Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


Here's what I know:

1. She's 99 "years young" as they say. Her great-granddaughters call her a trooper, because, quite frankly, she is. Last year, with them, she got out of the car when we drove into the field and up close to the old house where her mother (and later, her brother) once lived. Even though the place was falling apart, she wanted in. With a little help--I held her hand--she got into the house with them to look around and remember.

2. For her 98th birthday, in traditional Lakota fashion, she took loads of things into the community room on the reservation, a ton of stuff. We were all given numbers when we came in, and soon enough she celebrated a "Giveaway" with her own canned goods, sewn items, even quilts. She'd made it all during the year and, in celebration of yet another birthday, was simply and gratefully giving it all away. I came away with a jar of pickles and a small quilt. 

3-She spent three years of her life in the Army Nurse Corps, in hospitals here in the States, in Great Britain, France, and finally at Liege, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge, lead nurse in tent I-A of a Allied hospital close enough to the front to get strafed by the Luftwaffe and "buzz bombed" so frequently she actually (sort of) got used to it. She was there for the Battle of the Bulge.

4-When the war ended, she came home and took a nursing job in Rapid City, where she was repulsed--no, sickened and angry--when she read a sign outside a store that said the place wouldn't do business with Indians. 

5-For some time she served as director of nursing at the Cheyenne River Agency Hospital, not all that far from the boarding school she'd attended when, as a little girl, she'd left the one-room school at Promise, South Dakota, where her family lived.

6-She and her entire nursing unit were awarded medals for their work during the war. Accompanied by her daughter, she was able to attend the award ceremony in Paris.

7-When an organization she was a part of--the Survivors of Wounded Knee--discovered a ghost shirt on display in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland, the organization determined to bring it home to the reservation where it belonged. Getting that job done required two trips, but she did it, offering the museum a replica shirt she herself had sewn herself. 

8-Just a few years ago, for her work in her work as a health care professional as well as her war experience, she was elected to the South Dakota Hall of Fame. At one of the university's three commencements just last spring, she was honored with an honorary doctorate from the South Dakota State University School of Nursing. 

9-Her address in her home for most of her long life begins with a post office box, which means if she lived just a bit north on the Standing Rock Reservation, she couldn't vote next week because a new law aimed precisely at Native people would keep her from exercising her rights as an American: her post office address begins with a box number.

That law was rammed through the legislature to protect the state from the scourge of illegal voting, which has been, in the state, just about non-existent. 

That's the party line anyway. 

The truth is, it's meant to keep Native people from voting.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Italy ix--A thousand years of devotion

It ranks--this one does--with the best shots I took in Italy, not because it's technically perfect  (it isn't) but because there's something transcendent in the image. I have no idea if the young couple making their way up toward the altar in Rome's Basilica di Santa Maria is devout. They may not even be Roman Catholic. By the numbers, if they're European, it's probable they aren't even believers. I'm not making any claims. But they look as if they are, don't they?

As they approach that altar and that giant Titian behind it--The Assumption of Mary, one of the Titian's earliest--they seem to be walking on air. In truth, it's a trick of light. The sun travels slowly through those old cathedrals, spotlights first this piece of art, then that. At this particular moment, it's pouring its radiance on the marble floor, a floor that doesn't appear to be there at all. That sweet and loving couple seems almost aloft, as if the space itself were holy. To some, of course, it is.

Another young man, this one alone, is gawking, as most everyone is in this incredible cathedral; and two young women seated in the chairs set out for those who wish to meditate and pray, look to be chatting. But their being seated where they are almost certainly suggests devotion. Maybe I'm dreaming. Maybe they're checking the times the subway leaves. Maybe they're reading Rick Steves.

I'm being cute. In truth, I really do love this shot, even though my Protestant heart doesn't share the adoration given to Mary, nor the determined faith that she, like Jesus her son, was simply removed from this vale of tears, bodily and boldly, by all the powers of heaven. The Assumption celebrates a determined doctrine of traditional Catholics, especially here in this particular Roman cathedral, a church specifically devoted to her.

And I like this shot too, although it lacks the firepower. It's the same cathedral, somewhere on the other side of the nave, and I took it because what here is marble, maybe the toughest of stones, Italian marble, and it's been here forever almost. The edges are worn and misshapen by the traffic of hundreds of thousands of penitents--and tourists today. But during the cathedral's first millennia, the feet on these stones belonged to the devout, here at the Basilica for adoration, to worship. For a thousand years people have stepped down right here at some inconspicuous space in this great cathedral, their hearts and souls open and, like most all of us, needy.

My guess is that the Floyd river out back of our place was here a millennia ago when people were using these steps. The Floyd is high right now, higher than it is normally at this time of year, but something of what it is likely ran somewhere approximate to where it flows along right now. Beneath the river bed, my neighbor claims there are stones, lots of them, some of them big as boxcar, erratics left here even long, long ago in the indomitable sweep of a glacier.

The thing is, real, live people were using these steps on this floor when the only human beings in our backyard were long lost ancestors of Dakotas and Yanktons and Omahas. The oldest white man's building anywhere near here isn't more than 150 years old, and a century is like yesterday in a cathedral like this.

So pardon my mysticism. That young couple walking up to the altar with their arms around each other seem walking on holy ground, because they are, borne aloft just a little on ancient marble made sacrament by a thousand years of devotion in this gorgeous ancient place.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Comparative Insignificance

“When I consider the heavens the work of your fingers, 
the moon and stars which you have set in place, 
what is man. . .”
Psalm 8:3

We really don’t matter much.

I don’t know that I could type an opening line less politically correct.  I could smear ethnic or racial groups, and some bigot somewhere would cheer. I could cuss like a D-1 football coach, and some reader would thank me for refreshing honesty.

But try this on for size: walk up to your favorite kid—let’s make him or her some sweet pre-teen, reach for her hand, take it in your own, then smile and say, “You know, Tiff, we really don’t matter much.” Visit some convalescent home and pull the same stunt. In both cases, such behavior would be considered untoward in the extreme.
Imagine saying it to activist gay and lesbians, or the boisterous crowds who oppose them.  Imagine saying it to your own children. Imagine saying it to your parents, your spouse.  Imagine someone saying it to you: “You know, we really don’t matter much.”

But that’s the intent behind David’s space talk in Psalm 8. When judged by the immensity of the God’s universe, human beings have comparative insignificance. He plays with an entire solar system as if it were a key chain.

Western Christianity has, for centuries, considered pride the most malignant of the seven deadly sins. Eve’s seduction by the serpent and Adam’s mimicry thereof occurred because they wanted to be less like themselves and more like God. Thus, pride goeth before the fall.

And it’s pride that lives near the heart of our consumerist culture. Imagine a television ad that proclaims to 50 million listeners that, really, we don’t matter much. Not likely. What all our marketing proclaims is that what our very special lives will be immeasurably enhanced if only we slip our hips into the right jeans or smooth those crow’s feet out of the corners of our eyes. 

But why signal out the media for special disdain when all of us, in thousands of ways every day of our lives, seek our own interests at the expense of others?  On the job, in our leisure, in our most intimate relationships, we regularly, almost instinctively, put ourselves first. We are wired for selfishness.

Yet, each of us, literally, is of no greater significance than a grain of sand on an ocean beach, a single inconsequential leaf in a mammoth national forest.  That’s what David is saying with this memorable comparison.

The character of the argument is both physical and aesthetic.  As I write, the Cassini-Solstic probe is investigating the planet Saturn.  To get there, this incredible spacecraft spent seven years journeying more than 2.2 billion miles at speeds that are unimaginable.  Consider those kinds of numbers, and then ask yourself what is man?
But our mattering so little also an aesthetic sort of thing.  How awesome are we, really, when compared to the diamond-studded night sky?  We really don’t matter all that much.

But the song’s last bars have yet to be sung.  All this belittling David is up to—it has cause, of course, because the greatest miracle is not a night sky or unfathomable, cosmic distances.  Something there is, of course, that’s even more miraculous.
All the more reason for praise.  All the more reason for joy.  All the more reason for thanksgiving.

Friday, October 26, 2018


Image result for pawnees

Sometime after he spent forty years as a missionary to the Pawnees, the Rev. Samuel Allis wrote up a memoir, a colorful record of the time he spent as a lay pastor touting salvation in Jesus to those who had never heard. Eventually, he worked also as a teacher and a linguist. Forty Years among the Indians and on the Eastern Borders of Nebraska recounts his difficulties, as well as those of the Pawnees, who were not as fierce and warlike as their neighbors, the Sioux, and therefore often suffered many a bloody attack. 

Most Protestant missionaries who ventured into the backwoods of the continent in the early years of the 19th century were schooled back east by fiery abolitionists who carried a devotion laced up tight by fierce commitments to reshape the world for the King of Heaven and Earth, commitments those missionaries, like Rev. Allis, shared, in spades, intense, almost blinding commitments.

"An old Indian told me once he knew one of his tribe to whom appeared a beaver that wanted him to give the beaver his three sons," Allis remembers. It's a tale told by the Pawnees, and Allis can't help but bring it up, a very strange tale told by people who believed animals sometimes had important things to say.

The man had three fine boys, Allis says, repeating the story, the myth. The beaver very clearly spells out the terms: he gets the boys, but the man prospers, does very well in life.  

That Allis is skeptical is obvious--not just of the beaver, but of the whole silly yarn. 

Anyway, the father of three sons refuses the offer "for he loved his sons very much." The beaver then politely asks for two, and is, once again rebuffed, at which point that beaver leaves "very much dissatisfied."

That decision, Allis says, "bore heavily" on the father's mind too. He had trouble sleeping and began to have all kinds of bad luck until he reconsidered his options, at which time he even "consulted the Great Spirit," who let him know that he was not particularly happy with the man's seeming selfishness. So the man returned to the beaver and gave him just one of his beloved sons. 

That's not the end of the yarn. The beaver's warm promises held true: the boy lived with the beaver for several years before he was returned to his father, "a fine looking fellow." 

"I believe many Indians would improve their appearance in a similar way," Allis says, a bit of an unfeeling remark, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but who am I to judge? "Probably," the missionary says, "like Nebuchadnezzar, he ate grass and his finger nails grew like eagle's claws."

So much for the beaver, the son, and the whole silly story.

But I couldn't help think of a story an old Navajo told me a decade ago, a Christian believer, in fact, who said he remembered the missionary coming to his family's hogan, then sitting there around the fire and talking, telling Bible stories maybe. "Once upon a time there were three young men who walked right into a fire and were not burned," he might have said. 

When he'd leave, the old Navajo said, his father would shrug his shoulders as if the man was talking nonsense. "When will we eat?" he might well have said, looking at his wife.

There's danger and violence in Rev. Allis's old memoir too, but the simple stories of miscommunication may well be the most human.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Italy viii--Sublime to absurd

Magnificence abounds in old Italy, an ancient world so far beyond imagination that you don't really see it per se--you step through some huge, carved door and you're simply in it, inescapably. Magnificence is so abundant that you fall into silence. You have to remember to breathe.

You don't even half to go inside in some places to feel your lungs constrict. So much around you just takes your breath away.

It's good to be reminded that the Italian economy is a long ways from healthy, run as it is on a huge service industry--tourism. Even though hundreds of thousands of tourists line the streets in Rome any day of the year, tourism is just about all there is to Italy right now. As a result of their economic woes, Italians suffer from the same political tensions, the same splits as most of us in the West do. They too have their Trumps.

Establishment politics favor continued reliance on the European Union, while upstart nationalists rage about keeping Italy, Italy in the face of out-of-control immigration, especially from Muslim lands across the Mediterranean, as well as something akin to colonization--as nationalist leaders like to say--by its European neighbors, Germany especially. The Five-Star Movement has become immensely popular, even though as a political party it has been around for less than a decade. Five-Star rads are defiantly "Eurosceptic"--skeptical about the EU. Nationally, divisions are huge and conflicts rage. Thus, occasionally one sees new political slogans on ancient stone facades. 

Graffitti in public toilets.

Occasionally, just occasionally, you'll see some homelessness, some vagrancy. 

Economic and political woes aside, Italy isn't much different from other Western democracies. But, as throughout Europe specifically, where two or three hundred thousand tourists mingle, there will be more than a few pickpockets. They're worse in Barcelona, some say, but there must be hundreds, even thousands in Italy.

Image result for avoid italian pickpockets

At one stop, two girls--literally, girls, maybe 12 years old, probably less--crowded on to a subway beside us and a thousand others. It was madness. When the doors were finally closed, we became sardine subjects. They were children really, but one had already grabbed a bag from one of our party's purse when two Italian women howled and screamed and pointed at the perps, chewed them out as if the girls were their own daughters. 

In a moment, tiny as they were, the two perps were gone, that little bag one of them had swiped retrieved from the floor. 

It was a strangely wonderful moment. No one had lost anything, a blessing; and we'd been saved from Italians by Italians. It was the locals who screamed and, in all likelihood, cursed at the two little perps, made them disappear. In an odd way, we felt privileged to be under the wings of those women.

If one or more of us had been robbed in that subway, our entire sojourn would have been affected greatly. Instead, a couple of locals yelled and screamed and kept us safe.

My advice? Go ahead, love the place. Fall into sheer awe at St. Peters Square. Let the Coliseum and the cathedrals snatch your breath away. 

But no more. Keep your hand on your wallet.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Italy vii--Photobombed

This isn't my picture. I didn't take it--I picked it up from Pinterest. It's taken inside the incredible Gothic cathedral in Sienna, Tuscany. I didn't stand right there either. We didn't go inside. No matter. Look for yourself. The picture alone takes your breath away. What's in that old cathedral is really beyond imagining.

And here's the place from outside, the Siena Duomo, the Cathedral of Sienna, that great Gothic cathedral. This is not my picture either. I could have taken it, I mean I stood right there, but for some reason I didn't snap the shot. I picked this one up from Google. 

This church, like so many others, is, trust me, a magnificent, ancient structure whose sheer accomplishment is stunning. Three doorways of equal height stand at the front. If you follow those three huge doors up into that spectacular facade, you'll discover three triangular golden mosaics, the large one in the center obviously most celebrated. That one, the coronation of Mary, explains the dedication of the church--to the Mother of Jesus Christ. 

The left doorway's mosaic tells the story of the boy Jesus's first visit to the temple. Mary looks a bit saddened or shocked, as she must have been, and Joseph, head bowed, has taken with him a lamb for some symbolic reasons. Jesus takes the hand of the prelate and smiles back at his parents graciously. It's a leave-taking. 

We didn't spend much time at the Siena Duomo. We were, right then, listening to our phones, where Rick Steves described and explained the cathedral. We just kept on walking, and I don't remember regretting not entering either, not seeing inside. 

What kept us away almost had to have been a conspiracy of time and exhaustion. We needed to catch the bus back to Florence, and our Sienna visit wasn't the first day of the trip. We'd already been in some monstrously beautiful cathedrals. Besides, we were being thoughtfully and artfully lectured. 

And then there's this: even this level of magnificence is eventually wearying. 

Yesterday, I discovered one reason for such full-blown exhaustion when I was looking over my pictures of the Siena Duoma, thousands of miles removed. Here's that picture. It's the mosaic above the right-hand door.

I had the big lens on the camera, so I thought I should reach for something, and I did. If you look up at the cathedral's facade, above, you'll find this mosaic (set there only recently--1877, by the way) far above the right-hand door. It's the Holy Family (should that be upper case?) and an angel, who's looking up at Mary almost imploringly. If there is a biblical story, I'm not sure what it is exactly, but then no one is going to fight with the image.

But I got photobombed. Look up in the right-hand corner. Two dogs--greyhounds, weimaraners?--sit there, perfectly sideways, hundreds of feet up in the air, observing something, positioned in a way that makes it unlikely they're seeing what we're seeing from the front. What on earth are they doing there? Why would anyone make sure there are dogs far, far up on the facade? There must be a reason. Why? 

I took the picture--the last three, in fact. I saw this all through the lens of my camera, extended to all of its 300mm, and I never spotted those dogs. I didn't see them until yesterday. There's just too much.

Even if you know very little about art or history or religion, truth be told, you could spend six months' studying the Siena Duomo or a hundred other sites in old Italy. We didn't have six months to spend in Siena. Few tourists ever will. 

The magnificence just doesn't quit in old Italy, but eventually, sadly enough, we do. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Italy vi--What a piece of work. . .

That messy thing this guy is raising like a trophy, it's a woman's head--note the long knife in his right hand. Lovers of antiquity will recognize the killer immediately, but the rest of us need to read: it's Perseus, who's defending his mother by killing Medusa, the beautiful woman with snakes for hair, a woman with the nasty habit of turning those who look at her to stone. It's a long story.

Just to be sure, here's this immense sculpture from the front.

Sort of. From the side really, and only his upper half. I guess I'm more squeamish than the Renaissance sculptors, who rendered the gods like Perseus and Medusa buck naked. To me, one of the most memorable places on our sojourn in Italy was the Loggia dei Lanzi, an arched outdoor sculpture gallery created in the 14th century as a place where dignitaries could stand outside on the village square and not get wet in the rain or burned in the Italian sun.

Today, it's an incredible statuary, among the most visited in the world; and its most famous single piece of work--despite the brutality--is Perseus here, who's been in the Loggia since 1554. Let me say that again: this young killer, made of bronze, has stood right there, Medusa's head in his hand, since 1554. 

Pardon me for a moment while I swallow my squeamishness. Here he is in the all-together. And yes, if you're wondering, that's Medusa's headless, naked corpse beneath his feet.

Now Perseus had good reasons for doing what he did, and Medusa, despite her beauty, was not without her own treachery. Nonetheless, the Loggia statuary is not particularly kind to women. Yet another incredible work is The Rape of the Sabine Women, sometimes called The Seduction of the Sabine Women (you may find it listed under both names), because there is some question about what the word rape meant in the 16th century, when the piece was first set in Loggia. Here 'tis. Go ahead and wince.

The glory of sculpture, Michelangelo claimed, was that it was the only art form that rendered our humanity in perfect imitation of life itself. This twisting picture of human violence can be viewed from anywhere. Every inch of its exposure is all us. He was right, and sometimes it's almost terrifying. Look at that arm's fateful reach.

Another sculpture from the Loggia, The Rape of Polyxena. More naked brutality.

No grouping of art pieces was as striking to me as the statues in the Loggia, a corner on the square at the palace of the Medicis in Florence. We stood there in awe on a night when this country was going through a difficult moment, the hearings for a man nominated for the Supreme Court of the land, a man accused of attempted rape three decades in his past through testimony I read about as being emotionally riveting. In a way, I was relieved to have missed all of that because it would have consumed me, probably as the stories here retold in brass and marble consumed those who knew them a thousand years ago. 

But it was also the sheer power of all the sculpture, these bigger-than-life renditions of stories peopled with characters with perfectly glorious bodies, muscled--each of them--like chiseled body builders. Just about all of them are sculpted in violence, often violence against women. As specimens of humanity these incredible sculptures take your breath away. Their sheer and perfect nakedness is beguiling but brutal. 

It's a measure of Renaissance glory, we're told, the desire of the age to glorify our humanity in its rawest form, after medieval darkness insisted the only glory was in the divine life yet to come. Look at this, Renaissance sculptors insisted, this is us. We're something. We really are.
What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?  Hamlet.
 In Florence, don't miss Loggia. In truth, you can't. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

Italy v--Worship

Even though you don't see it happening all that often, some people come to Italy and walk into churches to worship. They do. While I was walking around, slack-jawed at the the breath-taking grandeur of The Church of Santa Maria, Florence, what looked to be an extended family took seats in the wooden pews in front of a chapel of that cathedral, and two priests took their places behind the altar. 

The gathered seemed a family because they were all Asian, but they may well have been residents of Florence and regular worshipers at the Church of Santa Maria. Somehow, they'd arranged something of a private mass--at least they were the only ones in attendance, and the service took place in a chapel, off to the side of the incredible nave. 

Up high and off to the left you'll see some art work that's clearly unfinished, unusual in cathedrals as famous as Santa Maria.

If you look back up at the shot at the top, you'll see half-finished characters, part of an entire setting that seems a work that never got done, an old-time work-in-progress. 

I don't remember the story, but that unfinished wall reminded me of other cathedrals in Europe, houses of worship that bear scars set in the fleshy excesses Roman Catholicism by hard-headed Calvinists who were bound and determined not only to bring down idols, but cleanse God's house of all that phony finery created by a Christianity they'd determined had gone to rot--and the pope, the anti-Christ.

There's more unfinished in the Church of Santa Maria; but in Italy, it seems a rare find. Most of Europe was changed by the Reformation, but Italy never really suffered the scourge of Calvinism--or even, more generally, Protestantism. For reasons which may well have to do with the immense grandeur of what the Catholic church had accrued through the centuries, Luther's re-formation never bothered Florence or Venice or Rome itself all that much, even though Calvinist warfare raged elsewhere in Europe. 

Perhaps the Benedictine order in place here in Santa Maria since the 11th century (that's not a typo) simply ran out of money and couldn't finish the art work begun in the chapel beside the nave. 

Whatever happened, I couldn't help but think of my own Calvinist ancestors rubbing out the excess from cathedrals they determined to purge of their excesses; and I must admit, as I often do in ancient cathedrals, I was beset by the same weird juxtaposition of feelings. At once, oddly enough, I'm appalled at what my people did, and thankful. The wondrous sensory experience of great Roman Catholic cathedrals leaves me speechless for a time. But then, soon enough, a kind of sensory overload cripples perception, and there's just too much. 

That's when I recognize my own fundamental Calvinist DNA. 

So there I was when this mass went on up front, a half-dozen people up close in the pews, above them the soaring arches of the Church of Santa Maria and beside them a wall for some reason left unfinished. 

And then the priest who did the homily came down from behind the altar and stood in front of the family in the pews, stood there a couple feet away to tell them what he thought that day they needed to know. The picture reminded me of childhood Sunday School, before churches insisted on education wings, a time when classes from third and fourth grades up met in pews in different sections of the nave. When he came down to speak to them, it seemed very Vatican II. 

Here in the Church of Not Just Any Saint, but the Church of Saint Mary, there's a varied assembly of historical moments in Christianity--the overpowering grandeur of a cathedral a thousand years old, a wall unfinished and somehow reminiscent of nothing less than the Reformation, and a priest who comes down from behind the altar to talk, oh, so familiarly, to worshipers, just a few who'd that afternoon asked to take the host.

Some cathedrals have long ago become world-class museums to those who, like me, can't help but stare in bewonderment at the sheer magnificence. But just for a moment, there in a chapel off to the side, I watched people do more than stare. I saw people worship. 

Of the Church of Santa Maria, right there in on its own square in Florence, Italy, what I'll remember best is not the massive sculptures, the flying buttresses, or the immense bible story paintings. 

What I'll remember is a half dozen people worshiping God.  

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Last Judgment(s)

“He summons the heavens above, 
and the earth, that he may judge his people:. . . “ Psalm 50:4

“Judgment begins at the house of God,” Spurgeon says in his explanation of this verse of Psalm 50.  “The trial of the visible people of God will be a most awful ceremonial.  He will thoroughly purge his floor.”

If Charles Spurgeon is right, then, in this song of praise to the righteous judge, God is cleaning house. “He will discern between his nominal and his real people,” Spurgeon says, “and that in open court, the whole universe looking on. My soul,” he asks—and not rhetorically, I don’t believe—“when this actually takes place, how will it fare with thee? Canst thou endure the day of his coming?”

Hebrew verbs, I’m told, are distressingly vague when it comes to tense, which makes this vision somewhat ambiguous.  Spurgeon thinks its reference is "the Last Judgment," as Michaelangelo rendered it, so painstakingly, on the great wall of the Sistine Chapel. 

But the whole vision might well be a sermon in and of itself, with God preaching a lesson specifically designed for Israelis putting too much stock, so to speak, in their own sacrifices. The present tense ("summons") suggests that Asaph may be seeing a dream more than delivering a prophecy.

If the event at the heart of this psalm is what Spurgeon says it is—something akin to Michaelangelo's Last Judgment, then why is there no suggestion of heaven or hell are. The after-life, it seems to me, is conspicuously absent.  Promised rewards and threatened punishments are offered in terms of this world—verses 15 and 22—and not the next.  Where is this court and when was it held?  Is it still in session?  Or is it yet to come?

I don’t believe Charles Spurgeon is wrong in asking his soul if it’s ready for the final judgment, but I’m not as sure as he is that Psalm 50 is some prophetic view of that single, last heavenly tribunal. 

Here as elsewhere—or so it seems to me—revelation, by which I mean our hearing the very voice of God--is not in the facts of the verse, but in the truth or moral of the psalm itself, specifically, in what Asaph claims God tells us, believer and unbeliever alike. It seems to me that the heft of this psalm is homily, an admonition to humanity to live right, and for that reason isn’t in any sense “final.”

In Egypt, under bondage, the people of Israel had simply forgotten the God of Abraham. They didn’t remember him. Years had passed, piety waned, discipline fell away. In Egypt, his chosen had to be reminded that way back in some bleary ancient past, there was this God of their forefathers. Who was he again?

Psalm 50 isn’t closing the book; it’s a vision of God having, once again, to remind his people who they are and who he is. Because Israel needed that reminder.  

I ought to say it this way.  God’s people need (present tense) that reminder, time and time again.

And time and time again. 

And time and time again.  

Friday, October 19, 2018

Italy iv--Belforte Tower, Vernazza.

Estimates vary. Some claim its origins are in the 11th century, some say 12th, some say 13th. It did require and receive rehabilitation a couple decades ago, but the Belforte Tower remains an icon, a symbol of Vernazza's charm and beauty on the very spot it was created a thousand years ago. 

That it's military fortification goes without question. If you follow the winding steps up to the tower, the view is extraordinary, although magnificent views of the villages of the Cinque Terra are--I'm not lying--a dime a dozen. Five villages--plus a tiny suburb or two--cling so precariously to the mountains they inhabit that you can't help but wonder what mad man, a thousand years ago, determined the area inhabitable and, more than that, worth defending.

The Cinque Terra are so picturesque that they've become their own national park. You could arm a cloud of seagulls with Instamatics, set those little cameras danging from their feet, then loose those gulls above the coastline, and an hour later collect tens of thousands of picture postcards. Even in clouds, the Cinque Terra is can't miss photography.

So I'm up there when a young couple, one of many, is there too. Just now, around Belforte Tower, there's some fencing, keeping people off; and the girl is wondering about that, about whether sometime you could actually climb right up to the very top of the tower and watch for pirate enemies. 

"I imagine," her significant other said. "Right now, it's under construction."

I couldn't help giggling, not at him but at the odd word choice, the idea of that age-old fortification being "under construction." It's a thousand years old. 

Then he told her he wanted to take her picture. Soon enough, she was posing, as thousands do every day in Italy--at the St. Peter's Square, The Uffizi, the Vatican Museums. On any one day in Italy, a million or more pictures are taken, a number that vastly exceeds the number shot in the first hundred years of photographic history.

And all those smart-phone portraits have made people fancy pose-rs. By sheer repetition, young women have learned how to stand. On bridges over Venetian canals, a dozen at a time look straight out of Vogue

So did she, this young woman, an American--right here at the wall around the tower, nothing but sea for background.

The wind was blowing just enough to toss her hair a bit and reveal what I hadn't noticed before: a bit of a baby bump. She stood there posing, clearly and proudly with child. 

The weather was maybe a touch on the dreary side that day, cloudy and overcast with intermittent drizzle that did little more than wet the stones. But somehow, posed there beneath a tower constructed, stone by stone, a thousand years ago, the image of brand new life a'comin seemed to me to be worth a thousand words. I wish I'd have caught it.

I'm sure he did. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Italy iii--at Vivaldi's place

Strangely enough, a midwife baptized Antonio Vivaldi the moment he was born. Those who speculate on such things claim tiny Antonio might have been sickly. Others point to an earthquake that hit Venice just then, an event that traumatized the new parents. And then there are those who say that his mother rushed things along and thereby devotedly consecrated her new baby boy for the priesthood.

If that's true, she was successful because her son became a priest, a musical priest, at a small church (for Italy and Venice)--this one, Chiessa Della Pieta, a gorgeous place long ago connected to the Devout Hospital of Mercy (Ospedia del Pieta), an orphanage for abandoned street kids, where Vivaldi wrote and taught music for thirty years--and where the young women he taught performed. This is Vivaldi's own church, where he wrote most of his music. We were there for a concert in the very church where abandoned girls from off the street were taught his music. 

His most beloved work, The Four Seasons, was written far away in Mantua, where he lived for three years, and where the inspiration for the music, which includes the sounds of the seasons, must have risen from the countryside where he walked. 

No matter. It was pure blessing to sit in Vivaldi's church, where his students performed, and listen to his most famous work done by a sextet of strings and a harpsichord, played by musicians who throughout the text appeared to speak to each other through the movements of the music. 

Two women from Germany sat beside us. One of them told me that they'd flown to Florence that afternoon simply for the concert. Vivaldi is loved.

 Way up there atop the altar piece, The Visitation of Mary, the words Altare Privilegitum (the Altar of Privilege) are boldly printed. Here--

The reference is to the altar itself, the place where mass is celebrated at Chiessa Della Pieta, where Vivaldi himself may have served--and most certainly was served--the Eucharist. 

I couldn't help thinking--may I be forgiven!--that ours, that night, in his church, was a wholly different "altar of privilege," a blessing all the same. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Morning Thanks--Nombuntu

Zimbabwe was once Rhodesia. If you're old enough to remember, the name change meant a great deal about how the country was ruled, but very little with respect to human suffering. When Zimbabwe was Rhodesia, it was ruled by a white minority so small that its only means of governing was by shedding blood. In 1960, 300,000 whites ruled eight million blacks--not only a recipe for disaster, the white colonial government was one.

When, in February of 1980, after endless civil wars, a school teacher named Robert Mugabe, a man who had embraced Marxism and become a true revolutionary in colonial Rhodesia, was named Prime Minister, his ZANU party took control of a government finally purged of white-minority rule. For almost forty years, Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe--the new name--just as ruthlessly as any white predecessor, even though very soon many of the country's black populace feared and hated him. He became, it seemed, their President-for-life. 

Just last year, about this time, Mugabe, 94 years old and determined to stay in power, sacked his first vice-president and thereby brought on impeachment proceedings from his majority opposition. When he correctly read situation, he resigned after having secured some richly undeserved clemency for the horrors he'd committed through his almost forty years in power.

For more than a century, the story of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe has been rife with horror, no matter who led the government. Widespread starvation has been a constant. The country's bountiful natural resources have been cut off at the knees. The future of tourism is in question: who wants to visit a country where all too regularly bodies are dug up where no one knew they were buried? For more than a century, people have simply disappeared.

That's what I know about Zimbabwe. That's just about what any North American my age can remember: for more than a century it's been a wild and angry place, human rights largely non-existent. 

Last night, five Zimbabwean women who call themselves Nobuntu walked out on stage at the Northwestern Chapel and offered a dozen or so harmonies nurtured from Zimbabwian soil. Most of what they sang was traditional. What wasn't was rooted there anyway. 

And it was beautiful. I'm doubtful any one in the audience was familiar was anything they sang, save a strikingly African version of "Amazing Grace." Otherwise, what they offered the audience was totally foreign, drawn from a place very few Americans know anything about. What they offered was beauty, plain and simple, the whole group an ambassadorship of music totally their own drawn from a country that has known little but conflict.

It's always spiritually refreshing to know that somehow, amid all the grief and sadness, ordinary people can sing, can create art and music that delivers a kind of joy very little else can bring. A couple times during the concert, Nobuntu tried to get an almost all-white, North American audience to sing along, not with words so much as sound. Somehow, they were remarkably successful. 

But their crowning achievement was simply in charming an audience who'd never heard an all-woman Zimbabwean a cappella group perform lilting harmonies drawn from homelands where, for more than a century, peace and beauty haven't been easy to come by. 

They were themselves a gift, for which, this morning, I'm thankful.

Related image

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Italy ii--Dante Alighieri, a ghost story

Strangely enough, Dante loved the church's teaching--his Divine Comedy follows just about everything he'd learned; but the church itself, in the Comedy, is a wretched den of thieves. Seems odd. The path he himself takes to salvation--his epic poem is something of a memoir--is the very same path the church laid out as the road to redemption.

But priests and friars?--by Dante's measure, they were philanderers, cheats and crooks. That his Divine Comedy was not blacklisted when finally it appeared in 1472 (once the printing press was rolling) can only be attributed to the likelihood that his distaste for corrupt clergy was not a minority view. Most everyone must have agreed.

Dante had been banished from his beloved Florence, but not for heresy--for politics. He'd sided with the losers a steamy power grab, lost his station, and ended up dying far away from the city of his birth, the city he so greatly loved. That today his statue is in Florence is a blessing he would have treasured--and still may.

There's confidence in his face, don't you think? But then, Dante was not just some obscure Tuscan scribbler. People knew him, knew his work; and when he died, this face might well have made the cover of Time.

He considered himself a channel of God almighty, was greatly confident that in the process of writing the Divine Comedy, he'd been in touch with the voice of God, a "sacred poem," he calls his work. He may not have thought of what he wrote as scripture, but there seems little doubt of his conviction that God had pushed that quill along the parchment when he described in poetic detail the path to Glory. 

What he tried to do, what he wanted to do, and what he did is to explain almost everything known in the late Middle Ages. It's all there on the path to heavenly glory: the horror of Hell, the irresolution of Purgatory, the sublimity of Heaven. Dante himself is both narrator and protagonist. The Divine Comedy is his and, as he would have it, ours as well.

In his book Dante: A Brief History, Peter S. Hawkins claims that, at the end of the Comedy Dante can't help but mention his very personal longing to return to Florence:

If it should happen. . .If this sacred poem--
this work so shared by heaven and by earth
that it has made me lean through these long years --
can ever overcome the cruelty
that bars me from the fair fold where I slept,
a lamb opposed to wolves on it,
by then with other voice, with other fleece
I shall return as poet and put on,
at my baptismal font, the laurel crown;
for there I first found entry to that faith
which makes souls welcome unto God, . . . 

Little more than a week ago, for two nights I slept right there, across one of Florence's own cavernous streets from Dante's little church, and, presumably, that very font where he was baptized as a child, the spot he locates as his entry to the faith that propelled his pilgrimage through the afterlife.

It doesn't look the same exactly. He was born in a house, a little one, something of a hovel. Today, four and five story buildings stand all around, as they have for centuries.

But the church is still right there where it was a thousand years ago. 

It was a joy to think that somewhere near that very spot, that Algihieri boy ("you know--the one who became the poet"), that little boy began to learn what he needed to know to write that long, long poem about life and death and all of what comes after. 

I'd like to think he still haunts the place, smiling, very much at home. For two days and three nights, I slept less than a stone's throw from where he was born, just across the street from his church where he was baptized. 

You shouldn't consider all of this fuss to be worship, but if you want to think of me right there, you certainly may imagine me in the silence of sheer awe.