Saturday, September 26, 2009

I Heart Autumn

Oh mercy, I love this season! Little wonder that one of my favorite CDs is George Winston’s Autumn. Outside my office window, the trees are turning gold and shedding small leaves over our back porch. Years ago I loved to see a local landmark, a Southern Illinois hill called Millstone Knob, as it transformed in autumn and finally settled into that purple-gray tone of wintertime. Nearly as pretty as autumn leaves are fields when harvest approaches; here's an early fall picture from Four Mile Prairie, near our family cemetery near Brownstown, Illinois.

In my previous office I enjoyed two autumn pictures. One is an early fall scene from the Jefferson National Forest near Louisville, KY. I took that picture while assisting with my daughter's 4th-grade field trip. Just as we were walking out the door, the researcher for a writing project called and said she was going to fax several dozen pages of research for me.  I'd known she was going to send me the material but not when, and I think she was chagrined that I couldn't receive the material at that moment, given my commitment to help herd numerous nine-year-olds through the Kentucky woods.

The other photo, which hung in my previous office, depicts a line of cruciform power lines, railroad tracks upon the hillside, and fall colors along U.S. 250 west of Charlottesville, Virginia.  This scan is better than the original 1980s photo, which was slightly overexposed in the sunlight, and now I can manipulate the colors to make them more vibrant.

In my home, I’ve another picture of fall colors. This one is a New England scene, I think it’s U.S. 7 in northern Connecticut or southern Massachusetts, but I don’t remember the exact location. The trees are red, gold, yellow, and green; the small cliff is gray but growing from the rock are small plants with yellow leaves; the road is gray but the yellow "curve ahead" sign matches the yellow leaves. The picture was taken in October 1981 when a Yale friend and I went on a Saturday drive to see the famous New England color.

One more road scene, which I don't keep displayed, is a little highway bridge six or seven miles west of my hometown, photographed in early autumn.  Unnumbered now, the road was Illinois 140 for a long time, and before that it was the original path of U.S. 40, and before 1926 the road was State Route 11 and also a portion of the transcontinental National Old Trails Highway. This bridge is one such remnant of long-ago State Route 11, identified as such by the plague upon the inside of the bridge.  The road had made a wide curve and crossed this bridge, but the newer alignment makes a shorter curve. I love to see such early, now abandoned alignments from the 1910s and 1920s, left over when the highway was widened or straightened. You can spot these old pavements beside two-lane roads as you drive through countryside.

I didn’t have a camera along when, during the 1990s, I took my parents on a drive near the farm where Mom grew up, not far from the highway and timber that I feature on this blog. The timber’s colors were absolutely spectacular that year. Autumn scenery, though, doesn’t always translate well onto everyday photographs; I’d have needed a bigger camera with larger negatives to have captured those scenes the best.

Autumn is beautiful but also, for several weeks, it provides very comfortable temperatures. I love going barefooted outdoors on autumn days; the grass is softer than in summertime, the sidewalks are cooler, and autumn leaves feel good on your feet. One pretty, sixtyish autumn day, years ago, while other students were enjoying the day out on the campus lawn, I slipped out of my sandals and into a windbreaker, went outside, and eventually took a lovely walk to the neighborhood market for a snack. Down the way, I passed a barefoot classmate walking a dog through the thick layers of fallen leaves on the sidewalk. Great minds work in the same direction!

It would be interesting to know the psychological theory of why we have favorite colors. Ever since I was little-bitty, my favorite color has been red. Of course red, along with yellow, orange, and brown, is a traditional autumn color, so I was thus fated to be a fan of this season. In my first home, I kept a display of red-and-yellow Indian corn in my kitchen.

Autumn colors result from the plant’s process of growth and regeneration, as explained at this site, The cessation of chlorophyll production causes the leaves to change color and fall, but the tree is all the while preparing for winter. Reading that information, I made a roundabout mental connection to a horticultural image in the Bible, that of pruning, for instance, John 15:1-2. Unfortunately, there is an overtone of violence, a cruelty to the metaphor that is inescapable.

When we consider God’s guidance, I wonder if we shouldn’t add to the idea of “pruning” the additional image of autumn leaves. Like plants in autumn, the circumstances in our lives at the time may be times of change and abandonment--not even a time of current growth but of preparation for future growth. But such times will be positive for us and can become a source of blessing for others, too. We can think of discipleship as a succession of times and seasons that introduce beauty into other people's lives.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Triumph of Goodness and Canned Greens

I love the Internet; you can find so many offbeat things so quickly.

Now that I live in St. Louis, I’ve been trying to think of the kid’s shows that the St. Louis TV stations produced when I was little. In those pre-cable days, my hometown was close enough to St Louis to receive the ABC, CBS, and NBC stations (KTVI, KMOX, and KSD back then), and the independent station KPLR, channel 11. Well, in my stoking of childhood nostalgia, I soon found a website,, that provides background on several shows that I liked, especially “Cookie and the Captain,” “Corky’s Colorama,” and “Captain 11.”

Another show discussed there was Jack Miller’s "Mr. Patches" show. I don't recall that one (at 5 PM, my folks had turned on the news), but from a source at Google Books, I discovered that Miller was behind another show that I loved, "The World of Mr. Zoom," which ran on KMOX (now KMOV) in 1962-1964. I believe it came on at 7:30 in the morning, right before Captain Kangaroo. I remember sobbing uncontrollably when Mr. Zoom was preempted in 1962 (I was five) for coverage of John Glenn’s space launch. I also remember feeling crushed when the show was cancelled. The show featured Cecil the Dinosaur, Princess Moonbeam, and Norton Downey the Henpecked Duck [1]. The characters referred to Mr. Zoom but he rarely appeared. Even though I was the show’s faithful fan, I can’t now differentiate in my mind those puppets with the ones on “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.”

I wouldn’t have remembered which show featured “Popeye” cartoons (it was “Cookie and the Captain” on KMOX), but I must’ve watched that show a lot. I remember bits of so many episodes: Olive Oyl getting into trouble about fifty million times; Popeye doing battle on a flying trapeze, Popeye slugging alligators so hard they turn into luggage; Popeye being worshiped by “savages” who chant “salami, salami, baloney”; and the appropriately named Wimpy, who’ll gladly pay you Tuesday.

Popeye cartoons were so violent! I looked online to remind myself about some of these old episodes. On one show, “Baby Wants a Battle” (1953), Bluto’s father beats Popeye’s father while baby Popeye watches helplessly. (That reminds me of an actual news story a few years ago.) In “A Job for a Gob” (1955), Bluto sets fire to Olive Oyl’s property because she scorns his advances. (Bluto the arsonist stalker…) In “Child Psykolojiky” (1941) Poopdeck Pappy wants to spank baby Swee’ Pea with his fist. Subsequently Pappy throws the baby out the upper story window, catches him, and then teaches him to use a shotgun, and even tries to shoot an apple off the baby’s head, all to make Swee’ Pea more “manly.” In “Goonland” (1938), Popeye hopes to save Poopdeck Pappy, who is held prisoner by these beings on their island (considering his parenting skills, Pappy was probably sent there by Child Protective Services!) but the Goons capture Popeye and try to kill him.

A typical plot of a Popeye cartoon is as follows. There is some competition for Olive's affections between Bluto and Popeye. Sometimes Olive responds to Bluto but realizes he is awful. Or she rejects Bluto outright. In either case, Bluto abuses her or tries to kill her. But Popeye (beaten or otherwise incapacitated in some way) eats his spinach, renews his strength, saves Olive, and defeats the villain. Goodness and canned greens triumph!

A few episodes featured Popeye’s nephews who were mean and out of control, not to mention ugly like Popeye. In various episodes the nephews throw Popeye and Olive around, toss them through windows, punch them, tie them up, and cause all kinds of havoc. You wouldn’t want these kids in your day care!

The cartoons were sexist by modern standards and some were also racist. In the World War II-era show “Jolly Good Furlough” (1943), one of Popeye’s nephews slants his eyes with his fingers while another nephew mimics shooting him. I clearly remember this episode broadcast on television in the early 1960s (though I don't recall the specific kids' show), as was “Pop-pie a la Mode” (1945) which features Popeye being fattened up and then beaten into a steak by minstrel-show black cannibals. In other episodes, Native Americans are depicted as dim “wild Injuns.” However, I don’t recall other war-era shorts like “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap” (1942) on TV.

When I was little, I overanalyzed the show's great deus ex machina: spinach. Why didn’t Popeye eat his spinach before he got in trouble? (He kept a can down his shirt, after all.) Why didn’t Olive have her own stash of spinach so she could handle matters herself? (We should give Olive credit, that when she tells Bluto, "No," she means it, and otherwise she acts resourcefully in some of the cartoons, though in others she seems fickle and/or helpless.) Also: why didn’t Bluto get the hint and eat spinach, too? Each episode was, as we'd now say, a reboot; no one learned, from show to show, how to avoid peril.

I’ve made “Popeye” cartoons sound awful! Some did frighten me (tenderhearted as I was), and I was too young to grasp their stereotyping. But I actually loved the shows and remember them fondly. Of course, Popeye still has many fans. E. G. Segar originated the comic strip "Thimble Theatre" in 1919 but Popeye didn't become a character therein until 1929. He soon became the strip's centerpiece. Fleischer Studios made numerous Popeye theatrical cartoons in 1933-1942, followed by Famous Studios in 1942-1957. King Features made cartoons for television in the early 1960s.

I recall that the King Features shows seemed gentler; Bluto became the pot-bellied Brutus, who always looked like he just got up. Characters like Alice the Goon, Eugene the Jeep, and Sea Hag appeared in these 60s shows. As I recall, Sea Hag had a "thing" for Popeye and used evil magic to get her way, but Popeye would never hit a woman, so Olive Oyl became more resourceful.

My last two blog entries had to do with violence and then with cartoons, so I thought … violence in cartoons! … But as I enjoy nostalgia about childhood TV, I haven’t even mentioned the live-action “Three Stooges“ shorts, which I loved as a little kid. The “Captain 11” show ran those in the afternoon. Hours of face-slapping, eye-poking, crowbar-up-the-nose entertainment!

[1] Tim Hollis, “Hey, There, Boys and Girls!": America’s Local Children’s TV Shows, University Press of Mississippi, 2001, page 169.

Some of this entry originally appeared in my Southern Illinois-related essay for "Springhouse," titled, “The Sailor Man from Chester, Illinois.” The annual Popeye Picnic is held at the Segar Memorial Park in Chester (

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Those Wascally Wabbits

I watched "Citizen Kane" for the first time recently, on the TCM channel. I don't have a "bucket list" but watching classic films has been on my to-do list for a while. There's probably nothing original to say about this film but I enjoyed not only the story but seeing the various film innovations that I'd associated with later films and directors: overlapping dialogue, nonlinear story-telling, interesting camera angles, dramatic lighting, and unreliable narrators. I found the use of "deep focus" haunting, almost creepy, in the late scene where Kane strolls, tearful and dazed, from his wife's still-bright but destroyed room.

This morning I watched the 1939 "Of Mice and Men" on the same channel while I visited my mother. I'd not seen this film either. Burgess Meredith was a handsome young man as George, Lon Chaney Jr. was an affecting Lennie. I liked Betty Field's feisty, always-barefoot character in "The Shepherd of the Hills" and here she is the lonely, doomed Mae. Even though I'd read the story and knew the ending, I thought how the movie might be setting up the viewer to foresee revenge on Curly.

The problem with this movie is not the movie's fault, nor Chaney's. I couldn't get out of my mind the parodies of this film in various "Looney Toons" that I watched as a kid. "I want some rabbits, George ... I will hug him, and pet him, and squeeze him"--remember that?

There are other ways to ruin a movie for you besides giving away the ending!

Friday, September 18, 2009

There Will Be Blood

Yesterday, Sept. 17, was the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history with nearly 26,000 casualties in the countryside near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Tragically, the Union forces did not take advantage of the battle and allowed the CSA army to withdraw. The war dragged on nearly three more years; what difference would a decisive Union blow, on a hypothetical second or third day of Antietam fighting, have made on the war’s length?

Yesterday afternoon, I was engaged in other battles in a safe place: the coffee shop. I was planning lessons for my seminary class on American history, specifically the series of European wars of which the American Revolution was but one (prone though we Americans are to look at it in isolation, or perhaps only in conjunction with the French and Indian Wars). Although the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) ended religious wars on the continent (and gave us the principle of Westphalian sovereignty), warfare obviously did not end, and kingdoms tended to expand future warfare overseas. Subsequent wars--King William’s War/War of the Grand Alliance (1689-1697), Queen Anne’s War/War of Spanish Succession (1702-1713), King George’s War/War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), and the French and Indian War/Seven Years War (1754-1763) shifted balances of power and also involved some fighting in North America. That last war gave British control in trans-Appalachian America and left Indians without France as their ally. But the large British war debt resulted in heavy Parliament-authorized taxes on British colonists. Those taxes, among other factors, led to yet another war, the American War of Independence (1775-1783), in which France, defeated in 1763, joined the Americans and helped gain victory over the British.

But, of course, the story does not end there, for the American experience influenced the French Revolution (1789-1797) which in turn led to the Napoleonic empire (1797-1815). Amid Napoleon's wars, British ships attacked those of non-combatant countries, leading to our own second war against Britain (1812-1815). The Napoleonic Wars also led the tide of European revolutions, nation-building, and liberal governments during the nineteenth century. Our Civil War (1861-1865) fits well within that overall worldwide phenomenon of nation-building.

Wars, rumors of wars, records of wars … We honor and love our country, which has been created, like many nations, amid a history of endless human violence.

The New Testament, unlike the Qur’an, does not give much advice on proper and improper warfare. Governments are instituted of God, as Paul reminds us, and governments have often made that tragic choice to wage war. We have New Testament stories of soldiers coming to faith, without any warnings that they should lay down their arms in order to follow Christ. And yet the example of Jesus himself--he did not resist the violence done to him--is such that some Christians have found pacifism to be the best choice. How can we follow Christ if we do not follow his example of nonviolence? How can we ever stop violence worldwide unless we stop it through our personal example and sacrifice?

I go back and forth on this issue, agreeing with the pacifists sometimes, but honoring the sacrifice of soldiers who, after all, give up very much--even their lives--for others. “No greater love,” as Jesus says. In fact, in our own time, not many of us Americans will have to die for our faith, but some of us will die while defending our country and our freedoms. The safety and security we enjoy in a country such as ours seems to require a suitable military and the potential choice of war.

And yet … When we look at the history of warfare, we realize: one war will lead to another war down the years, and yet another, and another, with no ultimate resolution, and innocent people will suffer. And yet ... reluctance to pursue decisive victory can lead to more warfare, which was Lincoln's heartache following Antietam (and Gettysburg, too).

The Vietnam War concluded just as I became draft-age, so I’ve the luxury of thinking about this subject as one who knows war only through books and my father’s stories.

(After I wrote this, I found a section from Robert Barron, The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path, Orbis Books, 2002, pp. 153-154: "Stanley Hauerwas ... has on his office door a sign that reads: 'A modest proposal for peace, Christians stop killing other Christians.' ... Between 1914 and 1945, millions of British, American French, Russian, German, and Italian Christians went at one another murderously. One presumes that the overwhelming majority of these warriors had heard Christ's command to love even your enemies and that they had been formed according to the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ. Yet, when the moment of truth arrived, they chose to place national loyalty above spiritual conviction, attacking other members of the body of Christ for political ends." But, of course, millions of those soldiers, like my Christian cousin who died in World War I in July 1917, must've considered some of those "political ends" as commensurate with the Gospel and, indeed, sacrificed their own well-being in order to protect the freedom and well-being of others. A difficult issue!)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Verdi on the Turntable and in the Car

I’m a mood-driven listener to music. Sometimes I get into moods when only rock music cranked up to sonic boom level, will do, or 80s new wave or synthpop.  Sometimes I want to listen to types of classical music, or to a cross-section of a composer‘s works.  Other times, I want to hear a lot of the same composer.  I liked Haydn’s music so I bought a 33-CD set of his symphonies. Messiaen intrigued me so I purchased his complete organ works. I loved Mozart’s 15th piano concerto so I bought an 11-CD set of all of them!

I used to collect opera LPs, especially Wagner, but also some Mozart, Verdi, Britten, and others. My first opera purchase was Böhm recording of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” with Sherrill Milnes in the title role. I recall buying it at the Chapel Square Mall in New Haven, Connecticut. My fondest set was “Le Nozze di Figaro,” also conducted by Böhm, with a wonderful cast including Prey, Mathis, Janowitz, Fischer-Dieskau, and Troyanos. At one point I loved Wagner and owned at least one set of his famous operas, even the early “Rienzi.”

I also found several classic Verdi recordings: Toscanini’s “Falstaff” and “Aida,” “Otello” with Jon Vickers in the title role, and also “Rigoletto” (with Sutherland, Pavarotti, and Milnes), Guilini’s 1958 “Don Carlos” (the five act version but in Italian), and the “Messa da Requiem.” I purchased “La traviata,“ donated it to a library book fair during a spring cleaning, then wished I had it back. (Fortunately there’s always Ebay.) I think I owned a used set of “Macbeth” at some point but don’t remember what happened to it.

I couldn’t quite get into Verdi. His operas lacked the chromatic interest and visceral force of Wagner’s. Benjamin Britten once said, “I am an arrogant and impatient listener; but in the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of these composers.” [1] I’m not an arrogant listener but--especially since I know almost no musicology--I respond to music on a purely emotional level and know that, sometimes, I’m still growing in musical taste. I was heartened by an article by Walter Clemons who also wasn’t touched by Verdi’s music at first.[2]

Sorting through my old LPs after our recent move, I brought my Verdi operas into my office and gave them a new listen. This time I was smart, however. I'd been looking for an emotional entry into Verdi's music and had never quite find it listening to whole operas. So I found a good collection of Verdi arias to help me, “Essential Verdi, 40 of His Masterpieces” on the Decca label.

What a wonderful set! As I listened to the two CDs (in my car), I kept grabbing the liner notes when I came to stop lights to see which opera aria I’d just heard. I finally appreciated Verdi’s gift for writing melodies. You hear it among old favorites like “La donna è mobile” and the “Aida” grand march but you also hear it in the lesser known dramas like “I masnadieri.” Clemons writes that he was convinced of Verdi’s greatness during a live performance of Othello’s aria “Ora e per sempre additio;” Othello despairs, yet “Verdi gives him back, in memory, the martial music of his days of glory” (p. 88). I found a similar moment in the “Ave Maria” from that same opera, sung on this set by Renee Fleming.

Famously, Verdi returned after "Otello" with one more, remarkable opera, “Falstaff,” only his second comic opera among nearly thirty. Verdi’s views of life were pessimistic but humanistic. As Osborne puts it, “In the Requiem … gentle resignation and joyful anticipation of an after-life were no part of his thoughts…. The intensity and compassion of his tragic view of the human condition are Shakespearian in stature: the prodigality of his technique deserves … to be called Mozartian” (p. 403). In this last opera, Verdi seems to have definitively joined his tragic view with a Mozartian comic spirit.

“Falstaff” ends:

Tutto nel mondo é burla.
L'uom é nato burlone,
La fede in cor gli ciurla,
Gli ciurla la ragione.
Tutti gabbati! Irride
L'un l'altro ogni mortal.
Ma ride ben chi ride
La risata final.

As translated by Vincent Sheean in the Toscanini recording: “The whole world is a jest; man was born a great jester, pushed this way and that by faith in his heart or by reason. All are cheated! Every mortal being laughs at every other one, but the best laugh of all is the one that comes last.”

I agree with some of that. We are all “pushed this way and that” and we’re all “cheated” of something. We're silly to think we can escape life's unfairness. Verdi suffered a terrible loss early in life, the death of his two children and first wife. Over time, he transformed his suffering and pessimism into wonderful theater and melody. Clemons writes that “Verdi’s long, fertile career can now be seen as remarkable in its steady progress and deepening insight as that of Dickens.” (p. 123) Yeats comes to mind as another artist who grew steadily and ended with depth and insight.

Here's one more quote from Clemons. “There is something clear and sunlit-square about Verdi’s music that makes it at first difficult to appreciate, if romantic mystery is what one looks for. The value of his honesty and clarity grows with acquaintance” (p. 123).

1. Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi (New York: Knopf, 1979), p. 11.

2. Walter Clemons, “Viva Verdi! The Story of a Love Affair,” Vanity Fair, 46 (June 1983), 87-89, 122-123.

Christian Perfection

John Wesley taught “Christian perfection” but had to defend his doctrine against misunderstanding. Here are some excerpts from his work, “A Short Account of Christian Perfection” (

“We willingly allow, and continually declare, there is no such perfection in this life, as implies either a dispensation from doing good, and attending all the ordinances of God, or a freedom from ignorance, mistake, temptation, and a thousand infirmities necessarily connected with flesh and blood…

"We not only allow, but earnestly contend, that there is no perfection in this life, which implies any dispensation from attending all the ordinances of God, or from doing good unto all men while we have time, though 'especially unto the household of faith.' …

"We secondly believe, that there is no such perfection in this life, as implies an entire deliverance, either from ignorance, or mistake, in things not essential to salvation, or from manifold temptations, or from numberless infirmities, wherewith the corruptible body more or less presses down the soul. …

"But whom then do you mean by 'one that is perfect?' We mean one in whom is 'the mind which was in Christ,' and who so 'walketh as Christ also walked;' a man 'that hath clean hands and a pure heart,' or that is 'cleansed from all filthiness of flesh and spirit;' one in whom is 'no occasion of stumbling,' and who, accordingly, 'does not commit sin.' To declare this a little more particularly: We understand by that scriptural expression, 'a perfect man,' one in whom God hath fulfilled his faithful word, 'From all your filthiness and from all your idols I will cleanse you: I will also save you from all your uncleannesses.' We understand hereby, one whom God lath 'sanctified throughout in body, soul, and spirit;' one who 'walketh in the light as He is in the light, in whom is no darkness at all; the blood of Jesus Christ his Son having cleansed him from all sin.' …

"This man can now testify to all mankind, 'I am crucified with Christ: Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.' He is 'holy as God who called' him 'is holy,' both in heart and 'in all manner of conversation.' He 'loveth the Lord his God with all his heart,' and serveth him 'with all his strength.' He 'loveth his neighbour,' every man, 'as himself;' yea, 'as Christ loveth us;' them, in particular, that 'despitefully use him and persecute him, because they know not the Son, neither the Father.' Indeed his soul is all love, filled with 'bowels of mercies, kindness, meekness, gentleness, longsuffering.' And his life agreeth thereto, full of 'the work of faith, the patience of hope, the labour of love.' 'And whatsoever' he 'doeth either in word or deed,' he 'doeth it all in the name,' in the love and power, 'of the Lord Jesus.' In a word, he doeth 'the will of God on earth, as it is done in heaven.' …

"This it is to be a perfect man, to be 'sanctified throughout;' even 'to have a heart so all-flaming with the love of God,' (to use Archbishop Usher's words,) 'as continually to offer up every thought, word, and work, as a spiritual sacrifice, acceptable to God through Christ.' In every thought of our hearts, in every word of our tongues, in every work of our hands, to 'show forth his praise, who hath called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.' O that both we, and all who seek the Lord Jesus in sincerity, may thus 'be made perfect in one!' ….

“It is to have 'the mind which was in Christ,' and to 'walk as He walked;' to have all the mind that was in Him, and always to walk as he walked: In other words, to be inwardly and outwardly devoted to God; all devoted in heart and life. And we have the same conception of it now, without either… "

What a lovely doctrine, which has become far less distinctive to United Methodism than Wesley would’ve wished. Wesley's words here are worth posting on the bathroom mirror; I feel ashamed at how far I still have to go to live up to these words (although Wesley affirmed that perfection is completely a gift of God, which he never claimed for himself).

I don’t want to draw too much of a parallel between Wesleyan perfection and the Buddhist notion of attachment. But some similarities are interesting. In “attachment,” you self-referentially base your happiness upon impermanent things. You chase things to bolster your ego, you make yourself miserable by circumstances you can’t change and things you can’t have, and live at some level of self-gratification. Don’t we all? But by freeing ourselves of attachment (through the lifelong practice of the Eightfold Path), we can stop assuming that the world exists to meet our needs and expectations; we reach a level of inner peace, kindness and harmony.

Compare that to Wesley. Obviously there are differences between Christian and Buddhist doctrine, practice and goals. But in Wesley, too, we radically experience the de-centralization of our egos in the experience of Christian perfection. We’re no longer motivated by striving after selfish opportunities. We gain greater freedom from temptation because our desires conform to God's desires rather than our own. We no longer feel ill-will toward other people or use them for our own purposes; rather, we feel harmoniously and kindly toward them. Our actions and words are motivated by love of God and neighbor and, as much as we can, toward God’s will.

Wesley’s doctrine creates a cognitive dissonance, frankly because the term “perfection” is misleading. The theological debate about the nature of the gift--whether it is a “second blessing,” etc.--has perhaps distracted from Wesley’s hope that everyone seek this gift. Studying Buddhism, though, alerted me that Wesley’s doctrine isn’t so strange. What could be more lovely than the search for an inner peace, a healing of our motivations, and a harmony with others? Wesley’s doctrine is deeply rooted in the finished work of Christ and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives, which in turn empower us to seek deeper gifts of kindness and purity.

A few weeks ago (my entry for July 31, 2009), I wrote some thoughts about St. Francis’ ideas about inner peace and happiness. He thought a believer could feel all the more happy and peaceful the more we give ourselves wholly to God’s protection. Connecting those ideas to Wesley, I think Wesley could provide us with a similar spiritual path, less extreme than St. Francis (who wanted to live completely defenseless), but still rooted in a desire to wholly follow God’s will.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Walking the Line

A recent news story is the death of a Yale graduate student who disappeared mysteriously, then her body was found in a basement wall in the same research building where she worked. Her body was found the day she was supposed to marry a Columbia grad student. Since the research building has a pervasive security system, police are searching for suspects among people who’ve access to the facilities. The thought of your fiancee disappearing and then found murdered … words fail to convey the feelings you’d have. Words fail when you’re just an person on the sofa, watching the news.

Another scary story appeared on my online news in late August. I don’t know if this story made the national television media, since I didn’t have the TV on much that week. A pastor in Anadarko, Oklahoma, was found murdered in her church. She’d been stabbed multiple times and her body was left unclothed and in the position of a crucifix. The woman drove 60 miles each Sunday to preach at this church, which didn’t even have a regular congregation but she preached to and prayed with whomever attended. Police are still working on the case.

Yesterday was the 108th anniversary of the death of President William McKinley, who died as a result of an assassin’s bullet. When I taught a class on Ohio presidents, I noted the tragic irony that McKinley survived the entire Civil War without a scratch--even the hideous battle of Antietam--but died because of one stupid fool with a pistol. No one thinks too much about President McKinley anymore, but at the time, his death was an overwhelming tragedy on the order of the 1960s assassinations.

I affirm God’s providential care, but in my own thinking, I don’t always “integrate” life’s awful, tragic elements which occur in thousands and millions of incidents each day. I put “integrate” in quotation marks because none of us can, after all, fathom either the extent of God’s care nor the terrible things that happen. It's a hard line to walk: to affirm the truth of God’s care while, simultaneously, acknowledging tragedies that seem to mock the comforts of one's faith. But walking that line is necessary if we’re to praise God's active tenderness while responding honestly and compassionately to the human condition.

Two Are Better Than One

This past Sunday, our pastor preached a good sermon on friendship, based on Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

I've written on this subject in an earlier post (5/19/09), but I was thinking about friendships over the weekend anyway, how wonderful when you have one or more strong friendships, how awful when a friendship breaks down. I've better friendships now than at other, discouraging times in my life when I felt like the only kind available were "fair weather." I value good friends; but some folks don't. I once knew a person (actually a very pleasant personality) who admitted, "I'm a lousy friend!"

Friendships take time, and thus commitment. You can be (or think you are) too busy to give time to friends, and so you're not available when someone needs you. Writing this entry reminds me that I need to call some friends to whom I've not given time lately. "Given time"--friendship is a gift, and keeping friends requires giving.

The benefits of friendship are obvious, not only because of the companionship described in this Bible verse, but also the happiness of caring for a particular person, and the happiness of knowing that a particular person cares for you, even if you don't happen to need tangible assistance at the moment. Thus I'm always a little astounded at how careless certain people can be toward friends.

Galatians 6:1-5 is another good scripture.

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.

In other words, we all have times when we stumble, and we all have to take responsibility for our own actions. But that doesn't mean we have to face life alone: in fact, a sign of true Christianity is the gentleness and care we show toward one another, the willingness to help one another through difficult times.

If you have the Holy Spirit, then you're a good friend! If you're not a good friend ... I hate to say you don't have the Spirit, but you may be resisting the Spirit.

Churches face a difficult balance between being outward- and inward-looking. As all the church-growth pundits say, a congregation must be mission-oriented and concern for the percentages of people in the area who have no church-based relationship to God. On the other hand, those people are hypothetical members, and meanwhile the actual members may not be treating one another as positively as they should. Such folk would do well to work on being better friends to one another, serving one another's needs, and then to reach out to the community. After all, you'd want your church to be a place people would want to attend! If pastoral and lay leaders can create circumstances in congregations for interconnectedness and support, then great things may happen.

Years ago a friend gave me a plaque that read, "A friend is there before you know it, to lend a hand before you ask it, and give you love just when you need it most." A good reminder for any day!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mock Me, Amadeus

My wife Beth and I went to a wonderful production of Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus,” performed by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. In 1984 we saw the film and enjoyed it, although I couldn’t quite disassociate Tom Hulce’s Mozart from his role in “Animal House." I also read the play during an early 80s. I think I prefer the play to the film, since (in a reversal of the cliche “show, don’t tell”) you miss Salieri’s wonderful narration which the film renders visually.

Although I enjoy the work, I’ve always felt very ambivalent about it. As a history lover, I hate to see the historical figures used and distorted to dramatize philosophical problems. (See for a good discussion of the historical Mozart and Salieri.)

The philosophical problems is real and potentially painful: why are some people immensely gifted and others are not? Why is talent independent of goodness (and some talented people, like Wagner, Picasso, and others) have terrible failings as human beings)? I tend to think that, if (Shaffer’s) Salieri experiences a loss of faith so quick, bitter, and complete, then his faith was not that strong to begin with. But that’s not entirely fair: people of strong faith do encounter faith-shaking crises, including jealousy.

Is the play's ending really supposed to be so cynical? Is Salieri, who is so mediocre he can’t even kill himself successfully, now a Christ figure who removes the guilt of mediocrity from the rest of us? Are we all mediocrities because Mozart was so immensely gifted--but mediocrities who can now live in peace?

Something occurred to me, though. What if Salieri is an “unreliable narrator”? What if he (in T.S. Eliot's famous "Dry Salvages" line) had the experience but missed the meaning? He complains that he alone, among his (1781-1791) contemporaries, is able to discern God’s gift and voice in Mozart’s music. What if this is God’s gift of faith to Salieri, instead of a way God mocks his devotion?

As another great genius, Einstein, put it, "God is subtle, but malicious he is not."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pimp My Deere

I live in an upscale area where, as I drive my Toyota van, I feel a bit out of place among the BMVs, Mercedes’ and Jaguars that I see around the neighborhood. It doesn't bother me, just something I notice.

I must admit that my favorite mode of transportation is … a farm wagon piled with bales of straw. Hayride! I thought of this the other day as my wife and I visited Ace Hardware for household supplies, and outside the store, along with “hardy mums” (as opposed to sickly mums, I guess) were bales that one could purchase for outdoor fall events or decoration. I’m aware that this use of straw is far removed from the agricultural world which, two or three generations ago, was the norm for many more Americans than now. Still, I cherish memories of the few hayrides I’ve taken: one or two during my church-youth-group days, another during a visit to a cousin's farm, still another during my first and happiest job as parish pastor, and the last, a fall family time in southeastern Indiana, when my wife, young daughter, and I rode down a pumpkin farm’s unpaved lane to pick our own Halloween pumpkins.

In a perfect world, I think I’d like to ride among straw bales as I go about my daily errands. I’d have a nice-looking, spruced-up John Deere tractor pull the wagon along. I’d lay peacefully in the straw, watching the clouds overhead, and think about things in an unhurried way.

This fantasy raises two important questions, Who would drive the tractor that pulled the wagon? and What would I do about all the angry people who’d want to kill me after they followed me 10 mph down the road? I don’t know the answers. But still, I love the thought of a hayride! Maybe I’ll see if any fall festivals around our community features hayrides. It would be my first in several years!


Yesterday was 09-09-09. It’s one of my mentor’s birthday: Rabbi Albert Plotkin turns 89. He is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom in Scottsdale, AZ, formerly in Phoenix. Alluding to Talmudic traditions about the upcoming Rosh Hashana, my friend wonderfully hoped for me and my family that we might be written into the Book of Life.

Tomorrow is 9/11. My wife Beth was on a business trip in Manhattan on 09/11/01 and saw the second tower fall. She and her associate were standing on the roof of their hotel, ten blocks away. They finally rented a car the following Saturday morning and drove back to Ohio, as they failed to get any flights. That week, I tried to carry on with teaching duties and parenting (Emily was in sixth grade), but of course I was worried sick about Beth and, like the rest of the country, in shock.

Next Wednesday, the 16th, is the tenth anniversary of my father’s death. He used to pull me aside and confided that Mom’s health was failing; he wasn’t sure how much longer Mom would be with us. But that day, he was doing what he loved best, messing around in the kitchen. According to Mom, someone had rung the front door bell and then went around to the back door and knocked. In attempting to answer the knock, Dad nearly made it to the back door when he died instantly of a cardiac aneurysm. We never knew who was at the door. My mom turned 90 last month.

September 16 is also my father-in-law’s birthday. He was born in 1924, and passed away of brain cancer in 1995. His death was one of several terrible things going on in the mid-1990s, but his birthday was always memorable (and now sad to recall) because he jokingly reminded people of the upcoming date in unsubtle ways.

A while ago I read the expression “God’s wink,” some serendipitous event that signals the care of God. That’s a lovely thought, but sometimes the hard events of one’s life form a clash of anniversaries that feel like a much darker signal. I think of the last few bars of Mahler‘s sixth symphony: things are good, and then crash, a terrible chord is struck that haunts you for a long time. I know someone whose father died, when she was a teenager, on that year’s Father’s Day. Now she’s reminded of him on a day that is, cruelly, a happy day in other families. I’ve known other people who lost loved ones around Christmas time or close to significant birthdays.

I don’t want to say that God “arranges” for hard events to occur. If you’re a believer, though, these times become occasions not only to lean on friends and family, but also to turn to God, to seek God's help, and to ask the difficult “why” questions.

The Bible raises the "why" questions, too, but answers them not with theses but blessings. For instance, Psalm 22 affirms God as “holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (vs. 3), even though the psalmist is otherwise quite frank about his doubts and distress. Other psalms similarly include both sorrow and affirmation. Leafing through the psalms, even reading some of them outloud, can be a helpful thing when we feel haunted by tragedies or otherwise distressed. Joining psalms to intentional periods of reflection and reconciliation, as the upcoming Yamim Noraim serve for Jews, can also help.

Amid the events and milestones of life, we find consolation as we look humbly to God, the Holy One, who wants to write our names into his book. When I am afraid, I put my trust in thee (Ps. 56:3).

The Hard Work of Discipleship

In my last post, I thought about Mary Rose O'Reilley's comment that self is too precious to be conjoined with sacrifice.

Ideally, the church is the place where we "present ourselves as a living sacrifice" and receive the love and affirmation which sustains us. I often turn in my mind to these quotes from Stanley Hauerwas, who argues that church, rather than family, is the most important place for the shaping of our character. “The love that we have toward our spouses and our children follows, rather than determines, the kind of love that we learn in the church through our being a people pledged to be faithful to God’s call.” He writes that our character is shaped by our relationship to God’s faithfulness, and in turn by the community of people who are also striving to grow in God's Spirit. Love, he writes, is not “some affection for another that contributes to my own sense of well-being” but ”the steady gaze on another that does not withdraw regard simply because they fail to please.” That love “is first learned through being required to love our brothers and sisters who, like us, are pledged to be disciples in Christ.”[1]

I appreciate Hauerwas’ emphasis on Christ, his call, and our discipleship. Hauerwas is trying to counter a kind of shallow, “focus on the family” kind of Christianity and provide us a better, stronger model of the church. But Hauerwas omits, in a quote like this, the problem of church people who have self-hating, psychologically unhealthy, and suppressive versions of discipleship that they, in turn, foster upon others. This was Mary O'Reilley's initial complaint: as a young girl she was taught a kind of discipleship which stifled rather than helped her.

Not all of us in the church are equally pledged to be Christ’s disciples and, even if we are, we're not equally equipped to strengthen one another’s growth in Christian love. On the other hand, Hauerwas provides an excellent reminder about the kinds of love and discipleship that follow upon God's undeserved love for us.

1. Stanley Hauerwas, “The Family as a School for Character,” in Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, Moral Issues: Philosophical and Religious Perspectives (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996), pp. 239-246 (quotes from page 244).

Losing/Finding the Self

I’ve been reading and enjoying Mary Rose O’Reilley, The Love of Impermanent Things: A Threshold Ecology (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2006). I like books that mine personal experience. This paragraph caught my eye.

“ ‘Self’ has been, for me, so hard-won. Catholic children of the fifties were taught ‘unselfishness’ until they barely knew who inhabited their skins. Therefore, at this point in m life, I think of self-abnegation as a semi suicidal impulse. I’ve been reading a book called Proverbs of Ashes by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in which these two feminist scholars discuss their awakening--as pastors and professors of theology--to the way the story of Jesus has been used to justify the brutal suppression of an individual’s true vocation, especially a woman’s sense of call. … Self--I would argue, along with Brock and Parker--is too precious to be conjoined with sacrifice. Selfhood is a kind of mysterious extraterrestrial jewel one is entrusted with. Human beings are born with an imperative to defend this treasure” (p. 92).

I affirm O’Reilley’s experiences and struggles from my own viewpoint--a Protestant kid in the 60s and 70s--but I wrestle with that sentence, “Self is too precious to be conjoined with sacrifice.”

As O’Reilley notes, the self is a “jewel” because it is one’s very identity. If that is stolen--because of sexism, racism, or other ways--you’ve lost something precious, and that is a tragedy.

Even “everyday” kinds of sacrifices--sacrifices motivated by initial feelings of love and right resolve--can harm one’s sense of identity:

The caregiver who buckles under the unending demands of the sick or infirm person.
The pastor who is overwhelmed with "putting out fires" and petty concerns.
The child who works hard to win the approval of hard-to-please parents and then struggles, well into adulthood, for self-esteem.
The spouse who puts personal needs ahead of husband or wife and realizes that s/he has lost a strong sense of self and purpose.
The person who has a strong sense of calling and purpose but feels stymied and undermined by the “system.”
The person who puts heart and soul into any kind of situation and, at the end, feels abandoned or betrayed.

And yet, most religions teach the virtue of sacrifice. Self and sacrifice are conjoined. Christians are taught so early that we “should” put others before ourselves. Matt. 10:39 admonishes us to lose our lives for the sake of Jesus, for instance.

Romans 12:1-3 is a classic text.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

If you wanted a proof-text to teach self-abnegation, this would certainly be one! A person could even misunderstand the text and think that God demands personal sacrifices (in the metaphorical sense) from us in order to earn and merit God’s favor.

But the phrase mercies of God is key, and also is the word transformed. God has already done everything necessary, through Christ, to gain for us God’s mercies and ultimate salvation. We do not have to deny ourselves to earn God's love and favor; we already have those things in abundance. Furthermore, God has given us a source of power, the Holy Spirit, that we might be transformed and strengthened.

Our worship, according to this text, is to give God ourselves--our Selves. We find our true selves in the “holy and acceptable” sacrifice of discipleship. We’re not thereby giving God “junk”, and God isn‘t calling us to become belittled and suppressed.

But this kind of presentation--this relinquishment of control--of ourselves to God is not easy! I don’t want to imply that a suitable kind of sacrifice is easier than the unhealthy, “semi suicidal” sacrifices to which O’Reilley alludes. We still encounter suffering, weariness, disappointments, and other hard things. We still encounter systems and situations that would steal from us our personal call and vocation. We may have to grow in a relationship with God over a period of years before God’s call for us falls into place and God‘s will becomes clear. One of the reasons I’ve clung to faith over the years is, in fact, the way God gives me measures of clarity about events in my own life over the long haul.

As I reflect on O’Reilley’s sentence, I want to say that any healthy notion of Christian sacrifice must be strongly and explicitly rooted in the never-ever-earned love of God, otherwise we begin to teach and practice sacrifice in an impoverished, hurtful way. Because of its power to build a sense of self, we should all memorize Desmond Tutu’s saying before we undertake any sacrifice, “There is nothing you can do that will make God love you less. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. God’s love for you is infinite, perfect, and eternal.”[1]

1. Quoted in Lorraine Kisly (ed.), Ordinary Graces: Christian Teachings on the Interior Life (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), p. 192.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ballad of a Middle-Aged Gun

I’ve been watching a favorite movie, The Magnificent Seven, from 1960. The film is slowly paced by modern standards, but still well worth a periodic visit to the ol' DVD player. The other day, I noticed some things.

In one scene, Yul Brynner (Chris) places his gun carefully at hand when the Mexican farmers first come to talk to him. A little later, Brynner and Steve McQueen (Vin) approaches Charles Bronson (O‘Reilley) about a gunfighting job. O'Reilley is chopping wood to pay for his meal and, when the men arrive, he reaches to his holstered gun on a post and shifts it, presumably so he can reach it or draw attention to it. Much later, after he shot Calvera, Chris smartly slides his gun into his holster.

I realized the other day: I make similar kinds of movements with my Blackberry when I place it on a table or slip it into a pocket or case. Have I been channeling old Westerns without realizing? Do I have some unconscious desire to be a Western hero but, since I hate guns, I'm quick with a telephone?

(Then I wondered: what would a Western be like if you introduced modern networking?

Mexican farmers: “Could you help us find gunmen to drive Calvera from our village?”
Chris: “Sure, let me tweet my tweeps….”

But that definitely loses something… )

Friday, September 4, 2009

Stopping Online Beside a Historic Marker

Driving back from my daughter's college recently, I enjoyed getting off the interstate for some miles and exploring U.S. 40, which follows the path of the old National Road. In several places along the route, stretches of old highway veer off from the modern road. In some areas, the older alignment is simply a country lane beside farm houses or an abandoned pathway used to access a cultivated field. I discovered a long, narrow stretch of early highway linking Martinville and Casey Illinois, while the newer path of route 40 lay a bit to the north.

In my Aug. 22, 2009, thoughts, I included a couple postcards of the old highway bridge that once crossed the Kaskaskia River at Vandalia, my hometown. The construction of a new bridge necessitated a rerouting of U.S. 40 a few yards south. As you approach Vandalia from the east across the “bottoms,” you notice how the highway curves a bit to the more recent alignment. But you can also see how the original alignment proceeded straight, since the pavement was never removed. For a few hundred yards, you can drive along the narrow roadbed, which not only had been U.S. 40 but, before that, State Route 11 and the National Old Trails Highway, and even before that, the last, westernmost distance of the National Road. A few businesses stand along the pavement and, until it was removed a few years ago, a forlorn storehouse stood which had originally been a skating rink and entertainment place called Junction Park. My mother remembered going there during her 1930s teen years.

When I was a little boy, a large historic marker was erected along the abandoned U.S. 40 just across the river. According to the site
the marker was erected Apr. 1, 1968 by the Division of Highways and The Illinois State Historical Society. At some point it was taken down, but I don’t know when, by whom, or for what reason. You can still see reinforced holes next to the pavement where the sign had stood. Here is the text of the sign from that website.

“The National Road was the result of the project of Albert Gallatin to unite the East and West. His plan to allocate money from public land sales for this purpose was incorporated into the Ohio Enabling Act in 1802. The original road, as proposed in 1805 and authorized by Thomas Jefferson in 1806, was to extend from the Potomac to the Ohio. Construction began in 1811 and by 1818 the road was completed to Wheeling, Virginia. Two years later Congress agreed to extend the road and allocated funds for a survey through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The route from the Indiana line to Vandalia, approximately 89 miles long was surveyed in 1827. In 1830 Congress appropriated $40,000 for opening and grading the Illinois section. Additional money was granted each year thereafter, but was limited to clearing, grading, and bridging. Construction problems and corrupt practices resulted in the project's being placed under the Army Corps of Engineers in 1834. The road was opened to Vandalia in 1839; however, the Illinois section remained an unfinished surface with only 31 miles of grading and masonry completed. The road had been surveyed to Jefferson City, Missouri but in 1840 Congress terminated construction at Vandalia. On May 9, 1856, Congress transferred the 'Rights and Priveleges' connected with the road in Illinois to the state. It became a part of the 'National Old Trails Road' in the early twentieth century and was, until recently, a part of US 40.”

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A One Hit Wonder!

One of my favorite LP sets is a 1978, 4-disc set called "Orgelmeister vor Bach" ("The Early German Organ School"), performed by Helmut Walcha. Walcha lost his sight as a teenager but nevertheless mastered a large organ repertory, including Bach's complete organ works. This website discusses his achievements:

My friend who is a professional musician recommended this out of print set, if I could ever find it. I saw it for sale at the wonderful but now defunct Jeff's Record Shop in Tucson. The set was 40-some dollars and I worried about the price, so I didn't buy it, and of course I couldn't find the set again, even on Ebay. Finally I found it on that auction site, however. As "life" seems to go, I saw it again on Ebay just a few weeks later, at an even better price. Oh well.

Buxtehude (the sound of whose name makes me chuckle, for some reason) dominates the orgelmeister on these LPs. But as I played them the other day while writing, I realized how much I enjoyed two pieces on a particular side. They "stood out" that particular day. I checked the label: they were the choral prelude "O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig" and the "Ciacona in F Minor" by Johann Pachelbel.

Poor Pachelbel! Like Albinoni with his Adagio, Barber with his Adagio, Mouret (whose Rondeau is the Masterpiece Theater theme), and some others, Pachelbel is best remembered by one piece of music. One of my best friends had the Canon performed, among other pieces, for her wedding.

These two small pieces performed by Walcha are so pretty, though. It makes you think that, if you like a piece by a particular composer, you might consider a kind of "journey" to discover other things he or she has written.

Long-Ago Grandfather

My dad's father, Andrew Christian Stroble, was necessarily a remote figure in my life, since he died 22 years before I was born. A photo of him from the 1910s, nicely touched up by my cousin Hazel Jones, hung in my parents' home for many years. Dad always spoke fondly of his father--"Everyone knew Dad, and liked him," he'd say. Listening to Dad's voice, I always thought that his father's early and unexpected death troubled him more than his memories of World War II combat. Andy's red granite tombstone stands along the roadway in Vandalia's South Hill Cemetery, near the marker for the five state officials who died in Vandalia in the 1830s.

Andy died of a stroke in downtown Vandalia on May 7, 1935, along the now-gone stores on South Fifth Street. Dad remembers that he collapsed in front of the barbershop visible in this old picture, but Andy's obituary states that he died in front of the hardware store along that same row. Dad was 22, and the two of them were running an errand.

Andy was 52 years and 9 months old when he died, which was exactly my age yesterday. Most of Dad's side of the family lived much longer: Dad was 87, his mother was 101, and Andy's own parents were in their early 90s. Nevertheless, I take Ziac for my blood pressure and Zocor and Tricor for my cholesterol. Thus my grandfather's legacy in my life: no happy times of fishing and hiking with him, but instead, an awareness of the fragility of health, even as we go about our daily business assuming the best (James 4:13-15).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Grateful Divvie

August turned to September, and a thought popped into my head today: my arrival at Yale Divinity School for my masters degree was thirty years ago, sometime about now but I don‘t recall the exact date. I was a student at YDS in 1979-1982.

I knew I was in trouble the minute I drove up the narrow driveway off Prospect Street and stepped into the brick complex (designed on the order of the University of Virginia). I felt a rush of happiness that felt exactly like falling in love with someone. I knew I was in trouble, because I felt I belonged here but I couldn’t stay forever. This was, after all, only a three year program.

I won’t write here about the friends and acquaintances of the time, although that part of YDS was as important to me as the academic program, a little more so. I’m the kind of person who feels that, however successful a situation might have been by some standards, it was unsuccessful if I didn’t come away from it with positive relationships. YDS was a place of great friendships which have endured over all these years. Now we’re all in our fifties and have been through all kinds of life experiences. Ironically, I arrived at YDS more painfully shy than I felt when starting college, for my college had been a lonely experience.

Not all my YDS courses were worthwhile. An otherwise interesting social ethics class was cut short by the professor’s travels in search of a new job, since he’d not gotten tenure there. Seminars related to parish ministry would’ve been more useful if I’d had more experience; without that, I missed a lot of what I should’ve been learning about the subtleties of church leadership. Plus, those classes tended to be dominated by folk who loved to hear themselves talk. A professor who swore like a sailor taught a preaching course. I remember very little about the class but that.

I loved my classes on the Bible, though, taught by Brevard S. Childs, R. Lansing Hicks, and Luke T. Johnson. I still have several course texts and still build upon the things I learned in those four semesters. I also loved the theological courses taught by former dean Robert Clyde Johnson. He read his lectures, old school, but as we students frantically tried to take notes we felt grateful to be in the presence of such a passionate, probing mind. (Johnson had suffered a very major heart attack in the late 1970s and I was advised to take a class with him as soon as possible. He lived until 2002.)

Two other wonderful professors were Hans Frei and Colin W. Williams. Frei taught in the Religious Studies dept. down the street, but I took his seminar in Schleiermacher and chatted with him about doctoral work. He wrote a kind and supportive letter of recommendation for me later. Williams taught a course in Methodist theology and history. I admit I would’ve rather taken another Barth seminar at that late point in my degree, but Williams’ course was very lively and enjoyable. He, too, wrote me a wonderful letter for my grad school applications. Taoists are correct: life is best approached as a flow. Ten years later I was unexpectedly hired in Kentucky to teach a series of courses in Methodist studies, and that seminary class prepared me well.

For some reason I never thanked Dr. Johnson in later years but I did send appreciative notes to these other profs. Dr. Hicks stopped reading his e-mail as he grew very ill, but his son-in-law found my note--expressing how much his Old Testament class had inspired and taught me over the years--and read it to him just days before he died. Sometimes you’re so glad you took the time to express gratitude to someone.

Unfortunately I never thanked the late B. Davie Napier for his course in the prophets. This was a bad omission on my part, because the course--not really an academically rigorous course but one in which we sat around chatting a lot--was once of the most influential of all. I may have taken it because I needed a few more Bible credits for ordination. The recent death of Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement (I’d never heard of her or it) made me think deeply about social justice issues, and Napier’s course intensified my interest. The course also influenced my teaching style, in the way I try to create a comfortable, positive classroom atmosphere in my classes.

I must add my good fortune of rooming next to a Yale School of Music student, who became a great friend and opened to me a nascent love of music.

In parish ministry, I sometimes found that, whenever I told a colleague that I’d gone to Yale Divinity school, I‘d get a weird reaction, implying, Oh, I must not be a people-person if I went to such an academic place. Supposedly-ivory-tower professors have not been put-off by my clergy credentials the way a few fellow pastors have wrinkled noses about my academic degree. Actually, at YDS became truly passionate to help people. It drew me out of my shy shell and gave me three years of honest, caring conversations with people who were posed at the same life-moment: between being called and plunging into some kind of service.

Here is a photo of the campus, which I borrowed from the school's website. Over the years, I never felt a compulsion to revisit YDS. My new wife and I stopped by the campus during our New England vacation in 1985, after classes were out, but that is all. I’ve never returned for a reunion, and during a 2006 New England vacation we had time to swing by New Haven, but I felt no need. The importance of YDS to me is not simply the campus, after all, but the friends, acquaintances, professors and experiences. I’ve served as a class fund-raising agent, however, and now I’ve taken on a new gig as class secretary, so I’ve tried to give back to the school in addition to yearly contributions. I’ve also prayed for students over the years that they might find a special place--if not YDS then a similar place, but hopefully YDS--which will nourish their lives with friendship, important courses, and cherished memories.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sanctuaries in Time

A few years ago, I read through the December 2005 issue of Gramophone magazine, which was its 1000th issue. Among the several quotations from composers and performers, concerning the value of classical music, I found this quote from composer Peter Maxwell Davies:

Classical music is unique, in that is grammar, syntax and formal construction present an abstract discourage in time roughly equivalent to that of the most ambitious architecture in space, in which thematic material of contrasting functions is subjected to variation, development and transformation in organically consistent ways, with the tonic of the home key providing a sense of direction over large spans of time--not least harmonically--making multi-dimensionality possible in time, with an ever-changing focus between foreground, middle-ground and background, which as a vanishing point enables this to happen in space (p. 19).

At about the same time, I also came across this passage from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath (Noonday Press, 1975, first published in 1951). Serendipity!

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: The Day of Atonement… Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time (p. 8).

Perhaps because I'd recently found these two passages, this scripture, Exodus 31, stood out.

The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skilful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, and the ark of the covenant, and the mercy-seat that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt-offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand, 1and the finely worked vestments, the holy vestments for the priest Aaron and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests, and the anointing-oil and the fragrant incense for the holy place. They shall do just as I have commanded you.

The Lord said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: ‘You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.’

When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

God gives these two men the gift of artistry through his Holy Spirit--a significant enough blessing---so that they can create a place (the tabernacle) for the Israelites to worship God. But almost immediately God turns to the Sabbath and declares it a temporal “place” of worship, connected to God’s creation of time and space in the first chapter of Genesis. (Genesis 1, like Exodus 31, belong to the Priestly source.) Neither the sanctuary in space and the sanctuary in time are unimportant, but it is the sanctuary in time that endures for Israel.

I don’t necessarily want to make a connection between the Lord’s commandment for a Holy Sabbath and the language and nature of classical music. But the confluence of the three quotations amid my everyday reading gave me a pleasant sense of peace and discovery. I love Judaism but I’m not Jewish, and as a workaholic Christian I don’t keep Sabbath rests very well during any day of the week. Until I’m more faithful in that regard, however, perhaps I live in an analogous kind of “sanctuary in time” through the music I play each day for rest and inspiration.