Friday, April 27, 2007

It is the sublime miracle of the human mind: memory.
Ø Elias Canetti

Sarah is fifteen and enrolled in drivers education class. The other day she posed a difficult question. “What’s so great about being an adult?” Apparently she was taking a look at all of those things that come with adulthood that are less than captivating – payments: car, house, clothes, insurance, taxes; responsibilities: meals, cleaning, yard work, home repair. I could tell her about voting, about making your own decisions, about getting married, about raising children who will ask you questions that don’t have easy answers. While all that made some sense to her, Peter Pan’s philosophy of life seemed quite attractive that particular day - - - “I won’t grow up!”

Today, it struck me, one of the joys of adulthood – memory. A couple of days ago I was browsing a magazine rack when the fortieth anniversary issue of Rolling Stone caught my eye. I picked it up and today browsed through it. While I was enjoying what I was reading, I also began to enjoy remembering back to the first issue of Rolling Stone I ever bought. I was a senior in high school. Peter Frampton was on the cover - - - remember him? Frampton Comes Alive was the biggest selling live record ever. “Ooh Baby I Love Your Way” was all over the radio. Rolling Stone had conducted their first readers’ poll – and Frampton was the big winner for 1976. I was seventeen. Rolling Stone was turning ten. At forty-seven, the memory is sweet.

After buying a few issues at news stands, I subscribed. It was a part of my love affair with music, a relationship that remains joyous and intense, though my subscription to Rolling Stone lapsed some time ago, during my seminary years. I am often amazed by how my memories are shaped by music. I appreciate the way Chicago songs “Old Days” and “Take Me Back to Chicago” celebrate the joy of memory. I listen to them and recall my own old days “back on the streets of old Duluth” (Bob Dylan). Some particular songs evoke more specific memories. I can’t hear Chicago’s “Colour My World” without feeling again the heart pangs of junior high dances, screwing up the courage to ask someone to dance to that song. The Cars “By Bye Love” reminds me of listening to that song late at night, driving through the Tennessee mountains with three friends on our way to Florida for spring break. When I hear Miles Davis’ “Fall” I recollect a beautiful autumn day driving through central Minnesota. I was rediscovering jazz, and though I was struggling with some health issues at the time, jazz was “washing the dust from everyday life” (Art Blakey).

Memory is a gift, a rich gift given in adulthood, a gift of grace. Like any gift, it has a dark side. Memory is a present experience, to be enjoyed now. Its dark side is its ability, if we spend too much time with it, to suck us into living in the past, neglecting the present. At its best, memory is a joy of the present, and as adults we have an increasing store of memories to draw from, our own audio-video library open 24 hours. Maybe one of the utterly tragic dimensions to those childhoods marred by violence, war, abuse, addiction or neglect is the way they not only steal the joyous innocence of childhood, but also rob these same people of a store of tender memories.

Now where is the Chicago CD?

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, April 20, 2007

Reflections of Tragedy, II

We it not for the horrendous events at Virginia Tech this week, the news may have been filled with tragedy from another part of the world. News reports from the inside pages of the newspapers indicate that this has been a difficult week in Iraq and its capital city Baghdad. On Tuesday, 85 people were found dead throughout the country. On Wednesday, there were multiple bombings in Baghdad, killing 230 people. As noted in my previous post, The American Heritage Dictionary defines tragedy as “a disastrous event, especially one involving distressing loss or injury to life.” This loss of life is also distressing.

I don’t wish to make many connections between Baghdad and Blacksburg. It is not helpful to compare pain and suffering. Each event must be seen as a unique occurrence. The relationship is simply between events that happened in the same time frame, and in the tragic nature of both events.

Tragedy raises questions. The Virginia Tech tragedy has led us to ask about campus security, about our mental health care system, about the balance between respect for autonomy and the common good. Some of the questions about why things happened the way they did in Blacksburg will never be fully answered.

The events in Baghdad this past week lead me to ask if our very presence there, and by “our” I mean the United States military, is contributing negatively to the on-going tragic loss of life. I wonder if there is another kind of tragedy in the making. The American Heritage Dictionary offers another definition of tragedy. A tragedy may also be “a drama or a literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances.” Will the drama of the Iraq war become an American tragedy? Will the suffering there escalate because we, as a nation, overestimated the ability of a military force to bring about democratic reform in a deeply divided country or underestimated the fractiousness that might result in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Sadaam Hussein? Might our tragic flaw turn out to be that before we even went to war, we ignored some of the information that indicated both these challenges might be very real?

Tragedy raises questions. As a person of Christian faith, with peacemaker as a part of the job description, I need to ask these questions, as troubling as they may be. Not to do so would be tragic in its own way.

With Faith and With Feathers,



Many oppressors and many more victims and very few healers. Albert Camus

It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.
(a stanza from the poem “Hope” Lisel Mueller, Alive Together. LSU Press, 1996)

*As a person of faith, healer is also part of the job description; and I think there may be a little more to know of God than hope, but hope is one sure and significant sign.

Reflections on Tragedy, I

Why do we never get an answer
When we’re knocking at the door?
With a thousand million questions
About hate and death and war. “Questions” The Moody Blues

Virginia Tech. After this week none of us will hear the name of that university again without thinking to the terrible tragedy that occurred there. Thirty-three dead, including the man who took the other thirty-two lives. The American Heritage Dictionary defines tragedy as “a disastrous event, especially one involving distressing loss or injury to life.” Images from the news media this week could illustrate the definition. Unfortunately, human history could provide all too many illustrations.

In the face of tragedy, we all ask, “why?” The questions are inevitable, and in many cases unanswerable. There are limits to human knowing. What makes a young man who has struggled with mental illness decide to purchase hand guns, take pictures of himself with them, make videos with them, send these off to a major new network in between shooting people? What makes him do that instead of going to a campus counselor and admitting he is struggling with murderous thoughts?

There are limits to human knowing, but one thing I know, at least for me, is that religious language that asserts that God somehow allowed this tragedy to happen for reasons only God knows, that language makes little sense. As a person of faith, I believe in God. As a person of Christian faith, the God I believe in is known in Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. The God I know in Jesus Christ does not seem to be a God who would stand by and watch a mentally ill man go on a shooting and killing rampage. There is genuine freedom in the world and for human beings, and that means that God does not simply intervene to contradict human action or the forces of nature.

I believe God was there at Virginia Tech last Monday morning, not allowing tragedy to occur, but as that still, small voice somewhere in the confused mind of Seung-Hui Cho urging him to get help, to cease moving forward with his demented plan to kill. It was a voice he chose to ignore. And God was there at Virginia Tech last Monday morning in agony and weeping with victims and their families, giving courage to a man like Professor Librescu – Romanian Holocaust survivor who blocked the door to his classroom so the gunman could not enter, losing his life in the process. God was at Virginia Tech last Monday morning, bruised and broken-hearted. I intend to affirm this in my Sunday sermon.

My theological reflection has also taken me in another direction. In The Gospel of John, chapter 21, Jesus asks his disciple, Peter, “Do you love me?” He asks three times and each time Peter says, “Yes, you know that I do.” And with each of Peter’s responses, Jesus tells him to care for people (“feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”). This has gotten me to think that perhaps God’s purpose in the world is not to form people who will more consistently speak God’s name. Perhaps God’s purpose in the world is to form caring, compassionate people who speak God’s name. I believe traditional spiritual disciplines like prayer, Scripture reading and worship are important. I think I could make a case that they are essential for forming a caring and compassionate heart and mind, but in the end what matters most is the formation of that caring and compassionate soul.

If we are able to be more caring and compassionate people, and form more caring and compassionate communities, we might avert some tragedy. Who can say what might have prevented this past week’s tragedy. That question will remain more or less unanswered. Communities of care and compassion can only help, and when tragedy does strike, as unfortunately it will again, caring and compassionate people and communities are just what we need to help us through.

With Faith and With Feathers,


A Couple of Quotes for the Week

Christianity is first and foremost about being kind.
Theologian Robert Neville, Symbols of Jesus

We must love one another or die.
W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939” (Auden ended up changing this line in his poem, but I rather like it as it was first written)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Though it has been a busy day, I've watched about as much CNN as I can manage. Too many words have already been spoken about a tragic day at Virginia Tech. Pray. Hug those closest to you.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Well, two days into this and I am already changing the name. How time flies. With Faith and With Feathers does a better job of capturing what I want to write about, and the blog name wasn't already taken. I don't think I am confusing any of my readership in making this change, because that readership has consisted mainly of my family. I am grateful for their taking time to read this, though. After all, they have been listening to my sermons for quite a long time and so I don't take their interest for granted.

My wife Juile and I are graced to have three children. Our daughter, Beth, wrote the first comment I ever recevied on my blog. Thanks, Beth. She is a college student who just completed her college swimming career and is studying for the MCATs. We have another daughter, Sarah (a high school freshman just beginning driver's training), who tried to find my blog through Google, but instead found the blog of our oldest, our son, whose name is also David. His blog was composed in support of the presidential candidacy of Barak Obama. Besides being politically aware and active, our son is also musically astute. His blog has a picture of Woody Guthrie and a quote from John Lennon.

When did he start listening to the music I listen too? When did it become possible for all of our children to sit with us and watch a movie together, that is, one not made for children? How time does fly. It is a great feeling to have your children move into adulthood, or stand on the verge of it - and when did I become the parent of adults?

Some who read this may still be parenting young children, and struggling through days when your restaurant choices are McDonald's or Chuck E. Cheese, when your television choices are Thomas the Tank Engine or Sponge Bob Square Pants, when your movie choices are Cars or Happy Feet. Thankfully most of those who make movies and television shows for kids realize that their parents are along too and throw a few laughs our way. Some days you may wonder when the time will come when your daughter or son will listen to John Lennon or Woody Guthire, study for the MCATs, begin driver's training (o.k - I pushed that point too far!). Believe me, that day will come, will come quickly, and you will enjoy it - but you will also wonder where the precious time of childhood went.

I have been doing some study of Buddhism recently. In The Diamond Sutra we read, "Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world: a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; a flash of lightening in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream." The point is that every moment passes away, gives way to the next moment, and there is wisdom in knowing that and being open to each moment, each phase of life. Jesus said something very similar. "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today" (Matthew 6:34). Maybe not the most positive way to state this, but the point is the same. There is wisdom in being open to each moment and each phase of life.

In all honesty, I miss some of the times my family had together when our children were younger. Our son lives across the state, and our older daugher is in college in Wisconsin. It is o.k. to miss some of those days, but it would be foolish to spend so much time missing those days, or hoping for days to come, that I miss what's going on right now.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, April 13, 2007

With Feathers April 13, 2007

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul
Emily Dickinson

“Blog” – an abbreviation for web-log. It also reminds me of the sound someone makes losing their lunch, and the internet has become a great place for people to spew out the contents of their minds. Some of what we read is worth the time it takes to find it and some isn’t. Why add to what’s already out there?

Maybe I have something to say that’s both worth saying and reading. I hope so - - - and this whole endeavor is an exercise in hope. The Scriptures of my faith encourage people to be ready to give an account of the hope that is within them (I Peter 3:15). Wow – referring to the Bible, that’s pretty pious and with that I’ve probably lost some of you, but I hope you hang on (there’s that word “hope” again).

I am a person of faith, Christian faith. In fact, I am ordained in The United Methodist Church and am pastor of a congregation in Duluth, Minnesota. Here’s another check out point for some of you.

Still reading? Thanks. While I am a Christian and a pastor I think I may have some unique ways of looking at life and faith. This past summer, for instance, I read The Dhammapada and E.A. Burtt (ed.), Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha after reading Marcus Borg’s Jesus and Buddha: the parallel sayings. Currently I facilitate an interfaith book group in Duluth. We are reading together works of fiction that have an interfaith or intercultural dimension. We recently finished Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I thoroughly enjoyed that book. My church graciously gives me time to teach a class in bioethics at a local college (I have a Ph.D. in religious ethics) and I recently worked The Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen and a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail into a lecture. Maybe I have something different to say, something worth taking time to read, a fresh angle, a different perspective.

This will be an exercise in hope. My friend, author Brent Olson, entitled one of his books Still Whistling. In it he writes, “every now and then, unreasonable optimism and irrational defiance is the only sane response to a situation completely out of our control.” Whistling is an act of defiance and optimism. In With Feathers I am whistling my own hopeful tune. Maybe a dance will break out.

By the way, my favorite definition of hope, along with Emily Dickinson’s, is Anne Lamott’s. Hope is “about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is stronger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us” (Plan B). I love this, but it is difficult to share in a sermon – at least unedited. I believe Anne and hope that our conversation sheds a little light and creates a little love. The grim, bleak stuff seems to arrive of its own accord.

I’m taking my title from Emily Dickinson and perhaps it is only fitting that I give her the last word (or next to last word).

If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain.

I guess I really am a hopeful person, feathers and all.