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.