Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Amazing Grace: A Unitarian Perspective

A theological choice

You may have heard the joke that Unitarians are poor singers because they are always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next line.  A friend sent me a link from the Unitarian publication UU World that talks about one particular hymn that actually gives singers a couple of options. It’s the beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace.” It seems that rather than forcing worshippers to sing about amazing grace “that saved a wretch like me,” there is an asterisk to indicate that one may sing, “that saved a soul like me.” The article asks the question, do you feel wretched or soulful today? Is your theology one of confessing “your own wretchedness and even our common condition as a fallen, faulty species,” or do you affirm that you are “a nice, well-rounded, fully individuated, sin-free, guilt-free humanist soul?”

The author of the brief article, Virginia Stafford, makes this point about Unitarians: “We sing our song in different keys and cadences. We are on our own to make a faith out of nothing, which is to say, out of everything we have. That is daunting, lonely work, demanding and relentless work, the work of a lifetime, and I suspect it is the very scope of it that keeps our tiny movement small. Not everyone wants to stop singing in the middle of the song and consider once again and all alone the nature of the human soul and God, infinity within and infinity without.”

Are you a wretch or a soul?

There were a few comments to the online article. I had to add my perspective that we sit in our niceties of society and discuss the polarities or "wretch" or "soul." We should not lose sight of the fact that this beloved hymn was written by English evangelical John Newton, who had once been a slave trader. Little wonder that he chose the word "wretch" to describe his former life. If we accept our own humanity, we must accept that we ourselves possess all the potential goodness and evil that exists within the human spectrum.

My friend who shared the article with me later said that he was listening to a recording of the famous African American singer, the late Paul Robeson, singing “Amazing Grace.” He found it interesting to note that Mr. Robeson chose to sing “a soul like me.” Here again, I think I can understand why the singer made that choice. Perhaps both perspectives can be true on any given day. Perhaps both are simultaneously true on any given day. How do you feel today?


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Many Reasons for Roses

Today is my 26th wedding anniversary. Since our first anniversary, I have made it a tradition to buy my wife a rose for each year of marriage. The 12th and 24th anniversaries were the simplest years for purchasing roses that equaled the year, since roses are commonly sold by the dozen. This year, I went to Winn Dixie where I found a dozen large roses for $14.95 or a dozen miniature roses for $3.99. The problem was that there was only one set of mini roses, and no individual roses for sale. I then went down the road to Publix to see what they had to offer. They had a bouquet of red roses with spray for $14.99, and a dozen simple red roses for $9.99. They also had bouquets of single roses with greenery and baby's breath for $2.99 each.

My method for acquiring 26 roses was to purchase the dozen roses for $9.99 and two single rose bouquets for 2.99 each at Publix. I then went back to Winn Dixie to buy the dozen mini roses for $3.99. This way I was able to get 26 roses for around $20.00. I thought that was not bad since I could have paid $30.00 for two dozen roses, then I would have had to buy two single roses on top of that. I was proud of my rose dealing and explained to my daughter when I got home how I managed it. Her reply was, "They must have thought you had been pretty bad to be buying all those roses!"

Yes, roses can say love, they can say celebration, or they can say mea culpa!


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Things That Were Hidden in Life

I spent some time this week getting the yard in shape for winter. Last weekend I mowed the grass for the last time this season and raked leaves for the first time this season. Flower gardens were weeded, raked clean and mulched for the winter.  Hummingbird feeders were brought in and cleaned for storage; thistle seed and sunflower seed feeders were brought out and made ready for goldfinches, sparrows, cardinals, titmice and towhees’ winter provisions.  Flowering vines, now withered, were pulled off the lattice fence.  There are still some trees in pots that need to be mulched and winterized before the temperatures drop below freezing.  The land, even on a suburban lot, calls out the changing of the seasons. We who work the land must make things ready as we attempt to shape the horticultural life around us.

Sometimes when fall and winter arrive, we see things in the stillness that we missed during the lively summer. The oak tree in the backyard, for example, has dropped its leaves, revealing a squirrel’s nest and a bird’s nest that had eluded my notice when everything was green. I think I want to write a poem about “what was hidden in life.” I’ll have to sit with that idea for a while.  In the past, I’ve written poems inspired by spring, summer, fall and winter – some of which I’ve put on my blog.  Perhaps in the stillness of this dormant season, I’ll write about what was hidden in the life of spring and made known in the dead of winter.

At any rate, I like change of the seasons. The autumnal change is my favorite herald of things to come. I like the call to slow down and look inward. Firing up the furnace and bringing down coats and sweaters signals the turn in our efforts to find warmth within. The ever darkening nights that shorten our days cause us to treasure the light. When spring eventually arrives, I always resist at first. Perhaps it is my introverted nature that loves the inwardness of winter. Eventually, however, the season holds sway and I move outward to enjoy the days of spring. For now, I will enjoy the autumn air and look forward to the cool of winter. 

I’ll spend the season doing a bit more reflecting. We are entering the Advent season so it is naturally a time to watch, prepare and wait. 


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

All Shall Be Well

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” 

                                                                                               ~ Julian of Norwich

I tend toward optimism. Sure, you can look around and see any number of causes for alarm and dismay. The world – or I should say the humans who inhabit it – display a grand mixture of good and bad, weak and strong, noble and depraved. Even so, and with such a mixed bag, humanity is on an upward track. There is a higher consciousness and a greater awareness at work in society. I can’t say that my view was always so bright. Growing up as a Southern Baptist, the Puritan heritage combined with the twentieth century Evangelical movement combined to create a climate of judgmental attitudes and a bleak worldview. Modern society was often seen as depraved and "going to hell in a hand basket."

One morning when I was a young college student at Samford University, I was at breakfast in the school cafeteria. I was in a kind of funk, wondering what this world may be coming to. My friend and upperclassman, Bruce Wilson, happened to be sitting at the same table. I made some comment about how it seemed like dark times we were living in. Bruce responded with something like, “Oh man, this is the best time I can think of to be alive!”  He then started naming all of the great things about living in the world today.

Somewhere along the way I made a shift to a much brighter world view, sloughing off the myopic dread of Puritans and Evangelicals that so many of us Baptists in the South had inherited. I can’t say that the shift came that very day, but that conversation with Bruce certainly got me thinking, and I’ve remembered that moment to this day.

The quote above from Julian of Norwich reflects an assuredness that everything will be alright. Hope and optimism were not the order of the day during Lady Julian’s time (1342 – 1416). There was an onslaught of death from the bubonic plague, economic depression and devastation from wars.  Julian somehow saw creation as emanating from and being upheld by the love of God. Her words of hope became a beacon for 20th century poet, T.S. Eliot, who incorporated Julian’s all shall be well quote in “Little Gidding” in his Four Quartets.  Elliot himself wrestled with how hope and faith can be appropriated given the many doubts, struggles and angst of the modern age.

 Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi says “There is more good than evil in the world but not by much.” I like that way of seeing the world. It is offers hope that good will prevail while being realistic that there is also a lot of bad. To me, that statement encourages us to keep looking for the best, affirm the good that we see while lending our efforts to increase the good.  Things may not always be to our own particular liking, but there is still a lot of good out there.

And then there is that quote from E.B. White that I have used before, "I arise each morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." There is so much to enjoy in the world. Whatever our present struggle, I believe we can take heart that all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

November 22, 1963

This was the day, back in 1963, when there was a great shift in the mood of our country as the USA shared the grief and tragedy of the death of a president. I half-facetiously sometimes say I don’t trust anyone who can’t tell me where they were on this day in 1963.

In the small elementary school I attended in Alabama, the children often reflected what was heard at home.  I often heard classmates scorn President Kennedy (much as we hear some Tea Partyers scorn President Obama today). Also at the time, school milk cartons carried the faces of American presidents, with a short bio. Some of the kids cut them out and collected them. Occasionally, someone would find a milk carton with JFK’s picture on it and ceremoniously stomp it into the ground. This was reflective of the animosity felt in the South toward Kennedy. On that fateful day, shortly after the lunch period at school while we were in recess, someone came with the news that the President had been shot. The initial reaction of some was to think it was a joke. I saw kids dancing and celebrating, thinking they were acting out that same old ceremony of stomping a milk carton into the ground. Then when we realized that it was no joke – this was actual fact, a somber and fearful mood settled over our third grade class.

We came late in learning of the potential we held in our nation, embodied by the man who called upon us to “bear any burden and pay any price;” who set our sights on the moon (literally), and who laid the groundwork for civil rights and equality.  This day, even now, stands as a cautionary tale. That we can aspire to the highest good, then disregard the treasure in our midst. We can hope for a better world and then turn around to be mired in petty squabbles, unable to move forward toward the common good.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Power of Music and a Suspectedly Irish Tortoise

Growing up in rural Alabama, there was an abundance of wildlife. One could see foxes, raccoons, possums, deer, and all kinds of birds. I still remember the startling effect of walking along the road or through the woods and coming upon a covey of quail. All was quiet, with no visible indicators of the well-camouflaged fowl until you came right up on them. Then they would suddenly rise to the sky with a chorus of shouts.

We also had box turtles in the woodland area where I grew up. There was a subspecies of the common box turtle which was brown in color and quite docile in nature. They made good pets and would thrive on earthworms, crawfish, and berries that we would collect to feed our hard shelled guests. Then there was the eastern box turtle which were dark – almost black in color – with yellow speckles. It was perhaps more attractive or dramatic in appearance, but was also less amenable to captivity. Eastern box turtles might snap, and they were much more reluctant to come out of their shell in the presence of humans.

There was this one time when my little brother had come upon an eastern box turtle, or maybe it was our Dad who found the critter in the garden. At any rate, the creature was brought home to keep as a pet.  This turtle, true to his nature, did not like to be handled and would stay closed up in his shell for a span of time in which any dog or little boy would ordinarily lose interest and go on their way. Probably a great survival strategy.

One day my little brother came into the house and announced that he thought his turtle was from Ireland. Why did he think the turtle was from Ireland, you may ask, as did I. “Because,” my brother explained, “You know how he doesn’t like to come out of his shell? Well, I discovered that if you sing ‘My Wild Irish Rose’ he will come right on out of his shell and walk around.”

[I may need to throw in a side bar here to explain why my brother was out singing My Wild Irish Rose to a turtle. This was when Mitch Miller had a popular TV show, “Sing Along with Mitch.” Mitch had his orchestra and an all male chorus that would gleefully sing songs from the Great American Songbook, mostly songs that harked back to the romantic nostalgia of the Gay Nineties.  For younger readers, "Gay Nineties" refers to the 1890s – a period in American history which was noted for being a brief respite of prosperity and celebration that was then halted by World War I (much like the “roaring twenties” was stopped by the Great Depression). Our Dad had bought an LP of Sing-Along-with-Mitch on which ‘My Wild Irish Rose’ was one of the numbers.]

But I digress. I have to say that, being the older brother, I was skeptical of my brother's story about his turtle coming from Ireland. “Well come on out and I’ll show you!” my brother said. We went out, he took the turtle and placed him under a tree where the creature remained firmly ensconced in his shell. Then my brother began singing ‘My Wild Irish Rose,’ and sure enough, the turtle poked his head out and then began to walk around the yard.

I must say that I was impressed. My brother and I even began to speculate as to how that box turtle might have gotten here all the way from Ireland.  It is, of course, funny to look back on it, recalling the imagination, assumptions and speculations of children. The incident does beg the question, however, of the power of music.  What was it that we experienced? Was it the influence of melody, the result of certain tonic vibrations, or just plain coincidence? 

And Just in case you haven't heard Mitch Miller and the Gang, or 'My Wild Irish Rose,' her it is on You Tube:

Friday, November 11, 2011

For Veteran's Day


For Veteran's Day, two memorial poems. One by British poet John McCrae and the other by American poet Walt Whitman.

After World War I, November 11 became known as Remembrance Day in Europe, commemorating the end of the war “on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.” 

Red poppies bloomed across some of the worst battlefields of Flanders in World War I. Their bright red color came to symbolize the blood spilt in war, and the poppy became the emblem of Remembrance Day because of the poem In Flanders Fields.

In Flanders Fields
By John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

                                   *         *         *         *         *         *

During the American Civil War Walt Whitman volunteered as a nurse in army hospitals. He also made visits to the wounded and read the newspaper, literature, and poetry to the young men which many found more comforting that visits from chaplains. The war inspired many poems from Whitman, and he was obviously deeply moved by the conflict within his country.

         Old War Dreams
By Walt Whitman

In midnight sleep of many a face of anguish,
Of the look at first of the mortally wounded, (of that indescribable look,)
Of the dead on their backs with arms extended wide,
I dream, I dream, I dream.

Of scenes of Nature, fields and mountains,
Of skies so beauteous after a storm, and at night the moon so
unearthly bright,
Shining sweetly, shining down, where we dig the trenches and
gather the heaps,
I dream, I dream, I dream.

Long have they pass'd, faces and trenches and fields,
Where through the carnage I moved with a callous composure, or away
from the fallen,
Onward I sped at the time--but now of their forms at night,
I dream, I dream, I dream.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Case of Penn State and Joe Paterno

It keeps happening. In the news we hear of yet another case of child molestation. This time it is not a case of Vatican-sanctioned cover-up, but it is the same old story of an old boys club that seems to think that its own Very Important Business is best preserved by keeping quite about abuse. Of course, today's story comes from the holy magisterium of college football, and involves the firing of the great Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno.

Some say Paterno did what was legally required in reporting what he knew to let others deal with it, others say that it was a moral failure that nothing else was done. Some are hailing Penn State's decision to fire the coach as an great moral decision on the part of the university, while others explain that the university is only protecting is vast financial interests in the football industry. One more sacrifice offered to keep their power in the game.

Old Boys Club, economic and institutional power, protection of corporate interests  these are a familiar and recurring theme as cases of child sexual abuse continue to come to light. It is shocking and embarrassing to hear of these things, and it is an outrage that these abuses occur within our society. If there is any silver lining that I can see it is the fact that were are much more aware as a society that these abuses should not occur.

I wrote the following poem in 2002, after being troubled by increasing reports of sexual abuse of children by clergy. I first posted it on my blog on January 29, 2010. I stated then that my consolation was "at least now we are aware of the problem and are calling people to account. In many ways, we are progressing in areas of ethics, enlightenment and compassion." I present the poem again today in the hope that we will continue to try to do better in moving toward a society that works and a public consciousness that protects its vulnerable citizens.

Slowly God Arises

And slowly God arises
Arising, God turns
Pulling up tent stakes,
Cracking the foundation
And loosening the ties
Of a stagnant civilization.

One turn showed us not to enslave.
Another turn gave honor to women.
Yet another turn showed us
Not to send our children to factories and fields,
   forfeiting their lives for illicit capital gain.

Now the turn shows us
To respect our children
And to protect them from harm.

And slowly God arises
Until a new awareness comes;
An awareness that children have been crippled
By the abusive actions of people we trusted.
No longer can we tolerate such abuse.

Slowly God arises.
Arising, God turns;
Cracking the foundation of tradition,
Breaking the bonds that held us.

With each turn
We are astounded.
Why did we not see this before?
How could we have let this happen?
Yet with each turn
We see that we cannot go back.
Astounded by sight
Loosed by light,
We walk at a new level
As slowly God arises
And rising, God turns.

The church did not show us.
Governments never called for justice
Until sight came upon the people
And scattered throughout the land.
"Just as the lightening comes from the east
    and flashes into the west..."
But none can stop the rising
And the turning of a new day.

And slowly God arises.
Arising, God turns
Carrying the pain and the hope
Of broken bonds and shattered illusions.
Arising, God turns
To present us with the challenge of a new day,
To walk on a different level.
We are astounded by sight
And loosed by light
As slowly God arises.

                               ~ Charles Kinnaird

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Bit of Authentic Music

"I went to Nashville to learn to write country music. When I finally learned how to write it, they stopped recording it."

                             ~ Pat Terry

I tend to take music in spells. A while back I was listening to jazz.  Before that I was into classical sacred music, then is was folk (it is often folk). We keep a radio on in the back of the house where our dogs are so they will have some stimulation when we are out of the house. We used to keep their radio on NPR, then my wife read some research demonstrating that dogs are most content with rock, so now we have the radio tuned to classic rock, which I've enjoyed when I'm at home with the dogs.

The music I am into now when I'm driving is country. That doesn't happen often but it does on occasion. I love the authentic music you hear on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band anthology albums and on blue grass recordings. What I've found this week is authentic music from Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash.  I began to get a taste for it again when I heard Pat Terry in a local concert at Moonlight on the Mountain. Then when browsing the record shop, I came across a CD of Emmylou Harris called Duets.  Emmylou Harris definitely does authentic music, and this recording is one I have enjoyed. It includes previously recorded material she has sung with other artists. One such song is "Green Pastures" in which a young Ricky Skaggs accompanied her from her pivotal album, Roses in the Snow. That album was the one where she firmly planted herself in the bluegrass tradition. Other memorable songs include, "Love Hurts," with Gram Parsons; "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again," with Roy Orbison and "Gulf Coast Highway," with Willie Nelson.

Listening to Emmylou Harris reminded me that I have been wanting to hear Rosanne Cash's The List.  I drove by the public library and found that CD to borrow. If you don't know, "the list" refers to a handwritten list from her father, Johnny Cash, of the 100 songs that she needed to know if she wanted to know anything about country music. Rosanne Cash mentions in the liner notes that at the time she was a teenager oriented mostly to the pop hits on the radio. Thankfully, she kept that list from her dad and recorded 12 of the songs from that list of 100. If you listen to The List you will hear some truly authentic country music – the kind that  Pat Terry half-jokingly says they stopped recording about the time he learned to write it. It's music that speaks to the heart and tells of the hardships and realities of life.

Here's a track off  The List to give you a sample of the music:

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