The Moment

The Moment
[Photo by Michelle Agins]

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Gore and Grace

If you're in town on May 15, I'm speaking at Grace Church at 10:00 am:
MAY 15 - WALKING THE WAY: CHARLES GORE, LIBERAL ANGLO-CATHOLICISM, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE - THE SUNDAY FORUM @10AM. Led by the Rev. John Wirenius, lawyer, constitutional scholar, Deacon, novelist. One of the founders of the Second Oxford Movement, Bishop Charles Gore was a passionate defender of free scientific inquiry, individual conscience, and social justice. These views often brought him into conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities of his age but stemmed from his belief that doctrine was secondary to a commitment to a Christian life--what he called walking "the Way," as the Early Church called the Jesus Movement. We explore how Gore's belief in a very traditional Christian life and liturgy led to a lifetime of commitment to social justice.
Grace Church in New York is located at 802 Broadway (at 10th Street) New York, NY 10003

A good number of Gore's works are available online.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Not As the World Gives: A Sermon on John 14:23-29

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, May 1, 2016

“I do not give to you as the world gives.”

Well, there’s the problem right there, isn’t it?

We like how the world gives. When it gives, at any rate.

Because comfort, money, distractions—you know I could write this sermon on a phone while watching a cat video?—yeah, we’re basically ok with how the world gives.

After all, the world is falling over itself to give us what we want.

Not so much what we need, but what we want, as long as we can afford to pay.

I know what some of you are thinking—is this going to be one of those dreary sermons where everything that’s fun is held up as a sin. And the devil, to steal a line from Bernard Shaw, gets to have all the passions as well as all the good tunes?

No.

I’m not going to suggest you scatter ashes all over your brunch so that the taste of your food doesn’t distract you from the contemplation of God.

That would be St. Francis.

And I’m not going to suggest that you should agonize at length over whether your pleasure in enjoying that brunch is sinful, because it doesn’t serve the purpose of preserving your health, it’s simply gratuitous. That’d be St. Augustine, and he was a great example of the reformed rake who may be much more decent than he was in his unreformed days, but is nowhere near as much fun.

No, I’m not going there. But here’s where I’d like to go: When Jesus says he doesn’t give as the world gives, he means that the gifts of God are not conditional.

What we build up, what we are given by the society in which we live, the careers we pursue, those gifts are conditional. Lose a job, and a whole cherished way of life can be stripped from us. Homes, relationships, status—all of these can be lost, because they’re never really ours.


But what is really ours, then?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says it’s peace—“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.”

It might help focus our attention on what he’s giving us if we remember where we are in the Gospel. You and I may be six weeks into Easter season, but Jesus is at the Last Supper. He’s washed the feet of his disciples, he’s looking ahead to Judas’s betrayal, and Peter’s, and he’s saying that right there, right then, he is giving them peace.

So, really not as the world gives. Not power, not possessions, not status, not conditional. Something that will get the disciples through the ordeal of the morning, and strengthen them for their journey as an Easter People.

Peace.

Peace doesn’t mean quiet here, or ease. But it’s hard to define what it does mean. The peace of God, which, according to Paul, surpasses all understanding, isn’t going to be captured in a single homily.


But we can begin to see aspects of Jesus’s gift of peace by watching its effects gift in the lives of the apostles.

Peter and the other apostles weren’t exactly profiles in courage prior to the Crucifixion. When the guards came to take Jesus, they ran away and hid; Peter denied knowing him. Thomas refused to believe the testimony of his sisters and brothers in God that they had seen him.

In their different ways, the Twelve were paralyzed by fear.

But after their encounters with the risen Christ, these unimpressive, deeply frightened disciples all went out and taught openly, defying the authorities. And they did it calmly, good naturedly even—not making scenes, but sharing their truth with all who would listen.

Not afraid anymore, and not with bravado—the false courage that hides fear. They knew who they were, and were going about their Father’s business.

And that self-knowledge and that calm certainty that their following Jesus was the most meaningful thing they could do freed them to communicate that self knowledge and self-acceptance to others—to Steven, the first deacons, even to Paul, who persecuted them until the discovery of his own best self knocked him to the ground. It was the very people he had persecuted who helped him to come to terms with the revolution in his own soul.


They were at peace.

But that peace isn’t that of the world—they weren’t accepted by society, they weren’t rich and respected, they weren’t popular with the Establishment.

What they were is themselves.

In his Confessions, St, Augustine writes, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

When St. Augustine wrote those words he was describing his own experience. This was a man who had tried living for pleasure, tried living a life of the intellect, tried living for others.

None of it worked.

He even tried the life of a religious believer. He’d joined the sect of the Manichees, who believed that the world was divided between the Light—which represented the life of the spirit—and the Dark, which represented the life of the flesh. It was a subtle faith, for educated people. The religious life structured around a parable of guilt over the desires of the flesh.

Which, as someone who was brought up a Long Island Catholic, sounds like old times to me.


But Augustine couldn’t function in that atmosphere. He couldn’t flourish in a faith that required him to embrace only part of himself. And when he learned more about the Christian faith, more about the incarnated God, something in the idea that God could be with us, could be like us, could be one of us, spoke to him with a truth that the subtleties of the Manicheans could not.

That’s because Christ promised integration, not division of the Self.

So many faiths ask us to abandon who we are, to conform to some external standard that has been imposed on us. Be a good consumer, a good employee, a good Democrat, a good Republican, a good Christian—


--oh, yes, the Church can sometimes try to divide us between the Light and the Dark, and keep only the Light. Think of the Prosperity Gospel. Think of anytime the Church or a church has stoked up anger against the other, and let us off the hook, while we cherish our own righteous indignation. We’re being invited to take one facet of ourselves as defining our whole self, and defining that Light against the Other, who is cast as the Dark.

Nice and easy. Christianity on the cheap. I’m OK because you’re not ok. Or I’m ok, because I’m not you.

But what drew Augustine in, why Augustine matters nearly 1600 years after his death, was that he lived today’s Gospel. He was restless with his life—which was a pretty good one, by most standards—until he found himself in God. He found peace, the peace Jesus left with the disciples.

How can we find that peace?

We can begin by not confusing the parts of our lives with the whole. Don’t let the roles we play in various parts of our lives become a mask to hide under. Recognize that there is more to each of us than our jobs, our careers, ourhobbies.

Do you feel restless, dissatisfied?

Good. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” If your heart is restless, you’re on the path.

So be patient with yourself. If we’re told to love our neighbors as ourselves, we’d better have some love for ourselves. And that means patience.

Finally, don’t be surprised if you find yourself impelled to do something different from what you’ve done before. Ten years ago, having just turned 40, I felt myself tugged towards ordained ministry. Here I am now.

As mid-life crises go, it’s been pretty good.


Because the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is trying to teach you something. She’s not pleading on your behalf to some hostile judge or jury. You’re the one she’s arguing with, pleading with sometimes. You’re the one she’s trying to help lead to integration, to wholeness.

If you let her, the Advocate will lead you to “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [1]

And in so doing, lead you to the Peace of Christ, which is not given as the world gives, but can be yours no matter where you are in life.

May the peace of the Lord be with you.

Amen.


_____________________

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC at pp. 118-119.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Wolfe and Archie



Look, I've been a Nero Wolfe fan since I was 14. My grandfather and I used to watch the William Conrad-Lee Horsley adaptation, and that led me to the novels. And, after reading all of them, many more than once, I left Wolfe behind.

And then the great A & E series came on, and Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton became Wolfe and Archie. And, I have to admit, when a couple years back I went thorough the novels again, my reading of the characters was influenced by Chaykin and Hutton.

Not to mention Bill Smitrovich, superb as Inspector Cramer:



The A & E series was especially fun in its use of a small ensemble to appear in various roles. On occasion, they'd have to double up, which led to the surreal spectacle of Kari Matchett appearing in the same episode both as Lily Rowan (the closest thing Archie has to a significant other) and as Julie Jacquette, the boho swinging songstress (I'm quoting from the jacket flap of the first edition, so ease up, Tiger) who is the key to the mystery. What's great is that Matchett is great in both parts, with different, but palpable, chemistry between her and Hutton depending on which role she's playing.

(Other fun fact: Matchett later appeared on Leverage as the ex-wife of Hutton's character. It was like Archie and Lily had split.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Call No One Happy--"



According to Herodotus, when the Athenian law-giver Solon came to the court of Croesus, the King repeatedly pressed him to say whether or not he, Croesus, was the happiest (that is, most fortunate of men. Solon had his doubts:
"Oh! Croesus," replied the other, "thou askedst a question concerning the condition of man, of one who knows that the power above us is full of jealousy, and fond of troubling our lot. A long life gives one to witness much, and experience much oneself, that one would not choose. Seventy years I regard as the limit of the life of man. In these seventy years are contained, without reckoning intercalary months, twenty-five thousand and two hundred days. Add an intercalary month to every other year, that the seasons may come round at the right time, and there will be, besides the seventy years, thirty-five such months, making an addition of one thousand and fifty days. The whole number of the days contained in the seventy years will thus be twenty-six thousand two hundred and fifty, whereof not one but will produce events unlike the rest. Hence man is wholly accident. For thyself, oh! Croesus, I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations; but with respect to that whereon thou questionest me, I have no answer to give, until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily. For assuredly he who possesses great store of riches is no nearer happiness than he who has what suffices for his daily needs, unless it so hap that luck attend upon him, and so he continue in the enjoyment of all his good things to the end of life. For many of the wealthiest men have been unfavoured of fortune, and many whose means were moderate have had excellent luck. Men of the former class excel those of the latter but in two respects; these last excel the former in many. The wealthy man is better able to content his desires, and to bear up against a sudden buffet of calamity. The other has less ability to withstand these evils (from which, however, his good luck keeps him clear), but he enjoys all these following blessings: he is whole of limb, a stranger to disease, free from misfortune, happy in his children, and comely to look upon. If, in addition to all this, he end his life well, he is of a truth the man of whom thou art in search, the man who may rightly be termed happy. Call him, however, until he die, not happy but fortunate. Scarcely, indeed, can any man unite all these advantages: as there is no country which contains within it all that it needs, but each, while it possesses some things, lacks others, and the best country is that which contains the most; so no single human being is complete in every respect- something is always lacking. He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of 'happy.' But in every matter it behoves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin."
As, of course happened to Croesus.

***

"Call no man happy until he is dead," as the punch line has often been translated, is a warning, that until we know the ed of the story, be leery of judging anybody's state. It's certainly true as far as it goes, but possibly could be pushed even further; "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," after all.

Well, that's all rather disconnected and slightly downbeat. I'll admit that the discovery that a friend of mine has died has me thinking. But here's the thing--my friend was, I think, happy. Doing practical good for others, exploring his faith, my friend lived what I could call a life that was rich in meaning. And by his high standards applied to his works in service to those in need, he dignified donor and recipient. And so while his death saddens me, greatly, I can't say that life was not well used, well spent.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Submitted for your approval...



Above is a 1987 interview--actually, a phone in show with some interviewing--with John Mortimer, and Nigel Havers. This clip focuses on Mortimer, but Havers weighs in with insights from growing up in a legal family (his grandfather was a judge, his father the Attorney General). It's interesting to see Mortimer at the height of his fame, and Havers, only a few years after his masterful performance as Roy Calvert in Strangers and Brothers. Later in the clip, there's a slightly surreal moment when Havers's father, Sir Douglas Havers, calls in, and hilarity ensues. (OK, mild amusement--Sir Douglas is charming, but not a great feed.)


Then, to make it the perfect Anglocat trifecta, they get into a discussion of David Niven, whom Havers was scheduled to play in an adaptation of The Moon's a Balloon, Niven's witty, self-deprecating memoir (heavily fictionalized).

Pity the film was never made, as far as I can tell. Havers would have been just about right, I think.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Forgotten Influence



In writing Phineas at Bay, I tried to give credit to (most of) the influences and references I included in the book. (In fact, the Author's Note, titled "For Those Who Who Enjoy Peering Behind the Curtain,"runs 12 pages.) But there's one I signally failed to credit, largely because I'd forgotten how it moved me.

In "Behind the Curtain" I note that I based the feelings of my young heroine Clarissa Riley, prior to her wedding, on those of Eleanor Roosevelt before her wedding to Franklin. In particular, I was struck by her framing of the ideal of love around Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem "A Woman's Shortcomings".

I'd forgotten, though, the extent to which that poem, used as a framing device in the television films Eleanor and Franklin (1976) and Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years, fretted at me. Even more than in the biographies, the film hearkens back again and again to Browning's poem, holding out an ideal of love that is--dare I say it? Yes, I rather think I do--an ideal of love that is quite simply impossible to live up to.

I was reminded of that when I re-viewed one of the TV films for the first time in oh, well over a decade.

So here is my answer to Mrs. Browning's poem as used in those films. For the non-initiate, Phineas Finn's first wife Mary Flood Jones dies in childbirth at the beginning of Phones Redux (1874). Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium, becomes a widower at the beginning of The Duke's Children (1880).

****

Now that the day itself had begun, Clarissa felt keyed up, but not exactly anxious. Excited, that was the word. Early on in her engagement, she had been fearful that she had plunged too quickly, leaped before sufficient looking. Words in her mother’s old copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning had driven her to her uncle’s study late one night for comfort. Finding him at his desk reviewing a brief, despite the lateness of the hour—had it been for Ifor, whom she was starting to think of as the brother she had always longed for, but never had? Perhaps—in any event, she had not hesitated to interrupt him.

Wordlessly, she had showed her uncle the passage:

Unless you can think, when the song is done,
No other is soft in the rhythm;
Unless you can feel, when left by One,
That all men else go with him;
Unless you can know, when unpraised by his breath,
That your beauty itself wants proving;
Unless you can swear “For life, for death!” —
Oh, fear to call it loving!

Uncle Phineas had read the poem carefully through. He looked at her over his reading glasses, and said to Clarissa, “Mrs. Browning was a gifted poet, no doubt, but she puts things forcefully, simply, as poets often do. Look here, at the next stanza.” He pointed, and Clarissa read:

Unless you can muse in a crowd all day
On the absent face that fixed you;
Unless you can love, as the angels may,
With the breadth of heaven betwixt you;
Unless you can dream that his faith is fast,
Through behoving and unbehoving;
Unless you can die when the dream is past —
Oh, never call it loving!

Uncle Phineas had waited until she had looked up from the page, and said, in his gentlest voice, “My friend the Duke of Omnium did not die when the dream was past—and his love was not perfect or idyllic, but tempestuous, and with all the contrarieties and squalls of life. Yet he loved, and she loved, as truly as ever a couple did. Do not let Mrs. Browning frighten you, my dear.”

“Uncle Phineas, you were married once before, Mother told me.”

“Yes, Clarissa, I was.”

“Did you love my Aunt Mary?”

Phineas had then paused a moment. “When I first told her I did, I thought that was the case. I later came to realize that, although I cared for her, I did not love her as I could best love a woman, and I married her nonetheless. In doing so, I did us both a great injustice—she was a lovely girl, and could have found someone who would have loved her as she deserved.”

After a little while, Clarissa had asked, in a small voice, “Did she know?”

“I sincerely hope not, Clarissa. She died so soon, you see, that she may not have.” The pain in his voice startled her. “I lost not only Mary, but the son she bore me—he died only a few hours after his mother.”

“What was his name?” she asked.

“Malachi. After my father, your grandfather, my dear girl. How he would have loved you.”

She leaned up against him for a moment, and then murmured:

“So I should not let Mrs. Browning frighten me, then?”

“Do you love Savrola—in your heart, truly, as far as you know your heart?”

“Yes.”

“Then be at ease,” he had said, “and trust to your heart.”

In the months since, her feelings had become ever more clear, and ever stronger. Her love had been confirmed by a barrage of experiences—the suspenseful ordeal of viewing Ifor’s trial together, Savrola’s willingness to assist her uncle, and then later his assiduous care, not only for her, but for her uncle and for Aunt Marie when her uncle had been injured, his regular letters sent from the House when speeches were dull, enlivened by little drawings of the long-winded speakers, and of Savrola himself, as a little be-suited pig, snoozing in his seat. All these things had endeared him to her, and the terrible fear that she had undergone when his own life was endangered had taught her that her uncle had been right. She knew, on her wedding day, that she loved and was loved, and could acknowledge it without fear.

Her bath ready, Clarissa prepared to meet the day.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Fox v. the Hedgehog



Are you familiar with Isaiah Berlin's parable of the fox and the hedgehog? It goes, in part, like this:
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance-and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.
I thought of this over lunch today, when the contrasting styles, and increasing combativeness between, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, came up for discussion.

Sanders, of course, is the hedgehog in this iteration, with Clinton as the fox.

Now, as I have previously noted, the most perceptive reviewer of my first book, First Amendment, First Principles: Verbal Acts and Freedom of Speech labelled me a First Amendment Hedgehog. Guilty, m'lud. Berlin was right, at least as applied to my analysis of the Supreme Court's case law applying the Free Speech and Press provisions of the First Amendment. I am a hedgehog.

So is Sanders. A look at the numerous sub-topics on the issues page of his website demonstrates the centrality of economic inequity to his thought. Indeed, this facet of his thought has been embraced by his supporters, and in no small part energizes them.

Clinton, by contrast, is almost typecast as the fox. Her issues page reads like a series of essentially discrete mini-essays on the various topics she addresses, and gives a précis of her background and position on each. The fox views each issue in its own light; the hedgehog has linked them thematically. For Sanders, the issues are briefly adduced as exemplifying his theme; for Clinton, each issue raises its own set of concerns, which need to be weighed and analyzed. In internet terms, Sanders tweets; Clinton posts.

One can overdo this, of course; while Sanders tends to view most issues through the prism of economic justice (sometimes as economic injustice enabling and reifying unjust hierarchies that bring in other concerns), he does treat with the unique facets of given issues. Likewise, Clinton sometimes strings seemingly discrete issues thematically. But the cast of their minds is that of a fox and a hedgehog. Clinton can come off as overly rehearsed, and low energy, a dull technocrat, at her worst. Sanders's unifying narrative is easily compelling--as robertson Davies famously wrote, "Never neglect the charms of narrative for the human heart." But that amenability to the charm of narrative sometimes leads Sanders to the shallow and facile generalizations of his embarrassing Daily News interview.

As a fellow hedgehog, I find myself attracted to Sanders's use of narrative. As a voter, I think I prefer Clinton's detailed, issue-by-issue focus. This hedgehog is inclined, this one time, at least, to favor the fox.