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

Pictures, by request

We have had some requests for more pictures from our Scotland excursion. So here they are. Click them to get a closer view:

The ubiquitous bird-on-head statue

amazing Kelvingrove museum in Glasgow
my ladies in the Glasgow Cathedral

postcard shot of Glasgow Cathedral
Celtic crosses everywhere!

Lauren eats a non-Chip

Just one of hundreds of floral displays
Floating skulls in a museum. Weird.


Robert the Bruce, overseeing William Wallace's monument
Just a bit of Highland Dancing

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Up in the air

Some mountain vistas are worth the hard work
If my original goals for the sabbatical were the guide, the last two days would be a perfect ten. Here's what I hoped to tend to, as a pattern for the whole summer:

  • The music of relationships: imagine a couple of days with a great friend, hanging out, eating wonderful food, sharing exuberant experiences
  • The music of nature: going deep into a place of great beauty, smelling the pine needles, stomping in the mud, enjoying the vistas
  • The music of silence: having spacious time for reflection and contemplation and tending to the "conversations" in my spirit
  • The music of the performing stage: listening deeply to world-class musicians do their work and learning from their artistry.

After a few days back from Scotland, I meandered the long way to the Catskill Mountains with Jim Thyren, my good friend and fellow cleric. We spent an afternoon in funky Woodstock, where hippies have never gone out of style. Among the art galleries, sidewalk guitarists, and palm reading stands, we found a book store with real books and made quick purchases. After a delicious outdoor dinner at our country inn, we went to the top of Belleayre Mountain, noted ski resort, where a summer concert series brought in Kenny Barron, a legendary jazz musician.

Kenny Barron Quintet
He played two sets of adventurous jazz with quintet of young musicians. It was challenging, demanding music, played with skill and abandon. A long solo on "Softly in a Morning Sunrise" was a master class in improvisation!

In God's Rock Garden
The next day began with a brief worship service with my Sunday candle and the lectionary readings of the day, and then we grabbed breakfast at the famed Phoenicia Diner. We chatted over eggs about the prospect of climbing Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills range. What the heck? Off we went, finding the parking lot about ten miles away and beginning our ascent.

It was a lot of hard work, and only later did we discover that we took the most adventurous trail. It was a tall slant, frequently forcing us to pick our way among boulders (the "trail"). At numerous points, I slowed down Jim with my wheezing and belly-aching. We walked quietly, we stopped to sip water and swap stories, we laughed when we went around the bend and discovered another lengthy rock garden to pick our way up the big, big hill.

But the result was worth the three-plus hours that we put into the climb. See for yourself:

The view from Slide Mountain
Ashokan Reservoir from the top of Slide Mountain
It was a worthy and thrilling climb. My feet were tired, and Jim caught me slipping off my shoes so I could wiggle my toes.

The dogs are tired and weary
The only problem with a mountain climb is that, tired or not, you have to go back down the mountain. It doesn't take as long, especially if you roll down the hill, but it is a different kind of labor. Rather than give a work-out to heart and lungs, we found ourselves treading carefully among the boulders. Pretty soon, the knees, thighs, and calves were feeling the love ... and we were very glad to reach the parking lot a couple of hours later. Contented by the accomplishment of a long hike, glad to be deep in the woods, and ready to keep moving among the mountains.

Friday, August 2, 2013

A few moments, one of them missed

Warning: Creativity Ahead!
We climbed uphill to the Royal Mile in Edinburgh on Friday morning to enjoy the huge Fringe Festival. As we approached St. Giles Cathedral, two street comedians with unicycles began to draw a crowd. They joked, they juggled, they engaged the people, and the crowd grew quickly. There was much laughter, even new affection. Together we were swept up in the immediacy of good will and great humor. When they announced a later show, we were interested in exploring some more.

Thirty steps away, we entered the grand and imposing cathedral, the Mother Ship for all international Presbyterians. The bell chimed noon, announcing a service of daily prayer. So we sat for what we knew would be a brief time of scripture and meditation. The clean-shaven minister convened us by acknowledging we were surrounded by colorful creativity, but then proceeded as if it were twenty miles down the road, and not right outside the door. His handwritten prayers were eloquent, although they repeatedly hit on the theme of how much we ignore God in every day life.

All the while, the minister-in-charge (AKA his supervisor) traipsed the perimeter of the sanctuary, ready to bark out reprisals to tourists who used their cameras during the quaint liturgy.

Jamie and I have been here before. We should have expected it. While this ten minute liturgy was stately and traditional, I could not help but feel as if a huge opportunity was being squandered. Come on, folks:  the largest creative arts festival in the WORLD is happening outside your door and you are steering your Calvinist barge straight ahead, completely indifferent to your own neighborhood.

If this weren't enough, the service was followed by a concert of Chilean art songs set to nearly atonal harmonies. A small crowd lingered for these strange sounds that remained untranslated, a few of the listeners looking oh-so-important. Again, a near miss.

Treat your neighbor as gold
So imagine an alternative. What if the clergy spoke of God's presence to inspire creativity and human excellence, and prayed for the safety, joy, and empowerment of all at the festival? What if we were encouraged to catch God's Image on camera and submit them for a website, not afraid of idolatry, but to point to traces of Christ's lingering incarnation? What if the odd art songs were interpreted equally through dancers with colorful banners, to say nothing of a sign language interpreter?

What if the church spent some of its considerable endowment during the Fringe Festival to employ a theologian and an artist to present daily conversations about the relationships between the creative, the thoughtful, and the just? What if the leaders of the congregation put together - or employed - a drama troupe of their own, to present engaging moments on the steps of the church, gently inviting the crowds to consider the Gospel so treasured inside?

What if we engaged God's world rather than dismiss it?

As for Judge Doom, policing the sanctuary, I would fire his tailbone and dismiss him to a musty museum. His crime? A lack of imagination.

But all was not lost. For the first time, I saw a creative use for a set of pipes: Bagpipe Blowtorch! Now, that is imaginative!

He sets Mr. Hume on fire!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Birthday Beauty

if is August 1, it must be Jamie's birthday. Here she is in her wisdom specs, with Lauren (who bought her flowers!). They beautify our Glasgow flat . . . and the flowers are pretty too.

The plans for today: more time together. Plus a movie, a Russian puppet show, and a Thai banquet! And perhaps some ice cream.