Monday, July 31, 2017

Monday Music: This Is My Song (Petula Clark)

Charles Chaplin was a man of many talents. He wrote "This Is My Song (C'est ma chanson)" for the soundtrack his last film, "A Countess from Hong Kong"(1967). I do not speak French, but I love the sound of the song. Ms. Clark also gives us the English version in the second verse.


Saturday, July 29, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Sunlit Forest

in streams of sunlight
water flowing over rocks
two streams yielding life

Photo: Kikuchi Gorge, Kumamoto, Japan via GANREF 光の歓喜
(uploaded from Pinterest)


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Play Is the Thing

[From my archives ~ a post from my first year of blogging,June of 2010]

There is something about a good drama. Live theater can have a remarkable effect upon members of the audience. The power of drama and its influence was brought home to me recently while watching a film biography of Pope John Paul II. I learned that the young Karol Wojtyla was a member of an underground drama company, the Rhapsodic Theater, in Poland before he began considering the priesthood. His mentor had been encouraging him toward the priesthood when at one point young Wojtyla realized the he could make a positive change in the world by being a priest. Prior to that point he had been assuming that drama would be the way to effect positive change in his world.

Drama During Hard Times

Upon hearing that drama had been Pope John Paul’s first choice for positive change, I tried to imagine what drama must have meant to him and his colleagues living in Poland under Nazi occupation. Immediately I remembered hearing about an acting company in Serajevo during the Bosnian War in Yugoslavia. Even amid the fighting and bombing that completely disrupted that once grand city, the actors were determined to continue, and the people were determined to see that the plays went on. Furthermore, consider Czechoslovakia. When the communist Soviet Bloc fell apart, whom did the Czechoslovakians choose as their first democratically elected president? It was a playwright, Vaclev Havel.

What is it about a play? Why is drama so important? I think that a good play helps us to visualize what life can be like. It is one thing to talk about how things are, or how they could be, but it is another thing to illustrate life with a good drama. For the ancient Greeks, drama was a central act of community religious life. Their plays provided both instruction and catharsis (Now it’s making more sense that a noble young aspiring actor would eventually become Pope).

Widespread Appeal

Drama has a universal appeal. Every culture has its own unique forms of dramatic re-creation. When Black Elk, the Lakota medicine man, was young, he had dream that was a visionary message to his people. As was the shamanic custom among his people, Black Elk staged a play. He called the community together and directed the people in acting out his dream in order to bring the power of the vision into the world. It seems that everyone knows that the play is the thing.

Even today in modern U.S. society, drama plays a vital role. While we have an abundance of live theater, perhaps most people are more familiar with the drama in film and television. We have seen how drama can highlight social concerns and can illustrate our hopes and values. A few years back, it was said of the TV drama West Wing, “This is the President we wish we had.”

The Continuing Role for Drama

I think we can still find instruction and catharsis in our modern drama. There is still that hope that through dramatic illustration, we can make a positive change in the world. There remains the idea that if we act out the vision, we can make it a reality. The medium still works for us today. Unfortunately, whereas in the past drama may have been used to illustrate the tragedy of hubris or misplaced honor, today on our TV sets we often use drama to illustrate the tragedy of carrying cash instead of traveler’s checks.


Monday, July 24, 2017

Monday Music: Man in the Long Black Coat Illustrated (Bob Dylan)

One of Bob Dylan's strengths as a song writer is his talent in telling a story. In the video, a graphic artist Andrew Colunga's illustrations highlight the storytelling element of "Man in the Long Black Coat."

Man in the Long Black Coat Illustrated from Andrew Colunga on Vimeo.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Geese at Sunset

at day's end
geese find their way home ~
safe waters

Photo downloaded from Stunning Views blog


Friday, July 21, 2017

Ubderstanding Marshall McLuhan

Today's Google doodle celebrates the 106th birthday of Marshall McLuhan, best known for his book, The Medium Is the Massage. I am reminded of a story I heard about McLuhan when he was a professor at the University of Toronto. He was angry when he found a student's car parked in his assigned faculty parking place. He wrote an angry note and placed it on the windshield telling the driver to stay out of the parking spot which was his assigned parking.

The student took the note and made an appointment to see Professor McLuhan. She handed him the note saying, "I just wanted to apologize for taking your parking place and to say that this is the only thing you have written that I can actually understand."


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Don't Take My Word for It

[The following essay was first posted on July 7, 2010. I re-post it today as I think of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and and the difficult days that are upon us. As Harry Emerson Fosdick put it, "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days.]

"Anything that contradicts experience and logic should be abandoned."
~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama

I love debate and dialogue. It is invigorating to be in an environment where the free exchange of ideas is welcomed. For some people, the need for security overrides the ability for dialogue. In an uncertain world with an unclear future, fundamentalism has an appeal for those who desire certainty and stability. We do not have to look far to see examples of Protestant fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism and Catholic fundamentalism. All of those movements represent a loss of nerve and a lack of faith.

When creativity and security cannot be found within, we scramble and redouble our efforts to build a superficial structure from without. There is the hope that seeing things as black-and-white will give us security. The irony is that those external structures cannot offer the security and stability that most of us desire. Ideology becomes defined by boundaries, vilification, and demonization. Danger is at hand when people blindly follow any ideology without thinking things through for themselves. Those who fail to use their God-given reason are like the fearful servant in Jesus' parable who buried his meager talent in the ground.

The Dalai Lama is one of my heroes. I am inspired by what he has to say about human dignity, freedom, and compassion. I am encouraged and heartened by his joyfulness. I imagine that dogma and ideology are very important to him, but he has the inner security that allows him to hold dogma lightly. I once heard a story about an encounter that the scientist Carl Sagan had with the Dalai Lama. Mr. Sagan was privileged to meet with His Holiness while traveling in India. The scientist was impressed with the religious leader's knowledge and interest in science. At one point in their conversation, Mr. Sagan asked him, "What would you do if science were to prove without a doubt that there is no basis for reincarnation – that it does not exist?"

Without any hesitation, the Dalai Lama said, "We would abandon it. We would stop teaching it." He went on to talk about scientific contributions to the world.

Mr. Sagan was quite surprised by the Tibetan leader's answer and that he spoke with such candor. After some discussion, the Dalai Lama then asked Mr. Sagan, "By the way, how would you go about proving that?" Reportedly, Mr. Sagan was uncharacteristically speechless.

Several years ago on ABC's Nightline, Ted Koppel was interviewing the Dalai Lama. He asked a question on the same subject of reincarnation. "Do you remember any of your previous incarnations?" The spiritual leader chuckled in a self-effacing manner and answered, "At my age, I have trouble remembering what happened yesterday!"

As we search for truth, we would do well to look to role models who exhibit joyfulness, compassion, and inner security. They are the ones who can be open to dialogue, who can question the validity of ideas. They are the ones who have the freedom to examine, to reflect, and to abandon anything that contradicts experience and logic.

*   *   *

[You might be interested in reading an account of the Dalai Lama's visit to Birmingham, Alabama and his speech on secular ethics here)


Monday, July 17, 2017

Monday Music: Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key

"Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," was among the many songs written by Woody Guthrie that were discovered after his death. Guthrie had not set music to the lyrics, so Billy Bragg wrote the music to go with the song. This recording is from Bragg's folk album Mermaid Avenue. From the liner notes of the album:

"In 1995, Nora Guthrie approached Billy Bragg with the idea of setting music to many of Woody's lyrics to which there had been no music. These lyrics/poems came out of the Woody Guthrie Archive. Billy joined with the band Wilco and they set music to these songs. The album was released in 1998 to critical acclaim, made bestseller lists, and earned a Grammy nomination. The album's title comes from the street in Coney Island, Brooklyn where Woody and his family lived."


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Riverside


quiet riverside
summertime willow branches
suddenly a breeze


Image: "Willows and Figures in a Boat" (1880)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919)


Friday, July 14, 2017

Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie, born on this date 1912, died on October 3, 1967. His life and career were cut short by Huntington's Disease, but he still became legendary in folk music and in supporting the cause of ordinary working people. When Bob Dylan was 21, the young singer wrote a poem about Woody Guthrie and recited it publicly on April 12, 1963 at New York's Town Hall.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Book Review: Mockingbird Songs

  Treasures in Earthen Vessels

A Review of Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee

Reading Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, by southern historian Wayne Flynt, is a sheer delight. There is so much of a “Southern feel” about it that it gives me a greater appreciation for my own Alabama roots. Moreover, it provides a truly endearing image of Nelle Lee both in her own written correspondence and in the author’s reflections upon their friendship. Wayne Flynt’s work will give readers a better understanding of the world of Harper Lee from which her celebrated novel arose. A lady emerges from these pages who is quintessentially southern while forever chaffing at the confines of her South Alabama hometown.

Of course, the backdrop of any discussion of Harper Lee is her influential novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Having been translated into so many languages and made required reading in schools throughout the world, Ms. Lee’s impact upon our thinking and our living is without question.

Truman Capote, Harper Lee’s cousin, makes a “cameo appearance” in Mockingbird Songs as Dr. Flynt relates some of their conversations. Those conversations reminded me of a wonderful experience I had years ago. I went to a dramatic reading of “A Christmas Memory” at the Birmingham Unitarian Church. I had seen the film production with Geraldine Page on television, but hearing his words read aloud by just a few people that Sunday morning was incredibly moving. I had known of Capote primarily as that eccentric fellow who appeared now and then on TV talk shows. That morning, however, there were tears throughout the congregation. My thought at the time was that it is remarkable that such an odd little man could make me feel so good about growing up in Alabama. Maybe that is just another way of saying with St. Paul that “we hold this treasure in earthen vessels.”

Perhaps that is part of what Atticus Finch reminded us of as well, that we hold this treasure in earthen vessels. I was glad that Wayne Flynt included in his book the eulogy he delivered for Harper Lee at her funeral, “Atticus’s Vision of Ourselves.” It had been a speech that Dr. Flynt presented in 2006 when Harper Lee was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Birmingham Pledge Foundation. She told him at the time that she wanted him to give that same speech at her funeral.  “Atticus’ Vision of Ourselves” is certainly an important word for all of us, and needed now as much as any time before.

Mockingbird Songs is a loving “filling in of the blanks” of Nelle Harper Lee’s life, which we could not otherwise have known. 

Book Details:
Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee
Author: Wayne Flint
Publisher: Harper, May 2, 2017
Hardcover 240 pages
ISBN: 0062660101
List Price: $25.99



Monday, July 10, 2017

Monday Music: He Was a Friend of Mine

"He Was a Friend of Mine" comes from a folk song that Bob Dylan heard from Eric von Schmidt. The first recorded version was in 1934 when folk musicologist John Lomax recorded James "Iron Head" Baker singing what was then known as "Shorty George." Dylan sang the song and recorded it in 1961, though that version was not released until much later with The Bootleg Series.

The Byrds recorded a version of the song to lament the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and The Grateful Dead recorded it in Road Trips, Vol 4. There is even an obscure Gospel rendition recorded by Dallas Holm in the 1970s which is patterned after The Byrds' recording.Willie Nelson's rendition was used in the soundtrack for the movie, Brokeback Mountain. Such is the life and influence of an authentic folk song.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Open Field

open field
in morning light
lone tree waits

Photo: "After the Storm" by Randall Lewter, Limestone County, Alabama


Friday, July 7, 2017

Harper Lee and the Hero's Journey

[The following essay is not a review of Go Set a Watchmen but rather it is my take on how Harper Lee's own journey was similar to what Joseph Campbell described as the archetypal hero's journey. It was first published on July 17, 2015 at AMERICAblog and is re-printed here because it is always good to remember Nelle Harper Lee and her lasting contribution to literature and to the world. ~ CK]

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the screen version of TKAM
There has been an abundance of talk this week about Atticus Finch, the fictional character in To Kill a Mockingbird.  The release of Harper Lee’s earlier novel, Go Set a Watchman has created quite a buzz. Go Set a Watchman was Lee’s first submission which the publisher’s rejected and encouraged her to go back and rewrite, focusing on young Scout’s point of view. The publishing of that first draft has not been without controversy. The buzz now that it has been released is all about the portrayal of Atticus Finch as a racist. He looked upon blacks as though they were children, not yet ready for the full equality of citizenship. He was even a member of the White Citizen’s Council and didn’t like the idea of the Supreme Court meddling in the affairs of his Southern town.

Many seem to be feeling dazed over the fact that Atticus Finch, or probably more accurately, Gregory Peck’s cinematic version of Atticus Finch, could be so much a part of the Southern racist mindset. Much will be said about the literary value of Go Set a Watchman, and much analysis will be given regarding the protagonist of both of Harper Lee’s novels in light of the new information that has now been made public. Instead of literary criticism, I would like to take a look at the literary dilemma of Watchman in light of Harper Lee’s own journey. I see it as what Joseph Campbell has called, “the hero’s journey.”

The Traveler Comes Home

In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise (whom we knew previously as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird) is a young adult woman who has been living in New York City, and returns to her Southern hometown to be dismayed by the racism she sees in her beloved father.  It has long been noted that the gentlemanly Southern lawyer, Atticus Finch, is based upon Harper Lee’s own father who was an influential lawyer in the small southern town of Monroeville, Alabama.  In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise’s experience is too similar to the author’s own life not to wonder about the autobiographical nature of the writing.  After all, Harper Lee had left Monroeville, Alabama to live and work in New York City.

Remember that this was the 1950s, when the South was still under Jim Crow laws, fully segregated, and resisting implementation of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The paternalistic view seen in the Atticus Finch of Go Tell a Watchman is characteristic of many educated whites of the time, and a view that might have been considered “forward thinking” by fellow Southerners. The problem is that Jean Louise has seen the world and now sees her own town and townsfolk in a different light.

I am a Southerner, born and raised in a small town in Alabama, and I can speak to the effects that travel can have upon one’s perception of things back home. I first went to the big city to go to college, and then I went, not to New York, but to the San Francisco Bay Area for three and a half years. My trek was in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and I can attest to the feelings of shock and dismay when revisiting one’s hometown with a renewed vision and seeing the racist attitudes on display. Those attitudes had always been there, they were part and parcel of my own upbringing, but I could not see them clearly until having spent some significant time out of the South.

A Hero’s Vision

Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, talked about a common archetype in mythology in which the hero makes a long journey to a distant land. He is changed in the process of that journey by the things he encounters (in mythology, it is often a magical realm of unsuspected challenge and/or danger). Eventually the hero returns home with a new vision and gives hope and courage to his people based upon the transformation that his journey has wrought within him.  Psychologists tell us that these mythological archetypes are present in all of us, and that we each live out these various archetypes to some extent.  I would submit that Harper Lee made that hero’s journey and while her initial return home is reflected in Go Set a Watchman, her transformative work is seen in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Having made my own journey out and back home again, I can attest to the dismay in realizing that the people I revered and who nurtured and taught me so much, could also exhibit racist tendencies.  I cannot claim to be on a hero’s journey, but I think I understand some of the things at work in that archetypal expression.  I can see how Harper Lee would have been frustrated by the mindset of her friends back home, but since these are her loved ones, there is more than frustration.  When our travels break us free from those regional bonds and drop the scales from our eyes, so to speak, our first impulse is to demand that that everyone else “see the light” just as we have. The problem is that they have not left home; they have not been on that long transformative journey. The returning hero, as mythology points out, must then find some way to open the eyes of his people.

The Transformative Power of Story

Harper Lee found a way to open the eyes of her people and was able to craft the transformative work that would enable all of us to see ourselves in a new light. In other words, she completed the hero’s journey when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.  She found something redemptive in that racist Southern culture that would give us all hope that things can be better than they are now.  When To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, most Southern whites were denying that there was a problem. Resistance against civil rights was widespread throughout the South. Harper Lee, however, not only gave hope to the movement for racial equality, she also showed the white people in power that there was some decency within them which meant that they did not have to be trapped in an evil racist system.  Not only was there hope for blacks to throw off the shackles of oppression, there was hope for whites to throw off their own shackles of bitter racism.

We were not there in 1960. Though we have made some progress, we are still not there in 2015. Thanks to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (which we now see came about by way of wrestling with the harsh realities of a racist culture in Go Set a Watchman) we have a transformative gift given to us by that hero with a thousand faces. Harper Lee took a hard painful look at the racist South and she found that element within our own culture that could save us from ourselves. That gift, it turns out is universal – it is not just for the South. That saving grace in the midst of injustice and oppression that we see in To Kill a Mockingbird has resonated through the years all over the world.

Many have left the South and have been changed by the experience of living somewhere else – tracing the hero’s journey. Many left never to come back and some returned. While others have come back home and tried to make a difference, only Harper Lee has returned to the South and given us something so astounding as To Kill a Mockingbird.  Rather than mourn over the clay feet of a fictional character, or fret over the awkwardness of literary first drafts, I choose to be grateful for Harper Lee and the hero’s journey that she has demonstrated to world.


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Some Thoughts on Independence Day

Photo from Max Pixel
Today on our nation’s birthday, I will spend some time in gratitude for the wonderful country that is the United States. I will not, however, spend any time conflating God and country. The one is a natural human response that anyone might have for his or her homeland while the other is a dangerous move toward the idolatry of nationalism. That danger of conflating faith and patriotism came home to me last Sunday when we sang the soul-stirring "America the Beautiful" in church.

Brian McLaren has a brief discussion this week on his blog regarding the difference between nationalism and patriotism. Also this week, Johnathan Aigner, on his church music blog, Ponder Anew, illustrates some of the danger in linking love of country with worship of God.

God and Country?

My own conflict came to light for me many years ago when I was a Baptist seminary student. I was in school in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – a beautiful environment for learning. While in school, I was involved in youth ministry in a nice suburban church in Novato, California, which is further up U.S. Highway 101 in northern Marin County. 

One Sunday, right before the choral anthem, the pastor (a fine man who had given me some excellent guidance and advice) called for us all to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (it was on the Sunday that fell just before Independence Day). One of my best friends even went up to hold the U.S. flag. In all fairness, my friend was in the military reserves and several in the congregation were military as well. I am sure that they, like many other of my Baptist colleagues, saw no conflict. I, on the other hand, felt like I had been delivered an unexpected side-blow.

During that time of worship which I saw as a time for contemplation and the turning of one’s attention toward God, I was suddenly called upon to stand in allegiance to my country. Of course, I was proud of my country – and patriotic – but to me, in that setting, in that sacred space, the worship of God took precedence over all else. 

I had first begun to parse out the difference between love of God and love of country when I was a freshman in college. I learned in my Western Civilization class about how St. Augustine saw the necessity of reassuring the faithful that their faith need not be devastated by the fact that the Roman Empire was falling apart. He set it all out in his written work, The City of God. It occurred to me that just like those earlier times when Rome and the Church were seen as inseparable, we American Christians too often were conflating God and country. 

The way I framed it for myself then, trying to follow Augustine’s lead, was that if I did not fully separate my faith in God from my love of country, then my faith might not hold up if my country were to fail. More important, I might not properly distinguish the demands of faith vs. the demands of citizenship.

Taking it to the Classroom

It just so happened that in seminary that semester I was taking a field supervision class which met every week to examine issues we were experiencing in church ministry. I brought my dilemma to the group – of having faced the inner conflict of having to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the context of Christian worship. 

In the discussion that ensued, some were surprised that I would have such a conflict. One person said that he saw patriotism as a Christian duty. "What about Vacation Bible School?" someone else countered, "we always lead the children in the Pledge of Allegiance there, in church, while teaching kids the Bible." Another said that I was sounding more like a Jehovah’s Witness than a Baptist (Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in saluting the flag or pledging allegiance to the United States since their duty and allegiance should be to the Kingdom of God). 

Later in the week, one of my classmates stopped me to offer a word of encouragement and expressing admiration that I “put myself out there on the line” in the group discussion. I had not seen anything “heroic” in my questions, I was simply bringing forth my own honest discomfort and conflict that had occurred during a time of worship.

A Young Country and an Old Faith

Since those days, I have parted from my Southern Baptist heritage for many reasons. Nevertheless, it remains ironic to me that a group that has made the separation of church and state one of its hallmarks should have conflated God and Country so that the line between patriotism and faith is practically indistinguishable. Our great country is, after all, not even 250 years old while the Christian faith is over 2,000 years old. 

Though I have not been in a position of having to say the Pledge of Allegiance during worship in the intervening years, I still witness the unexamined conflation of God and country, as in the case I mentioned earlier with using "America the Beautiful" as a closing hymn in church. During that service last Sunday, I closed my hymnal and remained silent throughout the hymn. I listened, wondering if perhaps I could make that a prayer for country rather than an exaltation of nationalism in the context of worship. I decided, no, that would be a stretch.  It is a beautiful song that I prefer even over the National Anthem, but for me it does not belong in church.

Love for Country and Peace among Nations

(The following is from a Monday Music post on this blog last year)

The tune "Finlandia" was composed by Jean Sebelius and has been used for other hymns ("Be Still My Soul" is one example). "This Is My Song," by Lloyd Stone, was written when the poet was 22 years old. It was after WWI and the song is a beautiful example of having love for one's country while recognizing the need for peace among the nations. The song is performed here by Indigo Girls.

                    This is my song, O God of all the nations,
                    a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
                    this is my home, the country where my heart is;
                    here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
                    but other hearts in other lands are beating
                    with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

                    My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
                    and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
                    but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
                    and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
                    O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
                    a song of peace for their land and for mine.

                                                                       ~ Lloyd Stone


Monday, July 3, 2017

Monday Music: Madison by Ola Gjeilo

Penny Nash will often share music on her blog, Penelopepiscopal. She has good taste in music, and I always appreciate the works she introduces me to by way of her blog. This one is a beautiful piano and cello piece written by Norwegian composer, Ola Gjeilo. "Madison," is a musical reflection written to commemorate a Christmas he spent near Madison Wisconsin. On his website, Gjeilo states:

"Madison is a lyrical track from my first piano-oriented album on the 2L label, Stone Rose (2007). At the recording session, only the cello part was written out – I played my piano part partly from memory, partly improvised. It was later transcribed from the recording by Thomas Barber and then edited by me."

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Saturday Haiku: Americana

the small rural church
in vast fields of summer corn
while Old Glory waves


Photo of Illinois farmland by Laura Moye

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