Friday, September 7, 2018

A Sad Day

This is a sad day.  Our dear friend and colleague Stephanie died last night at 11 pm, Minnesota time.  It was 6 am here in Labastide-Esparbairenque, in the south of France.  I got up a minute or two after 7; Luisa awoke around 9.  I was typing a poem to Stephanie—one I had started in my journal during the time of our prayer watch, while Stephanie was in the hospital.  People often say, “while she was fighting for her life”. I don’t know what you do when you are that grievously wounded in the brain and in the heart.  Maybe it wasn’t fighting she was doing.  Maybe Stephanie was waiting, preparing, releasing.

Stephanie leaves behind three young children and her husband Paul.  Her middle name was Joy, and that name was her.  Full of wit and energy, a great sense of humor, a very generous heart.  A heart that failed, despite the best offices of her doctors and nurses and other caregivers.

She died in Abbott Hospital, just a few short blocks from our church.  Had we been in Minnesota, we would have been over there visiting her and visiting Paul.  Maybe we would have volunteered to help with the kids.  What one can “do” in those situations is very limited.  But we would have loved to “be” with Stephanie in her woundedness, and with Paul in his worry and sorrow and hope.

We often say in the church—when we can’t be physically present—that “we will be with you in Spirit”, or “we will be with you in prayer”.  We were with Stephanie in prayer this last week, in the midst of the incredible beauty and joy of being here and being on sabbatical.  As for the Spirit, on this day, I can sense, but I do not comprehend where the Spirit is in this grief.  Were all the prayers of all the people who love Stephanie for naught?  Is there some cry that God has not, cannot hear?

I imagine that this will not be the hardest day for Paul.  There is the shock that overcomes everything.  The suddenness of death that overwhelms, even when you have known that it may come. There are details to be worked out, the children to be loved, loved, loved.  There will be many prayers, many people to help; perhaps food brought to the house, offers of childcare and errands, calls to family.   The hardest days—when that is all gone, when there is nothing but the emptiness—they are coming. Oh, dear Paul. Oh, dear Stephanie.

I believe in the communion of saints.  I believe in the resurrection from the dead and the life everlasting.  Oh God, help my unbelief!  Your perpetual light shines on Stephanie right now, right eternally.  Give us a glimpse of that, of the peace that can surpass.

In this little village, the town bell rings once on the half hour, and then rings the number of hours as each hour ends and a new one begins.  It just rang twice.  In a few seconds, it will ring twice again—I guess to help those who heard the bell the first time but didn’t count the hours. 

No more counting for Stephanie.  No more accumulating.  Her life was a blessing.  Her life is a gift.  But this, this incredible pain.

I usually end my blog posts with “Be Justice. Be Beauty” and then “be” something else I’ve written about.  Today, please be…I don’t know, just be.  Be in love, be alive, be joy, for this loss of joy.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Random Thoughts

They’ve finally changed the sign on the paint factory next to my writing studio at the Open Book building downtown.  Valspar, who donated paint for our Guerrilla Garages Program—quick murals over graffiti in the alleys around the church—was bought out by Sherman Williams, and today I see their name is on the building next to where I park.  Not the old Sherman Williams Paint logo, with a paint bucket labeled “SWP” is pouring red over the globe—as if the Socialist Worker’s Party finally did succeed in worldwide revolution—but new style neon words that continue the corporate model of making things that are at once fancy and boring.


Last night, BBC News reported that around 7,000 people from the mostly Christian minority in Kachin State in northern Myanmar have fled their homes after a military crackdown in the war for independence that started soon after what was then called Burma’s military took over in 1962.  That hasn’t received much international coverage, especially since 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the genocide by the Myanmar’s army and their “Buddhist allies”.  In college, I did my paper on Burma in the International Relations course.  I remember that Burma was noted for the particular brand of Buddhism practiced by the majority there: Theravada Buddhism.  Apparently, if you practice that kind of enlightenment these days, ethnic cleansing, rape and murder are allowed.  Of course, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize Winner blamed the trouble on “terrorists”, the favorite word of military dominated governments worldwide.


On Monday, the Israeli military killed at least 58 Palestinian protestors and injured more than 2,700 on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, a day for celebration in Israel, and the nakba—catastrophe—for Palestinians, who remember hundreds of thousands pushed out of the homes and towns.  The protests were intensified because our commander in chief moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (but didn’t go, because Trump doesn’t go to anything—baseball games, correspondents’ dinners, international events where he can’t pick the entire audience). Israel says the deaths are the fault of the “terrorist group Hamas”, and that Israel is the only true democracy in the region. The United States is “always pro-democracy” and always pushes for “free and fair elections” in any international situation. Hamas won the elections a few years back, and the US immediately denied their legitimacy.  Solid history there: elections in Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, Viet Nam and a lot of other places that didn’t go the way the U.S. wanted were met with brute force, blockades, coups, invasions and so on.  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nicky Haley said of the carnage inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians on Monday that “no other nation has shown greater restraint than Israel.”  Hmmm.


But then I thought: when a thousand people peacefully protested the police murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, they were met with close to 2,000 city and state police and National Guard in riot gear, with tear gas and so on.  So maybe Haley has a point about restraint.  See Ferguson, New York, Philly, Minneapolis, Nashville, etc.


I am thinking about my Pentecost sermon coming up.  The usual suspects: Getting on Fire!  What Wind Can Do!  We’re Not Drunk!  Well, they just aren’t ringing any bells in my head.  I’m thinking of using a quote I can’t attribute because I don’t know who said it.  The gist of it is that after Pentecost, the disciples “stayed not with certainty, but with courage.”  That is, they didn’t do business as usual, but took big, joyful, powerful risks.  Are you listening, church?  Nation?  Me?


Wednesday mornings and early afternoons, I write at the studio. I was looking today to see what the themes of my most recent poems published in journals. In no particular order: immigration, a 4-year old’s response to witnessing her mother’s boyfriend be shot dead by a policeman while she was sitting in the back seat of the care, immigration, my dad’s barber shop as a gentle confessional, teaching gardening to a 6th grade science class, a love poem to my wife and to God in the same poem (interesting), immigration, feeding an abandoned dog in a Philly park the week of Christmas, and getting late to planting at our Shalom Community Garden last year, because the county seized it, padlocked it and put no trespassing signs on it.  Today, I began a poem about meeting a South African political exile at a university in the Soviet Union and worked on revising poems about ghosts, a nine-year old thief, Judas’ last moments and riding our bikes around the slaughterhouse in my home town.  Psychologists—amateur or professional—are welcome to comment.


Minneapolis got 17 inches of snow on April 15, the second big snowfall of the month.  Then we got heat.  All of the trees have blossomed at once, and the lilacs are wonderful.  My nose loves the aroma and my eyes love the stunning beauty. Both of those body parts are suffering for their love.  Allergies, anyone?


A bunch of friends from college and I are planning a July “Medicare Reunion”, since we’ve all turned or will turn 65 this year.  Both my new knees should be in pretty good shape by then.


In exactly 21 days, our baby, our little one will graduate from high school.  When I think about it for more than a few minutes, I start to cry—for joy and for loss of her early days.


That’s it.


Be justice. Be beauty. Be random (as the kids say)



Wednesday, December 20, 2017


We had our annual Posada last Saturday--the Christmas procession with Mary and Joseph/Maria and Jose, looking for shelter for the holy child.  We had some really mean innkeepers turn us away, which was great!

I'm looking for Posada or shelter from all the craziness of this past year.  The tax cut for the rich has passed, sacred lands are going to be sold to mining companies, Dreamers are hung out to dry, pedophiles are honored, but don't say "transgender" or "science based".  It seems like an assault a day.  But--as they say on the ads for "miracle" products on late-night TV--"there's more!"

That "more" may indeed be more assaults on the poor, the earth, those who are seen as "other".  But on this eve of the Solstice, I hold my hands out, not only asking for shelter, but offering it.   Mary gave the fetus that became Jesus (yes, Virginia, that's how it happened) posada in her womb.  She gave him breasts aching with milk.  She became the house for God, the house for hope.

I wrote this blog post on the Posada for our denomination's worship blog:

And I ask, what indeed, if we were all Posada for hope, for justice, for healing.

Be Justice.  Be Beauty.  Be Shelter.


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Sounds of Silence

In 1967--I'm pretty sure of the year--I was out hunting pheasants with my older brother Mike and my father.  "Hunting" is the right word--not "getting" any. It would have been this time of year: not a lot of snow on the ground, the landscape a muted severity of grays, tans and browns.  A low angle sun that seems to call to the inner depths of things.  One of my favorite times of the year.

If you've hunted pheasants, you know that the two actions you take are walking and being quiet.  We walked cornfields, barely used railroad tracks, sloughs, edges of woods.  I can't remember if we ever saw any birds that day. I know that we didn't shoot any.

It was cold that day, and one of the joys of that day was getting back into the warm car and driving to the next stop.  There was a new song that really grabbed me, as I sat in the back seat.  It spoke to the cold day, and also to where I was in my relation to my family at that age:  It was haunting, melancholic, beautifully sung, and also contained words that challenged how we looked at the world: "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls..."

I think maybe "The Sound of Silence" was the first song I fell in love with.  "Hello, darkness, my old friend..."   "In restless dreams I walked alone..."  I felt that, finally, someone was singing to my 14-year old soul. I didn't know where I fit into the family.  I was sad, in a time when boys--especially boys who played football, did Boy Scouts and hunted--didn't show that sadness.  I remember leaning back all of my 14-year old self into the back seat and thinking something like "I want to keep hearing this song forever".  There was something like joy and sorrow wrapped together in my hearing of it.

Except maybe I wasn't 14. The wonder--and curse--of on-line access is that I can just look up and see that "The Sound of Silence" was released in 1965.  Who knows how long it took to get to the top of the play list at KAUS 1480 in Austin, Minnesota.  But it probably didn't take two years. So maybe I was 12 or 13.  And maybe it doesn't matter, because as I continue to discover myself, who I am now at 64 (that I can confirm), who I was, and who I will be, I can give thanks for the beauty, the pathos and the call of that song. And so many others.

This is a poem I wrote over 30 years ago. I think that 12 or 13 or 14 year old boy is in there.


For Thomas Merton

A boy raises a match to twin candles,
Chanting baseball scores behind his prayers.
Bread and wine are ground into the stone,
The water is drawn, knife whetted,
Colors kissed and draped over shoulders.
The priest steps slowly to the altar,
Holding his years like stones coughed up by the sea.
He opens the book, lets the words slap his face,
Turns reddened to us, and weeps history.
It is a moment to say yes to failure.

The candles burn thick with darkness,
The music dances in the flames of a thousand circles.
Now the host is raised up to the beaks of night,
Now the words are shouted from the cross:
“This is my Body!” “This is my Blood!”
Walk now to the River, with hands open to receive the promise.
Like a tooth picked off a playground after a fight,
You put it in your pocket, wish on it,
Watch it grow into some terrible friend,
Some new and utterly lonely beast.


Be justice. Be beauty.  Be thanksgiving.


Monday, October 16, 2017




I was hit on by someone in a position of authority over me, and inappropriately touched by a colleague on several occasions.  I can say “Me too”.


But that’s not enough.


In both those cases, I was physically stronger than the other person, and had options for getting out of the situation.  That position was ending soon, and I could often avoid the person who touched me.  I wasn’t catcalled, groped on the bus or subway, called a slut or sexually assaulted.  I know many women—among my church, family and friends who have been.  I have tried to work against all kind of sexual harassment and violence, and I could say that I stand with women who have been threatened or attacked.  I could say “Me too”.


But it wouldn’t be enough.


Because men, including myself, need to say “Me too” about participating in a culture and society where women are treated like objects.   About seeing women as something to “get”.  I would like to say that I never thought that way or spoke that way, but I would be a liar.  I could say that I was younger, that I was raised in a town and time where using women was drilled into males from a very young age, and that this socialization is ingrained in our society so deeply.


I could say a “Me too” to being socialized to use women, but that isn’t enough.


Look at the language of “get” that men use:  I “got” a girlfriend.  I “got” laid.  Even I “got” married.  This language of acquisition and possession can morph quickly into actions that “take” instead of “get”. And taking another person is violence on any level.  I am sorry that I have participated in that, but that’s not enough.


I am trying to live my life in a way that does not objectify, harass or molest women (or anyone else).  I’m not perfect, and I fail.  That’s not an excuse, nor a plea for pity or cheap forgiveness.  What I can do is join with other men in a different kind of “me too” campaign, where we commit each other to recognize our participation in objectifying and demeaning women, and we commit ourselves to working with other men to stop it.


That could be a really good thing for us men to say, “us too”.

Be Justice. Be Beauty. Be "Us Too".


Saturday, July 22, 2017


I’m sitting in the studio I rent at the Loft Literary Center, a place boundaried by the ethics of silence and reflection.  I’m eating Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter out of a jar, and munching on crackers.  No other writers mind, because outside, down the block and across the street from the Vikings Darth Vader Stadium, in the parking lot of a bar, a heavy metal  raging scream shock damn it to hell band is playing its collective asses off for the masses.  I’m sure their volume control goes even beyond Spinal Tap’s 11, maybe up to 15 or so.  The guitar riffs are OK, the drummer is good, and the main singer—whom I’m guessing is a white guy around 40, whose long hair is starting to creep up his pate—is doing his best to channel rage.  After every song, a roar goes up from a couple hundred men.  Pretty soon, I expect to see pirates rappelling down the stadium walls to the plaza, where feral hogs will be slain by the sword and roasted whole over huge fires. 

I don’t write rage that well, and I’m trying to figure out how rage has taken over our discourse and our politics and even our families, rage not only from those who have been deprived, but from those doing the depriving. 

Interlude: the band just burst into their rendition of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”.  Touching.

I’ve been reading about how loyal Trump voters have stayed loyal, and how his bullying and coarseness and vulgarity actually make them feel better.  About him, and about themselves.  I know there are a lot of people feeling left out and powerless in parts of our country, and Trump feels like a champion.  But I wonder what will happen when that feeling doesn’t deliver, when all that is left is rage, with no action or strategy to funnel it into.  What will happen then?  There will still be music and rallies where we can shout about our power and our sense of being betrayed, but eventually that rage—real or imagined, it doesn’t matter—has to go somewhere.  God, help us.

This is a poem about a girl I knew who had reason to rage, and somehow found hope.  It was originally published in the anthology: Veils, Halos and Shackles: International Poetry on the Abuse and Oppression of Women.


For Janette

She crouches behind
the stove on the 4th floor
of a building with no elevator,
no front door, no smells
but rum, urine, frijoles,
flowers, fried fish,
t-shirts and asthma.
She breathes as softly
as her mind will let her,
with knocking at the door.                 

Who could it be?
A machete?
A tiny telegram from Tio?
An angel whose face
is on backwards?
The little peephole
is a magic pipeline:     
good things come in small packages
and bad things, too.

Her body is twelve, skinny
enough to squeeze behind
the stove, tight enough
to attract mustaches,
fingertips, maldiciones.
Her eyes are mousetraps
being nibbled.
She prays with her thumb,
her nightgown, the stuffed
bear she thought
to bring along.

She remembers
the story, from First Communion
of the five thousand fed:
five little breads,
two small fish,
given by a young boy.
“But it could have been you,
the pastor said. “It could have
been your hands
holding up the miracle.”
She looks at her hands,
browned like stove grease
from behind the stove,
white knuckled, red
in the creases,
eager to give birth.                 

I will be bread, she thinks.
I will be a fish:
A tiburón, a shark,
something that is
difficult to catch.

Be justice. Be beauty.  Be wary of your rage.


Friday, November 4, 2016


One thing I have not seen in all the election talk is discussion of what might be under Donald Trump’s misogyny, appeals to violence and general all around bullying.  I want to share some reflections on that, with a bit of trepidation. 

First of all, I don’t know Donald Trump, except for two things: 

1) His public persona, as he and his brand promote it.  There is a chance, I guess, that the whole thing could be just an act that he’s putting on.  He is a showman and salesman, after all.  But I kind of doubt that it’s ALL an act.  There doesn’t seem to be any difference between the Trump persona and Trump the man.  That’s sad.  And scary.

2) I lived in New York from the early 80’s to the early 90’s, when Trump was building his empire, and so got to see his pretty shady deals, his egomania and his attacks on enemies.

I am also aware of Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment (thou shall not bear false witness), where he says: “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”

It’s hard to put the best construction on everything Trump does and says!  To be honest, I’m not that great at doing that with my wife and daughters!  Or even myself!  But I will try.

I think that Donald Trump has to have a huge wounding inside of him to be this angry, this vengeful and this hostile.  His default seems to always attack: attack opponents, attack the press, attack the “system”.  I don’t think you can be that way constantly unless there is a huge hurt inside you that you cannot or will not be reconciled to.  Anger, hostility, violence are defense mechanisms, and always defending against an internal threat as well as an external one.

What might be that threat for Trump?  What might the wound so fierce he has to always be promoting himself, and doing so at the expense of others? 

The easy answer—and this is speculation, of course—is that it has something to do with women.  And probably something really early in life, that left a big wound; one that was built on over the years.  I’ve read about Fred Trump, his father, quite a bit.  But not much about his mother or other female family members.  I’m not seeking to blame someone, but doesn’t it seem likely that some woman hurt Donald Trump deeply?  Some hurt that is so hard for him to bear—even to admit—that he has to be in control all the time?

A friend who is a 12-step veteran shared this slogan with me a while back: “If you spot it, you got it.”  And I have to say, I got some of Trump in me.  There is a resentment towards those who would hurt me (or even just oppose me)—or my church, or family or community.  There is anger that can go from zero to sixty in a flash.  There is too much of a readiness to attack opponents, rather than challenge their ideas. 

I’ve struggled to change that, and to understand that, and have made a lot of progress, but it’s still in me.  I do not know if it is something universal to all men, but I can see in myself that being wounded by a woman calls up all sorts of stuff that being wounded by a man doesn’t.  This is the place to go into the particulars of what that is for me.  But at its core, there lies a feeling of being rejected for who I am.  And being ashamed of that.

Trump must have a deep well of shame in his self.  Because that’s the currency he deals in: blame and shame.  When you call someone a “fat pig” or a “loser”, that’s shame-throwing.  And you can’t throw what you don’t have.

Certainly, Trump has tapped into voter discontent in a large chunk of the electorate.  Much of that is based on reality: a lot of people have been screwed by the economy and the government, and a lot of people are not that far from being homeless or unable to retire.  But I think there’s something deeper in us as a people going on.  I think there is a feeling of being rejected, and a big, boiling pile of shame in us.  Some of that can be explained by changing demographics, and the fear that provokes in some people. There is certainly a big chunk of racism and sexism in the Trump movement.  But I don’t think that’s all that’s there.

What is our shame and hurt that keeps us from listening to each other, from compromise, even from fully rejoicing?  There are several books that could be written on that!  But let me take a stab at one, exhibited in our fascination with all things military.  Trump really ties into that, with his promises to defeat ISIS and terror in general quickly and completely.

We’re approaching Veteran’s Day (which actually started as Armistice Day, celebrating not warriors, but the end of a war).  The ads for “honoring our veterans” events seem to be on all the radio stations.  I believe that we need to support the people who are coming back from war—including providing means for them to recover from moral injury as well as physical and emotional injury.  But it seems to me that the enshrinement of “The Troops” has become almost idolatrous—not to mention, it makes us more likely to get into more wars, because we want to “support our troops.”

At the root of that is a big tangle, I think.  Of course, we want to support our brothers and sisters.  We want to help them heal.  But underneath that is our collective shame about how we treated veterans in the past, especially in Viet Nam.  And not just the reality of how we treated returning vets, but our perception of that, stoked by politicians who benefit from war.  We feel powerless over that, so to some extent, we overcompensate by lifting up today’s vets as heroes (whether they were actually heroic or not).

But underneath that shame is a deeper shame about our sending our soldiers to Viet Nam in the first place, to fight a war that was wrong, evil, cruel, full of war crimes and completely indefensible.  Those who would benefit from war continue to try and make it an honorable cause, which simply can’t be done.  Many of our soldiers were victims of that war, but many were perpetrators, especially at the top.  That’s messy, and it’s easier to try and keep that tamped down.  To ignore it, or justify it, or minimize it. But it won’t stay down.  Just like slavery and Jim Crow won’t stay down, or the genocide against native peoples won’t stay down, or the seizure of half of Mexico, the oppression of women and on and on.  Those wounds, and the shame attached to them, keep coming up.

What does this have to do with Trump?  There is no doubt that Trump has been wounded—deeply, and has great shame about it.  He can’t admit it, because that would make him a “loser”.  And there is no doubt, in my mind, that he has shame about the wrong he has done and continues to do and has great shame about that.  He can’t admit that, because that would make him the problem, and not the great solution.

How about us, these United States?  Could we be honest enough to admit that we are really wounded and that we have really wounded others?  Will we continue to vote and be ruled by shame and fear, or will we break out of that?

The only way I know to do that is to trust in the grace of forgiveness.  A grace that does not wipe away accountability for evil or deny justice.  That’s a messy kind of grace sometimes, but there’s great freedom in that too.  And it takes great bravery to be that honest and work towards repair and restoration.  But hey, aren’t we the land of the free and the home of the brave *?

Be brave.  Be free.   Be justice.  Be beauty.


* Yay, Cubbies!