Monday, October 28, 2019

National Geographic's Visionaries

Here's Gilbert H. Grosvenor and his wife Elsie May, who was the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell. Gilbert, born on this day in 1875, is considered the father of photojournalism in his role as the first full-time editor (1899-1954) of National Geographic. (The society and magazine had been founded in 1888.) As I'm reading about them this morning: Bell was associated with the National Geographic Society in the early days and for a while paid his son-in-law with his own money, and Grosvenor grew the society and the magazine, introducing the innovation of color photography in depicting worldwide people and locations.

Photo from:

Happy memories for me, because I liked to collect National Geographic magazines as a young person. I first learned of the work of ecologist Anne LaBastille, about whom I've written elsewhere on this blog, through one of her NG articles.  

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Stupid Dreams!

I'm really blue for a stupid reason: just before waking up, I dreamed that I was in the middle of a heist gone wrong (Steve Buscemi was a character in the dream, LOL), kind of a combination of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Fargo," with someone falling into a fountain like the end of "Scarface"---only, several people got into the fountain, too, and were shooting at each other.

Somewhere in the story, my mother was displeased about something, which happened a lot in real life, but her displeasure was unrelated to the heist.

No more snacks before bedtime!  :-)

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Harold Bloom

While my wife Beth and I were doing volunteer work at our church's Pumpkin Patch---the yearly
sales of thousands of shipped-in pumpkins, the profits for which go to ministries--I noticed this interesting obituary of the renowned Harold Bloom.

It made me nostalgic for Yale, where I did my masters degree at the divinity school, and for a humanities/hermeneutics teaching career that I had on another timeline, LOL. (But I love the timeline that I'm on, no regrets!)

Monday, October 14, 2019

Landscape: Toshi Yoshida

Toshi Yoshida (1911-1995), "Autumn in Hakone," 1954.  From Facebook: Svitlana Skorokhod‎, Modern Art 20th Century, October 8, 2019.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Butterfly Effect

Black swallowtail on the Webster U campus
The Butterfly Effect
Romans 12:4-6a

The expression “butterfly effect” refers to the idea that small events can have large effects elsewhere. Whether or not a butterfly’s flapping wings in Chicago create a storm in Asia, the idea is profound that everything is interrelated. For instance, for many years ecological science has been concerned with the interdependence of all life on earth.

Church congregations are also a place of interdependence and mutuality. A childhood Sunday school teacher can plant seeds of faith that affect you all your life—and affect other people who are touched by your faith. A minister who shows you concerns and care—or another lay person—can provide profound healing. But a harsh word, a habit of gossip, “triangulating” behavior, and other negative experiences can be hurtful to a person’s faith—and may even be fatal to a person’s faith!

Influence and interrelationships can’t be measured in numbers and reports. My childhood Sunday school and VBS teachers inspired my faith, and years later I wrote Sunday school curriculum—but that crucial influence was years before.

I’ve gotten my feelings hurt in different churches over the years. I’m emotionally sensitive, but I’ve known “tougher” people who have felt the same way. Churches are places where we may feel vulnerable, wanting to feel close to God and looking for training for and assurance in faith. If someone says a harsh word to you, or is very critical of something you did, or makes you feel discourage: these experiences may feel particularly difficult at church. Also, feeling ignored or slighted in church—feeling like your gifts or your input are not valued—is painful. (I am speaking very generally, not about any particular congregation.)

Famously, in Romans 12:4-6a, Paul describes the church as a body, in which all members belong to one another (not “members” of an organization, but members analogous to parts of the physical body). He also uses this image in greater detail in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

If you have time, you might also read Ephesians 4:12-16, a good scripture that talks about the way we support and “equip” one another as members. Galatians 3:28, about the oneness of people in Christ, is surely one of my favorite Bible verses. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. In one of my seminary classes a few years ago, we kept spontaneously coming back to this verse as a theme and agreed that, today, "gay and straight, white and black, young and old," would be part of the inclusive vision.

Another favorite scripture is Hebrews 13:1-3, where the struggles of other people become, in a way, your own.

During this sermon series, think about ways that you’ve been influenced by church folks—both good and not-so-good—and think about ways that you, in turn, can provide positive influence for others. Think about ways that a whole church could be “hurting” because one portion is in pain or turmoil. It’s wonderful to think how we can affect one another for Christ when we have a deep sense of Christ’s presence day by day.

(A devotion written for our church's newsletter)

Happy birthday, Ralph Vaughan Williams!

For many years, I’ve loved the music of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). He was born 147 years ago today, and died fifty-one years ago this past summer. As editor of the 1906 English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams (RVW) adapted folk tunes or wrote his own music for hymns like “For All the Saints,” “I Sing the Almighty Power of God,” “At the Name of Jesus,” “Hail Thee, Festival Day,” “Come Down, O Love Divine,” and others that are found in many hymnals today, so I first heard his music at my childhood church. Later, when I was a master’s degree student, I attended a choral recital with my musician friend Jim Hicks. One of the pieces was RVW’s setting of Burns’ poem “Ca the Yowes.” The song was one of those hair-standing-on-the-neck moments best experienced from a live performance, although a recent CD version (Over Hill, Over Dale on the Hyperion label) comes close.

Over the next several years I collected LPs of RVW’s music. At first misinterpreting his double last name, I looked in vain under “Williams” at the mall record shop, but then I found (and played till it crackled) The Pastoral Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, a champion of his music. Another time, I spotted RVW’s opera Sir John in Love at an out of town record store. My wife worried about the cost, so to please her, I didn’t buy the set, and then I kicked myself all the way home. A few months later, though, we returned to that particular mall, two hours away, and the set was still for sale! “Buy it, for heaven’s sake,” my wife said. I also shopped used record stores. During the early 1980s I purchased an old LP, an RVW “nativity play” called The First Nowell (1958). The LP was a classical music club recording, out of print, and no other recording existed, so I took gentle care of the record for over twenty years until, finally, a new recording on CD appeared a year ago on the Chandos label.

Today I play my old LPs less and less, but RVW’s music still fills my CD and Download collections, along with other favorite composers. If pressed, I’d had to say my favorite musical pieces of all, by anyone, are his third (Pastoral) and fifth symphonies.

Sometimes it’s hard to say why certain music “speaks” to you very deeply. If I’m feeling verklempt and need a good cry, all I have to do is put on the Tallis Fantasia, the Dives and Lazarus variants, the Norfolk Rhapsody, the last movement of the Sea Symphony, beginning at the section “Bathe me, O God, in thee,” or, as I say, the third and fifth symphonies. Such gorgeous music! Musicologists refer to RVW’s use of modal harmonies and the pentatonic scale. I’m untrained in musicology, so if we were listening to CDs together, I’d point out favorite themes and harmonies in his music—a “Vaughan Williamsy” sound, as one author puts it—like a tritonic chord that I hear in the first movement of the fifth, the last movement of the Pastoral, and also in Sancta Civitas, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and others.

Music provides all kinds of private associations which are not at all important “in the big scheme” but are deeply important and personal to the listener. Think of music that instantly takes you back to a certain time or place. I purchased several Mendelssohn LPs in Maryland, very early in my marriage, and now Mendelssohn’s music tends to transport me to that area and that time; the Scottish Symphony might as well be the Interstate 70 through the Hills West of Baltimore Symphony. Mozart, which I also play almost daily, reminds me of several locations. Vaughan Williams might be amused to know that his music connects me to my roots in Southern Illinois—and that it inspires me when I’m writing religious curriculum. As I wrote earlier, I first heard his music as hymn tunes in my local church. Eventually I embarked on a religious career, and church music naturally continued to be nourishing. Because the English folk tradition not only influenced his hymnal but also his lifelong work, it’s easy for me to feel happy and uplifted by nearly all his music, religious or not

Vaughan Williams was an atheist in his youth and a “cheerful agnostic” in his adulthood. He seemed to have liked the idea of being a “Christian agnostic.” In the recent film O Thou Transcendent, Tony Palmer tries to balance the familiar image of RVW—a folksy, avuncular papa bear—with the image of a suffering man whose doubts about life’s meaning are reflected in pieces like the fourth symphony (a consistently angry piece), the sixth symphony (a haunting work consisting of three movements full of conflict and a final, eerie, pianissimo movement that people have associated with postwar desolation), as well as the ambivalent mood of his ninth symphony, completed not long before his death. One of Palmer’s interviewees says that the conclusion of the sixth—with a major chord and a minor chord moving back and forth until the symphony ends with E minor—sounds like an “amen” that never resolves into affirmation. RVW had two notable sources of suffering in his life, his experiences in World War I, and the fact that his wife Adeline was a longtime invalid. Perhaps he also suffered from being fatherless at an early age and also from having no children. We shouldn’t assume an equation between an artist’s work and autobiography (and the film sometimes comes too close to that kind of equation), but pieces like these symphonies (and the Pastoral Symphony, which is actually inspired by the Western Front rather than English countryside) surely have roots in the composer’s experiences. And yet, so do his many “happier” pieces. His very last piece, after all, was The First Nowell, the lovely Christmas piece that I’ve cherished for twenty-five years.

In the June 2006 issue of Journal of the RVW Society, Eric Seddon argues, “Just as it does no good to quibble about whether Vaughan Williams was really a secret Christian in disguise, so it is useless to claim that his works are not profoundly Christian; that is, that they are derived from a Christian world-view, informed by Christian theology, and resonant with the Christian message.. What other composer of his day produced such monumental meditations on the nativity, the apocalypse, the relationship of the soul to God, and the Eucharist?” (p. 23). Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Vaughan Williams’ works were profoundly influenced by England, but “Englishness” includes deeply Christian traditions. RVW’s agnosticism didn’t preclude an appreciation for the mysteries beyond human existence, and in his words, he wanted in his music “to stretch out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty” (Journal of the RVW Society, 10/06, p. 16). He didn’t profess to know what those ultimate realities are, and he seemed prepared to accept that there are none.

And yet his “stretching”—and his willingness to be of service to people whose beliefs he couldn’t embrace—makes his works wonderful listening for a Christian like me. He worked his whole life on music associated with Bunyan’s story The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the conclusion of the opera, at the point where the character Pilgrim (“Christian” in the novel) succumbs, the trumpets and songs of Heaven appear within the silence of death, envelopes the listener in glory, and disappear again. We find a similar effect in a more disturbing piece, Sancta Civitas, based on apocalyptic texts: when the vision of divinity appears, it is a mysterium tremendum. These are just two pieces; as Seddon writes, RVW composed so much beautiful church music. The CD Shepherd of the Delectable Mountains (Hyperion, 1993), containing A Song of Thanksgiving and The 100th Psalm, is another personal favorite.

John Francis writes (Journal of the RVW Society, 6/07), “If anyone loved his neighbor, throughout his life, I think it was Vaughan Williams.” In that article, Francis quotes a Musical Times writer, “[RVW] was instantly ready to support from his own purse the many appeals…that came to him. Indeed it was sometimes difficult to persuade him that some causes were more deserving than others. His instinct was to help first and judge later, a trait of character occasionally too optimistic, but always endearing.” Francis notes that Vaughan Williams “embodied ‘Christian’ (actually humanitarian) values to such an extent that Christians are perhaps just disappointed that he was not a paid up member” (p. 19). Lincoln seems a similar case: a deeply spiritual not-quite-believer whose human sympathies and integrity capture the imagination.

Over the years I’ve been very inspired by RVW’s eagerness to encourage people and to serve. He enlisted in World War I and served near the front, when he might have used his age (42) and class to avoid the war, in which he lost close friends like the composer George Butterworth. During World War II he helped with refugee efforts and other kinds of assistance, like scrap collection and even, according to Palmer’s documentary, cleaning public lavatories. We’ve all known people in our various professions who should’ve taken the time to be encouraging, but who did not. It’s a very human tendency to disdain interests and pathways that aren’t yours, or to be snobbish toward others who don’t meet your standards. RVW supported the work of other composers, like Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, whose styles were different from his own. Commenting on his generous attitude toward his students, RVW said he’d rather encourage a fool than discourage a genius. Not to say that my students are fools—quite the contrary—but I agree with RVW’s philosophy and live by those words in my teaching.

Simon Heffer writes that “the sheer quality and genius of his work is denied only curmudgeons, and is in huge demand by radio audiences, concert halls and the CD-buying publish … what Vaughan Williams had to say is timeless in its appeal. It is …an appeal which, even though designed by an Englishman for the English, has now safely and popularly travelled around the world” (Journal of the RVW Society, 2/08, p. 14). This little essay is my thank you to RVW, and also my own contribution in keeping that music traveling.

(An updated post from 2009)

Friday, October 11, 2019

Monday, October 7, 2019

"In the Land of Self-Defeat"

This was quite a sobering article in this weekend's New York Times, "In the Land of Self-Defeat." "The library fight was, itself, a fight over the future of rural America, what it meant to choose to live in a county like mine, what my neighbors were willing to do for one another, what they were willing to sacrifice to foster a sense of community here. The answer was, for the most part, not very much....As long as Democrats make promises to make their lives better with free college and Medicare for all sound like they include government spending, these voters will turn to Trump again — and it won’t matter how many scandals he’s been tarnished by."

Sunday, October 6, 2019

World Communion Sunday/Matthew Shepard

In many Christian denominations, this is World Communion Sunday. Happening on the first Sunday of  each October, the day originated in the Presbyterian denomination in the 1930s and was endorsed and promoted by the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches) in 1940. The day promotes ecumenical cooperation and Christian unity.

It's also the day in 1998 when Matthew Shepard was attacked and left to die. As the author of this article (below) states, "His legacy lives on in thousands of people like you who actively try to eradicate the hatred from those who preach against us and fight to replace it with understanding, compassion and acceptance." Holy Communion, and the fight against hate, fit well together. 

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Botanist Thomas Nuttall

Today was finally a cool day, after several days in the 90s, so I went over to the Missouri Botanical Garden to see their Humboldt display, honoring the naturalist's 250th birthday (which I noted in earlier posts).

One of the garden's old buildings features busts of Linnaeus and botanists Asa Gray and Thomas
Nuttall. I didn't know much about Nuttall and found an interesting biography of the pioneering botanist, ornithologist, and explorer.

Cafe Les Deux Magots

When Beth and I visited Paris in June, we went out to look for supper, and Beth noticed the Cafe Les Deux Magot. I was unfamiliar with it, but she (with her masters degree in English) said that it was a popular place for writers like Hemingway, James Baldwin, and others, as well as artists. ( I should've gotten the crab cakes, like Beth, but what a treat to visit such an historic and literary place! It reminded me of times when I was in school, reading Hemingway's A Moveable Feast in a dreamy sort of way while eating breakfast.

Charlie Chan

Nowadays, white actors playing Asian characters elicits controversy. When I was a kid, one of the St. Louis TV stations weekly showed old Charlie Chan movies, starring the Swedish actor Warner Oland (who was born on this day in 1879!) and then the Euro-American actor Sidney Toler. This is an interesting interview concerning the stereotypes and originality of the Charlie Chan character.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Guidance of the Spirit

Acts 21:9-28, 31

As this passage begins, Paul is returning to Jerusalem for Pentecost (the Jewish festival also known as Shavuot). In the first part of chapter 21, he spent time with friends along the route from Miletus in western Asia Minor. In hindsight, it is the conclusion of what scholars of Acts have called his third missionary journey.

On the way, a prophet named Agabus (who had appeared in Acts before) borrowed Paul’s belt and tied his own feet and hands with it. Like Old Testament prophets, Agabus uses a strange action to illustrate a prophecy that he conveys verbally: Jews in Jerusalem will turn over Paul to the Romans to be arrested and imprisoned. Paul’s friends interpret the sign as a warning for Paul not to go on. If you read through Acts, you’ll see situations where the Spirit instructed Paul and his friends to change their travel places and visit other places instead. Paul, however, knew that the Spirit wanted him to continue, even at the risk of Paul’s death. Paul was very willing to face both arrest and death for the sake of the Gospel. In fact, he wanted his friends to stop being so emotional about an eventuality that he was willing to face!

It is wonderful to me how Paul is so certain about the Spirit’s guidance, even when his friends were advising him otherwise. When I was young, I wasn’t always so confident what God’s will might be. Even getting advice could be distracting rather than clarifying. But that’s the thing—I was young. Paul, however, not only matured as a person but matured in his relationship to God’s Spirit. He had prayed, studied, and acted long enough to understand how the Spirit guided him. Importantly, he was able to discern the Spirit’s guidance amid competing advice!

In the next section, vss. 17-26, Paul and James met. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and he expressed his concerns that rumors had been spreading about Paul: that Paul taught Gentiles to forsake Moses and to ignore Jewish customs. Paul had done no such thing, and Paul accepted James’ idea to share in Jewish rites of purification. That way, other Jewish worshipers would see Paul’s sincerity.

Nevertheless, the rumor spread that Paul taught against Judaism and even disrespected the Temple. A crowd ganged up on Paul, and he was taken into custody by the Roman tribune in order to calm the crowd. I think of that saying, “No good deed goes unpublished.” In this case, James had tried to anticipate and address a crisis—but the crisis came anyway! Perhaps Paul knew in his heart that James’ advice might not have the desired outcome.

I, too, like to stay in (at least a little bit of) control of situations. On the other hand, the Spirit may be working within our activities in order to bring about something surprising later on---something outside of our control. Ideally, we shouldn’t fear losing control, because the Spirit does not abandon us.

These events, for instance, are the beginning of the bigger story of Paul’s eventual journey to Rome. True, his new adventures would be fraught with difficulties. Nevertheless, the Spirit was giving Paul the opportunity for Paul’s long-time dream: to preach in Rome!

God’s Spirit guides us in surprising ways. How wonderful when we know that it is, indeed, the Spirit’s voice, rather than our own or other’s!  

(A devotion written for our church.)