Wandering in Wyoming

2 Jan

I find myself bummed out a bit lately. More than usual at least. The Newtown horror story still weighs on my heart. Personal life events are taking personal tolls I don’t know if I can pay. Too frequently I read a post in some social media site that just stinks of pessimism and/or first world problems followed by the acronym FML – “Fuck My Life”. Really. Really? Really. Fuck my life. Is it really that bad? Is the world truly going to the proverbial hell in a hand basket? Even though it didn’t end as some predicted or hoped it would last week, the woes of life can tarnish the outlook of this newly minted member of the Unemployed Philosophers Guild. I think the membership requirements are simply to partake of a particular brand of mints and have a predisposition for pontificating.

So what to do when life or the world seems a bit colder and harsher? When one finds himself precariously close to saying Fuck my life or Fuck all and do not want to concede defeat to the fates or fatalists? I say go for a walk. And so I did to the chilly streets of downtown Cheyenne and for lack of better word, explore.

The first place to catch my attention was a historic train depot. Nice building made nicer by heat inside but pretty shy on people or other observable living creatures. All the same, not a bad place to warm up and it does have a lovely view of downtown. Easy to imagine travelers of another era stepping out the main doors for their first steps into this place and what it held for them.

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I shall do the same. Step out to find what may be found for me today.

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Up the street is an interesting looking place called The Wrangler so I wander in to a very old and very large western wear store and the only other person there who happens to have same name as my brother, Jeff. He’s old school cowboy style too. Handlebar mustache with waxed tips I dream of being able to grow; hat with the  sides flat and straight up; vest, beat up jeans, the whole ranch hand thing. We chat in that ‘gittin’ to know ya’ kinda way and it turns out he’s from Princeton, Texas town I visit regularly about an hour from my town.

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Nice fella. Good ‘ol boy in the good kind of way who shows little interest in dressing me out in the latest western apparel but just wants to have a good conversation and maybe a little news from his homeland of East Texas. After driving a truck through the state a few times and being drawn to the cowboy culture thing, he up and decided to move to the heart of it all and spoke fondly of out of the way places around here and in Colorado that still have that Old West vibe to it. Feeling the need for a cup of mud, he points me in the direction of the nearest coffee shop to which I immediately miss for lack of decent navigational skills and end up at the doors of a becoming Methodist church.

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Being a clergyman of the Methodist flavor, I pause to admire its architecture and out comes the church’s caregiver to oil the front door’s hinges. He’s a gent in a sweater with snowy hair, a trim beard and an easy smile. He pretty much fits the imagination’s image of church caregiver. It would take little to think of him trimming candles and polishing pews out of devotion to his faith. Dang, my first sighting of him is oiling hinges so they don’t welcome the visitors with a squeak. After a quick introduction, he invites through those silent doors into the sanctuary to show off its beauty and history.

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Ever meet someone who obviously cares about something beyond their self? It’s good to me step beyond the shadow of our own noses and this gracious fellow had left his shadow somewhere back home it seems to me.

Onward, onward, surely coffee can be found somewhere and it is at the Starbucks around the corner. Sorry, so pic of this one but insert one from your experiences with a snowy parking lot and lot of people inside warming up with steaming caffeinated beverages. Turns out, after ordering a cup of hot black goodness I find I have no fundage for paying for that cup or its contents. “Don’t worry about”, says Rebecca the barista, “It’s on us.” Wow. Thank you, Rebecca. Free fuel for a cold day. Free fuel for a warming heart too.

The capital building is in my sights but I draw up short at the Wyoming Arts Council and meet the only person there, a kindly petite woman who appears to my limited experience to be of extensive Native American heritage. She gladly unlocks the gallery to show me the latest exhibition of local artwork and we talk of our shared interests in writing, pottery and photography. Art. So good. I’m now on her mailing list so if you want to know the latest offerings by the Wyoming Arts Council, call them or me. She also pointed me toward the state museum.Image

Another place with more to offer than meets the eye. Yes there are dioramas of how coal mines are formed and how cattle are branded. There are lots and lots of old six shooters and repeating rifles. Governor’s wives inaugural dresses. Rodeo stuff. Cowboy and Indian displays. Rocks and dinosaur bones. All nice and well displayed. I should know. I once took a class on “Museum Presentation”. Really, I did. Gave a docent tour for my final exam and everything.

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But what it offers than can’t be put into a glass box is what makes it and any other bit of architecture special be it church, coffee shop, western store or house. The humanity that gathers, dwells, shares, eats and such within is what makes any of those places what they are. And that is what I really was hoping to find this morning when I set out. It’s too damn easy to find despair and pain. Blood and guts. But. But…if we worry less about arming ourselves with tough facades and defenses of less metaphorical sorts…if we arm ourselves with a greeting and a smile. An open disposition. An open heart. It seems to this naive, optimistic soul that there is not that much to exclaim “FML!” over but more than a little to say “GMH” over. Gives Me Hope. Hope found in hospitality. The kindness of strangers. Shared loves. Shared interests. It’s out there. Tucked away and in plain sight wherever I or you wander. Wander on. Wander on.

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Isn’t Life Peculiar?

8 Nov

 

Okay. I’ll be straight up with you, dear reader. I actually wrote this a few years ago but it’s so appropriate for me this time of year that I’m posting it as a blog entry.  This is a sermon I first wrote in seminary and have delivered some variation of several times. It will probably remain one of my favorite sermons as it keeps working it’s way into my life and personal theology more and more. It’s been said that every preacher basically preaches the same sermon meaning that they tend to dwell within a particular place theologically more than the same wording, though some are guilty of that too.

 

Please note that it was written in the Fall, hence some of the early references in the beginning and it is enacted a bit. I sometimes show some pics I made to go along with it if a projector is convenient, sing in one section, and so on and so forth. Point being, the spoken word can lose something of it’s punch when reduced to written words. All the same, I hope the reader enjoys and may gain something from it too.

Ecclesiastes 12.1-8 New Revised Standard Version – verse 8 is altered to reflect personal preference in translation :

1 Remember your creator in the days of your youth,

Before the days of trouble come,

And the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”;

2 Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain;

3 In the day when the guards of the house tremble,

And the strong men are bent,

And the women who grind cease working because they are few,

And those who look through the windows see dimly;

4 When the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low,

And one rises up at the sound of a bird,

And all the daughters of song are brought low;

5 When one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road;

The almond tree blossoms,

The grasshopper drags itself along

And desire fails;

Because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets;

6 Before the silver cord is snapped,

And the golden bowl is broken,

And the pitcher is broken at the fountain,

And the wheel broken at the cistern,

7 And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.

8 Absurdity of absurdities, says Qohelet; all is absurdity.

Isn’t Life Peculiar?

It’s that time of year again when calendars begin to show up at stores and mall kiosks inviting us to mark our days and plan our futures while showing what our interests are– be it kittens, classic Far Side comics, Van Gogh paintings, or the Sierra Club – you’re all but guaranteed to find a big, beautiful picture calendar that will serve as both self revealing eye candy and a convenient way to tell what date next Friday is. I find myself slowing down at these stands to look for a new calendar of the inspirational, devotional sort. You know – the kind that usually has photos of beautiful landscapes with a moving line of scripture. Something like a pristine mountain range and part of Psalm 8, “O Lord, our sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Or maybe a field of flowers with Matthew 12.27, “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” You’ve seen these or had one, haven’t you? It may even be a standard gift for pastors, because I seem to get one for Christmas almost every year.

But I’m looking for one based on Ecclesiastes this year. Problem is, the really juicy lines from that book don’t ever seem to make the cut with calendar designers. Maybe it’s not considered as inspiring enough or the verses just don’t go along with pictures of cute kittens very well. I may just have to make my own. How about a photo of a nice sunset with 2:11,  “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Aaaah. Doesn’t that make you want to hit the ground running in the morning? A peaceful graveyard or just a blank page with 4:2-3“And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.”  Maybe something with a bit more hope? How about 9:4? It’s one of my favorites. “But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” It would go great with a picture of a scrappy little Jack Russell terrier, wouldn’t it?

Of course, the high point of the calendar would have to be the finale of the whole book, Chapter 12, verses 1-8.  It’s very poetic and conjures up some moving imagery. We could have a calendar of just this passage. Begin with a picture of some young folks hanging out but there’s a dark, brooding storm coming with verses 1 and 2 – “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”–before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain”. Well it began inspiringly. Let’s turn the page.

This page describes an estate falling apart. The servants are trembly and tired. The windows are dingy and cracked. It’s the kind of place with creaky doors and groaning floors. Imagine an old, decaying home with an old, decaying butler at the entrance like we may see in an old mystery movie. But Qohelet, the writer of Ecclesiastes, is thought to be painting a picture of the body’s estate in old age and all that often comes with it: weakness, blindness, deafness, toothlessness, fearfulness, tiredness, impotence, grayness. And you don’t have to be prophetic to know what’s next in line. I bet you can come up with your own picture for that page – a return for all to an eternal home and a funeral procession to see you off. Turn the page. Objects of light and beauty are ruined. The means of drawing water from the well, the stuff of life, has an “out of order” sign on it. The dust from which we’re made returns to the earth and the breath of God goes back to God who gave it to begin with. And Qohelet ends his book on the same note that he began the whole book with – life is absurd.

The reason this isn’t a calendar is it wouldn’t sell too well. Qohelet may be a bit too lacking in sentiment for most people.  I’d buy it though, but I have an unusual viewpoint and so did Qohelet. The world he lived in seemed out of whack.  In the centuries leading up to his life, the Hebrew people had been conquered and shuffled around over the years from their homes in Israel to Assyria, then Babylon, and then back again – under the thumb of different rulers. Finally under Persian rule, some returned to Jerusalem but it wasn’t the same. There hadn’t been an Israelite King in a few hundred years and the good ‘ol days of God’s favor were a distant dream from the past in the bad ‘ol days of the present.

Qohelet may have been back in Jerusalem with his people, but they still answered to a foreign power from a distant land that gave gifts without obvious rhyme or reason. And so God seemed distant and life didn’t have much rhyme or reason either.  The wisdom of yesteryear didn’t seem to fit this time and place. Follow the wisdom of proverbs all you want, but they’re no guarantee of health or wealth in these crazy days. Take comfort in Job who admits that life is hard, but don’t leave the light on for God, because he hasn’t shown up in a while.  Qohelet is often accused of being a pessimist, but I think he’s just taking a long, hard look at life as it is and calls it like he sees it. If we’re willing to take a hard look at life now, it doesn’t seem all that different. There’s truth to his statement, “there’s nothing new under the sun”. For him and us, life can seem rhymeless and reasonless, but Qohelet never sees it as Godless, and I hope you don’t either.

There isn’t a lack of faith in his words. God gives the gift of life and the gift returns to God. God is mysterious. And if we’re to be as honest as Qohelet is – life rarely makes perfect sense. It may even seem absurd, like a divine comedy.  Injustice is out there. Nothing’s quite fair and life flickers by like a movie reel. But in spite of all that, God is not missing in action. I see his action all the time.

I have an unusual job of hospice chaplain. When people find that out, they often give one of two reactions. Either their condolences for having such a job or some sort of reverence, neither of which I deserve. It’s not a sad job. I found the tedium of factory work far more depressing. And it’s not a “Hallmark” movie either. There’s never any soft, mood lighting with a poignant soundtrack to swell with the impassioned final words of a suspiciously attractive patient’s last breath.  Working with hospice is more a shovel and grit job helping people with the hard work of living as they’re dying. The blessing is that I sometimes find myself near what the Irish call “thin places”.  Those moments in which the veil between here and there is thinner and we almost get a glimpse of what lies beyond mortal sight. When you are part of the birth of a child, and you laugh and cry at the same time because neither can quite express the joy of witnessing life come kicking and screaming into the world – that’s a thin place many of us have been to. There’s another thin place I’ve often been to as well. It’s when the same thing happens in reverse and someone long loved slips off behind the veil that separates our world from what lies beyond.

In the summer of 2007, I experienced one of those moments. John had come onto hospice care because cancerous tumors were spreading throughout his body and destroying it from the inside out. He and I had known each other for some time. We’d graduated high school together. Lived in the same town most of our lives. Had been married to our wives for about the same amount of time and had daughters nearly the same age. It seemed so absurd and unfair to be from such similar backgrounds with such similar lives and such vastly different circumstances. At the end of the day, I went home to do whatever I wanted and John lay in the same bed staring at the same room, almost able to count the number of words, respirations, and touches he had left.

The day of John’s last breath, I was called in the twilight of dawn to come out. He’d died early in the morn and his family needed prayer. When I walked into the room where John’s body was, still warm but perfectly still, surrounded by about three dozen grieving souls, it was twilight in there too. A gray and colorless people in a gray and colorless room that death’s shadow had shooed all feelings of life from.

I led them in a prayer and tried to make sense of the moment in my own mind. John had done things right. He’d worked hard and been a good husband and father. It seemed absolutely ridiculous that this young, vital man should die while we looked on and lived on. In that imaginary, cosmic calculator we sometimes tally our lives up on, he’d lived no worse than me and I’d certainly done no better. As we sat there after saying ‘amen’, there was that deep silence you know of if you’ve been there. Just a sniffle or soft crying here and there to puncuate profound quietness. Sometimes, there just aren’t words for when the reality of the grief hits home.

In that gray, still silence, someone’s cell phone went off and it wasn’t a typical ring. It was a song. It began very softly, “I’m gonna whoop your ass.” (sung slowly and soulfully) A few heads cocked and then a few more because it grew louder each time until it was impossible to ignore, “I’m gonna whoop your ass!” (still sung soulfully but loudly) louder and louder each time repeating this ridiculous, funny phrase over and over as the phone’s owner finally moved across the crowded room with people moving out of her path because her considerable girth called for a considerable passage.

In that absurd moment with that unlikely song going on and on, louder and louder, something magnificent happened as the people did what you may be doing. They laughed; smiled. In that moment, the pall of death was lifted by laughter and life and light refilled the room. It was as though God gave another gift. This reminder that life may be topsy-turvy, even hurt like hell sometimes, but it is still LIFE and a gift from the source of life. “Remember your creator in the days of your youth” Qohelet tells us, as though to say ‘remember the giver of life’. Cherish the giver by cherishing the gift. How can we live in such a way? Qohelet tells us. Remember. Be mindful. Place this mysterious being we call God at the center of your life. Pray. Allow the Word to weave into the fabric of your heart, mind, and soul. We have such a beautiful gift! The gift of life always returns to the source of life, God. I think one of the many things Qohelet teaches is don’t waste it and return to God dead on arrival because you forgot to love it anymore.

We need to hear that because too many of us die before we ever come close to breathing our last. We can become caught up in distractions that keep us from truly being alive. Worrying about our toy collections or taking care of “numero uno” or allowing the pains of life to whither the heart long before it stops beating. I’m sure you’ve witnessed some lifeless living and don’t need me to fill in that blank.

I recently cleaned out an old lock box and found an unexpected prize, this old Zippo lighter. I looked closely and beneath the scuffs and scrapes, is my grandmother’s name, “Dorothy” on one side and “Happy 39th” on the other. It was an anniversary gift from my Granddad. Grandma died after a long, tough life. She had the emotional scars that came from grieving the deaths of her life companion and both their sons. She had the scrapes and scuffs that living through the ups and downs of life leave. This old, beat up Zippo reminds me of her because of that. It also still lights. (A strike of the wheel and a flame) That reminds me of her too. It reminds me of her tenacity to keep living fiercely with hope, love, and faith despite life’s tragedies. Sometimes all the more sweetly, because of that bitter awareness that life is like Hebel – the Hebrew word for vapor, smoke, breath, and absurdity that we find so often in Ecclesiastes. Hebel is a word that beautifully conveys how fragile and beautiful life is and how it can go away from our sight and grasp anytime. The moment we’re alive is this moment. Look. Here comes a moment. Here it is. Oh. Now it’s gone.(the lighter is closed, extinguishing the light) Can’t relive it, rewind it, or even Tivo it.  We can’t hold onto breath or smoke. It flows where it will, doesn’t it and our joy is connected to our sorrow. Kahlil Gibran wrote,“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?” I think there’s a truth in that.

I carry this Zippo with me now. It helps me to remember- not just her and many of the other souls who have touched my life, but to remember God who created and touches all our lives.  It’s not the only way I remember, but one of the ways. How do you remember your creator? How do you live and breathe with joy and thanksgiving, in the face of life’s terribly wonderful beauty? Remember your creator before you grow old.

Maybe I’ll quit wasting my time looking for that new calendar. There’s more beauty in every moment of this roller coaster called life than any big glossy picture can freeze in time or place. Maybe I’ll listen to Scripture more closely too. Let’s start with St. Matthew who wrote, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”  Next Friday will come in due time. I want to focus on this moment. This moment. How about you?

Confessions of a Church Junkie

7 Nov

Iona Abbey

I have a minor confession to make. I’m a church junkie. I love churches and will take my fix almost anyway I can get it. I love visiting the spaces that people gather in for worship and have visited churches that ranged from a rustic, one room chapel in rural farmland and open spaces in the outdoors to monumental cathedrals and quite a range of varieties in between. Whenever I visit a place through which a large number of people visit or travel such as an airport, hospital, or national park I make a point of visiting the chapel. Sometimes I just take a look and note its uniqueness. Sometimes, I sit for a moment of silence and prayer.

The Painted Church near Captain Cook, HI

I think part of why I’m drawn to these places is a desire to find what the Celts called ‘thin places’. It was or is their description of places where one has a sense that the veil between this visible world and what lies beyond our sight is somehow thinner and we just might get a glimpse of the divine that is clearer than normal or at least better than what one may feel in a crowded mall on a Saturday.

Northumbria Chapel

Perhaps you’ve felt that too at a particular place or moment. It might have been in an ancient sanctuary in which there was a sense of the many souls who’d processed down those aisles over the years or maybe it had nothing at all to do with a structure but was felt in the witnessing of a sunset over the Pacific ocean or in the birth of your child. It can vary for each of us and I’ve felt a fluttering and lifting of my heart in those moments too. But for whatever reason, one of my go to places is a church – not that they all feel like holy ground, but the ones that do help make up for the ones that don’t so I keep visiting them when I have the chance.

A couple years ago, I went to Scotland with a group of seminary students to explore what is called Celtic Christianity and to find a thin place or two. While there, a lovely woman named Jane who was hosting myself and a fellow visitor at her flat in Glasgow took us to her church. I don’t recall its name or even the denomination it belonged to but I can remember what it looked like as clearly as if I’d been there last week. It was an old church by American standards, nicely worn in, and built in the Gothic style so popular in Scotland a couple or three centuries ago. After the worship service which was a story in itself to be shared another time, I chatted with a few of the locals about their church. One of them let me know that they’d recently finished a renovation and pointed out some of the structural elements. What captured my attention the most were the relief sculptures of faces looking down upon us from above the columns. This is a common sight in churches from the middle ages and these sculptures often represented Saints (with a big ‘S’ versus us common, garden variety saints with a little ‘s’) and were sometimes modeled after the faces of patrons of a given church in honor of their sponsorship in the building of that church.

The part of this informal lesson was the information that several of the newly carved faces were not replications of what had been there before, but were based on the faces of current members of the church. If one looked closely, telltale signs in modern eyeglasses and contemporary haircuts could be made out in the stone faces of contemporary folks mixing it up with traditional saints of centuries past. I liked that and learned that this was not a unique practice for artisans. I recently read of a church on the east coast with a similar story. A painter was hired to create new frescoes and looking for models, he chose those he knew, which is only natural. His pregnant wife became the model for the expectant virgin Mary and a local waitress was her face. The priest stood in for a servant at the Last Supper. There is a church in downtown Los Angeles called the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that is filled with tapestries containing the likenesses of 135 saints. The funny thing is, they’re all based on local people who worked nearby in coffee shops, businesses, or were simply in the neighborhood at the right time and asked to step in be a model. People just like you and me being the models of saints adorning the walls of churches for anyone who wanders in to see and hopefully be inspired by. Go figure.

Some of these people were interviewed about their experience in this unexpected job of saint model and many responded that there was something about learning of who they were impersonating  and behaving like for a moment that made them want to act like the saint they were modeling. Perhaps they were inspired. Maybe they felt like they stood in a thin place for a moment. Maybe their lives became more lively. What I like about this all though is the reminder that inspiration, mentoring, and guidance is not just in the ancient tales of people who walked the earth long before we were ever thought of. It’s also found in those who share the same space with us.

As I write this, it is the evening of All Saints Sunday. It’s a day set aside in the Christian calendar to remember the saints in our lives – those whose lives have touched our lives and gone onto whatever lies beyond the veil of mortal vision. We remember them today especially as gifts of life from the source of life. There is another sort of sanctuary than those made of stone, concrete, steel, and wood. Remember, the church is about more than the building and the steeple – it’s really about the people.

There is a sanctuary within each of us called the heart. Of course, I’m not referring to that amazing, biological blood pump in your chest but the metaphysical place that enshrines our loves, dreams, hopes, and the subject(s) of our worship.

If you can envision such a place as a building. A building set aside from all other structures to focus on love, dreams, hope, and worship. Something like a church, chapel, synagogue, temple, mosque, or shrine. A sanctuary if you will in which all that you hold sacred is kept. Memories live there. Dreams are birthed there. Hopes are kindled there. Love is felt there. Sometimes, lesser things can invade too, but not today. What does the sanctuary of your heart look like? How is it shaped and built? What is adorned there? What is holy there? As you look about, do you see artwork? Perhaps the faces of those who’ve shaped your life into what it is through their example of their lives are looking down from a tapestry or sculpture or the frescoes on the ceiling. Who are they? Who are the saints that touched your life? Who lives on in the sacred space of your heart long after they’ve passed beyond your grasp?

That’s what today is about. The lives of those souls who helped in the building of our internal sanctuaries. Remember them. Love them. Look forward to the moment when we shall all be together again. And pick up your tools and help build the sanctuaries of others too. May our lives be worthy of adorning the hearts of those who follow our lives.

wakes and wakefulness

26 Sep

This has been a day in which I feel more like a cat than a human. I want to sleep. And then sleep some more. Maybe take a nap after that. The sense of tiredness I’ve been feeling is hardly dented by black Kona coffee and definitely not relieved much by the handful of hours of rest I throw at it from time to time over the last few days. There’s reason why it’s been about a month since I sat down to tap out a notion or two for my first blog. Life gets daily as an old southern saying goes. Nothing new for me or anyone else reading this, I know. Like many folks, I get caught up in the currents of making a living, raising kids, running a household, blah blah blah only to look up a few days or weeks later to see that I’m much farther down the river than I expected since the last time I bothered or was able to look up and attempt to read my bearings.

So it goes. Life. Moving, ebbing and flowing and we move, ebb, and flow right along with it. It’s nicely delusional when I feel like a have a grip on it and can control something of where I’m at in it but if I’m honest with myself, having a grip on life is about as realistic as having a grip on a river. I can’t exactly hold on to either in a symbolic or literal sense of the word. This thing called life will just keep on flowing whether or not I like the current or depth or rocks along the way. And it seems that we bump into others and sometimes, the river keeps them near us throughout its course and others are swept away from us, even if we swim like crazy to stay within hand’s reach. Life is funny that way. Well, I think that’s enough of river metaphors. We get it, Mike. Life is like a rambling river. Duh. Get on with it, man.

So like many preacher sorts, I say one thing to really say another. To get to what’s really on my mind. Us dang preachers are doing that all the time, aren’t we? Today, I began a sermon talking about dressing up with my family as zombies for Halloween. The sermon really had nothing to do with zombies but much to do with the masks we can wear on non-Halloween days of the year. So it is with rivers too. Just so you know, there will be no advice coming up on successful kayaking or exciting river rafting trips.

What I’m wondering about is how we remember the journey at its end. I have the job of doing that all the time in funerals, memorial services for individuals and groups, celebrations or life, or whatever else you may want to call the ceremonies we hold to remember and honor the departed at the end of their earthly life. I speak at the occasional hospice conference on such and have ‘done’ more services than I have clear track of. I’m currently in the ballpark of 150-200 funerals that can have “Reverend Michael Moore” associated with them, but I never bothered to keep any records. Regardless, here I’ve been, trying to weave the life story of people into poetry, planning and presiding a gamut of burial ceremonies as simple as a pine box next to an open grave with two attendees to a service for a community leader that was filmed for news and had the participation of firetrucks, honor guard, and a drum and bagpipe band as part of the ceremonies. Whoever thought I’d be the guy sought out to do more than the occasional funeral? Not me. That’s fo sho.

But like life, what we do is often unpredictable and here I am in a tradition older than history. The buried remains of Neanderthals have reportedly been found with flower pollen distributed on them in a repeatedly characteristic way, leading some to believe that even these most ancient of our forebears had burial rituals and beliefs about it all.  Along with that, I attend a lot of funerals for hospice patients I helped take care of but who’s services are conducted by other colleagues. I like to think I’m a becoming a sommelier of funerals, if you will, able to distinguish the nuances and quality of a day that most people would sooner forget than savor.

And strangely enough, I’m a sommelier in the sense that I savor these moments too. Again, another metaphor, but these moments of rememberance allow us to take a pause, sip in the meaning and chaos of life, swish it about inside, and taste the bouquet of life in general, a person’s life in particular and how we celebrate them both. Where is it from? What sort of fruit grew there? What hardships or benefits came in its growing season? What sort of earth did it grow in? How well was it tended? How was it harvested? How was it aged? Is it bitter, sweet, layered, simple, complex, etc.? Perhaps like those ancient Neanderthals and most of the members of the human family who walked the earth since, I look up at the stars, watch the sun rise and set, stare into camp fires, witness the newborn, the dead and wonder. What’s it all about, what it means, why we’re hear, where we go, what do we do in the mean time??

Make no mistake. I’m not exactly morbid or in love with death. Rather, I’m very much in love with the splendor and beauty of life, but learned quite young that death is a natural and unchangeable part of life. As Robin William’s character, John Keating, in The Dead Poets Society reminds his students, “We’re all food for worms.” May not sound life affirming on first hearing, does it? But it is my conviction that living with an awareness of one’s mortality enables us to live life more fully and more awake. As much as I want to nap away through the day like my cat, Tamale, has been doing since I got home from church today; as much as I need to rest a bit and catch my breath, I want to stay awake and aware. As much as I want to stop and lay down sometimes, it’s hard not to prefer to play, breathe deeply, pay attention, keep swimming in the river of life and not miss a beat of the drum.

I don’t know what my funeral will be like or who will come or how they will remember me. And I’m not sure how much it even matters to me, but I hope to die as one who fully lived with my eyes wide open and my soul filled with delight. I hope those who may show up will have a wonderful wake and if I have one druther come to be in such a gathering, it’s that this poem be read.

The Laughing Heart by Charles Bukowski

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

In The Beginning…. well, actually I’m just starting a blog.

29 Aug

Oi, you. Yeah, I’m talking to you. Most people know me as Michael or Mike. A select few still know me as Mikey. If you’re in that group, you already know it. If you’re not, don’t call me Mikey. An even smaller group of girls know me as dad or padre. I prefer the second term but am usually happy to answer to either. A few colleagues know me by my self imposed title, Irreverent Reverend because I happen to be a clergy person but try not to take myself too seriously. Curiously, there are many people who know me briefly or not at all and rarely remember my name. I may share in some of their most intimate moments in life but I’m not talking about sex. To be honest, it’s never important that I’m remembered by them anyway. These people are my ‘patients’ whom I tend to as a hospice chaplain and through whom, I’m given the privilege of regularly visiting the borderland between life and death. I usually remember them long after they’ve parted company with this world and they often shape my perspective. It’s past time I write about it. Besides, if I don’t, my dive buddy is going to pester me without mercy.

Whatever name you may know me by, this blog is for you. Sort of. I want to share some of my little world with you. I don’t think many people want to visit it, but also think that if you give it a whirl, you’ll see it’s not so scary. It’s for me too, of course. I want to remember what I experience better.

As the character of a hollow eyed combat veteran in many a movie may say, “I’ve seen things, man…..I’ve seen things.” I always like that character because I’ve seen things too. Sublime and beautiful at times. Heartbreaking and disturbing at others. Occasionally, the experience is haunting. Like combat, it’s possibly addictive to go to that veil so often because it’s gotten hard to imagine doing other work anymore.

Well, enough of that. I’m starting to sound a bit full of myself and ramble. Occupational hazard for clergy types. So, I’ll close this intro with an invite to open your eyes and witness life going on around you in all its loveliness and reflect with me on what it’s about. And if you’re curious, to read a bit of what I’m seeing and reflecting on too. Shalom.