Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ex Libris

It is nearly two years since I last sat in Skyfields, the delightful, peaceful, yet unassuming, Isham home in Sagaponack. A threesome of small buildings surrounded by acres of land and constant breezes. The last time I was there Heyward was still alive, having fought off yet another chest infection and setback. That was May, 2009, and he was confined to bed in the middle room. On that day we talked about Canada geese, Darfur and red wine. (The time before that it had been 1960s Berlin, the Orthodox Church and what to do with old books. And the time before that? Iraq? Usbekistan? Maybe. I can't recall.) He died a month later, and I didn't have to visit the house again, preferring to call on Sheila in her Southampton studio. Until today.

Sheila asked if I would like to spend time looking at the large remnant of Heyward's library, and then take any books I wanted. It was a kind and yet great opportunity, as although the important ambassadorial volumes had been removed (to the official stacks of the State Department and the gentler shelves of his sons) there remained much to consider.

Sheila and I drank coffee until it was cold, over an hour talking. Reminiscing? Of course! A little. We talked about Heyward and we remembered what we had remembered, just two years previous. And she agreed that, as she brought me tea one day, that, yes, "Hey" and I were talking about Usbekistan. And we talked some more, also looking to the future. Sheila moves into her new Sag Harbor home in a little over a month's time. You see, Skyfields has been sold. To a delightful Jewish family. As Sheila joked, "After some forty years it's going from High Wasp to Mount Zion!" I laughed, but sadly, as this would probably be my last visit to a very special place.

The books? Heyward and I shared a love of political and military history, and, of course, the more covert side of events. I left that day with a dozen or more titles to enjoy over the coming months. I look forward to reading them, and in doing so will reflect on the many conversations in that house (and so many other places) that Heyward Isham, being stationed in so many turning points of the twentieth century, brought history to life.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thoughts Delivered on the Third Sunday of Lent, 2011

In the Tolkien epic novel The Lord of the Rings it is the mission of Frodo Baggins to carry the ring to the fires of Mount Doom to be destroyed. Each day as he draws closer and closer the weight of the ring increases until it becomes an almost intolerable burden. Yet he bears it.

As we pass through the middle of Lent it appears that the length of the gospel narratives is doing exactly the same. If you think that this morning’s reading was long, you are in for a shock next week…

John the Evangelist tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at the well. Yes, it is a lengthy narrative, but it contains a gradual unfolding of a process – a realization of faith, that cannot be interrupted. Cutting the gospel reading would be like cutting a piece of cloth on which has been hand-printed a beautiful and unique design.

And as the process unfolds we become aware of just how socially and religiously shocking this encounter was. And shocking in as many as six, specific ways.

First, Jesus, a man, deliberately approached a woman. Wrong. Against the social code. Open to misinterpretation.

Second, the woman was alone. Women in the first century would never be alone, even in the carrying out of their daily tasks.

Third, she was at the well at noon. Water was customarily drawn early in the day, which suggests that she was forced to walk alone later on account of her being ostracized by other women. Perhaps something to do with the long list of male partners, at which any respectable woman would snort with distain!

Fourth, she was a Samaritan. Enough said. Jews hated Samaritans and Samaritans hated Jews. Their long history of distrust and enmity had built a solid social, religious and political barrier between them – one that must never be crossed.

Fifth, Jesus request, “Give me a drink,” was taboo. For all of the reasons already mentioned.

And finally, sixth, the very possibility that a Jew and a Samaritan might share something as simple as a water bucket, was so outrageous as to be impossible.

Six reasons why this meeting at the well, instigated by Jesus, ought never to have taken place. Yet it did, and the conversation turned to discourse, and words moved from antagonism, through curiosity, to faith. And within a short sequence of events this very same woman is talking to others about Jesus using the language of witness and faith.

To describe her as a convert to the Jesus movement and mission would be a disservice, for the building bricks of faith were already within her. Rather what she experienced was the realization that those building bricks actually meant something, and had been energized. Her traditional faith had been brought to life!

Remember the previous person that Jesus had met? Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus, and it is worth setting him alongside the Samaritan woman. Two very human situations where Jesus engaged in powerful conversations. And yet with very different outcomes.

With all of his social and political standing, his religious qualifications, his knowledge of the Hebrew law and scriptures, and his keenness to discover more, Nicodemus returned home a puzzled man. It was all too much for him to absorb.

The Samaritan woman, on the other hand, had none of the advantages enjoyed by Nicodemus. She had no social standing (and may have been a outcast within her own village;) she had no education on account of her sex; and she belonged to the wrong tribe. When we look at this Samaritan woman, what part of “wrong side of the tracks” do we fail to grasp?

Yet despite all these things, this woman understood. She “got it.”

I hope that I have not unfairly judged Nicodemus, but his gospel story is deliberately negative, and that of the woman positive. The inherent lesson within these two stories is timeless and yet simple.

God wants all to see. To grasp. To come to that wonderful dawning realization that God wants to break in on our lives, and bring us again into a deep and loving relationship. But we shut God out. We put up barriers in all shapes and forms. Nicodemus’ barrier was one in which he analyzed too deeply, and depended too much on his inherited tradition. And so his heart was closed to God.

It took a stranger, an outcast, an abject foreigner of colorful background, a woman to open her heart. To let God in.

And because of her, so many others opened their hearts. And believed.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Luddites Were Wrong

On this cold Long Island day, with rain and snow flurries. and collars once again turned up against the (spring) weather, a sequence of events led me to a state of wonder, marvel and gratitude. My! That's a strong statement to begin a blog post if ever I saw one! Did it involve a religious experience? A physical transformation? Abduction by aliens? (Actually ignore the latter suggestion, as I live in a northern part of the United States where there is no desert or ennui to over-stimulate the imagination.)

No, it was a simple Facebook communication. Now you either love it or dismiss it, but Facebook can be a tool for great good in many ways. One of these, today, was theological. In virtual conversation with a fellow priest. Father Juan Quevedo-Bosch serves in Astoria, Queens, New York - one of the most wonderfully and demographically diverse neighborhoods in the "Five Boroughs." He sent me a quote attributed to Ephrem the Syrian. Of course you have read his fourth century commentaries, and if you haven't it's time to do so. C'mon! Get with the program! This one included a powerful comment by the theologian Kenneth E Bailey in his work, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I will share this comment on the charged encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well. (John's Gospel)

At the beginning of the conversation he did not make himself known to her but first she caught sight of a thirsty man, then a Jew, afterwards a prophet, last of all the Messiah. She tried to get the better of the thirsty man, she showed dislike of the Jew, she heckled the rabbi, she was swept of her feet by the prophet and she adored the Christ.

In a Facebook exchange Juan told me about the book. He was in a hurry and rushing off to mass. What did I do? I went straight to where the book was retailing for $26. I then noticed that it was available electronically, and so in three (or was it two?) clicks I ordered it for my Kindle. Engaging the wireless app, the book appeared on my reader in thirty seconds. Price? $9 and change.

Of course we could always hand-set print and turn handles. No, that's an extreme position. But as one who embraces the electronic media, I can now enjoy and be stimulated by additional Lenten reading. Effortlessly, and with minimal loss to me and the environment.

Now, what was that about Jesus? And the woman? Ah, yes. I must read on... Click.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Tickets.

I think I must be in a small social minority, or at least a person who tells the truth as opposed to hiding behind snobbish facades, when I say that I actually like King Kullen, the profligate Long Island supermarket which (correctly, it seems) brands itself as the first of such a kind. And we have one in Bridgehampton.

This is a place I visit almost every other day, as there is always something to pick up for even the best planned dinner. Salad leaf, fingerling potatoes, garlic, Tums. That sort of thing. And a place in which I meet so many people. Parishioners, friends, so many of the store staff members who have become allies over the years. In fact I meet up with someone and have an interesting conversation almost every time I go grocery shopping. Except today. Today I was a simple observer.

I was in a short line (that’s American for the British word, queue, which is actually French) at the delicatessen counter, with meats and cheeses on my list. It was yet another sign of spring, and the increase in custom, that for the first time since Christmas we had to “Take a Number” from the dispenser and wait our turn. My ticket was A27.

Ticket A25 was a construction worker who, with his two large and happy friends, was ordering his, and their, luncheon sandwiches. Three huge productions, worthy of the word “construction!” They were men who could be best describes as Long Island Italian. A certain look with certain gestures. The best! And for those of you who haven’t met such people let me tell you that they are a wonderful stratum of this American melting pot, with kind and expressive personalities. And humor. And courtesy. They weren’t from around here, but they treated the woman who served them with respect. You want mayo? Yes ma’am. Mustard? No Ma’am. And a smiling thank-you as the foot-long rolls were handed over.

Ticket A26 was also not from around here, and not Long Island Italian. She and her friend were highly perfumed, wearing (I assumed) the most wonderful designer labels, and a great deal of (clearly) expensive jewelry. Both of their faces, lifted, not only to the top of the deli counter but in other, more surgical ways, were impassive as they asked for… whatever. The first slice was too thick. The second was questioned. Are you sure that’s beef? And the cultural deal was clinched when the potato salad turned out to be tossed in regular mayonnaise, and not low-fat. And the question was asked of the wonderful server: And they actually pay you to work here?

A tale of two tickets. Or is it one of two tribes? I will let the reader decide. And as for ticket A27? What will they write about him?

Friday, March 18, 2011

"Three Boys in a Boat?"

On the northern edge of Mill Pond, Water Mill, a grey-green body of water at this time of year, there is a boat. Not proudly floating on the water, tied to a buoy or even dragged to safety up one of the grassy banks that fringe this wetland. No, this boat lies on its starboard side, abandoned, propped up among the dense and still leafless trees. Sad to observe, this small craft (a rowing boat maybe, or skiff) has not floated in many seasons. Years of neglect, weathering and decay has worn away her lines and splintered her edges. At some point she made land for the final time, was hauled out of the water, and left to rot.

A memory was triggered, one that is nearly half a century old. My mind traveled back in time to boyhood summers. One in particular. How old was I? Six, seven, maybe eight. It doesn’t matter. With two village friends I was leaning on the wooden railings of a white-painted bridge over the Bow Brook in Himbleton. A bridge that connected the church water-meadows to the meandering country lane where we had parked our bikes.

Three young boys in a timeless summer who had a dream. You see, there was a boat. A small boat also, holed and decaying, firmly lodged in the thick roots and tall briars about fifty yards downstream. We had tried to get to it from the bank but the growth was too dense and sharp, and the fast currents were too deep. So we had to be content with dreaming, Stephen Reynolds, Peter White and me. If someone could reach the boat and fasten a rope, then we could do the rest. And what would we do? Why, repair it, of course! And paint it blue, or green. No, definitely blue. And give it a mast, or at least make oars. And then sail away downstream, down the brook, down to Diglis and the River Severn, and from there to Bristol and out to sea. We would be pioneers, explorers, adventurers, settlers, even pirates! And home before Sunday. We had to be home before Sunday else we’d miss ice cream for tea.

We never missed the ice scream. Rather we grew up and the dream ended with the summer. I last stood on the bridge a few years ago, with my daughter aged nine, or maybe ten. It doesn’t matter. The bridge was freshly-painted white and the brook flowed deep and fast. But the boat had long since sailed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The First Paddle of 2011: A Pictorial Post

What was it that old Horace wrote? Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero! Carpe diem. Seize the day! And last Monday was a day on which to do just that. After a frigid winter season the ponds (and I assume the creeks and bays) were finally clear of ice (interestingly enough last year's ice was still there at the end of March) and so it was time to put the hull-raisers back on the car, grab a boat and head out.

My first paddle of the season was on, or rather around, Mill Pond in Water Mill. Not the most exciting three miles, but it felt so good to be out there after four months of kayak stagnation. The air temperature was in the low forties fahrenheit, and the water was cold and murky. The photos speak the rest.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Near-Eastern Cuts

Only weeks after Leo's sudden (and enforced) retirement I sought haircut solace in Ralph's on Main Street in Southampton. Not a bad cut, but slow and too faux Italian an experience. The debate about where the best spaghetti meat sauce can be found does nothing for someone who knows that there are no, repeat, no authentic and excellent Italian restaurants in this part of Long Island. It also involved an in-depth knowledge of baseball if any barber/customer conversation was to be successful. I can now report that I have discovered a "new" barber.

Fahid has a small shop on Newton Lane, East Hampton where, day after day, clearly sometimes ankle-deep in shaven locks, he cuts hair (no gelled hair, mind, effendi) for a very reasonable sum of money. Fahid is from Syria, and I will probably visit him regularly. His wife remains in Syria, managing the lands that her family has farmed since the fourteenth century, and they have one daughter, on whom he clearly dotes.

This is a man who not only cuts hair quickly and well, but also has an accurate knowledge of most geo-political Middle Eastern events and expectations. To me this is a haircut challenge because it will involve catching up on homework once a month, because I have to anticipate his first question about Lebanon, Israel, and all of the Mediterranean Arab states. Fahid also thinks that I should learn some Arabic. Why?

To understand "some of the shit that goes on out there."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Earthy thoughts

Every year I find Ash Wednesday both exhausting and frustrating. Exhausting because the provision of two somewhat intense services completely drains me, and frustrating on account of those people, even church people, who do not take part, who stay away that day.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The traditional words at Mass, taken from the book of Genesis, which accompany the moment when the cross is traced in ash on the forehead are, so it is murmured, becoming too strong a sentiment for the 21st century person. Why? Because more and more we do not like to be reminded of our mortality. The young don’t believe in it; the middle–aged are too busy to think about it, and the elderly have far too many reminders already, thank you very much! But that is the wonderful power of Ash Wednesday. It’s message is more than a reminder; it’s subversive and counter-cultural, a statement that ought to be heard and assimilated by all, regardless of faith or lack of belief. We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sunday Thoughts, preached on the Sunday Before Lent, 2011: The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Twice a year, on a specific feast day in August, and on this, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, we proverbially climb a mountain. Because we read and hear the story that has the title of The Transfiguration, where Jesus:

Was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

And twice a year, every year, we find ourselves asking the question: What is this story? What happened, and why do we give it such prominence?

As a comment: Today the Episcopal Church does not celebrate Transfiguration, but merely reads it and allows it to address us. But what does it say to us?

For centuries scholars have debated and even vociferously argued over the story of the Transfiguration. And will continue to do so, especially those in the more literalistic rooms of the Church.

There are those who say that this is a resurrection story, displaced within the gospel narratives to anticipate Easter. Others insist that, no, this is not the case, but rather an event in its own right. And that it happened that way it is told in order to make a deliberate point – that Jesus supersedes the older Law and Prophets, and now stands alone in the glory of God. The truth may lie somewhere between these understandings, and others of their kind.

The story occurs in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and is mentioned in both John’s Gospel and the second Epistle of Peter, so we have to recognize its great importance in the literary canon, the story traditions of the early Christian Church. Not that they would ask the same analytical questions that we ask. Far from it. Such a tale, or tales, would be as natural to them as day following night, for when it came to the Transfiguration of Jesus they would have warmly embraced the story as the religious experience of the Apostles.

What is a religious experience? It’s tempting to define it using the language of Church or theology, but characterizing it that way is not always very helpful. We need to make it more personal. For most of us have, at some point or other in our lives, had moments when we have been aware of the closeness of God, or some form of heightened awareness that has changed the way in which we see the world. One might even say, transfigured the way we see things.

Sometimes these may have taken place in a religious setting – a place of worship. At other times they may have occurred at a moment of increased emotion. Whatever that emotion may have been. Falling in love, descending into grief; excitement, anxiety, fear. Even pain.

Or it could be as a result of an external influence or trigger. The birth of a child, the brilliance of stars in the night sky, the death of a loved one, or being moved to tears by a piece of music. All of these are stimuli that move us, take us outside of ourselves, where we suddenly see or feel things differently.

Peter, James and John stepped out that day upon the mountain top. They saw things differently. Their perception was changed. No longer were they looking at Jesus of Nazareth. Suddenly they were gazing on nothing less than the glory of God.

And it was not just Jesus who was transfigured. They also were transfigured, their lives changed permanently.

Of course they wanted this moment to be permanent. Who would not? Peter proved himself to be perfectly human when he said:

Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish I will make three dwellings here.

But it was not to be so. For Jesus told them that it was time to leave the mountain and get on with the business of being disciples again. The business of being ordinary.

Who does not envy those three men? Who does not crave such powerful religious experience? It’s quite an industry in the Church these days, with groups and denominations claiming to offer the best in worship experiences and encounters with God. As if God could be promoted on a playbill!

But we cannot deliberately seek these things. Or generate these things. It is God who will rather find us. And it may not be when we have climbed a mountain but when we are in the deepest of valleys, or on the dull, ordinary, well-worn path that we tread every day.

There, wherever we are, God will find us, and shine upon us. And it is we who will then be transfigured.