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Archive for the ‘Nature and Spirituality’ Category

On Being ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR): Take 1

Monday, February 26th, 2018

Note: this is the first of three explorations into the gifts and challenges of being SBNR.  Wait for the others in the next few weeks.

According to the Pew Research Center, 27% of US adults claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” a jump of 8% in just five years. The term is now so popular that it claims its own abbreviation—SBNR. Compared to the murder and mayhem caused by extremists of many religious, SBNR has to be a positive development in human culture. Yet, some who identify as SBNR may occasionally long for the certitude of more traditional faiths, especially at this time of year. Additionally, some SBTR folks exhibit a self-righteous certitude that can be as dismissive as fundamentalist believers.

To which I say that theological tenets are like building codes, those local regulations that control the design, methods, and materials used in construction. Most local jurisdictions have such laws that are established to protect the health and safety of residents. Anyone building or retrofitting a house (and the contractor or architect) must comply with standards governing the frame, plumbing, electrical, and other features of the structure.

But there are building codes and then there are building codes – specifically prescriptive and performance codes. Prescriptive codes specify what is required – how many inches of what kind of insulation in the ceiling, how many in the walls, etc. They do the same for windows, walls, wiring, and wastewater systems.

Performance codes don’t prescribe requirements; rather, they give minimum benchmarks. They don’t care whether the builder uses fiberglass insulation, plastic bags, old socks, or solar energy – provided that the building meets acceptable standards of safety and efficiency.
So far so good. Unfortunately, some local governments formulate standards the same way many people formulate explanations for God. Builders and smaller jurisdictions usually favor prescriptive standards with detailed checklists. You don’t need a cadre of professional engineers to decide if something will work or not, you just check off each item to ensure compliance.

But architects and innovators typically prefer performance standards that allow greater creativity and flexibility. They can think “outside the box” and devise new solutions to old problems. To require a new state-of-the-art building to conform to prescriptive criteria equivalent to a traditional building could be wasteful, prohibitively expensive, and even impossible.

Isn’t this akin to our understanding of God’s ways? – Some people want the details spelled out and a checklist provided, while others want individual flexibility within a broad framework.

Prescriptive standards – whether they relate to places of the hearth or of the heart – are valued by those who want straightforward, right-and-wrong guidelines. There are times in our lives when we all want straight answers, especially during childhood and trauma. However, as we grow in faith and discernment, many of us find we have outgrown simplistic criteria for faithful living; we want to focus on the big picture of God’s love without falling into the quicksand of other people’s sense of right and wrong. It’s time to move from prescriptive to performance criteria.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook. Local governments must develop and enforce building codes or houses fall down, neighbors get into shouting matches (or worse) over unsightly monstrosities two feet from their dream house, and the building profession is plagued with corruption and deceit. Doing nothing – living without a code of some kind – is not an acceptable response.

Another way of looking at is to think of prescriptive codes as religion and performance criteria as spirituality. There are times when we need strict prescriptions, but mostly we prefer the flexibility and growing edges of performance benchmarks.

And those of us who use performance standards to explain God must work harder than those who are satisfied with black-and-white criteria. Each of us is required to come up with a statement of faith that, while not being prescriptive, is nonetheless a clear and cogent explanation for how God works in our lives and how we translate that into daily action. Otherwise, SBNR is just a cute way of saying you believe in everything or nothing.


Follow the Freedom Star

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

Many Christians just celebrated Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas and the day the three wise visited the baby Jesus. It began the tradition of gift-giving at Christmas and also represents the true message of how God came to earth as a helpless infant. For me, it also suggests the power of the natural world to affirm our majesty and power and to open up new possibilities – if only we but follow the heavenly stars to our own new vision of freedom.

You may remember that, during the darkest days in the history of our country when people bought and sold other people whom they could then treat worst than the vilest of farm animals, there were a few courageous souls – God-fearing whites and daring blacks – who developed an elaborate system of secret hiding places to help runaways find their way north to freedom. The Underground Railroad relied on markers in trees, special lights hung out at certain hours, quilts of particular colors hung out to dry, and other such signals to set the path. Many of them had learned the popular folk tune, “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a-waitin’
For to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd.

The verses were elaborate codes devised by an itinerant white carpenter (the “old man”) who went from plantation to plantation, teaching the song to slaves from Alabama and Mississippi. It led them up along the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers to the northern states and, later, Canada. Hounded by dogs and slave owners, the runaways and their accomplices faced torture and certain death if they were caught. The “drinking gourd” is the constellation we know as the Big Dipper. If you look at the two sides of the cup that are opposite the handle and multiply the distance between the two stars by seven, you will see the North Star, also called Polaris.

The black slaves and their supporters were not the first to follow a star to freedom. Two thousand years ago, three kings from the Orient followed a star to Bethlehem. Without knowing much about it, it seems like nice, romantic little tale, but that doesn’t do justice to the story. First, it was a time of terrible oppression. The period of Roman occupation in Palestine was different – but fully as gruesome – as the days of slavery before the Civil War. Taxes were upwards of 60-70%, and people lost their land to pay tribute to the Roman Empire and those Jewish authorities that supported Caesar. Some people sold themselves and their children into slavery, because it was that or starvation. Five percent of the people owned 95% of the wealth, and the rest suffered, cruelly and unmercifully.

Second, “kings” is a misnomer. The three men who came to Bethlehem were probably astrologers from Babylon or further east. Astrologers were the first astronomers, who were, in turn, the scholars and scientists of the ancient world. The term “magi” is the root of magician, and it designated someone of exceptional wisdom and knowledge. Think Gandolf, as in Lord of the Rings, and you get a pretty good idea of the caliber of these three people – men who could envision a world different from what they saw around them, namely a world of goodness, kindness, justice, and freedom. For them, Jesus symbolized a new way of living. In presenting him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Magi were acknowledging Jesus’ kingship, his priesthood, and his humanity, that is, honoring the fact that the God who is king is also fully human and fully vulnerable – just like us. In recognizing the love of God embodied in this tiny child, these three wisest of all wise men could see a way out of the oppression and injustice of the Roman Empire. Think stars, think freedom.

Epiphany is a Greek word that means to “shine upon” or to “give light.” It means a dramatic uncovering or sudden awareness that changes one’s sense of reality. Suddenly you see what is happening and what is possible in a whole new light. It’s an “ah ha” moment, in which you blurt out, “Eureka – now I see it. Now I understand.” St. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus was an epiphany. The runaway slaves vision of freedom was an epiphany. The Magi’s recognition that a tiny infant could and would change the world was an epiphany.

I had a dramatic epiphany about 25 years ago, during the darkest period of my life. My husband had decided, rather suddenly, to end the marriage, leaving me with two kids, an expensive mortgage, and not much else. I felt alone, helpless, trapped – consumed with terror and anger. The rage was a poison within my body, like the cancer that had killed my mother years earlier. I knew that it only hurt the children and me and had little effect on my estranged husband, but I was powerless to rid myself of it. I began praying with fervor unlike any time previously.

One autumn weekend, I went camping in the mountains with friends. Around midnight, leaving my kids sleeping in the tent with our trusty dog, four of us went walking to view the stars. It was an extraordinary sight: never had I seen so many stars in the world. I thought back to all of the isolated places I had ever and I couldn’t remember seeing so many stars. My mind wandered to the ancient Phoenicians and Norsemen and others who traveled by the stars. And I wondered if the sky sparkled like this when the shepherds watched at the time of the Nativity.

About fifteen minutes into the walk, I saw the shooting star. It didn’t register much at first, sort of a subconscious thought, “Yup, there’s a shooting star,” as it streaked across an eighth of the night sky. But one of my friends had noticed it too, and asked excitedly whether I had seen it or not. I gave her a smile and probably said something pleasant and noncommittal. I really didn’t want to talk, for I was too enraptured just scanning the sky, and searching for the occasional meteor. I thought some about my current life, but spent more time pondering ancient history, my childhood, and the universe as a whole. I remembered that, in native American spirituality, the stars are our ancestors looked down from the heavens, and I felt wondrously peaceful and complete. I was so happy to be there at that time, at that place. The entire sky was sparkling, radiant, glowing.

And then I glanced at the ground, and it was luminous, as were the shrubs and trees. I looked at my friends, and they sparkled also. And so did I – rather like we had all been gently dabbed with Tinkerbell’s fairy dust. The heavens had opened and the stars had feathered their way down to earth. The delicate energy of God was present inside, outside, all around me… I experienced a unity that I had never known before, in which there were no boundaries of time or place. Past, present, and future were one; here and there were one. I was a child visiting her grandparents in the mountains of Massachusetts, I was an explorer on an ancient canoe, I was a shepherd in Bethlehem, I was a mother whose kids were sleeping contentedly in a modern nylon tent. All the stars were friends and relatives who cared for me. They were sparkling with happiness and cheering me on, saying, “You can do it, girl. We know you can.” I just kept repeating, “Thank you God,” to myself. It was involuntary: I had to thank God.

I later learned that this was a classic religious experience, in which one recognizes God’s grace as a powerful and unmerited gift. In that moment, my cancerous rage disappeared forever, for I had felt God’s love as a warm and comforting hug on a cold and private night. I knew instantly that God loved me and that my children and I would, somehow, survive. I was liberated from the rage and the fear. The stars that came to earth and surrounded my friends and me was the most powerful gift I have ever received. It’s the reason I eventually went into ordained ministry, for it changed my understanding of God, the world, and myself. Think stars, think freedom.

And what about you? What is the sudden revelation that the stars might offer? Consider those attachments that keep you from being fully free. Consider those fears that keep you bound in fetters. Is it anger? Jealousy? Physical decline? Loneliness? Is it an addiction that you would like to liberate yourself from? Is it the sense of inadequacy – physical, psychological, financial, or other? – We are so attached to our emotions and to our material supports that they cloud our vision. We live in darkness, blind to the stars and to the holy in our midst.

So, in your mind’s eye, feel the magi’s gifts coming to you. There is myrrh to acknowledge your humanity, incense to affirm you as an agent of God’s love, and gold to honor your majesty. Feel also the stars that come and dance around you, kissing you with God’s comfort and affection. The gifts of the Magi and of the stars are God’s gift to you. They are gifts of courage, freedom, clear thinking, and clear seeing. They are the gifts of liberation from false attachments and false fears. Think stars, think freedom, follow the Drinking Gourd.

On Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, this is God’s most incredible gift to us.. It is nothing to do with belief; it has nothing to do with some supernatural entity directing what happens in the world. On the contrary, it has everything to do with mystery, connection, peace, and freedom. That is the message of the three kings: the freedom to see the world, others, and ourselves in a new way, in the way of Jesus and the runaway slaves, with liberation and love.

Blessings to you on this New Year and throughout 2018.


Pilgrimage as Embodied Faith

Friday, April 29th, 2016

“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

— Rabbi Abraham Heschel

 Who are we and why are we the way we are?  I surmise that our identities are fashioned by those people and places that have combined to give us our values and thus our identity. Some of these were given us (family, country of origin) and some we acquired on our own (friends, college, job, travels, spouse).  It’s true of organizations as well.  The church I pastor is a progressive church because of our location (in Elmira, a central conduit of the Underground Railroad) and the people who filled its pews and pulpits in the past.  With different people in a different setting, The Park Church might not have emerged as a national landmark and leader in justice issues.

But too often we take these values as defaults without exploring, questioning, discarding, or celebrating them.  The result is that we live on autopilot without exercising much control over our destinies.  It was for this reason that God (or, if you prefer, the earliest wisdom teachers who collected their culture’s wisdom in the form of the great religious texts) developed the idea of Sabbath, the seventh day of the week during which God rested and instructed us to do the same.  This kind of holy rest is not vegging out at the beach or hanging out with friends; it is a deliberate time set aside to reconnect with the best of ourselves and reclaim our identity as beings made in the image of God.

In exploring our identity and values, we also need to consider the role of faith, which is too often confused with belief or contaminated by heaven-or-hell pronouncements of the institutional church.  This ignores the fact that doubt is to faith as dissent is to democracy – you can’t have the latter without the former or it’s sham.  We meet fundamentalist Christians – or Muslims or belligerent atheists or anyone else with simplistic truth-and-falsehood, good-and-bad, heaven-and-hell explanations of God – and they just don’t seem … real.  Rigidly held beliefs are so antithetical to the human experience that it’s hard to take them seriously; faith is not authentic if there isn’t some doubt at its core.

A wise elder shared an important insight about twenty years ago when I was tormented by whether or not to go into ministry.  My head said this religious stuff was just phooey, but my heart was telling me that the call and the joy, however inexplicable, were real.  On a spiritual retreat, I met with the resident priest, explaining that I was spiritually bipolar; my head and heart were in constant tension.  After listening to my plight, he leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “It’s not your head and your heart at war; it’s that you – like everyone else in the world – is on the seesaw between mystic and cynic.  Mysticism, however tenuous and inexplicable, brings joy, whereas cynicism is deadening.  You’re a mystic trying to follow the rationalist explanations of the modern world, and you’ll never find peace until you honor the validity of the experienced God as the source of peace since the beginning of time.  Remember, that’s why we call it ‘the peace that passes all understanding.’”

In short, faith can never be understood or explained scientifically.  But there is the very real experience of connection with something outside of us that brings joy, peace, and energy.  It is not rational or irrational; it is extra-rational.  It is of the heart, not the head.

Events that take us to a new understanding of God and ourselves are not reserved for holy nutcases.  On the contrary, several recent studies have reported that fully half of all Americans have had a life-changing religious experience at least once in their lives.  In other countries, the percentage is even higher.  As a rule, mystical experiences seem to be like grace, an unbidden gift from above.  But there are definitely things we can do to connect with the divine.

One of these is a pilgrimage. The ancient Jews were expected to go to Jerusalem three times a year – for Passover, Shavuot (or Pentecost), and Sukkot.   To this day, Muslims are required to travel to Mecca at least once in their lives. In our Christian history, those of us of European ancestry will think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Pilgrimage has been a major component of all the major faiths since the beginning of time – either mandated by the religious texts or encouraged by the culture.

Dear readers, have any of you ever gone on a pilgrimage?  If so, what prompted you and what did you get out of it?  Friends of mine who have undertaken a formal pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca or along the Camino de Santiago or to the places of their ancestors typically return with a clearer understanding of their own identity and purpose in life.  They return with a sense of the peace that passes all understanding.

As I begin my sabbatical with pilgrimages to Iona, Lindisfarne, and a collection of ancestral sites, I welcome your insights and prayers, for truly a pilgrimage is embodied faith: the work of the heart and the journey to discern our identity as children of a loving God.

Blessings on the journey!

Rev. Felicity



Circling Excerpt 2: Part I (Soaring) — Chapter 1: Geography (First Section)

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

This is the first third of Chapter 1.  It goes downhill from here.  And up, and around.  And around.  I invite you to subscribe so that you will receive all the postings.  And I genuinely welcome your comments.

Thanks so much!


1.     Geography


“There is an eternal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.”

— Josephine Hart


Retracing the circular journey, it seems that whatever success I have had in life began with the need for a precautionary pee in Germany, the benefits of a dirty mind in Vermont, and the challenges of teaching Eskimos in Alaska.


Most of my childhood memories were agreeable but atypical. In high school in Washington, D.C., I was part of a pseudo-intellectual set. My friends and I took hikes along Rock Creek, held pretentious “philosophy parties” with jug wine on the weekend, enjoyed sunrise breakfasts to watch the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, and conducted poetry readings at twilight on canoes going down the river. I still blush to remember the time I was asked to bring poetry by Keats. Unable to find any of his works in my parents’ bookshelves, I brought a volume of Yeats instead. (I figured that Yeats was a lot like Keats, just a different first letter…)

Teenagers in what was becoming the most important city of the world enjoyed a heady combination of Southern ingenuousness and Northern sophistication. The city was indubitably gracious: children gave up their seats to adults on the bus, men opened doors for women, and salespeople were always friendly. In 1960, Kennedy and his Camelot cabinet had just come to town, with brilliant minds and enough openhearted largesse to save the city, the country, and the world. Civil rights and urban renewal became the watchwords of the day, and my parents were prominent activists in both areas. It was an enchanting town for insiders.

With encouragement from my mother, a precinct captain for the Democrats and active in numerous social and political causes, ten of my friends organized a publicity campaign to improve the deplorable physical conditions of the D.C. public schools. Four others joined me in tutoring junior high school and elementary school students in a less affluent part of town. And when my best friend Mabrie and I got television and newspaper coverage following our refusal to pay the “discriminatory and illegal” class dues imposed by the school principal, we gained special prestige among the “teenage intelligentsia” that we all thought ourselves to be. Like the city itself, we were full of ourselves; in a word, insufferable.

Looking back, I warrant that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. For better and worse, my parents both grew up with a sense of invulnerability and self-importance, and my subconscious goal was to match their outrageous teenage stories with one or more of my own.


My father’s classic story, paraded for special occasions, new suitors, and interested grandchildren, involved a real-life duel. Yes, the kind with swords, against a nobleman, at dawn, over a woman – the full nine yards. He had an elaborate narrative about visiting his parents in northern Italy where his father was managing several mines for an English company. It was the summer of 1939 and Dad had just finished his freshman year at college. Entering the local bar, he met a nobleman, the fiancé of an attractive woman who sometimes played tennis with Dad. When the duke loudly insulted America for its stance on fascism, Dad responded by criticizing Hitler and Mussolini.

The enraged duke slapped Dad backhanded on the cheek, a challenge to combat. Perhaps he assumed that Dad would back down or lack the skill to engage in a duel, which had been outlawed in Italy for nearly fifty years. But Dad, who was on the fencing team at college, gleefully chose swords as the weapon of choice before returning home to spend a sleepless night and await the dawn.

The fight, which was held at daybreak in a gentle grove overlooking a river, included an attending doctor and two seconds. The duke came dressed in black velvet pantaloons, a white silk shirt, and elegant leather boots, while Dad showed up bare-chested, in tennis shorts and golf shoes (for extra traction). It was reportedly an arduous encounter because the two were evenly matched in strength and skill.

Dad’s fighting skills tended toward the defensive, and he saw that the duke often left his right flank exposed just after thrusting forward. So, awaiting a good opportunity, Dad set up an attack in such a way that when the duke lunged forward, Dad parried to the right, pulling his opponent with him. When the duke brought his sword back to the left to strike again, Dad snapped his to his right, such that his opponent impaled his forearm on the tip of Dad’s blade. Dad gleefully explained that he gently passed off the sword – with the duke’s arm still attached – to the surgeon before walking off to shower and play tennis with the duke’s now ex-girlfriend.

How much of it happened as Dad described? Though I’m quite sure that my ever-gracious father added plenty of dramatic license, one had only to meet him to know that the substance of the story was true. His persona was marked by an ingenuous and enchanting self-assurance that fans of David Niven can recognize. I consider it a key to his character because on that day he understood that he was both charmed and charming.


My mother’s epic story happened in 1935, when the Gestapo stopped the train on which she was traveling from Göttingen to Paris while they grilled her on the whereabouts of the thousand dollars that she had had when she arrived in Germany to visit her governess’ family only three weeks earlier. Mom was an unwitting smuggler for peace activists in the United States who were helping to finance the exportation of German Jews after Hitler’s ascension to power. Unaware of how rapidly Hitler had corrupted German society, her father, a minister and antiwar activist, had given her money to take to his Lutheran counterpart in Germany.

In the dozen or so times that Mom recounted the story, she still hyperventilated as she relived the innocent-looking shrugs and bald lies employed to hide the truth and protect her German friends. “Well, we went out to the opera several times, and I bought a whole bunch of clothes, and, oh yes, I had to buy presents for all of my brothers and sisters and family and friends back home…” she said, looking bug-eyed, curling her mouth down, and shrugging her shoulders in a most perplexed manner. Exasperated after questioning this fourteen-year-old ingénue for two hours, the Gestapo finally let the train proceed. And thus her teenage conquest of the Gestapo affirmed in her a steely courage and shrewd resourcefulness that was both a blessing and a curse.


With an inheritance of $1,000 from a great aunt, I traveled for a year between high school and college, taking classes and working for six months as an au pair in Germany and then meandering through Spain, Italy, and Greece, doing such odd jobs as washing dishes and working on a road gang. Since my parents grew up shuttling between Europe and the States (although usually accompanied by governesses or older siblings), they were relatively sanguine about my going off alone.

Or maybe this is the blessing – and the curse – of privilege, for while my family was never affluent, I grew up with an assurance that “the world was my oyster.”  It was assumed that I would make a positive difference in the world and that my life would be relatively painless. But would the advantages of prestige and education offset assumptions of invincibility and the familial burdens of high expectation? — Only time would tell.

In the beginning, it seemed either that God was protecting me or that my innocence served more a talisman against evil spirits than an invitation to mischief. Few could believe that I was barely seventeen. That plus the fact that I lacked the experience to recognize a come-on meant that most people treated me as a mascot whom they needed to protect rather than a love object. (Or I had learned my mother’s easy graciousness without her sexuality, and somehow managed to translate that into a friendly, but hands-off, approachability.)

Europe was an extraordinary gift, for I discovered that simplicity is a virtue and that status and sophistication are not all they are cracked up to be. A basic vocabulary of phrases in Spanish, Italian, and Greek sufficed for a month or more in each country, and I commend them to all young ladies traveling alone. They are: “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “Good evening,” “please,” “thank you,” “I love you,” and “Don’t bother me.” (“I love you” is especially helpful for pre-adolescents and grandparents who will then take you under their wing, while “Don’t bother me” is important for all others.) These phrases, a ready smile, and body gestures kept me hale, hearty, and happy for almost a year.

Greece was a special haven. Everything sparkles in the brilliant Mediterranean sun – the crystal Aegean Sea, the white sandy beaches, the spotless whitewashed buildings, the hearts of the villagers and simple peasants. Running out of money about a week after arriving, I found a succession of jobs helping sell crafts to tourists, washing dishes in a nightclub, and clearing rocks on a road gang. The foreman could have been an understudy to Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek with his flashy smile and zest for life.


But then comes undeniable proof that my life is firmly in the grip of the bizarre. Because my first SAT scores were not as high as I want, I opt to take them a second time, which means hopping a train to Frankfurt to the U.S. Army enclave known as “Little America.”

Arriving at the American high school twenty-five minutes before the test is scheduled to begin, I find only two adult proctors setting up. Being well versed in the value of a precautionary pee, I ask for the nearest toilet and learn that the girls’ bathroom is nearly a quarter mile down labyrinthine hallways at the other end of the building.

After closing the stall door, I discover the latch is broken. I am trapped in a cell that is two feet wide, five feet deep, eight feet high, and just shy of a quarter mile from the nearest human being. I spend five minutes in grueling attempts to shimmy up the slippery sides of the stall and lunge from the toilet seat to the top, hyperventilating all the while. (“Damn me – if I were as agile as my sister Allegra I could just shimmy up the walls. If I were as strong as my brother Peter I could muscle my way over. But I’m useless and helpless. Damn me!”)

I consider screaming but that is pointless. The proctors are far away, and there are apparently no other students with college aspirations. I decide on one last attempt before breaking down in tears and writing off the possibility of college later this year. Removing my shoes and socks to get better traction with bare feet, I breathe deeply, conjure up positive affirmations, place both feet on top of the toilet seat, and lunge for the top of the stall. This time I am able to get one toe over the top and then bully my ankle to the other side. I reach up, get an arm hold, and then carefully slide my body up and forward.

At which time the unbelievable happens. I am literally eight feet in the air with bare legs straddling both sides of the toilet stall, congratulating myself on my physical prowess and simultaneously trying to catch my breath, when the door opens and a young woman walks in. I say a sheepish “hello” and am about to explain why I am perched bare-footed atop this strange aerie. She looks up, spies me hovering like a raptor overhead, and bolts out. Sliding down and washing my hands in warm water to calm down, I chuckle at her terror. There seems something oddly familiar about her, but I can’t place it.

A minute or two later, she walks back in – more calmly this time – and looks skeptically at me, asking, “Felicity???” I instantly recognize Alice Kraft, a good friend from elementary and junior high school whom I haven’t seen in four years. I also know this is the most memorable story of bumping into old friends in strange places imaginable.

In that instance, I discover that terror is temporary and happiness can be found in adventurous abandon. I will go crazy places, encounter bizarre situations and, catlike, end up on top with eight more lives and a good story to boot.


Cranes and Other Heavenly Prophets

Monday, December 7th, 2009

In his marvelous book The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes, Peter Matthiesen chronicles these magnificent creatures, the largest of all flying birds on earth. While reading it several years ago, I took periodic breaks to enjoy an exquisite print of a pair of red-crowned cranes that my daughter Ariel brought back from Korea, where cranes symbolize happiness, good luck, long life, and marital bliss. I also reminisced a trip to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi, Texas, to watch the famous whooping cranes in their winter habitat about ten years ago.

Cranes, I mused: magical, magnificent, mysterious, and – to my mind, at least – a tad melancholy. It’s as if they know and see too much, suffering in silence for the misdeeds of others.

Known for their stunning beauty, elaborate dances, unusual calls, and fidelity to their mates, cranes also have amazing flying prowess. Aesop lauds how cranes can “rise above the clouds into endless space, and survey the wonders of the heavens, as well as of the earth beneath, with its seas, lakes, and rivers, as far as the eye can reach.” But living on the wrong side of the world, Aesop didn’t know the half of it! Last year, one group of migrating cranes flew for 97 days and covered 1262 miles. “Whoopers” (whooping cranes)have been known to fly as far as 500 miles in a day, although about 186 miles is the average.

But the highest-flying award goes to the Eurasian cranes, flying over the Himalaya Mountains at altitudes up to 32,800 feet – the same as jetliners. Some pass over the Himalayas, while others fly across the vast Sahara. The lesser sandhill crane wins the distance award, flying from eastern Siberia across the Bering Sea into Alaska and then south to southern California or even northern Mexico.

Cranes have fascinated humankind for millennia, and mythology about cranes can be found in most every culture from the beginning of time. Ancient Egyptian tombs are filled with images of demoiselle cranes, and various other species appear in prehistoric cave drawings in Africa, Australia, and Europe. According to legend, cranes inspired the Greek god Mercury to invent the written alphabet, basing the angular characters on the chevrons of cranes in flight. Since language is the basis of shared knowledge, it wasn’t long before cranes became icons for wisdom.

In Oriental mythology, cranes have occupied a prominent place for millennia. In China, they protect the Emperor’s throne in Beijing’s Forbidden City and are often depicted carrying the souls of the departed to heaven. Crowned cranes are the national birds of Nigeria and Uganda, and blue cranes of South Africa. Coins and stamps of many countries depict cranes.

Crane dances have been recorded in many parts of the world, including the Mediterranean, China, Siberia, and Australia. A “dance of the white cranes” is known from 500 B.C. in China. The Brogla crane was so named by aboriginal Australians after a young woman whose exquisite dancing drew attention from numerous suitors. Among her admirers was an evil magician who, rejected in his offer of marriage, then transformed her into a crane.

But perhaps the best-known and most poignant example of the enduring symbolic significance of cranes emerged from the ashes of World War II. A young Japanese girl who had survived the bombing of Hiroshima – but only barely – resolved to fold a thousand paper cranes in her effort to recover. Although she was unable to complete the task, other children took up the task. Since then, children around the world have annually created paper cranes to symbolize the hope for peace. Worshipping at Sycamore Congregational Church this morning, I was delighted to find their Christmas tree adorned not with the usual lights and ornaments, but with several hundred paper cranes. We add emblems of peace to their many other iconic attributes.

Jumping from prehistory to my lifetime, the near demise of the whooping crane has made them a symbol for environmental preservation. These birds – the largest of all birds in North America – were once familiar sights throughout midwestern parts of the US and Canada. But by 1941, the loss of habitat from human development reduced their numbers to only 21. Through active conservation measures, in 2007 they numbered 240 in the wild and 145 in captivity.

It turns out that cranes are an “umbrella species” in conservation and land use lingo. This is because their survival is dependent on the health of their habitat. As the term implies, a species casts an “umbrella” over the other species by being especially sensitive to habitat changes. Managing land to provide for the needs of the umbrella species results in a high quality habitat for all animals in the area. (For more details, see

So, in a nutshell: if you see a crane, you can be sure

that all is well with the nearby natural world.

Now this makes me wonder: what about other umbrella species? We know about the northern spotted owls in old-growth forests, the black bear in Florida, and tigers in India. But what about homo sapiens? It seems that, as a whole, we qualify as an anti-umbrella species, for we are the ones primarily responsible for ruining the habitat for umbrella and non-umbrella species, cranes and caterpillars, and most everything else.

But could it be that some small groups of people are indicative of the overall health of the larger human family? Are politicians, lawyers, doctors, teachers an umbrella species, in that the presence of one type indicates overall human well-being? (Maybe yes, maybe no. I dare not diss my friends by singling them out for approval or condemnation…)

And then the words from last Sunday’s gospel message come to mind: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” [Matthew 3: 1-3]

Does not John the Baptist sound like those high-flying cranes with their strident shrieks? Listening to the Biblical messages of John the Baptist and the impending birth of Jesus during these first weeks of Advent, it seems to me that the presence of prophets and protestors is a sure sign of a healthy community. Totalitarian states don’t have either.

In the Hebrew Bible, we find Nathan calling King David to account for his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and his shenanigans in arranging for her husband Uriah to be killed in battle. And there was Elijah who scourged Ahab and Jezebel by crying foul as they cavorted with the gods of Ba’al. Jeremiah was so virulent in his verbal attacks against the power elite that he gave birth to the term jeremiad, meaning a bitter lament or righteous prophecy of doom.

And then there was John, prophet extraordinaire. The historical record is clear on the large numbers of people who flocked to hear him as well as his cruel death at the hands of King Herod. He must have had very special powers, for Luke gives him an infancy birth narrative filled with miracles – the visitation of the angel Gabriel, the pregnancy of a childless woman late in life, and the fact that his father was struck dumb upon hearing the angel’s words.  John the Baptist sits at the fulcrum between the great prophets of Israel and the new prophet Jesus. Like Advent itself, John represents the in-between time of what is and what is to come. He represents the in-between space between heaven and earth. He challenges the world to clean up its act, to become healthy, while he also offers hope that we may fly as high as our hearts may lift us. Truly, prophets like John – and Martin Luther King, Jr, and Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day and so many others – are the scourge of our consciences and the hope of the world.

Just like cranes.

During this Advent season, I encourage you to consider how we can protect all umbrella species – these prophets of doom and gloom – these harbingers of hope. Thank you.


On Butterflies in Nepal

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Note to readers: I’m beginning work on a collection of whimsical and serious essays about nature and spirituality and will be offering little snippets in the coming blogs. I hope that you will consider subscribing and commenting. (I appreciate your “take” on my opinions, plus my literary agent tells me that the popularity of one’s blog is very important to would-be publishers.)

So thanks for reading — and for commenting!

This butterfly was one of the enchantments of our trek, putting the leeches into perspective. And here are the thoughts that emerged from the molting of my consciousness after returning home:

A good friend told me that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Nepal could cause a typhoon in California. His reference (though misquoted) was Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who, in explaining the challenges of forecasting weather forecasts, wound up changing how we think about cause and effect. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lorenz was one of the fathers of “chaos theory,” showing how small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere could trigger unexpected and possibly outrageous results.

Now, it turns out that Lorenz’ actual quote had to do with a butterfly in Brazil causing a typhoon in Texas, but I am sure that Lorenz would have used Nepal if he had known that it sports nearly 650 varieties of butterflies (compared to about half that many in Brazil). He would have chosen Nepal if he had reflected on the fact that, in geographical size, Brazil is ranked 5th with 3,287,612 square miles (just behind the United States) while Nepal is 93rd with 56,827 square miles (about the size of Iowa).

Tiny though it is, Nepal has more diversity – in geography, plants, animals, and people – than just about anywhere else on earth. Eight of the ten tallest mountains in the world (including Mt. Everest at 8,848 meters or 29029 feet) are completely or partially in Nepal. At the other extreme is the Terai region, a tropical mosquito-infested rainforest that is less than 100 meters above sea level. The topography ranges from sub-tropical to alpine, with everything in between. As a result, it is a haven for flora and fauna of all varieties.

Including butterflies.

Including people.

With a population of over 26 million, Nepal is home to more than 40 different races and tribes. The main groups are the Mongoloids from the north and Indo-Aryans from the south, but within that broad division are Thakali, Newars, Gurungs, Magars, Kirantis, Brahmin, Sherpas, Dolpa, Larke, Manag Bas, Satars, and on and on – and each of these subgroups includes numerous sub-subgroups (Here’s a link to a good article: So, for those of us who value diversity and multiculturalism – and believe that God created variety to bring eternal enchantment – Nepal is heaven on earth!

But how is that that a butterfly in Nepal might cause a typhoon in California, either literally or figuratively?

— Well, other than emphasizing the importance of systems thinking in families, churches, countries, culture, and climate, I will let the scientists and mathematicians explain the chaos theory part. Solipsism is untenable, both for individuals and science. Even if I don’t know you, my actions will affect your life and vice versa. If you dispute that notion, just think about the consequences of addiction on the family level, economic decisions on the national level, and global warming on the universal level. We are dependent upon each other, for better and for worse, whether we like it or not.

This wisdom is beautifully illustrated in the parable of the good Samaritan, where a Jewish traveler is walking along a path when he assaulted by bandits and left for dead. “Good” Jewish people (including a priest) ignore the injured man and walk away. But a traveler from Samaria (who are despised by the Israelites) stops, binds the wounds, loads him on his donkey, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. It is as shocking as if Lou Dobbs were brutally mugged and now lies bleeding on the sidewalk. Newt Gingrich and Pat Robinson notice him but avert their eyes and walk to the other side of the street. But when an undocumented migrant worker sees the half-dead Dobbs, the “illegal alien” tends Dobbs’ wounds and saves his life.

The point of the parable is not only that non-Jews (and non-Christians and even non-believers) can be more charitable than “so-called” religious people, but also that we are dependent upon those to whom we would rather not be dependent. We are vulnerable and we need help, even from those whom we would otherwise consider unworthy.

Yes, our interconnectedness is probably the most important life lesson we will ever learn. Yes, the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Nepal can cause a typhoon in California.

But wait – there’s more! Call 1-800-THANK-GOD in the next ten minutes, and we will send you two life lessons for the price of one!

What is so special about butterflies anyway? — Well, they can flit in and out of our lives like sparkles of fairy dust that delight us with a grander world of possibility and enchantment. But they weren’t always that way. They started life as ugly worms, dragged down in dust and dirt, nearsighted and vulnerable, unable to flap wings that might cause a drizzle within six inches, let alone a typhoon halfway around the world. With the exception of hungry birds and small rodents, nobody much cares about caterpillars.

— Which reminds me of the early lives of some of the children in the two orphanages we met. One spent her early years with her mother foraging for food in the open-sewer-cum-river that runs through the center of Katmandu. After her mother died, she was found by a social service group and eventually came to New Life Children’s Home. Another remembers nothing of his early years other than begging and stealing, running from the police who would beat him if he stumbled.

Caterpillars foraging for food in the filth….

And now they are in the process of spreading their wings and becoming butterflies. Soon they will dance among the flowers, fertilizing the world with beauty and nourishment. Ama Ghar and New Life are not just orphanages or children’s homes; they are chrysalides* that provide a place for human caterpillars to find nourishment and safety until their spirits strengthen enough for them to emerge from their cocoons.

But wait – there’s more…

People ask what the trip to Nepal meant to me. I ponder: certainly it was enchanting (especially the beauty and diversity of land and people), sometimes hard (especially urban poverty, leeches, and landslides), and always humbling (especially in the orphanages).

But perhaps the most important word is transformation. For Easter children’s sermons, I have sometimes used the image of the earth-trapped caterpillar’s molting into an airy butterfly as one way of thinking of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. At Ama Ghar and New Life, I was privileged to witness some of this in person – I saw children who began life hungry (for food and often for love) but emerged happy, playful, tender, and enthusiastic. I saw adults who had chosen to give up a comfortable life and live as saints instead.

Thankfully, there were times when my colleagues and I were able to be agents of grace if only by virtue of being in the right place at the right time with a hug or a listening heart (or, in one case, a bottle of Jack Daniels). There were times when we were able to honor the immediacy, spirituality, and let-go-let-God thinking of the Eastern mind while also encouraging the children to consider the advantages of planning and pushing for a quality life for themselves and others. The benefits of “Eastern” thinking (spirituality, connection, respect for elders, and a sense of acceptance and integration) can sometimes erode into fatalism, ennui, and tolerance for injustice and abuse. On the other hand, the benefits of “Western” thinking (diligence, individualism, and analytic thinking) can often erode into egocentrism, superiority, and aggression. It seems to me that the children of Ama Ghar and New Life Children’s Home are among the few who are truly multicultural in their ability to recognize the gifts and hazards of both the Eastern and Western mindsets. I pray that, as adults, they will neither “buy into” the materialism and triviality of the worst of Western culture nor tolerate the social stratification and fatalism of the Eastern mindset. I trust that, growing up where they can see the best of both cultures, they will become the hope of both worlds, holding mirrors to those who think that their way of thinking is necessarily superior to another’s.

For me, the delights of Nepal are that caterpillar children born there can enchant, redirect, and yes – transform – the adult caterpillars born in the United States. And vice versa.

Butterflies teach us that diversity and transformation are both gifts from God. We begin with an outward push into individuality and separation; we age into transformation, which is the inward pull to community and connection with God and each other. As we move from solipcism to connection, we create emotional, intellectual, and spiritual wind gusts that travel around the world, changing who we are, what we know, and how we affect each other. A typhoon is birthed.

And when that happens, we molt into butterflies, bringing beauty and joy throughout the world.

* Chrysalides is the plural of chrysalis.