Sunday, December 27, 2009

Away ...

... traveling for a week or two. A very Happy New Year to everyone!

Thoughts delivered on Christmas Morning, 2009

Please be seated. I’m now going to really mix things up by preaching first, and then, as you remain seated, reading the Christmas Gospel. I’m asking you to hear it, not as a formal reading by me, but as a wonderful story that has been told countless times over 2000 years. And we all enjoy a good story.

But first, let's go to the movies.

There have been some big movies released over the past year: Star Trek, District 9, Up in the Air, and Avatar being the latest. But I wonder how many of them will still be popular, and still be watched in over sixty years time?

Like the Miracle on 34th Street. It’s trite, corny, satirical and political all rolled into one – but as a piece of screenplay it’s absolutely brilliant! And the stunning conclusion by the judge:

Since the United States government declares this man
to be Santa Claus...this court will not dispute it. Case dismissed.

We all know the story. How Chris Kringle is proven to be the real Santa Claus. Yet we sometimes forget that there are equally brilliant cameo scenes leading up to the more famous courtroom trial. One that stands out for me takes place near the beginning of the movie, when Fred Gailey (played by John Payne) takes Suzie to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Suzie is the daughter of the Event Director, Doris walker (Maureen O’Hara) who is, like many corporate executives, far too busy with her career to spend time with her daughter. And certain truths emerge when the huge baseball player is carried down the street.

Suzie was quick to point out:

He was a clown last year. They just changed the head
and painted him different. My mother told me.

Fred could only say: He certainly is a giant, isn't he?

But Suzie took offense at this: Not really. There are no giants, Mr. Gailey.

FRED: Maybe not now, Suzie... but in olden days, there were a lot of...
What about the giant that Jack killed?

It was lost on the little girl: Jack? Jack who?

FRED: Jack... Jack! "Jack and the Beanstalk."

SUZIE: I never heard of that.

FRED: You must've heard that. You've just forgotten. It's a fairy tale.

SUZIE: Oh, one of those. I don't know any.

GAILEY: Your mother and father must have told you a fairy tale.

SUZIE: No. My mother thinks they're silly.

Her mother thought that they were silly, and a few scenes later she, Doris Walker, spells out her creed:

We should be realistic... and completely truthful with our children and not have them growing up believing in... a lot of legends and myths like Santa Claus, for example.

Well, we all know that she was wrong, don’t we? But that’s what makes the movie so much fun.

But there is a serious side to it all, which points to the fact, then and now, that stories can be dismissed out of hand, even if they belong to the imagination and not to real life. All of us (and perhaps we even do it ourselves at times) know people who have the need to always be completely rational, demand explanations, and ask for proof. That is the modern way of thinking. Being realistic, and completely truthful in a very scientific, un-imaginary way.

When it comes to the Christmas story, which is a long way indeed from legend and myth, we have a tendency to do the same. To pick it apart, and even dismiss it at times as being a very pleasant tale, but not much more than that.

Parts of it warrant criticism, for it is a story written by humans who are attempting to describe something that is divine. And human words cannot always contain the divine word.

Yet this story, timeless and full of truth, is told again, year after year. Somehow we never get tired of it, and with the specialness of Christmas morning I can think of no better story to read.

It is s story that tells of the birth of a baby in hard times, and which also tells of the greatest of all announcements – that this is none other than the Messiah, the Lord.

This is how Luke, the Gospel writer, tells it….

Thoughts delivered on Christmas Eve, 2009

When it comes to Christmas stories, surely the master story-teller of them all was Charles Dickens. There cannot be a person here this evening who has not enjoyed the tale A Christmas Carol, either by reading the story, or else by watching one of more of the excellent, and sometimes not-so-excellent, screen versions. And from the first “Bah! Humbug!” to the final “God bless us every one!” we are carried along in a seasonal spirit that clearly meant a great deal to Dickens.

Whereas A Christmas Carol enjoys fame and popularity, we forget that Dickens wrote five novellas about Christmas, and dozens of shorter stories about the spirit of Christmas. And each one using a variety of images and scenes and characters re-presents what was so important to Dickens - the importance of qualities like gratitude, sincerity, human kindness and forgiveness. Which, in his opinion, came most strongly at Christmas, for it was, in his own words, the “most perfect day of the year.”

And is that true? Is it the case? Or to bring it down to personal expectations, how perfect will your Christmas be this year?

We have come a long way since the writings of Charles Dickens, and not necessarily in the right direction. For the concept of a “perfect Christmas” preoccupies so much of our designer society that it obscures so much of what is really happening at this time of the year.

It is a very powerful concept that we have been sold. And it becomes a goal, and objective or at least a hope that our Christmas will be perfect. And Christmas becomes less about becoming a better human being, and more about:

The breeze with snow and mistletoe,
The presents under the tree,
A Ginger Bread riding on a sled,
It’s the perfect Christmas to me.

Surely, you, also listen to the Cheetah Girls?! (You know, having a teenage daughter does give me the edge…)

Of course it’s all shallow, marketing humbug, and it needs to be set against the realities of life, and then against the Christmas story as the Gospel writers present it.

Because no amount of material perfection can dispute the fact that for many people this Christmas will be shrouded in imperfection. Those who grieve, or else have to spend Christmas away from those whom they love; those face illness and despair; those who are without gainful employment, or who are in debt; those who face danger in keeping the peace, both in foreign lands and on the streets of some of our cities. The homeless and the hungry.

How perfect will their Christmas be this year?

Yet when we read the Christmas narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke it becomes immediately apparent that the first Christmas was imperfect in so many ways. An unwanted and dangerous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the Roman authorities told them they had to go there; and that journey made by a woman about to give birth. A lack of accommodation in Bethlehem. The ignominy of a stable being the only shelter, and the new-born baby being laid, not in a cozy crib but in an animal feeding trough.

How perfect was that Christmas?

The stories of the birth of Christ echo the imperfections of worldly life, but the teaching that reaches out to us from those stories has the power to lift us above the cares of life, and presents us with a divine purpose.

That purpose states that Christmas is not about Christ coming to us when all is well, when life is good, when the future is clear and we live in peace. Christmas is also about Christ coming to us in our failings, our struggles, our disappointments, and in the mess that, as human beings, we are very good at creating for ourselves and other people.

He comes to us – and finds us as we are. In life! Real life, not that portrayed by a shiny advertisement.

In our joy and our sorrow.
Our laughter and our tears.
Our contentment and our frustration.

He comes to us. He is Emmanuel. God with us. How absolutely perfect!

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

'Twas the night before Christmas...

And as ever I will not return home much before midnight. We enjoyed a splendid Children's Nativity Pageant this afternoon, with standing room only in the church. After a delicious dinner of Coq au Vin with friends in Bridgehampton (although making a small glass of fine Haut-Medoc last a whole meal is tough going!) I am taking a break from putting the final preparations in place for the 10:30 mass. Once again I expect a full church.

I will creep into the house just after midnight, try not to disturb the dogs, pour myself a large glass of Calvados, and sit before the Christmas tree - to think, to remember, and to look forward. It was, and is a very special moment.

A very Happy Christmas to you all! Nadolig Llawen! Buon Natale! Joyeux Noel!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


With a sleepy sense of relief I saw, at 3.15 this morning, that over a foot of snow had fallen, and more was coming down.  Definitely no masses today!  Awake after seven, and I measured nineteen inches of snow in the driveway.  I'll post some photos here later as the day gets under way, and I've lit the fire...

Why does coffee taste even better when you've no place to go?

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Armed with an array of weather forecasts, both online and on TV, I have made the decision to cancel all church services and meetings tomorrow. Never an easy call to make, but safety and common sense must prevail in the face of what media are calling a major, historic storm. The last thing I want is for people, most notable the elderly and those parents with children, to battle their way through a blizzard simply to come to church.

Getting this information out is so much easier these days. Within ten minutes of making the call the parish web site and the eBulletin had banner notices in red across the top of their front pages, and emails had been sent out to over a hundred addresses. Of course there were some twenty individuals who live outside of this tech world so I had to call them personally. Most were grateful and relieved, as they, too, had been watching the weather with anxiety. (One did however snort, "Storm? What storm?")

Of course I may have made the wrong decision, and we may wake up tomorrow to bright sunshine and a mere six inches of snow, but I think not. (If so, I can still live with it!) In the meantime I'm going to build an enormous log fire, light the tree lights, and open a bottle of red ...

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Well the tree is now finished, and last evening Kate placed the angel and the star on the uppermost branches. In the meantime I have been outside running hundreds of feet of cable across the front garden. They say a picture paints a thousand words, so I'll stop typing...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Thoughts for Gaudete Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Through numerous Prayer Books and eucharistic traditions, the prophet Zephaniah has set the theme and tone of this Sunday, when he wrote in the 7th century before Christ, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”

And the old Latin anthems reflected these older scriptures as they sang the verses from Philippians which we have read this morning:

Gaudete in Domino semper; iterum dico, gaudete!

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”

And this pattern was then completed on Christmas morning with the traditional proclamation:

Gaudete! Christus est natus ex Maria Virgine!

Rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary!

And so today the rose pink candle on the Advent Crown is lit. In Church tradition, since early art and liturgy, the color pink has represented joy and celebration.

(As an aside, it was also the early traditional color of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The blue, which we see in most art since medieval times, is what we inherit today.)

This day of rejoicing, this Gaudete Sunday is then marred by John the Baptist throwing insults around.

“You brood of vipers!” He cried. He was clearly having a bad day. Advent shopping in 1st century Palestine was no fun.

Little did he know that we would still be reading his words of insult all these centuries later. How dare he spoil this glorious opportunity to rejoice as we prepare for the Christmas season?

Yet perhaps it is good that he does so, for it shakes our holiday certainty and reminds us that our rejoicing is imperfect and incomplete.

As I said last Sunday, and countless Sunday in years past – we need the rude and discomforting figure of John the Baptist.

Rejoicing is the theme of so much that goes on over the Christmas season.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Christmas can be fun. I tire of people, many of them clergy, who wish to impose a puritan-style interpretation of the celebrations. Theirs was a dour, lifeless joy.

People will celebrate as they prepare for Christmas, with the tree in place and meals planned, guests invited and gifts exchanged. Yes, Christmas can be fun!

However, to assume that the decorations and celebrations are the faithful response to the Christmas story would again be incomplete. Revelry for its own sake is always rather empty and meaningless.

It also denies the fact that at this and every Christmas many cannot be jolly, or else have no-one with whom to share the lights and the gifts of the season.

No – this is no empty worldly celebration, for at the heart of it all lays something that is anything but tinsel and glitter, pine needles and eggnog, and increased retail numbers for December.

Zephaniah was writing in Israel, not at a time of celebration but in years of scepticism and social corruption. Yet even in peoples' pain he still exhorts them to “Rejoice!” Why? Because, as he teaches them and proclaimed, “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.”

Writing to a newly formed church in Philippi (in the north of what is now Greece) the Apostle Paul again tells the faithful people to rejoice, pointing out that “The Lord is near.”

And John the Baptist, having cooled off after insulting almost everyone insight, announced, “One who is more powerful than I is coming.”

Now we are beginning to grasp the Advent message. The message is now becoming clearer. It is indeed a time to rejoice, but not in the way the world rejoices.

We rejoice because, and proclaim that:

The Lord is near!

Friday, December 11, 2009


I know that is an odd title so I’d better explain. For two weeks we have had a medium-size (“You’ll be needing a ten-yarder, sir!”) dumpster in our driveway. For the benefit of my old country friends that translates as a “skip.” It all stemmed from the need, on completing the upgrade of the basement, to rid ourselves of as much junk as possible. A streamlining exercise, if you will, in anticipation of collecting even more stuff. And so during the fortnight (and for U.S. readers that translates as two weeks) in which this steel monster stood on my gravel much was thrown into it.

Most was easily disposable. Old cuts of wood. A couch that had seen much better days. A filing cabinet that had never closed, and a chest of drawers that I had bought at a thrift shop – unwisely. Then there were armfuls of old tiles and shingles and fabrics that had accumulated in darker corners, and pool toys from two summers ago, mildewed and scarred. It all went in with a joyful shout!

But then came the family burials. The toys, the craft kits, the models and the stuffed animals. Forgotten and forsaken, or in some instances, never ever played. In it all went, silently. Plastic, unlike wood or metal, makes no sound as it is consigned to the pit.

Emotionally it wasn’t at all easy. The experience of tipping a box of Barbie dolls and accessories onto a heap of dirty waste was shockingly difficult to explain. This was more than mere cleaning out. This was a sense of time passing too quickly, and me being too slow to acknowledge this. Also the passing of a young girl into her teenage years, and the interment of a father’s daughter’s playtime memories. Yet we cannot keep everything, can we?

Am I crazy? I’m usually Mr. Pragmatic, but when it comes to physical reminders of my daughter’s early childhood, now gone, I am completely bloody useless. And the dumpster has now been taken away.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

'Tis the Season!

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a day off school, and the day to buy the Christmas tree (as well as other bits and pieces.) As usual we went to Lynch's Garden Center in Southampton, and after narrowing down the choice to four trees, an eleven foot six inches specimen was eventually tied to the roof of the car. Yes I know, shorter than last year's thirteen foot monster, but there is a recession on. Then home to start decorating. A few pictures showing the tree in place, and the lights added - as well as other seasonal additions...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tempus Fugit...

It certainly does, and I have been lazy/distracted/uninspired of late to work on this column. I really have so much to write so beware of updates to come!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Paddling on ( a choppy) Main Street. November 9th, 2009

Leo, once again, is talking about the future. Taking it more slowly, as opposed to full retirement. He is taking extra leave of his Bridgehampton barber shop over Thanksgiving, heading south to his Miami Beach condominium. "This time I fly." He mused. "Getting too old for the driving. Also I don't like overnight in the Carolinas. They are strange people, don't you know." His future may be blessed by his beloved Russian saints. He has been offered an opportunity to open a seasonal shop on Block Island. As he giggled, "The rent? It's a snip!"

The 8th Grade basketball season is well under way, with "our girls" enjoying a well-deserved win yesterday, Sunday. But it seems that the more interesting game strategies are taking place off-court, among the parents.

A simple question: Why is the Ross School in East Hampton (you know, that temple of entitlement, or should it be that title of "entemplement," let the theologian understand) not observing Veterans' Day by closing out of respect? I do not expect a clear answer.

Alas! My daughter's mis-spelt namesake on Main Street, Bridgehampton, Cate Lewis Jewelry, has closed. A charming husband-wife team from Australia ran the store for many seasons, with so much friendliness and welcome, and a great eye for innovative design and color. Sadly no more. I wish them well as they move on, perhaps to austral regions, and wonder with cynical bleakness what will move into the empty space. Another bloody realtor/cellphone kiosk/antique/English clothing boutique? Lord, have mercy.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Shh! Keep your voice down!

This is an experimental post. I am killing time in the basement of the East Hampton Library while Kate meets with her tutor. A very fruitful hour. Returned some books, paid a fine (!) and browsed a little. And now have found out how to use my library card to access the web. Oh, the weekly possibilities of writing something here every Monday...

What with Tuesday evenings in Borders, Riverhead, and Starbucks, Bridgehampton during the week, much of this column could be written away from home!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Autumn in Wainscott & Sagaponack, October 26th, 2009

A short and routine drive from home back to the church, today, with a camera in hand... How I love commuting!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An evening in Riverhead

"Was it Tim or Jim?" So asked the server in Borders as she handed me a cappuccino. "When it comes to coffee I'll answer to anything!" I quipped. "Well, thanks Bob!" She laughed.

So began my three hours in Riverhead. I dropped off Kate at a local theater for a long musical rehearsal, and headed off into the shopping metropolis - the only place, some might say thank God, where many of the big retail names come together in one place in this part of Long Island. A few definite errands to run. A new cordless drill, as mine recently died in a blue flash and wisp of smoke; a normal Target list, and maybe a little early, early Christmas shopping.

Borders is busier than the last time I sat here. Apart from browsers and shoppers, Seattles' Best has a greater variety of customers. Most are chatting noisily over their drinks, yet one man is fast asleep in a corner, head back, snoring quietly. Clearly a decaff drinker. Two nurses have been studying with latte for an approaching test, and a group of students have occupied two tables with laptops and notes.

It is one of those cool, spectacularly beautiful evenings with a pale blue cloudless sky, and a spectrum of colors in the small tress across the parking lot. Will it be difficult to fill three hours until pick-up time? Absolutely not! There's always something to do, somewhere to look at, something to think about, just around the corner. Rather I'd better keep an eye on the time.

A very, and I mean very, pregnant women has just arrived and is gingerly easing herself into a chair that is far too low for such a manouver. I wish those two nurses had stayed. Seeing her, her face slowly relaxing, reminds me of the enormous billboard near Fall River, which I passed driving back from the Cape last Friday.

"Problems having a baby? Use the left lane." (Ah.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Knock, and the door shall be opened…

For more years than I care to remember, in all my travels and meanderings, near and far, I say my prayers along the way. I also feel that the company of the saints is important to my happiness, even if St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, has a very dubious provenance. But travelers are also guided by Raphael the Archangel, and let’s face it - we need air cover at times, and best of all by Our Lady. There is also St. Gertrude, the patron saint of those seeking lodging, and of course St. Jude, the representative of lost causes, of which I am a senior member of the Board of Management.

Please do not mock, but I take these sentiments and prayers very seriously, and to date they have rarely let me down. On a journey and visit I simply ask for good and interesting experiences, and that doors may be opened.

This short time on the Cape has seen those prayers (wishes?) fulfilled. I have wandered into the unknown, walked new paths, paddled new waters, and, in between them all, had great conversations with new people. With one exception.

The new and gargantuan parish church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Wellfleet simply had to be visited. I thought I had timed it well. Morning mass had ended, and the people had left. But the outer doors had already been locked. Saddened, I went on to thank God for the beauty of Gull Pond.

There’s a sermon there, somewhere… And a salutory lesson for every church.

TAKE A HIKE (or, Lunch at the Pub!)

To say that today has been a great, and interesting workout, would be an understatement. An early morning launch saw me paddling three large Wellfleet ponds. Air temperature was in the mid 40s, the north wind beginning to crank, and the water in the ponds (deep kettle ponds, the jewels in the crown that is Cape Cod) was deceptively cool. I’m not going to post the (rather good and atmospheric, if I say so myself) pictures here, as I have already done so on my Facebook pages. (What? You’re not a member? You should be! Keep up! Life’s too short not to…)

After packing a simple lunch of Portuguese rolls, cheddar cheese, apples and chocolate, I drove back to Wellfleet to walk the long trail from the Herring River mouth out to Jeremy Point. This is the spit of land that shelters Wellfleet Harbor from the ravaging winter storms that can attack from Cape Cod Bay, and which has a great history in itself as a vital refuge for those who plied their trade in the whaling ships of the 18th century.

I sat down on a stump, and ate my lunch at what was the site of the Smith Tavern, named after Samuel Smith, its founder. Little is documented about this pub, built in 1690 on the wider stretch of land called Great Island, and nothing remains. This land used to be an island, but changing banks and flows changed all that over time. The tavern was a place of refreshment for the shore waling people, those who trapped and killed whales that entered the shallow waters of Wellfleet Harbor and Cape Cod Bay, and lasted for some forty years. But then shore whaling diminished, and the pub called “last orders” for the final time. The words of the sign at the door of this tavern still linger in local rhyme:

Samuel Smith, he has good flip.
Good toddy if you please,
The way is near and very clear,
‘Tis just beyond the trees.

The walk to Jeremy Point was spectacular, in that it showed me Wellfleet and the harbor from a new viewpoint, and told me something about the importance of shelter, “any port in a storm,” which underpinned the importance of this small fishing town. On reaching the Point I felt as if I was on the ede of the world, or certainly a world. Most people come here by boat, but I had chosen to walk, and as I munched on chocolate and swigged water (as the pub had been shut for nearly 300 years) my legs were quietly complaining about being forced to trudge five miles through soft sand and mud.

Rounding the Point, I was struck by the number of dead sea birds on the south facing beach. I had noticed some on the eastern shore, but had decided that if a bird had to die then this was a good and peaceful place. But now they were in their dozens. I must have walked past at least forty dead birds, which means that there were many more out of my sight. I am aware that local ornithologists, my sister-in-law being one of them, are researching this phenomenon, but apparently it is a mystery for the time being.

I walked three and a half miles back to the trailhead along the bay beach. It was a good walk. No dead birds, and not a single person in sight. Looking out to sea also reminded me of how rocky and treacherous the Bay is when close to shore. I was first taught this by Ted Worthington, out in his boat in 1994, who told me, “I know rocks most people have never heard of.”

Back at the car, nine miles after leaving it, my legs were telling me that that was a great hike! Some photos now follow…

Monday, October 12, 2009


Gorgeous, cool, sunny weather. Splashes of color in the deciduous trees. No need to do anything, although I did. Even within a few hours my shoulders felt lighter and my mind clearer.

I have timed this trip well, and plan to leave the area early Friday morning. The next few days should be quiet everywhere as the Columbus Day holiday visitors depart for their urban and suburban boxes. I would be very foolish to linger beyond Friday breakfast, for that is the day when over twenty thousand people will descend on Wellfleet (pop. 2,800) for the annual Wellfleet Oyster Festival. What began as a very local harvest celebration of what is, in my humble opinion (but I have over 2,800 very proud people to back me up!) the finest oyster in the world, if not the galaxy, has turned into a commercial free-for-all, with hordes of entitled urbanites embarrassing themselves. As Mo in the Wellfleet Bookstore told me today, “We’re all dreading it. It’s now the tail wagging the dog!”

An aside comment, yet one based on good local observation, surprised me today. It was about Mac’s Seafood which, since its founding in Wellfleet in 1995, has opened a sprinkling of shops on the Lower Cape, as well as being the most popular supplier of the better local restaurants. Plus, they have one of their own! I like Mac’s. I now know the family members who run the small Truro shop, and who chat and give me tasters, and I have never not appreciated the quality of their fish, seafood, service or friendliness. But! And here’s where the tune changes… Apparently local people (and define that dangerous category as you will) deliberately choose to ignore Mac’s and instead shop at another (excellent) seafood place in North Truro. The reason? Price? Freshness? Variety? No, none of these vital things. It’s apparently a “Portuguese thing.” They (Mac’s) are not us. So we don’t shop there. God in heaven! Yet another example of tribalism, in the Untied States, in the 21st century. Please don't get me started on the Italians...

I am no fan of bumper stickers, but today I saw one that I would happily display on my car: “Got Linguica?”

TO THE CAPE October 11th, 2009

Waking up this morning was different. Oh, the routine was the same. One dog bouncing up and down, eager to be let out; another sitting bolt upright, staring expectantly. And a cat pacing up and down, noisily announcing that morning had come. But this was Sunday morning, and six-fifty-five. No church services to preside over, no masses, no sermons – nothing, except feed the animals and load the final things into the car for my drive to Cape Cod.

Last evening I had a sobering thought, and it was one that I must take great care not to let happen too often. It was this: This is my first Sunday “off” since Christmas 2008, and that simply won’t do. For health of body, mind and soul I am supposed to relax on five Sundays a year, but the paucity of many supply clergy, and the unavailability of my friend and colleague John, has meant that this year it has been me, followed by me, me and me. This is nothing to be proud of. Has it taken its toll? If it has it is not a serious one, but next year I must take steps to rectify this unhappy situation. After all, as the one who visits and offers pastoral care to stressed-out clergy, I must be the last one to fall into such a trench, if at all!

I’m writing this (at least in note form) on the MV Susan Ann, having just passed through the turbulent currents of Plum Gut and the eastern shores of the island. The sunshine is dazzling on the slightly choppy Sound; the horizon is so clear I feel as if I could reach out and touch it, and perhaps most important of all, the coffee is good. In an hour’s time I should be in New London and back on the road. There’s no rush, but I hope to on the Cape by two-thirty, and in Truro an hour after that. I cannot imagine a better day to be traveling…

Friday, October 2, 2009


- Where did September go?

- Leo the barber is in economic mood, given the change of season. I went for my monthly shear, his first customer of the morning, and he was sitting in one of his chairs reading a newspaper, sipping his Starbucks coffee, and wrapped in at least three layers of coat. “It’s cold!” “But Leo, what about the heating?” I asked. “Too expensive. Not until November.”

- Rural ministry has its wonderful and unexpected benefits. This morning’s funeral visit to a family in Sagaponack began with grief and condolences, continued with good conversation as we planned the service, and ended with us pulling an armful of huge fresh leeks from the field for me to take home. I will braise two of them, and make soup with the rest!

- The deer rutting season continues on my front lawn. We awoke yesterday to find sections of the grass completely turned over, as if by a rotor tiller! Two stags had clearly decided to square up to each other on my grass. I wonder who won?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thoughts on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost 2009

Last Thursday found me at the George Mercer School of Theology in Garden City in long conversation with Dr. Tony Kireopoulos, a senior program director of the National Council of Churches USA, and a Greek Orthodox theologian of some international note.

I say "conversation" because for the first hour it was me asking him questions, and him giving me both broad-reaching and detailed answers. The initial subject matter was the continuing ecumenical discussions and dialogue between numerous American churches and denominations, but we also moved into the vast area of inter-faith relationships and forums the world over. In particular the large forums (perhaps that should be forae, but I'm not a purist) between Muslims and Christians, and the discussion papers that these have produced. And all great signs of hope - and thank God, especially after statements such as those made by Islamic theologians at the beginning of this decade which basically, truthfully, if chillingly, said:

There can be no world peace until there is peace between Islam and Christianity.

It was eventually after lunch (and all ecumenical conversation must include excellent lunch!) that the question arose in my mind:

Why are we separate from one another in the name of God?

And my thinking process took the form of something that reads like a mathematical formula: Certainty embraces ignorance, and creates intolerance.

And that equation, although unanswered and imperfect, is as old as religion itself.

John, one of Jesus' disciples came to him, clearly worried and annoyed, and announced:

Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.

John's outburst sounds very familiar in the 21st century. That last phrase might be translated, “Because he was not one of us.”

It remains part of the human tradition. We like to be able to put people in their place, or tell people where their place is! And, of course, we all know where we stand!

It’s easy to make judgments about other people whether in arguments or in very rational debates.

John is making a judgment about an anonymous healer who he clearly perceived as some sort of threat – perhaps diminishing the uniqueness of Jesus and the Twelve. He didn’t belong. He wasn’t “one of them!”

A classic expression of intolerant religion.

The Hebrew scriptures are full of the same. There are passages where God is described as ordering the Israelites to destroy their enemies, especially Tribe A, Tribe B and that awful tribe C - because of the way they live and the way in which they do things.

In the book of Exodus God says that persons of other religions are to be totally destroyed. In the book of Deuteronomy prophets of other faiths are to be killed. It was clearly a pre-ecumenical age.

Of course once formalized and institutionalized, the Christian Church found this approach very practical. After the Emperor Constantine, who united Roman state authority and matters of faith, many battles were fought under the banner of intolerance.

The Crusades were fought as a holy war against the infidel, although to be historically accurate, and politically incorrect, many of these battles were simply campaigns to take back what the so-called infidels had seized in the first place, all in the name of their version of God.

Within the Church heretics were identified, and we all know what to do with heretics, don’t we? We don't sit down and drink cappuccino with them, engaging in polite debate. No Sir! They have to be faced down, removed - even killed. Because they are not like us, and are a threat to greater integrity.

Even a cursory study reveals that intolerance has a long history in Christianity, and that history has not ended yet.

Some Christians cannot exist without intolerance. It is such a central part of their faith that if it were removed all else would crumble. It is seen as the means to keep a sense of identity, orthodoxy, or even superiority.

Today’s Old Testament story is one that most people are unfamiliar with, but let’s be honest: When did the Book of Numbers ever make the best-seller list?

Two men, Eldad and Medad, were prophesying without proper authority. Joshua was upset and insisted that Moses put a stop to it all, but Moses would have none of it. “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets!”

Moses demonstrated there not merely wisdom, but tolerance in an age where such was unheard of.

Jesus also, saying: Whoever is not against us is for us. Both he and Moses could have been threatened by words and deeds that seemed to have no real license and authority, but both decided to let them go.

Some would say that this is a sign of weakness, or a lack of confidence. Especially with regard to the Church. These accusations have often been leveled against the Episcopal Church. Many assume that we don’t stand for anything because we are so tolerant.

Well, nothing could be further from the truth.

Historically, from our English and Scottish roots and through generations of great Anglican thinkers we continue to choose the path of tolerance – the via media, or middle way; the way of reason which, when combined with the study of scripture and the vibrant importance of Church tradition, leads to open minds and open dialogue.

This is not a wide and easy way as some shallowly assume. It is actually a narrow and difficult path that is often not clearly signed.

But any church, any denomination, any family of faith must tread that path, if there is to be peace, and mutual respect and understanding.

It is the path of Moses and Jesus. God give us courage to walk that road of grace. And to learn from one another along the way.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


And in the case of Fresh Pond that is especially true! This neat and picturesque body of water, no more than half a mile long and five hundred yards wide, lies to the north of Fresh Pond Road (hello!) which connects Amagansett to Gardiner’s bay. There are two “put-ins” or launch sites, but the one on the northern bank is tricky to say the least, and involves portage through a densely wooded area where branches leap out at the unsuspecting kayaker without any provocation. No, don’t use that one, but the one on the south bank instead. This one is delightfully easy, a dry-feet launch, and therefore I’m not going to tell you exactly where it is! If anyone wants to come and paddle Fresh Pond with me I will insist on a blindfold!

One of the beautiful aspects of Fresh Pond is that, unlike so many ponds and waters in this area, it has no waterfront development whatsoever. Not even a boathouse or shed. The entire bank is thick with forest growth, wetlands and tall rushes - a pondscape that has probably remained unchanged for hundreds of years. And it is teeming with birds, fish and colorful insect life, most notably the bright blue dragonflies that seem to like flying alongside the kayak and even landing on its bow.

I had looked at a satellite image of Fresh Pond, courtesy of Google Earth (incidentally the rough kayaker’s most important tool after boat and paddle) and spotted a very narrow creek running into the woods on the western edge of the lake, and after a few minutes of gentle paddling I found the opening.

The next few photographs were taken a various stages along the creek which is navigable for about a hundred and fifty yards. You can see that it becomes extremely narrow towards the end of the passage, and as I stroked and punted the boat forwards I was glad to be in the small Manatee kayak and nothing larger.

Time to turn around and head back to the pond. The emerging view ...

Various eastward views of Fresh Pond, which ends in wetlands and an osprey tower.

After returning to the car after only an hour’s paddling and exploring I need more, so threw the boat inside the car (it just fits) and drove the three hundred yards to the beach, launching into Gardiner’s Bay. A good half hour’s brisk paddle south had me returning via the Devon Yacht Club and the small, private harbor. It was then great to drift back on a gentle breeze and outgoing tide…