Friday, December 29, 2006

Book of the Year

During the early part of 2006, I spent some time working in a large national-chain bookstore. It was a natural choice for me, and I was much more comfortable telling my friends I worked there than if I were working, say, for FEMA, which no doubt would have brought their wrath down on me. At any rate, when you love books as much as I do and you spend your day surrounded by upwards of 200,000 titles, you find books you want to buy. Books and books and books...and there's that seductive employee discount! So by the time my bookstore career ended in early summer, I had a huge stack of books to read. Some are still waiting to be read, but of the ones that I have devoured, I can name one my personal Book of the Year. It is Barbara Brown Taylor's autobiographical Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).

I already owned at least seven of her books, mostly collections of sermons but also essays and lectures. She has been calleld "one of the most effective preachers in the English-speaking world," and she writes beautiful narrative-based sermons that catch you by surprise with their insights into the Biblical text. Not a bad preacher to read when you are starting out as a preacher in your own right!

In Leaving Church, I discovered that she and I are the same age, although our lives have taken very different paths. She served on the staff of a large urban Episcopal church in downtown Atlanta for a number of years. The long hours, the endless adminstrative tasks and meetings involved in big-church ministry were burning her out, and when an opportunity arose for her to pastor a small-town church in the North Georgia mountains, she grabbed it. She and her husband moved to the country and built their dream home on mountain acreage. It sounds like the idyllic life, but when you are a world-famous preacher like Barbara Brown Taylor, your small church in a small town doesn't stay small very long. Soon she had associate pastors working under her, multiple services every Sunday, and the potential for a huge building program as the church grew by leaps and bounds. She found herself putting in the same crazy hours as she had back in the city, with little time to read and reflect and experience the holy. And so she left parish ministry to teach religion (in an endowed chair) at Piedmont College, and also to be adjunct faculty at my seminary outside Atlanta. She writes of the sense of loss at "leaving church," but the book cover shows a white bird in flight, escaping from a cage. It is clear that she left parish ministry in hopes of finding the freedom of the white bird in flight. (Anyone remember the 1960s song, "White Bird" by It's a Beautiful Day? "White bird/in a golden cage/on a winter's day/in the rain...White bird must fly/or she will die.")

Like Barbara Brown Taylor, I too left parish ministry a little over a year ago, but it is my hope to go back. For the last six months I have been a guest preacher somewhere every Sunday, and I know my call is, indeed, to preach and serve in a local congregation. I have had that affirmed time and again in these last six months. I do believe that sometime in the new year, God will show me where I am supposed to be. But in the meantime, I have a great stack of books to read...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Santa Claus wears brown

Santa Claus wears brown. On warm days here in subtropical South Louisiana, it's brown shorts. And he drives a big brown truck. Yup, Santa brought me a nice big box for Christmas. I kinda known what's in it, as I am the one who ordered it from Amazon. Five books. We're talking heaven here. Some of them are theology books, but there is one Doctor Who novel and one Battlestar Galactica novel, and do you want to take bets on which category I open first on Christmas morning? Theology or science fiction? Ho ho ho.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Holiday trees

I hear some of my fellow Christians are a little bit up-set that people are referring to the trees they decorate in their homes this time of year as "holiday trees." These folks seem to think the proper name for these trees is "Christmas trees." Y'all come on down to New Orleans. What we have down here are "holiday trees." And I'll tell you why.

Take one New Orleans home and set up a tree in it. Preferably an artificial tree. If it's a real tree, better it should be alive and growing in a pot, otherwise it might start to become a fire hazard as we move along. Okay, it's December. Put white lights on this tree (if it doesn't already come with them) and all the ornaments, angels, stars, tinsel, popcorn strings, whatever suits your fancy this time of year. You have a "Christmas tree."

On January 6, Twelfth Night, take off the ornaments, etc., and leave the white lights. Put on strands of purple, green and gold beads, theatrical masks, and any ornaments, tinsel strands, etc. you may have in these colors. You now have a "Mardi Gras tree." (Last year, the Uptown post office, one of the few that was open A.K., had a Mardi Gras tree in the lobby. Some federal bureaucrat must have loved that, because this Christmas there is no tree at all in the lobby.)

On February 21, Ash Wednesday, take off the purple, green and gold and leave the white lights. Decorate the tree with pastel colored eggshells, chicks, or any other ornaments along these lines. You now have an "Easter tree."

Easter is a season. It lasts officially until May 27, which is Pentecost. You can take down the Easter ornaments and put up red bows or other red ornaments on May 27.

On June 3 you can put up white ornaments for Trinity Sunday.

On June 10 you can take everything off the tree except the white lights. You are now in Ordinary Time. And you can leave it like that until December 2, the first Sunday in Advent, when you can put the Christmas decorations back up.

And the good news is, you never have to take the tree down, which is something a surprising number of people in New Orleans figured out a long time ago! (Except here in Cattown, where certain felines think even an artificial tree is edible and throw up bits of tree as if they were blades of grass.)

It's a holiday tree. So there.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The party crasher

From a sermon I preached on the Third Sunday of Advent:

It's the annual children's Christmas pageant in the church sanctuary. Mary and Joseph and the shepherds are wandering around the chancel area, and little angels with bobbing halos are running up and down the aisle. The three wise men are trying to adjust their headscarves so they can see. One complains that the band around his head is too tight. Adults are scurrying about, trying to get everyone to come in at the time they're supposed to in the story.

And then...

This wild man bursts in the side door and into the sanctuary. He's wearing some sort of coat made from animal skins and he's got a scraggly beard. And his eyes look...eerie. Wild. Like maybe he's not all there. He bursts into the middle of the pageant, bellowing at the top of his lungs, and sending frightened children scattering in all directions. He yells,

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"

The children run to the adults and huddle against them. The adults themselves begin moving toward the doors, never taking their eyes off the wild man. "Who IS he? Who let that guy in here? What's he doing?" And then, the ultimate solution to all problems, "Quick! Somebody get the pastor! Let's get the pastor to handle this!"

The pastor hurries up the aisle, consulting a list of scripture texts. "Um, yes, here it is. Um, actually, he's supposed to be here. He's in the lectionary for today. He's John the Baptist."

John the Baptist? What's he doing here in the middle of the angels and shepherds and wise men?

John shakes his fist at the crowd. "Every tree that doesn't bear good fruit will be cut down and used for firewood!"

One of the adults huddled by the door raises a hand. "Excuse me! I thought I read something somewhere that said the Third Sunday of Advent is "Joy" Sunday. What does this business about 'you brood of vipers!' and cutting down trees -- I assume he's talking about us -- have to do with joy?"

John the Baptist reaches into a pouch dangling from his waist and pulls out a locust and pops it into his mouth, washing it down with a swig of wild honey from a flask. "You want joy?" he asks. "I'll give you joy. The Messiah is coming. I'm not worthy to untie his sandals, but he, oh, he's going to gather all the good wheat, yes he is!"

One of the children points to John. "Hey, I remember him!" he exclaims. "We learned a song about him in Vacation Bible School. 'John the Baptist ate bugs for lunch!'" And the children launch into a chorus of the Vacation Bible School song, "Bugs for Lunch." (Honest, there really was such a song!)

The adults look from the children to John the Baptist to the shambles of the Christmas pageant. One adult turns to the minister and says, "This is all your fault."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The little things

Sometimes, it's the little things.

When I was a child, back in the early 1960s, we had hard freezes in New Orleans three winters in a row. By "hard freeze" I mean it got down around 17 degrees. In most parts of the country, 17 degrees is par for the course when it comes to winter, or maybe it's even a warming trend. But in New Orleans, it's a big deal. You see, back in the old days, before people discovered it was cheaper to build houses on slabs, all the houses were built two to three feet off the ground on piers. This enabled easy access to water and gas pipes under the house. It provided a cool breeze in summer. It provided some termite protection (maybe) if there was no wood-to-ground contact. And it gave you one to two feet of protection when (not if) it flooded.

However, when it gets down significantly below freezing temperatures and stays there for a few hours, unless you run a thin trickle of water from your faucets, your exposed pipes under the house will freeze. And that's what happened in the early 1960s. We had an exposed water line running the length of the north side of the house, and when a freeze was predicted, my mother would turn the hose on a fine spray. It came down from the upstairs porch and settled all over the confederate jasmine below. In the morning the whole bush would be an ice sculpture. Really pretty. I can't recall if it killed the bush or not. Maybe we replaced it, or maybe it came back in the spring. But for a child who rarely saw snow and ice, it was a wonder.

We also had a bouganvillea on the south side of the house, beside the brick chimney. Now, you may have seen bouganvillea growing in places like Hawaii and the Caribbean. Or you may have grown one in a hanging basket. You might think the branches get around 12 to 18 inches in length. This bouganvillea went all the way up the chimney to the second floor level, more like 12 to 18 feet. When it bloomed, it was covered with gorgeous deep red sprays of flowers. And it had thorns. Must have been an inch long. You didn't go anywhere near the bouganvillea unless you wore tough leather work gloves.

Well, the bouganvillea is a tropical plant. When it hit 17 degrees, the bouganvillea froze. Not an easy job, to cut down 12 to 18 feet of dead bouganvillea, whose vicious thorns were still very much operative. Every year, when the bouganvillea froze, we thought that was the end of it. But in the spring it would surprise us, putting out new shoots from the roots and growing up just as tall as ever by midsummer.

I sold the house twenty years ago, a few years after my mother died. It has had three owners since then, and they have all kept the bouganvillea. I would drive by the house and see it with its magnificent red cascades of blossoms and smile.

The other day, I went by the house. I've been by there a few times since Katrina. The neighborhood took on about six feet of brackish water that sat for about two weeks. I went to check on the bouganvillea. It has a thick stump with two or three trunks, maybe two or three inches in diameter. There are no shoots coming up from the base. I saw a few hopeful green things coming up, but on closer inspection they turned out to be weeds. The bouganvillea, which must have been fifty years old, which survived three winters of hard freezes, is dead.

Katrina, you b****.

Sometimes, it's the little things that get to you.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Tixie 2.0

When I was eleven years old, I got for my birthday the present I had been begging and whining for: a tomato red transistor AM radio. It fit in the palm of my hand, and it had a cute little earbud so I could listen to it without bothering anyone. I named it Tixie because I kept it tuned to my favorite station, WTIX, the Mighty 690 ("Double Yew Tee Eye Ex, and We Loooooove You, Da Na Na Na Na!"). "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had just been released in the U.S., followed quickly by "She Loves You," followed quickly by the Beatles' U.S. tour and appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was a great time to be listening to AM radio. And I did. Once I wore out a set of two double-A batteries in two days. I made a little bed of cotton batting for Tixie and kept it on the shelf above my bed. I sewed a little case out of fabric scraps for Tixie and decorated it with glitter. I loved Tixie! [Imagine a paragraph break here; fellow Blogspotters, if you know how to get this thing to do a paragraph indent, please let me know!] Years passed, and I discovered FM radio sometime in high school. One day little Tixie just didn't work any more, and that was the end of her. I had moved on to "The Heavy Sound of the Underground, Double Yew Jay Emm Arr, Eff Emm!" [paragraph] Now, if I were eleven years old again, what would I crave? Yup. This year for my birthday I got myself the current generation's equivalent of Tixie: an iPod. Call it Tixie 2.0. As I like to say, why should kids have all the fun? [Paragraph] What I found particularly amusing was that when I bought it at the computer store, the person who sold it to me wouldn't let me carry it to the cash register. He took it up there and left it with the cashier until I got to the head of the line. The man ahead of me bought $2600 worth of computer equipment and pushed it to the cash register himself. (It was heavy.) However, I was not permitted to touch my $250 iPod until I had paid for it. It tells me a lot about how stealable these iPods are. I may not take it out in public. Do youth mug old ladies like me for their iPods? Don't answer that. By the way, I bought Tixie 2.0 a nice pink leather carrying case, partly for old times' sake and partly because I read on the Internet how easily these things get scratched. I also bought a $20 book to tell me all the things the skimpy little leaflet that comes with the iPod fails to mention. I was amused to note that the book had an inventory tag in it to set off the alarms in the bookstore in case you tried to slip out without paying for it. iPods must bring out the worst in people. [paragraph] At any rate, I managed to get it set up and figured out how to load music on it. Videos to come. I am telling you, I am not letting these 15-year-olds get the best of me. If they can figure out an iPod, so can I. And so far it's going pretty well. [paragraph] What does disturb me, though, is that when I tell people of my generation what I have bought, almost all of them give me blank stares. "A what?" If they know what it is, they say quickly, "Oh, I could never..." Oh, please. But these are the same folks who can't figure out their e-mail and probably the only reason they fool with a computer is that their grown children bought them one. [paragraph] Pastor Kathy's prayer for the day: "Dear God, never let me get so old that I won't try something new."

Monday, April 03, 2006

Lent and beyond

We're more than halfway through Lent, although I must confess that this year the liturgical season of Lent didn't coincide with my emotional season of Lent. As far as I am concerned, Lent began sometime around August 29 and in some sense is still going on. If Lent is a season for spiritual reflection and self-denial, well, we in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have had plenty of that since August 29. And in terms of the tradition of "giving something up for Lent," we have along the way given up such taken-for-granted luxuries as electricity, gas, water, phone service, newspapers, mail delivery, garbage pickup...and let's not forget cable. In my little corner of the world we have all that back now, except for the delivery of magazines and catalogs (never mind the junk mail -- it's really nice not to have all that, except for the few mailers who have switched to first class to get those ads through anyway). I have had enough of Lent in the sense of self-denial, to be honest with you. I am ready for Easter. In fact, I would be happy to sail from Mardi Gras (the ancient religious feast day immediately preceding Ash Wednesday) directly to Easter this year, thank you very much. Sorry, the blog creator is again not permitting paragraph breaks. Since September I was telling people we really needed Mardi Gras this year. We did have Mardi Gras, and it was wonderful, but now we really need Easter...a spiritual resurrection. This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, and then comes Holy Week. I wonder what Holy Week will be like this year? Perhaps a time to sit down, take a deep breath, stop worrying about levees and federal funding and upcoming elections and all that "stuff" for just a little while, and look to the horizon, to the much bigger picture, to the road leading to the cross and beyond. What happened that week in Jerusalem two thousand years ago is still valid in the post-Katrina world we live in. It's one of those few things that didn't change when life as we knew it went from B.K. to A.K. And that's important to remember.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Mardi Gras A.K., Part I

The Carnival season is starting, and high time. As you would expect, this year we have a great opportunity for a little dark humor. I wish I could take credit for these, but they're not mine. They come from an interview Angus Lind did with a member (code named Deep Float) of one of the less sane Mardi Gras organizations called Krewe du Vieux for the Times-Picayune, February 10 edition. Many apologies, but the blog creator is having one of its "what do you mean, create a paragraph?" days. Just read 'em: 1. It's not a parade route, it's a projected path. The final destination of the parade is its landfall. 2. FEMA's just another word for nothing left to lose. 3. The parade theme is "C'est Levee!", a pun on "C'est la vie!" Couple that with "C'est la guerre" transformed into "C'est la mer," and you end up with "That's life, that's war" turned into "That's the levee, that's the sea." 4. Every float will probably break down along the parade route, and FEMA will be there two months later to fix them. They're designed for only a Category 2 parade. 5. Katrina gave new meaning to the terms "open house" and "waterfront property." 6. Life's a breach, and sometimes you just have to go with the contraflow. Some themes for parade floats: 7. A Day at the Breach. 8. Fridge over Troubled Water. 9. "Attention, K-Mart Looters." 10. A new Carnival throw: floating key chains. The next time you're swimming from your house to your car, you won't lose your keys. (Of course, your car won't move, either...) Stay tuned for more Mardi Gras After Katrina goodies...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Food, glorious food!

This morning our local Whole Foods store reopened. I had a mental list of local places I missed tremendously since the local coffee house, a favorite neighborhood grocery, and Whole Foods. Now all three of them are open. It is a glorious morning in New Orleans, headed for seventy degrees, the sun is shining, and Whole Foods is open. Yes, I had to park three blocks away. It was a wonderful day for a walk. I just had to make sure I didn't buy more than I could carry in my arms back to the car. (Sorry, the blog creator is in one of its moods today and won't let me create new paragraphs.) The store was jammed, and everybody (including me) had to tell every store employee, "We are so glad you are back!" I stuffed my basket with fruits and veggies, salad goodies, Italian chicken sausage, no-mad-cow ground beef, and other delights. (imagine a paragraph break) This store hadn't been open very long B.K. -- maybe a year or two. It is housed in a wonderful renovation of an old city bus garage called Arabella Station. The old metal building was rusted out and a neighborhood eyesore, and when Whole Foods announced it wanted to build a huge store there, guess what? The neighborhood opposition was enormous! Why? Well, the local businesses were afraid it would take up all the parking in the neighborhood. (The indoor parking lot at the back of the building holds maybe 50 or 100 cars, but unless you go early in the morning, it's always full.) And it was "too big." And, the real reason: it would cut into the business of the already established groceries in the area -- two large chain stores, two smaller neighborhood groceries, and a prepared foods shop just across the street. Well, I'm sure it did -- but I notice the other stores are still in business, even A.K. Nevertheless, Whole Foods overcame the opposition and opened the store. And it has been a boon for consumers. Sure, organic stuff costs more, and I pay more for produce there than I do at the chain supermarket three blocks away. But it's better produce! I have seen stuff for sale in the local supermarket that, if I were the produce manager, I would be embarrassed to have out there. Apples with wrinkled skins. Rotten tomatoes. That sort of thing. Whole Foods forced them to improve the quality of their produce -- and even offer an aisle of natural and organic products. So there. (imagine a paragraph break) Welcome back, Whole Foods! Every store that reopens A.K. is a cause for rejoicing, and we sure are glad to have you back in the neighborhood!

Saturday, January 28, 2006


I commend to you a website: It is a group in New Orleans that is working to get the word out that New Orleans didn't just flood after Katrina because it is below sea level and why rebuild a city below sea level, anyway? The site directs the reader to articles in major newspapers about the real reason why the city flooded: because the levees that were supposed to protect the city from storm surges even greater than Katrina were not built to the original design specifications, and huge, really stupid, engineering mistakes were made. One engineering consultant described it as the biggest engineering disaster in the United States.

I mention this because this weekend we are seeing stories about the twenty-year anniversary of the Challenger disaster. (I can hardly believe it's been twenty years. I remember I was sitting in an editorial staff meeting when someone brought the news to our editorial director and he announced it to the room. I knew this man wouldn't make up something like that, but I didn't want to believe it.) And at its heart, the Challenger disaster came about because someone decided to save money by using cheaper materials or parts, and in spite of having it pointed out that this was a bad idea, this "someone" went ahead and authorized it anyway. And seven people died and the space shuttle program got shelved for years. (The cause of the Columbia disaster was a little different, but it sent the engineers back to designing a new way to do things, too.)

At any rate...someone in the Vicksburg, Mississippi office of the Corps of Engineers questioned the plans for the levees back in 1990 and was told that, essentially, "this will do." But this didn't do. And this little mistake cost more than 1100 lives, with bodies still being pulled out of houses as of this week.

And there are people in Congress who are questioning whether to spend the money to rebuild the levees the way they should have been built in the first place, and President Bush is balking at providing federal funds to rebuild rental properties (by the way, New Orleans has far more tenant-occupied properties than homeowner-occupied properties; we are talking about not covering 180,000 homes here).

What makes me angry is that we would not be in this situation if the levees had been built the way they were supposed to be built in the first place -- the way we THOUGHT they were built, but you can't tell what the interior structure is like from looking at them on the side of the road.

My slogan for a sign I have yet to create, to carry in some future demonstration about the levees:

If you build it
They will come

This city is in shambles. It probably will not recover economically in the remainder of my working years. It makes me angry, and it makes me sad.

Do you worry about terrorists attacking your city? Time and again as I drove through flooded neighborhoods in the weeks after the storm, I shook my head and thought, not even terrorists could do this much damage. It boggles the mind.

San Francisco came back after the 1989 earthquake. In time, New Orleans will come back too.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


Well, the whole world knows by now that Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, made a little extemporaneous speech on Martin Luther King Day that blew up in his face. The world thinks Hizzoner is an idiot, but there are a few folks in the city who say he was just "telling it like it is."

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation it wasn't. There was a little something in there to offend just about everyone. Martin Luther King having a conversation from beyond the grave with the mayor? "Surely God is mad at America"? And then there was the Chocolate City thing. One editorial writer in the Times-Picayune tried to explain to the folks who took it as a reference to Willy Wonka that it really was about a song from 30 years ago about majority-black cities. But I fear his voice has been lost in the crowing of "Mayor Wonka and the Chocolate City."

It was hardly stop-the-presses news that, B.K., New Orleans had been a majority black city for more than 25 years. So is Atlanta (the city, not the metro area). So is Detroit. And probably quite a few other major American cities. And because New Orleans was a majority black city, when 80 percent of the city flooded after Katrina, the majority of people affected were, indeed, black. Not all -- quite a few mostly white neighborhoods got flooded out too.

But what was also true B.K. is that New Orleans had a shocking percentage of its population living below the poverty line -- I don't know the exact figures but I think it was somewhere in the neighborhood of a third of the people. And a lot of those living below the poverty line were black. And a lot of them got flooded out and can't afford to return to the city. Housing is in short supply and what there is, is expensive. (Supply and demand.) People who didn't have flood insurance, regardless of race, are scrambling to figure out how to rebuild their homes.

So Mayor Nagin, when he talked about the Chocolate City, was trying to say that he believed the city would be majority black once again when it is finally repopulated. I wish he would have come up with a different metaphor, one encompassing the many races and ethnicities that make up this city. Someone suggested Rocky Road ice cream would be more fitting, a mix of chocolate, marshmallows, and "nuts." New Orleans has always been famous for nutty people! (For the uninitiated, I suggest you read John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.)

Ray Nagin is not a professional politician. He was an executive with Cox Cable before he became mayor. I hope they will give him his old job back, because I think he just ended his political career with that speech. But considering all he has been through in the last five months, I wonder if he would even want to be re-elected. I sure wouldn't want to be mayor of New Orleans right now, although it appears there is no shortage of potential candidates.

Back when Andrew Young was mayor of Atlanta, in a moment of exasperation with the white business community, he called them "a bunch of smart-ass white boys." First thing you know, every business executive's desk in Buckhead sported a coffee mug with the initials "S.A.W.B." Already people are selling T-shirts that promote Mayor Wonka and the Chocolate City.

This morning, I tuned in the local PBS station (it's good to have them back on the air) and discovered they were having their big fund-raiser on the Sunday before Valentine's Day. Guess what? It's called the Fourth Annual Chocolate Sunday, a to-do at a swanky downtown hotel where people pay $$ to sample chocolates and support the station. I wonder if Chocolate City will help or embarrass them?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Going to the movies

I have a confession to make. I really, really didn't like Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Too much torture, not enough theology. This week I saw a movie that did for me what Mel Gibson's intended to do but fell short (in my humble opinion): the Disney version of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."

Now, the movie wasn't really promoted as a Christian witness. It was more of a kid's movie with battles and other adventures. It's not a movie to convert someone to Christianity who has never opened a Bible. But oh, my, it had me in tears before the opening credits -- and THAT is saying a lot.

If you haven't read C.S. Lewis' seven books about Narnia, go out and do so immediately. They are easy to read and quick to get through, just the thing to do on a few winter's nights. Lewis supposedly wrote these books for his nieces and nephews, but they are easily appreciated by adults who are young in heart. And if you HAVE opened a Bible here and there along the way, you'll find the Christian allegory -- and maybe, just maybe, it will make more sense to you than reading some heavy-duty books on theology.

The Lion in these books is Aslan, son of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea (we never do meet Aslan's father, but the reference is hard to miss). "He is not a tame lion," we are told throughout the books. And when the characters meet Aslan, they are in awe of him. In the movie, all bow before the Lion as he emerges from his tent. I darn near got off my seat in the theater to bow, too.

One of the children, Lucy, hid in a wardrobe in the spare room and discovered she could move through the fur coats stored there into a grove of fir trees in the snow, and that is how she and her three siblings ended up in Narnia. Lucy met a somewhat fearsome looking creature -- a faun -- by the name of Mr. Tumnus. She ended up going to his house and having tea. Now, I would worry about a little girl going to have tea with a faun. Later, her brother Edmund came into Narnia and ended up meeting a beautiful woman who gave him hot chocolate and sweets. You would think, from her appearance, that the beautiful lady would be more trustworthy than a faun. But the beautiful lady is the White Witch who has kept Narnia in a spell for a hundred years, where it is "always winter and never Christmas." But Edmund wants so much to please her that he tells her all about his sister's encounter with the faun. He ends up betraying Tumnus "for sweets."

Yo! Theology class! We have here a lovely allegory! In Genesis, the serpent persuades the man and woman to eat of the tree that God told them not to eat of. In the Gospels, Judas betrays Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Here Edmund is persuaded by an evil witch who plies him with sweet treats to spill the beans, tell her all about his siblings, and betray Tumnus. Edmund, who we might think of as just a kid trying to please a grownup, presents us with Original Sin.

So the Secret Police capture Tumnus and imprison him and eventually the White Witch turns him to stone. When the Witch has a showdown with Aslan, she demands that he give her Edmund as a sacrifice. The Law demands it. Aslan and the Witch go off into his tent to negotiate. When they emerge, the children are told that Edmund's life will be spared. Sounds good, huh?

Except that night the Witch and her minions lead Aslan to the Stone Table, shave off his beautiful coat, tie him to the table, and kill him. And the two girls, Lucy and Susan, watch from a distance, crying. Do I need to spell out the allegory here?

After Aslan's death, after the Witch and her minions are gone, the two girls go to Aslan's body and weep until they fall asleep. It is the middle of the night. It is dark and cold.

And then, just before dawn, the Stone Table cracks (read: the veil of the temple torn in two, the stone rolled away) and death itself works backwards. Aslan is alive! And he is leaping around with the girls in the dawn light, and then they go off to defeat the White Witch. Spring returns to Narnia. The human children reign at the castle called Cair Paravel. The oldest brother, Peter, is High King. (Peter...get it?) And Aslan walks away, down the beach, but the children are told that he will be back, but they won't know when to expect him (do I need to spell that one out too?).

Well, maybe I have given the ending of the book/movie to you, but there are six more books to read! I doubt that Disney will make all seven into movies, anyway. "The Magician's Nephew," as I recall, is a wonderful retelling of the creation story in Genesis. And the final book, "The Last Battle," has its roots in the apocalyptic literature of the Old and New Testaments.

My tears at the beginning of the movie were for Lucy, such a little girl, being sent away from her home and her mother on a train to escape the Blitzkrieg in London. And it is Lucy who weeps in the last book, as night falls on Narnia. But I am WAY ahead of myself. Go read the books. Go see the movie. It's theology: law and sin and grace and redemption. And it's a wonderful story. And it's Disney, not Quentin Tarantino (or Mel Gibson). The violence is there, all right. But we don't have to see it in all its goriness.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Roof! Roof!

It's noisy in Cattown this week. Two of my neighbors are getting new roofs. Yesterday the crew arrived at 8 a.m. (better than 7 a.m., anyway) to begin taking off the old slate roof of my neighbor's house across the street. I know she was really proud of that old slate roof -- they don't make 'em like that anymore -- and sorry to see it go. But the slate roof on my house had to be replaced 40 years ago after Hurricane Betsy took most of it off, so my neighbor got 40 more years out of hers than my family got out of its slate.

And slate makes a LOT of noise when you are throwing it off the roof. There is a dumpster out on the street where they are throwing the roofing materials. Ah, dumpsters. When we were renovating the downstairs of my house two years ago, we took out plaster in seven rooms, including the walls of two staircases. We filled THREE dumpsters. And let me tell you, no matter who is paying for a dumpster, it is public property. I still would like to know who threw the sofa in mine. I know one of my neighbors was landscaping his front yard at the time, and he took the opportunity to hurl dirt and pieces of concrete into "my" dumpster. It was a no-brainer to figure out who did that; they were in his yard one day and in the dumpster the next.

I have a huge pile of trash in front of my house that has been accumulating since October. It started out as the remains of my alligator pear (aka avocado) tree that keeled over during the storm, fortunately in a direction away from the house, plus my neighbor's attic turbine that landed in my yard. It now includes a fig tree that keeled over (with a little help from the termites in its trunk), a box spring and mattress, and a lot of junque from the house. I keep hoping the city will come one day and pick it up. They are slowly picking up trash in the area, but the order in which they are doing it remains an arcane mystery. But in the meantime, until they do, there is that nice dumpster...

Naah. I am in no mood to pick up a mattress, much less all those tree limbs. But it is a temptation.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A new year

I am preaching this morning at a suburban New Orleans church. One of the scripture texts for the day is from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and it is set in a time when the Jewish exiles living in Babylon were allowed to return home to Jerusalem. There has never been a time more appropriate for a text about exiles returning home. Over the last couple of weeks, the exiles from New Orleans have been drifting in with children in tow. The fall semester ended, and wherever the kids were going to school during the last four months, they are now coming home to New Orleans and its suburbs to return to their own schools (some of which are holding classes in locations different from where they were B.K.). The college students are coming back -- again, not all to the same campuses where they began the fall semester a few days B.K.

I read in the paper that the estimated population of New Orleans is now about 100,000, or a little less than a fourth of what it was B.K. But that population is crammed into the areas that didn't flood -- and 80 percent of the city flooded. Now, if I do the math, it still works out to about 20 percent of the people in 20 percent of the land area, but the crowds jamming the grocery stores, the malls, the restaurants, the banks, and the roads belie those numbers. On Friday I spent 40 minutes in the drive-through at the bank, and I don't think that police car parked on the St. Charles Avenue neutral ground (median) was there to deter bank robbers -- it was to ward off fights breaking out over who was trying to get into which line.

The exiles are returning from Babylon, wherever Babylon happened to be. Last week I drove to Houston for the first time, giving an exiled friend a ride back to her temporary home. Going to Houston for the first time is like the story of the blind men who encounter an elephant. One touches the leg and decides it's like a tree. One touches the tail and thinks it's like a snake. One touches the tusk, etc. I saw one small part of Houston and had to drive all the way across town on I-10 to get there, and I lucked out that I missed the worst of rush hour. (Also, it was the week between Christmas and New Year's, when a lot of people are on vacation.) I decided Houston was a lot like Atlanta, except the downtown connector in Atlanta probably has one or two more lanes. It's all about expressways. If you don't have a car, you're out of luck. And the friend I brought back to Houston doesn't have a car, which is probably going to be the chief motivator to bring her back to New Orleans. In New Orleans you can get around pretty well on public transportation -- and right now, A.K., the buses are free.

So, Houston. To this one-time visitor -- like a blind person's first encounter with an elephant -- it was a lot like Atlanta. Only without hills. And with a climate like New Orleans'. It was nice, but it was also good to come home.

So, a new year. 2006. My wish for the new year is "No more hurricanes." But doggone, one popped up in the Atlantic on Dec. 30, making a record 27 named storms for the year. And I keep reading that this pattern is going to go on for the next decade. Congress, please note. We need those category 5 levees. NOW.

Here's to a better new year.

Pastor Kathy