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

Monday, January 16, 2017

Good News about the Gospel of Biff:
Lamb by Christopher Moore

Here's the pitch: "The Gospel according to Biff, Christ's childhood pal."  We instantly can see the whole thing, and we can also think: Life of Brian - been there, done that. Besides, everyone already knows the ending.

That's the risk Christopher Moore takes when he makes that pitch the subtitle of his 2002 novel Lamb. The good news is that Moore has spun a comic adventure better than what we imagine.

Because the Gospels skip from the manger to the wedding at Cana, there's a thirty-year gap in Jesus's life story to fill with boyhood pranks, teenage adventures, and gags regarding angels and miracles.  So teenage Levi known as "Biff" and Jesus called "Joshua," the more Jewish version of his name, go out one night with stone cutter's tools to circumcise a tremendous statue of Apollo.  Later, Biff does some serious research into "knowing a woman" giving a play-by-play report to his celibate buddy in the next room.  Some bad puns have page-long set ups, like the Hindu joke ("holy cow") and the one about a non-violent form of martial arts developed by Joshua (Jew-do).  Reading a list of descriptive names for six delectable concubines, you may overlook the one that comes from a Chinese take-out menu.  My favorite scene depicts teenage Joshua in a crowded bazaar, jostling everyone he meets, leaving in his wake people cured of cancer, mental illness, and stinky feet.

The set up for the whole novel is a gag, when a hunky dumb-blond angel resurrects Biff to write this new gospel.  They hole up in a Manhattan hotel.  Biff tries to escape while the angel gets hooked on pizza and pro wrestling.

But in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, Moore sends his youthful adventurers to some dark places.  Moore imagines hitherto unimaginable poverty and describes violence with such blood-smeared and bone-crunching detail that the comedy comes to an end, at least for awhile.  Worst is the massacre inflicted by fanatical devotees of Kali on families so far down in India's social structure that they accept the sacrifice of their children as their due.

The tone can shift, but the bond of love between the narrator, Joshua, and their girl Maggie (a.k.a. Mary Magdalene) never wavers.  She is a memorable character, way more mature at twelve than either of the guys, believable and vital whether the story bends towards comedy or tragedy.

Moore doesn't sidestep the serious question that Biff poses to his pal the Messiah: "How can you drive out the Romans without killing?"  Seeking answers from the three Wise Men of the East, Joshua picks up his answer a bit at a time.  Violence in self-defense causes Joshua to scream "Stop this!" (139).  Joshua earns the insight that freedom isn't something bestowed; it's internal (228).  (I recognize an insight developed by Martin Luther King's mentor Howard Thurman, described in my blogpost Jesus and the Disinherited).  Joshua learns from a Buddhist priest, but learns more from his encounter with the Yeti, who "loved constantly, instantly, spontaneously, without thought or words ....Love is not something you think about" (253).  Joshua takes back to Israel a message of the Holy Spirit in all of us, and the religious authorities are threatened.  Biff observes, "These legalists had worked hard to find their place in power; they weren't interested in change" (355).

Since I read Lamb last week, I have to admit that Moore's images and tone come to mind during my daily readings of Scripture.  I now appreciate the social subtext of doctrinal differences between the working-class Pharisees and Sadducees born to their exalted priesthood.  Moore's imagining of an ancient city brings Jesus's world to life better than any movie has done.

After a rollicking adventure along the Silk Road, Moore has to bring us to Holy Week.  Moore tries to keep the story fresh, and he throws in some more jokes.  But there's not much he can do, as each chapter is a day closer to a painful ending.

What about the Resurrection, you ask?  Frederick Buechner once called the Gospel a "comedy" because of its unlikely, joyous conclusion.  Moore follows a different logic to an ending that satisfies.

Page references from the Harper Perennial reissue, 2004.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Photo with Mom: A Safety Deposit for Emotions

Twenty minutes before I took this photo, Mom called from the front office of her new assisted living residence very unhappy.  She needed me to get over there right away. 

When I arrived, she was sitting with her buddy Bill, watching TV, tossing the ball with her beloved Sassy, and surprised to see me.  "I love it here," she said, "but let me look around at the notes I've written.  Maybe I'll find what I was upset about."  We laughed about that, and talked seriously about how you can't feel connected to people in the residence if you forget all your time with them.  She said seriously, "There's nothing you or I can do about that."  Some rolling around with the dog followed, and she said, "He's a good boy." 

Let me deposit that moment here in my bank of feelings, to save for the next rain storm.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Snow Days with Dog: How Happy Can You Get?

And, How can you get happy?

Little snow, but a sheet of black ice stranded Mia and me with nothing to entertain ourselves but a book, this screen, and her favorite toys.  As I learned from her, what else does anyone need?

Mia teaches me every day that it's the promise and the pursuit that are most rewarding.  She leaps and prances to her toy, throwing back at me a come-hither look over her tail.  The whole body wags.  She growls, tenses, and jumps at my hands, offering me a sporting chance to grab the toy out of her mouth.  When I catch it, I pull her around furniture, up in the air, across the carpet, until it's time to let her win.  She runs off to chew awhile, but soon comes back for another round. On a walk outside, she'll sometimes spring straight up, all four legs suspended in air, to look me full in the eyes. I'm so excited, this is so great, thank you!

Hard to believe it now, but there'll be a time when she can't do these things.  I'll want to remember the whites at the outer rim of her eyes that are looking back at me; the prance, the pounce, the pursuit from room to room; the contented yawn and stretch when the game is over; the quivery anticipation when she sits and stays a couple yards from the food bowl, looking at me for the signal to dig in.

[Photos, clockwise from top left:  At attention next to me on the divan, Mia scans the front yard for Jack the Cat.  Under the table, Mia enjoys seeing me watch her chewing the "Flappy" toy.  At my feet here where I stand at a lectern typing, Mia is warm and content.]

Friday, January 06, 2017

The Power of Liturgy: I've Heard it All Before

Habit is Heaven's redress; God gives us habit in place of happiness.
- Pushkin, from Eugene Onegin

At church several weeks ago, a lively discussion took off from an observation by George Bernard Shaw: "If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience!"  Our discussion of repetition in life ranged through Scripture, Buddhism, and cultural touchstones (including Groundhog Day).  One of us spoke of "just going through the motions" of faith as a dry, habitual, tedious exercise, something to be avoided.  We were led eventually to a consideration of ritual as an agent of change: even just going through the motions can change us.

Since then, every source seems to have something to add to that question, Is it a good thing or bad to be "just going through the motions?"  Fr. Roger Allen preached Christmas Eve to people who don't usually show up at church, who had so much else they could've done that night, concluding, "You're here because you expect something to happen." But that "something" needs time to develop, in a habit of worship.  Our Bishop-emeritus J. Neil Alexander, now Dean of the School of Theology at University of the South, Sewanee, wrote in a newsletter of the sinking feeling we all have these days of never being "done" with the "busy-ness" of our lives, so he's grateful to stop it all for Morning Prayer, Eucharist, and Evening prayer, time-outs that remind us how we're on God's time.

Just this past Sunday, Fr. Daron Vroon concluded his sermon with a plug for repeating the ancient Jesus prayer thousands of times a day, telling us how he says it while driving or changing a diaper: "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  (Later, he announced a pop quiz, but a quiet train at our RR crossing blew its horn just as we were to recite.)

I can attest to that Jesus Prayer.  My recent blog posts cover stressful situations when, driving in traffic, I have tried snapping the radio off to pray it. The words fit the ancient Kyrie chant, so I now find myself humming that chant as I hurry through the hallways at school. By repetition, the tune has become the prayer, making me re-mindful of the Big Picture.

Another source gives ample reason for increasing the "motions" we "go through" in the Book of Common Prayer.  Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as a Guide to a Spiritual Life, a bestseller of the Forward Movement of Cincinnati, is by lay scholar Derek Olsen (blog ). A runner, Olsen likens the habits of devotions by day, by week, and by season, to an athlete's training.  A singular "high" or "surge" is never the point, but to "invest ourselves in a pattern of living" (14).  He warns against the vanity of worshiping for the purpose of self-edification, though.  Ephesians, admonishing us to share "the same mind... that was in Jesus Christ," gives us the point of all this exercise. Olsen adds, "Christian spirituality isn't just about you.  Rather, your spiritual success is tied to everyone else around you... building the body of Christ" (15).

Olsen's gung-ho writing about the Lectionary spurred me now to read all the selections for each day, even multiple Psalms.  He quotes Athanasius, who observed that other Scripture teaches us about law, about the Saviour's coming, about kings and prophets; "but in the Psalms, besides all of these things, you learn about yourself... [about] the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries" (209).

Perhaps because of this focus on liturgy, my take-away from Cynthia Crysdale's Transformed Lives: Making Sense of Atonement Today (Seabury Books, New York, 2016) comes down to this: the habits of our lives constitute "salvation," not a one-time vicarious sacrifice of the Son to satisfy the righteous wrath of the Father.  She puts aside Scripture's incompatible metaphors intended for different audiences (summary p. 65) and builds on St. Anselm's conclusion that "the essence of salvation -- what in philosophical terms we would call its formal cause -- lies not in the death itself" but in Christ's willingness to live in a way that would get him killed, the "unearned gift of obedience, not the death per se" saving us (78-9).  Because evil lives on, "Christ continues to die and rise over and over again."  How does that save us?  "Embracing that story and willingly offering ourselves to it can indeed become part of the salvation of the world" (90). Crysdale surveys western intellectual history to get us to a point where she says (long story short) that theology, like science, lies "not in abstractions, but in lived religious transformation" (122), which suggests to me, again, habits of worship, habits of interactions with others, habits encouraging us to be upstanders willing to give for the needs we see in our communities.

As I drafted this article, I ran into three more angles on the message that salvation lies in the habits of liturgy during my morning readings in Scripture and Forward Day By Day. First, Hebrews 11, telling of heroes in the Hebrew Scriptures, speaks of faith in terms of slogging on through daily work or journeys, repetitive and unrewarded actions done with the assurance that it adds up to something or gets somewhere.  This reminds me of something I read in Richard Rolheiser's book Sacred Fire, where he cites John of the Cross's advice to cloistered believers who've lost their initial enthusiasm for the routine of devotions. Rolheiser likens time spent with worship to time a grown child spends with his aged mother; the routine may seem tedious, even unpleasant (I write from experience, now), but the time builds relationship that can weather sudden storms.  (See my reflection "Beyond Growing Up.")

The commentary this month in Forward is by Sallie Schisler, ordained at 60.  Writing about how she needed time to accept the soldier called "father" who entered her life when she was two, she tells how we can become comfortable enough to call God "Abba" through "worship, prayer, study, and meditation" (1/1/2017).  When an usher at her church told a homeless man, "Sir, you've already received," the man said loudly, "But I'm still hungry!"  Schiller concludes, "Without meaning to, [this man] and God taught me that everyone who comes to the table will be ultimately satisfied -- whether it takes one trip or a thousand" (1/2/2017).

To me, it all adds up to affirmation of going through the motions.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Bells Resonate in The Nine Tailors

The cause of death in Dorothy L. Sayers's detective novel The Nine Tailors (1934), not revealed until late in the novel, is so horrible to contemplate, that it exerts gravity over the whole story.

Until then, it's a cheerful fish-out-of-water comedyCar trouble strands urbane Lord Peter Wimsey among rustic folk of Fenchurch St. Paul on New Year's Eve, where he has no choice but to enjoy the hospitality of affable, addled rector Venables, and to participate in a festive ringing of the church's nine bells.  When a body turns up, Sayers gives the investigation a light touch. The inquest is presented comically, as we infer answers from ellipses between the officious examiner's questions (80).  Locals complain how "eddication" has made everything "mysterious" with "fillin' up forms" (98). A chamber pot, referred to with delicate obliqueness as a "bedroom utensil," concealed the necklace that inspired the original sin in this plot (115).

Levi Stahl, in the blog "Ivebeenreadinglately" acknowledges that the detection part of the story could have been handled in thirty pages, but, "Wimsey likes these people and their odd rural interests--and so do we, so neither of us is in a hurry to be shed of them. His having a mystery to solve gives us both an excuse to stick around for a while."

Sayers makes a game of integrating the action with the uniquely English tradition of "ringing changes" on church bells. Change ringers follow intricate patterns to ensure that no sequence of tones will repeat until all permutations have been sounded.  Sayers uses those patterns to create a secret message. She uses ringers' jargon for her chapters' titles, with amusing double-entendres, such as "Mr. Gotobed Is Called Wrong with a Double," and "Emily Turns Bunter from Behind."   A line from ancient ringer's manuals or Scripture often seems to have inspired the action of a chapter.  For example, the epigraph to the chapter "Lord Peter Dodges with Mr. Blundell and Passes Him" explains how "retrograde motion" is involved in "the hunt," which describes both a ringing pattern and a witness's filling in the back story to the crime.  Another epigraph quoting from I Kings about the space between cherubim and "costly stones" above (219), hints to us where Lord Peter will find an important clue.

(I wonder if Sayers's titles make sense as sequential moves in an actual peal?  If so, this would be a meta-fictional coup akin to the actual chess game that Lewis Carroll plays chapter by chapter in Alice Through the Looking-Glass.)

For all the humor and playfulness, The Nine Tailors also expresses what's dear in the Anglican Church to Sayers, daughter of a rector, who also published essays on the faith.  The rector Venables, forgetful, chatty, and fussy about the aesthetics of the church (48), nonetheless shows genuine concern for the soul of the unidentified victim. He drops what he's doing to administer last rites to one of the church's benefactors, but also to the dying infant of a poor mother.  Sayers goes into considerable detail to show Venables pulling the community together when a major flood is imminent.

Through Lord Peter's internal monolog, Sayers also comments upon the "genius" of the burial liturgy and upon the faith that motivated anonymous artisans who built the church and carved its cherubs (102).  She lavishes vivid description on the beauty of the countryside in spring (55) before she goes on rather too long to describe the flower guild's work at the altar (57).

Not just a plot device, the bells mean something for Sayers.  In her preface, she compares the "uproar of the internal combustion engine and the wailing of the jazz band" unfavorably to church bells, "the one loud noise that is made to the glory of God."  She waxes poetic describing the bells "rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes" (29).  She demonstrates how the bells have served their community broadcasting important messages.  For instance, the "tailor" bells ring nine times to signify the death of a man in the parish - "Nine tailors make a man" (60) - followed by the ringing of his age, informing folks for miles around which parishioner has passed; and the bells alert surrounding towns to floodwaters' approach.

In a memorable passage, when Lord Peter visits the belfry alone, Sayers gives us strong, unironic prose to give us a sense that the bells, even in stillness, resonate as if alive and waiting.
There he stood for a moment, gazing up into [the bells'] mouths.... Presently their hooded silence oppressed him.  A vague vertigo seized him.  He felt as though they were slowly collapsing together and coming down upon him.  Spell-bound, he spoke their names:  Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul.  A soft and whispering echo seemed to start from the walls and die stealthily among the beams.  Suddenly he shouted in a great voice: "Tailor Paul!" and he must somehow have hit upon a harmonic of the scale, for a faint brazen note answered him, remote and menacing, from overhead.  (200)

He, and we, are spooked. But, when justice is served, and atonement made, we sense in this place a Holy Ghost.

Page references come from the Harbrace Paperbound Edition, 1962, that I first read in 1979 [pictured]

Before writing this post, I read other bloggers' comments about The Nine Tailors.  Both were perceptive and helpful:

Moving Mom: "Worrying, You Suffer Twice"

She's lost her "independent living" apartment,  300 pounds of books, 200 pounds of kitchenware, 100 pounds of 1970s - era clothing, two massive analog TV sets, and two rooms of furniture that are now stashed in my basement.  But she hasn't lost her sense of humor:  on Day Three of her move to assisted living, I found a Post-It on the door to her apartment warning, "No radio, No TV, Enter @ own risk!"

[Top Photo: Just inside the apartment door is the bronze portrait of her by Julia Knight that I commissioned for her and Dad on her 70th birthday and their 50th anniversary.  That's Sassy's leash around the base, and the "emergency call" pendant.  I reminded her that she's supposed to wear it around her neck at all times.  "Well, look: it is around my neck."]

The move was Mom's idea, as "independent living" had come to mean, for her, insecurity when the office staff went home, and isolation. She liked the promise of "assisted living" that staff would be on her hall 24/7, that someone would respond if she touched "0" on her phone, and that her buddy Bill was also relocating to a room just four doors down the hall.

But once the decision was made, she second-guessed herself.  Just about every day in December, she has needed reassurance from my brother Todd and me that this is the right move.  When she got that, she went back to being indomitable and funny.

I doubted the move myself on our D-Day, when a process I'd estimated at three hours dragged on to eleven.  Todd drove 200 miles to be there.  We took her to breakfast at 8:00, spent time with her and Sassy at my place, and went back to see if the new apartment was ready.   Not even close.  Todd stayed with her while the movers tried to stuff the contents of two bedrooms, two bathrooms, three closets and a kitchen into a one-bedroom apartment with sitting room and "kitchenette."

Worrying about all that, I found that a couple hours' physical therapy for acute arthritis was a relief.  When I got back to Mom's residence, I handled some paperwork and payments.  Todd stayed with Mom for her first dinner at the new place, while I went back home to pick up my dog before the kennel closed for the long weekend, in time to receive leftover possessions in my basement.   Movers left around 7:30.

I woke at midnight, worrying if she was able to sleep the first night in her apartment, worrying if she had towels, her coffee maker, her cosmetics -- worrying how distraught she would be if these things weren't around.  So I spent the next three-to-four hours sorting boxes, garment bags, and furniture, so that I could get her anything she wanted whenever she asked.  [Photo:  My basement, before I started sorting, and after.]

But that morning, she had already settled into routine.  The friendly assistant, who'd looked in on her every hour of the night, reported that she'd slept well, though she was a little cranky when administered her daily pills. Mom greeted me as if no big change had happened, and all was right with the world when I stocked her small refrigerator with the necessities:  yogurt, apples, and Pinot Grigio.  We had our Saturday breakfast, our usual walk around the cemetery, and some time to organize stuff in a few remaining boxes.  What she didn't see, she didn't miss.

So, all that worry, nearly a month of sleeplessness, got me nothing.

The worry did drive me to seek distraction at the multiplex, where I enjoyed J.K.Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, with its very appealing characters, both human and digital, inhabiting Rowling's meticulously wrought alternate reality of Manhattan haunted by magical forces in 1926.

Unexpectedly, I got some great advice, too, delivered by Eddie Redmayne as the geeky but kindly hero "Newt Scamander":  "My philosophy is that worrying, you suffer twice."

Let that be my new motto.

[Photo:  Sassy never lost her sense of humor, either, as we shuttled her around from apartment, to a walk in the park, to my home, and to the new apartment.]

 [Photo: Mom visited my home to see what I decorated instead of a tree.  That's the "rough draft" in clay of the bronze portrait.]

[Photo: Mom at breakfast on the first morning after the move.]

Further reflections on life with dementia:
Does "Unfiltered" Mean True?
Photo with Mom: Safety Deposit for Emotions.
Almost 9 O'Clock: Being Mom to My Mom