Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Friday, July 29, 2011

Prayers for a Soul Friend

Everything I know about Anglo-Catholicism, Spirituality, being a Soul Friend and the theology and spirituality of Urban Ministry, I learned from Kenneth Leech.

Kenneth is a brilliant theologian and has written several books which have shaped and formed me the way CS Lewis or John Stott has shaped many Evangelical Christians around the world as well as in The Anglican Communion in general and The Episcopal Church in particular.

The report this morning is that Kenneth is gravely ill in hospital in UK, having suffered a "massive heart attack during a surgical procedure. He remains in ICU but has been removed from respiratory assistance."

Please, of your kindness and mercy, keep him in your prayers.

The day is rushing toward me - again - as are the thoughts I had hoped to share with you this morning. Let me simply leave you with this quote, which Kenneth used often, as a way to understand the passion and spirituality that is central to Anglo-Catholicism.

Anglo-Catholic liturgy is not just about "smoke and bells"; rather, it is about the incredible mystical reality of God who is both incarnate and present as well as transcendent and mysterious. This quote captures the essence of Anglo-Catholicism succinctly and powerfully.

The Right Revd Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar delivered a rousing address at the 1923 Catholic Congress in London. The title of the address: Our Present Duty.
"But I say to you, and I say it with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in His Blessed Sacrament, then, when
you come out from before your tabernacles, you must walk with Christ, mystically present in you, through the streets of this country, and find the same Christ in the
peoples of your cities and villages.

You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.... It is folly, it is madness, to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the sacrament and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating Him in the bodies and souls of His children.... You have your Mass, you have your altars, you have begun to use your tabernacles.

Now go out into the highways and hedges, and look for Jesus in the ragged and naked, in the oppressed and the sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them; and when you have found him, gird yourself with His towel of fellowship and wash His feet in the person of His brethren."
Go, and do thou likewise. And, please keep Kenneth Leach in your prayers.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Childhood

Two of our grandchildren were here yesterday afternoon.

I love their giggles. I love their energy. I love the way they see the world as their playground, blissfully unaware of the Wars or the debt ceiling or the economy or unemployment, much less the need for Health Care or Immigration Reform.

I love that, when I'm with them, I don't think of those things either.

I love the lovely, awkward way the older one is growing into her growing body. She's a real "tween", both feet firmly planted on the initial arc of an impending meteor-ride to adolescence. She "looooves" Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber and 'games' and fashion.

She loves her mother, adores her father, tolerates her baby sister, and is just beginning to be interested in / curious about boys.  She won't go see the film 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II' because she hasn't finished reading the book. But, she knows how it ends because her friends told her, and that's okay because, she says, "I like the way JK Rowling writes."

The younger one is going to be five years old in a few days and is an angel with muddy feet and  a tarnished halo and all the mischievous lucky charm of a leprechaun. 

She's taking swimming lessons and gymnastics and loves to "practice" - on the couch or the floor, in the living room or kitchen, or on the bed.

Her latest "talent" is to twist her face into weird positions which she supplies as the answer to most questions or serves as her social commentary about the taste of pizza or the quality of ocean water here or a particular toy or game.

That is, when she isn't running her mouth off at 100 miles per hour.

She also loves to tell stories, with a special penchant for scary stories - or, more precisely as she says, "scawy stowies" - preferably told with a flashlight under her chin.

Alternatively, the flashlight serves as a microphone as she sings Lady Gaga's 'Papa, Papa, Paparazzi' or Justin Bieber's "Baby, baby, baby, OOOOO."

But, yesterday, it was "scawy stowies" that served as the channel for her seemingly boundless energy and imaginative mind.

I have no idea what she was talking about. I couldn't follow the plot line, which was probably due to the fact that she was actually acting out a television program or a DVD she had seen. With flashlight firmly under her chin, she recited bits of lines that she had remembered or memorized.

She repeated a bit of the story for me later, at supper, at the local Grotto's Pizza where she absolutely wolfed down a grilled cheese sandwich, 'beach fries' and a large chocolate milk.

An afternoon of swimming and story telling obviously consume a great deal of calories.

Here's a small clip of it.

Warning: Cuteness factor is at Code Red levels. Please be advised that your heart may be in danger of melting, or, if kids are not your thing, may induce waves of nausea. Proceed at your own risk.

video
My favorite part is when she gets her "attitude on" and, using her fingers to form quotation marks, says something about "your little 'future'".

That, and when her older sister breaks in and  - with a piece of pizza crust in the corner of her mouth - asks, "What the heck is wrong with this kid?"

After I took the video, both girls begged me to show it to them and their mom - over and over and over again. They fell over each other with giggles every time.

I love being a Nana. It's simply the best job in the whole world. It's exhausting and invigorating all at the same time. I never tire of their company even if I am just slightly exhausted after they leave - probably because, through it all, I get a chance to be like a little kid again.

Which is probably why Mr. Theo was so frightened of them.

I'm quite sure he's never been around little children before. Their giggles and high energy scared the beejeesus out of him.

I don't know the details, but I know that his 'puppyhood' was far from happy, so I can only imagine what terrors were unleashed in his little mind.

For most of the time they were here, he hid behind the couch or my chair, just shaking with anxiety. It made me so sad for him. 

After they left, he collapsed out on the deck, completely spent from anxiety.

This has become my new project. I have to find a way to slowly introduce him to children and have him spend some time around him. I suspect that this is one place in his little heart that needs the most healing.

I think there are childhood places in all our hearts that need healing.

Indeed, I imagine that, if some of us spent a little more time healing those places which were broken by disappointment or betrayal or abuse or a sense of abandonment, this world would be a better place, filled with more adults who aren't trying to justify the hurts of their childhood by getting into positions of power where they can do things like drag us into the Wars or walk out on important conversations like the debt ceiling or the economy or unemployment, and might actually be able to find a way to reform the health care system and immigration.

We'd have to do all the things we were taught as kids: Share. Be kind to others. Be very careful around strangers - especially those who are overly-friendly and offer you candy.

Eat your peas. As my mother would say, you don't have to like them, but they're good for you, so eat them. At least take a 'no-thank you' helping. And, no making faces or gagging sounds when you eat something you don't like.

Remember, there are children all over the world who are starving and would love to have the peas on your plate. Be grateful for what you have.

Go outside and play and get some fresh air and take a piece of fruit with you.  No, not that fruit. Take the old fruit. You have to eat the old fruit before you eat the new fruit. That's the rule.

And, bring a sweater in case it gets cold any you catch your death-of-pneumonia.

Put a dime in your shoe in case you need to make a phone call.

You can play all day in the neighborhood, but you must be in the yard or on the porch when the street lights come on.

Why? Because I'm the mother and I said so, that's why.

You think I like saying these things? I say them because I'm your mother and love you.

Besides, those are the rules. I'm sorry, those are the rules. I'm sorry, those are the rules.

I don't think these are bad rules. As much as I grumbled about them as a kid, I think they were part of what made the earlier years of my childhood happy ones.

It's important to know the rules which can lead to a sense of well being - even if it's really just an illusion.

Indeed, I think a great deal of my problems in later childhood and early adolescence - besides living in a dysfunctional, addictive family - was that I thought those rules were stupid and irrelevant and sought to break them at every turn.

I can still remember eating a ripe banana while the old brown-speckled banana sat it the bowl. I almost called my mother to tell her what I was doing, but I was enjoying the moment far too much to interrupt it at that point.

I did call her when we got our first home. It was a cold day. I called her and said, "Guess what, Mom? I didn't grow up in a barn, but I've got the heat on and the door has been open for five whole minutes. " And then, I dissolved into hysterical laughter. There was dead silence on the other end of the line.

It's never too late to have a happy childhood.

Grandchildren are proof positive evidence of the truth of that statement.

I strongly recommend it to absolutely everyone.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse
What's more surprising to me than the death, at age 27, of Amy Winehouse, is the judgmental, even harsh denouncement of her life.

Many were surprised to learn that, according to news reports today, her autopsy immediately failed to establish a cause of death. The London Metropolitan Police said Monday that further toxicology tests are needed and the results are expected in two to four weeks.

Police have said her death is being treated as "unexplained" but not suspicious, and have said speculation that she might have suffered an overdose was inappropriate.

"Inappropriate" for the police to say publicly, perhaps, but I think we can pretty safely assume that her death was "drug-related" - in some way.

Her addictions to drugs and alcohol have been played out on the public stage for years now. She even immortalized her struggles in her song, "Rehab" which contained the lyric, "They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no'."
I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine
He's tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go go go

I'd rather be at home with ray
I ain't got seventy days
Cause there's nothing
There's nothing you can teach me
That I can't learn from Mr Hathaway

I didn't get a lot in class
But I know it don't come in a shot glass

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no'
The references to "Ray" and "Mr. Hathaway" are Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway, both of whom influenced her music.

Her song makes it painfully clear: she knows what she's doing. She's drinking and using drugs to ease the pain of whatever it is she's feeling and doesn't intend to stop.

Which makes some people - especially those in recovering from addiction or those who are affected by or live with people with an addiction - C.R.A.Z.Y.

I am stunned by the anger and the high-handed moralizing and harsh judgment being pronounced on her, post mortem. It is ugly and painful to read.

I understand. Watching someone with an addiction - especially those who refuse to get help ("No, No, No.") - is maddening. There's no reasoning with them. They can't listen to or hear reason. All they can think of is getting their next high so they won't feel the pain anymore.
I don't ever wanna drink again
I just ooh I just need a friend
I'm not gonna spend ten weeks
have everyone think I'm on the mend

It's not just my pride
It's just 'til these tears have dried

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no'
Yes I've been black but when I come back you'll know know know
I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine
He's tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go go go
I won't romanticize the destruction addiction does to the addict and his/her family by talking about the "tortured soul" of a "struggling artist".

Yes, I know all about Jimmy Hendrix and Janice Joplin. Got it on River Phoenix and Michael Jackson.

Grunge-rocker Kurt Cobain? Actor Richard Burton? Singer Judy Garland? Actress Marilyn Monroe?

Check, check, check and CHECK.

Yes, and I know that Sigmund Freud died of a physician-assisted morphine overdose.

I understand about the connection between art and brilliance and addiction and "accidental" or intended suicide. No, wait. That's not true. I don't understand it. I only understand that it exists.

I just want to say to all my friends in recovery - and all those who are family and friends of those whose lives have been deeply troubled and rendered chaotic by addiction - I understand your anger and rage. I even understand your need to harshly judge.

God know, my own life has been touched by addiction in violent and destructive ways.

That being said, it is important to remember that addiction is a disease. Like diabetes or cancer. There is some evidence that there are genetic predispositions. Other researches show a link between depression and bipolar disorder and addiction.

We don't judge people for those illnesses - even those who don't manage their diabetes or decline surgery or treatment for cancer.

Addiction is not a moral deficiency. Neither is it a romantic idea about artistic brilliance.

It's a disease.

It's not illegal to drink alcohol or take or smoke or snort drugs. It's illegal to sell them or to have them on your person. It's not illegal to have them IN your person - unless you are a danger to yourself or others while intoxicated or high.

It's a disease.

Addicts need help. They don't always get it or appreciate it when someone convinces them to say "yes" to Rehab because the truth is that Rehab, besides not always being effective, doesn't take away the pain. Rehab helps you to live with your pain and find other, more healthy ways to deal with your pain.

Some people, like Amy Winehouse, are as addicted to the "pain - relief - pain" cycle as they are to their drug of choice. For artists, it can become the double-edged source of their creativity and artistry, making the prognosis for full recovery even more remote.

In any event, the sad, tragic fact remains: Amy Jade Winehouse is dead. She was 27 years old. She was a brilliant vocalist and songwriter. She won five Grammy awards, tying the record for the most Grammys by a female artist in a single night. She was also the first British singer to have won that many Grammys.

She accomplished a great deal and entertained millions in her short time on this earth. That's more than many people can say about their own lives.

Does such a waste of talent and life make me angry? Yes, yes of course it does. But it does no good to turn that anger into judgement - not for Amy Winehouse or for me.

As my anger abates, I may be able to feel pity, which can lead to empathy - a good thing. When its source is anger, however - especially over something I can't control - pity is a sorrow that can have a slightly contemptuous edge.

It is dehumanizing, witnessed by the fact that I hear myself saying, "Oh, poor thing!" Wait! Did I just say, 'poor thing'? Why yes, yes, in fact, I did.

I have discovered that that kind of pity is not good for my soul.

When I can channel that angry energy into compassion, I am able to see the bigger picture. I am humbled to explore my own failings and shortcomings and work on them. In my vulnerability, I can be more empathic and more emotionally available.

Most importantly, I stop my "savior behavior", thinking I can save the world - or this person or that situation - or sit in judgment of others. Instead, I can learn to love more deeply. Unconditionally. The way God loves us and Jesus wants us to love others.

Judgment makes you feel righteous and good (or better) about yourself.

Compassion, however, makes you a better person.

May the death of Amy Jade Winehouse bring us all to a greater sense of understanding, empathy and compassion for all who suffer in any way - even those who seem to bring it on themselves - helping us to let go of anger and judgment over what we can't control and better able to bring more love into a world broken and made dark by suffering.

Understanding. Empathy. Compassion. Love.

God knows, the world is in short supply of all four.

Rest in peace, Amy. Your music will live on, even though you couldn't.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Why wait?

In this morning's gospel (Matthew 13:31-33,44-52), Jesus provides us with six different images contained in metaphors for the 'Olam ha-ba', the afterlife, or The Realm of Heaven.

It is a tiny mustard seed that grows into a mighty tree.

It is yeast that a woman puts into bread to make it rise.

It is treasure, hidden in a field.

It is a merchant in search of fine pearls.

It is a net cast out into the sea, indiscriminately gathering up its bounty.

It is like the master of the house who brings out of his treasure what is old and what is new.

What seems pretty clear is that heaven - wherever that is in the cosmos, exactly - is so amazing, it is beyond human imagination.

Or, perhaps, it is so close we can't see it.

Luke's Gospel (17:20-21) reports that
"Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the realm of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the realm of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the realm of God is in your midst.”
I remember reading a story, recently, about Fred Rogers, one of my favorite people who not only entertained my - an millions of - children, but taught them about what it was to be a moral citizen of the universe.

When Rogers was given a Lifetime Achievement Emmy award in 1998, he asked the celebrity audience to take ten seconds of silence to think about people who had loved them into being and helped them become who they are.

Within seconds, weeping and sobs could be heard throughout the audience.

Then, Rogers said, "May God be with you," and sat down.

Someday, when I grow up, I'm going to be that wise.

I remember reading that one of his colleagues, who reported the story, said that it was significant that Rogers didn't say, "God bless you."

Rogers knew that the people were already blessed by God. He wanted the people in the audience to be aware that God was already with them.

In the Olam ha-ba of God which we call 'The Realm of Heaven', it will be like one great family reunion where we will be able to meet all those people who loved us into being and helped us become who we are.

So, here's my question: Why wait?

If the Realm of God is in our midst, why not celebrate it now, instead of waiting for the Olam ha-ba, the afterlife?

Considering those who have loved us into being can be a tiny mustard seed which grows into a great, mighty tree of gratitude.

Saying 'thank you' to those who helped us become who we are can be like yeast that makes the bread of life rise to its fullness, so that you may share your bounty with others.

Acknowledging God's presence in our midst can be like finding treasure, hidden in a field.

Seeking God's love in the large, open fields of our lives can be like finding a pearl of great price.

Thinking about all those who have loved us into being can be like casting out a net and drawing them into the web of our lives.

When we do all these things, we will be like merchants who behold the treasures - old and new - which, by the Grace of God, we have accumulated in our lives.

Why not take 10 seconds of silence - right now - to close your eyes and consider the blessings bestowed upon you by others - those who loved you into being and helped you to be the person you are today?

I suspect, when you open your eyes, the Realm of God will seem much closer than it ever has before.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

We who believe in freedom

Sr. Mary Michael Simpson - Westminster Abbey - 1978
The obituary in the New York Times was succinct. It began with two simple sentences.
The Rev. Mary Michael Simpson, the first Episcopal nun to be ordained a priest and the first ordained woman to preach a sermon in Westminster Abbey, died Wednesday in Augusta, Ga. She was 85.
Yes, well, that was all true enough.

However, the essence of a person's life cannot be summed up in two succinct sentences.

I only knew Mary Michael briefly. I saw her a few times in private counseling sessions in her New York office when I was going through yet another episode of vocational discernment in my relationship with the institutional church.

I had the chance to work with her again when she was asked to lead a three hour session with a group of clergy women who were advocating for a woman to be elected bishop suffragan in the Diocese of Newark back in the early 90s.

We didn't succeed then. Remarkably, the history of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, reportedly "one of the most liberal dioceses in The Episcopal Church", is still seriously deficient in this way.

In both settings, my experience of Mary Michael is that she could never be accused of mincing words. She came right to the point, or moved you to it - dragging you along, if necessary - so you could see the bigger picture.

Once she fixed you in her gaze, you felt as if she were looking past your nice presentation and deep into the secret corners of your soul.

In one of the private counseling sessions with her, I remember lamenting to her that the institutional church was not any different than corporate America. There were dirty politics and politicians with white collars and corruption and deceit and power plays in the Body of Christ.

Mary Michael looked me square in the eyes, saw my naivete, and probably wondered how I got through the ordination process. She simply sighed deeply and then asked, in her way of hers that made you wonder why you didn't already know this:
"I know St. Paul tells us that the church is 'in the world but not of the world', but what makes you think that, if the church is in the world, at least a little bit of the world isn't still in the church?"
I've never forgotten those words, or the look on her face when she spoke them. They come back to me, from time to time, whenever I see what I think is too much of the world in the church.

They come as gift. They come as inspirational prayer.

I'll leave it to others to tell the stories of Mary Michael. What I want you to know about her is that she was one of the pioneers of the ordination of women in The Episcopal Church.

I do not use the word 'pioneer' unadvisedly. Like all pioneers, she wasn't just about 'being first'. She did not seek ordination simply for herself. She wouldn't have been the person she was and couldn't have made the sacrifices she made if she thought it was just about her.

As Fanny Lou Hammer said, "Justice is not about 'just us'. It's about justice."

In her sermon at Westminster Abbey in 1978, she told a gathering of about 700 people:
“Christian creativity for the present age must not depend on male leaders. Woman’s contribution — from women properly trained and authorized — is essential.”
Mary Michael understood the power of the Incarnation. She knew that the 'embodied Word' carries more power than theology or ideology.

She wrote about the ordination of women in her contribution to the book, "Yes to Women Priests".
“Many people — men as well as women — say that though they themselves don’t want to be ordained, it means so much to them to have me at the altar. ‘It means that the church really accepts me — I’m not a second-class citizen,’ ” she wrote.
Mary Michael understood that in putting herself 'out there', at the altar as an 'alter Christus' - a stole over her nun's habit while she presided at Eucharist - carried more symbolic power than just polite, theological conversations. She understood that she was not only acting for herself but for other women who were 'properly trained and authorized' to follow her.

She was keenly aware that her actions would change the institutional church, bringing it closer to the image of the Realm of God.  She not only knew that change would come at a high price, she was willing to pay it.

While I grieve the loss of Mary Michael Simpson, I grieve the history that may be buried with her. I grieve even more that there are generations of women - ordained women - who do not know and seem not to care about the struggles of the women who came before us.

We forget or ignore our herstory at our own peril.

There is still much work to be done. Yes, thirty-plus years after the historic ordination of Mary Michael Simpson there is a woman who is our Primate and Presiding Bishop.

Yes, there are women in the House of Bishops. Mariann Edgar Budde, the newest diocesan bishop-elect of Washington, DC, is only the eighteenth woman to be elected bishop since the historic election of Barbara Clementine Harris in 1989.

Eighteen women elected to the episcopacy in twenty-two years is not exactly a fast clip.

The best way I know to honor those who struggled for freedom and equality and the in-breaking of the Spirit in the institutional church is to continue to tell their story so that the struggle can continue.

I woke up this morning hearing Sweet Honey in the Rock singing "Ella's Song". I can hear Bernice Johnson Reagon's husky voice singing,
That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
So, I'll pay my respects to Mary Michael Simpson by leaving you with this message from Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Pass on the message of freedom and equality. Work for it. Struggle with it in the institutional church which is not of the world but in the world, so parts of the world are still in it.

Teach others to stand up and fight for the fullness of their liberation in Christ.

Do not rest until it comes.

I believe that Mary Michael's soul will rest even more peacefully knowing that this is so.

Ella's Song
Lyrics and music by Bernice Johnson Reagon
Sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons

That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Struggling myself don't mean a whole lot, I've come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives

I'm a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult, I'll bow to no man's word

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Friday, July 22, 2011

All sickness is home sickness

Is this wat I was craving 4 all this time?
I was away for three very full days, making the DE-NJ-NYC-NJ-DE run with Theo, packing in a visit with the bishop, two daughters and one son-in-law, a few friends, great food and wine, a Broadway play . . . oh, and two Memorial Services.

One, of course, was for Tracy.  The other was for the father of a former parishioner of mine who also had a tragic, unexpected, unintended, unattended death. To make matters worse, there had been family tensions and estrangements and no communication for the past five years.

He had moved to another state, so it fell to his two estranged daughters and his former wife of forty-plus years, to fly through two time zones, clean up the mess - well, multiple messes - and bring his cremains back to New Jersey.

One Service was held in a Funeral Home, in front of the open casket. The other was in the church in the neighborhood where the girls grew up and were confirmed. The wooden urn with an engraved brass plaque stood on a small table with a small bouquet of colorful flowers from his grandchildren.

I was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality of both staffs. The Funeral Director met me at the door and wanted to make sure I had everything I needed - was there anything he could get for me? The rector or staff of the church had everything - Eucharistic vessels, bread and wine,  Paschal candle, Gospel book, BCP and Hymnal, stand for the urn - ready for me, including an alb, and white stole and chasuble which was neatly laid out on the back pew.

Hospitality is a great gift - especially when bestowed upon a stranger.

Both congregations were very small. Just a handful of people who were seeking solace and some comfortable, familiar words to ease the pain of their grief and sorrow and, perhaps, explain the unexplainable - the unthinkable,  unsettling knowledge of the fact that their loved one died alone. Unexpectedly. Unintended.

I found myself comforted by the words in John 14:1-6:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going."

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
I confess that I left off the "No one comes to the Father except through me." I'm sure that this is the way John remembers it - or, the followers of John remembered the words of Jesus that were told to them. I just have a hard time believing that Jesus said that.

Unless, of course, Jesus was using hyperbole - as he often did - to make his point. Either way, I think Elie Wiesel was probably closer to what Jesus meant when he said, "There are many paths but one way to God."

Because both "congregations" were so small, a full manuscript seemed not only a bit of an overplay, but also not pastorally sensitive or wise. People who are grieving need the preacher to be fully present Making eye-contact. Speaking from a prepared heart. It also needs to be short. Very short. Five minutes - tops.

I find that absolutely terrifying. Yes, even after all these years.

Not the eye contact or being fully present. I can do that with a manuscript from the pulpit in a small room of people or a packed house. But, there is no pulpit in a funeral home, and when there are less than a dozen people in church, preaching from a pulpit seems waaAAaay too formal.

I don't remember exactly what I said, but I do remember beginning by talking about the first time I had a "room of my own". I am the oldest of four children. My mother had each of us just about two years apart. We lived in a three bedroom apartment above my grandparents.

When my brother was old enough to be out of the crib in my parents bedroom and into a bed, he got his own room. We forever called him "The Little Prince" after that. You should know that our teeth were clenched together when we said that.

When my baby sister was born, I dreaded the day when she would be moved out of her crib in my parent's bedroom and somehow share a room - and a bed - with one of her two sisters.

It just seemed so unfair! An injustice of enormous, historical (or, at least, hysterical) proportions for a seven year old girl.

I was a pragmatist about it, however. I knew there was no sense complaining. I mean, what were they supposed to do with one of the three girls - put us on the roof?

Well, close.

Much to my surprise and absolute delight, I came home from school one day to find that my father had fixed up a room - just for me - in the attic! Oh, the walls were bare and there was one bare light bulb that hung in the center of the bare ceiling with a long string attached to the toggle.

There was no central heat or air conditioning but, you know, I never remember being too hot or too cold. It was just right, just like the Baby Bear of the Three Bears. Besides, I had a huge feather comforter on my bed which kept me toasty warm in the winter.  (That's why they call it a 'comforter'). When the summer nights were too hot, we all slept out on the porch, anyway.

It wasn't a palace for the Princess I knew myself to be, but it had everything I needed and could have wanted.  I was 'home'. Safe. Secure.

Whenever I feel sad or lonely or scared, I often revisit the image of that room in my head and in my heart. It's my 'safe place' where I can cry or think or not feel lonely any more. I LOVED that room - more than any other room I've had since. It was mine. My father had made it so, just for me.

I think we all have places in the heart like that - the image of a room that was once our own - or, might be our own. And, I think, many of us spend the rest of our lives trying to get (back) to that room. Or, at least, the feeling we had when we were in that room, where we feel we are home. Safe. Comforted with our own 'stuff'.

Which, by the way, is why hospitality is so important to the stranger. "Make yourself at home," we say, in as many concrete ways as we can demonstrate that hospitality, knowing that the only way someone will truly feel home is when they are, in fact, home.

Being Lady Lucy
I think Jesus knew that about being human. He also knew that we often make a mess of our lives. We hurt other people - often the very ones we love the most - and we are hurt by others. We disappoint others and are disappointed by others. We betray vows we have made and we are betrayed by others.

And yet, Jesus says, not to worry. Well, more accurately, "Do not let your hearts be troubled." 

"In my Father's house, there a many rooms".

See? We're all going home, one day.

Jesus says that not only will we get home but when we do, there will be room enough for us all. We'll have our own room. Everything that is meaningful to us will be there. All the necessities will be provided.

We'll be safe.

Home.

There's an old saying that 'All sickness is home sickness'.

I believe that to be true. We're all just trying to get home.

Jesus knew that about the human enterprise. He said, "Follow me! I'll show you the way! Because, where I'm going, there you will also be. I'm going on ahead of you and I'll get things ready for you. God and I will have a place - a room of your own - waiting for you. And, oh, what a great homecoming there will be when you arrive!"

Sometimes, our anxieties about that get in the way of The Way, The Truth and The Life, and lead us onto different paths. Some of us drink or eat a little too much as a source of comfort. Some of us are comforted by lots of 'stuff' - and, the more expensive the 'stuff' the better we feel about ourselves.

Sometimes, we say or do things we later regret. Somewhere in our hearts where 'home' really is we betray what we know is our best selves.

It makes us sick. Homesick.

Even so, we are loved and forgiven and will be welcomed in heaven, no matter what path life takes us in order to get there. There are many paths, but one way to God. For Christians, Jesus is that Way - no matter how many detours we take.

That's pretty much what I remember saying to both "congregations" - or something very close to it.

As I reflect on it this morning, back home now, in Llangollen, our wee cottage on Rehoboth Bay, I marvel at how terrified I was to preach without a manuscript but how very much at home I felt, standing there without a note in front of me in the middle of a Funeral Home and in the midst of a church where I had never either preached or presided.

I won't be repeating that anytime too soon - please God - but I discovered, once again, that home is where the heart is. And, my heart is at home preaching and trying to live the gospel of Jesus Christ - whether or not I have a manuscript or am, as they say, 'winging it' from a prepared heart.

It's good to be home again. Here at Llangollen.  With all my own stuff. In my own bed. Ah, my own bed! My own pillows! My own smells on my own sheets! That's all I really need.

See? I really am still just that seven year old girl with her own room and her own bed in the attic of my grandparents' tenement house.

If something awful happens tomorrow and I lose my home and everything in it to a tragic accident, I also live in sure and certain hope - and renewed confidence - that I have a home wherever my heart is.

Of course, I have the luxury of saying that because I have my own home. That's not true for the large and growing numbers of faceless, nameless people whom we call "the homeless".

I can't imagine how acutely homesick one must feel having to depend on the kindness and charity of others who are doing it not so much because of the gospel or in the name of justice, but because it makes them feel good to "do unto others".

Some of us are lost even when we think we're on the right path.

Jesus assures us that, no matter what our state or condition while we are on this earth, we have an eternal home with Him no matter what happens with this one life we have been given to live.

Even so, it's good to be here.

Now.

In this place.

At this time.

Home.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Anything Goes

Joel Gray and Sutton Foster in 'Anything Goes'
On our way out of the Stephen Sondheim Theater Tuesday night, I heard two distinct British accents ahead of us reviewing the revival of the Broadway Play, "Anything Goes".

One loud, sonorous, authoritative voice said, in the undeniably clipped, dramatic tones that one hears on BBC Radio 4 broadcasts of the Church of England, "Good Lord, that was 'high church on Broadway'."

If that's so, characters Reno Sweeney (played by Sutton Foster) and Moonface Martin (played Joel Gray) are its High Priests.

As the Gospel entire can be summarized in a single sentence (John 3/16), so too can the story line of "Anything Goes", which concerns madcap antics aboard an ocean liner bound from New York to London. Billy Crocker is a stowaway in love with heiress Hope Harcourt, who is engaged to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Nightclub singer Reno Sweeney and Public Enemy #13 Moonface Martin aid Billy in his quest to win Hope.

Like 'high church', it's not so much about "the story" as it is about the drama and the music and the dance steps that support and help tell the story.

It's hard to remember that this play was written and performed in the 1930s, as the country was recovering from the Stock Market Crash. There are a few references to that in the play, but its a social commentary about how people were recovering from the financial crisis by "getting away" on a mid-Atlantic cruise.

Mostly it centers on the idea of "true love" and the way the small band of travelers band together in pursuit of "Hope" - the character and the idea.

I suppose one ought not be surprised, then, that this revival has been extended and is receiving rave reviews. We need this message, this hope, in the midst of our own fragile economic times.

I'm in the midst of visiting friends and family while presiding at Memorial and Graveside Services, so I'll leave you with the words of one of the hymns of this 'high church' service.

If you find yourself tapping your feet and humming along with Reno, then not to worry. You've got the "Spirit".

See you in 'church' . . . or, as they used to say in the 30's 'the funny papers'.
Times have changed,
And we've often rewound the clock,
Since the Puritans got a shock,
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
If today,
Any shock they should try to stem,
'Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them.

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything Goes.

Good authors too who once knew better words,
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose, Anything Goes.

The world has gone mad today
And good's bad today,
And black's white today,
And day's night today,
When most guys today
That women prize today
Are just silly gigolos
And though I'm not a great romancer
I know that I'm bound to answer
When you propose,
Anything goes

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tracy

I knew it would happen - sooner rather than later - but it still came as something of a shock when it did. Time just seemed to suddenly run out.

You know. The way it always does.

I heard yesterday that my dear friend Tracy died on Saturday. He was found on the floor in the hallway outside his apartment in an independent living complex for those who are elderly and disabled, next to his motorized wheelchair.

His family surmises that the only logical explanation is that he might have accidentally overdosed or taken the wrong combination of drugs and had suffered an adverse side effect. He may have been trying to get himself to the hospital, being unable to dial the phone any longer.

He was fifty-something and had battled AIDS for, as I recall, more than twenty-five years.

I do not say "battled AIDS" as a metaphor. I mean B.A.T.T.L.E.D.  As in hand-to-hand combat.  Bayonets drawn. Bloody sweat and grime. Valiantly.  With passion and grace.

As Tracy often said to me, no hill that he ever captured as a Marine in Viet Nam was as high or as difficult to climb - no swamp filled with more filth and slime and ugly, menacing creatures - as his battle with HIV and AIDS.

He took a mouthful of pills several times a day, which needed to be taken exactly on time. No medical "cocktail," this. It was more like a twenty course meal.

The drugs kept him alive but severely strained the quality of his life. The muscles in his legs, arms, hands and fingers were seriously atrophied. He could barely walk - even with his walker and two strong sets of arms on either side of him - and he had a hard time feeding himself.

He had little control over his own body, so much so that when he turned over in his bed while he was asleep and no doubt dreaming of his once Marine-fit body, he would fall out of bed. His partner, Joe, who is just a little guy - who also has AIDS - had to call the police in the middle of the night to help him get Tracy back to bed.

That happened many, many times. Tracy, in his gentle, good-natured way, just made friends with the cops, warning them that they might get a "bad reputation" for visiting him in his bedroom so often in the middle of the night.

Joe also bathed Tracy daily, changing his Depends frequently so as to prevent bed sores. Joe cooked his meals - or, more frequently, order take-out or delivery - and helped him eat if and when he needed it, cutting up his food into bite-sized pieces.

Tracy had taken to his motorized reclining chair which could also lift him up so, when he did need to stand to get to his wheelchair, he could do so more easily. In the last year or so, Tracy just stayed in that chair.

All day and all night.

I suspect that, despite his good nature, his supply of jokes to tell the cops finally ran out.

Except, of course, when he wanted/needed to get somewhere and then he was off in his motorized wheelchair. He would go everywhere. By himself. Whenever he could. The grocery store. To a doctor's appointment or drug store to pick up his meds. To the local Deli or Cafe or Sub Shop.

And, of course, to church.

Tracy LOVED church - and, he LOVED Jesus - which was something he inherited or acquired or learned from his father whom he absolutely adored.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of presiding at the simple funeral home and graveside service of his father, Carl.

Carl had been a cop. A native of Germany, he was a veteran of WWII, having served in the military forces of the Navy. He was also a deacon in his church, but when he lost his two daughters to drug overdose, the good Christian folk asked him to leave his position of leadership.

If a man can't manage his own household . . . well, you know what the Bible says.

Even so, Carl was a deeply religious and spiritual man as was his son, Tracy. Every time I visited Tracy and Joe, I was shown the American flag - now encased in a glass frame - which had been draped over his father's casket. Tracy also had a poem his father had written inscribed on a glass plaque which he hung on the wall of their small, one bedroom apartment, next to his father's flag.

Tracy said that his father never judged him for his sexual orientation or the fact that he had AIDS. "My father loved me," Tracy said, "just the way Jesus says we are to love one another. Unconditionally."

And then, his eyes would well up with tears and grief would get caught in his throat and he wouldn't be able to speak for a few moments.

His love of Jesus got him into some heated arguments with his former rector who practiced the justice of God and the radical welcome of Jesus but did not profess the unique divinity of Christ - any more than, say, Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Dorothy Day.

It. Drove. Tracy. Nuts.

No joke. He finally left that church and became a member of the church where I was rector. I don't "steal sheep" so his former rector and I had a long conversation about Tracy's leaving before I would fill out the "Request for Transfer" forms. We both concluded that Tracy had made the right decision.

However, Tracy was never "home" in his new church. There's a huge difference between a church which thinks of itself as "warm and welcoming" and one that practices and understands "radical hospitality". Tracy never really felt as welcomed as he did in his former congregation - acutely symbolized by the fact that, when the wheelchair lift finally broke forever, the church did not act to get it replaced. Still hasn't, more than six years later.

Tracy was very sad about that - especially because he missed coming to the daily mid-week Eucharist and attending his favorite Christmas Eve, Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day Services. He loved the music. He loved the prayers. He loved the wonderful feeling of everyone being in church together, worshiping God and praising Jesus.

I tried to assure him that, soon and very soon - sooner than any of us would really want - he was going to be in a place where the music was surpassing sublime and he'd be able to walk or run, skip or jump, and everyone would be surrounded and uplifted by the Spirit as together, they would worship God and praise Jesus.

"I know, I know," he said, "And, I believe that with all my heart. It's just that. . ." he paused, in his gentle way, carefully choosing and forming his words so they did not carry the anger and frustration which were the source of them. "....It's just that it would help so much if, just every once in a while, I could catch a glimpse of that glory here and now."

"Isn't that what church is all about?" he asked, "To give us little glimpses of the Realm of God every now and again so that we can have hope and make it through the tough times here on earth? So that the 'radical hospitality' of Jesus is more than just a smile and a handshake. It's something that accepts you 'just as you are without one plea' - just like we'll all be welcomed when we get to heaven."

I think we in the institutional church forget that, sometimes. Okay, more often than not. It certainly forgot it with Tracy's father, Carl. It certainly forgets that when we don't "live out in our lives what we profess with our lips".

I'm sad, today, missing my friend, but also because his family wants the service in the Funeral Home and then a Grave Side Service, and not in or from the church. A church. Any church.

I'm not really certain that Tracy would have wanted it that way. I think if he had had time to get to know the new rector at his old church, it might have been a little different. In fact, knowing her as I do, I know it would have been different.

Time ran out, is all, the way time often does.

I'm sad, today, missing my friend, even though I know in my heart that he is in a place where he doesn't have to take great handfuls of meds and can cut his own food and wash his own body and isn't bound to a wheel chair. Now, he can fly. Now, he knows the Realm of God that he could only dream of when he was here with us.

Now, the gentle spirit that made a humble abode for a little more than fifty years in a former Marine's body is set free to give light to the night sky as one of its million and billions and trillions of stars.

We're all just lit tapers left over from the Easter Vigil, waiting to be reignited by the Holy Spirit.

We're all just lonely souls, searching the earth for a few good companions to walk this journey with us until we find our way back home.

We're all just creatures of hope who sometimes find ourselves in the Valley of Despair, longing for the Word and the beauty of God's creation and creatures to lift us up and inspire us to go on to find little glimpses of The Garden.

The services to honor Tracy's life will not be in or from a church but, even so, the church will be there. I will be its representative. I hope that I will represent the best of what church professes to be but often fails because, well, because it forgets.

And then, suddenly and much to our surprise, time runs out. We disappoint. We make a mess. We betray or feel betrayed. We hurt or are hurt by others.

That's just the truth of the enterprise of being human.

The truth of God is that God loves it all - the hurt, the betrayal, the mess. God loves us most, I think, when we remember and try to be our best selves again.

Please pray for the peaceful repose of Tracy's soul - well done, thou good and faithful servant - and for his family who grieves and mourns, regrets and questions, and tries to find equilibrium after this shock and discover hope and solace amidst the shattered pieces of their faith.

But mostly, please pray for your own mindfulness and self-awareness. These are great gifts which lead us to find the joy in being human, so that we might rediscover our mission and ministry as the church.

You know. Before time runs out. The way it always does.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Heroes Among the Wheat and Tares

I heard the gospel preached this morning - I mean, with boldness and courage in the face of a risky situation - but I'm not sure you would know it without knowing the context out of which the sermon arouse.

The gospel, of course, is the parable of the Wheat and the Tares Matthew 13:24-30,36-43). You can find all the lessons for today here, on The Lectionary Page.

The preacher is a new colleague of mine, a retired Lutheran pastor who has, for the past six years, been the 'interim' rector at an Episcopal church in the area. I'll call him "Pastor Bob". That's not what the folks in his congregation call him, however. He's known as "Fr. Bob" - which, he told me, he hates.

"Even after all this time, I still flinch when someone calls me 'Father'," he said. "I hate it, but well, I just can't get them to change, so I quit banging my head against the wall and figure I got bigger fish to fry."

If you called 'Central Casting' and asked them to send you one retired Lutheran Pastor, you couldn't get a more accurate match "Pastor Bob". He's a bit frumpy in dress and gentle in spirit, reticent in speech but fully present and emotionally available. The deep sonorous tones to his voice and balding gray head only serve to accent his suitability for the role.

Quite frankly, I can't imagine him doing anything other than being a pastor, unless, perhaps, he were the owner of a country general store or a farmer bailing hay. Either way, you know he would be in the front row in church on Sunday. Every Sunday. Wife and kids by his side.

I met Bob at the local weekly gathering of area clergy. I happened to sit next to him that first week and I make it my business to sit next to him every week. That's because of Theo, who took to him immediately. Yes, I bring Theo just about everywhere I can - even to church when I can get away with it. He needs the socialization - especially with men.

You may recall that when Theo came to me, the folks at Poodle Rescue placed him on a "Restricted List". He could only be placed with women - a woman, preferably, since he seemed especially afraid of men. I was a perfect candidate.

Here's the thing: The first person in the room that Theo approached was Pastor Bob. They have become great friends. Indeed, last week, when walked into the room, Theo went straight to Pastor Bob. And, and, AND . . . his tail was wagging.

See what I mean?

The past three weeks, Pastor Bob has been doing battle with a certain segment of his congregation. A small segment, to be sure, but that's all it takes, isn't it?

Long story very short: A group of people in town, members of the United Church of Christ (UCC), have been meeting in various homes. They have outgrown their space and came to the Vestry to see if they could begin using the church on Sunday afternoons for their worship services.

In the course of conversation, it "came out" that the UCC Pastor was first ordained in the MCC church. The folks around the table had never heard of MCC and were curious. MCC, she explained, stands for Metropolitan Community Church, which was begun by Troy Perry as a place in the church of, by and for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People.

Almost to a person, the Vestry members took in the information, accepted it, and moved on. Until AFTER the meeting, in the parking lot - where everyone knows the real business of the church is carried out - and that one person began to bellow.

Outraged, he was. Furious, he was. "You gonna let THOSE people into OUR church?" he demanded, but everyone knew how he would answer his own question so there was no real reason to engage the young man, who was, at that point, frothing at the mouth.

"Tell me about this young man," I said to Pastor Bob.

He smiled and listed off the facts: The son of the matriarch and patriarch of the congregation. Early thirties. Unmarried. Still lives with his parents.

I smiled and said, "Thirty-something unmarried man, still living with his parents and has a problem with Queer people. Hmmmmmm . . ."

Pastor Bob smiled and said, "Well.... he does have a child.... out of wedlock...."

"Well, there it is, then," I said, "We know he's not gay. He's at least done it once 'for the gipper'".

The room broke out in raucous laughter.

Apparently, the young man and his parents are causing quite a ruckus in the congregation.

Threatening to walk out. "Buh-bye" said the priest and Vestry.

Threatening to take the congregation with them. "Okey-dokey," said the leadership.

"We'll picket the church the first Sunday those people set foot in our church," they said.

"Make sure you get a proper permit from the Town Hall," said Pastor Bob, kindly.

Still, it was hard not to miss the tension in Pastor Bob's face. "Well," I said to him, "If this is what retirement looks like, I can't wait to start."

Pastor Bob sat up in his chair, eyes flashing with passion, and, voice trembling but heart and mind and soul convicted of the truth he was about to speak said, "There is never any retirement from justice."

Okay, so that's when I knew I was in love with Pastor Bob. Theo is such a good judge of character, isn't he?

This Sunday is the first Sunday that the UCCs hold their worship service in the Episcopal church. Four members of the church - the three family members and one other - have not been to church for two weeks. They have promised to show up this afternoon with pickets and chants - you know, just so the UCCs will really feel as welcome as a skunk to a garden party.

So, I went to that church this morning, to show my support for Pastor Bob. And, here's part of the sermon I heard.

Pastor Bob asked us if we had ever seen a wheat field.
"It's pretty hard to tell the wheat from some of the tares or weeds. If you pull them up, you risk pulling up some of the wheat along with it."

"In any event, one can understand the impulse to pull up the tares before the harvest. Makes the job of threshing the wheat a whole lot easier."

"But Jesus says, 'Leave it be.'. Let the wheat and the tares grow together and let me sort it out when you bring in the harvest."

"Some good Christians don't listen to Jesus. They think it's their job to pull up the tares and do God's job. That's not what Jesus says we are to do. He says, "`No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest . . ."

"The thing about the tares is that they are just plants that no one really wants. They have a purpose. They are part of God's creation, too. They have their own beauty, in their own way. 'Let them be'."

"It's not our job to pronounce what is wheat and what is tare. We're to let both grow together and let God do the threshing at the harvest. Because, this is God's garden - not ours. And all of it, the wheat and the tares, belong to God. When we get back to The Garden, we'll understand better, the mysterious ways of God."
Now, on the surface, that sounds like a pretty straightforward sermon. And, it was. Good use of the metaphor. You can't tell it from this reporting, but it was well delivered - and received. The preacher was fully present to the Gospel and the congregation. The sermon clearly came from a place of truth and conviction in him.

What you also don't know is that, as I looked around the church, heads were nodding. Or, some folk looked down at their shoes.

There was no denying the four folk who were planning to picket later that day. Yes, there were there. They would be the ones with steam blowing out of their ears. Actually, I don't think they figured out whether or not Pastor Bob was calling the UCCs as the 'tares' or them. And, it pissed them off.

Pastorally, it was a brilliant sermon. He struck all the right cords. Old timers and adversaries and new comers and visitors alike heard what they needed to hear.

Or, as this gospel pericope ends: "Let anyone with ears listen!"

You know, there are Heroes who walk among the Wheat and the Tares. Gentle giants of Justice who boldly and courageously take risks for the Gospel.

Or, as someone wrote to me yesterday on a completely different matter, "Progress is where you find it sometimes."

This is where the real battle is being waged and being won. In small, country churches, east of Nowhereville, who set the Gospel standard for themselves and the community and hold themselves and the People of God accountable to it.

It's won in conversations in church parking lots and in corners of Parish Halls and at Vestry Meetings as well as in pulpits where parables are explained without hitting anyone over the head or leaving blood on the Altar.

On my way out of church, I ran into the Senior Warden who had introduced himself to me when I first walked in the door. I smiled and said to him, "That sermon on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares was a parable all in itself, wasn't it?"

He looked at me, carefully, and realized that I knew the scoop. He smiled broadly and said, in that Lower, Slower Delaware style of reticence, "Yup."

"Listen," I said, "If you want, I can get a cup of coffee, do a few errands, and be back here by 12:45."

He thought for a minute and said, "Thank you, but I think we'll just let it be. You know," he smiled, "Just like Jesus said."

As I drove away, I passed the little Methodist church down the street. The sign in the front of the church had this message: "The standard by which you judge others will be the standard by which you are judged."

Looks like the town is onto something.

And that, boys and girls, is how the battle is won: One church, one pew, one sermon, one person at a time.

As I continued to drive the 35 minutes back to my home, I thought about the Jacob story which served as the Hebrew Lesson for the day. It's the one about Jacob's ladder (Genesis 28:10-19a)

I was struck by the fact that Jacob "woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place-- and I did not know it!"

There are Heroes and Giants of justice out there in the wheat fields.

You just can't always see them for the wheat and the tares.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Being still

Thunder Moon - Artist unknown to me
There was an absolutely beautiful full moon last night over the water.

At this time of year, this moon is sometimes called the "Thunder Moon" - because of the frequency of thunderstorms. It is also known as "Hay Moon" - which is easy to understand when you are surrounded, as I am, by farms. You also understand the genesis of the phrase, "Make hay while the sun shines". The mowers and balers toil long hours in the hot sun.

Finally, it is known as the "Buck Moon" because this is the time of year when the antlers of young bucks push their way through and begin to make an appearance.

I wonder by what name this moon is known in other countries, other cultures.

One moon. Many names.

I was sitting on my deck, watching this Moon of Many Names, and suddenly, I was startled to realize that an hour had gone by. I have no idea where that time went.

Which is an interesting concept, all in its own. Where does time go? Does it move past us and then circle round again, past the many seasons of the Moon of Many Names and become the future?

I think I was still that whole time. Just sitting, watching the moon. Letting time go past me.  Or, was it ahead of me and I was catching up to it? Did it move slowly and silently or rush  by so fast I didn't hear it?

Who knows? I was alone with my thoughts. Oh, and Theo who also made not a sound nor moved not a muscle. At least, I don't think so.

I was struck by the fact that the moon was there but did not seem to move. So were we both. There. Not moving. Or, at least, that's how it seemed. Not 'wasting time'. Just being in the moment. Being still. Allowing the world to move around us while we paid so much attention to it time seemed to stand still while we weren't moving.

These days, I spend good portions of my day in silence. By which I mean, I do not speak. Well, to another person in the room. My thoughts are always with me and I have great conversations in my head. I sometimes share them with Theo, who looks at me, sometimes quizzically, trying desperately to understand. Other times, he seems to know exactly what I'm saying. Sometimes, before I even open my mouth.

It feels like an enormous privilege - as if I have been invited into God's stillness and silence which I experience as the fullness of God. In those moments I am present to everything. Attentive to it. To love it. To enjoy it and be happy. But, I am to interpret nothing, solve nothing, explain nothing.

I am just letting it - and myself - be.

I am as still as the water on the Bay, reflecting the light of the Moon of Many Names. The gentle breeze blows past me and I feel it calling me to an interior dance, like the marsh grass danced with the breeze before the Thunder/Hay/Buck Moon.  But, I do not move. At least, I am not aware that I did.

Meanwhile, the current continues to move under the stillness of the water on the surface of the Bay. Meanwhile, somewhere out there, a young buck rubs his head against a tree to ease the discomfort of antlers pushing their way out of his skull. Meanwhile, a farmer prepares for bed, muscles sore and aching from bailing hay while the sun shines.

Meanwhile, I sat alone with my thoughts, but I was hardly alone. I found myself in the company of the many teachers I've had over the years.   I heard the voice of my High School English Lit teacher and wondered if we really ought to gather our rosebuds while we may - and what are those rosebuds, anyway?

I heard the voice of my nursing school philosophy professor and wondered, in the stillness of the night, if Thomas Hardy was right when he said that everything that happens is simply a matter of coincidence and chance.

And then, I heard the voice of one of my seminary professors and wondered if Camus was right when he said that human beings have to create out of nothing whatever meaning there is in life.

This morning, I found the words of John S. Mogabgab which I had once, long ago, written on a scrap of paper and tucked it inside my breviary.
"When our words enfold the silence, what we say will continue to speak even after we have stopped."
I understand that, now, better than I did when I wrote them on that scrap of paper because I knew, somehow, that I would need them one day. For a time like this. In a moment like this. After a moon like that.

I suppose I also better understand the words of one of the Desert Fathers which I wrote on the back side of that same scrap of paper. Abba Poemen said, "Teach your mouth to say that which is in your heart." And, conversely, "Preserve in your heart what your mouth teaches."

I also found this quote from Percy Ainsworth tucked away in another part of my breviary:
I'm afraid that too often we leave the deeps of life untouched
not because we remember they are sacred
but because we forget they are there.
Those scraps of paper with those words written on them have been there for years - more years than I care to remember. I can't recall when I wrote them or how long they've been there. It was simply time for me to find them again and bring them 'round into this time. This moment.

Later this afternoon, I will be in the midst of a great, joyful family cacophony known as our grandaughters' birthday party. The delightful sounds of the giggles and laughter of the children will dance on the more serious adult conversations about the debit ceiling and corrupt journalists and unemployment, amidst calls for "Hamburger, Cheeseburger or Hot Dog?"

There will be Slip 'n Slide and Softball and Volleyball and Badminton while some of us pick up conversations right where we left off last year. It will be as if time has circled 'round the Moon of Many Names and found us again.

We have not stood still in that time. Neither has time stood still for us. But some of us have been practicing being still, invited as we have been, into the Stillness of God.

We are all invited into that Stillness.

Some of us accept the invitation.

Some of us don't.

Those of us who do enter into the cacophony of life with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude for both the Noise and the Stillness.

I believe God loves it all.

And, by God, so do I.

Because it is, all of it, sacred.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Dead Birds and Debt Ceilings

Immortality
I had just returned from a two hour visit to the beach. Just enough time to bathe in the sun, read some more of my book, cool off in the refreshing ocean water and. . .my favorite pastime. . .people watch.

I love to watch people - young and old. The babies, waddling in their diapered swim suits, slathered with sunscreen lotion, shovel in hand, squealing with delight at the seagulls. Their parent's and teen aged siblings, bodies toned and tanned and skimpily clad in Speedos and Bikinis that would make a French sailor blush. The grandparents with modest bathing suits that do not conceal 'bay windows' or ample, sagging breasts, cellulite on their legs and wrinkles on their face and arms, and an occasional scar that look like zippers on their chests or crescent moons on their knees.

It's easy to believe, when you're at the beach, that you are going to live forever.

Bodies don't lie. The truth is all there, if you look for it.

I came home and, before I took off my bathing suit and showered the sand which rudely invites itself into body crevices and creases - a small discomfort to pay for the absolute pleasure of being on the beach - I took Theo for a walk.

I ran into a neighbor whose seven year old granddaughter has been visiting this week. "How's it going?" I asked him.

He smiled broadly, then shook his head as he laughed and said, "Honestly? I'm exhausted!"

We shared a knowing laugh as his granddaughter came 'round the corner, walking very slowly and looking sad, her hands cupped around a small, limp, dead bird.

"Pop-pop!" she cried. "Look! The bird is dead!"

We moved over to inspect the evidence. My neighbor gently and lovingly put his hand on the little girl's head and said, "Yes, sweetheart. That bird is dead."

"But, how, Pop-pop? How did he die?" she cried.

His knees creaked loudly as he knelt down beside her and softly spoke a harsh truth, "Not everything lives forever."

"But why?" the little girl wailed. "Why did it have to die?"

He put an arm around her, giving her a gentle squeeze, and gently spoke another harsh truth. "Because, eventually, everything and everyone dies, sweetheart."

A big, fat tear flowed down her chubby cheek as she looked deeply into her grandfather's eyes. "Everyone? Even you?"

He returned her deep gaze and said, "Listen to me. Pop-pop loves you so much. I love you enough to want to live forever - to see you grow up into the person you're going to be. And, God willing, that will happen. But, you know, I can't promise you that. No one lives forever."

"But YOU will," the little girl cried.

"Well," he said, "here's what I can tell you and it isn't a lie. It's the truth. And, it's a promise: I will love you forever. Always. Do you believe that?"

The little girl looked at the dead bird, and then her grandfather, and sniffed back some clear liquid that was running down her nose and said, "Yes, Pop-pop. And I will always love you."

The grandfather smiled broadly and said, "I know. I know, sweetheart. Now," he said, standing up with a soft groan and a loud creaking of his knees, "let's put that bird down in the grass here for a minute while you go in the house and wash your hands. Lots of soap and water, okay? Then, ask Nana for a shoe box and we'll give this bird a proper burial. Maybe the Rev here can say a few prayers. Okay?"

The little girl nodded her head, gently placed the bird on the grass and then walked slowly into the house to do as she was told.

There was a silence between us that suddenly became very loud. "Good job, Pop-pop," I said, more to break the silence which had become more uncomfortable than the sand that was stuck to my body.

"Thanks," he said. And then, he shook his head and said, "It's like the damn budget."

I looked at him curiously. "What?"

He took a deep breath and began his rant, "Look, I'm a Republican - been one my whole life - but those clowns in Washington - Republicans and Democrats - think we're going to live forever. And, they spend money like they are immortal. Cut Medicare and Medicaid and programs to the poor and give tax breaks to the millionaires and billionaires? What kind of thinking is that? That ain't Republican politics. I can tell you that."

"Yes," he continued, "we spend too much on health care, but it's not just insurance that needs to be reformed. It's the whole health care system that keeps people alive well after they should. I'm talking babies and old people and young people who take stupid risks with their lives. Motorcycle accidents that leave people angry and in a wheel chair with millions of dollars in medical expenses. Premature babies that would have died not even 20 years ago and then need a life time of medical care to have some - but not much - quality of life. At who's expense?"

"We think - we want - to live forever and we don't give a tinker's damn about who came before us and who might come after us. And then, we have the nerve - the unmitigated gall! - to complain about 'overpopulation' and 'pollution' and 'climate change' - not to mention 'unemployment' and 'debt'."

He shook his head sadly and said, "I know I sound like a 'Hallmark Card' but, you know, life is a gift. That's why it's called the 'present'."

I laughed and said, "Or, like my favorite T-shirt that says, 'The one with the most stuff still dies'."

"Right!" he said. "Look, we have enough money in this country. Lots of money. Tons of money. That's not the problem. The problem," he continued, "is that our priorities are all screwed up."

"We were taught as children and we teach our children and grandchildren, 'Share'. 'Be kind.' 'Take care of those who are less fortunate'. 'Love your neighbor as yourself'. 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. And then, we grow up and have a taste of power and all of that goes right out the window."

I was about to open my mouth and say something but just then, his granddaughter came out of the house with her Nana, holding a shoe box. She looked very solemn as she approached us, saying softly, "I washed my hands, Pop-pop. Real good. Nana helped me. And, she found the shoe box."

Nana smiled at me. She had a roll of paper towels tucked under her arm and ripped off a few sheets and handed them to her granddaughter as she said, "Remember what I told you. We'll use these to pick up your bird."

The little girl did exactly that, but with a solemness and seriousness that belied her seven years. She picked up the dead bird with a double layer of paper towels and put him gently in the shoe box, covering him with the paper towels like a blanket.

She turned to me and said, "Would you say some prayers, please?"

I took the box from her hands but it was clear that she was not going to let go. We stood there, at the bottom of her driveway, holding the box together.

"You, too," she said to her grandparents. They moved in and we each took a corner of the box. I closed my eyes and hovered one hand over the open box while I said a prayer which, as I recall, thanked God for creating us and giving us life.

I think I said something about how wonderful it was - and how grateful we were - that this bird once flew in the sky and nestled in the trees and sang beautiful morning songs to the God that created everything on the earth while we enjoyed the privilege of listening in.

I remember saying something about hoping that this bird's death would remind us how precious life is and praying that we would learn to celebrate the gift of life and to cherish each moment - the good and the bad - that are all part of life.

I probably said more - too much, no doubt - but when I opened my eyes at the end of the prayer, I saw that the little girl was holding onto the box with her eyes shut as, together with her grandparents, she said a solemn and heartfelt "Amen".

I handed the box back to her and, as her Nana gave her the lid, she whispered into the box, "I will love you forever."

She sighed and then looked at her Pop-pop and asked, "Where should we bury him?"

"Well," he said, "How 'bout under that tree over there?"

"Yes!" she said in full, serious agreement. "He should be close to a tree. Under the sky. So I can visit him whenever I'm here. And, remind him that he is loved."

I've been thinking about that conversation all morning, in between making the potato salad and cheese cake and bread in preparation for our granddaughters birthday parties tomorrow in NJ.

I suppose, then, I wasn't surprised to read this Op-Ed piece in this morning's NY Times.

David Brooks begins by writing about Dudley Clendinen’s essay, “The Good Short Life,” in last Sunday's Times’s Review section. Clendinen is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S. If he uses all the available medical technology, it will leave him, in a few years’ time, “a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self.”

Brook writes:
Instead of choosing that long, dehumanizing, expensive course, Clendinen has decided to face death as one of life’s “most absorbing thrills and challenges.” He concludes: “When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over. It’s time to be gone.”

Clendinen’s article is worth reading for the way he defines what life is. Life is not just breathing and existing as a self-enclosed skin bag. It’s doing the activities with others you were put on earth to do.

But it’s also valuable as a backdrop to the current budget mess. This fiscal crisis is about many things, but one of them is our inability to face death — our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy to extend life for a few more sickly months.
I'd like to say, "Great minds," and all that, but I think something is in the summer air. You can feel it blowing hot and dank from Washington.

Except, Brooks places the bulk of the blame on health care costs. I think health care costs are just a symptom of an age old problem of the human enterprise.

I think Pop-pop is right.  It has to do with our mortality and the wish to be as immortal as Gods.

Maybe it takes a friend who has ALS or some other debilitating terminal illness to wake us up to the fact that we are all, one day, going to die.

Or, maybe we've forgotten the first time we encountered a dead bird as children.

"Nobody lives forever," as Pop-pop said.

We are all mortal. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.

Dead birds to debit ceilings.

But, in between, there are blue skies and birds and fish, the ocean and books and people watching, dogs to walk and annoying sand to get out of body crevices, cheesecakes and potato salad and bread to make for birthday celebrations that come 'round again too quickly.

Besides, we're all going to live forever with Jesus. One day. In that great by-and by. We can't know the real gift of that faith unless you live this life - this one, precious, limited gift of life - with all the kindness and compassion and joy and love you can squeeze into the shortness of its days.

I think we really miss the mark when we miss the opportunity to pass along that secret to our children and grand children.

You'll excuse me now. The potatoes and eggs are cooling in the colander and the ground-nut crust for the cheesecake is out of the oven and cooling on the counter. I'll come back and get the cheesecake batter going and then put it in the oven while I start making the gluten-free bread.

Meanwhile the "discussions" about the budget and taxes and debt ceiling will continue. The Gods of Washington must be appeased. A living sacrifice must be made so they can continue to live in the illusion of immortality.

They will have to have those conversations without me. I've sent my emails to the President and Speaker Boehner. They know how I feel about the mess they've created. I'm hoping Eric Cantor will be sent away to sit at the "little kids' table" so the adults can get on with important decision-making.

After all my chores are done, I'll pack up and head to the beach again. But first, I've been called to do a Burial Service for a dead bird and say some important words for a little girl who has learned something from her grandparents this summer about mortality and eternal love.

I wouldn't miss that for the world because, you know, life just doesn't get much better than that.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Gift of Not Being 'Normal'

I knew I was hooked and would be up reading all night when I read this line:
"The biggest gift of being unambiguously mentally ill is the time I've saved myself trying to be normal".
Earlier that afternoon, in the check out line at the Giant, I heard two young grocery clerks - obviously on summer break from college - talking about the book, "Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A Memoir" by Mark Vonnegut.

"Excuse me," I rudely interrupted.

Well, I don't know that I was rude, exactly. I guess I've never really understood the proper etiquette of the grocery store. I mean, clerks are supposed to answer your questions, right? It's just that this question wasn't about the price of a few vine-grown tomatoes. So, shoot me.

"Is that Vonnegut as in Kurt Vonnegut? The author of 'Slaughterhouse Five'?" I asked as if I were asking the Sku number on a can of soup that wouldn't scan.

They seemed as thrilled with my query as I was in hearing people in a grocery store on Lower Slower Delaware mention the name "Vonnegut" and "mental illness" in the same sentence without snickering or mispronouncing the name.

"Yes," one of them exclaimed a little too excitedly and loudly for a grocery store (Well, then again, who knows what's normal for a grocery store?). "Did you READ 'Slaughterhouse Five' or did you SEE the movie?"

It was a test. I knew it was a test. "Both," I answered honestly.

Apparently, I passed the test. I had said the secret word and was immediately allowed access to their review of the book. Based on what I heard, I couldn't wait to get home and order it on my Kindle - which, if I'm not careful, will soon bankrupt my budget.

That's okay. I fully expect my obituary to read, at least in part, "She died poor but well read."

Let me say, straight away, that this is a quirky book. The style clearly flows from the beautiful mind of an incredible soul that has been visited four times by madness and slightly clouded by a daily dose of lithium. The thoughts are sometimes disjointed but you can hear the theme.

It's a bit like reading a jazz improvisation in words. He'll go off on a story and then back to the theme, which I think is summed up well in the sentence that first caught my eye.

Here's one of my favorite examples:
"The thing I've always loved about my troubled paternal grandmother - who I imagine as not yet troubled back then - was that when informed by her husband that they were broke she said, 'Okay. Let's spend the summer in Europe.'

And they did."
Therein follows a paragraph about how, at some point in his childhood, his father (Kurt) gave his three children code names.

Not terms of endearment. No, no. These were code names.

Kurt was Boraseesee. His mother was Mullerstay. He was Kindo. Vonnegut writes:
"If we were ever trapped or captured and wanted to let one another know that it was really us, we could use these names. It was a long shot, but when I was locked up (read: committed to a psychiatric hospital), Kindo tried hard as hell to get word out to Boraseesee and Mullerstay.

We all want to believe that we're in a sheltered workshop with grown-ups nearby."
You know. Just like everyone else.

He doesn't spend too much time talking about his father, except where it is appropriate to understand the context of his life.  I was sort of glad about that, actually.

"Craziness also runs in the family," he writes. His mother's family warned her about marrying his father because of the mental illness in the family. His father's family offered the same warning about his mother's family.

Of his family, Vonnegut writes,
"If I'd been raised by wolves, I would have known a little less, but not much less, about how normal people did things."
Vonnegut attended Swarthmore in the '60s and majored in religion with the idea of going to divinity school where he would be "a comforter of the sick and disadvantaged but mostly a really good professional arguer who argued against the war and materialism."

In 1971, Vonnegut had a psychotic break that landed him in a psychiatric hospital in Vancouver. Two more breaks came in rapid succession. He was diagnosed at first with schizophrenia but says that, after the DSM (Diagnositic and Statistical Manual) changed in 1984, he now knows that it was more bi-polar disorder.

While he has obvious respect for the psychiatric community, Vonnegut also acknowledges that most of the diagnostic tools are the equivalent of a medical crap shoot.  He writes:
In the seventies I was in so in love with the medical model I almost thought I had invented it. "No shame. No blame." I was thrilled to not have my health be dependent on the sanity of society or the wellness of those around me. I was magnanimous about not wanting to credit insight or hard work or circumstances like the kindness of others. Now, the medical model has morphed into "Shut up and take your pills." What passes for care is medication, medication, and more medication, the purpose of which is only incidentally and occasionally to help the patient get a life.

Much of mental illness is genetic, but I’m now quite sure there are people with more or less the same genetics I have who never go crazy and others who never get well. As a kid who wrote a little and painted a little and played a little music, I certainly didn’t want my mental health riding on anything as flimsy as my creative abilities but, among other things, I’ve come to see that a willingness to write, paint and play music is more than a little important to progress and just trying to keep my feet under me.
There are a few lovely passages about how the creative arts provide an avenue of healing with which I really resonated.

I mean, there are times when I "hear" a poem or something I want to write about. I have these long conversations with the voice in my head about the different sides of the various issues.

And then, sometimes when I'm at my laptop, I look up at the screen and there are all these words in front of me and I think, "Huh! How did they get there?" And then I read the words on the screen and I say, sometimes out loud with no one else in the room, "Damn! That's good. Did I write that?"

No one answers of course, but it doesn't matter. No one heard me, either.

Besides, I can see smiles on the voices in my head.

Am I crazy? Perhaps. But, I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers.

I remember listening to an interview on NPR with a poet who said that most of her poetry comes to her when she's out working in her garden. She said one day she saw a poem coming at her and she had to chase it around the garden until it finally found its way into her home and onto her kitchen table where she could write it down.

If you've never written a poem or a song or an essay, or painted an image on canvass or sketched it on a pad, or sculpted something from clay, or created a meal without a cook book, or turned an empty space in your house into the sanctuary that is your bedroom or study or den, you probably don't know what I'm talking about.

Vonnegut writes:
"There are no people anywhere who don't have some mental illness. It all depends on where you set the bar and how hard you look. What is a myth is that we are mostly well most of the time."
It reminded me of that quote which I think is attributed to Winston Churchill who observed that most of the work that is being done in the world each day is done by people who do not feel very well.

Vonnegut recovered from his first three successive psychotic breaks and applied to medical school. He applied to ten. Round number, he says. Only one accepted him. That would have been Harvard.

He writes: "It is possible the committee members of the day, back then, were distracted by the question of whether or not I was schizophrenic and overlooked my grades."

He wrote his first book "The Eden Express" was published in 1975, the first year Vonnegut started medical school. That book was credited with helping many people understand mental illness at a time when the stigma attached to mental illness was even greater than it is today.

Vonnegut threw himself into his studies and became a successful pediatrician. He married and has three sons. Unfortunately, he had a fourth psychotic break 14 years after the last episodes.

He was taken to the same hospital where he had once trained and where he continued to work. Because there was no room immediately available, he had to wait in the hallway where strangers stared at him and his colleagues walked hurriedly past him.

That was the same month that Boston Magazine named him the best pediatrician in the Boston area.

Vonnegut writes of that experience with characteristic wit: "It's probably possible to gain humility by means other than repeated humiliation, but repeated humiliation works very well."

It has been twenty five years since that last episode. He remains a successful pediatrician in the Boston area with a wife and three grown sons. He's now 62 years old. Of his first book, he says,
"I’m grateful to the gritty clench-jawed kid who wrote The Eden Express, I think it’s an excellent book, but I’m glad I’m not him anymore.

It was the feeling that good things had happened to me in spite of myself, that I had a rich life that showed itself in my house and how I practiced pediatrics and how we lived as a family that made me want to write Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So."
I love this book for lots of reasons, none the least of which is that the mentally ill live and walk among us every day - in the grocery store, in schools and universities, in clinics and hospitals, among our families and friends.

Vonnegut writes:
"What so-called normal people are doing when they define diseases like manic-depressive or schizophrenia is reassuring themselves that they don't have a thought disorder or affective disorder, that their thoughts and feelings make perfect sense."
He's absolutely right. I suspect that the reason so many people - and pastors - are uncomfortable being around those with serious mental disorders is that they see the possibilities in themselves.

Indeed, those of us who are involved in congregational leadership know - or can pretty easily surmise - all the stories, which closets hide the family skeletons, and understand which family members hold the bag of family garbage so everyone else can feel good about themselves.

Problem is, most of the members of congregations suspect that we know this truth, even though they haven't told us. Some ascribe us with some kind of spiritual clairvoyance but the truth is that some of us see the world a little differently because we know that "normal" is a crock.

Oh, and we understand Vonnegut's continuing belief in his early aspirations to save the world. Vonnegut writes:
"Of course I'm trying to save the world. What else would a bipolar manic depressive hippie with a BA in religion practicing primary-care pediatrics be up to?"
I'm right there with you, Mark.

One soul, one essay, one sermon, one Eucharist, one conversation in a grocery store, one rescued dog at a time.

It begins when you save yourself from trying to be 'normal'.