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Memoir 3: More than 100 great books, mostly on faith and personality

Monday, November 13th, 2017

Many of these I was required to read or encouraged to read while a collegian, grad student, and seminarian. Now I’m glad I did.

I’ve augmented the list with some books I discovered myself (marked with a caret (^) and now highly recommend.

Books marked with an asterisk (*) are those written by teachers of classes I was enrolled in.

These are listed in no particular order, but are chiefly chronological, beginning with college.

  • Augustine. The Confessions. [thanks to David Franz, my freshman history teacher.]
  • ^J. D. Salinger. A Catcher in the Rye.
  • Thomas Merton. The Seven-Storey Mountain. [thanks to John Guret, my junior year literature teacher.]
  • Roland Bainton. Here I Stand–the Biography of Martin Luther. [thanks to David Franz.]
  • Viktor Frankl. From Death Camp to Existentialism (later published as Man’s Search for Meaning.) [thanks to Donald F. (Duck) Tweedie Jr., psychology professor, advisor, mentor, and friend at college and beyond.]
  • J.B. Phillips. Your God is Too Small. [thanks to Reid Carpenter of Young Life in Pittsburgh.]
  • ———-. Letters to Young Churches, later expanded to become The New Testament in Modern English. [thanks to Reid Carpenter for encouraging this one as well.]
  • Abraham Maslow. Toward a Psychology of Being.
  • Gordon W. Allport. Becoming.
  • C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity. [thanks to Ann Ferguson, my sophomore literature professor; although, she would have preferred I read T. S. Eliot.]
  • ——–. The Screwtape Letters.
  • ———. Out of the Silent Planet. [my favorite Lewis work after Screwtape.]
  • Carl R. Rogers. On Becoming a Person.
  • John A. T. Robinson. Honest to God. [no thanks to Roger Nicole, my systematic theology professor, who decried most non-Reformed theologians, even those among his colleagues, but thanks to seminary librarians who set Robinson out as a challenge to students.]
  • J. I. Packer. Fundamentalism and The Word of God. [thanks to T. Grady Spires, my sophomore philosophy professor, and baseball coach.]
  • Carl F. H. Henry. The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism.
  • Emil Brunner. The Divine Imperative. [thanks to Lloyd Kalland, theology professor, advisor, mentor, and friend during my seminary years and beyond.]
  • Eugene H. Peterson. Eat This Book.
  • ^John Irving. A Prayer for Owen Meany.
  • Paul Tournier. The Meaning of Persons. [Tournier was a featured guest lecturer while I was at college. He lectured in French and was admirably translated by John Guret.]
  • Gunther Bornkamm. Jesus of Nazareth. [Thanks to Glenn W. Barker, William L. Lane, and J. Ramsey Michaels, my three New Testament professors at seminary; Barker especially became a friend as well as a teacher. They led me to an appreciation of Barth, Brunner, and Bultmann.]
  • ^Reinhold Niebuhr. Leaves from the Notebooks of a Tamed Cynic.
  • Paul Tillich. The Courage to Be.
  • ———-. Systematic Theology. [thanks to Roger Nicole, who wouldn’t approve my reading it as a required alternative to our assigned Reformed text, which provided just the motivation I needed to examine it on my own.]
  • Harvey Cox. The Secular City.
  • O. Hobart Mowrer. The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion. [Mowrer lectured in my Proseminar class at Illinois. He refused to discuss Calvinism with me after he derided the theologian when I hinted at an alternative interpretation. A behaviorist and learning theorist, Mowrer was a troubled thinker who took his own life after retiring from academia. His critical book had a stimulating effect on my intellectual development.]
  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A Coney Island of the Mind. [thanks to Stu Boehmig, a close friend during our association with Young Life in Pittsburgh.]
  • ^Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughter-House Five
  • ^Ray Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles
  • Rollo May. Man’s Search for Himself.
  • ———-. Paulus: Tillich as Spiritual Teacher.
  • ^Malcolm Boyd. Are You Running with Me, Jesus?
  • Rudolf Otto. The Idea of the Holy.
  • *Amedeo P. Giorgi. Psychology as a Human Science. [thesis advisor, mentor, and friend during my years at Duquesne.]
  • Gontran de Poncins. Kabloona. [thanks to Dorothy Lee, a visiting anthropology professor during grad school at Duquesne U.]
  • Josef Pieper. Leisure, the Basis of Culture. [thanks to Bernard Boelen, a philosophy professor at Duquesne.]
  • Williston Walker. A History of the Christian Church. [thanks to William Nigel Kerr, a scholar of church history at seminary.]
  • ^Joan Didion. Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
  • ^Albert Camus. The Plague.
  • ^Theodore Roethke. The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke.
  • ^Phyllis McGinley. Saint-Watching.
  • Clarence Jordan. The Cotton Patch Gospel. [thanks to singer Harry Chapin, a summer neighbor in Bomoseen, Vermont, whom I never met but whose singing I admire, especially his lyrics to the musical version of this book.]
  • ^Marc Zvi Brettler. How to Read the Jewish Bible.
  • ^Corinne Ware. Saint Benedict on the Freeway.
  • Sebastian Brock. The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of St. Ephrem the Syrian. [Thanks to Maggie Ross, an online instructor at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.]
  • ^Michael Casey. Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.
  • ^Gordon W. Allport. Waiting for the Lord: 33 Meditations on God & Man. [a letter from Allport in response to my questions steered me to Duquesne.]
  • Frederick Buechner. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale.
  • Brennan Manning. The Ragamuffin Gospel.
  • ^Kathleen Norris. The Cloister Walk. [thanks to CDSP online.]
  • Dewey M. Beegle. The Inspiration of Scripture. [thanks to David Kerr and Burton Goddard, who set up a library challenge to students at seminary.]
  • *Paul King Jewett. God, Creation, & Revelation: A Neo-Evangelical Theology. [Jewett was a professor at a summer institute I attended in Colorado.]
  • Donald K. McKim, ed. The Authoritative Word: Essays on the Nature of Scripture.
  • Thomas V. Morris. Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life. [thanks to Paul Reasoner, a friend and philosopher-professor during my years in Tokyo.]
  • Blaise Pascal. Pensees.
  • ^Dag Hammarskjold. Markings.
  • Edward J. Carnell. The Case for Biblical Christianity. [thanks to Donald Tweedie, psychologist and lay theologian.]
  • G. C. Berkouwer. Man: The Image of God. [thanks to T. Grady Spires, and to Robert (R.C.) Sproul, whom I knew from Pittsburgh and seminary and who had studied with Berkouwer in the Netherlands.]
  • J.H. van den Berg. The Changing Nature of Man: Introduction to a(n) Historical Psychology. [thanks to Robert Romanyshyn, a friend and grad student at Duquesne who later became a Jungian analyst and a poet.]
  • *Adrian van Kaam. Religion and Personality. [van Kaam was a Dutch Spiritan priest and the driving force behind Duquesne’s program in existential-phenomenological psychology.]
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Structure of Behavior. [thanks to Amedeo Giorgi, my mentor, advisor, and fellow New Yorker while at Duquesne.]
  • Bette Bao Lord. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. [based on the recommendation of Bruce Handy, whose book Wild Things is listed below.]
  • John Wiley Nelson. Your God is Alive and Appearing in Popular Culture. [thanks to Orlo Strunk, my mentor, and advisor at Boston University.]
  • Anne Lamott. Bird By Bird.
  • ^Kenneth Koch. Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children.
  • ^Bill Moyers. The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets.
  • ^Ted Kooser. The Poetry Home Repair Manual.
  • John Ciardi. How Does a Poem Mean?
  • William Zinsser. On Writing Well.
  • ^Stephen King. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Letters and Papers from Prison. [thanks to Lloyd Kalland.]
  • Eberhard Bethge. Bonhoeffer. [thanks to Lloyd Kalland.]
  • ^Pierre Bayard. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.
  • Karl Barth. A Shorter Commentary on Romans.
  • Thomas Cahill. How the Irish Saved Civilization.
  • *Harry Allard. Miss Nelson is Missing. [I took a grad course in Writing for Children with Allard.]
  • Stuart Barton Babbage. Man in Nature and Grace. [thanks to T. Grady Spires.]
  • *Theodore Thass-Thienemann. The Subconscious Language. [my German and psychology professor at college who became a wise advisor and insisted all his students memorize the Lord’s Prayer auf Deutsch.]
  • *Donald F. Tweedie Jr. Logotherapy and the Christian Faith. [Tweedie’s book probably shaped my worldview more than any other purely theological book I’ve read.]
  • Ben Quash. Abiding: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for 2013.
  • ^John Sexton. Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game.
  • ^Harold Ivan Smith. Eleanor A Spiritual Biography: The Faith of the 20th-Century’s Most Influential Woman.
  • ^Frank Deford. Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of The Roller Derby.
  • Darrell Huff. How to Lie with Statistics. [first introduced to me by William Kappauf, my Proseminar professor at the University of Illinois.]
  • James L. Kugel. How to Read the Bible.
  • Bryan Stevenson. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
  • A. W. Tozer. The Knowledge of the Holy.
  • Philip Yancey. The Jesus I Never Knew.
  • ^David Hill. My Brother’s War.
  • ^Lewis B. Smedes. My God and I.
  • ^———-. Mere Morality.
  • ^Bruce Handy. Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult.
  • ^Robert Pinsky. Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry with the Masters.
  • Howard L. Rice. Reformed Spirituality: An Introduction for Believers. [thanks to Howard C. Blair, scholar, pastor, and father-in-law.]
  • Aron Gurwitsch. The Field of Consciousness. [Thanks to Amedeo P. Giorgi and Rolf von Eckartsberg.]
  • Robert Alter. The Art of Biblical Poetry.
  • ———-. The Book of Psalms. A Translation with Commentary.
  • ^Michael B. Curry (Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church). Songs My Grandma Sang.
  • Bernard Ramm. The Christian View of Science and Scripture [thanks to T. Harry Leith, my geology, and philosophy of science professor, who taught me to be unafraid of any conflicts that seem to exist between science and faith in Jesus Christ. Incidentally, I judge this book to be the most relevant volume I read as a collegian. Leith later became an honored professor of Natural Sciences at York University in Ontario, Canada.]
  • Thomas Cranmer, et al. The Book of Common Prayer. [Thanks to Les Smith and Russell Ayers, fellow students who visited me in the hospital during my freshman year at Gordon; and to Tom Fesmire, a year behind me, who after disparaging the book gave me his copy of the BCP. Thus was I introduced to the prayer book’s spirituality.
    Thanks also to ordained friends and lovers of this book, including the Rev. James E. Hampson Jr., the Rev. Titus Pressler, The Right Rev. Mark Dyer, the Right Rev. Barry Howe, the Rev. Gunnar Urang, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Riddick M.D., the Rev. Marcus Hall, the Rev. John DeBeer, the Rev. Tricia deBeer, the Rev. Dr. Kristina Grusell, the Rev. Alistair So, the Rev. George Ward, the Rev. Dr. Phebe McPherson, the Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales, the Rev. Dr. Doris Buchanan Johnson, the Rev. Robert Fain, and the Rev. Dr. Lisa Barrowclough.]
  • Marion J. Hatchett. Commentary on the American Prayer Book.
  • Charles W. F. Smith. A Prayer Book Manual. [the Rev. Smith led summer vesper services in the chapel at Bridgewater Hill in New Hampshire and unwittingly shepherded me with the prayer book’s liturgy during a difficult time in my life. I discovered his manual years later.]
  • J. Robert Wright. Prayer Book Spirituality. [thanks to Ann Orlov, a friend and fellow parishioner in Vermont.]
  • Robert Benson. A Good Life: Benedict’s Guide to Everyday Joy.

 

 

 

 

 

Hitting a baseball and St. Benedict–(a note while awaiting the final game of the 2017 season)

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

Succeeding only 30 percent of the time as a batter in major-league baseball is considered to be a superior performance; in fact, if a hitter succeeds only once in every four opportunities, that batter is considered a decent major league hitter.

As I write this reflection on the last day of the season, there have been 32 major league batters recorded as succeeding at the 30 percent level and another 23 at the 29 percent level. (Only six players from the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the teams battling for the World Series championship, are in this group).

Each of the 30 major league teams has a roster of 25 players during the heat of a season, and about 10 of those 25 are pitchers who are not expected to be good hitters.

Thus, during a season, about 450 batters are playing; or, accounting for pitchers and substitutions, about 350 players come to bat each day.

(In mid-season, a minimum of nine players per team come to bat. With 30 teams playing, that means at least 270 batters come to bat per game–300-360 if we allow for pinch-hitters.)

Of those who hit, only about 7.5 percent of them are hitting at a superior level, and fewer than half of all batters are successful once in every four attempts to hit.

One could say well over half of major league hitters in any given season are unsuccessful. Or, put another way, one might say professional baseball batters are a legion of failures.

(Note: my speculation is based on batting averages, not on the more forgiving on-base percentage. OBP*).

But baseball is a game of hope and a game of constant striving that demands putting failures behind–much as life itself demands.

St. Benedict of Nursia would have understood this crazy game, and, as do most baseball coaches, the saint who wrote the well-known Rule of Life would have urged players to set their failures aside and face the next moment with confidence and hope and faith.

In other words, learn from mistakes and improve. (Of course, the saint, who was primarily addressing monks, would have accounted for God in any talk of success and failure).

But, given his hopeful approach, I propose that St. Benedict of Nursia should be known as the patron saint of baseball. (There are many who give this honor to St. Rita, but that’s a bit of Hollywood fantasy.)

In fact, I think St. Benedict should be the patron saint of athletic performance. Every performer in baseball, basketball, golf, football, etc., succeeds best by remembering Benedict’s Rule, especially his encouragement to those who fail: they must “always begin again.”

*Calculation note: Baseball statisticians use the calculation of on-base percentage (OBP) to measure a player’s success on offense. The formula for calculating a batter’s OBP is as follows:*
OBP = (Hits+Walks+Hit by Pitch)/(At Bats+Walks+Hit by Pitch+Sacrifice Flies).
Batters are not credited with reaching base on an error or fielder’s choice, and they are not charged with an opportunity if they make a sacrifice bunt.*

A Baker’s Dozen Examples of The Wit and Wisdom of Friends and Others

Monday, October 16th, 2017

1) On food: A chef I knew in Maryland who said of reading nutrition labels: “If it shows more than 10 grams of sugar, it’s not healthy.”

2) On God: My first philosophy professor in a lecture on Christian apologetics: “God has no need of any defense from us.”

3) On war: A young enlisted airman assigned as an editor at Pacific Stars & Stripes in Tokyo when I asked him why he chose to join the Air Force: “Because we’re the only ones who get it right; we send the officers out to do the fighting.”

4) On poetry: A Massachusetts community college colleague who taught philosophy and assigned his students readings from a poetry anthology: “I want my students to learn how to think, and I believe poetry is the best teacher for that.”

5) On surgery: Another colleague at that Massachusetts school who had experienced several surgeries on his back and said when he heard me describe my scheduled operation as routine: “When surgery is performed on your body, it’s never routine.”

6) On theology: A youth leader in Pittsburgh who taught the teenagers to whom he ministered that the incarnation of Jesus could be thought of as “God in the meat” and expressed the sovereignty of God in all experiences of life with the phrase, “No matter what, God is always in charge.”

7) On words: Another friend in Pittsburgh who later became an Episcopal priest shared that he had determined after much reflection that the most critical word in the English language is grace.

8) On poverty: A wise Presbyterian minister and missionary who said: “If you want to know the heart of a politician, pay attention to what he (or she) says and does about the poor.”

9) On play and character: A basketball coach in Massachusetts who told his players: “If you have to foul deliberately or seek to hurt another player, you are admitting your opponent is a better player and a better person than you.”

10) On life: The opening line of The Purpose-Driven Life by the Rev. Rick Warren: “It’s not about you!”

11) On money: My mother (despite her wrongly suggesting the maxim came from the Bible rather than from Shakespeare), who urged her children: “neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

12) On Jesus: The 30th verse in chapter three of the gospel attributed to St. John (NRSV) concerning John the Baptist’s  joy at recognizing Jesus as the Messiah: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

13) On Music: Country music legend Hank Williams said it in one of his gospel songs: “When I get to glory, I’m gonna’ sing, sing, sing.”

(And, yes, despite tales of his legendary degradations, I expect to sing with Hank in heaven because God is merciful and forgiving, and I think The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and author of Songs My Grandma Sang, will heartily join us; as will the World War II German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who loved above all else during his brief sojourn in New York City the singing at a church he visited in Harlem; and so, too, will my mother, who enthusiastically welcomed monthly “Singspiration” services at our Baptist church in Brooklyn.) http://wp.me/p86oI1-3K
 

Random Acts of Poetry Day–October 2017

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

On October 4, we celebrate Random Acts of Poetry Day.

Poets everywhere will write poems on sidewalks, blackboards, and whiteboards. They will pin poems on bulletin boards wherever they are found; and perhaps will distribute copies of poems in parks and on streets, buses, trains, and subways; and in restaurants, libraries, airports, shops, hotel lobbies, or any place encouraging public advertisements.

I offer four poems to random electronic readers to celebrate the day. Only one of the four I’ve selected is mine. The others are favorites, some of which I’ve mentioned in this blog earlier.

  • Simple Simon by Eve Merriam a

Simple Simon

Met a high man

In the government.

 

Said Simple Simon

To the high man,

“How are the taxes spent?”

 

“Billions,” said the high man

“For an antimissile system

That’s bound

To be obsolete

Before it ever

Gets off the ground.”

 

“But that’s ridiculous!”

Said Simple Simon

“If people knew

They’d make a fuss.”

 

“True,” said the high man.

“And when you take into account

That for just about half that amount

Everybody could have a decent job

And a house in a decent neighborhood.”

 

“Fantastic,” said Simple Simon.

“I don’t believe it.”

 

Said the high man,

“Good.”

                  a) from The Inner City Mother Goose. 3rd Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, p. 15.

 

  • My Brother’s Shirt, by Rebecca Kai Dotlich.b

It is mine now,

one stiff Army shirt,

THOMPSON printed

on the pocket.

United States Army

sends something home;

gives part of you back.

The part that cannot

breathe, or speak

or tease me

anymore.

                    b) From America at War. Edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, 2008, p.67.

 

  • “Racer” by Allan Roy Andrews c

Slender, thinner than one ought,

Her thighs taut, her back sloped

To drive body-force into revolutions,

She conquers nature, a captain

At the helm, married to the wind

And snarling at her upstream cruise.

A jogger on jagged steel;

A devotee to the derailleur; a lover

Lashed to drooping handlebars,

She gloats in unstopped speed,

And the sprocketed ticking

Of her spoked feet rises and fades,

A hissing siren kissing asphalt,

Luring my legs to her ways.

                    c) Originally published in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature Vol. X, No. 2, Spring, 1993, page 60. Accessed at poetrybyara.wordpress.com

 

  • i thank You God for most this amazing by e. e. cummings d

i thank You God for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

 

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth

day of life and of love and wings and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

 

how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any—lifted from the no

of all nothing—human merely being

doubt unimaginable You?

 

(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened.)

                    d) From 100 Selected Poems by e. e. cummings. New York: Grove Press First Evergreen Edition, 1959, Poem 95, page 114.

 

Dust and Silence: Two Small Reflections

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Part I: Dust

Genesis 3:19b: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

I shall return to dust. So, will you.

Such is the decree the scriptures make as a reminder to every child of God willing to humbly acknowledge his or her material origins. It is especially aroused in the memory of Christian believers who kneel at the altar on Ash Wednesday and receive the sign of the cross written in ashes on their foreheads.

I recall thinking this was a sobering and fearful pronouncement when I first knelt to receive the ashes of Lent.

But the promise of God, the creator-redeemer-sustainer, has changed that and taken away my fears. Dust is not nothingness. And despite sounding harsh to human ears, the return to dust is a return to our origins. Even DNA goes to dust.

And, as an added assurance, contemporary quantum physics has supported my faith optimism, which assures me that the most fundamental material of the universe is dust!

We will all become dust again, no matter if we are buried, incinerated, blasted into irretrievable particles, devoured, or lost in the depths of the sea. We will return to the material out of which the Lord God created us.

Dust is God’s material; the potter’s clay; the soil of sustenance; the stuff of galaxies and the periodic table; the mysterious dark matter.

Dust speaks to me, saying, “Be at ease; the Potter remains at work.”

 

Part II: Silence

In the Hebrew scriptures, the First Book of Kings relates the story of the prophet Elijah.

As that book nears its conclusion, Elijah, fleeing the angry wrath of Jezebel the sinister wife of King Ahab, is miraculously led by an angel and kept going for forty days until he reaches a cave at Mount Horeb in the Sinai desert. This location is the same region, many scholars tell us, where Moses first spoke with the great “I AM.”

Here Elijah learns that God reveals himself in the windstorm, and more powerfully in the quaking of the earth, and also in a roaring fire (perhaps of eruption).

But then the surprising text tells us the prophet discovers that God is found in the “sheer silence.” (I Kings 19:12)

The New Revised Standard Version gives us the startling Hebrew expression in English: “the sound of the sheer silence.”

And probably you, as did I, thought singer Paul Simon was the first to write about the sounds of silence!

Sidetracked by three authors in August

Monday, September 4th, 2017

Call me a peruser of books.

Typically, I survey a book for at least fifteen or twenty minutes before deciding I wish to read it. Then it goes into a pile or on a list where it might languish for weeks or months before I engage it again. My Kindle Reader app contains five or six times as many “free samples” as it has purchases.

August surprised me this year because three books I encountered kept me reading after a first perusal to the point that I knew I wanted to engage fully what these authors address. Here I merely introduce them to your consciousness.

Sidetrack One: Reinvestigating Children’s Literature:

Serendipity led me to Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, (New York: Simon & Schuster. 2017) a reminiscence by Bruce Handy, an editor at Vanity Fair (and, more importantly, a father who recalls reading to his children). His book appears packed with surprising wisdom and anecdotes.

Go back, as Handy does, and read the growing-older Christopher Robin’s sad announcement to his Pooh in the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner. Young Robin knows he is soon to leave for a faraway school:

“I’m not going to do Nothing anymore.”

“Never again?” Pooh responds.

“Well, not as much. They don’t let you.”

When it comes to Children’s Literature, I have been a sampler: a little Pooh, a little Spock, a little Silverstein, a little C.S. Lewis, a little E.B. White. In perusing Handy’s engaging handbook, I wanted to drop everything and dive into the genre like an enthusiastic graduate student. I’ve already put on reserve at my public library Handy’s recommended In The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, by Bette Lord.

I remember from my studies as a graduate student of psychology the lesson I learned reading Gail Sheehy’s comments after her book Passages became a runaway best-seller. She confessed that her first task before starting to write was to go to the children’s section of a library and read everything she could find on her subject.

To quote the greatest book, I urge all researchers, “Go Thou and do likewise.”

Sidetrack Two: Truths Leaked from the Classroom:

Each month, despite my lapsed subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style, I am offered a free online book from the University of Chicago Press. In September, that book is The Secret Lives of Teachers (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press. 2015), written by an anonymous New York teacher. He calls himself Horace Dewey, and he works and writes at the fictitious East Hudson High School (which probably means he teaches somewhere in Manhattan or Yonkers or farther upstate on the same side of the river that still houses the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the village of Ossining).

By remaining anonymous, the author gives himself room to seriously critique schools, students, colleagues, parents, curriculum, administrators, school boards, and politicians.

Anyone who has taught school, be it public or private, surely harbors a suppressed voice of criticism of our nation’s educational systems. Thus, our anonymous New York educator, a “leaker” in one sense of the word, can speak the truth outside of the institution and thus unveil the secret lives and dreams of teachers.

As one who harbors deep criticism of the personnel- and economics-centered policies that rule most schools at the shameful expense of student-centered and humanitarian efforts, I am reading Anonymous closely. I hope to report my conclusions around the time school lets out for Christmas holidays. And remember Christopher Robin’s words about doing nothing: “They don’t let you.”

Sidetrack Three: The Holy Eucharist as an Ambush.

Perhaps I should list my third sidetracking as more of an ambushing. The book, which is about a decade old, has been lying around our house for years. My wife swears she once raved about its importance and significance, but it was just last month I discovered it (in my wife’s bedroom bookcase). Thus, I consider myself ambushed by this story published more than a decade ago.

In a way, the book, Take This Bread: The Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-first Century Christian (New York: Ballantine Books. 2007), itself relates a kind of ambushing.

Its author, Sara Miles, is a product of an atheistic, socialistic family that encouraged her to read The Sunday Edition of the New York Times rather than bother with any thoughts of going to church. About Jesus, she learned from her father that some believe he was a god, but many believe he was a really, really good man.

Miles attended a radical Quaker college and learned the life of a restaurateur in a New York City kitchen and then went to work as a researcher with a human rights advocacy group. She wound up in Mexico, Nicaragua, and several other international trouble spots, where she became embroiled in revolutionary politics and warfare, learned to eat where there was little food, was shot at, fell in love, got pregnant, and returned for safety to San Francisco, where her daughter was born.

That’s all introductory.

Miles, at the age of 46, one day, while her daughter slept, strolled unintentionally and curiously into the sanctuary of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco and took a seat with about twenty other people there for a service.

At the appropriate time, Miles went to the altar with the others after hearing a woman at the altar table say, “Jesus invites everyone to his table.”

Soon, Miles reports, “someone was putting a piece of fresh crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.”

Talk about being ambushed!

 

I am a Window

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

As a child, I spent many quiet hours, especially on rainy days, sitting atop a living room radiator that stood as an extended sill in front of the window of our second-story apartment. Through the framed glass I could observe the street below, and watch the daily movements that passed before my eyes.

Cars splashed up the avenue, sometimes stopping, parking, and discharging occupants and drivers. Many were those who visited the bar and grille next door or the barber shop across the avenue. Most rushed forward, racing to beat the next traffic signal, flashing before my vision for a few seconds and then disappearing with a steady roar and the slick sound of rainwater thrown up behind their wheels.

On the cross street further down the block in front of the park, a two-way scene hurriedly danced up and down the boulevard: autos, trolley cars (later replaced by buses), delivery trucks, taxicabs, patrol cars, bicycles, and strollers beneath colorful umbrellas, some pushing canopied baby carriages.

As the rain slowed, pigeons and starlings began to dart across the gray sky above, soaring to treetops or the protection of gables and cornices on the neighborhood roofs. And periodically a commercial airplane, its engines roaring, its landing wheels already lowered, descended loudly and swiftly along its glide path into nearby LaGuardia Airport.

Overnight visitors to our flat often bolted awake, startled by the roar of the planes as they passed overhead, seemingly coming in on the roof of our building. To me, they had become night rhythms that accented peaceful sleep.

Similarly, a loose sewer cover in the middle of the street outside our building–the same one we used for home plate in our street games of stickball–would rattle like a cannon when a car or truck rolled over it, often startling guests, but providing me a melody of my urbanity.

When the rain stopped, and the window through which I was watching had become streaked with rivulets sliding to some hidden and mysterious pool below the sill, I began to see pedestrians. Salesmen and delivery boys emerged, making their rounds; housewives scurried along soaked sidewalks to get to market before the rain began again, which often it did. Children, many of them my playmates, had been banished to the indoors, perhaps like me, looking long, aimlessly, and hopeful at the scene outside their windows.

Trees appeared greener. Parked automobiles shone as if they’d returned to the showroom. The asphalt and concrete pavement seemed friendlier, cooler, thankful for the relief to its dry and hungry pores and the scrubbing of auto and animal grime from its face.

Unconsciously and wisely, the window framed life for me. Framing is a photographic artist’s primary tool. He or she sees the world through a magnifying window and works at reducing or expanding what is seen. So too, the writer always peers through some imagined or constructed window frame.

I recall reading encouraging words from some critic whose identity I can’t remember but whose words entered my soul: “Never accuse a writer who stares out a window as being lazy or negligent; every artist who peers for long periods through a window is quietly at work.”

An art professor I knew confessed he could not begin a painting or the assemblages on which he’d built his reputation and career as a collagist until he had spent time shopping for the right frame he would then push himself to fill imaginatively.

Jesus used prolific metaphors–traditionally identified as parables–in the gospels. In a way, the gospels are a metaphoric window to the mysteries of the Spirit.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur has called a metaphor a “surplus of meaning.” That is, a metaphor is not constricted into one meaning, but overflows with nuances and suggestions.

I am a window, and when I place my frame around my vision, my dreams, my experience, and my imagination, I am compelled to transform what I behold through that metaphoric window into words that provide a surplus of meaning on a page.

And being a window transforms me into becoming a pen.

 

Emma Lazarus and Trump’s Immigration Policy

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

The Statue of Liberty became a subject of a White House press conference on August 2.

Reports of that press briefing brought attention to the poem inscribed on a plaque that adorns the pedestal of the statue, a poem composed in 1883, almost twenty years after France gave the statue to the United States to celebrate the centennial of America’s independence from England.

The poem had been solicited from Emma Lazarus, a well-known New York City socialite and writer, to be auctioned for funds to help build the pedestal on which the statue now stands.

At the White House news conference on August 2, Jim Acosta, a CNN reporter (whose father, he told the speaker, was a Cuban refugee), challenged the speaker, senior advisor Stephen Miller, who was outlining President Trump’s proposed immigration policy.

“What the President is proposing here does not sound like it’s in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration,” Acosta said. He went on to quote the lines from Lazarus’s poem, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Miller’s ranting, ad hominem rejoinder entailed a pedantic history lesson that correctly noted: “The poem that you’re referring to, that was added later, is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.”

Despite his pompous attempt to separate the poem from the statue, Miller, known for his supra-nationalist and anti-immigration perspectives, was incorrect in identifying the poem as “America Enlightening the World.” The French entitled their gift to America “Liberty Enlightening the World.”

The Washington Post characterized the heated exchange between Miller and Acosta as “a symbolic tug-of-war that has been particularly important on the far right, where the longtime mission has been to cut the statue free from immigration.”

As the Post went on to outline, Lazarus herself has been a target of anti-socialist, anti-semitic, and racist arguments, citing Rush Limbaugh, David Duke, and Richard Spencer as attackers of her and her poem.

Lazarus died at 38, a year after her poem was introduced at the dedication of the statue in 1886. Though her poem was read aloud, women were not invited to the Bedloe’s Island ceremony. She witnessed the dedication with a group of women aboard a vessel in the harbor.

The poem, largely ignored and forgotten until 1903, became famous when a plaque containing it was attached to the statue’s pedestal. From that day on, almost every school child in New York City learned to recite her most famous lines–the same lines Acosta quoted in his exchange with Miller at the White House.

Lazarus called her poem “The New Colossus,” and a careful reading of its opening lines indicates she was trying to separate America’s symbol of liberty from the arrogant, defensive view of the Greeks who erected the original “Colossus” at Rhodes.

Her response to the invitation soliciting the poem was to say she couldn’t write a poem to a statue! What Mr. Miller seems to have missed is that while the poem is separate from the statue as an icon, it augments the idea of liberty that the French recognized in the American Republic.

The poem remains unmistakably attached to the statue’s symbolism of “liberty for all” as surely as the Bill of Rights girds the Constitution despite those amendments being enrolled at a later date to the ratified Constitution.

Lazarus wrote the poem to honor the freedom found in the United States by Russian-Jewish refugees in New York City, many of whom she taught. She understood that the statue was more important as a symbol of welcome to refugees than as a defensive warning to approaching ships. She framed the accurate appellation on the statue: “Mother of Exiles.”

The real problem here as I see it is that Mr. Miller exhibits a disrespectful attitude toward poetry. I cheer Mr. Acosta for quoting lines from a memorized poem in attempting to challenge a mean-spirited immigration policy.

Unfortunately, the defenders of poetry in contemporary political life are few and far between–and that includes many in the world of journalism. (I intend to explore this problem in a later post, citing former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers as an ally.)

Judge for yourself. Here’s Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, The New Colossus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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Allow me to call readers’ attention to a post of mine written in October 2011 that offers a memory of my being born and nurtured in Brooklyn, New York. Importantly, many of the streets in which I played, grew, and became educated provided views of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. As I note, during my childhood, the statue was my neighbor. (“Mother of Exiles at 125”):  http://wp.me/p86oI1-29

 

Signs, Slogans, and Sermons

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

1) From a bumper sticker on a car at a refueling station in Columbia, MD:
“I get my comedy from Fox News and my news from Comedy Central.”

–This clever twist on the news expresses what researchers are learning about the so-called Millennial Generation, those between the ages of 18-34, and how they consume news. Most studies show a heavy reliance on social media.

Researchers at The American Press Institute, for example, suggest young adults in America approach news in a manner that does not follow patterns of their elders yet remains informed and aware. (a)

2) From a billboard on Interstate 95 in North Carolina:
“Real Christians love their enemies.”

–This suggestion arises directly from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 5:43-45):
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

Its admonition raises a serious challenge to any Christians calling for stronger restrictions on immigration or any demanding the annihilation of terrorists. At its root, it challenges anyone defending nationalist aggression; it distinguishes Christian faith from any nationalistic allegiance; and it places love of neighbor/sojourner above any tribal, familial, or creedal priorities other than the love of God.

Incidentally, as a roadside billboard, it reminds us that loving one’s enemies must trump our road rage.

3) From a coffee mug at my son’s house:
“Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.”
–Soren Kierkegaard.

–What can I say?
Faith@Ease and Josef Pieper (faithatease.com/2007/02) find an ally in an existentialist Dane! And a recommendation of two cups a day of caffeine apparently is gaining favor among health nutritionists. (b)

4) From Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. HarperCollins. 2006:
“Jesus’ followers and even those Jews who chose not to follow him would have agreed with such basic assertions as that God is our father, and that his name should be hallowed, and that the divine kingdom is something to be ardently desired.”

–Required reading for Christians!
Levine, if confronted with the billboard referenced above, might suggest that Christians can’t be “real” until they know and appreciate the Judaism of Jesus.

Links:

a) American Press Institute

b) Medical News Today

 

 

 

 

Growing an Anthology of Favorite Poems: Four More

Friday, June 30th, 2017

Summer arrived in the northern hemisphere on June 21 this year when the sun stood above the Tropic of Cancer and seemingly “stopped” before beginning its return toward the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn where it will bring summer to the southern hemisphere.

A new season seems a good time for me to share more of my collected favorite poems. I began this listing back in January and promised to recommend a few more as the year went by periodically. Six months later, I’ve determined that each change of season is a good time to add to my anthology.

For anyone interested in my inspiration for building my collection of favorites, I recommend poet Robert Pinsky’s 2014 book, Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters. New York: W.W. Norton.

My previous postings in this exercise are available at http://wp.me/p86oI1-7D and http://wp.me/p86oI1-8Q. Here are four more, added for Summer 2017:

  • “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish. From Collected Poems 1917-1982. Houghton-Mifflin, 1985.

For me, MacLeish was the first poet I read who defined poetry. His opening and closing lines capture the notions of metaphor and being: “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit,/ . . . A poem should not mean/But be.”

(https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/17168) 

  • “A Shropshire Lad: XIII” by A.E. Housman. The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman. Public Domain. This version is from “The Writer’s Almanac” on Public Radio broadcast on March 29, 2017.

I was introduced to this poem in college when I was “one and twenty.”  Housman struck a chord for a young man working hard to study and keep my fancy free.

(https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/shropshire-lad-xiii)

  • “Flock” by Billy Collins. From The Trouble with Poetry.

–Collins introduces this poem with a note regarding the Gutenberg Bible from an article on printing. The spiritual power of the ending will catch you off guard.

(https://poetry-fromthehart.blogspot.com/2011/06/flock-billy-collins.html)

  • “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye. From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Portland, OR: Far Corner Books, 1995.

–Almost every poet at some point writes what poetry teachers call a list poem. Nye’s is one of the best in that form; it defines the notion of fame as no lexicographer could imagine. That’s why we need poetry!

(https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47993

A Reflection for Father’s Day, 2017

Friday, June 16th, 2017

The Posture of Loving God and Being Loved.

Jesus Cleanses a Leper (Mark 1:40-41–NKJV)

Now a leper came to Him, kneeling down to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.”

My parents raised me in New York rental dwellings whose floor plans gave them the label of “railroad apartments” because their rooms lined up like train cars stretching from backyard to street.

To walk from the dining room that overlooked our backyard to reach the living room or my bedroom facing the street, one had to pass through two other bedrooms, one of them my parents’ master bedroom, with its load-bearing wall opening widely to a large living room and my tiny adjoining bedroom.

The master bedroom thus provided a thoroughfare for pedestrians. One closed door and heavy curtains to cover the opening to the living room provided privacy for my parents, but I frequently had to pass through en route to and from my bedroom.

My father, an ironworker, went to bed early and rose every morning before sunrise and headed for a subway or bus trip to some skeleton of a skyscraper going higher somewhere in Brooklyn. Each night, usually when “I Love Lucy” or “Red Skelton” or “Tennessee Ernie Ford” or “What’s My Line?” was signing off, he stepped into his bedroom and readied for sleep.

And as I tiptoed back and forth, the indelible image I retain is my pajama-clad father kneeling beside his bed, his steely hands folded and his head bowed, as he silently engaged in private conversation with God and undoubtedly recited the prayers he learned in his Methodist childhood and taught to my older siblings and me.

So, as I read about St. Mark’s leper imploring Jesus, I hardly attend to the conversations exchanged; I am impressed by the kneeling, the stretching, and the touching. These provide dancing expressions of need, hope, and love. In these movements, Jesus and the leper share desire, willingness, and hope.

So too, my father in his prayerful liturgy–on his knees, hands folded, head bowed–left me images of compassion and healing and modeled for me a skyscraping posture of love.

“Give It Away”

Monday, June 5th, 2017

I was enrolled in an online Devotional Writing Workshop through the Lifelong Learning Center at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia,  when I wrote this reflection.

For a long time, I have been developing a criticism of seminaries for their lack of courses and programs aimed at teaching future clerics the craft of writing. In my experience and research, writing courses offered at seminaries across the nation almost exclusively teach writing as a handmaiden to preaching or model a typical graduate school research course, emphasizing the mechanics of academic writing and manuscript preparation. Future pastors would be better served by studying creative writing, I think.

Emphases are changing in scattered institutions that train clergy. Some are beginning to explore writing as a form of ministry–thanks be to God.

I think writing poetry and creative fiction demands a place in the curriculum for future pastors, and I think I’d find support for this idea from one of my favorite writer/clerics, Frederick Buechner, who gave much to establishing a place for creative writing students at King University in Bristol, Tennessee.

I joyously learned that a former professor of mine wrote a book in his retirement concerning the biblical tales told in the writings of Flannery O’Connor. He has been teaching this subject part-time.

(I’ll get back to that after I’ve finished his book. If you’d like a head start, it’s Passing By the Dragon:  The Biblical Tales of Flannery O’Connor, by J. Ramsey Michaels, Wipf & Stock. 2013.)

===============================

Here is a sample example of my devotional writing from the workshop:

“Give It Away”

“When Jesus heard that, he said, “Then there’s only one thing left to do: Sell everything you own and give it away to the poor.”

(Luke 18:22a; The Message)

   As my wife and I approached the entrance of a supermarket, I pulled some bills from my wallet and gave them to her so she could buy a birthday card for our daughter-in-law on our way to the party. We planned separate routes as we entered the store: she would seek the stationery while I dashed up the aisles headed for party nuts and birthday candles.

   “Can you let me have two dollars?” asked an unknown woman standing at the market’s entrance as I nearly bumped into her in my haste.

   I stopped, and my wife walked on. The woman, about as tall as my six feet and not at all disheveled, wore a black T-shirt with the bold white letters of Christ’s Church emblazoned across it.

   “What do you need two dollars for?” I asked, thinking she might be soliciting for her church and swallowing my instinctive “Excuse me,” as we stood nearly face to face.

   “I’m going down to Sander’s to get something to eat,” she said.

   I slid two dollars from my billfold, handed them to her and asked, brazenly sounding like an interrogator, “Where is Christ’s Church?”

   Unspoken was my judging thought, “Why don’t you go to your church for aid?”

   I never actually heard her response, but my sudden thought staggered me: “I am Christ’s Church.” And then, “Give it away!” I heard my faith say.

   My children at times when we’ve been traveling call me a sucker for anyone soliciting money who hastens between columns of cars halted by a red light. My fatherly retort has been: “We’re not called to judge their need, and I can’t know what they intend to do with the money.”

   I put two bills in the woman’s hand as she said, “God bless you,” and stepped away toward sunlight. I started toward party nuts and birthday candles, mouthing a similar blessing for her, and strode up the aisle still squeezing my billfold.

   “Give it away,” I again heard my faith whisper.

 

Sanctuary: A block of wood full of words

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Demolition workers felled the 50-year-old chapel at the turn of the century on the campus of my alma mater to make way for a new educational building (work crews built a larger chapel at a different location). The crews carefully removed the oak flooring and cut each board into 3”-by-2.5” blocks, later stained and stamped with an engraving of the chapel and mailed to alumni and donors urged to help pay for the new building. Sitting and gazing at that block of wood that now decorates my bookcase provokes good memories of choirs, and weddings, and talented schoolmates.

During my matriculation, students attended mandatory daily chapel services. The services, not always spiritual, introduced us to many guest speakers, several preachers who thought themselves entertainers, and several entertainers who thought themselves preachers in this venue. We heard faculty deliver non-academic talks about themselves as seekers and believers. We occasionally watched a short film or slide show and also listened to our eloquent dean of the college make weekly reports on administrative matters. I don’t remember much from his talks, but he taught me a word I’ve never forgotten: he always reminded us when services ended to “egress” through the appropriate exits of the building.

I recall spending time alone in the building with its stained-glass windows, split chancel, and a table displaying an open Bible and a small golden cross. I didn’t visit the empty chapel for prayer or personal devotion, but rather to be in a quiet place for reading and reflecting in silence—a sanctuary—not something readily available on the bustling campus, not even in the library or a dormitory.

Sometimes I listened while some student music major practiced on the electronic organ. We never spoke. The practicing musicians typically left when they finished through a side door just behind the organ bench; I walked to the rear of the sanctuary and egressed through the narthex (another word I learned in this building; though, most at that time referred to it as a lobby) to the main door.

I did get to the point of leaving my copy of Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament in one of the book racks of a front pew. I was studying German at the time and found this a quiet retreat, einer Zugfluchsort [refuge, shelter; a “flee-to spot”], or eines Heiligtum [sanctuary, shrine; that is, “a holy place”]. Its silence helped me grapple with the conjugations and cases of a foreign language that I’ve never fully mastered.

I wrote inside the book’s cover, “Please do not remove from the chapel.” Gratifyingly, no one ever did for four years.

And now a block of wood still transmits and upholds for me an experience of quiet and ease.

Two Favorite Writers Who’ve Snared Me Again

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

In the past month, two writers I absorbed in my middle years and then set aside in my ensuing busyness presented theological and psychological wisdom I rediscovered in their works.

The first, Frederick Buechner, is enjoying the twilight of a fruitful career, and his writings have slowly and significantly shaped my theological musings.

While visiting with my sister- and brother-in-law in Philadelphia earlier this month I picked up a book on their dining room table and in about two minutes I was hooked. The Faces of Jesus (first published in 1974; reissued in 2005) became my latest guide to the mind of Buechner (and Jesus).

Just a few days later, while browsing in the new books section of my local public library, the thrill of discovery overcame me again as I picked up Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy  (published in 2017) by Anne LaMott.

Candidly, I admit I haven’t kept up with Buechner and LaMott. I estimate I’ve read about a third of what they’ve produced. I’ve shied from Buechner’s fiction, but as a young adult, I devotedly read (and reread) his casual and careful theological musings. LaMott simply snared me with her early Bird by Bird (published in 1994), and I think my devotion had lagged by the time she published Stitchings (in 2013).  But her often snarky single-Mom reflections have snared me again with sneaky spiritual insights in her rediscovery of mercy.

I emailed thanks to my sister- and brother-in-law for their wisdom and mercy in leaving reading material around their kitchen and dining room. I confessed that I found Buechner’s reflections on the gospel through his deep looks into the face (i.e., faces) of Jesus to be among the most profound guides to reading the Bible I’ve encountered.

For spiritual surprise and growth, you should dive into these two authors. Below, I offer some dangling bait to get you to swim around as I did:

From Buechner’s Faces of Jesus:

  • “. . . piety always runs the risk of saying too little or saying it wrong.”
  • “God makes his saints out of fools and sinners because there is nothing much else to make them out of.”
  • “If the doctrine of the divinity of Christ is paradoxical, it is only because the experience was paradoxical first. Much as we may wish it otherwise, reality seldom comes to us simple, logical, all of a piece.”

From LaMott’s Hallelujah Anyway:

  • “The Northstar that guides me through the darkness is the Old Testament prophet Micah. . . . he spoke the words that often remind me of my path and purpose: ‘What doth God require of thee but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?'”
  • “What Micah is talking about is grad school curriculum, while, spiritually speaking, I remain in junior high school, superior and cringing at the same time.”
  • “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, . . . But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

Good Friday’s Poetic Solemnity

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Easter 2017 has passed. Lenten sacrifices have been completed. The celebration of the Christian Holy Week is over until next year (to be celebrated secularly in 2018 as April Fool’s Day). I confess that the most solemn and meaningful Holy Week service this year for me occurred on Good Friday.

The Book of Common Prayer provides a proper liturgy for that day that focuses on solemnity.

For Christians, Good Friday is the day of recalling and meditating upon the betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and from beginning to end the liturgy is solemn, and celebration is subdued.

The rubric of the opening of the Good Friday liturgy instructs that “ministers enter in silence.” By custom, the clergy dresses entirely in black. The altar is stripped of any colorful seasonal dressings, and the clergy and lectors enter and kneel before the altar.

The service is comprised of readings from the Old Testament, especially the words of the prophet Isaiah describing the suffering servant. Then a Psalm is read or sung, often the text of Psalm 22, which contains the transliterated Aramaic words expressed by Jesus on the cross, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). The epistle to the Hebrews is read to remind Christians of the priesthood of Jesus “who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” A lengthy reading of the Passion Gospel of St. John follows Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is betrayed and arrested. The narrative continues to the place of the skull, Golgotha, where Jesus is nailed to a cross as a criminal, and to the unused tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, one of the followers of Jesus, where our Lord is laid to rest.

Typically in the Good Friday liturgy, a meditative sermon is preached, often on one or several of the words Jesus spoke from the cross, and an offering to be distributed to the poor is collected.

The remainder of the service is comprised of prayers while the people and clergy kneel or stand. With the prayers completed, clergy and congregation exit the sanctuary in silence.

Impressive for me this year were the two hymns we sang. I offer the lyrics here as two examples of solemn poetry marking the crucifixion of Jesus that took place outside Jerusalem on so-called “Good Friday” (which many scholars believe derives from “God Friday”).

When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died,

my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast save in the cross of Christ, my God:

all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet sorrow and love flow mingled down!

Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown!

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small;

love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

The above hymn, written by Isaac Watts in 1707, is in part a paraphrase of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (6:14).

The second hymn, considered by many to be the quintessential poem celebrating Holy Week, is believed to have been composed in either the 9th century by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, or in the 11th century by Arnulf of Leuven, a medieval poet. The text was first translated into English in 1752 by a British Anglican vicar, John Gambold. In 1899, Robert Bridges translated it into its more modern English.  It is most familiar sung to a tune that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for his St. Matthew Passion. (I provide only the first stanza.)

O sacred head sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn;

O kingly head, surrounded with mocking crown of thorn:

what sorrow mars thy grandeur? Can death thy bloom deflower?

O countenance whose splendor the hosts of heaven adore!

The text and music of both these hymns appear in the Hymnal 1982 of the Church Hymnal Society at numbers. 474 and 168 respectively.

And what do these Holy Week penultimate liturgies and texts provoke? The glorious declaration of Easter: “Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”