Friday, April 24, 2009

making myself sick...

So, the stress test went fine. I did the whole thing though by the end I was very winded. And all was well.

So it must have been Joe dying that made me worry about my heart. (Well, that and being disgustingly fat and out of shape! Work on that when I get back from Ireland, that's my plan.)

I used to make myself sick a lot. For much of my 20's and early 30's I was a full blown hypochondriac. I would develop new symptoms every month or so--usually something rare and untreatable that would lead to a horrible death...Funny thing is, I had to fill out a new form for my primary care Dr. a month or so ago when I had fallen and busted up my face (something to do with computerizing records) and left the part about 'medical issues' blank. When I got in to see him he stared at it for a long time.

"Don't you have allergies and asthma?" Mike asked, staring at my form.

"Yes," I answered, "but under control...."

"And did I make it up or did you really have prostate cancer a few years ago?"

"Oh, yeal," I said, remembering.

"The tinnitus has gone away?"

I listened for a moment, "No, still ringing...."

"And you use a machine at night for sleep apnea?" he said, knowing full well I did.

"Love it," I told him, 'works like a dream...."

"Did you take out those two titanium bars in the forearm?"

"Nope," I said, staring at the scars, "still there."

"Had gout in the past year?"

"Just a couple of times," I answered, finally catching on.

He looked at me for a long moment. "All those," he said, "are the kinds of stuff we doctors call 'medical issues'."

"Medical school wasn't wasted on you," I told him as he wrote all that on the form.

"Should we add the appendectomy?" I asked.

He smiled, "that goes under surgeries," he told me, "which you also left blank!"

I guess if I don't make them up, sicknesses aren't real to me. I had, sitting there in the office, forgotten all that stuff...

But all that stuff aside, I tend to think of myself as pretty healthy for an ageing, fat white man. I used to take all kinds of pills--even had those little gizmo's where you put your pills in little connected boxes for each day. I'd spend Sunday evenings loading it for the week and dropping a few various pills in the toilet by clumsiness, turning the water strange colors as they dissolved. Now I only use an inhaler twice a day that keeps my asthma in check (and covers the sins of my cigarettes!), a pill for cholesterol (it's taken my cholesterol down about a hundred points--someone asked me how you can lose a hundred points and I said, "start at 400") and a baby aspirin.

So, this little episode reminds me how easy it is to fall into hypochondria. Let me have some low level anxiety and have someone I know, years younger than me, drop dead and I'm getting stress tests!

Hypochondria, it seems to me, is a way of saying, "I'm here, I matter and I may be sick..." It's an attention getter and an embarrassment. Reminds me of old people sitting in the nursing home reliving their bowel movements of the last 24 hours, or lack thereof.... "I'm here, I matter and I can't stop shitting/can't shit at all...."

It's not that I'm not here and people don't think I matter. I have more love and concern in my life than most people because I have a whole Episcopal parish to worry about 'how I am'. One of my theories about what seems like an inordinate amount of only children going into ministry. There really are a lot of only kids hanging around leading churches. We're looking for the family we don't have--sisters and brothers, siblings by the dozens and hundreds. (I have a lot of theories about only children--like how we can find each other in a crowded room and just know the symptoms...but that's for another time....The Tribe of Only Children, I'll call it....)

I only met one person who was a worse hypochondriac than I was in my hay-day was a guy about 75 I knew in New Haven. He was one of the Tribe of Only Children, by the way. He was 75, whippet thin and walked 6 miles a day. He'd never smoked and didn't drink and lived on nuts and berries and about two dozen supplements, but he was always sure he was dying. He told me he couldn't keep a doctor because they didn't realize how sick he really was. He told me he wanted on his tombstone the inscription, I TOLD YOU SO! I think he died at 87 or so--got hit by a car on his power walk...something like that.

But I'm not the only one who makes themselves sick. Most of us do from time to time. I've noticed that I'm not nearly as likely to do it if I'm being even semi-faithful about centering prayer or meditation. The whole mind/body/spirit thing is pretty reliable. Lots of people are making themselves sick these days over the economy. Stress and anxiety are the real food and drink of both hypochrondria and making yourself sick. Saying to someone, "it's all in your head" doesn't respond at all to the reality. Things in your head DO affect your bodies--there's a whole cottage industry of people who will tell you that in their books and lectures and workshops.

The last few days I was 'thinking' I had heart problems and though it didn't go as far as inducing chest pain, it could have.

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, I was sure my heart was failing. I wore out the Student Health Doctors and they sent me to a psychologist. She was a wonderful Swedish woman with a thick accent. I walked through a driving rain storm to see her and after I'd taken off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants and hung my raincoat and coat on the radiator and dried my hair with paper towels she got me from the bathroom, she looked at me and said: "For someone who is dying of heart failure you don't seem to worry too much about catching a cold." Then we sat and thought about that for a while. It was our last session.

Irony may be the cure to hypochondria. Humor may be the best antidote to making yourself sick.

Losing 50 pounds wouldn't hurt either....

Thursday, April 23, 2009

in the Close

Ireland, I hope

So, I have this flight to Ireland--Belfast via London--for Sunday, that I hope to be on. I checked the weather there--about 20 degrees cooler than Connecticut over the next week. Glad I did that, add a sweater to the suitcase...or wear it, sweating at Kennedy while taking off my shoes, explaining my c-path machine and mask I sleep with and hoping the walk through doesn't react to the two titanium rods in my arm where I shattered both bones in a car accident back in December of 2007.

But, before I go, I have a stress test tomorrow.

Some symptoms and the death of my wife's 50 something cousin from a heart attack caused me to go to my Doctor. I always go to the doctor when someone has a close call or dies. My visit--though my EKG, whatever that is--was fine caused my Dr to schedule the test before I left and give me a prescription for nitroglycerin which he told me "never to use". When I asked him why he gave me that if I should never use it, he said, "in case never arrives". I'm not real confident right now.

Have I told you before how "extroverted", in the Jungian meaning of the word, I am? I actually don't know 'what I think' about things until I say them outloud and hear them or write them down and read them. I drive introverts crazy. They, it seems, actually 'think' about things without having to say them out loud or write them down and read them. God bless them and their ability to do that. An introvert would never 'blog' about their stress test, though I suspect that from time to time even introverts need such an examination. (I don't know, I just imagine....)

So, just before departing for Ireland to lead a workshop I've been leading for years and have outlasted most of the other leaders to become something like a senior leader who's going to Ireland to lead it and train people to lead it so they won't need me and I'll have no excuse to go to Ireland (what sense does that make?) I'm face to face with my mortality.

I had a stress test several years ago because some people I knew had to have heart stuff done and I worried, since my whole world is 'outside' myself, that I might need heart stuff done too. It was fine, but since I had no symtoms other than friends who had heart stuff, there's no reason it shouldn't have been.

As a priest, by the way, I am always face to face with mortality. Priests and funeral directors (which is what morticians want to be called) come face to face with mortality all the time. I like almost all funeral directors, I really do. They share with me the constant face to face with mortality thing.

But Ireland is so green, so lush and the people are so much like me. I want to go this time and another and another again. I'd like to find a place in Ireland where I could go, not only with my wife, but with my children and just stay awhile. When I hear Celtic music, my foot starts going up and down and I hear a tune only my soul could know. My family never talked about 'where we came from' but I know, just from hearing the music and seeing the lushness and drinking the beer that my roots are there. It's in the DNA.

So, pray with me that the stress test won't send me to some hospital to have some heart thing done and I can go to Ireland on Sunday.

(I'm thinking nitroglycerin might be a handy thing to have around. I'll research it on the WEB, but maybe it will be a cheap high....That's my 1968 self talking, pay no attention....I won't be dropping it into Irish beer....Chill out....)

If I can I'll write on this silly blog from Ireland. I'm not taking a computer but I bet they have some there....

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Spring's teasing

There have been two wonderful days in a row--maybe we could count Thursday and make that 'three'. The crocus and bluebells and jonquils are out in force, along with other flowers whose names I do not know. But there is this, when I checked the weather forcast on the web it seems things will turn cooler soon. Today it hit 70, but not for the next week, my personal weather people tell me. Alas, spring is not yet here.

Here's what I remember from growing up in southern West Virginia, in the mountains there--Spring lasted 4 months, as did Autumn and Wineter and Summer divided up the other 4. Far as I can tell, that is the year most people would love. So move to Welch or Kimball or Keystone or Gary or War or Anawalt, where I grew up. Jenkinjones as well, if you want to live somewhere with a longer name. That area of the nation could stand an influx of new citizens and their money, believe you me.

New England is a tease. I've been here for almost half my life, with a break between the first two years and the other 25. Winter is unrelenting and Spring never comes--I expect in mid-May we'll arrive at 89 degrees and 87 percent humitity having had a week or so of Spring. Fall lasts long enough to get the idiots from New York to drive up to see the colors (which are nothing compared to the two months of color in Anawalt, WV, by the way) and then collapses into sleet, snow, freezing rain and general unpleasantness.

I love the blue-state politics of New England and the progressive attitudes of the people north of NYC. But the weather, quite frankly, sucks. I've been going to Ireland every year for a while to lead a workshop and stick around for a few days. We were at this wondrous retreat Center in County Sligo, right on the north-west coast last year. In the course of an hour, it snowed, sleeted, rained and had glorious sunshine in April. Just like Connecticut except that Ireland is green most of the year and the weather truly passes.

I know that CT is nothing like our northern New England neighbors. I shouldn't complain. Winter is the dominant season up there, but at least they know how to deal with it. I actually don't hate winter as much as I did years ago. Something about building up a resistance to depression and vitamin D deficiency.

A friend of mine told me my blog was 'scarey' and my own daughter told me she thought it was 'near the edge'. So, today, I'm just talking about the weather. No harm in that, eh?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mountain folk

A successful corporate lawyer from D.C. decided he had enough money and had had enough of high-powered law, so he found a cabin in the mountains of WV about two and a half hours from Washington. For six months he went into the nearest two once or twice a month for supplies, cut wood, read all the books he'd been meaning to read, slept deeply and well, and discovered what a joy it was to be alone.

One day, there was the first knock at his door since he'd been ensconced in the mountains. It was a huge mountain man--6' 6" at least, about 300 pounds, with bib overalls, sturdy boots and a plaid shirt large enough for a sheet in the city guy's bed.

"Howdy," he said, "I'm your neighbor. I live 'bout three ridges over but there's a path through the woods to my house. My name is Jeb."

The lawyer introduced himself and shook the huge man's hand.

"I come over to invite you to a party at my house next Friday," Jeb said.

The lawyer was a little lonely after his idyllic months in the mountains so he said he'd appreciate coming to Jeb's party.

Jeb smiled widely, then grew serious, "I have to warn you, there's likely to be sum drinkin' at my party...."

The lawyer nodded. He had limited himself to one glass of wine at dusk and was ready for some drinking.

"'Sides that," Jeb said, "there mite be some fightin' and there'll almost certain be some sex...."

Even in Georgetown, strong drink had led to disagreements and senusal relationships, so the lawyer said he understood.

"Good," Jeb said, "I'll be watchin' for ya...."

As the large man turned to go, the lawyer said, "By the way, what should I wear?"

"Don't matter none," Jeb replied, "It'll jest be me and you....."


I'm mountain folk. I grew up for 18 years in the southern most county of West Virginia--MacDowell County, aka "the Free State of McDowell". I'm a hill-Billie, a mountaineer, an Appalachian (pronounce the penultimate syllable to sound like "latch"--it was the war against poverty and Walter Cronkite who decided it was pronounced with a long 'a'. We never said that.)

MacDowell County is about the size of Rhode Island and had, when I grew up there, about 60,000 citizens. Now it's below 30,000 and nature is taking it back, thank God.

People often think of me as Southern--about like referring to an Irishman as "British"--that bad. I've never understood the South anymore than, after most of my life, I understand New England. I am a stranger in a strange land.

My people were all, one way or another, from those wondrous two islands that make up the British Isles. Quite a bit of Irish, some English, Welsh and Scots blood as well. Family names give it away: "Bradley"--Irish or English, meaning 'broad lee' or 'wide valley'; Jones (adopted by my maternal great-grand father at Ellis Island to replace O'Connor because he and his two brothers had such a falling out on the boat they all changed their names so they could never find each other again), McCormick (pronounced Ma-Comik by my family for reasons I'll never know), Sadler, names like that. Scots-Irish mountain trash. So I am.

Have I mentioned yet in these musings that when I was at Harvard Divinity School I discovered the more I accented my mountain accent the more brilliant people thought I was? Anyone who talks like the Clampets on the BEVERLY HILL-BILLIES must be smart if he/she can say anything half-way intelligent.

People still acknowledge my accent though I've lived in New England for the last twenty five years and don't think I have an accent anymore. OK, I can not distinguish in spoken language between a writing implement and a small, sharp thing made from metal. "Pen" and "pin" are the same word to me. And I do say "in-SURE-ance", which is how it should be pronounced. A funny moment in Appalachian pronunciation: Once at a wedding here in god-less New England, I told the couple in my homily that "commitment" is what would 'cement' their relationship. Of course, I pronounce that quickly hardening mixture of material "SEE-ment". I noticed the couple was staring at me strangely and my assistant at the time had buried her head in her hands. So, since they hadn't understood, I kept saying it: "SEE-ment, SEE-ment, SEE-ment...." If you can't imagine what most people thought I was saying, leave me a note and I'll get back to you.

Mountain people are different from people who can see more than a hundred yards in every direction. There is an almost DNA 'narrowness' to us. We live in hollers and have to look straight up to see the sky. The world crowds in on us, even in the wilderness. We are surrounded, always, and can't imagine the vistas of other parts of the world. Driving across Indiana, I become, inexplicably claustrophobic...there is too much space to function in. We develop a remarkably wry sense of humor. Since life is so 'close' we are used to it. I can sit at the ocean and stare out for hours. Nothing like that horizon is familiar to me. I love it but it both frightens and delights me. Such space, such openness, such distances....

Jimbob and Bubba were out hunting, not far from where the DC lawyer's cabin was. Jimbob grabbed his chest, turned purple and fell over. Bubba took out his cell phone and, wonder of wonders in those hills, had bars. He called 911.

"My friend Jimbob just fell over," he said. "I think he's dead."

The 911 operator said, "the first thing to do is make sure he's dead...."

"OK," Bubba said, carefully putting his cell phone on a tree stump.

The 911 operator heard a rifle shot and them Bubba picked up the phone and said, "OK, what's the second thing?"

Mountain folk--they're my people.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Final Belief

Ok, I'm trying to recreate what I lost because I'm an idiot the other day.

I'm starting at the end of that lost blog with a quote from the American writer Wallace Stevens that goes like this:

"The final belief is to believe in a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction, and that you believe in it willingly."

Go to your Bible and read the four stories of the Resurrection in each of the four gospels that made the 'cut' and got into the canonical scriptures. Remember this, Mark actually ends after verse 8 of chapter 16--the rest, every reputable scholar agrees, is a later gloss added to the gospel.

Read them all yet? If not, let me tell you this--they are like four different stories. The only constant between them is that it was women who showed up at the tomb on Easter morning. And why not? It is women who are always there when things are tough. But even the cast of women differs from gospel to gospel.

Matthew 28:1--Mary Magdalene and the other Mary
Mark 16.1--Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus and Salome
Luke 24.10--Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother James and the others with them
John 20.1 Mary of Magdala

So, go figure. Ponder that under your own Castor Oil Tree for a bit.

Always and only Mary Magdalene (of Magdala) who the Roman church besmirched for nearly 16 centuries before--a few years ago--admitting she wasn't a prostitute. Mary has her own gospel, well worth reading, and was considered to be 'the Apostle to the Apostles' by the earliest church. There are wondrous legends and stories about her after the resurrection that are well worth knowing about. One of which (via not only the DI VINCE CODE) is that she was carrying Jesus' baby when Joseph of Arimathea sailed off with her to France. Let that bit of esoteric stuff go, just remember that besides her, there is no consistency in the accounts of who first showed up to find the tomb empty.

Stop right there--that is the only consistent report of the four gospels...that it was women who discovered the resurrection...and even that constant is inconstant in the texts. There are lots of inconsistancies--guards or not, how many angels or 'young man in white' from Mark, 'don't touch me' vs. 'touching his feet', how the disciples figure in, etc. I'll leave them to you to make a list of--how many differences there are in the four Easter narratives.

Given that, I must admit I have no idea whatsoever about what really occurred on that long ago morning. All we are left with is 'story'--'fiction', if you will--about the most important moment in all Christian theology and devotion. We--you and I--conflate the stories into one and couldn't, unless you just read them (you did, didn't you, when I asked you to?) distinguish out the four stories that make up our 'fiction' about the resurrection.

Let me be clear at this point, lest I be thought to be heretical or worse: I BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS ON EASTER MORNING. Got that?

And my 'belief' is in a fiction, 'there being nothing else'.

Everything is a 'fiction', by my definition. Stuff happens and then we talk about it. The 'talking' we do about 'what happened' ISN'T 'what happened', it is the fiction we invent about it. Talk to your lover about your first kiss and I guarantee you that you that you'll end up with two 'stories' about what happened. Both are 'fictions', there being nothing else, about 'what happened' in that lovely, truly holy meeting of your lips.

Everything is like that. What we experience is NOT what we say about it to describe it to another. The domain of 'presence', the domain of 'experience' and 'happening' cannot be reproduced in language. Yet all we have to try to pass on that experience IS 'language'. And all language, I contend, is, by definition, "fiction". Language is a story we tell about what happened. I cannot 'give you' the experience of holding my newborn child for the first time. All I can do is tell you a story about that experience. "Telling the story" makes it a FICTION. That's what I say about it. If you disagree and think 'the telling' IS 'the happening' then stop reading now...please....

"The final belief is to believe in a fiction".

Easter is a fiction to me. I hope you can comprehend what I mean. "Something happened", but the four stories I have about it are all remarkably different. In one of them the dead are walking the streets of Jerusalem. In another, the Risen Christ looks like a gardener (he's been depicted in Western art many times with a farmer's hat and a hoe when he meets Magdalene!) In another story, he doesn't show up at all and the women fled from the tomb full of tromos kai ekstasis-- fear and wonder, terror and joy--however you translate it.

So, what we're left with is a 'fiction'--or four 'fictions' if you wish. If the folks who put together what we call the New Testament back in the 4th century didn't notice how disparate the four stories were, they weren't the greatest theologians and thinkers of the church we give them credit for being. I think they realized they were dealing with 'fiction' and left the stories out there for us to grapple with and wrestle with and wonder about and ponder.

So, when I say the Resurrection is a "fiction"--or, at least four "fictions"--I don't mean it isn't True. Fiction, as an old English major, is more True that 'fact' from the get-go. I'm just saying that for me--a Christian of the Anglican (more accurately these days, 'the Episcopalian' persuasion) I have finally come to 'the final belief'--the belief in a fiction, there being nothing else.

I don't even long for a video of Resurrection Sunday. I'd rather wrestle with the multiple fictions that have been handed to me as 'stories'. I don't want FACT, I enjoy fiction too much. Fiction gives me room to roam in my imagination and my ponderings and my wonderings and my faith. Faith, to me, is present in metaphor and simile and paradigms much more powerfully than it could ever reveal itself in substance and reality and 'don't question me' dogma.

The Resurrection is, in Wallace Stevens' words, "the exquiste truth" of knowing it is all a fiction and believing in it willingly. Just as poetry is more engaging than prose, for me, fiction is more the "stuff" of believing than fact could ever be.

"Alleluia, He is Risen! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!"

What a life-giving fiction. Something to build a faith upon--and the final faith is to not get too attached to FACT. Let us celebrate the exquisite truth of the Fiction of our faith.....

Monday, April 13, 2009

Holy Week and Easter Stuff (I)

ok, I wrote for almost an hour--breathless prose (I think) and lost it somehow. Will try again later. Just a teaser for the whole thing, something from Wallace Stevens--
"The final belief is to believe in a fiction, there being nothing else.
The exquisite truth is to know that is is a fiction and that you belive it willingly."

(I'll never reproduce what I wrote before and it is lost--woe is me...I hate computers....)


I'll be writing about holy week and easter this week. stay tuned.....JIM

someone planted pansies

Someone planted pansies on the spot in the Close of St. John's where Jane's ashes are (I'm changing the names in all this, ok?)

Jane's ashes are just outside the remarkable and irreplaceable Tiffany window of the Presentation in the Temple of the 8 day old Jesus by Mary and Joseph. They are there and not over on the East side of the Close where many, many ashes are interred because the first time Jane and Robert came to church, we went outside after the service to inter the ashes of a 103 year old member who had asked me to bury them beneath one of the Tiffany Angelic Chorus windows. She had been a pianist and one of the angels in that window is playing a keyboard of some kind--esoteric and holy at least. When Jane witnessed that, she took me aside and made me promise to bury her under the Presentation window. I agreed, thinking I'd never have that difficult and painful honor since she was a decade or so younger than me.

Jane and Robert became faithful members of the parish and married there about a year and a month after they started coming. Jane had a troubled early marriage with a wonderful daughter out of the deal and Robert had never married. Their service was glorious. Jane's daughter presented her to be married. I'm not sure I've ever seen two people so happy at their wedding. It was a 'new lease' for Jane and an 'unexpected gift' for Robert. Everyone there was smitten with the love they could not help but show. What could be better?

On their honeymoon, Jane drowned in a freak accident and my promise was brought home to me. Her family wanted a service as soon as possible and we celebrated the Burial Office and the Eucharist with her ashes. Then Robert took them away. He kept them in their apartment where they never really got to live for months. He drove around with them in the passenger seat. He dwelled with them for a long time and finally came to the church with the box in his hand and told me he was ready.

We did it on a Sunday, right after Mass, just the way she wanted.

Robert fell apart for several years. He was in and out of the church--looking confused and hurt and vulnerable. He lost his job, his home, lived rough for a while.

Then yesterday, on Easter, he showed up dressed to the nine's and smiling. We were out in the Close because he caught me smoking a cigarette between services. It was then we noticed that someone had planted pansies on Mary's spot.

We knew it was someone from her family who hadn't even asked if they could do that. But not asking made it sweeter somehow. We shared a few moments of face aching smiles and some damp eyes. He finally seems alright and could let Jane rest. And could enjoy the pansies.

They are beautiful and just in time for Spring.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

wearing a collar

Several months ago I bumped into a member of St. John's, the parish I serve, in a grocery store. I gave her a hug and she said, "I don't think I've ever seen you without a clerical collar."

That's one reason for not wearing clerical garb--the black shirt and wide, circular band of white collar--you don't have to...people see you in it anyway. The truth is I haven't worn a collar for five or six years now but there was no way I could convince that devoted member of the parish. "You wear one every Sunday," she said. And I believed that's what she saw every Sunday.

I didn't stop all at once. It was more like attrition. I lost all my collar buttons at some point and being naturally abscent minded, forgot to order more. Collar buttons come in several styles--most of which don't work. I always used the ones that went through the little holes in the black shirt and opened like a toggle switch to hold the collar in place. All the other styles--in my experience--find a way to edge through the hole in the shirt on the front or back or slip out of the "Clericool" collar. That's what the kind of collar I wore was called, believe it or not, since it was made of some material that doesn't exist in nature and probably never decomposes and had little holes in it to circulate air next to your skin. I kept wearing collars after I lost all my buttons by attaching them to my shirt with small paper clips, bobby pins or twist ties I'd take from loaves of bread. The twist ties worked best, but like they do when holding bread wrappers shut, they tended to get twisted the wrong way and I'd have to seek help getting them undone.

So, a second reason not to wear a collar is how hard it is to keep up with the buttons. When dropped on the floor they were designed to be invisible until you stepped on them with your bare feet, bruising the soles of your feet and making you walk funny for a day or two. I once was holding the button I was going to attach to the back--you have to attach the front one first unless you wear a collar 4 or 5 inches too large...which some priests do, I've noticed--and swallowed it by accident. Well, it was like an accident--certainly not on purpose--I laughed at something when I had it in my mouth and down it went. Since collar buttons are not cheap, I watched for it for a few days but decided that was sick. I hope it came out and isn't discovered in my next colonoscopy. That would be really embarrassing, it seems to me.

Finally, one of the twist ties I was using broke the hole in the collar because I had worn all the paper off it and the twist tie was like a scalpel at that point. That was my last collar and since I hadn't gotten around to ordering buttons I was equally negligent in ordering collars. After that I wore black shirts without collars for a while, pretending I had on a collar, but people would say, "did you forget your collar?" a lot and I got tired of making up humorous responses.

I could, I suppose, have worn those clergy shirts that have what's called a "Roman collar" or a "tab collar"--a little piece of plastic that looks like a tongue depressor--but I've noticed most priests who wear those carry the tab in their chest pocket, like a fountain pen, rather than wearing it. The collars I always wore are called "Anglican collars" and I really didn't want to be mistaken for a Roman Catholic priest. It was bad enough being mistaken for an Episcopal priest.

Another reason for not wearing a collar is that it is a 'fun stopper'. You can walk into a really great bar at Friday happy hour in a collar and practically close the place down. Everyone is suddenly siezed by childhood infused guilt, stops cursing, takes their hands off people they aren't married to and decides they've had enough to drink. I was once at a picnic on a hot August day and an acquaintence of mine who is also an Episcopal priest, showed up in a summer weight black suit and a collar. I said to him, "did you have a funeral this morning?" He seemed confused and went on to tell me he and his family were going horseback riding after the picnic. I'd never ride a horse with someone in a collar and I really didn't enjoy the picnic with him slinking around looking clerical.

I only rode an airplane once in a collar. Airplanes and collars do not mix since whoever you are sitting with either wants to confess sins you don't want to hear or turns out to be a religious nut. A friend of mine who I suspects has PJ's with a collar on them told me that he flew from LA to Chicago in his collar and had a sensible conversation with the stranger beside him until they were landing at O'Hare. Then the man said, "what do you Do?" My friend looked down at his black shirt and felt to make sure he still had on his collar (the buttons could have slipped out over Idaho and disappeared on the floor of the plane, after all). "I'm a priest," my friend said. The man replied, "oh, I know what you Are. I want to know what you Do...."

I've used that story in several sermons at ordination services. I use it to tell the person being ordained that 'being a priest' is more about 'being' than 'doing' and you don't need a uniform.

Just last week I told the wife of a priest that I didn't own any clericals. She was somewhere between shocked and outraged. "But don't you ever want to 'be in uniform'?" she asked. I probably said I preferred being a 'plain clothes' priest, sort of an ecclesiastical detective. And the truth is, I've never much liked uniforms of any kind. People in uniform are proclaiming that they 'do' something--direct traffic, drive buses, conduct trains, fight wars, put out fires, etc. Uniforms are designed to separate out the people wearing them from everybody else. They announce for all the world to know, "I am DOING something here--give me room to do it". A priest, unless a religious service is going on--and we have these really hot 'uniforms' for those--isn't 'doing' much of anything that needs space and room to perform. So, no, I don't want to be in uniform.

Back when I was 'in uniform' I noticed that I could wander around hospitals with great impunity. I once found myself one door away from an operating theatre in what was surely a sterile area because I was lost and not one of the dozen hospital employees I'd passed since breaking through into a place I shouldn't have been had called me to account about why I didn't have on a mask and gloves and those neat little booties people wear in such places. That's really nuts, to have a guy soaked in germs wandering free in a supposedly germ free space because he had on a collar. I don't like the deference people give me when I'm 'in uniform'. I AM, after all, a priest and can inform anyone of that if they ask. But wearing the uniform forms a shield of invulnerability and provides a cloak of invisibility to a priest that I'm not sure is a good idea, especially not a step away from open heart surgery, or most anything.

(This next paragraph contains graphic language that most people thing people who wear...or could wear...collars should never write. I didn't say them, but I will write them. The faint of heart should scroll down quickly lest they be offended....)

I was coming back from lunch at a downtown restaurant a few years ago with a priest friend. He was in clericals and I had on jeans and a second-hand sports coat. I noticed how people separated to let us pass--good people, bad people, people of all shapes and sizes and colors...all except the little old Italian ladies who wanted to kiss his hand. (Not having strangers kiss my hand is another reason I don't wear a collar!) Then we met up with this crazy guy who I knew who always asked me for money. He knew I was a priest in my tee-shirt and said, drugged half-out of his mind, "Fa-der, give me two dol-lers." I said 'no', quietly and firmly and kept walking. Then he started yelling at me: "Fa-der, ya are a muther-fucker! Fad-er, Ya don't care if I go ta hell...." And kept yelling it louder and louder. I stepped a step or two away from my friend and all the people on the street looked at him like he was spitting on the cross for not helping that poor man. One of the little old Italian ladies screwed up her courage and said to my friend, "you're shameful..." I just walked along, smiling, out of uniform.

Finally, I am so liberated by not wearing a collar because of my neck. Or, more accurately, my 'no neck'. I am a man whose head rests on his shoulders. If I look up, you can see my neck, but it is really a 'no neck'. Clerical collars were designed for people with long, gazelle-like necks. They look fabulous on people with real necks. Angelina Jolee would look great in a collar. In fact she would look very seductive in clericals....Well, let's don't go there. Suffice it to say, collars were made for men and women with necks. They look like a kind of necklace on some people. On me, a collar looks like a hangman's noose and is about that comfortable.

A dear priest friend of mine had spent all morning laboriously boning the Thanksgiving turkey and was planning to come home after he did a noon Eucharist and stuff it in an elaborate way. As luck would have it, he was distracted and didn't get home until 3, after his wife had returned from work. He looked in the refrigerator and found his fully boned turkey (a feat of no mean merit!) gone. When he asked his wife where it was she told him something terrible had happened and the turkey had collapsed so she threw it out. My friend was so distraught (being naturally prone to histrionics) he began, in the good old Old Testament way, to 'rend his clothing'. He tore most all his clothes into shreds, his wife told me later, but his collar wouldn't come undone. He must have had toggle switch buttons or twist ties holding it on. So she left him writhing on the kitchen floor, choking himself with his Anglican collar.

That's a final reason not to wear one--it ruins such dramatics....

There really is no moral to this story. I wore collars faithfully for over 25 years, in spite of the discomfort and how no one really 'looks' at you on the street and how collars make some people nervous and brings out the neurosis in normal folks on airplanes. It was simply fortunate for me that I swallowed that collar button (this is the first time I've revealed that event, by the way) and cut my last collar with a twist tie. I just never got around to ordering new ones and everyone who knows me knows I'm a priest and I am perfectly happy that those who don't know me don't know that about me. And I'm lots more comfortable. Besides, I don't think the woman in the super market is the only one who sees it when it's not there!

(Just so you don't believe I am ultimately frivolous about this, two stories.
Years ago I was at a meeting with a bishop from Africa who came from a nation where Christians were being horribly persecuted. When some asked, "Bishop, what can we give you to help?" he thought a moment and said, "clerical collars so that when the people are being dragged away to prison and torture they can see their priests are being dragged away as well...."
Back after 9/11, I went several times with a group from St. John's to Ground Zero to work at St. Paul's church, serving food, praying with rescue workers, just listening to people. We clergy were asked to wear collars so people could recognize that we were there for more than giving them lunch and a bottle of water. In that case I was humbled to wear a collar.
Should such needs arise, I would put a collar on even if I had to use duct tape to hold it on....)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Monday in Holy Week

The gospel this day is from John--that long-winded, over-theological gospel--and it is about Lazarus, newly risen from the dead, having a meal with Jesus and Lazarus' sister using up a pay-day's worth of costly oil to anoint his feet and then, if you get into sensual imagery in the Bible, drying his feet with what must have been her long, luxurious black hair.

If you are a man, just admit it, own up to it--and if you are a woman, ask a man who will tell you the truth (if you can find one...)--a woman pouring oil on a man's feet and wiping it away with her hair...Lordy, Lordy, how erotic can you get?

I'm rather fascinated by how negative the Christian Church is about eroticism. I can explain, since I am terribly over-educated, by tracing Christianity through the centuries, but that doesn't explain why we Christians have missed the boat in that regard. But that's another posting, this one is about the story of today's Gospel.

Besides Mary (NOT Magdalene...that's a subject for many blogs!!!) it is interesting that the once dead Lazarus is at the dinner and attracts most of the crowd. Lazarus (God bless him) gets to die twice. What an honor in an ironic way. Once you've been dead, what would you want for dinner? God knows, literally.

Judas, who gets a bad rap, I think, is depicted by John as a thief who is worried about why Mary spent so much money on the oil rather than putting it into the common purse. "Follow the money" is good advice to investigative reporters and folks who want to keep things straight. Someone should have been Judas when Wall Street was socking away millions while people lost their homes. But it is still a good idea to 'follow the money'.

Mary spent the money for oil to be extravagant and outrageous in love and holiness.

Would that all money was for love and holiness. The economic crisis would disappear, it seems to me. Money and the ironic, all at once. Plus life beyond death. An amazing combination of astonishingly important stuff.

You go figure it out while I try to.

Happy Holy Monday.

the one's I've failed

I've been an Episcopal priest for nearly 35 years. And want to know what I remember most? It's not the wondrous success stories and fabulous positive events of all those years--and, lucky for me (or, "blessed am I") there are lots of those. Lots. But I have a hard time holding them in my mind.

No, what I remember are the people I have somehow failed. They haunt my memories and thoughts and reflections and attempts to put this 'career' of mine in some perspective.

But whenever I look back--or just look at where I am now--it is the ones I've somehow failed, people who have left the church for one reason or another or those who defect in place, not leaving but having some enormous cloud of unhappiness surrounding them...those are the ones I remember.

Now, there is this: by temperament and choice, I take very little 'personally'. A dear, dear friend of mine once told me (perhaps the best compliment of my life...) "You either have NO EGO or your Ego is as big as Montana. Unfortunately--mostly for them--my immediate family, my wife of almost 39 years (is that possible???) and my two grown children CAN hurt my feelings. Perhaps my ego dissipates in the face of my raw and vulnerable love of them. They, I think, consider me 'sensitive' though almost no one else does, or, if they do, they are way off the mark.

I learned long ago the wisdom of the educational philospher Piaget that no one can "make" me unhappy, guilty, angry, happy, confused, etc., etc. Piaget teaches parents to say to their children: "I get angry when you do that." How clear is that? It leaves the child responsible for their action but not for the feeling it causes. Each person is responsible for their actions and their feelings and the information is conveyed about what actions illicit the feelings in the other.

"I get angry when you ignor me," is so much cleaner than "You make me angry when you ignor me." I am responsible for my response to the 'other'. The 'other' is responsible for what s/he does." You aren't responsible for my reactions, only for your actions--and the same goes for me. Once the communication is given, we both have a choice--I can choose not to be angry when ignored and the other can be responsible for whether or not to ignor me--and the other way around.

What really kills me is this: the ones I've failed--the ones who leave for whatever reason--seldom share with me what action on my part resulted in the feeling on their part. I have no way to either adjust my actions or to continue to act in that way, knowing what they feel when I act that way. I can control my actions when I wish to, but I cannot control other people's reactions to my actions. When I'm not given the choice to either alter my actions...or continue them...either way knowing full well what they feel when I DO that...then I am lost.

I told someone today that I have a very high threshold of 'guilt'. I'm always interested in the amount of 'guilt' people carry around with them, about all sorts of meaningless or seemingly meaningless actions or thoughts. I feel very little guilt. As the one who designs the liturgies of the church I normally, if possible, avoid the general confession. I think we all grovel too much and feel guilt over stuff that is relatively benign. We up the ante in Lent and such times. However, mostly, I don't feel the need to confess too much.

But when it comes to the ones I've somehow failed, I am full of's just mostly I don't know 'what' exactly to confess since I often am never told what it was I did, left undone, messed up, forgot about, etc. Often it just ends and I am left feeling, not so much guilty as confused.

The problem is, I suppose I don't provide a wide enough and hospitable enough space for people to tell me why they're leaving. It's not that I'd 'fix it', but I would like to know. It feels lonely and confusing when people leave.

Plus, I miss them madly.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


It is raining now. I hear it through the open window of the little office space where I sit and type.

Rain. how wondrous the sound, the smell, the dampness of it all. Calling the world back to life after a long winter.

I love the rain.

The only poem I've written that I can remember that has to do with rain is this one--and you have to wait until near the end to find the patient, it is, after all, a virtue.


I am surrounded by poetry
I will never write.

The old man down the block
with his droopy moustache
and the dog he used to walk, long dead now.
The particular shade of orange in this morning's sky
and the wondrous pink as evening came.
The down on the neck of a woman I once loved
who never knew I loved her.
And her seashell ears.
The bend of her slim elbow.
Her ears--I mentioned that already.
The leafy, logical pattern of ice on my windshield
one January morning--
like something a chaos physicist
would have adored.
What smoke feels like in my lungs
when I inhaled deeply on a cigarette.
The particular color of the eyes
of a crazy man I talked to and gave two dollars today.
My dreams--coming on me like a tsunami these days--
endless vistas with old friends,
walking through amber when I need to run,
conversations with those long dead,
hard work to accomplish less than nothing.
The smell of skunk standing on my deck.
The taste of coffee ice cream.
The feel of the hair of my Puli dog.
The sight of a woman, walking fast,
staying in shape, fending off death,
by walking fast past my house.
Hearing anything by Mozart on the radio.
And just the way it feels to be inside my skin,
how I can count my bones,
if I would stand still long enough
and count.
The many ways I imagine death.

And there is no time, no time at all,
since I am growing old.
There is no time, no time at all,
to write the poems that surround me.

And what about the dimples my daughter has?
And the strange way new money looks?
And how my wine glass is empty?
And the wear on the 'n' on my keyboard?
And how the ringing in my ears is sometimes a sonata?
And what the night sky resembles?
And the air under my fingernails and the gaps between my teeth?
And the sound of rain, rain's smell, all of raining.

What is unworthy of a poem?
Nothing, so far as I can see.

And I don't have the time.
Surrounded by poetry, I have no time to write.

Be well and stay well. I'll be in touch soon.

Lazy is my middle name and computers are the bane of my existence

OK, so here's what happened, I was about to write some tonight since I've been too lazy to write for a while and hit enter after typing in the title of the posting: Lazy Is My Middle-Name and instead of being able to type, I posted a blog without writing anything....And didn't know how to fix it. So, here's another try.

I'm aware I still have to finish the stuff about fundamentalism (a joke: Why can't fundamentalists have sex standing up???? It might lead to dancing....)

I'm committed to writing for an hour tonight, after I finish watching a Law and Order I've never seen and I'll try to return to fundamentalism as well as other things. For now, I have to go back to the TV.....

Good Show. I watch a lot of TV and don't apologize or rationalize about it. My watching TV is sort of like my driving on Interstate Highways. I'm a baby boomer and figure TV and Interstates were built for me. So, if I have a seven mile trip by state roads that is a 9 mile trip if I get on an interstate, I'll invariably choose the latter. TV's like that. I love TV. Many of my friends take pride in never watching House or Bones on Monk or The Closer and being smug about that. I watch them all--and more besides. Every sport including the World Series of Poker and I'm addicted to MSNBC's news stuff--Hard Ball, Keith Oberman, Rachel Maddow, like that. Here's my advice for folks 50 and over--watch lots of TV and always drive on the interstate system: they are OURS and we should use them....

My uncle Harvey, who was a preacher in the Pilgrim Holiness Church until he became too liberal for that ("too liberal" for the Pilgrim Holiness Church means you think God might look somewhat favorably on Methodists....) and became a Nazarene preacher--he once told me that 'mixed bathing' was a sin. "Mixed Bathing" meant going to swimming pools or the beach anywhere. Boys seeing girls in bathing suits would, in his mind, would drive boys to such extremes of lust that they would commit sins unspeakable. There was, it seems to me, no equal 'lust drive' for girls seeing boys in swimming trunks. One of the things I always remember about being a fundamentalist is that it was the uncontrolled, sinful, awful 'lust' of boys that was the root of all evil. Girls were the 'objects' of lust, never the lusting ones.

Lust is the primary sin for fundamentalists. As a man passed 60, it seems to me that lust wears off along the way. Greed and advarice weren't big sins in my fundamentalist childhood--mostly because in my Pilgirm Holiness Church everyone was poor and powerless to the point they couldn't imagine 'greed', much less practice it. We were all just scraping along trying to control our lust. The males at any rate. I was never sure what sin the sisters were battling with.

My father was a Baptist and not a Fundamentalist. He always referred to himself as a 'hard-shell baptist', the meaning of which I don't understand though I should probably Google it. He didn't take to the Pilgrim Holiness faith of my mother's family. In fact, he would drop my mother and I off at the church in Conklintown, West Virginia and drive around the mountain roads for a while, arriving back in the cinder-block church's parking lot to read the Sunday paper from Bluefield and smoke cigarettes while we were inside battling with Satan.

One Sunday, Preacher Peck, our minister, got going in his sermon and referred to the heathen out in the parking lot smoking and reading the paper while the Chosen People were working up a sweat of no mean consequence battling with Satan. It was at that point that my mother (bless her heart) came and took me from my pew where I was scared literally shitless because I was such an odious little vermin, yet unsaved and certainly un-sactified, and took me out to whichever black Ford my father was driving at the time (he traded in his black Ford every three years and got another black Ford from the Ford dealer in Keystone after several hours of bickering, walking away and compromising) and told my father that we had to go home and find a new church.

We became Methodists, a cult I have always since contended 'can't hurt anyone' because it was the closest church to our home. There wasn't an Episcopal church within miles and miles of where I grew up, and had it been next to our home, we wouldn't have gone there. Moving from Fundamentalist to Methodist was on the level of moving from the John Birch Society to the ACLU--moving to the Episcopal Church would have meant becoming atheistic communists back where I grew up....

The deal with Fundamentalists of whatever ilk (Christian, Muslim, Right Wing Republicans) is this: the world you live in as a Fundamentalist is like all those great Jimmy Steward movies--black and white. What makes a Fundamentalist, in my mind--and there are liberal Democrat 'fundamentalists' as well as those folks who blow themselves up and kill people for Alla--is that the world isn't technicolor.

I knew a guy a few years ago who was color blind. That fascinated me. I'd always ask him what color my shirt was and if it was white or black (back when I used to wear clergy shirts) he would know that. But nothing else. I kept trying to trick him into recognizing blue or red, but he truly couldn't. I just couldn't imagine what the world looked like to him. Seeing in black and white is unthinkable to me. And that's what Fundamentalists do. It is black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, evil or holy, saved or lost, Christian or heathen.

My maternal Grandmother, God bless her soul, Lina Manona Sadler Jones, divided the world's people into two groups--'church people' (Fundamentalists) and everyone else. She had an insight into the meaning of 'gentile'. That was anyone who wasn't like her.

But my father's habit of staying well clear of the Pilgrim Holiness people and smoking cigarettes and drinking the whisky he kept in the coal house to keep my mother satisfied--it was him that brought out of Fundamentalism to the gentle, pot-luck dinner, sweet harmlessness of Methodism. God love him for that.

It made my next jump into the realm of the Prince of Darkness and Anglicanism possible.

I'll tell you about my baptism sometime soon--and how mountain Methodism wasn't so large a leap from Fundamentalists as you might think. But for now, one last word on Fundamentalism and a further last word about my father.

The horrible conflict within the so-called Anglican Communion since New Hampshire elected a gay bishop is about Fundamentalism. Most of the s0-called Anglican Communion aren't, in my mind, Anglican at all. Anglicanism, at its root is a reasonable and open and inclusive kind of Christianity--the faith of "all sorts and conditions" of humankind. Most of the people in the world and some of the people in the US who call themselves Anglicans are really Fundamentalists. They see the world in Black and White no matter how high their worship might be and how many bishops they have. That too I'll save for another time, just wanted to flag it now.

And my father...there is this, April 1 is his birthday. He was born in 1903 in Waiteville, West Virginia. Waiteville is in Monroe Country, bordering on Virginia and in sight of the Blue Ridge. He would be 106 today, but he isn't, he's dead. Yet I hold him in my heart this day in a remarkable way. His name was Virgil Hoyt Bradley--consider living with that moniker!

Virgil, my father, grew up on a farm where the cash crop was turkeys. His father, Filbert, and his brothers Russel and Adelbert and Sidney, lived daily with hundreds of turkeys. And never ate one of them. You don't eat the cash crop. In fact, they were told only stupid people in the city ate turkey--it was dry, tasteless and insipid. My father was a grown man when he first tasted turkey and didn't believe that wondrous meat could come from one of the thousands of stupid birds he had helped nurture. The cook at the boarding house where he was living in the coal fields of West Virginia had to take him into the kitchen and show him the carcass before he could acknowledge that turkey was tasty and he'd been lied to his whole life.

He was in the Army during WW II. He landed on Omaha Beach in the second wave and, stepping over and on fallen comrades, somehow made it to France and then Germany. He was in the Engineers. His job was to help build bridges over rivers so Patten could take his tanks across and then blow the bridges up since Patten had no plans to retreat.

Someday I'll write a blog called V.H.BRADLEY--ODE TO A COMMON MAN and tell you more about him.

Today I simply want to honor his birthday--April Fool's Day--how ironic. And tell you this: I love him more today than I ever did in all the 83 years of his life. In fact, I never loved him honorably while he lived. It is only in the life-time I've lived since he died that I have come to realize how lovable he was and how profoundly, unconditionally he loved me, his only child, without my returning that love in any meaningful way. I was, in my mind, an awful son to him--never anything dramatic--but it is in the ordinary ways that I did not honor his unrelenting love.

Happy Birthday, Daddy. Know this, wherever you are, I love you now in ways I could never have imagined when you were there to love. I cannot even begin to apologize for my lovelessness. I only hope you can realize--in ways I cannot comprehend--how dear you are to me now. And 'who I am' is a testament to your great love of me. I can only pray you would be proud of me...but then I know this: you were proud of me, even when I did not appreciate either your pride or your love.

I don't know if you can resonate with that, you who might read this. He loved me absolutely and that absolute love formed me though I did not, in his lifetime either acknowledge or return his devotion.

He used to tell me about the draft horses his family owned. They plowed the fields and carried him and his brothers over the mountain to get the mail from the county seat since his family delivered the mail to Waiteville. He told me, more than once, how he never appreciated those horses and how they waded through snow and pulled great loads and carried him safely across the mountain to Union over and again. I understand now. He was that draft horse that, without any appreciation or love, carried me through life and set me on the path to a place that I appreciate and respect and am eternally thankful for having reached. He did that for me. I only regret it took me all these years to fully realize how I am a product of his steadfast, reliable, constant concern and love.

Virgil Hoyt Bradley

I had grown a bit closer to him in his last years. I was with him in the hospital minutes before he died. I said to him, "Dad, I need to go home now." And he replied, "I'm going home too, real soon." I thought he was delusional, as he often was and drove across town to my home. When I came in, the phone was ringing to tell me he had died. Had a parishioner said "I'm going home", as many have, I would have known to stay. But he was my father and I didn't 'hear' him--as I seldom heard him over all those years. After I hung up the phone and before I drove back to sit with his body for a while, my daughter came to hug me. "You're an orphan now," she said.

And so I am.

Happy, happy birthday, Daddy.

I hope you can know how much I love you now....

Lazy is my middle name...

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.