Monday, December 25, 2006

Telling the stories and singing the songs

As I write this, Only Son and I are listening to a rebroadcast of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves. The Twins are changing radio broadcasters this year, and the new station has been airing back-to-back all 14 games of the 1987 and 1991 World Series (with 30-second commercial breaks between innings instead of the usual 2 minutes). We've resisted listening round-the-clock (it is Christmas, after all), but we've been listening to this game from the first pitch.

Any of you who are real baseball fans will remember this game, and the series -- many believe it was the best game of the best World Series ever. The score was 0-0 through ten innings. Each team had opportunities to score but couldn't, sometimes because of spectacular fielding plays, once by an inexplicable base-running mistake. Twice late in the game each team had bases loaded with one out but hit into a double play. It was close and it was exciting.

Even though I know how the game "turned out," I'm on pins and needles. Many details I'd forgotten are coming back anew, brought out by the real-time radio announcers describing the game and the sound of the roaring crowd's surge and gasps. The fact that I know who won isn't taking away the experience of the game at all, and it really isn't the point.

Listening together with Only Son makes a difference. He was only five months old when the game was played, asleep in his mother's arms for most of it, except for being startled every couple of innings at some exciting play or another. We've reminisced about the game before, and have heard highlights of it, but this time we're listening to it together, pitch by pitch, inning by inning.

But the point of this post isn't about baseball, it's about Christmas. I know how that story turns out, too, but I never tire of retelling it, or of hearing it told. It always is alive for me, always fresh, always teaching something new, something deeper, something hidden that I'd missed before.

It's like this for all the important stories. It isn't how the story "turns out" that matters. The importance is in the telling, especially the retelling together in community where all listen together.

Here's one new insight I picked up this year. As the children get older, I've been reading more of the prophets during our Advent Sunday evenings in addition to the Matthew and Luke pasages. This year, I reached a few verses back from the Peaceable Kingdom passage of Isaiah 11 and it was like unwrapping a gift. Here's how that chapter starts:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
A branch shall grow out of his roots.
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and might,
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.;
and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
I love the spirits that rest upon the branch of Jesse, and the promise to "decide with equity for the meek of the earth." To a lawyer, this is a striking passage. The coming Messiah will not necessarily be even-handed in his application of the Law, deciding for the little guy only when the Law is on his side; the text says that he will decide for the meek, which either means that the Law is always on the side of the meek, or that the Law isn't a neutral set of principles after all but is a tool or weapon for righteousness.

And what is this about smiting the earth with the rod and slaying the wicked with his mouth and breath of his lips? And the girdles? These are amazing images, to me, and helps me understand "the fear of the Lord" in a new way.

I don't intend to meditate on the passage just now, but just to mention how telling the same story again can open new doors of understanding.

(As I was typing the last sentence, Gene Larkin hit in the winning run and the Twins won 1-0.)

* * * * *
This was a very good Christmas for singing. We sang carols during the adult education hour before meeting yesterday, and then after the Christmas Eve evening meeting for worship, this afternoon at a Catholic Charities shelter, and then again at a gathering of friends at a friend's house. The singing was vigorous and enthusiastic (even though it wasn't shape note). There is nothing that makes me feel better than singing.

* * * * *
Speaking of singing, we just watched the movie Joyeux Noel twice over the past few days, and I recommend it highly. It tells the story of Christmas Eve 1914 when German, Scot, and French soldiers met in no-man's-land and, well, fraternized (i.e., acted like brothers). The film is very nicely done with only a few over-the-top moments.

I had first heard of the incident from John McCutcheon's song Christmas in the Trenches, and again in an NPR interview with one of the last survivors of the events. (Apparently, in real life this happened at more than one place along the front. Also, a certain corporal Hitler was disgusted when he learned what happened and refused to participate.) The thing that Joyeux Noel and Christmas in the Trenches have most in common was that it was the soldiers' singing that started everything.

This does not surprise me. Singing the old songs again is a lot like retelling the old stories. It keeps alive a common memory over time, like passing a bit of genetic material from generation to generation. If singing could encourage soldiers to lay their arms down once, it can do so again.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

God jul

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Christian life is jazz.

I probably have Quakersauer over at Friendly Skripture Study to thank for pointing me towards, Faith and Theology , a self-described Barthian blog. It's a bit -- no, a lot -- more academic in orientation than I am able to comprehend; most of the references are unknown to me.

Nevertheless, my recent immersion in the life and writings of William Stringfellow -- who, as a young lay theologian during Karl Barth's 1962 tour of the U.S. was singled out by Barth as one of the few who really got what he was saying -- gives me appreciation for at least some of what I read there.

Today, there's a particularly interesting essay entitled Ten Thoughts on the Literal and the Literary that that addresses much more powerfully the point I tried to make in my last post about how art can convey Truth better than most intellectual discourse. There is a particulary interesting though brief thought on something called "virtue ethics" that struck home, and about which I'd like to learn more.

The whole essay is worth reading, but here are a few tantalizing excerpts:

The more literal, the less literary a person is likely to be – and vice versa. . . . To plagiarise Paul, the literal crucifies, the literary resurrects: meaning walks through closed doors. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” Emily Dickinson).
* * *
Fundamentalist ethics are rule-based, and the answers to moral problems are found, decontextualised, at the back of the (good) book. Jesus’preferred method of ethical instruction, however, is the parable, “subversive speech” (William R. Herzog II). Indeed Richard B. Hays argues that a “symbolic world as context for moral discernment” is fundamental to the entire New Testament. “The kingdom of God is like this.” Enter the story, work it out – then act it out!
* * *
Rules are not excluded, but they function heuristically, as “perspicuous descriptive summaries of good judgments” (Martha Nussbaum), to inculcate habits appropriate to the development of Christ-like character. Moral theology works best when it tells the stories of the saints. Virtue ethics is narrative ethics,where the script is unfinished and improvisation is essential. The Christian life is jazz.
* * *
One of the great filmic send-ups of biblical literalism: the opening scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The camera pans to Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, and then to a group at a distance where our Lord’s voice doesn’t quite carry. “Blessed are the cheese makers,” one character hears. “What’s so special about the cheese makers?” asks a woman. “Obviously it is not to be taken literally,” her husband replies; “it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”
* * *
If we are ignorant of science we lapse into Idiocy 101-102: Creationism; or Imbecility 201-202: Intelligent Design. But if we are ignorant of literature, mere ignorance becomes downright dangerous – witness the nonsensical interpretations of biblical apocalypse by the religious right and its pernicious influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

I like this. It changes the question from "What do you think?" to "What's your story?"

Saturday, December 16, 2006

La Natividad

It's been uncommonly warm and dry in Minneapolis and I've had some trouble getting into the Christmas Spirit. Baking cookies for St. Nicholas Day helped a bit (it was cold that week, actually), but not so much. But I'm gradually getting there.

First was a couple of Sunday afternoon singings -- one from the Sacred Harp, the other of Christmas carols from Worship in Song. These got the right juices flowing a bit.

On Tuesday, our men's group went to the home of one of our members who is recovering from surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy for esophogeal cancer. We had arranged with his wife that our coming was OK, and we entered the unlocked door singing, of course, God rest ye, merry gentlemen. We were warned that John tired easily and that 15 to 20 minutes might be all he could take. But we ended up staying two hours, alternately visiting and singing and had to pull ourselves away at 11. There were four of us singing, and each of the others knew his harmony part, so I could sing melody and it sounded wonderful.

Then came last night.

Two weeks ago last Friday, I was at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theater for a meeting concerning next summer's FGC Gathering. When the meeting was over, I went upstairs to buy tickets to HOBT's Christmas program, La Natividad. I happened to remark that I was disappointed that the leaflet seeking volunteers arrived at my home arrived two weeks after rehearsals started - I had wanted to sing in the show's choir. Not to worry, someone said, we still need volunteers, and what do you know?: I was made the star of the show.

That is, I was given the job of carrying the Star of Bethlehem, a swirling 4-foot wide four-armed star (think swastika with the arms spiraling inward) painted brilliant white and lashed to the end of a 15-foot wooden pole, lately a trunk or branch of a tree. It isn't quite as easy as it sounds -- the whole contraption weighs 15 to 20 pounds, with the bulk of the weight on the top end where the wind adds the weight of its own opinion -- but all in all it doesn't tax my dramatic talent very much.

The show is beautiful, as usual for anything HOBT does. It follows the Nativity story as told by Matthew and Luke, and is based on the Mexican Posada tradition. It begins in El Mercado Central on Lake Street with the Annunciation to Maria and José, after which the audience is herded across the street for the census which strongly resembles an immigration port of entry with all the associated indignities.

Then to the theater a half-block away where snoring and scratching shepherds on the stage are awakened by a couple of dozen of star children in blue and little white stars on sticks (can you say "cute"?) -- and the angel choir. After they leave for Bethlehem, the Star (ahem) rises slowly and settles stage left and the three Magi enter. They -- and the star -- are seen by a buffoonish but dangerously insecure Herod who defines the situation as one of insecure borders and poor intelligence, with "them" coming in "by land; by sea; by wooooman" he sneers. The Angel Choir sing the Magi's part, informing him that they seek the Holy Child, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, etc. Herod is understandably worried since he is the Decider around here thank you. He sends the big blue Kings off with the false request that they tell him where they find the Holy Child so he, too, can worship him. Ha. He fools no one.

The Star then leads the entire throng -- Magi, angels, star children, shepherds, audience, and masked oversized Maria y José riding their donkey -- north on 15th Avenue (lined on both sides with luminaria) towards St. Paul Lutheran Church three blocks away. The choir and brass band leads everyone in singing “En el nombre del cielo pedimos posada. . .” (In the name of heaven, we ask for a place to stay.) Over and over. And over. (I guess, if you're going to get a tune stuck in your head, you couldn't ask for a more lovely one.)

But there's trouble ahead. As we approach the bridge over the old railroad right-of-way that is now a bicycle greenway, we see a sinister border fence with Herod stands on a raised platform with a megaphone. He bars the way: You have no papers, no money, turn back. The scene is lit with spotlights and looks truly frightening. The procession stops just short of the fence. José three times steps forward and asks in the name of Heaven for shelter via large banners in English and Spanish; finally, he says "We come in peace" but Herod will have none of it.

While this confrontation is going on, from the far side of the fence -- from St. Paul church to the north -- comes Neighbors (led by the pastors of St. Paul) with star-torches and a giant banner saying "Bienviendos." They first appear as twinking lights but we recognize them as people as they gradually come closer and the tension at the border rises.

As they approach the fence, the Neighbors hold up signs saying "Tio" and "Tia", "Uncle" and "Aunt" and "Cousin" and "Hermana y Hermano" etc. recognizing the homeless couple as their relatives and welcoming them, despite the fence. Eventually, they hang the signs around the necks of Herod's henchmen (who are holding up the crossed fence poles) who realize that they are keeping their own relatives out in the cold. They slowly carry the poles over to Herod and gradually bury him creating an opening.

The procession is then welcomed by the Neighbors from St. Paul and everyone continues through the breach, following the Bienvenidos banner to the church. (The building is a beautiful old Swedish Lutheran church with Bible verses in Svensk on the stained glass windows; it is now predominately Hispanic.) The audience goes in, and then the Star leads in the Angels, Maria y Jose (now masked life-size figures) and the rest into the sanctuary. Maria y José take their place on a raised platform in front of the altar (and the Star). The choir sings a beautiful Mexican lullaby.

Then come the animals: a giant white crane; sheep; white deer or antelopes; mice; chipmunks; two blue-and-green timberwolves on all fours (with old Herod being the adult wolf -- we say he does wicked well); a Bison; etc. They and the Magi and the Star Children form a kind of screen around the creche, whereupon the masked Maria y José slip out and the living ones -- who we last saw at the Annunciation -- take their places along with their real live (5 week old) baby boy in arms. The adorers then part, and the congregation sees the living Holy Family and gives the most amazing sigh and gasp, and then applause. (That's when I started crying.)

Narrators then recite -- in English and Spanish -- portions of the Peaceable Kingdom prophecy from Isaiah 11 about the little child leading them, and the pastors invite everyone to a Fiesta in the church hall adjacent to the sanctuary and the band and choir start singing sprightly dancing songs and the entire congregation and performers join in.

I was pleased that my brother, his wife, and three of their four children came to the performance with us. I worried a bit initially that the political references might turn them off, but my friend Greg (one of the wisest of the wise men) talked to me at a rehearsal about the importance of the Living Word, of the Word manifesting and incarnating itself anew all the time, addressing the concrete circumstances of real people, not storybook characters. That reassured me and I stopped worrying about it.

It is so much fun being part of a production like this, but fun doesn't begin to describe it. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have a small part in giving a gift like this to our community, helping the dark streets shine with an everlasting light. I am more and more convinced that the Truth is conveyed more fully in the "arts" broadly defined -- story and literature, theater, song and music, poetry, all of them -- than in all the theological or philosophical disourse in the world, and I am so happy that In the Heart of the Beast gives me and hundreds like me the chance to participate.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A great teacher

Today I learned of the death of a a man who made a difference, not only in my life, but in hundreds of others.

The phrase "bigger than life" is such a cliche that it's insulting to use it about Walt Reiner, but I can't think of anything better. The obituary below just hints at it.

I can't even begin to describe how he influenced my life. I met him at Valparaiso University shortly before I went on the Urban Studies semester that he founded and was on the staff of. Upon returning to campus, I worked some with the organization that he helped to found that had helped the first black families move to Valparaiso, and gradually learned from him about how a committed Christian (though I was neither) engaged in the world. He was very political -- at least he talked a lot about politics -- but unconventionally, and radically. He never talked about elections or candidates or policies. He talked about "principalities" and "powers" and "technology" how they had lives of their own, independent of the people who worked for them, and that it was foolish to think they could be brought under control. They were to be contested and resisted even though resistance is futile. He said it was OK to be vegetarian, as long as we didn't think we were changing the world.

He was a friend and disciple of Jacques Ellul and I participated in several groups he led that read and discussed Ellul. To be honest, at the time I couldn't understand hardly anything that either Walt or Ellul said, except that I knew it was true and powerful and important and pointed to the way I wanted to go. I have only recently, through my growing acquaintance with the life and writings of William Stringfellow begun to be able to articulate what it was that Walt (and Jacques) were trying to say and understand why I always found it so powerful, even if it was mysterious.

But it wasn't just what he said, it was how he lived. He was a man of action. He was a builder, of a new house so a neighbor could move there from Chicago, or an addition to his own house so his mother-in-law could live there. I don't think he was very scrupulous about getting permits or anything like that; he didn't need Nike to tell him to just do it.

I remember when, on Urban Studies, there was a Very Important Discussion one morning about how unfair it was that everyone got the same number of CTA bus tokens when those of us who lived in Lincoln Park could walk to most of the class meetings but the folks from Uptown had to take the el and a bus each way. Someone stood up and proposed that everyone in the Lincoln Park group give X% of their tokens to the Uptown contingent, except for the ones who had a car who would get half the number etc. Walt stood up and said, don't make a program out of it, don't make a rule about it, just do it. Give up some of your tokens to your fellow students, but as friends helping each other, not as penance for some imagined injustice.

There was another telling thing about Walt: In the 1970 Valpo yearbook in the faculty section, many professors were shown lecturing in their classrooms, or maybe a couple riding their bicycles to class. But in the middle of that section there was a photo of a mass of people -- almost all of them black -- at some sort of a demonstration in a park in Chicago. I must have looked at that picture a hundred times before I noticed that, in the middle of it all, and looking in the opposite direction as most of the people, was Walt. There he was, in the midst of where it was happening, like he always was.

There was one very personal thing that I will never forget and for which I am eternally grateful. When I was 23, my girlfriend got pregnant. We didn't know what to do, so we did what was natural for any of us who had studied with Walt, we walked down to see him and Lois. We told them the news, and Walt's and Lois's response confirmed for us that this was in fact good news, the evidence not withstanding. We left saying, "The machine is not going to get this baby." It is not very much of an exaggeration to say that a beautiful 29-year old woman owes her life in large part to him.

Oh, this is so inadequate, but I like to think that I have continued however hesitently or indirectly down the path he steered me towards, and for that I am grateful for his life. Here's what the newspaper had to say:

Walt Reiner Valparaiso, IN. On December 5, 2006, Walt Reiner, who described himself as a "community resource redistributor" died surrounded by family and friends. Walt, 82, was born on December 29, 1923, in Tampa, Flordia, the youngest of three sons, to Otto and Frances (Mugge) Reiner.

Growing up during the days of the Great Depression, Walter helped support his family from a very young age, eventually enlisting in the U.S. Navy during World War II where he participated in the first wave of attacks on Omaha and Normandy beaches, and subsequently served tours in North Africa and East Asia.

Following the War, Walter attended Springfield College in Springfield, MA, and, upon graduation, accepted a football coaching position at Valparaiso University. During his tenure as "Coach" Walter led the Crusaders to its only bowl game in VU's history, coaching such legends as Fred "Fuzzy" Thurston (Green Bay Packers) and earning hall-of-fame status in 2001. Walter was given leave from his coaching duties to serve his country during the Korean War.

In 1952, he returned to VU and married the love of his life, his partner, his "Schatz" (treasure), and wife of 54 years, Lois (Bertram Dau) Reiner.

In the early 1960's, Walt was asked by former VU President, O.P. Kretzmann, to begin the Youth Leadership Training Program, which sought to connect young people to programs serving the broader community and world. In 1965, Walt moved his family to Chicago where he served as Director of Prince of Peace Volunteers, guiding 34 teams of volunteers in U.S. inner cities and overseas, whose work was captured in the documentary film "I Believe" which aired on NBC in 1966.

During the 1960's, Walt supported Vietnam War Conscientious Objectors and became a civil rights activist in his own right. His leadership activities and commitment to human rights sustained him through a heresy trial before the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in 1967. From 1960 through 1968, Walt served as Director of Camp Concordia, a Lutheran camp in Gowen, Michigan. During the late sixties, Walt was a founder of the Association of the Colleges of the Midwest's Urban Studies Program in Chicago, offering students at Valparaiso University as well as a consortium of liberal arts colleges, the opportunity to truly experience the diversity of the city and to connect with those who were creatively addressing issues of racism, poverty, violence and other issues faced by thousands of people on a daily basis.