Thursday, June 20, 2013

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I'm never reading only one book at a time. Right now, along with the book about ancestral homes known to Virginia Woolf, I am reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. It's subtitle is An Inquiry into Values. It's listed in Wikipedia as a 1974 philosophical novel in which Pirsig "explores his Metaphysics of Quality". My late mother-in-law read it in the '90's. I never did read it, until now.

The fiction of the story is a road trip on a motorcycle. The Zen is an extended Chautauqua about Quality, which, loosely speaking, is achieved when subject and object are one. When a mechanic and the part to be fixed are in tune with one another. Where there is no thee and thou but we. This is how I read it.

Last week I wanted to move a very heavy craftsman-built dining table (Robert Treate Hogg) against the wall so I could fit my church office furniture in the dining room of the rectory. I thought the center piece was a removable leaf. However, it was the two ends which were the leaves that when folded down reach almost to the floor, leaving a narrow table top.

I couldn't remember how to get the leaves to fold down, so I got down on the floor to look at the underside to see how this works. I took my time gazing. I could see how the two legs held up the leaves, and how they had to be moved to release them. Each leaf is very heavy, so I had to work with the legs and leaves in order not to stress one or the other into snapping off. As taxing as this was, I felt as one with the table, calm, peaceful, though the work of shifting weight was hard. I have the bruises to prove it!

Reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I see exactly what the author is trying to say about quality. When I face something that is not in my skill set, I face it in one of two ways: it becomes a problem to be solved and I get anxious and frustrated and even angry, or I sit and gaze at it, work out how it goes together, become calm in the contemplation, and am at peace with whatever I then do.

The latter means is my preference. I sometimes remember it. More often I don't. The first time I discovered this was probably 20 years ago when my bicycle chain came off and there was no one around to help me get it back on. I understood, then, that what I did was go into my recessive left brain, clear away all distractions, and gaze at the whole assembly, really see how the whole chain/bicycle thing goes together, and voila, I fixed it.

I know I have experienced this at least one other time, maybe a few more, in the intervening 20 years. Not a lot. Some of them involved emergency situations with people. As I have more times of awareness of things like moving the table and fixing the bicycle chain, I expect I will face a lot more situations in the preferred way more often.

Only took me 60mmppphhhh years.

I expect you are now waiting for me to bring Jesus into this, since I'm a priest. Well, I'm also a teacher and sometimes it is good for me to leave it to you to make the connections. I'm sure there are some. I also expect yours will be different from mine. That would be lovely!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Summer Reading in a Room of One's Own

Summer is the time I read, read, read anything I can get my hands on - usually fiction (murder mysteries) and sometimes a biography or a theological text.

This summer I have lots of time on my hands. The church I have served for the past seven years closed on May 26th. I'm supplying for Sunday services and a few hours of pastoral availability at various other churches and the rest of my time is free. Well, free to be looking for another position in which to serve God and the people of God as a priest in The Episcopal Church.

It may be a symptom of my feeling at loose ends because of having no job - I'll have to check this out with my shrink! - or a need to be connected, in the way serving a parish kept me connected to other humans, but instead of reading a book a day (yes, I usually read a book a day when I am on vacation), I spend time on Facebook. And instead of writing, I spend time on Facebook.

However, summertime also turns my mind to Virginia Woolf, the writer, probably because it was during a summer vacation I read straight through five of her books. Right now, in short bursts while my tea water is coming to a boil, I'm reading a book nominally about Virginia Woolf, but really about her social milieu, using the houses and estates of her family and acquaintances as the framework. It's called Ancestral Houses: Virginia Woolf and the Aristocracy, by Sonya Rudikoff, who died shortly after it was finished.

It is not a biography. Instead of photos of people, there are plates of 12 castles, manors and cottages where Virginia stayed, or which she would have known about, or which belonged to people she knew or to whom she was related. So, for instance, I know from the book more about Violet Dickinson, or about Orchardleigh House in Frome, Somerset, the family house of the Duckworths, than I learn about Virginia herself.

In fact, this is a biography of a time, a particular time, through a particular set of people in that time, in particular sets of places in that time. It is a romantic sort of piece of non-fiction. Indeed, one of the chapters is titled "The Romance of the Aristocracy"; another is called "Gardens Where the Peacock Strays", this last title having been taken from a poem by W.B. Yeats, "Ancestral Houses", which Rudikoff took for her book's title.

This is not deep reading. It is pleasant reading, if you like this sort of thing, which I do. It gives me the enjoyment of seeing one of my literary heroes through different lenses, and to read of some of the places and people Woolf knew which found their way into her works of fiction.

When I finish this, I shall return to three of my favorites of Virginia Woolf's works: A Room of One's Own, To the Lighthouse, and Mrs. Dalloway. And I may also revisit the works of Jeannette Winterson, some of which seem to me to pay homage to the works of Woolf.

And I will not forget to season it all with a murder mystery or two or four or more!

[Note: The photo above, "Untitled", is from the series "A room of one's own" and is the property of Lois Keen alone.]

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Apple store, a pattern for church

I've written from time to time about how struck I was the first time I went into an Apple store. When I first stepped through the doors I said, "Wow! It's a church!" Or at least, what church could be.

When you come in, there is a concierge, a greeter, who directs you where you want to go. For instance, I recently wanted to look at an iPad mini, and hold it in my hand. The concierge took me to the sample product area, against the wall to the right of the entrance. I held the product and said immediately, "I want to buy an iPad mini!" So he directed me toward the left-center of the store to the purchase table. I could have also shopped with a Specialist but I knew what I wanted the second I held it, so off to the purchase table I went.

They had the version I wanted in stock so I purchased my product and was then directed to Set-Up, another table, deeper into the store and to the right.

Up until now I have had the total attention of the staff person. Here at Set-Up, I was one of four people being helped to set up my new iPad mini. This could have been chaotic, but because there appears to be an ethos of radical hospitality at Apple stores, all went smoothly and after hearing about the Learning Centers, Workshops, Trainings, the Genius Bar, and other product areas, off I went home to play with my new connection to a whole new world.

I have written about how the church of the future might look like an Apple store. This week I had an insight into presenting fellowship with Jesus and his followers in terms of the Apple store.

Let's say you want to know about my church. I say to you, "It's like an Apple store. When you enter, someone is there to greet you. They may already be busy directing someone else so you might have to wait, but there's lots to look at while you are waiting. In church that might be the notices board, or a rack of literature, or a prayer book or hymnal to leaf through. You are welcome to browse at will.

"Once you get to the greeter she or he will direct you to where you want to go. Let's say you're just inquiring. We have various centers for learning about Jesus, Christianity, or The Episcopal Church, which is my particular church. You can come to worship. You can explore serving the community through attending some outreach meetings or going with them out into the neighborhood. You can explore what we believe by checking out some of our education opportunities or a Bible study. Just as the Apple store has learning centers, the church is one big learning center.

"As you get deeper into the store, you will want to choose a service to attend regularly for worship. If you decide to make this one worshiping community your worshiping community, instead of the purchase station, you can become a member, which has certain responsibilities. Instead of a set-up center, there are new-member classes, in which you will learn about those responsibilities - a personal practice of daily prayer, a willingness to give to the church so it can continue to reach the lost and those in need, teach people about the Good News of Jesus, and continue to worship God in community. If you are not baptized, you might want to take Baptism Preparation classes. If you are baptized, you may want to take Confirmation and Reaffirmation of Baptism classes. You will also learn the many ways in which you can help at the church through committees, taking part in making worship happen, and outreach work.

"But more important, you will learn that your daily life and work and play are integral to God being present everywhere you go.

"If this is a mystery to you, we have the Genius Bar. Or the church's version of the Genius Bar of the Apple Store. The priest is the person to whom you can go to ask any question, without being embarrassed. The priest, unlike the Genius Bar, if she is a very good priest, won't have all the answers. The priest is there to share what she or he does know, to direct you to find some things out for yourself, and, most genius of all, to listen deeply to you, where you are, what you struggle with, with you dream, what you want to do and be. And if the priest and the people are very good, you will find your ideas for church are invited and welcome.

"I should say here, the true Genius Bar, if you will, and I hope this does not offend anyone and if it does, well, that's a shame, the true Genius Bar is the altar or table where we celebrate, as a community, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper. Here, in the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus, the Christ, we are fed for the week ahead. And it is free. Gratis."

That's what I would say, or a short version of it, if I am asked what is church about. You may notice I did not say church is about saving souls. It is not. Jesus saves souls. The church does not save souls. Souls may or may not be saved in churches. Jesus will do what Jesus will do.

I did not say church is about the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. You will notice that's what the learning centers are for.

I did say, or imply, the church is a community, where questions are asked about salvation, incarnation, resurrection, life, death and everything and where together we are fed a meal that is to sustain us in our life in the world between Sundays.

The Apple store sells Apple products. As part of selling products, Apple store are learning centers.

The church is not selling anything. The church is a school, for inquirers, for adepts, for life-long learners. It is a hospital for the least and lost and those in need. It is a center for worshiping God. It is, at its best, a place to experience transcendence, or the presence of God, or deep silence, or simply being loved.

Monday, January 28, 2013


I'm reading Cain: A Novel by José Saramago. It was a Christmas gift from a former teacher of English literature. I've managed, with my schedule, to get through four chapters and I already like it. So far, I find it very sensible.

I have always looked askance at the theological explanations of why God chose Abel's sacrifice of animal flesh and rejected Cain's sacrifice of the fruits of the earth. The assumption is he was miserly in his offering. There is no such evidence in the scripture:

"Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell." (Genesis 4:2b-5)

My own theology is reflected in the novel Cain. There is a marvelous verbal exchange between God and Cain in the novel, in which God says he was testing Cain and Cain failed the test, and Cain says that God knew Cain would kill his brother and did nothing to stop it and what kind of a god does that in order to test someone else this god is no better than all the other gods around so God shares in the responsibility for the murder of Abel. And God agrees.

The failure of God to accept Cain's sacrifice is shameful. It reflects the capriciousness of the gods of the peoples who lived around where the Hebrew people lived and wandered. I won't have it. It is the capricious God who "tests" Abraham by requiring him to sacrifice his son Isaac. That God stops the sacrifice doesn't make the testing okay. So, too, with Job, who God allows the satan to strip of his children, his flocks, his health and everything but his scolding wife, in order that the satan might prove to God that no one loves God without having gotten something in return for that love. God's answer to Job's demand that God give an account of God's actions is even more outrageous than the original insult - Who are you to question me? Did you make the universe? - That is no answer at all. A god like this, that does not apologize for using humans as toys, is no god at all.

There is, in fact, no good reason to worship the god we have inherited from the Jews, who we call God with an upper case g. And yet I do. I do indeed pray for the needs of others. I also rage at God when I believe God to have failed to care for God's creations. I hope for miracles, and at the same time I ask for one, I do not believe it will happen, because I know God has better things to do, and worse things to fix, than mine. Christians who refer to themselves as Bible-believing, as if I do not believe because of the Bible, say it is my failure to believe I will get that for which I ask that sinks my prayer from the start.

So why is it that so often, even though I don't get what I ask, I do get some sign that God is present, even if it's only that a redtailed hawk has perched on top of the cross on the tip of the steeple? And why is it that, even though I have just said in my prayer that being present with us in our suffering is not enough we need results NOW and you God are a feckless THUG this is people's lives you're playing around with DO SOMETHING NOW!!! , why is it that still I get that sign of presence and it is, after all, enough?

I do believe that God accepts ultimate responsibility for everything. Because God has given us the choice between good and not so good and even evil, and chooses much of the time not to intervene, God bears ultimate responsibility. And once, only once that I know of, though maybe more than that, when I had been praying for a good result from a commission sitting in judgment on my future, and I was accepting that even though the Holy Spirit might do no more than whisper in their ears but might even shout in their ears in my favor and I would have to accept that they still had the free will to deny me, one night I said to the Spirit, ENOUGH!!! Shout and shout and shout in their ears and damn their free will, take it away from them, just this once!

And heresy of heresies, the tide turned.

We each think we know God, from fundamentalists of every religion to spiritual-but-not-religious types to atheists, we each think we know God. We know nothing.

As a Christian I know only this: a child was born. He was named Jesus. He did and said wonderful and amazing things and people followed him. He loved and cared for the loveless and the outcast; so far as I can tell, this is true. I believe he also loved his detractors, enemies and opponents but they wouldn't let him. His love for them did not make him any less angry at their hardness of heart and deafness of ear and blindness of spirit. He believed God meant all people to be set free, not just those who kept the laws. He died for that belief. And God did nothing to stop it and God took no vengeance for it. But the curve of history tends toward justice. (Sorry - I do not remember who said that, and I may have it wrong a bit, but not the intent of it.) And God's idea of justice is perverse, if we are to believe the scriptures on this, and I do.

God's justice is the resurrection. We kill a child of God. And instead of striking us all dead, which we deserve, God raises the child from the dead, and promises everyone the very same kind of justice.

Now what do you make of that?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Online dating and SVU

So I'm watching an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. The SVU deals with sex crimes and this episode is about a serial killer who actually courts his victims and gets to know them before he rapes and kills them.

It's the last commercial break before the close of the episode and the first commercial is for Now I ask you, what was thinking? My first thought as the commercial scrolled through, first date, first fight, first kiss and the visuals related to these stages was those women in the SVU episode being courted, having their first fight, etc.

YUCK! Not good.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Visitor

Well, Mako the pitbull/lab mix is here for his second weekend visit in a row since the long Thanksgiving holiday.

I have video of how the two are getting along in the same house, which Xena, Warrior Labmix Princess of Norwalk, owns. Here's the first one. Xena is on the bed. Mako is on her dog bed on the floor. There's a second one to come later. Mako is here until Monday morning.

Meanwhile, today I experienced a wonderful custom of the Spanish speaking people I serve: the anniversary memorial service for a loved one who has died. I was pretty anxious about it because while Padre Eddie was celebrant, I was preacher. But it turned out I said all the right things, my translation was fine, and my pronunciation was spot on.

And most miraculous of all, Eddie and I had no idea how we were going to do the music. I was prepared to play the piano for some of it but I didn't have all of it. Then, another visitor - MJ, formerly musician at a famous church in NYC. She volunteered to play and she did a spectacular job. The family were over the moon.

So, so far a good weekend. Tomorrow: the annual presentation of the budget approved by the Vestry, to whoever shows up an hour before the English service. And following the service, Practicing Prayer, always a highlight of my month.

May God bless and keep us all, today and tomorrow and the next day.