Sunday, May 31, 2015

Interfaith Days: Trinity Sunday
Today is Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost in the Western church, and the Sunday of Pentecost in the Eastern church. The day celebrates the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the three Persons of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

I write more about the Trinity here:

Friday, May 29, 2015

Interfaith Days: Ascension of Baha'u'llah
Baha'u'llah, the founder of Baha'i, lived the last years of his life at the Mansion of Bahjí, near Acre (in what is now northern Israel). He died (and thus his ascension from the earthly plane of existence) on May 29, 1892. The day is commemorated by Baha'is with devotional programs, and prayers made in the direction of his burial place.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Notebooks and Journals

The New York Times Style Magazine of March 8, 2015 had a cover story, “The Rediscovered Genius of Jean-Michel Basquiat” (then the title of the article was “The Unknown Notebooks of Jean-Michel Basquiat”). Those books, at that time soon to be on display at the Brooklyn Museum, were from 1980 to 1981 (some of his breakthrough years) and contain poetry, notes, sketches, scenarios, lyrics, mantras, and other things that would become raw material for Basquiat’s later art. The article's author discussed the ways Basquiat worked out his ideas and recorded things he learned and observed.

The piece reminded me of another article published almost exactly 28 years earlier, “The Lost Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci,” in the March 3, 1967 issue of Life magazine. I was in fourth grade, loved science, and felt inspired by this article to pursue science. (Mom probably checked out the issue from our local library.) In the books, rediscovered after being miscatalogued for over a century in a Madrid library, DaVinci sketched ideas for machines and sculptures, explained in his famous mirror-image handwriting. kept many of his sketches and ideas.

THEN, these articles lead me to brainstorm the name of a book that I had given away to a book fair but regretted doing so. The author had kept journals since her youth and had volumes of her words and sketches. The book was a call to readers to set down their own observations and discoveries in their own notebooks, with her own pages (and her life) as examples. I couldn’t remember the author or title. Doing a search for “journals” and “journaling” resulted in many, many other books but not this one. Finally I remembered that I’d purchased the book at a Nature Company store and that gave me a clue for a successful search: A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place, by Hannah Hinchman (W.W. Norton & Co., 1999). It’s a beautiful book; she is a very talented author and artist.

When I was a kid, I wanted to keep a journal. I also loved the Henry Reed series of young adult novels that featured the eponymous character recording his adventures in a journal (not a diary, the character explained, which he thought girly). I didn’t get very far in journaling because of a contradictory impulse: self-consciously, I wanted to write it well, with a good beginning (which I could never get right). I seemed to be aiming to write my life's story---all eleven years of it. Yet I didn't want anyone to read my private thoughts.

Later, when I was in college and then divinity school, I thought I’d make a journaling effort again---but once again, I didn’t want anyone else to read it, and also, I felt that my thoughts were foolish and self-involved. This time, I typed the entries, which had the benefit of on-the-spot free-writing.

My main effort at keeping a journal was, instead, a file of index cards! I jotted or typed quotations, bible verses, theological explanations, and notes on numerous theological subjects as I, in the grip of a tenacious bout of depression, got through my coursework. I was trying to hold onto the Lord as best as I could, to believe amidst my blues, and these notes helped me focus on the God upon whom I counted for all my well-being.

My father began recording daily observations in diary books, which I kept and have stored safely. Usually his jottings were the day's weather, his blood sugar readings, how my mother was feeling, and things that I (their only child) was up to. He made observations in the morning and evening. The last entry, September 16, 1999, had only his morning entry; he died at around suppertime that day.

Over the years, I’ve carried numerous spiral-bound notebooks for recording thoughts. These have been very helpful as I work on writing projects: stray thoughts and verbal images may be useful later. These aren’t particularly important notebooks to me later, nor particularly private, but I keep them on hand and have a stack in my office.

Beginning in the 00s, blogging became my substitute for keeping a journal notebook. I no longer wince when rereading my own ruminations. So I haven’t minded during the past few years posting my various thoughts and discoveries in what eventually became six different sites (this one the most regularly updated now). Four of those sites became a personal Bible study project that got out of hand, though I was happy rather than despairing when I worked on it. A benefit of on-line personal writing is that I can include website links to whom I may want to return again.

Still, the attraction of a tangible notebook---a hardback book or a solid ring notebook---still holds great appeal. The other day, I went to Office Depot and purchased three journal-books to begin keeping track of random things. I know myself well enough to realize I won’t keep them on a daily basis, but it would satisfy an old, small dream to keep track of events and observations, through words and drawings.

(As I wrote this, I thought of Thomas Jefferson’s account books, famous for their minutiae: )

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Irenaeus on Pentecost

"When the Lord told his disciples to go and teach all nations and to baptize them in the name of the
Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
, he conferred on them the power of giving us new life in God. 

"He had promised through the prophets that in these last days he would pour out his Spirit on his
servants, and that they would prophesy. So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in us and to inhabit God's creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father's will in us who had grown old in sin, and gave us new life in Christ. 

"Luke says that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost, after the Lord's ascension, with power to open the gates of life to all nations and to make known to them the new covenant. So it was those of every language joined in singing one song of praise to God, and scattered tribes, restored to unity by the Spirit, were offered to the Father as the first fruits of all the nations. 

"This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body, through the Spirit we have become one in soul. 

"The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning. 

"If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an Advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for us, who had fallen into the hands of brigands, having himself bound up his wounds and left for his care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusting him to the Holy Spirit. Now, through the Spirit the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us, and it is our duty to use the coin committed to our charge and make it yield a rich profit for the Lord." 

---St. Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," from The Liturgy of the Hours, II, Lenten and Easter Seasons (Catholic Book Publishing Inc., 1976), pp. 1025-1026. I made the language inclusive in five places.  

Interfaith Days: Shavuot, Pentecost, Aldersgate Day

Today is Shavuot, the Jewish holiday (on 6 Sivan) that commemorates God's gift of the Torah to the assembly of Israel at Mount Sinai. It is the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer which began at Passover, indicating the expectation of and desire for the Torah. Thus God's salvation of the people from Egypt is connected to God's covenant and mitzvot at Sinai.

In Christianity, Pentecost is the festival commemorating the gift of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus' followers. That story is Acts 2:1-31. The word refers to the fifty-day period from Easter that cultivates in this day, "the birthday of the church." In England and elsewhere, the day is also called Whitsunday, referring to the white garments worn by the newly baptized. In Orthodox Christianity, Pentecost falls on May 31 this year.

In the United Methodist Church, today is Aldersgate Day, honoring the day in 1738 when John Wesley experienced an inner confirmation of his salvation, as he listened to a reading from Luther at an Aldersgate Street religious meeting.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Interfaith Days: Declaration of the Bab

Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel,
"While many Americans will be celebrating Memorial Day this weekend, approximately 5 million adherents of the Bahá’í faith will be celebrating the beginning of their religion: the Declaration of the Báb. The celebration commenced two hours, 11 minutes after sunset Friday, according to The Huffington Post, which is the exact time that the Báb declared himself." Thus this site calls attention to this important day for Baha'is, who cease work and celebrate the day with prayers and storytelling. The Bab (Siyyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi, 1819-1850), was a Persian merchant who declared himself the Bab (the gate or door) who was the Shi'i (promised one), and the spiritual return of Elijah, John the Baptist, and the saoshyant of Zoroastrian eschatology. He was also forerunner of Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Interfaith Days: World Day for Cultural Diversity
In 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. The following year, the UN General Assembly (resolution 57/249) declared May 21 as the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development.  The UN hopes that the day will “provide us with an opportunity to deepen understanding of the values of Cultural Diversity and to learn to ‘live together’ better.” This article points out some of the contemporary issues that make this day particularly important:

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Interfaith Days: Lailat-al-Miraj

Today is Lailat-al-Miraj, the Muslim commemoration of the day (27th day of Rajab) when the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. The Prophet was visited by two archangels at the Ka'ba; the archangels give him a winged steed which carried him to "the Farthest Mosque" (believed to be the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem), where Muhammad and past prophets join in prayer. He was then taken to heaven where he was told to teach the duty of Salat (prayer) five times a day. The Qur'an (17:1) tells part of the story of the Prophet's journey and ascension, and the Hadith provides other details. The day is an important Muslim day and is observed with special prayers at a mosque and with special nighttime prayers at home, as well as telling the story to children.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Interfaith Days: Feast of the Ascension

Today is the Feast of the Ascension, or Ascension Thursday, or Ascension Day. It is the Christian feast commemorating the bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven, as recorded in Acts chapter 1. It is one of the universally celebrated feasts, along with Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost, happening the fortieth day after Easter. and

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Interfaith Days: World Falun Dafa Day

For the symbol's meaning,
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa ("Dharma Wheel Practice" or "Law Wheel Practice") is a spiritual practice combining in qigong exercises and mediation, and the cultivation of virtue via the tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. Unlike other qigong schools there is no formal membership and daily retrials and instead focuses upon theology and morality. The founder Li Honzhi began to teach its principles in China on May 13, 1992, and thus today is World Falun Dafa day.

Monday, May 11, 2015

"Players in Our Own Crime Drama"

The phrase comes from the May 8th devotion, by Deb Grant, in the April-June 2015 The Word in Season devotional (Augsburg Fortress Press). Grant makes the point that many of us are very hard on ourselves. "We are defendant, prosecution, judge and jury" concerning our failures and faults, but thereby we "dismiss God's forgiveness quickly." She writes, "We have a choice. We are free to be all the players in our crime drama, or we can believe that God knows what God is doing in setting us free."

What a wonderful reassurance, for this is surely a challenge for many of us: letting our feelings of low self-worth, self-condemnation, and painful "tapes" drown out the beautiful grace and love of God that lifts away our burdens. Not only does God love us so much more than we love ourselves, but God also works in our lives for good and for healing rather than for condemnation.

It can be a powerful experience when someone can mediate that divine love to you. I'll always feel grateful to a trusted teacher (years ago) who declared for me God's forgiveness and love, when I was so consumed with worry and regret concerning a problem. If this teacher had been scolding and critical--as so many people can be---instead of loving and sensitive, I would have sunk more deeply into the pain that was blinding me to God's care. But instead I was able to hold fast to God's grace, which saw me through.

Another aspect of all this: when my feelings of self-worth are low, I tend to be more critical and impatient with others, if only in the privacy of my own home or car. But even though these feelings are expressed privately, my fussy words awaken and alert me to my inner pain. Instead, the more I rest in God's love, the more loving and empathetic I feel---I'm less quick to be prosecutor and judge toward human failings in others (which are often my own failings, too).

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Interfaith Days: Lag B'Omer, National Day of Prayer

Today is the National Day of Prayer. The original legislation establishing the day passed during President Truman's administration in 1952, although similar days date back to the 1770s. During President Reagan's administration, the day was set at the first Thursday of May. The National Day of Prayer is an interfaith occasion.
Today is also Lag B'Omer, a minor Jewish holiday between Passover and Shavuot. "Lag" refers to the two Hebrew letters, lamed and gimmel, that numerically stand for 33, while "Omer" is the forty-nine days between the two major holidays, thus Lag B'omer is the 33rd day of counting the Omer. It is also the anniversary of the death of the author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and it also commemorates the second century CE Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Roman Empire. Amid the more solemn days of Omer period, this day instead features picnics, bonfires, and other festivities.

Grandfather Died 80 Years Ago

Eighty years ago today, my dad's father died. This photo is of South Fifth Street in my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois. Either in front of that barber shop, or in front of the feed store, he collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage ("apoplexy," as the obituary calls it). The newspaper reported that the location was the store, but my dad, who was with him at the time, says it was in front of the barber shop. (The large hotel on the left, now the First National Bank, is the only building in the picture that remains today.) Not quite 60, I missed meeting him.

My dad used to say, "Everyone knew Dad, and liked him." His name was Andrew Christian Strobel, born in nearby Ramsey, IL and a farmer north of Vandalia. "Christian" was the first name of his maternal grandfather, a German immigrant. Andy spelled the family name Strobel or Stroble. Fatefully, the second spelling was the one used on my father's birth certificate, giving me a surname slightly different from all my other relatives. Dad pointed out his own birth location, a long ago farm house on the north side of the creek just north of Vandalia along what's now U.S. 51, east of the road, on property now part of the Vandalia Correctional Center. I wrote about the Strobel family at this site, which has genealogical links and another picture of Andy.

Throughout my growing-up years, this colorized photo hung in my childhood home. A cousin, Hazel Jones, restored the old photo of Andy. The picture became my primary visual memory of my paternal grandfather, for which I'm grateful. I think the photo gave my father comfort.

Mom's father also died before I was born, so I felt a certain empty place in my childhood: the two men could have been my "buddies" to do things with, but their lives and mine did not overlap. Andy in particular seemed "under erasure," as Derrida would put it, because this photo (mildly creepy, through no fault of Hazel's, yet also warm) was Andy's ongoing presence but it also signified his absence.

Somehow this didn't make me feel melancholy; it just was the way things were. Every child has to learn for the first time an obvious fact: that the world existed before he or she was alive. The picture was a way that I, a small child, learned of family before me---and of former years of the hometown which has always been such a strong part of my sense of identity.

Nevertheless, I think of childhood activities, like fishing for crawdads in the stream, that we missed doing together. What would he have taught me about life?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Interfaith Days: Cantate Sunday

In many churches today is the Fourth Sunday after Easter, Cantate Sunday, so named because the first words of the Mass introit are Cantate Domino novum canticum, “Sing ye to the Lord a new song.”

Obsessed recently with writing deadlines, I missed a couple named traditional Sundays on the Christian calendar. The first Sunday after Easter (April 12 this year) is sometimes called Octave Day of Easter, and also St. Thomas Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday, and Quasimodo Sunday (or Quasimodogeniti). The latter comes from the Latin Quasi modo geniti infantes, "like [or in the manner of] newborn infants," which is the text of the Introit from 1 Peter 2:2

The Third Sunday after Easter (April 26 this year) is Jubilate Sunday, named because the introit of the Catholic liturgy begins Jubilate Deo omnis terra ("Shout with joy to God, all the earth") from Psalm 65.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Schumann's Symphonies

Schumann in 1850
A recent Gramophone magazine (March 2015) has a nice piece by Philip Clark “Building a Fantasy World," about Schumann’s four symphonies. When I’m on a road trip, I like to play all four straight through, an enjoyable landscape of its own that add a needed dynamic to the flat Midwestern countryside.

Clark writes: “The first movement of his Symphony No. 1 reaches an apparent cathartic end-point as a solo flute line marked dolce reconciles grinding harmonic and structural inner tensions... But the brass, percussion and trilling woodwinds unleash a stampeding burlesque march. Baleful chromatic inclines smudge the harmony, like Offenbach or Sousa turned on their dark side...” But the interesting aspects of the four don’t stop there. “The free jazz of the Second Symphony’s sostenuto assai prologue... in the Third Symphony, that extra movement that sneaks in before the finale, a cobwebby and gothic reimagining of the grounding contrapuntal principles of Renaissance music and Bach; and the audacious cyclic structure of the Fourth Symphony, each movement played attacca and dovetailing into the next.” He notes that the Fourth seems an excellent “distillation” of the other three, and yet the first version of the Fourth is actually contemporaneous with the First, showing how “improbable” are the paths of “Schumann’s symphonic journey” (pp. 16-17).

I’m almost never on the cutting edge of culture, so I’m happy to realize that I discovered Schumann’s symphonies before they became so popular for orchestras to record---with Simon Rattle, John Eliot Gardiner, and other conductors recording cycles during the past several years. Swiss conductor Heinz Holliger suggests that Schumann’s symphonies need considerable rehearsal for them to sound as colorful and dynamic as they are (p. 18, 19). So a conductor has to be committed to the works.

Mary Oliver’s poem “Robert Schumann” came to mind (page 111 in her 1992 “New and Selected Poems”). “[T]he mind clings to the road it knows,” she writes. For reasons I can’t quite remember, I associate the symphonies with U.S. 89 in Arizona. Twenty-five years ago we lived in Flagstaff. Perhaps I first heard Schumann’s first symphony on the classical station en route to Prescott, but I soon purchased a cassette with the first and four symphonies, and then the other two. The uplifting music of the unhappy composer clings to the road of a familiar, former home, and travels on more recent byways.

Interfaith Days: Twelfth Day of Ridvan

Today is the Twelfth Day of Ridvan in the Baha'i faith. Ridvan is the annual festival commemorating the events when founder Bahá’u’lláh declared himself to be the Messenger of God. He had been exiled from Baghdad on April 22 but remained in the Garden of Ridvan (which means "paradise") until the twelfth day, when he departed for Constantinople. This site and this site provides background for the twelve-day festival, of which the first, ninth, and twelfth day are holiest.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Interfaith Days: Beltane

Today is Beltane, one of the eight solar Sabbats for Wiccans and Pagans. The festival, about halfway between the beginnings of spring and of summer, combines aspects of the Gaelic Bealtaine (e.g., bonfires), and the Germanic May Day (dancing around the May pole). "Beltane" means "fire of Bel," the Sun God. This site and this site describe some of the festival's elements and history. The illustration is from this site.