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November 2006

On Juniper Street

On Juniper Street

Decoreindeer posed among the
brown and gray, with
snowmen too, and
twelve plastic candles powered
from an incandescent joy.
Babyjesus too
shining like some toy.  But my,
how they lit the crinkled
shadow-path of Juniper Street,
its crumbling blacktop, its holy
walks -- an other-town in my

"Those colored people sure do
have fine lights," Mama said,
as she locked the door,
"and there's that Lizzie with
eighteen boys."
We took them toys
and then the ironing,
before turning back cross-town
from this other town.

Our home are
monochrome vanilla,
soft, hushed lights, trees just
peeking out, Christmas whispered
in the night.
No gaudy lights singing angels
santa-in-the-chimney sights, just
this subdued tribute,
this lackluster light.
We sip eggnog, play carols,
reminisce this night.  But

On Juniper Street
there must be joy tonight.

They put it on the street.
They shout it from the street.

This poem is based on fact.  As a young child I remember driving cross town, to the other side of the tracks in our largely segregated town, to deliver clothes to an African-American woman, Lizzie, who also kept what seemed to be as many as 15-20 foster children, mostly boys.  I loved seeing the lights.  They used a lot of multi-color lights and had all kinds of lit decorations in the yards of these modest homes.  Their decorations were much better than ours.  They lit my imagination.  They believed in Christmas.

Have Yourself a DIY Christmas: Sufjan's Singalong

Sufjan_2To be quite honest, there is not a lot of Christmas music that I enjoy.  I enjoy singing the traditional hymns and carols in church, but I easily tire of what you hear on the radio or of most attempts to contemporize traditional melodies.  It's difficult to recommend many albums as a whole, while some single songs may stand out.  Nevertheless, I will endeavor to make some recommendations. . . tomorrow.

Today, however, I commend to your listening Sufjan Stevens' new box set, entitled Songs for Christmas.  Sufjan, a Christian, has become a favorite of the college crowd with his DIY (do-it-yourself) records, low-fi style, and mix of several styles, from banjo-plucking folk, to alt-rock, to some Arabic sounding flute music.  And that's just for starters.  Classically-trained, Sufjan plays most of the instruments and often records at home.  His label, Asthmatic Kitty (named after Sara, what else but an asthmatic feline?), is home-grown, run by his uncle out of Lander, Wyoming, about as far from the music business as you can get.  So, he's absolutely outside the mainstream, and yet he's enjoying some serious success.

While the banjo-plucking songs begins to grate after a while, this home-spun set of tunes really warms to you and evolves, as each EP represents a different year.  (Sufjan did each as a Christmas present each year to family and friends.) He mixes traditional hymns and carols with a number of peppy originals with names like "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" and "Get Behind Me Santa!"  and a few instrumentals -- for a total of 42 tracks. He manages to take traditional songs like you might hear in the shopping mall and may have grown weary of and sing them his own unique way, giving them a freshness that appeals.  All in all, this record has the feel of a family gathering and singalong.  In fact, it's prominently billed as a "Singalong" and the 40-page Songbook that is included has all the words and chords included.  Hey, you can have your own singalong!

But that brings me to the best part -- the packaging.  First, this is actually a full-color box with five individual EPs, each in their own sleeve, with each disc bearing a different color label and looking like a 45 rpm record (if you're old enough to remember them).  There's also a sheet of Christmas stickers, a Christmas story by Rick Moody, original and funny artwork, an animated video, and a full-color comic strip like story by Tom Eaton.  Funny too.  A bit of fun poked at Sufjan.  It's an amazing package that all you downloaders are really missing.

Two things bother me.  First, a little too much banjo-plucking and off-key singing, and yet this yields to a broader and more pop instrumentation later in the records.  Second, a little too much incompleteness --- I sometimes have a sense with some songs that things are not done, that a thought needs finishing.  Sufjan can write a good song.  Rather than inserting some pieces of songs here and there, why not fill a record with the best?  Nevertheless, I quibble.  This is by far the best new Christmas record out there this season.  In fact, it may make my Top 10 Christmas records of all time, but it may need some time before I am prepared to place it there.

Give it a listen.  Singalong.  Have a DIY Christmas, will you?

More Light, Please

Candle_1"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned."  (Isaiah 9:2)

A friend of mine has an only son who has a degenerative muscle disease.  Lately, it has progressed, to the point where he cannot walk.  He lives alone in a townhouse, dragging himself up the stairs and around the apartment.  It's all the more worse because he has known what it was to drive, to walk, to be ambulatory and free.  Bad enough, but then he recently found out he has diabetes.  He is very weak.  He has moved from his townhouse temporarily, maybe permanently, into a home with his parents, who are also not in the best of health.  He has been despondent, and he said that at one point he was ready to die, but then stopped thinking that because he knew it was a thought that would "hurt" God.  This is dark.

I read today of one woman, her husband, and her young child who lived until recently in Baghdad, a fearful place.  It was a poignant story, full of sadness for the loss of home and family and country.  I appreciated that she had no political points to score, assessed no specific blame.  It was a simple recordation of her life and her leaving of her country.  But it was a sad story of a neighborhood, city, and country being torn apart by strife.  This was dark.

Every day it seems I fail my children.  I act selfishly or in a petty manner.  I say things to them that would be impolite to say to another person.  I fail to encourage when I should.  I am physically present but sometimes far away in thought, not mindful of the soul that stands in front of me.  This too is dark.

And yet it need not be so specific.  Some mornings (thank God not often) I drive to work and feel a great heaviness on me, a great sadness settle over me for all the sin and strife and turmoil and brokenness that is all around me. I hobble into work, just trying to keep my eyes ahead, remembering "Blessed are they that mourn, for. . . " for what? "For they shall be comforted."  As I understand this beatitude, Jesus is commending mourning for sin, knowing and feeling some of what He felt, his sorrow over Jerusalem.  (Lk 13:34-35).  This too is dark.

This too is Advent.  Darkness must be a part of Advent, this waiting on Light, waiting on God to be revealed, waiting ultimately for his complete salvation, our deliverance from darkness, for a time when we live always in the Light.  Now, we walk in shadows with death before us.  To really celebrate the coming of Christ, we have to walk in these shadows but with our eyes on Jesus.  I know all is not well, that even the happiness and pleasantness I sometimes know is ephemeral, and yet I know that joy is rooted in Christ, in a Light that will one day dispel darkness once and for all.  Matthew Henry says of Isaiah 9:2 that "[w]hen the gospel comes to any place, to any soul, light comes, a great light, a shining light, which will shine more and more. It should be welcome to us, as light is to those that sit in darkness, and we should readily entertain it, both because if is of such sovereign use to us and because it brings its own evidence with it. Truly this light is sweet."

More light, please.

Vocations, and Occupations (II)

Manyelling"The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."  (Frederick Buechner, in Beyond Words)

If so, if Buechner is right, then perhaps I missed it.  Perhaps many of us have.  Or maybe, living under the curse, not all of us or even many of us can be fully employed in our calling but must simply have jobs to provide for ourselves, our families, and the work of our church and, as Mary Oliver said, keep as our vocation that thing which makes us happy, where we feel God's pleasure, where we have deep gladness.

And what about deep hunger?  What does the world hunger for?  Truth and meaning might be one thing - as sense that life has a deeper significance or that I have meaning.  Or maybe justice -- as sense that good will be rewarded and wrongdoing punished.  And relationship -- that I might be understood, appreciated, even loved.  Vocationally, these longings should be in my sights and I need to be asking about the thing I seem to love how the doing of that thing will, by God's grace, meet some deep hunger.

I have to remind myself that the "job" is significant because it is God's provision for me and others, if nothing else.  But vocation -- that's where I must focus.  That's the summons that should not be disregarded.  In lawsuits, when you don;t heed the summons you get held in contempt or suffer judgment by default.  I'd like to avoid that.  I'd like to show up, heed the call, and see what happens.  Wouldn't you?

Vocations, and Occupations

Audience"This I have always known --- that if I did not live my life immersed in the one activity which suits me, and which also, to tell the truth, keeps me utterly happy and intrigued, I would come someday to bitter and moral regret."  (Mary Oliver, in A Poetry Handbook)

Elsewhere, Mary Oliver notes that "[o]f necessity I worked for many years at many occupations.  None of them, in keeping with my promise, was interesting."  Her point is that she determined early in life not to spend her energy on but the one thing that was her calling, that is, the thing that kept her "utterly happy and intrigued," and while she often had to work at something to pay the bills and live, it was never anything interesting, by choice, as she wanted to save her energy for the one thing to which she was called.  Another word for that one thing, in the richest understanding of the word, is vocation. 

Vocation has lost much of the divinely imbued meaning it once had, but the dictionary still captures some of this richer sense.  The American Heritage Dictionary has as one of its definitions this:  "An inclination, as if in response to a summons, to undertake a certain kind of work, especially a religious career."  We could add that understood this way, all proper vocations are religious careers, in that they are followed in response to God's call, even if unacknowledged.  In a legal context, we ignore summons to our peril; similarly, to ignore a calling has perilous consequences  -- boredom, frustration, and fruitlessness, for starters.  Sometimes we ignore calling because we are afraid; other times, out of pride.  We might fail, we might not make any money, it might not be viewed as an appropriate or suitable career path, it is not a vocation well-rewarded in this culture, and so on.

I think Mary Oliver had it right.  Don't fritter away time and attention on uninteresting or mildly interesting work.  Focus on the one thing where, in the doing of it, to use Eric Liddel's words, you "feel God's pleasure."  Then, if need be, do something uninteresting or even menial, something not requiring great mental energy, something that comes easy, to make money and support yourself and your family.  Don't malign that "job," but be grateful you have it and, yet, don't treat it as a calling. 

Heed the summons.  Show up every day at your vocation, even if it's just pen and paper (or the digital equivalent).  If it's your calling, it may not be easy, and you may not get rich or make any money (hence, the other "job"), but you can't lose when you're in the place where God calls you, can you?

So, what am I waiting for?

Having Plath for Advent

PlathI found it a bit disconcerting today to find that a poem by Slvia Plath was the selected Advent reading for the day inWatch for the Light: Readings for Advent and ChristmasPlath, a tortured soul if there ever was one, was not a Christian.  She was a perfectionist and by all accounts a model daughter, but she attempted suicide in college and then, with her two small children in the house, committed suicide at the age of 30 in a London flat using cooking gas.  Her poems are very autobiographical and anguished, demonstrating a fascination with death and seething with pain, and yet it's no doubt that she had a great gift.  Doubtless she was affected by her father's death at the age of eight, but the precise reasons for her mental illnesses -- illnesses "requiring" electroshock treatments in her twenties -- are inexplicable.

The poem I read this morning, "Black Rook in Rainy Weather," yields a glimmer of hope in the midst of winter's cold, with the line "Miracles occur/ if you dare to call those spasmodic/ Tricks of radiance miracles.  The wait's/ begun again,/ The long wait for the angel,/ for that rare, random descent."  And that's about all she can muster in the way of light.  Perhaps the selection is there to remind us of how some folk take this season -- marked by sadness and hopelessness, with only brief and fleeting glimmers of light and hope.  (Read the entire poem here.)  I think I forget those people are out there.  People are good at covering up their hopelessness.  Plath was not so good at that.  In fact, she did not even try.

There is a dark blanket of sin and darkness over the world.  Truly, we walk in the shadow of death and near death.  And yet, the gift for those who believe is the Light of Christ -- hope.  Plath's poem is a reminder to be aware of the people who walk in shadows, under a blanket of darkness, and a prompt to be Christ to them.


CandleIn recent years I have become more interested in the liturgical calendar, or church calendar, if for no other reason than as an antidote to consumer culture.  Christmas is a case in point.  It is mostly a buying season which has started earlier and earlier in the Fall, egged on by zealous retailers who depend on the dollars and by a Government dependent on keeping us spending.  I've done my part.  I doubt I can quit spending, as to be American seems to mean to be consumer, but I am in search of a different focus.

This can be a stressful time.  I'm still excited by the prospect of Christmas with family, by some of the routines we have for the keeping of it, but at the same time I have some dread about it.  It's tiring.  And it moves by too, too quickly, with so little time for contemplation.  Here's a few ideas I had:

1.  Christmas cards.  Cards sent at Christmas can mean nothing (the ones received from businesses for example, the epitome of impersonal) or a great deal if some thought and care is put into their writing.  I intend to try and personalize the select few cards I send this year, not to give a full report on me and my family (we've never done a Christmas letter) but as a means to encourage those I am writing.  My hope would be that for some they might be like a few cards I have received in my life -- ones I save and look at when I am discouraged because they give me courage, that is, they encourage me to keep on.

2.  Contemplation.  Silence and thoughtfulness will be in short supply in the next few weeks.  I intend to create some space in every day for a consideration of Christ's coming, His Advent, and what His coming means.  To that end, I hope that the book Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, which has daily readings, will help me focus.  That, Scripture, and prayer.  I hope I can do this reading before I walk each day, and then can use the time on the walk, a quiet time early in the morning, just to consider what I have read.

3.  Pruning.  I plan to say no to some things, like parties, that simply take too much time.  I favor time in church, with family, and with a few friends.  It's a good time to get a better look at God, family, and friends, and particularly during those 12 days of Christmas that begin on December 25 (did you realize that?), I plan to listen to God and to family and friends and take stock of what life is all about and what it should be about.   I hope I can decline the tyranny of the urgent and the endemic hurry of the season and focus my attention on a few things that need care -- like a relationship with God and with my immediate family and my close friends.

4.  Gifts.  We have a lot of family, and so we feel obligated to give gifts to many.  And yet, some really need nothing.  It's not that we don't want to give gifts but simply that there is so little joy in giving to someone simply because it is traditionally done (and reciprocated).  I want to give to who I want to give to, regardless of whether they give to me, because I want to and because I am able to.  If you are one of those persons who receive, feel no compulsion to  give to me.  I need nothing.  I want to give because I want to, not because I feel obligated to.

On Epiphany, the 12th Day, I hope to be able to write a single blog entry that will be a testimony to what has happened during these days.  Is that so much to hope for?  I may fail, but at least I sense some goal for the coming month.

Ten Thanksgivings

Ten Thanksgivings

"Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits" (Ps. 103:2)

One, for breath, that I do not have to think about the next one;
Two, for the sun that rises every morning, for an earth that turns on its axis,
     all without my help;
Three, for a place to call home, my dirt, my trees, my place;
Four, for children that call me Daddy, and love me, in spite of the fact that they had
     no choice about me;
Five, for a wife who keeps on with me and overlooks the worst of me;
Six, for the color blue;
Seven, for health -- limbs that work, eyes that see, and ears that hear;
Eight, for books, every good one a friend and mentor to me;
Nine, for truth, both special and common, God-breathed and God-made; and
Ten, that I am not an orphan but an adopted son of God, a treasure in  a broken land, a sheep in
     His hand, an heir to His estate, and on my way Home.

Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season (A Book Review)

Autumn Ididn't grow up saying "Autumn" to refer to this season but, rather, simply "Fall."  Autumn may be a bit uppity for a Southerner, and yet it does appeal to my literary sensibility.  The later reason is one reason why I was intrigued by the title of a book called Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season.  Edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan Felch, the book contains essays, stories, and poems by a diverse group of writers, including Wendell Berry, Robert Frost, P.D. James, Anne Lamott, and E.B. White.  Somehow, it works. 

I was surprised a few years ago to meet someone who actually dreaded "Autumn," who viewed it as the saddest of times, a time when everything is slowly winding down, a blanket of leaves covering the earth and trees looking shorn and barren, particularly by Thanksgiving.  This person could not see the beauty of the changing colors and sharp azure sky this time of year for the "fallenness" of it all.  I think it's a matter of perspective.

I love Fall.  It can be melancholy, I'll grant you that.  But I love the fact that the Christmas rush has not yet begun and there is but one real holiday to celebrate, Thanksgiving, and that one is one for staying home or going home to be with family.  (Sorry, Halloween is a pitiful excuse for a holiday.)  I enjoy the fact that when I walk through the woods I can see things and see farther than I did when all the leaves were full on the trees, that I can enjoy the intricate branches of the trees against the backdrop of sky.

So, any spiritual biography of Fall must share some of this love for Fall and this sense of melancholy, and not surprisingly, this book has some of all that.  The great essayist E.B. White, for example, pictures his wife in her Fall bulb garden, old and sick at this stage of life but "sitting there, with her detailed chart [her plan for plantings] under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection."  Beautiful words.  There is dying, but there is already the hope of new life.  Change is what Autumn is about, part of its biography.

Another section of essays is called "Endings."  Autumn is a season of mortality.  Leaves die.  We close up the summer home (well, if you have a summer home).  On September 11 and Veterans Day, we remember those who died in buildings and trenches and elsewhere.  There are poems and essays and remembrances here too, and a selection from the Book of Ruth (of her saying goodbye to Naomi).

Moving on, there is a section on Work," the picking up of our pen, tools, or books as we return from the Summer sabbath.  As the editor sums up: "The great rituals of autumn --- harvest, school, raking the leaves, preparing the Thanksgiving feast --- all call us to work together, to accept our dependence on others as a wondrous sign of our humanity.  It is in autumn that we learn to work --- and to sing --- in a chorus that binds us together with love and hope."

The book is completed by two sections -- "Harvest" (not surprising) and "Thanksgiving."  While Thanksgiving is not really the end of Fall, in America it is culturally the end before the end, because on Friday after Thanksgiving the true Christmas rush begins.  Then Fall is lost.  Take a walk.  Enjoy the Fall.  Don't shop!

This is a good book, a bit uneven and loosely tied together, but still it seems to work.  It seems to capture that great season we call Fall down here in the South.  I recommend it.  The selections are short enough to read in less than 15 minutes, just right before nodding off to sleep at night.  In fact, that's one criteria I have in selecting such devotional books.

Have a blessed Thanksgiving.  And remember -- it's not Christmas yet.

What's Not to LOVE? (Beatles Redux)

Love_1Absolutely astounding, LOVE is the product of a collaboration between Beatles producer George Martin and the creative minds behind Cirque du Soleil, the European acrobatic circus.  The Cirque show, LOVE, is currently running only at The Mirage in Las Vegas.  While I'd enjoy seeing the show, I'm blown away at this point simply by the extraordinary music.

These are not new recordings of Beatles classics.  What George Martin was invited to do was to design a 90 minute soundscape for the acrobatic show using existing Beatles tracks.  Along with his son, Giles, he took up residence at the historic Abbey Road studios along with the original Beatles master tapes which were, as you might imagine, well-preserved.  It wasn't a straight take though.  Father and son, in true Beatles tradition, reversed tracks, slowed them down, sped them up, stripped them back to simple guitar -vocal or piano vocal, ran tracks together, and so on.  You name it, and they did it.  The only new recording is a string arrangement for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

The result is astounding.  Faithful Beatles fans should not mind the experimentation, as these are The Beatles.  In addition, these remastered tracks sound better than ever.  Finally, if you buy the 2-CD set with the entire record in Dolby 5.1 sound (DVD), you'll have these songs in 5.1 for the very first time.  Imagining them working on these songs in this experimental way recalls the massive experimentation The Beatles did with Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour.  The result is a faithful extension of what The Beatles themselves did.

But the sound. . . The sound is amazing.  "Revolution" literally jumps out of the speakers.  I have never heard it sound so good.  "Hey Jude" sounds as if it were recorded yesterday, with an immediacy and warmth my old CD simply doesn't have."Yesterday" is pure and sweet, like being in a room with just Paul McCartney and the guitar.  To hear some experimentation, listen to the "Within You Without You/ Tomorrow Never Knows" medley.  And the record starts with a vocal only rendition of "Because" that is so beautiful, reminiscent of the beginning of Brian Wilson's famous "SMILE." (Hey, wait a minute -- Martin was hanging out with Brian during the time of this recording!).  Then it moves into a drum beat by Ringo lifted from "The End" that leads right into a blazing "Get Back."  Well, here I am, true to the nature of this project, moving backwards through the record.

Hey, if you play this thing backwards you'll hear . . . No, no, we won't go there!

You're crazy if you don't go right out and buy this record!  Get it the CD/DVD set at Best Buy this week for $14.99, an incredible deal (it's $19.99 on Amazon), or the single CD for $9.99.  It comes with a full-color 28 panel booklet.

Sorry, I have to go.  LOVE is calling!

Short is Good: A Review of The Best Christian Short Stories

ShortstoriesWhen I first saw this collection of short stories, entitled The Best Christian Short Stories, my skeptical nature took hold.  Smiling to myself, I figured that the "best" thing about these Christian short stories was probably, in fact, that they were short, given the abysmal state of Christian fiction, packed as it is with mimicry, stories that don't ring true, and sermonizing.  That's a gross generalization, I know, and not completely fair, but it is true that when you want to read serious literature, you usually don't (sadly enough) look in a Christian bookstore.  Nevertheless, given that this collection was edited by Bret Lott (Jewel), and contained a story by an acclaimed writer like Larry Woiwode, I bought the book.  I'm glad I did.

As Bret Lott says in the introduction, the goal is that the collected stories "will begin to fill a gap in the world of fiction: that between popular Christian writing and that of literary art."  It's an intriguing goal and one largely met by the eleven stories that follow.

While the most literary and "high-brow" of the stories is "Firstborn," by Larry Woiwode, it would be a mistake to think that this literary art is anything but accessible to ordinary readers, and yet, it is not simplistic or didactic in approach but nuanced and thought-provoking. I was captivated right away by Mary Kenagy's "Loud Lake," about Pete, the son of a father who runs a Christian camp, who, while not unappreciative of his upbringing, has to find his own way, his own path of faith.  It's remarkable what cynics we moderns are: for much of the story I kept waiting for Pete to leave the fold, or for the father to turn out to be a hypocrite of some sort, and yet, while their humanness was on display, they were, in the end, people of faith. 

That human, believable element also abounds in James Calvin Schapp's "Exodus," about a father who has to intervene in a crisis to rescue his daughter and grandchild from a failed marriage.  Wilfred Staab is a rough-hewn man, a believer, and yet one who finds it difficult to express love.  In a crisis situation, God gives him what he needs. It's a very believable domestic conflict that almost gets out of hand, or maybe it does, and yet we witness a Christian man trying his best, by God's grace, to deal with it.

And that's how it goes here.  In "Landslide," by David McGlynn, we see a portrayal of a very human and yet very faithful pastor, successful and yet aware of his failings, his inability or unwillingness to keep up with a friend who faded into oblivion, outside the fold of faith.  I kept waiting for the usual stereotypes to creep in -- Bible thumper, right-winger, hypocrite, the ones we hear all the time -- and when it didn't, I was taken by surprise. 

Reading these eleven stories, I have to think that a non-Christian reading these stories may be given a different opinion of Christians.  They might believe that Christians do usually mean what they say, want to practice what they preach, but inevitably fail and struggle, like them.  In other words, they may think us human.  I wonder though if they'll ever find these stories, if they'd ever pick up a book that says "the best Christian" anything.  I suppose the goal here is to raise the bar for Christians reading, and maybe that can happen, but I suggest that these writers simply write these stories about Christian people and seek publication in the mainstream press, like everybody else.  Good stories will sell.  They don't need a label.

This is billed as a "first volume in a collection of contemporary fiction that combines the artistry of critically acclaimed writers with a clear Christian worldview."  It's a hopeful start.  The only way it will continue is if we buy it, if we let the publisher know that this is exactly what Christian publishers need to be selling.  I plan on buying several copies and giving them to friends this Christmas.  Consider that, would you?  It's a start.  Buy it here.

A Poem for Autumn, I Think

Last Days

Things are
     changing; things are starting to
          spin, snap, fly off into
               the blue sleeve of the long
                    afternoon.  Oh and ooh
come whistling out of the perished mouth
     of the grass, as things
turn soft, boil back
     into substance and hue.  As everything,
          forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:
               I too love oblivion why not it is full
                    of second chances.  Now,
hiss the bright curls of the leaves.  Now!
booms the muscle of the wind.

(Mary Oliver, in New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1)

A Thanksgiving Playlist

Recordplayer Of all the holidays of the year, Thanksgiving has the least sizzle about it.  And I like it that way.  I try to remember that it is Thanksgiving, and so the primary reason for the day is to be thankful, and thank God I believe so I have Someone to be thankful to.

It's also about eating -- a lot.  My extended family gathers around a meal of turkey and dressing, sweet potato casserole, green beans cooked to death in fatback (and wonderfully tasting if barely nutritious), corn, rolls, and several desserts, including pumpkin pie and the once a year persimmon pudding.  We gather from all around, and we eat at 12:00 noon sharp.  Wait too long and the crowd begins to get antsy.  There is a prayer, often relegated to me as, what, the preacher?  (Never was sure about that.)  It's a good time with family, and I'm glad for family, because that's not the case for many.

I was thinking about what songs I would listen to around Thanksgiving.  I picked 21, because that's what filled the disc.  I noticed a few things about what came to mind.  First, I gravitate to the acoustic sounds.  I think that the music of home for me, where I was raised listening to traditional country music (nothing like what is on the radio today), is acoustic music.  Buoyant or quirky power-pop didn't seem to have any place here (though Charlie Brown made it).  Second, these songs are not the "praise - Jesus - I'm - so - thankful" songs of the CCM world, though I haven't anything against them.  They simply do not remind me of Home or Thanksgiving.  Third, they are not all happy songs, as there is a recognition that some people are trying to get Home and can't, some have lost their homes or family members, and for some Thanksgiving with family brings tension and arguments.  Yes, there's a definite streak of melancholy here.  And yet, I think the general feel of these songs is joy, and joy is far better than happiness.  And finally, there are no songs that suggest Christmas.  This is, after all Thanksgiving, the climax of autumn, and while the rest of the world may think it a mere pause in the Christmas shopping that is already underway, I don't.  No Christmas music, and no Christmas lights until the day after Thanksgiving!

So here's my list:

1.  Come Before Winter, by Jerry Reed Smith.  An instrumental start with the title echoing Paul's request for Timothy to "do your best to get here before winter" (2 Timothy 4:15).  I think of it as a call to friends and family to come and gather before winter.

2.  In the Bounty of the Lord, by Claire Holly.  A gospel bluegrass number that celebrates what God gives us.  The style is reminiscent of music I listened to growing up.

3.  Here in America, by Rich Mullins.  The start of a great album, this is a kind of updated "This Land Is Your Land," a non-patriotic celebration of America.

4.  Thank You, by Jan Krist.  It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without saying "thank you," and Jan manages to lace the thanks with enough melancholy and angst to keep it real.  She's a good friend, and hearing her music brings many memories.

5.  Covert War, by David Wilcox.  Wow.  If you had a family like this, you wouldn't want to go home for Thanksgiving.  Fireworks at the Thanksgiving meal!  Sad, but real.

6.  The Water is Wide, by Eva Cassidy.  Beautiful voice.  Classic song.  Trying to get home and can't get there.

7.   Rumours of Glory, by Bruce Cockburn.  A song about common grace, about seeing God everywhere.  It'll make you thankful.

8.  Follow Me, The Innocence Mission.  I grew up on John Denver, so to hear this song conjures up memories of high school and friends.  But I like Karen Peris's tender vocal on it here.

9.  Walking Down the Path of Life/ Love and Mercy.  Two beautiful tunes form Brian Wilson, who has written the soundtrack to my life, I think.  The first is a gospel number.  The second a beautiful plea for "love and mercy."  I couldn't celebrate the day without him and his music of joy.

10. My Father, by Judy Collins.  My father didn't make many Thanksgivings with me, as he died when I was 14.  I remember him on this day.

11. Thanksgiving Day, by Ray Davies.  Kinks front-man Davies can claim the only legitimate song about Thanksgiving!  He eschews his usual sardonic wit and writes a warm tune here, and the most rocking thing you'll hear on this playlist.

12. Be Thou My Vision, by Van Morrison.  It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without a hymn, and this is likely my favorite, with a very Celtic delivery by Van.

13. Hickory Wind, by The Byrds.  I love the longing for home in this song, for South Carolina, but it's close enough.  Written by the very late Gram Parsons, who was as Jesus-haunted as any southern writer.

14. Love's Gonna Carry Me Home, by Pierce Pettis.  Home again.  Another southern singer-songwriter.

15. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, by George Winston.  Watching Charlie Brown is a part of every holiday.  Besides, it's a bit of a pick-me-up.

16.  Homeward Bound, by Simon and Garfunkel.  Mainstays of my high school and college years, and this song is again about that longing for home, "I wish I was. . . ."

17. Wanderer's Song, by Brooks Williams.  One of my favorites by Brooks, this song is about how all roads lead home.

18. Come Thou Fount/ Grain By Grain, by Matt Auten.  Gorgeous hymn, and a reminder that God is the fount of every blessing.

19. River Where Mercy Flows, by Julie Miller.  I love Julie's songs, and the tenderness and fragility of her voice is disarming.  Thank God for His mercy.

20. What Wondrous Love, by Jars of Clay.  Another hymn favorite.  Thank God for his wondrous love.

21. Homecoming, by Jerry Reed Smith.  An instrumental coda which reminds us, I think, of where our real Home is, where it will be Thanksgiving all the time.

Well, that's it.  I played this for my wife, and she said it didn't sound like Thanksgiving to her, and I said what's Thanksgiving supposed to sound like?  I don't know for sure.  But this is some of what it sounds like for me.

Shutting Up

CloudsAn empty room is silent.  A room where people are not speaking or moving is quiet.  Silence is a given, quiet a gift.  Silence is the absence of sound and quiet the stilling of sound.  Silence can't be anything but silent.  Quiet chooses to be silent.  It holds its breath to listen.  It waits and is still.

"In returning and in rest you shall be saved," says God through the prophet Isaiah, "in quietness and confidence shall be your strength" (Is. 30:15).  They are all parts of each other.  We return to our deep strength and to the confidence that lies beneath all our misgiving.  The quiet there, the rest, is beyond the reach of the world to disturb.  It is how being saved sounds.

(Frederick Buechner, in Beyond Words)

This Thanksgiving I'd like to shut up for a few days anyway.  Really shut up.  I'd like to hear my family when they speak to me, really hear them, really understand what work is like for them, why they inexplicably care about who won the game (I'm not a sports person), what hurts, what the doctor said, how the missing or distant aunts and uncles and cousins are, and, once more, to hear my mother tell me a story she has told me at least 100 times because I need to, because it means something to her to say it again.  I just need to shut up about myself and shut up my thoughts and really listen.

And I need to shut up and listen to God.  I need to listen to why I need to be thankful.  Tomorrow when I ride through the trees and down back roads on my bike, I need to listen and look at what is there, what I can be thankful for, and forget for a time what I think I need.  I need to forget myself and be filled with what has been given me.

"Be still and know that I am God," the Psalmist says.  I wonder if I can.

Simply Christan: A Review

SimplychristainWhile there are various re-tellings or re-imaginings of the Christian story out there, from what I have read of them I can commend Norman T. Wright's Simply Christian more than most.  It is thoroughly orthodox in its expression of the faith we hold, and yet it has a fresh and relevant way of telling the story without being folksy or irreverent.

Wright begins with what may be his most important contribution, and that is raising four questions, or "echoes of a voice," within contemporary society -- the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty -- areas which he identifies in a postmodern, post-Christian society as "strange signposts pointing beyond the landscape of our contemporary culture and out into the unknown."  It's a helpful place to begin, as in an increasingly pluralistic society and one in which truth is devalued, these are helpful points of connection, as every TV show, movie, and song point to one or more of these areas.  Wright helps us flesh out what questions people are asking, what drives them, and why.

In Part Two of the book, he relates the Christian story, demonstrating how the Story offers itself as the answer to the questions raised in Part One.  And yet it's not a simplistic reading of the questions but one that appreciates the complexity of the struggle for meaning and community.  What he relates is an amplification of the "mere Christianity" of C.S. Lewis.  In chapters on God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, he fleshes out the meaning of what Christians believe.  It's not a simple reading, and yet the fresh prose makes it easy to read.  A non-Christian could read this book and have an understanding of what Christians believe without all the confusing nuances of different strains of belief (whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox,; Calvinism or Arminianism).  Something does suffer in the effort, that is, by drawing down the Story to its basics some of the richness is missed, but the generalizing is worth it given the book's purpose.

Finally, the author describes Christian practice, with chapters on prayer, scripture, and Christian living.  In the last chapter he returns to the questions posed by Part One and tries to suggest how the Christian story and the Christian life is lived out in answer to  these longings -- not as simply biding our time until Jesus returns for us, but as a new creation awaiting its restoration:

"The New Testament picks up from the Old the theme that God intends, in the end, to put the whole creation to rights.  Earth and heaven were made to overlap one another, not fitfully, mysteriously, and partially as they do at the moment, but completely, gloriously, and utterly. . . . The great drama will end, not with 'saved souls' being snatched up into heaven, away from the wicked earth and the mortal bodies which have dragged them down into sin, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, so that 'the dwelling of God is with humans' (Revelation 21:3)."

I'm thankful for N.T. Wright's retelling of a story I thought I knew well.  I'm grateful too for his acute sense of what our culture longs for for rather than, I confess, my dismissive approach to it at times as beyond repair and hopelessly lost and decadent.  He gives me hope for where revival of the  Story may come when it comes -- out of the midst of these "echoes."

Thirst: The Poems of Mary Oliver (Part IV)

Thirst_4After reading here book of poems, entitled Thirst, and reviewing her book, I thought I was done with Mary Oliver.  But I'm not.  I really enjoy these poems and keep returning to them.  This one really shines with God's light in creation, and in us.  The trees "almost" save her, but don't, really, and I know what she means.  Their age and beauty testify to God's goodness.  She is "so distant from the hope of myself," and I feel the humility that walking among great trees, and before a great and holy God, may bring.  And God calls us to shine like stars, to hold out light, as is urged here.

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
     but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."

Needed: A New Groove (Sufjan Stevens)

Sufjan_1I've been quite a fan of young Sufjan Stevens, a very popular Christian composer of folk/symphonic rock tunes -- popular, that is, among the mainstream and college crowd.  I've enjoyed his fresh melodies, faith-rich lyrics, and penchant for grand concept (as in his recent Illinois album).  However, after listening to the follow up to Illinois, an album of outtakes called Avalanche, I began to sense that Sufjan had his limitations -- limitations which I think are incident to musical immaturity and a failure to focus on crafting and releasing an albums of songs, not looping melodies.  Avalanche should not have been released; rather its best material, it's true songs, should have been a part of Illinois, and there were fragments on Illinois that could have been retained on the palette, perhaps for further development another day.  Not every musical note played should be released (unless you're Phil Keaggy, maybe, whose sound-checks are worth listening to).

My largely inarticulable critique is picked up by two more articulate critics in "Hidden Under a Bushel: Sufjan Stevens and the Problem of Christian Music ," an article by Randall J. Stephens and Delvyn Chase in the recent Books and Culture (Nov/Dec 2006).  The subtitle is really misleading, because while the authors mention the problem of being labeled a Christian artist, the article, while sympathetic to Sufjan, is more a critique of his music.

According to the authors, Sufjan has "two different song-types: an introverted, folky one and an extroverted, symphonic one."  They conclude that "[h]is music lacks the carefully modulated gradations of tone, meaning, and mode that distinguish his poetry."  I'd add that there are some great songs here:  primarily "Chicago" and "Casimir Pulaski Day," but a lot of somewhat interesting pieces of songs, and not nearly enough variety, texture, or whatever it is that makes for an interesting record -- all the way through.

But hold on a minute.  This is a young guy who has not been at the craft nearly as long as Brian Wilson, nor with the kind of success Brian Wilson had, at age 23.  Wilson was writing and producing Pet Sounds at 23.  And percolating in that harmonic genius brain of his was the great Smile -- a concept album itself.  And yet Wilson already knew how to write a hit song.  He was a master.  He knew the craft and all its rules.  And you have to master the rules before you break them.

Sufjan will likely record an entire album of great songs yet.  He has all the raw ingredients.  We just need to be patient.

Naming Names

Names"Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything that they need."  (Titus 3:13)

I take great comfort in these parting words in the Apostle Paul's short letter to Titus.  Even lawyers are found on the Way.  And the self-reliant lawyer Zenas is the one who needs help.  Lawyers -- those parasites of human misery (to echo the dimmest view uttered about them) -- will be found as faithful disciples.

We know nothing more of Zenas, as we know nothing more of other names dropped at the ends of other letters by Paul.  There's Aristarchus (Philemon 24); Erastus, Trophimus (sick in Miletus), Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, and Claudia ( 2 Tim. 19-21); Epaphras (wrestling in prayer), Nympha (who has a church in her house), and Archippus; Eudoria and Syntyche (who have a disagreement); and all the friends and relatives, both men and women, mentioned by Paul in Romans 16.  There's even a bureaucrat, the director of public works, Erastus  (Rom. 16:23), meaning that there must be hope for the scurrying moles of the Social Social Administration and other faceless bureaucracies.  Paul's letters are literally literately littered (indulge my alliteration!) with particular people whose names mean nothing to us now.  Why?  Why include these names in Scripture?

For at least three reasons.  First, these particular names, like the particular names of places, root Scripture in space and time, giving it a credibility that might be lacking were it nothing but dogma and abstractions.  The Word is about real life.  God became flesh.  Real people came to faith, suffered, and died in faith.  Like great songwriters anchor their lyric in particulars in order to strengthen the universal appeal of the song's theme, so God has told a Story filled with rich particulars of people and place to strengthen the appeal of its truth -- to enflesh its dogma.

Second, the attention to people with real names demonstrates the reality of our being made in God's image, the dignity of the individual.  I know not only that people came to faith but that Nympha and Erastus came to faith.  They mattered to Paul.  They matter to God.  And if they matter to God, then so do I.

Finally, naming names hearkens back to the earliest parts of the Story -- Adam giving names to the animals and then to woman.  Poets know the truth that when you name something you know something significant about who the person or what the thing is that you are naming.  When Paul names names we can hear God saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. . . . (Jer. 1:5).  Paul knows Archippus.  God knows Archippus.  God knows me -- he sees deeply into who I am.

That's scary. . . and comforting. The Name above all names knows my name.  He's got my number.

The Mad Hatter Calls

Madhatter If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party.  The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business.  The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified.  The world says, Drive carefully -- the life you save may be your own -- and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  The world says Law and order, and Jesus says, Love.  The world says Get and Jesus says, Give.  In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.

(Frederick Buechner, in The Faces of Jesus)

There are plenty of fools around but not many who are truly fools for Christ (1 Cor. 4:10).  Define "fool" how you will but none of the definitions are pretty.  Lacking judgment.  Stupid.  Weak-minded.  Idiotic.  What a wild thing to say -- that we are idiots for Christ, that we follow him without judgment, without thinking twice, without counting the cost, that we are love-struck (in the stupid kind of way), that we are heedless of danger.  That we are fools -- for Jesus.  That is what the Apostle Paul is saying and God knows he was a fool.

I don't know about you, but I am seldom if ever a fool for Christ.  I am careful.  I drive carefully, generally act prudently, and I mind my own business (and so should you).  I think before I give (as I did today).  I like my universe well-ordered, please.  There is little cost to reputation for me to follow Christ.  I am simply not crazy enough for Him that people notice and talk about me behind my back (as in "tsk, tsk, he's a little nutty that one, a bit of a fanatic").

In fact, the last time I did something really crazy was. . . was. . . well, was back in college, I guess.  No, that wasn't crazy for Christ, that was just plain stupid now that I think of it and stupid is just plain stupid and not redeemed if not stupid for Christ.

I've spent time with some crazy people( in the legal system, not at home), and you know what?  They can say the sanest if most inappropriate and socially awkward things.  If an intelligent man who appears in full possession of his faculties calmly tells me that he is Jesus Christ or that the people in the television are talking to him, I look down for a moment, inwardly smile a smile of pity, and tell myself that he is insane and knows no better, that he is delusional.  And then the next minute he may speak the most beautiful truth in the world and I begin to wonder if maybe the elasticity of his brain has made him more open to truth in some way.  I've met some Christians who fall into the category of "fools for Christ" and you know what?  They're scary.  They have to be.   You begin to wonder whether if you hang out with them some of that craziness will wear off on you and when you go home to visit your parents they'll wonder what kind of people you've been associating with.  They say inappropriate things.  They are not prudent.  They speak the truth, and the truth is unsettling to ordinary religious folk.

The Mad Hatter is calling.  I need to get close but I'm a little scared to get close to this crazy coot.  I have an invitation to His party and I'm afraid of what might happen if I really go and stay awhile.  Only fools rush in, only fools for Christ.  So will I go?  Will you go?  What will it take to push us off the edge?  When will we learn that life "through the looking glass" is normal and that this world is the abnormal, deluded one?

Getting to know Your Neighbors

Cicada_1Woah, now.  Sorry.  I didn't mean to scare you.  This may look like one of those bad, bad grasshoppers that scared all the little kids in Disney's It's a Bug's Life but, nope, this is the face of a cicada.  Cute, isn't he (or she)?

It's mid-November here in North Carolina and, amazingly enough, I have the window open this evening, and these cicadas are making a constant sound, one that is such a part of the landscape (or is that soundscape?) that we don't even think about them any longer.  So, I'm just sitting here wondering what cicadas look like and what good are they, so I googled "cicada" and would you believe it I landed right smack on a blog of cicada advocates -- Cicada Maniacs, that is.  There are frequently asked questions, like How Can I Tell a Male From a Female? or Do Cicadas Pee and, If So, Why? and even Is It Safe for My Kids to Eat Cicadas?  I worry about some people.  Don't go too deep here.  They did dispossess me of one notion:  katydids are most emphatically not cicadas.  (No, they are not June bugs, either.)  What's the big deal?  Well, consider how you feel when someone (usually from north of the Mason-Dixon line) asks if you are from "Carolina," as if North and South Carolina are quite the same.  We know better.  Well, cicadas and katydids know better too.

I promise not to get too legal on you here, but given the existence of the cicada lobby, I could not help but think of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas's famous dissenting opinion in the 1972 decision of Sierra Club v. Morton, where Justice Douglas argued (against the majority) that the Sierra Club should have standing to sue, even though it suffered no injury, because the inanimate objects which were at issue -- trees, rivers, wildlife -- had standing.  Well, if trees, why not cicadas?

I'm making fun of all this, but really, tonight I'm just enjoying the sound of these katydids. . . I mean, cicadas (old habits die hard).  I just don't want to look at them.  And I don't want to know if they pee.

Good night, good neighbors.

The Boy Ten Feet Tall

BoytenfeetI'm still old enough to remember Circle K movie matinees.  These were movies shown on Saturday morning at our local theater, a beautiful old style cinema, with an orchestra pit, balcony, eerie looking statutes in boxes overlooking the stage, and a huge chandelier in the middle of the ceiling.  That theater, the Carolina, in Greensboro, has now been restored, after it fell into disrepair in the 1970s.

But then, in the mid-Sixties, it was a fine place.  My family saw every John Wayne movie there, and I believe the last movie I saw there was Patton, starring George C. Scott, on its premiere.

But back to matinees. . . . I don't remember a single matinee I saw except one called The Boy Ten Feet Tall, one I remember distinctly to this day.  I suppose it's because this movie would appeal to every young boy.  The plot is this: A young boy living in Port Said, Egypt narrowly escapes a bomb blast (having to do with some unexplained violence in 1956) that destroys the apartment block where he lives and kills both his parents.  He decides to travel on foot to Durban, South Africa, to be with his only living relative, an aunt.  During his 4500 mile trip he falls in with different people, good and bad, has an experience with the slave trade, poachers, criminals, and wild animals.  It's an incredible journey.

I have thought about this movie every now and then, but it has never been released on DVD or VHS tape.  In fact, I don't recall it ever being released on television.  This is sad, because I'd love for my own children to see it.  However, a movie released this year on DVD, Duma, bears some resemblance.  In Duma, a young South African boy loses his father and on his own journeys across the Kalahari Desert to return a cheetah they raised to the wild.  It's an adventure, but not quite as long or exciting as the one for Sammy in A Boy Ten Feet Tall.  I recommend it, though.

A Boy Then Feet Tall was actually based on a book by W.H. Canaway entitled Find the Boy, and then reissued under the name of the movie title.  I found a used copy a couple years ago, which was released in 1961.  The price?  50 cents.

I credit the movie with my love of travel.  At 10, it for the first time fueled my interest in the world outside my hometown, outside my neighborhood.  The feeling I had watching that movie could not be elicited now, with special effects and sensationalistic movies standard fare for kids.  But then it was really something.  When I came out of that theater, I wasn't quite the same.  It gave me a dream of something heroic.

Watching and Waiting (and Sleeping)


The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.

Jesus said, wait with me.  But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on his feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me.  And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn't move,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
     blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

(Mary Oliver, from Thirst)

When Jesus said "wait with me," I take it he did not mean to simply stay as opposed to leave.  He meant stay awake, be alert, watch, be expectant -- He asked the disciples to have a Godward awareness.  And yet, they slept.

I know how they must have felt.  Close your eyes to pray and it's an invitation to sleep.  That's one reason that what praying I do I often do with eyes wide open and feet in locomotion.  And yet, the phrase portends more, much more.  It must suggest to us that we must stay close by the side of Jesus, eyes fixed on Him, watching for how He is at work in the world, reading the signs of the times, knowing his presence, seeing that "[t]he cricket has such splendid fringe on it feet," praise God, and the wind and stars how they tell of the glory of God with prescient whispers.  Even sleep tells of our humanness, so I need not chide myself too much for falling asleep in my prayers.

Maybe the non-human world can stay awake, can watch and wait, but I can't and you can't.  But that too the poet says is all a part of this Story.

But thank God He's up all night.  It's His watch, always.

Ubiquity, Darlene, Campaign Signs & Nakedness (But Not Necessarily in That Order)

ThinkerI haven't been able to hold a thought for more than 5 minutes today, so you get my ramblings:

  • In addition to propinquity, another word I like and seem to find many uses for is "ubiquitous."  Now that one is much easier to find a place for than "propinquity."  Starbucks are ubiquitous.  So are politicians this time of year.  Those annoying people that keep turning up around every corner are ubiquitous.  Anything existing or being anywhere and everywhere is ubiquitous.  You might say God is the big Ubiquity, as He is omnipresent.  But that might sound too casual.
  • My daughter, who is 12, asked why we wear clothes.  All I did to deserve this was ask her to pick up some clothes before going to bed.  She commented that she wished Adam and Eve hadn't messed up, because they were the reason we had to wear clothes.  It was too late for theology.  But at least she kept her clothes on.  It's more than I can say for some people.
  • I called my mother tonight and my stepfather answered.  I said Bill what did you do today?  He said nothing.  I said what are you going to do tomorrow.  He said he was going to finish what he  was doing today.  Burns my Mom up.  He's 84 and she thinks he needs to be working full-time.
  • Darlene (See "1-800-FINANCIALBLESSING," post of Oct. 11, 2006) left e a message today and said she had an answer to prayer.  Her lot rent has been paid.  Now she needs a job.  Well, I'm glad.  I still wonder who she thinks she is calling.  So who needs Benny Hinn? I'm still considering writing a story about Darlene.
  • Elections are over.  Where do old election signs go?  I'm frustrated.  It's too big for the garbage can.  Are these things recycled?  Anybody know?

I really like the title of this post.  Now that would make an interesting story: Ubiquity, Darlene, Campaign Signs, and Nakedness.  Lots of possibilities there.

(Love That Word) Propinquity

Clip_image002_1Life is full of small pleasures.  I had one of those pleasures today when I was able to use the word "propinquity" in a brief I was writing for the court.  I've been thinking off and on about that word, sometimes saying it to myself, just muttering under my breath, but I've never found a good use for it in ordinary conversation, and people who drop unusual words into everyday conversation are really intolerable.  I aim not to be that way, much.  But today the word fit perfectly, and given the (hopefully) higher order argumentation that should be reflected in legal writing, it seemed appropriate.  I only hope the judge thinks so.

Propinquity means physical proximity, or a kinship between people or similarity in nature between things.  In other words, it refers to nearness in place, relation, or time.  Amazingly enough, I first heard the word in 1976 when I bought that classic album by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band entitled Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy(I'd like to tell you about that sometime, but not now.)  There was song on the album called, what else, but "Propinquity."  However, dim light that I was at that stage of life (I was a senior in high school), I never connected the title to the lyrics and never bothered to look the word up in a dictionary.  The song itself is a love song with the narrator lamenting that though he's known this person for a long time , he's just begun to care for them, just begun to love them:

I've know for a long time
The kind of girl you are.
And a smile that covers teardrops,
The way your head yields to your heart.
Of things you've kept inside
That most girls couldn't bear,
Well, I've known you for a long time,
But I've just begun to care.

And it goes on like that, the narrator saying later, as somewhat of an excuse for his indifference, that "I guess I've been standing too near."  And there it is: propinquity.  The song postulates a situation that is a bit of a caveat to what is referred to as the "propinquity effect," that is, the tendency for people to form friendships or romantic relationships with those with whom they have close contact or regular communication -- that you  can be so close and yet not realize what is right under your nose, be blind to those closest to you.  I think that's common.  So, now I know what the song really has to do with its title.

As interesting a word as propinquity is, I think its real attraction for me is its sound.  Maybe it's the four syllables.  Or maybe the "p"s and "q" (mind them), the percussive effect of the "p" that is.  But then, only people that read and appreciate poetry care much about such things as the sound of words (and children who love rhyming verse).  To what do I attribute my love of sound?  Propinquity.  My father loved music and my mother loved to read.  Propinquity.  Books and music, words and sound.

Before I leave you to your own propinquities, one trivia question for you:  Do you know who wrote "Propinquity?"  It was none other than the ex-Monkee himself and heir to the Liquid Paper inventor, Michael Nesmith.

Oh yes, sometime I'll tell you about another word I love: ubiquitous.  But that's another day.

Hymns: A Universal Language

Last weekend one of the things I did was attend a family reunion.  This is only the second year that we have done this, and since we have started it I have seen cousins and in-laws I had not seen in over a decade.  My mother is still living, as are her two brothers and two sisters.  All, however, are in their late Seventies or Eighties.  Our reunion is, in part, a way for them to connect in their last years.

Mostly we eat.  But this time we did something that brought a measure of joy to my mother.  We sang hymns.  Not old hymns set to new tunes but old hymns set to traditional tunes.  These hymns are a great comfort to them, I think, but the pleasing thing was seeing not only the older folks sing them but younger ones as well.  We all knew the hymns.  (In contrast, we didn't all know the Pink Floyd tune my nephew was playing.)

Hymns have a strangeness about them that hearkens back to an older time, even an ancient time.  They don't sound like anything else on the radio or in popular music, and as I've discovered recently, some of the biggest proponents of singing hymns are actually those in their Twenties -- you know, the ones who grew up in churches that sang only praise songs and choruses.  They have a mark of authenticity, depth, and longevity that praise songs do not have.  "Be Thou My Vision" thumps "Lord, I Lift Your Name On High" any day.  It's a more durable melody with lyrics of much greater depth.

But that's not what my mother was thinking last Saturday.  That slight smile that played at her mouth was no doubt one of remembered things.  Maybe she remembered being with her own parents in the Moravian Church in which she was raised.  Or perhaps she recalled a happy time when her children were young and she was settled and very, very needed in her home.  Just maybe she heard the voice of One calling her home.  Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling.  How great thou art.  Amazing grace.  The little brown church in the valley.  The songs give remembrance and hope.  They point back to a treasured past and ahead to a certain future.  And they remind us that not everything changes.  God doesn't.  Truth doesn't.  Hymns shadow that eternality of certain verities that we as Christians hold to communally.  In fact, in hearing them sung different memories may be summoned but there is a communal hope that resides in them.

I won't say that hymns are the only songs that will make it into the canon of universal and eternal language.  Maybe some of the Beach Boys and Beatles songs will too.  But when I'm 80, I suspect I'll want to hear the hymns, not "Help Me Rhonda" or "Ticket to Ride."  Not even "We Will Glorify."  I'm quite sure the hymns will still be around.

Pet Sounds at 40

Ps If any of you have read much on this blog, or talked with me much, you probably know that I am a huge Brian Wilson/Beach Boys fan, and I know all kinds of useless trivia about the band.  So, last Wednesday was an another high point for me --- I was able to see Wilson and band in concert in Royce Hall at UCLA, performing 1966's seminal record, Pet Sounds, in its entirety, as well as one and one-half hours of other astounding music from Wilson's solo albums and the Beach Boys rich vault of material.  I have seen Brian Wilson on three prior occasions, but this time he seemed more relaxed than ever, trying out his voice on falsetto Wilsonfischer parts that he hasn't been able to hit like he did 40 years ago (he's 64 now).  It wasn't perfect, but that he tried is astounding.  In fact, that the man who stopped touring in 1966 because of severe stage fright is up on stage at all is a miracle.  Part of his ease is no doubt due to the excellent band surrounding him, directed by the talented Jeffrey Foskett (who plays a wonderful 12-string Rickenbacker and, on this tour, even a banjo!, and can sing those falsetto parts) and anchored by The Wondermints.  It was, literally, a glorious evening. I snapped this shot of Wilson and CCM artist John Fischer back stage (John was my guest.)

The biggest surprise of the evening was seeing former Beach Boy Al Jardine perform with Brian, not just on one song but literally for the entire concert.  Jardine looked the same, sounded great, moved with ease on the stage, and seemed to enjoy himself.  I'm not sure the last time Jardine and Wilson performed together, but it has certainly been over a decade ago, perhaps longer.  Jardine took the lead on "California," a cut he co-wrote which appeared on Holland, one I had not previously heard performed live.  One other highlight of the night was the all out rock of "Marcella," a cut co-written by Wilson which appeared on Carl and the Passions - So Tough.  Scott Bennett delivered a blistering guitar solo, and the crowd was all up and moving to the music.

The first set was all non-Pet Sounds material.  They ran through the surf songs like "Surfin' Safari," "Please Let Me Wonder," "Do You Wanna Dance," and more, took a 10 minute break, and were back on playing the entirety of Pet Sounds, just as it appeared on the record, including the train and dog barking chorus at the end (which really shook the hall).  Then there was an extended encore of 5-6 songs, and then a second encore with Wilson singing the lovely "Love and Mercy," from his first solo record back in 1988.

All in all, it was an excellent concert, with a band that is second to none.  I'll forgive two things -- the merchandising of a Brian Wilson action figure doll and a poorly designed $40 t-shirt!  (Will these merchandising people never learn, and will we poor schmucks ever stop buying this junk?) 

Catch Wilson on tour if you can.  Check tour dates here.  If not, buy Pet Sounds in its beautiful CD and DVD enhanced 40th Anniversary Edition.  It's a lovely piece of wistful innocence, a reminder of another time, a kind of growing up for the Beach Boy, Brian Wilson, and for us all.  But then, what am I talking about?  I was only eight in 1966!