Saturday, March 31, 2018
There is something undeniably rich and full about silence. On Holy Saturday especially, there is a feeling like a “calm before a storm”. Jesus’ crucifixion has been achieved and his body has been laid into the tomb. Notably, where before the cross there were three Marys (Jesus’ mother, the wife of Clopus, and the Magdalene), at the tomb there are only the latter two—along with a woman named Salome. Jesus’ mother by her absence shows that she knows that there is no need to go. Surely she is not at home prostrate with grief; she knows that the story isn’t over when everyone else thinks it is.
My earliest encounter with karate was watching an episode of an old western on television in about 1960. It was about an apparent sissy who appears in town; he wears nice suits and dressy cloth gloves on his hands. He is bullied and mocked by the he-men cowboys. He’s pushed around on the street and sneered at in the saloon. Finally, as the show nears its end, when he is mocked once again for wearing fancy gloves, he has had enough; he gets up from the table and takes off his gloves. His knuckles are enlarged with calluses. One of the punchers asks, “Wh—, whut happen to yo’ hands?” The newcomer smashes a table with his hands and then lights into the cowboys and lays them all out. Turns out he had recently returned from several years’ stay in the Orient where he had learned karate.
That was the time when karate was becoming known in the United States and schools were beginning to appear. A friend of mine became interested in karate in the late 1950s when a schoolmate said, “There’s this thing called karate [which he pronounced ‘kay-rate’], and the guys who do it can break boards with their hands.” Shortly after that my friend opportunely moved with his family to Korea for business and he earned a black belt in Tang Soo Do, a style of Korean karate, from the founder-master. (It was the same style as Chuck Norris’, who also first learned in Korea.) When my friend returned to the United States, he opened the first Tang Soo Do school in the nation.
The idea of an apparent weakling who humbly takes abuse from bullies until he finally turns the tables is one of the great stories of humanity. There are many such stories in our culture, in movies and books, many of which I could name.
Deep down, it is the story of Jesus—a fantasy which became fact. Betrayed by a disciple, Jesus was taken into custody by his enemies who were too cowardly to arrest him openly in public, put through a sham trial, and then taken to the secular authorities represented by Pontius Pilate who declared him innocent yet condemned him to death anyway as a savvy political move designed to keep the peace in a tense, politically fragile situation. All of them were bullies who abused their power to rid themselves of one seemingly weak and friendless man who threatened their security.
The week of political, legal, and official manipulation and self-protection finally culminated in an apparent triumph for the bullies. Jesus was executed and then buried in a borrowed tomb. Holy Saturday is the day after the crowd had done its worst to the apparent weakling, and think that they’ve won.
And then the weakling takes off his gloves.
There are many paintings by countless artists of the crucifixion, and a good number of the resurrection. But I think there is only one of the events of Holy Saturday. The day of rich quiet. The calm before the storm. It is this one. It is called “Easter morning”, and was painted by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). It is housed in a private collection in Switzerland; the painting was rendered in the early 1830s but not made public until 1973. It shows the two Marys and Salome going to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. The bare trees are symbols of death, and the women are mourning like anyone else who'd had lost to death someone that they loved. Yet the full moon overhead symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus that has already happened, and which they are about to discover. The calm of Holy Saturday is already giving way to the storm of the resurrection. It is the Great Reversal. “Death is conquered, man is free, Christ has won the victory.”
Friday, March 02, 2018
The four Marian anthems are hymns to the Virgin Mary used every evening during four seasons of the year. I have forgotten where I first heard of them, but for years they have been part of my personal devotions. Except for the first, their history is obscure and their authorship is unknown, but they have had their own music and have been used in the liturgy since 1239. Several texts are at least a century older than that, and the first goes back almost a thousand years.
They are the Alma Redemptoris Mater (Loving Mother of our Savior), the Ave Regina Caelorum (Hail, O Queen of heaven), the Regina Caeli (Queen of heaven), and the Salve Regina (Hail Queen). These are love poems of surpassing beauty, prayed devotedly by the faithful for many generations.
Just a day or two ago, while browsing Wikipedia I learned that the first, Alma Redemptoris Mater, was composed by a most unusual and impressive person named Hermann of Reichenau who lived in the eleventh century (July 18, 1013 to September 24, 1054). He was also known as Hermann the Cripple. He was beatified (the last stage before canonization as a Saint) in 1863, but has not been canonized. At least not yet. He was afflicted by a terrible disease from his earliest years. Scholarly guesses are that he may have suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but that is not certain; early descriptions of his deformity suggest that he may suffered from a cleft palate and spinal bifida. Whatever his affliction, he had great difficulty moving and could hardly speak. When he was seven, his parents could no longer take care of him adequately, and so placed him in a monastery, the Abbey of Reichenau in Germany. It is located on an island, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hermann grew up there, became a professed monk when he was twenty, and died at the age of 41.
In spite of his physical disabilities, he had a brilliant mind and became proficient in musical theory and composition, geometry and mathematics, astronomy, history, poetry, and theology. He wrote on each of these subjects, and also built musical and astronomical instruments, including an astrolabe—one of the earliest in Europe. He was also proficient in several languages, including Arabic, Greek, and Latin. He is one of a few people called a scientist-cleric.
While many of his works have lasted to this day nearly a thousand years later, the one for which he is best known is the Alma Redemptoris Mater. I can never pray it again without thinking of Hermann and giving thanks to God for his life, genius, and especially his perseverance through his disabilities to excel in so many fields of endeavor.
Here is the text of the anthem he wrote, followed by the texts of the other three Marian anthems. (Hermann is traditionally considered to have composed the Salve Regina also, but most scholars doubt that attribution.) Various versions of their performance can be found on youtube.
Alma Redemptoris Mater
By Bl. Hermann of Reichenau
Gracious Mother of our Redeemer, for ever abiding Queen of heaven and Star of the sea, O pray for your children, who, though falling, strive to rise again. You, maiden, have borne your holy Creator to the wonder of all nature; ever-virgin, after as before you received that Ave from the mouth of Gabriel, intercede for us sinners.
Ave Regina Caelorum
This poetic text can be sung to Hymn 339, “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness”
Hail, O Queen of heavenly regions,
Mistress of angelic legions,
Root of Jesse, heaven’s portal,
Whence has risen the Light immortal.
Joy to you, O Virgin blessèd,
Fairest of our race confessèd,
Hail, O ever-beauteous maiden,
Plead to Christ for souls sin-laden.
This poetic text can be sung to Hymn 207, “Jesus Christ is risen today”
Joy to you, O Queen of heaven, alleluia;
He whom you were meet to bear, alleluia,
As he promised, has arisen, alleluia;
Pour for us to him your prayer, alleluia.
There are two versions printed below; the first is Anglican and the second is Roman Catholic.
Mary, we hail you, Mother and Queen compassionate; Mary, most holy, great, and pure, we hail you. To you your children, members of Christ, lift our voices. To you we sing praises, for by your obedience you brought forth to us the Savior. Pray for us now, O our intercessor, that the grace of earnest repentance be given to us sinners. And may we, when our earthly sojourn has been ended, joy in Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb, O gentle, O tender, O gracious Virgin Mary.
Mary, we hail you, Mother and Queen compassionate; Mary, most holy, great, and pure, we hail you. To you we cry, the children of Eve; to you we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this land of exile. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us; lead us home at last. And may we, when our earthly sojourn has been ended, joy in Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb, O gentle, O tender, O gracious Virgin Mary.
Saturday, December 23, 2017
“And now, a solo from Miss Frouida Baker.” I heard these words almost every week when I was seminarian assistant at St. Helen’s Anglican Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. I worked there for a full year, from the fall of 1971 through the summer of 1972. The Rector was the Rev. Canon J. Whinfield Robinson, a wonderful evangelical low churchman. He wore no vestments—just cassock, surplice, and stole; he was never called “Father”; people did not make the sign of the cross in the church and visitors who crossed themselves were corrected by the sidesmen (ushers). Canon Robinson influenced me greatly, and was always good to me. I learned a great deal from him, and remained in contact with him until he died on January 12, 1997, probably close to ninety years old.
It is the custom in many Anglican churches worldwide not only to have services on Sunday morning, but also to have Evensong on Sunday evening. There would be different lessons and a different sermon from what one had experienced in the morning. And many people came to both services. And so it was at St. Helen’s.
In St. Helen’s choir was an elderly single woman (many would say “old maid”) named Frouida Baker. She was always there, and very often, mostly in the evening I think, she sang a solo at some point in the service. Canon Robinson always introduced it with the same words: “And now, a solo from Miss Frouida Baker.” She was not a gifted singer. As I recall, her soprano voice was kind of warbly.
It has been 45 years since those days. Miss Baker is long gone from this world, as is Canon Robinson. But now that I am 69 and no longer 24, I look back on that year as one of those magic times in one’s life. I have known a few people over the decades who had no family. They either had never married or had been widowed; there were no children or siblings left alive; their parents were long gone and their cousins, if any, were also either departed or there had been no contact since childhood. I suspect that Miss Frouida Baker was one of these.
But she was the quintessential old maid who sang in her church choir week after week after week for years, probably without much reward, notice, or thanks. I can’t say that I ever talked to her even though I was in church with her just about every Sunday for a year. And I have no memory of what she looked like.
But somehow I have never forgotten her, and now that nearly half a century has gone by, I recognize her priceless gift. She made an unremarkable offering of song willingly without expectation of reward, notice, or thanks. She praised and served God humbly and dependably with what she had. She blessed and taught and changed me ever so subtly but powerfully and permanently. If only I could be so humble and so faithful.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
In July 1945 a very short item by C.S. Lewis called “Meditation in a Toolshed” appeared in print. In it he relates a lesson about discerning truth that came to him while seeing a beam of sunlight come through the roof in his toolshed. Similarly, as I was raking leaves a day or two ago, a lesson came to me about the Christian life.
In October 2001 I spent a week at a clergy refreshment and formation conference. At one point the leader encouraged the forty or so of us to come up with a “BHAG” (pronounced bee-hag)—a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” for our lives. She said that a BHAG was something that would take at least ten years to achieve, and had no guarantee of ever being achieved.
At the closing gathering we all sat in a circle, and she asked if anyone would be willing to share whatever BHAG he or she had come up with. There was probably a full minute of silence, so I decided to go first. I raised my hand, got the go-ahead, and said, “I’d like to be included in a future edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts.” (This is a listing of saints in the calendar of the Episcopal Church.)
There was a pregnant silence for about two seconds, and then the entire group erupted into the loudest, most spontaneous, most feverishly uncontrolled group laughter I’ve ever heard: people doubled over in their seats, slapped their thighs, and guffawed. Tears came down some faces. It went on for about a minute.
Well, I intended it to be funny and to break the ice, and that certainly worked. When the laughter died down and the tears were wiped away, others began to share their BHAGs.
But here’s a secret: I meant it. Not that I be recognized and celebrated by future generations as a saint—that’s not what I wanted. But I do want to become truly saintly. Really, for everyone it is the only “BHAG” to have.
One of my favorite blogs is called “The Catholic Gentleman”, written by a fellow named Sam Guzman, a husband and father in Wisconsin. The tagline for his blog is “Be a Man, Be a Saint”. He’s nailed it. This vision, this goal certainly goes way against the grain in today’s culture, but the culture is spectacularly wrong. Being a man and being a saint is the only purpose of a man’s life. Saint Paul puts it this way: “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21) and “I press on to take h old of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12). This is what I want. Indeed, there is nothing else worth wanting—to become the man Christ calls and empowers me to be. To be a man of virtue: to be honorable, dedicated to truth, loving to small and great, chaste, patient, humble, strong, peaceful, courageous… all the virtues. The word “virtue” comes from the Latin word vir, which mean “man”. To be a true man means to be virtuous; to fail in virtue is to fail in manhood.
So what does this have to do with raking leaves? The week of Thanksgiving is the time when most of the leaves have fallen and my yard is littered with them. So it’s time to rake them up. They go into a long pile at the street-edge of the front yard, and a truck will come through the neighborhood once a week to suck them up. I could use a leaf-blower, but so far I have resisted. I still use a leaf rake—a rather small one, actually. It’s much better exercise, uses no power, and it’s quiet except for the persistent sound of the scrape of the rake against the earth. And my heavy breathing once I get going. Raking leaves is hard work.
This year I did the chore over a two day period: first one side, and then the other, moving the leaves from the back yard (where nearly all the leaves fall) through the side gates to the front yard and the strip adjacent to the street. You begin with a few leaves, but it doesn’t take long to build up to a pile, and the more you rake, the bigger the pile becomes. A half hour into the task, and just to make a little progress you have to move the entire pile.
As I was raking, it occurred to me that the spiritual life is like this. The farther you go, the harder it gets. You can see the clear ground behind you, but ahead is the daunting, leaf-covered yard and a lot to move just to make the least progress. The inner voices say, “Take a break; you’ve worked hard enough for now.” And, “Feel that pain in your shoulders, thighs, and lower back as you turn and twist and heave the pile forward; that’s gonna really hurt tomorrow. Better stop now.” And, “You don’t need to finish today. Just leave the pile and come back another time.” And, “Your neighbors will think you’re either too stupid or too poor to buy a leaf blower. They’ll think you’re old fashioned or don’t know any better. That young guy across the street with a leaf blower is obviously smarter and more efficient than you are.” Or even, “Wow, look at that 69-year-old man go! He doesn’t look a day over 65!” And, “You can leave that part of the yard unraked; it’s really not too bad and it’ll be easier and faster to let it go.” These messages are persistent and repetitive, appearing ever more and more sensible and attractive.
But as soon as I connected leaf raking with a dedication to growing in sanctity, I committed to finishing the job in one day. No giving up, even for a short time except to breathe deeply for a moment and swallow a little water. Across the back yard, through the narrow gate, and across the front yard. I recognized that the inner messages of discouragement, urgings to slow down or rest, or about what others may be thinking were the same messages that come whenever I try to become more and more obedient to God and his call to rely on his grace. Maybe the ever-increasing difficulty is a sign of progress—but really, it’s not progress but persistence that is important; I don’t think anyone can ever tell if he is making “progress”.
As I age, I become more and more aware of my grievous sins, my psychological and emotional burdens and failures, and how far short I am of life’s real BHAG. I can talk and preach the message of grace and mercy and God’s love and promises, but it is still hard for me to internalize it. It’s all grace, but that doesn’t in the least mean that there is no hard work to be done; on the contrary, the greater the dedication to “be a man, be a saint”, the harder it is. This is how God works. Any commitment to another takes work, and the commitment to God most of all, for there the stakes are highest and the reward the richest. “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things” (Philippians 3:13-15).
It took nearly three hours, but when it was done, there was a good-sized pile of leaves along the street-side of the front yard. But tomorrow, more leaves will fall. “Let us live up to what we have attained” (Philippians 3:16).
Saturday, October 21, 2017
I like coincidences. They make life interesting because they are completely unexpected, serendipitous occurrences in one’s day. I’ve experienced a few that I remember years later, and still shake my head with wonder as I remember them.
Once I was buying dog food at a local tack and feed shop, and noticed a mother and young daughter in the store. I put the forty pound sack of dog food in the car and went on to my next errand—shopping at the Trader Joe’s about four miles away. As I was wheeling my cart through the store, the same mother and daughter came in.
Back in the late 1990s I was trying to find a scarce book. A book dealer I knew suggested that a contact a man in Tuscon, Arizona, who had made an authorized reprint of the book. I made the contact, and have enjoyed a friendship with that individual for over twenty years. Shortly after the book dealer’s recommendation, I was visiting a print museum in Carson City, and spent a little time talking with the owner. He mentioned that he knew a printer who still used the old-fashioned methods and machinery. I was amazed when it dawned on me that he was referring to the same person in Tuscon.
Two or three months ago I was at the post office in town and noted a car in front of me with a personalized license plate. An hour or so later, when I was driving out of the parking lot at the local Walmart, I found myself behind the same car. Well, that’s not too much of a coincidence since this is a small town. But back in 2012 when I was living in Orange County, California, I headed out to visit a friend. In front of me on the freeway was a car with an interesting and clever personalized license plate. I went on to visit my friend twenty miles away, spent an hour with him, then drove back home. As I turned off the freeway to the surface street that led to my home, I saw that I had pulled up behind the same car with its clever license plate. Orange County has a population of several million people and its freeways are almost always crowded with a million cars.
After I moved out of Orange County, there was one teenager I regretted not saying good-bye to; I was just too busy with many things under deadlines to take the time to do everything I wanted. Two years later I came back to visit friends and they suggested that we go to a movie at a local mall. I remembered that it was that teenager’s birthday. We went to the mall, and, in this same county with its millions of inhabitants, I saw the teenager. We had a very welcome meeting and a satisfying closure.
Back in 1980, while I sat in an easy chair I was watching my two-year-old son sitting on the carpet in the living room looking through the sliding glass door that led to the patio outside. It was pouring rain, and I remember being impressed with his rapt attention as he stared outside. Thirty years later, long after he had moved out, he came home for a visit. Once again I was sitting in that same easy chair; again it was pouring rain, and he stood in the very same place where he had sat as a toddler, looking outside with the same rapt attention.
A year or two ago, after a number of years without contact, I emailed a friend of mine who is a fan of the science fiction books I’ve written. We were glad to be back in communication, and after exchanging some pleasantries, we discovered that the small town where I moved after I retired was his home town, the small town where he had grown up in the 1950s. He was now living in New York and I was living more than 2,000 miles from where I was living when I wrote the books. And in another coincidence, the name of the town where he lives now is the same as the town where he grew up. He came to visit me, and the house where he was a child still exists.
Any of these coincidences could have been missed had something been slightly different. Ten seconds either way, or being in a different room, or holding off on an email, and the coincidence would either never have happened, or would have been unrecognized if it did happen. Sometimes I wonder how many near misses we may have in our lives. Maybe none of these coincidences is of any significance other than to inspire wonder—but then wonder is a terrific part of life.
Monday, October 09, 2017
Eleven years ago today I began this blog with a post about finding invincible beauty and joy in the midst of emptiness and discouragement:
In some ways, that’s been the theme of this blog all along; its title “JohnOneFive” is a reference to the fifth verse of the first chapter of John’s Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” After well over a hundred posts since then, even I am somewhat surprised at how many of them present this theme.
And this one will too. It’s been more than two years since I last posted, and I think that now a lot of attention has turned from blogs to Facebook and other social media. But there are still a lot of blogs, and I hope to continue this one now more regularly. Many things have changed in my life in the past few years, more than I ever thought they would or could, and probably fewer people will read this blog than used to, but maybe it’ll be good for me to get back to blogging anyway. I have a backlog of lots of ideas, and it’ll be good to write them up.
Well. Surrounded by Wonder. I now have a daughter. She’ll turn two in December. She lives in a house with several walls of books. She’s had books of her own just about since she was born, and she loves them. First we read them to her, then she learned to read them on her own, and recently she’s read to others. They’re mostly pictures, of course, but she knows the alphabet and can pick out a few words, and can identify probably over a hundred illustrations like clouds, lampposts, turtles, lions, and balloons.
Watching her sit and read a few days ago, I thought about how many hundreds of excellent books there are in the house that she’ll be able to read in a few years. They are there now, and she even takes them off the shelves on almost a daily basis, and has learned to take care of them. But of course right now they are inaccessible to her—no more than marks on a page.
And then I thought how the whole world must be like that to everyone. Electricity was around before Benjamin Franklin began the process of harnessing it, but no one knew about it except to watch lightning. Only in the past century or so have we begun to understand the nature of atoms, molecules, and the wonders of quantum mechanics, though everything is made of atoms. Mystery has always been all around us, unknown and unrecognized; the Unified Theory is still a theory, tantalizing us with mysteries yet unknown. The more we learn, the more mysteries become evident.
This is all obvious to inquiring minds, and nothing very profound. But maybe it’s a good place to restart a blog after a two-year hiatus.
“Many things greater than these lie hidden, for we have seen but few of his works” (Sirach 43:32)
Monday, May 18, 2015
As I was preparing my sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, I decided to focus my words on one verse from the appointed epistle: 1 John 5:12——“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Amidst all the other lessons and teaching and exhortation that can be done, these words hit the very center of the target. How to put them into a sermon was not, however, obvious.
As I lay on the couch my eyes wandered to a wall full of books and eventually settled on my collection of books by Albert Capwell Wyckoff. As I did so, gradually the sermon came into place.
Wyckoff is one of my favorite authors. He was born in 1903. In 1926 the first of his novels was published. Over a ten year period he produced 21 excellent adventure and mystery stories aimed at boys. More than any other popular author I’ve read from that time period, he presented the era in which he wrote with an almost painful attractiveness. Boarding houses, automobiles, chickens in their coop, autumn weather, winter snowfalls, lonely streets at night, homespun meals, drives in the country, … they are all presented with a simplicity and charm that can make the reader ache for the time.
Even the titles of his books draw one in, such as The Sea Runners’ Cache, The Mercer Boys and the Indian Gold, The Secret of the Armor Room. In 1936, his last boys’ book appeared: Search for the City of Gold. He apparently stopped writing, except for an occasional short story in Boys’ Life magazine or other periodical.
During the 1930s, the time of the Great Depression, Wyckoff was a missionary in the Ozarks. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he devoted those years to living among and ministering to people who were impoverished, poorly educated, and whom much of society had passed by. He wrote a short book about those days called Challenge of the Hills.
In the 1940s he became pastor of the Presbyterian church in Columbia, Kentucky where he spent his last days. And at that time, he began to write and publish more books. Rather than adventure and mystery stories for boys, however, these books were Christian novels set in the post-war era. There are eight of them. (A ninth was not published until it came out in a limited edition of twenty copies in 2001, and a tenth exists only in typescript form.) These have titles such as Victory at Daybreak, The Bells are Ringing, and The Winning of Kay Slade. Like his boys’ stories, these also breathe the air of the time in which they were written, presenting the late 1940s with a beauty all their own.
When I first read these books, I enjoyed them very much but concluded that their theology was rather simple. They are mostly about people who lack faith, but are eventually brought to it by the example, encouragement, and prayers of others. And then I thought later that, simple as the message was, it was right in the center of the target. They never intended to be the “whole target”, but only the center. In that, they succeed.
It is easy for church members and leaders, especially in liturgical and historic churches such as my own, to be get caught up in externals of worship, classes, social projects, Bible studies, and the like. These are important, and some are even essential. But as I reflected on the passage from 1 John 5:12—“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life,” I once again noted that, in words of just about one syllable, that’s the heart of the Christian message: the bull’s eye. And that is what Capwell Wyckoff was writing about in his Christian novels.
Albert Capwell Wyckoff died prematurely, just before his fiftieth birthday in 1953. I am privileged to own his personal New Testament that he kept in the glove compartment of his car, given to me by his daughter. After writing my sermon, I took that small leather-bound volume out of its box where I keep it, and noticed that he had carefully outlined important passages for Christian life and profession. He had used a pink colored pencil and a ruler to make his lines clear and square. Almost certain of what I would find, I turned to 1 John and looked up the passage I had read in my own Bible. As I expected, I noted that he had outlined the same passage:
I am blessed and grateful for Capwell Wyckoff and his teaching. I own all his books and, to the best of my knowledge, every short story that he wrote, either in published, manuscript, or typescript form. He was a fine man, and he knew where the bull’s eye is.