Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Thanks for visiting this blog.

We are glad you are here! This is the blog for Bill Carter's 2013 sabbatical. Feel free to look around and see how he spent the time away from his parish work in northeastern Pennsylvania.

We are grateful for the encouragement that we have received by readers like you. Thank you so much!

To keep in touch with Bill Carter, contact him at pastor@fpccs.org.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The things that people say

One conversation in the church hallway: 

Q:  Did you miss us?
A:  That's a yes-or-no question. Why not ask me what I missed the most?
Q:  OK, what did you miss the most?
A:  I missed all the stories. I am curious to ask people, "What happened with that diagnosis? Where is that troublesome kid of yours? How are you coping with the loneliness you felt in May? What has God been doing in your life?"

Another conversation, this time in the parking lot: 

Q:  Are you planning another sabbatical yet? It's only six years and nine months away.
A:  Actually I will try to have a brief sabbatical during every single day. Maybe ten minutes, perhaps an hour. It is God's gift to put some space into the middle of all our work.

A brief interchange, in my study:

Q:  You will not believe what I got into this summer.
A:  Try me. And then, if you're interested, I will tell you a story or two of my own.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Back At It

Rev. Old Duffer with groom and best man
Upon returning from the sabbatical, my first pastoral act was to preside over the wedding of T.C. and Julianne. They selected an organic farm in the northern woods of Pennsylvania as the site for exchanging their vows.

It was a perfect day. Just perfect. I am frequently cautious when a couple wants to write their own vows, get married in a field, ask all guests to take their folding chairs to the reception tent, grow their own flowers, and request the father of the bride to make all the wine. But I have to say, this is not an ordinary suburban couple.

A really good-looking couple
I have known the groom since he was a little kid, and have worked alongside his mother Nancy for twenty-three years. He used to come over to my house when he was a high school senior and listen to outrageous jazz when he should have been studying for a math test. His bride is an oncology nurse in Philadelphia, and she embodies healing in her voice, touch, and demeanor. They are a perfect match for one another. What a privilege to take part in their incredible day!

Re-entry has started. A handful of wedding guests were church members, approaching Jamie and I with hugs and hellos. We discovered that Dick and Marie bicycled through the Canadian Rockies shortly before our trip there; they lunched in the same Irish pub that we enjoyed in Canmore, Alberta.

I stopped by the church to chat with Roger, the recently retired minister who covered for my summer absence. He has a short list of some matters that he thought I needed to know. Our lively congregation stayed busy over the summer (that's an understatement!) and kept Roger on his toes. With a sweet grin, he asked innocently, "How in the world do you keep up with these people?"

I smiled.  Why do you think I took a sabbatical?  Both of us chuckled.

What love looks like
The first Sunday morning went well. Roger preached and I prayed. That was plenty. After shaking lots of hands, we both arrived late at coffee hour, where a cake with our names inscribed was waiting for us. The elders presented each of us with an enormous yellow chrysanthemum, and sent off Roger with a very appropriate gift. He did a great job, and I cannot thank him highly enough.

The week ahead is intentionally unscheduled, and numerous folks promise to stop by and say hello. I have missed the stories of their lives, and I am look forward to catching up.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Preparing the Elevator Speech

The Elevator Speech. It's the two-minute synopsis, the brief summary, the time-limited pitch. When the elevator door closes, you have a short time to say what you want to say before the door opens and your audience disperses.

So you have to say it quickly. Get right to the point. A lot of us know the experience.

Say, for instance, that the teenager goes to camp. The week is wonderful, just what she hoped for. She meets new friends, feels her spirit come alive. On Saturday morning, when the minivans roll in, her parents greet her with a hug and say, "How was camp?" They give her thirty seconds or so to sputter a response. Then Dad looks at his watch and declares, "Time to go."

The staff at the mission volunteer site warned some of us about this a few years ago. Our team was mucking out houses afflicted by massive storms and flooding. It was an exhausting and exhilarating trip. On the last night, the staff asked, "How will you tell your story when you return? Think it through, because people who didn't take this trip will give you a mere few minutes to say it before their eyes glaze over and their minds move on elsewhere."

So how in the world could I reduce a wonderful sabbatical of three months into an elevator speech?

My brother and I were talking the other day. He said, "We would like to come down and see the pictures from some of your sabbatical journeys." Great, I replied with a smile, because we have about nine hundred of them.

"Pick about twenty," he said. Spot-on advice.

So that is what I am mulling over: The Elevator Speech, as I return to my church work. Let me try out a few sample speeches in preparation.

Question: How was your sabbatical?
  • It was a tremendous three months of spiritual enrichment, with lots of time with loved ones and friends. Virtually all my sabbatical project goals were met and exceeded. I'm feeling well rested, and enthusiastic about getting back to work. And I am deeply grateful for the congregation for granting me this time and the Lilly Endowment for granting us the funds.
Question: How was your vacation?
  • Actually it was more of an extended Sabbath, rather than a typical vacation. Imagine climbing a mountain, praying for most of a week with a group of monks, shooting forty minutes of reflective film footage in the Canadian Rockies, and singing with Bobby McFerrin. It's not like any vacation that I've ever had.
Question: How was that spiritual thingy, whatever it's called, that you just finished?
  • It was a summer filled with a lot of peace, a lot of rest, a lot of enjoyment with my wife and kids, and simply full of music in various keys and rhythms. For the moment, I am feeling completely grounded. My feet are firmly planted. I have a refreshed perspective of the work that I have been put on the planet to do.  I also am aware of the things that I don't need to do.
Hmm... Which of these speeches should I use? Open mouth, whatever comes out, comes out. And it probably will not capture what a complete gift this time has been.

Monday, September 9, 2013

And I Love Her

Jamie at Bow River Falls, Banff
The greatest blessing of this whole blessed sabbatical is time with my beloved, Jamie Strong. We have thoroughly enjoyed eleven days in western Canada with minimal interruptions and little, if any, scheduling. It has been a tremendous opportunity for us to just be together. No agenda, lots of space for laughter and conversation. And the mountains are an unbelievable backdrop for this precious time.

We have our differences, of course. Like music. Our rental car has Sirius XM, and she gently found for me the Real Jazz station that features Charles Mingus and Freddie Hubbard. After about 400 miles of that, she discovered the 60's station and the 70's station. The family rule has always been "whoever drives will pick the channel." After hearing Karen Carpenter croon yesterday as we crossed the continental divide, I have secretly pulled out the CD of Oscar Peterson's Canadiana Suite which I will submit after I assume the car keys today.

Ten years ago, we married on a Sunday afternoon, pledging our love together and our commitment to raise the four kids that we share in common. The raising is drawing near to completion. With three out the door and the fourth now fully employed, we can proceed with our duet. Many of this past week's conversations have bubbled up into plans for renovating spare bedrooms, making repairs and changes around the house, taking new opportunities for socializing, and the plotting of future traveling adventures. We truly love it in the Big Mountains. And there's a lot of the world we would like to see together.

As we conclude this trip and move toward the end of the sabbatical, we have decided to stay in A Bear and Bison Country Inn in Canmore, just south of the Banff National Park. We spent six nights here on our honeymoon, and joked with the innkeeper that we haven't had an extraordinary breakfast since then. It's great to be back, even for a night, and highly recommend it to all travelers.

Right across the street was a site for one of the terrible floods this past June. A twelve-foot ditch was created by a roaring stream. It ripped out trees, sidewalks and pavement . . . yet you would hardly know it by the quick repairs. A massive reconstruction of the creek bed is just outside our window, a reminder of the awesome power of nature and the resiliency of human courage.

Jamie remarks on it, but I am thinking of something else. It takes great courage to give and receive love to one another, and to commit to love's growth in your shared life. She has shown such courage, and she invites it from me.

I love her very much, and I cannot imagine traveling anywhere important without her.

Friday, September 6, 2013

He is Always Right

Sheldon Sorge, Canadian Travel Guru
I realize an affirmation like that is giving a blank check to Sheldon Sorge for many things. But when it comes to selecting get-away sites in western Canada, he is Always Right.

Of course he is. Sheldon grew up out here. So did his wife Tammy. They know the territory. And Sheldon knows me.

He is the pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery (AKA Grand Exalted Poobah, or Presbytery Executive). That is a thankless job. He deals daily with struggling churches, confused pastors, and theological water balloon fights. To keep sane, he has three extracurricular joys: a very wonderful wife, a love of playing jazz on the piano, and any overpriced beverage from the Isle of Islay. We have those joys in common.

We also love pastoral ministry, which is closer to how we met. Sheldon recruited me twice to serve as a mentor for new pastors, which I enjoyed thoroughly. It became the basis of a great friendship that we keep building. He gave me tips on where to take Jamie for our honeymoon in Calgary, recruited my band to play jazz for a national pastors conference, wrote a recommendation letter for my first sabbatical grant, lined me up to preach and present at a few church events, and invited me to share pizza and beer with Walter Brueggemann and Barbara Brown Taylor. In turn, I recruited him for the board at Stony Point Center... (uh, maybe I get the better end of the deal).

Anyway, a trip to Alberta and British Columbia requires Sheldon's expert advice. Want to know where the picturesque lake is located? The really cool restaurant? The best local brew? He knows and he is always right. That is how we landed at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort for the weekend. Sheldon and Tammy were just here two weeks ago. He has been talking about this joint for years.

Now I know why. The setting is stunning, the atmosphere is relaxing. At $99 per night, the price is certainly reasonable.

We drove through amazing scenery to get here. The Crowsnest Highway traces down from Nelson drawing near the US border. There are ominous warnings of avalanches and 8% grades. Add a pounding rainstorm, highway signs for possible caribou, and the absence of guardrails, and you have a good sense of today's four-hour drive.

A misty pause along the Crowsnest Highway

So we enjoy a bargain-priced resort that my dear friend wisely recommended. We haven't enjoyed much luxury this summer, opting mostly for modest accommodations. But tonight and tomorrow we splurge and relax. I picked up a good novel in a used book store in Nelson and Jamie is knitting her third major project on this trip. We are enjoying the opportunity to plot out our empty nest and discuss all the projects we want to do around the house. The time and space is a wonderful gift for us and we are grateful.

All praise to Sheldon tonight. We toast him from the mountains that he and Tammy enjoy whenever they can. We celebrate their friendship, their encouragement, their love, and their deep wisdom.

When it comes to travel in western Canada, Sheldon is always right.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Life is a Movie, Kind Of

OK, this is the truth: we came here because of a movie.

The 1987 feature "Roxanne" is Steve Martin's remake of "Cyrano de Bergerac." I have always loved that sweet film, probably Martin's best. When the credits rolled, I recall writing down "Nelson, British Columbia" on my popcorn-stained napkin and vowing if there was ever an opportunity to go, I'd like to visit.

So here we are. Our B&B is three blocks downhill from the fire station where C.D. Bales, Martin's big-nosed character, was the long-suffering chief of an incompetent fire company. Here is one of my favorite speeches that he made in the movie:

I have a dream. It's not a big dream, it's just a little dream. My dream - and I hope you don't find this too crazy - is that I would like the people of this community to feel that if, God forbid, there were a fire, calling the fire department would actually be a wise thing to do. You can't have people, if their houses are burning down, saying, "Whatever you do, don't call the fire department!" That would be bad.
The Nelson Fire House
It is twenty-six years after that movie's release. We can presume the real-life guys in the fire company have worked out the kinks in their hoses. A couple of fire alarms went off today, and the engines handled the calls proficiently. Nelson seems to be a well-functioning small town. The community is set within postcard-beauty surroundings and professes to be about four hours from anywhere.

Lively Baker Street
The main drag is Baker Street, nearly a half-mile of bistros, bookstores, boutiques, and small shops. There are no Big Macs available among the 75+ eateries in town. The streets are full of children and families. There is a busy community library down the block.

And there are a lot of characters here, too. Located about forty miles north of the northeastern corner of Washington State, Nelson was once the destination of many Viet Nam draft-dodgers and numerous other folks pursuing alternative lifestyles. These days there are a lot of mountain bikers, skiers, and connoisseurs of organic free-range foods.

We are struck by how this community is thriving. Art galleries everywhere, a street violinist on the corner, coffee shops full of customers in mid-afternoon. What is the secret?

One snarky National Post article from earlier in the year called Nelson the marijuana capital of Canada, noting that pot may be the largest cash crop in British Columbia, and Nelson never experienced an economic downturn. Perhaps; but there is something else in the mountain air that keeps the positive energy flowing. The community creativity is palpable. People are friendly, helpful, and outgoing. Folks on the street visibly enjoy one another and welcome outsiders like us.

the coffee shop around the corner
So I reflect on the small town where we live, some three time zones away. How can a community flourish? What are the long-term habits that build friendliness, joy, and well-being? Certainly the people who live in Nelson have made the commitment to do so; you cannot whisk through a town that is four hours from anywhere. In our suburban hometown, there are many people who seem to pass through without putting down roots or contributing to the community's life. I wish we could find ways to change that.

It also strikes me, just on observation, that Nelson has created community organizations where people bump into each other and work together. We walked through a grocery co-op, for instance, and then saw the handiwork of a poetry team, leaving free verse on newsprint attached to local buildings. There are many folks on the streets who stop and chat with one another. They genuinely seem interested in working for the public good.

I like that. And I believe Nelson is something more than a mere movie set.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Wild Ride to Revelstoke

After a quick trip to Lake Louise, we drove over the Continental Divide into British Columbia. It was a beautiful, dazzling ride to the town of Golden, with a ten-mile hill at the end.

And then the real fun started, as we climbed again on the way to Revelstoke, the town that gets the most snow in British Columbia (between 470 and 700 inches per year). The road was spellbinding. I was particularly glad that Jamie drove, so I could keep snapping photos through the windshield as we went around every bend. Glaciers, avalanches, high mountains with steep walls: it was exciting and we felt completely alive.

Take a look at the slideshow below . . . just click the button and watch the fun!

(Oh, and you will need Adobe Flash to see the pictures. Sorry if you don't!)

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The Necessary Picture from the Canadian Rockies

The View from Lake Louise

Monday, September 2, 2013

For the Beauty of the Earth . . .

Beauty touches beauty at Moraine Lake
Jamie and I are residing in beauty, totally surrounded by enormous mountains, stunning lakes, and the straightest pines we have ever seen. The Canadian Rockies are one of God's most extravagant designs.

As we toodle around Banff National Park, it is easy to pause, take in the view, and snap a few pictures which will never capture the grandeur and scope of the landscape. But we do this to touch the scenery and to later remember where we were.

On Sunday afternoon, we walk past the Roman Catholic church in Canmore. The priest has chained the parking lot to keep out the tourists. "Mass has concluded, stay out of here" is the unfortunate message. Apart from the obvious breach of hospitality, this belies the unfortunate split between the God who is revealed in scripture and the same God who leaves fingerprints all over the beautiful world.

My favorite "unreal" body of water: Peyto Lake

In territory that looks like this, I can understand why people are outside, enjoying nature. The splendor is compelling. I lament how some of my fellow clergy lack the imagination to find and describe the intersection between heaven and earth. Like a lot of others, they tend to choose one over the other, forgetting that Christ is the One who holds all things together.

Is this Bow Lake - or merely a copy?

Christian people need to be around beauty, especially like this. It lifts them out of temporal distress. It corrects their arrogance by reminding them of how small and limited we are. It prompts them to envision a great God whose power and abundance surpasses everything we see and know. This is grace in granite.

Along the Icefields Parkway
For the life of me, I cannot imagine anyone looking at these mountains and claiming they were an accident. God has been here. The Spirit blows in the bracing wind.

I guess that is why I am here. Not as a tourist but as a pilgrim. As we travel up the Icefields Parkway, surrounded by 10,000 foot-high blocks of granite, I imagine the Creator's good pleasure in conjuring all of this out of the soil.

Rundle Mountain, overlooking Banff Township

I also imagine God's delight when the children made in the divine image see the holy handiwork and exclaim, "Wow! Thanks for giving us a world that looks like this."

Takakkaw Falls, at full power

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Tzimtzum Moment

According to Jewish mystical tradition, when God stepped back after making the world. The Holy One, blessed be He, clapped his hands in laughter and said, "Tov! It is good. Very good!" Then God stepped back.

This blessed withdrawal is called tzimtzum. It is just the thing we should expect of a Sabbath-keeping God.

This stepping-back is the mark of good parenting, divine and human. God does not hover nor manipulate, choosing instead to make room for children to do their own work. The Spirit can come and help. But for a creation to flourish, the Maker must give it some room.

The elegant Mr. Hamme
Today I understand this, in a much smaller way. This is the date of the 22nd annual Jazz Communion at First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit. I am not there. The jazz service was my baby, my creation, but I have stepped back in sabbatical. The original plan was to return today, but family plans pushed everything back by two weeks. So we asked Al Hamme to step in as the musical director, with my old pal Tim Schumacher as the guest guitarist.

A quick afternoon Skype call to Al confirms what I already know: all went well. Tony Marino dug into the deep notes, Tom Whaley got up in time to get the rhythm dancing, Al swung his tail off, and Tim did just fine. Al reminded me that everybody is replaceable. True enough.

It is freeing to back away from something you started. Let it rise and fall on its own merits. If it is to live and flourish, let is do so in freedom. Truth be told, I was sleeping in on Sunday, just about the time the jazz service started two time zones away. And everything went just fine. Heaven's providence is greater than human control.

Tov! It is good. Very good.

Saturday, August 31, 2013


The panorama picture on my camera, just outside of Canmore, Alberta

Gone to the mountains for a while with my honey. I will check in when I can. This is the last big piece of the sabbatical, so we are going to make the most of it.

Talk to you later.

P.S. - Click on the picture, and you get a sense of the SIZE!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sing a New Song (Part Two)

BC and Bobby McFerrin
So what is Bobby McFerrin like? I have fielded the question a few times since the weekend.

Here is one story from Tony Levin, famous bassist and rock star, who attended the weekend seminar as a fellow participant:

I was playing a gig with Peter Gabriel somewhere in Europe, and Bobby showed up. Somebody wanted him to sit in - and Bobby was game - but Peter wasn't very excited about it. So I pulled him aside and said, "Peter, I think you ought to do it." He gave in and Bobby jumped up on stage. He sang harmony along Peter, matching him phrase for phrase, note for note, making a great song sound better. The crowd went nuts. Then he jumped off stage and disappeared. Peter couldn't stop talking about it.

The man has that kind of talent. First time I heard him, he sang creatively with Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock at a huge jazz festival. A few years later, I watched him bring down the house down with "Itsy Bitsy Spider" at a middle school in Bethlehem, PA. Just last year, I took daughter Meg to hear him in concert and her jaw fell open by the third or fourth note.

So on last Saturday morning, we found ourselves walking together on a garden path. He asked my name, and what I did. When he heard I was a minister, he stopped cold, looked me in the eye, and said, "What is your favorite book of the Bible? I mean, other than the Psalms." He was serious and said he was working through the Gospel of Matthew slowly, memorizing the verses that resonated with his soul.

He is a quiet man, confessing that he thought about the monastic life as a kid. "Wanted nothing more than to pray, be quiet, and reflect on Scripture." When he is not on the road, he attends an Episcopalian church near his farmhouse.

But put him in front of a crowd, give him a microphone, and the eyes twinkle. It is like a light switch clicks on.

When "Don't Worry" hit number one, the phone rang one day. It was Warren Beatty, pushing him to join the cast of his Dick Tracy film, joining Paul Sorvino, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman - and to sing a song on camera to Madonna. Bobby looked at a Polaroid picture of him returning from a recent tour, worn out and homesick for his family, and said, "No way. I gotta stay home with the people I love." He took a sabbatical after his tune hit the top of the charts because he just wasn't interested in the Star Machine.

In a group conversation, he spoke to us of the healing power of music. After a ninety-minute solo concert, his favorite compliment comes from the person who says, "I feel so good, so much better than when I came tonight." In fact, he says his prayer before every concert is, "Lord, let the music help somebody who came with a burden, let the music heal and lift them"

I will savor the joy from the weekend that he evoked in me and so many others. Maybe I will be granted the opportunity to share it with others.

And I am convinced that if the Christian church in North America could sing like this - joyfully, honestly, inclusively, healthily - it could flourish again.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sing a New Song (Part One)

Well, this is something that I did not expect for the sabbatical: to be brought to the place of inarticulate joy, and for that joy to linger for about five days.

Bobby McFerrin
The setting was a three-day seminar with Bobby McFerrin, the imaginative vocalist and musical mystic. Many will dismiss him as the guy who sang, "Don't Worry, Be Happy." What they don't know is that he invented that song in the studio after serious reflection on Scripture, singing all the parts, and scoring a number one hit in the process. And when he hit it big, he turned his back on the "star machine" of American Idolatry, singing only where and when he sensed it could make a positive difference.

Bobby reports a moment about thirty-five years ago when he heard a Voice that declared, "You are a singer!" When he pursued the Voice, his own voice grew stronger, his imagination found an outlet, and many, many people were positively affected. When he sang, they did, indeed, become happy.

As he developed solo concerts (literally, him with a microphone and nothing else!), he had this notion of pulling people out of the concert seats and bringing them onstage. Spontaneously he would sing a short musical phrase, repeat it, and motion for them to sing it too. When they did, he sang something over top -- and then motioned to another group to sing that -- while he improvised yet a third melodic chunk over it all.

So imagine this: 150 people in a circle three or four deep, arranged by vocal parts, all singing spontaneous songs like this. That was the essence of my weekend at a conference center on the Hudson. Wordless vocals, mostly, lingering for eight or ten minutes. I have rarely been part of such experiences of sheer euphoria. By the end of the first evening's three-hour singing session, my cup was full. Really full. It was a deeply spiritual experience of the power of music.

Here's a clip of how it looks:

Here is another clip:


Bobby brought an all-star faculty of four other vocalists with him. We spent time together, we split into smaller groups. It was all good. There were all kinds of people there - music teachers, vocalists, conventional  religious people like me, and a significant number of folks who were harmed or victimized by some form of religion. That in itself was fascinating.

When we sang together, differences did not matter. All of us reached above them. The songs consisted of of sounds and syllables, sung with deep passion, filled with intoxicating rhythm. I reflected in my journal:

     This is a non-sectarian bunch,
     but they know the power unleashed in music-making
     The songs swell and rise;
     a hundred-fifty tongues are loosed,
     three hundred feet are moving.
     Every heart strangely moved, a few budged.
     Smiles radiate the room,
     while the Spirit inhabits the tones and rhythms.
     Even if She is unnamed by many, Spirit is here
     with Bright Wings fluttering.

Most of the crowd was there for a full week, but that was too pricey for me and I have other things to do. The forty or so of us who departed on the third day were circled and blessed by the rest.

At the very conclusion, a group member approached me with a hug. She said, "I know you're a minister and I'm an atheist. I have to say this is the most spiritual event I have ever known. When we sing, it's all about love - a love greater and more inviting than anything I have ever known. It fills us and we reach beyond everything else to take and share it."

No insult intended, but I don't think she is an atheist at all.

Monday, August 26, 2013

In a zone beyond words

Hello everybody. Just had one of the most remarkable experiences of my life: a musical weekend with Bobby McFerrin. I am still waiting for the words to describe this. It was an amazing, life-giving, soul-filling time!

While I wait for words, if in fact they come, here is a recent interview. It offers insight into this great and humble man.

And if you find yourself stuck on the fact that he's the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" guy, here is a recent clip from one of his concerts with a band. Savor every moment, and let his musical gifts work on you.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Familiar Places

This summer has balanced some significant travel time with a generous amount of contemplative time. The rhythm has moved between moments with my loved ones and a good share of time alone.

This week I enjoyed four days of solitude at a quiet cabin on the campus of the Stony Point conference center, on the Hudson River about forty miles north of New York. The staff calls it "a hermitage," although I remember it as a former garden shed. It was surprisingly comfortable - good bed, small refrigerator, table and chair, and - wait for it - an eco-toilet that requires three turns of the crank to dispose of any business.

Felt like a spiritual camp out, without the s'mores.

The food at Stony Point was as good as always, and the campus was teeming with life. Over a hundred Presbyterian young adults were taking part in a training week for the mission volunteer assignments that they will undertake on behalf of the national church. Another group of Unitarian youth were taking a leadership training event. The place is hopping! The campus has an increasingly diverse staff. They grow all of their own vegetables in their own community garden. And, as is the case whenever I go there, there was a good assortment of friends who were passing through.

Who says solitude has to be lonely? I read a good bit, took a nap or too, went for a drive along the river, had a quiet Thai dinner in Nyack. All by myself. Just me, alone. It was a sweet time.

Oh, and I worked on some music, too, for the first time this summer. I took a small rig of a keyboard, amp, manuscript paper, MIDI cables, Finale software, and wrote five new tunes. At one point, Rick Ufford-Chase, co-director of the center, popped his head in the door and snapped a picture:

So this is what contemplation looks like!
What a great time in my creative compost heap!

On Friday morning, I drove upriver to Hudson, New York. An e-mail has notified me that the company that manufactured some of my CDs and DVDs is closing down that part of the business. So I arranged with my contact person to pick up the original copies so they don't disappear. Sadly, when I arrived, my business guy wasn't there. Hmm...that will require a bit of follow-up.

But here's the thing. Rather than move on, I decided to check out the town. It's going through a steady renaissance. There are signs of great creativity along Warren Street, the main drag. The population seems quite diverse. And then I saw a familiar site:

 It's the diner from one of my favorite movies, "Nobody's Fool" (1994), with Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy. The light went on: oh yeah, this is the town where the movie was filmed! 

Since my lunch plans fell through, I thought, why not check out the diner? It was a pleasant surprise, nothing like the movie. Oh, same place, inside and out, but it's now run by a team of young adults who specialize in organic foods and know-your-farmer vegetables.

Right around the corner is another significant venue from the film. The Iron Horse Bar is where "Sully" Sullivan meets his friends for memorable poker games, deepens his relationship with son and grandson, and makes declarations about his life.

Not only is it a "movie scene" (and a real one), it's a place where decisions about life and death are probably made all the time.

That's what I loved about that movie and the novel that preceded it - it is so respectful of small-town life. The characters are real, flesh and blood people that we know and see around town every day. Nobody is cleaned up for the big screen. Everybody's character is revealed over time. Time and village honesty have ways of holding everybody accountable for what they have done and what they have let undone.

Most of all, grace works itself out in the lives of people who welcome it.

All of this resonates with what I know and where I live. As I drove around Hudson, I found myself smiling the same contented smile that ends the film on Paul Newman's lips.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Where am I today?

This is my home for a few days of solitude, a getaway for some time in seclusion. Needless to say, it is in an undisclosed location.

It is a one-room stone hut, with a single bed and no running water. It has a rocking chair and a reading lamp.

More to the point, no internet. Cell phone gets turned off for most of the day.

Here for a few days. After that, I predict some joyful noise.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sabbath in the Suburbs

That's the name of a book by MaryAnn McKibben Dana: Sabbath in the Suburbs. The subtitle says it all: "A family's experiment with Holy Time." MaryAnn is a great writer and this is a really fine book for complicated people and their families. I only wish she had written it fifteen years ago when my kids were small.

At one point, she reports the most popular reaction to Sabbath-keeping: "sounds nice...but we don't have time."

Her response is classic:

I don't have time. It's a curious phrase. Do any of us have time? Is time something we possess? Is it a commodity, a thing to own? It may be more accurate to say that time has us. Time holds us in its dispassionate grip. Time has its way with us. We work. We age. Our children grow up and leave us, which I keep hearing happens much sooner than we think. Sabbath is the only tool in my arsenal for fighting back. (p. 45)

To the person who asked the other day, "What's a sabbatical?" - it's a really long Sabbath, a gift of having time.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Good sermon, Rev

Sir Paddleberry, at a recent VBS
I really enjoy listening to other preachers' sermons this summer. It is a refreshment to get around and hear other colleagues who do the same thing that I usually do.

Today it's the Rev. Jim Thyren (AKA Sir Paddleberry), holding forth at a combined worship for First United Presbyterian of West Pittston and Second Presbyterian of Pittston, all gathered at St. Cecilia's Roman Catholic Church in Exeter. Yep, there's a story, and the locals will know it.

He was good. Really good.

What's the mark of a good sermon? For me, it's the evidence that the preacher has wrestled in the mud with scripture, emerging with a wounded hip and a word of grace. You can tell from the look on the preacher's brow that she or he met God in the dark.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


Meg on the first day of college
When the youngest of your family leaves for college, it is an indicator that life-as-you-know-it has changed. We delivered Meg to American University in Washington, D.C.  She was ready to go, we were ready to help her on her way. Now she is is diving into dorm activities, buying books, developing a new circle of friends, and generally having her world opened up. It is time for all of us.

All the same, it is a major change for us. We have had a lot of "blessed time" this summer - with, as daughter Katie would declare, many Sunday Fundays! It has a wonderful gift to have so much time together as a family.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Still more pictures from Scotland

Enjoy them! We had a blast.

Celtic lighthouse

On the train ... again 

Meg, with the Edinburgh Castle in her hair

St. Giles, mother church of the Presbyterians

Fun on the streets of Edinburgh

St. Giles from the outside. In Edinburgh

Back in Glasgow. You can see our flat from here!
Glasgow after dark
Strange Dude. Belongs in a zoo!

Even more pictures, by request

More pictures from Scotland:

The beautiful port city of Oban, with its own distillery

Oban by twilight . . . at 9:30 PM

Beachside Beauties. Or beached mermaids?

Dancing with the Highland Stars

The strange isle of Staffa

Picnic Lunch at the Iona Nunnery

Lauren lights a candle, prays that Bill will stop being a tour guide

Katie and Meg discover where Dad got the cover photo for a recent CD

Enjoying sunshine on Iona