Wednesday, December 13, 2017

If one day could do it....

If one day could turn around a year of agony, yesterday was that day.

For all my angst and upset over President He Who Will Not Be Named since his election and everything that has happened since. Yesterday restored my hope and longing for the country I want to live in--and it came from the most unexpected place.


I've never been in Alabama and until today I never wanted to be.

I'm a transplanted Appalachian in New England (the first hundred years are the hardest--then you belong here) but I've never been a Southerner. If you think people from the mountains are Southern, I could give you a lesson in why not.

I love going to Oak Island, North Carolina, but that's vacation land and doesn't really count as 'the South'. For most of my life 'the South' has stood for everything I don't stand for and Alabama has been the 'most South' place of all.

But the coalition of blacks, young people, city folks and suburban (small 'r') republican white women gave me faith that even in Alabama I could find a place to be.

I grew up in the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the Evangelical Methodist Church. I have a warm spot in my heart for white evangelical Christians. Some of the 'best people' I ever knew were those folks.

But the lies they've had to tell themselves to support Trump and then Roy Moore have tarnished my admiration for their position (without agreeing with their position much at all--I admired their stand). But the cracks in the wall of all the 'family values' and 'Biblical principles' have become very deep.

I pray they regain their previous moral stance and, though my moral stance is different, I long to respect them again.

But now I don't. How far you'd have to come from the faith of my grandmaw Jones and the Jones family to support Roy Moore is beyond belief.

We need Evangelical Christians in our midst to give us a plum line about morality.

The plum line has gone badly askew.

As the signs on barns throughout the south say: Get Right With God.

Heed that my white Evangelical brothers and sisters. Heed it well.

Heal and come back to be a compass in our midst. Please.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"Sweet Home, Alabama...."

Today I heard a devoted Evangelical Christian on NPR painfully and awkwardly explain why he was voting for Roy Moore. He said Doug Jones believed in a woman's right to abortion (the law of the land, by the way) and he decided he would rather vote for a man who abused "a few girls" than someone who sanctioned 'the death of millions of babies'.

Bless him for his attempt to justify what I find unjustifiable--a man who broke laws, albeit years ago, is better than a man who upholds the law.

But Alabama, against all my disbelief, did the right thing tonight.

Doug Jones won!!!!

Something is right in this somewhat crazy world.

I breathe a little deeper than I did this morning.

And I thank God for the people of Sweet Home, Alabama....

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Winnie the Pooh and John the Baptist

So, I asked this question at the beginning of my sermon about John the Baptizer today: What do Winnie the Pooh and John the Baptist have in common?

I got the joke from a novel about an Anglican priest who had a previous career as an M-15 agent (England's FBI) and was always being dragged into mysteries with his bishop's permission. (I never told you about my years in the CIA, have I? Of course not. If I told you I'd have to kill you....)

I didn't expect anyone to really answer but Jody Bush said, "they both have fur". Yes, she is 'those Bushes--sister in law to the first president and aunt to the second.  And I must admit, since John dressed in camel's hair, I thought she was right on.

But the answer I had, from the mystery, was "the same middle name--'the'..."

Lame, I know, but I like it. I like lame jokes more often than not. "A rabbi a priest and an Imam go into a bar" and you've got me hooked.

I did, eventually, get serious, to some degree, about the Baptist, but I enjoyed the beginning...and Jody's answer....

Friday, December 8, 2017

Remembrance and Support

Tonight the Cluster Churches had a Service of Remembrance and Support. It is a service for those who find the Christmastide days painful because of the death  of a loved one, conflict in their family, lack of resources in a time of  'spending'--whatever.

It is a great idea.

I think most all of us have mixed feelings about Christmas. There is all the joy and banter and celebrating but there is a 'blue' side to Christmas for many folks.

The service inserts itself into the conversation. "Go ahead and celebrate, that's great." it says, "but don't forget the other side."

There are lovely prayers and readings and songs--and a liturgical dance this year--and, most, most of all the stark acknowledgement that 'Tis the season to be jolly' isn't always the reality.

I think more communities and churches should consider such an acknowledgement of the sadness and confusion around this time of year.

If you want a copy of what we used tonight email Bea at and she'll send it to you.

Well worth doing....

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Well, I even screwed that up....

At some point I said I was going to retire from blogging when I got to 2000 posts.

My wife (whose never read my blog) talked me out of it--probably because it keeps me out of her way sometimes.

But I just noticed this is #2007, so I didn't even know I'd gone past my previous stop time!

I can even mess up 'stopping' which is probably the easiest thing in the world to do--just STOP.

So, 7 posts too late I have to warn you I'm going to keep writing.

Just to stay out of Bern's way a few times a week.

Not that I'm not pleasant company--she in an introvert and needs alone time.

I am an extrovert who wants people to read the nonsense and ponderings I write.

Like that.

You're stuck with me, I guess....

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Trying again...

This post in June got under 20 views. Most of the posts get 3 or 4 or 5 times that. This means a lot to me--who I am, who I be, what I truly believe. So, I thought I've give you all another shot at it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Faith as a possibility....

We had a long discussion about faith/believing/knowing at the little group I go to on Tuesday mornings today. For some reason I just couldn't get into it too deeply and didn't know why. On the way home, I remembered why...I wasn't 'letting the workshop be the workshop!'

I help lead this "Making a Difference Workshop" where we spend 4/5 of the time either doing centering prayer or dealing in two domains--the domain of experience and the domain of concept.

So, we spend most of the workshop exposing how wed and trapped we are in the domains of concept and experience, where our concepts, which come from our experiences, begin to color and determine future experiences. We 'work backwards' until we can reach the point where we can un-conceal (different from 'reveal' which is why my spell check doesn't like it) a third domain. Experience and concepts are all about 'getting somewhere'. The third domain--the Domain of Possibility--is a place 'to come from...."

Our conversation today was bogged down (as we almost always are) in the two domains of experience and concept, which actually collapse on each other into a vicious circle. What I needed to say, if I'd only remembered to let the workshop work, was to create the possibility of 'faith' or 'believing' AS A POSSIBILITY.

Everything exists in all three domains. God, for example, exists as an 'experience' of God/Spirit/the Holy and a 'concept' of God. But both the experience and concept are dwarfed and transformed by God 'as a possibility', as a creation, as a limitless declaration. God then become a place to 'come from' and BE, not a place of presence or representation. (That's 'doing and having', or 'experience and concept'.)

Am I going too fast? We use three days to do this workshop and I'm trying to re-create it in a blog post!!!

Faith as a possibility helps us to create a future that wouldn't happen anyway.

That's one of the mantras of the workshop--'there are two futures: the one that will come if you just wait and the one you can create that wouldn't happen anyway.'

Faith as a possibility means we bring the limitless possibility of 'faith' into the moment. We 'be' faith, rather than experiencing faith or having a concept of faith. That's why the second rail of the workshop is centering prayer. Centering prayer is a prayer of 'being' rather than 'doing' or 'having'.

I'm not sure any of this is making sense--but I know our conversation today needed a high octane injection of 'being'. We were talking about 'experiencing God' and having 'concepts/traditions/theologies about God. What we needed was God as a limitless possibility to 'come from' into the next moment.

(Coming from 'being' devolves into experience and concept--we call that, my favorite bit of workshop language: 'the ontological cascade' (cool, huh?)--but we can also return to 'being' again and again and 'come from' being by, guess what?, merely 'SAYING SO....'

Should be familiar as a way of creating: "God SAID 'let there be light....."

You know the rest of that.

Maybe next Tuesday I can come from 'Being' into the conversation....Devoutly to be hoped.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Inflatable, light up lawn decorations

Ok, they look great at night but the next morning they're just plastic collapsed on the lawn.

Why can't they be inflated all the time, I don't get it.

On my way to Emmanuel, Killingworth I pass a house in--I don't know, Wallingford, I guess-that has about two dozen of the Santa's and Reindeer's and Grouch dressed like Santa and Angels and more stuff than anyone needs ever, in a billion Christmases.

And when I go by on Sunday morning it looks like a terrorist attack has happened, or a Zombie apocalypse or those left behind at the Rapture.

I would never own one of those lawn things which need both air and electricity, I guess.

But if you do, God love you, and keep them always inflated.

It's beginning to look a lot like deflated Christmas.

Just me talkin'....

Saturday, December 2, 2017

all new, all new....

I did a 'trade funeral' today.

A trade funeral is when the family wants a minister and doesn't have one so the funeral home calls around.

When I first retired, I got a lot of calls. Not so much recently--but Kevin knows me well and when a special needs man needed a religious person, he called me.

Christopher was born with many physical and some minor mental problems. His parents were told he wouldn't live until his 20th birthday. Instead he lived to 37, many of those years in a semi-autonomous way in a group home. He had jobs, was in the Special Olympics for years, touched many people.

I got there early to talk to his father and saw how many people came to the funeral home to speak to his family.

Christopher must have been 'special' in several ways to have so many people love him.

Even Kevin told me that in his conversations with Christopher's father he wondered 'who really gave the gift to whom'.

Christopher's mother is dead but his father was with him all the way. Learning as much, if not more, from his son than he taught.

I often quote St. Francis of Assisi in funeral sermons. Francis said, "death is not a door that closes, but a door that opens and we walk in all new...."

For us still on this side of that wondrous door, death seems like a door that closes. But my prayer is that for the one who dies, they enter into the presence of the One who loves them best of all and are made all new.

I certainly pray that for Christopher. That he was made 'all new'.

All new...all new.....

Friday, December 1, 2017

Odder and stranger and closer....

Well, well, well, General Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Considering the other charges Mueller could have indicting him for you have to ponder what all he promised the special prosecutor to only be charged with that....

Murkier and murkier this whole 'witch-hunt' (as He who will not be named has called it) and closer and closer to the King himself. Jarred Kushner and Kelly Ann Conway seem to be persons of interest in a new way through all this.

Steve Smith, a Republican advisor (a 'real' Republican, not the type we see today!) said on CNN that what people should do is vote only for Democrats for House and Senate in 2018.

Let me repeat that--a man in the Bush 2 White House and the Romney presidential run is advising people to vote for 'only Democrats' in 2018. That's because he doesn't think Republicans in Congress will go along with any road to impeachment for the President should all this lead to that possibility.

And it might. And Pence and Sessions are treading water in the whole Flynn imbroglio as well.

Who becomes vice-president if the Speaker of the House becomes President? I have to look it up.

As the Chinese say, "May you live in interesting times" as a curse, not a blessing. (Though, truth is, there is no similar saying in written Chinese. The closest is 'better to be a dog in good times than a human in trying times' or something like that. But people have credited Confucius with it for decades, no matter where it originated.)

These are, unfortunately for us, extremely 'interesting' times.

I truly believe our democracy is at stake. Mueller may be our lynch-pin to keep it all together.

I don't need Steve Smith to tell me to only vote for Democrats, but I admire his courage in doing so....

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Not on the football field, but...

Did you know that the House Tax Bill rolls back the Johnson Amendment?

The Johnson Amendment, championed by LBJ when he was a Senator, prohibits religious groups and all 501 C3 non-profit and non-taxed groups from taking part in partisan politics--not in issues but in openly supporting particular candidates. Churches can discuss political issues but not openly endorse from the pulpit.

It's a horrible idea. I try not to be political in my role as a priest, though everyone knows I'm a yellow-dog Democrat. I don't tell them they should be too. That's as it should be. There are supporters of the President in the churches I serve. I must minister to them without label or politics, just as I must minister to anyone who disagrees with me, personally, about any thing. Plus, I love being with people who don't agree with me--that's much better than only being with the like minded. It is the way the family of the church--just like our biological families should be--'related' even when we disagree. Family first.

The Congressional Budget Office has suggested that if non-profits could make political donations--for example--it would cost the federal government at least $2.5 billion a year. People who give money to politicians (money that is taxed) would funnel it through non-profits and even get a tax deduction from the contribution.

And repealing the Johnson Amendment would politicize churches and non-profits. Instead of St. Luke's and St. Gregory's we'd have Episcopalians for Democrats and Episcopalians for Republicans.

I heard a woman on radio describe how her grand-father, a devout Protestant and Republican, rose and left their church back before the 1960 election when the minister told the congregation from the pulpit not to vote for a Catholic. He only went back when the minister apologized "from the pulpit" and told people to vote their conscience. Her grandfather voted for Nixon, but he believed in a deep-down-Constitutionally-valid way in the separation of Church and State.

I do too--to the bottom of my heart.

If churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other places of worship want to get involved in endorsing candidates and giving money to campaigns they should hand over their tax-exempt status.

Conservative Evangelicals can rage all they want about stopping abortion and not letting gays marry (just as I can rail about a woman's right to choose and GLBT equality)--but we can't, under the IRS's rules under the Johnson Amendment 'endorse' candidates that support our views from the pulpit.

That is as it should be. And should remain. God and Common Sense prevailing....

(God will ultimately prevail...I'm not so hopeful about Common Sense these days....)

Pray, beloved, I guarantee you don't want me telling you who to vote for....

I guess 'political statements' aren't ok on the football field but are fine from the pulpit!

Waiting in the dark

It's just past five and it's pitch dark outside. We are waiting in the dark....

That's what Advent is all about--waiting in the dark for the Light to come.

Advent should be a time of reflection, soul-searching and pondering life. Those are ways of being encouraged by darkness. And each day, almost to the end of Advent is a little darker for a little longer. Then on Thursday, December 21, the Winter Solstice, the tilting away from the sun of the Northern Hemisphere stops. It will be the longest night of the year--just 3 days from Christmas Eve, and the tilt toward the sun begins again. A little more light each day.

I've often pondered being a Christian in the Southern Hemisphere--how the symbolism of the church year seems all wrong.

Easter, in the southern part of the globe, comes in fall when the earth is beginning to die, rather than in the spring when the earth is coming back to life.

And Christmas, down beneath the equator comes just after the longest day of the year, when the world is brightest, when there is the most light. How do you talk about 'waiting for the Light to come' when you have all the light you need? And at Easter, how do you discuss the Resurrection of Christ and the world around us?

The symbolism seems much easier up here in the north.

It doesn't stop Christians down there. By latest estimates 1.3 billion of the 2.1 billion world wide Christians live in the global South while 860 million live in the northern hemisphere.

In 1910 2/3 of all the world's Christians lived in Europe. Now only 26% do.

Brazil (in the global south) has twice as many Christians as Italy and 1/4 of all the Christians in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa.

The North is diminishing while the South is growing strongly.

Still, those of us 'up here' have the climate that fits the symbolism best--for what that's worth...which obviously, given the numbers, isn't much....

Yet, I sit in the darkness, pondering it, waiting for the Light of Bethlehem's Star....

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Enough Light to See

I wanted to share my sermon today at St. James, Higganum.

Matthew 25.31-46

Just an aside. This Sunday, the Sunday before Advent, has been called "The Feast of Christ the King". The Episcopal church, thinking people in America might not take to the idea of a 'king' started calling it "The Feast of the Reign of Christ" a few years ago. Yet today, on the insert, it merely says: "The Last Sunday in Pentecost" and is in Green when, as you can see, Christ the King Sunday is White in the colors on the altar and in my stole.

I'm usually in favor of all 'political correctness", I really am. But you and I are celebrating the Feast of Christ the King. OK?

I had a New Testament professor at Virginia Seminary named Dick Reid. One day he was lecturing about the limitless of God's forgiveness. God's forgiveness, he told us, was beyond what we imagine or even CAN imagine.

A student raised his hand. He was, let me admit, more conservative theologically than I was--but then so were most of the students at Virginia Seminary...

"Dean Reid," he asked (Dick was also assistant Dean of the Seminary), "what do you believe about the Last Judgement?"

Dick thought for a moment and responded, "I am a hopeful Universalist...."

That's me too. A 'hopeful Universalist'. There's no scripture to back me up, but I, like Dean Reid, believe God's capacity  to forgive is beyond all boundaries.

Today's gospel isn't supportive of 'hopeful Universalists'. Christ the King comes back and divides the sheep from the goats, the blessed from the damned, the saved from the lost.

And the division between the two groups is over whether or not when they saw him hungry they fed him, or thirsty and gave him drink, a stranger who was welcomed, naked and clothed, sick or in prison and visited.

What's interesting is that both the sheep and the goats ask the same question when they are judged worthy or unworthy: "When did we see You like that and did those things?" the sheep ask. The goats ask, "When did we see you like that and didn't do those things?"

And the answer, beloved, is that Christ was present in the 'least of these' both groups encountered. The Blessed Ones served the 'least of these' and the Damned did not.

That simple.

I think this may be the most important part of not only being a Christian but of being a good human being--we must serve and minister to 'the least of these'. That may be the key to the whole thing.

I've tried really hard to not be political during the past year--I don't know if you agree that I've mostly been successful, but know I've really tried. And it's hard for me not to be political.

But I just want to ask now how we as a nation are standing up to Jesus' message that in serving 'the least of these' we are serving him?

The changes made in health care policy have hurt many and may hurt many more on Medicare and Medicaid in the future..

"I was sick and you took care of me," Jesus said to the blessed.

I heard on the radio coming to church that the Federal subsidies for the insurance coverage for poor children will stop in January. In Virginia alone that will affect 66,000 children since the states cannot do it without the Federal help.

Poor children. Talk about the Least of These....

The proposed tax cuts will help corporations and the rich but do little to nothing for the poor. Food stamps are in big trouble. "I was hungry and you fed me" is in trouble as well.

Government policy is aimed at putting even more people in jail than are already there by tightening drug laws. And nobody is visiting....

And 'welcoming the Stranger"--the Stranger is the enemy, the stranger is feared, the stranger must be kept out of our boarders.

Given Jesus' requirements, our nation isn't doing too well right now for 'the least of these'. Judgement may be harsh.

Jesus IS 'the least of these'. That's what we must always remember.

I'll end with a story I've told before but it's one of my favorite stories and we can all hear it again and again....

A very wise rabbi teaches his students all through the night by a river. As dawn is coming, the rabbi asks one more question: "How much is enough light to see?"

One student says, "there is enough light to see when we can tell the lambs from the baby goats on the other side of the river."

The rabbi thinks for a while and replies, "no, that is not enough light to see."

Another student, after a pause, says, "there is enough light to see when we can tell the myrtle trees from the fig trees on the other side of the river."

The rabbi says, quicker this time, "no, that is not enough light to see."

The students grow silent and wait. Dawn comes closer. Finally the rabbi says, "there is enough light to see when you can look into the face of any human being and see the Face of God. That is enough light to see...."

Pray for enough light to see the Face of God in the faces of the "least of these" in our midst.

Pray that we might serve them as if they were Jesus.

Pray for enough light to see.

Pray for light to see.

Pray for light.

Pray to see....


Saturday, November 25, 2017

Things to be thankful for....

Mimi and Eleanor came on Wednesday.

Tim came on the train to New Haven on Thanksgiving morning and John picked him up and they came here.

Josh, Cathy and the girls spent Wednesday night in Kent and were here at 9:15 a.m.

I picked up Hanna at 1:30.

We at at 3 or so.

Hanna is 92 so I took her home to Hamden before 6.

Our children and son/daughter in laws and 4 granddaughters were here until Saturday late morning.

And they taught me, along with Bern, what thankfulness is all about.

Friends, family, blood, children and food and drink a plenty.

Tim and Mimi and Eleanor will go to Florida at Christmas to visit Tim's parents and brother.

Josh and Cathy and the three Bradley girls will celebrate Christmas in their new house in Baltimore. It's time--the girls are 11, 11 and 8. Time to be 'home' at HOME for them. Bern and I stopped going to parents at holidays when I was ordained and Josh was a baby. I work on Christmas. We've been blessed to be with them this long at Christmas except the years they either went to Taiwan or California to visit Cathy's family there.

Soon, maybe, we'll go to them on holidays.

Which makes the magic last 4 days even more precious--knowing it won't be like this forever.

But what joy we shared, all of us.

I thank my lucky star and my God for them....

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What I 'do' vs. who I 'be'

I'm sure I posted this before, years ago. But I've been dwelling on it lately and decided to share it again. Something to ponder about priesthood.

(It's long. Take your time.)

                  Job Descriptions

        A seminary classmate of mine who was also a priest in West Virginia when I was there was once riding an airplane from Los Angeles to Chicago. My friend, let’s call him Joe, was wearing, as he seemingly always did, a clerical collar and black shirt, black suit and black wing-tips. Joe is a very large man so his priest outfit always made him look like a black-out curtain from the London Blitz. He spent the flight talking amiably with salesman from the mid-west. They developed one of those airplane friendships and exchanged business cards as the descent began toward O’Hare. Just as the 747 was taxiing up to the gate, Joe’s new friend asked, “What do you do?”
          Joe glanced down to make sure his uniform was in place—and hadn’t they talked about the church somewhere over Idaho?
          “I’m an Episcopal priest,” Joe replied, confused.
          The salesman smiled. “Oh, I know what you are,” he said, “I was just wondering what you do.”
          It is an interesting observation and question. What on earth does an Episcopal priest do? How can we describe a role that I believe is more ontological than functional? What’s the job description?
          Once, at a cocktail party in New Haven, surrounded by Yale ‘people’—the population of New Haven is divided between Yale ‘people’ and the masses of the unwashed—I had a long conversation with a physicist from India with one of those delightful post-Raj English accents that sound like a bird’s song. You hear that accent most every time you call customer services (aka “help!”) for your computer—they all seem to be in India. Since I didn’t have on a clerical uniform—and never once flew in an airplane with a collar on lest I be seated besides some psychologically disturbed stranger who wanted to confess at 40,000 feet—I had told him when we greeted each other what I ‘did’. And he told me what he ‘did’. It’s what people do.
          (Here’s a fascinating thing: back in the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up, when people met for the first time, the question that came trippingly off each of their tongues was “where are you from?” not “what do you do?” I haven’t asked enough people who grew up in rural places if that was true back home to know if it is purely an urban/rural distinction. But I know and know fair well that back home you could tell a lot more about a stranger by knowing where they were from and “who their people were” than you could by finding out how they earned their money. I still have the tendency to ask people where they spent their formative years, believing as I do that there is a wealth of instant knowledge and intimacy in discovering someone’s roots. But, in the place I live now and amidst the people I know now, the first question is almost always, “What do you do?”)
          So I told the Indian physicist that I was an Episcopal priest and he asked me with the guilelessness of someone who was ‘from’ a place half-a-world away and who was Hindu if he was anything religious at all, what my ‘work’ consisted of.
          Even then, I had begun to believe that being a priest is an ontological rather than a functional thing, so I fished around in my brain for some way to describe succinctly what my “being” in the midst of a parish looked like. I came up with a thought that I’d stand by today. “I am a member of a community,” I told him, “and I function as the leader of that community in our ritual life. And I am very aware of what is going on in and around the community so that when I think I see God breaking in to the day-to-day, I can say ‘Stop! Look! There’s God’….”
          He considered that in that lovely, calm and timeless way people from the Indian sub-continent have naturally, took a sip of wine and then said, smiling knowingly, “You’re a process observer.”
          He, of course, had to explain to an English major that a ‘process observer’ was an indispensable role in the sciences. Much of what science is about is watching experiments and noting what happens. It is, he told me, rather tedious and painstaking work (not unlike the day-to-day ‘duties’ of a parish priest) but finally indispensable to the march of scientists to the day when they will have the String Theory down pat—the theory that explains just about everything.
          “A process observer”, I said to myself, giving that little voice in my head a line to speak of my composition instead of just listening to it chatter on of its own volition. I rather liked it, yes I did.
          The actuality is this: one of the things parish priests DO, it seems to me, is “point to God in the process.” We do it in the Eucharist—all the sacraments—in a most obvious way. “You may think this is just fish food and bad port, priests say in the Mass, but I’m going to ‘point out’ to you that this is ALSO the very Body and very Blood of Christ. How about them apples?” Or, like this: “You may imagine this is just a little baby and some water and some oil, but I’m going to reveal to you a different way of looking at all this…a way that brings to mind the Creation and the Exodus and John the Baptist and Jesus and the oil of anointing a royal child and the fact that this squirming little creature is actually the most loved Child of God.”  Or this, for example: “I know everyone here believes you are simply a man and a woman anxious to get dinner over and shed these clothes and do what men and women do in the dark, wine-soaked night. But I tell you a Mystery—you are beloved of God and God approves, blesses and watches over you. Go after each other with passion and zeal, it is as the Almighty has arranged it!” Stuff like that is what priests “do”. Process observing—seeking to un-conceal the oldest String Theory of them all: that God is in control in some way we cannot recognize or even understand.
          Once, a few years ago, the remarkable Organist/Choir Director of St. John’s—the finest musician I’ve ever known who doesn’t have a big, fat attitude—found a Spiritual he thought I would like, knowing I’m partial to Spirituals. It was called I Believe This Is Jesus and went like this: “I believe this is Jesus….Come and see, Come and see….” Bob’s idea was that I would, after the fracture of the host, sing the “I believe this is Jesus” part and the choir would respond, “Come and see. Come and see” and then do the rest of the song while I administered communion to those at the altar. Great idea—real ‘process observer’ stuff…I’d break the bread and then indicate the bread and wine and sing, “I believe this is Jesus.”
          So, without telling anyone but the choir, that’s what we did. I broke the bread, took a deep breath since I’m rocky about my singing ability, then broke into song. When the choir responded, “Come and see. Come and see.” I did something like point to the bread and wine and sing along, shifting from foot to foot, remembering why I loved Spirituals—you can’t stand still and sing them. I turned to give communion to the others at the altar—including the assistant Rector and our Parish Administrator—and they were all staring at me as if I were a crazy person just escaped from the sanatorium with sharp, deadly weapons. After I force fed them the bread and wine—fattening up the Christmas goose—they nearly dissolved into that kind of laughter that there is simply no way, no way in heaven and earth, no act of will available to human beings to repress. The “I believe this is Jesus” Mass passed immediately into St. John’s lore. We still laugh about it—others laughing more than me since I was just ‘process observing’ and ‘reporting’—and I can still do it. I’ll do it for you if you ask me nicely.
          I have this ongoing conversation with my bishop and others about ontology and function and what a priest “does”. I come down hard on the “being” side of the distinction. I actually think a priest’s job description is to ‘be’ in the midst of the community. The functional stuff is neither rocket science or brain surgery. In fact, most everything a priest does—since we are the last of the ‘generalists’—someone else could do much better. Say Mass, for example—I’d suggest training in theatre would make for a more dramatic Eucharist than studying Theology ever could. Visiting the sick, another example—couldn’t a nurse or social worker pull that off with great aplomb? Teaching adult classes—well, give me someone trained in education every day to someone who can recite the Nicene Creed by heart. Counseling the troubled—a seminary education makes you a ‘counselor’ as much as a class in auto mechanics makes you a jet pilot. Parish priests, if they took my advice, would avoid counseling like the plague and get a rolodex full of references. I can ‘listen’ to someone’s problems but I seldom, if ever, do I know an answer. I actually get ‘hung up’ in the problems, find them fascinating and probably wouldn’t want them to go away. Call a real professional, that’s my advice to a parish priest!
          So, here I am, trying to describe “what I do” when the reality I deal with tells me that being a priest is much more about ‘being’ than ‘doing’. I have this argument with my bishop and lots of colleagues that will go on and on. I truly think that priesthood is about ontology, about ‘being’, much more than it is about ‘doing’ or the function we fulfill in the Church of God. This obviously is a result of my remarkably high view of the sacraments. I believe ‘being a priest’ is contained and fully lived out in the ‘being’ part. What I “do”—like talk to the leader of the Narcotics Anonymous group that uses St. John’s on Tuesday mornings about how most of the folks in that group—unlike the other 12 step groups that use the space—are ‘court ordered’ and there to score some dope and don’t give a good god-damn about the fact that there are other people in the building—the soup kitchen, the office staff, the clericus group, a meeting of a diocesan committee, just plain folks coming in and out to ask for help or tell us something or just check in with the staff. And never mind that there are sometimes funerals on Tuesday morning and receptions in the Library after the funeral and that we need some level of quiet and respect in the building. And then I have to deal with the email from the leader promising to ‘fix’ the problems if they can only, only, please, please, continue to use the meeting space. And I have to deal with the countless ‘drop-ins’ looking for a bus ticket or a meal or a motel room or something even beyond all that. I can refer most of them to the social worker in the soup kitchen but I have to talk with them and get enmeshed in their stories along the way, before sending them to someone who might actually be able to help them. And I attend endless meetings—in the parish and without—to deal with endless issues and come up not knowing our elbows from our assholes most of the time. And there are statistics to keep in a big red book about what we’ve done in terms of services. And there are budget matters to be addressed—can we buy this or pay for that…stuff I never got taught in Seminary. And there is the eternal ‘planning’ for things that are going to happen or not in the parish. And there are meetings…oh, I already mentioned that, but there are so many that it seems to require a second mention. And did I tell you about the parking lot and making sure the rented spaces are used by those who rented them and the dozens of people who come through the church each day aren’t in some lawyer’s space? I don’t do all of that, but I fret about it.
          Most of the day-to-day stuff I do is fretting about something or another. And, in most cases, there are about three billion people who could fret about those things and be more effective than me. So, what do I DO? I’m not sure, not at all. My “doing” of stuff seems in many ways a bit crazy. And the source of great fretting and anxiety.
          Here’s the quintessential Jewish joke, my friend, John, told it to me today. An e-mail arrives. “Start worrying,” it says, “letter to follow.”
          I’m always ‘worrying’ about my ‘doing’…but I truly subscribe to the notion that ‘doing’ isn’t what being a priest is all about. What being a priest is all about is exactly that—“being” a priest.
          You want to know the thing I hear most from parishioners of St. John’s? Here it is: “I didn’t want to bother you, I know how busy you are….”
          My theory is that either we priests have created “busy-ness” out of nothing or else we are so deluded as to think that the nonsense we use to fill our days and make us feel like we’re ‘doing’ something has overcome the glaring reality that we are ordained to ‘be’, not to ‘do’. Back in 2000 when I visited 37 of my Virginia Seminary classmates, one of them—a guy who was only with us for a year and who had been a RC priest before he married a woman with five children—told me that he was pleased to have left VTS and gone to a parish where he had remained for 25 years. “I’ve been here long enough,” he told me, “so that people accept the fact that ‘being a priest’ is the only job in the world that is focused on ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’.”
          What a thought—a whole career path focused on “being” rather than “doing”! And what a pity that people think I’m busy and shouldn’t be bothered by their petty concerns and wonderings and questions and longings. That is, in fact, precisely what my job entails, to be free and available and ready to “be” with people whenever they need that from me. I don’t suggest that my ‘being’ will “save them” or “heal them” or do anything much more than simply ‘being’ with them in their joy or confusion or pain or loss or wonderment. There is a wonderful term in psychology—the “non-anxious presence.” Therapists long to provide that service for their clients—just to ‘be’ with them, whatever is going on, without anxiety. A calming presence is what most of us need when ‘stuff’ is happening in our lives. We just need someone to “be” there—at our death bed, in labor hall, in the ER, when we’re troubled and confused, at the celebrations of the transforming moments of our lives. Just that—a shadow in the background who is simply “there” without attaching themselves to the emotions and feelings of the moment—that is what most of us need, most of the time. And that is, so far as I can see, how a priest can “be” in the midst of the community he/she serves.
          I have done what used to be called “EST training”. Almost all ‘religious folks’ think EST was mind-control and a monstrous intrusion into the life of those who submitted themselves to it. I am still involved in a group—The Mastery Foundation—that continues the work EST began. The Mastery Foundation is the religious spin-off of EST and I have been a leader of the Making a Difference Workshop for almost 20 years now. I took that workshop when I was considering renouncing my vows as a priest and what I came out of the three days with was my priesthood all new and shiny. The Workshop is ‘ontological’—it is about ‘being’, not ‘doing’. And back over a quarter of a century ago, when I was in an EST workshop, I called to tell them I couldn’t come to the second weekend because a beloved parishioner of St. Paul’s (the parish I served at that time) was dying and I had to be with him. The workshop leaders gave me much shit—understandable shit but shit none the less—about my ‘commitment’ to the workshop and what if I’d gotten hit by a truck, who would be with Aaron, who would be his priest then? But I rejected all the bullshit they threw at me—some of it reasonable bullshit, but b.s. all the same—and went to visit Aaron when I should have been in my chair at the EST training.
          Aaron was in a coma and I couldn’t “do” much of anything. I couldn’t give him communion or talk with him or reassure him as he was slipping into that good night. So, after 15 minutes or so, I left his room, having anointed him and given him final unction—I could “do” that, after all. I rode the elevator to the lobby and was unlocking my car when I remembered the first weekend of the EST training and the emphasis on “being” that I had learned there. So I went back to the elevator and rode back up to the 5th floor and entered Aaron’s room again. I sat by his bed for over two hours. From time to time I would read a psalm from my Prayer Book aloud, but mostly for me, since he wasn’t in my time/space continuum. And after two hours I kissed his 88 year old face and headed for the door.
          At that very moment, he awoke momentarily from the coma of his last sleep and said, with the basso voice I’d known from him before this illness, “Jim, thanks for BEING with me….”
          It never occurred to me in that moment to “do” anything. I didn’t rush to his bedside and give him communion. I didn’t open my BCP and say a prayer. I only said, “You’re welcome, Aaron.” And I left. Three days later I was the celebrant and preacher at his funeral. I had done my job. I had “be-ed” with him. That was what he needed and all that I could do.
          Actually, I do have a definition of the job description of a priest. I’ve used it in a couple of ordination sermons that did not get me in trouble and I think I would bet the farm on it being—if not RIGHT—at least in the county where RIGHT lives. Here’s how it goes: the ‘job’ of a priest is simply this: to tend the fire, tell the story and pass the wine.
          A parish priest has an enormous amount of discretionary time—don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. And that time should be spent being the Shaman of the Tribe. I really believe the metaphor of the Shaman is the one we priests should embrace. We walk backward and sideways, we speak words our mouths are unfit for, we do the holy acts and we dwell in the “being” of our being in the midst of the tribe. We are irrelevant except in moments when we are relevant. We wait with the expectant father, we sit by the sick bed, we pour water on the babies, we whisper nonsense syllables over bread and wine, we light the candles, we tell and re-tell the story of our tribe in old ways and ways made new, we anoint the sick and dying, we rejoice with the joyous, we are there when one of the tribe moves into that Good Night, we pour dirt on the casket, we unite the lovers, we sit and wait and are not anxious whatever is happening. Shamans are the role we can play in the Tribe who loves us and we love to death.
          So, we tend the fire. Everyone else is too busy in the tides and times of living to pay attention. The priest must add the green branch to the dying fire and blow on it until it takes and burns. The priest must know the history of the Tribe and breathe it into the fire as the fire turns to embers. We are the fire-tenders, the wood gatherers, the ones who choose between the green wood and the seasoned. That is who we “are” and how we “be” in the midst on the Tribe.
          We also “tell the story”. It is a story everyone in the Tribe knows, on some level, in some way. So the way we tell it must annoy and inspire and provoke. It is the story of our particular tribe and of the larger tribe we are a part of. It is the story of a God who created us in the very image of God and of a God who took on our flesh and a God who died, as we shall die, yet rose from death to prove to us that Life is the last word, the ultimate word, the only word that matters. So we tell this story with mouths full of pebbles and in halting, stuttering words and with an eloquence we neither deserve nor can rise to, except the Spirit leads us. We tell the story as the tribe sits by the fire we tend and we watch their eyes…heavy and full of sleep, confused and questioning, brimming with tears. It is always the eyes we much watch—those subtle pathways to the soul—as we tell the story in old ways, often heard, and in new ways to surprise and delight and confound. We have tended the fire and told the story.
          What is left is this—to pass the wine.
          Whenever I do baptismal classes, I bring out the symbols that will be a part of the service: bread, wine, water, oil, a candle and the scallop shell I use to pour the water. Sometimes I mix people up so they’re not with their baptismal group, and give them one of the symbols to talk about and report back to the whole group about after talking. I’m always interested in the report back about wine. We are a part of a remarkably Puritanical culture where wine is not openly valued. And of course, I know, church basements and parish halls are full each week with AA meetings—there is a downside to wine. But my thought has always been that the ‘value’ of something can be measured most accurately by how much it has been misused and abused. Oh, take Christianity for example: what crap we Christians have left on innocent yards! The Christian faith has been so misused and abused that it must be of great value—the value of pearls and gold and silver.
          Most of the groups who report back on wine don’t fully emphasize the joy and gladness and goodness of alcohol. They seldom reflect on why it is we call alcohol “spirits”. They don’t have the courage to be politically incorrect in our day and say wine is a good and gracious thing. Never has any group reported back by saying, “In Vino, Veritas”. So I have to tell them how valued and important the wine is to the tribe and those gathered by the fire, listening to the story. Invaluable, I’d say—that’s what wine is to the life and metaphor and myth of the Tribe. There must be wine to make us mellow and accepting and to “inspire” us and to bring the story to full bloom and to make the dying fire look like a wondrous and warming blaze that enlightens the darkness all around us.
          So, the priest passes the wine.
          None of those ‘functions’, those ‘tasks’, those ‘acts’ require ordination—that I would tell you before you said it out loud. Just about anyone could tend the fire and tell the story and pass the wine. But in our Tribe, at any rate, we have decided that there must be someone ‘set apart’ for those acts, those rituals, those liturgies. So we ordain priests and entrust them with the work of “being” in our midst to ‘do’ these little, so significant tasks. The Shamans of the Tribe walk backwards, speak in nonsense syllables and touch the holy things.
          A dear friend, the wife of a classmate of mine in seminary, told my wife that when her husband was ordained, “his hands changed.”
          My wife, God bless her, said she hadn’t noticed that my hands had changed but she did like to feel them on her body.
          Here is the conundrum about being a priest: nothing changes. It isn’t the ordination that matters, it is the willingness to simple “be” when all the world is “doing” that makes a priest different, set apart, unique. Her/his hands don’t change, not a chance, that’s just an illusion. What happens, so far as I can tell is simply this: some sap decides to “be” rather than “do”. And the church applauds.
          Truth is, it’s a great job—process observing, tending the fire, telling the story over and over again, passing the wine. What’s the down-side of that? Just don’t take yourself too seriously or confuse yourself with Jesus or decide you can save the world or anyone in it—keep to the job description: observe the process, keep the fire burning, tell and retell the story, take a good sip of wine before passing it around, figure out how to “be” rather than “do”.
          Well, it’s worked for the most part for me….  

Monday, November 20, 2017

It's been shipped....

I just got an email telling me my new smart phone (imagine me with a smart phone) has been shipped!

Perfect timing since some of the most media savvy people I know will be here for Thanksgiving and can load it up for me.

I got it through Consumer Cellular--a company for AARP folks that Bern and I have been on since we were AARP folks. If you're over 60 and you are on any other network, consider switching. We both have the service for under $25 a month each and if we switch to the family plan it will be even less.

Plus, the phone I bought from them was $300 less than it would have been from the company that makes it. Go figure that.

Being old has some advantages. AARP is a joy.

Hello, Moto!

Coming soon to this home....

I love those commercials for Motorola phones, so that's what I got.

Like I said, "Hello, Moto!"

Bela's reply

I posted a few weeks ago that Bela, our Hungarian Sheepdog, got a letter from a politician's dog asking him to make sure we voted for his 'dad'.

I forgot to post Bela's reply, so here it is.


Dear Sizzels,

Funny thing about your letter: you never mentioned your ‘man’s’ political party. I pretty much figured it out from the no tax/no spend stuff and given what’s up in Washington I’m sure lots of New England Republicans don’t brag about being one.

 My “Man”—I never call him “Dad”—too anthropomorphic for me—is what we call back home ‘a yellow dog Democrat’. That means if Mother Teresa were the Republican and a yellow dog (like you and me, though I’m black…but a dog like us) was the Democrat, my man would vote for the yellow dog.

So, he and my Woman won’t be voting for your ‘Dad’.

But it was interesting, I must say, to get a letter from another dog.

My first one ever. Well, my first letter ever, just so you know.

My vet sends me post cards to tell me I have to come to her office and suffer with shots and blood tests and such, but never a letter addressed to me before.

So, thanks for that.

And go Democrats!!!

Be well and don’t itch.

Bela Bradley

p.s. I licked this since I can't hold a pen....


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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.