John Fahey

February 28, 2007

I came across some information about John Fahey on wood s lot today. I know very little about him, but I gather that Fahey was a folk guitarist who also worked on experimental musical forms.

In the summer of my discontent, 1998, neither I nor my best friend Johanna could get a job. It was hot and humid in New York City, we had very little cash, and the odd jobs we did just got odder and odder. For a weekend, we both were employed to sell programs at a multi-stage music festival hosted by Guinness. After we sold out of our programs, we were free to stay at the festival and watch the bands and spend our new money on expensive beer.

For some reason we ended up at one of the minor stages where John Fahey was playing a set. He was fat, and his white hair had not been combed in many weeks. His wore ratty jeans and a greasy T-shirt. His stage act consisted of sitting in a metal folding chair with his guitar, trying to keep his long and disgusting beard from getting caught in the strings. We had never heard of him and wondered how someone like this rated a berth on any stage, much less at a major NYC festival. He mumbled into a microphone as he played; the guitar music itself was forgettable–at least I don’t remember it. We figured he was either stoned beyond belief or so avant-garde that we mere mortals could not follow his art.

That’s why the following clip surprised me so much. It’s a video of him in 1969, and it’s absolutely lovely.


On the bus (7)

February 28, 2007

Yesterday evening, I walked from my department to the bus stop, tired and ready to go home after a long day.  At the bus stop I ran into another student from the Religious Studies department, one of our international students.  Michael is from the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and is one of several Indonesian students who study with us at ASU (our department has a unique strength in Indonesian religious studies).  Confession:  I had always assumed that Michael was Muslim as are most people from Indonesia.

I asked him how his studies are going.  He replied—in his so-so English—that he is working on his master’s thesis.  I found out that his thesis is about the effects the Dutch Reformed Church missionaries had on the Minahasan people, the ethnic group in Sulawesi of which Michael is a member.  (Note to those who didn’t know:  Indonesia was a Dutch colony until it gained independence in 1945.)

Michael, it turns out, is a Dutch Reformed Christian; he even went to seminary in Indonesia before he started this program.  I was surprised.  I told him that I was Dutch in heritage, had grown up in the Reformed Church, was now a Presbyterian, and probably had family members somewhere who were Dutch Reformed.  

He asked me if there were many Dutch traditions in our worship service.  I said I didn’t think so in the Presbyterian Church, but that there probably were in the Reformed Church (this despite the fact that I wouldn’t know a “Dutch tradition” if it bit me on the nose).  He said that in his congregation they still practice many Dutch customs, and it’s been hard for him to recover the Minahasan parts of their worship practice.  I asked him if they spoke Dutch in church.  No, he said, but his great-grandparents used to speak it.  Now they just speak their indigenous language.  I noted to him how my family history was in some ways similar—my great- and great great-grandparents had spoken Dutch, but now we all spoke the local language, English.  I said it seemed that we had a lot in common historically.  He said, Yes, but you were the colonizer.  Touché.

Anyway, some people came by and told us that the bus had changed its route temporarily and wouldn’t be stopping at the bus stop where we were waiting.  Luckily, Michael doesn’t live too far from campus, so we walked together to his house.  From there he gave me a ride in his car to where I needed to go.  So, today’s episode of “On the bus” doesn’t actually involve a bus ride.

(Dutch postcards of churches in Sulawesi.)



February 26, 2007

TThis evening my 4-year-old son Thomas wrote his first letter. With a pencil balled up in his little fist, he made the crossbars of a “T” and pronounced it so. It is the first letter of his name. It is the central symbol of what will become his faith. It is a cross; it is a support that holds up the sky.

We love letters and the things they represent. We love abstraction. Tom is learning that the world as he now knows it and experiences it can, in some measure, be encoded in marks that he is learning to produce. If he follows in his mother’s and my footsteps, he will spend his days coding and encoding, putting ideas and feelings down in these arbitrary symbols. I hope these letters bring him the blessings they have brought me. I pray for him that he will read and know and learn and invent and speak and create and write.

A Funeral

February 25, 2007

(In case you didn’t know, the Presbyterian congregation I serve is made up mostly of Yaqui Indians (Yoeme). The Yaqui are a relatively recent arrival to the United States, they come from what is now northwestern Mexico, and these days, they generally speak both Spanish and English.)

The patriarch of the church is a man in his early 70s. He has 8 or 9 children, depending on who’s counting. A week and a half ago, his fourth child, “Victor,” died from liver and kidney failure. Like many in this community, he had been abusing drugs and alcohol for many years. He died a few months shy of his 50th birthday and left behind children and grandchildren.


Today, in lieu of the regular worship service, we had a funeral for Victor. As Victor’s sister carried the urn full of his ashes into the sanctuary, the lights and the heat went out in the whole building. Up the block, someone had just crashed into a power pole, and a line had been severed. Most of the windows in the church have been cemented over because of past vandalism, so it was quite dark inside. We threw the doors open onto the cold urban desert, and so for the first half of the funeral, we heard traffic noises and were cold. About half way through the service, power was restored. The lights came back on at the moment in my sermon when I was emphasizing that in God’s house there are many rooms.

One of Victor’s sisters had put together a photo-collage of his life on a posterboard display. We put this on a card table beside the pulpit, and in front of the photos we placed the urn. Beside the urn another sister had placed and lit one of those “Catholic” candles you can buy in the Hispanic section of the supermarket. This served as our point of light in the dark sanctuary.

At the time of the service when I invited people to come forward and share their memories of Victor, four of the men came to the front, including Victor’s father, our patriarch. The father wept and spoke first in Spanish, something I did not expect, despite the fact that Spanish is his mother tongue. Most of the visitors in attendance were from the younger generations and are more comfortable in English. He said several times, “This is something we have to accept.” And he acknowledged that Victor’s bad habits had killed him. He said, “Duele, duele. (It hurts, it hurts).” Victor’s cousin, who I think of as the elder whom I love, also offered his memories. He told of Victor’s speed on the football field. No one could catch him when they were kids. He finished his remarks by saying, “Now that this has happened, I guess I can catch up to him now.”

Afterwards, there was a feast of celestial proportions. Enchiladas, tortillas, both green and red chile, posole, menudo, ham, mashed potatoes, rice, fruit, and soda. Not exactly Lenten deprivation, but a holy feast. My sermon had also touched on the abuses Victor had committed against his own body. I cast these in the overall brokenness of the world, which our Lord has redeemed. If there is one thing I am clear on as a minister of the Word and Sacrament, it is that all dead people–at least the ones that have grieving loved ones invested enough to make a feast and a funeral in their memory–are in heaven. This drug and alcohol addict is whole now.

(The cross image is taken from a prayer card distributed by the funeral home.)

Coffee Art

February 21, 2007

This is totally awesome. I want to try it myself.

Local Produce

February 17, 2007

These days, a big deal among those who think about their food is to buy locally grown food. This cuts down on the environmental costs incurred by shipping, supports local economies, and ensures that what you eat is fresh. Of course, not everyone can eat local food all year long. But the idea is to do what you can.

February in Phoenix means that the grapefruit are in season. Our neighbors two doors down have a mighty grapefruit tree, and every year about this time they give away scads of the fruit.

free grapefruit

This afternoon I squeezed up some fresh, extremely local, grapefruit juice.

fresh juice

I think we’ll be having a lot of this stuff over the next few weeks. I love the sourness with the salty rush in your nose you get when you drink grapefruit juice. Some members of my household have been known to drink it with a little tequila. You do what you have to…

Intercessory Prayer

February 16, 2007

My upcoming dissertation at ASU is going to be about religious health and healing in the U.S.-Mexico border region. I plan to look especially at Catholic folk saints, Mexican folk healing (“curanderismo”), pilgrimage, shrines, promises to Guadaluple and other saints, and–perhaps most applicable to my own Presbyterian tradition–interessory prayer.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, intercessory prayer is the type of prayer that asks God to intercede in human affairs. As a pastor, I can attest that the overwhelming percentage of prayer requests I receive in and out of the worship service are for the health and healing of loved ones. Most Christians believe that God answers these prayers with real action.

Now, there is a whole lot of studying to do about this. First, there are official theologies that teach the basic parameters of this kind of prayer. In our Reformed tradition, intercessory prayer is a thorny issue because given God’s absolute sovereignty and the resultant belief in predestination, we humans are not in a very good position to affect God in any way. However, we believe God loves us and cares for us, and I suppose this means that God is responsive to our requests.

Second, there are the actual popular beliefs concerning intercessory prayer. In these beliefs (and practices) Christians profess that God grants favors, or withdraws support. Often God’s actions are dependent on the holiness and sincerity of the petitioners. Some pastors and faithful people pooh pooh these kinds of beliefs as little more than pie-eyed acceptance of magical thinking. Maybe so, but understanding the cultural logics that underlie these beliefs and practices will be very important to my research and analysis.

Third, there are those who claim that intercessory prayer is mostly a social event in which the body of believers support each other mutually and publically. The miraculous, if you will, is in the sharing of love and concern under the aegis of faith in a merciful God. This particular way of looking at intercessory prayer is not as common as one might think, but I think it is the contention of many liberal pastors (including myself). In my experience, though, most people think that their petitions actually lead to God’s action. (A common piece of folk wisdom, now perhaps cliché, is that when what you ask for doesn’t come to pass, God did respond, just in the negative.)

Naturally, the whole issue of why God would heal some and not others immediately emerges in this discussion. One of my early hypotheses is that petitioning saints (in the Catholic tradition) allows one to escape some of the least palatable aspects of dealing with an unsearchable God. Saints, being human, are more accessible, and their caprices concerning granting petitions is more understandable.

So, if you make intercessions to God or a saint, what do you think is happening? Do you think you are capable of influencing God’s behavior? If so, why? Hey, if you give a good enough answer, maybe you’ll end up in my dissertation!