21 August 2015

the good thief - a review of light

Years ago I attended a small Orthodox parish that had a priest who was a tradesman.  It was a poor parish with mostly cheap reproduction icons, and in typical Orthodox fashion there were a lot of them.  I was in the choir, and I used to frequently look across the nave to what had been an entrance to the building, once a house.  There was a door there that was never really used, with a thin vertical window to the side of the door.  This allowed light in, and I found myself drawn to a section of wall where this light often hit, a section that was bare.  This wall had been redone by the priest and the wall and trim and paint were very well crafted.   From time to time I would wonder about the fact that I was so visually drawn to this bare space in a sea of icons, this well crafted bare space, that made room, as it were, for the more overt iconographic spaces.  And I would consider the way in which the iconed spaces and non-iconed spaces, if you will, supported each other aesthetically.

These thoughts have, from time to time, also corresponded to my noticing that reproduction icons sold in the U.S. typically are all about the icon print, and evidence what might be seen as a lack of devotion to the wood on which the icon is mounted.

Recently a friend asked me to review an icon from Orthodox Christian Supply.  I went to their website and discovered this description of their icon mounting method:
Our Traditional Panel IconOur signature product, the Traditional Panel icons, are made with the upmost care.  We begin with carefully selected 4/4 solid poplar.  Then we route dovetailed keyways through the reverse and insert the red oak splines (shponki or шпонка in Russian).  This process is to keep the panel from warping over time, the same process as used in hand painted icons throughout antiquity.  We also route coves and chamfers on the splines themselves to create a decorative appeal, in the same fashion that is commonly used in Russian icons today.We print our images on the lowest tooth market available canvas with natural pigment based inks.  The prints are then sealed with the highest quality giclee canvas varnish, complete with UV inhibiting properties (will not fade).  For our varnish we use a special mixture which brings out more color than a flat matte, yet still eliminates the glare commonly associated with gloss varnishes.
All our icons are sealed on face, backs, and sides.  We sand out every icon glass smooth to ensure that our customers not only see, but feel the quality of our product.
There are over 25 individual process which go into every Traditional Panel icon, each preformed by hand.
Our mounted icons are built to last and to be handed down from generation to generation.  Every process has been approached with the aim to guarantee our icons in the excess of 100 years.  We build heirloom quality reproduction Orthodox icons.  

I selected an icon of St. Dismas, the Good Thief.

When the box arrived, it was packaged thus, already displaying a level of care that is exceptional:

So a newspaper outer wrapping, then bubble wrap under that, then a paper wrapping.  Also note the mounting bar to attach the icon to a wall.

Here is what the icon looks like unwrapped:

The finish is very matte, which is exactly how I prefer it.  The process leaves a textured surface which, while clearly not painted, I find much preferable to a smooth, flat surface, especially when it comes to kissing and touching the icon.  The detail of the image is crisp and clear, the demarcation of colour is subtle, and doesn't offend in the manner of an advertisement as one sometimes finds with reproduction icons.   This icon is not trying to be flashy or shiny is provocational way.  The aesthetic connotes humility.  This is a truly beautiful reproduction icon.

And what is behind it, and supporting it, I find myself drawn to just as I was once drawn to that bare corner in my old parish:

As soon as you pick this icon up you can tell that you are experiencing something unusual in the American icon reproduction world as the weight of the thing is unlike any other reproduction icon I have ever had in my hands.

And the woodwork is exquisite.

The 9" icon you see here sells for $40, which is a steal (fitting that I got St. Dismas then!).  The icon image itself is of a comparable quality (though a different aesthetic -- much more matte, and with the texture) to the Masterwork Icons sold by the good monks in Wayne, WVA at the Hermitage of the Holy Cross.  But the wood and woodwork of the icons from Orthodox Christian supply are far superior, and the Masterwork Icons from the Hermitage of the Holy Cross cost $79 for a similar size.  Honestly, there is such care in these icons from Orthodox Christian Supply that I don't know how Silouan Campbell, the craftsman behind the company, can make much of a profit selling these at $40.  Given the affordability to quality ratio here, I can't recommend Orthodox Christian Supply icons highly enough.  I would strongly encourage you to get yourself some of these icons before Silouan wises up and increases his prices.

There is a sort of piety that becomes so focused on the sacred object that it diminishes regard for what is around the sacred.  We often forget that when the holy comes into contact with the mundane, this movement is for the transformation of the mundane.  Ours is not a religion which ought to seek to protectively and parochially venerate pockets of ghettoized holiness.  We should rather expect the light and image of Christ to make beautiful and whole all that touches and is touched by that light.  In 20 years of purchasing and collecting reproduction icons made all over North America and Europe, I have never encountered another reproduction icon monger whose work reminds me of this truth in the way that the Silouan Campbell's icons do.

12 August 2015


Today a friend had me watch Ben Carlson's talk at the NRA convention.

Earlier this year I sold and gave away the last of my guns.  For various reasons, some of which had to do with coming to terms with the anger that I have held onto for many years, I made the decision that I could not, under any circumstances, take the life of another human being.  I have hungered for the deaths of others, numerous times, and because of this I needed to make the decision to never, under any circumstances, fuel that hunger.

This is not to judge those who do kill in difficult situations, especially those who do so in order to save lives.  This had to do with my own issues and my own convictions regarding myself.

It had to do with St. Tit, whose patronage I have been given.

I have enjoyed hunting at various times, and I like to shoot guns.  But the experience of shooting a gun, for me, evokes a certain appreciation of power, and control, and when I am honest with myself, it also corresponds to innate feelings of fear and resentment and a desire for justice, even when just shooting at a target outside.

I certainly don't believe that this is the way all gun owners and shooters experience the use of guns.  I have a brother who is a cop, and I know that he is a noble one.  As I said, this has to do with me, and my own demons.

But I also note that the populist gun cult rhetoric in this country associates guns with justice, with restorative righteous anger, with a reconciliation of wrongs, with the safety of little and weak ones.  And every trustworthy analysis of the use of guns in this country seems to more than suggest that such associations are uninformed at best, if not downright delusional.

I still sleep with a baseball bat next to my bed, even though I live in a small rural village with virtually no crime.  I am willing to die should a gun armed person enter my home, and I am willing for my children to die, I suppose, after seeing their father not take a life while trying to shield them.  I would rather that happen than for them to live having seen the violence that consumed their father for many years, as hard as it is for me to conceive of such things.

Once, when I was a child, though nearly an adult, armed men did come into the home of my parents, my brothers and I.  And I did wish those men dead, and told them so.  And my father and mother rebuked me, stating that Christians cannot and must not approach the violent in that way.  In my rage, I thought my parents fools.  That night (a story not to be told publicly yet) had a great impact on my life, and anger from that experience touches me to this day.  But, after years, and weakness, and certain experiences softened my heart, I sold my guns, and I made a decision not to kill those men in my memories, or anyone else.  I have enough war within me, and I cannot play pretend wars or wanna-be wars or prepared-for wars with guns anymore.  It is just too much.  This life is such a fleeting thing anyway.  I must, within me, fight myself to make peace with everyone.  I do not mean to suggest that everyone need do this.  I have hated more than most.  It seems so childish, even trivial, this very basic Christian notion - to not wish the death of your enemies.  But that is a struggle for me, and I must not arm it.

01 August 2015

You know, it seems to me that a lot of pixel drama, especially of late, reflects competitions between victim statuses and jerk statuses.  This victim is more important or far more meriting our sadness and outrage than that victim.  This jerk is far more an asshole than that jerk.

Please forgive me my "french" here, but the longer I live, the more I see the worlds of our makings as massively and systemically fucked up, and the more I can't argue with the notion that we are all victims, and all assholes, save a very few righteous ones.  Even the rich, my usual source of agitation.  I work with some of their kids sometimes, and their kids are miserable, at least the ones I see.

I get angry every day.  Every damn day.  There is so much futility in the world, and such a lack of kindness, and no end of petty hurtfulness and disregard.  And the posturing and pathetic role playing and rote regurgitation of cliché - the things we do to convince us of ourselves.  And in me as much or more than anyone.

It is so hard to live by the words of Jesus (Ben Sira):

He who avenges will discover vengeance from the Lord,
and when he observes carefully, he will carefully observe his sins.
Forgive your neighbor a wrong,
and then, when you petition, your sins will be pardoned.
A person harbors wrath against a person -
and will he seek healing from the Lord?
Does he not have mercy on a person like himself
and petition concerning his own sins?
His being flesh maintains ire -
who will make atonement for his sins?
Remember the end things, and cease to be at enmity;
remember corruption and death, and cleave to the commandments.
Remember commandments, and do not be irate with your fellow,
and remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook a mistake.
Refrain from strife, and you will reduce sins,
for a hot-tempered person will kindle strife
and a sinful man will disturb friends,
and among people at peace he will cast slander.
In proportion to a fire's wood, so will it burn,
and in proportion to the obstinacy of strife, it will increase;
in proportion to a person's strength, will his anger be,
and in proportion to his wealth, he will raise up his wrath.
A quarrel being hastened kindles a fire,
and strife in a hurry sheds blood.
If you blow on a spark, it will flame up,
and if you spit on it, it will be extinguished,
and both proceed out of your mouth.  

Sirach 28, 1-12, NETS.

I guess then, may I lack wood, and be docile, and be weak, and be poor.  And spit, like this Jesus, and another.

26 July 2015

There are so many things I am thankful for in this life.  Parents that never divorced, something I value more and more the older I get.  Churches that sent me around the world before I even left home.  Growing up with music and books all around me.  Parents committed to justice and love.  A woman who loves me.  Babies who've kept me up walking and rocking and reading and singing to them, and thereby kept me out of trouble.

One of the things I am thankful for is a childhood with one foot in the black church.  When my dad worked at Lincoln University, an HBCU in Lincoln, PA, my parents had to bribe me to sing in the children's choir at the campus church with Matchbox cars after the performance.  I was the only white face in the choir.  When we moved back to a very racist appalachian Ohio, the Baptist church my dad pastored had a sister church from a couple villages over that was an African American church.  Let's just say that when their choir came to our church it was a lot more fun than when ours went to theirs. When I was in track in junior high we used to steal booze from this rich lawyer's kid in our class.  We took a bit, or more than a bit, of this and that from many bottles in a huge walk in liquor cabinet and poured it into a good sized mason jar.  We called this concoction our Funky Cold Medina, after one of the first popular hip-hop songs among whites, and drink it on the back of the bus when going to meets.  First time this happened, I was chided for sharing our Funky with the black kid who was the son of the preacher from that sister church (another PK looking for trouble).  How dare I share our booze with a nigger, I was told.  My fellow PK caught the drift of my chiding and broke out into Funky Cold Medina and the white guys were so impressed we had interracial junior high track team drinking for the rest of the season.  

Black culture was always in and around the home I grew up in.  Appropriation?  Sure.  Though not in the normal suburban ways.  My little brother Joe is the only white guy I know who was nominated for Student Council President by the Black Panthers group at his high school.  If there is one thing that my parents taught us, it is that we stand in solidarity and spiritual communion with our black brothers and sisters.  Something from that childhood constantly in company with black folk left its imprint on me.  I have never felt fully comfortable in white churches, but the black church always has felt like home to me.  When I lived in Memphis and went to weddings and funerals and prayer services with black coworkers, no matter where my ecclesial allegiances were, my existential bearings found a place to breathe.

There is that plaintive voice, that troupe of the broken, that taking in of the hopeless, that different measure of what failure is, that never ever ever giving up on the lost soul, that glorious elevator cadence that raises the dead heart, and my God, when you say you are needy or hurting in that company, they don't look around as if they don't know want to do.  I can't tell you the number of times I've been in a black church and an elder has said that we aren't leaving until there is enough money in the basket to take care of a given need - always a very specific need.  One time in north Mississippi it was a kid whose parents were dead, living with an auntie, who needed new glasses and clothes for school.  It was a poor Missionary Baptist church out in the middle of nowhere.  They kept singing and singing, and the pastor was clearly serious.  I took my last $20 out of my wallet (this was back when I still had money) and Lawrence, my coworker, standing next to me, tears in both of our eyes, said to me, "it ain't like you can't," and we both laughed.

I know a lot of intellectual Christians, in conservative Catholic and Orthodox and Magisterial Protestant camps, who make fun of and/or disparage revivalist Christianity.

I've written about this before, but 20 some years ago I read Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a decent enough book, but in one section where he is dealing with the environment he goes into a rant regarding the manner in which Evangelical eschatology lends itself to a lack on concern for the welfare of the planet.  In the course of this argument he particularly went after the hymn I'll Fly Away.  I took his point, but I was also angry, and when I first read it I was not quite sure why.  Upon reflection I thought of my grandfather, who worked hard appalachian hills in his childhood, saw hell in WWII, and then spent an adult life in the steel shops.  He wasn't inclined to claim Christ until his elderly years, but who had every reason, at damn near every point in his life, to want to fly away.  I thought of the poor folk I had known throughout my life, and, of course, I thought of the black church I had known since not much longer than I could remember, with its spirituality always sung in Jacob's wrestling plaintiveness.  Most of human experience has been such that any sane man, woman, or child would want to fly away.  Mark Noll has lived a very comfortable life, and by all accounts I could find, he has always been quite comfortable.

Yes, white American revivalist Christianity would end up with Left Behind novels and WWJD bracelets bought at Christian stores in malls by white kids going home in SUVs that cost 30k.  I can't grasp that level of banality.  I don't know that from the revivals of my youth.

I do know that there remain a lot suffering folk in this land.  White Christianity has become a largely middle class and up affair, but Christianity of color still brings in the working and poor classes.  I remain uncertain as to how a Christian milieu that is intrinsically linked to a patrimony of comfort is even possible, outside of the work of demons.

I would ask this - if you are inclined to disparage revivalist Christianity on the whole, and you have never seen a group of elders in a Missionary Baptist church in north Mississippi sing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms in the above manner, well friend, I'm sorry, but consider that perhaps you don't know what the hell you are talking about.  The Spirit goes where He wills, and He wills the company of those who pray in desperate tones.

24 July 2015

wisconsin friday night lights

I'm not sure what to make of this life, so many quick vapors and lost breaths.

Lace in the corner of a field, setting sun.  I hope that God in His poverty gleans these for His kingdom.

23 July 2015

stone of help

a heart.
this one a charles bukowski going forward at a tent revival sort of heart,
cursing every step and everybody,
drunk crybaby faced,
walking to grace,
or from it, 
hard to say,
every third step looking backward and forward 
unable to measure the easier route,
but then you see some grandma smile
then they sing here I raise my ebenezer
and you think fine, I don't drink on ice but I'll take life on the rocks over no life at all.

Are there two mes?
probably not.
but that answer might be hopeful.

dad always said he was a baptist existentialist.
kierkegaardian altar calls
Jesus every moment
there is mercy now
not yesterday.  we all know how that went.
tomorrow is a pipe dream at best
what you flirt with putting off will never be consummated.
 you take to the dead now.
you follow Christ now.
hung dead on a tree of His now,
and on our yesterdays and tomorrows which cursed Him.
these old ladies won’t be here again
this is theirs and your only moment
the tree outside blooms today.

so stumble up 
and answer him when he asks
why have you come forward son
so you say it, 
i need to be saved
you pray the ritual, line after line you follow the preacher,
through the wordly token,
sacrament of the sacramentless. 
well, that is not true, 
now is the sacrament,
but light empty, not heavy, so that’s nice.
then the hymn ends.
preacher says this man has come forward to be saved
old ladies pull out handkerchiefs.
soon as the music ends you are thinking about drinks at
the jack'sstop tomorrow night and jenny’s legs, maybe tonight. 
what the hell kind of saved man are you you ask yourself?
preacher whispers back,
the only kind there is.
oh. you said that out loud.
mornings after an all-nighter with tommy don’t make for safe repentances.
you look at him.
he looks at you.
alright then, 
you guess.

you eat the fried chicken and leftover funeral potatoes and mud cake downstairs.
drink two cups of percolator coffee in a styrofoam cup
look down at the black inside white and hope God isn’t trying to make some point.
people smile and shake your hand
prodding with eyes a mix of surprised and not sure.
talk about the weather and friday’s high school football game 
and the the millers’ place getting tee-peed last night.

after church you help old llewelyn change a tire on his truck.
he pays you with a can of snuff,
already opened.
you listen to some radio.
old mrs. branson calls
tells you how blessed her heart was this morning,
and can you look to her hot water heater tomorrow?
yes ma’am.
you read a few lines.
can’t write.
the dog is restless.
you sit and watch the brown of pine needles carpet the back corner of the yard.
the wind is hot.
you’re on your second reading of
four gospel fingers into a fifth of cutty
when jenny comes over after the end of her shift.
she talks too much and her prime was a half dozen years ago but she’ll do.
you don’t seem to enjoy sin any less.
she does raise an eyebrow and half smile
as you say the word marriage 
of your own accord
having ascetically avoided it for months.

is this all saved is?
a little bit better?
a step better than yesterday?
well, yesterday did go....
so say two and a half steps better.

jenny leaves.
you fall on the couch
the dog jumps up and licks your feet
you remember Jesus and His feet perfumed by a whore
though you owe the dog as much as he owes you so bad analogy,
plus you hope you're not about to be killed,
you pray,
Jesus, you NotBastard,
You come from Somewhere
You’re going Somewhere
i’m barely here.  
i can't say for sure where i've been,
and if things go as they have, 
where i end up is the bounce of dice in a crap-shoot I will lose as usual.

19 June 2015

tonight's sky at the pond

*that brick phallus you see is the most upright remains of the old hemp mill.  The windmill is on the little island in the pond; it runs the aerater in the pond so that the fire department can pull water from the pond as needed in the winter.

I would say happy Juneteenth, but this one seems a more somber one.

Today I remember my old childhood friend Nathan Burroughs, who is somewhere out there in the world, and the times we picked and ate crab apples in front of the Langston Hughes Memorial Library at Lincoln University. Our dads both worked at Lincoln. When I moved away (after my first attempt at 4th grade) from there Nathan and I promised that we would get back together after we turned 40, if we were still alive, so I had better get on that.

It was after I moved away from Lincoln, in my second attempt at 4th grade, this time in small town Ohio, that I encountered my first (that I can remember) acts of racism. There was a black boy at my new school who had the honor/misfortune of having red hair. To my shame, I cannot remember his name. His mom must have loved his red hair because he had a big afro. He was teased relentlessly and without mercy, called Freckle Nigger (he also had freckles on his face) and Raggedy Sambo. The first time I experienced this I at first thought it was some kind of inside joke, but then I saw that it wasn't. It was completely disorienting. That kid remained stoic through it all. I went to the bathroom and closed the stall door and weeped, lonely in a world that I did not understand, and missing Nathan.

I still don't understand.