Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Last weekend was pretty crazy, not least because of two memorial services waaaay in the South Bay, which is a long way for me now that I live waaaay in the far north corner of Contra Costa County. But they were both lovely for very different reasons.

One was for a family member, my mom's first cousin, which either makes him my cousin once removed or my second cousin, I can never remember, even though that seemed to make up a good chunk of Thanksgiving Dinner conversation almost every year we got together. My mom told a very touching story at the service about how she would play pick-up sticks at the family cabin when she was a girl of maybe 6 or so. Her cousin, then a teenage boy and as ever ten years her senior, would join her. As my mom said, "I don't know many teenage boys who would do that, much less with a little twerp like I was." But that if he were alive, and if the both of them could still manage to lower themselves to the floor, my mom bet her cousin would still be willing to do that. Very lovely. And I bet he would, too.

The other was for a woman I had never met. I got a call to do the service at 9:30 am on a Sunday, a time when most priests already have a regular gig. So I got to go down to Filoli Gardens to preside at a service for a gardener and rose lover in the gardens before they opened. It was just magical, very Alice in Wonderland, with the large formal gardens, all the roses in bloom (surprisingly abundant) and these wooden doors through archways in brick walls. And although we used the other anthem, I couldn't help but be reminded of the phrase "In the midst of life we are in death," but to find it not scary at all in the context of a garden. I thought of death as being uprooted, but being planted again, a process I know well from my own limited gardening. Most often I replant things because I have indeed found a better place for them. It gave new meaning to a phrase from Isaiah that we heard in the service: "They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory."

It always amazes me how lovely funerals can be. I'd take a funeral over a wedding any day of the week.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Thoughts on Prop 8

On Sunday at church during the sermon, the preacher asked if those in the congregation who were married had felt the foundations of their marriage crumble at about 2:00 the previous afternoon. That was the time this minister had performed the wedding of a same-sex couple, members of the parish who had, among other things, served on vestry, taught Sunday school, mentored confirmands and had their children baptized in the parish.

I have to admit I find the argument against same-sex marriage very strange. Illogical would be the word. The argument that the marriage of same sex couples would undermine marriages between men and women...what is the support for that argument? People keep using it, but I don't understand where they get it from.

I understand that people who are voting for Prop 8 are largely doing so emotionally--viscerally, even. And I think that's how most of us vote for or against propositions that appear before us. But I wish there were a way to get at the underlying fear (what I suspect is fear) in that argument. What really is threatening people's marriages? I don't think it's gay couples.

What upsets me most about our political culture today is that we have lost (and I do think we once had it) our ability to listen to one another, to ask questions rather than try to convince. Perhaps this proposition is a good opportunity for real dialog. I hope so anyway.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman

In all the ups and downs of the news these past couple of weeks, I had not been shocked until I saw the front page (web, that is) of the New York Times this morning and saw that Paul Newman had died. May he rest in peace.

That's all I have time for this morning. It's been busy the past few days, as you might guess. More when I have a moment.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

You're a week late!

Doing due diligence for the Feast of Saint Matthew (feast day Sept. 21), I learned that he is the patron saint of
customs officers
financial officers
money managers
Salerno, Italy
security forces
security guards
stock brokers
tax collectors
Well, it's a bit late now! Let's hope Salerno is still doing OK.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sermon, September 21

I want to start by telling you about a conversation I overheard while waiting for my plane in the San Francisco airport.

I was sitting in the lounge, waiting for my flight and reading the paper when I started to hear snippets of the cell phone conversation of a woman sitting right behind me. Although she never, ever raised her voice, it was clear the conversation was going from bad to worse. The deity was apparently invoked by her interlocutor, because the next thing I heard was this woman saying, “Well, God spoke to me too, and God told me to tell you to stop being such a cheap son of a bitch.”

I’d really love to start by telling you that story. But I probably can’t because we’re in church.

God’s generosity is what comes shining through the readings today, both in the Old Testament and in the wonderful parable we just heard. And just to clear this out of the way, this generosity has little, or maybe even nothing to do with money.

It certainly has nothing to do with your money. I am not going to ask you to be generous with your pledge. One of the great things about being a guest preacher is I don’t have to preach what we euphemistically call a “stewardship sermon.” And I’m glad I don’t have to kick off a pledge drive after a week like we’ve had.

But I digress. The point is, today’s readings are about the concept of generosity, particularly God’s generosity, and not about material things. At least in my experience, generosity has nothing to do with the gift itself and everything to do with the relations between the giver and the receiver.

Have any of you received a large gift from someone that was given in such a way that receiving it was unpleasant? Maybe there were strings attached in terms of requirements, or maybe it was just that it was given so that you would feel bad for taking it. In whatever way or for whatever reason, it reduced you to accept it. The gift made you small while the giver gained power or status over you. That is not a generous gift.

In contrast, a generous gift may be quite small but even so, it is given in such a way to make you feel better about yourself, it gives you power and energy and an ability to go do things and help other people. That is a generous gift, and it has to do with the relationship between the giver and receiver, not with the gift itself. It is generous not only in what is given, but in how it is given.

What’s most interesting to me in the parable this morning is that the full-day laborers don’t want to see the landowner be generous. This, too, is not about the money. It’s what the money says to them about their worth and their value before the landowner. When they get the same pay, these workers say, “You have made them equal to us.” Not “You paid us an unfair amount for our labor,” but “You made us all equal.”

And I wonder how often we don’t want God to be generous. We want God to be generous to us, of course, but God doesn’t have to be nearly as generous to those other people.

I suspect many of us are secretly looking forward to the day of judgment. Not because we think we are so great—certainly not!--, but because we’re quite sure that God loves us and will be gracious to us and, more importantly, because we hope that God will at long last put those other folks straight. In this parable, Jesus tries to put us straight by pointing out to us that we are not God; that God is God; and that God is the one who is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him, not us.

When I have heard “the last will be first and the first will be last” before now, I’ve always assumed it meant an inverted hierarchy, the preferential option for the poor, to use a phrase from liberation theology. And I could perhaps wrap my brain around that. I could even wrap my brain around being brought somewhat lower, to a reasonable extent, as a market corrective for having been born white and wealthy. It seems fair enough to me.

But what’s on display here is not hierarchical. Well, it is, but it’s only on two levels: the landowner, and the workers. And the workers are all equal. I’m not as sure I can wrap my brain around that one. It’s funny. I can understand being brought lower to make up for my current socio-economic status. I can understand other people being brought lower just to make up for the fact that they’re jerks. I cannot understand all of us being treated the same.

I think the woman in the airport was right. I think she did hear God correctly, and that God’s message for whoever she was talking to was God’s message to us also. God wants us to stop being so cheap. Not in terms of money or time or all of those things that we so often give to one another-- or demand of one another. But we need to stop being so cheap in our relations with one another: holding onto grudges, thinking resentfully about how other people haven’t done enough, and clinging to the hope that they’ll get their comeuppance, God is going to get them one of these days.

Instead how can we approach one another more generously, realizing that we do not get to choose who God loves, and that God has made us equals of one another whether we deserve it or not.

May God grant us a generous spirit so that we may approach one another with the love God has for us. Amen.

A very important day

I bet you don't know what today is. Today is the feast of Philander Chase! Who was Philander Chase? I'm so glad you asked...cue music:
Philander Chase

The first of Kenyon's goodly race
Was that great man Philander Chase;
He climbed the Hill and said a prayer,
And founded Kenyon College there.
He climbed the Hill and said a prayer,
And founded Kenyon College there.

He dug up stones, he chopped down trees,
He sailed across the stormy seas,
And begged at every noble's door,
And also that of Hannah More.
And begged at every noble's door,
And also that of Hannah More.

The King, the Queen, the Lords, the Earls,
They gave their crowns, they gave their pearls
Until Philander had enough
And hurried homeward with the stuff.
Until Philander had enough
And hurried homeward with the stuff.

He built the College, built the dam
He milked the cow, he smoked the ham,
He taught the classes, rang the bell,
And spanked the naughty freshmen well.
He taught the classes, rang the bell,
And spanked the naughty freshmen well.

And thus he worked with all his might
For Kenyon College, day and night;
And Kenyon's heart still holds a place
Of love for Old Philander Chase.
And Kenyon's heart still holds a place
Of love for Old Philander Chase.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

More on Dr. Steinberg

I've been thinking about Dr. Steinberg, about whom I blogged just below. It seems to me that he knew that there was a difference between healing and the absence of illness, just as there is a difference between peace and an absence of war. I find it reassuring, in a way, that this medical doctor did not put all of his faith into medicine. I find it a joy that his "treatment" was making chocolate in Lyons. And I can't help but suspect he was a terrific doctor because he knew there was more to life than the functional body and more to health than lack of disease. And I feel he offered a great deal to his patients and to me by leaving the hospital, and I don't just mean in cocoa powder.

In other thoughts, why hasn't the SF Chronicle carried his obituary? Very strange.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Scharffen Berger blues

So Robert Steinberg, the doctor turned chocolatier who founded the Bay Area's own Scharffen Berger chocolate, died this week. He is an excellent example of "What would you do if you knew you were going to die?" leaving his medical practice to apprentice himself to a chocolate-maker in Lyon, France when he (Steinberg) was diagnosed with the lymphatic cancer that eventually killed him. But not until he had founded a chocolate company that was part of his life for over ten years.

Steinberg was 61. Seems to me he got the good out of life. Good on you, Dr. Steinberg. (Picture is from Scharffen Berger's homepage: www.scharffenberger.com.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Also also...

What's wrong with the religious leaders of this nation? As far as I can tell, no one has gone on the record to say that Hurricane Ike has devastated Texas as a form of punishment or as a sign of God's judgment. Surely any natural disaster is some kind of memo from God, right? I mean, San Francisco never got that earthquake we were promised--was it by Falwell or Robertson? I guess we must have cleaned up our act, a regular Nineveh in sackcloth and ashes.

Oh, also...

...it's Constitution Day today. That ol' thing. The Annenburg Foundation, who supports FactCheck.org, has a link to classroom resources for Constition Day. "As you know, federal law requires that all high schools, colleges and universities that receive federal funds educate students about the Constitution on September 17." Did you know that?

Happy birthday, U.S. Constitution. I hope you're better served in the next presidential administration.

Are ye ready?

Talk Like a Pirate Day is this Friday, September 19! Arrr!


Because it pleases me

A correction in the Times today:
An obituary on Tuesday about Richard Wright, a founding member of the rock group Pink Floyd, referred incorrectly to a school he attended. The school, the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, is an independent day school founded by the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers, a guild; it is not a school for haberdashers.

What a relief to get that cleared up! But it may explain the pink in "Pink Floyd."

(The photo didn't come with the correction; I only wish it did.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Vague thoughts on right, wrong and Henry Clay

I read an interesting story this morning on a sermon prep website. I doubt I'll be able to use the story in the sermon I'm preparing, but I thought I'd share it here.

It purports to be a true story about a "people experiment" done by a Virginia Theological Seminary professor named Reuel Howe.

At this particular lab, the group was given a piece of wood, and told to reach some agreement about its length, without measuring it in any way – purely an eyeball estimate. Then they were to gather as many others as possible who agreed.

One person had been told beforehand the exact length, but he was not allowed to reveal the source of his knowledge. As far as the rest were concerned, he was guessing just as much as they were.

The estimates varied widely. The only agreement was that no one agreed with the one person who had the correct answer. He tried to gather several groups but couldn't get other people to agree with him.

So eventually, he joined a group who advocated the wrong answer.
When he was asked, at the end of the exercise, why he would throw his lot in with a wrong answer, when he knew the right one, he replied, “I’d rather be wrong than alone.”
As I said, I don't know if this is true, but I find it at least possible to believe. It's such a human story: so sad, and so sweet.

"I'd rather be wrong than alone" reminded me of the quote "I'd rather be right than president," which I tracked down (thank you, Google!) as a line from Henry Clay who was defeated in his presidential bid four times. Here's Wikipedia's take on the phrase: "When Clay was warned not to take a stance against slavery or be so strong for the American System [i.e. high tariffs, anti-free-market economy, if I understand it correctly], he was quoted as saying, 'I'd rather be right than be President!' This remark has been quoted or paraphrased by several presidential candidates since, as a statement of principle over ambition."

I suspect that even if the first story didn't actually happen, there's a lot of truth in it; it's often so much more comfortable to be wrong than to be alone. And, oh, how familiar it sounds in our own current presidential race. Wouldn't you rather be right and be president? If you had to choose one or the other, which would you choose?

Picture is of Henry Clay speaking in the Senate.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Torture attitudes

Here's a disturbing bit of data:

"A new poll commissioned by Faith in Public Life and Mercer University and conducted by Public Religion Research demonstrates the conflicted attitudes on torture among white evangelical Christians in the South."

In short, white, Southern evangelicals are more likely to approve of torture than the US population at large. Fifty-seven percent of WSEs responded that they think torture can often or sometimes be justified. Only 48 percent of the population at large thinks so.

Then when asked to consider torture in light of the Golden Rule, suddenly torture doesn't sound as good.

It's a very disturbing poll, to me anyway, suggesting a hard disconnect between the way we think about political/secular issues and our faith. (You can find details on this poll here.) Or how hard it is to tie our basic faith premises to real world scenarios unless they are placed side by side in front of us -- unless we rub our face into it.

The word "torture" appeared in the gospel reading this morning, which I also found disturbing. Jesus is talking about forgiveness and then Matthew says he ends this great parable about forgiveness with, "And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Well, praise to you, Lord Christ.

I found this disturbing (sorry to keep using that word, but that's the best one I've got) for a number of reasons, but the one the eats at me today is that this could potentially be used to justify our nation's current odious policy of using torture.

If this is an issue that disturbs you, too, may I direct your attention to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. I can't believe we even have to have an organization like this in the United States in 2008. But since we do, I'm glad they're there doing this work.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Educational Elitism

I've been thinking about elitism, something often charged as exclusive to the coasts, as in "coastal elites." One of the comments I read somewhere, and I've lost track over the course of the days and sites I've visited, was that there's a certain brand of elitism that looks down on those who attend state schools, especially state schools from the so-called "fly-over" states.

I'm not sure that's true of the West Coast -- at least not in the same way that I suspect it is back East (or "out East," if you're a native West Coaster like I am).

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, I went to Oberlin. Oberlin is a very good school. It might even be classified an elite school. The thing is, most Californians have never heard of Oberlin. The snob appeal is completely lacking. And there are tons of high-falutin' schools like that that may vaguely ring a bell, but I couldn't tell you for sure where they are. Swarthmore? That's a school, right?

I remember doing recruiting for Oberlin when I lived in upstate New York and I did a follow-up call on a student. I reached her father and said why I was calling. He told me she had decided to go to another college. I don't even remember the name. The name meant nothing to me. I asked him, "Oh, where is that?" and he fiercely replied, "Virginia! It's one of the finest schools in the country!" I very tactfully added that I had never heard of it. Cuz I hadn't.

I really hadn't. I mean, I've heard of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia...ummm...Cornell...ummm...is there another one? Ivy League, I mean. Why, look, I just googled it and there are eight, aren't there. University of Pennsylvania? Really? Sounds like a state school to me.

The thing is, here in California, going to the state schools is no embarrassment, that's for sure. And I know so many really intelligent people who went to state schools via community colleges that community colleges are no embarrassment either. I think that most people, when I tell them I went to school in Ohio, want to know why I wanted to go there; it's so darn cold.

Goodness knows we have our snobbery, but it's not related to where you went to school. I think we're snobby and elite about our food choices, cuisine, health and lifestyle--matters of taste. There's no NASCAR out in California as far as I know, and I think we may tend to think we are above such things. I certainly think there's a self-righteousness in our political rhetoric, especially among the left-leaning. But I also think West Coasters tend to look down on East Coasters for being uptight, high-strung, and unable to be casual and go-with-the-flow.

The two coasts are not alike, and we get a bit tetchy when it is suggested that we are. So there, East Coasters. We Californians think your way of elitism is stupid. You East Coasters can just keep your educational elitism to yourselves. Who's even heard of your schools, anyway.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Typewriter wizard!

A wonderful obit today in the NY Times for "Martin K. Tytell, Typewriter Wizard." I love these little quirky obits that shed light on recent history through idiosyncratic lenses.

He repaired the typewriters of Dorothy Parker and David Brinkley, Eisenhower and Stevenson.

I love this paragraph:
In 1943, a contraband shipment that included 100 Siamese typewriters was seized by the federal government, and with typewriters needed by overseas forces and typewriter producers having largely converted to other wartime manufacturing, Mr. Tytell, then in the Army, was asked to convert the Siamese typewriters for the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. His machines, capable of reproducing 17 different languages, were airdropped to O.S.S. headquarters at various war fronts.
Obviously typewriter repairmen are literally a dying breed. But I think Tytell's story goes to show that if you find your niche, no matter what it is, you can make a difference in the world. OK, that sounds hokey, but I like the idea that we're not all finding a cure for cancer and that's all right. Really, it's a very cool obit and you should read it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

My 9/11 education continues

Checking The Mad Priest today, I found this beautiful icon. St. Francis I recognized; who is the other Franciscan?

I learned it was Father Mychal Judge, a chaplain with the FDNY, who died being hit by debris in the lobby of WTC Tower 1.

The following summary is from a review of a documentary about his life, written by Stephen Holden in the NY Times.

By the time of his death, at 68, Father Judge had been sober for 23 years and had saved countless lives by taking people to Alcoholics Anonymous. One man remembers living in a box on the street until Father Judge found and rescued him.

His sexual orientation, which he acknowledged to friends but kept largely hidden from his colleagues at the Fire Department, led him to work closely with the gay Catholic organization Dignity and brought him into conflict with the conservative Catholic establishment. He marched in a St. Patrick’s Day parade organized by the gay activist Brendan Fay, a prominent talking head in the film and one of its producers.

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when even medical personnel were fearful of physical contact with quarantined patients, Father Judge ministered to dying young men at St. Vincent’s Hospital and physically embraced them. Even when he encountered hostility from patients who wanted nothing to do with religion, he discovered that rubbing their feet with holy oil before talking with them would usually break down their resistance.


In the film’s most resonant speech he offers comfort to the families of those who died in the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island in 1996. Repeated by Mr. McKellen near the end of the film, they serve as a benediction:

“God is present, loving, smiling, having received our loved ones. They are in his presence, illumined by his smile, and warmed by his love. His kingdom is enriched this day, so enriched by so many beautiful souls, so much beauty.”
The movie is called The Saint of 9/11. It's available on NetFlix.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The voices of children

It took me a while, but I finally figured out what the handful of elementary school children were chanting out in the church parking lot today:

"Party, party, party! Drinks all around!"

Aren't children delightful?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The biased brain, and a brand-new blog

Through various links and hyperlinks, I found this really fascinating blog entry from a blog called "Economics of Contempt" that refers to yet another article, a neurology study, called "Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election." In other words, it's a study of why I think your guy sucks, and why you think my guy sucks. Neurologically.

It's really quite something. I'm pulling large sections from the more-readable blog, here, because I'm too lazy to figure out what the neurology paper is saying. The blogger writes:

Westen and his colleagues studied the brains of 15 self-identified Democrats and 15 self-identified Republicans as they were presented with a series of slides that showed undeniably inconsistent statements by John Kerry. The partisans were asked to consider whether Kerry's two statements were inconsistent, and were then asked to rate the extent to which Kerry's statements were contradictory, from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). They then repeated the process with undeniably inconsistent statements by George W. Bush, and again with inconsistent statements by politically neutral males. Here's how Westen described the results:

They had no trouble seeing the contradictions for the opposition candidate, rating his inconsistencies close to 4 on the four-point rating scale. For their own candidate, however, ratings averaged closer to 2, indicating minimal contradiction. Democrats responded to Kerry as Republicans responded to Bush. And as predicted, Democrats and Republicans showed no differences in their response to contradictions for the politically neutral figures.
The results showed that when partisans face threatening information, not only are they likely to "reason" to emotionally biased conclusions, but we can trace their neutral footprints as they do it.

When confronted with potentially troubling political information, a network of neurons becomes active that produces distress. ... The brain registers the conflict between the data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion. We know that the brain largely succeeded in this effort, as partisans mostly denied that they had perceived any conflict between their candidate's words and deeds.

Not only did the brain manage to shut down distress through faulty reasoning, but it did so quickly -- as best we could tell, usually before subjects even made it to the third slide [which asked them to consider whether the statements were inconsistent]. The neural circuits charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. And this all seemed to happen with little involvement of the circuits normally involved in reasoning.

But the political brain also did something we didn't predict. Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn't seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning.

This is basically the root of the well-known "confirmation bias."

Isn't that cool? The brain actually shuts down when faced with unpleasant information around your candidate. Explains a lot, doesn't it?

Partly as a result of this, and partly because I was trying to find information for myself, I have set up yet another blog, this one a temporary election season jobber, that I've called Just the facts ma'am. My hope is to answer claims by various parties and partisans with as little partisanship as I possibly can. We'll see how well I do.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Anita Page, Silent Film Star

Is that not a fabulous photo?

Here's the thing about Anita Page: "When her contract expired in 1933, Ms. Page was feeling pressured by MGM. Denied a pay raise, she promptly announced her retirement. She was 23." Thus says the Times.

There's no mention of what she does for the next 75 years! Well, OK, she appeared in "The Crawling Brain" in 2002; what inspired her to do that? Seventy-five years is a lot of time to fill; what exactly did she do? Anita Page...woman of mystery.

The Three Questions

This is a story by Tolstoy that was referenced in the sermon I heard yesterday. I love this story (which I've heard as a children's version) so I thought I'd share it here. The picture is a 1916 illustration by Michael Sevier.

Three Questions

One day it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to three questions, he would never stray in any matter.

What is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with? What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The emperor issued a decree throughout his kingdom announcing that whoever could answer the questions would receive a great reward. Many who read the decree made their way to the palace at once, each person with a different answer.

In reply to the first question, one person advised that the emperor make up a thorough time schedule, consecrating every hour, day, month, and year for certain tasks and then follow the schedule to the letter. Only then could he hope to do every task at the right time.

Another person replied that it was impossible to plan in advance and that the emperor should put all vain amusements aside and remain attentive to everything in order to know what to do at what time.

Someone else insisted that, by himself, the emperor could never hope to have all the foresight and competence necessary to decide when to do each and every task and what he really needed was to set up a Council of the Wise and then to act according to their advice.

Someone else said that certain matters required immediate decision and could not wait for consultation, but if he wanted to know in advance what was going to happen he should consult magicians and soothsayers.

The responses to the second question also lacked accord.

One person said that the emperor needed to place all his trust in administrators, another urged reliance on priests and monks, while others recommended physicians. Still others put their faith in warriors.

The third question drew a similar variety of answers. Some said science was the most important pursuit. Others insisted on religion. Yet others claimed the most important thing was military skill.


The emperor was not pleased with any of the answers, and no reward was given.

After several nights of reflection, the emperor resolved to visit a hermit who lived up on the mountain and was said to be an enlightened man. The emperor wished to find the hermit to ask him the three questions, though he knew the hermit never left the mountains and was known to receive only the poor, refusing to have anything to do with persons of wealth or power. So the emperor disguised himself as a simple peasant and ordered his attendants to wait for him at the foot of the mountain while he climbed the slope alone to seek the hermit.

Reaching the holy man's dwelling place, the emperor found the hermit digging a garden in front of his hut. When the hermit saw the stranger, he nodded his head in greeting and continued to dig. The labor was obviously hard on him. He was an old man, and each time he thrust his spade into the ground to turn the earth, he heaved heavily.

The emperor approached him and said, "I have come here to ask your help with three questions: When is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with? What is the most important thing to do at all times?"

The hermit listened attentively but only patted the emperor on the shoulder and continued digging. The emperor said, "You must be tired. Here, let me give you a hand with that." The hermit thanked him, handed the emperor the spade, and then sat down on the ground to rest.

After he had dug two rows, the emperor stopped and turned to the hermit and repeated his three questions. The hermit still did not answer, but instead stood up and pointed to the spade and said, "Why don't you rest now? I can take over again." But the emperor continued to dig. One hour passed, then two. Finally the sun began to set behind the mountain. The emperor put down the spade and said to the hermit, "I came here to ask if you could answer my three questions. But if you can't give me any answer, please let me know so that I can get on may way home."

The hermit lifted his head and asked the emperor, "Do you hear someone running over there?" The emperor turned his head. They both saw a man with a long white beard emerge from the woods. He ran wildly, pressing his hands against a bloody wound in his stomach. The man ran toward the emperor before falling unconscious to the ground, where he lay groaning. Opening the man's clothing, the emperor and hermit saw that the man had received a deep gash. The emperor cleaned the wound thoroughly and then used his own shirt to bandage it, but the blood completely soaked it within minutes. He rinsed the shirt out and bandaged the wound a second time and continued to do so until the flow of blood had stopped.

At last the wounded man regained consciousness and asked for a drink of water. The emperor ran down to the stream and brought back a jug of fresh water. Meanwhile, the sun had disappeared and the night air had begun to turn cold. The hermit gave the emperor a hand in carrying the man into the hut where they laid him down on the hermit's bed. The man closed his eyes and lay quietly. The emperor was worn out from the long day of climbing the mountain and digging the garden. Leaning against the doorway, he fell asleep. When he rose, the sun had already risen over the mountain. For a moment he forgot where he was and what he had come here for. He looked over to the bed and saw the wounded man also looking around him in confusion. When he saw the emperor, he stared at him intently and then said in a faint whisper, "Please forgive me."

"But what have you done that I should forgive you?" the emperor asked.

"You do not know me, your majesty, but I know you. I was your sworn enemy, and I had vowed to take vengeance on you, for during the last war you killed my brother and seized my property. When I learned that you were coming alone to the mountain to meet the hermit, I resolved to surprise you on your way back to kill you. But after waiting a long time there was still no sign of you, and so I left my ambush in order to seek you out. But instead of finding you, I came across your attendants, who recognized me, giving me this wound. Luckily, I escaped and ran here. If I hadn't met you I would surely be dead by now. I had intended to kill you, but instead you saved my life! I am ashamed and grateful beyond words. If I live, I vow to be your servant for the rest of my life, and I will bid my children and grandchildren to do the same. Please grant me your forgiveness."

The emperor was overjoyed to see that he was so easily reconciled with a former enemy. He not only forgave the man but promised to return all the man's property and to send his own physician and servants to wait on the man until he was completely healed. After ordering his attendants to take the man home, the emperor returned to see the hermit. Before returning to the palace the emperor wanted to repeat his three questions one last time. He found the hermit sowing seeds in the earth they had dug the day before.

The hermit stood up and looked at the emperor. "But your questions have already been answered."

"How's that?" the emperor asked, puzzled.

"Yesterday, if you had not taken pity on my age and given me a hand with digging these beds, you would have been attacked by that man on your way home. Then you would have deeply regretted not staying with me. Therefore the most important time was the time you were digging in the beds, the most important person was myself, and the most important pursuit was to help me. Later, when the wounded man ran up here, the most important time was the time you spent dressing his wound, for if you had not cared for him he would have died and you would have lost the chance to be reconciled with him. Likewise, he was the most important person, and the most important pursuit was taking care of his wound. Remember that there is only one important time and is Now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person with whom you are, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future. The most important pursuit is making that person, the one standing at you side, happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life."

Leo Tolstoy

Friday, September 5, 2008

Calvin Beale -- who?

I've been all caught up in this political stuff and neglecting my obituaries! I should have commemorated "Killer" Kowalski, wrestler, or Don LaFontaine, trailer-er extrordinaire (Mick LaSalle gives a good tribute to him). But I was all riled, as you know.

So it was very pleasant and restful to read the obituary of Calvin L. Beale, commemorated earlier this week in the NY Times, as "Demographer With a Feel for Rural America."

I doubt he was the most interesting man. "He traveled to 2,500 counties (of 3,140) around the country and knew everything from the most common surnames in a given place to the kind of leaves carved above the courthouse steps." And I worry that he would tell you all about them.

The thing about him is that he didn't assume the common wisdom was true. His research was very different, apparently, from what we tend to expect. Most times you have a hypothesis and you test it. He (according to this obit) did what I think is a more difficult thing, which is to start with an open mind, go explore, and gradually develop a picture.

I admire this so much because this is what I try to do when I prepare a sermon: I try not to assume I know what's in the text, even when the text is familiar. I continue to be amazed by the Scripture; so often, what I had assumed was there is not there; so often it surprises me.

It should be a lesson to me about more than just Scripture. There are so many places, ways, and people that I should allow to amaze me before I interpret them. Maybe then I wouldn't get so riled.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

More politics! Thoughts on community organizing

OK, I'm giving up the pretext of not being political. That's one great advantage of not being a parish priest during this election season.

I watched Sarah Palin's speech last night which I thought was quite good, well-delivered, well written, in a nasty sort of way. She made mention of how Barack Obama was just a community organizer in this dismissive sort of way. So I was pleased by this quote of the day from one of the political blogs that is now taking up my time:

"Mrs. Palin needs to be reminded that Jesus Christ was a community organizer and Pontius Pilate was a governor."

A bit of a zing! there, I thought. Of course, Our Lord might have been a bit more than a community organizer, so I thought I'd round up some others who didn't have any political experience worth having, don't you know. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi leap to mind. But who else have we got?

I'm thinking Lucretia Mott, an abolitionist and women's rights pioneer who called for the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, a pivotal moment towards securing the vote for women. But then again, she didn't do this alone. There's Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to take into account.

Community organizing would seem to suggest many people's involvement, rather than a single charismatic leader. One of the concerns about Obama is his almost messianic appeal, something brought up again by this quotation. At the same time, it seems a bit churish to say Obama isn't qualified to lead because people want to follow him.

Let's be fair, "community organizing" doesn't immediately mean sainthood -- or sanity for that matter. But to dismiss community organizing out of hand seems a tad...elitist.

What other community organizers can you think of?

The Feast of Paul Jones

Oh, goody! It's the feast of Paul Jones today! I LOVE Paul Jones, though you may find that hard to believe with my quixotic fondness for Just War theory.

Who was Paul Jones, you ask? Paul Jones was the Bishop of Utah during World War 1 who had the temerity, the nerve, to suggest that "war is unchristian." Crazy talk! Much consternation! He must be pro-German! Detrimental to the morale of the country and the witness of the church! The House of Bishops met, looked into the matter, and decided, why of course war is Christian, you silly Utah heretic. Resign! And resign he did.

I love many things about this story -- not the making Bishop Jones resign part, obviously. But I love being reminded that what is now considered commonplace thought in the Episcopal church was once decried as a dangerous innovation. I still find it astonishing to think that "peace is unchristian" was ever such a radical notion, but there it is. I love that the bishop had a spine about this, and that he accepted the consequences of his stated position rather than either try to finesse it or take the church with him. He's an excellent advocate for the "Who said life was fair?" party. I appreciate that.

Who said peace was easy, either? One of the reasons it is so rare is that it is so difficult. War is easy; just point your gun that way and shoot. Peace is hard, and Paul Jones showed us through his actions what it might cost if you actually live it out.

Paul Jones, you are the man. Now, perhaps not more than ever, but as much as ever, the collect for your feast day is something we need to hear:

Merciful God, you sent your beloved Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Raise up in this and every land witnesses who, after the example of your servant Paul Jones, will stand firm in proclaiming the Gospel of the Prince of Peace, our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Am I sexist?

I've been asking myself this question since my previous post about Sarah Palin, when I said, regarding young Bristol, "I'm sorry, but if I were her mother, I hope I would not put my daughter through that." I had the rather unnerving experience of hearing a (male) Republican campaigner on the radio saying, "That's sexism, pure and simple!" Well, is it?

I did appreciate what Peggy Noonan wrote today in the Wall Street Journal: "I'll tell you how powerful Mrs. Palin already is: she reignited the culture wars just by showing up. She scrambled the battle lines, too. The crustiest old Republican men are shouting "Sexism!" when she's slammed. Pro-woman Democrats are saying she must be a bad mother to be all ambitious with kids in the house." And I have to say, I appreciate that. I appreciate it that she's made it not so simple to say one way is right and another is wrong.

I dunno. I'm very torn about this. I can certainly see the point, especially when my reaction has to do with how could she make this choice as a mother. I certainly don't think that being a woman or being a mother makes a person unfit for high office. My reaction had more to do with the timing of her choice to pursue this; perhaps there is no good time, but I would think having an infant (with or without Downs Syndrome) and a teenage daughter dealing with a pregnancy would make me think twice about taking a huge promotion that would require me to spend much more time away from my family.

At the same time, it annoyed me during Hillary's campaign that I constantly heard implications that if I voted against her, it was due to sexism. Can it not be due to differences in policy, style, issues, approach? I saw red (not politically) when a female commentator on CNN told me that "women like Obama because women are attracted to new, shiny things." Now, that sounded sexist to me.

I wonder if my own reaction is, in part, classist as much as sexist: that women need to stay at home with and for their kids. Nice work if you can afford it.

Much to think about, but it certainly has gotten me in a moither. No more easy divisions or definitions.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Happy Birthday, Oberlin

Oberlin College, my alma mater, was founded this day in 1833. It admitted both African Americans and women in its first decade. It was a stop on the underground railroad and fervently abolitionist throughout the 19th century. I'm proud to have gone there for its history.

Also proud to have gone there for its current stance on things, which was sometimes on the crazy end of liberal, to the point of absurdity. We did encourage those planning protests for commencement that it would just be silly to have posters up explaining arm bands through color code. But a lot of good, principled people come out of Oberlin. An amazing number of clergy, too, considering how strongly secular it is. I personally found it to be a wonderful place to grow in faith because I wasn't in an echo chamber in which everyone held my viewpoint. I felt I earned my faith there. And was positively challenged in all sorts of ways.

"Learning and Labor" is its motto. Its teams are the "Yeomen" -- or "Yeowomen," which may explain why our sports teams are so terrible. (Except for Ultimate Frisbee.) But I think many of us imbibed the sense from that terrible mascot that we are supposed to work, actively work, not merely supervise. If there's one thing that's true about the Oberlin people I know, it's that we are not passive. We are active and involved, and I think that's what makes things change in the world.

Go, Yeomen! And -women.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Labor Day prayer

Actually, a prayer from the Compline service -- one that I think is truly lovely.
O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Who else is doing labor for us for whom we can give thanks?

Another political post

OK, I promise -- promise -- not to be as obsessive in my blog as I am in my real life about this continuing saga of the Palin family. It's like EdTV only with an election. All I'm going to say is, poor Bristol! Could there be any worse thing to happen to a teenager? You're not just being paranoid about how everyone is going to know. In fact, EVERYONE IN THE WHOLE FRIGGIN' NATION IS GOING TO KNOW! And, I'm sorry, but if I were her mother, I hope I would not put my daughter through that. OK, done with rant...for the moment.