30 March 2009

Before I Forget

Being in DC was personally pleasant, even if the weather was colder than normal. I enjoyed it because it was my original home town. I was born right outside it, Takoma Park to be specific, and lived in the DC metro area until age 9. Even when we moved to Baltimore I went back now and then.

My early morning walks on Wednesday and Thursday were excursions into my past, seeing parts of downtown that I saw as a little boy, a youth, and thus suffused with nostalgia. The city has changed dramatically of course. But not so much that I can recognize its basic bone structure. Like someone growing old, you can still see the youth it was through the accumulated changes.

Mostly this was through things like the faint smell of dogwoods and yew that are coming back to life at this time of year. The soil there has its own aroma. The older buildings also had their familiar scale and form, howbeit crowded by new and larger buildings.

What came back in a storm was the sense of being "somewhere," in a place I knew even as a boy was where things happened. Embassies and agencies and monuments all told me DC was a town that mattered to more than its residents. The world came there, still does, and so to be there is to be at a global crossroads.

That's what I loved about NYC as well, and now I realize why it fed me - I felt there as I did in DC. Of course, DC has the added allure of being where I was young, where I glimpsed president Eisenhower at Arlington national Cemetery one Memorial Day and marveled at the robotic and sunglassed soldier do duty in front of the Tomb of the Unknown, saw the unlikely president Kennedy ride down Pennsylvania Avenue at his inaugural, visited my senator's office and the gallery just for fun, and of course play amongst the quaint displays of the Smithsonian.

It was good to go back like that, and I look forward to doing it again.

29 March 2009

What A Waste

Spent most of the pm doing very little. That's the whole sabbath notion, of course, so it is not exactly a sin. Why then do I feel so guilty for doing nothing?

Because there is so much to do. And writing this is just another evasion. Ok, I did iron my shirts for while and read the Sunday paper (on Sunday no less!) and updated my calendar. Not quite the slug I feel like.

But I have filing to do, and writing, and studying, and preparing the yard for spring (I think we'll have it on a Tuesday this year), and somehow finding a way to run a $1m church on about $800k, and bringing new life to the the local Urban League which I chair, and wondering why I cannot animate our local LGBT friendly clergy group (despite two cold but very positive public actions in December and February), and working on a book I have written 25% of (I think) and want so much to continue writing but instead have all these other things to crowd my head.

It's after 9 pm and I got up at 5 this morning when the power went out. Despite all I have to do, bed is the best plan for now.


I am. Watching Bill Moyers this morning, a guest mentioned this organization. Tell me what you think? http://www.anewwayforward.org/the_idea/

27 March 2009

On The Road Again,

Although just for two days this time. I was at a gathering of National Urban League leaders (I chair our local affiliate) in DC where we both listen to folks in government tell us what’s up and go tell our Reps and Sens what we think is up.

As a lesser leader, elected only this last fall, I did not actually meet those we heard – such as Sec Duncan, Sens Reid, McConnell, Hatch and Dodd, as well as Reps Clyburn, Pence, and Davis – but I was in the same room. I took some IPhone pictures like a tourist, more to prove I was there holding the camera than to show my photographic skill.

No question there was some star gazing quality about the trip, about which my younger son expressed envy. But as important was spending time in the offices of our local Rep and Sens, actually face time with our Rep just outside the actual House Chamber. Not for the start gazing quality so much as seeing the up close face of government.

Wanna know more?

Well, for one thing they all look older than on TV, and more tired, and more human, and far less powerful. Surrounded by supplicants and petitioners and constituents and lobbyists I could sense the overwhelmingness of it all. Sitting with our Rep on the little subway that runs from the Rayburn Office building to the Capitol (there were votes coming up soon) I opined that things looked very frantic and that this must be because of the new administration and budget. To which he replied,

“It’s always like this.”

Flash! No wonder he looks old. He is. It’s a miracle anything gets done with all the people asking for this and that – including us.

That does not mean I am letting them off the hook for doing a better job, but maybe we need a better idea of what our responsibility is as well as theirs. If we expect them to better I think we had better ask them same of ourselves.

What depresses me this morning is that so few people know this. “The fault, dear Brutus…” You know the rest? Right?

22 March 2009

Peck On The Cheek

I owe you more than a brief kiss on the way out the door, but it is Sunday morning and the beginning of my work week.

Grim words continue to tumble from pundit lips about the economy, both left and right. Pope Benedict seems as tone deaf socially as he is attuned musically and theologically. The leader of Sudan is following the Mugabe mode. Altogether an inauspicious sabbath.

I suppose we all retreat into emotional and intellectual nests when the weather gets rough. It's when leaders do this (witness the intense retreat of Republicans into their ideology about taxes in recent weeks) that they cease to lead.

When there is a vacuum in leadership, that is when the needs of today are not being met by the ideas of yesterday, something or someone will come and fill it. That's where the danger lies. Pray that those we have asked to lead really do so. And realize any of us can be called to lead in times like this these.

20 March 2009

Dodged That Bullet

Well, I had a stress test today. There are two forms. One is when you are pregnant and they give you pitocin to see if you got into full blown labor. The other is when you walk on a fast steep treadmill and see if you have a heart attack. You can see where the stress part comes in.

I am not pregnant so you can surmise it was the other stress test I took.

This is a marker of age, as only sick people get them when they are young. I have had some chest pain in recent weeks and the doctor said it is either incipient heart disease or GERD - heartburn with legs. Having had neither angina nor indigestion I could not tell which one it was, and so the doc said, "take some zantac and get a stress test."

My pain has subsided a bit with the zantac, but not completely (it's not that much pain really, like muscle pain that never quite goes away.) And today I got up on the treadmill, my greying chest stuck with pasties connected to wires, and a blood pressure cuff on my left arm.

Off I went, and fifteen minutes later it was over.

I work out harder than that.

My heart is fine, my blood pressure even went down at first.

The only downside was peeling off the pasties and giving up my real workout for Friday.

17 March 2009

Morton Minutes

When it rains... it pours.

Five memorials in three weeks. I have only to take part in two but for a church, even a large one, that's a lot of grief.

Nothing is harder , and nothing is more satisfying, than to conduct a funeral or memorial. The essence of it is quite simple. Years ago, summoned to DC to do a service for an absent member of my former church, I told the widow that my role is to be "God's Butler," the person who shows you in, escorts you down the hall, opens the door, tells you what to expect, and otherwise to accompany you through daunting and unfamiliar territory. Simple, but never easy.

I will do that again this Thursday, once again trying to meet the challenge of comforting loss without denying the real pain of grief, and offering hope without denying the reality of death. More often than I deserve this has happened.

Yes, nothing is more satisfying than this. No wonder I am so tired afterwards.

14 March 2009

Religious But Not Spiritual

Just got back from shul, synagogue, which I attend as often as I can. So different from the Christian culture of worship, and yet the basis for it as well.

Anyway, I am reading and enjoying the conversation about spiritual things that started on Thursday. Scroll down to the last post to catch up....

... Ok, here's what I am thinking about today. (aside from my sermon tomorrow)

Have we any idea what 'spiritual' means? I hear the word all the time. There are whole bookstores devoted to it (along with sections on 'metaphysics' which never means Aristotle or Whitehead). Near as I can make out, people use the word to mean a sensation or feeling of meaningfulness about who they are and the world at large.

People feel spiritual. People act religious. We like feeling spiritual. We generally do not like people who act religious.

The older I get, however, the more I think feeling spiritual can become almost consumerist. We seek spiritual 'experiences' like we go seek out music or movies that moves us.

I am as prone to this as anyone. My 'spiritual' experiences come mostly from opera and classical music which can send my emotions soaring. Just heard a touching piece by John Adams last night in fact, his "Transmigration of Souls' in memory of the victims of 9/11. Very moving, especially because I was in NYC then and not more than a mile from the pile.

Far more moving to me now are the hours I spend practicing the piano, which I play far less beautifully than a concert performer. Making music is even more affecting than hearing it.

Making music requires work, effort, practice, even discomfort and frustration. It takes discipline and means following rules. It is like religion.

Hearing music is spiritual. Making music is religious. Which means that those who get spiritual feelings need religious people to provide them. See what I mean by consumerist?

No question, the only honest way to be spiritual is to be religious - meaning engaged in a discipline of the mind and heart and body and soul that takes work, effort, and even can be hard and frustrating.

Not just at the piano. Over the years I have attended Jewish services I have learned the songs, the Hebrew words and the melodies, the spoken prayers, the rhythm of the standing and sitting - the making of worship not just the 'attending.' Only when I learned to be a bit religious about it did it become really spiritual.
There's the lesson, I guess - if you really want to be spiritual, you have to be religious about it.

12 March 2009

Got Lucky?

Get your mind out of the gutter first. What I mean is that last Sunday I brought a very poor text into the pulpit but boy did I get a good response.

It was poor for several reasons. I had only come back to the east two days before. Yes, I made notes on the plane but at that altitude much of what I write is almost as thin as the air. And just getting the brain back into work (with a little reluctance I must admit, the aroma of redwoods still in my nose and the sound the pacific still in my ears) I felt anything but ready.

So were all those people wrong to find it inspiring? No. But neither was I wrong about my material. What gives?

The Holy Spirit.

You do know that I serve a liberal (read skeptical) tradition, right? The very idea of a Holy Spirit makes them take two steps back, and the thought that a leader in the tradition is saying this makes them look for pods. (You do get that reference, right?) I assure you I am a card carrying skeptic about the efficacy of prayer, the reality of an afterlife, the need for salvation and other things.

So where do I come off claiming to experience the Holy Spirit.

Because nothing else explains how a preacher who should be better prepared is able to speak with enough clarity and honesty that half baked thoughts and rough hewn sentences are able to be heard deeply and with spiritual power in other people?

I didn’t do it. I was there and I know. Now, I am not claiming to be possessed like some saint or medium. But I am saying that there was more in the room than the people and me.

There always is, actually. But only now and then do we connect with it. There are no foolproof ways to make it happen. Sometimes all the thought and preparation in the world builds a wall not a bridge. Sometimes it is a bridge. And sometimes it just happens.

One thing I do know is that it requires being real, even when that means stumbling. In parts of the African-American tradition congregations literally help a struggling preacher crying out “Help him Lord” or when the spirit begins to connect, “Preach it.” I could use some of that from time to time. But that’s hard for people in my culture, where poised performance is the standard, especially in larger churches where highly planned services are the mark of excellence.

But what sort of excellence are we looking for really?

What I am saying, and I am stumbling now trying to express this even on paper friends, is that I think I may be becoming a no-kidding, fire-breathing, pentecostal intellectual religious liberal. As I look at those words on the page they seem scary even to me.

Do me a favor and don’t tell anyone else, OK?

08 March 2009

I Need Help

For some reason I cannot see the text of my blog entries on the blog site itself. Anyone have any idea how that happened?

Anyway, I am done with preaching today and now preparing for preparing for taxes. This year is interesting because I have an entering college freshman next fall so all these things matter in news ways. This is new to me as my eldest studied in Canada where FAFSA is a non issue. Furriners do not get financial aid. My youngest has been accepted at a Canadian school as well as stateside schools. I live in hope.

Since I am just muttering, let me tell you something my very smart spouse told me yesterday in response to the vitriolic political comments swirling about. First, check out yesterday’s column in the NYTimes from Bob Herbert to get the idea. I'll wait here...

She, my wife, says that the Republican Party seems to have decided they will stand back and wait for the Administration and the Democrats to fail. They are convinced theirs is the right way to govern, she thinks, and we citizens voted them out because the party ran the wrong candidate or the Democrats deceived everyone somehow. But when we find out the Democrats are wrong, we will come back them like a philandering spouse, eager and apologetic.

I have often said modern conservatism is more theology than ideology, that they are convinced of their moral superiority and thus their right to be in charge. Their defeat in November thus cannot mean they are wrong, because being wrong would destroy their identity. To agree with that would amount to ideological suicide.

For a generation, Democrats did the same thing, telling themselves that someday people would wake up to the Republican deception and come running back to the true party. There are some who still think so and interpret November as their vindication.

Wrong. Neither party can claim the moral mantle of chosen one. Taking turns is something we all learn in kindergarten. Right now we need more left of center leadership, as the times require it. Someday we will need right of center leadership again. I may reoice in the former and lament the latter, but I am grown up enough to remember the rule of taking turns. How strange and sad that the grownups in charge seem to have forgotten it.

06 March 2009

Long Time No Blog

I am returned from my annual pilgrimage to the pacific coast. Those who are facebookers know this, as I posted some pix from my trip there. I did that here last year but now Facebook is the place for that sort of thing.

True confessions time: I have wanted a job on the west coast since seeing it for the first time twenty two years ago. Something about that rugged shore, those less than pacific waves, the striking intensity of the place, spoke to me. But try as I might, the offer never came.

I take that back. At the very beginning of my career, newly married and newly minted, the director of my employment office suggested I look into an assistant minister’s position in Santa Barbara. The presiding preacher needed someone to help out, especially with the large portion of singles in the church. My wife, who was an only child of elder parents on the east coast, said that she could not go that far away. Thus the only way I could have that job would be as a single person so to speak.

I made the right choice.

Realizing that many of your dreams will not come to pass is one of the signs one is moving from middle age to elder. It is a part of real wisdom I think. Every dream is a path we might take, but there is no time to explore them all. Along the majestic Pacific Coast Highway, for example, there are hundreds of places worth stopping and savoring. Having traveled its entire length I know this and that I will never spend enough time at each of those spots. Some will have to go unexplored. That I can understand this intellectually even as I still have the emotions of longing tells me I am not wise quite yet.