A Child’s Song

©2016 By Bob Litton

¶Can you play this? I’m serious, because I composed it and yet can’t play it. 



¶Of course those two sentences above require some explanation. You see, I was ten years old when I submitted the lyrics to a poetry contest jointly sponsored by the Dallas Independent School District and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. At the time, 1951, Walter Hendl was music director of the DSO; and he was an enthusiastic promoter of children’s music programs.
¶Our music teacher, a young woman whose name I don’t recall, announced the opening of the contest and gave us the rules for it. The competition was divided into two parts. The first was to write a poem about one of five subjects: homeland, school, play…and I forget the remaining two. The second contest was to compose music for the winning poem.
¶Now is the time for a bit of full disclosure. I couldn’t read music; not could I play an instrument, even though I had a guitar my father had bought for me and had a couple of lessons from a man who tried to switch me to the violin. I did enjoy listening to the popular music of the day, but my only acquaintance with classical music came from listening to the themes of radio shows such as “The Lone Ranger”, “The Shadow”, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon”, etc. And I wasn’t even aware that those themes were not composed for the radio shows but were instead segments from famous classical music compositions. I didn’t even know what classical music as a “genre” was.
¶However, I often wrote little two-page stories which I also illustrated, so writing and drawing were already “in my blood”. I still find it odd then that one or two days after I heard the announcement for the contest, I busied myself in art class not with drawing anything but with writing a poem on a large sheet of manila paper, with crayons. I think now that I actually believed that the variety of colors would give me an edge in the contest.
¶Several weeks later, the music teacher informed me that I had won the poetry contest. Now I was faced with the ordeal, for me, of trying to contrive some music for it. At the end of the school day, the teacher sat at the piano, with my poem and a sheet of music paper before her, while I stood by a corner of the piano feeling like an idiot. I don’t recall how she managed to lure some tune out of me, but she did and scored it; and the result is what you see above.
¶ I didn’t much care for my production. My music teacher informed me that the contest judges had considered my music as “too jazzy”. That surprised me because, although I too viewed the music as too lively, in places, for its theme, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could see it as “jazzy”.
¶ Fortunately, a fifth grade class at a school clear across town, in Oak Cliff, won the music composition part of the contest. When I heard their music set to my lyrics I was very much pleased with it. Although that class was credited with composing the music as a group, I supposed that the actual composer was the little girl who walked out on the stage with me at Maestro Hendl’s invitation. That was a big day in my life, at Southern Methodist University’s McFarlin auditorium, hearing the DSO play the music and children from schools all over Dallas sing my lyrics.
¶I carried that music among all my other belongings for most of my adult life. Three times I asked friends who were adepts on the piano to play my version of the song for me. They tried but gave up. Too easily? I don’t feel qualified to say. Once, I called the DSO office and asked if they might have the “Oak Cliff version” in their archive, but the woman on the other end of the line acted as though she thought I must be some kind of a nut and said they don’t retain stuff like that.
¶One day a couple of years ago, I got disgusted because the music is way below par and apparently unplayable. I tore up the sheet music; but I keyed the lyrics into my computer, so it was not lost entirely. (Well, actually they  were pretty much embedded in my memory, but at my age memory is not a very reliable repository.) Recently, an acquaintance of mine in Dallas informed me that, while reorganizing her files,she noticed a photocopy of “In My Sleep” and asked me if I wanted it. “Certainly!” I said, and she sent it to me.
¶Now, since the lyrics are slightly difficult to read in the photos above, I will present them here:

When the clouds have hurried by,
And the evening moon is nigh,
To my bed I fairly fly,
And there I sleepy lie.
Castles of dreams come into sight,
Lands of wonder every night.
To the many lands I go,
To bold deeds long ago.
Dreams of battles and marching soldiers,
Story books and picture folders,
Dreams of cowboys and painted Indians,
Pirates and sailors and Mounted Canadians.
I never fuss; I never weep
When I must go to bed to and sleep.

¶Obviously, the song is more descriptive of a boy’s day-dream than of something he is likely to experience in his sleep. Let’s just grant it the excuse of “poetic license”.



The Birds and I


House Sparrow > Photo Credit: Bing Images/imgarcade.com

©2016 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: In the narrative below, I will be using masculine and feminine pronouns while referring to the birds I discuss, when actually I had no idea of what their genders were. I believe readers will understand my reason for assuming this literary license in preference to factual accuracy if they take the time to substitute with the neuter forms.
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¶Birds affect our imagination more than any other creatures because they seem to be the least bounded in their movements. They embody our concept of total freedom. The most famous of them — the eagle and the dove — have been assumed to be messengers from the gods; the raven and the owl supposedly are omens of catastrophe, or at least ill fortune. Almost any bird fills us with awe because of its beautiful plumage or melodious “song”.
¶My own experience of birds has been generally restricted to the commoner species: house sparrows, barn swallows, grackles, and jays. Less frequently have I observed the rarer robins, hummingbirds and mockingbirds, not to mention a few species I cannot name because I saw them only once and had not the remotest idea what they were. I am neither an ornithologist nor a bird watcher.
¶Nonetheless, just to touch a wild bird, of whatever variety, or to have one perceiving me as an aid or threat can be a revelation of sorts. I recall an episode during my elementary school years — I was nine or ten years old — when a sparrow managed to force his way into our house. He perched quietly upon my right shoulder as I was half-reclined on my bed, reading some magazine. He must have been there at least a minute before I realized it, because I had sensed his weight as he settled but was only half aware of what I assumed must be my collar slipping. Finally one of his movements broke in on my consciousness, and you can imagine the shock I felt upon looking around to discover a sparrow on my shoulder. I jumped up in such a fright that all my usual reverence for Nature evaporated. It was the bird’s turn to be terrified now as I chased him around the house, swatting at him with a broom. At last the harried creature found his exit through what must have been his entry, a broken loose corner of the front door screen.
¶In later years I occasionally wondered if that bird had previously been tamed by some human so that he believed it quite a normal behavior to alight on my shoulder. I regretted acting as I had toward the sparrow, but it was absurd to regret anything done while wrought up as I was then. If another sparrow were to perch on my shoulder now I would probably react in much the same way. Anyhow, he did manage to escape uninjured.
¶A year or two later, while I was visiting one of my uncles in the Rio Grande Valley, in deep South Texas, another sparrow stunned itself by flying against the living room’s large plate glass window. I heard her thump and went out on the porch to see whether she was still alive. The dazed bird was squatting there on the cement porch, huddled up much as though she were brooding over eggs. I picked the creature up and smoothed her feathers for a couple of minutes. Body-wise, she was unharmed, as far as I could tell, but she was so indifferent to me and to her environment generally that I got the idea she might have suffered brain damage. Maybe the collision had turned the bird into an idiot. I set the sparrow on the grassy lawn and went to fetch a saucer of water, hoping on the way that she would be gone when I returned. But she wasn’t; there she was, stupid in the sun, when I got back. I put the saucer down in front of the sparrow’s beak, and still she took no notice. By now I was getting frustrated; there were other things I wanted to do that day. I stood hovering over the little creature like a human Eiffel tower and tried my best to imitate a marine sergeant’s tone: “Fly! Go on! Fly away!” The sparrow didn’t move. Cruel out of desperation, I bent down, picked the bird up, and tossed her into the air. She went up before my thrust, dropped a foot or two, flapped madly a second, hovering, and then took off.
¶That should atone, I thought, for the earlier sparrow episode. For days afterwards I went about feeling warmly pantheistic. “Just don’t startle me, Mother Nature,” I mused, “and I’ll serve you, but you must expect a reaction if you surprise your devotee.”
¶Mother Nature must not have been placated by my vow or intimidated by my threat, because the next time I had direct contact with a bird it came swooping out of a scrub oak’s leafy canopy and made a dive bomber’s attack at my head. (That was when I was attending the university.) Perhaps some unintended provocation was apparent in that I was wearing a wide-brimmed panama with a brightly colored band. Everyone knows how some birds like to decorate their nests with bright colors. Also, this particular assailant was a mockingbird, a species known for its jealous sense of private domain. I had often seen some mockingbird careering over a squirrel’s or cat’s back, but I had never expected one to be audacious enough to attack a human, especially me.
¶But that was in no way the last such incident. A few years later, as I was opening the gate to my yard, I heard some loud squawks and caws at my feet as well as the same above and behind me. Startled to a stop, I glanced down and then up. On the flag stone walk below, a terrified young blue jay was running around in circles and screeching at the top of his voice. Above me, swooping, flapping and screeching in their turn, were two full-grown and very angry jays, presumably the youngster’s anxious parents. Apparently, I had intruded on his first training flight and scared him so much he couldn’t leave the ground. He must have been perched in one of the diamond-shaped vacancies of the chain-link fence when I pushed it open. Papa and Mama jay continued to make diving sorties at my head, forcing me to duck and rush to the steps of my apartment. After Junior had regained his wind and wits, his parents zoomed after him into the foliage of a nearby pecan tree. I thought I discerned derisive notes in their victorious cawing as they flew from one branch to another.


Southern Mockingbird > Photo Source: Bing Images/myschoolisgreat.org

¶Well, that brings me almost up to date; but I feel that this familiar essay won’t be complete unless I reprise briefly that episode of the day I had my first mystical experience, which involved a mockingbird. You can read the anecdote more fully by pulling up my post of March 30, 2015 titled “My Spiritual Journey (to date)”. I was deeply involved in Alcoholics Anonymous at the time and had finally come around to recognizing that possibly there really is a god, or “higher power” as the 12-Steppers prefer to call to him/her/it. I had been impressed by how, at every meeting, at least five out of 20-plus attendees would speak almost directly to my situation, and how those folks fervently believed that the “higher power” spoke to them through other people. I wondered if the only voices God used were those of humans: why not other creatures? One day, I left my apartment and was unlocking the door to my truck when I heard a mockingbird behind me, chirping his plagiarized songs. I turned around to see a young oak tree about seven feet tall that had been planted in a green space separating two parking areas. I couldn’t see the bird, but I was certain he was in that tree. I stood still several minutes trying to detect a message from God in that bird’s voice, but of course to no avail. Finally I said, “Sorry, God. Guess I’m just not there yet.” Then I got into my truck and drove away.
¶The next morning, a Sunday, lying in my bed and reading a New Yorker magazine, I perused the translation of a poem by Lars Gustafson and translated from the Swedish by Yvonne L. Sandstroem. The crux of the poem was about an 86-year-old Mexican woman who had recently died.  When the doctors examined her they discovered she had been carrying around a dead fetus in her womb for 60 years. Stuck right in the middle of the lengthy poem were the following lines about a bird who apparently had annoyingly caught the attention of the poet as he was trying to compose his poem. They are an interruption in the poem, yet a part of it:
….. Mockingbird, what do you want?
You have so many voices, and I don’t know which one of them to take seriously.
The scornful sometimes, the complaining sometimes —
then there’s a kind of clucking,
on certain days in early spring,
when dampness still clings to the moss on the oaks,
as if you didn’t quite want to speak out.
Mockingbird in the green oak tree!
What’s the secret you sit there trying to

¶That was the real beginning of my spiritual journey. Ever since that morning, whenever I hear a mockingbird I feel uplifted.


Expectations of the Church and Disciples

©1999, 2016 By Bob Litton.

NOTE TO READERS: A couple of days ago I published another episode relating my spiritual journey. It is a mostly recondite, mystical piece that probably only a few people would be interested in.
¶But today, before getting off the theology train altogether, I want to publish the drafts for a couple of pamphlets which I wrote back in 1999 for my home church, at the time, back in Dallas. They were never published as pamphlets because the minister considered them too controversial. Perhaps some church elsewhere on the planet might view them in a more sympathetic light and make use of them. I should warn you beforehand that they are wordy: the first (What Disciples Expect of the Church) contains 1,761 words and the second (What the Church Expects of Disciples), 1,324 words.
¶One further bit of information: Recently, an acquaintance who is currently quite active in the United Methodist Church (not the same one I attended) looked over these pamphlets and pointed out to me that the UMC’s bishops have added a fifth item to their list of expectations: Witness. I think that was a good move on their part; however, I did not add it to my presentation here for two reasons: (1) I don’t believe witness was in the group when I composed the pamphlet and I want to publish these pamphlet models as originally intended; which leads me to (2), adding witness would destroy the symmetrical balance of my design (four expectations for each pamphlet). I know that sounds self-centered and childish of me, but there you have it, the dark side of Bob Litton. I should add that these pamphlet models have not been sanctioned or approved by the United Methodist Church or by any other denomination. I am solely responsible for them.
¶As noted next to my by-line, I have copyrighted these compositions. However, I don’t expect to make any money out of them. I want anybody who can make positive use of them—even in an edited form—to go ahead and do so. I just don’t want anyone to claim he or she was the original author. Also, even if readers can’t find a practical use for them, the writings might provide material for interesting conversations. I hope so.

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What do disciples expect from the Church?

¶When a person walks through a church door into a sanctuary full of strangers, what is he or she looking for?  What should they be looking for?  What in fact will they find?  This pamphlet is an attempt to answer those questions as honestly as possible.
¶Four primary elements motivate our search for a church home: Spirituality, Community, Relevance and Mission.  The only significance in that order is in the way these elements correlate, however roughly, with the four contributions the church expects of its disciples: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, and Service; all of which are discussed in a companion pamphlet to this one.  Otherwise, there is no hierarchy in their importance.
Spirituality — Of the four, spirituality is the most difficult to discuss because, even as the Holy Spirit lures us with a yearning to be nearer the holy ground, it thwarts knowledge—even clear perception—of the “holy ground’s” elementary features.  Jesus acknowledged the evanescence of the Holy Spirit:  “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:7, 8)
¶The Holy Spirit can be “described” only obliquely through analogies such as the manna gathered by the Israelites in the wilderness.  The manna was given freely, it appeared overnight when no one could see it, there was enough for everyone, it was sufficient nourishment in and of itself, and it could not be preserved.  Is there anything in that description that is not true also of spirituality?
So how can a church develop and nurture an atmosphere conducive to spirituality?
¶A cross, a chancel rail, and stained glass windows help to a degree in at least keeping us attentive to the reason we walked into the sanctuary.  By themselves, however, they are insufficient to establish a truly spiritual atmosphere.  What is really needed is a yearning in the breast, both individually and as a congregation, to relate to, and depend on, God during a time of communal tribulation or celebration.  That doesn’t happen every Sunday, but it does happen.
¶Traditionally, spirituality in the church has required separation—however temporary—from the world, even from our church community.  Christ, we are told, went alone into the wilderness for his most intense spiritual focusing.  Later, he separated himself even from his disciples and went upon a mountainside to pray.
¶Today, we have retreat centers where we can go for two or more days, either solo or in a small group, to recollect ourselves through extended prayer and meditation.  That means examining our consciences more intensely, asking for and accepting God’s forgiveness, and rededicating ourselves to spiritual struggle.  Such centers are available throughout the U. S.  There is at least one very close at hand—Mt. Carmel Center in Oak Cliff.  Although operated by Carmelite monks, the retreat is open (for a fee) to all Christians.
¶And, of course, we can always have a prayer service here at our home church.  Unfortunately, the modern prevalence of burglaries and vandalism make it unwise for any chapel to be kept open 24 hours a day, but arrangements can be made to allow small groups to gather in the chapel or the sanctuary for a prayer service at any reasonable hour.
¶Frequent prayer, in fact, is the second factor that contributes to spirituality.  But the type of prayer that is most conducive to spirituality is not of the sort through which the pray-er talks a lot.  The most spiritual prayer is the “prayer of quiet”—the prayer that waits and allows the Holy Spirit to work upon the soul.  Such praying is difficult for the novice, for we discover then that our brain never rests; it must always be busy about something. To keep the mind from drifting onto the “stream of multiplicity” different cultures have devised simple, repetitive phrases such as,  “To you, Lord, I lift up my soul!” or “Lord God, come to my aid!”
¶Most disciples—if indeed they are true disciples—want an atmosphere congenial and conducive to prayer.  Yet most of us are uncomfortable with extended periods of quiet; our culture militates against it.  Even in the sanctuary, the ideal of fellowship usually over-rides the ideal of spiritual quiet.  Do we really want it that way?
Community —  In his book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Harold Kushner recalls asking his atheistic father why he went to the synagogue every week.  His father replied: “My friend Garfinkel goes to the synagogue to talk to God; I go to the synagogue to talk to Garfinkel.”  There is much insight in this comment.  Kushner’s father respects, maybe even reveres, his friend Garfinkel enough to go to a place toward which ordinarily he is at best indifferent.  And he goes there to enjoy the wholesome fellowship he covets and that Garfinkel exemplifies.  Moreover, he is not unaware of the irony inherent in the situation: Where Garfinkel is seeking a relationship with the divine; he himself is seeking a relationship with the earthly.
¶Indeed, many people start attending any particular church because a friend, or someone they admire, goes there.  They want both to spend more time in the vicinity of that person and to do the things he does because of a belief that everything that person does must be worthwhile.
¶Once involved, though, the novice may become disenchanted; for, although it is quite possible to find wholesomeness and good-naturedness and kindness in an individual person, expecting every church member to possess all those virtues is naive.  And therein lies the cost of belonging.  While a congregation in the large can be welcoming and nurturing, each member has flaws of character the same as other people have.  Just because we go to church seeking perfection doesn’t mean we’ve attained it; the quest is lifelong.  As someone has well put it, “A church is not a haven for saints; it’s a hospital for sick souls.”
¶The new disciple can find her community only if she reciprocates in the welcoming and nurturing.  Although, to those who have never tried them, welcoming and nurturing may at first seem burdensome, the disciple quickly finds that joy and gratitude are the true recompense for the effort expended.
Relevance — Several years ago, ABC’s Peter Jennings reported of the Yuppie generation’s cynical attitude toward the church:  “They complain that it’s boring, irrelevant, and money-grubbing,” he said.  The churches that were growing, Jennings reported, were the mega-churches which offered programs little different from what might be found in a shopping mall or a country club…with child care added.  And these new churches were offering worship as a multi-media event complete with semi-professional actors and musicians and colored lights.
¶And the message?  The message of the gospel?  It was “feel good”!  In a new rendering of the old 19th century “gospel of wealth”, the assurance of the Good Book was that, in God’s eye, you didn’t earn that Mercedes Benz.  God provided it for you because you deserved it.  But that was years ago.
¶The majority of newcomers to a church today are young marrieds with children.  They say they want their children to receive a good grounding in moral values and community involvement.  They might prefer that they could leave their children in a Sunday school class and go home to their TV football game, but a sense of fairness and decency will not allow them to do that.  So they go to a service and maybe even to a Sunday school.  Let’s begin with the Sunday school and surmise what they hope they will find there.
¶Of course! It’s relevance!  They might be surprised that it’s not a discussion of whether a man can survive being swallowed by a whale or how many wise men actually went to the manger, but instead a discussion of how Christian ideals can be practiced in a secular and mechanistic world on Monday, Tuesday, etc.  Or they might encounter a discussion of particular women of the Bible compared to particular women today. They might find that Christianity is not encased in a 19th century mold.
¶And in the church service, they might find newer songs, different instruments.  They might find a sermon filled more with insight and love than with fire and brimstone.  They might find a balance between the vertical God-human relationship and the horizontal human-human relationship. And above all they might find a renewed sense of values that they can take home with them and share with fellow workers during the week.
Mission  That brings us to the final expectation disciples hold of their church.  They want to go out into the broader secular world and make a positive difference. They come into the church to be spiritually filled and go into the world to empty themselves spiritually.  As the Twelve Step programs put it so succinctly: “The only way to keep it is to give it away.”
¶Our people have expressed over and over again their desire to act outside the local church community.  We have done many kindnesses one to another and contributed, at times sacrificially, for our “little church in the wild wood”. Routinely, we have contributed financially to the community beyond us.  And occasionally we have given of our time and energy to that broader community.  Yet somehow we feel as though we have “hung back” like a shy suitor.  It seems that, considering who we are and what we have, both materially and spiritually, we should be making a more significant impact on the world around us.
¶This impulse may be dangerous because it could be simply the symptom of hungry pride.  Perhaps our contribution may be larger than we imagine; perhaps it is so diffuse and anonymous that notice of it escapes even us.  But in fact, what we want to do is something large, physical and together.  What we want is a sense of focused mission and to encounter that mission as a total church community, not simply as individuals or small committees.
¶That is where leadership comes in.  A true leader is someone who can discern and define the aspirations of a people and then mold and direct those aspirations toward a goal that is realistic, attainable and worthwhile.
¶Our church is in a period of maturation right now, much in the same way that our country is struggling toward maturity.  Won’t you come and help us grow?

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What does the Church expect of its Disciples?

Prayers — The Discipline of the United Methodist Church specifies four things the church expects from its disciples: prayers, presence, gifts and service.  The purpose of this pamphlet is to relate to you what we mean by each of those support elements in this local church.  In another pamphlet we discuss what this church has to offer disciples.
¶Each Sunday at the end of the pastoral prayer, our minister and individuals in the audience add brief prayers for specific persons and groups.  Whoever initiates the mini-prayer introduces it as either “a prayer of concern” (intercessory) or “a prayer of gratitude” (thanksgiving).  After each of these mini­-prayers the pastor pauses a few moments to let the congregation add their own silent, individual prayers.  Then he says “Lord, in your mercy…”, and the congregation completes the sentence with “…hear our prayer.”  There are several varieties of prayer.  We haven’t space to discuss all of them here.  Three types of prayer—petition, intercession, thanksgiving—are the ones with which most of us are acquainted.  At our church, we find occasion for all of them.  However, the prayers most frequently used by us as a community are “intercession” and “thanksgiving”.
¶But praying doesn’t cease when we leave the sanctuary.  We try to adhere to St. Paul’s injunction: “Pray unceasingly.”   By that, we do not mean spending all our time on our knees.  No, we interpret “pray unceasingly” in three other ways:
¶Firstly, it means keeping our souls and minds receptive of the Holy Spirit’s nudging; as a result, we often find ourselves praying brief, spontaneous, even involuntary prayers (what Richard Foster has called “popcorn prayers”) at any time, any place. These happen when the Holy Spirit prays within us for us. Many of these prayers are for ourselves, of course, but also many are for the church community.
¶We don’t really need experiential proof of prayer’s efficacy to persuade us to pray.  What is necessary is a feeling of great and genuine spiritual need and a sense of our own inability to satisfy that need.  Even the hardest-shelled atheist, under certain conditions, will find himself praying, as is witnessed by the so-called “foxhole prayers” of our various wars.
¶Secondly, “unceasing prayer” means keeping one’s mind centered on spiritual things, constantly realizing that we are not of this world even though we are in this world.
¶Thirdly, it means making of our lives a prayer, in other words, a life well-­lived glorifies God and sends up “a fragrant sacrifice most pleasing to him.”
¶All we believers need for motivation is love and faith.  True, even for us God sometimes says “no”, or his idea of what we need doesn’t always jibe with ours.  In other words, he gives us what we need rather than what we want.  Jesus articulated that reality when he prayed at Gethsemane, “Let this cup pass from me … but nevertheless not my will but thy will be done.”
¶Prayer doesn’t come easily for most of us, but with continual practice it gets easier—just like any other worthwhile endeavor. The more we practice it, the more natural it becomes for us.  Prayer indeed is the least demanding responsibility  the church expects of its disciples.
Presence — Primarilypresence means regular attendance at corporate worship services and, especially, active  participation in those services.  Some Christians speak of  the local congregation as  “thecorporate church” and of the larger community as “the scattered church”.  This latter includes district and annual conferences away from the home church.  The former includes the annual charge conference and committee meetings at the local level as well as the regular, weekly worship service.  The church is governed through such meetings, and as many disciples as can should take part in that governing, Sometimes, also, we join other congregations for a special service.  For instance, each Thanksgiving, Cochran Chapel and the Church of  South India combine for worship.
Gifts — There’s a saying: “God provides food for the birds, but he doesn’t put it in their nests.” Yet it truly is amazing how many people think the church simply grows like a plant out of the ground. Yes, we take up an offering.  The offertory is an important part of each service.  It constitutes our return to God of a portion of the bounty with which he has blessed us.
¶It would be nice if everyone tithed. Not everybody is that well off, however.  All we expect is that each disciple give according to his or her capability.  No one here expects anyone else to give so much to the church that they jeopardize their own family’s well­-being, but it is better for the individual disciple’s spiritual and emotional health to “give until it hurts.”
How much is that?
¶Some people have so much and give so little that they don’t even realize they are giving. They should give until it grabs their attention.
Where does the money go?
¶Part of it pays for the utilities, supplies, upkeep and salaries at this local church (General Fund).  Another part, when so specified by the giver, is used to pay for construction of new facilities or for structural repairs and renovations on this campus (Building Fund).  And then there is what the Methodist Church calls “apportionments”, a kind of  denominational tax, based on membership head count, which we as a congregation contribute to the church’s mission elsewhere in this nation—and on this planet.
¶Each of these contribution targets is separate and requires an indication from the giver as to the fund for which the money is intended.  The giver can either use a different envelope for each contribution or write on a single envelope the fund—or funds—for which all or each part of it is intended.
¶Also, once a month when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, partakers are invited to leave at the altar rail a small gift for some special charity.  And about three months of the year our church is asked to be responsible for the lion’s share of food and toiletry items gathered for North Dallas Shared Ministries.
Service — Locally, we are always looking for volunteers to teach Sunday school at least one quarter of the year. The laity also help during the service as liturgists, ushers, choir members, and servers of Holy Communion.  We also have Saturday work days periodically when disciples—those who are willing and physically able—renovate rooms in one of the buildings or improve the Children’s Center playground.
¶From a certain vantage point, Gifts and Service are really indistinguishable. Above, we spoke of gifts as what we give to the church by way of financial support.  But there is also the way of giving through service, both at the local church level and in the mission field.  By  “mission field”  we mean community projects such as North Dallas Shared Ministries and Habitat For Humanity as well as foreign missions—in other words, the Kingdom of God beyond the borders of our tiny church.
¶In the wider community, some disciples help a few hours each week with North Dallas Shared Ministries or the Wesley-Rankin Center in West Dallas.  In the past, those of us who were young enough and apt enough have rehabilitated a house in disrepair.  A group of ladies in the congregation visit the ill who are hospitalized or home-bound each week.  Some classes have adopted a family for Christmas who otherwise would not have had any Christmas.  But, to be honest about it, some of us feel we have not done as much as we ought to improve the wider community—not on a concerted basis at any rate.  Recently, we have awakened to that remissness and are planning community service projects in home renovation and tutoring for the near future.
¶We hope you will be touched by the Holy Spirit and join us in these endeavors.  If you would like to have more information on how you can participate, contact the church office.
—May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.

Missing the Presence

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶A [person] should shine with the divine Presence without having to work at it. He should get the essence out of things and let the things themselves alone. That requires at first attentiveness and exact impressions, as with the student and his art. One must be permeated with divine Presence, informed with the form of beloved God who is within him, so that he may radiate that Presence without working at it….
¶The effect or expression of love often appears like a bright light, as spirituality, devotion, or jubilation and yet, as such, it is by no means best! These things are not always due to love. Sometimes they come of having tasted nature’s sweets. They also can be due to heavenly inspiration or to the senses, and people at their best are not the ones who experience them most. For if such things are really due to God, He gives them to such people to bait and allure them on and also to keep them away from [worse] company. But when such people increase in love, such [ecstatic] experiences will come less facilely, and the love that is in them will be proved by the constancy of their fidelity to God, without such enticements.
—Meister Eckhart, The Talks of Instruction, §§7, 10
¶The Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are the [children] of God. This testimony which grace affords to our conscience is the true joy of the soul….And when the soul is in this state of peace, it is also refined in thought….
¶This manna is heavenly food and the bread of angels, as Holy Scripture says. For angels are fed and filled by the clear sight and burning love of God; and that is manna. For we may ask what it is, but we cannot fully understand. One who loves God is not filled with manna here, but while he remains in the body he receives a small taste of it.”
— Walter Hilton (b. 1340-45, d. 1396), The Ladder of Perfection, Bk. II, Chap. 40

¶Anyone who has regularly read my posts since I began it in January 2013 can probably recall that a few of the writings concerned spiritual events and reflections as I experienced them. Off and on in my youth I pondered the option of becoming a Methodist minister and briefly — when I was virtually inebriated with mysticism — even a monk. The late Clark Calvert, who was my pastor and mentor for a few years when I had announced that I was going into the ministry, told me that “once God calls you He never lets you go”. I think Clark meant for that remark to reassure me, but actually it scared me a little. I had my doubts: I wasn’t totally accepting of the Apostle’s Creed and I didn’t relish the prospect of people changing their tone and addressing me as “Reverend” when I approached them.
¶Eventually I became disillusioned with organized religion and quit going to church. I had become weary of church members forming cliques and quarreling with each other; of ministers criticizing other ministers and even off-handedly noting the aging and decline not only of our congregation but of mainstream Protestantism itself. The only religious groups that seemed to be growing were the tiresomely antique Catholic Church; the “gospel of wealth” mega-churches; and the “hard shell” denominations such as the Baptists and the Disciples of Christ, who appeared to believe that the surest metric of one’s salvation was the number of Bible verses one has memorized.
¶Nonetheless, I retained the memories of the better elements of my church-going days: the summer evenings when the windows of White Rock Methodist would be raised and we would be seated in our pews, fanning ourselves with those illustrated hand fans and singing zestfully songs like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Amazing Grace”. And I still ponder positively some of the remarks of Jesus: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”…” “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak….” etc.
¶Then, in midlife, I had my truly major spiritual awakening. I am not speaking here of the assurance of “being saved” about which the more orthodox evangelicals speak, nor of being “called”, although some people might describe it as such. No, while I was out on my morning walk around White Rock Lake one day, I felt a sudden sense of knowing, of a notice within my mind or heart or soul that I was “blessed”. Yes, it was a pleasant insight, it certainly did not harm me, but it did surprise and puzzle me because I did not understand what being spiritually blessed really means.* Of course, I knew that I had been blessed with some artistic gifts (which I had not nurtured to the degree that I should have) but that was history — an established known quantity — and this seemed to relate to a more immediate and singular condition. I did not know for sure what it meant then; nor do I know now; however, I have chosen intellectually to interpret it to mean that the Holy Spirit had extended His grace to me, opened my eyes, and presented itself as my guide to whatever extent I was capable and willing to be guided. If so, then that was indeed a major blessing. But what exactly did it entail?
¶I read many mystical works during that time, a period which has become muddled chronologically after two decades so that I cannot relate the events as coherently as I would like. But that is not necessary anyway. The salient elements are still available: (1) I read all those mystics to find the essence of a few terms: “yearning” [John Ruysbroeck], “the lure” [Meister Eckhart], and “dark night of the soul” [John  of the Cross]; (2) I was practically bombarded, it seemed, by strange experiences, some of which were interpretable as spiritual consolations (mystical encouragements to continue the search) as well as others which were simply weird with no apparent connection to the spiritual life; and (3) I learned that a day would come when the consolations would end, the Presence would leave me in the “dark night of the soul”. And that’s where I have been for a little over two decades.
¶I have posted on this site (March 30, 2015) a much longer account of my spiritual journey. There is not much point in pursuing the discussion any further here. Rather, I want to reveal my plea to the Holy Spirit about the hunger I feel for a return — even if only a brief one — of the Presence. I don’t know for sure why I feel this urgency now; I am aware that my request goes beyond the bounds of the usual spiritual progression and that I should not expect any more special attention. Perhaps my hunger comes out of my getting old, perceiving that the twilight of my life is nigh and hoping that I won’t go to the ashes jar while still in the dark night. Or perhaps it derives from my perception of modern life as a devolution into absurdity and insanity, and my hope that the Holy Spirit will help me make sense of all the craziness. Or perhaps both.

*For more commentary on the “blessed” question see my blog post of Oct. 26, 2014.


A Drama of Self: The Tipping Point



©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I’m curious: Do you see yourself as a character — in particular, the protagonist — in a screenplay? Ever reflect on the plotline, its beginning and all scenes since then, trying to figure out the other characters’ parts and the probable denouement? Or am I the only one so deeply solipsistic as to be constantly gazing on the internal screen? No, that can’t be the case, else the word “solipsistic” would never have been coined; they don’t make up adjectives applicable to only one person. Still, I find it difficult to imagine other people’s dramas, whether they be adventurous epics, tragedies or comedies, except as they tangentially affect my drama.

Many of us bloggers, I believe, use our blogs as candid diaries — electronic volumes open to the cosmic universe instead of little books hidden away in secret drawers. We can use them as depositories of our thoughts and feelings (mostly feelings), pretending that they are locked up in our computers, at first only peripherally aware that they are actually scattered across the planet and beyond. But then another part of us wonders how invisible and generally non-responsive readers perceive our outpourings. Mostly, all we can glimpse are their national flags. We are, then, self-analyzing split personalities.

So, desiring to be more honest than I have been during most of my life, I intend to relate the story of how I believe my solipsism became the major theme of an imaginary biopic; if one cannot repress a congenital tendency, then perhaps he at least can relieve the pressure by allowing it full expression, like steam from a teapot.

Going back to childhood meditations and actions, though I truly believe the habit really began that long ago, is beyond my capacity; the images are too fractured and vague. A clearer scene is more available in my nineteenth year, while I was in the air force and stationed on Okinawa, largest of the Ryukyu Islands. That was when I began to read very serious books for the first time; when, under the influence of the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell, I developed a longing to resolve all paradoxes; when I began to question my beliefs and especially every action’s motive. As a psychiatrist two years later put it, “You look at both sides of the coin and the edge too.”

An anecdote that quite well illustrates my message here concerns a book discussion group that one of the chaplains on the base initiated. As I recall, there were about a dozen of us airmen and civilians sitting in a circle at the first meeting, when the chaplain reviewed some nonfiction book and invited the rest of us to offer our comments. Then the chaplain explained that his performance was essentially a pattern he wanted us to follow when reviewing our own reading choices in future meetings. I, the eager fool, volunteered to present a review at the next meeting, a week later.

I had already been reading two books alternately: Arthur Koestler’s Reflections on Hanging, a critique of capital punishment; and some book whose title I cannot recall, a collection of historical narratives about various heinous crimes committed in England. While reading them I became aware of the dichotomy in my reactions to the books’ subjects: when reading Koestler my feelings reacted against capital punishment; when reading the other book my revulsion could be so strong in some cases that I believed no type of punishment could be harsh enough for the perpetrators: they were all hanged. That experience got me to musing over how much I was susceptible to weirdly and quickly varying attitudes, how my values could shift radically in just a short time, from the setting of one book down and the opening of another. Was my value system really that fragile and unstable? I wondered if this phenomenon was true of others, so I decided to try an experiment.

I do not recall the details of my mode of presentation, only that I alternated between summarizing various parts of each book and interpolating quotes here and there. I didn’t realize how long it was. I guess the chaplain felt the room was getting stuffy, for while I was reading he got up, went to a window and raised it. Shortly afterwards, one man, only a few years older than I was, interrupted me by asking, “Are we going to get a chance to discuss this? It sounds like a bunch of morbidity to me.” Another fellow murmured something about people who “should have gone to college”. I don’t remember how I responded or even that I did; I felt deflated and defeated; my lack of response was way too predictive of future encounters; I probably just said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The whole episode might have turned out better if I had begun the presentation with an explanation that I was conducting a psychological experiment; but, on the other hand, to have done so would probably have compromised the validity of the result.

When no succeeding review was announced, I went to the chaplain and asked him what was up. He replied that he had discontinued the book review sessions because too few people were participating.

During all my life since then I have from time to time pondered how we can act decisively in murky situations and dilemmas when our ideas and feelings react against each other. Just what is the “tipping point”, as it has come to be nominated?


For more commentary on this topic, see my Dec. 15, 2013, post “To Be Or…Catastrophe!”

Shop Talk: Our Changing Language

© 2016 By Bob Litton > All Rights Reserved (except for quoted passages).

All right, I admit: I am consistent only in my inconsistency. That might explain why I am back into my blog, at least for this post about my native language. I consider it to be that important.

This morning I listened to WBUR.org.’s Tom Ashbrook — the regular host of the weekday “On Point” program — interview linguist John McWhorter, of Columbia University, about how the English language is constantly “morphing” (not “evolving”) and how we should accept the sometimes disconcerting changes as natural. I tried about half a dozen times to phone in and offer my input but each time got a busy signal, so I gave up. As an alternative approach, I am resuming the chair in front of my dormant blog.

As a former working journalist and sometime teacher of English composition, I have feelings about English grammar and expression just as fervid as my feelings about democracy. Discussions about either one cause me to grab my sword and buckler, figuratively speaking.

One of the offerings I had in store for Ashbrook and McWhorter was to assert that while it is true that, as McWhorter said, our grammar and spelling became crystallized in the 18th Century through such efforts as Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, most of the subsequent deviations from the “rules” were actually sensible gestations attributable to easier pronunciation and reading comprehension. Former crimes like the use of such terms as “ain’t” as a contraction for “am not” (have you ever tried to say “amn’t”?), the beginning of sentences with “But”, and the ending of sentences with a preposition have now become established as acceptable in general communication, although they are still considered Nonstandard (U.S.) or Informal (U.K.) in academic, professional and business papers.

Another influence on the development of our language was the employment of Latin grammatical structure and definitions by our pioneering grammarians. Unlike McWhorter and his cohorts, I appreciate the historical efforts to maintain the rules of Latin grammar, even though those rules are not entirely symbiotic to English. In its early centuries, English was just as inflected as Latin:the uses of its words were determined by orthography, not by position in the sentence as they are now. The result of our language’s pupation is that now we have to be taught explicitly not only the case names but how and where they are to be used in sentences.

Most of us literary types, regardless of how tolerant we might consider ourselves, still retain, I believe, prejudices toward grammatical infractions. One fault which McWhorter dwelt upon that particularly irritates me, but which he finds perfectly acceptable, is the confusion of cases in pronouns. His example was the use of “me” (the objective case) as the subject of a sentence, a role normally reserved for nominative case pronouns, in this instance “I”. A typical erroneous sentence would be “Me and her went to the show.” For anybody who doesn’t see the problem, that should be “She and I went to the show.” Actually there are two problems here: one is the grammatical issue already noted; the other is a matter of etiquette — politeness dictates that we mention other people prior to ourselves. When “I” and “me” become legitimized as identical twins, then our language will indeed become chaotic.

Another modern infraction which McWhorter and Ashbrook discussed was the term “like”, used principally by teenagers as a meaningless interpolation during their jabbering, as, for example, “So my mom was, like, going ballistic because I didn’t get home before eleven last night!” I would add to that grievously ubiquitous error the phrase “you know”, which I constantly hear even educated guests repeating on Ashbrook’s show (and elsewhere); it seems to serve as a substitute for “uh”, the old-timey pause syllable many of us utter when we haven’t quite got our phrasing organized in the brain. Those terms wouldn’t be so annoying if they were used less, but many people employ them repeatedly within a single comment.

One caller, a teacher, astutely remarked that we need to try and inculcate Standard English into children’s minds if they are to cope well in society and business. McWhorter acknowledged as much but maintained that children are very capable of handling two and even more languages adeptly; they can readily use Formal English in their school papers and Informal, even slang, at home and among their friends on the street.

Another aspect of our changing tongue which McWhorter mentioned and which always fascinates me is the more glaring differences between the English of the Beowulf saga, Chaucer’s Tales, and Shakespeare’s plays; we need defining footnotes — in the cases of the first two, even facing page “translations” — to comprehend those works now.

I might add that we can include much 19th Century literature among the works that require footnote definitions or good guessing. Among these latter I can list George Eliot’s 1860 novel Mill on the Floss, which I have almost finished reading. In particular, there are some terms the less-educated characters frequently use which in my first encounters I had to read twice to glean what was meant. The heroine’s father, Edward Tulliver, for instance, has a habit of proclaiming his confusion with life, as in Chapter IX of Book III, where he says to his employee, Luke:

 ‘The old mill ’ud miss me, I think, Luke. There’s a story as when the mill changes hands, the river’s angry — I’ve heard my father say it many a time. There’s no telling whether there mayn’t be summat in the story, for this is a puzzling world, and Old Harry’s got a finger in it — it’s been too many for me, I know.’

The “’ud” and the “summat” most of us readers would easily enough interpret as “would” and “somewhat”. Also, nowadays even an uneducated character would say “many times” instead of “many a time”, but we get it. One might suppose that the “as” is a typo, but really it is an antique way of saying “that”.  A reader unacquainted with English folklore might wonder who “Old Harry” is, but the rest of us would recognize him as the Devil. The phrase that really caused me to pause, however, was that last one: “too many”: what I finally discerned Tulliver to be saying is “too much for me”.

Further in on their conversation, Luke says to Tulliver:

‘Ay, sir, you’d be a deal better here nor in some new place….’

In our age, we would say “a good deal” or “a great deal”, but Luke’s meaning there is clear enough. The term that confused me (and it actually occurs several times earlier in the novel) was “nor”; after a little head-scratching, I deduced that it stands for “than”. Wow, I said to myself, I wonder how that came about!

Finally, and on the same page again, Tulliver says:

‘But I doubt, Luke, they’ll be for getting rid o’ Ben, and making you do with a lad — and I must help a bit with the mill. You’ll have a worse place.’

Now, this one really stumped me! Nonetheless, I figured it out. Old Tulliver and other characters in the novel are actually using “doubt” for “believe”! You explain that one to me!

In spite of its confusing and frustrating aspects, my native tongue — and other languages, too, (I’m studying classical Greek right now) — fascinate me. Maybe I should have been a philologist.



Thank you for visiting my blog, which I am dropping for art and health’s sake. I will leave it in cyberspace for anyone who might want to browse through the 43 months of archives.



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