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-

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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

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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.”

Clanging Cymbals

It happens five times a day, seven days a week. A cymbal sounds on my phone to remind me of things that I’ve decided should be the focus of my attention. The first sounds at 8:30 and the last at 5:30. One of the five cymbals calls me to a specific piece of work—picking up voicemail messages left on one of my work voicemail systems—but the others call me to things I decided that, after much thought, I must do regularly in my life—lectio divina (time with God), biking (time for my physical health), playing my flute (time for beauty), and writing (time for reflection)—if I am to a happy, healthy, loving person.

The cymbal clangs five times a day and most days, at least four of the five times that it does, I dismiss the reminder notice that comes with the clang without doing what it’s reminded me about. I turn the reminder off and go back to work on the long To Do list that’s in front of me. The thinking that comes with that choice is usually along the lines of “Well, if I can just get through this list, I’ll have time to truly enjoy playing flute” or “I’ll really focus on today’s scripture passage if I don’t have a To Do list in the back of my mind.” It’s logical thinking, but it doesn’t quite make sense because I never get through the ever-increasing list of things that people are asking from me.

The cymbals clang and instead of being excited by their clanging—a clanging that should be calling me toward something I love—all they do is make me feel guilty that I’ve sold myself short again because of my commitment to the priorities that come from others.

Last evening just before going to bed, I learned that a friend from college—my son’s godmother, no less- whom I lost track of for a good number of years but then reconnected with in a much more casual way four or five years ago, was diagnosed with breast cancer and has just begun chemo. I called up my own mammogram, breast ultrasounds and biopsy scares over the past year as I thought of her news and committed myself even more to making a point of doing the four cymbal activities that I believe I need to be doing. This morning I woke up with the same strong commitment and started my day. The cymbal clanged five times today. I made my phone call to pick up messages as soon as that clang went off. I skipped lectio to make some necessary phone calls. I biked about three hours late, but I biked. Flute fell by the way. Now I’m writing 11 hours after the clang to remind me of my commitment to write and I won’t spend the time I’ve promised myself that I would but at least it’s a start.

Tomorrow when the first cymbal sounds I’ll already be at work and when the last one sounds I’ll still be there. Tomorrow they will remind me of how life could be, might be, should be, rather than calling me to action. I toy with removing them, but if I do, I fear that I’ll forget completely about what matters most in the flurry of what’s demanded and what others label as important. So tomorrow there will be clanging cymbals calling me, at least in spirit if not in practice, in the direction of love and wholeness.

Running and Flying

Over the last two weeks the expression that keeps popping into my head each evening when I lay in bed and review the day just past is “running to keep from flying.” I have no idea where I learned it or why it’s stuck in my mind as the proper image for these days, but there it is, refusing to leave.

Is it an expression that others know? I can’t tell. I’ve asked Kathy about it and she’s never heard it. I’ve tried googling it and looking for its idiom history and can’t find it anywhere. Perhaps I combined phrases like “hit the ground running” and “off to a flying start” but when I think of the expression, it doesn’t feel newly created by me.

Running to keep from flying calls up an image for me of running through a large field with a pair of (invisible) wings on my back that want to lift me in the air. I’m aware that, while flying might be a wonderful experience, there’s so much that I have to get done in the field that, instead of letting the wings pull me up off the ground, I run faster to be ahead of the wings’ pull. Each time the wings’ ’ pull catches up, I run faster still, trying to get more and more done and running more and more to try to keep from being lifted away from what has to be finished before I can be free to take off or to just lie down in the field and rest.

I know where the feeling comes from. These last weeks my workdays have been endless. Yesterday, a typical day hour and workwise, I started my work at 6:30 am, trying to get through some paperwork before leaving for a meeting at 7:30. I used car travel time as I went from meeting space to meeting space to get through some of the reading material I need to complete since I was lucky enough to find it in audioformat. I left my last meeting of the day at 10:05, drove home and answered emails while eating dinner, finally giving up running for the night at 11:30. This morning, it all started over again.

Running in this way is often making everything a blur. My glasses bump up and down, making my view a bit dizzying. I don’t have time to think much about, much less enjoy, the various things I’m doing as I run. Rather I just need to keep the wings’ pull from catching up to me. Running like this makes me feel less than human. It doesn’t feel like much of a way to live, though I’m pushing myself on through the hope that part of the pull should decrease as I get to know the new job more, that that job’s hours should decrease to 20 or 25 a week sometime soon, and that some of the pull should decrease as I move away from my pastoral responsibilities in April (a move that, if I were running slower would grieve me deeply, but there’s not time for that). Or at least I hope so, if only I can run like this for four months.

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In the meanwhile what’s keeping me going are the centering moments. My days are such that there are lots of chances at the beginning and ends of meetings to be with people leading and participating in spoken prayer and they help give me some energy. Most helpful, though, are the moments I’m grabbing –by walking to the car or restroom by myself, in the moment when Macy the cat first wakes me up in the morning, or just before I fall asleep–to be in silence and breath, focus, open to the divine. Those moments keep me going, giving me some centeredness as I go on to whatever is next on the agenda, and giving me hope—that one day soon a few hours will appear when there’ll be a chance to just sit in the field and look around at all the beauty or, who knows, even a chance to let go of all the work for a while and take off and fly!!!

Why Noon on the Gaza Road?

I’m moving the blog that I began in the spring of 2007 from noononthegazaroad.blogspot.com to this new site. (Thanks to my niece, Kristin, for both hosting it and doing the initial set-up for me.) When I decided to make the move from the past blogline site, I had to conjure with whether to keep the old blog name or not. Over the years, there have been a few problems with the name. Some people have thought, based on Gaza being in the title, that what I’m writing about is Middle Eastern politics and have come to my site and been sorely disappointed. Others have, thinking that, skipped visiting the site but have asked me why I keep a political blog. And others still have thought that I’ve spelled the blog’s address incorrectly—that it was meant to be “No one on the Gaza road.” Today as I start the switch I realize I’ve never explained the blog name, so I thought I’d begin the entries at the new location by explaining my choice.

The name comes from a biblical story about Philip in Acts 8. The story is set in a time when the early church is being persecuted for its choices and actions. Afraid, the early Christians long to stay together in their small communities with those they’ve come to know and trust. They’ve been through a lot of internal struggles—figuring out what role Torah rules are going to have in their common life and then daring to overcome the prejudices of the day by welcoming Samaritans into membership. (Prejudices of the time against Samaritans were that, not only weren’t they as educated as Christians but they also acted in “inappropriate” ways that made them “unclean.”) These struggles have cost them a lot. They’re tired, they’re fearful, they need a breather, time to reconnect and rest. The wisdom of the leaders is not to risk the little bits of safety and unity they still have by moving further out into other villages and other nations.

And then God sends an angel to Philip. Philip isn’t one of the original 12 disciples who sat at Jesus’ feet but he has become a deacon in the early church and he’s one of the people who have been successfully working with the Samaritans who want to be Christian. The angel tells Philip to get up and head out on the wilderrness road to Gaza (from Jerusalem). And he tells him to go “mesembrian,” a Greek word that can mean “south” if it’s used for a location or “noon” if it’s used for time. Philip has no idea why God wants him to go out onto a deserted stretch of road in the middle of the day but he goes (I imagine very reluctantly, because by now he’s gotten to know and love the Samaritans he was sent to work with).

While he’s on the otherwise deserted road, an eunuch who is an Ethiopian official who had just come from worshipping in Jerusalem rides past on a chariot. God pushes Philip to go talk with the eunuch. This must have been the last conversation Philip thought he should have. His prejudices—against Ethiopians (with their strange appearances, gods, and customs), eunuchs (based on Deuteronomy 23:1), and rulers of other governments—must have told Philip to go in exactly the opposite direction. But God pushes and Philip (reluctantly) goes and meets the other person on the road. Eventually, despite a lot of reluctance on Philip’s part and some more pushing, both from God and the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip even ends up welcoming the Ethiopian into the church, expanding the church’s boundaries in several more unexpected ways. At noon on the Gaza road, Philip learns that love breaks down barriers, overturns narrow perceptions and prejudices, and embraces so much more than Philip and his religious upbringing can ever imagine.

Throughout my life, at any one time, there has always seemed to one biblical passage that speaks more clearly to me than any other, that pushes in a direction. When I was in college and seminary, it was Jeremiah 12:5. For more than the last dozen years, though, it’s been Acts 8:26-40, a scriptural choice that has had unexpected major impacts on who and what I’ve prioritized in my ministry and why. It’s a story that has served to remind me to slow down enough to try to listen for the divine voice telling me where I need to be and what I should be doing there, a story that suggests that I need to put more effort into stepping out into unexpected, uncomfortable places and experiences to discover the divine in such encounters, a story that tells me that when I think I know where God and God’s people should be found I’ve probably got it wrong since God’s love is much broader than anything I can imagine.

In 2013, as I start this new blog site and take a first step into what feels very much to me like a Pauline “juncture of the ages” (as Kathy retires from her work with Westchester County at the end of March and I overlap my last months as Associate Pastor at South Church and my first months as Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Hudson River), I find myself wondering if this is to be the passage that will continue to call to me over the upcoming months and years and, if it is, what Gaza road I’m to be on at the upcoming noontimes of my days. The entries that will be filling this blog – as nonreligious or irreligious as some of them will end up sounding—are, in one way or another, all attempts to stay alert to, and to puzzle through, that question in some faithful way.