Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Some more pictures

Thanks to Katie Carter for some more great pictures, from our island excursion.

Cloisters at Iona abbey

Meg and me at Staffa

Rugged island coastline

Pop and two girls

Iona garden

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Music in the air (Part 2)

An early wake-up call nudges us out the door, down the street, and over to the dock. We take the early ferry to the Isle of Mull, a bus through the moors of the island, all the way to the end where a fishing boat is waiting for us. We chug our way past a small group of sunbathing seals and wave to a few puffins out for a morning jaunt.

The destination: the island of Staffa, officially "uninhabited" but certainly full of life.

Mendelssohn's inspiration, Dumbledore's doom

As we approach Staffa, we come right up to Fingal's Cave, an enormous basalt opening. This is an awesome sight. Meg says, "I have never before been to the actual site of a Harry Potter movie." She points to a small upcropping of basalt pillars and exclaims, "That is where Harry and Dumbledore landed!"

I mention that Queen Victoria visited here, and Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to compose his Hebridean Overture here. But for my daughters, the main inspiration is the wizarding world of Harry Potter. This is indeed a magical place. The Gaelic name for the spot is "the melodious cave."

We climb our way to the highest spot on the island, where Katie and Meg pose in tall grass and heather. It reminds me of the exuberant cover of our church choir's CD, which was photographed on the hill of an Hebridean island like this.

A couple of Celtic beauties on Staffa
For me, however, the next stop is my favorite. When I see the ancient abbey of Iona, I have a lump in my throat. This is holy ground, for me and for many. I lead our gang up to the abbey, past the hotel where I composed my tune "Iona Morning" on a napkin seven years ago. We tour the abbey, and the stories of Celtic saints are told.

Home again

We enjoy a beautiful afternoon here. The thinness of the place is real. Jamie and I join a brief prayer service, led by a member of the Iona Community. The closing song is "Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God." Here it is easy to imagine what we seek. The tune touches what is most alive in us.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Music in the air (Part 1)

The central theme of this sabbatical has been "the Spirit's music" - - and there is plenty of music that we have been hearing. It began with the click-clack of Monday's morning train to Oban, a seaside town on the western coast of Scotland. The train from Queen Street, Glasgow, took us north, along Loch Lomond, through the foothills of the Highlands, and out to the coast.

Not far from the Oban train station is a remarkable fish and chips place which Jamie remembers from seven years ago. It takes little convincing on her part to get us to stop. After lunch, we wandered up the street to our B-and-B, stopping a few times at the second-stores so the girls can plunder them.

At 8:30, we make our way to the Skippinish hall. "What this things called again?" It's a ceilegh (pronounced caylee), I explain, an evening of traditional Scottish music. The hall fills quickly, with many local teens and young adults. The band is wonderful, mixing it up from reels to pipe tunes, with a young lass emerging from behind the bar to twirl to a traditional dance.

Pretty soon, Angus MacPhail, the accordion player, calls everybody to the dance floor. That's when it begins -- hand clapping, hooting, hollering, shouting, singing. It is a lively evening for all of us. When the DJ takes over at 11 pm, we linger for a few songs, as Meg declares, "We know these songs!" Ah, she can't fool me. She was dancing with the rest of them.

But the next morning will come early. Six AM, in fact. It will be a big day...

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Worship in Glasgow

Why does a family of five stand in the drizzling rain on a Sunday morning? Because they want to attend the kind of worship service that we attended today.

They call themselves "a welcoming
congregation" and they were right.
Our visit to St. Mary's Cathedral was quite fine. A church in the Scottish Episcopal tradition, we were warmly welcomed, not as American tourists, but as fellow global Christians who came to hear a good sermon and to take communion.

We climbed aboard a bus with the sketchiest of directions, not sure where our stop was, or what it looked like. A few friendly people pointed the way, and soon the five of us took our pew in a beautiful sanctuary.

I have spent time reflecting on why today's service meant so much to me. The sermon was inviting and accessible, and all of us found something helpful in it. Different voices offered readings and prayers, and it was clear each one felt confident about their leadership. The scriptures for the day echoed in the hymns and prayers. Even though it was a classy liturgy, well executed, there was nothing pompous about it. And the people around us were certain that we would not leave without a hospitable welcome.

I cannot think of a better worship service for our kids - or for us - to attend. If we are in town next Sunday, we would like to return. All of us.

So what do you do for fun around here?

The Scots are not appreciated enough for their creativity. Perceived to be a serious bunch, the careful observer will notice their subtle brilliance in creating new activities out of mundane routines.

Imagine that day around the farm when Angus and Fergus  were winding up the afternoon chores. Angus picked up a thirty pound anvil and said, "Ye think I can toss this stone over me head and into the hayloft?"

Fergus replied, "Isn't it a bit early to begin drinking yer whisky?"

Angus said, "No whisky yet, but I will bet ye a pint that I can do it." Fergus nodded, and thus began one of the competitions that some Scots still continue.

Send a stone flying!
This is creative stuff. Serious, too. The Big Guys toss stones into the air for height or distance, or run down a field balancing an upright telephone pole and then attempt to hurl it end over end.

All the time, there are piper bands scaring away flocks of sheep, little girls twirling in highland fashion, people running in big ovals or cycling after one another, while proper ladies in print dresses sell cupcakes and all forms of fried delicacies.

Welcome to the Highland Games, one of the oldest forms of Saturday fun in Scotland. Today we visited Airth, a small village that hosts a huge competition on the fourth Saturday of July each year. It was an extraordinary day for all of us. We had a wonderful time.

Aye, the lassies are pretty in Airth!
The weather was terrific. The small village was welcoming. The event functioned like a three-ring circus, with constant activity on the community soccer field. There were activities for kids - and plenty of kids.

At the end of the afternoon, a number of students stormed the field for a huge tug-of-war competition, while the Big Guys competed by hauling around a huge stone, once used for tying up horses at the market. We were enchanted, and stayed all afternoon. It was great fun.

And then came the most surreal moment of all. Lauren struck up a conversation with a villager, who told us about an unusual landmark nearby. So rather than run between the raindrops for the bus stop, we walked out of town, turned down a country lane, wandered through an overgrown garden. There it was: the Dunmore Pineapple!

Architecture can be stranger than fiction!

Seems the Earl of Dunmore had too much money on his hands in 1761. In an extravagant display of affluence, he built a mansion shaped like a pineapple, which was a rare and costly fruit at that time in Scotland. He wanted the neighbors to know he was rich enough to do whatever he wanted - but the Earl didn't stick around to receive their feedback. He took a ship across the sea to become the colonial governor of Virginia, until those pesky rebels convinced him to return in 1776.

When we returned to Glasgow and wi-fi, we discovered the Dunmore Pineapple has its own Wikipedia page, if you wish to learn more. There you find it described as "the most bizarre building in Scotland." That may be a harsh judgment; I think some of these Scots are very imaginative and fun.

I mean, who else would have ever created a delicacy out of a sheep's stomach stuffed with oatmeal? They are a most creative people.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Stirling day

BC at Ye Olde Family Homestead
Willie Wallace monument behind him
My grandmother told me that her Stewart surname is evidence of royal blood among the Scots. If that is true (and I have heard my share of Scottish yarns), then we had a homecoming yesterday at Stirling castle.

Just a thirty-five minute train ride from Glasgow, Stirling is a picturesque town with a long history. It sits along the River Forth, and has always been a strategic location between the lower and Highland areas of Scotland. On top of the town's largest hill, there is an enormous castle which is a must-see stop for all the tour buses. The site dates from medieval times.

Two princesses survey the digs
We made our way up the hill, through the winding ancient streets, pausing for a few "How much further" moments. Seeing a sign for admission information, we are notified that the castle is another five or ten minute walk up the hill. Yes, it is, and it is magnificent. Ancient rulers could survey their domains for miles. We can look down upon important battlefields for the Scots -- and there are many.

Perhaps the most telling display is a reconstruction of a couple of human skulls which were found upon the grounds of the castle. One of them belongs to a man who was built like a rugby player, about 5'6" and muscular. His cranium had evidence of a hatchet wound, but he seemed to recover from it. The lady near him was not so fortunate; she had two wounds in her skull, and may have been a bit of a warrior herself. Clearly they lived in brutal times. A lot of blood was spilled in Stirling.

From the ramparts, we look out upon the nearby hill where William "Braveheart" Wallace led a mob against the Brits. We stand beneath the monument of Robert the Bruce, looking so fierce that no pigeons dare to land on his head.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was here. I tell my daughters that we are related to her somehow. They are impressed, and then I report that Queen Mary did not turn out so well. They nod knowingly. Not our first uneven relative, I suppose.

As we descend the castle hill, we stop to enjoy the town for a while. A djembe sounds in the Friday afternoon bustle, and a guitar-percussion duo sets up to sing a few tunes. Jamie disappears to buy some yarn in a charity shop and I find a coffee spot. When a kilt-clad piper appears to call tourists to a local establishment, I announce it's time to catch our train.

We returned to Glasgow with the Friday commuters, made ourselves some dinner, and settled in to a family tournament of Uno.

I won a couple of rounds. It's good to be king.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Greetings from Glasgow

We are settling into our apartment in Glasgow. It's a beautiful place, across the street from the St. Enoch shopping center, very close to the heart of this vibrant city. We are thrilled by the digs - we can walk everywhere, or catch a train or bus to the places where we cannot walk.

The five hour time change was a bit rough on all of us, especially since US Air has the most uncomfortable seats in the airline industry. There was little sleep on the plane, and the sunrise came a good bit earlier. But Katie and Meg were thrilled to look out the window on lochs and mountains as we prepared to descend into the airport. No hippogriffs sighted, but it was kind of early in the morning.

The customs line moved quickly, and a bus was waiting to take us into the city. Just a short walk of five blocks or so, and our apartment manager was waiting for us. "You're right on time," he said.

Our flat in Glasgow
It really is a charming place - two bedrooms, two baths (we have three young adult women with us), a large living room with flatscreen TV and all BBC channels, and a kitchen full of cool appliances that we don't know how to use. We brought a power strip and voltage transformers so we can keep the girls' cell phones and our Kindles charged. Thanks to Jamie for setting up this apartment deal for us! It will be our base for the next twelve days.

After a healthy nap, we explored the neighborhood and found a great Greek restaurant. Then we took the advice of a travel assistant and hopped on a double-decker bus for a city tour. It was a two-day ticket. That means we could ride around and get an overview of the city on Wednesday, and then return today to the places that caught our attention.
Our gang on top of the bus

A stop at the Glasgow Cathedral was first, the only cathedral that was not heavily bruised by the Reformation (there are a lot of sites that are marketed as "the only"). Then we hiked next door to the Necropolis, a huge hilltop cemetary that over looks the city. John Knox stood taller than all else, looking down upon the Scots that he loved.
A view from the Necropolis

The other major stop was the Kelvingrove Museum, an impressive institution that brings together Viking pottery, dinosaur bones, and Salvador Dali's famed painting of the Crucifixion.  The place is really something. We waited for the double-decker bus to return in the rain and returned to the flat for a bowl of spaghetti.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Aye, laddie, we are headed to the Motherland

Now we are five weeks in, and there is a floating quality to my days. I have a routine of sorts - up by 7:30 to make the coffee, ninety minutes of reading (currently the biography of a 19th century preacher), an hour of piano practice (including Oscar Peterson's book of exercises, which are going slowly), and then it's off to the major "tasks" of the day.

Perhaps the task is more reading. Or a visit with a friend. Or scheduled time of silence. The task is the single invitation of the day, not the obligation of somebody's expectations. What a wondrous, spacious way of abiding in time!

All gears shift now, as we depart for our family pilgrimage to Scotland. I'm not taking a computer, so the posts may be erratic for the next couple of weeks. I am taking a camera, and will fill in the posts with pictures as they are available. We will be traveling through some remarkable turf, so brace yourself for the beauty!

The task for the past five days has been fine-tuning the schedule for our trip. Characteristically, we will focus on one task per day - seeing a cathedral, learning about a castle, watching a Highland Games, or playing with the puffins on the way to Iona. I enjoy planning this sort of thing, expecting every contingency, mapping out the reasonable itineraries. As many know, details are not my specialty -- but I can focus on them when I must -- and a bit of problem-solving is involved: how do we get from the Glasgow airport to our rented flat at 7 AM? Where shall we take Jamie for her 29th birthday?

Josh will stand guard at home, tending to the dogs and trimming the lawn. The rest of us have packed for tomorrow's long trip. I suspect when Katie comes home tonight, fresh from celebrating the crown prince's birth, she will be the last to finish filling her suitcase.

More later, when we have the time. Bon Voyage, baby!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Make it a Buddy Moment

When Sherrie Maricle, the famous jazz drummer, was in college with me, she told us about the moment when she decided to be a musician. "I was just a kid," she said, "and I went to see Buddy Rich play drums with his big band. That is when I knew I wanted to do that for the rest of my life."

Indeed she has. After her degree at Binghamton University, she went on for a masters and Ph.D. in percussion and composition. She has distinguished herself as a bandleader and music educator for the past thirty years, often leading the Diva Big Band, comprised of fifteen hard-swinging jazz musicians, all female.

Grace, Sherrie, Sam
Last night, we took our niece Grace and nephew Sam to see Sherrie and the Diva band perform. It was an outstanding evening! Sam is a wonderful drummer, and Grace plays the saxophone. I am hopeful that this could be a Buddy Rich moment for one - or both - of them.

Of course, Sam doesn't stand a chance of getting into the Diva band. But if she keeps practicing, Grace might.

This is what Good Uncles do: they try to influence the next generation to do something really cool with their lives.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The news from West Lafayette

The Megosaur, with hat
We are thrilled that daughter Meg is attending a national youth conference this week at Purdue University. It is called the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, held every three years in blazing heat in western Indiana.

Here is how one previous attendee described it: "There is no available swimming pool, and the 5000+ teenagers don't miss the pool."

It is a truly once-in-a-lifetime event... unless you are Meg's older sister, who went twice. Lots of worship and faith-building moments, and Meg is enjoying the week even with the 100 degree heat.

We look forward to her return on Sunday night. Then we shift gears and prepare to depart for a family trip to Scotland.

In the meantime, here is some footage from one of the Triennium worship services that she attended. For those without "flash" on your computer, you can see it by clicking 

Friday, July 19, 2013

'cause you gotta have friends

A-Rod, getting ready to hit a homer
Friendship has emerged as the theme for this week. It was unexpected but very welcome. An otherwise quiet week has been populated with good friendships, and I am feeling very grateful.

It culminated in the picture to the right, taken on my phone last night from the third row of our local AAA baseball stadium. But more on that later.

One of the realities of the pastoral life is a frequent shortage of time for friends. Church work is all about relationships - relating to folks in their best and worst moments. It's fulfilling work for an extrovert like me, but it often can drain energy. More than one minister has been met at the door with the end-of-day critique, "You give your best to everybody else, and come home with little left for me." Friends usually score even lower in this regard.

So the sabbatical is providing time to re-calibrate all of that. My loved ones are seeing more of me than usual. And I'm catching up with a lot of friends. It is a special gift.

Kindergarten Classmates
Imagine my delight last weekend, when I learned that my old pal Dennis Chapdelaine would attend my nephew's wedding in upstate New York. We met in Mrs. Carr's Kindergarten class. He lives in Ottawa now, having recently retired (!!!) from a thirty year career as a school music educator.

And I must say: the vision of him in a bowtie and white jacket far exceeds his class picture from kindergarten. Mine too.

We chatted about our lives, our ancient acquaintances, the upcoming high school reunion, and the shape of how our lives have unfolded. He reminded me of old girlfriends that I should have treated better (honest friends will do that), and both of us took delight in the wonderful women with whom we now spend our lives. When you pick up after some lost time, you get a sense of how God has been guiding and protecting this good friend that you care about very much.

Me and Mr. Gilmore, last fall in Little Rock
It has been a week of phone calls with friends. I called Steve Gilmore to congratulate him on a full page feature for the national newspaper of the musician's union. He lives in Florida now, and we see one another only once a year or so. But to count this extraordinary bass player as a good friend is a very precious gift.

I had a long chat on the phone with Debbie McKinley, and solved most of the world's problems with her. That is significant, since she lives in Washington D.C., where so many of those problems originate.

I had a sleepover, too, at good buddy Mark Bentlage's house in the woods. We enjoyed a plate of wings, a pile of nachos, and a sprawling conversation about life. It was deeply fulfilling. Add to that a sloppy burger at Five Guys with one of my favorite anonymous preachers, and an open-air dockside dinner with Jim and Jan Thyren, and it has been a delicious week . . . with friends.

In fact, as we were walking to the parking lot at Crystal Lake, Jim said, "Want to go to a baseball game in town? A-Rod is in town, doing rehab with the AAA team." Ahh, the blessing of an open schedule! He did not specify that the seats were in the third row, right by the home team batting circle. So that is how four aging preachers came to see Mr. Rodriguez hit a two-run homer in Scranton last night.

Old Duffers Night: Dave Brague, Jim Thyren, Scott Loomer, BC
And really now: when I have been in town during the sabbatical, I have been trying to keep a low profile. So did the Scranton Times have to publish our picture on the front page above the fold?   :)

The Old Duffers photograph A-Rod
Tomorrow night, I am taking a niece and nephew to meet another old friend. It promises to be a lot of fun ... musical fun!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Another bounteous Sabbath

Sunday morning began with a yawn. When you are staying in a country inn that looks like THIS, why go anywhere?
the famed Taughannock Farms Inn
Never mind that the dining room overlooks Cayuga Lake, or that it is a modest walk from a beautiful waterfall ...
Taughannock Falls
I do have better pictures of the falls, but this one includes a glimpse of two illegal swimmers so you get a sense of its size. Never been there? It is definitely worth the trip. This is one of my long-time favorite places, not far from the Boy Scout camp of my youth. It is an amazing sight, better viewed from the canyon floor. On Saturday afternoon, while my wife took a brief respite before the wedding, I walked up to enjoy the view and get a few close-ups. Here is my favorite:

That brisk walk was just what I needed, in reflecting what I wanted to say for my brief sermon for the wedding. Of course, my sister Mary claims it was the same sermon that I gave at her wedding. Hmm ... well, why compose something new if it still works?

The morning was spent among the wineries of that region. That is all I shall say about that. We did have a nice meal at the Moosewood Restaurant in nearby Ithaca. Not everybody's cup of green tea, but we loved it. Our open-air table reminded us that Ithaca is a prime spot for people-watching with a wide assortment of characters to see.

So when Sunday came, I lit my Sabbatical Candle again and had some quiet alone-time. Then I had breakfast at the Inn with the bride and groom, thinking they were terribly generous to spend the time with me. A rapid drive down the country roads took me to my home church in Owego, NY. I arrived almost ten minutes late and the announcements were just concluding before the opening hymn. Since I was not in charge of anything, I was OK with this.

First United Presbyterian Church, Owego, NY

It was a blessing to sit in the pew with Mom and Dad, to sing hymns with my daughters, to hear a refreshing sermon, to see a lot of people who are remarkably well preserved, and to enjoy a wonderful lunch at a funky little place in town. Since I had a little time on my hands, I stopped off to visit a street fair that had a lot of music. Some musical friends showed up too.

The Presbybop Quintet packs the house again
In short: a Sabbatical in miniature: time with loved ones, time alone, time in nature, time with music-makers. This is the rhythm that I am keeping during this sabbatical season. It is very, very refreshing.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Well, they are hitched

Here is a wonderful picture of two people that we love very much. This weekend, we were delighted to be part of the wedding of my nephew Matt Guagliardo and Ellie Kisloski. It was held on the shore of Cayuga Lake at Taughannock Falls State Park.

In the words of the Little Rascals, it was very romantical. I was particularly delighted to welcome the presence of Matt's little dog, who served as the honorary ring bearer.

What a wonderful family event! The siblings were all present. My high school buddy Dennis was there, with beautiful bride Rosemary. And - to everybody's surprise - my daughters were dancing . . .

Let's Boogie to "We Are Family"
The setting could not have been more perfect. Matt comes from a nautical family, so a shore-side wedding was a great location. It also allowed him to stay on the family boat for his bachelor party, play poker, and enjoy cold beverages until the early hour.

At the outset, I agreed to perform only two pastoral services this summer: this family wedding, and another wedding for the day before my sabbatical return (more about that on September 15). It did allow me to put on my pastoral apparel briefly, which meant we had to have at least one family picture:

The Vicar takes a holiday
Certainly the fancy neckware solicited hoots and hollers from my extended family; I think they are merely jealous . . .

Friday, July 12, 2013

Farewell, good friend

One of my pre-sabbatical fears came true two weeks ago: we lost Bob London, dear friend, mentor, and brother in Christ. We shared the Lord's Supper a few days before the sabbatical began, and his final words to me were words of affection and love. I am unable to attend his memorial service on this Saturday -- and must entrust the arrangements to the capable ministers who are covering for the three months of my absence. I know of the great outpouring of love and tribute that will come due to Bob's impact in our lives. As a small contribution, here is the sermon that I will not be able to preach:

Thoughts on Losing a Friend
John 15:12-15
On the event of Bob London’s death

Bob London believed in a careful lesson plan, even though he knew the Holy Spirit might come to disrupt it. In light of his detailed plans for his memorial service, I told him that the Spirit had suggested a disruption to me. That was the addition of a scripture text that Bob should have included but didn’t. As Jesus prepares to depart his disciples, he speaks these words from the 15th chapter of John’s gospel:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

It is an extraordinary passage, for Jesus suggests a shift from power to equality. No longer is he the “Master” (capital “M”) with servants (small “s”). Now the Lord of life declares we are his friends, and that he is our friend. There is mutuality. Everybody stands on the same level ground. Nobody is better than anybody else. All are loved equally.

This relationship is possible because Jesus steps down from heaven. That is the mission of God according to John’s Gospel. The One through whom all things were made takes his place among those he has made. He lays down his divine life out of self-giving love, to the end that all people might be full of his life. This move from “on high” to “side by side” is the essence of friendship. You stand side by side with your friends.

Bob’s holy mission was to make friends. That was the work that God gave him to do: to make friends as a sign of God’s rule of human equality, and to make friends for Jesus. His single lesson plan was to present the God of Israel as capable of long-term, life-giving friendship. Bob’s single liturgical contribution was to bless people “with the friendship of the Holy Spirit.” These were the lessons he taught us as he laid down his life for his friends.

The first day that we met was the first day that I began work as a pastor. He was pulling boxes out of his car for a workshop at my first church, handed one to me, and said, “Here, kid, carry this.” Then he began to traipse down the sidewalk assuming I would follow. I never stopped following that man.  He invited me to grow as a pastor, insisting that teaching was essential to the church’s work. He led me to youth events, pastors’ groups, and enlarged my understanding of confirmation, youth ministry, and officer training. Yet he never did this from a stance of superiority. We always stood on level ground as friends.

Once I was the preacher at the Synod youth conference and Bob was my roommate. By the second day, I had a major ear infection and could not stand longer than thirty minutes. “That’s how long the worship services should be,” he affirmed. In between each service, he brought me soup. He brought every meal to me, and then prayed that the food would be blessed, and I would stand and get off my bed, just like all the paralytics that Jesus healed. Both prayers were answered.

Bob could work a crowd using only a tennis ball. He could re-ignite any group that lost its way. He could take a group of self-absorbed college students and transform them into a church camp staff. He could pull fearful adults off the sidelines and help them befriend seasonal farm workers.

The key to it was Bob’s spiritual gift of encouragement. People young and old were touched by his ability to take them seriously, just as they were. Together we took teenagers to wilderness camps and Ground Zero, to soup kitchens and cathedrals. He invited me to join him as a caregiver for an annual retreat for people with disabilities and then requested me to teach the Gospel of Mark to these people who could neither hear nor see. Once we paused to pray together for a lady who was sleeping on a Philadelphia subway grate. Immediately we stepped inside a swanky hotel to watch an expensive ice sculpture melt at a black tie reception, and we paused to pray again. My soul has been enlarged because of the size of that man’s heart.

Bob London could persevere like a hound dog. He hunted down ministers who didn’t keep current to make sure they knew about changes in church curriculum, sometime dragging me along as his advocate. One time he chased down a paper trail and discovered someone had embezzled money from Lehigh Presbytery. When he worked as a synod education consultant, he was capable of working two forty-hour jobs each week, one in each presbytery. I know this, because I took part in two of his personnel reviews. He could exhilarate you and exhaust you in the same moment.

When I first expressed an interest in pursuing a call as the pastor of the Clarks Summit church, Bob sneaked me into town for a full tour, long before any paperwork was prepared or interviews arranged. After the call went through some time later, we became partners in Gospel Subversion. He prayed for me, I nudged him back, and neither of us would let the other one rest in complacency. That was the shape of our friendship.  

We had our moments, occasionally knocking heads but always concluding with a hug and a prayer. Sometimes for the sake of emphasis he would use that special word of Jesus, and the Tulsa accent would leak out: “friend” (pronounced in two syllables: fray-end). But neither of us needed to name it. We were friends. Thanks to our friend Jesus, we shall be friends forever.

I suppose someone who ran so hard would run out of breath one day; all of us will. But it is a line from St. Hildegard of Bingen that makes me remember my friend best: “I am a feather on the breath of God.” That is what Bob has been to me: a beautiful rainbow plume from the wing of the Holy Spirit. He floated on the gracious Breath of Christ, our Saving Friend. Now we commend him to God’s arms.

I will be forever grateful for Bob’s continuing voice in my heart. I loved him as a brother, and he taught me to love everybody else. That is what the friendship of the Gospel is all about.

Family Wedding

The last time we saw him in a tux
We leave today for the wedding of our nephew Matt, which will take place this weekend on the shore of a glacial lake in upstate New York.

This handsome little shaver (to the left) has blossomed significantly. He works as assistant director of admissions at the university that he attended. In the words of his high school guidance counselor, "That terrific guy can sell anything to anybody!" I believe it. He has a most promising future and we are thrilled that he and his bride Ellie are stepping into it together.

One of my family blessings as "family chaplain" (got a minister in your family?) is that I have the responsibility of recounting potentially embarrassing details at a critical liturgical moment. I try to be a wise steward of such moments.

In Matt's case, there is little that is embarrassing to say. Now if it were his mother . . .

Speaking of his mother, let me tell her here: I was able to book the Doobie Brothers for the wedding reception. They will send the invoice directly to you.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Reflection: Music Making as Life-Giving Practice

There is a scene in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) that resonates as truth. Jack Baker, jazz pianist, has slipped away from his brother Frank, who runs the piano duo act that takes them to lounges around Seattle. Jack has had enough of the commercial nonsense of the top 40 scene, so he disappears into a jazz club to play the music that he wants to play.

The look on his face is extraordinary: joy, ecstasy, brilliance, vulnerability, delight, all at once . . . he loves what he is doing. For the moment, it doesn't matter if he gets paid. When a colleague spots him, she reads his face instantly. She knows he is doing more than dusting off his dreams. He is making the music that he was placed on the planet to make.

For Jack Baker, life comes by way of spinning new melodies. Of drenching the night with rich harmony. Of playing the depths of his soul in a way that others can sing along . . . even without words.

Jazz musicians understand this. We don't discuss it much, but we frequently have the experience. When the music is flowing freely, when the rhythm is infectious, we know about the ecstasy that lifts people out of all wretchedness and the joy that mends our broken bones. We want to be part of such moments.

One such moment in early July 2013
At Dave Brubeck's memorial service in May, there was much mention of the power of joy. People testified that joy was the secret to understanding Dave and his music. He created joy, he felt it, he shared it freely. Joy builds bridges and creates understanding. Joy melts fear and directs us toward ethical action. Joy sustains us when we have no other human capacity to keep going. Joy is a great mystical gift of music, and I believe the Holy Spirit is in the thick of it all.

In the past eight days of my "music week," I have heard about twenty concerts. My soul is nearly full. And the musicians that have stood out have been infused with joy.
  • There was the manic excitement of the African guitarist Lionel Loueke, improvising in a wild time signature in Montreal. 
  • The Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy played his audience like a guitar, shouting "Wait a minute" and telling us, "I don't need to own a gun in order to love you," and then winking with a smile. 
  • Donny McCaslin hurled gravity-defying melodies into the air on his tenor saxophone. 
  • Arturo Sandoval blew hair-raising lines on his trumpet, and then played them again an octave higher.
  • The Preservation Hall Jazz Band raised the dead to their feet and made us dance.

All of it, done with joy.

I have a hunch that one reason why some people shy away from jazz is that they are afraid of joy. They are fearful that it might affect them, that it might demand more attention than they planned to give it, that it might free them from the fundamentalism of the printed page, that it might raise them from the dead. All of that can be personally frightening and threatening to the status quo. That's why Hitler outlawed jazz in the Third Reich, after all; he intentionally replaced the music of Louis Armstrong with the lock-step march and jailed all the creative artists.

But nobody has ever shut down the Holy Spirit. To quote the apostle Paul, "The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17).

Great freedom. Deep joy. I hear it in the making of music. Not merely in the replaying of a tune on the radio or a recording, but in the actual making of the music. In the words of St. Irenaeus, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive."

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Beauty in Montreal

What an appealing city! During our stay in Montreal, we have stopped regularly to admire something so well designed, something so ingenious, something so beautiful that it took our breath away. For instance, a glimpse of the sanctuary of Notre Dame Basilica:

Now THAT'S a church!
Behind the sanctuary is a chapel with a bronze plate that must be seen to be believed:

But the prize today goes to the topiary at the Jardin Botanique (Botanical Garden), immediately adjacent to the Olympic stadium. It is astounding. Each piece is carefully curated, and at least twenty feet tall. Here is a slideshow:

They are part of an international competition, each designed by a different nation. Wow. That's all we can say: wow! It is a privilege to be in the presence of such imaginative beauty. It lifts us higher. It brings heaven closer.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

I say a little prayer for you

The good folks in Clarks Summit know that I am wandering around my corner of the world with a candle.  Here it is, well-lit, as I remember the people I love with regular prayers.

Let the music play (Part 3)

The scene in Montreal
The Montreal jazz festival is the largest on the world. With hundreds of concerts over the course of ten days, the festival draws a huge roster of artists and thousands of international visitors.

I have heard about it for years, mostly in terms of the musical legends. Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays recorded "The Way Up" in a live concert here a few years back, drawing well over 100,000 fans for one downtown concert. I have the DVD of the show and remember being stunned by the sheer size of the crowd.

The music is eclectic, scanning a wide range of musical tastes. The festival does not back away from adventurous programming, either; that's part of why I was drawn to attend. The Syracuse Jazz Festival, also about to open, has booked the Doobie Brothers as the opening act. Having just heard them, they are hardly a jazz group, but the booking ensures a big attendance. Ah, the economics of the arts! The presence of a popular band helps to finance the lesser-known acts. We can hope it's about the music, not merely the money.

Last night we heard an extraordinary singer named Kelly Lee Evans. The crowd was swaying on a balmy night. We sat on stone steps in a city square to enjoy the music. There is something about Montreal that seems very inviting about the arts. People seem quite open, well informed, and unwilling to merely consume the music that some marketer tells them to enjoy. I like the open spirit of this place.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On the road to Montreal

Greetings from the road to Montreal. As the last part of Music Week, we are traveling to what Ripley's Believe It Or Not calls "the largest jazz festival in the world."

Just a slice of 32-mile-long Lake George
We take the long way, traveling up the west coast of Lake George. This pristine lake is absolutely beautiful and it takes a while to enjoy it. Along the way we stop at Silver Bay, a YMCA camp that friends have told us about for years. It turns out that Jamie once served on the board of a YMCA near her home town (the things you learn deep into your marriage!) and she knows a couple of the folks who work here. It was good to see them, and to learn more about Silver Bay. We will be back here some day.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Let the music play (Part 2)

Mike, Debbie, and John McFee
It is not often that my sister Debbie is speechless. But when I mentioned over dinner tonight that I had been able to score some backstage passes to meet the Doobie Brothers, she simply didn't know what to say. Here she is with guitarist John McFee and husband Mike at tonight's show at Binghamton University. It was a rousing two hour concert, and we were on our feet for most of it.

Patrick Simmons, Jamie, John McFee, BC, Tom Johnston
My wife is quite the rock-and-roller! She hoots, hollers, dances, waves her arms, and sings with every song she knows - as in ALL of them. It was a tremendous night with these legendary rockers. They are really nice guys, and we enjoyed the invitation to go backstage to meet and greet the band. They also upgraded our tickets, so we were front and center, about eight rows back, for a most extraordinary show.

So, gentle reader, how did this transpire? It seems that Victoria Stockham, wife of friend and trumpeter Jeff Stockham, is the sister to the road manager of the Doobie Brothers. When we ran into her at a recent jazz gig that I played with Jeff, she made the connection and offered the deal. It was amazing.

So here is a shout-out to Victoria, shown here with the ubiquitous John McFee. They are long-time friends, of course, and she made sure that everybody was warmly welcomed and introduced. She is a dear, and we are grateful beyond words.

As I tell my kids frequently, life is all about our friendships. It's not who we know - but how we know them, how we treat them, and how we welcome their gifts into our lives.

Then there is the music - - the surging, joyful, life-giving music. It has great power to change our lives.