Friday, December 06, 2013

The Gift of Twelve Cents

On May 29, 2009, I posted this item: http://johnonefive.blogspot.com/2009/05/gift-of-penny.html It tells the story of how a stranger gave me a penny when I was about six years old, and how his gift changed my life. It also tells how, about fifty years later, I had the opportunity to give someone else a penny in almost the same circumstances, but the opportunity was thwarted when the cashier said to the girl who was a penny short, “Oh, forget it.”

A little farther along in that post are these words: “A penny in 1954 is worth twelve or thirteen cents in today’s money, I suppose.” So it was easy to understand why a penny would count for something in 1954, but would be shrugged off in 2006 or whatever year it was.

Last night I was able to come full circle at last. I was at a supermarket checkout, and the person in front of me was twelve cents short. She asked the cashier if they could just forget the twelve cents. “Sorry, I can’t do that,” she said kindly.

I lit up. “I’ll pay it!” I exclaimed. “Someone gave me a penny a very long time ago and I’ve been waiting for a chance to pay it back! It’d be about twelve cents today!”

I don’t think either of them heard my explanation, but if either did, neither responded. I excitedly withdrew a handful of coins from my pocket, extracted a dime and two pennies, and handed them to the cashier.

“Well, you don’t see that very often,” she remarked. The other person’s purchase was completed, she turned to me with a casual “thanks”, took her four plastic bags in hand, and headed for the door. And that was it.

As I wrote in 2009, “I wanted to give where I had been given to—not to make things equal or release some kind of moral debt, but to return a favor—to treat another as I had been treated. If I had been able to get a penny out of my pocket in time [back in the missed opportunity in 2006], would it have changed the girl’s life as my life had been changed? Not very likely. Had I pushed a penny across the counter for her, I would have felt that I had gone ‘full circle’ and become like the man who had blessed me so mightily and so unknowingly when I was a little boy. I would have felt deeply connected to him and been doubly blessed by his gift.”

Did my gift of twelve cents change someone’s life? Probably not—but who knows? I’ll never know. Just as the man in 1954 never knew how he’d changed my life, or how his gift to a small boy when Dwight Eisenhower was President would inspire a gift to a middle-aged woman fifty-nine years later.

I have no doubt that we are utterly unaware of the overwhelming number of connections we have across space and time with all kinds of people—how we affect other people for good, and how they affect us. It is uplifting when one of those connections becomes visible.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty Years Ago

Fifty years ago from right about THIS MOMENT NOW, Warnie Lewis brought his ailing brother a tray with his afternoon tea. Minutes later, C. S. Lewis collapsed and died. (I'm sure the tea had nothing to do with it.) His holidays had begun.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Remembering a Friend's Mother

My beloved brother David,

If you wish me to share your thoughts regarding my mom, please e-mail them to me before Sunday, October 13th.  The memorial service will be at 3:00pm in Irvine.

In His love, by His grace and for His glory,

George

My memories of Beverly go back more than half a century, when my family and her family were neighbors on the same block in Northridge. I lived at that house from April 1953 to December 1961. Her son George and I were best friends in those wonderful days, for the 1950s were perhaps the best time in the history of our country to be a kid. George  and I were frequently in each other's homes during those years, playing sandlot baseball, collecting and trading baseball cards, reading comic books, dressing up as superheroes in costumes we made ourselves out of old bedsheets, being taken by our parents to special places on our birthdays, and under their careful supervision swimming on hot summer days. On the day we received our weekly allowances, we were driven to Frank's Liquor Store to purchase five-cent packs of baseball cards, each containing five cards and a generous stick of bubble gum. We played army in the black walnut orchard near our homes, and harvested pomegranates from untended trees in the nearby fields.

Beverly was a wonderful host, and a great 1950s mom to her family and her children's friends. I remember frequent overnights in each other's homes, sharing dinners (including barbecues), making breakfast after getting out of our sleeping bags after a sleepover, and dishing out ice cream on hot summer afternoons. We watched television shows like "Sky King" and "Supercar" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood"--black and white shows, of course. 

Our mothers set the rules as we rode our bikes through our neighborhood, and occasionally cycled two miles west along shaded Rayen Street to Northridge's "downtown" on Reseda Boulevard. In those days, once we were out of sight we were also out of touch, for there were no mobile phones--but also in those days we could be gone for hours and never feel that we might be unsafe. 

Our mothers took care of us when we dressed up for Halloween and went door-to-door through the neighborhood. The day after Halloween we would organize and compare and trade the mountains of candy we had acquired. 

These were the days when we were children and our parents were young, days that made an indelible impression on our lives. They were days of innocence and hope, when our fathers provided for our families and our mothers made the homes in which our families lived. Our parents gave us our lives, and then shaped them as we grew. They gave us standards, standards they had learned in their own days of growing up, in the generation before ours that had known hardship and war--but to their children they gave an era of optimism and plenty. Rightly has their generation been called "The Greatest Generation" our country has ever produced.

I give thanks to God for the time in which we grew up as children, for our parents who set us on the track, and for Beverly in particularly, who was a vital part of my own growing-up years. 

Monday, October 07, 2013

Our Lady of the Rosary

October 7 is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The rosary is a way of praying, meditating, and doing Bible study. Its beginnings go back to the days of the beginning of Christian monasticism in the deserts of Egypt in the fourth century, but its current form may go back to the days of St. Dominic, who lived in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.


How does one use the rosary? It’s sort of like what happens when you read. The words on the page inspire your imagination. Especially when one reads fiction, the images of places, what voices sound like, and so forth can only be described by the writer up to a certain point. After that the imagination of the reader must take over to give life to the story.

There is a form of prayer like that; it is a form of meditation, which can be done very simply or very deeply. The rosary is a particular kind of meditation. The purpose of the rosary is to help keep in our minds and hearts and wills certain principal events or mysteries in the history of our salvation, to thank and praise God for them, and to grow more and more in love with God. By meditating on key events in the life and ministry of Jesus and his promises to the faithful, we can conform our lives better to his will for us. We also learn to love others better, and through the rosary we can even pray for others.

There are twenty mysteries reflected upon in the Rosary, which are divided into five sets of four:

The five Joyful Mysteries are about Jesus’ childhood:
1.       The Angel Gabriel Announces to Mary that She has been Chosen to be the Mother of the Messiah
2.      Mary Visits Elizabeth, the Mother of John the Baptist
3.      Jesus is Born in Bethlehem
4.      Mary and Joseph Bring Jesus to the Temple When He is Forty Days Old
5.      Mary and Joseph Find Jesus in the Temple When He is Twelve Years Old

The five Luminous Mysteries are about his earthly ministry:
1.       Jesus is Baptized in the River Jordan
2.      Jesus Changes Water into Wine at a Wedding in Cana
3.      Jesus Preaches the Kingdom of God
4.      Jesus in Transfigured
5.      Jesus Institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper

The five Sorrowful Mysteries are about his suffering and death:
1.       Jesus Prays in the Garden Before He is Arrested
2.      The Soldiers Whip Jesus
3.      The Soldiers Put a Crown of Thorns on Jesus’ Head
4.      Jesus Carries His Cross Through the Streets of Jerusalem
5.      The Soldiers Crucify Jesus

The five Glorious Mysteries are about his resurrection and the promise of eternal life:
1.       Jesus Rises From the Dead
2.      Jesus Returns to Heaven
3.      The Holy Spirit Comes On the First Believers
4.      Mary is Taken into Heaven After She Dies
5.      Mary is Crowned as the Queen of Heaven

For well over a hundred years, there has been an intercessory guild within the Anglican Communion that uses the rosary. It is called the Guild of the Living Rosary. It was founded in England in October 1905. The Guild is Anglican-based, but membership is open to any Christian.

Members are asked to pray just one decade of the rosary each day with a special intention. Intercession sheets with the intentions are produced three times a year and are provided to the members before the first days of January, May, and September.

Though one decade may seem a small prayer to ask, one benefit of membership in the Guild is that one prays with nineteen other members to comprise an entire rosary of twenty mysteries. One can be assured that in partnership with others an entire rosary is prayed with the appointed intercession. I have been a member of this guild for over forty years, and found it to be a powerful means of prayer and growing in love with Jesus and learning how to do so through the example and leadership of the Virgin Mary. (See my blogpost from November 1, 2006 http://johnonefive.blogspot.com/2006/11/ave-maria-gratia-plena.html)

Anyone who may be interested in the Guild is asked to write to guildlivingrosary(at)gmail.com

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Joy of Explosives

About five years ago I wrote this blogpost <http://johnonefive.blogspot.com/2008/12/evidence-that-god-loves-me.html> in which I describe explosive devices I made when I was a teenager. They were assembled from wax paper, a suitable weight like a marble or a construction bolt, and gunpowder that I carefully and painstakingly scraped out of caps for cap pistols.

Well, that kind of gunpowder seems to be all but disappeared from the scene. So you can imagine my surprise and wholesome delight when I found some caps in a store not long ago. Being now older and mature and therefore confident that I could handle such material safely, I bought some.

Brimming with excitement, I came home and carefully extracted the gunpowder from the caps. My hands were trembling with anticipation, but I still managed to create a small pile of the precious powder. Wax paper and construction bolts were, of course, easy to procure. With clear eyes and careful craftsmanship, I assembled a bomb: I placed a generous pile of gunpowder onto a square of wax paper and positioned a bolt over it. Then I dexterously twirled the wax paper into its characteristic teardrop shape.

Before going onto the street, I held the result in an open palm, a little damp with the emotion of the moment. I hadn’t seen such a beautiful thing for several decades, and, although eager to put it to use, I hesitated. I was not averse to throwing the item—oh no—I merely wanted to drink deeply of the exquisiteness of the imminent event. With an indulgent grin, I remembered that Winnie the Pooh had sagely observed that the moment just before the honey pot touches your lips is, somehow, perhaps, even more wonderful than the first taste of the honey.

At peace with the world, and gratefully marveling at the wonder of how the remembered pleasure of past explosions could cross the decades and swell the enjoyment of the coming detonation, I went outside. I paused at the foot of the driveway and viewed the cul-de-sac that stretched before me. I smiled wryly as I considered the possibility of neighbors going calmly about their homey business in a safe and quiet community, completely unsuspecting of the energy about to be released.

I threw the waxen teardrop upwards and watched breathlessly as it described a perfect parabola. With the full force of gravity, it struck the pavement sharply.

Fffffffftt.

That was it. A mere whisper. A mild exhalation as of a sudden short sigh. A cat’s yawn. No, maybe a kitten’s yawn. If fleas sneeze, it would have been like that.

After the chill of disappointment dashed over me, my next reaction was embarrassment. I hoped that no neighbors had been looking out of their window at the moment of my humiliation, thereby intensifying it beyond tolerability. With narrowed eyes, I took a quick scan of the nearest houses. I saw no quickly withdrawn face, and felt relief.

Then I needed someone to blame. I had a suspicion. My lips pursed and my eyebrows lowered. Then my nostrils flared.

To confirm my hypothesis, I strode out to where the bolt lay harmlessly on the asphalt. Feverishly I crumpled  a piece of newspaper I had with me and lay the entire roll of caps in it and set it on fire. Barely audible puffs manifested. I had to bend down and turn my head so that my ear was close to the burning newspaper.  Fffft. Fffft.. fffft.

That was it. If there were germs on the nearby pavement, maybe they would have heard explosions, but I doubt it. To me, it sounded as if a mouse was using an aerosol can.

I came to my feet. I knew whom to blame. Insurance companies. The very people who have been quietly sapping all joy out of life for decades. The people who forbid the building of treehouses. Who saw to the removal of diving boards at motels. Who ensured the removal of BB guns and any toys with small moving parts from the shelves of toystores. The people who want to make the world completely safe and devoid of risk and therefore all of the immense joys for which risk is an essential prerequisite.

They should be sued. Obviously it’d be next to impossible to bomb their offices.





Friday, June 21, 2013

The White Stone

When I was in seminary, I was introduced to some English humor. One of the best of what I suppose we’d call stand up comics today was Peter Cook, who was the leading performer in Beyond the Fringe. He did a brief one-man skit called “The Miner”, in which an individual of limited academic achievement tells the audience that he wanted to be a judge, but lacked Latin; so he became a coal miner. In the skit, he says that when you want to become a coal miner, “They only ask you one question; they say, ‘Who are you?’—and I got 75% on that one.”

For those who want to see the entire skit of a little more than two minutes, it’s here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Grg5tULy0tY

This was more than forty years ago, and I suspect that what people think is funny has changed since then. Still, I remembered that line about getting 75% on knowing who you are, and came to realize that, taken out of the comedic realm, it can be profound.

I put it together with an odd sentence in the last book of the Bible: Revelation 2:17— “To the one who conquers I will give … a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.”

When I first read that line years ago, I wondered what good it would be to have a name that no one else will know. Aren’t names the very things we use to let other people know who we are? Of course, in this passage Jesus is not referring to a label for oneself by which others will know us, but rather it is the gift of self-knowledge that comes only when one is fully known by Jesus. Which is the only way to do it.

And later it struck me that to get the White Stone with the name, one has to “conquer”—that is, one has to endure a battle of some kind and come out triumphant. And one receives a White Stone and not a calling card or a whispered word. The stone is a sign of permanence, and it is white as a sign of purity, or perhaps joy. Or both.

As is often pointed out, the Christian life is a life of battle. We are in “enemy-occupied territory”, taught C. S. Lewis. I used to preach that the Christian life was not merely about studying, gaining knowledge, growing in maturity, and gradually becoming holier; it is about fighting and prevailing. “Whoever endures to the end shall be saved.” There are lots of other verses that say the same thing.

But if we engage in battle, do we not often fail? Are we not often defeated? In nearly forty years as a priest of traditional convictions, I think that I lost nearly every battle I ever fought in the Episcopal Church. Still, I wrote this blogpost more than six and a half years ago: Jawbone of an Ass http://johnonefive.blogspot.com/2006/10/jawbone-of-ass.html. I wrote a number of other blogposts on the same theme.

Eventually I became exhausted, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically, and I was not recovering. And I remembered that a noted psychologist/spiritual director I saw for two intense long-term periods told me once that when his mother was 84 and still caring for her family by hosting big dinners and so forth, he said to her, “Mom, there comes a time when it is okay to lay down the burden.” “Is that time now?” she answered.

My time came. But still often I feel like a failure—as if I have lost the battle. Sins, weaknesses, hurts, missteps, and all the rest of it have plagued me all my life, or so it seems. But then I realized that I was measuring my successes—and failures—by a self-oriented standard, the standard of perfectionism and trying to “do it all” myself. I know that there were many successes too. And probably a lot that I can’t even evaluate and don’t need to evaluate. I just know that I did my best.

Now that I have been retired for more than seven months, I am learning what the White Stone is about. Or at least learning it in a new way. Having been wounded and exhausted in striving for the Faith and for holiness, I am coming to learn in a new way my complete need for God and utter dependence on him, and that only in this is the way forward. And I came to see “failures” in an entirely new way. Without diminishing or belittling the reality of the failures of prominent Biblical personalities, I came to see how God uses those failures to build holiness and create triumph.

Eve failed, yet she was still the mother of all living, whose seed would crush the serpent’s head.

Noah found favor with God and obeyed him, but sinned after the ark settled down in a new world, thereby bringing sin right back into that world. And through him all the descendants of the world came to be.

Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness, and he left home for an unseen land, but failed by becoming impatient with God’s promise of a son, and fathered Ishmael; yet Ishmael also became the father of a nation.

Isaac failed by preferring one son over the other, yet held faithful as the middle of the three patriarchs, and the younger son was not thwarted in his vocation even if he was not his father’s choice.

That son Jacob failed, deceiving his father and brother, and offered a prayer at Bethel that showed only conditional faith in God, yet God continued to bless and provide for him so that he matured in his faith, and on his return home, sought reconciliation with his brother.

Joseph failed by jerking his brothers around when he was Lord of Egypt, yet God blessed him, fulfilled his dream, and ensured the preservation of the descendants of Abraham even through slavery.

Moses, though he dedicated his life to obeying and serving God and leading a very trying and rebellious people, failed to uphold God’s sovereignty and was not admitted to the Promised Land; yet he is still regarded as the great deliverer and law giver.

David, a great warrior who subdued all of Israel’s enemies and set the standard of Jewish kingship, nonetheless failed. He was called a “man of blood”, he was an adulterer and murderer, and was a notoriously poor father and dismally inept in all his family relationships; yet he established an everlasting kingdom and gave his name to the Messiah.

His son Solomon began his kingship with a prayer asking for wisdom, and he built the Temple, but at the end he tolerated the admittance of foreign deities into the kingdom, and he did not prepare his son for rule.

James and John were brothers chosen by Jesus and counted in the inner circle of the disciples, but they failed, arguing over who the greatest was, and wanting to sit at the side of Jesus in the kingdom; they were called “Sons of Thunder” for an apparent violent temper; yet one was the first apostolic martyr and the other was the guardian of Mary and the writer of the magnificent Gospel.

Peter and all disciples were chosen and called by Jesus, but failed, abandoning and denying Jesus at the time of his trial, but eleven of them became the chosen foundation of the Church which endures in power and influence and truth and love even to this day.

Paul failed as a Pharisee and a disciple of Gamaliel (the wise and tolerant), and became a rigid persecutor of the Church even violating the Jewish Law to do so; and as a Christian he broke with Barnabas over a disagreement; yet he obviously bore immeasurable fruit and closed his life as a martyr and with the words, “I have kept the faith.”

Failing in God’s service puts one in good company. Paul put it best when he related that God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you” and he responded, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Failure is only true failure if one gives up. Otherwise, it is woundedness in the battle.

Recently someone shared with me the theme from the movie Shrek, which I haven’t seen and was not familiar with. She especially pointed me to the third verse:

    I did my best, it wasn't much.
    I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch.
    I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.
    And even though it all went wrong,
        I'll stand before the Lord of Song
            with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

And then I read Wild at Heart, by John Eldredge. He points out that the first Biblical verse Jesus selected to define his public ministry was Isaiah 61:1— “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners.”

This is what I want and need. Sure, I failed sometimes, and once in a while even spectacularly. But not always. If I had hidden and protected myself, I might not have sustained the wounds that I did, but I would never have become a man, either. Becoming a man involves battle and sustaining wounds. But I still stand, and I look for the freedom that Jesus promises captives.

And the White Stone. When Jesus asks me, “Who are you?” I want to get 100% on that one. But no one can do that without the White Stone that only he can give.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Forests and Cities

Charles Walter Stansby Williams died 68 years ago today—on May 15, 1945. Along with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, these three were the most influential and best known of the Inklings, although Williams came late to the group and is nowhere near as famous or influential as the other two. Williams lived and worked in London, but removed to Oxford during the second World War when many people were evacuated during the frequent bombings of the great cities of England by the Germans.

The move was fortuitous for Williams. He and Lewis had become friends, first by mail over mutual admiration of their writings, and then by rare personal visits. Williams’ evacuation to Oxford made it possible for him to attend the meetings of the Inklings for at least a short time. Lewis had become a great admirer of Williams and welcomed him with gusto to the gatherings of the Inklings.

It is a matter of impressive curiosity to me that Lewis would be so taken by Williams. I doubt that Lewis impressed easily. His relationship with Tolkien, which had been very close for many years, suffered greatly as a result of Lewis’ admiration of Williams, and never fully recovered. One facet of my curiosity is that both Lewis and Tolkien, as is evident in their writings, deplored Large Cities and Machinery and Industrialism, but Williams had quite the opposite view.

Tolkien’s love of the countryside is shown by his representation of the Shire in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Trees were so beloved by him that he even made them sentient beings in the ents. By contrast, the renegade wizard Saruman turned his fortress into a factory that belched poisonous smoke, and wicked Orcs and others cut down trees at will. As Tolkien himself wrote somewhere, the Shire was essentially late 19th century rural England, with its mills and streams and woods and gentle farms. The closing chapters of Lord of the Rings show the conquered and occupied Shire turned into a barren industrialized town with many trees wantonly removed and many of its cottages torn down and replaced by sterile brick box-type buildings. It is cleansed by having these presences removed forcibly and quickly, and the Shire returned to its rural charm.

In a similar way, Lewis loved his cross-country walks with friends, and such walks feature in his fiction, such as Out of the Silent Planet. Narnia is clearly a land of villages with many woods and streams. Lantern Waste and The Wood Between the Worlds are clearly rural and peaceful. He loved his woods and the small pond a stone’s throw from his home, The Kilns, in Oxford.

By sharp contrast, Williams loved the clank of machinery and the bustle of buses, banks, and businesses in the large city. For him London was suggestive of the City of God—more than that, every large city was in some way a veritable manifestation of the Kingdom of God. In the cities, people worked in a commotion of exchange of money, goods, and services that not only suggested but factually were the Kingdom. As he wrote somewhere—I cannot place where at the moment—one cannot enter a tea shop and drink a cup of tea without touching the entire world: growers, printers, truckers, manufacturers, etc. etc., even going far back in history to the people who first harvested tea and invented crockery, built tables and chairs, and developed money, etc. etc. To him, everything was the Kingdom, and the City manifested it with euphoric excitement and joy.

Certainly, in a way both views must be correct. Putting them together makes for a stunning, eye-opening, revelatory insight into the Ways of God and the World, and such an insight changed my view of these Ways for ever.

Williams died during a rather simple surgery in Oxford. In his short time in Oxford he influenced the population, especially the student population, far more than many scholars who had lived and taught there all their lives. If I had to choose between his worldview and Tolkien and Lewis’, I confess that I’d pick the latter, but Williams has “baptized” my experience of the City too.