Sunday, January 31, 2016

No one is irreplaceable

“Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him.”  Acts 16:3

It has been a tough month for classic rock fans, as the world said farewell to David Bowie and then Glenn Frey of the Eagles.  Newspapers and magazines have brimmed with tributes, salutes have been playing on the radio, and people all over the world have sent out a word of gratitude on social media.  One trending hashtag after David Bowie’s death was the single word “irreplaceable,” and a number of celebrities paid tribute to this remarkably creative artist by calling him “one of a kind.”  The response was a bit more muted for Frey, as the three other Eagles are still with us.  But I did chuckle at an Onion article last week that announced a faux resolution by Congress to set aside $90 million to protect the remaining Eagles, “so they are around to rock us, our children, and our children’s children for years to come.”

The subtext here is that truly great creative figures are always unique.  They cannot have real successors.  When they die, we lose all that was most valuable about their work, because it is all tied up in their individual experience and vision.  This is a common idea in our culture, an inheritance of the Romantic ideal of the artist as a kind of possessed creature, a person whose great gift to the world is translating his or her deeply personal perspective on the world onto canvas or musical notes or the stage. 

This modern way is quite different from the way someone like Bach or Giotto or a traditional artisan approached creative work.   There’s no accountability to God or a living tradition or a shared moral vision.  “To thine own self be true”—that, I suppose, is the only maxim of the creative world these days, and though it sounds heroic, in reality, it’s really quite limited and fragile.  There will be a star on some walk of fame, a bit of airtime on the oldies station, a fan page, some relics gathering dust in a museum case.  But if we really are irreplaceable and one of a kind, well once we’ve gone, there is no more.

One of the enduring themes of the Bible is that truly great figures always have successors. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

He is the new wine

“The mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’”  St. John 2:3

A friend of mine made her debut on reality TV a few years ago.  Now, this was in England, where they spend even less on broadcast production than here, and where they seem to find the clergy endlessly fascinating.  She was part of a series that followed newly ordained clergy in her rural diocese in the West Country.

And when the time came for her to officiate at her first wedding, the BBC camera crews were on hand.  She was nervous, of course, and I guess her hands shook a bit, and she would be the first one to say that she’s always been a little clumsy.  She took the rings, as she practiced many times before, and laid them on her open prayer book for the blessing.  And then she dropped them—right through enormous cast iron grate on the chancel floor, down into the belly of a Victorian coal furnace.  I think they ended up calling the local fire department to get them out.  Of the hundreds of hours of film they shot that summer, well you can guess which scene got top billing in that episode.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Ponder: "a world where you get what is coming to you"

"The good news is that Americans don't settle for poor government performance.  The bad news is that they may not see their own inconsistent demands--ever-lower taxes, ever-better services--as part of the problem.
It will take sacrifice, preferably shared, to solve the country's long-term deficit and many other structural problems.  Leaders who constantly tell their constituents, in effect, "ask what your country can do for you" are not preparing them for that.
The current political usage of "deserve,"  in short, is about validating grievances, not settling priorities among them.  The word, meant in that way, probably would not have escaped the lips of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
That memorably mordant sociology professor worked for presidents of both parties in the '60s and '70s and got elected senator of New York as a Democrat in 1976--despite his belief that, as he once put it, "for most persons, it would be exceedingly painful to live in a world where you get what is coming to you."
Charles Lane, The Politics that We Deserve."  The Washington Post 16 Jan 2016, A23.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Ponder: "the binding is love"

"All of us here need a body that is mutually supportive, that loves one another, that stoops to lift the fallen and kneels to bind the wounds of the injured. Without each other we are deeply weakened, because we have a mission that is only sustainable when we conform to the image of Christ, which is first to love one another. The idea is often put forward that truth and unity are in conflict, or in tension. That is not true. Disunity presents to the world an untrue image of Jesus Christ. Lack of truth corrodes and destroys unity. They are bound together, but the binding is love. In a world of war, of rapid communications, of instant hearing and misunderstanding where the response is only hatred and separation, the Holy Spirit whose creative and sustaining gifting of the church is done in diversity, demands that diversity of history, culture, gift, vision be expressed in a unity of love. That is what a Spirit filled church looks like."

Archbishop Justin Welby, Archbishop's Address to the Primates' Meeting, 11 Jan. 2016.

Ponder: "the best things in the worst times"

"In the middle of the 17th Century the Church of England was not so much in steep decline as dead and gone. It had been officially abolished by the Government of Oliver Cromwell. Use of the Prayer Book was illegal, the bishops had been abolished, the Anglican clergy turned out of their homes. The celebration of Christmas had been suppressed. It was forbidden even to say even the Lord’s Prayer in church since it was a written prayer. Most people at the time believed that Anglicanism was over, and consigned to the dustbin of history.
But in the middle of all this, one fellow built a quintessentially Anglican Church when everyone told him that it would only be torn down, and that all his hopes and dreams for renewal and restoration would come to nothing. When he died, his neighbors put a marble plaque over the west door of the church.
It read:
“In the year 1653 when all things sacred were throughout the Nation either demolished or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, founded this church, whose singular praise it is to have done the best things in the worst times and hoped them in the most calamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.”
So may they speak of us."

Rt. Rev'd Anthony Burton, "
Rector’s Remarks at the Dedication and Grand Opening of the New Buildings" Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, 12 Jan, 2016

For Meditation: "to live a perpetual Sabbath"

"For me personally, talking about God's work and God's rest and about humanity being made in God's image raises another question.  My wife, Ann, has multiple sclerosis.  She was able to have children, and we brought them up, and she worked as a psychiatrist, but eventually had to abandon her work.  She now cannot move at all, hardly even to raise an eyebrow.  She cannot do anything for herself or speak.  Is she still a person in the image of God?  Living with Genesis 1 and with Ann's increasing disability leaves me with several reflections.  Because handicapped people are indeed human beings made in God's image, the rest of the world owes it to them to seek to make it feasible for them to have as much control over their lives as possible.  We should help them master as much of the world as possible rather than take over and run their lives for them.  But a kind of converse is that handicapped people remind the rest of us that being unable to work or even to do much of anything turns out not to mean you stop being human. Ann is obliged to live a perpetual Sabbath.  It is not merely work that defines the person."
John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part One, 25-26.

Monday, January 11, 2016

For Meditation: A Kind Woman in Heaven

"Never, as he afterward told Father Vaillant, had it been permitted him to behold such deep experience of the holy joy of religion as on that pale December night.  He was able to feel, kneeling beside her, the preciousness of the things of the altar to her who was without possessions; the tapers, the image of the Virgin, the figures of the saints, the Cross that took away indignity from suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ. Kneeling beside the much enduring bond-woman, he experienced those holy mysteries as he had done in his young manhood.  He seemed able to feel all it meant to her to know that there was a Kind Woman in Heaven, though there were such cruel ones on earth.  Old people, who have felt blows and toil and known the world's hard hand, need, even more than children do, a woman's tenderness.  Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer.
Not often, indeed, had Jean Marie Latour come so near to the Fountain of all Pity as in Lady Chapel that night; the pity that no man born of woman could utterly cut himself off from; that was for the murderer on the scaffold, as it was for the murderer on the scaffold, as it was for the dying soldier or the martyr on the rack.  The beautiful concept of Mary pierced the priest's heart like a sword."

Willa Cather, Death Comes to the Archbishop,216-217.

Lullaby at the Font

“Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.”  Isaiah 43:4.

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,
Papa’s going to buy you a mockingbird.
If that mockingbird won’t sing,
Papa’s going to buy you a diamond ring.
If that diamond ring turns brass,
Papa’s going to buy you a looking glass.

And on it goes, that lullaby, with its gentle tale of generosity, abundance, and love.  It’s a good song to sing to a child, isn’t it?  What it says is this: I love you more than anything in the whole world.  I would give anything to make you happy.  You have nothing to fear, because I care for you.  All will be well. 

It’s a lovely song, one that sets a child’s life on the assurance of a parent’s love, the most solid place of all for a child to stand.  I would guess it was first sung by a poor man, to a baby wrapped in blankets a little too thin.  Men who know the price of diamonds don’t go on about giving them to babies.  There’s something of hope in it, the promise that it will all work out some way, that in the end, there will be grace.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Ponder: One accommodation at a time

"And that's how the death of Judaism proceeds, one accommodation at a time.  I didn't feel bad about it.  I agreed that this made sense.  Compromises always make sense.
As I said those prayers in that hospital room, I didn't think that this might be the last time those words would ever be uttered over a Sollisch foreskin.  I couldn't imagine a future where this little boy or his brother would ever get married and have children.  But Zack married Allie, a Catholic, in 2014.  And Max will marry Dana, a Catholic, this year  And I'm about 99 percent certain that their sister, Zoey, will marry a non-Jew, too.
Zack's wedding was mostly a Catholic affair.  He did not convert; he is Jewish, and proudly identifies that way.  But I suspect his son--should he and Allie have one--will be circumcised in silence by a doctor in a sterile room.  And the cord that connects my ancestors to God-the one I frayed-will be cut completely.
Jim Sollisch, Washington Post Magazine, 9 Jan. 2016, 27.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Ponder: "just beyond the turn"

"Father Latour had used to feel a little ashamed that Joseph kept his sister and her nuns so busy making cassocks and vestments for him; but the last time he was in France, he came to see all this in another light.  When he was visiting Mother Philomene's convent, one of the younger Sisters had confided to him what an inspiration it was to them, living in retirement, to work for the faraway missions.  She told him also how precious to them were Father Vaillant's long letters, letters in which he told his sister of the country, the Indians, the pious Mexican women, the Spanish martyrs of old.  These letters, she said, Mother Philomene read aloud in the evening.  The nun took Father Latour to a window that jutted out and looked up the narrow street to where the wall turned at an angle, cutting off further view.  "Look," she said, "after the Mother has read us one of these letters from her brother, I come and stand in this alcove and look up our little street with its one lamp, and just beyond the turn there, is New Mexico; all that he has written us of those red deserts and blue mountains, the great plains and the herds of bison, and the canyons more profound than our deepest mountain gorges.  I can feel that I am there, my heart beats faster, and it seems but a moment until the retiring-bell cuts short my dreams."  The Bishop went away believing that it was good for these Sisters to work for Father Joseph."
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, 182-183.

Costly Devotion

From Covenant, 6 Jan. 2015

Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. — Matthew 2:11

A few years ago I went on retreat at a convent, and, because the guest dining room was being renovated, I was invited to take my meals with the nuns. This was a very traditional community, all black habits and plainsong. For years, the nuns had operated schools, but most of them were older now, and their main ministry was hosting people on retreat. The meals that the nuns were served were among the oddest I have ever eaten: a gathering of opposites. The main dishes were brutally simple: oatmeal, baked fish, bean soup — the food of ascetics. But at the end of the serving table was a little tray with all the recent gifts to the community: exotic jams of many colors, preserved figs, little French cheeses, even a chocolate layer cake.

It’s easy to understand how this worked: an old student would come back to visit her former teacher, and she wanted to bring a little something. But what in the world do you give a nun? Well, something to brighten the common table, a little delight you had enjoyed and wanted to share. And because these nuns were much loved, and probably also because they had a reputation for austerity, lavish, expensive foods arrived to grace every meal.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ponder: "a dramatic climax"

"Some of the watchers were drooping from weariness, but not one showed any wish to go home.  Watching beside a death-bed was not a hardship for them, but a privilege,--in the case of a dying priest it was a distinction.
In those days, even in European countries, death had a solemn social importance.  It was not regarded as a moment when certain bodily organs ceased to function, but as a dramatic climax, a moment when the soul made its entrance into the next world, passing in full consciousness through a lowly door to an unimaginable scene.  Among the watchers there was always the hope that the dying man might reveal something of what he alone could see; that his countenance, if not his lips, would speak, and on his features would fall some light or shadow from beyond.  The "Last Words" of great men, Napoleon, Lord Byron, were still printed in gift-books, and the dying murmurs of every common man and woman were listened to and treasured for their neighbours and kins-folk.  These sayings, no matter how unimportant, were given oracular significance, and pondered by those who must one day go the same road."
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, 169-170

Saturday, January 2, 2016

For Meditation: "the utmost expression of human need."

"The rock of Acoma had never been taken by a foe but once--by Spaniards in armour.  It was very different from a mountain fastness; more lonely, more stark and grim, more appealing to the imagination.  The rock, when one came to think of it, was the utmost expression of human need; even more feeling yearned for it; it was the highest comparison of loyalty in love and friendship.  Christ Himself had used that comparison for the disciple to whom He gave the keys of His Church.  And the Hebrews of the Old Testament, always being carried captive into foreign lands--their rock was an idea of God, the only thing their conquerors could not take from them."

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, 97.