Author: Stephen Holmgren

I have been an Episcopal priest for thirty eight years, having served in parishes and in academia. My interests include art and theology, liturgy and spirituality, and I love to go sailing whenever I can.

The Beauty of Christ the King

Windows over the chapel altar; Church of the Incarnation, Highlands, NC

 

I wonder if you were looking forward as much as I was to the the new season of The Crown. As we saw in September, while viewing the various events related to the Queen’s funeral, the British Royal Family is a source of enduring fascination for many of us. And yet, I think we -as Americans- have a hard time imagining what it means to live within a monarch’s sovereignty. Since the founding of our country as a republic, the framework for our government has made it difficult for us to understand the significance of having a king or a queen. Especially when these roles are transmitted through heredity, rather than resulting from whom we designate through our political will.

All this is especially significant for us this week, having celebrated the feast of Christ the King this past Sunday. For consciously or not, we are prone to an ancient heresy. It is this: in believing that Jesus was an ordinary and yet a particularly spiritual human being who, by faithfully serving as the Messiah, was then somehow ‘promoted.’ That is, promoted above and beyond his human family, to achieve a semi-divine status. It is easy to mis-read the passion narratives at the end of the Gospels and come to this misunderstanding. For in one way or another, the Gospel writers – especially John’s Gospel – portray Jesus’ Crucifixion, and his subsequent Resurrection and Ascension, as the sequence of his royal ‘coronation.’

Yet, in a monarchy like that of Britain, coronation does not suddenly make the forthcoming king or queen into something that he or she was not before then. Instead, a traditional coronation is an act of public declaration of what he or she has always been, even if only implicitly.

In other words, through a public ceremony of coronation we do not make kings or queens. As we will see next year with King Charles, who we should note is already king, his future coronation will recognize in an official public way how he has already begun to fulfill his sovereign role. This is very important for how we appreciate ‘the mock coronation’ of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (23:33-43).

As Luke tells us in this passage, Jesus is crucified under an inscription that Pilate had written, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Judeans.”* The crowd at the place of the crucifixion protests the inscription. And following their lead, the soldiers mock him, saying, “If you are the King of the Judeans, save yourself!” They mock him while ironically mimicking the words of Satan during Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.

The irony here is that, so far as we know, Jesus never directly said of himself, “I am the King of the Judeans,” which would have implied being a legitimate descendant and heir to the thrones of David and Solomon. But he died for having assumed this identity, an identity that was revealed in his teaching and in his works, and in his selfless fulfillment of the Scriptures.

Among the many things for which we can be thankful this week is the following fact. No one in the crowd at Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and none of us, makes or declares him to be the King. What we can affirm in faith is that his royal identity has always been in and with him. This fact has been revealed by God, whom he called his Father. For Jesus to be King in the sense of being the Messiah, the Son of God, means that he lived into the reality of God’s own abiding kingship of Israel.

May you and your loved ones have a blessed Thanksgiving.

 

This post is based on my homily for this past Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King, which may be accessed by clicking here. I took the above photo (note the crown above Jesus’ head) after the first Eucharist celebrated by the Rev. Kellan Day in that chapel in 2019, and someone whose path to ordination I and my former parish endorsed most enthusiastically. I offer this post with continuing thanks for her recognized gifts for ministry.

*  “Judeans” is how N.T. Wright translates the word more traditionally rendered as “Jews,” with “Jews” being a contemporary translation that for readers may be misleading.

Note: John’s Gospel has the significant series of “I am” statements by Jesus, which may imply that he claimed legitimate succession from David and Solomon, but which do not approach anything like the political sounding self-identification that later condemned him.

The Challenge of Black Elk’s Visions

Black Elk on Harney Peak late in life

I first learned about Black Elk when asked to read the book, Black Elk Speaks, in a high school religion class. The book is the now well-known account of Black Elk’s spiritual experience as a Lakota youth, when at the age of nine he encountered life-changing visions while dangerously ill. It was written by John G. Neihardt, and it has been influential for many, but not without critical commentary regarding its historical accuracy. In my high school religion class we were asked to write an essay comparing Black Elk’s visions with those of the biblical prophet Ezekiel. To compare the two, given their significantly different temporal and cultural backgrounds, was and is a serious but also a notable challenge, and one still worth considering.

Here is the paradox that lies at the center of the question about Nicholas Black Elk (Nicholas being his baptismal name) and his identity, and one of the most beautiful persons about whom I have come to know through a book. He was present at and had vivid memories of both the battle of Little Bighorn as well as of what is rightly termed the massacre at Wounded Knee. In adult life, he was recognized and affirmed as what Anglo’s call a ‘medicine man’ among his own people. Yet, he was also received into the Roman Catholic Church and served in a distinguished way as a Catechist for that faith.

Here is a further paradox. Years ago, I met a former Episcopal Bishop of South Dakota, also a Lakota community member, who told me this. There were many baptized Episcopalians at the battle of Little Bighorn. And most of them were on the Native American side! To appreciate this comment may take some study, and perhaps deserves some reserve regarding the possibility of hyperbole. Yet, with due consideration of the history of Episcopal Church missions in Lakota territory, his view may well have some merit.

But, as the photo at the top suggests, near the end of his life, Black Elk still practiced the religion in which he had been nurtured as a child and youth. To me, this is part of the mysterious beauty of Black Elk. Perhaps it may also illustrate a documented propensity of some Native Americans to preserve an intense privacy about their culture while also realistically engaging with emerging external circumstances in a sincere way. Black Elk’s willingness to retain the spiritual world view of his childhood while accepting the Christian world view of his adult faith, in a both-and way, has not been without criticism. Yet, and maybe because I grew up in Japan, his example of ‘cultural engagement’ positively affects me.

Nicholas Black Elk serving as a catechist of the Roman Catholic Church

For Anglo and other non-Native Americans who wish to become more knowledgeable about the history of many of the peoples who populated this land before our arrival, Black Elk’s story is both informative and yet also challenging. Here is someone who engaged his spiritual life in a deeply serious and experiential way, and who was willing to reflect on its significance from more than one point of view. Whether we might identify with his personal commitments or not, many find Black Elk to be a compelling example of someone who takes his or her faith to be at the core of one’s life.

I continue to find him and his life story, while not easily understood, to be very moving. What I have come to learn about Black Elk has certainly impacted me. May God bless the memory of Nicholas Black Elk.

In addition to the books by Jackson and Neihardt, I warmly commend Peter Cozzen’s book, The Earth is Weeping.

Black Elk (on the left) photographed as a young man

 

I want to thank Martha, who is my editor. For anyone interested in the questions raised by the life and commitments of Black Elk, I recommend the following books: Black Elk: The Life of of an American Visionary, by Joe Jackson; Black Elk Speaks, by John G. Neighardt; and Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary Mystic, by Michael F. Steltenkamp. Joe Jackson’s book provides a particularly compelling portrait of Black Elk. Peter Cozzen’s book, The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, provides the best overall historical background for a proper appreciation for Black Elk and his community’s story.

New Orleans as Viewed by Errol Barron

 

Through our nearby family we are able to stay some weekends in New Orleans, an opportunity which delights us given that we live up in ‘the country.’ Our son and his family reside in what is called the “Irish Channel,” an historic neighborhood close to the Mississippi River and on high ground that did not flood during Katrina. Like much of New Orleans, that neighborhood is filled with old houses, some in excellent condition and others looking blighted by years of hot and wet weather.

While visiting our family there, we became acquainted with a very unique New Orleans local bookstore, The Garden District Book Shop, located incongruously in what seems to have been a former roller skate facility. The building now houses this book seller, as well as a coffee house and other vendors. It was here that we discovered Errol Barron’s remarkable and yet relatively small book featured in the image above.

Having once aspired to be an architect, having a longterm interest in architectural history, and having dabbled in watercolor painting, Errol Barron’s work immediately captured my attention. For this is a beautiful book, filled with color illustrations, and very affordable. The images in the book are the fruit of a sabbatical that he took in 2009, while most often visiting the sites for his paintings by bike.

 The author at a book signing event

Barron, as a career-long faculty member of the Architecture department of Tulane University, knows well the field that provides the material for his watercolor paintings, and also the substance of the profession and vocation he has pursued. Underlying all his work is the evident hand of a highly skilled draftsman, in both the historic sense of someone who draws well, and in the more formal sense of someone who is well-prepared to render architectural plans. His attention to scale and proportion, especially with regard to building facades, is particularly evident.

Through his dedication to his life’s work, Barron has nurtured generations of students. His beautiful as well as informative illustrations help us appreciate why this has been so. He has a sharp eye for what to notice, as well as a developed skill with which to communicate what he sees.

My regret here is that, in commending his beautiful work, I need to rely upon photos I have taken of his printed book. So why isn’t this book available in digital download book format, especially for the sake of its many compelling images?

Below is one image that is available on the internet, which for me captures part of the mystery of the appeal of New Orleans. Barron’s book’s subtitle says a lot – “drawings and observations of America’s most foreign city.” An aspect of the curious beauty of much of New Orleans is the juxtaposition of well-cared-for historic homes with attractive landscaping, and properties where the wear and tear of time is unavoidably evident. The latter clearly sets apart the former, and the former so often has a visually compelling character.

Having acknowledged the limitations of some of these images, I offer here a few that I have photographed from the paperback version of the book. Note how the book cover (depicted above, with an evident visual seam down the middle) reflects a similar use of a split photographic image of two pages within the book.

Barron’s sketches and watercolor paintings help us appreciate how there are at least four significant cultural influences that have contributed to the historical life of Louisiana and what might be called the ‘gumbo’ of its architecture: Spanish, French, English, as well as African, the latter of which is more likely evident in landscape (and culinary) selections. For it is thought that some of those transported here in slavery from Africa may have brought seeds of certain plants with them. Predictably, some of the above-mentioned cultural influences are more visually evident than others.

Below is an image of Barron’s rendering of the St Charles streetcar, an iconic image.

For me, Errol Barron’s book, New Orleans Observed, is a beautiful discovery that provides ample inspiration.

 

My thanks to my son, Anders, and his family, for the lead on this posting. Through visits with them I have come to love New Orleans despite its problems and or challenges. I want to note that I have no personal relationship with Errol Barron nor any commercial relationship with the publication of his remarkable work.

Being Within God’s Loving Regard

 

 

Today, Nov. 2, is commemorated by many as All Soul’s Day, or All Faithful Departed. I am reminded of how some years ago a friend suggested that I watch the Disney Pixar film, Coco. He commended it because the movie connects directly with the celebration of the great feast of All Saints on Nov. 1. Coco also bears upon our observance of All Soul’s Day and All Hallow’s Eve (or Halloween). The movie is set in a traditional Mexican village on the eve of All Saints. In Latin America, and especially in Mexican culture, this feast is traditionally called Día de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. At the heart of the film and at the center of All Saints is a reality, the reality – through Baptism – of our continuing fellowship and communion with those who have died and gone before us. This is why, in the revised Lectionary, the Scripture readings for All Saints are among those also designated for funerals.

Coco draws us into recognizing how myths, whether ancient or modern, powerfully present truths we already know. We find this, of course, in the opening chapters of Genesis. But we also find how myths play a role in our secular culture. We are enchanted by narrative, and charmed by stunning visual imagery. And we are touched when we are reminded by how family and community relationships shape us. Yet, to refer to biblical and other stories as involving myth, we need to be very clear that the power of myth depends upon the power of truth. {In effect, not all myths are ‘real;’ not all news conveys ‘truth‘}. And so, because human connections are real in our life experience, we are moved by representations of them in ancient Scriptures, as well as in modern literature and the visual arts. What is true, has always been true.

And what surely has always been true for the peoples of the world is this: we do not want to be alone. We do not want to be separated from our families and our friends. And if either family or friends, or both, have been hurtful to us, we still yearn for ideal examples of them —especially when hopeful images of these relationships give us strength to hold our current experience to account.

So, if we don’t want to be separated from our families and friends, we also yearn for a connection with our heritage. We value the history of our family and our many forebears, as well as of our communities. Coco, the movie, plays upon this wonderful aspect of our human experience.

And yet, while commending Coco, I do not think we should accept uncritically every aspect of this delightful film’s story. For Coco contains a notable divergence from traditional Judaism and Christianity. The movie portrays —as being central to the observance of the Day of the Dead— a particular belief. It is this ~ that, if we are not remembered by others, we cease to exist. Yet, as faithful Christians and Jews believe, we are always known and remembered by God, even if our family or our community forgets us! Even if we cease to exist for them, we never cease to exist in God’s loving regard for us.

This day, All Souls or All Faithful Departed, is particularly focused on the idea that, even if we should be forgotten by others, we are never forgotten by God.

 

An earlier form of this post was first published in November, 2018. The image above was an image found on the internet related to promotion of the movie, Coco.

The Beauty of Stone

Beautiful stones imported to south Louisiana

 

Here in southeastern Louisiana there is virtually no natural local stone. Geologists may differ about when and how it occurred, but generally agree that the original Gulf coast lay somewhere north of where I now live, between Baton Rouge and Memphis. What we do have here, as a setting for verdant plant and tree growth, is a lot of red clay and or sand, as well as the significant contribution of alluvial (river borne) soil. On this, our eastern and only slightly elevated side of the Mississippi River, they tell us we also have ‘loess’ soil, wind-blown from the west. In other words, where I live rests upon a legacy of materials brought here over the course of millennia – by mud-flow from the north, and dust storms from west.

Stone, as my earlier posts about our patio project suggested, therefore comes here from elsewhere, mostly I suspect by river barge. When visiting a local landscape stone vendor recently I was reminded of something I used to take for granted when living in the midwest or traveling in the far west. It is the beauty of natural stone, whether found on a Great Lakes seashore or on the banks of a Colorado river. What on childhood visits I appreciated seeing in abundance upon the north shore of Lake Superior, I now find to be an almost exotic discovery at a commercial location in Baton Rouge.

And, among the wonders of the handiwork of our Creator is the splendor of variously colored and multi-shaped stones

An unfinished stone border featuring ‘river rock’ from Colorado

Some years ago a teaching colleague shared a story from his work assignment in Saudi Arabia. On a free day, a local guide drove him for several hours through the desert toward the sea. Upon viewing the welcome sight of the water, he noted a large cargo ship discharging material into barges. He asked his guide what they were unloading, to which the response was, sand! “You’re kidding me,” he said. And then my friend learned to his surprise that the sand that has been blowing back and forth forever across the Saudi desert is apparently reckoned by many as worthless for construction, having rounded particles. Sand essential for concrete foundations and buildings needs to have edges, and come from Europe and elsewhere, to provide a proper binding material while the cement cures.

I am mindful of this story when I view the beautifully rounded and smooth rock that comes to us from far away rivers and lakeshores, after perhaps long eons of geological friction. I also rejoice in the variety of color in a material that might otherwise be as uniform as the sand in an Arabian desert, or on the banks of the great river just a few miles from our home.

Random Colorado river stone pieces

I am therefore thankful for the shaping and molding effect of God’s Providence upon me – even after what may seem like an unimaginably long time. Our experience through the rough and tumble of life can sometimes leave us feeling awkward and with uncomfortable or raw ‘edges.’ At other times, we may feel we have been smoothed and shaped in ways more attractive to others and to ourselves. The beauty here may lie in the wisdom latent in one of my favorite, but still-not-fully understood, verses from the Psalms: “You have showed me great troubles and adversities, but you will restore my life… (Ps 71:20)” For why would God show me adversity other than as an act of positive love? And, why would God not to seek to bring us together into a beautiful fellowship within God’s own being? Especially when it may be ambiguous as to whether we have jagged and or smooth edges!

 

One big ‘stone’ in my life has been Robert (Bob) Hansel, my former CREDO Institute colleague, to whom I owe much. When I first encountered him, he played a decisive role in helping me to discern that I was being called away from a tenured seminary teaching position back to parish ministry. His prior CREDO faculty role as a team leader changed many of our lives – not by persuasion, but by encouraging our personal discernment. Here, I want to acknowledge his wonderful story about his experience in Saudi Arabia (that he tells so much better than I can).

The Beauty of an Ocean Liner

 

The American President Lines USS Wilson, depicted at Shanghai Harbor

 

In the mid 1950’s through the 1960’s most American civilians and non-military government officials moving to Southeast Asia traveled with their families and belongings by ship. My family traveled between San Francisco and Yokohama, Japan, five times between 1959 and 1969. Each voyage took 14 days, with a morning to evening stop in Honolulu each way. As a result, I spent ten weeks on the ocean on either the USS President Wilson or the USS President Cleveland, sister ships that alternately plied that route. A most vivid memory is of passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, looking up from the deck.

In addition, my parents were engaged as faculty on a university study-voyage on the South China Sea for about a month in the spring of 1969, on an old chartered Russian ship that formerly was a WWII era German liner. My brothers and I got to go along. We stopped at Cambodia’s first port (Kom Pong Song / at the time just one short and lonely pier), and then at Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong.  ‘Complicated politics’ at that time kept us from docking in South Vietnam, as originally intended.

My younger brothers and me, with our parents, about to depart in 1966

This could have been me and my brother, arriving by ship in Japan, in 1959

Before the era of single class and entertainment-oriented ‘cruise ships,’ ocean liners primarily served the needs of individuals and families relocating to multi-year assignments overseas. Like numerous government officials and their families, and unlike business travelers, my missionary parents were booked in the lowest price range cabins in the first class category of the ships. This was in markedly different circumstances from those who traveled in the aft, more crowded and yet rather limited economy section. Though we had smaller and more sparse cabins compared with those in the top tier, we had meals in the same dining room and enjoyed the same public areas and entertainment options as all others in first class, as well as by the Captain and his senior staff. And in the course of a two-week long voyage, people from very different backgrounds and circumstances became unanticipated acquaintances and in some cases lifelong friends – an unexpected and beautiful thing.

An upper-deck photo of the Wilson en route

Each voyage departure in that era was a real event. The docks were crowded with well-wishers, and folks onboard were given multiple reels of colored paper streamers. We were then encouraged to hang on to one end, and throw the streamer reel toward those on the pier below. Soon, the links between the ship and those on shore were heavily laden with these colorful streamers. And slowly they were broken, one by one, as the ship moved away from the dock area toward the open sea beyond, all the while blasting one of the loudest sounds I have ever heard. Our connection with one world symbolically was broken as we were pulled back, and towards another. This once again brought people from remarkably different backgrounds together.

I remain most grateful for our ocean voyages, which allowed a graceful transition between progressively differing time zones, in addition to all the fun we had on the way. At that time, traveling by jet between the continents seemed like the luxury way to transit the oceans. Now, in retrospect, though the two ships were comparatively modest in relation to modern cruise ships, voyaging on the Wilson and Cleveland was clearly the preferred way to go! For we were all pampered by the ship’s crew, from the uniformed waiters in the dining room and lounges, to the attendants who brought refreshments like ice cream to the inside and poolside teak deck chairs.

Children were especially cared for, in the day-long Marco Polo room, where activities and snacks were provided without interruption. Amazing to me and my brothers were the plastic model car kits simply given to us to help occupy our time, when we were not swimming.

An American President Lines magazine ad from that era

Among my childhood recollections, some of my most significant memories of beauty, in so many forms, are attached to those voyages on what seemed to be the most remarkable ships.

The Beauty of a Homing Pigeon

A stunning Belgian racing pigeon, sold for $1.9 million

 

My title for this post may appear ironic or implausible. Yet, there is a long history of careful stewardship of homing pigeons by pigeon fliers and ‘fanciers.’ They breed beautiful, graceful, and powerful birds. Some racing birds are capable of flying a thousand miles, mysteriously finding their way back to their nests at speeds between 60 and 100 miles an hour! Most homing pigeons are not quite in that league.

I first became intrigued with the idea of having a small flock of homing pigeons when I was a Boy Scout in middle school, in Japan. A fellow troop member had a flock of some 20 to 30 birds. I went over to his house after school and watched him release them from his roof-edge loft. Then he would scatter bird seed on the roof and enter the loft, a signal to the birds that ‘dinner time’ had arrived.

Multicolored homing or racing pigeons in a Texas loft

His loft, as my later and smaller ground-level pigeon coop would be, was constructed of parts of old wooden shipping crates, then quite common in port cities like Yokohama. Those crates provided solid structural starting points, generally weather resistant, and adaptable to various pigeon loft configurations. What was left to be found was some mesh screen, some wood with which to fashion a simple door, and a set of dangling vertical rods (the formal name for which I have forgotten) which, resting against a wooden ledge, would allow the pigeons to return to the coop while passing through them, but not able to exit again.

A homing pigeon resembling one of the first in my small flock (note the leg band)

My first two birds, received from my friend, had distinct colorings different from common city pigeons. The female had a tan color and the male’s feathers were an overall charcoal gray and black. With them, I raised several more pigeons having beautiful darker brown feathers with white stripes. This was while the adult birds acclimated themselves to their new circumstances, and gained a new homing point for their flights. If I recall correctly, it takes at least a few months for this to happen.

It seems significant that the Gospels record the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptism, as being like a dove (a pigeon relative) rather than – as some might have imagined or hoped – like a falcon or an eagle. Doves and pigeons, the latter offered on the occasion of the infant Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, are symbols of peace, while avian raptors more often figure in war and or civil power-related imagery.

Over the couple of years I kept pigeons, I may have had as many as 8 or 10 in my small coop, some of which I purchased from local Japanese fanciers. I particularly prized the white birds, and saved up paper-route money to buy them. Once, I bought a beautiful one without having a proper transport case with me, and carried it home through the Yokohama streets. After my journey of a mile or two, almost near home, the pigeon in my hands and held in the proper way suddenly startled me and flew off to its former home!

I never raced my pigeons, though that is a common hobby for those who raise homing pigeons. Transporting the pigeons by vehicle (in vented carry boxes) to an assigned location, they are then released at a particular time, and clocked regarding the speed of their return to their home lofts. How homing pigeons are able to do this is not yet fully understood, though it is thought to involve magnetoreception, a sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field.

My time with my pigeons came to both a happy and a sad end. I was examined and proud to receive the pigeon raising merit badge from the Boy Scouts.

And then one morning, some months after this, I went to check on my pigeons before school. I was devastated to find that a cat had gotten in during the night, and I had lost my beloved birds.

As you might imagine, from time to time I muse about having a small flock of these amazing and faithful birds once again.

The Beauty of the Night Sky

The milky way over an arch in Joshua Tree National Monument. © by CC Lockwood/ used with permission

 

Recently, a photographer friend, CC Lockwood, offered a welcome suggestion. Had I thought about doing a blog post on the beauty of the night sky? Not only did his idea inspire this new post, he was willing to let me include here two of his copyrighted photographs. They display well his masterful skill with a camera, especially in challenging circumstances. Following his lead, I will focus on the night sky theme here, and anticipate a proper focus on CC’s photography and books in a future posting.

Milky Way rising over the Davis Mountains. © by CC Lockwood/ used with permission

The allure of the night sky was recently and surprisingly brought home to me in, of all places, downtown New Orleans. For there, because of bright city lights, on a clear night you will see few or no stars at all from just about any location in the Central Business District or the French Quarter. Yet, sitting in New Orleans’ historic Saenger Theater for a concert, I was delighted and distracted by the ceiling overhead, mimicking the enchanting night sky, with subtle bulb-lights effectively representing sparkling stars and recognizable constellations. If you have been there, you will know what I mean.

One of my earliest memories of having a sense of wonder in response to the night sky goes back to our first house in a suburban area of Yokohama, Japan. My room had a built-in bunkbed. At the top of the ladder, at the foot-end of the bed, was a framed clear window. I remember moving my pillow near it, looking out on a dark and clear night, and marveling at the view of the stars above.

from Nepali Times

I also remember a late summer night in south central Minnesota, about ten years later. Some friends and I had decided to sleep out at a place at the edge of town. We not only had the benefit of a clear sky on a dark night, we saw a partial eclipse of the moon as well as some aurora borealis. It was an astonishing and memorable experience.

That we are still touched by such sights, especially when we get away from urban areas, tells us something. We are not so different from people who lived 2,000+ years ago in the Near East, whose words record a similar sense of marvel. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth his handiwork” (Psalm 19) These words spoke especially to me when I was camping on a then-somewhat-remote part of the south coast of Crete, preparing for Baptism, between terms at Oxford.

The image below, of the night sky over Zion National Park, reminds me of a more recent experience while camping on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. It not only brought home to me those words from Psalm 19, but also the story about God summoning Abram out of his tent to view the abundant stars in the night sky as a sign of God’s promises (Genesis 15; in an image much repeated in the following chapters and books of the Hebrew Bible). I cannot think of a more evocative place than the Canyon rim to say one’s morning prayers at sunrise, and especially one’s night prayers under the canopy of light above.

It is encouraging to learn how in recent years managers of a number of geographical locations have sought to establish no-light zones, precisely so that we might appreciate the glory of the night sky. The website, https://idahodarksky.org, has some very beautiful images of what may be seen at such a location.

 

To see more of CC Lockwood’s evocative photography, as well as to learn about his numerous books, you can visit his website here: https://cclockwood.com/

The Beauty of Koi and of Goldfish

 

One day as a boy in Japan I looked up and marveled at the fish-shaped fabric streamers, flowing in the wind like kites. The fish were Koi. Traditional Japanese households fly Koinobori from poles or lines in honor of Children’s Day, a national holiday observed on May 5. Whether in the kite form or not, Koi are special to the Japanese, who first bred the new fish varieties and cultivated their colorful iterations in the early 19th century.

As beautiful as some of the fabric examples of Koinobori can be, they are not nearly as evocative as the real thing. Koi are a form of carp, which to our ears makes them sound like something unpleasant. They are not a variant of goldfish, and though Koi can be interbred with the latter, the offspring are sterile, just as are mules (the offspring of horses and donkeys). Unlike common carp, Koi have been bred to feature bright colors and a fluidity of movement that graces many ponds in formal Japanese gardens. Curiously, if released into the wild and allowed to propagate, researchers find that within a limited number of generations, Koi offspring revert to the more common form and dull brown-gray color of river and lake carp.

A goldfish above a Koi

One notable difference between common carp that are found in many rivers and lakes, and Koi found in Japanese style garden ponds, has to do with the quality of the water in which they are typically located. As bottom feeders, carp tend to swim and eat in the lower levels of murky waters. And so – by contrast – Koi are usually cultivated in clear and relatively shallow pools where their bright colors can be better appreciated.

Koi can be quite expensive, especially the fancier varieties, but they can also live as long as, if not longer, than humans. For these reasons, those who are new to keeping fish in smaller outdoor ponds may do well to start with multi-colored goldfish, the outdoor care of which can be easier and a good preparation for caring for Koi.

Some years ago when we previously lived in south Louisiana, I purchased a black plastic pond basin from a big box home supply store, along with an inexpensive pump. Having half-buried the basin, we found some decorative stone and an aquatic plant or two. We then filled the basin and let the water sit for a few days to allow any chlorine or other potentially noxious elements within treated water to dissipate, and to ‘season’ the pond’s content. Some landscaping needed to follow, as you can see below.

For a surprisingly limited number of dollars, a trip to WalMart provided a number of long-shaped, rather than plump-shaped, multi-colored goldfish, which survived and even thrived over many years while growing to an 8 or 9 inch length (photo below). The pond pump helped aerate the water, and a natural bacteria and enzyme product made a huge difference in helping keep the pond clear.

Many people find even a small water feature like a miniature fountain near a patio to be calming and restful. Adding a small gurgling pond, such as ours, with a few fish can enhance the interest, providing the subsequent pleasure of helping care for the aquatic residents within it. Someday, I hope to have Koi. But I may be starting once again with goldfish, which on a smaller scale can often be just as beautiful!

 

A special thanks to former and now neighbors, Jeanne and Tom Morris, for adopting our goldfish and pond, and giving new life to the ensemble.

Beauty Springeth Out of Naught

The Queen’s coffin is borne into St. George’s Chapel, Windsor

 

Once again, to my delight, the Robert Bridges’ text, “All my hope on God is founded,” set to Herbert Howells’ tune, Michael, was a musical selection for the Committal Service for the late Queen, this time as part of a liturgy in the more intimate setting of  St George’s Chapel, Windsor. This is a hymn tune and text that might deepen your spiritual life. It certainly has had this effect upon me.

One of the striking lines in Bridges’ remarkable hymn text, sung by the whole congregation at the Queen’s Service of Committal, is this: “God’s great goodness aye endureth, deep his wisdom, passing thought: splendour, light, and life attend him, beauty springeth out of naught.”

That line wonderfully honors the biblical account in Genesis of God’s creation of the vastly beautiful universe out of nothing, as well as the glory of the Lord’s resurrection after crucifixion from an empty tomb. It provides an encouraging reminder that even when we feel most empty, or when circumstances seem most unpromising, God brings light in the darkness, and creates beauty where ugliness seems to prevail.

Bridges’ compelling hymn text complements all that has been said in honor of the late Queen’s reliance upon her faith, her life of duty and service, and self-sacrifice. Indeed, the role of faith in her life, and her unhesitating devotion to it, are the kinds of attributes that later lead those who propose additions to the Church’s calendar to consider someone like Elizabeth II for such a fitting remembrance.

For all her hope on God was founded, and she exemplified the beauty of a well-lived public life. She might well have protested that it was an apparent ‘beauty sprung out of naught,’ but the recent fortnight of observances and demonstrations of respect show that most think and believe otherwise.This fits with how -as a sincere Christian- she truly believed that Grace provides where human limitations fall short.

Here is the full text of the hymn. Verse 2 was omitted at the Queen’s Committal service, perhaps out of sensitivity regarding her solemn commitment to upholding the institution of the monarchy. But I very much doubt that the Queen had any hesitation about the generic point of those words.

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew.
Me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.
God unknown,
he alone
calls my heart to be his own.

Human pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God’s power,
hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.

God’s great goodness aye endureth,
deep his wisdom, passing thought:
splendour, light, and life attend him,
beauty springeth out of naught.
Evermore
from his store
new-born worlds rise and adore.

Daily doth th’ Almighty giver
bounteous gifts on us bestow;
his desire our soul delighteth,
pleasure leads us where we go.
Love doth stand
at his hand;
joy doth wait on his command.

Still from earth to God eternal
sacrifice of praise be done,
high above all praises praising
for the gift of Christ his Son.
Christ doth call
one and all:
ye who follow shall not fall.

Based on its inclusion in the September 9 Service of Remembrance (along with an anthem setting by Howells), and it having been featured again at the September 19 Committal service, this hymn was surely one of the Queen’s favorites. For we are told that she selected all the music and other liturgical and ceremonial details for these recent services. With its lyrical melody, and its positive and faith-stirring text, so fitting to the Queen and her life, “All my hope on God is founded” is another treasure among works offered for Anglican worship and liturgy.

 

The photos above are screen capture images from the Royal Family’s YouTube channel recording of the Committal Service for Her Majesty The Queen.