Monday, November 23, 2015


I don't know about you, but I have been horrified at the rhetoric in this country since the Paris massacre. Closing our boarders, boots on the ground, military actions beyond the already daily bombings, distrust of Muslim-Americans, closing mosques, special lists for Muslim-Americans to keep check on them...on and on it goes, driven by fear, shaking the foundations of our country.

Western military involvement in the Middle East arguably created Isis. More Westerners on the ground would just give Isis more power to recruit new members. And all the suggestions in the first paragraph mean Isis has already won but turning us into a nation of fear and terror. They've already won if we stop being Americans of all shades and start being Islamiphobes.

Yes, there needs to be a military victory against Isis. But it must come from military in the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran have significant and modern armies and air forces. And something I haven't heard anyone suggest: the 4th most powerful military in the world (after the US, China and Russia) is Israel. What an opportunity to engage Muslim and Jewish military power to defeat a common enemy--all are threatened by Isis. What a remarkable way to finally bring Peace to the Middle East!

What's that old saying? "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

American military presence in the region created the fertile ground from which Isis grew. Our presence there again would only strengthen the radicals.

What about that: Iran, the Saudis and Israel driving Isis into oblivion?

Times like ours have complicated problems that require equally complicated solutions.

Why not?

Now it begins...

This morning I went out and bought a new computer--a HP loaded with windows 10 and a touch screen (which I only vaguely comprehend). Now it begins days and weeks of feeling stupid and not knowing how to do things. But the computer is really pretty! It will look nice on my desk not being used....

I really, really am the diametric opposite of a nerd. I still have a flip phone for goodness sake!

So, the computer is downstairs, still in the box and I'm up here with my old, old friend for probably the last night.

My computer is in pieces. I can't watch any videos (they just won't load) and when I come to my blog it takes at least a minute to load. Emails as well. Lots of waiting with a little blue circle not turning and unable to scroll down very well to read news articles.

This computer has taught me many lessons in patience--not a bad thing. But it is really time to move on.

Our kids will be here for Thanksgiving so they can help me get things going.

Hope to post tomorrow on the new computer--but who knows....

Sunday, November 22, 2015


I haven't written about the attacks in Paris over a week ago now. I simply needed time to get my head around it a bit and to ponder my thoughts on it.

Nathan Ives preached today on the Feast of Christ the King about 'power'. What is really power and what is false power. Or, as we in the Mastery Foundation would put it--there is a distinction between 'power' and 'force'. Force is something you 'do' as the terrorists did in Paris. Power is something you have, something you be in the world. Nathan did a good job.

"Knee jerk reaction" is a term the President and many others have used about the reaction of 30 governors and most of the Republican Presidential Candidates have had to the Paris tragedy as they call for a 'pause' (interesting word) in the assimilation of Syrian refugees into the United States.

When I go for my annual physical, Dr. Olsen takes a tiny metal hammer and hits me on the knee and my leg jerks. 'Force' makes knee's jerk. A hammer causes a reaction. Hence, "knee-jerk-reaction". That's what 'force' causes--a sudden, automatic response to the application of 'force'.

And that's just what all those people who now oppose Syrian immigrants have done--had a sudden, automatic response to 'force'.

Power is different. Power isn't something you do: it is something you possess, something you 'be' in the world. Here's what has power: love, compassion, reasonableness, welcome and discretion.

Paris 'happened'. Force overcame rationality and safety and freedom. People were killed for no reason except to kill people. Some of the attackers blew themselves up just to kill people--and their selves, by the way. There is no way to reason with people willing to kill themselves simply to kill others. Innocent people had their blood mingled with the blood of a suicide bomber.

That amount of 'force' against the knee of our mind causes a huge jerk. I get that. But mindless murder is an 'act', not a way of 'being'.

Paris, and what happened there, has nothing to do with the other victims of terror--those fleeing Syria and other places because of war, murder, force and brutality.

What we as individuals and as a nation need to seek is the power of love, compassion, reasonableness, welcome and discretion.

What some (maybe a majority of Americans) are saying about those seeking liberty and hope by coming to Western Europe and North America (risking their lives to do so), should make the Statue of Liberty lay down her light and sink into New York harbor.

What we need to find is our Power--our compassion and love and welcome and reasonableness--instead of being overwhelmed by our fear of 'force'. Force, in the end, can and will take life--but only Power can 'give' life and give it in abundance.

Be powerful, not forceful. It makes all the difference. It transforms us from death dealers to life givers.

And that's what we're called to, even in the face of the force of hatred and violence, to 'give life'

That's authentic 'power'.

Seek it. Be it. Live it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

What is True? If anything?

I finished my latest class at OLLI at UConn in Waterbury on Friday. I did 10 90 minute sessions on the Gnostic Christian writings. The people in the class were amazing--on the edge of their seats, deeply engaged, full of questions. It was a great experience. For the connection question on Friday (I always have a connection question to get us in the room together--Connection before Content is one of the bywords of The Mastery Foundation, which I'm a part of) I asked "If I did this class again, what would you're advice to me be?"

And they were wondrous, giving me sound, specific advice that would make the class much better. How great is that?

Dealing with the so-called Gnostic Christians (they were really just 'Christians' that got left out of the Church in the 4th century and suppressed so well we didn't know what they believed until the 1940's when a treasure of their literature was found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt) brings up all sorts of questions about 'belief' and what that means.

I posted this next thing over two years ago. It's part of the writing I've done over the last 5 years about my career as a parish priest. It's time to post it again. It still rings true to me about the whole question of 'belief'.

The truth (as best I know it…)

The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly. --Wallace Stevens

Now we come, at long last, to the part that could get me defrocked, even a humble retired priest like myself. I actually don't “believe” much of anything besides what Wallace Stevens, of all people, wrote. The whole Christian enterprise, as it were, is a 'fiction' to me, albeit a 'fiction' I believe in willingly, passionately and profoundly.
A joke would be in order. This is the best theological joke I ever heard besides the one about the Pope and the Jewish tailor back in the distant past which I will tell you presently. This joke is about Pope John XXIII--”the last good Pope”, I call him, (Until Francis) and the seminal Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Paul Tillich.
One day a Cardinal answers the phone in the Pope's residence. John XXIII is writing a letter but overhears the troubled, almost hysterical one side of the call.
No, that can't be true! ...It is impossible!...I can't believe it!...Of course I will tell his Holiness immediately....”
The Pope looks up and asks the Cardinal, who is ashen and shaking,”bad news I suppose....”
Your Holiness,” the Cardinal begins, “that was our archaeologist in the Holy Land. He called to tell me they have discovered Jesus' body.”
The Pope finishes his letter and gathers his thoughts.
There can be no mistake, I take it?” he asked.
No, you Holiness, it is the body of our Lord.”
John XXIII takes a deep breath. Then he speaks, “We must make this information public. We cannot cover up the most disturbing discovery of this or any other time. But before I make an announcement, I must call Paul Tillich....”
{Tillich, just by way of information, was the theologian who referred to God as “the Ground of Being”. A rather ontological and obscure way of referring to the Deity. Tillich's wittier students used to joke that Jesus must be 'a Chip off the ol' Block of Being.'}
The phone rings in Chicago. Paul Tillich is understandably surprised to be called by the Pope, but they greet each other with respect and the Pope says, “Dr. Tillich, I needed to tell you, the most respected Protestant theologian, that our archaeologists in the Holy Land have found our Savior's body. There is no mistake and I will announce it to the faithful of the world. I just wanted you to know beforehand.”
There is an inordinate pause. The Pope thinks the connection has been lost.
Professor Tillich...?” he says.
Tillich finally responds, “My God, he really lived....”
I do some teaching about Mary Magdalene, because after The Da Vinci Code was published people had interest in the whole history and I did some serious research into the era and the legends of Mary Magdalene. I tell that joke before introducing the Gospel of Mary of Magdala because anyone in the room who has only a church-taught concept of the early church risks being shocked and having their 'belief' knocked off its moorings by what we are going to discuss.
I tell the people, “if you are not shocked and offended by that joke, we can continue....But if it seems too irreverent, you still have time to leave.”
The Gospel of Mary of Magdala and all the other gospels that didn't make the cut by the boys at Nicaea, throw a monkey wrench into the narrow and dogmatic way the 'church' teaches us about the earliest church. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John aren't the only stories around and certainly aren't 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth' by a long shot. This whole Christianity thing is a little suspect given the alternative options to what is doctrine and dogma for the modern church we have made 'orthodox'. Had the 'heresies'--Gnostic and otherwise—prevailed instead of the Nicene model of Christianity, how different the church would have been! I think it is problematic for a lot of Christians to reflect on and ponder that possibility.
My basic problem with all this is that I'm not sure what people mean when they say 'do you believe' this or that. As I understand it, the Greek word translated “believe”--pistevo, from the noun pistis—means something like 'to trust in', 'to rely on', 'to cling to'--or as I once heard it described: 'to live as if'.
That doesn't seem to be in the same hemisphere as what most Christians mean when they ask: “do you BELIEVE Jesus is your Lord and Savior?” (Well, of course, a lot of Christians never say anything like that—but whatever 'believe' means in that context is had more to do with 'knowing it is True' than trusting in, relying on, clinging to and 'living as if' it were true.) And most of what gets paraded out as “Christian Belief” asks us to, in a real sense, 'intellectually assent' to the Virgin Birth, for example. That 'assent', it seems to me, means thinking that if only there had been a camcorder around, we be able to actually see the Red Sea parting, Lazarus coming forth and Jesus walking on the waters.
Trusting, relying and clinging don't come from the intellect. The realities 'trust' refers to can't be proven or seen. 'Relying on' and 'clinging to” are, ironically enough, given this discussion, the 'art' to belief's 'science'. Take the Creationist debate (as Heni Youngman would say...”Please...”). There is a lot more artfulness in a God who works through the Laws of Nature than one who worked six days and was finished. The people who object most strenuously to the Theory of Evolution want to replace evolution, which is and always has always been 'theoretical', with something writ in stone, hard, factual...well, what I'd call 'scientific'. When someone says they believe in the story of Creation 'in the Bible', I always ask, “which one?” A lot of people who 'believe in' Creationism, don't seem to realize the story in Genesis 1 is a lot different from the story in Genesis 2. I can't get my mind around why it matters so much 'which is True'--Evolution or Creationism. What gets thrown around as capital T Truth causes a lot of mischief. Like Aryans being being a superior race—that, many people saw as True, true enough to try to exterminate whole ethnic groups.
Truth will get you in a world of hurting. Fiction, on the other hand, isn't anything to either kill or die for.
There's a story about the Pope and the Jewish tailor that comes in handy here. It's a story usually told with signs and hand movements, but I'll try my best to describe those in words.
A new Pope had been elected to replace the dead one, and the Cardinals who were the Pope's advisers, told him, “Your Holiness, your first act as Pontiff must be to expel the Jews from Rome.”
The new Pope was startled by the suggestion. “Why should I do that?” he asked.
Because,” he was told, “a new Pope always expels the Jews from Rome.”
But he was not convinced. “I must have a conversation with one of the Jewish leaders,” he said, “before I exile a whole community.”
The Cardinals objected, but the Pope was firm...and what the Pope is firm about happens....
The message was sent to the Jewish Community that the Pope wanted to interview one of the leaders before determining whether to rid Rome of the Jews. None of the rabbis wanted to go—what good could come of it? But there was a tailor named Jacob who volunteered and was taken to the Pope's rooms in the Vatican.
Since they shared no common language, the Pope conducted his interview in sign language.
The Pope held up one finger and Jacob held up two.
The Pope made a large rotating motion with his arms and hands. Jacob pointed to the floor.
The Pope took an apple from a table and showed it to Jacob. The tailor took a piece of matzo from his pocket and showed it to the Pope.
The Pope dismissed the tailor with a message, translated by one of the Cardinals, that the Jews could stay in Rome.
The astonished Cardinals asked the Pope why he gave the Jews permission to stay.
The Tailor is an orthodox Christian,” he told them.
They all cried out, asking how the Pope could make such a outlandish statement.
Well,” the Pope said, holding up one finger, “I said, 'there is One God', but the Tailor replied by holding up two fingers: 'but there is the Son and the Holy Spirit as well.”
The Pope made his broad motion for the Cardinals. “I told him God was 'omnipotent', everywhere and he correctly replied, by pointing at the floor, 'God is also imminent, present in our midst'....
Finally,” the Pope told them, “I asked, 'is the earth round like an apple as the heretics claim?' And the Jew replied, demonstrating with their unleavened bread, 'No, the earth is flat as the Church teaches.'”
The Cardinals were all stunned.
Back in the Jewish ghetto, Jacob told his people to stop packing, that they were staying. “But how,” they all asked, “did such a thing happen?”
Jacob shook his head. “I'm not sure,” he said.
But what happened between you?” they clambered to know.
It was very odd,” the Tailor told them.
First the Pope said, 'I'm going to poke you in the eye' and I told him, 'I'll poke you in both eyes'.
Then he motioned that all the Jews should get out of Rome and I told him, 'we're staying right here'.”
And that was it?” they asked, incredulous.
No,” Jacob said, “then we showed each other our lunches....”

This brings me to an important distinction I want to make which has a profound bearing on “believing”.
Here's the distinction: Something Happens AND then, We Say Something About What Happened. That's the distinction.

(I'll pause a moment while you think about that and say, either out loud or to yourself: “Well, duh, of course there is a difference between What Happens and What We Say About It....So...?”)
Here's the “So”: What Happened in that story about the Pope and the Tailor is that two men stood in the room, made gestures to each other and then showed each other a piece of fruit and a piece of bread. That's all the Cardinals saw. That's What Happened. But then the Pope interpreted “What Happened” as the Tailor passing a complicated theological test and the Tailor interpreted “What Happened” as cowering the leader of world-wide Christianity into allowing the Jews to remain in Rome.
See what I mean yet?
For the Pope and the Tailor both, What Happened became “what they said about it.” There was NO distinction between the pantomime they carried out and their interpretations. For both of them “What Happened” became “what they said about it.” The event and the interpretations collapsed into each other so completely that each walked away from the moment of their encounter 'believing' it WAS what they “said about it”.
As far as I can tell, “belief”--at least the 'final belief' Wallace Stevens suggested exists purely only through of the distinction between the event and whatever it is we say about the event. Lose the distinction and what we call 'belief' is hopelessly muddled in the collapse of the events into the interpretations.
Another story: The popular cosmologist, Carl Sagan was giving a lecture in an auditorium about the nature of the Universe. During the question and answer period, a little old lady stood up, fairly shaking with anger and said, “Dr. Sagan, you might believe what you said about the Universe, but I know different. The earth isn't floating out in some vast, endless space. The earth is resting on the back of an enormous tortoise.”
Sagan, used to nay-sayers, courteously asked the woman, “well, Madam, what does the tortoise rest on?”
She harrumphed and responded, “an even more enormous tortoise!”
Sagan paused a moment and then asked, “and what does that one rest on?”
The woman snorted at his ignorance. “Dr. Sagan,” she said with pride, “don't traffic with me. It's tortoises all the way down!”
Here's what I think, so far as 'belief' goes, it is 'interpretation' all the way down.
Something happens—a child born in a city named Bethlehem under less than optimum circumstances over 2000 years ago. That certainly happened. In spite of the joke about Paul Tillich, there seems to be ample evidence from all that is know and agreed on, that a child named Jesus was born. That is the event. That is What Happened. The rest, all the rest, beloved, is what people have over 20 centuries Said About that birth. The miraculous insemination, the understanding of poor Joseph, the difficulty of the journey, the angels and the shepherds, the star and the Magi, the scientifically difficult assertion that Jesus' mother was 'ever Virgin', the barn and the creatures therein, even the little kid with his drum. Let's make a distinction between What Happened and What Was Said About It, painful as that distinction may be. Let's begin, at least, with this: the miracle and wonder of a birth—any birth. That, in and of itself, is worthy of pondering and acknowledging. A child was born. A son was given.
Birth is an event, a 'what happened' that should, standing alone, be cause for celebration and gratitude and not a few tears of joy. However, people have literally lost their lives over their disagreement with or even questioning “What Has Been Said” about that particular birth on that particular night in that particular year in that particular place to those particular parents. C. H. Dodd, a great New Testament scholar from the early to mid-part of the 20th Century, called the whole thing “the scandal of particularity”.
Dodd, it seems to me, understood the distinction between What Happened and What Was Said About It. He thought that “Universal Salvation” wrapped in the particularity of a moment, an event so odd, would be thought of as a 'fiction' by a multitude of people. He was correct. Ogden Nash went further back into the fiction when he wrote:
How odd of God,
To choose the Jews.

But my point is simple. It is not only alright, it is most likely a piece of 'salvation' to believe in a fiction, so long as you can acknowledge, without losing faith, that it is a fiction and you believe in it willingly.
After all, what is there to 'believe' in but fiction. The danger comes when people forget it is a 'fiction' and construe it as a Fact. That is the stuff of “separate but equal”, gender bias, religious persecution, drowning of witches, lynchings, inquisitions, Red Baiting, ethnic cleansing, Holy Wars, Holocausts.
Don't forget, I'm an English major. I've read all the literary criticism anyone should ever read and I know there is “no agreement” on Interpretation of Fiction. Ask a dozen so-called experts about Joyce or Hemingway or Dickens or Shakespeare or Chaucer or Beowulf and you'll get a remarkably wide variety of interpretations. It truly is 'interpretation all the way down'. Imagine poor St. Paul, how he has been 'interpreted' over the centuries to defend slavery, suppression of women, hatred of homosexuals.... Paul, I believe, would be both astonished and horrified to know that his writing (what happened with his words) was so twisted and perverted and used for more than one evil. He was just 'making stuff up' to tell these troublesome churches he had founded and left behind. He was creating a body of 'fiction' for them to 'believe' in willingly. And for all the centuries “what happened” in Corinth became what the interpreters of Paul SAID it was. The 'distinction' was lost. 'What happened' BECAME 'what we said about it.”
People who believe in a fiction willingly don't have an issue with the fictions other people believe in. And here's where the 'distinction' I suggested comes in powerfully--'believers' of whatever ilk, believe in the collapse of What Happened with What We Said About it. That's what they believe in and they also believe 'what they believe in' is capital-T-True, to the exclusion of what everyone else believes in. So we have a planet full of people believing 'their fiction' is True while everyone else's fiction is, well...a fiction.
How much better off would the planet be if everyone who 'believed' distinguished between What Happened and the conversation their particular community has been having over the centuries about What Happened. Sometimes, when I'm talking with someone, I'll make an aside and say, “well, that's a different conversation.” What if, people of faith, 'religious' people of all brands, when confronted with the Truth other people believed in, said, “well, that's a different conversation,” rather than saying, “They are Wrong and I am Right!” Can you begin to see the betterment of the planet from that kind of distinction? What each of us believes in isn't THE TRUTH. What each of us believe in is a conversation about What Happened. And our conversation about What Happened isn't any more True or False than the conversations people of other persuasions are having about What Happened for them.

I'm belaboring this because I know fair well that most 'believers' believe they believe in The Truth rather than a fiction.
It's all fiction. It's all 'made up'. It's all a conversation about What Happened.
This isn't just a Christian problem, although Christians have done most of the damage along the way be believing that what they believe is TRUE. We've seen in recent years the same failure to distinguish between the event and the conversation by Muslims. But since I am a Christian—since I believe willingly and passionately in the Christian Fiction—let me not go pointing fingers at anyone who is having a conversation different than the one I'm having about Jesus. It seems to me that the conversation about Jesus is simply about a different conversation than the conversation about Buddha or the one about Mohammad or the one about Moses or the one about the Earth Goddess or the one about the remarkably varied gods of Hindus or about the tribal gods of people in Africa or the gods of Native Americans, the Aborigines people of Australia or the odd gods of the Norse or the Greeks or the Irish or the British, for that matter, from the distant past.
I would hazard to say that all those conversations are about the same Force, the same Being, the same Event: but that would be imposing my 'fictional believe' on the beliefs and conversations of others, so I shouldn't hazard that opinion.
There's been a lot of hatefulness and mischief because of the various 'conversations' of the different Christian denominations. And within each denomination, there is invariably more than one conversation. In my particular 'tribe'--the Anglicans—there are a whole host of competing conversations and each conversation-group believes their conversation is the True one. The two major conversations across the spectrum of the Christian Church are 'the Orthodox conversation' and 'the Progressive conversation'. We used to call them Conservative and Liberal before those words became so politicized. And before that, in the Episcopal Church, we had the “High Church” and “Low Church” and “Broad Church” conversations—though, the truth be known, none of the 'conversations' were civil enough to deserve being called 'conversation' at all. Mostly it is about who can talk the loudest and the longest. In the church, just as in personal relationships, most of what we call 'listening to each other' is really just letting the other talk while you plan what to say next.
Here's a final story to illustrate a creative way of dealing with the reality that competing conversations are just talking about different fictions.
Centuries ago a new Bishop came to northern Scotland. He was told of a group of monks who lived on a distant island who hadn't been visited by a bishop for several decades. So the Bishop decided he should pay them a visit.
When his ship arrived, he was greeted with great joy by the little community. The Bishop said to the monks, after the introductions, “Let's say the Our Father together....” He started praying but the monks were simply looking at each other in confusion.
We don't know that prayer,” the monks told him.
The Bishop was horrified and decided to test them further.
What are the four gospels?” he asked.
Mark, I think,” said one monk.
Another answered, “isn't John one, your grace?”
But beyond that they could not go.
Exasperated that they knew the Creed no better than the Lord's Prayer, the Bishop ordered them to get the Mass book and he would preside at the Eucharist for them.
After much searching of the chapel, the Missal could not be found.
The Bishop spent the day trying to teach them the Creed and Lord's Prayer, rehearsing them on the books of the Bible and, after sending back to the ship for his personal Missal, sharing the sacrament with the little group.
He told them he would be back in three months and during that time they needed to learn all he had told them to study. When he returned he would decide whether they could continue to be a monestary or not.
The Bishop's ship was several hundred yards off the coast when one of the sailors called to him and pointed toward land. The Bishop and all the crew were astonished to see the whole group of monks running across the waves toward them.
When they arrived, the Bishop stood on the deck of the ship and the monks stood on the water.
Your Grace,” one of them said. “We've already mixed up the words of that lovely prayer. Can you tell it to us one more time?”
The Bishop stared at them for a long time. “Never-mind about anything I told you,” he said, “just go back and keeping doing whatever it is you've been doing.”

Would that the Church were so wise as that long-ago bishop....

Well. that didn't work....

So, I took my computer to the Apple Store in New Haven yesterday morning to have some data transferred to my new I-Mac. A nice young man came out and helped me carry it in. A technician came out and I was about to hand him a list of things to transfer (My libraries, mostly). He looked at it and said he couldn't do it because the computer was in three pieces.

I explained that John Anderson, my friend and personal tech advisor, had added the two pieces to extend the life of my old, old computer. Still no deal. Can't transfer from something that looks like that. I told him it worked perfectly well (I'm using it right now, for goodness sake!) and I'd even help set it up. Still no deal--something about liability and how a computer has to be in one piece. No apology as he walked away.

So, I had to find the woman with the green I-Pad (hierarchy in Apple Stores is color coded!) and tell her, in that case, I didn't want the I-Mac. It took more time to return it than it took to buy it and nobody was available to carry my computer, so I made two trips across Broadway to the parking lot.

I complained to the ''Store Leader"--Apple can't call him a  'manager' like common stores--and he was a tad more compassionate but was clearly in a hurry to move on from me.

So Apple emails me today to take a survey. It's impossible to really respond to because Thursday's experience was great--that's why I bought the I-Mac when I was just there to look--and the saleswoman was terribly helpful and totally patient with me "I don't know anything" approach.

So, In a space for comments I outlined what had happened, told them the computer I brought in was fine and could have been worked with, in pieces or not told them I was buying a Windows loaded computer Monday (I looked at them at Big Buy today and am leaning toward a Dell--that, by the way, is $400+ cheaper and has a larger keyboard. I had trouble typing in my name and email because when I hit "J" the way on do on my keyboard, it came out JJJJJ.

So maybe it's all for the best.

In the survey,  Apple wanted to know if I would accept a phone call regarding my experience and I said yes just to see if they call. A call would make the whole experience and my opinion of the Apple Store a little better.

So maybe it's all for the best.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A respite....

I went to the Apple Store in New Haven today to look at desktop computers and actually bought one!

I was as amazed as I could be, but then I remembered that I usually just go and buy something rather than shopping.

It's the I-Mac and the real problem is I don't like the little, very sensitive keyboard, but I might get used to it or be able to use my big, clunky keyboard that I love with it.

The thing is, I have to take my computer in in the morning to let the technician transfer what I need from this computer to that one. Which means I could be silent in posts for a few days--as long as it takes.

But there is lots to read here and I'll be back as soon as I can--with a Mac, having always and only had Micro-Soft. Should be interesting.

Be well and stay well. I'm sure I'll be back by Thanksgiving, but in the meantime, here is the sermon I'm preaching at the Higganum community Thanksgiving service on Tuesday next week which will be at St. James. (Truth be known, I'm not fond of ecumenical services--it just means none of us get to do what we would normally do--but I put up with them.)


Do not 'worry', Jesus says in tonight's gospel. Do not 'worry' about what you should wear or eat. “Worry,” I believe, is the opposite of 'being thankful'. That is why Jesus tells us not to 'worry', because Jesus wants us to be thankful.
In my tradition of Christianity, we celebrate the “Eucharist” on each of the Lord's days, each Sunday and many other times we gather as the People of God. “Eucharist” in Greek, means “to give thanks”.
Giving thanks, it seems to me, is the very heart of being a Christian.
The older I get, I have told people, the fewer things I find I HAVE to 'believe'. I think I've got it down to the basics of my creed.
*God loves me (and US) unconditionally. Everyone, no matter how twisted, or even evil, is a child of God. I believe that.
*Treat others as you want to be treated. No matter what. I believe that.
*Welcome the stranger always, even if the stranger may mean you harm. I believe that.
*Give to those in need—always and however you can. I believe that.
*And this: be thankful always, for everything, even things that challenge you and give you pain. Be thankful always, for everything. I believe that.
Not that many years ago, there was the song and the saying, “Don't worry, be happy.” I would change that to “Don't worry, be thankful. Always.”
Consider the lilies of the field....Consider the birds of the air....
Why should we worry? We should be thankful.
In our Eucharist service, there is a prayer after communion. It is a prayer of thanksgiving. But it is very general. So often, I invite the congregation into a time of silence and ask them to give thanks to God in their hearts and minds, for the many gifts God has given to each of us and all of us.
In my heart and mind, in that silence, I picture my family and my friends, the people of the congregations I serve and have served, my dog and cat and parakeet, the freedom and prosperity of my life, my life itself, and all the good those I know and love have done in this dark-ling world. I sometimes give thanks for Key Lime Pie and sausage gravy and biscuits, but the seems a little selfish.
But that's the thing—being thankful for God's goodness isn't selfish at all. Key Lime Pie and sausage gravy and biscuits are gifts that merit our thanks.
Remember, in my short list of beliefs, I said to be thankful for everything, always.
It pains me, in a way, that we get so involved in being thankful in November of each year when we should be 'thankful to everything, always'. All the time. Every moment of life, we should be thankful.

Don't worry, be thankful.
Consider the lilies of the field, consider the birds of the air...they do not worry, they do not fret. And we are worth more to God than flowers or birds.
Be thankful.

I practice the prayer of the heart—also known as the “Jesus Prayer”.
It is a prayer of breath—and since we breathe always, we can pray always.
The Jesus Prayer goes like this: as you inhale, you say in your mind and heart, “Jesus Christ, Son of God” and as you exhale you say, “have mercy on me a sinner.”
It's that simple, as simple as breathing, which we do all the time.
But some time ago, being an Episcopalian and not being fond of being reminded I am a sinner, I changed the way I prayed the Jesus prayer.
I started saying, in my heart and mind, as I inhaled, “Lord Jesus Christ” and as I exhaled “thank you so very much”.
When I'm driving, I pray that. I give thanks with every breath.

We should, I think, give thanks, not just at this time of year, but with every breath.

Why don't we try it for a minute or so? Join me in paying attention to your breathing, what keeps you alive. We should give thanks for breath as for so many things.
Join me for a while.
When you breathe in say in your heart and mind: “Lord Jesus Christ”. And as you exhale say in your heart and mind: “thank you so much”.
Let's try it, if you don't mind.
Inhale: “Lord Jesus Christ”.
Exhale: “thank you so much”.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all. Give thanks always. Don't 'worry', give thanks.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Some People ii

This is a chapter from my unpublished (and unsubmitted) book about parish ministry. It's from a couple of years ago, but a lot of people read it. Thought I'd share it again. I read it again and had tears in my eyes for these three saints.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Book Group

The Good People (and I used capital letters on purpose) of the Middlesex Area Cluster Ministry have now gone through two 5 week book groups reading stuff I've written about my ministry. They have been gracious and kind and insightful.

I may never get the stuff I've written under either the title Farther Along, or as my friend Ann suggests, the title: Tend the fire, tell the story, pass the wine in any shape to show to a publisher. But I am so humbled and delighted to have shared some of it with people I deeply respect and profoundly love. I'm not even sure they know how much I love them and it doesn't matter, really, if they do. What matters is that I do.

I thought I'd pass along one of the chapters they read, the one they read tonight, in fact.

Some People (ii)


When I was at St. Paul’s in New Haven, one of my neighbors stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you do baptisms?” She and her husband lived in a handsome brownstone on the park—they were a “Yale couple”, she was Vice-President of something and he was a professor of economics. They were the ultimate “yuppies”—a term that still meant something in the 80’s. She was tall, immaculately dressed for success and quite beautiful, blonde and willowy. But she wore her hair pulled back severely and horned rimmed glasses she may or may not have needed. (I met several women who worked in big jobs for Yale who wore clear glass in unflattering frames. One actually told me it was to tell people, “I may be pretty, but I’m smart….”) She was wearing a pale gray, pinstripe suit and a pink blouse buttoned to the neck with one of those floppy little ties that are bow-ties on estrogen. But her shoes, I remember noticing (she was beautiful, after all!) were extremely high heels with almost no visible means of keeping them on her feet. Really sexy, out of character shoes....She hadn’t given in to the corporate image ultimately…her shoes were fiercely feminine.
I allowed that I had been known to “do” baptisms from time to time and she invited me to come ‘around to our house tonight for a drink…5:30 suit you?'
I was fascinated. I knew Donna and her husband, Phil, from the park. Our daughter was about their son’s age—5 maybe—and they sometimes chased each other in the park while everyone around Wooster Square let their dogs off lead to run and poop. But I’d never been invited to their house before. I could hardly wait.
When we’d settled in with our drinks (scotch for Phil, a Manhattan for Donna and white wine for me) I was offered hors devours more exotic than either of them should have time to make before my arrival and we did Wooster Square small talk. Phil, even taller than Donna and nearly as good looking, was a New Haven clone of “Mr. Chips”—casually elegant and tweedy and yet a little awkward all at the same time. He obviously needed his glasses—in fact had two pair with those bands that hold them like long necklaces around your neck. One for distance and one for reading, I imagined, wondering if it were vanity or drama that prevented him from just getting bifocals—but then, I’m always hard on people who ‘come from money’. There house made no secret that one—perhaps both of them—came from money. Everything was understated but expensive from the rugs to the lamps to the properly worn leather couch and chairs to the antique table I sat my glass on and then picked up in horror and looked around for a coaster.
“Go ahead and set it there,” Donna said. “It was my grandmother’s so it’s really old.” The people who come from “real money” are casual about such things, those who got rich on their own are much less relaxed about glass rings on a table worth thousands. After some small talk about the weather (a pleasant September, better than last year) and the neighborhood (“did you know the Mason’s moved to Europe—Mark’s doing a post-doc in France”) we finally got down to business.
“We don’t come to church,” Phil began, showing his humility, “but we are Episcopalians….We were married in the Cathedral in Chicago. And both our parents are serious Episcopalians and they’re all coming out for Thanksgiving….”
Little Jason hadn’t been baptized (“our fault,” Donna said, “totally”—as if it could have been Jason’s fault or the fault of Sarah, their AKC standard poodle) and there was going to be hell to pay to Grand-pop and Grand-mom and Granny and Gramps come turkey day. Before they began to grovel, which they would have, I told them I’d be delighted to baptize Jason, which I was. And we started talking about dates and times, settling on the Sunday after Thanksgiving when the grandparents on both sides could be there. All I asked them to do was come to church a few times, just so they’d be familiar with the racially and socially diverse parish of St. Paul’s and to let me talk with them…and Jason…about baptism for a few hours soon.
They were overjoyed, called Jason down with his nanny, a 20 something au per from France who was teaching Jason French as well as looking after him and taking some classes from Yale on their dime. (I thought I had maybe underestimated the money they came from!) I knew Jason of course, and he knew me as “Mimi’s dad” and we talked briefly about coming to church and talking about baptism. Later mom and dad and Jason spent several hours with me. Phil, of course, and Donna to only a slightly lesser degree, knew the ins and outs of liturgy and church history and the rich myriad of symbols that made up baptism. Jason asked some of those classic kid questions: “will the water be cold or hot?” “Will I have to say anything?” “Will Jesus be there?”
I told them, at some point, that baptism, to my theology, was admission to communion and Jason should receive communion with them on his baptismal day. Donna was a bit horrified: “But he isn’t old enough to ‘understand’ it,” she said. I thought for a moment and replied, “If ‘understanding’ it is a prerequisite, then I shouldn’t receive it either….” It was a hard sell but Jason won the day: “I want to, Mommy,” he said to Donna and the deal was made.
True to their word, Donna, Phil and Jason became fixtures on the third row near the pulpit. From time to time Brigitte would come with them and all of them fit in just fine—a little better dressed than most, but open and friendly and involved. During that time I came, once more, face to face with my devotion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “the rich are not like you and me.” I’ve never quite felt comfortable around the moneyed of the world—certainly both a character flaw and a disadvantage for rapid advancement in the Episcopal Church! Donna and Phil were ‘just like me’—we had many of the same interests and opinions. And Jason was ‘just a kid’ dressed in clothes from Barney’s instead of Sears. I came to like them a lot, which prepared me to like their parents as well. Jason’s two grandfathers were cut from the same mold—successful, keen and most likely ruthless Mid-Western business men who never the less possessed the shy, inviting charm of people from the center of the country. The grandmothers were different—Donna’s mom was an older version of her: stylish, lovely, cultured. But Phil’s mother was like someone Garrison Keeler would make up and put in Lake Woebegone. She was a tad over-weight with a broad, smiling face, gray hair in a bun and simple clothing. She would have been very comfortable in an apron puttering around the house.
They were all delighted that Jason, as his paternal grandmother put it, “was finally getting dunked.” And on the day of the baptism they were all radiant and joyful. The baptism went fine—Jason answered loudly when I asked him if he desired to be baptized and stepped up on the little stool I’d dug out to lean his head over the font with perfect grace. But the real grace came when the family, led by Jason, came up to receive communion. Jason received the wafer and carefully, precisely dipped it half-way into the wine before consuming it. Then he said, “thank you” to the chalicist and started back to his seat between the lines of people waiting for the rail.
He stopped beside the first person he passed and said, politely, “I just got the Body of Christ.” That person nodded slightly but tried to remain solemn, just the way we should be on the way to the greatest party ever thrown! So, Jason was a little louder with the next person and louder still with the one after that. By then, the lack of response began to confuse and annoy him and he started pulling on pants legs and skirts: “I just got the Body of Christ!” he said to each person he passed. Donna’s father got to him first and picked him up, looking back embarrassingly at me. Jason was trying to get free from his grandfather’s embrace…there were lots more people to tell about what had just occurred.
I stopped the service right there, asking the organist to stop playing and pointing to Jason in the arms of his grandfather.
“Do you hear what he’s telling you?” I said, softly. “Can you begin to understand what waits for you up here? Jason understands and he’s telling you to run to this table because the mystery and wonder here is more than you imagine…more than you can imagine….”
For months after that, I was told, people going back from communion would lean over and whisper to their friends, “Guess what I just got?” And for a while the spirit of Jason’s understanding astonished us all.
(I had wondered if having Jason ‘dunked’ would be the end of the family’s church going. I wouldn’t have been upset if it had, since the sacrament was valid and real and ‘objective’. But they kept coming for a few months until Donna was offered a position in the President’s office at Northwestern and Phil was asked to teach at the University of Chicago. The jobs were so good they were leaving at the end of first semester. I was sad to see them go, but it gave me a little rush to know that someone had used Yale as a ‘stepping stone’ to what they really wanted!
I went down the day they moved and watched the movers carefully empty the house of beautiful, valuable things. Donna, so unlike her, was dressed in faded jeans and one of Phil’s J. Crew white shirts. Her hair was a mess and she had on neither makeup nor glasses. She hugged me and told me I could find Phil and Jason and the dog and the nanny over in the park. Before I went to say good-bye to them, she said, “did we tell you that Jason’s favorite game now is playing priest? He baptizes G. I. Joe daily and gives us communion ever so often. He wears one of Phil’s tee-shirts and puts one of his ties around his neck. It’s really very sweet.” She said it was ‘sweet’ but she looked worried.
It’s just a phase,” I told her, “like me.”
You’re in a ‘phase’?” asked, smiling.
Yeal,” I said, “but mine came late and has stayed for a while.”
Then I went to find my friends and say goodbye.)

BUTTERFLY (God bless him…)

I’ve changed people’s names up to now, but there is no way to do that with Butterfly. I considered calling him “Moth” or “Bumblebee” or “Hummingbird”, but none of those or any other would do justice to who and what he was. He was Butterfly—I’ll change his ‘real’ name to Michael Caruso from what it was…but that (or his ‘real’ name) does not do him justice. He was Butterfly. He signed his ‘art work’ Papillon, which was his misspelling of the French for Butterfly—“Papillion”. So even he couldn’t come up with a name that worked besides the one he was: Butterfly.
He was 6’6” tall and probably weighed 150 pounds—10 pounds of which was the jewelry he wore around his neck and in his ears. He told me he had a total of 27 earrings, 13 on the right ear and 14 on the left. I never counted, I simply took his word for it. And most of the earrings were of—you guessed it—butterflies. He also wore dozens of ring bracelets on each arm and a ring on every finger of both hands, including his thumb. And bling around his neck before ‘bling’ was the word for it—countless chains and necklaces. And all of that, like his earrings, had a definite theme: butterflies. I cannot imagine where he found so much bad jewelry with butterflies on it. I know he didn’t buy it on E-Bay since he had neither a computer nor money. But over the years of his life, he had found all this stuff and covered himself with it. There is a scene in a novel by George MacDonald, a writer who was a friend of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, where a character is completely enveloped by a flock (is that the right term?) of Monarch butterflies. Every inch of his body is, for a moment or two, covered by butterflies. I’m sorry I never found that passage and shared it with the Papillion I knew. He would have danced around the room—all arms and legs and jewelry—with delight and wonder just reading about an event like that. He WAS Butterfly.
He was long since a character around down-town Waterbury before I arrived. Eccentric doesn’t do the job in describing him. Neither does odd, odd-ball, unconventional, unusual, peculiar, strange or weird, which were the synonyms my computer’s thesaurus gave me for ‘eccentric’. I won’t even bother going to Roget’s. Every word there will apply but not describe. He usually wore a Mohawk which revealed a huge gash on the back of his head.
“Where’d you get that scar, Butterfly?” I asked.
“When I was in prison,” he said, “I sort of incited a riot.”
“Where were you in prison?”
“Cal-i-for-ni-a. ‘California there I was, til I got arrested by the fuzz….’ He danced around my office where we were talking.
“What were you in prison for?”
“Weed, Reefer. Possession is the devil’s workshop….” He showed my how to inhale and hold it while offering me his imaginary joint. The ones he’s had earlier weren’t imaginary. I could smell it across the room.
“That’s ‘an idle mind’,” I told him.
“What is?” He continued smoking his non-existence marijuana.
“And idle mind is the devil’s workshop….”
“I had one of them too,” he cackled, moving again. He was hopelessly ADD, he couldn’t sit still for a minute. “It was the 60’s, man….”
“How long did you serve?” I asked.
“Eight years.”
I was astonished. “Eight years for possession of marijuana? In California? In the 60’s? Everyone would have been in prision….”
Butterfly smiled at me and shook his head, “I possessed 50 acres,” he said.
And he was as flamboyantly homosexual as anyone I ever met. Gay and lesbian folks I knew gave him wide berth. He wore skin tight clothes, his shirt open to the navel (“so you can see my jewelry,” he told me when I asked him why he didn’t button his shirt at least a little) and always had glitter all over his face and head and chest. He wore lots of eyeliner and mascara but drew the line at lip-stick. “Only faggots wear lipstick,” he told me once, letting me in on his make-up philosophy, “and I’m not a faggot—I’m a god-damn screaming queer….”
Did I leave out the tattoos? Dozens and dozens of tattoos on every part of his body you could see—and during the summer, when he wore short shorts, there was lots of skin to see. Most all of them were, you probably guessed, butterflies. When I asked him why he became “Butterfly” he grew serious for one of the few times I knew him and started talking in a soft, almost dreamy voice, unlike his usually rapid staccato falsetto. “When I was a boy,” he told me, “I knew ‘something was wrong’ with me. Everyone said it when they thought I couldn’t hear them. I was strange and freakish and didn’t do well in school and didn’t have any friends. I used to wonder what I’d ‘rather’ be than me. Then one day, I watched a butterfly out in the yard for about an hour. It didn’t go in a straight line. It was so beautiful. It could flit and it could soar. After a while it came and landed on my face and it’s little feet were sticky and so tiny, like eyelashes. I was in love.”
I sat in his silence, fascinated and not a little moved by his story. After a few moments he leaped up from the couch where he was sitting and started dancing around my office. “It’s the flitting part I like best!”
A remarkable thing was how many people were genuinely fond of Butterfly. There was something childlike below the weirdness—something playful and touching and inviting. The two women who ran the Council of Churches—a tough old swamp Yankee and the sweet, rural wife of the American Baptist minister in town both adored him. So did the nun—street smart and savvy—who was the director of the social service agency housed across the street from St. John’s in the First Congregational Church. So did most of the members of the parish—he actually was a communicant though his attention deficit kept him from sitting through a whole service. The oddest couple of his relationships was with Allie, a conservative Republican in her early 30’s who was a member of the American Rifle Association and carried a little snub-nose 38 in her purse at all times. Allie and Butterfly were always talking after church and one day, when Allie had told me she was pregnant, Butterfly came running up to me with her in tow. He embraced her—she was short and her head barely reached his nipples, which of course you could see because his shirt was unbuttoned—“Allie’s got a bun in the oven!” Butterfly announced loudly. “I’m going to be a fairy god-mother….” They looked at each other with genuine devotion and then he pressed her face against his bling.
It’s not that Butterfly wasn’t a problem. He was stoned entirely too much and so promiscuous that it made my eyes ache. I actually feared for him because he’d take about any man he found home. And he had a temper. His primary adversary was Justine, the local shopping cart lady, who hung out at most of the downtown churches the way Butterfly did. She’s a whole story in herself, but they were like the proverbial oil and water. I’d throw both of them off the property for a day or two with regularity. They couldn’t be near each other without fighting about something. Once, during a Tuesday morning Eucharist with the Clericus group, I heard them out in the hall way screaming like banshees at each other with remarkable combinations of profanity. I was half way through the prayer of consecration, but the din was so disturbing that I thought one of them might kill the other. To tell the truth, at that moment, I wished they were the gingham dog and calico cat and would simply tear each other to pieces.
I took off the stole I was wearing, dropped it around one of the other priest’s neck and went to scold the children. I was on them like stink on…well, you know. I got between them and screamed them into silence. “Why has God sent the two of you to me?” I yelled. They looked at me as if I were an alien from a distant galaxy. Then I banished them from the building for two days and went back to receive the sacrament I had only half-blessed.
But the real story—the story that intrigues, delights and haunts me to this day—was Butterfly and Millicent. Millicent was an elderly woman who lived in one of the less fancy “rest homes” that dot any city the size of Waterbury. We, somehow, as a culture, have to warehouse the elderly to keep them safe from others and themselves. Some ‘homes’ do it with a modicum of grace and care, in spite of crushing numbers and limited resources, but most don’t. Millicent’s ‘rest home’ was in the latter category. Once I met her, I visited her with some regularity, especially after Butterfly’s murder. And it was Butterfly who introduced us.
I pulled into the parking lot and noticed that Butterfly and an elderly woman who was dressed rather stylishly—1950’s stylishly, but stylishly none the less—were standing on the street near the entrance to the parking lot. I got out of my car and went to say hello. Butterfly was puffing as hard as he could on a joint while Millicent waited for him to finish toking up. Butterfly, always the gentleman, said, holding his breath, “Millicent, this is Fr. Jim. Jim this is Millicent Randolph.” That was quite a feat to say on an inhale and Millicent and I shook hands.
“Butterfly has told me about you,” she said, in an accent that hinted of Back Bay Boston. “He’s taking me to the A.A. meeting in your church this morning.”
I turned and saw Butterfly knock the ash off his joint and eat what was left.
“You’re going to an A.A. meeting?” I asked him with as much judgment as I could muster.
He swallowed and smiled. “It’s ‘Alcoholics Anonymous,” he said, taking Millicent’s thin arm and leading her a bit unstably toward the church door.
Over time I learned a great deal about Millicent. She actually was an aristocrat of sorts—not from Boston but Manhattan, though she’d gone to school at Vassar and picked up a Boston accent and a Boston Brahman to boot. They lived in Greenwich, summered on Nantucket and had a ‘little place’ in Miami Beach. But one of their perfect three children was murdered while attending Columbia—he was 19—and Millicent fell completely, totally, absolutely apart. By the time her therapy and her taste for scotch and her profound depression began to lift, even a bit, her husband had divorced her, her daughters given up on her, her friends abandoned her and her own family disowned her. She finally encountered her Higher Power in the basement of an Episcopal Church somewhere in south-west Connecticut and dragged herself back to ‘who she’d been’ (“though stronger”, she told me) but by then her body had betrayed her as well. And having used up all her own money, she’d ended up, through a social worker at a rehab center in Fairfield County, at the ‘rest home’ in Waterbury.
“I was in a fog,” she told me, long after that meeting on West Main Street while Butterfly fortified himself for the A.A. meeting, “that lasted almost 15 years.” Her son had been one of those ‘oops’ children when she was 36 and her daughters were 11 and 9. So the fog set in when she was 54 and didn’t lift until she was 69 going on 85, penniless, forsaken, extremely ill.
“How did you meet Butterfly?” I asked her shortly after meeting her. She was sitting in the church, waiting for Butterfly to smoke some dope before walking her the three blocks back to the home.
She smiled and looked her age instead of a decade older. “He volunteers at the home,” she told me. He picks up people’s prescriptions from the drug store and goes to get folks some fast food when they want it and brings around newspapers each morning.
I shook my head. Like a diamond, Butterfly had many facets.
She took a deep breath. “This church is very beautiful,” she said. “Butterfly told me to ask you if you’d do my funeral here when the time comes?”
I nodded and mumbled, “of course.”
Then she continued, “He wants to be buried from here too. He told me. Don’t forget since I doubt he’s told you.”
Nodding more I told her I wouldn’t forget. But then, in the end, I after all, I had to scramble hard to keep my promise.
Butterfly and Millicent became an ‘item’. He began to bring her to church—she’d grown up High Church at St. Thomas’ in New York City and had to get used to our less formal ways. But she always had something insightful to say about the sermon and Butterfly, flitting around, unable to sit still, would make sure he was there to help her up to communion. She became the den-mother of a quite unruly A.A. meeting. Most of the people who came were court ordered and just wanted their paper signed. But she adopted them all—having only dead and estranged children of her own—and kept a discipline and insured that the crowd noise at the break was at a minimum. And Butterfly saw to her every need and every whim (though Millicent didn’t have many ‘whims’ any more—she was down to ‘needs’ and nothing else).
I feel like the author of John’s Gospel: “there are many more stories about Butterfly than are written here….” Just a couple left.
One day, the week before he was murdered, Butterfly simply opened the door of my office and came in. I was with a woman who believed her child was on drugs and her husband was having an affair. I was looking through my Rolodex to find the numbers of a psychologist and a drug hot-line for her to call. I had been present to her pain but she needed a real ‘professional’. She was sitting on the couch, wiping her eyes, when Butterfly butted in, waving a piece of paper and shouting, “I passed! I passed! I don’t have AIDS!”
The woman jumped and looked horrified that such a creature had intruded on her pain and suffering with such a message. Butterfly didn’t ‘work’ for the uninitiated. His charm was an acquired taste. I threw him unceremoniously out of my office and told him to wait on me in the library downstairs. He turned, just like a 10 year old showing you their report card and being rejected, would have turned. He shut the door softly behind himself and I started writing phone numbers on the back of my calling card.
I was furious with him. When I went into the library he was sitting working on one of his ‘art works’. What he did was trace characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and then surround them with leaves and flowers and rainbows and stars and color them in with Crayons and glue stick them to a piece of cardboard. He always signed them “Papillon” (sic) and gave them to people as if they were Picassos or Rembrandts, which, in the last analysis, they were. I’m looking at one he did for my wife as I write this. I keep it near the desk where I work. Her name, BERN is outlined in green, colored yellow and the two little balloons in the B are hearts colored red. Practically everyone I knew in those days had a Papillon original and most people kept them somewhere in sight.
But I wasn’t thinking of that the last afternoon I ever saw him. I was thinking of how inappropriate and intrusive he had been, how he had crossed a line and shattered a boundary, how he had fucked up big-time.
“Aren’t you happy I don’t have AIDS?” he asked, as if nothing had happened 10 minutes before, as innocent as a child…which was the truth.
“I’m very happy for you,” I said, trying not to let my anger show, “and for me…since I’ll have you around to drive me crazy for a long time.” He laughed at that, but I continued, doing my lamentable duty as the “authority” in his life, trying to do “what was best for him”, wanting to “teach him a lesson.”
“Butterfly, you can’t come barging into my office whenever you want,” I said, watching him flinch and twitch, wanting to get up and move but knowing I would disapprove. “You really fucked up today. You’re banned from the church for four days.”
He was about to burst into tears, as he sometimes did. But when he wiped his face with his forearm, he was reminded that he was wearing a black leather jacket, some sizes too large. Then he smiled and got up, coming over to show me the jacket.
“It’s my new boyfriend’s,” he told me, “isn’t it delicious.”
“Where’d you meet this new boyfriend,” I asked, touching the leather. It was delicious. I wished I had one.
“Library Park,” he said, dancing away, his head leaned back, a child with a new crush. “He’s from Brooklyn. Just got into town last night. I got the test for him. He’s really fab-u-lous….”
“He’s really big,” I said, referring to the jacket.
“Oh, I’ll find that out tonight!” Butterfly said, moving toward the door, swishing as hard as a skinny, 6’5” man could swish. “I’ll let you know.” Then he stopped and counted on his fingers. “This is Tuesday,” he told me, “four days will be Sunday. See you then….” Then he was gone.
“Be careful, Butterfly,” I called after him. But I don’t think he heard me. And I didn’t see him Sunday because on Saturday night at some time, his new boyfriend stabbed him to death with the large pair of scissors Butterfly had to cut the cardboard so he could glue stick his art work to it.
And Sunday was Palm Sunday, the first day of the octave that includes Holy Week and Easter—the holiest week of the Christian Year. A police officer who knew Butterfly (didn’t they all?) came by the church about 9 a.m., after the early service, to find me and tell me that Butterfly had been murdered and the murderer was in custody.
I found words in spite of my shock and horror and gathering shame about my last encounter with my friend. “Why did he kill him? Do you know?”
The police officer looked back through his little notebook. “One of the detectives told me it had something to do with Butterfly wearing his leather jacket without asking….”
Everything got very confusing after that. Holy Week at St. John’s was filled with mourning and passion—not just for our Lord, but for our dear friend, Butterfly. Everything was suffused with his murder. Every homily for 7 days mentioned him. I’m sure it was his ‘corpus’ and not Jesus’ that people saw on the cross that year. But his corpse was up in Farmington, at the State Police Forensic lab. I can only wonder what the technicians and pathologists thought of Butterfly’s body—the piercings, the Mohawk, the tattoos, his great height and tiny weight. The scar and metal plate in his head from a prison riot in California decades ago. And the stab wounds, examined, excised, analyzed three ways to Palm Sunday—did they find ‘trace evidence’ of cardboard in the wound from the scissors? What did they make of that?
I couldn’t get a straight answer from the police or the coroner or the prosecuting attorneys office about where Butterfly’s body was or when it could be buried. I burned up the phone lines days past Easter and got nothing helpful back. But I must have been on a lot of those pink “Someone called when you were out” slips, because a local mortician called me to let me know he had Butterfly’s murdered and filleted body and was going to bury him—via his brother’s instructions (His Brother—I had no idea Butterfly had family!) in a pauper’s grave on Friday morning at 9 a.m. I wasn’t familiar with the particular cemetery so the funeral director promised me he’s have someone meet me at the gate at 8:55 a.m. to bring me to the grave. I was there at 8:40, coffee and newspaper to fill the time. At 9 a.m. I started driving around the huge cemetery and saw no one, anywhere. I went to the office that was just opening. I told my story and the cemetery director, a huge Irish man with Spencer Tracy eyebrows and a whisky voice explained to me that contrary to cemetery rules, the grave had been opened the previous afternoon and the funeral director had disposed of the body at 8 a.m. and paid a half-hour of overtime to have the grave filled before 9.
I was so beside myself that Spencer Tracy drove me out to Butterfly’s newly filled grave and I sobbed the burial office over it. On the way back to his office, I asked the cemetery director why, o why, would the mortician have misled me so?
He waited until he got back to the office and we were out of his car to answer. “This was a ‘state burial’,” he told me. “I would venture that paying overtime to have the grave filled was less expensive than a real coffin.”
The concept of a ‘real coffin’ had never occurred to me. What would an ‘unreal coffin’ be?
“He was buried in a very large cardboard box,” the man told me, very aware of how upset I was, “that’s my best guess….And he didn’t want you to see that….”
“He was my friend…,” I said, about to start blabbering.
The man rubbed his thumb against his forefinger and said, sadly, I think, “not to the funeral director.”
When I was back to the church I called a funeral director I trusted implicitly and blabbered out the story. “He didn’t break any laws,” he told me, “but he lied to a priest and was certainly unethical. You could call the State Board about him. Lots of paperwork, not much results. I don’t know what to tell you—he was a bad man….But then, I knew that….”
I called the funeral director who had planted poor Butterfly without my presence. “I told you 8 a.m.,” he said, butter not only not melting in his mouth but becoming chilled. “And he was just a bum.” I hung up. All else was futile. Before I hung up I did get a phone number in Rhode Island for Butterfly’s brother and told him I was planning a memorial service the Wednesday of the next week and invited him to come. He was startled and stunned. “Will anyone come?” he asked.
“Oh, my goodness, yes,” I told him. I’m not sure he believed me but, God bless his heart, he did come.
Three hundred people showed up for Butterfly’s memorial service. No kidding, three hundred people showed up. Instead of a homily, there was a microphone down in the center aisle and people were invited to speak. I lost count at 19 because Justine, Butterfly’s nemesis, came to the microphone and said, in the 5 year old language she has, “I love Butterfly. Fly, Butterfly.” Then she kissed her hand and blew it toward the ceiling of the church. (She also rambled on in ways no one understood for a few more minutes before I went down and stopped her gently.) Butterfly’s brother, who obviously remembered the little boy who had no friends and was weird and got put in prison and beaten there, but didn’t know—had no way to imagine—that his brother was so profoundly loved dissolved into tears and sobs to the extent that I considered calling 911.
It was Millicent who spoke last. After she spoke there was nothing else to say. Something like this was her eulogy for Butterfly: “He became my son—not the son I lost, but the son I never deserved. No one—no one—ever cared for me with more compassion and love and joy that Butterfly. He was a good boy—the best boy ever. I’m not sure how to live without him….”
After talking to his brother at the reception that people had organized in the library—though the library was too small and the food ran out, but the people in the soup kitchen brought in more and more and more because they loved Butterfly too—I took Justine to Butterfly’s grave. Butterfly’s brother told me over and over, “I never knew, I couldn’t have imagined….” He was referring to the love he had witnessed for his deranged, odd, weird, eccentric, crazy brother. Who could have known? Who could have imagined?
I have a dog—well, not actually a ‘dog’ because he’s a Puli—who is hell on wheels to ride in a car with. Unless I strap him down with this gadget I bought at a pet store, he is all over me: barking at the key until I turn it, barking at the gear shift until I engage it, barking at the gas petal until I push it. Then he puts his paw on my arm, as if to direct me where to go—one of his walking places or another. I actually believe he could drive if his legs could reach the brake and he had a thumb to turn the key and change the gears. Well, that was a dim reflection of what it was like to take Justine the 12 miles or so to Butterfly’s grave. At that point in her life—and she’s exactly my age—she was much like a child raised by wolves in France. Since then a couple in the parish have unofficially adopted her and tamed her (to some extent) and transformed her into something rare and wondrous. That’s a story in itself. But on the day of Butterfly’s memorial service, she was like a Puli in my front seat. I belted her in but she kept yelling and reaching over to touch the windshield wipers and the steering wheel and the gear shift. And because there are so many graveyards in a place like Connecticut, she kept seeing them and hollering, “Butterfly? Butterfly?”
Once we got there and I showed her where he was buried, she wept and mumbled something that must have been ‘good-bye’ and was calmer on the way home.

(A few months later I was sitting by Millicent’s death bed. One of her daughters was there and the other was flying in from Oregon the next day. She would have her funeral at St. John’s but the daughters would take her ashes back to Greenwich to bury beside their father, who, rich as Midas, had thrown an embolism two years before and passed through that wondrous, mysterious, terrifying door. After Butterfly’s death, Millicent had called her daughters and, since grace abounds when you least expect it, they had ‘come home’ to their mother. Some sad stories have happy endings, thank the Lord.
I had given communion to Millicent and her daughter—no wine for Millicent, she was through with Demon Rum in all its manifestations. And, with Millicent’s permission, I had said the prayers for the dying. “Surely I am,” she told me when I hesitantly asked, “why not?” I was thinking it might be time for me to leave when Millicent’s daughter took my hand and her mother’s and said, in that upper-class accent she shared with Millicent, “Jim, you must tell me about Butterfly, my mother’s son by another mother.”
I smiled that she knew enough street language to say it that way. The afternoon was just beginning. I had nothing but time.
“You better get a chair,” I told her, “this might take a while.”
Millicent was drifting off to sleep as I began, but her daughter was on the edge of her chair, drinking it all in.
Sometimes you get lucky and things turn out like that….)

Colonel Ted wasn’t the first person I met at St. James in Charleston—he was the second. The first person was an elderly, gangly black man with the improbable name of Israel Goldman. When Bern and I got off the plane in Charleston, there he was waiting at the gate. He introduced himself and added, “it always throws people who’ve never met me when I show up for an appointment.” He was soft spoken and polite, telling Bern she looked ‘radiant’ rather than mentioning she was obviously pregnant and not mentioning the length of my hair or my full beard. Though I objected, he insisted on carrying the one bag we’d brought for a two day visit, though he was probably 75. He walked slowly, as many tall, thin men seem to do.
“Colonel Ted will meet us at the door with his car,” he told us, “he didn’t want you to have to walk far.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “and besides, Ted really resents having to pay for parking.”
Israel carried his hat in his hand until we were outside and then placed it jauntily on his head. He was wearing what seemed to be a hand-tailored suit, a blindingly white shirt and school tie of some kind. “Grambling,” he said suddenly, “my alma mater.” I nodded and smiled. “I saw you looking at it, wondering,” he added. I nodded some more, wondering if he could read minds. “Here’s the Colonel,” Israel said, smiling, “probably burned up more gas than the parking meter would have been.”
The biggest Cadillac I’d ever seen pulled up to the curb and Colonel Ted exploded from the driver’s seat, moving quickly around the car to shake my hand and hug Bern. If Israel was laid-back and non-demonstrative, the Colonel was an extreme in the other way. He talked fast, moved fast and was about the size of three Michelin tires with thin legs in Bermuda shorts and a bowling ball shaped head. They were Mutt and Jeff, Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, except they were African Americans. Israel’s skin was the color of coffee with cream and Ted’s was a light tan. I had grown up in a culture where all “Negroes” supposed looked alike because white people didn’t see them very well. But two men couldn’t have been more dissimilar in appearance and demeanor than the two they sent to pick us up for my “interview” at St. James.
It was an “interview” rather than an interview because I was convinced nothing would come of it. We’d spend a few hours with the members of the parish and sleep in a motel and then fly back home after attending church on Sunday and I would have fulfilled my promise to Bishop Atkinson. I was in the last couple of months at Virginia Seminary and had been offered a job as an assistant at a wonderful church in Chicago, which I wanted to accept. I called Bishop Atkinson to tell him the good news and after a half-hearted congratulations and an awkward silence, he told me that Bishop Campbell wouldn’t release me to leave the diocese. Had I paid close enough attention, I would have known that a seminarian ‘belonged’ to the diocese and bishop who had sponsored them in seminary. Had I been a little more astute about the ways of the church, I would have realized I should have called Bishop Campbell—the diocesan bishop—rather than the bishop coadjutor. Had I understood the ‘politics’ of such things in even a cursory way, I would have had the Bishop of Chicago call the Bishop of West Virginia to negotiate my release from my commitment to go and waltz with the diocese that brung me to the dance. But, of course, all those things were news to me. I thought I was a free agent rather than an indentured servant.
I handled it badly by getting angry with Bishop Atkinson (what is it they always do to the messengers?) and complained bitterly about not being allowed to do what I wanted. He listened patiently and promised to call me back right away. When he did, he had a deal—interview for one job in West Virginia and if I didn’t like it, he’d pull in all his chits and free me up to go to Chicago. So Bern and I flew to Charleston at St. James’ expense to do a little ‘play acting’ and say “thanks but no thanks” and begin our lives in the Windy City. On the way back to Alexandria, somewhere over Maryland at 30,000 feet, Bern said, “You’re going to say ‘yes’ aren’t you?” And I answered, “I’m afraid I am….”
That was because of Colonel Ted and the gang at St. James. They were people of such remarkable character that I simply wanted to be among them for a while. And, I must admit, I was fascinated by the profound paradoxes of the parish.
Ted drove down the long hill from the airport into the bowels of Charleston. I’d been there many times but I was surprised at how thrilled I was to the golden dome of the state capital shining in the late April sunlight, skeptic that I am about feelings of nostalgia, especially for ‘home’.
Bern told one of our friends the other day that she thought I could live anywhere. I had mentioned that Bern’s brother was going to move to Morgantown, West Virginia, where the three of us had gone to college. I’d said out loud that I would consider moving to Morgantown.
“Oh, you couldn’t live there now,” our friend suggested.
That’s when Bern said, “Jim could live anywhere.”
“He couldn’t live in Mississippi, I’d bet,” our friend said. “Oh yes, he could,” Bern replied. He ran through a list of places he and Bern could never live and she assured him about each suggestion that, “Jim could live there.” All this was terribly awkward since I was sitting with them on our deck, all of us drinking coffee, but they talked about me as if I were away—living in Mississippi, perhaps. The truth was, she was right.
“So he’d find something to like about anywhere he was?” our friend asked.
“No, that’s not it,” Bern told him, “he would end up ‘liking it’ without any reasons, ‘liking it’ just because he was there. In fact, he wouldn’t even need to ‘like it’, just him being there would be enough.”
“That’s really strange,” our friend observed.
“Isn’t it?” Bern replied.
“More coffee?” I asked, just to see if I was really there. They both said they would like another cup and I went off to make it.
It’s not like me to get attached to places or things. And I’m pretty satisfied wherever I am and with whatever I’ve got. So, seeing the gold dome of the capitol of West Virginia moved my heart, but not much more than seeing anything beautiful anywhere would. “Home”, for me, is truly where the heart is.
Ted and Israel and the two of us had lunch at a Shoney’s restaurant next to the motel where we’d be sleeping. Colonel Ted talked non-stop and Israel laughed ironically at some of the Colonel's unconscious mild profanities. Ted was called 'the Colonel' because he was one. He had beenn one of the highest ranking African-Americans in World War II. Of course, back then, he would have been called a 'Negro'. Ted never objected to that discription and few of the older members of St. James Church objected either. It was a generational thing for them—maybe, having grown up in the world they grew up in, “Negro” was a huge step up from 'colored' or worse. After 20 years as a soldier, Ted started working for the U.S. Postal Service, or whatever it was called back in the 50's. He worked there long enough to get a pension and finished his working life with the Veterans Adminstration. He was the only person I ever met who had three federal pensions.
Ted was the Senior Warden when I arrived. He'd been Senior Warden (the highest lay office in an Episcopal Church) for years before that. A small church like St. James hangs onto good people in high office. Ted, like several of the older members of St. James, was extremly light skinned. He once told me that 'back in the day'--before integration—he always carried a turban in his trunk so that when he and Susan wanted to stop for the night in the southern states they were assured a room. He'd put on his turban and speak broken English and registered without a problem. I remember asking him what he felt about having to do that. He drew a serious look on his broad face and said, “it was embarrassing, in a way....But lots better than sleeping in the car!” Then he laughed. Ted laughed a lot. He was a gentle, large, round man—about 5'10 and at least 270 pounds. His mouth was almost always twisted into a crooked grin He had seen enough of life and pain to know the best defense was a good offense. So, he spread laughter wherever he went.
Even though I'd grown up in a town that was half African-American, I didn't know much at all about Black folks—none of us White folks really do. And so Ted and the gang were my kind, patient, good-humored professors in the study of race. Ted more than anyone. For example, I remember that Ted and I were on the way to lunch at the Charleston VFW when the Veteran's Day Parade passed by. Ted and I stopped and watched it—him waving at some of the Vets as they passed by. When the parade had ended, he taught me a great lesson.
“You know one thing that makes us different, Jim?” he said. I must have shaken my head because he continued...though Ted didn't need response to keep talking. “When you watch a parade you can decide if you like the next band when you hear them coming around the corner. I have to wait until they are in view. If I see some black kids in the band, then I can enjoy the music.”
Ted was correct, although it came like a bolt of lightening to me. I could appreciate the music before I saw the band. Liberal that I am, I thought it was open-minded of me not to care about the racial makeup of the band. I attempted to tell him that—but for Ted it was a more complicated, marrow the bone issue. “Thought like a White Man,” he said, then laughed.
One thing I know for certain—something I learned from Ted and the Gang at St. James—no Black priest in a White congregation would have experienced the love and acceptance, patience and support I received from them. When my pregnant wife and I arrived at St. James, we made up 2/3 of the White membership of the parish. The other White member was married to a Black man. She was, by the way, the house cleaner for several of the Black members. Don't tell me Irony doesn't reign on earth....
Our family—both our children were born in Charleston—were accepted completely into the 'family' of St. James. I never ate in an many parishioner's homes in the other two parishes I served combined. We were wined and dined. And, to be honest, we had much more in common with most of the people at St. James—education, culture, tastes, opinions—than we didn't have in common. The one thing we did not share was race—skin color.
It's astonishing how skin color so dominates the psyches of people around the globe. My son has been to Taiwan a few times with his wife's Taiwanese parents. He tells me that island has some of the most beautiful beaches he's ever seen and that almost everyone on them are tourists. The Taiwanese middle and upper class carry umbrella in the sun. Lighter skin is valued. And consider the geishas of Japan: they powder their faces to typing paper white and are considered the embodiment of beauty and sensuality. The Hispanic congregation of St. John's in Waterbury are divided by many distinctions—nation of origin, accent, class, education—but many of them told me over the years that lighter skinned folks had advantages. Ironically enough, it seems only Caucasions seem to value darker skin. Until the last decade or so of skin-cancer fear, many white people tried to see how tan they could get in the summer. And even now, in the Era of Sun Block, there are products to artificially give your skin a brown glow. Blacks have a different view of skin color than White folks.
I learned, in my Black Studies with Ted, the saying aboout skin color among many African-Americans of a certain age and culture. “If you're light,” it goes, “your're alright. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, stay back.” The “Black is Beautiful” movement changed that for younger African-Americans, yet, as I learned from Professor Ted, skin color is an essential part of describing a Black person to another Black person who hasn't met them. There is as wide a range of distinctions in coloration to some blacks as there are Eskimo words for snow.
One distinction Ted taught me well is the distinction between 'African-Americans' and 'African-Africans'. Mind you, his opinions may have said more about his age and class than about what all Black people think of Africans. It came about when, for the third time, the Bishop had called me to see if someone at St. James would like to host a visiting African priest and his wife. The third time was the last straw for Ted.
“Tell him 'no!',” Ted told me, clearly exasperated by the request. “Nobody here wants to have Africans in their home....And when you tell the bishop that, remember to ask him for a damn Range Rover for St. James.”
Something I have found interesting about the Episcopal Church is how enamored we often are with African Anglicans. When I was a priest in West Virginia, some thirty years ago now, the struggling Diocese would go head over heels about a Bishop from Tanganyika but did next to nothing to involve African-Americans in the power structure of the church. That really burned the older members of St. James, especially after some deep pocket people around the state gave an African visitor a Land Rover the same year some mission church grants were reduced.
So I called the Bishop and suggested that there must be some White folks who would enjoy the exotic pleasure of hosting an African family for a week or two. The Bishop—a sweet and good man—was shocked that not all Black people would be ecstatic to have a chance to talk with someone from their Motherland. I patiently explained, using Ted's logic if not his profanities, that many of the folks at St. James found the African clerics arrogant and dismissive since their families had never been slaves in America. I also told him that families of the members of St. James had been in this country longer than the Irish side of my mother's family and that very few African-Americans, descended as they were from slaves, had no idea what part of Africa their ancestors came from. “Besides,” I relayed from Ted, giving him credit for this insight, “Africans don't understand our culture and smell funny.”
The Bishop was silent for a long time. He might have been considering what people would think of him if he dared comment on the odor of an African visitor. He thought, as Ted had taught me, 'just like a White Man.”
Just before we hung up, I made the request for a Range Rover, thinking he would be amused. I don't think he was.
Ted taught me many things. He taught me 'tolerance' wasn't the great and noble idea most White people thought it was.
“If you say you 'tolerate' me,” he said slowly, trying to get around my White-Think, “the implication is that tolerance is a choice you're making and you can take that choice back if you decide to. 'Tolerance' leaves White people in the dominant, oppressive position.” He waited until he decided I had somewhat dimly understood that subtlety before continuing. “Negroes...Black folk...don't want racial 'tolerance', we want equality.”
The little town where I grew up—Anawalt, WestVirginia—is in the southern most county of the state. Anawalt was roughly 50% Black. Yet I knew only a few of the Black people's names and some of the elders of their community called me 'Mister Jimmy'. There was no bad blood, for the most part, between the races. But we went to different schools and different churches and different beer joints. The Black folk were 'tolerated', and, in many ways appreciated for not making more demands—but there was no thought that they were equal. We had 'racial harmony', not 'racial equality'.Even when things appear to be just and fair, it is often the 'justice' and 'fairness' granted by the dominant and oppressive group.
Even today, I fear—God bless Ted's soul—even today.
(At the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Anaheim, there were changes made to the calendar of feasts. One of the new commemorations was to honor the poet Langston Hughes and the writer, W.E.B. Du Bois. In one of the collects written for that Holy Day the term “Black folks” appeared.
Some White-Thinking deputies rose to amend the collect to say “African-American people” instead of “Black folks”. Never mind that DuBois' seminal work is called The Soul of Black Folks and never mind that “Black folks” is a term Black Folks use. To be politically correct, these White folks were trying to change the very language of the people being honored. It was a half-hour of madness...nobody listening to the string of Black deputies who rose to explain the reality and how it would be an offense to change 'Black folks'. Black folks couldn't even call themselves what they wanted unless White folks approved! Somewhere in that I heard Ted laughing and Israel chuckling and Harris fairly screaming with irony.)
Harris, by the way, was a vice-President of West Virginia State College, a historically Black college pretty much ruined by integration and white commuter students. Harris was a devout Episcopalian who would give me tips on liturgical details. Many Black Episcopal Churches are quite high-church...St. James was Anglo-Catholic as long as they could attract Black priests. But economics caught up with them and most every priest in the Diocese was White and attended Virginia Seminary, the Evil Twin of Anglo-Catholicism. I was the 3rd White priest after an 80 year run of Black priests and I had attended Virginia Seminary!
So once Harris asked me politely and with much apology if I would mind 're-vesting' the altar after the Eucharist. I had no idea what he was talking about but agreed to do it if I could. It was after a Sunday service and I had left the chalice and paten on the alter with the purificator beside them. All Harris wanted me to do was wash the chalice and reassemble the whole mess with the burse and veil and whatever that little hard, square thing is called. That was easy.
“I'm on my way to High Church,” I told Harris the next Sunday after leaving the altar reassembled.
“Not in your lifetime,” he said.
Harris also told me once, “any Black man who isn't a Baptist or a Methodist has had some White man messing with his religion.”
I thought for a minute. “Your religion would probably be Muslim or Tribal if the slave traders had never messed with it.”
He smiled at me—he was one of the most charming men I ever met—“Ted may be wrong about you,” he said, “you don't think half like a White man.”
Since I was the priest of a Black Church, I was invited to join the Black Ministerial Group made up of the Black ministers of the Baptist, Methodist, AME and AME Zion churches. (A White priest of an Episcopal Church was more welcomed than the self-appointed, self-ordained Black preachers here and there around Charleston.) So I joined. They received me graciously and generously. I went to many of the monthly meetings but skipped the one when they all took a trip to Cincinnati together to buy suits and, from their jokes the month before the trip, to drink and smoke a bit.
I told Ted about the trip to Cincinnati that I turned down. Then I asked him if he thought I should have gone along for solidarity's sake. He was fairly falling over from laughter.
“Do you even own a suit?” he asked, gasping.
It was a Sunday so I looked down at my khaki colored suit and shook my head.
“No, Jim,” he said, “I mean a SUIT like those boys wear every day?”
Black or navy blue or pin-stripped costing over $100. No I didn't.
“You are such a White man,” he said, walking away to tell Israel or Harris or his wife Susan or Remitha about how I might have gone to Cincinnati with the Black Ministers to buy suits....He was snorting with delight.
Susan, by the way, was Ted's life. His Life, capital 'L'. There were two loves in his life: Susan and St. James. His devotion to both was beyond question. The way Ted looked at Susan made other women long for such looks from their husbands. To say he adored her would, I think, be drastically understating the reality.
Susan was, I believe, a year or two older than Ted (though one didn't ask such questions in the polite culture of St. James). For both of them in was a late-life second marriage. Ted never mentioned his first wife and their divorce. Susan was widowed and her son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters lived across the street from her and Ted. Peter, the son, was devoted to his mother only slightly less than Ted was. And Ted had a great relationship with the family, especially the youngest granddaughter, Emily. While her sister was beautiful and brilliant, Emily was large, plain and moderately retarded. She did very well in a caring community like St. James or the town of Institute where so many of the St. James gang lived. However, I didn't believe she'd ever be able to live on her own. She and Ted were magic: Emily would start shrieking with joy as soon as she saw him and his round face would light up. A full bird Colonel and a gangly, slightly out of control adolescent who would never be an 'adult' in a full way would play together like children. Ted would pretend she annoyed him sometimes, but that ruse was easily seen through.
Susan's son, Peter, was a kind but rather sardonic guy. I would sometimes get his jokes an hour later. But he was a faithful father to both is daughters and a doting son to Susan until one day he was driving from Institute to Charleston on the Interstate, pulled his car to the breakdown lane and died of a heart attack.
When I got to Ted and Susan's, I walked into a space of palpable grief. Susan rose from the chair where she was sitting and said, “Jim, oh Jim, did they tell you? My baby died....”
That was the moment that I realized what I should have known all along: the death of a child is the hardest death to take. It is monstrous and unnatural, so out of time and space as it should be, that to lose a 'baby', even one who is 60 years old as Peter was, is the unkindest cut of them all. That's also the day I recognized that the role of a priest at the time of death is simply to be present. There are, really, no words that are adequate, all aphorisms are devoid of integrity, nothing you can do makes a difference. All a priest can do is sit quietly and listen to the words and tears of the living and hold them in your heart and arms. That's what I did most of the rest of that day for Susan and Peter's little family.
Emily, not quite clear what had happened, was deeply disturbed by the enormous emotions flowing around her. So Ted took her for a long walk through the neighborhood, informing people along the way of Peter's death. By the end of the walk, after circling the campus of the college, Emily had become to bearer of the bad news. “She'd stop total strangers,” Ted told me later, “and grab their arms the way she does and say, 'daddy dead'.” He smiled, shook his head and pretended a gnat had flown in his eye and he had to get rid of it with his handkerchief. “It seemed to give her comfort,” he said, “that's the damnest thing....”
When people die, everyone has a story to tell. Henrich Ibsen said something like, there is no suffering so great that we cannot bear it if only we can put it in a story and tell a story about it. Emily's story was a simple one--'daddy dead'--and it got her through the next few days with less stress and more hope than any of the rest of us.

Could it have only been a year later when Susan called me in the early morning, apologized for disturbing me and asked if I could come. “Ted fell in the bathroom and I can't get him to wake up.” I called Clara, Peter's widow, and Harris and then rushed to my car. When I got there, just before the EMTs, Emily met me at the door. “Ted dead,” is all she said then she grabbed me and almost squeezed me in two with that wondrous strength so many retarded people have.
I could hear the ambulance coming in the distance, hurrying to the scene. They could have saved the siren; the Colonel had left the house. Ted dead....
The wake was going to be a problem. Neither of the two Black funeral homes were large enough for the crowds Susan knew to expect. And in one of those events I can only call 'inspired'--like the Spirit got entangled in the moment—I said, “Let's do the wake at the church....”
There was no question about it—it was perfect. Ted could lay in front of the altar where he often served as a chalicist, in the parish church he so loved and the ambiance would be already dignified and somber, unlike the way things get at funeral homes. When Harris and Scottie and Israel and young Mark, the next generation of leadership for St. James, heard that the mortician planned to drive Ted's body back and forth to Charleston between the wake and the funeral, they took things into their own hands.
So it was that Ted lay in state in that little A-frame church in a practically deserted part of north Charleston all through the night. And he was never alone. At first the men were dividing up the shifts, but the truth be known, I think that most of the stayed the whole night, sitting with their friend, telling stories about the Colonel, telling stories to keep away the chill of night and of death. Just as it should have been, the gang spend the night with Ted. The whole thing was gentle and sweet and lovey...just the way it should have been....

(One of the comments tonight was that it was good to read this chapter so near to All Saints Day. That moved me greatly. Jason and Butterfly and Ted and the gang as 'the saints of God' works well with me....)

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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.