In the Negev

It’s year six and I am officially in the Negev now. And only now am I beginning to understand what is happening to me.

I spent the first five years after I left the ministry lingering near the border, afraid to commit to the wilderness, looking back to Egypt and dreaming of halcyon days, fleshpots, and beauty. Yes, beauty. Egypt was so lovely that sometimes my soul would shudder. And the thing is, there are no cathedrals in the wild places. That is the thing you must know about the Negev. You have to let go of all that. Continue reading

Into the ethers

Gay marriage has been legal now for quite a few months. Thankfully, the sanctity of my own marriage seems to be holding up under the considerable strain. But still, I remain…uncomfortable. I have a vaguely bad feeling. And since I think my feelings are instrumental in the setting of public policy, allow me to elaborate on them.

It just seems like I can sort of feel the sanctity of my marriage leeching away into the societal ethers. You know what I mean? I think maybe there’s only so much sanctity to go around, and now the lesbians and gays want to take some of it for themselves.

And it just makes me kinda sad, you know? Just sad at the way – I don’t know – something seems to be going away. We’re losing some vaguely American marriage-ish thing that I can’t define but feel, you know? Is it too much to ask that gay and lesbian couples just stop being so focussed on themselves and give us more time to feel a little less scared about the idea that the value of our marriages might be – I don’t know – lessening or something?

I know what you’re thinking

I grew up in a world where one did not miss church on Sundays. Ever. It just wasn’t done, at least not in my family. We were among the insiders of the church who never missed, gave generously, and basically ran the show. There were lesser-committed members who attended maybe half the time. They weren’t exactly looked down upon, not exactly, but they were encouraged in sermons and Bible studies to step up their game and be a little more committed to the church, which we equated to being committed to Jesus.

There was also the C&E crowd – Christmas and Easter – who showed up twice a year to perform some sort of holiday penance. They sat awkwardly in the pews and struggled to comprehend the nuances of our liturgy and worship practice. They were welcomed warmly and made to feel at home, but they were clearly outsiders and pretty much the same as the people who

Never

Went

To

Church

At

All. Continue reading

Human bookmaking

If you absolutely must rely on generalizations to safely relate to other people, at least try not to use blunt instruments like gender, skin color, affiliation with major world religions, or nationality.

Generalizations are a kind of bookmaking game, figuring the odds and dealing with large groups of people. How many evil parts per million are there, you ask, in a group of light-skinned people or German people or Christians or men?

In reality we mostly relate to small groups of humans. One to five in number. One man, say, in a turban on a train platform on a Wednesday afternoon.

Consider giving individuals the benefit of the doubt. If bookmaking is your human relations game, then go with the odds. Because the odds that the person you meet will be at least harmless and possible a good person are greatly in your favor.

Or:

What price are you willing to pay, when the currency is the lives of others, in order to feel a little safer in the moment?

There would be a place

We’d need a place for this. Hopefully a place that is beautiful. My old church would be perfect. So would the Quaker meeting house here in town. Some place like those.

This place would be open for five hours on Sunday afternoons. A curator or spiritual guide would open and close each week. Come and go as you like. Come for thirty minutes or stay for the entire time.

There would be art supplies. There would be books. There would be tables with pens and paper. I would probably donate a drafting set and a copy of Euclid. There would be beads to make rosaries or maybe you just want to slide beads onto a string while staring out the window. Some people might bring things unique to their journey, so the room would be filled with a diverse collection of catalysts to fire the imagination, inspire conversation, make us think, lead us into prayer, or just help us quiet down and get through an afternoon without all the noise.

Some people would gather and talk. Others would want to be alone. Whatever you need. It would be our Sabbath place. A place for laying down burdens. No agendas. No labels. All would be welcome. We wouldn’t care what you believe or don’t believe.

No money. No budget. No staff. No overhead. Nothing that might derail the purity of our time together.

I’m thinking we would need two rules: No phones. Be nice.

This might be what I’m looking for.

Gordon

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Ronin

When my faith went it did not go down the way I imagined it. And yes, I used to imagine what losing my faith would look like. Years ago at the church, alone on a Friday, standing before the empty room, working out my sermon and I would wonder just how much of this does the preacher actually need to believe.

And I would imagine what I would do if I didn’t believe enough anymore. How would I leave my beloved little church? And I did love that church with all my heart.

I thought losing my faith would be like a seduction. That sexy voice from my shadowy depths would finally work her way to the surface. She would sweep into the room and make public her claim on my heart. She would run her fingertip along my jawline and look right into my eyes.

Now you don’t really believe any of that nonsense, do you? Continue reading

The interview

Where is this Jewish troublemaker, this messiah, or king, or whatever it is he calls himself?

He’s in the antechamber your grace. He has been…softened, as it were, in preparation for your interview.

Bring him in.

Jesus is thrown to the floor.

Oh good god, they’ve overdone it. Albus this man is clearly no danger. Why is he in this condition? Continue reading

Mall church

I dreamed there was a mall in San Antonio with nothing but churches in it. People would come from all over the city, have breakfast in the food court, then attend whatever service appealed to them in the moment. Jeanene and I had attended a few times out of curiosity but never found anything of interest. The mall did not contain a diverse group of churches. Mostly generic non-denominational evangelical praise-and-worship types with a few subtle differences that only insiders could discern.

My seminary roommate and dear friend Larry Parsley was in town and wanted to visit this mall of churches, so we went with him. Larry is a pastor in Dallas, and I remember assuming in the dream that Larry was curious about this latest development in the ever-changing landscape of American Christianity and wanted to see it for himself. Continue reading

It has come to this

And so it has come to this. I’m going to leave for awhile. For a time. For an unspecified sabbatical. Maybe forever. Who knows? It certainly has a forever feel because I’m going out into the wild woods of the world and I’m not leaving bread crumbs behind me.

For now I still count myself among you. If asked I’ll say I’m an Episcopalian carved from untamed liberal Baptist stock. An iconoclastic Heyoka sort of character. The crazy cousin. The madman down by the river. Huck Finn on a raft with Jim and never comfortable wearing shoes or being indoors. If asked that’s who I’ll say I am. But I don’t expect anyone will ask. Why would they? Continue reading

One Draft

I’m only allowed the one draft on this. I can edit here on the back end of WordPress, but that’s it. No printing it out. No going over it 200 times. No red pen. Just the first and only draft.

Do you have any idea how vulnerable that makes me?

I have an intuitive sense that this is the way I need to write this. And when writing I try always always always to follow my intuition. It’s the key to my unconscious, which is the source of creativity. So okay. Here it is:

I don’t seem to be recovering from having been a minister for 20 years. It was 30 years if you consider the 10 years of education leading up to it. I left. I thought I’d find my place in the world. I felt odd but thought that would go away. But it’s not going away. Continue reading

The messiest prayer ever

Hi God,

It’s Gordon. Again. Um, you know my deal. Of course you do; I’m just saying.

Hmm. Okay. I’m the worst. I mean, I know I’m not the worst; I’m exaggerating. But seriously, I am the worst at some stuff. Definitely. All the little details I miss. Definitely not a detail guy. I would say I’ll try harder but I’m 53 now and we both know I’ve said that many times before. I might just be the sort of person who’s pretty sucky at certain kinds of detail-oriented work and related responsibilities. My shit is definitely not squared away. I know that. Continue reading

Graphene boundary

The prayers of the people Form II in the Book of Common Prayer are beautiful if prayed with the intent to receive from God the energy and desire to make these petitions a reality in the lives of people around us.

Without that intent, those same prayers become a shameful abomination, a petty and callous attempt to shrug off responsibility in the face of real human suffering.

Sometimes the boundary between good and evil is nothing more than human intention, which is like a layer of Graphene resting on the surface of a jagged and erupting world.

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Learning to hear again

Our world is full of music. Filled with it. But you will have to learn to hear this music. Or rather, you will have to unlearn the annoying and persistent habit of listening so that you can hear again. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Listening is what you’ve been taught. Listening is seeking meaning behind the sounds. Hearing is the older and more primitive use of your ears. And by now you will have just about forgotten how to hear.

You can practice the ancient art of hearing by paying attention to the sounds of people talking in a crowded room. You will hear the buzz of their voices but will not understand many of the words. This is hearing. And the sound of a herd of humans vocalizing is a lovely thing. Continue reading

The man in red

This time he was under the freeway at I-10 and Wurzbach next to the guy with the walrus mustache who sells newspapers. Hitchhiking as usual. I couldn’t believe he was wearing my red Monty Python Spanish Inquisition t-shirt that my daughters gave me. It was hard as hell to pick him up too. There’s no shoulder on the road so I had to let the cars pile up behind me while he took his precious time getting in. A couple of people honked.

I didn’t look at him or say anything. He sat patiently in the passenger seat. I turned at the Pizza Hut and pulled into the Saint Francis parking lot. I shut off the car and took a deep breath. I hate looking at him, but it’s impossible not to. I turned my head and there he was looking back at me with one eyebrow raised, amused.

My eyes went to the top of his head to look at his hair. Of course. Then his glasses. The short beard. Slightly chubby midsection. Legs were muscular. Shoulders. Then his blue eyes. He looks just like me. That’s always hard to get used to. Continue reading

Receive Our Prayer

Near the beginning of the Episcopal worship service we sing a hymn called The Gloria. One stanza from this song has an eerie power over me. Specifically, it’s the last three words that I cannot ignore.

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
    have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
    receive our prayer.

Receive our prayer. When we sing this line we stretch out the word receive in a way that I find compelling. “Receeeeeive our prayer.” Continue reading

Kodachrome Shy

I am drawn to the mystery of our ancient ancestors and obsessed with their god-like silence. Having no written language they left us nothing ephemeral but instead laid a foundation of guttural sounds and gestures from which we formed our modern tongues. What they did pass on were things older and deeper than writing. Archetypal stories and myths that are long gone but gave birth to other stories that in turn gave birth to ours. What fills our stories filled theirs. Love and loss and fear and gods and darkness. Heroes and villains and fire. Devils and sacrifice and salvation. I long to know more of our ancient mothers and fathers, but they marched mutely to their stone age graves and left us only what our experts can surmise from sifting through their middens and studying the odd pieces of art that survived. Continue reading

Yonah and the winged lion

A Jungian analyst I know said giving your dreams a title is an important step in the interpretation process. So this dream is called Yonah and the Winged Lion.

Background items:

Yonah Fortner is the name of an orthodox rabbi I once knew. He appears in my book in two essays under the name Jonah. We had a number of adventures together when he lived in San Antonio in the early 90s. He moved to Los Angeles with his friend Bruce in 1996. Both men were in wheelchairs, and I drove one of their vans out to California when they moved and spent a few days with them. Yonah was a wonderful Biblical scholar. In addition to his rabbinic studies, he had studied the New Testament and knew New Testament Greek. While he was in San Antonio, we often had interesting conversations about Christian & Jewish theology.

Bruce called me a few years ago and told me that Yonah had died.

Winged Lion. The winged lion is a mythical creature. In some Christian traditions it is also a symbol for the evangelist who wrote the gospel of Mark.

The Dream

My memory of the dream begins with Yonah teaching me the scriptures in a charming and ancient forest glade. Around us were old and majestic trees. It was the kind of forest I imagine when I think of ancient Britain. Continue reading

Words like rain

If I could hear just one word from you. Just one clear word and everything would change. To hear the church people talk, your words are a dime a dozen and fall like rain upon the just and the unjust. Broken souls who stumble in the church’s back door leave singing their own magnificat and I’m not hearing a thing.

Not in the book. Not during my prayers. Not from your Church. Continue reading

I have an eating problem

I have a problem with food. I know what the problem is. I eat compulsively. I can name the problem. I just don’t know what to do about it, exactly.

Or maybe I just don’t want to do anything about it.

What do I mean when I say I eat compulsively?

  1. I eat when I’m not hungry. I crave food when I’m not hungry, and in that moment I will get food and eat it anyway.
  2. I eat when I watch something on a screen. For reasons I don’t understand, watching a show or movie makes me want to eat. And you know what happens when I want to eat. (See #1)
  3. When I start eating for compulsive reasons, I don’t stop when the pleasure is gone. I continue well beyond the point of having fun. Sometimes I even begin to feel bad and yet I keep eating.
  4. I have a strange compulsion to eat all of whatever it is I have. If I buy a pint of ice cream and eat some of it, I’ll be watching something on a screen (#2) and my mind keeps returning to that half empty pint in the freezer. Eventually I’ll get up and finish it off. Sometimes I get the strangest feeling of satisfaction too, as if by eating all the cookies, I’ve got the cookies out of the house now and won’t be tempted by them anymore. In my bizarro eating world, finishing all the cookies is somehow a healthy move to make and will benefit me tomorrow. You know, tomorrow, when I start eating right.
  5. Rather than make and eat healthy food, I give in and grab a burger or something unhealthy and eat that for a meal, even though I don’t really enjoy it and would save time and money by eating something lighter and healthier that I could make myself.

Continue reading

Mitty

Being the last gasps of my dying competitive spirit

Twenty-five miles in and there’s a rabbit up ahead. Some young guy with baggy shorts and a bike he got for Christmas. Look at him adjusting his ear buds. He has no idea what he has. Time for him is eternal and energy is always there for the taking. I coast briefly while I decide if I’m going to take him. I keep my eyes on him while I take a squirt of water. You don’t want to pass someone and then die a mile beyond him. If you go by him you just bought yourself whatever pace it takes to stay ahead. And he’s moving along at a decent speed. I’m averaging 17mph, which for a ride of this distance means I’m pushing a little. I’m not settling for what my bike and legs will give me.

Fuck it. I’m taking him. One last time for who I used to be. One more time to take the pain and love the hurt of it. My will against the ancient gods. My middle finger raised against the sunset. I will reel him in. And I will drop him. Continue reading

World without end

What you will notice first is the people. Look at them. See how they gather together in this place. Apparently this gathering ritual is a thing people do. And they are so at ease with it, gliding between the pews, exchanging greetings, having conversations before the service, waving across the room to their friends, sinking quietly into their seats to court silence before it begins.

Almost everything you will see has ritual significance. There will be so many rituals. Major rituals shared with the ancient Church and minor rituals particular to this congregation. Don’t try to sort out the rituals. Just watch them and be with them and soak in them for now. Continue reading

The making of me

Some say we humans are made at the moment of conception. But I don’t agree. That’s when our bodies begin to be made, yes. But our souls are knit together in tragic and heroic moments, sometimes years before we are born, when the messages of our families are formed in the crucible of human experience.

What follows is an important moment in the making of me. It happened in 1957 on a typical Saturday afternoon at a shoe store in Marshall, Texas. Continue reading

Via Negativa

Sunday, 22 March in the season of Lent

My God, my God, why have I forsaken You? Why have Your words, echoed through the ancient and holy Church, turned to babel in my ears? Why has my heart turned to stone? Did You harden it, as You hardened the heart of Pharaoh, for some mysterious purpose I cannot know? Why has apathy taken root in my soul?

What happened to my pathy? Continue reading

For the sake of the one

I read recently that men are statistically more likely than women to be narcissists. The story was in the Washington Post and quoted an article from the journal of the American Psychological Association, so it seems to be a valid study.

My own half century of interacting with men and women certainly does not represent numbers that would constitute any sort of meaningful cross section of humanity. But my limited experience leads me to think that the study is probably true. You take a hundred men and a hundred women, and a greater number of men from that group will be selfish and self-absorbed.

Okay.

I comprehend the truth of the study, but I’m not sure what you and I should do with this newfound knowledge. If only one woman in a hundred was a narcissist, and if only one man in a hundred was not, what would that fact mean to you if you were to find yourself face-to-face with the exception from each group? Continue reading

SS Alexander

When my college roommate graduated he left me two things. The first was his campus job delivering The Lariat, which is the Baylor University newspaper. Rob said it was the best campus job because they paid you three hours of work to deliver the paper, but you could do it in an hour and a half with practice. The other thing he left me was a 60-year-old man with a gray ponytail and serious hygiene issues.

The man’s name was Steve S. Alexander. We called him SS. Rob didn’t know his middle name and I never found out what it was either. Rob did odd jobs for SS and got $3 an hour for his trouble. He also got to hunt on SS’s family farm, which meant he came home occasionally with some rabbits that he would fry and serve for dinner. It was without a doubt the toughest meat I ever ate, but we were in college, didn’t have much money, and were up for adventures. So we ate Rob’s rabbits. Yes we did.

Here’s what Rob told me about SS:

“He’s not like anyone you’ve ever met or will probably ever meet again. He’s a character. You’ll see what I mean. He’s really just lonely and wants someone to talk to. He’ll pick you up in his car, drive you around, maybe give you a job to do, then pay you in cash when he brings you back. He’ll never stop talking, but you’re getting paid so who cares.” Continue reading

True Believers

This is the completed short story that is a companion piece to The Ministers’ Morgue, which you can read here. It’s not dependent on that other story at all. They are just written in the same style and address some of the some themes. I posted part one of this story back in October. But the opening has changed, so I’m posting it here in its entirety.

I could tell you the story of how I found Carl in New Orleans, but it wouldn’t do you any good. Carl moves his shop around town whenever the mood strikes him. During a stretch of time in 2008 he operated out of the back of a van. If you need Carl you’ll have to find him in your own way.

In my case, after some years of asking around, I ended up headed for New Orleans with some sketchy directions scribbled onto a scrap of paper in my wallet. I was supposed to look for a green door in a wall that led to an alley on St. Ann Street between Bourbon and the river. No address. Carl doesn’t really do addresses.

The French Quarter looked pretty much like it does in the movies. Narrow streets with wrought iron balconies on the second floors. I walked up and down St. Ann a few times, cursing when I noticed that almost every door is green. Eventually I found it. A narrow wooden door that looked like it was a hundred years old. So many layers of paint that the edges of the boards and even the hinges looked soft. Behind the door an alley twisted back between buildings and turned to the right. Around the corner was a dimly lit shop called Bayou John’s Voodoo Supplies. Continue reading

Eucharistic Mitzvah

Monday, 2 March in the season of Lent

We eucharistic visitors have no truck with theology or philosophy when we are sent out into the world with our small box filled with the consecrated elements of our shared communion.

The box in which the bread and wine are carried has a handle on the top. I don’t trust the handle. I don’t trust the handle because Brian Zook doesn’t trust the handle, and he is the one who taught me the ways of the eucharistic visitor. Once Brian was holding the box by the handle – like a lunchbox – and the latch almost gave way. Imagine the bread and wine spilled onto an asphalt parking lot or into the floor of your car. So Brian holds the box in his arms. Therefore I hold the box in my arms too, and think of him every time I touch the handle, feel the fear of not trusting it, and tuck the box into my arms instead. Continue reading

Unconscious servants

Wednesday, 25 February in the season of Lent

Sometimes I visit Covenant Baptist Church on a Sunday morning. Not often. A few times a year. It’s always nice. I’m happy to see my old friends and they are happy to see me. I always experience powerful feelings there. How would you describe feeling very happy and nostalgic and introspective and a little out of place, as if time had moved on and you’re stuck a few years behind everyone else?

The last time I visited they were singing old hymns that reminded me of the faith my grandparents gave to my parents and they gave to me. Spirit of the Living God, O Worship the King, Breathe on Me Breath of God, We are One in the Bond of Love.

I fought tears throughout the service. That doesn’t always happen when I’m there. I think I was feeling particularly lost that Sunday and Covenant is a place where I remember not being lost.

Continue reading

Our island home

Sunday, 22 February in the season of Lent.

In the Episcopal prayers and liturgy spoken during the Eucharist can be found this delightful paragraph:

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.

This fragile earth. Our island home. These two phrases speak powerfully to me. What a fragile thing is our faith. Held together by hope, tradition, longing, practice, imagination, dreams, legends, and myth. We have no assurances that our faith is connected to any physical reality beyond our species, nor do we have any way of imagining how tenuous any such connection might be. Continue reading

Cartesian

I may have been given a great and terrible and sorrowful gift when I left the ministry. I did not ask for this gift; it came upon me like a palsy. I shook and trembled. The sight of the Church blurred and the words of church people turned to babel. The gift – or it might be a curse – is of new eyes and new ears. I see Christianity with the eyes of the outsider, and I hear our words with the ears of the stranger.

I speak of this gift or curse without pride, since I don’t want the damn thing. I was content in my dogmatic slumbers. I was happy when the words of the Church made sense to me and I saw my life and purpose safely nestled behind her walls.

But I left that life. I walked away. I told people I couldn’t be a pastor anymore. Said I couldn’t keep doing that. That’s all I knew to say then and it’s all I can think to say now, if anyone asks and mostly they don’t. Continue reading

What being small might do

If I had my way the Church would never speak of hell again, having lived in a purgatory of hellish conversations, devilish manipulations, and brimstone abuses for long enough. Let’s put that one to bed. For that matter, we’ve been talking too much in general and should perhaps consider a monastic period of silence for a hundred years, that silence broken only for internal communications and hospitality, should anyone ask us a question. This century of silence would be an act of penance and an attempt to restore our damaged reputation. Continue reading

True Believers

I could tell you the story of how I found Carl in New Orleans, but it wouldn’t do you any good. Carl moves his shop around town whenever the mood strikes him. During a stretch of time in 2008 he operated out of the back of a van. If you need Carl you’ll have to find him in your own way….

This story has been completed and can be read here.

Nobody

Four years ago I was somebody. I made a lot of words in those days. I was a word maker. Talking talking talking talking. Writing writing writing writing writing. Talking and writing. In my defense, there were people who wanted to hear me. There was even a group of people who paid me to talk to them every Sunday morning. It was a straight-up gig. On the level. I made words for people.

So many words. So very many words.

So I was at the talking place one Sunday morning, doing my talking thing, when I began to feel that I had said enough. My mouth slowly closed until it was small and round, like the mouths of the kids singing at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas. And then my lips came together and no more words wanted to come out. Continue reading

Dream Journal: “My Sins and Jesus”

While my father was in seminary he was the pastor of New York Baptist Church, which is a country church near New York, Texas. Recently I dreamed that I was going back to New York Baptist Church for some sort of reunion. My dad and I were driving there together. New York Baptist Church was on the 11,000th block of a major street in New York, Texas, which in my dream was a much larger town than it actually is. And the church building was carved out of solid rock. There was a huge rock face, and the church entrance was simply a door in the side of the rock.

Continue reading

He’s a dandy

The old man opened the door to the cafe and stepped inside. He put one hand on the counter by the cash register and took the measure of the place. His head moved slowly back and forth, pausing as he looked at the people sitting in the tables and booths.

He headed for his regular booth by the window. He was close to the booth before he noticed a man and his wife were sitting there. He stood beside the booth looking at them. The man smiled at him and said, “How you doin, sir?”

The old man didn’t reply. He looked at the man and then at the woman. He looked at the chips and salsa on the table and at the beer in the man’s hand. Then he tightened his lips in a disgusted look and walked away. The woman’s eyebrows lifted. She bared her teeth and sucked in her breath. She whispered “What the hell did WE do?” Her husband looked at her and shrugged. Continue reading

My Seen Creed

Today is the thirty-fifth day of Lent.

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I believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only something of God,
I have no idea of the Father,
something from something,
I don’t know from I don’t know,
nothin from nothin leaves nothin,
bein got and not maid,
who knows what with the Father.

Through him all things were made. Okay. I guess.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from somewhere.
By the power of something kind of spooky
he became incarnate from…I can’t even say it. Just, no.
And was made man. Continue reading

Two things

Today is the twenty-sixth day of Lent.

If you are part of a religion or spiritual tradition with a bible, scriptures, traditions, steps, or any sort of received wisdom, you should embrace your tradition’s teachings with humility.

And you should be encouraged to take any two doctrines and throw them out. You get two. Any two that don’t sit well with you. And I don’t mean you should just ignore them. I mean go outside, look up or down or sideways or in whatever direction you think points toward your god and say, “Hell no. I’m not going to do that!” Continue reading