Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Song and Thoughts to End the Year

As 2009 winds down, it is coming to an end in a flurry of activity. For the first time I can remember, I officiated at two funeral/memorial services on the same day. That was Monday. Today I officiated at another memorial service (that makes five this month). This time I was filling in for a pastor on vacation, but in many ways it was serendipitous. The funeral was held at the church I grew up in here in Duluth, and the man whose life we were celebrating was someone I knew as a kid, someone whose children I went to school with. Yes, Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” has been floating around in my head a bit.

Joni Mitchell, "The Circle Game"

Rather than a short essay to finish the year, there is the gift of song (Joni Mitchell) and a couple quotes.

I have only what I remember.
W. S. Merwin, from “A Likeness” in The Shadow of Sirius

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Mary Oliver, from “Sometimes” in Red Bird

The function of Reason is to promote the art of life.
Alfred North Whitehead, in The Function of Reason

Remember well the year gone by and live so as to create wonderful and kind memories in the new year. Use your reason to live well. Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When Christmas Breaks Your Heart

This is the reflection I offered at the "Blue Christmas" service held at our church last Sunday.

When Christmas breaks your heart. There are a lot of reasons why our hearts may be breaking this Christmas – this may be your first Christmas without a loved one who has died in the past year, you may have lost a loved one around this time of year and so the season is a reminder of your loss, a relationship important to you may have ended, maybe there has been a divorce, a job has been lost, this is your first year in a new place and you cannot get home for Christmas, a loved one has to be away this holiday season. So we gather, the heartbroken and those seeking to stand with us in heartbreak.
Christmas itself can seem pretty fragile. We often cloak Christmas in sweetness and light – we think of children’s Christmas programs, holiday music that is here for a few weeks then disappears, movies where all the endings are happy ones, trees laden with just the right gifts. Christmas can seem as fragile as a crystal angel hanging from a tree or fragile as a snow flake.
When we think of Christmas like that it doesn’t seem able to handle our grief, our pain, our sorrow. We find no place in it for sadness, no place for the blues amidst the greens and reds of the season. Our heartbreak seems to break Christmas, and we don’t want to do that, so we keep our distance. Because we don’t think Christmas can handle our pain and grief and sadness it makes this time even lonelier, even more difficult.
Yes, Christmas is more about joy than sadness, more about singing than silence, but it is big enough to hold both, strong enough to take our grief and sorrow. When we see Christmas as only sweetness and light, we see it too one-dimensionally. We miss important parts of the story, we miss the strength and resilience that the story offers.
The Christmas story is not just about angels and shepherds. It is also a story about an unplanned pregnancy. It is a story about a people under imperial rule. Mary and Joseph are made to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem by order of the Roman Empire and there seems something just a little bit cruel in making a pregnant woman travel a distance for purposes of taxation and a census. It is a story about a young family with no place to stay. It is about a birth outside.
When we begin to take in these dimensions of the story it seems less fragile. It seems more resilient. It seems like it might hold our pain and grief and heartbreak. I think it is meant to do that. While I think the Christmas story is for everyone, I think it is especially for us when we are hurting, when we are experiencing difficulty, when we feel sorrow and grief and pain. I think it is for us at such times because ultimately it is a story about a God who is with us even in, and especially in, such times. God does not abandon us when times are difficult, instead God walks the road with us. God does not shy away from our grief or pain, God shares them with us. The light of God’s love finds its way even into the darkest corners of our lives and our world. The Christmas story is about a God who is, in the words of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “the fellow-sufferer who understands.”
If we hear no other word this season amidst the carols and bells and chatter, may this word penetrate our hurt and sorrow – God is with us. God holds our breaking hearts. With God there can be healing, even when that takes time, and it does. With God there is light, even when that light is but a tiny sliver peering into a dark room. With God there can be joy, even if it is on the other side of deep sadness. God be with you. Amen.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Prolegomena to any Future Children’s Christmas Program

With apologies to Immanuel Kant

Sunday was the Children and Youth Christmas Program at First UMC. It was presented during worship. The worship service was well-attended, even a bit better than last year, and people were very pleased with how the program and service went.
So is this worship? In many ways the children’s Christmas program is all sweetness and saccharine and sentimentality with little emotional depth. It is true, you really can’t go wrong by wrapping a few preschoolers in cotton balls or crowing them with donkey ears. Bathrobes make wonderful wrappings for wise men from the east when those wise men are under ten. Cows in spotted smocks and even some cats made this year’s manger. Can this really be worship?
Well if worship is meant to tell the story, if it is intended to evoke gratitude, if it is intended to remind us of who we are and what we are to do, if it is meant to connect us more deeply with One in whom we live and move and have our being, then maybe…
The story was told in familiar and more hidden ways. Mary’s voice rang out strong and true. I happen to know that Mary’s grandpa is battling cancer. One narrator was a middle school girl fairly new to our church. When she stepped into the pulpit to speak her lines, her voice was clear and steady. Maybe she and her family are finding a faith home here. Two little girls in the cast are being raised by their father because three years ago their mother died in an automobile accident on her way home from work. The Scriptures were read, the story was elaborated with characters and song – and it was told for all to hear. And a lot of us found a place in that story.
There was much to be grateful for: the patience of the staff and volunteers who worked so hard to make this happen, the energy of the children as they sang songs and led us all in singing, the people who came to be a part of this special day. It is a day to be grateful for the gifts of life for they run down like oil into Aaron’s beard (Psalm 133).
We were reminded of who we are. Didn’t Jesus say that there is something in children from which we can learn, that there is a childlike quality necessary to be a part of God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world? Which childlike quality is most a part of God’s dream for the world? Is it wide-eyed wonder? Is it a willingness to display joy, like jumping kittens in Sunday’s manger? Is it a willingness to try something, to take a risk? Is it a willingness to love with an openness that is soon lost when one hits adolescence? Maybe it is all of these.
We were reminded of what we need to do as God’s people. During the announcement time I shared two thank you notes our church received from children who had been given clothing through a clothes closet our church has made a commitment to stock. The clothes closet is in an elementary school where there are a number of children who could benefit from such a ministry. One young boy was thrilled with his new winter outdoor clothing. Now he could be outside and not be so cold. Another child, a girl, was delighted with new shoes. Now she did not have to wear boots all day in school. These children are a part of our care as were the children in our Christmas program. And among the cast members are children from a local children’s home who come to First UMC for children’s church school every Sunday. We could only use their first names and last initials in our program because they are in that home because life has been difficult and they have not always made the best choices in the face of that. But they come to our church to learn and to pray and to be a part of another caring community. We care about all God’s children here. It is who we are and what we do.
And we care about children, some of whom we will never meet except through little thank you notes, because we know that we and they are connected to One in whom we all live and more and have our being. This One came close in Jesus. This One comes close in Jesus even now when love is shown, when children are welcomed and celebrated, when cows sing and sheep wiggle and kittens jump.
Yes, this is worship.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Little Bragging

I am going to brag a little on my church. It is not a comparison thing, just a little horn blowing for the congregation to which I am appointed as pastor.
I don’t usually get into the office before 9 a.m., and often not until 9:30. I am often at the church in the evenings so no one is concerned I am not putting in my hours. But one day a year, I make sure I am at the church around 7 a.m. - - - that’s the day that our church serves as the site of the “Have a Heart, Help a Neighbor” campaign to raise food and funds for the Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank. The local ABC affiliate, WDIO TV, hosts their morning show from our church parking lot. The director of the food bank is there. A truck receives food. It is a fun morning, and it helps the food bank and through the food bank, a lot of our neighbors. I am glad our church is located in a great spot for this event.
As the food bank event was winding down, a facial-dental clinic was setting up in our building. This clinic serves persons who might not otherwise receive care. I watched with joy as a couple of the children coming to the clinic put dollar bills in the food bank collection.
During all of this time, I also went up to my office a couple of times, and on one such occasion, a member of an AA group that meets in our church on Friday mornings stopped to hand me a small donation for the church. They are glad to have a place to meet.
The congregation I serve is housed in a fairly large building that is architecturally notable and is located in a wonderful spot on the Duluth hillside. Sometimes our big building is a headache, but the congregation is dedicated to using our building as a resource for the community and not just a place for its activities. It is a part of our ministry. We are, at our best, sort of a front porch for Duluth, and we like it that way.
This same week that I am writing about was also a week in which our church hosted three memorial services. One of the services was for a long-time member who would have turned 100 on December 23. The other two services were for non-members, but we open our church so that families can grieve together, support one another, tell stories and offer hugs in the face of loss. It is easy to take this kind of ministry for granted, unless it is your family that has experienced the loss and you are looking for some care and support. The memorial service for the church member who was nearly 100 was held Saturday. That same day our social hall was the location for a new year celebration for the Hmong community.
This is quite a place – better, these are great people to be in ministry with.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Advent

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Jesus, Mark 9:37

Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Jesus, Mark 10:14

Advent is a season of waiting and of surprise. We wait for God to show up and know that we will be surprised when God happens.
One surprising thing about the beginning of Advent this year in Duluth is our lack of snow. November typically brings with it about 14 inches of snow. This year we had closer to one inch, and as Advent arrived on Sunday there was no snow anywhere to be found.
More than that, however, this first Sunday of Advent lived up to its billing – especially the surprise part, and it came from children. God showing up in children? Seems as if this has happened before.
Every Sunday we invite children present in worship to come and share some time. Leadership for this varies some, but I have the joy and privilege much of the time. So I invited children to come up and was going to talk with them about imagining a different world, like in fantasy or science fiction. Anyway, I began with a simple enough question – “Did you enjoy Thanksgiving?” It took me much of the rest of the children’s time to get back to my chosen topic. One little boy, up front with his twin brother spoke excitedly about how he and his dad had been decorating, and they decorated most of the trees in their yard, but there might be a couple left. His enthusiasm for life’s small chores was infectious. In all honesty, while I hope I teach some small lesson during this children’s time, the most important lesson of all happens no matter what I say – that this place is home to children, that they are welcome here and this is their church, too. The enthusiasm of this boy let me know he knew this was his church, too. And God arrived in that somehow. Surprise!
Following the sermon, we celebrated a baptism. The child, a girl, was over a year old (I am writing this from home and so can’t remember just how much over a year). While I was asking her parents questions of faith, and asking the congregation to affirm its faith and pledge support to this family, the little girl waved at the folks gathered. She seemed very comfortable in the limelight. As I was praying the prayer over the water, a prayer I absolutely love, in part because I pray it while reveling in the baptismal waters, the little girl began to get a bit restless. Was this going to be one of those baptisms where every second of holding the child would be an effort?
The prayer finished, I reached for the child and she came to me, then, surprise, she hugged me tight and nestled her head snug against my shoulder and under my chin. Emotion poured through me like the baptismal waters I cupped in my hand and placed gently on her head. “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Grow gently in love of God. May you ever be a true disciple of Jesus Christ who walks in the way that leads to life.” She clung to me, as if for dear life, and if the seconds seemed to pass a bit more slowly it wasn’t because I was anxious to return a squirmy child to her parents, but just the opposite.
Something in me was growing gently in love of God. It is Advent, the season where we wait for God’s arrival knowing it will surprise us in some way. And darn if it didn’t happen that way again, and in a little boy, in a little girl.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

It is actually difficult to edit life. Especially in regard to feelings. Not being open to anger or sadness usually means being unable to be open to love and joy.
Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, 203

Psychoanalysis is a psychology of pain.
Michael Eigen, The Electrified Tightrope, 259

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for many things: my wife Julie, my children: David, Beth and Sarah, my wider family, friends and acquaintances, food, home, music (I’ve been listening in recent days to Paul McCartney Good Evening New York City), movies, poetry, books, the ability to make some positive difference in the world, exercise. I am also grateful for those who help keep me open to myself and the world.
Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us of our need to be open to our own experience. The past year or so some of my favorite conversation partners in this journey of trying to stay open to experience and learn from it – all of it, even the painful stuff, have been writers who are psychoanalysts or who themselves are in significant conversation with the psychoanalytic tradition. Two writers, in particular, have been insightful dialogue partners – Michael Eigen and Ernest Becker.

Becker, writing about why growth and change are so difficult writes about the going through hell of a lonely and racking rebirth where on throws off the lendings of culture, the costumes that fit us for life’s roles, the masks and panoplies of our standardized heroisms, to stand alone and nude facing the howling elements as oneself – a trembling animal element. (The Death and Rebirth of Meaning, 146)

There is a hunger for nuance, for psychic taste.
Michael Eigen, Feeling Matters, 153

It takes a lifetime to grow into oneself, to become a home on can say yes to.
Michael Eigen, Flames from the Unconscious, 103

I am grateful for the journey and for these companions.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Adult Children

Pain teaches love. Joy teaches love. Which is the better teacher?
>Michael Eigen, Flames from the Unconscious, 119

Today our youngest daughter, Sarah, turned 18. My wife Julie and I now have three adult children – David (whose middle name is “Lloyd” – different from mine, and why I often use my middle initial “A”) who is 26, and Elizabeth (Beth), age 24. We have brought three children to adulthood, and in the process I have learned a lot about being an adult human being.
Eigen’s words ring true – pain and joy can teach love, and parenting children to adulthood involves both pain and joy. For me, the pain has most often been watching the pain of my children as they have grown – physical pain like David’s lacerated wrist or Beth’s broken hip (both in the fifth grade – and we were so glad when Sarah made it through the fifth grade without serious injury), but also the sorrows of friends who turn away, the hurt of relationships that have ended, the difficulties of moving and having to start again, the disappointments of dreams that have come up short. In other ways, parenting has not been particularly painful. Our disagreements have been few and far between, and we find our way to reconciliation well. I am so grateful for this.
The joys are as numerous as the stars that shine on this cold, clear Duluth night – laughter shared, hugs and smiles, good meals enjoyed, games played, family movie nights with popcorn or chips and salsa, vacations, watching as my children discover the joys of music and reading, Christmas Eve – even when we all attended four church services together – stopping for supper at a convenience store because everything else was closed…..
The joys and pain of parenting have taught me a lot about love, and even though all our children are now adults, I know the lessons continue. Love is a life-long learning process.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Friday, November 6, 2009

Book Group Again

This past Monday, my interfaith book group met again. The book for the day was Oscar Hijuelos’ book, Mr. Ives' Christmas. I had read this book a few years ago, and felt it was worth suggesting to the group. It was, and it was well worth a second read. I got most of my reading done on airplanes or in airports.
This well-written story takes us into the life of Edward Ives – adopted child, ad man, husband, father, person of faith. We come to know this man in his lonlinesses, in his joys, in his tragedies. We follow his journey of faith, which includes a mystical experience as well as years where his faith has lost heart. Whether caught in the throes of a deeply moving experience or just showing up to do what he needs to do, Ives never abandons the practice of his faith. The title of a Eugene Peterson book came to mind as I was reading the book, “a long obedience in the same direction.” This is a fully-embodied life (loneliness, art, love, sex, parenthood, the tragic death of a son, staying true to principles even when it is difficult, friendship, loyalty, struggle, forgiveness – it’s there) formed quietly by faith.
In a delightful serendipity, we discussed this book seated around a table in a local restaurant, and on the wall behind the table were photographs taken by a local artist. I could not help but look again and again at one in particular. It was a photo of a manhole over which were locked intersecting iron bars. The two bars looked very much like a cross, and underneath the picture were these words: “religious truths go deeper than we are allowed to know.”
Religious truths go deep, very deep, and they are often buried beneath the ground, seemingly locked away. I cannot say we are not allowed to go there. I do think many of us choose to keep the cover locked over some of the deep areas of our lives where we also discover deep religious truths. Michael Eigen has written, “I do think we are more afraid of ourselves than of death…. The taboo against getting deeper into oneself, learning about oneself, is more severe than sex” (Conversations, 60).
A book like Mr. Ives Christmas has the capacity to take us deeper. It took me deeper. It was an early “Christmas gift.”

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Friday, October 30, 2009

Leaving on a Jet Plane

On my last flight out of town this month (I have one more next month) I flew to Asheville, North Carolina for a meeting at the Lake Junaluska Assemby. This lovely retreat center is owned by the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church. Nestled outside of Asheville in the Great Smokey Mountains, it is a great place to visit.

My flight left Duluth early Thursday (6:30 a.m.). I flew first to Detroit and then on to Asheville. It was on my way to Detroit that I was greeted by a beauty wholly unanticipated, and experienced a serendipity of grace.

It had been cloudy leaving Duluth, but on our way to Detroit we flew above the clouds and between the clouds. Looking out my window, the sun was rising – or rather peering through holes in the walls of clouds off in the distance. With the light of this fiery red sun illuminating them, the clouds below looked like a warm cotton blanket. It was all a feast for the eyes.

I was also reading, coming toward the end of a book I began earlier this month, Jacob Needleman’s Money and the Meaning of Life. In his final chapter, Needleman quotes poets Rilke and Rumi. They were the perfect accompaniment to the beauty I was witnessing from my airplane window.

Isn’t the secret intent
of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together,
that inside their boundless emotion all things may
shudder with joy?

Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday? – O Earth: invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?

Rilke

Deliberation is one of the qualities of God.

Deliberation is born of joy,
like a bird from an egg.

Rumi

And so there was beauty and in that invitations to deliberation and to shudder with joy. Serendipitous grace, a grace wholly gratuitous.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Meeting Madness Month

October is meeting madness month for me. To date: Minnesota Conference Budget Process Team, Minnesota Conference Common Table, Minnesota Council of Churches Nominations Committee, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Twin Ports United Methodist Ministry, Minnesota Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, Minnesota Conference Episcopacy Committee. Up-coming: North Central Jurisdiction Religion and Race Event, Commission on Theological Education review of Garrett-Evangelical Seminary, Committee on Faith and Order. This list does not include the meetings of my congregations Staff-Parish Relations Committee, Church Council, Finance Committee, or Nominations Committee; nor the great event I attended Sunday night with area United Methodists and led by Dan Dick. Nor does it include the presentation I made earlier this month at the College of St. Scholastica on “What Do Methodists Think About Perfection (process and results), the meeting I facilitated last week sponsored by Churches United in Ministry to discuss the elimination of Minnesota’s General Assistance Medical Care Program, the presentation I am making Wednesday to our United Methodist Women on “Living the Sacred,” the presentation I am giving at St. Luke’s Hospice on Thursday, nor the panel I am speaking on next week at the University of Minnesota Duluth Medical School on the topic of abortion.

This is an unusually busy month – did I mention the two funerals I have officiated at in the past week – both for delightful people, women whose combined age was 190! I am not complaining about any of this (after all, at some point I said “yes” to it all), just reporting, and letting you know why I have not written much this month. However, I enjoy keeping this blog going, and so will fill the remaining space this time with a couple of quotes from things I have read in the past months.

Something at the center of life incredibly beautiful, precious, holy, a sacred sense at the heart of life
Michael Eigen, Conversations with Michael Eigen, 77

To be a questioner is important. To be a critic, a questioner. To be ignorant. Does one have to sacrifice this need if one also feels God? Does one have to sign on a dotted line?
Michael Eigen, Conversations with Michael Eigen, 3

The contradictions of man’s earthly situation cannot be resolved by easy belief or by reflexively relaying the meaning of it to God. Genuine heroism for man is still the power to support contradictions, no matter how glaring or hopeless they may seem. The ideal critique of a faith must always be whether it embodies within itself the fundamental contradictions of the human paradox and yet is able to support them without fanaticism, sadism, and narcissism, but with openness and trust.
Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning, 198

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pray Within Me

I enjoy writing, and my blogging is one evidence of this. Over time, I have written some poetry, most of which I keep to myself. Occasionally I have had an inkling to write new words for hymns, but have never really followed through on this.

Last Thursday I read a brief devotional thought offered by Brother Roger of Taize, based on Romans 8:26-27. As I was closing the book, words began to form – “pray within me.” A tune attached itself to the words. I looked in The United Methodist Hymnal to find the tune – Tallis’ Canon. The thought of this “hymn” kept at me all day, until by day’s end, I had most of what follows, though I have revised it slightly in the days since.

In the coming weeks, we may try this in the church where I am pastor.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Pray Within Me

Pray within me
God this day
in all I do
in all I say.
Let even silence
speak your name.
Pray within me
God this day.

Within without
let all be prayer,
the loving heart,
the soul laid bare;
acts of justice,
deeds of peace,
Pray within me
Spirit please.

Transform the world
transform my heart,
rekindle faith
let fear depart.
May joy and loving
grace my life.
Pray within me
Jesus Christ.


Tunes:
Tallis’ Canon (682)
Gift of Love (408)

David A. Bard, 2009

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ahead of Oprah Just This Once

Last Monday (September 21) I met with an interfaith book group I have been leading since the Fall of 2006. We met for our regular monthly gathering to discuss the book we had chosen in August, Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan. If the title sounds familiar that is because just days before our group met, Oprah Winfrey has chosen this book as her next Oprah pick - - - but our reading group was weeks ahead of her! We were ahead of Oprah, just this once!
I have appreciated this group for the quality of our discussion and for helping me read novels I might not otherwise have the opportunity to read. A reading list from our group is found at the end of this piece.
Akpan’s book is probably one of those I might well have missed, but am glad I didn’t. This is not because the book is pleasant reading, but precisely because it is difficult in the way books should sometimes be difficult. This book of short stories has as the setting for each story a country in Africa. Children play primary roles in every story, and the stories are told through the voices of children. The childhood portrayed here is nightmarish and horrifying – a twelve year old prostitute in Kenya, children being sold into slavery by their uncle, young friends separated by an adult world where religion serve as yet another way to divide people from one another, a young man with family roots in two religious traditions finding that he can be persecuted by both, a family torn by ethnic division. While these stories are fiction, they are grounded in the real life stories of conflict- and poverty-ridden countries. Reading them brings a painful, but necessary awareness of how far our world has to go in becoming more just and peaceful place. The stories can leave one in despair about the possibilities for change, but they also inspire a deep determination to help make the world better in whatever way one can. The stories can leave one in despair about the role of religion in the world – religion is often a divisive force, and a violently divisive force at that. Yet the stories can also inspire a deep determination to make religious faith, which can provoke division and violence, a force for justice, peace, compassion and goodness.
When Oprah chooses a book, many people read it simply for that reason. Others probably avoid reading these books just because they have now become so “popular.” This is one Oprah pick I hope is widely read and discussed. As a person of faith, I hope that other people of faith join me in helping make religious faith a force for good in the world, rather than a force for hurt, destruction and evil.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Interfaith Book Group Reading List
Camilla Gibb, A Sweetness in the Belly
Leila Aboulela, The Translator
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Philip Caputo, Acts of Faith
Kiren Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
Nathan Englander, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
Mark Salzman, Lying Awake
Dalia Sofer, Septembers of Shiraz
Yasmina Khadra, Swallows of Kabul
Dara Horn, The World to Come
Elizabeth Strout, Abide With Me
Eliot Pattison, The Skull Mantra
Orhan Pamuk, Snow
Marlo Morgan, Mutant Message Down Under
William Young, The Shack
Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
Arvind Adiga, The White Tiger
Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book
Jon Hassler, North of Hope
Amy Tan, Saving Fish From Drowining
Clayton Sullivan, Jesus and the Sweet Pilgrim Baptist Church
Uwem Akpan, Say You’re One of Them
Oscar Hijuelos, Mr. Ives’ Christmas (reading now)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Beatles

Praise the Lord.
Praise God with trumpet sound… with lute and harp!
Praise God with tambourine and dance… with strings and pipe!
Praise God with clanging cymbals… with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.

From Psalm 150

Part of me has always envied that apparent majority of my generation who seem able to do without models of heroism – who call on no figurehead to spur their own aspirations. Sometimes I think those people see the world more clearly than I do, and are certainly less vulnerable once heroism is exposed as equivocal – as it always will be. But another, more fundamental part of me believes heroism is a genuine and miraculous thing, when genuinely found; that for all the disappointments encountered elsewhere, it’s worth holding dear, when genuinely found. And I know there will never be another thing like the Beatles because there will never again be such popular heroes as they chose to be.
Delvin McKinney, The Beatles in Dream and History, 366

When the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, it was the last time a live performance changed the course of American music, and when they became purely a recording group, they pointed the way toward a future in which there need be no unifying styles, as bands can play what they like in the privacy of the studio, and we can choose which to listen to in the privacy of our clubs, our homes, or, finally, our heads. Whether that was liberating or limiting is a matter of opinion and perception, but the whole idea of popular music had changed.
Elijah Wald, How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, 247

John Lennon was killed December 8, 1980 by a man who couldn’t separate his own reality from John’s. I was about half way through my senior year in college. George Harrison succumbed to cancer in 2001. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have released new music in the past couple of years. Still the Beatles live on.

Last week, September 9, 2009, witnessed the release of the entire Beatles catalog on remastered CDs. A mono box set of 11 of the 14 CDs is sold out. The Beatles songs are now part of a video game. The week before the release, USA Today had a cover story on the group and the new releases. A recent issue of Rolling Stone, a publication I subscribed to faithfully while in college, had a cover story on the Beatles break-up, 1969-1970. The Beatles live on.

John met Paul in June of 1957, two years to the month before I was born. Nevertheless, the Beatles music has been a part of the soundtrack of my life. I remember hearing “I Saw Her Standing There” on a 45 owned by an older second cousin when I was still in grade school. My sister, in junior high, ordered an album through Scholastic Books, and on that album was “Blackbird.” I was probably about ten. While I was in junior high and high school, there was a persistent rumor that the Beatles would get together again for a concert or an album. It never happened. There was a joke about musically obtuse people during those years – “He didn’t know Paul McCartney was in a group before Wings.”

What was it about this group that captured our imaginations so, and still does? There is the music – wonderfully catchy, beautifully harmonic, played with joy and sensitivity, creatively written and exceptionally well-played and produced. Some have speculated that the Beatles arrived in America when needed most, in the grief-filled months following the assassination of President John Kennedy. Maybe they assuaged our grief and brought a life-force, a spirit, to our land. For many of us, their music remains indispensible – just look at the kind of things people still write about them - - - changed the face of popular music in a way no longer possible, embodied a certain heroism. They were not perfect people, but their music was (and is) joy and delight. They sought to use the platform of their music to send messages about peace and love – na├»ve, maybe, but who can fault them for that?

I recall in one of the summers of my youth staying up late watching “the late movie” on television and seeing an ad for a Beatles compilation. After playing snippets of so many songs that were already familiar, a British voice over was heard - - - “There’s never been a group quite like the Beatles.” I think that disembodied voice spoke truth. Their music still brings joy and dancing, and for me, also evokes praise, even praise of God.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Monday, September 7, 2009

Quotes

Being a pastor, I am occasionally asked why I quote other people in my sermons, rather than simply engaging in an exposition of the Bible. I believe I use quotes from others as an integral part of my exposition of a biblical passage, use them to dig deeply into the meaning of a passage and the meaning of a passage for our lives. Some will also ask why my blogs don’t focus more on the Bible. I have two blogs, this one, and one on which I post my weekly sermons, sermons which dig into Bible passages to ask what it means to be a person of Christian faith today. So I use this blog to share thoughts that, while shaped by my engagement with the Bible (because my whole life is thus shaped), take a freer form and frankly engage cultural sources as much as strictly religious sources.
Recently I discovered this quote from St. Augustine which strengthens my case for my approach in preaching and writing. Every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord’s, On Christian Doctrine 2.18.28. I like to find truth in a wide variety of sources and enjoy having truth come at me slant.
William James: I have always held the opinion that one of the first duties of a good reader is to summon other readers to the enjoyment of any unknown author of rare quality whom he may discover in his explorations (“A Pluralistic Mystic”). William James is well-known, and by me well-loved, but inspired by James and Augustine, I share a few quotes from authors who may be less well-known to those of you who stumble across or into this blog now and again.
The capacity for pathos toward oneself, the capacity to acknowledge and accept one’s suffering as real and poignant and, sometimes, unjustified, is important and constructive. A sense of pathos represents a coming to terms with our relative helplessness in the face of many aspects of our lives…. Genuine pathos entails compassionate acceptance of suffering caused by events and forces outside our control. Without pathos, we delude ourselves into denying our finitude, our limitations, our mortality. But accepting the limited control we have over our own lives is difficult, and genuine pathos teeters always on the brink of what we might term “pitifulness”: victimology and self-pity. (Stephen Mitchell - the psychoanalyst, not the translator and anthologist, Can Love Last, 167, 169). This is not an argument for irresponsibility, which would be a species of victimology and self-pity, but a case for compassion toward oneself in a world where we do not control everything.
Freud was to discover that the ways we protect ourselves tend also to be the ways we imprison ourselves. (Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness, 62-63). We need a sense of security and safety, but what we use to construct that sense can become the bars which constrict our lives. Life is an on-going struggle to balance pathos with our need to act to improve our lives and the world; and an on-going struggle to balance security with adventure. I believe God is One whose Spirit is always inviting us to compassion and adventure.
To love God with all your heart, soul, might and to feel the heartbreak at the center of existence, and the deeper joy, working within the storm, in the feel of feelings, the feel of life, the feel of one’s life (Michael Eigen, Conversations with Michael Eigen, x. Eigen is a writer I have discovered in the past year and I find his work incredibly rich and insightful. He is a psychoanalytically-oriented therapist who writes about God, the Bible, the mystic as well as about therapy and psyche).

With Faith and With Feathers,
David

Friday, August 28, 2009

I bring you aged a young man’s love
Wendell Berry, “To Tanya on My Sixtieth Birthday,” Given, 6

The love songs of youth remain a joy to list to. For those of us who grew up in the rock era there have been beautiful ballads – “Something” (The Beatles), “Colour My World” (Chicago), “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” (Stevie Wonder), among many, many others. At junior high dances I always hoped to find a partner for The Carpenters “Close To You” or Bread’s “If,” but I was shy and often left standing heartbroken watching others dance.
Love songs could also rock. She was just seventeen… and I saw her standing there (The Beatles), What I like about you, you really know how to dance (The Romantics), et. al. Awhile back I came across a used CD by The Knack a power pop band from my college days whose biggest song was a love song of sorts “My Sharona.” Truth be told there was more lust than love there, but teenage love songs are often a mysterious mixture of affection, sexuality and a desire not to be lonely. I enjoy the love songs, ballads and rockers, of my younger years.
This summer I have also been listening to a different kind of love song, more akin to Wendell Berry’s poem to his wife. John Hiatt released a CD in the last year or so entitled Same Old Man. It is filled with love songs, not the love songs of youth, but of age. Hiatt’s voice is a wonderful instrument to convey such songs.
Even when I was dead inside/You saw something to remind you/of the man I was tryin’ to hide/I just wanna go on with you/All the joy and pain and beauty too. “On With You.” To have lived with someone a long time usually means there will be joy and beauty and pain. That’s life and you want a love that can take it all in.
That’s what love can do/Make you feel brand new….Fire your heart and burn clean through, “What Love Can Do.” The fires of love may burn a little differently over time, but they still burn.

Honey, I’m still the same old man
That you married way back when
A few less brain cells a lot less hair
Honey tell me you still care
I love you more than I ever did…
You start out trying to change everything
You wind up dancing with who you bring
I loved you then and my love still stands
Honey, I’m still the same old man.
“Same Old Man”

That’s my favorite, a tribute to a love that lasts, that joins two people over the years, through easy streets and bumpy roads. Such love takes work, but it is work of the best kind. There is also a grace about such love, it is goes beyond the language of “deserving,” at least when one is the recipient of such love, as I have been (Julie and I celebrated our twenty-seventh anniversary in July). I hope I have given as much as I have received.
I will still listen to the songs of my youth, though I am no longer young. I will also celebrate the gift, the joy, the passion of a young man’s love now aged.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

15 Books

I confess, I am often reticent to get into some of the many quizzes, contests, suggestions offered through Facebook. Which theologian do you most favor? What city would be your perfect home? What color should you wear when the moon is full? Which great looking star would you most like to play you in the movie of your life? Maybe I dislike that last question because I remember in college when people told me I reminded them of John Ritter (in his Three’s Company days). Now I fear Danny DeVito might come to mind.
Anyway, two friends (Lawrence and Jerad) invited me to share fifteen book titles under the following rules: “Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose.” I was intrigued. They got me. I posted my fifteen, with a little bending of the rules and tagged fifteen – o.k. sixteen – friends. Otherwise I kept it brief. Here is the list with explanatory notes.

1. The Bible: How can I say anything else, except this is not simply a nod to profession or piety. Among the first books I remember reading and loving were: Homer Price (and I still have my copy somewhere), Winners Never Quit (a portrait of various athletes who had hit hard times and came back) and The Greatest in Baseball. Love of books and reading came early to me, I guess, and there are certain feeling tones inside even as I type these titles. I came to the Bible most fervently after a born again experience. I asked for a copy of The Way (Living Bible) for my fourteenth birthday. I read the Bible straight through, struggling along the way. There are times when reading the Bible remains a struggle, but other times the words leap from the page into my life. Reading this book shapes the life from which I read. I should also admit that all my other reading shapes how I come back to this book again and again.
2. Writings and Drawings, Bob Dylan. As sometimes happens, a born again experience starts one on a journey that may lead away from the initial theological understandings with which one understood the experience. I remember hearing someone in my Jesus People group telling another person that they should probably not bother reading some certain book, and I remember cringing inside. What was outside this particular understanding of Christian faith? In some ways I think the same Spirit that gave me new birth urged me to think more deeply and broadly. I left that group and began asking all kinds of questions. I had sung a couple of Bob Dylan songs in a Christian small group and liked them. What more was there to this interesting guy with the remarkably distinct voice and gift for putting words together? I bought Greatest Hits I and II. I found Writings and Drawings in the Duluth East High School library. Hey Mr. Tambourine man play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to. Hey Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me in the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you. And I did.
3. Toward a Psychology of Being, Abraham Maslow. Senior year at East psychology class and I met Abraham Maslow (not literally). Many people know about his hierarchy of needs, but don’t get beyond that. That theory has some validity, but can also be criticized, and rightly so. But the Maslow I met in this book wanted to get beyond thinking simply about self-actualization to considering the transcendent and transpersonal. He wanted, as well, to develop a psychology of evil “one written out of compassion and love for human nature.” I deeply appreciated Maslow’s breadth and depth of learning and his gentle spirit, at least as those came through his writing.
4. Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown, Alan Watts. As I sought to discover a wider world outside my intense born-again Christian faith, I wanted to learn something about other religious traditions. Alan Watts was my first guide. This book of essays is not as well known as some of his other works, but it provides a nice selection of some of his later writings. I enjoy the title, too.
5. On the Road, Jack Kerouac; Howl, Allen Ginsberg. At a used bookstore in downtown Duluth I bought a copy of Theodore Roszak’s The Making of A Counter Culture and made the connection between Alan Watts and the beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. In a college English class on twentieth century American literature, just before we were to read some beat literature, the professor asked if anyone had read Kerouac or Ginsberg. My hand was among the two or three that was raised. I still appreciate the rush of language in these works. They were important beginning points into poetry and literature.
6. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkein. The summer I graduated from college and had no reading assignments or papers to think about, I picked up Tolkein’s trilogy (actually began with The Silmarillion and The Hobbit) and spent a summer escaping when I could into another world. It was magic.
7. Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich. Christian faith never left me, or one might better say the God of Jesus Christ kept after me, and following college I went to seminary to explore this faith that had been so intense, but had, at times come up intellectually short. Why could I not let this go? Why did it not let me go? Tillich was the first theologian I grappled with in seminary and his work remains worth the effort. His definition of sanctification (life under the impact of the Spiritual Presence) as increasing awareness, increasing freedom, increasing relatedness, and increasing transcendence captured my attention and imagination then, and it still does.
8. The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr. During college I began to become more socially aware and politically active. The Christian faith I knew at that time was not terribly socially aware. In seminary, reading Niebuhr, I discovered that faith not only helped answer existential questions, but pushed one into thinking about human social relations, too. There have been at least two or three times since seminary that I have come across articles about “needing Niebuhr” again. I am glad I found him in seminary and have never let him go.
9. Process Theology: an introductory exposition, John Cobb and David Griffin. Tillich and Niebuhr remain rich theological resources for my life and thought, but the most profound discovery in theology in my seminary years was the discovery of process theology. It categories of thought profoundly shape how I think about life, God, Jesus, the Bible - - - God as Creative-Responsive love, power as influence, relatedness as essential to experience.
10. Struggle and Fulfillment, Donald Evans. This book by a relatively little-known religious scholar and ethicist weaves together psychoanalytic psychology, theology, philosophy, ethics and religious studies. Who could ask for anything more?
11. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman; Poems, Emily Dickinson. How different can two poets be - - - Whitman sounding his barbaric “yawp” and Dickinson asking “are you nobody, too?” Yet both poets touch something deep within. Perhaps within we find both multitudes and singleness, a need to celebrate life and confront death. Perhaps the poets are united in their sense of “divine madness.” One of the first Dickinson poems I remember reading I read on a small paper bag given me by Savran’s Paperback store in the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis. “Much madness is divinest sense to a discerning eye.”
12. The Centaur, John Updike. I began reading Updike when I returned to school to work on my Ph.D. While that work left insufficient time for outside reading, somewhere along the line this book fell into my hands. I appreciate Updike’s language and story-telling. This work weaves myth into the world of a father and a son in Pennsylvania. The best literature expands our ability to experience our experience and Updike helps me do that.
13. Love’s Knowledge, Martha Nussbaum. This was one of the first books of philosophy I read after completing my Ph.D. I had returned to parish ministry so didn’t really need to be reading this kind of work, but something in me is fed by it. Nussbaum writes beautifully, insightfully and intelligently about literature, feeling, ethics and life. This book led me to develop a love for Henry James, as Nussbaum used his work in making a case for a life that is to be lived finely aware and richly responsible.
14. The Dhammapada. In 2006 I read Marjorie Suchocki’s book on religions Divinity and Diversity. In one chapter where she was discussing Buddhism, I realized that it had been a long time since I had read much literature from this tradition, especially non-Zen literature. I am not sure why I felt it might be helpful to explore this tradition more thoroughly, but I began to read. The Dhammapada is filled with insight, insight that I find helpful in developing my own Christian faith and practice.
15. The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker. Last summer I decided to read this book I had owned since college. After being a candidate for bishop and not getting elected, I think I wanted to read something that would engage me deeply, that might cause me to think in some new ways. I had heard some remarkable things about this book, and so I read it. It engaged me deeply heart, mind and soul and I continue to ponder its insights into the human situation. I love how Becker uses insights from the psychoanalytic tradition. I appreciate his finding kinship with Tillich and Niebuhr. Passages in this book sing, though the tune is often haunting. Becker died while the book was moving toward publication.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Thinking Through Some Busy Days

If you have been looking for something new here for the past couple of weeks, my apologies. I have been busy with a number of projects. From July 22-31, I was teaching a course in Christian Ethics for the United Methodist Course of Study School. Sponsored by Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the course was held on the campus of North Central College in Naperville, Illinois – outside of Chicago. Since I last wrote here, I have been either teaching or preparing to teach. In between the first and second weeks, I traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to join members of my church who were engaged in flood recovery work. Teaching was wonderful and our work in Cedar Rapids very worthwhile and meaningful.
One day, while teaching someone in my class asked me about substitutionary atonement, the theological doctrine that Jesus death was a substitute for our own, that in dying on the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sinfulness. What did I think of this? Well, the topic has not been central to the discipline of Christian Ethics, but the class was based in discussion and it seemed appropriate to offer a few brief thoughts. I responded by saying that the fundamental Christian affirmation of faith is that Jesus death has some salvific significance for human beings, but that the New Testament, and Christian theological thought through the ages has offered a variety of images, metaphors, perspectives for understanding that significance. We moved on.
Serendipitously, that day at lunch, one of my faculty colleagues, Ty Inbody, who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time at Course of Study, was talking about his class in systematic theology and his discussion of atonement theory. He mentioned some of his concerns with substitutionary theories of atonement. Since arriving home I dug out my copy of his book The Many Faces of Christology (which I confessed to him I had not yet read) to explore his thought a bit further. To say that he has reservations about substitutionary atonement is to put the matter mildly. The cross means nothing but one more human tragedy apart from the power of the resurrection. God turns human wrongdoing around, and uses it against itself…. We are redeemed by the incarnation, not by the cross…. No one had to pay any price to anyone…. Rather the God of compassion and lovingkindness redeems us through the divine power which undergoes our suffering caused by our sin and raises to new life those who participate in the power of his cross and resurrection. (163)
This conversation got me to thinking more deeply about ethics and theology. The next day in class I told the students that one thing the discipline of ethics offers theology is questions about doctrine. If the adequacy of a theology is measured by the criteria of appropriateness to the Christian witness of faith and credibility to human experience (I learned this from my teacher Schubert Ogden), one dimension of the credibility of a theological proposition is its moral credibility. I went on to say that for many people, penal sustitutionary theories of the atonement lack some moral credibility. I stated this with humble boldness, inviting the students to disagree.
Well this past Saturday, I got up and turned on the television for a bit of news, but surfing by a church service, I stopped. I listened as the pastor, from a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church, developed in his sermon the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Here is some of what he said.
God is angry with us because of sin. Apparently this anger of God is rather blinding because God does not differentiate between us and murderers, thieves or prostitutes. God is angry about human sin and that sin deeply offends God, and justice demands that a price be paid for this offense of justice. The pastor then discussed substitution, using the example of a volleyball team – substituting a better player when needed in a game. In this case, Jesus becomes the substitute. We have a price to pay for our sin, but Jesus takes our place by dying on the cross. Not only did Jesus die, said the pastor, he was crushed. He asked his listeners to recall what children do to bugs – they squash them, crush them, destroy them – and that’s what God did to Jesus on the cross. But because such crushing was the penalty due for our sin, we can now become children of God. One might legitimately ask, at this point, what that might mean. The pastor has just told us, afterall, how God treated one of his best children – by crushing him like a bug. I think this theological position raises some significant moral questions, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.
In his book The Human Being Walter Wink discusses various theories of the atonement, the significance to human well-being of the death of Jesus. He concludes with these observations: There is truth in most of these atonement theories…. The point is that no religious experience can be made normative for all people. God reaches out to us in love wherever we are and instigates what leads us to wholeness…. The virtue of multiple images of the atonement in the New Testament is that each communicates some aspect of forgiveness and new life, without a single model being elevated as exclusively correct. Atonement theories are need-specific remedies for the spiritual afflictions that assail us. (111)
I am grateful for the multiplicity of ways Christian tradition has grappled with the significance of the death of Jesus for human life. Given the limits of penal substitutionary atonement theology, I am glad it is not the only option. My guess is that there are people outside the church who have trouble with that theory and who would like to hear about Christian faith in a different key. I'd like to talk with them.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Friday, July 10, 2009

Just a Job?

In a couple of weeks I will be teaching a course for United Methodist licensed local pastors on Christian Ethics. If you are reading this and don’t know there is a difference between ordained persons appointed as pastors of United Methodist churches and licensed persons appointed as pastors of United Methodist churches - - - well, it is a bit of an explanation and not terribly germane here. One distinction is that licensed local pastors may, in lieu of seminary, take seminary-like courses as a part of a course of study. That’s where I will be doing my teaching.

One of the texts for the course is Rebekah Miles’ The Pastor as Moral Guide, a very good book and one I would recommend to all my colleagues in ministry. Dr. Miles writes well and raises important issues in a thoughtful manner. One need not agree with her on all the issues she presents to benefit from reading her book.

One section of the book I found particularly thought-provoking was her discussion of work. The following passage follows stories shared about persons struggling with various difficulties surrounding work – a family that has little time for each other, a single parent, and person who has lost his job. Miles argues that we struggle with balancing work with other parts of our lives (no big news there!). How might we work toward a better balance?

In addition to renewing the concept of vocation, we need to regain a new realism about work. If the first remedy is to raise the value of work, the second is to lower its value. Work is not only a calling and joy but also toil and vanity. We often value work too highly, expecting too much of it, letting it consume not only our time but also our identities. Love of work can become idolatry. What we need, then, is to lower the value of work. The purpose of work is survival and service. Our larger call is to be Christian. Employment is simply one part of that call…. We need to lower our sights and recognize that all work has limited value. We aren’t called to like it, just to do it. In short, we value work too much and too little. We expect too much of it when we look to it for ultimate meaning or when we forget that it is toil and vanity. Remembering God and the larger purposes of life, we are reminded of works important but secondary role. We need a hopeful realism and a chastened idealism about work. (69)

But does that apply to my work? After all, I am a pastor. I work with ultimate meanings, with people’s relationships to God, to one another, to the earth, to society. Is it ever appropriate to think of my job as, well, just a job?

Maybe it is turning 50, maybe it is a number of other factors converging, but Miles’ words make sense, even for pastors, even for me. Yes, I have the wonderful privilege of touching people’s lives in times of joy and sorrow, chaos, grief, pain, celebration. I get to hold babies and be a part of welcoming them as one of God’s loved children. I get to celebrate the love between people and stand with people when they bid their final good-bye to a loved one. I get to help people think about life in relationship to God and be a part of their spiritual journey. I get to help people work together to form community. These are the kinds of experiences that are a part of my job description that let me know that my job is more than a job, that ultimate meanings are woven within what I do. But I also have paperwork to complete, personnel issues to deal with, days when toil is not too far removed from my experience of being a pastor. Somehow Miles’ words have helped remind me that it is o.k. to remember that even if my job involves ultimate meanings, the job itself does not contain all ultimate meaning. God has called me to be a pastor, but first God called me to be a Christian, a full human being who finds what that means in Jesus. It is o.k., then, to have times when I don’t have to like all that I do, just do it. Sometimes being a pastor is just a job. I am deeply grateful that it is also often so much more.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Monday, June 29, 2009

Turning Fifty

The voice that comes out in writing speaks from the depths of one’s aloneness to the aloneness of others.
Michael Eigen, The Electrified Tightrope, 262


I turned 50 last Wednesday, June 24. I was in Nashville for a meeting of the United Methodist Commission on Theological Education and no one knew it was my fiftieth birthday – and I was o.k. with that. That evening I had a very nice dinner with some members of the commission and it was a nice way to mark the day. Of course, it was also very nice to get home and celebrate this day with my family, which we did Saturday night.

So Wednesday was my birthday. On Thursday afternoon, I was on a treadmill in a hotel in Nashville when the news came on that Michael Jackson died, at age 50. Earlier in the day, the news about Farrah Fawcett’s death was also released – her death at age 62. Growing up I remember the music of The Jackson 5. Thriller was released the year after I graduated from college and I heard it often while working with youth as a seminarian. Whatever strangeness emerged in Michael Jackson’s life, his music touched the world with joy and hope. I also remember Farrah Fawcett from Charlie’s Angels, though truth be told, I had more of a crush on Kate Jackson. Farrah’s type just seemed too unattainable.

On the treadmill, with news of these deaths swirling around, with my fiftieth birthday only a day gone by, these songs came on one after another on my i pod:

Landslide
But time makes you bolder
Children get older
I’m getting older too


Dream On
Everytime that I look in the mirror
All these lines on my face gettin clearer
The past is gone

Sing with me, sing for the years
Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears

Dream on, dream on
Dream yourself a dream come true
Dream on, dream on
Dream until your dream comes true


All these lines on my face are getting clearer. I’m getting older too. I hope time makes me bolder in good ways, and I hope I never stop dreaming – or singing.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Father's Day

Father’s Day was a week ago and I spent only a part of the day with my three children – David, Beth and Sarah.

Beth I did not see at all. She is completing her first year of medical school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and was in the Twin Cities studying for her final exams of this first year. She sent me a text and called me.

David was out working on a political campaign. He is the campaign manager for a candidate running for an at-large city council seat in Duluth. He has spent most Sunday afternoons distributing literature or knocking on doors for his candidate. That afternoon, our daughter Sarah went with him to help. They were home for dinner at which time we (Julie - my wife, David, Sarah and I) marked Father’s Day.

While I enjoy all the time I spend with my children, and if there is a lack of time together my schedule is often the culprit, I am not sure I could have had a better Father’s Day. To see my children as caring, concerned, compassionate adults – or on their way there, to see them working hard for things they believe in and things that will make the world a little better, is very special. To have them tell me that I have been of help along the way – there is no better Father’s Day gift than that.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Parker Palmer

Writing last week I made a case for the importance of including Huston Smith in the company of Christians, though some might not want to do so because of his definition of what it means to be a Christian, and the way his own faith journey has incorporated Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Huston Smith is an important Christian companion for the way he stretches me.
Another Christian who some might consider at the edge of Christian faith is Parker Palmer – and I would want him in my community of faith for the way he stretches me, for the way he challenges me to think more deeply about faith and life.
A men’s group at my church is currently reading Palmer’s most recent book, A Hidden Wholeness and grappling with its discussion of bringing soul more fully into our lives. While this is his most recent book, since its publication, Palmer has reissued an earlier work (The Promise of Paradox), and the new introduction to that work written for the reissue is quite fascinating for the light it sheds on Palmer’s Christian faith.
Palmer’s first book was written from a more explicitly Christian perspective than more recent work, but in the new introduction he claims this faith. “I still understand myself as a Christian, and many traditional Christian understandings still shape my life” (xxi). He goes on to say: “I would be lost in the dark without the light Christianity sheds on my life, the light I find in truths like incarnation, grace, sacrament, forgiveness, blessing, and the paradoxical dance of death and resurrection.” Yet Palmer also says that his “relationship to Christianity has changed” (xiv). He finds using Christian language problematic.
In 2008, I find it hard to name my beliefs using traditional Christian language because that vocabulary has been taken hostage by theological terrorists and tortured beyond recognition (xxi). Strong words – words I may not use, but they cause me to pay close attention. What problems does Palmer see?
When Christians claim that their light is the only light and that anyone who does not share their understanding of it is doomed to eternal damnation, things get very dark for me. I want to run screaming out into the so-called secular world – which is, I believe, better-named the wide, wild world of God – where I can recover my God-given mind. (xxii) Palmer is disturbed by the lack of humility he sees in too many Christians, their “theological arrogance” (xxiv), their failure to acknowledge that we are earthen vessels. These earthen vessels – the containers that hold and convey the mysteries of faith – include every word in our scriptures and theologies, every doctrine in our creeds, every structure that holds up the institutional church…. All of them are clay pots, prone to crack and leak, crumble and break. And that’s a good thing because it reminds us we are embedded in a truth so vast that our mental constructs can never comprehend it; because it cultivates the humility required to look at that mystery through other people’s eyes, giving us a chance to learn more about it; because it keeps us from becoming theological fascists. (xxvi)
If humility is one problem currently plaguing the Christian community, or at least some parts of the public face of it, Palmer also believes the way some describe the Christian doctrine of atonement is troubling. What kind of God is it who demands blood – the blood of God’s own son – for atonement?... I don’t want a God to whom I can feel morally superior. And I don’t want a theology that advocates blood sacrifice as a way of setting things right. There’s way too much of that going around these days. (xxiv) Such a statement would mean that some Christians would exclude Palmer from genuine Christian faith, much as they might Huston Smith. Palmer does view the death of Jesus as redemptive. Jesus died on the cross because he got crosswise with the powers that be…. For me, his death is redemptive not because it fulfills the puppet master’s plan or works some kind of cosmic sleight of hand but because it represents God’s willingness to suffer with us in every moment of our lives, not least when we are willing to speak truth to power. (xxv) I appreciate the way Palmer pushes me to think more deeply about the significance of the death of Jesus. In a violent world, where religion has often encouraged violence, we should be uneasy with a doctrine that seems to justify sacred violence.
Palmer’s thinking about Christian faith is not simply critical, it is also constructive. “Above all God wants us to be alive: life, after all, is God’s original gift to us” (xxviii) Palmer argues for a spiritual life that is found in the midst of life, with all its messiness. We will find our spiritual lives in that mess itself, in its earthly realities, unpredictable challenges, surprising resources, creative dynamics…. We [need to] add a new prayer to the well-known short list of “Thanks!” and “Help!” The new one is equally simple: “Bless this mess!” (xxviii)
In order to live life more fully, to deepen one’s spiritual life, one must embrace paradox. The capacity to embrace true paradoxes is more than an intellectual skill for holding complex thoughts. It is a life skill for holding complex experiences. (xxx) Palmer writes insightfully about that in A Hidden Wholeness. The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love. (82-83) As I approach 50, the truth of these words has become clearer to me.
Above all, God wants us to be alive. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). I believe that those words, written to describe Jesus, name what all are called to do, wrap our whole selves around the truth given to us and live it out in our embodied lives. (xxxi) In reading Palmer, especially on the necessity of paradox for being fully alive, I am reminded of these lines from William Blake:

Twofold Always. May God us keep
From single vision and Newton’s sleep.


Parker Palmer, like William Blake, is a deep poet of the soul, and a deeply Christian one.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Is Huston Smith a Christian?

To ask the question, “Is Huston Smith a Christian?’ strikes me as terribly impudent. He and I, after all, share a significant year together. This year, he turns 90 and I turn 50. Yet I think the question is important as I think about the meaning of Christian faith for the twenty-first century.
I have recently finished reading Huston Smith’s newly published autobiography, Tales of Wonder. Whatever one thinks about Huston Smith’s religious faith, this is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable read. If there is such a thing as a beach read for the intellectually and spiritually inclined, this book may be one. It is a page-turner with sex (or at least love and marriage and children), drugs (psychedelics with Timothy Leary), murder (one of Huston Smith’s granddaughters) and “adventures chasing the Divine” (the book’s subtitle). In its pages you meet (or hear about Huston Smith meeting), besides Timothy Leary, Henry Nelson Wieman (who is Smith’s father-in-law), Martin Luther King, Jr., Aldous Huxley, D. T. Suzuki, Eleanor Roosevelt, David Bohm, Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama, Bill Moyers.
Huston Smith is the child of Methodist missionaries to China. He has practiced Christian faith for ninety years. He writes of himself: Of most of the things that happened to me, had they not happened, I would still be the same person. Erase Christianity from my life, though, and you will have erased Huston Smith. (97) Huston Smith clearly sees himself as a Christian. He can articulate succinctly what he thinks is required for person to be Christian. What is the minimum requirement to be a Christian? If you think Jesus Christ is special, in his own category of specialness, and you feel an affinity to him, and you do not harm others consciously, you can consider yourself a Christian. (109)
That definition would not be sufficient for a number of my fellow Christians, making Huston Smith suspect. His daily practices would make him more so. He begins each day with exercises for body, mind and spirit. For his body he practices hatha yoga. For his mind he reads “a few pages from the Bible or a bible (the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Quaran, the Sufi poems of Rumi, and so on” (xxi). Then he prays. In his memoir, Smith writes of his Christian faith, and then of his “three other religions” – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. I never met a religion I did not like…. I practiced Hinduism unconditionally for ten years, then Buddhism for ten years, and then Islam for another ten years – all the while remaining a Christian and regularly attending a Methodist church. (113) Such religious practice would take him out of the family of Christian faith, at least as some would define it.
I have never met Huston Smith, but reading his autobiography I could almost feel his spirit – kind, generous, curious, deeply in love with life and with the Divine. I see in his Christian faith such depth that he can incorporate other religious practices into it with integrity without losing that faith. His openness to and wonder about other religious traditions seem genuine virtues in a world where Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims are not half a world away, and may not even be half a block away. Can Christians share the good news of Christian faith while acknowledging that other religious traditions might also lead to genuine encounters with God, with the Divine? I believe so, and I think Huston Smith serves as a wonderful example of a Christian who lives, thinks and shares his faith while learning from other faiths. Somehow the Christian community would be a much poorer place if our definition of Christian faith excluded this kind, thoughtful, deep soul.


With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Polyglot Spirit

I returned from annual gathering of the Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church on Friday. Seeing friends and worshipping together are always highlights of Conference for me.

Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, that day when we tell again the story of God’s Spirit sweeping among the Jesus community like a strong, driving wind, and the creative chaos of multiple languages being spoken simultaneously, yet each person hearing of God in a way they could understand. God’s Spirit is polyglottal.

I experienced something of the polyglot Spirit while at Annual Conference. I especially experienced it on the last night of conference through two very very different gatherings. Thursday night was the ordination service – often a deeply meaningful and moving experience. I and many colleagues donned our clergy robes and processed into the service together. Singing, praying, walking, sitting together reminds us that we are a community, we United Methodist clergy in Minnesota, and on this night we welcome new members into that community. We often recall our own ordinations. I have developed a deep fondness for that part of the service where we sing the chant Veni Sanctu Spiritus – “Come Holy Spirit” as each person is ordained. The Latin chant, sung repeatedly, evokes for me the mystical dimension of God’s Spirit, the Spirit inviting us to transcendence, to deep transformation, to plumb the depths of the heart and mind and open them to new life.

After ordination, my friend Dale, my son David, and I met a few other friends at an off-conference site, a small establishment a couple of blocks from the convention center where the conference was being held. We talked and laughed for awhile, then musicians took the unobtrusive stage. The first was a sort of Tom Waits folk singer who played guitar and sang, accompanied by a single drum drummer. The drummer stayed on while a talented blues guitarist played and sang. This folk/blues music was another voice of the Spirit – reminding me that God’s Spirit works in the midst of all the circumstances of our lives, integrates into our spirituality the earthiness of our bodies, our sexuality, our friendships, our laughter, our disappointments, our failures, our loneliness. The work of God’s Spirit is integrating and integrity, it is wholeness and holiness. To paraphrase Tillich, a man is no bigger than the amount of diabolic in himself he can assimilate (Michael Eigen, The Electrified Tightrope, 9).

God’s polyglot Spirit continues to speak to me, and in me – uttering the prayer that I might be both more holy and more human.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Friday, May 22, 2009

To wait for moments or places where no pain exists, no separation is felt and where all human restlessness has turned into inner peace is waiting for a dreamworld.
Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (19)

There is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life…. Life is traumatizing. Trauma hits and keeps on hitting. It is part of who we are. Our very personalities have self-traumatizing aspects.
Michael Eigen, Conversations with Michael Eigen (116, 131)

An inescapable sadness is part of the life of any reflective person, but it is only part – by no means all – of living.
Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (111)

In recent years, I have come to see more fully the tragic aspects of life – its difficulties, struggles, pain, how intertwined joy and sorrow are in life. Maybe it comes with nearing age 50, which I will reach in about a month. Maybe it comes with living – with experiencing disappointment, with on-going struggles within, with recognizing how agonizingly slow some needed change occurs in the world. Not long ago I was jotting down adjectives to describe some of the range of human experience, adjectives I would guess encompass something of the experience of many human beings: deep disappointment, extravagant ecstasy, heart-wrenching sorrow, heart-warming joy, sheer boredom, tediousness, merely miserable, crushing anguish, soul-stirring hope, live-giving love. The realization that has come with age is that we continue to know the wide-range of experiences. The difficult experiences don’t vanish.

So what do we do with all that? I have just begun reading Huston Smith’s recently published autobiography Tales of Wonder. Thus far it is a delight. He shares how he first met Aldous Huxley and how later he invited him to lecture at MIT. Huxley drew a large crowd, but confessed to Smith, “It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than Try to be a little kinder.” (46-47) Huxley was on to something. Jesus invited us to love. Paul wrote that among the fruits of the Spirit is kindness. Knowing life can be hurtful, traumatic, painful, disappointing as well as joyful, loving, hopeful makes me want to cultivate kindness and compassion. Somehow the life-long journey, sometimes struggle, to develop a compassionate heart, a deep soul, a kind spirit, a capacious mind seems worth it. If there is no trauma-free space in real life, "try to be a little kinder" seems good advice.

And so I seek to give birth to this person who can be kind and gentle and caring and loving and wise - seek to be transformed again and again by the Spirit of God into this kind of person.

What is keeping you from… living your life as though it were one painful beautiful day in the history of a great pregnancy? (Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, sixth letter)

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Baseball

We are about a month into the 2009 baseball season. The Minnesota Twins are two games under .500 and three games out of the American League Central lead. Thus far, inconsistency in their pitching, starting pitching and relief pitching, seems to be the biggest problem. Still, they have been fun to watch and I watch a few innings when I can.

I am not sure what it is about baseball that draws me. Some find the game absolutely boring, but where they find boring I find an unforced rhythm of grace (stealing a phrase from Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 11). I know many of the interesting comparisons between baseball and life – the fine balance between team and individual, getting a hit 4 times out of ten makes you a huge success, and some of the songs sung about baseball’s uniqueness – the obscure statistics, the only game played without a clock. There is something in all of this that attracts me to the game. More than that, however, there is in baseball a deep connection to my childhood and youth. Unless one’s childhood is completely marred by family violence and dysfunction, by poverty, by violence in the society in which one lives, there are probably some deep, loving connections with that time in our life that continue to tug at our souls. Baseball seems one of those for me. One great tragedy about family violence and dysfunction, grinding poverty, war-torn nations and violent neighborhoods is the lasting scars left on children, the loss to their souls.

I began collecting baseball cards when I was in grade school. I loved listening to the games on the radio. Baseball is a great game for radio, which may be why it is not as popular as it once was. Baseball is a game you can listen too when you cannot watch. I alphabetized my cards by teams, wrote up rosters for each team and played games with my cards. I was horrified by the barbarians who used their baseball cards to help their bicycles make noise – clipping a card onto part of the fender with a clothespin so the card caught in the bike spokes and made a quick tich-tich-tich sound. The only cards that should be used for such purposes were the checklists. Not even the most inept player for the Montreal Expos deserved such treatment.

Baseball was a game you could read about, too. One of the earliest purchased books in my personal library is a thin volume called “The Greatest in Baseball.” I probably bought it in the second grade, maybe third. My life-long love for reading has roots in my love of baseball. Thankfully my reading skills developed beyond my baseball skills.

John Updike, who died earlier this year, is one of the authors whose books line my shelves, rather like my baseball cards stacked in boxes – alphabetized by team and banded together. Updike was such a prolific author that two posthumous books are out within six months of his death – a book of poems last month and a book of stories in June. In the book of poems (Endpoint), one finds a poem entitled “Baseball.” Here is the first stanza:

It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even,
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside,
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.


Much earlier in his writing career, Updike wrote a famous essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” about Ted Williams last game and “the affair between Boston and Ted Williams… a marriage composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories.” Ever the word lover, Updike uses a strange noun in a footnote – Schlagballewusstein, which he renders baseball-consciousness. Updike’s Schlagballewusstein was a long-lived one. He writes in the Williams essay about following box scores as a boy in Pennsylvania, and his poem in Endpoint testifies to his interest in baseball to the end. Updike’s interests certainly spanned well beyond baseball, but baseball-consciousness remained a part of his self-consciousness for life. Maybe for him, too, baseball touched a part of the soul that belonged to the child.

“Baseball is a game of the long season,” Updike wrote in his essay. In that way, too, it is like life. In the long season of life, baseball and good books make wonderful companions.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

My one moment on a major league field, 2004, throwing out a first pitch at a Twins Game

Monday, May 4, 2009

Labyrinth

While busy, this past week was also rich. Wednesday and Thursday I attended the Spring Convocation at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, my seminary alma mater. I enjoyed seeing some former classmates, former teachers and other old friends and colleagues. The topic for the convocation was worship and Marty Haugen, a well-known and well-respected hymn writer, was a major presenter. I am still processing all that I took in over these couple of days.

One reason that I continue to process what I heard at UTS-TC was that I arrived home on Thursday afternoon and left Friday morning to be a leader at the Spring Spiritual Renewal Retreat for The United Methodist Women of Minnesota. I was warmly welcomed by the participants of this conference. They listened deeply as I shared insights on living the Sacred as Christians, and they offered probing and intelligent comments and questions. “Living the Sacred” was the retreat topic and I shared thoughts about “the Sacred” and about Christian spiritual practices using Scripture, poetry, stories and my own experience. One of the messages I wanted to convey is that whatever helps us get in touch with the God we know in Jesus Christ more deeply, and shapes our lives in the direction of love more profoundly, can be a spiritual discipline, can be a part of living the Sacred.

The women welcomed me not only as a presenter but also as a participant in the retreat, and their hospitality was gracious.

One retreat activity was walking the labyrinth by candle light. I have walked the labyrinth before and have always found it a meaningful exercise in spirituality. I have never before walked it by candlelight, or with such a large group. There were lessons to be learned that evening, new encounters with the Sacred to be made.

My first lesson for the evening came as I waited to enter the labyrinth. As my turn came near, I began to get a feeling of excitement and anticipation in the pit of my stomach. It reminded me of standing in line at Valley Fair and being next in line for the ride. Living the Sacred can be a wild ride sometimes - - - allowing oneself to be blown by the winds of the Spirit, dancing on those winds.

Lesson number two hit a couple of times during the walk. It arrived first in the form of a small kink in my back muscles – not overpowering but a little uncomfortable. Then hot wax from the candle I was holding dripped down through the paper and stung my hand as it hit it, before reforming a wax surface on a finger. The spiritual life is not pain free. The promise in living the Sacred is not an easy, pain-free life. In fact, when you choose to love, you open yourself to the possibility of more pain, because those you love may hurt or hurt you (think Roy Orbison, “Love Hurts”). The world you love will disappoint. The promise of the spiritual life is not a pain-free life, but fullness of life, a transformed life, a life where joy emerges even in difficult circumstances.

The third lesson arrived when I arrived for the second time in the center of the labyrinth. That’s not supposed to happen. I could tell myself that I messed up – “how do you screw up a labyrinth.” There is a part of me that goes there pretty quickly, being a perfectionist of sorts. But when I got to the center the second time, I laughed and was reminded that there is no single way to live the Sacred. You cannot screw up a labyrinth.

Finally, we get by with a little help from our friends (yes, there is a Beatles song!). The spiritual life is not intended to be lived alone, but in community. Most of us walking the labyrinth needed to be handed a second candle – I needed three! When I finished walking, though no instructions were given about this, I felt I wanted to stay and stand with those still walking – holding my candle as long as I could. I was early into the labyrinth, and others held their candles for me, I wanted to do the same. And when my third candle burned out, I still stayed.

Walking the labyrinth is a traditional discipline for living the Sacred, but like many encounters with the Sacred, one never knows just what the lessons might be this time around.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thoughts Worth Sharing

Here are two quotes encountered this week that are worth sharing.

People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.

St. Augustine

I have sometimes dreamt... that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards - their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble - the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."

Virginia Woolf, How Should One Read a Book?

For me, I have often been left wondering at the mystery of myself precisely when reading.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David

Monday, April 20, 2009

We Can Do Better

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. It is difficult to believe that has been ten years since two seniors at Columbine unleashed an attack with guns and pipe bombs at their school.
The gunmen, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, committed suicide as their violent rampage ended.

Locally, the Million Mom March held a candlelight vigil to remember all the victims of gun violence, including those at Columbine. I was asked to be one of the speakers for the evening, and I gladly said, "yes." The following are my remarks.

Since being asked to speak here on this tenth anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, we have had to add to our list new place names which mark death from tragic gun violence in our consciousness as Americans: Samson, Alabama; Washington State; Pittsburgh; Oakland; Binghamton, New York. On April 8 an editorial in The New York Times noted that there had been 57 deaths in mass shootings in the past month. The toll continues to rise as last Thursday in Long Beach, California a gunman, a hospital employee, entered the Long Beach Memorial Medical Center shot and killed two workers before taking his own life. As we gather tonight our hearts are justifiably heavy. We feel the effects of this violence, these deaths. We grieve, and for those who have lost loved ones to gun violence, new incidents tear at the scars of previously felt grief. Our sense of security is made more precarious.
Into the heaviness of this evening, let me share a story from my faith tradition, a story that will initially leave us feeling even heavier. Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8b-9) Just two chapters after the beginnings of humanity comes this story. The placement of the story suggests that early in the human enterprise there is violence and killing. In her book The Fall to Violence, theologian Marjorie Suchocki writes: As a species we present human beings all wear the mark of Cain… within our souls. We have evolved through a long history of violent death, and retain a continued penchant to inflict violence in life. Our birthmark is a common capacity for violence, an aggressiveness written deep within the structures of our being. (94)
As human beings we can be violent and aggressive and a part of what that means is that we cannot prevent every tragedy that occurs in the world. I wish this were not so. I wish I could wave a wand or sprinkle some magic powder and take tragedy out of the world, but I cannot, and we cannot together. We cannot prevent every Columbine, every Cold Spring, every Red Lake, every Virginia Tech, every Binghamton. Our grief and mourning are very real tonight, because we know others will gather in the future to grieve and mourn.
But the story from Genesis contains seeds of hope, hints at the possibility that while we may not rid the world of violence and tragedy entirely, the world can be different than it is. After being confronted with the fact that his brother is missing, Cain utters these remarkable words: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In the context of the story, the clear answer is “Yes!” As human beings we may have capacities for aggressiveness and violence, we also have capacities to be in community with each other, to see ourselves as our sister’s keeper, our brother’s keeper.
That wonderfully evocative notion of being our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper, opens up to a more expansive vision for human life, a vision that, in the words of theologian Marjorie Suchocki, bespeaks the beauty of reciprocal well-being, of justice, of love without boundaries. It bespeaks a vision of no less that the community of God. This vision calls us to recognize who we are individually and communally; and to live toward the hope of transformation. (160) As human beings we cannot, we must not simply shrug our shoulders in the face of violence and tragedy, even knowing that we cannot prevent it all. We must also know that we are our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper, that we can work together for a world that evidences reciprocal well-being, justice, love without boundaries. We can live toward the hope of transformation.
We may not be able to prevent every tragedy in our world, every violent death, but we can do better.
In a country where almost 600,000 people were murdered between 1976 and 2005 – about 70% by guns, where our murder rate is three times that of Canada or the United Kingdom and five times that of Germany, we can do better. We can live toward the hope of transformation.
In a world where there will be some violence, we can lessen the violence and lessen its murderous impact by limiting the means for acting out aggressiveness and violence. Rage is one thing – rage with an assault weapon that keeps firing once the trigger is pulled is another. Gun ownership is a right guaranteed by our Constitution, but the courts have also provided for reasonable restrictions of that right for the public safety and the public good. What could be more reasonable than to ask that all sales be subject to a background check, to screen out those who seem to have difficulty managing their aggressiveness? We can do better. We can live toward the hope of transformation.
In a world where there will be pain, we can lessen the pain and grief of victims and families and communities by minimizing the number of violent deaths through modest and reasonable means. We have mutual responsibilities for each other’s well-being. We affirm our communal bonds when we look beyond our own wants, our own preferences, our own rights, and look as well to the good of the community. We can do better. We can live toward the hope of transformation.
In a world where there will be some fear, we can lessen fear and anxiety by enhancing our sense of community. Let’s affirm that we are our brother’s keeper. We are our sister’s keeper. Some of the provisions in our laws which makes access to weapons that kill and maim possible for those who should not have such access are not simply legal loopholes, but are holes torn in the fabric of our common life, and when that fabric is torn we all feel less safe, more alone, more fearful. We can do better. We can live toward the hope of transformation.
As I wrap up my remarks, allow me again to turn to my faith tradition, this time to the Book of Proverbs. Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks (1:20-21)
Wisdom still calls to us – cries out from our blood-stained streets and bullet-marked city squares. Wisdom calls to us, reminding us that we are our brother’s keeper, we are our sister’s keeper. Wisdom calls to us – we can do better. As we remember victims, as we mourn, may we hear wisdom’s voice telling us we can do better, reminding us to live toward the hope of transformation.


For speaking at this event, the organizers from the Million Mom March presented me with an apple pie and as I eat it I hope for the day when gun violence will no longer seem as American as apple pie.

With Faith and With Feathers,

David