The Royal Wedding and Spiritual Songs

An estimated 29.2 million viewers tuned-in to the May 19th televised wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and his American bride, Meghan Markle.

I’ll guess that number diminished during the 13 minutes the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, preached about the power of love.

In my view, those who tuned-out the bishop, for whatever distraction, missed the most compelling 13 minutes of the gorgeous ceremony.

With that in mind, I encourage you to watch or re-watch Bishop Curry’s wedding homily.

[Click underscored links to watch videos.]

I was particularly impressed with the bishop’s noting the language of the spiritual There is a Balm in Gilead, one of many songs I learned in the Baptist Church that nurtured me.

Bishop Curry grew up in Western New York and learned countless gospel songs from his devout Episcopal parents and grandmother.

The bishop has immortalized his hymn-singing legacy in a 2015 book, Songs My Grandma Sang,(1) and he is known to break into song frequently while preaching.

In that book, Bishop Curry demonstrates the power of song and poetry to reach beyond our minds to our spirits and touch what the writer Maggie Ross (2) discusses as our “deep mind” that often learns when we experience true silence.

I have often thought and suggested to others that I learned more theology from hymn books with their poetic renderings than from the many scholarly tomes I was encouraged to read.

Bishop Curry’s scriptural texts for the royal wedding came from The Song of Solomon and the Epistles of John, both focussing on love.

Prince Harry and his bride, the new Duchess of Sussex, chose as their wedding song, the top-hit song “Stand By Me,” recorded in 1961 by Ben E. King. They’ll probably listen to it often.

I’d encourage them to listen also to the spiritual that Bishop Curry suggested, “There is a Balm In Gilead.”

 

(1) Curry, Michael. Songs My Grandma Sang. NY: Morehouse Publishing, (Church Publishing Inc.) 2015.
(2) Ross, Maggie. Silence: A User’s Guide: Vol. I: Process. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books (Wipf & Stock), 2014.

Introducing my fake haiku, or “faiku”

After a two-month hiatus in my postings, I’m ready to return to keeping a fortnightly (or perhaps even weekly) schedule.

To my chagrin, National Poetry Month has come and gone during my quietude, so among my promises will be some favorite poems for your reading and reflection.

My fascination with six-word stories, essays, poems, prayers, and paraphrases continues; although, many undoubtedly find my six-word offerings a kind of “fake” haiku.

So, I’ve employed a new name for these six-word offerings: “faiku,” (best used without capitalization to avoid confusion with persons having the surname Faiku).

With that caveat, here’s three I wrote in the past two months:

  1. Biography of President Trump:
    “Lie, lie, lie; deny, deny, deny.”
  2. A rule from the Sermon on the Mount:
    “But,” Jesus said, “Love Your Enemies.”
  3. A Prayer for Donald Trump:
    “Lord, have mercy on Donald Trump.”

Memoir 4: The Magic of Musical Memory

I never hear the Kenny Rogers’ recording of “The Gambler” without recalling an editor colleague in Boston who spontaneously broke into singing Rogers’ song while we line-checked stories and wrote headlines on the copy-desk.

During our tenures on the Boston copy desk, I sang in a neighborhood choral group, and I discovered during a summer choral festival that Billy also sang in his neighborhood concert choir.

But even that discovery of the shared love of choral singing didn’t match Billy’s workplace confession that he loved to sing “The Gambler.”

Billy also frequently complimented an investigative writer at the newspaper, noting that particular writer was “Just one of three journalists in the world who understands the proper use of a semicolon.”

That comment drove me to strengthen my grasp of semicolon usage.

I only worked with Billy for a few years, but two things I sadly recall: he once severely cut his hand as he pressed down the contents of a trash can at home that was hiding broken glass. Also, I learned several years after I left Boston that Billy had died young–in his mid-40s–from what his obituary described as “a massive heart attack.”

However, my most vivid image of him comes from those times during a lull on the copy desk when Billy broke into song with the lines “you’ve got to know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em.”

Come to think of it; those words could be an adage for copy editors! And, yes, Billy had a performer’s baritone singing voice.

Then there’s my boyhood remembrance of George, who taught me the word bandolier, and the name of a place called The Vale of Tralee.

George was a late-comer to our conglomerate of friends growing as teenagers in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.

He had dropped out of school and became a member of a street gang. About the time he turned seventeen, George, through the influence of parents, friends, and probably a couple of priests, was re-enrolled in St. Michael’s High School in Bay Ridge.

There he befriended several of my neighborhood friends, and he began hanging out with us, a tiny group of mostly Irish, Roman Catholic choirboys and altar boys, and me, the lone Protestant in the entourage.

George and I discovered a mutual enjoyment of singing, and he began teaching me the Irish songs he knew and loved.

“The Irish Soldier Boy,” one of George’s favorites, taught me the word bandolier, and I can still hear George’s melodious tenor singing the line, “and with loving arms around his waist, she tied his bandolier.” In a way, this song expressed George’s thinking about maternal love and courage. I like to believe these ideas he absorbed from singing had rescued him from juvenile delinquency.

George also taught me the opening verse of “The Rose of Tralee,” a sad Irish love song. Ingrained in my brain because of George are the lines, “Yet, ’twas not her beauty alone that won me; Oh, no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning, that made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.”

This song had been popular during my young years through earlier recordings of the Irish tenor Dennis Day and crooner Bing Crosby, but even those stars didn’t sing “The Rose of Tralee” like George.

I later discovered Tralee is a bay on the southwestern coast of County Kerry in Ireland, and today the Vale of Tralee is the name given the stadium of the Tralee Rugby Football Club.

Memory tells me George, who wasn’t a skilled player in our games of stickball, softball, or baseball in our Brooklyn neighborhood, probably would have been a superior rugby player.

Incidentally, we all learned from boyhood matches at the PAL (Police Athletic League) gym that George was an excellent boxer.

I mostly remember that George and Billy sure loved to sing, and they taught me lifelong lessons about semicolons, Ireland, and the power of singing.

It’s a shame there isn’t a Hall of Fame for singing copy editors and boyhood boxers.

 

Winter installment: My Anthology of Favorite Poems

Having fallen slightly behind in steering readers during each season to four poems that I have added to my personal favorites anthology, I’m changing my approach a bit. I am following Robert Pinsky’s suggestion that building such an anthology must come from writing out each poem (not just reading, memorizing, or cataloging it) line by line, word by word, placing each letter, word, and punctuation mark on one’s copy paper with one’s own hand-held writing instrument (3).

I’ve decided that instead of just referencing these poems for readers of this blog to track down, I am going to write a favorite poem out for you to consider. (I’ve done this for myself with each poem I’ve previously selected, but I have only shared my copying once before.)

My poem for the winter of 2018 is “Praise Song” by Lucille Clifton (1).

I discovered Clifton’s poetry as a young professor teaching at a community college. I rediscovered this particular poem of hers last week while perusing Billy Collins’ 2003 anthology Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. (2)

Praise Song
By Lucille Clifton

to my aunt blanche
who rolled from grass to driveway
into the street one sunday morning.
I was ten.              I had never seen
a human woman hurl her basketball
body into the traffic of the world.
Praise to the drivers who stopped in time.
Praise to the faith with which she rose
after some moments then slowly walked
sighing back to her family.
Praise to the arms which understood
little or nothing of what it meant
but welcoming her in without judgment,
accepting it all like children might,
like God.

References:

(1) Clifton, Lucille. Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poetry (1988-2000), Rochester: BOA Editions. 2000.

(2) Collins, Billy. Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. New York: Random House. 2003.

–Collins compiled this anthology as a project during his years as America’s Congressional Poet Laureate. It is aimed primarily at high school students encouraging them to read a poem every one of the 180 days they are required to be in school.
The Library of Congress maintains an annually updated version of Collins’ anthology at https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/p180-list.html. Sadly, the poem of Clifton, who died in 2010, has been replaced in the latest online iteration.

(3) Pinsky, Robert. Singing School: Learning to Read (and Write) Poetry by Studying With the Masters. New York: W. W. Norton. 2003.

To be known by God (Psalm 139:1-6)

“Even before a word is on my tongue (or in my pen), O Lord, you know it completely.” (Ps. 139:4, NRSV, emphasis mine).

Anyone seeking a confident statement about belief in an omnipotent and immanent God need only reflect on this Psalm.

The spiritual writer Laura Mariko Cheifetz, writing in These Days, the Presbyterian devotional she edits in Decatur, Georgia, notes that being known is both disconcerting and comforting.

Cheifetz includes a prayer with her meditation:

Holy One, you know me better than I know myself. Thank you for loving me. Amen.

Agreed.

And, Holy One, thank you also for knowing me better than I know myself.

Many Christians learned as children in Sunday School the poem turned song called “Jesus Loves Me,” written in 1860 by the New York poet Anna Bartlett Warner. (A musical update was published in 1865 adding verses and the familiar “Yes, Jesus Loves Me” chorus.)

A few years ago during a Christian Formation discussion in my parish, I mentioned my memory of the song of my Sunday School days: “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.”

A woman in the group jotted down the verse the way it had been modified in her experience: “Jesus Knows Me, This I Love.” Her shared note revolutionized my reflection.

The writer of Psalm 139 seems as concerned and grateful for being known by God as for being loved by God.

Of course, knowing and loving are intimately linked.

Being known by God: Don’t you just love it?

Re-discovering a contemplative aid

I tried to keep a devotional reading schedule for the Advent season of 2017. Well ahead of the first Sunday of Advent I began surveying various aids and booklets produced from a variety of sources.

Keeping this schedule proved more difficult than I anticipated. I almost settled on a booklet produced by The Living Compass Ministry associated with the Episcopal Church entitled Living Well Through Advent 2017, and subtitled Practicing Wonder With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind.

Being a big fan of the human ability to wonder, I began a daily reading of this little booklet.

Alongside that, I planned to read N.T. Wright’s newest book in his “For Everyone” collection called Advent for Everyone: A Journey With the Apostles, published by the Westminster/John Knox Press.

I struggled to continue through Christmas with these small books, but on the evening of the Second Sunday in Advent, I fell across a 140-minute filmed concert of Handel’s “Messiah” by the Collegium 1704 of Czechoslovakia, conducted by its director, Vaclav Luks.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28ywAdw5slY).

The concert reminded me of an exposition I’d read about this classic oratorio nearly ten years ago: Messiah: The Gospel According to Handel’s Oratorio, by Roger A. Bullard. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).

I began re-reading Bullard’s book and discovered it to be as much the devotional guide I’d been seeking as any of the others I examined.

Let me note that Handel’s Messiah is an oratorio especially for Easter and thus provides a devotional for the church’s Lenten Season. However, the text–or libretti–is an anthology of scripture compiled by Handel’s friend, Charles Jennens. Relying on the King James Bible and the Psalms as rendered in The Book of Common Prayer, Jennen’s text is dominated by the prophets, the Psalms, and the gospels.

Bullard’s excellent commentary proves itself a devotional for the entire Advent-Christmas-Epiphany-Lenten seasons. Reading it while listening to the aforementioned concert is providing me with a wonder-filled time of contemplation and joy.

Anne Lamott on Jonah and God’s Mercy

In analyzing the Biblical story of Jonah, Anne Lamott skips to the chase, reminding us that children love the story of Jonah and a whale swallowing a man even though the “big fish” (for textual purists) plays a surprisingly minor role.

The meat of the story unfolds after Jonah, en route to Tarshish, is swallowed and “burped onto dry land and, despite his best efforts, ends up in Nineveh, where God had told him to go all along.”

Lamott, in her latest book (Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. Riverhead Books: New York, 2017), is describing how Jonah comes face-to-face with a lesson about God’s mercy, and it has very little to do with this minor prophet surviving a storm after being swallowed by a sea beast.

Simply put, Jonah hates the Ninevites, which in part is why he tried to escape his mission by going in the opposite direction. He anticipates they are a despiteful and despicable lot who won’t pay any heed to a prophet’s message from God. As Lamott notes, these are the Evil Empire of Jonah’s day. Jonah thinks God should simply destroy them and be done with it. So, after his regurgitation to Nineveh, the prophet grudgingly spends one day bringing the Word of the Lord to these ingrates, and, would you believe, they listen and repent! (To borrow Lamott’s vision: Imagine Captain Kirk preaching repentance to the Klingons).

Their conversion doesn’t impress Jonah, however, and he sullenly goes off moaning, and groaning, and lost in his meanness because God has not destroyed the Ninevites.

Here, the story seems to get anticlimactic and boring as Jonah, still feeling sorry for himself, asks God to take his life. He sits under a bush to sulk about the unlikely genuineness of the Ninevites repentance. And God causes the bush to grow and shade Jonah in his discomfort, and–another barely noticed mercy–to make Jonah “very happy about the bush” (Jonah 4:6b).

Then a worm attacks the bush, leaving Jonah hot and unhappy again, and God asks the crucial question: “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”

With a touch of contemporary crudeness, Lamott rephrases God’s question and argument: “Jonah, WTF? Mercy for a tree but not a people?”

Even before revising God’s query, Lamott beautifully expresses the lesson of Jonah’s experience: “Even when the worst people on earth undergo a change of heart, God in God’s infinite love and goodness changes his mind.”

Jesus expresses God’s mercy similarly: “Love your enemies.”

Read Lamott’s book. She tells how she came to write about mercy: “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human; the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

How to become a writer–just do it.

When Bill DuBois, the managing editor of The Muncie (Indiana) Star during the ’60s and ’70s, asked what moved me to give up graduate school and apply for a job as a reporter, my response was: “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.”

I had this interview in the late 1960s when I was in my 20s. DuBois gave me an editing test, told me he’d get back to me, and a week later called to offer me a job as a county reporter.

I spent a year in Muncie covering the Delaware County government. Mostly, I wrote about the county commissioners, the courts, the school board, and several other county officials.

I got to cover state officials when they visited Indiana to campaign for some project they were pushing or showed up to support a colleague seeking reelection.

When DuBois learned that I’d spent a year in graduate school mostly trying to master statistical analysis (the psychologists I worked with called it multivariate analysis), he assigned me to do a pre-election survey of the county and try to predict the winners. (We predicted every winner but one!)

DuBois turned out to be one of the best editors I’ve had in my twenty years in newsrooms (and he is among the best of colleagues I’ve known in another two decades in classrooms). He not only was an excellent hands-on editor, but he was an intelligent and caring teacher.

However, DuBois did not (nor did any other editor I’ve worked under) divulge journalism’s dirty little secret; which is: Journalism does nothing to make one a writer, except perhaps introduce you to an army of generally competent line editors, few of whom are committed writers.

Incidentally, I’ve discovered that colleagues at the places where I’ve served as a teacher also lack a drive to write unless they are in writing departments where they would, for the most part, rather write than teach.

Journalism does provide an exciting playground for someone who likes words; one gets to play with them all day.

The author W.H. Auden once was asked how one could learn to be a poet. He responded that it appeared to him that people who become poets “like to hang around words.”

Journalism will provide a chance to hang around words, but if one wants to be a writer, the best advice comes in one word: WRITE! Or as the Nike ad puts it: “Just Do It!”

That sounds like something Bill DuBois might have said decades before Nike.

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

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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.