Wednesday, November 6, 2019

More old stuff--more than a decade old but worth pondering

(Some of my earliest posts almost no one read)


Friday, March 27, 2009


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

I come from the Appalachian Mountains of the southernmost county of West Virginia and grew up in the Pilgrim Holiness Church, which meets the definition of 'fundamentalist'--nails it on the head, in fact. Get out your maps, boys and girls and look at how mountains come out of Western North Carolina and Southwestern Virginia, across WV and Kentucky and parts of Tennesee all the way to Arkansas. That area, beloved, is as foreign to you (if you didn't grow up there) as Bosnia and the south of France. You have no idea what life was like--still is--in Appalachia (the name I would call that area). You are looking at (if you still have your maps out) some of the most isolated and distinctly different parts of the US. You'd need a tour guide to understand the culture there--and there is this: you most likely know someone who came from there. The county I grew up in, McDowell County, is about as big as Rhode Island and had, when I was a boy, about 100,000 souls living there. It now has 27,000 or so citizens, so the rest went somewhere. They might be your neighbors--like Ms. Campbell and I am to the good and hethren folks of Connecticut.

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

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

Thursday, March 26, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Difficulty with Finitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sweet smells of spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.