A New Summit

IMG_7212I am headed to Denver this week to visit with my son and we are going to climb a mountain — a very big mountain called Grays Peak. At 14,270 feet, it is the highest in Colorado’s Front Range and one of fifty four peaks in the state that stand at least 14,000 feet above sea level. Locals call them “fourteeners.” Before you get too impressed, the trail to the top of Grays starts at over 10,000 feet. Still, getting there will be about twice as difficult as climbing one of the 4,000 footers in the White Mountains. I’ve climbed all forty eight of those and I’m kind of glad that the good folks in New Hampshire haven’t come up with a cute nickname for them. Though not nearly as tall as the Rockies, the White Mountains are not cute. They are rugged and, in bad weather, truly dangerous. They are majestic. What did Martin Luther King, Jr. call them? Oh, yes: Prodigious. I like that.
Why do I keep climbing mountains? To me, being in the wilderness from time to time is an essential part of living a full and balanced life. It nourishes the soul. It gives one the chance both to breathe and to think deeply. It provides a healthy distance from responsibilities at work, school, and home. If you are lucky, there won’t be any cell service. A blessed break from technology and unrelenting availability.
When the wilderness includes mountains, there is the added element of physical challenge. Do I have what it takes to make it to the top and back down to my car? Will I get lost? Do I have the right equipment to stay warm and dry? Mountains humble those who climb them, and without a doubt, a little humility is a good thing for most of us.
Climbing with my son will be very special. Together, we’ve reached the top of dozens of mountains in his twenty five years and I can’t wait to do it again. Our first climb was Flying Mountain on Mount Desert Island in Maine. Honestly, calling it a “mountain” is generous. It is little more than a hill (284 feet) and my son didn’t actually do any climbing. At two months old, he rode to the summit in a snuggly, attached to my chest. He climbed his first 4,000 footer, Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, at six years old. Impressive.
When he moved to Denver on his own, I was impressed once more at his courage and his adventurous spirit. After a relatively short time, he was chosen to be the lead mechanic at a large bike shop north of the city, and I couldn’t be more proud. The hike is a kind of celebration of his recent promotion.
Now, it is his turn to take the lead, to show his old man how it’s done. He chose the mountain and the route. He even called to remind me to bring warm clothing and snowshoes. He will have to hike slower than he usually does as I make my way up to the summit at a middle-aged pace. But we will both make it. And we will stand on the roof of the Rockies, admiring the awesome view, humbled and exhilarated once again by nature’s power and beauty, together.
Have you thought about going out into the wilderness to reconnect with nature, with God, with yourself, with someone you love, or all of the above? This is a perfect time of year to do it (inspiring colors, cool weather, no bugs). If you go, you may well reach new heights of understanding and appreciation for the gift of life.

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Streams in the Desert

IMG_6358I recently returned from a weeklong mission experience in Monument Valley, Utah. In addition to working with Navajo people to repair homes on their Reservation, our church group learned about native culture and encountered the startling beauty and deep mysteries of the local landscape. Though the region is mired in a fourteen-year drought, we were continually showered with signs of hope.

Before we reached Monument Valley, we visited Grand Canyon. The sere landscape of the rim and the visible parts of the desert-like interior made me wonder how anything could live there. Then, from certain angles, I caught glimpses of the Colorado River, far below. Sometimes greenish, sometimes reddish brown, sometimes silvery in the reflected sunlight, the Colorado carved out this enormous wonder of nature over millions of years. It provides water to the plants, animals, and humans living on the canyon floor. Seeing the river snake through the Grand Canyon reminded me of two important truths about life: Even something relatively small can make a huge difference, given time and patience. Also, in most dry places (physically, emotionally, or spiritually), we can find refreshment and life if we look from the right angles.

On a rafting excursion through nearby Glen Canyon, the heat started to get to several of us. Just when we were beginning to regret the trip, we pulled our rafts up onto a small beach. Our guides told us we had time for a dip. Despite the intense heat of the canyon, the river was a shocking 46 degrees Fahrenheit! Egging each other on, we jumped into the frigid water in small groups, many holding hands. What started as a simple chance to cool off became a unifying event for our group. I can still hear the peels of laughter and applause echoing off the canyon walls.

Once we began our projects on the Reservation, we were blessed with more unexpected signs of hope. Our group of 46, combined with 150 other travelers from all over the country, was divided up into crews of 6. Despite differences in culture, theology, political opinion, socioeconomic status, age, gender, and more, most crews functioned beautifully together and all projects were completed successfully by the end of the week.

Given the history of the native people in our country and their treatment by European settlers and the US government, it is not surprising that outsiders are often viewed with suspicion on Reservations, especially at the beginning of a visit. Our hosts proved that assumption wrong, at least in Monument Valley, as they welcomed us graciously on the first day and in many instances labored side by side with us all week.

Perhaps the most refreshing gift I received all week was a simple statement. As New Englanders who often rush about and who manipulate the environment to our short term advantage and long term peril, we would do well to receive this piece of wisdom offered to us from one of our Navajo hosts: “Take life one step at a time and move with the waves of the world.”

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Seeds

iStock_000014464248X-Planting-Seeds-234x178My wife, Tracy, and I put in our vegetable garden yesterday afternoon. It almost didn’t happen. Busy schedules and more pressing chores just about crowded it out of the schedule on our rare mutual day off. But we took a quick trip to the store for a couple of tomato plants, a half dozen herbs, and a handful of seed packets, and we were ready to go.

The best part of the day, for me, was breaking up the dirt with the heavy hoe. With each chop and pull, the roots from last year’s tomatoes and other dried up detritus came to the surface. After we cleared the rocks and unwanted bits away, we raked out the black earth and smelled in it the promise of fresh vegetables in… July maybe? August?

The thing about planting seeds is that it takes a while to see what’s coming. Lots of watering and weeding and most of all waiting has to happen before we get results.

And we are terrible at waiting – both in our particular family and in our wider culture.

I love my phone. It keeps me connected to the most important people in my life and it makes my job much easier. But the newest technologies have taught me that I do not have to wait for connectivity or for information. My phone is a powerful tool, but it is not a helpful teacher when it comes to the essential virtue of patience. Seeds provide a much better lesson in the value of waiting.

Also, when we plant and care for a seed, we express confidence that the earth will do what it has been doing for far longer than humans have existed. We recognize that we are not the center of the universe. We learn humility.

As a father, this is familiar ground. When my two sons were small, I longed for them to understand the beauty, power, and fragility of the natural world. As soon as it was physically possible, I took them into the woods and mountains and did so over and over again, but I had no idea what the effect of those excursions would have.

Thankfully, both of them have made it safely into young adulthood with a deep appreciation for the environment and have been actively engaged in seeking its protection.

But I also read to my boys every single night of their young lives. Alas, neither of them enjoy reading as adults. They have no interest in the hundreds of books that line my shelves and I will not be discussing Shakespeare or John Irving with either of them anytime soon. As parents, all we can do is try our best and see what sticks. I’m sure not all of the seeds we planted yesterday will germinate, either.

Ministry is similar in that each idea I put out there in the Sunday morning sermon is carefully chosen, yet once released has a life of it’s own. Each action we take as leaders, followers, friends, family members, and neighbors has the potential to produce something beautiful in time. We just don’t always get to see it happen.

Yesterday, Tracy and I could have completed any number of projects around the house that would have brought clear results and instant satisfaction. Why choose to start something that will take months to come to fruition? The answer is still buried in the dark, sweet soil. We’ll just have to wait.

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Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

seegerWhen Pete Seeger died in January, we lost an American musical icon. We also lost a leader, and we who have dedicated our lives to guiding others toward positive change can learn a lot from his approach.

Pete wasn’t an institutional leader, per se, although he and his wife, Toshi, founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., starting in 1966. The Seegers used the boat and Pete’s inspirational tunes to make a real difference. You can swim and fish in the Hudson now, and the river has regained its health.

Pete’s leadership came mostly through his music. He created tunes that playfully and pointedly described our beautiful yet broken world, inviting us all to remake it, together.

He also knew how to build community. His concerts were not so much performances as they were sing-alongs. While most musicians (and leaders) want you to be impressed by their cleverness and skill, Pete’s shows united his audiences in a common sense of joy, motivating them to make a difference in their daily lives and in a particular social or environmental cause. And somehow, he made humanity and the natural world the centers of our attention, not himself. Never himself.

This kind of leadership is rare, and I wonder, as institutional life in our country continues to erode, if it will become even less common.

There have always been crooks and despots at the helm of various tribes and nation-states, and recently the world watched in horror as former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych directed the slaughter of those protesting his broken promises and financial misdeeds. Leadership by brute force, in any setting, only serves to erode trust, the essential bond of community.

Parents who are good leaders in the home understand the trust factor. Most kids (at least before adolescence) feel as though they should obey their parents, no matter what. However, when children can truly trust that their parents will love them consistently and gently, provide for them, keep them safe, and set appropriate limits on their own behavior, they will follow their parents to the ends of the earth if asked.

Leadership in the business world can be tricky in that it’s not only about guiding a group of people in a common cause. Quarterly reports show whether profits are high enough, and if they’re not, the leader is usually considered a failure. However, the best management minds know that, given a good business model, performance will improve if employees feel a sense of responsibility to one another and to the customer.

As the pastor of a church, my role is multifaceted. I am a theologian-in-residence, a steward of sacred rites, a writer, a speaker, a teacher, a shoulder to lean on in difficult times, and sometimes a secretary and janitor. Unless I am also a leader, I will be ineffective in all the rest.

In the world of religious institutions, leadership matters much more than many think. Even if everyone is very faithful and very kind, your church, synagogue, temple, or mosque will fail without solid ordained and lay leadership, working in partnership.

Let’s spend more time and energy in our families, schools, religious groups, and sports teams teaching our kids the leadership skills that they will need when they inherit the world. Eventually, they will be in charge, and all of us want them to be prepared and successful. The well being of all we hold dear depends on it.

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Music and Memory

photoI’m the first one to complain bitterly about Christmas music blaring over the sound systems in stores and malls before Thanksgiving and the one singing loudest on Christmas Eve. Not the best, the loudest. I am an enthusiastic singer of Christmas carols. I especially like to belt out the tenor part of the refrain in “Angels We Have Heard on High.” You know, Glo-o-o-o-o-ria! In excelsis Deo!  

Although it pains me to hear the great Christmas songs before Thanksgiving, it’s even worse when the arrangements played are those cheesy, soulless, overwrought versions that should never have made it out of the recording studio. Why remake something beautiful and make it worse?

But now, the season is really here and I couldn’t be happier. Because music brings me home.

When I hear “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (the Burl Ives version from the animated film), I am back in the house where I was raised and it’s 1965. There is a fire in the fireplace and I’m seeing Hermey and his friends tame the Abominable Snowman for the first time.

Or when one of the jazzy Christmas songs come onto my car radio (like “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby), I am suddenly sitting next to my mom as she drives through a snowy afternoon in our 1970 Chevy Malibu station wagon.

And when Pandora chooses, “Joy to the World,” I see my childhood pastor, Mr. Bryant, smiling brightly from the pulpit of our candlelit church as he sings on Christmas Eve. He died years ago – much too young — but his joy stays with me.

My sons are young adults now, and my guess is that Alvin and the Chipmunks (Me, I want a huuu-la-hooop!) and Howard Blake’s brilliant score in the animated film, “The Snowman,” bring them straight back to their childhood Christmases. Learning to sing carols in harmony and playing them on their instruments (cello and piano) was also an important part of the holidays when they were young. We created many memories singing for lonely friends and performing together in church on Christmas Eve.

Nowadays, when I am in my own home at holiday time, I feel most at home when listening to the Kings College Chapel Choir sing old English carols like “Adam Lay yBounden” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I’ve also learned to really enjoy Duke Ellington’s genius reinterpretation of “The Nutcracker Suite” and the soundtrack to “The Muppets Christmas Carol” (not least because of the moral thrust of the lyrics).

This year, I had the privilege to witness the Handel and Haydn Society perform Handel’s “Messiah” at Symphony Hall. The magnificent presentation was both a spiritual and aesthetic high, sweetened by the company of my wife and son as well as by talented friends in the choir.

The truth is that not all holiday memories are good ones. The sound many people remember from Christmases long, long ago is angry shouting. And maybe Christmas makes you feel left out because you don’t celebrate it. I can’t imagine feeling excluded in my own country for about 10% of the year, every year.

What kinds of memories does Christmas music invoke for you? How does it make you feel? Excited for family get-togethers or melancholy at the thought of another disappointing and lonely holiday season? My hope is that the music you hear at this time of year will bring you back to the best of your past and will also powerfully, and gently, redeem your present.

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Holy Beauty

If you’ve been lucky enough to be able to look up from your desk or windshield or kitchen sink in the last few days, you’ve seen the reds and yellows and oranges begin to splash across the treetops. The very beginning of foliage season is my favorite, when there is still a green background for the colors of fall and warm days thrill in contrast to lovely cool nights.

As I walked through the streets of Paris with my new bride this past summer, I experienced long periods of speechlessness. The spiraled ironwork, the bright flowers everywhere, the soaring church towers, the colorful clothing on both women and men, the unparalleled masterpieces, the understated cafes, and outrageous fountain statuary. And of course, the Seine flowing through the middle of it all with its elegant arcs. Paris fed some deep part of me that hungers for beauty.

And yet, I felt a twinge of guilt. As I beheld and revered the stunning heart of France, I wondered whether I was being superficial. I grew up in and continue to be a committed member of the United Church of Christ. Our spiritual ancestors were the Pilgrims who settled in this part of the world in the early seventeenth century. In their view, anything that satisfied human desire – aside from God – was to be deeply questioned and most often rejected as an idol.

Puritanism’s fear that beauty might draw us away from spiritual things is an understandable reaction to the Renaissance. However, I am fully prepared to claim that beauty is a gift from God. To be totally honest, I believe that beauty is one of the windows into the truth of God.

One caution: I have worked with high schoolers for almost thirty years and was of course a teenager myself once. Starting in high school, we tend to put way too much emphasis on physical beauty in my opinion. And we adults don’t help. Physically attractive teens get hired sooner for sure. My guess is they get selected for team or club leadership and are called on in class more often as well. This is not their fault.

When we are at our best, each of us can bring something beautiful to the table, whether it’s internal or external or both. And I hope the adults in our children’s lives realize that and work to empower each one to reach her or his potential for creating beauty.

The question then arises – and to me it’s a spiritual one: Does that mean we are wrongheaded if we appreciate physical beauty? I don’t think so, but we’ve got to keep ourselves in check, look for the beauty within each person, young or old or in between, and within each landscape and neighborhood as well.

The denuded hillsides of Scotland and the desert places of south central Asia have their own haunting splendor. And there are plenty of streets in Dorchester and Roxbury that at first glance may look rough, but contain good, loving, brilliant, and exceptionally creative people. Beautiful people.

So, I will continue to visit the Gardner and the Museum of Fine Arts to gaze at impressionist paintings, classical sculpture, and medieval mantelpieces. And I will make the annual trek to Manhattan with my son this fall to listen to world-class jazz at Birdland or the Bluenote or the Village Vanguard. And I will venture to the White Mountains and snowshoe in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, just to see the snow-laden evergreens on the side of some mountain this winter and listen to the absolute silence.

And then I will return to Hingham and give thanks for the beautiful hearts of the people in this community, my brothers and sisters on the journey.
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Pilgrimage

My wife, Tracy, and I recently went on a pilgrimage as part of our honeymoon. We began our trip in Paris, which of course abounds with unique and flamboyant sights, sounds, tastes, and rhythms. We relished every moment of our time there. Afterward, we flew to Scotland to walk St. Cuthbert’s Way, a long distance footpath that stretches from the Scottish Borders to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne on the coast of England.

Here on the South Shore, the word “pilgrim” evokes the zealous adventurers who landed at Plymouth in the early 17th century. But pilgrimage has a long and rich history that crosses religious and temporal lines. Christian pilgrimage began sometime in the early 4th century, with journeys to Jerusalem and other holy sites in Israel-Palestine. But most official pilgrims these days are Muslims making their way to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Pilgrimage, or Hajj, is one of the five pillars (core practices) of Islam.

While the journey to Mecca increasingly became a part of the bedrock of Muslim life, Christian pilgrimage evolved and changed. A trip to the Holy Land was dangerous, time consuming, and expensive. So, many continental and British cathedrals and other sites (including Lindisfarne), became pilgrimage destinations for those seeking hope, inspiration, and forgiveness in the challenging and violent world of medieval Europe.

Chartres Cathedral in France created an indoor labyrinth sometime in the early 13th century. Some historians believe that the Chartres labyrinth was originally intended for use by those who could not travel afar, but wanted to experience the prayerful movement that is at the heart of pilgrimage.

And movement is what pilgrimage is indeed all about, whether ones journey is internal or external or both. To me, the Christian gospel (and life in general) is not about apprehending certain static truths, but is rather a process of moving toward the heart of the Divine, true community, and ones most authentic self.

Christian pilgrimage faded in the 16th Century after the Protestant Reformation and reformations within the Catholic Church exposed certain exploitative practices. ImageHowever, it never completely went away and is definitely making a comeback as personal spirituality becomes increasingly important to the modern day faithful. The medieval route to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain is especially popular.

I am an avid hiker partially because I find it easiest to pray while walking through areas of natural beauty. There is something about the rhythm of my feet and breathing that allows my anxieties and mental lists to slip away and opens me to the God who is within, among, and all around us. Purposeful, prayerful walking provides an alternative to the frenetic pace of everyday life.

St. Cuthbert’s Way is a 63-mile trek that leads the pilgrim through a colorful patchwork of rolling farmland dotted with sheep, over moorland bursting with purple heather, and down the streets of ancient villages. We were constantly aware of the magnificence of creation and of its Creator.

In the past, I have enjoyed walking long distance footpaths alone. However, on pilgrimage with my new life partner, the experience was safer, less lonely, and afforded us the opportunity to learn more about one another. As we crossed the mudflats toward Lindisfarne (accessible only at low tide), as many thousands have done for the last 1,400 years, we experienced elation at completing the walk and were thrilled at the prospect of a lifetime of shared journeys. What do you say? Solo or with someone you love, spiritual or physical or both, are you up for a pilgrimage of some kind?

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