02 February 2014

Bringing Out the Dead

Pete Seeger's passing recalls to me the one time I met him.  The occasion was a funeral.  I was officiating at a small private service for Norman Rosten, a well regarded Brooklyn poet, less than a year after arriving at the First Unitarian Church there.  Those outside the city may know Rosten because of his book on Marilyn Monroe whom he knew through Arthur Miller, later adapted into an opera performed in 1993. 

The service was held on the barge that held Bargemusic, right at the Fulton Ferry beside the Brooklyn Bridge.  I do not remember why but in New York City people have many overlapping connections that often are not evident.  Remind me to tell you about praying over George Plimpton sometime.  Anyway, after planning the service, I assumed the music would be of the sort you would get at Bargemusic.  Wrong.

Pete Seeger was the one and only musician.  I was not sure why at that moment.  Maybe there were 25 of us there, hardly a crowd.  Even for the barge which is scarcely larger than a garage.  I shook his hand and we compared notes about who does what first and second and so forth.  This being less than a year into my church, I was fairly star struck and humbled by the occasion. 

Then he sang "The Ballad of Norma Jean," a song he composed on the words of one of Norman's poems.  It was sung at, and recorded for, at Carnegie Hall in June of 1963.  There was the connection.

Whenever he sang or spoke the famous smile was there.  But after the service, during the reception, he was very quiet.  Not knowing him I was loathe to chat him up.  He did not linger long.  I was tempted to think him aloof, but realized it was just as likely, probably more so, that he was as shy in private as he was ebullient in public.  There was something tender in him, almost vulnerable. 

So I like to think, at least.  But I remember with clarity him standing there in barge, instrument over his shoulder, singing to this small band of mourners, for a man whom I had known but a little in my few months there.  But at the end of that day my thread had been added to the knot tied by Pete Seeger and Norman Rosten and Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe.  It was a strange and precious day.

01 January 2014

I Know Nothing...

On the First Day of the Year (as we record them) I encountered this column from the "Huffpost" by Ben Michaelis, Ph. D. author and clinical psychologist.  He is listing the "Nine Best Books for Meaningful Change." I haven't read a single one.  And do note, these are not the Nine Best Books of 2013," but the "Nine Best Books" period. 

Great way to start the year, feeling Nine kinds of ignorant. 

Yes, I knew about some of them, and sometimes I knew the author's names if not the title.  All of them are hypercompetent folk compared to me, as they have written books and gotten them published.  I, on the other hand, find it tough to get the weekly sermon thing done.  My tweets are less than one a day.  This blog has languished. 

Great way to start the year, feeling Nine kinds of incompetent. 

In fact it has been a pretty lame year when it comes to reading as well as writing.  Not many books digested overall. Maybe six in all of 2013.  My stack of unread NYTimes magazines and Journals of Religion and Smithsonians and National Geographics keeps growing.  Not that I am not reading, but serious stuff seems always to be what I start at 9 pm and then my eyelids droop. 

Great way to start the year, feeling Nine kinds of lazy.

Maybe being older is involved.   I am on the verge of 61.  Nothing on my mind has not been said already by people I have known or read before, and people way smarter and more eloquent than me. That's not ignorance, that's being sensible.

I see older friends writing books between sermons, but before wishing for their work ethic let me consider what I would have to give up in trade?  Perhaps I am not incompetent so much as wise.

And while I do think I spend too much time doing unproductive things, this past month reminded me that clergy cannot fill every hour because sometimes your people will need you right then and not when you can schedule them.  My Facebook friends know on December 21 I created one funeral, on December 22 preached at two Sunday services, on December 23 led another funeral, on December 24 was part of two Christmas Eve services, on December 27 led yet a third funeral, and on December 29 was leading worship again.  That's nobody's idea of lazy, even my own. 

So I am going to let myself off the hook for at least today - Watch the Rose Bow, "Go Green," do some ironing, and maybe finish last Sunday's New York Times. 

10 December 2013


Clergyfolk hate December.  I mean, of course, those clergy who are in the gravitational field created Christmas.  We hate it not in a theological sense but in a personal sense, because the pleasure the season brings are often denied us. 

Come to think, lots of people work extra hard at this season, and some of that effort goes to working at being merry.  We are told this is the season we should savor and appreciate things, but that itself takes effort and planning.  Frankly, I have already given up trying. 

Which may be the best path, actually.  "Trying" creates work.  My spiritual project this Yuletide is not to try and simply accept what comes my way and not resent what does not meet my expectations. 

This too is a sort of work, but instead of looking to Yuletide to meet my spiritual desires, I ponder my desires themselves. 

I want faith - some fragment of the childhood belief that the world was enchanted. Einstein supposedly said that either nothing is miraculous or everything is.  Faith is being open to the second possibility.

I want hope - some confidence that the life I have and that of others has some value that transcends this moment and even this life.  Hope is faith in tomorrow as well as today.

I want love - which is not the Hallmark Channel Christmas movie love.  It is some sense that our life is cherished by others.  Love is hope incarnate. 

I want joy - which like love is not a sensation so much as a pervasive gratitude that can be felt physically as well as known mentally.  Joy is love incarnate.

These can show up anywhere, not just in elves or trees or carols.  I think the purpose of Christmas is not to tell us how enchanted and hopeful and lovable and joyful Christmas is, but how enchanted, how hopeful, now lovable, how joyful, life itself is or can be.  If we notice. 

I'm getting all verklempt.  Discuss.

03 November 2013

So... how the heck are ya!

Another long lapse, friend.  Sorry about that.  Partly it was a pilgrim journey to Spain, yes to Santiago.  If you want, I will post photos and make insightful comments.  What I want to do this time, though, is tell you if I have not already that my twitter feed is now dedicated to nagging people about gun violence. 

Unless unable, as I often was overseas, I try to post a link to a gun death every day. This is as much for me as for you.  When I found out that the number of domestic gun deaths in America since RFK died exceeded all the war dead from all the wars it made me ask, "is this necessary?"  But rather than propose an answer, I took the advice of the gospel (the parable of the unjust judge comes to mind) and decided the way to get action was not to promote my answer but to demand that the question be heard.  Only by nagging, repeating constantly, refusing to shut up about it, will those who are supposed to have answers be motivated to find one.

Up until now the single-mindedness of the gun industry has been the only consistent and constant voice.  Perhaps there needs to be another voice that points at our level of gun violence (virtually unequalled in the 'developed world') and says, "We can do better!" 

Finding the answers is not our job as the public, but deciding which questions need to be answered is.  I invite you to follow me at @fred_woodenYou will get a sad reminder most every day.  Read it.  And if you also retweet it or repost it, who knows that eventually a few thousand nagging citizens might give some backbone to those who need it. 

No wisdom or insight, not even a comforting word.  Just a nagging knock on your moral door.  Step by step, drop by drop, knock by knock. 

21 September 2013

So Sorry...

Wow, it has been a long time.  I apologize, but my job description changed this summer, turning me from the contemplative senior preacher into the managerial senior minister.  Lots more time in the office working with people and projects. Lots less time writing and pondering. This is not my comfort zone, but you may have noticed as I have that most insight and growth come from being outside that zone. 

When we had a staff crisis this past spring, the best path for the church was this one even though it was not the one I preferred.  But leadership means doing the right thing for the organization even if it is not to your personal advantage.  At least so it seems to me.  One cost has been having the time to do this along with the sermon preparation that is still part of my job. 

This explains why I have had so little time to write this blog.  Well, it is at least part of the explanation.  I should also note my other experiment.  I have a second radio program in development, an hour long interview show, "In Depth," at the same station where I do call-in every Friday on "Faith and Reason" - WPRR here in Grand Rapids.  You can find it at www.publicrealityradio.org Sometime soon it will be available, after I get a few more shows recorded.  Also a venture out of my comfort zone, but in a different way.

But I have something more than an apology for you.  The House kidnapping of the ACA infuriated me.  So I am writing my Rep in Congress.  My intent was to send the same note to all the Michigan Reps but the House website system only allows those in district to send email.  I am now doubly infuriated.  Reps are now able to filter out all but their own constituents - and lobbyists of course. 

I may now call some, as my members live in more than one district, and I sit on the board of the West Michigan Urban League.  But I urge you to send something to your Reps.  Here is what I sent, which you may freely borrow if it helps.  If you don't then Speaker Boehner will have no reason to doubt that he and his colleagues speak for the American people.  As someone else said, 'silence + assent.'

"Dear Representative,

I write to express my profound disappointment in the decision to yoke the debt ceiling to defunding the ACA.   I know my words will not change your mind, which is all the more dismaying, as you were elected to represent all the people in your district not just those who share your views. 

But you need to know that there are many, I among them, who believe the ACA, imperfect as it may be, is better than the current health care insurance system.  Defunding it will only produce more uncertainty and the likelihood that we will pay more and more for less and less. 
Using the debt ceiling to accomplish an ideological goal amounts to a political kidnapping, threatening to ‘kill’ the economy to get your way.  People have lost most of their respect for Congress precisely because of such myopic and dogmatic actions. 

Speaker Boehner may say the American People support you, but I am not one of them.  You need to know this because it is our lives that will pay the price for your decision.   
Rev. Dr. W. Frederick Wooden,Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids MI
Chair of the Board, Grand Rapids Urban League