Wednesday, August 31, 2005

According to the Sorting Hat

I am a Ravenclaw. No surprise...the nerd's house. Apologies to all non-Harry Potter people, who find this mystifying. All I can say is, "Go read some Rowling!" Here is the description based on an "exam."

Congratulations on making Ravenclaw!
Well you're one smart little cookie, aren't you? You're wise and clever, and just love to use your wit and learning to your advantage, and sometimes even the disadvantage of others. Well, nerd, there IS a world outside of that copy of 'Hogwarts: A History', you know.. Oh don't worry! We all know you're special. You're just a naturally good learner, right? Not too much is known about your house right now.. Wow! Not only are you intelligent, you're also an enigma!

HT again to Andrew.

A Rough Day Made Better

Thanks Andrew for directing me to this site, which has the best news I have heard in a long time. Yes folks, a new Kate Bush album is coming!!!!! Here is the report from KateBushNews.

Kate's new album AERIAL will be released on November 7th. Kate's new single KING OF THE MOUNTAIN is out on October 24th!

31st August 2005: Well, hello there! It's been twelve long years since The Red Shoes in 1993, but finally in a press release this morning EMI Records have proudly confirmed the fantastic news: Kate's hugely anticipated new work, her eighth studio album, will be released worldwide on November 7th 2005 (Nov 8th in USA). It will be a double album. It is entitled Aerial. The first single King Of The Mountain precedes the album on October 24th. Both the single and album are produced by Kate Bush. This site, in conjunction with HomeGround The Kate Bush Magazine will keep you up-to-date on everything you need to know as the excitement mounts. Be sure to visit our busy site forum to discuss the release of this brand new music. Kate Bush is back in business, we are delighted and we wish her all the very best over the coming months.

I have been a HUGE fan of Kate's since college days (early 80's) and her appearance on Saturday Night Live singing "Wuthering Heights." Yes, it's a bit of schoolboy crush, but my wife has forgiven me and knows I love her better. But anyway...A NEW KATE BUSH CD IS COMING! I never thought this day would come....sniff, sniff.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

I've Been Tagged!

Stacey, who blogs at "Thoughts From a First Year Minister" (whose excellent pieces are beautifully written, and often a challenge to one's comfortable presuppositions), tagged me with the responsibility of answering the following five questions - so here goes. {By the way, I've taken the liberty of adding Stacey's blog to my roll - I hope she doesn't mind. Also, I'm a daily addict of the cool pictures appearing on "Toms Astronomy Blog" - also now appearing on my roll. His site is a trove of cosmic marvels, and makes me feel very small.}

Now to the questions:

1. The number of books I have owned. Well, I've given away dozens of novels and such, but I recently counted my library for insurance purposes, so I know that I have approximately 1,970 books. 1,200 or so are in my church office, and the rest are in the parsonage.

2. The last book I have bought. I just purchased The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto, which is a history of Dutch Manhattan, and Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder, a Norwegian author, who has managed to write a mystery novel which also serves as a survey of the history of Western philosophy. I'm not kidding.

3. The last book I finished. While on vacation I finished The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr, a very fine collection of short stories. I highly recommend this book - and I generally don't go in for short stories. I also just quickly read On Bullshit, by Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, which should be required reading for all people, especially ministers.

4. The book I am currently reading. Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy (which I will be reviewing here next week). The Poems of Henry Vaughn, one of the metaphysical poets (like Donne and Herbert) - I am always, always reading a book of poetry alongside the other stuff. If you're not doing likewise, shame on you!

5. The five books which mean a lot to me. Now this is impossible (!), and subject to revision later in the day, week, or month - after I forgot to include something absolutely essential! I am not including the Bible (AV, of course), the collected works of William Shakespeare, and the Oxford English Dictionary, which are assumed to be foundational and daily companions of an educated Christian gentleperson.

a. Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis. This book got me started on this spiritual journey, so enough said.

b. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. I have read this trilogy two dozen times. Again, enough said.

c. The Collected Poems of Geoffrey Hill. When I was a college student I stumbled on Somewhere is Such a Kingdom, and the power and depth of this poet stunned me into a new dimension. ALERT! Most find Hill to be difficult, and sometimes he is, but Harold Bloom, the most influential literary critic of the 20th century said that Hill is the most important poet writing in English at the present time.

d. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh. I am an Anglophile of the worst kind. When I was a kid I told others that I was born in Britain - seriously. This novel captures England between the wars, and more importantly it involves Oxford and the affect of Christianity upon an artist. If you have not read this, I weep for you. P.S. It was made into a magnificent mini-series by the BBC, and is available for rental or purchase (cheaters!).

e. Otherwise, Jane Kenyon. This will be the subject of another blog posting in the near future. Let me just say that Jane's poetry and life have had an enormous effect upon me. There are far greater poets to list here, I but chose her and without apology.

Okay, so here's some honorable mentions of books left out: Calvin's Institutes; The Valley of Vision, by Arthur Bennett; The Seven Storey Mountain, and New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton; The Contemplative Pastor, by Eugene Peterson; What Are People For?, by Wendell Berry; The Liturgy of the Hours; The Book of Common Prayer; The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, by Etienne Gilson; Collected Poems, T.S. Eliot; A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Van Auken; Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne; The Thought of God, by Maurice Roberts; The Reformed Pastor, by Richard Baxter; The Providence of God, A.W. Pink; All-Around Ministry, by C.H. Spurgeon; The Christian Tradition (5 vols.), by Jaroslav Pelikan; The Divine Comedy, Dante; Civilisation, by Kenneth Clark; The Oxford Book of English Verse (2 vols.).

5b. Which bloggers are you passing this on to? Random Responses, Hemmeke Blog, and Mindful Wanderings.'re it!

A quote from one of America's finest preachers, Samuel Davies, about books:

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

At Home With the Paterfamilias

I am visiting the parents this week in Sarasota, Florida, and out my window as I type this on my father's old Dell laptop (which has a "t" which only works 20% of the time), there is wind-dappled water: the abode of anhingas, ospreys, and several varieties of heron, all poking about trying to make a living. This is my last week of vacation for 2005, and I have enjoyed the time away. I spent some of that time admiring my father's work, and creating a website/blog for him.

The work I am admiring is his portraiture. An example of one of his oil paintings is above. There are many other examples of his work at his website: Franklin G. Petersen, Portrait Artist.

Right now he is beginning a new portrait, and it still astounds me that even though it is in the initial stages of composition, with only a first layer of paint, he has captured the essence of the person. Which leads me to think about how art reveals that which is indispensable about someone or something. The word "essence" (from the Latin, esse) is derived from the Latin and Greek words "to be." It is the name God gives to Moses at the burning bush - Yahweh ("I AM"). To say that something has an essence is to say it exists. Art adds to this simple definition by revealing in its depiction a concentration of a quality or certain qualities. It is a form of distillation, directing the eye to that which makes a thing unique, precious, beautiful, etc. Of course, art can also reveal the ugly, the grotesque (think Goya, e.g.), but in any case there is a revelation.

I once heard a rather pretentious art student say that "art is a lie, meant to deceive." I could see how that could be true under certain circumstances, especially when parents want their children to be painted better looking than they are in real life! However, such a statement is surely reductionistic, and misses the more important theological aspect of all art - we are imitating our Creator in our little creations. We are attempting in our poems, paintings, and music, to reveal what our eye sees, and if we are graced with genius, we may see and reveal a great deal. Such revelation graces the world with insight, amazement, and in the end, what is most important - gratitude and joy in the simple pleasure of being - the gift of our esse, which is itself a gift from God.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Brother Roger of Taizé ✠

I learned yesterday that Brother Roger, founder of an ecumenical monastery in the French town of Taizé in Burgundy, was brutally murdered while at worship in his prayer stall in the choir. He was stabbed in the throat and died almost immediately. The New York Times has a full obituary, which can be read at this link. While not as well known as other religious leaders, his influence was worldwide and profound. His prayerful life of peace stands in stark contrast to the manner of his death.

When I read of Brother Roger's death, I thought of St. Stephen's great condemnation found in Acts 7:52, "Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?" And we have taken up our fathers' deadly business, adding Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and now Brother Roger, to the roll call of those whose presence was intolerable to a world under the dominion of the evil one. The Taizé community united Christians from numerous denominations, serving as a sacred bridge from the Protestant world to the Catholic. Brother Roger himself was a Swiss Reformed Protestant, who sheltered Jews from the Nazis, and sheltered countless others from the storms of doctrinal and liturgical battles. Taizé has now become a by-word for peace, for sacred music and worship which is contemporary, but in continuity with the ancient solemnities of chant, contemplative prayer, and responsive prayer. Brother Roger was that rarest of Christians: a contemplative, who valued the inner experience of God over doctrine, intellect, and ecclesiology. His appeal, like that of another contemplative, Thomas Merton, crossed many religious boundaries.

The Taizé Community's influence will continue, drawing many thousands of people, especially the young, to its doors. It's musical and liturgical influence will also continue. Indeed, just this past week, an urban Reformed church in our area began advertising an evening worship service in the Taizé manner. For more information about Taizé, I have included an English language link to their website. Please remember the Taizé Community in your prayers this week, and let us remember that Christ is risen.

"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" Psalm 116:15.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Falling Through Rilke's Arms

Some poets are explicitly religious, using their verse to express their spiritual convictions or even to instruct. George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, and Gerard Manley Hopkins come to mind. Other poets such as R.S. Thomas, Geoffrey Hill, and Emily Dickinson have significant religious content, but cannot truly be classified as religious or Christian poets. A major figure in 20th century literature whose poetry is suffused with religious and spiritual imagery, but who stood apart from organized religion is Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).

Born in Prague, but of German ancestry, his slight body of work has had a profound influence upon poets and thoughtful people ever since the publication of his first volume of poems, Leben und Lieder (1894), but especially after the publication of his later works, Book of Hours, Sonnets to Orpheus, and the Duino Elegies. What attracts me to his work are the themes of loneliness, spiritual disillusionment, and yet a hunger for love and for a reality which transcends time and space. Many of his poems are addressed to God, like "Autumn Day," "What Will You Do God?," and most poignantly, "You Mustn't Be Afraid, God."

In the sixth of his Letters To A Young Poet, to a young man who fears he has lost his childhood faith, Rilke writes, "Do you think a child can hold him [God], him whom men can bear only with great effort and whose weight crushes the aged ones? Do you think that the one possessing him could lose him like a stone?...and if you, with great dismay, feel that he does not exist, even during this hour, while we are speaking of him, what right have you then to miss him, like someone out of the past, him, who never existed, and to seek him as though he were lost? Why don't you think of him as the coming one, who has been at hand since eternity, the future one, the final fruit of a tree, with us as its leaves?"

For brevity's sake, one poem will suffice to demonstrate Rilke's spirituality, which despite his suspicion of religious institutions, was inherently hopeful.


The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
as though above were withering farthest gardens;
they fall with a denying attitude.

And night by night, down into solitude,
the heavy earth falls far from every star.

We are all falling. This hand's falling too -
all have this falling-sickness none withstands.

And yet there's One whose gently-holding hands
this universal falling can't fall through.

Rilke's life was cut short by leukemia. Having a passion for roses, he pricked his finger on a thorn, which induced an infection his compromised immune system could not overcome. He was buried in the churchyard of Raron, France. His self-composed epitaph:

Rose, oh the pure contradiction,
delight, of being no one's sleep under
so many lids.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Cognitive Musical Dissonance

ITunes© is like crack, once you try it you need a family intervention to stop using it. There's got to be a 12-step program out there.

Today my musical cognitive dissonance reached glaring proportions when I downloaded into my IPod© the new Nickel Creek cd Why Should the Fire Die, which is their third album. They started out as a bluegrass influenced trio, but have musically matured under the direction of their wunderkind mandolin player Chris Thile. I also picked up some songs from a band which sounds like Nickel Creek did three years ago, named The Greencards. They are from Australia of all places.

Then I downloaded music from the newest album by Magdalena Kožená, Lamento. She is a Czech mezzo-soprano whom I heard sing at last year's Mostly Mozart festival. We had great seats, third row, and she was definitely the high point of the evening. I also picked up some nice arias from another of her cds, La Belle Imagini, which has some lovely pieces by Gluck.

So what does this have to do with Jesus? Well, Nickel Creek has Christian convictions bubbling up through its music occasionally, and Kožená sings like an angel, and when an angel sings Bach...well, it can only be sublime. The selection I love most is a transcription by Bach of Francesco Bartolomeo Conti's Languet anima mea, which is interestingly, a Roman Catholic piece, celebrating the union of love between Christ and the soul. So even Bach had some dissonance, only he didn't have an IPod©.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Future of the Small Church

While listening to an NPR story on how mega-churches are expanding in this country at a rate of 1-2 a day, I couldn't help but smile, as I was driving 15 minutes to attend evening worship at an OPC church pastored by a good friend. The attendance at the evening service hovers at about a dozen. And yet, the hymns are warmly sung, and the sermon expository and edifying, and I always leave feeling better than when I arrived.

The mega-church phenomenon has been widely written on, and widely criticized. Is it church when thousands of people fill an auditorium to listen to a rock concert, watch a dance recital or a theatrical production? Perhaps, but this development worries me. Some "smaller" churches, trying desperately to catch up, have gone to a model where you sit at a round table, drink a latté or eat a bowl of mixed fruit, while very loud contemporary Christian music (CCM) fills the air. After a dozen praise choruses, some sung over and over again, the pastor "appears," not in the flesh, but on a video screen. Or if there is a preacher present, he will present a brief multi-media sermon addressing the "felt needs" of the congregation. Not all of this is Christianity lite, but much of it has the appearance of superficiality and entertainment.

I grew up in a small church of fifty, and I have pastored three churches, all with populations under 75. I have heard them referred to as "rinky-dink" congregations, "dying churches," and churches which ought to be closed and restarted along more contemporary models. There is a movement afoot in my denomination to "revive" small churches, for many are indeed dying, and those in authority above us believe that the old patterns of worship are lethal to growth, and so the "seeker-sensitive" model is held up as our panacea.

Let me be up-front and say that I would prefer to work in a bookstore than pastor a church with nothing but contemporary music, non-expository sermons, and tables with coffee and fruit. Look at the picture of this church. I grabbed it off of Google Images because it represents what I consider to be an alternative future of the small church.
This church, like the one I grew up in, and the ones I pastored, were not built for more than 100 worshipers. They were designed to be small, intimate places of worship, where the architecture, the furniture, and the very atmosphere of the sanctuary combined to move you out of this busy, sin-broken world, into a place of peace, conducive to prayer, attentive listening, and communion with God.

I believe that the future of the small church may not be a moving forward, catching the latest secular trends and "Christianizing" them, but in moving back to the ancient church, to small communities of interdependent people, who know each other's stories and challenges, sorrows and triumphs, and who worship in a way which brings them together in adoration of God, instead of isolating them in a crowd filled with noise.

Now if you love your mega-church, and want to rave about its programs, parking, and para-church ministries, God bless you. I just wanted to offer an alternative vision, which I hope gets a hearing in the months ahead, as Reformed churches everywhere scramble to stay alive and to grow. Perhaps we have overlooked those who desire stillness, sacrament, and biblical preaching. Many of us do not want to worship in a huge brick box, with basketball hoops above our heads, and not a single Christian image to be found anywhere. I pray that our goals for revitalization be respectful of those desires for sacred space and sacred worship.

Perhaps we have coveted too much the pottage of worldly success. Perhaps we are building our churches too big.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Gratuitous Guitar Posting

This lovely instrument is my first Spanish-made classical guitar. It is a Cordoba CWES. I've never been able to afford a Ramirez or a Contreras, never mind a Blochinger, which run way past a pastor's salary. This guitar is a real departure for me in another way in that it has a cutaway and a Fishman pickup, which allows me to play through an acoustic amplifier - "Which is good for playing in church," says my music director, with a sly grin.

The only reason I'm posting this is to come out of the not that closet...but to proclaim my love for classical guitar, and to admit that I took many years of lessons and that I've been a private player. I let my skills slip since ordination, but no more excuses! Just holding it makes me happy. I can't stop playing it. Okay, I'll stop slobbering now.

I'm working on some arrangements of hymns, and variations on Greensleeves, and other things. The hard work is building my left thumb muscle back to strength. I didn't lose speed over the years, but I certainly lost endurance. Scales...scales...scales.


I also want to wish my wife a happy anniversary! She being the world's greatest pastor's wife. This recent photo of her does not do her justice. It was dashed off by one Simonetta Vespucci (ca.1480), and I'm just not sure he's captured her true beauty.

I am a most blessed man. Tonight we shall dine Italiano, and every man in the restaurant will be jealous of me. They will say, "How did this hobbit woo such a fair lady?" Ah, that is where the guitar comes in! Like Orpheus, I employed classical guitar one starry October night in 1983, music to beguile her, and the rest, shall we say, is history - our history.

Thank you Deb, and God bless you. I love you.