Friday, January 30, 2015


            The class was “Arts in America.”  The professor looked like he could have come from central casting – coat and tie, balding with glasses, a goatee.  The class was held in a large lecture hall, no doubt to accommodate all the students who were fulfilling their liberal education requirements.  And when did liberal education requirements morph into “generals,” as in “I am attending the local community college to complete my generals”?  I rather prefer “liberal education requirements.”
            We looked at paintings, discussed literature, listened to some music.  I remember appreciating a great deal of it. I think it was in this class that I first heard the music of Charles Ives, and it is music I return to from time to time.
            The music played in one class session, however, penetrated more deeply.  In the darkened lecture hall that day, the record needle (yes, a vinyl record) went down on a recording of a small group jazz combo played a song that was absolutely beautiful.  The small group was led by its saxophonist, John Coltrane.  After the song ended, the professor moved on to a discussion of jazz as an improvisational art.  It is a uniquely American art form.
            This was one of my first encounters with jazz, and I spent some time exploring it.  I built a small collection of records, including some John Coltrane.  I came to a deep and abiding appreciation of Coltrane’s music, from his ballads, like the one I heard that day in Arts in America, to his more experimental pieces.  Listening to Coltrane has provided me wonderful pleasures over the years, even been the occasion for experiences that some might call mystical.  However, none of the Coltrane records I bought at the time had that song I heard that day.
            Over the years, my jazz listening waxed and waned, burning more brightly since watching the delightful Ken Burns series, “Jazz.”  Along the way, I found that song that opened the door to the music of Coltrane, “Central Park West.”

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, December 26, 2014

A Song for All Seasons

            For the past couple of weeks I have been listening to Christmas music.  I listen to classical songs and classic songs, songs with a rock beat, a jazz swing, a pop tunefulness, songs sacred and secular.  Some of the songs evoke warm childhood memories, some remind me of concerts attended (I heard Bruce Springsteen play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” live in St. Paul November 29, 1978).  I enjoy the music of this season, but I am also ready to move on, or move back to other music.
            I listen to a fair variety of music, mostly jazz and rock and pop.  I sprinkle classical music in there as well.  When listening to rock or pop music, I probably listen to more older material than newer stuff, either new music from familiar bands like Bruce Springsteen or U2 or Tom Petty, or older music from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.  I still enjoy discovering a new band.  The Hold Steady, a band whose music I discovered in 2009, though they had been around for a while, is still a favorite.  I am enjoying TV on the Radio, “Seeds.”
            One thing I find particularly enjoyable, though, is finding what I consider a lost classic – some song on an album that has been around for a long time, but something I had simply not paid much attention to.  A recent such discovery for me is the Simon and Garfunkel song “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night.”  The song consists of an overdubbing of Simon and Garfunkel singing "Silent Night", and a simulated "7 O'Clock News" bulletin of the actual events of 3 August 1966 – the death of Lenny Bruce, a controversial Martin Luther King, Jr. march, the war in Vietnam, killings of student nurses by Richard Speck.  Here is a link to the song:

            In many ways it is a seasonal song, a song I should put away until next year.  But it is also a song that transcends the season.  If the message of “Silent Night” cannot find its way into a still broken world, a world where there remains violence, war, political strife, drug overdoses, racial tension, then Silent Night is little more than pure sentimentality.  I don’t think it is.  I treasured this Simon and Garfunkel song this season because it reminded me of my need for a strong, courageous, compassionate and tender faith amid a difficult world, a faith not just for a few weeks at Christmas but a faith for every day.
            This was my discovered classic this fall, a little treasure that was hidden in a field, and I found it with joy, and I intend to keep it close to my heart.
            Next year, when I take out my Christmas music again, I will burn this song onto a new holiday cd.  I expect I will take it out for a listen a number of times between now and then.
With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, November 28, 2014

Ferguson and an Act of Hope

            Late last week, as the country was waiting for and wondering about the Grand Jury decision that was going to be coming from Ferguson, Missouri, I was contacted by a coalition within the Duluth community who were working on some responses to whatever the decision might be.  Would officer Wilson be charged with a crime in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, our would Wilson’s narrative of the events, wherein he felt threatened by Michael, and thus used appropriate force, lead to end to the legal process?
            In Duluth, community responses began to be organized before we knew what the Grand Jury would decide.  The church I pastor, First United Methodist Church would be a place for prayer, counsel and reflection.  The verdict came Monday.  My church was offered for prayer from noon to four p.m. on Wednesday.
            Not many came that afternoon.  Perhaps other events had provided sufficient opportunity for their reflection.  In any event,  I had determined that I wanted to do something during that afternoon.  Once an hour, beginning at noon, I went either into the chapel or the sanctuary and rang my prayer bowl.  Earlier in the day, I had also decided that I would offer a brief prayer service at 4 p.m. if anyone was present. 
Four p.m. came and no one was there.  I offered the prayer service anyway.  I rang the bowl.  I used the United Methodist morning prayer, slightly revised.  New every day is your love great God of light great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.  Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors and to devote each day to your work in the world – the work of justice, peace, compassion, beauty, reconciliation, creating the beloved community, and love.  I read “The Magnificat” from Luke 1, Mary’s powerful words about the horizon of hope in which we live, about a God who works for justice.  I prayed a body prayer.  Then I sang.  I was a little self-conscious about this, but I did it.  I sang “We Shall Overcome” and the last first of “We Are Called” – Sing, sing a new song.  Sing of that great day when all will be one.  God will reign, and we’ll walk with each other and sisters and brothers united in love.  We are called to act with justice.  We are called to love tenderly.  We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God.
It was, for me, an act of hope.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Memory

Memories light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories of the way we were
Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another for the way we were
                                                Marvin Hamlisch, Barbara Streisand

The beer was empty adn our tongues were tired
And running out of things to say
She gave a kiss to me as I got out and I watched her drive away
Just for a moment I was back at school
And I felt that old familiar pain
And as I turned to make my way back home
The snow turned into rain
                                                Dan Fogelberg

Our psychic life may be lived at different heights, now nearer to action, now further removed from it, according to our degree of attention to life....  It is memory above all that lends to perception its subjective character.
                                                Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory

     Last night I began reading Alfred Kazin's lovely memoir, A Walker in the City.  Kazin writes beautifully about the neighborhood in Brooklyn in which he grew up, describing it with words that evoke so well one's senses.  His memories are powerfully shared.
     Halloween is, for many adults, a day of memory.  Perhaps we remember our children, now grown into adulthood, in their costume of choice heading out into the streets to Trick-or-Treat, or heading to some neighborhood carnival - a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a princess, a color crayon.  Maybe we think even further back to our own childhoods - cold October evening in Minnesota when five blocks seemed like you were visiting the border country with some strange neighborhood, and candy, which was otherwise so difficult to come by was freely bestowed on you by strangers.
     Memory, at its best, when enjoyed and savored, but not clung to excessively, can make us more perceptive, more sensitive, can help us pay more attention to life and deepen our subjective appreciation of it.  Memory can hone our subjective sense of touch, making us more aware of the pain, angst, the beauty, the joy of living.

     Happy Halloween.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Art and Life

            I am not an artist, or at least not a visual artist.  I cannot paint well.  I do not sculpt.  I enjoy working with words, and have occasionally attempted to put them together in the art of poetry, but I would not say I have created “art.”  I am not an artist, yet I have continued to nurture a deepening appreciation for art.  At its best, art enlarges our capacity for experience.  It deepens our capabilities for richness of experience.
            This summer I had wonderful opportunities to view great art in New York.  Here I want to share a few of the pieces I viewed interspersed with quotes that speak to me of the essential value of art for life.

“A moment of beauty makes us quiver through and through, reverberates through our being, touches foundations, an experience that ripples through sensation, feeling, thinking, action, ethics.”   Michael Eigen, Contact With the Depths, 8

“Curiosity, and awe, a respect for complexity, the disposition to identify empathically, the valuing of subjectivity and affect, an appreciation of attachment, and a capacity for faith are worth cherishing.”          Nancy McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 45

“The intrinsic value of human life lies in the capacity for feeling and in the experience itself….  To maximize the richness of experience is to maximize the quality of human life”   Charles Birch and John Cobb, The Liberation of Life, 168, 173

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Silent Pain

So much has been said and written this week about the deaths of Robin Williams and Michael Brown.  I hesitate to write more.  Yet I have seen very little written that makes any connection between these two heartbreaking events.  I think there is a connection.  Both deaths have brought to light pain that often remains silent.
            The suicide of Robin Williams brought to light the fact that even among the most successful there can be pain.  Looking at the world we often envy the rich, the famous, the successful.  We imagine that their lives might be cushioned from some of the pain and sorrow of the world.  To be sure they need not worry about where their next meal is coming from or about where they are going to sleep away from the elements.  Materially they are doing well. When compared with the suffering endured by the hungry, the displaced, the refugees in war-torn countries, the suffering of the well-off may seem minimal.  It would do us well not to try and compare human suffering in ways that minimize the very real pain of persons regardless of their social, economic or cultural status.  Robin Williams suffered.  He was in pain and the pain overtook him, overcame him.  In pain, he ended his life.
            The psychoanalyst Michael Eigen has said, “there is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real time.”  We all experience pain in our lives, in one way or another.  We experience loss.  We experience grief.  We experience disappointment.  Our task is to try and find constructive ways to deal with it.  It is not always an easy task.
            Obviously, not all pain gets dealt with constructively.  We would not call suicide a constructive response to the pain in life, though making judgments about a suicide after the fact is pointless, and can even be rather heartless.  After a suicide, we need to find constructive responses to the pain of those grieving.  We need to mourn and celebrate the life that has been ended.
            In Ferguson, Missouri there seems to be some non-constructive response to pain.  Protests can be a constructive response to social pain.  Looting is not.  But make no mistake about it, the death of 18 year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American, shot by a white police officer, has revealed deep pain in our society.  There is pain and anger associated with injustice.  This pain and anger is deeply rooted in our history.  There are details to this case that continue to come to light, and we will learn more in the days ahead.  What we know now is that an unarmed 18 year-old is dead, shot by a police officer in the line of duty.  It has brought out of silence deep pain rooted in the history of race relations in our country.
            Thinking about this pain that we don’t always see, but that has come to light in recent days, I think about some of these wise words.
            All tremble at violence; all fear death.  Seeing others as being like yourself, you should neither harm nor kill.  All tremble at violence; life is held dear by all.  Seeing others as being like yourself, you should neither harm nor kill.  (Buddha, The Dhammapada, 129-130)
            Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scraped-up elbows.  But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed.  It would be great if we could shop, sleep, or date our way out of this.  Sometimes we think we can, but it feels that way only for a while.  To heal, it seems we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross, and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us.  To be honest, that sucks. (Anne Lamott, Stitches, 10)
            Seeing that all experience pain, we need to muster the courage to stand with the hurting.  It is not always easy.  Sometimes it just plain sucks.  We should seek to do no harm.  We should develop gentle souls.  We should seek to be healers.
With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, July 21, 2014

Miranda Socrates

            As I noted when I last wrote here, one of my resolutions for this new year was to read more poetry.  My poetry reading has slowed, though I was delighted by William Stafford’s Sound of the Ax: aphorisms and poetry.  Here are a couple of gems.

Everything has meaning.  Be a total receiver. (35)
Before you hear the music, you do the dance. (8)

            I don’t know about making resolutions mid-year, but here’s one.  I will write on this blog at least once a month.  I need to find time to put some thoughts together in this space, while not neglecting all the other places where I need to bring ideas together.
            Over the course of my lifetime, I have tried to grow as a receiver.  I have grown in the music I listen to.  When I was younger, it was pretty strictly pop and rock.  I was much like my peers.  I have since grown to love jazz, appreciate classical and opera, and I have developed a fondness for country.  To have even said such a thing when I was in high school or college was to invite social ostracism.  Yet there is a certain beauty and truth that gets expressed well in country music.
            To be sure, there are a lot of clichés – honky tonk angels, good loving women who put up with a bit of cheating and boozing in their men (though there are limits).  Yet many country women portray rare strength and determination.
            Recently I have been listening to the music of Miranda Lambert.  O.K. not an original discovery by any means.  Rolling Stone did a big write up of her in a recent issue on country music.  Anyway, I decided to give a listen.
            One finds a generous portion of country music clichés on her albums.  In her songs there are cheating men, though she doesn’t put up with much.  Guns play a role in the music (“Time to Get a Gun” from Revolution). 
There are times when Miranda Lambert’s music digs a little deeper.  That’s the way the world goes ‘round, One minute your up, the next you’re down, It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown, That’s the way the world goes round.  I have to appreciate that image of half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown.  I have been there.  I have had days like that.  That’s the way the world goes round, at least sometimes.
Jesus shows up, too.  Now Jesus can be a country music cliché, but sometimes you can encounter something a little more real.  I ain’t the kind you take home to mama.  I ain’t the kind to wear no ring.  Somehow I always get stronger when I’m on my second drink.  Even though I hate to admit it, sometimes I smoke cigarettes.  Christian folks say I should quit.  I just smile and say God bless. “Cause I heard Jesus He drank wine, and I bet we’d get along just fine.  He could calm a storm and heal the blind, and I bet he’d understand a heart like mine.  A Jesus who reached outside the bounds of respectability seems more akin to the Jesus of the New Testament than a Jesus who likes us in our Sunday best.
This isn’t the most profound stuff around, but it is delivered with a music that swings and a voice that has melody and meaning.  There is something to dance to here, on many levels.  To be sure, Miranda Lambert is no Socrates, but it will never be said of Miranda Lambert what was said of Socrates – He had wide-se, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass.  (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
With Faith and With Feathers,