400 Words of Free Thought

Just got  back from attending the annual clergy conference for our diocese and as usual I came back with more questions than answers. I love it when we have guest speakers who come, give us their take then leave and all I get is a confusing mess of stuff rushing around in my brain. This past week we heard from folks from Leadership Education at Duke University who spoke to us about the “deep trends” that we are facing as leaders in the church. They suggest that we need to somehow be, not only aware of these trends, but how to engage with them as we negotiate our future as a church.

Now, I do admit to not being one of the best and brightest of our Episcopal clergy, it takes me awhile to process what I have just been told before I can even begin to understand what it all means. As I listened to what the seven so-called “deep trends” are, I began to envision us moving slowly toward being one of those dystopian societies like those in the currently popular, YA novels. It became increasingly clear when one of those trends was what they called the lure of cities, people moving into or creating huge cities in which to work and live. Huge mega cities, that include, not just a few million but 12, 13 even 20 million people, living together and vying for the inevitable shortages that comes when human beings try to cram into limited living spaces.

Overall, these mega cities are all going to require food, fuel and entertainment, not unlike the Capitol portrayed in the Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy. The question is how do we, as a church and as Christians, begin to understand these trends so that we can fully engage with them before we are subsumed by the tsunami these changes create? I was thinking that Jesus was basically a country boy, raised in a small village, who preached and taught out in the countryside and who preached his most famous sermon on a mount outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was when he entered into that city, when he confronted the powers, both religious and political, that he was then arrested, tried and condemned to death. The city, in all of it’s narcissistic glory, is jealous and demands more of our emotional resources and does not tolerate thinking that denigrates its power and influence.

Prophecy

Dear Prophecy,
Where will this take me, am I on the right path or just flaying away for nothing? I look to the shamans, the gypsies and mystics, those who peer intently into my palms, deal the cards and toss the runes onto the ground. Are they looking into my future, my true future or are just as confused as we all are? I look to the mist shrouded mountain and the thin places all seeking my purpose in the confusion that surrounds me, yet the silence deafens my soul.

Prophecy, what does the future hold or do you keep that a secret, held close less I find the key and unlock the very mystery you hold so dear. The ancients sought you in the mystical caves or in incense filled temples grasping for any word, any clue, yet you spoke in riddles and continue to hold the secret. I seek you in the daily life, in the eyes and words of those I meet along the way, many of whom seek the same from you, truth and not riddles. 

Yet, what is truth, that age old question where belief and faith intersect, where we see through a glass darkly and move along paths littered with the remains of broken dreams. Prophecy, even kings, emperors, the rich and powerful have never pulled back the veil you keep in place, what then can I do, one so poor in that which is needed to uncover fate. 

Prophecy, what will I leave this world with, will my impression leave a mark or will I just float away, a wisp of a shadow, a breath that goes out never to return? 

 

Yours truly, a wandering spirit.

Found Family

It was an unexpected discovery, a small book entitled, Men of Dukinfield: A history of Dukinfield during the Great War. In this book I read; “Travis, James: Private, 3741, 11th Battalion, Manchester Regiment. Killed in France, 26 September 1916, aged 30. Worked for Summers, Stalybridge. Lived at 1 Sack Street and left widow and children. Name on Thiepval Memorial.”

Although not a lot of information it did give me more than I had ever known about this relative of mine. James Travis, was my grandmother’s brother and my mom’s uncle. He and his two brothers had all joined the British Army during World War I and all I knew were the stories that were told by my family. He was a remote character who lived in a time and place that was foreign and out of touch with the world that I knew. Now here was something that made him real, a person who lived, who loved, had a family and worked. He was truly flesh and blood and I wanted to know more about him, where he lived, what he did and where he died.

I had one piece of crucial information, his service number 3741, with just that I tracked down when he joined the Manchester’s, where they fought during that war and even the place where he was eventually killed in action. More than that I discovered his wife’s name, Sophia as well as his three daughters, Alice, Ada and Marion. Armed with that bit of information I soon discovered that he and Sophia were married in Dukinfield at the Anglican Parish Church, he was 21, she was 22. The marriage certificate shows that James was a labourer and Sophia a spinner apparently in one of the many mills in and around Manchester at that time. I was able to also find the names of their respective fathers, Walter Travis and George Thomas Wilde.

Each layer that I uncover unearths just a bit more about this uncle who in 1915 at the age of 29 decided to join the army to go and fight in that war. I wonder what he might have written in his letters to home or what he was like as a soldier. Who were his best friends, his buddies in the trenches and how did they get through the daily grind of being in the army? As I uncover more information and I feel that there is a story here that needs to be told, that these lives are important, their loves, their losses, the very essence of who they were. It’s a story that I want to tell so that they are not lost to the mists of time.

Conversing about Death

In my line of work this topic comes up quite a bit, especially when people are facing the inevitability that their life will end. Death, it’s not a subject we are comfortable with and yet it’s something we will all face one day. Like it or not, we are not immortal, our bodies wonderful machines they may be are not impervious to disease, accidents or aging. Many of the conversations I have with people about death usually comes when it is a reality in their lives. The death of a spouse, parent or child are difficult and can make for some very hard discussions. I’ve talked with people who are angry with God, with me, with the church, and with the medical staff for failing to provide that one great miracle.

The usual conversations always include questions of heaven and whether or not their loved one will be there. Even the most difficult of people, those whose lives are less than exemplary, want to know that they are destined for paradise rather than being issued a red union suit with pitchfork. What I try to tell them is that it’s really not my decision where they end up after death, but what is more important is what they do in their life.

We are all born and we all die, that’s a fact, what matters is what we do in the years in between no matter how many we are given. All life is a gift and even if you are here for only moments or many years, your life has touched someone. We do not live in a vacuum and Milton was right, “No man (or woman) is an island,” our very existence in and of itself has an impact on others, whether we know them or not.

Yesterday, I did the funeral for a man who had a large impact on many people. By our standards this was a large funeral with over 200 people paying their respects at this mans wake and many then attending the service at church. He had fought a long, hard battle against cancer and finally he could no longer continue. As people spoke about his life and what he accomplished I was struck by a story his daughter told of the day he rescued two young boys from drowning. Two lives saved, two stories continued all because this one man happened to be at the right place at the right time. Not only that, for whatever reason, at that moment he decided to shed any fears he may have held and took the risk to save those boys.

Yes, life does matter and what we do and who we touch has a profound impact on the world around us. Death never does separate us from the living, in this case two lives continue to thrive and make their own impact on others. The gift he gave continues to give and one day many years from now a family with younsters will tell the story of how their great-grandparents were saved by a man who risked it all to jump in that lake. The conversation will continue and life will carry on.

 

Being 12 years old

We were living on the south side of Framingham Massachusetts in an Italian neighborhood, where each day you would see clusters of elderly women talking in their native tongue and using the hands emphatically. I grew up at a time when we we basically “free range” kids, we all knew that when the streetlights came on it was time to go home. Our home was a what they call a ranch house where I shared a bedroom with my younger brother. At 12 years old, my life was simply going to school, playing in the woods or the sandpit behind our home. In the winter, when the snow covered the landscape we would head for one of the hills and there would sled down trying to see who would get closest to the frozen swamp. In the summer with school out, I would use the rope swing tied to a gnarly old branch of the oak tree, seeing just how far I could swing out over the woods below.

I remember every year when the town would tar and then lay crushed stone down on our street, we would get the warm, sticky tar on our shoes which we would then drag into the house. The dark spots on the kitchen a trail that we would leave behind much the consternation of my mom, who had to clean up that mess.

Living in this Italian neighborhood there was always somebody cooking and outside you could catch a whiff of the fragrant smell of a sauce simmering on the stove. Our small band of friends were always going from one home to another and in the summer you could hear the almost constant swinging and closing of screen doors with that familiar squeaking sound with the door banging several times as it closed behind us.

Right behind our house was the old Foresters Club where just about every weekend from spring until fall there would be a wedding reception. Sometimes we would sit and watch as the bride and groom danced that first dance, holding one another in an embrace as tender and loving as one could imagine. We would then laugh as everyone was swept up in doing the so-called “chicken dance” the older relatives dancing away as the consumption of wine and beer removed all inhibitions.

For a 12 year old, it was a simple life with none of the complexities or troubles that come with being an adult. Without the need for constant adult supervision we created our own fun, whether it was playing ball, choosing sides for some football or shooting hoops. Yet, in a close community, where everyone knew everyone, you could be guaranteed that someone was keeping an eye on us as we played.

 

Muffins and Beans

I remember walking into the house after playing outside on a cold, snowy winter day to the fragrant, bready smell of my mom’s homemade english muffins baking. These were definitely not what you buy in the stores, none of those nooks and crannies, no, these were handmade bundles of our deliciousness. So large that my dad had to go out and find toaster that he could fit them in so he could have a warm toasted muffin before heading to work.

Seeing my mom, mixing the ingredients, taking the packet of yeast placing that in warm water to activate those little spores then putting it all together. She would then place the bowl in a warm corner of the kitchen and the magic would begin, the dough would slowly rise to twice its size, only then would she take it out of the bowl and begin begin dividing it into separate pieces. I would watch her as she took each piece, kneading and shaping each one, then with a fork she would poke those little loaves several times before placing them on a baking sheet. Again, they were covered and again we would wait as they too began to slowly rise and take shape. As soon as they were ready, to her satisfaction, she would pop them into the oven where they turned a golden brown.

There’s nothing like opening a warm, freshly baked treat and these were no exception. On those special nights, in the middle of winter when the sun goes down early and the cold winds blow outside, we would be treated to these warm treats along with homemade baked beans. I used to love slathering butter onto my muffin and watch it melt, then dive into my beans using my piece of muffin to soak up the juices.

Years later, when I returned home from Vietnam, my mom asked me what special dinner would I like to have. “Ma” I said, “I would love to have some of your english muffins and baked beans.” Yes, it was a most satisfying meal that evening, one that said, welcome home.

The Cell Phone

They seem to be everywhere, on trains, planes and automobiles, as well as sidewalks, stores and everywhere else. A few years ago you would have never seen one much less have owned one, but now it seems that everyone has one and they are constantly using them. I am speaking of cell phones, those small objects that can keep us connected and yet can also separate us.

Sitting anywhere, in a train station, at the airport, even just enjoying a cup of coffee I see people walking by with their cell phone either glued to their ear or busily typing away a text message. What’s even more disturbing is when they are talking away as if they were at home. I mean really, does everyone around you need to know how your date went last night or the fight you had with your spouse? The fact that you had a doctor’s appointment and you now need that procedure to fix the issue, really is that what we all need to hear and be privy to?

Now, I’m not saying that cell phones are a bad thing, in fact these phones are just inanimate objects they are neither good or bad. Like everything else we moderns have it’s how we use them in our lives. With today’s smart phones and the high-speed networks, not only can we connect with family and friends we can also google to our hearts content. Sit on a bus and look up the latest news, find out what Gisele and Tom are up to, even pass along the latest liberal or conservative rant on our Facebook page. Texting has also become the popular thing, thumbs flashing along the tiny keyboards, then the vacant stare as they await an answer. The possibilities are endless.

As I sit and watch folks go by, cell phone in hand, texting, scrolling, getting directions and even talking, they are seldom aware of their surroundings. A young man steps off the sidewalk, a woman bumps into the street trash can and another person trips on a step. They are oblivious to what is going on around them by using a device that was meant to keep us connected. In fact  it seems we are more and more isolated from each other. Our private, little world is contained on our cell phone. We are no longer need to engage with each other, be polite in our interactions or, God forbid, even have to speak to one another. Our cell phones, our smart phones, are all we need, as long as we have a good signal. It’s almost funny to watch someone whose cell has lost it’s connection, they walk around with that lost look, holding the phone in the air as if they could capture the signal and get back to what they were doing.

Cell phones, a blessing or a curse? Anyway you look at it they are here to stay with the various competing manufacturer’s all saying that theirs is the fastest, best and has the most apps, we are in for an interesting future. Please, just pay attention to what is happening around you, really life is brilliant and more fun when you engage with what is going on rather than the mind numbing life on the cell phone.