Friday, March 27, 2009


I heard a woman interviewed on radio today--Susan Campbell, I think her name was--who has written a book called Dating Jesus about her experience growing up in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas as a fundamentalist Christian. Ms. Campbell writes for the HARTFORD COURANT.

I come from the Appalachian Mountains of the southernmost county of West Virginia and grew up in the Pilgrim Holiness Church, which meets the definition of 'fundamentalist'--nails it on the head, in fact. Get out your maps, boys and girls and look at how mountains come out of Western North Carolina and Southwestern Virginia, across WV and Kentucky and parts of Tennesee all the way to Arkansas. That area, beloved, is as foreign to you (if you didn't grow up there) as Bosnia and the south of France. You have no idea what life was like--still is--in Appalachia (the name I would call that area). You are looking at (if you still have your maps out) some of the most isolated and distinctly different parts of the US. You'd need a tour guide to understand the culture there--and there is this: you most likely know someone who came from there. The county I grew up in, McDowell County, is about as big as Rhode Island and had, when I was a boy, about 60,000 souls living there. It now has 27,000 or so citizens, so the rest went somewhere. They might be your neighbors--like Ms. Campbell and I am to the good and hethren folks of Connecticut.

For the most part, Appalachia was settled by Scotch-Irish, British and a weird collection of other ethnic folk. And they got trapped in the isolation of the mountains and life went on and on without much interference from the wider world until television came along. About television: Walter Cronkite and others pronounced the name of that region as "Ap-pa-lA-chia". I grew up calling it "Ap-pa-lach-ia". But once TV and Jack and Bobby Kennedy came along, we started using the long A since those smart people much know better than us how to pronounce the name of where we lived. The electric company where I lived never changed the pronunciation so "AppaLACHia Power" served "AppaLAchia". Go figure.

Which eventually leads us to the religion of the mountains--a kind of fierce, unrenting, unapologetic fundamentalism. More later.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


For some reason I have been talking with people lately about 'what happens when you die."

Actually, I have no idea--not any, not one--about what happens when we die.

Since I'm a priest, I'm around death a lot and I'm not much help. People seem to assume I know what this whole 'hereafter' thing is all about. Imagine their surprise!

(A joke from years ago: A boy says to his date, "do you believe in the 'hereafter'?
Being a Christian girl she says, "of course I do." Then he says, "well, let's have sex." She is horrified. "Why would you ask that?" she says. He replies, "that's what I'm 'here after'.")

"Is Daddy in a better place?" I've been asked more than once by the death bed after giving last rites and watching the person slip away through that unmarked door.

First I smile sadly. Usually that is enough. The one left behind bursts into tears and I hold them. But some are tougher--"Well?" they say. And I say, "I have no idea."

Once someone said to me, "Why are you a priest if you don't have some belief about the after-life?"

I resisted my first impulse to say, "I'm not a priest for the 'after-life', I'm a priest for the living and the dying." Instead I said, meaning it with all my being, "I simply leave 'what happens next' to God."

That's what I do. Oh, I do believe there is something after death--so long as you are willing to acknowledge that the 'something' might be 'nothing'. I would think no less of God if when life ends, it simply ends. Dead as a doornail--whatever a door-nail is.

As I grow older--I'm over 60 now (I never imagined being this old!)--I do ponder death more than when I was 22 or 37 or even 53. Even if I live to be 80 some, that's only 20 or so more Springs, more Christmases, more baseball seasons. My granddaughters will be in their 20's--except for Ellie--when I shuffle off this mortal coil, if I'm lucky enough to be 80-something, and my children will be 50 or so, but there will be, as the song says, "a lotta things happening" after I'm dead and gone.

One thing I know, I hope there is an option to the streets of gold and angel wings for me. In fact, since I know (because I'm theologically educated) that noone ever suggested the dead become angels--angels are a whole other species of beings--I'm just worried about those streets of gold. Doesn't sound like good urban planning to me.

I wrote a poem about finitude a few years ago. I thought I'd share it here.

The Difficulty with Finitude

I try, from time to time,
usually late at night or after one too many glasses of wine,
to consider my mortality.

(I've been led to believe
that such consideration is valuable
in a spiritual way.
God knows where I got that....
Well, of course God knows,
I'm just not sure.)

But try as I might, I'm not adroit at such thoughts.
It seems to me that I have always been alive.
I don't remember not being alive.
I have no personal recollections
of when most of North America was covered with ice
or of the Bronze Age
or the French Revolution
or the Black Sox scandal.
But I do know about all that through things I've read
and musicals I've seen
and the History Channel.

I know intellectually that I've not always been alive,
but I don't know it, as they say, 'in my gut'.
(What a strange phrase that is
since I am sure my 'gut'
is a totally dark part of my body
awash with digestive fluids
and whatever remains of the chicken and peas
I had for dinner and strange compounds
moving inexorably--I hope--through my large
and small intestines.)

My problem is I have no emotional connection to finitude.
All I know and feel is tangled up with being alive.
Dwelling on the certainty of my own death
is beyond my ken, outside my imagination,
much like trying to imagine
the vast expanse of space
when I live in Connecticut.

So, whenever someone suggests that
I consider my mortality,
I screw up my face and breathe deeply
pretending I am imagining the world
without me alive in it.

What I'm actually doing is remembering
things I seldom remember--
my father's smell, an old lover's face,
the feel of sand beneath my feet,
the taste of watermelon,
the sound of thunder rolling toward me
from miles away.

Perhaps when I come to die
(perish the thought!)
there will be a moment, an instant,
some flash of knowledge
or a stunning realization:
"Ah", I will say to myself,
just before oblivian sets in,
"this is finitude...."

sweet smells of spring

It's raining outside--the first real 'spring' rain--slow and tender and sweet and bringing out the smells of humus and vegetation and trees and the very air.

I've been noticing how anxious everyone is. It may be the economy and our inability to get away from it--don't turn on a TV or radio or go's 'all economy all the time'. And it makes us anxious.

I told someone today, "everyone who is 'edgy' already is over the edge; everyone who was leaning toward 'edgy' has arrived there and those who weren't 'edgy' at all are getting there."

Harriet said to me, after three passing weird calls and a couple of way beyond weird drop-ins, "it's not even a full moon but it feels like it."

If you have no opinion about the full moon affecting human behavior come hang out at St. John's--probably any urban church--for the days before and the days after. I don't follow such things, but I know--really KNOW--when it is a full moon. Things get dicey quick. Folks who are a little crazy get full blown, honkin' crazy. The really crazy get disturbing. Folks like you and me (unless you fit into one of those two categories, which you might...) get anxious, edgy and lose what little inhibitions we have.

Lately, though, is a different deal. Anxiety is running riot through the population and making even the sane a bit nuts. Scott, the Senior Warden, and I talked about it this morning and decided that it is so: something in the ether is freaking people out. In all my years of parish ministry I have never had so many experiences of people on the edge as in the last six months.

I'll tell you what I told both Scott and Harriet--our job is to be what psychologists call "a non-anxious presence" in the midst of this time of anxiety, stress and edgy-ness. I told a committee just a few days ago that they have to resist getting sucked into the craziness of one of our members. Craziness is seductive and energy eating. I think of those creatures in the Harry Potter books that suck life-force out of people. I'm not real adroit at recognizing craziness up front, but when I talk to a crazy person (which I do a lot, by the way) I find myself drifting off to sleep. All my energy gets sucked out and away and I am seduced into the un-conscious level of being.

Maybe spring--in spite of the Stock Market and the Economy and Global Warming and pestilence, plague and war--will bring the smells of the re-birthing earth to us in such a way that anxiety will be overcome. But I doubt it.

We have to keep our heads when all around us are losing theirs. We have to be calm in a time of frantic thinking, we have be be present in a non-anxious way when many are so anxious they're a little crazy.

Go outside. Smell the rain and the smells it calls forth. Spring is coming.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Something is about to be birthed.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Charlie Manson

He's 74 and bald and has a beard not unlike mine but still more black in in than my whiteness.
I didn't know he was that old until I saw it on the Internet with his new photo, looking even older than 74, but still with the swastika tattooed between his eyes.
I was 22 when the murders happened and as shocked as I was--as we all were--by that violence (how tame it seems to what violence we've known since...) I probably wouldn't be so obsessed with him except for two things. Squeeky Frome, one of his girls, was in prison in Alderson, WV and all things West Virginian interest me. And there was this: the first parish I served was St. James in west Charleston--a black church in a redneck neighborhood because the diocese wanted to kill it off, so far as I could see--about a block from where Charlie grew up. I probably passed relatives or friends of his in the Kroger store or on the street. I was always aware that I was in Charlie's 'neighborhood' while I was the priest at St. James.
And now he is old and will die in prison. And I am getting older and will die somewhere, somehow. Charlie probably had people who loved him when he was a child--maybe not, since that would explain his madness--but I think he did. I don't think madness of the category of Charlie can be easily explained away. He grew up about 75 miles north of where I grew up and his disciples killed Sharon Tate and Abigale Folger and three others one night in California. I'm not sure why I remember those two names and not the names of the other three, who are as dead as Sharon and Abigale.
And I don't know why I was so surprised and moved to see his picture on the web. Or why we are still, in some way connected.
While I was at St. James, there was a gas station half-a-mile down the road that blew up when two men from the state were inspecting the tank. The explanation was that one of them was wearing shoes with heel tabs on them and a spark set off the gaseous residue around the tanks. Does anyone put those tabs on their shoes anymore? But the people in the neighborhood knew different--that gas station blew up because it was only a hundred feet from where Charlie grew up.
Evil endures for most of us and insinuates itself into everything around it.
I heard a radio show today about "excitable children". It was about kids that in my childhood we would have called 'bad'. I wonder if Charlie was like that or if he was just a normal, everyday kid who, in ways beyond believing, went bad?
Maybe if his mom had heard that radio show Charlie would be a CPA in Charleston and Sharon Tate would be an aging starlet and those two guys who got blown to Kingdom Come at the gas station would be grandfathers playing golf somewhere.
My theology runs dry when it is confronted with Charlie Manson or Stalin or Hitler or the rulers in Darfor or those folks who blew themselves up this week to kill innocent people. I don't know what to make of them--they don't fit the grid and defy my optimistic view of human nature.
Today one of the most helpless homeless who come through St. John's, a guy who is seldom, if ever, sober or straight and lives under a bridge or in a tent city behind the Home Depot was wearing a sweat shirt someone obviously gave him that said "Save Darfor".
Don't tell me there is no irony. Irony, by the way, is something I will write about at lengths beyond your willingness to read at some point.
Tonight I will sleep with two thoughts in my mind that I hope my dreams will inform: what is my 'animal familiar', because my friend Malinda told me she asked that from a dream and got a horse--a creature she does not like--AND I hope my dreams will tell me someway to deal with Charlie Manson and his ilk, who I cannot explain.
Sweet dreams.....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Church Time

I want to write about my concept of 'church time'. This concept and belief comes from over 30 years of being a parish priest. This is what I notice when I seek to explain 'church time' to people: most clergy acknowledge it as vaguely interesting but bogus. Most people just don't get it because in our culture 'time' is an absolute: an hour is like every other hour, a day just one more day, and months--except for February of course--are equal opportunity time measurements. However, some lay people--most of whom are very involved and committed to the parish--really get it and it gives them comfort as well as understanding.

Here's Church Time in introductory fashion: Most church going folks, even if they are very committed might spend two hours a week in church--one for a Eucharist and one for a coffee hour, an adult ed class, a committee meeting. So, at two hours a week, people spend 104 hours a year in church. That is the equivalant of 13 8-hour work days spread over a year. Imagine having an 8 hr a day job which you only went to one a month or so. I would content that you wouldn't accomplish much because the memory and learning curve would be so compromised and when you showed up for your day of work you would have missed almost a month of what your company was doing. No way to catch up or stay even.

Church Time is like that. I have trouble remembering what I did yesterday, but because I was back at church today, it began to come back and I could move on and make progress. A week has 148 hours (those reliable measures of time). If two or even three of them are spent 'thinking about or participating' in church, that's barely 2% of the weeks hours. Next to nothing. You might expect to spend that much time stuck in traffic in a week--and how much of the stuck in traffic time do you retain to build upon so you might progress and grow and expand????

However, 'church professionals', like me--I sometimes tell people who ask me what I do for a living is that I am paid to be religious--spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about church stuff--worship, music, education, outreach, program, evangelism...on and on. We have, at the least 50 hours a week to obsess on church stuff. Most clergy spend more time than that, let me tell you, because we clergy are so anxious to justify our very existence and being paid to be religious...which we--and most people--would think a silly thing to make a living doing. That's another post right there...But consider this: the 'professionals' spend at least 1/3 of every week thinking about church while even active members spend 2% or so. So, should we be surprised that most church folks don't seem to understand, appreciate, respond to 'church stuff' the way the clergy and staff do? If you spent 1/3 of your time obsessing on cacti and succulents and I spent, at best--who could imagine it--2% of my time in the same study, would you expect me to appreciate the subtleties and wonder of those plants?

"Church Time" requires those of us who get paid to do it to realize that those we work with, serve and minister to simply don't have the 'connection' to the issues we worry and fret and plan and scheme about. Their learning curve is very slow rising--it looks mostly like a straight line! And that is as it should be. So when they forget a meeting or say, "I meant to come to that class but just forgot" we should realize why. Lay folks are wonderful and profound and loving and truly committed to the parish. They simply have other lives, as they should, and don't live, breath, sweat and digest church stuff.

I'll leave it at that until later. But 'church time' helps explain why clergy misinterpret lay folks so profoundly and don't recognize the beauty and grace of their contributions. It also explains why clergy are almost continually frustrated because the enormous amount of time they spend wishing, hoping and dreaming about all the church could do is totally lost on lay folks because they really don't spend much time at all worrying about that stuff.

More later about church time, okay?

Monday, March 16, 2009

why I'm an Episcopalian

(This is actually a piece out of my sermon on Lent III, with some expansion of the piece--and it is really "why" I am an Episcopalian.)

Michael Ramsey was the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury. He served from 1961-1974. (To get some perspective on that #, St. John's has been around since 1732 and I am only the 17th Rector! "Being old" by US standards is like 'being rich' by Albanian standards. However, none of the Rectors of St. John's was ever murdered or beheaded or burned at the stake....That was, over the centuries, an occupational hazard of being ABofC.)

Ramsey contended--and I agree--that the Anglican Communion (at least what fiction that passed for in his day) drew its theology primarily from the Doctrine of Creation and the Doctrine of Incarnation.

The Doctrine of Creation teaches that God created everything out of nothing and "it was good". In fact, Genesis says that God created humankind in God's "image and likeness". The Doctrine of Incarnation teaches that the very same Creator God took on flesh, was 'incarnate' as a human being to live and die as one of us. Unlike almost any other Faith, Christianity teaches of a God that got down and dirty with us. We are not the sport of the gods and God is not infinitely removed from us. God was one of us. And if the Holy took on flesh, flesh must somehow be holy.

Starting a theology from those two doctrines leads to a very high view of human nature--just a little below the angels, as the Psalms say. So human beings, in Anglican theology, are basically and inherently 'good'. Given world enough and time, people TRY to do the right thing. The church exists to inspire and console and comfort and counsel with men and women, not to 'control' them.

Roman Catholics and Baptists begin their theology with the Doctrine of the Atonement. The Atonement teaches that human beings are so basically and inherently bad and evil and sinful that if left to their own devices they will get into dangerous mischief. Consequently, the church exists to control and regulate those odious little vermin and keep them out of trouble.

All of us adhere to those three doctrines, but we Episcopalians emphasize Creation and Incarnation (that's why we're so good at doing Christmas!) over Atonement and RC's and Baptists emphasize Atonement. They both have many rules (different rules, granted--no RC would prohibit dancing and Baptists, as far as I can tell, don't fret too much about birth control) while the Episcopal has so few rules.

Most Christians see the world in black and white while Episcopalians look at a world of a multitude of shades of gray. That creates a remarkably different 'world view' and a completely altered relationship with the church. A friend of mine calls the Episcopal Church "the grownup Church", meaning that we treat people--even kids--like adults who have a brain in their head and a conscience in their heart and a spark of divinity in their soul. We believe people want to do the right thing by their very nature and need not be herded into salvation by sheep dogs of rules. We don't tell that to people enough--probably because we are also--because of our English roots--polite, reserved and self-effacing.

But the secret shouldn't be hidden beneath some bushel basket of enforced humility. I actually believe people might be attracted to a church that doesn't ask them to leave their brain in the narthex and be told what to do with their lives lest they go to hell. The mega-church phenomena, as far as I can tell, doesn't ask people to leave their minds outside but lulls their minds to sleep with entertainment and false security.

I really believe the Episcopal church comes as near as any Christian denomination to 'telling the Truth' about who we are and whose we are. We are 'dust and ashes'--that's True...but we are also shining, loved, gifted children of God--loved just the way we are and given by God the resources to be the best we can be at being who we are.

(I must admit that on sunny June Sundays I'd like to have that RC rule about not coming to church puts your soul in peril! But Episcopalians would suggest 'coming to church' and being part of a worshipping, giving community is a good way of being 'all we can be'...but not the only way....We never claim to be "The Way". Maybe that's why our evangelism sucks--we don't have fear or guilt to drag people in....But I wouldn't have it any other way....)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

falling on your face

I have a dear, dear friend who tells me she doesn't trust anyone who hasn't had 'their face on the pavement'. I know what that means and suspect you do too. If you haven't been to that place that makes you sing (like the 60's song) "I've been down so G** D*** long, it looks like Up to me, then you probably have issues with the usual inconsistancies and problems of life as it is.

Then there is the conceit in the Old Testament that whenever an Angel or "the Holy" shows up, people "fall on their faces". That doesn't mean taking an attitude of worship, by the way. The Hebrew word is more like "get knocked down". Being in the presence of the Holy simply sweeps your feet from beneath you and you sprawl out on the ground.

Last night, walking my dog, we went down a little paved area that leads to the Congregational Church parking lot. It was stone cold dark, but I walk that road a lot so I wasn't worried. Besides, when they replaved the area last fall, they took out the speed bumps that used to trip me from time to time. On the way back through darkness as dark as the black almost to blue color of my my Puli dog, I discovered much to my surprise, that there was an unremoved piece of speed bump and I tripped over it in my sandals (the weather up to 20 F at night now), let go of the leash, dogged the dog and fell on my face. I hurt each wrist a little breaking my fall, but my forehead and nose hit a rock that the folks who live beside this access road have put up to keep people from driving on their yard. I didn't break my glasses, but I busted my nose and smashed my forehead into the moss covered rock. (I know it's moss covered since I visited it this morning looking for 'trace evidence' of my fall!)

It would be a much more interesting story if I had been visited by an angel or gotten beaten up in a bar fight ("you should have seen the other guy!")

As it was, I just fell on my face and since face and head wounds bleed like crazy, I was like a character out of Friday the Thirteenth, which, oddly enough, it was....I was all ready to warn Bern that it looked worse than it was when she saw me and then took tender, wondrous care of me.

There are three times in the 14 stations of the cross when Jesus falls. My fall was nothing so dramatic or important as that. But I fell and was bleeding like a stuck pig (I've never understood that figure of speech) when I got home. Bern nursed me and cared for me and we still go to watch the West Virginia University/Syracuse University semi-final in the Big East tourneyment.

Several people asked me today, "which emergency room did you go to?" and I responded, "there was a WVU basketball game on TV--you have to have some priorities...."

I will be fine--a little more humility (I need all that I can get) and another (as if I needed one) insight into my mortality. My wrists ache as I type this, but if they hadn't broken my fall a bit, I might not be typing this at all.

Human heads and big honking moss covered rocks about 90 pounds do not meet without violence.

Bela, my dog, sat and waited for me to find my sandals, somehow get up, find his leash and lead him home. I wonder what he was thinking--but wondering what animals are thinking will send you over the edge....

Face on a rock is surely in the same category as 'face on the pavement'. Humility and pain aren't a bad couple for Friday 13th or for Lent, when you think of it.

I just wish there was a better story to tell about my wounded and swollen visage.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My three rules of priesthood

One of the joys of my life as a priest has been to work with seminarians from Yale/Berkeley Divinity School over the years. I try, from time to time to make a list of them, but I always blank on a name or two--even if I remember the face--but I know that Fred and Kerith, the two seminarians working here with me now push me way past 25, probably to 30 in the number of seminarians I've supervised (though what I call 'supervision' is more like 'fishing for crabs'...something for another post.

We share a lot and I always learn more from them than they do from me, yet there are three rules of priesthood...I should type that as THREE RULES OF PRIESTHOOD...I seek to pass along in one way or another. They are the three rules I've come up with in 30+ years of doing this and I stand by them.

I. RULE ONE--There is nothing to 'fix'
A lot of people go into ministry because they want to 'fix' things. That's probably one of the reasons I became ordained though it is so long ago I have forgotten it or come to understand how vain and silly it is. THERE IS NOTHING TO FIX. The people I have found most difficulty in supervising are people who come to ministry out of either a social work or psychological background. Every fiber of their being tells them they must 'fix' this or that and that in 'fixing it' they will be justified in what they're doing. Let me say it again: THERE IS NOTHING TO FIX. Don't waste your time and God's trying to fix God's people or God's church. God's people are who they are and if they have a problem that requires 'fixing' there are professionals to do that. Mostly, they're doing just fine, thank you, and leave them alone. Don't invent problems for you to 'fix'. They don't want 'fixing' and the 'problems' will be your invention. Leave them alone. God is watching out for them--your job, as a priest, is to be their leader, their magic person, their friend, if you are priviledged enough to be invited that far into their lives.

Scarcely a day goes by when someone doesn't say to me something like: X is so mad about thus and hurt Y's feeling when you....Z needs some help. This is a sub-text of Rule One. It's not just priests who think 'something needs fixed'. Everyone lives out of a context that 'fixing' things is needed. So they will advise you about what needs fixed and who is involved. Don't ignor the message, ponder it in your heart, but whatever you do, don't 'act' on it. You will be a part of a massacre if you do! Let it be. Only deal with problems that are the problems of the person talking with you. Otherwise all you will do is act on second-hand information and be punished for it. Just try it a couple of times and see. X is upset about the sermon but when you ask them 'why are you upset about my sermon?' they'll say, "what, me...? I liked your sermon? Why would you think that?" Try to preach sermons so offensive that those who dislike them will come to you themselves. Don't ever, ever, not ever act on second hand information....

Don't preach third grade sermons--preach graduate level sermons and expect that you are still not being challenging enough. Lay folks have a great deal more sense than any clergy person imagines or can imagine. They are not sheep who need you to shepherd them--they are shining children of God who need you to treat them as if they were. Never imagine your education puts you 'ahead' of them in any way. These are people who not only come to church without being paid to (as clergy are!) they are people who pay for the priviledge of coming to hear your nonsense. They aren't children and you aren't grown up. Treat them as peers and you'll be surpised to discover that they are you peers--and ahead of you in lots of ways. I hate it when a clergy person refers to the congregation s/he serves as "my people". They aren't "your people", Bozo, they are God's people and you are their hired hand. Don't dare 'lord it over them' in any way. It is the 'self fulfilling prophecy' acted out in parish life. They will be (those people who 'aren't' yours) exactly who you expect them to be. Expect them to be smarter than you. Never mind that it is true...really will give you some work to do to keep up with them....

Pee-Pee Mama

Unless you've hung around an urban church for a while--not a day or so, but weeks at a time--you have no idea what passes through and what wondrous folks you might just meet.

One day, five or six years ago, I encountered an elderly Hispanic man in the hall way. I often don't know if the person I'm speaking with is on drugs...but I usually recognize alcohol. My elderly friend had been drinking enough for three people and it was early in the day. He spoke no English and I had almost no Spanish, so he swayed and looked concerned and I, caught up in his movement, swayed back and forth with him in confusion.

Finally he said, "Pee pee". And that I understood. The use of bathrooms is a universal language. So I helped him through the library of the church to the three bathrooms off the nursery. I turned on the light and led him in. He knew what to do from there, so I left him to complete his business. But five minutes later, obviously too confused and drunk to find his way back to the front door, he started yelling, "Mama! Mama! Mama!"

Another universal language--the call for mother. So I rushed and helped him into the hallway where there are two doors to the outside. He sat down and fell asleep and when I wasn't looking, left. I've never seen him again.

But in telling the story, the staff of the parish came up with a new exclamation. When something was confusing, confounding, troubling, outrageous (lots of that) or simply inexplicable, for months people would say, "Pee-Pee, Mama!"

Who among us hasn't reached that point from time to time? Bodily urges and being lost are things we can all understand. To this day, when I don't know where to turn or what to do or who will help me, I resort to the universal signal of distress....PEE-PEE, MAMA....

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Talkin' with Bill

Out in the Close again, watching the weather change, talking with Bill.

Bill is one of the people we employ as security people at the church. He comes in and closes up when everyone has left the building. He loves being here when the choristers are here. He is a wonderful, quirky man who enjoys being around young people.

But what we were talking about, out in the close, was how many crazy folks there are in the world (Bill and I not withstanding). From time to time I'm going to blog about how it is to be in a place where craziness is normal in many ways. Stay in tune....

Out in the close

St. John's has a Close--I'm sure the name was once "Enclosure", as in a monastic space...a place where the monks or nuns were free to go without worrying about the intrustion of the world. It got shortened, along the way, over centuries, to "Close". And St. John's 'Close'--most people call it the courtyard or just the 'yard'--is nothing like that. All sorts and conditions of folks cross it, sleep in it, sit in it, use the bathroom there. And we have about a hundred ashes of people buried there--anonomously, without drawing attention to them because the 300 or so folks coming to the Soup Kitchen walk, sit, sleep, etc. there each day. It is a 'resting place' surrounded by the endless restlessness of human beings. Not so bad, I think. But what I watch is the squirrels and the birds.

Pigeons walk around there, nodding and bowing as they coo. Squirrels live in the Elm trees--some of the last in the state...we have two, having cut down and murdered one last summer because she was so diseased. And the crows--my God, the crows!--who have decided this is their stomping grounds and cawing grounds and bothering the pigeons, starlings and squirrels place.

There is a hawk who lives in downtown. I've never gotten close enough to him to look him up in some book and tell you what kind of hawk he is. And there is this: when he comes into the Close, high up in one of the trees, all the other creatures run or fly for cover. When the hawk comes, all other life disappears. Some power he's got, some enormous respectability. Even I feel a little nervous when he shows up.

What I've noticed in the last few weeks, smoking cigarettes with folks from the Soup Kitchen--they mostly 'roll their own', which impresses me--is the squirrel that is building a nest in one of the downspouts on the parish house. He/she--probably she--fills her mouth with more dead leaves than you could believe, climbs the elm closest to the church and leaps across to the parish house roof. Then she adds her leaves to whatever else she has up there in the downspout.

Either the nest will be washed away by the spring rains or it will stop up the spout until someone has to crawl out on the roof and dig it out of the spout. Either way--and there is no third option I can imagine, she is spending a lot of squirrel hours doing something that isn't going to work in the end.

She makes me think about how I spend my time. How much of it is climbing and leaping and building in ways that will never ultimately work?

I feel for her--but there is no solution to the force of rainwater or the maintenance of people who don't want drains clogged. But she works, so hard, so tirelessly, so gracefully....And in vain.

She makes me ponder the stuff I do....

Monday, March 9, 2009

seperation of church and state--sometimes

"Episcopal bishop forbids priests to obey speed limit when it is
35--must obey 65 mph limits"
"Episcopal bishop warns priests not to pay Ct income tax--federal
tax can be paid...."

Either of those headlines would be cause for great consternation and angry communications to the Bishop. However, I live under a prohibition not dissimilar to those. I can sign legal marriage licences for heterosexual couples, but not for same-sex couples: both are legal here in CT.

I recieved a call the other day that broke my heart and caused me to ponder, ever more profoundly, the way the church operates. I'm real clear that there is a constitutional separation of church and state. I not only accept that separation, I applaud it. I would no more try to tell members of the parish I serve who to vote for--though they know who I'm voting for--than I would advise them on which brand of coffee to drink or toilet tissue to use. I have my political views and do not try to disguise them, but I keep them out of the pulpit and out of my communication with the parish.

So a woman called asking about marriage at St. John's. Lots of people who aren't members of the parish call and ask that question. About half of them follow through and have their ceremony at the parish I serve. It is, for me, a form of evangelism. The church is beautiful--a wonderful space for a marriage--and if that's why they call, it is not a bad reason to me. I do make requests of non-members being married: they must come to premarital counseling or a class for couples and they must attend church with us as they prepare for marriage. About 1/3 of those who follow through stick around. Another 1/3 come back when they have children. The final 1/3 are never heard from again. Two out of three would win the batting championship every year. I like the odds. It works for me and, I believe, it works for the church.

But this woman wanted to know if we allowed same-sex marriages. She called, not because it is a beautiful church, but because she had learned from friends and from the media that St. John's was open and inclusive of GLBT folks. I'm glad that reputation is out there, but I had to explain to her that her marriage was like driving within the speed limit when it was 35 mph and my bishop wouldn't allow me to do that. Heterosexual couples are a 65 mph speed limit and I must obey that law. She was heartbroken and angry and so am I.

Now, ask my bishop and he'll give you a whole handful of reasons about why I can't drive under 35 but must drive under 65. They aren't bad reasons, by the way--they just make no sense to the woman who called or to me.

The separation of church and state doesn't mean the church can decide not to obey the laws and follow the constitutional guidelines of the state. The church exists within a framework of the state. I need not agree with the laws of the state, but merely being part of the church gives me no right to violate those laws. I pay my taxes and don't rob people or assault people--though my treatment of that woman who only wanted her marriage to be within the context of the Episcopal liturgy was "assaulted" in a meaningful way. Yet I am forbidden to do what is legally possible for me--to officiate at marriage in CT and sign marriage licences--if they two people being married are of the same sex.

Get this: I can "bless" the civil marriages of gay and lesbian couples! That I am permitted to do. But if a couple wants "benefit of clergy" at their marriage and are two men or two women, I can't say the vows with them or sign their perfectly legal license. I am forbidden by my bishop to "obey the law" of CT which gives me permission to officiate at all marriages.

I could do it once, I believe, and it would be legal. Then my bishop could formally 'inhibit' me--isn't that a wondrously old fashioned term?--and I couldn't do it again without suffering greater punishment. Well, the 'punishment' of denying couples longing for the church be where they come for their marriages is harsh enough.

Some priests I know have decided to refuse to marry anyone until we are allowed to marry everyone. I've really considered that option--but the truth is this: I can't oppress another 'innocent' group because I have to oppress one 'innocent' group. I know all the arguments for doing that as well as I know the bishop's arguments for my not paying state taxes but paying federal ones. And I simply can't make the church even more inhospitable than it already is. But I always tell the different sexed couples how conflicted I am and ask them to pray for their brothers and sisters who want only what they want but can't have it.

In June I'll be blessing the marriage of a gay couple--one of whom is a priest--and I offered them the option of my using my one 'wild card' to read them their vows and see what befell me. They didn't want to put me in that quandry. Amazingly, there are still gay and lesbian folks who are much more compassionate toward the church than the church has ever been toward them! God bless them for that. Yet that does not take away my guilt and shame for ignoring the law of the state to conform to the repression of the church.

I'm still pondering it all. It almost causes me to ask the question that I mostly find vain and frivilous and silly: "What would Jesus do?" And I do wonder why the church makes dogmatic distinctions that hurt and wound and drive away people who come to us in hope and expectation. Go figure....

Sunday, March 8, 2009

My first post

Sitting under the Castor Oil Tree (March 7, 2009)

The character in the Bible I have always been drawn to in Jonah. I identify with his story. Like Jonah, I have experienced being taken where I didn't want to go by God and I've been disgruntled with the way things went. The belly of a big old fish isn't a pleasant means of travel either!

The story ends (in case you don't know it) with Jonah upset and complaining on a hillside over the city of Nineva, which God has saved through Jonah. Jonah didn't want to go there to start with--hence the ride in the fish stomach--and predicted that God would save the city though it should have been destroyed for its wickedness. "You dragged me half way around the world," he tells God, "and didn't destroy the city....I knew it would turn out this way. I'm angry, so angry I could die!"

God causes a tree to grow to shade Jonah from the sun (scholars think it might have been a castor oil tree--the impications are astonishing!). Then God sends a worm to kill the tree. Well, that sets Jonah off! "How dare you kill my tree?" he challanges the creator. "I'm so angry I could die...."

God simply reminds him that he is upset at the death of a tree he didn't plant or nurture and yet he doesn't see the value of saving all the people of the great city Ninivah...along with their cattle and beasts.

And the story ends. No resolution. Jonah simply left to ponder all that. There's no sequel either--no "Jonah II" or "Jonah: the next chapter", nothing like that. It's just Jonah, sitting under the bare branches of the dead tree, pondering.

What I want to do is use this blog to do simply that, ponder about things. I've been an Episcopal priest for over 30 years. I'm approaching a time to retire and I've got a lot of pondering left to do--about God, about the church, about religion, about life and death and everything involved in that. Before the big fish swallowed me up and carried me to my own Nineva (ordination in the Episcopal Church) I had intended a vastly different life. I was going to write "The Great American Novel" for starters and get a Ph.D. in American Literature and disappear into some small liberal arts college, most likely in the Mid-Atlantic states and teach people like me--rural people, Appalachians and southerners, simple people, deep thinkers though slow talkers...lovely for all that--to love words and write words themselves.

God (I suppose, though I even ponder that...) had other ideas and I ended up spending the lion's share of my priesthood in the wilds of two cities in Connecticut (of all places) among tribes so foreign to me I scarcly understood their language and whose customs confounded me. And I found myself often among people (The Episcopal Cult) who made me axious by their very being. Which is why I stuck to urban churches, I suppose--being a priest in Greenwich would have sent me into some form of I would have driven them to hypertension at the least.

I am one who 'ponders' quite a bit and hoped this might be a way to 'ponder in print' for anyone else who might be leaning in that direction to read.

Ever so often, someone calls my bluff when I go into my "I'm just a boy from the mountains of West Virginia" persona. And I know they're right. I've lived too long among the heathens of New England to be able to avoid absorbing some of their alien customs and ways of thinking. Plus, I've been involved in too much education to pretend to be a rube from the hills. But I do, from time to time, miss that boy who grew up in a part of the world as foreign as Albania to most people, where the lush and endless mountains pressed down so majestically that there were few places, where I lived, that were flat in an area wider than a football field. That boy knew secrets I am only beginning, having entered my sixth decade of the journey toward the Lover of Souls, to remember and cherish.

My maternal grandmother, who had as much influence on me as anyone I know, used to say--"Jimmy, don't get above your raisin'". I probably have done that, in more ways that I'm able to recognize, but I ponder that part of me--buried deeply below layer after layer of living (as the mountains were layer after layer of long-ago life).

Sometimes I get a fleeting glimpse of him, running madly into the woods that surrounded him on all sides, spending hours seeking paths through the deep tangles of forest, climbing upward, ever upward until he found a place to sit and look down on the little town where he lived--spread out like a toy village to him--so he could ponder, alone and undisturbed, for a while.

When I was in high school, I wrote a regular colemn for the school newspaper call "The Outsider". As I ponder my life, I realize that has been a constant: I've always felt just beyond the fringe wherever I was. I've watched much more than I've participated. And I've pondered many things.

So, what I've decided to do is sit here on the hillside for a while, beneath the ruins of the castor oil tree and ponder somemore. And, if you wish, share my ponderings with you--whoever you are out there in cyber-Land.

Two caveates: I'm pretty much a Luddite when it comes to technology--probably smart enough to learn about it but never very interested, so this blog is an adventure for me. My friend Sandy is helping me so it shouldn't be too much of a mess. Secondly, I've realized writing this that there is no 'spell check' on the blog. Either I can get a dictionary or ask your forgiveness for my spelling. I'm a magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa ENGLISH major (WVU '69) who never could conquer spelling all the words I longed to write.

I supose I'll just ask your tolerance.

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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.