Thursday, December 30, 2010

Year-End Review

It was one year ago, on December 31, 2009, that I launched this blog. My wife had been encouraging me to do it. “You could put some of your writings out there, and you could talk about some of the things you comment on every day when we watch the news,” she said. So I decided to give it a try. Not Dark Yet seemed the perfect title, inspired by the song by Bob Dylan. I began my blog as a place to share essays, poetry, commentary about current events and other things that mattered to me. I stated in that first blog entry, “My interests include poetry, religion, politics, nature, conservation, and striving toward the common good. This blog will cover observations of life and shared events.” 136 posts later, I am now looking over a year's worth of blogging.

The entries that I most enjoyed writing include my recollections of my father (September), and my “Explorations of Mystery and Wonder” (May). I weighed in on the healthcare debate early in the year. The darkest observation points for me involved certain Supreme Court decisions. I included some poetry, thoughts on spirituality, childhood experiences, and a tribute to my beloved Mr. Higgins (February). I’ve also tried to let Bob Dylan make some “cameo” appearances from time to time (he appears 11 times in the blog labels – “poetry’ is the only label with more occurrences).

Back in June, Blogger began making statistics available so I could see how many people were viewing the blog. Since they started keeping track in June, there have been some 4,600 pageviews from at least 24 countries. I’m even able to track the most popular postings. Here are the Top ten entries according to the number of pageviews:

1. Southern Nights and Stereotypes – A look at Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’.
This one is far out ahead of the others, with over 650 page views.

2. Wendell Berry and the Sacred Task of Writing – One that I sat down and wrote on the spur of the moment after being inspired by a radio discussion of one of Mr. Berry’s books.

3. Tibetan Sand Mandala: Precision and Prayer – My “photo journalistic” attempt to document the monks’ visit to Birmingham.

4. Icons: What’s in a Name? – This was the quirkiest piece that I posted. I was always bothered that I couldn’t get those 21st century icons lined up symmetrically. Then when I saw how many people were viewing it, I went back to rework it, swapping out a picture that I could make line up properly.

5. An Ordinary Life – I am very glad that this piece about my friend, Meg Parker, made the top 10 list. It looks back on a foundational period in my life.

6. Finding Christmas – an important essay for me, I’m glad some other people liked it.

7. When Faiths Collide – a review of Martin Marty’s book. I thought the book had something important to say about interfaith dialogue.

8. Don’t Take my Word for It – One of my tributes to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

9. My Back Pages – A fun video from a celebration of Bob Dylan’s music. Although I didn’t mention it at the time, my birthday was the occasion for posting that one (“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”).

10. Songs for Christmas: Christmas Time is Here – It warmed my heart that Charlie Brown made the top 10 list!

And honorable mention goes to:

11. Every Grain of Sand – this one was holding in the top 10 until it was edged out by Charlie Brown’s Christmas. I keep it in the list just because it stands as a great work by Bob Dylan.

Blogger’s tabulation of countries represented by viewers includes The United States, Russia, Canada, Spain, The Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, France, Denmark, The United Kingdom, Croatia, Slovenia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Australia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Belgium, India, Saudi Arabia, The Philippines, Italy, Albania, and Israel.

I’ve had fun with the blogging this year. Many thanks to all who have followed this blog, and a special thanks to those who have shared their comments along the way. I look forward to another year. Who knows what topics will arise in the months ahead?


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Surprised by Snow

I mentioned when posting the "White Christmas" entry on Christmas Eve's "Songs for Christmas" that down here in the deep South, we never have a white Christmas. Well, we were surprised to see the white stuff falling all day on Christmas Day. It started out to be a dreary rainy drizzle in the early morning, but by mid-morning we were seeing lager snowflakes coming down. By early afternoon, it was actually accumulating on the grass.

Snow on Christmas in Alabama can generate some excitement! The local paper had photos in this morning's edition, and many people sent in there snow photos to WBRC FOX6, a local TV station. The pictures you see here were taken from the FOX6 website.

This was a first for me - to actually see snow coming down on Christmas Day!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Songs for Christmas: A Hallelujah Chorus!

My intention for this "Songs of Christmas" series was to have 12 songs, ending on Christmas Eve with "White Christmas." However, a friend sent me this video that is amazingly and wonderfully and joyfully moving. I thought it would be most fitting to include this one on Christmas Day. The Christmas season does not end here, however. According to the liturgical calendar, there are eleven more days to celebrate. The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 will be the culmination of the Christmas celebration. Here's wishing you all a wonderful Christmas season!

"On Nov.13 2010 unsuspecting shoppers got a big surprise while enjoying their lunch. Over 100 participants in this awesome Christmas Flash Mob. This is a must see! This flash mob was organized by to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas."


Friday, December 24, 2010

Songs for Christmas: White Christmas

Having grown up in the South, I've never known a white Christmas. As children, we would always hope against hope for snow because all those images from story books and the movies associated snow with Christmas. Bing Crosby was one who gave us many songs for Christmas, perhaps the most notable was "White Christmas," written by Irving Berlin. It was first recorded in 1942, then was used in the movie, Holiday Inn starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.

The version that has become popular was a second recording that Crosby did in 1947. As a child, I remember my grandmother commenting on how she loved to hear Bing Crosby sing the song. The fact that she loved it, plus the perennial wish for snow, probably influenced my own affection for the song.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Songs for Christmas: Silent Night

Can you imagine not singing Silent Night at least once during the Christmas season? The story goes that this simple carol was composed by an Austrian choirmaster because the church organ was broken and he needed a song that could be sung with guitar accompaniment. Whether or not the broken organ story is true,"Stille Nacht," written by Father Joseph Mohr (melody by Franz Xaver Gruber) was first performed in the Nikolaus-Kirche (Church of St. Nicholas) in Oberndorf, Austria on December 24, 1818, with guitar accompaniment.  In 1859, John Freeman Young (second Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Florida) first published the English translation that we know today. Is there a more beloved Christmas carol that can be enjoyed by the young and the old alike?

I once learned this carol in the original German when I shared office space with a German language instructor. She was native to Germany and coached me in pronunciation. Since I don't speak German, I have long since forgotten the German lyrics. Last year I heard Enya's CD, And Winter Came. One of the tracks off that album is "Oiche Chuin," an Irish version of Silent Night. I found it to be a strikingly beautiful rendition. Here it is for your enjoyment.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Songs for Christmas: Wexford Carol

St. Andrew's Church in Winter
photo by Parrish Nored
The Wexford Carol may be my all time favorite carol. It is an Irish carol that originated in County Wexford and dates from the 12th century. This is another one that I came late in knowing. My first encounter with the carol was in the mid 1980s when I was singing in the choir at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Birmingham. We were then under the direction of Lester Seigel, a most superb organist and choirmaster who was also choir director at Temple Emanu-El at the time (his weekends were quite busy!). These days, Dr. Seigel is an internationally known conductor and is Department Chair for the Music Department at Birmingham-Southern College. I am proud to have known him back in the day.

There is great joy in listening to music, but to sing in the choir adds another dimension. The choir works with the song over and over before it is presented to the public. As a result, the choir member has a much more intimate involvement with the music, and has had the repeated experience of finding that place of harmony, balance, timing and accord with the rest of the choir. The congregation enjoys the results of the choir's many rehearsals, but the entire process brings rich reward to the choir member.

I have two versions of the Wexford Carol here. The first is a choral presentation that is very much the way I first learned the carol. The second is of Alison Krauss recording the piece for the CD, Yo Yo Ma and Friends: Songs of Joy & Peace. Alison Krauss does a magnificent job with the song. Her background in country music (along with the addition of the drum and pipes) brings a real Celtic flavor to this Irish carol. Enjoy either one, or both!


Friday, December 17, 2010

Songs for Christmas: Little Drummer Boy

Call this one "Christmas Americana!" I remember enjoying this song as a child and then as I grew older I recognized the poignant message of the song that was more than just a boy playing his drum. Last year when I heard that Bob Dylan had released a Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart, I howled (no reference to Allen Ginsberg intended) at the notion. I'm a Dylan fan, but Christmas music? What was he doing? Was this a serious project, or tongue-in-cheek? My daughter gave the CD to me for Christmas last year and I actually enjoyed it. Apparently, Dylan wanted to bring together those Christmas songs he remembered as a kid growing up in middle America in the 1950s. He stated in an interview that those songs were a part of his life, just like folk songs. "Little Drummer Boy" is one of my favorite tracks from that CD, and someone has provided some excellent "Americana" illustration to accompany the piece.

Speaking of drums, I must add that the toy drum kept me believing in Santa Claus a little longer than might have otherwise been the case. It seems that every Christmas, one or another of us kids would get a toy drum which we delighted in playing while marching about the house. It would irritate my mother to no end, and she did not hesitate to remark how she hated those toy drums. I doubted the rumor that our parents gave us those gifts because I knew my mother would never buy us a drum for Christmas - it must be Santa.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Songs for Christmas: Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming

I learned this carol while singing in the Men's Chorus at Golden Gate Baptist Seminary around 1979. I am amazed sometimes that it takes me so long to learn about some of these treasures. We sang it acapella during that Christmas season, and it became one of my favorites.

Originally known as "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen," this German Marian hymn dates back to the 16th century. The English translation "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" was written by Theodore Baker in 1894.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Songs for Christmas: Happy Christmas (War Is Over)

We saw in the previous post how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the 19th century used poetry in an attempt to reconcile the realities of war and personal loss with the Christmas message of hope for peace on earth. Similarly, John Lennon in the 1970s used music (and a few billboards) to call our attention to the need to act upon "the better angels of our nature"  (to use Lincoln's phrase). As the song continues to be heard over the airwaves each Christmas, it calls  us to actually seek the peace that we sing about during this season.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Songs for Christmas: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

This carol is based on the poem “Christmas Bells,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote the poem in 1863 in the aftermath of the news that his son, a lieutenant in the American Civil War, had been wounded in battle. Longfellow had lost his wife two years before in an accidental fire. Thus the poem was written during a time of national crisis and personal loss. I can remember hearing this carol sung in church when I was a teenager. I suppose it was partly that I was growing from a childhood view into an adult view of Christmas, but I remember being impressed by the admission of doubt and despair over the hate and wrong in the world at a time when one wants to celebrate peace and hope.

The carol has been set to a number of tunes. I tried to find one with the hymn tune (WALTHAM) that I was familiar with, but could not find that version. Harry Belafonte does a sensitive rendition of the song set to a 1950s tune written by Johnny Marks (better known for writing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer).


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Songs for Christmas: Angels We Have Heard on High

Here's a wonderful Christmas hymn that is always fun to sing. I loved singing the tenor part to this back in my choir days in school. It is a great one to listen to, and a great one to participate in during congregation singing. It reminds us that we participate in a truly cosmic event.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Songs for Christmas: What Child Is This

King's College Chapel

Here's another carol that remains popular at Christmas time. Written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix, it was later set to the traditional English tune,"Greensleeves," which gives it that Renaissance flavor. I enjoyed learning to play this one on the guitar years ago. The song is beautifully done here by the choir at King's College, Cambridge in 1995, using John Stainer's arrangement of the tune.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Finding Christmas

The following essay is one that I did at the request of Karen Matteson, a Unitarian Minister. She wanted me to take part in a Sunday morning service in preparation for Christmas. Many in that Unitarian congregation felt that it was very important to have a big Christmas Eve celebration. Others had a problem with Christmas because they came from different backgrounds, and most had a problem with affirming the divinity of Christ. The minister wanted to have a service to help bring everyone in to the celebration of the season while acknowledging the different places that many were coming from. "Finding Christmas" was my contribution to that service which I was honored to take part in.

Finding Christmas: A Post-modern Christian Revisits an Ancient Holiday
by Charles Kinnaird

"In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."
~Albert Camus

In the Jesus story, the Gospel writer at one point has the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, asking the question, "What am I to do with Jesus?" It is fascinating to me that from that time until this, most of us in Western Civilization have had to ask that very question and in some way respond to the question. When I was in high school, there were two Broadway musicals, Godspell, and Jesus Christ, Superstar, that represented one way that my generation was responding to the question of what to do with Jesus. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Handel's Messiah, Zulu Zionism in South Africa, Base Communities in Latin America, and the Jesus Seminar in Santa Rosa, CA, represent a few of the many varied responses to the same question.

In my own journey, I am always re-evaluating and redefining. I took a computer course once where we were working with spreadsheets. I loved the visual effect of having the spreadsheet all laid out, then typing in another number and watching the whole screen change in response to the new data. A living philosophy has to be that way. When we are confronted with new information or new experiences, our perspective will change in some way. There may even be a shift in our world view.

A few years ago, I was attending a Eucharistic service at an Episcopal Church (some traditions refer to it as Mass, or Holy Communion). It was at a time when I was re-assessing what the Christian myth meant to me, given my world view. It occurred to me that however the person of Jesus fits (or does not fit) into one's theology, the Jesus Story dramatically illustrates the risk of incarnation. It was an emotional moment and I immediately connected with that notion because I knew first-hand the risk of incarnation.

In my work as a registered nurse, I often have to ask patients to sign a consent form for the surgeon to operate. I always ask the patient "Has the doctor explained to you the risks and the benefits of this procedure?" If the patient answers affirmatively, then I know that he or she is ready to sign the consent form. That day during the Eucharist, I knew that as I drank from the cup, I was affirming my own participation in the risk of incarnation. Knowing the beauty of being alive, I was also fully aware of the risk.

Christmas is about light and life. It is a celebration in the middle of winter that the light will come and the darkness will end. It is a celebration of the promise of new life beginning. We call it Christmas, a time when Christians celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus as the incarnation of God and a light to the world.

The celebration existed, however, long before the Christians took it over. Winter Solstice had long been a time to celebrate the dawn on the darkness of winter. It was a time to extol the evergreen that proclaimed the promise of life in the dead of winter.

Christmas for us can be a time to celebrate the joy and beauty of incarnation as we know it. If we have lived long enough, we understand the risk, but we also know from our collective experience that the darkness will end. We sense the persistent hope of new life. We know that life on this planet is worth the risk. We can use the Christmas season to acknowledge our own participation in the incarnation of Life.

Our light has come.
Our day has dawned.
We can joyfully celebrate:
Life is up to something,
and we are included!
Life is full of surprises,
and we are a part of it!


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Songs for Christmas: Gabriel's Message

I enjoy listening to some of the Medieval and Renaissance Christmas carols. “Gabriel’s Message" is based on a Basque carol and may have roots in the thirteenth or fourteenth century hymn “Angelus Ad Virginem.” This carol dates from around 1582. It was copied down by French composer and musicologist Charles Bordes, who published it in an 1895 volume of Basque folk tunes. The song celebrates the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she is highly favored and has been chosen to be the blessed mother of Christ, Emmanuel ("God with us"). Sting does a fine rendition of it on his CD, If on a Winter’s Night. Here is a live performance of it from the Durham Cathedral:

Friday, December 3, 2010

Songs for Christmas: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

I first became aware of this song in junior high school when it was featured on an episode of The Partridge Family (my little brother said at the time, "I can't believe you've never heard that one before!"). It was written by Alabama native Hugh Martin for the movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, and was sung by Judy Garland in that movie. Don Williams has a great essay on the two versions of this song: the one used in the movie and the one that has become a popular Christmas song. You can read Don’s essay here. Below you can listen to Frank Sinatra’s version of the song. The original, sung by Judy Garland can be viewed here.

Hugh Martin, by the way, is now 96 years old and living in Encinitas, California.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Songs for Christmas: Christmas Time is Here

During the month of December, I'll be posting a few of my favorite Christmas songs. I'll have a You Tube version of each song so that you can stop and listen if you like.

I remember watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special the very first time it was aired. As an 11-year-old, I was already a seasoned fan of the Peanuts comic strip by Charles Shultz. Finding it in the “Sunday Funnies” was always a treat. Naturally, I took delight in the first televised cartoon of the Peanuts gang. Not only did A Charlie Brown Christmas tell an endearing Christmas story while presenting THE Christmas story, it was probably my first introduction to jazz with the musical score written by Vince Guaraldi. Many years later, I was very glad to have an excuse to watch the televised special again when my own daughter was young. The opening song, “Christmas Time is Here,” has since become and enduring Christmas classic, featured on many Christmas recordings.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rickwood Field

Here's a nice review of  RICKWOOD FIELD: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark, by Allen Barra. The review is written by Gary Presley. Gary's blog is on my reading list. He often has interesting things to say. I was pleased to see his review of Birmingham's ball park. I was displeased when the Birmingham Barons moved from Rickwood field to the new Hoover stadium over 20 years ago. Now there is talk of bringing them back to Birmingham. But at least Rickwood stadium has been preserved so far, and has not suffered the unfortunate fate of Birmingham's grand railroad station which was demolished back in the 1969.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Just the Two of Us

25 years ago today my wife and I officially tied the not, and thus began a magnificent journey. I shudder to think where I would be without her. Today is a great day! It was a wonderful day 25 years ago, and a wonderful day today! When I look into her eyes, I know that it is definitely not dark yet.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wendell Berry and the Sacred Task of Writing

There are many things that I would describe as sacred. Hearing a choir sing a favorite anthem, resting in the woods by a creek bank, witnessing the birth of one’s own child, listening to a person tell their own story – all of these things become sacred moments. Anytime we can stop and realize the essence of life in its beauty, love, hardship and struggle we are engaged in sacred time. Whenever I am privileged to listen to someone read a poem that they wrote themselves, I regard that as sacred time.

Today I managed to catch a discussion of Wendell Berry’s book, Hannah Coulter on the "The Diane Rehm Show" which airs on National Public Radio. I hold Wendell Berry in high esteem as one whose writing truly exhibits a sacred task. I first learned of him back in 1981 when I was teaching English at Hong Kong Baptist College (now Hong Kong Baptist University). A friend and colleague, Steve Fox, gave me a little book of poetry by Wendell Berry titled A Part. Steve knew that I had a love for poetry and had been writing poetry. I think Steve was in his fourth year teaching at the college, and I was in my first year. “I think you’ll like this guy,” he told me. I did enjoy reading A Part. I felt that I found a kindred spirit in someone from rural Kentucky whose love for the forest and the land came through as an ever present backdrop for the images of love, friendship and community that he expressed in his poetry. His poetry brought to mind days I spent growing up in rural Alabama.

A few years later, I read some essays that Berry had written about ecology, the environment, and the need to preserve the small farm in an age of ever encroaching large scale mechanized and industrial style farming. I was even more impressed with the man. Then a friend gave be a book of fiction, That Distant Land. It was the first work of fiction by Berry that I had encountered. I was deeply moved by his prose. That Distant Land is a collection of stories of different people from various time periods, all centered around the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. From the very first story in the book, I saw people who were so very much like the people I grew up with in rural Alabama. I read of a life that resonated with stories that my own father and mother had told about family and neighbors in the farming communities they had grown up in. The book provides a clear view of life in rural Kentucky that spans from the late 19th century when farming was central to the community up to near present day as changing times bring new challenges to family and community. Reading That Distant Land was sacred time to me.

I haven’t read Hannah Coulter, but it also takes place in Port William, the town that figures in to so much of Berry’s fiction. Listening to the discussion on the radio today became sacred time for me as well. I was in the midst of getting ready for our Thanksgiving celebration, and spent most of the time in the kitchen preparing the dough for the homemade potato rolls. Those rolls have been a family tradition. My daughter says that it doesn’t matter what we have for Thanksgiving dinner as long as I make my rolls. I follow a recipe that my mother used for holidays and special occasions. So the act of making bread put me into a place that transcended time and connected me with past generations. Listening to people on the radio talk about Wendell Berry only heightened the sacredness of that space. You can listen to and read about the broadcast here.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

That Could Be a Stretch

It certainly would be a stretch for me to try to pass myself off as an artist. I did once have my work on display, but most of my pieces came down from the bedroom door by the time I was in third grade. On a serious note, I have always been impressed with people who could take a pencil or a paint brush and put recognizable images on paper. I tried my hand at it from time to time in school, but never had the knack for it. My daughter is one of those true artists who can represent things on paper using all kinds of medium. She is, in fact, studying art in college. Now she is into abstract art and sculpture. Like I said, I have always been impressed with people who can draw and paint, and I've been particularly proud of my daughter for some years now.
It was a few years ago that one Christmas my daughter gave me a set of pastels and a small sketch book. I enjoy playing around with words and dabbling in music, but I had long ago given up any attempt at the visual arts. My daughter apparently wanted me to expand my artistic interests. Or perhaps she wanted to share some of her world with me. I decided it would be fun to give it another try. I scribbled out a few images that winter, then put the pastels aside. I came across that sketchbook this week. The first two pictures I attempted were things I was looking at in the back room where I take my morning coffee and do a little reading and meditation. The picture you see at the top of this entry is the chair by the window where I usually sit in the morning.

Here you see what I see when I look out that window. There is the lattice fence that I built 20 years ago (which I replaced with more lattice this past summer - you may remember seeing the cypress vine and moonflower growing on it in an earlier post). Then there are the bird feeders that attract finches, titmice, chickadees, cardinals, doves, the occasional grosbeak, and from time to time a marauding band of grackles who come through like Hell's Angels in their black jackets, all others fleeing until the wide-eyed black birds move on. Beyond that it the tree in our neighbor's yard across the street.

After I did those first two sketches, I decided to try drawing something from my head instead of an actual image I was looking at. I came up with a pond, much like the ones you might find in the country out in a pasture in rural Alabama where a farmer has dammed up a creek to create a pond for watering the cows. I didn't see any cows in my head - only trees, grass, a cardinal on the ground and some birds flying in the distance.

Then there is this scene, perhaps somewhere out west, with mountains in the distance and sparse vegetation except near the spring and oasis that rise up in the midst of a barren landscape.
The point of all of this is really that I am out of my comfort zone. I am not doing art that would be seriously presented in public, but by moving out of my comfort zone, perhaps I am allowing myself to see things a little differently. Perhaps I can gain a new perspective. What do my images tell me about what is going on inside? Do they reveal anything of my nature or interests that I might not otherwise see? What about the physical act of drawing, which is not natural to me - could that stretch my capacity or my awareness? Could I develop some new creative muscle?

The further point to this examination is that perhaps everyone should step out of their comfort zone from time to time. Those who know little about music might attend a concert by the local symphony. If you are into pop or rock music, maybe you could force yourself to go to the opera. City dwellers might go for a hike in a wilderness area. Hikers might consider a change and come into town for a latte and a tour of the museum of art. People who have never been comfortable with animals could spend some time at a petting farm or a children's zoo. There are any number of avenues available to expand our horizons if we just look around. Most communities have classes available for things like art or photography. Our local community school sometimes offers lessons in home repair, knitting, yoga, or tai chi.

I'm not knocking comfort. Comfort is good - do not forsake it. However, we can stretch ourselves from time to time and make new discoveries. What are your comfort zones? What activities might you consider to be a stretch, given your skills level? Are there things you've had in the back of your mind? Things you've thought you might like to try, but just haven't gotten around to it? Maybe it is time to give some new things a try.

Now that I've got these pastels and sketch book out again, maybe I'll do some more work with them. No matter how badly I do it, at least it will be a different perspective. Furthermore, it will always bring my daughter to mind as I think of her talents and admire the ease with which she practices her art - and that is probably the greatest and best result of any of my meager attempts at drawing.

And the road goes ever on... 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My Back Pages

"I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."
A veritable Who's Who of musicians were on hand to celebrate Bob Dylan's 30th anniversary in the music industry back in 1992.

My Back Pages
by Bob Dylan

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Girls’ faces formed the forward path
From phony jealousy
To memorizing politics
Of ancient history
Flung down by corpse evangelists
Unthought of, though, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.

Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tibetan Sand Mandala: Precision and Prayer

Mandala from Loseling Monastery brochure
Tibetan monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta came the University of Alabama at Birmingham this week. They came to present "The Mystical Arts of Tibet" throughout the week. On the first day, following and opening ceremony of chants, music, and mantra recitation, they began construction of a sand mandala in the lobby of the Alys Stephens Center for the Performing Arts. One of the monks explained to those of us gathered that the mandala would be a tool for resolving conflicting emotions. The sand mandala would then be swept away after its completion (which would take several days) to symbolize the impermanence of all things.

At the opening ceremony the monks donned their hats and brought out horns, drums, and bells to accompany their ritual involving chants and prayers. It was the first time I had witnessed first hand the Tibetan chant, which involves a quite unusual vocal phenomenon involving a deep rich multiphonic voice. Each chant master simultaneously intones three different notes (don't ask me how they do that!). The group of nine monks filled the room with sounds and tones that for me seemed to have a centering and cleansing effect.

Before the ceremony began, the different colored sands and instruments used to place the sand were on display. A monk explained to one of the spectators that the sand is made from white marble that is ground to a fine consistency.

The monks began the mandala by setting out lines using something similar to a carpenter's chalk line. Then a large compass was used to mark chalk circles. Smaller compasses were then used to lay out smaller circles.

Lines were meticulously plotted out across the table. The monks had several rulers on hand, just like the ones used by students in algebra and geometry classes. 

While some engaged in the careful and steady preparation for the mandala, other monks were on hand to answer people's questions. I noticed a string of wooden Buddhist prayer beads. I told the monk that I was familiar with rosary beads which I use in meditation and asked him how the Buddhists use their prayer beads. "It is a system of counting," he told me. "We move one bead as we say each prayer or mantra. When we have done many prayers with the beads, then they contain a spiritual power that can protect us when we carry them. For example, if I put these beads around my wrist (the string of beads was the size of a bracelet), then if I become angry with someone and want to hit them, the beads remind me, 'No, I must practice compassion.' "

I had to leave to run some errands. When I returned a couple of hours later, I found that the monks had completed an inner circle at the center.

I went back three days later (Thursday afternoon). They had made great progress, still with some work left before completing the mandala. I asked them the name of the mandala. "Medicine Buddha," one of the monks told me, "also called Healing Buddha."

According to the local newspaper report earlier in the week, the monks never decide which mandala to do until they arrive, get a feel for the place and its energy, and come to a consensus. The mandala which was begun on Monday will be completed on Friday. Following a closing consecration ceremony, the colored sands will be swept up. The sweeping away of the beautiful and intricate mandala symbolizes the impermanence of all things. Half of the sand will be distributed to the audience for personal blessing and healing. The rest of the sand will be carried in a procession to a body of water to disperse healing throughout the community and the world.                                                      


Here is a view of a mandala that some Tibetan monks did in Chicago. 

The Mystical Arts of Tibet tour, in addition to the sand mandala, involves presentations of music and dance. The purpose is to share Tibetan culture with others. The Drepung Loseling Institute was formed in Atlanta, Georgia in 1991 and is affiliated with Emory University. Its objective, according to their brochure, is to promote trans-cultural understanding and scholarly exchange.

Photo from Loseling Monestery brochure


[For additional reading I would recommend:

1. The Jew and the Lotus, by Roger Kamenetz. This is a fascinating account of a delegation of rabbis who travel to Dharamsala, India for dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama had invited them for a visit because he wanted to learn from them “the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile.” The book is a wonderful discovery of Tibetan Buddhism and Judaism.

2. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton had studied Buddhism and felt that it was possible for a Christian monk to learn form the Buddhist discipline and experience. This is the journal he kept while on pilgrimage to Asia. It also includes other writings of his, including the address he gave at a conference on monasticism in Bangkok shortly before his untimely accidental death. Here one finds lively insights into Buddhist as well as Hindu thought. I read with great anticipation his journal entries leading up to and chronicling his visit with the Dalai Lama in India.]


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An Ordinary Life

"People who live with disabilities have something very important to say about what it means to be human"
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church

I found myself getting a bit teary-eyed last Sunday during the closing hymn celebrating All Saints Sunday. The hymn was “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” In the old 1940 Episcopal hymn book it was listed under “Hymns for Children.” I knew it had been a favorite of my friend, Meg Parker. Hearing the song made me think of days past, and so I decided to post this essay I wrote several years ago after Meg’s death.

An Ordinary Life
by Charles Kinnaird

Meg Parker lived an ordinary life, which was quite an accomplishment given the obstacles that she faced. She lived in an apartment and had a daily routine with friends and colleagues. Meg had loves and conflicts. She knew joys and sorrows, gains and losses. The fact that she lived the life that she did is a tribute to her family, to the community at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, and it is especially a tribute to Meg herself.

Meg Parker lived with developmental disabilities and a seizure disorder. St. Andrew's Foundation provided group homes for adults with mental retardation. It was there that Meg was taught daily living skills and was able to acquire some measure of independence. Eventually, she was able to move into an apartment with a roommate. There, with supervision, she was able to live a normal life with a normal routine. She was also able to move from a sheltered workshop to her own job in the community. She had a good life, and she was determined to enjoy life in spite of the difficulties.

At her funeral, the priest, Father Marc Burnett, said just the right things to commemorate the life she had lived before that final seizure "shook her from this life into the next." As I sat there listening to the eulogy, I could not help thinking about the day, eighteen years earlier, when I first met Meg Parker

I first visited St. Andrew's Church in March of 1984. I was a Baptist seminary graduate trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Meg was the first one to welcome me to the parish that day. Little did I know how my life would change after that encounter in 1984. Within the year, I had joined the Episcopal Church and had begun working at St. Andrew's Foundation (which was later named St. Andrew's Place). The parish and the group homes would become central to my life for the next twelve years. It was Meg Parker and others at the group homes who caused me to re-evaluate my worldview and to reassess my ideas about what things are important in living a meaningful life. I came to see the importance of ordinary things: a simple meal shared, a conversation about little things, an outing in the park.

So much happened during those years. I was able to immerse myself in Anglo-Catholic liturgy, social service, and progressive theology, all of which were a break from my Baptist roots. It was also there that I met my wife and our daughter was born. All of these things were changes for the better. I shudder to think how life might have been otherwise.

My life took a dramatic turn on that day back in 1984, and Meg Parker's welcoming of a stranger played no little part in its turning. It was at St. Andrew's that I came to realize that people who live with disabilities have something very important to say about what it means to be human. How we respond to people with disabilities says something very important about who we are as human beings. When I look at the ordinary life that Meg lived, I see it as a sign of hope. In the final analysis, is that not what we all want – an ordinary life? All of us achieve that ordinary life the same way that Meg did, only with help from our friends.

[Note: The group homes and supervised apartments of St. Andrew's Place are now under the auspices of The ARC of Jefferson County]


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Surprised by Horticulture

Every summer I enjoy getting out and doing yard work around the house. My wife knows a lot about planting shrubs and flowers, so she usually supervises the yard plans and planting arrangements. This summer was particularly harsh with some very hot, dry weather. Some of our plantings did well for the first half of the summer, and other things either languished or withered completely. We bought two oak leaf hydrangeas but only one has survived through the summer. Daises and begonias seemed to fare the best. We do have some perennials: three varieties of rose and a stand of red calla lilies.

We had a few pleasant surprises. The first big surprise was a group of volunteer vinca flowers (periwinkles). We had a pot of them by the back porch last year. This year they sprang up in the gravel on the ground just below where the pot had been last year. They did well and are still blooming now in the first week of November.

Along our back fence we planted some morning glories and cypress vine. The morning glories did fairly well...

but the most abundant blossoms were on the cypress vines. The small red trumpeted blooms were beautiful, and an even greater joy was the sight of so many humming birds and butterflies that were attracted by the flowers.

The moonflowers were one of our biggest surprises. They grew along the fence beside the cypress vine, but yielded no blooms throughout the summer. We had actually forgotten that we had planted moonflower. We thought it was a morning glory vine that for some reason would not bloom. Then all of a sudden, after we had a brief cold snap, the beautiful white blossoms burst into bloom! It was a last hurrah for our floral endeavors.

The cold is now causing most of our flowers to wither, but my wife has already made plans to put some winter color into the yard. Here are some violas ready for planting. All they need is for my wife to tell me where to plant them. And if the violas are here, pansies cannot be far behind!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Writing in the Margins

On Easter Sunday, 2001, my wife and daughter and I entered into communion with the Catholic Church. We had been attending RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), led by a very gifted Benedictine nun since September of 2000. The following is an essay that I wrote during that process.

Writing in the Margins
by Charles Kinnaird

Not long ago I read a commentary by Roger Rosenblatt in an old Newsweek magazine. The title of the article was “Marginalia.” The article talked about the common practice of writing comments in the margins of books that one is reading. In some cases, the author pointed out, it is annoying, in other cases interesting to read the comments someone has made in the margins of a book. At any rate, Rosenblatt points out that marginalia alters the nature of the book. What was set in print with the idea of being permanent, becomes dialogue and perhaps impermanent with the reader’s comments, either questioning or affirming the printed text.

Since I am in the process of converting to the Roman Catholic Church, it occurred to me that Protestantism has served as marginalia to Catholicism. Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church would not be what it is today without having had to respond to the comments and questions of Protestantism. Catholicism has had to make itself accountable for its teachings and practices. As a result, it seems to me that the Catholic Church, while remaining constant, is not as stodgy, not as ethnic, not as unbending as the Eastern Orthodox Church. Vatican II is a great example of the Church responding the world around it. Consequently, it is more universal, more relevant, and more dynamic.

Looking back at my pilgrimage from Baptist to Episcopalian to Catholic, I have never felt that I was turning away from anything. Rather, I have been moving toward faith. I have been responding to that same faith that was nurtured from the beginning in my parents’ home. All of my major moves in life (including school, marriage, and career changes) have come with the sensation of stepping into a broader place -- a sense of opening up to wider views and greater possibilities. It is the same with the process of coming into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. I am tempted to say that I am moving from the marginalia of Protestantism to the complete text of Catholicism, but in the whole scheme of things, I know that it is all marginalia.

February, 2001

[Note: in the almost ten years that have passed since I wrote this brief essay, I would not want to imply that all has been sweetness and light in the Roman Catholic Church (you may have noticed some of the headlines in the news). I find that among thinking Catholics, there is a lot of tension (which I see as a healthy tension) in terms of how to respond to authority and in reactions to Vatican decisions.

Moreover, I am not evangelistic about the Roman Catholic Church. I would never say that Catholicism is for everyone. There has to be a place for everyone. There must be room for many expressions of faith and practice so that everyone can find a meaningful community. You have seen and will continue to see in this blog favorable comments about exemplars of other faiths as well as criticisms of some occurrences within the Catholic Church.]

Further Reading:
For anyone interested in reading more about the Catholic faith, I would recommend
Practicing Catholic, by James Carroll and Why I Am a Catholic by Gary Wills (Carroll is a poet and Wills is a historian). You won't find any schmaltz or schluck in these two volumes, but you will see how thinking individuals can experience faith and doubt in the modern world. Carroll's book is a memoir that gives the reader a view of developments within the Catholic Church from WWII to present day, with particular emphasis upon Vatican II. Wills' book tells his own story and also provides valuable information about the history of the Church, the Church Councils, and other important documents of faith.

And until next time, everyone please continue to write in the margins!


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reformation Day

October 31 marks the day when in 1517 Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The actual event, I am told, was not as dramatic as we often make it sound. It was not uncommon in those days to post items for debate on the door of the church. It had come to serve as a kind of community bulletin board, I suppose. Martin Luther, priest, monk and academic, was simply making public some things that he thought needed to be discussed.

Of course, things did become dramatic enough in a short time. Luther began writing and publishing controversial topics which challenged church teaching on the selling of indulgences, justification by faith, and papal authority. He was excommunicated by the Pope in 1520. It was at the Diet of Worms in 1521 that Luther was formally given opportunity to recant his writings. He is quoted as saying, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason…I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.” And thus Martin Luther set in motion seismic waves that would forever alter the landscape of Western Civilization.

He was a complex man whose thoughts and actions yielded a mixed bag. His magnificent hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” is sung in virtually every Christian Church today, including the Roman Catholic Church. It is said that his translation of the Bible into German was influential in standardizing the German language. He is also known for his fierce anti-Semitism and his advocating nobles in Germany to put down rebel peasants like mad dogs after having initially supported the peasants in their grievances. He even told Philip of Hesse that he could take a second wife if he kept it secret, and then advised him to lie about it when it became public. Not always given to elegant discourse, Luther is said to have declared that “If I break wind in Wittenberg and they smell it in Rome.” His “Here I stand” quote is the one we like to remember.

Wherever one stands on the theological spectrum, Martin Luther must be taken into account. I am one who has stood on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide. On Monday, All Saints’ Day, I will share a brief essay I wrote while making my way to the Catholic Church.

(This is admittedly a quite cursory look at Martin Luther. Anyone interested in further reading would do well to consult Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland Bainton, or Martin Luther, by Martin Marty)

For Church History buffs, here is a 95 Theses Rap:

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