Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sermon: Going Into His Father's Business

Made it through preaching a sermon today (twice).  Not sure how, but here it is.  Most of it was actually written for preaching class back in November, but some revision has been done since then.

Charles S. Freeman
Salisbury Presbyterian Church, Midlothian, VA
December 30, 2012
Christmas 1C

Luke 2:41-52

Going Into His Father’s Business
It is remarkable, if you stop to think about it, how little we truly know about the life of Jesus; I mean, the actual thirty-three or so years that Jesus Christ spent walking the earth as a physical human being..  This time of year we hear a lot about Jesus’s birth, of course, but remarkably little is told; only two of the canonical gospels have any sort of birth story for Jesus, and Luke’s story spends almost as much time on the birth of his cousin John as on Jesus himself.  On the other hand, Matthew tells different stories, one about sages from afar coming to visit the child (we observe that next Sunday) and a tragic story in which the holy family flees to Egypt to escape a massacre of children.  Mark and John, of course, are silent on any childhood of Jesus.  Once Jesus is born, aside from the text for today, we fast-forward almost thirty years to the public, adult ministry of Jesus.  Of this we are given, between the four gospels, about a three-year period of ministry before Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. 
This isn’t how most major religious figures have their stories told.  A casual scan of Wikipedia entries for figures such as Muhammad or Buddha will reveal biographies that, if not complete, at least don’t contain gaps of decades in the life of the subject.  Even in the early Christian world stories of ancient heroes or demigods were far more complete, and likely to contain stories of the hero’s childhood that suggest that the essential traits of that hero’s character, if not their miraculous abilities, were well-established at an early age.
It seems that in the early days of Christianity, around the second century or after, the absence of such stories about Jesus helped spur the writing of a number of “gospels,” some of them specifically infancy narratives or childhood stories, aiming to fill in the yawning gaps in the life of Jesus.  These “gospels” of course were not ultimately accepted into the biblical canon as we know it, and in more than a few cases we’re probably glad of this fact.  One such collection, known today as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, purports to cover an eight-year span of Jesus’s life, beginning from age five. Most of the stories are miracle stories, not surprisingly.  Some of them are harmless, or even cute: at age five Jesus is creating birds from clay and bringing them to life, and a little later, when helping Joseph in the carpenter shop, he magically stretches out a board that was too short for the use Joseph intended.  Some of the stories, however, are rather frightening.  Jesus strikes dead a boy who bumped into him, and then strikes blind those who complained about the boy’s death.  In another story Jesus raises a boy from the dead, but only so the boy could testify that Jesus wasn’t the one who pushed him off the roof.  Frankly, in many of these stories Jesus comes off as little more than a brat with superpowers.
Fortunately, the one account of Jesus’s young life to be found in the canonical gospels is rather less gruesome.  Indeed, it is a story that is, at first glance at least, remarkable for its unremarkability.  Its context is that of a very typical, devout Jewish family life for its time, with regular trips to the Temple in Jerusalem for the observances required of the faithful. 
One such observance was the Feast of the Passover, which Luke tells us the family traveled to Jerusalem every year to observe.  The year when Jesus was twelve years old was no different than the years before, evidently; the family gathered itself up and made its way to Jerusalem, in the company of relatives and other faithful acquaintances; they remained in Jerusalem for all of the appropriate events of the festival, and when it was all over, they along with their relatives and fellow travelers made their way home.  Typical.
Only after a day’s journey towards Nazareth did the story take its unexpected turn.  Maybe it’s hard for us to imagine in our extremely cautious age, where parents can keep children on leashes or attach beepers to them or use numerous other means of keeping track of them, but a day into the journey home it became clear that Jesus was not with his brothers or sisters, or playing with that boy Simon, or anywhere else in the caravan headed to Nazareth.  He was nowhere to be seen.
The sense of panic Mary and Joseph must have experienced is probably not hard for you to imagine, particularly if you’ve ever been a parent.  Emotions rise to a fever pitch, desperation sets in.  No 911 to call, no Amber Alerts to issue; he’s just … gone.  At last the only recourse is for Mary and Joseph to retrace their steps to Jerusalem and try to find the boy.
Jerusalem is a large city, even at the time in which Mary and Joseph are searching.  The frustration of wondering how this boy, normally such a good boy, could go off and do something so irresponsible was no doubt mixing with the sheer terror of desperately trying to find the boy before it was … too late.  He’s not at the lodging.  He’s not at the market.  Where could that boy be???
Finally, after three days of searching, the parents arrive at the Temple.  Sure, this was where no doubt the family had spent much of their time during the Passover, but why would Jesus come back here with the festival over?  And yet, in the end, that’s exactly where Jesus was.
Seated among the teachers in the Temple, far removed from the celebrating crowds that had thronged there only a few days before, was the boy Jesus.  Luke tells us he was listening to the teachers and asking them questions, and that those hearing him were extremely impressed, to say the least, by his questions, by his attentiveness, by his intelligence, by his insight.  You might well imagine the remarks the teachers might make to the parents: You’ve got quite a son there.  Whip-smart.  A real intelligent boy, yes sir.  You must be teaching him well.  Respectful, too.  A real fine boy.
Not surprisingly, though, the parents are not really in the mood to be regaled with stories of their son’s intelligence and perceptiveness.  No, the first thing on their minds, perhaps first after Oh, thank the Lord he’s safe, is “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO US???”  Luke describes the parents as “astonished,” or “astounded” – but not in a good way.  The language of the NRSV is a bit bloodless, isn’t it?  “Child, why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  Now let’s put that in terms we can understand: Oh, Jesus, how could you put us through this?  Your poor father and I have been searching all over Jerusalem for you, and you’ve just had us worried sick?  What were you thinking, son?  How could you just go off on your own like this?  Don’t you know it’s not safe? 
At this point it’s impossible to speculate what kind of response Jesus’s parents expected from him.  Maybe Mary and Joseph themselves didn’t even know what to expect, or perhaps they expected no response at all, as long as he was quiet and did what he was told and took his scolding and didn’t sneak off again. 
They most certainly did not expect the reply they got, though.  That much is certain.  The Greek does a couple of different possibilities here:  “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  could equally accurately be read How did you not know that I’d be about my Father’s business?  The words must have cut like the sharpest of knives, especially for Joseph, Jesus’s … you know, father.  How long had it been since Mary and Joseph thought back to those events of twelve years before, the strange angel apparitions and stars and shepherds?  After all this time, living such an ordinary life, had those miraculous events started to fade; the unexpected pregnancy, the journey to Bethlehem, no place to stay, angels and shepherds…  And now, to be confronted with such a harsh declaration?  No wonder they couldn’t understand it.
For all the seeming disconnect between parents and child, in the end Jesus was obedient, Luke tells us; he went home with Mary and Joseph, his mother and his earthly father, and if there were any similar incidents in Jesus’s teenage years Luke does not tell us about them.
Still, even though the scene doesn’t have the lurid appeal of a superboy striking people dead or blind in a fit of pique, what we do learn of Jesus in this account is disconcerting and even threatening in its own way.  At the age of twelve, on the cusp of manhood in the Jewish tradition, Jesus has made his own declaration that, ultimately, he would be going into his Father’s business.  Above all else, this twelve-year-old boy tells us, he is the Son of God; and this above all determines where he must be, what he must do, how he must live.  This is not about being bound by a set of rules or hoops to jump through; this is about a compulsion far more powerful, the fact of being so oriented to the will of God that he can do no other thing that does not conform his life, his actions, his words to be those of a child of God.  Even as we’re told that Jesus grew up well and was well-regarded by those who knew him or met him, the overriding and unbreakable marker of his life was to be in favor with God, no matter how much his parents might not understand, or his brothers or sisters, or his fellow citizens of Nazareth. 
The biblical scholar R. Alan Culpepper describes two ways of understanding obedience to God, saying:
Some define their religious practices with lists of things they may not do: “thou shalt not … “.  Such lists set boundaries, but they do not define goals.  A commitment to God that is born of the experience of God’s love and presence is expressed in grateful participation in God’s redemptive work.  There are some things we have to do just because of who we are: “I must be about my Father’s business.”

In the end, that’s what we are given to learn from the youth Jesus.  No matter how much others – even one’s own family – might misunderstand or resist, if we are truly to be about our Father’s business, there are things we must do.  Not because they are written down in a list of rules or held over our heads as threats or dangled before us to entice us towards some reward, but because being a child of God means we do those things – we love God’s children, we care for those poorer than we, we worship when we’d rather be sleeping in the Sunday after Christmas, we teach our children what it means to be a child of God, even at the risk of their taking it seriously.  To borrow words from our confessional document, A Brief Statement of Faith, we pray without ceasing, we witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, we unmask idolatries in church and culture, we hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and we work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.  And we do it because we must, because that’s what it means to be a child of God, and that’s what it means to be working in our Father’s business.
Hymns: Angels from the realms of glory (PH#22), O sing a song of Bethlehem (PH#308), It came upon the midnight clear (PH#38)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I didn't know him, not really

Somewhere along the way today it hit me with raw force that, had he lived this long, today would have been my father's ninetieth birthday.  Of course, I immediately contemplated that given the course of his life and the choices he made in it, it was as near certain as possible that he was not ever going to live to that age.  That he lived to age seventy-one has a whiff of miracle about it.  This domino chain of mental events led me off on an unexpected mental journey for the day.  When I might have spent the day wondering if my bowels are ever going to straighten up and fly right or if I'm going to be a prisoner in my home the rest of my life, I spent the day instead thinking about my father.

He was born rural and fixing things became his gift.  It also became his ticket out of south Georgia, at least for a few years, as a Navy man in World War II, one of those guys in the Pacific who went on shore and built airstrips before our forces had technically, say, occupied the island.  That kind of stuff.

He would not talk about that experience in later years.  In one conversation ("conversation" here, as often it did, meaning "monologue") he let slip a phrase about being at Guadalcanal.  When he realized that it had slipped out, he clammed up more fiercely and irreversibly than I've ever seen another human being do, to the point of leaving the conversation altogether without another word.

He returned to Dublin when the shooting was over, marrying my mother in (I think) 1947 and working through a series of jobs from agricultural to mechanical.  Daughters were born in 1954, 1956, and 1960.  Somewhere along the way the gears began to slip.  Infidelity was involved, on his part for certain (I have no evidence that my mother was ever unfaithful to him).  By the time I was born in 1965 the marriage was for all practical purposes over, though the divorce was not finalized for another two-plus years.

My older siblings had enough investment in that nuclear home to carry degrees of anger or sadness or grief from its demise.  I had none.  For that matter I had just enough friends who were also children of divorce that it took me some years to realize that a one-parent home was "not normal" according to The Powers That Be.  For some years I spent alternate weekends at his home with his new wife (I never called her my stepmother), doing I don't remember what (my main memory is wondering why I was the only one who had to go).  Eventually those faded away, as his ramping alcoholism pushed him away from functionality.  As his descent into the bottle eroded his mechanical skills he slipped into more irrelevant and unsuccessful jobs, trying to manage gas stations or mini-marts.  By my teenage years I was seeing him only sporadically if at all.  He might have made it for a few big events, maybe graduation, but not many at all.

I can't speak for his life at this point, except for knowing that both alcoholism and smoking were doing their work in him that ultimately would not be undoable.  He did eventually quit both, but by that time the emphysema that would eventually end him was a permanent guest in his lungs.

Perhaps the biggest jolt I ever knew in my life was the one evening when, as I was trying to do homework at the kitchen table, he was telling my mother that leaving her was the biggest mistake he ever made in his life.

By the time I got through college we had some form of relationship.  It was grown-up.  It made no pretense that anything was ever going to be "fixed" or made up.  It did eventually result in passing on some family heritage, though never anything about his war years (which I would have given dearly to hear about).

The last I saw him was a week before my wedding.  His health could no way withstand a trip to Fort Myers in June.  So I saw him (he had met her before), we had a good conversation.  The breadth of his marital advice:  "So you're sure she's the right one?  Well, do right by her."

About 12:45 that next Saturday, about the time our wedding was concluding, my father fell ill and couldn't breathe.  An ambulance was called and he was admitted to the hospital.  This had happened many times in recent years; his breathing would fail, he would be treated in the hospital for a few days, and eventually he'd be released.  Except it didn't happen this time.  He held steady for a short time, then went into decline that would not reverse, then he would steady for a short time again.  Under normal circumstances I'd be angry at my sisters for not calling during our honeymoon to let us know, but this had become so normal a pattern I can hardly blame them.  As we spoke on our way down I-75, needing to decide whether to get off at I-16 to Dublin or to continue south and make our way back to Tallahassee, such issues as our complete lack of clean clothes and general fatigue were discussed more than anything.

Even that Monday night, when they finally called to tell me he had died, the mood was largely one of surprise.  You know that eventually one of those episodes will be more than you can handle, but it's still a surprise when it's this one.  We repacked and headed back to Dublin, and my wife met most of my father's relatives at his funeral.

It's hard to put any precise term on this relationship.  "Absence" certainly fits, but absence has its own kind of presence, and in a strange way that seems more accurate.  What did I learn from him?  Some negative lessons, for sure; I've never been remotely tempted to smoke, and I have a pretty severe disdain for drunkenness.  Maybe I learned that even when it's not too late, it's still too late, or that even though it's too late it's not too late.  I don't know and probably never will.

If he had lived that long, he would have been ninety today.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why we hate Advent (or should), part 4: It's all been done

So you're back after all.


And you still have your colon and most of your rectum too.  


You must be feeling very smug now.

I'm feeling very fortunate and very blessed.

And you're not even hurting that much, apparently.  You think you're some kind of superman?

No, I'm not really hurting, but every now and then my body rushes me to the john to remind me I'm no superman.  I'd assumed you'd enjoy that part, personal mental demon.

And for all that, you're going to flog this Advent horse yet again?

One more time.

"Pastor, could I talk to you for just a moment?

"Oh, the others aren't here.  They took off to go see grandkids for Christmas.  My kids and grandkids will be coming here later today.  Anyway, I'm sure the others are still as cranky as ever, or probably gloating about being at a church today that isn't bothering with Advent.

"But maybe, I don't know, maybe there really is a point to this?

"All week my mind has been troubled by that awful thing that happened in Connecticut.  I feel broken. I don't know whether to be sad or angry.  And to hear how some people don't seem to care, only that they get to keep their guns...I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.  What kind of world is this?  Is this our world?

"It was kind of a shock to come in and find the church dark this morning.  I also saw you get a little testy with one of the elders who kept trying to turn on the lights.  But it fit where I was, that was for sure.  Gray and gloomy.

"It's not as if the Advent wreath hasn't been getting lit for three weeks already.  But somehow today it made so much sense all of a sudden.  Of course we have to light candles.  This is a dark world.  We have to light candles because this is a dark world.  We can curse the darkness all we want to, but that doesn't bring any light to the world.

"So, I guess the question is, what does it mean to bring light to this world?  What are we supposed to be doing to illuminate in this darkness?  I guess I've never thought about it this way before.  And maybe I'm seeing this now because we kept plugging at Advent, I don't know.  I'll have to think about this.

"But another thing, the Magnificat.  I know it gets preached every year, and the choir sang a lovely setting too.  But until you mentioned it in the sermon, I'd never noticed how it's all in the past.  It's all action that has been done.  "He has scattered the proud...," "he has filled the hungry...," all what we would call present perfect tense, pastor.  After all these weeks it finally sunk in, if we're not living in a way that our world and our actions look like this, then we're not living in God's world, are we?  And that's why we have to keep lighting candles, to be against the darkness.  It isn't just that a world where things like Sandy Hook happens isn't the world that God has done.  It's that a world where things like Sandy Hook are accepted, where we just say "that's how it is," or where we despair and say there's nothing we can do about it...that isn't the world God has done either.

"It's amazing to me how it's suddenly all fitting together.  All those Old Testament readings and all that from John the Baptist.  This is what it points to, isn't it?  It all comes together.

"It's a lot to think about.  Now I almost wish I had a few days before Christmas to think about it.  I still feel broken and angry and sad, but I guess I can at least see something about what it means to live in the  world God has done, and to light lights against the darkness.  I won't say I completely understand it yet, but there's something there.

"Thanks, pastor.  See you tomorrow night."

As if.

Eh, a pastor can dream.

You think anyone will ever really get it?

I don't know.  All I can do is proclaim.  No pastor has any control over how any parishioner receives what the pastor preaches.  And frankly, a pastor who tries to have that kind of control is an evil thing.

You're pointless.  But at least this Advent foolishness from you is done.  And you can knock it off with a nice little Christmas story and get back to your usual irrelevance, instead of this extra-special irrelevance.

One little Christmas story?  You know that the Christmas season really lasts twelve days, don't you?  Maybe I'll get crazy and blog the twelve days of Christmas somehow.  Hmm...

You have got to be kidding me.  You can't seriously think that even the most benighted Advent geek is going to take a whole twelve days of celebrating Christmas lying down, can you?  You really are a fool.

Yep, it's right there in the name of the blog.

You are utterly pointless.

Yeah, whatever.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why we hate Advent (or should), part 3: Linus got it wrong

(Thursday, 3:35 p.m.  Yes, it's early.  I might not feel like blogging Sunday.)

You're cheating!


It's not Sunday yet!

So? Since when can I only blog on Sundays?

But you know you're going to write on that Advent obsession of yours again, and you've done that on Sunday.  This is Thursday.  You're cheating.

As you so kindly pointed out last time, I may not be all that functional this Sunday.  No harm in thinking ahead.  Right?

And am I reading that title right? You're actually going to take on one of the iconic symbols of modern Christmas on behalf of this Advent rant of yours?

It's an illustration.  I'm not "taking on" anything.

And you're still going to flog those hypothetical members?

Maybe.  We'll see.

I defer to no one in my love of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Let that be established up front.  I love Vince Guaraldi's score.  I love the frankly low quality of the animation, the rush-job editing, the way the nearly-barren tree suddenly turns lush and green when it finally gets decorated.  We own the DVD just so it doesn't matter if we miss the network broadcast.  We can watch it multiple times if we want to.

But I still say Linus got it wrong.

It's a beautiful moment.  Just as poor hapless Charlie Brown finally loses control of his seasonal despair, crying out into the empty auditorium for somebody, anybody, who can tell him what Christmas is all about, here comes Linus with his lines freshly memorized under threat of Lucy's "five good reasons" to do so.  He gives us the Luke nativity in a nutshell, with angel annunciation to the shepherds.  And caps it off with the ultimate line, suddenly sounding so much smaller:  "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

It's beautiful.  It's a tearjerker.  It's probably the last time so much scripture ever got quoted un-ironically on network television.

But I still say Linus got it wrong, or at least incomplete.

What he says is good: "fear not"; "unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord"; "the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."  All good.  All very familiar.  We hear it every year at this time.

But what does it mean?

Why a Savior?  Why does this poor baby end up in a feed trough?  And a troop of angels exploding into the sky sounds like a pretty good reason to fear to me, so why "fear not"?

What's the point?

John the Baptist, the crazy angry guy, launches into this week's gospel with seeming venom.  Having completed a semester on the subject of Preaching & Worship, I can report with confidence that at no point was it recommended to me that I address my congregation as "you brood of vipers."  And metaphors about the ax being at the root of the tree don't, I'm guessing, figure prominently into contemporary church growth strategies.

But by golly, when the crowd asks "what should we do?" John has an answer.  And it's a darned uncomfortable answer.  Give away your coat (your second coat) to the one who doesn't have a coat.  Give food to those who don't have any food.  Don't use your position to extort or threaten or exploit those over whom you have power.  Don't go grabbing for more.

Hmm.  Decidedly uncomfortable words in the wake of Black Friday.

John's not through; the one who is to come after him is a pretty rough character, by John's description.  Gathering the wheat but burning off the chaff is not really a concept you can work into your creche with great ease, is it?

But it isn't just John the Baptizer, though, and the picture takes on more and more depth when we listen to those prophets of old, who see the world as it should be.  This week it's Zephaniah -- "The Lord your God is in your midst, ... he will renew you in his love, ... and I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise... ."  Last week it was Malachi, with that line about a refiner's fire and being purified and offerings made in righteousness.  The week before, Jeremiah was heralding a righteous branch for David, to execute justice and righteousness in the land.

As strange and uncomfortable as these oracles may be, we need to hear them.  We need badly to hear them.  We need to know that the world as it is is not the world as it should be.  We need to be grabbed by the collar and reminded that the world that justifies having no coat, no food, being bullied or exploited is not God's world; that the world that is comfortable with injustice and unrighteousness is not God's world; and that this angel chorus with its Gloria and its bursting on the shepherds is not about that world, but about the One whose life will be all about undoing that world, and if we're too comfortable in that world the baby in the feed trough is not the sweet little holiday story we like to constrain it to be.

When we don't take the time to listen to those obscure prophets or the crazy guy baptizing out in the wilderness, we miss what that whole nativity scene really is all about.  We miss that God finds that old unjust exploitative world so not of God's will that dramatic, inexplicable, upside-down intervention was warranted; the Lord our God in our midst, purifying and refining and executing justice and renewing us in love...this is what the story means.  Without Advent, we really don't know what Christmas is all about.

So you decided not to bring back the snippy parishioners?

Maybe if I'm lucky, they're actually thinking about it.

And you're o.k. with this being your last word before you get mutilated?  Maybe having your colon reduced to a semicolon?  Turned into a freakish mess?  Strapped to a bag the rest of your life?  You can't possibly be content with that.

Content?  I don't know what's going to happen.  Maybe I'll be blessed that the surgery will be minor.  They might have to take out the whole rectum.  Heck, this is surgery, it might go horribly wrong and I don't ever wake up.

And that doesn't make you angry?

Of course it does.


What am I going to do about it?  It's time.  They go get the damn cancer and then I deal with recovering, whatever that looks like.  I can rant and rave all I want to (and I've done plenty) but now it's time to get on with it.  I can't solve anything about my future before tomorrow, so I don't see a lot of point in trying.  Whatever happens, happens.  The surgeon does his thing, God does what God does, and when the anesthesia wears off I deal with what's there or what isn't, and whether the fool's errand goes on or not isn't entirely up to me.

So you think you can handle this?

Of course I can't.

You make no sense.

Yeah, whatever.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Why we hate Advent (or should), part 2: You can't Handel the truth

So you're back.

Yeah, I'm back.  It's my blog, after all.

You must be feeling pretty good about yourself.  All the traffic on those two blogs you wrote last week, people sharing that damfool Advent travesty you wrote...

Actually, it was a little terrifying.  And besides, that kind of traffic is hardly a drop in the bucket for a real blogger.  If you want to go pick on a blogger with major traffic, go bother Adam Copeland or Rachel Evans.

Fat chance.  I'm your personal mental demon.  You don't get to farm me out.

OK, fine.  Meanwhile, I'm going to try to write this entry before time for bed.  

You know you'll never live up to that again.  Especially not after you get mutilated this Friday.

Thanks for the reminder.  Anyway, I know I'll never live up to that, but I don't care.  Anyway, you might actually enjoy this one.

Oh, you think so?  Why?

Remember the snippy hypothetical average churchgoers from last week?

Yes, what about them?

I'm going to take their advice.

"OK, preacher, now you've gone and done it.  What, you didn't think we were paying attention?  Maybe you thought you would sneak one by us, but we're not that dumb.  You say you're taking our advice and filling the service with nothing but music, but this is just your passive-aggressive way of preaching another Advent sermon without actually preaching.

"Shame on you using the children to try to sneak this Advent foolishness by us.  You put the children up front to sing, so all the parents and grandparents and the whole family will be there to hear them.  And what are they singing?  'Silent night'?  'Away in a manger'?  Noooo, you're trying to sneak some Advent hymn by everybody.  What is this "prepare the way" business?  More Advent.  Weren't you listening last week?  This is downright devious of you.  Put those poor little children up there in front of the congregation to spread this Advent foolishness?  How could you?

"As if using the children wasn't bad enough, you hornswoggled the youth too.  We thought we could count on them to be cynical and suspicious, but you conned them with this Godspell foolishness.  Sheesh, that show is old.  Who knew the music was by the same guy who wrote the music for Wicked? That's just dirty pool, pastor.  So you used the children and conned the youth into your little Advent conspiracy, all this 'prepare the way' talk.  And we still haven't heard 'Hark, the Herald Angels Sing' even once yet.  You're ruining our Christmas, you know that?

"Oh, but then you got really dirty.  You used Messiah on us.  That is a dirty lowdown rotten thing to do.  Everybody knows that Handel's Messiah is the greatest Christmas music of all time, and you had to go turn it into part of your little Advent scheme.  Worse yet, you used Handel to slip that crazy angry guy John the Baptist in by the back door.  Just because it comes right out of today's gospel reading, you think you can use it in church to keep people thinking about this 'preparing' obsession.  And that other business from Messiah, with the bass and then the soprano?  You know you aren't really supposed to sing that part, don't you?  Maybe somebody should send you to music school, pastor.  Then that awful business about purifying.  Pastor, we're pretty sure you broke the choir.  And you slipped in that 'righteousness' talk from last week again.

"The worst part of it is, some people fell for it.  I heard people talking about that service being 'meaningful'.  Those dang youth got all excited, and the kids and their parents got all excited, and even the choir got all excited even though you broke them.  Now they're wondering what happens next, when they ought to be rushing out to get their pitchforks to gig you for all this non-Christmas.  Instead, they're going on about 'anticipation' and even thinking about how Christmas might even be more meaningful if they don't rush into it so hard.  Well, pastor, you might have fooled them, but you won't fool us.  They'll forget soon enough, and then we'll be coming for you.  You wanna anticipate something?  Prepare the way for that pastorectomy.  When you least expect it..."

Still with the satire, huh?  

Eh, it was an excuse for some good links.

And you think you can follow this up next week?

Are you kidding?  I might not even be awake by this time next week.

Yeah, and you might not have a rectum by this time next week either.  So you really think this matters at all?  What's the point?  As if you really have any hope of a pastoral calling if you get turned into a freak show this Friday?  

You know that saying about it being better to light a candle than to curse the darkness?

Yeah, what of it?

So I'm trying to light some candles.  Doesn't mean I can't scream at the darkness at the same time.

You're hopeless, you know that?

Yeah, whatever.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why we hate Advent (or should)

What's this?  Just yesterday you were blogging about maybe taking a break because of your health issues and your anger issues with your health issues, and here you are blogging again not even twenty-four hours later?  Sheesh, hypocrite much?  

Yeah, whatever.  I reserve the right to be a hypocrite about it.  And besides, I didn't say I was going to take a hiatus for sure.  Even the last words of that entry said "I don't know."  

Still, you're being inconsistent.  

Again, whatever.  I'm writing a blog entry.  It beats doing homework.  

And now, in your angry state, you're going to try satire?  Really?  Aren't you getting to be a bit out of control?  

Well, yes.  I did promise that yesterday, after all.  

Oh, good grief, where are the blog police?

It is my experience, in my limited-but-not-that-limited time in a denomination with some aspirations to liturgy, that the whole concept of the season of Advent is (among the average churchgoer at least; many clergy devoutly wish they could do more with the season) grudgingly accepted at best.  It's o.k. or maybe tolerable at best to put up with one Sunday in which the congregation sings Advent hymns (and by "Advent hymns" I mean "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"), but if the Christmas carols aren't in full swing by the second Sunday of December the deacons and elders and Sunday school teachers and Presbyterian Women are emerging from their dark corners, sharpened knives at the ready, all set to perform a pastorectomy and install a more compliant model that will choose nothing but Christmas carols (and none of that funny stuff, no "All my heart today rejoices" or that weird Huron thing) the moment Thanksgiving dinner is digested.

This has its, shall we say, inconsistencies.  In many cases these are the same people who complain most loudly when department stores start putting up their Christmas displays sometime around Arbor Day, and radio stations start playing Christmas music well before Thanksgiving.  (Admittedly the latter does somewhat resemble a crime against humanity, and should probably be covered under the Geneva convention.  But I digress.)  Oftimes these are the same folks as well who will be most wont to complain about the tiresomely argued "war on Christmas" that some shadowy cabal is supposedly waging on us poor persecuted American Christians.

Now another funny feature of this tendency is that, once Christmas Day (or more specifically, the Christmas Eve service) is over, that's the end of Christmas.  People who show up for church on the first Sunday after Christmas (and that is a rather slim number indeed) are often shocked to find Christmas hymns in the bulletin.  "Huh?  Christmas is over.  What's this doing here?"

For a long time I presumed that this was a simple case of the church's cultural captivity, simply having no other concept of how to spend December aside from relentlessly doing "Christmas" over and over again until December 25 itself becomes an exhausted anticlimax.  Now I'm not so sure.

I'm beginning to think people know what Advent is, and that they hate what Advent is.

There are specific reasons for this.  After all, look what Advent serves up for sermon fodder.  Today's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary offer up lessons from Jeremiah 33, 1 Thessalonians 3, and Luke 21, along with the expected psalm that nobody ever preaches on.

"1 Thessalonians 3 seems rather harmless, but Jeremiah 33 is a little scary if you look at it too closely.  It starts off fine with its talk of fulfilling promises, but it goes off the rails quickly enough when it starts to harp on words like "justice" and "righteousness."  Why, the words "righteous" or "righteousness" crop up three times in verses fifteen and sixteen alone.  And righteousness is such a tedious subject.  Everybody knows that talking about righteousness is just another excuse to accuse people of bad financial practices/sexual behavior/recreational activities/(insert pet vice here), and who wants to listen to that when there are greens to hang and manger scenes to set up?  And justice?  Now you're getting political.  Totally out of line, and we won't stand for it.  We give to those charitable things exactly so we don't have to think about this kind of business, and you're going to throw it in our faces when we should be singing "Silent Night" for the first of thirty-five times this month?  Just stop.  Quit asking us to think this time of year.

"Jeremiah 33 is bad enough, but Luke 21 is a freaking disaster area.  "Signs in the sun, moon, and stars"?? What is this, an M. Night Shyamalan movie?  You're really going to preach that text now, in twenty-first century America?  In December 2012 of all months, with that Mayan calendar foolishness in full swing?  And just a year after that Harold Camping pratfall about predicting the end of the world?  Good grief, just stop.  It's strange and confusing and you're not that good a preacher.  Yeah, yeah, it gets on to talking about "watching" and "being alert" and those are Advent words, we know, we just don't want to hear them.  The only getting ready we want to do involves spending money we don't have to buy stuff we already have perfectly good versions of.  It's only over-commercialization of Christmas when other people do it; when I do it it's "being a good parent."

"Things don't get any better the rest of Advent, sadly for you.  The second Sunday is bearable, because a couple of the texts sound like things we heard when the local orchestra did Messiah this weekend, but still, a sentence like "but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" isn't exactly hopeful, is it?  And the gospel just brings in that creepy John the Baptist quoting more obscure prophets.  Bleah.  There's some canticle in there, which sounds good, but now that I look at it closely it's about John the Baptist too.  You don't even get anything about Bethlehem or Mary and Joseph until two days before Christmas, just more creepy prophets going on about things I don't understand and that might make me uncomfortable, and more John the Baptist, who really seems to have anger issues.  And even two days before Christmas they insist on throwing in the Magnificat, which sounds cute but is really rather radical and political now that I read it instead of listening to somebody sing it.

"So, yeah, we've had it with this Advent thing.  We know what you preachers are up to: you're looking for an excuse to preach instead of telling cute Christmas stories and letting the little kids sing.  It might even be best if you don't preach at all in December, pastor.  Just have the church put on musical programs and cute Christmas stories from the Bible all month.  That way we can have our fun and not be threatened by all that justice and righteousness talk.  What do you think we want to do, change our ways?  No, thank you.  We'll keep Christmas nice and safe and harmless so we can go back to ignoring it and living exactly the way we want to when it's all over.

"And don't think we won't perform another pastorectomy.  We remember how, and the knives are still sharp."

Oh, good grief.  THIS is how you're blogging the first week of Advent?  Seriously, don't do satire.  And you should probably take that hiatus.

Yeah, whatever.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


It is entirely possible that I should give this up for a season.

To be brief: yesterday's endoscopic ultrasound, while showing what might be called good progress, didn't show great progress.  The cancer is less than it was.  That much is good.  It is not, however, so much less that the more extreme surgical options are off the table.  If anything it is the less extreme end of the spectrum that is now less viable and less likely.

To this point I've been a good soldier, so to speak, about this.  I've taken my medications, I've taken my radiation appointments and my chemo pills, I've given enough blood for various tests to keep the characters of Twilight sated for a good solid month.

I've kept busy with classes, which have given enough to keep me plenty busy.  Old Testament I is kind of a lost cause, but the others are going o.k. more or less.  I've fulfilled other kinds of responsibilities on campus, from committees to representation of the student body to the Board of Trustees, to chapel participation, to that part-time job.

I've tried to keep the whining and complaining and pity-partying to a minimum.  I've hopefully not overloaded this blog with cancer talk.  I certainly haven't gone into explicit detail about the effects of the cancer or radiation or chemo.  I can think of one entry that would qualify as particularly negative or harsh on the subject of this cancer, to the point of making a political statement and getting testy about it.

And my good soldiering is just about at an end.

Surgery is set for two weeks from yesterday.  Something is going to get cut; how much remains to be seen.  At the lower extreme a small portion may be taken, and the rectum gets to heal and life goes on.  At the opposite extreme the rectum is given up for lost and a colostomy is performed.  Yes, right down to the colostomy bag.

And I do not feel like being a good soldier about that.  Not now, and especially not if that happens.

I want to complain loud and long.  I want to throw stuff and hit things.  I want to throw hissy fits and temper tantrums.  I want to sulk and withdraw and tell the world to go to hell.

I want to slug people who tell me that "at least the cancer will be gone" or "I know someone who had one of those and still (does whatever stupid activity they happen to do)" or "at least you'll be alive" or any of those supposedly encouraging things.  I do NOT want to be encouraged.  And I sure as hell do not want people telling me what a "Christian" response should be.

I want to scream at Heaven.  I want to accuse God a la Job, and if God starts into any funny business about leviathans I want to scream at God to quit stalling and get to the point.  I'm not Ann Weems, who took grief and anger and anguish and turned them into gripping and compelling modern-day psalms.  I don't have the capacity to discipline my anger that way.  I want it to be wild and untrammeled and even destructive, and I frankly don't want to care who gets offended.

Here is the thing: bizarre as it sounds, I think I could actually cope with being told by my doctor "you are going to die" than with this.  I do not want to die.  I'm not volunteering.  But if the faith that jerked me into this now-imperilled fool's errand means anything at all then I have no business being afraid of death, and I'd better face up to it and find whatever resources I need to in order to deal with it and prepare for it.  At the bare minimum I could justify a small bucket list of my own to chase after, if nothing else.

I don't get that here.  Instead I get the relentless medical propaganda about how You Should Be Happy To Be Alive and that You Will Live A Full And Happy And Productive Life and other platitudes that truly make me want to pound the speaker senseless, when the whole business completely makes my Ick Reflex go haywire and I really want to indulge in that Ick Reflex to the fullest.

I want to pretend I can play a rock guitar just so I can smash it to smithereens.   I want to destroy a punching bag.  I want to sledgehammer a car into an unrecognizable heap.  I want to lash out and be destructive and scream out it's not fair even though I know too many people who have been affected far worse than I by cancer, who have not survived or who have had their livelihoods taken away by it, who have had to battle it again and again.  I know this.  My heart grieves for them.  I am angry for them already.  But I want to be angry for myself, even if the worst outcome for me is nothing like the outcome for them.

I want to BE ANGRY AT THE TOP OF MY VOICE and not care what anybody thinks, in fact to curse a blue streak at anyone who dares to complain or object.

But does that sound like a blog you'd want to read?  Me neither.

So maybe I should give this up for a season.  I don't know.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A quickie: Looking ahead -- a "Christmas devotional" guide?

Something that first started to vex me last year, and seems to be returning this year: do any of you six or seven readers out there know of anyone or any organization or church (considering that churches aren't always that organized ;-) ) that puts out a "Christmas devotional guide" in the manner of the Advent devotional guides that many such groups produce and/or use?  By this I mean something targeted to the twelve-day orbit that begins on Christmas Day and continues up to Epiphany (yes, the "twelve days of Christmas").

Follow-up: were one to design or plan such a guide, what scriptures would one recommend for inclusion in such a guide?  The Nativity narratives from Luke and Matthew would be obvious choices, and John 1:14 seems needful; are there other texts you think should be included in such an orbit of devotional reading and contemplation around the Nativity event?  In what order should texts be arranged?

I don't know if this is something I am about to try and do or not.  On the one hand, my health issues may well interfere; on the other hand, presuming surgery is forthcoming, I may have a lot of time on my hands where getting around is unadvisable, so maybe it would be something useful to do once exams are past.  At any rate, beyond a naked plea for comments, I do think there is something to the idea of developing a long view of the Christmas season, particularly when one has spent much time and energy recovering or emphasizing a full Advent season.  So maybe it is something I want to develop.  And yes, I do really want your suggestions, by whatever means you care to make them.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wars and remembrances

In one of those seemingly fluky bits of flotsam and jetsam in the course of history, this decade provides a cornucopia of opportunity for Americans to commemorate a round-number anniversary of wartime engagements this country has experienced.  I doubt that there will necessarily be a huge effort devoted to the 250th anniversary of that pre-independence conflict that went down for many years in the history books as the French and Indian War, back in the 1760s (though if I'm wrong by all means let me know), but it was a noteworthy war if for no other reason than giving young George Washington some of his first military experiences and probably fraying the bonds between colonies and mother country a bit.
On the other hand, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is in full swing, and hard to miss if you live in certain parts of the country, like this part.  Of course, Richmond and Virginia are swimming in Civil War history, and also are possessed of a disturbing number of people who still seem to be fighting that war.  Still, it is hard to overstate the significance of the conflict, and it should be marked well.  I could wish that the commemoration were a little more cognizant of how the ideals behind that war were still floating around in modern political and civil discourse even today (perhaps Steven Spielberg can help with that).
While Virginia has occupied itself with marking the anniversary of the Civil War, its neighbor to the north has seized upon an earlier conflict.  All you have to see is a license plate from that state to know that it is capitalizing upon the War of 1812 and its bicentennial, due largely to the presence of Fort McHenry, the battle over which in that war gave birth to Francis Scott Key's poem that, more than a hundred years later, became our national anthem.  The War of 1812 is one of those buried conflicts in American history, its origins and causes hazy to most Americans and its most famous battle fought only after the war was over, technically (though news of the treaty signing had not necessarily made its way to the US yet).  In its own way it was a test of the still-fledgling country, not even fifty years old yet and not entirely accustomed to the international stage.  It wasn't exactly a conclusive war (aside from the US not being re-conquered by the British) and aside from the aforementioned post-treaty battle and Fort McHenry and the burning of the White House, not possessed of the most memorable events.
Later in the decade I'd guess we'll start hearing a lot about things that happened fifty years prior, during the Vietnam War.  The tenor will be different, I'd assume, with at least as much focus on things that happened on the homefront as on events in the war itself.  It will, of course, be well within the memory of some of those who observe it, unlike others.  The World War II generation is starting to pass from the scene; yes, the 75th anniversary of that conflict will come to pass in this decade as well, but for whatever reason I don't quite consider seventy-five to be such a round number as anniversaries go.  Even those that fought in the Korean War will be starting to pass from the scene as well.
And of course, the World War I generation is gone.
The past five or so years have seen the deaths of the final few veterans of that conflict.  Frank Buckles, the last US veteran of that war, died over a year and a half ago, and the last remaining veterans of Britain have passed in the interval since.  I assume there are some individuals still alive who lived through the war as civilians, probably as children, but none remain who saw the battles and the horrors that motivated such poets as Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, or inspired such novels as All Quiet On the Western Front.  No one who experienced the remarkable Christmas truce, with soldiers of both sides remembering their humanity for a few hours.
I suspect the commemoration will be fairly muted in the United States.  We only entered the conflict officially in 1917, and most of that year was spent getting up to readiness and trying to raise combat forces enough to amount to anything.  And to be blunt, the US did not acquit itself so well on the homefront in that era.  It was not a good time to be a person of German origins in the US, to say the least, and it frankly did not matter what stature in society you might have held -- pastor, politician, orchestra conductor or performer or concert artist or dead composer -- you were likely to face repercussions.  The insistent flogging of "God Bless America" at public events in the days post-9/11 had its predecessor in the use of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (not yet officially the national anthem at this time) as something like a weapon at public events and in public discourse.  Once the US finally did get integrated into the war effort in Europe, only a little time passed (or so it seemed) until the armistice was declared.  US participation in the war did generate quite a bit of popular music -- "Over There," "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag," and the like -- but in many ways the effect was ephemeral, and both culturally and politically we seemed to learn all the wrong lessons from it.
You might guess that I've had more than a passing interest in World War I, and it is true; some of my old musicological research involved that war and its consequences in American musical life.  I learned enough to be very curious as to how the centenary of that war will be observed, to the degree that it is at all, in this country.  I learned enough that I might have to figure out how to make a trip to Europe during the period 2014-2018.  I learned enough to doubt that a country can go to war and not lose some part of its civilized-ness in doing so.  I have learned enough to know that I will never learn enough.

[Shameless plug: if you are in Kansas City, go to the National World War I Museum.  Just go.  You may thank me later.]

Ernst Kunwald in custody of US Marshals, 1917:

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Trying to spin a web

I should be exegeting right now.  Exodus isn't going to exegete itself.  Or I should be writing a sermon for Tuesday's class.  But a quick moment to update some things seems in order, since it's been a while.

This past week was my first full week off of the radiation/chemo regime.  Oddly, in some ways it was a harder week than most of those past (I'll spare you the details), but I got through it.  An odd swelling in my general cheek/jaw area made the week a bit of a pain (and was painful enough to miss class Tuesday, the first time that's happened for anything other than doctor's appointments or procedures--but you better believe I got out of bed and voted), and my system inside seemed strangely to miss the regime.  Still I got through the week o.k.

I also took my turn as a student representative to Union's Board of Trustees.  I'm obviously not going to divulge deep dark secrets about the seminary (for one thing, they go into executive session to talk about those, meaning I wasn't present for that), but it was fairly illuminating both in procedure and substance. I was also reminded that all through my career in academia I never did attend such meetings; the last time I did was the last time I was in seminary, a much less pleasant experience with a much more bitter and hateful cast to it, rather like most election discourse these days.

This was nothing like that, thankfully, and was among other things useful at helping remedy one of my great deficiencies in this entry into Presbyworld.  I have some definite talents for this fool's errand.  I have some shortcomings, too, but none that can't either be overcome, worked around, or used as a means of learning.  But one shortcoming that was particularly troubling, and one I couldn't simply write off or make better on my own, was one that I also recall having to work at in my previous career.  I don't have a lot of contacts, or to put it another way, I just don't know that many people.

In many ways PC(USA) is a small enough denomination that, once you decide to pursue a pastoral vocation or at least enter seminary, having or making contacts becomes rather a big deal, pretty much like any other vocation on the planet.  In musicology I had to learn that in order to do such things, you had to "put yourself out there"; attend academic conferences, make presentations on your research at those conferences, get things published, and so on.  I did plenty of that as a graduate student, gradually increased my "network" of contacts in the field, and over time managed a relatively decent mini-career that actually got me to a school and position I could have happily continued for the rest of my life if this pestilent calling thing hadn't gotten in the way (that was a joke, people).

Entering seminary and a new vocational path, I wasn't all that clear on how to spin a new web of contacts on this new path.  Sure I have some connections from past churches; I used those quite extensively in choosing a school, and will continue to do so in the future, but I haven't been to that many churches in my past.  As far as I know there isn't quite the same opportunity for conference networking as I employed in the past, and some of the opportunities that do exist are difficult to do on student income or schedule.  So, finding creative ways to meet people has become one of the major secondary challenges of my current situation (behind, you know, going to school, trying to get some church experience, fighting cancer, all that stuff...), and this short-term experience with the Board of Trustees may well help with that.

So, yet another part of this long strange trip reveals itself.  I learned new things, I met good people, and I might have found some help along the way.  Not a bad thing.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Up in the air

One doesn't often have the change to blog from 30,000 feet, so how can I pass this up?

We are headed home from a brief vacation.  Sadly, not unlike a vacation taken about fourteen months ago, a potentially ugly storm is following us from Florida to Richmond.  I have the sick and ugly feeling we're going to be spending a few days without power if Sandy the Frankenstorm does what a lot of fairly intelligent people say it could do.  A week of lacking electricity, in mid-semester, with one more week of chemo/radiation to go...I can think of few things less pleasant.

Unfortunately I don't have a lot of difficulty coming up with fodder for unpleasant thoughts these days. Now that this first stage of treatment is winding down, the inevitable "what next" issues are crowding back into my consciousness.  After this week, it will be at least a month before another procedure to go in and look around can be done.  On the good side, that basically means I should get through the semester o.k. at least where health interruptions are concerned.  On the negative side, if that endoscopic ultrasound recommends surgery it could well mean I'm spending Christmas in the hospital.

Actually, my problem is that there are a lot more "on the negative side" possibilities than just that.  Treatment has gone incredibly smoothly so far, that much is true.  This doesn't change the fact that surgery is still a fairly likely outcome when all of this is done.  While I'm never super keen on having people cut me open, surgery itself is not the worst thing that could happen. However, because of where this cancer is located, there is still some possibility that surgery, even what doctors would call a "successful" surgery, could lead to outcomes for me that would be nothing short of cataclysmic.  Outcomes that could, for one minimal example, bring an end to this blog, because they would bring an end to the fool's errand that motivates the existence of this blog.  (No, I'm not talking about death.  No one with any kind of medical degree has yet used that language to describe my situation.)  A radically life-changing, career-inhibiting or -ending thing is still a possible result.  Needless to say, this is not a thing I can think about that easily.  I don't know that this is the likely outcome, but it is a possible outcome.

Other things come to mind, even provided I have successful, non-career-cataclysmic surgery, or even provided surgery isn't necessary after all.  (Either way, a second course of chemo/radiation is likely this winter/spring, for what it's worth.)  Obviously we're going to take a major financial hit from this.  The student insurance plan I've been living on since starting seminary has actually performed pretty decently so far (a plan that I will necessarily lose when/if I graduate or otherwise leave from here, of course), and a long-forgotten supplementary policy is going to help as well, but one doesn't have such an experience without taking a pretty severe hit, at least not most of us.  But that isn't even the most frightening part.

Cancer has a bad habit of not staying away.  It may be beaten back once, but people who have cancer once are generally pretty good candidates to have cancer again, and the particular cancer I have is no exception to that rule.  One might say that cancer is the mutha of all pre-existing conditions, if one were inclined to use such expressions.  I'm still pretty young, all things considered, and provided such treatment as I'm having is successful, I could have an awful lot of lifetime left to be largely uninsurable, depending on the outcome of this election (yes, you just read a political statement on my blog.  Screw it, this election has gotten a lot more personal for me since I got diagnosed with cancer.  You have a problem with it, shut up and go away, because I sure as heck will delete comments and ban you for no reason other than that I don't like them).  That's an awful heavy burden to lay on a wife that doesn't deserve it.  That's a long time to be playing roulette with my health and hoping the wrong number doesn't come up.

In the meantime, this has been a semester designed to remind me of all the reasons this errand is foolish.  Old Testament is kicking my butt, but it apparently kicks everybody's butt, so that doesn't concern me so highly.  Preaching & Worship is going reasonably well so far.  Intro to Pastoral Care ... ah, yes, my principal tormentor.  Not because anything has been particularly difficult or harsh about the class to this point but because it is the one part of this venture above all others that calls into play my greatest, most glaring flaws as a human being.  Being reminded of this on a biweekly basis hasn't been any fun, and I really don't have any idea how magically to transform those flaws into virtues or to cover over those weaknesses with strengths or any such thing.

Also part of my life right now is one of the larger future requirements to be met around here; internships.  Union requires at minimum one parish and one non-parish internship.  The parish internship is in a church, obviously, and the non-parish internship can be in anything from hospital chaplaincy to a social service organization to a retreat center to some other kind of denominational group.  Not knowing my future health vulnerabilities makes a hospital setting kind of risky, so I've been looking at other corners of the internship world for a summer internship.  The parish internship, which I hope to do over the course of next academic year, is a little more cut-and-dried, but finding a church where I can do an internship without doing some things I have theological problems with could still be a challenge.

So yeah, a lot to trouble me of late.  Probably appropriate to be blogging at 30,000 feet, with so much up in the air.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A hymn on food and eating

Back in May, I took a course on "Theology and the Politics of Food," one of the May term offerings at Union (May term, like January term, is a three-week course often given to electives of the professor's particular interest).  Towards the end of that course a hymn started to develop itself in my brain; I got it down in electronic form, tweaked it a time or two, and left it for a time.  I've come back a time or two, and I think I mostly changed some things back and forth without making too many changes.

Those who are part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) may have gotten a note in your bulletins this morning (or you may not; my church did not) about Food Week of Action and World Food Day. This extends through this week, with World Food Day on Tuesday.  You can follow the link to get some of the emphases this particular denomination is offering for this particular observance.

At any rate, it seemed like an o.k. time to put that hymn out there and see what anyone makes of it.  I don't necessarily claim it to be finished (English teachers will red-ink the last stanza, I'm sure), but I think it's at least coherent and hits a few of the themes that stayed with me from that class.  Some suggested hymn tunes are included at the end of the hymn.  Make of it what you will.

When we gather at the table
            Eating what is true and real,
Fellowship with all God’s people
            Makes the blessing for the meal.
Love for Christ and one another
            Makes the feast a sign and seal.
            (Makes the feast a sign and seal.)

Let us not forsake the workers
            Who put food upon our plates,
Those who toil at grueling labor
            Yet for whom no justice waits;
May we strive that they see mercy,
            Not be callous to their fates.

As we dine on all God’s bounty,
            Meats and grains and fruits God sows,
Never let us take for granted
            Everything that in Christ grows,
Creatures all of God’s own making
            And whose every breath God knows.

Teach us, Lord, to eat with conscience,
            Knowing that in Your good will
What we eat and who we eat with
            With Your blessing You will fill;
Nourish us to feed each other
            All with good and not for ill.

Possible tunes:
CWM RHONDDA (“God of grace and God of glory,” PH #420; the repeated final line as shown in the first stanza would come into play here)
TRINITY (“God is One, unique and holy,” PH #135; I particularly like the fit of this one)
REGENT SQUARE (PH #22 or 417)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

"Pulpit freedom" vs. World Communion

One of the fortunate things about being at Union is the presence of Syngman Rhee.  Those who know their mainline Protestant history of the mid- to late-twentieth century know he's kind of a big deal.  He spoke in chapel Wednesday of this week, and the sermon for a few wonderful moments broke into an impromptu group rendition of "Something Good" from The Sound of Music.  As the last notes echoed away, the good reverend had the presence to add, "Beautiful song, but bad theology," to waves of laughter.

Later, at community lunch after chapel, a blessing was offered by Michel Freychet, a French Protestant pastor and onetime exchange student at Union, who among other things has been active in formulating and promulgating a Christian response against torture in the Protestant churches of Europe.  In one of those wonderful things that happens when a non-native speaker of English grapples with the language and comes up with a far better phrase than we native speakers ever do, Freychet brought us to the moment of prayer with the imprecation to "do silence before God."

These are just a couple of the enlightening moments that have happened over the last couple of years due to the international connections that have been forged over the years at this seminary.  This doesn't even take into account the international students who studied here last year from Ghana and South Korea, and who are this year living as exchange students from South Korea, France, Hungary, Switzerland, and India.

Western churches have not "got it right" today any more than they have over many years of history, and churches in Ghana or South Korea or Guatemala or whatever country you may name have not "got it right" either.  Any church composed of human beings has not "got it right," when you get right down to it; we screw up.  We fail. We get things wrong, do or say the wrong thing, over and over.  The miracle is not that the church fails, the miracle is that the church has gotten as many things right as it has in its history, given the human propensity to go straight to the convenient and safe.

With that propensity for getting things wrong, any church is better off keeping its ears open in order to gain the benefit of the experiences, triumphs and failures all, of our brothers and sisters in Christ from points near and far.  Whether this is done by Union's (or any other seminary's) hosting of students and scholars from around the world or by a simple remembrance, on something like World Communion Sunday this past week, that the church is not confined to those buildings that look just like ours or memberships that look just like us.  Nor is it confined to those that believe just like us, as much as it may pain me sometimes.

Of course, not all churches observed World Communion Sunday this past week.  This thing called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" is still out there, apparently.  I blogged about it last year about this time, and my opinion hasn't changed much.  I am struck this year, however, by the supreme irony of calendaring that brings these two diametrically opposed events together.

For, among the many other things "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" betrays about a church, one of the less obvious but most deadly is the degree to which such a choice speaks to the closedness of that church.  Way beyond the tweaking of the IRS that provides the nominal motivation for the event, to follow after such a vicious definition of pastoral authority rejects any kind of notion that such a church has anything to learn from any other church.  We have the answers, and no one's going to stop us from foisting them upon you.  What else do you need to know? And yes, we're going to use your tax monies to do so.  Try and stop us.  

It isn't talked about so much as the usual frights confronting Protestantism today, but one of the scariest things about the modern religious landscape is the utter non-connectional mania of so many of today's evangelical megachurches.  They stand alone.  There's no sense of belonging to anything larger, or being accountable to anybody outside the walls of that church.  It gets frighteningly easy, I'd imagine, to bunker down inside the multi-billion-dollar compound and insist on a mental loop that we've got it right, everybody else is wrong, and we're somehow the ones being persecuted in the whole deal, not the people we use our money and votes to deprive of civil liberties or even basic needs.

Connectionalism has its pains.  Being part of a denomination is agonizing sometimes, as I was reminded by this summer's General Assembly of the PC(USA).  Still, being cut off from all outside accountability and living only in the endless echo chamber of one's own preferences and biases...I just can't see how that ends up being a healthy place.  You end up with things like "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" instead of World Communion Sunday.  And that's not a good thing.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Two weeks in

It is Friday afternoon, and I am beat like a used drum.  Just completed is the fourth week of the fall semester here at UPSem, and I'm feeling every day of it.

It's my own fault, of course.  I chose not to drop a class despite undergoing chemo and radiation.  On the other hand, the way things currently look, I should get through the semester before any surgery on that rectal cancer is actually done, so that's not a bad thing.  But the schedule I'm keeping means that I've got to go in for my radiation treatments at 7:30 a.m. five days a week (I get Saturdays and Sundays off).  I may not have mentioned this before, but the phrase "not a morning person" doesn't even come close to describing the depth of my aversion to early mornings.  My utterance of nonsensical syllables such as "blah," "urgh," and "bleargh" has multiplied sevenfold this week.

I'm tired, but with rare exceptions I'm not hurting or uncomfortable.  I did develop some back pain this week; I have no idea if it's related to radiation/chemo or not.  It's sporadic and only when I bend or sit certain ways, not constant.  Other discomforts or inconveniences, well...remember what type of cancer I have.  I'll spare you the details.  You're welcome.

I've actually just completed my second week of treatment, though this was the first week of early-morning appointments.  The treatment itself is almost comically brief.  From the time I get positioned on the table (after a comical kabuki of getting my shorts dropped while the poor attendant holds up a cloth to keep my privacy private) and get positioned to the time the last shot of rads or rems or whatever is pumped in from the direction of my right hip (following doses from behind, left hip, and front) lasts less than the duration of some of your more typical pop/rock songs played on your more typically generic radio stations, whatever is the preference of the technician working that day.  Last Friday, "Freeze Frame" by J. Geils Band corresponded exactly to that sequence.  Monday it was Prince's "Little Red Corvette."  I remind you that I'm supposed to be keeping still on the table all this time; how am I supposed to not move to "Little Red Corvette," pray tell?  The tunes in the middle of this week were rather anonymous to me, but today's corresponding song was the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit," which at least did not leave me trying to suppress an urge to dance, although it was all I could do to keep from belting out the chorus ("Put meeeeee on the highway... show meeee the sign ... and take IT! toooo the more...tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmmmme!"), which probably wouldn't have been a good thing.  After all, we only want that radiation to go where it's supposed to be going and not messing up other body parts because I was singing from way down low.

Once all this is over I'm out the door and headed for class.  By lunchtime or a little after, I'm feeling the fatigue, but I'm still convinced this is as much from the early rising as it is from any radiation/chemo side effect.  I'm really, REALLY not a morning person, I promise you.

This term's courses provoke four distinct and separate reactions.  Intro to Pastoral Care provokes dread. The business of pastoral care terrifies me.  I'm serious.  It touches all the places where I fear to tread and know myself to be devoid of competence.  Old Testament provokes a more typical academic type of dread.  Teaching Ministry of the Church?  Well, I get through it, with little high or low.  Preaching & Worship is my joy-maker for this fall.  I still sing in the seminary choir when time and treatment allows (which has been a real bliss-maker of late, with Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine this past week and Mendelssohn's "Verleih uns Frieden" upcoming), and work a little in the library resource center on campus.

Upcoming for a couple of weeks is another opportunity at participating in worship leadership at the church we attend here in Chesterfield County, much like this past summer.  Two of the above classes will require some extra activities through the church as well, in visitation and teaching.

The short of all this is that I have a routine, except on a very few occasions when I don't.  This is not normally blog-worthy, but all things considered having a routine right now is a wonderful thing.  Not everyone in my condition is so fortunate, to have a routine at all or to have one that so closely conforms to what was supposed to be their "normal" routine.  The next week promises to be absolutely harrowing, but thankfully not for health reasons--just a couple of exegeses (exegesii?  exegesises?) and a chapel service to help lead, a book to review, and the usual translations and readings and reflections and so forth and so on.  I will be overwhelmed, and when I remember what I could be overwhelmed by, I'll be happy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sports, music, and blogging

I apparently blog about sports a lot.

Recently I was for some reason paging through the seventy-odd posts I've written in about a year and a third, and indeed, sports comes up in a lot of them.

Not surprisingly, baseball is the most discussed of the sports I end up going on about, but football has taken its share of comment, particularly on the subject of safety and concussions.

Always concerned to be a little self-critical, I had to ask myself why I do that.  After all, a lot of people who read this blog don't know diddly about baseball or at least do not follow it closely enough to get some of what I'm talking about.  When I start talking about football and concussions and asking questions there, I frankly risk somehow getting branded un-American and possibly being forcibly deported, to judge by the way some people talk about the subject (though not directly to me, at least not yet).

One obvious answer is that I do enjoy sports, albeit selectively so.  I've admitted ad nauseam that I love baseball.  My relationship with football is almost none, anymore, between the safety issues and the sheer stupidity of how college football is run any more.  I haven't followed the NBA since Dominique Wilkins left the Hawks, and while I do follow the college game, it's mostly as a filler once baseball season is over.  Hockey?  Never have figured it out.  I'm learning soccer to some degree, but I don't follow the European leagues with enough maniacal passion to comment on them, and I know nobody reading this would have any clue what I was talking about if I wrote about, say, the experience of Sporting Kansas City's first game at Livestrong Sporting Park (which I did attend, for what it's worth; if I were going to do so I might start by observing that it was, by far, the most demographically diverse crowd I've ever seen at a sporting event of any sort).  But those sports that I do follow, I follow with a decent amount of passion and intellectual attention.

But other reasons I tend to gravitate to sports for discussion are (1) that, whether the games themselves, the behavior of players or fans or owners or managers or whatever one cares to single out, sports are one venue of public life that draw in many passionate followers, and (2) in that process much of human nature is laid bare, for the best and for the worst, and in my fool's errand I cannot help but observe and learn from this -- indeed, I would be remiss if I did not.

There are times that the stories that come out of observing the sporting world are incredibly encouraging.  From my time at Kansas, the experience of former Jayhawk basketball player Thomas Robinson immediately comes to mind; after the rapid-fire deaths of two grandparents and his mother, the young man found that his team became his family, and found that a teammate's mother stepped into the void made and took him in as her own son.  Even when her own sons left for the NBA, Angel Morris stayed in Lawrence to be there for T-Rob.  It was a story one couldn't help being affected by, and when it was capped on the court with an insanely improbable run to the national championship game, the story took on the trappings of legend.  These things can happen.  Sports can become a place of bonding, it's true.

On the other hand, one could practically illustrate the Seven Deadly Sins by reference to the behavior of athletes, fans, owners, and others involved in sport.  (Gluttony might seem the hardest, but a few athletes have been known to eat themselves right out of their careers, and have you seen what kind of gluttony goes on in the stands?)  For all that can be mined from the players, though, I find the mentality and behavior of fans to be the most ripe for examination (complicated, of course, by the fact that I am one).  Sadly, much of what captures the attention of the broader world is fan behavior that ranges from shake-your-head depressing to downright horrifying.  Every now and then, the positive side of fanhood can make itself known, but usually what draws attention is the negative behaviors of fans.

These can be pretty egregious.  Rioting after a championship loss (or, even more bizarrely, a championship win) is probably the most obvious case of fan behavior scraping the bottom of the barrel, but it is hardly the only answer.  To go by the cliches, Philadelphia fans (of whatever sport) are forever going to be tagged as the fans who boo Santa Claus; Yankees fans are a bunch of arrogant, entitled jerks; Red Sox fans were incredible whiners, until the team won a couple of World Series and they turned into Yankees fans; going to an Oakland Raiders game is likened to wandering into a gang war by some to whom I've talked.  Verbal abusiveness sometimes seems endemic in the stands for most any sport.  These are all easy targets.

What lies beneath this kind of maniacal behavior?  In so many lives sports are being asked to fill a void that no athletic contest should ever be asked to fill, that much is obvious.  While it's easy to pick on the pro sports, one is easily provoked to wonder if it's college football that comes closest to sheer idolatry among the fan bases involved.  And no, I don't think idolatry is too strong a word, with the recent scandal at Penn State providing the most obvious example and the most damaging real-world consequences.  (An aside: please don't try to talk to me about how his superiors should have exercised more control.  I've spent a decent chunk of my adult life at two sports-crazed universities, enough to know that a coach in that position has no practical superiors.  The fact that Paterno held on to his job through some truly bad seasons -- far worse than those that finally got Bobby Bowden eased out at Florida State -- only demonstrates his ultimate untouchability, until the Sandusky scandal came along.)  From such horrifying events one can work one's way down the ladder to the kind of delusional fan who decides to take personal revenge on his team's rival by poisoning the trees on their campus, idolatry metastasized into sickness.

So in my humble defense I contend that sports has far too much to teach us about the human condition for me to ignore.  But I was struck by another fact in surveying the blog.  For a musician, I haven't written a lot about music.  A few commentaries on hymns or the upcoming new hymnal, and one piece on a bit of Schubert Lieder, but not what one might think given my past.

On some level I guess there's some subconscious separation going on; I don't want to fall back too much on that past life, while I'm trying to move on in this new life.  Another factor is that, while I have some definite things to say on the subject of music and the church, I'm holding on to those thoughts while my education progresses--keeping my powder dry for now, so to speak.

I suspect, though, I'm also affected by a bit of creeping Mendelssohnism.  In a letter to a cousin the composer Felix Mendelssohn offered a bit of comment on how he understood and related to music, in an age in which talking and writing about music was what might today be called a "growth industry."  The cousin had asked about some of Mendelssohn's "songs without words," short piano pieces in the style and structure of song but for piano alone; specifically, that cousin had asked, in effect, what certain of the songs "meant."

Mendelssohn's answer has always haunted me, since I first read it. He rejected his cousin's attempt to assign specific meanings to the Songs Without Words (their "meaning" to him was nothing separate from the musical sounds or notes themselves); the key idea is that the music that affected Mendelssohn most was "not too indefinite for words, but too definite."  I do find that true to a great degree.  Much can be said about the notes, rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and such, and theorists do this at great length.  Volumes can be said about how people use music, and musicologists and ethnomusicologists, among others, do this at great length, and I have no doubt that at some point I will do so.  But about music, the particular moment of music, there is blessed little that can be said if you're doing it right.

Of course, with my current course load and with chemo and radiation treatments starting tomorrow, there's little assurance I'll be blogging about much of anything through the fall.  I shall be very busy, and my mind shall be about a million different places.  I don't plan to give it up any more than I plan to give up any classes or indeed anything about this whole fool's errand.  And at some point the things that strike me on the way may shift in a different direction.  'Til then, sports may continue to come up more often than one might expect, as long as people continue to behave bizarrely where they are concerned, and music less than one might expect, as long as it remains too definite for words.