I’ll remember this day

White House 500,000 memorial

Such a strange feeling this memorable day brings. I received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on the same day we passed the milestone of half a million deaths from Coronavirus in the United States — in only a year, more than the fatalities of World War 1, World War 2, and the war in Vietnam combined.

IMMY LabsAs for the vaccine, what an amazing experience, courtesy of the people at IMMY Labs here in Norman, the Cleveland County Health Department, Norman Regional Hospital, and quite a few OU students who partnered together to administer 10,000 doses today at the Embassy Suites just a few blocks down from the IMMY headquarters. I’ve never placed a sticker on my Mac, ever, none, and I’ve had Macs since 1986. But I did today.

As we approached the hotel, traffic was backed up for blocks in all directions. My appointment was early in the morning, and apparently lots of people had come in advance just to be sure. Police officers were everywhere — in the intersections, and then throughout the parking lots, guiding us to open spaces. The traffic jam did not last long; there was no trace of it when we left – they did their work expertly.

I stood in line outside the building until it was time to enter. Everyone was masked. There was no crowding or pushing. A worker was standing at the door, opening the door to let people inside in a measured way.

Once inside, I was met by a sequence of workers who checked my temperature with a contact-less IR beam, then directed me along a hallway, where I was accompanied by a worker, walking beside me, who confirmed my name and date of birth. And another worker who said she liked my astronomy mask that Candace made. Before I had time to stand still, the line turned left and filed into the large convention room where chairs were set up in columns. We never stopped moving. All the check-in phases were accomplished while standing up and moving in line. Those around me were respecting the 6-feet of separation.

I sat down in the chair indicated for me. Two workers with a cart moved into the space in front of me, between me and the next chair forward from me. One confirmed my name and date of birth and prepared the vaccination card that I’m to bring with me for the second dose. The other gave me the shot in my left arm. She was good at it; I could hardly feel the stick at all. As they were working simultaneously instead of in sequence, it seemed to be over in no time; they quickly moved on to the corresponding chair in the column to my right. After 15 minutes, a worker dismissed my column. We stood up to the right of our chairs, walked to the front and then exited left out of the convention room, through a different hallway, and back outside.

The experience was a splendor born of the combination of flawless logistics and human kindness in the midst of our desperate pandemic year. IMMY Labs had so many workers that there was never a question about what to do or where to go next, and no needless waiting. Equally unexpected, all those workers were kind, offering welcoming greetings, asking how we were doing.

From the time I entered the building until I left, I was actually nearly in tears just at the combination of such competence and compassion — and of the wordless affirmation, by deeds alone, of the reality of the pandemic, as they devoted themselves to its mitigation. Not to mention the improbable fact that I have survived long enough to get the first dose of the vaccine. My goodness, all the people in the chain who made that happen, from the research scientists around the world to the day workers here in this city today, I’m so thankful for them all. Bless them, dear Father! Hallelujah. If you are reading this, I pray it goes the same for you and that your turn will come soon.

500,000. This evening we cried our way through the memorial service President Biden held at the White House at sundown. Long after the moment of silence, while still watching the White House beautifully illuminated with candles, Candace proclaimed: “Congratulations, Mom, you got a president to speak at your memorial!” (Twice!) Phyllis passed from Covid on January 17th, just short of Biden’s first Covid memorial, held on the Mall on January 19, the eve of his inauguration. As with so many, her memorial service is postponed until a safer time. So, to us, both of these sunset services were for her. They acknowledged our grief and our gratitude.

Tonight, President Biden repeated a line from his brief remarks on the Mall: “To heal, we must remember.”

I will long remember this day. Enduring thanks to all of those who, directly or indirectly, have touched my life today.

IMMY Labs vaccination clinic

Story in the OU Daily

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Ash Wednesday 2021

What does God do with dust?

He breathes upon it and creates new life.

As Chrysostom said: “Dust now sits at the right hand of God.”*

This was the theme of the Ash Wednesday service last night at the First United Methodist Church in Kirksville (our family’s home church, which has been a wonderful presence of grace to us throughout the pandemic).

This year for Lent, Candace and I are reading aloud Tish Warren’s Prayer in the Night, using it to pray compline; and reading Malcolm Guite’s Word in the Wilderness, in company with a Rabbit Room reading group.


* See Gerrit Dawson, Jesus Ascended (2004).

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Fare Thee Well 2020

This is a beautiful New Year’s celebration in Scotland, so appropriately crafted for looking back on 2020 and forward to 2021.

Watch with closed captioning, in order to catch the Gaelic. Afterward, don’t miss the “Behind the scenes” video featuring interviews with those who made it happen. The poem is by Jackie Kay, poet laureate of Scotland.

Beautiful – the whole world can give thanks for this articulate lament and hopeful adaptation of the Hogmanay celebration.


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Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (2020)

Norman Rockwell, Union Station, Christmas 1944
Norman Rockwell, Union Station.
Cover for Saturday Evening Post, Christmas 1944

For most of my life, I have not appreciated this popular Christmas song. It seemed too nostalgic and smarmy. But 2020 has made me think of it in a different light, and now I appreciate it as doubtless it was intended to be. For I understand it now as a daring proclamation of hope in the midst of World War II, before the end of the war was in sight. Whether sung then, or now in this pandemic year, it seems less like wistful nostalgia and more like courageous defiance of the obstacles and uncertainties of our world.

Sung by Judy Garland, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” debuted in the movie, Meet Me in St. Louis (IMDB, Wikipedia), a musical released for Christmas 1944. Setting aside the wartime context, even considered solely within the plot of the movie, the song expressed a moment of maximum uncertainty and sorrow: the family, who lived in St. Louis, were facing an impending move to New York because of a change in employment for the father. They were facing the disruption of both new and long-lasting friendships. Their world was turning upside down; they were being uprooted.

When preparing the song, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, Judy Garland changed a key line. She deleted a dismal lament: “It [this Christmas] may be your last, next year we will be living in the past.” In its place, Garland substituted a hopeful call to take heart: “Let your heart be light, from now on our troubles will be out of sight.”

This classic Christmas song seems as relevant for us in the pandemic year of 2020 as for war-weary singers in 1944.

Song at Wikipedia.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on our troubles will be miles away

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more

Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bow
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bow
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

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Sonder: the mystery of bearing the image of God…

Sonder from Wild Gravity on Vimeo.

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own — an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”
John Koenig, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows


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Drs. Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins, and Luciana Borio at the National Cathedral

An evening with Drs. Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins, and Luciana Borio at the National Cathedral, presented as the Cathedral’s 2020 Ignatius Forum.


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Democracy Virtual Concert – Norman Philharmonic

Wow! Wonderful! Thank you, Dr. Z., and the Norman Philharmonic!

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The Painted Soul

Michael Barfield, portrait

From my teenage years to the present, I have lived in the soul-shaping presence of the art and music of Michael Barfield, a.k.a. “the painted soul.” Michael’s creative expressions have given voice to my own journey.

Wherever I have lived, I have never been without art like his large, meticulously-colored pencil drawing which I call “morning tea.”

Michael Barfield, Morning Tea
Michael Barfield, “Morning Tea”

We have read countless books together through the years, from Lewis and Tolkien to Rookmaaker or Annie Dillard. Those discussions with Michael have been formative for my own thinking on art, music, literature, theology, and life.

Michael Barfield, Leonardo's Dilemma
Michael Barfield, “Leonardo’s Dilemma”

Works of Michael’s like “Leonardo’s Dilemma” and “Now a System So Advanced” have hung in the hallways of the History of Science Collections, and “Child’s Scarlet Christ” in my own office.

Michael Barfield, Now A System So Advanced
Michael Barfield, “Now A System So Advanced”

It seems somehow fitting that my favorite portrait of Steve Jobs appears in my office adjacent to one of Michael’s paintings, given that Michael and I were watching the 1984 Super Bowl together, drinking IBC root beer, when the famous Macintosh commercial aired. Technology and the arts has been a recurring conversation topic.

Michael Barfield, Child's Scarlet Christ
Michael Barfield, “Child’s Scarlet Christ”

As we were reading Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind, Michael enlightened me about the artist’s challenge, in our fragmented age, of finding a common visual language capable of allowing the artist and the viewer to achieve a shared meaning in the experience of the work. Michael’s oeuvre constantly addresses this challenge through incorporation of motifs from the history of art.

Michael Barfield, Chorus from the Rock Michael Barfield, Chorus from the Rock
Michael Barfield, “Chorus from the Rock”

Michael’s art inspires me in ways similar to my other favorite painter, Georges Rouault.

Michael Barfield, two portraits
Michael Barfield, two portraits

Michael’s songs are an intricate form of musical poetry similar to that of his kindred musical spirit, Bruce Cockburn, to whom Michael introduced me back in the ’70’s.

Michael Barfield, guitar
Michael Barfield, at Kerry’s apartment long long ago

When Candace and I were married, Michael created the invitations and printed program and sang his song, Season Suite:

Michael Barfield, Owl

“Are you ready for the winter months ahead?
Are you ready for the stilling of all life?
When the first flake falls upon your hand can you look back
with a peaceful smile written on your face?
If you have this kind of confidence in mind,
no regrets in all your past?
That’s the kind of peace I find in him,
a season I know will always last.”
Michael Barfield, “Seasons Suite”

Through the years, Michael’s art has been a constant backdrop in our home. Countless visitors have had their pictures taken in front of the wolves or the owl.

Michael Barfield, Wolves Michael Barfield, Wolves

When I struggled for years to give birth to my dissertation, Michael listened attentively as my “resonator” throughout.

Since then, he regularly sends us doodles through the mail, including even a history of science pedagogical cartoon.

Michael Barfield, Mail doodle Michael Barfield, Madden doodle

To all who know him, Michael is a faithful friend, ever attentive and persevering in empathy and hope.

Michael Barfield, Old Faithful doodle

Earlier this year, Michael gave me permission to use six of his paintings as iconic signposts for my lectures in an online course:

  1. 2a. Thinking Theologically, “Owl”
  2. 9a. Dualism, “Leonardo’s Dilemma”
  3. 9b. Dilemmas of Design, “The Violin Maker”
  4. 10a. Natural Theology, “Child’s Scarlet Christ”
  5. 11a. Priest of Creation, “Now A System So Advanced”
  6. 11b. New Creation, “Chorus from the Rock”

Lectures take their point of departure from the paintings. Course lectures are also punctuated by musical interludes taken from some of Michael’s songs.

Now Michael has given me permission to share those songs here in this blog post. He is making these songs available for download at no cost. The songs presented here individually were originally conceived as album projects, with coordinated artwork and reflective essays.

  1. Season Suite
  2. Hold Onto You
    • This song portrays Michael (“A poet sings his song, it lingers on the wind…”), and his love for his wife Rhonda (“Let every step that they take, let every word they breathe, rise from their soul to draw close and hold onto you…”).
  3. Morning Tea
    • One of Michael’s early songs, reminding me of characters painted by Georges Rouault.
  4. Bitter Wine
    • The mystery of the eucharist, as God calls us to enter into joy through suffering.
  5. Bride
    • Produced by Eric Barfield, Michael’s son.
  6. Broken Wings
  7. Carnival
    • Another “Rouault” song; I think of Rouault’s clowns.
  8. Raindrops
    • For those of us who love the rain…
  9. No Home
    • Night thoughts of a pilgrim with no home in this world.
  10. Eternal Dance
    • Glimpses of the eternal dance behind the daily grind.
  11. Photographs
    • Title song of one of Michael’s album art projects.
  12. Ashes to Dust
    • Written to process his parents’ passing only six weeks apart. Listen on Ash Wednesday.
  13. Stayed Up Late
    • What might tomorrow bring?
  14. Winter (Daybreak)
    • “Redeem the past in my remaining days…”
  15. Proverbs 3
    • A simple affirmation.
  16. Sometimes I Wonder
    • A confession of gratitude.
  17. Thank You Song
    • Another simple affirmation.
  18. Evening Prayer
    • A prayer not for escape but for transformation.
  19. Tomorrow
    • A song of longing and hope.

Download all of the above.

These paintings and songs are only a small subset of Michael’s creative compositions. Think of them as appetizers for his larger work. Digest them slowly, without haste, in appreciation. If you like them, or want more information, let him know: thepaintedsoul at gmail dot com. Or send him a tip for a coffee at his favorite coffeeshop, Picasso’s.

Michael Barfield, coffee shop

As for the larger coordinated media project, I’m hoping someday for an exhibition.

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When I first met Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer books

Greg Williams recently interviewed me on the topic of GCI’s new initiative to establish Ministry Training Centers on every inhabited continent. Here’s an excerpt from that interview where he asked me about my own spiritual formation, and I recalled the occasion when I first discovered Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

As a teenager, growing up in rural Missouri, I had never heard of Bonhoeffer. But I was privileged one summer to attend a week-long church camp in North Carolina. This camp was not anything like the camps I knew in Missouri. Most importantly, it had a bookstore — it was the first time in my life I had ever seen a theological bookstore. Every day, in awe, I spent the lunch hour in the bookstore, poring over which books I might buy with my food money. At the end of the week, I came away with a geography of the Bible and four books by Bonhoeffer including Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. Back in Missouri, I stumbled into my house gaunt and faint from the sacrifice of the moment, but I still have those books and treasure them to this day! The books by Bonhoeffer describe the embodied experience of ministry training for the Confessing Church in Germany during the rising years of the Nazi party. Many young ministers in training came to Bonhoeffer’s underground seminary at Finkenwalde. Books and pamphlets read in isolation during those trying times would not have been enough — only through shared life together could they be fortified for the challenges of ministry that lay ahead. Reflection upon these books was formative for me.

Read the full interview.

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“When I have money,
I buy food and books.
When I do not,
I buy books.”
– Erasmus

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