Saturday, December 14, 2013

Remarks on the One-Year Anniversary of the Sandy Hook School Shooting

I was asked to speak at a community remembrance of the Sandy Hook School shooting here in Duluth.  This is what I shared:

             On December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, a troubled twenty-year-old young man with easy access to guns chose to take those guns into Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Twenty children and six staff members were killed.  A troubled youth, guns – a story repeated again just yesterday, a story repeated too often.
            We gather today to remember Sandy Hook and the people affected.  We gather to remember not just with our heads and our voices, but to remember deeply, to remember with our hearts, to remember with our souls.
            We share the grief of the families who lost children and loved ones.  We share the grief of a community.  We share the grief of all too many who have, in the days since this shooting, lost friends, neighbors, co-workers, children, loved ones to gun violence.  These events mark our souls.  They sear our consciences.  They leave a particularly deep impression because there is something inside of us that is convinced we can do better as a society with guns and violence.  And we should let these feelings do their proper work.  Here is what I mean, in two quotes.
            Wendy Lesser, The New American Spirituality, 180: An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality….  We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy….  The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart.  Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness.
            Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 92: If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won.  Then death, be proud.
            My faith is a faith that trusts that while death marks us, wounds us, scars us, while we feel its sting and we grieve its presence, it does not get the last word.  Healing, community, hope, love – these overcome, these can rise from the grave dug in our world by events like the Sandy Hook shooting and other incidences of gun violence.
            As the bells ring, as the names are read, as we feel our grief, as we touch our wounded hearts, our scarred souls:
o                    May our sadness transform into tenderness
o                   May our sympathies be enlarged
o                   May our love be expanded
o                   May our gratitude for what is good flame up
o                   May our insight be deepened
o                  May our commitment to what is important be strengthened
o                 May our aching for a new day be intensified
o                 May our faith, hope and love remain lively

Then death, though it often speaks loudly, then death, though we feel its sting intensely, then death, particularly death at the barrel of a gun, will not have the final word.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Poetry and the Soul

Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places….  Yet despite its toughness, the soul is also shy.
                                                            Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness, 58

            I just returned from the third and final of a series of “Soul Leaders” retreats.  These retreats were intended to provide space for the exploration of our souls as ordained or licensed leaders within the United Methodist Church in Minnesota.  We used poetry, music and art in circles of trust to welcome our shy souls, in methods based-in and inspired by Parker Palmer.
            For some, poetry is, at best, a tolerable method for exploring the soul.  For me, the opportunity to use poetry to explore my hopes, dreams, fears, longings and relationship to God is a delight.  I rarely leave a book of poems without having had my soul enlarged a bit.
            One of the delights of this Soul Leaders experience for me was that prior to each retreat some poetry was working on me already.  I brought with me some poetry that had been finding its way into my life in the days and weeks just prior to each retreat.
            In the winter, there were these lines from Rilke that I took with me:

                        How we squander our hours of pain,
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end.  Though they are really
seasons of us, our winter-
enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape,
where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home.
                        (an early version of the Tenth Duino Elegy, tr. Stephen Mitchell)

            When we met in September, it was not long after Seamus Heaney died, and I was re-reading some of his work, and when I do that I often find something I had previously overlooked.  This time it was his poem “The Rain Stick” (The Spirit Level).  The lines that held me, in particular were these:

You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop.  Listen now again.

At that retreat we did a lot of drumming
            This week, I carried with me Wallace Stevens.  I first encountered Stevens’ poetry while working on my doctoral dissertation.  My dissertation had nothing to do with poetry, but exercising late at night, I watched the PBS Voices and Visions series on poetry.  Wallace Stevens was one of the poets featured.  Stevens poetry can be challenging, but I find him worth the struggle.  Both his poems and his reflection on poetry are meaningful.
            I don’t know what drew me back to Stevens last week, just before the retreat, but something did.  Here are a couple of his reflections on poetry:

It is life that we are trying to get at in poetry.  Opus Posthumous, 185

One reads poetry with one’s nerves.  Opus Posthumous, 189

Things that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions (poems) very often have meanings that differ in nature from the meanings of things that have their origin in reason.  They have imaginative or emotional meanings….  In short, things that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions very often take on a form that is ambiguous or uncertain.  It is not possible to attach a single, rational meaning to such things without destroying the imaginative or emotional ambiguity or uncertainty that is inherent in them.                                                             Opus Posthumous, 249

This latter helps me understand not only the potential richness of poetry, but also the potential richness of Scriptures which are often poetic.
            The Stevens poem that has been sticking with me most the past few days is a late poem, “July Mountain” (Opus Posthumous, 140).  It contains these lines that have been particularly moving within me:

We live in a constellation
Of patches and of pitches

Thinkers without final thoughts
In an always incipient cosmos

The sense of openness and adventure and creativity in these lines captures something important to me, to my soul, to my relationship with God.
            I am grateful for the poetry which opens my soul.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, October 18, 2013

A Prayer

             Earlier this month some words came together for me and they ended up forming a prayer that I share here.
            May my soul:
·        Be tender, gentle, vulnerable, yet not easily crushed
·        Be strong, yet not overbearing
·        Be courageous, yet not foolish
·        Be joyful, yet woven with the immense sadness of the world
·        Be attentive to beauty, yet seeing the hurt, pain and ugliness in the world

With Faith and With Feathers,


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Reflections on Being a United Methodist Elder

I was asked to be part of a panel for our Minnesota United Methodist Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, and to reflect on the unique ministry of an ordained elder. These were my reflections:

In a speech in South Africa in 1966, Robert Kennedy said that there is an ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”  Textual evidence has thus far failed to find a Chinese source for this curse, but there is something right about it, regardless of its origin.
We live in interesting times.  The church is living in interesting times.  Mainline or old-line denominations have lost their social position.  Some argue that this is like New Testament times, but I think that analogy breaks down quickly.  There may be fewer people in our pews and we may have lost some of our social location, but Christianity, in some form, is embedded in powerful places in our culture.  Hobby Lobby, which recently opened a store in Duluth, is suing the federal government arguing that providing contraceptive health coverage for female employees violates the Christian values of the store and its owner.  Those same Christian values greeted a Jewish shopper, who, when asking about why Hobby Lobby would not stock any Chanukah items was told: "Because Mr. Green is the owner of the company, he's a Christian, and those are his values."  We live in interesting times as a church.
It is also an interesting time to be an elder in The United Methodist Church.  When I was ordained an elder in 1986, two years after I was ordained a deacon, and I still proudly display both ordination certificates, the language of our Discipline discussed ordination as “the specialized ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order.”  Ordination was “fulfilled in the ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order.”
The 2012 Book of Discipline has expanded the language of ordination.  Ordination is fulfilled in leadership of the people of God through ministries of Service, Word, Sacrament, Order, Compassion, and Justice (303).  Deacons are no longer “ministers who have progressed sufficiently in their preparation for the ministry to be received by an Annual Conference as either probationary members or associate members.”  Deacons are now “ordained by a bishop to a lifetime ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice” (328).  Elders “are ordained to a lifetime ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service” (332).
In distinction from Deacons, then, the unique ministry of the Elder could be located in Sacraments and Order.  What makes things even more interesting is that there are persons licensed to perform the same duties in local church settings as do those ordained Elders who are also appointed as pastors.  Licensed persons are licensed “to perform all the duties of a pastor” (313).  What is left of the unique ministry of the Elder?
Posing this question in this way carries with it some baggage.  As The United Methodist Church has added the order of Deacons, as the prevalence and power of licensed local pastors has increased, Elders have often been seen as trying to hold on to some of their power and privilege – guaranteed appointment, voting rights, sacramental authority.  How do we talk about the unique ministry of the Elder while avoiding maintenance of the status quo which has, at times, privileged Elders?  Can we get at uniqueness without arguing for privileges which seem unfair and unwarranted?
I am currently serving on the denominational Study of Ministry Commission. In the Study of Ministry Commission of the previous quadrennium the group concluded: The commission observes a lack of consistency in how the orders and roles in ministry are understood and supported across the church.  They suggested the following understanding as a way forward:

·        The elder connects the church and the denomination, chiefly through Order.
·        The deacon connects the church and the world, chiefly through Service.
·        The local pastor connects the church and the individual, chiefly through Proclamation.

As an Elder, I am not necessarily jazzed up by this understanding of the unique ministries of each order, particularly in a post-denominational age.  I get more excited about Word, Sacrament, Service, Compassion, and Justice.  I spend a lot of time trying to connect church with persons.  Yet the language that is unique to Elders is that we are “to order the life of the Church for service in mission and ministry” (332).  There is something potentially important there in these confusing, interesting, and dare I say, disordered times.
            Perhaps the unique ministry of the Elder in our time is by the Spirit and power and grace of God, to try and make our current disorder the creative chaos out of which a new order might be born.  There is something in that for all of us – lay persons, Deacons, licensed pastors – there is enough disorder to go around.  Perhaps Elders, though, need to muster the courage to enter our current disorder and make it the creative chaos out of which a new order might be born, and do this systemically.  Perhaps we are uniquely positioned to try and name the challenges, adaptive and technical, that face us, and to do so marshaling our best theological and other intellectual resources.  Perhaps we are uniquely called to flow from the balcony to the dance floor and back again.  Perhaps we are uniquely invited to monitor the temperature as change takes place. 
If we take these as our unique tasks, we do so knowing that many find in us a great deal of disorder.  The Call To Action Operational Assessment tells us “a large portion of the Church’s clergy has performance effectiveness issues” (25), and we are a large portion of the Church’s clergy.  Recently, a United Methodist economist, in a presentation to the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry arguing for the vital need for younger clergy, quoted an unnamed retired United Methodist bishop who told him, “We have not been recruiting the brightest and the best.”  I have been around long enough to hope that this bishop was referring to a time after 1986.  We live in interesting times.

            Perhaps the unique ministry of the Elder is to feel some of the pain of our disorder and yet, with courage granted by the Spirit, to lead us all, making the full use of all the gifts of all God’s people, so that disorder may become the creative chaos out of which new order can be born.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, October 5, 2013


The best I can recall, I first encountered Ernest Becker when he was mentioned in my “Abnormal Psychology” class in college. The teacher, a medical school professor who was teaching this undergraduate course, mentioned Becker’s name when we were discussing existential psychotherapy. He had a great respect for Becker’s work The Denial of Death. I think the book may make a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall.
In the coming years I read an interview Sam Keen had done with Ernest Becker following the publication of The Denial of Death and following Becker’s cancer diagnosis. That interview, published in a volume called Voices and Visions, a collection of interviews Keen did for Psychology Today, was fascinating. Keen pressed him on why he had so come to emphasize the tragic dimensions of human existence in his work. Becker took well Keen’s observation about overemphasis, and then went on to say, “If I stress the terror, it is only because I am talking to cheerful robots.”
As with too many authors I would like to explore, it took me years to return to Becker more fully. It took me until 2009 to read The Denial of Death. It is an experience I cherish. Becker writes with incredible insight, and with a genuine talent for the turn of a phrase. Wrestling with this work has deepened my own thinking immeasurably, and contributed something to the enlargement of my soul.
Fortunately for me, being the book magnet that I am, I had over the years managed to collect a few other of Becker’s book, mostly used copies. Not long ago, I read the second edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning. Becker, throughout his work, wanted to combine insights from psychological, sociological, political and theological sources. Though not quite as rich and fecund as The Denial of Death, The Birth and Death of Meaning has a lot of wonderful moments, and the insights have lost little for being written over forty years ago.
In the face of the shutdown of our government, here are a few of Becker’s reflections on democracy.

Democracy needs adults more than anything (163).

So how are we doing? But if you just want to look at Washington and blame less-than-adult behavior on those we have elected, you miss the richness of Becker’s thought. True, our elected officials don’t always act like adults, but often we elect them because we have not exactly come into our own adulthood.

Becker argues that society teaches us lessons about what it means to be a success, a hero, and that we absorb such lessons at a very young age, in part, to ward off the anxiety that comes from being human, which means to “live in the teeth of paradoxes” (177). These lessons may not always be helpful. They often cut us off from seeing reality more fully and richly. When one becomes too rigid in adherence to cultural hero-systems you bring up people who are closed against the world, armored, brittle, afraid, people whose last resource would be easy adaptability to new choices and challenges (163). Is part of our political problem the deeper problem of too many of us being armored, brittle and afraid?

But democracy needs adults more than anything, especially adults who bring something new to the perception of the world, cut through accustomed categories, break down rigidities. We need open, free, and adaptable people precisely because we need unique perceptions of the real, new insights into it so as to disclose more of it (163).

All of this seems fresh and relevant to our world.

And Becker addresses me as a person of faith. Might faith help us develop into the kind of people more open to the world, more adaptable and free?

Religion, like any human aspiration, can also be automatic, reflexive, obsessive. Authoritarian religion is also an idol. (197)

Not terribly comforting, but true to life. Aren’t we seeing in some part of our political life today the mutual reinforcement of political and religious rigidity? Yet there is more. Forgive Becker’s lack of inclusive language here.

Genuine heroism for man is still the power to support contradictions, no matter how glaring or hopeless they 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. 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 being partly relieved of it. (198)

Someday, I hope soon, the government will re-open. It will be business as usual, but business as usual isn’t getting us very far. Democracy needs adults.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, September 27, 2013

Thinking About Truth

And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
Jesus, John 8:32

I have been thinking about this for a while, the nature of truth. A few weeks ago someone linked to Facebook a blog posting in which the writer, someone unknown to me, was arguing that one of the significant problems plaguing modern humanity is our loss of a sense of objective truth. His sentiments were echoed in today’s Duluth News Tribune where the pastor of a church writes about the twisting of words, mostly by “those on the left.” Here is how this pastor thinks truth has come to be defined: Truth: The view, opinion or position held by me or the group(s) with which I associate. Truth cannot be known as an objective reality even though I fully expect you to accept this definition of truth as objective reality.
So is the most significant issue in discussing the nature of truth a distinction between a notion of objective truth as against a notion that truth is subjective and thus always relative? Without denying that there is a discussion to be had here, I have been wondering if the more interesting and significant discussion about the nature of truth is about its richness.
So here are a couple of quotes which I find intriguing.

The sadomasochistic fantasy of truth… truth, that is, as something to which we are obliged to submit
Adam Phillips, “Introduction” to The Electrified Tightrope

To love God is to rejoice in the richness of truth, to enjoy the counterpoint of the absurd and nonsensical, to engage in the conflict of ideas and the history of human argument.
Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and Forms of Love, 300

To be sure there are some obvious and objective truths. If I leap from the tenth floor of a building, I will fall and the results will not be good. If I wake in the middle of the night and bang my toe on the bed as I head for the bathroom, it will hurt. These are truths to which we seem obliged to submit.
There are objective truths about our lives – when and where we were born, to whom we were born, where we attended school. We cannot change such things. Yet so much about our lives is richer in a way that the distinction between objective and subjective truth does not seem to capture. I experience something as beautiful. One might ask if it was beautiful in any objective way. The more interesting questions and truths about my experience may be what drew me to this object and how did my experience of it as beautiful change me. There are all kinds of ways we could discuss that, and many of those ways would contribute to understanding the truth of my experience. I would even argue that trying to understand my experience from multiple perspectives enriches my understanding. If I simply submit to one perspective, I may miss some of the richness of the truth of my experience.
I think we are more helped when we expand our vocabulary for truth, not limit our discussion to objective and subjective, objective and relative. There is a richness to the truth about our lives and our world that these terms fail to capture. That is not to say these terms are not part of the discussion of truth, only that they should not be the only ways we talk about truth.
I think there is a lot of truth to Williams’ statement that “to love God is to rejoice in the richness of truth.”

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney

I credit poetry… both for being itself and for being a help.
Seamus Heaney, Nobel Lecture, “Crediting Poetry”

Seamus Heaney died yesterday. I think it was sometime in 1996 when I first “met” him. I was driving along Minnesota 169, either between meetings or perhaps going to the hospital to visit a parishioner. Minnesota Public Radio was broadcasting the Guthrie Global Voices lecture from that year (1996) – and it was then I heard that magnificent voice. Heaney, who had been awarded the Noble Prize for Literature the previous year, used the Guthrie Lecture to read some of his poems and offer a few comments in between. To my delight the program was also being broadcast later that evening, 9 p.m., and I recorded as much of it as I could get on one-side of a ninety-minute cassette tape. He has been a companion in the car through the years, and one regret I have about newer vehicles is that they no longer have tape players. I can no longer listen to Heaney’s rich Irish voice coming from the tape player in the car.
That reading led me to Heaney’s books. Many of the poems he read at the Guthrie were being published that same year in his book The Spirit Level, and it remains one of my favorites. There one finds the poem dedicated to his brother and in praise of the virtue of “keeping going.” It is an underappreciated virtue in the complexity of our modern world. The book also has Heaney resurrecting the myth of the Irish saint, Kevin, who, while praying with his arm extended out the window of his small monastic cell, has a blackbird come and make a nest and lay eggs. The image of nurturing life feeds my pastoral imagination.
The Spirit Level contains poems with memorable lines:

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open (“Postscript”)

So walk on air against your better judgement (“The Gravel Walks”)

For Heaney, poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. (Crediting Poetry, 10)

One poem that particularly grabbed hold of me in the Guthrie reading was a chorus that Heaney had added to a Sophocles’ play he had translated. I could not find it in print at the time, so I transcribed it from his reading. While I have since found it in print, his reading of it that day was slightly different, for in the reading he repeated the chorus’ most famous line twice:

That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

So Heaney’s voice has now gone silent, but not in my heart. In his poetry and voice, one believes that hope and history can rhyme (something I understand to be the work of God’s people in the world – working with the Spirit to help hope and history rhyme).
Thank you Mr. Heaney. Your poetry is a help, a help in keeping going, a help in moving me to walk on air against my better judgement. Perhaps if we all did that just a little more, hope and history could rhyme just a little more.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Christian Communities

On Sunday July 21 I experienced three gatherings of Christian community. I preached and led worship at the church where I am the appointed pastor – First United Methodist Church. The sermon for the morning was in response to a question about myth and truth in the Bible. The sermon was entitled “Mything the Point” (click here). I am now in my ninth year as pastor here and have found this a wonderful Christian community. I appreciate being a part of the adventure of the journey of faith with this group of people. My experiences the rest of the day helped me reflect on some of the journey that has brought me to this place and this place in my life.
In the early afternoon Julie and I attended the funeral for Steve O’Neil, a St. Louis County Commissioner, who was also a person of deep Christian faith. I ran into Steve quite a bit over the years, though we were not close personal friends. His work for the hungry, the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless in our community, often working with communities of faith, made him a very special person. His service was a wonderful celebration of his life, and you could not leave the service without knowing that Steve’s concern for those on the margins of society was rooted in his Christian faith. For Steve, following Jesus had everything to do with caring for the poor, with compassion, with kindness, with reconciliation. There was a sense in which his service was an expression of that ecumenical Christian community that connects following Jesus with working for justice and peace in the world.
Following that service, Julie and I went to a reunion of a group called the Christian Fellowship Workers – often just known as the CFWs. The Christian Fellowship Workers was a Christian community that emerged out of the Jesus People movement here in Duluth. When I was 14, I found Jesus or Jesus found me in a profound way. I was part of a United Methodist Church, but in trying to figure out what it might mean to be a passionate follower of Jesus, I found myself as part of the Christian Fellowship Workers. I was part of this group from age 14 to age 17. While at the reunion, I saw a picture I had not seen in years, a group picture at the farm owned by the CFWs. I am in the middle of the picture. This Christian community was passionate about Jesus and the focus of the passion was having people come into a person relationship with Jesus. It was about salvation understood primarily in terms of one’s existential condition and one’s status in the afterlife. I don’t remember a lot of connection between being a follower of Jesus and caring for the poor and hungry, though there were folks on the margins who were part of this community.

Being at Steve O’Neil’s funeral and experiencing that Christian community, and then being at the CFW reunion and remembering that Christian community I thought about the variety of Christian community that has been a part of my journey of faith and that has helped make me the disciple of Jesus I am. I still believe in the importance of a relationship with Jesus, or with God through Jesus, that decisively shapes one’s existential self-understanding in such a way that one is “saved.” I also believe that this Jesus in whom we are saved moves us to care for the world, to work for justice and peace. This more comprehensive understanding of salvation is well-articulated by one of my theological teachers and mentors, Schubert Ogden: By “salvation” is properly meant, first of all and fundamentally, the redemptive activity of God whereby the whole of humankind, and thus each and every human being, notwithstanding the universal fact of sin, is accepted into God’s own everlasting life – the theological term for this divine activity being “grace.” And then, secondly, and in absolute dependence on God’s grace, salvation is the activity of a woman or man through which she or he accepts God’s acceptance – the theological term for this human activity being “faith” and, more exactly, “faith working through love,” a love that, as I like to say, incarnates itself as justice. (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 123).
And that makes me think about yet another Christian community that has had an impact on my journey of faith, the Christian community I experienced in seminary. There I discovered that a passionate Christian faith could also be a thoughtful Christian faith, one that deeply engaged the intellect. My first year in seminary, I tried growing a beard. I hope my intellectual development outpaced the growth of my facial hair.

A passionate, compassionate and thoughtful Christian faith – that is what I seek to grow and nurture in my life. That’s what I hope to help others develop and nurture as a pastor. I am grateful for the Christian communities that have been and continue to be part of this adventure.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Maybe I'm Amazed

Paul McCartney is touring this summer. Unfortunately, I will not be attending any of his concerts. Right now my concert commitments consist of the Americanarama Tour coming to Duluth next Tuesday: Bob Dylan, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Richard Thompson. It is a great line-up and I am looking forward to attending with my son. The only negative is that it is an outdoor concert and there is rain in the forecast.
Back to Paul McCartney. On Tuesday, May 28, McCartney re-released his first post-Beatles live album, Wings Over America. First released in December 1976, Wings Over America was then a three-record vinyl album – a rarity. McCartney and Wings were doing quite well at the time, with a number of their songs having been hit records in the early to mid-1970s. You could not listen to the radio for very long without encountering a McCartney/Wings song. I remember a joke that went around at the time, intended to test one’s musical cool quotient – “Did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?”
It wasn’t an infrequent occurrence to hear McCartney unfavorably compared to his former Beatle’s writing partner, John Lennon. Lennon was seen as the more intellectual, the one more engaged in the issues of the day, the more serious. McCartney had a knack for silly love songs. In the end, what’s wrong with that?
In my circle of friends, it was o.k. to like Paul McCartney and Wings, but not be too enamored with them. Nevertheless, Wings Over America found its way into my record collection, along with Wings Greatest. In 1977, the year I graduated from high school, a song from Wings Over America was a hit single, a live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” It is a wonderful love song, and the tempo of the live version gives it a certain leg up on the earlier studio version.
When Wings Over America came out again in May, I bought a copy. It was fun to hear again that version of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Listening to it, I found that it also spoke to how I understand my faith.

Baby, I’m a man, maybe I’m a lonely man
whose in the middle of something
That he doesn’t really understand
Baby, I’m a man maybe you’re the only woman
who could ever help me,
Baby, won’t you help me to understand

maybe I’m amazed at the way you help me
sing my song,
right me when I’m wrong

For me, my Christian faith, my relationship to God in Jesus addresses me a person in the midst of life, in the middle of something that I don’t really understand. My faith helps me understand myself and the world. It helps me sing my song. It rights me when I’m wrong. I’m amazed.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, June 24, 2013

New/Old Music

Tuesday, May 28, three interesting cds were released – interesting to me, anyway. Paul McCartney re-released his early solo live album “Wings Over America,” about which I intend to write more soon. John Fogerty, who some may know as the lead singer for Creedence Clearwater Revival, released “Wrote a Song for Everyone.” Finally, Columbia released a cd “Bennett/Brubeck: The White House Sessions, Live 1962.”
Fogerty’s cd is fascinating. It primarily recycles older material, but with guest artists helping out on the songs. Bob Seger joins on “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” “Fortunate Son,” a strong rock song in the original is made even more blistering backed by the Foo Fighters. Country singer Alan Jackson sings with Fogerty on “Have You Ever Seen Rain.” The list goes on. The recording received rave reviews from Rolling Stone – “a testament to the continuing truth and power in Fogerty’s greatest hits.” Others did not think so highly of it. Some consider the cd a “dumbing down” of the songs.
The Bennett and Brubeck cd was discovered in a vault at Columbia records. The 1962 concert was held at the base of the Washington Monument, and it honored college students who had come to Washington, D. C. to work for the summer. President John Kennedy had met earlier in the day with the students. It was the only time Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck made music together until the Newport Jazz Festival in 2009. Dave Brubeck died earlier this year.
I love that these two cds came out on the same day – old music made new, voices and instruments from the past reconnecting with heart and soul. Bennett and Brubeck swing their music in a way that typically brings a smile to my face. Their optimistic beat seemed perfect for a more optimistic time. Yet even now we need a little lift, a little hope, and this music brings that to me.
For a long time, I have appreciated John Fogerty’s songs and his singing. His voice seems to come out of the night, a sometimes dark night where our dreams and fears collide. His songs ponder pertinent questions. “Who’ll stop the rain?” “Have you ever seen the rain?” They identify unfairness – the favor given fortunate sons. They present more personal issues. One song on this new cd that I had not given much attention before provides the title for the cd. “I wrote a song for everyone, wrote a song for truth. Wrote a song for everyone, but I couldn’t even talk to you.”
In my life I need the joyous, buoyant hope I hear in Bennett and Brubeck. I need to be reminded of the complexities of life. I need to ask tough questions and confront the tensions in living. I need to be able to reach into the resources of the past – words written, songs sung, feelings felt, ideas thought – to make my way into the future.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Gregory Wolfe’s Editorial Statement in the latest issue of Image led me to this quote that I thought worth sharing:

The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or articulate…. The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts flowing back to you with an “alienated majesty.”
Mark Edumundson

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Roots and Wings

There is a saying that the best gift we can give our children is roots to grow on and wings to fly. I don’t know who said it, but it makes a lot of sense to me.
On Friday, May 3, Julie and I sat with two of our children, David and Sarah in the beautiful State Theater in downtown Minneapolis. My mother and her husband were there as were Julie’s cousin, David and his wife Sharon. We were in this wonderful place because it was where the University of Minnesota Medical School was holding its graduation, and our daughter Beth was graduating.
Finishing medical school has been the culmination of ten years of post-high school education. Beth was in college for five years because she was a college swimmer. She took five years for her medical education because she wanted to spend a year abroad. She spent her time in Sweden, India and Uganda. It was in Uganda that she finally decided to specialize in ob/gyn medicine. She wants to help women take care of their health as a way to make the world a better place.
I was a deeply proud parent that day, as were all the parents there, I am sure. It was a particularly special day because our family was together. Through the day, I could not help but reflect on where life has taken each of our children, think about what each has chosen or is choosing to do.
David is working in juvenile corrections, working with kids who have messed up to see if they can get their lives on a better track. He retains a deep passion for politics because he wants the political processes in this country to work to make the world more just. Sarah was admitted into the physical therapy program at St. Catherine University this winter. She chose to be a physical therapist, in part, because she saw her older sister work through a broken hip. She wants to bring a little healing to the world.
Our children are their own people. They have made these decisions for their lives. I am proud of what they are doing. I admire who they are and who they are becoming. They are not perfect. They have made mistakes along the way, but I am proud to be their father.
I hope in some way, Julie and I have given them some strong roots for making good decisions about who they will be. I hope we have given them some wings for flying. As I grow older and consider what my life has been, I hope that I can say that David, Beth and Sarah had some solid roots, some strong wings, and rejoice that they are doing some wonderful things with them.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Prayer

Yesterday, I participated in a worship service marking the passage of a state law here in Minnesota which will allow same-sex couples to get married.
Here is the prayer I prayed:

God, Creative and Creating Spirit, whose nature and name is love, we have gathered together tonight with joyful and humble hearts. There is joy in that we believe justice has been done, that compassion has been embodied, that love has become law, that the beloved community is a little more real today. There is humility, for we know how long the road has been, and we know there are significant tasks ahead. Laws are important, but laws by themselves don’t change hearts. There is heart work to be done as we move toward the beloved community. There are those who have been wounded along the way, and those whose disagreement with this new law is like an irritating pebble in the soul. There is soul work to be done as we move toward the beloved community. The same scriptures which enjoin us to do justice, encourage us to love our enemies. Love’s work toward the beloved community is not yet done. With humble hearts we ask for tender strength and gentle courage to continue the journey toward the beloved community - where compassion reigns, where justice is done, where in love we recognize the common humanity of all, and where we acknowledge our shared dependence upon the earth itself. Amen.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Boston Bombs and a Dog's Death

It has been a helluva week. It has been a week filled with sadness.
Sunday afternoon, I went to a local nursing home to lead a worship service. One of my parishioners is a resident there and I planned to visit with her if I did not see her at the service. Walking in, I saw her daughter, a woman who lives in the Twin Cities. I suspected that she might not have such good news about her mom, and that was the case. Her mom had taken a turn for the worse a couple of days prior and this time, she was not going to pull through. I visited my parishioner following the worship service. She died later that night.
Monday, the joy and delight of the Boston Marathon were punctuated by two bombs planted near the finish line. Three people have died and more than one hundred were hospitalized. A woman from my church ran the marathon and thankfully she and her family were o.k. We are all deeply troubled and saddened by what has happened. At the end of the day, I returned home to find that one of our dogs, Grace (Abby is the other, both poodle/Pomeranian mix) was not doing so well. She had vomited a couple of times, but this had happened before. She has a sensitive stomach
Tuesday afternoon I received a phone call that another parishioner had been admitted into hospice. Death is immanent, though she is still hanging on as I write.
Tuesday evening, coming home after the hospital visit, Grace’s condition had deteriorated. She had been vomiting all day. She seemed especially weak. If she was not doing better the next morning I would take her to the vet.
Wednesday morning it was clear that Grace was not doing better. I would bring her to her vet when they opened at 7:30 a.m. We never made it. She died in my arms at 6 a.m.
Comparing the death of a dog to human death, or even the loss of a limb is nonsensical, though over the years I have come to the conclusions that it never makes sense to compare grief. Every instance of grief has its own dynamic and intensity for the person experiencing it.
Grace was not yet six years old. In her short, happy life, she shared a lot of gifts with us. She shared unconditional love, and I was the fortunate recipient of much of that (though she could be a bit of a pest sometimes). She followed me wherever I went in the house. When she needed to go out, she sought me out to take her. Yet she was always waiting when I came home, and never failed to dance a bit with excitement. Grace was an exuberant dog. She did dances for her treats. She loved to play. Grace had a big heart. Weighing in at about six and a half pounds, she barked “fiercely” at threats, and we were always concerned that if she got loose she would chase after a deer. Grace offered warmth and affection. She enjoyed cuddling. She was a licker.
It is not fair to compare the loss of human life, or even human limb, to the loss of a dog. I don’t want to do that. Though when sadness comes, wave upon wave in death, destruction, and loss, the gifts a pet can bring are treasured, and when she is gone, they are missed terribly.

To live in this world

You must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal,
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods”

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Movie Music

Obviously blogging was not among my Lenten disciplines. Here it is, just days before Holy Week and I have maybe blogged once since the beginning of Lent.
I have, however, worked on my taxes, beginning them a couple of weeks ago, and just finishing up the rough draft today. One more review before I send them in. I know, I am a Luddite when it comes to taxes – still using a calculator and a pencil.
So the Sunday afternoon that I began this year’s tax journey, I thought some quiet music would be in order. Awhile back I had purchased a cd set “Hollywood Hits: 70 Years of Memorable Movie Music.” It was quite reasonable priced at Half Price Books. The three cds were: (1) Movie Themes; (2) Oscar Winners; and (3) Musicals. There was also a briefer fourth cd primarily with live versions of a few movie songs, though it also included Dooley Wilson “As Time Goes By.”
I gather all the necessary information, sharpen my pencil, hit play, and begin. Preparing the returns is its typical laborious experience, but the music – the music is wonderful. There is an emotional connection with some of the songs. With some, I can almost see scenes from the movie (side-by-side with mortgage interest numbers). I can remember late nights watching some of these films on the late show when it was summer and I did not have to get up for school the next day. As “Days of Wine and Roses” is playing, I recall the incredible sadness I felt watching that movie for the first time. When Kermit the Frog sings “Rainbow Connection” I remember watching “The Muppet Movie” with my children. Some of the songs simply evoked another time, another place, another me. Hearing the movie theme from “The Odd Couple” I recalled watching television re-runs after school. Listening to the theme from M*A*S*H brought me back to college and seminary days. I remember gathering around the community television for the final episode of M*A*S*H at my seminary apartment building.
After a couple of days, I began thinking about how powerful music and movies can be in shaping us. “Brian’s Song” taught me something about multi-cultural sensitivity before I had any idea what that was. “The Days of Wine and Roses” powerfully portrays the devastation of addiction. Often movies and music do little more than distract or entertain, but they have the capacity to shape us, to bring certain narrative threads to our lives.
Then I began to consider how much more complicated sharing the Christian story can be in a multi-storied world. How do we deal with these other narratives that are present in our culture?
Some would choose to isolate themselves from the wider culture. At the extreme end of this strategy would be the Amish. I went to high school with a young man whose church forbid watching television. Honestly, I think we would all do well to critically monitor our media intake. Some of it may not be worth our time and attention.
However, I don’t think this is a terribly realistic strategy. It also ignores an important theological idea - that the Spirit can be at work in unique places and mysterious ways. We would do better, I think, to find places where the culture helps us tell our story. There is something about hope, courage and determination to be learned when the prisoner Papillon whispers up from his prison cell, “I’m still here, you bastards.” Caring community and openness to new cultural experiences are beautifully portrayed in the film, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” The Harry Potter film series does a wonderful job of depicting friendship and sacrifice for others. I always found it odd that some Christians were so spooked by the “magic” that they missed the underlying themes, many of which are deeply compatible with Christian faith. The most ironic instance of missing the boat was a mother I knew who was concerned about letting her daughter see or read Harry Potter, but thought nothing of taking her to a Brittany Spears concert.
I intend to keep watching and listening, learning along the way, thinking critically and theologically, though sometimes probably just enjoying the ride.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, February 16, 2013


Do you have to let it linger?
The Cranberries

Three days after Ash Wednesday, there remain on my hands small places where I can still see traces of the ashes from that night. They linger.
The season of Lent is a bit about lingering, about slowing down, about listening intently for God’s voice in the rush and din of our day to day lives, about taking some time away from those lives to listen. Perhaps it is also about being willing to linger with some of our own experiences.
Not long ago, in Stephen Mitchell’s The Gospel According to Jesus I came across Mitchell’s translation of the original version of Rilke’s Tenth Duino Elegy (p. 159). It is about lingering.

How dear you will be to me, then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
seasons of us, our winter-
enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape,
where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home.

We need not search out difficult experiences nor suppose that God creates difficulty and pain so we can learn from it. Pain and difficulty will come. Joan Chittister puts it simply and well – “no one goes through life unscathed” (Called To Question, 224). What might we learn and how might we grow if we linger with such experiences, even if only for a while?

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, February 2, 2013


Do you ever yearn, George?
Kramer to George, Seinfeld

The other night I was on the treadmill at home, a place I need to be more regularly. While there I watched part of a documentary about Bruce Springsteen and the making of his seminal album, Born To Run. I was captivated by Springsteen’s artistic vision and by the effort and energy that went into trying to put that vision into vinyl. Nearly every word, every phrase, every instrument, every note was pondered then played, then played again. Springsteen sought to put his thoughts and feelings into music, something that I have long admired in his entire body of work. While I appreciate everything he has done, there is something very special about Born To Run.
As I was watching, I also felt again some of those feelings I felt when I first listened to the record in my late teens. The joy, the angst, the longing, the searching, the yearning, that was on that record struck a deep chord in my young man’s soul. “But tonight you’re gonna break on through to the inside/And it’ll be right.” “Cause baby I’m just a scared and lonely rider/But I gotta know how it feels/I want to know if your love is wild/Girl I want to know if love is real. “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”
Coming upstairs when my time on the treadmill was over, I saw my daughter getting ready to watch a movie. She is home between her January class and the beginning of spring semester. It was 10:30 p.m. I thought of all the times I watched those late night movies in my own college days. While many movies are just for fun, many are also dream machines, stoking the imagination, feeding a certain yearning for more life – deeper, fuller, richer.
I’m 53, and glad for all the experiences I have had since those days of late night movies, and Born To Run spinning on a turntable (and sitting here typing on my computer I am looking at the vinyl album cover, now darkened around the edges). At the same time I never want to completely lose that part of a young man’s soul that continues to reach for something more, that continues to yearn for deeper thinking and feeling, that longs for a better world.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes”

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, January 19, 2013


Finding time to write has been a challenge. Other things have taken precedence, and needed to. On December 31 we admitted my mother-in-law, Lois, to Solvay Hospice House here in Duluth. Five days later, she died.
I thoughtfully and passionately believe in God. More than that I have faith in God, that is, I trust God, trust that the meaning of my life is the meaning it has for God. However, I don’t believe that God is a cosmic controlling power. I don’t believe “God determines every detail of the world” (Process Theology: an introductory exposition, 9). My theology could be wrong here, but I don’t see how a theology that has God determining all that happens is compatible with a significant notion of human freedom. What makes God God, in my theological view, is that God is the only necessary being and God’s purpose, while it can be temporarily thwarted, is never entirely defeated. God’s purposes keep coming again and again and again into human lives and into the world.
If God does not determine every detail of the world, the fact that my wife Julie and I now live in Duluth, Minnesota is not simply something God arranged well ahead of our coming. Yet I believe that we have been here for seven and a half years, now, is seen as good in God’s eyes. I trust that God’s Spirit influenced the events which brought us to be here now.
You see, both Julie and I grew up in this community. We went to different high schools here, and met at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. While Duluth is a wonderful place, we did not aspire to return here. As a United Methodist pastor appointed by a bishop, aspiring to be some particular place is a good recipe for frustration. Seven and a half years ago, I was appointed as pastor of First United Methodist Church, Duluth. We returned home.
Four years ago, my father died. We were here. Two years ago, a close cousin of my mother’s died. We were here. A year ago, my grandmother died. We were here. Now just a couple of weeks ago, Julie’s mother died. We have been here during her final illness and through her death.
I believe thoughtfully and passionately in God. I trust God. I believe God works through influence, and God delights in serendipity. That we have been here now has been serendipity. That we have been here now has been grace. Such serendipity, such grace is part of God’s purpose in the world. Thanks be to God.

With Faith and With Feathers,