Sunday, May 01, 2005

"And the home of the brave!"

A photo or two before and after our successful rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Pirates' game this afternoon. The acoustics were actually pretty resonant there around home plate of PNC Park. And happily, the stands blocked the wind. Pretty chilly for the 1st of May.

This was a grand experience, but it raised a question that's been bothering me for quite awhile: Why doesn't the crowd at sports events or at patriotic observances ever get to sing the National Anthem any more? It really isn't that hard to sing. If you can't hit the high notes, don't hit the high notes. The tune started out as a drinking song, for goshsakes. Let the citizenry jump in and have a go at it, like we used to in dim ages past-- oh, around five years ago.

It's as if we expect some professional artist or special group to be patriotic on our behalf. Kind of like sending the troops over to do our fighting for us. Yes, they are specially-trained, and we can't honor their dedication and sacrifice too highly. But it doesn't take the rest of us off the hook. It doesn't make us into spectators. It doesn't mean we can sit back and watch as if their fight has no claim on us. If--(God forbid) when-- the terrorists strike on our shores again, we're all combatants. That's how we need to think of ourselves, even if we never strike a physical blow in freedom's cause. Even if we only respond with courage and determination and resourcefulness in the face of atrocity. But how are we going to get ourselves into that mindset if we can't or won't even sing our own National Anthem for ourselves? That is not a job that should be left to the pros!

Mustering the troops

Sunday, April 24, 2005

" . . . and Scatters the Frost like Ashes"

"Our Fearless Leader considers whether we'd sound better singing against the wind"

(Here you see what an amateur blogger/HTML formatter I am. If I knew how, these photos would be in the same post.)

"He Spreads the Snow like Wool . . . "

Winter is making a curtain call in southwestern Pennsylvania, and points north and west. The 24th of April, and it's 29 degrees, snowy, foggy and soggy.

So who are these crazy/intrepid people braving the lugubrious weather up on the roof of the Mount Lebanon Presbyterian Church? It's our little pick-up choir, come up to put the final touches on our rehearsal for singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Pirates' game next Sunday. We're suffering for a good cause, to benefit the renovation of the Strand Theater in Zelienople. Not this afternoon; next Sunday at the game. We all hope the weather will be more civilized on the 1st, but if it isn't, we'll be used to it!

(Don't even ask me about being used to the way the Pirates are playing so far this season. I try not to think about it.)

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Magdalen: In Memoriam

Maddie and Rhadwen, this past January 22nd

Sunday, April 17, 2005

"The Beasts That Perish"

The thing is done. My friend Brenda came over this evening and, with a little help from George my next-door neighbor, we buried my dog Magdalen in the back garden at dusk. Goodbye, my sweet, faithful friend. You were a very good dog indeed, confounding all the idiots at the city animal shelter five years ago who said you were "aggressive, feral, and unadoptable."

This weekend I have been coffin-maker, undertaker, grave-digger, officiating pastor, and chief mourner. All I have to add to it now is monument-maker. Gratifying to think what a versatile, talented person I am, but I'd rather have my dog back.

Tant pis. That's not how things work in this fallen world. I'm not even going to comfort myself with the sentimental absurdity that "all dogs go to heaven." If there is a doggie "heaven," it exists only in our imaginations, not in any real spiritual realm created by God. Without the new life won for us by Jesus Christ, even we human beings would have no hope for immortality; we'd be just like "the beasts that perish." And Jesus didn't die to give eternal life to the beasts; He died and rose again to give His imperishable life to us, who are made in the image of God. The animals, no matter how beloved, aren't in it.

But have I left something out here? Maybe I have. Because in Isaiah 11 where the Lord speaks of how it's going to be in the day when He makes all things new, He describes how various animal species will be getting along with one another. You could say that's only a metaphor, but why bring in the beasts at all if they'll be alien to the New Creation?

And in Romans 8 it says "For the creation [including the animals, domestic and wild] was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." So it can be said that we are redeemed in Christ and somehow, in God's good purpose, the rest of creation is redeemed through us, the redeemed!

Whether that means that we will be reunited with specific beloved pets, I can't say. I can be sure that if that's necessary for us to be happy in eternity, the Lord God will make it so. In the meantime, Maddie gave me five good years and I, I believe, gave her five good years. And for that, may the Lord's name be praised.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

"The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away . . . "

My sweet dog Maddie died this morning at 8:40 at the hospital over in Ohio. And in the end the vets were still baffled over what caused the bleeding that started in her nose and eventually spread to her whole system. They considered auto-immune diseases, they looked again at the possibility of cancer, but the presenting symptoms and the test results all militated against these diagnoses. What it really looked like was rat poisoning. Like she'd got into some Warfarin. But I don't have any rat poison around my place. I don't know anybody in the neighborhood who keeps rat poison around his place. And Maddie, with her bad back two weeks ago, wasn't in a position to go walking round the neighborhood to pick any up along the way.

So what was it? What killed my little dog so quickly? I suppose this is one of those "If-God-wants-me-to-know-the-answer-to-that-He'll-let-me-know" questions. There's no question, though, that I'm glad one of the late shift vets called me at 12:30 AM last night and told me that if I wanted to see Maddie alive, I'd better come right away. I arrived there around 2:00 AM. She was lying on her side and couldn't get up. But she wagged her tail when she saw me-- the last she did-- and after awhile pulled herself out of her kennel to lay her head on my lap. We remained like that till 8:00 AM, when the staff moved us to an examination room, to await the morning shift attending vet. But it was all over long before the vet arrived.

I've brought Maddie home and built her a little pine plank coffin with a brass plate with her name and dates on it on the lid. Tomorrow evening a friend will come and help me bury her in the back garden. I'd like to mark the spot with a rose bush-- a dog rose (rosa canina) if someone would sell me one.

But in the meantime I'm having to get used to the idea she's gone. I keep wanting to call her and expect that she'll come. Then I simply want to swear when I remember how things are. Not at God; just at the fearful and obnoxious unfairness of the last enemy, Death. And I think that if this is how I feel when I've merely lost a beloved pet, how truly terrible the onslaught must be when it's launched against one bereaved of a beloved child, parent, sibling, or spouse. Life seems so tenuous and fragile-- a statement I probably should reflect on theologically, but not now. Not tonight. I've had no sleep since Friday morning, and now that everything's done that needed to be done, the adrenalin that has kept me going is as spent and defunct as my poor little dog.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

"The Children's Bread"?

My eyes are closing sideways and my head is dropping into the keyboard, but I thought I'd better update Whomever Might Be Out There with how my dog Magdalen is doing.

Yes, she is still in the land of the living. But it's been up and down since Friday afternoon, with overnights at the local vet's and a stay at the emergency clinic and a blood transfusion and a test for a possible tick-related auto-immune illness (results not back yet) and who knows what all. I visited her at the vet's this afternoon and she's more cheerful, but her nose is still oozing blood and her red cell count is still too low.

Tomorrow we're doing what I thought the other day was beyond possibility: I'm taking her over to the big specialty vet clinic over in Ohio to get the test to see if she really has a tumor or what. I'm not sure which would be worse: a ruptured tumor or an "or what." But after six days of this, I just want to know.

I wonder if I'm turning into one of those neurotic types who lavish on their pets the affection they would've/could've/should've devoted to their children, had they ever had any. But I've never had any and Maddie depends on me, and so I'll do what I can for her.

And if-- no, let's say when she recovers, maybe I should teach her some fancy tricks and she can earn enough to keep us all out of bankruptcy.

Friday, April 08, 2005

"The Life Is in the Blood"

My beautiful dog, Magdalen, is very sick. They say she'll probably die.

She's bleeding from the nose, slowly, since Wednesday night or so, and it won't stop. No, actually, it's getting worse. I've been to two vets yesterday and today, and they both say it's probably from a tumor in her sinuses. So there's nothing, really, they can do.

But they're not totally sure, so she's at the veterinary hospital now, getting fluid through an IV, and some medication to get her blood to clot. I'm to call tomorrow morning to see how she's doing. And to make decisions I'd rather not face.

I can't say this was totally sudden. Maddie hasn't been herself since I returned from interim pastor training in Austin last month. At first it was a backache. From lying around in the kennel nine days and nine nights, the vet said. She's had backaches before. She gets over them. We treated it with pain medication and I waited for her to get better.

But I'd watch her lying on her blanket on my study floor, and she seemed to sleep so stilly, so soundly. I'd actually call her name to rouse her, alarmed by-- what? And when she'd raise her head, she would look uncannily like that bedraggled, diseased, nothing-but-hair-and-bones mutt I helped rescue five years ago. I'd call her and she'd come and I'd smoothen that look away. It's not something I wanted to see.

Her back did get better. She stopped favoring her hindquarters, and went back to sleeping under the bed. But she still didn't have the energy to jump up and sleep on the bed with me and her sister the cat. Well, I figured, she's eight, maybe even nine years old. The muscles take longer to recover.

But two or three days ago I noticed the blood. A little at first. I looked but I couldn't tell where it was coming from, her coat is so long. Then Wednesday night I noticed the dribble from her left nostril. She'd sneeze, and there'd be little drops to clean up, here and there. Yesterday, the nosebleed seemed worse, and I took her to see the vet.

He thought--hoped-- it might only be an infection. After all, she was still eating and drinking with a fine appetite. So he prescribed her an antibiotic and I took her home and gave her her first dose right away. Then I went to work.

When I arrived home yesterday evening, there were bloody sneeze deposits in various places on the bedroom carpet. Oh, Maddie! I realized I'd have to confine her to the bathroom "until she got better."

She didn't like it. She wouldn't settle, even on the bedding I provided. Periodically, I'd hear her scratching at the door. That's when I'd let her out and run her downstairs "hurry, hurry, hurry!" to go outside to relieve herself-- the back pain medication caused her to drink a lot and urinate more, and we didn't need an accident in the closed bathroom. She'd go, then I'd have to harden my heart and shut her in once more.

I didn't go to sleep last night. I was up working on the computer till nearly 4:00 AM. I was restless. Maddie would scratch, I'd let her out. When I'd put her back in, I'd wipe the blood smears off the bathroom floor. A little blood goes a long way, I thought. A little blood.

I wasn't really sleepy at 4:00 this morning. So after I checked on Maddie, I decided to sit in bed and watch the Pope's funeral Mass. I watched till it was over, around 7:00 AM Eastern time. I let Maddie out, but I didn't give her her breakfast. I wish now I had.

I went to sleep till 10:00, when I was awakened by the cat. Rhadwen often-- no, usually-- wakens me in the morning, but this morning it seemed different. I checked on Maddie right away. There was more blood here and there on the bathroom floor, and my dog, my beautiful, playful, shaggy dog, was standing there stiff, as if shellshocked. I petted her, I called her sweet names, and got her to come downstairs and out the back door. But when she went across the porch and through the rip in the screen, she just stood at the top of the porch stairs as if she didn't know what to do. I urged her down into the yard, then went to get Rhadwen's breakfast.

When I next looked out the back door, Maddie wasn't waiting there, eager to come in and eat, as she usually is. She was lying out in the yard, in a patch of sunlight. "Come in, Maddie, poor dog," I urged. "Come in and get your breakfast." She came. She took her antibiotic capsule wrapped in a piece of cheese, but without her usual alacrity (you'd think pills were the greatest treat in the world, the way she jumps for them). And she refused to eat any of her breakfast, or even to take a drink of water.

That's when I knew there was something more serious going on than a little sinus infection. I got dressed, called the vet, wrapped Maddie up in a throw, and took her in.

X-rays, blood counts, an examination, a second opinion examination. All point to the same thing: only a miracle will save my pretty girl. I've always known a day would come when I'd have to let her go, but I'd hoped and expected that wouldn't be for several years yet. We've only been together five years, come the 27th of this month. They say she's not suffering, so I have to try the IV fluids. If I'd just told the vet this morning to put her down, I would always have wondered if I'd acted too precipitously. If I'd given up too soon.

But tomorrow's coming. Whether it's too soon or too late for my Magdalen, tomorrow will tell.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

"'For I Am with You and Will Rescue You'"

We gathered for daily worship in our interim pastor training course (which ended yesterday); an essential thing, given the clergy's propensity for thinking the fate of the church lies all on us. The experienced interim pastors taking the advanced course planned and led the worship. On Thursday, the woman with preaching duty reflected on how down churches and church members can get on their potential and possibilities. How it's so easy to focus on past failures and present ordeals. "It's just too hard for me," is the woeful refrain.

And ain't it the truth . . . !

And I thought, that sounds like a blues song! "It's just too hard, too hard for me . . . " Yeah. So let's write the rest of it. Except, I'm going to call it

The Pastor's Lament

It's just too hard, too hard for me,
I wanna lay this burden down;
This road's too high, too long and weary,
It's just too hard for me.

But nothing's too hard for my Jesus,
There's nothing too hard for my Lord.
He carried my load up Calvary Road;
There's nothing too hard for Him.

We're poor and broke, no money's comin',
I wanna lay this burden down;
The roof has leaks, the walls are crumblin',
It's just too hard for me.

But nothing's too hard for my Jesus . . .

The world's no help, and evil's knockin',
I wanna lay this burden down;
I tell the truth, seems no one listens,
It's just too hard for me.

But nothing's too hard for my Jesus . . .

Sometimes it seems that there's no use in tryin';
Sometimes it feels I'm a fool to go on.
Young folk don't care and the old folks keep dyin',
It's just too hard for me.

But nothing's too hard for me with my Jesus,
Nothing's too hard for me with my Lord;
He lifted my load on Calvary's road,
There's nothing too hard for Him.
(Copyright 2005, St. Blogwen's Well)

This is a work in progress, of course. And I reserve the right to change it around whenever the inspiration hits me. But I suppose it's the same with pastoring, interim or otherwise. It's always a work in progress. And it's not going to be done-- or done well-- without a large dose of in-Spir(it)-ation!

Monday, March 14, 2005

"Without Spot or Wrinkle or Any Kind of Blemish"

I'm here in wild and musical Austin, Texas, attending an intensive, week-long training course for pastors doing or thinking of doing intentional interim ministry. The word "intentional" is intentional. The idea is that one comes in after the departure of an installed pastor and helps the congregation come to terms with its history, its identity, its mission and goals, its conflict points, and so forth. In short, helps them redd up the place so a) they go looking for the right kind of new installed pastor, and b) the new installed pastor has a better chance at making a go of his or her ministry.

That's the idea. But after one afternoon and evening of class discussions, I'm already discovering that some people here think that isn't really possible. That congregations' issues and problems are so ingrained, that no amount of work will ever change anything. That unhealthy systems are unhealthy systems, and there is no cure.

My immediate response to that was, what are we here on this course for, then? If we'd just be wasting our efforts trying to bring light and hope and self-awareness to church situations, let's just lead Sunday services and visit Aunt Tilly in the hospital while the pulpit committee's doing their work, and then hand the stinking filthy baby to the new installed pastor for him or her to cope with.

Of course, my immediate response really "should" be is that Jesus transforms all. That He's in the business of changing lives, and that includes (she said ironically) lives in the church. But it's true-- some of the most resistant characters are sitting in the pews, and the holy church of our Lord Jesus Christ can attract some of the most unholy behavior. (Do I hear a word beginning with "Phar . . . "?) It's almost enough to make a pastor flee in frustration and take up real estate selling instead.

Almost, but not quite. It helps to remember what St. Augustine said about the church being a corpus mixtus-- a mixed body of the good and the bad and the in-between. And except in the case of flagrant, scandalous sin, it isn't usually our job as pastors to sort everyone out. God could do it right now if He wanted to, but for some reason He hasn't chosen to disclose to us, He doesn't. But while we can't order the Almighty to change our churches on demand, we can ask Him to change us, to help us be the sort of people who can make healthy change possible. That goes for lay men and women as well as for pastors.

Most of all, it helps me to remember what St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, that someday Christ is going to present His Church to Himself as a pure bride, without spot or wrinkle or any kind of blemish. Can I forecast how that is going to happen? No, I can not. Do I think it will be Christ's greatest miracle since the Resurrection? Yes, I do. But the Holy Spirit says it's going to happen, and therefore I believe that happen it will.

And that perhaps, my participating in this course this week will make me better equipped to be one who in some small way will help bring that miracle to pass.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

"The Creation Waits in Eager Expectation . . . "

Thursday morning I had an appointment at the doctor's office. In time I was ensconced in the examination room, in that state of deshabille that is required of one in doctors' examination rooms. But the doctor did not appear. I waited and waited and waited some more, yet the doctor did not come. There was nothing to read in the examination room, only a few posters of adorable children on the walls and one on the ceiling, depicting a tree being struck by lightning-- which I take as an example of my doctor's sense of humor. Even if there had been anything to read in the room, I wouldn't've wanted to get up and fetch it. It was chilly enough in there as it was and I didn't want to raise a draft.
But I had to do something to pass the time. So I made up a waiting song. And after I went home, I finished it. Here it is:

We are waiting,
We are waiting
For the sons of God to be revealed;
When all creation
Will shout in wonder
When we shall be revealed.

M: Who are the sons of God?
W: All who believe in Christ,
A: Male and female, Jew and Gentile,
We are the sons of God!

And we are waiting . . .

W: How does He give us life?
M: By dying for our sins;
A: Took our punishment on Calv’ry,
Jesus the Son of God.

And we are waiting . . .

M: How does He make us sons?
W: By rising from the dead;
A: Puts His life eternal in us
And makes us sons of God.

And we are waiting . . .

W: What is our hope and prayer?
M: Our rising from the grave;
A: Clothed with Jesus Christ forever,
Adopted sons of God!

And we are waiting . . .

(Copyright 2005 St. Blogwen's Well)

This evening, I wrote down the tune for it. The chorus is behaving very badly, wanting to sound entirely too much like the kids' song "Father Abraham." It's a traditional song, but I hate anything that smells like plagiarism. Nevertheless, it's what the words wanted, so it is what it is.

And my doctor's visit? Oh, that revealed that all is well. And may it be the last of its sort for a good long time!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

"Good on Ya When . . . "

My motto in the morning is "No sudden moves!" And so I ease myself into consciousness with the help of Christian radio. Sunday morning one program's speaker was describing the persecutions Christians overseas are braving for the cause of Christ. The next preacher was dealing with the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, pointing out that this passage paints a portrait of one who is truly dedicated to Jesus-- because it is a portrait of Jesus Himself. Me, I decided that if I truly am committed to Christ, the very least I could do is get out of bed and get ready for church!

But those preachers got me thinking. My New Testament professor in seminary told us that the Greek customarily translated "Blessed are . . . " would be well-rendered by the Aussie phrase, "Good on ya!" That stuck with me. It seems more dynamic than "blessed," somehow. It reminds me that this passage is about God's people striving to have God's attitudes and to do God's work. And it reminds me that God reaches down and supports and enables and rewards that effort. "Good on ya when you're poor in spirit; that'll get you the kingdom of heaven!" "Good on ya when people give you all sorts of grief for my sake and you take it patiently; for that I'll reward you beyond your wildest dreams!"

As I was dressing, the words to a worship song came to me, based on the Beatitudes. A sung prayer, actually. It goes like this:

Make us like you, Lord Jesus,
Make us like you.
As you are humble, Master,
Make us like you.

Make us like you, Lord Jesus,
Make us like you.
As you mourn over sin, Lord,
Make us like you.

Make us like you, Lord Jesus,
Make us like you.
In your strong gentleness, Lord,
Make us like you.

Make us like you, Lord Jesus,
Make us like you;
Thirsty for righteousness, Lord,
Make us like you.

Make us like you, Lord Jesus,
Make us like you;
As you are merciful, Lord,
Make us like you.

Make us like you, Lord Jesus,
Make us like you;
As you are pure in heart, Lord,
Make us like you.

Make us like you, Lord Jesus,
Make us like you;
As you make peace, O Savior,
Make us like you.

Make us like you, Lord Jesus,
Make us like you;
Suff'ring for righteousness, Lord,
Make us like you.

Make us like you, Lord Jesus,
Make us like you;
Bearing shame for your sake, Lord,
Make us like you.

For you died to heal our sinfulness,
And you rose to seal our faithfulness.

Make us like you, Lord Jesus,
Make us like you;
Sharing your blessedness, Lord,
Glad in your joyfulness, Lord,
Receiving all that's best, Lord,
Make us like you!

(Copyright 2005, St. Blogwen's Well)

I haven't decided on a tune yet. It needs to be something simple, but also something that'll bear repetition. Maybe when I get a problem with my FinaleNotepad software straightened out, I can come up with something and post it later.

In the meantime, if you find this little song helpful, and if it inspires you to become more like our Lord, well, good on ya!

Friday, March 04, 2005

"In the Beginning Was the Word . . . "

Having decided to launch myself into the blogosphere, I couldn't help noticing something about the "equipment" on the way. The templates provided by the very helpful people at are filled in with verbiage-- if one may call it that-- that looks like a collision between Cambodian, German, and a few other tongues, followed by some very doggy Latin. And blimey if I wasn't trying to make sense out of it! I could feel where the nouns, verbs, adjectives, articles, and all the other parts of speech were, as if it had been written in a real language! Of course, I was doing it according to my understanding of English syntax. Someone who really spoke Cambodian or German would most likely tell me, "No, the verb is there and the noun is there!" But I'd willingly bet that their heads would be wired to want to find sense in that gibberish, too.

For there's something in a human being that wants to find meaning in letters and words. There's something in every person with half an education that will try to find it, when it isn't even there! Think how we spent our teenage years ascribing deep philosophical import to the vacuous lyrics of the rock and roll songs! And no matter how picture-oriented our culture becomes, no matter how badly we mangle our mother-tongue (and we do, we do!), we want our words to carry us into the hearts and minds of other people, and we want to feel that the words of others really convey them to us. We feel instinctively that what we say and what we write is an image and likeness of who we are; or at least, is the image we wish to present to the world. To those around us, we are our words.

And that isn't surprising, is it, since we're made in the image of the Triune God? "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God." Jesus the Word expresses the Father; our words express ourselves.

Only trouble is, our words fall so dismally short of doing that for us! Broken-backed, crippled, loaded with more than they can ever carry, they return to us shamefaced when they-- and we-- are misinterpreted and misunderstood. And I and my words will be no exception. Still, as my blog-rocket gains altitude, I hope my writing can express something worth expressing. And if not, may the Father of mercies cover them with blessed silence!