Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The music is the message. Lessons of New Year's Eve past . . .

When I was in junior high my favorite New Year's Eve tradition was waiting until the sun went down and the ionosphere got just right, bouncing far away radio waves back to earth, back to an even more rural Oneonta, Alabama,  so I could tune in WLS 89,  the AM radio juggernaut out of Chicago, as they counted down the final hours of the old year by playing the top 89 songs of the year.  I think it meant more back then because we had to work so hard to hear the music through the static and interference. The Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, the Stones, the Grass Roots, the Mamas and Papas, the Temptations, Aretha,  the Four Tops, Buffalo Springfield, Sly and the Family Stone,  and, well I can't name them all.  Clear, cold nights were the best, so New Year's Eve usually worked out.

One thing that was different about radio back in that ancient time was that even rock and roll stations regularly broadcast the news. Not the kind of news you hear on talk radio now.  At the top of the hour every hour we heard the headline news of the hour.  The news of that era was not good, mostly dominated by war, riots, and assasinations.  Or at least it seemed that way to me. And back then they were All-American stories, tragically.

So it was an odd experience. The joy of the best music of the year.  The angst created by what seemed to be a crumbling society.

And the music reflected what the newscasts told us. CSNY sang of Four dead in Ohio. Dylan offered the invitation "Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call. The times they are changing.". Dion grieved the loss of great leaders to assasination, "Any body hear seen my old friend Bobby, can you tell me where he's gone,. I thought I saw him going up over the hill, with Abraham, Martin and John "  Edwin Starr asked the question that so many were wanting answered , "War, what is it good for?   Creedence decried the inequity of the draft, "It ain't me, It aint me, I ain't no senator's son, I ain't no fortunate one.  Sly and the Family Stone sang of racial, cultural and economic tolerance in Everyday People, " There is a blue one who can't accept the green one for living with the fat one for trying to be the skinny one."   Even Elvis sang of the social condition, "In the Ghetto."  I could go on and on.  Feel free to add my commenting if you wish.

Of course there was Sugar, Sugar by the Archies, or Temptation Eyes by the Grass Roots, or my all time favorite feel good song, Build Me Up Buttercup by the Foundations.   Thank goodness for the relief.

Where was I?  Oh yeah.  It was all mixed up together.

Music and news.

Art and life.

And so here we are now, closing out another year, several decades later.  The amplitude modulated waves of WLS still rebound off the ionosphere to reach the hinterlands of North Alabama on cold, clear nights, but I never listen. I can hear the same talk radio out of Birmingham pretty much. And music stations don't dare give us any news.  It's just not good radio.

And, other than a few rappers, there is very little news in the music, it seems to me.  Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm old and I just don't know.

But, if I'm right, it's too bad. Because the music of those New Year's Eves of decades ago made a difference.  As Marshall McLuhan,  a pop communications guru of that time, famously penned:

"The medium is the message."

Even now, when I hear the first instrumental notes of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," I get a feeling that I'll never forget.  I hope.A couple of the verses are particularly timeless:

"There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speakin' their minds
A gettin' so much resistance from behind

Time we stop, hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and they carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side"

Or maybe that's our problem.

 Music does reflect society.

 Art does reflect life

And maybe we just don't care anymore..

Or maybe I'm wrong.

Feel free to let me know. 

Nothing would make me happier.



Saturday, December 28, 2013

Nuttin' Important this morning . . .

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee

It is a perfect Saturday for the weekend between Christmas and New Years.  Cloudy, rainy, cool. There is little temptation to get up and get out and about. Maybe later. Maybe not. For now coffee, the sofa, and Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me on the radio give me a feeling of contentment.

I was reading the news sites this morning.  My favorite article this morning was on AL.com.  There was a headline on the newsfeed which read:

"Woman Stabs Husband with Ceramic Squirrel for Not Bringing Home Beer."

Unfortunately, the lack of beer for Christmas enraged the woman enough to cause her to seriously injure her husband with the ceramic squirrel, so I am somewhat ashamed that the article brought a smile to my face.  But it did. I am sorry.  I think I was reminded of a ceramic nut bowl that my grandmother made and gave me for Christmas several decades ago. I confess that at the time I was not as thrilled with the gift as I let on.  Again, I am ashamed of that feeling. Perhaps if she had included beer to go with the nuts the memory would have been completely different. I can assure you that would be a gift opening the whole family would still be talking about.  If you knew my Baptist grandmother, you would know what I mean.  She was so opposed to alcohol that she was convinced and adamantly insisted that there was absolutely no alcohol in her brandy fruit that she made, kept on the buffet and used for cooking. You could light that stuff with a spark from three feet away. But I must interject that my grandmother never used her ceramics to do harm.

The woman who enlisted the ceramic squirrel to do her dirty work was from South Carolina, thank goodness.

On the same page is an advertisement which made me proud to be from Alabama.  Someone from Springville, just across the mountain from me, has invented a lighted hunting knife.  If you've ever tried to field dress that deer in the dark, you know how hard it can be when you can't see what you're doing.  So this knife has LED lights embedded in the handle in such a way that light is projected onto the area being cut. I am serious about being impressed.  I am not a hunter, but if I were, I am sure that I would have tried to duct tape a pen light to the handle of my knife, which would be a constant source of frustration.  That is a common occurrence with other projects in my life. So, if you want to give a late gift to a hunter, this is your opportunity to be on the leading edge of hunting technology and support the Alabama economy.  From right over there in Springville.  Here's to you inventor of the lighted hunting knife. I would raise a beer in salute, but I don't have any either.

There are many other things in the news this morning, but all those big things will be there next week, and I will probably write about them.  But these small stories like assault with a ceramic squirrel and lit hunting knives don't have the staying power of healthcare, economy, war, and liberty.  I'd rather talk about the small things this morning because they probably won't be a big deal next week.

Which reminds be of a facebook post a friend of mine wrote this morning.  She said that she had a lot of important things that she really needed to do today, but for now, she was snuggling with her young son.

She is right. All that "important" stuff will be there every week-end.. But the small things, like young sons, won't be around to snuggle for many Saturdays.  She has chosen the better thing.

Okay, that's enough rambling. Gotta go see if I can find that ceramic nut bowl before someone gets hurt.



Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

It is a quiet and brilliantly beautiful day on my hillside this morning. Frost covers the ground and the roof, and the early morning sky is an indescribable royal blue. Hot coffee sends plumes of aromatic vapor into the air, its swirls and curls shimmering in the early morning rays of the rising sun that shoot through my house from east to west. It is a good morning..

The baby Jesus nailed it at the Christmas Eve Service at Lester Memorial UMC last night, with an assist from his supporting actress, the little angel played by his slightly older sister.

The hallmark of the service at Lester has always been its sheer warm simplicity. The Christmas story is read to children gathered around the Chrismon tree, while the holy family comes in and settles in at the front of the church. The family is played each year by a willing young family that has been blessed with a new addition during the previous year.

Mary and Joseph made the long journey down the aisle toward their place in Bethlehem, just behind the altar rail, mother Mary carrying the cherubic Jesus.  Along with them floated  a tiny angel, also cherubic, complete with wings and robe, dancing with every step she took, seemingly as excited as if she had just wakened to see what Santa Claus had brought.

As the Christmas story was read and songs were sung, the little angel could not be contained, dancing, jumping, up and down the step behind the altar, occasionally coming over to the baby Jesus and whispering something to him.  Jesus would look at her with delight, his face, framed with dark brown hair, beaming.  The angel took it all in, looking at the tree, the children, the singers, occasionally at Mary and Joseph, and at the Baby Jesus.  She could not contain her excitement.

And Baby Jesus loved it all. But especially the angel.   He would look at her and smile, and break into a baby laugh.  Sometimes it seemed to be more than he could take, his arms and legs beginning to dance as he sat in his mother's lap, his hands clapping with the joy of the night.

Of course Mary and Joseph played their part wonderfully as well, concern and a touch of anxiety on their faces, wondering what was to come next this night, and whether anything would ever be in their control again.  An angel whose joy was uncontainable, and a baby boy who seemed to understand and welcome, even join in the irresistible anticipation of the angel.

And that's the way it really began. With joy and excitement. Heaven came down. Unspeakable joy.

God is with us.

And we will never be able to control Him.  Might as well start dancing.

Merry, merry Christmas.

And a special thanks to the Holy family.


Monday, December 16, 2013

It looks Christmessy around here . . .

I am getting my house ready for Christmas.  Yes, I know it is a little late, but I did not start today.  I decided I would go for the "deep" clean a couple of weeks ago. It seemed like a good idea at the time.  That may have been poor planning on my part, as my schedule has not allowed for a lot of time at the house, and the depth required for this "deep" clean was more than I imagined.  It now seems that I am in the middle of an archaeological dig. That makes it even more difficult as I get distracted by interesting, fun, strange, troubling and wonderful historical relics that I have found as I sorted and sifted through drawers, shelves, boxes and stacks.

I am sure that this will ultimately be a good thing.  But tonight my house looks like my past has exploded and is scattered in pieces all over the place. Every room. Every piece of furniture. Covered.  Some of my past will survive. Some will be recycled. A whole lot will end up at the dump (landfill for the more proper among us).

 It is not beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here.

Not the kind of Christmas I enjoy as I walk through at the malls or on the busy streets of shops lined with twinkling lights, magnificent displays, and perfect trees, or in the beautifully, tastefully decorated churches I love to worship in.

Maybe I'll get there after I get to the bottom of everything.

But for now it is chaos. A mess. Nothing is in its place. Some of this stuff doesn't even have a place.

Kind of like when Jesus really came.  Things were a mess, centuries in the making. Wars, oppression, poverty, prejudice, perversion of God's way.

Hopeless.  A mess. chaos.  History lay heavily on the present.

And then He came.  Just a baby, at first, like the rest of us.  Born right in the middle of it on that first Christmas.

Nothing was in the right place.

Some things and some people had no place.

Including Jesus.

But the deep clean had begun, not to be finished overnight.

And it still goes on.

But ultimately, it will be a good thing.  The best thing ever.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Wake up, wake up, it's Christmas morning . . .

When I was a child, my brother and I shared a bedroom directly across the hall from the living room, where gloriously stood the Christmas tree, a cedar we harvested from what seemed like the deep forest behind our house.  The living room contained a stocking adorned fireplace , that portal through which Santa Claus entered our home. We never had a fire in that fireplace when I was young, even though we almost always had one in the fireplace in the den. For years I assumed that was simply to make things easier for Santa, keeping him and the stockings away  from the heat of the flaming logs and glowing coals and the soot-lined brick.   He never chose the den side of the chimney to come down, just the living room.. So I guess it worked.

Those were the best Christmases ever, when my siblings and I were all still very young.  Like all families, we had traditions.  For us, the tradition was to get up before the sun on Christmas morning to see what St. Nick had brought us.  It seemed impossible to go to sleep on Christmas Eve.  The anticipation produced far too much adrenalin.  And we weren't exactly a low energy group, even on normal days. But this was Christmas Eve. However, the threat that Santa Claus would not come until we were asleep worked well.

But waking up was not easy either, even on Christmas morning, until the  fog of sleep cleared and I realized that my brother or sisters were up and moving around.  We would gather at the door of the living room, which was still inky dark.  The anticipation was unbearable. Quickly, someone would turn on the lights. And in that light we could see what gifts Christmas had brought for us.

It was always great.

A song that has been part of my Christmas for several years has a chorus that opens with the words:

"Wake up, wake up, it's Christmas morning . . ."

It always evokes in my heart that joy that was created in my childhood, as I remember the remarkable gifts revealed in the light of Christmas morning.

It's difficult to remember why we celebrate Christmas in all the busy-ness, the hustle and bustle.  I have been reading the gospel passages that relate the birth of Jesus during advent, just to try to get some perspective.  I am not a Bible scholar, and I realize that what I am about to do, taking part of a verse completely out of context,  is not  a good idea, but, it is what happened, so, that's just the way it is. I never went to seminary.

I suddenly noticed a part of Matthew, Chapter 1, that I never noticed before.  This happens to me often. I think someone must slip in at night and add stuff to my Bible. Anyway, the chapter deals in part with Joseph and Mary, their engagement, and her awkwardly timed, hard to explain holy pregnancy. Thankfully, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and explained the whole thing to him.  Verse 24 begins,

"When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord commanded him . . ."

 In another gospel, the Book of John, there is no story of Jesus birth.  John tells us about  Jesus coming into the world as the Word.  And light.. In Chapter 1, verses four and five, John says:

 " In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

So that is what is on my mind this Christmas season.  A brilliant pinpoint of perfect light  first appeared in a manger in Bethlehem, and spreads like the flames from the candles at the Christmas eve service, wick to wick, heart to heart, revealing all that cannot be seen in the darkness.

But first, we must wake up.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

A sole worth saving . . .

Today  Nelson Mandela's body gave up after a lengthy battle.  His final well-deserved rest was slow in coming. But Mandela was accustomed to long battles and tortuously slow victories. And there were glorious triumphs in his earthly battles  won ultimately with strategies of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation, battles that spanned decades.  Almost three decades in prison while he waited..  The news will be full of details of his exceptional place in history, so I'll refer you to the historians lest I mess it all up.

I was in Jo burg, South Africa a few years ago with Vann, Meredith and Anna at a Methodist Youth International Congress. During the trip we learned much about Mandela and the history of South Africa. We visited museums dedicated to the history of apartheid in South Africa and Nelson Mandela. We visited Soweto and caught a glimpse of the sad human condition that has not yet been resolved, but to which his life was dedicated.

And we visited a house where Mandela once lived. I am not a fan of these kinds of museums.  It seems so intrusive. So personal.  It could have been anyone's house. I remember only one vivid image from that house.

In Mandela's bedroom his shoes were on display,  obviously cleaned up and in a neat row.

I remember thinking he had really small feet.  And it seemed odd.  Why do you save someone's shoes?

They were just shoes. The floor of my closet looks similar to the display, except not as organized. I doubt anyone would save them.

The only thing special about the smallish shoes were where they had been, the places Mandela had chosen to walk,  where Mandela had stood, marched, suffered, and ultimately led others as they moved on a slow, arduous, historic journey.

I am moved by Mandela's life and death like millions of others, grieving for the loss of a extraordinary human, inspired by the difference one human can make.

 And wondering where I should walk, and with whom, that would cause someone to think my shoes worth saving.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

It's tough when you were born on Christmas Day . . .

So how did Jesus celebrate Christmas?

Or I suppose another way to put it, how did Jesus and his friends celebrate his birthday?

What do you get for the guy who has nothing, but lives like he has everything?  And forget about a surprise party.

I suppose cloaks and shirts were a popular gift for Jesus, even though everyone knew he would just re-gift them. Somehow he made that tacky practice holy.

Socks were out. I'm sorry, but, if you ask what would Jesus do, I don't think the answer would be wear socks with sandals. Pretty sure that's where the phrase "bare your sole" comes from. Jesus probably said it at a birthday gathering.

Birthdays are tough on us mortals. Rather than celebrate the life and graces we have been given, we often focus on the failures, of dreams not realized, goals not reached, opportunities missed.  After awhile we dwell not on the number of years we have lived, but on the dwindling number of years we have left.

While I do not know, I do believe that most days with Jesus were not quite as serious as we have been led to believe. It would be like a three year camping trip with the Men's Group from any church.  (United Methodist Men in my case).  Not exactly a monastic experience.

Wouldn't it be great to be Jesus, the Son of God?  Everything perfect. Every year a celebration. Joy to the World?  A Wonderful Life?  Happy, Happy, Happy .  .  . Birthday.

The Jesus whose birth we celebrate was born in a cave, the home of animals.  Before he could walk without wobbling the most powerful man in his world tried everything he could to kill him. His family was on the run.  As he grew older He probably heard the whispers of the people of the town as they counted back from the day of his birth to his parents' marriage date. He and most of his community lived in poverty and fear of cruel Roman oppression.  Jesus had little material security.  He had come to this world, divesting himself of the amenities of Godly omnipotence and those other omni's, to lead creation back from destruction.  As he did so he was hunted and threatened, criticized, ostracized, and misunderstood.  The world was not being saved. Even his disciples were arguing about power. Humanity was still inhumane, the hungry were starving, the sick were dying, the outcast were alone, and the imprisoned were shackled.

It was that way when Jesus was born.  And when he died. And every birthday in between.

And yet, I am sure, if birthdays were celebrated back in Jesus' day, that the disciples gathered, grilling fish, Martha made a wonderful cake, and Mary doted on Jesus,offering a gift of expensive oil that he loved but would never buy for himself.. . Jesus probably blushed at all the attention and the singing, and graciously accepted the gifts offered, not for the sake of the gift, but for the sake of the givers. Close friends lingered at the party and drank a little more wine.  And in the midst of his friends, Jesus' mind was probably turned more on the blessings of the present, if not the presents, as opposed to the hard scrabble past and the unfolding horrific future that only he was beginning to sense. (My theology. Feel free to disagree).

Our celebration of Jesus' birthday is not so different. In the midst of the happiness and joy there is always the other side.  It seems the woes of the world are highlighted against the backdrop of our celebrations. The contrast is troubling.

And so Jesus life was not simple. Joy and pain. Celebration and grief. Progress and frustration. Love and hate. .

Kind of like us.  Life is not simple. But there is time for joy in the midst of the turmoil. There is hope alongside despair.

And thankfully, there is a  light in the darkness.

As we begin this Advent season, what birthday gift can we bring?

It's seems complicated.

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