Monday, November 6, 2017

Remembering Grandpa

Memory is a curious thing. Frederick Buechner describes memory as a room we can visit. When I visit Grandpa, the room has the sweet smell of an after-dinner William Penn cigar and the sounds of an old-time radio show. Melvin Halverson is sitting in his easy chair attended like royalty by my sister and me. I get his slippers and reading glasses. Mary gently brushes the remaining wisps of white hair around his crown. He has names for us. Mary is “krudling the old booster” and I am the “man with the glass nose and the tin ears.” Krudling is Norse for “sweetie”.
The 13th of 14 children born on a farm in Mishicot, WI, Melvin went to Luther College and became a pastor. I never heard him preach but I savor a collection of his hand-written sermons. Each morning he would begin the day in his study and have a conversation with God. With farming in his background, Good Shepard was one of his favorite ways to address God. His sermons were poetic and lyrical, no doubt inspired by the music played on the pump organ in his childhood home. My mom’s favorite memory was picking blueberries in the North Woods with her dad. Perhaps the best thing about that “room” of memories is we never know when we might be surprised by the aroma of a cigar or the taste of blueberries or a fugue by Bach.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Seeger and Shattemuc

It sounds like the name of prestigious accounting firm, but these two names bear witness to a far deeper audit. While paddling down the Hudson River last fall I found myself between two very different landmarks. On one high promontory was West Point and the U. S. Military Academy, a place I had visited with my dad as a boy. I remember being deeply impressed by the cadets as they marched in precision lines in their parade gray uniforms.
On the other side of the river was the little town of Cold Spring. Originally it housed the workers who built W. P. but in recent years had become a sleepy bedroom community. I was drawn to this shore by the sloop Clearwater moored at the town dock. I could almost hear my folk-music hero and anti-war activist, Pete Seeger, singing from the deck of this beautiful craft. For years Pete had plied the Hudson River waters seeking to clean up his badly polluted river home. You see my dilemma?
As I paddled downstream pondering the paradox of patriotism and protest, I sang one of Pete’s anthems, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer out justice, I’d hammer out freedom, I’d hammer out love between my brothers and sisters, all over this land.” I prayed for safety for the young men and women serving in our military and wisdom for our national leaders to pursue the way of peace. That night I pitched my tent on the beach by the Shattemuc Yacht club in Ossining, NY. A warm shower refreshed and good food at a nearby restaurant fueled me for the final push to NYC and the Statue of Liberty.
Months later while planning a Paddle Pilgrim book tour on the Hudson River, I was invited to be the “Earth Day” speaker at the same Yacht Club. I was delighted to return to this place where I received such warm hospitality. I suspect some of my friends are chuckling as they imagine me speaking at a Yacht Club. When I arrived, I was greeted by Dave, the Commodore, a friendly “button-down” Wall Street broker. As the crowd began to gather, I noticed a number of folks whose bearded and informal presence seemed a bit odd in the well-appointed meeting room and bar overlooking the river. I was introduced by the event’s surprising cosponsors, Commodore Dave and John, the Director of Ferry Sloops, an environmental sailing group inspired by the work of Pete Seeger. My dilemma, for a “brief shining moment”, had a denouement as two seemingly disparate groups came together, despite different political leanings, to work together because of their common love of the Hudson River. I suspect Pete is singing a new chorus to his iconic anthem, “We have overcome….”

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Glorious Distraction

I am a sucker for fall foliage. As I drive down the road I have to remind myself to pay attention to the traffic not the trees. The sublime palette of colors draws our attention. Once while traveling through New England’s hardwood hillsides, a bright orange Maple stopped me in my tracks. Pulling over to the side of the road, I was moved to applaud this glorious distraction. As a gardener I also celebrate this autumnal season of harvest. A ripening red Oak reminds that the hours of tending my vegetables bring rich rewards. A multicolored Sweet Gum mirrors the staggered stages in this aging sexagenarian’s frame.
Why do we savor this month of colors and not with even greater pleasure rejoice in the many colors and cultures on the human family tree? Perhaps we need to slow down on our journey and stop to behold the beauty of our bronze and black and brown brothers and sisters. Just as the creation thrives through bio-diversity, our civilization is sustained and enriched by a richly variegated human landscape.
Turn off the road, look, savor and celebrate all the foliage!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Excruciating Beauty

Music has such enormous power. It can make us laugh, create calm, lead to action, inspire to dance, and yes, weep. Music has that power for me. But it evokes a different kind of tears. The theme song written by John Williams from Schindler’s List is a prime example. The marriage of sounds and scenes from the holocaust transports my spirit to a place of deep remembering. To borrow a phrase from the writer and activist, Father Boyle, it leaves a tattoo on my heart.
Recently I have been transfixed by, Enno Maricone’s “Gabriel’s Oboe”,from the movie, The Mission.
I have come to believe that this music touches my soul because of its “excruciating beauty”. These two words are not often juxtaposed. They seem to come from very different worlds.
Beauty is usually seen has something sweet, attractive, lovely, and winsome.
Excruciating suggests pain, distress, suffering, even torture. The Latin word cruciare” from which we get “crucify” means to torment.
Excruciating beauty describes the deepest of paradoxes; that what is truly beautiful is often extremely difficult, involves personal struggle, but in doing so marries profound pain and palpable pleasure.
Perhaps it’s no accident that Gabriel’s Oboe touches my soul. The oboe is one of the most difficult instruments to master with great skill born of painful practice.
At the very heart of the Christian faith is the cross. Jesus’ way of redemptive suffering didn’t deny or avoid the painful realities of life caused by human selfishness. Rather with “excruciating beauty” God took on the suffering of the world to redeem and restore it.
Have a listen and experience excruciating beauty…

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"Treat a person as he is...
Treat a person as she can be"

This gem comes from a surprising source, Peyton Manning. Quotes from even great football players are often filled with cliches, like “we win as a team, we lose as a team”. “I’d like give the credit to my offensive line….” Or “We had a great game plan which we executed”. All true statements, but not particularly deep or important. Here, however,the first phrase is true, but the second is potentially life-changing.
Fairness certainly suggests, even dictates, the first phrase. Our response to a person should be in proportion to who they are and to their actions. Good behavior is rewarded, bad behavior punished. At the heart of the matter is justice and fair play. The sentiment is often tweaked to “we should treat all people the same.” This works well when we have a “level-playing field”. But that’s an essay for another time. Treat a person as she is….what you see is what you should get.
What captured my attention was the second phrase. Treat a person as she can be. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I think there is greater wisdom and ultimate benefit comes when we see the potential in a student, child, adult; and call forth and challenge that person to “come out”. Da Vinci looked at a block of marble and he saw the persons of Mary and Jesus and brought them forth in the Pieta. My dad was my teacher in this regard. He saw potential in people where I only saw a “loser”. But he went the extra mile with those who were written off or overlooked and encouraged them to be all that they could be. I expect he practiced this wisdom a bit on me…
Payton Manning comes from a football family. His dad, Archie, was a college quarterback legend at the University of Mississippi. His professional career, however, was remembered more for losses rather than wins quarterbacking the New Orleans Saints, whose nickname was the “Ain’ts”. But Payton and his other famous quarterback brother, Eli, both grew up in a close and loving family where his parents not only treated each both as he was, but more importantly as he could be.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Chip on the shoulder

I am amazed how often I hear this expression…. 
Here in Seattle several members of our beloved Seahawks football team use this phrase to describe the motivating factor in their game after being overlooked in the player draft.  Their chip shouts “I will show all you pundits who didn’t recognize the great a player I would become.”   I suspect Richard Sherman or Doug Baldwin would be King of the Chips.
So what’s my chip?  I suspect it is being small.  My parents tried to soften the blow by saying I was “short of stature”.  Grandma used to say, “big things come in small packages”.  I discovered for myself that being small also got me into “tight spaces” and to the top of pyramids.  I also found success in wrestling because of the lower weight categories and golf where size didn’t seem to matter.  But I confess that to this day a large part of my drive is fueled by a small chip.
So where does this expression come from?  In the 15th century a “chip on the shoulder” was the ancient right of shipwrights to take home a daily allowance of offcuts of timber.”  I suppose it was the equivalent to a seamstress of the “remnant” of material or fabric in clothes-making.  Apparently, the chip practice was often abused and eventually stopped.  Maybe that’s part of the reason why the phrase has taken on a negative connotation as the “act of holding a grudge or grievance that readily provokes disputation”.  I guess Richard Sherman has some historical warrant for being a defensive back.   Maybe that explains how my chip lead to a few playground fights with bigger bullies.
My current chip is prompted by the query, “So are you retired?”  Seems like an innocent enough question, but it feels somewhat accusatory.  Here’s what I wrote in a magazine article recently,
“Are you retired?”  That question was coming with annoying frequency.  Did I look so old?   Was it an invitation to a club I wasn’t ready to join?  Was I simply in denial?  If this were a multiple-choice question for my college students, I suppose the correct answer was d.) all the above.
But perhaps I chafed at this query because I taught in the unit on aging in my human development course, that “retirement” was a social construct of the post WWII years which “scrap-heaped” (my words) older Americans in an attempt to make jobs available for G.I.’s returning from the war.
I knew from personal experience that my farmer grandfather never “retired”.  He kept working productively into his 80s and extended his “coffee breaks” accordingly.  The words of the poet, Robert Frost, capture my sentiment.
                                               But I have promises to keep,
                                                 And miles to go before I sleep
                                                  And miles to go before I sleep.
Wow, maybe the chip was a board…

While at a conference recently I ran into a really old person who knew my dad.  She used another expression/phrase which gives me hope as I live the 3rd Act of my life.  She said, “You certainly are a ‘chip off the old block’.” That felt like a wonderful compliment because my dad was an exceptionally caring, generous and happy person.

To be even a small chip off that block would make him and little, old me very happy!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Pete Seeger and the Clearwater
Seeing the Sloop Clearwater brought with it a flood of memories. I found myself singing, “Where have all the flowers gone…” followed by “If I had a hammer” and then, of course, “We shall overcome.” Pete wrote these memorable folk songs which married music and social justice more than any other activist I know. During my college and seminary days Pete, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and a host of musicians wrote music that stirred the soul and encouraged a generation of young people to work for peace, civil rights and the environment. We were inspired to protest injustice and, if necessary, take to the streets and demonstrate. I learned to play the guitar and gathered a group that sang in close harmony about the world we wanted to see.
Most people don’t know that Pete was classically trained at the prestigious Julliard School of Music, but his “folk” music touched the lives of blue collar workers, coal miners and soldiers. His songs were eminently singable, yet contained a depth and passion rooted in his love for the common good.
Pete loved the Hudson River Valley and lived in Beacon. His social conscience was disturbed by the pollution in the river, particularly the discovery of harmful PCB’s being discharged from a General Electric factory near his home. As a student of history, he had seen pictures of the ships that had sailed the river carrying thousands of immigrants in their quest to experience the American Dream. So, he had an authentic model of one of these ships built so he could travel the river, singing his songs while working on cleaning up the Hudson through concerts, workshops, and political action. Another vessel, the River Keeper was also built to more closely monitor progress in the oftenslow process of environmental justice. Pete died a few years ago, but his musical legacy lives on!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mending Wall

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Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter Nursery 

Is it just me?
Or are the people who venture forth
to the local nursery 
It’s the Saturday before Easter
and while Jesus is in the grave,
people stream to the local nursery
Older folks know their way
to their favorite flowering Fuschia and
Early Girl tomato.
Parents chase their children
between the budding trees
and water elements.
I only come for one or two
plants, but already my cart
is full of old standards
and an “I’ll try this one” experiment.
It’s the Saturday before Easter.
Jesus is in the grave.
But spring and resurrection are in the air.

We all know it

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Rockin' the church to life....

Rockin’ the church to life…
The Godfather of contemporary Lutheran music has died.  I am sure John Ylvisaker would laugh heartily and reject that title, but it is true.  John composed many memorable songs from his lyrical celebration of the life-cycle, Borning Cry to his pulsing confessional “I believe, I do believe…”  As I write this tribute I can’t get out of my head his ode to the Trinity, “Baptized into Christ Jesus”, which we sang at a Lenten service last night.
His songs gracefully wove together sound theology, simple, yet profound lyrics, and singability.  Great music does that.  Again John would demur hearing me sing his praises.  He was, after all, a Norwegian Lutheran, both stoic and on guard against pride. Well, maybe humble, but to hear him rock out I have to delete “stoic” from this review. 
Back to my claim that he was the Godfather of contemporary music in the Lutheran church.  Certainly names like Jay Beech and Marty Haugen belong in this pantheon.  But John got the beat going…. 
As a young pastor I read in a youth publication an article John wrote entitled “Rocking the church to life.”  In it he argued that the war between rock n roll and classical music was a misguided battle.  I was glad to hear this because I loved the Beatles, Stones, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Moody Blues.  I also loved Back and Beethoven.  John was very clear that the real issue was “good and bad music”.  He contended that there was good and bad music in every genre.  To drive his point home, he mentioned several hymns that were unsingable and liable to cause injury to one’s vocal chords.  His criteria for good music were good theology, simplicity and singability.   

I would add to his list: memorable!  You gave us “good music” John and I can’t get out of my head  and my heart today.  For that I am most grateful!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Gratitude: A Full Heart
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:5-7
I don’t know how many times I heard my mom share her favorite verse. In so many ways over her nearly 97 years, she came to embody much of the wisdom in this passage about joy, gentleness and peace. It wasn’t until I was paddling the Mississippi that I discovered what I believe to be the key to my mother’s kind and generous spirit. The word is “thanksgiving.” As I paddled, I regularly made my requests known to God: for sunshine, clouds, tailwind, slight headwind, cool when it was hot, heat when it was cool, good food, a warm shower, good campsite and cold beer. I was pretty good at the “in everything, by prayer and supplication” part. We humans are good at making requests and even demands of God. But that little word I had missed for all those years makes all the difference: thanksgiving.
I began to remember to give thanks during my prayers. I even began my prayers with thanks: for the gift of life, for breath itself, for a new day, for family and friends, for faith, for health, for the creation, for the opportunity to paddle my kayak. The whole dynamic of the day changes when we begin with saying “thank you!” We see, even in the midst of struggle, pain, heat, cold, loneliness and hunger how blessed we are to have another day to live life’s adventures, to love our neighbors and, above all, the God who created us! When we give thanks, we experience a full heart, and out of that fullness, we have more than enough to give others. And then for a final bonus, we experience a deep peace beyond our understanding. Paddle with gratitude!
~Paddle Pilgrim: Kayaking the Erie Canal and Hudson River to the State of Liberty (available on Amazon)

Friday, February 24, 2017

The biblical witness about obeying the law/government is a "continuum" between Romans 13 where obeying is for good order and Revelation 13 where resistance against the "anti-Christ" Roman emperor would be the faithful act; Jesus is Lord NOT Caesar.  Ultimately in every time Acts 5 teaches we must "obey God rather than man".  Law is important and necessary, but not ultimate. The Good News of Jesus in John 13 has the final word: "Love one another."  Discerning when laws are just and unjust is the work of the Holy Spirit as the spirit of truth. 

What would have happened in Germany during Hitler's rise to power if Christians had resisted, broken the law, said "no"? A few resisted like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and he was martyred and is one of true heroes of the faith during that time and today.