Friday, December 21, 2012

Resonant Thoughts

Tomorrow I will be officiating at the funeral of a lovely woman from my congregation. She died earlier this week at age 82. Three years ago, I officiated at her wedding. It was her third marriage following the loss of two previous spouses. It was an occasion filled with joy. There will be joy as we celebrate her life tomorrow, but joy marked with sadness and grief.

In the wedding reflection I offered three years ago, I included these thoughts: Of course evil and ugliness exists, as much now as ever. These get all the headlines. We all know about the bad news. Plenty of reasons for pessimism. The wrongs of the world are clear. Meanwhile, I remain astonished at the good and lovely that exists. And most of it is free and readily available if I’ll look for it. (Robert Fulgham, What On Earth Have I Done?)

In that wedding reflection, I read a poem which included these words:

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought and a lamp held in one hand.

(from “Distances” Phillippe Jaccottet)

Somehow as I think about this funeral, as I think about the twenty-three year old making slow progress in her recovery in a local ICU, as I think about the world after Newtown, as I think about holding a candle on Christmas Eve and singing “Silent Night,” these words spoken three years ago still resonate.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, December 7, 2012

Cheerfully Enough

So let us go on cheerfully enough,
this and every crisping day,

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

From “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness” Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

Every new book of poetry by Mary Oliver is an occasion for rejoicing, and an occasion for fresh insight and wisdom to break it. In the poem from her newest book quoted above, Oliver is reflecting on the world as autumn moves into winter. The days shorten. The dark periods lengthen. It inevitably happens every year, and we know that the death of winter will open up again into the new life of spring. The poet advises that we “go on cheerfully enough.”
Human lives are like that too. We experience shadows lengthening and receding in our lives. We get hurt. We hurt others and regret it. Life disappoints us. We disappoint ourselves. Relationships get strained. People we care about get sick; they suffer. People we love die. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen writes, “One never recovers from being human” (Contact With the Depths).
Yet the channels in the soul opened by feeling these dimensions of our experience might also be channels for deepened joy, for new insights, for feelings of wonder and well-being. Suffering is a part of being human. Growth through our experience of suffering is not so inevitable, but it is possible.
As a Christian, I believe God walks with us in the midst of our suffering, and that God is always influencing us toward growth.
Suffering happens. Growth is possible. Therein lies hope, and a reason for going on cheerfully enough.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Kristeva Again

In May I wrote that my conversation with Julia Kristeva is not over. It is not. Recently I read her essay “Thinking About Liberty in Dark Times” and her thinking again enriches mine. The essay was Kristeva’s presentation on being the first recipient of the Holberg International Prize. The Holberg International Memorial Prize is awarded annually for outstanding scholarly work in the fields of the arts and humanities, social sciences, law and theology.
Kristeva asserts that there are two versions of freedom “economic neo-liberalism and fraternal and poetic freedom, causal and ‘disclosing’ versions of freedom” (Hatred and Forgiveness, 21). Both have value and both are “more multiple, more complex” (22) than we often think.
Kristeva, in thinking about liberty in dark times, is not trying to argue that economic freedom is unimportant. Her concern is that it is in danger of being the only way we think about freedom, especially in places like the United States. “All indications are that we are being carried away by the maelstrom of our calculus thinking and by our consumerism” (17). “America has imposed a financial, economic, and cultural oligarchy that is liberal in its inspiration but risks excluding an important dimension of human destiny” (21). Kristeva is not a reactionary French anti-American. She expresses deep appreciation for our country. Her concern is a certain modern blindness toward another dimension of freedom.
Thinking with Kristeva, religious faith, religious thinking, religious discourse, at its core, contributes something toward poetic freedom, though we are not always immune from being captured by the maelstrom of calculus thinking and consumerism. Sometimes I wonder about the language we use in discussing church growth. Nevertheless, religion, at its best, is important for poetic freedom, as Kristeva seems to suggest.
Now religion is not always at its best. In our modern world, Kristeva notes a “rebirth of religious sects for which the sacred is no longer “a permanent questioning” as the very concept of human dignity would require” (18). Yet at its best religion contributes to poetic freedom. For Kristeva: “I understand the sacred as the desire of human beings to think, not in the sense of calculation, but rather in the sense of a need for fundamental questioning” (12).
O.K. So all this is pretty abstract, pretty heady. What thinking with Kristeva reaffirms for me is the importance of a thoughtful, passionate and compassionate faith. Reading our sacred texts together, we in faith communities are invited to see the world in new ways, to break free of limited views of freedom offered by the wider culture. I believe there is something of the freedom of God’s Spirit in poetic freedom. In that freedom we, at our best, can live differently.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanks Woody

I don’t recall which Woody Allen movie I saw first. I think it may have been Annie Hall. Annie Hall was released in 1977, the year I graduated from high school. The year I turned eighteen. The movie represented a kind of coming of age for Woody Allen, too. No longer simply a comedy set in the past or in the future or in some nameless south of the border country where revolving dictatorships could be seen as comic. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen was funny, even as he could explore with intelligence, kindness, and depth, the joys and fragilities of human relationships. Annie Hall won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1977. It won my heart and soul for Woody Allen movies. If you’ve not seen Midnight in Paris, this long weekend may be a perfect opportunity.

A couple of years later, Allen released Manhattan, a film shot in black and white with a Gershwin soundtrack. Sad to say, I think it was the first time I ever heard “Rhapsody in Blue.” I loved the film. I still have the soundtrack on vinyl.

There is a scene from Manhattan that I have never forgotten, even if I have to look up the precise wording. Woody Allen’s character, Isaac or Ike, is reclining on a couch in his apartment. He is talking into a tape recorder. An idea for a short story about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves ‘cause it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe. It’s, uh… well, it has to be optimistic. Well, all right, why is live worth living? That’s a very good question. Well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh, like what? Okay. Um… for me, oh I would say… what, Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potatohead Blues,” Swedish movies, naturally, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne, uh, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, Tracy’s face

scene from Manhattan

So what makes life worth living for you? Where do you encounter life’s goodness? For we who believe in God we might say these are places where we encounter in one way or another God’s grace, God’s creativity, God’s love.

My list changes, and the list of music, books and movies is long and ever changing. There are also some relatively unchanging items. Times when Julie, David, Beth and Sarah are together (like this Thanksgiving). Doing something nice for someone and they have no idea who you are. The end of a worship service where everything has all fallen into place. The video of Brian Wilson performing “Surf’s Up.” U2 – “It’s a Beautiful Day.” Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run." John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things.” Dave Brubeck, “Take Five.” Miles Davis, “Blue in Green.” A Mary Oliver poem. Annie Hall and Manhattan.

So what makes life worth living for you? Ask the question. Give thanks.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, November 2, 2012

Politics Redux

I believe God has a sense of humor and I believe that human life gives God a lot to laugh about. Two days after my blog about the care I take in not being publically partisan, I received a phone call. It was from a campaign worker for President Obama’s re-election campaign. There was going to be a campaign rally on Tuesday October 30 here in Duluth with an important political figure. There were organizing a program. Would I be willing to give the invocation? I know the caller, just a bit. She has served on the Duluth City Council. She was better acquainted with my son who has been a campaign worker for a few candidates at the local, state and national levels, all from the Democratic Party. Anyway, I asked for a bit more information. She told me about the time involved, and then said I would need a Secret Service check. Wow. This was going to be somebody significant! I said, “yes.” She then told me that the event was going to feature former President Bill Clinton. I was glad I was available. Whatever one’s politics, the opportunity to meet someone who has held the office of President of the United States is rare, and pretty cool. So there I was on Tuesday giving the invocation prior to a campaign rally featuring President Bill Clinton.

I began the prayer with a moment of silence to remember all those whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Then I prayed:

God of all peoples, weaver of the intricate web of life, we come here grateful to live in a country where we can pray freely, where we can discuss ideas openly, where each of us has a voice in shaping the future of our nation. As we make decisions about the direction of our country, may we hear more clearly your call to do justice and nurture kindness, your call to live with a certain humility and with compassion. May we hear your call to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, cloth the ill-clad, and befriend the friendless. Where we have fallen short in justice and kindness, humility and compassion, in caring for those struggling and those on the margins, we seek forgiveness. Even more we ask for determination, courage and imagination as we seek to do better, as we work together for a newer world – a world where justice is done, where kindness and gentleness are nurtured, where beauty is created, and the garden of the world tended lovingly. That work for a newer world goes on and we join it again. The cause of a newer world is ours and we accept it again. Our hope for a newer world lives on in each of us, and we fan the flames anew today. The dream of a newer world, planted deep in our hearts and souls, may the dream never die. Amen.

And if George W. Bush is ever in town and would like someone to pray, I would pray a very similar prayer.

With Faith and With Feathers,


By the way, this picture from my cell phone lets you know how great a seat I had for this event.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Politics and Pastoring

I do not come from a family that was terribly political. I have no idea who my dad voted for when I was growing up, and don’t know who he voted for in the years before his death in 2009. I am not sure if he even voted regularly. My mom keeps her votes completely to herself, though I do remember her once saying that she voted for Richard Nixon in 1960 because she thought John Kennedy was just too young to be president. She would have been in her mid-twenties at the time.

I remember buying a book about United States Presidents from the Scholastic Book Club when I was in elementary school and being quite interested in all these men. When the 1968 presidential election came around, I was a McCarthy supporter, for the simple reason he was from Minnesota. So, too, was the eventual Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey. When the election was concluded, and Nixon beat Humphrey, I recorded the results in the back of my president’s book.

In 1972, I initially liked George McGovern. He did not like the Vietnam War, and that made sense to this thirteen year old. He was also Methodist, which I was, too. I supported him until near the very end of the election. We took a straw poll at Ordean Junior High School, and I ended up voting for Nixon. I said that I did not like McGovern’s support of school busing, but I probably caved to my best friend who was a Nixon supporter.

I voted in my first election in 1978. I was 19. I wrote in a candidate for the United States Senate that year. I first voted for president in 1980. I did not vote for either of the major party candidates that year. I have voted in each election I could vote in since then. I subscribe to magazines with significant political content.

I have a Ph. D. in religious studies. My focus is in Christian ethics. My dissertation was on Christian ethics and democratic political theory. It carries the unwieldy title: “Political Majorities, Political Minorities and the Common Good: An Analysis of Understanding of Democracy in Recent Christian Political Ethics.”

All this is to say I have a long and strong interest in politics. I think politics matters. I think there is a moral dimension to Christian faith and I think that many political issues have a significant moral dimension to them. I will preach and teach on the moral-religious aspects of contemporary issues.

As a pastor, though, I will not endorse candidates in any public manner. I have prudential and theological reasons for this. I don’t think it is very prudent to endorse candidates as I think it might taint what one wants to say about the moral-religious dimension of contemporary issues. If one is perceived to be too much in favor of one candidate or party over the other, what one says about issues can be seen as simply partisan. I don’t think that is helpful. I want to speak about and discuss the moral dimensions of issues without it seeming like my goal is simply to support one candidate or one party over the other.

Theologically, I also argue that while certain policies and the candidates who propose those policies, may provide what I consider to be more morally adequate solutions to the issues we confront, no candidate, no party, no policy can or should be identified with the kingdom of God (or reign of God, or God’s dream for the world). The Kingdom of God, God’s full intention for the human community in relationship, is always future. I hope its ideals of love, justice, community and beauty inspire thinking about a political common good toward which we should be moving as a society. Yet the Kingdom of God is not simply an election a way! Furthermore, I am disappointed that the current state of our politics seems inordinately focused on winning elections and under-concerned for promoting the common good.

So I will continue to think about politics. I will continue to vote and be active in other ways. I will also recognize that the focus of my life and ministry has a wider horizon, and is responsive to a God who is less concerned about the next election than about a new heaven and a new earth.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, September 16, 2012

60s Pop

But popular culture is where we go to talk to and agree with one another; to simplify ourselves; to find our herd. It’s like going to the Automat to buy an emotion. The thrills are cheap and the payoffs are predictable and, after a while, the repetition is a bummer. Whereas books are where we go alone to complicate ourselves. Inside this solitude, we take on contours, textures, perspectives. Heightened language levitates the reader. Great art transfigures.
John Leonard, Reading for My Life, 3-4

I have written appreciatively here of John Leonard. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything he wrote. I take some issue with Leonard’s comments above, agreeing in part, disagreeing in part.
I appreciate art that complicates. The more I see and hear and learn, the more wondrous, mysterious and complicated life seems. It helps to have music and images and words that help us grasp some of that complexity so our decisions are more respectful of the genuine mystery of the world. Humans often gravitate toward a simplicity that easily becomes simplistic.
With Leonard, I appreciate becoming more complicated. Yet I have some questions. If one were to put jazz in the category of popular culture, I would assert, against Leonard, that this is an art form that complicates. Given the typical sales of jazz music, it may be difficult to place it in the realm of popular culture. One of the things that attracted me to the music of Bob Dylan was the way he worked with words, laying out image upon image in his own unique way. His latest musical offering, Tempest, has a lyrical richness to it that offers varying textures with which to appreciate life. By the way, in another essay in his book, Leonard seems to appreciate some of Dylan’s music, but doesn't much like the man.
So I may or may not quibble with Leonard in defining what qualifies as popular culture. I would also raise this question with him – isn’t it o.k. sometimes to reach for the simple song that puts a smile on your face and a little dance in your step? Isn’t part of the wonderful complexity of the world that we can sometimes find a song, or a moment of film, that jolts our hearts a little, and is something a little bit more than buying an emotion at the Automat?
I confess to having a fondness for sixties pop music, especially some of the psychedelic pop. Here’s a list of songs I burned on a cd not long ago, as a sample of that time (a couple of songs are early seventies). These are mostly one hit wonders, with a couple of notable exceptions, but listening to them lifts me just a little. I think that’s o.k.
Marmalade, “Reflections of My Life”
The Left Banke, “Walk Away Renee”
Strawberry Alarm Clock, “Incense and Peppermints”
John Fred and His Playboy Band, “Judy in Disguise (with Glasses)”
Five Americans, “Western Union”
Every Mothers Son, “Come On Down to My Boat Baby”
The Lemon Pipers, “Green Tambourine”
Lou Christie, “Lightning Strikes”
Bobby Hebb, “Sunny”
The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever”
The Beach Boys, “Surfs Up”
Diana Ross and the Supremes, “Reflections”
The Buckinghams, “Susan”
The Monkees, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”
American Breed, “Bend Me, Shape Me”
Jose Feliciano, “Light My Fire”
Albert Hammond, Jr. “It Never Rains in California”
Jerry Jeff Walker, “Mr. Bojangles”

Rock critic Lester Bangs, in his wonderful essay on “Bubblegum Music” (Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll) wrote: the real truth is that there will always be at least one tender spot deep in the heart of rock & roll which should never grow up and never will. In our complicated world, a world which we need to see in all its complexity, with multiple textures contours and perspectives, there remains a thread of innocent joy over simple pleasures. It is ok from time to time to visit that place – that place of incense and peppermints and green tambourines where Judy’s in disguise, surfs up, Mr. Bojangles dances, and strawberry fields are just around the corner. Nothing to get hung about.
And I think I owe those last sentences to John Leonard.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, September 3, 2012

Deep Faith Deep Respect

When I completed my Ph. D. in 1994, I was free to read just about anything I wanted to. I had enjoyed doing the reading and research and writing for my doctorate. At the same time, it kept me focused in a particular direction – democratic political theory and Christian ethics. Now I could turn my intellectual sights in any direction I wanted to. I chose to read Martha Nussbaum’s book Love’s Knowledge: essays in philosophy and literature. Nussbaum’s book was about ethics, my field of study, and it beautifully wove a concern for ethical reflection and the moral life with a love of literature and an appreciation for human feeling. I have never lost my appreciation for Nussbaum’s work.
I have just finished her most recent work, The New Religious Intolerance, which reflects on the overwrought fear of Islam in Europe and the United States. She argues that “without fear we’d all be dead” (20). Yet, “fear is primitive” (55). It is “an intense focus on the self that casts others into darkness. However valuable and indeed essential it is in a genuinely dangerous world, it is itself one of life’s great dangers” (58). Her book makes the case that we need to manage our fears by combining principles of respect for human equality, offering arguments that are not narrowly self-serving, and by nurturing curiosity, friendship and sympathetic imagination (21).
In the course of her book, Nussbaum offers this statement: Religion is central to people’s sense of themselves (102). I certainly think religion is intended to be central to one’s sense of self, that is, if one is part of a religious community or proclaims a religious faith, it is intended to be an important part of one’s self-understanding.
I think many struggle with this, however. In American society, we are encouraged, in many ways, to keep our faith private, to consider our religious identity one hat among many we wear. I think a number of church people see being part of the church as one thing among many others that defines them – along with parent, spouse, coach, job, friend. Rather than being central to all these, religion can be just one “role” among others.
One source for this psychic marginalizing of one’s religious identity is found in experiences of intolerance. Many of us have seen a certain kind of religious self-certainty become an overbearing self-righteousness – “we are right and you are wrong and there is a terrible price to be paid for your wrongheadedness.” One reaction to this can be to make our religious identity a little less central. It is one way to avoid becoming overbearing.
It is not, however, the best way, I think. As a pastor, I deeply appreciate these words penned many years ago by Daniel Day Williams. It can be truly said that the pastoral task is so to minister to people who have lost the power of a right use of Christian language that this language can be restored to them with reality and with power (The Minister and the Care of Souls, 49). A right use of Christian language is to understand that who we are in relationship to God is central to who we are as human persons. To see ourselves as persons created in the image of God, and who continue to struggle with living into that, is central to who we are as human persons.
Our task in a religiously pluralistic society is not to marginalize religion, but instead to combine deep faith with deep respect. It is to embrace the centrality of our religious identity while at the same time fostering a genuine respect for others, curiosity about others, and friendship toward others.
As a Christian, trying to live the Jesus way is central to who I am. I can offer testimony that the Jesus way is a good way. One evidence for that assertion just might be my ability to befriend others on other ways.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Book Learning

Over the years I have collected so many books, that, in aggregate, they can fairly be called a library. I don’t know what percentage of them I have read. Increasingly I wonder how many of them I ever will read. This has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books. But it has caused me to ponder the meaning they have for me, and the fact that to me they epitomize one great aspect of the goodness of life.
Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, 19

He was an ordained clergyperson from another denomination who had left pastoral ministry to go into some kind of non-profit work. That detail has been lost to my memory. He had made an appointment to visit with me in my office in a church on the Iron Range. He was pleasant, friendly and out-going – a good conversationalist. As he was sharing his story he talked about his experiences leaving pastoral ministry and going out “into the world.” He had learned a lot in his experiences, and then came the line that I have heard others speak. “I’ve learned a lot, things you can’t learn from books.” He was a smart person, but to my mind he held a simplistic view of what books can offer the human person, and the relationship between learning from books and learning from life.
“You can’t learn that from any book.” The words have a condescending tone to them. In the United States, we have an ambivalent attitude toward education, a divided mind about it. On the one hand we praise learning and wring our hands when we think we are “falling behind” the rest of the world. We are pretty anxious about education right now in this country, and the proposed answers seem to gravitate toward more time in class, more testing, more results (by which we mean the acquisition of skills for the job market). By the way, students in Finland spend fewer hours in the classroom than their European counterparts and are ranked the best performing students in Europe (Harper’s Index, September 2012). Furthermore, I am very supportive of education for job skills and think we can do a much better job of offering vocational training. Yet it is important to remember that making a living and creating a life are distinct. I digress. On the one hand we praise learning, but on the other hand, we celebrate all those self-made successes, people who dropped out of school to make a lot of money. The underlying premise seems to be that if you can be rich without education, then go for it. Were some of our self-made millionaires inspired along the way by things they may have read? Might they have been taught some things along the way by people who valued books? We don’t seem to ask those questions.
To be sure, there are many things we don’t learn or learn as well from books. We recently replaced the walking belt on our treadmill. The old one was torn and we called the company about a new one. They said that one could be ordered, and individuals could install them, but it was not easy. It would take some time. Well, we got the belt put on, though I learned some things about how I would do it differently the next time. We learn by doing. Reading a recipe is not the same thing as cooking a meal. Reading a book about good communication is not the same as actually talking to someone.
Nevertheless, to say in a condescending tone that you can’t learn about that from any book sells both books and ourselves short.
I belong to the community of the written word in several ways. First, books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and my imagination. Second, they gave me a sense of the possible…. Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language, and the artful use of language in the service of the imagination. Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage. (Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, 22-23)
Reading a recipe is not the same thing as cooking a meal, but it enriches our experience of both cooking and eating when we add imagination to the recipe and when we can formulate our experience in words. Language both describes what we feel and experience and shapes feeling and experience. Yes, we learn many things outside of books, but our learning and experiences are enriched through the language we learn by our reading, and by the imagination that is formed through words.
A well-formed imagination does more than enhance individual experience. I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global (Marilynne Robinson, 26). In her recent book The New Religious Intolerance, Martha Nussbaum makes a similar point about the importance of imagination for the well-being of society. Good political principles and consistent arguments work well only against the background of morally informed perceptions, and these perceptions need the imagination. Only the “inner eyes” can tell us that what we’re seeing is a full human being, with a range of human purposes and goals, rather than a weapon assailing our safety, or a disgusting piece of garbage. (187) When we imagine the lives of others as full human lives, we treat them as full human beings.
I remember another voice, this one not seated across from me in my office, but coming through the television on CBS Sunday Morning, though when I ever got to watch that program I am not sure. His hair was gray and receding, with a gray beard and round glasses. He was unafraid to speak with the full vocabulary of words he knew, and could string together images and references across a long spoken sentence, leaving the listener almost breathless. His name was John Leonard and he spoke about politics and books and society. He died four years ago, but recently a collection of his essays was published, Reading For My Life. In the title essay, Leonard writes about the reading he has done, its importance in his life, and about the writers he has championed. It seems to me that my whole life I’ve been standing on some tower or a pillbox or a trampoline, waving the names of writers, as if we needed rescue (1). He ends his essay wonderfully. So do they all, these writers I’m waving my arms about, these angels made of words. Watch out for them. They give you dreams. (8)
“You can’t learn that from books” – true about some things, but our dreams are nurtured by our imaginations and our imaginations by our language. About writers – watch out for them; they give you dreams. And who are we without our dreams?

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Langston Hughes

I think I read that in a book.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, August 19, 2012


Surprise, surprise, surprise.
Gomer Pyle

Life is full of surprises, most of them bad.
Wilfred Bion quoted in Eigen, The Psychoanalytic Mystic, 134

New every morning is your love, great God of light.
United Methodist Morning Prayer

Life has its surprises. Sometimes the surprises are wonderful, sometimes horrible, and sometimes something in between. I disagree with Bion, that most of life’s surprises are bad. However, I find his words a helpful corrective to overly cheerful and optimistic assessments of life and the world. In today’s economy, for instance, one is more likely to be surprised by a raise than by a pink slip.
On our summer vacation, though, I found most of our surprises pleasant. We started our vacation in Cleveland, where I had attended the meeting of the North Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church. We visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

We thoroughly enjoyed that, though it was not a surprise. It was planned. Our planned destination was Niagara Falls. The falls were beautiful, and I was surprised by how captivating they were.

Along the way, we spent the night in Mentor, Ohio and discovered there the home of President James Garfield. Garfield was elected in 1880, inaugurated in March 1881 and shot on July 2 of that year. He died on September 19. His home was a delightful surprise as was discovering more about this rather remarkable man.

Traveling we also visited two sites that were part of the Underground Railroad, one in Ohio and one in Ontario. The Ontario site was the home of one Josiah Henson, a man whose life was used as a basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s portrayal of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

While we had not considered this before our trip began, we (my wife Julie, our daughter Sarah and me) realized that we could put our feet in all five of the Great Lakes on our trip. We were surprised by the simple joy of doing this.

Life is full of surprises. When they are filled with wonder and delight and joy, I am grateful. It makes me think of a morning prayer I have used. “New every morning is your love great God of light.” Surprises can be a means of grace.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Health means maturity…. The life of a healthy individual is characterized by fears, conflicting feelings, doubts, frustrations, as much as by positive features.
D. W. Winnicott, Home is Where We Start From, 22, 27

Since I last wrote, I have attended the North Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, went on vacation – including a trip to Niagara Falls (more about that in a future post), and I attended my 35th high school class reunion. I hope that is reason enough not to have posted for a while. I am committed to writing more regularly as summer moves toward autumn.
So I attended my high school class reunion. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed seeing people, some of whom I have not seen since high school. Friday night we were at a local restaurant/bar and there were televisions. I have also been following the Olympics and asked if a television might be turned to the games. I can multi-task! I never said to anyone, “Nice to see you again but can you move a little so I can watch this swim.”
High school reunions push me to think about growing older and change. I also think about what it means to not only grow older but also to grow up, to mature. Chronological age does not automatically bring maturity. The Olympics have also helped me think a bit about maturity.
Winnicott is right. A healthy and mature person experiences fears, conflicting emotions, doubts and frustrations along with more positive things. I think maturity has something to do with being gracious amidst the ups and downs of life. It is not a shallow positivity, but a certain equanimity when things are going well and when they are not. I have been impressed by the maturity displayed by Michael Phelps – gracious in winning and losing. I have seen that kind of maturity in a number of places as I have watched the Olympics. I saw it as Aliya Mustafina gave a thumbs-up to fellow gymnast Aly Raisman who had bested her in the floor exercise. I saw it powerfully when gymnast Sam Mikulak watched intently as his opponents vaulted after him, and gave himself over to amazement at some of those routines. He hugged and congratulated those who medaled ahead of him. Graciousness. Equanimity. Maturity.
Life is not all gold, silver and bronze. Often it is disappointment, sometimes heartbreak. Often there is little of the Olympic drama. Instead we have on-going ordinariness. Maturity means something like recognizing that life will have ups and downs. It means enjoying the ups, the joys, the beauty. It means not being defeated by inevitable disappointments. It means knowing sorrow, feeling it, but not letting it take over.
At my reunion, I knew once again that I was growing older. I hope I am also continuing to grow up, to mature.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Random Thoughts

It’s been three weeks since I last wrote here – too long. But where has the time gone? Church has been busy with community work (including working with those working on flood recovery), new projects, meetings, and most recently a two-day youth trip to Feed My Starving Children and Valley Fair. Life has been busy with family – helping both our older children move furniture, a pleasant visit from my sister and brother who live out of state, coping with difficult news about our granddaughter Isabelle who is not developing as expected.

So here it is, mid-July, and the North Central Jurisdictional Conference is this coming week. I want and need to write something before three more weeks pass by. Since visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville in March, I have been listening to a fair amount of music from this genre – Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, and so on. What about writing about my visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum occurring just weeks before I attended my first opera – La Traviata? Great idea – except the more I thought about it, the more familiar it seemed. Sure enough, I already wrote about that in April. I have also listened to some opera music since that time, including Luciano Pavarotti in La Traviata. I remain captivated by Natalie Dessay’s performance of the lead female role in La Traviata.

So my mind has been wandering a bit, trying to grab hold of something to write about. The best I can do for now is share some interesting quotes encountered along the way in recent weeks.

The approaching tide of technological revolution in the atomic age could so captivate, bewitch, dazzle and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking.
Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, 56

In poetry, wonder is coupled with the joy of speech.
Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Reverie, 3

What is psychoanalysis if not an infinite quest for rebirths through the experience of love.
Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, 1

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. Religion itself is an ideal of strength and of potential for growth, of what man might become by assuming the burden of his life, as well as by being partly relieved by it.
Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning, 198

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Mercy of Time

But the mercy of the world is time. Time does not stop for love, but it does not stop for death and grief, either. After death and grief that (it seems) ought to have stopped the world, the world goes on. More things happen. And some of the things that happen are good.
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 296

I turned 53 today. Thanks to all those who sent kind wishes by way of Facebook, and to the congregation at First UMC who surprised me with a singing of “Happy Birthday” during worship.
A few years ago, my daughter Sarah asked me, “What’s so great about growing up?” I recall blogging about that then, and my response was something about the richness of memory. Reading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, I can add to my former response. Growing older, the richness of one’s memories are deepened, and growing older one can come to know the truth that the mercy of the world is time. The world goes on, things happen, and some of the things that happen are good. When I served as a youth pastor in Dallas from 1987-1994 (Ridgewood Park UMC), one of the things that struck me was that I needed to help the youth understand that no matter how difficult a time they were going through, the sun would come up the next day and they had more inner strength than they might imagine, including strength from the grace of God.
When I read the words of Wendell Berry’s protagonist, Jayber Crow, they made deep sense to me. In recent months I have worked with two families whose infant children died. Today, Chester Park United Methodist Church joined with First United Methodist Church in a new merged congregation. There is a great deal of excitement about this merger, but I also know there is heartbreak among Chester Park people whose beloved church has ceased to exist as before. This past week in Duluth, flash floods ripped through streets and gushed into homes, turning the lives of many upside down.
The mercy of the world is time. Time does not stop. Things happen, and some of them are good.
Theologically, I understand the good things that happen to be rooted in the grace of God.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Item 505

ITEM 505
Action: The Minnesota Annual Conference will express opposition to the constitutional amendment with a press release.

1. Paragraph 161F of the Book of Discipline states: “All persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured and to be protected against violence.”
2. The ballot question will be: "Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?”
3. Many civil rights are based on one’s marital status: health insurance, equal taxation, retirement benefits, and healthcare directives.
4. Hundreds of thousands of current and potential United Methodists in Minnesota would benefit from equal protection of civil rights.

Due to limits on debate on this item which were voted on by our Annual Conference, I did not have the opportunity to offer my speech in favor of item 505 – opposing the proposed constitutional amendment about marriage here in Minnesota. Here is what I planned to say.

Bishop, Members of the Minnesota Annual Conference:

We disagree about many things surrounding the legislative item before us now – what is the nature of attraction, how does the Bible and Christian faith address same-sex attraction and relationships, can we genuinely affirm the sacred worth of persons while denying them intimacy in line with their orientation?
Can we agree, though, that the church has a role and a voice in the civil discussion regarding marriage and the rights and responsibilities of all persons as they seek to form loving and caring families?
Can we also agree that Jesus calls us to wisdom – “be wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16) and to compassion – “be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36)?
I hope there is wide agreement here that this legislation, opposing the Minnesota Marriage Amendment represents wisdom and compassion.
If the marriage amendment becomes a part of our state constitution we are saying that we don’t want to continue the civil conversation about same-sex relationships and same-sex families. We are saying that we don’t want to wrestle with these challenging issues that affect our neighbors, our friends, people who work with us, people who share the pews with us on Sunday mornings. We are saying we really don’t want to ask any more about the legal status of the relationship of the same-sex parents of our children’s friends, nor do we care to discuss visitation rights when one part of a same-sex couple is in the hospital, or even in hospice.
If the marriage amendment passes we are telling our LGBTQ friends that these issues which affect their lives need to be pushed farther away from public discussion, chiseled into the founding document of our state.
I hope there is wide agreement here that this does not well represent either wise public policy or the compassion to which Jesus calls us.
Please support item 505. Thank you.

Item 505 passed at our Annual Conference by a vote of 400 to 169. I hope when this constitutional amendment comes for a vote here in Minnesota in November, there will be wide agreement that it is neither wise nor compassionate.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Leading With a Broken Heart

Now I know I’ve got a heart, ‘cause it’s breaking.
Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skillful hand.
Psalm 78:72

I have not written here since attending General Conference. Many who were there have blogged about what went wrong – institutional inertia, reluctance of boards and agencies to change, Robert’s Rules of Order. There are deep questions to be asked. Why, in a time when restructuring seems needed did we fail to restructure? Could it be that our way of making decisions together is no longer adequate for the size, complexity and diversity of our denomination? If that is the case, how do we, constitutionally move to different decision-making models? Rules of order, including Robert’s Rules are simply tools for discussion and decision-making that can be used for better or for worse. That we don’t always use them well may say more about us than about the tools. I continue to ponder all that happened at General Conference and continue to ask about ways forward. I will not here offer some broad proposal or sweeping criticism – it seems that there are a lot out there already, some better than others. Instead I want to reflect more personally on something I have been thinking about since General Conference.
I was honored to be elected chairperson of the legislative committee on Ministry and Higher Education at General Conference. I worked with a great team of people who were also elected to leadership in that committee. It was a joy and privilege to work with them, and with the entire committee. Sometimes being chairperson is seen as a position of power, and there is power in the role. It is not the power to influence the results of legislation, however. Rather it is the power to shape a process for discussion and decision-making. In fact, as a chairperson I think one gives up one’s power to try and influence the results. I hoped certain things might happen with some of the legislation before the MHE Committee. For instance, I would have liked to seen language which prohibits United Methodist clergy from officiating at ceremonies celebrating same-sex couples softened or eliminated. It is a ministry issue for many of us. I valued that result. I also value fair process and meaningful discussion. As chairperson it is my job to place those values for fair process and meaningful discussion at the center of what I do. I did that to the best of my ability. That does not mean that the results don’t matter.
So we discussed same-sex marriage and had a vote. In a close vote, the removal of the prohibition of United Methodist clergy officiating at same-sex unions lost 41-37. Inside, I was disappointed, broken-hearted. I knew at the moment that I had a heart, because it was breaking. At that moment, I was still the chairperson of a committee that had to take in the result of that vote, breathe, and move forward with other work. I felt a little like the ending of The Great Gatsby – we beat on, boats against the current. But we kept moving forward. Sometimes the heart that strives to be upright is also breaking, and still we try as best we can to guide with skillful hand.
I have been thinking about this in other contexts of ministry – leading with a broken heart. Being a pastor means leading as skillfully as one can, yet sometimes with a broken heart. The place I have experienced that most these past months is in officiating at funerals. I have been the pastor at my church for seven years now. The people who are dying have been a part of my life for seven years, or their families have. Some I have known even longer. The day I flew back from Tampa, I was informed of the death of a woman I first met when I was in elementary school. She attended the church I grew up in, and seven years ago, I became her pastor. She was the only one in my church who would call me “that Bard kid.” She went into hospice just before General Conference and every day I hoped and prayed that she would still be around when I returned, because if she was going to die, I wanted to be there to celebrate her life. Of course I hoped her life would go on much longer, but that was not to be. Yet it was almost as if she waited as long as she could. One feels such deaths even as one leads others through the grieving process at the memorial service – leading with a broken heart.
Today, we buried the child I wrote about a few weeks ago, Lucy June, who died at age two months. My heart was breaking as I watched Lucy June’s dad carry her tiny coffin from the hearse to the grave side as the committal service started. I can feel the heart break, but I also need to lead with a skillful hand.
So we beat on, boats against the current, hearts breaking, leading as skillfully as we can.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Adventures in Listening

Last Saturday I attended my first opera. It was a performance of La Traviata at a local movie theater simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Though I write about jazz and rock most often, and listen to it most of the time, I am not a complete novice when it comes to opera. My experiences have been mostly brief encounters, however. Years ago I bought a light introduction to operatic music sub-titled “What’s All the Screaming About?” It came with a CD of highlights from the opera Carmen, with Maria Callas singing lead soprano. I confess I listen to it rather infrequently. So I went to La Traviata with a friend from church who is an opera fan and an astute listener. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience -the music and the human drama in the story. They sang about love, joy, longing, heartbreak, death, religion and the meaning of life.
Last month, while in Nashville for two meetings, I had a few hours to enjoy the area. That has not typically been the case when I have traveled to Nashville for meetings, between the meetings and the work I bring along, there is usually little time to take in the sights. With the time I had I walked to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It was a fascinating visit. One discovery was that in 1949, Billboard magazine retitled one of its music charts, from “Hillbilly” to “Country and Western.” Before going to the museum, I was not a novice with country music either, though it has certainly played second fiddle (an apt metaphor) in my listening over the years. I have spent a fair amount of time with Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Lucinda Williams. Anyway, the visit inspired me to give some of my country music another listen.
So in the days after the opera I have been listening in the car to the Carter Family. They were country when it was still “hillbilly” music on the Billboard charts. In their music there are songs about love, joy, longing, heartbreak, death, religion and the meaning of life.
The voices could not be more different – Natalie Dessay and Matthew Polenzani, A.P. and Sara and Maybelle Carter. The instrumentation could not be more distinct – a full pit orchestra at the Met, guitars played with the Carter scratch. Yet in each musical form there is the human situation being expressed, the human voice striving for articulation.
It is good to hear the variety of ways the human voice has been given expression, the diverse musical cries of the heart.
Maybe these adventures in listening are wonderful preparation for the United Methodist General Conference to which I am headed.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, April 13, 2012

Walk Away Renee

This has been a busy time, busy but good in many ways. Easter was wonderful – a lot of people and a lot of energy. I’ve mentioned one significant funeral during Lent. There have been others, including one of the wise elders at my church. Armas was the son of Finnish immigrants who became a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. At his funeral I discovered that his name means “beloved” in Finnish. “David” means “beloved” in Hebrew.
Besides all the activity at my church there has been the preparation for the United Methodist General Conference coming up later this month. There have been meetings and phone calls and e-mails. There has been reading and study.
So it is kind of nice that I came across some small bit of trivia that brought a smile. I was reading something about unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs being set to music by contemporary musicians. It began with Billy Bragg and Wilco. I was reading about Billy Bragg and there was mention of his recording of “Walk Away Renee.” I could hear the song in my head and began to wonder who performed the original version. Such a familiar song, I was sure I had it on my computer, or, if not, certainly on a CD. I went to my i tunes and did a search. “Walk Away Renee” was there, in the wonderful version by the Four Tops. While great, I knew this wasn’t the original. Who did that? A little internet search brought me the information – The Left Banke. I never knew that. I also discovered that the song was listed as number 222 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. A few clicks later “Walk Away Renee” is now on my computer and burned on a CD. It is a great song that should bring a smile, even if you’ve never heard it before.
Small joys are always welcome.

With Faith and With Feathers,


The Left Banke, "Walk Away Renee"

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Unintentional Lent

Lent 2012 is winding down as we enter Holy Week. The time has gone quickly, in part because it has been a busy few weeks – a trip to Nashville for the United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order followed immediately by the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Our Minnesota delegation to the United Methodist General Conference has met twice. There have also been funerals. One of the funerals brought an unintentional discipline into my life this Lent.

We Shake with Joy Mary Oliver, Evidence

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

I read this poem as a part of my reflection for the funeral of a little girl named Lucy June, born December 13, 2011 and died February 28, 2012. The poem helped me frame some of what I was experiencing as I thought about this little girl whose brief life touched mine and many others. I hoped it might help others frame their experience as well. We shake with joy. We shake with grief.
Lent is supposed to be a time when we remember our humanity and our mortality. We will all shake with grief sometime. Lent is supposed to be a time to recall the grace of God which touches our lives – we shake with joy, the joy of new life, however brief, and love shared. What a time they have, these two, housed as they are in the same body. My body. Your body.
This poem pressed itself upon me. It persisted in my consciousness. It would not let me go until I memorized it – unintentional Lenten discipline. When these disciplines work well, they give us resources for living life more deeply in God’s grace, which has been a gift of this poem.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, March 5, 2012

Alone With Poetry

The poem
is complex and the place made
in our lives
for the poem.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams, from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

It is in poetry rather than the formal concepts of philosophy that the truth of existence is ultimately articulated.
Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and Forms of Love, 292

I wonder if poetry is not a barometer for my soul. If it has been too long since I picked up a poem, the weather in my soul is usually changing for the worse. I need to encounter that complex place inside carved out by poetry, or something in me seems to die, sometimes miserably.
Lately, I have been reading the poetry of Tomas Transtromer, Swedish poet and recent winner of the Noble Prize in literature. That is a good thing for my soul.

I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
_Without a program.

From Tomas Transtromer, “Loneliness” (tr. Robin Fulton)

By a wonderful serendipity, I also read these words from Joan Chittister in my Lenten discipline. Sinking down into the self where the Spirit resides and the waters run deep is close to impossible in a culture built on noise and talk and information and advertisements and constant movement and a revolving door schedule. Silence and space and solitude are light years away from the raging list of unending activities we carry always in our heads. (The Breath of the Soul, 33)
So I try to be alone some, without a program. Often a poem helps create that complex place of silence and space and solitude. There I encounter something of the truth of existence. There I encounter the self. There the Spirit resides and the water runs deep.
It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, February 24, 2012


For a Lenten spiritual discipline this year, I have decided to read each day from two books. Joan Chittister is a favorite author of mine, a writer whose works have served as spiritual guides and spiritual friends. The Joan Chittister book I am reading this Lent is one I recently purchased at the Christ the King Retreat Center when I was there with our conference Board of Ordained Ministry – The Breath of the Soul: reflections on prayer. The book has forty-two short reflections on “what we ourselves must bring to the discipline of prayer,” such as self-knowledge, humility, patience. The structure of the book lends itself well to Lent.
The other book I am reading was published nearly fifty years ago. I remember first encountering it in the Lester Park branch of the Duluth Public Library, a branch that no longer exists. It was after a profound encounter with God’s grace, a “born again” experience in my junior high years, that I spent time in that library in the religion section. There I discovered a book entitled Are You Running With Me, Jesus? I discovered it, but did not explore it long. On the cover was a photograph of the author, an Episcopal priest named Malcolm Boyd. I was a bit taken aback – there he was wearing a clerical collar and smoking. The prayers inside were rather startling, too. They were too startling for me at the time and I don’t remember staying with that book for very long. Something about it, though, stuck with me and years later when I saw it at a used book store, I bought it. Now it will be part of Lent 2012.
Just the second day into this discipline, the spiritual cross-fertilization has proved serendipitous. Thursday, Joan Chittister was writing about “responsibility.” “Never pray in a room without windows” the Talmud says. Chittister writes that: Prayer is meant to bring us to see the world as God sees the world…. Commitment to the needs of the world is a sign of the presence of God in us. That same day, Malcolm Boyd’s prayer began with a feeling of despair. “When I look ahead tonight I can see only futility, pain and death.” Then it moved to a different place. But you call me tonight to love and responsibility. You have a job for me to do…. Lord, I hear you. I know you. I feel your presence strongly in this awful moment, and I thank you. Help me onto my feet. Help me to get up.
There are times when I feel discouraged, when thinking about making a difference in the world makes me weary. Prayer reminds me that while God is with me in those difficult moments, God also calls me back to the things of this world. I pray in open windowed rooms and pray that God will indeed help me get up and get going. There is work to be done.
Already the journey of Lent is bringing rich rewards.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, February 17, 2012

Lead and Love

Discussions about leadership are ubiquitous in the church today, at least in my mainline denomination. I think this is, for the most part, a good thing, though I wish many of the discussion were more nuanced than they sometimes appear to be. One of the best pieces I have ever read about leadership, offering some theological depth is Douglas Ottati’s “Leadership-Speak in Contemporary Society” but I have yet to see a reference to it in the church discussions of leadership I have encountered.
Leadership was on my mind this past week as I was part of the interview process for the Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church’s Board of Ordained Ministry. Because I have served not only by election, but also by virtue of other offices held, I have had the privilege of serving on this group for a long time. One of our main tasks is interviewing people seeking ordination, and that was this week’s task. Leadership was on my mind.
The final morning of the meeting, one of my colleagues read part of I Corinthians 13 as a morning devotion. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
While she was reading a thought came into my mind. What if we were to substitute the word leadership for the word love here? Leadership is patient; leadership is kind; leadership is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It makes a lot of sense to me, and certainly in the church we would not want our ideas of leadership to be less than loving.
The meeting ended early in the afternoon, and I was able to arrive back at my church, after a three plus hour drive, for our Wednesday night dinner. After dinner, I was in the kitchen helping with dishes and clean-up. I know some who might say that this is not very “leader-like” behavior. Leaders help others use their gifts and do their work, don’t they? Maybe. And maybe I over-function sometimes. I wasn’t taking charge, here, just helping. Pitching in when there is work to do is just something I do.
While in the kitchen, I was a part of a couple of poignant conversations. One couple was updating me on their great-granddaughter. She was born many states away with significant health issues. Trying to get her back to Minnesota so she and her parents can be near family is medically impossible right now. My heart breaks for this entire family. Another person shared with me her recent trip to a beloved aunt’s funeral and the concern she has for her mother who is now in her eighties.
Dishes got done and were put away. I went home after what was a long day. Being in the church kitchen that night may not have been the most “leaderly” thing I have ever done, but if love and leadership have something to do with each other, then that is where I should have been and where I will be again.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, January 6, 2012

Johnny Horton and the Meaning of Life

So here it is – the game:

1) Learn the #1 single in your country of origin in the week you were born.
2) Find it on YouTube.
3) Post it on your Facebook page without shame.

Sounded fine – a couple of Google clicks and I find out that the number one song on the Billboard Charts in June of 1959 was Johnny Horton “Battle of New Orleans.” I posted, but I cannot say without shame. While Johnny Horton was talented enough to earn a place in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and one has to bemoan his early death in an automobile accident, this song has never really done much for me. It was some consolation when I discovered that Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City” was atop the Billboard R & B charts when I was born.
So here’s a news flash, there are some things that you cannot change. I appreciate the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer: God grant me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed. I did not pray the prayer when I found out “Battle of New Orleans” was the number one song on the charts in June 1959. It really isn’t that tragic. There are things that cannot be changed. We cannot change our genetic makeup. We cannot change our past, including those early experiences for which we did not have words. I think the psychoanalytic insight is spot on, our early experiences, even those for which we did not have words, shape, in part, who we are. Neither our genetics nor our earliest experiences determine fully who we are, but they play a role and we cannot change them. This is part of the mystery of life. “One never recovers from being human” (Michael Eigen, Contact With the Depths, 9).
I just finished reading Rebecca Goldstein’s wonderful novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. The final chapter is beautifully written and filled with penetrating insights. We end up beholding a world that is lavished with our own disgust at the uncleanliness that pollutes us, and with our yearning for a mythical purity that remains untouched, and with our vertiginous bafflement at the self that is inviolably me and here and now, and with our desperate and incomplete sense of the inviolable selves of the others that we need so crucially, and with our fear of all that’s unknown out there and that can hurt us, and with our suspicion that almost everything out there will turn out to be unknown and able to hurt us (336).
For good measure, there is this complimentary reflection offered by Michael Eigen. As a human group we are in the midst of a great journey, exploring ways we make contact with reality, contact with subjectivity, ways we constitute reality and reality constitutes us. It is awesome to be a living being who feels, cries, laughs, sings, dies. Who hurts others and is hurt, who goes mad, becomes inspired, or is just happy to be alive to each day to the extent one can. Life never ceases being an unpredictable sea, raising up, dashing down, pressing us through ranges of emotions, more alive, threatened, empty, deadened, eager (Contact With the Depths, 8).
For me, God is part of the mystery and complexity of the human situation. God is one who holds us on the journey. God is the voice calling to us out of the whirlwind of our lives luring us toward wholeness, maturity, graciousness. The God I know in Jesus does not take away the mystery of the world and of existence. I don’t think I could believe in a God who simplifies too much. God is part of the mystery, beckoning with enough light to help us see the mystery more completely and navigate it with a measure of grace.
And so we try, as best we can, to do justice to the tremendousness of our improbable existence. And so we live, as best we can, for ourselves, or who will live for us? And we live, as best we can, for others, otherwise what are we? (Goldstein, 344).
And I see God as a companion on the journey to do justice to the tremendousness of our improbable existence, helping navigate the mystery and balancing living for others and self.
And I cannot change that Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” was the number one song in America when I was born.

With Faith and With Feathers,