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.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Guilty Pleasures

My music listening has been nostalgic lately. The very first LP I purchased (used, from a friend) was “In-a-Gadda-da-Vita” by Iron Butterfly. I still have the vinyl record in my drastically downsized collection, but I decided to purchase the CD when I saw it on sale at Collector’s Choice Music. The title song is still an enjoyable piece: good solos, the polyphonic organ, the "tribal" drums (with the bottom heads removed from the toms) and the way the riff holds the long piece together but not to the extent that it becomes tedious. Here is the whole shebang, lights and all:
The song makes me wish that Iron Butterfly had written more such extended pieces, similar to Traffic.

During my teen years I liked another, less famous piece in the “psychedelic metal” genre, “From a Dry Camel” by Dust. I also purchased the LP (with its macabre photograph of bodies in catacombs) from a friend. The cryptic but suggestive lyrics are more interesting than the Iron Butterfly epic, but I enjoyed the plodding, camel-like first and third sections, while the middle section rocks. Someone put the song on YouTube, with the grim album cover:

And one more album that I liked in the early 1970s, an even odder bit of psychedelic music, “666” by Aphrodite’s Child. The group’s leader, Vangelis Pappathanasiou, was later known for his “Chariots of Fire” soundtrack. The songs “Babylon” and “The Four Horsemen” received airplay on KSHE-FM, my favorite St. Louis station which also played Dust and a good variety of other groups. This album is, on the whole, strange--but then, the book of Revelation is strange. The song entitled with the infinity symbol consists of a woman (the notable Greek actor Irene Pappas) repeating “I was, I am, I am to come” for nearly six minutes in stages of agony, hysteria, orgasm, and finally elation. A website,, provides background. Here’s another link:

“To do ‘then’ now would be retro, but to do ‘then’ then was very nowtro, if you will,” says a character in A Mighty Wind, referring to the outfits that his group wore in the Sixties but which seemed unsuitable in the 00s. Other music that I’ve been playing recently is more “nowtro,” specifically Jeff Beck’s recent albums. But Beck was one of those artists of which I was aware at the beginning of my interest in music, the early 1970s, after groups like Cream and the Yardbirds were gone but I was peripherally aware of the music as I was listening to prog-rock, psychedelic metal, and early heavy metal. Beck’s recent material like "Live at Ronnie Scott’s" and "You Had It Coming" connects me back to my earliest musical discoveries without being so nostalgic.

Listening to psychedelic music made me think of the notion of “guilty pleasures.” A few weeks ago I read Chuck Klostermann’s essay, “Not Guilty,” about that cliché. He thinks the notion “somehow dictates that … people should feel bad for liking things they sincerely enjoy.” A book like The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures assumes, without saying so, that there is a “universal taste” that we somehow violate if we like things such as gumball machines, or cheesy movies like Road House, or people like Evel Knievel. Although he distinguishes these kinds of “guilty pleasures” with those that are ‘technically’ guilty---having sex with strangers is his example--that is something different than simply enjoying everyday things that somehow aren’t as lofty as reading James Joyce (“Not Guilty,” pp. 277-281,” in Chuck Klostermann IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (New York: Scribner, 2007).

I think we fall back on the notion of “guilty pleasures” because people can be “funny” and react disapprovingly to things that really don‘t matter to them. We don’t want to feel defensive. One time I saw a friend in a local grocery store, and I commented that I usually go to a different store (about the same distance from my house). “Why would you go there?” the friend said, as astonished as if I'd told him I was wearing dresses from now on. He was just in the habit of reacting strongly to things he didn’t immediately understand. There are, of course, many people like that.

Playing "In-a-Gadda-da-Vita" may be a guilty pleasure in the technical sense, if for instance a fire truck is approaching and you're blasting the music and following the drum solo on the steering wheel! Otherwise, what fun to revisit some ol' favorite music until one gets into the mood to listen to other things again.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Gift of Friendship

I reread my May 19, 2009 entry on this blog and repeat most of it here for a different context. The theme dovetails with my last two entries.

My wife was installed as the new president of Webster University this weekend. One of the best things about the weekend is the number of friends who drove or flew in to share this experience with us. (We tried to think of close relatives in the area, Beth's colleagues who could get here easily, etc.). Even people from Beth’s beginning years of teaching (1970s), and the family of her deceased first husband, came for the weekend.

Beth taught high school in my hometown for ten years, and then after we married we moved east for doctoral degrees, then west for jobs, then two other places before we came to St. Louis in 2009. We like to think of friendships and professional relationships associated with these different locations.

So many people enter and leave our (all of our) lives, casually and profoundly. Why do some friendships last and others don't? The philosopher Martin Buber wrote about the rapport between people (he used different terms like “the I-Thou encounter” and “the event of meeting”) that brings us out of the objectivity of the everyday world into an event of mutual respect and affirmation. You could push that idea a little and say: sometimes that “event” of friendship is limited to a certain time, and sometimes the rapport lasts a long time. What makes the difference?

I think of people to whom I was very close, but the bonds didn’t last over the long haul. Beth and I had several great friendships during our three years in Virginia. But just four years later, when we returned for my graduation, only one of those friendships (actually a couple-friendship) remained: the rest had fallen out of touch with us. Now, even that friendship has faded, but fortunately other friendships have been renewed.

I think of jobs and situations where Beth and I worked hard and “gave back” to the community, and yet fewer friendships resulted or remained over time. On the other hand, I’ve one friend whom I met only once, in 1983, and we’re still in touch over all these years! I've had fewer long-term friendships from my college years compared to my masters’ degree program, but thanks to Facebook I’m thrilled to have reconnected with several people with whom I went to college and renewed ol’ friendships.

Beth and I like to stay in contact with people and send over 100 Christmas cards each year, But something about that seems rushed and minimal. I feel like I should do more. The busier life becomes, seems like the less time we have for friendships. I used to be a faithful letter-writer but now I’m pretty much a telephoner and emailer. As I say, Facebook has been a tremendous help, in spite of the well-known drawbacks of online social networking.

I believe in God’s providence, and I’ve had occasions to connect with friends at opportune moments. I called a friend on her birthday several years ago and, as it happened, her brother had passed away very recently, so we talked about that. So many times we (all those of us who exchange cards) hear of losses in our respective families only at that one “catch up” time, Christmas.

I read a book, coauthored by two pastors, concerning church leadership. One of the authors confessed that he was all about goals and getting tasks done; if he had to discard people along the way to achieve the goal, he’d do it. But the man wrote that his wife never could discard anyone; she’d rather “lose” a goal than to lose a friendship, and so, he writes, the two of them compliment each other. That’s good! A person needs good goals and good friendships.

Expressing feelings to friends can be difficult, but it's so important to do. A dear friend says, "I have a philosophy about life. The world would be a much better place if people took a moment to let people know about the positive impact they have had on others’ lives. Too much time is spent on negativity. The good in people simply isn’t recognized; too often it is taken for granted." I liked my friend's philosophy so much that, with her permission, I quoted her in an article:

In the book Uncommon Friendships (Mariner Books, 1989), James Newton describes his friendships with Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford, Alex Carrel, and Charles Lindbergh. Amazingly, Newton never asked to meet any of them. He recounts life-lessons that he learned from these men and their families, but I was struck by a comment about the author early in the book, “With Jim, personal relationships come first.”

Beth and I try to live that way. In spite of her busyness, Beth’s many friendships is a testimony to her own loyalty to people. Meanwhile I keep in touch with folks via email, Facebook, and occasional telephoning. Writing this essay reminds me of some friendships I need to renew. I think it was Georgia O’Keeffe who said, “Seeing a flower takes time, just like being a friend takes time.” Friendships are always time well spent!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Finding God's Will

Right after I posted my last entry, I read a neat article by Phillip Cary of Eastern University, "No Secret Plan." I'd written about seeking God's direction as well as listening to one's own heart in doing God's will. Cary writes, "A boatload of anxieties is tied up with the notion of 'finding God's will.'" "[M]any young people who couldn't recite the Ten Commandments if their life depended on it get up in the morning and 'listen' for God to tell them what to do that day. For them, the revealed will of God [the Bible] has been replaced by the thoughts of their own hearts." He continues:

"We have specific decisions to make about things like career or marriage, and the law of God doesn't tell us to choose this job over that one or this potentials pouse over that one. So how do we know what to do?...[T]he 'how do you know?' question is a sign that something's wrong. If you're looking for a formula or method for making decisions, then you're looking for the wrong thing. There is no recipe. There is only wisdom, the heart's intelligent skill at discerning good decisions from bad ones....The concept of wisdom is what every method for finding God's will leaves out of the decision-making process. It's left out precisely because the project of finding God's will is an attempt to guarantee that you won't make a mistake. All such guarantees are falsehoods, attempts to short-circuit the hard work of acquiring wisdom."

All this is from Christian Century, October 5, 2010, and the article is pages 20-23. I'll post a link to the complete article when it's available.

Seeking God's will is a great thing. God's strange ways (which we'll never completely know in this life) works amid our free will, explorations, mistakes, and choices. But Cary's article speaks to me in different ways. I've known preachers (including much younger self) who preached conformity to God's individual plans for us as if such conformity was a kind of "work" or spiritual accomplishment. But what if you pray for God's will, perceive God's guidance, and then the situation turns out badly? That has happened to me, and it's very easy to feel disappointed in God or "down on yourself" that God is punishing you.

I've a friend who declared his impatience with people who sought God's will "when they should just use the damn brains God gave them." He had a point: God's will can be very counterintuitive, or it can be very clear in a common-sense way. If it's clear in a common-sense way, then fervent prayers for clarity may be unnecessary--but this, too, is a matter of wisdom and experience. (The search for God's will can also have the pitfall of us perceiving ourselves to be the focus of God's concern, which is also contrary to common sense.)

As Cary writes, we are (or should be) also growing in wisdom, which in turn is gaining knowledge, understanding, and experience for the short- and long term. In the case of Robert Colin Morris (whom I quoted in my last spot), he made a career adjustment midway through his life--but that doesn't mean he hadn't conformed to God's will before. A biblical argument can be made that God doesn't so much call us to figure out his secret plans (and woe to us if we make a mistake) but rather to grow in the wisdom so extolled, for instance, in the book of Proverbs.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Desires and Delights

from coffeehouse
Recently I reread a familiar Bible verse:

Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart
(Psalm 37:4)

Let me be audacious for a second and ask: is this verse true? God does not provide everything you desire, even when you delight in him! But, our hearts grow in the Lord as we seek him, and over time, our and God’s desires become clearer.

This verse makes me think of Jesus’ teaching about “pruning” (John 15:2). This is a difficult topic, because I don’t believe God sends us terrible trouble just to teach us lessons or to discipline us (Heb. 12:5-11). However, in the course of living, we do experience times when we must discard old dreams, old situations, and adapt to new circumstances.

As we grow in God, we may see a confluence of our dreams and desires, our hopes, God’s providence, and God’s direction. But we may not know God’s plans right away. They may never be entirely clear; some things in our lives may always seem painful and inexplicable. All the while, we’re growing in our knowledge of and relationship with God. Later, as we look back upon our lives, we may see how certain difficulties and disappointments became sources of blessing (even though the pain and regret may remain), in the spirit of Romans 8:28.

I thought of all this again as I've reread a favorite book by Robert Corin Morris, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Upper Room Books, 2003). Morris writes, “Many years ago I faced a vague but persistent unhappiness in parish ministry. Why was I so recurrently dissatisfied with a job that was, in so many ways, rewarding? Did this restlessness mean I should leave the ministry? What did I really want?” (p. 204). He went through a process of talking to people and clarifying his skills. Finally he prayed to God, “What do you want me to do?” and he felt the answer in his mind, “What do you want to do?” His answer to himself was that he’d like to teach, and this lead him to establishing an interreligious learning center in 1980, and he has focused his ministry in teaching ever since (p. 205).

He writes, “Conventional teaching leads us to believe that ‘thy will be done’ means our desire won’t be honored. Sometimes that is the case, especially when our will is still captive to the more superficial cravings and fears of our nature. But it is God’s pleasure to delight in our desires for the good. Major decisions in the early church were taken because it ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28, italics added). ‘Thy will be done,’ quite precisely, includes learning to honor our deepest and most creative desires and finding joy in offering them to be part of God’s work in the world” (p. 205).

These reflections interest me because my own sense of calling and work has followed similar kinds of paths. But I also wonder whether many of us are “stuck” in a sense that, when God calls us, it is necessarily contrary to our desires and preferences. Perhaps we should take a cue from Psalm 37:4 and remember that God is love and "delightful"--not a meany who shames or forces us to seek his will.

But--again---we may not know God's plans right away, or our own deepest desires, for that matter. Understanding the depth of God's love, too, can be a process: God may not seem right away like a source of joy. The psalm verse reflects a journey of both God-discovery and self-discovery!

Just one more set of connections on this theme. While we're thinking of God as a "delight," a nearby psalm verse reads:

O taste and see that the LORD is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him
(Ps. 34:8)

What does God taste like? (Biscuits and gravy, I hope, or maybe chocolate, LOL.) Seriously: the verse is a poetic way of saying, “If you experience God, you’ll discover he is wonderful.” You could also say that God is a better refuge than other things (name your own source of short-term consolation). We won’t always feel upbeat in our Christian lives; the whole idea of “refuge” is, after all, having a place to go when we’re in distress and trouble. But we discover in our personal circumstances (interpreted through our Bible reading and other ways) how God’s goodness and guidance sustains us.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Praise in All Circumstances ...???

When I was in college, I liked a short book called Prison to Praise by Merlin Carothers. It was published in 1970 and is actually still in print. The book is about reorienting your life via the offering of praise to God in (and even for) all your circumstances, good and bad. My circumstances were outwardly good but I struggled with anxiety and depression. The book was so positive that it gave me something to focus on to feel better, and also it provided an interesting theological (and, of course, biblically warranted) approach to “life.”

Ever since, I’ve often “mulled” and tried to practice that idea of offering praise amid daily circumstances. Unfortunately I’m still a terrible fretter, but I haven't given up and continue to work on it. I thought of all this again recently as I reread a favorite book by Robert Corin Morris, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Upper Room Books, 2003). He writes, “A particular strand of conservative, charismatic Christian piety advocates immediate thanksgiving over any occurrence, however tragic or evil it may be. When I first heard this idea, I considered it dangerous at best, seriously demented at worst. I still consider it potentially dangerous if used to bury feelings of outrage, hurt, or grief. But gradually I have come to see this practice as part of the counterintuitive logic of the gospel pathway” (p. 173).

He goes on to recall an acquaintance whose wife was an alcoholic. Following a church service, the acquaintance told the author that he’d never noticed the odd connection of Jesus’ words: “In the night in which he was betrayed, he gave thanks.” Betrayal, after all, is a very horrible thing to experience: what a strange response to such an awful hurt! “He gave thanks.”

Morris’ reservations are well founded. Today, for instance, is September 11 and I'm reminded that it's theologically problematic to praise God for a terrible circumstance, in contrast to praising God amid a terrible circumstance. Morris notes, however, that we do pray for good outcomes to difficult situations, after all, so “why not begin to give thanks for that good now?” (p. 173). This is essentially what “giving thanks in all circumstances” (1. Thess. 5:18) means: to thank God for whatever ways he may answer our prayer, even though we don’t know what will happen--and we don’t necessarily know if we’ll like what happens! Nevertheless, we trust God.

Morris writes, “My regular practice of responding to frustration with blessing has helped me to this seemingly crazy wisdom as an emotionally honest practice.” (p. 173). That’s an excellent way to put it. Praising God habitually doesn’t mean that you’re upbeat and sunny all the time in a fake way (although sometimes praising God is indeed an act of will power, because you feel so badly.) You don't have to be a "summery Christian," as Martin Marty puts it, who never seems to feel lost and uncertain sometimes. But praising God can be an emotionally honest practice--a very freeing, trustful practice as we live in faith and hope.