Sunday, April 09, 2017

Scripture Flipped:
Forward Day by Day, March 2017

Daily readings for March 2017 in Forward Day by Day were notable for how the author flipped  scripture to find new angles on familiar passages.  The author is Mike Marsh, rector of Saint Philip's Episcopal Church in Uvalde, Texas.  Here's a digest of the most striking examples, which I mean to preserve for examples of good faith and good writing.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Mt. 6.21).  In the a season of giving up things we treasure, Marsh flips that idea: "Let us approach Lent as treasure hunters, discovering what we truly value, where we actually spend our time and energy, and what occupies our thoughts and worries.  Let us name our treasures, and find our hearts."

The Lord has chosen you... to be his people, his treasured possession (Dt. 7.6). Marsh flips the previous day's message to look at God's treasure: us. "If God's heart is set on you, I too must give you my heart.  If God has chosen you, how could I ever justify or defend rejecting you?"

When Jesus turned and saw them following he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi..., where are you staying?" (Jn 1.38)  Marsh writes, "I have probably answered this question from Jesus a thousand different ways.... I know that if I don't let the question live within me, I tend to become stuck, settled in place and asleep to the beauty and mystery of life." He adds that his answers in youth were "more concrete and definable," but now, the question keeps him, and us, "awake and open."

The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."  (Mt 4.3) Marsh suggests that temptation serves a good purpose.  Whatever tempts us also tells us about "what's going on inside of us."  He asks, "What if temptation can be our teacher or a diagnosis?"

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. (Ps 23.1)  "Wants often have the power to narrow our vision and limit our freedom."  It's not that God gives us what we want, but that what we want keeps us from seeing what God gives us!

Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house? (Luke 2.49). It seems to be a story of precocious tween-age Jesus, but Marsh observes, "Ultimately, growing up is about running away to our Father's house."  Marsh challenges his reader: "Are you different today than you were a year ago, three years, ago, thirty years ago? No doubt you've aged, but have you grown?"

Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"  (Lk 1.34) Marsh takes off from a non-Biblical tradition that Mary was among the maids who sewed the veil that separated the people from the Holy of Holies in the temple.  "Often, our veils are the lives we have created for ourselves -- what we see is what we get." But, "Nothing is impossible with God."

The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn 6.52) Marsh says there's a short answer - love. The longer answers have divided churches.  "When I think of the short answer, however, I begin to list people who have fed and nourished my life with their flesh and blood -- through real, incarnate lives of presence, generosity, forgiveness, strength, courage, guidance, and love. Sometimes these people challenged me.. and at other times they encouraged me by showing me more than what I could see for myself."  These people "have enlarged my life."  Forward recommends that we make a list of those who have fed and nourished us with their flesh and blood.  In the margins of this, Marsh's last meditation, I wrote, "This is the best!"

Iris: Piece of Mind

Shortly after reading Iris Murdoch's novel Jackson's Dilemma, I heard her husband John Bayley interviewed on NPR about his memoir.  Iris welcomed the reporter to their home with courteous detachment.  As we heard her shuffle off, Bayley told the reporter that he would continue to love the woman he lived with, and professed not to worry about the brilliant woman he'd married: "Wherever she's going, she has already arrived" is what I remember him saying.  I'd experienced my grandmother's dementia; her daughter's symptoms wouldn't show for another twelve years; but I was struck by Bayley's conception of dementia as a "place."

Making the movie Iris of his memoir just a year later, writer-director Richard Eyre made use of that idea to meld the love story of young Iris with the love of Bayley for Iris at her end.

Eyre's dilemma was that both stories he wanted to tell had foregone conclusions.  The moment that modest young Bayley (Hugh Bonneville) stops at a party to stare in awe at charismatic young Iris (Kate Winslett) , we know that somehow they're going to marry.  The moment regal elderly Iris (Judi Dench) fails to recall the Prime Minister's name, her young doctor tells us that dementia is going to win.

The key to bringing both stories to a satisfying close lay in the image from a brain scan. Elderly Bayley (Jim Broadbent) asks about a dark area that the doctor can't explain.  Bayley clings to the idea that there's a room in Iris's brain where her mind could still be alive, though "different."  To illustrate, Eyre takes us to the rocky shore where he pictures Iris sitting among hefty smooth stones, looking out at the waves, clutching a notebook.  Her friends hope she'll write, and, in a way, she does:  she rips out page after page, placing a stone on each one.  In flashbacks, we've heard the erudite Murdoch speaking of freedom and love for living beings, nature, even stones.  So this is a demonstration of another kind of expression.

In the parallel story, young Bayley, tortured by jealousy, needs to learn from Iris whether he has a place among the many "worlds" she inhabits and creates in her promiscuous, prolific life.

Thirty years before the events at the end of the movie, Murdoch wrote Bruno's Dream, concerning this very idea, that the world is in the invalid's mind even while he is in the world.  Read more in my appreciation of Iris Murdoch's novels, The Mind Plays Tricks.

[Portrait, 1986, by Tom Phillips.    The portrait is of real-life Iris with images from her fiction.]

Friday, April 07, 2017

Chris Thile: A Daring Home Companion

When mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile made his first appearances on public radio's long-running variety show Prairie Home Companion, he was still a teenager, the extroverted lead vocalist of the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek with Sara Watkins on fiddle and her brother Sean on guitar.  Thile told host Garrison Keillor how they would dare each other to make songs from random road signs.  For that, more than for any interest in bluegrass or Thile's virtuosity on mandolin, I started my collection of Chris Thile recordings.   

[PHOTO: Chris Thile at Zankel Hall, by Tina Fineberg for the New York Times. ]

Nearly twenty years later, when my collection has expanded beyond Nickel Creek to include solo albums, duets with classical and jazz artists, and genre-bending material with his band Punch Brothers, Chris Thile is still daring himself to try new things.

Taking on the role of host for Prairie Home Companion has been his biggest leap of faith. As I saw at Atlanta's Fox Theatre during Garrison Keillor's last weeks with the show, the audience was faithful in more ways than one (see my review).  For us, the show was as much ritual as entertainment, with familiar features and jokes that never failed (e.g. "Powder Milk Biscuits are pure-- mostly").  Keillor's blend of folksiness, Protestant in-jokes, and urbane irony was unique.  Besides, the appreciative audience had been tuning in to Keillor's live broadcasts since Thile was a toddler; teens among us didn't get it.  Could Thile bring in a younger listeners without alienating his base of boomers?

I'd say Thile was a brilliant choice.

First, he's a versatile musician. Chris Thile says that he homed in on the mandolin at age nine when his family went to a live music pizza parlor, because the mandolinist was the showiest guy on the stand.  By age twelve, the chubby little blonde mandolin virtuoso from California had a commercial recording (still available on CD).  Now he strikes boisterous dissonant chords, picks rapid-fire licks, plucks sweet melodies that fall like rain, and sometimes ruminates with sparse, dry staccato notes. Even when the mood is dark, there's a brightness and hope in the sound.  His wide-ranging voice matches the moods, whether crooning, hooting, moaning, or spitting out lyrics.

On the shows I've heard, Thile's effusive, good with upbeat patter, and natural-sounding in scripted sketches.  His musical guests trend younger and edgier, but Paul Simon and poet Billy Collins have also performed. Young comics get the slot that was always reserved for Keillor's tales from Lake Woebegone, and they work just fine.

But the most fun is listening to Thile taking musical chances.  He challenges himself to compose words and music for a Song of the Week that fits the time.  The ones I've heard have been, as Ellington loved to say, "beyond category."  For the show November 12, Thile walked as fine a line as Keillor ever did, addressing a song to his wife and little son that resonated with an audience worked up over the recent election:
But I don't wanna fight fire with fire
And I don't wanna preach to the choir

So whether you're laughing or crying
If you're doing your best to be kind
This land is as much yours as mine
As God is my witness

I made this for you
                       - "I Made This For You" by Chris Thile
He plays mandolin as easily as he speaks, quoting melodies of any composer he mentions, from Strauss (Johann and Ricard) to Dylan to Barber's Violin Concerto.  He and his band perform an audience request, unrehearsed, with the rules that no one on stage can have written or performed the song before.  So far as I've heard, taking a wide variety of requests, he and his cohort haven't crashed and burned yet. An improvised arrangement of "Blackbird" was memorable.

The biggest risk to the show's fans is that such a restless, creative guy won't be tied down to this regular gig for long.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Paterson, Movie and Poem

Director Jim Jarmusch, writing the screenplay for his film Paterson, surely was inspired by these lines from William Carlos Williams's book-length poem of the same name, the doctor-poet's effort to "reflect" his own mind through aspects of his hometown of Paterson, NJ.  Williams writes:
"Rigor of beauty is the quest.  But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?"

To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general, rolling 
up the sum, by defective means --
Sniffing the trees, 
just another dog...    (Preface, Book I)
The story is the daily routine of a bus driver also named Paterson (Adam Driver) "rolling" through the streets,  gathering "particulars" of his town and home life, "[making] them general" in lines of poetry.   Every night, he walks to a bar with a sniffing, snorting English bulldog adored by his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani).

Where Williams begins his poem with the town named Paterson, personified, lying asleep on his side, Jarmusch begins each of seven days with a shot of Paterson in bed on his side, just as his internal clock awakes him. 

Williams writes the gist of the movie early in Book I:
Say it! No ideas but in things.  Mr.
Paterson has gone away
to rest and write.  Inside the bus one sees
his thoughts sitting and standing. His
thoughts alight and scatter--  (Book I, p. 6)
The first "things" that Paterson transmutes into poetry are matches fingered idly while he crunches his cereal.  In voice-over, he drafts a poem, words also appearing on the screen.  The poem isn't much, at first, just a prosaic statement about "our" preferred brand of matches; but, as he walks to the bus station, makes his rounds, and takes a break for lunch, he revises the poem, until we can relate the matches, packed tightly, heads ready to burst into flame, with the poet himself, staid and gentle in his boxy little home, head preoccupied with love for his wife Laura.

Driving the bus, while Paterson's eyes focus on the sunny streets, he tunes in to conversations behind him.  Reflections in the bus window superimpose the sunny streets on the driver's face, his eyes focused ahead, with glances at passengers whose words enter his thoughts.  It's reminiscent of Williams's next stanza:
Who are these people (how complex
the mathematic) among whom I see myself
in the regularly ordered plateglass of
his thoughts, glimmering before shoes and bicycles?
Williams is writing here of shop windows, but I doubt it's coincidence that Jarmusch always gives us the shoes of these incidental characters, whether they're pre-teen boys, middle-aged men, or a couple of self-styled anarchists. The shoes, scuffed, or flirtatiously close, tell tales.

Jarmusch and Driver present the poet as considerate, not just in the sense of attentive and kind: Before Paterson responds to dialogue, Driver shows a moment of uncertainty when his character seems to be considering what the other needs to hear from him.  "I dreamed that we had twins," Laura whispers upon waking. "Would you like that?"  After a moment, he says, yes, "one for you and one for me."  It's just the right thing.

Our bus driver meets three poets during the course of the movie, all of them referring to Williams.  A rapper who works on his lines in a laundromat to the beat of the washer also says, "No idea but in things."  A girl with a "secret notebook" like the bus driver's own shares with him her poem "Water Falls," (a poem by the director that begins "Water falls through the air / like hair of a young girl..."), recalling the waterfalls of the town described so vividly in Williams's poem.  A devotee of William Carlos Williams leaves Paterson with a gift that serves as a kind of benediction for the work of a poet.

Naturally, Paterson recites for his wife William Carlos Williams's greatest hit, "This is just to say," touching and funny.

Poet Ron Padgett, personal friend to Jarmusch, composed four original poems for the movie.  He told the Poetry Foundation that he found his images from reading the script.  His work for this movie had to be substantial but also accessible at first hearing.  Between Jarmusch's visuals and Driver's interpretation, he scores.

Finding patterns is a part of the pleasure in poetry, music, and jokes.  In narrative art, we have the pleasure of getting to know people, too.  In this film, patterns abound: the daily routine, a proliferation of twins, Laura's mania for black-and-white, and big laughs set up through repetition.

That's the "mathematic": persons + patterns = Paterson.

Padgett, Ron. How to Be Perfect. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2007.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1995.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Mountaintop Experience:
Mentor Formation Retreat

Susan and I returned yesterday from three days at the University of the South, Sewanee, near Chattanooga, TN, headquarters for Education for Ministry (EfM). We joined Bob from Florida, Steve from Asheville (moving soon to KY), and Ethel Ware from All Saints in Atlanta.  Our mentor Sissie Wile modeled ways to formulate an understanding of spirituality through experiences that engaged our imaginations with all four of EfM's sources: action, position, culture, and tradition.

[PHOTOS:  Top - Sissie's home, where we visited with her dog and cat on Saturday, before dinner.

Middle - A branch finding a way through a manufactured space was, for me, an image of Incarnation - the Creator's sharing in our struggles and pain.

 Below - A "mandala" collage of images that help me to define holy]

Our sessions together began and ended with worship from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.  Hearing familiar texts phrased differently, we're aware of new angles to old sayings.  For instance, "The Lord be with you / And also with you" is re-stated as an affirmation for all:" The divine Spirit dwells in us. / Thanks be to God."

Before we'd even decided what we meant by spirituality or by related terms mystery, holiness, and the divine, Sissie had each of us choose a photograph from an array published by the Kaleidoscope Institute. I chose a view of an apartment building, ten rows and twelve columns of balconies defined by concrete slabs, iron rails, and glass doors. For me, there's a mystery in that each resident is an individual universe of experiences, pursuits, and hopes; yet even near neighbors may be unaware of each other. So much life is visible at a glance; how can anyone conceive of the fact that all the individuals on our planet are equally self-contained universes?

We also each selected one psalm among those identified by author Walter Brueggemann as psalms for seasons of orientation (8, 14,33, 37, 145, 131, 133), of disorientation (13, 25, 50, 74, 79, 81, 86, 137), or new orientation (30,34, 50, 74, 79, 81 86, 137), all connecting to EfM's  theme this year of new orientations in our "journeys in faith." 

I chose Psalm 124 ("If it had not been the Lord who was on our side...), feeling that my life has reoriented towards care for Mom, following my fifty-seven years of responsibility mostly to myself, my job, my own projects.  The Psalmist seems to be clutching to the knowledge that, "We held on through tough times before; God will be with us at the end of this time, too." 

Again, after sharing, we reflected on aspects of spirituality revealed by this effort.  What we saw was deep connections across time and culture between us and the psalmist; the experience of relating concrete reality to metaphors; the awareness that interior conclusions may not easily be identified as true or false. We agreed that psalms have different meanings for us at different times in our lives.

The most intense thirty minutes of the weekend, for me, were spent searching through magazines for images that spoke to my sense of what's holy, then fitting them into a circle -- to form a personal "mandala," an image of the universe, or the universal.  During that time, we all milled around the room, and I, for one, was nearly oblivious to others while I cut, rearranged, and pasted.  My own images include preparation of food - a holy activity when done lovingly to bring people together; a lovely tree at the edge of a lake, reminding me of days spent in such places reading, or, even more, riding my bike, occupied solely with the cycling and breathing, enjoying God's gifts; a bed, which I've come to see as a raft for a nightly journey through dreams, in which we find rest and meaning-making; the dog - for many of us, a veritable angel in life, example to us of unconditional love and life in the moment (see my article Dogs are Poetry); and the crossword puzzle, signifying for me horizontal existence in time intersecting with the vertical existence of mind, memory, and imagination (see my article Theology of Crosswords).

We also had assignments to design experiences in spirituality for each other.  Bob and Steve presented a combination of lectio divina with the movements of EfM's process of "theological reflection."  Ethel Ware sent us away to sketch or describe something that illustrates what we mean by "the divine." (I brought back a sketch of an open hand, palm up: able to reach out, able to hold, to let go, and vulnerable to rejection).  Susan and I sent everyone out at dusk to bring back images (perhaps on phone cameras) of intersections between what we call "nature" and the human-manufactured world.  In these, we looked for the Trinity:  images of the Creator's joy in creation; of the Incarnate Lord's sharing the pain of creation; and, of the Spirit that flows through all life like the wind.  We were inspired by the analogy in our RRG of a night hike by flashlight:  what we see by "light" of our manufactured world is limited, and we'll appreciate much more of the night life in a forest, once our senses become fully engaged for a walk in the dark.

For a short time before dinner, we accepted Sissie's invitation to her lovely home overlooking a bluff, with a view west across the valley.  Such a short time was still a powerful highlight, reminding us all of another holy quality of hospitality, by which patriarchs welcomed angels. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Agatha Christie's "Five Little Pigs":
Worst Title for Best Novel

[Photo collage of images from the BBC series Poirot, Y2K, Five Little Pigs. Screenplay Kevin Elyot; Director, Paul Unwin.]
"Texture" is the quality that I missed when I picked up some Agatha Christie after a couple years' work with Henry James.  It was like drinking Kool-Aid after Cognac.

But in Five Little Pigs, Christie layers her crime story.  The story concerns a grown daughter hiring Poirot to clear the reputation of her mother, executed seventeen years before for the murder of her artist husband.  She supposedly poisoned him in the act of painting a portrait of his young mistress, and offered little defense of herself at the trial.  Time itself adds layers to the story. Then the five suspects'  "written" accounts expand and color our view of the fatal event; observations on art and class clash; and we see the dynamics of family and old friends.

I've read recently that Christie was a faithful Anglican, something I never would have suspected; but I do see in her novel that sin is its own punishment, where Poirot observes that the guilty party died with the victim. (Cf. my article What Mr. Suchet Saw: Christ in Agatha Christie. )

The title has nothing to do with the story beyond the number of suspects.  Yes, Poirot thinks, "This one had roast beef," but damned if I can figure out what that and other references to the nursery rhyme have to do with any character.

The memoir Poirot and Me by actor David Suchet put me onto this novel. He calls it one of Christie's best, and tells how the intensity of the actors in supporting parts "upped" his "game" in the role he had played several seasons by then.

The video production misses the themes of art, obsession, and modernist morality so prevalent in the novel, but it uses montages to make more clear than the novel does how tight-knit are the friendships and family ties.

Having read the novel and now seen the dramatization, I'm a fan.  But any title -- even the abstraction "Murder in Retrospect" used for the first American printing -- would be preferable.

Considering the art theme and the solution, it might be called, "Framed."

[Photo:  A moment of truth for the characters, and also for actors Rachael Stirling ("Caroline Crale") and Aidan Gillen ("Amyas Crale"):  Knowing the end of the story, we can read back into their faces exactly what was happening at the site of the murder.]

Short Comedies for Middle School

With just eight one-hour rehearsals and some scrambling to polish lines backstage, a cast of self-directed middle schoolers just pulled off fine performances of short plays that kept us laughing, adults even more than the kids.

Eighth graders chose, cast, and directed the plays. They earned the privilege by accumulating over 100 hours of quality involvement in my after-school "W.arts (Walker Arts)" Drama Team.  I paid at most $80 for scripts and royalties to any of these plays.

First up tonight was John Wooten's "The Role of Della" available from The woman sitting at the desk in the audition room puts a hopeful young actress through an ordeal involving insults, Spanish accent, Spanish accent mixed with Southern. and mime.  We have a happy resolution, and then a surprise ending.  The biggest laugh came when the audience "got it."  Eighth grader Sarah Culling chose the play and directed 8th Grader Evie Blauvelt as the actress and 6th grader Sabine Surkan in the other role.  Sarah played the role of the woman who enters near the end.

Katrin Surkan directed "Inside the Department of the Exterior" by Philip Hall, also from  A guy (played by director Katrin Surkan) needs a new mailbox; the woman at the government office (Gillian Stoltz) requires official forms to be letter-perfect.  As botched form after botched form gets ripped in pieces and thrown in the garbage, each grows frustrated with the other.  It was a tour de force for the bureaucrat, who spoke absurd bureaucratese with unrelenting clarity and earnestness.

"Family Meeting" by Dan Zolidis was directed by Brooke Baughan.  Her younger actors (6th graders all:  Isabela White as the daughter, Sophie Dietz the mom, Ronan Ezell the father) turned in wonderful performances in a play set in some absurd universe where parents can trade their daughter in for Sven the Foreign Exchange Student.  "We love you, dear," Mom says, "but, after a certain amount of time, we expect results."  Brooke got her cast to exaggerate their movements to great comic effect; it didn't seem too much. The play, from, was least expensive, most convenient.

Tanya Dadlani directed a play of her own, a play within a play within a  play:  She portrayed the student director of a script about a Mom who sets straight her daughter who wants to marry rich like Cinderella:  All wasn't happily ever after, after all.  Then, the cast rebelled, "because no punishment can be worse than being in this play."  Tanya called it "Breaking the Glass Slipper," and it got laughs in all the places she expected.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Slaying Goliath

A slender theology book called Slaying Your Goliaths by John Ohmer came in the mail from the Forward Day by Day movement as a thank-you for my donations.  First on Ohmer's list of "modern-day Goliaths" is "caregiver burden," and I felt this was probably a book for me.  Ohmer explores the story of David as we do in the Education for Ministry program (EfM), using it for a conversation between the story and contemporary experiences.  Below, I'll list a few highlights from what emerges.

But First: A Comprehensive Theology, Wholeness with God?
But first, I'll highlight some ideas from an essay about "comprehensive theology" provided by the folks who design curriculum for EfM at University of the South, Sewanee.  Titled "Living into Wholeness," it's a piece of a curriculum focused all year on the "journey" into "theosis" (participation in God), no author listed.  While I'd picture a "comprehensive theology" as an enclosure made by laying "bricks" of doctrine that must stay in place for the wall to hold, this author says, no, it's just a provisional construct, made with an open mind (120).

The essay's premise, drawing on recent developments in biology and physics, is that there's a "wholeness" to things that pre-exists the things. This is at once an appealing idea, and I think undemonstrable.  Instead, I'd restate it in the terms used by dramatist Dr. John Clum when he taught me at Duke about characters in drama and life: "Our characters don't change; our characters are revealed."
The essay seems to imagine a moment when union with God achieves wholeness.  Poet Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss seems to me closer to the truth when he writes that there is never going to be a point of arrival.  Ours is not a faith in achievement of some static, whole, perfect sameness, he writes; it's a faith in change itself.
Where the essay does apply to my life today is in description of "conversation."  "Argument," the essay says, is a tool of analysis, but "does not necessarily lead to wisdom."  In contrast, "conversation" involves the "willingness to restrain oneself" and acceptance that conversation "moves in directions we cannot fully anticipate."  Those convinced of their rightness and brilliance "pronounce rather than converse" (EfM Reading and Reflection Guide, Year, D, 119)
Heresy always has its grain of truth, it's "just not true enough."  Rather than condemning positions that are alien to us, the author recommends asking, "What question does this heresy answer for those who believe it?"  I can imagine using this when I deal with those of political affections different from mine. 
A good example of looking for the questions behind a position is the author's list of questions that arose from the Episcopal Church's ordination of women.  The statement "only males can be priests" raises questions about "the nature of priesthood; the meanings of gender and sexuality; how the past is remembered; what the authority of scripture is; what makes a sacrament valid; and how truth is discerned" (121).
The author observes that "consistency" in our positions is not just an intellectual quality; as any EfM alumnus knows, any life story of coming to one faith from another involves the heart as much as the mind, and we must acknowledge this to move forward.

 Our mission, according to the catechism in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, is "to restore all people to unity with God and with each other in Christ"

Now, the Goliath book draws many lessons from analogies between David's story and our lives. The author was rector of a prosperous parish before he was called to a once-huge congregation that split over the gay bishop, fought in court to retain its property, and now has a growing congregation that struggles to pay for maintain it.  Each chapter forward in the story of David also gives us, in text set apart by a shaded background, an illustrative chapter in the story of the author's experience in that church.

Ohmer's analysis of the story breaks down into lessons that need only be listed to suggest applications to life.   Goliath was more than a threat; his taunts demoralized the Jews.  Young David put aside the armor borrowed from King Saul (58).  Enemy-based leadership is a quick fix, but vision-based leadership lasts (60-61).  David chose his own "five smooth stones."  David had confidence in the true God (78).

Ohmer digresses on the subject of false gods Work, Money, and Religion, telling a fun parable about how we idolize work.  It's an American who encounters a humble fisherman.  The business maven proposes that the fisherman go beyond his daily routine of fishing a bit in the morning, napping with his wife at mid-day, and playing music at night with friends.  He lays out a plan to build a fishing empire that would take years of 60 hour work-weeks and net the fisherman a tidy sum.  "Then what?" asks the fisherman.  Then, the American concludes, the fisherman could relax, fishing a bit in the morning, napping with his wife at mid-day, and playing music at night with friends (80).

About idolatry of religion, Ohmer cites Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah.  He tells of a buddy who lit a candle to help himself get centered during his private morning prayer, then grew choosy about what kind of candle, and whether to use a lighter or match -- until he saw that he had begun to worship the candle (86).  

Jesus, according to Ohmer, was hardly the peaceful teacher we imagine.  Read any gospel straight through, he says, and a different Jesus emerges:

Time after time, Jesus deliberately provokes the scribes and pharisees, and when he has a chance to back down, instead of retreating, he deliberately increases the stakes (85).

I had to pause reading this, because it sounded so much like our current President.  I suppose the wise and the foolish alike may benefit from the same tactics.

Read in one sitting, the hallmark of the gospels is not ... about healing the sick, feeding the crowds, or teaching the disciples.  It is rather the proclamation that the kingdom of God is at hand, a topsy-turvy, radical reorienting of the world and the world's priorities [around Love, the] central priority of God.

The Episcopal Church faces the "Goliath" in a public perception that we do not honor the authority of Scripture.  Ohmer lays out some "smooth" stones to counter that perception, such as the observation that the Bible is a potpourri of literature, not to be read as a book, and the conclusion that "our faith is not in the Bible but in God ... to whom the Bible points (69)."

So, facing my current Goliath of "caregiver burden," I can think of ways to apply the metaphor.  Don't let the words get under my skin; remember, every time I face the anger, that she has been brought back to peace and affection many times before; and keep eyes not on the enemy dementia, but on a vision of gratitude for what Mom has meant my whole life, and of moving gradually towards the point that Iris Murdoch's husband described her as having "arrived" at the "place she was going."

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Frank Boggs at 90: Gospel Singer, Choral Director, Teacher

In 1977, for a concert at the Atlanta Civic Center, Frank sang “You Make Me Feel So Young” to his Westminster Ensemble -- me included, seventeen years old. Forty years later, I’m grateful for the occasion of his birthday celebration to return the compliment.

You seem to be so young,
So deep in voice and strong in lung,
And when you’re waving your baton,
You spur your chorus on – “like gangbusters!”

You still can have a blast
With anecdotes from ages past.
Sometimes you’re known to drop some names
Of stars, and queens, and dames.

Years go by
You still have a lot to give
Teaching and learning always,
That’s how you live:

You seem to be so young
With all these friends you live among,
with flings to be flung,
and many more songs to be sung!

And Frank, you’re like Methuselah:
It doesn’t matter how old you are,
‘cause your spirit stays so young!

composed by Josef Myrow, with lyrics written by Mack Gordon
parody by Scott Smoot to celebrate the 90th birthday of Frank Boggs, teacher and friend, January 2017