Monday, January 19, 2009

A good year for a classic

2009 is a good year to read a classic or three.

For those who pay some attention to the people whose books moulded Western history, you may know this year commemorates the five-hundredth birthday of John Calvin.

Sadly, Calvin is not present to celebrate with us (he has a prior engagement he is attending to), but he has left us with many books which - like him or loathe him - have contributed to the moulding of Western society.

None of Calvin's works does this more so than Institutes of the Christian Religion. I have read probably half this work before, and have decided that 2009 is a good year to reimmerse myself in this classic. I'm following this reading plan, and finding it very manageable.

Every evening - like a toddy before bed - I imbibe in a little Calvin. That is normally followed by a page of two of Darrel Martin's The Fly Fisher's Craft: the Art and History (see my previous post).

During lunchtime at work, I share a salami sandwich with Luther. Many years ago I digested quite a good chunk of that work he regarded most highly himself: On the Bondage of the Will (1525). And now I'm plodding my way through it again.

If you ever want to encounter passion in a writer, you'll meet it in Martin Luther. He's so bold, so brash, so rude. He gets away with a lot - probably as much as Jerome who referred to Pelagius as 'that fat, bloated alpine dog'. Yeah.

On the Bondage of the Will is incisive, careful writing, but so jolly entertaining too. Seeing as I was dipping back into Calvin again, it seemed only fair to let Luther in on some of the action too.

As Luther writes in response to Desiderius Erasmus' On Free Will (1524), he drops you straight into the action in the introduction. If you know even a little about Reformation history, you'll note his outrageous sense of humour:

"[I and others long before me have refuted your assertions on free will such] that it seems even superfluous to reply to these your arguments, which have been indeed often refuted by me; but trodden down, and trampled under foot, by the incontrovertible Book of Philip Melancthon "Concerning Theological Questions:" a book, in my judgment, worthy not only of being immortalized, but of being included in the ecclesiastical canon: in comparison of which, your Book is, in my estimation, so mean and vile, that I greatly feel for you for having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or dung, should be carried in vessels of gold and silver. And this you yourself seem to have felt, who were so unwilling to undertake this work of writing; because your conscience told you, that you would of necessity have to try the point with all the powers of eloquence; and that, after all, you would not be able so to blind me by your colouring, but that I should, having torn off the deceptions of language, discover the real dregs beneath. For, although I am rude in speech, yet, by the grace of God, I am not rude in understanding. And, with Paul, I dare arrogate to myself understanding and with confidence derogate it from you; although I willingly, and deservedly, arrogate eloquence and genius to you, and derogate it from myself."

Tell us what you really think, Luther!

So it's a good year for a classic. Which means when I'm done with Luther, I'm going to have to hunt down another classic ... any suggestions? Some Shakespeare? Plutarch? Gibbon? Wordsworth?

What recommend ye?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The right timing for something special

You all have one, I'm sure: something that you put away for a special occasion - but you're never quite sure when the occasion is special enough to bring it out and use it.

So it is with new fancy notepaper, a luxury perfume, that ball of wool that was handed down to you from your grandmother, handspun by her as a young woman.

Apparently, everything has a season, and a season is appointed for everything under the sun. The challenge is reading the season. Or maybe it's reading the object and trying to work out which season it is.

When is the season right - when is it special enough - for the lavish act of using something special that will not be replaced? And when you use it, will its use in fact be lavish? Or is it to be savoured, drawn out, lingered over? Is the joy of the moment to squander it lavishly, revelling in the luxury, or to delay, to mete out steadily?

Our wine rack has accumulated a few 'special moments' over the years. We recently opened a bottle of wine that we were given to enjoy for our fifth wedding anniversary. We have had this bottle since our wedding, and I'd been eyeing it off, waiting for the opportunity to share this 11 year old cabernet with my wife. The moment arrived: we popped the cork and ... it was corked.

So it goes. Sometimes the item is right - even the season is right - and then oxygen goes and gets in the way. Sometimes things can become so precious to us - their 'ideal day' so ideal - that their season is never realised, and they pass their peak into uselessness, or supersede our days and pass into the hands of another where they languish in obscurity.

Sometimes you take something precious in your hands, look at the company around you, realise that it may never get any closer to the ideal day than now, and then recklessly dive in.

But how we long for retrospective vision! We long to know if this is the moment. But we can never know. It is a 'gut' thing ... we hunt after a hunch ... and then we take the prize in our hands, and the 'moment' in the other, and we bring them together.

Perhaps we judge the moment of meeting to be a success if we remember the moment, the friends, the atmosphere, more than we do the thing itself.

I've never regretted opening my favourite cabernet, or using my favourite 'saved up' birthday card, for such an occasion. Sometimes the season is no longer an 'if only' or a 'maybe next year', it is now.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Long-awaited answers to 'Celebrity lookalikes'

Okay, after days of tense silence, it's time to withdraw my offer of a free case of premium Belgian beer, and put the answers on the table.

Elisha is giving us his best Donald Sutherland.

And Caelan lets go with an almighty 'Crikey!' to honour the departed Croc Hunter.

You can all go back to normal eating and sleeping patterns now. Life's normal programming has resumed.

Cracked forward view

We've well and truly tipped over from 2008 and into 2009; or as some of you know it, from the International Year of the Potato and into the International Year of Natural Fibres.

This blog has often played with the theme of reading patterns. While some of that means observing present concurrent phenomena, most of the time it means reading the past and making sense of the present from what we find there.

At the conclusion of one year and the opening of the next, people typically 'take stock' and try to gain perspective.

In a way, this photo summarises my experience of standing at the start of January, looking forward and looking back. The view behind is much clearer and more complete than the tiny glimpse in the bottom left-hand corner which is 'the road ahead'.

Yes, it is inevitable there will be some continuity with what has gone before: after all, as the picture reminds me: 'Objects in mirror are closer than they appear'. The year past is not all that far behind. Nor the year behind it. And some of what was set in motion then rolls over into now and tomorrow.

Last year was an amazing year. A new job, new house, new suburb, new friends, new baby. It was a year with surprisingly few regrets, and many surprising discoveries. Experiences of truth, kindness, grace that could not have been anticipated.

It was a year of discovering strengths and weaknesses that I didn't know I had. In many ways, it was a year of fumbling and bumbling, trying to pick the way through some unfamiliar territory. It was a year of gut instincts and prayer, mistakes and little victories.

The forward view is limited, cracked. The present - let alone the future - is hard to see well. We see in a mirror somewhat more clearly than we do through a window.

Yet neither is seen with fullness of perspective. For that we wait for more than a new year; we wait for the revealing of the One who completes all, and who sees all - without cracks or omissions.