Disconnected From Religion

When I was twenty-two and first started teaching religious studies at a college level, most of the students were around the same age I was (or, in my evening classes, older than me).   In my Introduction to World Religions courses, I’d begin the first section exploring the general characteristics of religion, what students knew of religion—either firsthand or through previous studies, and ways in which they felt religion had had an impact on their lives or the world around them. Semester by semester, I’d have classes with more than half the students telling me that they were active Christians of one kind or another, another quarter telling me they were Jewish, and then a student or two who would come from other religious traditions. As we explored religion after religion in subsequent classes, students would compare that religion and what they were learning of its beliefs and practices to their religious experiences and we’d take on the insider-outsider problem and the biases that could come from doing comparisons in that way. The conversations could get heated but they were usually very interesting.

As I reached my late thirties, the make-up of my Introduction to Word Religions courses began to change. Instead of students who listed themselves as active followers of a religion, I began to have classes where the bulk of the students had been raised in a religion but had stopped attending after confirmation, bar/bat mitzvah, etc. because they either didn’t see how the religion in which they’d been raised connected with their current life or because they couldn’t believe something that they’d been taught as children during religious education classes. The class discussions moved toward conversations in which we unpacked what doctrines, creeds, and rituals that they’d only understood from a child’s perspective might mean from an adult’s view and how such fresh looks at old beliefs might connect with their current lives. We also spent a lot of time doing “everything you’d always wanted to know about” Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, or whatever the religion of the week was. This gave people a safe setting in which to ask questions about things they’d seen, experienced, or heard about that had puzzled them. There were questions that came up about each religion, but the bulk of them often came from people who had practiced a religion but not understood why the religion had suggested they do or say something. The conversations could be challenging, but it was lots of fun to watch students often reconnect something they’d discounted back into their lives.

For the last several years, the make-up of my Introduction to World Religions courses seems to have shifted yet again. Now instead of active followers of a religion or former followers of a religion, the bulk of my students have never had any connection in their lives with a religion, nor are they aware of any connections that their parents may have had. In my Tuesday evening section of the course this semester, for example, only one student has had any connection with a religion (evangelical Christianity) and he no longer follows it. Religions of any kind—or spirituality in general- are something remote for the students and the challenge these days is to find a way to help them connect to the idea of any kind of religious experience or tradition.

As part of this course over all the years I’ve been teaching it, students have to attend a worship service in a tradition and then interview the clergy person leading that worship to learn more about the specific rituals and actions they’ve seen. In past years students have been able to connect that to their own former religious experience, but these students have nothing to which they can connect the encounter and so it becomes much harder for me to provide contexts for the religions they are studying. I think I’ve got to find a new way to teach the course to give them some more personal glimpses of what it might mean to have some spirituality in their lives, but to do so in a way that makes it clear that no one is trying to convert them to any specific belief system. The whole process is leaving me puzzling, rethinking, and trying to find some “Velcro” activities that will give them some feeling for what a religion can offer in an individual’s or a community’s life.

The Forested Landscape

Over the last four or five months, I’ve been reading a mystery series that I really enjoy. When I think, though, about what  my favorite book of the last several years would be, the answer surprises me since it’s not a novel, a book connected with religion, or a collection of poems. Instead, it’s Tom Wessel’s Reading the Forested Landscape, a book that came out more than fifteen years ago.


I ran across Wessel’s writing while doing a permaculture course at the New York Botanical Gardens. As I began to think through various permacultural configurations I realized I knew little about types of trees, how to tell which were native to our area, and why they did well in one area but not another. Trying to fill in at least a few gaps, I picked up Reading the Forested Landscape, expecting to leaf through it to find out some basics about trees. Instead, as I read the first chapter, I fell in love with the way Wessels was teaching the reader how to understand the history and current situations of a forested area by looking at various things happening on it. I was fascinated with the reasons why maples may dominate in one spot in a forest while pines take over another area, with the importance that a specific type of bark can have on the survival or decay of a tree, and with the impact of sheep, beavers, and other animals on the trees and plants of an area. When I finished the book, I immediately started reading it again, wanting to absorb as many details as I could.

I’ve read the book two more times in the last three years (something that is unusual for me because I very rarely reread a book even once). It has given me an appreciation  when I’m out walking or hiking of the various ways in which the landscapes that surround me have changed over the last two or three hundred years, for the ways in which individual trees grow, for the interaction of forests and animals, for the ways in which, if left alone for years, one type of landscape morphs into a very different type of landscape, and most importantly, for the beauty and complexity of trees and forests.


Our Earth’s Future

This fall I’ve been doing a great online course given by the American Museum of Natural History called “Our Earth’s Future.”   Over the past several weeks and continuing until mid-December, we’re learning about the science of climate change from specialists who work in oceanography, anthropology, earth science, climatology, physics, and more. This past week, for example, we heard from Dr. Michela Biasuitt, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who explained the science around climate change forecasts and the various modeling options that are used. The week before, Dr. Gavin Schmidt from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies focused on how to talk about climate change and the problems and challenges that politics add to such a conversation. Each of us in the class has had a chance to research the climate changes that have occurred over the past one hundred or so years in our neighborhood (which has been very interesting because we have people in the class from as far south as Florida, from the southwest, from the west coast, from Texas and Wisconsin, and from the northeast).   We’ve read studies on climate change in a wide range of other parts of the world, from Greenland o the Sahel grasslands of Africa.


The course has been both interesting and challenging for me. While I spend a decent amount of time on environmental issues (for my course on world religions and the environment, for my work with several denominational and religious groups working on climate change issues, and in a lot of my volunteer time), this is really the first chance I’ve had to focus exclusively on the science involved in the issues. It’s giving me (and I suspect my fellow students who work in a wide range of areas as educators, journalists, horticulturalists, documentary producers, and more) a new vocabulary with which to speak and also a lot of information by which to back up my more general non-scientific statements. I’ve enjoyed learning about topics like ice core samples or climate feedbacks and forcings, I’ve been amazed that people still program in Fortran, much less that a major climate modeling system continues to be written using it as a programming language. But what I’ve found most fascinating so far, has been learning about the Eemian period, an interglacial period that was about 125,000 years ago that I’d never heard of before this class. The Eemian period seems to have a climate fairly similar to ours (although their CO2 wasn’t as high as ours is). Because of that it allows us to draw conclusions on how our present climate will be affected by ice melting based on the significant melting that happened in that time period.   While we’ve moved on as a class from the Eemian period into other areas of study, this is a topic I’m hoping to discover more about on my own.


A Broader Understanding of Saints and Souls

I love this Sunday.  It is a day to celebrate all in our lives that has reflected God and to make peace with all that has moved away in the direction of brokenness and incompleteness.

Technically yesterday (November 1st) was All Saints Day—usually celebrated as the Christian version of Memorial Day, a day for remembering those who have gone before us in faith and we traditionally hold up and honor those who led exemplary lives. In the Reformation, while Protestants got rid of individual saints days, All Saints Day remained because of the role of the grace of Christ in the lives of saints.  (“Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might” echoes in my head as I write.) And All Saints Day is part of the dominical calendar, which means that if the day doesn’t land on a Sunday in any given year, it can be transferred to the following Sunday (in this case, today, November 2nd).

But people began to grumble that such a holy day left out many people, including those who had no chance to emulate previous saints and those who, like me, had such a chance but had at least a few major shortcomings.  So the Odilo, the great peacemaker who had already brought about a Truce of God between southern France and Italy, again became a peacemaker and moved in the direction of a more inclusive church by creating All Souls Day on November 2nd.

So today, liturgically, we celebrate both heroes and nobodies—all the people, bringing home the fat that every one of us—saints and souls together- are part of God’s inclusive welcoming creation.


I suppose that was the basic point of the film St Vincent that I saw yesterday, a film that was predictable and sentimental, but because of the wonderful acting, was still a pleasure to watch.  You knew as soon as Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) announced that Oliver’s class was going to study and do reports on the saints, that Oliver was going to choose Vincent (Bill Murray) as his model for a saint because, despite his gambling, drinking, and hanging out in strip clubs, Vincent was a deeply caring man- the perfect all saint’s/all soul’s day model.  The film reminds us that we too often divide the world into heroes and nobodies when, with God’s grace we can yet make this a place in which all God’s children are seen as souls, in which each of us is seen as a saint in the making.

  Holding onto that reminder I wish there was a modern Odilo of Cluny, because as much as I love this All Saints/ All Souls Day, I don’t think it goes far enough.  All God’s children are to be seen as souls, as saints in the making, and all God’s children include so many more than just human children. Often I have learned more of what it means to be saintly from God’s other non-human children rather than from others of my species so a celebration that leaves them out seems to fall very short.

If God made all creation good and all beings fall at least a little short of what God means for us each to be, isn’t All Saints/All Souls Day about all of us? How do we rework our theology to make that clear? How can we expand a liturgical day like today to count in God’s non-human two-footed children, God’s four-footed children, God’s crawlers and swimmers, and God’s rooted children who dance today as the Spirit shakes their branches?   How might we imagine a church that would count all saints and souls, not just human ones, in on a regular basis?  How would our mission and outreach change if we lived into that kind of broader understanding of saints and souls? What would such a church then look like?   These are questions that I struggle toward answering these days because it’s that broader, more welcoming, more inclusive church in which I believe and want to bring into being.

A Month of Blogging

Back in 2007 I started blogging. It provided a way for me to reflect on activities in which I was involved, to connect with others bloggers to whom I wanted to respond, to think through and evaluate things I was reading or discussing with others, and a chance for me to write something that wasn’t a sermon, a lesson plan, a prayer, or something else that was an immediate piece of work for one of my jobs. For five years I blogged fairly regularly—usually once or twice a week- on topics related to religion, law, current events, the environment, music, philosophy, theater, church, literature, and more. Then in 2013 I took on a new job, and as a sign of that change, moved my blogging from its old site to this one. I started out on the site on a fairly faithful basis but within a few weeks, my blogging completely fell apart.   When I’ve been on vacation and have had a bit of free time, I’ve managed to write a blog or two but my regular blogging has largely disappeared-


For the last several months I’ve thought about picking it back up and there seems no better time than in the month of November when a lot of people are doing NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month). Perhaps if I start blogging regularly again, one November I’ll even feel ready to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Yesterday I signed the NaBloPoMo commitment to blog each day for the month of November and will be posting something on each of the next thirty days.

Playing in The New Westchester Symphony Orchestra

         I’m having a blast playing in the NWSO, but more than that, I’m learning so much.  I think to some extent that’s probably true for most of the orchestra members since we’re getting pieces into our fingers that I’m guessing most of us have never played before, but it may also be true for me in a different way since I know so little about classical music.

            Growing up, even though I was deaf for a while and so missed some of the more popular songs from those years, I heard lots of music.   I heard hymns both in church and on records, lots of folk songs (since my mother adored the Weavers and more specifically Pete Seeger and both bought records of the songs and took me to concerts), Broadway show tunes, and records of music that was popular when my mother was young (especially Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Any Williams and Perry Como) to which Simon and Garfunkel and Glen Campbell were later added.  My grandmother would often putter her way through a piece of sewing or dusting singing songs from her youth, especially Dolores del Rio’s Ramona and the Spanish ballad Juanita.  I also spent a lot of time at my next door neighbor’s home where I’d hear different pop music—songs by groups like The Cyrkle, Little Richard, and The Coasters.  At school, as I learned to play trumpet, I learned “band songs,” snippets of various pieces, mostly children’s songs of one kind or another and as I learned guitar I learned “Peter Paul and Mary” type songs.  And of course there was other music to which my friends and I listened—the Beatles, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, John Denver, the Stones, Elton John, and the like.

What I almost never heard, though, was classical music. No one in my family liked classical music and if it came on on a radio or a TV show, someone would quickly switch the channel or turn it off. Because of that, the only time I’d hear work by any classical composers was when I would sneak into the church and listen to an organ concert from the steps outside the sanctuary or when we’d sing something classical in children’s choir.

As an adult, I learned a little more about classical music, but still not in much of a systematic way.  But now, playing with the NWSO, I’m beginning to get at least a basic feel for some of the composers we’re playing. As I try to get Grieg’s Peer Gynt into my fingers and mind, I’m becoming more aware that “In the Hall of the Mountain King” isn’t just a theme used in the movies Inspector Gadget or The Social Network. Instead I begin to see both how it fits into a larger body of work and some of the unique challenges it offers. Right now it may seem that I may never be able to get play all the notes in the Flute 2 part of “Jupiter” but I’m getting a lot more of a sense of Holst’s The Planets as I try.  And through both working on the music and listening to Ben’s comments on what a composer is doing in a piece, I’m beginning to get a broader sense of various time periods and styles.  Most of all though, as I get to explore and experience this music with a really nice group of people, I’m coming to appreciate some wonderful music that I might otherwise never have had a chance to come to know so well or enjoy so much!

Alif the Unseen


The first book I read in 2014, or more accurately, finished in 2014—was G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen—and I SO hope the rest of the books I read this year are like it.  Alif is unlike anything I’ve read before—fresh and exciting, a combination of fantasy, Sufi poetry, politics, technology, action, romance, Muslim theology and more.  Drawing on images from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and weaving them into an Arab spring spy thriller that straddled the worlds of Arab elite and poor, Muslim and Hindu, human and jinn, high and low technology, the book takes on questions of faith, revolution, expectations, and reality.   What a way to start a new year!


Memories of 2013

2013 feels like it was a year filled with change—of community leaving and community building, of trying to balance and rebalance what was already in my life with what was being added and subtracted, of considering moving to be part of a new community, and of figuring out what to hold onto and what to let go of.  The changes haven’t quite settled in all the way yet, but at least most mornings now I wake up and have some sense of who I am and what my day will probably be like.  So thinking back, here’s an overview of things from 2013 that stood out.

In January I began a new job as Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Hudson River.  I had very little sense of what the work would be like or whether I’d like it but people were very generous with their help as I learned the job.  I’m convinced that I’ll need at least two years at it before I have a sense of what it’s really all about –this year, for example, there are lots of things related to the 2014 General Assembly that I didn’t encounter last year—but what I’ve learned so far is that I’ve got a group of presbytery staff colleagues who all want to move the church into the 21st century (although there are days when I’d settle for it moving into the 20th century) and who I like.

Like several other months of 2013, February was a month that seemed focused on new skills.  Early in the month Kathy and I, along with the rest of the Roots & Wings team, hosted a Transition Town training weekend focusing on resiliency as we change from an oil-based lifestyle to other, more environmentally healthy options.  Then at the end of the month I participated in a week long Mediation Skills Training Institute led by Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.  Although I’d already done mediation training from a legal perspective, this institute was geared to working in non-legal settings and seemed much more concerned about the people involved in the mediation than the courses I’d had in law school. Richard was a great trainer covering lots of material that I found immediately helpful in various church settings.  I’ve appreciated having the extra skills!  The “fun” thing that stood out from February—and really from the year– was Sleep No More, an experience that my son Dan shared with me.  It was an experience that was hard to describe—sort of like unscripted theater, sort of like an adventure—but very enjoyable.   I loved the evening—both for the one-on-one time it gave me with Dan and because it may be the closest experience I’ll have in my lifetime to being on a holodeck.  It gave me such delight!

March and April seem to me to have been largely spent adjusting to change.  Kathy’s federal grant—and with it her job–ended and, given the job market, she took early retirement.  Both of us were also saying goodbye to South Church, a congregation and a people that I so love, and all the programs and activities we were involved with through that connection.  For me there was the sorting through of an office that had more than 20 years of memories as part of it, the tying up of loose ends in various church programs that needed to continue to operate after I left but would no longer have staff, the making my way through Lent, Holy Week, and Easter aware that I would be experiencing it in the South Church way for the last time, and then on the last Sunday of April, a service filled with goodbye saying that left me in tears, both out of gratitude for such a wonderful congregation and out of grief at leaving it.  April also contained a chance to see Pippin, one of my favorite musicals of all time, on Broadway –purposely chosen for the end of April as a way to provide some “change-of-scene” from the leave-taking,

May found Kathy and I on our way to Louisville, driving down to my formal denominational stated clerk training.  Given all the changes—and given the flexibility of Kathy’s not having to be at an office and my not having to lead Sunday worship—we were able to take several days to get there, stopping at Berkeley Springs, West Virginia one night and having a meal that was memorable—for the food, the conversation with one of the owners, and the view—at the Panorama at the Peak Restaurant.   When we arrived in Louisville, we were pleasantly surprised.  In the past I’d only been in the institutional convention center part of the city (which is where the PCUSA has its offices and where my meetings usually are) but friends took us to other areas that were more enjoyable.  There were wonderful restaurants- like Grape Leaf (thanks Robin and Chris) and Ramses (thanks Russ) with lots of good vegetarian, gluten-free food and conversation.  On the way back from the training, we drove to Indiana, first to see the Indiana University campus where Kathy went to college and then to visit family in Indianapolis.

While part of the summer contained another trip to Louisville—this time for Big Tent, which I’ve written about in an earlier posting—there were also trips to the Cape, to the Northampton/Amherst area (where I really enjoyed seeing both the permaculture lawns in one neighborhood and the Emily Dickinson Museum in another), and to Nantucket to see Jon and Ilona’s new home. There were lots of live music, performances, and movies of various kinds.  I finished up my last course for a gardening certificate from the New York Botanical Garden and learned how to lacto-ferment from Sr. Catherine Grace at the Bluestone Farm community (a organic, permaculture, intentional community that I’d love to participate in more regularly).  Also, during the summer and early fall, having stepped away from one community that meant so much to me, I began to consciously put time into deepening relationships with other communities I’ve been a part of—going to several regional gatherings of the Ecumenical Order of Franciscans (a “third order” in which I’m a novice) and attending weekly rehearsals with the New Westchester Symphony Orchestra (and performing my first concert with them in October).

October took Kathy and me to Chicago for the national gathering of Covenant Network, where we attended worship and workshops on topics like same-gender marriage and denominational overture possibilities.  The gathering also gave us a chance to spend time with friends that we’re not able to see on a regular basis. While we were in Chicago it was very cold and rainy but we managed to see some of the city, taking the architectural river cruise as well as doing a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. I also had the chance to introduce Kathy to my college friends, Bill Daley and Betsy Butterworth, over brunch before we headed back to New York.

I was glad to stay in the New York area for the rest of the fall.  Kathy and I spent a week participating in the SNAP Challenge, eating by only using the amount of money that people on food stamps have. Kathy researched menu options and planned carefully to make sure that we could make it through the week on the allowed budget.  We also made trips into New York City to see the Book of Mormon, for the birth of Miles, to take Noah to the Museum of Natural History, and to see Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping.  Then, at the end of the year, once I’d finished my fall teaching classes and gone on vacation from the presbytery work, my daughter Becca took me for my birthday present- to get matching triqueta tattoos.  It’s a symbol that I love for a lot of reasons, so I’m glad to “carry it with me” from now on but I’m even happier to have it because of the connection it has with Becca.

All in all 2013 was a hard year because of the changes. I still think of myself as a parish pastor and miss so much of that life and work as well as the people connected with it and I so long to join or build some local, intentional community. But 2013 was also a year with lots of unexpected joy in it—listening to Kathy the beginning clarinetist as she practiced, getting to build connections with new people in a wider variety of settings than I’ve had in years, and having a chance to rethink my life and what matters in it.

Big Tent 2013

I’m sitting in the airport on the way back from Big Tent 2013 and am just beginning to reflect on my experiences there and what was most memorable from the four “Presbyterian” days.  Clearly what I enjoyed the most was the chance to get to know some of the other stated clerks, EPs, and Hudson River folks better.  The other things that stood out were the first of the mid-council workshops I did, the embarrassing and unaccommodating planning elements of Big Tent, the human trafficking workshop, and the demonstration at Wendy’s.

Mid-council folks gathered together for workshops beginning early in the morning on the first day of Big Tent.  We were each asked to pick three workshops and I chose “Marriage Conversation” (which would be offered in all three workshop slots), “Preparing for Membership Shift,” and “Shifting Church Culture.”  It became clear early on that the goal of these workshops wasn’t to take positions on any of the topics so much as it was to report to each other what our individual presbyteries were experiencing in relationship to them.  (This seemed to imply, at least to my first time attending mindset, that my job was to stay in my stated clerk role for these gatherings as much as possible rather than sharing personal positions on any of the topics.)  The second and third workshops were fairly non-memorable—focusing on moving from preservation of the past to engagement with the future and various shapes that worshipping communities that are more “lightweight” might take. They weren’t bad; there just wasn’t anything new or exciting in either of them.   The first workshop was on marriage and how various presbyteries were responding to the possibility that same-gender marriage discussions would come up or might pass in the next General Assembly or two.   Discussion began by talking about the “huge hit” that presbyteries should be preparing for because of these.  It quickly became clear from comments that the only people in our group of 40 or so people who were actually dealing with presbyteries where same-gender marriage is legal were  Harold Delhagen, the Synod of the Northeast’s Transitional Leader, and me.  The discomfort that the church position raises for pastors in our presbyteries because of the difference in position between the denomination and the state was quickly dismissed as not being important.  Instead what the discussion ended up focusing on which group was more important—our new Korean congregations that see even discussing same-gender marriage as “captivity to culture” or our youth who aren’t going to wait around if we don’t change our position on same-gender marriages.  (The Korean congregation perspective was referred to for the first fifteen minutes or so as “whether we value our racial-ethnic groups” until one of the national church staff who works with Latino congregations said that it had become clear as she met with young Latino groups that they want to discuss and act on same-gender marriage just as other younger people do, so saying all racial-ethnic groups feel the same way isn’t accurate.)  What amazed me in this discussion was that the two groups that ended up being valued were the Korean congregations and young members of congregations.  Except for Harold and my comments early on in the discussion, not a single person around the room was at all concerned about what would be just or how the decisions would affect those of us who are lesbian and gay.  I know I’m a new stated clerk but this just blew my mind.

The most negative part of Big Tent for me was around poorly planned logistics and accommodations of needs.  I had put down on my form when I registered that my dietary needs were “vegetarian gluten-free” and that I am hearing impaired.  I was delighted that people who were planning Big Tent contacted me ahead of time to both say that I shouldn’t worry at all about diet – that it would be no problem to accommodate—and to ask what I would need to help with my hearing impairment.  I explained that if workshops were miked and I could sit where I could read lips I’d be fine but asked if that would be the case.  I was told every workshop would be miked.   When I got to Louisville, neither of these statements were true.  Only one workshop was miked and since parts of many were run as large room discussions I lost a lot of what was being shared.  And the food situation was a disaster.  Except for the first meal—where there was a nicely labeled meal waiting for each of us who had dietary needs—not a single meal that I had at Big Tent was able to give me food without it being an issue.  I was told again and again that I could have a gluten-free meal or a vegetarian meal but that I couldn’t have both.  At the World Mission Conference luncheon, for example, they brought a vegetarian meal to someone at my table (pasta with a nice selection of cooked vegetables) and a gluten-free meal to someone else (gluten-free pasta with chicken in a sauce).  Which of the two, they asked, did I want?  I asked if I could have a plate  the gluten-free pasta that was on the one plate and the vegetables on the other.  No, they couldn’t do that.  I explained as patiently as I could that I couldn’t eat either and could they please look into a way to do the combination I was suggesting. I was told they’d have to check with a manager.  As dessert was being served to everyone else the manager finally came walking across the dining hall with a plate of the gluten free pasta and a few of the pieces of squash that had been on the vegetarian plate.  Dinner that night was even worse.  The waiter brought me a “vegetarian gluten-free” plate that was a puff pastry in which was couscous.  I explained that I knew cous cous wasn’t gluten free.  He said he’d take care of the  problem and came back with a plate of rice with turkey on top of it.  I explained that turkey wasn’t vegetarian and asked for something else.  He said they didn’t have anything.  I said “there must be some way to put together something. There are rice and green beans on each plate.  They could be added to something.”  He left and came back with a plate covered with a huge pile of green beans—so much for dinner.  Not being able to hear discussions and having to go through this again and again at each meal was embarrassing when what I really wanted was a chance to get to know those at my tables while getting at least some basic food.  The whole experience makes me hesitant to go to future events like the October Polity Conference if this is the way that the denomination functions.

Most of the workshops I attended were fairly bland—not bad, just not providing any new information, skills or ideas to take back to the presbytery.  (I didn’t go to any of the workshops that OGA was offering around polity topics because most of them were the same as ones I’d attended in May at the new stated clerk training, so I can’t reflect on how good any of them might have been.)  The exception was the workshop addressing human trafficking that Noelle Damico led.  There not only did we share what we knew about the topic, but we were given other information and ways to both bring the topic back to our presbyteries (including the offer of free training workshops) and to act on this justice issue ourselves.

On Saturday I spent the morning at a community organizing workshop.  It was “meh”—very basic tools (learn to listen to others, take time to get to know the neighborhood before making decisions, etc.).  Afterwards, though, the group had a choice of four lunchtime activities—a tour of community gardens (which sounded great but wasn’t open to me since I hadn’t done the whole conference), an environmental racism tour, some other choice I don’t remember, and a demonstration at Wendy’s on behalf of fair food rights for farmworkers, asking that they be paid a penny more per pound of tomatoes and agree to only buy from fields where workers’ rights were respected.  Kathy and I chose the last.  On the bus on the way to the demonstration we ran through chants and Noelle gave us both the background on why we were demonstrating and what to expect, but what impressed me most was the apology we were given for the fact that we’d be given plastic bottles of water to drink so that we didn’t become dehydrated –showing an awareness of this environmental issue in a four-day period in which so much was disposable plastic cups, plates and utensils, plastic water bottles, plastic toys on tables, etc.  When we got to Wendy’s we carried our signs and did our chants for about 30 to 45 minutes.  The manager refused to take a letter we’d signed but he did say that he’d called his superiors who were notifying Wendy’s top management, so that probably mattered more than the letter.  All in all, a good use of an hour or so!

Plane’s boarding so no more reflections now!


Words, Words, Words

In my mind these days, I’ve got an earwig of Pete Seeger singing “Words, words, words” that I can’t get rid of. It makes me wonder: is it possible to be on word-overload? Since the year began I’ve had a chance to read some very good books—Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow and Lowry’s Messenger all come to mind—and I’ve enjoyed them a lot. I’m now making my way through Brian McLaren’s Naked Spirituality, which I think will probably also be well worth the read. As I read, though, I can’t help but feel dissatisfied with the words. Kingsolver has done a beautiful job of capturing so many key issues in our lives these days—climate change and education and the economy and logging and more—and Lamott is right that if we are allowing our true selves (as opposed to those we like to put forward) to communicate with God, most of our prayers would be variations of petition, gratitude or wonder. McLaren, so far, seems to be echoing what Lamott is saying in slightly different terms. And yes I agree with them. Yes, the environment matters a huge amount to me so thank you Barbara. Yes, I need to learn to say ‘help’ and ‘thanks’ and ‘wow’ more, so thank you Annie. But what I really, really need more than any of these words—beautiful though they are—is silence.

Words seem so inadequate for the pleading and sometimes the despair I feel around the destruction of monarch butterflies or trees or for the wonder I feel when I see birds gathered at the feeder or sun bouncing off the Palisades. Words as prayers, no matter how masterful the “pray-er,” seem wanting. They exhaust me. They try to capture me in them and reign in my experiences, defining them and making them much smaller. I want more and more to find ways to move beyond words, into the vast, encompassing, embracing silence. These days, I’m with Annie Dillard:

“The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega, it is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blinded note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.”