Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Missing in Action?

Saintly Ramblings, a friend and fellow blogger from the flatlands of eastern England, has pointed out that people who regularly read these columns must think that I am dead - such has been my inactivity of late.

For the record: He is not dead, merely sleeping (sic.) I have been a little busy of late... but from tomorrow ...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thoughts for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 20th, 2010

When I read for pure pleasure, especially in the summer season, in the sun, in the chair, in the hammock, I often turn to travel writers – those whose pages can mentally lift me out of the chaos that is Wainscott in summer; take me away from “competitive vacationers,” and place me someplace else.

Now I’ve tried to rationalize this, but do so imperfectly. It’s not a need to escape, but rather a deep sense of admiration for those who do – and whose eye and gift of writing communicates well everything they encounter. They may be relatively modern writers, these favorites of mine: Graham Green, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron and Bruce Chatwin to name a few – but they are the product of generations of journeys and adventures of much greater significance.

They reflect the great spirit of exploration, something that is inherent in the human race, and which has shaped and nurtured us. The need to see “what’s out there,” the urge to go the next mile, and the passion to step out, and face outwards. I hope that we have not denied ourselves this exploratory zeal for too long and rendered it inactive. At times I truly worry when we as a human race turn in on ourselves, obsessed with our own security, comfort and needs, and refuse to step over the boundaries that mark the point where new and often strange, even dangerous things begin.

Recently I have been intrigued and enthralled by the journal of John Wesley Powell, the man with one arm who (in 1869) set out to map the unknown territory which included the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. Oh, people knew these places were there, but there were no maps because no one had yet survived to bring back the maps they had drawn!

I’d like to share a short extract from his journal, written as he and his men prepared to enter the unexplored and unmapped.

We are ready to start our way down the great unknown... We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above... We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not. What rocks beset the channel, we know not. What walls rise over the river, we know not.

Wonderful prose! Powerful language! Summed up: Lack of knowledge, and lack of certainty, just before boundaries were crossed.

In this morning’s extraordinary gospel reading we hear of many boundaries being crossed, although not necessarily obvious ones, and a culture of separation. We suddenly find Jesus in very unfamiliar territory. The country of the Gerasenes. A people relatively unknown, except to themselves. Non-Jews, probably Greek in origin. The root of their name enigmatically means “those who arrived by pilgrimage.” A rural people – pig farmers included.

So Jesus had crossed into a region to meet a people and culture definitely not of his own people.

Then there was a man, living wild, given to erratic and violent behavior. A man so strange that his own people could not tolerate him, and so had thrown him out beyond another social boundary. He is even given an outsider’s name. Legion. A Roman term, and therefore an insult to most.

However we deal with and interpret the story of the healing of this man, and the driving out of his demons, it is the conclusion that is important. The man is restored to society, clothed and made respectable. He is no longer an outsider but back with his own people. A boundary has been removed.

But no sooner has one boundary been removed than another is immediately set up. The people are angry. And justly so, if we accept that a large herd of pigs did indeed perish. This was a serious attack on their livelihood, and so a boundary of resentment appeared. And then, a boundary of fear.

And despite what he had done, Jesus could not cross those new lines.

Why were those people afraid? It was more than losing pigs; it was the fact that they had met with, seen something outside of their familiarity. The very power of God. And they were frightened by it, because it was unmapped territory as far as their religious experience was concerned. And so they were not prepared to venture into the unknown, rather asking Jesus and his disciples to get out of town.

From times long ago we have known and recognized and regretted, although not often enough, that faith, religious faith, is full of boundaries – and yet the Christian message is one that not only transcends those boundaries but actually demands that they be swept away.

St. Paul could not have put it more plainly when he wrote:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

And to take that seriously and make it into a reality we have an awful long way to go. But go we must, into what is affectively a risky unknown. Risky, because we not only do not know what lies beyond the first boundary we cross, but also people with whom we meet and engage may throw up new, equally difficult, boundaries in our path. If they did so for Jesus, then they certainly will do so for us!

But in God’s name, as we enter the unknown, it is surely an adventure, a journey, a risk worth taking!

Thursday, June 17, 2010


And Sheldon Harnick was never more right when he wrote those words for Fiddler on the Roof. For where do the sands of time and life go – and go so quickly?

Today was Kate’s last day at Our Lady of the Hampton’s School. She finishes eighth grade and begins High School after the summer months. A special morning? Not really. The obligatory (traditional!) photograph before getting into the car for the seven mile drive to school. Few words spoken, and the journey was easy. Turn into Maple Lane. Pull over. Stop. “Bye, dad. Love you.” And out of the car.

I have vivid memories of the first days at OLH when I had to walk her down the school yard, and she would hang back until she saw at least one face that she knew. Then and only then would she let go and leave me.

Walking back to the car was never immediate. Some days it could take half an hour! Mary would be there, and Nora, with a dog or two. Sometimes Carl. Sometimes others. Always we would linger and chatter, often complain or laugh about the very same individuals that parents now grouse about! Nothing changes under the sun. Except people getting busier. It seems that we were never busy back then, never rushing away to work or whatever.

So today I feel more than a pang of sadness for a chapter of life that is rapidly drawing to a close, and nostalgia for simpler days. Selective memory and wishful thinking? Oh, probably both, but don’t spoil my hidden tears. It’s all about a father watching a beautiful girl grow up too quickly.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Thoughts on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, June 13th, 2010

It was Ronald Reagan who once said, “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” And today’s Gospel scene, although non-American in time and culture, also marks a point of change, or the beginning of something new. A dinner party somewhere in Galilee.

Jesus, as a guest at the house of Simon the Pharisee, was approached by an anonymous woman of dubious reputation who … well, we’ve all heard the story as it is narrated by Luke in highly erotic terms. Simon the host, a most respectable member of the establishment, is beside himself with indignation, but Jesus puts him in his place – while assuring the woman that her sins are forgiven.

The story is carefully structured by Luke. He writes deliberately in order to say two things. First, that Jesus has divine authority, and second that Jesus is breaking with conventions.

Oh, we’re given a parable as well – a mini-parable as it were that tells us of forgiveness, and how the one with greater debt is the more grateful when that debt is wiped clean. And even Simon the Pharisee has to agree with Jesus in this matter.

But in the middle of all of this is a most wonderful line, a question – haunting, memorable, loaded with unimaginable significance. Turning toward the woman, Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?”

Do you see this woman?

The truth is that to most (if not all) who were in that room, and they would have been men, that woman would have been socially and religiously invisible. In those terms they simply would not have seen her.

The taboos lined up against this woman were quite formidable.

First, she was a woman. That’s not stating the obvious but rather reminding people that her sex made her automatically inferior to first century males. Add to this that she is in the company of Simon, a religious leader who was considered superior to other men, and we begin to see the size of the social gap here being revealed.

Second, she had broken with convention – good and polite manners and a social code that forbad a woman entering the dining room of an all-male dinner party. Shocking, isn’t it? But it gets worse.

Third, she had broken the rules of purity by actually touching a man at table, by anointing Jesus’ hands and feet. This is beyond the pale. But, behind it all…

Fourth, she is a woman “in the city who was a sinner.” And we all know what that means!

Do you see this woman? I’m afraid we see her all too clearly. Get her out! Get her out! She's trouble!

But Jesus turns to this woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Those are more than words of absolution. Set against the gospel as a whole they are words of affirmation and acceptance.

Jesus is fully accepting of a woman at a gathering of men.

He is also fully accepting of this particular woman, known and considered unacceptable by the establishment.

He reached out in love to this woman who had anointed him in love, and made her welcome.

He therefore breaks all religious and social rules, and in so doing brings a loving and forgiving God into the otherwise judgmental and discriminatory table company.

But this is nothing out of the ordinary. Wherever we look at the story of Jesus, from whatever Gospel version or angle, we find exactly the same thing. When Jesus enters a situation, a debate, a scene – he deals with it, and resolves it in a way that is, by the norms and standards of the world, often quite unexpected, and totally unconventional.

If only we could do the same.

For we are very good at hosting dinner parties. In fact we have got it down to a fine art, and take pride in our guest lists and general good manners and respectability.

And of course we like meeting new people at our table, but they must both know their place and pay attention to our ways and conventions. Oh, and did I mention that they must agree with us. And as for uninvited and unexpected people approaching the table – well, we’ll see about that!

But the Christian Church at times has forgotten, or seems to conveniently ignore that one table at which a disreputable woman stepped forward and was made whole by Jesus. She stood, and stands as the recipient icon of acceptance, forgiveness and love, and represents all those to whom the Church must reach out, embrace and welcome, no matter who they are, no matter what others may think of them.

Do you see this woman? I hope and pray that we really do.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The best laid plans of ...

... students of Our Lady of the Hamptons! After the final mass of the school year the intention was to unearth a time capsule buried some six years ago. Lots of excitement, and one spade. And they dug. And dug. And dug some more. In different places. "Try over there!" They did. But couldn't find it! Time ran out, so we'll dig again at the end of next week...

Friday in the chair

Time for the regular visit to Leo's barber shop for a trim, and to catch up on village events and opinion. Being the first customer of the day does however mean that there are no conversations to enjoy while waiting, so this morning it was a real one-on-one with Leo.

Topics discussed? Oh, the seasons, in particular the summer. And rent, especially rent. And Leo explained his theory that during and leaving a recession the landlords are the biggest problem within any local economy. When their income, based on local trade, is low they raise their rent in order to raise more money for themselves - and as a result the renter is often forced out, thus diminishing the local trade even more. Makes sense.

And Leo's lease is "up" at the end of this year. He's told me his business plans but has sworn me to secrecy!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Borders without blogging

It's Wednesday afternoon in Borders, Riverhead, and my usual leather armchair is as comfortable as ever, but today is a thinking day and not a writing day. There are many thoughts out there, but that is where they must stay. Besides, a Blackberry keyboard is fine for short bursts of typing but not for writing essays. Maybe I should "tweet on Twitter" instead.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A pond of two halves

Odd, isn’t it, how initial disappointment can occasionally turn into a gift? Certainly in small, perhaps trivial things. I had hoped and expected to put a kayak out onto Georgica Pond yesterday afternoon, but the water levels are still too low after the late April draining. Dragging a boat through two hundred feet of mud to reach the water is not much fun. So what to do? The wind was gusting out of the north-west so a southern shore venue was best. Mecox was too exposed, so what about Sagg Pond? Why not!

Sagg Pond is a glacial lake to the south and east of Bridgehampton, some two miles in length in a gentle ‘S’ shape, at its narrowest less than three hundred feet across, and is cut in half by the road bridge in (yes!) Bridge Lane. It’s really just a recreational paddle with no hazards or challenges, and is as safe as a body of water can be without being too complacent. I say that because people have drowned there through ill luck or judgment.

It really is a pond of two halves. Putting in at the bridge and paddling to the Atlantic Ocean is an effortless twenty minutes. Don’t expect spectacular natural scenery on the way however as almost every yard of bank space is occupied by rather monstrous houses, their perfectly manicured garden landscapes running down to the very water’s edge. It’s worth the trip though simply to hit the Atlantic beach and just sit there allowing the sight and sound of the surf to massage the soul. Oh, and to eat potato chips.

The Piping Plover rules this beach from a large, fenced-off, nesting colony from where they defend their eggs and young with a vengeance. Even as I waited three large gulls glided over the beach causing the plovers to scramble like fighter planes! About a hundred of them. The gulls abruptly turned and flew back out to sea.

Heading back and under the bridge it becomes clear that the scenery changes. The houses are smaller and more established. The west back is thick reed and a narrow wetland, and most of the east bank is farmland. Here the pond narrows, and funnels the wind in quite unpredictable ways. And the birds here are the gorgeous if noisy red-winged blackbirds, which seem to have taken over most of the reed beds for nesting. Turning around at the northern tip of the pond, where a culvert drains from the nature reserve, its back to the bridge and home. A round trip of about five miles, to include some meandering, in brilliant sunshine. Not a bad day and a gentle exercise.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Consulting Summer's Clock - the Second Sunday after Pentecost 2010

When we reach the month of June the changes around us are so very obvious. We become more socially active (I dislike the word “busy”) as the ubiquitous pressures of the summer season begin to shape, mould and fill up our calendars. The weather becomes warmer, if not today drier, and there is a distinct cultural shift away from the preparatory season of spring and into the ways and whims of summer.

The church is now dressed in green, the color of growth, and there is a distinct change in the tone and type of Gospel story read on each Sunday morning this season. Gone, behind us are the rigorous encouragements of Lent, the powerful dramas of Holy Week and Easter, and the figurative and theological statements expressed at Pentecost and Trinity Sunday.

For we have now entered what is called “Ordinary Time” (and there’s a misnomer if ever there was one) and different themes are called for.

Over the next weeks and months we will return to the events of Jesus’ ministry, his journeys, actions, teaching and preaching. It is as if we will be rediscovering the vitality of these events, as we hear the narratives and parables once more.

Today’s Gospel is a perfect example. The healing of the widow’s son in Nain – a story that draws deeply on the Hebrew tale of Elijah doing the same thing in Zarephath.

And it is a moving story, filled as it is with human despair and sorrow, yet eventual joy and celebration. A faith journey in miniature, yet not without its shadows for those who have lost sons and daughters.

But is it not the detail of the story that I wish to present today, but rather its place within (what will be) a series of Gospel stories which we will read and hear over the coming season. We may call it the season of “Jesus on the Road!” And we will follow that road as told in Luke’s Gospel.

Next week we will hear of the dinner party at which Jesus feet are anointed, and where we are given the parable of the forgiving creditor.

The following week Jesus drives out demons in a different neighborhood, and a herd of swine rush to their death in the lake. (I’ve never met a farmer who likes that story.)

At the end of June there’s a series of short sayings of Jesus, and that brings us to Independence Day Weekend, beyond which I cannot see clearly right now.

The first we hear in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus doing anything that could possibly be described as traditionally religious is in a Gospel reading about prayer, at the end of July, and the first time we hear of Jesus attending formal worship is at the end of August – and that’s after the House Tour and I certainly can’t see beyond that at the moment!

My point is this: These are rich stories, deep stories, busy narratives, and contain much of the core of Jesus’ kingdom teaching – but they all take place out of doors or in people’s homes, and nowhere near synagogues, the Temple or the clergy of the day.

This doesn’t sit comfortably with what many people think and believe about life as a church, a parish. So much of what we do, think and pray is focused within these walls. And that’s not a negative criticism, for we all love St. Ann’s and our traditions and our buildings – it’s simple and good human nature to develop such attachments. But the reality is that most people are not in here this morning – they are out there!

That is why Jesus did what he did. He spent the vast majority of his time among the people, on their streets, in their boats, on the beaches, on the hillsides and in their homes. And it’s significant that when he did attend community worship or went to the Temple he got himself into serious trouble!

In her poem Consulting Summer’s Clock Emily Dickinson wrote:

Consulting summer's clock,
But half the hours remain.
I ascertain it with a shock --
I shall not look again.
The second half of joy
Is shorter than the first.
The truth I do not dare to know
I muffle with a jest.

Summer will indeed pass as quickly as ever, but there are so many opportunities ahead of us before the flags are put away in September. Opportunities to do the work of God. To take what we have in here – and do it out there! Take the ways and works of the Kingdom to where people are, rather than always expecting them to come to us.

And doing that work may be as close as the very next conversation we have with a complete stranger.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Is anyone out there?

I don't read my own columns very often but occasionally check this blog to see what's been hapenning, and imagine my surprise ten minutes ago when I saw that another reader was visiting at the same time. A circular "blip" showed that someone in South India was also on the page. I wonder who? And where? And why?