Thursday, April 24, 2008

nature city

I saw a snake on the road yesterday as I was riding my bike coming down the hill on the Hollywood side of Griffith Park. A black snake about 3 feet long with a yellow stripe on either side. It was in the middle of the road moving toward the right. I should have steered behind it but I didn't have time to think and I guess the reaction of pulling to the right to avoid collisions is unconscious. Fortunately I didn't hit it. I passed about six inches in front of it, my left foot passing just over it's head. Then I quickly stopped to look back and watched it reach the side of the road and disappear into the brush. Beautiful. And so elegant and mysterious the way it moved.

Further down the hill I saw a coyote trotting up the hill toward me. It saw me and then jumped off the road and down into the canyon.

Griffith Park is a huge park spread across several hills in the middle of Los Angeles. The hills actually divide the main part of Los Angeles on the south, from "the valley" to the north. I live just at the east end of the park. I road about 25 miles yesterday, including crossing over the top of the hill. Coming back through Hollywood I traded parkland for a bike lane on the side of Sunset Blvd. A homeless man pushing a shopping cart of his belongings along the street. A flat bed tow truck pulling out of his garage and blocking three lanes of traffic while he made a left turn.

There's a fat robin spending time in my front garden lately and splashing in the bird bath. Two doves are making a nest in the carob tree. My dog and I saw a mouse on our walk yesterday. It scampered along the side of a wall as we walked toward it. I held my dog back as it went by us and then disappeared into a hole in the wall and then I let my dog sniff at the hole until she got bored.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

difficult ministry

A woman approached me after our worship service last Sunday. During the service we had given away our offering as we do once a month to a local charity, and we had invited a representative from that charity to come and speak to the congregation. The woman who came up to me shared that she had felt angry and conflicted throughout the service. Although she supported the work of the charity she had once needed to make use of the service of the charity and had been refused. The same woman that had come to speak to the congregation had personally told this woman in my congregation that she was ineligible to receive their help.

My congregation member understood that charities have eligibility requirements. But she also told me a story of coming to a very humbling position in her life of needing to present herself to another person asking for basic help. Not only was she turned down but she felt she wasn't treated kindly, adding to her shame. And, of course, now she feels put in the troubling emotional position of feeling anger at a woman and a service who she knows does much good and that she would like to support and feel good about.

She came to me asking how she might move to healing from this burden that she's carried for several years. I had no good answer to tell her immediately and told her I would think about it. She thanked me for listening. And I'm still thinking about what I might recommend she do.

happy birthday

After our celebrations of Easter and Passover we turn in the month of May to the secular holidays of Mother’s Day and Memorial Day.

But the liturgical calendar continues. Mother’s Day this year falls on the same Sunday as Christian Pentecost. 50 days after Easter and 10 days after Jesus’ “ascension” into Heaven, the disciples gathered to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. There, the Holy Spirit descended upon them giving them the “gift of tongues” the ability to preach the Gospel in all the languages of the Roman Empire and thus spread the new Christian faith. The modern Pentecostal churches, a movement that began in downtown Los Angeles in 1906, are characterized by manifesting gifts of the spirit in similar ways. Pentecost celebrates the birth of the church, the disciples taking up the spirit and mission of Jesus.

Jewish Shavuot comes 50 days after the Passover celebration and marks the day that Moses delivered the 10 Commandments to the Jews wandering in the Sinai. This is also a birth for Judaism, the creation of the covenant that will define Jewish identity for centuries to follow.

And of course it is no coincidence that both the Jewish and Christian “birthday” celebrations come in spring when the whole landscape around us testifies to the explosive power of new life and creation. Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

who lost the debate? - ABC

What a sad show. The first 40 minutes was spent endlessly rehashing completely irrelevant issues of mis-statements and tenuous associations with people who clearly don't represent the candidate's positions or opinions. Every time Obama answered correctly by pointing out that the country is facing serious issues: two wars, a planet in peril, a failing economy, a health care crisis, and instead the media wastes our time on these issues while the people hunger for real information. And then the media, ABC in this case, proved his point by moving on to the next irrelevancy. Clinton, unfortunately, happily played along, repeating the accusations and agreeing that there is some substantive issue to explore in these cases when in fact there is not.

And then, finally, when the debate did move to substantive issues, both Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous seemed much more interested in setting traps for the candidates than in listening to what they had to say. Both of them repeatedly interrupted the candidate's answers in order to catch them up in small, technical issues, instead of letting them speak to the larger point. This was not a forum for intelligent, meaningful discussion, but an opportunity to, hopefully for the network, create more irrelevant unfortunate soundbites to hound the candidates with in the next few days. The network bumpers between commercial breaks made it clear that ABC was hoping for a boxing match "Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama go one-on-one" not a presentation of ideas. Charles Gibson even began the show with a analogy comparing the primaries to a boxing match in the 15th round after being scheduled for 10.

I thought it was disgusting, infuriating, and entirely not helpful to the process of a nation choosing its President. And I hope this is the last debate of this format that the candidates feel they have to subject themselves to. I certainly won't watch another one.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


I am absolutely covered with mosquito bites. They are flying in through open windows in the bedroom and attacking me when I sleep. A couple of times I've been awakened by their buzzing in my ear. I killed two. I also managed to shoo one outside that I found in the bathroom.

Outside in the garden, I discovered that our fountain was infested with mosquito larvae. I had thought that they wouldn't breed in running water so I had been making a point of running the fountain regularly, but there they were. They look like segmented worms, somewhat translucent, less than a half an inch long. And they move randomly through the water by bending in half and then snapping their bodies open again.

Killing an adult mosquito in my bedroom is not too difficult. But killing a fountain full of mosquito larvae was tougher for me. They were so helpless and vulnerable. And at that stage of their life hadn't done anything to bother me. But I killed them anyway. My first thought was that there was probably some chemical I could put in the water, but that felt too cruel. Instead I created a siphon with a short length of garden hose and emptied out the water pouring it onto the lawn and the snapdragons I had planted beside the fountain. I said a prayer as I sucked them up, and felt good that their bodies would feed the flowers at least. When the fountain was emptied I left it to dry in the sun.

spirituality through a telescope

In my Sunday sermon I shared some personal observations about how my path to spirituality has shifted lately away from a primarily intellectual/theological approach, toward a bodily, physical, and experiential spirituality.

For one paragraph I listed the ways I'm most connected with my spirituality, cycling, exercise at the gym, and singing. And then I listed several other options that people might think of as a spiritual practice. As I was writing the manuscript I included looking through a telescope as a possible spiritual practice. But when I preached the sermon and got to that line "looking through a telescope" seemed out of place among the other suggestions on my list, and not a very illuminating example of the point I was trying to make. So I left it out.

After the service I spoke to one of the visitors and he told me how much the sermon had spoken to him. And in particular he was impressed that when I got to the point of listing several spiritual practice possibilities he noticed that every time he thought of something that he does in his own life that I would then immediately say it in my sermon, almost as though I were reading his mind. He named several examples, and then he said, "But really for me, the time that I feel most spiritual is when I'm looking through my telescope."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Tarnishing the Golden Rule

My interfaith council begins each monthly meeting by introducing a spiritual topic and then discussing the topic from each of our faith's perspectives. This month's topic was the Golden Rule, a version of which is found in nearly every religion, Do to other's what you would have them do to you. I pointed out three criticisms of the rule.

The first criticism is one I learned from Bertrand Russell. A self-hating man would apply the Golden Rule in a way that would lead him to do violence to other people in the hope that they would do violence to him in return. Think of the phenomenon of "suicide by cop" for instance to see a perfect application of the Golden Rule in a spiritually unhealthy way.

My second criticism is that the Golden Rule advocates a strict equity in relationships when actually it is often when relationships are not strictly equitable that they are the most productive and interesting. For instance when I go to the theater I give money, but I don't want my money back I want a show. Likewise the performers don't want me to give them a show, they want my money. I don't always treat my husband the way I want to be treated because we don't always like the same things, or have the same talents and so on.

My third criticism is that the Golden Rule encourages each person to be their own individual ethical guide. This leads to relativism, which can lead to moral chaos. It's important that our ethical standards be based in something larger than just our own preferences. In fact one of the reasons I'm a strong theist is because of my deep sense that there are ethical absolutes greater than my own opinions, or even the opinions of my particular community or culture.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

14 pt. eyes

I passed another sign of aging, this one, perhaps, unique to the ministry. I can no longer read my sermon manuscript in 12 pt type and have had to bump it up to 14 pt. It takes a few extra pages, and I regret the extra paper used. Double spaced, of course. Part of the cause is that I also recently switched to wearing glasses instead of contacts, also probably due to aging.

Monday, April 7, 2008

replacement pianist

After all season singing our Gay Mens Chorus Los Angeles rehearsals with an excellent pianist named James Lent, we were scheduled to do the performances this last weekend with a different pianist. Apparently it has something to do with union rules and overtime. In any case another pianist was hired and his name was put in the program. James did the dress rehearsal with us on Thursday and then we said goodbye and expected the new guy for the shows starting the next evening.

But during our warm-up for the show on Friday we were told that the pianist they had contracted for the shows, after taking a look at the music, had told us the music was too difficult and that we needed to find someone else. We went back to James of course, but of course James had made other plans, including a recital early that evening at a hall about 20 miles away. One of our arrangers came in and helped us warm up and run through a few of the opening numbers, with the plan that he would start the show if necessary while we waited for James to finish his recital and make it to the theater.

We did start the show about 20 minutes late, but James played every number, and the remaining three shows of the weekend also.

somewhere, somehow

One of the big songs from the first half of the Gay Mens Chorus of Los Angeles show this weekend was a medley of three songs each with the word "somewhere" in the title: "Somewhere Out There", "Somewhere" (from West Side Story), and (of course) "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It's a lovely piece and an ingenious medley that interlocks all three songs.

Unfortunately, Thursday evening, the night of the dress rehearsal, while we're on stage running through the concert, our director tells us that the estate of one of the composers (I won't tell you which) had refused to give us the rights to use their song. So we were stuck with a three song medley, of which we couldn't sing one of the songs. Well the show must go on, so we ran through the song simply leaving out that particular song whenever it came up resulting in a much less impressive, but legal, number.

After spending all the next day on the phones we did finally get the rights just before the show on Friday and sang the full song as written.

Friday, April 4, 2008

ministry: life

I met with a family yesterday to plan a memorial service. On Sunday I'm performing a wedding. Ministers are invited into the most intimate times of people's lives, both the joys and the sorrows. It's quite an honor. And it's especially interesting when the big joys and sorrows come so close together. But it's all life.

I was telling this to a friend of mine at the Gay Mens Chorus Last night. It was our dress rehearsal for the concerts we're doing this weekend and he told me his story of joys and sorrows coming together.

When his lover died he had asked to be cremated and then have his ashes dropped from a hot air balloon. So my friend set out to fulfill this wish with he and another friend booking a hot air balloon. Unfortunately, it turned out that a young couple in love had booked the same hot air balloon for a romantic trip, so they had to be discrete with what they were doing. When they were up in the air at what seemed the perfect spot, they brought out the box of ashes and started to spill them over the side with appropriate solemnity and silent prayers, just as the young man of the couple turned to his girl and proposed.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

karma question

For Easter the church put together an Easter egg hunt where the older kids hid plastic Easter eggs that the adults had filled with loose change. The younger kids searched for the eggs and then all the kids got to vote on a charity to give the money to. I keep change in my car for parking meters so when I got to church on Easter I emptied out the tray and loaded an Easter egg.

And then yesterday, twice during the day I had to park at a parking meter and had no money to put in the meter. And both times after being gone for more than a half an hour I came back to the car and found that I had not been ticketed.

So how does Karma keep account? Did I not get the parking ticket because I had done a previous good deed and had earned good karma? Or by not paying the parking meter (parking illegally) have I earned bad karma that will pay off negatively at some future date?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Hand of God

I don't have the Christian Century in front of me or I would reference the article and the author. But a recent edition of the magazine printed an article about the ritual of ministers shaking hands at the church door after the service. And the author observed how much ministry goes on during those few moments and also made an observation that really put the whole of the minister's task in context for me. He said that when he tries to remember parishoners names and stories and say a caring and compassionate word about each person as they come through the line ("I'm so sorry to hear about..." or "I'm so happy to hear about...") that the point is to represent to each person not that the minister is a compassionate person but that God is a compassionate God.

The task of ministry would be overwhelming if I thought it had to be about me responding fully to every situation that arises in the congregation. To even attempt to do so would be a vain attempt at overvaluing my own power and gifts. Very often it is a only little help from the minister and a referral for a lot of help from somewhere else (human or divine) that is required. And given that in my finitude I would inevitably fail, the real failure would be that I hadn't helped the parishoner strengthen their own relationship with the holy and thus minister to themselves.

long ride

I did a 100 mile bike ride on Saturday. That's a long way. I rode with 172 other cyclists from Santa Clarita out to Ventura (where we had lunch at a lovely park by the harbor) and then back. We started a little before 8 AM. I finished at 3:30 PM

I'm training for the AIDS/LifeCycle, a 7 day ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles raising money for HIV/AIDS services in those two cities and the beneficaries' programs worldwide. This will be my 4th time doing the ride.

I've often remarked how cycling is my primary spiritual practice. (As a minister, I don't often get to worship). The amount of time devoted to a long ride, the quiet, the slow pace, the repetitive physical motion, the experience of being immersed in a slowly changing environment. There's both lots of sensory input, and also lots of time for reflection.

My biggest spiritual insight on this occassion was noticing the incredible amount of existing things in the world. I hadn't done this particular ride before so I was on roads I had never seen before, seeing sights I'd never seen before. But as closely as I tried to pay attention I'm sure I missed at least 90% of what there was to see. Most spiritual disciplines promote "awareness" of some sort call it "mindfulness" or "attention" or "Be here now." But even a trained mind isn't capable of taking in everything that happens, not even in the scene around us, let alone everything happening everywhere at every moment. The mind notices what it needs to for our own purposes of survival, but it gives us a very thin picture of what's really out there.

don't think about it

David Brooks devotes his editorial space in this morning's New York Times to a book review of "The Mental ABC's of Pitching." The author, a "sports psychologist" named H.A. Dorfman talks about the essential quality of mental discipline, beyond things like physical technique, in the making of an excellent pitcher. It sounds like the advice Susan Sarandon gives Tim Robbins in Bull Durham where she has him wear lingerie under his uniform to get him out of his ego. Dorfman's advice is even more specific. As Brooks summarizes, "The pitcher's personality isn't at the center. His talent isn't at the center. The task is at the center."

I think of this in my work as a spiritual director. I sit down with a client and we talk about their relationship with the universal wisdom source as revealed through their experience since the last time we met. It isn't about me. It isn't about me being wise or insightful. My task is to keep the space in the room open to the wisdom source, so that as the person remembers, relates, reflects, the message is unveiled between us.

Brooks and Dorfman point out that the only aspect of the game the pitcher has any influence over is the moment the ball leaves their hand. Nothing else matters. I try to remember this in my ministry as well. I have no influence on how someone hears my words, or what they do in response to them. And my words, even in a sermon, need to put the spotlight on God, not the minister.

my puzzling grandfather

A short story in the New Yorker, The Region of Unlikeness by Rivka Galchen, led me to a time traveling problem called the Grandfather Paradox. The paradox states that time travel must be impossible because it would lead to paradox. For instance I might use a time travel machine to go back and kill my grandfather (if I hated him for some reason). But if my grandfather didn't give birth to my father then I wouldn't be born - so then I couldn't go back in time and kill him, so he lived and I was born and did go back and kill him, and so on impossibly.

People who wish to defend time travel resolve the paradox by theorizing (and this is the premise of the New Yorker story) that if I did go back and meet my grandfather that something would happen that would prevent the murder - even something that was otherwise highly unlikely. And thus the one solid state line of history would be preserved, even as I moved through out of sequence.

I think there's a better answer, though. The problem with time travel as it's always imagined in science fiction, is that a person will get into a machine, now, and the machine will transport them quickly to a past or future, by somehow moving outside of the regular sequence of events, as though a separate time traveling path could be created and followed beside the regular path of time. But when you look at the Feynman line drawings that make time travel theoretically possible at the quantum level they don't show a second (quicker) backward or forward path, all they show is that the action of a particle illustrated by the line can be read in either direction. A particle goes back in time (if that's the correct interpretation) on the same line.

So if I went back in time attempting to murder my grandfather I would have to follow the same path that brought me where I am now. That is, I would get younger, re-experiencing my life in reverse, until I was back in the womb and then cease to exist. That's as far as I could go. I could never go back to meet my grandfather as a young man because I didn't exist then.