Monday, May 30, 2011

Everybody sings, or nobody sings

I've ranted about this before, but Memorial Day seems to bring it out worst--worse, even, than Independence Day.
I went with my father-in-law to a Memorial Day observance at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City today.  That museum is one of my favorite places in the area, and I've been to the KC Memorial Day observance there before as well.  And as a whole the observance was quite well-done.  The expected speeches by politicians were actually reasonably thoughtful and appropriate; the ceremonial events were executed with dignity and respect.  An American Legion band played with gusto and decent musicianship.  The only real problems came along when somebody opened their mouths to sing.
In one case it was simply poor singing.  I don't know if lack of rehearsal time with the band was the culprit or what, but . . . urgh, not good.  The other, though, played on a nerve that has been sensitized for years.  Near the front of the program a young woman--a high-school sophomore, I believe, was introduced to sing the Star-Spangled Banner.
Admittedly I'm not fond of the whole Broadway-baby belting style of singing in someone so young, but that wasn't the grating issue; frankly, the problem was with the basic existence of a soloist at all.
The Star-Spangled Banner has a rather interesting history in American practice, particularly around the World War I era.  Failure to play it in a concert was cause for throwing German-born orchestra conductors in prison, among other things.  (That's a much longer blog entry than I want to get into at this point.)  Most reports that I've been able to see suggest that crowds sang it lustily.  Not that there weren't occasions of handing it off to soloists, but as often the soloist made sure to sing it to keep on the good side of the patriotism police.
Now?  How many occasions do you know of when the people -- not some American Idol wannabe, not some fading celebrity, but the actual real live people in an audience -- actually sing the national anthem?
Here's a little secret that might be useful for folks in charge of events; putting a "soloist" in front of a crowd sends the following signal: Shut up.  This person is the singer, you're not.  We don't want to hear you sing.  Stay quiet and listen to the real singer.  Really, is that any way to treat the national anthem?  If there's any song that should be wrenched away from the soloists and put back in the mouths of the folk, this is the one, isn't it?
(I feel compelled to point out that this isn't really the business of the church to handle.  Future preacher or not, a Sunday worship service ain't the venue for this quarrel.)
Notice also that I'm not even getting into the issue of how some singers mangle the anthem, turning it into a mere showpiece for vocal gymnastics as if it's just another generic pop song on their next generic CD release.  Yeah, that gripes me too, but I want to stick to what seems the more basic issue for now.  Why are they there in the first place?
Are we actually the problem?  Are modern Americans too lazy even to sing for two minutes?  Please don't give me the gripes about how hard the song is.  Dammit, not on Memorial Day.  On a day set aside to remember the people who did the hard stuff we didn't want to, and lost their lives doing it, don't you dare try to claim that it's too hard to sing the Star-Spangled Banner.  Just . . . don't.
So if you're with me, here's the question:  how to start the revolution?  Where does one start the fire to put our national anthem back in our voices?  While it would be very cool to hear a crowd at a baseball game drown out the appointed soloist, I don't see it being feasible; that's a lot of people, even at a Royals game (rimshot!), to coordinate in a singing sneak attack.  I've had some sort of NPR commentary suggested, but do enough people really listen to those to make a difference?  Seriously, folks, make the comments section light up for once.  How to get the anthem sung by actual, everyday Americans instead of appointed stars, Fox Sports and its ilk be damned?  Fire up the ballpark organ, strike up the band, and (to paraphrase a Charles Ives title) let the voice of the people arise.
So the title is the motto: everybody sings, or nobody sings.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

First attempt at preaching....

Below is the text of my first attempt at preaching a real live actual sermon.  Caveat: I had many weeks to prepare, and got to choose the day (and hence lectionary readings) on which it would happen.  I wouldn't dare pretend to be able to do this kind of thing on a weekly basis yet.  And I've never been convinced that a sermon read is anything like a sermon heard.  Who knows, maybe it reads better than it sounds.

And because I care about this kind of thing, the day's hymns were "Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim" (Presbyterian Hymnal 477), "I Believe in God Almighty" (Sing the Faith 2042), and "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less" (PH 379).

            May 29, 2011, First Presbyterian Church, Lawrence, KS
            “Reading the Idols and Speaking Hope”
            I Peter 3: 13-22
            Acts 17: 22-34

            Father Jean de Brebeuf was a Jesuit missionary who evangelized among the Huron peoples of what is now Canada from 1625 to his death in 1649, near the lake that now bears their name.  Like any decent missionary in any age, he faced the task of understanding this new people with a different way of life, and a distinctly different way of interpreting the world, from his own.  As he lived and worked among the Huron he quite likely became frustrated over the multiplicity of spirits suggested in their cosmology, spirits inhabiting natural and inanimate objects all around.  He was probably mystified at some of the traditions and practices of the Huron, and no doubt noticed the striking differences between his own background and theirs, which made even some basic elements of his task of proclamation difficult.
            Take, for example, the Nativity story.  Many of us can no doubt recite some of our favorite parts of the story without prompting, such as, say, the proclamation of the angels to the shepherds.  However, as Father Jean no doubt observed, the very concept of a “shepherd” would make no sense to a people who were hunters, not herders or domesticators of any animal.  How does one adjust?  Or for that matter, think about the gifts of the Magi. We have enough trouble with the frankincense and myrrh; how could he possibly explain them to the Huron? 
            For Father Jean the process was slow.  From 1625 to 1634 the grand total of Hurons who had converted to Christianity was … zero.  The next two years were better; the number of Christians among the Huron skyrocketed to … fourteen.  Still Father Jean persisted, continuing to live among and with the Hurons, learning their customs and traditions with respect and compassion, and with time, the number of Hurons who embraced the faith grew.  In turn Father Jean became an expert on Huron culture and language and its primary interpreter and defender to the outside world.  Father Jean continued to live among the Hurons until being captured by their enemies, the Iroquois, and martyred in 1649.  The Iroquois routed and scattered the Huron people, driving them further west.  This would seem to be the end of Father Jean’s story, except…
            Thirty years later, another Jesuit missionary encountered some of the scattered remnant of the Hurons.  He was surprised to hear them singing a tune he knew, one that he recognized as a French Christmas carol.  The tune in this case also carried the Christmas story, albeit in quite a different form than he might recognize; the “spirits who enslave humanity” flee at the birth of Jesus, the “spirits who live in the sky” bear witness to hunters, and three “men of great authority” honor the newborn child not with frankincense or myrry, but by rubbing his scalp with sunflower oil – a sign of greatest honor among the Huron.  While such a presentation no doubt sounds alien to our ears, Father Jean’s adaptive carol persisted in the memory of the scattered Hurons, eventually to be recorded and preserved as the first Christmas carol created in Canada, and probably in all of North America.  (A heavily adapted and modified English version of the carol is found in our hymnal as #61.)
            Whether he recognized it or not, Father Jean was following in the footsteps of Paul as recorded in today’s reading from the book of Acts.  This passage, and the context in which it occurs, reflects a rather odd situation for the apostle.  Having been run out of not one, but two towns for his proclamation of Christ, as recorded earlier in Chapter 17, Paul was hustled off to Athens to wait while his colleagues stayed behind to support the Christ-followers rattled by the riots against them and Paul.  If one reads through the book of Acts, one doesn’t often see Paul in a position of waiting, except perhaps when he’s in prison.  Here it apparently doesn’t sit well with him.   He didn’t set up his tentmaking business, which he normally did when planning to stay in a city and preach for a time.  Instead, like a traveler bored with the hotel mini-bar and pay-per-view movies, he sets off to see Athens.
            Fabled as the home of the greatest philosophers and thinkers of the centuries, Athens was by Paul’s time an intellectual shadow of its former self.  Such forums as the Areopagus, the center of intellectual debate and discussion, remained, but the discourse there was no longer as original, no longer as provocative, no longer as earth-shaking as in the city’s glory days; novelty prevailed at the expense of genuine intellectual endeavor.  The pristine temples and buildings of the city were now crowded with shabby idols and shrines to a plethora of deities both local and imported from various corners of the Roman Empire.  One can easily imagine Paul, the Pharisee-trained Jew turned Christian evangelist, muttering under his breath at each new shrine or idol, and possibly chortling out loud at the sight of a shrine labeled “To an unknown God” (v. 23).  Finally he can no longer contain himself; he makes his way not only to the synagogue, but also the civic forum of Athens to plead his case and to argue with the locals, including in verse 18 some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.  Word gets around about this “babbler” and he is soon hustled off to the Areopagus itself, the center of philosophical debate in Athens, to present his message to the city’s self-presumed intellectual elite.
            Paul’s message, which comprises today’s reading, is – far from the fire-breathing rhetorical scolding one might expect from the apostle – quite a model of reaching out to an audience not steeped in his own tradition.  His opening statement, while possibly delivered slightly tongue-in-cheek, doesn’t scold the Athenians for their proliferation of idols, but instead honors their quest for religious understanding; the altar “To an unknown God” is not mocked, but used as a starting point for Paul’s proclamation: “what therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (v. 23).  One might imagine the audience nodding in assent, their interest and curiosity piqued. 
            From this beginning Paul proceeds to establish more common ground with his hearers.  Almost as if acknowledging an inside joke, Paul moves gently beyond the notion of gods bound to shrines “made by human hands” (v. 24) – you and I, we really don’t buy that silly idea, right?   Those of us of a certain age might recall the lyrics of a song by Don Henley, reminding us that “you never have to get down on your knees for a little tin god.”  Paul connects with his listeners with this idea and then expands his proclamation to the all-creating God who gives live and breath to all living things. 
            His next flourish of identification with his audience is to use well-known quotes from two poets of the Greek tradition in support of his argument; “in whom we live and move and have our being” (v. 28) evokes the works of Epimenides from six centuries before, and “For we too are his offspring” the writings of Aratus, three centuries after Epimenides.  These were not unfamiliar sayings even to Jews of Paul’s time, but his citation of these Greek poets nonetheless reinforces Paul’s bond with his listeners; see what we have in common?  This “unknown god” isn’t so alien, is it?
            So far, so good.  Paul has been quite gentle with his audience to this point, but things turn in verse 30.  Just as one might suspect Paul is veering close to some sort of uncharacteristic universalism, he drives on to the first concept in his argument that diverges seriously from Athenian thought and understanding.  This world, he says, which has worshipped these idols in ignorance, is now called to repent of this error by a God who has given to the world this sign of hope: a man who was raised from the dead. 
            The idea of resurrection was too much for most of the learned audience.  It just didn’t fit with modern Athenian spirituality; an eternal soul, sure, but a resurrected body?  In the Athenian mind that’s just ridiculous.  Impossible.  And a little gross, too.  Many scoffed and dismissed Paul; a few expressed at least a mild curiosity to hear more, and Luke tells us that “a few” believed, going so far as to name two of them, Dioynsius “the Areopagite” (whose nickname suggests he was a regular at these discussions?) and a woman named Damaris.  Not exactly a top-shelf conversion rate.  Still, to avoid that which is the fount of hope for any Christian is not compatible with Paul’s mission.  No matter how much Paul might be able to accommodate parts of his message to his Athenian audience, the core of the Christian good news – the Easter news, the Man raised from the dead – is indispensible. 
            What we see in Paul, and in Father Jean centuries later, models for us the imperative laid out in today’s reading from I Peter.  To a people apparently facing either current or imminent persecution, the author counsels among many other instructions that they should “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (v. 15), but that such an account be given “with gentleness and reverence” (v. 16).  That isn’t a charge limited to professional missionaries or biblical evangelists; all believers share in this command – not one of Bible-thumping or racking up monster growth numbers and transforming ourselves into a megachurch, but simply speaking to our hope, why we dare to hope in a world devoted to dashing hope, in which each week’s headlines seem striving to outdo the week before in stories of disaster and despair, whether the latest tornado outbreak or the brutality of tyrants or the mulishness of politicians.  We have hope, and it’s our job to be able to say so, and why.
            We rehearse that hope here, you might notice.  Whether in the hymns we sing, or the prayers that we pray; in the act of baptism, or in the breaking of the bread in communion; in the words of an anthem that reminds us we are so loved of God that we are called God’s children (shades of Paul quoting Aratus), or maybe even a fumbling first sermon from an overaged ministerial inquirer; we rehearse our hope here.  We may not have the chameleon-like intellect of Paul, able to speak to any audience at any time, or the dogged persistence of Father Jean, but we do have the same hope to defend and recommend to a world filled with idols, and not just Scotty McCreery or others of the kind found on TV shows. 
            Maybe it’s the idol of security – the one that says we must protect ourselves at all costs; or the idol of celebrity – the quest to be famous for being famous; the idol of power and influence, the idol of wealth and possession, maybe even the idol of “religion” – my church, my way, or else; all these idols and many more line our streets and litter our walkways in our own contemporary Athens.  I will leave it to you to decide how much Mount Oread might have in common with the Areopagus, but in the end we are left with the question: how do we speak to those idols, and the false promises they offer?  Can we speak our hope?  Can we find a language of gentleness and reverence to speak hope to a world that doesn’t recognize hope?                                                 

God of all hope, God of the Man risen from the dead, dwell within us with your wisdom and compassion; that we may in gentleness and reverence show your hope in deed and word in all corners of your world.  Amen.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Crossroads approaching

The transition is getting more intense now.  This is graduation weekend at KU, and tomorrow morning I'll be at my final commencement exercise for the School of Music.
These things always have a little bit of tearjerker quality to them.  There are some students who, bluntly, you're not at all unhappy to see depart, but those are few and far between most years.  In most cases, the gamut will be of a number of students who can at least elicit genuine warm wishes for their future, and a few who you'll genuinely be sorry to see going away, even as you are excited for their future potential as a musician or teacher or scholar.
This year, of course, for me the whole business of departure is exponentially more intense.  They aren't the only ones leaving this year.
[Note: I can't guarantee that I'll never teach again; I may need to do some adjunct teaching to avoid going bankrupt during seminary, and it's always possible that the pastoral career may have to be in a small church, part-time, and college or university adjuncting would be the most logical other half of an income to pursue.  But this theoretically marks the end of my full-time professional academic career as a professor, as far as I understand this calling now.  I do still try to leave room for God to surprise me yet again down the line with how this fool's errand finally plays out.]
As a music history professor, you generally are the "major professor" for very few students (unless you're someplace huge like Indiana or other monster-size departments); most of your students are performers, maybe composers or conductors, or maybe music ed majors.  They didn't enroll in your school dying to take your classes.  It isn't highest priority for them.  I'd be an idiot not to realize that, and while I readily acknowledge being a fool I try very hard not to be an idiot.
Still, sometimes the student-professor relationship "clicks" in ways that are incredibly fulfilling and rewarding, even in music history classes.  And I've been blessed to have that happen multiple times both here at KU and at previous teaching engagements as well.  I can say that this year, even without my particular situation shading my reactions, there would be a number of students who would provoke the sad/excited duality of reactions.
Add in that this is the last time.  I'll be missing not only these students, but the ones who aren't graduating yet.  And I'll be saying goodbye to my colleagues as well, as classy and enjoyable a bunch as I could ever have hoped.  Some of them I'll miss tremendously.
As awkward as this is to say, I'll also miss the diversity of my colleagues.  Going to seminary is by nature going to be a rather homogeneous experience in at least one sense; my classmates are generally all going to be Christians, I think (???).  The diversity of thought and experience that is inherently part of being on a large university faculty won't be there.  I will, in a way, miss that.
I'm not having second thoughts; if anything, I'm even more agitated to "get on with it" and get into the process of theological education.  This change of vocation has been percolating for close to a year and a half now and while that may not seem like a long time in the course of a forty-six-year life, it has felt glacially slow.
Still, the intensity of emotion and ... what?  Not really regret, but stronger than wistfulness.  Grieving?  Maybe that's really it; grieving for what I'm inevitably losing here, even knowing there is so much ahead to be gained and experienced.
Now to try to get through the weekend without turning into a blubbering heap.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The crust of familiarity

For those churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, today was a special event (at least for many people in the pews).  The appointed psalm of the day was none other than Psalm 23, probably the most familiar extended passage of scripture among both the faithful and the more secular of society.  (It might be topped in memorization by John 3:16, but that's a lot shorter and easier to learn.)  Even if one doesn't recognize the scripture reference as listed, there's a decent chance the phrases found in the psalm (particularly in their King James Version formulations; "The Lord is my shepherd," or "the valley of the shadow of death," or "Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me"; frankly, most of the psalm might ring familiar) are familiar enough as cultural artifacts to stir recognition.  

The psalm has spawned artworks, books, and more music than I can recount (the Presbyterian Hymnal has six different settings of Psalm 23 in its psalter, enough for two turns through the entire lectionary cycle).  It is a ubiquitous presence in devotional literature.  And there it sits, a great big unavoidable presence in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  

I couldn't be happier not to be preaching today.

In the various sub-levels of the general "What am I doing????" freakout I experience daily (perhaps I should make up a tree of the categories of freakout that I experience under the general heading of "You fool, what are you doing throwing away a perfectly good career and running off trying to be a pastor???")  somewhere down the line is the large chunk of self-doubt about how I can possibly have anything useful to say about such an overwhelmingly familiar passage as Psalm 23.   (Yes, I know, preaching is not about what I have to say, yada yada yada.  Play along, you know what I mean.)  What does one do with such a passage, one of the few that the congregation is likely to recognize quite well?  

The lectionary, of all things, more or less forces one to deal with it.  The alternatives for the day (in Year A at least) are a rather slim passage from Acts 2, and selections from I Peter and John which both funnel the preacher right back to the psalm.  The epistle ends with I Peter 2:25: "For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls."  John 10 contains Jesus's exasperated attempts to use shepherd metaphors to explain his role to a rather dense audience, dancing all around the "I am the good shepherd" declaration without including, for some reason.  At any rate, there's a reason the day gets nicknamed "Good Shepherd Sunday."  

While I don't pretend to be a rapturously wonderful speaker, I wonder if the most luminous pastors in all Christendom get a little concerned about approaching such a passage.  The ground has been covered so many times, one wonders not only if one can come up with anything compelling to say, but also if anyone will hear it anyway.  I have this sneaking suspicion that familiarity, if not quite breeding contempt as the old cliche would have it, at least breeds a certain level of resistant contentment.  It's Psalm 23; I know it already.  You have to preach on it, but it's not as if you can really challenge me in any way on it, because I have it down pat.  It becomes a "safe" Sunday, when congregants and pastors alike can rest secure in the belief that the Holy Spirit won't really find a way to cause trouble.  Beloved and familiar as it is, it may be in its way so crusted over with familiarity as to be the most resistant to any sort of challenge or penetrating insight.  

It's the kind of thing that can happen with certain familiar hymns as well.  Just a couple of weeks ago, our church heard from members of the group that traveled to Nicaragua on an informational trip back in march.  You may know the drill; two or three of the travelers describe the group's activities and "share their reflections" or whatever choice of language your church may deem appropriate.  In this case two of the members of the group gave what struck me as particularly challenging and thoughtful reflections on the trip; how being among such poor but joyful people provided a rather stinging critique of the stuff-oriented lifestyle we tend to live in the affluent ol' USA, how the things we see as tremendous burdens seem rather trivial in the light of real struggle just to make it daily.  It was a pregnant moment.  The affirmation of faith that followed was appropriate to the challenge wrapped in the words of the two speakers.  Then came, in this order of service, the hymn.  "Amazing Grace."

I'm pretty sure I could get expelled from seminary before I even start were I to dare criticize that hymn.  If any element of the church's overall literature could challenge Psalm 23 for ubiquity and familiarity, "Amazing Grace" is probably just the thing to do it.  And I have no particular criticism of the hymn itself.  It's one of the finest hymns in Christendom (although John Newton himself would be puzzled by the way we sing it nowadays, but that's a subject for another post down the line).  

But again, we face the real prospect of resistant contentment.  I can't help but feel that in this case, maybe it had a neutralizing effect on the power of the two speaker's words.  Hey, that's my lifestyle being challenged.  Do I really consume too much?  Is the way I live really part of the problem?  Am I really being faithful...oh, wait, I hear "Amazing Grace."  I know that hymn.  I've got it down pat.  I'm safe.  Clearly not a problem here.  I don't need to worry about anything I just heard.

Maybe I'm just being paranoid.  I'm certainly not a mind-reader.  Still, you know what it feels like when momentum is lost, or an opportunity passes unfulfilled, and you know you're not imagining things.  (Mind you, the hymn was of course chosen in advance, in this case not necessarily knowing what the speakers were going to say; furthermore, changing hymns on the fly is a good way to earn the undying suspicion of your organist, and who knows the hymnal in such encyclopedia-like fashion as to come with an alternative on the spot?)  "Amazing Grace" is a great hymn, but perhaps too familiar and comfortable--too crusted over with familiarity and contentment--to follow up on the particular challenge of the moment.  

So I'm left with questions, whether it be "Amazing Grace" or Psalm 23 or another highly familiar and comfortable bit of the dialogue of faith.  (And don't get me started on the whole business of King James Version translations vs. more recent versions; that may be a multi-part blog post.)  Reassurance and comfort are needed in the life of the church, but not all the time; sometimes the job of liturgy and lectionary is precisely to generate discomfort.  How do we (that "we" eventually to include "me", those charged with planning and leading worship) find that balance and discern when to go to the familiar and when to stir discomfort?  How do we avoid addressing such overwhelmingly familiar texts (and it has to happen, eventually) as these without slipping into trite banalities or overly plush cliches?  Ah, so much to learn, so much to struggle with... .

"What am I doing???..."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Prospects and hope

Those who know me know (and anyone who doesn't can learn from the profile here) that I'm a baseball fan.  Rather maniacally so, one might say.  This produces behaviors in me that are not easily explainable otherwise.

Friday night, even with loads of stuff to do or pack or grade or read or what have you, an immutable inner compulsion drove me into the car, onto K-10 and then I-435, and eventually to Kaufmann Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals, to witness the major league debut of a twenty-one-year-old kid I'll never know, by the name of Eric Hosmer.

I should point out that I'm not exactly a Royals fan, not really.  They are the closest team at the moment, and thus the "home" team (as described in the penultimate couplet of the chorus to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," which exhorts fans to "root, root, root for the home team"), but I've only lived around here four years, which hasn't been enough time to build ties that bind.  I spent enough time in Florida to have some affinity for both the Marlins and the Rays, the latter of which I was able to follow from its inception through some of the worst seasons in baseball history, only to have them make the World Series the season after I left the state.  I grew up in Georgia following the Braves.  But on the major-league level, I am primarily a baseball fan before a fan of any one team.

This actually explains the pilgrimage to Kaufmann Friday night.  For the non-baseball fans among you, Eric Hosmer is by virtually all accounts a good young player.  At least one expert on the subject projects Hosmer as the fifth best prospect in all of baseball, which is pretty impressive when one considers how many players toil in the minors waiting for their chance.  The experts say he can hit, hit with power, and field extremely well to boot.  And as silly as it sounds, the chance to catch his first big-league game, to be able to say that someday when he's making All-Star teams or winning batting titles or home-run titles, was too much to pass up.  "I saw him when..." is a powerful sentiment.

Considering the sad state of the Royals, the event became magnified in significance.  After drawing crowds less than 20,000 most nights since Opening Night, the team picked up a crowed over 30,000.  The team shop was making "Hosmer 35" replica jerseys by hand, and falling well behind demand (no, I didn't go that far).

For the record, the Royals lost, and Hosmer did not get a hit.  He walked twice and struck out twice (the second time on a dubious called third strike).  In the very first inning he picked a hard-hit ground ball cleanly and started a double play, first to second and back to first--not an easy play even for an experienced first baseman.  The 0-for-2 might not look like much, but having the discipline to wait out walks in his first two big-league plate appearances is actually pretty darned impressive.

So in the end, a satisfying trip.  Had I waited one more night I'd have seen the kid's first big-league hit, and the Sunday game would have rendered up a run-scoring double--first major-league run batted in.  But still, to someone who watches way too much baseball, it was a promising start.  One game is ultimately meaningless, of course (statisticians would lecture about "small sample size" here), except that it's not.  He arrived, he held his own, and now he can be about the business of having a big-league career, something that you and I and the vast majority of us will never do.

A Royals fan dares hope for what Hosmer might eventually do for the franchise.  A more generalist baseball fan like me simply gladdens to see another bright talent coming to The Show.  Maybe a non-fan can take pleasure in a talent being nurtured and developed and exercised at its highest level.  We can appreciate this, yes?

He's just one prospect, of course.  Right now the Royals are regarded as having the best minor-league talent in all the league, but even that is not a guarantee that the Royals will be printing playoff tickets anytime soon.  One might hurt his arm, one might get hit by a bus, one might simply fail to live up to expectations.  Any of those could still happen to Eric Hosmer (watch out for those buses, kid).  Still, for one night, fans of a sad-sack team had permission to dream about seasons with ninety wins instead of ninety losses, hitters who don't swing at bad pitches, teams with youth and energy and promise and that most elusive of all qualities, hope.

Hope.  It can be a terrible tease sometimes.  We allow our hopes to be raised, only to have them dashed or shattered.  It happens in our professional lives, our love lives, our political ideals, even our faith.  Often it's our own faults; we get caught striving for the wrong goal, the wrong person, misplacing our faith.  Sometimes our hopes don't turn out through no fault of our own.

The church, of course, has its own ideas about hope.  Hymnody exults in it: "my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus's blood and righteousness..." or "hope of the world, Thou Christ of great compassion," "O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come...".  It's a vital thing in that context, but it's not only among the faithful that hope is a needful thing.  It's a fierce human need.  We are highly prone to latch onto any occasion, any excuse for hope.  It may be more meaningful in most places than in regard to a baseball team, but the power of hope, and the power of the need for hope, are lessons I am well-advised to write fast upon my own heart as I go forward into this fool's errand.

And yes, for the next few years in Richmond, and then wherever the good Lord chooses to deposit me thereafter, I'll be checking out Eric Hosmer's stats now and then.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Random feelings after the news

There is a part of me that wishes I could get more excited about the news of the death of Osama bin Laden.    Hey, there's a part of me that hopes he is in the midst of his eternal reward, discovering that the milk has soured, the honey has crusted over, and the seventy-two virgins look and act like either Joan Rivers or Roseanne at their worst.

I can't, though.

I might be able to get more excited if I thought that bin Laden's death would bring back the thousands killed in al-Qaeda terrorist actions, be they in Spain, Kenya, Tanzania, on the USS Cole, in Pennsylvania, D.C. or New York (either time).  It won't, however.

I might be able to get more excited if I thought that bin Laden's death would undo the last ten years of American history.  If the thousands of U.S. troops lost in Afghanistan or Iraq were returned to their families, I could get thoroughly excited.  That won't happen either.  If the raging hate-mongering and shrill paranoia that increasingly characterizes the political discourse in this country were erased I'd be delirious with joy.  I can dream, but it seems very unlikely.

I can't make myself sorry to see this thing gone.  I'm not that good.

I find myself wondering, trying to remember; were people celebrating this strongly when the last terrorist to end scores of American lives in an attack on American soil died?  I don't remember quite such celebrations when Timothy McVeigh was executed, but that's been many years and my memory could be fuzzy.

I hope no one is so naive as to think there won't be reprisals.  No, I don't see al-Qaida actually managing to get to the current or former President, or anything so dramatic.  The revenge will be taken on people without power, as these things usually go.  We may never know their names.

Far smarter people than I have weighed in on the subject in many places, most of which anybody who ever ends up here has probably already read.  I certainly have nothing profound or original to add.  I don't know how to feel.  I only know that I don't see a lot changing.