Book Glutton

bookshelf 7-23-2019

I am a glutton. Not with food—well, not usually—but with books. I look at the books on my shelves, many of which I still have not read, and I want to dive into all of them at once. When I pick up a hefty book like Kristen Lavransdatter, War and Peace, or Bleak House, I want to devour it in huge chunks. I want to fill myself to the brim with all the delicious words I just know are waiting for me between the covers. I recently made the plunge into George R. R. Martin’s massive Song of Ice and Fire (five volumes and counting). Proust’s complete In Search of Lost Time (4,211 pages according to Amazon), has been sitting by my bedside, waiting patiently for at least two years now. There are literally hundreds of classic books I have not read in the world, not to mention those old favorites that I want to re-read. Every year a new batch of great books is published, both fiction and non-fiction. I don’t want to read some of them; I want to read all of them! Right now I have four books going at once, which even by my standards is a bit much. Happily, they are all dissimilar enough that I am unlikely to confuse them.

In an effort to consume as many books as possible, I am tempted to read too quickly. Though I have never been and never intend to be a speed reader, I often gobble down more than I can comfortably digest. Just as I can be overwhelmed at a large buffet (remember, I said I’m not usually a glutton with food), the sheer quantity of great books tempts me to overfill my plate. I have to remind myself that I am not in a contest of quantity. I must remind myself to slow down. As author John Green says, “Being a slow reader can in some ways make you a better reader.” His brother Hank follows this advice up with, “An important part of reading is not reading.” Put the book down and contemplate what has just been read. Spend some time thinking, musing, and engaging the text through questions, thought experiments, and creative writing.

“Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words.” – Lindsay Waters

So tonight after supper, when I pick up a book (I’m not sure which one it will be yet), I will endeavor to savor the experience. Instead of counting pages, I will swim in them. If I drown, I can’t think of a better way to go.

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Crystal Clear Bible!

crystal clear bible

“Are you tired of ambiguity? Sick of long passages of meaningless genealogies and obsolete laws? Embarrassed by sex scenes?

“Well, fear no more! The new Crystal Clear Bible is here! All the answers you seek to life’s problems and today’s hot button issues can be found in easy to digest, tweetable chunks. No more contractions! No more room for interpretation! It’s all crystal clear! In less than 300 pages!

“Your favorite stories are included, minus the nasty bits. Distracting tangents have been eliminated. Problematic wording has been glossed over with feel-good aphorisms. Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ruth, and Job: Gone! Proverbs has been brought into alignment with current prosperity gospel thinking. Difficult foreign names have been Americanized because the Bible was written, after all, with the United States in mind.

“Take advantage of these helpful extras: Enjoy reading while you listen to your favorite contemporary Christian choruses using our handy praise tune concordance! Useful talking points are printed in red letters! Explanatory notes highlight allowable exceptions to the Ten Commandments. We have thoughtfully toned down Jesus’ anti-establishment rhetoric, and substituted family friendly quotes that we’re sure are what he actually meant to say.

“Buy now and receive a handy wallet card that puts the Bible’s main points at your fingertips. It’s all crystal clear!”
* * * * *
This was written after I attended a recent church meeting in which a contentious issue took center stage. One angry congregant rose to say, “Why are we even discussing this? The Bible is crystal clear!” This person went on to claim that opposing viewpoints were “dumbing down the Bible.” I would like to submit that dumbing down the Bible happens when we read it in a manner to make it appear crystal clear. To read it in such a simplistic manner is an insult to a tremendously complex and difficult book. It is also an insult to the reader. This is following sola scriptura to its logical and dangerous conclusion: that we set aside our brains whenever we open the Bible. This is, as Richard Rohr says, turning the Bible itself into an idol.

Bible study demands that we bring a lot to the table, including our experience, our knowledge, and our best thinking caps. To borrow a bit of advice from Peter Enns, we should ask ourselves two questions:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What do we do with it?

Those questions are tougher than they first appear (They are NOT crystal clear!), but we ignore them at our peril.

Morning Pages and Evening Pages and In-Between Pages

journals

Many people are familiar with the practice of writing Morning Pages thanks to Julia Cameron’s wildly popular and influential book The Artist’s Way. I first heard of them via a YouTube video from Lavendaire. The truth is, I had already been doing something similar for many years before I heard the term “Morning Pages.” I always just thought I was writing in my journal. Now there are subtle differences between journaling and Morning Pages which I won’t get into here, but suffice to say I am seldom without a notebook of some sort and a pen or pencil. (I actually prefer the latter; I’m a bit of a Charlie Brown with a pen. Peanuts readers will understand what I mean.)

The first journal entry I remember making was sometime when I was in junior high. (Middle school hadn’t been invented yet, at least not in Des Moines.) I had a dream about Agnetha Fältskog, the beautiful blonde singer in Abba, upon whom I had a boyhood crush. But this dream wasn’t about me having a torrid pre-pubescent affair with Agnetha. In this dream I actually BECAME Agnetha. (Details not forthcoming.) Upon awakening, it seemed odd enough to warrant writing down. That was the start of my “dream journal,” and for a long while recounting the previous night’s dreams made up the bulk of my journal entries.

After I started writing songs in earnest, lyrics began to take up more and more pages. The real flowering of my journal writing happened after I moved to Boston when I was 19. Favorite writing spots included the Reflection Pool at Christian Science Plaza late at night, the Charles River Esplanade while tanning in the afternoon, and Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, watching planes take-off and land at Logan Airport just across the Channel. Ideas from journals of that time found their way into letters to friends, elaborate plans for musicals and other large-scale projects that never happened, and above all: songs. Lots and lots of songs. Those journals are long gone now, and I very much wish I had them back.

So. Morning Pages. It was 3 or 4 years ago when I first watched Lavendaire’s video about them. Formalizing the journal writing routine has its plusses and minuses, but on balance I’d say the plusses win out. Making a deliberate habit of Morning Pages forces me to write even when I don’t feel like it. That’s important these days, when my creative spark doesn’t light as easily as it once did. Even though I write these blog posts (mostly) on computer, my Morning Pages (and I now call them that no matter what time of day it is when I write them) are always written by hand in notebooks with weird titles. And for the record, my favorite pencils are Blackwing Pearls by Palomino.

Keith Haring (Annotated)

KH

New York, 1983: a decayed monster slowly regaining life
True: the Lower East Side still looks like a battle ground,
42nd Street is still lined with porn shops
Bums still sleep on the curbs in the Bowery
But look! There’s art everywhere, though not everyone recognizes it.
Art to wear, to lean against, to walk on, to wallow in
I’m even sitting on some.
It covers abandoned buildings and billboards, junked cars in Alphabet City.
There are SAMO tags on St. Marks and aliens on the benches in Tompkins Square.

Mostly, I’m struck by the babies
Radiant babies in subway stations,
Along with barking dogs, flying saucers, televisions with arms and legs
It’s funny, cartoonish – just doodles
Primitive drawings in modern caves,
Backdrop for the city soundtrack:
Angry young punks, New Wave poseurs, art school poets
Screaming, rapping, howling, defacing the status quo.

Childish art precociously tackling racism, religion, greed
Here’s an ugly 4-letter word: AIDS
The cancer no one talks about
It will eventually take the father
But your babies continue to radiate with undimmed energy

Artist Keith Haring was just starting his climb to fame and fortune in New York in 1981, only two years before I arrived in Boston. Back then, you could hop on People Express Airlines for $25 at 6:00 in the morning, and be in Manhattan in just a couple of hours. The first time I made this trip was in 1983. I’d like to be able to say I was a hip insider of the downtown art/music scene, but the truth is, I was a wide-eyed Iowan with no knowledge of Keith Haring, the Mudd Club, or any of the other happening stuff.

Who was Samo? It was Jean-Michel Basqiat, who was about to become the art world’s favorite bad boy. The aliens were the creation of Kenny Scharf. That beautiful sound floating above it all was the unearthly voice of Klaus Nomi, who had already become the first start of the New York New Wave scene to succumb to AIDS.

Tino

Tino on cat tree

The most remarkable thing about Tino was his voice. This cat, this funny old orange tabby with the huge vocabulary; he loved opera, and vocalized accordingly, from basso profundo growls to soprano coloratura arias. He squeaked, chirped, barked, sang, and yowled. The one noise he didn’t make was “meow,” save for two times. The first time came immediately after I said, “Yeah, he can say a lot, but he never says plain old ‘meow.’” Tino looked directly at me and said, “Meow.” The second time was years later. My wife and I were reminiscing, and she said, “He only said ‘meow’ that one time, just to prove he could do it. He hasn’t said it since.”

“Meow,” said Tino.

He talked on the phone too, a fact no one believed until they heard it for themselves. One time, we ordered some cat food online. When I called later to order a refill, the lady taking my order asked if my cat had enjoyed the first batch. “Hold on,” I said. “I’ll put him on.” I could imagine the thoughts on the other end of the line until Tino actually did get on the phone to voice an opinion.

Tino was a character. At a routine trip to the vet’s, he discovered a jar of dog biscuits, and ate half-a-dozen of them during the course of his examination. He loved to travel. He went for walks, like a dog. He liked Brussels sprouts and biscotti.

Tino was nuts, but he was also very sweet, with the loudest purr I’ve ever heard. And he loved people. Always the center of attention, he had to be part of any crowd. But sometimes, even surrounded by adoring fans, you could look in his eyes and see that he was somewhere else, entirely alone; remembering the shelter, the cage; and before that, an abandoned kitten – a Chicago alley cat, not knowing if he would survive another day.

 

Calling: Ministry? (shhh!)

Bibles 2

While I’ve experienced nothing as dramatic as a burning bush, a blinding light, or a voice from God, lately I have been feeling a most unexpected calling: to the ministry. There’s something I didn’t expect! Though I’ve long been interested in religion and theology, and fascinated by the Bible in all its sprawling messiness, an actual career in ministry has never been on my radar. So why am I now feeling the urge to go to seminary? I’m not sure I believe in God, and don’t even like people all that much!

Well, the first thing to recognize is that seminaries have evolved beyond what they were when I first attended college back in the primeval past. (I’m so old we had to run from dinosaurs on the way to school, dodging around pools of molten lava where the Earth’s crust was still cooling.) It used to be that if you wanted to be a Methodist preacher, you went to a Methodist seminary; if you wanted to be a Baptist preacher, you went to a Baptist seminary, etc. Seminaries were there to make preachers in whatever denomination they worked with. These days, seminaries (at least some of them) are much more academic and much more diverse. A seminary may welcome students from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds. This phenomenon was highlighted in a 2015 New York Times article called Secular, but Feeling a Call to Divinity School.

In my own case, after many years of avoiding church like the plague, I have oozed my way back in, first as a substitute choir accompanist, and now as an actual church employee. Though I initially looked on the whole project as “just another gig,” the experience has rekindled my earlier passion for theology. I’ve been enjoying a whole new crop of books, podcasts, and YouTube channels that prove “religious” and “intelligent” can be compatible terms. I’m absorbing—sometimes in agreement, sometimes not—the words of Miroslav Volf, N. T. Wright, Richard Rohr, Frederick Buechner, Rachel Held Evans, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others. And I’m wanting to dive deeper.

But seminary? At my age? Really?

At this point, everything about the endeavor feels like a long shot. Applying to school, being accepted, paying for it, juggling that along with job, family, and other commitments—these are all big hurdles. Not to mention navigating the many side-effects such a radical life change may bring. It feels, with only minor exaggeration, as dramatic as Ebeneezer Scrooge’s transformation. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.” I keep thinking of how Scrooge’s acquaintances and family reacted to the new Scrooge with shock and disbelief.

It’s too soon to think about any of that. For now, I am still in a period of exploration and contemplation. There will be much private meditation and many conversations ahead.

Calling: Music

Contemplative with bass

Sometimes a calling can change. That’s been happening to me lately, and I have to remember that advice we’ve all heard: You are not your job. You are not your career. And you are not your calling. Jobs, careers, and callings (yes, they do overlap, at least hopefully they do) can all change. For years, I felt a calling to be a musician. I think that is no longer true.

My mom started me on piano when I was just 4. I added the trombone in fourth grade. I picked it up quickly, what with the piano background and all, and made first chair in the grade school band and then the All-West band, which covered a wider area of the city. This was followed by All-City band, and then in high school All-State. I played lead in the jazz band. I won several awards including the Glenn Miller Competition, and was accepted into the prestigious Northwestern University music program as a trombone performance major. All along I had been keeping up my piano skills, which came in handy while performing with a series of semi-professional rock and jazz bands.

Meanwhile, music theatre had been an interest ever since I made my stage debut as a little kid in a local production of The King and I. Much of my recent work has been playing in pit orchestras for the theatre, in addition to working as a church musician, and taking occasional pickup gigs. For many years past the time most people would have put a music career down as a pipe dream, I still nursed along the hope of finding a way to make a living making music.

But for the past couple of years, something else has also been happening. I’ve been losing interest in music. After so many years thinking of myself as a musician first and foremost, this comes as a shock, and an unwelcome one at that. If I’m not a musician, then what am I? Tying one’s identity closely to one idea can lead to an identity crisis when that idea suddenly no longer has the appeal it once had.

I still love music. I hope I never stop loving it as something to listen to and appreciate, but my calling has changed. That is something I have to acknowledge. It’s not easy, but I notice that when I give myself permission to change, I feel better. These days I am feeling a calling in a different direction, one that surprises me. It’s hard to admit to myself and it’s hard to admit to other people, especially since most of my friends and acquaintances still think of me in a way that I no longer think of myself.

Change can be scary but it can also be good. When a new calling comes…er…calling, it can be worthwhile taking the call.