Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Yes, Virginia, there are lightening bugs in Connecticut

I've just been watching Lightening Bugs--fire flies--in our neighbor's yard. So I decided to reprise the fourth most viewed post of mine ever.

They are blinking, blinking, blinking.

They're out there tonight--the fireflies--in the mulberry tree just beyond our fence where the groundhogs come in the late summer to eat mulberries that have fermented and make them drunk. A drunk groundhog is a wonder to behold!

And the lightening bugs are in our yard as well. I sat and watched them blink for 20 minutes tonight.

My dear friend, Harriet, wrote me an email about lightening bugs after my blog about them. If I'm more adroit at technology than I think I am, I'm going to put that email here.
Jim, I just read your blog and have my own firefly story. Before we   went to Maine,
before 6/20, one of those nights of powerful   thunderstorms, I was awakened at 10PM
and then again at 2AM by flashes   of lightning followed by cracks of thunder - the
 kind that make me   shoot out of bed - and pounding rain. And then at 4:30AM there
was   just lightning, silent. The silence and light was profound. I kept   waiting
for sound. I couldn't quite believe in heat lightning in June,   so I got out of bed
and looked out the window. There I could see the   sky, filled with silent lightning
 bursts. And under it, our meadow,   filled with lightning bugs (as we call them) or
 fireflies, flashing in   response. I've never seen anything like it. I can't remember
 the last   time I saw a lightning bug. And then your blog. Is this, too, part of
 global warming? Are you and   I being transported back to the warmer climes of
 our youth, West   Virginia and Texas? Well, if it means lightning bugs, the future
 won't   be all bad.
I did do it, by gum....

So the lightening bugs are blinking, as we are, you and I.

Blinking and flashing and living. You and I.

Here's the thing, I've been thinking about a poem I wrote 4 years
ago or so. I used to leave St. John's and go visit folks in the hospital or nursing home or their own home
on my way to my home. Somehow the blinking of the fireflies has reminded me of that. So, I'll try, once more
to be more media savvy than I think I am and share it with you.

I drive home through pain, through suffering,
through death itself.

I drive home through Cat-scans and blood tests
and X-rays and Pet-scans (whatever they are)
and through consultations of surgeons and oncologists
and even more exotic flora with medical degrees.

I drive home through hospitals and houses
and the wondrous work of hospice nurses
and the confusion of dozens more educated than me.

Dressed in green scrubs and Transfiguration white coats,
they discuss the life or death of people I love.

And they hate, more than anything, to lose the hand
to the greatest Poker Player ever, the one with all the chips.
And, here’s the joke, they always lose in the end—
the River Card turns it all bad and Death wins.

So, while they consult and add artificial poison
to the Poison of Death—shots and pills and IV’s
of poison—I drive home and stop in vacant rooms
and wondrous houses full of memories
and dispense my meager, medieval medicine
of bread and wine and oil.

Sometimes I think…sometimes I think…
I should not drive home at all
since I stop in hospitals and houses to bring my pitiful offering
to those one step, one banana peel beneath their foot,
from meeting the Lover of Souls.

I do not hate Death. I hate dying, but not Death.
But it is often too much for me, stopping on the way home
to press the wafer into their quaking hands;
to lift the tiny, pewter cup of bad port wine to their trembling lips;
and to smear their foreheads with fragrant oil
while mumbling much rehearsed words and wishing them
whole and well and eternal.

I believe in God only around the edges.
But when I drive home, visiting the dying,
I’m the best they’ll get of all that.

And when they hold my hand with tears in their eyes
and thank me so profoundly, so solemnly, with such sweet terror
in their voices, then I know.

Driving home and stopping there is what I’m meant to do.
A little bread, a little wine and some sweet smelling oil
may be—if not enough—just what was missing.

I’m driving home, driving home, stopping to touch the hand of Death.
Perhaps that is all I can do.
I tell myself that, driving home, blinded by pain and tears,
having been with Holy Ones.

8/2007 jgb

Someone once told me, "We're all dying, you know. It's just a matter of timing...."

Fireflies, more the pity, live only a fraction of a second to the time that we humans live. They will be gone from the mulberry tree and my back yard in a few weeks, never to be seen again. But the years and years we live are, in a profound way, only a few blinks, a few flares, a few flashes in the economy of the universe. We should live them well and appreciate each moment. Really.

One of the unexpected blessings of having been a priest for so long is the moments, the flashes, I've gotten to spend with 'the holy ones', those about to pass on from this life.

Hey, if you woke up this morning you're ahead of a lot of folks. Don't waste the moment.

(I told Harriet and she agreed, that we would have been blessed beyond measure to have walked down in that meadow while the silent lightening lit the sky to be with the fire-flies, to have them hover around us, light on our arms, in our hair, on our clothes, be one with them....flashing, blinking, sharing their flares of light. Magic.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

fire fly sighting???

I thought I saw a fire fly tonight, out on the deck, looking down to the back yard.

It flashed once, then again. I didn't have my glasses on--I take them off when I'm reading and on the computer--so I ran inside and tried to find them. I looked on one of the tables in the dining room where I sometimes eat and read. I looked in all three bathrooms since I often read in them and like to use them all....I found them on my computer table and went back outside and didn't see it though I watched and watched.

Then, when I took the dog out, I thought I saw a flash in one of the trees across the road. But I only saw one flash. Maybe I'm just wishing and hoping to see a fire fly. I miss them so.

My grandmother used to sing a little song to me that began:
"Glow little glow worm, glitter, glitter...."

though I don't remember the rest of it.

In the mountains of southern West Virginia, where I grew up, lightening bugs were ubiquitous . They were everywhere for months.

A couple of years ago I was in Washington, DC, at Howard University, leading a workshop. Some of the other people who were helping me lead and I went to dinner. Across from the parking lot was an empty lot near the Metro tracks. It was full of lightening bugs (which is what we called them back home). They practically had to drag me into the restaurant to eat.

I used to catch a mayonnaise jar almost full of lightening bugs. We made bracelets and necklaces out of them, I am sorry to say. "Like flies to young boys are we to the gods," King Lear observes, "they kill us for their sport."

I killed lightening bugs for sport. But there were so many of them, lighting up the evening yard, flitting to and fro, flashing, glowing, daring us to catch them. I remember their little black wings, almost plastic like, but it was their bellies we longed for and tore off and pressed to our sweaty little kid wrists and necks. We would be adorned with light in the humid evening while the adults sat on the porch and talked of serious, profound, ultimately boring adult things.

We must be too far north for serious lightening bugs/glow worms/fire flies. I see them from time to time, fleetingly. Maybe they are all just figments of my longing and imagination.

But they are back there in my childhood, back in the mountains, blinking in such abundance that even the fierce commitment of young children could never extinguish their glow.

I miss them so.

Saturday, June 25, 2011



All morning long, in my comings and goings,
out and back again,
he was sitting on the edge
of his nest,
the only home he's known,
deciding whether to jump.

The other baby robin was gone,
along with Mama and Papa.
It was just him,
alone and abandoned,
deciding whether to jump.

(Did the big birds
simply wake up this morning
and know it was jump off day?
And when the first fledgling leaped
out into the air that will be her home now,
did the parents follow,
teaching aspects of flight,
leaving the other
to decide whether to jump?)

Curious, I crept around the side of the house
to look at the nest.
And he was gone.
He had jumped into the emptiness,
falling at first,
then, led by instinct,
flapping, careening around
like a drunk,
I imagine,
until he trusted his wings.

(Do birds remember
first flight?
Or, like us humans,
forget jumping after a while
because, like walking for us,
flying just seems eternal?)

How often in one life
do we find ourselves on the edge of the nest
deciding how to jump?
How often we perch,
one leap from a new beginning,
an adventure,
filled with wonder and terror,
knowing everything,
simply everything will be different
once we leap
into what comes next....


"A public celebration
is a rope bridge of
knotted symbols
strung across an abyss.
We make our crossings
hoping the chasm will echo
our festive sounds
for a moment,
as the bridge begins
to sway
from the rhythms
of our

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Robin update

For the longest time I've thought that Mama Robin only had one baby in her nest. But yesterday I saw a second.

They have feathers already and one of them climbed up on the top of the nest and Mama knocked him down and sat on him. Little buggers can't fly yet so she keeps them in the nest.

Yesterday, after some rain, she was out in the front yard digging for worms--those little birds eat constantly--their mouths are always open.

So I came out with the dog and startled her. She flew up in a tree and yelled at Bela and me for a long time. "Don't sneak up on me...." I think she was saying.

I don't know what I'll do when the babies fly away. Having already said good by to the three earlier, it will be double postpartum depression for me. Plus Mama, who I've spent so much time with, won't hang around in the nest any more. Alas.

After two broods--5 baby robins altogether, I can't wait to look in the nest after their all gone. Can you imagine what a mess those baby birds made there--I mean, I don't want to be too graphic--but they do stay in the nest a long time and since they're always eating I can only imagine they are always...well, pooping. Wonder if there is a market for robin poop?

Monday, June 20, 2011

birds and earnestness

Our back yard is like the Merritt Parkway for birds. Sit on our deck for 15 minutes and you'll probably see 50 birds fly through.

There are Robins, of course, Mama and Papa looking for worms for their baby. A family of Cardinals who must nest in one of the back yard trees and several young Cardinals. Chick-a-dees a plenty and some swallow like birds who fly back and forth about 5 feet from the end of our deck for what seems to be the sport of it. They fly so fast and are so small I never really get a good look at them. Sparrows, of course, and the occasional hummingbird. Wrens and Mourning Doves and a Bluejay or two. A couple of Cowbirds who should have moved on--that being their modis operandi, after all. I even believe I saw a scarlet tanager the other day, though they are rare around here. And there were the three young tawny woodpeckers, that distinctive red swoop on the sides of their head, who were practicing pecking wood a few days ago.

And the crows. They fly above the tree line but there are lots of them. I've become overly fond of crows since I learned that they don't mate until their second year of life and often stay with the parents to help raise next years brood. A avian nuclear family, for goodness sake. Plus they are smarter than dogs and closing in on dolphins. As annoying as they can be, I have a good word to put in for crows....

What I can't abide in the world is earnestness. Sincerity I can tolerate and commitment is fine with me. Even Zealots for whatever cause, misguided or not, those I can co-exist with. But the earnest folks...well, no, I have no time for earnestness. Earnestness, as I am describing it, is devoid of irony or paradox or a sense of humor about yourself. Earnest people are simply single-mindedly self assured that they have the truth and 'their' truth is the Truth that will set you free.

For example, if you are truly earnest you have no idea what that last paragraph meant. It is outside of your ken, you can't comprehend it, it is not a part of your Weltanshaung (or however you spell the German world that means, roughly, 'world view').

Most evangelical Christians, much of the Tea Party and all terrorists are what I call 'earnest'. And they simply must be stopped.

I'd truly welcome a born again Christian who said, "Jesus Christ is my Lord and least I hope so...." Someone from the Tea Party who admitted that destroying the world economy by blocking the raising of the debt limit might not be 'the best idea ever' could earn my respect. And a terrorist who said, 'Lord, blowing up people and myself is really a truly warped idea!' could come to my next party.

If you have absolutely no doubt whatsoever about your most dear and cherished belief, then, in my book, you are too earnest and need to get a life.

I'm not saying 'everything is relative', at least not exactly. What I'm saying is that whatever you are 'certain' about can't come into question and be made fun of and laughed about, then you need to check your earnestness at the door.

Everything isn't 'relative'. But I can't remember the things that aren't.

In one of Robertson Davies' novels, a man is questioning a Roman Catholic priest about how he can claim to be holy after eating most of a chicken and consuming a bottle of wine at dinner.

The priest says to him, "I am quite a wise old bird, but I am no desert hermit who can only prophesy when his guts are knotted in hunger. I am DEEP IN THE OLD MAN'S PUZZLE, trying to link the wisdom of the body with the wisdom of the spirit until the two are one...."

I fancy myself always 'deep in the Old Man's puzzle' a place of paradox and confusion and metaphor and wondering and pondering and not for a moment imagining I have the slightest clue about what is 'certain' and capital T-True. That's where I live and move and have my being, in that ironic and skeptical and mysterious place. So, is it little wonder that I am predisposed, almost to the marrow and the DNA, to want to stamp out and erase from existence anyone or anything or any group that is 'earnest'?

If I were a super-hero in a comic book, I would be IRONIC MAN and I would seek out and destroy certainty and especially earnestness in all its guises.

When I was needed, the Mayor...or Bishop...would point a spot light to the sky that would imprint a giant question mark on the clouds.

????? IT'S TIME FOR IRONIC to leap all 'certainty' in a single bound, stronger than any dogmatic stance, beyond belief and doctrine, Enemy of whatever and whoever is Earnest in the land....Look, up there in your un-conscious and's IRONIC MAN come to save the day......and make you laugh for a change....

Thursday, June 16, 2011

baby robins may be the best thing...

A week or so ago I mentioned that Mama Robin was back on her nest and couldn't imagine she had another brood.

Today I saw at least one little blind, featherless mouth open as she ate a worm and prepared to throw it up into that baby's mouth. Amazing.

On a bike ride the other day I came to a section of the Canal where about half a dozen little bunnies were running in and out of the foliage on the non-canal side of the pavement. Bunnies are adorable, but since I'm so into birds these days--just saw a tawny woodpecker adolescent in our back yard--baby robins may be the best thing.

I'll let you know about their oh-so-short childhood until, fledgling, they fly away.

Today, by the way, is the infamous 400th anniversary of Cortez's decision to burn the Inca aviary in Mexico, destroying hundreds of birds from around the Inca Empire. There must be a realm of hell for Spaniards who willfully destroy birds. (I only know this because I only listen to National Public Radio and the Yankee games on 880 a.m. and heard it on 'Bird notes'. Our parakeets, I think I've told you, got nuts when a Bird Note segment comes on....)

As you go to sleep tonight, ponder baby robins....

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The disrupter

My ponderings and musings this night have led me to, where else?, the past and the present. (The future, by the way, is yet to be created. There are two futures, you know, the one that shows up anyway and the one we create that wouldn't happen otherwise. That's for another time....)

I've been pondering the past--my life for 21 years as Rector of St. John's in Waterbury. I never intended to stay that long and all those years passed as if a fast train in the night.

I have a remarkable capacity to 'move on'. I have no friends from my childhood or high school. My son has lots of high school friends yet, in his 30's. I have none. I email one or two on occasion and have talked with a high school friend on the phone within the past year. But, by in large, I have 'moved on'. I seem to have friends and people I love in sequence.

No friends whatsoever from college--except for Jorge, who I am in touch with on rare occasions.

Not even friends from seminary--either Harvard or Virginia--though my good friend Dan Kiger, one of the best friends of my life--and I were going to get together this spring or last winter when he was in CT but never did.

The amazing thing is that if I bumped into someone from High School or college or seminaries I have know, I would fall right in step. Year ago I visited 30 of my Virginia Seminary classmates on a sabbatical. And though it had been 25 years since we knew each other, I was remarkably comfortable with each of them. I can pick up the strings and threads of friendship after years and years. I just can't keep them strong.

Which is to say, though I miss St. John's I don't miss it nearly as much as I imagined. I see several people from those years on a pretty regular basis. And it is great each time. No effort at all. But I begin to wonder if I have a personality disorder that I can be so intimate and close with people for a long time and then, well, move on. I think of them and imagine being together, but I don't 'do' anything about it and time passes and I accumulate a whole new set of folks.

I do still have friends from my time at St. Paul's in New Haven and John Anderson, my dear friend, goes back to before I went to Seminary--but he lives in New Haven now and we spend holidays and go on vacation together. He's the exception that proves the rule that I tend to 'move on'. It seems heartless in one sense, but in another it is a way of living in the present.

I did want to share a poem I wrote for the staff at St. John's on the occasion of our private party for my leaving. There were lots of parties for my leaving, but the precious one was with those people who worked with me and dreamed with me and we a family for me--the people I worked with and shared life with.

So, here's the poem:


Most of the best things require

only a few ingredients.

Flour, water, yeast, a pinch of salt

(a pinch of sugar too, I’d say) and time:

kneading , rising, kneading, rising, kneading,

baking—you’ve got bread.

Grape juice, sugar, yeast (again) and more time…

there’s the wine.

A simple reed, plucked from the marsh,

a sharp knife and breath makes music.

Paper, thin wood, some string, a tail and patience

makes a kite and flight….

Then there is this—what you have made,

perhaps not knowing….

The Patience you needed to deal with me!

The Commitment and Skill you brought to the mix.

The Hope and Trust to make it





And dollop after dollop of Great Good Humor—

that most of all.

few ingredients, but enough and more,

to make my life here joyous, wondrous, profound, incredible, magic

and so much fun….so much fun….

And I thank you for the feast of life, the song and the flight.

jgb/April 29, 2010

I've also been musing about the present tonight. I'm teaching a course in the Gnostic Christian Literature at UConn in Waterbury for their Lifelong Learning institute.

I've decided my role in that classroom is to be the 'disrupter'. To begin to be open to whatever it is the Gnostic Christians have to offer us, we must shake the foundations, disrupt the default thinking, pull the dock away from the pilings, set it on fire and let it sink in the lake, hissing as the water meets the flame.

Today, in class, I realized I'm doing a good job because there would be three people either asking a question or questioning what I was saying or challenging my words all at the same time. I love it! I adore chaos. I'm good with chaos. And, as I think back, if things aren't chaotic I might just create it.

(I convinced a lot of people that I was "winging" Liturgy at St. John's. Truth was, I wasn't 'winging' anything. I always knew exactly what I was doing. I just found that putting people in a vulnerable place brought out their creativity and their magic. Nothing like chaos to call forth vulnerability and creativity and magic....At least that's what I believe....)

So, even though I have no idea what people are 'learning' in this class, I am confident that I'm disrupting things enough that they might just be open to learning something.

My friend Ann (a whole category of friends I have had for over 20 years are those involved in the Mastery Foundation, a group I help by leading workshops...and Ann is the Executive Director of the Foundation) once told me that she was a person 'you can tell anything.' I've tried to emulate that.

I usually say, much to my detriment, that "I don't care" what you tell me. People hear that wrong. I don't mean that what they say 'doesn't matter'. Quite the contrary. What I mean is that I, to the fullest extent that I can, don't take anything personally. I really like to hear criticism and critiques and even disagreement. I find it informative and bemusing.

Over the last 30 years of my life several people have told me that I seem 'to have no ego'. Even more people have told me my ego must be the size of Wyoming or some similar vast, mostly empty place.

What they are referring to is that I don't take stuff personally (unless you start trashing President Obama or Democrats or Universal Health care or any minority group or my children--then I become a Mama Bear protecting her young....) Life is simply too short--especially since, at 64, I know I've lived more years than I will yet live by a long shot--to take anything personally. I simply 'don't care' if you have criticism or disagreement with me. I'll try to learn something from it but I'm not going to get in a tizzy about it. BFD if you don't like that I'm yanking your dock off its moorings and setting it on fire.

Sitting on an unanchored dock as it bursts into flame and begins to sink might just be a place to discover wisdom. That's always worked for me.

Try it sometimes.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How to celebrate a Doctrine?

Next Sunday is Trinity Sunday--the only holy day in the Christian year that celebrates a doctrine....

Other holy days celebrate events--Pentecost, Christmas, Good Friday--and most of them celebrate people, the holy men and holy women of our faith.

But a doctrine?

It is roughly akin to throwing a party for hydrogen or a right triangle or Newton's Third Law.

Actually, I could get more excited about The Feast of Calcium or the Holy Day of Geology than I do about Trinity Sunday.

I just googled "Doctrine of the Trinity" and got 1,320,000 hits. So if you are interested in the concept and doctrine, you might check out the internet.

(An aside: today in the class I'm leading at UConn, Waterbury in the Christian Gnostic Literature, someone asked a question about something or another that was even more obscure than the obscure, arcane things I know about Christian Gnostics. So, I told them to 'google' it. Then I reflected with the class about the time, not so long ago, when people pondered and wondered and reflected about things they didn't know. Now we just google them. I've lived too long. I long for the 'good ol' days' when you had to go to a library to find out about things you didn't know and look through the card catalog. There are no card catalogs anymore. At the library in Cheshire you use a computer to find books. I miss card catalogs...the physicality of them, the thumbing through cards...the surprises you could find there--books you didn't even know you wanted to read until you happened across them in the card catalog. You don't 'happen across' things in the library computer. In fact, you have to be pretty sure what you're looking for to have a chance in hell of finding it. Like I said, I've lived too long. This Brave New Technological World isn't what I was hoping would happen next.)

A 'doctrine' is one of those things the church tells us we need to 'believe' whether it makes sense or not.

Did you know the concept of the 'Trinity' was proposed by Tertullian in the beginning of the third century? Oh, I know Jesus says Father, Son and Holy Spirit in some of the Ascension stories, but the 'doctrine' was a long time coming. Three in One and One in Three as something Christians' had to believe was finally nailed down in the Nicene Creed in the third decade of the fourth century.

Another way to look at 'doctrines' is to think of them as stuff the church 'made up' to fill in the blanks and make the faith uniform. Lots of Christians in the 4th century didn't think much of the Trinity as a doctrine. That's why it is enshrined in the Creed--to get rid of that set of heretics....The Christian Gnostics, among others, didn't buy Trinitarian thought. But after Nicea, they were on the outside looking in. Christian Gnostics weren't big on 'uniformity'. They thought you could believe all manner of things and still be in the big tent called Christianity. Gnostics were the Episcopalians of the Early Church....or, probably more accurately, the Unitarians. I spent time at the workshop I led with a Unitarian minister. Episcopalians, I used to think, were Unitarians with fancy vestments and liturgy.

It's interesting to me that we're at Nicaea again. There is a document called The Anglican Covenant that each of the 39 independent churches that make up the Anglican Communion are supposed to 'sign on to...." The Anglican Covenant would transform the Anglican Church from a church that defines itself by the way we worship into a church that defines itself doctrinally.

I want no part of it.

There's a story about a new Archbishop of Scotland back in the Middle Ages, who was informed that there was a monastery up in the Hebrides that hadn't had a bishop visit for decades. So he got on a ship and sailed up to meet them.

The monks were delighted to see him, but when he tried to lead them in the Lord's Prayer, none of them seemed to know it.

So he asked them what the four gospels were....They got John and Mark but couldn't quite hone in on Luke and Matthew.

He decided to celebrate Mass with them and they had misplaced the Altar book. When they shared bread and wine, they told him, a bit embarrassed, they simply made up the words.

The Archbishop was horrified. He taught them the Lord's Prayer, gave them a new Missal and a new Bible and instructed them to study both and he'd be back in six months to see how they were doing.

The Archbishop's ship was about a mile off shore when the monks came running out, running on the water, to talk to him.

"That prayer you taught us," one of them said, "we've already got it all muddled. Can you teach it to us again?"

The Archbishop looked down from the deck at the dozen monks standing on 200 foot deep water.

"Go back," he said. "Forget everything I told you. Just keep doing what you've been doing...."

Would that the Early Church Fathers had said that to the Gnostic Christians.

Would that the leaders of the Anglican Communion would say that to all sorts and conditions of Anglicans today.

Would that we judged folks on their fruits and not on their adherence to doctrine.

That is devoutly to be wished....

Sunday, June 12, 2011


There were two baptisms this morning at Emmanuel Church, Killingworth. Two brothers (6 and 4) David and Joseph.

We rehearsed yesterday so I could talk with parents and godparents. Great family.

The little church had been closed for over a month to do repairs from damage the winter wrought on the building. It was a grand re-opening, baptisms and Pentecost to boot!

I once figured that I've done over 600 baptisms in my time as a priest. (Nearly 900 funerals as well as 300 weddings.) And every baptism reminds me of little Jason some 25 years ago. If I can cut and copy it, I'll include it here....


When I was at St. Paul’s in New Haven, one of my neighbors stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you do baptisms?” She and her husband lived in a handsome brownstone on the park—they were a “Yale couple”, she was Vice-President of something and he was a professor of economics. They were the ultimate “yuppies”—a term that still meant something in the 80’s. She was tall, immaculately dressed for success and quite beautiful, blonde and willowy. But she wore her hair pulled back severely and horned rimmed glasses she may or may not have needed. (I met several women who worked in big jobs for Yale who wore clear glass in unflattering frames. One actually told me it was to tell people, “I may be pretty, but I’m smart….”) She was wearing a pale gray, pinstripe suit and a pink blouse buttoned to the neck with one of those floppy little ties that are bow-ties on estrogen. But her shoes, I remember noticing (she was beautiful, after all!) were extremely high heels with almost no visible means of keeping them on her feet. Really sexy, out of character shoes....She hadn’t given in to the corporate image ultimately…her shoes were fiercely feminine.

I allowed that I had been known to “do” baptisms from time to time and she invited me to come ‘around to our house tonight for a drink…5:30 suit you?'

I was fascinated. I knew Donna and her husband, Phil, from the park. Our daughter was about their son’s age—5 maybe—and they sometimes chased each other in the park while everyone around Wooster Square let their dogs off lead to run and poop. But I’d never been invited to their house before. I could hardly wait.

When we’d settled in with our drinks (scotch for Phil, a Manhattan for Donna and white wine for me) I was offered hors devours more exotic than either of them should have time to make before my arrival and we did Wooster Square small talk. Phil, even taller than Donna and nearly as good looking, was a New Haven clone of “Mr. Chips”—casually elegant and tweedy and yet a little awkward all at the same time. He obviously needed his glasses—in fact had two pair with those bands that hold them like long necklaces around your neck. One for distance and one for reading, I imagined, wondering if it were vanity or drama that prevented him from just getting bifocals—but then, I’m always hard on people who ‘come from money’. There house made no secret that one—perhaps both of them—came from money. Everything was understated but expensive from the rugs to the lamps to the properly worn leather couch and chairs to the antique table I sat my glass on and then picked up in horror and looked around for a coaster.

“Go ahead and set it there,” Donna said. “It was my grandmother’s so it’s really old.” The people who come from “real money” are casual about such things, those who got rich on their own are much less relaxed about glass rings on a table worth thousands. After some small talk about the weather (a pleasant September, better than last year) and the neighborhood (“did you know the Mason’s moved to Europe—Mark’s doing a post-doc in France”) we finally got down to business.

“We don’t come to church,” Phil began, showing his humility, “but we are Episcopalians….We were married in the Cathedral in Chicago. And both our parents are serious Episcopalians and they’re all coming out for Thanksgiving….”

Little Jason hadn’t been baptized (“our fault,” Donna said, “totally”—as if it could have been Jason’s fault or the fault of Sarah, their AKC standard poodle) and there was going to be hell to pay to Grand-pop and Grand-mom and Granny and Gramps come turkey day. Before they began to grovel, which they would have, I told them I’d be delighted to baptize Jason, which I was. And we started talking about dates and times, settling on the Sunday after Thanksgiving when the grandparents on both sides could be there. All I asked them to do was come to church a few times, just so they’d be familiar with the racially and socially diverse parish of St. Paul’s and to let me talk with them…and Jason…about baptism for a few hours soon.

They were overjoyed, called Jason down with his nanny, a 20 something au per from France who was teaching Jason French as well as looking after him and taking some classes from Yale on their dime. (I thought I had maybe underestimated the money they came from!) I knew Jason of course, and he knew me as “Mimi’s dad” and we talked briefly about coming to church and talking about baptism. Later mom and dad and Jason spent several hours with me. Phil, of course, and Donna to only a slightly lesser degree, knew the ins and outs of liturgy and church history and the rich myriad of symbols that made up baptism. Jason asked some of those classic kid questions: “will the water be cold or hot?” “Will I have to say anything?” “Will Jesus be there?”

I told them, at some point, that baptism, to my theology, was admission to communion and Jason should receive communion with them on his baptismal day. Donna was a bit horrified: “But he isn’t old enough to ‘understand’ it,” she said. I thought for a moment and replied, “If ‘understanding’ it is a prerequisite, then I shouldn’t receive it either….” It was a hard sell but Jason won the day: “I want to, Mommy,” he said to Donna and the deal was made.

True to their word, Donna, Phil and Jason became fixtures on the third row near the pulpit. From time to time Brigitte would come with them and all of them fit in just fine—a little better dressed than most, but open and friendly and involved. During that time I came, once more, face to face with my devotion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “the rich are not like you and me.” I’ve never quite felt comfortable around the moneyed of the world—certainly both a character flaw and a disadvantage for rapid advancement in the Episcopal Church! Donna and Phil were ‘just like me’—we had many of the same interests and opinions. And Jason was ‘just a kid’ dressed in clothes from Barney’s instead of Sears. I came to like them a lot, which prepared me to like their parents as well. Jason’s two grandfathers were cut from the same mold—successful, keen and most likely ruthless Mid-Western business men who never the less possessed the shy, inviting charm of people from the center of the country. The grandmothers were different—Donna’s mom was an older version of her: stylish, lovely, cultured. But Phil’s mother was like someone Garrison Keeler would make up and put in Lake Woebegone. She was a tad over-weight with a broad, smiling face, gray hair in a bun and simple clothing. She would have been very comfortable in an apron puttering around the house.

They were all delighted that Jason, as his paternal grandmother put it, “was finally getting dunked.” And on the day of the baptism they were all radiant and joyful. The baptism went fine—Jason answered loudly when I asked him if he desired to be baptized and stepped up on the little stool I’d dug out to lean his head over the font with perfect grace. But the real grace came when the family, led by Jason, came up to receive communion. Jason received the wafer and carefully, precisely dipped it half-way into the wine before consuming it. Then he said, “thank you” to the chalicist and started back to his seat between the lines of people waiting for the rail.

He stopped beside the first person he passed and said, politely, “I just got the Body of Christ.” That person nodded slightly but tried to remain solemn, just the way we should be on the way to the greatest party ever thrown! So, Jason was a little louder with the next person and louder still with the one after that. By then, the lack of response began to confuse and annoy him and he started pulling on pants legs and skirts: “I just got the Body of Christ!” he said to each person he passed. Donna’s father got to him first and picked him up, looking back embarrassingly at me. Jason was trying to get free from his grandfather’s embrace…there were lots more people to tell about what had just occurred.

I stopped the service right there, asking the organist to stop playing and pointing to Jason in the arms of his grandfather.

“Do you hear what he’s telling you?” I said, softly. “Can you begin to understand what waits for you up here? Jason understands and he’s telling you to run to this table because the mystery and wonder here is more than you imagine…more than you can imagine….”

For months after that, I was told, people going back from communion would lean over and whisper to their friends, “Guess what I just got?” And for a while the spirit of Jason’s understanding astonished us all.

(I had wondered if having Jason ‘dunked’ would be the end of the family’s church going. I wouldn’t have been upset if it had, since the sacrament was valid and real and ‘objective’. But they kept coming for a few months until Donna was offered a position in the President’s office at Northwestern and Phil was asked to teach at the University of Chicago. The jobs were so good they were leaving at the end of first semester. I was sad to see them go, but it gave me a little rush to know that someone had used Yale as a ‘stepping stone’ to what they really wanted!

I went down the day they moved and watched the movers carefully empty the house of beautiful, valuable things. Donna, so unlike her, was dressed in faded jeans and one of Phil’s J. Crew white shirts. Her hair was a mess and she had on neither makeup nor glasses. She hugged me and told me I could find Phil and Jason and the dog and the nanny over in the park. Before I went to say good-bye to them, she said, “did we tell you that Jason’s favorite game now is playing priest? He baptizes G. I. Joe daily and gives us communion ever so often. He wears one of Phil’s tee-shirts and puts one of his ties around his neck. It’s really very sweet.” She said it was ‘sweet’ but she looked worried.

It’s just a phase,” I told her, “like me.”

You’re in a ‘phase’?” asked, smiling.

Yeal,” I said, “but mine came late and has stayed for a while.”

Then I went to find my friends and say goodbye.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

how to 'be' the church

I think the church spends too much time worrying about what to 'do'. Church is about 'being', not 'doing'.

I've written my Pentecost sermon--I haven't preached since Easter and am chomping at the bit. I love Pentecost and I love baptisms and I love 'beginnings' and Sunday will be all. The church in Killingworth has been closed for repairs from the Mother of all Winters and is reopening on the Feast of Pentecost when we celebrate the birth of the church. And there are baptisms. And the fire will fall and the wind will howl....

I quote Antoine de Saint-Exupdery in my sermon. A problem since I can no more pronounce that with my distinctively Celtic mouth than I can turn coal into diamonds. He's the guy who wrote "The Little Prince", one of my favorite books and a book so spiritual it sings.

Here's what he said: "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders....Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea...."

I urge you to read that a couple of more times and ponder it a bit. It is ponderable in the extreme.

Building a ship, he is saying, has next to nothing to do about what you 'do'. Building a ship requires a people who 'be' yearning for the vast and endless sea. That distinction is enormous. A ship built because someone 'in charge' gave orders, would certainly sail. But a ship built because a people longed and yearned for the 'vast and endless sea'--ah, that's a ship on an adventure, a ship devoutly to be wished, a ship to sail to what is magical and mystical and as yet unknown.

That's the model for the church. Neo-gothic buildings like the one I served in for 21 years in Waterbury, have a part of the building called 'the nave'. And if you look at the vaulted ceiling, it looks like the hold of a great and wondrous ship. The earliest Christians were fishermen, after all, they knew about boats and there are multiple stories in the gospels we have about being in or on or around boats....

We have to give 'the church' (by that term, I mean 'the people who are the laos, the 'laity', the 'people of God') a vision of the vast and endless sea. Yearning and longing and being surprised by what shows up next creates people who know "Who They Be" and their 'being' will tell them what to 'Do' and how to construct the boat, the ship, the church. Being before Doing, always the right order.

The little cluster of four churches I serve now for a month as their Interim had a Cluster Celebration in Westbrook on Sunday with Bp. Curry and brass and confirmation and the sure and certain proof that the 'sum' is more than the total of the parts. This is all new to me but so exciting. I love each of the four distinct and quirky communities that make up the Cluster. Seeing them all together was like a breath of fresh air.

These are people who know how to BE. The battle is half-won and it hasn't even begun....

These are people who yearn for the vast and endless sea already. God bless them.

I just want to have a part in telling them the stories of the sea and make them yearn more and get out of the way while they 'create' the ship out of nothing that will take us there.

A story I heard somewhere, somehow, from someone:

"The people who lived by the sea built a great ship to take them to 'where they were meant to be'. They sat off, but being people of the land, folks kept falling off the ship and the ship would have to circle back and fish those overboard out of the sea.

And, amazing as it might seem, by endlessly circling and pulling people to safety, the ship arrived, unexpectedly and suddenly, at the place the people were 'meant to be'."

That's a parable of the Kingdom. That's a story of a people who yearn for the vast and endless sea. That is how to build a church as well as a ship. That is how to "BE" so that you can "DO".

"Being" before "Doing", I believe. That's the way to the Kingdom, to the place we're meant to be....

Thursday, June 2, 2011

what is, seriously, really, no kidding, honestly...more rare...?

A day in June, and it is only June 2nd. I'll sign up for this for as long as it lasts....

I walked around our back yard just a while ago. It is a riot of life. Bern has been nurturing it and loving it for so very long now. Purple flowers and red flowers and pink flowers and white flowers and cantaloupe colored flowers and black pansies--black, I tell you! flowers. And greens of so many hues I could never describe them, even if I had the words, which I don't.

On the side of the house is an area that has been taken over by ferns...half a dozen or so different kinds, eternally in the shade of the hemlocks. I love ferns. Once, when I was in college, I was the "Nature Boy" at a summer camp, since I swim not well and don't do crafts. I would take kids into the forest and point out ferns and fauna and trees. I was relatively good at it, I imagine, having grown up in the woods and knowing most trees by leaf and some by bark. But I don't know flowers, except pansies, especially black ones.

It is 63 degrees on our back porch at 6 p.m. The wind is strong out of the north east. I have on a long sleeve shirt. The sky is Carolina Blue with a few fast moving clouds. I could live, quite joyfully, somewhere it was always like this.

What is, after all, so rare as a day in June?

We had little steaks for dinner the other night. Yesterday I took the left overs and cut them as thin as I could a put them on non-gluten bread with mayo and onions and tomatoes and some cheese and decided to 'toast' them, as we used to say in my family. We had 'toasted cheese sandwiches' which are 'grilled cheese sandwiches' by another name. I sat down at the table to eat my sandwich and it kept falling apart. I was so annoyed and perplexed and upset.

Then, at some point, I realized, "If the only thing wrong with my life is my steak and cheese sandwich keeps falling apart, how lucky and blessed am I?"

Out the window of my little office, the trees are waving madly at me. It is probably still in the low 60's and the sun is out and the wind is blowing and God is truly in his heaven and all is right with the world.

What an idiot I am to worry about whether the onions are sliding off the bread on a steak sandwich....

I love my life. I truly do. And in abundance.

How joyful, lucky and blessed I am.

And it IS June, after all.

What could be better?

Well, I guess 'what could be better?' is if almost everyone loved their life the way I do.

That would be stupendous. Truly. What a moment devoutly to be wished.

I think I understand, this late afternoon in June, what the Native Americans mean by 'a good day to die'.

I could die happy today.

How rare....

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I need an ornathologist

Mama Robin is back on the nest. What's this mean? Can she be having another brood? Is that possible? Given all the work she and Papa Robin were doing, when did they find the time?

(Oh, well, I guess people do have two children within a year from time to time. You must just find the time....)

I'm getting ready for the Making A Difference Workshop at Wisdom House in Litchfield next week. I've helped lead dozens of these workshops and every next one is so much not like any of the other and so remarkable in and of itself. I love this stuff.

I just took a shower and put on a tee shirt I sleep in sometimes. It has the St. John's, Waterbury logo on the front left breast--an eagle designed by Judy McManis years ago.


I wish to hell I'd made that up, but I think, if I remember correctly, it was made up by a guy named Brian Reagner who helped design the original Making a Difference Workshop and helped redesign it years later. I was in on that 'redesign' and love that I was.

Brian, according to legend, since I wasn't there to hear it when it came into existence, was pondering what people who take the workshop should come out of the experience 'being' (the workshop is about, of all things, 'ontology', "the study of being". And that was what he said, as I've been told....


And during an adult confirmation class a decade or so ago, one of the participants, Jim Morgan, as I remember it, asked: "What will we be when this class is over?"

And I said, quoting Brian without thinking because it is the best thing, the very best thing, to be:

God bless us all, not much better to 'be' than that.

I'm working on my class in June--8 one and 1/2 hour sessions on the Early Christian (so called) Gnostic writings.

I'll wear my tee shirt one day.

Reading the Gnostics will, if nothing else, make us into "Dangerous Mystics and Spiritual Rebels"....Those are the Christians I want to be around and hang out with and create a future with and ponder possibility with.

Those folks and our Robins....

Not bad company all the way around....

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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.