Saturday, April 24, 2010


The only thing I dislike more than artificial flowers is when I am fooled by artificial flowers. Sometimes you just can't tell until they don't die. (The only thing worse than a brown-orange Christmas wreath hanging on a door in March is a bright green one.) An artificial flower will never enter this house if, er... I can help it. But my resolve is weakening. At church, if a bride asks if it's OK to have artificial flowers at a wedding, my current answer is, "No -- unless you can fool me real good."

Twenty years ago I had a classic wooden picket fence built around our back yard. It was functional, and I liked the way it would weather into that old gray look as the years passed. The years have passed. It has weathered. It is rotting. I'm thinking of replacing it with a fence made of artificial (or "composite") materials, and I just ordered composite planks for a deck to replace our crumbling back steps, and I'm thinking of replacing our cedar shake siding with fiber cement shingles ("Hardie Plank") instead of painting it for the third time in twenty years. I should say here that I haven't run any of these ideas past my bookkeeper yet, but long-term economy is certainly part of the equation. And calculating the environmental effect of building a fence out of cut-down trees vs. recycled garbage bags is another (related) subject for another time.

However -- economy and ecology aside -- the reason I'm thinking about any of these options that I wouldn't have considered twenty years ago is, as it turns out, tied to the ancient artist's technique of trompe l'oeil -- to "trick the eye." While on the one hand it may seem phony to say that as long as I can't tell the difference, then go ahead, on the other hand, this is part of a grand old tradition practiced even by the old masters. But it's not limited to high art; there is precedent in the builder's craft as well. Grand Victorian homes often feature a paneling effect that achieves the desired wood grain by clever painting. Is it OK to say that as long as my eye is tricked, I'll buy it?

I'm still persuaded that genuine flowers on the church altar (and similar expressions) are representative of the organic realities of the faith: God's creative will for a good earth and a good life, the reality of death, and the promise of new life. But we now allow those flickering little electric candles (verrry hard to discern at only a few feet away) to decorate the pews at a wedding so that the church won't burn down.

This proclivity for all things natural has been an important part of my generation's ethos. We think of our parents' generation as inventing artificial stuff, and we've reacted against it: Back to the land, and back to wooden picket fences. But I'm wondering what's at stake here (no pun intended). I don't have an answer to that. It's a real question. I'm wondering.
Images: Top - Fence made of recycled plastic and wood fibers. Bottom - A trompe l'oeil "dome" at Jesuit Church, Vienna, painted by Andrea Pozzo. The eye is fooled, indeed.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


They asked Jesus, "Teacher, it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, "Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?" They said, "The emperor’s." He said to them, "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s." ~Luke 20
I have a confession to make: I am the cause of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s recent bankruptcy. When I found out I could get the entire contents on line, I cancelled my subscription to the paper version, and it all went downhill for them from there. (Yes, I miss the tactility and scanning of the paper, but that’s another blog for another time.) I was simply acting as a member of a universal digital-age movement: Since the very dawn of the internet, newspapers and all sorts of other providers have made their wares available for free – some as a deliberate business plan, others because they became victims of a kind of “hell, no, I’m not paying for anything on the internet” populism. Of which I was a part. Until recently. I have come around to the view that if I want some of this to remain available to me, I’m going to have to pay for it – and I’m willing to do so.

As I was completing my taxes recently, the thought came to me that this kind of anti-payment populism may also be driving a lot (certainly not all) of the no-taxes movement. They just don’t want to pay for anything. The conservative commentator George Will makes this observation: “The government we have did not come about overnight, or by accident, or by conspiracy. Middle-class Americans who are the articulate complainers about it are the principle benefiters from it. They have no intention of dismantling it, so they had better pipe down and pay up.”

One of the most cryptic mysteries in the scriptures is the question of what, exactly, Jesus meant by his answer to the tax question (see above). It is certainly open to a variety of interpretations, but I am persuaded by this one: “Jesus flips the coin back into the crowd, shrugs, and says, ‘If you use Caesar’s roads, then pay Caesar’s taxes.’” Whether he meant that to be politically provocative, cynical, or sincere is another question, but this interpretation seems to follow logically from his observation about whose face is on the coin. (And when you consider that Jesus called a hated tax collector to be one of his disciples -- no wonder they strung him up!)

In a representative democracy, taxes, for a Christian citizen, are tied to the idea of stewardship: an elective way of contributing to the poor-box at the back of the church. And if we worship at the altar of Adam Smith (the “father of capitalism”), we are reminded (by Smith) that “it is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” None of this (Christian stewardship or Adam Smith), makes any sense if the driving principle is simply selfishness. Both a capitalist economy and a representative government – whether you call it a democracy or a republic – will decay at the roots with the drought of selfishness.

Let me give the last word to former South Carolina senator Ernest Hollings:
A veteran returning from Korea went to college on the GI Bill; bought his house with an FHA loan; saw his kids born in a VA hospital; started a business with an SBA loan; got electricity from the TVA and, later, water from an EPA project. His parents retired to a farm on Social Security, got electricity from the REA and soil testing from USDA. When the father became ill, the family was saved from financial ruin by Medicare, and his father’s life was saved with a drug developed through the NIH. His kids participated in the school lunch program, learned physics from teachers trained in an NSF program, and went through college with guaranteed student loans. He drove to work on the Interstate and moored his boat in a channel dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers. When the floods hit, he took Amtrak to Washington, D.C., to apply for disaster relief, and, while there, spent some time visiting the Smithsonian museums.
Caesar's highway. Been on it lately?
Then one day, he wrote his congressman an angry letter asking the government to get off his back and complaining about paying taxes for all those programs created for ungrateful people.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


My friend and colleague, Mike, collects malapropisms, spoonerisms, neologisms,* and other twisted word forms. When I say, “collects,” I mean he has an ear for them, and his agile mind seems to attract them and call them forth at just the right occasion. This is amusing to me, but also somewhat dangerous, because one’s speech can become infected with these verbal viri, and if one is not careful, they can lodge themselves in the language ports of the brain. (Back when I lived in St. Paul, there was a storefront on a prominent corner that for years had a large, professionally produced sign in the window that read, “Aikido Cetner.”  I smiled when I saw it, but my friend, Jeff – another wit – picked it up and began using it in fun, until it stuck – and infected me. And now I have to use some mental energy to avoid referring to places such as the Community Cetner, the Faith and Life Cetner, and the Children’s Reading Cetner.)

But back to Mike’s collection. If this were a game, one of the rules would be that you have to overhear or accidentally produce the words – you can’t make them up. Surely Mike wouldn’t stoop to making any of these up. (Some of what follows is inside clergy humor -- we preachers are a laugh riot! -- so I’ll provide the code.)

Without casting any asparagus on anyone, it seems odd that we would want our prayers to come before God as insects (incense). Maybe they’re the insects that follow the communion elephants (elements) which Jesus and the disciples used at “The Last Dinner.”

During acolyte instruction the kids were told that they would collect the offering just before the communion hymn. “What’s a nymn?” said one of the acolytes. Another infection: I know that it’s only a matter of time before I announce the “nymn of the day” at a worship service. And we always try to sing the psalm responsibly (responsively). If we don’t, perhaps it means we need to spend more time with the choirpractor.

I was once informed by a bride that during the wedding she and the groom would light the “utility candle.” Perhaps,” says Mike, “it means it was a marriage of convenience.”

Pastor Mike does a good job of keeping these oddities in check during public worship. (Although there was that time he announced, at the end of the service, that everyone was invited to the Fellowship Hall for “happy hour, er… I mean… coffee hour.” What does he think we are? Episcopalians?)

My favorite has nothing to do with church: “Vengetables.” It’s kind of subtle. I wonder, if you force your children to eat their vengetables, will they then throw up revengetables?



*A malapropism is named after Mrs. Malaprop, a character in a play by Sheridan (1775). It is usually a substitution of one word for a similar sounding word, resulting in a comic or nonsense effect. ("Forget this fellow; illiterate him from your memory.")

A spoonerism is a word formed by reversing syllables or letters to form a humorous reflection of the intended word. It is named after an actual person, the Rev. Dr. Wm. Spooner of Oxford (1844-1930), who had the reputation of using the form frequently. ("The Lord is a shoving leopard.")

A neologism is a newly-formed word which may or may not be on its way to being accepted. It is not necessarily funny. I have a 1965 dictionary in which "glitch" and "jumbo jet" are listed in the new words section.

p.s. My friend, Warren, refers to my blog title as "Eavesdropping in the Asparagus."