Friday, March 29, 2013

Finding Our Way through the Holy Days

Detail from "The Passion"
by Hans Holbein the Younger

Rabbi Rami Shapiro posted a very thoughtful essay this week in which he recasts the Passover observance in light of his views of God and his understanding of the world we live in. His post reminded me that in our Judeo-Christian heritage sometimes it is a gruesome God that emerges from the Bible. This is a problem that can be a serious stumbling block for the ethically minded or the sensitive pilgrim (in the interest of full disclosure: I put myself in those ethically minded and sensitive categories). Sometimes our participation in inherited rituals, such as Passover for Jewish people or Holy Week for Christians, causes us to ask ourselves what we really believe about what we are doing.

If you have read Mark Twain, you know that he took issue with a faith whose preachers supported slavery with chapter and verse from the Bible when he could clearly see firsthand the travesty of a slave-owning culture. My view is that we in the faith community are in a developmental process. The biblical writers could only interpret within the context of their own knowledge and development.  In many ways the social reforms of the 19th century, led by evangelical Protestants, took us many steps beyond the biblical context of ethical behavior (even though their movements to reform prisons, abolish slavery, improve the workplace, end child labor and improve the conditions of the poor were motivated by their  biblically based Christian faith). Therein lies a lesson: we should not let ourselves be hamstrung by what past generations considered to be biblically normative. 

If God Still Speaks

If God is still speaking, if God’s Spirit is still moving, we will progress to new insights. I’ll give a personal example that was shocking to me when it happened. I was a member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church which is an Anglo-Catholic parish. The Lenten and Easter season is a wonderful and awesome time at that small parish. They do Palm Sunday better that any church in town. You are actually caught up in the drama of the day beginning in celebrations and hosannas and ending in condemning Jesus and handing him over for crucifixion. You can experience celebration, struggle, conflict and grief within that single liturgical experience.

Here is where my own development and experience became a crucial factor: I sojourned for a time at the Unitarian Church which takes great pains to be inclusive and affirming of all people. Then the day came that I wanted to go back to St. Andrew’s specifically for their Palm Sunday service, because nobody does it the way they do it. The service that year followed the account in the Gospel of John. I was ready for a sacred experience. The Gospel of John is one of my favorite books in the Bible, and there I was sitting in one of my favorite liturgical services.

Quite unexpectedly, however, when I heard the Gospel that day I was struck by the anti-Semitic tone of the passage. My own consciousness and awareness had been raised in regard to people of other faiths so that I found myself taking offense in hearing my own sacred scriptures as they were read. It did not cause me to quit the faith, but it caused me to re-examine my faith in light of my own experience and understanding.

All of us do that. I can’t imagine anyone today reading the Old Testament passage about dashing the heads of infants upon stones in fighting the enemy and saying, “Yea, God!” Those were words of a brutal ancient people who were attempting to obey God. Most of us today have no place for that kind of thinking within the context of faith. You can bind yourself to a tradition without being hamstrung by the past. We have to accept that God is leading us forward and that He still speaks and moves us upward when we are willing.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Palliative Care

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Once we realized the seriousness of Dorothy’s condition, I thought that her survival would be a matter of hours or days. Taking Dorothy’s wishes into consideration, the decision was made to wean her off all the IV medications and then to provide comfort care. I was doubtful that she would survive long without the IV drips that were sustaining her heart rhythm and blood pressure. 

On the contrary, Dorothy continued to be alert and in good spirits after she was taken off her IV regimen.  On April 4, the fifth day of her hospitalization, she was moved to the Palliative Care Unit where the focus of care would be upon keeping her comfortable.  The day before, when I was visiting her, Dorothy said she would like for me to “bring me some of that Joe Mugs coffee.”

Joe Muggs Coffee in English Village
Just two or three years earlier, while we were in the process of recording Dorothy’s life story, I took her to Joe Mugs coffee shop one afternoon. Knowing her fondness for coffee, I thought it would be a good outing.  Dorothy was thrilled as she made her way carefully down the brick inlayed sidewalk of Mountain Brook’s English Village. She took her time using her four-pronged cane to steady her steps, and wearing those bright pink crocs which had become her favorite footwear.  As it turned out, Joe Mugs became a favorite spot for her and we made several subsequent trips to that coffee shop. So it was that I honored her request by stopping by on my way to the hospital the next morning to pick up two cups of coffee one for Dorothy and one for me. When I arrived at her room on the Palliative Care Unit, we were able to share some “coffee time” together.  

Her Friends Kept Watch

We took turns staying with Dorothy while she was in the hospital. My wife, my daughter and I would sometimes play “tag team” so that there could be someone with her as much as possible. Sometimes we would sit and talk, sometimes we would watch TV together (“Little House on the Prairie” was one of her favorites). Her friends from Glen Iris Baptist Church, particularly Lona and Nioka, spent a lot of time with her at the hospital. Often Nioka would spend the night and assist with Dorothy’s bathing and dressing in the morning. Usually after church on Sunday some people from the church would come by and would sing some of Dorothy’s favorite hymns with her.

Ros was one of Dorothy’s dearest friends. She had formerly worked as secretary at the St. Andrew’s Foundation which is how she knew Dorothy. After Ros left St. Andrew’s, she kept in touch with Dorothy and would often help her with her banking and shopping. Ros had moved away – she had moved to Canada, in fact. Dorothy still kept in touch by telephone or when Ros was in town visiting. As fate would have it, Ros came to town to visit family just a few days after Dorothy was admitted to the hospital.  When she learned that her friend was on the Palliative Care unit, Ros made it a point to come by to visit while she was in town. Dorothy’s spirits were greatly lifted by Ros’s company.

I worked at the same hospital on a different floor, so I would stop by on my way into work and also after leaving work. On my off days, I was able to spend more time with Dorothy. When arriving in the morning on those days when I didn’t have to be at work, I would always stop by Joe Mugs to pick up coffee on the way. One morning when I arrived with coffee for Dorothy, her pastor, Chris Lamb, was there visiting. Dorothy was happy to get her cup of coffee from the outside, and the conversation naturally shifted to her love of the beverage. Rev. Lamb, commented, “Yes, Dorothy loves her coffee. She is the only one at church who is allowed to bring her coffee into the sanctuary during the worship service. Did you know that, Dorothy?” The pastor looked at me with a wink and a smile, “Yes we made that allowance for Dorothy.”

Sharing Her Story

While Dorothy was on the Palliative Care Unit, she had a copy of her life story which we had worked on together during all of those interviews, and which I had presented to her on her birthday.  Some of her friends had read it before she came to the hospital, and now she had her story there with her which several of the nursing staff read while they were on duty. One nurse commented to me about the remarkable way she had made it through the obstacles and hardships in her life. “It just reminded me,” she said, “that everyone has a story.  

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

An Evening with Garrison Keillor

So I went to hear Garrison Keillor last night. He was at Samford University which hosts the Tom and Marla Corts Distinguished Authors Series. Garrison Keillor has a way of drawing you in. He is a writer who tells stories laced with humor and insight that reflect Americana. He appears to be talking about himself, but then you realize that you have been there, too. You laugh out loud at times, you are gently moved at times, and you know he is telling our story as well as his.

“Garrison Keillor: A Brand New Retrospective” That’s how the event was billed. Keillor, the host of A Prairie Home Companion, is a writer who also loves music and he likes to sing. He had described the program earlier in a press release:  "A man at 70 relives the good times - and the music that brings it all back: hymns, jingles, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, pop tunes, limericks, rock 'n roll, Beethoven, love sonnets, rags, blues, rousers, with Richard Dworsky, Rob Fisher, and Christine DiGiallonardo."

The evening began with some jaunty piano music from Richard Dworsky and Rob Fisher. Then Keillor walked onto the stage singing a jingle that he made up talking about how things were “back in the day” when there were no gadgets such as iPods and cell phones and a man could leave the house and actually be alone. He continued with a long list of “how things used to be,” and even worked into the number a bit about how he first came to Birmingham in 1993 when the big snow storm hit “and made us feel right at home.” After the light incidental music, he was joined onstage by Christine DiGiallonardo who accompanied him in some duets. When he introduced the young lady he said that when picking a duet partner, it is always helpful to pick someone who is younger, more talented and knows music better than you do. “Always pick a superior partner,” he added, “as I look out at the audience I see that that is what most of you have done.”

Here’s What You Need to Know about Life

After a couple of more songs, Garrison began to rattle off a list of ten things. They were ten things that he felt like we should all know, most of them were laugh-out-loud bits of insight. For example, he said, “Make sure you marry someone with a good sense of humor, he paused briefly as he examined the thumb and fingers of his left hand, “because they are going to need it! After all, this is the person who will have the most access to the details of your life.” He went on with his list, until he got to the notion that we should lighten up and be cheerful. Keillor turned 70 this year. He told us that when you reach the biblically allotted number, you learn that it’s best to accept life and be cheerful. You learn to be grateful.

With that Keillor told a story of his trip to the Mayo Clinic for an MRI to try to figure out why he was having headaches. He described in great detail a near accident on the snowy drive up to the Mayo Clinic. After the medical tests, “they were able to see that there was no tumor – which was great news, I was elated. But I would have missed out on that wonderful news if I had died in an accident on the highway, which could have happened – you learn to be grateful.”

The storyteller then went on to describe meeting an elderly couple when he was in the cafeteria of the Mayo Clinic. The wife was in a wheelchair and the husband had obviously suffered a stroke as some point, his right arm hanging downward like a dead weight and his face drooping so that he looked constantly displeased. His wife was saying things like “you just have to take one day at a time; you gotta have faith; doctors don’t know everything, you know, my uncle lived longer than his doctors said he would.” Keillor then said the audience, “That’s the problem with surviving catastrophic things like a stroke – you have to endure words of encouragement from other people. They mean well, but you want to just shoot them…except you don’t have the coordination in your right arm to handle a gun.”

Reminiscence in Story and Song

As the evening continued, we heard the host of A Prairie Home Companion tell about events throughout his life. We heard about his witnessing a baptism in the creek near their house when he was five years old and his father had just come back from the war. He told of not being allowed to play football in the seventh grade because his doctor noted his mitral valve prolapse and how that led to his first job as a writer when he began to report on the games for the local paper. We learned of the first girl he fell in love with in high school, and how she so casually left him the night of the school prom, thus giving him understanding of what those blues songs were about that he had been singing, but didn’t really understand until that moment.

Christine DiGiallonardo
and Garrison Keillor
We heard many songs from Keillor and his small troupe of musicians: gospel, blues, American standard, rock and roll. At 70 years of age, I was impressed that Mr. Keillor still has a vocal range from tenor all the way down to bass. After one of the hymns that he and Ms DiGiallonardo sang, he told the audience about how his mother had died not long before at the age of 97. He and his siblings had sung that hymn along with others to their mother while she was on her death-bed.  Keillor said that his mother believed the message of those songs, and his sister who sang them along with him believed them. He said he had tried to believe them, but he wasn’t at that same place that some people in his family were. “I tried to believe them. I also tried not to believe them, and that’s even harder than trying to believe them.” He added that he was more inclined on certain days toward belief than he was on other days. I think everyone knew exactly what he meant – even those who claim belief would know deep down what he meant. Thus Garrison Keillor was once again telling his story which was really our story as well.

 All in all, it was a delightful evening. We were given some insight into life, but not so much as to get either bummed out or overly elated. Mr. Keillor kept any insight balanced by humor and the simple fun of sharing music together. As we were walking out of the performance hall, I heard a lady humming the tune of the last gospel hymn that had closed the evening. What is that they say in show business? If they leave humming the tunes, the show has been a success.

[Photos are from the news release]


Monday, March 25, 2013

Monday Music: Ventana by William Ackerman

Here's another track from that Windham Hill 1984 Sampler that I am so fond of. William Ackerman became a name that I would remember after hearing this one. I came to learn that Ackerman actually founded the Windham Hill label. The musicians he discovered and recorded include pianist George Winston and guitarist Michael Hedges.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

An Open Letter to Senator Harry Reid

Dear Mr. Reid,

The news this past week was that the ban on assault rifles (included in Sen. Feinstein’s proposed bill) will not be part of any bill put forward for consideration by the senate. Your reasoning was that there are not enough votes for it to pass. I would very much like to see our congress work in the light of day rather than hearing about what you say goes on in the back rooms. The majority of Americans favor stricter gun legislation .  If our elected representatives are not willing to step forward and do what needs to be done in terms of decreasing gun violence, then I would like to see who it is that is unwilling. Put a decent bill before the senate. If there are not enough votes, as you claim, let the public see who it is that will not vote for a sensible gun law. Even most NRA members favor background checks and gun registration  yet we have elected leaders who themselves appear to be “under the gun” and unable to do anything to improve the situation.

The current news is that there is a softer bill being considered, one that will expand background checks but will not address the sale of assault rifles. At least that is something, but I fear that it is too timid a measure for the societal problem our country has with guns.  It has been demonstrated, in the case of Australia’s gun control legislation, that a ban on semi-automatic rifles can indeed reduce mass shootings and firearm deaths.    We need a government that works and a congress that can take action. We do not need elected officials held captive by a gun lobby that speaks for the gun-making industry rather than for gun owners.  No one believes that the NRA got all those millions of dollars to lobby from membership fees. They speak for the industry which favors profits over any pretense of constitutional rights. That industry is now using the threat that gun control will result in a loss of jobs – same old tired corporate response trying to pretend to be for the working people, claiming that they are the job creators.

I would like to come back to the notion of not bringing something to a vote unless the votes are that to pass it. What this does is to make congress less accountable to the public. We would like to see the bills that are considered, let the senate vote and let us see how they vote. If you ask a senator in private how he will vote, he how do I know he would vote the same way if the bill were actually presented and he knew the public would be aware of his vote?  Furthermore, we can only take your word for it that there would not be enough votes – we do not have the ability to see with our own eyes if this is the actual truth.  Not bringing a bill to vote due to so-called lack of votes is no better than Speaker Boehner refusing to allow a bill to come to a vote if his party doesn’t like it.  We need more governing in the clear light of day rather than back-room deals by elected officials.  By actually bringing more bills for consideration, it will allow us see who is able to take the lead and vote for the good of the country rather that the wishes of the lobbyists or the party bosses. The voting public has a right to know.  This would mean an increase in bills before the congress, and you may have to work more than three days a week, but our country might be better for it.

  *    *     *

[For more information, there is a helpful article from The Washington Post by Sarah Kliff, "What would 'meaningful action' on gun control look like?" You can find that article here.]

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Malaysia by Rail

My trek from Bangkok to Singapore continued as the train crossed over into Malaysia. Unlike Thailand, some parts of rural Malaysia reminded me of rural Alabama - similar trees, land and housing. I even saw (though I didn't get a picture) an old car parked under a tree with the hood up while a shade-tree mechanic tinkered under the hood

A docile water buffalo grazes in the valley

               More rural farms

A stop along the way as others board

Many small railway stations along the way

Small town life in Malaysia

The endless rails

Crossing the water to Singapore

<Thailand by Rail shows the first leg of the journey


Friday, March 22, 2013

Thailand by Rail

On March 8, I posted an old poem that I came across recently called "Sacredness." I have always liked that poem and I remember when I wrote it down in my notebook. It was while riding the train from Bangkok to Singapore. Thinking of that poem and the trip during which it was written prompted me to go back through my photo albums. Hence this photographic essay, "Thailand by Rail" and the one that will follow, "Malaysia by Rail." These are photos I shot from the train while en route to Singapore in the summer of 1982.

First I'll begin with a few shots taken in Bangkok in the days prior to boarding the train.

One of the major temple complexes in Bangkok

A young monk climbs the stairs going up to the temple

         Shanties along the river in Bangkok

          The busy street markets
Inside the train station in Bangkok

There were many rice patties along the way

                Rural farm houses

I caught site of these rural temple amidst the lush foliage -- reminded me of the gospel song "Church in the Wildwood"

       More village settings

The journey continues with Malaysia by Rail>
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