Monday, June 25, 2007

Top Ten Places to Discover in Greenville

As I've been preparing to teach another group of freshmen at GC (as well as breaking in some eight or nine new faculty members), I've decided to try and put together my top ten places to discover in Greenville. Some of these are well-known and public, others reveal more about my own preferences than the town. If you have others to add to the list, be sure and make a comment below. . .

1. Montrose Cemetery--designed in the mid-nineteenth century, some of the headstones are beautiful. And, besides, some of my favorite people from Greenville's past lie buried here.
2. Almira House--restored to its 19th century glory, this is where higher education began in Bond County in 1855 and now houses the fascinating Bock sculpture collection.
3. The Gullies--the best place to see the infamous trees of Greenville, it has hosted numerous outdoor classes, make-out sessions, and lonely introverts whose only company is a good book.
4. Simcoe Prayer Chapel--dedicated a little less than a year ago, this cozy corner of the Whitlock Music Centre provides a place to pray, read, and meditate. Thanks to a generous gift in honor of Edith and Riker Simcoe, the simple pews, prayer benches, altar railing, communion table, and lectern bespeak sacred space.
5. Town Square/County Courthouse--the center of town, this is where the MUNY Band plays, infamous trials are held, numerous memorials to the military dead may be found, and all things interesting takes place.
6. Patriot's Park--about a mile outside of town, there are swings, a playground, benches, and a lake. And, this is where the annual Independence Day festivities take place. A gorgeous place to sit on a cool autumn day (besides the Gullies).
7. Globe Theatre/Will's Coffee House--thanks to Dave Willey, Greenville's City Manager, we have a place to watch films and drink coffee. The movies tend more towards popular action shtick, but if you talk to Dave real nice sometimes he'll risk something a bit more artsy.
8. Greenville College Archives/LaDue Memorial Wall--think the famous scene with Robin Williams whispering in the boys' ears, "Carpe Diem!" Papers of famous faculty (along with various and sundry other articles) and a spot to remember those who have given a lifetime to Christian Higher Education.
9. Sunset Point/Carnegie Library--if you're walking west just at the right time, you not only can pass a famous piece of architecture made possible by the Carnegie Foundation but you can see the sun begin to dip below the horizon on one of Greenville's most interesting cul-de-sacs.
10. Upper Union looking across Hogue Lawn--thanks to the energy of Dr. and Mrs. Mannoia, you can look out across the south lawn on a spring day and see all of nature coming to life. Renovations to the Upper Union make it a great place to socialize, watch a movie, or enjoy a hot cup of coffee. Make sure to check out the "old" pictures displayed on the south wall, including one of yours truly with my then-girlfriend, now wife, and another of ENOCH, our band that went to Toronto in 1976-77.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Need for Desert Sojourn

Here's a portion of what I preached this past Sunday (Season after Pentecost 5C):

In his book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane traces out the role of the retreat to the desert in early Christianity. “A fierce landscape,” he claims, “was assumed to be the proper abode of people committed to an austere vocation.” Desert asceticism, for the church fathers, was held up not as an exception, but as an ideal for those early Christians. The choice of landscape was deliberate. “While it may appear recklessly wild, even dangerous, to outsiders, for this very reason it fed the spirits of those who had chosen the desert way,” (161). The sites these ascetics chose, like the one pictured in today’s Old Testament lesson, offered both prospect and refuge—“an unimpeded opportunity to see, as well as ample opportunity to hide,” (163). One literally learned to live, Lane suggests, within a context of fear tempered by grace,” (164). In the desert, one could discover death and rebirth, renunciation and abandonment, and especially the ability to renounce one’s own fears in order to discover a sense of vocation. This is essentially what the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is all about—a kind of purgation and renunciation which prepares him to become the one who will redeem his people.

This way of thinking has largely been lost to those of us who are both American and Christian. In an age of “white noise,” we are literally terrified of silence, the dark, and the austerity of being cut off from our technology and creature comforts. This summer we will probably have to, in spite of the cost of gasoline, continue dodging the huge RV’s which blanket our highways in an attempt to take all that we own into the wilderness. Thanks to satellite, we won’t have to leave our televisions or computers behind as we enter the desert. And, with the wonder of electricity pumped from a generator, we needn’t even suffer from fear of the dark. In short, we have attempted to tame the desert to rid it of its austerity and challenge to the self.

But, in so doing, perhaps we have missed the very point of this sacred geography. Without the brokenness that the harsh desert winds create, without the heat of the sun which strips away from us every vestige of self-reliance, we are never brought face-to-face with our need of God. Those who observe the greatest hospitality amongst the poorest of people often write about how with possessions comes an underlying belief in our own power and the sense of God being an unnecessary add-on to our lives. Though we may long to find a sense of meaning and vocation, we find ourselves caught up in a solipsistic circle of self and things with no room for anything or anyone else. Consumed with ourselves and our needs, we wouldn’t dream of leaving behind the detritus which first litters and then consumes our souls.

That is why we need ordinary time: it serves to remind us that not everything in life has to be spectacular and extraordinary. It forces us to learn to pay close attention to what is going on all around us. Maybe it results in an editorial, like that of Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times this past week, entitled, “Sudden Growth.” Here, he ruminates on the white spruces he planted just seven years ago, mere whisps of vegetation, which now exceed ten feet in height. Or maybe it is to notice as we are this summer the absence of a pianist or the familiarity of John leading us in worship.

For those of us who gather regularly for Morning Prayer, it may be the recognition that youth has largely fled and it is primarily the middle-aged and elderly who occupy the pews on these warm summer days. The liturgy drones on day after day in constant repetition—to the outsider, something dry and boring. But, giving ourselves over to it, it serves to focus our minds like a laser beam, distractions escaping out the window. “The ceaseless regularity of the liturgy,” one author suggests, “works on those distractions with a stubborn indifference, so that the mind is silenced and the heart made able to love,” (Fierce Landscapes, 227). Perhaps it is true that the desert can even invade our churchly habitation.

For recent graduates, it may be the recognition that there will be no more homework to get ready for this fall. The degree, hard-earned and now neatly framed, sits astride our bedroom wall reminding us that that part of our life is now behind us and the larger world awaits us. After sixteen years or so have the regular cycle of being a student, we will have to learn how to learn to sing our song in a new and strange land. We will soon be arriving for work ourselves, learning to become adults in a world in which we still think of ourselves as perpetual adolescents.

Whatever the circumstances, this season cries out for us to recognize the need for desert sojourns as a means of preparation for that which lies yet ahead. The leisurely day at poolside or the incessant hum of the lawnmower engine may really be opportunities in disguise for us to learn to listen to God and to rely upon Him for the sustenance, grace, and strength for the journey which stretches out before us. “The desert,” Lane suggests, “has to lead us, at last, from aloneness with God (in a moment of great and silent emptiness) to community with others, from the loss of the fragile self to the discovery of a new identity binding us to the world. . . Desert attentiveness and desert indifference lead necessarily to desert love,” (232). Let us then learn to prick up our ears and listen for the voice of God, to receive the morsels he has for us in this season of respite, and, with Elijah, Paul, and Jesus, to prepare for the new sense of calling and vocation which await us on the other side of the desert.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Settling Into Summer

It seems impossible that Commencement is already four weeks behind us. I'm still revelling in the warm glow of graduating my younger daughter and her new job (which starts in just a couple of months). We are now officially a family of educators. My wife, Darlene, works as a Jr. Hi. librarian. Emily, my older daughter, will be adjuncting at the college this fall, teaching Composition and Linguistics (before hopefully starting a doctoral program in the spring). And now Evangeline will be heading up the Pre-K program in Kincaid, a rural community a little over an hour north of here. I guess if one is concerned about legacy, mine will have something to do with educating the next generation.

I'm working on revising an article that will be published around Christmas time entitled, "The Liturgical Reordering of the Ecclesia Anglicana: Faithful Understanding in the Elizabethan Homilies of 1563," in Anglican and Episcopal History. I have a longer article which will appear in the Proceedings of the North American Academy of Liturgy--2007 about the same time which sketches something of the history of collections of homilies for congregational catechesis. Both of these came out of my wonderful sabbatical at the Ecumenical Institute at St. John's this past fall. The friends I made there were wonderful and the setting idylic for getting some writing done.

Summer always brings with it a somewhat different pace of life as we settle into ordinary time. Yesterday I preached on the place of the desert in our spiritual journey, focusing on the narratives of Elijah, Paul, and Jesus. Darlene usually has a list a mile long of things she wants to accomplish. I have a hard time disengaging from my normal routine. We get to go to Morning Prayer together and then usually I try and work in the office for a couple of hours. This week we're breaking away for a couple of days to Brown Co., Indiana, to celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary. Sometimes, the only way I can literally change the pace is to go away into a different place. I am very much a creature of habit when at home.

I also get to indulge my role as percussionist in the summer by playing in the Municipal Band. Reading music gives me a chance to do something different and reclaim my adolescence--when band was a central part of my identity. I also am looking forward to next spring break when I'll be travelling with the college choir to Austria, Hungary, and Romania as a guest lecturer. Musicians, I have found, learn a certain discipline which can transfer over into other aspects of life--if they'll let it.

This summer is rather odd in that we are beginning to adjust to being "empty-nesters." Evangeline is engaged in a glorified nanny job in St. Charles and comes home on the weekends. We are slowly transitioning her up to Taylorville during the summer so she can start her new teaching job in August. As I zero in on my fiftieth birthday, it seems rather strange to be at this point in life. I remember when I was nineteen I wrote down a list of goals I had for my life. It's rather amazing how many of them I've achieved, but I also recognize how much I have adjusted those dreams as I've learned more about myself. Perhaps the greatest gift has been these three women in my life who continue to challenge me to think about the world in different ways and, hopefully, chip away at my rather limited view.

This fall I'm taking on a Freshman Seminar again--something I've been away from for a few years. I hope my age won't work against me too much. I'm trying to stay "connected" in ways that will keep me somewhat in touch with this generation of college students. The theme of journey and pilgrimage is at the heart of Brett Webb-Mitchell's new book (School of the Pilgrim) which I am looking forward to reading next month. I'm engaged right now in a new biography of Thomas Hardy, a popular study of the history of adolescence called Teenage, and Eugene Peterson's most recent book, The Jesus Way. One of the best parts about summer is the chance to read half-a-dozen or more books. But if I'm going to make any progress, I'd best finish today's blog!