Friday, December 31, 2010


A friend in another part of the country recently told me that he and his wife had been unexpectedly pleased by their pastor’s Christmas sermon. It was unexpected because they had been concerned of late that his preaching was consistently a mixture of thin soup and “avuncular rambles.” They found themselves pleased, that is, even though they were pretty sure the sermon had been downloaded from the internet. “But he delivered it well.”

My friends’ consideration as to whether they should go and talk to the pastor about the issue of his preaching is, perhaps, food for another blog post. For my purposes, their report brings to mind a growing, uneasy intuition I have that more and more sermons are being downloaded by more and more preachers.

This is discouraging and disturbing at many levels. The first, of course, is dishonesty. Unless the preacher is informing his listeners of the source of his sermon (yes, some may be), he is not only plagiarizing, but erecting a kind of wall of deception between himself and those with whom he has an ongoing pastoral relationship. The deception goes beyond the legalities of plagiarism; a sermon, unlike a speech or lecture, is a unique concoction of the word spoken into and out of the context of the community that is the church. The lives and experiences of parishioners and the community (including the wider community of the world)* is every bit as much a part of the process that results in a sermon as is whatever goes on in the preacher’s study. The downloaded sermon renders this inter-relationship irrelevant.

A few years ago I discovered a collection of sermons by the great twentieth century Scottish preacher, James S. Stewart. I was so charged up by reading these sermons that I decided to deliver one or two of them to my congregation (with full disclosure). In my opinion, the endeavor fell flat. Stewart did not write these sermons for these people or for this time. They had some inspirational appeal, but they didn’t work as sermons preached by this preacher. (This also raises the obvious question of delivery: Should a preacher simply be “reading” a sermon to his congregation?)**

Another possible deception practiced by the internet sermon downloader is the theft of time. Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there’s plenty to do in parish ministry, and time not spent reading, studying, writing, and preparing for a sermon can readily be sopped up by other areas of ministry. (Perhaps the preacher is spending all that time, like Doonesbury’s Rev. Scot Sloan, as “the fighting young priest who can talk to the youth.”) But even if a pastor was spending 60 hours a week in youth ministry, hospital visitation, committee work, administration, education, and counseling, that would only beg the question: “What about preaching?” and how is the preacher’s time being used if not in study and sermon-writing?

While some of my colleagues may disagree with me, I confess that I give “preaching” top priority in any list of ministerial duties, for the reason that it is at the center of most preachers’ “letter of call” (job description), and because the weekly worship is the only time in the life of the parish when the whole congregation is (at least potentially) gathered together.

Preaching calls for time and care. My homiletics professors urged twenty hours a week in sermon preparation. Rather than dismissing that as “impossible,” I rather see it as a goal and experience a sense of frustration when I realize how often I fall short (precisely because of the other things on the list) of that reasonable standard. Sermon preparation in the life of a parish pastor is exhibit A in support of the maxim: “That which is urgent but not important crowds out that which is important but not urgent.”

In my first parish, I once strolled past the open-door office of my senior colleague, Charlie Mays (of blessed memory). Charlie – recognized widely throughout the church as a great preacher – was sitting at his desk hunched over a book. I walked past a few hours later, and he was in almost the exact same position – still reading. It struck me as a revelation: “He’s not afraid to let people see him wasting time reading a book!” It’s one of the many ways Charlie served as a model for me.

I’ve written elsewhere about how the freedom of the study granted by the Anglican system of “the living” or the “freehold” has given the world the great poetry of the Revs. John Donne and R.S. Thomas. (Or perhaps I should say that their congregations have given these gifts to the world by granting their preachers the time.) But as Bill Bryson, in his new book, At Home, and Jane Austen remind us, this Anglican system has historically also been rife with preachers reading out sermons from published collections while spending their time at the garden party up at the manor. How they would have loved the internet!

If you have any involvement with the church, dear reader, how much time, really, do you expect your pastor to spend in sermon preparation?

*I agree with theologian Karl Barth, who said, “The preacher should prepare the sermon with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other.”
**A true story: A committee of the congregation approached their bishop with concern about their pastor’s preaching. “I think he’s just reading them to us, out of books, and he doesn’t even read that well,” said the committee chair. The bishop agreed to check it out. One Sunday morning he slipped unnoticed into a back pew. As the sermon progressed, he recognized it as one of his own – it had been published in a collection. At the conclusion of the service, the committee chair approached the bishop. “Do you see what we mean, Bishop? And this one was really bad!”

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


     It is as though we are singing to each other all day long.
        ~ The poet Robert Pinsky, describing the musicality of everyday speech.

The topic of our annual synodical pastors conference (yawwwn… c’mon, stay with me) a few years ago was The New Technology for Preaching. (It had a snappier title, but that was the gist.) The keynote presentation was on how to bring verve to our preaching – and reach out to a tech-savvy generation – by the use of media such as PowerPoint and video clips.

To demonstrate, our presenter showed a clip from the movie, “Contact.” The scene is Jodi Foster, as an earnest young scientist, delivering a heartfelt address to a government panel. It did have a certain spiritual appeal (if that’s what a friend sitting next to me meant when he sighed, “God, she’s beautiful!”), but midway through the demonstration it occurred to me: We’re being encouraged to use video by being shown a video of someone giving a really good speech! I came away from the presentation confirmed in my preference for a straightforward capable speaker over more creative styles of communication.

I’m attracted to the use of PowerPoint in teaching – a kind of updated blackboard – but my experience witnessing its use in preaching has been either seeing it as a background distraction, or hearing the preacher reading to me, badly, what I can read for myself on the screen. (I’m not talking about you, my good friends, who use it with creativity and dexterity to supplement your well-thought-out presentation.) Anyway, give me a talking head – with something to say.

I certainly like a good drama, but I am drawn more and more to television programs which feature something like straight human speech. My favorites are C-Span’s “In-Depth,” and “After Words,” one- or two-hour interviews with an author or historian which probe the writer’s interests, ideas, latest works, and approach to writing. As conducted by Brian Lamb or one of his capable colleagues, these have the feel of a fireside chat. (Here’s a recent “In Depth” with Salman Rushdie.)

Boring? Talking heads can also be compellingly dramatic, as in HBO’s remarkable “In Treatment,” in which the passionately laconic Gabriel Byrne, as a therapist, brings me to the edge of my seat even though it’s only – in this case – two talking heads.

The junior psychologist in me posits that an essential part of our humanness (and our humanity and our humane-ness) is the need for the interaction of communication – for conversation. I respond to you, literally get to know you, by taking your words into my brain receptors, roll them around, and “get back to you.” (Thus also discovering more of who I am and what makes us both human.) Perhaps this is the appeal of a good speech, or a thoughtful interview. An idea-driven speech, lecture (or, yes, sermon), although it is a monologue, is actually a kind of dialogue – at least with the mind of the listener. And an interview or a dialogue has a sense of fulfillment to it similar to the resolution that drives a musical line to completion.

I read of a study that was conducted on why the overheard cell-phone conversation is so irritating. The researcher referred to a scenario in an airport waiting lounge, where passengers are sitting in those back-to-back lines of chairs, and the emotional difference between overhearing a conversation between two people sitting behind you, or overhearing a one-sided cell phone conversation. The study concluded that the cause of the irritation is the one-sidedness – you don’t get to hear (or be a part of) the other side, thus, you don’t experience the sense of completion. You’re left hanging. (You only think you’re irritated because the jerk is talking so loud!) In the experience of hearing a good lecture, you are the other side.

One of the reasons that radio keeps plugging along, a seeming techno-dinosaur in an age of ever-new modes of communication, is that someone is talking to you. The bad ones -- the ranters and canned dj presentations -- are almost as irritating as that one-sided cell conversation. But the good ones are connecting. I like Pandora, and I have set up many classical “stations,” but I much prefer to hear my music introduced to me by the wonderful live announcers of Minnesota Public Radio. They are speaking to me man-to-man (so to speak). Somewhere across the ether is a talking head with something to say.


Here's the Jody Foster Contact clip that we were shown.

And for some real fun, how about a good academic lecture series!

Friday, December 24, 2010


For a number of years, my friend Warren Hanson and I have collaborated on an annual Christmas song. I write the lyrics and he composes the music. (My part of this year's song is half finished.) This is the song written in 2001, just a few months after 9/11. I offer it as a blog Christmas card. Alas, it is without Warren's beautiful melody.

(The first two verses are a dialog between Joseph and Mary; the third verse between a shepherd boy and his father; the fourth -- as in many carols -- is a kind of prayer. )

Mary, the night is dark, you’re getting weary;
I thought we’d find Bethlehem long before now.
I know a little inn – the keeper’s a friend of mine –
he’ll find a bed for you somewhere, somehow.
Mary, of course I will stay with you always,
though your “angel’s message” I don’t understand.
Now, while we’re looking for light in the darkness,
I’ll hold the candle and you hold my hand.

Joseph, the message is our little baby,
and you are the angel that guides us tonight,
over this rocky road, under this starry sky –
look at that one that is shining so bright!
Joseph, what keeps you so true to your promise,
when this isn’t anything like you had planned?
Could it be love? Do you feel love around us?
You hold the candle and I’ll hold your hand.

Father, I’m frightened; the whole sky was glowing!
The nighttime was brighter than sunshine at noon.
The sound of a thousand wings – something was happening!
Now it’s so dark – just that star and the moon.
Father, you fell to your knees in that brightness.
Yes, till the angel’s song told me to stand!
Now let us go find that Bethlehem stable;
I’ll hold the candle and you hold my hand.

Dear baby Jesus, we follow the shepherds –
follow a star to the place where you sleep.
Mary and Joseph rest; you sleep in gentleness –
a little light shining in shadows so deep.
Jesus, you’ve been the light from the beginning –
And, on that day when night covered the land,
You are the word that we heard in the darkness:
“I’ll hold the candle and you hold my hand.”


Last year's Christmas song post is here.

Warren has made a CD, "Christmas Always," of his arrangements of a number of our songs, as well as some of his own. You can order it from Warren's site, here.

(c) Richard Jorgensen

Thursday, December 23, 2010


I have, of late, had a recurring vision. It is of an old man in a remote cottage, at his desk with a ham radio, sending messages into the night to his fellow radio operators. Except, I think, it is not a ham radio, but a computer, and he’s writing on Facebook.

The meaning of this vision for me is that, in spite of the important controversies plaguing Facebook,* it really is a superb (and still-developing) means by which people can communicate with one another. This may strike the reader as an understatement, but the epiphanic part of my vision is that, beyond posted photos of youthful drunkenness and minute-by-minute reports of children’s cuteness and what one had for lunch, Facebook – and whatever it evolves into – will certainly become a meaningful connection with the world - and, more to the point, with friends old and new - for the elderly and isolated.

Although people in both generations have wondered if “the parents” should get involved with Facebook (thus somehow invading the turf of the young and diminishing the cool factor), it is fast becoming as commonplace as the telephone. The use of the telephone, too, is part of my new Facebook revelation. Until recently, I supposed that the phone would be preferable to all other distant-communication technologies because, after all, you can speak directly to another human being. I’ve come to believe, however, that Facebook (and e-mail, too) offer more depth of communication – on an ongoing basis – than the telephone. Of course there are exceptions – a forty-five minute phone conversation between two people in love is undoubtedly more intimate than a series of e-mails, and it will always be good to hear the voice of an old friend. But a phone call, even with a good friend, will always come to that “er... uh... well, den….” moment (not to mention the delay and over-talking that happens with long-distance and cell calls – what’s that all about?); a similar juncture in an e-mail or Facebook message is an opportunity for more thought, or to go on to the next point. In that regard, an e-mail or Facebook message is more like an old-fashioned letter (and I mean old-fashioned – from the days when the letter was it), than it is like a telephone call. (Although it does seem odd to crow about a progression that goes from the spoken back to the written word.**)

I want to emphasize that I am speaking of e-mail or Facebook messages that go beyond the trivial; what I have in mind are little essays of communication, again, like letters. (When I get an e-mail from a friend, I’m disappointed if it’s brief. Am I running against the tide?) This is not to say that there is not an appropriate place for the quickly-dashed Facebook report, even from the old guy in the little cottage. (I just posted, “Hey, we get to fill our krumkake tubes with whipped cream on Christmas Eve!”) I guess my point is that the combination of off-hand quips and weightier conversation that the Facebook/e-mail medium makes possible offers a sense of connectedness that, while no match for sitting across a pub table with someone, has something of the immediate feel of real communication. It has the sense of keeping you connected.

OK, I’ll say it, maybe I’m thinking of either Caryl or myself alone -- widowed. It seems that Facebook and e-mail would go a long way toward enhancing the quality of life of the elderly – especially the isolated elderly. So I'm not talking about an amazed, “Hey, Granny’s on Facebook!” but, rather, “Geez, Granny’s on Facebook all the time – she uses it more than I do!"

Studies show that the home-bound elderly receive, on average, one visit per month – from anybody. Facebook and e-mail can reach into that void with real depth of communication, and, all right, maybe even a report every-once-in-a-while – between old friends – of what one had for lunch, or a posted picture of a cute grandkid.


*Issues of privacy and “tricky” advertising are very important and need to be addressed with more urgency than they have been so far; thus, my endorsement of Facebook is not without hesitation.
**Tim Wu, in his new book, “The Master Switch,” reports that when the telephone was invented, the telegraph magnates laughed and said, “Well, maybe it can be used to tell someone that they have a telegram waiting.” Later, they tried to kill the new technology.
What happens when all those aging computer users start to forget all those passwords and user names, stranding all that information on their hard-drives or in the ether? Another issue for another time.
 I also opined on Facebook in this earlier blog post.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Christmas reflections that press against the normal cheer of the season, from two poets who left us in the last decade.

First, from the bleak, sere, but ultimately faith-haunted R. S. Thomas:


And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The Sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

And, from the wonderful Madeleine L'Engle:


The children say the tree must reach the ceiling,
And so it does, angel on topmost branch, 
Candy canes and golden globes and silver chains,
Trumpets that toot, and birds with feathered tails.
Each year we say, each year we fully mean:
"This is the loveliest tree of all." This tree
Bedecked with love and tinsel reaches heaven.
A pagan throwback may have brought it here
Into our room, and yet these decked-out boughs
Can represent those other trees, the one 
Through which we fell in pride, when Eve forgot
That freedom is man's freedom to obey
And to adore, not to replace the light
With disobedient darkness and self-will.
On Twelfth Night when we strip the tree
And see its branches bare and winter cold
Outside the comfortable room, the tree
Is then the tree on which all darkness hanged,
Completing the betrayal that began
With that first stolen fruit. And then, O God,
This is the tree that Simon bore uphill,
This is the tree that held all love and life.
Forgive us, Lord, forgive us for that tree.
But now, still decked, adorned, in joy arrayed
For these great days of Christmas thanks and song,
This is the tree that lights our faltering way,
For when man's first and proud rebellious act
Had reached its nadir on that hill of skulls
These shining, glimmering boughs remind us that
The knowledge that we stole was freely given
And we were sent the Spirit's radiant strength
That we might know all things. We grasp for truth
And lose it till it comes to us by love.
The glory of Lebanon shines on this Christmas tree,
The tree of life that opens wide the gates.
The children say the tree must reach the ceiling,
And so it does: for me the tree has grown so high
It pierces through the vast and star-filled sky.

"The Coming," by R.S. Thomas, from "Collected Poems 1945-1990" Phoenix Press. (More on R.S. Thomas here  , here , and here.)

"The Tree," by Madeleine L'Engle, from "A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation"
Luci Shaw, editor

Monday, November 15, 2010


A recent study of the effects of television suggests that two hours a day ought to be the limit for children – beyond that it may be detrimental in terms of both physiology and learning/development (even if the child gets a good amount of outdoor time).* This strikes me as being a common sense conclusion. That is, in a game of trivia, most players would likely guess that something around two hours is about right for kids and TV.

Another recent report also makes sense, although it is perhaps not quite as intuitive. That is the finding that happy people watch less TV than unhappy people. I had a real-life experience of this fact a few months ago. Caryl was away for a week, during which time I drifted into watching more television than usual, and I could feel the torpor invading my body and mind. After a while I thought, “This ain’t no fun.” Even with engaging content -- a movie I’d been meaning to watch, or a two hour in-depth interview with a Civil War scholar on C-Span -- the physical and mental process of simply sitting and watching was draining, including emotionally draining. I said to myself, “I’ve got to get outside!” (The very thing the research encourages.)

In fact, this study reveals a number of things that are linked to happiness in a way that TV viewing isn’t: socializing, reading newspapers, going to church! But like a similar study showing that those who engage in deep conversations are happier than those on a steady diet of small talk, the research is inconclusive on the chicken-or-egg question, “Do happy people watch less TV, or does watching TV make one less happy?”

The junior neuroscientist in me posits that perhaps in the act of television viewing the brain is disengaged – being fed the impulses externally; and that in activities like reading, exercise, and conversation the brain is engaged, at work, responding and initiating – buzzing with activity.

Steven Johnson (a writer I admire), in his provocatively titled, “Everything Bad is Good for You,” seems to contradict my little theory. He compares the 1950s “Dragnet” with “The Sopranos”  in making the case that more inventive and complicated story lines are providing a creative challenge for the viewer, and that television, like the internet, is becoming more interactive. If true, his thesis would seem to support the idea that a reasonable amount of television may be a legitimate component of a healthy-life mix -- an idea I have no argument with (and the TV-Happiness study allows that happy people do watch some TV) --  but that still leaves the question of the difference between the brain-work in reading (or conversation) and the the brain-work in viewing.

So this may simply call for the application of the Golden Mean. The comparison to alcohol, for example, seems apt: A moderate amount may be stimulating and enlivening, an excessive amount drugs and deadens.

One often hears, these days, that television is “the new Hollywood,” and I find some evidence for that. This thesis, too, seems to argue in favor of moderation: Perhaps the role that television plays in a complete and vital life should be more like going to the theater and less like, well… watching television.

A full-disclosure admission may cause the reader to question my credentials for declaiming about TV: Although I am a frequent viewer of programs like Sunday night’s Masterpiece Theater and C-Span’s weekend “Book TV,” and I have lately discovered some compelling shows on HBO (the new Hollwood?), it recently dawned on me that for the last thirty-five years I have essentially seen no prime-time TV. Dear reader, what have I missed? (This is not an exercise in TV snobbery; I admit to watching far too much late-night junk over the years.)

A number of years ago, when our daughters were in junior and senior high school, our family experimented with eliminating television for the six weeks of Lent. I admit this was not their idea, but they went along with it. (My argument was that giving up TV was a more authentic Lenten sacrifice than giving up chewing gum.) We put the set in the closet and lived for the six weeks with no evidence of the bug-eyed monster. I’d like to say that our experiment resulted in family Scrabble games in front of the fire and Great Conversations about the books we were reading. That didn’t exactly happen; but what did happen was that after about twenty minutes – and for the whole six weeks – we didn’t really miss it. We did this, in Lent, for two or three years. It worked so well that I wondered then and I wonder now, “Why don’t we just give it up?”

But we didn’t, and it’s back on.

Two hours for kids, the study says. How much for me? 

*The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatricians recommend essentially no television for infants and children under two. Here is a summary paragraph from a CDC report: “Excessive exposure of infants to television and videos is associated with impaired cognitive, language, and emotional development and with irregular sleep schedules. Despite the accumulating evidence of the deleterious consequences of excessive television viewing in young children, parents have cited educational value, child enjoyment, and the need to get things done as reasons for having their child watch television or videos. Because excessive viewing time in early childhood is associated with excessive viewing time and higher body mass index in middle childhood, limiting viewing time in children under 2 years might have a role in preventing childhood obesity. Also, reducing viewing time in early childhood might help decrease the large amount of media use among school-aged children, which now averages 4.5 hours of television content and approximately 7.5 hours of total media use daily, and the attendant health risks."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


In 1958, when I was eleven, I heard “Tom Dooley” on the radio, asked my mom for a dollar, walked downtown to the music store in Huron, South Dakota, and bought the 45 single. I then proceeded to grow up with what has been called the “folk boom,” and have been a fan (and even a folk singer!) ever since. Like what passes for country music today, folk was the pop music of the sixties, but it has given rise to the honorable vocation of the singer-songwriter, most of whom cannot be demeaned with the label “pop.” They’re just laboring out there on the circuit, not getting very “pop”ular, but creatively observing and chronicling the lives of real folks in their music. 

Among the very, very best of these is Richard Shindell – almost in a class of his own, really. Shindell, as someone has written, “gets out of the way” of the stories that his songs tell. And “story” is something of an understatement. His songs are little novels, with movement, character, and plot. The songs remind me, in their inventiveness, of the novels of Annie Proulx: the people and the stories are so off-beat that they could only be made up, yet they are so real that when you are finished you wonder if you could visit these places and talk to these people. You know them.

In Nora, the story-teller has had an affair with the woman of the title; she is moving away with her husband who has “accepted a parish in Greenland.” (There’s the unexpected Annie Proulx twist; it’s so odd that maybe it’s true – could the song be autobiographical? When you listen to it you think, “This must have actually happened.” But it’s fiction.) In his farewell to his lover, he sings:

     Your husband has accepted a parish in Greenland;
     I met him drowning his vows at the bar,
     And there we raised
     The first and the next
     And a third glass to you,
     Hunched on our bar-stools,
     Calling our truce
     By your name...

The wry and darkly comic Are You Happy Now describes the manic loneliness of a man whose wife has walked out on him – on Halloween:

     I smashed your pumpkin on the floor,
     The candle flickered at my feet,
     The children peered into the room,
     A cowboy shivered on the porch,
     As Cinderella checked her watch.
     A hobo waited in the street,
     An angel whispered, trick-or-treat,

     But what was I supposed to do
     But to sit there in the dark?
     I was amazed to think that you
     Could take the candy with you too!

In the tender Reunion Hill, a Civil War wife who hasn’t heard from her husband since the day she watched from the top of the hill as he “walked across the valley and disappeared into the trees,” provides comfort to a bedraggled platoon of retreating soldiers crossing her field:

     I cleaned the brow of many a soldier
     Dowsing for my husbands face

Ten years later, she still visits the top of Reunion Hill, no sign or word from her husband, but a vision of some small hope:

     A single hawk in God’s great sky
     Looking down with God’s own eyes
     He soars above Reunion Hill
     I pray he spiral higher still
     As if from such an altitude
     He might just keep my love in view.

The Courier in the song of that name is a sort of everyman observer of everywar. He delivers to the front line the orders from the prince and the "marshals" at the rear, and then prepares to take the last messages of soon-to-be-dying men back to their families, and to the world. It's a reminder that war is always old men sending the young to die:

     The Captain breaks the seal
     And quickly reads the note.
     On your feet boys,
     Make your peace boys,
     Pass those letters down
     To this courier,
     Guardian of the word...

In Transit, a nun changes the tire of her choir's van at the side of the road, while crazed Friday afternoon commuters whiz mindlessly past -- so mindlessly that, blinded by the setting sun, they all miss their exit (as the freeway comes to an end) and plunge into the water below:

     In they all went, like sheep to the slaughter,
     Bankers and carpenters, doctors and lawyers;
     in they all went, families in minivans,
     Ashcroft republicans, weekend militiamen...

as Sister Maria tightens the last bolt and her choir proceeds to their concert at the state penitentiary. A modern parable of heaven and hell.

My current favorite, from Shindell’s recently released Not Far Now, is Balloon Man, a touching, arresting painting in words. I say “arresting” because the song makes me stop and, well, look. I look down, from the balcony. What turns it into a love song is the refrain (attached at the end here); the observer is simply sending his lover a picture post card. Here it is. (You may, like me, find yourself thinking about whom you would cast to play the balloon man.)

     I'm standing outside on the balcony,
     balloon man is passing below
     making his way to the park by the church;
     he goes where the little ones go.

     Balloon man's a little bit ragged;
     his glasses are slightly askew,
     one lens is cracked and his shoes never match;
     he might have a screw loose or two.

     His rig is a marvel of equipoise
     Leonardo might've designed:
     Bamboo for the wide horizontal,
     pine for the vertical rise.

     He's wearing a flag-bearer’s harness,
     he's holding the whole thing aloft,
     balloons all arrayed, he's a one man parade,
     if he ran he'd surely take off!

     It's cold up here on the balcony,
     and it's time that I went back inside.
     Balloon man waits for the light at the corner,
     I'll watch til he goes out of sight --

     but there's a wind that whips round the corner
     and he's having a hell of a time –
     he staggers, and it looks like he might just go over,
     but balloon man he puts up a fight.

     And you're so far away,
     on the other side of the world.
     I  just thought you should know
     that balloon man lives in it too.

Tom Dooley was the Kingston Trio's rendition of a true story. Shindell's little novels are all made up in his fertile brain. But, boy, are they real. (By the way, I’ve cast Kevin Spacey as the balloon man.)

Here’s a video of Shindell singing Reunion Hill
Here’s Richard Shindell’s web site, which includes his bio and tour schedule.
If you want one CD to introduce you to Richard Shindell, I recommend Courier.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


In the last few days I have had conversations along the following lines:

  • A multiple e-mail exchange with a man who disagreed strongly with a point I had made in a sermon, contending that I had inappropriately crossed a line from religion to politics.*
  • A phone call from a young woman who thanked me for addressing “these difficult issues.” (She was referring, in part, to the same sermon.)
  • A question from a parishioner wondering if our church was going to tell people how to vote (in favor of an amendment to ban gay marriages) like the Catholic Church was doing in a DVD from the bishop which had been mailed out to all Catholics.
  • A conversation with a man who was grateful to hear that our church wasn’t going to “kick anybody out” for being homosexual. (He is a straight man.)

These conversations bring to mind three conundrums (conundri?) I have pondered over the years, and increasingly these days:

The only way to avoid upsetting somebody in the pew is to stick to sweet Jesus stories and general religious pabulum. The problem with that is that you cannot, then, be a biblical preacher. Although I have never set out to preach a “political” sermon, honest biblical preaching will intersect with the world of politics – that is, the real world. (The alternative, perhaps, is to be the preacher who is “so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use.”) So although I am not as courageous as an old friend who sometimes claims, tongue-in cheek, that he is disappointed that no one has walked out in the middle of a sermon lately, I do try to “preach the text” and let the political chips fall where they may. (The “text” being that assigned in the Common Lectionary – an objective approach to surveying the scriptures over a three year period – and not a passage selected by me.) Ironically, I also agree with Martin Luther, who said, “After every sermon, the preacher should fall on his knees and ask God to forgive him for what he’s just done.”

Many (not all) disagreements with a preacher’s message have to do with one’s place (preacher and hearer alike) on a liberal-conservative spectrum. Often (not always) one who is conservative theologically will also be conservative in politics (and vice-versa). But how, really, does one become liberal or conservative? To say, “It’s the way you were brought up” is too simple. My parents were moderate Republicans, my grandfather was a Republican state legislator, I am a liberal Democrat in my politics and, I suppose, open-minded and “progressive” in theology. I had a loving relationship with my parents and never consciously rebelled against them for the sake of rebelling. My confirmation pastor – a significant and positive influence in my life – was orthodox Lutheran in his theology (although he did teach us, in 1959, that “there is no conflict between Genesis and evolution,” which is about as much as he said on the subject). I don’t recall a sermon that addressed any political issues of the day. He was no firebrand.

Was I liberalized by Vietnam? By the general milieu of a college campus? (But my most influential political science professor had served in the Republican Eisenhower administration.) By a religion class that introduced me to the wide possibilities inherent in biblical criticism and theology? (If so, what made me open to such ideas?) It is not my intention to go on about “me,” but I do so with the assumption that I may be a somewhat representative example of this kind of complicated development and these kinds of spiritual-psychological-physiological questions.

I am intrigued by the current hypothesis that there may be a genetic component to all this. I emphasize “component,” because as I read the theory the idea is that, if involved at all, genetics is only a part of the mix. In any event, my understanding of myself as a liberal seems to me to be even more deep-seated (or inborn?) than my self-understanding as a Christian. Is it genetic?

Which leads to the third conundrum. I have sometimes maintained that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. I know only too well that there are millions of people who would aver that they are conservative because they are Christian. But which is it? Does my Christianity lead me into a certain understanding of politics? Or have my politics influenced me to be a certain kind of Christian?

And you?

*The specific point my friend took issue with was this statement in my sermon: “There are over 450 passages in the Bible that have to do with economic justice and care for the poor. Some-times people ask me, 'Pastor, how does the Bible apply to my daily life?' Well, here’s one way. One way that all those passages about hunger and justice can apply to your life: When you enter the voting booth, whether you are Republican, Democratic, or Independent, you can ask yourself, 'Is this vote I’m about to cast going to benefit the poor?'” 

(Since writing this post, I have read "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion," by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt's research-based analysis offers a very convincing thesis regarding the issue of his title.)

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Many accepted truths about marriage can be challenged with at least anecdotal (if not statistical) contradictions; there are sixty-year marriages that had their genesis with the preacher sighing in hopeless futility as the couple recessed down the aisle, and there are failed marriages in which the unhappy husband and wife each came from happy parental marriages. Nevertheless I have come to believe that much of what we know about healthy relationships – including marriage – is time-tested, founded in real experience, and is worth passing on, which I will do below as a sort of outline (of course with some commentary). Caveat: I’m not going to add after each proposition (as I could), “It’s true – except when it isn’t.”

Although some of what follows is stated as “statistics,” this whole piece should be read as my opinion. And I’ll be the first to admit that this is a hodge-podge.

(In almost every example below I intend the meaning "him or her," even if I don't always state it that way.)

No one is just a statistic, but lasting marriages seem statistically tied to:
  • Age at time of marriage (over 25 is better)
  • Length of time you’ve known each other
  • Educational level
  • Health of parents’ marriages
  • Stats on living together before marriage are mixed, but not necessarily positive.
  • Untreated, the disease of alcoholism will destroy a marriage.
  • Marriages that begin as a way of escaping a difficult or abusive family situation (usually at a relatively young age) do not have a good track record.
  • Marital difficulties (conflict, communication, finance, in-laws, sex,) are most challenging in the first seven years. These are also the years when members of a couple are getting to know each other, which seems to have a natural tie-in to how long they've known each other before marriage.
Most of us don’t take a class in how to be a husband, how to be a wife. But we have all taken just such a class: the family in which we grew up. Learn from it. Talk with your betrothed (or your spouse) about the families of your childhood – what do you want to carry into your own marriage and family? What do you want to leave behind? I always ask an engaged couple, as a part of our pre-marital conversation, “Do you like the marriage your parents have? Would you like a marriage like theirs?" About 60% of the time at least one says, “Yes,” (usually with some qualifications); about 40% of the time one will say, “No,” or “No way!” Often, the partner who is dissatisfied with his parents’ marriage will say, “But I like her parents’ marriage – I’d like to have a marriage like they have.”

A number of years ago my sisters and brother and our spouses surprised our parents with an anniversary dinner. At the end of the meal, my newly-married sister-in-law asked my parents (whose marriage she admired) to talk about marriage – how it had been over the years, what advice they had. This led to a delightful (and instructive) conversation about marriage among all of the couples around the table.

Problems experienced before marriage will not automatically improve after marriage, and certainly not because of marriage.  They will only get worse, unless they are dealt with by means of open communication, listening, a creative, respectful, non-anxious approach to conflict, and other ideas listed here. If so dealt with, they can be the cause for reminiscent laughter fifty years later. (Of course many nettlesome issues do improve over the years when they are part of a healthy, growing relationship; my emphasis here is to warn against the assumption that serious problems will go away automatically because "now we're married.")

Similarly, one should not expect to “change” one’s partner after marriage. Marriage is a mutual acceptance pact, and as such reflects the gospel itself. The vow of marriage is “I love you just the way you are,” not, “Now that I’ve got you I’m going to change you into the person I want you to be.”

Ironically, one should be open to changing oneself – not into a different person, but to compromise on or eliminate those attributes or behaviors which irritate the other – as an act of love. As I once read, “Ok, you’re married. Now, take five minutes and 'find yourself.' Got it? OK, now devote the rest of your life to her.” Marriage is certainly about “us,” and (for you) it’s about “her” (or “him”). It’s most certainly not about “you.” Research shows that both members in a good marriage talk more about what "we" do than about "I" or "you."

One of the things you will be learning about each other in those first seven years is that you have different approaches to conflict – and how to resolve that conflict. All healthy relationships have conflict. The important thing is how that conflict is approached and resolved. You might want to talk it out right now; she may throw herself on the bed sobbing. She may appear at your chair-side saying, “We have to talk,” you may want to read the paper. She may be calm and cool, you may be climbing up the wall. It certainly does need to be talked out -- but after a little respite, if necessary, and when both are ready (and calm).  Sweeping an issue under the rug until it emerges again later is not an option. You need to talk it out. And kiss and make up.

Speak the truth in love. It is possible to speak truthfully but unlovingly. (“That’s the ugliest dress I’ve ever seen.”) If it doesn’t meet the Apostle Paul’s three criteria, it should probably be left unsaid: 1) Is it truthful? 2) Is it loving? 3) Will it build up (rather than tear down) our relationship?

Another bit of practical advice from Paul: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Note he doesn’t say, “don’t be angry.”) If the disagreement is unresolved at the end of the day, let the marriage bed be the place of non-anxious reconciliation. A lot of married folks recommend applying this literally, some figuratively, but either way, it is a caution against accepting a pattern of going for days (or even very many hours) without speaking to each other. An old guy dispensing advice at his fiftieth wedding anniversary once said, “In all these years we never once went to bed angry. (Pause…) We went to bed pretty late sometimes!”

In a loving argument you don’t back your partner into a corner – you lay off a bit and leave him an out. You are not trying to "finish him off" (or you may finish off the marriage). You don’t push the known buttons. You speak in “I” statements and not “you” statements: “I am angry because…” not, “You are a no-good…” (“You” statements always cause or escalate fights. I mean always.)

According to a leading marriage researcher, eye-rolling is a bad sign. It is a sign of disrespect. We all do it a little – but if it is a regular part of your arguments, this researcher is going to predict your marriage won’t last. He says he can tell by watching a video of a couple arguing for fifteen seconds whether or not the marriage is going to last. He looks for things like eye-rolling. He looks, basically, at how (or if) a husband and wife are caring for each other even in an argument.

This same researcher – no kidding – says that there is statistical evidence that one sign (not cause) of a healthy marriage is when the husband says, “Yes, dear.” The more I say that, the healthier my marriage becomes. Because it’s almost always an expression of the truth.

After many years of marriage, Caryl said to me, “When we argue, you make me feel stupid.” This is ironic, because Caryl is one of the smartest people I know. But I figured out what she meant. Sometimes in disagreement I escape to my “high horse,” and lecture from on high – all cool and rational. I think I’ve finally learned my lesson. (Dear?) I hope I'm an example of how even in marriage one can learn, grow, and change. (I've tried to think of something I'd like to change about Caryl, but all I can come up with is the way she whisks my coffee cup into the dishwasher before I'm done with it.)

Sex is another one of those things that you will get to know about each other – in the first seven years and for the rest of your lives. Here’s some things I believe:
  • One partner may express more interest in genital sex. One may express more interest in romantic touching and holding. Both are right. We can learn from each other.
  • “Always be open to trying something new, and never force anybody to do something they don’t want to do.” 
  • “I like it when…” is a great thing to say to each other at all times. “I like it when you cook the chicken that way…” “I like it when you wear your hair that way…” And it’s equally good in sex: “I like it when you touch me there.”
  • Having children does affect our sex lives – adjustments must be made.
  • Headaches happen.
  • Men, you will read articles that say that our evolutionary background pre-disposes us to “roaming.” This theory may even be true. But it is referring to our LIZARD BRAIN. The faithfulness of marriage is what is called “civilized.”
  • Statistics say that one out of four women are sexually abused before the age of eighteen. If it applies in your marriage, this is cause for some tender talk and understanding – perhaps with the help of a counselor. It probably ought not be kept as a secret from one's spouse. (Again, I know there are exceptions….) It may have an effect for years on the sexual fulfillment of both partners. 
  • You can have great sex in the first years of your marriage, and forty years later you can say, “It’s even better now!”
  • Good sex combined with loving communication is an essential part of a healthy marriage.
  • Shared finances in a joint account are expressive of the unity of marriage. I have heard the arguments in favor of separate accounts, and I am not closed-minded about it, but going into marriage with separate accounts sets up -- right from the outset (at least on paper) -- a division between two who are becoming one. 
  • Money problems can be a cause of blaming and tension. Let husband and wife be united against the problem; do not let the problem become a wedge that comes between you. (This same advice can be given for in-law problems, child-rearing, sex, etc.)
  • Although both husband and wife need to be fully aware of the general financial picture, "The one who is best at it should keep the books." (I actually read this in a newspaper ad for a bank many years ago. And I agree.)
If you get to a point in your marriage when it seems -- whether through exhaustion, familiarity, or irritation -- that "the honeymoon is over," plan another one -- and another, and another -- as many as you need through the years. Sometimes a quiet dinner, sometimes a trip to Hawaii. Practice the "Multiple Honeymoon Plan."

There are no perfect marriages, and some marriages, alas, need to end for the good of everyone. But good marriages are constitutive of a good society, they are the best possible nursery in which to raise children to be presented as healthy-minded adults to the next generation, and they are like a garden – the garden of love (weeds and all) – in which two people can fully flower. God bless your marriage.

I hope this post invites your response: Agreements, disagreements, and... "What have I forgotten?"
Thanks to Lowell and Carol Erdahl for "The Multiple Honeymoon Plan" in their book, "Be Good To Each Other." (Caryl and I have put it into practice.)
Here's a good article on some of the issues discussed in this blog post.