Monday, October 20, 2008

My Great Britannic Adventure, Day Twenty-two

Friday, 7 April, 1989
Moatenden to Great Dixter to Bodiam to Hastings to Oxford
Day Twenty-two

Breakfast was in the big, low-beamed kitchen. Last night Mrs. Deane showed me one of the ceiling beams that some archaeologist was specifically interested in, as to its antiquity and date. Going from Cecil Hewitt I would’ve thought the original structure was rather different from what this other man had surmised, but then I’m just a novice at this sort of thing.

I’m afraid I was rather behind getting to the meal. But Mrs. Deane was quite cheerful about getting me my eggs on her big Aga-- after all, her son had just come in to eat, too; thereafter to help deal with some workmen who were expected in.

The Londoners were finishing their holiday today, too-- their daughter’s school was restarting soon. We all traded horror stories about driving in London, and then Mrs. Deane invited us to walk about in the garden, if we would, before we left.

Sadly, it’s still rather awry from the big storm in October of ‘87. She hasn’t been able to get the tree surgeons in to deal with all the broken limbs. And a lot of the plantings besides those trees were destroyed.

Still, it was nice to walk to the back of the garden and contemplate the daffodils beside the watercourse. Funny, but Mrs. Deane told me that the moat that gives the Priory its name was originally a dry one. Moatenden Farm, just across the moat to the north (and a separate property) has oast houses. Be fun to see inside one sometime.

Picked my way round to the front, to get a view of the 12th century bit in front. It’s mainly just the doorframe and so forth at the kitchen end-- the brick nogging dates, I’d say, from the late 1500s, early 1600s.

After I got my things together upstairs, I sat down and wrote postcards. That done, I settled accounts, loaded the car for the last time, then drove away south. Stopped in Headcorn, where I posted the cards. Great fun--it started raining, hard, as I dashed back to the car-- then just as quickly stopped again.

I thought of heading generally northwest, meeting up with the M25, then catching the M40 straight back to Oxford. That’d certainly get me there by car-turn-in time at 4:15. But it seemed rather dreary, and anyway the rate the M25 goes, I wasn’t so sure it’d be all that quick. Besides, I had a hankering to see the sea again, feeling I mightn’t get another chance while I’m over here. So on to the south it was.

I’d read somewhere that Great Dixter doesn’t open on weekdays till the end of May, but just for jollies I followed the lane to it when I hit Northiam, just to see.

Well, it is open weekdays, but not till 2:00 PM. Oh. Only 11:00 now. That’d mean another day’s car hire. Oh, well.

The man in the nursery, which was open, pointed out Bodiam Castle which you could just see on the horizon to the west, only about four miles away.

Well, why not?

So I followed the little lanes down and around and soon was there.

Bodiam Castle is such an odd little thing, especially after places like Warkworth and Caernarfon. It obviously meant business, sitting there so solidly in its wide moat. But still you get the impression of a small swaggering person who defies people to attack him. One backs off, just in case, but one is still left wondering if one’s leg is being pulled all along.

Worked my way round the moat counterclockwise, as the sun dove in and out of the clouds, till I reached the main entrance. Other visitors were going in and I decided that if admission was free, I’d look in. But if not, I hadn’t the time.

It was 90p. OK! It’s off again we are.

Wended along over to the A229, heading for Hastings. In Hastings the main roads don’t indulge in any such American nonsense as a bypass. No, the A229 went straight down to the seaside. There you pick up the A259 which runs parallel to the water, with the big hotels on one’s right.

The sea was in magnificent form today, sending great towers of spray over the sea wall and onto the windshield of the car where I’d pulled it over to get out and see. The waves thundered gloriously and I was sorry I had to be on my way so soon.

Decided to take the seaside road as much as I could. Went through Brighton, where I could glimpse the Royal Pavilion, freshly restored, I am told, on the right. And Shoreham by Sea, and on to Worthing.

It was there that I knew I’d have to give up my plan, for although it’s nowhere near high season a plethora of other trippers had the same idea I did, apparently. The sea road was incredibly clogged and slow. I made it partway through Worthing when, considering how shockingly fast time was getting on, I backtracked a ways then got myself onto the A27, a bit to the north.

That was much faster-- it even has dual carriageways in places-- and except for lacking the view of the Channel was just as pretty. I love so much to see the sheep on the sunlit green hillsides! It’s as if so many fluffy white flowers had sprung up and blossomed in the space of a night. And the view coming down the incline into Arundel is simply breathtaking. The castle and cathedral were bathed in light, made much more dramatic by the clouds gathering to the northwest.

Again, though, no time to stop-- I had to press on.

Not that I didn’t pull over a bit farther on-- I stopped and got out to take photos of the thunderheads piling up over the downs-- they looked so Midwestern!

As I entered Portsmouth, around 2:15, I saw that the needle on the petrol gauge was riding rather low. I started to look for a Shell station, figuring that since everyone’s gas is overpriced here I might as well patronise the oil barons my mother works for. And soon I spotted one-- on the far side of the divided road that the A27 becomes as it passes through the northern regions of the town. But there were no legal right turnings I could see for blocks and blocks.

So at next opportunity I made a left into a residential neighborhood, then another, then another, round the block hoping to find a cross street that’d intersect with the highway and allow me to backtrack to the filling station.

As I was on the northward leg of this square I passed a cyclist, giving him plenty of berth. At the end of the block I could see, as I approached, that the way ahead was blocked-- there was indeed a bridge over a stream or ditch, but closely-spaced bollards closed it to motor traffic.

Well, rot. I put on my turn signal in good time and when I reached the T-junction, turned left yet again.

All at once, I heard a bump on my left rear fender. A cry came from the road behind me, more of wrath than of pain. Chilled with apprehension, I stopped the car and looked back-- to see the cyclist lying on the ground just short of the intersection, his supine bicycle spinning its wheels beside him.

Well, you know me, especially when I’m tired and hungry and rather frightened besides. I ran back to the corner, grateful to see him getting to his feet, and said, "Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you! I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?"

The cyclist, a rather regimented-looking young man of about twenty-seven or so dressed in a BritRail messenger’s uniform, flexed his ankle and said, "Well, I suppose it’s all right," adding accusingly, "no thanks to you."

I went off on another volley of apologies and blametaking and he was well-satisfied to give me a grim little lecture on the rights of cyclists and the rules of the road. It was so shame-making-- for as one who for years got around mostly by bike, who should know such things better than I?

Then he got out his walkie-talkie, with another comment about how it wasn’t my fault that it wasn’t broken, and radioed his office, giving them the license plate number of the hire car and my driver’s license number and all the rest of it.

Immediately fears of horrendous lawsuits swarmed into my head-- maybe I wouldn’t be allowed to leave England. And whatever would the EuropCar people say?

Finally, as if he were a traffic cop and not an accident victim, he sent me on my way, saying cynically, "Next time you run down a cyclist, try a little harder-- maybe you’ll do a better job of it"-- as if I’d gone after him on purpose.

I found the way to the Shell station and got a fill up and a chocolate bar. I wondered morosely and guiltily what the attendants would say if they knew what I’d just done.

Continued on into Southampton, where I got a little lost trying to hook up with the A34 going north. It was around 3:00 by now and the primary schools, with all their uniformed scholars, were letting out. This forced me to take it specially slow-- another accident I did not need.

After I got on the A34 and up past Winchester, my head began to clear a bit and I got to wondering. How could that accident have been my fault, since he was the one who’d hit me, presumably as I’d turned the corner? And how, since I’d passed him about even with the previous cross street, had he managed to come up on me so fast, and why? And considering that I’d signalled for a left and the way ahead was blocked, how could he for a moment have thought that I wasn’t going to turn left, or have been such an idiot as to think he could pass me before I did? For afterwards he’d gone off straight ahead across the bollarded bridge.

And in place of my fear and guilt came a swell of anger-- anger at people who can so cleverly blame others for their own foolishness and at myself for habitually being such a patsy for that sort of person.

The day and my mood rapidly deteriorated as, short of Newbury, I came upon a backup that the radio said stretched out for ten miles and for which their traffic reporters would propose no explanation. All I knew was that it took a half hour to go five miles and my chances of making it to Oxford by 4:15 were to hell and gone.

When I got to Newbury, I discovered the problem-- It was simply the glut of Friday travellers and commuters taking their turns getting through the Newbury roundabout. Damn this road system! Haven’t these people heard of a proper interchange?

Thank God the road was clear after that.

I’d planned to reenter Oxford by the eastern bypass, by way of Littlemore and Cowley, but saw there was no way. It was 5:00 already and the hire office closed at 5:30. So I came up the West, got off onto the Botley Road, and wended my way through the rush hour traffic by way of Beaumont Street, finally reaching Banbury Road and Coverdale*.

Fast as I could, I emptied out the car, dumping my luggage in the basement flat [where I had been moved during the vac]. That done, I dashed back across the Chapel passage and back to the car.

Fought off the Oxford traffic back to the Botley Road. There I perpetrated an act that put the crown of absurdity on this whole confounded trip-- I mistook, or misremembered, the way into the carpark for the shopping center where the hire place is. Instead I found myself on the highway on-ramp and thence heading southbound back down the A34.

I didn’t care who heard me, I screamed in frustration! In an access of self-disgust, not to say self-destructiveness, I gunned the engine and as my speed mounted I didn’t give a holy damn if I were arrested for speeding or cracked up the car or committed whatever other mayhem.

But I couldn’t help but see the Palm Sunday cross that’d been hanging from the rearview mirror ever since Saffron Walden. And a more sensible voice reminded me of what a bad witness it’d be if I did something foolish with that present to proclaim me a Christian. Chastened, but still very upset, I slowed down and turned left into what I discover is Yarnells Road. This took me to North Hinksey Lane and back to the Botley Road.

This time, I didn’t miss the turning to the car park. And thank God, though it was 5:40 the EuropCar office was still open. I told them about the cyclist and filled out a report on the smashed door I so cleverly acquired in Stamford. The girl at the counter agreed that my second-thoughts version of the encounter in Portsmouth was probably the accurate one. She told me not to worry, they’d take care of it, since it was properly reported to them and she’d taken the particulars down from me in writing.

I couldn’t get my deposit back yet, as all the cash was locked up for the weekend. And I nearly forgot my Palm Sunday cross, running back to retrieve it.

I did not take a bus back to Oxford. I’d had enough of vehicles for quite awhile. Instead I loitered along the Botley Road, pausing to inspect the little ramifications of the Thames as they passed under each bridge I crossed. I stopped to see the locks at the Osney Bridge, coming down into East Street for a closer view. At one point, I passed a young guy who was trying to hitch a lift into Oxford. I nearly laughed in amusement as I told him, upon his inquiry, that the city was only a short distance ahead-- he’d might as well walk. Everything was bathed in a golden western light and as calm returned I felt a great sense of proprietary affection for my city as it appeared ahead.

And so to New Road, round by the castle mound, and thus by Queen Street to Carfax. It was a little short of 7:00 and I just had time to pop into the Coop on Cornmarket for some milk and other supplies.

Thus provisioned, I strolled up Magdalen, up St. Giles, and finally to the Banbury Road and Coverdale College*.

I’ve been utterly useless the rest of this evening. I made myself supper and took forever eating it at the desk in the little bedroom down here. And, ignoring the luggage that wants to be unpacked, I’ve finished reading Scott’s Heart of Mid-Lothian (and rot him, need he be so predictably moralistic in the end?).

The college is still overrun with those absurdly embarrassing students from Bemidji, Minnesota, and I still don’t know how I shall deal with the problem between Lukas* and me. But away with all that for now-- I’m back at Coverdale*, thank God, I’m home at last, I’m home!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Buck Up

I usually wake in the morning to a news-talk station. But it hasn't been anything worth waking up to lately. If it isn't all about how the stock market is down and the world economy's in the tank, it's about how the stock market is up and that means in another day or so it'll be really down, putting the economy even deeper in the tank.

Some commentators seem to take a sordid pleasure in exclaiming for two hours straight how This Is Just a Taste of It and It'll Get Unimaginably Worse Regardless of Who's Elected President, etc., etc., etc.

How incredibly, uselessly depressing. What I'm not hearing is what any of us can do about it. Listening to these guys, nothing. We're all going to hell in a handbasket and they won't even let us enjoy the slide.

This has had an odd, counterintuitive effect on me.

I've not been feeling too lively for quite awhile, not having a proper job and surrounded with house-renovation mess that will get a lot messier before it gets better. But with things in the general culture being the way they are, I've decided to buck up.

Why? Because since all these temporal props are being kicked out from under all of us, I'm getting it through my thick head to rely on the only solid foundation there is or ever has been, which is almighty God revealed in His Son Jesus Christ.

Did Jesus ever promise His followers would always be prosperous and well-fed? No. Did He ever swear we'd always have plenty in the bank and our own roof over our heads? No. Did He ever covenant with us that we'd die in our beds of peaceful old age? No, again.

But He did promise that where He is, there His servants would be. He said that we should be of good courage, for He has overcome the world. He said we should lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven, that will never wear out or rot or decay. He said all authority in heaven and on earth is given to Him, and He is with us to the end of the age.

If Jesus had been only a man, those promises wouldn't mean beans. But given that He's the Son of God, with all the perquisites and endowments that that implies, His mere presence with us gives us more than the most healthy economy ever could, and that's even before you tally in all the other blessings of heaven and eternal life.

So I've decided to get my vision straight and buck up. I don't say Jesus is gonna get me a job, but letting Him give me perspective will get me further towards that goal. And maybe things will get as bad as the radio pundits say. Maybe. But we humans can't screw things up so badly as to keep God from bringing good out of it.

And in the meantime, I'm not messing with things I can't help. My radio alarm now set to the classical station.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Plugged In

Classical Presbyterian fans will like to know that on this beautiful autumn evening we got the Reverend Mr. Brown well and truly plugged in at the Jeff Center Church.

And here's my perspective on the matter.

This was my first time serving on an Installation Commission, though not, of course, the first time one was served on me. One thing I can never figure out-- why does the moderator (of presbytery) dissolve the Commission before the service?

(Because that's the way it's done, silly!)

The installation sermon was based on Ezekiel 33:1-16-- the responsibility of the prophet as a watchman to warn people of the consequences of sin. And by temporal extension, it's now the responsibility of the pastor and the church as a whole. Not the most popular ministerial duty, but if the traffic cop, say, fails to warn the motorist that the bridge is out, it's certainly that policeman's fault if the car goes into the river.

("But I don't wanna warn people that the bridge is out! If I tell 'em it's dangerous to go down that road, I might offennnnnd somebody!")

Only thing, only thing . . . I wish we'd been given a generous dose of Jesus Christ and how He works in us and through us in grace to enable us to discharge our watchman duties . . . I mean, I needed it . . . please?

The former interim pastor of the church gave the Charge to the Congregation, introducing his remarks with how he gets his jollies cheering against the football teams all his friends are for. It may well be a sign of the irenic nature of Toby's new congregation that they didn't rise in ire at this implied disloyalty to dem Stillers and bury the old IP in the nearest cornfield.

On the other hand, he was their Interim. Interim pastors are supposed to be obnoxious and shake things up-- right?

There was a point to his provocation, however. Instancing how he recently cheered for an Ohio college team with a freshman quarterback against the Pennsylvania college team favored by a family member, he drew the analogy that while the church's new pastor wasn't quite a freshman, it has its mission and service plays down so well it might be tempted to forget they have a new quarterback on the field. "Let your new pastor call some plays! When I was here, I practically only had to show up on Sunday to preach! You took care of everything else, and I could hardly get a word in edgewise!" Laughter from the congregation! Music on the organ console shaking, from the organist unable to contain herself!

Me Toby asked to give the Charge to the Pastor. This past week or two, contemplating what the Holy Spirit might want me to say, the frivolous part of me couldn't help having a giggle or two at what can come these Internet-driven days from leaving comments on someone else's blog.

Never fear: My mind was in Earnest Mode when I wrote it. Considering the chargee, it was natural to take a quotation from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as a jumping-off point. And the scheduled hymns-- all with martial elements-- provided more framework. After that, the appropriate Scripture passages seemed to crowd in so thick I could barely find my keyboard.

Well, wouldn't you know it, the first hymn got changed in the interim and I'd quoted it three or four times! No matter. By the grace of God, I believe what I said was appropriate and to the point.

(And worth remembering, I hope, more than the charge I got at my ordination, when my preaching friend advised me per the water when doing baptisms, "A little dab'll do ya!" Every time I recall that, I want to yell, "No, it won't! God attached physical signs to His grace in the sacraments for a reason! People out there in the pews gotta see and hear the water!! They have to feel like they're getting wet!")

Funny thing is, the Charge to the Pastor, which I worked on carefully ahead of time and delivered more or less according to plan, apparently hadn't as much impact as another part of the service I thought I had under control, but didn't.

This was the Prayer of Confession of Sin and its Call to Confession and Declaration of Pardon. I determined to use a form of Romans 3:21-26 as the latter. I even wrote the verse number down. So why I didn't put a bookmark in my Bible at the passage, I do not know. The Call to Confession, I had a few ideas for appropriate verses for it, but decided I'd settle on which when I got there.

Oh! (I settled this evening) I'll split the Romans 3 passage, and use part for the Call, and part for the Declaration! But when I got into the lectern, I discovered first that I'd left my bulletin with the Prayer of Confession on it in the pew. I had to confess my own fault and ask another member of the Commission to hand me one. Then something seemed to possess my fingers: fumbling with the thin, slippery Bible pages, I could not seem to turn to the place in Romans I needed. Flip-slip, flip-slip, flip-slip! Oh, gosh, this is taking forever! Everyone is staring at me! When I finally found it, there was no way I felt I could take the time with my dratted presbyopia and study which verses should go where.

So I gave up. I summarized Romans 3:23-24 ("All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . ") for the Call to Confession, and fell back on my heart verse, Romans 5:8 and surrounding, for the Declaration of Pardon. I don't know exactly what else came out of my mouth. But I guess it was what the Holy Spirit wanted, since two different people (both of them men, if it matters) came up to me at the reception and said, "When you gave that Declaration of Pardon, I just wanted to jump up and get going! I felt totally forgiven, and now I wanted to go out and serve!"

Oh. Really? God used me like that this evening? In spite of my klutziness?

Hmmm. Maybe I should remember this for those times when I'm making a hard job of forgiving myself. Because if there was any absolving power in what came out of my mouth this evening, it wasn't from me. But it's certainly available to me, if I'll just believe God and ask.

But now, here's what I'm thinking: That it'd be really, truly nice if very soon I'd be in a position to invite the Rev. Mr. Brown and some of the members of his Installation Commission to do the same service for me. Having gotten Toby plugged in, I would be grateful and gratified to find my own place to be plugged in, too.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Hwyl and Hiraeth

I've had this blog going since 2005 or so, and never once have I reported anything about the annual Pittsburgh St. David's Welsh Society Gymanfa Ganu. But this year I shall.

What, you may ask, is the gymanfa ganu? How do you even pronounce it?

It's pronounced "Guh-MAN-vuh GAH-nee," and it literally means a singing assembly, ganu being the mutated form of canu, which you Latinists will recognize as a form of cantare, to sing. It's a custom that got started in the Noncomformist chapels of Wales in the 19th century, partly to give people a social and religious outlet now that heading down to the pub for a pint was frowned upon, but much more it was an expression of the emotion and singing spirit of the Welsh which outsiders had remarked upon since the Middle Ages.

In the old days, the people-- not a separate choir, but all of them-- would stay after Sunday Chapel or maybe reconvene after Sunday lunch to sing hymns a capella in four parts strictly for the joy and hwyl of it. But sometimes their sessions had a more deliberate purpose, for the song leader, or arweinyddion y gan, would be rehearsing them to meet in one place to join in sacred song with the members of other capelau in the region. And when that cymanfa took place, the fervour and hwyl would rise enough to float several full-sized battleships.

Contemporary Welsh-Americans do not meet for cymanfoedd ganu as regularly as our ancestors did in the Old Land. But everywhere there is a Welsh St. David's Society of any size (Welsh societies are always dedicated to St. David, the patron saint of Wales), they will arrange to meet once a year to sing in four parts the old hymns, raising the roof of the church with heart-swelling emotion and praise.

This year the Pittsburgh gymanfa was held at the Community Methodist Church in Whitehall, Philip Aley of the church at the organ and Tim Slater, our conductor of several years, our song leader.

Traditionally the arweinyddion y gan has the prerogative not only to choose the hymns to be sung and which verses, but also how fast, how slow, how loud, how soft, whether specific verses shall be taken by the men or the women, low voices or high, whether a verse was sung well enough or needed to be done over, and how many times the chorus was to be repeated. And unlike contemporary-music worship services where this is all strictly planned out, rehearsed, and noted on the PowerPoint slides well ahead of time, at a cymanfa ganu the song leader decides much of this according to the hwyl he or she feels going in the place, leading the singing people as the Spirit leads him. If a chorus is repeated several times ( a repeat being signified by rotating the right the index finger in the air), it's because the power of the occasion demands it, not because the overhead projector slide says "(4x)" on it.

Tim was no different, and the sound he got out of that congregation was so vastly different and better than what I experienced in church this morning as to nearly make me weep. It had nothing to do with greater numbers; it had everything to do with the choral heritage of the Welsh.

We sang "Calon Lan" ("A Pure Heart; Calon Lan), "Jesus Calls Us" (Hyfrydol); "Come, Gracious Lord" (Llef), "Dring i Fyny" ("Hear Him Calling"; Dring i Fyny), "I Bob Un Sydd Ffyddlon" ("Onward, Christian Soldiers": Rachie), "Lead On, O King Eternal" (to both Lancashire and Llangloffan), "How Firm a Foundation (Joanna/St. Denio), "Mae d'Eisiau Di Bob Awr" ("I Need Thee Every Hour"; Need), "Jesus, I Live to Thee" (Penpark), "Men of Harlech" (just for fun), and "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" (Cwm Rhondda).

Tim did something a little different this year, having Phil the organist play soft transitions between the numbers. Very effective. And he programmed several hymns which we in America sing to other tunes, to expose us to how our cousins in Wales sing them even today. It was a clever way to organize it. My only complaint about this was that, unlike many others, I grew up singing "Lead On, O King Eternal" to Llangloffan, but the hymnals have changed and I rarely can anymore. I was glad to see in the program that we'd be singing three verses of it today, but after two verses sung to that tune Tim on a whim reverted to the more common and less interesting (and non-Welsh!) Lancashire!

Tim's Pittsburgh Welsh Choir, which started in 2003, has improved under his direction prodigiously the past five years, particularly in the a capella work. They did a setting of "This Is My Father's World" that was stupendous. He's also got a strong contingent of men who could be positively brilliant if he'd work them on their legatos. If they don't watch it, the PWC or some part of it are liable to find themselves entered in the eisteddfod (music and poetry competition) when the National Festival of Wales is held in Pittsburgh, Labor Day weekend of 2009.

Our tenor soloist was the reliable and sweet-singing Ken Davis, who again this year was joined for a duet by soprano Bronwen Reed Catalano.

The hwyl was high in the Methodist church in Whitehall today, and if there was any hiraeth (unsatisfied, heartfelt longing), it was probably mostly in me. Hiraeth because we never can sing long enough or enough verses at a cymanfa. Hiraeth because as years go by, fewer and fewer people bring their red and green Welsh hymnals and sing in parts from the music, depending instead on words printed in the program or projected on a screen, so that the glorious tradition-- and effect-- of part singing is dying out. Hiraeth because due, I guess, to bad sightlines with the organ, Phil rarely picked up on the chorus repeats Tim signed for, and due to the fact that the church needed us out early in the evening to make way for another group, he didn't push it. And hiraeth because here in Pittsburgh we never, ever sing enough Welsh.

Good grief, I can sing "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" in English in any church almost any Sunday of the year! I can program "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" in English in any church whose pulpit I happen to be supplying almost any Sunday of the year! So Tim, Tim, why do you persist at cymanfa after cymanfa at putting it in with no Welsh? Aaaaaghh! I am naughty-- I sing it all in Welsh anyway-- but it's not the same as when everyone else is doing it, too, whether they've got all the pronunciation right or not.

And hiraeth mingled with hwyl at singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in company at the opening of the assembly and the Welsh National anthem, "Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau" ("Land of My Fathers") at its end. "Mae Hen Wlad" in Welsh, always in Welsh; the day we sing it in English is the day we turn in our red dragons and yellow daffs and go home and degrade ourselves with MTV. I'm glad and grateful to be an American, and my ancestry is a mixture of all kinds of peoples, Hessian, Prussian, Bohemian, Dutch, Irish, even-- gadzooks! --English. But the Welsh part of my elder heritage is what I identify with and am moved by the most, and to plant my feet and sing from memory the anthem of old Cymru somehow roots me in something both enduring and strong and also achingly sad and far away.

And isn't that unfulfillable homesickness the essense of hiraeth, and doesn't getting together to sing the old hymns fill one with hwyl!

Da iawn, Cymry, da iawn.

"We Have Heard the Joyful Sound!"

This morning I had the fun of supplying the pulpit of a little church over the border in the wilds of West Virginia. Their regular pastor was away, they needed a Real Ordained Minister to preside at the Lord's table on World Communion Sunday, so they brought me in from miles away, under hill, over dale, to be there.

I arrived in good time, met up with Ralph*, my elder contact, and began get settled.

The organist is an elderly and honorable lady who knows not a great many hymns and is no longer capable of learning many more, so the selection is always left up to her. The hymn numbers were on the board at the front, but not in the bulletin. Hmm . . . what do we have? First one was an unmemorable but innocuous devotional number . . . second was "Beneath the Cross of Jesus," a good one, though in my experience it's generally used in Lent . . . . But the third and last . . . oh boy, here's my jolly old hymnodic bĂȘte noire, "In the Garden." On World Communion Sunday, we're going to sing, "And the love we share, as we tarry there, none other has ever known"? I do not think so.

I said to Ralph* (who also happens to be the son of the organist), "Do you think your mom might be willing to substitute a mission hymn for "In the Garden"? It's World Communion Sunday, and that hymn's a little inward-looking . . . I'd like to send us out with something a bit more mission focussed . . . "

He thought that could be done, but as we moved towards the sanctuary doors to get a hymnal, we were greeted by the members of the adult Sunday School class, just dismissed, including a very ancient old gentleman leaning on a cane.

"So you're to be our preacher today!" he exclaimed, grabbing my hand with his free one. "I'm a retired Church of God minister, but I've worshipped in this congregation for over twenty years! You know, the Church of God has a mission in Kenya, and there the Church of God and the Presbyterian Church are like twins in Egypt! They get along so well! Just like twins in Egypt!"

As he spoke I spared a piece of my brain to rummage around for the source of the "twins in Egypt" analogy. No luck; maybe he'd give me a clue himself? Nope, and I couldn't wait for the happy event-- we still had the hymn issue and other arrangements to deal with. So as I excused and extricated myself, Ralph* handed me a hymnal and steered me to his mother, Ilene*-- though not before I was once again waylaid by old Rev. Goodheart*.

Ilene* and I looked through the "Mission" section of their hymnal: Neither she nor the congregation knew any of them. (Oh, dear!). "Let's try 'Evangelism'," she said. Not much more success there. But she knew "We have heard the joyful sound! Jesus saves! Jesus saves!" though she doubted all of the congregation did. I told her I knew it-- mostly-- and it was a good, rousing, outward-looking hymn to finish up with, so let's do it. I'm thinking, "Anything to escape C. Austin Miles' rank and unweeded 'Garden'!"

With one thing and the other, we didn't get everyone in and seated till twenty minutes past time, but nobody seemed to care. Ralph* began with announcements, and as he spoke, it hit me, "My sermon's too conceptual as I've got it written. These people are going to need some specific, bright-colored application, or I'll fly right over their heads. Holy Spirit, help me have the right words when the time comes!"

I didn't have to come up with the right words for the children's sermon-- it was taken in hand by a woman of the congregation. Bearing a globe, she called the large band of kids to shifting and tenuous order at the edge of the platform. Two or three erratic toddlers found the platform more interesting than the talk, so I came and joined them to lend a steadying presence, sort of.

Teacher asked if anyone could find the United States on the globe. One girl about nine or ten tried and tried and tried . . . Good grief, don't they teach Geography in the public schools anymore? Teacher finally put her out of her misery and showed her where America was.

Our own nation fixed and established, the teacher asked, "Can any of you name any other countries?"

"WalMart!" volunteered one tyke, and of course the congregation just howled. As the teacher tried to recover from that one, the discountenanced little boy turned his back on the assembly, trying to draw a couple of his little friends away with him.

Ilene* the organist and I tried to get him to turn around and pay attention.

"No!" he said, "I'm not going to! They're all mean!"

Oh, dear, again. The child probably thought the teacher had asked if the children knew the names of any companies, he'd given a perfectly good answer, and he got laughed at! That was mean! I can just see it, years from now: "I gave up on religion when I was four years old and the congregation laughed at me during the children's sermon!"

(Well, I've heard equally silly excuses for turning one's back on Christ and His salvation!)

The children's talk proceeded, and was wound up with the announcement that the Peacemaking Offering they'd been contributing to for the past few weeks would go to help poor and needy people around the world. So now would they bring their offering boxes to a certain table below the platform, the one where the flowers are?

The boxes were already there on the front pew, and the children picked them up and took them . . . back to their seats . . . to the edge of the platform . . . around and around the sanctuary . . . and finally, to the designated table. And may the denomination be half so effective and organized in getting the money to the people who need it!

My sermon began with lines like, "It's all up to us to bring peace to the world, right? God's sitting back in heaven waiting for us to do it. So we'd better get busy!" And from the congregation I'm hearing, "Amen!" "Yes!" O noes! That was meant to be satirical. Good grief, we human beings fight over the best way to bring peace, and that includes us in the church! No, people, not Amen, not Yes! That is a great big NO! Only Jesus Christ the Son of God can bring true peace, not us, not even our human version of His peace. Christ alone!

Lord, help me turn this ship around before we end up on the rocks! Whew! by the end-- with the help of the added applications-- they were Amening the sound doctrine, not dodgy cultural misconceptions. Though it's not because I cut any impressive figure in the pulpit. Hey, I had to make things more interesting by having assembled my sermon text booklet with some of the pages in backwards and in the wrong order! That long awkward pause? I meant to do that!

At this church the Communion table is very small, and their set of Communion ware is very large. There was simply no place to put my Book of Common Worship, as I had noticed when I arrived. So for (I think) the first time since I was ordained eleven years ago, I said the Eucharist impromptu, from memory: Great Thanksgiving, Sanctus, Words of Institution/Consecration (always do that from memory), Epiclesis, Acclamation, Attribution, and all. Who knows, I may do it from memory the next time and the next. Saves me fighting with the small print in the worship book!

Some of the same peripetetic toddlers roamed the sanctuary during the administration of the Lord's Supper. I being a stranger, they wouldn't come to me. Sob!

The time came to sing the substituted final hymn, and Ilene* was right-- Maybe half the congregation knew it. It doesn't help that the tune features some very wide and acrobatic intervals that not even I was nailing. But we muddled through with little or no damage to the ship, and I dismissed the people to a fine fellowship hour featuring a large repast of leftover pastries contributed by a local bakery. Enough and to spare to take a few home.

And back in the little narthex-hall, I was again accosted, taken by the hand by my old friend Rev. Goodheart*. He'd loved my sermon. He was so glad I had come to be with them. The Church of God and the Presbytery Church are like twins in Egypt! The Church of God has a wonderful mission in Kenya! He was so happy to hear my sermon! Twins in Egypt! Etc., etc.

I listened to him patiently. There is honor due his years and calling, and when-- if!-- I ever reach my ninth decade, I hope people in the church will listen patiently to me, too.

But then he looked at me and said, "God gave us the night time for a blessing."


"God wants us to use it to rest."

Uh, yes?

"You should take the blessing God gives you. The darkness is for rest."

Uh, what? Sir, I perceive you are a prophet! How did you know I was up all night Friday night-Saturday morning working on my sermon! And up till 2:00 last night making Welsh cakes?

Very strange! Sermon preached; will it now be applied?

Another member of the congregation invited me home to lunch with his family, but I couldn't take him up on it and still make a previous commitment I had for this afternoon. The invitation is open for the next time I come, however.

Which may be a long time, since I live so far away and it costs the church a lot in mileage to bring me. Still, it was a fine thing to get back down there to the little church way down at the bottom of the Presbytery Over the Border*. And if I got them thinking a little ways past their hilltop in West Virginia, past the once-a-year Peacemaking Offering, that would be a fine and worthy thing.

We have heard the joyful sound: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Spread the tidings all around: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Bear the news to every land, climb the mountains, cross the waves;
Onward! 'tis our Lord's command; Jesus saves! Jesus saves!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Field Trip

A couple-three weeks ago I got a phone call. The caller ID said it was from my friend Hannah*, but when I answered I heard was a little voice saying, "Hi, this is Letty.* Will you come to a field trip at my school?"

Somewhat mystified, I asked her to put her mother on. Hannah* explained that Letty's* kindergarten class was making a fall excursion to a large nursery, but she's back to work full time so she couldn't be a parent-chaperone. Letty* was extremely disappointed; would I mind going along as an adopted aunt?

I would be honored, I said.

And today was the big day.
I arrived at the school by 8:30 AM and was sequestered in the library with the other chaperones until the kindergarten teachers had their charges in hand. When I came to the door of Letty's* classroom, I found that she and I were going to lead the dance. She was waiting expectantly at the front of the line, along with two other five-year-old's who would also be in my care. "Letty*, Buster*, and Rosalind*, you're all going with Letty's* aunt," the teacher announced, and I resolved to do my best not to be an "aunt" with quotation marks.

My little flock and I ended up in the back of one of the busses. When staring out the back window flags, you can get miles of entertainment out of your "aunt's" digital camera, especially when she lets you use it.

Even before we set out I was disabused of the notion that this trip was to be a five-year-olds' fall frolic, all about pumpkin carving and hay rides and corn mazes. No, the venture was educational: The pupils were to learn about apples and cider making.

I have to wonder a little what the kids made of it. They were all very well-behaved and attentive, considering their age, especially. They raised their hands and volunteered answers and showed their cheerful intelligence. But due to the size of the classes, the children were broken up into smaller groups and taken off the various points as they were available.

Thus our group saw the cidermaking equipment before they'd learned about apples, apple picking, apple sorting, or apple storing. More awkwardly, the cider mill wasn't actually going today. So as we stood in the room with the pulper and presser and so on (we chaperones a discreet distance to the side), the orchard worker wrangled a TV into place and showed the kids the process on a video! At least it was awkward to me. The kids, it didn't seem to faze. When we moved on to the shed to learn about apples, the worker there asked, "Did you see the cider mill? Were the machines going?" Oh, yes, the children assured her, they had! And maybe for a lot of modern children, seeing something virtually on TV is as good as seeing it in real life!

My three charges continued to behave themselves, considering, though Rosalind* just had to poke at the weird pumpkins and gourds they showed us, and I had to exert myself to keep all three of them together. I was haunted by one teacher's saying "We haven't lost a child on one of these trips, yet." No way were they starting with me!

The nursery-orchard is situated in a very hilly spot, and to reach the various storehouses and sheds you had to walk up or down short ramps or slopes. More than once, Letty*, holding my hand, complained, "This is really steep! My legs are tired!"

"Well, you should get more exercise," I told her.

"That's silly!" she retorted. "I'm a little kid! I don't have an exercise coach!"
At last, in the picnic pavilion, the children (and we chaperones) were given samples of the apple varieties the orchard grows. The kids received and ate them eagerly-- except for this one boy at Letty's* table who sat staring at his apple slices as if he were waiting for them to transform into robots or race cars or at least a Snickers bar.

After lunch, there was time for play in the miniature frontier village and a visit to the petting stable. The consensus in my little crew was that it'd be a fine thing to have a goat-- always assuming the goat wouldn't eat them.
By noon all the children were collected and on the busses and heading back over hill and dale to the school. A lot of little spines and legs seemed to have turned to spaghetti over the morning, for somehow the kids just couldn't help sliding off their seats. I chaperoned with the best of them: "Sit up, please!" and "Sit down properly before you get hurt!" and if any kindergartners remained as pools of protoplasm on the floor of the bus when we got back, it wasn't from my lack of vigilance.

Hannah* called me this evening to find out how it went. She said, "I asked Letty* if she'd had a good time, and she just said 'Yeah.'" Next time we're all together I'll have to prime the kid a bit, and see if she can tell her mom what's the difference between a bruised apple and a rotten one, and what it means if your apple is calling for sunburn salve!