Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Send Out the Clowns

Mack Hall

Send out the clowns. No, this is not a piece about the candidates for the presidency.

Imagine, if you will, a film in black-and-white from the 1940s or 1950s. A man (perhaps his name is Bill, or maybe Augie) smokes a cigarette pensively while leaning against a light pole on a street corner at night. He flicks the cigarette butt away and walks across to a church. He removes his hat (this concept also may need explaining to anyone under forty) as he enters, walks down an aisle, and kneels before a side altar.

Bill (or Augie) may or may not be a Catholic, but that’s not important: as Father O’Malley (it’s always Father O’Malley, or Father O’Flaherty, or Father O’Something) gives his Irish-brogue-y homily during evening Mass, something in his words brings Bill (or Augie) to a moral decision on which the plot of the movie hinges.

The next scene shows us Bill (or Augie) leaving the church, fitting his fedora firmly to his head, and striding purposefully off to propose marriage to his girl or face the villains or stand up to the corrupt mayor.

But then imagine, if you will, Bill (or Augie) entering the church to find a clown Mass in progress, with Father O’Trendy dressed as a cartoon pirate and pushing Kool-Aid and Ritz Crackers as The Lord’s Supper.

No, this is not a piece about the cardinal-archbishop of Los Angeles. We’re talking about a priest or minister dressed as a clown. Paint. Makeup. Big funny shoes. Multi-colored costume. The kind of goof who mouths such decades-old drivel as “we need to reach the people where they are,” and “the spirit of Vatican II.”

Bill (or Augie) turns and leaves, and lights another cigarette in confusion on the street corner. A clown Mass has not inspired him to propose marriage, face the villains, stand up to the corrupt mayor, or forswear smoking.

The sad reality is the non-fictional part – there actually are priests and ministers who feel called by some spirit, possibly not a very nice spirit, to, as Chaucer said, “make monkeys of the…congregation.” Like bongos and guitars in the 1960s, clown liturgies are an embarrassing fashion perpetrated by ill-advised men with a desperate need to call attention to themselves.

Well, hey, who doesn’t want a clown spraying seltzer water during a loved one’s funeral, eh?

After all, if the pastor is going to do a clown act during Sunday services, why not at funerals? Imagine a bunch of clowns hopping out of a tiny hearse and repeatedly dropping Grandpa’s coffin for laughs.

Clown Last Supper: Jesus reclines on a whoopee cushion and the Apostles laugh hysterically and high-five each other.

Or maybe clown Stations of the Cross: Simon of Cyrene honks a rubber-bulb car horn and dances away.

On Easter morning the women approach the Tomb and are greeted by the Marx Brothers who chase them off while making suggestive remarks.

Think of martyrs for the faith in our time, with a firing squad dressed as clowns and the officer in charge waving a carrot instead of a sword.

Clowns in church? No, it won’t do. No quantity of quoting isolated snippets from St. Paul can excuse desecration; that only makes it worse.

There are times and places for playing the fool – presidential candidates campaigning in Iowa come to mind – because life should be fun. But to turn a religious service into the crudest sort of entertainment is to laugh at, not with, the people the pastor is presumably commissioned to teach and serve and love.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's Not Over Until January 6th

Mack Hall

Every year some folks take up their crayons and write querulously to the newspapers to demand that Christ be returned to Christmas, as if the newspapers are somehow at fault because Christmas is not what the writers of letters to the editor think it ought to be.

The real irony is that for much of Christian history Christ was not in Christmas because there was no Christmas at all.

Christmas as a Feast of the Church was formally established by Pope Julius I in 350. Even then our poor, ignorant, superstitious ancestors only went to church on Christmas to worship God, and failed to buy masses of made-in-China stuff.

Over time, European nations slowly developed the concept of the twelve days, keeping Christmas from the 25th of December until the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings, on the 6th of January. This worked well in agricultural societies in cold Europe because unless Sven and Gunter wanted to throw snowballs or hunt wolves or count icicles or something there wasn’t a whole lot to do in mid-winter except stay indoors next to the fire.

While Martin Luther was rather fond of Christmas – and was devoted to the Blessed Mother, too – other reformers said “Bah, humbug!” to Christmas and forbade it under penalty of law. In England and in the colonies Puritans and their spiritual descendants, including Baptists and Methodists, were sternly opposed to the celebration of Christmas as Romish superstition. To this day some evangelical congregations will not open the church doors when Christmas falls on a weekday.

In Scotland, Christmas was banned for over four hundred years, and not restored until 1958. 1958. Not 1658 or 1758 or even 1858. 1958. Put Christ into Christmas? Nae, laddie, ye’d better not be thinkin’ such evil thoughts.

Christmas as we know it is pretty much an invention of Charles Dickens, who imagined a merrie old English Christmas that never really was and wrote it into his books. Dickens’ Christmas is little more than some vague, fuzzy good feelings and some innocent partying, although he does allow his characters to walk to divine services on Christmas morning.

Christmas trees are a German tradition (someone will bring up the pagans at this point, and I say that if the pagans thought well of trees, good for them) Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha remembered the Christmas trees of his youth and popularized them in England. American anglophiles followed the lead of Victoria and Albert, and Christmas trees became a symbol of Christmas in the English-speaking world late in the 19th century.

Christmas was and is a Feast Day of the Church, a day in which the Incarnation is realized. Its other main purpose seems to be to serve as an institutional inadequacy for grumpy people to fault.

Well, grumpy people, that’s all right. Perhaps we do eat more than we should on Christmas, and buy too much stuff, and indulge our children more than we ought to, but it’s all a great deal of fun anyway.

"Let the children have their night of fun and laughter,let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play.Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasuresbefore we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us,resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring,these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritanceor denied their right to live in a free and decent world.And so, in God's mercy, a happy Christmas to you all."

-- Winston Churchill, 1941

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Drug Testing at Valley Forge

Mack Hall

Last week the most recent drug scandal took everyone’s attention away from lead-painted Chinese Christmas toys, and no wonder. Who among us has not walked across a dark parking lot fearing an attack by a spaced-out baseball team leaping out from behind a Yugo? And that scary rustle of leaves outside one’s bedroom window in the middle of the night – that’s not Grendel; that’s a steroid-zombie outfielder hungry for human flesh.

George Mitchell’s many pages of he-said / he-said (there seems to be no she-said) tittle-tattle and McCarthy-ite lists are interesting reading, but one doubts that Mr. Mitchell himself will be required to pee into a cup before he gets paid lots and lots of taxpayers’ money for repeating gossip.

If the drug menace is properly addressed in baseball players, the focus should be expanded to practitioners other critical fields of endeavor, such as chess players, cooking-show hosts, and dancing-with-the-stars contestants.

The purity of sport – but no drug-testing for newscasters, writers, movie stars, or the weird little man in the bedsheet mumbling what he says are prayers at the airplane departure gate.

How drug-free and clear is the mind of someone freezing – since the ice has cut the power to his heater -- in midwestern blizzards while working out in said mind – since the ice has cut the power to his computer -- a stern letter to capitalist oppressors about global warming?

People who walk around with tin crickets stuck to their ears and talking to themselves are definitely in need of testing for something – such as a life.

Have you noticed that drug testing is aimed at the working people in America, not at the deadbeats? An argument can be made that a pilot or trucker or railway engineer should be tested for drugs, but why are lazy, useless layabouts (Congress comes to mind) the pilot or trucker or railway engineer must support never tested?

If a young man must pee into a cup before throwing a baseball, should not a priest or minister do the same before giving a sermon? After all, which event is more important?

If a citizen is accused of a drug-related crime, true justice requires that the investigators and attorneys and judges prove themselves drug-free first – here’s your cup, your honor.

The Constitution gives the people three branches of government – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial; no mention is made in that venerable document of fourth and fifth branches, the contract medical lab and MySpace. Let us have a return to justice for all, not suspicion and humiliation for some Americans and class privilege for others.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Don't You Care About Arboreal Lemurs?

Mack Hall

A friend carries a special little leather wallet just for carrying extra batteries for his hearing aids, said batteries apparently enjoying the life span of a Hershey’s Kiss at a T.O.P.S. meeting.

My friend clearly does not understand that by buying and using chemical-laden batteries he is contributing to global warming, poisoning tuna, and depriving Sudan of precious metals so desperately needed for swords for people to wave about in street demonstrations whenever a camera appears.

In the Spirit of Gaia at this season of the Generic Inclusive Winter Fest it is high time for people with disabilities to make some sacrifices and do their part to help make Mother Earth a better place for fire ants, rattlesnakes, wasps, pond scum, and aging hippies.

Why can’t people with hearing issues wear little solar panels to recharge their hearing-aid batteries? A man wearing a solar display on his head would be telling the world “I care about tree frogs.”

And then there are those selfish people with bacterial infections. Antibiotics are made by evil pharmaceutical companies killing NATURAL LIVING CREATURES! Imagine living your life in the forest as a happy little mold spore just hangin’ out and singing songs to the Earth Goddess. And then some beastly scientist comes along and kills you and uses your natural essences to save some rotten human’s earth-polluting life! Withholding antibiotics and letting your child or other family member suffer from eboli says “I care about fungi.”

You who are sight-impaired – do you have any idea how much electricity an operating room set up for a cataract operation takes away from the third world? Do you!? Ha! I thought not. Giving up books, television, the beauties of nature, and watching your grandchildren grow up says “I care about the rain forest.”

Prosthetics? Wheelchairs? Walking sticks? If every American with mobility problems turned in his or her assistance devices to the nearest recycling center, Al Gore would enjoy a newer jet plane for flying to environmental conferences all over the world. Limping or crawling says “I care about getting Al Gore another I’m-so-special award.”

Dental work? I think not. If you take care of your teeth you might then gnaw and chew the flesh of iddy biddy widdle bunny wabbits and harp seals, and then where would we be? Gumming vegetable mush says “I care about anthropomorphizing our forest friends.”

And finally a word about chronic breathing problems: the evil oxygen bottle industry kills countless dolphins each year by upsetting the balance of Mother Nature so humans with respiratory diseases can take oxygen away from vegetarian humpbacked whales, and, like, y’know, elves an’ stuff. Giving up breathing says “I care about arboreal lemurs in East Timor.” Well, not actually, of course, because if you can’t breathe you can’t talk, but with your dying gasp you can think happy thoughts about our forest friends holding paws, claws, and tentacles while singing “The Circle of Life – No Humans Allowed.”

Former Vice-President Al Gore, who, like Monica Lewinsky, served under President Clinton, gets $200,000.00 a speech for babbling stuff rather like this. Just send in the money, folks.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Kyle Field

Mack Hall

“The Credit Belongs to the Man…”

People of faith have long made pilgrimages to holy places: Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostella, Mariazell, Canterbury, and Kyle Field.

With high hopes we ascended to The City, College Station, last Friday, and after ritual ablutions walked slowly and with awe through the wide gates and into The Temple of the Twelfth Man, there to watch the Kirbyville Wildcats in ritual combat with some team from some burg nobody ever heard of. After all, the town now boasts four traffic lights, and the envious citizenry of lesser cities regard Kirbyville with awe.

Texas towns regard the Wildcats with even more awe, for their teams were home on this third week after the end of the regular seasons.

Thus, Kyle Field was perfect for the mighty, mighty Wildcats, whatever the questionable merits of That Other Team, May The Fleas of a Thousand Hamsters Infest Their Tents.

Named for a long-ago professor who bought the ground for a few hundred dollars, Kyle Field is home to many Texas A & M traditions such as The Twelfth Man, standing throughout a football game, Midnight Yell Practice, firing a cannon for every touchdown, and firing head coaches almost as often.

Don’t pity sacked A & M coaches (their name is Legion), though; they get to keep the taxpayers’ money promised them in the practice of polycoachery.

Another remarkable fact about Kyle Field that while an excessive demonstration of enthusiasm in the end zone is penalized, it’s okay to bury dogs there.

Y’r ‘umble scrivener was blessed with a sideline pass, which he will perhaps frame and display next to his St. Thomas Becket medal from Canterbury. However, the pass was unnecessary; Kyle Field is not sealed off from the bleachers (upon which no one is to sit anyway). Whatever eccentricities may be attributed to Aggies, they apparently behave themselves at football games and needn’t be penned up.

And the field itself – it’s just a regulation football field, though one with the best groundskeepers in all Christendom. What makes the place awesome is the masonry and ironmongery, rows and rows and rows of seats (upon which no one is ever to sit, remember) ascending high into the troposphere in decked layers, standing room for some 80,000 Aggies and fans, the cloud-bedecked aerial regions a tribute to the muscles, eyesight, and lung capacity of Fish.

There were never 80,000 Kirbyvillains in history, but those who were there on this historic Friday night betook themselves to the oldest part of the bleachers (upon which they seldom sat), and made enough merry noise to do credit to Kyle Field’s reputation for opponent-intimidating racket.

The best of seasons must close, and on Monday the Wildcats turned in their gear, cleaned out their lockers, and said farewell to an important part of their youth.

There can be no better ground than historic Kyle Field on which to end a football season. Whatever adventures the lads make for themselves in the future, they will be among the few men in the world who can say “When I played football on Kyle Field…”

And perhaps just a well, people will stand (for one must not sit) in Kyle Field and say, in awe, “Kirbyville played football here.”

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

– Teddy Roosevelt