Monday, September 30, 2013

Christ and Cosmos

Yesterday, our pastor completed a lovely sermon series on creation, including artistic additions to the sanctuary like a large globe, origami birds, stalks of corn, and other evocative additions. On the last sermon, she preached on the remarkable Colossians 1:15-20.

Even today, many people perceive Jesus as primarily a great moral teacher, or as a living person “back then” who, because he returned to heaven, is not as real to us today as during the days of his earthly life. The Colossians author, though, gives us a tremendous picture of Christ.

Christ is the foundation of all creation, the basis of the cosmos, which the Greeks understood as the Logos, the Word of God in which all things gain substance and coherence (verse 15-7). Christ is fully God and fully a part of God’s creative work. If you spend time in nature, you can think of nature as reflecting Christ.

Several years ago I wrote in an Abingon Press lesson about this passage: “Jesus is also the key to our future. In his resurrection he has brought eternal life and reconciliation (verse 18). Barriers among persons are no longer necessary, for he has done away with them through his blood (verse 20). No more must people struggle to find meaning and die in their sins. He is our peace and our head (verses 18, 20).”

It is wonderful to think of Christ not only in the “spiritual” aspects of saving us from sin and death, but also in the glories of the earth and of the universe. I dream of an attitude toward science where, instead of people foolishly complaining about and disdaining science, they could appreciate the pursuit of scientific knowledge as (from their own faith perspective) bringing glory to Christ.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

US 250 Revisited

Every once in a while on this blog, I like to write about highways I’ve enjoyed and have had some repeated acquaintance. For instance, I’ve lived in three different places serviced by Interstate 64 (although here in St. Louis, locals prefer to call it Highway 40, the older route now cosigned with 64).

I found this old Virginia US 250 sign on Ebay. What fun to remember that pretty highway that passes through Charlottesville, VA, where my wife Beth and I lived and attended school in the 1980s. US 250 passes straight through town, and there is also a bypass route around the northern portion of Charlottesville, so for three years we were on at least some portion of that highway nearly every day. It is the street of the Corner where the UVa campus shops are located, and also passes through downtown (although the downtown shopping district is a pedestrian mall).

I'm glad that I now remember our Charlottesville years fondly, because at the time we were stressed from the typical nuisances one suffers as a grad student, and from the snobbishness we sometimes encountered among store clerks and others. On some days, I assuaged my blues and aggravation with a country drive on highway 250, especially west of town where the road climbs the mountains and passes through pretty towns like Crozet, Waynesboro, and Staunton. Driving east of town, too, was a gorgeous drive, with pretty trees, but mostly I liked the highway west of Charlottesville. On pretty days, I liked to drive barefooted. We purchased our first computer---a Kaypro, remember those?---in Staunton, VA, and we discovered a still-favorite artist, P. Buckley Moss, because of her gallery in Waynesboro.

I found a Wikipedia photo of the highway, which gives you an idea of the beauty of the countryside of that road in Virginia. US 250 connects Richmond, VA and Sandusky, OH, passing through three states on its 514 mile journey. According to the site, the highway was established in 1928 (two years after the federal highway system began) and originally connected Norwalk, OH and Grafton, WV. Then the road was extended west and east in the early 1930s. It intersects US 50, its parent route, at the unincorporated Pruntytown, WV near Grafton.

If you move around the country, you might become reacquainted with favorite highways. During the years our daughter was in college in Pennsylvania, I noticed signs for 250 in Wheeling, WV, where the road briefly coincides with both US 40 and I-70. But I most enjoyed becoming reacquainted with the highway during our years in northeast Ohio in the 00s. We took I-80 over to the US 250 exit. North of the turnpike, the flat, mostly farmed land along 250 was to me very beautiful, a different kind of consoling geography than the mountains of Virginia. I looked forward to the times we drove up to that area to Cedar Point or one of the water parks. During a summer trip, while our daughter was at the amusement park with her high school friends, I visited nearby Sandusky where I found the western terminus of 250 at its intersection with the famous US 6 ( The happy associations of that route with family times brings a nice completion to our earlier acquaintance with the road, as basically happy though beleaguered doctoral students.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Whole Ass One Thing"

This meme has a saying attributed to a “Parks and Recreation” character, Ron Swanson. I like the show but don’t watch it enough to have heard the character say it, so I’m assuming the attribution is correct.

Do you ever feel like you work this way? You have so much going on, you have to keep focusing on different tasks and you worry about the quality. Maybe you don’t “half ass” two or three things but you have to “whole ass” them one at a time, switching back and forth among things you have to get done. Yesterday, for instance, I focused on writing. The day before, I worked on teaching prep and grading. In my (finished) basement, I’ve a box of family photos and genealogy materials that I need to sort and place some of that material online. There is always much to do, and it may be better to set a task aside for a while (unless your boss or other circumstances demand otherwise) rather than to "half ass" it.

The story of Mary and Martha always comes to mind with regard to work and tasks. But today, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 came to mind instead. Paul writes about accommodating his work to different people and circumstances in order to maximize the possibilities of sharing the gospel. Not all our own work may be explicit evangelization, as Paul discusses there. But as we serve the Lord and turn over our many projects to God's guidance, who knows how the Holy Spirit may use the (many) things we do to touch other people’s lives for the Lord?  The Spirit may also help us discern what are the most pressing tasks for the moment.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Change and Constancy

After our last visits, our dentist announced via a letter that he was retiring soon because of medical reasons. He sent a list of other dentists whom he recommended. We hope he has a wonderful retirement and many years to enjoy it!

Finding a good dentist can be difficult. By "good" I mean someone who is good at what he does (are there many women dentists?) and who also has a good personality. A positive office staff is helpful, too. Going to the dentist is, after all, not something to which most of us look forward, and if you have dental insurance, you have those struggles to negotiate, too. I recall a dentist whom I had in childhood, who was kind of grouchy! Not a good bedside manner (or chair-side manner, I guess), especially for a little kid.

Finding a good church can also be difficult. It can be like pulling teeth (ha ha). Whenever we move to a new community, we visit churches and look for that indefinable "something"that indicates we've found a home, so to speak. But even when you've found that home, things change. If the pastor announces he or she is leaving, you perhaps have a sense of dread what the new person will be like. We love our current church and appreciate the gifts and graces of both our previous and current pastors.

I feel a little impatient sometimes when folks say, "Oh, God is unchanging." Though theologically correct, it's kind of a pious cliche, like "God never gives you more than you can handle," etc. It's better to specify the things about which God is unchanging: God's lovingkindness for us, God's concern when we struggle, God's compassion when we call upon God in penitence and regret and distress, God's eagerness to comfort us when we're sorrowful, God's guidance and providence when we're moving into different circumstances. Our experience and understanding of God does change, because we're growing and face new life situations wherein we learn anew about God's faithfulness or have more questions than ever about God. But God is always close by.

God is not going to retire, and God isn't going to recommend alternative deities who may meet our future needs. We are faithful to God, and God is with us always!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Nordic Journey": Organ Music

James Hicks has been the long-time director of music at The Presbyterian Church in Morristown, NJ (1985-2011). He has performed as a concert organist throughout the United States, Europe, and Australia. In January 2010, he recorded a 2-cd set for the Pro Organo label, Nordic Journey. He performed on the historic organ of Linköping Cathedral, Linköping, Sweden, for this collection of nineteenth through twenty-first century Nordic repertoire. Several of the works are premieres, and the composers are Thomas Åberg, Lars Egebjer, J. P. E. Hartmann, Egil Hovland, Joonas Kokkonen, Taneli Kuusisto, Oskar Lindberg, Jarmo Parviainen, Thorkell Sigurbjornsson, and Fredrik Sixten. Hicks recently returned from Sweden where he performed more Nordic organ music for a continuation of the “Nordic Journey” recordings.

He writes in the CD notes, “Given the technology of our time, the world is certainly becoming smaller, casting an international hue to the creative arts. Nevertheless, there are musicians who still cling, either intentionally or subconsciously, to their roots, to their home. In their individual ways, the composers presented on these discs write music that could only come from those who know the joy of the twenty-four hours of light on Midsummer’s Day, celebrate the feast of St. Lucia, and have experienced the impenetrable darkness of midwinter. Listen to these sounds and you may be able to discern a Nordic identity within this music for yourself. It is in this spirit that I invite you to spend a couple of hours with what might be for you some unfamiliar names.”

Hurray for clinging to one's roots and home! One piece that has touched me in particular was Thomas Åberg’s “In the Garden: Frosty Morning” from 1999. In Hicks’ notes, the composer states that he had received news of a friend’s dire cancer prognosis. It was a frosty morning, and the composer decided to go ahead and write a piece for the eventual funeral. But the friend (not expected to live long) recovered spectacularly after treatment---and Åberg hasn’t yet told him the story of the piece.

Jim Hicks is a long-time friend of mine---best man at our wedding, in fact---and I regret that we haven’t spent more time together over the years and called more often. I think I'll give him a call this week. My chagrin at missing the initial release of Nordic Journey, amid the stress of a move to a new location, has prompted this review, which will hopefully be read (and responded to) by folks at the Christian Century site, Facebook and Twitter.

Here are places where you can purchase this wonderful 2-CD set:

And Jim’s own website:

This site has excerpts:

And this site has an article about the release of the CD. (I met his dad, who was an attorney in their native Fredericksburg, VA.)

Interfaith Prayers

Continued prayers from previous weeks' posts for Syria and Egypt, and Myanmar, as well as Iraq and conflicts on the West Bank. Prayers for Muslims in all these regions who are suffering from violence and unrest; also for Christians in Egypt and Iraq, and the Christian community in Aleppo in Syria, where Christians have felt threatened by jihadists seeking to eradicate anyone who is not an ultraconservative Sunni. Also continued prayers for the economy in India.

Also: the victims of the terror attack in Kenya this weekend and the (currently) ongoing situation.

Republican lawmakers in Congress narrowly voted to cut food stamp benefits, although there is still a veto threat. The SNAP problem is controversial but however you feel about these kinds of benefits, pray for persons who have inadequate resources, that they may find suitable help.

Pray for persons in Colorado where flood waters have been devastating. Also, tropical storm Manuel resulted in great destruction in towns in Mexico this week. A typhoon has caused destruction in the Philippines and is heading for Hong Kong. Also, an earthquake struck Pakistan this week.

Also in Pakistan, concern about treatment of girls has resulted in imams devoting sermons about girls and a special emaphsis, “My Daughter Is a Blessing, Not a Curse”,

And a different kind of news: members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have been disseminating information about the church in the wake of the success of the musical “The Book of the Mormon.” The Mormon population in England is fairly small.

Friday, September 20, 2013

"People Are Stupid"

I don’t really believe that, but many times I think it. Earlier today, for instance, I was on a residential thoroughfare, waiting for a chance to turn left onto a side street. Two young men behind me honked their horn, then glared at me when I turned. Once home, I double-checked to make sure my left-turn signal worked, and it does indeed. So it should have been clear why I was stopped in the road. I’m sorry, guys, that I was so rude and presumptuous to be in your way for maybe ten seconds....

We had just passed our local grocery store. Groceries are hotbeds of obliviousness, for instance, people rushing with their carts and nearly colliding with other carts as they emerge from an aisle. The worst menaces, though, are the folks who don’t push the cart with their hands but lean on the handle and push the cart with their upper body. I suppose they do so because they don’t feel steady on their feet, which I don’t begrudge. The thing is: these folks don’t pause or stop for anyone. You just have to wait till they’re out of the way.

Whenever we are in a multi-story building, my family and I wonder if we’ll have yet another common occurrence. People wait for the elevator to arrive, and then when the door opens, they walk right in---and then they’re startled if someone is inside the elevator on their way out!  Having myself nearly run into a person exiting an elevator (and feeling foolish doing so), I’ve begun to stand back from the elevator whenever I’m waiting. That way, I’m courteous if someone coming out.

Another stupid thing that happens sometimes. Say you’re wearing a sweater, and the tag is sticking up. One does have to make a conscious effort to check the tag---after all, you can’t see it when you check yourself in the mirror. That’s not the stupid thing. One Sunday morning, I was walking toward the door of my church, and a woman behind me calls, “Wait a minute!” and she reaches over and tucks my tag into my sweater. Then she walks into the church laughing!  Did she think she was so clever? Just a few days later, a clerk in a men’s clothing store at the mall did the same thing----reached over and tucked my tag in and expressed satisfaction that he'd helped me.

In both cases, I didn’t say anything but was cold----because both seemed so proud of themselves in fixing my outfit.  Ever since, I’ve taken care to check my tag, lest a total stranger thinks it necessary to do it without asking. (On a related note, I met a woman pastor who said that so many people at church rubbed her pregnant belly---and then some of them felt put-off when the pastor asked them nicely to not do that.)

We all have pet peeves about human nature---and, of course, we ourselves may seem exasperating to others (but we don't think of that). The trick is to feel calm and even amused at people’s foibles (while also, when necessary, establishing boundaries). When Jesus says to turn the other cheek, he isn’t just teaching a behavior but a quality of your inner spirit. You have a big heart, you’re magnanimous, you have an inner peacefulness and sense of humor, wisdom and perspective about people, a feeling of kindness toward everyone, including extremely unpleasant folks.

To think other people are stupid is itself a sign of self-importance, even if only a passing mood of superiority. What are your pet peeves about the foolish ways we all act sometimes? You’ll feel better writing them down!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Divine Reversals and Patterns

I liked the readings this morning in one of my devotional periodicals. This one had to do with “reversals,” reflecting upon Psalm 113:7, “He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” The writer noted that the Bible has many stories of reversals: women who wanted but could not have children became pregnant, an exiled people returned to their land, an executed man rose from the dead. We can think of others. We can also think of people who experienced reversals who weren’t even seeking them: Saul of Tarsus, the two downcast fellows walking to Emmaus, and others.

I always worry about how to communicate this message of God's faithfulness. What about all the times we pray for a reversal but things stay the same? What about problems about which we pray and then they become worse? It can be cruel to tell someone that God will answer prayer if only he/she has enough faith. The prayer may be answered with a difficult-to-understand “no,” or the prayer may be answered over a period of time, or in some surprising way.

On the other hand, I testify to the fact that God has never failed me. My faith has often been whiney and distressed during times when (in hindsight) God was working on some amazing thing. One life-changing opportunity came along during a time when I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But still, I don't want to be insensitive when I talk to people about such promises, because people do struggle with situations and the surprising, hoped-for reversal doesn’t seem imminent---or likely.

The devotion writer talks about the grace of other people. God works through people both to steady us and, many times, God brings about reversals for us via those within and without our circle. That’s very true!

I also like to think of reversals as patterns, patterns of God’s love and grace. Sometimes we can point to specific help that God provided right away, but we can also point to patterns of God’s love and grace that we see drawn or woven in our lives, often in hindsight. So it’s very important that we try not to give up on God when we’re disappointed or distressed. You’d hate to miss the beautiful sight of amazing things God had accomplished over our lives' long haul.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Dag Hammarskjöld's Room of Quiet

I noticed in one of my devotional guides that today is the anniversary of Dag Hammarskjöld's death in 1961 at the age of 56 (my age now). Too young that year to remember, I do recall some of my family and some church members referring to his posthumously-published Markings. The book is one of the popular spiritual texts that I associate with my general awareness of 1960s culture, and also with the years between my childhood Sunday school classes and the renewal of faith that I enjoyed during my freshman year in college.

When my wife Beth and I visited the United Nations a few years ago during a business trip to the city, I discovered the meditation room with which I was unfamiliar. What a moving experience, pausing for several minutes in that silent place. If you too have been unfamiliar with the room, here is a description, with some of Hammarskjöld's words:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Barefoot Walks and Moments

I’ve written a few times on this blog about going barefoot. I like having at least a few times during the summer when I can go barefoot. Our previous neighborhood was a wonderful place to stroll shoeless. The relatively new sidewalks were smooth and warm. One neighbor often went barefoot when she walked her dog; she had on her work clothes but kicked off her shoes before taking her buddy out on his leash.

Sometimes, during a road trips, I like to tiptoe shoeless into a crafts store or gift shop in a small town, or an antique store. I love these kinds of places, in little towns off the interstate, so much so that the scent of decorative candles and potpourri remind me of nice-weather drives. I stroll around the displays, and the hard wood floor or the durable carpet feets so nice if I’ve left my sandals kicked off in the car. It's a silly thing to do but that's the point: it's humorous, a little bit self-mocking, and to me quite joyful.

Surprisingly perhaps, I nearly always get very warm service, and I always purchase something at such stores. During one road trip break, I stopped by an antiques, crafts and gift shop. and the cheerful clerk engaged me with stories of bouncing back from major surgery and meanwhile trying to run a business.

Taking another driving break, I stopped by a bookstore and padded in. A clerk greeted me warmly as I looked through a book and asked if I needed help. I said I hoped it was okay that I was barefooted and was told, “You’re fine!” I strolled around for a while and ended up purchasing nearly $100 of books. the carpet felt wonderful.

I recall tiptoing into a corner pharmacy for some items, and I realized that the store was being renovated. Shelves were moved and some items were out of place. A person asked if I needed help, and I thought I might be “busted.” Instead, the person helped me find the items I needed---and amid the remodeling, he couldn’t find them either! My feet made that gentle sound upon the floor as we went up and down aisles and finally located my products.

Going barefoot was a kind of a post-hippy fad during the 70s and part of the 80s, when I was in my teens and twenties. Padding into a store without shoes on wasn’t an uncommon thing to do back then, and to me it felt wonderful. Proceeding into the grocery store, for instance, was a nice respite on a hot day; you could run your errand and feel the cool floors beneath your feet. Strolling barefoot around our small town shops was a fun thing on a Saturday or a warm late afternoon following school.

Even in the 90s and 00s, I occasionally noticed someone going barefoot out-and-about. Perhaps, like me, they like to keep the fad going, on at least a few summerime occasions. A family inside our local Baskin-Robbins included a shoeless young woman who ate a sundae and rocked a stroller with her toes to soothe a fussy baby.

Years ago I visited a coastal town for a summer craft fair. My fisherman sandals lay on the floorboard, and I regretted not wearing a lighter pair. So I left them behind. With my touristy camera over my shoulder, I sighed with relief as I strolled the warm sidewalks. I spent a pleasant hour or so padding among the booths and shops, as barefooted as if I were collecting shells on the beach. A lighthearted thing to do, if a little risky, but what a nice summertime memory. I did see a few other folks shopping barefoot, affirming that I wasn't the only eccentric.

I read a book about the soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who is known for taking off her shoes and enjoying the grass and earth. "When I was a little child," she said, "one of the things that gave me the greatest pleasure was to go to the park across the street and have my feet feel the earth and the blades of grass." A friend and I decided to take a walk as we chatted so we drove over to her favorite park without our shoes on and strolled around: so peaceful!

I enjoy recalling couple of favorite nature trails as, on two or three occasions, I walked in my bare feet along the grassy and dirt paths. I'd taken the trails before in walking shoes, so I knew the terrain and felt okay about bringing no shoes or sandals. One of the trails alternated between pretty timber and open meadows, and included a few small hills to climb, plus the trail offered the comforting, nostalgic sight of an old barn as the path curved around and back into timber. A small bridge forded a stream that was sadly polluted, a shade of bright orange. But there was also a green pond where frogs croaked and turtles peaked above the surface. I watched my strolling toes, kept an eye out for stones on the trail, and on slopes I was aware of my toes digging into the soft earth for traction. On a stretch of damp soil I noticed behind me that my heels made small dents in the earth, a modest footprint on the land.

Unfortunately I had no big road trips this summer, the sidewalks in my new neighborhood are comparatively rough, and my ankle tendonitis was flaring up so I always took walks with supporting shoes. Maybe these times are over for me. But there is that famous piece wherein an old woman writes that if she could live her life over she’d start going barefooted earlier in the spring and stay that way till later in the fall. I enjoyed embracing that philosophy over the years and, who knows, between now and the end of Indian Summer there will still be nicely warm days for this kind of humorous walking.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Beauty Happens By

Sometimes I’m strongly attracted to a selection of music that I'd never heard before, whether on the radio, or a piece on a CD set of music that I wanted to discover. The other day, I turned on the Sirius XM classical station to a symphonic movement that was so pretty. It reminded me of landscapes along the highways of my native Fayette County, Illinois. That spontaneous linkage to childhood memory will endear a piece to me forever, and I can’t explain why or what kind of piece will do that.

When I looked upon the piece on the radio station’s website, it turned out to be the third symphony by Christian Sinding, a Norwegian composer (1856-1941) with whom I was unfamiliar (although when I did hear his most famous work, Frühlingsrauschen, I recognized it from somewhere.) The expressive second movement in particular made me think of familiar countryside. I wish I knew enough musicology that I could understand what it is about a piece that will involve in me strong feelings of rural peace.

But beautiful things can and do remind us of other beautiful things. It’s pleasant as one goes through the day that you can “catch” a sense of beauty as it happens by. The lectionary gospel lessons have been on Jesus’ parables lately, and I like to think of some of the parables and teachings in this way. Look, there’s something beautiful: a city in plain view atop a hill... a person in a pretty field, tossing seeds with the hope that they’ll take root... a vineyard, where people are working.... a fig tree... a pearl... a son coming home.... Many things moved Jesus and reminded him of another beautiful thing: God’s kingdom.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Spirituality of Feeling Appreciated

I have devotional guides and prayer books that I like to read as the week moves along. If the week is busy or distracting, I miss some days, but either I catch up or just begin reading with that day’s thoughts. Often, these guides and books give me ideas for writing posts for this blog.

As I was reading this evening, I felt glum rather than uplifted. In many devotions, the writer wanted to be more Christ-like, then went through a period of trouble and realized that he or she had been prideful. Other writers had learned some lesson where some personal fault had been revealed to them, and that God knew best.

The truth is, there are times when I need just the opposite---times when I feel blue and undervalued and I need to know I’m a good person who has done a good job. During such times, I don’t need another doggone lesson about humility. I don’t want to be shamed into expressing gratitude for the providential correction of my faults, nor to be reminded that we don’t serve God in order to be affirmed.

Instead, I need a sign that God is proud of me. I need a pat on the back from other people. We all have areas of disappointment and pain in our lives, situations in which we wish we had been treated better. Maybe you're experiencing that kind of situation right now. Sometimes these kinds of things weigh heavily in our hearts, and what would give us the best spiritual boost is timely, positive acknowledgment.

I must quickly say: I’m grateful for all the recognition, success, and praise that I’ve received in my life. I’m not at all lacking in these things; far from it. I thank God for my many friends and wonderful family, all the people in my life with whom I give and receive love, value and affirmation. I’m grateful for feedback that I’ve difference in people’s lives.

But do you ever feel sad like this---low on morale---regardless of how much you try to put it into perspective? Instead of such an emphasis on humility and brokenness, I think we need a balancing spirituality---of feeling loved and appreciated and proud of the good we’ve done in our lives, a spirituality where we admit and declare our need to be affirmed and valued.

(That’s one reason I try to be generous with my praise to people and to think of folks I may have overlooked. I remember one time when I saw a colleague at a conference, praised her for an event she had organized, and I was surprised when she started to cry. Apparently she'd gotten a demoralizing amount of criticism.)

I have a feeling that lots of people will admit to the same thing. We talk a good line about humility and selfless service but we secretly long for praise and affirmation. We live in a time, for instance, when so many people are kicked to the curb in spite of loyal service (perhaps with a spiritual sense of calling) to their work. I was heartened to read something about Henri Nouwen recently, how he struggled sometimes with these same kinds of sad feelings and insecurities and need for love. We aren’t alone in our need for positive acknowledgment; we just need to figure out how best to support one another in this way.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Anniversary of Cassettes

My local news channel featured an announcement just now, that cassette tapes were introduced by Philips on this day in 1963. I wrote this piece about cassettes last fall.... It's funny how one’s mind wanders and makes connections. I was reading a “Gramophone” magazine review of a Martha Argerich CD, and the subject of cassette tapes came to mind, because I once owned a two-cassette box of Chopin music that Argerich had recorded. I hadn't known that the famous "funeral march," sometimes featured in my childhood's cartoons, was actually Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2. As the tape played along in the car, clicking a little in the player, it came to that movement, and I thought, "Oh!  That's where that comes from!" Of course, Argerich's version is compelling.

I wondered: Whatever happened to cassettes? I know I’ve not seen them in stores for many years, although they once covered several shelves in places like Sam Goody and Tower Records.

I checked Wikipedia, which had a footnoted article that indicates they are actually still being sold, but in very few numbers. The author writes: “Cassettes outsold vinyl and compact disc, respectively, from the early 80s until the early 90s.” Even in 2004, 8.6 million cassettes were sold. But by 2009, sales had plummeted to 34,000. “Of the 2,000 tapes sold year-to-date, most have been albums at least 36 months old, bought at indie retailers in the south Atlantic region, in the suburbs, according to SoundScan.”

So there’s my answer! The author notes that cassettes’ niche is specific: “Not only were tapes the way many young people first owned music in the Reagan era; from post-punk to C86 to riot grrrl to industrial and noise, cassettes also embodied the 80s underground's do-it-yourself ethic. So much so, in fact, that many indie labels never stopped creating them....Last August, Rhizome writer Ceci Moss identified 101 cassette labels.” (

That made me think of other formats. During the college years of 1976-1979, I had an eight-track player in my car, and I still enjoyed those tapes as late as 1979, a summer I had a job that involved a lot of car travel. But I doubt I purchased any thereafter. According to a Wikipedia article, eight-tracks were no longer sold in retail stores by 1982, though record clubs still sold them until 1988. The last commercial eight-track release seems to be Fleetwood Mac’s 1988 “Greatest Hits.”

Good riddance! Those tapes were terrible things: their clunkiness, and the way you had to put up with repeated songs. I see them sometimes in antique stores and groan. 

My parents wonderfully purchased me a reel-to-reel recorder and player when I was in high school, around 1972. I used it to record music off the radio, especially KSHE-FM in St. Louis, and later Met Opera Saturday matinees. But I don’t think I ever purchased a pre-recorded tape. No wonder: when I looked up that format on Wikipedia, I discovered that pre-recorded reels were largely gone from stores by 1973, and a few were offered by record stores until the late 1970s.

I don’t miss cassettes much. Of course, you had to rewind or fast-forward to your favorite song, and you hoped you wouldn’t go too far or too short. But I was used to them. I don’t remember the first cassette I purchased, but I remember the first one I played: David Bowie’s “Man Who Sold the World” LP, which I taped at home by putting the small player/recorder next to the turntable speakers, and then I carried that same player with me in my old car, a seen-better-days 1963 Chevy. The car wasn’t worth getting a player installed (and my subsequent Dodge Dart had the 8-track player). So it was a homemade way to have favorite music in the case as I, a teenager in a small town, enjoyed my new driver’s license and freedom. 

My 1979 Pontiac station wagon had a cassette player built in, so I had a lot of popular tapes. After I was married in the 80s, Beth and I like to purchase cassettes for our cars, especially for cross-country trips to visit the parental-units on holidays. We had a tape of Rossini overtures, baroque “greatest hits,” and Garrison Keillor radio shows. To this day, “William Tell Overture” reminds me of a tedious interstate rather than the Lone Ranger. We had a favorite tape that included two Vaughan Williams’ “A Lark Ascending” and “Tallis Fantasia” along with Elgar’s “Serenade in E Minor for String Orchestra” and Tippett’s “Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli,” and also a cassette with Haydn’s trumpet, harp and organ concertos. All these pieces still bring to mind road trips. 

Of course, the tapes were handy for compiling your own favorite songs. A good friend made me a mixtape of her favorite 70s songs, which I played a lot in my car for a long time. I had some Christian pop songs compiled on a tape, as a way to put myself in a peaceful mood when, for instance, driving to the hospital to call upon folks. 

We had a little carrying case in which to store the tapes, but often they ended up being tossed into a small cardboard box. I’d dump them out onto the car seat, and they made that plastic clatter as they fell onto the seat and I sorted through them to locate good music for whatever the day’s trip was.

The last cassette I purchased was either Talking Head’s “Sand in the Vaseline,” or a Christian singer (whose name I can't remember) singing a beautiful version of Psalm 121. This was back in the mid 1990s. By then I was purchasing CDs for home listening.  But why did I wait to begin purchasing CDs until around 1989 (seven years after their introduction) and only then when my favorite record store stopped carrying LPs? I liked LPs (still do) and my car only had a cassette player. Used to this audio technology, I was devoted to it for a long time. My 2004 Nissan Sentra had players for both cassettes and CDs, but not my 2010 Toyota Matrix.

Will I someday write a nostalgic piece about CDs? Will it (like this essay) unintentionally turn out to be a reminiscence about cars? The time is coming and is here; in my Matrix, I listen to my iPod full of downloads more often than CDs. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Another September 11th Anniversary

My amazing daughter worked the costume crew at Opera Theatre of St. Louis when John Adams’ opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” was staged a few years ago. She was dresser for one of the Palestinian characters and noticed Adams himself visiting the rehearsal. (My wife and I had shaken hands with Adams in the 1990s when he won the Grawemeyer Award for his violin concerto.)

This production of “Klinghoffer” became locally significant because it opened an opportunity for religious understanding. The head of Opera Theatre met with local Jewish leaders, and an interfaith forum was held, and a tradition began of an annual interfaith service around the time of 9/11 each year.

Scene from the 1893 World's Fair, from
It’s worth noting another 9/11 anniversary: 120 years ago, the World’s Parliament of Religions convened as part of the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The parliament began Sept. 11, 1893 and ran through the 27th.

The assembly is now recognized as the birth of formal interreligious dialogue in the world. Ironically, Native Americans and other representatives of indiginous religions were not included (considering that the exposition commemorated Columbus’ first voyages to America). But representatives of Islam, Christian Science, Buddhism, and Hinduism met with the admittedly Christian-heavy assembly. Baha’i, a very new faith at that time, was mentioned at the gathering, and Bah'ais soon participated in interfaith groups.

One notable attender was Soyen Shaku, the Zen teacher credited as the ancestor of Zen practice in the United States. Swami Vivekananda represented Hinduism. A local colleague of mine, a swami in the Vedanta Society, has spoken to one of my classes about the importance of Vivekananda, not only in this particular visit but also for Hinduism in the U.S.

Among numerous sources about the parliament, this article gives a good summary and discussion of the importance of the 1893 event: The event is significant for the development of study of comparative religion (one of my own primary teaching areas for as long as I’ve been teaching), as well as for Christian ecumenism and missionary efforts, and for the growing multiculturalism and religious diversity in America as immigrants from Asia increased during the early and then the mid 20th century. As the article’s last quoted author puts it, “other deities had been tucked up in [America’s] sacred canopy.” Mutual religious understanding became an ongoing and necessary goal for Americans as “new ways to be religious” became characteristic of the nation. All of us who value interfaith and ecumenical understanding--- not only as an activity but as a way of being religious---appreciate the 1893 event.

Bunny at the Door

All summer, we’ve watched a baby rabbit explore our backyard. It was tiny when we first noticed it and over the course of a few weeks it grew larger. We should have given it a name, but it was always just “little bunny.” The way rabbits chew is an unfailing source of amusement. Because our house is handicap-accessible, a wheelchair ramp connects the driveway to the backdoor, and we think the rabbit lives beneath the ramp.

For a while, rabbits were plentiful in the neighborhood. One evening we counted nine as we took a mile-long walk around neighborhood blocks. But lately we’ve seen few if any. I looked online and found an article that indicates that rabbits (if they don’t fall victim to another animal or a bird of prey) begin to come out at twilight and at dawn as summertime ends. Sometime in the pre-dawn I should step outside with a flashlight and see if our drove of rabbits are having a grassy breakfast.

You probably won’t know what happens to the “critters” in your yard. In the 1970s, a blond rabbit played and ate the grass of my childhood home, along with the usual brown and gray rabbits. Eventually we saw it no more.

My grandmother lived in a farmhouse a few miles out of town. She lived alone for the last several years of her life, and one of her consolations was watching the change of seasons. She watched the days shorten as the season moved toward December 21, and then the days would slowly lengthen toward June. She watched the patterns of the wild animals and birds. Because of her enjoyment, I’ve also picked up this sense of peace gained from the cycles of time. Observation of seasonal changes---including the appearance and disappearance of backyard animals---connects in my mind to the need to be conscious in a faithful, hopeful way of time’s passage. “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Ps. 90:12).

Monday, September 9, 2013

Fear and Faith

This past Sunday our pastor preached on Luke 8:22-25, the familiar story of Jesus’ calming of the storm.

“One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’” (NRSV)

Our pastor explained that the story is not about doubt and faith, but about fear and faith. Doubt can work in the service of faith, but fear cannot. Fear overwhelms faith. She explained that this story is positioned among several stories concerning the power of Jesus and the recognition of Jesus, connecting to the story in Luke 9 where Peter is able to declare Jesus as the Christ. Growth in Christ is a growth in wisdom---the kind of wisdom that helps us address the “storms” and troubles of our lives because we recognize who Christ is, have experience with his grace, and have abided in him for a time.

There are plenty of us, myself included, who seek to grow in this kind of wisdom but slip into fear and anxiety with predictable ease when certain kinds of trouble come along. Christ may very well think, “Where is your faith?” in response to our fears. But he does not abandon us to our troubles, just as he did not leave the storm-tossed boat with the parting words, "Just deal with it, guys."

Interfaith Prayers

Continued prayers for Syria, and for a peaceful response from the world community to the crisis (and wisdom for American leaders and leaders in the G20 summit). Continued prayers for Egypt, which hasn’t been as prominent in the news lately because of Syria.

In addition to the concerns about the general Syrian situation, Christians (a minority population in Syria) fear they might become vulnerable to persecution or displacement with the rise of militant Islamist groups there. Coptic Christians have been targets in Egypt amid that country's turmoil.

Refugees from sectarian violence in the Middle East have been going to Australia, but there, both parties have wanted tougher policies on immigration, and meanwhile asylum seekers are waiting in limbo.

Shana tovah u'metukah to Jews who are in the midst of the Yamim Noraim right now, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Prayers for the many communities that will have some kind of 9/11 commemoration this week.  We ask for prayers for persons still suffering twelve years later from that tragedy.  

Sept. 11 is also the 120th anniversary of the beginning of the World's Parliament on Religion, where world faiths were introduced in the United States. The parliament had lasting influence on the study of religion, and upon interfaith and ecumenical dialogue and cooperation. We bless the memory of those who led and participated!

India has been seeing a rise in communal violence. There have been 451 cases this year compared to 410 during all of 2012. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, a state of high alert has been declared,  and in spite of army petrols in the area of Muzaffarnagar, numerous people have been killed in that area.

In the past year in Myanmar, religious-inspired violence has resulted in over 450 Muslims' deaths and the displacement of a quarter-million Muslims.  Similar, bloody conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims also continue in Thailand.

In Java, members of a Muslim reformist movement called Ahmadiyya In Myanmar in the past year alone, more than 450 Muslims have died and 250,000 have been displaced, losing their homes because of religious-inspired violence. But Myanmar is not alone.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

"Theology Is Friendship"

Yesterday I read the devotions in one of my guides, “The Word in Season” from Augsburg Fortress Press. I liked this phrase, “theology is friendship,” used by one devotion writer. He discussed how he had trouble pronouncing the long names in the Bible, in this case New Testament names of Greek origin. But he married a Greek woman, became friends with persons with similar names, and he had a new appreciation of the way Paul greeted church members (often by name) at the end of his letters. Theology is friendship because it’s shared with other people.

I appreciated that phrase. Sometimes, when we read the Bible, it can be difficult to feel connected to that world and those words. The text is a long-ago set of documents that we’ve honored as God’s Word, further distancing us from the sense of friendship that some of the writers felt toward their original readers.

But friendship really is what Paul (exasperating as he sometimes seems to us and must’ve been in person, too) felt toward the people to whom he wrote. In fact, he said often enough that he needed their love! It might be an interesting exercise in visualizing the biblical text. (Our pastor has been experimenting with helping us visualize and experience the text in personal ways.) Think of the text as something written with feelings of friendship and affection for those who read it---including you and me.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The painter Peter Barker

A few months ago, I "liked" a Facebook page called Mia Feigelson's FB Gallery. One day, she featured an English artist named Peter Barker, with whom I was unfamiliar. But I loved his landscapes that she featured. I found Barker’s website and ordered a calendar (not realizing that postage to the United States wasn’t included in the cost), so that for now I could soon enjoy some of his paintings in my office (maybe while listening to British music:

I wanted to share Barker's website so you can see his beautiful paintings:  From that website, here are several links to galleries:

Barker’s website indicates that he is a self-taught artist who gave up a career in professional golf in order to devote his time to art: “Peter's passion for the British countryside is reflected in his work which conveys an acute sense of observation and knowledge. Often he returns to the same wood, stretch of river, or coastline, portraying it in different weather, season and time of day. ... He has not settled into any one niche of painting; rather, he finds painting such a wide variety of subjects, from landscape, marine, wildlife, still-life and portraits, both on a large scale and small, in oil, pastel, acrylic or watercolour, keeps his work fresh and his desire to paint unceasing, limited only by the number of hours in a day. He paints both in the field 'en plein air' and in the studio at home in Rutland.”

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Anniversary Times

Back to blogging after a time of busyness, travel, and a tenacious blue mood.... My wife Beth and I just got back from a trip to Ohio to visit Beth’s mother, who has Parkinson’s. Our daughter’s birthday happened to fall (in August) around the Labor Day weekend, but Emily drove to see a good friend for the weekend, then we all reassembled after the Ohio trip and celebrated a late birthday for her.

When I was a kid, birthdays and anniversaries were concentrated in the summer months. My parents were born in July and August and were also married in July. With Mother’s and Father’s Days, I had five different occasions to buy them presents and send them cards. (As they grew older, I was more or less expected to impress them with imaginative gifts and big cards.) I also had four great-aunts who were born in the second half of August, so we had the family reunion in a local park on the third or fourth of August.

My daughter’s birthday is always a happy occasion! But September has become melancholy with the deaths of both of my parents during the month---plus, the anniversary of my dad’s death is the same day as my deceased father-in-law’s birthday. I have some strategies for staying positive as the days approach. (After I wrote and posted this, a FB friend whom I knew in high school noted that his mom died thirty years ago today.)

I like a book called “Praying Our Goodbyes” by Joyce Rupp. I first read it years ago when a friendship had cooled, but she also deals sensitively with several areas of grief and loss. Here is a good sample: