25 July 2008

In Praise of Cowboy Boots

Reflections on Pr. Kenneth Korby as Preacher and Presider

Beside Norman Nagel, the other great influence in my work as a preacher and presider was the sainted Dr. Kenneth Korby, who now rests from his labors and his works do indeed follow him. Kenneth was a remarkable man, both in the classroom and in the chancel. The key word is “man.” I recall him saying to a seminary class once, “God ordains men to the pastoral office. Be one.” Anyone who has seen and heard Korby in the pulpit and at the altar knows of what I speak. Korby was a man’s man in the liturgy.

Korby as preacher and presider reinforced for me the Lord’s wisdom in making the pastoral office a male office. I recall once standing for the Liturgy of St. Basil at Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles. The priest in charge there was a large statured Scotsman with long red hair and beard and a Scotsman’s earthy sense of humor to match. Hearing him chant the liturgy, I whispered to a friend, “This is why there will never be female priests in the Orthodox church. I don’t know any women who could sing so low.” I vastly prefer the baritone range to the squeaky tenor than many of our settings, including TLH, impose on the presider, making him sound as though he had just taken a knee to the groin. Korby’s voice was seasoned by much speaking, unfiltered Camels, pipes, cigars, and vocal chord polyps, which together lent a certain gravitas to everything he said.

What many people don’t know is that Kenneth always wore cowboy boots in the chancel, a gift from his daughter and son-in-law. He also had a black Stetson, which Jeanne strictly forbad him to wear east of the continental divide (though he did anyway). I recall picking Kenneth up from Ontario Airport the day before my ordination where he was to preach. He paused dramatically at the top of the stairway (this was back in the day when Ontario used stairways instead of jet ways and resembled an airport straight out of Mayberry RFD), scanned the orange, dusk horizon, and put on his black Stetson. The man had landed in the West.

Where Nagel could preach the Gospel as though there were no tomorrow, Korby could preach the Law. His preaching of the Law left you in the dust, and it was sure to be answered by an equally powerful word of Gospel. But it was the law in all its diagnostic, killing severity that I remember most. You tasted the dust of your death when Korby was in the pulpit, and he pulled no punches when it came to his use of the language.

Liturgically, Korby was a man who had no patience with high-church chancel prancing or low-church pietism. He wore his pastoral robes like work clothes, including the black cowboy boots. He was known to scold congregations, my own included, who did not respond to a prayer or blessing with a vigorous priestly “Amen.” He would come out of the chancel to put hymnals into the hands of non-participants with an admonition to “open your mouth and sing.” He even called audibles in the chancel like Tom Brady at the line of scrimmage, suddenly deciding by some strange movement of the Spirit to “sing another psalm or hymn,” much to the consternation of organists and liturgical assistants. His wife Jeanne tells of Kenneth’s “lining” of unfamiliar hymns in the old American-Shaker tradition. He would speak a line and the congregation would then sing the line alternately through the verses. She also testifies that Kenneth would, for no apparent reason, momentarily leave the confines of the pulpit during a sermon to wander into the chancel or the nave. The Word could not be bound but had to have free course and be preached when Kenneth was the preacher.

This is not to suggest that Korby was sloppy or careless with the liturgy. On a vacation visit to Notre Dame (the one in France), Jeanne and Kenneth attended Mass there and discussed what they had seen and heard afterwards. Korby took approving note of the orderly, clean precision of the presider saying, “The way the man moved, you barely even noticed him.” Korby advocated clean and precise liturgics without affect or pose. You tend not to notice men at work; you take note of their work.

Korby was quite familiar with old Una Sancta crowd and the Society of St. James, the Lutheran liturgical revivalists of the generation before us. He had a full set of their journals in his possession. Korby knew Piepkorn, von Schenk, Kretzman, and others personally. He embraced their strengths and critiqued their weaknesses. He was a part of the great Lutheran confluence that came together at Valparaiso University in the 1960’s; Kenneth was the first celebrant at Valpo’s magnificent chapel. Though he soared in the heights of liturgical theology, Korby never joined in the excesses that inevitably come with “renewal movements.” He was a Lutheran in the most organic sense of that word - earthy, rough, 60-grit - able to conduct the liturgy across cultural boundaries with ease precisely because he handled the liturgy as a skilled workman at his trade. For Korby, clericals were work clothes, and cowboy boots were his favorite work boots. When chasubiles became the fashion rage among the liturgical set, Korby too rejoiced. He loved their seasonal colors and how they made the pastor a billboard for the church year, in which Korby, ever the teacher, took great delight.

That’s the image I take from the memory of Kenneth Korby as preacher and the presider - a workman hard at his craft. A workman, free in Christ, expertly handling the Word of God in the bold confidence of one who has been ordained to speak and act in the Savior’s stead. I have learned through hard lessons and experience that the Church doesn’t always want such pastors, as the expectations of the holy Office have become increasingly feminized, psychologized, and soft-edged. People seem to seek a nurturing mother more than a strong, loving, and wise father, perhaps due to the breakdown of our families and the absence of strong fathers in our society.

Korby never cared much for the honorific title “Father.” “Pastor” got his attention quite nicely, thank you. Yet for me, and for many others who had the privilege of studying with him, he exemplified genuine spiritual fatherhood in the pulpit and at the altar - a roll up your sleeves, put on your boots and go to work kind of father, for which I am forever grateful.

It is for this reason that I wear my boots in the chancel in memory of that great, gruff, sainted man with the black Stetson and gravel voice who taught us all to say a vigorous and manly “Amen.”


(Note: This essay and the material contained therein have been fact-checked and approved by Mrs. Jeanne Korby, Kenneth’s widow, who added some personal stories and observations of her own. It is published here with her blessing and approval.)


Christopher Gillespie said...

Terrific post. What a role model! I wish I had known him.

Rev. Fr. Robert W. Schaibley said...

I rejoiced to discover that Ken wore the same western boots as did I --this discovery happened as we were both summer guest professors at Fort Wayne, housed in adjoining rooms during the summer of 1986. I had been wearing them in the chancel since 1976 -- although I prefer to refer to the western boots as "manly footwear." What I did not share with Korby was the same choice of tobacco substance -- mine was Skoal, which was tucked between cheek and gum from morning until night, seven days a week -- including the hours spent serving at the high altar pr in the pulpit. He did ask me how I managed without a spitoon while conducting the liutrgy and singing and preaching. Answer: one swallows! He was bemused. How I miss Korby! And Skoal! But, I still wear the manly footwear.

Robert. [Schaibley]

WM Cwirla said...

You just made my day, Bob. I'm surprised that some provision couldn't be found to have a suitably dignficied vessel in the chancel to serve as a spitoon. Of course, it would have to be gold-lined and jewel encrusted, and would definitely need a fancy Latin-sounding name like Salivatorium.

Most excellent comment, Bob!

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

The reason I enjoy wearing boots is because they make me look nearly 6' 5"

Seriously, I don't get the whole "boots" thing.

But I don't understand all the gesticulations either.

So, that's ok. We can live with a bit of freedom in such things, right?

Steven A. Hein said...

Manly footwear as my colleague and I refer to cowboy boots is simply another way of expressing that the holy office is strictly a male thing. The fact the women wear cowboy boots, however, is simply a reminder that the problems of women encroaching on a man's world has been going in the corral as well as the sanctuary for some time.

WM Cwirla said...

"The reason I enjoy wearing boots is because they make me look nearly 6' 5""

You just got the whole boots thing.

In all seriousness, though, we need to be very careful about this. If it ever comes out that Kurt Marquart or David Scaer wore cowboy boots in the chancel (or at least the pulpit for Scaer whom I believe has never been seen anywhere near the altar), we would have the beginnings of a whole "western boot" liturgical movement with the strong implication that one is truly a western catholic only if he wears western boots while conducting the liturgy.

This, in my opinion, would be a most unfortunate turn of events in the history of vestments. Footwear should ever remain a matter of Christian liberty. I'm weary, frankly, of all the criticism I take for wearing Birkenstock sandals (with socks) in the pulpit on the fifth Sunday of every month. Hey, if sandals were good enough for Jesus, they are good enough for the rest of us, I say.

WM Cwirla said...

As long as we're on this "western" theme, I'd like to know what the bird cage thinks about carrying concealed weapons into the chancel. I understand that at least one Ft. Wayne prof has his cassock outfitted for concealed carry. Brings a whole new dimension to "closed communion," doesn't it?

What's the liturgical take on pastors packing heat?

819daisy said...

The boots are a testimony to the testiculation of the Office of Holy Ministry, while the finger gesticulation is a testimony to our confession of the Holy Sacrament. This is no speculation.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Bill, ok, thanks for the explanation re. boots. Now if you were start to wear jangling spurs, that might indicate you wish to treat the laity inappropriately. Concealed carry? That would be a confession of the invisible church militant. Carrying on the hip, in place of the rope cincture, that would be a confession of the true, visible church on earth.

Now, as for Mason's speculations on gestitulations and testiculations, all I'll say is that based on the kind of finger holding and twisting that I've seen advocated, you guys surely would do well at a tea party with the extended pinky finger!



WM Cwirla said...

I'm note sure about this, but I do believe that the gesticulations being advocated by the "gesticulators" means something entirely different in Brazil and could get you some "unwanted attention."

Be very careful what you do with your fingers.

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

You know, there seems to be a contradiction in this post about Korby. You say that he was not to be taken as liturgically sloppy, and yet, the way you describe his liturgical practice, it sounds awfully sloppy, imprecise, and you seem to praise this "when the spirit moves you" idea. Pulpits are there to extol the Word of God, not restrict it. I am so annoyed when guys do that, Korby or not. I don't understand why Korby or anyone else gets a pass just because of who he is. What you describe is poor liturgical practice.