Saturday, December 8, 2012

Hokey Pokey Would Be Preferable ...

I just have to share a little more about Thursday's presbytery meeting:

We had just had small group discussions about the statistics of decline in things like membership, average congregation size, monetary gifts, and new professions of faith. Then a spokesperson from each small group reported on their table's discussion. It took a long time and was rather redundant. A person-in-charge then apologized that this had been such a time consuming process, but affirmed it was surely worth it, "because that's what it's all about: Presbyterians talking to Presbyterians."

I started to laugh out loud, but stopped myself, since no one else seemed to be in on the joke. I'm sure there must have been some rational intention behind the statement that I simply cannot imagine. But the rest of the day, every time I thought of it, I just couldn't help busting up again. Holy moly. What a telling statement. "That's what it's all about: Presbyterians talking to Presbyterians." And we wonder why there's a decline in new professions of faith ...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Worship Should Not Be So Boring

I attended two worship services today: the first was Presbyterian and served as the opening session of a business meeting (a presbytery meeting, for those who know what that means—see here for more on the subject). The sermon was fine, the liturgy was mostly okay (though I found the non-gender-inclusive language quite off-putting—I mean, what the heck—and there was also a very distracting and puzzling grammatical error in another of the prayers).

But the first thing that really struck me about this service was the hymn, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?” The sentiment that inspired the 17th century author (and the 19th century translator) was noble, no doubt. But I had a very hard time imagining any person in the 21st century finding the singing of this antiquated poem a stirring or meaningful experience.

Don’t get me wrong—I have always loved the great hymns of the faith, and many songs written hundreds of years ago still strike a deep chord with people today. But most of them do not.

The real problem here is that sometimes it seems people select worship songs based on their musical style and thematic content, without ever asking the questions: Will singing this song be deeply meaningful to anyone? Will it help anyone to experience God’s presence and power? Will it make any difference in any person’s life? I cannot imagine someone honestly putting these questions to themselves and concluding “Yes, it is reasonable to expect so,” in answer to a single question for the song “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?”

This is symptomatic of a very serious problem for Presbyterian pastors in general. Our denomination’s constitution recommends a carefully thought out structure for our worship services, so all we have to do is plug in the elements for each Sunday—a call to worship, a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon, scripture text and sermon, hymn of praise, hymn of dedication, sending hymn, etc. Now, there is nothing wrong with the structure itself, but if we just assume that plugging new elements into their proper places each week will be enough to keep our worship meaningful and relevant to people’s lives, we are dead wrong. It takes real effort and a lot of work to ask the questions sincerely every week, about every aspect of the worship service, “Will this be deeply meaningful? Will it help people to experience God’s presence and power? Will it make a difference in anyone’s life?” But if we don’t ask, we’re in danger of offering nothing but empty rituals when God calls us to provide sustaining bread and intoxicating wine, the gospel of life, the truth that sets us free.

I went to another, very different worship service this evening—it was a service of Taize (and other) songs, readings, and meditation (at a Catholic church). Compared with what I’d experienced this morning, it was like traveling to another planet—like moving from a place of drab fog and empty greyness to a place of light, color, beauty, and holiness. The sense of the sacred and the emotional depth that were so frustratingly missing in the morning gently greeted me in this evening. I left the Presbyterian worship service feeling resentful of the wasted time, and even guilty, wondering if it was my own wrong attitude that kept me from experiencing God there—but I left the Catholic service thanking God from the depths of my heart for bringing me there into God’s presence.

Worship should not be boring. Meeting God in a worship service should not be a herculean feat possible only to the most advanced of spiritual disciples. It is not a goal too lofty for mortals to create an atmosphere conducive to experiencing the sacred. It was so good to be reminded of that …

But I have one more thought on my experiences today. Something important was missing for me at both worship services. Looking around among the Presbyterians, I realized probably the main reason I felt so empty there was that I hardly knew anyone. And even though the Catholic service was so wonderful, I hung around in the narthex a little while afterward (waiting for Brandon to return from the restroom), and no one said a word to me, which was both awkward and disappointing.

And that’s why I love small churches. Because in a small church, you really can worship as a community—not just as individuals who happen to be in the same room—but as friends who love each other and are growing together. And that’s one of the most beautiful, wonderful things about my darling little congregation—because it’s so tiny, and because all the people in it are so amazingly awesome, worshipping together, few as we are, is a special joy.

Definitely need to work on asking myself about the meaningfulness/relevance/power of all the things we do in worship, though. Plenty of room for improvement in our service … It’s an exciting job to start, though!

Monday, December 3, 2012

How I Became A Better Driver Without Practice

I've posted on here before about being a terrible driver. A week after getting my first car, I totaled it on the freeway. That was about seven years ago, and between then and September of this year, I think I was behind the wheel something like four times.

The first time I drove a car again after the accident was when I was working at the group home for kids with emotional and behavioral issues. It was supposed to be that if we had two or more kids, there had to be two or more staff present. But that day the other person scheduled wasn't able to make it in or something, so I had to drive three kids by myself to their summer day camp. And mind you, any person driving alone with three of those kids in the backseat was not the safest thing.

I was lucky that very little violence erupted; the kids probably realized they shouldn't distract me, since they were pretty worried themselves, having noticed I was nervous. They asked me if I knew how to drive, and I told them yes, but I hadn't driven a car in a long time. As our SUV swerved crazily out onto the street, they squealed hysterically, "We're all gonna die!" I irritably reassured them, "We're probably not going to die." They screamed again when I grazed some garbage cans beside the curb.

Anyway, I was a bit nervous about moving to an area where driving a car is an absolute necessity. But I hoped that with practice I could become a better a driver.

So imagine the pleasant surprise it was to find when I got behind the wheel that I had already become a much better driver without even practicing. How did this happen, you may ask. I think mostly it's that I became a more emotionally stable and mature person. In large part, what made me such a horrible driver earlier on is that I was so anxious and unsure of myself. But now I'm more confident and relaxed and can drive almost like a normal person!

Actually, around here, I may even be better than average(!). I regulary see people doing all kinds of crazy, illegal stuff. Like driving over the median and stopping on railroad tracks ... Oh, Florida ...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cuban Vegetables, Puerto Rican Thanksgiving, and Our New Life in the Swamp

One year when I asked my father about coming up with a Christmas wish list, he said that as he gets older, he sees less value in things (physical objects) and more in experiences. (A worthy consideration for anyone who has “hard to buy for” friends and relatives.)

Most people are impressed when they find out Brandon and I were willing to travel all the way across the country so I could serve the church here—and it was, indeed, a major sacrifice in some respects. But there is nothing like the excitement of moving somewhere really new and different.

I think I’ve mentioned before that when I first realized this area is a swamp I was kind of terrified—especially since so much of the land around here is still completely undeveloped (the church itself is on the edge of a nature reserve). But it means seeing all kinds of wildlife. Just naming some birds, we’ve seen Muscovy ducks, marbled godwits, hawks, wild turkeys, hooded mergansers, a night heron, white ibises and snowy egrets—and we’ve seen lizards, frogs and turtles I have yet to identify—and (so far only as roadkill, but still) armadillos! Can’t wait to get out to the Manatee Viewing Station …

About a week ago we checked out a Cuban sandwich place (nothing says Tampa like an authentic Cubano) and also tried a soup made from root vegetables—there were two or three different kinds—very similar to a potato, but with distinct flavors. And a week before that we tasted a unique beverage at a Carribbean joint: Irish Moss. It was pretty bizarre, and even the Caribbean waitress had never tasted the stuff and acted as if she’d been afraid to try. We found out later you can buy a can of it at some grocery stores. I guess it’s basically a red algae (extract?) boiled with milk and cinnamon.

And we had the wonderful good fortune last week of being invited to have Thanksgiving dinner with a Puerto Rican family. We were treated to scrumptious, melt-in-your-mouth roast pork, rice cooked with some special kind of Puerto Rican bean, rich homemade flan, and a boisterous cast of characters who welcomed us like their new best friends. They even roped us into their traditional game of bingo (for nickels) and our beginners’ luck won us $1.05 USD and five cents Canadian. It was everything a couple of gringos could have hoped for!

So, anyway, we are missing loved ones back on the west coast, but having many wonderful new experiences. And now that we’re more settled in, I’m going to make an effort to get back to blogging regularly again …

Friday, November 2, 2012

Faith Is a Kind of Insanity

As I've mentioned, my new church is very tiny. Someone in an advisory capacity expressed to me she was afraid I might have a hard time building the church up because going out into the community and meeting people will not be the easiest thing for me. She was thinking I ought to be going to coffee shops and malls and local sporting events and anywhere people gather--and I can only assume she thought I should be randomly introducing myself to strangers and inviting them to the church.

Even though I knew from the beginning that that method is just not very sensible, I have been nagged by a vague feeling that she's right, I'm not cut out for this kind of work, because I am generally reserved and not really the gregarious, assertive, salesperson type.

But this is where the insanity comes in. It's a particular kind of insanity necessary to being a pastor (long term, that is)--and it's also called the gift of faith. I don't have any rational basis for thinking this, but I do believe that if an outgoing extrovert who instantly makes millions of friends was what this church needed, then that's who God would have called here. But since God called me, clearly what is needed is a sensitive poet-theologian type. 

This kind of thinking is irrational. And many would also consider it crazy to move all the way across the country to lead a community of six people--and not immediately begin preparations for selling the building and dissolving the congregation.

But that's what makes ministry--and all of life--interesting: people do not act rationally, and so there is no way of predicting how anything that involves people will turn out. And however much "science" can predict, it does not even begin to explain human experience. 

Atheists may believe "science" has emptied the world of so many figments of imagination--spirits and fairies, ghosts and psychics, saints and bodhisattvas and God--but such poverty of perception is only an intermediate stage on the way to a more enlightened awareness--there are forces at work in the world that we have not explained--perhaps someday we will, but if we do, it will probably be an explanation that goes far beyond even the current theories of quantum mechanics. Perhaps it will require a leap in conceptualization as great as that needed to leave behind a strictly Newtonian worldview. 

But for now, there is no "scientific" explanation of the spiritual--and so it is that for people like me, for whom spiritual realities are at the center of (or should be at the center of) our work, a certain kind of faith-insanity is necessary. 

I will state the obvious here (which very few people seem to want to do) and say that the situation is dire and bleak. There are many things to be discouraged or worried or even angry about. But with God, all things are possible, and all things are guided to their proper purpose. And this church, small as it is, is definitely alive with love and hope--no, not at all dead yet. So here I am, faithfully insane, doing my best to lead them, and waiting to find out just what kind of miracle will unfold this time ... 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween - Really Want To Carve A Pumpkin Next Year ...

I have not carved a pumpkin for Halloween in several years--mostly this is because every time I look at the price of pumpkins my inner miser overpowers my holiday spirit. Yes, that is one scrappy little inner miser.

This year I at least thought about and half-intended to buy and carve a pumpkin--then I just sort of ran out of time. But I was thinking of a lizard design, since there are so many lizards all over the place here.

I found these images that are not what I was picturing, but are pretty cool, nonetheless. (I'm afraid I didn't see anything that really helped me figure out how to do what I had in mind ...)

The one below doesn't even look like a pumpkin--must have been one of those misshapen kinds that I'm sure the best artists just love to find.

The one below, I don't even know why it came up in my search, but it's pretty darn cool. And how could Starry Night not be on any person's favorite paintings list?

Next time I will carve my own, though perhaps not quite this elaborate ...
... Happy Halloween ...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Becoming Less

On October 14 I started as the solo pastor of a tiny suburban Presbyterian church. The church was founded in the 60s (when the area was more rural), reached its peak membership, then started declining (a familiar story), then had a schism, and then some continued conflict before finally stabilizing last year. When I first preached at the church in August (sort of like part of the interview) there were only six people in attendance. This little church has been through a lot, but has a great spirit and plenty of potential. I'm happy and feel very privileged to be here.

You'll find below the manuscript I prepared for my first sermon as pastor. (I wasn't able to use it in the pulpit because my printer wasn't working, and I thought to just use my laptop--but right when I was about to start, it decided to restart and install updates.) So it was my first time preaching without any notes whatsoever.

Becoming Less

John 3:22-30

So let me ask you a question: who was more important—John the Baptist or Jesus? This is a real easy one, right? But how do you think the people who lived in Jesus’ time would have answered? It depends on who you asked—obviously, if you asked one of the early Christians, they would say, Jesus. But most likely, if you asked anyone else, they would say John the Baptist. In fact, they might not even have heard of Jesus.

Remember: there was no local news channel, no facebook or twitter—so the only way people could find out about important public figures was from word of mouth—and that’s a pretty slow method of spreading information. And so, although we can’t know exactly, since there aren’t extensive records, it appears that Christianity grew pretty slowly at first, and was only a small religious sect for at least the first couple generations after Jesus lived. And the evidence that we do have indicates most likely Jesus’ cousin John was a more important and influential figure in his time than was Jesus was.

You may remember that in the book of Acts, some early Christians met up with a group who were loyal to John and had been baptized by him, but didn’t even know about Jesus. And even the ancient historian Josephus, who would have been just a generation or so after Jesus—appears to know a great deal more about John and particularly his political significance than he knows about Jesus—whom he refers to offhand as having started some small religious sect.

John was the real superstar—and unlike Jesus, who was never popular with the political leaders of the day, JB had won the respect and protection of Herod Antipas the Tetrarch. You may remember Herod had John thrown in prison because John criticized Herod for marrying his brother’s ex-wife. But in spite of it, Herod had great respect for John as a prophet and liked to listen to him. Not to mention the fact that John had such a huge following—Josephus says Herod was afraid of John because his followers were so many and so loyal, all John had to do was say the word and they would start a rebellion. And remember the Pharisees—when they asked Jesus where his authority came from, ­ turned it around and asked them where John’s authority came from—and they were afraid to speak against John and deny his authority came from God—even though he had already been executed—lest the people start a riot and rebel against them.

Take a minute and consider how much John had going for him—if he played his cards right, he could have gone very far, become very influential. He had the ear of the most powerful man among the Jewish people at that time—he had a significant following—if he had really wanted to succeed and use his influence to effect some changes—he probably could have done it. All it would have taken was a little compromise—just back off on the moral criticisms a bit—have a more tolerant attitude—maybe John and Herod could have worked something out.

As I think about John and how he could have chosen that path—it brings to my mind the presidential election going on right now. I don’t know if you watched the vice presidential debates earlier this week—but one of the best questions, I thought, that the moderator asked the two candidates, was about a young, decorated war hero who had told her, he was sickened by the nasty tone of both major parties in this campaign. And so she basically asked them, what do you have to say for yourself? Aren’t you ashamed? And neither candidate had a good answer. It is all too clear that every major politician in our country today is willing to throw out the window things like honesty and respect—they are all willing to make whatever compromise of integrity is necessary in order to succeed. Winning at any cost is the name of the game.

John the Baptist chose a very different path. And it wasn’t just that he stuck to his guns and continued to criticize Herod’s immoral marriage—even though it eventually cost him his life. John set aside his ego, his personal ambitions and chose the way of humility when he recognized and publicly proclaimed that his cousin Jesus was an even greater prophet than he himself. And that, in fact, Jesus was more than just another prophet—John recognized that Jesus was a unique person with a very special purpose—sent by God to bring about something new, something powerful and life-changing—and John may not have known everything that that was going to mean, but he knew that it was something greater even than his own vision.

And so with supreme humility John compares himself with the best man at the wedding—he is not the star of the show—and he is willing to step into the background and even disappear so that his cousin Jesus can shine the more brightly.

I want to share with you this poem about humility that I read as a teenager that has stuck with me over the years, by a 17th century philosopher named Thomas Browne. It compares the soul to a seashell and imagines God as a kind of hermit crab who wants to live and dwell in a nice empty shell. (It’s kind of old-timey language, but hopefully you’ll understand it.)

‘If thou could'st empty all thyself of self, like to a shell dishabited, then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, and say "This is not dead," and fill thee with Himself instead. But thou art all replete with very thou and hast such shrewd activity, that when He comes He says, "This is enow unto itself— 'twere better let it be, it is so small and full, there is no room for Me.’

Now, the author of this poem was probably addressing the individual, but this applies to churches, too. Some churches are so “replete with themselves” and filled with “shrewd activity” there is no room for God. Some churches are driven not so much by the Spirit of God as they are driven by pride and competing egos. Some churches are so bent on getting done the things they want to accomplish, they don’t have the first idea of what it means to submit to Christ. And this is not because they’re bad people, but because this is part of corrupt human nature—that we all have this tendency to get wrapped up in ourselves and forget about God.

Those of us that are involved in the church need to be intentional in cultivating the attitude of John the Baptist and remembering that Jesus, and none of us, is supposed to be the star of this show. In fact, in order for the presence and the power of Christ to increase among us, we must decrease—we must deflate our egos, let go of our cherished ambitions. We must become less so that Christ may become more.

Now, Keystone has gotten really good at decreasing—and maybe you’re thinking, if this church becomes any less than what it is now, there’s not going to be any church left.

But it is precisely because this congregation has been so profoundly humbled that there is such an opportunity here—this large, beautiful building is like the empty shell in the poem. I would guess this is probably the lowest point the church has ever reached in terms of attendance—but I believe God has brought you all to this point, and now, me, too—and Brandon—with a purpose in mind. God has allowed this church to be emptied—literally—to become less and less—but I believe all this emptying and decreasing attendance, decreasing activity—has happened in order to make room for something—and just like John the Baptist, none of us know at this point exactly what that something is going to look like and what it’s going to mean—but I know it is something greater than my own vision and imagination.

One of the real strengths of this little community we have here now, this faithful remnant, is that I can tell y’all are an unpretentious group. This is not a church of loud, flashy personalities. Y’all are not about trying to impress anyone or prove anything. And that’s a very good thing. That is a blessing and a gift. As I said before, you already seem to have a pretty good of idea of how to become less. So we will continue to make room for Jesus here in our midst and we will appreciate the present emptiness of this church—because it is an expectant emptiness, a kind of quiet humility that is not anxious, but confident, knowing God can bring about something in the midst of us that none of us could accomplish or even imagine on our own. And we will thank God this place is not so busy, and not so full of merely human activities so as to distract us from welcoming that new something that is coming into our midst called gospel and grace.

‘If thou could'st empty all thyself of self, like to a shell dishabited, then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, and say "This is not dead," and fill thee with Himself instead.’

Monday, September 24, 2012

Just Don’t Call Me “Reverend”!

It’s taken a very long time to reach this point, but at long last, I was ordained yesterday as a pastor (the technical term is “teaching elder”) in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

I was just remarking to Brandon last night, it seems like you really have to be a little crazy to want to become a pastor. In fact, I’m pretty sure that every single pastor I know is at least a little bit crazy. Yes, every single one. But then again, probably every person I know, period, is a little crazy. Still, it’s a nutty sort of job. One’s primary responsibility is loving God and loving people. And really, what the heck kind of a job description is that? It’s nebulous, it can’t be quantified, you’re never going to be able to do it perfectly, and it’s just plain difficult.

But it’s exactly what I want to do. So I have now joined the ranks of those both determined and crazy enough to spend years in study and submit to all the many other requirements of the denomination to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

I will say, I am not filled with glee, in the that way I am, for example, upon seeing the people I love, or while contemplating a beautiful work of art, or recalling happy memories—but I feel a kind of completeness—I have a sense that I “fit” better into something (hard to say what, exactly). It’s just a sense of rightness filling me. I am happy in a deep, soul-pervading kind of way.

The only irritating thing is that find it theologically inappropriate that pastors are addressed as “reverend”—as if they were holier than other folks. Of course that’s not right at all. So now I’m going to have to tell people all the time—please—don’t call me “reverend.” Unless, as Brandon points out, it's meant ironically!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Several weeks ago, walking by the Asian art museum near our apartment, I stopped short and stared for a moment, being quite taken with the image on their advertisement, a man playing a flute on a windy night. Being a forgetful sort, I only just barely made it to see the special exhibition before it moved on. The artist is Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, woodblock printer of the late 19th century. A few favorites (click on the images to view larger size):

This one may go up on my wall: it's a monk doing penance under a waterfall. The story is that he stays in so long, he falls unconscious and those fantastic figures watching on the side have to fish him out.

Here is the full triptych of the flue player--the guy behind him is an assassin. He decides not to murder the flute playing aristocrat because he is so enchanted by the music. This one is definitely going to hang in my office.

And this one I did not see at the museum (sadly)--but I discovered it on the internet--found it quite charming/amusing. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

List of Fantasies (from myself at 15)

Preparing to move, I've been trying to get rid of as much stuff as possible. Going through old papers, I found this list I made at age 15 of all the jobs I'd ever fantasized about having. I spent a lot of my childhood daydreaming, as you can see:

- police officer
- architect
- veterinarian
- mechanic
- cartoonist
- astronaut
- lawyer
- housewife
- teacher
- psychologist
- philosopher
- neurologist
- physicist
- wildlife photographer
- singer
- movie director
- jewelry repair person [sic]
- carpenter
- painter
- claymation animator
- archaeologist [I may have meant paleontologist]
- artist
- writer
- custodian
- seminary professor
- missionary
- plumber
- magazine editor
- used car salesperson
- truck driver
- minister
- politician
- chef
- inventor
- electrician
- actress
- screen writer/playwright
- Supreme Court Justice
- marine biologist
- cosmologist
- undertaker

41 items on that list, in case you were curious but didn't want to count.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Which Is More Fair ... ?

A small person and a tall person are seated next to each other on an airplane. Is the tall person entitled to sprawl into the small person's space (since it was only by chance and not by any virtue that the small person has enough and the tall person not enough space)? Or should the tall person feel confined to their own seat space (since both paid the same amount of money for the same amount of space)?

I'm not at all sure there's a definitive answer to this question. I only know I'm grateful when the tall person seated next to me takes the latter view rather than the former.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

10 Songs That Make Me Happy

It's been a hectic week--and even the weekend has already been so busy I've hardly had time to sit down and do something frivolous like this--but of course, at such times a little frivolity is most needed. I've been meaning to do this for a long time--ever since I was looking for lists of songs that make other people happy and came across this fun video (it was my introduction to Scatman John!).

So anyway, here are 10 songs that make me happy. Hope anyone who reads this has had a happy Saturday--and that your Sunday will be happy, too. Wishing you much happiness ... 

10. El Poeta, Chino y Nacho

"Muy feliz, feliz, feliz, feliz ..."

9. Te Amo Tanto Tanto (Version 2011), Grupo Extra

Drippingly sweet--but it's in Spanish, so that's okay. (-:

8. Arrasando, Thalia

English translation here--"arrasando" could also be translated "triumphing" or (my favorite) "sweeping to victory." Seems esp. fitting since the chorus reminds me of the theme for the star power up in Mario Bros. Great words in the chorus, too.

7. Ai, Se Eu Te Pego, Michel Telo

You can really hear in the recording the happiness and excitement of all those people at the concert. I also thought it was fun to read the words in Spanish and listen to the Portuguese. Fascinating ...

6.  Firework, Katy Perry

Kind of cheesy, I know, but ... I like it.

5. Unwritten, Natasha Bedingfield

4. Variations 1-4, Andrew Lloyd Webber/Julian Lloyd Webber/Paganini

3. Desiderata 

A friend from Mexico told me about this lovely song, having remembered hearing it on the radio many times in her childhood.

2. Nutbod (Houseboats of Kashmir Remix), from Baz Luhrmann's album, Something For Everybody

1. Time of Your Song, Matisyahu

I can't even tell you how much I love this song or how it makes me feel. Beautiful.

[These aren't actually my top ten--I'm saving some good ones for future lists of 10 ... (-: ]

Something Beautiful To Look At (Part II - Two Hearts)

A couple facebook friends posted these images yesterday--I don't know for sure if they'll go up on my wall in the future, but they are lovely.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Yellow and Blue

As I've mentioned before, I love calendars. I have seven wall calendars up right now, four of them in one corner of the dining room area (hereafter "Calendar Corner"). At the beginning of the year, three out of four calendars in Calendar Corner agreed on blue, red, and white as the colors of January. This is the first month that all four calendars in Calendar Corner agree: yellow and blue as the colors of July.

Perhaps it's because people associate July with going to the beach (yellow sand, blue ocean) or early summer in general (yellow for sunlight, blue for clear skies). Anyway, I thought that was interesting. And I wonder how what results I might get from a larger survey.

If only I had more calendar pages to look at ... (-;

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Something Beautiful To Look At (Part I)

Everybody wants beautiful things to look at, me especially. I may have my very own office at some point in the somewhat near future, and I've been thinking of images I want to get printed at the Target photo lab and hang on the wall. There will be sloths, of course. I'll share those later, when I've found my favorites.

For now, I was thinking of these two amazing works of art:

St. Matthew the Evangelist from the Ebbo Gospels (9th century):

I first saw this in Gardner's Art Through The Ages ("the" art history textbook) and wished with all my heart that European art had remained beautiful, fun, warm, and cartoonish like this, instead of getting all icky, cold, and boring with the Renaissance. Oh well.

And I just love this image of St. John the Evangelist as an eagle from the Book of Kells:

Saturday, July 14, 2012

reminded to pray ...

I was reminded recently of the suffering caused by wishing you could change something that you simply do not have any control over.

I thought maybe I had more to say about it, but really, I'm just reminded to pray:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference ...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Joshua Tree Getaway

I love L.A., and I’ll be sad to leave …
but sometimes living here, in this sprawling megalopolis,
I start to feel sick for the sight of open sky, mountains, for clean air and silence and stars.

“Let’s go to Joshua Tree. Tomorrow.”

So we threw our bags in the car and drove until the city, at last, began to recede.
It's true, you can never leave your troubles behind you
--wherever you go, there you are--
but somehow, in the desert--glorious, vast, and quiet--
all the anxieties constricting, and sorrows weighing on my heart
somehow ease themselves and I feel healed, restored, stilled, at peace.

And there they were--the Joshua Trees.

We'd found a decent place to stay--Sunnyvale Garden Suites--
to call it "quaint" wouldn't do it justice.

The front office was done up like a Disneyland facade ...

Outside our room--a horseshoe.
I know it's superstition, but somehow, charms like this make me feel ... lucky.
Perhaps they just remind of how fortunate I am already.

We really were lucky--that night there happened to be an astronomy program at the visitor center.
We looked through a telescope and gasped at images of Saturn, Mars, and galaxy clusters.
A second, deep space telescope was hooked up to a large screen, offering views we'll never forget ...

The Sombrero Galaxy

The Ring Nebula

The Lagoon

The Swan

The Dumbell

Apparently, they have these astronomy programs about once a month--they said the next would be July 13. I think at this point, you probably would have to call or email the visitor center for the schedule--they haven't got the info up on the website.

So, anyway ...

Dear L.A. friends:
When your spirit is stifled and troubles are weighing you down,
go to Joshua Tree.
Look at the stars.
Enjoy the quiet.
And let your soul be stilled.

A heart-shaped rock ...

An amazing view ...

Such a strange and beautiful tree ...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Dame Un Tiempo Mas" - Lyrics / Letra

I recently traveled to another state where I was (am) being considered for a pastoral position. I did not anticipate how stressful and unsettling it was going to be merely to find myself in a strange localea place, in some ways, unlike any I'd ever visited.

It reminded me of how upsetting it was my first week at college, 1,200 miles from home. It was the beginning of a totally different life, in a place that seemed terrifyingly strange. It was probably the third day I'd been there or soI just laid down on my bed and started sobbing, because everything was so not normal. Of course, I eventually got used to it, and in only a short time, it became a very comforting place.

But the funny thing is ... I went on a couple mission/exposure trips, as a teenagerto Tijuana, and to a place called Tonalá, outside of Guadalajaraand instead of having that feeling of culture shock, I felt exactly the oppositeas if I was coming homeas if I'd been so many long years in exile, I'd somehow forgotten, but that this was where I really belonged, and felt at peace.

I wonder if there might be something about the national character of Mexico that particularly resonates with me. The Enneagram Institute believes nations tend to have three dominant personality types (scroll to "In Cultural Studies")and it seems not improbable to me that Four (the Artistmy basic type) would be one of Mexico's three.

Several months ago, I was in Zumba class, and we were doing this one song"Dame Un Tiempo Mas"and all of a sudden, I had this intense memory of being in Mexicoit was a deep feeling of peace, and relaxation, and of just being at home ... Beautiful ...

Anyway, it took me a long time to figure out what the song was, not least of all because the lyrics do not appear to be posted anywhere on the web, as of this writing. So, here is my best guessmay it, perhaps, benefit someone out there. Probably this is going to be laughable to anyone who speaks Spanishplease, comment if you can help me correct it. Some of this really just did not make sense to me, but I took a stab at it, anyway (I get points for trying, eh?).

Letra de
Dame Un Tiempo Mas

Dame un tiempo mas
y pon esa cinturita a bailar
llenando te de besos
que pronto la maniana llegara

Por eso, dame un tiempo mas
y tu corazoncito reconquistar
Nunca mas estare lejos
y solita no te vas a quedar

Fue muy dificil
mi vida sin tenerte
que no estes pegadita a mi
pasar noches en vela

Yo nunca te voy a herir  (no que voy a herir)
Yo no lo haria jamas (No lo haria jamas)
Yo quiero estar junto a ti (junto a ti)
Yo solo te voy amar (Te voy amar)
Es que sin ti yo que haria? (que haria)
Pero tengo la suerte
de sentir que vuelves ...

Friday, June 8, 2012

Leadership Lessons In The Land Of Cubicles

The temp agency had me doing data entry for a couple weeks. It was ... not as boring as it could have been, but pretty darn boring. Regardless of what job I'm doing, though, I always try to do it as well I can, and I always hope to learn something. And sure enough, I was really struck by two ways that my immediate supervisor demonstrated what good leadership looks like.

First, when I made a mistake, he took responsibility for it. Even though I was the one at fault--I had just made an assumption, rather than asking for clarification on what I was supposed to be doing, but--he apologized and said "I should have explained that better."

Now, I've read in books that a good leader is supposed to do that--but I will admit, the idea offended my sense of fairness. But having now, personally, been the recipient of just that kind of grace, I appreciate that it's unfair in a good way.

The other thing is that he referred to everyone in the office, affectionately, as "my people" and talked about looking out for his people and being happy for his people. (This was not particularly directed at people whom he was supervising, but just everyone.) And that struck me as something remarkably loving, seeing as how it was just some cubicle-filled office for some company I sincerely doubt anyone there was particularly passionate about.

Anyway, that's all. Just felt like sharing. Ya learn something new every day.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Eclipse Over Los Angeles (Photos)

We went to Griffith Observatory to view the partial solar eclipse on Sunday. We bought some awesome special sunglasses that let you look directly into the sun! All you see with the glasses on is blackness, and an intensely beautiful glowing orb. I used the glasses on my camera to take some photos of what we saw. I've included images in chronological order, which give some idea of the arc of the moon's path.

We also used binoculars to project an image of the sun onto hands, ground, paper, whatever was handy.

Baile de la luna y el sol. Que bello ...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

That Invincible Weed With Ugly Flowers

In the backyard of the house where I grew up, there was a grapefruit tree. We didn't take very good care of our yard, but the tree always looked like it was thriving, wild and overgrown. I wondered, with all that full, green leafage, why it didn't produce more and better fruit. Then one day, I looked a little closer and saw that the tree had actually been taken over by a weed.

It was that invincible weed with ugly flowers that my mother hated. That thorny vine with little curling tendrils and complicated blossoms I had taken a pseudo-scientific pleasure in dissecting as a child. That weed seemed almost impossible to kill. The stems were unbreakable and the roots developed enormous tubers, so that you couldn't pull them up--I remember throwing my entire weight into repeated attempts at pulling up those weeds, but I only succeeded in making my hands sore.

It took forever to dig up those bloated roots, and when at last the tubers lay, still cool, dirty, and huge upon the pavement, I shuddered as before some botanical obscenity. Having clipped the vines at their bases and pulled them down, out of the branches, I now saw the poor grapefruit tree as it truly was, gaunt and emaciated, victim of a wicked parasite. No wonder it hadn't been producing fruit.

Ever since then, I thought of that weed as a metaphor for neurosis and even the demonic--the way it created a false appearance of health and vitality, while clandestinely sapping all the life out of the tree.

Then, just a couple weeks ago, I was thinking to myself I wanted to get some soothing herbal tea--and I went to the store and found one called "Siete Azahares" / "Seven Blossoms"--which had a picture of that very weed on the box.

Apparently, it's called "Passionflower," and it has significant stress-relieving properties. Who knew! So, I guess after struggling for hours in the backyard against that plant, I should have made its leaves into tea to calm my frustration.

Correction: Oh, whoops--I was actually conflating two different weeds in my mind, both of which took over the grapefruit tree, but only one of which was invincible, with thorns--it had tiny blue berries and needle-like leaves, I think. If anyone knows what it is, please comment!

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Protest

They were handing out megaphones and teaching the chants to those of us that looked least crazy, the young and well dressed, while a woman with a too-weak voice gave an impassioned but ineffectual speech. Of course I noticed when they showed up, wearing some kind of Native American traditional, you know, strange get up. And as I was handing out flyers talking to passersby--Blah blah blah injustice! Blah blah blah mass incarceration of our youth! and Blah blah blah money, they replied, Blah blah blah politicians--the smell of burning sage wafted by and a drumbeat began, and they started to dance. And a different voice intoned some stuff that I didn’t really hear, invoking our Earth Mother and the Great Spirit or something like that.

And we began, this tiny motley crew, to march the streets of downtown L.A., police car escorts clearing our path. I admit I was a bit distracted by the tall, silent, brown skinned guy in a blue--apparently Captain America--costume.

“The whole damn system’s got to go!”
“We say no to the new Jim Crow!”
“Stop mass incarceration!”

And all the while we're led by these hopping, stepping, drumming Aztecs. And at first I just thought “What the heck” and “Only in L.A.” but then I felt something that--putting into words--well--their beautiful clothing with the bright colors and abstract designs, and those awesome feather headdresses, the legwarmers with rattling shells, the ancient rhythm to which they moved, the sounding of the conch--it was a different kind of protest.

Not like our angered shouting of “No! No! No!” It was instead, a “Yes.” We said “Not That” and they said “This.” They said beauty, humanity, spirituality, and organic harmony. (Laughing nervously out loud--I can hardly believe I'm buying into it.) They said with their feathers and shells and their sacred dance in the midst of the courthouses, sky scrapers, freeways, surrounded by irritated commuters, stopped in their cars as we passed, they said, We are part of something much bigger than ourselves--bigger than this city--more powerful than politicians, and the LAPD--we are the children of the Earth. Nothing can violate the sacredness, nothing can overcome the divine within us.

We have already begun to be the change we wish to see.

[Sad that this video has so little footage of the Aztec dancers--just a few seconds, at 1:23--and no footage of the guy in the Captain America suit--tsk tsk--I guess they were trying to make our group look more respectable, heh. (You can see me at 0:43 and 1:52, for those who get a kick out of seeing someone they know "on t.v.")]

[You can see a little of the Aztecs' costumes in this video, but it was before they started dancing. I'm also there behind them, toward the right--holding some flyers that I had been charged with handing out to passersby--you probably have to view the video in a larger format (on youtube) to recognize me.]

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

6-Year-Olds Arrested At School

I recently got an email asking me to sign a petition protesting the arrest of a six year old girl for throwing a temper tantrum in the principal's office. When I searched Google to find out more about the story (decent article here), I found out another six year old was arrested this week, for kicking and saying he was going to kill the principal (he had previously been suspended by biting and hitting a staff member).

Obviously, calling in the police to arrest a six year old child is absurd--and little Salecia Johnson's parents are right to demand that the arrest be removed from her record. But as someone who has worked with "at risk" children, I appreciate the difficulty that the school officials face.

I worked one year at a YMCA summer day camp in the mid-Wilshire area of L.A. During the training, we were asked what we thought we should do if a child was screaming, throwing things, breaking things, etc. The correct answer was: call the child's parents, keep trying to calm the child down, but whatever you do, NEVER TOUCH THE CHILD. NEVER. Because the YMCA did not want to get sued.

I absolutely loved the kids I got to work with in that job, but I really hated the way the program was run, because there was no disciplinary system. If a kid was really acting out, you could threaten to "write them up" and if you wrote them up three times, they would be suspended. But the only behavior a child could be written up for was hitting someone.

I was charged with getting the children do all kinds of things--line up and stand quietly in order, come in from the playground, walk in two straight rows, etc.--but there was no incentive for them to do what I told them, and no disincentive for misbehaving. So all I could do was tell them to do something, and if they didn't do it, just tell them again.

The way the other counselors kept the children in line was by shouting at them in a very loud, angry, threating voice, thus inducing an irrational fear. I was not willing to do the same. I am opposed, in principle, to treating children that way. It strikes me as abusive.

I have never been in an elementary school classroom myself, but I would imagine they probably have the same basic problem: an inadequate disciplinary system. I would guess that in most cases, if a classroom is well-ordered, it's probably because the children are quiet and obedient. But what do you do when a child gets "mood swings"? Or is in danger of hurting themselves or others? The parents can be called, but even if they are reached, they will not arrive on the scene immediately.

When I worked at a group home for children with emotional and behavioral disturbances, we received special training in how safely to physically restrain a child who had become a danger to self or others. It was a very necessary tool for restoring order when a child was really out of control.

Should all school employees be given similar training so that they won't have to call in the police when they're afraid of violence? Would that necessitate parents signing waivers before their children can be enrolled?

There don't seem to be any easy answers here. Just another of the myriad ways in which the public school system is woefully broken ...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


When I was a kid, there was a commercial (watch it here) about an elementary school lunch lady lifelessly doling out spoonfuls of mashed potatoes. "Potatoes ... potatoes ... potatoes ..." she intones with supreme boredom. Then she bites into a Nacho Cheese Dorito. "Hm." A slyly joyous little look steals across her face. "Potatoes!" she now says with pizzazz. Then she starts sculpting the potatoes--"Sumo Wrestler ... Arc de Triomphe ... Nefertiti ... Stonehenge." The possiblities are endless ...

It could be one of the greatest commercials ever made, considering I'm still thinking about it and have remembered the featured product all this time.

The reason I was thinking about it is I felt like blogging about potatoes. I love potatoes (Irish roots showing?). I love them so much I could make a diced potato fried in oil or a microwaved potato with butter or even a boiled potato with salt the centerpiece of my dinner (just add an egg and a vegetable)--and I'd still consider it an exciting and delicious meal!

Perhaps I have such simple tastes because I'm lazy and don't want to cook something elaborate. Or maybe because as a kid/teenager I so often had to eat foods I didn't care for. But I tend to have a very simple, "bachelor-style" approach to cooking dinner.

Poor Brandon has never been a fan of this. He does not get excited about having a plain boiled potato for dinner. (Go figure!) So--well, actually, most of the time, if he complains I just tell him he can cook something more elaborate himself. But more recently I've been trying to jazz things up. And, as the aforementioned lunch lady discovered, potatoes have vast potential!

A little while ago I boiled potatoes in broth, added spinach, pureed, added cream, and it made a most exquisite, Brandon-worthy soup. All you need for an excellent potato salad is to toss the boiled potatoes with mayo and add crumbled bacon and green onion. This week I was remembering that there exists a culinary entity called "potato skins"--when's the last time I had those?--I don't think I've ever made them myself--but they're just the kind of fatty, artery-clogging food that will put a smile on Brandon's face.

What is the point of this post? I don't know. I guess that people like Brandon, who can really enjoy a tasty simple meal, can inspire people like me, who can get an almost absurd amount of enjoyment from a very bare-bones meal, to raise their standards just slightly--and as a result--oh, what glorious heights of gustatory pleasure may daily be enjoyed! I marvel and am amazed that there could be even more delicious and exciting food to eat on a daily basis than even a boiled potato with salt! What a world of wonders we live in!

Now laugh at this funny video (and prepare some potatoes for eating yourself! Enjoy them thoroughly!):

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sanctified Bermudas

Sign at the beach on the Sea of Galilee where it is said Jesus ate breakfast with the disciples after the resurrection.

When I visited Israel/Palestine last year as part of a seminary travel course on the ethics of peacemaking, I was one of the people in our group most informed and impassioned about the political situation, but also one of the least prepared for the pilgrimage element of the trip.

At first I had no appreciation of the supposed holiness of the sites we visited--the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to be built over Jesus’ tomb, comes particularly to mind. Not only does the very idea of the church seem to contradict the point of the angel’s message--“He is not here, he is risen!”--but control of the property has historically been a point of division and even violence among Christian factions. It seemed to me, any holiness that had been in that place was destroyed by centuries of pride and malice.

But I had a change of heart in the Church of the Nativity. At first, I had the same attitude as before--I felt nothing special--and I was disturbed by the people having their photo taken in “the Grotto” (supposedly the very place where Jesus was born)--so touristy and inappropriate.

But then we continued on, and our guide pointed to a staircase with a grate over the entrance and said “Down there is St. Jerome’s cell, where he composed the Vulgate.” And my jaw dropped to the floor.

“What??!? Jerome?!? Jerome was HERE?!??!? The Vulgate?! JEROME TRANSLATED THE VULGATE HERE?!?!?!!?

The guide was very amused by my reaction. I mean, seriously, I could barely stop myself from leaping up and down with excitement. I LOVE ST. JEROME! (He’s another of those impossible saints to find on a medal.) And from that moment, I understood what the whole pilgrimage thing was supposed to be about.

"St. Jerome, elder and doctor of the church, was here" in Latin.

On the last day of the trip, we visited the (so they said) beach where Jesus ate breakfast with some of the disciples after the resurrection. There is (thankfully) no huge cathedral there; only a small chapel. And no one really cared about the chapel, either. We all just wanted to stand on the rocky shore, to wade a little in the water, to look out on the sea. Someone said it “felt holy in a different way” from any of the other places we’d been. And it did.

We had laughed at the sign that said “HOLY PLACE / NO SHORTS,” even though by this time we were used to the Semitic expectations of modesty. It seems odd to prohibit wearing shorts at the beach. But more than that, the “different kind of holiness” that we were feeling was the holiness of Jesus that is so often talked about by pastors and theologians--the kind of holiness that, rather than needing to be kept pristine, to be protected from the stain of corruption, actually makes holy the profane, turns the unholy into the very dwelling place of God. It’s a kind of holiness that makes a simple breakfast of roasted fish into divine communion.

It is the meaning of the Incarnation and of the Resurrection: that God is not just “out there” and “beyond us”; that salvation is not entrance into a perfect heaven that exists apart from this world. No, indeed. God is here, in this very place, and God’s redemption is the redemption of this world.

It is quite a stunning thing to walk in the land where Jesus walked. It’s not just like some graffiti scratched on a wall saying, “God was here” (even though that would be pretty cool--like the words etched into the walls of Jerome’s cell!)--but moreover, God is here--words etched, as it were, in all those things that bear God’s glory. Even the people wearing shorts. (-;

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

but what a stranger gave

In addition to the thief crucified at Jesus’ side, another player in the crucifixion-burial-resurrection drama has been in my thoughts--the mysterious and touching figure, Joseph of Arimathea. All four Gospels record that he was a man of some influence in the Jewish community who asked permission from Pilate to take Jesus’ body, brought it down from the cross, wrapped it in linens and laid it in a tomb.

We know almost nothing about this Joseph--he is not mentioned anywhere else in scripture--he was not an apostle or an evangelist, not one of Jesus’ closest friends--apparently, he kept his distance to avoid scandal and stay out of trouble. But he loved Jesus. And he was watching and listening, from the sidelines, throughout the story.

I have never particularly identified with this Joseph myself, but he’s always felt like a very dear character--the way he just quietly steps out of the shadows to do this one act of tenderness and honor, for the great teacher he had admired from afar. It seems strange that it was not one of the Twelve, nor any of the women disciples in Jesus’ inner circle, but someone that a favorite old hymn even calls “a stranger”--who gently lifted the broken body, and wrapped it in a clean cloth, who bestowed this final loving care, and laid Jesus to rest.

There is something very dear and touching about the quiet tenderness and intimacy of Joseph’s part in the story--and a kind of pregnant peace as I picture him setting down the body of Jesus there in the garden among all the blooming spring flowers.

I’ve always liked the idea of medals of saints, but only ever wanted ones that are really hard (if not impossible) to find, like Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury. I think I would like a Joseph of Arimathea medal, just to remind me of this little story of surprising devotion.

Here is that favorite old hymn, by the way:

My Song Is Love Unknown
(Samuel Crossman)

My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take
frail flesh and die?

He came from his blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But all made strange, and none
The longed for Christ would know:
But O! my friend, my friend indeed,
Who at my need
his life did spend.

Sometimes they strew his way,
And his sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their king:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for his death
they thirst and cry.

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Themselves displease,
and ’gainst him rise.

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of Life they slay,
Yet steadfast he to suffering goes,
That he his foes
from thence might free.

In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was his home;
But mine the tomb
wherein he lay.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear king!
Never was grief like thine.
This is my friend, in whose sweet praise
I all my days
would gladly spend.