Monthly Archives: December 2016

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On the Passing of 2016

jan-1No, it is not normal to talk about the passing of a year as if you were speaking about the death of a terminally ill friend who had been suffering for a very long time. Yet for some folks the end of 2016 could not come soon enough. Love ones were lost. The weather was weird. The EU began to fray with the UK’s exodus. The Austrian election was on a razor’s edge. The Italians seem to have changed course. And the American election—well, that was flat out brutal. The desire to see 2016 come to an end was even the case for a friend of mine, a pastor, who is himself publically quite doggedly apolitical. Too much sadness generally in the world this year for him and for many of us. (Though he votes dutifully, he views political solutions as largely temporary, whereas he is in the business, as it were, of eternal solutions. Point taken.)

Other friends of mine, on the left, of course, felt that 2016 was the year to end all years politically, if not apocalyptic at least revelatory of serious fissures in the democratic bedrock of the past eight years. What looked like a sure thing for them turned out to evaporate quickly in a 48-hour period just before the election. Maybe even fewer hours than that. Other of my friends, those on the right, not only want 2016 to end but the first twenty days of 2017 to go as quickly as possible. They are alarmed by the Obama administration’s calculated abstention on the recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement of the West Bank. They are also alarmed at President Obama antagonizing the Russian government in retaliation to hacking. It all seems to me a rather tough nut to crack, whether you grip the nutcracker with your left or right hand.

Harry Jakes
Harry Jakes

But I want to return to the idea of the year passing away. While it can be useful and occasionally inspiring to mark time by big occasions, like the change of the year on 1 January, or by your birthday, or even by a secular holiday like Presidents’ Day or Labor Day or, most noble of them all, Memorial Day, it can also be tough and painful to mark the year by the day on which someone died. I know that it is virtually impossible not to do so. My grandfather, Harry Jakes, died on Father’s Day in 1979. His daughter, Elaine, to whom this entire website is dedicated, died on May 23, 2011. Yet I have chosen not to mark the day of their passing with gloom or anxiety or regret. Rather, I prefer to reflect fondly, as I had when they were alive, on their birthdays.

And maybe that is the way we should reflect on the entirety of the year 2016. It was a very tough year politically—both parties in America seem to have found ways to stoop to new lows—and the campaign rhetoric wasn’t just hot, it was foul. But it is over now, and the future lies before each one of us, a future we can either worry our way walking backwards into or we can boldly turn forward to embrace and find a way to bring good to whatever situation we might find ourselves in. And though we saw the passing of some beloved celebrities, particularly Princess Leah (Carrie Fisher), tragically and suddenly followed by her mother, the equally iconic Debbie Reynolds, at least Betty White is doing well, and there was no need for the Go Fund Me Keep Betty White alive page, the proceeds of which now can be given to charity. A little weird, but hey, at least Betty White is still going strong.[1]

And my pastor friend—well, maybe he has a point. Maybe we should be more concerned about eternal things than those that are merely ephemeral. If we were to do so, we might be a bit more optimistic, for everlasting things have the backing not just of eternity but the Maker of eternity, the Granter of the gift of time to us all, and the Giver of humanness and humaneness to beings who often comport themselves in ways less than human.

On that note, I wish you and all my readers a very happy new year, the best of success and some joy with the turning of the calendar year, whether your joy derives from wistful thinking about past leadership or hopeful thinking about new, or from Betty White’s good health, or from the aforementioned gift of time, that is to say simply from there being a new year at all, and the relegation of 2016 to the past, for that is where it will soon be. Happy New Year! Wishing you (and Betty White, too) all the best!

Betty White
Betty White

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/nation-now/2016/12/28/man-launches-gofundme-protect-betty-white-2016/95904556/

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Merry Christmas!

creche-sceneIt’s a funny expression, Merry Christmas, one that, when you think about it, might seem to ring a bit archaic. During Renaissance times the word merry might even have suggested that alcoholic drinks could have been in play, though the actual etymology of the word “merry” stems from the same root that give us the Latin brevis, “short”; from brevis we also derive the English “brief”. But in the hymn “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” the word merry seems merely to mean what it is, “merry,” “happy,” “joyous,” full of mirth. And so it happens when someone wishes you a Merry Christmas it is unlikely that that person wants you go out and “get a little merry” (i.e. liquored up) on Christmas, nor does that person express a wish for the brevity of your celebration, but simply a wish for you to have a joyous Christmas.

tiny-timAnd thus Merry Christmas has been, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an expression of holiday warmth at least since the middle of the sixteenth century.[1] And now, of course, though it is politically incorrect to say “Merry Christmas,” we still say it from time to time, especially when we imagine the person who will potentially receive it is unlikely to be put off by it. Yet though we may try like the dickens not to offend, it is possible that we shall, simply by attending a school Christmas play—as they are sometimes cancelled for being too offensive to folks whose sensibilities are easily riled. But I will say nothing here of a recent example of the cancellation of just such a play, as it is not clear whether or not Tiny Tim’s final line actually had anything to do with the cancellation; school officials allege that it was only a matter of time management.[2]

bach
Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach, Leipzig, Germany

However it may have been in the case of that play and that school, suffice it to say that there is something flat and lifeless about Christmas without religious significance. A recent piece by Dennis Prager in the National Review bears this out well.[3] His point that, while a secular person can listen to and enjoy Bach just as well as a person of faith, nonetheless there would be no Bach if Bach hadn’t had a fervent faith. Take God out of the mix, and you are left with a landscape devoid of color, a whitewashed, bland and boring vista. A desert without yellow sand or even wind.

I think it might be like making Welsh cookies without raisins. My cousin-in-law (if that is an actual term?), Maria, a noble woman of Italian descent, makes the Welsh cookies of the family according to the family recipe. She sends us a box every December. They are always delicious, made according to the recipe of my grandmother, Blanche. My mother’s recipe was a bit different than her mother’s—with slightly more butter, slightly more sugar. I like both, but probably prefer my grandmother’s truth be told. Yet neither took the raisins out. Take away the raisins and you have an ordinary biscuit. With the raisins, something special.

And I will end it on that note. The jingle goes, “Jesus, the reason for the season.” I will change reason to raisin. It makes all the difference, as the raisin is the Welsh cookies raison d’etre, Christ the Christians’ and Christmas’ raison de vivre.

welsh cookies recipe
(The recipe of my mother, Elaine Jakes)

Merry Christmas!

[1] Further, cf. http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/214501/who-originated-merry-christmas

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markmeckler/2016/12/elementary-school-cancels-christmas-play-god-bless-us-every-one-offended-two-people/

[3] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/443200/christmas-secularism-assault-meaning

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The World’s Ugliest Christmas Tree

ugly-christmas-treeThis week I read an article about the world’s ugliest Christmas tree. The title titillated, or if not quite titillated, at least intrigued. Before I could read the article, obvious questions arose. Where might that tree be? Who is to say what “ugly” really means? How can a tree be ugly? And then I read the article, only to find out that the tree is in Rome.[1] And I thought, “Of course.”

Now I say this not to make fun at Italians, but rather to complement them, for it is in part from my more than simply occasional travel to Italy that I have come to realize, first of all, that taste is obviously variable and, secondly and more importantly, that one needs to be flexible. One should be so because life is too short to get all worked up over the small stuff, even when the small stuff is something quite large, an apparently unattractive oversized Christmas tree smack in the middle of Piazza Venezia, which is itself smack in the middle of Rome.

But from this particular Christmas tree I was reminded of something else, something that I think has broader application than that taste is variable and that one lives best if one is flexible. I was reminded, yet again, that each thing in our life and each person really represents something or someone else. A Christmas tree obviously does not represent itself—that is the mistake that some of the folks who saw the tree and complained made—but rather that it represents something more important.

strasbourg-cathedralAccording to liturgical expert Frank Senn the notion of a tree used symbolically at Christmastime developed “in Germany in the sixteenth century.” Although no specific city or town has been identified as the first to have a Christmas tree, records for the [protestant] Cathedral of Strasbourg indicate that a Christmas tree was set up in that church in 1539. . . .”[2] So Protestants are likely ultimately responsible for the origin of the tree, an origin whose symbolism Pope John Paul II understood and expounded upon, viewing the tree as symbolic of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. That tree, Christians believe, was restored through Christ’s sacrifice. Interestingly that that selfsame pope was the first to introduce the tree to the Christmas décor of St. Peter’s basilica.

But the third lesson is not that Christmas trees are good for Protestants and Catholics alike, but rather that the tree symbolizes something greater than itself and that nearly everything else does, as well. Let me explain. It has not been uncommon for me to talk to someone about church and have them say that they prefer to go out on a walk on Sunday morning because they (correctly in my view) are better able to infer that there is a God from the beauty of nature round about them than from a dusky, dank old church pew. The idea that a tree or butterfly represents its creator actually is an idea that St. Paul himself once touted when he wrote that people have no excuse not to infer that there is a God, “for the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20). Not that I am advocating missing out on the dusky, dank pews, for they have their own luster, as Rev. Dr. Senn, the expert in liturgy cited in the previous paragraph, would no doubt agree. But more on that some other time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And each person, like each tree or each butterfly, is not quite his or her own, either. We might think we are—particularly when we are a teenager and we feel that we have no further need of our parents or when we hit a mid-life crisis and think we have no further need of our employer or our spouse or our whole family, sometimes, and in extreme cases, our entire life, for some folks change jobs, get divorced and even fall out of touch with their children at the onset of middle age,[3] possibly because they have, for the first time, become aware of their own mortality. But even in those bad moments of the mid-life crisis or the cocky teenage years we represent not just ourselves, but our parents, our community, and if we are lucky enough to have had a religious background, our church, synagogue, temple or mosque. And we all, whether we know it or not and whether we know Him or not, represent God. For he made us just as he made the tree or the butterfly, which represents him.

lizzie
Lizzie Velasquez, the most beautiful woman in the world

That small inference from a Christmas tree in Rome, is actually a very important piece of information. For an “ugly” tree can, merely by what it represents, instantly be transformed from what the world calls ugly to beautiful. Lizzie Velasquez, who has also been in the news recently, is not regarded as “the ugliest woman in the world,” as some cruel folks have dubbed her, but as the most beautiful, for she represents God in a way much more visibly than those who have no idea that they incidentally represent God, as well. Lizzie knows she does, and she speaks about that fact not infrequently.[4] When she wakes up in the morning she sees in the mirror a child of God, just as one should see, in that lofty tree in Piazza Venezia, not a tree less than comely but the tree of life, the Garden of Eden restored. Either the stable in Bethlehem was a place of squalor or place of hope. Either Golgotha was a place of tragedy or a place of triumph. If the latter for both of those sentences, then Lizzie Velasquez is a beautiful person, perhaps the most beautiful, and that giant, lumpy Italian tree is, well, in Italian, non solo bello, ma bellissimo.

[1] http://www.foxnews.com/travel/2016/12/16/is-this-worlds-ugliest-christmas-tree.html.

[2] Frank Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: 2012) 118.

[3]On jobs, see http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2014/06/29/retirement-life-reimagined-usa-today-survey/11135523/. On the divorce rate, see https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2013/article/marriage-and-divorce-patterns-by-gender-race-and-educational-attainment.htm.

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-being-called-the-worlds-ugliest-woman-transformed-her-life_us_56213be0e4b02f6a900c1d0c. See also, https://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2014/November-2014/Lizzie-Velasquez

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Three C’s plus one for the Holidays

christmas-decorations First, let me say that rambling on about words that start with “C” is unlikely to be quite as ridiculous as suggesting that one should vote based on the latest trends in syllables, whether more or less of them. Yet that’s precisely what I suggested a week before the presidential vote. And apparently the notion of a more syllabically flexible presidential name prevailed, because someone named Donald John Trump was elected, whose name has but a grand total of a slender four syllables, even with the middle name; yet when one adds a “The” to the front his name—and many have called him “the Donald”—one then gets the expanded version of five syllables. And that, my friend, is greater syllabic flexibility than Hillary Clinton could offer, even with her maiden name inserted.

Then, a few days after the presidential vote, someone offered me a safety pin so that I could indicated to anyone who saw me that I was “safe to talk to” about the election results. I think the idea was to comfort those who were afraid because the Donald had been elected. Of course I declined the offer of the safety pin, for I learned in college that my best interlocutors were my professors who were more like Socrates than unlike him. And then, just as she offered me the safety pin, the question of “What would Socrates do?” (WWSD) occurred to me, and I decided that it would be better to play the Socratic gadfly whenever possible. As such, I would, I thought to myself, challenge that interlocutor to courage, not safety. But then I’m not keen on safe spaces, as I think they can be dangerously deceptive. The world is not a safe space; heaven is. To try artificially to make a heaven of earth—ask John Calvin sometime how that worked out in Geneva—would certainly involve misleading someone, likely to their detriment. And thus I declined the safety pin. I told the person I was not “safe” and that I did not want to be viewed as such. Another person, with whom I was walking at the time, laughed audibly, and the disillusioned safety-pin-donor went on her way.

houston-hospital-complex2

But that is off the topic, as the first word is not challenge but “courage.” For courage is what we need in this dark world and wide. Courage to press on, courage ever to seek the best, not just for ourselves but for our communities as well. Courage well applied, involves transference of that courage also to those around us. And that may involve challenging someone to courage. And that is why I declined the safety pin.

The second C-word is “Christmas,” of course. I was reminded of Christmas today when I heard some carolers in a hospital in Houston singing quite beautifully Christmas carols. Of course, properly, the C-word should be an A-word, “advent.” But as advent leads to Christmas, I think it is safe to use the more definitive, if syllabically identical, term.

The third C-word ismd-anderson “cancer.” By cancer I do not mean the astrological sign “Cancer,” nor do I mean the Latin word cancer, which actually signifies a “crab” or “crawfish,” even though a crawfish is much more like a lobster than a crab. Rather, by cancer I mean just that, cancer, the destructive and debilitating disease. And I mean it because I was in Houston this week in a large hospital complex known as M.D. Anderson. There I saw some noble souls battling cancer with courage, and doing so just now in this Christmas season. None seemed to me to be feeling sorry for himself, none seemed overly concerned with the fact that that her hair had fallen out. One and all, so it seemed, presented the face of courage, of confidence, yet another C-word—the “plus one” of our title. And that confidence and courage were not the regular kind that many of us have. Rather this was a case of courage and confidence in the face of the imminent danger of cancer.

houston-hospital-complexThose folks’ confidence may have derived from them being in the midst of such a vast medical complex, imposing in its size, rife with competent research doctors, kind nurses, and a wonderfully caring staff. Or, perhaps, it came from the fact that they saw so many like themselves walking around—still walking, still living, still fighting cancer. Or it may have been generated by or at least fostered by the Christmas carols they heard being performed in the lobby, carols of hope and renewal, of God caring about mankind so much that he became a baby in a stable. Or was it something that was infused in them from a spouse, a friend, or maybe even God himself? In any case, courage and confidence went together there and seemed to me to take some of the fear out of the word cancer.nativity-sceneAnd I wish you all but one, of course, of these C-words, this advent season. If you happen to have the one I certainly don’t wish upon you, then I firmly hope that the other three will be there to help you stand against it.” If you’re fortunate enough never to have the Latin crab or crawfish eating your body away, then I pray that you’ll know those other three for whatever challenge, whether health related or not, you might encounter. And I know that these good C-words—courage, confidence and Christmas—exist (to which we could add others like care, comfort and compassion), for I saw them in the faces and heard them in the voices of some quite ill, but in many ways very healthy, people in Houston in a hospital called M.D. Anderson.

md-anderson2

 

 

 

 

 

beautiful-sky“Different from what?” someone might legitimately ask about a title of this sort. “You need a ‘than’ or a ‘from’ if you’re going to say different.” You can’t just say different unless you’re talking philosophy, as if you were the famous twentieth-century philosopher Jacques Derrida and you’re talking about la différance—the idea that words can only have meaning in terms of what they are not, in terms of the way they bump into and off other words to create meaning, or really the pursuit of meaning, meaning that is itself continually put off, endlessly differed. And that is la différence (note the change in spelling from la différance). So, if we look closely enough, we can see that even Derrida would admit—not only admit but welcome—a “than” or a “from.”

Yet unlike Derrida or just anyone who might object to this title, I would like to speak about something very different, so different that it defies being compared to anything too directly, however implicit a comparison is when the word different or difference is used. And what is that difference? Well, it happened to me on a street corner this morning, that of North 15th St. and Colcord Avenue. And there I stood at those crossroads, for I was trying to assist someone to find a place to park. Then a lull. Then an elderly woman was trying to cross the street and spoke to me. “What a beautiful day!” she said.

“Yes, it is,” I replied.

“Anjubilee-marketd it’s a great day for the neighborhood. That Jubilee Food Market is going to make all the difference in this neighborhood,” she said. “I remember when there were just drug dealers here, and prostitutes. But Jimmy came in with his mission and cleaned it up, it all up. And now a grocery,” she said. “It is going to be so nice to be able to walk here to buy groceries.”

“And at a reasonable price,” I added, for I knew a bit about the grocery store that community leader and mission director Jimmy Dorrell had put so much effort into establishing, in particular how one of the goals was to provide the neighborhood with an opportunity to buy nutritious foods at a good price. I felt as if I were awkwardly offering an advertisement for the new market. Perhaps I was. And that was enough for the woman, and she began to go on her way.

“You’re a nice man,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t even know your name, but I know that you’re blessed.”

“What is your name?” I said, genuinely interested, hoping to garner at least that much before she departed.

“Bertha.”

“Bertha, may you be blessed, too.”

And then she paused, and drifted back toward me for more conversation. “What about yours?” she said, “What is your name?” The sun beamed down on her, on us both, warming us on that beautiful, if brisk, December morning.

I told her, before adding, “Do you live locally? Will you be able to walk to the store?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “It will be such a blessing. God is good,” she added, “so good! He has provided this store, provided so mercifully for me. When my husband died two years ago, I thought it was all over for me. But he is good! He loves me, and has shed his mercy upon me.”

“And has,” I added. “He surely does love you.”

To which she added, “Amen,” and then more. “He loves you, too.”

To which I added, “Amen.”

“And his mercy never ends,” she said.

“Amen,” I responded again.

amenAnd this kind of liturgical exchange went back and forth several times in a cadence that was something between preaching and conversation, something between one human talking to another, and two people at once talking to God. It was, to be sure, a kind of sidewalk liturgy. Here and there, too, there popped up, in the midst of it, another or two quotations from the psalms, or various citations of the words of Christ from Mathew, Mark, Luke or John.

“Now that was,” I thought to myself five minutes later, as Bertha walked away, “something quite different.” It was not exactly praying, not exactly a conversation, not exactly singing; it was remarkably different. It was two people from vastly different backgrounds who might otherwise never have had occasion to speak, talking to each other (and to God) about the blessing and provision of God that they had differently—but not so differently—experienced in their own lives. Both of us had suffered losses, both knew pain, but, as Bertha pointed out just before she left, “We know Him; we know Him.”

And this was the close of the liturgy, a fitting one, I thought, a bold claim, one that defies logic. Perhaps it could even frighten someone, or, after having read what is above, even cause someone to say, “Those folks who blew up the twin towers were very religious, and look where it got them. Look what a terrible toll religious fervor wreaked that day upon humanity. My advice is to take your sidewalk liturgy and. . . .” Well, you can fill in the rest.

To that honest objection, I can only say this: on that street corner I was not experiencing any religious fervor, nor was I laying claim to any perception or misperception of divine revelation. Rather, I was only sharing a moment, a unique wrinkle in time in which an apparent gap was mystically bridged between an elderly African American woman who had grown up and lived much of her life in less than generous circumstances and a white dude (me), who, though he hailed from a background of less than prosperous Welsh coalminers, had himself never known poverty. Yet bathed in the warming sunlight of a December morning, we indulged in a sidewalk liturgy, the shared experience of a generous and prodigal God. That brief encounter, that unlikely experience washed away all external differences and blessed us both there on the corner of 15th and Colcord.

“King David wrote,” Bertha added, “His mercy endureth forever. Mercy never ends, love never ends.”

“Amen,” I said as I thought to myself, “And that makes all the difference.”

jubilee-food-market