Friday, February 27, 2009

The Lenten season puts us in touch with life’s journeys – with temptation, pilgrimage, faith and faithfulness, discipline, and the flowering of human experience…. It is also about human courage and resilience and the power of God to turn the bleakest moments into ones of promise.

O’Day and Powers, Theatre of the Spirit

Lent began Wednesday night. I placed ashes on the foreheads or hands of worshippers, reminding us of our mortality. This year I did that as my father lies dying and another relative of mine, Kathy, has had her cancer return with a vengeance. This is its third appearance and things don’t look good. The next day I received word that a retired United Methodist pastor who attends my church fell while out walking. He hit his head so hard, and the damage to his brain was so traumatic, that his survival is in question. He is hospitalized in a neuro-trauma unit.

Lent is puts us in touch with some of the difficult realities of human life. I am not sure I needed the reminder. In that context we are also reminded of the joys possible within an embodied life – reminded, too, of courage, resilience, the flowering of human experience and the power of God. I can always be reminded of those.

I have not always been big on “giving something up” for Lent. Some years I preferred to add or focus more on a particular practice. This year, however, I am giving up red meat for Lent (beef and pork, et. al.). I will still eat chicken and fish, and I plan to eat more vegetables and fruits. My rule is going to be firm, but not so as to inconvenience others. If I am at a meal and the only thing served is some dish with beef or pork in it, I will not ask my host to prepare something else for me. I don’t expect this to happen often if at all. My discipline is mine to keep, not others to try and accommodate. I am giving up red meat in order to get a better handle on my own eating habits, which can be rather lax. I am giving red meat as a way to acknowledge the negative impact too much red meat in the human diet has on the planet.

The journey has begun.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, February 15, 2009

About a month ago, I officiated at a funeral for a young man, age 44, who died unexpectedly of natural causes (if one can speak of natural causes of death at age 44). I had never met the man or his family before this tragedy struck. The young man (nearing fifty, I can now call people in their mid-forties “young”) left behind a wife and two children – a son in high school and a daughter in college.

Following the service, which was held at a local funeral home (packed with as many people as it could hold), I had an opportunity to visit with family members more extensively. One encounter will stay with me for awhile. I was speaking with the daughter of the man who had died. She and her brother, but especially she, had been responsible for the obituary that appeared in the newspaper. It was very nicely done, sharing the facts of this man’s life and letting the community know that he would be deeply missed by his family. As we spoke, I told her that she had done an especially nice job on the obituary and letting her know that I had seen quite a few of them and really appreciated the work she had done. She, in turn thanked me for “doing… what you do.”

Later that day, I began the semester teaching a course in health care ethics at The College of St. Scholastica – “Religious Perspectives in Health Care Ethics.” As I was describing the class, I encouraged the students to ask questions and initiate discussion. I told them that I would always come prepared to talk about whatever the topic for the day was and could fill up the time. “After all, it’s what I do, I talk.”

As a pastor, I work with words. In the face of death, I offer words. At the joyous occasion of a marriage, I offer words. Week after week after week, I offer words. Sometimes the words are prayers, sometimes sermons, sometimes words of advice, sometimes simple words of comfort in the midst of confusion. I offer words that I hope will help, I offer words that I hope will open people to the God who is always present, sometimes I offer words just to let people know that they are not alone in their hurt, their pain, their confusion.

I believe in the power of words. The poet Lisel Mueller writes: When I am asked/how I began writing poems,/I talk about the indifference of nature.//It was soon after my mother died,/a brilliant June day,/everything blooming…. I sat on a gray stone bench/ringed with ingĂ©nue faces/of pink and white impatiens/and placed my grief/in the mouth of language,/the only thing that would grieve with me. (”When I Am Asked”) Without putting our experience in the mouth of language we miss an essential part of being human, and the richness of our vocabulary often mirrors the richness of our experience. It is not that those with limited vocabularies lack richness of experience, it is that without words we cannot share the story of experience adequately, even to ourselves – thus missing out on a part of its richness. “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence” (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus).

Sounds other than language communicate deeply, too. As an aficionado of jazz, I cannot claim otherwise. Even here, language can prepare us to receive that which is beyond language and to share something of our experience of music with others. Is it coincidence that jazz writing has nearly as wonderful a tradition as the music itself (emphasis on the “nearly”)?

Silence, too, is an occasionally appropriate response to the world and the human condition. One of the most moving pieces written after September 11, 2001 was a piece composed by Kelly Cherry. I still remember her reading it on NPR – listening while driving across the prairie. It is called, “A Writer’s Pledge of Allegiance.” It reads, in part: I believe one must speak, and speak truly. I believe in the power of language to show, to move, to solve, to heal, to build. I believe nothing is beyond language – or, rather, that the Nothing beyond language is containable within art…. For I believe nothing is beyond knowing. I believe nothing is beyond saying. I believe this and am without words. Sometimes the world leaves us speechless, but we must say so, stand on the edge of experience and point with words we know to be inadequate – but point with words nevertheless.

As a pastor, words are my tools and my materials. With them I try and sew stitches to heal wounds. With them, I try to help others recreate the stories of their lives so that there are more moments of healing, more happy endings. With words, I hope to point to work not yet done by articulating a vision for a different world still in the making. With them, I hope to point toward and open others to a Reality not fully describable with words, but a Reality we cannot fail to speak about.
Doing what I do – words are my tools and my materials, my magic and my alchemy, inspired by one called the Word made flesh.

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. Keeping up with the times, I now have a Facebook account! See you somewhere on the web if not in person.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What can I say? It is as if life stared at me
And kissed my lips, and left it as a signature.

Kenneth Koch from Bel Canto

I don’t know if my dad ever read poetry, but the life that kissed his lips and left its signature is slipping away from him, signing off. This afternoon I stood witness to that exodus of life, not a quick jet flight into new territory, but a slow exhale, the leaking of a tire until in the coming days it will be without air, without breath, without spirit. I stood there offering spoonfuls of jello and sherbet, the only things he wanted to eat – maybe the only things he can swallow easily at this stage. I stood there offering food and witness – that’s what I do on a regular basis as a pastor, offer food and witness. I offered food and witness to my father, a man who could often be charming and funny, who loved life and enjoyed his drinks, who rarely darkened the door of a church, who often scared the hell out of me when I was a child. I offered food and witness to my father - I, as a son, who is also a pastor and who loves poetry.

With Faith and With Feathers,