Tuesday, May 26, 2009

missing this

I haven't posted a blog (is that the right language? I don't understand most of this) because my computer is hopelessly, perhaps fatally flawed and has been in other hands for a while and I haven't found the opportunity to use the church's computer.

I'll be back, promise....if anyone is out there wondering....

I'm missing this. JIM

Thursday, May 14, 2009

One more cut about 'meaning'...

OK, nothing I am writing is 'the truth' and there is no reason in heaven or on earth that you should "believe" it. I'm just asking you to consider it.


Deep breath. Consider and ponder that for a while.

If you consider that ALL REALITY IS CREATED BY WHAT WE SAY ABOUT IT then you might become aware of a possibility to create a reality that is different than what you 'said' by saying another thing about it. Example: "you looked at me 'funny'" can become, "I saw you looking at me", which opens doors previously locked with the key thrown away.

What if, just 'what if', we can create a reality that wouldn't exist otherwise just by being open to what we 'say about it'?

Stuff happens....that is the experience of life...and if we are aware (I'm humbling suggesting) that the 'meaning' of the stuff that happens isn't in the stuff that happens but in our 'saying something about it', our interpretation of it...and if we hold "what happens" as something we have a say in defining but realize our 'definition' isn't 'the truth'....What difference would that make in the way we live and move and have our being in this world?

If "Language IS reality", what if we became aware of that and realized that 'what we say' is, merely 'what we say' and not THE TRUTH...if all that were a possibility, what difference would it make to us day by day as we live on into the mystery of living and toward the Lover of Souls?

Pondering is all this is about. All this is about is Pondering....

so, why does 'meaning' matter anyway?

Most everyone lives out of, into, against and in favor of what they think things "mean".

"You looked at me 'funny', so I didn't talk to you...." A almost silly example of how we assign 'meaning' to something and then live as if the 'meaning' we made up in language were 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.' A gnat flew in her eye...she had a sudden pain in a tooth, the light confused her...that's 'just the way' her face looks and 'looking funny' becomes an interpretation of 'what happened' that we consider to be 'the truth', rather than an interpretation we made.

Carl Sagan, the scientist, was giving a lecture and at the Q/A session a little old lady stood up and said, "Dr Sagan, you can go on and on about the cosmos, but I know that the earth rests on the back of an enormous turtle."

The Professor replied, "And what does that turtle rest upon?"

"An even more enormous turtle," the woman cried out.

"And that one, the more enormous turtle, what does it rest upon?" Sagan asked.

"Don't quibble with me," she said, "You know it's 'turtles all the way down'!"

For we human beings, it is INTERPRETATION "all the way down". Meaning is what we say it is, never mind the evidence or objective reality of stuff.

The reason "Meaning" matters is that we 'MAKE IT UP" and name it and pretend that what we said about it means it is 'turtles all the way down'.

That's more comfortable than living in a universe where 'what happens' is 'meaningless'. So we declare the 'meaning' and live as if that is what's so about the matter. Problem is, it is only what 'we said' about it and others will 'say' different things about it.

A breakthrough of monumental importance would be if we could all take a deep breath and step back and realize that 'what happens' is only, always, exactly 'what happens', devoid of 'meaning' and recognize that what we say it 'means' is really ONLY what we said and not the Truth.

More about this later, if you can stand it and suffer through the languaging of it all.


Ponder that under your own little Castor Oil Tree--LANGUAGE IS ALL....What if that is so? What choices and possibilities does knowing that give us that we didn't have before when we thought 'what we said about it' was 'the Truth'? Too obscure yet? Just wait....

some thoughts about 'meaning'

There is a story about an interview with three baseball umpires about calling balls and strikes, which, if you know baseball at all, is one of the key parts to the game.

The first umpire, very new at his job said: "I call them like they are...."

He believed he was observing and correctly naming the 'meaning' of balls and strikes.

The second umpire, who had some experience, said: "I call them like 'I seem them'..."

He acknowledged that 'meaning' of balls and strikes depended, not on some objective reality, but on his opinion about what was a ball and what was a strike. He left room for his interpretation to influence what was the 'meaning'.

The third umpire, a hardened veteran of many years, said this: "They ain't nuthin' until I call them...."

He brings me to the place I want to be. "Meaning" is 'what we say it is'. We create and name 'meaning' in our language about it.

Does that mean there is no 'meaning' outside of what we call it? Well, the first two umpires give different possibilities. We can "know" meaning when we see it. We can interpret 'meaning' and hope to get it right. Each of us is somewhere on that spectrum.

But, just to ponder under your particular Castor Oil Tree--what if, what just if, "meaning" is only and always what we 'say it is'?

What if 'meaning' is not a function of what happens but what we 'say about' what happens? Where does that leave us....Ponder on....

Meaning doesn't exist until we language it. It isn't a ball or a strike until we 'say so'?

How may mourings and settled realities would that knock loose and over?

What DOES "meaning" mean?

something to ponder under the tree

When I started all this I framed it within the paradigm of Jonah sitting under the Castor Oil tree pondering Nineva.

In one of Kurt Vonnegut's novels, he invents a religion called, I think, Bonkonoism. At any rate, the creation story of that religion is this: God looked at all the mud and made some of it sit up and live. And the mud that sat up said to God, 'what does this mean?' And God answered, 'It has to mean something?' The mud that said up said, 'of course it does!' And God said, 'I'll leave that to you....' And God went away.

Something like that.

And something to consider under your own personal Castor Oil tree.

What does 'meaning' mean? Where does it come from? Why do we need it?

Before the worm eats your tree, ponder that....

how hard is love?

I am in a grand and wondrous funk because two people, members of the parish, whom I love greatly are so...angry, disappointed, offended...I really don't know what, about me that they are hiding out, not connecting in any way, not willing to talk things out.

Love is hard. It requires so much patience, so much humility, so much hope beyond hopefulness, so much ability to wait and wait and not believe in miracles.

Love is hard, so hard. Maybe, too hard.

Buzzard on Cornwall Ave

This morning I came out of our house with my bad-dog Bela, ready for a walk, when, across the street, about 100 feet away I saw a huge bird with a bare--looked like fire burned head--and an enormous body. It was, I knew a turkey buzzard. It was busy eating a dead squirrel, something not unusual on our street, but the bird was!

Bela and I got within 10 feet of the creature before it flew away into a nearby tree. I felt the draft from its wings. It must have weighed 40 pounds and the wingspan, I estimated, was at least six feet. Bela was much more interested in the eveserated squirrel than the buzzard.

I'd never seen anything like that upclose before. I've talked to people all day about it and most said these creatures are the 'road kill cleaners'. I just wish there were more of them. I hate road kill just splayed out there, swelling and rotting. As forboding as the bird was, road kill is worse.

I just don't want to be a friend to one of those creatures....

Friday, May 8, 2009

castor oil tree stuff

Sitting under that tree has a great so far.

I haven't really shared why I chose this image, this metaphor for my musings. Here's why: Jonah experienced God's call...rejected it; was forced to follow...and did, reluctantly; fulfilled God's promise, though not without confusion and paradox; experienced God's grace in the tree and God's whimsy in the death of the tree and is left by God to figure it all out by himself.

I love a story that ends but isn't resolved. And that's Jonah's story--and mine, by the way...perhaps yours.

So I remain, under the dead tree, scorched by the sun, trying to figure it all out.

That's why I chose this paradigm for life--sitting under the castor oil tree, wondering....

I have to write a sermon so I'll be back when I can, to sit some more and ponder stuff....

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

toilet paper blues

Pat, St. John's sexton, was fixing yet another toilet paper holder when I came in the other morning. They are supposed to keep the toilet paper from being stolen, but what happens is the holders get broken and the toilet paper gets stolen. It may be a sign of hard economic times that people have started stealing toilet paper from our public bathrooms at such an alarming rate. I know I feel better knowing there is a 12 pack of rolls in the house--but then, I can afford to buy them. Toilet paper, it seems to me, is pretty much an essential personal product. I know I wouldn't want to try to live without it.

My son and I have an ongoing conversation about the intrinsic value of my work as a priest. And there is, objectively, a lot to say for considering what I 'do' day by day as rather vague and beyond definition. There are those liturgical moments--Eucharists, Funerals, Baptisms, Marriages, etc.--that obviously give me some claim to 'doing something'. But much of what I spend my time about is, as my son rightly observes, not so clearly 'work' as all that. But I now have a substantial product of my ministry--because St. John's is here and I am the Rector there are people who have toilet paper who wouldn't otherwise...never mind that they purloin it, they get it from us!

Actually, besides the occasional comments of my son, I do spend a bit of time each day reflecting on what I DO. And what my ponderings have left me with over the decades is this: A priest isn't about "doing"; a priest is about "being".

I 'be' a priest. What I do that couldn't be done by someone else, unordained, is pretty much contained in the realm of sacraments. In our tradition, more or less, a priest is necessary for the breaking of bread, for baptism, for confession, for burial, for 'blessing' stuff...and that's about it. And, truth be known, there are places where a deacon can do the baptism and burial part--not in my Diocese, but in others--and a lay person can do the rite of reconciliation. So I'm pretty much left with celebrating the Eucharist and blessing assorted 'stuff'.

So, what I 'do' is rather minuscule and, in the scheme of things, not that impressive...not impressive at all.

The key to being a priest is not 'doing', but 'being'. I 'be' an open space into which many things can flow and I recieve them without judgment--at least when I'm really 'being a priest'--and hand them back in a new way. I 'be' someone who walks around and talks a lot, unburdened by my ordination by time sheets and reports (though I do write lots of reports, by the way) mostly waiting for what shows up next. What I 'be' is a priest--no better or worse than any other person, but distinct in 'being set apart' within the community. I 'work for' and 'serve' the people I 'lead'--a strange kind of relationship to say the least. And what I seek to do is 'be' both a servant AND a leader--not a 'servant leader' since you have to be one or the other or both--and I seek to 'be' both in a way that remains unanxious and committed and open--always open. I don't always "be" that well, but it is what I seek to 'be'. What I 'do', well, that's a weird question...I don't 'do' much.

I talked to a seminary classmate a few years ago who left seminary, went to a parish in Florida and has spent his whole career there. "What is remarkable to me," he told me, "is that I actually get paid just to 'be'..." It amazes me too.

Lots of priests and ordained folks try to fill up their life with 'doing' to justify their existence. I gave up on that a couple of decades ago. People say to me, "I know you're busy...." and I reply,
"my only busy-ness is you...." They still don't believe me, most of the time. I walk around and talk a lot and listen more than I talk (I hope) and try to always be open and accepting and ready to 'be present' when I am needed to 'be present'. And all of it, in some way I scarcely understand but can talk about endlessly has to do with God. I don't know what exactly it has to do with God, but I suspect it does. I'll leave that--as I leave lots of things--to God to sort our her/himself.

Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to a collection of short stories called, Welcome to the Monkey House, quoted letters from his brother and sister. His sister was dying of some horrible cancer and wrote to him, "everything is beautiful and nothing hurts". His brother had a new baby and corresponded, "here I am cleaning shit off almost everything."

I couldn't come up, even if I tried, with two more apt definitions of what it means to 'be' a priest. I stand in the face of the most awful stuff that can happen, be present to it, suffer with it and proclaim that 'everything is beautiful' and I clean shit off almost everything. That's what I 'do'. What I 'be' is a person who is willing to be in the presence of all the pain and loss and wonder and joy of love and clean up the shit along the way.

Maybe I should start handing out toilet paper. Wouldn't be a bad place to start in 'being' a priest. And it would be a holy gift to those who need it.....

Sunday, May 3, 2009


The workshop I led in Ireland and lead in the US as well--a couple or three a year--has, as one of its primary components, the practice of 'centering prayer'.

When I explain how to do centering prayer I usually say something like this: "Centering prayer is like nothing so much as it is like 'doing nothing'. Sit in a comfortable position--intend to 'be with God'--and be quiet for 20 minutes."

There are more instuctions I could give--like choosing or being found by a 'prayer word' to use to return to the 'nothingness' whenever the thoughts and feelings you will have intrude on your silence; like always returning to the the place where God dwells within you and seeking to 'be' there--stuff like that. But, quite honestly, centering prayer is putting your butt in the seat and intending to spend time with God for 20 minutes. It's really that simple. That's all there is to it--which is what drives most people a tad crazy when they start the practice.

"Practice" is the key word here. Doctors and lawyers 'practice' medicine and law because they never quite get it right. Centering prayer is like that--you can never 'get it right' because there is no 'right' to 'get it'. Whatever shows up in that 20 minutes you 'intend' to spend with the God that dwells within you is WHAT YOU GET. Worries about the day will show up--acknowledge them and let them go. Fantasies of all sorts will show up--let them go, as delightful as they may be! Emotions long buried will well up to the surface when you are in prayer--that is good, to acknowledge your emotions, but, let them go. You may even experience Jesus coming to you in the silence--acknowledge him and LET HIM GO. (The Buddhists have an apt saying: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him....The point is "meeting the Buddha" is a distraction to the inner life and must be avoided.) We are thrown, you and I, to want to 'do things right' and 'succeed' in what we do. Centering prayer confounds that need. And the other maddening thing about it is this: YOU CAN'T DO IT WRONG....

People get nuts about something you can't do wrong. Sit in the chair, acknowledge and let go all thoughts that come to you, intend to be present to the divine within you and whatever happens is what happens. Twenty minutes of constant noise in your mind, letting it all go, is no better or worse than twenty minutes of bliss. You get what you get and whatever you get each time is your prayer. People are thrown to excell and 'get it right'. This time, that's not a possibility. Get used to it--you can't get it 'right' and you can't get it 'wrong'. You might think people would love that freedom--but, somehow, we don't....

If there was a 'right way' to do centering prayer and you did it that way (neither of which is possible) you'd turn to white light and disappear from this time/space continuum. But you can't, so you won't. What will happen is you'll spend 20 minutes 'intending' to be with God and what you get is what you get.

I actually don't know if I believe in other kinds of prayer rather than the prayer of intention. I love liturgical prayer and revel in it. There are lots of reasons to pray liturgically, it seems to me. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure 'asking for things' doesn't do any harm--and I'm not so sure it does any 'good' either. That kind of prayer is something we should use whether or not it 'works'. But putting your butt in the chair for 20 minutes, acknowledging and letting go whatever shows up, intending to be with God--well, for me, that is prayer....


OK, I was only in Ireland for five days, but it was, as it has always been for me--wondrous and magical.

I like the Irish people. There were 23 in the workshop, two other leaders and three others who want to learn to lead Making a Difference. Plus the people in the incredible retreat center--2 nuns and a bunch of staff since it is a large place with acres and acres of ground overlooking the Irish Sea. I told people at my table one meal that they were 'like people from Minnesota'. Of course I had to explain that to most of them. They could be the folks Garrison Keilor talks about in 'the news from Lake Woebegon'.

The Irish, at least everyone I've met in several trips now, are self-depreciating, humble, extremely humorous, kind, generous to a fault and charming. Surely there are Irish people who aren't--besides, I deal mostly with religious folks and they might not be the norm. (I once went on a tour of Israel with a group of other Episcopal priests and layfolk and our quatro-lingual guide--she spoke English, Hebrew, Arabic and French--told me all the people we ran into thought we were from Canada! We weren't loud or rude and dressed modestly. "That's the way Canadians are to them," she told me, "Americans are something else...")

The Irish I've met--including Patrick, the elderly taxi driver who took me to the airport and has a daughter and son-in-law in Boston--would fit nicely into my stereotype of folks from the upper Midwest of this country. I'd worry about them if they were on the I-95 corridor or moved to Chicago, Atlanta or LA. They aren't edgy enough for that kind of life--that urban funk, that cynical, hardened kind of society. They are people of the glens and country-side. They, most of them, wouldn't fit into Dublin--the two folks from Dublin at the workshop were more suspicious, less expansive than the others....

My son spent a year in London after graduating from college, working in a pub in Chelsea. He told me once, "England is just like America, except it's not...." That's how I feel about Ireland. They speak the same language--sort of--and eat the same food, kinda, and have the same thoughts, except not really. I feel like a foreigner there, which of course I am, even though they look like me and seem to be like me in so many ways. Or, more exactly, I--an Anglo-Saxon Celt to the core--look like them and seem to be like them in so many ways.

The driving on a different side of the road is quaint, but not beyond learning. I know an expatriate American who lives in Ireland who had a left driver's side car for years and managed, even then, to master driving there. The accents are a bit maddening, but it makes me listen more intently and I can usually figure out what I'm being told after a while. (The Irish, by the way, like my accent. To them I speak slowly and with a rhythm they can get used to quickly. Imagine that--people who like a hill-billy, New England modified accent!) But they are, to a great extent, blood of my blood and bone of my bone. There was a young woman in the workshop who is Korean-American but has lived in Ireland for years. She hasn't picked up the Irish lilt and told me she always stood out because of her Asian look and no one could understand her. Outside of Dublin, Ireland is astonishingly 'white'. I walked around Larne--where I was, some 30 miles north of Belfast--for three hours the day after the workshop ended. I saw one black woman and a bi-racial child and one Asian. Everyone else was just like me. (By the way, I read several months ago that red hair was going to disappear from the planet, being recessive and given how mixed our DNA has become. The scientists who proposed that should visit Ireland and reconsider their prediction!)

Two odd things I've noticed in my visits to Ireland. Most cars have standard shift and every Irish driver I've ever ridden with puts the gear shift in neutral and takes their foot off the clutch whenever they stop, if even for a moment or two. Other than my wife, who is of Italian-Hungarian descent--about as removed from being Irish as anyone in the northern hemisphere--I don't know any Americans who do that. We keep the clutch to the floor and the car in gear at a stop light. I've asked several people about it and they all say that is how they are taught to drive. A cultural tradition of going into neutral and saving the clutch!

The other weird thing I've noticed is how the Irish eat. They hold the fork in their left hand and the knife in their right--holding both throughout the meal--and use the knife to put food on the 'bottom' of the fork before lifting it to their mouths in what I consider an 'upside down' position. This has always been a mystery to me. I was eating dinner with 8 Irish folks and a woman from Paris one of the nights. I noticed she ate like I did--though she was left handed. Both of us cut things with the knife in our dominant hand and the fork in the other hand and then laid down the knife and moved the fork to the hand we used most often to bring the food to our mouths with the tines of our fork pointing upwards. Now, don't think I'm a cultural elitist by any means. I just find it interesting that a whole nation of people eat holding both knife and fork and using the fork in what I find to be a reversed position.

I brought it up to my table. The French woman and I agreed we simply don't understand how to use the utensils the way the Irish do and the Irish were a bit confused--and since they are like people from Minnesota--thought they must be doing it wrong. Several people tried to mimic the way the French and the Americans use a fork and knife. "Is this how to 'eat' American?" the woman beside me asked, laying her knife on the edge of the plate, where mine was, and shifting the fork to her dominant hand. "Yes," I said, "how does it feel?" And she said, "horrid", picking up her knife in her right hand and turning the fork around in her left.

Also, the Irish 'clean their plate' while I almost always leave some food uneaten. The folks waiting on us never know if it is ok to take my plate away even though I leave the fork and knife on the plate. I've only been to Ireland a few times and always at retreat centers, but in that small research group, all this is absolute. Tiny little 75 year old nuns leave not a crumb on their plate--and me, a big, fat American never finish the meat and three vegetables and some form of potato I'm given.

Could it have something to do with the famines in the distant past in Ireland? My grandmother, who was at least half-Irish, always told us to 'clean our plates'. I never do, which makes my dog happy, but shows that I have never, not for generations, been in 'want'. I have always known where my next meal was coming from. Something in the Irish, a generation or so beyond the last famine, may still not be sure due to their upbringing and their DNA. Who knows?

More later about Ireland.

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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.