Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Rooster Is My Hero

One summer, I got a letter from the Writing Academy. The Academy was an international writer's group that began in 1978. So in August of 1980, we were going to come together for our third annual meeting. That's when the letter came.

It was an announcement that the featured speaker for the conference was a young pastor from some place in Indiana. Some guy named Walter Wangerin, Jr.  

Or whatever.

Oh great, I thought. They couldn't get a REAL writer for a speaker, so they got some pastor from Podunkville to fill the time. Isn't that just peachy? 

But I did note that his book was a fantasy novel, and I was, after all, a rabid fantasy fan. And incidentally, it had won a little something called the National Book Award. My curiosity was piqued.

Something else interesting happened to me that same summer. I became a mom for the first time.

So I rocked and fed my baby boy while I read Wangerin's novel, The Book of the Dun Cow--loosely based on the beast fable of Chanticleer and the Fox, adapted from a story in The Canterbury Tales

The characters in Dun Cow are all animals--barnyard and woodland creatures. They live in a pre-human world, and they have a solemn task assigned to them by the Almighty. They are the keepers of Wyrm, an evil basilisk locked in the earth's core.

The leader of the barnyard is Chauntecleer, the proud rooster, supported by his wife, the beautiful Pertelote, and many friends--including the impetuous John Wesley Weasel, the mystical Dun Cow, and the mournful mutt, Mundo Cani. For all his bluster and bravado, Chauntecleer has a huge heart, and he takes his leadership role very seriously. It falls to him to protect his many "children" from the terror of Cockatrice, an evil half-rooster/half-serpent creature spawned by Wyrm. There is an epic war between the army of Cockatrice and the army of the valiant Chauntecleer.

Cockatrice. Say it out loud and you are hissing.

Walter Wangerin, Jr.
I found the characters to be well-rounded and true-to-life and the story engaging and gripping. There were so many nuances and layers of meaning. When I finished, my preconceptions had been shattered and my heart deeply touched.  I still have that paperback edition of Dun Cow, with its beautiful cover art and well-worn pages.

Not bad for a pastor from Podunkville. I knew I had to go and meet this guy.

And meet him I did. Not only was Rev. Wangerin an excellent writer--he was a dynamic and inspiring speaker, one of the most memorable I have ever heard.

A few years later, Wangerin released a second book about the brave rooster and his companions. Alas, I found The Book of Sorrows to be rather depressing, as Chauntecleer dealt with guilt about  the death of some of his dearest friends. (I believe this book has now been renamed The Second Book of the Dun Cow: Lamentations.)

Book Two begins after the great war. Chauntecleer is leading the animals on a journey to find a new home, since the barnyard has been despoiled by their enemies. Throughout this story, Chauntecleer's sorrow is deepening, as he mourns the loss of his friends. This story ends in  a tragedy.

Last year, I decided to look Wangerin up online and see what he has been doing lately. To my delight, I discovered that he has written a conclusion to the Dun Cow trilogy: Peace at the Last. And I am happy to say that Book Three gives a triumphant and satisfying ending to the story of Chauntecleer, Pertelote, and their brave comrades-in-arms. But I won't say more, lest the Spoiler Police hunt me down through my IP address.
The spoiler police--nah, just kidding--
it's a basilisk.
So much for my pre-conceived notions. A pastor from Podunkville turned out to be one of the best writers I have ever read and one of the best speakers I have ever heard. My bookshelves house many titles by this writer--in the section where I keep the really good books, the ones worth reading again and again. The Dun Cow books are keepers.

Photo credits:
     barnyard -- public domain; rooster and chicken -- photo by Stijn Ghesquiere 2004;       
     Book of the Dun Cow -- cover art; Walter Wangerin, Jr. -- photo by Liddlelf;      
     Aubrac cow -- author: Jean-Luc Bailleul;
     rooster head -- photo by Roman K√∂hler, public domain; 
     basilisk -- painted by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822) -- public domain; 
     rooster -- a pastel by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822), photo by Sara Atkins

Saturday, April 1, 2017

April Fool's

April first—a day for jokes and high jinks, pranks and put-ons.

So how did April Fool’s Day begin? Funny you should ask. It’s a little known fact that during the Roman Empire, a court jester boasted to Emperor Constantine that fools could do a better job of ruling the kingdom. Constantine, accepting the challenge, set aside one day a year for fools  to rule. 

The first fool appointed to the task was named Kugel. He decreed that only foolishness would be allowed on that day. And so began April Fool’s Day—as reported by Professor Joseph Boskin, of Boston University, in 1983.

Just one eensy little problem. Barely worth mentioning. Boskin was himself playing an April Fool’s Day joke when he told this story, but several newspapers ran it as news. Boston University later apologized for the ruse. The truth is that nobody really knows how April Fool’s Day began. 

Following are some more of the most epic April Fool’s jokes ever played. 

Spaghetti Trees

In 1957, a British news show, Panorama, played fake footage of farmers in southern Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from trees. Hundreds of  people contacted the BBC, wanting to know how to grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC politely told them, “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."

Bogus Burgers 

In 1998, Burger King ran an ad in USA Today, for “left-handed Whoppers.” These southpaw patties had all the regular ingredients, rotated 180 degrees. Many customers started ordering their burgers left- or right-handed--because yes, people really are that dumb.

TV stinks! 

In 1965,  British TV claimed to be testing a new technology that would transmit odors to the viewing audience. Some people actually called to say that smell-o-vision was working!

Shock and Ahhhh... 

One April 1st during World War I, a French pilot flew over a German camp and dropped a big bomb. The Germans ran for cover, but the bomb failed to explode. The reason? When the soldiers inspected the “bomb” at close range, it turned out to be a football with a note that read, “April Fool!” 

Are You at Risk? 

A respected British journal, The Veterinary Record, ran an article in 1972 about the dreadful diseases of Brunus edwardii, a species "commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America." Serious discussion about the article continued for months—even though Brunus edwardii, it turns out, is a fancy-pants name for a teddy bear.

Hats off to all these inspired pranksters and jokers who save us momentarily from our hair-shirt seriousness and prune-faced self-importance. 

But these days, adrift in a sea of fake news and outright deception, we may have lost our ability to be amused by April Fool's jokes. It figures that the enemy of our souls would target God's gift of humor--for laughter is a great and powerful weapon in the battle of good vs. evil. 

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  -- I Cor. 1:27

April Fool's Day reminds me that God chooses the foolish things of the world to surprise and confound the so-called wise. And that gives me hope that He can use me, along with all the other weak and stammering and foolish things.

     Photo credits:
          jester -- "The Laughing Jester," an anonymous painting in the Art Museum of Sweden -- public domain
          spaghetti -- public domain
          Burger King -- a Burger King in Norway, photo by Nicky Pallas
          WWI Bomber -- public domain
         Teddy bear -- photo by Jonik

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Passion Voices: Mary


Who moved the stone? What's going on here?

It's not enough, I suppose, that we watched him suffer and die. It's not enough that every nail was pounded into my heart, that every lash of the whip tore my soul apart.

Now they've taken his body too!

What kind of low-life lunatic would do such a thing? We have nothing left except the comfort of giving him a proper burial. There was no time on Friday. They barely got him to the tomb before Sabbath began. 

And what a strange and silent Sabbath it was. Yesterday I could feel nothing at all. Not the warmth of the sun, not even the pain of my grief. Not the sweet Spirit of God which has sustained me since the day I met him. 

The world went on as always, as if nothing had happened. And even God was silent.

Don't you understand? He was everything to me. Everything. He's the only one who ever looked at me as if I were a real person. Not a harlot. Not an outcast. But as if I were a daughter of the Most High.

I hate the silence.  Never to hear his wonderful stories. Never to hear his prayers. Never to hear the sound of my name on his lips--the sweetest sound I ever heard. The only voice I want to hear is the one I can never hear again.

Here's the gardener. I'll ask him if he knows anything. Maybe he saw something. Maybe he knows who did this. How did they move the stone? Where is my Lord? Where is my. . .


Photo Credits:
    Entombment of Christ, by  anonymous Russian icon painter
    Easter Morning, painting by Johann Friedrick Overbeck

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Passion Voices: the Centurion

You get used to it. 

The stares. The contempt. The muttered curses. The spitting when they think we aren't looking. 

We came to bring the peace, but apparently they don't want peace. They prefer independence to the Pax Romana. 

Independence! These Jews can't even settle simple disputes about their own religion by themselves. And, of course, you can't argue with "the chosen ones." 

Or reason either.

I'm not used to arguing anyway. If I tell my men "Do this" or "Go there," they don't mouth off. They don't ask questions. They just do it. They just go where they're told.

That's what I told Jesus when I went to see him. That's why I understood that he didn't need to come to my house for my servant to be healed. I knew He could just give the command and it would be done. I do know something about authority, and I could see that this man had it.

I've tried to help these people. I gave money to help them build a synagogue.

But I don't understand this at all. Why are they crucifying this man? He has taught them, healed them, loved them. While they stand jeering and scoffing, even the sky has covered its face with a dark veil. Even the clouds are weeping. 

I've seen men die this wretched death--criminals who deserved it. Like these thieves, caught in the act! But this man has done nothing wrong. Nothing! 

Oh God, no. I think they've had their way now. He's not gasping for air anymore. He's dead.

Can't you people see it? I don't care what you say about him.

Surely this was the Son of God!

Photo Credits:
    Roman soldiers, by  Harrak.a
    Jesus healing the Centurion's servant, painting by Paolo Veronese
    Crucifixion, by Benvenuto di Giovanni
     Crucifixion, after Joseph Van Fuhrich, detail, photo by Wolfgang Sauber

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Passion Voices: Thieves


Well, Saul. Here we are. Your plan a charm.


Shut up, Josiah. Just shut up.


Don't worry. We'll both be silent soon...thanks to you and your brilliant plans.


Shut up. Can't you be quiet even now? If you hadn't confessed ... we wouldn't be dying like criminals.


We are criminals.

Just! Shut! Up!


I wish Mom were here.


Why? Our mother doesn't care....Nobody cares. Didn't I tell you?


Don't say that.


Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing.


Forgive? How can anyone forgive this mob?


Show some respect!


Don't worry. This guy will save us. He's a king! [To Jesus] Hey, Big Shot! ... King of the Jews! Why don't you save yourself!


Quiet, Saul. Can't you see we're just getting what we deserve .... We're thieves. This man has done nothing wrong.


Whatever. It doesn't matter now. Nothing matters now.


It matters. [To Jesus] Lord, when you come into your kingdom ... please remember me.


Who are you talking to? He can't help you. We're all in the same boat here...and the boat is sinking.


[To Josiah] Truly, my friend. Today you will be with me in Paradise.


Thank you. Now I can die in peace.


Paradise? Have fun in Paradise, you guys.... Send me a postcard in Hell....

Photo Credits:
     Christ on the Cross between two thieves, Artist unknown

     Christ on the Cross between the Two Thieves, by Peter Paul Rubenst

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Passion Voices: Pilate

Bring me a basin.


What do I do with this man? I don't see that he's broken any real laws--Roman laws I mean--and what do I care about all their religious falderal? Sabbath? Passover? Phalacteries? What is all that to me?

"Are you a king?" I asked him.

"I came to bring the truth."

Truth? What is truth? Does anyone know? Is that Jewish truth? Roman truth? Your truth? My truth?

And then my wife sends me a message, saying "Don't have anything to do with him. I had bad dreams about him." 

Bad dreams? Am I the sender of dreams? Why is all this on my head?

Then I thought I had the answer. It was brilliant, really. The mob was screaming for blood--so I would give them Barrabas. It was one of their stupid traditions, after all--to release one prisoner at Passover.

Barrabas--a piece of work if ever I saw one. A murderer caught red handed. No question about his guilt. Surely they would rather put him on a cross.

No dice! The Pharisees have got them all worked up. They've got to have Jesus-Jesus-Jesus and nobody else. I just don't like this whole business.

It's their voices screaming. It's their decision. Let it be on their heads! After all, that's what they said. "Let His blood be on us." Well then, so be it!

Where is that basin? I want to wash my hands of this mess! 

More water! Hurry!

No good! No good! Why won't my hands come clean? 

It's not my fault!

Photo Credits:
     Pilate with Jesus, by Nicholai Ge
     The Message of Pilate's Wife, by James Tissot
     Christ in front of Pilateby Jacek Malczewski  
     detail of Pilate Washing his Hands), 1533-34, fresco, 
             Church of Santa Maria della Neve, Pisogne (BG), Italy

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Passion Voices: Peter

His words surprised me.

"You will all fall away because of me this night," Jesus said last night at the Seder.

Not me, I thought. Hey, I'm the rock.

"Though everyone else may desert you, I never will." I said it and I meant it. I had to speak up. I wanted Him to know He could count on me.

He looked at me, and I will never forget those eyes of sadness and love. He said that before the rooster crows, I would deny him three times.

"No, no, never." I said. That's what we all said. But everything was happening so fast. Things were spinning out of control, and I was dizzy with fear.

He went to the Garden to pray. He took just the three of us--me and James and John. The sky was pressing down so hard, I couldn't stay awake. He woke us, but we all fell asleep again. Just when he needed us most!

Then the soldiers came with Judas to arrest Jesus. Why was Judas doing this? He was one of us. I didn't even stop to think. I grabbed my sword and cut off the ear of one of the guards. They had no right.

No right!

Again Jesus rebuked me. "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword." And He bent down and picked up the severed ear and placed it back on the soldier's head.

When they took the Master away, I followed--but not too close. I didn't want to get arrested too. But what I saw was terrible. They whipped Him and drove thorns into his head. What had He done to deserve this?

Then a woman pointed at me and snarled through crooked teeth. "He's one of them. He was with Jesus." I was terrified.

"No," I said, "I don't even know him."

Another one looked at me and said, "He was with them."

"I tell you, I don't know him!" 

Later some other bystanders said that I must be a disciple too. They said my Galilean accent gave me away. I was furious. These people were trying to get me killed. I cursed and screamed, "No, I don't know this man."

Just then, the rooster crowed.

Someone said this morning that Judas hung himself last night. Why, oh why, didn't I do the same thing?

I am so ashamed.

Photo Credits:
     Peter, by Masaccio
     Detail from the Last Supper, from the Netherlands

     Agony in the Garden, by Andrea Mantegna         Jesus Arrested, by Giotto
     Peter Denies Christ, detail from a mural
     The Rooster Crows, by A. L. O. E.
     The Repentant Peter, by El Greco