Monday, March 31, 2014

Disappearing the Dead

During my trip with CPT to Colombia in the summer of 2005, we hear about the displaced and the disappeared.  One of the things I notice time and again in lands torn apart by the violence of war is the absence of the men, especially the young ones.  In my prayer journal, I wrote at the time about that absence . . .

Where are all the men?  Dear God, where are all the men?  And what kind of a world have we made when a woman’s prayer of most hope is “let me die first”?  O God, forgive.

Esperanza?  Where is esperanza?  Where is hope?  Donde esta?

Fathers and brothers and husbands and sons killed and killed and killed until there are no more men and women are left to look for and bury their bones.  In this land of widows and orphans, men are literally an endangered species.

With a violent death, is there always frozen a moment, the last ordinary moment, the moment before?  Is it the moment you imagine could change it all if only it were changed?  Left instead of right?  Or is it only the frozen, beautiful moment of before?  The moment just before the moment when ordinary time ends?

Seven years later she still mourns and does not forget that no priest was permitted, no proper words allowed to be spoken, when her murdered husband was buried.  Cut off, under threat herself, she notices the absence; it is a part of the litany of her suffering, their abuse.

They even disappear the dead here.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

In a World Where Giraffes Are Possible

Some years back, a whale swam up the Delaware River clear to Trenton [who swims to Trenton, New Jersey?] and every night became a whale watch . . .

In distant jungles are birds that sing with their wings and dance backwards – O delight!  Hand-clapping . . . laugh-out-loud . . . do-it-again-pleading delight –

I live in a world where giraffes are possible and rainbows are common place.

I am blessed.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Answered Prayer

Prayers wend like streams of consciousness through a day . . . thank you . . . help . . . guide . . . don’t let him crash and burn – don’t let him . . . please . . . glory . . . a husband’s thank the Lord upon good news of his wife’s surgery . . . I’m so grateful for you . . . the gentle talk among friends distracting a husband from clock counting awareness that carries on despite the kindness as the perpetual backdrop to each spoken word, each silent moment . . . let it be otherwise . . . worry transforms to pleading to prayer and mixes with the smoke of hope . . . and in the waiting time, when outcomes are unknown, there is rest and respite and the sense of prayer heard, prayer answered and all is as it is and that too is prayer and answer . . .

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why Is the Knowing So Costly?

For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.  –Ecclesiastes 1.18

Blissful ignorance –
you state of happy
Donde estas?
Gone . . .
gone . . .
erased slowly
with each bit of
knowledge achieved . . .
of wisdom received

Why is the knowing so costly?
The question percolates up
to the place where wisdom
and grief
and sorrow
meet and dance

Why so costly?
How could it be otherwise?

Written in 2005, I pondered then as I ponder now the place of blissful ignorance and the cost of knowing the cost to others of the actions I take as they ripple into this world of which I am a citizen too.  Yes, knowledge is costly, as it should be.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Blessed with Eyes to See

You, my Lord, have stood on earth and looked at the same moon that I see.

In Your humanity stands the center of mystical Love.

Here . . . now . . . the entire world is sanctified. . . holy made . . . consecrated blessed.

How I long to ascend . . . descend . . . approach . . . to simply rejoice in the many ways of knowing always . . . ever . . . only . . . You.

El-roi, God Who Sees . . . You have granted me a wee bit of Your seeing eyes as here I stand and behold the same moon Your eyes have seen, Your hands have held.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Prodigals Don't Always Leave By Choice

In the early summer of 2005, I traveled to Colombia with CPT.  Among so many others, we meet an older couple whose son was murdered 18 years previous because he went fishing on the wrong day in the wrong place – or so another man with a gun thought at the time.  I wonder if that man still lives and what he thinks of that life he took now.  I wonder if there were other lives taken.  I wonder the cost to him in the taking.  I wonder about wildernesses of our own making, we human-war-making beings.  These are the things I wonder now.

What I wrote, what I prayed at the time, was all about these parents growing old without their boy . . .

Dona Marcelena and Don Juan sit and speak quietly.  Don Juan tells us, “we do not manage the fear; the fear manages us,” describing nights of belly-gripping terror, spent listening to every sound of the forest, every rustling leaf a potential FARC, ELN or para.

O God, forgive us that in their old age, we visit on such folk fear and not peace, sorrow and not joy at a race well run.

They have had 16 children, but even 15 will not make up for the one who is missing from their table.

Prodigals do not always leave by choice.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Why a Wilderness?

Jesus was getting ready by
         doing less
         eating less
           taking in less
         perhaps even
         being less

In less did lie his strength
         this anti-Sampson
         of a hero . . .
         or not

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Second Temptation

SCRIPTURE:  Matthew 4.5-7
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,  ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
The Second Temptation 

Jump!  Jump!  Jump!

Context means everything in how we hear and understand things.

The shouted jump is greeted with cheers at the basketball game as one center’s extended arm tips the balance to his team. . . with exuberant dancing when Van Halen’s Might As Well Jump is played at a dance or event . . . with family-gathered cheers when a toddler first learns to bounce . . . with hope and command from the firefighters below when it’s someone escaping a burning building . . .

And then there’s the macabre twist of the crowd uglies chanting jump to one standing up high seeking to end their pain with one last failed effort to fly in what we call suicide [literally: self killing].

In Matthew 4, we hear of Jesus’ second temptation: the temptation to jump.  But it’s not really about jumping; the temptation is for Jesus to substitute himself for God, his vision for God’s, his desires for God’s.

That, however – all that understanding, is hindsight.  In the midst of the temptation, Jesus is hungry and thirsty and tired and alone with only this nagging voice in the wilderness to keep him company telling him that up is down and now is all that matters.

Lots of people have stood on top of buildings and contemplated their fates.  Some walk away quietly after a time.  Some are talked down.  And some jump.

I wonder – in that last step actually taken – in the moment of free-fall beginning, is there a desire, a child-like hope to be caught up by angel arms?  Is there a desperate belief that someone will pull off a last-minute rescue?  Or is there simply desire for ‘it’, whatever it may be at the time, to stop, to end?

When the finger closes on the trigger . . . when the foot moves out in to space . . . when the noose is tightened . . . are there thoughts of angels then?

I suspect not.

I suspect the desire for ending is so strong that nothing else has place or space.

The big lie – told by those inside and outside of church – is that God will make things so it doesn’t hurt.  Or – that if God doesn’t take away the hurt, God isn’t much of a God after all, for surely the purpose of a god is to take away our hurts.

God is not in the magic business, making this reality out of that one.

It is tempting in the dark times to simply fall into the wind and hope for the best.  It’s seductive, this belief that the end of pain lies within our grasp when pain holds such power over us.  And when pain is our only reality, there is no comfort, perhaps, in knowing that it will pass.  In such times, what we have is a God not who makes magic and wipes away our reality.  What we have is a God who falls with us to earth, never flinching, never leaving.

Some days, that’s enough to keep me from jumping.

And if you’re someone thinking about jumping, I, for one, wish you wouldn’t.  Really.  I’m much rather wrestle with you in the mud than mourn for you in the funeral parlor.  I’d much rather sit with your tears and pain than with your corpse.  I’d much rather have no answers than you have no questions.  Because you matter.  To God.  To me.  To you.

If suicide is on your mind and you need someone with training to talk to, check out Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The First Temptation: Not By Bread Alone

SCRIPTURE:  Matthew 4.1-4 [Jesus' first temptation in the wilderness]

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Jesus is taken to the wilderness – this wilderness time is not of Jesus’ own choosing.  As Melissa Harmon says, “This is Jesus’ spiritual boot camp.”

He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 

This hunger is very different than ordinary hunger – not because of how long it lasted, but because of why it was.  Jesus was famished because he had fasted – that is, he had deliberately abstained from food as a spiritual discipline.

Fasting is an act of strengthening rather than weakening.  It is a way of drawing closer to God by putting away all distractions, including the distraction of the belly. Thus it would seem clear that Jesus knew he was to face trials or tests and he prepared to meet them.  It is ironic, then, that his first temptation has to do with the very fact of his preparation.

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 

The Tempter is first referred to as ‘the devil’, in Greek,  diabolou - literally ‘The Slanderer’ (the lie teller) or ‘the adversary’ (opponent, enemy).  This is the adversary of God come to thwart the divine plan for Jesus.

But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Deuteronomy 8 is a sermon by Moses to the people about to enter the promised land.  Verse 3 from which Jesus quotes says, “[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna . . . in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

God reminds the people before they enter into their prosperity that in their poverty, God was their provider.

This is the passage Jesus quotes to The Tempter to reject his offer to make a stone sandwich – the passage that reminds the people Israel not to sacrifice their souls in favor of their bellies . . . that tells them in advance that God well knows who they are and how they will behave . . . that when they get all they want or need, they’ll be tempted to claim all the credit for themselves and deny God in the process.

Perhaps this, then, is at the heart of Jesus’ first temptation: the desire to rush ahead to try to do for ourselves, to take credit for what we have and in the taking, deny the God who provided all along.

Thus might we understand Jesus’ answer:  You, Tempter, would have me turn my back on all God has done for me just to show off what a big deal I am – stone sandwich maker, indeed!  You really think a little snack is worth more to me than God?  I may not see the path ahead clearly.  I may not like where it takes me.  I might plead with God to change my destiny.  But I cannot not forget my God.  Oh, and in case you didn’t notice, my hunger made me stronger, not weaker.  Guess you weren’t paying attention that day in class!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Noah's New Suitcase

In comes the wee boy, sisters in tow, to show the one a picture on offer at our annual yard sale he thinks she must have – it is made in his eyes just for her – puppies – of course she must have it and does.

Then his eyes cast about and land upon ‘it’ – that perfect thing that must be had – a rich creamy brown soft-sided suitcase – mid-size – just right for him at his size.  He lifts and hefts.  He walks around it, eyeing its dimensions.  He lays it on its side, zips it open, inspects the interior, rezips, puts it back up and hefts some more, by his actions pronouncing it good.

And then he looks that look – the impossible-to-say-no-to look little boys know so well.  But Grandma and Grandpa aren’t having it.  There is no whining – only persistent desire, which melts an unintended target and Laura leans around behind me and slips the necessary $2 into Noah’s hand which he then gives her back – transaction complete, grandparents sigh and smile and take them away.

We watch as they stand outside, Noah with his new rich creamy brown soft-sided suitcase that comes to his waist.  He hefts it with his right hand, then switches to his left.  He walks around it, inspecting it now with the certitude of the new proud owner.  He gestures and comments words we cannot hear, showing his family what a good buy it surely was.

Sometimes a suitcase is just what a boy needs and sometimes it takes someone else’s grandma to know it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

This First Day of Spring is for Gloria


glory - n.  magnificent.

A woman who, born when she was, became a librarian, traveled the world, raised two children, hunted and killed and prepped and cooked wild game with her own hands, played bridge well enough to give competitors the hives, loved and lived the oceanside and the mountains with equal ease, ran a business, helped build a library for a people who weren’t sure they wanted one, let her man run their affairs even though she was probably better able than he . . .

that woman is, in a word, magnificent.  She could not have been better named had her parents actually seen her future with their own eyes.

Gloria traversed the Nile and the fjords.  She was a great cook and a strong woman.  She loved passionately, albeit with clear eyes.  She was no sentimentalist.  She was a woman of the earth – this earth, where her feet were always firmly planted.

So her life, so her faith – a practical thing that didn’t get talked much, but got lived every day.

She was a citizen in the best sense of the word, thinking it her duty to do something when something needed doing.  She was informed about world events.  She voted.  She participated.  And when a neighbor needed help, she helped.

She was a woman sure in her own skin, never threatened by other women.

And then came the time when she needed the helping.  That wasn’t so easy for a woman accustomed to being the one doing the taking care.  But she was always gracious about it (well, almost always – I suspect she’s still trying to figure who ratted her driving out to the police).

In her last days, she would insist on holding her own cup even though her own fingers could no longer make the shape to hold it.  And she would thank you for allowing her this dignity, this grace of trying.

And in those last days, she asked after others, wanting to know from her own dying bed how Harriett was doing and whether Laura had come home from the hospital yet.

She missed her therapy group (you know who you are) in her last year, but bowed away graciously when she could no longer hold or see the cards.

And she resented it terribly that her good friend Sue, 7 years her senior, was so much more fit than she.  In some ways, that competition kept her going, for if Sue could do it, surely she could too.

I picture her husband Don, gone on before, in the fall – showing me the best places to find nuts fallen from the trees and when to get there before the greedy bears, getting out of the hospital and stopping off to get a turkey, crawling back and dragging the turkey behind him.

But it is in spring that my thoughts turn to glorious Gloria, who had faith enough to invite this old woman to come and be her preacher.

Left in winter, it is in the greening time she is missed.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

If I Needed a Doctor, I Wouldn't Call You

Years ago, a well-meaning family member almost shouted at me to “do something” about another dysfunctional family member who was acting out at the time.  Let’s just take it as a given that I was the one who ‘should’ do something.  The totally frustrating, even angering, thing for me was the vast universe of presuppositions contained in that single statement.

What I said back at the time was, “what, exactly, is it that you propose that I do?”

The well-meaning family member’s response was silence and my retort a snort.

That’s pretty much how I feel about all the advice out there in ether-land about how church is being done so very, very wrong, especially by the wee tiny ones.

Everybody is pretty quick to diagnose the many (as they see it) problems.  But they’re pretty darned short on sound, concrete advice about what to do different, better.

So to all the advice-givers, I have some advice for you:

1. Stop presupposing you know what the problem is and that we don’t.

2. Stop presupposing that we’ve been busy lo these many decades doing nothing until you came along.

3. Never write another diagnosis piece without offering the cure.  Without a proposed cure, you are a waste of my time.

4. Be specific.  “Be nicer” is about as helpful as . . . well, my mother reads this, so I won’t say how helpful it isn’t, but I hope you take my point.

5. Strive for a bit more compassion.  Use those pastoral skills you were taught.

6. Think about context.  For example: I live in a remote rural county with a total population of roughly 2,400 people and declining.  The average age has to be about 60.  The folks who move here (largely in retirement) have self-selected to live in a remote geographic area.  They think and act individually rather than in a community fashion on many issues.  There are quite a few people of faith who eschew church entirely, worshiping alone at home not because church has failed them but because that’s the kind of people they are.  In the eight years I’ve been here as pastor, roughly 40 new folks have come to and through this church.  In other words, for every new person, we lose another at the rate of almost 100%.  How do you ‘gain’ ground in numbers when it’s an ageing population, which means your members will (a) die; (b) move in with the kids; ( c) go into assisted living; or (d) simply stop attending because of difficulties in hearing or embarrassment about things like incontinence in pretty short and fairly predictable order?  People literally have joined this church to die or be buried here.  Over 50% of our attendance is by people who will never join the church.  What exactly do you propose I do to increase membership when we die about as quickly as we join?  What should I do to boost the pool of leadership material when it’s leadership that many seek to avoid?

So, I ask you what I was asking the well-meaning family member those many years ago: What, exactly, is it that you propose that I do?  What should I do that I have not already done?  Really, tell me, because I’m fresh out of ideas.  So tell me and I’ll do it.  Otherwise, it’s probably best that you say nothing at all.

I’ll get specific since I’ve asked you to.  Carey Neuwhof recently posted in his blog a piece entitled, 5 Signs Your Church Culture Needs to Change.

#1?  Stop judging people.  Really?  (I realize I am overusing the word.  If you’ve a better one, I’m open to suggestions.)  Other than the simple observation that judging others is bad and Christians should stop it because Jesus doesn’t like it (which we’d all pretty much take as a given), exactly how do you propose that I as pastor help and assist my congregation to amend or change judging behavior, assuming that’s a problem in this particular location?  Most folk that I know of the Christian stripe do not think they’re judgmental even when they are.  Some honestly believe they’re offering care when they offer criticism.  And perhaps they are.  Wouldn’t it be more helpful, Carey, to pause for a moment to define what judgment is, what it looks like and some simple steps on how to overcome that tendency within ourselves individually and as a group?

#2 Handle conflict better.  I have the same response as to #1 – really?  How?  Churches embroiled in conflict know that they’re embroiled in conflict.  Telling them to stop it is silly.  Pointing out that it’s harmful is actually, I would posit, an increase in the harm.  The I’m not worthy mantra is well-played in churches.  What perhaps isn’t is the news that change is not only possible, but easier than we think.  A few well-placed suggestions on how to settle conflict in a healthy way is much more meaningful than the declarative statement to cut it out.  I’d be curious to know what’s worked for you, Carey, in your past dealings with unhealthy conflict.

Perhaps I am simply pointing out the obvious limits to the blog post as a source of important learning.  Blogs tend to be more headlines than detailed analysis.  In fact, Carey has written books about various subjects dealing with church change.  I probably do him an injustice by picking on this particular blog, which stands as one small piece of an entire body of work.

But please, fellow advice-offering ministers, believe me when I tell you: congregants in small churches, if mine is an example, have taken on very well the diagnosis that there must be something wrong with them (otherwise they wouldn’t be so small, now, would they?) and have heard precious little of the good-news gospel about themselves from the larger world.

So to my fellow pastors of small (particularly rural) churches, I would offer a different voice, the Spirit’s voice of encouragement:

1. Maybe there are things that are wrong with your church.  Work on them.  But do not let those things let you lose sight of the things that are right.  The faithful who have been there since they were born need our love, encouragement and support as much as the potential seeker walking by on a Sunday morning.

2. Maybe you’re dying.  Maybe you’re just holding steady.  And maybe holding steady is what God has pronounced good in your particular neck of the woods.

3. Never doubt the difference you make.  A whole world can tell you how you got it wrong.  But don’t forget how you got it right.  Those congregants who wear you down are busy calling folks . . . taking casseroles and crock pots to those in need . . . lovingly maintaining a building as if it were their home, because it is . . . checking in on their more feeble neighbors even when they themselves are feeble . . . bringing food for the food bank from their own cupboards . . . straightening your stole when it’s skewed because you represent them . . . crying as they face you with the offering plate as they’re moved to tears they’d hate the world to see . . . avoiding you out of shame when they’ve behaved badly . . . calling you in desperation when they haven’t been to church in years . . . those people make a difference and so do you.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Next Telemarketer Who Calls Me (Be Warned)

Disjunct in real time
Telephone marketer: “How are you today?”
Me: “Well, I’m not fine.  I’ve got a cold”
Telephone marketer: “Great”

My dog died
My pony ran away with the mailman
I’ve got snow up to my roof
I lost my job
My husband you want to sell that credit card to is in heaven

It just makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
When did the art of listening disappear?

When did my inability to speak,
     the deep hard chest cough that keeps me awake at night
     the achey soreness of the common cold
     become great news for you?

I really am curious to know
     does a cold make me more susceptible to your sales pitch?
     Nah - we both know better - don’t we?

Your success depends, you think, are taught,
     on not listening to a single thing I say

So the next time one of your kind calls,
     I think that instead of hanging up,
     I’m going to stay on the phone
     and have a little fun – while you
     give me your sales pitch, I’m going
     to give you mine – I imagine it
     going a little something like this:

YOU     How’s it going today?

ME        Do you know Jesus?

YOU     Great.

ME        As your personal Lord and Savior?

YOU     I’m calling about your car warranty.

ME        Do you know where you would go if you died tonight?

YOU     Did you know it’s about to expire?

ME        Will you say the sinner’s prayer with me?

YOU     And for just another $3,000 payable over the next 3 years (plus interest, of course), you can       continue uninterrupted your bumper to bumper coverage (if, of course, you live in the northern regions of Alberta and have 10 children under the age of 4 and can prove that you never drove the car any faster than 20 miles per hour – you know – the usual stuff).

ME        Great.

YOU     So, how about I get my boss on the line.

ME        Just repeat after me: Dear Jesus

YOU     Do you have your credit card ready?

ME        I am a sinner

YOU     I’m sorry – what?  Yeah, it would be a sin not to get this coverage at this great price, wouldn’t it?

ME        without You, I am lost

YOU     Well, that’s nice of you to say – happy I could help.

ME        I invite you into my heart and into my life

YOU     Again, that’s nice, but I really don’t get down to Virginia much.

ME        Amen.

YOU     So here comes my boss.  You have a nice day.  And thank you very much for your business.

Who says Christians (even with bad colds) have no sense of humor?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

No Extra Charge

It’s yard sale time in the mountains.  Every year for Maple Festival, we gather together at our tiny country church, bringing the things we can part with, donating them to our church yard sale to raise money for the good works of the Presbyterian Women in the coming year.

This year is no different.  And in most ways, this sale is no different than the thousands of like kind happening all over the country.  What separates a church yard sale from say your local library’s book sale is the blessing, spoken or unspoken, that accompanies it, at church ladies bag your new treasures and wish you well.

So if you, like the young woman earlier today, are carrying away your new (to you) treasure (hers was an salt and pepper shaker set in the shape of crabs), from some church sale somewhere, know that you carry another treasure with you: the blessing of strangers that all may be well with you.

And like doting grandmothers, after you are long gone, they will remember your delight and talk of it to each other, wondering how you are and if you found joy and uttering a wee prayer for you into the silence of the night.

No extra charge.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Casual Cruelty

Today I read one of those bumper-sticker quotes on FaceBook (this one attributed to Maya Angelou), which goes something like this: when someone shows you who they are, believe them.

Yesterday I read a blog post (sorry I didn’t save the link) recounting a young man watching a young woman at the gym skulk around until she was positioned to take a picture with her phone of another woman, overweight, working out – he presumed, it turned out rightfully, to post as humor.  This young man got creative and positioned himself behind the young woman to take her picture to post with her identity if she did this anonymously cruel thing.

What I loved about the story was the creative way the young man engaged the young woman in an exercise of social accountability.

What I hated about it was that this young woman felt no compunction about making fun of a stranger for no other reason than that she could.

Are such acts of casual cruelty more prevalent in our time?  Or have they always been rampant?  I don’t know.

I myself have participated in a practical joke gone horribly wrong.  So it is that I reject Ms. Angelou’s advice and choose not to judge the young woman as someone who is innately gratuitously cruel.  I see her more as an emotional child inasmuch as she was stopped not by an understanding of what she was doing, but by being caught out.

Perhaps it is the anonymity of today’s technologies that make a difference, which is one of the reasons why I put my own name to what I write.  If I’m not prepared to own it, I shouldn’t say it.  It keeps me honest and probably kinder than I might otherwise be.

We spend so much of our collective time horrified by the ‘big’ cruelties.  And they do matter.  But it’s the little cruelties that have the most impact, I suspect, if for no other reason than their commonality.

So well done to a young man who found himself with a choice one day at the gym.  I’m not sure I would have used his approach, but rather than simply observing what was happening to someone else as if it had nothing to do with him, he acted and in his acting, he changed things.  Who knows, maybe the young woman will abandon her secret life of gratuitous cruelty.  I sure hope so.

In my own case, I am simply older and wiser now.  It is a great shame that my own education came at someone else’s expense.  I will always regret that.  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Guns & Violence & Problem Solving

So here’s the thing about guns and problem-solving – guns don’t solve problems; people do.

Sound familiar?

And here’s another thought that arises from bumper-sticker philosophy: if people kill people (rather than guns, as the bumper sticker so catchily proclaims), then it stands to reason that people are the problem, which means, does it not, that it is people that are not to be entrusted with guns?

Violence and gun-toting problem solving I have encountered in my lifetime has involved . . .

A man, now dead presumably of old age, who got so angry by the fact of a right-of-way granted by his father to his neighbors (who were also relatives) that he took to shooting at said neighbors (including a 60-year-old woman carrying her groceries into her house), gas meter readers, pizza-delivery folk, and anyone who dared to exercise their lawful right to ingress and egress.  Before he died, said gentleman yielded up virtually all his earthly wealth to said neighbors.  I wonder if those shots were worth it to him?  His cousin will never know if she’s alive because he missed on purpose or was just a bad aim.

Then there was the old drunk who lived next door to my neighbor.  While we painted her house, my then 3-year-old son played in the grass with his ball.  I had warned him to stay out of the man’s yard, but he was only three and when his ball crossed the invisible line of ‘mine and not yours’, my son ran after it, at which point the angry neighbor called my son a racial slur.  One of the men of our party reacted angrily and the escalating words prompted threats of the exchange of gun fire.

Then there was the man threatening to kill his wife in the middle of the street in front of my house one night, threatening to pursue her onto my porch where she hid behind me as I stood my ground with no weapon save a telephone to get him to back down.

Or the man in a divorce case who bore down on me in the hallway, just having lost his latest bid in court, his fist raised with threatening words on his lips as I slowly took off my glasses (so they wouldn’t be broken – they were pretty expensive for me back in those days) and simply waited my fate.  At the last minute, he dropped his fist and stormed away.

Then there were the young soldiers at the many checkpoints in Iraq.  The ones I remember stood before us, myself and a colleague and three Iraqi college professors seeking redress for the mistaken bombing of their university.  We were ankle-deep in mud.  It was cold.  We waited there for hours.  The boy-men soldiers were clearly uncomfortable treating me, the only one from the US in our party, so discourteously that they invited me in to their hut for warmth, but refused to allow anyone else to enter, so we all stood out in the cold, the only protest we had available to us for the refusal to hear these men.  And in the freezing hours of waiting, I heard about one young soldier’s pending divorce and the new baby he had never seen, having nothing to offer him save my caring ears.  And I heard their apologies – they had no choice but to hold us at gunpoint, you see.  They wouldn’t have shot us, at least so I think.  But to force the situation was to place them in harm’s way from their commanders.  So we simply waited, silent witness to the cold.  Eventually we gained entry and were heard and an agreement was reached.  Success.  Until a day later when the officer who had reached agreement with our friends reneged.  Apparently he could do by phone what he could not do face-to-face.  But that too was a violence.  And there were guns behind it.  Lots of guns.

What was the difference between the man who shot at his own family members and all the rest?  Time.  Time to better reflect.  So it was that the drunken gentleman had a wife who intervened, inserting herself between him and his desired shotgun.  And the man in the hallway, had he been armed, probably would have shot me and then thought about it.  But because he had the length of the hallway and only silence from me in which to think about what he was doing, he had the chance to reconsider his choices.  And the husband chasing his wife?  A gun in his hand would have eliminated the need to cross the street himself and stand face to face with us and reconsider.  And even the young soldiers faced no opposition.  All we offered in protest was our calm presence.  There were lots of folks killed at checkpoints just like that one and many of them meant no harm at all.  But those boy soldiers lacked the time to reflect on their actions and instead shot first.

What do guns take away that knives and fists and raised voices and other weapons do not?

Time.  Time to think.

And therein lies all the difference to the outcome in the world.

So if you want to know why I am in favor of controlling human access to weapons of such destruction, for me, it’s all about time.  And I am willing to give up quite a lot to buy the would-be shooters among us a little time to reconsider.  Because it might just make a difference.  I know it has for me.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Hats Off to the Jumping Cursor

[What you do when your jumping cursor keeps disappearing, inserting, reappearing, excising, and just plain messing with your attempts at creativity [jump to line above - move back - sigh - jump back to middle of sentence, move back, sigh again] via the magic keyboard -- what do you do after you've read every [jump again, come back again] online fix to no avail -- well, if you're a true glutton for punishment, you write a ditty just for fun because that's just the kind of crazy you are.  "Help!" she cried into the ether.  The ether did not respond. [jump again.  sigh again.]]

[and then there]
is this

I am jumping

will you jump back
you cursed
jumping not pre-
to anything cursor

Well, this seems better
wish folks knew what
they w

spoke too soon
jumped we did
up 5 lines
over 4 characters
and made some new
no random
would-be Shakespeare
would-be writing
monkey could ever
come up with
trust me on that
she ranted

but not

let alone
that far
we call


to damn
the already-cursed,

Monday, March 10, 2014

81 Years Isn't Enough Time to Tell a Life's Story

Cake – check . . . balloons – check . . . tiara – check . . . guests – check . . . moustaches – check . . .

and so it was on a sunny but cold March day that we gathered in celebration of 81 years well lived . . . to a soundtrack of Aaron Copeland and Carol King and Tony Bennett and Cyndi Lauper . . . and pictures spanning the Great Depression to the technological present . . .

a woman for whom the 1960's were defined not by taking to the streets, but by living out the making of a family one day, one scratched knee, one meat loaf, one dream postponed, one dream lived out, at a time . . .

with all the pictures and laughter and more pictures and music and more pictures and stories, 81 years just isn’t enough time to tell your story . . .

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Time to Fly

The geese are flying.  I do not see them lifting from the nearby river, but their distinctive – that call and response – the hail to arise, to fly, to form up and move on – impossible to mistake.

Funny, they’ve slept in, but not really.

We humans in this part of the world ‘sprang forward’ last night, somehow ‘saving’ time (as if time could be saved – silly us, we keep trying) and in the process, losing an hour (who came up with that ad campaign?  I wonder).

Whatever we humans call this hour of the day, the geese know what time it is.

It is time to fly.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Symphony of Stars

I hope when I die
I am accompanied
to heaven by a
symphony of stars
in the nighttime
of a quiet country
evening yielded up
from a winter’s day

Written last Friday night after leaving Maxine’s house, thinking she would most likely not last the night.  Quietly she went not in the night, but near midday, surrounded by love, which is its own symphony.  Rest well, beloved.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Rights of Bear Arms

the right to bear arms
has me thinking
of bears and their ‘arms’
[their legs?  are the front
ones arms or legs?
who keeps track of such

and why would I care much
about the walking, food
carrying appendages of bears?

do bears really require a 
constitutional right to
have arms?  isn’t that a bit . . . 
excessive? . . . silly? . . . 

or perhaps it means that
as a human, I have an
inalienable right to 
own me some bear arms
well – I know some folk
who have bear paws
and bear heads and
even bear skins,
but what would they do
with bear arms and why
do we need to protect
their privilege to 
collect them?

But maybe it really was
a typo and they – our
fore-fathers really
were thinking about
rather than
which makes a bit
more sense to me
as a gal kind of human
kind of being
given that there are places
like Saudi Arabia
and the Vatican
where somehow
my decovered
yea bare
are cause for
great offense
and chafing
of hands
and gnashing
of teeth 
[I wonder why it is
that teeth are gnashed
and hands chafed
rather than the reverse]
for it seems that the
mere sight of my 
arms bereft of cover
reveals something
unseemly afoot 
in the ’verse 
but in my
puzzlement I am
sure that I am unsure
what it could possibly
be – so no – fore-fathers
surely did not think upon
the nakedness of my 
upper extremities
[even the name
is suggestive – extremity?
what then is so extreme
about my arms, I continue
to wonder in vain]

surely they meant guns
to protect and protect
and protect – for 'twould
make no sense to be
protecting naked arms
or polar, black, brown,
panda, grizzly and other
of the ursine kind in the use
and enjoyment of their
own arms, now would it?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What Happened and What I Said About It

What happened
I agreed to officiate an out-of-town wedding for the daughter of congregants and her husband-to-be who was then deployed overseas.  The date got moved from summer to February.  His return to the United States got pushed back and pushed back.  Finally home, we ended up doing the counseling bit via Skype.  The fairly predictable snow storm arrived in due course and so parents and I left a day early so as not to be stuck this side of the mountains.  Upon arrival at our hotel, forgetting that Virginia Beach is in the heart of the military-industrial complex, I was momentarily startled to see three men in military garb on balconies across the way apparently getting a bead on me (turned out they were wax figures at a local souvenir shop).  Family and friends gathered from near and far . . . stories were told . . . laughter and tears were had . . . the sun shone on the appointed day . . . nobody lost the marriage license or the rings . . . mama of the bride navigated the sand just fine with her newly accompanying cane . . . bride and groom shone like stars, as they do . . . the deed was done and all was well.

What I said
I did a wedding this weekend.

What happened
Maxine got very sick and spent many months battling leukemia, losing her struggle by inches with family and friends holding her up, she who held them up for so long, throughout.  In the last weeks, I spent more and more time at the house as those closer and closer struggled to learn the language of the dying, trying to be present when needed and to step aside when not.  We, all of us, held hands, laughed, cried, talked, whispered, ministered to, sang, and fell into silence.  And we prayed.  And she died.  And tomorrow we will observe the rituals of farewell and witness the resurrection and lay her to rest and eat a life-affirming meal together.  It will be a hard day, a necessary day, the day we bury Maxine.

What I said
Maxine died.

What happened
Maxine was dying.

What I said
I’m sorry I missed Leah’s birthday party.  Did you save me any cake?

There are so many deaths in a lifetime, so many endings . . . and but for this time in Maxine’s journey, I would not think of a wedding as a death, an ending . . . yet it is . . . an ending to one way of being even as another, more desired, way begins.  Harder to see, so it is with death . . . an ending that is yet another beginning . . . one not desired, for we were made to rejoice in this life, to cling to it, to hold fast beyond all sense or reason sometimes . . .

In a span of days, one woman stood witness to the joining of Rachel and Vince into a lifetime of shared joys and sorrows, challenges and victories . . . to treasured Leah celebrating her one-year anniversary on this earth . . . and to Maxine’s dying surrounded by all who would keep her if they but could . . . letting her go in one final act of loving kindness . . .

What happened was life.  What I said about it was life too, for so much living is captured in so few words . . . they were married . . . she died . . . happy birthday . . . 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Why Oppression Matters to The Not-Oppressed

There are all kinds of reasons, of course, and we should always begin with the fact that if I’m part of the non-oppressed, chances are pretty good that I am profiting (whether intentionally or not, profit is profit) from the oppression of the other.

But I’m thinking today of a slightly different group.  There should be a name for this group, but if there is, I don’t know what it is.  I’m speaking of the folks who belong to a group that is often oppressed but they themselves are not (or so it might seem).

Take women as an example.  That women are oppressed does not mean that all women are oppressed.

Or does it?

There’s probably a name for it.  The ‘chilling effect’ is what comes to mind, but that’s not quite it either.

It goes something like this: when a woman, any woman, is raped and it is reported publicly, chances are that report does not make a man fearful to walk down the street where the attack occurred.  A woman hears the same report, however, and at the least, becomes cautious around the locale of the event.  More insidious, though, is what we women take on board about the world in which we live: it is a dangerous place for our kind.  That kind of knowledge changes a person in ways obvious and ways not so obvious.

I think I’ll call this the ‘contagion factor’, simply because contagion is contagious.  And so is oppression.  And fear.  And violence.

Whether we like to think so or not, we are herd animals.  And what one in the herd experiences, to some extent affects the entire herd.

So why should those not oppressed care?  Because we should.  Because that’s what godly people do.  It’s what civilized people do.  And because self-interest warrants that we understand that what happens to you happens to me.

Or to put it the way some where I'm from might:  when it comes to oppression of another, yes, you do have a dog in that fight.  Just another way of saying there are no bystanders.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

That All May Share of the Feast

We end our study of the Beatitudes on Transfiguration Sunday – the day commemorating that long-ago day when Jesus’ disciples saw Jesus, transfigured, changed.  The better word might be revealed – that is, the disciples saw Jesus not as somehow different than he was, but as he really was all along.

Why should Jesus’ transfiguration matter to our understanding of the beatitudes?  Perhaps in the glorious revealing of Jesus in his true fullness lies the key to all our mysteries – perhaps there, in Jesus’ own glorious light, lies the revealing of all he sought to tell us on that mountain day of sermons and blessings.

Perhaps there, in Jesus own light of revealing lies the truth of the beatitudes: the call to see not as the world sees, blinded by so much that gets in the way between us and God, but to see with all the nonsense stripped away, what Jesus has been showing us all along . . . our state of upside-down blessedness, as real as Jesus’ own shining forth.

Consider the last of the blessings, then, from the light of Jesus’ own revealing . . .

Matthew 5.10 (NRSV)  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Privileged the ones harassed because of their beliefs for the sake of justice:  because of them is the kingdom of heaven.

Blissful those hounded for the faith for the cause of justice: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5.10-12 (NRSV):  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Some things to note:

1. Here does Jesus move from the 3rd to the 2nd person – from ‘they’ to ‘you’.  Now it gets personal.

2. Jesus does not bless all suffering.  All suffering is not ‘blessed’ and none of it is good, even the blessed kind.

3. There is a juxtaposition, a contrast here, that still ends in the place of blessedness: both those who suffer because they cling to justice and those who suffer at the hands of injustice itself are blessed. Within the whole of the beatitudes, we begin with the blessing of the poor in spirit and end with the persecuted.  If it be the beggars whom Jesus first blesses, a certain sense emerges in the progression of the beatitudes in linking them to the idea of God’s justice.  William Sloane Coffin once observed that the very need for charity is evidence of injustice.  That is, the fact that some need, prompting others to give, shows us that all is not well in God’s world, for if all were well, there would be no need for our charity.  Understood in this way, Jesus begins by blessing those who show the world what’s wrong with it simply by their lack and he ends by blessing those who work to change the world into a place where there is injustice no longer.

4. The promise here is present (rather than future) tense: the kingdom of heaven ‘is’ (as opposed to ‘will be’) theirs.

5. Righteousness itself, that is, the insistence on justice – in one’s dealings with others – is a form of prophecy, of truth-speaking the will of God to others.


That All May Share of the Feast

Looking, then, towards Jesus’ beatituding of some among us, through the transfigured, the revealed, Jesus, might we then see thusly . . .

In a world where there is so much injustice, so much lack, so much want, so much hurt, are not the beggars our kings? . . .  lighting our path towards God’s vision . . . towards the world of plenty where all may share of the feast?

In a world where there is so much injustice, so much lack, so much want, so much hurt, are not the heartbroken our prophets? . . . lighting our path towards God’s vision . . . towards the world of soothing balm and curing kindness where all may share of the feast?

In a world where there is so much injustice, so much lack, so much want, so much hurt, are not the broken in life our signposts? . . . lighting our path towards God’s vision . . . towards the world where all may safely dwell and do their appointed work, there, sharing of the feast?

In a world where there is so much injustice, so much lack, so much want, so much hurt, are not the justice seekers our conscience? . . . lighting our path towards God’s vision . . . towards the world of fears banished, hopes fulfilled where all may share of the feast?

In a world where there is so much injustice, so much lack, so much want, so much hurt, are not the mercied mercying ones our priests? . . . lighting our path towards God’s vision . . . towards the world of care and understanding where all may share of the feast?

In a world where there is so much injustice, so much lack, so much want, so much hurt, are not the God-seers our children? . . . lighting our path towards God’s vision . . . towards the world of imagination and possibilities where all may share of the feast?

In a world where there is so much injustice, so much lack, so much want, so much hurt, are not the creation-restoring reconcilers our healers? . . . lighting our path towards God’s vision . . . towards the realization of a shalom-wholeness of things where all may share of the feast?

In a world where there is so much injustice, so much lack, so much want, so much hurt, are not the hounded ones our witnesses? . . . lighting our path towards God’s vision . . . towards the day when foolish humans will require no more sacrifice and all will share of the feast?

Oh, happy, blessed, blissful, privileged transfigured, transfiguring ones . . . who knew that there, behind the clothing of your wretchedness lies your blessedness.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Human Watching

Just for fun
I watch the 
bird people
(birders, their
vocation, I
standing on the
sidewalk in front
of my house
staring through
their binoculars
at the mountain
visage across the
way – fun because
I watch their
watching through
my own binoculars
capturing them
for but a moment
in their ever-seeking
migratory pattern
stopped mid-flight
but for a moment
along this part 
of their annual trek
heads all turned in
the same direction
alert to possibilities
as unaware they are
that I stand behind
them, the glass
of a zoo – theirs
or mine – who can
say? – separating us
giving me the perfect
opportunity to study
them in repose

Every year round this time, folk come from I-do-not-know where, park alongside the road and into the road and huddle in groups seeking whatever bird has caught their fancy (I suspect it’s eagles they seek but wonder if it’s smaller varieties, since they seem to be looking as much at my neighbor’s bird-feeders as the mountain) with their binoculars, prompting someone to write the annual warning letter-to-the-editor in our local paper issuing the kind of statements you do to children, such as (1) you’re visiting, but I actually live here, so please try to be aware when you’re trekking on someone’s land and be polite about it, for example, by asking first; and my own favorite (2) please look both ways before you step into the road.

When I awoke this morning, I saw the usual spring gaggle of cars alongside the road (ignoring the several parking lots immediately adjacent to their location) and my first thought was that there must be a funeral at the Methodist Church and wondering who it might be.  But when I noted the absence of cars in the parking lots (where we actually park before parking alongside and into the road, fancy that!), I realized it must be something else and then noticed the collection of observers.  I sometimes think to go out and offer refreshment, but am fairly certain I wouldn’t be welcomed as noise, of course, startles birds away.  Alas, hospitality blunted by a conversation had only in my head.  But I have my story to tell about watching the watchers with my own binoculars.  It sure tickled me.