Monday, March 31, 2014

Literacy Map: My "Mountain of Mystery"

[Image: I created this image to be my "literacy map." See key in the article.]
At a workshop with the National Writing Project, it was fun and instructive to answer a prompt calling for a "literacy map" to my life. Mine centered on my childhood interest in reading about magical beings.  That interest was complemented by an urge to write stories of my own, and to draw pictures of what I imagined, and to act it out.

But literature teachers held up realism as the ideal. I put aside my childish interest in fantasy, and tried to write Hemingway-esque slices of life, but they all seemed like dead ends to me.

Then there were long years of school when all I wrote were essays about fiction, never fiction itself (and doesn't that seem odd? If it's worth reading, discussing, taking tests on, and writing about, shouldn't it be worth some time in the attempt?) The drive to write stories died down. 

What remained was the yearning to find magic in every day life, only I learned to think in more grown up terms of religion, moral consciousness, and art -- all dealing with unseen and intangible things that break through our routines and motivate our actions. When I find this kind of "magic," I want others to see it, and I have shown them directly through classes, through essays, through demonstrations, through drama and discussion, for I am a teacher first and a preacher at heart.

Not a book, but a television series, "Bewitched" was the focus of my fascination with any magical story. Mom read me Greek Myths, and Dad read me comic books, and I learned to read children's books that involved witches, genies, ghosts, wizards or any magical creature. This image of a dark castle, a bat, a moon, and a mountain recurred in my own drawings.

2. Lord of the Flies
Does Satan really speak to a boy through a pig's severed head, or does the sensitive boy have a vision of truth during an epileptic seizure? I learn from one page of William Golding's novel that "magic" in a story can enrich a realistic story with a glimpse of a deeper reality.

3. A Little Night Music
Stephen Sondheim's and Hugh Wheeler's Broadway musical was billed as "an adult fairy tale" in 1973, and I learned from it how a story can be magical in its style if not in content. Evocative music, intricate lyrics, and subplots that tie to a theme: the story was a many faceted jewel in which one could lose this world, or else see it reflected beautifully.  

4. Ghost stories of Henry James
Ghosts are manifestations of inner realities; outer realities have inner significance.  

5. Theology of the Episcopal Church
The Episcopal Church neither scorns nor fears the world around us. Other Christian theologies do both: the world is a snare, a test, or else just a tribulation to be endured until our entrance to a better place. But the Episcopalian Church is "sacramental," seeing this world as a solid "outward and visible sign" of eternity - part of a whole, not a mere prologue. I learn to substitute the words "mystery" and "metaphysical" for "magic" as I read authors Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene, Robertson Davies, Frederick Buechner, John Updike, and Iris Murdoch. 

(Article reposted from my personal web site because I've been binging on Bewitched videos.)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Introverted Episcopalians Unite!

Meditation on Scripture composed for A Pilgrimage through Lent, a collection of parishioners' thoughts published by The Pilgrimage at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA.

Mark  6.31  Come away to a lonely place.

This verse is welcome validation for us introverts.  We always have to explain that going to a lonely place is different from feeling lonely.  A 70s songwriter [Carole Bayer Sager] said it succinctly:  “It’s not so bad all alone to come home to myself again.”

When we come to St. James’, we push through a flurry of extroverted activity.  Friendly ushers offer programs, men joke about who won some game, acolytes fuss with robes and matches, and the choir chats.

But we step inside the nave to an introvert’s sanctuary.  Vaulted ceiling, recessed windows, and a wide aisle make space around us.  The silence of parishioners as they kneel and prepare for worship creates another space.   We are insulated from the bustle of our everyday world by witnesses to older times: candles, flowers, ancient symbols embroidered on linens at the altar, and worn memorials to founding parishioners along the wall.

Our liturgy and music create another space, inside us.   We worship with elegant clauses that lead one complete thought to another, so unlike the scatter-shot phrases and urgent slogans that fill our weekdays.  The words in our hymns are the same way, often taking several verses to carry a thought through stages.  The music may be composed to evoke grandeur, solemnity, confidence, or longing.  Some music is deliberately strange to our ears, evoking the God whose ways are not our ways.   Ancient chant elevates our ordinary words and resonates with earlier centuries.

Sundays, I carry my Monday like a snow globe filled with swirling scraps of unmet obligations and uncertain conditions.   The spaces opened inside by St. James’ are big warm hands cradling that globe, steadying it, showing it to be the small thing that it truly is.   In feeling this way, I bet I’m not alone.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Every Data Point is the Tip of an Iceberg: Truth and Perspective

Reflection on Scripture composed for the Lenten devotional booklet published by The Pilgrimage of St. James', at St. James' Church, Marietta, GA. I'd intended to connect this directly to Stephen Sondheim, whose birthday is today, but did so only tangentially:  He is the master of multiple perspectives in theatre!  It's also the birthday of Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat" is tangential to this reflection.

Mark 4.22  There is nothing hid except to be made manifest.

Matthew and Luke revise this verse to say that things now hidden will one day be revealed.  That’s a comfort.  This day, near the end of a work week, at the end of winter, we’re eager to part the gray curtains of daily cares and seasonal gloom to get a look at the first weekend of Spring!

But Mark’s phrase implies something more complicated, that hiding the truth, as in a story or metaphor, can help us to see it more objectively.   Emily Dickinson meant something like this when she wrote “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” A different slant gives a different perspective.  Today’s Old Testament reading illustrates how this can work:  Joseph could have skipped to the bottom line, saying, “Actually, I’m your brother Joseph, and I forgive you for leaving me to die all those years ago.”  Instead, he hides his identity and puts his brothers through a charade.  When they have to tell their father a second time that he’s to lose his youngest son, their guilt literally hits home.  Would the brothers have arrived at sincere repentance if Joseph had skipped straight to the bottom line? 

Yet our culture seems to be more and more defined by bottom lines, bumper stickers, and data points.  These are all denials of perspective.  Our discourse suffers when we forget that every data point is the tip of an iceberg.

St. James’ is not a church for skipping to the bottom line.  We take our time, we allow for silence, we don’t omit prayers or hymn verses, and worship is more than receiving a message.  For these forty days, we bury our alleluias, and we enter into Jesus’ story through the arts of liturgy and music.  And so we do all year long, to make God’s Salvation history our own.
Psalms  [70], 71; 74          Gen. 42.29-38    1 Cor. 6.12-30     Mark 4.21-34

World's Last English Teacher to Read To Kill a Mockingbird

[Reflections on To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  (New York: Grand Central Publishing, mass market edition,1982)]

[Photo: Characters Jem, Atticus, and Scout confront the mob at the jail.]
Personal Note: Now I Know
Raise your hand if you haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird.  Just as I thought:  I'm the world's last English teacher to read itMy vivid memories of the movie on TV in 1967 were enough, I thought.       

Now I know why everyone else has rated it so highly all these years, and why Harper Lee never wrote another novel.   What's left for her to write since she has created literature's most admired role model since Jesus?  Besides the character of Atticus Finch, she captures the feelings of childhood, in a book that vividly preserves small-town America of the Depression.  Writing in the year of the first student sit-ins, when Martin Luther King, Jr. first promoted non-violent resistance to racial discrimination, while the memory of the Emmett Till trial was fresh, Harper Lee made a book for our time, too.

Now I know other reasons why English teachers love the book.  We can point out the gentle irony achieved when events are screened through the wondering eyes of young Scout Finch, but narrated by her sophisticated adult self Jean Louise Finch.  Because Scout often witnesses the events from behind fences, trees, and actual screens, Harper Lee can let the reader know more about what's going on than her young witness does, for even more ironic effect.  To teach story construction, we can note how the first three sentences of the book about Jem's broken arm and the Ewell family foreshadow climactic action in the novel.

To model for my students how analysis of a single passage can help us all to appreciate Lee's novel, I continue below with a brief analytical essay about a passage from the last pages of chapter 22.

At 13 years of age, Jem Finch has lost his faith in the goodness of his hometown Maycomb, Alabama.  In court the day before, while Jem heard his father Atticus defend a black man, Tom Robinson, from the lies of Mayella Ewell and her father Bob, Jem whispered gleefully to his younger sister Scout, "We've got him" (238).   But, despite clear evidence, an all-white jury returned a verdict of guilty.  Jem cried "angry tears" as he walked home through the "cheerful" crowd of white townspeople (284).

Overview of p. 288
The next morning, the Finches' kindly neighbor Miss Maudie has invited Jem, Scout, and their little friend Dill to her kitchen for some cake to show that "nothing had changed" (288).  She wants Jem to understand that she admires his father for being one of those men who have to do the "unpleasant things" in this world.  She means how Atticus stood up against all the odds to argue for the truth, even though he must have known that the jury would not accept a black man's word over the lies of a white man. But Jem will have none of it:  he leaves the cake half-eaten and he tells Miss Maudie how he has been disillusioned by his home town.  

Detailed Analysis of p. 288
"It's like bein' a caterpillar in a cocoon," Jem says.  At first, he isn't clear what he means by "it" in his simile, but his next words make clear that he doesn't mean anything about insects or butterflies.  He's trying to capture the feeling of being "somethin' asleep, wrapped up in a warm place."   He makes the experience sound pleasant, being asleep, being protected, being warm.  But "it" is the shock of waking up from that warm and comfortable place to a cold, unpleasant real world, as Jem makes clear when he explains the metaphor in plainer language:  "I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world," he says.  When he adds, "least that's what they seemed like,"  he implies that it was all a lie.

Miss Maudie tries to cheer Jem up, pointing out that she, the sheriff, the judge, and all of Tom Robinson's friends are on the side of Atticus; but Jem rightly counters that "no Christian judges an' lawyers make up for heathen juries" (289).  He seems to win the argument.

Broader context
Jem's simile of emerging from a cocoon could be a good description of the entire novel.  In the first chapter, Harper Lee's narrator sets the safe "summertime boundaries" of the Finch's neighborhood, where the children Jem, Scout, and their new friend Dill will play their games (7).  On the north is mean old Mrs. DuBose's home; south, there's the home of the mysterious Boo Radley.  But as Part One of the novel ends, Mrs. DuBose has died, and Jem has realized that Boo is no menace. Early in Part Two, the world outside that safe neighborhood intrudes on the lives of the children, as Atticus leaves town for the capitol, the maid Calpurnia takes the kids on an excursion to her church among the African American community, and the case of Tom Robinson pulls the kids into conflicts with people of the town. 

While Jem feels angry at emerging from his "cocoon," Harper Lee emphasizes Jem's growth as a strong, honest, courageous young man, a young Atticus.  Part Two begins with the announcement that "Jem was twelve" and getting "moody" (153).  Calpurnia now refers to him as "Mister Jem."  In the chapters that follow, Jem "breaks the remaining code" of childhood by informing the proper adults when Dill shows up on the lam from his guardian in Mississippi (187), and he stands firm when Atticus is facing down a dangerous mob, reminding Scout of grown-up Atticus despite his boyish hair and features ( 203).  On the way home from that incident, when Scout expects Atticus to be angry, their father instead pats Jem's head, "his one gesture of affection"(207).

His maturity is tested at the climactic event of the novel. When he and Scout are in mortal danger, Jem speaks calmly, says he isn't scared, and almost reaches safety when the assailant attacks him.  He fights a foe larger, stronger, and armed.  Later, sleeping sedated at home, he misses the dialogue that might restore his faith in the goodness of people in the world.  The doctor, the sheriff, and the mysterious Boo Radley have all conspired to take care of him, and to serve justice.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

God's Gift of Dreams

Reflection on Scripture appointed for today in the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer.  This is one of four reflections I've written for a devotional booklet published for this season of Lent by The Pilgrimage at Saint James', of Saint James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA.

Genesis 41.7 And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. So in the morning his spirit was troubled.

My family had stopped the bus to stretch our legs.  Mom, Dad, siblings, cousins, all climbed back on board, but Grandmother stretched out under a shady tree.  "I'm going to rest here," she said, turning towards green pastures that spanned the horizon.  "You all go on without me."  A ringing telephone startled me out of my dream, and it was Dad calling to tell me that Grandmother had just passed away.

Was the dream a message from God?  Or, was the dream just my mind's way of accepting that Grandmother's latest hospitalization would likely be her last? 

I don't see a practical difference: either way, dreams are God's gift.  The late priest and psychologist John Sanford wrote how dreams heal.  As my dream of grandmother did, dreams can bring comfort; or dreams can discomfort us with important observations about ourselves that we prefer not to acknowledge. Test the truth of this by asking fellow parishioners at coffee hour if they've ever dreamed of going to work naked, or of returning to school for a final exam in a long-forgotten subject. It doesn't take a Joseph or psychologist to see that these dreams are metaphors for feeling unprepared.

In Education for Ministry (EfM), we use metaphors to get a handle on difficult thoughts and feelings, inventing our own dreamscapes.  The dream reveals something if we just ask, "What's wrong in the world of this dream?  What could redeem it?"  The metaphor helps us to see real life in a fresh way. Then we look to scripture for stories analogous to our dream.

Brain-scans prove that we all dream; to recall our dreams often takes just the intention to remember.  A dream journal at bedside helps.

During this season of self-examination, let's pay attention to what God tells us in the night.

Psalms  55; 138,139.1-17(18-23)  Gen. 41.1-13   1 Cor. 4.1-7         Mark 2.23-3.6

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Blind Faith, Faith of the Blind

Preface for a book of devotional meditations on Scripture for the season of Lent, produced by The Pilgrimage at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, Georgia.

Blind leading the blind – is that a fair way to describe commentary on scripture, product of lay people, by lay people, for lay people?   If so, The Pilgrimage at St. James’ might do better to assign forty essays to our clergy. Certainly, that would be easier than herding thirty-plus parishioners to the deadline, though Fr. Roger and Fr. Daron might lose sleep.

When it comes to seeing God clearly, the blind and untaught sometimes have the advantage in scripture. “One thing I know,” says an exasperated beggar to a panel of learned religious leaders, “that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9.25).   His experience of God’s healing power makes him an eloquent witness, though he knows nothing about Jesus, not even his name.   The church in its first couple hundred years grew on little more than hearsay and a network of relationships and correspondence.  Early Christians’ “Scripture” was Torah and the Prophets, and their re-interpretation of that scripture is the scaffolding of our New Testament.   

This booklet’s volunteers did go into this project blind, in that none knew in advance what might be contained in the passages assigned them for a particular day.   Yet several write about the pleasure of having their eyes opened to connections between readings and personal experience. 

On the other hand, parishioners of St. James’ are hardly "untaught."  Several writers refer to the four-year theology program “Education for Ministry” (EfM).  Others cite our Adult Formation programs, including “Looking for God in Literature.”   Writers also cite sermons and lessons learned directly from liturgy.  

But the most important offering this booklet can make is what healed that blind man in John’s gospel:  a personal encounter.   Time and again, Scripture tells us that the church itself is the body of Christ, all of us “members” of that body, and Jesus present wherever two or three gather in his name.

So enter into this booklet with eyes wide open for insight to scripture and to fellow parishioners.   Next time we ask for volunteers to write responses to the lectionary, consider your own experience prime material!
 - Scott Smoot