Wednesday, October 16, 2019

inverted, indoor tomatoes...

One of the strangest things I have read recently was a note from an organic gardener in New England offering advice on ripening tomatoes. Here is the essence: If you have a lot of unripened tomatoes on the vine you can bring your plants inside after uprooting them. Shake off most of the dirt before hanging them upside down in a reasonably warm place indoors. "They will ripen almost as well as if left outside." 

To say that I was apprehensive would be an understatement. How was such a thing possible? But I am a novice with beginner's mind through and through. So, that is exactly what I did: uprooted the three mature tomato plants, maintained a modest amount of roots, shook the dirt off and hung them in the basement. And I'll be damned if they aren't ripening after just three days!

Its kind of a trip to walk downstairs to do the laundry and be surrounded by these inverted, uprooted tomato plants. Kind of fun, too. If this holds up we will have another 25 fresh tomatoes by week's end at just about the same time we will get our first frost. Learning how all of this works is fascinating. I have my two resource texts now and am beginning to get a handle on how to help our sandy soil, too. Next year will be better than this year albeit still part of my learning curve.
For some reason this poem by Karen Paul Holmes, "Rental Cottage, Maine," keeps popping up in relationship to this year's tomatoes. Back in the early days of being a dad, husband, pastor, writer, and musician I tried to hide away my failings, faults and wounds. I couldn't, of course, but I sure tired to do so. Years later I learned from my children that this striving to look perfect in public made them feel crazy. Some insights are hard won - painful - and blessedly humbling. Most of the times these days I revel in my mistakes. Foolishness. And try to honor my massive learning curve. It is a relief to know I don't have to be perfect. 

We thought we were the perfect family—
loyal, stable, a brick wall you couldn't topple
with a wrecking ball. Parents dependable
as the frozen Minute Maid juice
we squeezed from cardboard cans and drank
mornings, reconstituted.

We'd come to this place just to be together.
October in Ogunquit, record heat,
no need for the sweaters we'd packed.
Dad had died but Mom, in her 80s, sat
pouring green tea, our wicker chairs
on the small porch, six sets
of knees touching.

She didn't mean to mention
Dad's first wife.

To our collective what?
she sputtered lasted a year, before the war,
her name: Phyllis.
Remember that chest in the basement?
It was hers.

Some moments passed, then mutely
we agreed to let it go.
Radium glowed green in our brains
but didn't burn. The knowing, a relief:
We didn't have to be perfect.

The August-warm wind felt pleasant
and odd. We sat on that porch,
orange leaves pinwheeling down the street.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

trying to live on the edge...

Recently the words of Fr. Richard Rohr really hit home. Reflecting on the wisdom and importance of the spirituality of St. Francis and St. Clare for our era, Rohr wrote: "Francis and Clare of Assisi both found their inner and outer freedom by structurally living on the edge of the inside of both church and society." As others have observed, the spiritual path that these two saints shared with the world was never about preserving the status quo of the institutional church or bourgeois society. Instead, they invited individuals to take up the path of freedom, integrity, joy, meaning, prayer, accountability, and community through acts of incarnational compassion informed by the periphery rather than the middle of the road. It is a vision born from below as Bonhoeffer used to say. An encounter with the sacred from the borders of life. To be sure, Francis and Clare remained tender towards imperfect structures, organizations, organized faith traditions, and social norms, but they refused to become enmeshed in them. 

Living on the edge of both church and society allowed them to practice a way of being that was in harmony with the seasons - shaped by the wisdom of creation itself - and grounded in real life. One of my friends and former colleagues put it like this in a Facebook meme: 
A poem that showed up in my mailbox this morning evoked much that same truth, too as I read it during breakfast:

If you often find yourself at a loss for words
or don’t know what to say to those you love,
just extract poetry out of poverty, this dystopia
of civilization rendered fragrant,
blossoming onto star-blue fields of loosestrife,
heady spools of spike lavender, of edible clover
beckoning to say without bruising
a jot of dog’s tooth violet, a nib of larkspur notes,
or the day’s perfumed reports of indigo
in the gloaming—
what to say to those
whom you love in this world?
Use floriography, or as the flower-sellers put it,
Say it with flowers.
—Indigo, larkspur, star-blue, my dear.

Yesterday I gathered dried, autumn leaves in the afternoon sun for composting. Today I will take out the remaining cherry tomato plants from the garden to hang upside down in our basement. I already have hung three other tomato plants down there. And just as my gardening resources for New England predicted, they are all slowly changing from green to red. Amazing. For me, awakening to the wisdom of the seasons has been a slow process. Like ripening itself, it has been incremental. And uneven. Apparently that's just how it goes - especially when you're trying to live on the edge of both church and society. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

learning to sit without knowing (thank you Carrie Newcomer)...

There's a wild mystery to playing live music that is simultaneously beguiling and disconcerting. Last night at 52 Main that paradox was alive and well and fully present. You can't plan for these things any more that you can plan to grow up in troubling times (to paraphrase Carrie Newcomer.) It just is: you show up, set up and start to groove and the mood of the house instructs you about how to proceed. What songs to play - and how fast. What tunes to omit - without regret. And how far you can push yourself while still making music you love while everyone rides the wave of what is.

The house last night was ready to party: there were young seniors, middle aged hipsters, young hotties across the gender spectrum dressed to kill as well as a few NYC transplants cruising the upstate scene for good food and good times. Believe it or not, Jerry Nadler - yes that Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee - made an appearance, too but the place was too hoppin' for him to get a table about 10 pm so he moved on. We held the dinner crowd for an extra 90 minutes by tapping into their energy and playing wildly. During the first break we schmoozed some to get better acquainted with the crowd and they were digging it all. To be sure, it had been a stunning autumn day in the country. It was art festival day in Millerton, too and the fall colors were at their peak. All of which contributed to a collection of strangers and friends ready to party hearty. Not obnoxiously - like a crew of Anglophone freshman on their first drinking excursion in Montreal (not pretty). More like a sophisticated collection of good souls spread across the generations who were ready to let the good times roll with open hearts.

The second set, after the dinner crowd split, was equally engaged. They were younger, 20 somethings showing up after supper for drinks and who knows what? They, too, gave our songs shape and form. They loved the extended guitar solos John shared with them: they hollered and cheered, they clapped along to the funky rhythm and bought the band drinks. By the end or round two we were certain it had already been a good night so we gave them my take on "Sweet Jane." I usually play it straight, emphasizing the tenderness of St. Lou Reed's wild lyrics, but the mood was too buzzed for subtlety. So, like Tina Turner used to say about "Proud Mary," "we'll do it NICE... and ROUGH!" And we did. (At midnight, when we were packing up, the bartender looked over at us, smiled and put on HER version of "Sweet Jane" in gratitude - she even through in "Walk on the Wild Side," too.) We closed out the night with our take on Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" and John Hiatt's "And It Feels Like Rain." Raucous followed by sultry. A sweet way to bring in all home.

When we started, it felt right. The first tune was strong with a hint of reserve as we hadn't played as a band for over a month. I flubbed a few riffs on the second reggae tune and felt rattled. But by the time we moved into a jazz blues take on "Somebody to Love," and followed it up with Bruce Cockburn's spacey, mystical, psychedelic spiritual "Star Wheels," we were hitting the mark and the crowd was feeling the groove. It just got better and better as the night unfolded.
I arrived at the club at 4 pm after listening to "Women Who Rock" ("Walk Like an Egptyian" and "When I Think About You I Touch Myself" blaring out of the sunroof at maximum volume) as I drove through the hills and fall foliage. I drove home at 12:30 am in complete darkness taking in the new Carrie Newcomer CD, "The Point of Arrival." The opening song spoke to me on a few levels then and continues to speak to me upon rising this morning.

I’m learning to sit with not knowing.
When I don't see where its going
Cool my heels and start slowing
I am learning to sit with not knowing

I'm learning to sit with what’s next
What if and my best guess
Be kinder when it’s a process
I'm learning to live with what’s next

Here's a clear space I've chosen
Where the denseness of this world opens
Where there's something holding steady and true
Regardless of me or you

I’m learning live with the high stakes
Befriending my mistakes
Lay my hand where my heart aches
I’m learning live with the high stakes

I'm learning to live with what takes time
No ribbon across some finish line
Stop feeling I'm always a day behind
I'm learning to live with what takes time

I’m learning to sit with not knowing.
When I don't see where its going
Cool my heels and start slowing
I am learning to sit with not knowing

May the mystery continue to awaken me this day...

Saturday, October 12, 2019

returning thanks for st. lou...

It was just six years ago that St. Lou Reed left this realm - and I've been missing him mightily. Tonight, at our gig in Millerton, NY, I'll do my take of "Sweet Jane" in his honor. Most of the time Reed played it ruff - it is pure punk on most recordings - and Mott the Hoople's version produced by David Bowie from 1972- my first taste of "Jane" - still shapes how I hear it at the start. 
There is, however, another take from 1969 where Reed and his mates in the Velvet Underground go downbeat - and that's where I draw my inspiration. Not only is there an aching tenderness to this version, but Reed's original bridge is included - something I didn't know about until the Cowboy Junkie's released it on The Trinity Sessions in 1988.

Apparently the "Matrix" version was how "Jane" had been originally recorded by the Velvets but the bridge and additional lyrics were edited out for the album "Loaded." I absolutely go to pieces when Reed sings:

Some people like to go out dancing
Other people like us we got to work
And there's even some evil mofos
Who'll tell you that life is made from dirt
That women never really faint
And  villains always blink their eyes
And children are the only ones who blush
And life is just to die
But anyone who's ever had a heart
Wouldn't turn around and break it
And anyone who's ever played a part
Wouldn't turn around and hate it
Anyone who's ever had a dream
Anyone who's ever played a part
Anyone who's ever been lonely
Anyone who's been split apart

There's nothing sentimental about St. Lou - he walked on the wild side - and just barely got out in time to tell us about the grit, pain, and beauty of what it means to live with our brokenness. Not everybody can take his voice. He once said he developed a style of talk/singing so that anyone regardless of ability could do his songs. For years he was pretty messed up in a ton of ways. Truly one of those who only come out at night. Mikal Gilmore, rock critic extraordinaire, wrote in Rolling Stone:

Lou Reed doesn't just write about squalid characters, he allows them to leer and breathe in their own voices, and he colors familiar landscapes through their own eyes. In the process, Reed has created a body of music that comes as close to disclosing the parameters of human loss and recovery as we're likely to find. That qualifies him, in my opinion, as one of the few real heroes rock & roll has raised.

But by the 1980's he had regrouped, cleaned up, and reoriented himself with his art that became increasingly insightful. My other absolute favorite is his 1989 masterpiece, New York, that continues to be the finest social commentary rock and roll album of any era. Here's the whole freakin' thing live...

Take a listen to any part of it - or give yourself and hour for the whole ride - you won't regret it. His "Busload of Faith" gave my own spirituality some focus as did "Last Great American Whale" and "Dirty Boulevard." His follow-up, Magic and Loss from 1992, is another winner - especially "What's Good." He was a hard living, hard loving SOB who I came to love despite our all all too obvious differences. He helped me start to own my shadow and give expression to the ways my wounds are woven into the core of my soul. Tonight, we'll rock on and give thanks to St. Lou as well as another maestro. Robert Hunter. If you're in the area, stop by 52 Main in Millerton, NY after 9 pm and join us.

Friday, October 11, 2019

tending the soil for winter...

"We all need sanctuary. We need a place where we can feel safe, one that rejuvenates and refreshes u, somewhere we feel nourished and loved."  Jessi Bloom

Yesterday I started to tend the soil of our garden for winter. Because I am a novice, it is slow going - with ample time left for allowing the wisdom of past masters to sink in to me and the earth - before moving on. So, I pulled out the worn remnants of the cucumbers and recycled their vines in the compost. I weeded and raked the new terrace in anticipation of adding more soil, wood chips, and compost. And I pondered what the soil was telling me as I read from Andrew Keys' guide: Growing in the Northeast Garden. Besides learning that our yard is too sandy - meaning that "nutrients will wash through the soil without sufficiently sticking" to the vegetables - came this gem: "The moral of the soil-testing story is this: nurturing your soil will nurture your garden; and testing your soil will illustrate how your soil may need to be nurtured." (p. 259) 

Part of my commitment to building this garden as an everyday sanctuary is to be a good steward. Sentimentality and naivete have long defined my practice of gardening. I love the delicate beauty of flowers. I delight in the aroma of fresh basil and oregano. I am captivated by the arrival of butterflies amidst the wild flowers. But when it comes to caring for healthy and holy plants beyond my romantic affectations, wisdom matters. Moving beyond pretty pictures and the random poem is vital. "Creating spaces where well-being is the focus," writes Jessi Bloom, "we have a vested interest in maintaining functional ecosystems for our own health and prosperity. This means protecting ecosystem health and regenerating or repairing degraded landscapes. It also means being careful about how much we consume in building our special sanctuary." (Everyday Sanctuary, p. 32) St. Paul cut to the chase: "When I was a child, I thought like a child, acted like a child, and spoke like a child. But now that I am maturing - or ripening - I have put childish things away... now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face." (I Corinthians 13: 11-12)

This year's garden was all about beginner's mind mixed with my all too well-developed sentimentality. I was captured with the aesthetics without knowing how to do the hard work that bears fruit over the long haul. Consider how I built the first two terraces: pure trial and error. To be sure, I learned a great deal through my mistakes, as I needed to rebuild them four or five times. It was an excellent way for me to grasp what I didn't know - and now I will reinforce the terrace walls with rebar before winter. I didn't know how to grow pumpkins and was flummoxed when they developed a white mold. Not only was I watering them wrong, but our soil was too weak to feed them well.  

And I had no understanding of how the sun actually moved over our garden. For those who are well-trained, this will seem bone-headed. Of course you need to know how much sunlight will touch your plants before they go in the ground. But I didn't. And now we have about one hundred green tomatoes in need of ripening in a plot that gets maybe two hours of sun each autumn day. I don't lament learning from my mistakes. There is something humorous and humbling in this way of wisdom. Moreover, making these missteps helps me know what I don't know and need to know. Like how I can put some of the unripened fruit into a box wrapped in newspaper and stored in the basement for ripening. Or how I can even uproot some of the larger tomato plants, clear away the vines and roots, and hang them upside down in the garage so that they can ripen in their own time, too.

Once the tomatoes have been moved, I can do a test on the soil to determine how acidic or alkaline it is. I'll send a small sample of soil off to the county agent, too for their analysis. There is a rugged beauty to this garden that I have sensed by being in it so much this year. Its spirit is not delicate or Zen-like but more like a Thanksgiving cornucopia: big, bold, and beautiful. Studying how to enhance and strengthen that will be some of my winter garden work. I also need to discover how best to address the presence of deer and chipmunks as the days grow shorter and the snow does its own special work.  At the close of this weekend the raised beds and terraces will be ready for some repair. Next weekend we'll finish fixing the deck so it can be power-washed and stained before winter, too. It is somehow fitting that one of the poems that come to my in-box each morning included this one from Wendell Berry entitled, "In Art Rowanberry's Barn."

In Art Rowanberry's barn, when Art's death
had become quietly a fact among
the other facts, Andy Catlett found
a jacket made of the top half
of a pair of coveralls after
the legs wore out, for Art
never wasted anything.
Andy found a careful box made
of woodscraps with a strap
for a handle; it contained
a handful of small nails
wrapped in a piece of newspaper,
several large nails, several
rusty bolts with nuts and washers,
some old harness buckles
and rings, rusty but usable,
several small metal boxes, empty,
and three hickory nuts
hollowed out by mice.
And all of these things Andy
put back where they had been,
for time and the world and other people
to dispense with as they might,
but not by him to be disprized.
This long putting away
of things maybe useful was not all
of Art's care-taking; he cared
for creatures also, every day
leaving his tracks in dust, mud,
or snow as he went about
looking after his stock, or gave
strength to lighten a neighbor's work.
Andy found a bridle made
of several lengths of baling twine
knotted to a rusty bit,
an old set of chain harness,
four horseshoes of different sizes,
and three hammerstones picked up
from the opened furrow on days
now as perfectly forgotten
as the days when they were lost.
He found a good farrier's knife,
an awl, a key to a lock
that would no longer open.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

a new season is bringing life from the ashes of the old...

Everyday the dangerous and mean-spirited words, actions, and decisions of this current regime bring cruelty, fear, and death to countless beings throughout God's creation. The magnitude of slaughter and desecration is mind-numbing. Our violation of the water, land, and air has ravaged the life-giving properties and beauty of nature and condemned our partners in creation - reptiles, water and land animals, and plant-life - to disease and ruin. The political abandonment of our European allies has advanced the resurgence of nativism and race-hatred on the continent and strengthened the international influence of Russia and China throughout the developing world. The current regime has consistently betrayed our historic friends; ignored the wise counsel of time-tested political, ethical, and economic elders; and used the power of the federal government to line their own pockets. They routinely advance economic havoc, nourish the 
unholy marriage of White Protestant Evangelicalism with the State to enhance an American theocracy, and manipulate the checks and balances of our system to deepen grassroots cynicism.  

Yes, there has been resistance. Of course, there have been challenges in the street, courts, and ballot boxes. And without a doubt, the movements to contain and reverse the violence will mature - and, in time, bring some long needed correctives to our culture of greed. Like Dr. King and others have noted, the arc of the moral universe does tilt ever so slightly towards justice and truth. I know this to be true in history and nature. In the meantime, however, the callous and cold-blooded destruction intensifies.

These days it is no longer my regular practice to write like this: since leaving my public role two years ago, I have not sent letters to the editor, taken part in local demonstrations of opposition to the regime, posted political/ethical analysis on my blog, or even tried to impact public opinion. I needed a season of silence for my own soul; and I sensed that this era was one where we had to come face-to-face with our own shadow. We needed to live into the consequences of our lies, fears, greed, and brokenness. Other nations, like Germany after WWII and South Africa after apartheid, have done this becoming wiser and more compassionate by confessing their wounds and atoning for their sins. There has been some of this in Canada, too. But the USA - like most of the former Soviet bloc nations - have chosen to hide from our social sins and deny the suffering we have inflicted on creation over the generations. Consequently, those wounds still haunt much of what we do - and will continue to do so until we face them with courage, honesty, and humility.

Perhaps that is why I have been trying to learn from the experience of the late Jean Vanier who advocated what he called the "Ten Foot Rule." Give your attention, energy, and resources to those in need whom you can physically touch. Some suffering cannot be ended nor can every person be engaged in every moral cause that cries out for attention. In an interview with Public Radio's Krista Tippett, Vanier observed that while the internet aids some forms of human communication, it also trains us to accept helplessness as the norm by bombarding us with agonies and atrocities we can do nothing to stop. His counsel was to own this truth. Act where you live was his message. Do so with courage and vigor and not only will your action be more satisfying, it will turn our words of love and hope into flesh and blood compassion. I believe that the wise old preacher Quoleth of ancient Israel said much the same thing three thousand years ago - and not much has changed. 

All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.... (Indeed) to everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

It is not for me to prophesy whether we in the US have faced the consequences of our fears, anger, and greed sufficiently to start making reparations. The jury is clearly out and we won't know for certain until Election Day 2020. But it is not just the weather that appears to be shifting in the fall of 2019. There is what appears to be a growing interest in what sounds to me like confession taking place in the public realm. Rather than just the wringing of tired hands, divisive carping, or silent despair - instead of only reacting to the vulgar attacks of this administration - there are new ideas being shared that are built upon hope and compassion. There are new scientific resources rising to the surface to help us contain the consequences of climate crisis. There are new players in our politics calling us to accountability. And an emerging new coalition of interfaith congregations reclaiming the vision of the Beloved Community arising from within the ashes of our shared grief. (NOTE: Join us on Friday, November 22 @ 7 pm at First Church of Christ on Park Square as BIO - Berkshire Interfaith Organizing - partners with local musicians and poets to raise funds as we offer safety, shelter, solidarity and "sanctuary" to an immigrant family seeking a new start in our region.)

One of the wise elders of our land, Parker Palmer, who partners with Carrie Newcomer to reclaim hope and action throughout the US, put it like this in his prescient reflection on the spirituality of the season of autumn. "Autumn is a season of great beauty, but it is also a season of decline: the days grow shorter, the light is suffused, and summer’s abundance decays toward winter’s death. Faced with this inevitable winter, what does nature do in autumn? She scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring—and she scatters them with amazing abandon." 

As I explore autumn’s paradox of dying and seeding, I feel the power of metaphor. In the autumnal events of my own experience, I am easily fixated on surface appearances—on the decline of meaning, the decay of relationships, the death of a work. And yet, if I look more deeply, I may see the myriad possibilities being planted to bear fruit in some season yet to come. In retrospect, I can see in my own life what I could not see at the time—how the job I lost helped me find work I needed to do, how the “road closed” sign turned me toward terrain I needed to travel, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to discern meanings I needed to know. On the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.

This hopeful notion that living is hidden within dying is surely enhanced by the visual glories of autumn. What artist would ever have painted a season of dying with such a vivid palette if nature had not done it first? Does death possess a beauty that we—who fear death, who find it ugly and obscene—cannot see? How shall we understand autumn’s testimony that death and elegance go hand in hand? In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of the “hidden wholeness.”

Like Palmer, my hunch is that this country is moving into a new season that simultaneously honors the grief that has dominated the past three years as we look for the new seeds of life taking root, too. Ours has been a culture "that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter, and the Faustian bargains we make fail to sustain our lives." Could it be that after a mere 243 years, our nation is maturing beyond limitations of sentimentality and cynicism?


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

too slow these days to fit into this place...

While going through the turnstile at the 53rd Street subway station in Brooklyn, the sensor kept beeping, telling me to "swipe again." I did this three more times with careful intentionality 'til my daughter advised, "Faster, Dad. You have to do it faster." Which worked - although it brought up a spontaneous, low groan from within. As we scurried down the stairs to catch the approaching coach that would carry us to church, I heard myself say to no one in particular: "I guess I'm too slow these days to fit into this place." 

The whole way into Manhattan those words stayed with me only to become lost somewhere between 45th and Rector Street. They popped up again this morning, however, while gazing upon that amazing yellow maple tree in the wetlands beyond our house: "I guess I'm too slow these days to fit into this place." How true. We used to live in Manhattan - at 110th and Broadway - while I attended Union Theological Seminary. I used to ride those trains regularly, too at all hours of the day and night. I used to traverse the boroughs on my way to an internship in Jamaica, Queens. Or cross the city's cultures by rail on my way to the suburbs of Connecticut. For decades I delighted in returning to this metropolis to visit daughters in grad school, new teaching gigs, or in pursuit of new places to call home. Going to conferences always quickened my pace, too as I relearned how to move with the groove of the island that never sleeps. And while I would still relish strolling from the Seminary quad at Reinhold Niebuhr Place and Broadway past Lincoln Center on my way to Times Square, albeit at a much slower gait than in the old days, I must also honor the truth that "I am too slow these days to fit into this place" anymore.

Too slow to be harried. Too slow because holding the hands of my grandchildren is a treasure far greater than someone else's need to hustle us down the stairs. Too slow not to notice the stunning art deco details of countless buildings on my way from here to there. Or the intricate mosaics in old subway stations. Too slow to fret over who is too late to work. Too slow to ignore the parent who needs a hand carrying the stroller up the stairs. Too slow to be swept away by the pulsating rhythms and addictions of commerce and fear. Too slow not to keep pace with my sweetheart. Too slow to let my confusion with buying a subway card make any difference. Too slow to pretend my back doesn't hurt. Too slow, too slow, too slow.

Prayer, contemplation, tending the garden for each season, baking bread, practicing music, and poetry all tend to slow me down. That is one of their gifts. In a posting from BRAIN PICKINGS Maria Popova quotes Herman Hesse: "When we have learned to listen to trees then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” That is, then we can see and feel the joy of each moment trusting what is true at the pace of holy time - kairos time - rather than reality shaped only by punching a time clock. I am grateful that she also adds these words from William Blake: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.” (https://www.brainpickings. org/2018/09/ 11/martin-buber-tree/?mccid=530 e5fb22c&mc_eid=d53a910493)

While clicking on one of the numerous ancillary links in an article about Martin Buber I came upon this poem by Maya Angelou. I was moved by an excerpt but intimidated when I saw the full length of this poem. And at just that moment, my subway revelation whispered to me again: "I guess I'm too slow these days to fit into this place."And I savored the whole thing. 


We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see...

Today the ecstatically yellow tree in the wetlands has burst into being, full of color and presence, full of truth and grace. We have lived in this place through 12 autumns, but I only saw this tree last year. Had it always been? Was it only now ripening into beauty? Why were my eyes only ready to honor it last year? What else have I missed? I can't help but consider the prayer of confession from the Book of Common Prayer: "Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone..." Unseen. Overlooked. Neglected. And "Amazing Grace" is singing within me, too: "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see."

Having kept watch since September, I give thanks to the holy that at least for this tree I now have eyes to see. It has returned once more to share its passing grandeur with us at the edge our forgotten field. What gratuitous grace is this? In a few days, when the weather shifts and more rain pours down, the golden majesty of this maple will fade and become naked and brown once more. Yet for now, in this moment, it is glorious. Oddly enough, as I took in this tree this morning, the words of Jesus to his disciples in St. Matthew's gospel popped into my heart:

Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Please understand that I am not thinking or praying about the end of time. Nor the so-called rapture. Nor any other theological mumbo-jumbo. No, what I want to celebrate is just the humble yet holy invitation to "be here now" as Ram Das put it. To be present and awake to the ordinary glory that fills each day. Just last week, there were no clues that a shift from the bland to the beautiful would take place. I took this picture of the wetlands to document the anticipated metamorphosis. When we left for our weekend birthday party in Brooklyn, this is what was real: just a hint of red at the top of some trees. Four days later and the entire scrub had been changed. Or transformed. Morphing from its regular shades of green into a palette of gold and orange and even a bit of red alongside the brown.  Marsha de la O's poem, "God," warrants a repeated hearing.

In the canyon I suddenly know
that God is here, so I pull off
onto the turnout fumbling
at the knobs of the radio.
It’s getting dark.
In a tenor’s voice God sings to me
a passage from La Boheme
over the vast plain, the twisted arms
of the Joshua trees stretched wide,
the red rock holding the last light

beyond the rim. I feel God
inside my body, shuddering
with sorrow, with the dusk
and glisten of salt pan, with the
heart thump in the high place
on the rock chute where the whole
torso presses in the cleft. Cliffs
are the temptation to go on
living. God sings in a tremulous
voice, sobbing into the music,

filling the night sky with dark
water and I do go on
because of the gray-blue berries
of the juniper stirring
in the wind, because God sings
in the cross hatch of crows’ wings
with his tincture of death in blue lass,
weeping the tears in everything
while I keep blinking and stars
breathe on, making that mewing
sound, that flutter near
the edge of our eyes.

In these unsettling days of impeachment, violence, hyperbole, and uncertainty this tree teaches me that there is much more going on than I can see, grasp or even comprehend. Beauty breaks into my world like a thief in the night. Angels show up unawares all around me. All around you, too. When we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, where once we were lost, now we are found, blind but now we can see millions of simple acts of kindness and prayer bubbling up from below. Children showing the world's leaders what wisdom and courage look like. The prophet Joel of ancient Israel put it like this: There will come a time when "I will pour out my Spirit on all people," says the Lord. "Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your elderly will dream dreams and your young people will see visions." (Joel 2: 28)

Fr. Richard Rohr, deconstructing the mythology of St. Francis and St. Clare, wrote that after Francis spent time living with the lepers of his era, he began to "leave this world." Not in a mystical/magical way, but as a radical reorientation to what is truly life-giving. 

When Francis said, he “left the world,” he was not talking about creation, which he loved. He was talking about the “rotten, decadent system” as Dorothy Day called it. He was giving up on the usual payoffs, constraints, and rewards of business-as-usual and was choosing to live in the largest Kingdom of all. To pray and actually mean “Thy Kingdom come,” we must also be able to say “my kingdoms go.” 

He then adds this insight from the Dominican friar Augustine Thompson:

This encounter with lepers, not the act of stripping off his clothing before the bishop, would always be for Francis the core of his religious conversion... Wherever the leprosarium was, Francis lodged there with the residents and earned his keep caring for them... It was a dramatic personal reorientation that brought forth spiritual fruit. As Francis showed mercy to these outcasts, he came to experience God’s own gift of mercy to himself. As he cleaned the lepers’ bodies, dressed their wounds, and treated them as human beings, not as refuse to be fled from in horror, his perceptions changed. What before was ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but also viscerally and physically.

Today I need to spend more time in the garden so that God's first word in creation - nature itself - might clear away a few more cobwebs from my vision. I want to deepen that dramatic personal reorientation that transforms what is ugly and repulsive into beauty, delight and joy, not just in my heart, but in how I live. I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.

Monday, October 7, 2019

the prayer of tears...

One of my deepest convictions concerning living a life of faith - which means experiencing my humanity to the fullest degree possible with as much integrity and love as I can muster rather than mere intellectual assent to doctrine - has been shaped by listening to and honoring our tears. Fr. Ed Hays described the prayer of our tears with stunning clarity for me.

Our eyes are not only the windows of the soul and organs of enjoyment, they are also instruments of joy and sorrow. While we feel deeply the pain of departure or the intense experience of other emotions, these are not easily shown. Our eyes are sacraments for these beautiful and deeply felt feelings. For even our tears become a way for us to "pray all ways." Tears and laughter are universal languages, for they are understood by people of every nation. Crying is part of our basic birth equipment and so is a gift from God. While its source is divine, crying is usually a source of embarrassment for us. Crying, while embarrassing, is also an honest and incarnational - or bodily - prayer that reaches the ear and heart of God. (Pray All Ways, p. 33)

My earliest encounters with the holy began with tears - and they continue to help me become more real. Clearly my first memory of the sacred was saturated in tears: I was sitting on the sand at age five, awed by the rhythmic power and enormity of the Atlantic Ocean as it pounded the shore. Watching the waves, I went into a trance of sorts, sensing simultaneously both the immeasurable magnitude of God's power as well as God's intimate, loving presence. As a teen about to leave for college that same awareness captured me again while gazing up at the stars. Both times I cried complex tears that were part fear, part assurance, part awe, part insignificance, and part gratitude. Later I learned that Rudolph Otto described this revelation as the core of religious experience in his 1923 masterwork, The Idea of the Holy.

(The) "numinous has three components... designated with the Latin phrase: 'mysterium tremendum et fascinans.' As mysterium, the numinous is 'wholly other' - entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence... the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum (that) provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, (that which is) merciful and gracious. (Rudolph Otto's Concept of Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans

Over the years I have realized that I have consistently been awakened to the holy in my humanity through my tears. At age 7 there was the overwhelming and mysterious waves of grief that washed over me when I learned that my maternal grandfather, Poppa Phil, had died while I slept. Others include: sitting in silent solitude under the Christmas tree after everyone had gone to bed to watch the colored lights twinkle; wiping away tears of joy while watching the Beatles for the first time on Ed Sullivan in February 1964; slouching and sobbing under a hot shower at the news that MLK - and then RFK - had been assassinated; losing the battle to hold back my tears of terror when finally confronting my father's violence with my own act of physical defiance; bursting into tears of vulnerable ecstasy when my virginity came to a close; returning tears of gratitude to God as my daughters were born; screaming through violent fits of alienation and abandonment; and coming to rest in tears of grace when I sensed the living presence of Jesus in Eucharist. 

Just a few days ago, while driving to Brooklyn for Louie's birthday party, I found myself weeping yet again when a Bruce Springsteen CD startled me by playing "Living Proof."

This song became my anthem during the final months of my first marriage. It always hits me hard particularly the first verse where the Boss describes feeling God's grace at the birth of his children; and the second where he owns the shame and emptiness he felt during a season of self-destructive exile. I lose it when he sings: "You do some sad things, baby, when its you you're trying to lose; you do some sad and hurtful things: I've seen living proof." That cuts like a knife and brings back my own time of sad and hurtful things. Fr. Hays continues:

Tears are the prayer-beads of all of us, men and women, because they arise from a fullness of heart... all expressions of the heart are good prayer. What happens naturally is usually good and also right. When this experience comes to us, we should not listen to the inner voice that condemns crying or attempts to make us feel shame for our tears. We do not ask to be excused when we laugh, so why should we when we cry? We don't attempt to suppress laughter, why should we attempt to shut off our tears... Perhaps (the time as come) to explore more ways to laugh and cry as we worship God... making room for these expressions when they arise naturally.

Knowing that my tears have been a trustworthy spiritual director, however, does not mean I have always been at peace with their wisdom. For decades I fought to keep them under control. Sometimes, with my children - or during a profoundly emotional funeral homily - I found myself overpowered by tears. It was agonizing for me and quite likely unsettling for those who had to endure these feeble attempts at squelching my deep emotions. Like many men of my generation, I had been raised to believe that grown men did not cry. That tears are a sign of weakness. But Fr. Hays insists that while "tears are an expression of a lack of control... they are also prayer because prayer is communion with that which is beyond our control: God."  They are also sacraments of humility - and paradox - that help us practice trusting the One who is beyond our ability to comprehend. "Praying our tears" helps us "resist the temptation to be tough or rigid and instead be relaxed and fully human." (Hays. p. 37)

I think I was 45 before I digested and owned the insights of Ed Hays. His words about Jesus weeping helped me open my own heart and honor the prayer of my tears. Ten years later, Frederick Buechner added another layer of insight to my experience when he wrote:

You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.

What has been revealed to me in these tears is my stop-and-go quest to live into tenderness. Not power. Not prestige. And not really understanding. Rather, I have been trying to follow the path of tenderness. Compassion. What the Prayer of St. Francis calls becoming "an instrument of God's peace." And here is how I regain focus: whenever I find myself getting too far off track - and full of myself - a song springs up from out of nowhere to knock me on my butt and open up my tear ducts. Judy Collins' version of Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc" renders me a virtual Niagara Falls. Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen's version of Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright" does the same thing only with joy rather than grief. Springsteen's "Born in the USA" grounds me in tears of humility. And Carrie Newcomer's "I Believe" evokes tears born of the sacramental reality of everyday life. Over and over I find myself returning to these closing words from Hays:

Lord, Beloved God,
     since all communion with You is prayer,
     may even my tears be psalms of petition
     and canticles of praise to You...
All truly great prayer
     rises from deep inside
     and springs spontaneously to the surface.
It would then seem
     that from among the many beautiful prayers,
     the sacred songs and canticles of praise,
     my tears may be the best worship of all.
Help me not to be ashamed of them;
     show me how I can let go of control
     and let this prayer of my heart, my tears,
     flow naturally and freely to You,
     my Blessed Lord and Divine Lover.
In times of joy or sorrow,
     blessed be my tears,
     the  holy prayers of my heart.

+ God's Tears @
+ Icon - James Lumsden
+ Corn field - Dianne De Moot

Sunday, October 6, 2019

on the feast day of st. francis...

I found myself blessed to be back in public worship with my loved ones this morning for the first time since the Feast of Pentecost today. I kept thinking of the blues tune that ol'Taj Mahal put so well: You don't miss your water till your well runs dry!
The bulletin at St. Paul's/Trinity Church in Manhattan read: the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. That's an absence of three months and a week during which time I have communed with the Lord with the first word of God - creation - over and again in our garden and engaged in a study/prayer discipline re: the wisdom tradition for the past six weeks but missing the breaking of bread and sharing the cup of blessing in community. It was somehow fitting that we chose to return to public worship today as it was the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. A quote from today's worship bulletin included this form a Zen Buddhist Monastic Apothegm:

A student asked Suzuki Roshi why the Japanese make their teacups so thin and delicate that they break easily. "It's not that they are too delicate," he answered the, "but that you don't know how to handle them. You must adjust yourself to the environment and not vice versa."

For 48 hours we had the privilege of hanging with our Brooklyn family: to celebrate Louie's sixth birthday, to share gifts and prayers with the whole family, to join with friends and loved ones in a kite flying celebration, and to sit and talk with cherished family in the quite of the the night. It was a grand time away and my heart is full to overflowing with gratitude. We have been able to be a part of each of Louie's - and Anna's - birthdays, a tradition I pray we might maintain until I am unable to drive. And then I'll take a train to get there if at all possible. There is something restorative and holy about the love we share that I must never take for granted.

The word for this morning's worship was faith: our faith, the faith we share with God, God's faith in us, the faith we hold with our loved ones, as well as the faith we share with our community and the world. I confess that I had never really thought much about God's faith in us, but that rings true. God has created us to live as co-creators. And what an enormous gift of faith is present in this trust! I felt some of it this morning as little children danced and sang throughout the liturgy - and no one tried to hush them up. Or when Louie rested his head on the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer. Or when some of the children gave the preacher a high five after his homily. Or when the worship presider introduced herself as Mother Elizabeth. It felt like a place striving to live by faith in a world that is so untrusting.

We all headed for a mezze lunch down at Industry City where one of the oldest Middle Eastern importers, Sahadi's, has opened a huge store. (Check it out @ The courtyard was filled with pumpkins and gourds. Our hearts were filled with gratitude and love. And our bodies were filled with fresh pita bread, hummus, chicken zatar and babagaoush. Three and a half hours later we were back in Massachusetts safe and sound. We'll regroup over All Saints Day weekend in November and give thanks to all that is holy for those who have gone home to the Lord. Until then, I have six whole weeks to be at home with no travel. There are gardens with soil to prepare for the winter. There is new music to share throughout the region - and new tunes to practice. And a whole lot of time to go deeper into prayer and the wisdom school class that has opened my heart in a new way. The Collect of the Day got it right when we prayed together:

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and to give more that we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of when our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which dare not worthy to ask, except through the blessings of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

the complex blessing of being a grandparent...

The life of a grandparent: we leave in the morning for Brooklyn to join the sixth birthday celebration of our precious Louie. During that time we will bring Lucie back to her friends at Animal Inn, do pizza and movies with the family, fly kites with friends in the Sunset Park community, feast, go to worship in Manhattan the next day and trek home as the Sabbath comes to a close. There will be tears but many more laughs, chores to help with and games to play, books to read, and cuddles and kisses beyond measure. We will both be exhausted - albeit grateful - on the ride home, but only because our aging bodies are not as young as they once were. After supper and the most recent episode of "Call the Midwife," we will both silently rejoice when we climb back into our familiar bed. Such is the complex blessing of being a grandparent.

The wise old priest Fr. Ed Hays - may he forever rest in peace - penned a short birthday prayer that often speaks to my heart. It is found in his delightful book, Prayers for the Domestic Church: a handbook for worship in the home.

Blessed are You, Holy Creator of the Gift of Life,
   who calls us together today with joy
   to celebrate the birthday of Louis.
May the real gifts of this birthday
   be the blessing of a long life and good health,
   the feasting and fun of our coming together
   and the love we all have for you.
Happy birthday, Precious Boy,
   and may God bless you and keep you this day,
   and all the days of your life.

I feel particularly grandfatherly today having done research for new ways to lower our monthly expenses (including changing phone service), communicating with the good folks at AARP about yet another Medicare supplement, cleaning the kitchen and bathroom floors, and later visiting with a younger colleague about strategies for navigating the always confusing waters of public ministry. Most of my days are about listening and moving tenderly through my various chores. I have come to trust that if I am quiet then I will meet the one who needs more space than me to share his or her story. I also am trying to leave only a light mark on each day. But now and again it is time to live into another role as an elder and share my own story. Not often, for sure. And I pray without bravado. But sometimes the moment requires a simple, clear, honest, direct, and compassionate word born of experience. Especially in this era when the Elder-in-Chief is such a belligerent and dangerous buffoon.

A group calling themselves the Elder Wisdom Circle summarized how they see the essentials of wisdom for this era. They are particularly concerned for those young adults between 15 and 35 who may not know a wise elder. As Robert Bly and Marion Woodman have documented: we live in a sibling society that abhors even the most useful hierarchies. "I use the phrase 'sibling society' to suggest a culture fundamentally without fathers, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, or ancestors. The thinking is horizontal (for)siblings tend not to care much about boundaries and borders..." One of my favorite Bly poems, "Call and Answer," expresses his concern carefully:

For those engaged in the hard work of loving another, career-building, raising families, and trying to make sense of the complexities of 21st century existence, the Elder Wisdom Circle offers seven touchstones:

1) Listen twice as much as you talk: even the simplest souls can teach us something.

2) Always look at failure as a chance to learn: making mistakes can make you very wise if you learn their lessons.

3) Trust that the most important thing in life is love: anger and hatred close the path to wisdom.

4) There are some things in life that will never be understood: accept them.

5) Be curious about everything. As children, nothing escaped our curiosity. Rekindle and keep that curiosity. 

6) Develop a value system and moral conscience constructed on love and integrity: don't compromise it.

7) The path to wisdom never ends: the person who believes he/she is already wise probably is not even on the path.

There is humility in these touchstones. Tenderness, too - along with a healthy dose of the Serenity Prayer and a whole lot of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible. I remember an old salt back in Cleveland telling me that his binge drinking and addiction had stunted his emotional maturation: he may have been 40 chronologically, but emotionally he was only 15. To heal and correct this arrested development required building a relationship with a sponsor: one who had already achieved a measure of sobriety as well as some practical wisdom about becoming an adult. Sponsors are not friends, neither are they spiritual directors or therapists. Rather, they are time-tested grown-ups who never put whipped cream on bullshit. In a sibling society there's a whole lot of us who need sponsors like my buddy in AA.

Cynthia Bourgeault teaches in her wisdom school that without sponsor-like mentors: a) we will idealize and romanticize our gurus or mother/father figures for a season; b) when we discover their humanity, however, and see that they too have feet of clay, we will turn on them with vengeance; and c) without help moving through these feelings of disappointment and betrayal, many will stay trapped in a repeating cycle of victimhood, adoration, disappointment, and hatred for decades. We will stay siblings rather than become elders. The wise and tender, Naomi Shihab Nye, offers an elder's clarity in her poem: "Kindness."

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Lord, in your wisdom, may it be so for us all this day.

inverted, indoor tomatoes...

One of the strangest things I have read recently was a note from an organic gardener in New England offering advice on ripening tomatoes. He...