Sunday, December 28, 2008

Another great one is gone

Let me take a moment to remember the great singer/songwriter Delaney Bramlett, who died yesterday at 69. He and his then-wife Bonnie and their band Delaney & Bonnie & Friends toured with Eric Clapton in 1969, and made a fabulous live album with him that was part of the soundtrack of my high school years. Both Delaney and Bonnie were powerful singers, and played with a great backup band including Carl Radle on bass and Jim Gordon on drums. Delaney wrote or co-wrote a number of popular songs from that period ("Superstar", "Never Ending Song of Love").

YouTube is not cooperating with me today, but the link is to a clip from a 1969 BBC performance with Eric Clapton and Dave Mason. (Dave Mason wrote "Only You Know and I Know", but Delaney and Bonnie's version is better.) I think the gentleman in the green sweater, on Bonnie's left, is Bobby Whitlock, a mighty soulful singer and keyboards player himself, who later joined Clapton in Derek and the Dominos. Although I wouldn't want to be fifteen again, I enjoyed traveling back in time for a few minutes while watching this clip.

Rest in peace, Delaney, and thank you for the music.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Carol - Written in 1946
Flocks feed by darkness with a noise of whispers,
In the dry grass of pastures,
And lull the solemn night with their weak bells.

The little towns upon the rocky hills
Look down as meek as children:
Because they have seen come this holy time.

God's glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom's born in secret in a straw-roofed stable.

And O! Make holy music in the stars, you happy angels.
You shepherds, gather on the hill.
Look up, you timid flocks, where the three kings
Are coming through the wintry trees;

While we unnumbered children of the wicked centuries
Come after with our penances and prayers,
And lay them down in the sweet-smelling hay
Beside the wise men's golden jars.
Thomas Merton

Friday, December 19, 2008

Exmas or Crissmas?

A Lost Chapter from Herodotus
by C. S. Lewis

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and the north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, and though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from other barbarians who occupy the north-western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas, and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the market-place is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest and the most miserable of citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk in the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think that some great calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, It is not lawful, O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left. And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, It is, O Stranger, a racket; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For the first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

(from God in the Dock)
The Nacirema are a lot like the Niatirbians, yes? With all the hurrying, and all the lists we have made today, let's stop, take a breath, and be thankful that we are here for Crissmas, not Exmas.

Friday Five: Countdown to Christmas Edition

Songbird admonishes us:

It's true.

There are only five full days before Christmas Day, and whether you use them for shopping, wrapping, preaching, worshiping, singing or traveling or even wishing the whole darn thing were over last Tuesday, there's a good chance they will be busy ones.

So let's make this easy, if we can: tell us five things you need to accomplish before Christmas Eve.

OK, this IS easy. On my reduced schedule this year, most things are done. I still need to:

1. make fruitcake cookies (this will happen today)
2. make broccoli salad, twice--for a party tomorrow night, and for Christmas dinner, which we are NOT hosting
3. haul a large frozen turkey, which we did not use at Thanksgiving, to the home of our friends with whom we will be having Christmas dinner
4. wrap one more present for the Scientist, after it arrives
5. listen to my favorite Christmas music, rest and consider the Lord's coming

May the peace and joy of this season enfold each person who reads this...beyond all the sermon writing and last minute service planning; beyond all the cooking, baking, shopping, and wrapping; beyond the travel hassles; within and beyond the grief that this season heightens for many; may Christ be born anew in us all.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winter rest

Three weeks later. I'm feeling well enough now to treasure these last quiet, solitary days at home, which will be over all too soon.

The tree is finally decorated, and lovely--it is good company for me when I'm on the couch and Amie has retreated to the Scientist's closet to snooze. Between my convalescence and the Scientist's schedule, the naked tree sat in the living room for three days before we finally "dressed" it. We have spent most of this week decorating a little at a time, rather than the do-it-all-in-one-night approach we usually employ. What a pleasure to say hello again to each old friend as I take it out of the box--Santas, stars, and angels alike.

I collect Christmas angels. I didn't know that until the day, some years ago, I realized there were more than twenty on the tree. Each one reminds me of a particular vacation, or the friend who gave it, or a Christmas forty years ago. They probably number about thirty-five now, not counting all the freestanding angels arrayed on the oak buffet in the foyer. The Scientist said, "It looks like you've got all the heavenly host in here."

The Scientist is away, overseeing a clinical trial, but will return tomorrow night. Please pray for the patient who will undergo this experimental treatment tomorrow.

Shopping (mostly online this year) is done, wrapping is almost done. I'm waiting for one more book for the Scientist--a book about the Minoans, to accompany the tome on the Mycenaeans that has already arrived.

Not singing in the Christmas concert this year was hard, but getting to just sit and enjoy it was fun. The most beautiful piece was an obscure cantata that deserves to be heard more often, Ralph Hunter's Sing Noel. I can find only one recording, by Gloriae Dei Cantores. It's a thoughtful and creative medley of carols, but is seldom performed--in fact our choir director described our presentation as its "Southwest premiere". If it were better known, it would become a mainstay of Christmas concerts.

This afternoon's dilemma: will the pleasure of making fruitcake cookies outweigh the aches and pains that probably will follow? Maybe I'll wait and make them this evening. Maybe I'll just lie here on the couch and look at the tree for a while.