Thursday, September 29, 2011

Old Family Bibles

BiblesDo you have a collection of old family Bibles?  Leaf through them and see what falls out.  Sadly, I did not pay attention to the roads my musty Bibles traveled before they checked themselves into odd spaces on my bookshelves.

I will never know which relative slipped a 4-page leaflet titled “Two died for me” into a 1913 New York American Bible Society translation. I surmise from a Google search that the tract that presents the story of Jim, who went to a watery grave to save the life of a shipmate, was published in the 1930s and is part of the Adventist archives.

This put me in mind of other flotsam that has floated from the pages of my old Bibles – a favorite poem, a rose-bordered memorial card, yellowed clippings of obituaries, the cryptic scribble of a graveyard row and lot number where an ancestor might be found if the scribbler had thought to include the name of the cemetery. There are more stories in an old family Bible than the parables these pages produce.

My favorite story is not my own, but my friend Barbara’s. After her mother died Barbara found a note in her mother’s handwriting tucked between the pages of her Bible.  The note was not addressed to anyone particular, it simply said “Do not worry.  I am just fine.”

We often think about family history.  We record the dates of births, marriages and deaths in family Bibles, or we used to before the advent of These records don’t say much about our spiritual history though.  The clues we find or leave, the passages we underline, the notes we take tell a bit more.
There is an advertisement that suggests that our success in life can be determined by an answer to the question, “what’s in your wallet?” Perhaps our hearts are revealed by the answer to a different question.  What’s in your Bible?  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Because we can

This morning I read in my morning devotional that our souls are preserved by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the pungent fragrance of strawberry jam bubbling on the stove filled the air around me. Perhaps a reason we have trouble making our faith real is because so few of us can anymore. We’ve traded long hours in front of the stove for long hours bent over a computer.  What we’ve gained in mental stimulation we’ve lost in the sensory input that is our soul’s nerve endings.

Strawberries are like people, beautiful for a season and then they die unless they are preserved. Preserving strawberries is a process much like the work of the Holy Spirit. Years ago I took my young daughter out into a field in Watsonville and we picked strawberries. Some fell easily into our hands.  Some had to be tugged. We left the ones with a hard green side to ripen in the sun. We mourned those bloated with rot, left them on the ground to feed the soil for next year’s crop.

Back in the kitchen, our work began.  We prepared the fruit: culling, washing, removing stems and imperfections. Strawberry juice ran down our arms, dripped onto the floor and we barefooted through the mess, moving from counter to sink to stove. The linoleum floor got sticky. The air got hot as summer poured in through the open patio door and steam rose from the Revereware pot full of fruit simmering on the stove.

We added sugar to intensify the flavor, tasted and it was good. We sterilized glass jars to protect the fruit, ladled in the sweet steamy stuff, screwed down the lids and popped a batch into the canner for processing.  Our fingers burned touching the hot glass.

Was it precious little yield for so much work? Perhaps, but seeing the pints and quarts of gleaming fruit lined up on the kitchen counter like victorious soldiers on parade in smart dress uniforms, smelling the nectar-soaked air in the kitchen, cradling a softened whole berry in the curve of our tongues while warm fruity sauce filled our mouths, it was heaven!

Preserving fruit is a meditation on the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s a long, messy,  painful, engaging, exhilarating experience. There are steps and sequences, waiting periods and celebration times.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Psalm 34:8

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Prophets, Playwrights and Shepherds

Don’t these times just cry out for a Jeremiah, a man with God’s words in his mouth? Wouldn’t we welcome a Shakespeare with the wit and wisdom to fence with human foible? How about a Moses with a mandate to move his people to a place of prosperity?

 I’m looking for prophets who can state clearly, “this is what you are doing wrong and this is what you need to do to turn it around.” I’m watching for playwrights who can do justice to the world stage. I’m waiting for that shepherd who can part the seas that rage before us.

I’m listening for their voices, and I’m hearing a few.

When violence reminiscent of the sixties sci-fi novella A Clockwork Orange raged in London,  Britain’s chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks laid the blame squarely at the feet of moral decline (See the Wall Street Journal 09/20-21/2011). He finds it indefensible that we have placed the entire child-rearing burden on mostly single mothers. “By the time boys are in their early teens they are physically stronger than their mothers. Having no fathers, they are socialized in gangs. No one can control them.”  Sacks concludes that governments can’t change lives, only religion can do that – “not as doctrine but as a shaper of behavior, a tutor in morality, an ongoing seminar in self-restraint and pursuit of the common good.” Sacks calls us to return to our Judeo-Christian heritage.

In Oregon, Ashland Shakespeare Festival director Amanda Dehnert examines the sin of pride in human behavior.  She has staged Julius Caesar with a chilling urban guerilla force that drives a dagger into the heart of the audience. When Vilma Silva in the role of Caesar demonstrates the power of an actor to both summon and suppress audience response, we come face to face with how easily people are manipulated for political ends.

I thought about this edgy production when I watched our local production Annie, a delightful, feel-good romp. Who would dare bring Annie into the 21st century?  Instead of the work house, today’s Annie might have a short life at the intersection of child trafficking and the sex trade.  I don’t think it would sell many tickets. Still, there is hope for true grit in some recent stage plays that pack a power punch. Two Pulitzer winners, August: Osage County by Tracy Letts and Next to Normal by Brain Yorkey and Tom Kitt come to mind. The first laughs at family dysfunction and then parades the terrible wounds. The second dramatizes the devastation of mental illness. Perhaps it takes a dramatist to help us seriously consider the pain of what we normally treat as sitcom fodder.

Shepherds are more difficult to identify. Certainly some leaders are surfacing, people who have pledged to spend their vast fortunes down to the last penny to solve world problems. Bill Gates is tackling hunger. Warren Buffet is making strategic investments in the stalled U.S. economy hoping the right jumpstart will get the engine going again.  There are others, but none who can roust the oppressors with convincing plagues on their houses or offer heart transplants to the oppressed who want for faith, hope and courage. Only the Good Shepherd can do that. We may find ourselves with an enemy at our backs and a seawall in our face before we recognize him.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The High Road

When I chose to major in English at U.C. Berkeley my reasons were simple and self-serving.  I got my best grades in English and I loved to read. Times were turbulent (it was the 1960s) as they are now and the future was uncertain.  Most women I knew were on autopilot. We set our course to include an education and possibly a job before we married and started raising kids. It was not at all certain that a career would figure into the equation.

I just finished reading Joseph Epstein’s review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel (WSJ August 27-28, 2011), a 1,244 page tome that rates American literature on a scale of how the classics treat our narrow agendas on gender, race and class. Says Epstein:
Multiculturalism, which assigned an equivalence of value to the works of all cultures, irrespective of the quality of those works, finished off the distinction between high and low culture, a distinction whose linchpin was seriousness.

In simpler terms, Epstein is taking lit professors to task for teaching books of questionable quality to study that speak to their own biases  instead of encouraging students to cull the classics for timeless truth. The result is that even fewer people major in English now and serious readers are on their own in their quest for good books. Epstein characterizes the modern English department as an intellectual nursing home where old ideas go to die.

I was mighty depressed to read this, but the second to last paragraph perked me right up. Epstein explained that English majors of old were always “a slightly odd and happily non-conformist group.”
 He nailed it when he said we didn’t major in English with any thought to being able to work for a living. 
One was an English major because one was intoxicated by literature – its beauty, its force, above all its high truth quotient. 
Be still my heart if that isn’t the honest to God reason why I majored in English. Sadly, there are fewer of us oddball non-conformists besotted with the notion of truth these days.

So here’s the point.  Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be English majors.  Let them be business and economic majors instead. But don’t send them to University without a good grounding in the classics first.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


My manicurist squinted at the color of shellac she was applying to my nails.  “That looks like the color of bubblegum,” she said.

“I hate bubblegum!”  My fingers stiffened.
“I’m sorry! Do you want me to change the color?”

“Eeeuuuww!  Now I can taste that nasty stuff in my mouth. It reminds me of the gum dream.”  I turned to the woman sitting in the chair next to me who regarded me wide-eyed. “Didn’t you ever have the gum dream, where your wad of chewing gum takes on a life of its own? You try to pull it out but it sticks to your teeth. The more you pull out, the bigger it gets and the nastier it tastes?”

“Where do you come up with this stuff?”  She asked, staring at me as if I were an exotic bird that might bite.

I thought the gum dream was universal – like flying dreams, naked dreams and not remembering your high school locker combination dreams – apparently not though, because I didn’t find it in my Mystical Magical Marvelous World of Dreams book.

My manicurist took another look.  “Actually, it’s more the color of Pepto-Bismol.”

I yanked my hand from her grasp and glared at her.  “Two strikes,” I said.
She recoiled and went into deep thought mode. “It’s princess pink.” She smiled like a mom trying to get her kid to take a bitter pill disguised as candy.

“Three strikes.” I’m a hard customer.

Across the room the salon owner was doing a comb out. In a gracious, tip-saving gesture she suggested that my now humbled nail girl look at the bottle to see what they named the color.
Nail girl flipped over the bottle.  Everyone in the salon held their breath. “Pink Dawn?”

“Lovely.” I offered her my hand. The salon breathed a sigh of relief.
In fact, I’m doing a puzzle of the Grand Canyon that has exactly that shade of pink. Now my nails match my jigsaw puzzle and my manicure reminds me of an Arizona sunrise.

 I’m still wondering what the gum dream means.