Saturday, August 28, 2010

DC Rally

I mean this as a sincere question: what do you think is positive about today's rally (which will probably be finished by the time I write these thoughts)? If I compared people who disagree with me with Nazis, and if I compared policies which I disagree with to slavery, people would be concerned about me. (Nazism and slavery are very great evils, inappropriately evoked for personal purposes.) Yet Mr. Beck has expressed these kinds of things. Similarly, if I peppered my language with images of loading and firing weapons, at the very least people would think my language is irresponsible. Yet Gov. Palin says and writes these kinds of things. And if, for instance, I planted gossipy and negative remarks about my pastor as I talked to church people, I would destroy rather than build up the congregation: even if I thought I was right, my methods would make me wrong and harmful. But that kind of destructiveness characterizes a great deal of political discussion these days.

Peaceful assembly, political disagreement, and spirited public discussion are necessary and cherished American freedoms. But I keep hoping and praying for something that explicitly aims at a difficult and elusive goal---a national feeling that we're all in this together, even when we're angry and when we disagree.

One thing I think would help, but it is difficult: we need to be well-read and historically-aware citizens. We don't have to have comprehensive knowledge based on every available news source--no one has time for that. But we can read even a few articles and news sources that puts current events into the context of American history. We shouldn't believe, for instance, that a certain policy is "socialist" or "fiscally conservative" until we've even just a basic awareness of similar policies among previous presidential administrations and congressional sessions. We can read about and appreciate Islam; we can get a sense of the causes of poverty, and so on.

Another thing we can do, is also difficult: we need to see other people with a sense of empathy. I don't mean we shouldn't have discernment. But that discernment comes after we've listened to people--to walk a mile in their shoes, as the cliche says. (Thus my sincere question at the beginning of these thoughts.) Kindness and compassion are essential scriptural virtues and, in fact, are gifts of God's Spirit. If we're angry that we don't feel like our own views and convictions are listened to, then we say so (one motive, I think, for today's rally). But we also need to model compassionate concern and listening, to "be the change you want to see in the world," to use another cliche.

Yet another difficult thing: if we are religious and also politically interested, we need to take care that the words we use about politics are commensurate with our faith and witness. If we express God's love on one hand, and political contempt on the other, we don't always realize that the contempt rather than the love is what is being communicated to people. We need to figure out how to have peaceful, loving words and hearts, even when we're politically riled up. Not easy! but necessary if we don't want our language of faith and love to ring hollow.

I appreciate these verses: "For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another" (Gal. 5:14-15, quoting Lev. 19:18b). If we seem to be on the road to biting and devouring one another, what should we do, and how do we love our neighbor as we seek the well-being of our country?

Lincoln's second inaugural address, carved inside the memorial, gives answers which I think are alarmingly contemporary--and worth discussion about how to achieve today. "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Back to School Again

This past weekend Emily and I drove to her college where she’ll start her junior year. Like last year, all went well during the 600-mile drive there, as well as the actual move-in day. And like last year, we made the trip in two days. I reserved separate motel rooms for us, which is more expensive but since I snore, I'd rather ensure a good night's sleep than risk both of us becoming sleepy on the road.

The I-70 trip is quite familiar to me, thanks to years-ago trips between Connecticut (where I did my masters degree) and my parents' home in southern Illinois. I noticed a few places from those student days, like a non-chain motel called the Regal Inn where I stopped nearly thirty years ago. The Knights' Inn at St. Clairsville, OH---another place that I stayed once--still operated but as another kind of motel. My taste in motel chains has changed over the years; we almost always stay at Hampton Inns now.

Emily lives on the fourth floor of her building. Arriving early on moving day, we commandeered two reserved spaces that were convenient. Do any schools have handy and adequate parking? We worked four hours to get stuff to her room. We and the other families had to go down one first-floor hallway, turn right down another hallway, take the elevator (with doors that you open and close by hand) to the third floor, and then walk down another hallway and carry stuff up to the fourth floor.

Chatting with other parents was fun. I worried about dads who, though heavier-set than I am, lugged refrigerators up flights of stairs. Last year, one mother and I talked about the $50 fee that the college had charged last year for dorm-room clean-up. The mother said she’d mopped and dusted her daughter’s room but the college still claimed it was dirty. I recall that my college levied similar, foolish little fees for various reasons; I imagine most schools do. At least this year, all the students including Emily got an iPad!

Emily has a terrific room with a nice view. After we got her stuff into the room, we went off, napped, had lunch, and went to Wal-Mart for supplies. My wife likes to call this the "world's greatest Wal-Mart" because, compared to some we've seen, is spacious and easy to navigate.

The next day, I made my way home. We didn't hear from Emily till Tuesday evening; all was well and things were falling into place for the new semester, although she complained of unreliable wifi.

Just another small adventure in our family, like similar adventures happening in many families around the country here in late summertime. One ol' friend was taking his youngest child and only daughter to college for the first time this fall; I felt like sending him a box of Kleenex, just to empathize.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lacking in Wisdom

Some notes from a project.... Understanding the Bible as a text, applying it to our lives, reaching out to the needs of the world, and relying upon the Holy Spirit to guide, protect, and transform us: all these things require wisdom and are also ways by which we grow in wisdom. Here are a selection of Bible verses on this subject.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7).

[Y]es, if you cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his saints (Prov. 2:3-8).

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her (Prov. 4:7-8).

Wisdom seems like a quality which, if you claim it for yourself, you don’t really have it! (I don’t claim it: so am I unwise, or truly wise?) There is a difference between being wise in your own estimation, and having a wisdom that functions alongside your qualities of kindness and humility. I love this next passage because, here at the very end of a book about right living and wisdom, we’ve an acknowledgement by someone (Agur son of Jakeh: Prov. 30:1) who doesn’t claim to have wisdom!

Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One (Prov. 30:2-3).

As a friend says, “ain’t it the truth?” Agur’s search leads him to a feeling of inadequacy and, in turn, a renewed search.

But an admission of failure in this regard is commensurate with another favorite passage:

And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory (1 Cor. 2:3-7).

The Holy Spirit provides and demonstrates wisdom, apart from our human talents of speech, persuasion, and popularity. This was important for the Corinthians to know, because in their prideful attitude they had forgotten how to love.

Spiritual power, insight and wisdom do come from the risen Lord, thus the importance of an active, loyal relationship with Christ, as in yet another favorite passage: Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)

Again … we gain Christ’s wisdom when we understand who Christ is, what he taught, and what he has done for us. As we “live [our] lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Col. 2:6-7), we gain insight into God’s grace, our own strengths and shortcomings, and the gifts of grace which God may use through us to provide blessings and help to others.

The Spirit also gives wisdom liberally:

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you (James 1:5).

So Agur son of Jakeh is admirable in his humility. But on the other hand, wisdom is a gift that God can’t wait to provide us. You may feel that you lack wisdom but perhaps God is providing it for you in special ways.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Tristadecaphobia and Paraskavedecatriaphobia

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

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

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

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Story of God's Providence

I’ve published about 200 writing pieces over the years, including two academic books, ten or eleven church-related books, numerous articles, curriculum, essays, and reviews, plus a few poems. About two-thirds of all this is religious curriculum for church groups. The other night, I was unwinding a bit and looked at the computer files containing my only (and from a publishing standpoint, unsuccessful) foray into fiction. I hadn’t looked at this material for several years because I’d become discouraged by the whole project, but I was pleased that the writing was still something I’m proud of.

My project was a novel, called Adams Street Antiques. I started writing it just for my own interest. I had the major character, whom I named Becky Harmon. I modeled her on no one in particular, just so no one would think I was memorializing an old girlfriend or something like that.

Among my happiest growing-up memories are those of my parents’ antique store shopping. One of our favorite places was Kelly’s Antiques, on route 140 east of Greenville, Illinois. Alva Nance was the older man who ran the place, basically a farm but with three large buildings of antiques; Kelly himself (I’ve forgotten his last name) lived in the nearby house. The place has long since closed but I’ve good memories of many family purchases at that place. The opening scene of my story is, essentially, Kelly’s Antiques, with details changed (including its location, near Moweaqua, IL). There, I introduced Becky and her family, taking care to return to that scene much later as a plot device.

I made Becky the owner of an antiques store in a small downtown. So many small-town clothing stores around the country have closed and become “antique malls,” including those in my own hometown. Again, I based my fictional store on no particular place, although some of my studies of small town business architecture came in handy, and I made Becky’s shop more quirky and upscale than a typical antique mall, some of which are a little junky. I gave the store an inventory reflecting my own likes. I studied a guide to becoming an antiques dealer so I’d know some of the tricks of the trade.

Where should Becky live? Her town was a character in the story, although that sounds cliché. But it’s true. I created a community about the size of my own hometown. In 1960, when I was three, my folks drove 30 miles north to Pana, IL and then ten or fifteen miles east to Shelbyville, IL to buy a new gold Cadillac. We seldom if ever returned to Shelbyville, so that trip remained in my childish mind as something special. I decided to put a fictional town and county between Pana and Shelbyville. I renamed the actual highway, Illinois state route 16, as U.S. 38, a route that only existed in Nebraska and Colorado but which, if it had crossed Illinois, would’ve been in that location.

From there, the story developed pretty easily, with suitable plot twists, as a three-act, boy-meets-girl tale of two people wondering if the other is “the one.” My wife Beth and I became friends and dated in a very different way than the two major characters.

Fiction is not necessarily disguised autobiography. A lot of the things in my story were personal experiences completely retooled. I frequently drove I-64 through southern Indiana and liked the sight of Haubstadt, IN (and its steeples) in the distance, so I used that detail. I also drove he pleasant Illinois route 161 at different times in my life, so I named Becky's other highway Route 611. I delivered Meals on Wheels in my hometown to an elderly gentleman who lived above one of the local clothing stores, and that became the basis of an aspect of my story. My parents liked to visit Effingham, IL, the business district of which has a slightly curved street, and I used that detail, too.

Other aspects of the story were enjoyable to create. I used personality traits rather than actual persons in developing characters. I worked hard to present a believable, consistent story: I drew a map (for my own reference) of businesses in the fictional town and sketched a genealogy of different characters (again, to keep details straight). Since the story happened over the course of one summer, I used a calendar of the novel's never-stated year, 1992 (which could accommodate a living but elderly vet of World War I) so I could determine when events took place and the days between events. I also connected fictional historical milestones and locations to actual Illinois history. A friend helped me make more believable the dynamics of women’s friendships, and another friend helped me with the way New Yorkers think. Years ago, when I read Atlas Shrugged, I liked how a major character was introduced 2/3 of the way into the story, and I developed such a character (the New York native).

I’m no John Updike, or Ayn Rand for that matter! My novel was long at nearly 400 pages, especially since its momentum happened mostly through conversations, locations, and character development. My characters chatted more than those in a typical Tarantino film, but without the violence--without much violence at all, in fact. Looking through it, I realize some of the small subplots were contrived and some transitions were awkward.

I learned quickly that the novel’s genre--I called it a Christian romantic comedy--did not exist, at least at the time I passed the proposal and/or manuscript around to agents and publishers. One agent was confused that a person of my credentials would write such a story and assumed I was trying to escape the frustrations of adjunct college teaching. “Don’t pigeonhole me, you presumptuous #&%@*$,” I thought but did not say. But another agent kindly told me the market did not support such a genre but I might study books on the market if I wished to continue. What should I do? I appreciated the importance of market trends, and yet the story I created fit no niche.

The older I become, the more I appreciate the Taoist idea of wu wei, non-effort; the secret of life and success is to follow life’s “flow" and natural rhythms. In a more Christian way, I prefer to think that the Spirit guides our work and opens doors, without us always understanding the reasons. My story had flowed well as a writing project but not at all as a prospect for publication, and circumstances in my life--the biggest of which was my father’s death and thus my need to become my mom’s caregiver--derailed ideas for starting a small company of my own. Meanwhile, other writing opportunities were coming my way and were keeping me busy. So I followed opportunities and validation, assuming that those were the doors God was opening. But I did have a few copies of my novel printed, and I distributed and sold several in that form because I thought the story might as well be “out there” floating around, rather than sitting in my file cabinet.

Still, I look through the book today and enjoy visiting my made-up town and its people. I created believable characters for whom faith was important, but there was (hopefully) nothing cardboard or preachy about their faith. I was at a stage of my life when I was discouraged with people who seemed strident and self-assured about their religion, and I solved my discouragement by thinking about the struggles of real faith, but through fictional people.

More importantly, though, the major impetus to the story was Wendell Berry's writings on the importance of community and of preserving one's beloved place. These were concerns of mine (and my writings) before I read Berry, and then I became excited in the way he articulated the necessities of mutuality, community, ecology, and preservation of heritage. I think the writing process flowed so well was because of my interest in showing some aspects of community and human interdependence. It was a very pure and happy motive.

Of course I appreciated--and still do--the mysterious ways how God works in our lives: how God does more in our lives than we can imagine, regardless of how strong or weak our faith actually is, and no matter how angry at God and disheartened we may become. Thus, at the very end of my story, a major character thanks God for his surprising grace, without realizing other amazing things that God had also accomplished. My two epigraphs were key to the story:

I lift up my eyes to the hills--
from where will my help come?
My help comes form the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
(Ps. 121)

Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking
I will hear.
(Isaiah 65)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Browner Shade of Pale

The other day I was rereading John Updike’s memoir Self-Consciousness (Fawcett, 1990) and browsed his essay about lying in the sun to get relief for his psoriasis. Then I happened to reread the essay by Roy Blout, Jr., "Tan," in one of my favorite anthologies, Summer (ed. by Alice Gordon and Vincent Virga; Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1990). Then, this past Sunday, I read Sloan Crosley‘s NYT op-ed essay about the current heat wave (and people’s efforts at achieving comfort), called “Eight Million Bodies in the Naked City.” ( All these pieces conspired to remind me of one of my most hopeless pursuits: getting tan.

These are memories of adolescence. I suppose I turned somewhat brown as a little kid who played regularly in the yard and the park and went to the community swimming pool. I can't remember. But being tan as an intentional goal was a teenage issue.

I don’t know the average age when puberty begins, but I seemed to hit it sooner than other boys, based on my terrible skin and the ribbing I received from clear-skinned bullies. I was 13 when I first shaved, and I remember the date, November 29, 1970, because my great-uncle Charlie Crawford died that day in my hometown. Up until then I was very peach-fuzzy and pimply, and since we had to drive to the airport to pick up one of Charlie‘s daughters, I finally tired of looking so bizarre and asked Dad to help me use a safety razor. I also remember being ashamed of my oily, broken-out skin when another relative passed away the following spring. Based on these memories, my 13th, 14th, and 15th years must’ve been the worst for acne.

A dermatologist advised me to get a lot of sun, because the UV rays helped acne. I dearly wanted a good tan anyway, so that sounded great. He even put me in a kind of tanning bed at his office, as a zits treatment. Obviously the advice is outdated today, with concerns for skin cancer and skin damage caused by excessive sun exposure. But at the time, looking brown signaled “coolness” and health.

The sun did clear my unruly skin, but I’m too fair to tan easily. I inherited Dad’s complexion; during a beach vacation he got second-degree sunburns on his legs. Only through many tries did I obtain tan lines around my wrist watch. My legs and feet were hopeless; my legs burned, peeled, and remained as white as ever; my feet got a pink patch on the insteps and nothing more. My best hope was to achieve a browner shade of pale, to paraphrase that old Procol Harum song.

Some summer days, I lay on a towel in the backyard for half-hour increments. It was so boring when I lay on my back! Even listening to my little AM radio didn’t help, and I felt too uncomfortable to nap. Lying on my stomach, at least I could read a book. Just as certain Beatles' songs (especially "Paperback Writer") remind me of kidhood swimming trips, later styles of music remind me of sunlight and beach towels spread upon backyard grass: early 70s Motown, for instance (The Temptations, the O’Jays, and others), and Olivia Newton-John, whose first (and for a while only) hit, the Dylan song “If Not For You,” was sweet and pretty.

I went swimming, more often at the Vandalia Lake than the pool, and I rode my bike in the sun. I didn’t play sports, so baseball and tennis weren’t options. I got a couple summer jobs “bucking bales,” and above the waist I only wore a tee shirt that I easily remove so my chest and back could get sun. My dad recommended a long sleeved shirt for outdoor work because one’s sweat was cooling. But getting a lot of sun on my arms was the purpose of the hot, difficult job, maybe more so than the $2 an hour we got paid.

Genealogy was my high school hobby. I found a perfect opportunity to work on my tan when I decided to copy the inscriptions in our small family cemetery (about 250 stones in all). The cemetery is down a country road in a wooded clearing. Fortified with Coppertone-brand lotion, and dressed in just summer shorts, or shorts and a tank-top, I strolled around the tombstones with my clipboard, recording names, dates, and epitaphs.

A few summers I looked pretty decent. I was thrilled when someone commented that I looked like I'd been outdoors a lot--and this was while I was standing next to my girlfriend who was quite brown. Of course, kids who tanned easily (like said girlfriend) could say things like “Oh, I’m totally pale!” without irony. Arms were compared, and I marveled at friends' shame at being medium-bronze instead of dark-bronze.

After my acne subsided, my interest in being tan diminished. It was just too much time investment for such minor results, and I slowly began to accept and like myself as I am. Thus, as I said before, getting tan is a set of teenage memories. Years passed after high school, and the only other time I “laid out” was with divinity school buddies on the beach of Long Island Sound at New Haven--and that was more to hang out with friends than to get brown. I’ve visited other beaches, and I often work outdoors in summertime, but always buttered with 100,000 SPF sunscreen.

But, oh mercy, I hate the smell of tanning lotion and sunscreen! Even the most pleasant-smelling varieties make me want to shower quickly to get rid of that aroma. Olfactory memories are very powerful, and although my mental images of summer days are nostalgic and cheerful, that scent tempers my nostalgia considerably!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Service Opportunities at Church

At church this morning, I read in the bulletin about a service opportunity: helping freshmen at nearby Webster University move into their dorm rooms. What a great outreach, I thought! The youth minister, who announced the effort from the lectern, noted with some chagrin that no one had signed up yet. I saw a few people approach him during the peace-passing time, though.

Developing or disseminating ideas for ministry opportunities is one of my big interests. I love to discover a new idea, or source for ideas, and then pass them along to others.[1] Usually I share the information in the church curriculum I write for the United Methodist Publishing House. For several years I also worked with and created ministry opportunities in congregations.

Robert Putnam’s article “Bowling Alone” was published in 1995 in The Journal of Democracy, then Putnam expanded his research in his 2001 book of the same name.[2] The title comes from his observation that although bowling is still popular, membership in league bowling has declined in individual years, and this decline of league membership is a handy metaphor for membership in other community groups including churches. Robert Bellah and his fellow authors have also studied American citizenship and civic participation for many years and, like Putnam, have expressed concern in people's community involvement.[3] Eric Mount of Centre College notes: “Voluntary associations, service clubs, churches, bowling leagues, unions, PTAs, neighborhoods, networks, and political parties that constitute people’s communities of conversation and the cells of democratic citizenship have gotten squeezed out by the demands of work and the claims of family."[4]

These trends have definitely affected churches, as Mount indicates. In church settings, creating and supporting an ongoing effort of ministry opportunities is challenging, not only to plan and implement but also to support and maintain over the long haul. There are numerous books that can help pastors and other congregational leaders handle these challenges. I (privately) feel regret when I see church staff and congregational leaders fail to provide ministry opportunities or to give laity permission (to use William Easum's theme) to serve in creative ways.

Just the “little things” can help people enormously in motivating them to service. Do folks get the information they need to serve well? Do they feel that the pastor and/or staff support them? Are the folks made to feel appreciated? Are the ministry opportunities involve a doable amount of time, and can folks move easily among opportunities?

But I don’t want to imply that ministry opportunities is something for which affirmation and validation are the primary things. Our pastor’s sermon yesterday was actually about worship, rather than service opportunities. But his words about worship were apropos for service opportunities as well. He pointed out that worship is first directed toward God. The sermon, the music, where the pastor stands during Eucharist, and other aspects are important but more important is the way we focus our minds, prayers, and hearts upon God during the worship.

That attitude of worship applies to ministry- and service-opportunities as well. If we feel affirmed and communicated-to in our service efforts, that’s great. But even if we’re not, our primary task is still to put our faith into practice as best we can, with God’s help (Romans 12). Serving others is part of our identity as Christians, and hopefully our identity has been formed over the years in such a way that service opportunities come naturally--and not only that, but also that our whole lives have been formed so that all our “going out and coming in” (Ps. 121:8) in different ways testify to God’s reality.

1. For instance, a friend recently sent me this book: Victor N. Claman and David E. Butler, with Jessica A. Boyatt, Acting on Your Faith: Congregations Making a Difference: A Guide to Success in Service and Social Action. Boston: Insights Inc., 1994.

2. Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”, The Journal of Democracy, January 1995, 65-78; accessible at: Also: Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Renewal of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

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

4. Eric Mount, Jr. Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 5.