Friday, November 6, 2015

Beauty and Grace

I am large, I contain multitudes.
                                                            Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them.  The least we can do is try to be there.
                                                            Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

            In the summer of 2014 I was in New York City twice.  The first time was with our church youth group for a seminar on poverty and hunger sponsored by the United Methodist Women.  One of the pastors who accompanied our group from Minnesota had gone to seminary in New York so knew the city well.  Later that summer, my wife, Julie, our daughter Sarah, and I returned to the city as visitors.
            I was quite taken by the city.  I was exhilarated by the activity, the people, the energy.  Waiting in lines we could hear people from all over the world who were also there to see the Empire State Building or the Rockefeller Center.  I loved walking over the Brooklyn Bridge with my family.
            This past summer, our family traveled west on vacation.  Being in Yellowstone National Park, seeing the Rocky Mountains, standing on the quiet prairie in Theodore Roosevelt, were all awe-inspiring.  When traveling through the plains, I cannot help but think of the people who roamed there so freely until clashes with the European-Americans of the expanding United States led to their being confined to reservations.  It is almost as if there are “voices” in the silent winds of the prairies.
            I know people for whom New York City would be their greatest nightmare.  They like wide open spaces, or the quiet of the forest, or the pace of small towns.  I know others who would find the quiet of the prairies maddening.  I feel wonderfully fortunate that I find beauty and grace in such diverse places.  Beauty and grace can be found in the multiple faces on the streets of New York, in the wonderfully diverse voices heard, in the human energy generated in the city.  Beauty and grace can be found in majestic mountain views, in the silent whispers of the prairies.
            The least I can do is try to be there, wherever the “there” is.  When I am so present, I contain multitudes, and am grateful for that wonderful flow of beauty and grace.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, October 9, 2015


One cannot read any his [Wilfred Bion’s] works without at least one sentence that strikes an alarm, touches a nerve, makes you wince, gives permission to think and feel.  His work can intrigue, and evoke wonder.
                                                                                    Michael Eigen, Faith, 59

He had come into my office in the small church where I was then a pastor.  He was ordained in another denomination, but was working in the social service field.  I had heard very nice things about him, and was pleased to meet him.  He was there just to meet me and to let me know what he was doing in the area.  As he shared something about his life’s journey, he made a statement I’ve heard before and since, something that always makes me cringe a little inside.  “That’s not something you can learn from a book!”
For those of us who love reading, books or essays function as conversation partners.  The words we read open up avenues for exploring both the world and our inner lives.  Of course there are things to be learned outside of books, things that cannot be learned from books alone.  When I read, though, it opens up vistas for my thinking through and feeling through my experience outside of books.  Words provide tools that help me see the world differently.  Words help me dig deeper into my own experiences.  There are things that cannot be learned from books, but when I hear someone say “That’s not something you can learn from books,” it is often in tones dismissive of the kinds of conversations and learning that happen with books.
One of my more recently discovered conversation partners is the psychotherapist Michael Eigen.  Eigen writes movingly about his own encounters with other writers, as he does above.  What Eigen says about Bion, I would say about Eigen.  When I read him, there are always sentences that strike an alarm, that touch a nerve, the make me wince, the give me permission to think and feel.  His work intrigues and evokes wonder.
Here are a few sentences from his most recent work Faith that intrigue and evoke wonder:
At times it takes faith to express oneself.  At times, it takes even more faith to wait and let further processes develop.  (xiv)
Without work in the trenches of our nature, we may wreck what we try to create. (7)
In psychoanalysis, we learn a little more about destruction.  We learn, or think we learn, that feelings matter, that we are sensitive beings who need to sense how sensitivity works, that ethics has roots in sensitivity to ourselves and others. (7)
We are partly defined by a capacity to wish the impossible.  To wish the impossible and somewhere feel it might be possible. (41)
I think our big job is to work with ourselves, on every level – socially, psychically, familially. (95)
I don’t think that religious or spiritual people are immune to inflicting their personalities on others. (95)
You can’t just work on institutional injustices without the actual people who are involved working on themselves, and you can’t just work on yourself without working on the injustices in society. (96)
An attitude that has perhaps done more harm in human history than any other is the sense of being right. (97)
We have to cut each other slack in order to be with each other at all. (116)
Faith is a vehicle that radically opens experiencing and plays a role in building tolerance for experience. (124)

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Why I Love My ipod

             Another summer is winding down.  We were fortunate to take two summer trips this year.  The first, in June, was a visit to our daughter Beth who is an OB/GYN resident in Rochester, New York.  She was moving from one apartment to another and so we went to help her move and enjoy some time with her.  Having an extra car when moving is helpful so we drove.  I enjoy the experience of seeing the country.  We also enjoyed a Rochester Red Wings baseball game.  For those who may not know this, the Red Wings are the Minnesota Twins Triple A farm team.
            In August we traveled the exact opposite direction, heading to Montana for a family wedding.  Rick and Maggie were married at a family cabin near Big Fork, not too far south of Glacier National Park.  On our way back home, we spent a day plus in Yellowstone and a few hours at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  I have long enjoyed the haunting, austere beauty of the plains and the majestic beauty of the mountains.  I find it fascinating that I am both captivated by New York City, which we visited last year, and by the plains and mountains, but that is another posting.
            On our trip West we listened to a long book on CD, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.  It was 32 discs long!  For those of you who know the book, you will find it amusing that my wife and I listened to it along with our 23 year-old daughter, Sarah.  Some of the scenes are not typical parent-child conversation.
            We also had along my trusty ipod classic – over 8,000 songs.  Our car allows us to plug the ipod into the sound system and shuffle songs.  This summer I was reminded of why I love my ipod.
            One sequence of songs: Lucinda Williams, “Passionate Kisses;” Charles Mingus, “Got To Get It;” Waylon Jennings, “Honky Tonk Heroes;” Prince, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”  Where else could I go from progressive country to jazz to classic renegade country to the rock/soul/funk of Prince?
            At another moment Derek and the Dominoes, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” was followed immediately by the Taize song, “Veni, Sancte, Spiritus.”  It was like the theologian Paul Tillich’s method of correlation in action – existential situation/faith response.
            On final ipod serendipity: George Jones followed by George Harrison followed by “Rock and Roll Heaven.”  You know they’ve got a hell of a band!
            I love my ipod.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Church in Fifty Words

Awhile back, a person who has been regularly attending the church where I am pastor, and is also taking some seminary classes, shared with me one of her assignments.  Provide your definition of the church in fifty words or less.  She asked me if I would be willing to share my definition with her.
As someone who has done doctoral work in religion, my gut-level initial response to the question would be to do some research before offering a response.  There would be value in that, but I have thought enough about this and try to work out of some understanding of the church every day.  Instead of doing any research, I thought for a while and typed.  Here is the definition I came up with, and when I had finished it and checked for the number of words, it was exactly fifty.

The church is a community of people who have been touched by God’s grace and love in Jesus Christ and who are seeking to live in such a way, individually and together, that they grow in love of God and others, and witness to the grace of God in Jesus.

            So as someone who has a Ph.D. in religious studies, though ecclesiology was not my emphasis, I recognize that there are some things that could be added to this definition, some questions that are not answered in it.  At the same time, both theologically and pastorally, I think this definition has a lot to offer.  The church is about being touched and transformed by God as we know God in Jesus the Christ.  It is about living together in such a way that we grow in love and thereby witness, in word and deed, to the transforming power of God’s love in Jesus.
            There are more well-rounded and beautiful statements about the church.  I am glad to be working to help the church be more like the simple definition I offered.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, June 22, 2015

Remarks at a Prayer Vigil for the Charleston Shooting

These are the remarks I shared earlier today at St. Mark AME Church here in Duluth at a community prayer vigil.  I was honored to share the podium with other clergy: Rev Michael Gonzales (St. Mark AME), Rev. Kathy Nelson (Peace UCC), Rabbi David Steinberg (Temple Israel), as well as with others from the community.
I am pleased and honored to be here today at St. Mark.  Thank you, Pastor Gonzales, for welcoming us.  I have had the privilege of preaching and speaking from this pulpit before, and those were always joyous occasions. Today when my heart is heavy, and all our hearts are heavy, it is important to be here again.  Part of the poignancy of being here is that our churches, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church share some history, but it is filled with sadness.  We both have Methodist in our name, but the AME was created in 1816 because the larger Methodist tradition did not treat African-Americans well.
In Genesis 9, God’s covenant with humanity is symbolized by a rainbow.  A rainbow – not monochrome but Kodachrome, brilliantly colored.  It is our task as human persons to weave a beautiful tapestry, a multi-colored tapestry in the human community.  It is an on-going task.
Last Wednesday night at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC the fabric of our tapestry, of our community was violently ripped apart.  It was torn by hatred and violence – lethal hatred, weaponized violence.
We are here together to feel – to feel the tear in the fabric of our community, to feel grief, to feel sorrow.
I also hope that over time we will let sorrow do its work, let it seep deeply into our hearts and our souls to create tenderness and gentleness, a tenderness and gentleness that lead to action.
In tenderness and gentleness, let us find a way beyond racial hatred. The rainbow needs every hue, every cultural stitch.
In tenderness and gentleness, let us find a way to untie the knot between hatred and gun violence.  The struggle against hatred is a long, long struggle, but at least along the way perhaps we can avoid weaponizing hatred.

For today, though, perhaps feeling together, feeling together the tear in our community, feeling together our grief, feeling together our sorrow, perhaps for today that is task enough.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Not Quite Eugene Peterson

Where can I go from your Spirit, O God, or where can I flee from your presence?  If I head for my cabin every weekend from now until September, you are there.  When I leave for vacation, going near or far, you accompany me; your guidance I treasure, though I am still taking my GPS.  If I am on the golf course, even looking for my golf ball in the woods, you can find me (though the whereabouts of the golf ball may remain a mystery).  Even when I sneak away to my favorite secret fishing hole, I cannot escape you, though I trust you will keep the location a secret.

                                    Psalm 139, CNMV (Contemporary Northern Minnesota Version)

Just a little something that will be part of my upcoming church newsletter article.

Friday, April 10, 2015


Baseball season began this week, and I look forward to that.  I enjoy baseball, and I like the game for a lot of reasons.  Many of these are rooted in my younger days.  I played baseball as a kid.  I played Little League ball for a number of years, though I was never that great.  In our neighborhood, we often put together pick-up games in open fields.  I listened to baseball games on an old transistor radio.  Baseball is a great radio game.  I remember one year bringing that radio to school one year on opening day to try and listen to the game if I had the chance.  I collected baseball cards.  I can still smell that hard pink gum that came with every ten cards.  I can still feel some of the joy those simple cardboard pictures brought to me.  I played games with those cards, creating an entire world in some ways.
I admit that I went through a few years when my interest in baseball waned.  I was more interested in music on the radio, and thinking deep thoughts.  The cardboard cards became just cardboard.  I was trying to figure out some things about life.  I was exploring literature, psychology, philosophy, and theology.  I was reading things like, “Does time itself manifest itself as the horizon of Being?” (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, final line).
I have made my way back to baseball, without leaving these others behind.  Baseball writing is not without its own profundities.  I can’t really imagine where a comparison between Martin Heidegger and Roger Angell would be helpful, but Angell can also write profoundly about time, with reference to baseball.  Baseball’s time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors.  This is the way the game was played in our youth and in our fathers’ youth, and even back then – back in the country days – there must have been the same feeling that time could be stopped. (“The Interior Stadium”)
In fact, one of the reasons I really enjoy baseball is that besides all the simple pleasures of the game itself, so much writing about the game is quite exceptional.
No other sport, I think, conveys anything like this sense of cool depth and fluvial steadiness, and when you stop for a minute and think about the game it is easy to see why this should be so.  The slow, inexorable progression of baseball events – balls and strikes, outs and innings, batters stepping up and batters being retired, pitchers and sides changing on the field, innings turning into games and games into series, and all these merging and continuing, in turn, in the box scores and the averages and the slowly fluctuous standings – are what make the game quietly and uniquely satisfying.  Baseball flows past us all through the summer – it is one of the reasons that summer exists – and wherever we happen to stand on its green banks we can sense with only a glance across its shiny expanse that the long, unhurrying swirl and down-flowing have their own purpose and direction, that the river is headed, in its own sweet time, toward a downsummer broadaneing and debouchment and to its end in the estuary of October. (Roger Angell in Late Innings)
It breaks your heart.  It is designed to break your heart.  The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.  You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops….  Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times.  They grow out of sports.  And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts.  These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion.  I am not that grown-up or up-to-date.  I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles.  I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun. (A. Bartlett Giamatti, “The Green Fields of the Mind”)
How can I resist a game that people write so movingly about?  Play ball.

With Faith and With Feathers,