On Saturday, I had the honor and privilege in attending what I hope was the First Annual Vestry Retreat of Grace and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Hamden, CT. It was difficult for me to attend. I am running for State Representative, and should be spending every free moment working on the campaign.
Yet I viewed the retreat as an obligation instead of one of several different things I could choose to do on a Saturday in October. As an elected leader of my community, I take the responsibilities that come with it very seriously. I had a responsibility to the members of the Church to attend. I also had a responsibility to take care of myself, and that includes taking time out of our daily grind to focus on underlying key issues.
We often hear about how everything changed on 9/11, how the Internet is changing everything, or many other ways that everything has changed. My thoughts go to Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
The Episcopal Church is being reimagined, recognizing that “We live in an age of networks, yet our churchwide structure has not fully adapted to this organizational paradigm.” My thoughts go to 1 Corinthians 12 and how we, as different parts of the body of Christ are, or should be, networked together.
This reimagining seems to be sending reverberations throughout the church. I have been following the turmoil at General Theological Seminary and have wondered how it relates to the reimagining.
Here in Connecticut, the Diocese is reimaging itself. I went to a diocesan listening tour as part of this process and later wrote about it saying, “It felt disconnected from the real world of suffering, grace, and redemption. It felt too focused on the plans of people, and not enough on God given vision.”
I wonder how much this is the case in the turmoil at General or in the church as a whole.
Yet the vestry retreat was different. We made bread. Literally. The process was interspersed with worship and reflection. We mixed the ingredients. We stopped for prayer and reflection. We kneaded the dough. We stopped for noontime prayer. We baked the bread and discussed various readings. We broke the bread at Communion and shared the Peace.
I thought about when I had visited a Trappist monastery years ago and their simple life of prayers and making bread. I thought of the listening tour and I wished that it could have been more like the retreat.
The appointed Psalm for Sunday was Psalm 19. I thought about verse 14. I’ve often heard it said before a sermon, yet it seems like it needs to be said much more often, on the campaign trail, on Facebook posts, perhaps even in discussions about reimagining the church or dealing with issues at General Theological Seminary.
I adapted it to the twenty first century and posted it on Facebook. “Let the words of my mouth and my posts on social media be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
Perhaps there is nothing new and we should learn from the Psalm and from the monks making their bread.
Karl Barth is said to have advised people to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. People have written about new formulations of this in the age of cable network news and talk radio. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of social media.
Years ago, Kim made a shirt for me which said, “I get my news on Twitter”. In the early days of Twitter that shirt always started a conversation at future of journalism conferences.
Recently, I’ve been thinking of Facebook and the Daily Office. There are some people I know who post portions of liturgical prayer on Twitter. One friend posts thoughts from her morning prayer regularly on Facebook.
Yet returning to the quote attributed to Barth, what would it be like if we used Facebook as a starting point for our daily prayers? This came home to me recently as I read what friends were posting and I often replied about holding them and their loved ones in my prayers.
One day last week, I jotted down some of my responses, as part of a prayer list. I prayed for Linda, Ginny, Daron, Susan, Kendrick, Fred and Kenneth on their birthdays. I prayed for Claudia, Kristin, and Susan’s dad, who are ill. I prayed for Mike and his family on the passing of his mother-in-law, Andrew, on the passing of his pet Pip, and another friend on the passing of his “Uncle Mike”.
Yet there is also joy and I offered prayers of thanksgiving for the births of Charlotte, Lily and Aria. I also offered prayers of thanksgiving with my friends rejoicing about autumn in New England.
I talked about this a little with the priest after church today. We talked about how often we are asked to pray for one another in the secular world. Our friends who are not particularly religious often ask for good vibes or positive energy. To me, these are requests for intercessory prayer. Others post things they are happy about. Some participate in various gratitude challenges. To me, these are opportunities to offer prayers of thanksgiving.
Many years ago, I considered becoming a monk, dedicating my life to prayer. Yet I never experienced a clear sense of calling. Perhaps I am finding a twenty first century version of that calling as I live in the world and offer up prayers from my friends online.
To tie it all together, I pray that some of my religious friends online might take up the discipline of the Facebook Daily Office as well.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig talks about the ghosts from his past as he taught rhetoric and quality before his nervous breakdown. In Dead Poet’s Society, the character of John Keating played by Robin Williams, invoked the ghosts of former students, urging his students to “seize the day”.
Last night, I walked the halls of Amity Middle School in Bethany, accompanied by these ghosts and others. My wife was a student at this school over three decades ago. The mother of one of my daughter’s classmates was one of my wife’s classmate those many years ago. Did they imagine, back then, that their children would be classmates, carry small devices like the communicators from Star Trek and have access to machines that could print out three dimensional objects? What were their dreams, what were the dreams their teachers and parents had for them back when they walked these halls.
Back to School night started similar to the school day. The principal’s voice crackled over the loudspeakers. We all stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, bringing recollections of the ghosts of those who fought for our freedom. There was a moment of silence, thirteen years after 9/11 as we recalled our friends and neighbors who died in that attack.
Then, it was off to meet the different teachers. There were a few themes that emerged, the total point system was repeated over and over again. There were frequent mentions of the Common Core, and at least to me, it seemed, there was too little focus on the actual curriculum and acknowledgement of the ghosts.
The first class I sent to was World Geography and Culture. There was a good syllabus presented and a discussion about the focus on argument and debate. Fiona, like her parents, loves debate and I’m excited for this class. I did wonder about how much the students will be encouraged to question the assumptions they have about culture based on the culture they’ve grown up in.
The second class was Spanish. I believe both Fiona’s mother and uncle had Mrs. Young for world language classes when they were students.
This was followed by English. I am sure that this will be a fine class and that the teacher will inspire the students, but I have concerns. The teacher will be managing the class using a “behavior management plan” based on corporate structure. I’ve already written to the teacher expressing concern. I am not convinced that CEOs are the best role models for proper behavior. Nor do I believe that they are the best exemplars of the use of the English language.
She spoke about finding examples of good writing to emulate, of “mentor texts”, and my mind went to e.e.cummings, Jack Kerouac and James Joyce. Somehow I suspect that may not be the sort of texts they’ll focus on. She mentioned that because of the Common Core, the readings would be based more on the skills being taught than on the titles of famous books. I have mixed feelings about this. Skills are important, but so is being literate in certain classics. I hope Fiona will end up reading Lord of the Flies, The Pearl, A Separate Peace, and other great books that illustrate something more important about language than just skills.
The essay, 'Understanding Poetry,' by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. comes to mind:
If the poem's score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.
For those who miss the reference, this is a section of the text book that Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society urges his students to rip out.
That said, I remain hopeful for the class and the work they will do. Perhaps the students can form a union to deal with the corporate structure. Perhaps some can even participate in the National Novel Writing Month Young Writers Program. I think everyone should try to write their first novel by the time they complete middle school.
There was a nod to integrated curricula connecting the English class with the social studies class. I was glad to hear that. I’m a big fan of integrated curricula.
The next class was science. The teacher highlighted the classroom and the lab equipment. My daughter wrote that she thought I would like the science teacher, and I do. They will be studying lab safety, metrics, the scientific method, earth movements, meteorology and astronomy. I wondered if AMSB had a weather station connected to Weather Underground. It doesn’t appear as if they do. I figure I’ll have to dig out my ten inch Schmidt–Cassegrain telescope soon. I wonder how much they will get into issues of climate change or the effect of fracking on earth movements. I also wonder to what extent the science curriculum can be connected to the social studies curriculum.
The following class was tech. The teacher recognized me because of my Google Glass and we talked about 3D printing. My daughter is pretty excited about this class as well. As the teacher lauded the school district. We do have a great school district with wonderful facilities, great teachers, all contributing to the success of the students. Yet I remember hearing former New York City school Chancellor Joel Klein talking about equality in education. He spoke about how if the school system is working properly parents should be happy with whatever school their children end up at knowing that they all have the same level of excellence. I thought about students at under performing schools in Connecticut and remembered a great quote attributed to Virginia Woolf, “There is only one thing wrong with privilege, it’s that not everyone has it.”
For the final period, my daughter wrote Phys-Ed/Choir and listed the teachers and rooms for each. I suspect that Fiona, like me, prefers choir over physical education, so I went to the choir room. No one else showed up. Since we were supposed to be following the A schedule, I should have gone to physical education. My daughter had made a similar mistake at one point, missing technology and going to choir instead. Yet it provided one of the best chances to spend time talking with a teacher.
We talked about folk music festivals, expanding musical horizons, and the role of the arts in STEM oriented systems. My middle daughter, with her masters in community arts education always points out that it really should be STEAM, with the A standing for Arts. Without the creativity of the arts, the inventions of STEM projects are too likely to be lifeless and soulless.
There wasn’t any discussion of integrated curricula here, but it would be great if choir expanded the musical horizons of the students to include cultures being studied in social studies.
Like the students, when the classes were over, the parents found time to speak with their friends before heading home. As I drove home, I thought about the Common Core, various ghosts, and seizing the day.
It is the middle of the night and I cannot sleep, again. In the morning, I am off to another funeral. When we learned of this funeral, my wife Kim asked if we had been to a funeral every year that we’ve known each other. The thought stuck with me, and I searched online for the average number of funerals that adults in the United States go to each year. The online answer was best summarized as, adult Americans typically know about 50 people whose funeral they would go to. They typically don’t go to funerals before they are eighteen, so it averages out to around a funeral a year. Others suggested the number is between one funeral every two years and two funerals a year.
Fiona, who is almost thirteen, has been to her share of funerals already. So much so, that when she was about four and we told her we were going to a family reunion, she asked, “Who died?” In her mind, at that early age, that is what family reunions were, funerals.
So, as I tossed and turned and tried to get back to sleep, Harold and Maude met the ancient sleep aid. Instead of counting sheep, I tried counting funerals I’ve been to since I met Kim. Initially, I randomly thought of different people’s funerals. It seemed like a pretty long list, so I tried to organize it in my mind. Before I knew it, I had thought of around thirty funerals, or an average of two funerals a year since Kim and I met, and as I write this, I remember more.
There are family members, both close and more distant; mothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, in-laws, and beyond. There are friends from church, work, and politics. There are cancers, car accidents, suicides, old age, and friends who have died way too young.
It is tempting to wonder when we will get a break, to talk about meeting less frequently at funerals, about trying to find time to celebrate people’s lives while they are still living. Yet as I think about it, a little bit of Harold and Maude rubs off on me.
I am blessed to get to go to so many funerals.
Yes, I am blessed to get to go to so many funerals. It sounds odd, but it is true, and something we should all think about.
When I write about funerals, I often quote John Donne,
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
It is easy to think about how death diminishes us, but it is more important to think about how blessed we are to be involved in mankind. A bunch of funerals we would not have gone to if we weren’t involved in politics. Yet we’ve met many great people through our political involvement and I urge all my friends to become more politically involved. Many funerals we’ve attended were of friends we’ve made at churches we’ve attended. I urge my friends to find communities that share their beliefs. Our lives have been so much richer because these people were in our lives.
Monday was Labor Day and a great quote from the movie Norma Rae comes to mind.
On October 4, 1970, my grandfather, Isaac Abraham Warshowsky, aged eighty-seven, died in his sleep in New York City. On the following Friday morning, his funeral was held. My mother and father attended, my two uncles from Brooklyn attended, my Aunt Minnie came up from Florida. Also present were eight hundred and sixty-two members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and Cloth, Hat and Cap Makers' Union. Also members of his family. In death as in life, they stood at his side. They had fought battles with him, bound the wounds of battle with him, had earned bread together and had broken it together. When they spoke, they spoke in one voice, and they were heard. They were black, they were white, they were Irish, they were Polish, they were Catholic, they were Jews, they were one. That's what a union is: one
We are one, as co-workers, as Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists, as neighbors and as relatives; as Americans. It is something that we have lost in our political discourse that we need to rediscover.
Today, I will celebrate my wife’s birthday. I remember her mother on the anniversary of her mother’s death. I will attend the funeral of her grandmother.
And I will weep and hug those around me. I will remember wonderful moments of people’s lives. I will kiss my wife and tell her I love her. I will celebrate the lives of those living, those dead, and those yet to be born. If I am lucky, my words will bring comfort and joy to some of those around me and perhaps, if I am really lucky, help some of those around me rediscover the value of what we have in common.