Tourist or Pilgrim?

When I retired almost two years ago, I had a fear of becoming the kind of retiree you see getting off a tour bus or a cruise ship in his shorts and Hawaiian shirt, with a camera strapped around his neck, heading to the nearest shop to buy a T-shirt that says, “I have been here and I’ve done this”.

That was not going to happen to me.

But, here I am in Miami Beach and this is my hat.

So,what is wrong with that?

After all, the temperatures this week have been gone down to the low teens in Cleveland and the highs here have been in the 70’s. Anybody could understand what brings us to South Florida.

I’ll also admit that I feel free here. I spent so many decades in a vocation that I loved, but even if I did get away from it physically for a few days, I was never far from it mentally or spiritually. There were always people to pray for and problems to be solved whether I was on the beach, in the mountains, or at my desk.

I am finally free of that, but I can have that same feeling of freedom when I wake up in my own bed, now. So, why travel?

When my parents retired, they intended to travel. Both of them had spent their lives working and raising their family within fifteen miles of their respective birthplaces. They were going to see the world and they did. They drove around the British Isles, took river cruises through Central Europe, and rode tour buses through the Cascades and Rockies.

Then, as their five children scattered from the coast of Maine to the edge of the Mississippi, just visiting them and taking winter trips to Florida to see my mother’s sisters seemed to suffice. The rest of the time, my mother tended her garden and refinished chairs, and my Dad worked in his shop and drank his morning coffee with men he had known since they all were boys.

It’s a pattern I have seen many people follow. Most people who are lucky enough to retire in good health with some resources, say that they are going to travel. They do, at first, and then. . . . , not so much.

I recently learned that the word “travel” is related to the word “travail” that means “suffering”. You either have to have a good reason to travel or you need to travel in a way that minimizes your suffering. The air-conditioned coach and the tourist stops where everyone you meet speaks your language help with the latter. I am not against things that can make life easier on the road. I like those little wheels on my suitcase and my cellphone. But it is possible to get so hermetically sealed inside the tourist bubble that we never encounter anything that changes us. After awhile, I think most people conclude that taking another tour just isn’t worth the trouble.

That is why tourism fails and pilgrimage succeeds in the second half of life. Tourism is just another form of acquisition. We buy the trip, the souvenirs, and the little book of photos that Shutterfly or Snapfish will put together for us.

Pilgrimage, on the other hand, is part of the spiritual journey. When I get to the end of my journey, I am going to have to leave my Miami Beach hat on top of the casket, but I hope I will be able to take with me the wonder I felt as I watched the Super-Blood Moon shining over the sea. That wonder was definitely worth running the gauntlet of flu viruses that knocked me flat for 36 hours. We have also learned on this trip that we can live just fine in 450 square feet of space for more than a week.

I think the impulse to travel in the second half of life is an outward sign of something going on deep inside. In Hindu India and Orthodox Russia, the old sometimes give away all that they have and become pilgrims, people who take to the road on a spiritual journey. Then, assuming they survive, they come back and settle down with family and friends to become . . ., sages, I guess. They are people who have a perspective on life because they have seen how other people in other places live, they have a sense of how little we need to carry on life’s journey and they have seen wonders they can barely describe to those who have not seen.

This time of life affords us the opportunity, and may present us with the necessity to turn our lives into a pilgrimage.

I am going to be posting about how the second half of life is becoming a pilgrimage for me, but I am curious about how it is a pilgrimage for you? What are you leaving behind? What are you heading toward? What are you looking for? What do you hope to find? What have you learned in your travels? When did you decide you had traveled enough?

The Pyramid and the Manger

How can you and I make the world a better place in 2018? By questioning the pyramid and pondering the manger.

The world’s oldest structures are pyramids. Some, in places like Kazakhstan and Brazil may be even older than the ones in Egypt.

Pyramids are also a symbol of human civilization. It took a very large and well-organized population to build a pyramid; a population that was organized much like a pyramid. A massive number of workers at the bottom did the actual work.  A smaller number of slave drivers made them work. A smaller number of overseers supervised the slave drivers.  These people all served the interests of a tiny group of people, call them the “One Percent,” at the top.

This system worked because everyone believed in a great myth that said the people at the bottom depend on the people at the top for their existence. Yet, one look at the average pyramid reveals that the bottom holds up the top.

5,000 years later, we still believe the myth. All civilizations, from Ancient Egypt to the USA, are pyramids. In every society, the people at the top of the pyramid have better schools, lawyers, and roads. They breathe better air and drink purer water than the people at the bottom.

The Christmas season turns the pyramid upside-down. The King of Kings is born in the lowest place on earth. His first cradle is a manger. And three “kings” come to kneel before him and offer him gifts.

There have been times when Christians understood this. In some places during the Middle Ages, Christmas turned the social order upside down. The servants became lords and the lords became servants between Christmas Day and the Feast of Epiphany (January 6). Indeed, this often put the celebration of Christmas in a bad light for those who need a lot of order in their lives. It may have been one reason why the Puritans made celebrating Christmas illegal.

As we put away our decorations for another year, we can ask how the pyramid has been working out for us.   We can ask, are we better off when rich people get tax cuts and poor children lose their health care? Are we better off when the One Percent see their stock portfolios rise and the federal minimum wage is the same as it was in 2009? Are we better off by blaming the people below us on the pyramid for all our problems? 

Those are scary questions. They often lead to revolution, but all revolutions do is build a new pyramid.

That is why the image of the kings bowing before the Christ Child contains the answer to the world’s problems. The world will be a better place when the people at the top of the pyramid serve the ones at the bottom. The world will be a better place when  the powerful revere the miracle of every birth and honor the sacredness of every life.

If you can read this, you are above the people on the bottom who cannot read. During this new year, you will make decisions at the store, at work, and in the voting booth. I leave you with a question from Robert Greenleaf’s book, The Servant Leader. “Will this decision benefit the weakest and most vulnerable? Or, at the very least, will it not make their condition worse?”

If we let that question guide every decision, we, too, shall become wise.

Pyramid Photo via: on <a href=”″></a>

Manger Scene Photo credit: <a href=”″>RdpC</a> on <a href=””>Visual Hunt</a> / <a href=””> CC BY-NC-ND</a>

The O Before Christmas

I am writing this as the sun is going down and the longest night of the year is closing in around us. It is a gloomy moment. My next door neighbors and those across the street who have done such a nice job of decorating their outside trees have not yet switched them on. It matches the mood of too many people on this night. The darkness and the push to “celebrate” combine to make the sad sadder,

I recently learned that it was an ancient Christian practice to begin worship services on the days of the week before Christmas, this week that has the longest nights of the year, with the O Antiphons. If you have ever heard the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” you know what the O Antiphons are.

It would take all this long night to explain the extraordinarily deep meanings of symbols like “Emmanuel” or the “Root of Jesse” that the Antiphons sing about, so I just want to focus on the word “O”. Recently, I crowdsourced the question, “How many ways can you say, “O”?

What is amazing about the word in our language — and I suspect in other languages — are the ways the same word can have opposite meanings. We can say “O” to express wonder or disgust, relief or frustration, sadness or joy, excitement or disappointment.

During this week the ancient Christians used the word “O” to express their longings; longings for wisdom and light, for justice and righteousness, and for God to be with us. It comes out of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) in which she expresses her hope that the child she will bear will bring about a world in which the voiceless will be heard, the hungry will be fed, and the nobodies will become somebody.

The O of longing.

We fall into despair, not because we feel longing, but because we have become numb to it. Opioids are only one way of inducing numbness. The incessant playing of “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” from department store speakers, is another. The commercial Christmas that has become the norm in America is preceded, not by people singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in darkened churches, but by an orgy of consumption. It is no wonder that the life expectancy of Americans has gone down for the second year in a row, what do we have to live for?

But I do not want to induce more despair. I want even the least religious person in the world to find fulfillment. And the only way to find fulfillment is to experience longing first. And the way into longing is through that simple vowel, “O”.

Yoga classes often end with the class chanting the sound “Om” together. The Hindus believe that this sound is the foundation of creation — an ancient belief that not only is in harmony with our modern insight that vibration is at the heart of creation, the vibration of atoms, hearts, planets and galaxies, but it also enriches our understanding of the Gospel of John’s Christmas story, “In the beginning was the Word. . . . ”

Everything begins with “O”. It is the beginning of a sentence. It is the beginning of feeling. It is the dawning of recognition. It is the cry of pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow. “O” is the opposite of numbness.

When you say it on these long dark nights before Christmas, what longings come up for you?

The numb will look into the manger on Christmas morning and see another plastic doll. Those who feel the longing expressed by “O” will see a Child, New Life, Promise, Wisdom, Light, Fulfillment of Hope, the answer to every longing.

How Many Ways Can You Say “Oh”?

This is not an idle exercise. It will have a serious purpose. Here is a list I composed this morning. Can you add more?

Ways of Saying “O”
Oh! — I understand
Oh! –Disappointment
Oh! — Pain
Oh! — Ecstasy
Oh! — Frustration
Oh! — Honor (as in O King)
Oh! — Longing
Oh! — Love
Oh! — Compassion
Oh! — Disgust
Oh! — Discovery/Surprise

Peace — the Gift We All Need this Christmas

Duane and Ida Miller have been close friends of ours for more than forty years. In addition to having both earned Ph.D.’s in Theology, the wisdom they have learned from seeking justice and loving mercy into their 80’s shows in the simply wise things they write. These three paragraphs from their annual Christmas letter need to be read by all of us. 

It seemed to us that Peace is the most precious gift that we could receive this Christmas and it is the gift that our communities, our nation and the world needs.  Recently we ran into this verse from Isaiah 55:12 –

For you shall go out in joy,

            and be led back in peace.

We certainly hope you experience great joy in this season whether it is from hearing familiar carols, a special gift, an important relationship or just because you are alive.  For then you go out in joy, go about your everyday lives without getting caught up in some conflict, and you come back in peace.

So often we hear something that we believe is wrong and we think we have to jump into the middle of it “to set them straight.” Too often such a response makes us feel immediately better but in the end we have helped make the situation a much bigger deal than it needs to be.  If we just quietly said: “I don’t see it the same way that you do” and not feel like we had to defeat the other, perhaps the volume of the conflict and the personal attacks could be lessened.  So we hope that you might go out each day with joy, not just in this season but throughout the coming year, and find a way to be led back home in peace!

Advent is Like a Missing Tooth

The Door of Humility leads into the Church of the Nativity (Basilica of the Nativitiy).*

When I had a molar removed a couple of years ago, I asked the dental surgeon what the Tooth Fairy would give me for it.

“She leaves stock certificates now,” he said.

I liked that guy.

Since I no longer believed in the Tooth Fairy, I  did not leave the molar under my pillow. (I hope that did not require a spoiler alert.)

However, my tongue kept touching the hole left behind for many weeks afterward.

 I am not as concerned about the historical accuracy of the story of Christ’s birth as I once was. What I do know is that the story and the traditions that have grown up around it point to a deep truth the way a probing tongue finds the spot where the tooth used to be. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a symbol of that tradition that draws thousands to it on Christmas Eve. The image above is of the Door of Humility in the basilica,  the entry to the cave where tradition says Christ was born to Mary among the animals that were stabled there. There is even a spot marking the manger where, according to the story, she laid him after wrapping him tightly in what most of us would call rags.

Apparently most people cannot enter through that door without bending over. For all the candles and symbols that are stuffed into that place, it is still, unmistakably, a cave — a hole in the earth. Whether or not you believe He was born there, this cave points to something important and hard to articulate, but Advent is  a time for probing the caves, the holey experiences, in our own lives.

My last two Advents have been a time for running my spiritual tongue around the holes in my life.

Last year was the first December in 45 years that I did not spend planning special services, attending Christmas potlucks, and going to concerts — to say nothing of trying to find something new to say about the Incarnation.

It felt odd, like a missing tooth.

This year, Jacquie left for India on Thanksgiving Day and won’t return until the 20th. On top of that, she is spending almost all of her time there in an ashram, a retreat center begun by the guru whose teachings form the philosophy that undergirds our local yoga center.  Visitors are not allowed to use electronic devices.

In other words, after half a century of communicating with each other every day, I have not heard from her since she messaged me that she had just seen the Taj Mahal and was on her way to the ashram. That message came in the day after Advent began.

I hasten to add that I am not spending this season shriveled into a fetal position. I have a dance card full of social connections with friends and neighbors, and a to do list that is astonishingly long. I am also a person who enjoys solitude.  But,  I will be glad when she returns.

In the meantime, this is an opportunity to explore the hole — not just the one that Jacquie fills in my life, but a deeper one.  One we all have.

I used to get in touch with it on that first Sunday in Advent when, attempting to put off singing Christmas carols at least one week, I would always choose “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which I have heard more than one parishioner complain is not very “upbeat”.

Perhaps I was being selfish, but the minor key worked like that tongue exploring a hole in my soul. Singing about Israel, I could feel myself sitting in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Then the music would end, I would pronounce the benediction and place myself next to the door to shake hands with the crowd that would swell through December’s Sundays until we were packed shoulder-to-shoulder on Christmas Eve.

This year, with time and opportunity to explore the hole, here is what I have found.

The hole is dark.

      The hole is cold.

             The hole is empty and lonely.

Why would anyone want to go there? Why would you want to explore it? Probe it? Feel your way through it over and over again, like a tongue probing a missing tooth?


It is only in the darkness that we can see the faint light of hope.

         It is only in the cold that we can feel the warmth of love.

                     It is only in the emptiness and loneliness that we can sense the companionship of Someone beyond ourselves.

Just as the stars fade in the sky over the big, bright, busy city, so the beauty of holiness is hard to see in the midst of the big, bright, busy “Christmas Season”.  But if your Advent contains some dark, empty, silent nights, you may come to Christmas Eve ready to experience a holy night that is calm in the presence of peace and bright with the light of love.


Image by Ian and Wendy Sewell ( [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing in the Window

I am writing this in a store window.

The store is Appletree Books in the Cedar Fairmount district of Cleveland Heights, OH. It’s NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month and Appletree invites writers to sit at a little table in their window and write.

It is also a metaphor for writing. Writing in a window means that I am putting into words how I see the world through a particular frame. It also means that I am on display. And that is what writing is.  Writers share the world they see through the particular frame of their own life. Writers also put themselves on display. As my friend and neighbor, Stephen Calhoun says, it is “performance art.”

So, I’m going to put myself on display by writing about why I write.

A year or so before I retired, Jacquie and I attended the Key West Literary Seminar. A lot of the people who go are also writers, so a way to make small talk with strangers during breaks is to ask, “Are you a writer?”

When someone asked me that the first day, I said, “no”.

The second day I said, “Well, I write a lot in my work, but I’m not a ‘writer’”.

The third day I said, “Yes, I’m a writer.”

As I listened to the speakers, all of them people whose books sit in big displays in bookstores, I thought at first that I am not one of them. But then, as they talked about getting themselves to sit down with a pen and a notebook, or a keyboard and a screen day-after-day, trying to hammer out some words that will mean something important to someone else, trying to write something clearly and truthfully, I thought, “I’ve been doing that for over forty years.”

My sermons averaged about five pages long. I wrote a minimum of fifty per year. So I was knocking out the equivalent of a 250-page book every year. And I was doing it in between hospital calls, meetings, funerals, wedding planning, and figuring out how to pay for a new church roof. I was a writer even if I did not write best-sellers.

That realization made it possible for me to retire. As I look back, I was hanging on to my job because it was satisfying something important in me. I knew it was not the meetings, the fund-raising, or handling the complaints about last week’s choice of hymns. When I admitted to myself that I was a writer, I knew I could let go.

After my retirement, I tried to set up a new normal with a blog, an outline for a book, and a schedule of writing almost everyday. I kept to it for a few months. But then I realized that I was hanging on to what was important to me in the morning of life that was no longer important in the afternoon.

It was not the writing. That was still what I wanted to do. I think it was the window. It was the frame through which I saw the world. I was still looking through the pastor-window. And, the person I revealed in my writing was still the pastor. Everything I wrote sounded like a sermon – a sermon that I might have preached 25 years ago.

I preached fine sermons 25 years ago, so why should that be a problem?

In his novel, Jean Christopf, Romain Rolland wrote: “Most men die between the ages of 20 and 30 and then they go on saying and doing the things they said and did when they were alive.”

I do not know if that is true of “most men”, but as I tried to write I could see that it was true for me. When I was young, I wrote about what I knew – I conveyed information about the religious tradition in which I had been raised and in which I still believe. I think that what I did then was important. I think my religious tradition is rich and speaks to the deepest needs of human beings.

But my window frame has changed. It is weathered and carries the patina of age. I have seen so many changes through this window that it has changed my perspective on what I see right now.

if I am to be alive and write, not out of what I used to be, but out of who I am now, I will write, not about what I know, but what I don’t know. I will write out of wonder instead of certainty. I will write leading with my heart rather than my head. Instead of solving problems, like I did when I was young, I will write about how facing and even accepting problems can lead us to wholeness.

And, as you look back at me through the window of my writing, I hope you see a man who is coming to terms with the realities of aging as well as enjoying the afternoon of life. It is either that, or dye my hair a strange shade of orange, comb it over my bald spot, and walk around with a woman half my age saying and doing the things I said when I was alive. Given those alternatives, there is no contest.

How to Read the Eternities: The End of a Series

I learned about “forest bathing” while hiking the other day. Since it was 37 degrees F. with a sharp wind, I can assure you that it did not involve removing my clothes.

Jacquie used the term as we hiked in the North Chagrin Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks. There is growing scientific evidence that walking through natural areas — especially a forest — is good for you.

Well, duh!

Henry David Thoreau could have told us that in the 1840’s. He may not have been able to compare blood pressure readings or count white cells, but for two years he lived by himself in the woods near Walden Pond in order to face life.

In his essay, “A Life Without Principle”, Thoreau described how to live in the “Post-Truth” era. He told us that to find the truth in such times we need to

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.

This is not an easy thing to do in an age when the Times, or the Post, or the Plain Dealer feel like Medieval texts compared to Twitter or the news crawl at the bottom of the 24-hour news channel screen. To get at the truth these days we need to learn to slow down the newsfeed, take time to listen to ourselves, and seek the wisdom of the ages in the holy writings, like the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita.

To read the Eternities themselves, we need to turn to what some Christian theologians call “The First Testament” — Creation.

The Bible tells us that Creation points to God:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies announce what God’s hands have made.
Day after day they tell the story; night after night they tell it again.
They have no speech or words; they have no voice to be heard.
But their message goes out through all the world; their words go everywhere on earth.
Psalm 19:1-4

Looking at a starry sky or a mountain or an ocean helps us get a better perspective on ourselves, our successes and our failures.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place— what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Psalm 8:3-4

This is what Thoreau did. He looked at the sky, listened to the wind, followed rivers, and took note of birds and insects. He heard the Truth in the wind and the bird songs. He saw the sun rise and set. He felt the change in the seasons.

Here are some of the things he learned:

The universe is wider than our views of it.

Things do not change. We change.

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

What has the Creation taught you that is the opposite of what the Tweets, the Times and human “wisdom” tries to sell you?

Read The Scriptures: Reading the Eternities Part 3

Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.

Things do not change; we change.

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.

These words were written over 150 years ago. They still strike us as true. How did Henry David Thoreau do it, when neither the latest advertisement nor political speech can convince us that it is anything but B.S.?

He followed his own advice:

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.

How do we do that?

First, we slow down the news cycle. Instead of Tweets, wait a day and read the Times or some other newspaper. Wait a week, and read a magazine. Wait a year and read a book.

Second, we dig into our life’s experience. Where are the gold nuggets of truth that we live by?

A third step is to read scripture.

But which one?

Some say that the very fact we have to ask that question is the reason why there isn’t any truth these days.

I grew up in a world where THE scripture was the Protestant Christian Bible. Everyone either read it, or thought they should. Today, I live in a city where thousands read the Torah, the Koran, or the Vedas. And hundreds read lesser known sacred texts — and seek to live by them. Who knows what is true?

Things were simpler in Thoreau’s day before cultural and religious pluralism called the old truths into question.  Except they weren’t simpler.

Yes, he was  brought up in church and attended Sabbath School as a child and his writing shows he is more familiar with the Christian Bible than most of today’s public intellectuals. But when he spent two years in a cabin on Walden Pond, he took with him a book he called the “Bhagvat-Geeta.”

The closest thing Hinduism has to a Bible is the Bhagavad Gita, which was first translated from Sanskrit into English about a generation before Thoreau was born.

The book was a sensation in Thoreau’s circles in New England. His friend, Emerson, loaned him a copy. From his reading, Thoreau appeared not to simply admire the spiritual and psychological insights of Hinduism, but also came back to the Bible, especially the New Testament, with eyes that no longer saw it as a “yellowed document”, but as superior to all other writings for it ethical teachings.

That can happen to people who may have deep commitments to one spiritual tradition but who also become familiar with another.

It works like this:

Do you remember the first time you stayed overnight with a friend when you were a kid?

Your first impression probably was, “Everything my friend’s family does is wrong.”

That was because the way they talked to each other (or not), the way they ate their meals, and the way they went to bed was different from the way your family did those things.

Perhaps, if you visited your friend on a regular basis, or you visited other friends, you came to appreciate some of the things that they did.

Jacquie and I started dating in high school. One of the things she says she liked about my family is that my parents saw to it that we did things together. My Mom and Dad worked really hard to run a dairy farm and raise five kids, but they were both youngest children and they knew how to have a good time.

What I liked about Jacquie’s house was the food! Her Mom was a fabulous cook and she liked to feed people. As a 17-year-old farm boy who was burning about 4,000 calories a day, I loved eating at their house.

I learned a lot from visiting in my friends’ homes. I also went back to my own home with a deeper appreciation for what I received there. I saw things that I wouldn’t have seen if I didn’t ever go anywhere else.

It happens that I was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita by a gifted teacher a few years ago. I’ve been slowly plowing my way through a Christian commentary on the book.

Reading that book, I have the same experience Thoreau described:

“I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” 

Yes, the writings of the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Tao Te Ching  make the Op Ed pieces in the newspaper seem trivial — to say nothing of the observations of cable news commentators. That is a good reason to read them. For they have inspired people, as Thoreau said, since long before our current cultural gods were born and they will do so long after those gods are dead. 

Immersing yourself in any of them will make you wiser. I admit to being biased in favor of the Christian Bible. That’s my family home. Visiting the Gita, however, has taught me even deeper truths about the spiritual life, just as visiting the homes of friends taught me deeper truths about family life.

Families may eat different foods at different times, but everybody eats. Families may go to bed in different ways, but everyone sleeps.

What Thoreau discovered from both the Bhagavad Gita and the New Testament, is that both believe the spiritual life is lived out, not in holy isolation in a cave or on a mountaintop, but in the ordinary actions of life. In the Gita, we learn to do our work by letting go of our ego’s need for recognition and success. In the New Testament, we learn serve each other in love. They aren’t so different.

And both change us and our world for the better.