Saturday, November 30, 2013

Beginning of Advent

A slightly updated post from last fall… Here are some words from St. Charles Borromeo, a controversial church leader who lived 1538-1584, and is namesake of nearby St. Charles, MO where my parents were married:

“Beloved, now is the acceptable time spoken of by the Spirit, the day of salvation, peace and reconciliation: the great season of Advent. This is the time eagerly awaited by the patriarchs and prophets, the time that holy Simeon rejoiced at last to see. This is the season that the Church has always celebrated with special solemnity. We too should always observe it with faith and love, offering praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and praise and thanksgiving to the Father for the mercy and love he has shown us in this mystery. In his infinite love for us, though we were sinners, he sent his only Son to free us from the tyranny of Satan, to summon us to heaven, to welcome us into its innermost recesses, to show us truth itself, to train us in right conduct, to plant within us the seeds of virtue, to enrich us with the treasures of his grace, and to make us children of God and heirs of eternal life. ...

“The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace....”

(From The Liturgy of the Hours, I, Advent Season, Christmas Season [New York, Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1975], pp. 152-153.)

Advent begins tomorrow, Dec. 1st. For several years I’ve tried to make Advent a genuine beginning to the year: a time of reflection and resolution. My best-laid plans to grow spiritually are often thwarted amid the busyness of the season (including, for me, wrapping up a semester, and this semester runs a little later in the month than usual). My own typical struggle is to rejoice more deeply in the “riches” and “treasures” of God’s grace (as St. Charles writes here, echoing Ephesians), since my emotional disposition is often toward worry and blue self-dissatisfaction. This season [2013], I am struggling with the deaths of my mother last year and my mother-in-law this year, which adds a new layer of emotional struggle to the time.

Our pastor calls attention to the fact that Advent is a liturgically enacted remembrance of Christ’s first coming and an anticipation of his second coming. That's always a good thing to remember: in a way, the nativity sets that we display in homes and churches orient us to the present and future, and not just to the distant Bethlehem past.

While the parousia is a vivid Christian doctrine, I like to think of the ways Christ can be return to our hearts, over and over again, as we struggle in our spiritual lives and “get back on track” when we’ve been blue or busy or distracted for a time.

Interfaith Prayers

December 1 is World AIDS Day. This community in Texas will commemorate the day with an interfaith service:

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah continues. This past Thursday was also the Baha'i commemoration of the Ascension of 'Abdu'l-Baha.

The holiday shopping season has begun!  This Muslim article contains nice reflections on the wholeness of heart that we crave, but which we can't fill through "things."

Muslims complain of negative treatment in Angola.

Continued prayers for the Philippines following the typhoon there.

According to this article, the killing of Christians in Syria is a story ignored by Western media.

The crash of a police helicopter in Glasgow is tragic news on a day (St. Andrew's Day) when Scottish Christians would be celebrating the day of their patron saint.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Folks in Long Lines

I don’t remember when that term “Black Friday” began to gain popularity, but I do remember being confused at first. I teach American history, and I knew that Black Friday was the day in September 1869 when the U.S. gold market collapsed. I kept hearing news people refer to “black Friday” and I knew they weren’t referring to President Grant’s administration!

Our family is not shopping today, but other years we’ve shopped on this day. A few years ago we needed to replace our Christmas tree so we visited one of the local malls.  It was so difficult to maneuver through the large crowds in each store, especially at the store where we’d purchased the tree----in a heavy, four-foot long box, awkward to carry. 

One of my Facebook friends commented that people were not going “bat**** crazy” at stores. He thought that the media likes to focus upon people’s insanity and rudeness, which is probably true. In fact, he said, people were being pretty polite and were even chatting with strangers and empathizing about the long lines and difficulties. 

It's true that people make temporary friendships, so to speak, in times of stress, for instance, in long lines. I remember an Australian couple with whom my family and I kept standing in the same long lines to see Washington, D.C. attractions like the Capitol. Before the day ended, we got to know one another!  

Another common, stressful circumstance are at airport gates when flights are delayed. I recall many chats with total strangers as we waited for weather to clear, for pilots to arrive, and so on. We’re all stuck in the same predicament together, and so we all might as well converse about things.

What happens to people, whom you like but aren’t in a situation where you’d ever resolve to stay in touch? 

I’m always trying to think of ways to improve my prayer life, which (like many people) happens in and among the aspects of my busy life, fraught with spiritual lapses. If I happen to think of barely-remembered strangers with whom we conversed during tedious lines and annoying delays, I’ll try to recall them and then to say a little prayer for them. God has kept track of them, even if we haven’t.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Interfaith Prayers, 11/28/13

A neat HuffPost piece for this year's simultaneous Thanksgiving-2nd night of Hanukkah.

Barth on Thanksgiving

The theologian Karl Barth has interesting thoughts about giving thanks. All this is from pages 166 and following of the Church Dogmatics, Vol. 3, part 2 (Edinburgh, T. &. T. Clark, 1960). He describes human being as a “being in gratitude” (Sein im Danken) because of our ability to hear, respond to, and obey God’s word of grace.

In other words, giving thanks is part of our being/essence, not just a behavior that we pick up.

Furthermore, “Only as we thank God do we fulfill our true being” (p. 170, that is, Nur indem er Gott dankt, ist der Mensch, was er ist, p. 203 in the original). “The fact that God tells man (Mensch) that He is gracious to him, that He reveals to man his grace, His indispensable, pure and perfect benefit, is the objective and receptive aspect of the being of man, and the fact that he gives thanks to God is the subjective and spontaneous [aspect]…[O]nly as he gives thanks to God does man fulfill his true nature. By doing this and this alone does he distinguish himself as being from non-being…”

So (to translate inclusively): “In this action [of giving thanks to God] alone are we human beings” (pp. 170-171).

Barth goes on and on from there in his characteristic way, examining the ontological nature of human beings from a Christological standpoint. But I’m always struck by that idea of giving thanks as an aspect of human being.

Is it too much to say that giving thanks is as much our essential nature as our biological aspects (for instance, being bipedal not quadrupedal)? God made us this way: to be thankful to our creator and redeemer.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hump Day Prayer

Dear Lord, we pray for those for whom this is still "hump day"---a normal Wednesday in their work week---because they still have to work long hours in spite of the Thanksgiving holiday. 

We pray that you help us gain perspective about our culture in which we do, indeed, demand services and shopping opportunities on days that could and should be days of gratitude.  (I, too, O Lord, love to shop.) 

We pray for safe travels for those making journeys over this weekend. Just now, the morning news reporters said that about 39 million Americans will be traveling. Help each one and help each one reach his/her destination in safety and at least relative comfort. 

We ask your blessings upon families and friends gathered for Thanksgiving. Help us all gain and grow feelings of happiness, contentment, and gratitude.  

We ask your blessings upon those who have lost family members (as is the case with our family), those who are hospitalized this week, and those who otherwise will find this week a difficult time.  

An old postcard 
We raise to you specific sorrows in our hearts................ and we name specific requests for ourselves.............. and for others.................. We ask for your help for this situations in our nation and world.......................

Especially when we're blue and struggling because of the holidays and various problems, help us to cling to the truth of the religious doctrines in which we believe. Thereby, may we learn anew that the deepest truths of our lives are beautiful, hopeful, and beneficial because they come from you, O Lord, and from your love that will not let us go.

As we strive for consistent gratitude in our feelings and attitudes, we give you praise for your kindness, patience, and generosity toward us. In your holy name. Amen.

(The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre,"

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ the King

It’s Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian liturgical calendar. One of my devotional periodicals discussed the passage where Jesus stands before Pilate---Jesus’ “coronation.” The writer discussed Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” and Jesus’ own affirmation of being the Truth (and the Way and the Life).

Last year I wrote about Christ's dual role as king and priest: With my mother-in-law's death this month, and with my own mother's death fourteen months ago, and with these emotions of grief very strong as we moved toward the holiday season, I feel particularly comforted by this Sunday. I think about God's monarchical authority over death, the monarchical divine victory over those things that bring us sorrow.

Thinking of Christ as king can potentially free us from a common human failing: the need to be right. This, too, has been a source of consolation for me, as I've sought (with an eye on the Buddhist teaching about inner peace via non-attachment) to feel free from some recent anxieties. When we're anxious about things, after all, we implicitly think we know best. But we can trust Christ to have authority over areas of our lives that cause concern, fear, and vexation.   

In his book, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Crossroads, 2009), Richard Rohr comments about what he calls our “dualistic” minds, which perceive things as either-or (p. 7). We see things black-and-white, either-or choices: either you're a conservative or a liberal, a Christian or a non-Christian. You believe this way about an issue, and therefore everyone else is wrong. A mystical way, in keeping with the Christian tradition and spiritual direction, is a nondualistic way, where you see things in terms of “both-and,” and you don’t deny the value of others if they disagree with you.

He writes, “Remember, Jesus never said, ‘This is my commandment: thou shalt be right.’ ... It is an amazing arrogance that allows Christians to so readily believe that their mental understanding of things is anywhere close to that of Jesus. Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ (John 14:6). I think the intended effect of that often misused line is this: If Jesus is the Truth, then you probably aren’t!” (p. 45).

In my own experience, it seemed like the folks who most appreciated the image of Jesus as King---as Authority----were themselves rigid and authoritative. It’s a comfortable way of envisioning Jesus---the fierce Jesus of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment----if you yourself are inclined to want to shape people up and push them out. Those of us are less authoritarian but who are still passionate about certain justice, religious, and political issues are also likely to see things in an either-or way.

Rohr notes this. “Punitive people love punitive texts; loving people hear in the same text calls to discernment, clarity, choice, and decision.... Dualistic, early-stage thinking will murder the most merciful of texts, because that is where they are. We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are. ... God, however, swims in an ocean of mercy, with plenty of room for the outsider, the sinner, and even the violent, according to the Scriptures. The crucified Jesus calls for no recrimination against his killers, and he reminds us, ‘I did not come to make the virtuous feel good about themselves, but for those who need a doctor’ (Mark 2:17)” (p. 82)

Good things to remember, because as the scene with Pilate reminds us, Jesus abused and crucified is Jesus the King, and his resurrection broadens rather than limits the ocean of God’s mercy.

Interfaith Prayers

Continued prayers for the Philippines in the aftermath of the storms there.

Religious groups are participating in a UN summit on climate. The summit is held in Warsaw.

Talks regarding Iran’s nuclear problem have continued in Geneva, with Iran’s program being curbed and sanctions against Iran eased. Israeli leaders have expressed consternation at the settlement.

Hanukkah begins this year on November 28, and continues until December 5.

Many people will be celebrating Thanksgiving on November 28, a holiday that was (in 1941) congressionally fixed on November’s fourth Thursday. Prayers for people celebrating, and prayers for folks who have to work.  November 28 is also the the Baha'i commemoration of the Ascension of 'Abdu'l-Baha.

Prayers for church leaders who will be preaching, teaching, singing, and otherwise bringing us meaningful worship services this morning.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Britten Centennial

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten, who was born on St. Cecilia’s Day. This month’s Gramophone magazine has Britten on the cover. The Journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society featured an article on Britten this fall, and other magazines like the New York Review of Books have done retrospectives.

The first recording of his music that I purchased (at the Chapel Square Mall in New Haven, CT) was Rejoice in the Lamb (an LP with a bright yellow cover), which I’d heard at a Yale concert that year. A year or so later, when I served small churches in southern Illinois, I found Britten’s opera Peter Grimes in a used record store. It’s trite to say, but the opera was overwhelming.

Over the next few years, I collected Britten’s other operas, all London-label LPs: The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, Bill Budd, The Turn of the Screw, a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Owen Wingrave, and Death in Venice, plus the famous War Requiem. All featured Britten’s partner Peter pears, and all but Death in Venice were conducted by Britten. He never conducted his opera Gloriana, a critical failure at its premiere, but it has been recorded in subsequent years (I own a DVD with the English Northern Sinfonia).

I’ve enjoyed other Britten recordings: Sinfonia da Requiem, Ceremony of Carols, Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Hymn to St. Cecilia, and others. In Arizonia, our church’s choir did a wonderful Ceremony of Carols one year. A Webster University chorus performed the Cantata Misericordium this past spring.  

In another post, I wrote some thoughts about Peter Grimes. I was driving a certain distance when the Met Opera channel on my Sirius XM radio featured the piece. It’s pleasant when I’m driving to listen to an opera in its entirety, something I seldom take the time to do at home. Somehow this time the elemental qualities of the music stood out, perhaps because I was driving through scenery (though not seaside scenery) that I love. The sea seems to be “going on” throughout the story, as of course it would be in a coastal village.

Musicologist Christopher Palmer comments that Grimes’ journey---born by the sea and then claimed by it---was probably reflective of Britten’s own unconscious feelings, since Britten himself resolved to live beside the sea, and began and ended his career with operas (Grimes and Death in Venice) in which disappearing into the sea was a kind of redemption.(1) The sea figures strongly in Peter Grimes, Death in Venice and Billy Budd, as a “symbol of the nothingness which is everythingness... that simultaneous longing for the sense’ fulfillment and their extinction,” comments Palmer, drawing parallels between Britten and Wagner in this regard.(2).

“[B]eing submerged and swept away by a torrent of water is an image also of rebirth; if Peter is to be redeemed he has to return... to the unconscious waters, whence---well, who knows? Man is nothing, nature alone endures; perhaps in the last analysis, the truest lesson Grimes has to teach us is that of the vanity of all human endeavor. Grimes is a quintessentially Hardyesque work. As Peter Garvie puts it, ‘The passing bell is tugged by human hands to signify the end of human time for each of us; but the bell-buoy sounds forever to the movement of the tides.’”(3)

Inside the book from which I read these essays, I've tucked a postcard from Sir Peter Pears, Britten's partner who created so many of Britten's operatic roles. I had written Pears an appreciative letter in 1985, to which he responded with a sweet thank-you note, presumably from the seaside house he and Britten (who died in 1976) had shared. Pears commented that his health was failing (he died a year later) and had had to cancel a planned visit to the U.S.

1.  Christopher Palmer, Palmer, “Chaos and Cosmos in Peter Grimes,” Palmer, ed., The Britten Companion, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 118-119.

2.  Palmer, “Towards a Genealogy of Death in Venice,” ibid., 255.

3.  Palmer, “Chaos and Cosmos in Peter Grimes,” ibid., 119.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Short Break

For folks who read my posts: thank you!  As of this week, my mother-in-law* is in hospice care. I'll be back to more regular blog posts in two or three weeks.  Thanks for your thoughts and prayers.

* She passed away November 15th.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Other Earths

A study was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in which astronomers calculate that at least 8.8 billion stars have planets the size of Earth, with habitable temperatures.

These kinds of stories always raise enjoyable, speculative questions. If these hypothetical worlds are habitable, what kind of life do they have? Carbon-based? Self-conscious?

If capable of philosophical reflection, do they wonder who else is "out there"? Do they bring about the extinction of other life forms, as we humans do here on earth?

If capable of theological reflection, what is their conception of God, and would it dovetail with religions on earth? Or, like us, do they have several religions systems?

How do they think God has made Godself known? Do they have religions sagas, epics, and law codes from earlier times that guide their everyday lives?

What, if any, is their technological development? A typical fiction is that, if other life forms are capable of distorting spacetime in order to achieve faster-than-light travel (or if they are capable of discovering and utilizing traversable wormholes), they would be advanced enough to exploit us.

What if the religious ideas from these other worlds were such that the life forms want us to believe as they do, and when they arrive, they have a theology that they seek for us to embrace (through preaching or dissemination of information)?

All these questions are moot, of course, if other life forms are still in the stages of, for instance, our earth's Proterozoic eon.  Things will be just getting started.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Interfaith Prayers

In addition to the last group of prayers: In Geneva, negotiations to limit the scope of Iran's nuclear program may be close to a deal.  Israeli officials, however, fear that the deal will be inadequate.

Jews have expressed concern about the new rise of antisemitism in Europe.

The Vatican has called for Christians and Jews to work together concerning the antisemitism and anti-Christian persecution in the world.

Practitioners of Falun Gong have been persecuted in China since the 1990s.

A "super typhoon" has caused considerable damage in the Philippines.

Prayers for persecuted LGBT persons, notably in Africa. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has voted to give political asylum to LGBT persons who are persecuted and jailed for violating anti-LGBT laws in several African countries.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hump Day Prayer

Dear Lord, we thank you today for the good things in our lives. Some of my Facebook friends are posting daily expressions of gratitude throughout November as we approach Thanksgiving. This morning I thought of the joys of my career, the happiness of our family, the goodness of being currently free from serious illness, the peace that comes from secure finances and bills paid. We take these things for granted sometimes----until trouble comes---but we make an effort to be grateful more frequently.

As always we raise to you people we know: friends and family, friends with whom we share time on social media, people whom we know at work, and people we know through volunteer organizations to which we belong.

Where I live, the weather is rainy, and there were accidents on some of the local highways. We ask for safety and awareness as we drive in any kind of inclement or risky weather, and we ask for your help to persons hurt in accidents.

We raise to you specific sorrows in our hearts................ and we name specific requests for ourselves.............. and for others.................. We ask for your help for this situations in our nation and world.......................

As we strive for consistent gratitude in our feelings and attitudes, we give you praise for your kindness, patience, and generosity toward us. In your holy name. Amen.

(The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre,"

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

David Plowden's "Small Town America"

Small Town America, by photographer David Plowden, is a favorite book. I wrote and published this review in Springhouse several years ago. The book was published by Henry N. Abrams, Inc. in 1994 (price $49.95) and although it's no longer in print, it is available via Amazon sellers and used book sites.(1)

The American small town remains fixed in our imaginations. Those of us who have left small hometowns lament, paradoxically, at the changing social forces that beset small communities. Qualities remain fresh in our minds: the excitement that once typified the small business districts; the perceived slowness of time and pace; the ability to conduct serious business transactions on a first-name, handshake basis; the neighborliness along with the provinciality; the easy association of names and families; the lack of privacy that contrasts with the often-preferred anonymity of urban and suburban existence.

When I originally wrote this review in 1996, I had just self-published a set of previously-published essays in a little book Journeys Home. Therein, I remembered my mostly happy childhood in a small southern Illinois town, Vandalia, IL. In the years since I've continued to write about my home places, interjecting stories in otherwise my books with topics unrelated to the small-town theme. To use Frank Zappa's term, the small town (and the larger themes of place and of human community) have comprised my "conceptual continuity." If you have a similar kind of loyalty to your small town roots, you'll appreciate Plowden's words and pictures.

In spite of their seeming simplicity, small towns are very complex places, both in terms of social dynamics and in their potential for varied portraiture. In his introduction to Plowden's book, David McCullough, author of acclaimed historical biographies, notes how different are the portraits of small towns among works by writers like Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Larry McMurtry (not to mention, he notes such different movies as It's a Wonderful Life and Blue Velvet). Several photographers, like Quinta Scott (Route 66: The Highway and Its People, 1988), Drake Hokansen (The Lincoln Highway, 1991), Richard Avedon (In the American West, 1983), and the novelist and photographer Wright Morris (The Home Place, 1947, Photographs and Words, 1991) have published haunting photographs of small town people and places.

In this book, David Plowden has brought together 111 photographs of small towns, taken over 25 years, into a composite portrait of "any town" U.S.A. Plowden has published several collections of his photographs. In the accompanying essay, Plowden recalls Putney, Vermont, where he was born in 1932. Liveries, general stores, "tonsorial parlors," grist mills, and blacksmiths of the town had, by the time of his childhood, largely given way to barbershops and small cafes, local telephone operators who handled all incoming and outgoing calls, busy railroad stations, and a variety of downtown stores. Transactions were informal and trusting. One's private affairs were public knowledge. The late-1800s facades of the business district featured modern signs more suitable for ubiquitous automobiles. Change inevitably comes, with interstate highways, Wal-Marts, and other franchises. The postwar generation, eager to be progressive, razed old buildings. Grand old hotels became homes for the elderly. Farms became "agribusinesses." Prominent citizens died. "His" Putney no longer exists.

Many of us understand the poignancy of that change. Several years ago I found Plowden's earlier, angrier book, The Hand of Man in America (1973). Using his own words plus an array of black and white photos from around the country, Plowden called attention to the destruction wrought to American landscapes thanks to industry, strip malls, superhighways, and the loss of local heritage. Writing about local change can be subjective, for what is condemned as garish in one era is deemed old-fashioned in the next, and a few of Plowden's 1973 examples of visual ugliness look to me today as quaint and even nostalgic.

Small Town America, while including concerns about social change, is a more positive though still elegiac account. That's a value of photographs and judgments like his; they help us track social change and judge the value of structures that are part of our human-built landscapes. Plowden includes a generous number of black and white photographs from towns from New England to the West. He prefers buildings and rooms that hearken to his own childhood and includes fewer architectural steles characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s tourist trade. His exterior portraits include grain elevators, quiet railroad crossings, Victorian-era commercial blocks, and other styles and ornaments of vernacular architecture. He includes one photo of a wonderful old gas pump that still carries its glass crown.

Most of Plowden's photographs depict interiors: antique hardware cabinets still in use, heavily used roll-top desks, general stores, barbershops, theaters, hotels, taverns, post offices, courtrooms, lodges, libraries, schools, and churches. I love one church interior that has the old-fashioned wooden display board for weekly attendance and offerings. Such photographs call attention to the towns' "glory days" yet testify that the furniture and fixtures of bygone eras are by no means removed from everyday life, nor rejected for not being modern.

He also photographs several people: a horse trader, a rare blacksmith in the full regalia of his trade, a kid on a bicycle, children in school, a librarian, a judge, farmers, a barber, a tavern owner, a woman who runs a restaurant, a bearded restaurant customer working on his beer, and other small town folk. Like Quinta Scott's Route 66 individuals, and unlike Richard Avedon's Western people, Plowden's several portraits of small town people look natural, in the midst of their life and work, and by no means unhappy. They're the kind of people you and I know well.


1. This book is one of several books that Plowden (who turned 81 last month) has published, like the recent Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden. His website is

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Interfaith Prayers

Continued prayers for Syria and Egypt, and also the peace process in Israel.

Prayers for Palestinians who have suffered considerably because of the Syrian war.

Prayers for the many Americans who will be suffering because of the reduction in SNAP program funding.

Prayers for a peace process between fighting ethnic groups in Myanmar. But 70 Muslims perished leaving Myanmar when their boat capsized this week.

Militant Islamists have continued to wage violence in Tunisia.

A few days ago, the top leader of Thai Buddhism died, aged 100.

Hindus are celebrating Deepavali, the festival of lights, this weekend. As this site indicates, this is the most important festival for Hindus.

Christians are commemorating All Saints' Day this weekend as they remember the saints of the church and the persons who passed away during this past year. Prayers for Christian pastors and other church leaders who are already up and getting ready for the morning's services, and for persons who are processing grief today.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Church Libraries

An old check-out card in the front
of a Bible reference set that
I purchased on ebay.
On the day after All Saints’ Day, here is an appreciation of church libraries---books that continue to witness to us whether the authors are living or gone.

I love church libraries. Just as a bibliophile loves shelves of books in a home, I think that a church, too, needs a room filled with varieties of texts. Such a room becomes a comforting and important ecclesial place. 

During the mid 1970s I began to deepen my faith and to consider my life’s vocations. That was also the time that my parents and I joined the United Methodist Church in my hometown. The library was a pleasant half of a larger classroom adjacent to the church office, with long tables for study (or more usually, for meetings), and toward the opposite wall, space for chairs to be arranged in a circle for a class. When I was first learning to write sermons, I drove to the church and tried to put my ideas together as I sat among the library books, including Bible commentaries that I consulted.

Apart from sermon preparation, I found theological books fascinating: texts like George Butterfield’s Christianity and History, Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and Donald Baillie’s God Was In Christ. I liked books (at the time not that old) from the 1950s and 60s that quoted from the Barth’s Church Dogmatics or Brunner’s The Divine Imperative or Bultmann’s Jesus Christ and Mythology. Tillich's well known trilogy of sermons, and his text The Courage to Be, were also fascinating.

Other titles and authors come to mind: Norman J. Faramelli’s Technethics, Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, nearly any book by Jacques Ellul, and books by two authors of then-recent memory: Albert Schweitzer and Dag Hammarskjöld. In the 1950s, Westminster Press developed a series called (long before inclusive language) Layman’s Theological Library. I leafed through these books, too, and the sight of them on used book shelves today fill me with nostalgia (along with other theological studies of the 40s, 50s, and 60s published by Doubleday, Scribner’s, Westminster, Harper & Row, and Abingdon). One Harper set that I still see in church libraries is Cynthia Pearl Maus’ Old Testament in the Fine Arts and Christ in the Fine Arts.

At that time (the mid and late 1970s, when I was in college) I did not read all these books, and I don't want to imply otherwise. But my memories of these titles reflect my enthusiasm at discovering religious writing for the first time. I don’t now know if I saw all of these books in any particular church library, but I discovered several of them that way.

I’m leaving out Bible reference books common to church libraries. The Interpreter’s Bible set from the 1950s stands out in my memories of early faith-explorations. The division between exegetical analysis and homiletical commentary was (fortunately) not followed in the 1990s volumes, The New Interpreter’s Bible. But in my early faith-journey, the IB was something brand-new as I studied there in our church’s library. Other Bible commentaries that one could find in a parish library were some Anchor Bible volumes, Clarke's commentary, one or more theological dictionaries, a Bible atlas or two, and one or more Bible concordance. I liked the Strong’s Analytical Concordance (or as a college friend irreverently put it, “Strong’s Anatomical Concordance”), with its exhaustive listing of every word in the King James Version.

When I was an associate pastor, I spent time for a month or so arranging the books in the church’s library according to topics. This task happened after I’d done the more pressing work: calling on hospitalized people and contacting recent visitors to the church. I had worked at my hometown library in the 1970s and had a good sense for categorizing of texts, short of a full-scale numerical system like the Dewey Decimal. The senior pastor seemed disinterested in my library effort, but the staff-parish relations committee, supportive of all my work, appreciated what I’d done.

Do people use church libraries? I’ve a melancholy feeling that few do. Many congregations have an emphasis upon disciplining people---and encouraging members to be faithful disciples---but I wonder if the opportunity to choose a good book from the church library is part of many people’s faith-journey.

"When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments," writes Paul to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:13). "Parchments" would have been Bible scrolls, of better quality than papyrus. To me, it is a lovely thought that, among Paul's final recorded statements, he requested Scriptures and books to sustain him. These surely would have been his lifelong companions, too. The next time you're in a church library, browse the selection and see if any of the volumes call out for your attention.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Happy 100, Lincoln Highway

This year is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental automobile highway in the U.S. It was formally dedicated October 31, 1913 and honored the upcoming 50th anniversary of Lincoln's death. Conceived the year before by entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher (who also conceived the Dixie Highway), the Lincoln began at Times Square and extended to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Along the way, it passed through over 700 cities and towns and (originally) thirteen states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Later, a loop was established through northern West Virginia.  The original Lincoln was 3389 miles long, but with later improvements and realignments the highway extended 3142 miles. 
Interestingly, the Lincoln is the oldest memorial to the president: the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. opened a few years later.  All but one of these vintage postcards are from western Pennsylvania in or near Greensburg, where my daughter attended college. 
As with other named roads established during the 1910s, the Lincoln Highway was replaced in 1926-1927 with a series of numbered routes. For a majority of its length, the Lincoln became U.S. 30. In the West, U.S. 40 and U.S. 50 were stretches of the old Lincoln in through Nevada and California, since the pathway of 30 veers away from the Lincoln in western Wyoming and proceeds northwesterly through Idaho and Oregon During the 1940s and 1950s, many U.S. routes were realigned to bypass the business districts of small towns, but many communities, like Massillon and Canton, retain the Lincoln designation for the main streets. In Illinois, the old route of the Lincoln/U.S. 30 is state route 38, after the highway was routed to the south.
In 1928, an effort was made to keep alive the route and memory of the Lincoln Highway: a series of concrete posts laid along the entire road. Each featured a plaque indicating that the road was dedicated to Lincoln, along with the president’s famous profile. Sadly, few of these posts remain. When we lived in Ohio, I was glad to see a post in East Canton, OH in its original location, although some towns have erected replicas of the posts. 
About twenty years ago I discovered Drake Hokanson’s Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America (University of Iowa Press, 1989, 1999). His interesting history of the road is enhanced by black and white photography of road scenes, some of them haunting, like the isolated stretches of abandoned road in Utah and California. Hokanson includes photos of several 1928 posts, including the westernmost post on a street corner in San Francisco. Additional histories and guidebooks have since been published, as well as websites. Just a few of those include: http://www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org ,, and also
Notice the red white and blue
Lincoln Highway sign on the pole.
Today, at the top of that hill in the distance,
is a retail area along US 30.
As you drive two-lane highways, you can occasionally spot earlier alignments, left over when the route was straightened or moved. Around my hometown, Vandalia, IL, I liked to see old alignments of U.S. 40, like the several yards of roadbed just east of the river bridge, and a wide curve at the western edge of town en route to Hagerstown, IL. North of Vandalia, just to the east of the modern U.S. 51, there is an abandoned stretch of the former road, with an old concrete bridge that still has the metal plaque, common on such bridges, which dates the road to the 1910s. I could list several other examples of locations that I like.
I’ve noticed the same thing as I’ve driven the old Lincoln Highway. When we lived in Ohio, one day I drove down State Route 21 down to Massillon and then proceeded east on Lincoln Way (State Route 172), which is the old Lincoln Highway and as well as the original U.S. 30. (U.S. 30 is now routed south of the town.)  Driving through Massillon and then Canton on 172, I rejoined highway 30, followed the zigzag road through East Canton, and drove out into the country for a while. I enjoyed seeing the oldest paths of the Lincoln Highway as they moved away from the modern highway, made a long curve, and then reconnected.  (
Whenever I drive U.S. 30 through western Pennsylvania, I spot the same thing: old highway alignments left over when the highway was straightened in the 1940s or thereabouts. Just west of Greensburg, for instance, an alignment curves around to the south and up a hill, then descends the hill and becomes the main street through the town. A mural on a downtown building calls attention to the days when the Lincoln Highway was this street. Then, on the east side of town just past the mall, another original alignment turns to the right and makes a long curve through a neighborhood before rejoining U.S. 30 down the way. 
Many interesting places can be found along the highway, as Hokanson’s and other books show. One was the S.S. Grand View Hotel, a ship-shaped establishment built on the side of a Pennsylvania mountain ( Kearney, NE, where one of my college friends lives, is the middle-point on the highway between New York and San Francisco.
My grandfather Crawford was the oldest of eight children: three boys and then five girls. Most of the family lived around my hometown but one great-aunt and her husband moved to Laramie, WY. They were named Ruby and Pearl, but since I always knew about them and visited them sometimes, I never stopped to think how funny they were both named for jewels and that Pearl is a different kind of name for a man. They, and their three sons and several grandchildren, were great, hospitable people. During one of our visits to Laramie, when I was about seven, we stopped and saw a famous Lincoln Highway scene, the tree growing from a boulder. I thought that was something fantastic!
That was a long set-up for a small, personal Lincoln Highway memory. But how many millions of small memories–of family visits, vacations, business trips, and so on—define the Lincoln Highway, over its entire coast-to-coast route! But the highway is defined in a different way: not only travelers, but people who lived, worked, and shopped in local business districts through which the road passed.

A Holiness Day

from Facebook:
Christ Episcopal Church in
Warren, OH
In The United Methodist Church, All Saint’s Day focuses upon “the church universal,” all Christians called to holiness, and also those members of local congregations who have recently died. My family and I are looking forward to singing "For All the Saints" (with its Vaughan Williams tune "Sine Nomine") this coming Sunday. I'm still dealing with my mother's 2012 death so, having a lot of subsurface emotions, I'm debating whether to go to my congregation's noon service today.

The Greek word hagioi, meaning “saints” or “holy ones”, is used in the New Testament many times to refer to followers of God. In some though not all early Greek manuscripts, it is the very last word in the Bible (Rev. 22:21). In that spirit, you could call this day "All Believers' Day," but if you’re like me, you hesitate very strongly being considered as “holy.” Nevertheless, the sanctity of God’s followers is a major biblical theme.

In the New Testament, the work of Christ includes sanctification of believers. As one writer puts it, “[t]hey [the believer/saints] are to be separated unto God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1) evidencing purity (1 Cor. 6:9-20; 2 Cor. 7:1), righteousness (Eph. 4:24, and love (1 Thess. 4:7; 1 John 2:5-6, 20; 4:13-21). What was foretold and experienced by only a few in the Old Testament [i.e., the power of the Holy Spirit] becomes the very nature of what it means to be a Christian through the plan of the Father, the work of Christ, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.”[1] The purity and justice to which Christians are called are Spirit-given gifts and, as such, are God’s own holiness born within us which empower our witness to others (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:21, 2 Pet. 1.4). The same author notes, “[God’s] character unalterably demands a likeness in those who bear his Name. He consistently requires and supplies the means by which to produce a holy people (1 Peter 1:15-16).”[2]

These ideas are linked to Old Testament ideas as well. As that author also notes, the word “holy” and its variants appear over 800 times in the OT, referring to God or the holiness of his people. The holiness of God is reflected in Israel’s life in the distinctions between unclean and clean, holy and common, and sacred and profane. We may be tempted to disregard Old Testament ideas of cleanness and uncleanness because of texts like Acts 10:9-16, but in Israel, these were God-given parameters for how to live and how to relate properly to God, not only according to God’s expressed will but according to God’s revealed nature, the Holy God who dwells in Israel. (cf. Zech. 2:13-8:23; 14:20-21).

The holiness to which Israel is called has the component of justice—which, again, reflects the nature of God who is holy, just and righteous. Holiness is never understood (properly at least) as only a concern for right ritual, cleanness, and restoration from uncleanness. Israel also witnesses to God through acts of justice, provision, and care for the needy (Lev. 19; Ps. 68:5).

In an important way, God’s call of holiness links the beginning of the Bible with the end, because the book of Revelation uses the Torah language of cleanness, separation, and holiness to show who, at the end of time, will share eternal life with Christ (Rev. 22:11-15).

But the Spirit also connects us even earlier in the Bible to the narratives of creation, for the church—which is born in and matured by the Spirit who was present at creation—-is a “new creation” in the world (2 Cor. 5:17).[3] We could say that, as God dwelled among his people through the tabernacle, he dwells among us through the Spirit. But as in the ancient times, God calls us to reflect his nature and witness to his holiness. In fact, we prove the very reality of God in so far as we love God and one another in the spirit of holiness.

These might be good ideas and scriptures for us to read and consider on All Saints Day as we remember those who have witnessed to God in the past. What are some ways we reflect God's holy nature in the ways we serve God and one another, particularly in our current time of growing economic need? What kind of witness would we like to be remembered for, when some future minister reads our names aloud on November 1st? I ask myself that a lot.


1. Much of these thoughts and references derive from the article “Holy, Holiness,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 340-344.

2. “Holy, Holiness,” 343.

3. Nils Alstrup Dahl, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), the essay “Christ, Creation, and the Church.”