ve not found others who specifically talk about creating video as a contemplative practice. The work of filmmaker Patrick Shen certainly inspires me, and I’ve recently discovered and been fascinated by some of the works of James Benning.

I know that this practice nurtures my soul, and I know that through this practice I am learning of/experiencing God – but I’ve yet to figure out how to put this into words. A big part of what I like about my video creating experience is the complete absence of words. It is my hope that in the creating and viewing I, and others, experience small sparks of revelation, of awareness, of knowing beyond words.

You can find the videos I’m creating on my YouTube channel.


Amos 5:1-17. A targum

Hear these words of lamentation, oh you who are so comfortable.

Destitute, with no more power to earn are the accomplished.

Evicted, having defaulted on their mortgage are the entitled.

For this is what God says,

The retirement plan that once held thousands now holds hundreds,

The health care plan that once covered everything now charges you by the pill.

For this is what God says,

Seek me and live.

But do not look to your wise investments,

And do not enter your safe communities,

Or look for security from systems that upheld your privilege.

For your investments are lost,

And your safe communities have been flooded.

Seek God and live,

Or God will come to destroy al that gives you a sense of security,

And nobody will be there to protect you.

Ah you that turn laws into loopholes 

And make a mockery of justice.

Seek uprightness and not easy comfort,

That you may live,

So the Lord, the provider of all security will be with you.

Hate injustice and love love,

Establish compassion in your courts.

It may be that the God of your immigrant ancestors

Will be gracious to you all

This is what the God of the universe declares,

On all the cable news networks there shall be wailing,

And every Facebook post will be a call for help.

They shall call the bankers to mourning,

And those who tell sad stories to wailing.

In the big box stores there will be wailing.

For I will move through the midst of you,

Says our God. 

Notes on "Music and the Generosity of God"

Music and the Generosity of God, by Gerald C. Liu. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

When and how does sound become music? And what does the ubiquity of sound tell us of God? These questions are pondered in the most fascination “Music and the Generosity of God” by Gerald C. Liu.

He states the basic theme of his book, “I propose that the generosity of God manifests in the music of sonic ubiquity. Where music never ceases, God gives.” (p. 3) Through exploring the person and work of John Cage, especially his piece 4’33’’ Liu invites the reader to encounter our sonic landscape as music, and this music is an ongoing gift of an ever generous God. Liu place a wonderfully strong emphasis on sound/music as a means of God’s expression, and our encounter of God. “God may manifest beyond measure in current encounters with the music of sonic ubiquity, especially for those unable to grasp the elocutions of speech or other discursively tied ways of communicating holy grace and love.” (p. 10) “Sonic ubiquity” is a recurring concept in this book which develops into the idea of “given music.”

It is hard for me to imagine people not familiar with Cage and his most noteworthy piece, but for those people, John Cage was a composer of what could be considered avant-garde or experimental music. He was also deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism. Performance of his 4’33’’ entails performer(s) not “performing” on their instruments for four minutes and thirty three seconds (although Cage says the piece can be performed for any length of time.) The music of the piece is all the sounds that the audience is exposed to during the time of the performance.

Unsurprisingly, initial response to this piece was uncertain and often unwelcome. Theological response to Cage’s 4’33’’ was disdain. “For [Nicholas] Wolterstorff and [Jeremy] Begbie Cage musically undermines God’s intention for humanity to create and order the materials of the earth.” (p. 16) Music, for them, can only be properly and intentionally human authored sound. “Begbie emphatically claims that God has freed human beings to create music purposefully, not randomly, and that music only happens when human intent is present.” (p. 123) Begbie’s idea of music can only emphasize preconceived ideas of order, and these ideas of order are so culturally based that his approach will crush non-dominant ideas.

Liu counters Begbie stating that “Cage uses his ‘freedom’ and ‘intent’ as an author (to use the language of Begbie and Wolterstorff) to frame what otherwise would go unrecognized – that music is everywhere sounds are.” (p.17)

Cage, perhaps reflecting his Zen influence, understands music with a stance that that doesn’t try to grasp, control, or preserve the music that is heard. It is also important to remember that Cage’s piece is not about the absence of sound. “The quiet withdrawal of 4’33’’, however, does not emphasize rest or silence against sound. 4’33’’ asserts that sonic ubiquity gives music superabundantly and without limit.” (p. 54)

Liu and Cage’s understanding of the generosity of the ubiquitous sonic environment is deeply dependent on the listener’s capability to receive it as such. As Cage writes in a letter to a friend that recognizing the sonic density of his piece depends on “our own emptiness, our own receptivity; we receive to the extent that we are empty to do so.” (letter to Helen Wolff quoted on p. 54).

“Confounding the expectations of its listeners, 4’33’’ promotes hearing musical content that is ‘hidden in plain sight’ and that saturates their entire field of audibility. It displays unbounded, free sound. This same sound announces a more radical freedom, a giveness, a giving of God, or what Christians micht call ‘grace’ or ‘love’ perceived within but irreducible to audible content.” (p. 81)

This is an academic book, and the presence of French philosophers and “phenomenology” were littered throughout the book. This is not particularly familiar territory for me, but John Cage and his ideas of music and sound were familiar to me and this helped make the book feel more accessible – and truly it was an enjoyable read.

Reading this was a great gift as I delve deeper into understanding the relationship between sound and theology – or more precisely and personally – my experience of God through sound. The discussion of the superabundant generosity of music, and a stance of open receptivity resonated deeply within my own experience. This generosity and receptivity encapsulates my understanding of the human/divine relationship at its best. God is the ever abundant giver and we are the receivers – who are not merely receivers of divine generosity but also participate in it as co-creators. We are part of the divinely offered “given music” of our world.

“With or without human awareness, God gives in music: noticeably and unnoticeably, impossibly, indulgently, and even overwhelmingly.” (p. 124)

Reading "Our Sound is Our Wound" by Lucy Winkett

Our Sound is our Wound: Contemplative Listening to the Noisy World – The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2010” by Lucy Winkett. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.

If I recall correctly, I have Amazon algorithms to thank for my discovering this book. I’m glad I did. It is an intriguing, if a bit quirky book. (Some of its quirkiness is its Britishness.)

“It is the suggestion of this book that the sounds we make raise questions not only about how we live and about why we have created the environment we have, but that these soundscapes start to reveal deeper theological questions about who we are, of what we are afraid and in whom we trust.” (Introduction)

In the introduction of the book she describes a deeply moving concert she attended. About the concert she writes “I experienced musical sound which seemed to be a wound, in that it embodied vulnerability and personal exposure for the sake of the music itself.” And later “Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the sound is an audible scar of damaged tissues underneath; but the sound has substance in itself, in that part of its nature is that of a wound which reveals depth and trauma under the surface.”

The title and this introductory material connecting sound and woundedness captured my attention noticing in myself both intrigue and resistance to where the author could go with the idea. Having now read the book, I didn’t find the wound theme as present as I expected, or at least not present in the way I expected it. This is still an engaging book about the relationship between sound and faith.

What follows are a handful of quotes and notes from the 6 chapters. Nothing terribly profound on my part, just some content to give the reader a flavor of the book.

Chapter 1 – The Sound of Scripture. She writes of the Bible not only as a collection of silent words, but as both a product of sound and as a script or song that needs to be performed. “As well as our hallowed book, Scripture is also the God-breathed soundscape of human history in which we listen for the word and the Word to speak and sing.” (6) Winkle writes a lot about music, and her particular fondness for “classical” music as one of the best means of capturing the truths of scripture. She does make off-hand references to pop songs/artists, but their inclusion feels a little forced. But her celebration of the power of music and how it can express theological concepts is welcome. “It is not appropriate that before God every cadence resolves, or that every rhythm is comforting. We must allow for dissonance in our worship.” (24) This presents a challenge to the seemingly endless triumphant hymns and ceaselessly joyous praise songs. “Our harmony is not real harmony if it is bland resolution that trivializes the singer and the song.” (26)

“It is a harmony that is made when we listen to the dissonances of Scripture and experience and deepen our understanding of another. It is the harmony that is made when we listen for the voices that is singing a different part, even one that sounds contrary to the part we are singing. It is a harmony born of an attentiveness to God and to each other that means we will listen and take our rest as well as play and sing the part we have been given. This is the harmony that takes account of the suffering of God’s broken world, and as we listen for the profound song of love, we can invite others to sing.” (26)

Chapter 2 – The Sound of Lament. “[The sound of lament] is both a protest against the pain of the present time, and also a timeless expression of the weeping voice of God, in whose image and likeness we are made.” (28)

Chapter 3 – The Sound of Freedom. Both sound and silence can be tools of oppression, as well as liberation. We need only thing of the U.S. military’s use of loud music to “break down” prisoners of war. But music is also one of the most characteristic sounds of freedom. “The very act of making music together is a protest against the inequalities and divisions that human beings create in every country.” (67)

Silencing someone else’s voice is way of diminishing and damaging them. But, choosing silence can be a powerful tool for the individual. “Jesus’ journey through the days before he died is the ultimate example of God’s choosing to be silenced by the violent cruelty of humanity.”

Chapter 4 – The Sound of Resurrection. Death is the great silence, the great silencer. In Jesus we see the use of sound, to undo the silence of death. “It is into this silence of all silences in John’s Gospel, that Jesus speaks to raise Lazarus – Jesus cries with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’” (89)

Chapter 5 – The Sound of Angels. I will admit, I don’t think much of angels, and I’m not particularly drawn to the ideas of those who do give their attention to angels. Winkett gives a chapter’s-worth of attention to angels, and I was able to ride along without rolling my eyes. She takes note of the role of angels in most biblical accounts – “The angels sing. That’s what they do. It’s what they’re for. They also play trumpets and harps, and in Renaissance paintings they recline in the sky, making music for God.” (102)

This chapter includes some fascinating imagery from the bible, and other religious texts connecting music to being in relationship with God. “According to another Jewish text, Adam had heard the song of the angels before he sinned: I [Adam] used to hear, before I sinned, the sound of their wings in Paradise, when the seraphim would beat them to the sound of the threefold praise. But after I transgress, I no longer heard the sound.” (108)

“Sin had separated humanity from hearing the liturgy of heaven and it was only as the restoration of the new covenant with the birth of Christ that this was restored.” (109)

The act of listening is essential to the act of making music. “the Church too can be a community of people who listen together for the unfathomable songs of eternity sung in praise to the Creator by the created, led by the angels. In this contemplative listening, the Church translates the song and teaches it to others that we can become more than observers, and participators in the music of the cosmos.” (117)

Chapter 6 – Our Sound is Our Wound. “The Christian Church has an historic role express in this story – to call people into silence in the presence of God.” (124) And she adds “The churches’ wounds are on display when we are unable to be silent or to invite others into such a silence.” (126)

One suggestion she mentioned that caught my ear as a spiritual discipline I will consider is keeping a sound diary. This shouldn’t simply be a list of sounds, but could become an examen focusing on the sounds of our day. Where did I hear God today? What did I learn about God from what I heard today? What were the happy sounds, angry sounds, sad sounds of the day? Where was silence a gift, and a burden?

Winkett is a professional church person described in her bio as a “Rector-designate” and former “Canon Precentor.” [I’m not certain what those titles involve, but it seems like they involve church leadership.] Accordingly, this book speaks out of, and into a church context. The church as receptacle and resonator of sounds and silences, profane and divine.

This final extended quote includes an important series of questions concerning the character of the church and it’s relationship to its aural environment.

“The character of the Christian vocation emerges in the midst of this hurting world. Are we a body of people whose instinct is to fall into the silence of waiting on God with a willingness to listen with our whole bodies for the presence of the Holy One we will recognize in that sounds of sheer silence? Are we a body of people who know in our own lives the value of silence in a noisy world and teach this to our children and grandchildren? Are we a body of people at peace with our own death? Are we a body of people whose visceral compassion for a suffering world is expressed in our actions, our words, and the tone of our voice? Are we a body of people who know the language and music of lament, who have learned how to sing out our own pain? Are we a body of people whose worship of God is in tune with the songs of the angels rooted in the groans of the earth?” (131)

Rhythm Wisdom


And again, the grass turns green.
And again, the daffodils bloom.
And again, the seeds are sown.

And again, the sun rises.
And again, the sun sets.
And again, the darkness comes.

And again, we gather for prayer.
And again, we gather to eat.
And again, we enter solitude.

And again, we hear a whisper from God.
And again, we taste God’s love made edible.
And again, we see the beauty of God.

Life at the Hermitage, as all life everywhere, is filled with rhythms: from the quickened rhythms of the heartbeats of each beloved guest to the long, slow, cosmic rhythms of expansion and contraction.

A key part of the work of the Hermitage, both for staff and for guests, is to recognize these rhythms, feel them, learn from them, and enter into them. These rhythms have much to teach us.

The wisdom literature of the Hebrew scripture extols the importance of being attentive to these rhythms and to recognize the wisdom of God held within. Some rhythms are simple steady beats that are easily recognized, while others are vastly more complex and may take many generations to understand.

These wisdom texts were central in shaping early monastic life and play a central role in the Rule of St. Benedict which guides many monastic communities even today. These traditions established ways of living for people, whether in community or in solitude, that are filled with rhythms of prayer and work, the rhythms of the church year, and the rhythms of life.

Let us all be attentive to those rhythms that shape and nurture our lives. Rhythms of work, of play, of retreat, of breath, and of prayer. There is wisdom in these rhythms, if we just open ourselves to hear God within.

(Originally posted on the Hermitage Community blog.

Reading "Religion Out Loud"

Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism, by Isaac Weiner. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

When I picked this book up from my local public library (thanks MeLCat for your statewide deliver) and glanced through it I braced myself. I held an academic book covering a field where I’ve done little to know reading. I was ready to be challenged.

What I encountered instead is a book of stories told by a good storyteller. And within and around those stories was very accessible and insightful critical analysis. This turned out to be a wonderfully engaging read. I will acknowledge I have little to no experience with the critical world of sound studies, and so I have few resources to analyze the book from within that discipline. I’m a guy interested in faith and sound, and this book is about people of faith and their relationship to sound.

The books author, Isaac Weiner, is an associate professor at The Ohio State University and co-director of the American Religious Sounds Project.

The book covers the main stories covering the span of about 100 years: church bells in late 19th c.; Jehovah Witness sound cars in the early 20th c.; and broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer in the late 20th c. And with each story Weiner details the related legal, or legislative stories.

The primary issue this book covers is how has American society responded to religious sounds in public spaces. Sound often transgresses public and private space. While we can often avoid those things that stimulate our other senses, such as sights and tastes, we have few real barriers to sound. Related to the transgressive issue of sound, is the question of when is sound received as noise? This book also considers the understanding of religion simply as a set of beliefs, or whether the material manifestation of a religion – by doing such things as making loud sounds in public – is an integral part of religions.

Weiner categorizes public religious noise as serving one of three purposes: to project authority; to announce dissent; and to indicate and negotiate difference.

In looking at stories from mid 19th century to current times, the book follows the track of the industrialization of the U.S. And with industrialization came more loud sounds; of factories, steam and combustion engines, powered public transportation, etc. All this noise was seen by many as an indicator of progress.

But while the public noises of American industrialization was seen as a sign of progress, the public noises of religious life were increasingly seen as a sign of incivility. Western civilization presumed a religious evolution from noisy barbarism to quiet civilization; from a public, materialized religious practice, to a private, internalized set of beliefs.

Weiner does a wonderful job of depicting the challenges the American courts have had with “noisy religions” from seeing all sounds, whether religious or not, as equal and any loud sound as noise, to understanding public religious sound as acceptable free expression of religion. And while the cases of the church bells, and the Jehovah’s Witness sound cars were resolved in the courts, the debate over broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer in Dearborn was resolved through legislative means.

Weiner pulls together his understanding of the American response to public religious sound “[Complaints about religious noise] have expressed liberal Protestant and Post-Enlightenment ideas about ‘good’ religion, conceiving it as properly internalized, individualized, and intellectualized while also serving to authorize and legitimate these distinctly modern notions of suitable religiosity.” (p. 196)

This book helped me consider me consider the sounds of faith and when they means of expressing the content of beliefs, and when they are in themselves actualizations or materializations of that faith. I have been in contexts where the volume of sound was central to the expression of joy and faith. The question of how we should respond when other’s religious sounds transgress our personal sonic space, and when our religious sounds intrude on others remains with me.