Tag Archives: church

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Why Old People Like Strange Things

I think I have figured out why old people like strange things. In part, of course, I am discovering this because I am getting older. But I think the chief reason that I have discovered this is because I have been rereading the Acts of the Apostles, a book of the Bible that few people read at all these days.

The chief reason for that is, I believe, because few people read any of the Bible at all. They are content to recognize it as “the good book” (when in fact for Protestants, at least, it is comprised of sixty-six separate books), instructions and guidance from on high, from “the Man upstairs,” or the like. That metaphorical description of God is, of course, less than dignified, even unbecoming. And at any rate fits with a no reading of but “general respect for Holy Writ.”

But old people, perhaps because they are themselves getting closer to the “top floor” (if I may indulge the societal predilection for undignified religious metaphors), would seem to be more inclined to read the Bible. Now most do it through something called a devotional book, which means some author has preselected bits and pieces of the Scriptures and then explained them. But some old people (and some young people, too, of course) prefer to read the Bible the way country musicians normally purport to drink whiskey—straight up.  And if they do that, then they eventually read, often for the first time, the book of Acts.

Which brings by back to why old people like strange things. For the book of Acts is not normally one’s favorite book of the Bible. It is action-packed, geographically challenging—one really needs a map to read it—and religiously complex (e.g. Acts 21:21 ff.). But old people really like this book anyway. Why? I think I figured it out. It is because the Church described in that book is so very unlike any church they have ever attended. The Church of the book of Acts is active, vibrant, exciting, spiritual, robust, bold, faithful. The church that the old people are members of tends to be just the opposite of these things. In fact, they have sat in their pews and from time to time wondered why people still come to church, when the liturgy is all that there is, and Holy Communion, of course, the latter of which in and of itself, they rationalize, justifies the fairly limited attendance. But then they get gloomy and wonder, when they see a young couple or, worse yet, a young family, whether that family’s child, when it grows up, will actually come to this church or attend any church. And then they think of their own children and wonder if they ever go to church any more, for they don’t ask their kids too much about that, as they are all grown up and it’s true: they have to make their own decisions. At least they come with them to church on the holidays. “Sally’s kids won’t even do that much,” they mutter to themselves before they head off to the after-church cake and coffee.

But when they read Acts, those old people really get excited. Their imaginations run wild, in fact, for they imagine a time when the Church was vibrant, was engaged in society, had meaning and was connected to something bigger, Someone much bigger. Not the “big guy in the sky” or the “man upstairs,” but to God himself.  And they ponder whether it could ever be so again. And that’s why they like the book of Acts. And so do I, and I know that it can be so and actually is in some churches.

Now that does not explain why old people like bad coffee—for they do, it’s a well-documented fact—or why they get unduly excited about a slice of apple pie, of which I am still not a fan, which means I must not be that old yet. Or why they love babies inordinately and feel encouraged when they see one—I am not there yet either, for I still think the world is in a tough spot and I do not become instantly optimistic by seeing or even holding a baby. Or why elderly men have such a penchant for t-shirts. I don’t think I know a single elderly gentleman who doesn’t wear a t-shirt or, for that matter, carry a handkerchief.

But they all love the book of Acts. And you don’t have to be old to read it. But if you’re not a Bible reader, I would advise you to read it only after you have first read a gospel (like Luke), for otherwise you might not understand what all the old folks are so excited about. But they are excited, and they are, strangely enough, inspired by nothing less than the very book of Acts.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Safety First?

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Disney has four key values, as laid out in the Disney Institute’s book entitled Be Our Guest. These inform their approach to how they manage their theme parks and their entire operation, and these “values” are, as listed in order of priority– Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency.

Now I can imagine why, if you’re a theme park with all kinds of potentially hazardous rides and with all kinds of shows that might involve fireworks or the like, safety would be first. So my point here is not to put down Disney’s order of priorities. But those priorities should, I think, likely be confined to the amusement park, for transferring them to, say, a family or a church or a college or even most businesses might not only be dangerous, but could even be worse than dangerous—it could be detrimental.  And, anyhow, can “show” really be a value?

Just think about it. Imagine calling a family sit-down after dinner and listing those priorities to your children. “Safety first, kids.” That sounds good, but maybe it sounds better than in fact it is. Do you mean by it, for example, no contact sports, which by the way are nearly all sports?  “Second, courtesy.”  That one is, admittedly, hard to argue against. But what about “show”?  “Always, kids, remember to put on a good show.”  No, I’m afraid that would just be promoting hypocrisy. “And don’t forget to be efficient!”  Well, yes, this is good, but is it really the fourth highest good? Wouldn’t sincerity, wisdom, diplomacy, kindness, gentleness, or even self-confidence outstrip mere efficiency?

In the case of church, safety first cannot possibly work. No preacher worth his salt can consistently preach safe sermons. Indeed, a good sermon must sometimes imperil the listener’s soul.  What about courtesy in a church? Yes, I think that’s important, but normally the churchgoer would call this hospitality or gentleness or even humility. And “show.” I’m sorry to say that the churches that prioritize show are often the fullest but, paradoxically, simultaneously often the emptiest. And efficiency? No, I’m afraid not. The best sermons often run over time. The coffee hour after church should be anything but efficient—it should be a time of fellowship that seems to lack any sense of time altogether. No, no efficiency here.

Finally college. Should colleges be and/or offer “safe spaces”?  While of course one hopes when one sends a child off to college that that child, no longer quite a child, will be safe, colleges, like churches, can only do their jobs correctly if they challenge the student, and that may mean by taking a sense of “safety” when it comes to their academic accomplishments, at least.  “Courtesy?” No, not so much. Some of the best professors I ever had were quite rude.  “Show.” God forbid. Taking college classes are not about being entertained but about being challenged and thus educated. And finally, efficiency?  Yes, certainly it could be good for the students to be efficient. But professors can only be real professors if they chase the occasional rabbit and actually make “inefficient” use of class time. Professors are not mere conveyers of content. Books do that. The best professors I had, as I recall them, often went off on tangents that sometimes taught us more than the lesson itself.

So, I would not put safety first. I’m not sure it should be last, but if it were always first, the best we could hope for is tea and crumpets instead of sports and information instead of material that challenges us to the core of our being, all conveyed to us in the most efficient and courteous manner possible. Yawn; sounds boring. No, safety, I’m sorry to say, just can’t be first.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Interest in the Boring

The title of this blog is anything but titillating. I chose it for that reason. It is meant to challenge us to ask a fundamental question: Why would anyone do anything boring? Life is tragically short. Given that fact, I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask why anyone would choose to do something boring.

I have a friend who is a philologist, and you can imagine even from the career description encapsulated in his professional title that he has what most people would deem to be a boring job. Perhaps an aversion to such boring jobs provides the very rationale, to the extent that there is a rationale beyond “ratings” or “advertising dollars,” for “extreme” television shows, or even reality television shows, which seem to me far from real. To take but one example, this week, when I had a bad headache, I turned on the television. We haven’t cable television, but as I occasionally like to watch sporting events, we decided to purchase an antenna that would allow us to get local channels. Now that everything is digital, we actually only sort-of get the local channels, as they often barely come in on time; there are all kinds of data transfer delays so that you often just see blocks of pictures popping up, especially, it seems at critical moments in a sporting event. But no matter—such is the digital age in which we live, like it or not.

But back to the headache. As I convalesced for a few minutes I did what I rarely do—turned on the television for a non-sporting event, only to find a telling example of reality television. Reality? It was a dating program where the same man kissed many women and then got to pick which one he would send home from his harem, presumably because she didn’t kiss well enough. What a message, I thought for young people: for young women, that they need to “compete” to get a boyfriend, in this case a creepy one and, for young men, that they should think of women as commodities, like automobiles, to be test driven and then chosen. Such a sad world we live in now. I’m afraid the show just made my headache worse.

Well, I thought to myself, what is the alternative? Is the alternative to embrace the “boring”? Church, by comparison, must seem very boring. Helping at the local recycling center must seem very boring. Volunteering at a shelter for the poor must seem very boring, too, by comparison with reality televisions shows like that one.

 

But that’s when I thought of why in fact the reality television show is actually the boring thing—indeed I did find it very boring, as I could stomach it only for a few minutes while I sharpened my thoughts in my throbbing head about it. The reality is that going to a shelter to help the poor is anything but boring. You actually meet really interesting people there—real people with real problems—and you get to speak with them about your life, perhaps even what God has done in your life, if you’re volunteering through a religiously based organization. And God is not boring because he is not the God of “and”—for the man had this woman and that woman and then would send one of them home and next week start all over again and choose the next loser and send her home and then refine his harem and then pick another loser and so on. That’s the world of and, and, and. Advertisers thrive on it: you need this thing and this thing, oh, and by the way, that one, too. And then comes the next commercial. And, and, and …

and…and…and

But God is the God of buts. He says your life is a mess, but I am here to help you. You think you need this and this and that, but you really just need me. To the women in that television show, he says the world turns you into a commodity, but I say you are a human being. To the male star of that television show (and perhaps to any man watching it), he says you want woman upon woman but you won’t be satisfied until you let go of your hedonism and listen to the buts of the Ten Commandments and the buts of the whole story of the Bible. Moses was a murderer, but he was called to lead the people of God. Jacob was a trickster, but he would bear the name of Israel. Joseph was in jail, but he came to rule over Pharaoh’s kingdom. His brothers threw him into a pit, but he forgave them. Peter was a fisherman, but he was called to follow. Paul was persecuting Christians, but he became one. Lazarus was in the tomb and there was a bad odor, Mary said, after all the time he was in there, but Christ called him out. Jesus was dead—but he arose.[1]

But all that is boring churchy stuff—religion, hocus pocus in the age of scientific reality. Yet if reality television is any indication of the alternative, of the reality of this psychologically needy and spiritually defunct age, maybe, just maybe the boring might start to look, if not exciting by comparison, at the very least more palatable, for if it claims miracles—a good, highly educated friend of mine only came to believe in miracles when he saw them occur repeatedly in his own life—it still offers something that the stark world of reality doesn’t quite offer: hope. Hope is what we really need because hope says what God says: but. I’m in a mess now, but there’s hope.

Here I will end, I think, my discourse on the boring, as I have invited a friend to church tomorrow not with a promise of anything but that it may seem boring. We will sing, we will pray, we will listen. That sounds, I imagine, pretty boring. Boring, yes, but for a small word—but.

[1] I owe the refining of my thoughts about the word “but” to a sermon by Rev. Philip DeCourcy (“Jonah, Man on the Run,” 4th part in the series) who cites a similar observation by the late Rev. James Montgomery Boyce of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Home

When I saw Daniel outside the shelter, he said to me, “Hey, it’s you again. You coming tonight, well, I think that it’s a God thing, because I was just talking about how even though I’m homeless, I still have a home. We all do, even though we’re all homeless here. We have a home in Heaven, and we have MBK, the shelter, which is a building but in it we can find a home, at least for now, by loving each other.”

I was astounded—this young man had spectacularly paid attention to, even internalized, what I had said the previous week. His summary of what I had said was spot on: that home is not a house, not a building any more than church is a building. A church comprises sainted sinners, sinful saints—hypocritical people who struggle not to become hypocrites. That’s a church, and I heard a very nice podcast about it this week, for which I’ll share a link here. A home is where there is family, and family can mean a literal family or the family of those who have the opportunity to love each other with selfless love. Home isn’t just where the heart is; home is where the heart is free to love. To love the other person, whether that person deserves it or not. Even to pray for the person next to you.

Now I imagine someone reading this might be thinking, “That’s all very noble and ideal, but in the real world it doesn’t work that way.” And he might even add, “My home isn’t ‘out of this world.’ It’s here, it’s real; it’s not some kind of fictionalized, idealized place. This world is all we have to work with, so don’t through your religious mumbo jumbo my way.”

To which, given the opportunity, I might respond, “Who said anything about the real world? I’m talking about MBK, a shelter for the homeless in central Texas. What could be less ‘real-world’ than that?”

Now I’ll be honest: I might have easily turned that sentence around and asked, “What could be more real-world than that?” And by the way I do, of course, have my own ideas of an ideal home in this life, for I grew up in an idyllic, if not idealize place, not far from where Washington once crossed the Delaware to defeat the British in Trenton. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a real home, the real home, something far greater but no more imaginary than Washington’s Crossing.

And as I went back to the MBK shelter this week, I spoke again to those folks, gently, even gingerly. For I don’t know their lives. I don’t know how they wound up being homeless. I can guess that for some of them it may have been drugs, alcohol, pornography or mental illness or, perhaps, having had to spend time in jail for some wrong they committed or at least were convicted of. Maybe, in the case of many of them, it was just plain old bad luck, a bad break at work, a bad break with or within their biological families.

But I don’t go to MBK to be anyone’s judge. I go there to share some glimpse of what life might be like for them as they learn, as I still am myself learning, to walk by faith through this dark world and wide, and find in themselves that one talent, which is death to hide, that they might serve therewith their Maker, who will not chide them. Nor shall I, for I have learned from Patience that they also serve who only stand and wait. Last night, for yet another evening, I was privileged to stand and wait with them, my homeless brothers and sisters at My Brother’s Keeper. Cain could never have foreseen what the impact of that phrase, which he uttered about his brother Abel, would turn out to be when it would, one day, adorn the front of a humble edifice in central Texas. But, after a few visits to MBK, I think I am beginning to understand.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Coming Home

coffee mug-assassinsYou get up every morning, you go to work, you try to be as nice as you can to your co-workers, one of whom is that grumpy one—not the curmudgeon who is curmudgeonly simply to be funny, to preserve the appearance of a crusty persona, who has a coffee mug with an ominous warning such as those given below (my personal favorite is “Good morning, I see the assassins have failed” or, really, the one with the little bird)—but rather, one who is genuinely a grouch. The one you have verbally to dance around, you have to be careful what you say and, in fact, even when you say what you’re sure is the right thing, he—usually he—or she will find fault, will turn something positive you said or did into something negative by what seems to you deliberate misinterpretation. Indeed, probably most of us, have someone with whom we work around whom we have to be especially careful what we say, whether that person happens to be especially politically correct, seemingly alwaycoffee mug-aholes waiting to pounce with (at the very least) a disapproving look because something slightly un-PC drifted from the barrier of your teeth, or because they are the boss and they want everyone to know that they are the boss. They want everyone in the office or on the floor to know that you are below them, that they outrank you. Add to this a steady state in which you can’t have a good idea; add to that, if you do, they might just appropriate it for themselves.

Now if you’re not able to relate to that previous paragraph at this moment—for example, if you have a job for which you don’t dread going to work or even dread going into that certain person’s cubicle or workspace—then count yourself exceptionally lucky. And count yourself luckier yet if you can’t recall ever having that experience, if you’ve always had the kind of charmed existence whereby which you’ve gleefully gone to work without the slightest angst over organizational squabbling, never thinking “Gosh, did I say the right thing?” when you left someone’s office.

coffee mug-jugdingBut I doubt many have that charmed of an existence. And for those of us who do not, then once the day is done, once we have done our job and followed our calling to the best of our ability that day in our comportment, words, and deeds, then the whistle blows, whether literal or figural, and it is time to go home. And there is nothing quite like coming home at the end of a long day, if indeed you have a home to go to, if you have someone there for whom you care and who cares about you. And somehow just knowing you have a home, a place where you’re appreciated just for being you—with all your faults, foibles, and fears—gives you strength to carry on, and renews your inner being so that you can get up the next day, take a deep breath and head off to work again with a fresh attitude, a broadening smile, and a hope for a better day, even with your crusty old boss or difficult co-worker.coffee mug-nope

Based on conversations I’ve had with friends whom I know not just in America but in many places in this dark world and wide, it seems to me that the world these days is caught up in the first paragraph. I mean that both literally—most of the folks I talk to have that person at work before whom they find themselves having to be especially accommodating and speak especially carefully—and metaphorically, for the world seems to be in a deleterious state. Maybe it has been heading that way for a long time now—I don’t know. But however that may be, it most certainly is in a negative funk. And here’s an idea why this may be the case: the world has lost a sense of home. Or perhaps it is rather merely that notion of home has eroded; when I say eroded, I do not mean that it has just changed, but I mean that it has declined, deteriorated. It has become a stuffy place, its air has become stale, its aura less than welcoming.

coffee mug-sshhHow so? Let’s start with what makes a home: that’s a family. Though a family is of course not specifically a physical space, it is nonetheless a place where you can breathe, catch your breath, take a deep breath for fresh air again. I spoke yesterday to a friend who has a twelve-year-old daughter. He loves his daughter and spent last Saturday with her. “Wonderful,” I said. Gingerly I queried about the rest of his family, but carefully suspecting that because he spent the day with his daughter that he was divorced—for otherwise he would have said “we” (meaning he and his wife) had spent the day with the child. As I suspected, he is divorced. He has a girlfriend; they’ve been dating about four years. She lives in Rome, he in Viterbo. They see each other once or twice a month, usually on a weekend.

Now I thought about his situation—and someone might say, “Who are you to judge?” and that person might well be right, but thinking about someone’s situation is not necessarily “judging” anyone—and as I thought about it, this occurred to me: inasmuch as his daughter lives with his wife (in Vetralla, a town or two away), he has no one to come home to. He goes to work, interacts with his co-workers, probably puts up with the one that no one gets along with, and then doesn’t have anyone to go home to. Maybe he has a dog or a cat, but not a person to talk to. And while someone might object and say not everyone feels the need for someone to talk to, I would suggest that the indivegetablesvidual’s perception of need and the actuality of need may be different. Not everyone thinks they need to eat green vegetables. One can do fine with merely bread, meat and potatoes for quite a long time; but green vegetables are indisputably good for you and virtually everyone except children knows one should eat them, if they are available.

I’d like to close with another aspect of coming home that is missing from my friend’s life and from many lives: church. Church is a kind of spiritual home, a place that, for all its faults (just as a family has many faults) provides something like a larger home for a family or individual. Indeed, for single folks, divorced folks and for others who for whatever reason are alone, church can take over the role of refuge that family provides. You can go to church and come to know others there who can help you through the rough times. They, too, likely have bosses or co-workers who are difficult. They, too, know what it means to be lonely. They, too, know what it means to struggle with faith, to feel abandoned by God even th

Stockton church
Elaine Jakes’ church, Stockton Presbyterian in Stockton, NJ, whose services offer inspiration

ough we most certainly are not. And they can pray for you, with you, and over you. They can help you breathe. They become your family. Elaine Jakes rediscovered this reality late in her life at Stockton Presbyterian Church.

I leave you, my reader, with this final thought, not that work can be a drag and you should find some kind of relief, but rather that we all find challenges in the work to which we have been called, and we should seek inspiration to face those challenges. The root of the Latin word for “breathe” is in the middle of inspiration. Fresh air, a refreshing breeze can be found in family and faith. Go home, and breathe.

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Lo Sciopero (The Train Strike)

SONY DSCA train strike (sciopero) in Italy gives you time to think. And when you are traveling, sometimes time to think is just the right thing. For traveling should be—at least when you are traveling by yourself and especially not with small children—a time to think, to reflect, to ponder. Questions germane to traveling like “How did I get here?” or “Where am I going?” are also germane to our lives and, in a manner of speaking, they provide a framework for the kind of thoughts we should think if we are to be properly thoughtful people.

And traveling, in Europe at least, also helps us to think about being thoughtful because one often travels by train there—or I should say here, for I am writing this blog from Rome—and when one travels by train one has to negotiate one’s way through hoards of people, all trying to go in about the same direction. crowded train stationReally, they are going in various directions, and that is what makes working your way to your train so difficult. I try my best to be gentle about it, whenever possible acting as if getting to my train or making my connection isn’t all that important to me—even though it invariably is.

Now not making such a connection in Italy in the summer is not so bad as missing one in Switzerland or Germany in the winter. Of course the reason for that is the stations there are sometimes open-air and it is hard to stay warm in a not well-insulated or warmed station in the north. But in summertime Italy it is a different matter. Here one need not rush, need not bustle, for the country relies on a natural kind of lateness. Even my Italian friends call that “Italian time” and they take pride in a small amount of tardiness the way my German friends take pride in (or at least seem to expect) a certain punctuality.

Which brings me back to thinking. For thinking about big questions based on little ones is a good thing, and thinking about being gentle and knowing that what time you have to leave is not nearly as important as where you’re going or how you get there. Sometimes you just have to face the fact that in life there will be a “sciopero” of sorts, a personal train strike or temporary setback. You may not meet an objective because of external forces. You may be criticized by someone fairly or unfairly and have to slow down and remind yourself of the long-term goal, that responding sharply is very unlikely to be the right thing to do. Rather, that right thing is likely to be gentleness.

One of the things that struck me on this trip so far—aside from how fabulous Italian food is and how impossible it is not to mention food in every blog that I write while I am in this country, even in a world gone mad—was a conversation that I had at a fancy affair with an American, a very nice and courteous chap, a fine human being, a gentle person. Yet there was, it seemed to me, perhaps something recently missing in his life, and that missing thing had not to do with food but with traveling.

excavationNow it could have had something to do with food. After all, the fancy affair at which we met was a grand party thrown for a recently successful archaeological team, a party that I, as a mere novelist and blogger, was clearly crashing. They were wrapping up an excavation of an Etruscan tomb near Viterbo. The person with whom I enjoyed a rich conversation seemed at first blush to be a hired musician, for he deftly played the guitar at this affair, accompanying a marvelous accordion player. That same person in question, however, turned out to be there at the invitation of one of the archeologist. As for me, I was invited along by a friend of a friend, and, being naturally curious, I accepted the invitation, even if in fact I was more or less crashing the party.

And I am glad I did, for I had never been in a movie before. No, this was not a real film, but it was as if a scene from a movie, a particular one, perhaps my favorite: TheThe Godfather Godfather. Mutatis mutandis, it was as if we were in the opening wedding scene, a great celebration with food of a high order of deliciousness that just kept coming, course after course. Over a glass of wine that was hand-crafted by one of the local magistrates (a certain Angelo, whom everyone called Sant’Angelo), the gentleman and I fell to talking about the big questions, what I am calling in this blog, the travel questions.

Like me, he had thought about such questions. But when he had encountered a certain sciopero in his own life—a complicated church situation—the strike in his life had presented him with an unwelcome challenge, temporarily perhaps driving him away from church. Still, I encouraged him in the midst of it to remember that there is a directional aspect to the whole question of religion, an aspect that simply by going through the motions sometimes maintains a true faith or, better yet, even sometimes kindles a deeper faith, a faith perhaps one never realized was possible—a faith in a God who can produce miracles. And thus do I hope that he finds his direction back to church, with his guitar in hand, for I liked him and I suspect that his joy won’t be complete until he finds peace in his music, in church, in life—in God.

And here I will stop, for it was, after all, merely a lunch I was crashing, not a scene from a movie, not something from my usual world of fantasy, of otherworldly ideas beyond reality. Yet even if it was reality, it sure did feel like a scene from that best of films. Could we have been, for a moment, with a real godfather, could we have been characters in a story? Perhaps that is the point, perhaps we are a part of a story, and we need to be reminded of that from time to time. And to grasp that, to garner what we need to live, and love, and thrive, perhaps we may require, from time to time, to experience a sciopero.

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Day after Anything

AfterChristmasGiftsThe day after anything is the day after something. It’s too late for me to write about the something. For that something is Christmas, and that was yesterday. Even before that, last week, someone wrote to me privately about the last three blogs, “I don’t get it,” he wrote, “Christmas Yard? Is there a message here?” Well, I might say charily, there is. Yet I can’t expect everyone to get it. With such a story about a fictional place I could only hope to create a small window into the interior of Christmas, as if, standing for a moment on a snow covered street, one should unexpectedly cast a glance through the fog of one’s own breath in the crisp winter air to see into, ever so briefly, the home of a family not personally known to the viewer but perhaps long admired, wondering from afar, “What goes on in that family? What does a family like that do? How to they construct their family time?” This would be especially true if one comes from a family where time is never or rarely construed, where there isn’t a plan or a modus operandi in place for carrying on as a family, but merely a modus vivendi of mutual tolerance. I shall return to these familiar phrases, modus operandi and vivendi, in a moment, with a gentle adjustment of them both.

First, let me offer an apologia (“afterward”) about the tripartite series about a town called Christmas Yard, if you happened to have read it, in case anyone else might have had the same reaction as the aforementioned reader. The point of that story is to direct the reader’s attention and affection toward what, quite incidentally and indirectly, a family might be (or at least become) and, by extension, what any institution consisting of people might best encompass, whether that institution be a church or a town or society at large. One might deduce that this is my goal by effecting a contrast of the two churches in the last installment of the story. More generally, one can see this goal fleshed out in the combination of Elaine’s deep sense of social justice and my own still-in-progress sense of grace, especially when that kind of grace, sometimes known as charity, in fact, also dovetails with social justice.

But today I am writing about the day after anything, for there are rarely ditties or songs, blogs or essays written about the day after things; only those written about the event itself or anticipation of it become well known. To wit, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (not the day after), “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (not is heading back to the North Pole). Even non-Christmas songs like, “Until We Meet Again,” look forward, not back. It is safe to say that the day after anything, especially something that you’ve been looking forward to, could be a letdown. I have a friend who worked for years to get his PhD, and even the day he got it, as it turned out, was, to his mind, anticlimactic.

Another friend of mine’s daughter will be married in a few days. He recalls, not so many years ago, a moment in time when they shared at an event that likely no longer exists—for it is no doubt now deemed sexist or exclusive of fatherless families—called “Dads and Donuts.” dads with donutsHe told me that he recalls that day vividly, how much it meant to his daughter and more especially to him to go and have a little breakfast with his beloved child when she was, I think he told me, just in the fifth grade. He explained to me that he was so moved by that day that he thinks of it often as he prays for her, and that he will remember it fondly till the day he dies. And now she is to be married and start a family of her own.

For her, the day after she gets married will be the day after the biggest party nearly anyone has in their whole life. Afterwards, there will be, of course, a bit of letdown. But here’s where this term that I said I wanted to come back to is relevant—modus operandi—or really, modus gerendi would be better. There are a few Latin terms here that sound as if they come straight out of an old law book or at least an old grammar book. But lest they should become for you, owing to their erudite tone, somnolent or soporific, it will be useful, both for us on this day after Christmas and for my friend’s daughter on the day after her marriage, to reflect upon them for a moment, as we reheat a piece of pie piece of piefor breakfast or just relax and read the newspaper (or this blog).

For today is the day to put that old terminology into practice. Let’s start with the familiar modus vivendi, which may in fact be the way that any given family may have spent this past year. The implication of that Latin phrase, which, though it means “manner of living,” is most often simply a reflection of a live-and-let-live posture: “that’s fine, I’ll work around that, provided it doesn’t intrude too much upon my personal space.” Thus, modus vivendi really signifies a way of coping, or at best coexisting. While at times, of course, this has to be done, that is no way to conduct family.

Then there’s modus operandi. It’s a stronger term, probably too strong for how to manage one’s family, as it reflects a way of operating, the way one functions. “That’s his modus operandi,” someone might say, and certainly is the expression that detectives often shorten to “M.O.,” meaning the signature or trademark of someone, usually a criminal. And that’s not really a great way to conduct family, either.

That leaves us with the rather scarce modus agendi (or modus gerendi), both of which are so infrequently used that the former is automatically changed by the spell checker to agenda and the latter just underlined in red. But these archaic-sounding terms—and the latter is better—are what one really needs to know how to do to conduct family.  The former means “way of doing” the latter “way of conducting” or “managing,” and thus the latter is a bit better, because one doesn’t “do family,” one “conducts” or “manages” it.

Which brings us back to the notion of the day after, a day that might be one of reflection, especially if it’s the day after Christmas, when one is reflecting on how one didn’t do Christmas well—it was just about ripping into presents, putting up with your child’s ingratitude or worse sarcasm, and laughing too often inappropriately or at least uncomfortably at your own husband’s crude joking. What was so inappropriate that mere laughter made you uncomfortable? Nothing, really, but—yes, there was something: Christmas is supposed to be a religious holiday, but perhaps “it sure didn’t seem that way.” Maybe for you Christmas day seemed to encompass everything bad about the season, playing itself out as materialistic, greedy and snarky; simply put, perhaps it felt empty. No, this was not my Christmas, but if yours should have been something like it . . . .

Here’s where the observation about the day after Christmas and my friend’s daughter’s immanent marriage finally dovetails. It is, on this day after the holiday, as will be on the day after her ceremony, not the time to think about what went disastrously wrong or just had to be tolerated. Now is the time to change the expression from modus vivendi, upon which most Christmas celebrations (and marriages) are based, to modus gerendi. It is time, not next year, next month or even tomorrow, but today, to start managing your family. That way, when Christmas comes next year, it will be special, not just an excuse to binge spend and ravenously tear off pretty paper. It will be a time of joy and wonder not because its story is unfamiliar, but the opposite, precisely because the story is familiar, for you’ve prepared for it spiritually all year long.

Perseus quote
Bartholomaeus Bruyn the Elder (1493-1555)—Portrait of a Knight of the Order of Malta (detail), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemaeldegalerie, Vienna, Austria

For that to happen, a change in thinking must come, for the time to structure your days and measure carefully each moment begins the day after, which happens to be today. After all, that is the central aspect of that revolutionary but perhaps archaic-sounding idea that the Bible calls metanoia: a changing of one’s thinking. The little-read but profound Roman poet Perseus once wrote, vive memor leti; fugit hora (“Live mindful of death; time flies,” 5.153). Few have ever penned better advice. With each moment comes the opportunity to draw another breath, formulate a fresh thought, craft a better phrase. What better time than the day after to turn in a new direction, one very different than the present empty, unmanaged course?

It’s too late to wish anyone Merry Christmas this year, for it’s the day after. But it’s not too late, with a bit of Divine inspiration and guidance, to begin to manage one’s time, to conduct family, to produce a very, very happy new year, or in my friend’s daughter’s case, a new family. Blessings on that project, dear daughter, and on you, dear readers. May you find your modus gerendi, remember forever your own personal version of “Dads and Donuts” or “Moms and Muffins,” and, finally, Dominus vobiscum, which, more or less, is Latin for “Happy New (and Every) Year!”

after Christmas wish

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Christmas Yard (part 3, A Christmastime Judgment)

Christmas yardIt was a dark evening, cold, overcast. In Christmas Yard Presbyterian Church, a single room, well in the back of the edifice, beyond the apse that lay behind the altar, glowed not with Christmas décor but with lights that would better befit a courtroom. There, the elders of the church sat in a semi-circle and pursed their lips as the head elder paced back and forth in front of Reverend Griffith who was seated on a chair in the middle of the semi-circle. What did he think he was doing? Had he gone to the home of a black man? What exactly was he doing there? They didn’t want people like that in their church. And to the house of a Jap?gavel

“Don’t you know that we’re at war with the Japs?”

“The Pínqióng family is not Japanese. They are Chinese.”

“It is no different,” Iawn Angharedig, the head elder said, “These are troubled times. I heard you went to see Germans, too. Whose side are you on?”

“I’m not on a side, Mr. Angharedig.”

“Not on a side? Reverend, we are at war. Everyone is on a side.”

“Then I am on God’s side.”

“Is that why you went to a brothel? And you took a little boy with you, a Jew?” he snarled. ”And you visited the mother, too, a Jewess? And you brought them Kosher food? Did you use church funds for that?” All was not well in Christmas Yard.

It was not a matter of weeks but merely days until Reverend Griffith was shown the door of that church. Years passed. Mr. Umaskini eventually had a hard time walking, though well into his old age he stayed rent-free in the house that Foramen Acus owned, frequently visited and supplied with food by the former reverend Hugh Griffith and by a young pastor fresh from seminary, who preached not in the Yard but at a church under the table. The Pínqióng family was not detained in the Japanese internment camps that President Roosevelt created during the Second World War because that family was, in fact, not Japanese. Mrs. Llymder never remarried; she died a widow, but like the Pínqióng family and the Armut family, she had begun going to church, and therefore at least had a proper funeral.

Yet though Reverend Griffith had done her funeral, the church under the table was not a parish whose reverend was named Griffith. It was not a church with a steeple or stained glass windows or a rectory. It met in a large building outside of Christmas Yard. That building in fact was freshly refurbished. It was a place, under the table, where unwed mothers had been going for years. Yet, though it still served that clientele, it was no longer dilapidated and the church met there on Sundays. It had been refurbished plentifully by Foramen Acus, at his personal expense. That church’s young pastor’s name was a funny one, for he had a Jewish surname, but nearly everyone just called him David.

“Guten morning, Reverend Goldstein,” said the last holdout on formality, Mr. Ganz Armut. Even Mrs. Armut called David by his first name, though the Armut grandchildren, all seven of them, called him “Reverend David.” “It vas a gut zermon, ‘dis day,” Mr. Armut added, which phrase he pronounced with a thick German accent, thick though he had lived in Christmas Yard for nearly three decades. “A gut vun for zhe holiday. I like vat you say about Hanukah in your zermon, zu, und Christians needing zu love everyone, Jew und gentile both. Also, Merry Christmas, Reverend!” (Though by “also” Mr. Armut meant, “anyhow”, as Germans do when they use the word and pronounce it “alzo”—not “additionally” as an English speaker uses it.)

The last one out of the room that was designated as the chapel was Hugh Griffith, erstwhile pastor, now parishioner, though he sometimes would give a sermon when David needed a week off. He was late coming out because he was hanging signs on the bulletin board about the Pínqióng caroling event to be held in Christmas Yard. The caroling gang would depart from the Pínqióng family home—no longer crowded with children, though during the holiday it was brimming with life, as their children had by now their own children. Thence would they proceed singing hither and thither, all around the Yard. Reverend Griffith, who had been unmarried until he was in his forties, had no children of his own, though he thought of David as his son, as Joseph must have the King of Kings. Legally, in any case, David was, by then, Hugh’s stepson, for Mrs. Goldstein had become, a few years before, Mrs. Griffith.

Foramen Acus bestrode the Griffiths as he left the church about the same time, and they all made the long walk back to Christmas Yard. “Merry Christmas!” he said, “I am looking forward to caroling with the Pínqióng family next week. Lord knows, some of the folks in the Yard need to heed the words of those good songs of Christmas.”

“Indeed, we are, too, “Mrs. Griffith said glancing at Hugh, whom people now thought of more as “Hugh” than as “Reverend Griffith.” She then added, “Thank you for all you do for this church, Acus.”

“It’s my pleasure; God has blessed me with plenty of money,” Foramen Acus responded, and then added, “As you know, the good book says, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. …’

Charles Appleton Longfellow, hymnwriter
Charles Appleton Longfellow, hymnwriter

Thus did they carry on for the twenty minute trek back to the Yard, until, en route, as if to practice for the Pínqióng caroling, they sang a carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” putting a little extra emphasis on the final stanza.

*   *   *

Elaine’s story ended. I said to her, “Thank you, Mom. It was a good story, but do things like that happen in real life? Do folks really care about people like Reverend Griffith, and do stories really work out so that kids without dads, like me, in the end get dads like Reverend Griffith?”

“Well,” Elaine added, “David never had Reverend Griffith as a dad until he had grown up. And, remember, Reverend Griffith lost his job. And nobody cared for the Armut family because they were Germans, or the Pínqióngs because they perceived them to be Japanese.”

“No, I know, it must have been hard.” But then I added, “But it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”

“Yes, it did, dear,” Elaine said, and she added, “And it will for us, too.”

If, dear reader, you wish to know how it worked out for Elaine, who in many ways was the Mrs. Goldstein of the story, you will need to read the Curious Autobiography. It’s not quite as sentimental (dare I even say sappy?) as Elaine’s story of the Christmas Yard, but you’ll recognize at least one of the characters, for the Reverend Hugh Griffith shows up there, too.

In the meantime, until you read that book or this blog again, Merry Christmas. May you hear the bells on Christmas day, and may they mean as much to you as they came to mean to the Pínqióng family, Foramen Acus, and the Armut family. “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The View from Here

“Well, yes, thank you, I think I will,” Reverend Griffith responded to the invitation of Elaine Jakes’ mother, Blanche, to come in for some cool, almost iced, Black Current tea, served with homemade water biscuits, and Hen Sir cheese. So it was that after church, the devoted rector was making a few pastoral visitations on that warm, far too humid summer afternoon of the first of August in 1937, nigh upon eighty years ago now. Even though it was a bit outside of his regular rounds further down the Susquehanna River in Plymouth and Larksville, Reverend Griffith came to Kingston, mainly because Blanche and Harry lived there, quite a stretch from Plymouth’s Gaylord Avenue Welsh Calvinistic Presbyterian (and therefore tautological) Church, a house of God with far too long a name.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

Nevertheless, the good cleric traversed that far distance, specifically to the house of Jemima Jones, where also dwelt Jemima’s niece, Blanche, and her husband, Harry. Jemima had taken in the recently wed couple a decade before, and they were in the process of raising a young family in that fine, but far from fancy duplex there near the intersection of Rutter Avenue and Pierce Street.

“There’s a lot of love in this house,” said the reverend. “You have a fine family, Blanche.”

“Pshaw,” followed by a pause; then she added, “But thank you. Harry is in the backyard. Why don’t you go out and chat with him and I’ll bring the tea and cheese out to you. It’s Black Current tea, Reverend.”

“How rare, hard to find these days. It sounds wonderful, Blanche,” he said making his way onto the narrow back porch.

There sat Harry in a ribbed tank-top tee shirt and shorts in the middle of the yard on a folding chair with his feet in a washbasin-sized bucket of cool water, which he was splashing up on his chest and head just as the reverend descended the back steps. After he welcomed Hugh Griffith with the proper august holy-ringing title he said, “It’s a tiny yard, but I love it. It’s cool here in the shade of the house and the trees, and I come out here to clear my head, to pray.”

As Harry tended to write down his prayers, it is likely that he actually went into the back yard to compose with pencil and paper. I won’t talk about that today, though, as I’m writing about something else, his yard. Harry loved that backyard, and though I suspect, in terms of its comeliness, Reverend Griffith might have failed to see why anyone might love it, no doubt he grasped its importance to Harry as a refuge from the troubles of life, a place where he could go and think—or rather be still—and, as he said, pray. No doubt Reverend Griffith admired the latter—he was, after all, a Presbyterian minister—and he likely knew that for Harry praying started with writing; he knew, too, that writing, reflecting and praying took place in Harry’s backyard on a regular basis. That much anyone who ever knew Harry would have known, for he was gentle and kind. And, as if on his behalf, the tiny yard seemed to divulge as much.

 

Texas Hill Country
Texas Hill Country
San Antonio
San Antonio

My Italian friends would call even such a postage-stamp-sized backyard as my grandfather had, a giardino. Now this is important not simply because Italians have the unique capacity to make all things sound more beautiful than they really are but because they also have the capacity of pointing out the beauty in something that you might otherwise have overlooked. For example, while most of my American friends from the eastern coast of the country are essentially allergic to Texas, my Italian friends are not. One and all, they love the state, and find great beauty in its prairies, shoreline, Hill Country and, among its cities, San Antonio in particular. Thus, I’m sure that Harry’s Italian friends referred to his tiny yard as his giardino. I’m sure they said, “Your giardino, it is beautiful!”—saying as much in a comely and robust Italian accent, of course.

And they likely said the same of the mimosa in the front yard, a small tree that Blanche adored. And then there were two or three rose bushes that Harry tended dutifully. These entwined a lattice that ran along the side of the house by the carport, next to the door that opened, after five ascending steps, into the kitchen. Next to that rose bush was a heavy, thick, oblong stone about a foot in length, into which Harry had faintly carved “Harry + Blanche,” a lover’s whisper, hand-engraved, time-defying. That rock marked the holy temenos that made their yard, small as it was, a place of beauty and wonder whose paltry amount of flora and fauna was more than enough. It was a giardino.

That’s where Reverend Griffith sat with my future grandparents—for Blanche had joined the men, as Jemima had taken the girls out for a stroll with her sister Elizabeth Ann—drinking iced tea and eating Hen Sir cheese, the Welsh cheese that oddly came to symbolize spiritual renewal in our family. But all of this is, of course, wryly chronicled in The Curious Autobiography. And so they chatted, speaking about topics that the cleric liked, such as God’s sovereignty, mercy and charity, and topics that Harry liked, such as his hope to get a job away from the coal mines, the threat of war in Europe, and how good Hen Sir was with a smidgen of strawberry jam (for Blanche had included that with the homemade biscuits). And how much he appreciated that the reverend now preached sermons in Welsh and English both, as Harry confessed that his Welsh was lacking.

Ocean Grove
Ocean Grove

They also spoke of Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where there was another view altogether, not of a giardino, but of the majestic Atlantic, which will be the topic of another blog.

Bay of Naples
Bay of Naples

So the conversation went. Now I myself have seen some pretty superb views, such as the Bay of Naples, as I peered out from behind a well-placed sphinx, to the view of Baltic Sea from Vogelfluglinie ferry that brings you to incomparable Copenhagen. I’ve walked upon Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, thrown a Frisbee in the Villa Doria Pamphilij, where far and wide one can see Respighi’s inspiration on display.

Pines of Rome in Villa Doria Pamphilij
Pines of Rome in Villa Doria Pamphilij

I’ve visited the amazing Abbey district of St. Gallen and gawked at the heaven-like interior of the abbey library—mirable visu—not to mention the Alps themselves, in which the town of St. Gallen is nestled. But I say Harry and Blanche’s giardino was a finer view than any of these.

St. Gallen library
St. Gallen library

 

Sappho
Portrait Bust of Sappho

In one of her most amazing poems, the Greek poet Sappho puts it this way, “some say an army of cavalry, or infantry, or sailors is the most beautiful thing across this coal-black earth, but I say it is whatever you love” (fgt. 16). A giardino is no army, but it springs from the coal-black earth and it is a place that one can love. It was a place of love for Harry and Blanche, whether that love be merely recorded upon a great round rock that I now have in my own giardino or it be seen in the occasional rose that Harry would harvest for Blanche from the rose bush, or it be simply the love they shared with the visiting Reverend Griffith over a cooling glass of tea, some homemade biscuits, and a bite of Hen Sir. That giardino framed their home the way a picture frames a painting. That home and its yard was the place where they created a family with their two daughters and with their aunt Jemima.

So the view was, for Blanche and Harry, Lee Ann and Elaine, pretty fine from that house on Rutter Avenue. As I see it, it surpassed the Baltic, the Bay of Naples and the Jersey Shore. Their view was more encompassing than just a giardino. It was what so many of us crave beyond anything else in this life, a family and a home, a place where Jemima, just before she died saw an angel. But I have spoken of angels in a previous blog; and I imagine I will again. For now, I shall simply look at my small backyard, which is perhaps two postage stamps in size—but the cost of mailing a letter has gone up over the years—and I shall think of Harry and Blanche’s view. Maybe my own is not that different after all. Yes, I like the view from here.