29 April 2006

What a Slug!

A week has gone by without a single post. Not that there’s been nothing to do, mind you. In fact, the week was chock full o’ nuts, as the coffee is called. But in this blog biz, old is anything more than 24 hours. It has the appetite of the news cycle that once it was available 24-7 it needed something every one of those 24 and each of the 7. A whole new meaning for “what have you done for me lately?”

Just to use up bits and bytes, my porch is taking shape out back. The roof is about done. I had a service man in to examine our steam pipe leak and clean the AC. He’ll have to come back again to finish the job. I was never an enthusiastic homeowner, in the technical sense. The Saturday has not dawned when I leapt from the bed eager to put on the tool belt and go and fix stuff.

My karma in this area is lousy. Our first house, an antique parsonage in the hills of New England, was a regular humiliation. Even hanging a picture was a challenge because all the walls were lath and horsehair plaster. Nothing was plumb or level and every fitting and appliance was a bit of a jury rig. I did manage to refinish a table one summer, and toiled Sisyphean-like to conquer the lilac and bamboo that flourished in those shady parts. For a while I hired a young man to dig out a vegetable garden, and even built a cold frame from an old storm window. Some foxglove I planted survived for a while, but all in all it was mortifying.

So I was completely OK with being a condo dweller on the 7th floor for eleven years. The most I ever had to do was unclog a sink. That I can do, and change light bulbs. Oh, I can paint. I do good interior painting. Not fast, mind you, but pretty good.

Anyway, it is clear I need to do more roofing, beyond what was damaged. A tax refund (from selling a house in a non resident state) will help that along. And I expect the repairs to the steam heat will reach four figures with all the plumbing that needs.

See how I managed to make a pretty good post with just the yammering of daily nonsense. It reminds me of how much of life is managing life – cooking, cleaning, paying for and earning. It is hard not to see these as chores that must be done in order to live, but we all know that this is life. But somehow we get it into our sorry heads that life is glamorous stuff like travel and romance and things that resemble movies and feel like books. There should be some sweep, some panoramic vista, some expansive music shouldn’t there?

Cynical me wonders if that isn’t part of what people come in to church looking for. I remember back in 1989, on the 1000th anniversary of the conversion of Russia to Christianity, reading about the legendary story of how that happened. Here’s what I recall:

Prince Vladimir sent out emissaries to the Caliph in Baghdad, to the Grand Rebbe in Jerusalem, and to the Patriarch of Constantinople, to see which of the great faiths vying for his allegiance should be the one. They came back reporting that while they admired the piety and power of Islam, the prohibition against drink was unthinkable. Russians must have their vodka. (Or course it was not vodka then, as potatoes which are its source were unknown being a new world plant that needed Cortez to bring them back centuries later). They were impressed with the learning and piety of the Jews but could not see how they could give up pork altogether. But when they entered the Hagia Sophia church in Constantinople, and heard the singing and smelled the incense, they were sure they had been transported to heaven and so believed this was the choice to make.

I am sure I am mistaken about some details, but the last part is pretty firm. Every religion creates splendor on earth, or most of them at least. Temples of every kind, incenses, bells, songs, mosaics and frescos and carvings and pillars and tapestries and robes and precious metals and jewels and acolytes until the eye and ear and nose is enraptured.

I just bought a book today full of pictures of Saint Marks in Venice, the only solid reason to visit Venice from my perspective and my brief sojourn there five years ago. It is just the sort of place the emissaries experienced, mysterious and majestic and magical. And very unlike our daily lives.

We all want magic, and mystery, and majesty because these things feel like they matter, like the real thing. Today we get it from movies and TV and sports events and video games. But we still look for that jolt in church as well. Somehow it’s got to be bigger and better than real life to be religious.

...‘Go out and stand on the mountain before God, for God is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but the God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’…

After all the majesty and magic and mystery, what’s left and is always there in the sink with the dishes is real life. This day, also, the Lord has made, down to the wrinkled sheets and burnt out light bulbs. Rejoice and be glad.

20 April 2006

I Was So Wasted

I thought it was the AARP invite that meant I was old. Then it was wearing bright green pants. I was wrong on both counts.

It is getting a colonoscopy. Sitting on the gurney, dressed in my patient garb (which includes socks by the way) the doctor came in and asked if I was having any symptoms, and I said no. “Screening?” Yep. Over fifty you get one, like it or not. All week long I had mentioned that this was coming and the only ones who nodded with recognition were my elders, not my juniors. I was about to be initiated. Colonoscopy is the hazing of the aging.

I was nervous. The whole concept was a little unsettling. Anyone who has ever seen the “Alien” pop out of a man’s chest has a little cinematic dread of things snaking about in there. And the tension is exacerbated by the prep, which requires fasting from solids for 24 hours and then using some pharmacological Draino in the hours immediately before. While hardly onerous or painful, a whole day of ginger ale and jello and broth is crummy.

Overall, though, that was the hardest part. At the risk of revealing some fraternity secret, it really is a breeze these days. I hear stories from a generation before. While I had to down a half gallon of laxative spiked Gatorade, they had to force a gallon. I daren’t imagine the segmented garden hose that must have been the norm earlier, something as terrifying to them as the foot powered dentist drill was in its day. I went in the door at 10 a.m. and was walking out an hour later.

I think.

The hesitation is because of the best part - the drugs. But let me back up and give you the whole rationale. I have a new physician and he said I should get either a colonoscopy or a flex-sig. That’s what we proctological vets call a flexible sigmoidoscopy. The former is the big kahuna test, the gold standard as it were, the intestinal full monty. It views the whole length, sex feet count ‘em, of the colon. A flex-sig only covers the part of it, the sigmoid colon. So why bother with a flex-sig? Slightly less involved prep and lower cost.

But a dear soul I know well, who opted for the flex-sig, said she would do the colonoscopy next time because the former did not have sedation, and it was right unpleasant. And as long as one is sedated, why not a nap with a purpose, so to speak.

So there I was with an IV in my right arm, the cute little bracelet and the Johnny (and the socks!) waiting for my first dance with Laocoon. I was driven on my gurney down the hall, head propped up. I felt so royally treated that I gave Elizabethan light bulb waves as I rolled along. And this was before the medication.

In the procedure room I was rolled onto my left side, the nurse attached electrodes to monitor my heart and blood pressure. Then she plugged in my sedatives (Vercet and Demerol I am told) and off we went. Having lots of hair, I did not relish the moment when these and the IV would be removed.

I remember being awake the whole time, feeling things going on as it were but slightly removed. A screen nearby allowed me to watch as the doctor spelunked his way along. It was rather interesting in a distant sort of way.

Aside: I remembered how when I had an earache years ago the doctor gave me codeine. When my friends asked me if it helped, I said, “Yeah,” with a relaxed grin. “Pain gone?” “No, but I don’t care.” This is exactly how opiates work, I later learned. The pain still happens and you do feel it, but it registers as a sensation not an affliction.”

In short order I was on my way back to the cubicle. They yanked my IV and I was putting on clothes soon after that. Truly, I did not feel dopey or sleepy or any other dwarfish sensations. We walked home and I went of to work by foot within a half an hour. I was in my office by 1215.

There was a lovely relaxed quality I enjoyed for some time, and I realized my responses were slower. Driving was something even I did not want to do. But by the time I got to the office, enjoying the lingering calm of my sedation, I felt fully recovered. I was in fact.

But later, my wife told me that after I returned to the cubicle I commented on the how the EKG electrodes were gone and I didn’t notice. "I remember that" I said, but not the other two times it turns out. "You were a little stupid for a while," she said and kissed me.

I looked back upon hearing that and realized the clarity of my memory of was fading with each hour. It was pretty clear at the time, but the drugs put my recollection on shifting sand. I still remember the parts I told you, but now wonder what I did or said that have vanished.

I must say, though, that I can understand why people like the stuff. It is the Johnny Walker Blue of buzzes - so smooth it feels natural, like what you should feel like all the time. The only trouble is, if you do that, you have no good times to remember afterward.

Think I’ll stick with my shiraz – it’s cheap and legal and if you take too much you remember it really well in the morning.

18 April 2006

Embers of Glory

The church year is like one of those fancy fireworks I see at the Fourth of July. Not the whole show but one sort of rocket.

It fires off in September with a thunk, leaping into the air with the urgency of a cannon. Midway, Christmas time, it explodes and we all say “ooh” and “aaah,” but there’s more. It keeps on going even after the first display, and then explodes again at Easter, with more “ooh” and “aah.” Then it sputters and though there are a few fizzly bits, it’s like a balloon you fill up and let go, which as it gets to the very last actually seems to speed up.

The last of the big chrysanthemums exploded on Sunday. Easter arrived. The music was fine, the people abundant and I think my words suited the occasion very well. Tough words, they were, but good ones. I should probably start a fourth blog to hold the corrected versions. But that’s another day.

Now, the year begins its sputter toward summer. Soon the weekenders will begin to leave empty seats. They overlap with the snowbirds who leave in winter. Our Sunday School is moving toward its end, and all the unfinished tasks, heeding the unofficial closing bell that means ‘school’s out’ for everyone.

It was cool on Sunday, and again yesterday and today as well, but now it feels exceptional not normal. I am glad not to hear the hiss of the radiators daily. In a month the whirr of the AC will be the background noise of daily life. We bought some hosta seedlings to plant, and a few lone daffs and tulips are appearing in the front yard. The contractor is back on our roof, so the back yard is a litter of old shingles. The great stump of the tree has been partially ground down and I have free mulch for anyone who wants it. Give me a call.

Work is already about fall and the next season. But I am transfixed by nostalgia right now. Each aroma of spring takes me back to years past. I catch olfactory images of my boyhood and young adulthood, now harder to find as my nose gets older and less acute. I am also thinking about my one sabbatical five years ago this spring, when I had four months of travel through Europe, starting in Italy in February and ending in England in May.

We were in Paris for Easter and it was cold and damp. We spent the morning in the cimetiere Montparnasse, a good choice and not far from our flat. We lived in a borrowed and barren two room apartment. Not even a frig there, just a milk box outside our bedroom window in the cold shadow of the tiny inner courtyard. Our evenings consisted of reading while listening to BBC World service. How I miss the music, a jolly march named “Lilly Lulay” or some such thing. I got quite invested in a soap opera for a while.

But the cemetery was a marvel, not as gothic as Pere LaChaise but well appointed with notables and their grand tombs. We paid calls on Alfred Dreyfuss, Felix Bartholdi (his best work was the statue outside our apartment window) Emile Zola (I think?) and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Good company on Easter I say. That afternoon we met fellow expats who actually lived in Paris and spent the evening with them. My sons and wife were glad to have someone else to talk to.

It is still so close, as close as the smell of moss on the tombstone and the feeling of mud on shoes and the hide-and-seek of the sun and clouds on a chilly spring day.

13 April 2006

Holy Sh-t Week

It is holy, and it's a big steaming pile of work too. So I haven't had time to make a posting. But I did start another blog!

What? Well, here's the deal. I received a letter from a young woman in a Christian high School I visited as a guest speaker. She posed some really good questions. Answering them will take more than one letter. I also thought some other might find the conversation worth eavesdropping on, so here' s the connection - www.LettersToAYoungChristian.blogspot.com

The letter is very long, so set aside the time to read it. It is not a drop by, and I would say skip it until you are ready. I would love your responses to it as well.

Merry Easter, Holy Passover, or whatever lights your eyes this week.


06 April 2006

Today I am a Man

The glory of age is memory. Just now, sitting and thinking about my Sunday service, an image tore through me. I cannot say why it came although some Freudian or Jungian would enjoy the puzzle.

I am barely thirteen on an early spring day in Pennsylvania. We live in Baltimore, but my dad and brother and I are on an organized hike with the Sierra Club.

Aside: Dad joined that year and in the summer to come we will go on an extended trip to Montana with them. But he is eager to enjoy their benefits, so he signed us up for this hike up in Pennsylvania.

I do not remember getting there, but I am in my Boy Scout uniform as I am working on my hiking merit badge. I have old fashioned hiking boots, like those on the Norman Rockwell Scout who is striding across the cover of my handbook which I keep with me for identifying trees and stuff. We are coming to the top of a ridge.

Aside: The mountains in the eastern Appalachians are long ridges, like the rumpled blanket of a bed unmade by a giant. A standard map of Pennsylvania will reveal this fact by how many of the roads follow an irresistible southwest to northeast direction, compelled by the land as it were.

We are at the top of a ridge; the day is still young as the sun is not yet directly above. The trees give way to a rocky precipice at which we can all stand and look out; I think it is to the north northwest. It is the smell I am remembering most – the dank decay of winter being cooked by the sunlight into that earthen odor which means fertility and life. Pine smells are there, with their antiseptic reputation from a hundred latrines, and the sound of air moving through branches about to leaf.

This is the climax of the hike, after an hour or more which my memory refuses to call forth. We pause to eat, perching on rocks. A young woman, meaning someone in her twenties, blond and rugged, is part of our party. My forming teenage libido is attracted to her but clearly she is out of reach. Distant desire, distant in every sense, with its foggy borders and indistinct objects, adds a luster to the day and doubtless makes it part of my memory.

In a sense, this is my first day as a man, as a boy who sees manhood coming. It is spring, the light is fresh, the valley lies before me. The smells of life fill my nostrils as the inchoate desire for love and sex churns alongside.

We pack up and begin the descent, down the other and more rocky side. I remember how my feet hurt and how tired I am when we arrive. I am a boy at the end, still shorter than my dad and hobbling from the long hike. I shuffle to the bus rented to take us back. I smell chocolate as we are outside Hershey. The streetlights are giant kisses as we walk to the bus. Glad to be on the bus, I welcome the rest.

Somewhere on the way back the sun falls behind a ridge and the shadows come quickly. Rain hits the windows, smearing the night, and I fall sleep against the glass.

01 April 2006

Stormy Weather

It’s been a few days, I know, but sometimes the chores come on fast and all my time is spent doing things and little time is left for describing them. The most interesting day was certainly Monday; interesting in the way a spring day is interesting when the weather changes dramatically.

For example, every Monday has a long meeting with the other two members of what we call the Executive Team. We spend two hours together each week, planning and thinking and reviewing the overall work of the church. It is the most important appointment I have every week after Sunday morning. This past week I also had a meeting at 1230 with a member, someone who was part of the search committee that contacted me now about two years ago and led to my arrival just a year ago. In short, also an important meeting. And rich in conversation as he told me his sense of the future of the church. Then, a scant half hour later I officiated at a funeral.

So my day went from institutional to personal to pastoral, from systems and policies to persons and values finally to death and family. See what I mean about the weather changing dramatically?

Of course, the most important of the three was the funeral. Death goes to the front of the line whenever it arrives. Mary was quite old, had been living with her daughter and son-in-law across the state, and so someone I did not know. She died the previous week after a short illness. She was a devoted member of my church so the family came back across the state for the service and asked me – despite not knowing me - to officiate. I know an honor when I see one.

What made this even more challenging was that she was the matriarch of one of the few African-American families in my otherwise large and largely white congregation. It was challenging because there is always more to the story when someone willingly associates with a church that is off their own beaten path. Often, that story is not told, at least not all of it. And the wise parson does not ask directly but listens for what is said silently.

It also meant that the people coming to the service would be from a wider cross section of the community. Not only would there be non members of my eccentric community of devoted skeptics, they would be bringing a different sense of church in the door with them. Not until the service began would I know how adequate my words would be to speak to their state of soul as well as those of the family and church.

I said it was a funeral, meaning there was a coffin there. The family held calling hours in our parlor, with mom laid out for visitation. As I was in that previous meeting, by the time I got to the visitation it was quite crowded, mostly with extended family and not church members. The undertaker was part of the larger African-American community, himself a pastor, and helped me navigate the customs and expectations that are always present but never expressed because everyone knows what to do.

For example, there was a procession, meaning the order in which we entered the sanctuary. And during the service there was the reading of the obituary and letters of tribute. Even in my Brooklyn days, I only had scant experience with these important rituals. My own words at the beginning were typical of memorial services, dignified and deliberate. I still could not tell exactly what the occasion called for in terms of character and delivery.

Aside: About two weeks before I attended an award dinner for an ecumenical group, as I noted in a previous post. The keynote speaker, a state official for working with faith-based groups was clearly a preacher by trade and delivered quite the sermon. The culture differences in the room were easy to read by how the white people listened and how the black people listened. It was also different between Catholic and Protestant, Anglo and Latino. My table, all white and Protestant, was receptive but slightly uneasy with the fervently religious manner of the state official. Others were more at ease. Some were clearly nonplussed. I felt for the man because expectations are hard to gauge.

The soloist and pianist at the funeral gave me my direction. A strong alto voice and a pianist delivered two well known devotional songs from the heart of the African-American religious repertory. As they were chosen by the family I knew they were my best guide to the character of the service as the family wanted it. So when it came time for the eulogy, which duty fell to me as the pastor – another part of the ritual landscape – I knew my scripted words were not adequate to the occasion. They needed someone to speak to them, to them not merely about Mary. Just as the songs spoke to them of their hope and faith, so my words had to speak to those who were there, to the family and friends who are not part of my church but were deeply connected to Mary and her family.

So I paused a few moments before speaking, and then, after thanking the singer and the pianist for their good gifts and for inspiring me, picked up on the text of the second song, taken from the 23rd psalm. “I shall not want,” became the place I began, with assurances that even in our loss we shall not want because Mary had given to us all that needed to be given. I then – using pieces of my prepared text – the gifts of devotion and courage and more, salted with remembered passages from scripture which many in that room knew well and turned to in their lives. The murmur of voices and the nodding of heads told me I was speaking rightly. They were listening to what I was saying. We were together.

Then the drive to the cemetery, which began with a solemn recessional to the curb and the long assembling of the cortege. My car came directly after the hearse and was the first to have a little flag posted on it. After a considerable while organizing things we moved off at that slow pace funerals take. Our route was complicated because it so happened that there was also a protest march in town right then, against the proposed immigration bill, and we had to snake our way through town so as not to try and cross paths. I had a funny and irreverent memory of the end of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” when the brawl of the western collides with a Busby Berkeley style musical on the next set, so different were we from those marching in the street.

I had to speak at the cemetery, and again had to call strong passages from the Bible to service in completing the ritual of committal. Then I had to return to town directly, as I had to do some dad duty within the hour and we were now several miles south of town.

Only later did I realize that something had been missing in my life for a long time. In my previous pastorate, there was always a variety of people in my community, ethnically. This is not true now. I had grown accustomed to, and empowered by, the diversity of folks I served and led. My speaking style and presentation style had expanded its vocabulary because the community I had to address was wide and various. But now, I am in a monocultural context and that means a cultural expectation about worship and preaching that is more monochromatic in every sense.

The previous Friday, I attended an annual community summit on racism. This was my second. So maybe I was more alert to the diversity angles because of that. But it is just as likely that having lived in a more immediately diverse world before coming here I am feeling the loss a little more right now. And for me it is not a political loss, it is a personal loss. My gifts are not as well deployed as they were before because they were nourished in a world that was more intimately and consciously diverse. My voice, my soul and my heart were strengthened by that time. I grew. I do not want to set that aside.

The question is - should I adapt? I have no choice but to find a way, but I do feel a sense of loss as I do it. And a hint of sorrow that I must leave something of what I have been up to now.

A more difficult question is should the church adapt? They do have a choice. But would that be the best choice for them? From my perspective the church would benefit as I have to engage the complexities of diversity in a deep way. But it is not easy. It is often confusing. And in the more segregated world I live in now, it could safely be avoided or diluted from the comfortable enclosure monoculturalism allows.

I need to remember the sense of authenticity and integrity I felt at that funeral. That is the prize on which I should keep my eyes. The best hope for liberal religion may lie with those who are not yet or barely in its midst – people of color, the poor, the disabled, the dispossessed. It is time to lose our assumption that they need us and begin to think that we need them.