Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Squirming Uncomfortably...

A question to me from Fellow Traveler:

"Do you think you pray enough?"

Artwork: "Meditations" by Solomon Raj

Your Light Has Come...Thanks Be To God!

Here's the new stained-glass window, portraying the hands of God, just installed in the new addition of our church.

The Way It Is Here Now

This week our town lost another business.

It wasn’t that big of a business; nine employees. And it wasn’t just a local closing; the company closed stores in several other states.

But it was just another economic kick in the teeth to Outer Podunk – never an affluent community, but hurting now bigtime, like the rest of Michigan.

There’s a real, widespread sense of disheartenment here – everywhere from Ann Arbor, which just lost a large Pfizer research facility, to always-struggling northern Michigan, a region that has come to depend economically on downstate tourists and well-to-do retired autoworkers, two groups now in very short supply, and whose modest small-town industrial parks seem to bleed newly laid-off workers every week. A coworker of mine, returning from a road trip to visit recently relocated family in Atlanta, commented to me, with some bemusement, “You wouldn’t believe it – they have so many job openings down there that they advertise them on freeway billboards.”

One local newspaper pundit blames our state’s malaise on the misperception elsewhere that Michigan is too unionized and high-wage – something that has never been the case north of, say, Lansing – scaring new investment away. Others blame our state’s tax structure and bureaucratic bloat. Others blame the state educational system for failing to train young people in skills that are currently in demand, and for a kind of whistling-in-the-graveyard cultural blue-collar mindset here that refuses to take seriously the reality that manufacturing is no longer going to be the economic backbone of the state – that it’s time to get over it, to finally pull the plug on that Rustbelt wish-dream of restored assembly-line glory, so we can finally move on in a new direction.

I’m not an economist – I have a hard time balancing my checkbook – so I’m not in any position to opine upon causes of or solutions to Michigan’s woes. But it makes me very sad to live here right now. Because this is a good state to live in. And it could be a great state. We have areas of incredible natural beauty that I think are unknown to many if not most other Americans – sometimes even other Michiganians. We have a well-regarded university system, and well-respected private colleges. Our state has pockets of social progressivism and tolerance; of artistry and artisanship; of creative entrepreneurship. We have so much potential to be something other than what the general public thinks of when they think of Michigan, if they think of Michigan at all – something other than slums and boarded-up factories and empty storefronts.

Pray for us, in Outer Podunk and elsewhere. We need it.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Do You Have a Peculiar Aristocratic Title?

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
Viscountess LutheranChik the Spurious of Goosnargh on the Carpet
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

Hat tip to new RevGal Junia's Daughter .

Monday, January 29, 2007


Overheard conversation here in Outer Podunk:

"I ain't votin' fer no one named Obama, 'cause that sounds too much like Osama."

Welcome to my world.

Hoosier Hot Dogs?

It seemed like a great, easy idea for a Superbowl party: Serve hot dogs, offering the favorite respective regional toppings of the Bears and the Colts.

Chicago dogs are are a no-brainer...but is there a favorite Indianapolis, or even favorite Indiana, type of hot dog? My Internet research is drawing a blank.

Since Dungy is a Michigan native, I'm leaning toward a Michigan-style coney-dog sauce and usual accoutrements. But does anyone out there have any reliable insight into the regional preferences of Indiana wiener eaters?

Cool Stuff For Pod People

Check out the podcasts here .

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Loving a God Who Hates

Awhile back I told you about an online antagonist -- someone from a conservative, culturally aggressive Protestant denomination -- who hangs out on a newbies' "learn about Christianity" forum I sometimes post on, who feels compelled to "fix," in so many words, the mainline/mainstream responses to questions.

He struck again this weekend. The initial question was about the idea of a "jealous" God -- the questioner asked how a God who is perfect could be jealous, and if in fact that was an indication that jealousy is a good thing. The mainstream responses were along the lines of discussing the use of language in Scripture -- that by necessity we can only use metaphors grounded in our own experience to describe a God much bigger and "other" than we are, and that the "jealousy" of God spoken about in Scripture is not an endorsement of the self-serving, controlling human variety but rather an attempt to emphasize God's special relationship with and covanental claim on the people of Israel.

So along comes this fellow, who either doesn't understand or doesn't agree with what's been said, and then goes on to make the rather remarkable statement, more than once, "God hates those who hate him and loves those who love him."

This is a head-scratcher: A proudly self-professing"Bible-believer" who can read the Gospels -- read about a Jesus who tells us to bless those who curse us, be good to those who are bad to us; who asks God to forgive the people who've just betrayed him, convicted him in a religious-political kangaroo court, tortured him and are now slowly executing him; who, according to the author of John's Gospel, "so loved the world" -- and come away with the idea that God hates people; not in a kind of metaphorical, hyperbolic sense, but for real.

Sometimes I just don't get Christians. I don't get them at all.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ugly Ministry

The other day, while talking about an upcoming workshop I'm going to themed around what those of us in our lay ministry training program can do with that training once we graduate, Fellow Traveler asked me, "Well, what sort of ministry would you like to do?"
(Just a sidebar that, while I joked the other day about my dog being my spiritual director, it's actually Fellow Traveler who acts in that capacity most of the time -- whether in the form of encouragement, gentle chastisement or simple excitement about the spiritual life...the kind of excitement that a jaded churchy type like me sometimes needs to be around. Fellow Traveler's love and support exemplifies -- what's that interesting term in the ELCA's "Visions and Expectations"? -- competency in interpersonal relationships. Tres' ironic, that.)
I know that when I enrolled in the program I did some brainstorming about what I might like to do once I finished. I seem to recall wanting to do something with ministry to older adults, and online ministry, and of course just helping out in my own parish. Since then, I will admit to not having fleshed out these ideas very much. I know graduates of my program who are now doing things like chaplaincies (FT thinks I'd make a good hospital chaplain...after my experience with my mother I'm not sure this is the case, but I won't rule it out), helping out churches that are between pastors, leading small groups...
I don't know. I just don't know what I want to do.
But I do know how I want to do ministry.
I want it ugly.
I love the ABC comedy Ugly Betty. I relate to Ugly Betty the way I've always related to Charlie Brown. If you're not acquainted with the program -- in the spirit of The Devil Wears Prada, Betty is a geeky Latino young woman -- braces, bangs, an unruly unibrow, disturbing taste in clothing -- who has, remarkably, found herself working for an upscale, Vogue-ish fashion magazine. She is surrounded by Beautiful People who tend to treat her like something they've found sticking to the sole of their designer shoe. Despite this, Betty has heart; Betty perserveres; and when life becomes un-beautiful for one of the Beautiful People, Betty has a talent for making things right in a way that earns her at least a grudging respect, and occasionally even affection, from her coworkers.
My denomination, sadly, as well as the dominant culture, often makes me feel ugly. (Note to any ecclesiastical bigshots reading this blog: "We love you and invite you into the life of the Church! Well, kind of...we really...but don't go away!...unless you really want to...not that we want you to, but...oh, and you need to ditch the partner if you actually want to do anything in our denomination other than warm a pew" is really not being "welcoming.") I can't do a lot about that. But I suspect that there are a lot of other people who feel ugly for a variety of reasons, who might be encouraged by having an ugly person doing Godstuff. And perhaps a Beautiful Person or two might someday find that it's good to have an "ugly" friend in ministry.
(Hat tip to Wikipedia for the photo)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Friday Poetry Blogging

Okay...maybe it's because I had a harrowing trip to work this morning through an unexpected, unpredicted snowstorm -- one that's supposed to turn into freezing rain, just when I have to be at the printer's office in a city 20 miles down the highway -- but this poem seemed particularly apropos, if not particularly cheery, this morning:

The Archangel Winter

In the dread circle hemmed by glaciers,
Pallid waste where no radiant fathomers,
Columbuses or Gamas, ever pass,
In realms of dingy gloom and deep crevasse
Seized from creation by nonentity,
Beyond ice floe and berg and ice-bound sea,
Deep in the fog that quenches every ray,
In stone waves and rock waters, far from day,
Amid the gloom, there, on the pole, stands black
Archangel Winter, darkness on his back
And trumpet at his lips; nor does he cast
One flash of eye, or blow one clarion-blast;
He never even dreams, being sheer snow;
The winged winds, captives of that age-old foe
Silence, are in his hand—birds in a snare;
His sightless eyes horribly watch the air;
Hoarfrost is in his bones and on his head,
And he is swathed in ever-petrified dread;
He terrifies the Vast, he seems so wild;
He is harsh, dismal, ice—that is, exiled;
The earth beneath his feet, in its dark cape,
Is dumb; he is the mute white stony shape
Set on that tomb in the eternal night;
Never does any motion, sound, or light
Brush the lone giant in that somber pall.
But when, on the timepieces that we call
Stars, the last day, endless and centerless,
Will sound, then the Lord's face will luminesce
And melt the spirit; his mouth will distend
Suddenly, in a savage, dreadful bend,
And the worlds—skiffs rudderless, rolling on—
Will hear the storm-blast of his clarion.
-- Victor Hugo

Friday Five, Self-Care Edition

Oh, this is a difficult Friday Five for me, because I am notorious for engaging in the "burnt toast syndrome" -- i.e., assigning myself sloppy seconds instead of taking care of myself in a mindful way. But, anyway -- the week's question is, what are our four favorite self-care activities, and what is a fifth one that we don't do, or do much, that we would maybe like to do, or do more?

1. Sleep. How I love sleep. When I was little, my parents never had to nag me into going to bed; from a tiny tot on, I learned how to take off my clothes, put on my jammies, and go to bed by myself. Now, for various reasons, I have lately been very bad at getting enough sleep; it took my recent bout with sickness to force me into an 8- or even 9-hour sleeping schedule, instead of 5 or 6 hours. But I am starting to notice a positive difference in how I feel and think. So goodbye Letterman, hello blankie.

2. Soap. If cleanliness is next to godliness, I should be glowing with holy light...because I love hot, soapy showers. I love soap -- especially artisanal, cottage-industry soaps infused with fragrant herbs and oils. Ah...I wish that was where I was right now.

3. Chocolate. Well, that one is pretty self-explanatory.

4. Beauty. No, not the beauty shop kind. I mean indulging myself with beautiful things -- a flower arrangement (even if the flowers come from the side of the road), looking at art that pleases me, listening to music I enjoy. This is actually one of those things that I probably under-ration in my life.

5. "I Wish I May, I Wish I Might." This is an interesting question. As much as I hate to admit this, I think the self-care activity that I would like to, and need to, do more of but don't is...praying for myself. Praying for other people comes easily to me, but praying for myself, not so much. My prayers for own behalf tend to be along the lines of a drive-by, "Oh, you know what I need" -- as if God has a lot of other people in the waiting room and is glancing impatiently at the clock on the wall -- instead of laying it all out on the table the way the Psalmists did.

I think, secondarily, another self-care action that I need to allow myself more of is chaos management. Because giving one's living and working spaces over to chaos -- clutter, disorganization -- can be a way to be mean to oneself, not just a right-brained personality quirk. I have been swishing and swiping and shining with the other beginner Flyladies, and am steeling myself for some of the other assigned weekly tasks, which I know, deep down, will help me feel better about my home and myself when I finally do them.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

This is the Feast...

From the "My Dog is My Spiritual Director" file:

My dog, Cody, loves McDonald’s hamburgers. He loves them more than just about anything else in the whole world, including his special red blanket, his assorted friends, Fellow Traveler and me.

Cody knows where the local McDonald’s is in relation to the rest of Outer Podunk – don’t ask me how he knows, because the vet thinks he’s practically blind, but whenever we drive through downtown O.P. he perks up; starts looking out of the window, on the correct side of the street. As we near the city limits and the golden arches come into view, his body stiffens; then, as we pull into the entrance, it breaks into rippling quivers of anticipation. Nostrils a-twitch, he strains for a better view and better aroma as we give our order and pull up to the takeout window. His wide-eyed expression, and indeed his uninhibited, whole-body response as we make our transaction – as we hand the “burger lady” some pieces of paper and watch her briefly disappear only to come back with a bulging bag – is reminiscent of “St. Teresa in Ecstasy.” Sometimes Cody tries to take the bag right out of the burger lady’s hand (no easy trick with a minimum of teeth), so eager is he to taste his treasure.

It seems that, on whatever level dogs think, Cody finds this special meal a wonder – a miracle. Just the thought of it – even the sound of the word “burger” – fills him with anticipatory joy. And while he usually seems to take his other, everyday caregiving in stride, to me he almost seems to exhibit something akin to gratitude when he is finally able to indulge in the long-awaited feast.

Watching Cody in action the other evening in the drive-through lane made me think of the Eucharist; about how sometimes it’s so easy to commune in a distracted, going-through-the-motions way, or in a distant, intellectual way, instead of with a joyful, thankful heart.

As the liturgy reminds us: This is the feast!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

They'd Better Be Really Good Pork Chops

I just figured it out, and if I factor in the cost of my tow and the cost of getting my tire fixed into the family pack of pork loin chops I bought down in South Elsewhere, it comes out to about $80 per pork chop.

Now, the tire was insured, so in reality I just had to pay 40 bucks; and I get my towing fee refunded by my insurer; so that's good news.

The bad news is that the problem I'd originally scheduled a diagnostic for with my mechanic is going to cost me about $250. And I have been told that I need two new front tires sooner rather than later.

Maybe I'll have some wine with my pork chops. While I can.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

So You Had a Bad Day...

The planets seem to be in major misalignment in Outer Podunk.

First it was my officemate and the fish and the car.

Through an interesting series of events, my coworkers found themselves in possession of an orphaned fish -- an algae eater left behind in an abandoned aquarium. My officemate, who already owns a fish (named Lucky, since all of Lucky's tropically constituted finny friends died during a power outage awhile back), volunteered to adopt the fish. It's been very cold here, so my officemate decided to warm up her car before she began a long commute home with the fish, esconced in a Baggie. Well, in the process of doing this, my officemate somehow locked her keys in her running vehicle. When I left work, she and a coworker were standing outside the now warm but inaccessible car, trying to figure out how to jimmy open a door.

I had no expertise to lend. And, anyway, I was on a mission. Because the supermarket down the road from Fellow Traveler is having a great sale this week, and I wanted to buy some stuff; and I wanted to visit the drugstore next door too. So I drove home, picked up the dog, and headed back down the highway to South Elsewhere, Friendly Traveler's community a few miles down the road from Outer Podunk.

En route I noticed that the ol' Intrepid (for long-time readers -- I finally found the E) wasn't handling so well...but I chalked it up to the glaze of blown and compacted snow on the road. Then when I hit the South Elsewhere city limit and slowed down, I felt an ominous vibration and heard an ominous rumble. Uh-oh.

I made it to the supermarket parking lot; got out of the car; my right rear tire was pita-flat. Uh-oh.

So began the evening's vehicular adventure: Calling Fellow Traveler (who'd had a frustrating day of her own) to rescue a damsel in distress; calling one towing company that didn't want to come and help me; getting angry and flustered; the collected FT calling another, more amenable towing company; following the tow truck back up to Outer Podunk, to my mechanic's; going back home with FT; consoling myself with hot coffee, mindless television (Dog the Bounty Hunter, not the State of the Union address) and the cheerful presence of my heroine.

Ironically, I had an appointment with my mechanic for tomorrow morning anyway, to check out my wonky heater. Well, hey -- my car will be waiting there, bright and early. In retrospect, it's also almost spooky, in a good way, that I had this mishap literally less than a mile from FT's house -- I'll be on the road later this week, and I could have blown my tire on the freeway, far away. So life is good. That's what I'm telling myself.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Body Image

During our weekend retreat's worship and devotional moments, this Sunday's epistle lesson -- Paul's metaphorical Body of Christ and its unity expressed in diversity --was a frequently cited text.

For some reason, it's not a passage that is speaking to me in a positive way. Lately I've been feeling like a coccyx or a tonsil or a wisdom tooth. And I have again been informed, indirectly, by some supposed sisters and brothers in Christ, that I'm really more of a malignancy that needs to be excised, or a cleft palate that needs to be fixed, or at best an ugly birthmark that the rest of the Body can perhaps tolerate, out of charity, as long as I don't try to pass myself off as normal, 'cause the Bible tells them so.

As the actor asked the director, What's my motivation? What is my motivation to continue to choose to be treated badly, and moreover to drag someone I love into this drama as well?

Friday, January 19, 2007

A Journalistic Friday Five

Greetings! I come to you this evening from a motel room a few miles from my lay ministry retreat. I am luxuriating in free wi-fi, ripping a CD and blogging, all at once. Anyway, our questions of the week are:

Who? Dr. Walter Taylor of Trinity Lutheran Seminary -- our visiting professor this weekend. He's a great friend of our program, and a very engaging speaker. And he made me not hate Revelation today.

What? k.d. lang's "Hymns of the 49th Parallel" -- the album I'm loading into my Nano. And Diana Krall's "The Look of Love."

When? Around four o'clock tomorrow -- when I'll finally be home with my family, two- and four-legged.

Where? In bed -- where I am right now.

Why? Because I am too middle-aged and weary to go out partying with the gang tonight. There's a nice restaurant in town with classy weekend piano or guitar at the bar, but it's one of Fellow Traveler's and my favorite places -- one of those relational milestone landmarks -- it would be depressing to go somewhere like that without FT, in my guise as earnestly nerdy, sexless singleton.

Bonus: How? Not easily -- how I'll sleep with a noisy motel heater rattling away, and nattering others making merry in the hallway.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


There are rumors, through the grapevine, of mumblings and grumblings in our lay ministry program...participants frustrated by a lack of consistent communication from the powers that be, who don't perceive that they're being mentored, who feel they're being subjected to the mushroom treatment, i.e., kept in the dark and fed organic matter.

I think I've largely worked through those feelings. Fact of the matter is, I just don't care anymore. I feel so disconnected from Church, Inc., that I have become largely indifferent to the arcane workings of the body that approves and evaluates participants in our program. As long as they keep cashing my enrollment checks and as long as they don't meet me at the door of my next retreat with a frown and "We need to talk" is good. Teach me more stuff. Check's in the mail.

The Pornography of Violence

As I'm writing this, I'm watching a popular primetime television crime show. Tonight's episode is all about a serial killer whose m.o. is immobilizing his victims, then dismembering them while they're still alive. I've listened to talk of this process in excruciating detail; I've also seen a severed head, a mutilated female corpse, and clattering porch windchimes made with human rib bones.

It's horrible, sadistic, vomitrocious stuff. But the common wisdom seems to be that if you pair horrendous story lines and gory, nightmarish imagery with noble, good-looking crimefighters who always get the bad guys in the end, that somehow makes the rest of the show okay -- "must see TV"; pop some corn and sit the kiddos down to watch too.

Interesting, the silence from the direction of the nattering Christian guardians of virtue. Evidently the positive portrayal of gay folks and the occasional bare breast or naughty word are more objectionable to them than, say, women's limbs being buzz-sawed off their living bodies.

The Red Group and the Chartreuse Group

Back in the mid-Sixties, when I was in the first grade, for about an hour and a half each day all the first graders in my elementary school were separated into different reading groups. We had the Red Group; the Blue Group; the Yellow Group; and (I swear I am not making this up) the Chartreuse Group.

Of course, by about the end of the second week the kids had all figured out the pecking order of the system. The Red Group was for children who couldn’t read, or at least couldn’t read much more than three-letter words like red. The Chartreuse Group was for the kids who’d blown through their initial reading aptitude tests, were surreptitiously reading ahead (despite threats of punishment) in their other textbooks out of profound boredom and generally annoying their homeroom teachers by not staying on the expected developmental schedule. The other groups fell somewhere in between. And once you were tracked into a particular group, chances are that that’s where you stayed, all that year and beyond.

I was reminded of reading class the other day while thinking about my upcoming lay ministry retreat.

I've given myself a positive attitude adjustment about going – made easier by finally being fever- and headache-free, after three weeks, although I’m still physically exhausted – and am actually looking forward to attending. The Book of Revelation is a lot like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books; much more interesting when comprehensively annotated, especially by an engaging instructor. Our retreat in a community with which I’m familiar, so I won’t be driving around strange urban traffic configurations in terror and confusion; it’s also near a food cooperative where I can run in and grab some of my favored crunchy-granola foods and household products during our brief free time. So this retreat is a good thing.

But anyway, as I was thinking about it and about the whole lay ministry program, it started to bother me that the information we have access to in our classes is so undemocratically disseminated in the church. You have to be highly motivated to access it; you have to be part of a congregation that’s on board with the concepts of lay ministry and of extra-congregational continuing education for adults in general; you have to be recommended to enter and continue in the program; you have to have the time and money to attend retreats and weekend classes, and to obtain the reading materials.

It’s a little like the Red Group and the Chartreuse Group.

I’m not comfortable with the assumption that most people are in maybe Stage 2 of Fowler’s stages of faith so that’s where the default line, if you will, of adult Christian education should be drawn. I’m not comfortable with the idea that it’s too difficult or divisive to try and raise the biblical and theological literacy of church members above whatever pastiche of Sunday School stories, half-remembered confirmation-class lessons and pop-culture Christianity is the norm these days. I think that attitude is defeatist, and/or, in an ironic way, elitist.

Why can’t we raise the bar? Why are the only alternatives, in many congregations, the equivalents of the Red Group or the Chartreuse Group? (If there even is an alternative to the Red Group?)

I’m just asking.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What American Accent Do You Have?

I haven't done one of these things in awhile...I was most impressed by the result:

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Inland North

You may think you speak "Standard English straight out of the dictionary" but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like "Are you from Wisconsin?" or "Are you from Chicago?" Chances are you call carbonated drinks "pop."

The Northeast
The Midland
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

We Have a Little Shadow

I occasionally hang out on an online bulletin board called Learn About Christianity. Unlike contentious, "I know you are but what am I?" types of religious discussions, this forum is designed for people who have questions about Christianity to ask them in a "safe space." All responses need to be responsive to the original questioner, not to other respondents; and the forum is moderated adequately enough to ensure that this rule is followed.

I'm pleased to note that, despite jokes about the "frozen chosen" and concerns that Lutherans just don't know how to articulate their faith, our team, and some other folks in the broad catholic Christian tradition, have a strong presence on this forum, and regularly step up to the plate to respond to questions. The regulars identify their religious affiliation, and generally qualify their remarks with a note that this is what we believe or this is how we do things.

Lately a representative of a Large, Culturally Aggressive Conservative American Denomination has been joining in the discussion. I recognize him from my involvement on debate forums. He has a fairly consistent message -- You are going to hell if you don't get this salvation thing right -- which he delivers with great conviction, not to mention palpable relish.

I perceive that the rules of engagement on this forum are quite constraining for this fellow, because he cannot directly address the heretics and apostates who are leading sinners down the primrose path to hell.

But he dogs us. If one of us answers a question from our perspective, he is right behind with his. I honestly think that he thinks he's been called to a special ministry of saving the lost from...well, from us.

It's kind of cute.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Recipe Swap: Tofu Manicotti or Shells

Since my personal blog-satan/heckler apparently gets really pissed off when I share recipes here instead of Doing Theology -- it is my pleasure to share a recipe.

We made this this past weekend -- I should say it was my plan to make it, and I got a head start on it, but when I started to wilt because of my illness Fellow Traveler did most of the assembly work. It's part of our plan to eat more vegetarian food. It was very good, and tasted exponentially better the next day. If you're a dedicated vegan and don't mind vegan cheese, try that instead of the dairy cheese.

Tofu Manicotti or Shells

1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
olive oil
1 package chopped spinach, thawed and well drained
1 package tofu
1 package mixed shredded Italian cheese
a few generous tablespoons of chopped parsley
some generous shakes of your favorite Italian herbs
manicotti or jumbo shell noodles, cooked
your favorite marinara or other spaghetti sauce

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil until soft and transparent but not brown. Mash tofu; add onion, garlic, herbs and half the cheese. Stuff into noodles. Place noodles in baking dish. Pour sauce over noodles; sprinkle with remaining half of cheese. Bake at 350 degrees until sauce is bubbling and cheese is melted.

Answer Me This: What Should I Put in my Nano?

As promised in my New Year's resolutions, here is the first of what I plan to make weekly reader-participation posts. Granted, it's toward an utterly self-serving end...but I've got to start somewhere.

I have been, since Christmastime, the possessor of a very gently used iPod Nano. I love the idea of iPods, which to me are the realization of my wish, back in the days of Northern Exposure, that one day I could be my own disk jockey and throw together my own highly eclectic playlist Chris-in-the-Morning style.

My question to you: What should I put on my Nano?

If you suggest country music...well, it isn't going to happen. But I'm open to just about anything else -- cabaret, Saami throat yodeling, Moby Grape, Tin Pan Alley, liturgical music, stuff the crazy kids are listening to these days. But you have to convince me why.

Any free downloadable tunes out there worth collecting?

How about podcasts? What are some of you listening to these days?

Thank you in advance for great suggestions.

In Praise of Quiet Children

I'm going to preface what I'm about to say by noting that I do not have children. Which may disqualify me from opining on this topic. But while I do not have children I was a child, long ago, and I think that may count for something.


These days we are very concerned about welcoming children into our church services, making them feel comfortable and affirmed. We may insert Wiggles-like "children's church" interludes into our worship services; we may let the little tykes run wild and free in the aisles. We may even develop a completely separate church experience for them elsewhere in the building, lest they become bored or inhibited in the service proper.

It was not so when I was young. When I was young we little kids, freshly bathed and dressed in their Sunday best, were expected to sit quietly with our parents in church. No chattering during worship; no whining; no playing with toys in the pew; no wandering the sanctuary. If we were bored we kept it to ourselves; if we had questions they had to wait until church was over.

Yes, I know; scarcely to be believed. And yet many of us survived this experience. And here is what I learned, during those Sundays in the church pew.

I learned all about our hymnal. I was a precocious child who could read before I went to school, and I devoured books. I loved the hymnal; I loved the odd Fraktur headings and Latin Psalm first lines in the old Lutheran Hymnal. I loved reading the liturgy and hymn lyrics. When the sermon got boring -- as it did, quite often -- I'd sit and read the hymnal. I suppose this made me seem like a very pious child, when actually if there'd been a Yellow Pages or an illustrated dictionary in the pew I would probably have read those instead. But I learned stuff, sitting there paging through the hymnal. These days I doubt that most of the adults, let alone children, in my church have even a dim awareness of the LBW contents other than whatever hymns we happen to be singing on a given Sunday.

The discipline of quietness also honed my powers of observation. Churches in the mid-Sixties were fascinating places, thanks in large part to women's fashions. This was the twilight of the mandatory ladies' hat; by this time they had shrunk to small pillboxes, or strange little hourglass-shaped objects that sat awkwardly on pincurled middle-aged heads. They'd be embellished with sequined mesh, or colorful seed beads, or paste jewels, or a jaunty feather. These hats provided me with untold hours of amusement. Handbags too. I recall when wicker handbags were all the rage -- bags that looked like fishing creels but were adorned with flowers or palm trees or seashells. Then there was the woman who brought to church a crocodile purse with an actual baby crocodile somehow worked into the leather; that was way cool, as cool as the mink stole with a glassy-eyed mink's head still on it that one of the ladies occasionally wore in the wintertime.

Men weren't quite as interesting, but I did enjoy looking at their ties. Sometimes I couldn't help but notice the condition of their collars -- if their shirts were clean or not. Occasionally I would find myself morbidly fascinated by some skin eruption or shaving nick or sunburn on the backs of their necks.

Church fauna could help a child get through a dull service. Ghostly crickets...pale spiders...the occasional wasp in summer. I never saw a bat during church, but we did have a neighborhood cat crash the worship service one Sunday, gliding nonchalantly around the perimeter of the sanctuary.

Sometimes I'd daydream during church. I'd pretend I was giving the sermon (which was rather odd at that age and time, especially since this was a Missouri Synod church where women were persona non grata on the working side of a pulpit unless it was Saturday afternoon and they were shining it up with Murphy's Oil Soap). Sometimes I'd pretend I was an architect and try to imagine a different use for the building -- a school, or a department store, or a private home. Sometimes I'd squint at the stained glass and create my own kaleidescope. Sometimes I'd imagine Jesus sitting down in a pew and checking the place out.

Is it so bad for children to sit down, and be quiet, and just watch and listen and think and imagine, in church, once in awhile?

Monday, January 08, 2007

(Non-) Revelation

Okay...I'm sitting here waiting for a ride to Urgent Care to finally rid myself of the respiratory bug that has now seated itself in my chest, and simultaneously waiting to hear some advice from my GYN regarding my prescription that doesn't appear to be working -- so I know I'm not in the cheeriest mood right now.

But I'm here to tell you that I really dislike the Book of Revelation.

That's the topic of our next lay ministry retreat.

Now, I've read Koester and Rossing and assorted other scholars discoursing on this text. I know how to spar and parry with the religious Froot Loops whose entire Christian theological outlook appears to be based on their fanciful collective interpretation of Revelation. I know that we mainliners understand Revelation to be an allegory, a series of word-pictures, asserting God's control of and ultimate control over history, and offering comfort to oppressed people; that it's an important text through which to understand the situation and mindset of the early Christians to whom it was originally written; that in many ways it's a theological and stylistic homage to the Book of Daniel, and should be read concurrently with that text.

But I still don't enjoy the Book of Revelation. Like Luther, I don't think it's particularly revelatory; and I don't get a lot of Gospel out of it.

To me making excuses for Revelation -- high-minded, pious variations on "It's really not as bad as it seems" -- is like making excuses for an afflicted relative who talks to people who aren't there and thinks that the CIA clandestinely inserted a microchip into his buttock. It's the biblical equivalent of a Bosch painting.

So I wait to be convinced that I should really like the Book of Revelation.

Friday, January 05, 2007

No News Is Good News?

The Revealer is a website devoted to media coverage of religious news. I visit it every once in awhile. But not too often. Because if I read too much news about Christians, especially wack-job extremist ones (who tend to be the ones generating news articles), it sincerely makes me want to become post-Christian. Reading the latest installment of The Revealer, I found myself repeating the mantra "These people are nucking futs...these people are nucking futs...these people are nucking futs" (Not exactly what I said, know.)

I think I'll just stay here in my progressive-mainline cultural ghetto and pull up the sidewalk for the time being. Because no matter how annoying it may be here at times, it's damned scawy out there.

Friday Five: Happy Birthday To Me

It's all about birthdays with the RevGals and Pals this week. And since I very recently (like, the day after Christmas) had a birthday of my own, it's most relevant.

"It's my party and I'll [blank] if I want to..."
Favorite way to celebrate your birthday (dinner with family? party with friends? a day in solitude?)

A nice dinner, in or out, is tops with me.

"You say it's your birthday... it's my birthday too, yeah..."
Do you share your birthday with someone famous? (Click here to find out!)

Mao Zedong; Steve Allen; Alan King

"Lordy Lordy look who's forty..."
Milestone birthdays:
a) just like any other birthday--they're just numbers, people.
b) a good opportunity to look back/take stock
c) enjoy the black balloons--I'll be hiding under a pile of coats until the day is over
d) some combination of the above, or something else entirely.

I hated my 30th birthday -- I didn't have literal black balloons at that one but I may as well have -- because it said to me that I was no longer a "young adult." Interestingly, after getting honest about myself and growing comfortable in my own skin -- I was perfectly fine with age 40. I think for my 50th birthday I might want to do something croneishly celebratory like going outside at midnight and baying at the moon or somefin'.

"Happy birthday, dear... Customer..."
Have you ever been sung to in a restaurant? Fun or cringe-worthy?

Actually I just did receive birthday salutations at a Famous Dave's...which is a fun place anyway. I also got a free mack-daddy hot fudge sundae, which got passed around the table. Unfortunately, completely unbeknownst to me, I was a day away from falling ill to my infamous UR infection, which is currently working its way around the guest list. So you may want to think twice the next time you're with the gang and someone suggests sharing dessert.

"Take my birthday--please!"
Tell me one advantage and one disadvantage about your particular birthday (e.g. birthday in the summer--never had to go to school; birthday near Christmas--the dreaded joint presents) This could also simply be something you like/dislike about your birthday (e.g. I like sharing a birthday with my best friend, etc.).

My birthday is the day after Christmas -- incredible competition, the nature of which makes it rather unwise to be overly pouty or ungracious. That's a negative. And the fact that my birthday is so close to a holiday, I think, makes it hard for me to remember friends' and relatives' birthdays...I really have to have them written down. I'm not sure there's an upside to being a Christmas baby other than the fact that, because your special day is colliding with a major holiday, there's generally minimal interest in the particulars of your day, like your age; a disadvantage when you're, say, five, can become a real advantage at, say, age 45.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

When I was a kid we had a featherbed. It was usually kept up in the attic, so it wouldn't wear out, but very occasionally my mother would bring it downstairs -- say if the power went out during a winter storm. It was wonderfully soft and warm, and just absorbed you in its folds.

I miss the featherbed. I am slowly recuperating from my upper respiratory infection, but I'm stil terribly tired. And -- at the risk of further appalling my online literary critic by writing about everyday life instead of Deep Thoughts on Theology -- the annoying Aunt Flo is once again overstaying her appointed stop at my house.

When my mom died, I recall feeling an actual physical jolt, like an icy cold electrical shock, throughout my body, draining away all my energy. I honestly believe that this thing is still working its way through me. I'm simultaneously edgy and starved for sleep, and utterly exhausted. I'm self-absorbed; self-dissatisfied; lacking in confidence; unable to make decisions about trivial matters.

And right now what I would love the most, I think, is about three days under that old featherbed. No talking; no thinking; not even feeling. Sleeping...a long, deep, undisturbed sleep. When I woke up, as I imagine I would periodically, I'd sense the loft and warmth of the featherbed cocoon around me, and I'd sigh and pull the featherbed closer around me, close my eyes and fall asleep again.

An Interesting Juxtaposition

This week ABC's 20/20 aired a recent replication of psychologist Stanley Milgram's famous experiments, first conducted about 45 years ago, on obedience to authority.

In the experiment, a subject is told that s/he is part of a study on the effect of punishment on memory. S/he is paid a small cash stipend, and advised that s/he can leave the study at any time and keep the money. Then s/he is given the task of teaching an unseen but audible second subject (in reality, an actor) in another room a series of word pairs. If the learner of the pair misses a question, the teacher is instructed, by a white-coated researcher, to administer an electric shock -- using a dummy machine. As the test progresses, the teacher is instructed to increase the voltage of the shocks when the learner makes a mistake.

Both 45 years ago and today most subjects, upon instruction by the white-coated authority figure, "shocked" the individual in the other room without question, even when the voltages they thought they were administering reached the "danger" level on the dummy machine dial; even when the learner screamed and begged the teacher to stop. Only one third of the subjects wound up refusing to participate further. After the test, many subjects seemed to find it difficult to explain why they had continued to administer shocks even when the other person sounded as if they were in physical distress and had asked the subject to stop; some subjects became defensive, saying that they were only doing their job, or that the shocked individual's voluntary participation in the experiment made them, and not the subject, responsible for their own pain. There appears to be no real predictor of who will obey authority indefinitely and who will defy authority according to their conscience. Harlem, Navy vet and construction worker Wes Autrey was waiting on a subway platform with his two young daughters when a college student ahead of him began to experience a seizure and tumbled down between the tracks. A train was quickly approaching. Autrey, having only seconds to take action, jumped down to the tracks and threw himself on the thrashing and disoriented seizure victim, pushing his body down below the track. The train whizzed by -- with only about a 2-inch clearance for Autry. Autry, who was unhurt, saved the student's life; the student's injuries were limited to some scrapes and bruises.

C.S. Lewis described the human paradox in terms of existing as "half-angel, half-animal." The dim lizard-brain urge to blindly obey an alpha figure even to the point of causing needless suffering to another human being, even with the knowledge that one is free to stop at any time...the whole constellation of hardwired human behaviors that misfire, to our own and others' misery and frustration, hitting home the concept that "we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves" -- animal. Those times in human life when someone rises above instinct, self-interest and cultural conditioning to save the life of another person -- angelic.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Order Out of Chaos

As a concrete step toward my resolution to wrest order from my life chaos, I signed up for FlyLady , an online support group for clutterbugs.

It's hard to describe how Flylady works. It's like having a sweetly nagging Southern belle -- someone who calls you "Precious" -- sending your daily e-mails reminding you to "swish and swipe" (that'd be in the bathroom), shine your sink and throw a load of laundry in the machine. And every week she focuses on an area of your home for a more intensive cleaning and extra 15 minutes a day doing something in that room to keep it civilized.

I feel as if I live on the other side of a great cultural divide, with the FlyLadies over yonder in their Donna Reed much so that I kind of have to read my daily set of missives with a sense of irony -- maybe picturing a more Blanche DuBoisish character composing them out on the verandah in between sips of gin. I feel embarrassed at my apparent need for an external locus of control -- what sort of person can't get organized without directive e-mails from an imaginary friend?

But I'm doing it. I am swishing and swiping and shining and loading.

Germ Warfare

Well, my respiratory infection has progressed to the relative annoyance of a veddy stuffy nodse...but, sadly, also to Fellow Traveler, who despite our best sanitation and self-quarantine efforts started getting scratchy-throated New Year's weekend and wound up needing a trip to the doctor and a dose of antibiotics.

In a fit of online pique last week, I posted on a discussion forum about my displeasure with people who come to church sick -- I don't mean in the latter stages of a soon-to-pass cold, but who arrive at the church door flushed and feverish, sneezing and in the full-tilt-boogie prime of contagiousness (or bring their very sick children to church). I pointed out that these people need to weigh their own motivation, whatever that may be, to attend services no matter what with the needs of people in their congregation who may have compromised immune systems -- the very young; the very old; cancer patients; HIV patients; persons recovering from major surgeries. I suggested that in such cases the best way to be a person for others, to serve one's neighbor, would be to stay home from church on a Sunday when one was very sick and likely to spread germs.

Well. You would have thought that I was advocating the torture of kittens with lit cigarettes. How dare I suggest that people with fevers and sore throats stay home from church! Why don't those annoying old folks and immune-compromised people stay home instead (presumably forever)?

I was scolded with the observation that persons on the low end of the employment continuum, who have no health insurance or paid sick days, can't afford to stay home when they are stricken with a bad infection. (The fact that we were talking about voluntary assembly at church services, which at least in my neighborhood no one is forced to attend at gunpoint, and not about employment, didn't seem to matter.)

I was also presented with the interesting proposal that God magically circumvents the contagion process in the context of worship services.

Honestly, sometimes the best way I can be a Christian is to avoid paying too much attention to Christians.

And, by the way, Fellow Traveler and I both stayed home from church this past Sunday.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

And a Note on Funerals

I know it's a little presumptuous to set oneself up as a funeral critic -- but I have to say that, in my humble opinion, Gerald Ford's funeral was a funeral done well. And not just because "For All the Saints," one of my very favorite hymns and my hymn of choice for my own funeral, was included in the service.

As our society loses its ritual touchstones, I think we risk losing our ability to embue funerals with both the gravitas and the message that they need -- and I fear that this is as true in Christian circles as others. I think in many quarters funerals are confused with wakes -- subjective, self-referential, eulogy-heavy sendoffs that neglect "the hope that is in us" as followers of the risen Christ. Or else funerals are demoted to aggressive Christian sales pitches to a captive audience; I was once unfortunate enough to be present at one of these, the funeral of an unchurched individual where the frowny-faced preacher strongly intimated that if the rest of us didn't get right with God then and there, we'd wind up where the deceased maybe kind of probably was spending eternity.

Anyway -- I appreciated Ford's funeral liturgy. I appreciated the music. I appreciated the fact that the service was a celebration of Ford not only or even primarily as a statesman, but as a beloved child of God, sibling of Christ, one who placed his hope in Christ and now takes his place with the saints in light.

A Good, Decent Man

I remember when Gerald Ford became President.

I was a teenager with a fairly unformed political consciousness; as I recall, most people my age were much more interested in Betty Ford, who seemed like the cool mom we all wished we had, and in the Ford kids, who were refreshingly hip and edgy for Presidential offspring. Hindsight being 20/20, the current paens to Ford's reconciling act in pardoning Richard Nixon tend to overlook the fact that, at the time, this was a highly controversial move, one that made many Nixon haters Ford haters as well, and that no doubt played a major role in Ford's subsequent election defeat.

But, having said all that -- after the Sturm und Drang of the Nixon administration, Ford provided a welcome counterpoint of quiet competency...a latter-day Cincinnatus who, finding himself in an extraordinary situation, met the challenge with dignity and grace and skill.

Watching and hearing all the tributes to Ford this week, I wonder if we can ever again enjoy a Chief Executive who hasn't been manufactured and spun by focus groups and the noisiest subsets of his or her own party; who isn't in thrall to his or her political party to the point where s/he is unable to bargain and compromise with the other side; who has the humility to just do the job with the sort of detachment that prevents the temptation to grasp at personal power. Maybe in these times only an "accidental" President has the ability to be and do those things.