Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Resurrecting a Kilt

Immanent Halloween Party


8 Yards of 17oz Worsted Wool


19 Pleats


5 Years Stuffed in a Cardboard Box


The Ironing Job from Hell

~ emrys

Extra Hands

I try to involve my daughter in as many home projects as I can. I try to discipline myself to sacrifice efficiency and aesthetic (both of which I value) in order to offer her more experiences with tools, textures, and technical skills. I can't take her up on ladders, and many of the tasks that require power tools still have to wait until I'm on my own. But there are so many in which she can participate.

I take her out to work in the garden. She loves to dig in the dirt, pile it up and stamp it down, and say, "Wookit, Djadjie!" when she discovers a slug or unpicked acorn squash. Two days ago she helped me to carry branches from an overgrown bush to the brush pile; it's "work," but she loves it. I imagine her willingness comes in part from the new experience and in part because I'm doing it and she wants to imitate. She'll stand next to me and patiently hand me deck screws while I put together a frame. When the pile of weeds needs to go to the compost bin, she'll load up her arms and waddle across the yard with me. She'll take her socks and run them from the hamper to the sock drawer.

(Herein, by the way, is the best interpretation of the bugbear passage from Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5:48, usually translated "Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect." Exegetes have struggled since Jesus spoke them to understand his word "perfect." I believe it refers to a child's innate tendency to imitate parents. Life has an imitative quality about her--she knows her purpose is to have the same purpose as the one who bore her. The Christian knows what she is about, because she is imitating Yahweh, and Yahweh knows what Yahweh is about. What have you seen your parent do? Do likewise, especially if your parent is God.)

A few days ago I had to make pies. I brought Gwendolyn over to the counter, gave her a cutting board and a mini rolling pin, and helped her measure flour, salt, and shortening. We filled up the Kitchen-Aid bowl with a triple recipe and took it to the stand mixer. I told Gwendolyn that I would let her pull the switch to start the mixer. I put the paddle in, raised the bowl, and told Gwendolyn (who by now knows just where the switch is) to turn it on. Just as the words came out of my mouth, I realized my mistake.

A triple recipe is seven and a half cups of flour--nearly two-thirds of the bowl's volume. And the mixer switch has no child lock on it to limit how fast she turns on the mixing blade. Thus in the blink of an eye Gwendolyn had slammed the power up to speed 4. Before I could reach the switch myself, the paddle had thrown flour all across the counter:
Sacrificing aesthetic and efficiency--that's what we're about. And giving Daddy more things to do before Mommy gets home.

I turned off the mixer and looked at my daughter. In spite of the artificial pallor now dusted across her body, she had on her impish grin. "Lookit, Gwendolyn! We got flour all over the kitchen!" And we laughed.

~ emrys


Last year, during an aggressive game of Hand and Foot, I accused my mother-in-law of being a pirate. She informed me with her usual grace that she most certainly wasn't a pirate . . . but that she could be.

A few days ago I discovered, after leaving Gwendolyn unattended with table ware for too long, that the potential for buccaneering is genetic:

Look out, Blackbeard!

~ emrys

Nearing Completion

Even though the autumn chill sets in with increasing speed, work has yet to be done on the front of the house. Each time I go out I don more layers of clothing to complete the next task. Here's the inside header in place:

And here are the spacers I inserted between the batten so that I could have a continuous surface on which to place a trim board:
 During a visit from GrannyAndGrandad a few weeks ago, my father-in-law offered to help with the staining of the T-111 siding that went on with the first floor expansion. The gentleman at 88-BC (our local construction supply store) did a good job at finding a color to match our existing board and batten siding. Here I am beginning the edging around the electric service:

 Grandad made the confession that he just can't keep his clothes clean when painting. So we got hold of a flood cleanup coverall which not only protected his clothes but made him look official and creepy at the same time (like the hazmat agents in alien conspiracy films):
 Work began with Grandad wielding roller and I the brush:
 In no time at all we had given the thirsty boards their fill of Cabot stain, sealing them up for years to come:
A few days later I got the trim boards placed under the rafters (the near end has yet to be stained):
 On the outside, I wanted a piece of painted fascia in place before any gutter was put on. If I ever do something like this again, I'm going to put the fascia board on before the roof's drip edge goes on. It was difficult prying the drip edge out in order to slide the board underneath. (I suppose I could alternately set the drip edge 3/4" away from the ends of the joists.) Here's the raw fascia:
 And then the whole kit-n-kaboodle, with perhaps as much paint and stain as I'm going to get on this autumn:
When we discussed colors for our home (which we bought almost entirely brown with a few marks of hunter green), I proposed that we give it three colors: golden yellow (siding), burnt orange (windows and trim), and dark red (doors and other minor trim). I like the idea of a brightly colored house, especially in winter, but keeping organic colors like those of the autumn here.

Sara didn't go for it. So we stuck with the dark brown siding, and every chance I get I add a little more hunter green. It's demure, but working well so far.

~ emrys

New Wineskins

Sometimes the old ones just get worn out, and you have to get new ones. Here are a few of the replacements we've made in the past four months or so. See if you can guess which one is old, and which is new:
New lady bug wellies for old snow boots.

New black chacos for the ten-year-old beaters.

New Timberlands for the old EMS boots.

A new--aw, c'mon, I'm just kidding! We'd never trade in our GTot for anyone.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Mess

I have a hypothesis about the editing of books published by major booksellers.

I think that in the early years of an author--the time in which the first few books are published--the editing of one's work is ruthless. Like a director seeking to break out at a film festival, the editor works over every piece to slim it down to perfection. "Does this scene really contribute to the story? No? Axe it!"

This editorial attitude changes as the author's books sell better and better. By the end of the career of a prolific author, the editors know that the name on the cover will sell the book, almost independently of the contents. So the editing grows slim, and the final work becomes less streamlined. Like a director who does a film just because she wants to work with So-And-So, the editor will not scrutinize too much the foibles and excesses of the accomplished author.

I just finished Eugene Peterson's The Pastor: A Memoir (2011). I noticed soon into the book a few of those tripping points that I have come to assume would be edited out. Small typos, tiny piles of split infinitives, paragraphs that seem to run on, and vignettes that seem not to connect to the larger narrative appeared as I read. I noted more and more frequently things that, if I were the editor, I would trim out or slim down.

For a finished product bound for the shelves of readers everywhere, the final work seemed still a little, well, messy.

Peterson reflects on many decades of pastoral ministry. He writes as someone who has seen a congregation through almost every phase of its life cycle. He considers his own movement from Pentecostal to Presbyterian to Presbycostal. He recalls the shift from preaching every Sunday to writing a contemporary translation of the bible. He remembers individuals, families, and communities in light of their successes and foibles.

As someone who shares Peterson's calling, I resonated both with his stories and with his observations about God's work in the world. I laughed at some of the things that only pastors can laugh at; I felt the starkness of the badlands through which every pastor must pass. Perhaps most of all, I shared his conclusion that pastoral ministry contains a lot of mess.

Just as God's grace is unbounded in Jesus Christ, the role of the pastor is unbounded. The places and directions in which the Spirit works in human life are unbounded. We humans are a grace in progress, far from finished and far from neatly done. Like a vinedresser pruning in the wind, those who tend the people of God wind up in a mess. Sometimes The Mess is painful, sometimes poignant; sometimes The Mess is grandiose, sometimes colorful. In any case, life-being-redeemed is usually messy. Life is full of errors, infinitely split relationships, voices that run on, and events that don't make sense in the larger scheme.

I have now let go of the editorial oversights. Perhaps I am allowing room for editorial wisdom greater than I have as a reader (and pastor of only five years). Perhaps Peterson and his editors knew what I am still discovering: the task of the pastor is not to cover up, neaten up, or pretty up The Mess, even for the sake of sales. The task is to point to where God's grace is redeeming The Mess and proclaim that love will emerge from it. Even as he writes his memoir, Peterson shows he is the pastor, revealing the grace in The Mess.

Thanks to my brother Wes for passing on The Pastor.

~ emrys

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Before He Was Really Famous

In 1987 Eugene Peterson published a book entitled Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Two decades later I was entering ordained ministry, and Eugene Peterson had become a household name in mainline Christian, and especially Presbyterian, circles.

This book is a blast from the past, gifted to me from a retired colleague. On my last study week I dove into it.

Peterson describes the pastor of the late twentieth century as a "shopkeeper" of the Church, no longer concerned with the things of God but consumed by the routine tasks of keeping things running. He issues a strong call for pastors to reclaim their professional vocation as ministers of the word and sacrament. To do this, he proposes three basic areas in which pastors must find again their center.

First, he says that pastors must again become persons of prayer. He takes great pains to redefine prayer as communication with God rather than a simple echo of the desires of society and congregants. He finds roots for a scriptural understanding of prayer in the Psalms, and asserts that pastors must take their cue for a prayerful life from the variety and richness found in those poems. (I see in this section prescient echoes of Peterson's work with the psalms which would lift them up as essential to Christian spirituality.)

Second, Peterson says that pastors must listen to scripture. Once again, he goes to great length to clarify how reading and studying scripture have usurped the pastoral calling of listening. He accuses methods of learning--test-taking, bubble-filling, written examinations--of poisoning our understanding of how scripture speaks and how we ought to listen. Peterson touches briefly on a few ways in which some students of scripture have understood the bible as a document speaking to and connecting with all of human life. He also asserts the primacy of the spoken and heard word (as opposed to the written and read word) in God's way of redemption.

Third, he asserts that pastors must take seriously both their calling to be spiritual directors and their mandate to get spiritual directors for themselves. He recalls a deep and wide history of the Church which assumed that all pastors would serve in this capacity and would receive direction from others. He bemoans the (apparently current as of 1987) belief that pastors are self-sufficient lone rangers tending a communal flock.

I resonated with much of Peterson's book. In the worldview of academic publications, this book is old, published twenty-four years ago; yet his admonishments are timely to me. I read little which shocked me with its novelty; instead, I received helpful reminders of things that friends, colleagues, and teachers have been telling me for some time. (Maybe this shows that I am the inheritor of a generation of pastors for whom Peterson's insights were novel breakthroughs.)

I was surprised by the urgency of his tone at the opening of the book. I was not in ministry--or even high school--when this book was published; but I know from listening to the leadership of the Church for the past ten years or so that the late 1980s may have been a time of reckoning for the Presbyterian Church, in which Peterson labored for much of his ministry. The numerical (and financial) decline of the Presbyterian Church (and especially the PC(USA)) began in the 1970s and continues today. The 1980s may well have been the time when congregations had to shed the idea that decline was a temporary phenomenon and required no attention. Decline also frequently gives birth to twin devils: hyperactivity and peacekeeping, against both of which Peterson rails in the early chapters. The disciplines he encourages all require a level of peace (abstinence from anxiety) which may have been in short supply in the mainline congregations of the 1980s.

If my guesses are accurate, I'm not sure how this context affects the applicability of the book to the present day. I am convinced that one of the primary roles of a pastor is to be an anxiety-abstinent presence in places of fear and foreboding--of which there are far too many in the Church today. There are few better ways to cultivate the Spirit of Peace than prayer, listening to scripture, and spiritual direction. Thus, although circumstances may have changed, the call may be the same.

I would expect nothing less from a calling derived from scripture, for no matter the rich variety of behavior to which we are called, it's all rooted in the same God and Christ. If I had to co-author the 2011 revision of Peterson's book, I would add a fourth discipline: to proclaim hope. Prayer is, in a sense, already conformed to this habit; listening to scripture will engender the need to do so; spiritual direction of individuals may or may not include it. But I believe proclaiming hope--the hope of The Resurrection for us and the Church--is an essential part of pastoral integrity.

~ emrys

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Remembering the Future

Mutually assured destruction. We rarely use the term anymore, being as it is the year 2011. In the year 1959, however, when Walter M. Miller, Jr. published A Canticle for Leibowitz, the world had just begun to reckon with the possibilities of atomic power.

By way of three acts, Miller paints a triptych with panels from the twenty-eighth, thirty-second and thirty-eighth centuries--spanning nearly two millennia after the twentieth-century nuclear holocaust ("the Flame Deluge"). Miller's storytelling, like the desert monastery in which each panel is set, burns away the excessive adornment of so much apocalyptic fiction. What he leaves is the gem of the human heart placed in a setting of bare and ruthless detail.

The initial plot seems almost absurd: a monastery devoted to the preservation of fragmentary pre-holocaust documents, written in a language now almost dead ("pre-Deluge English"). Yet the dedication of the monks so perfectly mirrors our common humanity that we will bite into Miller's world. And once we've taken the hook, we're yanked into a strange new world that leaves us gasping in wonder.

Miller sketches the monastery, its strange monkish characters, the "Empire of Denver," and a new world order with stark lines, leaving vast white spaces for our imaginations to fill. He spares us any attempt to explain every technological detail, which discipline only lends power to his story. The details he does fill betray the author's context. The Church of New Rome uses Latin, as did the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. Computers with amazing capabilities still take up the space of a wall cabinet. And bindlestiffs are required for tramping across country. But these anachronisms from the 1950s do less to detract from the story than remind us that Miller was writing--as the cover reminds us--a "prophetic" book to a real world.

The best novels (of which Canticle counts in my estimation) weave together many thematic threads from human experience. One brilliant pattern in the story that surfaces in Canticle is that of memory. The monks of St Leibowitz struggle to keep the relics and memorabilia of a twentieth-century electrical engineer, even though they don't understand what his texts mean. When scientific discovery catches up again to what was lost in the Deluge (which was nearly everything technical), the monastery becomes an accelerator for humanity to gain again the power of the atom. But with the first holocaust eighteen hundred years in the past, will those who regain the same cataclysmic power choose something besides mutual annihilation?

Canticle has a dark conclusion, yet the blackness is not total. At the end of a strange story, full of monks but with only cross-wise references to the divine, we see a sprig of hope rise from the rubble. The sprig bears no blossom, however, perhaps because what Miller saw in the post-Hiroshima landscape also had not yet come into leaf.

Mutually assured destruction does not drone from news commentators in our day. Our fears are different from those of Miller's time, at least on the level of nations. Yet inasmuch as Canticle serves as an allegory for the human soul, its message is perennial: how do we rescue ourselves from cycles of evil--personal, familial, social--when we constantly receive new tools for evil to infect? Can we be rescued? Or does the destruction wreaked by human evil serve as an inevitable conclusion from which we can only hope some shred of new life will emerge?

In Canticle Miller draws us into these questions with compelling storytelling. Even sixty-two years later, his work is well worth the read.

(Thanks, Frank, for loaning me your precious copy. I shall try to preserve more than a shred of it until we next meet.)

~ emrys

Monday, October 10, 2011


Birthday parties are so much fun, especially when there are creative folks around to make it special.

Here's Grandma encouraging the kids to play a game that involves dropping clothespins into jars on the ground--perfect for the two- to three-year-old age group. To do so, they need to stand on chairs and lean over the back of the chairs. Note that this is not the use for which chairs are invented. In fact parents all over the world tell their children on a regular basis not to stand on  chairs and never to lean over the backs. We might also observe that the designers of the clothespin and the glass jar didn't have kids' party games in mind.

In the foreground is Mom, holding up a laptop computer so that Dad--who's overseas right now--can be part of the action. Laptops were made to be mobile, but not to serve as hand-held recording devices. But they do double-duty if necessary.

I love this example of how we are always putting things to unintended uses. In the name of creativity we'll stretch tools and devices beyond the range of their original purposes. And thereby we sometimes invent or conceive things we didn't know we needed.

This may not be unique to humans, however. Notice the dachshund using a food supplier as a source of shade.

~ emrys

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Not Really Famous

"You're famous!" they all said, the day after a photograph with me in it appeared in the Binghamton paper.

Sure enough, someone supplied me with a copy of the page. There am I, with the driver of the truck filled with supplies for our flood relief and recovery station at Nineveh Presbyterian Church. (Lord, bless the Red Cross for their great generosity to us in this time!)

But what does the caption say? "Red Cross warehouse workers in Binghamton load cases of Moldex for flood victims in Nineveh."

Actually, I was a pastor, unloading cases of Moldex in Nineveh. Strange how the truth gets twisted in the recording.

Well, I suppose I could be doing worse things than unwittingly serving as PR for the Red Cross--like unwittingly serving as an advertisement for Moldex. (I've never used it; I have no idea if it works any better than chlorine bleach.)

In case you're curious, the article below the photo had no direct connection to Nineveh or the Red Cross. I guess the joining of image and word here was totally free association.

If I'm famous now, it's for the wrong reasons; and only to people who already know my name and face. Isn't there a phrase for that--"big fish in a little pond" or something?


Sunday, October 02, 2011


In my experience, for those who retain even a passing memory of high school history lessons, the Middle Ages are a vacuum of knowledge. For most of us, historical consciousness drops off with the Gothic sack of Rome in AD 476 and picks up again with Leonardo da Vinci's invention of the helicopter. The millennium in between is, at best, an echo of the Monty Pythonic declaration that "there's some lovely filth over here," and, at worst, simply dark. Hence this era has acquired the moniker "Dark Ages."

Except among us geeks. And so it came to pass that, after a lively discussion with a favorite fellow geek of mine, I found myself gifted with a copy of Chris Wickam's The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000.

The Inheritance of Rome is a textbook, one of the Penguin History of Europe series, and thus it lacks the plot in a novel and the agenda of a book like Are We Rome? That is to say, the one-and-three-quarter-inch tome (in paperback) is not for the hobbyist historian, nor are Wickam's long sentences, packed as they are with the equivocation and hesitation common to serious students of history. Still, in spite of the fact that the pages don't turn like a John Grisham novel, I quite enjoyed the read.

I appreciated Wickam's intent (and execution of that intent) to shed the traditional tendencies either to romanticize the early Middle Ages or to dismiss it out of hand. He set out to review the archaeological and manuscript evidence, then to let those voices speak for themselves without the interpretive lens of twenty-first century hindsight. Inasmuch as the task may be accomplished, I think Wickam may have done it.

In his final chapter he makes several observations ("drawing conclusions" would be too strong a term for Wickam's work) that are supported by the previous 551 pages. I found them valuable, so I recount them here. (Reader beware: the remainder of this post may be dull to those without a taste for historical analysis.)

1. In a passing statement meant to introduce his main observations, Wickam commented that the Middle Ages lacked "liberalism, secularism, toleration, a sense of irony, an interest in the viewpoints of others." I could meditate for a year on that sweeping description alone.

2. One main "break" or "shift" in history occurred with the break-up (emphatically not the fall) of the Roman Empire. The world did not end in any sense with this break-up; but it was marked especially by the loss of the land tax as a means of gaining revenue to support a unified military--at least in the western Mediterranean.

3. Another main break in history came with the Arab conquest from Persia to Spain in the seventh century. Though most of our history books focus on the "fall" of the Roman Empire, the Arab empires from 600-900 actually did a good job of maintaining the economic structures of Rome, more so than Byzantium and much more so than western Europe. In the years 400-1000, the Arab caliphate maintained the greatest concentrated power and unification of any other political entity. Why do we leave that out of our texts?

4. Until Charlemagne, it did not occur to rulers that a central purpose of governments (kings) was to bring people to religious salvation. But the Carolingians blossomed what Wickam calls "moralized political practice." Among other attributes, for the first time kings believed they ought to be "policed" for their morality by the heads of the Church.

5. At the end of the Carolingian era in western Europe, "structures of public power" broke down, which helped bring about what we now often call "feudalism," or the sharp division between peasant and aristocratic classes.

6. Byzantium (the Roman Empire's inheritance centered in Constantinople) flourished in the mid-900s in large part because the Arab empire broke up. If the latter had remained solid, would Byzantium have survived?

7. While the Roman Empire broke up and shook down, the "barbarian" territories from Roman history--especially northern and eastern Europe--underwent a "stabilization of political and social hierarchies." This stabilization established the seeds for many of the main players in Europe today (Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Denmark, England).

Wickam describes not only historical moments, but underlying structures of significance from that period:

1. In the West, wealth and power came to be based on land, rather than on prestige and money as in the Roman Empire. As local aristocracies became more powerful, this meant that those who worked the land (peasants) came to be under the control of the landowners.

2. Power also derived more and more from permanent political structures. (This point was more obscure to me--I'm less sure of how this differed from any other time in history.)

3. The "culture of the public" was a strong holdover from Rome, in which the most powerful people were civilians of influence (rather than military). These holdovers of public life took the form of tax-raising leadership in the Arab states, and the form of assemblies of free men in the West. In both cases, individuals could contribute to the policies and politics of at least their localities. As the middle ages progressed, the people's power in the public sphere waned in the face of waxing aristocratic power (who owned the land and the military) until what Wickam terms "the caging of the peasantry" came to pass.

I wrote most of the above to get it lodged in my mind (or at least on record) because information from a textbook does not stick the way a novel or op-ed piece does. As I read along, questions or insights would dawn on me then pass away. I hope that if any of them was important, it will return at the right time.

It has occurred to me while reading Wickam that I would like to know how the "rule of law" arose in Western Europe. It seems to me that in our society and religious culture this philosophical principle underpins so much of how we think and what we do. Yet as Wickam describes the cultures of the early Middle Ages, I see little evidence of this principle. So a 600-page book has left me with just one memorable question at present: when did the "rule of law" develop in society, and how was it absorbed into political and religious practice?

That should send me into another book right quick . . . as if I need any more books on my list!

Many thanks to Megan for an illuminating read.

~ emrys