Monday, November 29, 2010

Wild Gratitude

As the Thanksgiving weekend draws to an end, I share with you a fitting poem. It can be found on-line from the site of the Academy of American Poets ( I have included the link and if you follow it you can hear the poet read his poem.

Wild Gratitude Edward Hirsch

Tonight when I knelt down next to our cat, Zooey,
And put my fingers into her clean cat's mouth,
And rubbed her swollen belly that will never know kittens,
And watched her wriggle onto her side, pawing the air,
And listened to her solemn little squeals of delight,
I was thinking about the poet, Christopher Smart,
Who wanted to kneel down and pray without ceasing
In everyone of the splintered London streets,

And was locked away in the madhouse at St. Luke's
With his sad religious mania, and his wild gratitude,
And his grave prayers for the other lunatics,
And his great love for his speckled cat, Jeoffry.
All day today—August 13, 1983—I remembered how
Christopher Smart blessed this same day in August, 1759,
For its calm bravery and ordinary good conscience.

This was the day that he blessed the Postmaster General
"And all conveyancers of letters" for their warm humanity,
And the gardeners for their private benevolence
And intricate knowledge of the language of flowers,
And the milkmen for their universal human kindness.
This morning I understood that he loved to hear—
As I have heard—the soft clink of milk bottles
On the rickety stairs in the early morning,

And how terrible it must have seemed
When even this small pleasure was denied him.
But it wasn't until tonight when I knelt down
And slipped my hand into Zooey's waggling mouth
That I remembered how he'd called Jeoffry "the servant
Of the Living God duly and daily serving Him,"
And for the first time understood what it meant.
Because it wasn't until I saw my own cat

Whine and roll over on her fluffy back
That I realized how gratefully he had watched
Jeoffry fetch and carry his wooden cork
Across the grass in the wet garden, patiently
Jumping over a high stick, calmly sharpening
His claws on the woodpile, rubbing his nose
Against the nose of another cat, stretching, or
Slowly stalking his traditional enemy, the mouse,
A rodent, "a creature of great personal valour,"
And then dallying so much that his enemy escaped.

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

Edward Hirsch, "Wild Gratitude" on

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Irony - The Free Ride When You've Already Paid

Whatever happened to Alanis Morrissette? A couple of days ago she was trending on Yahoo, but that lists changes pretty quickly. With the internet, things move rapidly. Information is available at your fingertips. I was trying to remember the date of a Bruce Springsteen concert I attended in 1978, and I found out the dates of his concerts that year within minutes surfing the web. Remarkable. Is there a down side, a dark side? Maybe.
Zadie Smith is a novelist and essayist who is sixteen years younger than me. I share this because her cautionary words about social networking, offered in the most recent issue of The New York Review are not the reflections of a fifty-one year old who could be written off as hopelessly out of touch with a Web 2.0 world (the person writing this blog who also read Smith’s article in a print version of the periodical – yes, I have more subscriptions than apps).
Here are some of Smith’s reflections. Of social media like Facebook, she writes: Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationships that connection permits – none of this is important…. a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other…. When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.Smith is not a Luddite. She raises the issue of the impact of technologies and tools. Tools are wonderful for doing certain things – but do we use our tools or do our tools use us? It is never that simple. Our technologies inevitably shape our sense of self. The question is whether we will give ourselves completely to our Facebook sense of self where relationships are defined by “status,” where we can “like” something or not, where we seem to be our preferences. Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent New Yorker article (yet another subscription) argues that social media are ingenious for developing weak-tie connections which have their strengths. Yet they also have their limits. Other relationships need to be fostered in a rich and full human life. Zadie Smith quotes Jaron Lanier, virtual reality pioneer, “you have to be somebody before you can share yourself.” Developing a somebody may require time off-line, time for quiet reflection, time away from a constantly connected world.
About the time I was thinking about such things, an announcement was made that Facebook would be developing an e-mail system that could link Facebook, e-mail, text messaging in one place. When e-mail arrived, letter writing declined. E-mail is now considered too slow. Who wants to read all that text (who is still reading these words of reflection?). Text messaging is overtaking the human voice of the phone conversation. Pulling all this together in a single site available on smart phones of all kinds, phones that need never be turned off, phones that seem to beg for constant attention lest you miss an update – how might this be changing us, and do we want to be changed in these ways.
Irony. I am posting these thoughts on the web, on a blog linked to my Facebook site. I use the tools and hope they don’t define all that I am.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, November 14, 2010


Out of all the instinctual needs we humans have to put up with – sex, food, sleep, fresh air, water – the most important and least recognized need of all is beauty. It’s what magnifies us into human beings. character Bob Devonic in Laura Hendrie’s novel, Remember Me

I am in the midst of preaching a series of sermons using themes from Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity For the Rest of Us. Some 60 to 80 people in the congregation I pastor are reading this book as a way of exploring what a vital Christian faith and a vital Christian congregation might look like in the twenty-first century. Today I preached on worship and beauty (and the sermon will be posted on my sermon blog in a few days).
Moving toward the conclusion of the sermon I said that beauty is better experienced than discussed, and then showed a power point slide show with John Coltrane’s “After The Rain” playing in the background. With Coltrane still playing, I ended by reading Denise Levertov’s poem, “Primary Wonder.”
I hoped people experienced something of the beauty I intended. When worship works, that is when it connects us with God, the world, and ourselves more deeply and honestly, it is because beauty is encountered. God’s way and work in the world could be described as the work of creating beauty, of weaving together disparate experiences in the direction of justice, peace, reconciliation, peace, healing, and love. We need beauty. We need it to open our minds and enlarge our hearts. Beauty magnifies us into human beings.
The irony of the morning was that our projector system at the church is in transition, and was not working today. I had to present my power point slide show using my lap top, a portable projector and a screen. The set up would not have been considered beautiful, the screen, in particular lacked almost any aesthetic value. It was even torn in the corner.
Yet even here there is something to be learned. We all have ugly areas in our lives, and certainly the world is marred by the ugliness of hatred, poverty, war, oppression. The work of creating beauty does not necessarily begin with beautiful materials. It begins with what we have at hand, sometimes a torn screen. Even then, though, God works toward beauty, and when worship works, some of that beauty shows through.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, November 5, 2010

Nietzsche II

We, openhanded and rich in spirit, standing by the road like open wells with no intention to fend off anyone who feels like drawing from us – we unfortunately do not know how to defend ourselves where we want to: we have no way of preventing people from darkening us: the time in which we live throws into us what is most time-bound… But we shall do what we have always done: whatever one casts into us, we take down into our depth – for we are deep, we do not forget – and become bright again. Frederich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 378

Why read Nietzsche, son of a pastor (though his father died when Nietzsche was quite young), and later deep critic of the church and of Christianity? Why pay any attention to him? I think we need to hear our critics, listen to those who don’t find faith credible. They can teach us. What often amazes me about Nietzsche is how much I learn from him about aspects of faith. “I would believe only in a god who could dance” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part I). I happen to think this is the Christian God, and Nietzsche doesn’t.

In the passage cited above, I hear a deep spirituality and hear something of the vocation of the church. We nurture deep places of the Spirit within. We take the darkness of the world around us, let it get to that deep place of God, Christ, Spirit, and give back brightness.

With Faith and With Feathers,