28 June 2006

of muppets, floods & festivals

of muppets, floods & festivals

As you are likely aware, the city of Philadelphia is, in many respects, the nation's birthplace. Accordingly, we try to put on a big week long party each year as July 4th rolls around. This year is no different and the "Welcome America!" people have put together quite an array of events, starting yesterday and continuing through the Fourth.

This evening was our "Arts on the Avenue" festival on Broad Street, south of City Hall, along the Avenue of the Arts, which is home to Philadelphia's theater and concert hall district. The event featured three stages with live jazz performances, as well as various crafts and food vendors. Laurel, Claire, and I went down after supper to enjoy the music and people for a couple hours before returning home with a very sleepy almost four year old.

Claire hadn't taken a nap earlier in the day as she is outgrowing the whole nap routine. This means she is going to bed early in the evening, which gives Laurel and me some quiet time together in the late evening. But it also makes it more difficult to attend evening events with Claire, such as the arts and jazz event this evening or the ongoing series of summer free concerts in Pastorius Park.

Nevertheless, earlier today I had managed to lull Claire into some rest time during the afternoon by watching The Muppet Movie with her, which is a pretty mellow film and conducive to rest time. While she did ask lots of questions during the film, on the whole we were both quiet, which did her good. She was going strong until nearly 9pm. Watching the film for me was, however, a bit bittersweet.

I've always had a fondness for the muppets, having grown up watching "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show" over many years. These funny little puppets are woven deeply into the fabric of my childhood and I very nearly think of them as real characters. And I still laugh when Fozzie and Kermit enter the church where Dr. Teeth and the Electic Mayhem are jamming and Fozzie turns to Kermit and quips, "They don't look like Presbyterians to me." This was even more funny back in 1979 when the idea of a Presbyterian church with a praise band was still virtually unheard of.

But The Muppet Movie is bittersweet in its panoply of guest stars, each of whom makes his or her brief appearance on screen in the role a bar patron or cafe owner or balloon vendor, before disappearing from the film. As I watched, however, I realized that more often than not, these guest stars have exited life's stage to where there is no more curtain call: Edgar Bergen, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Bob Hope, Madeline Kahn, Richard Pryor, Telly Savalas, Orson Welles.

Over the past few months, Claire's had a keen awareness of the concept of death, realizing that living things die and understanding that, in the case of humanity, this ought not be the case, that human flourishing is one that requires that there be something more, that only through an ongoing relationship and reciprocity can the human good be found. Not, of course, that she words it in quite that way.

But the questions come: "Will you always be with me?" "Will Danny always be my friend?" "Will we live in this house forever?" "Will I ever meet your friend who lives so far away?" "When will we see those people again?" There's a recognition that human connection always reaches further than we intend, that even brief encounters point toward a greater fulfillment, a fulfillment that cannot be necessitated, but only gifted, even though fulfillment, in some sense, "requires" it.

Claire also, however, recognizes the fragility and brokenness of human life even when the present course of things is going well. Against the backdrop of the human good, such a recognition can only elicit a desire to anticipate that good in the present. And so we teach her that this is part of what it means to be "in Christ," to live in the present with an eye to God's future.

For Claire this remains very concrete: she wants, for instance, to give her unused toys to poorer children who have none. "Mommy, I don't really play with this any more," she says, handing Laurel a stuffed animal.

"Can we give it to poor children who don't have as many toys? They should have it. It's theirs." So we add it to a growing collection that, periodically, we gather together to take to a mission where the toys will find a home. This isn't to say, of course, that there aren't moments when, playing with a friend, selfishness doesn't rear its ugly head as Claire snatches away a favorite toy from a companion's hand. In many respects, it is in that context that generosity is most sorely tested, but the reminder of those children who have few toys can have an effect, especially since those are children we have sought to serve and in whose good we have some personal investment.

I find that children much more intuitively understand that justice, in its most basic sense, is not so much a matter of "rights" or something governed by a disinterested regard for each equally, though such notions have a proper place in the sphere of law. Rather justice is a virute, the cultivation of a habitual and continual will, formed by charity, in which we give to each what is due in virtue of our relationship, and in which are always ready to share with those in need, so that personal property is directed to the end of the common good.

Thomas Aquinas writes, concerning theft,
...whatever some people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose writes: "It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom."
In such a way, we anticipate even now that continuous communication of goods that will characterize eternal life together in God who is himself, as Trinity, an eternal communication of love. Tracing out those connections between who God is and what we must be is part of the joy of raising a child in the Lord.

And that brings us back to our city event of music and arts, enjoyable because it anticipates in some small way that great eschatological gathering together of God's people in praise and festivity.

One of great things about Philadelphia is that, at only 1.2 million residents within the city limits (around 6 million in the metropolitan region), we almost always run into people we know at public events. This evening we ran into three, one of whom we used to be in a Bible study with and whom we hadn't seen for awhile and enjoyed catching up with. One wonders how many other people at the event ran into friends and, beyond that, how many of us, unknown to one another, are likely already connected in some small way through mutual friends, a neighborhood, a school, a workplace, a favorite park. We often find ourselves in conversations with strangers at these events, discovering these connections.

Attendance at the event was, unfortunately, a bit sparser than expected. But that was due, I think, in large part to the fact that several major arteries into Center City were shut down due to flooding. In the past week, it's rained heavily nearly every day until the ground has become saturated and our rivers are all full to overflowing. We're due another storm tonight and possibly more tomorrow. In our own neighborhood, both Main Street in Manayunk and Kelly Drive have been under water for the past day and thus closed to traffic.

On the way down and back from the festival, and as I took the dog for an nighttime walk, we approached some of the flooded areas to view the rushing waters and pause in awe at the power that God manifests in his creation and our inability to contain it. Again, human connection was visible as folks gathered to watch and worry and wonder at the scenes. I talked for a while with a young woman trying to make her way home, but finding her usual route blocked by several feet of water.

As we had returned earlier to the car from the music and vendors, we passed the park around City Hall, filled, as it often is, with teenage boys and their skateboards, sliding along concrete benches and using an overturned police barrier as a makeshift jump. We slowed and paused as Claire watched in fascination, seeing these teens trying the same trick over and over again until they could get it right.

"Does that look like fun, Claire?" I asked. The increasingly sleepy girl nodded in her stroller, hugging a plush green sea horse she had carried in her purse. A boy flew by into a perfect kickflip over the police barrier.

"Why are they all boys?" Claire looked up at me to ask.

"Umm...no real reason. Girls can skateboard too," I added. "You can learn when you get a bit older, if you want."

"Then can I come back here and do what they're doing?" Claire glared at them, her competitive nature bubbling up through her need to get home and to bed.

"Sure thing, sweetheart, though I think it'll be a different group of kids by that time." The same boy flew by again, this time not managing quite so well.

"Why do they keep doing the same thing over and over?" Claire asked.

I watched the kid skate away around the center of the square, circling to come back again. "Practice, Claire. They've got to practice. Everything worth doing takes practice."

We walked away back toward car. "The musicians we heard tonight, Claire, had to practice to learn to play their saxophones and basses. The singers have to practice their songs. The artists have to practice their art."

"Daddy, do you practice what you do?" I mused for a moment thinking how intimidating the first semester of grad school had been and, after that, how many classrooms of students I've taught over the years.

"Yes, I practice. Even philosophy and teaching take practice." We crossed the street, arriving at the car. "All of life is practice, since when we love each other and do stuff together, we're practicing being a family and being God's people."

Giving away toys, spending quiet time together, getting caught up into the festivity of music and art, running into friends and reconnecting, gathering with others in concern and awe as God's power rushes by carrying tree limbs and debris -- in everything we are called to be people who even now practice the patterns of Christ's kingdom, anticipating who we will someday be together.