Monday, December 6, 2010

The English-Speaking World and the Middle-East

The following is the first of two sermons this Advent on the relationship between the lands of the Bible and our own land.

Kenwood Community Church
Kenwood, California
December 5, 2010

In this sermon I will note some great writers who were born this week, then come to focus on an event that happened 93 years ago next week, introduce a few historical characters, then come to focus on this Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah and see how this prophecy ripples through history to our time today.

This has been a week of birthdays for great writers.
Mark Twain was born this week in 1835 and died in 1910. His autobiography has just been published and the literary world is agog. Twain left a will requiring that these writings would not be published for 100 years and lo, here we are. His autobiography is selling like crazy.
Joan Didion, a very interesting and quirky and writer was born in Sacramento, California in 1934.
CS Lewis was born in Belfast in 1898. He wrote "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."
Madeline L’Engle was also born this past week, in New York City in 1918. She couldn’t get anything published. 26 publishers rejected the manuscript for A Wrinkle in Time, a wonderful story of angels and cherubim and time travel and the importance of making a commitment.

These are all great people and great accomplishments and themes that could kick off an Advent sermon, but the event upon which I wish to focus occurred on December 11, 1917, which of course is next week, but close enough. On that date, General Sir Edmund Allenby, Commander of His Majesty’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, composed of soldiers from the British Isles and India, entered Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate. Although he was a cavalry officer, he dismounted and together with his officers, entered the city on foot in order to contrast British ways and attitudes to those of the Germans, for Kaiser Wilhelm had visited Jerusalem in 1898, entering upon a horse accompanied by mounted cavalry wearing spiked helmets and all the accoutrements of the German military. It probably never occurred to this Kaiser that since Jesus rode into Jerusalem, it might be a good idea for ordinary mortals to walk.
For generations and generations Jerusalem had been the dream of schoolboys, the subject of poetry and the goal of Crusader Armies. But they seldom got there. Only the first wave of Crusaders got there at all and were expelled within a century. Richard the Lion-Hearted only caught a glimpse of the Holy City, then had to return to England. His army was badly mauled and he was sick in bed with dysentery. His great adversary Saladin, courteously sent him fresh water and sherbet to calm his stomach during their negotiations, at the end of which Richard and his army were permitted to depart in peace. After that, the occasional pilgrim from England made it to Jerusalem. Even by the time of William Blake, who wrote a wonderful poem titled Jerusalem, visitors from the west were few and far between. It was just too difficult and dangerous to get there.

Then, suddenly, 700 years after King Richard, the British Army dispersed the Turkish defenders and entered the Holy City on December 11, 1917. In terms of the horrible slaughter on the western front, this success by General Allenby was unimportant, but it was a welcome victory of immense symbolic significance for a people weary of war and in desperate need of good news. Every church bell in England rang.

General Sir Edmund Allenby, known to his friends as “The Bull” because he was a large, burly fellow, decided to symbolize British rule by walking into the Holy City. He gave assurances to all religious groups in the city that their holy places would be respected. This is how we like to think of it: the kindly, benevolent, fair-minded English-speaking peoples defeat the militaristic, arrogant, goose-stepping Germans and spread the influence of Anglo-Saxon justice a little bit further. We have extended our sway benignly, with great sensitivity and to the mutual benefit of all, or so we like to think. I personally like to think this because my father served in India during World War II. The British officers in on the Royal Air Force base where he served in Calcutta, and from which he flew over the Himalayas into China, must have been kind to this young American officer who had never before left the Midwest, for Dad always spoke highly of the British military. Dad several times described for me the route by which he returned by air from Calcutta after the war. It was an airport-to-airport tour of the old British Empire: from Calcutta to Delhi, to Karachi, to Khartoum to Cairo; leaving British control briefly to stopover in Vienna, then to London to Newfoundland to New York to Cincinnati where he met his fiancĂ©, my mother, and they were married. I also spent a year in England during college and was fortunate to be basically adopted by an English family for the Christmas holidays. I’ll admit to being a hopeless Anglophile.

Unfortunately, history has shown us that the British military and government, whether with good intentions or bad, were far from perfect and could not make over the Middle East. Some 80 years later, we and our British and European allies are still trying and we still do not know whether we shall succeed or fail or accomplish something in between.

Now let me introduce this sermon’s second great historical character: Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, one of the foremost authorities on the Middle East in the early 20th Century. She died in 1926 after having explored and charted a great swath of Arabia, from remotest Syria to the waters of the Persian Gulf. The maps she made were used by the British military during World War I. She traveled well, usually with enough camels, servants, and aides-de-camp to dine every evening at table with linen napery, China plate, crystal wine goblets and fine silver. There was a reason for the show: she impressed the various Arab chieftains when she came a-calling and got good information after entertaining them well.

After the war, she made Baghdad her permanent home, helped to write a constitution, organize elections, draw borders and found the Iraqi National Museum. She was a woman of great common sense, who summed up her experience of nation-building in Iraq as follows:

“No one knows exactly what they – the people who live there - do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.”
“I suppose we have underestimated the fact that this country - Iraq - is really a mess of tribes which can’t as yet be reduced to any system. The Turks didn’t govern and we have tried to govern . . . and failed.”

Now I am not bringing these characters up – a general and a lady – and Jerusalem and Iraq in order to criticize or to praise what our government has been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan this past decade. I am bringing all this up in order to help us understand Isaiah and his prophecies and to attempt to understand the remarkable relationship between the Middle East and out own country.
We look to that part of the world as a source of endless frustration and at the same time - inspiration. The lands mentioned in the Bible have both lifted up and broken our hearts for centuries.

We Americans share a dream, a dream of good, decent and orderly government. It’s a good dream; and this dream comes, remarkably enough, from the Middle East, from the events related in the Bible, from Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and of course Jesus.

Every year about this time we re- read the prophesies of Isaiah, who lived an almost impossibly long time ago, 2700 years. His prophecies were ancient when Jesus walked the earth. The Jerusalem in which he lived had already been destroyed and rebuilt. Yet his prophecies stir our hearts every year:

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,_
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
_The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
_ the spirit of wisdom and understanding,_
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord._

We believe this shoot from the stock of Jesse, the father of David, was Jesus. He was of the house and lineage of David. His life and death are the events around which out lives still revolve. We believe these lines point unmistakably to him:

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.__
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,_
or decide by what his ears hear;_
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,_
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;_
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,_
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked._

He will be the wonderful counselor, Almighty God, everlasting father, Prince of Peace.
And the government will be upon his shoulder.

This is quite an idea: idea that there is a moral force behind within the universe, working its way with and through history, a force that once walked the earth like we do and now is still in some way we do not quite fathom still involved in everything that happens on earth. It is an idea that provides comfort through thick and thin. I’ll admit that it is at times hard to believe it, but it is much worse, if not disastrous, to disbelieve it entirely.

Now let me introduce yet another character, a couple of characters, related to another event that took place this time of year.

69 years ago next Tuesday. Japanese planes without warning bombed Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941.

Just a few days later, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, under great secrecy, boarded a swift battleship and arrived in the United States to be the guest of President Roosevelt for three weeks during the Christmas season. The two men had met the previous summer, in secret, aboard a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland. They cemented their relationship and that of their two countries with a solemn religious service aboard ship, where Holy Scripture was read and hymns sung.

They continued in like fashion throughout the holidays. During the Christmas Eve tree lighting on the White House south lawn, the Marine Band performed "Joy to the World" and the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "The Messiah." On Christmas Day, FDR took Churchill to Foundry Methodist Church on 16th Street, about a mile from the White House. There for the first time in his life, Churchill heard "O Little Town of Bethlehem," the lovely hymn that declares:
"Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."

Both President and Prime Minister were greatly moved and inspired by the service. Winston Churchill later wrote of it:

"Certainly there was much to fortify the faith of all who believe in the moral governance of the universe."

I think you for tolerating my history lesson this morning. Perhaps you find this praise of all things Anglo-America and patriotism a bit much. It is indeed a bit of a stretch, overbearing, possibly dangerous to identify you or your country or your government too closely with the moral governance of the universe.

But ask yourself: do you want to live in a society that makes no such claim at all? Will we be better off if we abandon the concept of moral governance altogether?

We Christians believe that there is a moral governor of the universe. We believe that this moral governor, the savior, the anointed one, was born in a manger in Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem. This moral governor was as vulnerable throughout his life as we are - that is precisely whence his moral authority comes. We believe that the moral governor of the universe was real and is real, has died, has risen and will come again.

I’ll admit that this is not easy to believe, but what is the alternative?

We try to align ourselves with the moral governance of the universe. We ask to be held accountable if we do not. We ask ourselves:
What would Jesus do? What would the moral governor of the universe have us do?

These are good questions. Just because there are no obvious answers does not mean that these are not good questions.

We are attempting to make peace on earth, in difficult places. The outcome is as uncertain as ever. Yet we look to the same person for inspiration, for comfort, to the governor of the universe, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the chosen one, the Lord. It is he whom we celebrate this season, and every season.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

California Journal

St. Helena, California
Friday, September 3, 2010.

The first Friday of the month. Cheers St. Helena, an opportunity to stroll downtown and taste wine from local vintners, takes place tonight from 6 to 9. Several thousand locals and visitors will turn out this balmy late summer evening to walk up and down Main Street sipping glasses of local wine. Pay $35, get a paper bracelet and you get to taste as much as you want.

I saw Todd White, the organizer, at the bocce ball courts last night. He was in an expansive mood as he asked how my last job interview went and poured himself a glass of wine. Wine goes with everything here. On Halloween parents have a glass in hand as their kids go trick-or-treating. The kids get candy, the parents get a pour of wine. Attend a party and thirty, forty, fifty bottles of wine are on the table. One rarely sees a bottle of beer, even more rarely a bottle of distilled spirits. Bottles from Napa, bottles from Sonoma, Mendocino, bottles with fancy labels, bottles with no labels at all (the cork might tell you who made it), bottles people produced themselves, bottles given to them at work.

During the twenty weeks of the year when people play bocce, team members lay out enormous spreads of food and dine while they play, a clutch of wine bottles on every table. Some players even roll while holding a wine glass in their free hand, making a sort of jaunty, devil-may-care statement. One team lays out table cloths over two tables, sets down plates, cutlery, glowing lanterns, and dines after the match by lamplight.

Todd moved here from Atlanta, operates a winery and likes to make things happen. The first Cheers happened in April of 2009. Despite the rain people turned out – several thousand. Merchants and restauranteurs were thrilled to have the business and Todd become a sort of local celebrity.

One evening I dined at the bar at Cook, a small restaurant on Main Street and my favorite hangout. I often walk in there alone, sit at the bar and within minutes find myself in conversation with people I’ve never seen before. After a while, we’re swapping winery stories, then swapping wine. Here, have some of this.

Swirl, sniff, inhale, sip, slurp, swallow. Inhale. Exhale. Mmmmm. Nice. Now have some of this . . . .

That evening I found myself talking to a stunning young woman from back East, who was traveling with her mother. Her mother was just barely less beautiful. Both women were well-dressed and had enough precious gems on them to fund a small bank. They were enjoying their vacation. The owner of their B&B up the street told them to come here. He eats here all the time, they explained. Ah, Todd White, I say, a peach of a fellow. Everyone knows Todd.

There are no degrees of separation here.

After a while they turned and asked what a lot of people ask: The Napa Valley is obviously a great place to vacation, and we're having a great time, but what's it like to live here? Like, what do y’all do here? I mean, besides eat and drink?

Well,uh . . . um . . . hmmm . . . . We, uh, eat, we drink, we hang out, we dig each other; um, hike, bike, play bocce ball (you know Joe DiMaggio’s dad played bocce ball, worried that little Joey played this silly base-a-ball) - swim. Some of us are pretty serious runners and bikers, I guess. You know, I often feel like I’m a character in an extended Winnie-the-Pooh story. Different characters show up from time to time, like Kanga and Roo coming to the forest, and are enfolded into this enchanted fairyland of a place. That’s the way it’s been for me. We tell stories, we hang out, we enjoy. You know, we don’t really do much here . . . And we're very happy.

Todd’s operation has gotten smoother with each passing month. As I sit here in the Bakery on Main Street, white-clad members of the Cheers crew cruise up and down on new bicycles that look like the old Schwinn I had as a kid. One stops to post a map of St. Helena to a tree. The map lists port-o-potties, places to buy tickets, where the bands play. Tubs full of ice and free bottles of water appear, along with extra trash and recycling bins. Security for the operation is light, but efficient. Reports of out and out drunkeness have been few in past months.

A couple of Mormon elders walk by. Two fund-raisers for Oxfam-America walk into the Bakery for coffee. I wave to a friend making a cell phone call outside of his office as I leave. I will be standing where he is with a bunch of other Rotarians this evening to talk about Rotary. Small town America gets ready for the festival.

* * * * * * * * *

That evening people thronged the sidewalks. Rotarians from distant cities stopped by to say hello. Afterward I went with Cindy and Dave to a Mexican place for tacos. We talked briefly above the din of how we each got here. Cindy came up just for a summer some four years ago to get away from Los Angeles and decided to stay. Dave came up from LA over a decade before. Neither wants to live anywhere else at this point. I decided to spend time doing massage and bodywork in some Bay Area spa several summers ago, flung out dozens of resumes and got a response from one in St. Helena. I had never heard of the town before, although I must have driven through it. I still spend winters in Washington, but for the rest of the year, this is home.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Christmas 2009/Epiphany 2010

In Search of a Sense of Place
California Journal

At Christmas time in the year of Our Lord 2009, I was still in the Napa Valley, in the city of Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine, having lingered there longer than ever before the flight east. The only return flight I could get with my frequent flyer ticket was on New Year’s Eve; San Francisco non-stop to Dulles. My airplane caught a 125 mph tailwind on the way in, making for a four-hour flight from the West Coast. Upon arrival, I took a short cab ride on a rainy, cold night to one of those great Washington young people’s group homes that always throws a party on New Year’s Eve, to celebrate the evening with numerous people from one of two churches I attend here. Thus my transition from West to East was swift and merry.

Way back in April when I first arrived, people told me that if I wanted to really understand the soul of St. Helena, I should go over to Crane Park any week night and blend into the crowd at the eight bocce ball courts. I indeed found quite a crowd, not to mention picnic tables covered with cheeses, olives, spreads, crackers, cold cuts, pasta, flatbreads, salads, dips, elaborate desserts and, of course, bottles of wine; mostly from Napa, bottles from tasting rooms, bottles from private cellars, bottles with unusual labels, bottles with no labels at all. The Grgich Hills Winery team showed up once a week with an entire washing machine flat of stemware and a dozen bottles from the tasting room. Oh my. Strike up a conversation and soon a glass is placed in your hand, wine poured, delicacies offered. Mmmm. Such generosity with food and wine I have never before enjoyed.

Eventually I joined a team (sponsored by the Episcopal Church, which I often attend): The Holy Rollers. We weren’t particularly good, but we ate well, and improved as the season wore on, finishing sixth out of ten. The last evening for bocce occurred about a month ago. We lost the first two games to a much better team, but came back to win the last one, which was a kick.

St. Helena really is a friendly little town. One can walk into Cook, the small restaurant on Main Street beloved of locals, have a seat at the bar, and find oneself engrossed in conversation. One’s glass is not infrequently filled with whatever someone brought. The menu is rather limited, a simple, type-written sheet of paper, but I have grown to love the place. The chef comes to me for treatments at the spa and I know all the staff by name. Market, another good small restaurant with a longer menu, is up the street. Eddie, the greeter and seater, a peach of a fellow, will remember your name after a couple of visits. I have never lived in a place where it is so easy to meet strangers.

I have been blessed with wonderful clients at Health Spa Napa Valley, even though the economic situation has reduced the number quite precipitously. Most clients come in, say relatively little and get on the table. I breathe deeply and begin. I move my hands, forearms and elbows from head and shoulders down to the feet and back up. Slowly. Repeat. Breathe. I’ve decided that a good massage really is a work of art, something more like a musical composition than a medical treatment, a concerto for the human body in three parts, face down, face up and sideways. The tune we play together depends on the instrument: some people are flutes, some violins, horns, cellos, occasionally a bass violin or grand piano. Most depart with a thank you and a smile on their faces and I move on to the next, or go for a swim before heading off to the bocce ball courts, or Cook, for an evening of conviviality.

Sometimes something magical happens; a deep exhalation, a sigh, a release, a shudder. Clients occasionally teach me something, or reward me with something intangible beyond the cash payment. One client this summer was a defensive safety on a top ten college team in the 1960s. He liked to talk, so we talked football; and beyond football to sportsmanship, honesty, the life lessons taught by competition. I have done advanced academic work in the general field of moral philosophy, but he was the teacher in this conversation, as much by his attitude as anything else.

This season’s liturgical highlight was a Chanticleer concert at a big old Catholic church in Petaluma. They entered the darkened church in tuxedos, carrying lighted tapers and singing a Gregorian Chant, followed immediately by Josquin Desprez’s Ave Maria:

Ave Maria, Gratia, plena,
Dominus tecum, Virgo serena.

The darkened church, the illuminated altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the height and depth of the voices, blending, soaring, welling, gently but surely shaking the rafters and the foundation; thoughts of my mother, all mothers, all parents, the Holy Family, all families, all children, all caring, all loving, all yearning, all suffering, all striving . . . Somewhere deep inside the voices released the wellspring of tears yet made life a glorious blessing.

O Mater Dei, memento mei. Amen.

A few days later I drove down the coast to Esalen for Christmas week. A week at Esalen is always good, but this was even better than usual, a workshop called SoulMotion, led by Scott and Zuza Engler. For most of our six hours of “class” each day we simply moved to music, slowly working out all the kinks and tightness of our workaday lives. We ate good food, amid much exuberant conversation. We soaked in the famous hot springs perched fifty feet above the ocean. Periodically in class, we would pause to share in small groups or in the larger group. After a few days the sharings emerged from deeper and deeper places.

In an abnormally cold Washington this January, I am warmed by good memories.