For The Someday Book

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Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land by Sandy Tolan, Bloomsbury USA, 2015, 480 pp.

Children of the StoneI was thrilled to discover Sandy Tolan was writing another book about life in Palestine. His first, The Lemon Tree, was so compelling, and the story so fascinating, I couldn’t wait to read Children of the Stone. While it was a good story, it was a less compelling read than I had hoped, and I found it somewhat disappointing.

The center of the story is Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, one of the young Palestinian boys whose picture was made famous for throwing stones at Israeli troops during the Intifada. Ramzi grows up to become a musician, and to found a music school for children in Gaza, the most improbably location. Children of the Stone tells the story of his growing up in Gaza, the (gross) violence he witnessed and the (minor) violence he engaged. It unfolds the incredible effort of his musical training, entering the realm of music at a much later age than many of his peers, and the way music freed him from Gaza and opened up the world for him. It shares his passion to open up that world for other Palestinian children through his music school.

Where the book disappoints is in the story of the building of the music school. Tolan tries to weave together Ramzi’s story with the stories of Palestinian academic Edward Said and Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim. Ramzi did come to play in the Divan orchestra founded by Said and Barenboim, but the connection between them did not seem worthy of the ink Tolan devoted to it. The Divan Orchestra was a greater source of frustration than inspiration for Ramzi. The many pages devoted to Said and Barenboim did not seem to advance the story, and Ramzi never even met Said. The same is true of the time Tolan spends developing the life portraits of several volunteers (mostly European) who travel to Palestine to help teach in the school.

Ramzi is somehow able to raise money for the school, convince musicians and volunteers to travel to Palestine to teach and play, continue touring Europe as a musician, oversee every detail of construction, handle publicity and politics, and gently encourage students that music is worthwhile. In order to do that, he must be an incredible force of passion and charisma, with an energy and magnetism that radiates. However, Tolan’s portrait does not capture and captivate us with that force. Like the journalist that he is, Tolan’s Children of the Stone reads too much like a laundry list of events and not enough like the captivating story of Ramzi’s amazing life. Ramzi feels diminished by the telling, which simply recounts “this happened, then this happened, and this witness said this, and this witness said that…” It’s too much like a newspaper account of an event, and not enough like an author crafting a narrative. Those who speak to Ramzi’s temperament and dedication come across as witnesses giving a deposition rather than those inspired (or angered) by Ramzi’s passion. At one point, about midway through, I almost put it down for good, bored by the side narratives and dry recounting.

The book is at its best when it is recounting the history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and telling the story of Ramzi’s family. With Ramzi’s life as the uniting thread, Tolan is able to open an important window into the untold stories of life in Palestine. His approach is less careful to justify the actions of the Israeli government than in The Lemon Tree, which I appreciate as a brave and important act of truth-telling. For that reason, I want to support this book, to have people read it and come to know the important story that it tells about Ramzi, his family and the people of Palestine. I only wish I could recommend it with more enthusiasm for the storytelling.

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This Sunday was part of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, and I wanted to be sure to attend a service that marked the occasion. I decided to worship on Sunday morning at a well-respected African-American megachurch that has a satellite campus in our town. I have developed a nice collegial relationship with one of the pastors there, and the worship and preaching are always stellar.

This time, however, the transcendent moment came from a choir anthem, sung by a magnificent choir that was at least 75 voices strong. The anthem was called “Manifest.” Although online sources credit T.D. Jakes, whose church choir made a famous recording of it, the piece was written by Jonathan Nelson and John Paul McGee. The version by Jakes’ The Potter’s House Choir is below (there is preaching at the beginning, skip ahead to 2:25 to hear the music), but you can listen to Nelson’s more mellow recording here. The rendition I heard was far more free-form, as the soloist and choir leader led each other and followed the movement of the Spirit as they repeated certain refrains, took the crowd to a crescendo and let each section of the anthem go on as long as it needed to.

I wavered for the first two verses about whether I would be drawn into the song or not.

Pregnant possibilities now birth anew,
travailing to obtain it for it must come to pass.
I decree it, declare it, and call it in the Spirit
to become what God’s designed me to be.
Your future, your promises shall be fulfilled,
yes, you shall obtain it for it must come to pass.

Creeping in the background, I could see the images of the prosperity gospel, which I think is a twisted, evil distortion of the gospel of sacrifice and service. However, I loved the idea of pregnant possibilities, and the call to become everything God has designed us to be. In the context of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and death, I remembered something I heard about the power and importance of the black church. (There’s probably a famous quote to this effect from a famous preacher, but I don’t remember it.) All week long, out in the world, black people are despised and filled with the lie that they are worthless. On Sunday morning, the church tells them the real truth: that they are holy and whole and loved and powerful. Worship gives the community strength and healing to face the world knowing the truth of who they are. I decided to go with this message, and let myself be moved by the power of the song. In the end, “moved” doesn’t even begin to describe my experience.

The choir began repeating the same refrain: “I decree it, declare it, and call it in the Spirit/to become what God’s designed me to be.” They built it up to a crescendo, and a young woman took the microphone and began to sing out above them, increasing the intensity. Together, she and the choir were not simply singing a song anymore—their words were acting like the Word, the Word that calls worlds into being, the Word whose utterances are entities in themselves, the Word whose voice is power and light and hope incarnate. As they sang “I decree it, declare it,” I could see the bodies and souls of the choir members taking on the design that God had for each of them, becoming wholly a vehicle of God’s praise. As we in the congregation stood and joined them, their decree and declaration took hold of us as well, calling down the Spirit to shape us into God’s design for our lives, so that we too could become vessels of God’s glory.

The culminating moment came when the choir began to repeat the title word: “manifest.” Over and over, with power and might, with chords and discords, with prayer and supplication they sang out: “Manifest!” At first, it was a pleading prayer to the Holy One, urging the Divine to come into our midst, to manifest among us. I recalled the Isaiah passage from the first Sunday of Advent: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1) With the voices, I ached for God to manifest in our presence, a theophany. Their pleading grew bolder, and it was like they were issuing a command to the Almighty’s own self. Like a petulant child: “Get down here right now! Manifest!”

As the intensity grew, something in me shifted, and I realized it was a command—but not to the Almighty. The anthem was a command to ourselves. Manifest! Manifest God! Right here, right now. Manifest God in your life. Manifest God in your words and your deeds. Manifest God in your own body. Get rid of all that baggage and those useless pursuits. Become what God has designed you to be. Manifest!

The soloist continued, but her words were lost on me. All I heard was the choir proclaiming the Word: Manifest! The song reached its climax and began to wind down, turning quiet and introspective in the repeated refrain: “become what God designed you to be.” It was then that I realized that the song was itself a manifestation. By their song, the choir had actually made manifest the presence of the Spirit in our midst. Then they had manifest that Spirit in us, sweeping the congregation into the Spirit’s work. We heard the truth that we are loved by God, and called by God to love others. The power of the music became the power of God. The Word was again made flesh, manifest in that hour of worship in voices and bodies lifted in praise and turned toward what God designed us to be. Thanks be to God.

This morning started out rough. B woke up early, then melted down from tiredness, then we got stuck in 45 minutes of traffic on the ride to school. To fill time in traffic, I introduced B to new music: Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book.

B loves music, and we have been intentional about teaching him our favorites. For J, that means The Beatles. For me, that means the songs of the church. The music of the church is my deepest connection to God. When I need strength or hope or intimacy with God, I start to sing. My great-grandmother taught me to love the old hymns like “Whispering Hope” and “In the Garden.” My children’s choir directors filled me with “Apple Red Happiness” and “Do Lord.” During youth group, church camp and retreat years, I learned “Sanctuary” and “Pass It On” and “It’s Amazing.” In college, we sang social justice with “City of God,” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice” and “We Shall Overcome.” In every church I’ve served, I have learned new songs as I learned more about God, and the songs hold that faith understanding for me.

Increasing my repertoire of songs increases my repertoire of faith. They are a reservoir of strength, courage, insight, hope and grace. These songs of my heart have shaped my understanding of God, and they are my testimony to God’s love. I want to pass the songs on to B as they were passed on to me, so that he too can have such a supply of faith-filled words and melodies to draw on when he needs them.

And so this challenging morning I removed The Beatles from the CD player and stuck in My Mother’s Hymn Book. With a touch of irony as we sat in traffic, the song that swept us away today was “I Shall Not Be Moved.” This is one of my heart’s songs, and it often comes to me when I am facing difficulty or conflict. I sing it as a mantra of encouragement and strength when I feel weak or afraid.

This morning we played it over and over. Johnny Cash, B and I sang our hearts out. For the first time, B continued to belt out the melody line when I switched to harmony, so we became a trio of young and old, unison and harmony, wisdom and innocence. I went from grousing to laughing, and then to crying with joy at the crazy beauty of this one moment. When we finally got to preschool, 20 minutes late, we stayed in the car together to sing it one more time. I did not want the moment to end.

B will not likely remember this moment. Perhaps, though, with enough repetition, he will learn this song by heart. Someday, when he needs it most, this song might come into his heart and bring him faith, encouragement, strength, grace, the love of God and of his mother.

Did you know that Willie Nelson is a “rock & roll band star”? According to B, all is proved in that great Steve Goodman/Arlo Guthrie railroad folk tribute, “The City of New Orleans.”

B insisted this was a rock & roll song. We gently offered a different perspective, “it’s not really a rock & roll song, more of a folk song.” He refused to consent–and he proved his case by singing along to the lyrics.

And the sons of Pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.

Half way home, we’ll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea.

“See Mommy, I told you it was a rock & roll band song.”

You win.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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