Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bookshelves and memory

Oops.  I've let things slide blog-wise for two and a half weeks.  I realize this doesn't affect the balance of power in the Middle East or cure cancer or anything important, but I suppose it does represent a dereliction of duty of sorts.
After a late-morning/early-afternoon visit to a urologist for an ultrasound (of the non-invasive type, thankfully) followed by time playing with old Excel files and trying to put them together into one file (I'm discovering that I'm not a fan of spreadsheets), I'm in my impromptu home office looking at one bookshelf, one among many in this house, and letting them remind me of the variety of bumps and bruises and twists and turns my strange little life has taken.  The nostalgia (some positive, some less so) is less about the books themselves or the contents thereof than about the places in life that caused me to add those books to my library.  Some of them should probably have been given away or traded in to the local library or moved in some manner.  Some of them I'll hold forever whether I ever read them again or not.  Some of them I'd love to get rid of, but then somebody else might read them, and I really don't want to be party to that.
There are non-book items on the shelf, to be sure: a plush Snoopy that plays some winter/Christmas tune if you squeeze the snowflake he's holding, a baseball decorated with images from a drawing at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg (a souvenir from my wife's trip there), a stray pencil sharpener, three composer "action figures" -- Bach, Mozart, Beethoven -- still in original packaging.  But the books themselves are a varied lot that would have told me things about myself I wasn't always sharp enough to notice, if only I'd been paying more attention.
This is a bit of a miscellaneous shelf.  Others are more tightly organized; old musicological volumes on one, hymnals and books on worship on another, texts from theology or biblical classes or church history on another.  This shelf holds stuff that doesn't really fit anywhere else and doesn't really go together.
There are a few books dating from my first trip around as a seminarian: a couple of old handbook/companion volumes to the '75 and 91 Baptist Hymnals, The Church Anthem Book, McElrath and Eskew's Sing With Understanding.  A handful of books on this shelf date from this second turn as seminarian; texts from classes I've taken in Christian Education and Celtic Spirituality, other books acquired not as textbooks but in relation to subjects covered in courses I've taken or that simply have forced themselves upon my mind since starting here -- a couple of volumes on Paul, for example, as well as a Wendell Berry book and a pair by Sara Miles.
As noted above, most of the textbooks I've acquired here are on bookshelves elsewhere in the house, as are most of the old musicological books I didn't give away.  A number of the books on this bookshelf do date back to my teaching years, though.  Not the KU years, but at my previous stop, a small evangelical school in south Florida.  Some of them were books I used in attempting to teach courses in the small church music program the school offered.  That was a strange experience.  I was actually happy for the chance to put that old church music degree to use, but the experience only taught me that, barely more than a decade after acquiring it, my knowledge of the field was hopelessly out of date.  I could no longer avoid the whole "contemporary" worship phenomenon, for example, as I had successfully done while living in Tallahassee.  The end result probably was that I had more to learn in the class than I was able to teach.
Other books on the shelf dating from that period are more general, philosophical volumes on the subject of "Christian higher education" or on evangelicalism more generally.  These were generally an attempt to understand more fully the environment in which I found myself at this particular school.  I can't say the attempt was totally successful, but it did lead to my figuring out that I really wasn't an evangelical anymore, if I had ever been a "real" evangelical in the first place.  At the time the experience seemed a signal and confirmation that I was indeed on the right track, moving away from that seminary experience and into academia.  Perhaps in hindsight, the experience was less of an end and more of a beginning of, or at least a preliminary to the fool's errand on which I now find myself.  A few others date from the period for different reasons; one represents a faculty book club gone horribly awry, a couple of others relate to conferences attended while on the faculty there, and a couple I know date from the period, but for the life of me I can't remember why I acquired them.
There are several books by N.T. Wright on this shelf.  These were in fact mostly acquired before officially setting off on this fool's errand, but have been useful along the way.  Again, perhaps if I'd paid more attention at the time I'd have picked up on the fact that something was going on in my soul to which I wasn't paying sufficient attention.
A few of the books were picked up in the preparation for coming to Union.  One was for the preparatory "communities of learning" program Union offers, and a couple of the others, including Pastor by Will Willimon, were acquired just because they seemed relevant to the experience.  Others are more individual in their purpose in my collection: one by a former college professor of mine, a couple acquired solely because of their provocative titles (such as Jesus Was a Liberal), a couple purchased just to read on long plane trips, a couple from a visit to Colonial Williamsburg recently, and a few here and there that I can't even remember when or why I picked up.
It's a bit of a jumble, which is a fairly accurate description of my life.  It would not make for a good biography -- too jumbled, rather incoherent in too many places.  Life, of course, does not obey literary rules or Hollywood scripts.  At times it feels less like one life than two or three or four.  How many more are yet to come, who knows?
The books have their own merit, of course, as written word does, but they also live in a context, my context, and in some cases that context has overwhelmed the content and given to those books meanings that their authors could not or would not have intended.  They have become markers of a life strangely lived, rather like a jigsaw puzzle with broken pieces; hard to piece together but still revealing a picture when nudged together carefully.  In this case, though, the puzzle is unfinished, and I don't even have all the pieces necessary to complete it yet.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Clearing up some things: the latest health issues

Bodies, wonderful creations that they are, can be strange.  They are adaptive things.  They react when their natural processes are interfered with.
Over the course of the last year, I've been targeted with radiation, cut into (and some stuff removed), and pumped with nasty and sometimes poisonous chemicals.  I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose, that my body has reacted in strange ways.
Right now I have two issues going on, both possibly (but not definitely) related to cancer treatment.
Issue one: excess tissue buildup, or something like that -- possibly scar tissue? -- that is possibly impinging a part of my urinary tract, causing one kidney to become a bit dilated.  Also (related or not?) a buildup of gas where gas cannot, technically, happen under normal circumstances (no, not that kind of gas), in the general area.
Issue two: fingertips that are, well, feeling strange.  Not numb -- definitely not that.  Not hurting, really. But...sensitive? Tight? Feeling as if they're swollen even though they're not?
Saw a urologist today.  I appreciate a doctor who takes a go-slow approach.  I'll have an ultrasound in that general region in a couple of weeks to see if the antibiotics I'm on actually help things return to normal.  If not, I may have to have a stent placed in that tube.
See a neurologist at the end of the month about the fingertips, in search of neuropathy or some similar.
The tissue buildup issue may be related to radiation, surgery, or both.  The finger issue may be a late-blooming side effect of chemo.  Cancer: the gift that keeps on giving, even when you'd rather it not.
The bizarre thing is that, unlike when diagnosed with cancer (I didn't expect that diagnosis but I knew something was up), I'm actually feeling fairly good these days.  Finally with some distance from chemo and the bacterial infection that followed, I could actually say I wasn't feeling sick or draggy.  We were able to go down to North Carolina for a wedding and I didn't actually feel a whole lot of fatigue, no more than one normally might expect.  If there's an infection in there it has a funny way of (not) showing it.  Yet that PET-CT scan last week showed something was off, and a new round of visits to new doctors is the result.
So that's what's what at the moment.  This is not so much the "omg!" kind of news that cancer diagnosis was; these are more "wtf??" results, notable for strangeness and incomprehensibility than immediate threat.  To be sure, if the ureter is blocked that has to be fixed -- I don't need a failed kidney. Still, this doesn't have the same shock value as that news of a little over a year ago.
Meanwhile I start an internship (non-parish version) tomorrow and started a church choir singing gig yesterday.  Life goes on until it doesn't, and ideally that will be some time from now.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Missed opportunity!

What a bummer.  I ended up going to two services today, and in neither case did the preacher take advantage of the rare lectionary opportunity to preach on a whole book of the Bible in one sermon.
Well, okay, virtually a whole book.  A few verses get left off at the end.  But still.
OK, so the book in question is Philemon, one of the one-chapter wonders of the New Testament.  But still.
Apparently for some it is a troublesome passage.  Apparently for some Paul is not explicit enough.  Apparently for some the only appropriate thing for Paul to do was to come out with trumpets blaring, demanding of Philemon in ALL CAPS that Philemon MUST free his slave Onesimus or Paul personally would guarantee Philemon's eternity in some bad place.
Yes, I suppose Paul could have done that.  In the Roman Empire of his time that was a good way to get executed.  But, hey, Paul was already in prison at that point, what's a mere execution?
Thing is, short of such a direct order, Paul does a pretty fascinating job of backing Philemon into a corner.  There are a few things you need to remember about this letter, things that often don't seem to be noticed by the more fretful or condemnatory commentators out there.
One: the letter is not just addressed to Philemon.  Besides the title character, Paul also addresses the letter to "Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house" (2).  As a result, this letter, like the other letters of Paul with place names attached (Galatians, Philippians, etc.), this letter would have been read not just by Philemon, but to that entire church meeting in his house.  Paul isn't just asking this thing of Philemon, he's asking in front of everybody.  The whole congregation is going to be watching to see how Philemon responds to this.  (Perhaps the whole congregation, or those who hold slaves, might also be challenged about how they treat their slaves too.  Who knows?)
Two: Paul isn't just asking Philemon to set Onesimus free or to just be nicer to him.  He wants (hint, hint) Philemon to release Onesimus to return to Paul.  Note verses 13 and 14: "I wanted to keep him with me...but I preferred to do nothing without your consent."  Hint, hint.  Now Paul does keep the door open for Onesimus to stay with Philemon, "no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother" (16).  But really, the way Paul frames his letter, those are really the only two options he is imagining.
Three: Paul isn't above reminding Philemon who's the apostle and who's the convert.  "I say nothing about your owing me even your own self" (19b) ... except, well, you just did, Paul.  Even though Philemon owes Paul, in Paul's view, Paul is willing to guarantee anything that Onesimus may have filched from his master (even going so far as to take the pen from his secretary and write that part himself -- "I will repay it" (19a).  Every excuse is being pulled out from under Philemon -- in front of the whole congregation, remember.
Intermingled with appropriate levels of flattery at beginning and end, thus Paul puts Philemon on the spot.  "If you're the man I think you are, you'll do this...for me."  Really, it's a pretty slick bit of maneuvering Paul puts on Philemon.  If followed through, it blows up the whole system; how do you enslave your brother or sister in Christ?
Well, obviously, some people have managed to do so.  I'm going to guess that not a whole lot of antebellum Southern preachers, among others, ever preached from Philemon that often.  People will rationalize, any way they can, when they don't want to follow.  Is it the letter's fault?
C'mon, preachers, you have three years.  Get your Philemon sermons ready.