Saturday, November 24, 2012

What Kind of King Is This?

Today You Will Be With Me

This Sunday is sometimes called Christ the King Sunday. We would do well to recall how this all began. Once upon a time, God would raise up leaders for his people. They were called Judges. God would appoint a specific Judge to address current specific situations. But then the people of God begged the boy-prophet Samuel to beg God to give them a king. After all, all the other nations had kings and they wanted one too. They were tired of God raising up Judges to meet the needs of specific times and situations.

As you may recall, God counsels Samuel to convince the people that kings do not always work out very well. Samuel tries, but the people continue their demand for a king. Eventually, God gives in, and voila! Saul is made king, and right away things do not go so well.

Note: Verna Dozier in her book, The Dream of God, calls this “the Second Fall,” long after the fall in the garden. Not content to let God run the show, the people rely on one of their own – and over time it results in some good times, but mostly bad.

Jeremiah (23:1-6) writes about this after the disastrous reign of Jehoiachin resulted in the Babylonian captivity - Exile. Jeremiah’s warning is good for just about any age, any time, any place.

Woe to the shepherds who have scattered the flock. Note: the history of Israel as told in The Bible is unique in giving us the account warts and all, and in Israel taking blame for its own problems.

God through Jeremiah, however, makes a promise: despite the bad leadership – a new shepherd, dare we say a Good Shepherd, will be raised up from the line of David.

Second note: some three hundred years after Jesus comes what Verna Dozier calls “the Third Fall,” when Constantine takes the church from being an alternative to life lived in the Roman Empire to become the organizing principal for the Holy Roman Empire. As good a short term strategy as this may have been for the Empire, the results have been at best mixed, and often disastrous, for the church, for it has made us complicit in a string of historic events that Jesus would have found utterly impossible to believe – the crusades, the inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, anti-semitism right up to and through the Holocaust.

So, where do we find our “king”? In Luke 23:33-43 we find him as a Jew hanging on a Roman cross. One might want to count the number of times our text refers to “they” or “them” – “When they came to the place of the Skull,” “they crucified Jesus,” “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” “they cast lots to divide  his clothing.”

Who are “they”? Not the Jews, and not even the Jewish Temple leadership, who by the way were appointed by Rome. “They” are the Empire – all those who worked on behalf of the Roman god, Caesar. The principal henchman, of course, is Pilate, Caesar’s “man” in Jerusalem.

So one thing one might do on this Christ the King Sunday is to consider the irony of the Third Fall – the Church becomes the Empire, the very instrument of human sin and destruction that placed Jesus on the Cross in the first place.

Jesus is a funny kind of king. He wrote no books. He had no army to command or to protect his kingdom. When his subjects try to pick up the sword he reprimands them. He founded no institution. He instituted no form of government – not even for his disciples! He rides a donkey when other kings might ride a horse. He claims to have no home. He spends most of his time with outcasts of all kinds: the blind, the lame, prostitutes, tax collectors, poor people, migrant workers, undocumented aliens, hungry people, tired people, prisoners, lepers. He is a king like no other king that ever lived.

Which is the Good News for those of us who stand at the foot of the cross every day and look up to him for direction in a world full of bad shepherds scattering flocks far and wide; bad shepherds in every possible human institution, most especially the church. But we need not get into that here.

We are to take solace, hope, and faith from the ancient words of Psalm 46 which assures us that though the waters rage and foam around us, though the mountains tremble, God is with us.

We are urged to “Be still, then, and know that I am God…the Lord of Hosts is with us.”
Not only is our king a funny kind of king, but our God is a funny kind of God. When life is at its most tumultuous, says God, “Be still.” Stop. Be still. Don’t do anything. Be quiet and you will know the presence of the Lord.

Some six hundred years after Jeremiah decries the leadership of God’s people, a new shepherd arrives. This morning we see him hanging on a Roman cross, making a promise – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” After that he breathes his last, hands over his Spirit, and dies.

As we say in our creed, “He suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again…and is seated at the right hand of the Father…”

This is what makes Jesus our king – a king like no other.

And this is why his promise is true – for as long as we are with him today, and we are, we have nothing to fear of all the bad shepherds loose in the world. Because there is no power like his power which has been loose in the world since that moment on the cross when he gave up his Spirit, and that third day when he became king of all creation.

God says to Jeremiah, “I myself shall gather the remnant of my flock.” Even now God in Christ the King gathers us as his faithful remnant. Because God’s Good Shepherd gathers us we are free to be still in the midst of whatever storms rage around us and know that he is God – and that he is with us today – here and now.

To Christ be Glory forever and ever. Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Stay Awake!

“And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”
Mark 13:37
“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’…Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Mark Chapter 13

Sounds eerily familiar. Open your web browser, turn on your TV news outlet, or if you are an old fogey like me, open the morning paper, and much of what you find is the kind of stuff Jesus appears to be talking about: wars, earthquakes, hurricanes, buildings and institutions once thought to be eternal come tumbling down, false prophets abound (disguised as politicians, terrorists, economists, pollsters, news readers, entertainers, talk-show hosts and what-not!).

Taken uncritically at face value, Jesus can be made to appear to be addressing our current situation – which in a sense he is. Taken historically, he was describing the situation on the ground at the time of the Roman Military Occupation of Israel. Looked at from a historical-critical viewpoint, Mark appears to be writing at a time shortly after the First Jewish Revolt against the Empire – the Temple, viewed as the center of the universe, that place where God’s finger holds the world together, is already in ruins having been razed by the Roman Legions.

Undoubtedly the thirteenth chapter of Mark is one of the more problematic texts in the Bible. Often called “The Little Apocalypse,” it has baffled modern readers over the past 150 years or so, giving rise to such things as billboard campaigns announcing the end of times on a particular day and time.

Even as an undergrad, we were urged, by Dr. John Gettier, to read the Bible as history, theology and literature. Literature. Understanding the Bible not as a book, let alone The Book, but as a collection of books, a one volume library if you will, one discovers that there are a number of different literary genres represented in this remarkable collection of now ancient texts. Apocalyptic is one genre alongside narrative, non-fiction, poetry, songs, aphorisms, gospels, letters, to name only a few. When one does the difficult work of reading Jewish Apocalyptic literature in this collection of books we call The Bible one thing becomes evident: apocalyptic literature is not meant to be predictive in any way. Rather, texts like this thirteenth chapter of Mark are addressed to a people who are experiencing some sort of political, social, and/or economic pressures – people who are in need of two things; a reminder and hope.

The reminder is that our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus has been with us in the past. The hope is that our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus is with us right now in the midst of the current travail and dislocation.

It all starts out with a question about when the Temple will be destroyed (which Jesus simply answers, Only God knows), and a question about when the “the Son of Man” will return (“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”). Which raises the legitimate question: exactly what Bible are all those people who predict the date and time of the Second Coming reading? Obviously not the Gospel of Mark!

The rest of chapter 13 is addressed to all Christians throughout all time in somewhat coded but very direct language: Beware…Do not be alarmed…Do not worry…Be alert…Stay Awake. This essentially means, do not be distracted by all this other stuff – others will, but you are to be on guard against whatever may distract you from being faithful to Jesus. And, oh yes, you are to proclaim the good news everywhere.

Douglas R. A. Hare, in his commentary, Mark (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY:1996), points to the heart of this discourse in verse 9 (“As to yourselves, beware…”NRSV), but urges us to return to the King James translation: “But take heed to yourselves.”

“That is,” writes Hare, “the object of the verb ‘beware,’ the same verb as in verse 5, is not an external threat, such as deceivers or persecutors, but oneself! The warning may be paraphrased: ‘As for you, constantly be on your guard against your own weakness. External events have no power to compel you to be unfaithful; disloyalty comes from within.’” (p.170)

Talk about a text that for very different reasons than those assumed appears to address our current situation today! We live in a culture awash with excuses and finger pointing at any and every external circumstance blamed for whatever it is we do not like. It is always somebody or something else’s fault: the other side of the aisle, the liberal media, the conservative echo chamber, the economy, unchecked militarism, Super Storm Sandy, the utility companies, earthquakes, wind and fire. Rarely are we urged to look within ourselves. Rarely are do we take the time to “take heed to ourselves.”

Like the Buddha some 600 years before him, Jesus asserts: yes, everything is changing; nothing stays the same – not the Temple, not the current persecution, not the Empire – nothing. He also joins the Buddha in declaring that the life of faith, the life of the Spirit, quite simply life itself, is an undertaking that demands intense self-effort. As odd as it sounds, to Stay Awake is more difficult than it sounds. The Reverend Frederick Shriver, professor of Church History at General Theological Seminary always reminded us that we tend to spend much of our lives sleepwalking – lulled into a constant state of Unawareness. This sleepwalking is induced by our preoccupation with disasters of all kinds, which in turn dulls our senses and sensibility and distracts us from life that is true life. It is so easy to get wrapped up in tearing down the other side, whether it is the Roman Empire, or Democrats and Republicans, parties within and without the Church, natural disasters, man-made disasters, and what-not. Why not? Who wants to do the hard work of looking within ourselves? Who wants to spend time examining our own weaknesses?

Look at Facebook, or Twitter, or the Blogosphere – listen to the radio, watch the television, cruise the Internet – how easy it is to be bludgeoned into a somnambulant state of perpetual sleepwalking through life! Not to mention a perpetual state of grumpiness!

Spiritual leaders, teachers, around the world and throughout time urge us:
Wake Up! Be Aware! (Anthony de Mello, Jesuit priest and psychotherapist)
Breathe. Smile. Live in the Present Moment. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk)
We spend most of our lives conjugating three verbs, To Want, To Have, To Do, when we know all of these verbs have no meaning outside the verb, To Be. (Evelyn Underhill, English mystic)
Being must precede Doing. (Gordon Cosby, Church of the Saviour, Washington, D.C.)
Beware…Do not be alarmed…Do not worry…Be alert…Stay Awake. (Jesus, The Little Apocalypse)

Jesus, and all these others, means to give us Hope despite our living in a world that rarely gives evidence that such Hope is justified. To sustain such Hope is in fact hard work – it requires intense self-effort, and a commitment to look within ourselves so that we might develop the inner resources to Stay Awake. Such commitment to such religious behavior is often viewed and touted as our duty. We must not see this as our duty, but our privilege. We are privileged to be counted among those people who take Being a People of Hope seriously and with great Joy. Others may be satisfied being sleepwalkers and grumps – but not us! Our God has been with us in the past, and is with us in the here and now. If only we will wake up and welcome him into our lives! Amen.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Widows, Orphans and Resident Aliens

Ruth, a resident alien, undocumented, left her home in Moab to return to Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi. Naomi’s husband has died, Ruth’s husband has died, so Naomi urges Ruth to work in a relative’s field gleaning grain. At Naomi’s urging , Ruth is to find a way to marry Boaz, the relative. They marry, they have a child and so Ruth becomes the grandmother of David, the shepherd king.

Jesus is in the temple. He is watching. He is watching how much each person contributes to the temple treasury - that is, he is watching how much money people contribute as their tithe. Along comes a poor widow (reminiscent of Ruth and Naomi). She has no one to care for, and just a few small coins. She places her two small coins in the offering. Jesus, we discover, not only watches what people place in the offering, he comments on their offerings as well! He commends the widow - for others contributed out of their abundance, while she gave all she had, the two small coins - “all she had to live on.”

We have stories this week about two of the three classes of people the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus cares about - widows, orphans and resident aliens. He lifts us the two widows, one a resident alien (Ruth), as examples for the rest of us. They are not to be ignored, or worse, discriminated against. They are not to be marginalized. They are to be embraced, for by their examples the future of Israel is to be secured.

Over against this backdrop of what the Bible has to say about immigration and supporting those who are unable to support themselves we have the results and response of our recent national election. Former Amboy Dukes guitarist (“Journey to the center of your mind”) Ted Nugent tweets, “Pimps whores & welfare brats & their soulless supporters hav a president to destroy America,” evidently not happy with a President who seeks to fulfill the Biblical mandate to help those in need, to secure the future for today’s widows, orphans and resident aliens. We saw big money spent to deny the children of resident aliens an affordable education.

And last week, while at a wonderfully extravagant party in our nation’s capitol in a second floor loft and yoga studio where food, drink and music was overflowing - a stroll around the block revealed a number of people “downstairs” setting up places on the sidewalks and in doorways to sleep the night on the pavement. The contrast was stark. And only blocks from the White House and Congress, where policies are set in motion that make result in such people having nowhere else to go.

I spoke to two men who had their hands out seeking to raise enough money to rent a room for the night. It was cold, dipping into the lower forties. I asked them why they did not seek a public shelter. “Man,” they said, “it’s worse than jail in there. People rob you, steal your shoes, up all night makin’ noise, and they throw you back out on the street at the crack of dawn. It’s better out here.” I gave them $10 on my way back upstairs where the food and drinks were flowing like milk and honey.

It has been said by many that the measure of a society can be summed up by how it treats its most vulnerable people - the very young, the very old, the very ill, the very poor. It struck me as ironic that within walking distance of our nation’s power structures the measure of our society was pitiful. Meanwhile those candidates that offered a vision that would reach out to lift up folks like those who were sleeping on a single piece of cardboard for a bed on the sidewalks of Washington D.C. are demonized as socialistic and un-American - most often by those who claim to champion a so-called “Biblical world-view” and muster all kinds of arguments from the Bill of Rights to arm themselves for protection from such widows, orphans and resident aliens.

Naomi her mother-in-law said to Ruth, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you…”

In Luke, chapter 12 Jesus tells a story about a man who is utterly independent - he has acquired so much “stuff’ he has to build a number of barns to store it all - the origin of self -storage. He throws a party to celebrate the completion of the barns, but there is no one there but himself. He even says, “Self, look what we have accomplished.” The voice of the Lord God intervenes and says, “Self? You ain’t no self! Look at you. No friends, no one to celebrate with, just a bunch of barns full of stuff. Your life could be taken this moment and what do you really have?”

The counter narrative is to Love God and Love neighbor - a vision of interdependence. A vision of a world shaped by the Manna narrative in the wilderness - a bracketed period of time, 40 years, when everyone had enough, no one had too much, and when you tried to hoard the Manna it went sour.

Just how sour do things need to get before we admit that our visions and theories of independent, self- sustaining individuals leaves us with barns filled to overflowing, but no one to live let alone celebrate life with?

Ruth and the Widow with two small coins. Once again, women point the way forward. Women offer us a vision of just how life could be were we to really take “Biblical values” seriously.  One can easily point the finger of blame at the poor, or at liberals, or at Randian social conservatives - but that just will not work at the end of the day. One can walk past the man or woman on the street with the hand out looking for some kind of assistance. Or, we can stop. We can stop and strike up a conversation with them. To take the time to talk with someone in need is often better than dropping a few coins or a dollar in their outstretched hands. For to stop and talk to someone is to say they are a person too just like me. To stop and talk to them is to grant them personhood and standing within our society. To stop and talk to them, and listen to them, and really hear them is to say, “You have value - you are human - I accept you as a brother or sister in Christ - in the name of Allah - as a co-equal in God’s kingdom.” To want widows, orphans and resident aliens to have health care, an education, and enough to live on day to day - is that really un-American? Is that really un-Christian? Is that really un-Biblical? Society is judged not on the value of our most successful, but rather how we care for the least of our sisters and brothers.

As Naomi says to Ruth, “We need to seek security for all our sisters and brothers so that it may be well with us all.” Amen.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Val's Halla

Val’s Halla: My Musical Education
Reflections by
The Reverend Kirk “Chief” Kubicek

In the beginning there was Little’s Music on Lake Street. Bins of 33rpm albums and 45 rpm singles, and listening booths where you could throw them on the turntable and listen. It was there that I first slipped Kinda Kinks out of the paper sleeve and gave it a spin. Step into the fantasy world of Ray and Dave Davies! The birth of fuzz guitar from the now infamous “green amp.” Little did we know then that to get that sound they had taken a knitting needle and ripped the speaker cone. “Who’ll be the next in line,” “I need you,” “Tired of waiting,” and the mind-bending and genre-bending “See My Friends.” I had to take it home and to this day I listen to all those songs and the entire Davies songbook every day. It should not go without mention that Chicago’s own Flock did a definitive cover of Tired of Waiting For You – and played at our Junior Prom at OPRFHS. Ray’s recent releases, Storyteller, Kinks Choral Collection and See My Friends are all worth running down to Val’s right now to get them all.

Meanwhile, my uncle Lee was schooling me on early Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Huston, Leadbelly and more. I would spend the night at my grandparents, sleeping in his room while he was away at Northwestern. There were those old pocket copies of Sing Out!And the Folk Box on Folkways (now from Smithsonian), a virtual seminar in American folk music. Lee kept introducing me to new music throughout his life, including the likes of Michelle Shocked, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Art Tatum, Bill Evans and more.

Soon there was a new game in Oak Park – Discount Records on Ridgeland under management by this amazing woman with a big Italian Fro. The albums all had “Demo” stamped on them, or had a hole cut in the corner. I am thinking my first purchase with Val was Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, with a hole in the corner. The price was right – and who knew I was getting my first taste of Robbie Robertson for whom I would be manning the follow spot when The Band played Trinity College in Hartford, CT! It also featured Al Kooper on organ (!), and the solid time keeping of the incomparable Kenny Buttrey, Nashville session drummer extraordinaire. Discount Records was just the warm-up act for what would become the legendary Val’s Halla.

During the Discount Record years, since I was already spending lots of time near Adams and Wabash for Frank’s Drum Shop (“Franks for the memories”), we would sometimes stop in Rose’s Records to find something new. One afternoon a few of us Cellar Dwellers went home with The Mothers of Invention Freak Out and Jefferson Airplane Takes Off in our hands – totally changing our understanding of what the possibilities of what rock music could be!

Then it happened! Life changed forever. Val opened Val’s Halla. No need to dwell on the Elvis Shrine –that is something you had to experience first-hand, on your own. First I bought all the Vanguard Chicago Blues Today volumes. Then it was John Mayall and early Buddy Guy and Junior Wells discs. Eventually Val would steer me toward the some vintage Limelight recordings of Roland Kirk:  Rip, Rig and Panic and I Talk With The Spirits (with the original Serenade To A Cuckoo). Saw Tull open for Kirk, then Kirk came out, furious at having had to wait for what really did seem like forever, and then he blew the night away, and Ian Anderson with it! I first knew Kirk’s music thanks to Val. (How does a person get all those reeds into one mouth at the same time?) I also picked up the entire Siegel-Schwall catalog, including their collaboration with the CSO on the 1973 William Russo Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra. And my mom would eventually give me the Corky Siegel Chamber Blues CDs for Christmas, also purchased at Val’s. And all of the “singing mailman” John Prine’s output, Steve Goodman, and Bonnie Koloc; those white Dylan underground releases; endless Grateful Dead underground releases; the Who, early, middle and late Clapton, anything with Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel (The Snake!); and my first recording of the Mahler Ninth, a two disc box-set, under the baton of Sir John Barbirolli (Angel Records) that has sent me on a yearly Lenten discipline of listening to every Mahler Symphony (including the Baribirolli Ninth!) at least once during the forty days. All this and more could all be had at one place and one place only – Val’s Halla.

Let’s face it, Val has been my longest term and most important music teacher. She schooled us all, effortlessly, and at the same time promoted every single local musician who passed through her door. Mimi Betinis, Cliff Johnson, Jimmy Z, Bob Eul, Corky Theusen, John Pazdan, Dave Spence, Jim Erickson, Peter Constantine Cutsivitus. More than just a music store, it became a community gathering place, that long, narrow, barely more than a door’s width shop that might easily have fit inside an El car – how cool that would have been! A rolling rock and roll emporium making its way out of Oak Park downtown, rounding the Loop and back again all the day and all the night!

Val also led the first wave of selling used, that is “previously listened to” LPs, cassettes, 8-track carts(!), and eventually CDs, thus leading the way for the current vinyl revolution. Any serious collector could start right there, especially when the shop expanded into the room next door to house an entire universe of the history of music!

We all kept coming back for more. And the more was not more music. It was to be able to spend time with Val herself. She and Loki were Val’s Halla. The merchandise was just a front. Val is the main reason for going. She took and continues to take a personal interest in each of our lives. She not only wants to know how I am doing, what I am doing, always offering encouragement, always offering affirmation for budding young music careers, but she would ask how my mother and father were doing every time I came back to River Forest to spend time at home. She would ask about my sister. See, the whole family used Val’s Halla as the go-to spot for serious music.

Throughout my 40+ years playing with The Outerspace Band (“the band that played the East Room in the White House”) in New England, Val was interested in every twist and turn of our time on the road, recording, where we were living, what was it like out there in the east. She always wanted to know. She always remembered to ask. At Val’s you are not a customer, you are a part of her life – she is a part of yours.

If it was not in the store Val would thumb through Swann catalogues until it could be found. Eventually the books of endless listings would give way to internet searches. You only needed the sketchiest of information before Val would nail-down what you were looking for and get it. “I heard a cut on the radio – a country singer – doing Christian music he had written – I think his name was Marty something…..” “You’re probably looking for Marty Stewart. Let’s see….here he is. How about Soul’s Chapel? Would that be it?” His singing Move Along Train with Mavis Staples, with Marty playing Pops’ Staples guitar, is a Gospel must to hear at least once in your life time.

When it hit the news that Val’s was closing, I first got word from my mother, who clipped a story out of the paper and sent it along. How could that be, I wondered? Forty-plus years of time returning over and over again to Music Mecca, forty-plus years of walking up and down that narrow aisle surrounded on both sides by everything one could ever want to hear, surrounded by promo posters, hand-lettered signs, a virtual history of music covering every available inch of wall space. I still have some hand-lettered signs on day-glow orange cardboard from Val’s announcing Beatle Tickets – 5$. Kirk Jr. has them hanging on his bedroom wall alongside a smiling picture of Bob Dylan off the cover of The Chicago Seed, an early  underground culture journal of the emerging hip music scene in the City Of Broad Shoulders that could be picked up bi-weekly at, yes, Val’s Halla. I had to make one last visit. I photographed the store inside and out, taking pictures of Val seated at the counter as she has greeted every one of us countless times throughout the decades, Val in front of the window on the street, “the Aisle” of music, the used LPs.

It seemed the end of an era was really upon us. She had weathered the competition of the big-box stores, the invading chains, to the point that when a customer at Barnes and Noble at the corner of Lake and Harlem could not find what they wanted, the staff at B&N would simply say, “Have you tried Val’s?” Val’s had withstood every commercial trend and all the competition, only to be driven out of her iconic location beside the rumbling iconic El track by some silly development scheme which itself would founder on the rocks of typical suburban red-tape and protest. Despair had set in for every girl and boy, mom and dad, sister and brother who had made the pilgrimage, the hajj, to music Mecca over and over and over again.

But then! Turns out the obituaries were premature. And I of all people should have known that, yes, there is Resurrection! There is New Life! There is another chapter to be written in the history of music. Joining the emerging Arts District in South Oak Park on Harrison, Val’s Halla was to be reborn! With O What A New Look! Wide open spaces to roam. Light, light endless light to replace the cozy womb-like darkness of the original store. A performance stage in the front window! Kirk Jr. and his indie-pop sidekick Sarah Fridrich played that stage summer of 2011! Vintage Vinyl is now the Rage. The trends have caught up with the leader of the band that was made for you and me - Val Camilletti. It may be a new look, but the heart and soul of Val’s remains, because she remains one of this Earth’s most wonderful people. She has been the Musical Mother for us all – the true Mother of Invention when it comes to musical knowledge and musical love - which is the operant word to describe Val’s – love. It shines through her endless smile. It is Val’s love for all things music, all things Chicago, all the things we would grow up to be – she wants to know us, has known us, in our many incarnations, and has been the mid-wife for so many of those of us who call Val’s home. For Val’s Halla is not the covered-over alley-way that defined the physical presence of the Val Universe in Oak Park for so many years. Val’s is not the endless rows and stacks of merchandise – if one can call music merchandise at all. Val’s in the end is Val – and her trusty sidekicks Halla and Loki – loving what she does and loving all of us who continue to make Val’s Halla our home away from home. We are all thankful to be a part of one of music’s great stories. To quote the incomparable late Sonny Bono, “The beat goes on….” Thank you, Val!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Days Of The Dead

 Days Of The Dead
(With thanks and apologies to Sam Portaro+)

I remember sitting in my office one Sunday after church with a man who had a question. “Why do we pray for the dead?” he asked. “The Bible doesn’t tell us to pray for the dead, so why do we do it? It makes no sense.”

It was one of those timeless moments. The air is still, time stands still, you almost stop breathing. If you are a priest and pastor you are expected to have the answer. You want to have the answer. You feel as if you should have the answers to all such questions. And then you freeze. A kind of fear sets in. A fear of not saying the right thing that will move the person in front of you to a deeper more hopeful faith.

I have no recollection what I said to my inquisitor. No doubt I mumbled a few things about God in Christ being the God of the living and the dead, or some things about eternity and what we call the community of saints in heaven. I just don’t remember. Because those who are dead and have gone before us are praying for us is what I should have said.

All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls – October 31, November 1 and November 2 every year - three days in our calendar of Christian days which call us to look death in the face. On All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, we laugh at death. We mock death. We make merry in a world that looks less and less funny every day. But we put on our costumes, paint up our faces, put on our masks and look at death and all the troubles of this world and we laugh.

It is a crazy kind of laughter that comes of both surprise and fear. We would rather not talk about this fear, but it is just this fear that we commemorate this last day of October and the first two days of November. The chilly winds of winter begin to chill our weary bones, the trees and all of nature echo themes of death and dying. Little ghosts, skeletons, hobgoblins and vampires move us to laugh, for such laughter is our way of averting fear.

So on Halloween we snicker at death, race through graveyards, dress up in hopes of fooling the grim reaper so as to be protected for yet another year. We need not run from our fear, but so often we do.

We want to believe that human flesh and human being is blessed, but we are not so sure of incarnation, so Christmas becomes a thing of material gifts and nostalgic ephemera. We want to believe that the power of life and love will triumph over the power of death, but we are not so sure of resurrection, so Easter becomes a thing of fuzzy bunnies, candy and spring fashion. We want to believe life is eternal, but we are not so sure of eternity, so this autumn season of spooks and saints and souls has become a thing of leering pumpkins and sugar candies.

But it is not incarnation, nor resurrection, nor eternity that we fear – it is disappointment. We do not want to hope in vain. This is why these three days are so precious. Christians have no unique perspective on love – there are many gospels of love, and most world religions teach love at least as well as we do, if not better. We have no unique take on faith, since all world religions, governments and economies depend on faith – for no God can inspire, no government can rule, no commerce can work without genuine faith. But where else is hope?

We Christians dare to hope beyond the constraints of mortality. We are those people who have the example of Martha and Mary. Their brother Lazarus lies dead in a tomb for several days. “Lord, there is a stench,” says Martha. Yet, rather than be paralyzed by their sadness and fear, with their brother dead and buried, they still come to Jesus, go to Jesus, run to the edge of town to greet Jesus with a curious mixture of anger at his delay in coming, but also a deep hope that he can and will bring their brother back from the dead.

For others such hope is hedged. Hope is where many others draw short. Some constrain life to this earthly existence depending on the flesh bound, time-bound existence of reincarnations. Others hope in a painless consignment of the soul to everlasting nothingness.

But we Christians hope beyond mortality, our hope embodied in saints and souls who have gone before, a vast company and communion dwelling beyond time and forever. Our hope is that life is changed, not ended, and that when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.

Our hope is grounded in a faith that claims our God is creator of all that is, seen and unseen. It is a hope that proclaims that we come from love, we return to love and love is all around. It is a hope grounded in our Baptism incorporating us into the Body of Christ, a bond which is indissoluble.  It is a hope that says we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, watching us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our hope, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.

Faith is the quality of mind that sees things before they are realities, and which feels the distant city of God, of Love, to be more dear, more substantial and more attractive than the edible and profitable present.

It’s an embarrassment, to be sure. We have no evidence to produce beyond our stories, like the ones we gather to hear week in and week out, year in and year out. In a realm that bows to tangible security as once it bowed to wood and stone idols, we are the gamblers who stake all that we have on unproven supposition. In a culture that seeks its own gratification at any cost, that spends its produce and its people as if there is no tomorrow, we alone dare to live as if there is a tomorrow and more.

This is why we need these precious days of Halloween, All Saints and All Souls. For we know how hard it is to look death in the face and say to death, “I know I shall see you again.” But it is harder still to scan the flickering light of life’s vitality in the face of a dying friend and say, “I know I shall see you again.”

The world needs us, Jesus needs us, God needs us. They need our hope and our love. In a world that rarely shows evidence that such hope is justified, we are called to be those people who bear witness to a hope that proclaims that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth. That soon we will be done with the troubles of this world and go home to be with God – with God and all those saints and souls who even now watch us and pray for us from that place where there is no more weeping or wailing, but only Light, and Life, and Love. Amen.