“Give It Away”

I was enrolled in an online Devotional Writing Workshop through the Lifelong Learning Center at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia,  when I wrote this reflection.

For a long time, I have been developing a criticism of seminaries for their lack of courses and programs aimed at teaching future clerics the craft of writing. In my experience and research, writing courses offered at seminaries across the nation almost exclusively teach writing as a handmaiden to preaching or model a typical graduate school research course, emphasizing the mechanics of academic writing and manuscript preparation. Future pastors would be better served by studying creative writing, I think.

Emphases are changing in scattered institutions that train clergy. Some are beginning to explore writing as a form of ministry–thanks be to God.

I think writing poetry and creative fiction demands a place in the curriculum for future pastors, and I think I’d find support for this idea from one of my favorite writer/clerics, Frederick Buechner, who gave much to establishing a place for creative writing students at King University in Bristol, Tennessee.

I joyously learned that a former professor of mine wrote a book in his retirement concerning the biblical tales told in the writings of Flannery O’Connor. He has been teaching this subject part-time.

(I’ll get back to that after I’ve finished his book. If you’d like a head start, it’s Passing By the Dragon:  The Biblical Tales of Flannery O’Connor, by J. Ramsey Michaels, Wipf & Stock. 2013.)


Here is a sample example of my devotional writing from the workshop:

“Give It Away”

“When Jesus heard that, he said, “Then there’s only one thing left to do: Sell everything you own and give it away to the poor.”

(Luke 18:22a; The Message)

   As my wife and I approached the entrance of a supermarket, I pulled some bills from my wallet and gave them to her so she could buy a birthday card for our daughter-in-law on our way to the party. We planned separate routes as we entered the store: she would seek the stationery while I dashed up the aisles headed for party nuts and birthday candles.

   “Can you let me have two dollars?” asked an unknown woman standing at the market’s entrance as I nearly bumped into her in my haste.

   I stopped, and my wife walked on. The woman, about as tall as my six feet and not at all disheveled, wore a black T-shirt with the bold white letters of Christ’s Church emblazoned across it.

   “What do you need two dollars for?” I asked, thinking she might be soliciting for her church and swallowing my instinctive “Excuse me,” as we stood nearly face to face.

   “I’m going down to Sander’s to get something to eat,” she said.

   I slid two dollars from my billfold, handed them to her and asked, brazenly sounding like an interrogator, “Where is Christ’s Church?”

   Unspoken was my judging thought, “Why don’t you go to your church for aid?”

   I never actually heard her response, but my sudden thought staggered me: “I am Christ’s Church.” And then, “Give it away!” I heard my faith say.

   My children at times when we’ve been traveling call me a sucker for anyone soliciting money who hastens between columns of cars halted by a red light. My fatherly retort has been: “We’re not called to judge their need, and I can’t know what they intend to do with the money.”

   I put two bills in the woman’s hand as she said, “God bless you,” and stepped away toward sunlight. I started toward party nuts and birthday candles, mouthing a similar blessing for her, and strode up the aisle still squeezing my billfold.

   “Give it away,” I again heard my faith whisper.


Sanctuary: A block of wood full of words

Demolition workers felled the 50-year-old chapel at the turn of the century on the campus of my alma mater to make way for a new educational building (work crews built a larger chapel at a different location). The crews carefully removed the oak flooring and cut each board into 3”-by-2.5” blocks, later stained and stamped with an engraving of the chapel and mailed to alumni and donors urged to help pay for the new building. Sitting and gazing at that block of wood that now decorates my bookcase provokes good memories of choirs, and weddings, and talented schoolmates.

During my matriculation, students attended mandatory daily chapel services. The services, not always spiritual, introduced us to many guest speakers, several preachers who thought themselves entertainers, and several entertainers who thought themselves preachers in this venue. We heard faculty deliver non-academic talks about themselves as seekers and believers. We occasionally watched a short film or slide show and also listened to our eloquent dean of the college make weekly reports on administrative matters. I don’t remember much from his talks, but he taught me a word I’ve never forgotten: he always reminded us when services ended to “egress” through the appropriate exits of the building.

I recall spending time alone in the building with its stained-glass windows, split chancel, and a table displaying an open Bible and a small golden cross. I didn’t visit the empty chapel for prayer or personal devotion, but rather to be in a quiet place for reading and reflecting in silence—a sanctuary—not something readily available on the bustling campus, not even in the library or a dormitory.

Sometimes I listened while some student music major practiced on the electronic organ. We never spoke. The practicing musicians typically left when they finished through a side door just behind the organ bench; I walked to the rear of the sanctuary and egressed through the narthex (another word I learned in this building; though, most at that time referred to it as a lobby) to the main door.

I did get to the point of leaving my copy of Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament in one of the book racks of a front pew. I was studying German at the time and found this a quiet retreat, einer Zugfluchsort [refuge, shelter; a “flee-to spot”], or eines Heiligtum [sanctuary, shrine; that is, “a holy place”]. Its silence helped me grapple with the conjugations and cases of a foreign language that I’ve never fully mastered.

I wrote inside the book’s cover, “Please do not remove from the chapel.” Gratifyingly, no one ever did for four years.

And now a block of wood still transmits and upholds for me an experience of quiet and ease.

Two Favorite Writers Who’ve Snared Me Again

In the past month, two writers I absorbed in my middle years and then set aside in my ensuing busyness presented theological and psychological wisdom I rediscovered in their works.

The first, Frederick Buechner, is enjoying the twilight of a fruitful career, and his writings have slowly and significantly shaped my theological musings.

While visiting with my sister- and brother-in-law in Philadelphia earlier this month I picked up a book on their dining room table and in about two minutes I was hooked. The Faces of Jesus (first published in 1974; reissued in 2005) became my latest guide to the mind of Buechner (and Jesus).

Just a few days later, while browsing in the new books section of my local public library, the thrill of discovery overcame me again as I picked up Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy  (published in 2017) by Anne LaMott.

Candidly, I admit I haven’t kept up with Buechner and LaMott. I estimate I’ve read about a third of what they’ve produced. I’ve shied from Buechner’s fiction, but as a young adult, I devotedly read (and reread) his casual and careful theological musings. LaMott simply snared me with her early Bird by Bird (published in 1994), and I think my devotion had lagged by the time she published Stitchings (in 2013).  But her often snarky single-Mom reflections have snared me again with sneaky spiritual insights in her rediscovery of mercy.

I emailed thanks to my sister- and brother-in-law for their wisdom and mercy in leaving reading material around their kitchen and dining room. I confessed that I found Buechner’s reflections on the gospel through his deep looks into the face (i.e., faces) of Jesus to be among the most profound guides to reading the Bible I’ve encountered.

For spiritual surprise and growth, you should dive into these two authors. Below, I offer some dangling bait to get you to swim around as I did:

From Buechner’s Faces of Jesus:

  • “. . . piety always runs the risk of saying too little or saying it wrong.”
  • “God makes his saints out of fools and sinners because there is nothing much else to make them out of.”
  • “If the doctrine of the divinity of Christ is paradoxical, it is only because the experience was paradoxical first. Much as we may wish it otherwise, reality seldom comes to us simple, logical, all of a piece.”

From LaMott’s Hallelujah Anyway:

  • “The Northstar that guides me through the darkness is the Old Testament prophet Micah. . . . he spoke the words that often remind me of my path and purpose: ‘What doth God require of thee but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?'”
  • “What Micah is talking about is grad school curriculum, while, spiritually speaking, I remain in junior high school, superior and cringing at the same time.”
  • “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, . . . But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

Good Friday’s Poetic Solemnity

Easter 2017 has passed. Lenten sacrifices have been completed. The celebration of the Christian Holy Week is over until next year (to be celebrated secularly in 2018 as April Fool’s Day). I confess that the most solemn and meaningful Holy Week service this year for me occurred on Good Friday.

The Book of Common Prayer provides a proper liturgy for that day that focuses on solemnity.

For Christians, Good Friday is the day of recalling and meditating upon the betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and from beginning to end the liturgy is solemn, and celebration is subdued.

The rubric of the opening of the Good Friday liturgy instructs that “ministers enter in silence.” By custom, the clergy dresses entirely in black. The altar is stripped of any colorful seasonal dressings, and the clergy and lectors enter and kneel before the altar.

The service is comprised of readings from the Old Testament, especially the words of the prophet Isaiah describing the suffering servant. Then a Psalm is read or sung, often the text of Psalm 22, which contains the transliterated Aramaic words expressed by Jesus on the cross, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). The epistle to the Hebrews is read to remind Christians of the priesthood of Jesus “who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” A lengthy reading of the Passion Gospel of St. John follows Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is betrayed and arrested. The narrative continues to the place of the skull, Golgotha, where Jesus is nailed to a cross as a criminal, and to the unused tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, one of the followers of Jesus, where our Lord is laid to rest.

Typically in the Good Friday liturgy, a meditative sermon is preached, often on one or several of the words Jesus spoke from the cross, and an offering to be distributed to the poor is collected.

The remainder of the service is comprised of prayers while the people and clergy kneel or stand. With the prayers completed, clergy and congregation exit the sanctuary in silence.

Impressive for me this year were the two hymns we sang. I offer the lyrics here as two examples of solemn poetry marking the crucifixion of Jesus that took place outside Jerusalem on so-called “Good Friday” (which many scholars believe derives from “God Friday”).

When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died,

my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast save in the cross of Christ, my God:

all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet sorrow and love flow mingled down!

Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown!

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small;

love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

The above hymn, written by Isaac Watts in 1707, is in part a paraphrase of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (6:14).

The second hymn, considered by many to be the quintessential poem celebrating Holy Week, is believed to have been composed in either the 9th century by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, or in the 11th century by Arnulf of Leuven, a medieval poet. The text was first translated into English in 1752 by a British Anglican vicar, John Gambold. In 1899, Robert Bridges translated it into its more modern English.  It is most familiar sung to a tune that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for his St. Matthew Passion. (I provide only the first stanza.)

O sacred head sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn;

O kingly head, surrounded with mocking crown of thorn:

what sorrow mars thy grandeur? Can death thy bloom deflower?

O countenance whose splendor the hosts of heaven adore!

The text and music of both these hymns appear in the Hymnal 1982 of the Church Hymnal Society at numbers. 474 and 168 respectively.

And what do these Holy Week penultimate liturgies and texts provoke? The glorious declaration of Easter: “Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”






Spring additions to my Personal Anthology of Favorite Poems

Earlier this year I borrowed from the poet Robert Pinsky the notion that students of poetry should create anthologies of favorite poems, not by simply collecting them but by hand-writing each of them before placing them in a collection.

(My first posting about this method can be read at http://faithatease.com/2017/01).

I’ve developed my method of following Pinsky’s valuable instruction by printing out the text of a favorite poem with each line containing triple-spacing before the next line. Then, in the wide spacing, I rewrite—with a favorite pen–the entire poem.

Each time I do this little exercise, I’m reminded of the words of the famous American calligrapher, Edward Johnston, who taught me that “The hand thinks!” An idea, I’ve come to understand, explicated by the Deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida.

As Spring of 2017 begins, I here offer the latest additions to my personal anthology of favorites:

  • More a poem of winter than spring but nevertheless memorable is Mary Oliver’s poem “First Snow” a description marked by the memorable phrase “its white rhetoric everywhere calling us back to why, how, whence such beauty and what the meaning”.
    –From American Primitive. Little, Brown, 1983.
  • “Christ Climbed Down,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A poem of my early adult life that captivated me and encouraged my own life in faith and poetry. I recommend the entire collection of Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind.
    –From A Coney Island of the Mind. New Directions, 1958.
  • As a retired journalist, I am particularly drawn to poetry triggered by the daily news. A recent example, the poem “Children of Aleppo,” which reflects on the “men inside the sky” who launch bombardments on a helpless Syrian city, is written by a Vermont poet, Chard deNiord, and was originally posted on the Poem-a-Day website of the Academy of American Poets on January 25, 2017:
  • “Susanna” by Anne Porter, provides the wisdom of an elderly immigrant woman “out of a little country/Trampled by armies” who awakes briefly in a hospital to share a truth spoken to her by her mother: “There’s not a single inch/Of our whole body/That the Lord does not love.”
    –From Living Things. Zoland Books, 2006.


Mistakenly waltzing in slow time

When I was about nine or ten years old, my sister had me stand on her feet as she waltzed us around the living room to whatever record she had chosen to play on her wind-up portable Victrola.

I remember that Victrola by RCA, with the symbol of a dog gazing into the cone of a megaphone speaker atop an RCA turntable and the emblazoned slogan written beside it: “His Master’s Voice.” My sister Sylvia–our family called her Sis–probably got the turntable as a birthday gift.

I remember the Victrola had to be cranked by inserting a specially shaped handle into a slot in the front of the machine just below the turntable. It took 12 or 15 cranks to get it up to enough torque to handle a three- or four-minute 33-1/3 rpm disk.

Years later, when Sis was no longer a bobbysoxer, and I was a pre-teen becoming enamored of pop music, I recall cranking the turntable myself and listening to some of the records from Sis’s collection.

The machine had two speeds: 78 rpm and 33-1/3 rpm. The slower speed was for playing larger vinyl discs that were called “long-playing,” and one could listen to an entire collection of pieces on a single disc with a good cranking. In fact, I became so adept with the machine that I could crank it even while a record was spinning and the needle was doing its job in the groove.

But here’s the rub: I didn’t quite understand that large did not necessarily mean slow and that many records were larger but still designed to be played at 78 rpm, records such as those contained in my sister’s boxed collection of Tchaikovsky’s famous Nutcracker Suite.

The discs were larger, so when I played them, I set the rotation control, not at 78 rpm but 33-1/3. Thus, I spent several afternoons listening to the Waltz of the Flowers and other wonderful pieces of Tchaikovsky’s suite running at less than half-speed!

I seem to recall it took me two or three days of determined listening before I figured out why the “classical” music dragged. When I listened to it at the proper speed, I became enchanted and began to understand what my seventh- and eighth-grade teachers were trying to get across to us during “music appreciation” classes.

Incidentally, I seemed to know at that point that whether I waltzed slowly or fast on the turntable of life, I still could attend to the Master’s voice.

Memoir 2: A Brooklyn Kid, High School, College, The New York Times, and Donald Trump (of Queens).

Despite my juvenile resistance to her urgings, I have to credit my junior year high school English teacher, Gaye Kelley Crocker, a flamboyant and frustrated actress who came to life in our classroom by insisting those of us under her tutelage would become devoted (by requirement) readers of The New York Times. She especially pressed upon us the columns of Brooks Atkinson, the renowned theater critic, who wielded his pen and opinions for 35 years as The Times’ judge of good and bad drama on and off Broadway.

I was a kid in Brooklyn, the youngest son of immigrants, a rabid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and enrolled in the closest high school of our neighborhood, Manual Training High School. As an institution at that time struggling with its erroneous association with trade schools, Manual sat in the then diverse neighborhood of Park Slope where the predominant students were sons and daughters of immigrant laborers and tradesmen who had little thought of, or encouragement toward, academia.

During my tenure there, the school slowly became earmarked as a “tough” school that harbored teenage gang members and had little standing as a place deemed college-preparatory. Its faculty seemed young and transient, and its curriculum seemed weighted heavily toward vocational and technical training with a few teacher-saints who fought the good fight for the liberal arts in English, Drama, and Art. Even Manual’s athletic teams were mediocre except for its talented swimming and diving squads.

Miss Crocker seemed a misfit, even in her literary specialty. But she taught us, through demand and determination, to turn to The New York Times for our submerged appreciation of drama and art.

In my working class family, the only newspaper my parents brought into the home was the New York Daily News. Its subtitle probably spoke best to its popularity with my parents: “New York’s Picture Newspaper.” Neither of my parents was an active reader, but I often saw them perusing the Daily News.

For me, as a high schooler, the only access to The Times was the school library or my frequent trips to the Brooklyn Public Library just to read the newspapers. Of course, if Miss Crocker assigned a particular column of Atkinson’s, it cost me only a few cents to buy that day’s copy of The Times. (And I seem to remember she always had several copies of the newspaper–or at least clips of Atkinson’s columns–strewn about her desk.)

Thus I was introduced to the wider world of The New York Times, but it was in college that I got simple, step-by-step instruction in “How to read The New York Times,” from a young history teacher who stepped in for another teacher on Sabbatical to teach a sophomore elective class in current events.

Dr. Arno Willi Fred Kolz had grown into a pre-teen recruit of Hitler’s Youth Corps in Nazi Germany, but his family escaped and relocated to the United States during Kolz’ teen years before World War II erupted.

The opening week in Kolz’s class on current events was spent taking us through a guided tour of the massive edition of The Sunday New York Times, which in those days weighed in at approximately five or six pounds.

Kolz unwrapped the stack of newsprint and held up the front section of the folio paper with its signature gray front page of assorted headlines, subheadlines, and photos with captions. Then, with little fanfare, he folded back the front page and announced, “Always begin on page two!”

Along the bottom of page two, Kolz drew our attention for the next 50 minutes to the index of stories in the entire newspaper. The index gave capsule descriptions of every story and article in the paper. He taught us in 50 minutes how to read an entire edition of the Sunday Times and to become careful readers of important articles. (I think of Kolz and this lesson every time I scroll through the online Google News or the digital version of The Times.)

I recall thinking to myself after that first day in Kolz’ class, “Wow!” And from that moment I became an ardent fan of The New York Times. Later, I recall reflecting on what a wonderful gift this newspaper had become to this transformed German history teacher and how even more impressive was his passion for sharing this passion with his students.

Now, with Gaye Kelley Crocker and Arno Kolz waning memories, and my 40-year career as a journalist in “retirement,” I find myself driven to encourage others’ appreciation for The New York Times and its related family in “the media.”

[Currently, I’m motivated chiefly by the twittered rantings of another New York kid from Queens who seems to have never learned how to read the gray lady or any other good newspaper in this nation that honors and upholds the freedom and integrity of the press].

Memoir: Music and Me, with special Thanks to PS154

I’m not a musician; although, I have sung throughout my life in church choirs, college folk groups, and as an entertainer of my children, nephews and nieces, grandchildren, and others’ children.

As the child of immigrants from an outport in northeastern Newfoundland, I learned endless versions of sea shanties and comic folk tunes. I retain the choruses of “I’se the B’y”, “Lukey’s Boat,” and “Squid-Jiggin’ Ground,” taught to me by Newfoundland aunts and cousins.

As a 12-year-old, I sang two solos at my only sister’s wedding; 25 or so years after that I sang the same songs at the wedding of my only niece. I sang the “Anniversary Waltz” at a celebration of my parents’ 25th anniversary when I was 13.

Despite growing up in Brooklyn, I secretly became an avid listener to country music broadcast from New Jersey throughout my teens. I learned the songs of Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells, Ray Price, Faron Young, Jimmy Rodgers, and Webb Pierce, and later the songs of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Don Williams, Ed Bruce, and several others. As I often tell friends, I learned about five chords on the guitar and about 1000 country songs.

As a collegian, influenced by the folk revival, I favored The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Judy Collins. Later, I became a big fan of Gordon Lightfoot, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, and Odetta. Even later, I was a connoisseur of more obscure folk purists such as Gordon Bok, Ed Trickett, and Ann Mayo Muir, along with John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and the Nova Scotian Stan Rogers. Also, when my wife and I began our family while living in Northern Vermont, Canadian television introduced me to Raffi, Fred Penner, Connie Caldor, and the Alberta cowboy that Ian Tyson had become.

In my senior year of college, I did folk concerts with a five-member group called “The Cellar-Dwellers and the Girl Upstairs” (four guys and a girl accompanied by a guitar, an upright double-bass, a tambourine, and me on the baritone ukelele).

Alongside this country-folk bias, I kept up with the songs of rock ‘n’ roll, and I never forgot most of the gospel songs I learned in church that were favorites of my mother and father. So my adult tastes moved understandably toward bluegrass gospel sung by artists such as Doyle Lawson, Joe Val, The Seldom Scene, and Ricky Skaggs along with Tony Rice.

I have entertained children and others with my almost verbatim renditions of “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” “The Rock Island Line,” and “The Ladies of the Harem of the Court of King Caractacus,” and I can do a decent job on “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” which my father loved to hear.

But this litany of my music favorites obscures the most significant musical experience of my life: sitting in “Music Appreciation” classes at PS 154 in Brooklyn, also known as the Windsor School (located in Windsor Terrace). Under the tutelage of my upper-grade teachers, M. K. Seward, Sylvia Bradley, Ethel R. Convery, and two other lower-grade teachers whose names I forget but who served as skilled accompanists and tutors, I absorbed the wonders of classical music.

In this class, our instructors used “lyric pneumonics” to aid our learning of well-known classical pieces. Thus, decades later I still listen to and repeat by singing:

–“Barcarolle, from Tales of Hoffman, written by Offenbach, bum-bum“;
–“Morning was dawning, as Peer Gynt was yawning from under a statue of Grieg”;
–Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act 3 of his opera Lohengrin:  “Lo-oh-oh-engrin came to wed the fair Elsa . . .” [they never played the bridal chorus in class!];
–the subtle “Largo” from the second movement of Symphony No. 9 from “The New World,” by Anton Dvorak, which our teachers repeatedly played and to which we sang “to a rose, to a rose, to a wild, wild, rose”; and
–Handel’s magnificent organ piece of the arrival of the Queen of Sheba, for which we had no lyrics, but the organ was a singular giveaway for our identification of this classic.

Incidentally, I spent an hour or two reviewing these pieces as I wrote this memoir, and I noted my teachers’ preferences for wedding music!

And, of course, they did surrender to our childishness in allowing us to bounce in PS 154’s auditorium seats as if mounted on stallions as we galloped to the not-so-subtle “Finale” from the William Tell Overture by Rossini. Most of us recognized this piece because of our familiarity with that masked cowboy hero of radio, The Lone Ranger. For this, our teachers did not employ pneumonics, but lots of shushing as spontaneous exclamations of “Hi-yo Silver, away” rang out around the auditorium.

I have to conclude that music, while not my profession, is embedded in my consciousness, and that my eclectic taste is rooted in Newfoundland, cowboys, hippies, church choirs, balladeers, troubadours, and The Windsor School’s music appreciation classes.

Thanks to you all!

Building a personal anthology of favorite poems

In all of his classes, poet Robert Pinsky insists that students assemble a personal anthology of poems. These are not to be simply photocopies of favorites; instead, each student is instructed to write out every poem in longhand, or type it out line by line, word by word. Pinsky argues this is the best way of learning one’s favorites, absorbing them, and perhaps living them forever.

I think he is right, and in the spirit of a Pinsky student (though I’ve never studied with him) I began my anthology with a few poems I’ve admired but haven’t memorized, titles that spun immediately to the top of my head.

Without writing them out here, let me just mention them for any reader to track down.

First is T. S. Eliot’s, Journey of the Magi.
–Eliot wrote this dramatic monologue in 1927, a year after he became an Anglo-Catholic. Many critics suggest Eliot’s poetry diminished after his conversion, but I suggest quite the opposite. One must reflect on the Incarnation to grasp the depth of Eliot’s reflection, and most of his critics just disdain such reflection.

–Second in my collection is Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter, which, set to music, has become one of the most beloved of Christmas carols. As did Eliot, Rossetti, a Victorian Christian, reflected on the meaning of the Incarnation of Christ and concluded, Our God, heaven cannot hold Him,/nor earth sustain.

–My third choice comes from an anthology designed for children and a poem I’ve written of previously, Rebecca Kai Dolitch’s poem My Brother’s Shirt. I think it is one of the gentlest, and saddest, anti-war poems I’ve read.

–One more for the time being: Dana Gioia’s 1991 poem, Planting Sequoias. I was introduced to Gioia’s poem by the late Larry Kooi, the head of a private Christian school at which I taught for a brief time. I’ve written about its significance in an earlier post.

I’ll attempt periodically to update the building of my favorites anthology.

“Toodle-oo” and our storage bags of memories.

“Toodle-oo” was a frequent expression of my youth. I heard it whenever we departed my aunt’s house, or when she left ours. I heard it from the dozens of Newfoundland immigrants I came to know growing up as a child of Newfoundland immigrants.

They had almost to a person abandoned their homeland that at the time of their youth was a dominion of Great Britain. As the Great Depression lessened, they left the fishing outports in which they were born and raised and discovered new lives as ironworkers, carpenters, painters, stevedores, homemakers, cooks, and skilled craftspersons in New York and other U.S. cities.

But they brought with them the flare of the British English they had learned and studied in Newfoundland, and “toodle-oo” was one of their most frequently used expressions of friendly departure.

Lexicologists are unsure of the origin of this expression. Some think it was a distorted pronunciation of the French phrase “à tout à l’heure,” meaning see you later.

Others think it may have been an expression imitating the tooting of an automobile horn, which seems to lose the element of saying goodbye in my thinking, and if accurate would more likely have become, “Be careful; get out of the way.”

In my experience, “toodle-oo” was never used as a warning of danger.

One dictionary gives a literary reference dated 1938 to the British writer P. G. Wodehouse, who has a character saying, “Toodle-oo. See ya later.”

It doesn’t matter how it began; it lives on–still mostly in British usage–as the well-wishing of departure among friends, and carries an assurance that one will be welcomed again in the future.

As we enter a New Year, I’m tempted to say “toodle-oo” to 2016, but with time we can never say, “See you later.”

Perhaps the role of writers is to record time so we can truly say “See you later” in our texts, notes, journals, workbooks, poems, essays, and letters.

We will see 2016 again but only in our memories, and as writers, we are destined to be recorders of memories.

I had a dream this weekend about inventing and marketing “Toodle-oo” bags. I went to the refrigerator and came across a storage bag in which I had saved the spaghetti and meat sauce prepared two nights earlier. In a sense, I was saying to the spaghetti when I stored it: “Toodle-oo. I’ll see ya later.” And sure enough, I met it again two days hence in our refrigerator.

It occurred to me then that writers in a sense are putting memories into “Toodle-oo” bags with everything we write, from sticky notes to blog posts to novels and poems.

We all have our form of Toodle-oo bags. Wherever we try to store our memories in writings, we use some imaginary Toodle-oo bag, in which we always say, “I’ll see ya later.”

So, I’ve decided I can say Toodle-oo to 2016 and add that I’ll see it later in one of my personal Toodle-oo bags.


Bloggers must set a pace. Some can write daily, others weekly. I’m discovering my pace–heretofore best labeled as sporadic–to be fortnightly.

A fortnight represents a period of two weeks; it is derived from the combining of two Old English words–fourteen (feorwertyne) and night (niht). A typical description of the period of two weeks in England, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, it has all but disappeared from widespread American usage.

The word, however, became incidentally crucial to the nurturing of my Christian faith in my late adolescence and early twenties.

I learned the word from reading Christianity Today when it was a crusading evangelical magazine begun in 1957 and published in Washington, DC. The banner and masthead of the journal of opinion and faith at that time read, “Christianity Today–Published Fortnightly.”

The journal’s pioneering editor was the progressive evangelical thinker Carl F. H. Henry. The magazine in that era sought to be a journal of Christian thought aimed at competing with the more liberal Christian Century and the even more culturally cutting-edge Christianity and Crisis.

Henry’s essays, which appeared in the journal fortnightly, challenged my adolescent faith that had been nurtured in Baptist dispensationalist fundamentalism, not in a harsh and argumentative manner of essays in the other religious journals of the time, but with a call to intellectualism and scholarship that was critical but convivial.

Henry’s approach was clear and honest, challenging both liberal extremes and fundamentalist militaristic attitudes. For the first time in my life, I began to see that neo-orthodox thinkers such as Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, as well as the theological and social revolutionaries Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, were not the “enemies” that fundamentalism made them out to be.

Henry became a leader and philosophical spokesperson for what at the time had been labeled “new evangelicalism.” Fortnightly, thanks to Henry’s essays in Christianity Today, I moved toward becoming one of that movement’s adherents.

(As a journalist, I have tried hard to clarify the distinction many of my colleagues were missing and continue to miss between “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.” Unfortunately, as the writer Jim Wallis has noted, contemporary right-wing fundamentalists have co-opted the term “evangelical,” and working journalists have been unwitting allies in that co-opting.)

I could go on describing my nascent intellectual awakening in faith, but for now, I merely want to give myself a pace for this almost random blogging I’m doing, and I want to give Henry credit for teaching me to exercise my brain and spirit fortnightly. You likely will see his name often mentioned in future posts.

A Rule of Life: “Is ye all ‘narder, m’luv?”




December 2016

The church season is now in Advent, but my reflection from earlier this year during the church season of Lent seems equally appropriate.

One learns that the monastic effort to follow a “rule” of life, as in The Rule of St. Benedict, is not a “rule” in the manner exercised by our American understanding of the English language. After all, our colonial ancestors waged a successful revolutionary war against the tyranny of the British “Ruler” and his exploitation of the colony.

In a more pedestrian sense, we all certainly should apply or attempt to apply the carpenter’s admonition to “measure twice, cut once.” In that instance, we welcome and praise the simple tool we call a ruler (although, any carpenter knows better the companion tool that is attached to a work belt is a “rule”).

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (1) lists seventeen separate definitions for this word, but the one the monastics typically apply is listed first: “a prescribed, suggested, or self-imposed guide for conduct or action.” I particularly like the phrase “self-imposed guide for conduct or action” to describe what any Lenten or Advent exercise seems to be encouraging.

German culture, known for its order and precision, often uses the expression “alles im Ordnung” meaning, everything is in order, or everything is as it should be. The agent who stamps a passport at a German port of entry uses the expression repeatedly and emphatically as he or she brings the ink stamp down on the page. A more pedestrian usage of the phrase is to express the English equivalent of “everything’s in its place,” or “everything’s OK.”

The immigrant subculture of native Newfoundlanders into which I was born and nurtured in New York, uses a common expression of this “self-imposed guide” in the words “all ‘narder.” It asks “Are you all in order?”

The mother or father of a family about to lead the children out of their home, be it for a visit to a relative for a cup of tea, a walk to church, a drive in the countryside, or a fishing trip, might ask in Newfie dialect, “Is we all ‘narder, m’luvs?”

The captain of a fishing schooner in Newfoundland, the profession of both my grandfathers, assuredly greeted every sailor who came aboard his ship to embark on the seasonal voyage for codfish with the question, “Is ye all ‘narder, me son?”

As I embarked on last year’s Lenten exercise encouraged by the members of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) “Growing a Rule of Life(2), I saw it less an application of a regulation for spiritual growth and more a question of my self-imposed guide for my life in Christ: am I “all ‘narder”?


(1) “Rule.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. 2016.

(2) http://ssje.org/ssje/growrule/ Society of St. John the Evangelist–Growing a Rule of Life.

Stromata1: My patchwork of ideas and gleanings

I learned the term Stromata from Clement of Alexandria, a second-century philosopher who converted to Christianity and whose collection of thoughts and jottings is given this title (Stromateis, in Greek).

It is sometimes translated as “miscellanies” or “patchwork,” two delightfully appropriate labels for what I’m doing in this writing, so I’ve commandeered it to label my often tentative and unfinished musings about what I’ve learned and continue to learn.

For example, today on the seeming indelicate “Poo Calendar” is listed as “World Toilet Day.”

This should not be taken lightly.

According to organizers of the World Toilet Organization (worldtoilet.org), founded on this day in 2005, about 40 percent of the world’s population, approximately 2.4 billion people, lives without access to toilets or latrines.

An estimated one billion people around the globe still practice open defecation. The costs of such a lack of fundamental sanitation are devastating and include increased disease and death, especially among children.

Even in the United States, the 2000 census report indicated more people owned television sets than had indoor plumbing with toilets.

Fortunately, that figure has changed, putting indoor plumbing slightly higher than owning a TV set, but some say the shift is more a result of TV watchers “cutting the cords” of indoor TV for more convenient digital entertainment than it is a case of improved sanitation.

The taboo on talking about toilets provided an instigation for the founder of the World Toilet Organization, Jack Sim, who noted: “If we can’t talk about it, we can’t fix it.”

Here’s a second example of Stromata:

The word for the study of correct pronunciation is Orthoepy. (or-THO-a-pee)

Of course, one doesn’t learn a great deal about pronunciation from books and scholarship, but from hearing and imitation.

Take the word Vidalia, which refers to a particular sweet onion.

You might, as I often did, pronounce it VIH-dale-ya, but my Georgia friend corrected me: it’s VYE-dale-ya (though some drop the el-sound), and is named after the city in which these onions were first grown in Georgia in the 1930s.

Production of Vidalia onions is now limited by federal code to the 13 counties around Vidalia in east central Georgia. Onions produced elsewhere are called, simply, onions!

Christian Spirituality in Surprising Places

(Originally posted May 26, 2016)

The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., recently spoke at a global missions conference in Puerto Rico (May 18).

Through a video of the bishop’s presentation brought to my attention in a blog by the Rev. Titus Pressler (see https://titusonmission.wordpress.com posted on May 16, 2016), my friend and former curate while I lived in Massachusetts, I was re-introduced to a powerful book that speaks loudly and pertinently to the phenomenon of Christian spirituality: Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, originally published in separate parts between 1963 and 1969 and compiled and re-issued in 2012 by Smyth&Helwys in Macon, GA.

Jordan was the agriculturalist-farmer-translator who in 1941 co-founded Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia, shortly after earning a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1976, he was instrumental in the founding of Habitat for Humanity, but it is his vernacular translation of the New Testament, the Cotton Patch Gospel that clearly spelled-out Jordan’s spirituality and Bishop Curry uses Jordan’s writing to underscore what he sees as a new “Jesus Movement” in the Episcopal Church and its mission.

This is not the hippie-inspired Jesus People Movement of the 1960s, Curry notes, but rather a renewal of the “Movement” that arose from the disciples of the New Testament. He relates this phenomenon to his audience at the University of Puerto Rico at Ponce gathered for the 21st Global Episcopal Mission Network Conference through a synopsis of Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel. 

That version relocates the story of the gospels and the early church to rural Georgia, in particular, to Gainesville, a city northeast of Atlanta near Lake Lanier. In Jordan’s translation, Gainesville becomes  Bethlehem, Atlanta becomes Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary flee to Mexico, the disciples are Rock and John and Bart and Phil and Jud, to name several, and Jesus–known as Jesus Davidson–who is not crucified, he is lynched!

Cotton Patch Gospel is a powerful and compelling challenge to 21st-century Christians living in a racially diverse and divided America. The re-issued version contains an introduction by former President Jimmy Carter  (who grew up within a few miles of the Koinonia Farm); a foreword by the late Baptist minister turned writer Will D. Campbell, who left an academic post in Mississippi to become a 1950s civil rights activist; and an afterword by Tony Campolo, the Baptist sociologist and evangelist recently retired from Pennsylvania’s Eastern University, who has consistently challenged evangelical Christianity’s spirituality in areas of social justice. The brief essays by the three C’s (Carter, Campbell, Campolo) are worth reading on their own.

In re-reading (honestly, my previous exposure was a cursory sampling) the Cotton Patch Gospel, I discovered a powerful spirituality in Jordan’s translation (Jordan did the work using the Nestle-Alland twenty-third edition of the Greek text–the latest edition available in 1957), perhaps best exemplified by his rendition of the Sermon on the Mount:

“The spiritually humble are God’s people, . . . ;

“They who are deeply concerned are God’s people, . . . ;

“They who are gentle are his people, . . . ;

“They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people, . . . ;

“Men of peace and good will are God’s people, . . .”;

and so on. (Matthew, Chapter 5).

[In addition, the Cotton Patch Gospel inspired a powerful musical in 1981 by Tom Key and Russell Treyz. The music and lyrics for the oft-performed play were written by the popular folk-singer, the late Harry Chapin. Playlists of Chapin’s songs and some scenes from a variety of productions of the musical are available on YouTube.]

(ed. note: This YouTube link connects to 19 audio selections recorded from a stage presentation by the original cast of the musical. The songs were posted in 2013 by The Orchard Enterprises, a digital music distribution company located in New York City).


On a similar front:

Last month I discovered in my father-in-law’s library another book probing Christian spirituality in an area where few expect to find it: Reformed Spirituality: An Introduction for Believers (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), by Presbyterian Howard L. Rice, the late chaplain and professor of ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Rice spent most of his academic career at SFTS on crutches or in a wheelchair after being stricken by multiple sclerosis, a diagnosis that was changed to spinal cord damage when he retired. He was a pioneer in bringing to popular attention the writings of John Calvin on Christian spirituality and, as a follower and colleague of Morton T. Kelsey, helping to develop seminary programs in spiritual direction and Christian spirituality.

Rice also was an ardent reader and appreciator of the fiction of C.S. Lewis, and argued, counter to the heavy rationalism associated with Calvinism, for more attention to and appreciation of imagination, emotion, and mystery in theology and Christian reflection.

From Rice I’ve lifted this tiny catalog of important Reformed (and Puritan) writers and declarations on spirituality:

John Calvin; Lewis Bayly; Francis Rous; Richard Baxter; Samuel Rutherford; John Owen; John Bunyan; Henry Scougal; Elizabeth Singer Rowe; Gerhard Tersteegen; Jonathan Edwards; Charles Hodge; Emily Herman; Howard Thurman; John Knox and the Scots Confession; Caspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism; Heinrich Bullinger and Huldrych Zwingli and the Second Helvetic Confession; and The Westminster Confession and Catechisms, best known among English-speaking Presbyterians and members of other Reformed denominations.

I’m working my way backward through this list and confess to a humbling and eye-opening (and heart-bowing) experience.

Almost all of the names on this list were largely ignored by students of Christian spirituality in the 20th century; although, that ignorance has been undercut by the 2001 publication of Calvin’s Writings on Pastoral Piety (admit it, we cringe at the word piety!) edited by Princeton scholar Elsie Anne McKee in the Classics of Western Spirituality series published by Paulist Press.

I’m just grateful for Howard L. Rice and fathers-in-law.

Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

Mother’s Day–Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

It is no wonder that one of my mother’s favorite songs was the hymn, “Let the lower lights be burning,” composed by Philip Paul Bliss, a nineteenth-century musician and evangelist.

Living and growing in Wesleyville, one of Newfoundland’s poor but hearty outports on the island’s northeastern Bonavista Bay, and with a father who captained a fishing schooner, my mother was well educated (formally, she finished the equivalent of eighth grade) about the importance of the “lower lights.”

The history of Bliss’s 1871 hymn suggests he wrote it after hearing a sermon by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody that included a story of a ship running aground while entering Cleveland harbor (on Lake Erie) because the lighthouse had failed.

Moody made the distinction of the upper lights, God’s starry heaven, the navigation aid to mariners worldwide, and the “lower lights” provided by coastal lighthouses that warn ships of danger as they approach shallow rockbound coasts. These lower lights–the strong beams from the lighthouse–were critical beacons of warning and guides to safety for ships approaching their berths. The lower lights provide sailors their way to safe harbor.

Moody’s story noted that God takes care of the upper lights, but it is the Christian’s duty to “let the lower lights be burning” as a means of guidance and rescue—and for Moody and his evangelist friend, Bliss, for the saving of souls.

Here are the inspired verses Bliss wrote after hearing Moody:

“Brightly beams our Father’s mercy

From his lighthouse evermore,

But to us he gives the keeping

Of the lights along the shore.


“Let the lower lights be burning,

Send a gleam across the wave.

Some poor fainting, struggling seaman

You may rescue, you may save.


“Dark the night of sin has settled,

Loud the angry billows roar.

Eager eyes are watching, longing,

For the lights along the shore.


“Trim your feeble lamp, my brother,

Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,

Trying now to make the harbor

In the darkness may be lost.”


I never really appreciated how much that hymn awakened the lived experience of my mother, though I often noted she sang it lustily and mostly from memory during the frequent church “singspirations” at our Baptist church in Brooklyn. As a young girl, my mother had worked at a waterfront department store—the only job for which she drew pay during her 93 years–and became familiar with the ways and wares of a life dependent on the sea.

Bliss’s words are meant to inspire us to serve others, especially those in peril. I believe my mother, who later in life, when her four children were grown and gone on their own voyages, became a Red Cross volunteer, and who, as she aged became a devoted reader of the Book of Psalms, was inspired to be a keeper of the “lower lights.”

I recall as a young man being inspired along similar lines after reading J. D. Salinger’s classic novel, Catcher in the Rye. I was particularly impressed with Holden Caulfield’s dream story of him serving as a guard for children playing in a field of rye close to a dangerous precipice. It was the protagonist’s job to watch over the children and catch any who wandered too close to the perilous edge. He was the “catcher” in the rye. I recall telling a church study group focusing on “ministry” that I’d determined I too wanted to become a “catcher in the rye.”

I’ve learned that sentiment has been inspired as much by my mother as by Salinger.