Looking for a Place to Call Home: Our son’s journey to Heartbeet

“Here”, Tess said, “put your hand here.” As we lay on the grass and listened to Mozart during a summer concert, she took my hand and placed it on her swelling abdomen. In her womb the child moved to the music. We wondered if the child would be a dancer or a musician or a football player.

The child was born early a few weeks later, a healthy baby boy all rosy. A caul, part of the placenta, completely encased him. Legend says that a child born in a caul will never drown and have good luck. I helped slow the birth by placing my hand on his head as it crowned to help prevent tearing. But when a nurse rushed into the room and pushed me aside, the baby jumped out, eager, complete with all ten fingers and toes.

When the doctor arrived and hour later, he said, “I knew something was wrong, a little Mongolism maybe.” Mongolism is a disused term for the disability now called Down Syndrome. The doctor’s words pierced like a knife. What would we do? A host of questions arose. “How could it happen? We did everything right. What trick of God would cause a child to be born with a disability?”

I called a priest friend and his wife. Mark and Elizabeth had adopted a child whom they later discovered to be profoundly disabled. I thought they might provide some guidance. I told him my thoughts. He said, “I don’t believe in a God who causes children to be born with disabilities. I believe in a God who reaches out to us with arms of love.”

It still amazes how Mark’s simple insight changed me. I had known the truth of what Mark said to me as if it were in my bones. Yet the residual theology of my Puritan ancestors of sin and punishment remained in the water I drank. Even the notion of Karma intruded into my thoughts. Clearly, my expectations and theologies would have to change and the child would be for his mother and me an exploration into the heart of love.

The day after our child’s birth a harried social worker arrived. We sensed her discomfort there in the hospital room with the baby’s mother and me. “You don’t have to keep this child you know,” she told us. “There are places for children like him.” I was stunned. Tess, my wife said, “He is our son and we will love him no matter what!”

My admiration and love for her fierce protectiveness of the child swelled. A lioness woman, she spent the next 20 years as an advocate with schools and government for our two children with special needs. The elder, dyslexic and brilliant, was able to fool us and her teachers through the second grade by memorizing words on a page even when she couldn’t read the text.

We named our newborn, Christopher, partly in solidarity with the recently de-canonized Saint Christopher, and partly because the name’s derivation from Greek or Italian, “Christ-bearer.” We gave him the middle name Mark, after the priest who visited us in the hospital.

One summer day at the beach on the Jersey shore, when Christopher was six or seven, I suddenly realized that I had lost track of him. I scanned the beach. I didn’t see him. Frantic, I looked to the left and found him dog paddling in deep water off a part of the beach with a steep drop-off. There he was, calmly treading water in the salty brine, just as if that is what one does when one finds himself over his head in the ocean. Thank goodness of that caul.

Chris began to swim with Special Olympics and later with his High School Swim team. He can beat me easily now in a 20 yard race as if it were no effort, his lean body cutting through the lake.

Christopher grew more slowly than other children. We had to learn his pace, to remind him often of simple tasks, and to find ways to help him achieve his goals. We kept an almost constant watch on myriad agencies now involved in providing support. He showed me that we all learn differently and at different paces and stages.

I learned that life isn’t about how smart you are. Chris will never be a college graduate, but he writes poetry. One of his poems begins:

The rambling man

Like the preachers son

Is looking for a place

To call home.

Annie and Chris at Heartbeet

Annie and Chris at Heartbeet

When he wrote those lines two or three years ago he had just moved to Heartbeet, a Camphill style community in the mythic “Town That Food Saved,” Hardwick, Vermont. He’s in love with Annie, his committed friend and soul-mate, who also lives at Heartbeet. In May the couple was engaged in a ceremony on the lawn at Heartbeet. With an engagement ring in his hand, he knelt on one knee and proposed to Annie. With her ecstatic”Yes!” he placed the ring on her finger. She held her ring finger up and jumped for joy. The facets of the stone refracted the light from the afternoon sun.

Five years earlier the couple had declared their desire to live in a committed relationship. With the help of the professional staff at Heartbeet, the two worked on personal goals and relationship skills. Chris needed to learn to speak up for himself, for example, and Annie needed to stop speaking for Chris. The two are talking about a commitment ceremony.

Perhaps this is the greatest hope and joy for any parent, to know that one’s child has found a person to love and who loves him in return.

Christopher has lived up to his name. So do all children. They are our great teachers, the ones who inform the inner life of the heart. They show us to move to their different rhythms, their pace and style of life. And we long for them to find a place to call home.

“The rambling man

Like the preacher’s son

Is looking for a place to call home.”

So wrote Chris, and aren’t we all? Now after a 36 year search, he works the land, writes poetry, harvests the rich abundance of the earth, has a community at Heartbeet that cares about him and his growth, and has found the great love of his life. As much as we wanderers ever do, I believe he’s found his place: with friends, with his love, close to the land and at peace with himself. I think he’d tell you that he’s arrived at home.

When I see him next, I’ll ask him. By then he may have another poem.

Heartbeet can be found at : Heartbeet.org.

To Really Dance with God

“This Kenosis thing is hard to do,” a friend said recently to me. Kenosis, hmm? Not wanting to appear ignorant, I mumbled something and told myself that I’d have to look up the word sometime before I saw him again. My Greek was never that good. My research on Wikipedia reminded me that Kenosis is the self-emptying of Jesus’ own will so he could be a vessel and instrument for the will of God. It means to “Let it be”, or to die to self. Jesus and others perfected that way of life.

And yes it is hard to do. So maybe we can’t DO IT. It may be that all our spiritual exertions and exercises are not the point here. Maybe life itself offers a lot of opportunities to let it be. I know life gives plenty of opportunities to “die to self”, to let ourselves BE. Isn’t the ability to die to self a gift and a grace that comes from God who shows us how to “let it be”?

Here’s a Story:

I was on the lam from the Episcopal boy’s school I attended in Western Mass. With a book of essays by Thomas Merton, the Monk, I read a piece by him as I rode the bus from Lenox to Boston called the General Dance. I was 18. Merton wrote that “God did not create humans to punish them. God created humans because he wanted a partner to be a companion in the dance.”

Now this was revolutionary in 1961. But since that time we have been using the idea of the dance to talk about God and yet we don’t dance.

Five years later I was in seminary and the tweens in my Youth Group in Dorchester, MA, an inner city neighborhood of Boston, wanted nothing more than to dance. The African American and Caribbean youth would bring the newest Motown sounds on their 45 records, a record player and set it up in the parish hall and they would move.

But I had no idea how to move to the beats of the drums or the high falsetto’s of the singers. I sat and watched on the sidelines along with one of the other boys. When I was their age, I was embarrassed into dance class. I learned how to do a halting waltz, a tripping and toe stomping fox-trot, and a jerking cha-cha. No one ever told me how to dance to the faster pace of Rock and Roll and soul. I couldn’t even do a decent Twist.

After all White boys don’t dance, and neither do some Black boys. After a couple of weeks of sitting and watching, 12 year old Hope Neil took me out on the floor of the parish hall and taught me some steps. I was dancing.  It was fantastic. I watched the young Dennis Ambrose as he moved like a wild child around the floor. The boy was one with the tumbling beats of drum and rhythms of bass and lead guitar and the vocalists. His arms, hands, head, torso, legs and feet and hips were all a whirr of motion. I had to dance like Dennis. In no time I was in the dance and I started to lose my self in the movement. I wasn’t self-conscious any more; there was nothing else between me and the music, me and my partner, me and the sweetness of God. Over the years the young ones have learned that at Weddings, I can keep up with some pretty tricky moves. I was learning Kenosis, dying to self. Letting it be and letting God be in the moment.

All I had to do was step onto the dance floor and a little child would lead me.

Abraham in the Hebrew Bible we read this morning is troubled by the ancient question for those who start on the path to God, “What is the most precious gift can I give to the One who gives so much to us, the food we eat, the sun, the air, the water, the loping Moose, the Monarch Butterfly?  Where have you gone, Monarch Butterfly, I await you and you have not come? What can one do to repair the destruction to the creation we have wrought and the harm we have done to one another?

Basically it’s a question of “How can I buy God’s love, mercy, abundance?” What offering can I present unto the Lord? And what the story shows is the evolution in consciousness of what it is that God wants of us. God doesn’t want us to sacrifice our most beloved child! No!

God does not want to punish us for our sins! No!

God doesn’t want us to fret and struggle over how to pray and find a way to God’s heart! No!

God wants to dance with us,

God wants to play in the fields of the creation with us,

And God wants to be in a holy, merciful, joyful, compassionate, steadfast relationship with us.

God says, “May I have this dance?” I imagine God as a little more formal than “d’ya wanna dance?” Which is OK too? And we either can reach out and become enfolded into the arms of God or sit on the side trying to decide what to do. Whether I can risk that kind of relationship with One who seems to know me very well and one who asks nothing from us except our loving and open hearts. And we look on while others around us seem to have enjoyment without measure, a cup overflowing, flying around the room, letting it all BE.

Our dear friend said to a group of us last Friday that she has a place in her heart called the “Grand Ballroom”. In that room of the heart there are many entrances and from one side enters joy, from another grief, from another the friend, then another the enemy. There is love and fear, jealousy and forgiveness, betrayal and steadfastness, the secular and the sacred, all and more come into the grand ballroom dressed in beautiful gowns and elegant formal wear, dressed in beauty to visit and take each other in their arms and swirl and waltz and dance together in the heart and eye of Christ’s love and mercy, grace and forgiveness. Here Sarah and Hagar dance together as do Ishmael and Isaac. Here father is reconciled with the son, and mother with daughter. In the heart of Christ’s love there is no opposite which cannot be included in this great room. There is safety here, Kenosis, where we have died to self. And where we can let it all be.

Let it all be, while God holds us in arms of love.

Maybe the next step in this path of Kenosis, of dying to self, is to reach out our own arms to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, to God and say, “Okay, I’m ready, I don’t know why or how, but it’s right to ask you. “Do you wanna dance?, Can I hold you in my arms as you weep over the world. Can I presume to comfort you at the hurt you must see?

And slow dance the night away.

Hope Neil from the youth group in Dorchester went to Princeton and became a Doctor. Dennis Ambrose died in the first on-rush of the AIDS epidemic and so in a way I dance between Hope and Grief, between Joy and sorrow as I remember my two youthful teachers in the dance. It is the divine movement between tears and joy, laughter and delight and sorrow. It is all held in the heart of love where all that lasts, lives and moves and has its being.








A little fun

To Dance before the Lord:

Perry Cox was an old timer by then. He was the celebrant that morning at the Church of the Ascension on Atlantic Avenue the eastern most street west of Atlantic City’s famed boardwalk. A man entered the church that Sunday, stood in the front of the church as the rest of the congregation watched. Perry continued the liturgy. The man began to remove his clothing. Article by article fell to the floor at his feet. Perry kept his concentration. Down to his skivvies, Perry gave the sign to two of the Church’s unofficial bouncers, the organ and the choir burst out in a hearty rendition of  “He who would Valiant Be ‘gainst all disaster…”. And the man was gracefully escorted from the church, his clothing gathered up by a third parishioner. I ascended the pulpit for the sermon. Said a prayer for guidance and commented,

“Now that I have your attention.” The congregation laughed.


Who Then Is the Enemy? 6 Epiphany

“Love your enemies” Matthew 5. Link to textweek.com for readings

I met Makoto Toyama in his dorm room in College. He was folding origami cranes under the blue florescent lamp at his desk. There is a Japanese legend that if you fold a thousand paper cranes you would be granted a wish. The story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who had been at Hiroshima, survived the blast and later died of radiation, was already well known in Michael’s (Makoto’s adopted name) native country, Sadako’s lymph nodes began to swell when she was in her teens. In the Hospital she received origami paper from friends and began to fold the cranes. She did not reach 1000 before the radiation sickness took her life. After her death Japanese students commissioned a statue as a Peace Memorial to the memory of Sadako and to all those killed in the twin blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Children place paper cranes, symbols of peace, at the memorial.

After the war Mike joined the vast gymnasiums in Tokyo where instructors taught judo. The gyms were the North American equivalent to the Neighborhood Houses where our own youth often found refugee from the harshness of the street. Mike was a black belt and he taught me some of the principles of Judo. The best and first one is how to fall. Through a combination of luck and Mike’s early teaching I’ve not yet broken any bones.

He told me the story of the Japanese poet who, when he discovered that a bamboo tree was growing through a floor board in his house, cut a hole to let the tree grow. Knowing Mike became an adventure into an alternative consciousness. We became roommates.

Mike later confessed that one of the reasons he wanted to live with me was because I was from Boston and he wanted to learn to speak English like a Bostonian. How very funny.

My step dad had fought the Japanese during WW II and we war babies had been steeped in repulsion for the “Japs” as we called them. Although never a word of derision was directed at the Japanese from my father, he was relieved when the Bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki .He and his superiors believed it would save countless lives.

Mike had been in Nagasaki two weeks before the bomb was dropped. His family, near starvation through the last years of the war, moved to another city just before that August Day in 1945.If he had been there, Mike, would have died.

Still the image of Mike folding a paper crane under the florescent blue of his desk lamp somehow drew me in. Who and what was this curious being. I never thought of him as an enemy until one day I brought him home and saw an expression on my father’s face that I never had seen before. It broke my heart both to see his hatred and to witness his wounds. In my naiveté, I believed they would love my friend as much as I loved him. In fact everyone else in the family thought Mike was a gem.

Mike became the CEO of two large Japanese Corporations. He and his wife had quite a few children. They all look lean and healthy. And my daughter visited him in Tokyo a few years ago. She brought some of the thousand paper cranes that we used to hang on our front port on those days in August to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Who then is the enemy? We spend too much time worrying about it. We waste too many resources trying to identify them. Not nearly enough time to get to know them


Learning About the Holy Spirit From Mrs. Szymanski: Pentecost

Pentecost: 2013   ‘The Spirit arrived like a white heat coursing through my head and hands. I was sure she was healed.”

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on them. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit….

I volunteered in the hospital and reported to Sister Rose who had charge of the volunteer program. “Who do you think I should visit today?” I asked her. “Mrs. Szymanski”, she told me. Off I went. Mrs. Szymanski was a parishioner in the nearby Roman Catholic Church and had been diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. She was a delight, a woman of real deep faith and so I invited her to come to the healing service that we had been working on for some months with a healing team from a parish in Malden.

The healing team believed in the absolute power of prayer. They prayed to find parking spaces and to have the city cleared of traffic when they were on tight schedules. As a retired cabby I had to admit, when we reached one of the city’s most notorious intersections and we breezed on through, that prayer seemed to be a better response than curses.

On that Sunday Mrs. Szymanski arrived with her whole family. The fifteen represented nearly a quarter of the congregation. Mrs. Szymanski came to the altar rail and the healing team and I began to lay hands on each head. Heat was building up in my body like a wave coming through my head into my hands and seemed to be pouring out onto the heads of those who came forward.  I was convinced that Mrs. Szymanski had been healed.

The entire congregation came forward that day, following the example of the Szymanski’s, and received the laying on of hands. It was a powerful day.

A few months later I heard that Mrs. Szymanski was back in the hospital. This time at the major Cancer Hospital in the city. I went to see her. “Mrs. Szymanski”, I blurted out, “b-but I prayed that you would be healed”.

The woman, of deeper faith and insight than I, replied, “But I was healed. Before that day my family could not face the fact that I was going to die. There was absolute silence around the subject. After that morning the floodgates opened. Since then we’ve been able to talk, family and friends have come to visit, we’ve been able to plan for my service and the celebration afterwards….”

She died three months later. I visited the funeral home to pay respects to the family. A cousin who had been at the service took me aside and told me that her death was the most beautiful he had ever experienced. “We spent the day before in her hospital room telling stories. She had a memory to share for each one of us. The day she died we were all gathered around her bed; she looked at each one of us, and gently slipped away.”

So what happened that day when the spirit came like white heat, the fire which enlightens and does not consume? At first, it was almost too seductive, like the first rush when you win at the slot machines. There was a deeper and more durable message that came from my teacher Mrs. Szymanski: There’s a real difference between healing and a cure.

Since then I have left the cures to those blessed with the hands and dexterity of doctors and nurses and men and women of skill. Certainly the Holy Spirit is no stranger to many of them.

The cure simply buys one more time to get on with the real work of healing. To heal relationships, bind up old wounds of the spirit, open doors for communication, and our hearts to forgive. To leave a legacy of love and deep witness to those we have known and travelled during this time we’ve been given. It’s the kind of healing Mrs. Szymanski taught me about some years ago and it still goes on teaching.

I believe the ministry of healing is a primary mission of the church. Wherever I am I still gather anyone who wants to come and pray with me for God’s healing. Now I know the difference between healing and a cure.

Epiphany 7: Forgiveness and the Love of One’s Enemy

Jesus said, “I say to you that hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you…” Luke 6: 27-38

You might have read earlier in this series that my father died in the crash of his B-17 in WWII. The effect on the family was devastating and long lasting. The grief carried us much of our lives, and because our grief was great so was my anger at the NAZI’s and subsequently with the Germans. You may note that I have a German name (which means chair maker). It’s complicated.

As seminarians we sometimes gathered at Cronin’s bar in Harvard Square. Cronins had tables that could seat eight of us and this day the beloved Hebrew Scholar and next dean of the seminary sat across from me and a German seminarian from Harvard Divinity School. Here we’d sit for an hour or two and discuss the state of the church and the world.

The great professor, who in a sermon still remembered, had recently quoted his dying father who told  him, “May you live in interesting times”. The professor commented it is an ancient Chinese curse or a blessing.  It was 1968 and it was both.

After a few beers, mind and mouth loosened, I said to the German student next to me, “I don’t like Germans.”  He asked calmly, “Why is that?”

I explained what happened, how hard it was on my mother and what it was like for the father never to return.

He responded, “My father also never returned from the war. He was killed on the Russian Front. I was five and I had two siblings. My mother struggled for many years after and during the war”.

There was a long silence. A lifetime of hatred and prejudice seemed to take its time to melt away. Who knows what phenomenon took place. It was easier to keep the enemy in his box. Now the son of my father’s enemy knew almost exactly what it was to watch our mother’s grief and struggle. I looked into the face of my brother and said … nothing. There was nothing to say. We understood the thin line that separated us was now irrevocably broken.

All there was left was the sorrow and the idealistic resolution to make the world a place where there would no longer be children like us. We failed. Yet we tried with much might. We still live in a hope for a new day that will, one day, arise.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return”

“The infant had been born without a complete digestive track”. The pediatric surgeon gave the news to the stunned father and grandmother. The priest listened. “Many surgeries, really that’s all”, the doctor said, “and months and even years of healing and recovery would be able to restore her functions”.  “So it must be done, the family and priest agreed”.

And there were months of recovery, mother sleeping for weeks at a time in the clean and bright pediatric unit of the modern hospital. Daily visits by father and grandmother,  Step by step as the “Plumbing”  was corrected and the child underwent times at home and times of operations and recovery in the hospital.

The little child was slow to grow, but each tiny step was a victory. And she grew and grew and finally she had a functional digestive system, her survival a miracle of science and faith.

One Ash Wednesday when she was barely two years, she came up to the altar rail between her mother and grandmother to receive the ashes. The ashes are dispensed by the priest with the words” You are dust and to dust you shall return” The old priest used the old words that he had memorized from his youth.

Now only two years since that life and death decision had been made in the hospital waiting room and many operations, the priest approached her. The child probably would not understand the profundity of the act, his hand with a slight tremor and his forehead beaded with sweat, he made the sign of the cross with the ashes, said the ancient words, and wept.

How many noticed, he didn’t know, couldn’t tell. He was long past the time when he worried about the tears that would sometimes flow. The experience shattered and informed him…one of the many breakthroughs that in his later years he called sacraments.

The priest wanted to say and did whisper into the child’s ear, “God give you a long and beautiful life”. He also said to himself, “may all her suffering be behind her”, knowing the impossibility of the prayer and offering it anyway.

We are at once so incredibly durable and fragile, he thought. The ashes are reminders of our fragility, a confrontation with our tendency to live unconsciously. The ashes reminded him of the ashes of the past year, ashes of family, of those dear to us, the ashes of our enemies and his own brokenness. It is a time set aside to be swept with tears of joy and of sorrow, the remembering of the child’s healing and the child’s fragility and our own.

Just a few days ago the priest told me that the girl’s mother called. She had to be taken back to the hospital where minor surgery was performed.

It seems she took a pebble and put it up so far into her nose that her mother couldn’t remove it.

The child is at home recovering and doing fine.