Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Illustrations For Inspiration

Officially, no matter that some claim we are a "christian nation," the United States is a secular nation.  However, given the demographics of  the USA a majority of those elected to office, both local, state and national, profess to being some variety of Christian.

Given that, I'd like to propose that there are four prints that need to be on the office walls of every legislator who processes to Christianity.

These are all from the artist Fritz Eichenberg, who was a Quaker from his forties until his death at the age of 89, contributed hundreds of illustrations and articles to the Catholic Worker publications.

These four woodcuts remind us that Christ valued, and called for us to value, all people, no matter their creed or nationality or economic station, that to be Christians we need to remember his exhortations on treating all people, and that there are none so far gone as to be exempt from redemption. (The title for "The Lord's Supper" is a reminder that this feast is still ongoing)

"The Prodigal Son" dates from 1978, "The Lord's Supper" from 1951, "Christ of the Breadlines" was produced in 1950 and "Christ of the Homeless" in 1980.

"Christ of the Breadlines"

"Christ of the Homeless"

"The Lord's Supper"

"The Prodigal Son"

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Magdeburg, Now A Real Place

In the year 2000 Baen Books published an "alternate history" novel, first of a long-running series, by Eric Flint, titled "1632."  It involves the life of small U.S. town that has been transported through time back to 15th century Germany.

Much of the series' action takes place in the "downtime" city of Magdeburg, located in present-day North-Central Germany.  The writing about the city is evocative, but it was still just a fantasy setting, without any real, concrete connection for me.

Until today.

Indulging in the serendipity that is the World Wide Web, I came across a website, and a series of photographs, about an incident, near Magdeburg, in the waning days of WW II, when a scouting section of  two light tanks from the U.S. 743rd Tank Battalion came across a train, on a siding, that was filled with 2,500 people from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  People who were being shuttled across Germany, slated for elimination.

Those running the train, both civilians and guard troops, had abandoned the train, and its cargo, for in truth, these were, in those eyes, not people, but cargo to be delivered for destruction.  I truly cannot imagine what those 2,500 people felt, or what thoughts they had, when they saw those American tanks, and recognized the uniforms of the American soldiers. 

For most of us, "history" is observed from a safe remove, and we never have the connection to make any of the incidents, or even the places seem real to us.  This website, and the accounts from two of the tank crewmen, have made the city of Magdeburg real.

Please, please, read those brief accounts, and look at those photographs.

"A Train Near Magdeburg."

We must never forget.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The American Promise 1965/2014

In 1965, almost 50 years ago, President Lyndon Bains Johnson stood before a joint session of the Congress of the United States of America, announced that he would be sending a bill for consideration, a bill that would be known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Just a week earlier, on March 7, 1965, a group of 600 civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, were attacked by state and local police.   Two nights later, on March 9, segregationists attacked three white ministers who supported the march, killing one, James J. Reeb.

In announcing this bill, President Johnson made what may be his most eloquent and moving speech, where he recalls, as a young man, teaching at a school where his eyes were opened to what poverty really looks like.  The full written speech can be found here.  A full video of the address before Congress is above.

In March of 1965 I was all of 12 years old, and had no idea of the momentous nature of the events, no idea of the import of the oppression and degradation being visited on my fellow citizens.  Now, looking back at those times I see what my youth and location in a Northern city sheltered me from. I never knew what youth of my ages in Mississippi, California, Alabama or Texas experienced.

Looking at that speech now, for me, the most moving part of the address is below, where Johnson details his experience in that school:
"...Because all Americans just must have the right to vote. And we are going to give them that right.

All Americans must have the privileges of citizenship regardless of race. And they are going to have those privileges of citizenship regardless of race.

But I would like to caution you and remind you that to exercise these privileges takes much more than just legal right.
It requires a trained mind and a healthy body. It requires a decent home, and the chance to find a job, and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty.

Of course, people cannot contribute to the Nation if they are never taught to read or write, if their bodies are stunted from hunger, if their sickness goes untended, if their life is spent in hopeless poverty just drawing a welfare check.
So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.
My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn't speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry.
They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice.
They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes.
I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.
Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.
I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965.
It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.
But now I do have that chance—and I'll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.
This is the richest and most powerful country which ever occupied the globe.
The might of past empires is little compared to ours.
But I do not want to be the President who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion.
I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world.
I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax-eaters.
I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election.
I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties.
I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth..."

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law on August 6, 1965.

Sadly, shamefully, parts of the protections for voting that Johnson called for in this 1965 speech are under attack, a half-century later, under the guise of "protecting the vote" by use of "voter-id" laws. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Transcentental Etude

Liszt - passage from Transcendental Etude # 1

In an SF novel by Joe Haldeman (Worlds), there is a scene where the protagonist is describing other participants in a musical performance she is participating in.  In particular she is noticing two of the other musicians, one who is technically proficient and skilled, if a little distant, while the other, also proficient, appears to be continually in amazement of the sounds coming from the instrument, as if unwilling to credit other than their own skill at the music produced, that the instrument itself is somehow possessed by will and responsible for the wonderful sounds created.

These character observations really have no further relevance to the story, and I can only imagine that this awareness of transcendency was something he had seen, and felt compelled to get the experience down on paper. By its nature, transcendental experiences are those that surpass and rise above our mundane expectations and experiences, hopefully transforming us in the wake of their passage.

I bring this up because of an insight I recently had during a contemplative retreat. This retreat was aimed at helping the participants make more of a connection between their interior spiritual life and the Christian liturgy (in the instant example, it was aimed at the Episcopal liturgy).

One of the facets of that connection is to make the conscious effort to listen to, and reflect on, what is contained in that liturgy.  Indeed when you reflect upon the liturgy, and “deconstruct” it, without actually being that rigorously analytical, we can open up our perceptions to allow the transcendency of the mystical to be recognized, and view what one subjectively experiences as “listening with love,” “delight,” “amazement” or simple wonder, as that musician Haldeman described in his novel's scene. For most of us, this feeling of experiential wonder is fleeting and unpredictable, except that, when we consciously seek for that feeling of wonder it is certain to elude us.

One of these transcendentally transformative experiences for Christians can be the simple act of contemplation and acceptance of the Eucharist. Being human, our inner life is usually full, not of thoughts of the sublime, but of the ordinary, are our shoes at the proper state of shiny? Look at the state of that altar cloth! The ability to be as empty of preconception, and as open to acceptance of Christ's presence is rare indeed, and the more we strive for that state the more it will elude us, such that when it does come, it is a surprise that can overwhelm and frighten. Thought of finding the sublime in our daily, mundane, life is supremely attractive to us.

That experience is so much more beauteous, so much more of a wonder beyond hope or expectations, when achieved, and so much, much more terrible when lost, we have only a fleeting glimpse of memory as treasure, either to hoard to ourselves or to share.

The achievement of that promise may be something that is as simple as accepting the existence of the reality of the mysticism and mystery in our faith, or it may be forever beyond our grasp.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Does Extreme Income Inequality engender "Envy?"

Income inequality, real v perceived
Recently an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times caught my eye.

It was titled "The Downside of Inciting Envy," and was penned by one Arthur C Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.  His thesis is that this current recession and economic straits are engendering "envy" of those who are living at the top of the heap.

He takes a quote from a 2002 interview with the Irish singer Bono, to the effect that, in Ireland, the mythical "man on the street" would view someone in a mansion, and would fantasize about "getting" that person, while in the U.S. the attitude would be to aspire to that wealth, with the expectation of being able to achieve it.  On this quote, and some really spurious reasoning, Brooks spins a tale of how our perceptions of an inequality and disparity of opportunity have somehow been exploited to generate a feeling of envy to the poor, misunderstood wealthy, and that the envy is bad for our health.

Sir, it is not "bitterness" or "envy," but simple outrage.

The outrage stems from being forced to participate in a society that:
- insists in the belief that being monetarially impoverished is some moral failing;
- one where people will, if pressed, say that "yes, if someone can't pay for their own medical care, we as a society should let them sicken and die;"
- one where multi-billion dollar companies pay no taxes, and thus nothing towards maintaining the society, and accuse workers laid off when jobs are shifted overseas as "freeloaders" if they collect unemployment compensation;
- one where, since the demise of traditional pension plans, retirement funds are tied up in a gambling den called "the stock market" that the individual worker must navigate as a minnow in a sea of sharks;
- where, at state unemployment orientations, the emphasis is not on resume prep to sell skills or education, but in "networking," thus demonstrating that "it's not what you know but who you know"
- knowledge that your children and grandchildren will never be able to afford a top-tier college

- knowledge that the chance for opportunity and upwards mobility has been put out of reach for almost everybody in the poorer sectors of our economy and is rapidly becoming out of reach for the middle class
- knowledge that today Americans in  their 30s and 40s and 50 are worse off than their parents, and the prospect for their children will be even worse

Again I say, sir, that is what is driving the outrage, not envy.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Spiritual, Geek, Spiritual, Geek, How To Decide...

 There is a lot of vocal (phosphor-escent?) talk on the interwebs about how you cannot be both a scientist/thinker/rational or educated person if you are also a "person of faith."  Some is honest discussion, and some off it's simplistic insults, but a lot more of it reminds me of examples I've seen of on-line bullying.

This seems to derive from a false dichotomy similar to that described by C.P. Snow in "The Two Cultures,"  which described the perceived separation between science and the humanities. Really, being a geek and being spiritual do not have to be mutually exclusive.  There are many well-respected scientists, writers and fans who are people of faith, whether it be a variety of Christianity, being Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Santeria or any other flavor.

There is no inherent conflict between recognizing the excitement and wonder of a "big bang" and believing that a supreme being put it in motion.  There is no inherent conflict between a belief in a resurrected Christ and contemplating the beauty of crystals growing, being excited over the revelations held in the Earth's fossil record or the elegance of the dance of genetics. 

During mid-January I attended, and helped run, a science-fiction convention in Boston (ARISIA), with activities spread out over four days (Friday evening through Monday afternoon).  For those who don't attend, it's a broad-spectrum convention, with panels on SF/F literature, writing, "fannish" and lifestyle choices, along with films/anime/video, gaming, costuming (lots of costuming), a big dealer's room, a pretty good-sized (and pretty good) art show and a lot of schmoozing.   But one thing I realized I was missing when I attended these conventions, especially over the last few years, was being able to attend Sunday services.  It was something that simply had not been there.  And I wondered if I was the the only person who felt that, for them, an important part of one's life was being left unattended. So I decided to do something about it.

On Saturday and Sunday morning, at this year's ARISIA, I had the opportunity to reserve space for, and lead, a Morning Prayer service, part of the Daily Office.(*) This was the first year this convention has offered the prayer service to the attendees, simply because none asked it. Of course, for many of us who work as volunteers for these conventions, the only way we usually get to see any actual program items is if we manage to get ourselves put on the program.  So this was actually A Very Fannish Thing to do.

Because of a general failure in communications the prayer services did not make it into the program book, and I put out flyers In All The Usual Places to advertise. On Saturday morning, there were two worshipers, myself and one other (who had snagged a copy of the flyer when I had just printed them up, before I even got to put them out). On Sunday, there were six others, who had seen the flyers.

 Frankly, I was surprised that there was anybody there, thinking that the recognition of spiritual anchors was something lost, or not acknowledged in our secular times. I've since been told that some other conventions have services scheduled as a regular item, and that there is a much larger body of participants than I had imagined.  As someone who was raised Roman Catholic, however, to lead this worship, this active participation by a member of the lay congregation, which is such a central component of Episcopal worship, is a little frightening, with this personal, active, responsibility for worship that is ultimately our own.

I can only think that the turnout on Sunday shows that this is an unmet need in our community at conventions, and that it is something that should be offered going forward, and perhaps at other local conventions - there is no reason that the Anime-centered or hard-lit cons might not have the same need among their attendance.

And, yes, I am going to ask that it be included on the program track for next year's ARISIA as well.
- -- - -- - -- - --
(*) The Daily Office is what Anglicans/Episcopalians have evolved from the Roman Catholic liturgy that established daily prayers at set times during the day (often called the Divine Office).  Readers of many fantasy (and some British mystery) novels may recognize the names of these prayers, usually in context of a monastic community, but not what they stood for.

 Modern Catholic usage celebrates seven  offices daily::
 - Matins ("of or belonging to the morning" - said just before dawn)
 - Lauds ("Praises" - said at/just after dawn)
 - Terce ("Third Hour" - mid-morning prayer, said at 9:00 AM)
 - Sext   (" Sixth hour" - Mid-day prayer, said at noon)
 - None ("Ninth hour" - Mid-afternoon prayer, said at 3:00 PM)
 - Vespers ("Evening prayer" -  Said at sunset)
 - Compline ("Complete [the day]" - Final prayer of the Office of the day, usually said just before bedtime)

The Anglican usage is more abbreviated, with the major emphasis on the Morning Prayer (which combines Matins and Lauds) and Evening Prayer (corresponding to Vespers).  The other two offices of the Anglican Daily Office are Prayer During The Day (combines Terce, Sext and None) and Night Prayer (Compline).

With the busy schedule our industrialized world imposes, most people don't have the time to celebrate the Prayer During The Day and people are usually so distracted or tired they miss  Night Prayer.  All of the Offices, however, can be said in solitary or in company, and many Episcopal churches offer daily Morning and Evening prayer.

 (The form of the Morning Prayer I used for these services was from the Iona Abbey Worship Book, which was compiled by the Iona Community in 2000.)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hear Our Prayer


Remember all those the world
     has forgotten,
  Those without family, or 
  Those on the streets,
  Those who are damaged by
    drugs, alcohol or

    their own minds.

Remember the unemployed,

  The widow, the orphan, and
  The prisoner.

God in your mercy,
    Hear our prayer.