Monday, June 17, 2024

Kerouac Alley

Kerouac Alley

It’s not true 
that I left my heart in San Francisco,
but If I could live anywhere,
it would be there. 
I first visited the city more than twenty years ago. 
I participated in a weeklong seminar at Stanford and then extended my stay for 
a few days of exploration. 
My friend Jim suggested a cheap but convenient hotel, 
the Grant Plaza, 
just up the hill from the Dragon Gate 
that welcomes people 
into Chinatown. 

My first day, 
after I checked into the hotel, 
I made my way 
along Grant Avenue, 
lined with souvenir shops, 
all selling hoodies for tourists 
unprepared for “summer” in San Francisco. 
There were restaurants, a tea shop or two, 
and a butcher with freshly slaughtered chickens. 
As I walked along, passing the neighboring dive bars named for 
the Buddha
and Li Po, 
I called my wife Sue and said, 
“I’m walking the streets of San Francisco!” 

Just before Grant Avenue crosses Columbus Avenue, 
just before Chinatown meets the old Italian and Beatnik
enclave of North Beach, 
there is an alley that, at first, looks 
like the other alleys in the neighborhood. 
I don’t remember what was on the walls back then 
but in recent years there is 
a Chinese astrology mural, 
which I’ve never taken the time to study.  
When I first visited, this was still just an ordinary alley 
but that’s no longer true. 
Now it’s named for 
Jack Kerouac. 
And although the alley is just one short block, 
it always feels like a much longer journey 
to another, nearly lost world.

Along the way, there are poetic quotes engraved in the ground: 
words from Li Po 
and Kerouac himself. 
How extraordinary, 
magical even, 
that a city would name an alley for a writer 
and etch poems into the street! 

Poetry is the shadow
cast by our streetlight

In the company of best friends,
there is never enough wine.

The air was soft, the stars so fine,
the promise of every cobbled 
alley was so great.

And then, the journey ends at my favorite corner, with
City Lights Books on the left and Vesuvio Café on the right. 
I could happily live my life right there, 
shuttling between these two literary temples.

City Lights is bright, 
managing to squeeze in a lot of books 
on wooden shelves but
always feeling light and airy,
even when crowded with booklovers and tourists. 
On the walls there's a sign in Ferlinghetti’s distinctive script:
“Stash Your Sell-Phone and Be Here Now.” 

Vesuvio is a much darker temple 
dedicated to keeping the Beats alive. 
Antique and charmingly risqué postcards are 
lacquered into the tables
and posters of long-ago readings and concerts line the walls. 
There’s even the 
“Lady Psychiatrist’s Booth” in the upstairs gallery. 
Vesuvio manages to be both a neighborhood dive bar 
with regulars who I recognize during each annual visit
and a mecca for tourists who order a “Jack Kerouac” 
and probably regret it.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

God Can Do a Lot with Small Seeds

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
June 16, 2024

Year B, Proper 6: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 26-34

God Can Do a Lot with Small Seeds

Maybe it’s because of our upcoming "Celebration of Life" planning session, but funerals have been on my mind.
Funerals are such a sacred and tender responsibility.
Over the years, of course, I have presided and preached at many funerals, including quite a few right here.
(I’ve learned that when you have your own cemetery, you tend to have a lot of funerals!)
For me, there are really two kinds of funerals.
One kind is for people I’ve come to know and love.
Here at St. Thomas’, I think of beloved parishioners, and great dads, like Jim Piper and Sandy Martin.
At that type of funeral, I’m grieving, too. And so, it can be a real challenge to maintain my composure.
Not easy.
(In case you’re wondering, my strategy is to try to not think so much – just focus on the words and the choreography of the service. To be honest, it doesn’t always work.)
The other kind of funeral is for someone I didn’t know well or maybe never even met.
The challenge there is quickly learning as much as I can about the person’s life so I can craft a homily that is not just generic – so I can say something true about how God was uniquely at work in this person, in this life.
A couple of weeks ago, we held one of those second kind of funerals, for someone I never met.
His name was Robert Baker and although he only had a very distant connection to St. Thomas’, his daughter asked if her dad’s funeral could be here.
Well, around here we don’t say no to baptisms or funerals!
Fortunately, Robert made my task much easier because several years ago he had written a memoir.
He begins his book by telling the story of his grandmother who, back in the late 1800’s, left Poland and traveled on a German ship to Baltimore, where she began a new life in Canton.
Robert tells the story of his grandparents and parents who received very little education and spent their lives toiling in factories, where the work was tedious and dangerous and the pay not so good.
Young Robert was an obviously intelligent boy and a go-getter. Like his grandparents and parents, he was not afraid of hard work.
        Although money was always tight, his family made sacrifices and he was able to attend what was then Loyola College.
        There, Robert distinguished himself as such an excellent student that one of his professors, Fr. Gibbons, recommended that he apply to the Hopkins Institute of Advanced International Studies.
        And, sure enough, Robert was the first Loyola student to be admitted into that prestigious program, setting the course of his life.
        He went on to have a fulfilling career in the Foreign Service, stationed in many places around the world, having all kinds of Cold War adventures that he recounts his book: experiences that were gratifying, exciting, dangerous, frustrating, and funny.
        In his book, Robert points out that less than a century after his grandmother sailed to Baltimore on that German ship, her grandson was the cultural attaché in the US Consulate in Berlin.
        Quite a leap.
        And here’s the thing: none of that would’ve happened if Fr. Gibbons hadn’t seen something promising in Robert and made his life-changing suggestion.
        A small seed, perhaps, but Jesus teaches us that God can do a lot with small seeds.

        Something else about funerals.
        One of the hardest moments of being a priest is leaving - leaving a church, leaving a community where we’ve been through life and death together.
         I’ve left churches a couple of times now – and it’s always painful.
        And one of the saddest parts of leaving a church is missing out on the big moments in the lives of the people I’ve left behind, not being there for times of joy and sadness, missing out on all those baptisms and funerals.
        Well, a couple of months ago, a man named Eric Petersen died.
        He was a much-loved parishioner at my church in Jersey City, where he served as the Verger, which, if you don’t know, is a ministry focused on hospitality and worship. At St. Paul’s, his main responsibility was training and supervising our acolytes.
        Eric was a Vietnam veteran, and he was also a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA!).
        In his professional life, he had worked in large commercial kitchens, but his passion was baking the most decadent and delicious desserts.
        By the time I met Eric, he had been slowed by a stroke. He mostly got around in a motorized chair – a big challenge, for sure, but somehow, he managed to get himself to church and pretty much anywhere else he wanted to go.
        I’ve mentioned to you before that another one of our parishioners, a woman named Sonia Staine, started a beautiful ministry serving once-a-month homecooked lunches at a local drop-in center for people who were homeless.
        The goal was to serve food at least as good as anything we served at our Sunday church coffee hours (which were usually pretty elaborate meals), at least as good as anything we served ourselves at home.
        Well, of course, Eric volunteered to prepare the desserts.
        With great determination and generosity, each month Eric would get himself and his desserts to the drop-in center. There he would sit in his motorized chair before trays of deliciousness, happy and proud, bantering with each guest, offering something beautiful and even extravagant to people for whom store brand cookies would’ve been a treat, people who spent their days just trying to survive.
        A small seed, perhaps, but Jesus teaches us that God can do a lot with small seeds.

        One other memory of Eric:
        He came up with the idea that the church should offer a cooking class for boys.
        And, of course, he would be the head teacher.
        I was a little skeptical, but he put together a plan and we received some grant money for this innovative project.
        With the grant money, we bought lots of kitchen equipment and one of our parishioners even made chef’s hats for all the boys.
        With the help of a few other parishioners, Eric taught the boys a lot, from the basics like hard-boiling eggs to more advanced skills like making one of his signature desserts.
        And the boys really did learn, although, I have to say, they never quite mastered the art of cleaning up the kitchen. 
        Eric and his students hosted coffee hour a few times – no small task in that church -impressing everybody with their newfound talents.
        That was all years ago, now. And I don’t know if those young men have retained any of the techniques that Eric taught them, but I bet that they remember his fatherly love for them, his belief in them, his care and respect for them, the pride he took in what they were able to accomplish.
        A small seed, perhaps, but Jesus teaches us that God can do a lot with small seeds.

        Often, when we take the time to reflect on the lives of the people we love, we discover, we remember, seemingly small things, all those small seeds.
        When I think of Jim Piper, I think of how he was always so eager to make connections, to bring people together, especially people he thought might be able to do some good for the city he loved.
        And when I think of Sandy Martin, I think of all the time he made for his children and grandchildren, all those school events he attended, all those games and tournaments, always so supportive and so proud.
        The lives of Robert, Eric, Jim, and Sandy, and so many others I’ve met along the way, remind me to be on the lookout for opportunities to share seemingly small seeds – offering a word of encouragement, just showing up, making a phone call or sending a note.
        Small seeds, perhaps, but Jesus teaches us that God can do a lot with small seeds.


Monday, June 10, 2024

Red Bricks, Green Trees

Red Bricks, Green Trees (Haiku)

Old red brick floor guides
the pilgrims into church while
green trees guard the door.

Red Bricks, Green Trees (Free Verse Poem)

It was winter when
I first visited this church,
my future work and home.
The trees, bare.
The doors, locked.
My only option
was to gaze through wavy glass,
beholding a distorted picture.

Since then, life has again unfolded,
trees have bloomed and doors have been opened.
I even have the key!
My first time inside
what I noticed – what everybody first sees – is
the old red brick floor.
Used as ballast on colonial ships, the story goes,
the cargo best left unsaid.

The old red brick floor
contains multitudes, many reds,
none exactly the same.
The old red brick floor
supports multitudes, countless souls,
none exactly the same,
each blending grief, hope,
faith, doubt, love, guilt.

For three years now, I have walked
the old red brick floor, “processed,”
we church people say, hundreds of times.
The bricks are firm, but not like concrete.
They feel organic, somehow,
not just supporting but absorbing
what weighs me down,
keeping me rooted.

The old red brick floor
flows out the church door, becoming
a path curving among the dead,
the door and the graves guarded by
the green trees, how old, how healthy,
nobody knows.
But the thirsty roots absorb life, with power
enough to dislodge some of those old red bricks.

It was winter when  
I first visited this church.
The trees stood at the door,
as lifeless, seemingly, as the graves,
as barren as the granite slabs recalling lives long lost.
Back then, I hardly noticed the trees,
so intent on gazing through wavy glass,
so mindful of an imagined future.

But now the future clouds with fear and dread,
only the eternal hope of spring,
the endless fertility of summer,
keep me from despair.
The green trees guard the church door,
shading my fear,
absorbing my dread,
blooming new life, may it be so.

Winter will return, too soon,
the leaves falling, making a fiery grave blanket. 
But for now, I walk this path,
well-worn but ever new,
stepping along, like countless souls before,
“processing” birth, life, death.
A pilgrim with a key, guided by an old red brick floor,
while green trees guard the door.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Jesus' Family

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
June 9, 2024

Year B, Proper 5: The Third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15
Psalm 138
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

Jesus’ Family

Over the past week or so, it’s been nice to see all the high school graduation pictures getting posted on social media.
So much pride, excitement, and joy.
This time of year always gets me thinking back to my high school days, thinking back to the early 1980’s…now let’s see, how long has it been now…forty years!
Whew. My goodness!
I’ve mentioned to you before that I attended St. Peter’s Prep, an all-boys Jesuit high school in Jersey City, a brother school of Loyola Blakefield here in Baltimore and many other Jesuit schools across the country and around the world.
Making the sacrifice to send me to St. Peter’s Prep was certainly one of the greatest gifts my parents ever gave me.
It was a life-changing, life-defining experience.
Over those four years, I learned a lot – the subject matter, yes, or some of it, anyway - but most of all I learned a lot about myself, about other people, and, of course, about God.
All of us at Prep were taught that the highest ideal is to be a man for others.
One of the school’s great strengths back then (and it’s even more true now) was that there was no one way to be a Prep student.
And while I’m sure that it was sometimes challenging for some of my classmates, the truth is that there were jocks and nerds and theater kids and all the rest, and many who happily and confidently cut across those artificial categories.
        And everyone more or less tolerated everybody else.
        And I think everyone eventually found their people.
There wasn’t much pressure to be like everybody else.
Which was a good and beautiful thing – and a rare thing in a world where it’s often very hard to be different – a world where it can be very tempting, but ultimately self-defeating, self-destructive, to wear a mask, to put on an ill-fitting uniform, to try to be just like everybody else.
And, in a way, today’s lessons are about trying to fit in, trying to be just like everybody else.

A theme that runs through the Old Testament is that God did not choose the people of Israel because they were especially powerful or even particularly faithful.
No, the only thing that makes the people of Israel special, holy, is simply the fact that God chose this small and seemingly insignificant people. 
So, on the one hand, what an honor to be chosen by God, to have God as your King.
But, on the other hand, it’s a lot of work to be God’s chosen people, all those rules to follow.
Wouldn’t it be nice to just be like everybody else?
Especially when other nations sure do seem so much richer and more powerful.
And that’s the tension we hear in today’s first lesson.
If you were here last Sunday, you may remember that we heard the story of God calling the boy Samuel.
Well, today we jump ahead many decades.
Samuel is now an old man, a respected leader of Israel.
The elders go to Samuel and ask for a human king – really, they’re asking to be like everybody else, to be like all the other kingdoms and empires, countries way more powerful and prosperous than Israel.
So, the elders think, you know what, let’s try that. 
Let’s try being like everybody else. 
Samuel warns them about all the downsides of a human king – the wealth that he’ll take, the lives that he’ll take – but the elders either don’t hear it or they’re simply willing to pay the price.
And so, Israel gets its first human king, Saul.
And, like all kings, the kings of Israel will be a mixed bag, some better than others but all flawed, sometimes deeply flawed.
As a monarchy, Israel doesn’t lose its chosen-ness, doesn’t lose its holiness, but, unfortunately, it does become more like every other nation, more like everybody else.

Which brings us, finally, to Jesus’ family.
They really make quite a scene in today’s gospel lesson, don’t they?
For Jesus, facing opposition from the religious leaders must have been hard, especially when, as we heard today, they accuse him of being in cahoots with the devil.
But opposition from his own family must have really stung.
The family members – we’re told even including his mother - try to keep Jesus from his mission and ministry, begging him to come home.
        Why do they do this?
        Well, maybe they’re trying to protect Jesus from very real dangers.
        Or maybe they’re embarrassed by Jesus, maybe they’re tired of the neighbors mocking Jesus, sick of all the whispering and eye-rolling.
        Maybe Jesus’ family just wants him to be like everybody else.
        “Come on, Jesus, settle down in Nazareth, earn a good living in the carpentry shop, get married, just be ‘normal.’”
        It must have been painful for Jesus to hear the pleas of his family.
And, as we heard at the conclusion of today’s gospel lesson, Jesus rejects his family.
He asks the crowd, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
And then he answers his own question:
“Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Whoever does the will of God is a member of Jesus’ family.

        A hard experience for Jesus but good news for us.
        We’re all invited to be part of Jesus’ family.
        And we accept that invitation in the water of Baptism, just as the wonderful father and son duo of Will and Paul will accept that invitation, right here, in just a few minutes.
        And we live in Jesus’ family by doing our best, with God’s help, to live out our baptismal promises:
        Coming here to pray and break bread together.
        Asking for forgiveness when we mess up and striving to do better.
        Proclaiming the Good News by word and example.
        Seeking Christ in everybody, loving our neighbor as our self.
        Striving for justice and peace.
        With God’s help.
        Always and only with God’s help.

        Long ago, the people of Israel wanted a human king, they just wanted to be like every other country.
        And long ago, Jesus’ family wanted him to turn away from his mission, wanted him to just be like everybody else, to just be “normal.”
        And today, even if we graduated from high school decades ago, we may feel peer pressure to just be like everybody else out there – look out for number one, demonize the people we disagree with, fear and hate people who are different, refuse to hear the voices of the frightened and the suffering, and give our ultimate loyalty not to God but to a human king.
        But we know that’s not the way.
        That’s not the way of Jesus.
        Being part of Jesus’ family means doing God’s will, each in our own unique way.
        Being part of Jesus’ family means being a person for others.
        We are all invited to be part of Jesus’ family.
        Let’s accept the invitation.

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Lectionary Poem: Common People

Lectionary Poem: Common People

The people of Israel clamored:
Give us a king!
A king, that is, other than God.

God warned them
they’d never find a king like him.

How could they, right?

I’m reminded of “Common People”

I wanna live like common people
I wanna do whatever common people do

Are you sure you want to live like common people?
You want to see whatever common people see?

The people of Israel got tired of
their special vocation,
just wanted to live like 
common people,
king, taxes, cruelty.

How? Why?

Well, here’s the thing
about being set apart:
First, you feel special.
Then, you feel put upon.

Are you sure want to live like common people?
Are you sure you want to see what common people see?

Am I sure?

Year B, Proper 5: The Third Sunday after Pentecost 
June 9, 2024 
1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15

Monday, June 03, 2024

Poem: The Baltimore Snake

The Baltimore Snake

In the County
named Baltimore
where I live and work,
where suburbs border barns,
roads are smooth and placid,
just two lanes often,
bent by the gentle but firm curves
of estates, some quite grand, even still.

Not far from this green land,
this land with much green indeed,
there is the City,
also named Baltimore,
confusing, confounding, I know,
so often used and abused,
a cruel metaphor,
with not so much green, or
not enough green for most, for sure.

A snake, built back when interstates
were all the rage,
serpentines between these two Baltimores,
one green,
the other not so much.

A snake of asphalt, cement, steel,
named for the stream
it covers, nearly buries,
twisting along, above
poisoned watercourses,
ancient but now
hidden, mostly.

Below this snake,
the shadowed stream 
flows ever downward,
down to the old Bay,
if you know where to look.

Below this snake,
under all the rumbling, racing, raging,
the City defies the venom,
if you know where to look.

With not so much green, 
but way more than a metaphor.

A snake of asphalt, cement, steel 
twists between these two Baltimores -
neighbors yet strangers, 
one with plenty of green, 
the other not so much -
a snake,
covering one stream
but carrying another.

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Sabbath Quiet

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Owings Mills MD
June 2, 2024

Year B, Proper 4: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 2:23-3:6

Sabbath Quiet

So, as I mentioned last week, I’ve long been an avid reader.
But if the world of literature is split between prose and poetry, I’ve always been firmly in the prose camp.
Works of history, biographies, and novels have been my books of choice.
But over the last couple of years, I’ve finally gotten interested in poetry.
I’m not totally sure why this has happened, but I can pinpoint the exact moment – the exact poem, actually – that sparked my rather late-in-the-game interest.
Almost four years ago, I was reading the obituaries in The New York Times as I always do (now I read the obits in The Sun, too!), I was reading in the Times and came across the obituary of Diane di Prima, a poet, someone I had never heard of before.
Diane di Prima lived a long, adventurous, and countercultural life in the arts, a journey that took her from Greenwich Village in the ‘50s to San Francisco in the ‘60s and beyond.
She’s usually labeled a Beat poet, one of the very few women in that group.
All very interesting, but what caught my eye was an excerpt from one of her poems that closed the obituary.
Here it is:

        I’d like my daily bread however
        you arrange it, and I’d also like
        to be bread, or sustenance for
        some others even after I’ve left.
        A song they can walk a trail with.

Although I later learned that she was addressing her poetic muse, her words that clearly echo the Lord’s Prayer,  sounded to me like a most beautiful prayer.
God, make us bread for others.
Make us a song they can walk a trail with.

And that’s how my interest in poetry started! 
Over these last few years, I’ve been reading more poetry and just a few weeks ago I began taking an online poetry writing class.
I signed up thinking it might add some new colors to my preaching but mostly it’s a just little gift to myself, an opportunity to try something new, to stretch a bit.
And it’s been a challenging and enriching experience, getting me to dig deeper, to consider every word, to reflect on every image.
The main requirement of the class has been to write a weekly poem, a different type of poem each time.
When I first sat down to write my first poem, I put on some music in the background, thinking that it would help set the mood, maybe prompt some inspiration.
But I quickly discovered that the music got in the way, distracted me.
        I realized that I needed quiet, or at last as much quiet as is possible in our noisy day and age. 
        I needed quiet to hear, to listen deeply.

        I was reminded of this need for silence when I began to reflect on today’s reading from First Samuel, when the boy Samuel hears the voice of God calling to him.
        We’re told that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
        And we’re told that it’s night in the Temple where the boy Samuel has been serving with the old priest Eli.
        So, it’s during the nighttime hush - when the clamor of the world’s busyness has finally quieted – it’s during the nighttime hush that the boy Samuel hears the voice of the Lord.
        Samuel hears the Lord but, well, “the word of the Lord rare in those days,” so Samuel assumes it’s Eli calling for him. He makes the same mistake a couple of times before Eli figures out what’s going on.
        It’s interesting that it’s a boy, a child who hadn’t gotten jaded and cynical yet, hadn’t closed his heart and his ears – it’s a boy who hears the Lord.
        But it’s the old man, his vision failing and maybe a little hard of hearing now but full of years and wisdom, it’s the old man who can discern what’s happening, who’s speaking.
        The need for quiet – to hear, to listen deeply.

        I’d say it’s pretty easy to make the case that we are living in another time when it seems that the word of the Lord is rare, and visions are not widespread.
        In just the last week, I’ve had several conversations with people who’ve expressed alarm at how stressed out and even crazed so many of our neighbors seem to be – acting irrationally, speaking irrationally, driving erratically…   
        There are lots of reasons for this, of course, but I think near the root of the problem is that there is just so much noise – so much racket in our lives and in the media and online – this never-ending din that is driving us bananas.
        Fortunately, God has offered us – actually, commanded us – a different way:
        Sabbath: a time of rest, prayer, healing, and love.

        In today’s gospel lesson, there’s a lot of talk about the sabbath but it sure doesn’t seem very quiet and restful, does it?
        No, instead, we hear the heightened disputes between Jesus and the religious leaders who are watching him closely, looking for “gotcha” moments like, say, plucking grain on the sabbath or healing a man’s withered hand on the sabbath.
        Now, I want to proceed with caution here because one of the longstanding Christian slanders of Judaism is that it’s all about obeying rules, that it’s a religion empty of grace and love.
        That’s not true today and it wasn’t true back in the first century, either.
        But what is true today and was true back then is that, religious leaders of any tradition can get so caught up in the rules and regulations, can get so protective of their own authority, that they lose the plot, they miss the point.
        (I’m talking about other religious leaders, not me. Obviously.)
        So, yes, sure, Jesus and the Pharisees could have had an interesting debate about whether it was lawful to pluck grain on the sabbath, but the point is that it’s always God’s desire that the hungry get fed.
        And, yes, the man with the withered hand could’ve hung in there a little while longer, until sunset when the sabbath was over, sure. But Jesus was right then and there and the point is that it’s always God’s desire that we experience wholeness.
          And, my goodness, the man with the withered hand has been healed!

        But, to their credit, the religious leaders do recognize the importance of the sabbath, the importance of obeying God’s command to rest, to be quiet.
        And I think, in our time of so much noise and distraction, in this time when so many of our neighbors seem crazed, in this time when kids’ lives are programmed nearly to the minute and rates of anxiety and depression are through the roof, we need to obey God’s command and rediscover sabbath quiet.
        Find even just a little time to turn off the cable news, put away the phone, log off from the computer, take a walk or just look out the window, say a quick prayer, asking for help and saying thank you, waiting for the word of the Lord.
        And if we do that, we just might hear the Lord’s quiet, poetic, voice, calling us – 
        Calling us to be bread for others.
        Calling us to be a song.
        A song they can walk a trail with.