Friday, December 31, 2010

Providential Care

Some modest thoughts as a new, unknown year begins shortly.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dime Store Bible

Here, at my other blog, is a childhood recollection of my first Bible.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Joy

"Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.

"No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no person free from sin, came to free us all. Let the saint rejoice as he sees the palm of victory at hand. Let the sinner be glad as he received the offer of forgiveness. Let the pagan take courage as he is summoned to life.

"In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God's wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator. He came to overthrow the devil, the origin of death, in that very nature by which he had overthrown humankind.

"And so at the birth of our Lord the angels sing in joy: Glory to God in the highest, and they proclaim peace to his people on earth as they see the heavenly Jerusalem being built from all the nations of the world. When the angels on high are so exultant at this marvelous work of God's goodness, what joy should it not bring to lowly hearts?

"Beloved, let us give thanks to God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, because in his great love for us he took pity on us, and when we were dead in our sins he brought us to life with Christ, so that in him we might be a new creation. Let us throw off our old nature and all its ways and, as we have come to birth in Christ, let us renounce the works of the flesh... Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's kingdom."

(From a sermon by Pope Leo the Great, quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours, I, Advent Season and Christmas Season, pp. 404-405. I made the language inclusive in three places.)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Carols

Here is an interesting excerpt from David Vernier, “From Christemasse to Carole,” in the current issue of Listen magazine (article is pages 39-42).

He notes that we don't know what part of the year Jesus was born, and that the December 25th date of Christmas was probably chosen because it was already a non-Christian holiday, the solar feast Natalis Invicti on the Roman calendar's winter equinox. “However it happened, once the time of year was official determined (probably sometime in the fourth century), the course of Christmas music history was set. Not only did the ‘bleak mid-winter’ become one of the more vivid and affecting images of the season, but a whole body of songs, hymns and carols began to capitalize on the dramatic possibilities of cold, snow and wintertime activities and necessities. The shepherds in the fields, the journey of Mary and Joseph, the stark rudeness of the stable, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, the brilliance of the stars--all took on a more compelling aspect in the context of a cold and dark winter.

"Carols were especially good at conveying these many moods--elation, wonder, appreciation, reverence--and their texts, written in the local vernacular, told compelling stories. The carol, from the French carole, was originally a type of dance performed in a circle. The music was characterized by a refrain sung before and after each verse---and often there were many, many verses. Carols were composed and sung for all sorts of occasions and were not specifically tied to Christmas. Today the term is almost exclusively applied to Christmas music--and many of the pieces we call carols are technically hymns or songs” (pp. 41-42).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Santa Took the Train

My hometown has a wonderful railroad history. The Vandalia Line was established in 1847 as the western line of the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad, and the Illinois Central was completed to Vandalia in 1854. By 1905 the Vandalia Railroad Company had combined several different lines, including the St. Louis, Vandalia, and Terre Haute R.R., and the Pennsylvania Railroad held a majority control therein. The railroads made Vandalia a popular stopover for traveling salesmen--the best accommodations, people said, between St. Louis and Indianapolis and between Chicago and Cairo. The first picture shows the former path of the Illinois Central past the downtown grain elevators, and the other two pictures look north and east, respectively, from the intersection of the PRR and Sixth Street.

My parents (born in the 1910s) grew up on Fayette County farms. They remembered that Vandalia was a bustling place to "come in to" during their younger days, as the "Spirit of St. Louis" rumbled into town. My railroad memories are very different, since the trains no longer stopped in town. I recall how we waited and waited in the family car as the lights of the striped railroad crossing guards blinked bright red, and I'd count the passing box cars marked with the interlocking PRR symbol. I also remember a spectacular local train wreck in Vandalia in August 1962, when I was only five.

All this history makes me think of .... Santa Claus. When she was little, my daughter was never keen to visit Santa. We have only one Santa's-lap picture of her, when she was three months old. That day, Santa greeted children in a Sedona, AZ outdoor shopping area, during a 60-degree day. When I was little, I was an eager believer in Santa and looked forward to giving him my "wish list." But strangely I don't remember visiting department store Santas, although I must have.

My fondest Santa memories date from my young but post-belief days, when Santa came to Vandalia and set up shop in the caboose beside the Illinois Central tracks downtown! The caboose was across the street from the track-side grain elevators in the first picture. Though I was too old and too "cool," I loved the idea of going to a caboose! Perhaps the caboose had been used for that purpose during my earlier childhood but I just don't remember now. Still, in my nostalgic adult mind, the idea of Santa taking the train holds more sentimental appeal than even his airborne, caribou-powered sleigh.

Another year, Santa jumped from a small plane (probably from the little local airport), parachuted onto the Vandalia high school football field, and visited children gathered for the event. There is a Jean Shepherd-type story in that, somewhere.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Laute nacht, heilige nacht

This past Saturday, my family and I attended the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's Christmas concert. The concert ended with a brief sing-along, and something struck me as we sang the verse, "the world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing." (Shortly, we also sang "Silent Night" and its line, "all is calm, all is bright.") The image of a calm, reverent world surrounding Jesus' birth is appealing, but what if the city was busy and noisy as Jesus was born? Bethlehem had no guest rooms available, for instance, in Luke's account. What if Mary gave birth amid noises of the street beyond the stable area, and no one noticed (except the angel-guided shepherds) because too much was going on in town? What if Christ's birth was a "noisy night, holy night"?

I could make a point that a noisy, crowded Bethlehem would be in keeping with our busy, cluttered lives each December. But then I think: even the shepherds were busy! From what I've read, shepherds had many responsibilities with their flocks, including continual surveillance. The great gift was that God interrupted the shepherds' lives and helped them see and understand. We may seek to prepare ourselves spiritually during Advent, but God's initiative is still everything.

Thus, the images of "silent night" and "solemn stillness" are apt poetically: when God does something, we have to pause and catch up in amazement and relief.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Holiday CDs

What is your favorite holiday music? Among my own, let me give a shout out to a hometown group---Baroque Folk's "Christmas Winds." Also, my family gave me a CD, Chris Caswell & Friends' "Celtic Tidings" on the North Star label, which I play a lot. Still another favorite was, for a long time, only on an LP: Ralph Vaughan Williams' “nativity play” called "The First Nowell" (1958), which I purchased at a used record store in Carbondale, IL. The LP was a classical music club recording, out of print, and no other recording had apparently been made of the piece. So I took gentle care of the record for over twenty years until, finally, a new recording on CD appeared a few years ago on the Chandos label, conducted by Richard Hickox who passed away recently.

I’m an eccentric listener to classical music. I get into the mood of listening to genres (20th century English music is a favorite, and contemporary choral music), which is normal enough, but I also like to explore big areas of a composer’s output. I enjoyed Haydn’s music so I bought a 33-CD set of his symphonies. Sometimes I listen to them straight through over a period of weeks. Messiaen intrigued me so I purchased his complete organ works. So did the symphonies of the Danish composer Niels Gade. I loved Mozart’s 15th piano concerto so I bought an 11-CD set of all of them! I may have finally broken this weird habit with Mahler's music: that's a huge "landscape" to journey, so I started with the fourth symphony and have been content with that one for a while. In my van, I blast 70s and 80s music; that routine rarely varies.

This month I've been immersed in holiday music, beginning Advent mornings with a a CD or two or three. I do this nearly every year, partly to get into the season's spirit and also because of my odd listening habits. My LP turntable is on the fritz so I haven't listened to my big Karl Richter set of Bach's Advent and Christmas cantatas, nor yet transferred them to CDs. The same with my Handel "Judas Maccabaeus" set. But meanwhile, we have Canadian Brass, Mannheim Steamroller, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, various symphonies' collections, collections by some of the famous English choirs, Dave Brubeck's Christmas album, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Eugene Ormandy's 1959 recording of "Messiah," and others. We've a collection of CDs of concerts of the Summit Choral Society in Akron, OH, a choir to which my daughter belonged for several years.

Like Lent, Advent can be a special time to renew your prayer life. Advent is such a busy time, though, that prayer often happens, if it happens at all, while you're in motion. I'm at least two weeks behind on my devotional reading because of various responsibilities amid some under-the-weather days. So, playing with holiday music in the early hours has been a way that I can start the day in a peaceful "place" in the spirit of Matt. 6:6.

Paradoxically, an excellent result of one's prayer life is the reminder that we're never saved because of our prayer life, spiritual study, devotional reading, favorite music, Christmas observance, or anything else. We’re saved by Christ’s redeeming work, not anything we do. The "true meaning of Christmas" is God's initiative. As with the other seasons of the church year, Advent and Christmas are simply times we "catch up" with the amazing things God has already done for us.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Repeat the Sounding Joy

Do you have a favorite Advent or Christmas hymn? Usually, mine would be "Joy to the World," in a close tie with the Wexford Carol... although I also love "The First Noel," and then there's also ...

Driving home from teaching classes the other day, I was listening to the Sirius XM "Holiday Pops" channel. "Joy to the World" joined other pieces--choral music, instrumentals, hymns, and carols. Like so many hymns, I sing the verses and know what they say, but I don't always think about them. This time, a line stood out: "Let men their songs employ; while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy."

People sing praises to the newborn Jesus, and then Creation repeats the praises. What an interesting image! I connected this verse in my mind to Psalm 19:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In other words, Creation praises God with a "voice" that does not use words and speech, but that "voice" is very clearly heard and understood as praise.

The psalmist continues:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

As Creation praises God for his care, the psalmist praises God for crucial aspects of God's care for humans: his redemption, teachings, commandments, and guidance.

Psalm 104 is a classic psalm of this kind, too. For thirty-two verses the psalmist praises God for his creation and sustenance, and then in the last few verses, the psalmist joins the praise of Creation and humbly rejoices in God.

Then I thought of Colossians 1:15-20.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The psalmists praise God's creation and redemption alike, while the author of Colossians writes a kind of "psalm" that connects creation, redemption, and Christ. The New Interpreter's Bible commentator on Colossians notes that "Christ is not simply to be seen as the firstborn of all creation (1:15); rather, all things were created in, through, and for him (1:16). God is the Creator, but Christ is both an agent of creation and, more than that, its goal...he is also the one to whom all creation is directed, the very purpose of its existence. Not only so, but all things hold together in him (1:17); their integrity and coherence depend on his role." Creation is also "in need of reconciliation," since evil and dark powers still pervade the world (1:13), nevertheless, "Through Christ the powers have already been pacified and reintegrated into God's purposes, and believers can already appropriate this achievement, but the full recognition of their new situation by the powers themselves awaits the eschaton." (p. 570).

I suppose the popular image of animals gathering around Jesus' manger is a way of conveying the connection of Jesus' birth with human salvation and with Creation's praises to God.

As I listened to "Joy to the World," the word "flood" stuck in my mind. The things that "repeat the sounding joy" are positive things in the way a flood is not. Floods are destructive, although in an arid region, an overabundance of water could be a good thing. But floods (and any manifestation of weather) are part of God's creation, too, although we rightly lament the destruction and personal and economic hardships resulting from bad weather. This was a key point in Annie Dillard's classic book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, that the hideous and inexplicable aspects of Creation force us to offer praise to God, too, although in much more difficult ways than the praise we offer when we're happy and things are orderly.

Advent is traditionally a penitential period in the church's liturgical calendar, and if snow falls in December, the landscape takes on a pretty bleakness in keeping with Advent solemnity. But amid all the liturgical and commercial aspects of the month, we can increase our sense of joy and wonder at Christ's birth by looking around us: at Creation, which in its own way is singing (Ps. 19:4).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

News of Great Mirth

Thoughts from last year... In my 2009 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 sometimes feel more lost than fulfilled in church. I worry that we pastors try to motivate and pep-talk our congregations into serving and giving and, as an unintended consequence, we thereby underemphasize 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.

Another 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 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!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas Memories

Some Christmas memories, written for our new church's Advent booklet...My hometown, Vandalia, Illinois, had a busy downtown until the early 1980s or so. As with many small communities, the business district is quieter today.* But I like to think of my childhood days when a person would go to town and shop (or window shop) among the several clothing stores, buy the hardware you needed at Western Auto, get groceries at the A&P or Tri-City or Kroger, and run other errands. Maybe you’d stop for coffee at the Abe Lincoln Café inside the Hotel Evans and get local news not printed in the papers. My parents also liked to shop in downtown St. Louis, just 70 miles away, at Famous Barr and Stix, Baer, and Fuller. We’d travel over on U.S. 40 (I-70 still incomplete) and cross what was still called the Veterans Bridge (with its dime toll). But “big city” shopping was a treat rather than a necessity, because a person would shop for pretty well in downtown Vandalia.

During the Christmas season I loved the Christmas holly and bells that draped over the downtown street lights, and the trees and wreaths that appeared in some store windows. “Silver Bells” depicts a city but I always associate it with our small hometown because the song’s images fit well with Vandalia’s holiday style. I recall participating in our church’s Christmas pageant. I’d stand by the altar in my “biblical” bathrobe and struggle to remember my lines amid the red-and-green drapery of Christmas. (“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field…”) Our church was just a couple blocks from downtown, so church Christmases mix in my memory with downtown cheer.

On Christmas day itself, after I dispatched my toys with a little kid’s eagerness, my parents and I drove east toward Brownstown, Illinois, to my grandmother’s farmhouse--literally over the river and through the woods--for a holiday feast with relatives. The timber beyond the fallow fields faded in the snowy air, and the fence posts of Grandma’s farm were ringed by white skirts of snow.

Family, shopping, small town life, and rural countryside join to form a peaceful Christmas “place” amid my childhood memories.

* Among the several downtown businesses today, some of which are new this year, I should give a "shout-out" to my cousin's long-time shop, The Sunshine House Health Store, at 420 W. Gallatin.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ghost Signs

Last month an afternoon show called "Show Me St. Louis" featured a report about "ghost signs." Those are the fading painted signs on the side of brick buildings, identifying the business or advertising a product. Such signs were often painted atop earlier signs and as time wears away the paint, the two or three signs overlap. The reporter found several examples of ghost signs around St. Louis, including a barely-visible ad for a bread company along with a drawing of a baseball player holding a loaf of bread. On the side of another building, the reporter found two signs, one atop the other, for different brands of beer. The more recent ad was barely readable but, of course, was more readable than the earlier sign underneath. Some of the featured signs--variously for shoe stores, blacksmiths, and other businesses and products--were from the early 20th century.

The story made me look at this picture above more closely. This sign is in St. Elmo, Illinois, in my home county. I took the photo ten years ago; it hangs in our house as a pleasant small-town scene. The ad for Mail Pouch tobacco is still very readable, and I'd noticed that the tobacco ad covered a previous sign, which I can't decipher. But on closer inspection, I realized a third, earlier sign can be discerned beneath that previous sign (e.g., the faint “GO” or “60” right above the “UC” of “pouch”). What were the two older advertisements?

Here's a picture of the side of a dry cleaner in our hometown. Taken by one of my classmates, this picture appears on the “Vandalia Memories” page of Facebook. I've seen this ghost sign all my life and I don’t ever remember it being readable. Nevertheless most of the word "shoes" is still clear. Ghost signs always make you wish that you could peak back into history so you could see the original message.

Elsewhere in my hometown is a Mail Pouch ad on the back of a building on Fifth Street, and also an ad for Brunswick Tires on the side of the old Craycroft building, once an auto dealership, on the south side of the railroad tracks on Fifth Street. One of my very earliest memories was a building of some sort on Sixth Street, also on the south side of the tracks. A billboard was attached to the north side of the building over a painted ad for Coca Cola; even though I was quite young, I noticed the distinctive cursive C that had not been covered by the sign.

Below is still another sign which I noticed in Pennsylvania this past summer. The electric sign of the old furniture store had seen better days, but the ghost sign was still pretty readable: this furniture store was "Greensburg's Largest!" The position of the electric sign made me wonder if the painted sign had one owner's name, and then perhaps the business changed hands and the electric sign was installed with a new owner's name covering that portion of the painted sign. The electric sign has since been removed and the whole painted name can be read: Weber's Furniture.

I should look to see if anyone has published a book about ghost signs. I do have favorite books about advertisements that appear on barns: David B. Jenkins, Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Free Spirit Press, 1996) and William G. Simmonds, Advertising Barns: Vanishing American Landmarks (MBI Publishing, 2004). Old signs like all of these are pleasant reminders of times past and are, literally, vanishing Americana.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Making Things

My daughter has the most amazing ability to design and sew theater costumes and outfits. She shared with me her recent blog material about her design assignments at her college, and I was proud of her skills and problem-solving processes. She created this Chrysler Building dress for a recent season of The Producers. This past fall, she worked at her college with a costume designer, and one of the pieces Emily made was featured in a news release about the designer!

Emily and I have watched "Mythbusters" on the Discovery Channel for a long time. Though not personally proud of that shows' teams, of course, I marvel their abilities, too, as they build devices that helped test popular myths and sayings. One of the builders created a hand out of bicycle chain and other materials--a hand that could grab and clutch by remote control--so they could test of the myth of the ninja who could grab arrows shot at him.

When I was a little boy, I enjoyed making model airplanes. I also liked to fuss with old radios, car parts, and so on. I didn't actually make anything out of them, nor did I have any talent for figuring out how things work. Wrapping a coat hanger wire around a lawn mower muffler and attaching it to a discarded car radio did not result in great technological innovation. I just enjoyed playing, though I also pretended I could stumble upon a fantastic discovery, the way Schroeder obtained a toy piano and enjoyed instant viruosity.

Sometimes childhood interests blossom into adulthood abilities, like Emily's long-time interest in manga, drawing, and costumes. My own childhood interests developed differently. But the ingenuity of Emily and others, who know how to make beautiful and amazing things, will always be something I admire!

The Bible has a few examples of craftspeople, notably Bezalel and Ohobiab (Ex. 31:1-5), who were entrusted with work on the tent of meeting; Bezalel himself was filled “with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft” (31:3). We can't forget Jesus himself, who (we wonder) might have felt nostalgic about working with wood as he went about his ministries.

Monday, November 29, 2010

(Re)Turning to the Center

A post from last year, as we begin the Advent season ... 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).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Faith and "Better Stories"

The previous post is based on a short talk I gave recently, which in turn derived from my research for the Center for the Congregation in Public Life's forthcoming curriculum "Faithful Citizen." I'm still thinking about the interesting aspects of the Center's project.

For instance, the theme of "better stories" is very rich, and the more you think about our social and political life as embodying "stories," the more you start to see that theme in other sources. The four stories that Reich frames can be seen in contemporary fears about Muslims, anxieties about multiculturalism, fears that American has lost its way and needs to be "taken back" or "placed in a new direction," and the anxities of groups that feel disempowered (for instance, the white working-class that has alternately voted Republican and Democrat during recent years).

The recent issue of Mother Jones magazine contains an article (November-December 2010) about the erosion of the American middle class. The article traces middle class decline back to New York City's financial crisis in the 1970s, as well as California's Proposition 13 and the resulting decline in public services. Then came a recession and anti-union politics which hurt automobile workers. Manufacturing jobs have been declining, pensions have been declining, and more recently the housing market has hurt the middle class. Unfortunately some long-standing safety nets, notably Social Security and Medicare, have been under attack, for instance by GOP senator Alan Simpson and others who characterize Social Security as a form of welfare, rather than a fund to which we've paid for many years (1).

This article dovetails well with a book I read for the Center project, The Great Risk Shift by Jacob Hacker, who argues, “Over the last generation, we have witnessed a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families.”(2) That is, while the upper levels of society have become more secure, the lower and middle classes have had to shoulder more burden and more economic insecurity. This has come about in part because of free-market philosophies that are still popular among voters.

Where does "story" come in? Another Mother Jones article argues that President Obama needed and still needs to tell a story that helped people understand and connect economic problems in a way that made his policies seem an alternative in the wake of "the failure of free-market conservatism" and which gives confidence to working voters. This is what President Reagan did. The article quotes Democratic consultant Paul Begala: Reagan "didn't blame President Carter or the Democrats. He indicted liberalism: too much government, too much taxation. To fix this mess, he said, we have to stay the course. That was his narrative. it was ideology; it was philosophical. It had sides. He had a story." (3)

Another good "story teller" was Reagan's antipode, Franklin Roosevelt. Robert Reich notes that FDR was overhwlemingly reelected in 1936 even though the economy had been in depression for the four years of his term, and eight years altogether. According to Reich: "FDR shifted the debate from what he failed to accomplish to the irresponsibility of his opponets. Again and again he let the public know whose side he was on, and whose side they were on. Republicans stood for 'business and financial monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking." FDR framed the "story" in a way that let voters know he was on their side. (4)

I do have to immediately say that, although us vs. them storytelling may be politically effective, I agree with Mount (taking the cue from Reich's own writing) that "us vs. them" is an inferior story to one which sees us working within the same crisis together to address the common good. In our discussions of politics and public policy we will likely never reach unanimity concerning the common good. But "covenant, community, and the common good" is a better source of a national story than, for instance, the Tea Party's angry individualism, not to mention the political voices that speak language of innuendo and mockery. This is where the grace-ful language of religious faith can provide an alternative witness.

Another "story" which, in our current time, would also be challenging to articulate, is the story that government is not the problem, though certain government policies may be. A recent article in Christian Century notes that "No one should have to die of hunger--not in the 21st century." Churches and charities can do well, but so can government. For instance, the article notes that President Bush and Congress approved a $15 billion initiative for providing AIDS drugs to disease-ravaged Africa. (5) Yet another article, in a different issue of that magazine, noted that "our government could do much more to fight hunger if more citizens took part in the political process." Maybe the problem is not only misdirected government policies but also the fact that some of us do not practice our citizenship more vigorously, e.g., by writing our political leaders (6)

Although I'm being idealistic, I think there is room for productive discussion on whether the federal, state, or local governments should shoulder the most responsibility. A friend and I chatted on Facebook about this topic recently. Speaking personally I trust and distrust different levels of government about equally. An interesting book that I used for the Center project argued that, for instance, effective local application for and use of state and/or federal funds to provide low-income housing should not be neglected by people who appreciate volunteer and charitable efforts like Habitat.(7)

Another issue is what Evan Thomas called our "society of safety nets, a lawyer-constructed web where no one really has to take responsibility, where there's always someone else to blame..." We may have a society of safety nets, but as safety nets are taken away, people who have, indeed, taken responsibility in their lives but for the time being need extra help, are made to suffer while those less at economic risk avoid responsibility, as Hackler's book argues. One of Obama's challenges is to tell a story--Thomas even calls it "an ancient and honorable morality tale"---about the necessity for all Americans to sacrifice together for the long-term well-being of the country. As Thomas also says, "broadly speaking, American popular culture is not very amendable to sacrifice, to choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, as our sterner parents and grandparents might have said." (8) Somehow this must be done in a way that we don't continue to sacrifice (in the sense of discarding) the people about whom Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her book Nickel and Dimed. (9)

But those people are, unfortunately, too rarely the top priority, but what if we began to hear and read more public leaders speaking, Facebooking, or tweeting on the side of the working poor, the underfed school children, or the seniors who have paid into Social Security and pensions for many years? What if any of the leaders of either party began to say things like: "We need to focus partisan debates upon the the working poor and the struggling middle class. We may disagree on the role of the federal government, but nevertheless, we need to debate and act. My opponents, X Y and Z, are not taking seriously the struggles of the needy: why not? What are our priorities?" If that happens, our American stories would become all the more commensurate with an overwhelming Bible story: God's tender concern for the poor and needy.

The previous post's final quote from Eric Mount is worth saying again: “Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear 'the other' for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of 'the other' instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of ‘us’ against ‘them’ will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater.” (10)

1. James K. Galbraith, "Attack on the Middle class," Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 27-29.

2. Jacob S. Hacker, The Great Risk Shift (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5-6.

3. David Corn, "Will Obama Put Up a Fight?" Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 30.

4. Robert Reich's blog, "Why Obama Should Learn the Lesson of 1936, Not 1996,", Nov. 1, 2010.

5. Roger Thurow, "Criminal Negligence: the Scourge of World Hunger," Christian Century, Aug. 24, 2010, 22-23, 26.

6. David Beckmann, "Hunger is Political: Food Banks Can't Do It All," Christian Century, Sept. 21, 2010, 11-13.

7. Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 124.

8. Evan Thomas, "Truth or Consequences," Newsweek, Nov. 22, 2010, 35-37 (quotes on p. 37).

9. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001), 25-27.

10. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.

"Faithful Citizen"

This past year I was hired to write a series of lessons called Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society, which is part of a forthcoming DVD-based curriculum from the Center for the Congregation in Public Life, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The Center created the lesson formats, outline, and basic approach, and I built upon that foundation, with terrific input from the Center. The following website explains the overall curriculum:

A few weeks ago I explained the curriculum to an interfaith dialogue group in St. Louis, which sparked interesting discussion about ways religious believers approach citizenship and public issues.

As stated at the website above, the Faithful Citizen designers and writers hope to offer a corrective to the individualism that often characterizes both our religious faith and political opinions. Robert Bellah and his fellow authors of the book Habits of the Heart note that Americans tend to think of religion, not only in terms of institutional religion but also as a private, individual concern. A personal approach to God and faith reveals the "freedom, openness, and pluralism of American religious life" but neglects the fact that our relationship with God "is mediated by a whole pattern of community life."(1)

Individualism also flavors American's politics. Bellah et al. argue that both welfare liberalism and neocapitalism tend to focus upon individual good as the way toward the common good. “The purpose of government is to give individuals the means to pursue their private ends,” the first by allowing periodic government intervention into the economy "to balance the operations of the market in the interests of economic growth and social harmony," and the other by a free-market approach with less government involvement.(2)

Bellah and his fellow authors hope that "the biblical impetus to see religion as involved in the whole of life" can give a broader political vision, as well as a less personalistic religious faith, which in turn renews our sense of civic virtue. (3)

Eric Mount of Centre College, in his book Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, echoes Bellah in stressing that Americans have always had a twofold drive: personal success and a desire for the common good (4). Although we Americans are indebted to the tradition of John Locke that affirms the rights of people to life, liberty, and economic and personal well-being, we are also indebted to a more covenantal and community-oriented concern for the common good.(5)

The Faithful Citizen lessons will highlight some of the ways by which we can broaden our religious and political visions to have a greater concern for the common good and for responsible civic participation. For instance, among other ideas based upon Mount's research, we can think of religious faith as "audacious openness." Mount writes, "openness is not simply tolerant of the other, or receptive to encounter by difference; it is audacious. Its hospitality is daring. it is not docile obedience; it is courageous engagement" with other people and their needs.(6)

Another approach to civic virtue and the common good is through "better stories." Mount cites Robert Reich who in turn identifies four "stories" woven into American political discourse: the "mob at the gates" which is often about foreigners or any "dark force" portrayed as a real or perceived threat to American well being, "the triumphant individual" about workers and entrepreneurs which often pits economic discourage in terms of winners and losers, the "benevolent community" which lauds efforts to help the poor but which still portrays the poor as "them" who are helped by "us," and "the rot at the top" about big government and big business. (7)

Approaching public issues from a faith perspective can be very challenging. On one hand, many religious people tend to keep their religious faith and their politics in two mental "zones," so they feel warm in the love of God while other times spouting angry, uncaring political convictions that they picked up from the media. There is also the challenge of ongoing public discussion about what is the common good, and what is the proper role of government in enhancing the common good.

Mounts offers this challenge: "Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear 'the other' for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of 'the other' instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of 'us' against 'them' will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater."(8)

1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 227.

2. Ibid., 262-266.

3. Ibid., 248.

4. Eric Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 11.

5. Eric Mount, “Covenant, Community, and The Common Good: A Tale of Two Americas,” Church & Society, May/June 2005, 43-45.

6. Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 136-137. For this insight Mount cites Peter Hodgson’s Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 204-8, and also the thought of Darrell J. Fasching, Narrative Theology after Auschwitz: From Alienation to Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 6, 15-16, 73, 123, 126, 187-88.

7. Mount, "A Tale of Two Americas," 47-48.

8. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mr. Holland's Opus Revisited

Several years ago, in late April, I was heading toward my car after I'd taught three classes that morning. I felt under the weather, didn't think I taught well, and, in my propensity to doubt myself, I wondered if I taught well at all. Deciding to check my email in the student union before I left campus, I logged on and read a message from my college dean: the graduating seniors had chosen me as their favorite professor, and could I attend the college convocation to receive the award? Of course, I thought it was a mistake.

Ever since, I've hoped that other teachers I know could somehow get a sense of how they influence their students. That affirmation doesn't have to happen as dramatically as the denouement of "Mr. Holland's Opus," but at least I hope it can happen for them in a very positive way. To have that kind of gift in your life, you have to not expect it or work for it, otherwise you're focusing on your own honor rather than the well-being of your students! I do try to praise my own former teachers when I can.

The TCM network showed "Mr. Holland's Opus" this past month. This movie makes me bawl my head off--even more so than "Les Miserables" (the musical), if that's possible. Mr. Holland (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is an aspiring musician and composer who takes a job teaching kids music. Teaching takes over his life and so he never realizes his initial dreams. But he helps and influences many students like the stoner Mr. Stadler, the musically untalented Louis Russ (who tragically dies), the pitifully self-doubting Gertrude Lang, and the talented Rowena Morgan (with whom there is mutual infatuation). Additionally, family concerns, especially a deaf son, makes him confront the ways he uses and prioritizes his time. Finally, he is forced into retirement, but not before he enjoys an unexpected community tribute. The old cliché, "life is what happens while you make other plans," is clearly a moral of this story. Another moral: success isn't fame or money but the lives we touch for the better.

Besides Dreyfuss the various actors are people whom I enjoy in other shows and movies: Glenne Headley, William H. Macy, Jean Louisa Kelly, Olympia Dukakis, Alicia Witt, Jay Thomas, Joanna Gleason, and others. I disliked Macy’s character so much that I (humorously) imagine him getting his comeuppance as another character: the one Macy plays in “Fargo.”

“Mr. Holland” reminds me of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," of course. It's also a Capra-esque movie in the tradition of "It's a Wonderful Life." But although I've no idea if the movie accurately reflects the life of a music teacher, aspects of the film ring true. The male psyche needs the assurance of positive work, but if a man works too hard he neglects family. He loves his family, but if he has found a strong sense of self and assurance in his work, the psychological consequences of refocusing can be painful--but balancing work and family has to happen if he truly cares for his loved ones. I found these movie scenes believable; if I were still leading groups about men's spirituality, as I did a few times years ago, I'd probably show these movie scenes as the basis of discussion.

I looked at some of the discussions on Some writers there noted that Mr. Holland's symphony at the end was good but not great. Perhaps there is a lesson in that. If we have a sufficient creative drive, the creative work we want to do may very well force itself out of us, regardless of whether we "have time" to do it. In the afterward of "Blue Highways," William Least Heat Moon has testified to this drive to create, which compelled the writing of that book amid less than ideal circumstances. He has no patience for the notion, "If only I could get a grant, I could write my book." This is not to say that we don't need encouragement for our creative work, which unfortunately Mr. Holland never really gets for his writing, except from his student Rowena. Mr. Holland's better work is that in which he finds validation along the way.

That's why the character Rowena does not appear at the end, although many other former students do. Some writers regret that she didn't return for the school tribute, but her absence makes dramatic sense. She had suggested an opportunity to pursue his earlier dreams, but if he had followed her, he would've missed his true work--and his true life. But while Rowena knew all along that she wanted to sing, Mr. Stadler and Gertrude benefited more dramatically from Mr. Holland's clever ways to affirm them.

I'd almost forgotten that I met Richard Dreyfuss when, for reasons I don't remember, he visited Yale Divinity School and chatted with students in the commons room. This was in 1980 or 1981. I think he was in town for a play at the Yale Rep, and he graciously visited the div school for a group of us star-struck students.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Anniversary of a Door

Thoughts from last year... 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 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 until the house burned in the 1970s.

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 Monday 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.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Picnic" (1955)

Recently I chanced upon the 1955 movie "Picnic" on the TCM network. The movie is based on the William Inge play and stars William Holden, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Susan Strasberg, Cliff Robertson (his first movie), Rosalind Russell, and Arthur O'Connell. The hominess of the title intrigued me. The story concerns a handsome, useless drifter who upsets people and relationships in a small town during the big Labor Day festivities. Although I'd never seen the movie, I must've flipped past a TV production many years ago, because the scene where Rosalind Russell's character pitifully begs Arthur O'Connell's to marry her was familiar. William Holden, 37 in 1955, plays a man in his twenties, while the two young women (Novak and Strasberg) are more believably close to their characters' ages. Holden is handsome and "hot," and a fine actor, but I wonder if he was cast partly because of his star power.

I enjoyed the story and the various characters' interrelationships. One of my classmates says this movie was his mother's favorite. The film concludes with a theme that I can never find touching: the lonely young woman who falls for, and then runs away to locate the handsome but no good stranger who chanced into her life. I always think the heroine is being naive; even if the guy has a good heart, her love will not magically reform him. Mrs. Potts, the kindly old woman who holds the beginning and end of the film together, does realize that we all have to learn through difficult experience, whether in love or other aspects of life. In that respect, rather than in an imagined but unlikely happy-ever-after, the movie's conclusion is heartwarming.

I fell in love with the small town surroundings depicted in the movie. The railroad cars and tracks, with grain elevators in the background, is a happy sight to me, having grown up close to the Illinois Central tracks. So is the way the neighborhood yards are not so sharply separated as in the suburbs where I now live; yards have sheds and small barns that blend the village and the rural, just as back porches blend indoors and outdoors. Mrs. Potts has a 55-gallon metal drum in her backyard for burning trash, exactly as my parents had in our yard. You'd have to enjoy old signs to notice it, but Mr. Potts had the top portion of a yellow stop sign attached to her shed, perhaps to cover a hole in the wall, as my grandma used a metal Grapette Soda sign to patch the wall of her chicken house. Behind the houses is a little alley, not a street, just the parallel path that cars and trucks would make across grass-covered land. All these sights were familiar sights as I was growing up, not only in my hometown but in small communities which my parents and I visited on weekend trips, checking on relatives.

According to online movie data sources, "Picnic" was shot in five Kansas towns, Halstead, Hutchinson, Nickerson, Salina, and Sterling. William Holden's character arrives (in a box car) in the railroad yard in Salina and, although supposedly in the same town, soon breezes into a neighborhood in Nickerson. That's the magic of movies, as they say.

I've been happy in the places I've lived, but part of me will always miss the kind of rural/small town ambiance depicted in "Picnic." As the movie stresses, this kind of world isn't all that innocent. But "geographically" it's very comforting, always worth revisiting.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Family Heirloom

As long as I'm writing about family these last couple posts, I'll repost this one from last year.

On my office wall is a framed announcement of an auction 102 years plus two weeks ago:

"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.) 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, and even though I quized my great-aunts about family history, I now think of more questions I would’ve asked them about their parents, my grandfather having died before I was born.

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.

My Cousin Lewis

Here's a Veterans Day post: from Frederick M. Hanes, Fayette County [Illinois] in the World War, 1922, pp. 58 and 60.

"Lewis Calvin Crawford, son of Calvin and Rosetta Crawford, was born October 24, 1905 [i.e., 1895] near Brownstown where he lived until he entered the service of his country May 8, 1917. He enlisted at Mattoon and was sent to Jefferson Barracks. Later he was transferred to a camp in Texas and thence to Jersey City, N. J., from where he crossed as a first class private of CO. K., 16th Infantry.

"His father having died several years previous, many a young man in his position would have pleaded that he must remain with his lonely mother. But whenever he spoke of going he would remark, 'Mother, if I did not go and help win our freedom I would feel that I had no right to live here. I could not face the boys as they came home who had fought for me.'

"Lewis was a Bible reader and before going expressed the desire to go across and if possible see the country where the Saviour lived on earth. On the way across however, he contracted measles. Pneumonia followed. He was taken to Base Hospital No. 1, St. Naziarre, France where he died July 15, 1917, the first of the sons of Fayette county to give his life on French soil. His comrades buried him in a French cemetery but later removed the body to an American cemetery. At the request of his relatives the body was again disinterred and set back to his homeland where it was laid to rest in Pilcher cemetery in the family lot.

"When the American Legion was organized in Fayette County the Vandalia Post was named The Crawford-Hale Post in honor of Private Crawford and Sergt. Edward B. Hale, Fayette County's first two sons to give their lives overseas for American ideals.

"Private Crawford was a member of the M. W. A. His mother recalls his favorite hymn which has taken on a new and grander meaning:

"I will follow Thee my Saviour,
Whereso'er my lot shall be:
Where Thou goest I will follow,
Yes, my Lord, I'll follow Thee."

Lewis was my great-grandfather John Crawford's first cousin. In fact, Lewis and his parents are buried very close to my grandparents and great-grandparents. Coincidentally, the Crawford-Hale post began on the same day my mother was born: August 2, 1919.

My Civil War Ancestor

A post from last year, "rerun" for Veterans Day.... I traced my mother’s family, the Crawfords, when I was in high school. I started on the Strobel family but became busy with college and didn’t get very far. My grandfather and his siblings were all long dead, so that generation was no longer available for interview, a fact that also discouraged the project.

Recently, though, a friend who still does genealogy sent me my great-grandfather Strobel’s obituary. (The surname was misspelled on my father’s birth certificate.) In honor of Veterans Day, here is the obit.

“John Strobel died Friday, August 26, 1932 at his home north of Vandalia of senility. A short funeral service was held at the grave in Ramsey Cemetery Monday afternoon. A number of World War veterans from Vandalia and Ramsey attended the services in a body. The following grandsons were pallbearers: Kark E. Schaefer, Delmar, Fred and Paul Strobel, Leo Holdman and Stanley Miles.

“Mr. Strobel was a veteran of the Civil War, having served with Co. D, First Missouri Cavalry. Mr. Michel, aged 90, of Altamont, who served in the same company with Mr. Strobel, attended the services Monday afternoon.

“Grandpa Strobel as he was familiarly known, was born in Germany, Jan. 1, 1840. At the age of 4 he came with his parents to this country, settling in Madison County.

“On June 20, 1865 he was united in marriage with Emma Hotz. To this union ten children were born, two dying in infancy and one daughter, Mrs. Lizzie Schaefer, died in 1904.

“Besides the aged wife he is survived by the following children: Mrs. Lena Hoffman, Ramsey; Mrs. Amelia Holdman, Avena; Geo. Strobel, Peoria; John, Charles, Andy and Edward Strobel of Vandalia.

“The Family wishes to thank all of the neighbors and friends for all kindnesses extended them during their [illegible].

"Th [sic] following out-of-town people attended the funeral: Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Hotz and daughters and Chas. Hotz, Edwardsville; Mrs. Mary Dumbeck and daughter, St. Louis; Mrs. Margaret Winters, son and daughters, Highland; Mr. and Mrs. Geo. Strobel and daughter and Edward Strobel, Altamont; Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ferrell, Pana, and Mr. and Mrs. Ward Stowell and Mrs. May Litchenberger, Decatur.”

My father-- “Paul” the pallbearer mentioned above-- remembered many of these people fondly. Dad was 20 in 1932. He recalled that his grandfather made several gallons of wonderful homemade sauerkraut every year. It would be interesting to know what kind of difficulties my great-grandfather faced in America at a time when German immigrants (and he was German Catholic, at that) faced prejudice.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Politics Has Ruined My Star Trek Watching

In his book The Physics of Star Trek (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), Lawrence M. Krauss suggests that the Star Trek transporter machine raises an interesting theological issue. The person steps into the transporter, and the transporter disassembles, transmits, and then reassembles him or her. But what happens to the person’s soul during this process? Are the person's memories and dreams transported as well? One assumes so (given the way the device functions in the stories). But if so, is the person is nothing more than a collection of atoms? The purely physical nature of the transportation implies that our spiritual nature is simply our physical nature as well: a materialistic interpretation of human being. Krauss states that the shows, wisely, do not address these questions.(1)

The spiritual question of Star Trek transportation is left open. But the other day I watched a Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Borg attacked the enterprise, damaging the saucer extensively and killing several crew. I realized I've been ruined by all the political bickering and nastiness of recent years when a thought popped into my head ....

Who exactly pays for construction, upkeep, and repair of space ships, not to mention salaries, pensions, and settlements to crew members' families?

This led, of course, to other questions. If the Federation funds the fleet, what portion of its budget is the United States paying? Are we paying a disproportionate amount of its budget without other planets contributing their share? Does the U.S. run a deficit because of the space program? Should we run to the aid of every intergalactic species that has a wormhole to guard? Future funding may stall in the face of efforts to overturn previous Federation-related legislation. And amid all the debate, news organizations have picked up a story that the president was born in the Beta Quadrant rather than the Alpha Quadrant...

I'm being dumb and lighthearted, of course. Like the question of the transporter and the nature of the human soul, it's probably a good thing Star Trek never addresses the question of funding!

1. Lawrence M. Krauss, The Physics of Star Trek (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), pp. 68-69.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Oscar Micheaux

Early this coming Monday morning, Turner Classic Movies is showing the 1920 silent film Within Our Gates. I saw the end of this film a few years ago, as I was flipping through channels and came to a disturbing image of a black man being hanged. Eventually the channel showed the movie again and I got to see the whole story, which concerns a black woman trying to raise money for a school; but a man who loves her accidentally learns her shocking past. Writer Patrick McGilligan, in his biography of director Oscar Micheaux, writes "Within Our Gates was Micheaux's most explicit rebuttal to D. W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation. (Even the new title was a reference to the epigraph that introduced Griffith's 1919 film, A Romance of Happy Valley: 'Harm not the stranger/Within your gates/Lest you yourself be hurt.')" (p. 137).

Micheaux was the first African American to produce a full-length film; in fact, he also directed and wrote films as well as a few novels. Among Micheaux's several films this is the earliest that has survived. McGilligan writes, "Micheaux was a unique storyteller, using film methods that were as idiosyncratic and modern-minded as anything being tried in Hollywood at that time. One of his unusual techniques was repeating scenes from different subjective viewpoints to reveal the crucial missing pieces of a puzzle." In the case of this film, for instance, the killing of the landowner is twice shown, once to tell the basic story and again to show the truth about the killing (p. 142).

TCM has also shown The Symbol of the Unconquered from 1920. This films concerns a black man who owns land on which oil is discovered, but racists--including a black man who passes for white--try to intimidate him out of his land. "Micheaux's central motif" in this story, as in other films, "was 'passing,' and the sexual tension that transpires between a man and a woman of seemingly different races torn by their love for each other." Unfortunately the film is now incomplete and is missing compelling scenes, like the defeat of the Klan! But even in both the complete and fragmentary scenes, one can see (as McGilligan notes) Micheaux's knwoledge of German Expressionist style and avant-garde film techniques (pp. 155-156).

Coincidentally, my daughter had to write a report this week about an 1800s play, "The Octoroon," about a light-skinned black woman and a white man in love. When I saw Within Our Gates I looked up the film on and discovered that Micheaux (1884-1951) had grown up in Metropolis, IL, a community near which I lived in the 1980s. I don't know if Metropolis honors Micheaux, who left when he was 20. He is not so well known today, but he has finally become recognized as a pioneering figure. His films give us a truthful look at race relations of the early 20th century. In fact, Micheaux realized he was not going to get rich making provocative films with racial themes, often banned in certain parts of the county like the South, and yet he continued to churn them out, using favorite actors, financing his own efforts, and living a life of drama, showmanship, and conflict as he addressed censors and racial barriers. McGilligan's biography traces Micheaux's interesting career and provides information about Micheaux's lost and extant films. The author writes on page 3, "Indeed, Micheaux was the Jackie Robinson of American film. No, a Muhammad Ali decades before his time, a bragging black man running around with a camera and making audacious, artistic films of his own maverick style, at a time when racial inferiority in the United States was custom and law."

(After I posted this short piece, I was alerted to this website:

Sunday, October 31, 2010


I'm trying to think of blog-worthy anecdotes about trick or treating. Nothing very earthshaking, and my childhood was pretty "standard." My childhood neighborhood had no sidewalks, so I usually trick or treated with a buddy who lived on my hometown's First Street. First and Second Street were part of a nicely quiet neighborhood, safe-feeling and somewhat set apart by the widening of Third Street (Kennedy Blvd./U.S. 40-51). We watched the premiere of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" on his family's color TV.

I remember another year when my church had a "Trick or Treat for UNICEF" program. We fanned out along Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Streets and collected change. What a nice way to instill social awareness in little kids!

I should add that my hometown is small, 5500 at the 1960 census (these memories of mine are from the mid- and late-1960s), and First through Eighth are the major numbered streets: there is no Ninth, and Tenth is just a few blocks long. I tell this to my friend who works in Manhattan, just to give him a chuckle.

One of the highlights of childhood Halloweens was the local parade, when kids gathered in the parking lot of the county courthouse, on South Seventh Street, and marched straight down Gallatin Street (the main drag) into the downtown. The kids with the best costumes got little prizes. I don't remember if I ever did, but the idea of walking in the middle of the street was a huge thrill! At that time, Vandalia's business district was still vibrant and a few stores were open in the evening.

Daughter Emily has trick or treated nearly every year since she was little. While Vandalia kids seemed to think trick or treating was unconscionably uncool after a certain point, Emily's generation has embraced it. She's in college now, and plans to go out with her friend this evening!

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Multiple Staff Church

Quite a few years ago I looked through Lyle E. Schaller's The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church (Abingdon, 1980). Schaller is never easy reading, and some of the book is dated (when he refers to the characteristics of ministers born before 1935, for instance). But I recommend the book for guidance and advice on how to lead a larger congregation, as well as how to lead your staff if you're a senior pastor, and how to minister well if you're another staff member in a larger, multi-staffed church.

He also stresses that, although seminaries train people to be pastors, the training doesn't necessarily prepare a person for leading staff, for serving (often among sizable egos) in a multi-staff church, and for addressing the particular expectations and pitfalls of a larger church. The book is still available from Abingdon Press and would probably be used well along with Schaller's more recent writings, and in discussions with friends and colleagues who are presently serving larger congregations.

I cite this book because I've noticed how many columns, blogs, and talks about pastoral leadership assume the pastor is the only staff member of a church (other than, for instance, the administrative assistant, custodian, etc.). Multi-staff churches are so common, but writers (I've done it too) perpetuate that comparatively individualistic view taught in seminary: the pastor is the sole pastoral leader in a congregation. As we read this material, we need to think how the writers' thoughts might also relate to staffs and ministry teams.

I really like this writer's advice on how to set appropriate limits as a pastor in the face of people's expectations. He touches on some of the challenges of larger churches and the rewards and punishments that arise in congregations. His good reflections raise other issues: what if you're a church staff person to whom the pastor is delegating work? What if a fellow staff member is very demanding? How do you set boundaries and command respect if you're the associate pastor (see Schaller's last chapter)? How do you ensure a good leadership team so that the staff cares for each other and supports one another?

There are good ways of approaching staff relations, as Schaller discusses in the book. I recently attended a lecture, by a respected church writer, that concerned pastoral leadership, congregational expectations, and effective ministry. Good thoughts, but the discussion still centered upon the lone pastor out there, trying to figure things out, rather than the pastor who is functioning with some kind of team. 89899999999999999999999999999999tgfffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff

When we reflect on the difficulties and challenges of pastoral leadership, how can we expand our vision and ideas to include the dynamics of larger congregations? How can we stop perpetuating an unintentionally individualistic model of parish ministry?

(Just to be lighthearted, I left the results of my cat walking across the keyboard. Perhaps my cat would like to blog, too.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Northeast Ohio

At the corner of Ghent Road and Market Street in Akron, OH, sat a former Long John Silver's restaurant converted into a business called Cavalier Cleaners. It has since closed, but while it operated, the outside sign featured a cavalier. But he was bow-legged, had his arms raised in a lazy "touchdown" style, and the lines of the drawing looked muddy like a very old tattoo. That cavalier didn't look very authoritative. Daughter Emily, still in middle school at the time, started to call the place Funky Man Cleaners. Subsequently we never called it anything else!

My family and I lived in Akron, OH for nine years: 2000 to 2009. We’ve lived several places over the years. One town was wonderful but very far from family, so it never quite felt like home. One town felt both snooty and vibrant, and another town had both unwelcoming and positive qualities. Still another location was wonderful and welcoming but we lived there too soon in our lives to set down roots.

But ... Akron and Northeast Ohio always felt like home to me. Although I knew we probably wouldn’t stay there forever, it felt like the first place we'd lived where setting down roots would be (barring the unforeseen) happy and possible. If we hadn’t moved to a city where we already had deep roots--the St. Louis area---I’d be feeling very homesick for Akron rather than happily grateful for our time there. Beth and I felt fulfilled and valued in our jobs at University of Akron. I loved the classes I taught, appreciated several colleagues, and greatly enjoyed teaching the wonderful UAkron students. I think Emily liked middle school and high school about as much as any of us do---sort of, sort of not---but she loved the area, too.

When you live at a place for a while, you have familiar locations and family inside-jokes, like "Funky Man Cleaners." Although we usually shopped at Summit Mall, we sometimes drove to the other side of town to the Chapel Hill Mall. The "c h" on the nearby water tower was so stylized that the "h" looked like a "b," so we started calling the place Chapel Bill. Of course, we had lots of favorite shopping places, both in there in Summit County and in nearby Cleveland.

And ... lots of favorite restaurants, too. I think ours was Max and Erma's in Fairlawn, although we had several, including the now-defunct Joe's Crab Shack near "Chapel Bill." Two coffee places stand out. I discovered a shop called Coco's Coffee and loved to do my laptop work there until it unexpectedly closed. Happily, someone else bought the place and reopened it as Nervous Dog a year or two later. The place still thrives, so the new owner obviously had a better business plan (and knew how to "build community"). Daughter Emily liked the hot chocolate at the nearby Caribou Coffee, so we often went there, too.

I still think of driving down one of Akron’s main thoroughfares, and touring along on the interstates, and feeling very happy. Certain streets were typical routes: Copley Road, Market Street, Memorial Drive, Portage Trail, Ghent Road, Schocalog Drive, Ridgewood Road, Cleveland-Massillon Road. Emily learned to drive in and around Akron, so the streets and highways carry personal memories of teenage driving lessons. The three of us also loved the hiking in and around Akron. In particular, we liked to hike at the Nature Realm park.

We made numerous friends, which I hope will last for many years. Two of my best friendships have continued uninterrupted--truly "BFF's"--and thank goodness for Facebook and its possibilities of ongoing contacts. I should give a "shout out" to the Summit Choral Society, of which Emily was a member for six or seven years. The society not only enriched her musical life but gave all three of us a little "community" of singers, parents of singers, and society staff that met during many, many rehearsal times and also traveled together domestically and overseas. Their website is

If you move a certain amount, as we do, you begin to confuse places in your mind. After moving to St Louis a year ago, I struggled to remember where, for instance, the Home Depot is, because I still had a strong mental picture of the store in Akron! I miss the Target store in Akron because it was very convenient to our home and very accessible. “Our” Target here has a congested parking lot which it shares with several other stores, much less convenient. We loved the Border's store in the Fairlawn area of Akron, and liked the Barnes and Noble, too.

I'm leaving out many things about Akron and Northeast Ohio that I miss: just because I haven't mentioned it here (in the interest of space) doesn't mean it wasn't important to me or to all three of us. Our house and neighborhood comprise lovely memories about which I'll write another time. Of course there were down sides to Akron, as there are to any location where you love. In one town (not Akron) where we lived, I called a store and said I needed new fabric for my sofa. "We only do reupholstering," the person snapped. “.... Okay,” I said and hung up before calling the person a bad word. Unfortunately, too many encounters at this place had similar characteristics of testiness, indifference, or disapproval with sincere best efforts--and it's hard to feel upbeat about a location when, after a few years, you're eager to start fresh somewhere else, even though you're nevertheless grateful for the good times and good people you've met. Akron was an abundantly positive place to live. Before we moved, I even said goodbye and thank you to some folks I only knew casually: e.g., checkers and stock people at the grocery store, the baristas at Caribou, and others. I hope that our first return trip will be the first of ongoing future visits to a beloved place: northeast Ohio.

(Wow, I wrote this whole piece without once mentioning an obvious aspect of northeast Ohio: SNOW!!!!!!!)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"High" by Matthew Lombardo

My wife Beth and I saw a very powerful new play, "High" by Matthew Lombardo. The play starred Kathleen Turner, Michael Berresse and Evan Jonigkeit and was performed at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. The play concerns a tough nun/drug counselor (played by Turner), a young addict, and a priest who is the counselor's supervisor (and seems to have some connection to the young man, which we don't learn until Act 2). This New York Times review was written following a Connecticut performance.

Beth and I have talked about this play a lot. The young man had no chance in life: born of a prostitute mother, raped by one of her clients, a user of numerous drugs, and found with a dead 14 year old boy. The nun has a harrowing history, too. In fact, the reviewer above is concerned that the play crosses the line from the dramatic to the lurid.

I hate to give away many details about the play, which is well worth seeing and thinking about. But toward the end one of the characters concludes about this whole situation, "God f****d up." The death of a character seems to confirm that sentiment. I'd like to see the play again to see if that sentiment becomes as much the "moral" of the story as I remember.

But does God f*** up when circumstances go out of control? It's a perennial question, if not always put so startlingly. Why didn't God prevent a natural disaster (name any)? Why didn't God prevent the Holocaust, or 9/11, or the Inquisition, or the premature death of someone you love? These are difficult questions.

Although I don't entirely agree with the famous saying, "God has no hands but our hands," there is some truth to it. I also think God's chief way of un-f***ing-up the world is the love and active concern we show for one another.

That's easy to say, but difficult to do sometimes. The counselor in the play was too overwhelmed by events (and a personal tragedy) to be there definitively for another character. On the other hand, the counselor was essentially (and cruelly, I think) left alone to handle the situation. (The priest in the play was perhaps too much the stereotypical authoritarian church bureaucrat.)

Compare that aloneness to stories wherein people actually do help addicts and others. As a for instance, I found this article stories while working on a curriculum project: When you quote that saying, "God has no hands but our hands," be sure you stress the plural pronoun. If God has no hands but my hands (without you and many others to help me), then God's not going to get much done. Working together, we might be able to change damaged lives!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Looking Up

If you visit Hillsboro, Illinois and drive through town on state route 127, you’ll see the Presbyterian Church. I don’t remember why I was invited to lead the worship there on a Sunday during the late 1970s (I was in my early 20s). But I remember that I preached on Matthew 14:22-33. I remember making the point that Jesus never lets us “sink” amid life’s troubles.

What a wonderful story! Jesus displays his calm and calming power to the disciples. Peter responds in faith but his faith falters, and Jesus is ready to catch him. No matter whether our faith is weak or strong, his help is readily available.

I believe what I preached, but I might add some things about what to do when Jesus’ help doesn’t seem forthcoming. A person may have a very great faith and yet feel that no divine aid is forthcoming; life seems to spin into trouble. A sermon, of course, can’t cover all aspects and implications of a text.

This past Sunday, the guest preacher also used this text and added that Peter got into trouble when he looked down, rather than at Jesus. That made me think of a sweet book by J. R. Miller entitled Unto the Hills: A Meditation on the One Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm, published by Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. in 1899. I’ve enjoyed reading Miller’s thoughts from those years ago--my grandparents were children in the 1890s--and the strength another person had derived from Psalm 121 as he read them in a different time.

Miller writes,

Not many of us at least are living at our best. We linger in the lowlands because we are afraid to climb into the mountains. The steepness and ruggedness dismay us, and so we stay I the misty valleys and do not learn the mystery of the hills. We do not know what we lose in our self-indulgence, what glory awaits us if only we had courage for the mountain climb, what blessing should find if only we would move to the uplands of God.
We speak of “looking within”. When we look within, we try to examine our feelings, ideas, and motivations, or we may try to gather strength to face some challenge. Looking within in order to examine ourselves is fraught with difficulty, because all of us are excellent at explaining away and justifying our worse qualities. We also tend, unconsciously, to react most angrily to the traits in other people which are, in fact, our own unrecognized traits!

Although “looking within” has benefit, perhaps we should say that “looking up” is even more important. This is Miller’s point, drawing upon the psalm. You meet plenty of people who may “look within” but they also “look down” a lot. They can't see the bright side of things. Anything that is wrong is always someone else’s fault. Unfortunately, these kinds of people attract each other and become powerful in their mutual griping and unhappiness!

“Looking up” is a positive personality trait even apart from the theological meaning. I tend to be a terrible worrier; it’s a reflexive psychological reaction which I’ve given to the Lord a number of times, but with which I still struggle. I realized a long time ago that worrying never changed a single aspect of the situation and, in fact, left me fearful and tired instead of energized in dealing with the situation. I’ve tried to adapt a “looking up” attitude wherein I’ve a good sense of realistic optimism about whatever situation I’m facing.

Miller writes, “We grow in the direction in which our eyes habitually turn. We become like that on which we look much and intently. We were created to look up… Yet there are many who never look upward at all. They do not pray. They never send a thought toward God. They never recognize the Father from whose hands come all the blessings they enjoy. They seek no help from the heavens. They have no eye for the things that are unseen” (pp. 8-9).

We should always be careful in our thinking about these things: remember, we’re not saved because of our spiritual efforts and our positive, faithful outlook. Luke 24 is a wonderful scripture to illustrate how Christ takes the initiative even when we’re not looking up. The two downcast fellows walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, discouraged and grieving that Jesus was gone. In this case, the men were too sad and discouraged to “look up.” And yet that was the time when Jesus spent time for them and broke bread with them.

Friday, October 15, 2010

40+ Years of Rock

For my 9/28/10 post, I wrote about some favorite psychedelic and prog-rock music. My parents were generous in encouraging my interests, and in 1972, when I was 15, they bought me a wonderful stereo receiver and reel-to-reel tape deck. I used those and my record player constantly. The St. Louis station KSHE-FM played rock music that I liked and recorded. The station played entire albums, even encouraging listeners to record off the air, so I never had to purchase favorites like ELP's “Brain Salad Surgery” and Led Zeppelin's “Houses of the Holy.” KSHE was the way I discovered less famous groups like Dust and Aphrodite’s Child.

Recently I found a book, In Concert: KSHE and 40+ Years of Rock in St. Louis by John Neiman and edited by Toby Weiss (Big Jack Publishing, 2009). What a perfect book for anyone who enjoyed KSHE and/or attended St. Louis-area rock concerts. KSHE began in 1964 as a station that catered to women (hence the call letters), but in 1967 it became one of the few FM stations with a rock format. Apparently it is the only U.S. station remaining from the era with that format. Now that we've moved back to the St. Louis area, I enjoy tuning in while driving.

I quickly found references in the book to the only St. Louis concert I attended back then, Jethro Tull’s 1973 “Passion Play” tour. I'd forgotten the concert’s date--May 24--but I do remember waiting all summer for the album to be released. I’ve always wondered what happened to the girl I took to that concert. She had accidentally put her hand through a grocery’s glass door and so, for the concert, she was bandaged and on pain killers.

On the KSHE book’s preceding pages, the author describes the Rolling Stone’s 1972 tour, which I remember not because I attended, but because an elderly church friend joked that he would’ve gone to the concert with me, but neither of us (an infirm 82 and an inexperienced 15, respectively) could drive!

I’m chagrined to read about other concerts in St. Louis of the era. For instance, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” tour happened about the same time as Jethro Tull’s. How wonderful it would’ve been to see “the Floyd,” especially at that stage of their career.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Feeble, Eager Steps on the Path

Some thoughts from last October, but I'm still listening to the music .... 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.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wee Beasties

Last June, we drove to the nearby Animal Protection Administration of Missouri shelter and adopted a five-year-old tortoise-shell female cat named Taz. Our kitty Oddball, whom we had for twelve years, had passed away three days earlier (see my 6/15/10 post). The house was just too empty without a cat.

Unfortunately (this has a happy ending), Taz disappeared almost immediately after we brought her home! We confined her to one side of the house, but soon after her arrival she trotted down a hallway, went around the corner, and wasn’t seen again. We looked under the bed and the sofa, looked up the fireplace in the living room, but didn’t see her. Did she get out of the house unnoticed? (Oddball had once slipped outside very stealthily when we’d opened a door to talk to a neighbor.) No, because when we rose in the morning, food and water had been sampled, and the litter box had been used. Spooky!

Two days later, as Beth sat quietly, she saw Taz descend from another fireplace--the one in the TV room---in order to partake from her water and food bowls. I hadn’t looked up there because she’d disappeared when she'd left the TV room and trotted around to the living room toward the other fireplace. Obviously she had gone around another corner while I was following her and returned to the TV room. Clever!

I quickly closed all the fireplace dampers. Although brown and black to begin with, Taz was obviously very sooty. Bathing a fully-armed cat (i.e., not declawed, as Oddball had been when we adopted her) seemed foolhardy, so we carefully wiped her off with wash cloths.

The last three and a half months have been much more uneventful. Her APA papers indicated she was shy at first but warmed up to people quickly. She soon became one of the family, slept with Emily and us, and she lounges on either of her two cat towers beside glass doors at opposite ends of the house. It was wonderful to have a cat while we were grieving Oddball's loss, and also Emily got to bond with Taz for two months before she returned to college.

“Pets have such different personalities,” a friend said as I updated her on Stroble cat news. Like our other cats, Taz tries to get us up unconscionably early in the morning. Oddball seldom meowed, more often she squeaked when she was happy, and she made the fussy cat-sound eh-eh-eh at birds. Our earlier cat Domino, who was part Siamese, strolled around meowing for no apparent reason. Taz “talks” a lot, too, but she’s not a very vocal purr-er.

Beth looked up “Taz” on the internet and found a description of the frantic cartoon character, the Tazmanian Devil, which fit our cat rather well, especially her wild gallops across the room that do resemble whirlwinds. This is our first cat who likes to play fetch, with a toy mouse.

Speaking of mice, Taz caught a real mouse the other day and had a short, happy time playing with the poor thing. I took the jittery mouse away inside a garbage bag and released it outside, where it was either caught by the owl we hear in the night, or got away and has begun therapy…

Fortunately, Taz doesn’t go in for what I call “recreational vomiting,” a definite downside of cats. She’s only puked twice since we got her, while Oddball and Domino regularly upchucked just for the heck of it.