My Dad and the Television Age

We were the first family on the block to own a tv set.  Pop was uninterested in spending money to buy one until he heard that baseball games were broadcast on tv, so he bought one that weekend.

It was the size of a family van and had a screen no bigger than the window of a microwave, but it was high-tech for its day.  When Pop turned it on, I swore I could see the lights dim in the house.

It took a good five minutes to warm up, it hummed like it had a motor idling inside somewhere, and when the picture finally appeared, it was a grainy black and white.  But there it was: a live baseball game from St. Louis, or Chicago, or New York.  Amazing – the Television Age had arrived at the McGrane household.

Games became a neighborhood event.  Several of the men on the block came over to watch the game, and they often brought a six-pack of beer to contribute to the gathering.  They knew the soft spot in Pop’s heart – a cold beer.  I remember men crowding into the front room of the small house on Garesche’ Avenue – all of them smelling of beer, cigarettes, and sweat – chatting about the game or complaining about the pitching, the calls, or whatever.  When the game was over and the beer ran out, it was time to go and everyone walked home.

Pop also discovered tv western shows.  He was a fan of the American genre of wild -west tales, and he watched shows like “Zane Gray Theater” and “Gun Smoke” nearly every night.  Mom would watch as well, but always became upset by the inevitable saloon brawl scene. She would wince and grunt as the bad guy would swing a hay-maker at the good guy, who would fall backwards into a bar table and smash it to pieces.  Her “Oh!” and “Ack!” with each punch would drive Pop to distraction.  As a kid, I wondered why saloon furniture was so flimsy.  Every time my brother Harry threw me or Denny into the furniture at home, it would just scoot across the floor, leaving large scratch marks on the floor and really ticking off Mom.

Anyway, the tv brought great sport and high drama to our home, as well as most of the neighborhood.  Soon, other families in the little blue-collar community began to buy tv sets, and one by one the game day visitors began to disappear.  Uncles Larry and Uncle Jack still came over with Aunt Pat and Aunt Helen, and often stayed for dinner afterwards, but the McGrane tv community event, which stood in for the village bonfire around which the village community gathered so long ago, passed on.

I wonder whatever happened to that boat of a tv…that thing was huge…I think Pop is sitting somewhere still watching a Cards vs. Cubs game on it, with folks in the neighborhood gathered around…  Happy Father’s Day, Pop!  Have another-‘un!

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In Praise of Soap

I stumbled across soap on YouTube.

I was wrapping up our Bible Study class at Good Shepherd for the summer and I was thinking how the program might have been better.  The parishioners were terrific, but my choice of study program not so much. Frankly, it was a bit boring. That’s when soap caught my attention.

While looking for some Bach to listen to on YouTube Music, a short video popped up in my feed with the title “How to Study the Bible Using the SOAP Method”.

“Soap?” I thought.  “What do they mean, ‘soap’?”  

I popped it open and watched a 10 minute video made by a delightful young woman named Asheritah Ciuciu.  SOAP is an acronym that represents the words Scripture-Observe-Apply-Pray, a four step process to engage the Bible in what looks to this Anglican’s eye as a 21st century version of lectio divina.

It is deceptively simple.  All you need is a Bible, a notebook, and a pen.  I’m not going to describe in detail here how you go about studying the Bible using this method, for Ms. Ciuciu’s video does an excellent job explaining it.  Please find and watch it. What came to my mind, though, while learning this method, was: “This is lectio divina with a pen and a notebook.” Lectio divina, the ancient method of studying the Bible contemplatively.

The more I examined SOAP, the more intrigued I became.  There are dozens of YouTubes and websites on this Bible study program – some good, others not so good – but they all revolve around the same, basic concepts of Scripture-Observe-Apply-Pray.  I thought it would be a good skill for class participants to take along with them for the summer break, and when I presented the idea to the class, the students’ responses were positive.

I cancelled my last three planned class readings and we explored the SOAP method together instead.  We discovered that it not only works for individualized study, but can work very well for a group who wants to get together once a week and share one of their daily SOAP studies to the group, going round-robin fashion in a get-together.

What surprised me by end of week #3 was SOAP’s effect on my own spiritual life.

A daily practice of directed, intentional Bible study is a most powerful spiritual practice.  More than just reading Scripture, SOAP is a deeper engagement with the Bible and a new twist on the ancient practice of lectio divina.  Lectio divina is a slow, purposeful, contemplative reading of Sacred Scripture, with specific steps in the process. SOAP essentially does the same thing, but asks you to write your meditations in a personal journal, forcing you to write down what lectio divina asks you to simply keep locked in your head.  

In working with it, the SOAP method melds nicely with my own personal quirk of thinking with a pen in my hand.  Searching for the just the right word to write in my notebook slows me down; it requires that I dig deeper into myself and listen more closely to the voice of the Holy Spirit.   The result is reading Scripture in a deeper, consistent, and more challenging way for me. It reminds me not only of lectio divina, but also has elements of the Jesuit daily examen, in which the meditator answers questions in the examen such as, “What’s been happening in me?….What is being asked of me?…”

The search for and identification of “just the right word” is to articulate the thought revealed in one’s study of Scripture – many linguists and poets pose that thoughts becomes actual thoughts when we can finally express them with words: you cannot have a finished thought without the right words with which to express it.  In finding the right words, you have discovered the very thought itself, upon which you can then marvel and feed.

The SOAP method requires that I find just the right words to jot down what I am hearing and feeling from the Holy Spirit as I read Sacred Scripture.  I then discover anew what I am reading, day by day, and it changes me. I have adopted SOAP as part of my daily spiritual practice.

There are lots of happy, youthful YouTubes about SOAP that we can watch, but do not be dismissive of them.  SOAP is a serious way to encounter Sacred Scripture and hear the voice of God in our studies. It has become a part of my own spiritual practice and has greatly enhanced my spiritual life.  Give it a try. You have nothing to lose and much to gain.

Clouds

Our home sits at the top of the ridge, and we get to see quite a bit of open sky here at Windy Hill.

That is a bit unusual for the Ozarks, made up primarily of “hills and hollers” covered with old growth hickory forest. If you are lucky enough, sometimes your land has a treeless glade that sits atop the ridge and you can see miles and miles of sky…like Windy Hill.

I’ve often thought that the best vistas are out west, in the Rockies or along the coast. There are many spots there where the vistas are so vast it seems the entire continent lies before you.  Not so, here in the Ozarks. The landscape is more intimate here, with hills and hollows and aquifer-fed streams beneath the canopy shade of maples, oaks, hickorys, and elms. If the western landscape was meant for the extrovert aeries of a Machu Piccu or a Shangri-La, the Ozarks were meant for the introverted friaries of a Portiuncula or an Abbey of Gethsemane.  Outward bound in the west; inward bound in the Ozarks.

Though the streams and the hollows offer great beauty in their mystery, the clouds that drift overhead are often breathtaking. They are armadas, islands, veritable continents of white, gray, blue, pearl, purple, yellow, orange, red, rose, and colors for which I have no name. I can sit in the sunshine and see dark sheets of rain falling miles away. The ragged edges of a storm front looks like the edges of a torn sheet of pastel tissue paper.

They sail by, stacked and staggered in living 3D, and they are never, ever the same. They float in the sky, but are strong enough to block out the sun. Some days they gather together on the landscape, resting in the hollows, and the locals called that ground fog, but I know they are actually lost clouds.

Meteorologists have given them names according to their formations. Lovely names such as Cumulus and Cirrus and Nimbostratus. They say their formations can help foretell the weather, like astrologers reading the stars to determine our fates. No doubt the meteorologists can, in their own way, read the sky and clouds. I hope they also love the clouds, like a painter or a poet loves clouds. Clouds are such a gift in so many ways, not the least of which is their beauty and their mystery. To know their function is good; to contemplate their mystical meanings is even better.

Stuff

Recently, a new building went up in my hometown of Fiddlestix. It’s a big deal when there is any new construction in Fiddlestix. It turned out to be a storage rental business, with a couple of dozen stalls for people to warehouse the stuff that they can’t store at home.

That has come to strike me as odd, that we have so much stuff that we can’t even keep it in our own homes, but need to rent space to store our “overflow stuff”.

C and I rented a storage unit when we first moved here, for we lived in a 2600 sq. ft. home for our family of five back in The Big City. When our last child moved out of the house, we moved to Fiddlestix for a while until we bought and built Windy Hill, a few miles outside of town. The cottage we rented could not hold all our stuff, so we rented a unit to store it all.

When Windy Hill was finished about a year later, we moved into our new, 1100 sq. ft. home. If you do the math, you’ll see that 2600-1100 = 1500. That is 1500 sq. ft. less of homespace than what we had, which means that much of our stuff was not moving in with us.

The thing of it is, after a year of living without much of our stuff, we realized that we did not miss our stuff. In fact, we were hard pressed to recollect all the stuff we stored in the rental unit. A quick look into the unit on a Saturday afternoon told us that many of the things we had would never fit in our new home, and we had not missed them at all anyway. So, why did we have them? What’s more, why were we paying someone to store stuff that we didn’t even miss? This made no sense to us.

We got rid of our storage stuff. It all went, with the exception of a couple of buckets of tools and some pots and pans. Once we dusted off our hands and congratulated ourselves on getting rid of our stuff, we looked around Windy Hill and realized that one of our bedrooms was still full of other stuff. Stuff hiding in plain sight! We decided we wanted to reclaim this extra bedroom, and began to get rid of the “residual stuff” in our new home.

We First-Worlders sure have a lot of stuff. I suppose it is part of being a First-Worlder. We live in a consumer society, and we are afflicted with mega-marketing which sells us stuff at a surprisingly wicked rate. Some experts say that we see about 300 ads per day, if not more, from every source imaginable.

Much of our economy chugs along powered by consumerism, not need. So, we buy a ton of stuff and stuff it in every nook and cranny of our homes, garages, sheds, and now there is a billion-dollar industry to help us store our stuff. Stuff we never need.

I think we have too much stuff. It’s beginning to own us, not the other way around. In essence, I was paying twice for my stuff: once to buy it, then a second time to store it, and I didn’t even need it. This is the point where people start calling their stuff “crap”. Now, I’m a little kinder to my stuff than that. After all, they did exactly what I asked them to do when I bought them, and it wasn’t their fault that I bought more stuff. And they can be someone else’s wonderful stuff when I drop them off at Goodwill. So, there is little need to get all hostile with our stuff by insulting it with the name of crap.

But I think we First-Worlders need to reassess our relationship with stuff. We have too much of it. It’s a waste of money that could go to things like trips, or charity, or education, many things that would give a lot more enjoyment than most stuff. I have few things among my stuff that compares to a trip C & I took to the redwoods in No. California this year. Or the Smoky Mountains a couple of years ago. Or Ireland ten years ago. That stuff is in our heads and hearts. Lots of room there.

 

The Ancient Ones and the Presence of God

As I scribble these notes on my knee, I am sitting on the ground with my back against a tree that is 238 feet tall, 24 feet wide, and 1,500 years old. I am in a redwood forest in northern California on a pilgrimage, of sorts.

It took C and I two solid hours of picking our way over an endless path of tree roots to get to this exact tree. Called The Boy Scout Tree, it is one of the largest trees in the world. There are some trees on the planet larger and older, but when this one was a sapling, Vandals were sacking Rome, the Mayans were laying the foundations of their temples, and Benedict of Nurisa was scoping out Monte Cassino for a place to build his monastery.

We nearly missed it on our way along the trail. We were so taxed by our hike and confused by the thickness of the redwood grove that, were it not for the little sign by the edge of the path that said “The Boy Scout Tree”, we might have walked right past it. The tree stood serene and dark at the top of a small bank to our right, a brontosaurus standing among the dinosaurs.

The hike here through the redwood grove is, in itself, a transcendent experience. The trees are so tall I cannot see their tops from the ground. Their trunks are the size of cottages, yet they grow within a few feet of each other. The grove is as silent as a church on a weekday morning. Time seems to have overlooked this part of the world, and does not have much meaning here. Time is absent, and by its absence makes this place all the more unearthly.

Then there is this colossus. It is, simultaneously, the largest and oldest living thing I have ever encountered. Try as I might, I cannot see it all at once. It is beyond my vision to capture it fully, and beyond my understanding to appreciate it completely. All I can do it lean against it and feel it.

God is everywhere here. Just to smell the dank pine aroma rising from the forest floor makes every breath a prayer. The rough bark digging into my back is the support of grace after a hard pilgrimage to this shrine. Perhaps I should say that all here is in God, rather than God is everywhere here.

Sometime over the past two days, C and I started seeing these trees as beings, not plants. We have no idea if they are, in any way, sentient, but their presence has such a power and life to them that we cannot help but feel they are living beings within their own ageless community. And, for some inexplicable reason, as I sit here on the forest floor leaning against one, I feel welcomed among them. They are the Ancient Ones, and they welcome us to their sanctuary.

I remember a verse from the Psalms that says the righteous shall grow like the cedars of Lebanon (Psalm 92:12). If the cedar forests in ancient Lebanon were similar to this redwood grove, I can well understand how the psalmist came to recognize the presence of God in an ancient forest. The presence of God in this grove sings a psalm. It is as if the trees sing with God’s silent voice, and we listen. C and I do not speak but whisper to one another, as if in a cathedral.

The hike back out of this grove will be just as long as the hike in, but not as arduous. The return journey of a pilgrimage is seldom as demanding as the journey in – we are on a journey of discovery on our way in, and discovery demands much. The journey back is one of reflection, and it preoccupies us until we suddenly find ourselves back were we had started, back in the land of time again. But now we are changed by our experience, and all is different.

The light is at a sharp angle through the trees now, which tells me it is getting late. It is time for us to leave. There it is again, that thing called time. As we trudge back, we will have much to reflect upon regarding time, the Ancient Ones of creation, and the presence of God.

 

The Boy Scout Tree

On the Sanctity of Human Work – a Labor Day Meditation

Everyone engages in some kind of human work. Either we are an employee, or a small business owner, or a student, or a volunteer…whatever kind of work we do, whether we get paid for it or not, we all work in one way or another.

It is very much a part of what makes us human. In Genesis it says that God placed us in the Garden to “keep and till it” – we were not there simply to hang out.  Even the Ancients understood that work was an essential aspect of what it means to be a human being.

I wonder if we ever consider that ordinary work – daily work carried out in the midst of the world – is God’s invitation to ministry and mission? That ordinary work is an important part of building not only the Kingdom of God, but also our own divine vocation?

After all, work done well speaks of our character and our devotion to the dignity of human work. This work that we do, which we pass on to others, also speaks to the care we show others as fellow laborers in our mutual endeavors.

But consider that work well done can actually contribute to your personal sanctification, the sanctification of others, even the world in which we live, if we fulfill our daily tasks with devotion and love.

Sanctification means to “make holy”, by means of the Holy Spirit working within each of us, blessing and making holy that which we do and those with who we come in contact.

Work, done with “right intention”, becomes a holy act. Work becomes prayer, if dedicated to God and God’s people task by task, and moment by moment.

So, what is our intention when we do human work? Do we see it as a means and a path to holiness?

After all, every noble task can be sanctified, can sanctify the worker herself, and sanctify others, if done with the devotion and love which is at the heart of the Way of Jesus. Work sanctified begins in the hands of people and ends up in the hands of God. To divorce work from God is to diminish its reality and its meaning, to reduce it to the merely human.

All human work bears witness to the dignity of humankind, and our directives from God to tend and nurture this world.

Faith, hope, and charity will come into play in our professional work done for God. The incidents, problems, friendships which our work brings will give us opportunities to be Christ for others, and provide experiences to consider in our prayer life.

From our understanding of the sacred nature of work, Christians come to understand other things…

We come to understand that just wages, benefits, and rights due workers are our duty to see fulfilled in society. The person who wishes to be just in the eyes of Jesus will work to establish just structures of wages and benefits for his/her fellow workers.

How can we honor the sanctity of human work and the sanctity of the worker,  yet deny them just wages and benefits appropriate to a sustainable life? It would be like inviting them to church and denying them the Eucharist at the altar rail.

Let us never forget the holiness of human work, and that the worker is worth her wages. Most workers have not seen a rise in real income in over 40 years. This dishonors the justice due them, and disrespects the divine nature of the work they do.

Just as there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus, it is equally true that there is neither surgeon nor janitor, lawyer nor truckdriver, bishop nor street-sweeper, all are one in Christ Jesus if they do their respective work with love of God and love of neighbor in their hearts.

The Man Living Under the Porch

I am sitting on the steps of the two-family flat that serves as our parish office.  I am waiting for Jack to crawl out from underneath the porch next door so I can talk to him.

Jack (not his real name) lives under the back porch of the building next door.  He is homeless and he has what is called a “nest” in the crawl space.  The building next door is also a two-family flat, but it is currently unoccupied, as the owner is rehabbing it for future residents.  Unfortunately, he is taking his time about it, and it has been empty for at least three years with no end of the rehabbing in sight.

Jack appears to be happy about it.  It means he can live under the back porch unmolested.  Jack is homeless, and the back porch is a near-perfect location for a nest: hidden from sight, quiet, isolated from foot traffic, safe.

Of course, it means he is also subject to extreme heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter, as well as bites from mice, rats, and insects.  He has no kitchen to cook meals, no fridge for the food he collects from begging or acquires from pantries, and no bathroom with toilet.  He has no place to poop, except our parish campus.

You see, apparently, Jack wanders up the back alley in the night, sneaks onto our property on the other side of the church, and poops in our campus.  We find his load dumped here and there, complete with used toilet paper, nearly every morning when we inspect the property.  Which means that one of us on staff or on the vestry must get a shovel and scoop up the poop to dispose it.

Obviously, this cannot go on.  It is a serious health hazard as well as incredibly unsightly and offensive.  It’s not conducive to the communal life of a parish…or any other kind of communal gathering, for that matter.

So, that’s why I am out here, waiting for Jack to come out from under the porch.  We need to talk.  He needs to find a different living arrangement than what he is living now, and we folks here at St. John’s simply don’t want to call the police on him.  The police usually arrest people like Jack and send them on to another neighborhood where it starts all over again.  It’s kicking Jack down the road, so to say, like he’s the proverbial can.  What’s more, the department of the police that handles these sorts of things used to be called the “Community Resource Officer” and today it is called “Property Nuisance Officer”.  So, their response to the homeless has gone from community outreach to property nuisance.  Not an attitude in keeping with the Way of Jesus.  But he is also pooping in our yard.

Rev. Amy and I concluded that we should try helping the guy out with some professional assistance before we involve the police.  There are some social services that can help Jack get back on his feet/assist with mental healthcare/whatever before we take the last step and call the police.  Amy+ has a friend in social services who has been kind enough to step in and help.  She said that her organization is stretched to the max, like many other social service agencies, but she will see what she can do.

As I sit here, waiting for Jack to appear, I think about a chat I had on the ‘net with a fellow who published a meme about public assistance to the poor.  It was a photo of bear cubs standing at the open window of a car as the people inside fed them cookies and crackers.  The caption said, “Please do not feed the bears…it creates a dependent population, unable to fend for themselves…. Like welfare programs?”

I took exception to the meme, as it compares the poor and the troubled to animals.  I engaged the fellow who posted this meme and discussed with him how ill-informed the meme is relative to the attitude that assistance corrupts, and that there is an underlying contempt in the meme for the people who need assistance.

We have vilified the poor and troubled in our society and have contempt for them.  This is wrong, and not in keeping with the Way.   We once had compassion and mercy for them; now it is contempt, blaming them for their situation rather than understanding their situation.  We think assistance exacerbates their poverty situation, and I don’t understand why people think that.  Research by MIT, the World Bank, Un. of California, Rutgers, and the Un. of Kentucky demonstrates that the “corrupting influence” of welfare to the poor is a myth: it does exactly the opposite – it helps them out of poverty*.

Yet we are on a warpath against the poor, cutting them off from the very systems that will help them.  This is wrong-headed and will make things worse, not better.

So, we here at St. John’s are going totally Anglican and looking for the via media regarding Jack: let’s get him in contact with our social services friend and get him out from under a porch and back up on his feet first before we call the police.  It is going to take some work, for in his current mental state he may not be real cooperative, and even though he may not be mentally stable, he does have civil rights as a citizen and he has human worth as a child of God.  But we are going to give him our best shot, because anyone who can’t even find a place to defecate with dignity needs some help.  Remember the Three Rules of The Micah Society: do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God.

 

*See “The Myth of Welfare’s Corrupting Influence on the Poor”; Oct, 20, 2015; NYT;  http://nyti.ms/1Kmi2Qr