Friday, June 27, 2008

Doing Other People's Homework, Part Two

(Once again, as the prime mover behind putting together our church's book of meditations for Lent 2009, I'm covering for people who've already missed two deadlines. I suppose, if they come through, that this will be the only place that people will see this writing. Oh, well.)

WEDNESDAY, March 18, 2009

John 8:12-20 Whoever follows me shall not walk in darkness.

Imagine Jesus running for office in Cobb County. Asked for his program, he says, "I am the light of the world." Asked for specifics, he says, "Whoever follows me shall not walk in darkness." Asked why we should trust him, he says, "I bear witness to myself."

Instead of a program, Jesus offers a vision of how to live with courage that comes of knowing what matters and what doesn't. He sees past the fears and group identifications that motivate the parties of his day. He attends to the individual. In the previous chapter alone, he scandalizes one party by saying that Sabbath regulations matter less than making one man "whole," and he shields a sinful woman from a crowd of self-appointed enforcers of the Ten Commandments -- before telling her to go and sin no more.

At St. James, judging by bumper stickers where we park, our politics and group identifications are all over the lot. We're for Democrats, Republicans, animal rights, gun rights, fair tax, public radio, talk radio, Georgia and Georgia Tech. We drive Hybrids and SUVs.

Does it seem strange that people of such diverse views share one bread, one cup, at one church? I take that as a sign that we are willing to put aside the world's agendas and judgments. We come to church for spiritual refreshment, to touch base with what matters and what lasts, so that we can go out into the world and be Jesus to people who are not like us.

Doing Someone Else's Homework: Part One

(Some background to this posting: as the prime mover behind putting together our church's book of meditations for Lent 2009, I'm covering for people who've already missed two deadlines to write on Scriptures scheduled in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. If their work comes in time for the booklet, okay, we'll use their work. If so, at least here on the blog, it has a chance to be seen. Here's the first installment.)

Meditation for TUESDAY, March 10, 2009

Jer. 2:13 They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves... that can hold no water.

"Here," God says to his people, "I give you fountains, yet you lick the bottom of a leaky basin." Isn't this the only plot in the Bible? Think of other examples: Here's a garden with everything you need. . . Here's a rainbow and a second chance . . . Here's the promised land . . . Here's a new covenant . . . Here is my beloved son. . . .

God is like the parent whose child says, "I'll do it my way! Leave me alone!" It's amazing that the parent loves the child anyway. We've all been in the position of that parent, and we've all been in the position of that child, and it doesn't always get better when the "child" has grown to middle age.

Isn't this also the plot of our daily lives? Here's exercise that will improve your health . . . Here's a plan to control spending . . . Here's a chance to speak honestly . . . Here's the time you need to complete that homework . . . Here's a way to resolve this conflict without venting your anger . . . .

Our church's Journey to Adulthood program (J2A) helps our younger parishioners to break through this pattern in their own lives, but those of us who've made it to adulthood still need that lesson. What message do we hear at St. James? Here is quiet time for prayer to get closer to God . . . Here is regular worship to start your week. . . Here is a group working to help our community . . . Here are daily devotions on line . . . Here is a class for discussion and growth . . . Here is access to confession, counseling and a weekly service of healing . . . Here is ______ (fill in the blank: music, a meal, a movie, a game, a knitting group) to share with others on the same journey to growth.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Individual v. Community: False Choice

(reflections on a discussion by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen on SPEAKING OF FAITH, and comments by Margaret Thatcher in RONALD REAGAN AND MARGARET THATCHER: A POLITICAL MARRIAGE by Nicholas Wapshort.)

Some Conservatives I knew used to cite Ayn Rand's novels to justify their rebarbative and callous individualism. I read her ANTHEM, in which an escapee from a collective utopia stumbles upon a holy book in a ruined church, and discovers the pronoun "I."

Conservative icons Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan never thought that way, and, while reading about them, I heard resonance with an icon of new age new medicine, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen.

Here's Thatcher, p. 80 in Wapshort's book, speaking to her constituency in 1975, declaring her support for...

compassion and concern for the individual and his freedom; opposition to excessive state power; the right of the enterprising, the hard-working and the thrifty to succeed and to reap the rewards of success and pass some of them on to their children; encouragement of that infinite diversity of choice that is an essential freedom; the defense of widely distributed private property against the socialist state; the right of a man to work without oppression by either employer or trade union boss.

Remen, an M.D. who pioneered "holistic" medicine, looking at the spirit as well as the body, seems to be veering a bit left of Thatcher when she tells host Krista Tippett, "We know that property and success do not keep us safe; all we have is each other. We all know this -- but we don't live there."

Hearing both, I wrote these notes on a pad -- and I confess that I don't know from my notations whether these came from Remen, Thatcher, or me:

Religion teaches us to treat each other as individuals (Jesus's encounters with Simon, woman at the well, the rich young man) and to think of ourselves as parts of a community that depends on us.

If we apply that approach to public affairs, we get a McCain reaction: Even prisoners and illegal aliens are individuals first, each with his own story. There must be some room in our response to them at least to hear their stories.

The book about Reagan and Thatcher includes, somewhere (again, I didn't cite the page), this charming notion from Reagan, that "an unanswered question is a fine travelling companion. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking. My magic words turn out to be 'I don't know.'" Surprising words for a man derided for being incurious and ignorant.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Obama v. McCain: Un-Distinguished Senators?

While the parties try to distinguish the two Senators as sharply as possible, I see a blurring of lines.

The editors of the conservative news magazine THE WEEKLY STANDARD show grudging admiration for Barack Obama. They lauded Obama's memoir about his absentee father. For several weeks, they wrote of him as a stirring and credible speaker. They derided his campaign book for not measuring up to his memoir's standard, citing passages to show that he had diluted his prose and clear thinking to please the Left.

Even now, their attacks on Obama are mostly indirect, making fun of his followers for being (1) loony Lefty and (2) breathlessly worshipful. One cover caricatured Obama with a halo. The most recent ( by C. F. Payne, reproduced here from has him at a coffee house with recognizable Left types -- the butch Maoist, the earringed ex-hippy, the prim bow-tied profesor, the ersatz Black Panther with chi-chi Che tee -- with a Chomsky tome. The article, "Mr. Obama's Neighborhood," tells of the odd up-scale left-wing haven around the University of Chicago where Obama moved when his books made him wealthy. Another article, "Their Intended: Obama and his Fans" again attacks him indirectly. The quotes from Obama are all balanced -- we must stop Al Qaeda, but we must also end the war in Iraq -- but the article is about how his fans "go nuts for pretty much anything Obama says." He's okay, they're bonkers.

The two candidates' responses to the Supreme Court's ruling on prisoners' rights looks like a sharp contrast. Obama commented that the decision was an important step toward "reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, and rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus'' McCain said it was "the worst decision" and misguided. So far as those quotes go, I'm with Obama. For that matter, so is Libertarian Bob Barr. What could be more un-Conservative than to acquiesce to our own government's using an amorphous "war on terror" to claim authority to incarcerate anyone that they want to call an enemy? What human being should be subjected to prison without end, without charges, without questions allowed, without protection? One reason given for declaring independence in 1776 was that the King's agents could take anyone from the colonies to places "inconvenient" and far from witnesses and evidence to face military tribunals; we're smart enough to come up with a better plan, and that is indeed a false choice.

But it gets murkier as we dig deeper into what the two Senators have said. Two years ago, when an earlier Supreme Court decision overruled the Administration's policies with "enemy combatants," McCain was the one who led the charge for rule of law, against torture, against indefinite imprisonment (having experienced both). He argued then, as Obama argues now, that the US should be above such behavior. He co-authored legislation to cover those concerns while still allowing the Administration leeway to deal with dangerous detainees. Now, seeing that effort struck down as well, he draws this line: "we made it very clear that these are enemy combatants, these are people who are not citizens, they do not and never have been given the rights that citizens of this country." Those who may be released are a danger to us, he says.

Obama acknowledged as much when he commented that McCain's legislation was so "sloppily written" (a lawyer's comment about a lay senator's legislation) that it did not do what McCain claims, and therefore deserved to be struck down.

The real difference has to do with the candidates' personal qualities, as delineated in regards to one decision, subject of a substantive and respectful article from that same issue of WEEKLY STANDARD. It's an editorial, "Voting for Commander in Chief," by military historian Frederick Kagan. He quotes both Obama and McCain from speeches last year when the debate concerned this year's "surge" strategy. He reports on what reasons and sources Obama and McCain cited for their decisions. He also reports the two candidates' remarks recently, now that the surge is paying off with short-term successes and signs of long-term improvements. Kagan concludes:

For any voter trying to choose between the two candidates for commander in chief, there is no better test than this: When American strategy in a critical theater was up for grabs, John McCain proposed a highly unpopular and risky path, which he accurately predicted could lead to success. Barack Obama proposed a popular and politically safe route that would have led to an unnecessary and debilitating American defeat at the hands of al Qaeda.

So I disagreed when a friend said, "I don't think America is ready for Obama," by which she probably meant, "America isn't ready for a black President." My retort was. "Obama isn't ready for the Presidency... but he'd make a great talk show host." I've heard him think on his feet, keeping his balance and good humor. Like Bill Clinton, he excels at parsing complicated issues and respecting opposing views.

I appreciate that, but what I want in a President is a stronger core. That's what was speaking in McCain when his first response to a leading question about immigration -- in front of an anti-immigration audience -- was "First, they are God's children, too." Ditto, when he stood against the Administration on torture.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sondheim's Lifetime Achievement Award: Speech

Thanks to the Stephen Sondheim Society for linking me to a Tony Awards Headquarters web site where I found the text to a speech that actor Mandy Patinkin read when he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award on behalf of Stephen Sondheim, who, not having been told of plans for this award, had scheduled travel in Europe. Here's the speech:

Thank you all, but this award has to be shared with Julius Epstein, Arthur Laurents, Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, George Furth, Jim Goldman, John Weidman, Hugh Wheeler and James Lapine. These are the men who created the characters that sang the songs, the situations that gave rise to the songs and the criticism that improved the songs. They were my collaborators. They are called playwrights. They invent. They make whole cloth out of nothing. They make a hat where there never was a hat. And they don’t just write musicals.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why I’m not sharing this Award with Hal Prince, it’s because he already has one.

Lifetime Achievement has a deadly sound to it, a ring of finality, a faint whiff of "You’ve outlived your usefulness." And, as you get older, you start to believe that. At least some writers do, including me.

The problem is that the more venerable you get, the harder it becomes to avoid the fear of not living up to the expectations and praise that are bestowed on you -- as in the form of a Lifetime Achievement Award. Nevertheless, buoyed by your encouragement, with more Lifetime I -- we -- promise you more, if not higher, Achievement.

Thank you all again.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Composer Golijov's Isaac the Blind in Atlanta

(reflections on two concerts by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano conducting.)

Let's add Osvaldo Golijov to my list of favorite composers. It's his 1994 piece The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind that tipped the balance in his favor.

Thanks to Robert Spano, this Argentinian Jewish professor at Juillard is nearly Atlanta's favorite son composer. I've seen several of his pieces here in Atlanta: Oceana (twice!), his St. Mark Passion, and Ainadamar. Several times, I've seen him in person, accepting accolades, or being questioned by Spano. All of those are dramatic vocal pieces, and I have to admit that my lasting impressions of each are of fascinating and appealing sections marred by strident vocal sounds.

In this piece, soloist Todd Palmer played an array of clarinet-family instruments with a string orchestra. The program notes tell about the music's relationship to the ancient blind rabbi of the title, but it didn't help to learn that the clarient is playing in Aramaic, Yiddish, and Hebrew, and that the musicians should ideally be playing by memory so that they can play "blind" like the ancient rabbi. The only practical advice I got from the notes was to expect Klezmer sounds in the middle section, with slower outer movements. To me, that means to expect some wailing on the clarinet, and a lot of noodling in a minor key over a slow boom-chika-boom accompaniment that gradually picks up to whirling speed. (I arranged a pastiche in that style just last week.)

Golijov delivered on expectations, and transformed them.

The strings laid down a very quiet, tense sound. Often, Spano conducted, not by beating, but by lifting fingers one, two, three, as high as six, cuing shifts from one uncounted measure to the next. Strings responded by adding a new note to a growing cluster, or sometimes adding a rhythmic figure to the mix.

The clarinetist began very quietly with very long, sustained notes, none quieter than his first very low note, so quiet that I wasn't sure that he was playing at all until it slowly bloomed. Yes, there were some wails, and Golijov made sure that each of the different clarinets was stretched to its extremes. If these had been voices, it might have struck me as strident: Golijov is obviously capable of being a showman, and he knows that the biggest applause goes for the highest notes.

The stereotyped boom-chika accompaniment first showed up, not just slow, but stretched out over a dozen measures, ten times slower than expected. Eventually, in the middle section, we did get exactly that klezmer sound I expected. But Golijov surprised us -- and Spano suddenly cut the fast action off mid-phrase. It built up again, and was cut off again. Now that Golijov set up that expectation, it was time for him to find another variation on that trick -- and found one again. A couple of the cut-offs were funny; the last one merits a gulp.

This was masterful writing that put on a good show of virtuosity for soloist, conductor, and orchestra, and turned expectations upside - down, and yet also delayed gratification, requiring patience and attention from the audience.

Last week, Spano and pianist Jean - Yves Thibaudet premiered a piano concerto by Behzad Ranjbaran, an American composer of Iranian family background. That, too, was lots of fun, and a great show. Occasionally, the composer brought out sounds that reminded me of any scene in any scary movie when the monster rises up out of the darkness; and the last movement, jogging along in six-eight time, had a minor melody that made me giggle because, in feel, it was sort of "the Teddy Bear's Picnic." But often, the composer brought the volume down and let the harp, piano, and some other instruments play with motifs, and those long stretches were luscious.

Last week, we heard Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony, and last night, Stravinsky's Firebird. Nothing new to say about those, except, Gosh! What colors! What variety! What showmanship! And, re: Firebird's final movement: "Man, Stravinsky sure knows how to write a tune you can hum!"