Comments, criticisms, or (one can hope) compliments are more than welcome! Please let me know what you think, tell me I'm crazy (I suspect this) or what you'd like to hear about. Comments are screened before publication, so if you want to share something with me only, just put that in the comment and I'll keep it to myself.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Walking on Water

So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
MATT. 14:29-33

We spend most of our Florida vacation within site of the Gulf of Mexico, but -- with the exception of our eight-year-old traveling companion -- most us us limit our actual immersion to splashing around right in the fairly miniscule waves.  

Last winter, the proprietors of a surf shop a few blocks from our rented house caught my attention with a strange contraption that looked like a cross between a surfboard and a kayak.  You stand on it like a surfboard, but -- rather than skimming on the crest of a wave, you paddle it like a boat.  Though I am about as graceful as a drunken giraffe during an earthquake, it looked like fun, and I wanted to try it. By the time I got the nerve to talk to them about it towards the end of our stay, the wind and currents had picked up and made conditions unsafe for a beginner.

That's me!
Since then, I found out this "has been a thing" since 2005 when it came over from Hawaii, but really took off in the past year or so.  Several friends have used them on northern New Jersey's lakes. People's little kids were doing it. A senior citizen with an enviable torso glided past us on one right near the water's edge during one of our daily walks. I was not going to miss the opportunity again this year!

So midway through our trip, I marched myself over to the languid youth guarding the pile of  equipment on the beach.  He has a cake job at this time of year, before the snowbirds and college kids arrive, we shared the beach with only a few other people so he mostly has to sit there and hope someone wants to rent something.

There were no lessons... after about a five-minute description of what to do, he dragged one of the boards into the water and guided it past the breaking waves.  I flopped onto it, managing not to go off the other side, and followed his advice to start out kneeling until I got more confident with my balance.  After five or ten minutes, I tentatively got to my feet and lasted a few minutes before flying off into the drink.

Unperturbed and glad I had not yet made it to where my friend Linda was waiting with a camera, I scrabbled back onto the board and tried again.  Before long, I was standing more than kneeling, and getting used to the sensation of trying to balance on top of a giant pan of Jell-O.  I am proud to say I didn't fall again, and made my way slowly up and down the beach, hoping the wake from a passing speedboat wouldn't send me flying right when I was in range of my intrepid news photographer.

By the time my rental hour was over, my quads were like rubber bands, but I was hooked.  I can understand how this is the Outdoor Industry Association's reported #1 new sports activity for 2013.  I also think it will help me in the gym, since it requires constant engagement of your core muscles and awareness of how you are distributing your weight.

Speaking of weight, I cringed when I saw the photos. I hate pictures of myself to begin with, let alone shirtless ones, and studying for the Project Management Professional exam plus some medical issues meant it was not a very outdoorsy summer for me! Hopefully I can find more chances to "SUP" next summer which will help counteract too much computer time.

"I feel pretty, o so pretty"
At the end of our week on the beach, we headed to Busch Gardens in Tampa for a day before flying home.  I was kind of amazed how in-your-face Christian the Christmas (clearly not Happy Holidays here!) decorations and music were.  But my point (yes, there was one!) of mentioning our visit there was that we saw a hippopotamus swimming underwater.  This huge animal, which lumbered slowly around its enclosure on land, was positively as graceful as a dancer as it moved through the tiny fish and plants that surrounded it.  Similarly, as uncomfortable as I was with the sight of my pale, flabby self, there was none of that while I was actually cruising, albeit slowly, on top of the waves.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Maybe it's a Cloudbust

Ignatius of Antioch - Bishop & Martyr (107)

Last week -- after a very long wait -- we screened Cloudburst, a 2011 film of which Netflix apparently has one copy.

In my book, this film had three things going for it: Olympia Dukakis (playing gay, no less), Nova Scotia (playing itself), and a hot guy (Ryan Doucette).  How can you go wrong?

(from left) Olympia Dukakis, Ryan Doucette, Brenda Fricker
I wanted to see it at the Montclair Film Festival (especially because Dukakis was present for the screening) and wasn't able to get a ticket (probably because Dukakis was present at the screening).  She is a heroine in the town where she once lived and operated the Blooming Grove Theater Company.

The premise is as follows:  Stella (Dukakis) and her partner Dot (Brenda Fricker) have lived together for decades, but are being separated by Dot's granddaughter Molly (Kristin Booth) who is convinced that Dot's failing eyesight means Stella is incapable of caring for her, and she resorts to trickery and the fact that her husband is a cop (maybe the only cop in their small town) to get Dot away from Stella and into the rural Maine version of Shady Pines.

Emboldened by tequila, Stella hatches a plan to spring Dot, and they head off to Canada, with the idea of getting married.  Along the way, they pick up a hitch-hiker with the unlikely name of Prentice (Doucette).  Prentice is, inexplicably, almost always half-naked.  I have been to Maine and Nova Scotia:  It is not that hot, even in the summer. 

Prentice's story is that he left his dancing (modern, not exotic!) gig in NYC when he heard his mother was dying.  He's hitching his way back to Lower Economy (not be confused with Upper Economy) to see her.  He's a little nervous about exposing his parents to a lesbian couple, particularly since Stella has no filters and is regularly mistaken for a man.

When they arrive, Stella is sequestered in the truck, but Dot needs the rest room. Prentice gets her in the door and then apparently forgets about her as he sits eating cereal and talking to his mother (who -- other than a hacking cough -- seems well enough, and offers no explanation as to why Prentice was summoned home).  They quickly agree that he can't stay there (apparently they just had extra Cheerios they needed to finish). Dot gets herself into a bit of trouble I will not describe, which hastens their departure and leads to possibly the strangest scene in the movie.  Sufficient to say, we see more of the native twigs and berries than was really necessary.

Having given up his job to see his mother for ten minutes, Prentice seems remarkably calm about being homeless, unemployed, and having no plan for the future.  He agrees to accompany Dot and Stella into Canada and witness their wedding, perhaps in part for lack of anything better to do, but (I like to think) also out of a genuine desire to help them. He reveals a level of intelligence and complexity behind his initial trashy opportunism over the course of the film, as the couple's situation sparks some innate compassion and perhaps a sense of belonging he hasn't felt at home in a long time.

Of course things do not go entirely as planned.  They make it across the border with Prentice's dignity being about the only casualty, but cold feet lead to the seemingly counterproductive summoning of Molly, who tries once again to assert her will to keep the women apart.  The skirmish that follows leads to Dot finally getting to the root of what is driving Molly's behavior.  I will not spoil the ending, but it's not exactly happily-ever-after.

This quirky film kept me engaged, but the characters' seemingly self-defeating behavior both endeared them to me and made me want to understand their motives better than the film allowed.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Things That Go Bump in the Night

William Temple - Archbishop of Canterbury (1944)

I admitted on Facebook last week, not without some trepidation, that I am not, nor have I ever been, a Halloween person.  Don't get me wrong; I like candy as much as the next person, and don't mind a clever, cute or sexy costume (my co-worker and her husband outdo themselves each year with a punny. costume-for-two (think "the fork in the road" or "deer in the headlights") that is an institution in their lake community.  It's the creepy-crawly-undead stuff I can do without.  I know I am squarely in the minority in this, considering that Americans reportedly spent $6.9 billion on candy, costumes and giant inflatable spiders this year.

It's part of a pattern: I don't like horror movies, I follow a proud family tradition of steering clear of the biology lab on dissection day (well, except for mom, who earned a nursing degree!), and I try to avoid "dressing up as" anything that involves makeup or a wig.  Hell, my "dressed up" look tends to skip right to the end of the wedding, with collar open and tie askew, but that's a shortcoming for another day.

I struck gold with the Archwarden in this regard, because every year he amasses a lot of candy and then no kids come to the door, which may be because he has all the lights off and the shutters closed, but we're not sure.  He's even less inclined to make a spectacle of himself than I am, so I don't have to worry about him asking me to fill out the back half of a horse costume anytime soon.

Yeah, not gonna happen.
This year was typical in our non-observance: I uncharacteristically declined an invitation to spend a beautiful Saturday on the Asbury Park boardwalk, mostly because I would have been sharing it with 9,252 zombies.  They were able to break the Guinness Book record for such events without my assistance, thank you very much.  I went to the beach the next day instead when all the ghoulies were cleaned up and attending brunch.

I did, however, take advantage of the fact that the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was the celebrant and preacher for All Saints Sunday at the beautiful and historic Church of St. Luke in the Fields in New York's West Village. In her sermon, which you can read here, she touches on the origins of Halloween, which was once called All Hallows' (saints') Eve.  All Saints' Day is officially November 1st (the next day) and she explained how the two events fit together:
"Lots of people have forgotten, or maybe never knew, that All Hallows Eve, the night before the Feast of All Saints, is a deeply Christian observance.  It’s not only about celebrating all the saints and [All Souls] those who’ve died in the last year, but it’s about what we do with scary things, including the bad dreams that wake us in the middle of the night or the reality that confronts us outside our front doors.  That what the ancient prayer is about, 'and from ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good Lord, deliver us.'"
I suppose that -- by making light of death, decay and all things possessed -- we could be coping with our anxieties about the things that keep us up at night.  For me, I don't need such additional stimuli: the real world and the stuff I churn up in my head is plenty. 

Add to this that I have not been able to lift weights, my normal means of tiring myself out enough to sleep soundly, since prior to my recent surgery.  That restriction was lifted Monday, to my great relief, and I was in the gym when I head the news of the latest gun-related incident to dominate the national news, and this one was right nearby.  A lone (or was it two? or five? the eyewitness reports varied widely) gunman walked into the Garden State Plaza, New Jersey's largest shopping mall, and fired several shots before disappearing somewhere inside (or outside... it was hours before anybody knew).

So much for sleeping! The mall is about 20 minutes from us and someone we know lives right on its perimeter in a ground floor apartment. Did she have her windows open?  We recently got a security system, but of course I could still speculate about how someone could defeat it and get in our house... and so it goes.

The mayhem that followed continued long into the night.  Police escorted terrified shoppers and employees outside while searching the giant facility room-by-room.  Some people were trapped in stockrooms and kitchens until early the next morning.

“Your fears they grew into a mountain
Where you're freezing alone at the top
Still I'll wait everyday at the bottom
Just to catch you the second you drop”

AM TAXI - "Tanner Boyle vs. the Seventh Grade"
It was 3:30 a.m. before the shooter was found dead by his own hand in a darkened storage area. As it turned out, he was not an Al-Qaeda wannabe or disgruntled ex-Abercrombie greeter dismissed because his waist size went up.  Instead, he was a 20-year-old pizza driver and aspiring model from a nearby town named Richard Shoop, who left no clear indication why he chose to take his own life, or why he chose to do it in such a dramatic way.  The gun belonged to his brother Kevin, who looked for it after discovering a note from Richard entitled "my will" and hearing reports of a shooting on the news.  When he confirmed the gun was missing, Kevin connected the dots and headed to the mall to warn police.

After the initial relief that we were not, in fact, under some kind of siege, my meant went back to Richard who - although I quite possibly bought a slice from him at some point in the past - would have probably never crossed my radar had he not seized the headlines. Despite being no stranger to post-adolescent angst, I could not help but wonder what inner demons would have driven him to such a desperate act.  As his friends gathered with candles and photos last night on Cedar Lane (Teaneck's Main Street) to remember him, I recalled Sunday's reading from Daniel and what the Presiding Bishop said about the monsters that inhabited his world, and ours:
"When Jesus says, “blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” he’s talking about that kind of home.  That irrevocable condition, that God-given birthright, is open to all, but we only find it by embracing and yearning for it.  Daniel’s demanding and destroying monsters aren’t likely to find it.  All the blessings Jesus spells out are about the road that takes us homeward, and the woes are about choosing paths that lead only to isolation and self-exclusion, and cutting ourselves off from that blessing.  Those blessings and woes are the story of the prodigal, who leaves home and discovers only mere existence."
May God rest Richard's troubled soul and bring comfort to those affected by his actions: his family and friends, the people caught in the mall, and all the public safety officials who walked unflinchingly into a very unclear situation to assist them.

Friday, November 1, 2013

An Unlikely Angel

I have been wrestling with this topic for a while.  I think today is the day to post.


Fifteen years ago this week, the world watched as a grisly story unfolded in southeastern Wyoming.  A gay college student, Matthew Aaron Shephard, was found -- beaten and left tied to a remote fencepost -- by a bicyclist who initially mistook him for a scarecrow.  Shepard died October 12th in a Colorado hospital.

Two young men, with whom Shepard had last been seen the night of October 6th at a Laramie bar, were charged and subsequently convicted of the crime.  One, Russell Henderson, pled guilty and testified against the other (Aaron McKinney) in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. McKinney's life was spared by Shepard's parents, who agreed to two life sentences with no chance of parole.

“But there was something about Matt that caused the giant, callous machine that is America to take its foot off the gas, if only for a relative moment, and maybe, just maybe, start to think it was possible that gay men were not all sick predators. Maybe we were actual people, who could and did feel pain.”
As we mark a decade and a half since Shepard's death, he is again in the virtual limelight.  A new film, entitled Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine, premiered on both coasts last weekend. One venue was the Cathedral Church of St. Peter & St. Paul in Washington D.C.  The Very Rev. Gary Hall, Dean of the Cathedral, used his sermon this past Sunday to remember Matthew and Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide in 2010 after learning his time alone with a male friend had been secretly recorded and broadcast on the Internet by his roommate.  The mothers of both young men participated in a forum after the service.  You can read and watch videos of both the sermon and the forum using the links above.

Though I was not yet an Episcopalian (and in fact in a state of cold war with the church, more on that another day!) in 1998, I found myself with 1,000 others at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, attending a memorial for a person I knew nothing about, other than that he was gay like me, and that he was brutally, gruesomely dead.  I didn't know it at the time, but this struck a particular chord within the Episcopal Church, perhaps because Matt was one of us, a member of St. Mark's: Casper and an acolyte.

Even before Shepard died, there was something about this attack, amongst all the others against LGBT people that occurred before and since, that was different. I don't know if it was because he was a slightly-built guy with youthful features, who looked in the photos that were everywhere in those days to be incapable of hurting a fly.  I don't know if it was the way he was found hanging pitifully from that fence, which for Christians could conjure up one image and one image only.  But there was something about Matt that caused the giant, callous machine that is America to take its foot off the gas, if only for a relative moment, and maybe, just maybe start to think it was possible that gay men were not all sick predators.  Maybe we were actual people, who could and did feel pain.

As a result, it felt natural to accept that the murder was an anti-gay hate crime.  After all, the perpetrators initially claimed as much, saying Shepard had been targeted because of his sexuality, and that they pretended to be sexually interested in him to gain his trust, so as to get him alone and rob him.  What they didn't explain is why they couldn't just rob him as planned, instead of beating him to a pulp.

But the murder had set wheels into motion.  Misanthropic quasi-Christians aside, the general consensus was that this was going to be -- like Lawrence vs. Kansas -- a case that changed everything.  It took over a decade, but the names of Shepard and James Byrd, an African-American man who was savagely killed the same year by white supremacists, grace the bill -- passed in 2009 -- that added sexual orientation and gender identity (real or perceived) to the nation's hate crimes law and expanded it past federally-protected activities like voting or attending school.

The narrative around Shepard's story is not homogenous, however, and it does not arouse compassionate impulses in everyone.  A recent University of Mississippi production of Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project (a re-enactment of Shepard's murder and the events that followed based on interviews with townspeople who were involved) was disrupted by homophobic jeers from the audience.  Students, including approximately 20 members of the Ole Miss Rebels football team, had been compelled by the administration to attend the play.  In the absence of anyone taking responsibility, the school announced since that all students who were present will be required to participate in a discussion about the incident.

Separately, a gay freelance journalist named Stephen Jimenez has just written a book which stands the public understanding of the case on its ear.  Quoting sources who claimed friendship with them both, The Book of Matt posits that Shepard not only knew his attackers, but that he and Henderson had been sexually intimate in the past. McKinney, Jimenez claims, worked as a prostitute and enjoyed sex with gay men.  He claims that all three men used and sold crystal meth, and that it was more likely that the attack was a drug deal gone bad than an anti-gay hate crime.

In an award-winning 1999 essay for Harper's, JoAnn Wypijewski unpacked the intricacies of the world the three men inhabited, in an attempt to understand how the pieces that led to the murder fell into place.  By her account, Henderson and McKinney were both on a week long meth binge, and bore no more hatred of the gay Shepard than the other men, ostensibly straight, that they beat up later that night.  Of the media's reaction after, she wrote, "Press crews who had never before and have not since lingered over gruesome murders of homosexuals came out in force, reporting their brush with a bigotry so poisonous it could scarcely be imagined."  In her opinion, it was decided that Shepard was to be the poster child of the hate crime lobby, and any attempt to derail that was squashed.  My initial reaction was that she must be the new Anne Coulter, 'til I dug a bit and discovered she worked for a decade at Mother Jones.  Socially progressive generally, she doesn't agree with the idea of hate crime laws, arguing that putting people in different categories implies one person's murder is worse than another's. 

Wypijewski wrote about the case again in 2004 after a 20/20 piece (which Jimenez also helped produce) exploring the drug angle drew outrage by LGBT groups and Shepard's family.  She called the way the story had been framed in the public consciousness the "second tragedy" to occur at Laramie.  The third, a year after Shepard died, was the death of Russell Henderson's mother Cindy Dixon, who had been raped, beaten, and left to die in the snow. There were no hate crime laws to protect her, Wypijewski asserts.  Her well-known problems “with the drinking, and the men” led locals to write off her death as practically inevitable, and the perpetrator of a crime similar to that against Shepard got off with a manslaughter charge and is already out of jail. 

A piece by Aaron Hicklin in the Advocate suggests that -- even if there is truth to Jimenez's view of the story -- it doesn't make Shepard's death any less awful or undeserved.  He argues that there is a time and place for different versions of narrative. "There are valuable reasons for telling certain stories in a certain way at pivotal times, but that doesn’t mean we have to hold on to them once they’ve outlived their usefulness," Hicklin writes.  He goes back to the Lawrence vs. Texas case, which unraveled sodomy laws nationwide after (we were told) two men were arrested for having consensual sex in their own house.  Except that -- if you actually read the details -- they weren't a couple, and they weren't even having sex. 

Those of us who are LGBT must reconcile the fact that we collectively benefited from the public's response to this story as it was told them.  If any of Jimenez's version is true -- and we may never know if it is -- it messes with the imagery we have collectively built around the diminutive figure whose death galvanized a movement. Reports that Shepard was depressed and possibly engaging in harmful behavior are not new, but they were never the focus of the narrative.  Unsurprisingly, conservative voices are playing this up as evidence of why hate crime laws are bad, and progressives are pushing back, pointing out holes in Jimenez' story, most importantly the unreliability of his star witness (Henderson) and Jimenez's own connections with the defense attorney in the case. 

I found the whole controversy unsettling, but I also grew up among journalists, and -- in the process of writing this -- found myself digging deeper, wanting to understand the situation and thus make peace with it, even in a place of continued uncertainty.  I have dear friends who are furious at the idea that anyone is trying to change the public's perception of who Shepard was, especially if it appears to be for some personal motive.  Maybe Kaufman's portayal is closer to the truth, maybe Jimenez's is, but I'm not sure it matters.  Nobody deserves to suffer as Shepard did, and many LGBT people do, ever year.

Within the Episcopal church, we  seek to be inspired by those whose lives and deaths touch us is reflected in our calendar of  "saints" as documented in the book Holy Women, Holy Men.  We expect no miracles of our saints, and in fact some of them were known to struggle with deep flaws.  In the case of Matthew Shepard (who is not in the aforementioned book), I think it's important to remember that he never signed up to become an icon for LGBT rights, nor the public scrutiny that goes with it.  His death made many people think about gay people (and -- sorry -- gay men in particular) differently, but it was one death in many.  LGBT people continue to be killed, even in enlightened places like Seattle and New York, their names sadly unknown to but a handful. If the randomness of Shepard's genetics or the horrible, crucifixion-like manner in which he died meant enough hearts were changed that we could spur the progress we have made since, is that miracle enough?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Remove the Scales From Our Eyes

Francis of Assisi - Friar (4 Oct 1226)

Now that it's done, I will share that I have been dealing with a degradation in my vision since about the beginning of the year.  Most alarmingly, as I approached bright lights from a distance, I saw three of them , arranged in a triangle, which would gradually converge as I approached.   Those newfangled LED signs were also especially vexing, because the letters were offset just enough to make the words impossible to read, reducing the whole affair to a blindingly bright mess.  How was I to know if the 1997 Mercury Capri to my left contained a kidnapped child or disoriented senior citizen?  I can make light of it now, but I took this impairment seriously and curtailed my driving to familiar roads in the daytime.  I felt confident enough in my ability to assess traffic and avoid obstacles, but not being able to easily see signs wasn't funny.

Because the unholy trinity described above was getting further apart and not closer together as time went on, I knew it was not something that was going to go away on its own. After a few attempts to deal with the problem, my regular optometrist referred me to the surgeon who repaired my retina in 2009.  I was rapidly diagnosed with cataracts, which is unusual but not unheard of for someone my age.

A cataract was not -- as I imagined -- a scratch or crater, so much as a build-up of crud.  The more it accumulates, the harder it is to see. So, over the past few weeks, I had minor surgery on both eyes which basically replaced the dirty lens with a clean one, which (bonus!) is also shaped to correct my extreme near-sightedness.  A new technique, being used by my surgeon only since July, also addressed my astigmatism, which means that - at least for distance - I won't need glasses!  Considering I have sported them since I was five, I am pretty excited about that part. Paradoxically, I jumped the line for being totally dependent on reading glasses, which means my trademark move of squinting at my phone five inches from my face will be retired from my act... once i remember it no longer works!

The amazing aspect of all this is how easy it all was. I was in the surgical center for no more than three hours each time, and part of that was spent waiting my turn.  The procedure itself was a few minutes, and within a few hours of getting home, I was unbandaged, looking no scarier than normal, and in only minor discomfort.  The follow-up amounts to some drops, three times a day, for the next week, and I have to be super-diligent about wearing sunglasses and hats because the fake lenses do not offer the same UV protection your body's do.

The cost of all this was not insignificant.  I am keenly aware how lucky I am to have insurance through my employer, which -- although my contribution has grown over the past few years -- still absorbed the lion's share of the bill.  The laser "upgrade" was out-of-pocket because it is not considered medically necessary, but I hate the idea that a person would forgo treating a problem like this -- which can literally affect your and others' safety -- because they couldn't pay for it.  As our government continues to use the AFA as a political football, I'm grateful to be seeing the world through new eyes, and wondering who around me is squinting, or suffering, as a result of our leaders' inability to work together. I hope my "new eyes" make me that much more aware of my tendency toward indifference, and willing to seize the opportunity to do good.

Grant, O Father, that your loving kindness in causing my own lines to fall in
pleasant places may not  make me less sensitive to the needs of others less privileged,
but rather more incline me to lay their burdens upon my own heart.  And if any
adversity should befall myself, then let me not brood upon my own sorrows, as if I
alone in the world were suffering, but rather let me busy myself in the  compassionate
service of those who need my help.  Then let the power of my Lord Jesus Christ
be strong within me, and His peace invade my spirit.  Amen.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Closer and Closer All the Time

Feast of the Holy Cross

Last night, a small group of us gathered in the social hall at St. John's to watch a favorite movie from my childhood, Lerner & Loewe's musical adaption of the classic Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  novella The Little Prince

The story recounts the literal and metaphorical journey of a pilot (portrayed by Richard Kiley the Man of La Mancha) who meets a sweet but strange little boy (Steven Warner) after being forced to land his plane in the midst of the Sahara Desert.  

The pilot, who had turned to the skies a cynical loner after his early human engagements proved unsatisfying, is at first impatient with the quixotic child's questions and demands ("please draw me a sheep!") that distract him from his frantic attempts to repair the plane before meager supplies of food and water run out. However, the prince's sketchy details of his own circumstances compel the child inside the adult to unravel this mystery.  His own early artistic attempts having been stifled by the adults around him, the pilot, finally with an appreciative audience, concedes to produce picture after picture, his skill improving along the way, as a means of drawing out the Prince's story. 

We move through the drawings into a combination of early 1970s camera tricks and animation to recollect the Prince's travels from his own small planet (with three knee-high volcanoes, please clean daily) and a single, self-absorbed rose (Donna McKechnie) in an attempt to understand, what else, the meaning of life.  Along the way his encounters with "the grown ups" prove just as frustrating as the pilot's had been.  He finally alights on Earth, and his first interaction -- with a snake, amusingly portrayed by choreographer Bob Fosse -- leads him to speculate that all earthlings might be snakes.  When he recounts this aloud, the pilot says nothing, but his expression speaks volumes.  The older man is concerned by the prince's vocal contemplation of an offer the snake made of a "quick trip" home again, by nature of a sting.

It is the Prince's next encounter, with a fox (Gene Wilder is brilliantly cast) that teaches him what he needs to know. Shy and wary at first, but desperate for companionship, the fox explains (and acts out) what they will need to do in order to build trust of one another.  By this act of "taming" one another, we become "unique in all the world" because we matter to and are responsible for another person.  

The prince, thinking guiltily of his rose, whom he had been disappointed to learn was not as extraordinary as she had claimed, is drawn inexorably back to the snake and his promise of a means to return to his little planet.  The pilot, having become quite "tamed" himself by this maddening but beguiling little boy, races after him in a panic, but is too late.  In a reversal of roles, the Prince becomes the calm teacher and comforts his grieving friend with the advice that -- because he won't know which star is the Prince's --  he should associate them all with him, to always feel his presence.

There is much going on here.  Saint-Exupéry was himself a pilot, and I wonder how much of the portrayal of the narrator is autobiographical.  I know I could go look that up, right now, but I am content to wonder.  I hadn't seen this movie in decades, and watching it again was like discovering a forgotten photo album, because as each conversation or musical number unfolded, I remember us watching it as kids and romping around the living room to the lively soundtrack.  

It was interesting to share the experience with a room of mostly strangers (besides the Archwarden, I was delighted when a high school friend unexpectedly turned up after seeing the event on Facebook) in a church setting.  Other than a passing reference to "the Lord" by Fosse, there is no overt scriptural context, but it is easy to draw parallels to another young man who baffled and infuriated "the grown-ups" during his brief sojourn on Earth, and left us forever changed when he accepted his fate with surprising resolve, and departed with a similar promise that he is always with us.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Church Communicators Serve Up Food for Thought

This is an article I submitted for the Evangel, our congregation's newsletter.  It was published in abridged form there, but I wanted to share the whole thing.

If your church disappeared tomorrow, would your community notice?

That provocative question set the tone for a lively and thought-provoking workshop led by JIM NAUGHTON and REBECCA WILSON, who make their living helping churches communicate better as the principals of Canticle Communications and co-authors of Speaking Faithfully: Communications as Evangelism in a Noisy World. Jim is also the founder of The Episcopal Cafe, a news blog.

The workshop, organized by NINA NICHOLSON Diocesan Director of Communications and Technology, gave congregations an opportunity to not only get better at using social media and other tools, but also to understand what kind of messages they are putting out in the world, and what might actually generate interest among their neighbors.

I attended the workshop as part of a team who will be collaborating on multiple aspects of communications at St. John’s, including the website, the bulletin, our presence in social media, and the Evangel.

The event started off on a sobering note as both leaders described the seemingly difficult climate in which the church finds itself. As Pew research reveals, increasing numbers of people are identifying with no faith and even embracing atheism. A number of high-profile scandals involving clergy and the perception of religious leaders as too judgmental and too political have not helped. “Our world thinks it knows what Christians are up to, and is disinterested or even hostile,” Naughton explained. He continued with a question: “What do you have that is attractive enough to break people's habits, behavior, and thinking?”

Episcopal churches have a tendency to use “insider language” that we expect people to know. This suggests to those who see and hear unfamiliar terms that a church might be an exclusionary club, and not for them. In an increasingly secular world, even spiritual messages should not make assumptions about the reader’s understanding of what church life is like, or even what the Bible says.

Mainline protestants in general have a tendency to “play it safe” and shy away from the edgy or controversial. On this, Wilson reminds us, “We have a savior who made people so angry that they killed him.” I was reminded of the few times St. John’s entered my consciousness prior to our joining. Each involved an incident where the parish had taken a stance on a social justice issue that led to some conflict. While there is always room for growth in how we respond to situations like this, in aggregate they served to tell me that this was a place that did not back away from its Gospel calling in the face of resistance. That was a strong factor in my decision to consider St. John’s as a new spiritual home for Jeffrey and me.

Naughton argues that the majority of “prime real estate” on web sites should be targeted at prospective visitors and newcomers, with parish business taking a back seat. “Jesus did not preach the Sermon on the Mount about the acolyte schedule,” he reminded. Those looking for a spiritual home want to be challenged inspired, and possibly redeemed. Their first instinct will not be to attend a meeting, and -- while schedules and calendars are important -- most transformative moments are unplanned. An effective menu system can get viewers who are looking for business information to what they need.

Since Andrew’s departure, parishioners have been taking turns writing reflections for the cover of the service leaflet. These narratives, many in the first person, are exactly the kind of content Naughton and Wilson believe has the power to engage people. We are generally shy and feel ill-equipped to evangelize to others, but Naughton and Wilson believe that what will reach them is “your story of what God is doing in your life, and you already know about that.”

Expanding on the topic of audience, Naughton and Wilson pointed out that many people drive past multiple churches -- even Episcopal churches -- to get to the one they attend. He challenged us to understand who lives around us, what do they care about and pay attention to? Are we gracefully inserting ourselves into the places where they are? What about their lives is hard, and could benefit from an understanding faith community?

We have done a little of this with projects like Ashes to Go, where you gently present an opportunity for “church” to those who don’t have the time or inclination to visit the building. This summer, St. Luke’s is offering Worship Without Walls, a “flash-mob” style evening service at a different outdoor location each Sunday. People seem generally surprised and pleased by these no-strings efforts to reach them where they are.

SUSAN DUNN, PATTY DREHER and I did some brainstorming about more ways to “get out there.” What could we offer regular commuters from Walnut Street, with the stresses and anxiety that the business world brings? What about those who have lost their job?

How could we become a part of community events like the Farmer’s Market? In June, a small group of us attended a service at St. Lydia’s, a growing “dinner church” that is affiliated with both the Lutheran Synod of New York and the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. I learned in passing that the sister of one of the farmers at the market is an Episcopal priest. What if we partnered with his farm to offer a locally sourced meal intertwined with worship?

These are just a few ideas, out of countless possibilities. Naughton pointed out other community events, like Thanksgiving, Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day, that are not religious holidays but are often opportunities to creatively reach the community, waiting to be claimed. What could we offer which might become a new Montclair tradition?

I left the workshop feeling that we are doing many things right, and there are many things that we could improve upon to reach those around us and get to know each other and ourselves better. As we continue our “adventure” I hope many of you will bring forward your gifts and talents to help us to authentically tell St. John’s story in a way that inspires growth, both by bringing new people to our midst, and building our understanding, love and commitment for one another.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Whatsoever You Do, or Sheep and Goats

Since our congregation is currently without presiding clergy, parishioners have been asked to offer reflections for the cover of the service leaflet. This was my contribution, which was published today.
Matthew 25:31-46

The Gospel in a recent Daily Office  reading begins "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Then he will separate the people, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."

The Internet has been abuzz this week with two important arrivals. One is the very real newborn son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who is now third in line to the British throne. The other, an incoming megachurch pastor named Jeremiah Steepek, is most likely a fictional character created to prove a point.

Prince George of Cambridge is, through no actions of his own, destined for a pretty comfortable and prestigious life.  People who will never meet him or probably even cross his mind celebrated or at least discussed his birth, by sheer nature of who his ancestors are. 

Pastor Steepek could have similarly enjoyed the trappings of his title, albeit on a smaller scale.  Instead, he chose to conduct an experiment.  While the congregation of thousands assembled to welcome their new leader, a disheveled-looking stranger also joined them in the sanctuary.  Very few people exchanged pleasantries with him as they greeted each other.  He asked some for change to buy some food, but was refused.  He attempted to take a seat near the front, but was asked to move to the back.
Homeless man in Richmond, Surrey.
Surrey, a homeless man in
Richmond whose photo
was distributed with the
Pastor Steepek story.  Photo
credit, Brian Gerrard. 
All rights reserved.  Click
for larger original and
artist info.


It was only when the new pastor was announced and the crowd rose and clapped in anticipation that Pastor Steepek stood and revealed himself as the same unfortunate-looking individual whose attempts to engage them were so recently rebuffed. As they watched in shock, he took the pulpit and recited the same familiar parable: "for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."

When he was done, he sent them home, many weeping.

A valid argument has been made that deceiving people and trying to shame them into a particular behavior is not a healthy way for a religious leader to teach. Pastor Steepek, had he actually existed, would likely have lost the trust of many in his new flock. 

Yet this story resonates with us, because we know that -- by human nature -- how we treat a newcomer is driven at least as much by what we know (or think we know) about them as by what they actually bring to the encounter.  See also #royalbaby.

The parable continues, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these. who are members of my family,  you did it to me.” How would Christ expect us to treat someone who (by the world’s standards) would appear to have absolutely nothing to offer in return?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

For Just Such a Time as This

Sermon for Education for Ministry Graduation

Well, nothing like a happy reading for a celebration, huh? I am sure Mark wondered what I was thinking when I chose it. He may still be in five minutes when I’m done,but I hope not. It is read each year on the Jewish festival of Purim, and the congregants use a noisemaker called a grogger to drown out the name of the evil Haman each time it is read.

Purim Exhibition at Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem (2)
Grogger at the Purim Exhibition at Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem

The Jewish people have known many instances of persecution during their history. As American Christians in the 21st century it is hard for us to identify personally with the idea of an evil figure cozying up to our head of state and successfully influencing him or her to have us removed from the scene, even if it meant an end to those long speeches at the National Prayer Breakfast. I also like to think Michele Obama would not need Gene Robinson or even Desmond Tutu to convince her to intercede with the President on our behalf.

But our world knows no lack of threats to our way of life, or our way of prayer. We continue to trivialize the impact of our way of life on the planet at our peril, spinning our own mental groggers when the news becomes more than we can bear. and -- despite all the electronic gadgets that purport to keep us connected -- many of us move through our lives in increasing emotional isolation. Many of our once-vibrant parish communities are waning, as individualistic, spiritual-but-not-religious ideologies and even atheism gain popularity, and volunteer programs to help those less fortunate must compete with other demands on our time. The church finds itself in a struggle for relevance, as Americans, particularly the young, are increasingly turned off by the way Christianity has been defined by those holding the microphone.

I think each of us can see aspects of ourselves in each of the major figures in this story, if not in the profound examples it offers. How often are we Mordecai, sitting in our own personal sackcloth and ashes, despairing at the state of the world, or our corner of it? How often are we Esther, taking refuge in the false security of our present comfort, or remaining silent because we don’t believe others will take our ideas seriously? Do we ever acknowledge how often we are “king” over others – even across the globe – whose lives are affected by how we spend our time, money and resources? And, being honest here, are we ever Haman, using our influence to get what we want, even when we know someone else will be hurt?

And yet, there is also redemption here. Mordecai, by making a scene his niece and the neighbors cannot ignore, triggers her to respond with compassion. Esther, in turn, is challenged by her uncle’s admonishment to risk, as our bishop often challenges us, something big for something good. If you read further, you’ll learn that The King, after learning that in fact he owes Mordecai the debt of his own life, consents to Esther’s request that the Jews will be spared, and Haman goes to a murderer’s reward.

And thus it can be for us. As we are each of the characters in this story, we can choose to use our influence for the greater good. EfM has gives lay people the scriptural, historical and theological context to respond to the many challenges and opportunities for ministry that surround us. So armed, let us not hide within the walls of our homes and churches, but show the world with our lives and our actions what people of faith can accomplish in a world that cries out for justice and peace.

Monday, March 11, 2013


Gregory the Great - Bishop & Doctor (604) 

“Baby I've been thinkin’ ’bout a trailer by the sea
We could go to Mexico, just you, the cat, and me”


Much is made of how complex our lives have become. In addition to the people with whom we interact with in real life, most of us are entrenched in social networks of virtual friends, interest and action groups. Besides choosing from 300 channels of TV programming available 24/7 and automatically getting recorded for you to watch some other day, there are myriad streaming and on-demand selections to choose from right now. I read the other day that one TV service lets you record up to five programs simultaneously. I’m lucky if I can find one thing I want to sit through.

A whole store devotes itself to giving you new ways to put stuff away. You can subscribe to a magazine whose touted purpose is to unravel the mysteries of decorating, child care, and emotional health. Squads of “geeks” stand ready to spring into action and make all the bells and whistles jingle and toot in harmony. An invisible cast of thousands labors unseen to ensure that your ability to watch “Cat Friend vs. Dog Friend” on your phone at a traffic light is unimpeded, and if you feel tempted to get a new phone before your two-year commitment is over, there are companies ready to take the old one off your hands... for a fee of course.

Living With Less.  A Lot Less.” - Graham Hill, Sunday New York Times

When I first saw today’s “most emailed” article, I assumed it was going to be about an individual or a family whose consuming habits were suddenly cut to the quick by the ongoing economic situation which seems to be if not directly affecting everyone, at least keeping us all under the same anxious pall.

In fact, it was the experience of a successful entrepreneur named Graham Hill (founder of treehugger.com) who has the means to live however he wants to, but discovered -- completely by accident -- that his consumer habits seemed to be driven more by inertia than actual need or even desire.  Having made a bundle on the sale of a successful start-up, he purchased a large house, and hired someone to fill it with things: in many cases, his role was limited to a hasty choice from a series of Polaroids. He then ended up seeking roommates because the house was too big for him, especially because he was rarely there. By this point, his vocation had taken him to the opposite coast, where he did the same thing with a big loft before he realized how much time, cost and energy was being expended for so little personal payout.

The next chapter of Hill’s life brought him to Europe, where he discovered that -- in the right company -- he could be happy and productive with just what he could transport in a backpack. Today he lives in a tiny but extremely functional studio, which can be adapted to host dinner parties for 12 or a pajama party for four.

What few of us stop to think about is what compels us to purchase, engage, and accumulate so many objects and obligations , let alone to what degree they actually make us happier people. The Gospel reading on Ash Wednesday, which kicks off the Lenten season, invites to rethink our priorities a bit:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
MATTHEW 6:19-21

While not everybody subscribes to the notion of an afterlife, for me this passage definitely invites some reflection about how I spend not only my money, but my time.  I'm not 22 any more, and -- just because I can -- I don’t necessarily have to get a new outfit or drop a chunk of change on drinks in the city, just because “everybody else is.” As we face more economic and vocational uncertainty, I take more pleasure in a zero-balance credit card.

Airstream Sunset on South Beach
“Airstream Sunset on South Beach” by Monica Bennett
Copyright, all rights reserved.
We live in a house which is -- like Hill’s -- far more than we really require. When we first met, the same two people and two cats survived in what was essentially two rooms for many months. It did not take us long to “grow into” and find uses for all the space we have now, but it isn’t necessary, and the amount of money and work it takes to maintain it often makes me think the protagonist in Joshua Kadison’s ballad was on the right track. I spend an annoying amount of time staving off unwanted catalogs and recyclables, purging clothing out which I've grown (or aged), and -- after ten guilt-inducing minutes of Hoarders: Buried Alive on a recent Saturday -- cleaning out an entire closet, most of whose contents hadn't seen the light of day in years.  While I'm not quite ready to live out of a backpack, we could certainly pare things down quite a bit and get along just fine.  When it comes down to it, if you can’t find happiness by surrounding yourself with the kind of people who bring you joy, no amount of bling is going to fix it.

The same can be said for the “networks” into which we become immersed. A foray into the game Second Life was cut short when I realized how much it was eating into the first one.  We have a family joke about people bringing their little electronic friends to the table: we are all trivia buffs, so inevitably an argument will require someone to look up a batting average or film credit. Even the biggest protester is occasionally guilty of whipping out the digital version of Grandma’s Brag Book, but we do strive to be “in the moment” on the rare occasions that we are able to get everybody together. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to IKEA... I just need something real simple to hold all these magazines!