Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What Does the Holy Spirit 'Feel Like'?

That was the FB question I posted for the church today.

Remember, I am a literal thinker, so I really mean what happens within our bodies, minds and spirits when we believe we’re having a direct encounter with God’s own Spirit.

The best word that I have for such times in my own life is heavy.

‘Heavy’, again, in its literal sense.

Most modern-day writers who speak of the encounter with the divine identify a ‘spirit of heaviness’ as something connected to sin and the broken world.

But it’s not like that for me, this heaviness which I would not call a ‘spirit of’ at all.

I hear and read others speak of a lightness – either a lightness of being, of a sort of floating self, held aloft by the palm of God’s own hand, or of an all-pervading light.

For me, it is the reverse.

Image: Ute Kraus, Institute of Physics, Universit├Ąt Hildesheim, Space Time Travel (http://www.spacetimetravel.org/).
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany

When God comes knocking at the door of my soul, there is darkness and a great heaviness. . . the darkness being the presence of everything . . . the heaviness of heavy water and black holes, where everything collapses into not itself, but into God.

It is the in-between place outside of time and in between breaths.

It is a descending thing, as if I am sinking into God – every particle of me.

Physically as well as spiritually, it’s like I’m being trash-compacted into the smallest possible me there can be.

It’s neither danger nor safety.

Nothing of the external goes away and I may ‘leave’ this space any time I wish and I always come away ‘more than’ in some indefinable way.

What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; 
what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.
–Matthew 10.27

Monday, January 30, 2012

When The Siren Goes Off

Today while I was talking on the phone with a congregant, The Siren went off.  In this community, too small to qualify even as a village, The Siren is a call – all hands on deck – come now!

Or it’s an exercise.

I’m not sure which it was today.  Most likely it was a call for the volunteers who make up the Fire Department or Rescue Squad to respond – quickly.

The Siren is loud enough to be heard for miles.

I live right next door.  (That’s my back yard and garage in the picture).

But whether it’s the sound of the Rescue Squad sirens or the Fire Engines, or the even louder clarion call for help of The Siren, I hear them all.

Sometimes they’re headed way out into the country.  Sometimes they’re headed right next door.

But whenever I hear them, I always stop what I’m doing and say a little prayer – for the safety of all those responding to the call, for the healing and rescue needed for those to whom they respond.

What I don’t always remember to say or pray is my thanks – thanks that these men and women put their lives on hold to respond to the call, Come now!

And so I say it now: to all the members of fire and rescue squad departments the world over, and especially to the volunteers, Thank you.  Thank you for your service.  Thank you for your willingness.  Thank you for your kindnesses to strangers.  Thank you for being there for all of us.

For answering when The Siren goes off, thank you.
If you want to give a shout out of thanks to the McDowell Volunteer Fire Department, check out their web site at McDowell VFD and check out the rest of the site too.

"I Dont' Know -- We Didn't Get It Yet"

Creative Commons/Flickr

When I spoke to my grandson Rowen on the phone yesterday, he was with his dad getting pizza.  Making conversation, I asked him, “What are you getting on your pizza?”  There was silence.  Hoping to prompt him a bit more, I asked, “Are you getting pepperoni?”  His response: “I don’t know – we didn’t get it yet.”

I chuckled at the literal truth of his statement and we were off to other 4-year-old conversational topics, like why it wouldn’t be good to let Sidney the Mighty Huntress of the Night (our shared black cat) eat the birds outside my window.

But reflecting back, what strikes me about Rowen’s very clear understanding of what he does and does not know is the child’s motif of living in the present.

How old are we when we start predicting outcomes?  When expectations become the norm?  When failed expectations equate to failed realities in our minds?

It seems the by the age of 5, we humans are pretty good at predicting outcomes.  DELL

But that’s not the same as creating expectations.  Rowen was unwilling or unable to speculate that because he usually had pepperoni on his pizza’s that he would this time as well.  He was simply content to wait until he saw the pizza to ‘know’ what this pizza would be about.

When do we stop being content to live in the Land of Not Knowing, the land that might just as well be named the Land of Simply Being?

Of course, we have to make predictions, operate on assumptions based on past experience in order to operate in this world.

But we also have to allow room to be surprised, to be content to not know what comes next with any real certainty, to be surprised and delighted every time pepperoni comes our way.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Heed the Advice of the Wise: On Being a Following Shepherd

When I first met Arthur Pow, he was tending the flowers of the church grounds at St. Luke’s in Greenock, Scotland, where I was serving as a student minister intern.  I was leaving church when Arthur, then in his 80's,  took a break from his gardening to meet me.

We spoke for a time, during which Arthur spoke to me of shepherds and their dogs – following the flock, not leading; gently keeping an eye out, not herding.

I think now and I thought then that Arthur was giving me a bit of wisdom.

Lead by following.  I wonder: is that part of Jesus’ notion that the first shall be last?  Watching out for the strays, taking it slow – no hurry, leading by following?

I tend to want to charge ahead, only seldom checking to see if anyone is following, to hurry, to be impatient with the ‘flock’, which, by its very nature, slows each other down.

But maybe slowing each other down is part of what we do for each other when we come together.

A slow herd seldom falls from the cliff.

Arthur was a retired physician who loved flowers.  Arthur died peacefully this January 16th past.  Well done, good and faithful friend to so many.  Dr. Pow's Obituary

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Culture Clash of the Literal Mind: The Birth of a Food Terrorist

I have a literal mind.  I barely understand metaphor, symbol, signage, in my own culture.  Plop me down in someone else’s culture and I am lost.  So I read and study and do exactly as I am told.

Like the day I became known as the ‘Food Terrorist’.

Serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Iraq, I was attending a meal hosted by a friend’s sister.  Somehow around the tablecloth laid out on the ground, I got separated from the rest of the CPT group and ended up being tended by an Iraqi gentleman whose name I never knew.

The table is laden with food, every dish within arms’ reach of every guest.  Bowls of red soup, chicken so tender it pulled away from the carcass which rested on a steaming bed of rice.  Using the flat bread to grasp, emulating my Arabic dinner companions, foregoing the fork thoughtfully provided for we Westerners, and concealing my offending left-handedness as best I could, I commenced eating.

And eating . . . flavor upon flavor in my mouth . . . eating beyond satisfaction – eating for obligation (“Never, never, never, refuse any food that is offered to you”, I had been told) and eating for joy . . . the gentleman beside me filling my plate with accompanying smiles . . . again and again . . . and again . . .

I do not understand his words, but the gestures and the smile are universal . . . here – try this . . . and this . . . and this . . . and I do.

And it is bliss.

But then I notice . . . the quiet . . . mid-bite, I look around and see the stunned faces, Arabic and Western alike – none can believe how much I can eat.

It is at that moment that my new friend pronounces me a Food Terrorist.

Laughter fills the silence.

The meal has ended.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Isn't It Time to Put Peace On the Table? A State of the Union Commentary

In his State of the Union Address to Congress Tuesday night, referring to Iran and its nuclear ambitions, whatever they might be, President Obama said,

And we will safeguard America’s own security against those who threaten our citizens, our friends, and our interests. Look at Iran. Through the power of our diplomacy, a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program now stands as one. The regime is more isolated than ever before. Its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions. And as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent. Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.  
But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better. And if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.  State of the Union Transcript
What was interesting to me, interesting and heartbreaking, was the response of the audience: when the President said, “I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal”, he received a standing O.  [Minute 56:26].  But when he said, “a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible”, four or five people gave a few claps [Minute 56:47].  And when he concluded with the hope that Iran might rejoin the community of nations, there was absolute silence.  [Minute 56:54].

When the President said that he would “take no options off the table”, the meaning is plain in American political parlance: the President retains what he views as his prerogative to use nuclear weapons against Iran.  Setting aside for the moment the implications of that statement, simply consider the response of the elected representative body of the United States to it:  universal approval.  Everyone or virtually everyone in that hall stood up and applauded the threat to drop nuclear bombs on Iran.

But when the President immediately followed with the statement that peaceful resolution remains possible, only four or five people even offered a few claps of approval.  And when he concluded with the hope that Iran rejoin the international community, he was met with a silence deafening in its contrast to the standing ovation of just moments ago.

I am left wondering: would our world be different if our yearning for peace were as strong as our desire for war?  Would our world be different if we longed for peace with the same enthusiasm we bring to our force and threats of force?  Would our world be different if we understood peace to spring from strength and force from weakness?

Isn’t it past time to put peace at the center of the table?

I have to think so.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Loving the Likers

I love being ‘liked’ on Facebook.

Does that make me needy?  Maybe, although I don’t think so.

I just get a real sense of connection and affirmation when something I post gets liked by folks in the FB world.  I appreciate the shout out and expect that most folks are as busy as I am with other things, so even the millisecond it takes to click ‘like’ feels like a gift.

So to the author of the recent FB pass-around of the top ten FB ‘personalities’ (i.e., the one who never says anything, but always ‘likes’ everything - well, you get the idea), I have to say that I love those likers.

They let me know that they read the post even if they don’t have the time or energy to post a written response.  They make me smile.  And that’s a good thing.

So to all the likers out there, you’re good with me and I hope you’ll keep clicking away.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Celebrating Red

I remember tomatoes warm from the sun, tomatoes a color I bite into and know pleasure.

I remember a silk dress I love – twirling in it in church, feeling like I was the Pentecost flame, arching ever more upward with each turn.

Scarlet Kingsnake
Non-venomous snake
I remember a snake so small crossing my path (or was I crossing his?) on the Appalachian Trail, a quiet intrusion of color in a quiet place made colorless by the very profusion of the sameness of the browns and greens of the forest – a small creature of white and red stripes – not crimson, not blood, just crayon-box red – ordinary and beautiful.

And now, in the winter, I revel in the cardinal in the bare forsythia branches outside my window.  His is the color of pride and I am impressed.

Today, I celebrate red.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Rush & I Won't Be Dancing at the Inaugural Ball

Some time ago, Rush Limbaugh said, “Bottom line, we don’t like being told what to eat; we don’t like being told how much to exercise . . .” regarding First Lady Obama’s Let’s Move initiative to eliminate childhood obesity.  Politics USA

Mr. Limbaugh has, on the same issue, made a joke about Mrs. Obama coming for our furnaces as a way to get kids to go outside and play.

Given the health catastrophe created by obesity, in one sense, this is about as funny as making a joke about lung cancer or a woman having only one breast, having lost the other to breast cancer. . . not funny.  But in another way, it actually is pretty funny . . . about as funny as these one liners . . .

Bottom line, we don’t like being told what to read or how to r– r— r–e–a–d it . . . (about Laura and Barbara Bush’s literacy campaigns)

Bottom line, we don’t like being told what to do with street kids . . . what does it matter whether we house them or use them for ear muffs? (about Dolly Madison’s support of orphans)

Bottom line, we don’t like being told what to wear to work – who cares if we want to go barefoot?  Toes?  Who needs toes?  in response to Helen Taft’s efforts to insure workplace safety.

Bottom line, we don’t like being told how long to work our animals – next thing you know, they’ll be telling us we can’t beat our mules – the saying ‘stubborn as a mule’ is true, don’t you know?  in response to Florence Harding’s efforts to promote the humane treatment of animals.

Bottom line, we don’t like being told that West Virginians are people too (by the way, did you know that it’s legal for a man to marry his widow’s cousin in West Virginia?) in response to Eleanor Roosevelt’s work for the people of Appalachia.

Bottom line, we don’t like being told that we shouldn’t throw our trash out the window of our cars – we like how the cans glitter in the sun in response to Lady Bird Johnson’s ‘Beautify America’ environmental campaign.

Bottom line, we don’t like being told that we should volunteer – if someone’s telling me to do it, I’m not a volunteer, now am I? in response to Pat Nixon’s volunteerism campaign.

Bottom line, we don’t like being told what we put in our mouths – that’s our business whether it’s a hamburger from McDonald’s or any kind of pills I can get my hands on in response to Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign.

Bottom line, I fear, is simply this: we don’t like. . . we don’t like anyone telling us what to do – even when it’s good for us. . . not our First Ladies (or at least some of them), not our preachers, not our bosses, not our family and friends, not even our parents. . . because we are exactly two years old and we just don’t like it!

The conversation would be ridiculous and easily dismissed if it weren’t for the fact that so many actually take it seriously.

Seriously, if you want to continue to eat those french fries, go right ahead.  But if I’m paying for it (as I do through my taxes when it comes to school lunches), aren’t I entitled to a voice in what goes on the menu?  And isn’t healthy better for our kids than unhealthy when it comes to food choices?  Do we really want the measure of a good school lunch to be what the kids want as opposed to what’s good for them?  Do we really want what kids eat at school to be an issue of personal freedom as opposed to an issue of health?

I doubt it.  Really.  Think about it: do you want your kids or anyone else’s, for that matter, to stop reading books or to read only trash at school in order to assure their personal freedom?  No.  What you want is for them to read good books, books that demonstrate quality literature, a sense of history, books that will teach them something worth learning.  And don’t you want their bodies to be as well fed as their minds?  I know I do.

So, Mr. Limbaugh, I actually thought the furnace joke was a little bit funny.  But only a little bit – because I believe you on the other stuff.  If I didn’t (believe you), it would be different.  But I do.  I believe you that you mean it when you imply that encouraging healthy eating among the young smacks of totalitarianism.  I believe you that you mean it when you say, even when it comes to children, that you don’t want anyone telling you better.

And that, Mr. Limbaugh, leaves me with these observations:

Bottom line, we don’t like it when you tell us that childhood obesity doesn’t matter.

Bottom line, we don’t like it when you tell us that nutritional education is a form of mind control.  That’s just plain silly.

Bottom line, we don’t like it when you act as if the health of our young shouldn’t be important to us.

Bottom line, we don’t like it when you try to teach us that the freedom to be foolish is more important than the collective wisdom of every branch of science when it comes to our young.

Bottom line, Mr. Limbaugh, we don’t like it when you tempt us to be dumber that we ought to be when it comes to our kids.  We don’t care who you like or don’t like.  That shouldn’t make any difference when it comes to evaluating the truth.  If all you’re offering us, Mr. Limbaugh, is a way to lampoon our political ‘enemies’, those, sir, are empty calories indeed.  

And while we may love those empty calories, we know they’re bad for us.

And so we’re going to stop eating from your plate; it just isn’t good for us.

That’s what I wish we would say.

SOURCE for causes supported by various First Ladies:  National First Ladies' Library

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hard Good-Byes

I’m big on good-byes.  I really don’t know why, because they’re so hard; but I have always felt that good-byes, literal, in-person partings, matter.  I'm the Mom who stands waving until you're out of sight, even to the point of running from the back door to the front to see you up the highway with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes -- Shakespeare knew what he was talking about -- it really is sweet sorrow.

I’ve experienced comical partings, as when I said good-bye to a summer co-worker and friend, Molly, at the train station.  Molly is young enough to be my daughter.  Even though we had only known each other for a short time, as the train pulled out, I broke down sobbing.  A sympathetic man asked, “Your daughter?”  Still sobbing, all I could manage was a choked “No!”  I’ve always worried about that poor man who must have thought all sorts of horrible thoughts, having no idea that I’m just a big cry baby when it comes to good-byes.

And like all of us, I’ve experienced the heart-breaking good-byes: saying farewell to friends and family as they were dying.  Being there, being able to have the recognition observed between us that this really is a good-bye mattered; hard as it was, I always knew I was where I should be.

But perhaps the hardest good-bye of all wasn’t my own, but one I witnessed.

I didn’t know it would be, but it was the last time I saw my Grandma Mary.  I had taken my son Ben to see her at the nursing home where she was an unwilling resident.

We said our good-byes at the front door where Grandma had walked with us.  I had taken a few steps towards the front door, where the sun was streaming through the glass.  Then I turned back.

Grandma was holding onto Ben, her arms around his waist, clinging to him as if she were clinging to life itself.  Under the protection of his embrace, she was so small.

Ben’s face was full of sadness; Grandma’s, determination: if she just held on to him tight enough, he would carry her out of there and away from her broken body.  All her strength of will, always considerable, was locked in that hug.

And just for a moment, the two of them were melded together – one.

I have often thought that walking away from her was one of the hardest things Ben ever did.

All good-byes are hard, some more so than others.   And some catch us unawares.

But somehow, they all matter.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

At Last

At last, Etta James is at peace after a life of fame and almost fame and lost fame, of abuse by others and by self, of glorious moments and inglorious periods.

In reading her bio on Wikipedia, I was forcefully struck by sadness at the recounting of her early childhood, filled with revolving caretakers, a largely-absent mother and unknown father, and a man named ‘Sarge’ all-too-willing to exploit Jamesetta (her birth name), who, by the age of 5, was demonstrating her musical ability.

Late at night, Sarge would waken Jamesetta and force her, by beating if necessary, to sing for his poker buddies, sometimes when she was soaked with urine from having wet the bed. Wikipedia

Sarge’s behavior isn’t all that unusual: parents and other adults are often willing to exploit children to their own ends.  Sex trafficking, forced labor and enslavement continue to be worldwide problems.

But even in otherwise loving safe harbors, parents will unthinkingly demand ‘performance’ from their children.  I’m sure I’ve done it myself: say ‘mommy’. . . show them how fast you run . . . draw them a picture . . . 

While it isn’t necessarily exploitation to ask things of our children, when we do it for our own glory or pride, when we fail to consider their desires, their shyness or reluctance, when we demand rather than ask for a ‘performance’ to prove how special we are because our children are in some way special, loving encouragement turns into exploitation.

Even the definition of exploit reveals the bitter irony: when used to refer to something I do to, for, or with myself, it’s a positive, as in I love hearing about Beth’s exploits, referring to tales of adventure or heroism; but when used to refer to my treatment of another, as in Beth exploited Ben’s talents from an early age, it refers to my use of Ben for my own advantage or gain, without counting the cost to Ben.

It is the recognition that what I can do for my own honor or glory quickly becomes dishonorable and vainglorious when I insist it come from another.

In otherwise loving homes, parents are challenging children to play the sports they played, to practice the musical instruments they always wanted to learn, to reenact their childhood dreams, instead of nurturing the children’s own dreams and talents.  That’s exploitation.  And even if there isn’t a beating or a drunken barrage behind it, such behavior is costly.

It denies the image of God beauty of another.

Children are not mini-me’s; they are human beings in their own right.  And far too many are longing for their own ‘At Last’ day of freedom from the exploitative demands of those charged with their nurture and care.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Face in the Crowd

Nobody does the face-in-the-crowd to comedic effect better, I think, than Monty Python, especially in Life of Brian.  Photobombing, “to drop into a photo unexpectedly, to hop into a picture right before it’s taken” Urban Dictionary, intentionally seeks a Python-esque moment, usually, I suspect, with less success and much more irritation on the part of those who had a very different picture in mind than Python.

But seeing the cat and dog photobomb got me to wondering what famous scenes or pictures do I wish I had been a part of, even as a mere face in the crowd?

This being January, Dr. King’s I have a dream speech on the Mall in Washington, D. C. comes to mind, as does Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  I have no Forrest-Gump desire to have been at the center of the action, so I guess I’m not really a photobomber at heart.  But I would have liked merely to have been there, to hear with my own ears, see with my own eyes.

I would liked to have been part of the crowd when some important decisions were made, like the decision for the United States to invade Iraq.  Well, ‘like’ is actually the wrong word; I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have ‘liked’ any part of that experience, but for once, I would want to understand what people are thinking when they reach decisions that so dramatically affect so many people in such horrible ways.

I would have liked to be in the audience for the first performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  For that, I wouldn’t even mind not being in the group shot.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

When Sound Turns Into Music

Some time ago, my friend and fellow pastor, Melissa, speaking about my struggles to learn to play the cello, with lots of descriptors by me of the screeches and howls I was managing to evoke from my instrument, spoke of her own love of playing and the magic moment when sound turns into music.  Even though I haven’t gotten there on the cello, I knew just what she meant.

A symphony of laundry
from Wikimedia Commons
The rough and tumble mix of voices in the choir melding into one sweet note of accord . . . the murmur of husband and wife emerging into one long note of love . . . the sing-song cadence of the preached sermon transforming into a spoken song of praise . . . a single, understandable word emerging from a baby’s gibberish . . . the moment on the dance floor when you and your partner move as one . . . when the seemingly random calls of the birds clarifies in my ears into the song of the flying world . . . when the sung notes of a single man in the Baptistry in Piza reverberate into a choir of sound as he sings to and with himself . . . when crunching tires in the snow evoke the rhythms of the swishing jazz drum player . . . when the wind-whipped laundry on the line on a cold and bright winter’s day segues into hand-clapping, foot-stomping, finger-snapping, rhythmic gusto . . . when sound turns into music . . . Melissa’s right . . . it is magic.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Transforming Boundaries

Human-created boundaries have a very different meaning to the divine I Am.

We humans work so hard to live as boundary people.  Boundaries just seem so necessary to us . . . good fences make good neighbors, we say, quoting Robert Frost . . . wrongly . . . for Frost hated the very idea of walls and fences . . .

SOMETHING there is that doesn't love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun; And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. . . No one has seen them made or heard them made, But at spring mending-time we find them there. I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; And on a day we meet to walk the line And set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go. . . Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, One on a side. It comes to little more: He is all pine and I am apple-orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors." Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I could put a notion in his head: "Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I'd ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down!. . . Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Robert Frost would tear down the walls . . . but Jesus . . . oh wonderful, beautiful, playful Jesus . . . Jesus would walk on them . . . he would straddle that middle space that stands in between us all . . . like Mary Lou Retton in her best balance beam form . . . like a child running along the wall . . .

Jesus doesn’t ignore the walls
He doesn’t tear down the walls
He doesn’t honor the walls
And He doesn’t go around the walls

He simply jumps up on them. . . runs along them . . . laughs and calls over them  and in the jumping and running and laughing and calling, the walls are changed . . . still brick on brick, rock on rock, walls are now . . .

The sailing ship of a small boy imagining adventures at sea . . .
The empty canvas of the urban artist . . .
The tightrope of a girl with gymnast desires in her veins . . .
A place for neighbors and friends to rest their elbows while they pass the time enjoying each other’s company . . .
A place for the ivy to grow stronger in the sun’s heat baked into the bricks . .

It is the blessing not of the doctor’s cure, but of the divine’s sharing . . .

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mormon Shout Out

This summer I spent a few days on a girls’ trip to NYC, with the obligatory sashay through Times Square.

We didn’t get to see The Book of Mormon, but as we stood in the Square, I laughed out loud to see among the many and vast lighted ads beckoning all to jump into the very-American consumer trough, a billboard for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons. 

I absolutely love that the Mormon church took head-on the lampooning of their faith by advertising for it right where folks gather to see the play.  And like the Quakers and Methodists before them, they’ve executed the perfect jujitsu move, using someone else’s hostile momentum to their advantage, claiming their identity proudly.

I still want to see the play and I’m sure I’ll laugh heartily with everyone else.  But I’ll also be remembering the millions of Mormons represented on the billboard outside smiling and telling me it’s okay; the joke’s on them.

The Invisible Woman

I am invisible.  It’s true.  If you’ve never met me, or met me only casually, if you encounter me as one of a thousand faces in a crowd, mine is the one you won’t remember, mine the profile you couldn’t identify in a line-up, mine the visage apparently dreamt of by spy novelists when they describe the nondescript, the crowd-forgettable character no one can remember having seen after the crime is committed.   The Nondescript Character Trope

Friends laugh and deny until they travel with me into new environs.  Loved ones shake their heads until they’re watching me be jostled and stepped on in a crowd that parts like the proverbial face-off between Moses and the Red Sea before them.  Colleagues disbelieve until we stand together meeting an acquaintance who recognizes them yet does not even see me standing at their side.

Seattle Mariners catcher Dan Williams,
often not recognized by people who
have met him, including huge fans!
I am invisible.  Back in the law-practice days, it could be a handy trait turned to quick advantage against the unwary opponent who discounted me because of that forgettability factor.  And in my college days, it was a downright blessing when it came to classes I’d just as soon skip as attend, for I was never missed.

And once we’ve spent time together, you will remember me.  That’s something.

Most of the time, as with all other human conditions and oddities, I navigate around the invisibility factor in my life, making myself memorable if the occasion seems to warrant and otherwise simply accepting that you will not remember an encounter that I will.  Or I take it as an object lesson for me, to really see others, really hear them, really notice them.

But some days, I forget how forgettable I am.  And in the forgetting of this wall-blending attribute, I am caught unawares and wounded, as I literally watch someone not see me, not notice me notice them, not register my existence.

Being invisible makes for good spies, waiters, and even pastors, disappearing that The Word not be obscured.

But every now and again, it would be nice to be noticed, to be seen and be remembered, by a stranger.  It would be nice not to have my feet crushed whenever I travel into a group or a crowd.  Every now and then.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What's In a Name?

Watching the BBC production of Sherlock Holmes featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, I found myself waiting on the credits, trying to remember his name – actually his last name – when I noticed his first name and had to laugh – you just don’t see many Benedicts in the United States.   Benedict Arnold kind of ruined that for all the would-be Benedicts here.  The name is synonomous with ‘traitor’ and who wants to name their kid ‘traitor’?

Some names just seem to disappear because someone infamous changes the very meaning of the name, so that Benedict (at least in the U. S.) no longer means blessed, it’s literal meaning from the Latin benedictus, but rather, ‘traitor’.

Adolf no longer means noble anything . . . and Judas, like Benedict, refers not to the praise of God (the literal meaning: God is praised), but to the act of personal betrayal.

And on the personal level, can’t we all think of names we would never give our children because that name has become associated in our minds with some horrible trait or behavior based on someone we knew, probably in kindergarten?

Naming is a powerful thing, speaking desire into reality.  But acting is also powerful and actions can change the meaning and intention of the naming.

Shakespeare was, it turns out, just wrong . . . a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet.

But the reverse is perhaps also true . . . a horror of a name can be redeemed by the life of the one ‘wearing’ it.  

Friday, January 13, 2012

MLK: The Quintessential Cultural Icon of our Age

The term cultural icon has been defined as “figures who have changed our cultural landscape throughout the years”. Open Culture  It seems like a good definition to me.

Searching the web to see who might be considered the cultural icons of 2011, I stumbled upon somebody’s list for the last 50 years:

10. Paul Newman
9. Princess Diana
8. The Beatles
7. Oprah Winfrey
6. Muhammad Ali
5. Michael Jackson
4. Marilyn Monroe
3. Frank Sinatra
2. Madonna
1. Elvis

No politicians. . . no religious figures . . . no one save Princess Di from outside the United States . . .  Eight of the 10 are entertainers, one a sports figure and one a paparazzi-drawing public figure.

To be fair, their list was of ‘pop’ cultural icons.  And the Lord knows, with this list, I’d have to bend over backwards to be fair.  The comments were even worse than the list, as many made the case to move Michael Jackson to the top.

Pop (short for 'popular') or not, I want to know . . . where is Che?  And if we’re talkin’ t-shirts here, how about Dylan, Baez, Hendrix & Morrison?  Buddy Holly for that matter?  JFK?  Jackie O?  Bollywood?  Andy Warhol?  Liz Taylor?  Elton John?  Gandhi?  George Carlin?  David Bowie?  Noam Chomski?  Paolo Coelho?  Leonard Cohen?  Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert?  And if we stretch just a bit further than the 50 year limit, how about Salvadore Dali and Ann Frank?

Dr. King featured on postage stamp of Kyrgyzstan
How about a man so famous all that’s needed are his initials to identify him?  How about MLK, for God’ sake?

Even a quick Google search reveals something like 2.7 million hits for t-shirt and other images featuring Dr. King . . . Google I have a dream . . . and you get more than 85 million hits . . .

When we recall the words to the songs of the musicians on the above list, we may remember where we were . . . but when we recall the words to Dr. King’s I have a dream speech, we remember where a nation was.

Dr. King was many things: preacher . . . prophet . . . Nobel laureate . . . unfaithful husband . . . visionary . . . lightening rod . . . agent of reconciliation or polarization or perhaps both . . . father . . . friend . . . saint and sinner . . . child of God . . . and, I submit, the quintessential cultural icon of our age.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Call and Response

Call and response, where the congregation verbally responds to the preacher with ‘amens’, ‘preach it’, ‘that’s right’, clapping, laughter, whoops and shouts and spontaneous singing, responses  mostly from the charismatic traditions, contains lots of repetition, because it is a rhythmic thing – it is more a dance than a speech or even a song – and in dance, steps are repeated – there is beauty in the repetition, in the pattern –
      And so it is with worship –
           So it is . . .
      That every Sunday we sing the same hymns . . .
      Say the same prayers . . .
      Listen to the same message . . .
      Repeat the same words . . .
      Fold hands and bow heads in the same ways . . .
      See the same faces . . .
      Stand in the same places . . .
And so it is that every Sunday, we enact the Word of God, waiting to be surprised. . . and often we may not even know what we’re waiting for or even that we are waiting . . .

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sitting Pretty

The turkey vulture or as it’s known where I live, the turkey buzzard is anything but beautiful . . . it’s red-skinned featherless head and hunched appearance, its ungainliness when not flying, not to mention what it’s actually eating off the asphalt, tend to make me recoil on sight from these critters.

My son Ben and grandson Rowen, however, have developed quite an affinity for the turkey buzzard and Ben even managed to find a children’s book celebrating the bird’s contribution to creation (yes, all creation needs its garbage collectors, I grant you, but that doesn’t make them beautiful).

Yesterday, I saw these birds in a different light.

There’s a large water tower adjacent to the house of my friends where I’ve been staying.  Yesterday was the day of Stu’s funeral and before we were to leave, I was standing outside basking in the warmth of the sunlight on an otherwise cold winter’s day.  Looking towards the water tower, I noticed at first one and then another and then another of the buzzards alight on the rail surrounding the tower, with their wings outspread.

It was an oddly-compelling sight and for the life of me, I could not figure out what they were doing in this seeming defiance of gravity and balance.  They actually held position as long as I watched and presumably beyond.  I found myself going into the house only to come back out and see if they were still at it: they were.

After asking the folks gathered with no success, I, of course, went to the internet.  While there may be alternative explanations, the consensus seems to be that this is the flight enhancing interactive design plan of an I. M. Pei:
In the morning, Turkey Vultures are often seen standing on tree limbs with their wings outstretched to the sun.  They are a very lightweight bird with long hollow bones filled with air.  As the sunshine warms them, the air in their wing bones expands, warming them up and making it easier to fly.  Cathartes aura, the Latin name for Turkey Vultures, translates as Golden Purifier or Cleansing Breeze.  American Indians called these birds the “Peace Eagles” and regarded them as a symbol of strength in accepting difficulty. Turkey Vulture
And now, as I contemplate the uplifted wings of the turkey buzzard, I am reminded of the meaning of its Latin name: cleansing breeze . . . eating carrion may be the work of the garbage collector of the bird world, but the cleansing breeze of their work is indeed an occasion for wing-lifting, bold posture thanksgiving.

Fly well, Peace Eagles, fly well.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Things I Wish I Had Said

You take the last piece of cake.

Yes, I’ll jump off that cliff with you.

Let’s go for a ride.

Come with me.

Be my friend.

Can I say grace this time?

Have all you want.





Saturday, January 7, 2012

What is a Lamset, Alex?

Another in my continuing silliness of making up definitions for the random letters for the online  security check to make sure that you’re a human being (as opposed to what, I want to ask), aka captcha.

The definition possibilities are:
1. A lamb in the blocks, race position fixed
2. A fine sewing needle – or –
3. A straw hat

The answer?


Monday we gather, we friends of Stu Hammel, to bid him the final farewell in this thing we call a funeral.  It has been an incredibly sad week.  But for these few hours, there’s been a respite – the calm in the eye of the storm . . . the place where family and friends sit and actually laugh, allowing themselves to wander from the focus on the sadness . . . forgetting for an instant . . . looking away from and towards . . . away from the pain and towards the things of life – the mundane as well as the wonderful.

There have been times in my life when I have cursed my ‘waste’ of time.  But I see things differently now . . . now I think it’s not possible to waste time . . . rather, I think we simply live . . . for however long it is allotted to us, we live . . . whether ridiculously or sublimely, we live.

That is how it should be.

My own favorite definition for the made-up word lamset is a straw hat, although it would be #1, a lamb in the blocks, race position fixed, if I ever thought I could get a lamb to pose for the picture.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Iowa Schmiowa

My friend Stu died on Wednesday.  It is only Friday and already, it seems so very, very long ago.  Life continues apace on planet earth . . . people shop at the store and silly as well as serious discussions carry on even among us, those who mourn.

And the news keeps spinning out.

Last night, or was it this morning?  I think it was this morning . . . there was the usual US Presidential race coverage on television, only now, it was about New Hampshire instead of Iowa.  Did Iowa already happen?  I ask the fellow mourner sitting beside me on the couch.  I don’t know and I don’t care, she replied.

I thought about that for a moment.  Me neither, was my equable answer.  And it was true.  I really don’t care whether the Republican candidates have already been to Iowa or not.  I really don’t care who won and who’s claiming they won, even though they didn’t.

When did ‘news’ become a nation’s soap opera?  When did it become that you could simply fill in the blanks to never-ending and never-changing narrative?  When did our news become about the unimportant, the trivial?  And when did the really important things get pushed away to make room for the drivel we dub ‘news’?

I wasn’t looking that day.

I should have liked to have a vote in our collective decision to be held captive to the irrelevant by the irresponsible.

I wasn’t looking that day.

I’m sure Iowa is a lovely place to live and meaning no disrespect, I have to say . . .

Iowa, Schmiowa . . .

Nowhere for a Fish to Live

When I was about 7 years old, my parents got me 2 gold fish, a gold fish bowl and some fish food.  I was set.  A few days later, the first fish died.  The other fish actually lived about 5 years, but it turns out that gold fish actually have an average life span measured in decades.

I most likely killed both fish with my ignorance.

Even more alarming in some ways is that my 1-inch long fishie stayed about that size all his (her?  I never knew for sure) life because he lived in a fish bowl.  Goldfish 101

Goldfish stay small because their environment is small . . . the fish bowl is nowhere for a fish to live.

I wonder what prison cells we build for ourselves, decorating them inside and out and calling them something else?

I wonder how our own growth is stunted by the small places of mind and body and heart into which we insert ourselves for safe keeping of one sort or another, only to find that we have accidentally made ourselves small?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

For the Man Who Was So Much More

My friend Stu, Stuart F. Hammel, late of Reading, Pennsylvania, died yesterday morning at 3.52 a.m., lying in his family bed, with his wife Twila holding his hand and whispering reassurance into his ear.

Stu at the Golden Gate bridge -
one of Stu's 'thin places'
What keeps coming to me as I think about such things as life and death and the singularity that was Stu is exactly that . . . Stu was a singular guy.

He was my college professor and debate coach more than 35 years ago.  Naturally, I harken back to those times . . . truly halcyon days in our lives, Stu and Twila and me.

I think on Stu and cast about, trying to define Stu’s place in my own life . . . college was such a foundational time, but it was so very long ago . . . how can I recapture that time?  Those feelings?  The defining beginning of a tapestry that would weave our lives, together and mostly, separately?

This is what I come to: Stuart Frederick Hammel was a man who looked at people and decided about them . . . and what he decided was whether they were worth knowing . . . worth adding to the Stu Hammel ‘collection’.

And for some reason, Stu decided that I was someone worth knowing and worth knowing better.

That’s quite a gift to give someone: the belief that in your eyes, they are worth knowing and over time, worth knowing better.

I hope you have such people in your own life.

For one, I am so very, very, grateful that I had a Stu . . . no, the Stu, in my life, deciding that I am worth being known.

Thank you, dear friend.  May your eternal rest be all that I imagine it can be and so much more.

Stu's obituary

For more on Thin places (the places where we feel our closest connections to God and the cosmos), check out Iona's web site.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Envy of the Dead

When I was fifteen, my Grandmother on my mother’s side died.  Grandmother and I were separated by great distance most of the time, so I did not know her as well as my other grandmother.  But I can remember being outraged on her behalf with the sense of propriety that only an adolescent can muster against the lesser-ness of her elders, in the face of the laughter and loud and even boisterous chatter of those visiting the family at the funeral home.  There was even cigar smoke, for God’s sake.  Who were these people and how dare they ignore the reality of my grandmother’s body lying right in front of them?  It was an insufferable affront.

My memories of that time remind me of Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in which, as I recall it, Ivan Ilyich grows increasingly resentful over the seeming lack of care from his family about the very clear reality that he is dying.

I wonder, though, were they truly uncaring or were they simply doing what the living do: living?

As I sit with others in caring for my dear and dying friend Stu, it is clear that Stu does not resent that our lives continue without him.  He regrets it; he is sad for what he will miss.  But he does not begrudge the living their lives, their continuity.

Should I suffer like Stu and Ivan Ilyich, should I have the slow rather than quick kind of meeting with death and dying, will I begrudge the living?  Or will I rejoice in their largess even as I regret its loss in my own journey?

Will I hate the laughter surrounding my body as the living discuss the cares of the living; will I resent it even then?

I hope that my corpse will be filled with grace rather than resentment, acceptance and love rather than envy.

That would be a good death, I think.

Monday, January 2, 2012

On Being a Humble Truth-Seeker

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote hundreds of years ago on truth, capital-T Truth:
The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud. If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this one—the pure Truth is for You alone.  Wikiquote
Mendelssohn, Lessing & Lavater
Wikimedia Commons
Lessing’s premise, that it is more blessed, more holy, indeed, more true, to seek Truth rather than to claim or possess it, is, in our time, an extraordinary one. . . for are we not the quintessential holders, claimers and defenders of the True?

Lessing’s answer is clear and succinct: no.  And if we pretend that we are, we aim at usurpation of the divine.

Left with a choice, he says, he would always choose the seeking after of Truth, for Truth, ultimate, settled-for-all-time Truth is the purview of God alone.

What an extraordinarily humble and wise thing to say.

Daniel Berrigan’s Advent Credo redound, “This is true. . .” rings in my head.  But even those claims, lofty, noble and in my view, true, as they are, must be uttered with the same humility urged by Lessing: I can only ever see through a mirror dimly when it comes to anything, including the divine vision of justice, mercy and love, let alone the ultimate divine claim upon us: the claim of, to, from, and for life.

This is awfully abstract.

I write in abstractions today for I am not yet ready to write in the concrete: a friend lays upstairs dying and we who love him gather round.  This I know to be true; but is it True?  I cannot say.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Eighth Day of Christmas: Blessed Are. . .

From A Catholic Notebook blog

From the song The Twelve Days of Christmas, today, the first day of 2012, is the 8th day of Christmas, represented by eight maids a milking.

Although it is discounted by much modern scholarship, there has been a suggestion that each ‘day’ of the song represents a teaching from the Bible, particularly for Catholics during the time of their persecution in England.  Wikipedia: The Twelve Days of Christmas

In that understanding, putting aside for the moment the historicity of the claim and the distaste at remembering persecution, today would be the day to recall the Beatitudes found in Matthew 5.3-10 (NIV)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, 
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn, 
   for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, 
   for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
   for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, 
   for they will be shown mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, 
   for they will see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers, 
   for they will be called children of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, 
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The practice of blessing is one we might do well to adopt in this year of 2012 mythology of cataclismic endings, Mayan predictions of the end of time and Christian crazies continuing to presume to tell all the date and time of our collective end.

For the practice of blessing is one that reminds us that in our creaturliness, we inhabit the here and the now and while Jesus’ beatitudes may be promising future reward, they speak most eloquently, I think, not to reward in a distant horizon we can barely imagine, but rather to our present circumstance, telling us that no matter how challenging, no matter how bleak, our poverty, our sorrow, our humility, our hunger, our mercy, our focused hearts, our passion towards peace, even our suffering for the cause of justice in the here and the now have meaning . . . cosmic meaning.

Blessings are not blow-out-the-candle birthday wishes . . . rather, blessings speak something into reality.  Blessing are an act of creation.  And as such, blessings are incredibly brave and faith-filled things to offer . . . the creation of comfort where there seems to be none to be had . . . the creation of hope where things seem hopeless . . . the creation of rest right smack-dab in the middle of unrest . . . the creation of peace in the midst of violence . . .

My blessing offered for us all this year some of us name 2012 . . .

Blessed is the human as it struggles and writhes in its own birth, life and dying pangs, for it will find creativity . . . and solace . . . meaning and purpose . . . life and all its attendant joys . . .

May it be so, O Lord, may it be so.