A Word About Losing One’s Head

Today, Aug. 29, is an important Feast Day in the whole Christian Church (except Protestantism, which generally does not observe feasts at all): The Commemoration of the Beheading of John the Forerunner, also called John the Baptist. It is a feast that is commemorated by fasting rather than feasting because of the grief the Church expresses for the violent death of this last Old Testament martyr.

Icon of Beheading  of St John the Forerunner

Icon of Beheading of St John the Forerunner

While it is a solemn commemoration, it remains a happy feast, in spite of the death of John. As the invitation to evening prayer on this day says (in the Liturgy of the Hours), “Let us pray joyfully to God our Father who called John the Baptist to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of Christ.” And so even though we face what would normally be frightful – the fact of martyrdom – we do so with both joy and confidence because it is God who leads us, even when the path goes into darkness as deep as this. As the first antiphon proclaims, “Do not be afraid to face them, for I am with you, says the Lord.”

We had school yesterday (Saturday) at Chamberlain-Hunt Academy (or, CHA). In order to get the required number of academic days the school has four Saturday school days each year. They are always theme days. Yesterday was called Sam Mason Day. Sam Mason is an almost unknown criminal who pirated steam ships and barges along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at the turn of the century shortly after the American Revolutionary War. When a $7,000 reward was offered for Mason, dead or alive, his gang killed him, and not unlike Salome (Herodias’ daughter – Mt. 14:6) cut off his head, and brought the bodiless head to the sheriff’s office at the next town south of Port Gibson, MS to receive the prize. (The gang was recognized and subsequently arrested instead of getting the reward.)

CHA has a bronze statue of Sam Mason’s head mounted along the road about 150 or 200 yards from the dining facility. When a cadet breaks a rule (talking when in formation, not having his uniform in proper order, etc.) he is told to “run to the road,” whereupon he runs out to the bronze bust and dope slaps Sam Mason’s head. Upon returning, he stands at attention before his commanding officer and shouts, “Actions have consequences, sir!”

Okay, it’s kind of a corny story and a corny tradition. But the whole thing is memorable for adolescents, so it’s an effective form of discipline.

Of course, being good Evangelical Protestants, the administration and teaching staff are oblivious to the fact that every year Sam Mason Day (the first Saturday of the CHA academic year) is always very near Aug. 29 (the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner).

Here at CHA losing one’s head is always considered a bad thing. This is why the cadets dope slap Sam Mason every time they do something dopey. After all, “actions have consequences.”

Ironically, as an Orthodox Christian who is aware of the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner, I too confess that “actions have consequences,” but in a very different context. As Jesus warned his disciples, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

One of the lessons we learn from St. John the Forerunner is that it’s not a bad thing to lose one’s head if one loses it for the sake of the Gospel. A second thing we learn from St. John the Forerunner is that if you are dopey enough to become a Christian (this statement being stated from the worldly perspective), and if you actually live your life like a Christian, then you should assume that the world will hate you and you too might lose your head. The world hated Jesus. So if you are a follower of Jesus it only makes sense that the world will hate you also. Actions (even holy actions) have consequences.

But, when as a Christian, I get my focus off myself and on to Jesus Christ where it belongs … when I am transformed into a servant of God rather than a servant of my own will and desires, I discover that losing one’s head is not always a bad thing.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” [ Rev. 7:13-17]

Update on My Life as a Teacher

I haven’t posted anything for quite a long time because I’ve been utterly swamped at school. Between reading the textbook ahead of the cadets, making lesson plans, the daily schedule, and grading homework, I have barely kept my head above water. (Which is what I expected, since I didn’t arrive on campus until a few days before academic classes started.)

This week has been particularly grueling. The principal assigned study hall duty so that I could get a feel for how that worked. It’s right after breakfast at 7:15. Study hall monitors are also the lunch monitors. My preparation period is 6th period (the last academic period of the day), and that is followed by another study hall period (which is essentially another preparation period for me unless a cadet needs some one-on-one in US History of Geography). [As an aside, I’ve discovered that “I don’t understand.” is a synonym for “I don’t want to bother with this.” Seventh period has not so much been about helping cadets understand as it has been threatening them with disciplinary action until they decide that they might want to bother, because, “Actions have consequences,” as they say every time they complete a disciplinary task. My job as an instructor is to remind them that inaction also has consequences, sometimes far more dire.] So this week, the schedule has been 7:15 to 2:30 without a break, with the work day coming to an end at 4:10.

The law of the land is that a full week of lesson plans must be in the principal’s box before the week starts. (I may not quite make the deadline this next week.) So things should ease up a little next week since I will have already read the material and I won’t have study hall duty.

A Word on Works

I don’t know if this was intended or one of those odd little mistakes that manages to make profound sense, but Fr John Morris, pastor of St George Orthodox Church in Vicksburg, said the following this morning, in relation to the Dormition Feast:

Those who do good works will go to heaven while those who reject Jesus Christ will go to hell to await the final judgment.

Let me be clear that Fr John doesn’t believe you go to heaven by merely doing good works. The statement about good works could have been a slip of the tongue because the Gospel text he just quoted (Mt. 25:35ff) referred to salvation in terms of good works rather than the more “traditional” (in the Pauline qua Protestant sense) faith in Christ. But it juxtaposes two biblical ideas in precisely the right manner.

What saves us is belief in Christ. But belief is not merely an idea or an attitude, it is something that starts in the heart/mind/will and necessarily works its way out into the actions. Claiming to believe Christ (and thus deserve salvation) and not do good works is still a rejection of the real Christ.

I’m writing this on a high school campus in the Presbyterian tradition, so I need to add that good works in and of themselves are no better than embracing an idea (even a good idea like “Jesus saves”) in and of itself. In other words, naked belief is no better than naked works. The two intertwine and ultimately coinhere when either expresses true commitment to Jesus Christ. So whether spoken by accident or intentionally, I believe Fr. John got it just right:

Those who do good works will go to heaven while those who reject Jesus Christ will go to hell to await the final judgment.

And Now For Something Completely Different

I haven’t posted for a while so it’s time to catch everyone up. In a word, I’m back in Mississippi until Christmas. I will be a substitute US History and Geography teacher at Chamberlain-Hunt Academy in Port Gibson (the town where Brenda and I spent the month of July).

I received a phone call a couple of days after getting back to Sioux City asking if I could do this. There was an emergency medical situation at the Academy and they needed a teacher in three days (when teacher orientation began). I couldn’t make it in three days but I could make it before term started, so I said yes.

That call was eight days ago, so the last week has been a whirlwind of activity, during which sitting down in front of my computer was a pretty low priority. But I’m here and it’s the weekend, so I decided to take a break from reading about Dias, da Gamma and Columbus, as well as the development of the the Mercator map projection and write a little something here.

“Highway 61 Revisited” Revisited

The very first road trip we took with the (then) new VW Tiguan was a journey down the northern half of the Great River Road (GRR) – a route that follows the Mississippi River from its headwaters outside Bemidji all the way to New Orleans. US Highway 61 also follows approximately that same route although the GRR follows the river closer than does Highway 61.

VW Tiguan along the Mississippi River

The brand new Tiguan looking out over a brand new Mississippi River less than 100 miles from it headwaters

On that first trip we spent a couple of days in Bemidji and then followed the river south into Iowa. There is something enchanting about the northern end of the Mississippi River. It grows large quite quickly and as you follow it from stream to river to working body of water it speaks forth new possibilities and dares you to try them. From Lake Pepin (at Redwing, MN) south through the Iowa and Missouri portion of the river (or along Illinois, if one is on the eastern side), it beckons much the same way the sea beckons to those who live on the coast.

* * * * *

I discovered Bob Dylan in backward fashion. The first album of his I ever owned was Slow Train Coming (1979), his first album in his short-lived stint as a Christian. (He had two more Christian albums: Saved and the rather angry Shot of Love. His bitterness toward Christian mean-spiritedness was quite evident in Shot of Love. That was followed by Infidels. By that time, as the album title indicates, he had abandoned Christianity, but not faith, as he returned to the Judaism of his childhood.) A few years later I picked up a copy of The Basement Tapes (1975), which turned me into a Dylan fan. But by that time I was a poor seminary student and wasn’t buying albums (except for a used copy of The Basement Tapes), so that was the end of my Dylan collection.

Shortly after our GRR road trip from Bemidji to points south I discovered Dylan’s classic and (arguably) best album, Highway 61 Revisited (1965). I’m not sure I would have appreciated that album in its fullness without the GRR road trip. Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman) grew up in Hibbing, MN (west of Lake Superior in the Iron Range). Like Tom Sawyer before him, he wanted out of and beyond his small town to experience the great wide world. But the Mississippi River itself was no longer the passageway that it was in Mark Twain’s time; blacktop had replaced the waterways. US Highway 61 – that great road that parallels America’s great river – became the metaphor for his move from Hibbing to Minneapolis and ultimately out into the big wide world of New York City.

The conceptual distance from Robert Zimmerman, middle class child, to Bob Dylan, folk singer, was every bit as great as the conceptual distance from Hibbing to NYC. He grew up a Middle America, middle class kid who lived a pretty ordinary middling sort of life. But he claims that as a kid he could pick up a blues radio station from Shreveport, LA after dark (thus the Highway 61 metaphor). That world down there became both his siren song and the template upon which to build his new persona. As he left Minnesota, he left his Midwestern persona behind, adopting a southern, bohemian, roots, disadvantaged poet persona much more typical of Shreveport or the delta region (central Mississippi). The transformation from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan was essentially a journey down Highway 61.

* * * * *

This summer we had the opportunity to complete our Great River Road road trip because my sister’s house, in Port Gibson, MS is 0.6 miles off the Great River Road (according to the GPS). On the way home from Port Gibson we followed the GRR through Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois nearly completing the whole route. (We never made it from Port Gibson to New Orleans.)

This trip was a bust. Once the Mississippi and Ohio rivers join, the Mississippi is so fenced in (with levees, straightening projects, dredging, and the like) that it ceases to be the romantic highway through the center of the U.S. St. Louis offers the best analogy. The Gateway Arch, towering over downtown, St. Louis, Missouri, is a romantic and majestic symbol of everything the West has to offer. It beckons travellers to dream of possibilities yet untapped, to move out, to move on, to try something different.

East St. Louis, Illinois, on the other hand, is so dead (and as a result, dangerous) that when they built I-70 through town, they built the portion through East St. Louis as an elevated highway, far above (and theoretically safe from) the town below. If the Gateway Arch marks the promise of what can be, East St. Louis marks the entrapment of what often happens after “what can be” fails to work out like we hoped.

Just as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis represents the spirit of the Mississippi River from Bemidji to St. Louis, so the industrial wasteland of East St. Louis represents the spirit of the Mississippi River from there to New Orleans.

… which brings me back to Bob Dylan.

* * * * *

There is something romantic and hopeful about the counter-cultural musician. But recreating one’s identity from average middle class white kid into the poet of protest for a generation is only half the story. The other half is sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, which took control of Dylan’s life. The other half is also big time record labels that fence in a musician every bit as much as the levees fence in the Mississippi River. As romantic as the upper half is, it inevitably leads to the lower half of the journey.

I suppose you could call Dylan’s Christian phase his mid-life crisis. It was his way out of the constraints that had so overtaken his life. Of course it turned out that Evangelical Christians turned the screws on Dylan far tighter than anything he had experienced previously. To be a Christian musician, it’s not particularly important to be Christian, but it was supremely important (in the 70s at least) to be clean-cut and clean-living with a conservative social conscience (against abortion but for the war). Dylan didn’t quite fit the image and was crucified by the Evangelical music industry and its followers. They tried to dredge him, straighten him, put levees up against his wacky ideas.

Instead he abandoned the evangelical ship and tried something different. Since then he has pumped out numerous albums, all with a bit of the old Dylan social conscience. But for the most part he has settled into the life of a working musician – touring, writing music, working with other musicians.

It’s not quite what he envisioned when, as a kid, he heard the music from the far end of Highway 61. Neither is it what he had when he revisited Highway 61 in 1965, at that moment every bit as big and influential as the Beach Boys. But now he knows where Highway 61 goes and how it really turns out.

Like our journey up the southern half of that fabled road, it turns out that sometimes it’s better to take a different route altogether. Let’s call it “Highway 61 Re-routed.”

Oak Square

Our last night in Mississippi we decided to stay at a Bed and Breakfast called Oak Square located in plantation house complex in Port Gibson. Technically Oak Square is a town house rather than a plantation house. The plantation, complete with plantation house and all the buildings associated with it, was located a few miles east of Port Gibson. The town house and accompanying buildings were built so the family could live in town during the school year.

The Oak Square Great House.

The great house itself is still the home of the owner while the guest rooms are located in the various out buildings (the servants quarters, the guest house, the carriage house, etc.) Because of the boom-bust cycle that characterized the old South, the Oak Square complex has changed a great deal over the years. The upper floors of the great house burned in the early 20th century and were rebuilt. The carriage house was expanded. The building where the original guest house stood is an antebellum home that was moved from Vicksburg many years ago, and the list of changes goes on.

The Great House is in the shadows to the right, the Guest House is on the center and The Quarters (where we stayed) is to the far left.

The Lum family, who have owned Oak Square for nearly forty years, have deep roots in Mississippi and the furniture in most of the rooms of the Quarters (where we stayed) came from the antebellum plantation which their family owned (but which is now gone). As a result Oak Square is saved from being a museum piece curiosity because of its living and changing history. But by the same token, it is authentically historic, full of old stuff, older stories, and fascinating people.

The courtyard, surrounded by the Great House, the Quarters, the Guest House and Carriage House.