29 December 2007

The Pause That Refreshes

The day has come and gone, and as much as I resent the frenzy of advent, I love the languor of yuletide. The days between Christmas and New Years are slower. The demands are fewer. For once, I am current with the NYTimes. My checkbooks are balanced. The socks are nestled all snug in their drawer, I have cleaned my computer screen and keyboard and by evening I shall have ironed my shirts.

I actually enjoy shoveling the snow when there is time to spare. Little is more satisfying that cutting a clean path down to the concrete sidewalk. When the sun shines, and it did all December 26th, the street and walk were dry while the lawn was white.

Most people would not think of chores as pleasant, but to have the time to do them unhurried and unharried has been a delight. That slowness is what I love. It reminds me of childhood when time barely moved at all. During the days leading to Christmas it fairly came to a halt, almost freezing solid during the day of Christmas Eve.

How unbearable it was then, the long day. Childhood minds race into the next morning, unable to think of anything else so that the hours beforehand moved like prisoners in shackles and chains.

But right now, this moment, as the long gray daylight is about to fade to black, as the corned beef approaches done, as the quarterly taxes appear on the mind’s horizon, I shall peel potatoes and look forward to pressing some shirts.

By midweek the world will come back with a roar. Our fiscal year begins with the calendar, and we must tally all our money to see if we have enough. This is not an easy time for charitables. And then the long slog through the winter, which will only very slowly get lighter and warmer.

Already I am thinking of Easter, and should. The stories are inseparable. My resolves this season are to be more constant in my studies, less indolent in my tasks – to make the days worth more as without doubt they are growing fewer.

24 December 2007

To My "Two Bit" Readership

Not an insult but a reference to your size, which is about 25. In old days 25 cents was called two bits.

Christmas Eve is here, and presently I shall conduct two services, and somewhere north of 2000 people shall attend. That is wonderful, a veritable host, to make another allusion.

Just a short while ago we held our first service, intended for families and itself largely a ragged pageant, which is exactly what it should be. The blankets and bathrobes and cheesy props are part of the experience, precious parts. And when the angels were mentioned, from our balcony popped a dozen preschoolers in white shifts, gossamer wings and an assortment of halos. Shepherds arrived, in equal number, and then kings of course so that our very large dais cum stable was quite crowded; far more than those who read these words.

But even if the story as written actually happened as it was written, the grand total of characters would be less than you few you drop by from time to time.

Which are you?

Expectant parent? Innkeeper? Shepherd? Sage? Angel? Baby? I’ll wager one of those fits you pretty snug.

Ponder that in your heart, this season. What is your role in the drama of redemption? We need them all, I think.

The sun has gone away. It was cloudy all day today and yesterday, but I am hoping, even praying, for the clouds to vanish later because tonight is a full moon.

We have new snow.

19 December 2007

So Very Simple

My bachelor’s degree is in music. You need to know that to get the irony of the next fact.

I don’t listen to music much.

Mostly in the car, which I drive only two or three times a week if I am lucky. I never listen at work, and almost never at home. My wife controls the radio in the bedroom. (This month it is all Xmas all the time. My love is proved every day as I endure it without violence against the radio or complaint to her. Come January it will return to NPR.)

You would think a music major would care about music. I do. Very much. But for me the pleasure of music is largely in the playing.

After many years without good opportunity, I now work near a piano, and so about three times a week I grab an hour of practice. Having laid off for so long my fingers are quite rusty, to say nothing of older, so I am frustrated that I cannot do as well as I could years ago. Luckily, these skills once learned can be recovered, at least a fair amount.

This afternoon I was reacquainting myself with the Mozart g minor quartet and the Schubert a minor sonata. I pummeled them badly, but now and then nailed some familiar phrases. It was the Schubert especially that moved me to write this evening.

Few composers work with such simple ideas. The first movement has two almost childish themes. One is just a single line played in octaves, the other a simple alteration of tonic and dominant chords that ends with four repeated notes. He then, by the simplest means imaginable, wanders through various keys, changes registers, and wrings every bit of life from them. it is a marvel of economy that is also full of power and grace.

Not all Schubert is so transparent, but a fundamental simplicity is always there. His nearest cousin kin this regard is Igor Stravinsky who likewise uses atrociously simple motifs that he then proceeds to build into blindingly difficult works to hear and play.

This juxtaposition of simplicity with complexity is what so amazes me. And this is only really perceivable when you play as well as listen, see the notes and their interrelationships as well as hear them.

I long to achieve that in words. Every week I dig for something elemental and simple that is also dense with power and possibility. I have yet to succeed. Once or twice I have come close, felt it hovering nearby, or heard something like a word in my ear. Who knows, perhaps it is impossible, but I can’t stop trying.

15 December 2007

Sound And Fury

I must be a real boob today as I could not for the life of me figure out how to post a comment on an editorial piece in yesterdays NYTimes. It was a lament on the perennial obeisance politicians must make to being religious. Read it for yourself.

Readers were invited to post a comment, but I cannot figure out exactly how, so I’ll write it here and forgo the honor of being scrutinized by the myriads who read the Times and settle for ‘we hearty few’ who gather ‘round this small campfire.

Mr. Porter’s problem is two fold: the stranglehold organized religion has on politics in America and the misunderstanding of the nature of belief in general. Most of the reader comments focused on the latter, which like the fabled Unitarian preference for discussions about heaven over heaven itself (being one myself, I have seen its truth), were largely abstract. Fine.

What struck me as worth noting was the truth of the first point. “Any atheist with political ambitions would have to drop the atheism first,” he said. He need not have made it speculative. At least one presidential candidate and probably one governor have had to change spiritual stripes to succeed.

Adlai Stevenson had deep Unitarian roots in central Illinois, but as he rose in politics found his heart or mind or ambition better served by Methodism. The same path was reportedly followed by Texas Governor Ann Richards, who was said to worship among the Unitarians in Dallas and Austin before seeking office and refuge among the believers. While not definitive atheists, Unitarians have long welcomed them, and thus they, we, are all guilty of atheism by association.

I wince when I read John Adams priggish words, so often cited by evangelicals because he was a Unitarian himself, of its first explicit generation. But what makes me truly sad is that our current climate would make another Lincoln impossible.

He was unchurched. This bothered not a few people, including southerners, and yet Mark Noll, an eminent evangelical theologian, believes his second inaugural may be the most perfect sermon ever preached in America. The man who would join no church may be the most authentically religious person to occupy the White House.

06 December 2007

"You People"

This gets so tired, and at this time of year it is downright depressing. My wife goes into a local party supply store yesterday. She was in search of Hannukah candles.

We have lit a menorah in our house for years: first to teach our children the story of the Maccabees, secondly so they could appreciate the diversity of religion around us, and finally to show our family solidarity with the oft maligned and accosted Jewish community.

The clerk at the store was very pleasant when my wife asked about Hannukah candles. In that charming Midwestern way we so love, she eagerly went in search of them, remarking along the way, “I don’t know much about you people, but let’s see what I can do.”

‘You people.” That’s the second time in several weeks I heard that phrase. The other time was following a service where a guest speaker was Latina. A worshipper came up to her and my colleague with a great big smile and said, “We just love you people.”

Both were sweetly said and innocently intended, but to say “you people” is ultimately derogatory. That’s because we always use it to means someone “not like us.” “You people” are different from “us.” You can be Black or Jewish or Latino or gay or whatever the speaker is thinking makes someone different from the speaker.

And as it is always said to an individual, it also means the person speaking doesn’t see an individual but a type. It is the soul of stereotyping to address an individual as if they were a group. “You are a credit to your race,” people used to say, fairly cooing with condescension. We don’t say that now, but there is only a small distance between that and saying, “He is so articulate,” or “She has no accent at all.” As if the praise of a white person or a Christian or a straight was what the other person wanted or needed.

Yes, I am angry. Not that my wife was mistaken for being Jewish, as I have been now and then because of my familiarity with the religion and culture, but that people would say it at all. Would that we were worthy of being B’nai Israel (look it up). I am angry that we live in a country where despite all the diversity around us people can live in false bubble worlds where difference is always out there, over there, not here. Were I to go into a store and ask a question about Christmas cards, would anyone say “Are you Christian?” No. Were I to on the telephone, would the other person wonder if I was white because of the way I talked? No. As a straight man do I ever have to worry about holding hands with my wife in public? No.

I want for everyone what I get, because equality means the ability to be who you are without society making it harder for some than for others. At Christmas time it is especially hard to be reminded of how far we have to go. The Swiss iconoclast Henri Amiel once observed that “to see Christianity one must forget almost all the Christians.” And people wonder why I am such a grinch.

02 December 2007

Yin And Yang

Winter arrived this weekend, with a smorgasbord of snow and sleet and rain. Fortunately it was in that order so that by Sunday afternoon it was rain and I could shovel out. There was not all that much, but what we had was slushy by mid-afternoon and so it was heavy going. The forecasters tell us it will sharpen up tonight and freeze over, which is why I wanted to shovel as much as I could today.

The second half of the day was very concrete in that I also cooked dinner for the first time in many a day and got back to ironing shirts. Few things have the compressed satisfaction that is ironing a dress shirt. In about ten to fifteen minutes you can see a measurable result to your labor. Dinner takes somewhat more time, and shoveling snow yet more. But that’s what I think of when I mean concrete – an action that has a perceivable beginning, middle and end with a result you can touch.

Most of my work is abstract, by which I mean actions that have imprecise boundaries and outcomes. Take preaching. You might think this was concrete. An old saw tells of the seminary student who asks the professor what a sermon should be about.

“About God and about twenty minutes,” was the answer. And about as good an answer as you can fashion in six words.

And yet, when it’s over the task may be done but its outcome is uncertain. Today, for example, I had one of my better productions. All week long I pondered it, not finding a path until early Saturday morning. Then it fell into place within three hours. Not seamless, but above average I think.

It was one of those rare ones for me that had several citations in it. I used to spend hours looking for good quotes and essentially footnoting them. Mine is an intellectual sort of faith as you know. We learn that quotations from great minds are important to show we are not going off half cocked, but its real roots are in the discipline of biblical exposition our ancestors believed in. Even though the Bible is not the touchstone anymore, we still think touchstones are important.

Most of mine are not studded with quotes anymore. It was just too much work to read that hard, and for the mercenary purpose of harvesting pithy quotes. Ruined many a good book that way. This one though seemed to summon aphorisms easily. By the end, including the readings that set the thing up, I had referenced The Bible, Dickens, Melville, William James, John Kenneth Galbraith, Tertullian, Maya Angelou and Albert Camus. Surprised myself.

On paper it was really excellent. In the pulpit, not so much. No one went to sleep or complained, mind you, but my evaluation of it was not echoed by a majority of those who heard it.

You see what I mean by abstract now? The edges are ethereal, the effect unmeasurable, the value uncalculable. On the other hand a solid supper, clean sidewalks and crisp collars pay off very reliably. Ironies and paradoxes are the staff of life, at least the examined life. It was a good day.

You can read it yourself if you like. Drop a line and I'll send it along. Of course it will be different for you as well. context and all that. Tell me what you think.