25 November 2009

When All Else Fails

Tell a story. I was i n the middle of a pilgrimage to Istanbul a few weeks ago, and then news and life and stuff all came along. Now it is the day before Thanksgiving, and while I could rant at the weird transformation of Ben Stein into the a shill for the ranting right, I will instead return to that more entertaining saga of Fred in Istanbul.

Besides, there are pictures to share. So where was I?

Evading my first rug merchant by slipping out of the Blue Mosque by the side door and exploring the old circus maximus and Museum of Islamic Art and Culture. There were lots of exhibits and it was not crowded, so I could linger over things like these carpets and Qur'ans, set in a room that was once the audience hall for Ibrahim Pasha, the grand vizier of the Sultan.

On my way out of the Museums there was, in a hall opposite the main entrance, a special exhibit on the confluence of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths, titled "Plurality in Unity," and brought objects from all three culture together. Not large, and not heavily trafficked, the selections were not only religious but medical, cartographic, and artistic. Lables were uneven, but each showed the influence of one of the other faiths in how it was decorated or what it depicted. I wish there was a website I could point to, but sadly no.

Next I made my way through the narrow streets of the Sultanahmet quarter to two other mosques off the beaten track. My aim was to encircle the neighborhood and arrive back at the great Ayasofya in the mid afternoon. The two mosques along the way were worth visiting, but the walk to them was every bit as engaging.

The first was, like so many mosques, built by a benefactor. called the Sokullo Mehmet Pasha. Photos were forbidden, but its claim to fame is that three small (olive sized) fragments of the Kaaba from Mecca are enbedded in the inner side of the entry door. Barring my conversion to Islam and thence making the Hajj, it is as close to the Kaaba as I am ever going to get. (Only Muslims are allowed in Mecca.)

I did, however, take this picture of the cemetery near the outer wall. As you can tell, the abandoned washing machine tells you this is not an official museum but a working mosque in a poor neighborhood.

Like most mosques, it was enclosed in a courtyard created by a madrasa, school, in the center of which was a fountain for washing hands and feet prior to making salaat. I could not help but notice how the architecture of the fountain, very typical, migrated west and become the pattern for kiosks of all kinds, but especially those in parks. It could easily be an ice cream stand or ticket booth in an old fashioned amusement park. Evidence of Victorian interest in 'the exotic east' due to its colonial network, it was later adopted by America which aped all things British as it tried to look more sophisticated in the world.
Outside the mosque, which was enclosed in a larger wall that took in the cemetery as well, I walked down a hill, pausing to gaze at ships in the harbor again. Now that I live in the heartland I treasure seeing the sea. And as I have noted before, how full the harbor was with ships waiting to make their way up the Bosphoros toward Russia.

Down the hill, surrounded by the warrens of narrow old streets, I was struck again and again by the immediacy of people and poverty.

Clotheslines hung from sagging balconies strung across narrow streets. Children were all about, and their mothers in windows or doorways but not on the streets. Old men occasionally walked by, and it was possible to think that the rhythms of life here were not far removed from a century or more ago.

But right next door was a new house, in the old style, and right next to that a burnt shell of a house. Compact trucks wobbled down the streets now and then, and satellite dishes were lashed to roofs and eaves wherever they might fit.

17 November 2009

Talk To Me

Once again I am non plussed by something that just happened to come under my eye. As ever I find it in the NYTimes, which is the only thing I read reliably, and even that I do not read completely. Hardly enough to justify the trees killed for the cause.

Anyway, I found a cool piece from last Saturday, the regular time for the "On Religion" column to appear.

(Parenthetically, this is all the Times does about religion on a regular basis, contrasted with the weekly section nearly ten times as large published in my local newspaper. But the inverse proportion is also true. The Times has ten times more actual news, so it evens out I guess.)

This past Saturday, religion editor Samuel G. Freedman wrote about Shekinah Ministries in Queens NY. It is about a rising young pastor named Din Tolbert, but what struck me was the sort of congregation he serves and leads. Go and read it, and then come back and finish this post.

Yes, I mean that. Here's the link

Done? If not the rest of this post is useless, so go and read it. Really.

I'll wait.

hmmmm................. hmmmmm............ hmmmmm.................

Ok, are you ready?

How cool is this? An entire congregation under 25, and they do it all, and well. That's exciting, but what excited me was that their worship life is in their hands. They create the experience, shape it, lead it, do it, and the preacher is just that and only that.

They own their worship.

My generation, and those before me by several generations, partake of worship, but they rarely take part, and even more rarely take a part (though there is an equally long tradition of worshippers 'taking apart' worship services afterward.)

My tradition talks about democratic religion, but when it comes to worship we very much rely upon the experts (clergy, musicians, ushers, etc). Why this is true would take more than a simple blog post to examine. But part of me wonders whether it has to be this way, even whether it ought to be this way?

Ponder this, readers. Ask your friends to read the article and ask whether or not we in the liberal wing of the religious world should not learn from this radical experiment in spiritual trust, in faith not in technical expertise but in spiritual and moral honesty.

I know it makes me pause. Tell me how you feel. Really.

15 November 2009

So Proud!

I can hardly contain myself this morning. A friend, the sort of friend you can not see for years and yet when you meet instantly be in each other's arms and hearts, has had a stirring success. Few things are more pleasant than that.

Sara Davis Buechner is a concert pianist, a prodigious talent recognized 25 years ago when she was David Buechner. Her transition from David to Sara just about killed her career and when someone wrote about her struggle in the NYTimes magazine ten years ago I saw the article and replied. The short reply was printed. And lo and behold she was in a pew the next week.

While we were both in NYC we met a few times, discovered common roots in Baltimore where we both grew up, albeit a few years apart (she is 6 years my junior). Then she moved to Vancouver and I to Michigan. Now and then we would send email.

Out of the blue she writes me an email two weeks ago, says she is doing an anniversary concert in NYC. It turns out she reads this raggedy rant from time to time. I am flattered, write her back. We come within hours of connecting but do not.

Anyway, I troll over to NYTimes.com this morning and there is an article and video about her comeback. What a pleasure. And you can enjoy it with me. Go, read, and watch the video too. It will make you happy, but not as happy as me!

11 November 2009

So Tired

It's 10 pm, and soon I will to bed. But being the 11th day of the 11th month, Armistice Day, Veteran's, something popped into mind. As ever, it is dangerous and probably best left unsaid. Yet, as many have found when the years have accumulated, the fear of speaking badly is now less troubling than the fear of not speaking up.

(Unlike others, it seems, I grow more radical with age not more conservative. Those who know me and my contrarian humor will not find this at all odd.)

Why are all our service people called heroes? I know why we do it, the rationale that is. Because we have been working off our Viet Nam guilt since 1975. And Korean vets had little better treatment. We extol them to compensate for those ignored, our national and lingering guilt at ignoring those who served in conflicts the nation was conflicted about.

But does that make them heroes?

Truly some are heroic, facing dangers and rising above and beyond. But most are not heroic in any personal sense. By calling them all heroes, however noble the intent, we subtly tell ourselves they are exceptional, atypical, special.

This is wrong. Serving one's nation should not be exceptional. It should be normal. Behind all our genuine desire to honor those who serve is a deeper shame that we do not all serve.

I did not. But only because I was not called. My number (a phrase now meaningless to those under 50) was low and my turn was coming. The draft ended before it got to me in 1972.

I was terrified then, for lots of reasons, most of them personal and far from political. But I did not seek an exemption because at heart I knew any excuse I got would be equalled by someone else who could not get one as easily as me. My fear was not unique. Every young man felt it. We had a very real, deeply personal, stake in the war and in those who chose to wage it. And this too has been lost.

Now that serving your nation is but another career choice, it has ceased to be what citizens do for their country. The sense of obligation to something larger than self, career, or even family, is gone. Everything is about calculated self interest, even patriotism. It is patriotic to serve but also good business, and better business to be a contractor, and better yet to be a supplier. See, we have even commodified and outsourced patriotism.

Calling our vets heroes is our way of emotionally justifying this commodification, a cheapening into money of something that was once chiefly about duty and honor and courage. We would be a better nation if we had fewer heroes and more citizens. O tempora! O mores!

09 November 2009


... is not always a blessing. I have an abundance of thoughts to share and not enough time to share them.

Since my last post I have been to see friends in NYC and substitute preach for a friend there. The church sits on Central Park West, very near to the Natural History Museum. You may have glimpsed it in opening scenes of the original "Miracle on 34th Street," when Santa is on his parade float sleigh, as it is on the route of the Macy's T'giving Day parade.
My trip allowed me to visit to the new High Line botanical walk created from an old elevated freight rail line abandoned to nature a generation ago. Very cool. See below.

But I also lost a dear member of my church to death and six days later a dear personal friend of twenty years died. Both of whose services I must and will gladly take part in, but not without considerable intellectual and emotional effort.
My church annual meeting is next week, and the holidays are breathing down our necks. Christmas carols played at the book store on Saturday. My skin crawled reflexively.
I began reading Tolstoy's War and Peace while staying with friends in Tribeca. What a great book, and what a great big book. Meanwhile I resumed the second of three volumes on the history of liberal theology in America by Dorrien, finished a cute little book about the Auden and Britten and McCullers and Bowles and others called February House.
And there is more to say about my journey to Istanbul last month, so much more. But what really caught my eye today was an article by the movie critic A. O. Scott in the NYTimes, reflecting on the movie "Where The Wild Things Are," which I saw last week. He/she (I have not idea which gender Scott claims) really nails some cultural nuggets and I recommend it to you all. Here's the link
Sorry about the layout. Creating blank lines and also inserting photos takes more wits than I have.
More later, I hope.