Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Last Glass of Vintage Port

Alfred came in from the garden with an empty bottle of Cockburn 1994 Vintage Port in one hand and a crystal goblet in the other. Truth be told, he appeared pretty satisfied with himself.

            Mother looked up from her packing and said, “Oh, I was looking for that glass. I wondered where was.” She took the goblet, rinsed it out, dried it, wrapped it carefully in packing paper and inserted it lovingly into one of the little compartments of the box she was packing on the kitchen table.

            She asked, “What were you doing in the garden with a bottle of vintage port and a goblet?”

            “Mother,” said Alfred, “I was offering an libation to God in thanksgiving for all His blessings here in our home.”

            “A libation, Alfred?” said Mother, puzzled.

            “So many changes, Mother, so many changes, so many people we have known, so many good-byes.”

            “Yes, rather, Alfred,” said Mother. It all reminds me of Bilbo’s last speech at his birthday party when he turned eleventy-one.

            Alfred laughed, “Yes, indeed, Mother, very clever. You mean when Bilbo said, “”First of all…I am immensely fond of you all, and that eleventy-one years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits…I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”[i] It has been over all, mostly good, Mother, despite people like Ima Hatchett, Moana Crutchley and Harry Prudhomme! That is why I was out in the garden offering a libation to our God and Father.”

            “What gave me the idea, Mother was a verse in the Book of Numbers that says, “For the drink offering you shall offer a third of a hin of wine, a pleasing aroma to the LORD” [Numbers 15:7], and I thought why not. That Cockburn 1994 Vintage Port won’t travel very well, and it may take weeks for it to settle after we move. So I took the bottle out to the garden to make a libation to the Lord in a place that has always given me such pleasure.”

            “But, why the goblet, Alfred?” asked Mother.

            “Well, Mother,” said Alfred, “the Cockburn 1994 is after all a very fine vintage port, so I brought a crystal goblet with me. Oh, Mother, you know! One glass for me, and the rest of the bottle I poured out before the Lord. It would have been a shame not to have tasted it after saving it for so long.”

            “Saying good-bye is such an awkward thing, Alfred,” said Mother, ‘so many mixed emotions. I swear, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I am particularly fond of  Grace and Horace Whittington. I’m really going to miss them, and months ago I would never have thought that I was going to miss our Bible Study group.”

            “Ah, but Mother,” said Alfred, “Just think of the adventure ahead of us. Jeremy and Winnifred are about to have a baby, and we are about to see our grandchild grow up. Not only that we are moving back to the area where we first met and fell in love. Imagine, we have a contract on a home on Beacon Hill and there is so much to do in Boston. Why, The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a current exhibition on Jamie Wyeth that examines his imaginative approach to realism over the course of six decades.”

            “Alfred,” said Mother. “I’m excited to go, but at the same time, I’m sad to leave.”

“I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” [Jeremiah 29:11].

[i] J.R.R. Tolkien: The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Four Seasons

            “You wouldn’t know it by Texas, Mother,” said Alfred, “but there are four seasons; winter, spring, summer, fall. That’s four seasons and I love them all.”

            “What are you getting at Alfred?” said Mother.

            “It’s that letter we received from Jeremy and Winifred yesterday. We have reached our seniority, a winter of sorts, and Winnie is going to have a baby, a very different sort of springtime. You know that I have been thinking of retirement for some time now. Jeremy’s letter brings things into a much sharper focus.”

            Mother put down her copy of The New Yorker and looked thoughtfully at Alfred. “Alfred,” said she. “Jeremy has accepted a new job as a Vice President of Summoner’s Insurance in Boston, and Winnie has been offered an Associate Professorship in Literature at a college on the North Shore. Jeremy, Winnie, and the new baby, are going to be a long way from us for a considerable length of time. It would be a shame to miss seeing our new grandchild growing up.”

            “Quite, right, Mother. Quite right!” said Alfred, “If you are thinking what I am thinking, it would be a tremendous change.”

            “Moving, Alfred? Moving!” said Mother. “I dread the prospect, but on the other hand Boston is where we both went to college, and where we met, and where we were married and began our life together.”

            “Mother,” said Alfred. “Let’s take a walk in the garden and talk a little more."

            Mother and Alfred walked down the path from the Solarium and looked around the garden. Alfred asked, “Mother do you remember the poem I wrote last summer?”

In the garden where I love to go
I see the hollyhocks all planted in a row,
Peach and apple blossom, hyacinth and golden bell,
The Lily of the Valley, the greater celandine and daffodil.
But nothing can compare with God’s great beauty rare
In this wild profusion of His glory, a sight beyond compare.
Come walk with me a little, while the gentle breezes blow
And share with me the beauty of His garden here below.

            “Even in the shimmering heat of summer, the garden is lovely still,” said Alfred.

            “I know, Alfred. I know!” said Mother, “But winter comes to all gardens, and after every winter it is spring again. If spring happens in another garden far away, what have we to fear? Alfred,” said she, “I love my garden, but I love my family more.”

            “Well, Mother,” said Alfred. “Let us pray together about it and see what further God might say to our hearts.”

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” [1 John 4:7-8].  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Reading the Tea Leaves

Mother and Alfred were sitting in the Solarium on a Sunday afternoon. Before them lay the remains of their afternoon tea. The Royal Doulton Old Country Roses teapot stood empty and the matching Royal Doulton teacups and saucers held only the dregs of their afternoon Darjeeling tea. 

Mother swirled the remaining tea in the bottom of her teacup and looked at it in a dissatisfied sort of way, and said, “Alfred, It is grand that we have finally called a new Rector, but I must admit to more than a modicum of anxiety.”

“What is it Mother?” asked Alfred.

“I see trouble in the bottom of the cup,” said Mother looking at the tea leaves, “It’s old Harry Prudhomme. He is just never satisfied with anything. On the surface he seems like such a lovely fellow, socially quite acceptable and so very spiritual, but if you stop to listen to him he is quite disappointing.”

“How so, Mother?” asked Alfred

Mother shook her head, “Well, Alfred, old Harry never seems to stop complaining. There is always something he doesn’t like. It’s gotten so that I just try to avoid him in Coffee Hour after Church.  It’s always something. He doesn’t like the music. He doesn’t like the soloist. The choir robes need to be cleaned. There was a mistake in the bulletin. The sermon was too long. Why can’t they put the better green hanging on the altar? That young Mrs. Wilkins should keep better control of the children. Now he is saying that the Calling Committee didn’t to a good job. If it’s not one thing it’s another.”

“The problem with Church, Mother,” said Alfred, “is that it’s made up of people.”

“Well, you are absolutely right Alfred,” said Mother.  People can really spoil things for others.  Do you remember Mildred Hutchins?  Mildred couldn’t take a hint and just continued grousing; but you know me Alfred, I’m not meek and mild. When she wouldn’t stop grousing I finally said, ‘Stow it, Mildred! No-one wants to listen to you complaining.’  Well, Mildred was furious and went storming out, but not before saying, ‘You’re new.  What would you know about it?’ She was an awful woman.  Isn’t there a verse in Proverbs that says something like, ‘A cheerful heart makes a good medicine, but a grousing spirit rots the bones,’ or something like that?  Even if it’s not there, it ought to be. Well, she is long gone, and I’m still here in our church, but so is old Harry Prudhomme. I just hope that our new Rector has a thick skin.”

“You know, Mother,” said Alfred. “Every church that has tucked some history under its belt has its complainers like Mildred and old Harry.  In the tale of King Arthur and the Round Table Sir Launcelot du Lake said, “It is hard to take out of the flesh that which is bred in the bone” (Mallory, Le Morte d'Arthur).  What Harry needs is not just a heart transplant, but a bone replacement.  The very structure of his life may need to be torn up, so that God in his grace can begin again. Harry is like a ruined pot on the wheel and the Potter may have to scrape him off the wheel, pound the lumps out of him, and reshape him all over again. Even at that Harry might just say to God, ‘I am perfectly fine, thank you. Leave me alone.’ He must be very unhappy; we really need to pray for him.”

Monday, August 4, 2014

Alfred’s Morning Cuppa

            Alfred stood in the kitchen before the open pantry surveying the largesse of imported teas.

            “Mother,” said he, “I hardly know which to choose. I rather enjoy Lapsang Souchong early in the morning. Its strong smoky flavor makes it a real eye opener. However it is too strong a flavor for the second cuppa.”

            “Well, Alfred,” said Mother, “what about the Dao Ren Qianxu tea that we brought back from our trip to mainland China? It’s mild enough to provide a strong contrast to the Lapsang Souchong.”

            “Mild it is, Mother. Too mild by half! But it’s not sturdy enough to stand up to the challenge of the day.”

            “Quite right, Alfred!” said Mother, “then how about Taylor’s of Harrogate Yorkshire Tea?”

“That’s just the ticket Mother,” said Alfred reaching for the tin of Taylor’s of Harrogate Tea. “A pot of Yorkshire tea steeped in our Brown Betty teapot should stand us in good stead.”

Alfred filled the electric kettle, measured out six teaspoons of tea into a small dish and waited for the water to begin to come to a boil. Soon the water began to boil and Alfred poured a little boiling water in the Brown Betty, swished it around, poured it out, poured the loose tea into the teapot and dropped the tea cozy over the teapot.

Then Alfred put four crumpets in the Dualit Toaster and said, “That should do it Mother. By the time the crumpets are toasted the tea should have steeped almost exactly four minutes.

A few minutes later there was a small ding from the Dualit and Alfred said, “Break out the Dundee Ginger Preserves, Mother! Breakfast is ready.”

“Did you know, Mother,” asked Alfred as they were sitting down, “that picking out the right tea for the right time of day is somewhat analogous to picking the right priest for Rector?”

Mother laughed, “If I remember Alfred, three weeks ago you said that picking out a Rector is like picking out a cigar.”

Alfred looked sheepish and said, “Too right I did Mother! You want a man with substance, flavor and the right aroma, but considered the further implications of picking out the right kind of tea. It really gives us a parable of sorts.

“If you pick a man that is strong flavored like Lapsang Souchong he might be a little too smoky for a long run in a congregation. Even St. Paul wasn’t good for more than a couple of years in any one place. On the other hand if you pick one that is like Dao Ren Qianxu he might have a little exotic snob appeal but end up being just too mild to get the job done. Then again if you pick a strong person that is like Harrogate Yorkshire Tea you may have one that will be strong enough to go the distance.”

“I see what you mean, Alfred,” said Mother, “But consider a further refinement to your parable. There are two kinds of Taylor’s of Harrogate Yorkshire Tea, one is Yorkshire Regular, and the other is Yorkshire Gold. You would think that Yorkshire Gold would have an added attraction, at least the name would suggest a significant upgrade, but we still have a partially used tin of Yorkshire Gold that has worked its way to the back of the pantry. It just didn’t match our water and the result was an inferior cuppa.”

“Excellent, Mother! Excellent!” said Alfred. “I will have to bear that in mind. The person we call must not only be strong and have a good aroma and flavor, but that person must also be a match for the congregation. The right person must not only look good on paper and in the interview process, but must also feel good on a subjective level. There is a subtlety in that, to which we must give heed.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Old and the New

Alfred tilted the goblet and considered the translucent medium-red cranberry color of the 1983 Cockburn Vintage Port before taking a sip and saying, “Mother, ‘I love everything that is old; old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines.’”

“That sounds like a quote, Alfred,” said Mother looking up from her new copy of Neal Sperry’s Lone Star Gardening book.

“Well, yes it is Mother. It’s from Oliver Goldsmith in The Vicar of Wakefield, but that doesn’t make it any the less true.”

“Let me be the first to challenge that, Alfred,” answered Mother. “Surely something being old isn’t the only value by which we should measure things. What did you think about the Paul Revere House in Boston? It was built in 1680. That’s old, but it’s an ugly house.”

“I see what you mean, Mother,” said Alfred. “The Paul Revere House may be old and historically significant but it’s not beautiful. I love it because it’s old, but I would hate to live in it.”

“Mother,” said Alfred, “I didn’t mean to make being old a universal standard by which to appreciate everything. I just happen to like a lot of old traditional things, as you very well know. Take for instance the new 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It has its critics, as well it should, but it rests on a venerable tradition going back to 1549, and many parts of it go well back beyond that. However some of the attempts to modernize the language fall short of the promise. It kind of reminds me of the Curate’s egg.”

“What on earth, Alfred,” said Mother, “does that have to do with the Curate’s breakfast?”

“Ah, well,” said Alfred, “the Curate was invited to breakfast with the Bishop. As he sat there stirring his boiled egg with his spoon the Bishop looked up from his tea and crumpets and asked, ‘Is there something wrong with your egg my son?’ To which the Curate replied, ‘No, my lord, parts of it are very good.”

“That’s surely not the same thing, Alfred,” said Mother. “There might be some things you like in the new Prayer Book, and a few things you don’t, but you don’t need to let the things you don’t like spoil the things you do like. “However if you have a bad boiled egg, it has to be bad all the way through.”

“That raises another question, Mother,” said Alfred. “When I interview people to work in our department store, I want them to ring true. By that I mean I want them to be honest, industrious, and not shirk some of the hard jobs. I don’t enquire about other things. They have to be good enough, but not perfect.

“As you know, Mother, I have decided to serve on the Calling Committee and that raises other issues. I want to know if they have a personal faith, and I want to know if they believe that Holy Scripture is an adequate standard for faith and morality. I also want to know if they love people. I don’t expect a candidate for Rector to be perfect, but we can’t afford to call a bad egg. That just won’t do.”

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”: [Titus 2:11-13].

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Unwanted Caller

Ah, at last a few moments of quiet and peace; a time for refreshment and solace for the soul. Mother and Alfred are sitting together at the dining table enjoying a magnificent repast that had been prepared for them by Agnes Findlay their Scottish housekeeper.

“What a treat, Mother,” said Alfred, serving himself a generous portion of Agnes Findlay’s horseradish and herb crusted prime rib and a great slice of Yorkshire Pudding.”

“Now this is marvelous, Alfred,” said Mother, spooning out some of the Asiago and Sage Scalloped potatoes. “Just look at this Butter Nut Squash au Gratin, what a treat.”

            They had just loaded up their plates when they were interrupted by the harsh jangle of the telephone. They stopped to listen to the caller I.D. The obnoxious electronic voice said, “Charles Wentworth.”

            “Do you know a Charles Wentworth, Mother,” asked Alfred? “Neither do I. How do these telemarketers know when we sit down to dinner? It’s most unfair.”

            Alfred took his embroidered linen napkin off his lap, placed it on the table, and went to the side board and picked up the telephone saying, “Bonjour, comment ├ža va?”

            The voice on the other end answered, “This is Charles Wentworth. You’ve been specially selected . . .”

            Alfred interrupted, “Pardon? Parlez-vous Francais?”

            The voice on the other end of the line said blankly, “Huh?”

            Alfred continued, “Je ne parle pas Anglais.” 

            The voice on the other end of the line gives it another try, “I’m calling to offer . . .”

            Alfred says hopefully, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Nein?” Then he tried again, “Spreek je Nederlands? … Parli Italiano? … Snakker du Norsk?” 

            The voice on the other end stammers, “I don’t understand.”

            Alfred gives it another try, “Yabba Wobbi Spork?  Key whocka whacka? Poogi woogi?!” 

            There is a click on the other end of the line. Alfred looked at Mother and said, “That really is a shame. At dinnertime I only accept polyglottal sales calls. If they speak French, German, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, or even Wobbi Spork they might have a chance.”

            Mother looked quizzically at Alfred, and said, “Wobbi Spork?”      

Alfred sat back down at the table, picked up his linen napkin and placed it in on his lap before answering, “Wobbi Spork? I just made that one up Mother. The point is that we were receiving so many of these calls that it actually is abusive. There are times when we really need to shield ourselves from predatory marketing. I just prefer to do it with a little bit of humor.”

            “Thank you, Alfred,” said Mother, as she took a bite of her prime rib. “You know that since you have started answering those calls we have had a lot less of them. I wish it was that simple in other areas. I’m almost afraid to go into a furniture store because I don’t really want to be preyed upon by an over eager salesperson.”

            “Mother, said Alfred, “there is nothing wrong with setting limits. We have to do that in many areas of life. If we don’t set limits we will be driven hither and yon by every stray wind that blows.”

            Alfred continued, “That is even more important in matters of faith. I was reading Ephesians this morning and St. Paul says that we should aspire to “mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,  so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” [Ephesians 4:13-14].

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Changing of the Guard

It had not been a propitious morning at Church for Mother and Alfred, and perhaps not for most of the congregation. It should be noted that acid-tongued Moana Crutchley actually appeared to be gloating. And certainly Ima Hatchet would have been delighted. After all Father Goodfellow had given her marching papers and she was now well ensconced and infecting another parish.

What had happened was simply this, Father Goodfellow had announced at the morning service that he had accepted a call to be the Rector of St. Walburga’s in Franklin.

Alfred took off his blue blazer, took his leather Anaconda cigar case out of the breast pocket, and folded the blazer carefully over the back of a chair, so that the gold Wilfred Choate school initials were prominently displayed.

“Mother,” said he, “What a shame, and just when we have celebrated our one year anniversary at St. Fiacra’s. I can hardly believe it.”

“Six weeks, Alfred,” said Mother, picking up Alfred’s blazer and hanging it just as carefully in the hall closet.  “In six weeks Father Goodfellow will be gone, then what will we do?”

“As I understand it Mother, “the bishop will appoint an Interim Priest until we are able to call a new Rector.”

“How long is that going to take, Alfred,” said Mother.

With that Alfred opened the Anaconda cigar case and said, “Well, Mother it’s quite a process. The Vestry will consult the Bishop, appoint a Calling Committee, develop a profile of the parish, seek names, visit prospective candidates to hear them preach, invite them for interviews, check with the Bishop again, and if all goes well then call someone to be our new Rector. That all takes time.  One hopes that the first names of prospective candidates will provide a suitable candidate, and if it doesn’t we look for some new prospects.”

“Alfred,” said Mother, “I had no idea it was that complicated,” she paused, then added, “I also had no idea that you knew so much about it.”

Alfred winced, “Well, I didn’t, but Horace Whittington has asked me to consider being on the Calling Committee. I don’t know; it’s quite a time commitment.”

Alfred drew two cigars out of the case, held one up to his nose and sniffed. “Now Mother,” he said, “Selecting a Rector is like selecting a cigar. For instance take these Villar y Villar 754s cigars. At first sight they seem acceptable. They may be hand rolled in Nicaragua, but they are not really a special occasion cigar; far too mild and non-descript for that, sort of a run-of-the-mill smoke.”

With that Alfred dropped the two cigars in the trash, saying, “When we call a new Rector, we want him not only to look fine at first sight, but we want him to actually be fine; to have a good aroma, and after the first year to be just as fine as he looked at the beginning.

“For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.  He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” [Titus 1:7-9].