Monday, January 31, 2011

First Car!

Over the winter break, my daughter's car needed repairs, the cost of which exceeded the car's value. It was a gold 2002 Saab 9 3 purchased when we lived in Ohio, and a good first car for her to drive around her college town and to travel home for breaks. She used that car for her 50 hours of driving instruction and another 50 hours practice-driving. We remember the difficulty of concocting bogus errands (e.g., visiting an ice cream place in another community) to use up the 50 hours. I was a nervous instructor but I tried to provide experiences where she could learn how to merge, to pass, and other challenges, while building confidence.

For a trade-in, we got her a bright red, 2005 Saab 9 3 Aero. She laments that, now, even more classmates will be hitting her up for rides. As we transferred Manga-inspired seat covers, the GPS, CDs, and other items from one car to the other, we all felt wistful that a service appointment for the old car had unexpectedly led to its replacement. On the other hand, the increasing, necessary repairs for the car were lessening the pleasure of driving it.

My first car was a light blue, 1963 Chevy. In his book The Ferrari in the Bedroom, the humorist Jean Shepherd tells the story of "Lillian," an old car which swore at him (the transmission had a repetitive noise that sounded like an oath) as he tooled up U.S. 41. My unnamed car was friendlier than the resentful Lillian, but no more attractive. The car had a serviceable, box-like body, a rusting underside, and a thin coat of rust on the hood and roof. It had no AC. It had a poor radio and a hole in the floorboard. The stick shift, which emerged from the steering column, took a little effort. It wasn't my car, but my mother's; the title was in her name. My dad's stepfather had owned it, and when he could no longer drive he gave the car to my mother, who had done him and my grandmother many selfless favors.

I learned to drive in that car, when I was 14 or 15. A clear stretch of Illinois 185 east of Vandalia seemed a good place for Dad to teach me. Dad was a truck driver, he knew driving. Generous and eager to help, he could also be impatient, and he made me hurt and nervous as he strictly told me things like:

Never let out the clutch too quickly; you'll kill the engine.
Never ride the clutch, you'll burn it out.
Always look over your shoulder to check your blind spot before you pass.
Always check your tire inflation and oil, especially before a trip.
Always pull up to the next gas pump so that someone can pull in behind you.
Always top off the tank when filling up; you'll get more miles. (This is the only one of these things I had to unlearn later.)
Always remember that speed cops hide on interstate entrance ramps.
Always drive the speed limit through Odin, IL, because a state trooper lives there.

An acquaintance read this essay several years ago and declared, "I got pulled over by that cop in Odin!"

Once I got my license, I drove the Chevy for a few years. I don't think I felt the need for a fancier car; I was pleased with the Chevy. I made the car uglier still. I dented the fenders twice trying the master the vagaries of backing-out and turning, once at the IGA and once in the high school parking lot. As my daughter learned to drive, I remembered both Dad's impatience and Mom's disapproval of my faux pas; she couldn't understand that I'd need to learn by doing, making mistakes, gaining experience, and trying again. I tried to brighten the car by waxing it, but the finish had long since faded and the paint could no longer shine.  For many weeks the hood showed great white circles where the wax baked hard.

In summertime I pursued innocent popularity with the opposite sex while working on a genealogy project which my grandma and I had started. I remember driving to visit a girl who lived all the way down in Farina, in the southeastern corner of Fayette County. My parents fretted about my safety and warned me of the extremely dangerous intersection where 185 met Illinois 37. "A lot of people have been killed there," Dad bleakly warned. I pictured one of those cartoon roads where the view is clear for miles until you step into the street and immediately a truck appears and squashes you flat. Once there, I found the intersection had reasonably clear visibility---not a place to linger or misjudge, but not a death trap, either.

As I recall, the car stalled a certain amount but nothing that required attention. One time it stalled when I was out on a country road doing cemetery research for my genealogy project. Barefooted, I wasn't sure I could walk anywhere for help. But after a few panicked attempts I got the motor runnin'. Only once did the car need service, when some essential pipe in the engine cracked. We simply drove up to Yarbrough's auto lot on U.S. 51, found a wreck with a comparable part, and an acquaintance bolted the part on. So simple, compared to the highly technological and electronic aspects of cars today!

In summertime I longed for AC. Of course, I drove with windows down, which blew around my longish hair and left the seats rather dusty. The hole in the floorboard provided some breeze; I humorously thought that I could widen the hole and use my feet, Fred Flintstone-like, to push-start the car when it stalled. As I drove around town, a favorite visit was my cousin's gift shop and their selection of 45s and LPs. That was a last-stop on errands because I'd have to take a new record immediately home or it would warp in the hot car, like my wavy LP of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.

I drove the Chevy during my first year of college. Eventually Dad traded the car at Oldfield's Auto Sales in Vandalia. For the trade he bought me a bright red Dodge two-door with black vinyl seats. I loved the Dodge but, when we drove away, I looked nostalgically at the Chevy. In a small town, one often sees former cars driven by new owners; in the 1980s, after I traded a '79 Pontiac wagon, I noticed it several times, parked outside Hardee's. But we never saw the '63 Chevy again. It probably went to scrap.

Something about our first cars haunts us. My dad remembered his parents' first car: a 1925 4-door Ford sedan, purchased with seventeen head of cattle from John Eakin in Vandalia. I've known people who kept their first cars, caring tenderly for them over the years. Adolescence can be a difficult time, and amid those struggles, one finds solace and pleasure in the ability to drive. Perhaps that is why we don't forget our first cars. Thinking of my old Chevy reminds me of that special freedom gained as a teenager. It is a freedom which, once acquired, mastered, and then taken for granted, never again seems quite so sweet.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in Springhouse magazine and my book Journeys Home.)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Composer Ned Rorem

The last few years I've been exploring works of the contemporary composer Ned Rorem. These thoughts are my very modest attempt at understanding and sharing his works.

Rorem was born in Richmond, IN in 1923. He lived in France from 1949-1958 and wrote about those years in "The Paris Diary" and "The New York Diary." Among his hundreds of works are "Spring Symphony," "Sunday Morning," "Evidence of Things Not Seen," "Eagles," symphonies, concertos, chamber works, and songs. Many artists and conductors have performed his music, including Bernstein, Ormandy, Previn, mezzo Susan Graham, Itzhak Perlman, and others. Time magazine once called him "the world's best composer of art songs," a quote one often sees in any discussion of his music. According to his bio ( he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for "Air Music," and also a Fulbright Fellowship and a Guggenheim fellowship. Among many other honors, he won the ASCAP's Lifetime Achievement Award, and the French government named him Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Much of Rorem's music is available. So far I've downloaded some of Rorem's chamber music like "Book of Hours for Flute and Harp," and also the "String Symphony," "Sunday Morning," "Seven Motets for the Church Year," "Three Motets on Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins," "Three Hymn Anthems," the second piano concerto, and the cello concerto. I also have a CD of Susan Graham's lovely recording of several songs.

Rorem is well known for his prose writing. "The Paris Diaries" (1966) made Rorem "a pioneer of modern gay culture, speaking freely and fearlessly of his desires," according to Alex Ross in his appreciative article, "The Gentleman Composer: Eighty Years of Ned Rorem" (New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2003: Rorem has also written essays, a memoir called "Knowing When to Stop" (which ends at 1951, the year of his first published diary), and a series of diaries, two of which I love to dip into.

I discovered Rorem via a book catalog listing of the diary "Lies" (covering the years 1986-1999). The description introduced the book as a compendium of musical analysis, gossip, cultural observation, and sexual fantasies, a combination which sounded intriguing. There aren't many of the latter (one concerns the sunglass-wearing cop who questions Janet Leigh in "Psycho"). But I've enjoyed Rorem's many comments on music, culture, celebrities whom he knows, and the domestic life of him and his partner, organist James Holmes. The entries for 1995-1999 are heartbreaking as Rorem writes of Holmes' decline and death from cancer and AIDS. As the introductory essay states, a diary may be among the best ways to depict the tragedy of AIDS and its slow, cruel progress.

Not long afterward, I found a copy of "The Nantucket Diary," which covers the years 1973-1985. This, longer diary is also very enjoyable to dip into as Rorem similarly makes judgments and observations about the musical world, grumbles about slights and medical problems, and shares aspects of his and Holmes' domestic relations and their lives in both New York City and Nantucket.

Here are a few representative entries---I hope I haven't quoted too much.


"In writing vocal music I have never used special effects--no whines, shrieks, whispers, elongations, nor even world repetitions. My aim toward poetry is, I suppose, to intensify rather than to reinterpret. In a word, my music is expressivity, rather than novelty." (ND, p. 39).

"Alcoholism, like homosexuality, is something outsiders never quite grasp. But whereas alcoholism is by all standards bad, homosexuality is not. Homosexuality is only a problem to those who make it one. Yet even during the sixties, when youth practiced tolerance in the antiwar movement, gayety was never a real part of the scene. Radical liberals have always been more queasy about sexual "deviation" than have capitalists, while tolerating, even encouraging, drugs and drink." (ND, p. 153)

"Sopranos, like cheesecakes, are of two kinds: velvet or satin, vanilla or chocolate, silver or gold. The moist voice of Leontyne Price versus the diamond streak of Judy Collins." (ND, p. 165)

"An artist declares: "I never repeat myself: that way lies sterile boredom," and the public thrills: an artist never repeats himself! Well, you know and I know that they know that the declaration is pure bunk. An artist may consciously try to avoid self-imitation, yet it's not for him to know, finally, whether in fact he succeeds.... The best of us have no more than four or five ideas during our whole life; we spend that life chiseling those ideas into various communicating shapes. that sentence states one of my four or five ideas, and I've said it over and over." (ND, p. 409)

"The startling lack of charm in all of [Elliott] Carter's music, early and late, when he himself possess so much of it. To say that his music "reflects our time" and can't afford charm is to know all times. You who know all times, tell us: What time was ever without anguish? (Tom Prentiss in his latest letter: "Concerning repetition: E. Carter declares his dislike of it, which is just as well; we need listen to his work but once.")" (ND, p. 443)

"Has anyone, even Britten in War Requiem, made music about war that is as harrowing as the bare bones displayed daily in newscasts? The whole question about what should and shouldn't be set to music (and why one chooses this text and another chooses that text, and how their musical--as well as their literary--approaches differ) is settled only by the realization of the mad illegitimacy of any setting of any text." (ND, p. 535)

"Poulenc never penned an original note: every measure can be traced to Chopin, or Mussorgsky, or Ravel, or Stravinsky, or even Faure whom he reviled. Yet every measure can be instantly identified as sheer Poulenc, by that mad touch of personal chutzpah that no critic can define" (Lies, p. 15)

"Debussy looks like Mandy Patinkin" (Lies, p. 56)

"I gave you the best years of my life.
Yes, and it's I who made them the best years" (Lies, p. 107)

"Last night reread Letters to a Young Poet for the first time in 45 years. I never quite bought it in 1943 while a student at Curtis, and I still don't buy it. Humorless biblical clichés about dedication and sacrifice. But Rilke was not that much older (only 27) than the Young Poet when he penned these truths, and still no doubt felt there were formulas for a good life." (Lies, p. 134).

"The Beaux Arts Trio, for whom Spring Music was written as a gift from Carnegie Hall, have had the music for close to a year without giving a sign of its receipt, much less of whether they like it. Since the premiere is tomorrow, I swallowed my pride last week and phoned the Trio. It hadn't occurred to them that the composer might want to hear it. Rehearsal yesterday.
"Spring Music lasts 31 1/2 minutes--seven minutes longer than I'd projected--and I'm glad: Its imminent public failure will carry more weight." (Lies, p. 207)

"Went to Angels in America, from duty and guilt (I never go the theater anymore but am always sounding off about it), and from opportunism and curiosity (maybe Kushner will write me a libretto). Well, you can't laugh it off, and I did sit through till the end. But nothing that long can be all good, and much of it is easily trimmed. Well-acted but unmoving, often vulgar. Not just the endless "fuck you" screams from one and all, but also the pandering to the all-too-willing audience..." (Lies, p. 255)

"I do read. The usual Simeon, including the dud Maigret et le voleur paresseux and the Balzacian masterpiece Le Petit Homme d'Arkhangelsk. The short stories of William Maxwell, which, in their potless New Yorkerish idiom, never quite take the plunge, though they move the non-intellectual heart. To re-examine the last of Flaubert's Trois Contes, called "Hérodias," is to discover how much of a slave the master was to brand names, like Judaic tribes and types of precious stone; how the story, paradoxically, is high camp without humor; and how Wilde's Salomé owes its very existence, if not its superiority, to this narrative." (Lies, p. 336)


It occurs to me that living a very artistic and cultural life holds an analogous attraction as Thoreau's Walden: not many of us are going to live a solitary life beside a pond, and fewer of us are going to contribute importantly to art and culture and to share time with famous people (Rorem shared a cab with John Updike and later regretted his testiness to what seemed like Updike's foolish question about composing). But how enjoyable to imagine such a life, as one reads Rorem's thoughts about other composers (he was friends with Barber, Copland, Thomson, Bernstein, and others), and complains about the acclaim lavished upon certain performers, while composers are treated indifferently. (In an interview, Rorem notes that "America is the only country in the whole world that is embarrassed by art. The minute art is mentioned, it becomes a conspiracy. Like Mappelthorpe and the NEA. With all of this discouragement, a composer is not even a despised parish, because in order to be despised he has to exist. A composer doesn't even exist in the ken of the intellectual public. The irony is that there are more young composers around than there ever were before." Quoted from:

In the earlier quoted article, Alex Ross notes that "Rorem was among the last American artists to pull of a plausible Parisian exile, and when he came back, in 1957, he found that composers were being hailed not for the excellence of their craft but for the extravagance of their theories. Time passed, and Rorem kept writing. The high-powered modernists who dismissed him as irrelevant became irrelevant themselves."

Ross continues: "A paradox haunts Rorem’s career. He insists that he has no interest in making “Major Statements,” yet he has always longed to be taken seriously—to have major statements made about him. He has grumbled many times in print over the genuflections rendered toward an atonal showman such as Elliott Carter...Indeed, Carter has benefited from a version of the intentional fallacy, according to which any music that is complex in design is automatically held to be complex in effect. Rorem’s scores seem, by comparison, modest and naïve, but this description applies only to their surface, and not to their emotional or psychological import. Rorem resembles such latter-day figurative painters as Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, who followed the onslaught of Abstract Expressionism with landscapes and still-lifes. Their deceptively conventional images conceal large, ambiguous worlds of feeling.... "

Ross concludes,"To read Rorem’s writing is to feel the agony and the bravery of composing in America. Anyone who writes music for a living is a hero, and Rorem is more heroic than most, because he has compromised so little of what he holds dear. His prose will outlast the sneering of his critics, and his music is too mysteriously sweet to die away." (New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2003:

After reading Rorem's many expressions of appreciation of and love for Holmes---and his inability to comprehend how he could live without Holmes' companionship and practical skills---I feel sad (for what it's worth) that Rorem has had to live without him for twelve years. (Holmes died in January 1999, aged 59.) I plan soon to order Rorem's more recent writings. A quick survey of the internet reveals recent performances of his works, for instance the new Hudson Chorale.

Works quoted:

The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem, 1973-1985, by Ned Rorem. North Point Press, 1987.

Lies: A Diary, 1986-1999, by Ned Rorem. Da Capo Press, 2002.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Mail-Order Country!

Like everyone else, I get a lot of mail-order catalogs. My wife Beth, who is 5'1", receives catalogs for petite fashions. Someone's got my number. Lately I've received several country catalogs.

These peddle "country" furniture, crafts, and gifts. Many of these items have been altered, the paint roughened up to simulate an antique look. Here's an item from a catalog which came the other day. The picture is of a small beat-up-looking table.

#6145. FARM TABLE. Handsomely reproduced in cherry wood with scalloped skirt and beveled legs painted in distressed green, our table has a planed hardwood top. Works well as serving table or dining room piece from Homerre and Jethrot, French crafters. $699.95.
Sounds pretty. Trouble is... it sounds like the table I bought several years back at a garage sale. I paid a dollar for it and later sold it at my own garage sale for another dollar. You're telling me I could've used some sandpaper on that table and sold it as "distressed" for seven hundred bucks?

That makes ME distressed!

Here's another one:

#4576. SPOOL CHEST. Our chest is reproduced from those of yesteryear, when ladies stored bobbins and spools of thread along with notions and fancy goods. Lightly finished in honey pine. All edges and corners have been rounded. $459.00.
Nice. I'll have to admit, that's a good price. I saw an original for sale twenty years ago, without "rounded corners" (i.e. in good shape) that went for close to that price. What would it bring today? What will this honey pine spool chest bring in twenty years? If I were "in it for the money," that's what I'd fret about. But the money's the least of it.

#2111. SHAKER PEGBOARD. Maple pegs are assembled with 3-foot board. Both beautiful and useful! $45.00.
Also beautiful and useful is this SHEEP DOORSTOP (#6700). "Heavy and handy, this happy lamb is hand painted to exacting specifications. $32.00."

#2289. ROCKER. Crafted from solid oak and rattan can back and seat, our chair gives years of leisurely pleasure and good support for your tired back. $210.00.
Some of these items are pretty. I've seen similar items in various shops around the country. But some items, I'm afraid, go too far.

#3900. WOODEN CATTAILS. A lovely bouquet, painted in lifelike colors. Remember the ol' fishin' hole by placing these around your swimming pool! Bouquet of 6, $35.00. 12 for $62.00.

#7844. COUNTRY SCENE. Beautiful three-dimensional wall hanging of a quaint country town. A perfect accent for your Jacuzzi! $70.00
Norman Rockwell lives, and his vision of simpler times.

I'm looking for more authentic country things. How about this one?

#3514. GOOD HOUND DOG! With distressed fur. Missing one ear. Walks with a limp. Neutered. Answers to the name "Lucky." $100.00.
That's an old joke, but why not? Or in my imaginary catalog, I might find this one:

#4477. KILLDEER NEST KIT. Comes complete with gravel for your driveway, carefully packed for shipment. Attract these lovely if neurotic country birds! $25.00.
Or these:

#5800. RAIN GUAGE. Every farmhouse, from Brownstown and Augsburg to San Bernardino and Providence needs one of these useful and homey devices. Attaches to any post or plank (not included). $29.95.

#1156. CALENDAR. Reproduced from a real feed store calendar! Each month treat yourself to a new country scene. Some scenes depict real Purina-fed barrows & gilts! $15.00 for 2011 calendar.

#4009. COFFEE CAN. Filled with nuts and bolts that don't fit anything! Brands of your choice. $20.00

$8778. HUBCAPS. Collected from real country ditches along real country roads. Decorative for any wall of your home, office, or woodshed. $79.00 each.

#7771. WOODEN MEADOW MUFFINS. To go with your herd of lawn cows! $12.00

#2587. PAWPAW TREE SEEDLINGS. Package of 12. $9.00.

What's the appeal of "country" products? The originals of some "country" products cost a lot of money. I collect antique metal signs for soft-drinks and brands of gasoline, and it's hard to find a bargain on these things. Coffee cans can be antiques, too, and milk bottles, old furniture and the like. (I'm not sure about meadow muffins...) Who'd know that store advertisements and everyday household items would be tomorrow's reproducible treasures?

I can't speak for collectors who have no foothold in rural life. But for many of us, thoughts of country living and "times past" are precious. That everyday "stuff," once taken for granted, now reminds me of childhood's happy times, as well as family heritage. It's no surprise that some of us will invest money for an item that brings those memories back. They're mementos, inspiring life's joys, sorrows, and blessed moments!

So....I'll see you over at the sale table of geese flowerpots....

(Originally published in Springhouse magazine and my book Journeys Home.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The First of God's Works

Texts for Life's Journeys:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Texts for Life's Journeys

Like many people, I've noted and underlined favorite scriptures in my Bible over the years. Because my favorite, 30-year-old Bible looks worse for wear, I'm going through it and finding texts I've mulled and appreciated---texts that God used in my own learning and teaching. Along with the post below, I record several explorations of favorite texts. "Stay tuned" for more!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

We Will Always Be the Knights Who Say Ni

A post from 2009... The other day, I realized that I need to send my new phone number to a certain East Coast friend who is a church organist. We’ve known each other nearly thirty years. He calls me when he needs help with doing devotionals at his church. I’m happy to brainstorm ideas. I owe him very much because, when we were students, he reintroduced me to classical music, an ongoing source of joy.

Before too long, one of us will say something like, Run away! or Your type makes me puke, you vacuous, toffy-nosed, malodorous pervert! or I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper. I discovered Monty Python during the late 1970s, when episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were broadcast on our area PBS station. I had not seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, however, until this same friend took me to a campus showing, around 1981. A wonderfully life-changing experience!

I didn’t realize it then, but I was thereby initiated into a kind of
sister- and brotherhood of people connected by memorized references to this movie (and also the series), no matter what other differences we might have. How wonderful when, as I teach Medieval history to a classroom of bored undergrads, I can slip into a falsetto, We found a witch, may we burn 'er? and regain their attention. (One time a student responded, I want a shrubbery.) You can facilitate a meeting concerning department policies by noting, Well, I didn't vote for you, and someone else may pipe in, Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. A while back a colleague e-mailed me about something, and I told him, Go away or I shall taunt you a second time. Of course, he informed me that my mother is a hamster and my father smelt of elderberries.

I’m told that Caddyshack and The Rocky Horror Picture Show are similarly loved by fans. For a while, when Napoleon Dynamite came out, I could warm up a class simply by saying sweet! with conviction. But Holy Grail will probably always be my favorite among cult movies. I first saw it during my masters degree studies, a positive time of great friendships. In the years since, I’ve made many connections with good people with little more than a reassuring It’s only a flesh wound or a panicked Run away!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"A Book of Biblical Proportions"

For anyone interested in learning how books and sections of the Bible fit together, I've posted five informal essays tracing themes, typologies, story arcs, prophecies, allusions, and other connections within the Bible. I also include brief summaries of each Bible book.

This project is part of a leisurely time of personal, midlife rereading and re-studying the Bible. Many of us aren't really very clear about the "shape" of the Bible (which is after all an extremely long and forbiddingly complex book, no matter how much we honor it as God's Word and "the good book"). I had a lot of information about the Bible floating around in my head (plus much information written in my old Bible, and assorted academic and popular reference books around the house), but I felt the need to think more clearly about the Bible's interesting interconnections. Hopefully this material will be helpful!

My five essays are found at: Please feel free to add comments.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Coming of the Wise Men

A sermon for Webster Hills United Methodist Church, Jan. 2, 2011.

This is the Second Sunday of Christmas and it's also the Sunday before Epiphany. Epiphany, in turn, is the commemoration in the Western church of the coming of the Wise Men. So this morning I want to think about their role in our Lord's birth stories, and about the ways they "preach" to us today.

Do you know how many Wise Men there were? That's a trick question, because the Bible doesn't actually say, nor does the Bible give their names. An old joke goes that if the wise men had been wise women, they would've asked for directions, helped deliver the baby, and brought more practical gifts! The Wise Men weren't "kings," as the old hymn names them, but they were probably of a Persian or Babylonian priestly class of astrologers and dream-interpreters.

It's interesting that only two Gospels give us the Christmas stories, and that key elements of the stories are found in each. Luke focuses upon Mary and her relatives. We get the stories of John the Baptist's birth and the response of his parents. Then we learn the story of Mary, the angel's visitation to her, and her trip to see her relative Elizabeth.

Next, Luke gives us the story of Mary and Joseph's trip to Bethlehem to comply with the census. We learn the familiar details: the fact that "there was no room at the inn," the manger, and the shepherds. Afterward, we have the stories of Jesus' naming and circumcision at the Temple, including the stories of righteous Simeon and Anna (2:21-40).

Matthew’s gospel focuses on Joseph. We learn Joseph's genealogy (1:2-17), then Joseph’s obedience response to Mary's situation (1:18-25). Next we learn of Herod’s worried summons of the wise men to find out about the newborn king of the Jews. They follow the star, not to a manger but to a house, and bring Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they leave secretly (2:1-12). Subsequently Joseph himself is warned in a dream not to linger in Bethlehem, so the family travels to Egypt. An enraged Herod authorizes the slaughter of small children around Bethlehem. After Herod dies, the family settles in Nazareth because it is too risky to live in Bethlehem (2:13-23).

It's interesting to think: what if we only had Matthew's gospel? Matthew has the star of Bethlehem, Herod, the wise men, and the slaughter of the innocents, about which Scott preached last week: Matthew doesn't give us the census, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger, and the shepherds! As wonderful as are the stories of the wise men and the star, we miss the other elements!

Scholars note that these stories reflect the theology of each Gospel. Luke's birth narrative are consistent with the purpose of Luke's gospel, which is to show how the God of the Jews has fulfilled the history of Israel in Jesus and now has opened up the Jewish good news for the whole gentile world.

Theologically, Matthew’s stories show how Jesus fulfilled scripture. Jesus is Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14: Matthew 2:5). He is the Messiah from Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-3; Matthew 2:5). The very pattern of Jesus’ first years is similar to that of the people of Israel as they migrate from Canaan to Egypt and then return. In the case of the Wise Men, Matthew (like Luke) recognizes that Jesus is fulfillment of prophecy that the Gentiles--often called "the nations" in the Old Testament--would honor and worship the God of the Hebrews.

The Wise Men were the first Gentiles to pay homage to Jesus. We miss the significance of God's blessing of the Gentiles because we're all Gentiles and we already know that the God of the Hebrews has touched our lives. But if you read Acts and Paul's letters, you can feel a palpable joy at the blessing and generosity of God in showing his love and help for all people.

The story of the Wise Men has given us some very important traditions and theological elements to the church. Let me just highlight four.

The first aspect of the Wise Men: thanks to them, one of the most significant Christmas traditions, coming from Matthew's story, is gift giving. The wise men brought Jesus fine gifts (Matthew 2:11). Thanks to the Wise Men, the church has always had a very strong Christmastime tradition of sharing gifts with those less fortunate. Boxing Day, which is the first weekday after Christmas, is celebrated in some countries: for instance, public workers like mail deliverers received appreciative gifts and workers received food and supplies from employers.

The second aspect is that the nature of their gifts gives us a subtle unifier of what Jesus was about. The Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay notes that gold is the gift of a King, which Jesus certainly is. Frankincense is the gift of a priest. We don't always appreciate the "priestly" role of Jesus, but read Hebrews 4:14-16: "Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Finally the gift of myrrh implies death, because that substance was valued for its fragrance but was also used in embalming. Without realizing the symbolic significance of their gifts, the Wise Men "preached Christ" as king, priest, and crucified savior.

In my Advent study book that many of you folks used last year, I remarked that we tend to separate in our imaginations the birth of Jesus from the death and resurrection of Jesus, and I wondered if perhaps we should display both poinsettias and Easter lilies together in our churches. I doubt that will ever be done, but we do well to keep other both Christmas and Easter in our minds. Jesus was born for our salvation, which was eventually achieved by his atoning work on the cross and his resurrection from the death. These aspects of Jesus belong together, because they are all part of God's work of salvation.

The third aspect of the Wise Men is how they highlight God's way of doing things. Matthew and Luke's gospels give a place of honor to the lowly. Luke's gospel in particular continues the strong Old Testament theme that the poor and needy must be provided for, and that God takes the side of the poor. In telling the story of Jesus, Matthew echoes the story of Moses' birth (the threatened ruler, the killing of children, the secret rescue of the child, the location of Egypt) in order to proclaim Jesus as a liberator for his distressed. The modest circumstances of Jesus' birth shows him to be a different kind of king than Caesar or anyone else holding political power. God chose to be born in circumstances mirroring the unfairness, oppression and injustice that we see in the world.

The fourth aspect---this is my last point---is related to the third. Pastor Richard Fairchild on the Spirit Network website notes that the Wiese Men were open to and recognized King Jesus in spite of the modesty of his circumstances. They came to visit a king, but Jesus lived in a carpenter's simple home. The Wise Men could've assumed they were in the wrong place and kept looking, or given up. Fairchild writes, "So many of us have a hard time accepting what God has given in the form that he gives it. Because we are waiting for a gift from God - we look for great miracles, instant healings, signs and wonders, trumpet calls and 21 gun salutes. We may pray to God for a special blessing - and then turn away at our door a pan-handler who is looking for a meal, or a neighbor who is dropping by unannounced, or a client who shows up just when we are preparing to leave work for the day."

That last point is a good one for us to keep in mind as we prepare for a new calendar year. If you're like me, you hope to grow spiritually and are keenly aware of ways that we fall short. At the same time, we often don't give God credit for doing things differently than our expectations. The great thing is that God is always way ahead of us and seeks to help and guide us along our own journeys. One of the ways in which we grow spiritually is in discernment of God's works in the world. Some of them we miss, because God does things contrary to our expectations. Some of them we see, however. The Wise Men provided wonderful traditions for us, but the example of wisdom about God's purposes is a particularly fine tradition as we look to the Lord for guidance and help for the upcoming year.

Let us pray:
O God, by a star you manifested your only Son to the Wise Men. We give you thanks for our time together this morning. Strengthen each of us to be a blessing to one another and to all people, glorifying you in everything we do and say. Strengthen us also as a congregation, that we may enjoy you together and seek your glory in our lives together. Give us the course to praise you and declare you to those around us during the coming year. Bless us and protect us in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.