Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christ's Bounty

Four or five years ago, one of the departed saints of Nineveh, Doris White, began a program that she called Christmas Town. It has since come to be called Christ's Bounty, but the content is mostly the same: a winter giveaway of food, clothing, and toys to local families in need. For the first week in December, the sanctuary fills up with boxes of food. It turns out that the pews are the best staging area for the boxes before they're given away on a Saturday morning.

 Christ's Bounty is probably one of the top two or three programs done by Nineveh Presbyterian Church in terms of participation (not counting Sunday morning worship). And it is one of our actions that comes closest to James' description of "true religion" for the early Church (James chapter 1); for this I am proud of our little congregation of saints. God certainly does good work through them.

There are corollary benefits, as well. You may be able to make out my son Micah being carried on his mother's belly as she works amidst the other box-loaders. Gwendolyn, too, loves to be a part of the set up for Christ's Bounty, in no small measure because she likes to ride on whatever cart is currently carrying goods from here to there. But in the meanwhile, they are being exposed to a central mission of the Church: to  care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans.
It is my hope and prayer that this work will become a core part of their Christian spirituality as adults. Christ's Bounty, I think, gets them off to a good start.

~ emrys

Gifts from Friends

A colleague of mine is an avid textile artist, and along with a couple of other colleagues from my presbytery, enjoys producing works of art for members of the next generation as they appear. Here are the jacket and cap made for Micah--fitting just right his six-month-old frame. (Big Sister could not help but get in the way of the camera's eye.)


Thanks, Barbara, for your gorgeous work!
~ emrys

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lay of the Land

Two resources were always available in my dad's house: the Encyclopedia Britannica (the full set) and a globe. These things had a more certain place in Dad's abode than a home-cooked meal or sufficient toilet paper. When my brother and I came to Dad with an off-the-wall question (and there were more than we could count), Dad never responded by saying, "I don't know." If our question started with "Where is . . ." then Dad took us to the globe to point to exactly where Timbuktu, Beijing, or Nicaragua was. If the question began with "What is . . ." then we went to the Encyclopedia.

Perhaps as a result, I have always loved maps. During my Dungeons & Dragons days, my favorite part of my Dungeon Master's work was creating maps. Maps provide the opportunity to see history, movement, and possibility laid out in brilliant lines and color. Geography is so important, in fact, that some students of the art, like Jared Diamond, have asserted that the most powerful guiding force in history and culture is the lay of the land (see Diamond's book Collapse).

When I inherited my part of Dad's estate, I took into possession Donald Matthew's Atlas of Medieval Europe (1986). It sat on Dad's shelf all of my high school and college years; over the past few months I finally read it. Far from an "atlas" like the ones we used to buy at Walmart to navigate US highways (before the Garmin made paper obsolete), the cover of Matthew's Atlas boasts 75,000 words of text and 25,000 words in captions (with a relatively sparse 64 maps). The book reads more like a survey of medieval history with a heavy seasoning of maps.


I shan't review the book here. If you are not presently yawning at the idea of this Atlas, then it's for you. All others would probably find the dizzying survey of place-names, persons, and historical events to serve only as a cure for insomnia.

What impressed me about Matthew's work was its sheer scope: the book offers a "view from space" over the shifting landscape of one thousand years of European history. (He does well, by the way, to include the oft-neglected Arabic side of the Mediterranean.) And over the course of its pages I re-discovered one of the blessings I glean from reading history: the present comes into better perspective. I don't mean here a trite "lesson of history" that may keep me (little singular me!) from falling over some great precipice of cultural error. Rather, I take comfort that the great vicissitudes of human events that seem, in a moment, to threaten everything we live for, have in fact been going on for a very long time. Though media pundits would have us believe that today's election, today's crisis, today's war could be the pivot-point of all civilization . . . none has been so. Neither will this one be. We humans are, by nature, slow; the God who created the globe is a slow God; even the fulcrum of human history--the resurrection of Christ--takes years to change a single generation. Until the moment when Christ returns in glory, everything will take longer than we wish, or than we fear.

The silent backdrop of geography, when one allows the scurrying ants of humanity to fly across it in time-lapse acceleration, reveals the geologic nature of great change. Time is a river into which one can only set foot once; history is the river's sediment which takes eons to make new land.

Go in peace across this soil; it was long before we set foot on it, and it shall claim us before we have even scratched its surface with our plows.

~ emrys

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Shadow


Last week I had the privilege of viewing part one of Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit. Among so many other things, Jackson’s works capture on screen one of the characteristics of Tolkien’s work that I find so appealing: they are epic. In scope of timeline, breadth of detail, and depth of meaning, the Tolkien/Jackson fusion is epic. Epic works have, in the short-attention-span theater of our present media climate, become almost antiquated. The reductionistic assumptions of contemporary intellectual and artistic endeavors look askance at attempts to paint the world with anything but pointilistic strokes. Today’s commentators speak of overarching metanarratives the way historians refer to the naming of “The War to End All Wars.”

I have been influenced by this reductionistic tendency. I gained sharper awareness of this when I watched Ian McKellan’s Gandalf the Grey sit at table with Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel. As he tried to convince them that a greater darkness then the Pale Orc loomed over Middle Earth, I felt my soul shudder under a foreshadow of world-consuming evil. And then it occurred to me that I may have been lured into something just a bit over-the-top. A nameless necromancer who seeks to take over the world? Melodramatic, said my inner postmodern critic--or at very least maybe a bit too much.

Perhaps--until yesterday, when a man shot his mother and drove to a local elementary school in order to murder unsuspecting teachers and young children.

The social, emotional, and legal contours of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Columbine remain too fuzzy to define well. Perhaps they will become clearer in the future, but as far as I am presently concerned, they are beyond speculation. What has become clear to me again is the shadow whose reaches extend farther than we are aware until we look up from our reduced microcosms. Tolkien had his inkling finger on something inescapable: evil has epic proportions.

The fact that we cannot discern clearly the emotional and social roots of the behavior of those like Adam Lanza, and the fact that the scene at Sandy Hook bears an appalling resemblance to the news from northern Mali or the Lord’s Resistance Army, bear witness to the fact that the depths of evil are beyond our comprehension. They give the lie to trends of contemporary voices who would prefer to treat evil as only so much lint which may be easily cleaned out of our own navels, if we would just examine them long enough. The terrifying hiddenness of these atrocities choke us up with the possibilities that my neighborhood may be cultivating future shootings, that my family systems may be empowering the next shooter, and that I may tomorrow find myself to be, if not perpetrator, then victim.

We mourn not just the loss of life and innocence, but we shiver under the cold Shadow from which the Balrog emerged and whose presence heralds the work of a Necromancer.

But—and I write all of the above only as preamble to this—we do not mourn as those who have no hope. When, according to Matthew’s account, King Herod of Judea slaughtered the children of Bethlehem, he did so in order to extinguish hope. Yet Hope persisted, growing in the person of Jesus, until his innocence was finally slaughtered by unjust execution three decades later. By then, however, Hope could not be quenched. Jesus Christ rose from the dead to reveal that despair cannot conquer Hope, that the Shadow cannot grasp the Light no matter how far its reach, and that death does not get the final word over Life. The only question that remains, to those of us who reduce life and death to disjointed icons in a shattered world, is: Do I believe in the epic Life of Christ?

To say Yes is not to oversimplify the massive challenges before us. The tragedies of Sandy Hook, Oklahoma City, Martin Luther King, Matthew Shepard, and Malala Yousufzai--just to name a few--will not brook glib platitudes designed to administer opiate for our souls. Christ is not palliative care for a society on hospice. To say Yes to Hope, Yes to Resurrection, Yes to Christ’s unquenchable Life means penetrating pain like smoke jumpers into the fire. Saying Yes means venturing into the mazes of society to slay dreadful minotaurs. Saying Yes means choosing to enter the Shadow of Mordor armed only with Hope that Gandalf the Grey will indeed return as Gandalf the White—in time to save us from the armies of darkness. Saying Yes means volunteering to suffer our own executions for the sake of those who did not choose theirs, because we know that someone greater than our own lives is at work here.

We cannot escape the epic character of evil. We can, however, embrace the epic Good which has been offered to us.

~ emrys

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Banishing the Shadow

 Our kitchen has two types of lights: recessed incandescent lighting (mounted in an annoying structure that reduces overhead space) and a fluorescent ceiling light in the middle of the room. Because of their position, neither lights the back side of the counter directly. If one is standing at the counter working, one is usually casting a shadow on the work area.

In the darkened hours of winter, the window above the sink does a poorer job of eliminating this lack of illumination. So the area at which we spend most of our kitchen time is enshrouded in a perpetual shadow of grey (not improved by the overcast climate in which we live):


Sara, fed up with peeling, pouring, and scrubbing in penumbral grey, asked me to pick up an under-cabinet light fixture to mount above the sink. After weighing the benefits of fluorescent (brighter but harsher light, medium-life-span bulbs) versus incandescent (shorter bulb life, warmer light, cheaper bulbs) versus LED (medium harshness, Methuselah-like bulb life, lower consumption, muy expensive bulbs), I chose the LED model. After a hunt for my drill and bits that took longer than the installation time, we now have a bright sink area:

On a side note: during lunch, out of the blue, Gwendolyn announced that there were "two lights for each sink." I had to ask to clarify if she was talking about the new LED lights we were going to install today. She said yes. Sara picked up the bar of lights and showed me that there were indeed four lamps on the bar.

I think the preschool program she's going to has been teaching my daughter division. As if I didn't have enough to keep up with!


~ emrys

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Spirit of Christmas I

Today we visited a fundraising event put on by the Bektash Shriners of Concord, New Hampshire, called the "Fez"tival of Trees. Every year one hundred and fifty persons, businesses, and organizations decorate Christmas trees and place them in the large Shriners' hall. Patrons purchase tickets (the price of which will go to the Shriners' charity work), and with their tickets can bid on their favorite trees. At the conclusion of the event, tickets are drawn as a raffle and the decorated trees go home with the winning patrons.

Gwendolyn and her grandparents had a ball taking in the lights, colors, and shapes adorning the trees. The Shriners put together a scavenger hunt for kids that Grandad and Gwendolyn completed before we put up our feet with hot chocolate and cider. To a three-and-a-half-almost-four-year-old the event was better than an amusement park.

I strolled around the hall, my infant son in his seat ogling quietly at the lights and colors. We passed trees decorated in snowman themes, others trimmed as shameless business promotions (an office of dentistry decked its tree with toothbrushes and toothpaste), and at least four streamed with red, white, and blue in patriotic fervor. One tree hosted a pile of tools beneath its boughs, the crown of which was a DeWalt chopsaw; next to that tree was a puddle of drool from all the men whose raffled tickets had gone into its pot. Some trees were gaudy, others garish, and many gorgeous.

None of them was Christian.

I noticed early a lack of images derived from the original meaning of the term "Christmas" ("Christ's Mass"). The sole icon of Christianity I saw was a four-by-three-inch creche ornament hung on a tree labelled "Classic Christmas Tree"; the same tree's branches held CDs of Beethoven and a boxed set of VHS "Lord of the Rings" films.

I should not be surprised. Yet by sheer probability (there were one hundred and fifty trees, remember) I anticipated a few that would honor the definition of Christmas as the arrival of Jesus the Christ into the world. But there was not a one.

I try to avoid the tired lament I hear too often in churchy circles about "putting Christ back in Christmas." It seems to me that this cry can hide a misguided desire to get mainstream culture to validate our faith by civil subscription. But I found the sentiment rising up in me out of this vast tide of Christmas-like decor and nearly finding its way to my lips. The bait-and-switch character of the "holidays" to which we are exposed around every winter solstice has begun to impress itself upon me. The dissonance has begun to make the teeth of my soul grind.

The solution? I am suspicious that shouting "Christ!" ever more loudly into the cacophony of holiday Masses may do nothing but irritate further everyone involved. Silence makes for a better resolution to dissonance.

Perhaps it is time for the Church to reclaim her story by the silence she knew for the first millennium of her existence. Perhaps it is time for us again to abstain completely from Christmas.

~ emrys

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Next Joan of Arc

Setting: At the supper table, three days ago.
Cast: Emrys, Sara, Precocious Three-And-A-Half-Year-Old "G"

G: Daddy?

E: Yes, My Lovely.

G: [points at huge FedEx box that arrived two days before, and has been sitting in kitchen] When are we going to open your package?

E: It's work stuff. I'm sure you would find it totally boring.

G: [slowly, deliberately, loudly] Is it paperwork?

[E & S laugh until they cough, then recover gradually]

E: I don't remember teaching you that word. Who taught you that word?

G: [nonchalant, returning to her meal] God.

E: [aside] I hate it when my kids go over my head.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Healed

At a gathering this morning I asked for prayer that my residual back pain from my incident 20 months ago be taken away. As of that prayer time, the twinges of pain are gone. God is still doing awesome things through Christ.

~ emrys

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Le plus ca change,

le plus c'est la meme chose.

The latest alteration to our home's configuration is the migration of the "guest bed" (which is usually where Sara and I sleep when family guests sleep in our room) to what used to be the "office." A couple weeks ago I moved the "guest bed" out; in order to give it some small modicum of privacy, we decided to hang curtains to partition off the space. Here is the old "office" with "guest bed" taking up most of its floor space:
 Yes, you see right: that's my three-and-a-half year old using the studfinder on the wall. I think she was concerned about the arrangement of pictures on that wall.

Two curtains and one curtain-wire from Ikea, three holes in the wall, and about an hour later:
Voila! A guest room with a little privacy. We're dreaming of putting a Murphy bed on the left wall, so that we can use the floor space until guests arrive. But at present the Murphy bed is beyond our budget, and the curtains within it. So there we are.

~ emrys

Family

To celebrate my mom's birthday, we had her up to our place and treated her to supper out at our favorite rural-meets-urban restaurant: the Main Street Grill & Bakery in Afton. Since Chris lives only ninety minutes away for the time being, he popped over to join the fun.


~ emrys

Friday, October 12, 2012

Big Fat Lies?

Upon reading my lament about lowering my cholesterol and saturated fat intake, my brother sent me this link:


It is the first of a series of four videos which lay out an argument for why blaming heart disease on fat and cholesterol is wrong.

I'd love it if you would pursue an investigation of this argument with me, and let me know what you discover.

Shalom,
emrys

Monday, October 08, 2012

It's Time for a Change

I am no longer invincible.

This is my confession. Up until Friday, 5 October 2012, I have lived my life with bare audacious impunity. Like my fellow humans who live the same way, I have chosen a particular realm in which to express my impunity. That realm was fat.

Lipids. Long chemical chains with hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions which, when present in sufficient quantity in food, produce flavor.

Whenever possible, I chose cream over milk. I chose butter over margarine. Taking advantage of a metabolism that kept me rail-thin no matter what, I avoided low-fat products as if . . . they would kill me.

On Friday, the day of my pentannual checkup, my physician told me that my cholesterol and related numbers were up too high. Time to change my diet, he told me. Less cheese, less butter, less cream, less licking the spatula when making pie crust.

I am no longer invincible.

~ emrys

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Counting Your Name

When asked to introduce herself, my daughter has begun to announce herself in a "name, rank, serial number" fashion: "Gwendolyn Hope Tyler, Big Sister, Three and a Half" [years old].

Recently, as we made our way toward bedtime, I asked Gwendolyn to pick out three stories to read. She replied, "Three and a half?"

Assuming this meant we would have four books, I assented and she went off to her room.

When I got there, a tall stack of books--many more than four--stood on the bed.

"Gwendolyn! I said three and a half books."

Gwendolyn gave me a look as if I were a bumbling dolt. "No, let me show you." She began to take books off the pile, counting them as she spoke: "Gwendolyn. Hope. Ty. Ler. Big. Sis. Ter. Three. And. A. Half." Eleven books, one for each toddling syllable in her title.

I laughed with joy. And then we sat down to read--the top four books on the pile.

~ emrys

Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Father's Hand

Remember wide-ruled paper, with red lines for the margins? Remember putting a header with your name, the date, and the class on every sheet? It seems that this was the procedure as far back as 1948, when my dad took his 5th grade spelling tests:

This is yet another little find from the memorabilia I inherited from my dad. What strikes me more than the familiarity of the format and paper style is that of the handwriting. If we changed the names and dates to match my own 5th grade year, I could not now tell the difference between my dad's grammar-school penmanship and mine. By the time I knew him, Dad's handwriting was physician's scrawl; I've got my own peculiar version of chicken-scratch. But our young hands drew such familiar letters.

Is this a result of standardized training in penmanship (that did not change much between 1948 and 1986)? Or is much of handwriting in fact genetic?

~ emrys

Friday, September 07, 2012

Book Review: Transforming Evangelism

Transforming Evangelism, by David Gortner (2008), is one of the Episcopal Church's recent attempts to clarify and refashion the art of introducing others to Jesus Christ. The book covers a wide swath of theory about evangelism but does not neglect to go deep into practice. It offers not only well-thought-out grounds for how Christians offer the gospel of Jesus Christ, but also case studies and creative imaginings regarding how effective evangelism looks.

Like many books on evangelism in the North American Church today, Transforming Evangelism arises from a repugnant reaction to a widespread perception about evangelism. Many evangelistic efforts assert Christianity in terms that strike our culture as offensive. An extreme example of this trend is the annual group of believers who follow the Rose Parade in Pasadena with signs reading "Jesus or Hell" and "Repent: God Hates [choose your category]." As a result of this--and probably many less stark examples--a good proportion of both Christians and non-Christians believe that evangelism is, at its heart, an exercise in condemnation. Therefore regardless of what may come after it, the appearance of the word "evangelism" strikes fear into the hearts of people far and wide.

Another off-putting belief about evangelism, at least from the perspective of Christians, is that one does it out of duty. Jesus said to spread the good news, so I must do it out of obedience. Gone are the motivations of wonder and excitement of which we read in the New Testament. Instead has come a sense of obligation. One must pay taxes; one must go to the dentist; one must spread the good news. Transforming Evangelism seeks also to address this tendency in Christianity.

So, as the book's title intimates, evangelism must somehow be transformed into something that we Christians can do in good conscience. It seeks to re-establish the motivation for evangelism in gratitude to God for Christ's work in our lives. And it seeks to describe a way in which evangelism can be an offer to rather than and assertion upon the un-Christian. I found these goals proper and timely for the Church I know today.

Many of us who are disciples of Christ must examine our hearts to find what the Spirit is doing there on a regular basis. When we do, I believe, as this book asserts, that gratitude will become the proper and joyful foundation of every response we offer to God--from service to prayer to evangelism. Telling people they should believe in Jesus Christ solely out of duty seems hollow and pale compared to the powerful expansive witness that I see in the scriptures, and in a significant portion of my brothers and sisters of the faith. We do not invite people to cram themselves into a rigorous world of black and white; in Christ we find a celebration of God's explosive color. Transforming Evangelism brings this point out well.

In responding to the twin bugbears of evangelism, however, Transforming Evangelism threatens to toss the infant out with the slurry. The book attempts to redefine evangelism as something that is going on all the time in every person's life. (Here I might add that the book pulls up only short of a panentheistic view of the divine, which may lie behind the present problem.) To evangelize, then, is to get on board with what God is doing. This broad definition becomes so wide as to lose its point in the book. Witness the book's recitation of the story of St. Martin of Tours: Martin gave a beggar his cloak, then had a dream in which Christ affirmed his action. The book calls this an "evangelistic action" which transformed Martin himself. While the language of the scriptures would certainly affirm Martin's work as love, and would affirm Christ's appearance to him as theophany, it would not use the term "evangelism" for what happened.

The book also introduces the term "evangelistic listening." To listen to someone's story is to do evangelism. While listening is an essential skill of Christians, and preparation for an offer of the good news requires listening, "evangelistic listening" in the sense used here is uselessly oxymoronic. An essential part of the definition of "evangelism" is announcement, proclamation, telling (not just asking, listening, affirming). The good news of chicken on sale for $1.50 per pound is something one can proclaim to another. If I listen to your woes about only finding chicken for $2.30 per pound, and affirm your grief, and maybe offer to give you extra work so you can afford that expensive chicken, I may have served you well. But I have not offered you good news that will break into your chicken-buying world and introduce new possibilities.

We cannot shy away from the fact that evangelism is an introduction to a Person, and therefore has concrete, objective content. While true that some may not accept the invitation; while true that some--for their own reasons which ought not to trace back to our behavior--will be offended by Christ; while true that we will always be able to look back on a conversation and see ways we would rather have spoken; it is nonetheless true that evangelism is a proclamation of Jesus Christ. It is an announcement of his name, his lordship, and his role as savior. We may transform methods of evangelism. We may ask God to transform our hearts to do evangelism. But we may not transform this root of the good news without causing the vine to wither and die.

~ emrys

Monday, August 27, 2012

Oddities

I continue to take moments to sift through the next layer of records that came into possession at my dad's death. This week Gwendolyn and I shredded a whole file box of tax records. Dad kept every cancelled check that he wrote (he was still receiving cancelled checks in 2003, when many banks had stopped returning them).

In the shredding process my eyes lit on two things that made me stop and think.

Over the years 2001-2003, Dad's annual premium for malpractice insurance (he was a general surgeon) averaged $19,511. And Dad had never been sued, never been accused of any malpractice. The next time you wonder why physicians charge so much for their services, remember that their insurance premiums can exceed poverty-line salaries.

Since Dad owned his own practice and paid employees, he had to fill out taxes as a business owner. One of the tax forms for the City of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) is titled "Occupational Privilege Tax." Privilege? Huh. I did not realize working was a privilege. Of course, I never have been pressed to place work in an ontological category. Necessity? Right? Privilege? Does this mean that one does not have the right to work in Bethlehem?

Do we have the right to work anywhere?

"Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness." Is working an unalienable right?

~ emrys

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Only Damnable Things


I was given cause recently to review the view of human will and sin described in John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (Library of Christian Classics version, 1967). In Chapter III of Book II (Knowledge of God the Redeemer), which chapter is titled "Only Damnable Things Come Forth from Man's Corrupt Nature," Calvin lays out an understanding of humanity and sin. It presages the Synod of Dort's declaration that humanity is "totally depraved." In reading this part of Calvin, I was struck by two things.

First, the uncompromising view of sin that Calvin takes and the conclusion to which that view brings him. Calvinism (distinct from Calvin's writings) has received much guff in the world for being pessimistic. This criticism is both accurate and incomplete. A proper view of sin taken from the Institutes will lead, indeed, to a rather dim view of humanity on its own. However, the Institutes does not ask us to consider humanity on its own, but as redeemed by Christ. In this redemption there is great hope. To attempt to access this hope without a dim view of human sin is a fool's errand (in this I agree with the Institutes), for the attempt will inevitably be too naive about the power of evil in the world.

Second, I notice how dependent on Augustine's writings is the Institutes. I had learned that Calvin drew on Augustine quite a bit. But the degree to which the Institutes uses Augustine's words as summary proof of its points surprised me. At first blush this seems to result from the family tree of Christian theology and philosophy in the European West: though Protestant, Calvin protested against a specific tradition, namely Western Roman Catholicism. He may have been bound by the Tradition of western Roman Catholic theology and therefore operated entirely from its premises--laid out by Augustine. I have not read the whole of the Institutes, but a scan of the abbreviations from the front of the book reveals a lack of reference to, for instance, the Gregories and Basils of Eastern theological tradition. Certainly the apophatic tendency of the East (say less about God, not more, lest you get it wrong) is defied by the 1600-page count of the Institutes.

This is perhaps the element most challenging to me in Calvin: the desire to explain in logically consistent detail every facet of one's belief. It challenges me both because I have a similar strong tendency in myself, and because I see from the scriptures that pursuing this desire may also be a fool's errand. Human persons, about whom we claim to have so much understanding, cannot be boiled down to a logical set of principles; how then shall we expect the deity to submit to the same?

~ emrys

Friday, August 10, 2012

Ganache Me

A few months ago I embarked on the experiment of making Boston Cream Pie. (It's not really a pie: It's a layer cake with filling and frosting.) I decided not to use the cheats (vanilla pudding, canned chocolate frosting) and make everything from scratch.

Rather than frost it in the traditional fashion, I elected to use a chocolate ganache. I find ganache is more fun to apply and to eat. And my little helper, there for every step of the not-pie-making process, had the same evaluation:

We only differ in where the ganache is applied.

~ emrys

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The New Guardians of Decency

We have arrived. The great innovation of American culture, arguably from the beginning according to some, is that the government will stay out of my way and let me pursue my own interest: "life, liberty, pursuit of happiness." Wherever you stand on the Demopublican spectrum, this is the ideal to which American government cleaves. The government will not criticize or incarcerate you because you choose to deal cards to people with gambling addictions; nor because you accumulate wealth while neighbors struggle to survive; nor especially because you say things to others that make your mother wish she could put you over her knee.

Freedom, especially of speech, is the linchpin of rights given to American citizens by their government.

But it is not guaranteed by employers.

Adam Smith, former CFO of Vante, discovered last week that although no officer of law enforcement would ticket him for his poorly-chosen words to Rachel at Chick-fil-A, his employer had no compunction about enforcing a certain ethic of conduct. To wit, from Vante's Marketwire statement: "We respect the right of our employees and all Americans to hold and express their personal opinions, however, we also expect our company officers to behave in a manner commensurate with their position and in a respectful fashion that conveys these values of civility with others."

Did you catch that? Smith has freedom of speech, but Vante--the one who holds Smith's paycheck--has an expectation that employees will limit that freedom according to a certain ethic. Even when they're not on the clock.

Most of us who are employed in the United States have something in the fine print of our contracts which declares that we may quit the job for any (and undisclosed) reason, and our employer may terminate our employment for any reason. We are hired at the will of our employers. Adam Smith discovered the limits of the will of his employer.

Adam Smith's case is a sign of a larger reality operating in America. Power to control and discipline social ethics parallels economic power. The government clearly does not insist that Smith be kind and respectful in his conduct toward drive-thru employees. I wonder if Smith's parents or teachers insisted on a high level of civility from Smith as he grew up. Smith's peers probably did not set high standards of grace and responsible expression.

But Vante will insist on good conduct, with force.

Let's be clear. My desire is not to complain about the situation, but to observe where we are. When our most dearly beloved cultural mantra is freedom, someone will have to set the limits on that freedom demanded by kindness. As words go viral on youtube, someone will have to determine where the buck stops. In our society, that responsibility will fall to those who have control of all the bucks: the ones who write our paychecks. Thus our fellow Adam Smiths will only learn that drive-thru employees shouldn't have to "listen to his frustration and disgust" when they've lost their paychecks for poor behavior.

~ emrys

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Why Projects Take Longer

with children.

In spite of the fact that our bathrooms are big enough to suit the Taj Mahal, we have always found it hard to place our laundry baskets in a convenient location. Behind the door? Then the door is always bouncing shut. Under the towel bar? Then they're in the way. Between the windows? Then you have to walk in an S-pattern to get to the sink. This five-year-old problem, however, was eased by the removal of the glass block quarter-walls around the toilet, because now we could bring up some cheap white cabinets that needed a new home, and get creative.

We decided to cut holes in the top of one cabinet which would house the laundry baskets (one for whites, one for colors). The baskets would be out of sight (and out of the way), but we just have to pitch our dirty clothes into the holes and they are sorted for laundering. Finally that middle-school compass came in handy for design work:

Some way into the project, I discovered that the final installation was complicated by a three-year-old who really wanted to "help"--that is, wanted to be involved. In the middle. Obstructive.
Even though she hadn't finished her lunch break yet (that's an apple whose juice she's smearing all over the project):
I had no idea that a cabinet with holes would be such a fun toy. (Why do we buy her plastic trinkets again?) It turns out that as much fun as I've had on the mallet end of Whack-A-Mole, Gwendolyn has on the hole end.
It's fun to hide and wait for Daddy to find you by looking down from above, then screaming like a little girl when he peeks over the edge:
No matter how much my work ethic butts up against three-year-old playfulness, I eventually discover every time that it's wiser to join in than try to win. So when my daughter insisted on trying to fit us both into the laundry playhouse, I went for it.
Yes. More fun than getting the project done on time.
 Much more fun.

~ emrys

Tyler House Hunt II

In the early 1940s, my grandparents moved the family to a property in Scipio Center, NY nicknamed "Three Horse Chestnuts." The three spiky-seed-dropping trees stood on the edge of Duck Road. My uncle Jim remembers wading through the sea of nuts on the way to school and, when they had cracked, pulling out the hard cores and pitching them at siblings.

Here is a photo, dated in my grandmother's handwriting to 1946, of the Tyler siblings Jim, Joan, Dotsy, and George (my father) sitting on the front lawn of Three Horse Chestnuts. Behind them is one of the legendary trees; further in the background is a light grey patch of Owasco Lake:

We stood on that property yesterday. Only one of the original three chestnuts survives (at right in the following picture), but a younger spawn has grown up to make two on the property. Below is Uncle Jim with my daughter and son (in the baby carrier), on the same front lawn sixty-six years later:

 And George Tyler's progeny (granddaughter, son, and grandson) at the foot of the second, younger chestnut tree:
The house had an extensive garden (as did most houses in the early forties, I believe) on the west side. Here is my dad, George, standing in the garden with Grandpa's 1939 Ford behind him and the house in the background:
 The house has since burned down, leaving only the faint outline of the block foundation and the concrete cover for the original well. Jim remembers Grandma going out in the winter mornings with a hatchet to chip out chunks of ice to bring in for water. He said the house was designed to be a summer home--no plumbing indoors--but the Tylers lived there year round. This may be a testament to how budding college professors (still finishing their PhDs, as Grandpa was) struggled to make ends meet. Then again, it may have been indicative of the times, as the United States still suffered the economic burden of World War II. Here is a view of the well cover with the chestnuts in the background:
This shot taken from the front yard shows a good swath of Owasco Lake in the distance:
Since 1946 the trees to the north have grown up a bit, but the field across the road is still farmed, and the view from under the horse chestnuts can still be enjoyed:
What a treat to walk across the soil of some family history.
~ emrys

Friday, August 03, 2012

Tyler House Hunting I

Today my uncle Jim, Gwendolyn, Micah and I went on an adventure to find the homes that my grandparents and father occupied during the 1930s and 40s. Uncle Jim had done all this researching and journeying before, so this was mostly for my benefit. Here are a few of the fruits.

Grandma and Grandpa began their academic careers teaching at Wells College in Aurora, NY. While they struggled to establish themselves on the faculty, they lived in at least three different residences. The first was known as "The Avery House," now a fine refurbished structure at 316 Main Street in downtown (down-village?) Aurora:


Another was the manse of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Moravia, NY. How my grandparents got to use the parsonage, since neither of them was an Episcopal priest, is now anyone's guess:


The first of two gems from this adventure is the discovery of a house known in family records as "Pointed Firs." Here's a photo of it in about 1940, with my grandfather's 1939 Ford parked out front:


The house is still there, in the village of Poplar Ridge, on the high ground between lakes Cayuga and Owasco:


The window shutters and door frame look to be original. A gable has been added and the roof renewed. I could not tell if the fence was original (which in itself was telling). When we knocked, no one was home, so we could not get a tour of the inside. But this is the house that my dad came home to after he was born.

The second gem, Three Horse Chestnuts, will have to wait until a future post. But meantime, here is a photo of the schoolhouse in Scipio where my dad and three of his siblings did their first years of school:

 Though overgrown and neglected (so much so that we couldn't get near it with small children in tow), it is still standing and, according to a local, still has some of the original school furniture inside. The farmer who now owns the land, however, will not tear it down. Maybe he was a fellow student of my dad's?

~ emrys

When the Ducks Say Thank You

We, the parents of our children, try our best to encourage our daughter to say "Please" and "Thank you" at every opportunity.

This evening I listened to Gwendolyn act out little scenes in the bathtub with her rubber ducks. One repeating story line was a duck asking another duck for a hot dog.

"Can I have a hock-dock please?"

"Yes. Here yuh go."

"OK. Tank you."

"Can I have kezhup please?"

"Oh, ketchup. Here yuh go."

"OK. Tank you."

Among broad smiles of amusement I thought, Perhaps some of what we're doing is actually sticking.

~ emrys

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Community Is

other people loving my children.

We have been blessed to be part of a community in which people enjoy our kids. They will spend time with our children, feed them, and savor all the funny stories that emerge from their moment-to-moment lives.

But love isn't just about the fun times. Community begins to emerge when other adults will take my children's character development seriously. They will correct my children when they do things that are beneath their character. And they will ask about what my parental expectations are in order better to serve my children. Their love will be tough enough to say No even when my daughter is being exceptionally cute, even when all the other kids are getting candy.

Community grows from others' willingness to seek to understand our desires for our children, and then serve those desires. It's an extra mile to go, extra trouble to take, extra hope to envision. But from that community will come my children's faith that life is neither My Family Against the World nor Me Against My Parents. They will learn that the network of support and accountability for their lives is broader than two people. They will discover that God is molding them with many hands.

We spent last week at Pilgrim Pines, a family camp to which family friends have been going for decades. Among all the normal campy joys of a week in rural New Hampshire I found a deeper and more sublime joy: hundreds of children running amok while hundreds of parents watched out for them all. I found a common atmosphere of character and trust. I found an opportunity to rest, not just because I was on vacation, but because the shared burden of caring for dozens of children is lighter than the stingy weight of raising my child by myself.

As with every camp experience, we are challenged to take what we find in one vacation week and carry it into the other fifty-one weeks. But at least we're one week ahead on making the world a better place.

~ emrys

Friday, June 29, 2012

What I Want

If my children are blessed with children, I want those children to have grandparents who jump into the household at birth-time. I want my grandchildren to have Grandpas and Grandmas who will drop everything else for two weeks on either side of the due date, ready to drive at a moment's notice. I want those grandparents to weave seamlessly into the chores and mealtime routines of my children's homes: helping with meals, doing laundry, and of course taking care of the newly arrived grandchild so the parents can get some rest.

I want my grandchildren to have grandparents who are thrilled to pay attention to the older grandchildren, even though they're no longer Center Stage in the family drama. I want those grandparents to be present, remembering with seasoned grace the Great Fog of bringing a new child into the world, but without insisting that the way it was for them must be the way it is now.

I want those grandparents to consider their greatest calling to be good parents, and the greatest part of that calling to be good grandparents. I want them to view their children and grandchildren as strange and wonderful gifts from a strange and wonderful God who is mysteriously present in every life.

I want my grandchildren to have these kind of grandparents, because my children have them, and I see the blessing therein. May the Lord make it so for us.

~ emrys

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Breaking the Camel's Back

In the summer of 2005 I graduated seminary. As a graduation gift, and in preparation for world travels that would include the writing of papers and the posting of blogs, Sara bought me a Toshiba Tablet PC. It did all the things a laptop ought to do, plus it allowed me to write on the screen with a stylus. It even translated my handwriting into typed text, with great accuracy.

Seven years later, the Toshiba has been on three continents, two archipelagos, and to innumerable committee meetings. The battery has been replaced twice, the power cord once. The hard drive has been reformatted three times and repartitioned once to accommodate both Linux and Windows operating systems. Since I don't game on it or do work that requires the processing of extreme graphics or computational work, it continued to serve well in every capacity I desired.

Then the hinge cracked. Seven years of use had finally taken its toll on the weakest structural link.

Since the wireless receiver runs through the hinge and around the screen, once the hinge started to deteriorate, the wireless connection became spotty, even when I sat next to the router. And a cracked hinge made portability a real issue.

I had an inkling, however, that I was going to need a new laptop soon anyway because I found that I had to pop over to Linux any time I wanted to read and edit documents created in MS Office 2010 software. The cracked hinge was just the proverbial straw. Down went the old camel.


We're pretty sold on Toshiba for reliability and cost, so I now have a sleek wide-screen version. I can't write on the screen, but I had been using that feature much less anyway. The resolution is better and so far the speed is better, too.

Now, if I can just get past the learning curve for the Office 2010 software, I'll be all set.

~ emrys

Itty-Bitty Number Two

On Sunday, June 24th, Sara decided she had had enough of being pregnant. She wanted to have a baby. So we trundled down to Our Lady of Lourdes in Binghamton and got assigned our room in the Birthing Center. We were in by 11:00am. Then we waited.

After much labor but no delivery, our physician decided that it was safer to have the delivery by C-section. So Sara went under the knife, and out came Itty-Bitty Number Two, who is by the time of this posting officially Micah Ambrose Tyler:

(9:28pm, June 24th; 8lb, 3oz, 21.5in, Apgar 8.5-9)

He's got the Tyler face (if you ask the Tylers), and the Wheat face (if you ask the Wheats), but no matter whom you ask, he's got Emrys' long toes and cold feet:
And he's a snuggler.
We thank God for the safe arrival of Micah Ambrose; for the phenomenal staff in the Lourdes Birthing Center; for friends and family who shower us with support; and for the Life of Christ which makes all life possible. L'chaim!

~ emrys

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Fauna by Our Front Door

Gwendolyn and I came in from watering one morning to discover this motley crew hanging out by our porch light.






~ emrys

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Spoils of War

I approach Young Adult Fiction with relish. I appreciate the fact that most YAF is not salted with an abundance of profanities. I enjoy the early growth of characters' humanity: coming of age, struggling out of the cocoon, defining good over against evil. The best stories, of course, twist the course of growth with ambiguity: discovering the impurity of human goodness, darkness in one's own soul, virtue in the blackest of characters. In the end, however, redemption is the order of the day. Small or large, clear or foggy, I wait for The Greatest Story Ever Told to shine through somehow.

Even after seeing the film adaptation (out of order, I admit), it was not until I read the front jacket of The Hunger Games that I realized Suzanne Collins' trilogy would not stay the course of YAF. The three books--The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay (2010)--are a progressive meditation on war. The meditation happens to be through the eyes of an adolescent.

The premise of The Hunger Games is the unthinkable atrocity of a culture which forces selected youths to kill each other in a game show. When Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark beat the system with their feigned narrative of star-crossed lovers, the plot of the trilogy thickens. An alternate society appears, waiting in the wings, ready to topple the horrific culture of the Capitol with a brave new beginning.

In a way, we readers can see it coming. The twists resemble a wooden roller coaster, whose complete course we have seen from a distance but whose particular jolts and drops we still queue up to experience. There is even a note of fatalism in the final twist of the trilogy, which took me by surprise while I knew it had to happen.

The master stroke of Collins' words is not the course of the plot. Her narrative mastery comes through in her development of Katniss Everdeen--or, to be more accurate, Everdeen's non-development. Since the entire trilogy comes to us through the first-person lens of Everdeen's experience, my hope was less for the redemption of the Thirteen Districts and more for the redemption of Katniss. Would she emerge from the cocoon of war, the grave-wrappings of despair, and find--joy? love? peace? self-determination?

The Katniss Everdeen I found at the end of Mockingjay resembled--like a washed-out wraith who can only find a faded high-schooler in the mirror--an even harder version of the youth on page one of The Hunger Games. Love has been lost, peace has proven elusive, and joy has flown the coop. And as for self-determination: Katniss Everdeen only made one honest-to-goodness choice in her narrated life, and it was a choice forced upon her by circumstances beyond her control.

The depth of Everdeen's circumstances is plumbed only by the conscious recognition, voiced in a one-line paragraph near the end of Mockingjay, that she is completely alone. Her family, whether they intended it or not, has left her alone. Her friends, if she ever really had any, have left her alone. The world, we cannot help but believe intentionally, has left her alone. The Games, the war, and all of her betrayals become particular expressions of this broader, despairing reality from which there is no escape. With the honorable Romeo and Juliet option deprived of her at the end of book one, Everdeen is left to drift into the numb fog of solitude.

If I had paid for these books, I might have fretted that I could not get my money back. As Young Adult Fiction the series left me cold. Collins' dust jacket forces me to reassess, however. As a meditation on war--for a reader whose nation sends droves of adolescents off to fight battles broadcast on the airwaves for rewards more crippling than glorious--perhaps the value of The Hunger Games is not its echo of The Greatest Story. Perhaps its value is in revealing the need for The Greatest Story.

Katniss Everdeen becomes the youth who can survive through anything. But that survival results in a calcification of the soul, a numbness which even the best-trained cynic cannot relish. Her story begs the question: are young warriors--whatever their battles--doomed to this end? Or is there redemption for them?

~ emrys

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mazda: the Super Car

Twelve years ago a Gal was getting ready to graduate from college and head out into the big, wide world.  At the beginning of her last semester of college she bought a car.  She really wanted a truck, but ended up with a "practical" car instead.  Little did she know that it would be The SuperCar.  Five months later, she loaded that car up and moved to Colorado where she met a Guy with a motorcycle.

When they dated, the Guy thought it would be funny to pull a prank on the Gal while she was out of town and filled the Car with shredded paper.  If you look closely in the window wells of the Car, to this day you can see remnants of that little prank.


 Two years later when they got married, the Car brought them home from their wedding.  Less than a year after that the Guy and Gal moved to California. While the Gal said "no motorcycles on the LA freeways", the Car was loaded up again and moved the Guy and Gal off to Pasadena. And then moved them back to Colorado.  The Car took them to Camp for the summer, and chauffeured the Gal to and from chemo and radiation treatments.  The Car moved them up into the mountains for a season.  Between all the big moves, the Car was a reliable member of their little family that got them around for trips near and far.



The Car got a break when the Guy and Gal went to travel the world, but then it was time to get back to work as the Guy and Gal loaded up to move again.  This time to New York.  The car brought the first load of stuff to the first house the Guy and Girl bought and continued to trundle them around central New York.  A couple years later, the Car got to carry the most precious cargo when the Guy and Gal brought Little Girl home from the hospital.  When the Car kept going and going, we said that Little Girl may actually learn to drive on the Car.  Well, you have to start somewhere:




The Car has earned its SuperCar status and has been more than reliable- never had to be towed, never in an accident (even though big mean trucks dinged it a couple times while it was parked and minding it's own business).  But the time has come to move on, for cars don't last forever.  The family is growing again and the Car is getting tired. The Guy and the Gal searched among the Car's younger cousins and they found one that would fit their growing family nicely.  Today the SuperCar is getting traded in at 194,000 miles-yup, a lovely used car dealership gave us trade-in for it!



Mazda - you were a SuperCar, may Cinco serve us just as well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Conscience of an Emperor

Constantine the Great, by Michael Grant (1993) sets out to tackle the challenge of the Roman Emperor who legitimated Christianity. The book pursues the lofty goal of providing an objective historical perspective on the man Constantine and his reign.

The rear cover lauds Grant as "perhaps the foremost living classicist." Within the first few chapters the book verifies this description with thorough knowledge of the Greek and Latin sources from the first four centuries AD. It makes piercing observations that cut through many of the generalizations offered in the cursory education many of us receive about this epoch.

The text exposes Constantine as a complex person--infinitely more varied and human than images of marble busts and gold coinage icons suggest. It persistently follows the wide-swinging pendulum of a ruler who could at once seek unification of the Christian Church and have his own wife and son killed. The book wrestles magnificently with the bugbear of historicity, straining to reach into the depths of ancient writers' biases to draw out gleaming gems of certainty.

Yet I sensed that the Holy Grail of objectivity proved too great a burden for the book to bear. Even as it works exhaustively through every document that hints at the character of Constantine, the writing cracks under the effort. In spite of the book's outspoken defiance of bias, sweeping statements about Constantine's motives appear: jarring chords of unfounded certainty in a symphony of erudite qualifications. Take, for instance, the motives behind the killing of the emperor's wife, Fausta. After noting carefully the inadequate source material, our text concludes that Constantine killed her because of her violation of his "puritanical" sense of sexual morality.

This "puritanism"--itself an anachronism for the era under examination--Constantine's Christian faith, and the killings of family members seem to pose the greatest difficulty for the book. The temptation either to render judgment or explain the tension proves too much to resist. The text seems haunted by the need somehow to answer clearly the conundrum of a Christian ruler who took cruel and--by our standards--unjust measures. The fissures in an objective picture of Constantine grow wide by the end of the book: so wide, in fact, that statements slip out like, "There are, and remain, certain absolute standards, and by his death-dealing Constantine offended signally against them."

Herein Grant's writing may come closest to the life of Constantine. Just as Constantine's life seems torn between the ruthless nature of imperial politics and the confession of Christianity, Grant's writing appears torn between the twin desires of today's historian: the desire for objectivity and the desire for some non-random evaluation of the past. Perhaps, like Constantine the Great, whose motivations and morals remain an enigma buried in seventeen hundred years of history, the book about his life is both child and victim of its time.

~ emrys

Sunday, June 10, 2012

It's the Destination, Not the Journey

I went to England last week to attend my Aunt Betsy's funeral. The adventure to get to Charlbury began with the procurement of a passport on short notice. My mantra became, from the moment the document arrived in the mail, Do I have my passport? Check the pockets, confirm its presence.

Pack the bags, be ready to leave at 12:30pm. Photocopy credit cards and driver's license in case wallet gets nicked overseas. Check for passport in bag. Hugs and kisses to my wife and daughter. Three-and-a-half hours to Jersey City. One hour to visit with friends in Jersey City. Leave for Newark International at 5:00. Plenty of time before 7:35 flight.

5:15: turn into sticky maelstrom of Newark airport. Follow signs for Terminal C parking. Pull into lot and take ticket. Glance at the price schedule: "Short Term." Experience sticker shock. Drive through lot and got to exit booths. Ask attendant where to find long-term parking.

"Exit airport, follow signs for P6."

Follow exit signs, leave airport, see no signs for P6. Begin to breathe more rapidly. Re-enter airport vortex and search for P6 signs. Pass Terminal C. Sign for P6: "bear left." Bear left. Next sign: "bear right." Bear right. Signs vanish. Gone. Heartbeat accelerates. Exit airport again. Re-enter, bear left, bear right. Signs vanish again. Curse not-so-under-breath. Exit airport. Look at clock: 5:30.

Re-enter airport, rip short-term parking ticket out of dispenser. Park in C lot. Check passport in pocket. Mentally prepare to put large fee on credit card on way home. Hustle for check-in. Experience no line for check-in or security. Remember that today is middle of Memorial Day weekend. Thank God for easy travel. Find gate and confirm flight number to London Heathrow.

Feel peckish. Go to airport burger joint and order greasy supper. Hear clerk ask for payment. Pull out wallet. Open wallet to find no credit cards, no driver's license.

Experience tunnel vision and cold sweat. Check cash: American dollars and British pounds still there. Not theft. Suddenly realize that I cannot remember taking credit cards off the copier glass.

Clerk repeats request for funds. Hand her cash. Wait for burger, pacing back and forth, studying ramifications of stupidity. Wonder how much to skimp in order to have cash to get home. Check for passport in pocket. Pray that cash I have will stretch.

Board flight and take off one hour late. Get three hours of fitful sleep from seven hour flight. Compose eulogy. Land in Heathrow at 8:35am local time. Board bus to Oxford. Arrive in Oxford, hustle to train station. Board train, arrive at Charlbury. Walk to St. Mary's Church at 11:45, forty-five minutes into aunt's service. Attend last twenty minutes.

Be welcomed by distant cousins and uncle. Give eulogy at crematorium service. Hang out with family for afternoon. Talk, eat, drink, enjoy. Let head hit pillow at 10:00. Pass out.

Wake up at 4:30. Check for passport. Walk to train station. Catch 6:00 train. Switch to bus at Oxford. Bus departs on time. Twenty minutes into bus ride, learn that an accident on the M40 will require a detour. Spend hour on back roads looking at watch to see how rapidly flight time approaches. Arrive at Heathrow one hour late.

Hear from check-in clerk that I will miss flight. Break out in cold sweat again, fearing ticket clerk will ask for credit card to get new flight. Prepare to explain my unlikely story. Give passport to ticket clerk. "You're on the 12:05 flight." No questions asked. Heave sigh of relief, remind myself to thank brother for Premier Class air miles ticket.

Wait two hours, board flight. Arrive on time in Newark. Exchange remainder of British pounds for greenbacks. Spend moment stunned at how good the rate treats me. Get to car, prepare to tell lot attendant unlikely story of credit cards and convince her to enter numbers manually. Drive to exit booths. Hear "sixty-six dollars," highway robbery. See eighty dollars in wallet. Praise the Lord. Pay parking ticket with cash. Use remainder to fill tank with enough gas to get home.

Arrive at home. Kiss and hug wife and daughter. Go upstairs and put credit cards and driver's license back in wallet. Stash passport. Resolve to add "check wallet and money" to my travelling mantra.

~ emrys

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Have More Faith


One of the reasons I do what I do is that I find people's stories fascinating. In even the smallest gathering, thousands of stories lie below the surface, waiting to be unearthed: stories of trial, success, hardship, redemption, darkness and joy.

In his 2009 book have a little faith, Mitch Albom has captured like jewels, with the eye of a gem-cutter, two stories of human life.

Albom narrates the stories of two "men of God," one a rabbi and the other a pastor. What begins as a story about death—the composition of a eulogy—becomes two braided cords of life. Albom, present in the book as a ghostly first person narrator, unfolds the beatific texture of humanity and divinity expressed. By the middle of the book, I was turning pages not so much to learn what would happen next as to know more about these two wonderful characters.

Albom's style, both straightforward and depth-plumbing, makes for easy reading that conceals the beautiful poignant barbs which will hook the reader. He is sufficiently self-revelatory that we could imagine ourselves in Albom's shoes, walking through this same life, meeting these same wondrous personalities.

Which, I think, is a chief aim of the book: to remind us that individuals like Lewis Albert and Henry Covington are in fact all around us, if we will only listen to their stories. If only each of us could be asked sometime in our lives, "Would you write my eulogy?" then we would gain so much greater understanding of ourselves, of humanity, and of God.

This last part, the understanding of God, is the only place in which I felt Albom's work falter.  In spite of his task, to narrate the lives of two "men of God," Albom concludes that the real object of faith is "the human spirit." The great song of the world is "one same, wonderful, human song." Albom may have been caught in the bind of having to affirm both Jewish rabbi and a Christian pastor in one line—and could not reconcile their differing conceptions of God. But I think it is unfair to both of his subjects to reduce their inspiration to the human level.

The book implies that we should "have a little faith" in the human spirit. From Lewis' and Covington's stories, however, I think it's fair to say we should have more than a little faith in God.

~ emrys

Monday, June 04, 2012

Learning From the Masters


One of the best ways to learn an art form is to copy the masters. It is said that the famous painters of the Renaissance had students who simply copied what the master did until they understood what was going on and could strike off on their own. I suppose that even painting a still life is simply copying what the Master made.

I participate in many different kinds of prayer, by virtue of my work and my personal habit. When I am praying with a group, I usually prefer to let the words and experience of the group form my prayer. Some call this "extemporaneous" prayer, but often what seems to come out of thin air for the hearer has been formulated over some time by the speaker.

Praying out of my own experience, however, has its limitations. So often I will turn to words that others have composed and pray them. I do so not because God hears my words or their words any more, less, better, or worse. However, prayer is an exercise that both speaks to God and stretches the soul. I find that using someone else's words to pray stretches my soul in ways I could not anticipate but richly value.

Somewhere along the line I picked up Michel Quoist's Prayers, a thin book copyrighted in the 1960s and translated from French. Abbe Quoist was a priest and abbot in French communities both urban and rural, serving in a decade that dealt with social situations very different from my own.

But I prayed his prayers.

Prayers is a collection of almost-poetry that both speaks and listens to God. The prayers, each less than four pages long, arise from the fertile crumbling soil of human experience. Those on whose behalf the prayers rise include farmers and fascists, addicts and adolescents, the normal and the neglected. It was a joy to savor the words on my lips, but also to hear the soul-strains echoing with something divine. Praying them opened my heart more widely to the joys and sorrows of human experience, even as I lifted up people I know to be in those very joys and sorrows.

Sometimes I would pray—always out loud and standing—listening to hear myself in the prayer.

The work is thoroughly Roman Catholic, shot through with the ache of sin's guilt and culminating with a set of prayers formatted for the stations of the cross. The exclusivity of the masculine pronoun for humanity chafed against my training. Nonetheless, a full vision both of humanity's sufferings and God's love for it rises up out of the prayers.

There is no masterpiece of prayer any more than there is a perfect conversation. But like many skills, prayer withers with lack of practice and deepens with variety. To anyone seeking to learn greater vocabulary of prayer—and perhaps to hear more deeply the human heart—I recommend Michel Quoist's work.

You will have to get your own copy, however. I'm keeping mine.

~ emrys

Irish Roots

In order to get to my aunt's funeral last week, I required a new passport. In order to procure a passport for travel in fewer than fourteen days, one must appear in person at a federal passport issue office. The nearest (or fastest) one for us is in Philadelphia. Thus on Monday, May 21st, I took a one-day trip to Philadelphia.

After finishing business at the passport office, I had occasion to chat for a few minutes on the phone. While I did so, I wandered around the intersection of Chestnut and Front streets by the Phila waterfront, and came across a gorgeous little park introduced with this plaque:

 I have not studied to any degree the immigration patterns of the Irish or any other people group. But it appears from this memorial that Penn's Landing in Phila must have been a major point of influx for the Irish. This monument--some ten feet tall and twenty long--artfully combined what must have been a great mix of hope and despair experienced by nineteenth century immigrants to the U.S.


 Next time I have occasion to wander around downtown Phila, I look forward to giving this park a closer look.
~ emrys