Friday, November 28, 2008

The shape of things

An opportunity to see the shape of things is something I like about this time of year, especially the shapes of oaks like these along a ridge inside what's known as the Whitetail Loop at Lime Creek. I also like the color scheme --- an infinite number of shades of brown, blue, gold and muted green. After the colors of spring, summer and early fall it's good to rest the eyes. Subtleties that might be lost in another season --- blue cedar berries and the shape of a pinecone --- stand out. All in all, it's a good season to be alive (but then aren't they all?)

It was good to have the place all to myself first thing today, the day after Thanksgiving. I hope everyone else was part of the mob at the big boxes spending money they didn't have on things they didn't need --- all for the sake of the economy. We've got to jump-start that sucker you know.


I've been mildly under the weather for the last couple of weeks, the office flu that this fall has involved a few days of wracking coughs before it somehow moves into the digestive system. Nothing painful, messy or debilitating: Just aggravating. Since I had the flu I couldn't have the free flu shot offered at the office where I'd caught the flu in the first place. Life works that way sometimes.

My now dissapating disease caught up with me as the week was ending that had included an election-night marathon followed by a few 12-hour-plus work days involved in a project that required constant attention and a good deal of precision. I'm superstitious about weeks like that, expect to get sick --- if I'm going to get sick --- immediately after them and was not disappoined.

Since I'm not often sick, I spend time when I'm entirely capable of doing useful things wallowing in self-pity. The wallowing often is punctuated by severe bouts of hypochondria. I awoke in Chariton early one morning, turned on the bedside lamp and started scratching the back of my left hand. It occurred to me then that I was the victim of flesh-eating bacteria. But before the first cup of coffee I'd remembered that the itching spot actually was the aftermath of a small deep burn I'd self-inflicted during a moment of carelessness with the oven door.


I worked Thanksgiving afternoon and evening, something I don't mind doing. Plus being in Mason City on the holday gave me a chance to attend the Thanksgiving Eucharist at St. John's Thursday morning. I had planned to just sit there like a lump being thankful, but suspected I was in trouble when the rector came down the aisle with a gleam in her eye. As a result, I ended up serving both as lector and intercessor.

I've already complained about the trials of Old Testament lessons and the need to practice, but fortunately there were no linguistic traps for me to fall into writhing before the assembled congregation. Just nice words from Deuteronomy. Although I did end up huffing and puffing my way through them.

I'm a Rite I man, and this was a Rite II service. If you're not familiar with the Book of Common Prayer, Rite I was included in the 1979 reworking of it to preserve traditional language (think King James Version --- thee, thou and it is meet and right so to do) while Rite II moved very conservatively into more contemporary language.

Because Rite I services usually are earlier on Sunday mornings and involve fewer people, the beautiful shape of the language generally is allowed to carry the service and music is not a part of it. Rite II, on the other hand, involves all the bells and whistles --- rousing hymns, a certain amount of sung liturgy, and so forth. So after a rousing hymn with additional singing on the side, I arrived at the lectern breathless. By the psalm, however, I'd caught up with myself and all else proceeded smoothly.


The major story of the day on Thanksgiving was the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai --- once known to most of us as Bombay.

Our holiday reporter, Mary Pieper, did a terrific job playing telephone tag on a busy holiday with several North Iowans who were born and raised in India and still have family and friends there. The comments of one, who has lived in this neck of the woods for about 15 years, struck me especially (her family and friends in Mumbai were safe).

Upon arriving in Iowa, she said, she was astonished that no one had protective grilles over their windows --- needed in a part of the world where terrorism is frequent. She has never felt so safe in her life as she has in Iowa, she said.

Now how's that for a blessing to count? Happy Thanksgiving, even if I am a day late!

Friday, November 21, 2008


One advantage I think to living alone is the opportunity to appreciate silence. Other than briefly on Monday and Tuesday mornings and during broadcasts of both the British and U.S. versions of "Antiques Roadshow" I do not watch television. Nor do I listen to the radio as a rule. But this was one of those mornings when I did both.

My ISP, as it seems to do once a year, decided to change the telephone number the computer must dial to access the Internet, where I do spend a good deal of time, in the antiquated slow-moving way I prefer. Difficulty was, the new number did not work; nor did the old one when I went back to it.

So I could not arise at 6 and peruse The Des Moines Register's obituaries, then move on to MSNBC to reassure myself that nothing of import had been blown up overnight. Since there is a radio here beside my desk, I decided to turn that on --- to the NPR station it is set at.

That was distressing enough. The same bad-news economy stories repeated over and over with overkill analysis following; then a call-in show of some sort. Finally at 8 when the technical-support people arrived at their office, we solved the minor problem and I was back online, touring silently a nice selection of Anglican churches in Suffolk.

Then came a season in hell --- at Lyons' Toyota-Dodge, where it was necessary to go for a long overdue oil change. Lyons' service department is wonderful. You drive up, the door opens, your vehicle is taken away and within an hour all is said and done and you're on your way.

But during the waiting period, it's necessary to sit in the waiting room with a large television set apparently intended to keep the natives from getting restless while the mechanics are at work. This morning it was tuned loudly to a news channel: The same bad-news economy stories I'd heard earlier, pontification about Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and an especially annoying segment repeated four times during 40 minutes about a verbal tiff between the odious Rosie O'Donnell and Barbara Walters, equally odious perhaps but with better manners.

I've rarely been so glad to see the guy bearing my bill and keys come through the door from the service department so I could pay up and drive away --- in silence.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Say "Wadi Kishon" ten times real fast

Around the globe today in congregations that use the Revised Common Lectionary and as the 27th Sunday after Pentecost approaches, there are lectors (including me) quaking in their boots with their noses in Bible dictionaries online or otherwise practicing pronunciation. What were we thinking of when we abandoned the lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer that specifies a pleasant Old Testament reading from Zephaniah?

Instead, we have this from Judges (4:1-7): The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, "The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, `Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.'"

It's one thing to read this passage or others silently to yourself in your living room or favorite pew; quite another to ascend to the lectern and suddenly realize, looking out over the congregation, that you have no idea how to pronounce THAT word. Like "Harosheth-ha-goiim."

I know another lector who when completely flummoxed, just spells it out. Most of us make up a pronunciation and use it decisively, right or wrong. At St. John's it also would be possible to feign a faint, drop gently beghind the solid wood lectern rail, crawl out through the choir loft then exit through a side door into the courtyard and drive away.

I'm sure we'll all be fine. The Word of the Lord? Thanks be to God for pronouncing dictionaries!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On Eagles' Wings

Driving north toward Knoxville on Highway 14 on Tuesday, Veterans Day in the morning, I noticed that Al Pearson out at the Williamson turnoff had turned his flag right side up. Al has been flying his flag upside down and at half mast since the election, expressing angst I suppose, so right side up though still at half mast was a decent gesture.

By rights, however, no matter how distressed one is about politics, it’s appropriate to honor those who have served, Republican and Democrat alike, by flying Old Glory at full staff on Nov. 11.

Surely we know the story by now. Originally Armistice Day, marking the official end of World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918, Nov. 11 became a day to honor all veterans, both living and dead, in 1954. We celebrate the fact that those who died for us in our wars once lived and honor all others who served us, living and dead, in war and in peace.

Iowa officially honored all its veterans earlier this year with the opening of the Iowa Veterans Cemetery a few miles west of Des Moines at Van Meter. There, I guarantee you, there will be no manipulation of the flag that belongs to us all to make political statements.

It is a lovely and peaceful place, high atop a hill with busy Interstate 80 surprisingly silent at the base of its north boundary. I was surprised by that, expecting to be distracted at least a little by passing traffic. Instead, it seems appropriate and is moving to look out along this early row of graves toward the flag on the cemetery’s highest point, then beyond to the ribbon of highway stretching endlessly to the west beyond the Raccoon River valley.

The cast bronze eagle up top, donated by the Iowa National Guard Officers Auxiliary, stands near the entrance of the columbarium plaza at the cemetery.

The cemetery also is the site of Iowa's official memorial to its dead in the War on Terrorism, three polished black granite panels at the western edge of the hilltop. The central panel contains a laser engraving of a painting by David Rottinghaus of Nora Springs, inspired by North Iowa's own 1133rd Transportation Co., now undergoing final training before its second deployment to Iraq.

The painting struck a chord with many Iraq War veterans and families, especially those who have lost loved ones in the war, and now hangs in the State Capitol.

Another panel contains the names of Iowa's dead, including North Iowa's own Spc. Josh Knowles, of the 1133rd, killed during a mortar attack in Baghdad shortly after Christmas during the unit's first deployment, a death that many of us remember vividly.

I believe that about 180 interments already have taken place at the cemetery and that nearly 2,000 places have been reserved. A majority of the remains interred here to date have been placed in the columbarium plaza or a nearby area reserved for those who wish to have cremated remains buried instead.

There are only two buildings on the cemetery grounds. In the foreground is a glass-enclosed shelter where committal services are held and, in the background, the cemetery's administration and maintenance building.

Just outside the shelter is this bronze relief of hands holding a folded flag, a ceremonial gesture performed often here at this place where every day is Veterans Day.

And He will raise you up on eagle's wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

Michael Joncas, based upon Isaiah 40:31

Saturday, November 08, 2008

What a week! The election, first snow, etc.

For what it's worth, my first snow of the season came here in the north of Iowa overnight Thursday-Friday following several days of shirt-sleeve weather and continued off and on for most of Friday and again overnight. Much of it disappeared, but this morning there's snow in the grass and windshields are covered. I say "my" first snow because it snowed up here a week or so ago when I was elsewhere, and I'm not at all sorry to have missed it.

Obviously, I was delighted with the outcome of Tuesday's election --- Barack Obama as president-elect, a wider Democrat margin in both Congress and the Iowa Legislature --- but didn't have much time to celebrate. After the usual election night madness in the newsroom came the three consecutive 12-hour days at the office needed to produce an annual complicated fall report for one of North Iowa's most worthy non-profits. It's been the kind of week that wears on a person.

Watching Barack and Michelle Obama and their two daughters come onstage in Chicago after Tuesday night's victory was an awesome experience --- realizing that the next occupants of the White House, built in part by slave labor, will be a black family. Just think of it. What a triumph for the Obamas --- and for the rest of us, too; a triumph that has little to do with politics.

I suspect Obama will take very seriously his commission to be president of us all, so don't expect anything resembling a campaign to implement a "liberal agenda," however that might be defined. I do want to thank those folks news reports tell us are running out to buy guns in anticipation of strict control legislation for boosting the economy, but doubt they have much to fear. Working to solve our economic dilemma is going to be a full-time job, plus.

I still like John McCain and appreciated his concession speech, but do think Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate was a factor in the scale of the Obama victory. It's always useful to remember, however, that none of this was her fault. She was chosen by cold-blooded GOP strategists for cold-blooded reasons, and neither mocking from the liberal front nor scorn from the conservative front is justified. Perhaps she'll be back one day with more experience and more knowledge and we can judge her on her own merits then rather than on those imposed upon her.

Proposition 8, which defines marriage as a state-sanctioned relationship between a male and a female, became part of California's constitution, something that's causing a good deal of distress for my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters there and elsewhere. Similar measures were passed in other states. None of this is surprising, although many in laid-back California apparently were surprised.

A coalition of conservative Christians is claiming, with justification, credit for the success of the amendment. They were perfectly within their rights to do that, and that reinforces some useful lessons.

I always try to remember, sitting in church on Sunday mornings, that my presence there is conditional and that institutional Christianity is not my friend, although individual Christians may be and the guy after whom the institution is named most certainly is. Never hurts to remember that --- especially the last part.

I also found it interesting that three state measures to limit or disable access to abortion, including a parental-consent measure in California, were soundly defeated.

One way of looking at the culture wars on the election front might be to conclude that heterosexuals, having botched marriage pretty badly over the years, need those constitutional reassurances so they can feel better about themselves before going out to produce offspring willy-nilly without benefit of the institution, practice serial polygamy (divorcing inconvenient spouses at a rate approaching 50 percent) when they do marry and aborting at will the usual product of heterosexual coupling.

I say give us queers a chance. We couldn't possibly make more of a mockery of marriage than straight folks already have.