Saturday, December 7, 2013

Staying Awake*

I didn’t expect to be ordained. Formal religion made me feel claustrophobic, like I couldn’t get enough air. Institutional maintenance was not work that I felt called to or competent to perform, yet I knew that it was a big part of any priest’s job.Yet my spiritual director at that time—now the Bishop of Massachusetts—said that I had a vocation to the priesthood. Who was I to protest?

The framed certificate in my study says that I was consecrated to the Sacred Order of Priests in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and in accordance with the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church on the third of December, 1983—thirty years ago this Tuesday. It was signed by Frederick Barton Wolf, the Bishop of Maine. So it must be true.

Shortly after my ordination, I attended the annual clergy conference in Massachusetts, where I was serving as associate Rector of the church in Wellesley at that time. The retreat facilitator was from the Alban Institute in Washington, D.C, a kind of congregational think tank. He had all the clergy—and there were well over a hundred of us—break up into small groups by years of ordination.

I was in the 1-5 year group. Then there was the 5-10, 10-15, and so on up to the thirty and over group, which was the end of the line. The facilitator had us look around the room. The thirty and overs were venerable to be sure—many were Rectors of the large cardinal parishes in the diocese, one or two went on to become Bishops—but they looked a little rumpled and out of shape. Bunch of old farts, I thought.

Well, here I am—thirty years and counting. Mind you, I didn’t expect to be ordained.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says: Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Who was this Son of Man of whom Jesus speaks?

The phrase has several meanings. In the Hebrew scriptures—the Old Testament—it means simply, son of a human being, which is to say, the fully human one. It also signifies the one who will appear in history to usher in God’s judgment, not unlike its context in today’s reading from Matthew. Finally, in Matthew’s gospel and elsewhere, it refers to the centerpiece of the whole narrative—that is, the one who will suffer, die, and be raised again by God in glory.

Furthermore, the Son of Man, as God’s judge, is an agent of the apocalypse—the end times—when, minding our own business as in the days of Noah, we will all be swept away, or one taken and the other left, at an unexpected hour. So we need to stay awake and be vigilant. These are hard sayings and the preacher could spend entire sermons explaining them. I’ve done so exhaustively over my thirty years as a priest. And, frankly, I’m not sure that it helps much.

Let’s just say that apocalyptic literature was woven into the fabric of ancient times. Whether the historical Jesus himself actually adopted the apocalyptic worldview is a matter of debate even among scholars today. But the dominant dynamic of the reading is relevant never the less—that is, the unexpectedness of the events of which Jesus speaks.

No one knows, Jesus says in today’s passage – neither angels nor even himself – no one knows when this will take place except the Father. And it’s this element of the uncertainty, even unpredictable-ness of life, which offers a point of entry into this otherwise bizarre passage.

I didn’t expect to be ordained but once I was, I found that my priesthood was all about learning to live with the unexpected, the unpredictable, and the uncertain. Priests are specialists in being present to the unpredictable, which is to say, to the impermanent, precarious nature of our lives, of showing up at emergency departments and deathbeds and heaven knows where. 

Or we aren’t, and become specialists instead in avoiding or denying the unpredictable and painfully precarious, numbing ourselves with all manner of substance abuse or sexual misconduct. In that sense, we are not alone, but quite at home with the rest of humanity, even leading the way.

But there’s another side to the story as well and that’s about staying awake. You know what time it is, Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

Staying awake to the unpredictable and precarious brings the promise of life’s preciousness, of indescribable moments of grace and heartbreaking beauty that bring tears to our eyes. We won’t catch those moments if we’re numbed out and asleep. Such moments are all about salvation, about becoming whole and fully human, sons and daughters of God.

As a life-long student of world religions, it has always struck me as fortuitous—which is to say, very cool—that the beginning of Advent coincides with the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment. In Zen, the Buddhist tradition with which I am most familiar, it is called in Japanese rohatsu, meaning simply the eighth day of the twelfth month. In most Zen communities, there is a rohatsu sesshin—an intensive retreat leading up to the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment or awakening on December 8th.

There’s a story that when the Buddha started to wander around northern India shortly after his enlightenment, he encountered several people who recognized him to be an extraordinary being. They asked him: Are you a god? No, he replied. Are you a wizard then? No, he replied. Well, are you a man? No, he replied again. Becoming very perplexed, they asked: So what are you? Buddha replied simply: I am awake.

Awake to what, you might ask? Awake to the reality that everything is impermanent, everything changes. Awake, too, to the reality that everything is interrelated, what the celebrated Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls InterBeing. Interbeing describes that luminous web of life where all is intimately connected and reflects everything else, where all is precious and irreplaceable.

No one can know for sure when the Son of Man will come, Jesus says, but in the meantime we can stay awake. Even in the midst of the precarious, unpredictable nature of life, we can welcome God’s advent: surprising moments of grace and beauty, of healing and wholeness, of light in the dark, all manifest in every precious human life.

And lest I be accused of clerical despotism, staying awake is rightfully the work of every Christian, not merely the ordained, even an unexpected old hand like me. AMEN

A Sermon by the Rev. David S. Heald

St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough
December 1, 2013
First Sunday of Advent: Year A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Ps. 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Unfinished Work*

I’ve been told that one of my clergy predecessors here at St. Nick’s, the inimitable Gil Birney, was often given to beginning his sermons with a film review. I have no idea whether he morphed his review into the overall sermon topic or whether it was meant simply to warm folks up, but apparently it was his common practice.

So following Gil’s lead, I begin this morning with a film review, except it’s a movie that you probably don’t want to see. You see,  it’s a painful movie to watch. It’s not fun. It’s not even especially entertaining, in the sense that it provides neither pleasure nor amusement. But it is a masterpiece. And, I’m willing to wager, if you can stomach it, it will be among the most important movies you’ll ever see. In fact, I would go so far as to make the very un-American assertion that every American should see it.

12 Years a Slave is adapted from the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, who had been a free black man in Saratoga, New York. A husband and father, he was a literate, working man, who also made money as a fiddler. In 1841, after being lured to Washington, D.C. with the promise of several days' lucrative work fiddling with the circus, he was kidnapped into slavery. Over the next 12 years before finally winning his freedom, he became the property of a series of plantation owners, one of whom was a drunken, randomly violent, Bible-based fanatic.

In a film with many striking images, one stands out above the rest: Northup, manacled and in chains, stands up and stumbles to the barred window in his cellar cell in a slave pen in Washington, DC.  From a close up of his face in the window as he shouts for help, the camera zooms out and follows the red brick wall up and over the rooftop, where the city skyline is revealed before our eyes with the unfinished dome of the Capitol building in the distance. And therein is revealed in miniature the whole story of racism in this country.

In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, the British director Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the now deceased American actor), speaks of his films as being about various “elephants in the room,” not least of all slavery. He speaks about the lingering effects of slavery as being all around us:

All you've got to do is walk down the street [in any city], he says, and you see the evidence of slavery in everyday life. But there's a huge silence about it. It's a deafening silence... You know, why [is] the prison population of black males so huge? Why is poverty in that community so huge? Why is mental health, why is education so poor, why? When you ask yourself that question, it all leads down to what happened in slavery...

In the end, says McQueen, 12 Years a Slave is about love. It’s about the depth of a man’s spirit, a spirit that is somehow—gently—unbreakable. It’s a film about human dignity, a dignity that endures and survives the most unspeakable horrors. In that sense, it is a profoundly redemptive work.

And for all of us the work is ongoing: Brothers and sisters, says Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians, never tire in doing right or, in another translation, do not grow weary of doing good. The work of doing right—the work of compassion and justice--is as yet unfinished and incomplete and it is ours, and future generations, to accomplish.

This Tuesday, November 19th, marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, delivered just ten years after Solomon Northup wrote his memoir 12 Years a Slave. In his new documentary film The Address, set to be premiered in the spring, Ken Burns tells the story of a tiny school in Putney, Vermont, the Greenwood School, where every November the students are asked to memorize, then publicly recite around the time of Lincoln’s birthday, the Gettysburg Address.

A task requiring significant effort for us, such memorization and public recital is even more challenging for the fifty boys with learning disabilities who make up the school’s student body. Burns says that the heroic challenge to recite these most stirring words ever spoken enable the boys to find the inner strength and courage to push through and achieve their goal. The results, he says, are inspiring and deeply moving. 

Burns has extended the challenge to memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address to all Americans—from paupers to Presidents—by making a video and uploading it to his website. He says that the words of the Gettysburg Address, as they were medicine for the souls of so many at the time of the Civil War, may be medicine for us today.

The world will little note, said Lincoln, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. That unfinished work was for Lincoln the work of justice, as a war for Union alone became as well a war of emancipation for an oppressed people.

That memorable image of the unfinished dome of the Capitol building has become for me a metaphor of our own as yet unfinished soul work, as a people and as a nation; the unfinished work of healing our hearts and the heart of this world. For we need only look deep within ourselves to find the roots of what ails us, and then beyond, to a divine wellspring of healing and hope.

The prophet Isaiah holds out a vision of the end of such work. Call it the dream of God. Call it our help in ages past and our hope for years to come. Call it, with Martin Luther King, Jr., the long moral arc of the universe that bends toward justice. Call it God’s kingdom, that kingdom that Jesus initiates and inaugurates, unfolding in our midst even now.

I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

May it be so, now and forever. AMEN

* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Year C; November 17, 2013



Unafraid of Grace and Beauty*

On a bright autumn day, I stood with my father at the college war memorial—an open space at the crest of the hill overlooking the athletic fields below and the Mount Holyoke Range beyond. Three Marine helicopters circled the campus and landed on the fields. On the roof of the nearby gym building stood a man wearing a dark suit and holding a rifle with a telescopic sight.

It was October 26, 1963. President Kennedy had come to Amherst College, my father’s alma mater and much later mine, to attend the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library and to receive an honorary degree. I was eight years old.

Later on, among an outdoor crowd of 10,000, I struggled to see the President speak on the wooden platform erected for the occasion. My father hoisted me up onto his shoulders, so that I’d have a better view.

Less than a month later, I was standing in the hall of my grade school when it was announced that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. A teacher was crying. We all went home early that day.

But the memory that has remained with me over the years—much sharper in relief—was of those helicopters and of that dark-suited secret service man with the rifle and of sitting up high on my father’s shoulders straining to see the President of the United States speak.

Many years later, in her application to Amherst, my daughter Anna was asked to write a brief essay on a theme from Kennedy’s address that day in 1963. He said: What good is a private college or university unless it is serving a great national purpose? It seems to me incumbent upon this and other school’s graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest...unless the graduates of this college...are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion...then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.

Anna wrote about that day I sat atop my father’s shoulders, about her grandfather’s service to his country as a Naval officer in World War 2, about my work as a hospice chaplain and as a minister, and about her desire to serve her country—to put her gifts back into society--fiercely and bravely, as she wroteand with broad sympathy, with understanding, and with compassion.

Kennedy spoke that day about the responsibility of college graduates to serve the greater good of the society. And he spoke, reflecting a theme from Robert Frost’s inaugural poem, about the right uses of power, this just one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the midst of an ever expanding nuclear arms race.

At bottom, Kennedy said, [Frost] held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that [he]coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.

Then he said, in a quote now carved on the wall of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington: I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty.

In the calendar of the church year, this is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes referred to as Christ the King. Odd name, you might say, for one who was a Palestinian peasant Jew crucified by the Roman authorities. Odd, indeed.

Today the language of kingship is largely outmoded. We no longer live under kings, so the meaning of the term is largely lost on us. The reign of kings was anything but benign, their massive power and wealth often amassed by means of exploitation and violence.

The inscription over the crucified Jesus read: This is the King of the Jews. With this mockery of Jesus and the Jews, Pilate wrote much more than he could have ever known or imagined.[1]

What is this power of Christ the crucified King?

It’s the power of the wisdom from before time and forever. It’s the power of self-giving love, whose purpose is for healing old wounds.  It’s a power unafraid of grace and beauty, revealed even at the darkest of times.

Today we support the life of St. Nick’s not only with our financial pledges, but with the power and purpose of our love. We pledge to use our gifts, fiercely and bravely, for the sake, not only of this place, but of the wider world; forever offering our broad sympathy, our understanding, and our compassion.


* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King; November 24, 2013   

[1] See Clendenin, Daniel B. Journey with Jesus 18 November, 2013

Monday, September 30, 2013

Glories of the Great Spirit*

Last Sunday, I shared with you a personal narrative of a forty-year friendship and a hike to the windy summit of Doubletop Mountain in Baxter State Park. That friend was Nat Bowditch, who passed away in 2008.

While I was editing my story, I was in touch with Stan Tag, a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Stan wrote his Ph.D thesis on Henry David Throeau and the 19th century Maine woods narrative tradition. Thinking that he might enjoy my narrative, I emailed him a copy.

When Stan saw the name that was the subject of my memorial tribute, he was startled. He thought that I had written about another Nathaniel Bowditch who, with his father, and three of his cousins,  had climbed Katahdin as a sixteen year old in 1856. That Nat Bowditch later died of battle wounds at Kelly’s Ford, Virginia in 1863, having served as a Lieutenant with the First Massachusetts Cavalry.

Nathaniel’s father was Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, a prominent Boston physician, abolitionist, and an avid outdoorsman. As a physician, he pioneered the use of the stethoscope in the US, promoted a public health system in Massachusetts, wrote a pamphlet advocating an ambulance system to care for the wounded in the Civil War, and with Julia Ward Howe and others, came before the state legislature year after year to urge suffrage for women, refuting the idea that they were physiologically unfit to vote.

He wrote a narrative of his 1856 ascent of Katahdin, published in 1958 and 1959 in two issues of Appalachia, the journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Henry Bowditch was my friend Nat’s great-great grandfather. In all the years that Nat and I hiked in Baxter State Park, and the three occasions that we climbed to the summit of the great mountain, we were unaware that his ancestor had been one of the first to climb Katahdin and write about it. Some years before, Henry David Thoreau had famously written about his September, 1846 ascent of the mountain, an account of which was later published in his book The Maine Woods.

Henry Bowditch was a Christian, though his theological views were progressive and ecumenically broad. While studying medicine in France and England in the 1830’s, he was profoundly influenced by the writings of the Anglican William Wiberforce—whose feast day is commemorated in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church—a single-minded crusader for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. Bowditch came home a militant abolitionist. He was proud to count among his friends, the escaped slave, memoirist, and great orator, Frederic Douglass.

Years before, when Henry was ten, his mother Mary gave him her Bible on her deathbed, which he carried on all his many journeys abroad and at home, even during his fourteen day expedition through the wilds of Maine, an enduring emblem of his piety and faith in God.

Stan Tag writes that, at a time in the 19th century when many adhered to the strict observance of the Sabbath—even, if not especially, the several clergy and their companions who climbed Katahdin—for Bowditch, the religious experience of being in the natural world, in the wild realm of God’s creation, was more important than keeping any particular day holy...Bowditch believed in making each day as much a sacrament as any other day.[i]

On Monday, August 11, his camping party saw Katahdin from afar, and Bowditch exclaimed, foretelling the praise of present day travelers who approach the mountain in awe: To the East arose in solemn silence, with his head veiled in clouds, the glorious Katahdin! I would that I could express in words one tithe of the emotions that arose within me, or give even a faint idea of the combined loveliness and grandeur of the scene.

Suffice it to say that here I enjoyed one of those rich communings with Nature & with men. Such as are not often felt... In silence I worshipped the Great Spirit, the Father of all, who watches over the Red and White Men and blesses all alike who seek [God] in reverential step amid the magnificence of his works.[ii]

Tag writes: Bowditch traveled through the Maine woods “with [a] reverential step”of his own, believing that the rivers, mountains, and trees expressed the glories of the Great Spirit. [His]narrative combines a wealth of details and observations about the well as a deeply felt religious awareness of his place in nature and his relationship to God.[iii]

Bowditch realizes that his deepest experiences in the Maine woods come not in keeping the Sabbath holy, but in recognizing that it is God who keeps us, and the world we live in, holy. For [him] traveling into the Maine woods is as much a journey of the spirit as of the body. Katahdin and the Penobscot River become sacred ground and holy water, places to commune with, and be baptized in, by the spirit of God.[iv]

I wonder: are we fast losing that felt sense of nature as being sacred ground and holy water, places to commune with, and be baptized in, by the spirit of God?

The Maine author, Henry Beston, thought so, though he might have phrased it differently. Do we really see as Beston saw, with a keen awareness and focused attention? Or what Bowditch so reverently observed in his many trips to Maine and the Adirondack Mountains? Have we lost the art of insight into the mystery of God’s creation? Has God’s creation become merely a backdrop to our mental machinations and increasingly fragmented lives?

Listen again to Beston’s exquisite paean of praise to a winter night sky at his farm in Nobleboro: The sky was less a sky of earth than interstellar space itself revealed in its pure and overarching height, an abyss timeless and remote and sown with an immense glittering of stars in their luminous rivers and pale mists, in their solitary and unneighbored splendors, in their ordered figures, and dark, half-empty fields.

It was the middle of the evening and in the north over a lonely farm, a great darkness of the forest, and one distant light, the Dipper, stood on its handle, each star radiant in the blue and empty space about the pole.

On Friday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth report. The report serves as yet another warning that without dramatic and rapid cuts in emissions of global greenhouse gas emissions, primarily emissions of carbon dioxide, the consequences of climate change could be disastrous in many parts of the world.

The report states that it is now extremely likely (extremely being a very precise word, meaning a 95% certainty) that the rise in global temperatures over the last sixty years is due to human activity. It further notes that projected sea level rise is 50% higher then last reported by the panel in 2007. Finally, it states unequivocally that the window of opportunity to do something about it—to overt potentially catastrophic results—is closing rapidly.

All this, yet we do little, as the “greatest” nation on earth, to avert what is perhaps the moral issue facing us today. Instead, we fritter away our days squabbling in Congress.

I wonder what Henry Bowditch would have us do? A spirited, resolute, and intelligent activist, a devout man of faith with a keen awareness of the sacredness of human life and of creation that translated daily into practical acts of healing, compassion, and justice, I think he would have been appalled at our indifference and inertia.

Learn to listen to the still voice of Nature as it speaks to our hearts, he would say. Pay attention. Give thanks. Act.

Under no circumstances have I heard that voice sound so solemnly or so sweetly as during this voyage down the Penobscot, he wrote in his diary, as his 1856 trip to Katahdin came to a close. It comes up before me now like the cadences of a great choral hymn.[v]


* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church; The Third Sunday of Creation Season; September 29, 2013 


[i] Tag, Stan “Growing Outward into the World: Henry David Thoreau and the Maine Woods Narrative Tradition, 1804-1886”; 1994 Dissertation (University of Iowa); pg. 45
[ii] Bowditch, Henry Ingersoll, “A Trip to Katahdin in 1856,” Appalachia, 1958, 1959, pg. 337
[iii] Tag, Stan; pg. 46
[iv] Ibid.; pg. 49
[v] Bowditch, “A Trip to Katahdin,” pg. 348

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Love Only is Eternal*

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 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, 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 us 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 and a navy blue cap perched on his head.

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 traversed the mountain from the south to the north peak, I saw a gray rectangular plaque affixed to a large granite boulder just off 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, illumined 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, I began to unfold the story of their lives.

Keppele Hall was a Princeton graduate who became a successful electrical engineer.  He married Fanny 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 during a flu epidemic.  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 long 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.

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.  Dennis Kostyk, in his film Wabanaki: A New Dawn tells us:  “To be with the mountain is to make a commitment to participate fully in life itself, to encounter the forces of life and to be in balance with them.”

For all people, mountains embody a mystery beyond our control, just out of reach. Edwin Bernbaum, in his book Sacred Mountains of the World, writes:  “Floating above the clouds, materializing out of the mist, mountains appear to belong to a world utterly different from the one we know…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.”

A woman stands on a mountain summit at sunset, as if 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.

The author of the book of Job interrogates us: Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts and makes its nest on high?

Creation humbles us, makes us feel that we are but one strand in the web of life, and brings us to awe-filled wonder and silence.

In the 19th century, there was a common phrase among the devout about going from Nature to Nature’s God. Which is to say, meeting Creation face to face—communing with the spirit of wild places—we encounter the Holy Mystery at the heart of Creation.[1]

Nat died in September of 2008 from complications due to multiple myeloma. Ironically, he was fifty-three, as was Keppele Hall.

I returned to Doubletop later that Fall, seventeen years after we climbed the mountain in 1991. Sukie and I stayed at the Kidney Pond Camps. She remained behind to paint on the shores of the pond.

I climbed the mountain alone and was feeling my age as I scaled the steep, timbered slope to the summit.  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 bid a fond farewell to my unseen yet ever-present friend, Nat.

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 that 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. AMEN

* A Sermon by the Rev. David S. Heald; St Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; September 22, 2013

[1] Tag, Stan; see his 1994 Dissertation: “Growing Outward into the World: Henry David Thoreau and the Maine Woods Narrative Tradition, 1804-1886” (University of Iowa) 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bear Blessing*

Matt Dyer was glad to be back home. Recovering at his home in Turner from life-threatening injuries, he recently told the Portland Press Herald: I’m glad the bear got away and didn’t get shot. I’d have felt terrible if that bear got killed because I was there. Dyer was mauled by a polar bear in July, at Nachvak Fjord in the Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador. I know the place. I was there in the summer of 2010 on the second of two summer trips to the park.[1]

Last September, in my sermon on the First Sunday in Creation Season, I spoke about being awakened in the middle of the night by my friend Steve, his form silhouetted against a night sky alive with stars. He was gazing upwards. The aurora he whispered. Pale yellowish green, blue, and violet lights hung like curtains and flowed like a river across the sky. We had been sleeping onboard the deck of a long-liner—a sixty-foot fishing boat—anchored in Nachvak, a fjord carved out by glaciers millions of years ago, with the dark mountains rising up around us on every side in that vast wilderness.

Matt Dyer had been on a two-week trip with the Sierra Club when the incident occurred. Delayed by inclement weather, they were at last transported to the fjord by float plane and the group set up camp ashore. As a safety precaution, they encircled the site with an electric fence. Whether inoperative or merely a trifling annoyance to the bear, it failed to deter him. Dyer was attacked in the middle of the night and dragged from his tent. Flares set off by his fellow hikers frightened the bear and saved his life. A physician in the group did what he could to stabilize Dyer until rescue came at dawn.

On my first trip to Torngat in 2009, my group camped south of Nachvak, at another fjord, Saglek. Having spent the night on the long-liner our first night, our gear was brought to shore in a launch the next morning. As we were setting up camp onshore, the captain of the long-liner shouted: Bear in the water!

Out on the fjord we could see the white head of a polar bear, leaving a long wake as it paddled toward shore. Warning shots were fired from the boat but to no avail. The bear emerged from the water just below our camp. A flare was thrown in its path. But on it came and climbed the steep bluff above which our campsite was situated on a grassy plateau.

Those of us ashore, just beyond the sight of the polar bear, ran into a stand of low-lying willow shrubs. John Merkuratsuk, our Inuit guide and bear monitor, stood his ground and fired further warning shots, all without effect. On it came. His gun jammed. Calmly kneeling down, he pried loose the cartridge with his hunting knife and, taking careful aim, fired again. Several shots later the bear fell.

After being mauled by a polar bear, Dyer said: I’d have felt terrible if that bear got killed because I was there.

Our group emerged from its encounter with the bear safe and unscathed. But a bear had been killed. That it was terrible only touches the thin surface—the veneer—of how it felt. Gathered around the bear moments later, we were dumbstruck and in shock. But there was much more
—grief, humility, reverence, deep silence. Each of us took turns in touching the head of the still warm bear, as if in blessing.

Our experience cannot compare to that of Matt Dyer. Although it may seem so from this narrative, these occurrences are rare. Since the park opened in 2005, Dyer is the only person who has been attacked and injured by a polar bear. The prior incident with my group was the first such occurrence of its kind.

The Inuit at base camp dissected the bear later that day. It was a female. Her stomach was empty save for some tapeworms. There was no meat on her bones and her fur fell out in hunks. She was starving. This may have been mere happenstance but ominous signs are beginning to suggest otherwise.

Although the polar bear population at Torngat is otherwise healthy, the bear population across the greater Arctic is stressed and endangered. Climate change is wreaking havoc. As it melts, bear have to hunt further and further from the ice pack. Several have drowned, swimming huge distances to reach the withdrawing ice. They depend on it to hunt ringed seal, their primary prey.

But along with the bears a whole people, an entire culture, is endangered—the Inuit. The Inuit depend on the cold and on the ice to sustain their traditional hunting culture. John Merkuratsuk’s Labrador village, Nain, has one of the highest suicide rates in Canada.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier an Inuit rights activist who was a visiting scholar at Bowdoin College a few years back, says that her people are a climate change barometer. The Inuit, she says, are like the mercury in that barometer; their hunters are sentinels for the rest of the planet. As the temperatures warm and sea levels rise and ever more destructive storms devastate, we are all affected.[2]

Watt-Cloutier says that in Inuktitut—the language of the Inuit—there’s a single word that encompasses the whole of Inuit cosmology—sila. Strikingly akin to our biblical word spirit, it means air or wind or breath. And like our spirit it means more: Sila is the breath that circulates into and out of every living thing; it is the raw life force that hovers over the entire land. It can be felt as air, sensed in the sky as wind, and lives within us as breath. It is the fundamental principle underlying creation. It connects every person with the rhythm of the universe.

Interdependent in the web of all life, knowing in some deep way that we are more than merely skin-encapsulated egos, we grieve the loss and degradation of our natural environment. Ancient wisdom across traditions suggests that grieving this loss is the beginning of healing, that without it real and sustainable ecological restoration is impossible.

The poet Mary Oliver, in a recent interview with National Public Radio and whose poetry I read last Sunday at the beach, acknowledges this.[3] Her poems are steeped in the wonder and beauty and mystery of the natural world, and yet she says:

The concern I have for the natural world is a sorrowful business...because we’re not doing what we should do to preserve the world. The woods that I loved as a child are entirely gone. The woods that I loved as a young adult are gone. The woods that I most recently walked are not gone but full of... trails. The world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state, it is itself  [a spiritual act]. The world did not have to be beautiful to work, but it is...

Or Henry Beston, who sensed the beginning of a disturbing change even living on his farm in rural Nobleboro, wrote this heartfelt plea: The ancient values of dignity, beauty, and poetry which sustain it are of nature’s inspiration; they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world. Do no dishonor to the earth lest you dishonor the spirit of [humankind]....To all who love her, who open to her the doors of their veins, she gives her strength.

Touch the earth, love the earth, honor the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all...[4]

I can’t tell you how laying hands on that bear changed my life but it did. The experience haunts me even now and has taken on its own life deep in my soul, forever beckoning.

But I do know this: God’s creation is itself a holy mystery, and to those who approach with reverence and awe and wonder, she gives strength and boundless blessing. AMEN

Photo: John Merkuratsuk in the Torngat Mountain National Park

* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; First Sunday of Creation Season; September 15, 2013   


[1] Portland Press Herald; September 3, 2013
[2] Sheila Watt-Cloutier on Climate Change and Human Rights;
[4] Beston, Henry; The Outermost House; Henry Holt and Co.; New York

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


The acorns began dropping from the red oaks around our house in mid-August. Squirrels, high in the trees, shake the branches and the nuts fall to the ground. But they also fall on other surfaces—house rooftops, metal grills, car roofs, hot tubs, patio furniture, bird feeders, and...heads. I note the array of sounds they make: thwack, whack, and whap; ding and ping; bang and clang. Some are startling, sharp reports, like a rifle shot. Venturing out, I wear a cotton cap to cover my bald head, though a crash helmet would better suit the occasion.

My neighbor is very tidy. Every autumn I see her outside with a white plastic bucket, down on hands and knees, picking up acorns from her manicured lawn, one by one. When the bucket is full, she dumps it in the woods at the edge of her property. She has cut down most of her trees because they’re messy. Yet she cannot escape the acorns: they fall from our oaks onto her yard. It annoys her no end.

The Farmer’s Almanac reports that a heavy acorn drop foretells a snowy, hard winter. The jury is out, as it is still early in the season. And yet, even as a write, I hear them falling. Another neighbor walks gingerly across her driveway; acorns like ball bearings make her footing unsure. A nuisance to us, this harvest provides food for the squirrels and other creatures as they hunker down during leaner months. In the meantime, I look forward to cooler autumn days.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Embracing the Passing Show*

It hit me with the force of revelation. It was my junior year of college. I had just broken up with my girlfriend—actually, truth be told, she had just broken up with me—and I was talking with my father on the telephone. He said: God never promised that life would be a bowl of cherries.

Really? Wow. God never promised that life would be a bowl of cherries. That obvious fact had somehow escaped me. The scales fell from my eyes. I would never again see my life the same way.

If not life will be a bowl of cherries, what does God promise? It strikes me now as an odd concept. On a human level, promises sound great but are not always kept. We are skeptical about their delivery on the other end.

And yet the notion of God’s promise occurs often in the letter to the Hebrews and elsewhere in the scriptures. The word promise and its derivatives occur at least ten times in chapters ten and eleven in Hebrews.

The reading today catalogues various exemplars of faith, some who had obtained the promises and some who did not, living, as last week’s reading said, in the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Here's how Hebrews describes that second category of unnamed saints: Others were tortured… some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.

We need not look far for modern exemplars. Martin Luther King Jr. comes readily to mind.

But our ancestor in faith, Abraham, is the most important example of how believing isn’t necessarily seeing. Abraham journeyed from a present clarity to a future of profound ignorance, one commentator wrote. He journeyed from what he had to what he did not have, from the known to the unknown, from everything that was familiar to all things strange.  Abraham died, as Hebrews says, without having received the promise.”[1]

Apparently, God’s promise, whatever it is, is often delayed, or not realized at all, or maybe not even kept. In the meantime, all we know is that life isn’t a bowl of cherries. And not being a bowl of cherries, our default response is to feel anxious about it.

Earlier this summer, there was an article in the New York Times by the author and journalist Daniel Smith entitled Nothing to Do But Embrace the Dread. Smith has recently written a book entitled Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, on which the Times article is based. In it he documents his experiences with a kind of anxiety that results in panic attacks, bouts of insomnia and thoughts of what he calls "existential ruin."[2]

It’s estimated that 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders of some kind and, whether disabling or not, all of us experience anxiety. So I found his article compelling, even enlightening, having something of the same effect as my father’s bit of wisdom from thirty-five years ago.

We all want to get rid of anxiety, Smith says, like we’d want to be rid of emphysema or eczema. And if you suffer from anxiety, he writes, you will wish for a mind that does not spin every slightest situation into catastrophe—a mind that approaches everyday life with poise, reason and equanimity.

But there are two glitches with wanting to be rid of anxiety, he says. The first is that it is an emotion universally felt and necessary for survival, not to mention for a full experience of human life. Toss aside the bath water of anxiety, he writes, and you will also be tossing aside excitement, motivation, vigilance, ambition, exuberance and inspiration...

The second glitch, he says, is more complex, having to do with the nature of anxiety itself. For all its attendant discomforts and daily horrors [anxiety] has at its heart a vital truth, even a transcendent wisdom. This of the essential uncertainty and perilousness of human life. Its fragility and evanescence.

Anxiety emphasizes these aspects of existence with an almost evangelical fervor... “Anything can happen at any time,” anxiety says, “There is no sure thing. Everything you hold dear is at risk, everything is vulnerable. It can all slip through your fingers.”...And of course, Smith says, this is right.

The solution, he says, is to embrace the dread. Fighting it only makes it worse, the harder you fight, the further you fall....The value and necessity of anxiety mean that it will persist until the last breath. It is impossible to extinguish, no matter the level at which it affects might just be able to find relief, and even redemption, in this very impossibility.

For what is the message that everything is fluid but its own solid fact? What is the relentlessness of uncertainty but something about which you can always be certain? And what other choice do you have? The wisdom is already ringing in your ears. You might as well listen. It won’t get you out, but it will without doubt get you through.

Life isn’t a bowl of cherries, my father said. So what the hell, you might as well embrace it. Or, as the poet Mary Oliver has written:

to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[3]

Which is to say, embrace the passing show, with all its attendant anxiety, grief, and exquisite moments of joy. Love it all, as if your life depends on it.

And maybe—finally—this is God’s promise: at the heart of the passing show, of everything that is mortal, is love, transfiguring it from within, and from which we can never be separated.

And letting go into that, you’ll find a measure of peace. Maybe even enough to get you through. AMEN

* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church; Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost; August 18, 2013; Hebrews 11:29-12:2

[1] Clendenin, Daniel B. “The Journey with Jesus-Notes to Myself” August 18, 2013
[2] Smith, Daniel “Nothing to Do but Embrace the Dread” New York Times, July 14, 2013
[3] Oliver, Mary From “In Blackwater Woods” New and Selccted Poems Vol. 1