Sunday, January 20, 2013

Daron Vroon's Sermon:: Miracles, Magic, and more

Reflection on sermon by Father Daron Vroon of St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, Georgia today; and on meditations by Jeremiah Sierra printed in Forward Day by Day in November 2012 (go to

Responding to today's Gospel reading about the wedding at Cana, our young associate rector Daron Vroon made a strong impression on me and everyone else who spoke to me after the service.  

He began by tellling us of a comedy sketch by English comic Rowan Adkinson, who adds to John's gospel a couple of miracles, in King James' English: he turns a carrot into a rabbit and saws a serving girl in half who is magically restored.  "Surely this is the son of God!" Adkinson has servants exlaim.   Fr. Vroon said it was funny but disturbing to equate the miracle of Jesus with a magic trick.  If God is a distant "watchmaker" who occasionally "interferes" with nature, the questions arise, "Why doesn't God do this more often to prevent disasters?  Why doesn't He interfere to help me?" 

But that view leaves God out of our daily lives.  Instead, Fr. Vroon  asserted that God is ground of all our being, all the time.  He quoted St. Augustine's sermon on the same Gospel reading, pointing out that the making of wine is always a miracle, just as the resurrection of Lazarus is not less awe-inspiring  than the birth of an infant.  God energizes nature, Fr. Vroon says, and a miracle is simply a clear view through nature to what God is always doing for us: sustenance, transformation, resurrection....

I've long enjoyed reading Forward Day by Day, a booklet printed and sold for $1 in Episcopal Churches.  This past issue's meditations on daily readings in our prayer book were especially interesting in November.  Here are some comments that I check-marked in early mornings when, flanked by faithful dog Luis and anxious puppy Mia, I read these meditations on scripture:

On Luke 13:10-17, about the woman whom Jesus heals on the sabbath, Sierra writes,  "My to-do list is supposed to organize my life and make it easier, but instead it becomes a cloud of failed ambitions looming over my head."  How true!  And, worse, "the internet...ends up being a tether we can't seem to cut."  But this was as true 2000 years ago, when people were bound by religious rules.  "God frees us from our guilt and sin: why can we not let ourselves...breathe a little?"

In another meditation, Sierra admits, "When my girlfriend or some other prophet challenges me, I ...have to work hard to refrain from [stoning] the prophets who are sent to help me."

About the prodigal son, Sierra observes that one son "thinks he has run away from the love of his family, but, like his brother, he never left."

In another meditation on James's admonition to "be quick to listen, slow to speak," the author remembers working with the public at the church office. "It was easy to get angty... But when I kept quiet and heard them out, I'd be able to help in small ways." 

About the line in Luke 16 that no slave can serve two masters, the author  tells us about buying stuff as a sop to his loneliness.  "It's not that money doesn't matter.  It's that money serves as empty calories for our hungry hearts." 

Responding to James 3:13-4:12 "Do [these conflicts among you] not come from your cravings that are at war within you?" the author comments, "Like fruit, we rot from the inside out, and we usually don't notice it until something bites into us.  [Sometimes] it's difficult to locate the source of our anger and anguish...."  I know that last feeling especially well.  It's the main reason I write in my journal, to locate the hidden source of nagging feelings.

Sierra's meditation about the parable of the servant who buries his master's investment ends with these words:
But we shouldn't let other fears get in the way -- the fear of risk, the fear of losing the gifts that we've been given.  When we do this, we end up burying what we have in the dirt, and we end up as paralyzed by fear as the servant who buried his gold.

Robert Olen Butler's Fiction

Garrison Keillor highlighted writer Robert Olen Butler on today's "Writer's Almanac" on NPR, and I'll take the occasion to review my own appreciation of him, written in 2007.  That article begins:

Four books by Butler that I've enjoyed.
I'm always a little afraid when I start to read fiction by Robert Olen Butler. I know he's going to draw me into a corner of our world made strange in some wonderful way through a character's eyes. I know that he'll surprise me. I also know that, looking back on the story or novel, I'll see that the surprise was inevitable, usually implied from the start. I know well the feeling of delighted anticipation that often grows as we approach the climax. But I also know its opposite, a feeling of strong dread that makes me regret having started in the first place.

Most wonderfully, Butler's fiction often builds towards something dreadful that turns into a something joyful, surprising, and still inevitable. That worked on a grand scale in his novel MR. SPACEMAN, and repeatedly in short stories, which are his specialty....

Read the rest:

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Benjamin Franklin v. Brat Farrar: Why History Beats Mystery

Reflections while reading two books:  novel BRAT FARRAR by Josephine Tey (1950; Scribner Paperback 1997) and biography BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, AN AMERICAN LIFE by Walter Isaacson (2003; Simon and Schuster paperback 2004).

Hey, B. F. is the monogram for main characters in both books that I'm reading now!  Is that proof that truth is stranger than fiction?  Reading both a chapter of Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin and a chapter of Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar in one sitting, I can attest to one thing:  When an author provides a quirky detail so ridiculous, touching, or coincidental that the reader thinks it must be made up, then non-fiction is at its most appealing, and fiction is at its worst. 

I've reached the part in Isaacson's biography where Ben Franklin successfully obtains France's commitment to American independence.  But his every move was reported to England by his secretary Edward Bancroft, a spy.  More surprising, and more fun, is that Bancroft speculated on trade and rushed his insider information to his stock broker before he reported to the King's spymaster Paul Wentworth, who also had a financial interest in the information.   We read reports by Wentworth about agent 72 and 51 (Franklin and Deane) who are hot for 107 (Independence) (Isaacson 345).  He invited American Silas Deane to rendezvous at an exhibition in Luxembourg and a certain public bath on the Seine, though Deane replied simply that the spy could drop by the American's office anytime (344).  Franklin uses British involvement and "secret" counter-offers of peace as leverage to make the French act sooner than later, and he plays up the American victory at Saratoga to get the treaty that made independence possible.  The outline of the story and the basics of the characters are already well-known to me; the details make the history personal, and I now look at a century note with a knowing smile as if that portrait reminds me of an old pal.

Now, friends have lauded Josephine Tey to me for decades, and I find much to admire in her Brat Farrar.  I especially enjoy those elliptical passages where something important happens between two lines in a manner that calls to mind either her contemporary Noel Coward or else Harold Pinter.  Here, we meet the title character and a man named Loding, and we know the basics of their initially adversarial relationship in the first words they speak:
"Well?" said Loding at last.
Loding took a mouthful of coffee.
"I'm not an actor."  (Tey 26)
Other characters converse in the same understated manner:
"What became of Cousin Walter?"
"Oh, he died."
"In an odour of sanctity?"
"No. Carbolic.  A workhouse ward, I think."  (21)
Tey sets up her novel of suspense in a way that appeals to me, alternating chapters between predators and the intended victims.   We quickly get the idea of what's going to happen, and so we wonder how far it will go before the victims realize how they're being duped.

Still, I'm exasperated by all the novel's fictions that are stranger than truth.   The boy's body was never found;  the young man with the striking resemblance to the long-lost boy just happens to be an orphan with a past that's a blank; the unscrupulous actor who knows the family just happens to encounter the false twin just at the time when the family estate is due to go to the surviving brother; and -- wouldn't you know? -- the old dental records perished with the late family dentiist.

While reading the biography feels like a story I already know is opening up for me,  reading the crime novel feels like a series of predictable crises are closing in.  It was a relief to put down Brat Farrar and to open Benjamin Franklin.  

This may be an example of something Stephen Sondheim describes in his second volume of lyrics, Look I Made A Hat, when he and a playwright friend were bored stiff at a play filled with purportedly exciting events and dramatic plot twists.  Incident is no substitute for surprise, the playwright remarked.    Author Frederick Buechner once described (in The Book of Bebb) a high school class's stories filled with the "requisite number" of suicides, terminal illnesses and car crashes because young writers try to use death to make up for the lack in their stories of "anything that resembles real life."

I usually love to read mysteries, so I'll have to think a bit more to figure out what line this one crossed.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Arts Promo, Sports Style

(Speech for an arts awards assembly in the Middle School of The Walker School today.  I've cut out the names of students.)

A week ago, a seventh grade girl presented an inspirational speech from a movie by Sylvester Stallone, and then we saw an exciting video based on that speech.  We saw gladiators prepare for battle, a man lift a huge weight, and a dad tell his boy that it's not about how hard you hit, but how you take hits and still go on.  

Arts teach something like that.  To show how, I can imagine the video I'd make.
First, we'd see a middle school band starting a new piece, and we'd hear a noise like cars honking in a traffic jam in Marietta as the train goes by.  Closeup of Mr. Kofoed, smiling through gritted teeth.  He says, "Let's try that again."
Cut to Mrs. Simpson's art class.  A girl works on a colorful picture of a bird.  Suddenly she crumples it up and pulls out another blank page.
We see 8th graders scatter all over this auditorium.  Some girls squeal, "Oh, it's a death ray!"  Some boys are crawling under the stage yelling, “I found a bomb!”   Suddenly, one boy on a metal platform falls down screaming, "My leg! My leg!" The teacher runs over to the boy, in a panic.  Someone says, "No, B----, you don't even come in yet."  The boy jumps up.  The teacher, relieved, wipes sweat from his brow.
Cut to girls dancing to "All I Want for Christmas is you."  Their smiles seem forced.  They all turn different directions as a boy goes by on a skateboard, laughing at them. One girl says, "A---, that's not working."  The other girl sighs, "Take it from the top."
Cut to another bird picture.  The girl crumples up this one too.  New blank page.
We hear something like the sound of seven hungry cats in a cage, and we see a closeup of Mr. Johnson saying to his orchestra students, "That's so much better than yesterday!  Now, can we work on playing it together?"
We see Mrs. Hawk, telling a group of sixth graders, "You can be anything you want to be!  A star athlete, a clown, a toothbrush.  All you have to do is imagine it."
Cut to another bird picture.  This time, the girl adds a crooked branch -- frowns, but keeps going.
There's a picture of the sun rising over the third wing of Walker School.  We hear the voice of Mrs. Walker, stern, but caring.  "You all have different personalities, and you all have different voices – especially L----   -- but you all must listen to each other and blend as one voice!  Now, start again from ‘Hallelujah!’”
As the chorus begins to sing, we see Mrs. Simpson hanging a beautiful picture of the bird and branch in our Middle School hall.
Finally we hear Mr. Loudermilk while credits scroll across the screen:   Art is always about sharing your ideas with others who have ideas of their own, and working through draft after draft, rehearsal after rehearsal, giving up some ideas and adding new ones, adding layer on layer of detail until it’s something better than you dreamed of. 
That’s not just true in art.   It’s how we live and work and build our lives.”
Cue the theme from Rocky.  Video, over.