Friday, March 25, 2011


“Your hands have made me and fashioned me” Job 10:8

Do you know who you really are?

One day, a very long time ago, my parish priest (and mentor) sent me to a gathering of church women being held in nearby Mount Vernon (Washington State). I was a seminarian, and Fr. John thought it would help me to understand ordained ministry a little better and improve my educational portfolio if I were to experience that aspect of the larger church in person.

Although we didn’t use the term “networking” back in the day, it could have been a wonderful opportunity to engage in what we referred to as schmoozing, hobnobbing, or any number of other catch-phrases that don’t quite make the cut for a family oriented newspaper.

I will confess that it wasn’t quite my cup of tea, mixing with those wonderful church-ladies. It wasn’t the conversations, as such, but feeling out of place, being only one of two men present in a hall with a hundred or so women – of whom I knew not one. I don’t do well around strangers – even wonderfully kind, courteous, and gracious strangers such as these. I’m not xenophobic, but I tend to isolate myself in noisy, crowded spaces – an introvert seeking safe harbor from a terrifying storm of good cheer.

We took our seats for the luncheon, and as fate would have it, I found myself in the company of the only other male person present, the local bishop. He sat across from me and was engaged in conversation with our table-companions – which is a good thing, as my mind had pretty much gone to Oz on holiday.

Throughout the luncheon, I noticed the good bishop glancing across the table in my direction with a quizzical look and, finally, coming to a full stop in mid-sentence, he looked me square in the eye and asked, “Who ARE you?”

I was not a woman, nor was I a priest. Although I was a seminarian, I wasn’t one of his seminarians, so he had no idea who I was and what I was doing there (and frankly, I was wondering exactly the same thing myself). He had every right to be confused, and he asked an excellent question: Who are you?

Have you ever asked that of yourself? Just who, exactly, am I?

Each of us has a notion of who we are. We use words like son/daughter, husband/wife, mother/father, friend, neighbor, or stranger – words that describe relationships (or a certain lack). We also look to our job titles for a sense of who we are: butcher, baker, or candle-stick maker.

We are not our labels, however. We are not our job descriptions, nor are we, strictly speaking, the sum of our relationships.

Sometimes people obtain their identities in terms of how others see them. Children grow up being told they are stupid, clumsy, incompetent, or ugly. Employees are told they are expendable: “You can be replaced, you know!” Even presidents are told by the opposition what they ought to do, and when they do it, they are told they’re doing it wrong.

Such craziness!

People become so wounded throughout the course of their lives that they give up on ever knowing who they really are deep down inside. They stop asking questions. They are who they are, and so they sally forth aimlessly, neither seeking nor peeking, neither dreaming nor hoping; just going through the motions and doing.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. At the risk of using an over-used and hackneyed phrase, life is a journey – a voyage of discovery. No one has to “settle.”

I will admit I am a destination junkie. When I take a trip, I have absolutely no interest in anything between start and end (except for filling stations and restrooms). I wonder what sights and experiences I’ve missed due to that particular twist of character. In my rush to get places, I may have lost my place – I may well have lost me.

I cannot retrace my steps, but I can start my journey fresh each day, and so can you. It isn’t a matter of will power, but of reflection. Do you want more of life? Look for it. Slow down and look; seeking, you may just find your place – your identity – in this, our world.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spring in Seattle

"Oh, that one could learn to learn in time!" – Enrique Solari

Warning: Your gardens are rising up!

We have had a lot of rain up here in our neck of the woods, so I haven’t gone out much to do anything except what is absolutely required for survival; but I looked out the window this morning and saw a most discouraging site: the grass is growing and will need attention soon. Ugh!

It’s not that I don’t like to mow and trim (although, I don’t), nor is it because I don’t like to weed, hoe, plant, and pick flowers (I don’t); but rather, I’m discouraged because it seems like I OUGHT to like doing those things. It seems that if I possessed any residual DNA from Adam and Eve, a joy in gardening would just come naturally, but it doesn’t.

My sense of personal failing deepened when I received an email from one of my good friends in Fresno who wrote: “… with an additional hour of sunshine, I was out in the yard planting violas. Here spring is almost upon us. The daffodils are in bloom, with those nasty white flowering pears almost leafed out. Nasty [sic], because I'm sensitive to the pollen.”

I appreciate the reality that the cold dank days of winter are becoming a thing of the past, and that our hemisphere is warming up. With the approach of Spring I recognize my personal energy-level is on the rise and renewed as plants begin to flower and trees begin to bud, so I’m not completely immune to the effects of life in the out-of-doors.

But connecting with Mother Earth just isn’t my cup of tea. When I stand on a plot of turf that just days ago was neatly manicured, and today demands a make-over, I rebel; and perhaps that is the clue I’ve been looking for.

I don’t think of myself as a rebel, and yet when there are things that need to be done and they interfere with what I want to do, what other word better describes the attitude that is causing me such grief? It’s rebellion, isn’t it?

The problem with rebellion is that it creates so much misery. Setting aside a discussion of rebel movements on a global scale, I simply note the concern we experience when those we love engage in activities or behaviors we might term “rebellion,” experimenting (as do many) with sex, drugs, and rock and roll; or (conversely) the anxiety we experienced during those times it was “we” who were rebelling.

Either way, rebellion is a messy and painful affair. Those who are wise learn from their experiences, and settle on a path more conducive to growth, maturity, and healthy productivity.

Rebellion has a dark side, for sure, but I believe it has a positive aspect which deserves equal attention: that it is a time of learning who we are – a time of new birth, for rebellion isn’t just a pushing against that which we have known, but an emergence of a new creation – an “I” who is not “You”.

I think of Rebellion as a form of gardening, the work of a soul wanting to know who they are, or wanting to grapple with matters of faith and spirituality for themselves, so their faith may truly be their own, and not a hand-me-down sham for show.

Thomas Berry once wrote, “Gardening is an active participation in the deepest mysteries of the universe.” He reminds us that we grow in our spirituality by participating in activities that inspire our sense of awe and mystery. We can do it through gardening, through the arts, or through a wide variety of activities that enhance our lives.

Rather than fighting with those who think differently from us, or who have chosen to grow along spiritual lines that vary from those we’ve known, perhaps we ought to step back a pace and apprehend that God may well be doing what God does best: bringing new life to his people.

No one has to love gardening to be a child of God. One need only receive the warmth of God’s Spirit, and smile; for God is cracking open hearts of stone – (transforming the “ho, ho, ho” of Christmas to the “hoe, hoe, hoe” of Lent) – bringing forth new life and hope in this, our world.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


"Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved." – Helen Keller

I was talking to Fr. Charles (my priest) the other day; he mentioned in passing how much the Christian faith has changed over the centuries.

“For the first three hundred years,” he said, “Christians were identified by the things they did. After Constantine, they were identified by what they believed.”

That’s a very profound insight, and one I hadn’t really thought about before, but it makes sense.

I wonder what it is about the human condition that impels us to hold opinions, and then to use those opinions as yardsticks against which to measure others – for inclusion or exclusion.

When I look at the world of animals, I’m not sure I have ever seen opinions expressed by creatures which are not human. While a dog may prefer one kind of food over another if given a choice, I do not know of a dog that would exclude from its pack a hound that preferred rabbit to beef.

Are we all that different from dogs, cats, or other members of the animal kingdom? Do we make choices based upon belief, or do we make them based upon our desire to belong and to be a part of some larger group?

The principles we embrace, aren’t they really a way of simply describing who we are and how we have learned to relate to one another? Isn’t that, in essence, what a belief is: a description of who we are and how we have decided to live out that identity?

In the early days, it was said of Christians, “My, look at how they love one another.”

Now we drive down the street and look at churches that come in many shapes and sizes, with many different rules and regulation, and striving to convince people that their brand is better than the competing brand down the block; people still look at Christians and continue to say, “My, look at how they love one another,” but it seems more like sarcasm than admiration, doesn’t it? Sigh.

Marcus Borg pointed out, some years ago at a clergy conference I was attending, that our English word “believe” has its roots in the Old German word “belieben” (beloved), so that belief has less to do with the head (an opinion held by the mind) and more with the heart (a person we hold most dear). For him, when we say, “We believe,” what we mean is, “We embrace.”

The point is that we don’t believe in God as a theological principle. The Bible tells us the devil also believes in God – and trembles! Rather, we embrace God who created us (and who desires to live in love and harmony with us); we embrace God who delivers us from evil so that we may be all God created us to be; and we embrace God who strengthens us so that we may be of service to God, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Embracing God is like embracing your parents, your children, your spouse, or your loved ones; it’s personal!

I don’t embrace the Ten Commandments; I embrace God who delivered one Law (in three parts): Love God completely; love your neighbor justly and mercifully; and love yourself gently.

Everything else from Genesis to Revelation is just commentary. It’s food for thought, but we have turned the meal into a Food Fight over the course of “God only knows how many” eons.

We do violence to God (and one another) when we confuse what we believe with whom we believe. We run the danger of being idolaters when we make the Bible our golden calf. We run the risk of being bigots when we alienate ourselves from our neighbors, using creeds as cudgels to compel, rather than as an “art-form that in-forms.”

Does this mean all beliefs are equally valid or good? Of course not; it does require us to ask, though, are people being helped or hurt by what we do – for our actions flow from our beliefs.

If we hurt others, we must change our actions, and we will discover joy as God works to restore us and our relationships, and I believe that would be good for everyone in this, our valley.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Haiku for Lent 1 Propers


Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Man, Garden, Eat Free
but falling from grace you die;
God covers your shame!

Psalm 32

Happy when sin gone
Confess so God may forgive;
your shame to cast out.

Romans 5:12-19

One man’s sin led to
the condemnation of each,
But Jesus saves: ALL!

Matthew 4:1-11

Into the wild he
went, demonic bribes saw he;
“No, God is enough!”

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Jesus climbs mountain
Glory of God on him shines:
“Jesus, I love you!”

(KF Axberg: Transfiguration)

I have rediscovered the art of Haiku.

I remember learning about the Japanese form of poetry known as Haiku in High School. When it is written in English, it uses three lines of poetry containing five, seven, and five syllables each.

The Japanese form tends to focus on nature and seasons; and instead of syllables, Haiku has 17 “moras (or ons)” (according to Wikipedia).

I am not an expert on poetry or Haiku, and I remember when I was in school that anything poetic used to just bore me to tears; but as I toddle on into late middle age, I find myself thinking and writing more rhythmically, producing sentences for the ear more than for the eye; listening for the tonal qualities of the words I choose, more than for their technical accuracies. I am no longer bored by poems, and that is scary!

I don’t know; I just feel more spiritually alive doing it that way, and the results are much more delightful and personally satisfying. There is a sense of accomplishment when one writes anything well, whether for a technical journal, a white paper presentation, or an editorial opinion; but there is a particular joy in writing or delivering a poem that cannot be fully expressed or explained in a column such as this. It has to be felt.

I have no idea if I am any good at writing poems. Newspaper columns don’t really lend themselves, visually, to the proper display of a poet’s work. News and opinions are placed neatly into columns so readers can read their papers quickly, easily, and efficiently.

Poetry isn’t prose, and art doesn’t really like to be squeezed into columns, which means it probably doesn’t belong in a newspaper as such, but Haiku is an art form that appears to work, and it is an interesting way to write (and should fit).

The joy of poetry (in general) is found in developing the discipline and patience needed to slow down one’s thinking; to pause, considering the subject; and finding the words that best express what one wants to say, using a particular form in a precise manner; and following the rules of that form (in this case, Haiku) to the best of one’s ability.

The success of a poet is not defined by the silence or accolades of the reading public, but the satisfaction welling up from within the writer; Spirit bearing witness to spirit – well done, good and faithful servant. That’s priceless.

I think that what I am discovering (and I have always been a slow learner), is that art helps people express that which is otherwise impossible to apprehend using words alone: our connection with God and with one another.

Art, in whatever forms it takes, or by whatever media is used: paint or oils on canvass, stained glass, poems, clay, doodles or sketches – art is what happens when the infinite God escapes from the confines of the artist’s soul.

When we care about what we are doing, we are artists; we are allowing God to escape from our clutches, because “caring” is one of the great gifts God has given the human race – a key to happiness and freedom.

When someone is hurt on the Serengeti, they are nothing more than a dinner bell calling to vultures, lions, hyenas, flies, and ants – animals don’t care; but as human beings, when we see people in pain, we don’t (most of us) hear dinner bells or ponder profit margins; rather, we care.

We bring relief, provide shelter, protect the weak, and feed the hungry. It’s not rocket science; it’s art. It’s taking that which is common and profane, twisted, torn, and crude, and transforming it into something or someone who, when you see them, you want to go, “Wow,” and behind your “Wow” you hear God go, “Wow!” That’s art.

Art is seeing God in what we see; hearing God in what we hear; and finding God in what we do in this, our valley.

I began this column with a Haiku telling the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration (Matthew 17), but I close with a Haiku dedicated to Barb, my wife, my love:

Her eyes look away
and in an instant you see
beauty within – Wow!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hai-Episco-ku for Epiphany Last

Exodus 24:12-18

Moses climbs mountain
Glory of God there-on finds;
in fiery smoke – Waits.

Psalm 2

Nations in uproar
innocents look to the Lord;
Take refuge in God.

2 Peter 1:16-21

We have seen Glory
and God has spoken “Blessings”;
with eyes of faith: See.

Matthew 17:1-9

Jesus climbs mountain
Glory of God there-on finds;
“Jesus, I love you!”