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The Monks’ Complaints and Delights

Image Courtesy Canterbury Archaeological Trust


Be it a job or a vocation, sometimes even holy people complain–especially when the hours are long and the work is tedious.

Here’s a collection of complaints and comments written by monks in the margins of medieval illuminated manuscripts. They’re presented by Maria Popova on her site Brain Pickings.


Click here to open in another window and read gems such as:

“New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more.”

“Oh, my hand.”

“As the horbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.”  and

“While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight.”


And while we’re thinking about scribes, scholars, and manuscripts, I am reminded of a work written in Old Irish by a 9th century monk. You can see the page on which Pangur Bán was originally written at the bottom of this post.


The scholar and his cat, Pangur Bán

(from the Irish by Robin Flower)

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.


Postcard from England

Scissor Arches at Wells Cathedral


A few pictures for all the traveling folks. One of the most wonderful places I have ever been, and a postcard I picked up once on my own travels.  If you’d like to hear the Wells Cathedral Choir sing, click here.  The peace of the Lord be always with you.



I keep this on my fridge.


Suffering and joy in community

Last week was a tough one. My town had some local violence to deal with on top of all the other trauma and sadness. I feel like I’ve spent the past ten days in prayer.

I also feel like I’ve learned some things about community. In these times, the technology that connects us daily intensifies our experience of of events as they occur. We feel the anxiety of not knowing and impatience for events to unfold. We have all the power of the internet, and yet we cannot find answers to our questions.

What we can do, what we have done, is be in community–in space and online. Suffering, both ours and others’, often makes us aware of our place in larger communities than we had imagined we were part of. Our shared humanity becomes achingly apparent to us, and we express ourselves in public acts of grief, anger, support, and remembrance. The web can do that too.

This is our part of our call as Christians. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. I’ve known that for years, but last week I got a bigger sense of what that might mean.

So here we are on Monday morning. There’s a new week beginning and it’s still Easter. I think I’ll give thanks and share a bit of Presbyterian Seminarian humor that was sent to me a while back. It also reminds me that I am part of a very large community–the Church Universal, they call it–and that is a wonderful thing.


“A little present for those Presbyterians (PCUSA) gearing up for ordination exams this week. Just a reminder of how wonderful — and wonderfully ridiculous — our tradition is. Thanks to all those who helped — both PCA and PCUSA alike.”

Songs of the Kingdom (and how to write one in a hurry)


Christianity Today once published a survey of the most popular hymns appearing in the 28 mainline Protestant hymnals from the late 1800s through the 20th century.  This study of 4,905 hymns produced some interesting results:

The table presents the 13 hymns that have appeared in all 28 hymnals, as well as 9 others that appear in 27 of the 28 hymnals, and 5 more that appear in 26 of the 28 hymnals. The average date of the top tier of hymns is 1788 (excluding “O Sacred Head”). Still, wide acceptance of these and other hymns did not come until the middle of the 19th century, after a prolonged contest with the once-predominant practice of singing the Psalms.

When I read the list I was happy to find that all my years of church-going had taught me something, and I could bring to mind all but one of these hymns. Good to know I’ve at least caught up to the 19th century.

I enjoy hymnals and the interesting bits of church history they reveal.  Most denominations will produce a new hymnal about once a generation with a lot of old favorites and a few newfangled ones to try out and see if they’ll make the cut. Some songs will stay and some will go, but every hymnal will say something about the time in which it was produced and the denomination that put it together.  That’s why so many of us have hymns we remember singing when we were young that we just don’t sing anymore. And that’s why it can be a good thing to go back to older books and sing through some of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ hymns.  It can give us a feel for their experience of faith and worship.

And speaking of history, I learned the other day that “Modern Worship” (a.k.a. Contemporary Worship Music, or CWM–part of the larger category Contemporary Christian Music) turned 10 in 2008. Given that children now dress up for “90s day” at school, I’m thinking that Modern Worship barely qualifies as modern anymore.  At this point it’s practically traditional, with people complaining that CWM has become too predictable, emotionally monotonal, and lacking in creativity.

Meanwhile some folks, notably the late Robert Webber, have advocated for ancient-future worship which views worship as a retelling and reenactment of God’s story. Ancient-future worship is liturgical and often makes use of shorter songs based on biblical passages.  Depending on how you think about it, that could represent a return to the counter-cultural Jesus Movement songs, or it could be taking us back to that place in history where the Church was singing the Psalter. I guess that means the next movement to follow will look like the the days when Isaac Watts came in to shake things up by writing…hymns.

The moral of this story for me is that worship and worship music are a bit like a pair of shoes. They’re a little uncomfortable when you first put them on, then you break them in and they fit perfectly–until you’ve worn them so long that they don’t really do their job anymore.  One day you look at them and they seem old-fashioned and they don’t feel good. It’s time to try something new.  Some styles are classics (think pumps and penny loafers), and others are failed experiments or just fun while they last. But you shouldn’t be surprised to one day find you need a new pair.

Finally, here’s a bit of fun to remind us to keep our perspective, and laugh at ourselves when we need to.  Because as long as we keep gathering together, the Church will continue to explore what it means to worship God in spirit and in truth. There’s a lot of new music to be written, a lot of practicing to do, until we join the heavenly choir and find the songs we were created to sing.


Just for fun


Joe Heller’s editorial cartoon for Shrove Tuesday.

Wayside Pulpits


The Huffington Post reports that the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC is getting some attention for the witty messages on its sign.  Sign boards like this are not really new, of course. They used to be called “Wayside Pulpits” and can be traced back to at least the early 20th century when a Massachusetts Unitarian, the Rev. Henry Saunderson,  put up a bulletin board outside his church.

In the past people could buy pre-printed wayside pulpit signs with hortatory messages and Bible verses, but with the advent of changeable plastic sign letters and the electronic message center imaginations seem to have blossomed.  The popularity of posters, buttons, and patches in the 60’s and 70’s probably boosted the interest in new types of church sign messages too.

Today you can buy multiple books and calendars of church signs whether you’re looking for new messages to post or just reading them for fun. You can find Pinterest boards full of signs, and a Google image search on Church Sign Humor will let you see what messages have become as common as the Coexist bumper sticker.

All of which raises a question:  when the Church reaches out with a message to passersby, what are we hoping to accomplish?  Is it outreach?  Marketing?  Witness? Is it a word of encouragement? Prophesy? Admonition? Or is it a variety of hospitality–a way to demonstrate that Christians can have a sense of humor and are a friendly people?  Maybe it can be all those things.  Always a tricky business when the Church turns out to face the World.


What is the Bible?

If you liked to talk to tomatoes, or ever found yourself smiling at a squash, then have we got a website for you: Jelly Telly is an online video network created by Phil Vischer, the co-creator of VeggieTales. Jelly Telly aims to be a Nickelodeon of sorts for Christian audiences. Right now it’s in beta version as a website which streams about 20 minutes of content daily, but larger projects are apparently in the works.  One show, Buck Denver asks “What’s in the Bible?” has also been developed into a curriculum. This video is part of that curriculum and asks the question, “What is the Bible?”  Like some of the best of the Veggie Tales material, the video feels open and honest and wrapped in a gentle humor.  It won’t replace the “Song of the Cebu,”  Stuff-Mart Rap, and “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything,” but it’s well worth your 1:08.

Obligatory cat video – Pattycake

Today is Election Day in the U.S., and rather than talk about Church and State or rendering unto Caesar, I will do what all good websites must at some point do–post a cat video. Probably time for all of us to share a laugh anyway.

This one is brought to you by J.C. Elliot and Kevin from the Exodus Baptist Sr. High Ministry.


Faith is your steering wheel

You’re probably familiar with images of the Old Ship of Zion and the Gospel Train, but in 1957 the Dixie Hummingbirds updated the mode of transportation for the journey to heaven.  “Christian’s Automobile” features the incomparable Ira Tucker, who sang with the group for an astonishing 70 years.  Like many of the gospel train songs, this one is both serious and playful as the metaphor gets stretched further and further.  Tucker tells us

You gotta check on your tires
You got a rough road ahead
And when you are weary from your journey
God will put you to bed….

You’ve gotta check on your lights
And see your own faults
Stop while you can see them, children
Or your soul will be lost….

But my favorite image comes at the end, when Tucker sings:

And I’m not worried
About my parking space
I just want to see,
See my Savior face to face

What better way to express “I go to prepare a place for you” and the hope of the beatific vision at the time when Americans dreamed of seeing the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet.

Prayer is your driver’s license.