Wednesday, December 23, 2009


For the last few years -- off and on -- my friend Warren and I have collaborated in a Christmas carol project. I write the lyrics and he writes the music. We've produced six or eight of them, and it's a lot of fun. (You can order a CD of these and other original carols from Warren's web site, here.)

Here's one I started a few years ago, but I haven't submitted it to War because I don't think it's really a carol. (I'm not sure what it is.) For now, as here in the midwest we await a great blizzard, it's my blog Christmas card and a prayer that all travelers make it safely home:

It had been the wrong time to be heading for town,
with the wind coming up and the snow coming down;
but, then, it was Christmas, it’d been a lean year –
and he wouldn’t let weather or a few wind-whipped tears
keep him from playing the Santa Claus fool….
Now he’s tryin’ to beat winter back home.

The drift was too high for the old pick-up truck,
so he’d saddled up Star and whistled for luck,
whistled “God Rest Ye” right into the gale,
but the only sound heard on the wind’s lonesome wail
was one little bell he had tied to the mane
of the pony before leaving home.

That dress in the window – he’d been just in time.
The toy at the dime store – he’d waited in line.
Everything closing – the roads piling deep,
still twenty miles – he hopes they’re asleep.
(Though he wished he had told her he was out here alone –
that he’s trying to make it back home).

Gifts of the magi in two saddle bags –
but this wise man’s just lost his way.
The sound of a little bell over the wind.
Will this cowboy be home Christmas Day?

Now the pony’s ahead and he’s fallen behind;
he stumbles in snowdrifts and prays for the sign
of those first Christmas cowboys who, lost in the night,
followed a star to the birth of the light.
As he falls, there’s a bell, and the warmth of the breath
of a pony to lead him back home.

And all he remembers, on each Christmas Eve,
is the feel of his cold fingers making a weave
in the pony’s warm mane – he was too weak to ride
but hung on for dear life at that dear pony’s side –
Then: a light in the window, the cry of a child,
the arms of a woman, and home.

Gifts of the magi in two saddle bags.
A wise man who can’t find his way.
The sound of a little bell over the wind,
and daddy is home Christmas Day.

And a pony named Star led the way.

© 2009, Richard L. Jorgensen

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


In Thich Nhat Hanh's "The Miracle of Mindfulness," the author suggests a simple exercise: Each morning upon rising, sit comfortably at the edge of your bed, close your eyes, inhale deeply and exhale, and then slowly form a half-smile. (You can do this now, sitting on your chair.) It has been my experience that, not only is it nearly impossible to stop at a half-smile, during the process (as the smile triggers muscles in the whole face) the brain becomes infused with the feeling of well-being associated with a smile. The mind follows the physical leading of the body.

I experience a similar mind-body connection when I read John Masefield's "Cargoes." Usually when reading a poem out loud one tries to avoid the sing-song rhythm and artificial line endings in order to read it "for meaning." With this poem, however, the rhythm cries out for emphasis, and carries the reader along. It's as though a deeper meaning of this poem is in the rhythm itself. It's fun to read, and it has an effect something like that hard-to-control half-smile.

   Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
   Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
   With a cargo of ivory,
   And apes and peacocks,
   Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

   Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
   Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
   With a cargo of diamonds,
   Emeralds, amethysts,
   Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

   Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke-stack,
   Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
   With a cargo of Tyne coal,
   Road-rails, pig-lead,
   Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

The drum-beat of the poem builds from the mysteriously dignified and majestic "quinquereme" with its ivory and peacocks, slows slightly to examine a proud galleon full of diamonds and emeralds and accelerates near the end with a "dirty British coaster" that sounds like a cousin of Little Toot. By the time you get to the last line you're marching knees-up as though in a child's parade, and you want to clap those "cheap tin trays" together like cymbals!

There's a very interesting English-professor discussion of the meaning of this poem here, but, come on, meaning-schmeaning. This is word-play! I'd love to have a brightly illustrated version of this poem to read with my grandson. It would be as much fun as Dr. Seuss, who pulls not just a smile but a full laugh out of me every time I read

   ...snip with snippers! Nip with nippers!
   Clip and clop with clapping clippers.
   Nip and snip with clipping cloppers!
   Snip and snop with snipping snoppers!

Now, can I really go from Masefield to Seuss to Wordsworth? Yes, I can. One of the most beautiful stanzas in the language (it's in Wordsworth's ode to "Lucy") is moving not just because it's beautiful -- but because it, well, moves in us.

   The stars of midnight shall be dear
   To her; and she shall lean her ear
   In many a secret place
   Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
   And beauty born of murmuring sound
   Shall pass into her face.

The genius of Wordsworth's combination of rhyme, meter, alliteration, and spot-on word choice produces a sound just like water tumbling softly over rocks, and causes the rivulets that dance around Lucy's lovely face to dance in and among the cells of our bodies and the synapses of our minds. (In terms of brain development, this is almost literally true, and it is why reading poetry to children is so important.)

If poetry, as Donald Hall has written, is the highest use of our language, it is because it does something to us -- whether with the obvious rhythms and rhymes of "Cargoes" or Dr. Seuss, or, deeper, with the inexhaustible iambic pentameter of "Paradise Lost" or the silent undercurrents of free verse -- it does something. You're reading a dignified English poet and before you know it you're clapping tin trays together and shouting hooray!
"Cargoes" (1917), by John Masefield (1878-1967)
"Happy Birthday To You," (1959), by Dr. Seuss, (1904-1991)
"Three Years She Grew" (1800), by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)


Sunday, December 13, 2009


I'm pleased to share a one-day-apart birthday with my son-in-law (December 14/15). It reminds me that throughout my childhood I shared a birthday with my dad's best friend, John. Oh, I always got my own kid party, too, but I recall that, especially in some of those younger years, I really thought that it was fun, and very special, to sit at a table with Mom and Dad and John and Thordis and have birthday cake with my big friend, John.

As I grew, I not only got to know John as a sort of uncle, but, now that I look back on it, John and Dad modeled a lasting, solid friendship that I am now blessed to experience with my own friends.

In my pastoral meetings with parents to prepare for the baptism of a child, I like to tell the dads about my dad and John and the other men sitting around the church dining table, drinking coffee; and that those were the same men who were with their kids upstairs, in church, and they were the same guys that my dad and I went hunting with. This was not a culture of "going to church with mom and going hunting with dad."

So here's to John, In Memoriam. (The repeated phrase in the poem--a verbal "tic" of John's--is not an exaggeration.)
"I remember the time your dad and I over there..."
Over there across the room?
Over there east of the Missouri?
Over there on some remembered gravel backroad?
Over there.
Big John used the phrase as punctuation --
direction -- as the comma to his sentences,
his wonderful stories
of pheasant hunting and fishing over there...
"When you were just a kid and your dad and I
took you along to Lake Byron over there
and you got that fish on your line over there
and you looked at your dad over there
and didn't know what to do!"

The older he got, the deeper growled the voice,
the brightness of the eyes not diminished.
And, the less he was able to go anywhere,
the more "over there" became everywhere--
and anything;
the memories of all the times over there that
your dad and I over there....

Until at last, that day in the nursing home,
I sat across from him with the offered communion,
sharing with him the sacrament of the calling
I had entered as much because
he was at all those church basement suppers
drinking coffee with my dad --
as much because he and the other men were there
as because Dad was --

The eyes were duller now. He wasn't speaking;
he wouldn't know me, they said.
But after bread and wine
he provided the whispered post-communion blessing:
I miss your dad so much.
Over there.

Thursday, December 10, 2009



I. Umm, God, ummm, I umm, was, like, wondering...

If you move in certain circles, you've heard the "just" prayer: "Lord, we just want to thank you and we just praise your name and we just know that you are with us, and we just come to you praying for you to just be with us, and...."

This form of prayer is (almost literally) mindless: The "just" is simply a placeholder when someone doesn't know what to say.

My analysis of this form of utterance is not original with me, and it's not rocket science, but I think the origin of the "just" prayer has three strands: 1) Some proto-pray-er used the word as an expression of pious earnestness, meaning, "simply," or "all we ask is...." This was picked up by others in the prayer circle and 2) it eventually came to be identified in the prayer lexicon as expressive of truly heartfelt communication with God, but finally, 3) it has become a mere place holder. It is a spiritual form of "umm..., errr...." It is dithering prayer.

I believe the antidote to a plethora of justs is the same technique my high school speech teacher taught us as a way to overcome stammering in a public address: Instead of "umm," just pause. A micro-pause. It works. It's a form of silence, which the Apostle Paul advises as a very basic and extremely intimate approach to prayer:

...We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. ~ Romans 8:26

I'm not necessarily suggesting that when one is subjected to a "just" prayer that one should say, "Be quiet!" But that, too, is an invitation to prayer.

II. How About an "A" For Effort?

It was the end-of-term exam: an essay test in English Literature. My friend, Jim, as usual, had read none of the assignments. (He did read the Classics Comic Book version of "The Forsyte Saga.") He sat in the exam room for an impressively long time, writing page after page until the Blue Book was completely filled. A few days later we entered the classroom apprehensively -- the test results were to be returned. Jim opened his essay book to the front page. There, at the top, the professor had written, "Jim, you write very well. F."

Monday, November 30, 2009


I love Garrison Keillor's quip: "The English major is the guy behind the counter who says, 'For whom is the cheeseburger?'." I get the joke, but I'm a grateful English major nonetheless. I started college as a drama major. (I learned how to glide -- not stride -- across the stage. Don't laugh; I'll show you sometime.) Then I switched to Biology (which, unfortunately, included chemistry), and landed at what had been my real love all along: English. English was my first love because of Miss Zamow.

There are four distinct encounters with books and reading that I remember fondly, even excitedly, as I re-trace a literary path that has carried and continues to carry me through the world. The first is the "Alice and Jerry" series in first grade. (Yes, I know, everybody else was reading "Dick and Jane." Any other Alice and Jerry readers out there?) Did I actually find the backyard and neighborhood adventures that they shared with their dog, Jip, to be interesting -- sometimes fascinating? Yes, I remember that I did. But the series really took off for me when their neighbor, Mr. Nightingale, was introduced. He traveled all around the globe, and (except for the fact that I did not yet know the word) seemed very "worldly-wise." I hope that I was an advanced child, but I think the phonics-heavy (and, yes, fun) three-to-five-word sentences of "Alice and Jerry" taught me how to read.

The next is my mother's bedside reading of Tom Sawyer. I think I was eight. What is there to say? What eight-year-old boy wouldn't love this adventure. At that age I surely must have been reading "chapter books," but perhaps I remember this as the first book I "couldn't put down." And it undoubtedly forms a memory because of the comforting presence and voice of mom, there at my bedside. I entered parenthood with the organic understanding that this is what a parent does, as surely and naturally as providing food and shelter: He reads to his child. Especially at bedtime. When I talk to parents about this, I always say, "Dads, don't let mom have all the fun." (More about reading with our kids in a later post.)

In ninth grade English class we read Moby Dick. Now, I just re-read Moby Dick and found it magically wonderful, but it caused me to wonder, "Did we really read the unabridged Moby Dick in ninth grade?" I don't know, but it worked. (Plus, I liked the teacher. She was kind of pretty and was known among us kids for never wearing the same outfit twice -- ever. I guess at some point someone started to keep track.)

Miss Zamow (zay-mo) wasn't pretty. (Sorry, Miss Zamow.) She was simply a great teacher. An English major should try to avoid these cliches, but she opened the world of literature to me. I can't cite the date, but I can see the second-floor corner classroom at Rapid City High School and I know the setting and circumstance: It was a circle of about twelve chairs, and in that circle we talked about the book we were reading, The Return of the Native.

That's it. Sitting in a circle and talking about a book (with Miss Zamow a part of the circle). That was something I'd never done before, and I've loved it ever since -- sitting in a circle and talking about books. Perhaps two other contributing elements: It was Advanced Placement English, so we had the class size and ratio (not to mention, interest) that every classroom at every level should have, and Miss Zamow loved the books she was introducing to us, and, although she was rather non-demonstrative, she loved being part of the conversation and she liked us.

(She had a wit that was so dry as to be non-existent, but it was there -- always delivered with a completely straight face. Once, I made a wisecrack and she said -- straight and unsmiling as ever, "I see we have a clown in our midst," and then continued on to the next point. Of course that made me love her all the more.)

I was exposed to a tremendously talented and lively faculty of English professors at the small midwestern liberal arts college I attended -- and many more circles. But I never experienced a more enjoyable or instructive class than AP English with Miss Zamow. Did I ever, once, go back to Rapid City High School and tell her? Of course not.

I would love to sit in one of those circles with you (perhaps now with a glass of wine) and hear stories of your "Miss Zamow." Alas, our virtual circle will have to do.

(P.S. Have you observed, as I have, that our best teachers often have some sort of eccentricity about them?)

Sunday, November 29, 2009


I recently saw a movie that ended -- as is the fashion these days -- with a voice-over of a pop song. It was a good enough song (Van Morrison), but I actually prefer the old-fashioned approach of using a song written especially for the movie. However, this is not a rant. The end-of-movie song reminded me of the time I was meeting in my office with a young couple, working on the plans for their wedding. We were going over the order of service and the bride said, "Here's where we want the Robin Hood song." What she meant was the then-popular "Everything I Do I'll Do It For You," by Bryan Adams. It had been voiced over the action of Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood" movie. But I'm a child of the fifties, and the "Robin Hood song" meant something different to me: the theme song of the old Robin Hood TV series, of course! I leaned across my desk and said (singing), "Do you mean,

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen;
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men;
Feared by the ri-i-i-ch! Loved by the p-o-o-o-r!
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin H-o-o-o-d."

There was the briefest silence in the office as she replied, somewhat shakily, eyes wide, "Uhhh, no...."

It was one of my finest pastoral moments in wedding planning.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Rest In Peace, I.

Osmo Vanska conducts the Minnesota Orchestra
I love a good requiem. Most choral requiem masses have been commissioned by the wealthy or powerful and are now presented primarily as concert pieces. But why should the flower of liturgical expression be reserved for the wealthy in a church whose Lord so loved the poor. What's more, according to the Roman Catholic encyclopedia, New Advent: "...Requiem Masses may be celebrated ... for one, or several, dead, in particular, or for all the dead in general." So when the day comes, I'd like a requiem celebrated for me. You can be included, too -- I'm not being exclusive here.

The great barrier to celebrating a choral requiem for every Tom, Dick, and Mary is the cost: an orchestra with conductor, a choir, a sizable sanctuary or hall. So here's my idea: A subscription requiem. Everyone who seeks to be remembered in such a service pays an annual subscription fee. In the year of one's demise, one's name is included in the listing of those for whom the mass is celebrated. The particular requiem (Mozart? Rutter? Verdi? Mahler? Durufle? Ellingboe?...) would be selected each year by the conductor. Names would be listed in a dignified manner in the concert program. As to liturgical celebrants, in the spirit of ecumenism it would be sufficient simply to offer a concert performance free of clerical involvement.

I have no clue as to the economics of this. If the subscription group would not be large enough to support this plan on the local level (i.e. The Minnesota Orchestra), perhaps it could be carried out on a national scope by one of our larger-city orchestras: "The Annual Subscription Requiem of the New York Philharmonic," for example. As to room in the hall for attendance by the loved ones of the departed? It'll work out somehow. (And there's always PBS.)

These funereal reflections remind me of a quote attributed to Mark Twain, supposedly delivered at the beginning of his public lectures: "George Washington's dead..., Abe Lincoln's dead..., and I ain't feelin' to good myself!" But, honestly, I'm feeling fine; which gives me time to write my letter of suggestion: "Dear Maestro Vanska...."

Rest in Peace, II.

While watching Princess Di's funeral televised in all its splendor from London's St. Paul's Cathedral all those years ago, an idea came to me: The Church of England should conduct and broadcast just such an extravagant service once a year for a homeless (perhaps nameless) person who has died without the care of family, friend, or church. I mean pull out all the stops! (In this case, quite literally.) This would be satisfying on at least two levels: 1) It would allow the world to see liturgical worship and music at its deepest and finest once a year, and 2) It would serve to counter the notion that the Anglican Church pays an overly servile obeisance to royal and societal hierarchy. It would be an act of Christian witness and outreach.

The historic Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour,
Faribault, Minnesota. "The First Cathedral"
I have many times taken up my digital pen to write the dean of St. Paul's to suggest this idea. What has stopped me? I'm a hypocrite: Why are we not doing this in our own church? Thus, I have recently suggested to our community ecumenical association that we should cooperate in conducting such a service -- at the Episcopal Cathedral, of course, because the Anglicans do it up right! (So now I feel liberated to write to
St. Paul's: "Dear Reverend Dean...")

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Caryl and I attended Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest at the Guthrie Theater a few weeks ago. Part of it's charm is that it isn't really about anything. It's a perfect amalgam of a comedy of manners and a comedy of errors.

Part of the "manners" of the action is the foppishness of it's male characters, and of course Wilde's dress and manners were a part of a persona that he carefully cultivated. A sidebar in the Guthrie playbill traced Wilde's sartorial style back to Beau Brummel (1778-1840) and forward to... us! The basic male pattern of shirt, coat, and tie has remained unchanged (except for a few obvious evolutionary alterations) for at least two hundred years. (This fashion-ancestry explains why even a very conservative business suit is often fitted out with a tie that would make a bird of paradise blush. Just a bit of the Beau.)

Although I grew up in a generation that has touted the freedom of going without coat and tie, I actually like the "put together" feeling that such an ensemble gives me. And it is a feeling more than an attempt at a look. Knotting on a tie (or putting on the "dog collar" of my calling) produces a feeling akin to wrapping a muffler around my neck on a cool day.

So we guys have not been very inventive regarding fashion for the last couple of centuries, but I'm not sure if the man of the future will fare any better. Why is it that the standard male costume in science fiction movies since at least the 1930s -- and continuing today -- is basically a Nehru jacket? From Buck Rogers to Dr Evil. (Granted, there is sometimes a variation: A Vee-neck reminiscent of a 1940's male college cheerleader.)

I'm still waiting for a really creative Hollywood manifestation of an alien. But even more -- for a costume that takes us beyond 1952!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


In a previous post I wrote about the NASA site, APOD (Astronomy Picture Of the Day), and its its wonderful Hubble photos. Here's another one. The commentary on the web site says, "What caused this outburst of V838 Mon? For reasons unknown, star V838 Mon's outer surface suddenly greatly expanded with the result that it became the brightest star in the entire Milky Way Galaxy in January 2002. Then, just as suddenly, it faded." (The APOD link, above, expands on this description.)

I have no profound commentary to add, except to say that this seems to be an image of the beauty of destruction. (Click on the picture to get the full image.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009


I'm thinking these days of Jesus the graybeard.

In Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, the temptation of the title is not to great wealth or power, but just to give it all up (being a savior) and grow old as a respected graybeard in the community, to enjoy the company of his wife and dandle his grandchildren on his knee. (I'll leave it to you to discover Kazantzakis' marvelous treatment of this temptation. I recommend the book rather than the movie.)

I'm thinking of this because, of late, I am living the life which tempted Kazantzakis' Christ: I have a gray beard, I dandle my grandchildren on my knee, and I greatly enjoy the company of my wife.

Of the many simple pleasures I am blessed with in this life, one of the best is listening to Caryl play the piano. When she sits down at her medium-grand Kawai, it is like a siren song. I put down what I am doing, take the piano-side chair, and am transported.

Sometimes I hear a piece elsewhere and I think, "I'd like to hear Caryl play that." And so over the years I've ordered sheet music: Copland's "Our Town," Lauridsen's "Dirait-on," Davies' "Farewell to Stromness." I present them to her hopefully and she plays them -- beautifully. I get tears in my eyes.

A light, subtle thought has slipped in lately during my listening sessions: "This will not always be." Maybe it has to do with that gray beard -- passing the sixty mark. This will not always be. It only makes these times better than they ever were.

"This will not always be" could be the title of Linda Pastan's poem, which is actually titled "50 Years:"

Though we know
how it will end:
in grief and silence,
we go about our ordinary days
as if the acts of boiling an egg
or smoothing down a bed
were so small
they must be overlooked
by death. And perhaps

the few years left, sun drenched
but without grand purpose,
will somehow endure,
the way a portrait of lovers endures
radiant and true on the wall
of some obscure Dutch museum,
long after the names
of the artist and models
have disappeared.

I applaud Pastan for facing it, but I still want to deny it. I prefer the doughty spirit of Phylis McGinley's "Midcentury Love Letter:"

Stay near me. Speak my name. Oh, do not wander
By a thought's span, heart's impulse, from the light
We kindle here. You are my sole defender
(As I am yours) in this precipitous night,
Which over earth, till common landmarks alter,
Is falling, without stars, and bitter cold.
We two have but our burning selves for shelter.
Huddle against me. Give me your hand to hold.

So might two climbers lost in mountain weather
On a high slope and taken by the storm,
Desperate in the darkness, cling together
Under one cloak and breathe each other warm.
Stay near me. Spirit, perishable as bone,
In no such winter can survive alone.
All that poem needs is a piano. I'm going to go find Caryl and request "Farewell to Stromness." Jesus should be so lucky.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


"The List," Roseanne Cash's CD of that title, is a recording of a number of songs that her father, the late Johnny Cash, considered to be essential from his experience and point of view -- a collection that has understandably become very dear to her. I am certainly not the only one who will derive an idea from this: Hey! I should make a list. Just for fun, I'm working on a list of songs, but in the meantime I have another list.

A few years ago a friend said, "Dick, you're a classical music guy. Why don't you give me a list of pieces you think I'd like." Instead, I thought I'd give her a CD per month of some of my favorites. I never gave her the list or the CDs (potential friends, this might give you pause), but it's been churning in the back of my mind ever since. So, with this journal entry, I endeavor to answer that request: Twenty classical music works that I suggest (from my extremely limited bank of knowledge) to those who, like my friend, would like to get acquainted with the genre.

(I make this list with gratitude to my college roommate and [still] friend, Peter, who came to school with an LP of Bach's "Wachet Auf." It's the first classical music I'd ever heard -- except for my parent's single "Montovani" record. I listened to Bach's cantata over and over, and was hooked. Thanks, Peter.)

I decided to create this list off the top of my head, which means that next week it would be different, as it would if I took the time to rifle through my records and CDs. Although this is pretty much stream-of-consciousness, I vaguely attempted to represent a variety of periods and backgrounds. I ended up with composers of eight or nine nationalities across four centuries.

(By the way, there is nothing scholarly or objectively representative about my selections. These are all pieces that send me.)
Many of these will seem obvious or "popular" to some. But that, in a way, is just the point. It's a list for those who want to see what the attraction to classical music is all about, and these have stood the test of time (well, most of them).

Many will have more rarified tastes; but whether rarified or common, a collection like this naturally invites you to submit your own contributions, dear reader. Here's my list, in chronological order:

  • Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
  • Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
  • Bach: Cantata “Wachet Auf” (Sleepers, Wake)
  • Handel: Concerti Grossi
  • Mozart: Requiem
  • Beethoven: Symphony #6 “Pastoral”
  • Liszt: Un Sospiro
  • Verdi: Requiem
  • Bruch: Violin Concerto #1
  • Elgar: Enigma Variations
  • Mahler: Symphony #2 “Resurrection”
  • Sibelius: Symphony #5
  • Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #2
  • Howard Hanson: Symphony #2 “Romantic”
  • Aaron Copland: Symphony #3 (includes the original setting of “Fanfare for the Common Man”)
  • Barber: Violin Concerto
  • Bernstein: West Side Story (Either the suite or the cast album conducted by Bernstein)
  • John Rutter: Requiem
  • Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium (on the CD, “Lux Aeterna”)
  • John Adams: Harmonielehre

Thursday, November 19, 2009


In a couple of recent friendly exchanges I've been challenged with the question (actually, the conversations led me to ask myself), "Why the blogging?"

I was explaining to my daughter that blogging ties into two great interests of mine: the essay and the conversation. "And," she said, "maybe a little vanity, Dad." Well, maybe... a little. (It could have been worse; she could have said "megalomania." It has occurred to me that someone who thinks he can deliver a sermon about life and faith and the way of the world to hundreds of people every week has to be touched with just a little bit of megalomania.)

I'm as vain as the next guy, but, actually, I plead innocent. I understand the blog to be a modern version of something that's been around since the dawn of the written word: the journal. I've always been one of those frustrated journal-keepers, and somehow the blog seems to work for me. Now I grant that not all journal-writers do so with the intention that others will read their thoughts. But I think many do -- not so much out of vanity, but because of the impulse to carry on a conversation -- or to impart something to the next generation. Most of us would love to have, for example, a grandfather's journal -- whether to read his thoughts on politics and the world around him, or just which crop he planted that week.

A journal is involved in a sort of implied conversation; a blog invites a real-time exchange of opinions and ideas. I am grateful, dear reader, for yours.

(By the way, I think "blog" is a clever but ugly word. I much prefer "journal." But I don't think "bjournal" is going to catch on.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


R. S. Thomas, who died in 2000 at the age of 87, was for forty years a priest of the Church of Wales (Anglican), serving a number of back-country parishes. He is widely considered to be the greatest religious poet of the twentieth century, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. By all accounts he was a caring pastor, but one of the chief themes of his early poetry was a clear-eyed, unsentimental look at his rural parishioners:

Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales,
With your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your
sweaty females,
How I have hated you for your irreverence, your scorn even
of the refinements of art and the mysteries of the Church,...

But he is also one of them, and comes to have a gruff respect for their perspective on life:

...why should you come like sparrows for prayer crumbs,
Whose hands can dabble in the world's blood?

Even though he writes in exasperation of their ignorance and their uncouth ways, he credits them as the very source of his poetic vocation:

I have taxed your ignorance of rhyme and sonnet,
Your want of deference to the painter's skill,
But I know, as I listen, that your speech has in it
The source of all poetry, clear as a rill
Bubbling from your lips; and what brushwork could equal
The artistry of your dwelling on the bare hill.

The artless speech of these farmers forms what Norman Maclean calls the "words that are under the rocks." Of this natural poetry of everyday speech, Robert Pinsky writes, "It's as though we're singing to each other all day long."

Near the end of his life, Thomas brings this view of poetry to a kind of ultimate conclusion: the language that is the song of human speech -- the language that Thomas had early recognized as the bridge between the "refinements" of the priest and the roughness of the people -- is the language (poetry) that bridges "the limits of our articulation" and communicates the divine:

...You have given us the ability
to ask the unanswerable question,
to have glimpses of you
as you were, only to stand dumb
at the limits of our articulation.
Is it our music interprets you
best, a heart-beat at the very centre
of your creation? Is it art,
depicting man's figure as the conductor
to your lightning? Had I
the right words, it is the poem
that would announce you to
an amazed audience; no longer
a linguistic wrestling but a signal
projected at you and returning quick
with the unpredictabilities at your centre.

Robert Pinsky, "The Sounds of Poetry"
R.S. Thomas, A Priest To His People, "Collected Poems"
R.S. Thomas, Neither, "No Truce With The Furies"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Note: In memory of E. Jeff Rohr (1923-2010) I am adapting and re-posting this earlier entry, which I wrote with him in mind.

I have come that you might have life -- life in abundance. ~Jesus, in John 10:10

The hope for eternal life is -- at one basic level -- just an expression of selfishness: "Thank you God, that you are going to make sure that I, personally, will live forever." This may seem to some like blasphemy and to others like an understatement. At another level, of course, eternal life is a promise that comes out of the heart of God -- a promise of love. A God who is love seeks and in fact dies for an eternal relationship with the beloved. As Jurgen Moltmann has said, "God loves us so much that he cannot conceive of himself without us." Like a parent's love for a child. (Life was good before our daughters came along -- now I cannot conceive of my life without them.) So perhaps these two approaches are not mutually exclusive: As a child's self-centered self-comprehension does not negate a parent's love, so our grasping for something beyond this life does not exclude the possibility that this is God's very intention.

In fact, this is the point made in Jesus' chief description of God: the parable of the prodigal son. (A story that is better titled, "The Waiting Father," according to Helmut Thielicke.) The rebellious younger son demands his inheritance, spends it all in wild living and pleasure, then heads for home (and -- here's the thing!) not because he's repentant but because he's hungry! And what is the father's response? To hell with you? No, he runs out to meet his son (probably kind of an alarming approach when the kid looks up and sees him coming toward him), interrupts his son's carefully-rehearsed I'm sorry speech with a big hug -- and he throws a party. As one interpreter has put it, the father says, "This party is for me - I'm so happy!" And so it could be that what we call eternal life is something we're caught up in because the love of God is so broad and encompassing that we can't avoid it. Like that father's hug. Like infinity.

I actually didn't set out to write a sermon here. I was thinking of eternal life because I was thinking of my friend and mentor, Big Jeff, the Reverend E. Jeff Rohr (whom we laid to rest in beautiful Riverside, California this week), who said, "I trust God to his promises of the life to come, but living the Christian life is reward enough."

I agree. I submit that the Christian life -- a life of complete liberty lived as a response to God's free gift of grace -- holds up well when considered as a part of any philosophical conversation of what makes for "the good life." (It is we Christians ourselves who have stunted it and turned it into a set of religious rules primarily for the use of judging others.) But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "Jesus didn't come to make us religious; he came to give us life." Here's to you, Big Jeff. Thanks.

The Christian is the freest lord of all, subject to no one; the Christian is the greatest servant of all, subject to everyone. ~Martin Luther

Title citation: Paul, in 1 Timothy 6:19

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Marc Kaufman, writing in the Washington Post, explores whether and how deeply the discovery of "intelligent, moral" extraterrestrial life would threaten our earthly faith. The article concentrates primarily on the response of the Vatican, whose spokesman, at least, seems fairly unworried about the prospect (even though Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for embracing just such a possibility), but Kaufman suggests that the conservative, literalist wing of the evangelical church might be the most threatened.

Although it might be a bit unsettling to hear E.T. say "Jesus? Jesus who? Never hoid of 'im," there is a lot of room in Christian and Biblical theology for the acceptance of "sheep who are not of this fold," and of a variety of manifestations of the logos. (i.e. John Cobb, Christ in a Pluralistic Age, to name one sample reference). And of course the Great Commission, and the history of Christian missions (replete with abuses -- to be avoided when spanning the cosmos?) teach us that if Grok doesn't know Christ there's nothing stopping us from telling him the story.

I have neither the space nor the inclination -- at this point -- to explore these fine points. The real reason I introduced this topic is because Kaufman's article reminded me of this simple, open-hearted, haunting poem by Alice Meynell. Christ In The Universe:

With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us. These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.

But not a star of all
The innumerable host of stars has heard
How he administered this terrestrial ball.
Our race have kept their Lord's entrusted Word.

Of his earth-visiting feet
None knows the secret, cherished, perilous,
The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet,
Heart-shattering secret of His way with us.

No planet knows that this
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.

Nor, in our little day,
May his devices with the heavens be guessed,
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way,
Or His bestowals there be manifest.

But, in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.

O be prepared my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The million forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.

~ Alice Meynell, 1847-1922