Monday, March 30, 2009

For this Reason

One of my favorite preachers in the Episcopal Church today is Bishop Stephen Charleston. Formerly Bishop of Alaska and Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, he is presently Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of California. He is also serving as the Provost of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco as that congregation searches for a new Dean. Stephen is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were ordained ministers in the Presbyterian Church, serving among the Choctaw people in rural Oklahoma.

He has the charisma of a great evangelical preacher but is liberal and progressive. His sermons at Grace Cathedral are brief, clear and resounding with passion. Click on the title of this post to link to his sermon from the Fifth Sunday in Lent.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Standing On the Fence

Well, there you have it folks. You heard it from the man: You can't possibly be a practicing Zen Buddhist and an Episcopal priest. Jesus doesn't give you that option. The man in the pickup even hinted that the fires are being stoked down below to give the likes of me a warm reception when the time comes--me and the bishop-elect of Northern Michigan, the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester. (By the way, Kevin is not an ordained Zen priest. He has taken the bodhisattva precepts, sometimes referred to as "lay ordination" in certain Zen circles.)

Frankly, I've given up labeling for Lent. Am I a Christian and a Zen Buddhist? Or am I not a Christian because I practice Zen Buddhism? Or am I not a Zen Buddhist because I practice Christianity? There are devout fundamentalists on both sides of the fence--Zen and Christian alike--who have said that one can't be both.

What it comes down to is this: I am who I am. I practice both. Tea anyone?

Instrumental in bringing many Christians to the practice of Zen, Yamada Roshi said it this way: Regarding the relation between Christianity and Zen, I think it can be thought of as two highways, going on separate paths, but crossing at an intersection. The two roads may seem quite apart, but where they cross is common ground. Now, if we take Zen as religion, Christianity and Zen do seem to be quite different. But their teachings have, at their intersection, a common area that belongs to both: the area of religious experience. (On Zen Practice:Body, Breath, and Mind; Wisdom Publications 2002; p. 75)

And the fruits of that unnameable essential experience are this: growth in love and grace. Growth in compassion and wisdom. Becoming fully human. Becoming myself.

You can call me what you like.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Roadside Gospel

Drive anywhere through the countryside in Maine and you're likely to pass by one of these roadside church billboards . This one from Faith Baptist Church in Auburn is a particularly fine example of the genre. It exhibits all the qualities of exemplary gospel signage--it changes weekly, employs novel line breaks, and displays a modicum of creative "thinking." 

God knows, these holy blurbs are not easy to come up with! After all, souls are at stake. Driveby salvation--you just don't know when it will happen. In an instant one's cosmic trajectory could dramatically shift away from eternal damnation to realms of glory.

Here are some more examples:

This church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

Don't wait for the hearse to bring you back to church.

Faith in Jesus is the believer's passport to heaven.

God takes the stains out that others leave behind.

God has not gone on vacation and left you in charge.

And, finally, here's one that works for me:

Go out and preach the gospel. Use as few words as possible.

Please know that I am now accepting submissions for the 1st Annual Distant Temple Bell Roadside Gospel Contest.  If possible, please attach a photograph. A panel of experts (Sukie and myself) will be reviewing your submissions. The winner will have his/her selection posted on this blog. Contest deadline is May 31st.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Love Only is Eternal: Epilogue

I returned to Doubletop late last September, seventeen years after Nat and I climbed the mountain on that mid-summer day in 1991. Back in May, my wife Sukie had made reservations at the Park, hoping to spend a few days of solitude painting by the shores of Kidney Pond. However, with events unfolding as they did, her solo expedition turned into a long weekend for two, which offered me the opportunity to say goodbye to Nat.

I climbed Doubletop alone this time and was feeling my age as I scaled that steep, timbered slope to the summit. Only in the fifties down below, it was cold on top, with a strong wind blowing from the south. But it was a cloudless day and the sun shone brightly and I was cozy under a few layers of fleece and a windbreaker. I found the flat expanse of granite where Nat and I stood arm in arm for our photo. A Mourning Cloak, a large dark butterfly with bright yellow fringes on its wings, flitted across the ledge and was gone. After lingering for an hour or so, I put my pack on and reluctantly headed down the mountainside. Turning once to gaze back up at the south summit, I spoke under my breath and then aloud: “I love you, my brother.”

Further on, walking along an old logging road down into the lowlands, the trail was littered with fallen yellow birch leaves and, here and there, a red maple leaf. The autumnal equinox was just hours away and the turning of the seasons was everywhere evident. Mother loons had been out on the pond this week. In preparation for their coming flight to the coastal waters for the winter, they were busy feeding minnows to their now almost full grown chicks. Just before 4 o’clock, Sukie greeted me with a hug back at the cabin. It was time for a hot cup of tea.

(DSH Photo: Sukie Painting on the Shores of Kidney Pond)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Love Only is Eternal: Part Three

As a hospice chaplain. I often feel as if I stand at the ineffable edge of a great mystery. But I stand not on a windy mountain summit but at the bedside of the dying. As a chaplain, the challenge has been for me to give voice to this Mystery, to stand hand-in-hand with grieving family and friends and to speak words that will invite depth and meaning. For some, those words will be the comforting words of their own religious tradition, most often Christianity.

But increasingly, for people aligned with no particular religious tradition or who are uncomfortable with the formulaic trappings of formal religion, I have had to find other words. It was the simple act of holding hands around the bedside of the dying that gave birth to a different language, a new way of speaking. And what emerged was the language of love. At these times, I often say these or similar words, which today form in my heart as a prayer for Nat:

“We gather together at a sacred time. We stand in awe at the edge of a great Mystery. And even as we stand together in a circle of love around our loved one, may he be received in love. May he be welcomed and embraced by love. May he be made whole. May he be at peace. And may our lives be renewed by the love that he has shown us and that we carry in our hearts out into the world.”

Even as we minister to the dying, we are also mindful of their legacy. Each of us will leave a legacy of how we experience our death, of how we are able to be with our own dying.

In a recent book, Joan Halifax, founder and guiding teacher of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, speaks of this legacy of how we transition through the ultimate rite of passage.

She recalls the story of Martin Toler, who, seven years ago, along with several other miners, died in the Sago Mine accident in West Virginia. She writes:

“Slowly dying in the thickening air of the mineshaft, the oxygen wicked up with every breath, Toler used what little energy he had left to write a note of reassurance to those closest to him—and to the millions of us who later heard about it, too.

“From deep inside the earth, Toler addressed the entire world, beginning his note: ‘tell all—I see them on the other side.’ He promises his kin to meet them in eternal life, in the place that is deathless. He expresses for all of us the deep human wish that our connections will transcend the event of separation we suffer at the moment of death. ‘It wasn’t bad, I just went to sleep,’ the note continues, and scrawled at the bottom, with the last of his ebbing strength, are the tender, unselfish words ‘I love you.’”

Toler’s last words honor the noblest lessons from our human connections: that life is sacred and relationship holy. Through the darkness, he reached out, not only to his family, but to the rest of us through his abiding and compassionate words. For, as the Buddha told his cousin Ananda: The whole of the holy life is good friendship. Our relationships—and our love—are ultimately what give depth and meaning to our lives.”

Last September, Nat’s wife Lynn called me from the intensive care unit of the York Hospital. “Can you come?” she asked. “Nat is very sick.” Nat’s father Phil had died that summer. After the memorial service, I was taken aback by how poorly Nat looked. I was concerned, but chalked his appearance up to grief and the hard work of operating an inn in the summertime. Word eventually came that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He was started on chemotherapy in preparation for a stem cell transplant that it was hoped he would have later that fall in Boston. But in the meantime, he developed a secondary condition resulting in congestive heart failure. Now, the simple act of walking from his bedroom down the hall to the kitchen left him breathless.

During a visit in late March, sitting on the edge of Nat’s bed, I asked him: “What lifts your spirits? What gives you hope?” And he responded: “You do—my friends and family. I’ve got so much to live for. And then he said: “I love you, my brother.”

Yes, we may meet each other on the other side. Yet we may ask ourselves: Can we meet each other now? Knowing that death is inevitable, what is most precious to us today? Nat said these tender, unselfish words: “I love you.” Seeing the pain and grief in my eyes, he said: “Don’t worry…I’m O.K.” When words failed, Nat and I would lie next to each other on the bed, holding hands. Among his many gifts to us, above all Nat leaves us this legacy of what it means to love and be loved.

A woman stands on a mountain summit at sunset, at the edge of a great mystery, and gives her beloved’s ashes to the winds.

On the same mountain, two friends stand arm in arm in the warming sun, smiling at you and me. A raven cries as it rides the gusts along the ridges and then veers off, out into the vast open sky.

(to be continued)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Love Only is Eternal: Part Two

But there was more to our ascent of Doubletop that July—a discovery that would intrigue and fascinate us for years to come. For as I stepped onto the summit, I saw a gray rectangular plaque affixed to a large granite boulder on the side of the trail. A six-pointed star with rays extending outward crowned the inscription. Beneath the words was a sculpted oil lamp, the eternal flame clearly evident. The plaque faced south, and the sun, having risen high in the morning sky, illuminated its face, throwing the letters into sharp relief. It read:

JUNE 10, 1872--APRIL 25, 1926

And beneath this the words:


I called Nat over and we gazed at the memorial, wondering who this man was and, even more so, who the remarkable woman was who scattered her husband’s ashes to the winds as the sun set over the mountaintops and daylight began to fade.

Many years later, by means of an internet search, I began to unfold the story of their lives.

Keppele Hall was a Princeton graduate who became a successful electrical engineer. He married Fanny Southard Hay in 1896 in Trenton, New Jersey. The Halls lived briefly in Maine – where they retained ties over the years—before moving to Ohio, eventually settling in Cleveland.

Fanny Hay Hall was a community organizer, a peace activist, and a progressive and liberal woman of faith. She was a member of the Ohio delegation that marched in the 1912 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. She was the first American woman to serve as foreman of a grand jury.

The Halls moved to New York City in 1926 where Keppele died suddenly of complications due to the flu. He was fifty-three years old. Fanny continued her activism until late in life, turning her attention to women’s prison reform. She died in Brattleboro, Vermont, in June, 1968, at the age of ninety-four.

In 1926, the year of her husband’s death and the scattering of his ashes on that windy mountain summit in Maine, Fanny was fifty-four. The trail to the south summit of Doubletop from the Kidney Pond Camps—the camps then being privately owned—is just over four miles. The lower part of the route, due to the occasional confluence of stream and trail, is often wet and muddy. Higher up, the trail climbs a steep, timbered slope to the summit. The Appalachian Mountain Club estimates that the hiking time from pond to summit via this trail—somewhat different than the one Fanny would have used—is three hours, twenty minutes. Even with today’s lightweight, high-tech clothing and gear, that’s a moderately challenging climb for a fifty-four year old.

But imagine walking the trail in 1926, carrying your loved one’s ashes in your rucksack. We may wonder: was she alone? If not, who accompanied her? And what was said as she gave her husband’s ashes to the winds? Or was the call of a raven cruising the mountain slopes, and the rushing of the wind on the summit, sound enough for such a solemn occasion as this? We’ll never know.

The walk down the mountain and back to the camps was through the woods at dusk, in the fast waning light; perhaps a Swainson’s or Hermit thrush serenaded her on the way. Cabin lamplight in the dark, and a sumptuous dinner—such as only the old wilderness camps could have provided—would have welcomed her on her arrival back at the pond.

On that strikingly beautiful July day in 1991, Nat and I lingered on the mountain. After lunch, we made our leisurely way back down the north side of Doubletop to our lean-to at Nesowadnehunk Campground. Libations liberally dispensed followed and a meal, perhaps not as splendid as that which awaited Fanny at Kidney Pond Camps, but delicious nonetheless.

The Zen tradition of Buddhism calls it the great matter of life and death. What is it? A woman standing on a mountain summit giving her beloved’s ashes to the winds. Two friends standing arm in arm smiling at the camera. Just this.

For the Native Americans of the Penobscot tribe, the Katahdin wilderness is a sacred place where the Spirit roams freely and powerfully and where mother earth reaches out toward the sky.

For all people, mountains embody a mystery beyond our control, just out of reach. “Mountains have a special power to evoke the sacred as the unknown. Their deep valleys and high places conceal what lies hidden within and beyond them, luring us to venture ever deeper into a realm of enticing mystery. Mountains seem to beckon us, holding out the promise of something on the ineffable edge of awareness.”

As she gave her husband’s ashes to the mountain winds, perhaps Fanny had sensed herself standing at the ineffable edge of a great mystery. As she walked back down into the lowlands, perhaps she did so with a renewed commitment to participate fully in life, to honor the one life she had been given, and to serve others at the edges, the margins, of society.

(to be continued)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Love Only is Eternal: Part One

A Sermon Preached on the Occasion of a Memorial Service in Celebration of the Life of Nathaniel Bowditch
September 29, 2008
The First Religious Society of Newburyport, Massachusetts
Unitarian Universalist

It had rained the night before. We were soaked up to our thighs as we pushed through the wet underbrush and bushes that crowded in on either side of the trail. The day, however, was clearing and a warming mid-summer sun promised to dry us out when we reached the north peak.

This was our third trip to Baxter State Park in northern Maine. On our first two excursions, we had scaled Katahdin and stood triumphant and exhilarated on Baxter Peak. This year – it was 1991 – we began a series of explorations of the surrounding mountains and so spent the night in a lean-to at Nesowadnehunk Campground, setting out early the next morning for the summit of Doubletop Mountain.

Doubletop is a gem among the mountains of Baxter, its symmetrical shape and steep cliffs strikingly evident from Nesowadnehunk valley where the tote road wends its bumpy and rutted way around the park. The views from its twin peaks rival those from Katahdin, with green forests as far as the eye can see and the surface of blue lakes and ponds and streams sparkling down below. And to the southeast, mile-high Katahdin—the great mountain—rises up from the valleys and plains between the east and west branches of the Penobscot River.

My hiking companion, Nat, had been my dearest friend since childhood. These trips were our means of reconnecting; an open space apart from our increasingly busy lives. Three or four summer days in the wilderness rekindled the flame of our friendship. Quiet talks by the campfire, tramps through the woods and strenuous hikes up steep mountainsides, paddling in the ponds of the park and, at the end of the day, invigorating swims in any number of ice-cold mountain streams strengthened the bonds of love and affection that drew us together.

Nat and I saw no other hikers on our way up the slopes and shoulder of Doubletop. We had the mountain almost to ourselves. On that fine day, the crowds, no doubt, were amassing atop Katahdin, making cell phone calls to friends down below, huddled away from the wind. We reached the north peak in two hours time and ate our simple fare of cheese and bread and fruit, content to take off our boots, stretch out our legs and linger in the sun, enjoying the whole world spread out before us.

A favorite photograph of that day shows Nat and me standing arm and arm on the summit – that expanse of green forest and blue lakes in the background beyond us. Nat had a thick two-day growth of dark beard on his face and a navy blue cap perched on his head. In keeping with his family’s venerable maritime heritage, the cap read: “Great Schooner Race 1990 Nathaniel Bowditch.”

(to be continued)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sailing Home

My childhood chum, dear friend and soul brother, Nat Bowditch, died in the early morning of September 4, 2008 from complications due to multiple myeloma. He was fifty-three.

Nat and I met at grade school and were friends for over forty years. We discovered and became ourselves together. As teenagers, we hung out together and smoked pot and cranked up Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin. We discovered girls together and shared details about our first sexual encounters. We went outdoors and stayed out all night under a full moon and wandered all over town, watching the eastern horizon gradually brighten as day began to dawn.  And we got in trouble together.

Even now, I can see Nat's father, Phil, standing there by the liquor cabinet, in the kitchen of 33 Cedar Lane, Cohasset, MA.  And he did not look amused. Nat and I had been called up from Nat's basement bedroom--affectionately known as The Hole--to stand before the great parental judgement seat. My recollection of the occurrences of that ill-fated morning are as follows:

As was his weekend custom, Phil had arisen early and had begun to make breakfast. I believe chipped beef on toast was on the menu.  As Nat recalled, Sheba--the family cat--had commenced howling piteously as if from some hidden recess within the kitchen wall. In due course, Phil traced the cat's pathetic cries to the liquor cabinet where, apparently, it had been confined overnight.

And there we stood before Phil, the cat having been freed from its captivity, the door to the liquor cabinet stood ajar. A bottle of Jim Beam bourbon was poised ominously on the countertop. Phil said: "Goddamit, if you guys must drink my booze then go ahead, but don't water it down!!!" Phil was referring, of course, to that moronic and age-old ruse of refilling the booze bottle with water after having siphoned off much of its contents.

Last July, not long after he came on hospice, I conducted a series of interviews with Nat using a digital recorder. We'd lie together on his bed and reminisce. I asked him questions about his childhood, about favorite memories that he had. It was difficult for him to speak at that point. He'd tire very quickly, become short of breath. He said:

There's one memory that I'll always relish. I was ten or eleven years old. I was sailing at the yacht club. We had these sailing dinghies, sort of starter boats for everybody. In the mornings we'd learn to tie knots and that kind of thing. In the afternoon we'd go racing. I didn't like racing very much but I did it. And I remember one particular day in July or August. It was a beautiful day. Nice breeze. It was five or so in the afternoon. We'd finished the last race and it was a nice easy broad reach coming back into the harbor. I remember sitting in the bottom of the boat with the tiller on my left shoulder, just leaning back in the seat. It was warm with a nice breeze and I just relaxed. No rush coming back in. The sun was low enough in the sky that you'd have that beautiful golden light all over the place. I didn't want that moment to stop. It was nice to be by myself, knowing we had a good day. I'll always remember that moment. It was a really peaceful moment.

I often think of that conversation now. I'm glad he had an image like that within himself toward the end.  I hope that it was a guiding image for him. Toward peace. Toward wholeness. Toward that beautiful golden light.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Welcome Spring!

I thought this photo would be an appropriate way to celebrate the first day of Spring, which officially begins at 7:44 this morning. This photo of my daughter's wellie was taken as part of a series I did last year entitled Emerging Light. I challenged myself to take a picture a day from the Winter Solstice through the Vernal Equinox. It was a way of waking up my dormant love of photography, a life-long passion. 

The creative life is a weird thing. That which I love the most (and do most well) I often do the least. Don't want to get into the psychology of that at the moment. Perhaps another time.

For the time being, enjoy this whimsical photo taken at the Widgery Wharf on the Portland waterfront. The green building is a fisherman's shack. Someday, I'd like do a whole series on fisherman's shacks.

Weather here in southern Maine is forecast to be sunny today, highs in the upper 30s, northeast winds 10-15 MPH.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

That Tree Will Live Again

He sits slumped over with his chin nearly touching his chest, his diminutive form swallowed up by the wheelchair.  He holds onto three sections of a Hershey's chocolate bar. This ninety-year old ex-World War Two bombardier resides in a long-term care facility nearby. The hospice aide wipes away the dark brown drool from his mouth.  And then he speaks--emphatically and deliberately--and the heavens open:

The tree stands alone in the field. It was there when I was a boy. It has been there for years and years and years. There's just one left. There's no other tree like it. Nobody knows where it is. The tree will live forever, even after I'm gone and you're gone.  It will be green forever. Someday it will be cut down and cut up and put away. That tree will live again.  No question about it. That tree is good for a lifetime. And I hope it makes it. I think it will. I'm sure it will. Let it live as long as it wants to live. How do people know what's going on with a tree? It's growing. Years from now, it's going to be one big tree. That's good country where the tree is, unusually good country. That's all I know.

The chaplain asks: Could that tree be like you?

It just might be, he replied. It just might be.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Leap and the Net Will Appear?

A month or so before our departure from St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Yarmouth (and from parish ministry after twenty-three years), Sukie and I received a card from our dear friend, Sarah.  On the front it read: " Leap and the net will appear (a Zen saying)."  At that point, it was just what we needed as, in fact, it felt like we were leaping into the great unknown, with little or no prospect of gainful employment.  It was reassuring to imagine that we might actually be O.K, that things would work out.

But I wondered about that quote.  It didn't feel like a Zen saying, at least not like the koans for which Zen is famous.  The net will appear part wasn't edgy enough, wasn't reminiscent of that practice of free-fall that I had come to know and love(!?!?) in Zen.  Just when you think you've gotten somewhere and have accomplished some spiritual feat, you are asked to jump out of the plane (or off the cliff) again and again and again.  It's relentless.

And, sure enough, when I googled "Leap and the net will appear" I found that the saying was attributed to several sources, none of them Zen.  The great 19th century naturalist and ornithologist, John Burroughs, was listed chief among them.  Then it was Julia Cameron of Artist's Way fame.  And there's a blog of the same name. Buttons and bumper stickers and cards abound with the saying emblazoned on them.

Creating this blog and then posting these initial comments feels a lot like leaping into that great unknown.  After twelve years of  practicing Zen, one would think that I'd be used to the free-fall by now. But I'm not.  I wondered:  Will anyone bother to read this stuff?  How in God's name will I ever come up with enough content to make a go of it, like my friend and blogger extraordinaire over at Monkey Mind?  Who do I think I am anyway?  Blah, blah, blah....

O.K, I'm jumping anyway, folks, so look out below!  It's scary as hell; maybe even a wee bit exhilarating.  No net in sight...

But wait a minute.  What about this blog's title: Distant Temple Bell?  It's a koan.  Or, more accurately speaking, it's a fragment of a koan from the collection Miscellaneous Koans.  Can you hear it?