Tuesday, July 31, 2012


I had planned to take a small chunk out of my Hebrew drowning immersion class to hear a guest "book talk" at Union's library, given by a recent alum of the institution whose first book was recently published, on the subject of "Writing As a Spiritual Practice."  With some of the things that have occupied my time and thoughts over year one here it was a subject in which I was interested and seeking opportunity for reflection.  Unfortunately, events prevented me from being able to stay, but I was somewhat able to stream the talk live from Union's website (I say "somewhat" because I saw/heard as much buffering as talking, no matter which computer I used -- my MacBook, on wifi, or the laptop that is directly plugged in with an ethernet cable).  Still I heard some snatches of the talk, and even got a question in via the online feed.

One snatch I did hear was the encouragement to "write every day."  Sounds familiar to me.  As a musicologist expected to produce research in order to survive and advance in the discipline, I got the same advice.  Sometimes I was good at following it, even if what I wrote on a given day gave way to the "delete" or "don't save" button (which was a frequent fate of my research writing efforts).  It is hard advice to take when eyebrow-deep in Hebrew vocabulary that refuses to memorize itself for me, but there is truth in it; because of all those deleted daily drivelings I occasionally produced something worthwhile.  So, I suppose now I am tasked, if I truly want to explore the idea of writing as part of my spiritual practice or even vocation/calling, to put that same instruction into practice here.  For today's writing, the seven of you who read this blog suffer.  My apologies.  ;-)

Probably the most thoughtful and profound piece I have read on writing -- at least to me; your mileage may vary -- is by Frederick Buechner.  I hope I don't have to introduce Buechner to most of you (for those not familiar: ordained Presbyterian pastor, writer of novels including the Book of Bebb series -- hit-and-miss for me -- and others including Godric, a thoroughly amazing book; also author of devotional works, collections, essays, etc.  Buechner can be a litmus test for any "Christian" bookstore you might patronize; if they don't have any Buechner on their shelves don't give them any of your money for any reason).  Of his writings those that have most de-cleated me, to borrow a strange football term, are the aforementioned Godric, an imagining of the life of the saint of that name exploring the both saintly and unsaintly qualities any person may possess (my description does not do it justice), and a collection of essays and sermons under the title A Room Called Remember.  Within that latter collection is an essay with the unprepossessing title "The Speaking and Writing of Words."

Were it not for copyright issues I'd simply reproduce the whole thing here.  There are so many ideas, turned in that way that only Buechner can do, that still knock me sideways even this many years later.  For one: is an experience truly experienced until one can begin to name it?  He describes "the sense I had of something trying to be born in me that could not be born without the midwifery of expressing it" (p. 165; these are from the 1984 edition of the collection).  Oh, yes, I know that frustration well.  What is it until I have called it by name?  Hebrew class reminds me of Adam in the Garden, tasked with giving names to all those creatures around him.  Even John the Evangelist has something to say about the significance of words, in Buechner's reading: "'In the beginning was the Word,' John writes, and perhaps part of what that means is that until there is a word, there can be no beginning" (p. 165).

Rather than giving in to the temptation to reproduce the whole essay, I will limit myself to one more thought of Buechner's, one which concludes the essay and puts the business of writing in a way that hopefully anyone who plays with the dynamite of words can appreciate.  The final paragraph offers that:

"Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much of this power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves.  That, I suppose, is the final mystery as well as the final power of words: that not even across great distances of time and space do they ever lose their capacity for becoming incarnate.  And when these words tell of virtue and nobility, when they move us closer to that truth and gentleness of spirit by which we become fully human, the reading of them is sacramental; and a library is as holy a place as any temple is holy because through the words which are treasured in it the Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among us and within us, full of grace and truth" (p. 181).

And this is what I'm getting myself into.  Take those words and place them into the very context of worship, then, and mystery upon mystery and power upon power empowers and overwhelms.  The notion that I have any business writing, for example, a hymn that might be used as the words by which many (o.k., few) might worship weakens my knees (particularly when considering that those words are paired with that other great and mysterious power, music).  Best simply to beat a hasty retreat and go play with my homemade Hebrew flash cards.

But no.  This is, as Schubert has it in his setting of Müller's "Der Wegweiser" in Winterreise, the signpost I must follow, from which there is no turning back.  Whether or not I ever publish a word of writing, the notion of getting up to speak such words on any regular basis is challenging enough.  At any rate it is far too late to turn back now, not just from the vocation in general, but from the particular challenge that increasingly eats at me even when Hebrew verb roots are monopolizing my brainpower.

I suspect there are more thoughts on this to come.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A hymn nerd gets his "Glory to God" sampler

After a few bumps and missteps I've finally gotten a copy of the Sampler for Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal that I've been trying to get for a while now.  I took not just the required one, but both of the hymnology courses offered during my first ride through seminary (the one I mostly try to forget these days); I've off-and-on been a member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (and I need to get back on again), I taught hymnology during my academic career (only once, mind you, but it counts), and as noted in earlier posts on this blog, I've dabbled in writing hymns here and there, as well as offering the occasional reflection on a hymn and its content.  With that in mind I feel relatively confident in labeling myself a hymn nerd.

I do so with all intentional use of the word "nerd," aware of its implications in not being one of the "cool kids" or "hip" or "contemporary" or whatever you choose.  I can't quite embrace a mode of worship (liturgical order or lack thereof as well as particular songs sung) that exerts a great deal of energy trying to make me feel like worshiping or like I have worshiped; better a mode of worship that will drag me into worship kicking and screaming, if need be, and will if need be put the words in my mouth that I'm not capable of coming up with on my own, and that (yes, I'm going there; deal with it) that will not ask me to check my brain at the door.  Whatever may be the case with such a mode of worship, as I can best grapple with it, it will include hymns and other varieties of service music.

With that in mind, I offer a totally uninformed, outsider's-point-of-view, knee-jerk response to the contents of this Sampler.  It is not at all professional or academic or any such thing, but merely a quick impulsive response which is meaningful to exactly one potential Presbyterian pastor.  Make of it what you will, including nothing at all if you choose.

One of the things I see that makes me happiest of all is that, if this Sampler is any indication, the hymnal will be a tool for many aspects of the church's life, teaching as well as worship.  Each hymn here is accompanied by the usual information about composer of tune, author of text, poetic meter, and so forth, but also includes a small note about the hymn, typically about its creation but potentially about its content.  For example, the note accompanying "Holy, Holy, Holy" notes that the imagery included in the hymn echoes Revelation 4:2-11; points out that the author, Anglican bishop Reginald Heber, would have known that text as a reading for Trinity Sunday; and also notes that the tune plays up the Trinitarian subject by emphatically spelling out the D-major triad in its first two measures (quick and dirty for the non-musically informed: when you sing "ho-ly, ho-ly, ho-ly," you're singing the notes D-F#-A, which is the major triad on the pitch D).  They aren't always great statements, mind you.  Still, anything that invites a fuller, more informed reflection upon the hymn is a good thing in my book.

The Sampler also indicates a greater emphasis or at least forwarding of service music, whether free-standing or included in service orders which will now appear in the hymnal.  Here it strikes me that the principal virtue is transparency.  The Sampler includes a Service for the Lord's Day and an order for Evening Prayer, which is suggested for retreats, small groups, individual or family prayer, or "at councils of the church (session or presbytery meetings, e.g.)."  It strikes me as a good idea to lay it all out on the table in a source that's consistently available to anybody who happens to show up.  If a given week at your church happens to deviate from that order, it's good that people can recognize that and have a basis for comparison, particularly if they're visitors to your church.  Is it necessarily an important thing?  I don't know, but I think it's a good thing.

As to the hymns chosen for sampling; we find out that "Holy, Holy, Holy" will in fact be the first hymn in the hymnal.  Was this a tradition in Presbyland before the "blue hymnal"?  I don't know, but I know it was extremely traditional in other denominations.  O.K., whatever.  The hymnal also appears to be chasing after an older/evangelical/? audience, so to speak, with a number of "gospel songs" rooted in the late nineteenth century either included or re-included in the book.  "I Love to Tell The Story" and "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms" represent the trend in the Sampler, and quite a few more show up in the complete list put out earlier this year.  I suppose I thought I was getting away from that when I became a Presbyterian, but again, whatever.

The globalization push continues, perhaps a little more broad than in the new hymnal.  Here I think the informational notes mentioned above might be the most helpful; knowing something about the song -- not just where it comes from, but why or how it came about -- may well be helpful in getting past the alienation some congregants might feel about hymns from the African continent  or Korea or wherever its source might be, and get on with the business of understanding and taking in what the hymn has to say.

"New traditional" hymnody is prominent, as far as I can see, in the Sampler, which makes sense.  (Mind you, 50% or more of the "blue hymnal" continues into the new book, so it's hardly a takeover.)  Clearly as someone who dabbles, I can't complain about new stuff.  To take one example, "For Everyone Born" is a new one to the Presbyterian hymnal at least, although Shirley Erena Murray should be counted as a well-established and respected hymn writer by now.  To my eyes it's a strong hymn, but I'm curious about how the tune is going to work in some congregations.  Mostly in 12/8 (with some 6/8 measures thrown in), the tune mostly lilts along in the 3+3+3+3 pattern typical of that meter; every now and then, though, the tune throws the singer a curveball by breaking into a (2+2+2)+3+3 or even 2+2+2+2+2+2 pattern momentarily.  By no means is that unsingable, but it will flummox a few congregations the first time they try it out.  Given enough repetitions that kind of thing eventually works; the question becomes how many chances will a congregation give a song like that?  It's tragic when a good hymn is defeated by an unworkable or unsuitable tune, as is likely the case with many of the hymns that didn't make the cut from the "blue hymnal" to the new one.

There are a couple of representatives of more contemporary song traditions.  Interestingly, the accompanying notes for "The Trumpets Sound, the Angels Sing," for example, probably are a little too apologetic or defensive: "Despite its new sound, the emphasis on Communion as a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet is a very traditional theme."  To me at least, that sounds like a fearful note.  Having already admitted to not being a fan of many contemporary modes of worship, I still would say that if you're going to include such songs (Contemporary Christian?  "Praise and worship"?  "Emergent"? I have no idea.  I can't keep up with the terminology anymore, and frankly that may be a better place to be in some ways.  But that's a separate blog entry), it's probably a self-defeating move to forward the idea that the song has a "new sound" before anyone's even had the chance to sing it.  The walls will go up for some folk before anybody even starts to play.  I suppose vice versa is also possible; some might decide it's the greatest thing since sliced bread before anybody even starts to play.  I'm not sure that's any better.  A similar linguistic feat is performed on "Men of Faith, Rise Up and Sing," something from an "English Christian rock and worship band" (is that the formula nowadays?  I feel old); "really, the words are o.k. even if the music is kinda scary" is about what the note boils down to in its content.

Still, on the whole, the Sampler seems to do well at getting this one potential Presbyterian pastor anticipating the whole book.  Emphasis on "book."  It will also be electronically available, of course.  And when we're content that our pastors and congregants should have the Bible available only in electronic form, I'll gladly consent to the hymnal being available only in electronic form.  It's not the Bible, no.  But a hymnal is, for good or ill, the most directly accessible distillation of the theology and convictions of its creators you will ever find.  Every family, every individual even, ought to have it at hand, not just in the pew on Sunday.  Much like the church's confessional statements, the procession of its hymnals speaks to the growth of that church and God's continuing movement within and through it.  The new hymnal should not look like the "blue hymnal," certainly not like the "red hymnal," and not like any other compilation of songs for congregational worship that has come before it.  A hymnal that looks too much like its predecessors is as good a sign of a stale or stagnating church as you will ever find (and a much better sign than any numbers game you want to play).

So, bring it on.  No such book is ever going to be perfect, not as long as human beings are involved.  Still, now I really want to see the whole book, which I suppose is the point of a sampler.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Suffice it to say that summer Hebrew is not conducive to blogging.

It's been two weeks since the last entry.  Not at all coincidentally, I've been in intensive Hebrew class for two weeks.  Indeed these two facts are inextricably related.

Put succinctly, this class is kicking my posterior six ways to sundown.  In fact, I am finding it harder than Greek.  Part of it is that there is more occupying my time this summer than last; I have two jobs that I didn't have last summer.  Where the languages are concerned, I am a terrible memorizer (I have many academic skills; memorizing, if it counts as an "academic skill," is not one of them), and vocabulary tends to require memorization after a certain point.  With Greek, there were enough words that had English derivatives or relatives that some of that work was cut out for me.  Not so with this language.

So, all that doesn't leave a whole lot of time for coming up with anything halfway thoughtful to say here.  It isn't necessarily that I plan to quit for now, it is simply that it may not happen a lot between now and August 22.  My apologies to the three or four of you who actually read this.

Not that there haven't been things that could provoke comment.  Certainly Hebrew class itself would probably be worth comment if I weren't dog-paddling furiously just to keep from drowning in alephs and dageshes and hireqs and such.

The world has practically been baiting a blog entry with the things that have been going on.  My denomination completed one of its less impressive General Assemblies in recent memory, in which too many of them sounded like members of Fred Phelps's "church" in Topeka.  The release of the Freeh report on the Penn State child abuse scandal, and the various reactions to the revelations of said report, beg for more sports commentary, and there were certainly thoughts that came to mind to discuss.  For example, here's a question: do we really think this is the only school at which such a thing has happened?  How can we know that this hasn't happened elsewhere, only to have the particularly prosperous boosters step up with the hush money to keep the victims from coming forward?  Do you really believe this couldn't have happened somewhere in the world of big-time college athletics?  My last thought (for now) on this: perhaps the "death penalty" should be applied to all of college football for a couple of years, and probably college basketball too.  Considering the number of famous universities which could be argued to be completely consumed by their athletic reputations, it might be the best thing for higher education in this country.

The mass murder in Colorado is probably best for me to avoid; my rules about blogging angry and blogging smug would be virtually impossible to follow.  Sadly, I keep finding that the two most on-target and on-point bits of comment I've seen so far have both come from the satirical "newspaper," The Onion.  One, too profane for me to link to (even if I appreciate the sentiment), posits the reactions of a studio exec worried about what the violence will do to the overall take for The Dark Knight Rises (yes, somebody at whatever studio put out the film is probably tracking exactly that), and this one, which captures exactly the futility of hoping that anyone will get angry enough to make any change happen in this country, or of hoping that this kind of thing won't happen again, and again, and again... (and The Onion has since added their own little shot at the NRA as well).  Otherwise, most of what I've seen sounds, well, exactly like we've come to expect.

Things are mildly interesting on the personal front as well.  I've been doing a small amount of liturgical participation at the church we've been attending lately, and one of the aforementioned jobs is working as chapel coordinator for the summer at Union.  Normally today's little adventure would also elicit some blog comment; we took a day for my mental health and headed up to Colonial Beach, VA, and swung home the back way, catching the birthplace sites of two American presidents, George Washington and James Monroe.  The Washington site was beautiful; if George hadn't moved after the death of his father when George was age three, and had grown up and inherited the place possibly, one could easily imagine that it would have been impossible to tear him away from the site.  Monroe's birthplace site is a much smaller affair; a visitor center only open on weekends, and a high place in the ground where the house's foundation was.  Guess that's what you get for not being a Father of Your Country and presiding in a period of relative peace and quiet, with only a Monroe Doctrine to your name.

But for now this grab bag will have to do.  If time and my intellectual state allow, I'll post again; if not I promise to try to get back on the beam after August 22.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The limits of sports

I've added another stadium to my "collection" of venues in which I've indulged my weakness for baseball.  Nationals Park is a pleasant enough place to watch a game, though the food is ludicrously expensive even in relation to other big league parks, and even though last night's game was played in a soupy miasma of heat and humidity.  The home team, fresh off a sweep of a very good San Francisco Giants team in which they thoroughly torched some of the better pitchers in baseball, got beat by the woeful Colorado Rockies and a rookie pitcher (admittedly one of the top pitching prospects around, but still a rookie), even with über-phenom Stephen Strasburg on the mound for Washington.

That kind of unpredictability is what's fun about sports, and baseball most particularly due to its relentless 162-game long march of a schedule.  Given enough opportunities, even the woeful teams will beat the wonderful teams on occasion -- not often, but just often enough to provoke the repeated use of the phrase "you never know" in describing the game.  Given a 5-0 deficit going into the bottom of the ninth inning, one would think there was no reason to hang around.  Still, when third baseman Ryan Zimmerman cranked one out to lead off the inning, a threatened mass exodus arrested itself, with fans congregating around the left-field plaza area straining for a look at the field, or at the large monitor installed near that plaza, just in case ... .  After all, the Nationals did put on a big late comeback just the night before, against a better team.  But on this night it was not to be, and in fact the Rockies held on for the 5-1 win.

Suspense without a script is part of the entertainment value of a good sporting contest.  Even if nothing happens, the sheer continual possibility of something happening has enough value and compelling interest to leave one feeling a little exhausted by its end.  One of the more compelling experiences I can recall was a high-school football game (I was in the marching band, natch) against a nearby rival, in which my team scored a very quick touchdown and missed the extra point, and nobody scored again -- a 6-0 final.  Yet, what might seem like a completely boring affair was anything but; long plays thwarted at the last, dramatic goal-line stands, dramatic interceptions when it seemed the other guys were about to score -- the sequence of desperate lows skyrocketing to giddy highs was an exquisite and exhilarating thrill ride.  I was worn out, and all I did was tromp around on the field and play a mellophone for ten minutes at halftime.

A good sporting contest can entertain, it can provide the kind of thrills that such a tense contest can provide (and if you aren't capable of getting this, you probably shouldn't snark about why people don't get the glory that is Shakespeare or Beethoven), and maybe on occasion it can be the occasion for life lessons on things like hope.  Still, there are things sports can't do, and there are things sports can do that the world would probably be better without.

Too easily sports becomes the venue for the uglier side of humanity to parade itself.  The recent Euro 2012 championships in soccer were the venue for some virulent hate speech by "fans" in Poland and Ukraine against certain players on the visiting teams, specifically those who [note: sarcasm ahead] committed the unforgivable crime of not being white.  The only thing more mind-bogglingly stupid than fans who riot destructively after their team loses a major championship such as the World Series or March Madness is fans who riot destructively after their team wins such a championship (yes, I'm looking at you, LexingtonKentucky), and yet both happen way too often.  The horror of the still-unfolding scandal at Penn State defies capturing in one sentence, but an inescapable part of the formula is the cultish admiration for a long-successful coach, and the resultant power that ends up in hands not divine enough to cope with it (hint: no human hands are divine enough to cope with that kind of power).  Beyond fan ugliness, player misbehavior is too easy to find in headlines, from players getting paid to injure other players in the NFL to a string of drunken accidents or drug arrests or sexual assault charges to which the popular capacity for outrage is somewhere between numb and outright resentful ... of those who would hold athletes accountable for their behavior.

Given such an ongoing record, why would we think that of all the bizarre things sports have the capacity to "heal" societal wounds or grief?  And yet, think back to those days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon; how much talk did one hear about the capacity of baseball or football games to "heal" American society?  Um, no.  The late David Halberstam (a New Yorker, mind you) swatted that notion away like a cheap jump shot with these words, written a year after the attacks: "If, in the long run, you need sports to help you through a time of tragedy and to take your mind off a grimmer reality, then you are emotionally in so much trouble in not understanding what is real and what is fantasy that the prospects for your long-term emotional health are probably not very good." (From "Sports Can Distract, But They Don't Heal," published on ESPN.com on September 10, 2002, and reprinted in Everything They Had, a collection of Halberstam's writing on sports published in 2008.)

Halberstam did not dismiss the temporary boost such games can provide in that kind of situation, citing the Yankees' run to the World Series that year.  Even in that, though, the boost was thoroughly temporary (the Yankees didn't win the Series), and didn't take away any of the grief or tragedy the city or country was bound to experience.  And frankly, we'd be a deeply troubled and emotionally and intellectually impoverished country if it had.

One could even argue that baseball and football became complicit in the enforcement of a particular conformity of response to the events though their quick acquiescence to the exigencies of hand-wringing flag-waving; no time for grief anymore, gotta sing "God Bless America" in the seventh-inning stretch instead of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" so those terrorists know they didn't win -- and don't dare ask questions.  [Eleven years later, this persists to varying degrees in Major League Baseball, with most every park doing so on Sundays (civil religion, anybody?) and special occasions, and at least the Yankees doing so at every game, so that you're getting a double-dose of musical patriotism (since the national anthem is still sung at the beginning of every game as well).  Is there not some place where overkill begins?]

I enjoyed my ballgame last night (though I'm quite sure any further need for live baseball this season will be fulfilled quite nicely by the local minor-league squad), and I'll even admit that one of my great small fears going forward into this new unknown is the possibility to end up called to a church far away from any major- or minor-league ball.  Still, I know enough to know that when I got up this morning, there were still bookshelves awaiting moving and/or building; my denomination was still behaving badly at its biennial business meeting this week; Hebrew still starts Monday; and this area is still under an Excessive Heat Warning for today and tomorrow.  Nothing was healed, no problems were solved.  It was an evening's pleasant diversion, and one more step in a season of diverting intrigue and suspense.  Any "uniting" with a diverse crowd of others lasted only until that unsuccessful rally breathed its last.  Should the Nationals make a charge for a World Series title, it won't do anything for the city's crime rate (except, alas, for a possible riot-charged spike the night of the last game), or for the fact that its citizens have no voting representation in Congress.  The Saints, no matter how much rhetoric to the contrary, did not "heal" New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; that only happens when people put their energy and soul into rebuilding and restoring the city, and if some of those people happen to be members of the Saints like Drew Brees, good.  Sports can do many things.  Sports cannot do many things, and there are many things sports should not do.  One is always wise to keep those things in mind and to keep from confusing them in theory or in practice.