Sonnet 24: The 1st Week of Advent, Year B

In my explanation of the poem, First Deer, (back on Nov. 15), I mentioned that I had a cycle of four Advent poems published several years ago. “Curious George” (one of my readers) asked me to post those poems. Those four sonnets are based on the Old Testament lessons for Advent, Year B, in the Revised Common Lectionary, or RCL.

The RCL is a three year collection — Year A, Year B, Year C — of lessons that include an Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel reading, with Psalter response, for each Sunday and major feasts of the year. It’s a happy coincidence that the 1st Sunday of Advent this year (Nov. 30) is the start of Year B, so this cycle of sonnets will match the Old Testament texts that Roman Catholics and many Protestants will hear during the Sundays of December.

Each sonnet will be prefaced with the text on which it is based. I will post them for four consecutive weeks just prior to Sunday to which the poem is related. (We were out of town for Thanksgiving, so I’m a day late on this one.)

SONNET 24: THE 1ST WEEK OF ADVENT, YEAR B

Scripture text:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

so that the mountains would quake at your presence—

as when fire kindles the brushwood

and fire causes water to boil—

to make your name known to your adversaries,

so that the nations might tremble at your presence.

Isaiah 64:1-2

Sonnet:

Our prayer is that you tear the heavens wide

and come, Lord Jesus, (Maranatha!) break

the hold of evil in this world, ride

the winds. The glory of your name’s at stake.

Our prayer goes on and on without a hint

of answer. Silence seals the seamless sky.

The glory of your name’s at stake, restraint

will only lead to evil’s louder cry.

Why did you choose the clay to spread your name

abroad, Good Potter? Figurines and pots

are not the things which grab attention, claim

us. No we need your power to clean our rot

which eats our soul and so we pray you’ll come

Lord Jesus. Help us. Jesus quickly come!

Thanksgiving

Christians don’t have a particular feast associated with specifically with giving thanks to God. Rather, all feasts and all Sundays are days of thanksgiving. Neither is there a specific Christian harvest festival. The Jews have Sukkoth in October, but that is not a feast that translated specifically into Christianity, like Pentecost or Pesach.

Of course since sometime in the 1800s Americans have Thanksgiving Day, which along with Super Bowl Sunday, Mother’s Day, and the Fourth of July, is one of the great holidays of American civil religion. (Okay, I’m sort of kidding about the Super Bowl.) And since it is easy to confuse civil religion with Christian religion in America, Thanksgiving has been co-opted by the church (or the Protestant church at least) as a sort of Christian feast.

But harvest and giving thanks generically don’t lend themselves to feasts in and of themselves. Both themes are central to the Sunday liturgy and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, so they are continual themes of a weekly feast rather than something that pops up only once a year. Harvest is certainly associated with the final judgment and Christ’s return in Christian hymnography, and certain Christian students of the Jewish feasts have proposed that just as Jewish Pesach is the Christian Pascha (ie, Easter), when we celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, and Jewish Pentecost is when Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, so Jewish Sukkoth is when we ought to celebrate the return of Christ and Christ’s final judgment. I even had a teacher in Bible College who said unequivocally (based on the Jewish feast of Sukkoth) that Christ would return in October. One year, after Sukkoth had come and gone, he glibly announced, “Well, the sinners are off the hook until next year.”

But this essay isn’t really about deconstructing Thanksgiving. Its purpose is rather to put Thanksgiving Day and the act of giving thanks (the Greek word is eucharisto) into a Christian context. And for that purpose I turn to St. John Chrysostom, who said something rather profound, given the circumstances we face this Thanksgiving weekend: “There is only one calamity for a Christian, this being disobedience to God. All of the other things, such as loss of property, exile, peril of life, Paul does not even consider a grievance at all. That which all dread, departure of this life to the other world, this is to him sweeter than life itself.” A few sentences later he says, “For what position can be loftier or more secure than that in which a man has only one anxiety? How he ought to please God.”

I think that too often we associate giving thanks and Thanksgiving Day with our physical blessing. In turn the media seems to use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to scold the rich for being rich and not giving all their riches to the poor. But all this interest in a large family gathered together in a warm house for a magnificent feast to remember God’s physical blessings to us sort of misses the point. This world is passing away. And if we are blessed with health, wealth, and family, that will pass away. If, in turn, we are blessed with suffering, torture, imprisonment (for that is the life that Jesus Christ himself extolled), that too is temporal and passing away.

No, the one thing that does not pass away is our life in God, and as Chrysostom says, the only calamity for a Christian is disobedience to God. And thus our thanksgiving, our eucharisto, ought not be rooted in our jobs, house, and family, but only in that which does not pass away.

And I suspect this is precisely why there is no specific Christian harvest festival. Harvests are good and they are certainly blessings from God. But just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, so a successful harvest, and in turn, great calamity, comes on the just and the unjust alike. Spending a whole weekend thanking God for our daily bread only confuses the issue because it easily distracts us from the Bread of Life.

Buyer’s Remorse

Acquaintances of ours are experiencing many of the firsts of young love: first house, first cold snap in the new house, first mouse in the warm kitchen …

When she discovered the brand new mouse trap was full, he was away at work, so she had to deal with it by herself.

Upon closer inspection she discovered that the mouse had been caught by the back leg and was still alive.

What to do? … What to do? … What to do? … In the end

she fed it a cookie, (which it actually ate!!)

and waited to let him deal with the problem.

New Birdfeeder

A few weeks ago we put up a new birdfeeder. We were concerned about birds hitting our window, but the birdfeeder expert at the store said if the feeder is closer than 4′ or further than 10′ from the window, the window hitting problem is minimized. We chose to put it closer than 4′.

Bird Feeder outside window

Finch coming in for a landing

Woodpecker eating  suet

Woodpecker eating suet

It’s been great fun to watch the birds. With the coming of winter, the woodpeckers are returning.

Purple finch eating breakfast

Purple finch eating breakfast

And all our old favorites, like this purple finch, are still around.

But still no buzzards. I guess I’ll have to go find some road kill.

BCS, States Rights, and an Overreaching Federal Government

Historically, college football had no playoff system and the national champion was named by acclamation of the sports writers. Part of the charm of historic college football is that many years there was no clear cut champion and more than one team could make a legitimate claim to national greatness. Back in those days, college football was primarily focused on conference championships. The real goal was to win the conference (Big 8, Big 10, Pac 10, Southwest Conference, Southeast Conference, etc.) so that you could play in a bowl game such as the Orange Bowl (Big 8 vs ACC) or Rose Bowl (Big 10 vs Pac 10). Any share in a national championship was simply a cherry on the New Year’s sundae.

The story of how we got from there (back in the early 90s) to here is long, complicated, and involves lots of money and power. Suffice it to say that over the next decade, because of massive realignment in both the conferences and the bowl game contracts, many old loyalties became anachronistic. Without the old loyalties many people began to call for a playoff system and a true national championship in college football. But the historic bowl games guaranteed huge television revenue for the major conferences, so while the fans and coaches called for a national championship, the university presidents (many who stand to lose millions in revenue) have remained firmly opposed to it.

Undefeated ‘Bama

But this year the debate has taken on a new dimension. On a fateful Saturday night just before the election, both presidential candidates were interviewed during the halftime show on ABC’s college football primetime event. Inevitably the subject of the BCS came up. ‘Bama (that being Obama and not Alabama) called for a playoff system. To add fuel to the fire, the now undefeated ‘Bama repeated his call this last weekend, saying, “I don’t know of any serious fan of college football who likes the system as it is.”

This, of course, has certain sports commentators terrified that the undefeated ‘Bama administration (that being Obama and not Alabama) will get the federal government involved and tell the NCAA how to run football. (And, given just how swimmingly the professional baseball probe went a couple of years ago, the NCAA has reason to be fearful.)

All this controversy and hand-wringing reminds me of a similar change in sensibilities. A long time ago the United States was actually a union of states. If you kick the dirt around a bit with your foot you can still find vestiges of that old system where states had rights and federal government was limited. But as the hard core defenders of states’ rights like to point out, the Presidency became the enemy of states’ rights and the two biggest enemies of the old constitutional system were Lincoln and Wilson (and today we would have to add Bush 42), all of whom, in time of war, dismantled the old constitutional system in favor of a highly centralized system. (And again, this process was primarily about money and power, although Americans’ higher sensibilities were appealed to during the money and power grab.)

In the old days different states had different values and each state could argue with the other which was superior. In the old days different football conferences had different styles and different champions and the conferences could argue with each other who was superior. But that old system of regional loyalties has been transformed into a plain vanilla sameness in both the republic and the NCAA.

And this brings me back to the undefeated ‘Bama (that being Obama and not Alabama). His socialist, centralized, and all-powerful government sensibilities have been well documented leading up to the election. Is it any surprise that a president-elect who has so little regard for states’ rights could look at the football viewing public and think that no serious football fan would want to celebrate the old conference system? I think the undefeated ‘Bama (both Obama and Alabama) will be surprised before this fight is over.

First Deer

The following poem represents what I consider my greatest literary coup. I have five poems that have been published in true literary venues: A cycle of four advent poems were published in The Christian Century and the following piece was published in The Prairie Schooner, one of the preeminent literary university journals around.

I would never have considered submitting to The Prairie Schooner myself. After all, it is written by and for professional writers. Rather, I submitted it to Kearney State College’s (now the University of Nebraska at Kearney) more pedestrian literary journal called Plainsongs. The editor accepted two other of my poems but said that this particular piece did not meet her editorial criteria. But she said she liked the poem very much and asked permission to pass it on to The Prairie Schooner (she knew and had studied with the editor) for their consideration.

I was thrilled, and of course, I agreed. Some months later I received confirmation that they had accepted First Deer for publication. They explained that they were doing a volume on environmental exploitation and they had very few pieces that described such exploitation and degregation from the inside looking out.

This came as quite a shock to me, because the poem is almost like a love song. I have nothing against hunting and am, in fact, a proponent of game hunting for food and an advocate of subsistence hunting and trapping in rural America. But while I am a proponent, I am not a romantic about the subject. Killing animals is not something that should be done lightly. While it is necessary, it is also, by definition, stealing something away. (In this case, the life of a deer.) The deer didn’t die in vain; it (along with a couple of other deer my father and brother shot) provided sustenance throughout the year. But whether it’s a deer shot on the Bruckner ranch in Philips County, Montana or a cow slaughtered at the Tyson plant in South Sioux City, the death comes at a cost. It is this subtle dynamic that the poem explores. Of course the editors missed the point completely and presented it as an anti-hunting confession.

I never got my complimentary copy of The Prairie Schooner where the poem appeared. By the time this issue went to press we had moved from Lincoln, NE to Delta Junction, AK and I was hunting caribou and butchering moose. The journal never caught up with me. In spite of their misunderstanding of the poem’s point, I still believe it illustrates very well the issue of food as life-giving sustenance vs. the flow of blood and the corruption of sin that it represents. I hope you enjoy it.

FIRST DEER

Dawn emerges from the east

as we forsake the warmth

of the cramped pickup cab,

stretch out kinks

in the cold morning air,

talk of the day, the hunt,

as blood begins to flow again,

although the tensions linger.

I watch the stillness frosted thick

on flaxen prairie grass,

pallid clouds against

the pale blue of morning.

The rifle is a dead weight

and my boots crunch heavily

on frozen earth, breaking stalks

and crust of what snow is there

so early in the season.

Ahead where hill and coulee

converge amongst the underbrush

it emerges, hesitates,

then tests the air.

It’s a doe and close enough

to see her whiskers thick

with crystal mantle.

Her ears stand hard against

the tranquil air as the cartridge

clicks quietly in the chamber.

the primal throb of life

within us:

my heart . . .

her lungs . . .

Mine pounds. Hers labors

against that distant chest.

But the scope draws us

Intimately close.

Her misty breath mingles

with the wispy stratus

clouds hurrying toward

the rising sun.

And then all that remains

is the reverberation

pounding against the empty

hillsides of this paradise,

pounding against the empty

cavity of my chest . . .

Pounding against the empty

field exposed by winter,

my feet mark off the distance

between me and early morning

innocence.

Know Thyself

In a previous post I said I believed our young people would be better Christians if they knew where their food came from; that is, if they actually observed a cow or a chicken getting butchered. I also opined that, while there are many good reasons for being a vegetarian, becoming one simply because we’re squeamish about blood is both cowardly and unchristian. Since both claims seem rather outrageous on the face of it, allow me to defend them in this post.

If the world were normal (ie, without the corruption of sin) we would all be vegetarian and possibly vegan. But Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and as a result the corruption of sin entered into the world. In the aftermath of their sin, the first animal sacrifice was performed (Gen. 3:21).

Somewhere along the line meat eating became the new norm in this world made abnormal by corruption. One might think that eating meat in and of itself is a perversion of divine intent, but things clearly aren’t as simple as that. Eating meat, in fact, is a practice commanded by God in the case of the old covenant priests who ate part of the animals that were sacrificed to God.

So, why eat meat? While the flow of blood is, in a word, a sign of the corruption that destroys us. It is, in a more gracious word, the very thing that sustains us in our corrupt and mortal life. The very curse becomes a blessing. Earthly death gives us earthly life. And this, of course, points us toward the cross which is both the ultimate curse and the locus of the greatest blessing, where the earthly death of the God-man gives us the opportunity of eternal life.

From death comes life. That is the first thing we learn. And there is a second lesson:

Our condition is not only dire (in that we are dying), it is disgusting. The rot of corruption is not necessarily visible, for spiritual death begins as an internal rot that only reveals itself as the corruption grows. But, no matter how carefully we whitewash the tombs, the corruption remains.

It is right and proper to create beauty and surround ourselves with gracious things because the world God created was very good and beauty is a reflection both of this goodness and God’s grace. But not only do we need to remember from whence we came, we need to be reminded just what we are. Buying a whole chicken, removing the skin, cutting it into sections, and preparing those pieces for cooking is a disgusting and slimy business – especially if it’s the first time you’ve ever seen a raw chicken – but such a discipline (and I use that word purposefully) pushes the façade of life aside momentarily so that we can be reminded of creation’s corruption in which we, as sinful human beings, participate. Shooting a deer and field dressing it – turning that beautiful living animal into a pile of offal, five or six bags of meat and bone, a rolled up hide, and massive quantities of blood – is a vivid reminder or the terrible price one part of creation must pay so that another part of creation can live another day and stave off the corruption and death which inevitably creeps closer.

Sanitizing our outward lives so that we never have to witness the messy business of death that leads to sustenance only insulates us from our true condition. And when we are insulated from our true condition, it is easy to imagine that we’re not really as bad off as all that. But when faced with the disgusting starkness of death, the unavoidable creep of corruption, and our personal role in the slaughter, the glory of grace and the beauty of holiness becomes both a magnificent reality and a welcome alternative to our corrupt existence.

In short, experiencing our food from hoof to plate is a concrete way in which we can be honest and realistic about our human condition. While Christian faith is far more than just understanding our current condition and peril, without that knowledge I don’t see how Christian faith is even possible. As John Calvin says on the very first page of The Institutes of Christian Religion, “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.”

A Minor Change in the Blog Format

I’ve discovered I still prefer the long essay form. But long essays don’t work well with the new blog format on this site. So I’ve changed the settings. What appears on the main page is either a summary or the first bit of the blog post. To read the entire post, just click on the title of the post and it will take you to the full text.

Crosby, Nash, and Hadelich’s Stradivarius

Months ago, in a moment of weakness, I purchased a couple of tickets to a concert by David Crosby and Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, and Nash fame). Between the time I purchased the tickets and the actual concert date I began to worry about the concert being a bust. Several years ago I took Chris to see Bob Dylan and that concert was very bad. Dylan was clearly too old to be singing and the concert was an embarrassment. Several weeks ago (since having purchased the tickets) David Crosby was on CBS Sunday Morning, and he is now a frail old man with a thin voice. It did not bode well for the concert.

And as I expected, the vocals were pretty bad. Nash had some problem with the high notes. Crosby couldn’t hold a note steady and was out of tune as often as he was in. The vocals on their rendition of Guinevere were so bad, I would have been hard pressed to recognize the song if it weren’t for the guitar work.

But these guys have spent 40+ years on stage. They are great musicians, great showmen, and very professional. In spite of the vocals that ranged from questionable to horrendous, the show was very enjoyable. Their sense of timing and flow was impeccable, and it felt as if we might have been in their living room for an evening of fun and entertainment.

We also had subscription tickets to see Augustin Hadelich perform the night before Crosby and Nash. Hadelich is a young (age 24) violin virtuoso who plays the 1683 ex-Gingold Stradivari Violin and Tourte bow that he won at the 2006 International Violin Competition in Indianapolis. (Okay, I admit it, the violin I understand but the significance of the bow is completely beyond me; I’m just copying it out of the show notes.) His rendition of Paganini’s Caprice # 21 was astounding.

But the experience was rather different. When he came out on stage he seemed a bit gawky shaking hands with the conductor and concert master. As he stood before the audience waiting to put bow to string he seemed uncomfortable. That all changed when he actually began to play. He became engrossed in the music and he seemed to become one with the violin. But after the music finished and he stood receiving applause, he once again became the gawky German kid from Italy.

Two nights. Two completely different experiences. On Saturday we heard an up and coming star. If he continues on his current path, chances are in a decade or two he’ll be very famous and when we hear him on the radio or read an article about him in the paper, we’ll be able to smile and say to each other, “We heard him when he was only 24. And his rendition of Paganini was fabulous.”

On Sunday, we went for the opposite reason. It because of our memories. Crosby and Nash sang a very questionable rendition of “Raise Your Children Well,” and we looked at each other and said, “We heard that on the radio when we were 24. It sounded fabulous back then.”

Indeed, we’d grown up hearing Crosby, Stills, and Nash on the radio, and quite frankly most of their music was rather forgettable. Putting our heads together before the concert, we could remember only three songs they wrote. But over the years I’ve heard an unfamiliar or vaguely familiar Crosby, Stills, and Nash or Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song on the radio, and stopped to write down the lyrics. Nash and Crosby are two of the greatest lyricists of their generation.

But I don’t think you go to live events for the known, you go for the unexpected. This was true of both concerts. The Sioux City Symphony is okay, but not great. You don’t go to the Sioux City Symphony to hear great works of art impeccably done. Similarly, Crosby and Nash are elderly (as they described themselves). You don’t go to a Crosby and Nash concert to hear great vocals. But both concerts brought unexpected treats that made the price of admission worth it.

Hadelich’s performance of Paganini’s Caprice # 21 was an encore and it was the unexpected jewel of the evening. At the other concert Crosby and Nash brought along Dean Parks as their guitarist. Over the years he’s backed up everyone from Air Supply to Stevie Wonder. His most famous gig was with Steely Dan. His most amazing gig is that he backed up Chet Atkins. (!!!) Atkins is arguably the best guitar player America has ever produced. Why does he need guitar backup? And Parks did not disappoint. His angelic guitar work was technically brilliant and stole the show at the level of musicianship.

Even though we ought to live life in the moment, we humans long for the past and yearn for the future. A Crosby and Nash concert is nothing more than a revival of what was long ago. For people a decade or two older than Brenda and I, I suppose it was Woodstock revisited. At the other end of the spectrum, hearing Augustin Hadelich is a taste of the future. Sioux City will never have the true superstars (the Yo Yo Mahs and Wynton Marsalises of the world) on stage, so we go see someone like Hadelich with great anticipation of what the future will bring.

But in spite of our tendency to focus on past and future instead of the present, the present often brings us wonderful surprises and moments of greatness. This weekend was no exception.

Real Christianity – Not for the Squeamish

This week we watched a documentary on Edward Espe Brown, retreat center baker and cook, cookbook author, and cooking instructor. He’s mostly a vegetarian (although he recommends bacon in some of his bean recipes). No matter his personal eating habits, nearly all his clientele are either vegetarian or vegan. The story one adolescent told was particularly interesting.

The boy used to work on a chicken farm. He claimed that one of his jobs was cutting the heads off the chickens. (I doubt his veracity; I can’t imagine California labor law allows young adolescents to handle knives around squirming chickens in the work place.) But whether he personally committed the act or not, he clearly knew the ins and outs of chicken butchering and described it quite graphically in the documentary. He explained that this is why he was now a vegetarian.

Eating – real eating, not the sort of eating that starts in the canned goods aisles in grocery stores – is a messy business. Even lettuce straight from the ground can be very dirty and sometimes right down gross. The simple fact is that the tasks necessary for life are not for the squeamish.

The retreat center Ed Brown is connected with is the Tassajara Zen Center (ie, a Buddhist monastery in California) and his two most well known books are The Tassajara Cookbook and The Tassajara Breadbook. While Zen is life affirming, it is not world affirming. The world as we know it is illusion and reality exists in some sort of spirit existence. So it makes sense that squeamish vegetarians (as well as authentic seekers, I don’t want to be dismissive) would be attracted to Zen. A cow in the field is a gentle scene; a chicken in the courtyard is amusing. At the other end of the process, both beef wellington and chicken cacciatore can be beautiful when plated and set at a well appointed table. But, let’s face it, the trip from high plateau to china plate gets pretty gross, even in the best of conditions. The spiritually squeamish might want a religion that gets them as far from that process as possible.

But none of that for Christianity. It is both life affirming and world affirming. Furthermore, while life is a gift of God, life isn’t divine in and of itself. From the story of Adam and Eve we learn that in this fallen world death is an inevitable part of life.

One of my pastoral tasks at Delta Junction was butchering moose, bison, and even a black bear, that were road kill. I’d get a call from the State Troopers at 10 p.m. or 2:00 a.m. “There’s a dead moose at mile marker 225 on the Richardson Highway.” “There’s a dead bison 40 miles north of Tok.” All the churches in town took turns cleaning up the various messes, packaging the meat, and giving it away to the needy or incorporating it into the food bank.

Pastoral Work, Alaskan Style

Pastoral Work, Alaskan Style

If Jesus wasn’t just joshing us in the Sermon on the Mount, it was one of the most spiritual tasks I did in Alaska. The big animals were done at a parishioner’s garage where we could use his block and tackle to pick the animals up. The smaller ones (like this unfortunate young moose) were done in the church library, which could be kept at a comfortable 35 to 40 degrees.

I believe our churches would have a more embodied Christianity if all our young people saw and understood precisely where our food comes from. Watching an animal get butchered gives the observer a deep appreciation for the gift of life and what is necessary to sustain our own lives. Watching migrant workers pick vegetables or work the sugar beet fields (that was my experience growing up), gives the observer a broader view of the work required to put food on the table. Making communion bread with our own hands – kneading the dough on a floured table, forming the loaves, sitting at the kitchen table while the indescribably delicious aroma comes from the oven –brings us directly into the circle to which we refer when we speak of this offering we offer to God. All these acts are closely related. And I suspect each and every act is profoundly important if we are to understand what it means that Christianity is both life affirming and world affirming.

There are many good reasons to be a vegan or a vegetarian. In fact, if a faithful Christian follows the fasting discipline of the Orthodox Church, that person will spend nearly half the year being vegetarian or vegan. Monks and other Christians that choose special disciplines become vegetarians or vegans as part of their discipline.

But becoming vegetarian simply because you’re squeamish is a cowardly and ultimately unchristian act. (More about this in a later post.) Real life in this fallen world is at the very least a messy and untidy journey. More typically it’s full of death, pain, and suffering. It’s far better to embrace it, experience it, and ultimately understand it rather than pretend it isn’t there.