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A Little-known Martyr and Saint

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

I have spent time of late learning about some saints.

Take, for example, Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant, born in 1907 and beheaded in a Nazi prison in 1943.

Jägerstätter was 36 years old when his life was taken, but I never heard of him until 2013. He was a conscientious objector tried in Berlin for refusing conscription into the German army and executed as “an enemy of the state.”

Jägerstätter, a farmer and church sexton, reported as ordered for military induction rather than flee as many of his friends advised. He refused to serve and spent the next five months in prison before being murdered.

The story of this little-known martyr is documented in a 1964 book by Gordon Zahn: In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter (Springfield, Ill.: Templegate Press, 1964, 1991).

For more information than I can provide, I suggest you view the embedded video presentation below from the Institute of Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

(This is a lecture by Notre Dame historian and theology professor Robert A. Krieg, and the video runs for almost one hour; it starts with too much banter in the lecture hall (skip ahead to 3:55).

The video is readily available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdxBBLXhAJA

 

I learned of Jägerstätter in Robert Ellsberg’s 1997 collection, All Saints: Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses For Our Time (NY: Crossroad, 1997).

Ellsberg is editor in chief of Orbis Books in New York City, and he is the son of Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame.

Interestingly, Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to copy and disclose the secret papers of the U.S. government in the wake of the Vietnam War was influenced by his learning of the experience of Franz Jägerstätter in World War II Germany and Austria.

Later, the younger Ellsberg, after learning that Jägerstätter’s letters and papers had been published in german in 2007, and knowing of Jägerstätter’s influence on his father, arranged for their translation and publication by Orbis in 2009. His choice of translators was Notre Dame’s Krieg.

As Krieg quips in his lecture: “The Holy Spirit is alive and well.”

Pope Francis and the radical theological importance of leisure

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

Pope Francis converses with two Argentinian journalists on “his life in his own words” in a new book released last month by Putnam (Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words. 2013).

New York Times reviewer Mark Oppenheimer says the conversations reveal “cute facts” about the new Pope but “not much interesting theology.”

Oppenheimer is sharp enough, however, to see a slight “radical note” in the pontiff’s words. That note, which has to do with faith at ease, lies in Pope Francis’ admonition for us to “relax.” And contrary to Oppenheimer’s assertion that these conversations contain “not much interesting theology,” they may point to the single most important theological consideration addressing the overwhelming consumer culture in which we toil.

Asked by his interviewers, “Do we need to rediscover the meaning of leisure?” the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics responds: “Together with a culture of work, there must be a culture of leisure as gratification. To put it another way: people who work must take the time to relax, to be with their families, to enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, play a sport.”

The Pope lays the blame for modern culture’s inability to truly relax largely to the destruction wrought by the culture’s creeping elimination of a day of rest—a Sabbath.

Oppenheimer’s review provides a capsule history of Sabbatarianism in America, noting that it has been “a Protestant thing,” but his survey indicates that in America keeping the Sabbath has largely been a social and legal debate, not a theological one.

I began this blog, “Faith at Ease,” six years ago by calling attention to the exposition of German philosopher Josef Pieper’s 1948 book, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, in which the author suggests that the oft-quoted admonition of Psalm 45, “Be still, and know that I am God,” is more appropriately translated as: “Be at leisure, and know that I am God.”

Leisure, from Pieper’s perspective, is not just a time-out or a break from the usual action; it is a celebration of creation and its commands; it is, as Pieper’s title says, “the Basis of Culture.” Contrary to Oppenheimer’s “slight” aside, leisure is theology at its most basic, what John Dominic Crossan reminds us is the culmination of the Biblical Creation narrative in the book of Genesis.

[Readers may want to view my earlier posts on this topic.
Regarding Pieper: http://wp.me/p86oI1-3
and
regarding Crossan: http://wp.me/p86oI1-1b

Incidentally, the new book reveals that a favorite movie of Pope Francis is “Babette’s Feast,” a Danish film that won the 1987 Academy Award for Best Foreign Motion Picture.

I heartily urge you to see this film if you have not yet watched it. The story is a tale of grace and giving, and it will undoubtedly encourage you the next time you partake of a leisurely and sumptuous meal.

All is Grace — Brennan Manning

Friday, January 11th, 2013

Recommended reading: Brennan Manning’s All Is Grace, with John Blase. [Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2011].

I’m not going to review Manning’s memoir; there are many such reviews on the Web. A good start might be with co-author John Blase’s review in the Huffington Post.

Manning is almost 80 years old and is receiving constant care as he suffers from what is described as “liquid brain,” a thiamine deficiency associated with alcohol abuse. Its formal name is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Most commentators see All is Grace as his final publication. [*see note at end of post.]

For me, ever since I read his signal 1990 book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Manning represents a life of faith at ease even though his biography illustrates someone whose tortured life is hardly at ease–unless one considers the gift of grace.

Others have seen this. A preliminary chapter of All Is Grace entitled “Reader Testimonies,” contains a brief note by the spiritual writer-editor-teacher Robert Benson, who nails the influence of Manning:

“I learned the truth of the gospel from Brennan, the same gospel you will find in this book: That in the end, my sin will never outweigh God’s love. That the Prodigal can never outrun the Father. That I am not measured by the good I do but by the grace I accept. That being lost is a prerequisite to being found. That living a life of faith is not lived in the light, it is discovered in the dark. That not being a saint here on earth will not necessarily keep you from being in that number when the march begins.” (emphasis mine–ara)

Want to hear the jazz of faith at ease? Read Manning’s memoir. And pray for his ease as he deals with his disease.

*[On Friday, April 12, 2013, Richard Francis Xavier (Brennan) Manning died.] 

 

“Fear not”: A reminder I need every day

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

Those who do such counting tell us the Bible uses the phrase “Fear not” or some permutation of that sentiment more than 300 times. One counter has suggested these words are mentioned 366 times, once for each day of the annual calender (including leap years).

If we were to include phrases such as, “Be at peace,” the number goes higher; in fact, one Bible reference suggests the word peace appears more than 500 times and if we add the notion of quiet, the number increases still more.

Peace, quiet, and “Fear not” suggest to me that my faith should be at ease.  Yet, I fear.

Yesterday was World Peace Day, urging particularly that all pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Watch and listen while praying:

 

Dream Muse

Sunday, November 18th, 2012
Dream Muse
           by Allan Roy Andrews 
 
I seek the diction for my poem
and lonely as a cloud I roam
the pages of anthologies;
but finding there no words to please,
I gentle go to that good night
and in my dancing dream I write
a poem as clear as ear has heard
then wake–and can’t recall a word. 

 

Posted on the Website “Author Amok” 

April 3, 2012, with permission.

 

It’s always a wonderful and somewhat serendipitous pleasure to find others wanting to post my poems on their Websites. This poem was actually solicited on the blind during National Poetry Month this year, but it took me about another month or more to actually visit the Website and see my attempt at humor posted to the world.

 

Mother of Exiles at 125

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

MOTHER OF EXILES
BY ALLAN ROY ANDREWS

I grew up a neighbor to the Statue of Liberty.

From the apartment in which we lived during my youth in Brooklyn, I could glance down the street toward New York Harbor and see the statue on Liberty Island (which we knew as Bedloe’s Island; it was renamed in 1956). The statue gleamed at night as floodlights shone upon it; during the day it showed the green tint of weathering copper.

On October 28, 2011, the statue celebrated the 125th anniversary of its dedication.

New York City children in the late 19th century donated pennies that went toward the building of the pedestal upon which the statue stands. Newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant, promised to publish the names of every donor to the pedestal fund. The French, who presented the statue to the United States, a gift celebrating America’s 1876 centennial, called it “Liberty Enlightening the World.”

Almost every New York City school child recalls the 1883 poem of Emma Lazarus dedicated to the statue. Thousands have heard or read Lazarus’s poem. Not many, however, recall its official name, “The New Colossus,” a name the poet chose to emphasize that the Statue of Liberty was “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame” providing a defiant defensive stance, but one that would be a beacon of “world-wide welcome.”

Lazarus, a well-known New York poet, was asked to write a commemorative poem to be auctioned as part of the pedestal fundraising. She responded that she couldn’t write about a statue. However, she turned her compassion for Jewish-Russian refugees—many of whom she taught–into a compelling appeal on their behalf. She understood the statue’s imagery and its powerful message to those sailing into a welcoming haven.

The most memorable lines of her sonnet are words given the “mighty woman with a torch”:

“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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Lazarus turned the French appellation of enlightenment into a compassionate symbol of freedom and opportunity, a promise of liberty to those oppressed in foreign lands. In her sonnet, she called the woman with the torch that gleams with that message of welcome the “Mother of Exiles.”

Lazarus was not on Bedloe’s Island when the statue was dedicated in 1886. Her poem was read but barely noticed and little recalled following the celebration.

The poet died the next year. She was 38. Her poem later became immortalized on the pedestal of the statue in 1903.

Despite being raised in New York City, I’ve never visited Liberty Island; I’ve never stood at the base of the statue or climbed inside its magnificent structure. I’ve never taken a tourist’s stance toward Lady Liberty; to me, she was a neighbor and friend. Even as the son of immigrants I’ve never felt a need for a compulsory visit to her island home. Nevertheless, with a little help from Emma Lazarus, I knew deeply what the Mother of Exiles exemplified about my country.

A victim of frequent neglect, the statue has been refurbished twice, once in 1938 and again in 1986. On October 29 of 2011, she has closed again to inside climbers so that alterations can make her safer.

We may recover her safety and sheen, but we have neglected to polish her symbolic message.

Sentiments such as those promoted by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), for example, suggest the statue’s beckoning of openness in this era is “an invitation to national disaster.” Playing on mean-spirited and misguided fear-arguments of job losses and national security, FAIR apparently would rather we muffle or extinguish the lamp of freedom blazing above New York Harbor as we seek to ferret out terrorism and illegal aliens. Emma Lazarus disagrees.

What is now in need of refurbishment in a time of selfish anti-immigration attitudes in several state legislatures of America are the sentiments of compassion, freedom, and welcome to the legitimately tired and poor yearning to breathe free, sentiments that Lazarus symbolically attributed to the copper-clad gift from France.

Protectionism often inhibits enlightenment. Should I decide soon to take my family to Liberty Island, it won’t be to focus arrogantly on America enlightening the world or on some warped sense of national security. Our visit will be to appreciate the Mother of Exiles and her enduring message of openness to poor and tired immigrants and refugees.

ALLAN ROY ANDREWS, a Brooklyn native whose parents sailed into New York harbor in the 1920s, is a retired editor of the Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper and a poet teaching and living in Maryland.

(In 2012 my wife and I and our youngest son relocated to Augusta, GA.)

Six-word Essays on Time

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

By Allan Roy Andrews

Now always dies
in clock time.

Streams of time
eventually dry up.

Life gives, but
Time takes away.

Clocks truly lack
faces and hands.

Has anyone seen
a clock smile?

Moment by moment
time abandons us.

The six-word essay is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who took up the challenge of telling a story in just six words.

The form has been popularized in recent years, largely through the online publication of Smith Magazine http://www.smithmag.net/sixwords/ and Narrative Magazine http://www.narrativemagazine.com/.

Whimsical Theology: Bread, beer, and “Everybody”

Friday, February 4th, 2011

By Allan Roy Andrews

An anonymous 20th-century devotional writer, reflecting on Jesus’ proclamation in the gospel of John that He is the “bread of life” (John 6:35), casually asserts that bread is “the most basic food there is.”

Without challenging the historical and liturgical implications of Christianity’s prayer for our daily bread or the cultural significance of bread as a fundamental and necessary sustenance of life (as in prisoners, the hungry, and the fasting staying alive on bread and water alone), I wonder about putting bread in this exalted position.

After all, aren’t the basic ingredients of bread the same as, or at least similar to, those that go into the making of beer?
What would it do to our theology—especially our view of the Incarnation—if Jesus had proclaimed, “I am the beer of life!”?

Many, from Martin Luther to Brennan Manning, would rejoice at such a seeming earthy assertion. This notion implies we might meet the savior as easily in a local pub as in a church sanctuary: What a drinking buddy we have in Jesus!

Sure the notion is a bit whimsical, but not, I think, without merit. Our attempts to understand how God could become a man (pitching his bodily tent among us) must allow that being fully human might mean drinking beer as well as eating bread with us (and would allow us to give thanks for our daily grains in all their forms).

Such thoughts form what I like to think of as whimsical theology, and one of my favorite proponents of this thinking is the singer and songwriter John Prine. Consider Prine’s encounter with Jesus in the lyrics of his song, “Everybody.”

While out sailing on the ocean;
While out sailing on the sea;
I bumped into the Savior,
And He said, “Pardon me.”
I said, “Jesus, you look tired.”
He said, “Jesus, so do you;
Oh, sit down son
‘Cause I got some fat to chew.”

Chorus:

Well, he spoke to me of morality,
Starvation, pain, and sin.
Matter of fact, the whole dang time
I only got a few words in.
But I won`t squawk–
Let `im talk–Hell, it`s been a long, long time,
And any friend that`s been turned down
Is bound to be a friend of mine.

Chorus:

Now we sat there for an hour or two
Just eatin’ that gospel pie,
When around the bend come a terrible wind,
And lightning lit the sky.
He said, “So long, Son, I gotta run;
I appreciate you listenin’ to me.”
And I believe I heard him sing these words
As he skipped out across the sea.

Chorus:
See, everybody needs somebody that they can talk to,
Someone to open up their ears
And let that trouble through.
Now you don`t have to sympathize
Or care what they may do,
But everybody needs somebody that they can talk to.

Everybody needs somebody that they can talk to.

Lyrics ©1972 John Prine

I’ll drink to that! Just remember: One cannot live by beer alone.

*********************************

Hear John Prine sing his whimsical theology:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LV3xva9ThUo

‘Crazy Heart’: It’s in the music–A divine call?

Friday, June 25th, 2010

It’s not in the acting; although, Jeff Bridges does an outstanding job portraying a country singer waging a losing battle with fading fame and booze.

It’s not in the romance; although, Maggie Gyllenhaal is captivating as the younger lover of the troubled star.

It’s not in the script; although, the story moves intelligently from bowling alley to big stage with lots of foreshadowing in dialogue and drama.

It’s not in the booze; although, for a change, there’s some deep reality to the hope provided through 12-step programs, and in the end, sobriety trumps a doomed sexual liaison.

It’s none of these that make “Crazy Heart” one of the outstanding movies of 2009; it’s in the music!

For one thing, Bridges is as admirable a singer as he is an actor, and his renditions of “A Hold on You,” “Fallin’ and Flyin,’” “Brand New Angel,” and snippets of the Academy Award winning song, “The Weary Kind,” mesmerize.

It helps to be a fan of country music to enjoy “Crazy Heart,” but the people who put this film together are connoisseurs of the genre.

Consider the songs that fill the background and carry Bridges’ staggering performance along its travels from drunkenness to degeneracy to dalliance to dangerous neglect to deliverance: Buck Owens singing “Hello, Trouble”; the Louvin Brothers singing “My Baby’s Gone”; Kitty Wells singing “Searching”; Waylon Jennings singing “Are You Sure Hank Did It This Way”; Lucinda Williams singing “Joy”; George Jones singing “The Color of the Blues”; the Delmore Brothers singing “I Let a Freight Train Carry Me On”; and in a happy transition scene (a balloon ride symbolic of transcendence), Townes Van Zandt singing “If I Needed You.” The music of “Crazy Heart” is more than window-dressing; it’s the dynamic driving the script.

Bridges’ cry for help: “I want to be sober,” and the portrayal of his session at a treatment facility should hearten the evangelists of 12-Step programs.

In that regard, I believe I detected a lyric change that might credit the emphasis 12-Step programs place on divine intervention.

Recovering from drunkenness, Bridges’ character, Bad (Otis) Blake, entertains in his friend’s bar with the song, “Brand New Angel.”

I’ve trooped through Web sites seeking the lyrics of this Greg Brown song. The chorus of which goes:
“Open the gates, welcome him in;
“there’s a brand new angel, a brand new angel . . .

The final line in the versions I searched is given as:
“With an old idea”; or
“With an old violin.

However, if you listen carefully to Jeff Bridges’ film rendition (not the soundtrack cut), the final line appears to be:
“Who doesn’t know me.”

Can this be God’s call to open the gates?

****************************

UPDATE: December 2016

Listen to Bridges on the clip below. His lyric on this soundtrack clip is none of the suggestions I’ve made above. Clearly, he sings “a brand new angel with an old Amen!” However, I’m planning to watch the film again to check once more.

Serendipitous laughter: Two experiences

Friday, June 25th, 2010

By Allan Roy Andrews

Experience No. 1:

Radio-television personality and humorist Art Linkletter died last week at 97. Until about two years ago, when he suffered a mild stroke, Linkletter was still active on the philanthropic circuit.
A few years before that, I heard Linkletter entertain at a small school fundraiser. Linkletter, whose adoptive father was a Canadian preacher, told someone at that gathering that he “liked to help out small Christian schools.”
In his comments that night, Linkletter told a joke that I have commandeered as a staple of fun found in growing older. Here’s the joke:
“You know you’re getting old when you bend over to pick something off the floor and you say to yourself, ‘What else can I do while I’m down here?’”
I have learned experientially what Linkletter spoke of, so I’ve used the joke a number of times, and it never fails to elicit hearty laughs.
Two of Linkletter’s books also keep me smiling: Kids Say the Darndest Things, and Old Age is Not For Sissies.

Experience No. 2:

For the group’s edification, I recently read to my Bible discussion gathering a favorite poem by Billy Collins called “Flock.”
Here’s the brief poem:

It has been calculated that each copy of the
Gutenberg Bible . . . required the skins of 300 sheep.
–from an article on printing.

I can see them squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building
where the printing press is housed,

all of them squirming around
to find a little room
and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible
to count them,
and there is no telling

which one will carry the news
that the Lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.

–from The Trouble with Poetry, by Billy Collins. (Random House, 2005.)

After a moment of silent reflection, one member of our group put me—and several others—in stitches when he said, “I’m having a Gary Larson moment,” referring to the prize-winning cartoonist of The Other Side who was noted for his surprising and often warped sense of humor.
“I can see a room full of monks, having just sheared a flock of sheep, taking up their calligraphy pens and writing verses of sacred scripture on the flanks of the shorn animals,” my friend continued. “They probably had a difficult time keeping the pages in order!”
It was a wonderful moment, and if Billy Collins ever reads about our experience, I have a feeling he’ll be smiling broadly too. And if Larson ever reads this report of my friend’s experience, he’ll probably be saying, “I wish I’d thought of that!”

Memoir exercise: An essay on influence and calling

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

By Allan Roy Andrews

I can’t be too far from water. I may not see it, smell it, sail on it, or swim in it, but I have to know that it’s there. Sometimes I think a river or a lake just won’t do. Chesapeake Bay, which lies about one mile from my house, is OK, but it would be much better if it were the ocean.

This longing for the nearness of the sea is a warped gene I apparently inherited from my father. His father was a schooner captain, as was my mother’s father, and as a young man my father went to sea aboard a cod-fishing schooner, serving mostly as a cook. He hated it, and when opportunity presented itself to leave the bleak future of a fisherman’s life in Newfoundland—compounded by a worldwide Depression—he relocated to New York City and became an ironworker. His work was far from the sea, but his consciousness was not, and our residences during my boyhood were within miles of New York Harbor or the Long Island Sound. I recall him once saying he could never live in the Midwest because he had to be close to the ocean. I didn’t realize it as a boy, but I recognize now that I instinctively knew what he meant.

We are shaped for good or ill by our parents, often in ways we don’t realize. I recall once sitting at dinner when I was in my mid-thirties (my father died when I was 32) and I leaned back and placed my hands over my face and eyes and let out a sigh. I had no more made the sound when I shrieked, “Oh, my God!” (prayerfully, not swearfully). I had caught myself in mid-gesture and recognized that I was repeating movements I had seen my father make hundreds of times, usually at the end of a good meal.

Asked in any academic or social setting if I thought my father had influenced me or had anything to do with my “calling,” I would offer a scoffing negative. The idea is absurd. My father was not, as I have become, a worker of the mind; he was a man of manual labor. He discouraged my pursuing his line of work. Not because of any fear; he just wanted his sons to know a better way of making a living than he had known. If he needed a business letter written or a simple math problem solved, he always asked me to handle the work. Despite this difference, as I have grown older I have recognized the subtlety of inheritance.

Desiring to be close to the sea is a good example of what I’m talking about. My father could hardly swim, and I did not learn to swim until I was in my sophomore or junior year in high school. Neither my father nor I have ever owned a boat. I jokingly tell people that my family is one of the half-dozen families living in Annapolis, Maryland—the sailing capital of the East—that does not own a boat. We live in a “water privileged” community, which means there’s a boat slip accessible to us (for a fee), but as far as we’re concerned water-privileged could mean we have flush toilets.

When I was a boy, I was convinced I would one day join the Navy. In high school, I explored the possibility of Navy ROTC. I learned some harsh things in my investigation: one is barred from Navy ROTC if one does not possess perfect vision (I don’t), and the ROTC manual even shocked me by asserting that one could be disqualified because of “extreme ugliness.” The Navy has since abandoned such a criterion, and I learned much later that perfect vision is required only of pilots and line officers and it can be measured as corrected vision. However, after that flirtation with Navy ROTC, I never thought of being a sailor again.

Both of my older brothers joined the military soon after high school. The oldest went into the Army; the next went into the Air Force. Ironically, they seem to have missed the be-near-the-ocean gene: The oldest settled in Indiana; the other in Ohio. I alone stayed in college and never served in the armed forces, and except for a brief sojourn to study and break into journalism in the Midwest, I’ve stayed within striking distance of the Atlantic coast. Eventually, I was called (I have a mild aversion to this phrase, but more on that later) to go overseas as a journalist (to the Pacific Ocean coast), and as God’s sense of humor would have it, I spent a decade of my adult life as a civilian editor for the Pacific Stars and Stripes, the Department of Defense newspaper that circulates on military bases overseas and on all the ships at sea. After that experience, I probably knew more about the ins and outs of the military than did either of my veteran brothers but nothing about the sea except to note that Japanese use every part of a fish.

I am surprised when I reflect on those who influenced me during my youth; many seem to have been niche players. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, an ardent Dodger fan, and my imagination and calling in those days was to one day play professional baseball. My favorite player on the Dodgers was a strong, silent outfielder named Carl Furillo. Decades after my meager baseball talents forced me to settle as a fan (alas, still a Dodger fan), I realized that Carl Furillo, often referred to as a “blue-collar” player, had strong hands, a thick neck, and the square features of my father. In a 1989 eulogy by Carl Erskine, one of his teammates, Furillo was described as a mixture of iron and velvet.

That’s how I perceive my father. He could reprimand his children or grandchildren with a bellowing “Don’t do that!” A microsecond later, he’d lower his voice to a compassionate whisper and say, “Don’t do that, my love!”

My Sunday School teachers sensitized me to faith; my elementary school teachers implanted a love of the English language; my high school teachers led me to the delights of art and drama and journalism. Once again it appears God has some cosmic comedy script he is following in designing my eclectic life. I became a journalist. Somewhat ironically, my high school graduated its last class in 2004 and has been since turned into a city magnet school called—I smile each time I say it or write it—The New York City Secondary School for Research, Law, and Journalism.

Two areas of my life drew lots of praise and encouragement when I was a boy: My singing and my writing. I’m not speaking of creative writing, but of my skill with a calligrapher’s pen. I won praise in art class for my lettering and script ability. I grew up in an age during which one of the mainstays of elementary education was instruction in penmanship; in fact, everyone in my family, my father, mother, sister, and brothers, each had a distinctively beautiful handwriting. To this day, my children (whose penmanship deteriorated with their age) mock the compulsive possessiveness I show for my collections of pens.

Later, after a failure as an engineering student, I took my mechanical drawing skills and experience and began working as an apprentice draftsman.

Throughout that time, I was more captivated by the master draftsmen’s skills with lettering. I read lots of books about the alphabet; I read entire tomes on the shaping of letters; in short, I taught myself to be a calligrapher. I’ve never worked at it professionally, but during my second stint in college I became the poster-maker par-excellence for whatever event on campus needed hasty advertisements. My children as pupils took a certain pride when I inscribed their names on brown lunch bags. They frequently had to convince other students that the names on their lunch bags were not stamped or pre-printed.

Regarding singing, I probably could have been trained as a boy treble. I sang solos often in church, and at the age of ten I sang on the radio. A half-year later, I was a featured soloist in my sister’s wedding (and 23 years later, as an adult tenor, I sang the same solo selections at the wedding of my niece, my sister’s daughter). My mother made overtures about sending me to school to study voice with a boy’s choir. But sports were my passion and there was no way I could be made to sing instead of playing ball. I still love to sing, but to me it is an ancillary joy, something I enjoy for the pure pleasure of it. I tend to shun pressures to sing in church choirs or to join seasonal entertainment programs.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
[This memoir was originally composed for an online class in spiritual memoir writing using a prompt on influences of my “calling.” It has been revised and adapted for this essay.]
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
I confess that at a point in this memoir-writing exercise, I found myself paralyzed in answering. That moment came when I encountered the writing prompt’s follow-up question regarding a time when I found myself “longing” to help a person or creature.

I’ve probably spent more time pondering this question than any other aspect of the assignment, and I have to say I can’t recall such a longing. The word longing, in fact, seems totally foreign to my reflections. Oh, I’ve known selfish longings for romance and fame and reward, but I think the question is probing my soul’s desire to serve others, and I confess that this language of longing has little meaning for me in that context. I want to say that those who nurtured and influenced me instilled a kind of Nike ethic if you will. Longing seems counter-productive. The operational and pragmatic phrase becomes “just do it.”

I think I have a similar sense of any “call” in my life to become a prophet, priest or journalist. I’ve always thought a calling had more to do with matching one’s skills and talents to the job at hand rather than describing any mystical or spiritual setting apart. This is not to say I don’t believe that God calls or sets apart; however, I’m not certain we are always able to grasp the intentions of God when we are placed in life situations that demand our just-do-it responses, if I can borrow that phrase again.

Even the response of putting words on paper in an effort to complete this exercise ultimately came down to my responding to a just-do-it urging.

I’d have probably felt a lot more comfortable with it if I’d been somewhere near the ocean.

A Parable of Grace from YouTube: Susan Boyle Sings

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

A Parable of Grace

By Allan Roy Andrews

If you’re among the seeming minority who has not yet viewed the seven-minute YouTube clip of the April 2009 audition of Scottish singer Susan Boyle on the “Britain’s Got Talent” show, by all means view that video

before you read further.

Today (Nov. 23, 2009), seven months after her audition (and after her 48th birthday), Boyle’s debut album goes on sale.  Pre-order sales at Amazon.com are at the highest for any pre-order of the year.  Incidentally, Boyle’s performance on YouTube has been watched over 100 million times, setting her clips as an online record (the clip to which I’ve referred above has been viewed over 79 million times as of this writing).

Back in April, I used the clip of Boyle’s audition for an exercise in a Composition 101 class I was teaching at a local community college.  I stopped the clip after Boyle introduced herself to the skeptical judges and audience and asked students to write their naive impressions of this woman who was about to sing.  Almost to a person, they described her as dumpy, dowdy, and not likely to impress anyone.

I stopped the clip after Boyle finished her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” from the musical Les Miserables, and asked the students to write a second reaction to the video. Again, there was almost universal shock and surprise at the power and quality of this singer’s voice.  The most frequent expression of these freshman writers was how the clip underscored the truth of the old aphorism:  “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

This, of course, was part of the writing and literature lesson I hoped to impress upon the students, and I asked them to write a third response after they heard what the astonished judges had to say after Boyle had sung. Most of them saw what I saw:  three judges confessing their biases and repenting of their prejudicial expectations.

The three judges, Simon Cowell (best known to American TV-audiences as the seemingly harsh and abrupt judge of “American Idol”); British actress Amanda Holden; and Piers Morgan, the author and editor turned talent scout and judge; each responded to Boyle’s performance with honest surprise and repentance.  Holden called the performance the “biggest wake-up call ever” to the cynical negativism she and the audience displayed and told Boyle she felt it a “complete privilege” to have heard her sing, and Morgan, the first to vote on Boyle’s audition, said he was in “total shock” and gave her the “biggest yes” he’s ever given anyone on the talent show.

Similarly, the audience, many of whom rolled their eyes and snickered at Boyle’s introduction, spent most of the time of her performance on its feet in a rousing ovation to her talent.

For me, the seven-minute clip was a parable of the triumph of grace.

For the record, Boyle did not win the competition; she placed second to an acrobatic and precision team dance act called “Diversity.”  The Great Britain audience that watched the final competition of “Britain’s Got Talent” was a record-setting 17.4 million viewers.  But one might say that “winning” is a matter of interpretation, as is demonstrated in the dynamic of many of the parables of Jesus.  The Good Samaritan and the widow who gave her mite, along with many others, turn out to be the “winners” of the scriptural stories.  In the parable of “Britain’s Got Talent,” Susan Boyle emerges a winner.

Briefly hospitalized for treatment of exhaustion after her highly publicized performances on the British talent show, Boyle has put together her first album, a mixture of well-known songs and Christian hymns, including renditions of “Amazing Grace,”  “How Great Thou Art,” and the Christmas carol, “Silent Night.”

A reprise of her attention-grabbing first audition singing of “I Dreamed a Dream” is on the album as well.  Two cuts I find surprisingly attractive are calm and thoughtful renditions of the Mick Jagger song, “Wild Horses,” and another of the John Stewart (one-time member of The Kingston Trio) number made popular by The Monkees, “Daydream Believer.”

Excerpts of the album are available at http://www.susanboylemusic.com/gb/music/

I concur with the advice Simon Cowell gave Susan Boyle at the end of her audition, “You can go back to the village with your head held high . . . .”

Conversing with a five-year-old

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

By Allan Roy Andrews
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This essay is an expansion and rewrite of a column I published during my tenure as editor of Pacific Stars and Stripes in Japan. That column, originally titled “A Ride Home from the Airplane Base” was published in 1996.
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My middle son, now in his twenties, was one year old on the day my wife, our oldest son, and I took him on a Boeing 747 and flew for about 17 hours to Tokyo, where I became a civilian editor with the Department of the Army working for Pacific Stars and Stripes, the U.S. government’s daily newspaper for overseas military personnel stationed in the Far East.

The newspaper’s offices were located in downtown Tokyo on a tiny U.S. installation known as Hardy Barracks, and most personnel with the paper—both military and civilian—were housed at the larger military base, Yokota Air Base, about 50 kilometers west of Tokyo. Civilians were granted base privileges comparable to military personnel, and the Department of the Army paid most of us who worked as civilian editors the salaries we’d be paid if we were serving as colonels or captains in the armed services.

My wife was no stranger to Tokyo, she is the daughter of American missionaries, and had been born at a hospital near Tokyo and had lived most of her life in a western suburb on the Seibu-Ikebukuro train line before going stateside to attend college. For that reason, we did not choose to live on base, but instead rented a house “on the economy” in the neighborhood in which my wife had been raised. Our Japanese home was about 30 kilometers outside Tokyo and about 20 kilometers east of Yokota.

In the eight years plus that I held the job with Stripes, I learned to drive around the Kanto Plain in a series of automobiles we purchased during our tenure. All of them used, all of them Japanese-made cars—Hondas, Nissans, and Toyotas—all of them with steering on the right, and most with standard-shift that required me to learn to shift gears with my left hand. Because Stripes was an evening newspaper, editors began work around 5 a.m. Tokyo’s commuter trains did not begin running until closer to 6 a.m. Thus, I became an adept morning commuter and fairly competent at reading Japanese road signs.

At that time, gasoline was sold on base for about half of what it cost at a neighborhood Japanese service station. As a result, we made frequent trips from our home to Yokota Air Base, not only for gasoline, but for inexpensive shopping, entertainment, and, despite our growing love for Japanese food, a welcomed taste of America.

On one particular occasion I was driving home from the base with my five-year-old son as a passenger beside me. It was dusk when we left the base, and I could see that he was on the verge of falling asleep. I recall that it was this son who insisted we should call the place we’d just left “the airplane base,” not the air base, which makes good sense if one thinks about it.

“The best thing you could do,” I said to him, “is lie back and go to sleep.” We’d already eaten supper. Neither of us was hungry, and we were both somewhat eager to get back to the comfort of home.

“Go to sleep?” he said, a bit astonished. “Go to sleep without any diaper pants?”

“You don’t need diaper pants,” I said, trying to be an encouraging father and strong male who shared grown-up mastery of the sphincters.

“What if I pee all over the seat?”

“You’re the one who knows if you’re going to pee,” I said.

“Well, Dad, let me know if you think I’m going to pee.”

“You’re the one who knows if you have to pee.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “but let me know if you think I’m going to pee.”

Seeking to stop this circular talk, I said, “Well, you shouldn’t have to pee, because we went to the bathroom just before we left the air base.”

“You mean the airplane base,” he said. O.K., I thought, we’re off that topic.

“You know what, Dad?”

“What?”

“Sometimes just after I pee I feel like I still have to pee again.”

Sometimes a father can do nothing or say nothing more. I’ve discovered that some conversations are best unfinished; or rather, they’re best finished by the child rather than the adult. Children know when such conversations are supposed to end; adults don’t.

Several minutes later, he picked up our conversation. “How long before we get home, Daddy?”

“About a half an hour.”

“A half an hour and how many minutes?” he asked.

“A half hour is 30 minutes, so about 30 minutes,” I said.

“No, Daddy, a half hour and how many minutes?”

“A half hour is 30 minutes.”

“But Daddy, a half hour and how many minutes.”

At that point, I realized again that adults often don’t know when such conversations are finished, so I figured I’d better invent an answer just to keep us from going around in what I perceived to be endless circles.

“A half hour and two minutes,” I said, grabbing a number from the air and wondering what I’d say if he replied, “That’s thirty-two minutes.”

He didn’t say this, and I was happy; I don’t appreciate precocious mathematicians. He seemed to understand (even if I didn’t).

“Oh, is that what you meant?” he said as he glanced out the window at a truck we were passing.

“Yes, a half hour and two minutes,” I repeated, happy to have worked my way out of that conversation.

“Well, you said a half hour. I must have been confusing you,” he concluded.

Children also have a way of making adults feel small and foolish, especially when we attempt to be too rational and meaningful. After a few more minutes passed, my son turned theological:

“Can I ask you some Bible questions, Daddy?”

“Sure.”

“These are going to be really, really, really hard questions,” he said in a tone meant to reassure me that I shouldn’t feel too bad if I couldn’t answer them. To drive this home, he added, “I’m not sure I even know the answers myself.”

“O. K.”

“What day did Jesus die on the cross?” he asked.

I recall that this conversation took place shortly after Easter, so I assumed he was recalling something he picked up in Sunday School.

“You mean what day of the week?” I asked.

“Yeah, what day of the week?”

“It was Good Friday,” I answered.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, that’s what the Bible tells us. Then it says that on Sunday — Easter Sunday — he rose again.” I’m really not trying to sound like a proselytizer, I just figured I’m repeating what he’s learned.

“Is that when he went up to heaven?”

For me the conversation had subtly shifted. “Yes, I guess so,” I said, pondering exactly when Jesus went to heaven.

“When he died on the cross he was already in heaven,” my son pronounced with the aplomb of a dogmatic theologian.

I remained silent. The mystery of this conversation had already gone beyond me.

“Here’s another really hard question,” he continued.

“On what day did David begin to play his harp?”

“I don’t know. Was it a Monday?”

“I don’t know.”

End of discussion.

I loved those drives; they provided conversations that kept my mind turning long after the wheels of our car had come to rest at home.

A Journalist Learns From Singing in the Choir

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

by Allan Roy Andrews

“All God’s critters got a place in the choir.” So begins a bouncy folk tune written and recorded several decades ago by New England singer and songwriter Bill Staines. I’ve sung in church choirs off and on for most of my life, but I’m still attempting to figure out what draws me to it.

In many ways, a church choir is the ultimate community of cooperation. Many voices attempting to sound as one. E pluribus unum, and all that. In many other ways, a church choir is the hotbed of petty jealousies and competing egos, as well as the deep harbor of catty criticisms of the institutional church.

Almost every choir I’ve belonged to harbors a cadre of heretics who to some degree choose to sing in the choir so they don’t have to sit under the convicting gaze of the preacher or so they can slip in and out of services through a choir door (mea culpa on both counts).

Church choir directors, even those who rely on hiring professional soloists, don’t require a test of faith; I’ve known some vocally talented agnostics who sang on Saturdays in the local synagogue, on Sunday mornings at the Episcopal Church and on Sunday nights at a downtown pub.

When one wants to find the rebels of a church congregation, one needs look no farther than this week’s row of contraltos or basso profundos (or tenors or sopranos). Not so oddly, this all sounds like the world of a daily newsroom, where often a righteous muckraker by day becomes a profane cynic at night.

Despite petty problems, I’m convinced there’s a lesson for democracy, not to mention lessons in theology, hiding under those choir cassocks and albs that have known more wearers than England’s crown jewels.

But why does anyone give up several hours of his or her week to sit in uncomfortable chairs and rifle through sheaves of indecipherable code, much of it in a foreign language? All of this while sitting beside someone who either smokes too much or often is in need of a bath or a breath mint.

I believe singing in the choir may be one of those hidden graces that God uses to evangelize the soft of tone but hard of heart (or the heavy of tone but soft of faith).

I was one of those boyhood sopranos, a treble as they’re known in chorister circles. I probably should have gone to a cathedral school and become a trained chorister, but there were too many baseball dreams in my blood. When my mother offered to pay for singing lessons, I rejected them because of the time they would demand, taking me from ballgames in the neighborhood. I was enlisted as a 10-year-old to sing two solo selections at my older sister’s wedding, but that was enough of a vocal career for me.

As if getting what I deserved, my three sons, all now young adults and fair singers, totally rejected my suggestions that they join the youth choir at church. I never tried to push it, remembering the angst I went through as a teen turning away from church singing opportunities.

When, as an adult, I had strayed for several years from attending church, it was joining a choir that drew me back into the fold, and now, several years and several choirs later, I’ve learned some of the mysteries of sacred song.

Among those who pay attention to the ancient Rule of St. Benedict, some discover a way of reading called lectio divina. As I understand it, such reading, primarily of the Bible, involves reading with more than the eyes and the mind; it engages the heart and the whole person. Lectio divina is a slow, contemplative process that demands frequent pauses and a peaceful “listening” to the text.

Without necessarily being aware of it, church choirs are doing something like this every Sunday. They take a tiny text, perhaps little more than a sentence or a phrase, and mold it into a four-part anthem that speaks of the deepest recesses of being to listeners in the congregation.

The English writer C.S. Lewis once suggested Christians should begin each day with reading both the Bible and a daily newspaper–would that we journalists and our readers could apply a kind of lectio divina to our consumption of the daily news.

And perhaps Lewis didn’t go far enough; maybe we need to take some time to sing a meaningful text to ourselves more frequently. All God’s creatures, including homo sapiens, have a place in the choir.

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This slightly updated essay is an adaptation of a column published online for The American Reporter in March of 1999.

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Poetry survives in a prose-prone world, but evangelicals (and many others) remain phobic

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

By Allan Roy Andrews

In the past month, the Academy of American Poets launched a new page on its Web site devoted to poetry and teenagers. The page, labeled “Poetry Resources for Teens,” is quickly reached by visiting poets.org and pulling down the menu “For Educators.” The resources on the new page include “reading recommendations, writing help, spotlight audio and video recordings, as well as new ways to get involved in grassroots poetry projects,” according to an Academy press release.

Describing the motivation for producing the page, the Academy’s press release sounds much like what could be written by any American church or religious organization. The Academy acted, in its own words, in response to a recent survey they conducted, which showed that over 75% of the people who use poets.org share one characteristic: that they first developed an interest in poetry before their eighteenth birthday. With young people spending a reported average of 16.7 hours a week online, it seemed clear that in the long term, the best opportunity to reach new readers and writers of poetry is in their early years.

In pondering this news from the Academy, I thought again of the importance of poetry and the contrary disdain it experiences in American life and letters, especially among religious mover s and shakers, and in particular amidst the evangelical subculture.

I guess my real problem with this push to give teens access to poetry is that it further distinguishes adulthood as a time for generally disdaining and disregarding poetry as unimportant to faith and life in the twenty-first century.

We need more people like John Keating (the fictional English teacher played by Robin Williams in the film, “Dead Poet’s Society”), who told his adolescent charges:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for . . . .

(Alas, I use a movie to make a point about poetry!)

My wife asked me a trick question last week: “What language is spoken in heaven?”

“Probably Aramaic,” I quipped.

If I had taken, as she did, any course in college offered by Dr. Thomas Howard (author of Christ the Tiger and subsequent others—see http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/authors/thomashoward.asp), she informed me I would have hastily answered, “Poetry!”

If that be so, it’s clear to me that the heavenly language fights for a public voice in today’s prose-dominated world. Oh, to be sure, poetry is available to any who hunt for it, but such a suggestion is a bit like telling sushi lovers in the Dakotas they can find their favorite food if they just search long and hard enough. Sorry, folks, but Fargo ain’t Tokyo!

If poetry is the language of heaven, it still gets short shrift on earth, even among those who claim to be diligent advocates for life beyond our numbered days.

Case in point: Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of Christianity Today International, a moderately evangelical organization that counts as one of its founders the evangelist Billy Graham, recently ran a poll to determine if its readers still counted themselves as “supporters of the arts” in these disturbing economic times. I’m less interested in the results of the poll (Weekly newsletter, Jun 23, 2009) than in the way the question was framed:

Are you cutting back on spending money on the arts (music, painting, movies)?

Please note the limiting listing of the arts: “music, painting, movies.” Poetry flies under the radar in Christianity Today’s perception. In fairness, the survey accompanies a compelling argument by Canadian singer-songwriter Carolyn Arends on why the arts are important; although, she seems to limit poetry’s influence to its aid in worship, comparable to icons.

In other contexts, I’ve chided Christianity Today and other popular evangelical publications for not regularly publishing first-rate contemporary poetry. One can look to Christian Century, Commonweal, First Things, and Sojourners to find a smattering of poets in religion journals, but one must look long and hard to find poets being published in the largest circulation religious magazine, familiarly referred to as CT. Among the magazines I’ve listed here, Christianity Today alone is without a poetry editor.

Almost a decade ago, an English professor at Houston Baptist University, Louis Markos, in a Christianity Today column of open commentary, called evangelicals “poetry phobic.” In the ensuing years, the magazine has done little or nothing to address and attack this phobia. Even Books and Culture, Christianity Today International’s intelligent and erudite collection of book reviews, does not have a designated poetry editor other than editor John Wilson, who often shows his personal appreciation of poetry but does not push for any regular publication of poems.

Let me be clear: I welcome poets.org’s effort to expand the exposure of teenagers to poetry. What I’d like to see is religious publications, who often target teenagers as an audience to be addressed and assessed, spend more time exposing their adult readers to the rising cadre of fine poets addressing questions of faith and the dilemmas of life and theology.

If it is true that evangelicals (and perhaps other religious subsets) are poetry phobic, much of the fault can be laid at the feet of the journalists, essayists, commentators, and preachers whose words fill the monthly magazines and who too often show a disdain for the poetic voice.

Note: Anyone interested in fine contemporary poetry from a Christian faith perspective should visit the Journal of Christianity and Literature hosted by Pepperdine University at http://www.pepperdine.edu/sponsored/ccl/journal/. Another excellent source of such poetry is Image: A Journal of Art, Faith, Mystery at http://imagejournal.org/page/journal/. Image is closely tied to the Graduate Writing Program at Seattle Pacific University and to the Glen Writing Workshop in New Mexico.