Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Ours is an age of images. While earlier times have been shaped by the power of the word, both spoken and printed, our time has been dominated by the picture. They appear on large screens and small, center front in papers or full page in magazines, memorialized in frames, carried in pockets on phones and tablets. They have emerged as a primary vehicle for communication, speaking volumes without words on Instagram and Facebook and their doppelgängers. Most of the images we consume are relatively banal – people with people, people in front of places, people all alone, animals acting like people, animals acting like animals, people acting like animals, places without people. Now that the preservation of images is freed from the complex process and expense of loading, processing and printing film, we have all become documentarians of lives both notable and unremarkable. Like those compelled to tag monuments, buildings and tunnels with graffiti (from the ancient Greeks who scrawled on the Pyramids of Cheops to modern day Kilroys), our imagery have become manipulated collections of ones and zeros that assert our presence on planet earth; a modern day shout to oblivion that, like the residents of Whoville, demands to be heard – “We are here, we are here, we are HERE!” A few of these images receive such widespread dissemination that they become memes – a relatively new word indicating an image or piece of text that has become so commonplace through sharing that it is widely recognizable. Fewer still become icons: frozen moments that so powerfully demonstrate something ominous or chillingly reflective that they take on a life of their own, seared into the minds of millions. These are the images that are our most profoundly disturbing mirrors: ones that reveal to us, like portrait of Mr. Gray through the passage of time, what we are in danger of becoming or have already become. True enough, images of the lovely and pastoral abound, but these are not the ones that haunt, that linger in troubled memory, that emerge in the dark of the night to warn or spur sober reflection on our actions and beliefs. These images are so powerful that they have changed us, spurred us to re-plot our course, move ahead in a different way. I suspect that many of the images that have established permanent residence in my mind are familiar to many and that they evoke a similar if not identical emotional response to my own. Oh, the humanity. Yes, the Goodyear blimp is still up there, but dirigibles as a method of travel? Maybe we ought to rethink that. Are we really capable of such evil? And even if we wouldn’t do it ourselves, can we possibly tolerate it in others? How could we have continued this exercise of cruelty toward others after we sacrificed so much to stop it in others? Does she really pose that much of a threat? Must the insanely evil among us always shape the lives of those in society? Still not healthy for children and other living things. Thankfully, she is alive and well today and running a charity for those displaced by war. “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke There must be forces, unseen and unrecognizable, that work ceaselessly for the elimination of progress. All dreams, all aspirations have a cost. At times the cost is incalculable. Damn you, child. Damn you. “We have met the enemy, and they is us.” Pogo Of course, there are dozens more images that I carry with me – dour mothers and hungry children caught in the Depression’s merciless wake, scrounging for simple existence while coal barons and oil magnates dine off fine china. Americans being beaten with truncheons and clubs because they dared to ask that their full humanity be affirmed. Young black men dangling from misshapen trees, victims of cruel and unbounded ignorance and recidivism. Homeless men and women huddled in doorways while Black Friday shoppers shove through Walmart doors. These images and so many like them have power for us because they demand that we look closely at ourselves and ask if we are becoming who we actually want to be or whether we have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Like the Magic Mirror in Snow White, we come arrogantly to our reflection and ask only for confirmation of that which we have come to believe – that we’re just fine the way we are, no modification necessary. Herein, I believe, lies the gift of Donald Trump. His accession to the highest office in the land, whether by the honest...

Labora in Pacem

I had a chance to reflect on our ideas of Heaven when I attended a funeral for another member of the clergy recently. Usually, I perform funerals rather than attend them, so I don’t often get to listen in silence. I’ve performed countless funerals over the years and, truth be told, I enjoy them; not like Jackie Gleason’s Gigot who went to funerals on his day off so he would have someone to cry with, but because funerals are one of the few pastoral functions where clergy are really needed. Weddings no longer require the presence of clergy (and even if you perform them, you’re only there as a functionary which is why you’re invariably seated with Aunt Bertha and Uncle Heck from Cleveland at the reception). Any Christian can baptize any other person, and licensed lay folk can distribute the Eucharist to the shut in. But at a funeral, people really need what you have to offer. I was struck at the service by the petitions present in the Prayer Book’s Order for the Burial of the Dead: Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints                 Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace                 May the souls of all the departed rest in peace Hmmm. I must make a confession here. If there is a continuation of our consciousness after the grave (and I live in hope that there is), and if that consciousness is at all congruent with the nature and character of our earthly personality (and I believe it must be as the sanctity of our individuality is a keystone of the Gospel message), then I’m afraid that if the afterlife is comprised primarily of rest, I will be bored to tears. I’ve never been much for resting. I can’t abide lying abed in the mornings, and should I be tempted to sit quietly and enter into mental or physical inactivity, the temptation passes quickly as something productive I could be doing comes to mind. I have always been a worker, and I find that my most enjoyable experiences of diversion come not from a cessation of function, but rather shifting focus to another form of production or creativity. My brother in law has a favorite saying: “I’ll rest when I die.” I hope I don’t. Frankly, I’m praying that there will be work for me to do in Heaven. What does that Heaven look like? Frankly, I don’t know (but I’m dying to find out!). Even our best imaginings come short of what it might be, and while I’m not a great fan of cherry-picking Bible verses to shore up my arguments and assertions (preferring to see the sweep of Scripture), there are some phrases that I carry like treasured pocket possessions that bring me comfort and hope. A follower of the Beloved Disciple, speaking with his master’s voice and in the spirit of his master’s heart provides an assurance born from years of prayerful insight into the Heart of God: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  (I John 3:2) I take great pleasure in that verse, knowing that as we draw closer to him, unfettered by the restrictions of flesh and earthly limitation, we begin to mirror the Lord of Life more clearly. But that isn’t just a statement about our yet-to-be-experienced nature; it is also a promise of our intention, our function. For it is the Lord of Life that holds us in his heart and hand daily, inextricably tied to the humanity he came to save. St. Paul, in his magnificent Epistle to the Romans, promises: It is Christ who died, yes rather, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God and makes intercession for us.  (Romans 8:34) The unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews holds out a clear vision for me as I look for work in Heaven: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1) I hold so many in my heart in love already – family, friends, members of other communities I have served. As I have said before, I move through my relationships with them in the same way a king runs his fingers through his jewels. They are my...

Highway 61

Highway 61 was where Robert Johnson reportedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his exceptional ability to play guitar. With respect to Mr. Dylan, a slightly different take: Click here! Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...

America’s Portland Problem

Having lived in Portland for two and a half years, I am becoming more familiar with this quirky city, increasingly popular with millennials. Once a gritty solid working class community, Portland has become a favorite destination for foodies, craft beer and spirits fans, coffee drinkers, and save-the-planet types who brew their own kombucha, pickle their own vegetables, and recycle everything that doesn’t emit fatal levels of radioactivity. It’s a town of makers and make do-ers, tony little shops filled with artsy ephemera, entitled (and occasionally nude) bicyclists, sixties reboots who embrace culture sans couture. People tend to feel good about themselves simply because they have chosen to live here, choice of residence (it seems) being an indicator of a certain set of values; one which embraces Powell’s but disdains Amazon, whose residents proudly sport short pants in winter and consider Sasquatch an inside joke. It’s Portlandia as reality show, Twin Peaks without Bob. Much of the above is a twenty first century layer imposed over the old Portland: the flannel shirt, double aught, fiercely independent, most-unchurched-state in the union and damn proud of it Portland. The used-to-be-the-most-racist state that’s trying awfully hard to be the reformed you-be-you-and-I’ll-be-me Portland. It’s LGBTQ heaven, a legally THC infused, house-flipping spot of manic interest in all things chilled out where property values and homeless camps increase daily. It’s roses and robberies, diversity amidst drizzle. I like it. The above description isn’t the problem, however. The problem is that Portland is located in the most temperate spot in the Pacific Northwest. Generally warmer than Seattle but with as much precipitation, closer to the ocean than the drier Oregon high country, nestled between two rivers that provide enough humidity to grow mold on laundry newly removed from the dryer, Portland is a place of explosive vegetation. One can plant anything in any patch of dirt and it will grow, assuming it isn’t choked by weeds before it reaches maturity. A passionate gardener, I arrived in Portland excited at the prospect of growing things that I was unable to foster in our last home, the high mesa of northern New Mexico. Soon after arrival, I measured our yard for garden plots, calculating the sunny spots in a plot of land overcrowded with trees. A previous owner had been tree-crazy and planted a variety of fruit bearing trees, never thinking how they might look 20 years on. A quick census revealed that we had figs, Italian plums, persimmons, Asian pears, apples (three varieties), quince, Chinese chestnuts, Bartlett pears (three trees worth), a “dwarf” sweet cherry that had exploded skyward to a height of 40 feet, blueberries, raspberries, Corinthian cherries, a thirty foot arbor bearing Concord grapes and a variety of non-fruit bearing trees. Every space non-tree was filled with iris, allium, daylily, peony, half a dozen roses gone wild, Spanish lavender, fern, hens and chicks, rhododendron, four varieties of bamboo, mint. And blackberries. Everyone in this part of the country suffers from rampant blackberry growth, the scourge of the Pacific Northwest, thanks to the rapid alimentary process of berry-loving birds. Remarkably, I didn’t see the problem, only the possibilities. There wasn’t much sun to be had in my yard, but I managed to construct a few raised beds for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. I planted my first starts come spring and awaited the bounty. It arrived the day after planting. My newly planted beds, pristine just the day before, had exploded with tiny little weeds overnight – dozens of them. I went to pull them out but upon being touched, they launched multitude of tiny seeds across the surface of my vegetable beds. Ever since, I have been involved in the daily task of attempting to tame the wilderness. The bamboo alone requires a full time nanny as it multiplies faster than rabbits and left untended will grow to heights of thirty feet or more. The vegetation in my yard grows faster than I am able to contain it: a seed arrives and it’s growth cannot then be stopped. In relational terms we refer to such activity as promiscuity. In biological terms, we call it malignancy. So many of the things we fear the most are marked by unregulated growth – cancer, nuclear proliferation, environmental toxins, mob behavior. And of late, I fear, the atmosphere in this America of ours has provided the perfect growing conditions for division, discord, blaming, antipathy. Like bacteria thriving in the perfect medium of a petrie dish, anger and antipathy roils, the preference for advantage over altruism is celebrated, the insistence on the self dominates like a carpet of weed that steals light and moisture from the...

Shaping the Field

How does it work, exactly? A friend sent an email this morning asking me to “say a prayer” for her father who was in surgery for the reemergence of a brain tumor. The procedure is, not surprisingly, complex and dangerous. I immediately offered prayer for the intention of his return to health and the skill of his surgical team. Perhaps like many who pray, I then entertained the question of whether my prayer (or any prayer) was efficacious, whether it was just an exercise in feeling good about myself, an antidote to feelings of powerlessness, an application of wishful thinking. I suppose each of those may be a by product of my praying, but I must believe they are not its sole consequence. It’s not a matter of believing. Certainly, belief has power: it has the capacity to transform men into monsters, sinners into saints. Believing in itself is nothing more than entertaining a series of delusions about the universe in which we live and our place in it. I have always been struck by Sir John Betjeman’s powerful confession in his poem Before the Anaesthetic, where he confronts the real possibility of his own demise and acknowledges the fantasy of his believing: St. Giles’s bells are asking now “And hast thou known the Lord, hast thou?” St. Giles’s bells, they richly ring “And was that Lord our Christ the King?” St. Giles’s bells they hear me call I never knew the Lord at all. Oh not in me your Saviour dwells You ancient, rich St. Giles’s bells. Illuminated missals-spires- Wide screens and decorated quires- All these I loved, and on my knees I thanked myself for knowing these And watched the morning sunlight pass Through richly stained Victorian glass And in the colour-shafted air I, kneeling, thought the Lord was there. Now, lying in the gathering mist I know that Lord did not exist; Now, lest this “I” should cease to be, Come, real Lord, come quick to me. No, our believing is a pitiful thing, tragically limited by the narrow boundaries of our perceptions and intellects, as different from that of our fellows as are our facial features and body types. Admittedly, our believing provides us with a way to stand in the world and interact, but does little to shape the fabric of reality about us. But our praying may be a different matter. I have never embraced the “vending machine” approach to prayer – insert a prayer, pull the lever and get a product which may or may not bear some resemblance to your desired outcome. Nor can I accept (intellectually or spiritually) the idea that an anthropomorphic parental deity weighs the merits of individual requests and acts (although I loved Bruce Jay Friedman’s play Steambath where God was a Puerto Rican steam bath attendant named Morte who dictated commands to a celestial machine that responded to his caprice). I am convinced, however, that prayer is energy, intended and directed. That we humans are generators of energy is a given (that was, after all, one of the assertions of The Matrix), and we apply the energy we produce both for actions great and small, interactions selfish and benevolently interactive. Further, the saints of contemporary physics assure us that we live and move and have our being in and through fields of energy which connect and infuse all things animate and inanimate. Waves of energy influence the fields in which we dwell, and I pray with intention in hope that what humble energy I emit may have some effect on the field even far distant. And where is God in my assessment of the value of praying? As delusional as my own believing may be, I act in confidence that God defines and sustains the field of energy which allows little folk like me to shape emerging reality. It may be little more than a pleasant delusion, but I, like many others, have often had the experience of thinking of someone then having the phone ring only to find them on the other end. I have seen in my garden the consequence of planting things that do not get along in close proximity to each other, only to have both die. Certainly, their roots do not touch, but they do alter the nature of the field in which they are both planted. I have an admittedly humble model for global influence (one unavailable to me even 25 years ago) every time I surf the web and send a thought or a wish to those worlds away from me. So, too, I hope to influence the character of the cosmic field in...

Failure

The idea seemed relatively easy to execute: an acrylic rod with shallow openings drilled in each end to fix the piece in a silicone mold, hand laid Japanese paper glued on the circumference of the rod, cast the piece in polyester resin. When the resin hardens, de-mold the piece, turn it down, polish and drill to receive the barrel of the pen with section and nib. Fountain pen Japonisme. I decided the barrel would be black anodized 6061 aluminum, the section a piece of gold swirled resin that would highlight the gold highlights in the predominantly red pattern of the paper. The red and gold combination might lean a bit toward chinoiserie, but the pattern on the paper itself would be characteristic of the simplicity of Japanese design. I became quite excited at the prospect. As a pen maker (I like the term penwright, but it’s a non-word and is unlikely to be accepted into the OED any time soon), I have a few ground rules. First, I only make fountain pens. Ballpoints and rollerballs are ubiquitous, and I’m not interested in spending hours on something so common. Second, each of my pens must be the only one – I do not repeat designs or combinations of materials so that the user has the pleasure of knowing that their pen is as unique as their thoughts. I have friends who make pens, and they (smarter than I) design and execute a particular model of pen – a certain size and shape that they make over and over, at times changing the material to add some diversity. The approach has much to commend it: the maker can standardize certain operations insuring consistency, but more importantly the buyer has the experience of wanting something that others have (and find satisfactory). Brand consciousness has worked wonders for buyers of the Toyota Camry and Tommy Hilfiger clothing and it has been a successful strategy in the very small world of fountain pen purchasing. People want a Sailor or a Mont Blanc, a Waterman or Montegrappa because they are readily recognizable, symbolic of a certain kind of visual style, and have become associated with fine writing instruments. My friends who make fountain pens as a serious hobby (read: addiction) or small business have embraced the method of the big companies because it works and folks who are passionate about collecting pens know the makers by their models and do their spending accordingly. My next pen will be a Gorgonzola Trident, or some such model name. But producing the same pen over and over holds no appeal for me. Beyond bromidic, the process would become uninteresting after the second was finished, tedious after the third, and loathsome by the fourth. So each pen is different. It keeps me imagining. Fountain pen Japonisme contained the perfect combination of novelty, technical challenge and specialized appeal. And failure. The first fail was the construction of a silicone mold. Neglecting to anchor the positives in the mold appropriately left my $40 investment in two part silicone moulding material looking like a collection of flotsam on a quiet cove of the Jersey shore. The second $40 mold worked better, but the nipples designed to fit in the ends of the acrylic rod tore slightly when demolding the positives, meaning that I could get a few pieces out of it, but another $40 would be needed to make one that could be used repeatedly. Still, my excitement held as I did a lot of learning for less than $100. I’ve spent thousands on post graduate degrees and learned less. One by one, I glued expensive pieces of paper to acrylic rods that I had turned down to size, cast them in polyester resin (which, due to its atrocious odor, had to cure in the garage if I wanted to remain married). Give it plenty of curing time and be patient turning down this irregular shape into a cylinder. So far, I’ve ruined eight. I’ve tried different adhesives, different treatments of the paper surface, different ratios of catalyst to resin, multiple approaches to curing the cast. They’ve all failed. Most of my inspiration for persistence in design and execution of everything from pen making to gardening to food preparation comes from a visit my wife and I made to Florence a number of years ago. Of all the glories in that glorious city, I was most deeply moved by our visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze where Michelangelo’s statue of the David is on display. Arguably the most famous piece of statuary in the world, the David seen by itself is a wonder, especially considering Michelangelo’s...

Evo, Devo, Revo

The efficacy of evolutionary processes depends entirely upon the perspective and values of the observer, mirroring in biology what Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle posited in physics. Case in point: my children, in their third and fourth decades have, in my belief, already surpassed me (in my seventh decade) in the qualities and characteristics I deem desirable to a rich and fulfilled expression of authentic humanity. I do not doubt but that nature and nurture both come into play as they had the benefit of their mother’s genetic disposition toward acceptance and patience (supplementing my characteristics favoring assessment and urgency), and the experience of Rectory living which has as a constant interface continual encounter with all sorts and conditions of folk. My wife and my shared commitments to fundamental tenets of faithful living (love God, love people being chief among them) were always held as a high aspiration in our home, if not a completely ubiquitous practice, creating an atmosphere that shaped their early lives. The acquisition of things never played much of a part in our home as there was little resource with which to acquire and when there was some acquiring of items considered necessaries by friends or parishioners, it invariably was attended by a sense of having been extravagant, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness. It came as no surprise to me that each of our three daughters have pursued careers short on compensation but long on service to others. They each reached their decisions at different times and through differing processes of discernment, but have all embraced professions that define them and which they, with remarkable proficiency and dedication, will help to further. However, their vocational choices, while being consistent with the worldview of the nuclear family from which they emerged, is only a small part of their evolution beyond their parent. As persons, they are within themselves so many of the things I always longed to be but so frequently have proven myself not to be. While I could be understandably parental and match characteristics with them individually, I will content myself in saying that they possess a passion for and willingness to act for justice that I often admired and so frequently let pass. They display a generosity of hand and heart that convicts my possessiveness as evidence of underdevelopment. Their glad and nonjudgmental acceptance of those who differ so radically from them displays obvious growth over my inclination to associate with beings like self. In these, and in so many other ways, it is apparent to me that they have successfully moved through my Beta phase to a fully functioning version 2.0. But I have to admit not only my bias, but also the fact that I see these things from a particular perspective: one that places the highest value on those characteristics. In truth, I find myself in a world that values these things less and would point to my children as examples not of progress, but of devolution. They are, after all, not dedicated consumers. They are not committed to amassing wealth. They are not so much interested in who loves them (evidently America’s new immigration test), but rather who they love. They value the honest expression of their perceptions and commitments over pronouncements crafted to incite or appease. They spend their non-employment discretionary time giving rather than getting. They don’t dress like anyone in the advertising pages of magazines and tend to accessorize from places like Goodwill. The only things they consider precious are their family members, friends and animals. And that’s not success in America anymore. Ultimately, time determines that which improves and that which devolves, what survives and what faces extinction, but I fear that without another –lution we may see the end of the qualities and characteristics I see in my daughters and those like them as the nation and the world hurtle toward self-serving isolationism. In the time I have left, I commit to working toward those things for which my daughters stand in hopes that I may still may grow. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...