Thursday, September 30, 2010

On the other hand...

I can't seem to quite get past that NY Times editorial--almost two months old now--that said congregations are more consumer-driven and pastors are pressured to forsake their calling. I was reminded of it again today when I saw an entry on a blog called United Methodeviations titled "Make-No-Wave United Methodist Church."

I do encourage you to read the whole disheartening thing. It is exactly the kind of pressure that MacDonald was talking about in his editorial. I gave MacDonald a lot of grief, but I do realize that congregations are not always blameless innocent bystanders suffering under the tyranny of egomaniacal clergy.

h/t PeaceBang

Tim Gunn reads Kierkegaard!

It's Thursday and that means Project Runway and the lovely Tim Gunn.

Some generous person gave me an Amazon gift certificate a while back, so I splurged and got Gunn's Golden Rules, and then (because if I got it, I could get SuperSaver Shipping) added his Guide to Quality, Taste and Style as well.

Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style (Tim Gunn's Guide to Style)The latter is the book I want to rejoice in today. Who among us would not be delighted to read this paragraph:

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Danish philosopher, opera lover, and the man Ludwig Wittgenstein called "the most profound thinker of the nineteenth century," can actually be a huge help when it comes to curing one's closet. The author of Fear and Trembling will not tell you explicitly to toss out those clam diggers, but he will supply two enormously helpful ideas.

The rest of the chapter does indeed use Kierkegaard--specifically Either/Or--as a starting point for curing one's closet, as Gunn puts it. The two ideas?

1) Make choices "Choosing what stays and what goes can be intimidating, but we have nothing to fear if we listen to Soren. He counsels that the unmediated choice is the only choice one will never regret." And then there are parameters for choosing what stays and what goes.

2) Form and content in harmony "For Kierkegaard, a 'classic' results when form and content meet in perfect harmony. In our case, the content is the person inside the garment; the form is the garment itself. Some form and content marriages are quite obvious...What isn't successful is choosing a rigid form and trying to wedge one's unhappy content into it."

Tremendously practical but also very thoughtful stuff. For closets and for life.

Oh, Tim. What would we do without you?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Survey says...

I really don't know quite what to make of the results from the Pew Forum's survey of religious knowledge in the U.S. The big headline in the Times yesterday was "Atheists outdo some believers in survey on religion." The headline was Basic religion test stumps many Americans. But I don't it basic religion to know who Maimonides is?

I mean, there were some stunners. I was shocked at how many people couldn't identify Martin Luther as the instigator of the Protestant reformation. But that's because I thought that was something everyone learned in 9th grade world history. Although it's basic religious knowledge, I thought it was just basic knowledge, period.

I was interested to see how many Catholics thought the Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are symbols of Christ's body and blood. Although it's more fun to say, "Ha ha! Those Catholics don't know what the Church's doctrine is!", I wonder if another read might be that even those teaching the Church's doctrine don't believe or teach that doctrine. I don't know. Just speculating.

Although much was made of the fact that atheists scored highest on average on the test (20.9 correct out of 32), it should be noted that they still only got a 65 percent. It should also be noted that how well people did on the test seems to be more directly related to level of education than other factors.

Dan Schultz, a blogger/pastor/author, put it this way on his Twitter feed: "The Pew survey on religious knowledge strikes me as a measure of reading levels in our nation. Doesn't anyone pick up a book any more?"

He's also thinking about giving the quiz to his congregation as a conversation starter. I think that's a cool idea. There's a handout with 15 of the 32 questions, but also the full phone-survey questionnaire, which was fascinating in its own right. For instance, it reports that "half of the time interviewers asked to speak with the youngest adultmale currently at home and the other half of the time asked to speak with the youngest adult female currently at home. If no respondent of the initially requested gender was available, interviewers asked to speak with the youngest adult of the opposite gender who was currently at home." What effect did age have on the results?

I'm afraid it sounds like I'm excusing the abysmal results of this survey. Well, maybe I am, a little. I'm just not sure it says what they say it says. After watching one or two rounds of Ellen De Generes' "Know or Go," I'm not sure this shows a special failing on the part of people of faith.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Teaser Tuesday, September 28

I just started Restless by William Boyd so I'm as mystified by these sentences from page 1 as you are/might be:

I now realise she was always frightened that someone was going to come and kill her. And she had good reason.

So. We shall see.

Details on Teaser Tuesday are here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Monday Morning Preacher: Homiletics class reading list

I'm going to avoid the fact that I gave a so-so sermon yesterday (and that's being kind, I think) and talk about something completely different.

Seeing as I am not happy with my own performance, now seems like the perfect time to describe what I would be doing if I were teaching homiletics (which is fancy-pants Episcopal talk for preaching).

If there were two books I'd want on my hypothetical reading list, they would be Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone; and Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.

Impro: Improvisation and the TheatreI read Impro when I took an summer intensive improv class a number of years ago, shortly after I graduated from seminary and it blew my mind. It's full of stuff I have applied to many areas of ministry.

Sermons are clearly prepared in advance, but there's still lots in here that's applicable. If there's one concept I've kept from it all these years that I've applied to preaching, it's "Be obvious!" It's counterintuitive, but I have found the following to be true time and time again:

The improviser has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really 'obvious' idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some 'original' idea because they want to be thought clever.

So many preachers work so hard to find some original interpretation of a familiar text. It's amazing how the obvious comes as a jolt of electricity. What I've found hard is paying attention to the obvious; I have found it's so ingrained in us to leap to the clever.

I'm trying to think of an example. I heard someone preaching not too long ago whose theme was breath. He went to great lengths with that word, using the Hebrew, compared with the Greek, with quotes from various theologians and missed (from my perspective) the more obvious things: what does it feel like to breathe? What keeps you from breathing? The ways we actually experience breathing every day were ignored entirely.

Born Standing Up: A Comic's LifeBorn Standing Up was fascinating from a preacher's perspective for several reasons. First of all, just seeing how long it took Martin to hone his craft was inspiring. Second, the amount of thought and theory behind his craft impressed the heck out of me. He says that at one point he toyed with getting a PhD in philosophy. You can see why; he's so thoughtful in what he does. Here, for example, he explains some of his theory of getting a laugh:

In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it...What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song...

These notions stayed with me for months, until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.

Clearly, this is not comedy for beginners! But reading this made me think about my own approach to preaching and why I do what I do.

For folks in the SF Bay Area:
Two things:

First, I noticed in an email from CDSP (the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley) that this Thursday after the 5:30 Eucharist, there will be a presentation on the effective use of microphones in churches, in Easton Hall. Just thought I'd pass that along, in case you're interested.

And, finally, I'm going to be preaching at All Saints, San Leandro through the end of the year. So you can come and see that I have no right to be writing about preaching at all!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Funnies

Someone with entirely too much time on his or her hands rewrote The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock as The .Doc File of J. Alfred Prufrock, to wit:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a laptop, put in sleep mode on a table
Let us go through certain half-deserted streets
The blinking-light retreats
Of restless nights in free-wifi cafes
And public libraries with internet
Streets that follow like messageboard argument
of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming blog post
Oh, do not ask, "What, yaoi?"
Let us go and post an entry.

Entry duly posted.

Oh, oh yes, it does go on faithfully mimicking Prufrock in its entirety.

h/t Obsidian Wings and Andrew Sullivan

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Job search update: Informational Interview insights

As you might have guessed, the past couple of days have been busy. Something had to go and that something was blogging.

While I have a moment, I wanted to update you on the job search thing. Although I don't know how much closer I am to finding out what I want to do, I have at least been having fascinating conversations with some really interesting people as I do informational interviews.

Here's how that works: I'm talking to a friend and explain in the course of conversation that I'm thinking about such-and-such a field; and that person says, "Oh, I know just the person you should talk to!" It's amazing.

I was having dinner with Lorin and her husband a couple of weeks ago and told them I was thinking about doing work with hospice. And Lorin's husband, Chris, said, "Oh, I know just the person you should talk to!" So the next week, I met Chuck Cole who is a consultant for skilled nursing facilities ("sniffs" I learned they are called).

Chris had been very coy when he introduced us via email and so when Chuck asked me what my story was, I told him I was an Episcopal priest looking to make a career change, possibly into non-profit administration. Chuck just laughed and said, "Well, that changes the direction of our conversation."

Turns out, Chuck had been a Baptist minister. He had been working at a church in Modesto that grew by leaps and bounds in the 1970's when he was outed to his congregation and forced to leave. He moved to San Francisco in 1977 and got involved with the MCC. Then the AIDS crisis hit--what was then called GRID.

Before he was a minister, Chuck had been an RN. With his medical background and connections to the gay community, he was named part of Mayor Dianne Feinstein's task force on AIDS. And as a result of that, he helped establish what we now know as the hospice program in the United States. Not that he was getting paid much for that; he was doing consulting work for AT&T and other companies during the day and doing this work at night. I can't imagine how exhausting that must have been--physically and emotionally. He told me that by 1995, he had held durable power of attorney for something like 80 people and had been the executor of over 60 estates. I cannot imagine.

But these programs became the model for hospice programs throughout the United States. During the 80's, Medicaid came and looked at what they were doing and included it in their coverage; you don't get much more mainstream than that. Of course, it's very mainstream (and well-regulated) status means there is not much of a future in hospice administration as a career. That's all right. It's as good to know what not to pursue as to have new leads to follow.

A few thoughts about this: first of all, I had no idea how much we owed the gay community for the quality of our life and death in contemporary America. It had never occurred to me that hospice came from somewhere. I didn't know that it was in great measure instigated by the AIDS crisis.

Secondly, I was so encouraged by this meeting. I was reminded of the book of Esther, being put in place "for just such a time as this." Or perhaps more appropriately Joseph. Because how would you have guessed, after being kicked out of your church and finding yourself unemployed in San Francisco, that you would be just the right person to help at just the right time. It cannot have felt like that.

Plain and simple, this interview gave me hope that, though I don't know what I will be doing in a year's time, what I have done and who I am will have prepared me for the next thing. Does that make sense? I hope that I too will be able to look back in future years and see that I was just the right person in the right place at the right time to do what God has put me here to do. Whatever that might be.

Thank you, Chuck, for your encouragement. I hope I got the gist of your tale right. It meant a great deal to me to talk to you.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review: The Principles of Uncertainty

The uncertainty in the Principles of Uncertainty starts with what exactly to call this. I mean, it's not a graphic novel or memoir. It's not a journal, really. It's not a travelogue. It's not poetry. It's not philosophy. But it's got pieces of all of those things in it.I'm going with a collection of illustrated existential contemplations even though it makes it sound pretentious, but I can't think of anything better. OK, so that's a terrible description. Takes all the fun right out of it. It's a cool book with cool pictures, OK?

It's by Maira Kalman who originally did (contemplative essays?) as a blog for the NY Times. Her more recent blog, called The Pursuit of Happiness, mused on U.S. history and will be published as a book next month.

The Principles of Uncertainty is a bit more tenuous in its themes--nothing nearly so straightforward as The United States. Maybe it would help if I listed everything under "E" in the index. (Yes, there's an index.)

egg, man breaks, 274
egg slicer collection, 113
Einstein, Albert, 22
Einstein, Mrs. (teacher), 21
embroidery, of Ich Habe Genug, 197
empty box collection, 102-105
English hermit, 254
Eugene Onegin (opera), 257
extinction, 3-4, 6
eyes, tired, 201

There's also an appendix that includes things like the recipe for Honey Cake, postcards of the Hotel Celeste, and Names in Part I of the Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I loved this book even before I got to the part where she talks about reading the obituaries every morning ("obituaries, 50-51, 55"). All along I thought, I know this person! I understand what she's talking about. Then we get to the part about reading obituaries, and I saw my own thoughts and feelings echoed back at me. She says,

This is not morbid. Just epic. Maybe it is a way of trying to figure out, before the day begins, what is important. And I am curious about all the little things that make up a life.

Me too! I thought, and would have given her a high five if she were here.

She certainly has an eye for the little epic details: the EXCELLENT United Pickle tag, various fabulous hats, Parisian garbage cans.

Well, she could, but she doesn't. She just gives you enough to make you think, "Why, yes, that chair is magnificent! Let me see what magnificent chairs there are in my life."

There was a moment or two when I did find her work somewhat self-conscious, but by and large I was absolutely delighted by this book, and ultimately encouraged by it. Maybe it was just the shock of finding someone saying out loud the things that I suspect sometimes go through my own head. Or maybe it was because, after all her meanderings, she ended with this:

I'll remember that.


Bay Area locals may want to note that there's a retrospective of Maira Kalman's work now showing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. I think I'm going to have to get myself over there.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Teaser Tuesday, September 21

As I am wont to do of a Tuesday, I will be picking 2-ish sentences more or less randomly from the book I'm currently reading in hopes it will intrigue you, perhaps enough for you to read it as well.

The Principles of UncertaintyI just picked up the book Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman (no, that's not a typo) from the library yesterday. It is wonderful. My new absolute favorite book of all time for the moment. Certain anonymous friends of mine would be wise not to get this book at this time. After all, Christmas is coming.

Here are the two sentences:

The point is, Rick's father, Hy Meyerowitz, a dry cleaning supply salesman from the Bronx, won the Charlie Chaplain Look Alike contest in 1931. That is a very big point in the plus column of life.

Bonus: here's an image of a sample page:

 I'll probably post a review later this week.  But what's there to say, really?  It's fantastic.

P.S. I should mention that Teaser Tuesday is hosted by Miz B. of Should Be Reading.  Hello everyone from over there!  Thanks for visiting!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Monday Morning Preacher: Memorial service

I went to a memorial service for my neighbor yesterday. Oh. My. God. I spent the hour breathing deeply and telling myself it would be over soon. I stared steadily at the head of the person in front of me and was very glad I sat towards the back of the chapel.

I went to their house afterwards and his partner asked me what I thought of the service. Hem hem haw haw...always going to have some professional criticism...but what's important was whether YOU liked it, I said. He said it was meaningful to him, so that's good.

But to you, my friends, I will rant. I will attempt to rant productively, however, rather than simply negatively. To that end, I will pause for a deep breath.


Here's the thing about preaching at a memorial service: IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU! Yes, I mean you, Reverend Dr. What's-your-name, as you read a verse from Psalm 139 and say why it's meaningful to you, or read a letter that was sent to you from the president of your faux-denomination, or explain your Thoughts About Life ("Life doesn't begin. It doesn't end either. Life is."), or talk about how we enter early middle age, then middle age, then late-middle-middle-age, then late middle age, then get old. Given that the person who died was 41, this would be a lie, wouldn't it?

Not every memorial service is a "Celebration of Life." Some memorials are a recognition of the tragedy of untimely death. Being sad, being angry, saying it's not fair, saying this shouldn't have happened...if that's what people are really thinking, someone needs to say it out loud! The most honest moment in the whole service came when my neighbor's partner's sister stood up to speak and said in the midst of her remembrance, "It's kind of a sucky lesson." YES! It IS a sucky lesson! Thank you!

And frankly, Reverend Dr. What's-your-name, if the only thing you can think of to say about a person is that "he had a beautiful smile," then maybe you aren't qualified to talk about that person. Maybe you haven't done your job. Maybe you should have asked his partner more questions about him, found out some readings that were important to him, learned what he had accomplished, learned what he would have liked to do, taken the trouble to find some meaning in this. Even if it's "I don't see any meaning in this at all. It's damn unfair."

The thing is, Reverend Dr. What's-your-name, before people can feel the comfort, you have to acknowledge the pain.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sunday funnies

'Tis Talk Like a Pirate Day--arrr! T' celebrate, I hereby proclaim that I wish t' be known this day as Cap'n Rachel Bloodbath. I further proclaim t' ye that ye should hie your lazy landlubber guts over t' t' Pirate Name Generator and find your own Piratey Name. Arr! Then join me crew with a hearty "Aye aye" below.

I hope ye be celebratin' a Pirate Eucharist today.  Th' gospel this mornin' is enough to warm the cockles of any good scalawag's heart.  Arrrr-men.

Garden update

Remember this?

 This was the backyard as of July 2, after pavers and boxwood had been removed. 

Well, here it is yesterday morning:

Andy and Georgia: "Wha--what happened?!"
Here it is mid-morning:

I love that huge roller thingey.
And then, in the afternoon:


Looks kind of plain right now, but there are a couple of beds you can barely see in the photos, and Annie's Annuals is having a Big Sale in a couple of weeks!  Plotting and planning...plotting and planning...

Friday, September 17, 2010

For everything there is a season

I got this pencil box when I was just a wee lass.  This morning, I went to get a paper clip out of it and it finally gave up the ghost.

 I don't know exactly when I got it, but clearly I wasn't even old enough to write my own name.  And that's the address from where we lived until I was 10.

As I remember it (others might remember it better), it was a Christmas present.  I have no idea why this, of all the things I have received over the years, has stayed with me so long--over more than 30 years and I don't even know how many moves.

You never know what will prove to be precious, do you?

I think it's time to honor it for its 30+ years of faithful service and say goodbye.  What a great little box.

Update: Here's a close-up of the cover of the box.  It's really quite lovely, isn't it?

World in Prayer

This week was my week to write the prayers for World in Prayer. I don't know if it's cheating or just a wise use of resources, but I used one of the prayers developed for the International Day of Prayer for Peace and inserted the specific topical prayers into it. The thing was, those prayers were lovely and I certainly wasn't going to come up with anything better.

So here are the prayers for this week, courtesy of some unnamed Christian in Tanzania. I hope you are nourished by them as much as I was.

These prayers were adapted from prayers written for the World Council of Church’s International Day of Prayer for Peace by a church in Tanzania. The International Day of Prayer for Peace is held on the same day as the UN International Day of Peace, September 21.

Our Lord and God Almighty,
we praise you,
for you created us all and made us
into many different tribes and nations,
that we may befriend one another
and that we may not despise each other.

We pray for the Church in all its many forms;
We pray for understanding and kindness between Christians and Muslims in the U.S. and around the world;
We pray for Israelis and Palestinians as their leaders continue to meet in peace talks;
We pray for those vilified or abused due to their race, class or clan;
We pray that we may learn from those who are different from us.

Open our hearts, we pray,
so that we may respond to the needs
of all our brothers and sisters.

We pray for those affected by fires in Boulder, Colorado and San Bruno, California;
We pray for those affected by storms in Mexico and the Gulf Coast;
We pray for those affected by floods in Guatemala and Pakistan;
We pray for the Episcopal House of Bishops meeting in Arizona as they learn about immigration issues;
We pray for those meeting at the Millennium Development Goal summit in New York next week;
We pray for those whose needs we know and those whose needs are not known to us.

Oh Lord Jesus, bless all our lands
with more lasting peace and fraternal understanding.

We pray for travelers, aid workers, missionaries, refugees, immigrants, and international students that they may promote peace and understanding.

Above all, heavenly Father,
touch the hearts of our political leaders
and all those in power.
We pray that they may exercise power gently,
that they may humbly seek a disinterested dialogue
that will bring about understanding,
leading us all to a place where all nations and all people
live together in peace and harmony.

We pray for the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, as they continue peace talks;
We pray for the transitional government of Somalia, that it may resolve its internal conflicts and do the work it was selected to do;
We pray for all nations with upcoming elections: Guinea, Sweden, Venezuela, Latvia, Brazil, and Bosnia and Herzogovina;
We pray for the leaders of our nation, state, and city and those who live in them.

Where there is bitterness teach us forgiveness and reconciliation,
replace hatred with love and indifference with care.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review: If the Dead Rise Not

As promised, I'm letting you know that I finished If the Dead Rise Not--very early this morning indeed.

And it ends on just the right note. A melancholy note that suits the sadness I found brewing and building throughout the novel.

One of the things that adds to the novel's power, I think, is the lacuna in the middle: 20 years between the time we leave our hard-boiled noir hero, Bernie Gunther, in Nazi Germany in 1934 and the time we suddenly see him again, calling himself Carlos Hausner, a German Argentinian businessman working a deal in 1954 Havana.

The fact that Gunther doesn't tell you much of what happened during the intervening years leaves much to the imagination, and suggests that what he did and saw was too terrible to repeat. (There are actually other Bernie Gunther mysteries that do fill in some of this time period, but the not knowing has a power of its own.) Of course, some of the things he does let you see are truly terrible.

He's a pithy observer, is Gunther, and Philip Kerr's prose is smooth and precise. Gunther cracks wise and you can hear the wisdom in it. It's also eye-opening to hear from the point of view of a German, an outsider to the Nazi party he despises while despised by the Allies who make assumptions about his background and motivations. It allows him to tell the reader things like this:

I was fresh out of insightful incidents of my own, so I stayed silent. Besides, I didn't have a particularly warm opinion of Americans myself. They weren't as bad as the Russians or the French, but then they didn't expect to be liked and they didn't much care when they weren't. Americans were different: even after they'd dropped a couple of atom bombs on the Japs, they still wanted to be liked. Which struck me as just a little naive. So I stayed silent and, almost like two old friends, together we enjoyed the view from the rooftop for a while.

The plot is satisfying, the prose is wonderful, the historical setting is detailed and informative, the characters are rich and well-realized. What can I say? It's a really good book: good the way a good meal is good. Not light, not necessarily easy. It follows all the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel, but it does so in the way that, say, Thomas Keller would make a steak. I'm glad I got to savor it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

International Day of Prayer for Peace

I didn't know about this until just now, but wanted to pass it along. From the World Council of Churches website:

On 21 September, churches and communities throughout the world are committing to the International Day of Prayer for Peace (IDPP) through prayer, meditation and other forms of spiritual observance.

This year's International Day of Prayer for Peace has a focus on Africa as part of the final year of the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV).

Africa is also the home of UN Messenger of Peace, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and green advocate, Wangari Maathai. Maathai, a Kenyan, has been designated as a Messenger of Peace with a focus on the environment and climate change.

The WCC-sponsored International Day of Prayer for Peace takes place on the same day as the UN International Day of Peace.

Still time to get something together before next Tuesday!

Saints of the day

Such an interesting combination of the old and the new, the theoretical and the practical today.

First you've got St. Cyprian, bumped from September 13th by the arrival of John Chrysostom, and a real earlybird of the church who was beheaded on September 14, 258. He is best known for his teachings in the church: letters and treatises, and much debate over whether or not to receive those who have lapsed from the faith back into the fold. (He was for it--after a time of penitence.) One position he held, that those baptized by heretics need to be re-baptized, is itself now considered a heresy. I'm actually very grateful that Being Completely Right In All Things Doctrinal is not a requirement for sainthood; if it were, I'm sure no one would be considered worthy.

On the other hand, you've got James Chisolm, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, Virginia in the mid-1800's who died in the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1855. Instead of leaving for the mountains for the summer, he stayed behind, visiting the sick, bringing people food and drink, burying the dead, and generally going about the work of caring for people in need. He died of Yellow Fever on September 15, 1855.

Kind of a both/and day: both faith and works, both theory and practice. And in both cases, people willing to risk and ultimately sacrifice their lives for their faith. Could I do that? I do not know. I'm not sure I want to be put to the test. In fact, I'm quite sure I don't.

The collect for James Chisolm says this: "Help us remember that in giving up our lives to your service, we win the eternal crown that never fades away in that heavenly kingdom." But I would like to think that we could serve God and our neighbor out of love and not because of any reward. Maybe I'm crazy, but I would like love to motivate me. Then again, I'm not really big on crowns.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Not really a Teaser Tuesday: more on If the Dead Rise Not

I'm about 2/3 of the way through If the Dead Rise Not and if I didn't have all sorts of silly work to do I would be reading it now. It's a good read, a noir mystery set during the rise of Nazi Germany and told from the point of view of Bernie Gunther, a former cop purged from the force when he wouldn't join the National Socialist party.

I'll be curious to see how it ends; the ending will make or break it, I think. At the moment, I have no idea how this is going to turn out. I have some suspicions, but I really don't know.

I did want to give you two sentences from the book, a la Teaser Tuesday, because I read these last night and thought they were too good not to share.

"It's the fate of every race to think itself chosen by God," I added. "But it's the fate of only a very few races that they're sufficiently stupid as to try to put that into practice."

One of the things I've enjoyed about this book is reading it through the lens both of history and also current events. There are no big signs and circles and arrows saying, "Look! Similarity!" or "See how different this is than that?" It's very true (as best I can tell) to the specific setting of its time and place, but that specificity allows for the echoes of our contemporary world to come through clearly. And all within the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel.

I'll let you know when I finish it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom's feast day has been moved from January 27, the day his remains were re-buried in Constantinople, to September 13, the day before his death in 407 because the 14th was already taken with the major feast of the Holy Cross. (January 27 will now be Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe, all worthy of remembrance but a) why are they combining these women on one day?--grr; and b) why not have them on an open day rather than rebury Chrysostom yet again? Deep breath. OK. I'm calmer now.)

BUT I wanted to talk about John Chrysostom, seeing as he is a preacher of renown, his name meaning "Golden Mouth." According to one bio, "Audiences were warned not to carry large sums of money when they went to hear him speak, since pickpockets found it very easy to rob his hearers -- they were too intent on his words to notice what was happening." It goes on:

He loved the city and people of Antioch, and they loved him. However, he became so famous that the Empress at Constantinople decided that she must have him for her court preacher, and she had him kidnapped and brought to Constantinople and there made bishop. This was a failure all around. His sermons against corruption in high places earned him powerful enemies (including the Empress), and he was sent into exile, where he died.

How sad! But how brave, that he continued to preach and not simply speak to get along. How true to his call and to his Lord.

"Mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellency in preaching, and fidelity in ministering your Word, that your people shall be partakers with them of the glory that shall be revealed." So be it. Amen.

Monday Morning Preacher: Amplification

Yesterday, I went to a service celebrating the 100th anniversary of a parish, All Saints in San Leandro. It was very cleverly done: a Morning Prayer and Holy Communion service, using material from the 1892, 1928, and 1979 prayer books, with Eucharistic Prayer 3 from Enriching Our Worship. The rector started with only men at the altar, and we ended with me celebrating and a range of people assisting. Really very nifty.

I found myself jarred, though, at the use of the microphone during the sermon and pondered for a bit what people did before electronic amplification, especially in big churches. Those high pulpits served a practical purpose, of course--they weren't all about setting the preacher above everybody else. Without people in front of you to muffle the sound, you were more likely to hear the preacher, plus see some lip movements to help you figure out what he was saying.

And now I will devolve into a totally unexpected amplification rant--one I did not expect to have.

Can I just say I have not yet found a church sound system that is truly effective? I don't know what lavalier mics are designed for, but they certainly don't work with alb pockets and chasubles. They have these little buttons that lie flush with the transmitter so you have no idea if what you say is going to be broadcast or not. I've learned the pocket peek, where you try to figure out if your mic is actually on, and (if on) muted or live. This is harder when one is hampered by large vestments.

I do not like those mics that hook behind the ear with a "flesh-colored" headset--if you are melanin-challenged. I'm sorry, but they just look ridiculous.

And why are pulpit mics never, ever set at the right amplification level? You'd think they'd stay the same from week to week. Then there's the SCRAWK of the gooseneck mic as the preacher moves it into position.

One thing I know for sure is that you HAVE to leave a little time for a sound check before the service. Check the lavalier: is the battery working? Is it at the right level for your voice? Is it TURNED ON??? Check the pulpit mic: is it at the right height for you? is it set at the right sound level?

Because, boy, you may have the best sermon in the world, but if people can't hear you, it's not worth a thing.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Portraits of Grief

I've probably said before, but wish to bring to your attention the Portraits of Grief series the NY Times published during 2001. It was a noble work, I think, and a lovely memorial to capture the stories of each and every person who died on 9/11. In the midst of all the political fol-de-rol and footballing as people on all sides of the political spectrum seem to try to use 9/11 for their own purposes, I think it's good to remember some people by name, and not just as a name.

If you are like me and looking for something meaningful to do to commemorate this day, you might want to look through some of these portraits and remember those who died.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Some rules for understanding religion

Thank you to my friend Gawain DeLeeuw for allowing me to repost this here. He wrote this on his blog, The Divine Latitude.

Talking about religion is hard, in part because most people are ill-equipped to discuss it with precision and accuracy. Religion, after all, raises people’s emotional temperature to a point where it is difficult to understand what the real points of conflict or misunderstanding are.

Here are some of my presuppositions when thinking about religion.

1. Religious traditions have as much diversity within them as they do between them: Quakers and Roman Catholics; fundamentalists and Episcopalians; Sufis and Sunnis; reconstructionists and Hasids; Zen and Vajrayana.
2. Most religions are not single traditions, but multiple traditions. For example: works vs. faith by justification; law vs. grace; institutional authority vs personal conscience.
3. Traditions mingle and change according to context: Buddhapalians, for example; the protestant influence on all religions in the US. New age thought on Christianity.
4. Holy texts are unrelated to popular piety: Some Muslims drink; some hindus eat beef; Christians have premarital sex.
5. Religious conflict is often ossified political conflict. The conflict in Northern Ireland has much to do with the birth of the English empire; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began as a conflict about land.
6. Religious practice is more like a language than a moral calculus.
7. Religions are not the same; nor are they completely different. Traditions include rituals, myth-making, moral teaching, and organizational systems.
8. Religious traditions steal from one another.
9. Few people know all the rules.
10. Few follow all the rules.
11. We misunderstand other people’s traditions.
12. We often misunderstand our own.
13. We like the positive parts of our faith traditions.
14. We ignore the bad parts of our faith traditions.
15. Hypocrisy is the universal faith tradition.
16. It’s still about sex, money and death. (Or more poetically, survival in the desert).

Uh boy.

I had skimmed this announcement in our weekly diocesan email earlier this week, but a friend of mine pointed out the end, highlighted here for your...enlightenment.

Noted pastor, author, biblical scholar, family man, and Pastor Emeritus, Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, IL, Dr. Jeremiah Wright will deliver the keynote address, "Living Up To Our Greatness" for the founding celebration of the African American Leadership Commission, East Bay Region. His latest book, "A Sankofa Moment: The History of Trinity United Church of Christ," describes the 48-year journey of building the UCC's largest congregation in the United States. The AALC is part of the national network of the Gamaliel Foundation, Chicago, and a member of its local affiliate, Genesis. Please wear Afro-centric attire, in whole or in part, such as a scarf, a tie, a skirt, a blouse, a dress, or head wrap. Clergy are requested to wear an Afro-centric robe or stole. The program begins with the ISIS women's drumming group leading a procession of clergy and others into the sanctuary.

This is a joke, right? This is just a parody of liberalism that someone snuck into the announcement, right? Please tell me that this is a brilliant prank.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Review: Red Sky at Morning

Red Sky at Morning: A Novel (Perennial Classics)Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford, set in 1944 and written in 1968, still feels amazingly fresh and contemporary. The teenage protagonist, Josh Arnold, is either precocious or just a wise-ass, depending on your point of view. Actually, he's probably both. I can imagine him just as easily living today as in the 1940s.

Josh and his mother leave their home in Mobile, Alabama and move to the remote New Mexico town of Sagrado while his father joins the Navy for the tail end of WWII. There he befriends Steenie, the obstetrician's son who is a font of anatomical wisdom; Marcia, "Marcia's old man is rector of St. Thomas's Episcopal, but don't bother watching your language," Steenie says as he introduces her to Josh; and a plethora of other colorful characters, young and old, Anglo, Mexican, and Indian.

Josh's constantly evolving understanding of people as people who deserve respect as opposed to types who need to be put in their place--whether that place is underfoot or on a pillar--is a recurring theme. There is an excellent scene in which Josh's mother, with all her Southern breeding, tries to patronize the cook's daughter who is Josh's guest at dinner.

"Has your family been in America long, dear?" my mother asked her condescendingly.

"Not too long, Mrs. Arnold," Victoria answered. "By America, do you mean what's now Mexico or what's now the United States?"

"Well, I suppose I mean here. Around Sagrado."

"I'll have to figure it out in my head," Victoria said. She closed an eye and mumbled something like, "Eight from fifteen, seven, borrow one," and announced, "Three hundred and forty-seven. No, forty-six. They came in August."

Mostly, this is simply a book about a smart kid open to his surroundings and on the cusp of adulthood and independence. It's really funny in parts and incredibly poignant in others and amazingly timeless in its delivery. I'm not the only one to think of it as a small classic, but I'll add my voice to the chorus. Read and enjoy.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Today's obituary page

I thought today's Daily Death alert from the NY Times was a particularly interesting juxtaposition of people.

First of all, you've got a 50/50 split of men and women. Well, one of each, so it's not that notable. But when you realize, as the NYTpicker does, that in August there were obituaries for 70 men and 6 women, you celebrate the little things. "And for the year 2010 to date, the NYT has chronicled the deaths of 606 men, and only 92 women," the Picker goes on to add.

Is there no female equivalent to the man who invented the Cheeto? Or the man who designed the Greek coffee cup? Those are but two of the dozens of obituaries in the last year commemorating men who weren't particularly famous, but whose achievements earned them attention on the NYT obits page.

Preach it!

So today we've got one man and one woman. The man: Seymour Pine who led the police raid on the Stonewall Inn.

In 2004, Inspector Pine spoke during a discussion of the Stonewall uprising at the New-York Historical Society. At the time of the raid, he said, the police “certainly were prejudiced” against gays, “but had no idea about what gay people were about.” ...

When someone in the audience said Inspector Pine should apologize for the raid, he did.

"His wife of 45 years, the former Judith Handler, died in 1987."

The woman: Virginia B. Smith, "a lawyer and economist who helped shape the contours of higher education as president of Vassar College, as a high public official in Washington and as a member of influential private research groups."

Ms. Smith was chosen to lead Vassar from among 450 candidates for the job partly because she had a strong vision for using the Vassar presidency as a model of innovation for American higher education, said Elizabeth Runkle Purcell, who was chairwoman of the selection committee...Ms. Smith’s appointment as the eighth Vassar president was announced in April 1977. When The New York Times asked her why she had been chosen, she replied matter-of-factly, “Because I was the best qualified.”

Impressive as all get-out, this woman. She is survived by her partner of 57 years, Florence Oaks.

Just such a wonderful study of contrasts and yet themes that resonate still today. I love how the obituaries flesh out history--literally--and how they point to the life we live today.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Teaser Tuesday, September 7

So the rules are you pick two sentences at random from your current read. I'm confessing right now that these two sentences are not picked at random. I just liked them a lot. They are, however, from my current read and they are two sentences, so I'm just skirting the law a little bit, which seems appropriate for the anti-hero noir mystery that I am reading: If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr.

If the Dead Rise Not (Bernie Gunther)Though I've read many a mystery set during the period of Hitler's Germany, I've never read one set inside Hitler's Germany from a German perspective. Here's the teaser:

As one of the house detectives at the Adlon, I was expected to keep thugs and murderers out of the hotel. But that could be difficult when the thugs and murderers were Nazi Party officials.

Oh, it's very satisfying!

Last week on Teaser Tuesday: I had a quote from Red Sky at Morning. I hope to do a book review, but it may have to wait a day or two. Short review: what a terrific book. Stay tuned.