Thursday, December 31, 2009

Nineteen Sixty Forty-Nine

I remember the Christmas when I was four. Among other things, Santa brought me a little drawing board. For some reason I decided to practice writing dates on it, so I started with that year, 1961, and continued through the decade till I got to 1969 and “19610.” Dad explained that after “nineteen sixty-nine” we’d come to “nineteen seventy,” not “nineteen sixty-ten”. So I learned about counting, about dates, and in a very childish way, about the passing of time.

I don’t think I’m fatalistic, generally speaking, but like most people I experience concerns about the future. When the calendar changes to the new year, I inevitably think, “What if this is the year when some major, unforeseen problem happens?” My grandma died on January 6, when I was fifteen, and just as that new year had begun, I gained a healthy respect for the unpredictability of life. My birthday is January 2, so the fact the calendar year is almost exactly a new year of age for me also makes me very conscious of the possibilities of the coming year.

Unfortunately, I tend to isolate (mentally, at least) New Years Eve and Day from the Christmastide season in which they occur. Although the calendar year changes, we're already a few weeks into the liturgical calendar and celebrating the fulfillment of God's promises in Christ. Why celebrate God's promises on one hand and yet wonder about the future as if we had no hope and refuge?

Karl Barth writes of God’s “contemporaneity” (Gleichzeitlichkeit), God’s simultaneous “presentness” in past, present, and future. There are all kinds of theological challenges in expressing God’s providence--e.g., if God knows the future, could he and does he forestall future disasters, and so on. Even though issues of providence and predestination are complicated, I find great assurance in Barth’s idea. “Time, like an ever-flowing stream” may bear us away, as the hymn says, but God bears us more strongly, because he is already in our future.

God's care has certainly been evident in my own life, as I look back from the vantage point of what I would’ve called Nineteen Sixty Forty-Nine!

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Friday, December 25, 2009

“If God is for us, who is against us?”

A portion of Martin Luther's Christmas sermon, 1530. (Here is the piece in its entirety: ) Good things to think about!

"Take yourself in hand, examine yourself and see whether you are a Christian! If you can sing: The Son, who is proclaimed to be a Lord and Savior, is my Savior; and if you can confirm the message of the angel and say yes to it and believe it in your heart, then your heart will be filled with such assurance and joy and confidence, and you will not worry much about even the costliest and best that this world has to offer. For when I can speak to the virgin from the bottom of my heart and say: O Mary, noble, tender virgin, you have borne a child; this I want more than robes and guldens, yea, more than my body and life; then you are closer to the treasure than everything else in heaven and earth, as Ps. 73 [:25] says, “There is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee.” You see how a person rejoices when he receives a robe or ten guldens.

"But how many are there who shout and jump for joy when they hear the message of the angel: “To you is born this day the Savior?” Indeed, the majority look upon it as a sermon that must be preached, and when they have heard it, consider it a trifling thing, and go away just as they were before. This shows that we have neither the first nor the second faith. We do not believe that the virgin mother bore a son and that he is the Lord and Savior unless, added to this, I believe the second thing, namely, that he is my Savior and Lord. When I can say: This I accept as my own, because the angel meant it for me, then, if I believe it in my heart, I shall not fail to love the mother Mary, and even more then child, and especially the Father. For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine, then I have no angry God and I must know the feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart.

"For, if what the angel says is true, that he is our Lord and Savior, what can sin do against us? “If God is for us, who is against us?” [Rom. 8:31]. Greater words than these I cannot speak, nor all the angels and even the Holy Spirit, as is sufficiently testified by the beautiful and devout songs that have been made about it. I do not trust myself to express it. I most gladly hear you sing and speak of it, but as long as no joy is there, so long is faith still weak or even nonexistent, and you still do not believe the angel."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Very Fine House

I decided to place a few longer pieces at a new blog while continuing this one. This past week I revised an essay, written a couple years ago but unpublished, which is related to Christmas. Here is the link:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mary, Elizabeth, and the Holy Spirit

Yesterday was the Fourth Day of Advent. The Gospel lesson was Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Several things we can gain from this story, including the lovely words of the Ave Maria, Benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” As I wrote a lesson on this passage last fall, I focused on the role of Elizabeth. In those days before the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered only certain people to prophesy, and when Elizabeth heard Mary coming, she was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (verse 41). By the Spirit’s power, Elizabeth preached the Gospel of Jesus before his birth! She recognized Mary as Jesus’ blessed mother. She interpreted her own physical discomfort as God’s sign.

Elizabeth was a prophet, in other words! She was a prophet for this purpose, in a long line of Hebrew prophets which, most believed, had ended centuries before. My question is: If the Spirit came to a person who previously had been perceived as disfavored by God (as childlessness was then believed to be), doesn’t the Spirit now comes to all kinds of persons, whether favored or disfavored in society? What might the Spirit be up to in our present world that might startle us?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

News of Great Mirth

Advent is, of course, about the Gospel of Jesus. In my recent Advent study book I noted that we display poinsettias in our churches at Christmastime, but maybe we ought to intermingle Easter lilies among the poinsettias to remind us that Jesus’ whole life--birth to death to resurrection--was for our benefit.

In communicating the Gospel, balancing justification and sanctification (that is, salvation and holiness) can be tricky. Salvation is unearned, God’s love is constant and undeserved, Christ’s death covered all our sins “not in part but the whole” as the hymn goes---all these are wonderful, freeing aspects of the Gospel message.

On one hand, growing in grace, and loving and serving one another, are essential aspects of Christian living: “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life ….For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin….So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:4-7, 11). Paul is clearly thinking of a personal, ongoing effort on our part to “own” and live our salvation: our salvation is a reality which, nevertheless, we could neglect.

On the other hand, nothing we do in our Christian living is Gospel, strictly speaking: the Gospel is still Christ’s person and work which saves us and gives us the Spirit. The Gospel is what God does, not what we do. The things we do are important in so far as they are results of the ongoing work of the Spirit in our lives--which, again, is included in the wonderful things God does for us, not our own feeble efforts to screw up our courage, force ourselves to love jerks, overcome our psychological defects, and so on.

Unfortunately, many people don’t get the message, or they get it and lose it. The Ligonier website, which I recently discovered from a Facebook friend, discusses the problem of “sad Christians.” I very much empathize with laity who feel more lost than fulfilled in church. I’ve grumbled, in these blog entries and elsewhere, about the way we pastors are under pressure to motivate and pep-talk our congregations into serving and giving: in other words, to ignore the basic message of the Gospel (or, at least, to bracket it) and substitute works-righteous messages that would shame or inspire people to do more and be more.

A better way of encouraging people to serve is simply to preach love. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley stressed “holiness of heart and life.” As many people have lamented over the years, he used the word “perfection” to describe the cleansing that we can experience from impure motives so that we are characterized in all our relationships by love. Consequently, he spent a lot of time qualifying what he meant by perfection instead of focusing on his main idea: the fullness of Christ’s love in our hearts. Perhaps he should have used a phrase like that one instead of a single word.

In his book, Housing Heaven’s Fire: The Challenge of Holiness (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002), John C. Haughey, S.J., calls attention to the fact that, in the Bible, we are holy because we belong to God. We’re holy before we do anything good and admirable; we’re holy by association, holy because God already loves us. Think about the experience of being loved and accepted by someone you think is fabulous: you feel happy and proud of your association and want to do things that please the person. That’s an imperfect analogy for our relationship with God: we need to realize deeply how much God loves us, and to hold fast to that unchanging and guaranteed reality. Holding fast to God’s unchanging love may not shield us from discouraging church experiences, but we can keep in mind that church people and preachers are, like us, human and fallible, but God’s Gospel is always wonderful and life-changing.

Which brings me finally to the hymn, “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing,” set by R. Vaughan Williams to a folk tune. The line “News of great joy, news of great mirth” is wonderful. How many Christians do you know who are joyful and characterized by “mirth”? I’ve certainly dealt with “the blues” over the years. I can think of some who are sad Christians as described above, others who were glum and disapproving because they had faith but also sour, angry personalities. How do we stay joyful?

The answer is to hold to the promise of God’s unfailing love, and to assume (correctly) that it‘s the only reliable thing in our lives. Christmas is “news of mirth” because God has made us his very own and won’t let go!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Supermarket Memories, Part 2

Still thinking about grocery stores ...

I found some websites that discuss the economic and cultural history of supermarkets, for instance, The site mentions the Piggly Wiggly company, interesting to me because my dad began his trucking career hauling citrus from the South to Piggly Wiggly stores in central Illinois. But chains like that and others would eventually crowd out privately owned stores. Even chains eventually became endangered in the face of larger companies. Among its several former stores, my hometown has Aldi and IGA, but the Wal-Mart dominates.

Supermarkets developed in tandem with American affluence and automobile culture. (See Older markets specialized in meats or dry goods, but “super markets” carried a variety of selections displayed as a kind of journey, with certain kinds of products first, ice cream and frozen food toward the end of the last aisle, and treats like candy near the check-out. This was exactly the layout of the Day ‘n’ Nite that burned in ‘67. Supermarkets revolutionized food shopping and created numerous other cultural changes.

In certain ways, kitchen items came to represent American culture. As many people know, a notable Cold War exchange happened in 1959 between Khrushchev and Nixon, inspired by the typical contents of a kitchen. Nixon argued the merits of American capitalism as he and the Soviet leader toured displays of household items. Not so long afterward, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol made art of things like beer cans, Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup labels. Pop art continues to capture public imagination. Food for additional reflection (no pun intended): how American well-being, even American creativity, became handily symbolized by grocery and kitchen products.

And speaking of brand names: one of my favorite "bathroom books" is What a Character! 20th Century American Advertising Icons by Warren Dotz and Jim Morton (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996). Leafing through this book I think back on childhood trips to the grocery store via characters and products like:

Snap, Crackle, and Pop
The Campbell Soup Kids
Florida Orange Bird
Funny Face soft drink mix characters, like Goofy Grape and Loud-Mouth Lemon
Big Shot Chocolate
Mr. Bubble
Brylcreem (a little dab’ll do ya)
Jolly Green Giant
Sugar Pops Pete
Sugar Bear for Sugar Crisp cereal
Tony the Tiger
Toucan Sam
Poppin’ Fresh
Cap’n Crunch
Quisp and Quake cereals
Trix Rabbit
Sonny the Cuckoo Bird (Coco Pops)
Punchy of Hawaiian Punch

What happy memories of everyday moments! I also remember a brand of cereal in the early 1960s called Kellogg’s OKs, which had Yogi Bear on the box. The cereal bits were little O’s and K’s. I suppose it represents the triumph of marketing and consumerism to draw a close connection between advertising icons, brand names, and one’s childhood memories. But at least one can be aware of the larger cultural context of one’s life.

How do you end a set of recollections of grocery stores? You don't, because it's a part of your life that's ongoing, even if you think of your trips as a chore rather than grist for recollection. My father hauled his elderly self to the supermarket each week, purchasing bargains and using his coupons, right up till his last few days. So will most of us.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Supermarket Memories, Part 1

Still in a nostalgic mood … Maybe the first draft of an eventual essay...

This past week I decided to add an additional grocery store to my weekly errands. I’ve been shopping at a Schnuck’s store near our home. Schnuck’s is a local company, founded in the 1930s, and has branched out into a few other cities during the past few years. I like the store near our home, but the other customers can be oblivious. I’ve nearly collided several times with people who push their carts very fast, with no regard for others who are “merging“ from the aisles. I try to make eye contact with folks but they’re in a “zone”, finishing their errand in a hurry. (Sometimes I’m in a “zone,” too. By definition you wouldn’t know if you were oblivious or not….)

But this past week, I couldn’t find an item at this store, so onward to the next-closest Schnuck’s, and what a difference! Some shoppers were disengaged, but no one pushed their carts around like they were in a damned roller derby. The décor of this store was pleasant too; in certain outside aisles, false ceilings made the space homey, somehow.

I don’t necessarily love to shop for groceries, but I love grocery stores as a “space.” I feel a little wistful when we move from a community and no longer patronize favorite supermarkets; such places occupy large portions of weekly time and attention, after all, and sometimes you get to know the employees, too. I actually said goodbye and “thanks” to some of the folks who work at the Akron grocery where I shopped before we moved to St. Louis.

I still remember the basic organization of the Day ’n’ Nite stores in my hometown. The store located at Seventh and Orchard burned in (I think) 1967, when I was ten, and was replaced by the store at Fifth and Orchard which remained open until the late 1980s or early 1990s. In that earlier store, we entered the front door (beside the mechanical horse and race car rides) and proceeded straight ahead into the aisle with breakfast cereals, which of course was one of my favorite foods. The cash registers were to the left. As we went down that aisle and around to the left, we entered a shorter aisle which ended at the comic books! Other aisles were laid out at right angles to these first ones. Funny that I remember the basic layout so clearly, considering my age at the time. Ice cream and “TV dinners” were at the end of the last aisle. Dad cooked from scratch, but I do that we tried frozen dinners one evening as we watched Jackie Gleason’s show. Frozen food wasn’t so great back then.

I was still into comic books when the new Day ‘n’ Nite opened, so I liked that section. You came into the store and walked past the check-out lines and past the manager’s station (which was slightly elevated; the manager was Lily Ritchie), and the magazines and comic books were on the other side of the manager’s station. As you browsed the magazines, the produce section was behind you. I collected issues of the comic “Enemy Ace” during my phase of building World War I airplane models. The sexy magazines were supposed to be in the back section of the magazines but were sometimes left in front next to the Redbooks and McCalls. I was afraid someone would see me look at them, so I didn’t, but the covers were usually “intriguing” enough.

During my growing-up years Vandalia also had a Kroger store at Seventh and Gallatin, and the Tri City grocery, which was part of the First National Bank building (the old Dieckmann Hotel) along Fifth Street downtown. Vandalia also had an A&P store at Sixth and Gallatin, and an IGA at Kennedy Blvd (formerly Third St.) and Jefferson. Kroger eventually moved down to the plaza of stores at Third and Gallatin. Three things I remember about Tri City, which operated till about the late 1970s, were the hand-drawn price signs, the Lucky Stripe gum at the check out, and the row of seats where older folks sat. We’d sometimes see a widowed cousin, Homer Fisher, sitting there; he was always glad to talk to us. We must’ve gotten Tootsie Roll suckers at Kroger, because shadowy childhood recollections of the store still pop into mind (no pun intended) when I see ads for those suckers and, occasionally, treat myself to one. I remember aspects of all these stores in Vandalia because my dad was such a bargain shopper; he would drive all around town to get the best prices. Whatever he saved on the price of bananas, he must’ve spent on gasoline for multiple errands, but he didn’t seem to consider that. I think he just liked bargain-shopping.

Another memory of Dad concerns the (in retrospect) amazing policy of Day ‘n’ Nite, where faithful customers could charge their groceries like a bar tab: the cashier printed the total on a card, you signed your name, and you could pay the bill later. What a great honor system, and probably something even a small-town store couldn’t do today. Dad always got upset if our total got over $50, which at the time represented four or five major shopping trips. Although Dad did most of the grocery shopping, he’d scold Mom for letting the total get too high. So typical of Dad: quick to disapprove, but a devoted provider.

During the 70s and 80s, when going barefoot was a fad, shopping for groceries was pleasant without shoes. (I like to think of summertime during wintry weather like today’s!) You’d see teenagers and a few adults heading shoeless into the store with fair regularity. On a hot day, the feeling of the cool linoleum on your feet as you navigated the air-conditioned aisles was delightful, particularly as you strolled past the frozen foods.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jesus Off-Road?

Very random connections, ending with a sweet wish by a little child. As Emily and I drove down to her dentist the other day, we passed Annunciation Church. Outside was a small sign, “Catholic Radio, AM 1410” or whatever the number was.

“Catholic Radio,” I thought…

The term make me think of that 1980s song “Mexican Radio” by Wall of Voodoo, and the tune stuck in my mind for a moment…

Then, as we drove along, I thought of Radio Free Europe and Cold War-era TV commercials which asked Americans to support it. When I was a very small child (worried even then about the Soviet threat), I got Radio Free Europe mixed in my mind with the Iron Curtain. So I pictured the latter as a big metal wall with a section that contained radio dials--and that was the only radio station available in Europe, I thought, because otherwise the countries were “radio-free.”

Then, this scrambled thinking reminded me of a relative’s comments on Facebook--another, sweeter example of young children's thought-processes. My relative's young niece had engaged her in this conversation:

“Did the Wise Men bring Baby Jesus gifts?”
“Yes, they did.”
“Did they give him a rattle?”
“I’m not sure…”
“Did they give him a dirt bike?”

Poor Jesus didn't get a dirt bike for his birthday! Wouldn't it have been sweet, though, if the children who gathered around Jesus (Luke 18) had asked him about his birthday.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, Robin Laid an Egg"...

Christmas is inevitably a nostalgic time. Even foolish little-boy songs like the subject heading --a recess favorite in elementary school--come to mind among holiday memories!

Christmas houses the past and cares for it. I remember childhood days when the now-familiar Christmas carols were new to me, and television ads stuck strangly to the holiday ("trust your car to the man who wears the star"). When I was little, I loved to see the silver, red, and green holiday decorations hung upon the downtown street lights, and the feeling of snow and cold on my face as my parents and I walked among the stores: Don’s Camera Shop, Merriman’s Flowers, Cain’s Drug Store, Greer’s Hardware, Fidelity Clothiers, G. C. Murphy, Craycroft’s, and others. At the time, I’m sure, I was impatient to go home rather than to shop, but one’s memory selects and interprets happy images from childhood. That old song “Silver Bells” inevitably reminds me of Vandalia—hardly the “city” of the lyrics, but it seemed so to me.

On Christmas itself, a muted stillness lay over the town. Having dispatched my Christmas toys with a boy's greedy vigor, I traveled with my parents across the river bridge and through the woods as we drove to Grandma's house for a holiday feast. Nothing in town stirred, no people stood in laundromats, no one walked downtown, and no kids played in the city park. The earth was covered with clouds. The timber beyond Four Mile Prairie's idle fields seemed faded in the snowy air. White skirts of snow ringed the fence posts. Time seemed to stand still.

Christmas is a day that revolves around rituals of home, marriage, children and family, a fact that ads to the often sad aspect of the season. We miss people and circumstances, we miss the habits of the past. Christmas contributes to the painful realization that life does, indeed, pass and change. Childhood, with its rhymes and games, fades away; our loved ones are remembered but not present. When I preached regularly, I think I added a caveat each season: if you're feeling blue this season, seek out someone to talk to!

The central meaning of Advent and Christmas, though, is the mysterious, saving Love that is not bound by time and place. God reached deep and deeper into human circumstance with a Love that doesn't let go. That reality comes with a surprising and undeserved fullness which, though more lasting than the season's other kinds of plenty, hallows all our days and gives us abundant hope in God's goodness.

These thoughts are adapted from my essay "Home for Christmas" in my book Journeys Home (1995).

Laid into a Manger: Yuck

We are accustomed to the stories of Jesus' birth and fail to think about them beyond the sentimental and nostalgic. A farmer friend at my first parish offhandedly referred to the manger in his barn and, although I knew what a manger was, I had a sudden realization: Baby Jesus was laid into a trough from which slobbery animals eat.

A few years later, I read a Catholic author who made a Eucharistic connection that I found interesting: of course Jesus was laid into a feeding trough, as a precursor to the time when we would share his body and blood in the mass. Protestants don't believe in transubstantiation but instead believe (with nuances among denominations) in the spiritual presence of Jesus in sharing of the Lord's Supper. Unfortunately, we are liable to emphasize the humility of Jesus' birth and miss the subtle implication (perhaps not even realized by the gospel authors) of his first bed, a feeding trough.

“Take, eat: this is my body”. He took the cup, gave thanks and said: "...“Take, drink: this is my blood”...."Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you shall have no life in you." Yet more upended expectations: surely God would not appear to us like this, a humble child in a manger, a "bloody enthronement on Calvary." [1] Surely God would not be known in such messy, heartrending circumstances...

1. Dominique Barthelemey, O.P., God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), p. 236.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Advent Dashes Expectations

Here are a few more observations from the Time essay that I mentioned in this past Saturday’s entry. (The essay can be found at,9171,1942957-1,00.html)

The author, Nancy Gibbs, had heard the show “Glee” criticized as “anti-Christian” because the show portrays Christians as phony. “The fact that Glee is about a club full of misfits already makes it ripe gospel ground; Jesus was not likely to be sitting at the cool kids' table in the cafeteria.” Another good thing about the show, Gibbs writes, is the way it confuses our expectations, as in the thoroughly nasty cheerleaders’ coach who, it turns out, has a tender relationship with her sister with Down’s syndrome. “The point is not whether there is an embedded moral message to be found beneath all the snark and snideness in this show or any other. The point lies in the surprises that jostle us out of our smug little certainties and invite us to weigh what we value, whatever our faith tradition.”

I was thinking about all this in terms of Advent. It’s de rigueur to say that, at Christmas, God overturns human expectations. The Gospel lesson yesterday was Luke 3:1-6, which cleverly lists the people in power at the time. Duly noted, the powerful people are nevertheless not recipients of God’s prophecy: John is. And the newborn king Jesus is not in a position of great power, either. Wouldn’t God choose showy, authoritative ways to reveal the divine plan, in order for God to get the maximum credibility and results. Well … no, God doesn’t work that way.

The problem is that we're accustomed to understanding the way God worked in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Advent no longer surprises us. The season no longer poses the questions that might shatter our faith in what we think we know about God. God might still be working (and surely is) in ways that overturn human expectations! We might never know, because we're like all the people too busy and sure of ourselves to find the Bethlehem manger.

It takes a good deal of openness and open-mindedness, I believe, to perceive God's grace in the world! But this kind of open-mindedness is not different from sincere humility. God, after all, doesn't have to check with us first before doing marvelous things.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Can't-Sit-Still Feeling of Expectancy

Nancy Gibbs writes an essay, "The Gospel of Glee," in the Dec. 7, 2009 issue of Time (p. 112). She writes that "a bright, earnest youth minister" had told a group of kids that the television show "Glee" is "anti-Christian" because it "portrays Christians as phonies and hypocrites."

I never feel sympathetic toward Christians who think that the media persecutes them. I wonder, instead, what it is about us Christians that conveys that impression: maybe a lot of us are behavior-centered, disapproving, and inconsistent--off-putting because of ourselves rather than because of our message.

How might Christians convey a different "signal" to the world? Several ways, I think, but one is to talk more about the Gospel--the person and work of Christ which accomplishes our salvation regardless of anything we could ever do---than about things behavior and our perceived place in the culture.

For my recent Advent study book, I found this comment from the Bible scholar William Barclay: Christians, he says, should be people “in a permanent sate of expectation.” [1] We can live in hope about the fullness of Christ’s presence. This isn't the same thing as wishing our physical lives were over! It means that, as long as we do live, we feel happy and hopeful at God’s steadfast love, and confident in the blessings God bestows for this life and the next. We could even dare admit that we are not perfect and get a very great deal wrong in our lives, but that God is steadfast.

What wonderful hope we can have! I enjoy the movie The Shawshank Redemption and its theme of hope. Of the two major characters, Andy has hope (symbolized in his love of music and chess) but his friend Red believes that hope is deceptive and prevents a person from accepting reality as it is. After the movie has passed you through several despairing circumstances, the last five or ten minutes of the movie are so uplifting: Red arrives at a point where he does feel hope. He’s so happy “I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.”

Some of the joyful Christians whom I’ve known are very hopeful people, both in head and heart. Sure, you meet Christians who aren't very happy, who are angry or put-upon. Let's not judge them too harshly; let's pray that they feel more deeply God's hope. Joy and hope can be ours because God’s promises are absolutely certain!

I believe God works constantly to remind us of that. I also believe that God prepares us to be ready. Thus the power of Jesus’ words: we shouldn’t succumb to “the worries of this life” in case the day of the Lord should “catch you unexpectedly, like a trap” (Luke 21: 34-35). Advent can be a wonderful time to reacquaint ourselves with God's love and grace.

1. The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Luke, by William Barclay (The Westminster Press, 1975), page 261.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

(Re)Turning to the Center

In my book, You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), I wrote: “The word “repentance” (in Hebrew teshuvah) means to turn around or to return. Repentance is a synonym for regret and restitution. But [repentance can also have] a more positive meaning: of aligning one’s priorities in order to remain true to one’s values. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes that, “The beginning place, as with any return, is of having a place from which we start, a home base, a point of origin, a beginning.” But Rabbi Artson also notes that turning/returning includes “finding our essence…our core.” He asks, “What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered? This kind of turning is not a turning to get back to some earlier time; it is a turning to remain true.” (1)

Advent is traditionally a period of solemnity, repentance, and fasting. You may be thinking, Yeah, right, as you think of the un-solemn busyness, shopping, crowds, and holiday feasts that are typical of contemporary life, although in churches, the purple color of church vestments conveys solemnity (according to ancient church traditions).

How might we think of Advent repentance in the way that Rabbi Artson writes: not just sorrow for sin but a rediscovery of our true nature? One way might be to reassess the “truth” of who we are and where we are in our lives. Are we involved in activities that give us a sense of satisfaction and service? Are we engaged in unhelpful activities (gossip, maneuvering for position, etc.) that bespeak a core of unhappiness and selfishness? Do the words we speak sound like the person we want to do--or like some angry, dispirited person?

Rabbi Artson’s questions can inform a meaningful Advent time of reflection: “What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered?”

1. Bradley Shavit Artson, “Turning,” in Tikkun, Sept.-Oct. 2002, pp. 66-67 (quotation from p. 66).

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Small Thing for Which to be Thankful

I got up this morning (Thanksgiving) at 6:30 AM, an hour and a half before the rest of the family, in order to put the garbage out. At first, we put the garbage out the night before, but the following morning the cans were overturned and the contents scattered.

The week after that, we put the garbage out in the evening but kept the light on at the back porch and watched the yard from inside the kitchen. Sure enough, a family of five ample raccoons appeared from under a bush and crossed the porch as a group toward the cans. I marveled at their sneaky, careful manner. I could hear them say,

"Clear the ramp! Thirty seconds!"
"Fire in the hole!"
"Where's our rallying point?"
"Behind the maple."
"This mission's FUBAR."

Not really ... Soon, I scared them off and brought the can inside the garage. But as stealthy and determined as they were, I felt thankful that raccoons don't have covering fire.

Challenges of Leadership

I'm picking up some of the themes that I wrote about in my October 5th entries, "Churches Want Pastors Who Have Great Skills."

The other day, I watched a show in the series “Classic Albums” on VH1. This episode concerned Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Early in their career, the band had attempted to compose music for the movie “Zabriskie Point,” but the director was never satisfied with any of their efforts. Band members thought the director couldn’t make up his mind because he wanted to be in control. As it turns out, Richard Wright’s gorgeous piano music for the movie became, four years later, the moving song “Us and Them” for the “Dark Side” album.

This show made me think about issues of control, empowerment, and leadership. A book that I love is Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People by Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993). They tell this story on page 189:

“We are at the time of this writing consulting in a congregation of 900 members, with five pastors. The communication between the pastors and the board could hardly be worse. Yet one pastor told us that during his seven years there as a pastor he has been invited to meet with the board only three times. The board complains that this pastor isn’t doing a good job. But how would they know? They have never observed his work firsthand, they have never talked with him about his work, they have never provided him any training in the areas of his suspected weaknesses. So if this pastor is doing a poor job, who is to blame? First, the senior pastor, who doesn’t want any other pastors to attend the board sessions, and who has provided his staff no training. Second, the governing board, who has allowed this foolish waste of human ability to go on year after year without calling the senior pastor to accountability.”

Many organizations in addition to churches have unhelpful structures of power: certain people in authority retain power while expecting others to exercise leadership, in effect setting them up for disapproval and/or failure. It’s a foolish waste of effort and ability, as Shawchuck and Heuser write, but very common. (A biblical example would be Saul and Samuel: Saul was king, but Samuel never trusted and empowered him.) Any leader does well to identify and address these kinds of dynamics---and address them before too much time passes.

Another kind of story from another book that I love, What Ministers Can’t Learn in Seminary: A Survival Manual for the Parish Ministry by R. Robert Cueni (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988). Cueni writes about a married couple, Darryl and Marie, both clergy who came to the same church. They discussed their approach of a “team ministry” with the board, which approved them. “Eight months after their arrival, Darryl and Marie resigned. The congregation was told of a ‘clergy team,’ but many did not understand the significance of the term. Some said they always thought of the minister’s wife as part of the ‘team,’ but they did not understand why she should preach on Sunday morning or conduct funerals.” The congregation had no women in positions of leadership, but the couple mistook this fact as a lack of empowerment, and so Marie preached a sermon on the femininity of God. But the congregation’s women enforced the leadership roles in the congregation, not the men. Marie's well-intentioned and caring efforts were off-putting. The couple misunderstood the power dynamics in the congregation and, unfortunately, had a painfully short pastorate.

Again: the congregation had structures of power, but the couple did not recognize how power was distributed in the congregation. Congregation members exercised power by withholding permission for Marie to lead. Ironically, the couple had sought to empower and give permission to the laity to serve---exactly the goal that church-growth pundits like William Easum espouse (for instance, in his books about permission-giving churches, Dancing with Dinosaurs and Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers). Simply to give people permission to do ministry--to "get out of their [the laity's] way," as one pastor I met put the matter--is not nearly enough, though.

Still another book that I love: R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins, The Equipping Pastor: A Sysems Approach to Congregational Leadership (The Alban Institute, 1993). As Stevens and Collins put it, leadership is “L=(L, F, S),” or “leadership equals the function of the leader, the followers, and the situation” (p. 9). Although the pastor exhibits the kind of spiritual authority that gains people’s confidence, the pastor really derives his or her leadership from the congregation.

Not just a pastor but any leader needs to know the organization very well in order to understand where power structures lie. Organizations are complex collections of power issues, old loyalties, people with control needs, traditions, community values, and others. I just read a summary of some ideas from a new book by Marc Brown, Kathy Ashby Merry, and John Briggs, Does Your Church Have a Prayer? (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2009). The authors describe different, unhelpful “tribes” that describe congregations: the Tribes of the “Good Old Days” (people are stuck in the past), “Forgetting the Past” (people neglect the church’s history), “Control” (people want to “run” the church), “Spiritual Elitism” (people judge others by their own faith-values), “Business Values” (the church’s health is judged solely or predominantly by economic/business values), and “Apathy” (people are detached and unconcerned). The authors call people to be “remembering encouragers.” Resources like this one can help leaders identify types of organizational behaviors and determine goals towards which to lead the people.

Unfortunately, even very good leaders might struggle in an organizational environment because he or she (either through naivety, inexperience, misinterpreted cues, or a lack of psychic ability) did not grasp the complexity of motivations, traditions, emotions, and values at work in that organization. That is one reason why, I’m sure, even very good leaders shine in some circumstances and not in others. There are famous examples: Winston Churchill comes to mind as one, also President and later Chief Justice William H. Taft.

But…the late Richard Wright’s gorgeous piano music for "Zabriskie Point" failed to please in one context but transformed into something even greater, later on. Leadership can be like that, too! Not only that, we have the assurance of the Holy Spirit that God brings us to circumstances where the leader and the people truly “sync” and amazing things start to happen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


The theologian Karl Barth has interesting thoughts about giving thanks. All this is from pages 166 and following of the Church Dogmatics, Vol. 3, part 2 (Edinburgh, T. &. T. Clark, 1960). He describes human being as a “being in gratitude” (Sein im Danken) because of our ability to hear, respond to, and obey God’s word of grace.

In other words, giving thanks is part of our being/essence, not just a behavior that we pick up.

Furthermore, “Only as we thank God do we fulfill our true being” (p. 170, that is, Nur indem er Gott dankt, ist der Mensch, was er ist, p. 203 in the original). “The fact that God tells man (Mensch) that He is gracious to him, that He reveals to man his grace, His indispensable, pure and perfect benefit, is the objective and receptive aspect of the being of man, and the fact that he gives thanks to God is the subjective and spontaneous [aspect]…[O]nly as he gives thanks to God does man fulfill his true nature. By doing this and this alone does he distinguish himself as being from non-being…”

So (to translate inclusively): “In this action [of giving thanks to God] alone are we human beings” (pp. 170-171).

Barth goes on and on from there in his characteristic way, examining the ontological nature of human beings from a Christological standpoint. But I’m always struck by that idea of giving thanks as an aspect of human being.

Is it too much to say that giving thanks is as much our essential nature as our biological aspects (for instance, being bipedal not quadrupedal)? God made us this way: to be thankful to our creator and redeemer.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Far Sickness

When federal and state highways pass through towns and cities, the roads are identical with local streets. This is not the case with interstate highways. But I like to reminisce about the older roads as they still wind and turn through communities. One of my favorite series of highway “jogs,” for instance, is in Pana, Illinois, where northbound U.S. 51 becomes Poplar Street, turns east four blocks on First Street (which is pretty), turns north a block on Cedar St., turns east again on Jackson St. for a mile or so, and then returns to its northerly path. (I also love the slight turn the highway makes a little ways north, at the undulating landscape around the turn to Dollsville, IL) You don’t get that kind of local commonality with interstates; you just rush along to get where you’re going. Most days, that’s what I want.

I share my late father’s odd habit of studying maps for no particular reason. I ordered a 1950s St. Louis map from eBay because I wondered where the older highways had been located in the city, prior to the interstates.

This map revealed a fact that I’d always read about in Route 66 histories: the St. Louis versions of old 66 were several, including the main route, the city route, and the bypass route. Today, U.S. 40 is also Interstate 64 straight through St. Louis (locals, in fact, don't even call the interstate "64," they call it "Highway 40"), and U.S. 50 follows the southerly route of Interstate 255. But 40 and 50 once followed the city and county streets and also had alternate routes; 50, for instance, was additionally signed “Turnpike 40.”

Manchester Road, a major west-east street in St. Louis, is locally commemorated as an early path of Route 66. This map, however, revealed to me that Manchester Road was also U.S. 50 through the city. U.S. 50 is still a transcontinental highway, from Ocean City to Sacramento--unlike routes 40, 60, 70, and 80, its route has not been truncated in the West--and was the subject of a Time magazine cover story a few years ago. In Nevada, 50 is "the country's loneliest road." How interesting to see that a street I regularly travel had, at one point, been part of that highway.

My own favorite section of U.S. 50 is the ten-mile stretch between Sandoval and Salem, Illinois, about 45 minutes or so from my hometown. This area is farm land, numerous small houses, the village of Odin, IL, and a few small industries. When I was a kid, my parents made country drives to this area to shop for antiques, for instance the Lincoln Trail shop at Odin, which is still there. Another antique store, on the north side of Route 50, looked promising but was open "by chance or appointment." Unfortunately, the store was NEVER open when we chanced by. Its perpetual closure became a family joke. Sometimes we stopped at a mom-and-pop hamburger place in Sandoval, at the north side of town across from an abandoned motel at the 50-51 split. You waited forever for your burgers but they were so good!

I’m sure I was bored and restless on these country trips, but they shine in my memory. U.S. 50 connected to the "home roads" IL 185 (via IL 37) and U.S. 51. But the highway was a Sunday drive away; we lived in another town, and the houses, businesses and churches along Route 50 were other people’s countryside. In a childish way I wondered what people’s lives were like in this “distant” rural area. Homes along the road had nice yards like mine, but behind those yards were cultivated fields, and beyond the fields were lines of deciduous timber. To me, the landscape incorporated pleasant aspects of town and countryside, both cozy and spacious. (The landscape along nearby U.S. 51, including the area in and around Vernon, IL, provides a similar nostalgic mix of highway, farm, timber, and home.)

I discovered a German word, fernweh, which means “far sickness.” It’s the opposite of “home sickness” but is a similar kind of longing: longing for a place that’s not home, a nostalgia for some place distant. I’ve experienced this feeling for places more exotic than the Sandoval-to-Salem highway, but that road was enough like--and close enough to--my own home places that home- and far-sickness mingled.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Loving Ugly

A few years ago I wrote an issue of FaithLink, “Just Shopping” (Nov. 27, 2005). We raised the issue of box stores that expand to larger facilities but leave behind empty buildings that sit vacant for years. (My hometown has a Wal-Mart super store but the former store has been unoccupied for years.) A difficult issue! Economic well-being sometimes involve facility expansion, but what happens to the disused place? Earlier I researched a similar theme for the FaithLink issue, "Saving Main Street" (June 11, 2000).

The topic is larger than just box stores. Drive through many small towns and you’ll encounter vacant store fronts in the business district. If the stores become occupied, the business may be just a shadow of the place’s former self, for instance, a nice small-town clothing store that had sold good brands for an appreciative clientele becomes a thrown-together antique mall. That's not always the case, and some amount of commerce may be better than a completely disused store. You also see deteriorating commercial buildings in many communities; they’ll never house anything and will someday be torn down.

A haunting building that I once encountered was an old church. The words M. E. CHURCH were set into the concrete steps in front. The paint had worn away so that the building was mostly bare wood; it leaned slightly, the glass of the windows was long gone, and an auger was backed up to one of the sanctuary windows. Not far away was a brick building that, I was told, had been a bank that closed during the Depression. It was vine-covered but structurally solid. The small village was a few miles off “the hard road” but, nevertheless, had been an economically busy community at one time. At least the church was in use, although as a storage place for corn.

The other day I purchased and studied two books, Vanishing America: The End of Main Street: Diners, Drive-Ins, Donut Shops, and Other Everyday Monuments by Michael Eastman (New York: Rizzoli, 2008) and Approaching Nowhere by Jeff Brouws (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006). Both books of photographs documented disused and abandoned landscapes, including buildings in disrepair, deteriorating signage, and ugly landscapes of urban, small-town, and rural areas.

Now, if you’re like me …. you want to look through these books again and even to go exploring deteriorating landscapes yourself! What is the appeal of such places?

Familiarity is part of it. In his classic book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), Yi-Fu Tuan writes, “Familiarity breeds attachment when it does not breed contempt. We are well aware of how a person can become deeply attached to old slippers that look rather mouldy [sic] to an outsider” (p. 99). If you’re from a particular kind of location, your emotional response to a landscape may be very positive even though the landscape may not be attractive at all. Tuan quotes another author to describe a nearly mystical response to unappealing environments: “I still remember walking down the Notting Hill main road and observing the (extremely sordid) landscape with joy and astonishment. Even the movement of traffic had something universal and sublime about it” (p. 99).

Tuan also writes, “Intense awareness of environmental beauty … is least affected by received opinions and it also seems to be largely independent of the character of the environment. Homely and even drab scenes can reveal aspects of themselves that went unnoticed before, and this new insight into the real is sometimes experienced as beauty” (p. 95). I experienced those feelings as I leafed through Eastman’s and Brouws’ books; these aren’t attractive scenes, necessarily, but there is a lonely appeal to them, a poignancy of human habitation that has changed because, after all, economy changes and our human needs change.

I enjoy a book called Small Town America by the photographer David Plowden (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994) in which he chronicles locations and business districts with a melancholy appreciation for the way modern America has bypassed smaller communities. His earlier, angrier book, The Hand of Man on America (Riverside: The Chatham Press, 1971) also decried the loss of distinctive environments, but I found myself disagreeing with him on which of his pictures depicted ugliness and which depicted unexpected beauty in the homely and drab. He loved a soon-to-be-razed railroad depot that I found hideous, while he criticized a tourist landscape that I found attractive both in its ugliness and its glum evocation of its original 1950s era.

What I struggle with, and haven’t resolved, is the contradiction between the strange attractiveness that abandoned and disused landscapes can have, and the real and painful economic failures, the economic expansions, the waste, and the failures of stewardship that lead to discarded places. David B. Jenkins explores this paradox in his book Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Chattanooga: Free Spirit Press, 1996), in which he loves the old, faded barns but sadly realizes that their quaintness and deterioration indicate the passing of vital eras of American family farming.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Anniversary of a Door

My grandma Crawford lived in an old farmhouse in rural Brownstown, Illinois. Her father, Albert Pilcher, built the house in 1907, but he died only three years later. I'm not sure when Grandma and Grandpa moved to the house, or why exactly when Grandma's mother remarried and moved away. My mother was born at the house in 1919. My own association with the house began, I assume, when I was a baby in the late 1950s and continued as long as the house stood.

I also don't remember when I discovered the tiny letters and numbers on the outside of the kitchen's back door: C. E. Pilcher, Nov. 17, 1907. These were in a lighter color than the door's dark stain. Grandma said that Cassius E. Pilcher was a housepainter, and her father's cousin. I was pretty young, but the old designation was fascinating to me, something unobtrusive and nearly forgotten, like a building's cornerstone.

In fact, I did nearly forget the discovery. For years I puzzled about November 17; it seemed to be a significant day but I couldn't remember. Someone's birthday? Elton John's third album? Finally I remembered the old door.

This coming Sunday is November 22. For those of a particular age, we will always associate that day with John F. Kennedy, because we remember that day in 1963. Some anniversaries are much more personal, and so ephemeral they nearly fade from thought until some lucky spark of memory brings them back.

John Wesley on Reading

A few fellow pastors have said to me, "Oh, you must love research!" Although I'm probably being sensitive, this annoys me. I feel like I'm being pigeonholed, and I feel like they're being a little anti-intellectual, as if true pastors care more for people than for books.

You don't have to call it "research," you can just call it reading and thinking. Finding time for reading is maddingly difficult in the parish, but it's a matter of organizing one's time as best as one can (knowing that plans for the day do go awry). Reading is a pretty essential habit to develop, and not only reading but reflecting on the things one reads and putting ideas and reflections together into sermons or, in my case, short study books. In turn, preaching and instruction is done to help people!

Today I found this quote from John Wesley, from a letter written to John Prembroth on August 17, 1760. The quote came from a blog: The blogger's source is an editorial by J.B. Chapman in The Preacher's Magazine (Vol. 6, No. 1, January 1931). I haven't checked the works of Wesley to verify the quote, but I know that Wesley said similar things on other occasions.

"What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading. I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety, there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian. O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: what is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a petty, superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you in particular."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Thinking Ahead to Advent

I’ve written two Advent study books, “Call Him Emmanuel” in 1997 and the new “Celebrate the Newborn Jesus,” both published by Abingdon. Advent is still a couple weeks away, but I’m thinking about the whole idea of “preparing” for the coming of Christ, which is one of the topics I discuss in these books. Here in mid-November I’m preparing for the upcoming preparation, as it were.

Advent is historically a penitential, reflective season in the church, but the expenses and many tasks of those weeks make difficult a meaningful focus upon Jesus.

But I’ve been struggling the last few years with how to help people focus upon the Gospel while, at the same time, stressing that our salvation is already accomplished in Christ and therefore the Gospel is never about anything we do. We preachers can so easily stress volunteerism, financial giving, and personal devotion to the near exclusion of the real Gospel: the free, unearned grace of Christ that saves sinners. We assume the real Gospel in our preaching, but we don’t communicate it very clearly because we’re under such pressure to increase congregational membership and revenue. We end up preaching less Gospel and more works-righteousness.

This was difficult for the Apostle Paul, too. He preached Christ alone, but if he didn't remind his congregations about holiness of heart and life, the people slipped into unloving behavior and attitudes. Paul kept his focus, though, on Christ: his people that they already had been gifted and blessed by the Holy Spirit. God had taken the initiative.

That’s good to think about at Advent. We are not making ourselves spiritually ready for Jesus, preparing the soil in order to convince God we're ready for grace. Jesus is already at work in our lives. Jesus has already done everything necessary for us. Advent is a way to help us see more clearly what God has already done decisively for our eternal benefit.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tristadecaphobia and Paraskavedecatriaphobia

Today I looked online for the name of the fear of Friday the 13th. I found the above two words, the second of which names the fear of the day, and the first names the fear of the number 13.

I had a very nice Friday the 13th! I went to "my" Barnes and Noble Cafe to do some writing. At some point in the day I found an online article about Betsy Palmer, the star of the first "Friday the 13th" movie. I remember her best, though, as a game-show celebrity in the late 1960s. In the afternoon I ran some errands and did some more writing.

We speak informally of things like luck, fate, jinxes, and karma. We don’t always stop to think that, when God is our Lord, we are not subject to such things! We may still have serious questions about why things happen the way they do. But God cares for us and guides us across our years. God calls us not to lose heart at life’s hazards but, instead, to focus on his love and care. God's Holy Spirit teaches and matures us. God’s plans and purposes may not always be clear, and sometimes we may feel quite "unlucky." But even those awful times may become seasons across which God provides.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Knit Together

I don’t believe in karma, in the sense that we’re rewarded or punished in our life as a consequence of our actions in a previous life. I am, however, impressed at how our actions, even small ones, do have ramifications.

A couple years ago, I postponed a routine service check-up of our furnace-AC system because I had a mild cold. Our system was working fine, anyway. The service call was rescheduled for another day. But on that day, a storm temporarily knocked out our electricity. So I told our maintenance fellow that he could come the following day. He knew about the power problem because he’d already passed the team who were working on the lines.

Well, our power came back on. But wouldn’t you know it: our AC stopped working properly! It blew but did not cool. I called the company and scheduled an actual service call, too. But I thought: I should’ve kept that service check-up appointment a few weeks ago! Then I wouldn’t have AC problems on a hot day.

This kind of thing usually happens when I’m driving: if I’m in a hurry, I’ll always hit all the red lights!

That’s a joking view of life. I try not to become superstitious about changing plans, and anxious about possible outcomes of small decisions. You could become consumed in anxiety that way; I certainly do, if I'm not careful. But I'm constantly sobered by the way even small, everyday kinds of things have an interesting interconnection. Even as I write this, the Good Morning America show, playing in the background, has a story about how our telephone voices give crucial impressions to people: a small thing that can have significant consequences.

Again, I'm not affirming the notion of karma in the spiritual sense, but only the interconnectedness of "life," which all of us can observe. The theological issue of God's providence is important here: God does work for good in human circumstances (Rom. 8:28), but we cannot know exactly how or to what extent (Isa. 55:8-9). I once knew a church that struggled as a consequence of judicatory decisions (apparently handled with inadequate finesse) twenty years before. I've no doubt that God worked in that church, and yet the congregation was not spared ongoing, difficult challenges stemming from earlier events. Any of us can think of similar examples, in congregations or other aspects of life.

Paul says in Ephesians 4:16 that we are "knit together." Broadly applying those words, I think that "knit together" doesn't just mean fellowship, but the consequences of decisions and events which are always characteristic of human existence. All the more reason, as Paul teaches in that chapter, to knit ourselves together in the sense he means: love and mutual support!

Fort Hood

I found a good article about the Fort Hood shootings that occured earlier this week.

I'm not Muslim but I respect the tenets of the faith, have had warm Muslim acquaintances, and seek to teach the faith accurately in college classes. I become angry at these kinds of events because I wish the American public could see the caring, peace-loving aspects of Islam that are not presented on the evening news and certainly aren't propagated when someone commits such a heinous crime.

I'll write more about this subject later this month. In the meantime, prayers for everyone involved in this awful event.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

U.S. 460 Revisited

When we were dating in the early 1980s, Beth and I used to meet in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, to spend Saturdays together. We lived in two different locations, and the small town was about halfway between us. With a mall, an art gallery, a decent downtown, and several antique stores, we could spend a nice day together.

I’ve a small collection of highway signs; since most are 24” x 24” and in so-so condition they’re impractical to collect and display, but they’re fun to me. They’re fun for others, too; for instance, the website features dozens of pictures of signs. Looking over that site, I noticed a photograph from Mt. Vernon which intrigued me. I recognized state routes 37 (a favorite highway) and 148, and I knew state route 15 passed through town, but I’d never heard of U.S. 460. I would’ve remembered a U.S. highway there.

Turns out, the road was a major highway at one time. Today, 460 runs from Frankfort, KY to Norfolk, VA, but between 1946 and 1977, 460 began in downtown St. Louis, crossed the old MacArthur Bridge, and traveled across Illinois and Indiana into Louisville before proceeding, along U.S. 60, over to Frankfort and beyond. Here are two other sites, and

I’ve traveled on the now-state highways that comprised this busy, pre-interstate road. The former route of 460 is Illinois 15 from East St. Louis to Mt. Vernon, south through Mt. Vernon on Illinois 37, then southeast on Illinois 142 to McLeansboro, east Illinois 14 to the Wabash River, and then Indiana 66 to Evansville and finally Indiana 62 across that state. Beautiful countryside! I’d also traveled a lot on U.S. 60 in Louisville, not realizing that this spur route had once also been signed along the same highway, en route to Frankfort. Pre-interstate, St. Louis-to-Louisville travelers must’ve taken U.S. 50 and U.S. 150, but travelers also had this more southerly route. I could imagine a traveler requiring much longer to drive 460 than the five or so hours upon the modern I-64, which supplanted the older road (see my 8/9/09 entry).

Southern Illinois two-lane countryside south of U.S. 40 and east of U.S. 51 shines in my memory: country drives with Beth, drives by myself, and earlier, antiques-hunting trips with my parents. Studying old maps to discover the route of 460 makes me nostalgic for that area, truly “landscapes of the heart”. Perhaps I’ll take a couple days this winter or spring to reconnect memories and country vistas.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Two Resounding Chords

This is interesting to me. Although I don’t know enough musicology to understand all the terminology, I found this site concerning the famous opening bars of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, one of the most influential chords in music but open to analysis.

Until recently, I hadn’t realized that the chord which begins the Beatles’ song, “A Hard Day’s Night,” had also been subject to debate and analysis!

I’ve known that song since I was seven years old! You learn something every day. Like the Tristan chord, the "Hard Day's Night" chord is difficult to identify.

Both, however, have become greater than their original context. This quote from the first website applies to that Beatles’ chord, one of the most famous in rock and roll, “[I]n the words of Robert Erickson (1975, p.18), ‘among other things, [the chord is] an identifiable sound, an entity beyond its functional qualities in a tonal organization.’"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Feeble, Eager Steps on the Path

Back in my 4/19/09 entry about inner peace, I mentioned some musical pieces that depict longing and striving. Today I'm thinking similarly about two other pieces.

I was listening today to the new CD of Arvo Pärt's music, "In Principio," on the ECM Records label. I loved "Cecilia, vergine romana" and also "Mein Weg" ("my path"). The liner notes describe the latter piece: "The title was inspired by a short poem from 'Livre des Questions', the magnum opus of the poet Edmond Jabès ... My path has long hours,/jolts and pains./My path has peaks and sea-troughs,/sand and sky./Mine or thine... The image of life's portentous sea-troughs seems to have found an echo in the work's compositional fabric with its constant, dynamically differentiated upward and downward motion."

I love that! Aren't the paths of life--including the spiritual path--filled with ups and downs, steps forward and back? I think of Psalm 121, where the poet expresses concern about the journey and its hazards, but the Lord is God of our journeys.

I made a mental, thematic connection between Pärt's minimalistic piece from 1989 and a different kind of piece from 1724. My daughter's choir used to perform Bach's "Wir eilen mit schwachen" from Cantata 78, "Jesu, der du meine Seele."

Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten, O Jesu, o Meister, zu helfen zu dir! Du suchest die Kranken und Irrenden treulich. Ach, höre, wie wir die Stimme erheben, um Hilfe zu bitten! Es sei uns dein gnädiges Antlitz erfreulich!

We hasten with feeble, yet eager footsteps, Oh Jesus, Oh Master, to seek after your help! You tirelessly seek out the sick and those who have gone astray. Oh, hear us, as we, our voices raised, pray for your help! May your merciful countenance be gracious unto us!

The choir director noted that the melody is springy, to connote eagerness, but the continuo plods, connoting feeble steps that require divine help.

There is always room for effective challenging of people's Christian walk. On the other hand, we should accept the reality of "jolts and pains, peaks and sea-troughs" as necessary and inevitable aspects of spiritual growth. Accepting that reality, we can shift the focus from our own progress to God's tireless work and, paradoxically, thereby make better progress.

Shut Up, Your Heart is Showing

Browsing the magazines at Barnes and Noble, I noticed that the Oct-Nov 2009 issue of the magazine Tathaastu featured an article “What Does Your Tongue Tell You?” I glanced at the article and realized the topic was the contours of the physical tongue.

I had in mind the metaphorical meaning of “tongue” as speech. This topic worries me to death. I tend to be a ‘venter’ at home (not in public), in the sense of articulating my inner feelings at home and trying to deal with frustrations, old hurts, and so on. This kind of thing can be psychologically healthy, but you can get into the habit of venting, so that you’re not dealing with your difficult feelings anymore and have just become grouchy and intolerant. You have to take care not to encourage and cultivate the negative things in your heart. The things you say, whether in private or public, do reflect your soul!

Some well-known verses address the connection of speech and heart/soul.

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles (Matt. 15:18).

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. …If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless (James 1:19-26).

Worthless religion! Oh my gosh, how many people do you know whose religion is worthless by James' criteria? How is your own religion?

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh (James 3:1-12).

We have a wonderful gift of discernment about the state of our souls! All we have to do is listen to ourselves for a while! Do we like what we hear? Since our speech reflects the content of our hearts, do we conform to James’ vision of God’s will for us?

Fortunately, we are saved by grace and not our own efforts. Recognizing this, we can seek the Lord's help every day, for as long as we need.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Family Heirloom from Otego Township

On my office wall is a framed auction announcement that will be 101 years old next week.

Public Sale of live stock and personal property. The undersigned will sell at Public Sale at his residence two miles south of Brownstown, in Otego Township, on Thursday, October 29, 1908, the following described property: Four Head of Horses consisting of 3 Good Work Horses and 1 Good 2-Year-Old Colt. 2 Good Dairy Cows and 1 Spring Calf. 13 Thirteen Head of Hogs 13 [sic] Weighing from 100 to 250 pounds. Farm implements: 1 Champion Binder. 1 McCormack Mow-Drill, 1 Steel Harrow, 1 Cultivator, 2 Breaking Plows, 1 Wagon, 1 Top Buggy, nearly new, 2 sets Double Harness, and 1 set Single Harness. Also about 5 tons of Hay and 20 acres of Corn in the field. 1 Estate Steel Range and other Household Furniture. Terms of Sale. All sums of $5.00 and under, Cash in hand. Sums over $5.00 a credit of 12 mouths will be given. Purchaser to give note with approved security before property is removed. Notes to draw 7 per cent. Interest from date if not paid when due. A discount of 5 per cent. Will be allowed for Cash on sums over $5.00. Sale to commence at 10 o’clock a.m. Farm for rent on day of sale. John Crawford. W. H. Sawrey, Auctioneer. Paul Crawford, Clerk

John was my mother’s paternal grandfather (Paul Crawford was John’s brother, and John‘s wife Susan was the granddaughter of Comfort Williams, about whom I wrote a few entries ago.) The family lived along the road that today connects U.S. 40 with Illinois 185, two or three miles north of the scene on my blog. As I recall the story, John and Susan’s second child Marvin was ill of tuberculosis and the family planned to move to Texas to assist him. I know that Marvin died in 1909, however, so I don’t know how these sad events, including the sale of all this property, turned out. I do know that John lived until 1927 and his wife Susan until 1926. Their personal papers (which I have, still kept in a 1920s oatmeal box) indicates that the couple moved back to the Brownstown area and started again. Even though I loved family history as a kid, I now think of more questions I would’ve asked my great-aunts about their parents, my grandfather having died before I was born.

Last year I forgot to note the 100th anniversary of the sale, but I will remember the day this time---and next week, October 29th is also on Thursday. Whenever I’m back in Fayette County, I nearly always drive out to Otego Township and pass by the small residence along the road, pointed out to me as the Crawfords’ long-ago farm. Though the framed announcement is sad, it gives me a happy sense of belonging to a family history, as do those Otego visits.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


My last entry was water-related and this one is, too, although this one's metaphorical.

I’ve been reading When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings by Thomas H. Green, S.J. (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1998). I’m intrigued by his idea of “floating.” Learning to float on water is surprisingly difficult, even though all we have to do is relax. We’re afraid of sinking and afraid of losing control. But when we can relax, floating is fairly easy. “The whole experience of the dark night [of the soul] or the cloud of unknowing appears to be the Lord’s way of trying to make floaters out of swimmers. He, it seems, definitely wishes us to float. He wants us to have as our goal our total surrender to the flow of this tide” (pp. 144-145). God doesn’t want us to float aimlessly, but rather by asking us to trust him and "relax", he can lead us effectively.

As I read this, I thought of Hebrews 2:1. In that letter, the author warns people about abandoning their newly-found Christian faith, but he is also concerned with people drifting away from faith, like an unsecured boat. “Drifting” in this sense is different from the “floating” which Fr. Green intends. You drift when you’re careless about your faith and don’t maintain your side of your relationship with God. “Floating” is a serious and deliberate act of surrender, especially in times of distress and uncertainty.

In turn, I thought of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

I worry that we only truly embrace the part of that prayer that reads, “put me to doing.” Our congregations have become so structured like top-down businesses that must grow; judicatory officials expect results from pastors or the latter are deemed ineffective; we’d never believe the Spirit wants us to be empty and “laid aside” for a season.

But what if the Holy Spirit wished for us, in both our personal and congregational lives, to trust that the unproductive times, and even the dark nights of the soul, are ways by which God leads us? We might discover that too much "doing" is simply our own efforts to control God's guidance: Fr. Green calls this "swimming" instead of "floating."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Comfort of a Stream

We are renting our house for a year. The house has pretty landscaping, among which is a configuration of stones that form a stream, over which the wooden front walkway passes. We've gotten a lot of rain this fall, this decorative stream has moved a lot of water from the gutter downspouts to the lawn.

This house’s yard has several aspects that I would’ve loved as a kid, including the overhanging branches of sheltering trees that form shaded spaces large enough to hide in. I would’ve promptly turned those spaces into a “club house.” But I would’ve spent hours splashing in this stream and littering it with plastic boats and toy figurines.

My childhood home lay just three houses away from a park with a terrific stream, the “town branch.” My friends and I spent many summer days along that stream. We'd put pieces of bacon on safety pins attached to string, and we’d catch “crawdads” that way. I wish we would’ve let them go but we carried them home in a plastic container, and of course they didn’t survive. A tree had broken and fallen over the stream, but the tree had not died, and so it was a fine place on which to climb. My mother had survived typhoid fever as a girl; I’d been warned never to drink any water other than from a tap. So I was never tempted to sip from the stream as I, in imagination, crossed the West on my horse.

Another fine stream, Sand Creek, flowed upon a portion of my grandma’s property, not far from the photo that introduces this blog. I visited Sand Creek less often but thought it might even be finer than the town branch, more wild and remote. It seemed to me the perfect woodland waterway, a place where pioneers had lived. Even as an adult, when I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, my mind “used” Sand Creek to visualize Dillard’s Virginia stream.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog (8/22/09) about the Kaskaskia River on which my hometown was founded. These streams eventually emptied into the Kaskaskia. I was justifiably afraid of the rapidly-flowing river and loved it from safe distances. Although you could technically drown in a stream, too, a small waterway was manageable. A stream was a little-kid-sized river; a kid didn't need more water than that, because the imagination could turn it into a mighty waterway for innumerable adventures.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Stay Out of Box 5

My wife and daughter and I went to see “Phantom of the Opera” at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis last Saturday night.

It’s always an enjoyable show, and heartbreaking at the end. You’d need a stony heart not to be affected by the Phantom’s disappointment and despair.

I’m no music critic but there are awkward things in “Phantom” that always bother me. I heard the musical for the first time on cassettes and thought that maybe these awkward things were due to the removal of more theatrical aspects of the show from the recording, but that’s not the case.

“Phantom’s” title number is more “rock and roll” than anything else in the show, except the overture on which it’s based. I read somewhere that it was the first number written, but the subsequent show became more operatic. Also, the number “Think of Me” is supposed to be in an aria in the opera “Hannibal” but is completely different style than the other parts of the opera that we’ve heard; similarly “Point of No Return,” supposedly a duet from the Phantom’s otherwise modernistic “Don Juan Triumphant.” The fact that the musical contains operas requires some stylistic contrasts that are never quite pulled off.

The several numbers sung by the managers feature lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, who was an original lyricist but Lloyd Webber wanted less clever and more romantic lyrics. To me, the excellence of his lyrics stand out from the rest of the musical. Also, the whole first-act sequence from Carlotta storming out of the “Hannibal” rehearsals, to the first appearance of the Phantom in Christine’s mirror, seems clunky to me. For instance, did Raoul only recognize Christine when she sang “Think of Me” in the opera---a third act number?

Worst of all, there is no emotional build-up to the chandelier crash that ends Act 1. The crash is kind of squeezed-in among the remaining notes, after the Phantom has sworn revenge. The movie does the crash much better by placing it in Act 2.

Some of these things reflect the stages through which the composition of “Phantom” passed. But rather than stylistic contrasts that would enrich the show, they stand out (to me anyway) as Lloyd Webber’s failures to smooth out the show’s composition stages.

There.... now I feel better! Just a few mild complaints.

I hope my daughter doesn’t read this. She loves the show and has seen the movie several times and also several stage shows. The Fox production was certainly the best acted we've seen over the years; the Phantom was truly alluring and terrifying, and the other principles were excellent actors, too. I’m sure we’ll continue to see productions of the show into the indefinite future, until it stops touring like the wonderful Les Miz.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Don't Blame Science! Part 2

A few more thoughts concerning science and religion. I’ve written a yet-to-be-published book about the Bible, and some of these thoughts derive from that project. My aim of these thoughts is to give assurance and some ideas to people who struggle with the tension between religious belief and scientific discoveries, notably evolutionary theory.

People who worry about the contradiction between science and the Bible usually focus upon Genesis 1. But actually the Bible has numerous “unscientific” words about the nature of reality. Exodus 20:4, for instance, depicts a three-tiered cosmos; Ps. 24:2 and Ps. 136:6 depicts the earth as founded upon seas; 2 Samuel 22:8 says that the earth is set upon foundations; 1 Samuel 2:8 talk about the pillars on which the earth is set. Leviticus 11:13 and 19 lists bats among kinds of birds. Must we assume all these images are literal truth? If we defend them as metaphorical, well … we’ve immediately acknowledged that the Bible contains passages that are not literal but metaphorical and poetic truth.

Scoffers at biblical truth would zero in passages such as these in order to discredit religious belief. But religious people, too, must defend the truth of the scriptures in spite of the ancient world view that the Bible reflects.

Both defenders of biblical inerrancy and scoffers at biblical truth make a similar mistake in reasoning: if the Bible has errors, then the whole Bible is discredited. But God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18, Titus 1:2) and the whole Bible is true.

That is a false choice. We don’t typically make such distinctions. For instance, I made an unintentional error in a history book that I wrote back in the 1980s. I made an informed conclusion but new information emerged later. I made the mistake because my human knowledge is incomplete, but that doesn’t mean my whole book was a lie, or that I’m a liar, or that I need to explain my error through artificial arguments.

The Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer argues that we shouldn‘t confuse error in the sense of incorrect knowledge, and error in the sense of deception and sin. Limited as they were by their historical and cultural circumstances, the biblical authors has far less knowledge of science than we do. But we cannot thereby call them "liars" or deny that the Holy Spirit inspired them. As Berkouwer notes, when the definition of “error” is so formalized, “the relationship of the organic, God-breathed character to the organic unity and scope of the total testimony of Scripture is almost totally ignored.” [1]

Berkouwer, whom I would characterize as a conservative and very biblically-based Calvinist theologian, writes that we can safely recognize the historical development and time-bound character of the Bible writers. Therefore, when we encounter in the Bible ancient and “outdated” views of the cosmos, we shouldn’t worry that we’re “selling out” the Bible to science when we recognize the Bible’s ancient cultural origins, nor do we have to declare the Bible wholly false if the scientific discoveries do not conform to biblical details. What is needed, he believes, is a “naturalness” on our parts to witness to the reliability and authority of the Bible in its overall purpose as a God-breathed witness to God—not a science book.

Berkouwer cautions that ideas of biblical inerrancy shouldn’t be ridiculed, only that its application be examined so that the sincere desire to uphold scriptural authority should not damage that authority rather than advancing it.

1. G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1975), pp. 181-183 (quote on p. 182).

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Don't Blame Science! Part 1

Recently I read a news story from a Midwestern community. The high school band had designed tee shirts that featured an image of a primate moving through stages until it becomes human: that famous illustration of evolutionary development. Each figure held a brass instrument. It seemed a clever way to encourage band spirit for their fall program. The tee shirts were banned, however, because of parents’ complaints that the shirts promoted evolution. The article reported that an assistant superintendent said that the school district must remain neutral about religion [1]

I'm religious and I love science, so this kind of story distresses me. But I want to respect the people in this story and think a bit about the issues involved. The school official and the complaining parents apparently consider evolutionary theory a “religion” or, at least, a philosophy that competes with traditional religious belief.

If one understands certain distinctions, aspects of this issue may fall into place. A hypothesis is an assumption that something is true, but that assumption is still undergoing experiments, discussion, and testing. A theory is a “model” of reality that has stood up under many experiments over many years, has been discussed in peer-reviewed journals, is compatible with other theories, and can potentially anticipate other observations and theories.

Evolutionary science is a theory in this respect: it is a sound scientific model that explains data in many different fields like biology, paleontology, and others. Evolutionary theory is science. There are no alternative theories that are accepted by a majority of those in scientific community; this is not because scientists are closed-minded to other theories but because this model has been studied and refined for years and is viable. No other scientific models make as much sense and explain as many phenomena, from an empirical standpoint.

Science concerns the observation and explanation of physical phenomena. Although science does address questions of cognition and behavior, science does not answer questions of theology and spirituality. Science is “methodologically materialistic,” that is, its procedures and methods are aimed at physical phenomena.

But at this point you can take at least three philosophical positions. The first, which I hold, ais that science and religion are complementary sources of truth. The invisible world exists but it is approached through religion, faith, faith-encouraged reason, certain kinds of experience, and tradition rather than empirical examination. Science can describe phenomena according to empirical methods, while religion can declare truthfully that "God created the heavens and the earth."

The second position is “epistemological materialism”; there may be a spiritual world, but since we cannot know it through science, we cannot know anything meaningful about it. Religious belief is a matter of faith but not reason.

The third is “metaphysical materialism”: we cannot know the spiritual world through science, therefore the former does not exist. We can explain everything meaningfully through science, including the reasons why we’re religious, moral, etc.

I think many people become upset about evolutionary theory because they believe it necessarily falls under the third position and, therefore, is an atheistic philosophy which is being taught to our children. No, evolutionary theory, properly speaking, is a scientific theory that explains physical phenomena. But among scientific theories, evolutionary theory seems the very threatening to theological doctrines like the image of God in humanity, sin, redemption, and the inspiration of the Bible. Somehow even the antiquity and vastness of the universe do not make people as theologically anxious, even though astronomical science could equally threaten a literal reading of the Bible.

Public schools should offer traditional science as proper science but also find ways to introduce some kind of non-sectarian religion courses for students--and then students can get a more full religious instruction in other settings. There are suitable ways in which religion can be brought into public schools without violating church-state separation. My daughter’s schools in Kentucky and Ohio did a good job of striking these tricky balances.

Shameless commerce: I discuss these issues in a study book that I wrote for the United Methodist Publishing House: What about Religion and Science: A Study of Reason and Faith, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007. But I’ve also been re-reading Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions (New York: HarperOne, 1992, originally published in 1976), where he comments:

“With science itself there can be no quarrel. Scientism is another matter. Whereas science is positive, contenting itself with reporting what it discovers, scientism is negative. It goes beyond the actual findings of science to deny that other approaches to knowledge are valid and other truths are true. In doing so it deserts science in favor of metaphysics--bad metaphysics, as it happens, for as the contention that there are no truths save those of science is not itself a scientific truth, in affirming it scientism contradicts itself. It also carries marks of a religion--a secular religion, resulting from overextrapolation from science, that has seldom numbered great scientists among its votaries” (p. 16-17).

Smith's words shed light upon some the issues raised by the critics of the band tee shirts. These folks were concerned about a secular religion being promoted (scientism, or metaphysical materialism). But they confused scientism with science. Science is a wonderful, vitally important thing that should be taught in public schools and more widely appreciated and understood by the general public. (In fact, the tee shirts don't even represent current science, which no longer posits such a linear progress of species development.)

I'll touch on a few thoughts about Bible interpretation within the next few days.


Monday, October 5, 2009

A Pioneer Woman's Kinfolk Chat Online and Have Ice Cream

When I was a little boy, my grandmother, parents, and I traveled out in the countryside to the Pilcher Cemetery, our family graveyard just off Four Mile Prairie in rural Brownstown, Illinois (see my 4/11 and 5/19/09 entries). As the grownups decorated graves family members, I walked back to the interesting old section and read the inscriptions. One gravestone reads "SACRED to the Memory of Comfort Williams Who Died March 30, 1847 Aged 54 Years." I knew that the large Williams family were relatives but did not know the connection of this person until I started to pursue genealogy during my junior high and high school years. Turns out, Comfort Williams is my great-great-great-grandmother.

While pursuing genealogy, I learned that about twenty direct ancestors are buried in the Pilcher Cemetery. Still fairly young at the time, I fanced that, if I happened to be at the cemetery when the Lord returned, I'd be on hand to greet my forebearers as they rose with transformed, spiritual bodies as promised in 1 Cor. 15.

A Williams cousin gave me some amazing information. Comfort's family were buried together in Obetz, Ohio: her husband, Josiah Williams (1786-1826), sister Mary (who married Josiah's brother George), and Comfort's parents, John and Margaret Weatherington. Wow! What a genealogical windfall!

Sometime during the mid-1970s I begged my parents (who still didn't let me drive very far) into visiting the small town outside Columbus, about 230 miles from my hometown. I was thrilled to stand at these graves. The first was a bronze marker that read, "Erected to the Memory of John Weatherington, Born June 23, 1755, Died in the Year 1831 *** Margaret Weatherington, Consort of John, Born Oct 23, 1759, Died Sept. 29, 1828." A relative had replaced the original tombstones with this marker. Next to it was a large slab that marked the graves of George and Mary, and next to it was a bronze marker for that couple. To the right is an unmarked grave, and then the stone of a relative named Perry Williams. The unmarked grave is probably that of Josiah. My contact said that he, too, was supposed to have had a bronze marker but she did not know why he did not.

I think sometimes about Comfort's life. She was 33 when her husband died, leaving her with five children. What did she do? By the middle of the 1830s, her parents, sister, and brother-in-law were also buried there in Obetz. Did she sense that she no longer had reason to stay in Ohio? Sometime around 1840, according to family tradition, she came to Illinois with her children and settled in the Four Mile Prairie area. She must've traveled the old National Road. Again: how did she manage? When she died, her son Josiah, my great-great-grandfather, was away in the Mexican War. One of her daughters attended to her in her last days.

I stopped by Obetz in August while traveling back from my daughter's college. I'd visited the place three or four other times since first coming here about 35 years ago. The cemetery is a large and pretty churchyard at the outskirts of the village. I can only imagine how beautiful were the virgin woodlands and prairie in that area when Josiah died in 1826, how different the scene would have looked compared to today's small-town scene. I was a couple days too early for Obetz's Zucchini Festival.
Now that we've moved to St. Louis, I'm close to some local cousins who are also descended from this side of the family. A few weeks ago a cousin-couple here in town wrote me through Facebook and invited my wife Beth and me to an evening church event with them and another cousin-couple. Afterward we all went to Steak 'n' Shake and chatted. The usual lighthearted family conversation:

"I'm going to order chili and a sundae."
"Are you getting chili on your sundae?"
"Waiter, she wants chili on her milk shake!"
"I hope you took your Lipitor."
"I did! Do you take that stuff?"
"Not Lipitor, but other kinds."
"Heather's eighth anniversary is next week. They have two little boys now!"
"When you see the waiter, tell him I want more water."
"He's over there but he hasn't looked this way for a while."
"I like the sandwiches here and also at the White Castle down the street."
"I haven't eaten there yet, but I've eaten at the one up the street from us."
"You ate there and you're still alive? I'm impressed!"

One of the things I've missed by leading a peripatetic life is losing touch with cousins. Some of us exchange Christmas cards, but when I was a boy, several cousin families got together each summer for a reunion, and sometimes more frequently. But no one in the family has organized a reunion for several years, and when get-togethers did happen I was living too far away to attend.

Say what you will about online networking sites, but thanks to Facebook I've been able to reconnect not only with old friends but also with several cousins with whom I hadn't seen or contacted for ages! We can chat a bit, offer encouraging words, and stay connected.

It's cliche to say, but what would Comfort have thought about the ability of her descendants to communicate? When she died in 1847, communication and travel were still pretty much identical; telegraphy was in its earliest days and limited to a few areas.