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."