Saturday, December 31, 2011

Obit du jour: Eva Zeisel

Eva Zeisel, ceramic artist, died yesterday at the age of 105. I was sad to hear it, though not overly surprised.  I mean, 105.  I'd heard her story and blogged about it a year and a half ago.

One of the things I love about obituaries is hearing the stories. I just wish I heard more of the stories--or were more attentive to them--while people were still alive.

On the other hand, would I have been saddened about Eva Ziesel's death had I only heard about her for the first time today?  It's the knowing people and losing them that's heartbreaking. But more heartbreaking still, knowing people but sticking to the surface of things, not finding out until they are gone what went into the shapes and contours of their lives, the things I could have known.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reflections on Christmas 2011

Every year since the year 2000, I've preached on Christmas morning. This year I stayed home and the silence of it was breathtakingly beautiful. No rushing, no music, no message. Just silence.

The night before we'd sung "Silent Night" and the congregation had held candles as the ushers turned off the lights; as soon as the hymn was over, they turned the lights on again. I found myself thinking, "What was the point of that?" Tradition, I guess. But people didn't seem to know if it was all right to blow out the candles. I blew mine out. Why leave it lit?

I was sorry Christmas Eve wasn't more magical. There was no incense.  There was no cope. In fact, there was nothing unusual about the service at all, except that it was at night. And there was a moment with a candle. But very soon after the service started, I realized "this is just a garden-variety eucharist," and I was instantly bored. I knew that I would be there for about an hour and 15 minutes. I knew I would wade through the sermon and let my mind wander. I knew I would receive communion. And then it would be done.

So I did Christmas Eve. Like I was supposed to.

A couple of days earlier, I'd seen an article in the Telegraph in which the writer reflected on a couple of funerals he had attended. At the end, he related the story of the 7th Earl of Yarborough who "at his village carol service, he read the lesson about the shepherds deserting their flocks to see the baby in Bethlehem. “I’d just like to say,” he told the startled congregation, “that if these men had been my shepherds, I’d have sacked them.”" What it made me think was how going to pay homage to the Christ child is a deeply irresponsible act. And how hard we all try--perhaps at Christmas especially--to be so very responsible. But that maybe God is not calling us to act responsibly.

I made myself some French toast. I had some tea. I didn't do much of anything. And it was lovely.

Christmas Oratorio by W.H. Auden

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
"Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake."
They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

 [h/t Andrew Sullivan]

Thursday, December 22, 2011

There's never too much inflatable Christmas decor

We live across the street from someone who I think has every inflatable Christmas decoration known to humankind. Each year he sets them all out on his small front yard and porch. And if you're going to use inflatable (and often animatronic) Christmas decorations, I think "tastelessly and outrageously" is the way to do it.

Here's the full picture:
But let's take a little closer look, shall we?
Note the green item to the right of the picture. That would be a trailer. That Santa lives in. And you know this because the door opens and Santa pops out. (You can see him in the door in the first pic.) 

But what is Santa doing here?
There, behind the bushes! Leaving aside the "Snow Angel Station" with Santa spread eagled on what looks like an air mattress, what exactly is Santa up to? Let's go to video, shall we?

Oh, Santa! You may call it a "Rocking Horse." I'm not so sure.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

On Trinity Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street and the reactions thereunto

Headline: The Church that Aided Wall Street Protesters is Now Their Target
The displaced occupiers had asked the church, one of the city’s largest landholders, to hand over a gravel lot, near Canal Street and Avenue of the Americas, for use as an alternate campsite and organizing hub. The church declined, calling the proposed encampment “wrong, unsafe, unhealthy and potentially injurious.”
When I was in seminary, a group of us looked into the possibility of allowing those who were homeless to sleep on the grounds and offer them coffee in the morning. After much consultation, we discovered a number of things:

1) When homeless people slept on campus, the groundspeople were required to clean up human feces and other detritus after them (and we did not bear any responsibility or burden for that work);
2)  We were asked what would happen during school breaks and during the summer;
3)  We realized that though we wanted to do something, this didn't actually help homeless people out of their difficulties; it just made us feel better.

What we ended up doing was almost the opposite of what we had first thought: we sent the homeless away.  We posted signs around the campus with information about where the nearest homeless shelters were. And we volunteered to be part of the cooking rotation for another organization that offered dinners to those who lived on the streets. It was humbling because it required the painful realization that doing what was best in this situation made us look heartless. It also made me, at least, realize how much of my motivation was wanting to appear noble--even though other people would bear the burden for my noble cause.

Should Trinity have allowed the protesters to camp? I don't have all the information so I can't say. But to me that's not the issue. What gets to me about this brouhaha was neither OWS's desire to camp nor Trinity's decision not to let them. It was how quickly I saw many people--clergy particularly--jump from, "I think they should allow OWS to camp there," to "Trinity Wall Street isn't interested in justice." That's a mighty big leap, and one that I think is dangerous and divisive to make without full and Godlike knowledge of all the facts and the thoughts of everyone's hearts.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On the feast of St. Thomas

Collect for the day:
Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I would just like to say that I hate this collect. To me, it completely misses all the best parts of the story of St. Thomas: the part where Thomas fearlessly says that he doesn't believe, and that he won't believe until certain conditions are met; the part where the other disciples (apparently) don't try to argue him out of it or castigate him for not believing; the part where Thomas is willing to let his conditions go by the bye in light of new information.

Nothing perfect about that.  Certainly it's not without doubt.  And I am confident that if my faith is found wanting (and I don't doubt that it will), that God's grace will more than make up for my lack.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Guest post: on Vaclav Havel

My friend Molly D. sent me this email this morning. I asked for her permission to post it here:

I was really sorry to learn today that Vaclav Havel has died.  Back in 1989, I was working on Captiol Hill when he was named President of the newly-free Czech Republic and came to address a Joint Session of Congress. I was working on a number of things at the time, and had the TV on in the background as he began. Within a few minutes, however, I had put everything down and focused completely on what he had to say. And when it was over, my boss returned from the floor of the House, deeply moved, and asked if I'd heard the speech. We talked about its message and, at my suggestion, he bought full page ads in the nine newspapers of our congressional district and reprinted the speech. We both felt that, at such an astonishing time in history, Havel provided a grounding in what mattered most.

What follows is the key section of that speech, and what strikes me now is A) that he's still right, B) the entire Congress needs to hear this speech again and C) how refreshing it is to read a speech with complex ideas rather than the simplistic drivel that passes for thought these days.



Ladies and gentlemen, I've only been president for two months, and I haven't attended any schools for presidents. My only school was life itself. Therefore, I don't want to burden you any longer with my political thoughts, but instead I will move on to an area that is more familiar to me, to what I would call the philosophical aspect of those changes that still concern everyone, although they are taking place in our corner of the world.

As long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always be no more than an ideal; one may approach it as one would a horizon, in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. In this sense you are also merely approaching democracy. You have thousands of problems of all kinds, as other countries do. But you have one great advantage: You have been approaching democracy uninterruptedly for more than 200 years, and your journey toward that horizon has never been disrupted by a totalitarian system. Czechs and Slovaks, despite their humanistic traditions that go back to the first millennium, have approached democracy for a mere twenty years, between the two world wars, and now for three and a half months since the 17th of November of last year.

The advantage that you have over us is obvious at once.

The Communist type of totalitarian system has left both our nations, Czechs and Slovaks as it has all the nations of the Soviet Union, and the other countries the Soviet Union subjugated in its time a legacy of countless dead, an infinite spectrum of human suffering, profound economic decline, and above all enormous human humiliation. It has brought us horrors that fortunately you have not known.

At the same time, however unintentionally, of course it has given us something positive: a special capacity to look, from time to time, somewhat further than someone who has not undergone this bitter experience. A person who cannot move and live a normal life because he is pinned under a boulder has more time to think about his hopes than someone who is not trapped in this way.

What I am trying to say is this: We must all learn many things from you, from how to educate our offspring, how to elect our representatives, all the way to how to organize our economic life so that it will lead to prosperity and not poverty. But it doesn't have to be merely assistance from the well-educated, the powerful and the wealthy to someone who has nothing to offer in return.

We too can offer something to you: our experience and the knowledge that has come from it.
This is a subject for books, many of which have already been written and many of which have yet to be written. I shall therefore limit myself to a single idea.

The specific experience I'm talking about has given me one great certainty: Consciousness precedes Being, and not the other way around, as Marxists claim.

For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human humbleness and in human responsibility.

Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our Being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed, whether it be ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization, will be unavoidable. If we are no longer threatened by world war or by the danger that the absurd mountains of accumulated nuclear weapons might blow up the world, this does not mean that we have definitively won. We are in fact far from definite victory.

We are still a long way from that "family of man;" in fact, we seem to be receding from the ideal rather than drawing closer to it. Interests of all kinds: personal, selfish, state, national, group and, if you like, company interests still considerably outweigh genuinely common and global interests. We are still under the sway of the destructive and thoroughly vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation, and not just a part of it, and that therefore everything is permitted. There are still many who say they are concerned not for themselves but for the cause, while they are demonstrably out for themselves and not for the cause at all. We are still destroying the planet that was entrusted to us, and its environment. We still close our eyes to the growing social, ethnic and cultural conflicts in the world. From time to time we say that the anonymous megamachinery we have created for ourselves no longer serves us but rather has enslaved us, yet we still fail to do anything about it.

In other words, we still don't know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions if they are to be moral is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success. Responsibility to the order of Being, where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where, and only where, they will be properly judged.

The interpreter or mediator between us and this higher authority is what is traditionally referred to as human conscience.

If I subordinate my political behaviour to this imperative, I can't go far wrong. If on the contrary I were not guided by this voice, not even ten presidential schools with 2,000 of the best political scientists in the world could help me.

This is why I ultimately decided after resisting for a long time to accept the burden of political responsibility. I'm not the first nor will I be the last intellectual to do this. On the contrary, my feeling is that there will be more and more of them all the time. If the hope of the world lies in human consciousness, then it is obvious that intellectuals cannot go on forever avoiding their share of responsibility for the world and hiding their distastes for politics under an alleged need to be independent.

It is easy to have independence in your programme and then leave others to carry out that programme. If everyone thought that way, soon no one would be independent.

I think that Americans should understand this way of thinking. Wasn't it the best minds of your country, people you could call intellectuals, who wrote your famous Declaration of Independence, your Bill of Rights and your Constitution and who above all took upon themselves the practical responsibility for putting them into practice? The worker from Branik in Prague, whom your president referred to in his State of the Union message this year, is far from being the only person in Czechoslovakia, let alone in the world, to be inspired by those great documents. They inspire us all. They inspire us despite the fact that they are over 200 years old. They inspire us to be citizens.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed," it was a simple and important act of the human spirit.

What gave meaning to that act, however, was the fact that the author backed it up with his life. It was not just his words, it was his deeds as well.

I will end where I began. History has accelerated. I believe that once again, it will be the human spirit that will notice this acceleration, give it a name, and transform those words into deeds.

Sunday Funnies, December 18

Those Improv Everywhere folks strike again!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Obit quote du jour

"She also leaves a cat, Mikey."

From the obituary "Edie Stevenson Dies at 81; Wrote ‘Let’s Get Mikey’ Ad"

I can see why you would name a pet after Mikey; it got her a promotion to VP.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Funnies, December 11

Let's see if this works.

And while you're at it, I suggest either reading or listening to The SantaLand Diaries by David Sedaris.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Strong reaction

I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian, but you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when presidential candidates can disparage those serving in the military and tell outright lies about our nation and its president.

As a voter, I will do my part to work against slander and falsehood. And I'll fight against attacks on our religious heritage that twists religion into a platform for fear and hatred.

I'm an American citizen, and I approved this message.

Here's the ad I'm reacting to:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

And I thought they looked like that so we could hang them on Christmas trees...

h/t MD who was probably looking for a Christmas Moose.

Obit du jour: Peter Lunn

A classic. Let's start with this fabulous opener, shall we?
Peter Northcote Lunn was born on November 15 1914 into British skiing aristocracy. His grandfather, Sir Henry Lunn, was a one-time missionary who, having failed to convert the Indians to Methodism, moved to Switzerland, where he embarked on encouraging the British to ski.
Then let's move on to the part where he becomes a "gentleman spy" after WWII, using the tunnels under Vienna (a la The Third Man)"to tap into the underground cables which the Soviets used to communicate."
He even bought a villa on the route of the cable that linked the Soviet headquarters in Vienna with the city’s airport and its overall command station for Austria at St Pölten. From the villa, his team could excavate undisturbed.
If I am ever a spy, I would like to spy from my Austrian villa, though he did say, "You think it’s going to be all wine, women and song. Well, let me tell you, old boy, it’s all beer, bitches and broadcasting.”
He went on to serve as head of station in Bonn, and during the 1960s in Beirut, where he enjoyed skiing at The Cedars, a resort where, as he recalled, discipline in the lift queues improved dramatically after an attendant shot dead the two worst queue jumpers. Even so, it was “not so stimulating as Mürren”, and throughout his years in the service he always brought his family to Mürren for a month at Christmas.
Oh, and let us not forget the books he wrote: "The author of several technical books about skiing, in 1947 Lunn published a novel, Evil in High Places, about a psychotic mountaineer."

Oh my yes. Simply marvelous. Enjoy.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Thoughts on holiday giving

It's December, which is of course a big month for charitable giving. Over at Good Intentions are Not Enough, Saundra Schimmelpfennig has prepared a Holiday Guide to Charitable Giving that offers practical thoughts and suggestions on selecting charities that, in the words of the Episcopal Church's Baptismal Covenant, "respect the dignity of every human being." I highly recommend it. I think it would also be a great study guide for church groups considering how to help those in need.

The main thing I would say is this: Beware of the curse of SWEDOW! SWEDOW is shorthand for "Stuff We Don't Want"--the things we give away to "the poor who might want it" when we clean out our closets and cupboards. As Saundra pointed out on an earlier post, when we do this, the problem we are trying to solve is not helping the poor in their poverty, but getting rid of clutter. As she puts it, "our waste is not the solution to other people’s problems, our waste is our problem."

Cartoon by Andy Dietsche

One of the hardest things I have had to do was throw away clothes. OK, there have been harder things, but it went against the grain. I wanted to give them away so that I didn't feel wasteful. But part of the lesson of SWEDOW is accepting that perhaps I have been wasteful and learning to deal with that, rather than assuaging my conscience and letting someone else deal with my trash as the trash it actually is.

Sometimes the best thing we can give organizations is our money. Maybe it makes us feel good to do something active or give something tangible, but the point is that charitable giving is not about what makes us feel good. That's just a side benefit. The real question is: What will actually help the people or cause we say we want to help? That's what we need to discern and do.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday Funnies, December 4

Oh, that mournful Gypsy music!

Singer: Keeper
Accordianist: My mother, playing Czardas by Vittorio Monti

I would have posted this earlier, but it took me forever to figure out how to rotate the video, seeing as I used the wrong orientation. In case you're wondering, I finally used this great website called (cleverly enough) Online Video Rotator.  Thank you, Online Video Rotator!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Garden Update, December 3

It's December, which means, of course, that the roses are blooming.
Oh, all right, it's the last little few, but they're still amazingly beautiful and fragrant.

You know what else has finally decided to put on a show?
Yes, indeed. It's a holly hock that decided to sneak out of the side bed and plop itself right in front of the house.

I'm letting it be for the moment, but I was completely ruthless with the hydrangea this year. I either killed it or I'm going to be able to see out my office window next year (I suppose that would be true if I killed it, too). But I pruned those suckers to within an inch of their lives, or at least the last possible green shoot. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Oh the brutality!

And finally, over in the raised beds, I'm hoping to get some cauliflower one of these days. And I'm hoping Harper doesn't dig them all out before I get them.
They're mighty slow growers. But then so am I.

Hope you're staying warm wherever you are. Seasons greetings.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Reflections on World AIDS Day

Cross-posted at the Confirm not Conform blog

 It occurred to me today, on this World AIDS Day, that for many of the youth in our churches, AIDS is something that happens to Other People Far Away. But for many of us who work with youth, we went through the time when AIDS was a death sentence that affected people close to us. I wonder if sharing those stories and memories will help to make our current response to AIDS more compassionate and more urgent.

At St. John's Oakland, where Confirm not Conform was developed, we are lucky enough to have a story of AIDS from halfway across the world who came to live among us. Chris Ategeka, whose parents both died from AIDS in their home in Western Uganda, was sponsored by a family at St. John's and eventually came to live here. Last May, he graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. You can see his commencement address here. He is now the executive director of Pedal or Power, a nonprofit that helps people in Western Uganda build their own bicycles and scooters. Among its goals, this program will allow AIDS/HIV positive patients easier access to anti-retroviral drugs.

The youth of St. John's have had the opportunity to see up close that AIDS is not just something that happens to Other People. What stories do you have in your congregation that can help your youth--and other people--see AIDS as something real, present, and worth fighting?

Remember this?