The New Trend at WalMart

I am an unrepentant WalMart fan boy. Many of their house brands are superior to the name brand alternative. For instance, Sun Kist changed their raisin packaging a couple of years ago in order to maximize shelf space. The new packaging didn’t allow the lid to fit tightly on the raisin container. As a result, the raisins dried out. Same can be said for our local grocery chain’s house brand. But WalMart’s house brand raisins have lids and containers that fit together with exacting standards that even my engineer niece could be proud of. The result is raisins that don’t dry out for weeks, in contrast to Sun Kist raisins that begin to dry out in days with their loosey-goosey lid.

I have done similar “market research” on other WalMart house brand items from peanut butter to jeans, to … well you get the idea. It seems to me that WalMart spends a great deal of time paying attention to the little details that, In the long run, make a big difference.

WalMart is also on the cutting edge of marketing. They seem to know what turns shoppers on – and what turns them off – before the consumers themselves have figured that out. A few years ago, WalMart repackaged their house grocery brand, called “Great Value” to look upscale and compete visually with the name brand competition. Their frozen fruit had luscious pictures of fresh fruit on the package, their coffee – which is really bad, by the way – had pictures of shiny coffee beans, and their raisins … you guessed it, a pile of fresh, plump raisins graced the can.

But luxury is out and frugality is in. People not only want to save money, they want to flaunt their newly-discovered thrifty sensibilities. WalMart is on top of this market trend. Remember those generic black and white cheapo products back in the Carter era? They’re baaaack! WalMart’s new packaging is very generic and broadcasts, “I’m sensible!!” to anyone who glances at what’s in your cart.

-- Okay, it's blue & white instead of black & white, but you get the idea. --

Given WalMart’s track record for being on top of market trends, this is probably one we should pay attention to. Maybe I should flaunt my own frugality rather than wallow in luxury and excess. Maybe I should consider a generic black and white car that’s simply drips economy instead of oil.

Nah, that would be silly … unless WalMart made it, of course!

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Autumn Morning

I love weeds. In fact most of my favorite “flowers” are considered nasties by farmers and naturalists. Many of my favorites come into their glory in autumn.

sumac

Since we are now midway through the fall season, I went and enjoyed the sumac in the sunrise, as well as the goldenrod, its splendor competing with the sun.

goldenrod

Siouxland also gets a great deal of fog this time of year. The combination of fog, sunrise, half-naked bushes, and goldenrod made for a glorious morning.

The confluence of Missouri and Big Sioux Rivers

This is the confluence of the Missouri and Big Sioux Rivers. The strip of land at the bottom is Iowa. The strip in the middle is South Dakota, and the foggy shoreline on top is Nebraska.

How Should the Psalter Be Read In Liturgy?

I recently had an enlightening conversation with my priest about the role of scripture, or more specifically, the Psalter, in Christian piety. We were doing a bit of “compare & contrast” of the eastern western styles of piety. I’ve made no secret of my preference for certain aspects of the western style of piety and it was this preference that got the conversation going.

But let me be more specific. In broad strokes, the things I like about western piety are its directness and pace. A vespers service at a Benedictine monastery includes a couple of hymns with responsory and intercessionary prayers and brief readings, but the lion’s share of the service is dedicated to the reading of the Psalter in slow, measured tones.

There’s an art in learning to listen to the Psalter being read in this lectio divina style. One doesn’t so much interact with what’s being read as dwell within the text. When the new liturgical resources for the PC(USA) were being published back in the 80s there was a theological debate about whether the reader should say, “Let us listen to the Word …” or “Let us hear the word …” when introducing a reading. “Listen” – the preferred term in the classic Reformed tradition – is an active verb and implies that the one listening will interact with the text: What does the text mean? How can I apply it to my life? etc. “Hear,” on the other hand – the term used in the new resources – implies willing acceptance. It doesn’t wrestle with the text, it receives.

The Presbyterian theological debate had to do with wrestling and receiving. We were great text-wrestlers, but wrestling had its downside. It tended to put us in the driver’s seat (rather than Jesus Christ, the living Word). In the context of worship, so the argument went, the appropriate posture of the ear was not listening but rather hearing. Listening was appropriate in the study while hearing was appropriate in the sanctuary.

And this arcane debate gets to the heart of how one learns to attend to the Psalter in lectio divina. It’s an active process in so far as we attend to the text, but there ought to be no wrestling with the text in that setting; it’s rather dwelling within the text. It’s the process of letting the content of the Psalter flow over you, seep into your cracks and fissures, soak deeply into your heart, without your intellect reshaping the meaning of the text for its own purposes.

Toward this end the worshiper sits straight, comfortable but alert, silent, yet attentive. The reader reads slowly (the term typically used is “measured” reading) with little or no inflection (no drama or interpretation should be added to the text by means of reading style). Often the text is read antiphonally, the worshippers divided into two groups, facing each other.

Compare that with Orthodox vespers: The Psalter is read; typically six psalms at the beginning and another group of psalms mixed with prayers later in the service. At that point the comparison ends.

Now let’s contrast the western and eastern vespers: In the Orthodox church the psalms are read so fast it’s mind boggling. A good chanter would make a first-class cattle auctioneer blush. At times our priest reads the psalter so fast that my brain can’t even comprehend the words that are being said. It becomes a blur that is only clarified by familiarity with what’s coming next: “Oh yes, there’s that leviathan, next God will give them their meat in due season.” But of course, by the time I think all that, the people in Psalm 103 (LXX version; Ps. 104 in the Protestant-preferred MT) have already gathered up what Thou givest and are filled with good things because Thou hast opened up Thy hand (vv. 26-28).

(Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a wee little bit. Think of it as a touch of Byzantine excess decorating my description. I haven’t been immersed in the Byzantine Rite for five years for nothing!)

From someone who was trained in, and learned to appreciate, lectio divina, this style of reading borders on being offensive because it sounds rushed and careless, as if the goal is to merely get to the end of the service, not to pray the Psalter. But the Psalter has a very different function within Orthodox vespers. In the series of essays I did in the legacy site under the title, Essays on Eastern Orthodoxy, I frequently claimed that Orthodox worship is like a drama in which everyone – priest, deacon, chanter, person in the pew – all play a different but critical roles in a larger unified event. This is yet another example of this phenomenon.

The purpose of the reading of the psalms, as well as the chanting of the prayers and hymns and recitation of the prayers, is not for everyone to do the same thing. These are not corporate activities in the same manner that lectio divina – the “divine reading” of the psalms – is corporate: everyone present attending to the very same words of the Psalter at the same time. In Orthodox vespers, the psalms, prayers, hymns – all done by the chanters – are the background of the service from the worshiper’s perspective. An Orthodox temple has a particular smell (the incense), look (the layout, the icons, the candles, the dim light), and sound (the service being chanted by the clergy and chanters) that all say, “This is a place of prayer.” All that remains is for worshipers to come to vespers in order to pray. That is, to attend to God’s presence, not to attend to the specific words and actions of the priest, deacon, and chanters.

Fr. Paul described it as a garden. One rarely goes to a garden in order to study each flower individually; rather, a garden is an environment that is conducive to other activities: a stroll with a loved one, quiet meditation or relaxation, an opportunity to just get away and take it all in. All the individual flowers, taken as a whole, create an environment that encourages other activities.

This is how Orthodox vespers works. The recitation of the psalms, in conjunction with the lighting, the icons, the incense, and the simultaneous prayers of the clergy said in whispered tones in the altar, all create an environment in which the worshipper can come and offer their own prayers. The job of the worshiper praying vespers, is not to follow along with the leaders, but rather to pray, using all the other holy noises and smells to dispel all the internal distractions that make praying privately in one’s own prayer closet so difficult and tedious.

When everyone plays their part it all comes together in a glorious and harmonious whole. And the Psalter is not the whole, nor the focus, but one piece in a much larger and more intricate mosaic of praise and intercession offered to God.

Once I understood this, I no longer felt compelled to stumble or take offense over the fact that the Psalter was auctioned off to the hearer with the quickest ears. Conversely, once a Byzantine Christian understands lectio divina, they no longer are compelled to stumble or take offense at the tortoise tournament of antiphonal reading that allows the mind to wander or – God forbid! – wrestle with the text, if the hearer has not developed the discipline to dispassionately wait for the divine Word to be spoken.

It is two different disciplines that require two very different styles of reading. It is two disciplines that hold contrasting, yet complementary views of how scripture operates in our life. But in both cases we must head the deacon’s call: “Let us attend!” or “Let us hear the Word of God.”

Thanks be to God.

Gustus Replicatus

Just Another Gus

Just Another Gus

It turns out that Gus, our blind bird, is not alone. There is a disease that is spreading rapidly in the area. An tiny organism gets into bird eyes and causes them to go blind. There’s nothing that can be done except keep the bird feeder and bird bath clean, according to our local experts at the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center. Brenda washed everything with chlorine bleach yesterday.

We’ve also christened the bird bath, “Bethesda” or “Beth-zatha” (John 5:2) — choose your Greek transliteration — but the pool angels haven’t been around to stir the waters. Besides, the blind birds are scrambling to get up on the bird feeder rather than into “Bethesda the Bird Bath,” so it seems an empty gesture.

Gus

We have a blind bird feeding at the bird feeder. He’s young and doesn’t have adult plumage so we can’t tell what it is but I’m guessing its a finch. Brenda decided he looks like a Gus.

We first noticed him a few days ago during a hard rain storm followed by heavy rain for several hours. Gus was hunkered down on the bird feeder the whole time — very odd behavior. The next day we say him again and it appeared he had no eyes. But that didn’t make any sense. How can a blind bird find the bird feeder?

Our bird feeder is in front of our picture window (a 4 pane affair). He flies down from the roof and flutters in front of the wall until he finds the first pane, which is more narrow. Once he gets oriented on the first pane, he flutters to the east until he runs into the bird feeder. It takes him several seconds to get oriented on the bird feeder, but eventually he gets oriented and hops up onto the feeder post and pigs out.

Most birds only stay a few moments, maybe up to a minute, at the feeder. Gus will usually sit there for several minutes before flying up on to the roof and wherever he goes from there.

We wonder how long a blind bird can survive. Some finches winter here but there are no evergreens next to the house so he won’t have good cover — even if he does survive to the cold weather.

Holy Cross, Sept. 14

Today is the feast of Holy Cross in the Orthodox Church. The readings are texts that would warm most any Protestant heart. For instance, the epistle is 1 Cor. 1:18-24 which contains these beloved words. “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but for us who are being saved it is the power of God.… For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

When I was in Kansas I was vaguely aware of Orthodoxy – it was an OCA bishop, after all, who prior to being called to my first church in Kansas, had rebuked a Roman Catholic theologian at a conference and claimed that the great divide in modern Christendom was not between Orthodox/Catholic vs Protestant but rather between Catholic/Lutheran vs Orthodox/Reformed. That got my attention because I had many issues with the Roman Catholic Church. But from what I could tell Orthodoxy was an amorphous group of in-fighting and in-bred denominations that originated in different ethnic soil than the western churches.

At this stage the closest “Orthodox” group I was aware of was a monastery in Geneva, Nebraska. I went to visit them and found a bunch of dope smoking hippies that marketed beautiful “icons.” For you Orthodox in the know, you’ve probably figured out that this was the infamous “Monastery Icons” group that were thoroughly new age and only vaguely Orthodox. Their Orthodox connection was through a very questionable bishop. Their “iconography” was market driven. Along with all the traditional subjects they had icons of Protestant saints such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and John Wesley. Based on this experience I had no great desire to become Orthodox.

Back in the 1980s a fairly large percentage of Presbyterian pastors spent their continuing education and personal retreat time and money at Roman Catholic monasteries. The most popular venue was Benedictine monasteries. Their emphasis on the Psalter and quiet contemplation allowed Protestants to avoid many of the potential theological problems that might prove difficult to overcome. For pastors in my Presbytery (Northern Kansas) and the two presbyteries to the north of us (Prospect Hill and Central Nebraska), the Crozier monastery in Hastings, NE was also a popular destination. There were many continuing education events at Hastings College (a Presbyterian institution) and we would often extend our time by going down the street to the Crozier monastery for some period of reflection and quiet. (I don’t think this monastery exists any longer as a men’s monastery in the Crozier [Vallumbrosan] order.)

The Croziers had one big advantage for Protestants. They seemed to downplay Mariology and the Sacred Heart cult (which was very big at some of the other area monasteries) while emphasizing the Cross, Jesus, and the epistles of St. Paul. (Don’t take this description too literally. It does not reflect their actual beliefs, only how we Presbyterians perceived them.) In short, the Croziers seemed far more Protestant than other Roman Catholics, so it was a relatively seamless transition into their rule of prayer and listening to the scriptures being read (lectio divina).

If you have been paying attention to my critiques of Protestantism on this web site for the last few years you will realize that this is one of the problems with Protestant sensibilities. We Protestants (and I use the inclusive plural at his point because I was a Protestant at this stage) almost always pick and choose our theology. I know of no Presbyterian pastor (either from the conservative PCA or the more liberal PCUSA) who embraces their denomination’s theology and ecclesiology without reservation. When Lutherans give up the good fight for their foundering denomination and become Roman Catholic the ones I know embrace the RC church with an asterisk. They agree to the whole of Roman Catholicism with “fine print” exceptions for issues that are particularly problematic.

We Protestants chose our Roman Catholic monastic retreats in the same way: embrace the Croziers and the Benedictines, avoid the Marianites.

When I purchased my first set of festal icons (from Monastery Icons, no less) I did this same pick and choose thing: I got the Christological icons (birth, death, resurrection, transfiguration, etc) and the icons from what are often called the “theological feasts” in Protestant circles (Holy Cross, etc.), but I didn’t purchase the icons from the Mariological feasts (Nativity and Presentation of the Theotokos, Dormition, etc.).

And there is a certain correct logic in this. The feasts all present a slightly different angle on the meaning of salvation. Certain feasts stir our cultural memories even if they have no other meaning for us (Christmas, Easter), certain feasts emphasize what might be called Protestant doctrines (Holy Cross). But while the logic is correct, this angle of vision is skewed. It would be better to say that certain feasts emphasize that salvation is God’s doing (Easter, Holy Cross), and certain feasts emphasize the cosmic extent of salvation (Transfiguration, Theophany), and certain feasts emphasize focus on what we need to do in relation to our salvation (Annunciation), while other feasts focus on what the Church (ie other humans, and specifically other human Christians) do as part of our salvation, reminding us that we don’t do this on our own (Presentation, and the Synaxis events immediately following several feasts).

And more basic than the truth that each feast presents a different angle of salvation, it is the feasts as a whole that offer us a picture of salvation. When we begin to pick and choose from among the feasts we begin to chop off facets of our salvation: It’s the gnostic problem broadly applied. The Christian heresies that grew out of classic Gnosticism declared that Jesus was not fully human and fully divine. The wholeness of creation could not be held together in Christ because creation itself was flawed and therefore had to be disgarded. Similarly, the Protestant rejection of certain of the cycle of feasts is essentially a declaration that salvation is less than what it was historically understood to be. The Marian feasts, for instance, emphasize the human side and corporate nature of salvation. Without those feasts salvation can easily be reduced to something that occurs privately within my own heart by faith alone even though James clearly says that man is not justified by faith alone (2:24 – the only place in the NT where the phrase “faith alone” is used, by the way).

This is what comes to mind every Sept 14 when the Feast of Holy Cross (or “The Elevation of the Venerable and Life-Giving Cross” as it is officially referred to within Orthodoxy) rolls around. I love the theme of this feast, but after two decades of close association with Orthodoxy, I no longer love this feast more than I love other feasts. I love this feast in the same way that I love a particular facet of a gemstone: one can’t have the facet without the gemstone; chip one facet out and it’s suddenly a pretty ugly gemstone.

One might say Holy Cross was my gateway drug into the other so-called minor Orthodox feasts. There is a lot more to say about salvation than just Christmas and Easter. Among those wonderful salvation truths is that crucifixion –the ultimate humiliation – is the path to salvation. But at the same time, this is only the beginning of the salvation story and not the end. Praise be to God.

News on an Underreported Commodity

Do we have economic recovery or is it a false recovery? Green shoots or pesky weeds? Bull market in stocks or dead cat bounce? While the t.v. pundits are claiming a major turnaround for both the economy and the stock market the numbers say otherwise. Consider what is arguably the most important indicator of international commerce: The Baltic Dry Index has been trending down since its interim high in June. Or take a look at nearly any commodity chart. Copper, corn and cows all continue in a downtrend. Some recovery.

But even I was surprised to discover just how broad the commodity price decline is. Bloomberg reports that opium prices have dropped to an eight-year low and as a result producers are slashing production by a fifth this growing season. The article continues, “Opium-poppy cultivation fell 22 percent to 123,000 hectares (303,810 acres) as average farm-gate prices for dry opium dropped 34 percent …”

This raises a question: If Bloomberg and the U.N. can keep data this precise on opium poppy production in Afghanistan, how come we have such a hard time eradicating the stuff? Sounds like a conspiracy to me.

Source for the story: No Agenda podcast.

Bank Closures and State Troopers

Every Friday the feds close down a half dozen banks or so. We’ve had one in Sioux City — Vantus (formerly 1st Federal) — that we’ve been expecting to get shut down for a month or so. Its financial troubles have been front page news on and off for a couple of weeks. It was therefore no surprise when the feds swooped in a shut them down this weekend. They’re now Great Southern Bank (based in Joplin, MO).

We drive by a Vantus branch going into town and what was surprising is that every day (including Sunday and Labor Day Monday) there was a State Trooper parked in the parking lot. He was still sitting there today. That’s a lot of trooper man hours — or he fell asleep in his car, not sure which.

Battle Royale

It seems the hawks are still in the neighborhood. The report in the previous post was erroneous. But the crows are back from wherever they go in the middle of summer, and as it turns out, crows and hawks don’t get along.

For the last hour (and it goes on as I write), there are four crows and three hawks fighting for the front yard. The crows move from the trees to the ground and back. The hawks sit in the trees. If the crows are in the trees the hawks will land on the branch beside them and they will go at it beak to claw, wings beating as they settle toward the ground. If the crows are on the ground the hawks will glide in, often all three in formation but sometimes singly, talons outstretched toward the crows. At the last minute the crows will deftly jump out of the way and parry with their beaks.

No pictures. The action is so fast and the front yard still dark enough that pictures are not possible with my little camera.

I have spent quite some time trying to identify the hawks, but they rarely come out in the open and when the patrol the orchard behind the house they are out of sight. They seem too fast and not bulky enough to be a buteo but not quite sleek enough to be a falcon, but they are fast. So I’m leaning toward them being accipiters. When they’re around the song birds tend to disappear — another indication they might be accipiters, since buteos are rodent eaters. My best guess is that they’re Cooper’s hawks, although the tail seems a little broad and short for a Cooper’s hawk.

The neighbor lady just came out to get her newspaper and that seems to have caused a cease fire for the moment.

Summer in Siouxland

My laptop has been down in Texas getting its memory fixed. So, this has been sitting around for a while. Back on Aug. 25 we joined a group that hiked to the top of Spirit Mound, near Vermillion, SD. Lewis and Clark hiked up the hill on Aug. 25, 1804 (thus, the date of the hike).

We’ve had a cool August, but it had warmed up on the 25th so we only had to bring sweaters and not jackets or rain gear. A perfect night for a hike.

Standing around on the top of Spirit Mound. The little white dots in the background are the parking lot.

Look dear, we’re in Kansas!

No, I’m pretty sure this isn’t Kansas anymore. … Is this sunflower glaring at me?

Birds have been growing up and leaving the nest around our house. Most of the summer we’ve had a whole flock of hawks hanging around. (I counted six all together in the front yard one morning.) We assume a breeding pair had their young in the neighborhood. Every morning we would wake up to the constant call of hawks outside our window. But now their gone.

As a result, the other birds are willing to come out in the open. Mommy and daddy birds have been teaching their young to fend for themselves Bush and Obama style and eat out of the feeder we’ve provided.

High dive!

Here’s a goldfinch – barely out of diaper down by the looks of it – sitting atop the bird bath. (Same picture, the second one is cropped.)