A Tribute to Father Bob

A Facebook friend from my small hometown in Northern Michigan recently posted this picture of Father Bob,  who was the priest at the Episcopal Church I attended as a youngster.  It has been a long time since I have thought of him, yet his influence on me at a formative stage of life was  profound, and this picture brought it back vividly. (Thanks, Larry H., for posting it).

A native of Massachusetts and graduate of Harvard, Father Bob made his way to our small town parish  for his first job out of divinity school– he was ordained not long after arriving.  I was 11 at the time, just entering the catechism that would lead to confirmation at the age of 12, and in fact my fellow sixth graders and I were his first class.  At the time, I was lukewarm to religion and found it both tedious and implausible–could all those children in Africa and Asia that I read about in My Weekly Reader really  be going to hell if they weren’t baptized??

Father Bob,  one of a group of activist young men who graduated from the Episcopal Theological School in the early 1960s, was an ardent civil rights supporter, and later, an anti-Vietnam war activist.  In our catechism class, we talked little about the Episcopal liturgy–or going to heaven or hell–but a great deal about the social issues of the day.  To Father Bob, religion was about action–if we were to emulate Jesus, we could not stand idly by in the face of injustice and poverty.   Coming from a more urbane and diverse environment, he must have felt it a special duty to enlarge our world, insulated as we were in our solidly white, homogeneous  community.   Although I was ultimately to leave Christianity for Judaism, I have to credit Father Bob with giving me a sense of religion as a living thing, requiring daily, rather than once weekly,  action, and for opening my eyes to injustice.

Father Bob’s impact on the congregation was also significant, though not all accepted the messages he delivered.   During his sermons, he liked to leave the lectern and walk down into the congregation–a tendency that some of the congregants, used to having their priest remain safely ensconced behind a lectern,  found discomfiting.   One Sunday, during a particularly impassioned sermon, he took the Bible and threw it on the floor.  The congregation gasped almost in unison, with several “well, I never…..s”  heard loudly from the back of the church.   I was sitting in the choir where I had a ringside seat.  “The Bible is not a holy book if it sits on your shelf, for show, and is never opened,”  Father Bob declared.  “It is only a book.  You do the Bible more dishonor and disrespect by failing to read and learn from it, than I just did by throwing it down on the floor.”   This sermon was the talk of the congregation not for weeks, but for years afterwards and now, nearly half a century later, it still leaves an impression on me.

Father Bob left after only a few years, going to a large Episcopal congregation in inner city Detroit, where he became heavily involved in the civil rights struggle and, by that time, the protests against the Vietnam War.  He died, I heard,  before reaching 50–a candle that burnt brightly but briefly.  As I think of him now,  I recall a passage from the Epistles that captures his passion and what he tried to teach:

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

May he rest in peace.

Goose Pond

Marty and I took a walk on Sunday around Goose Pond, a nature reserve only 2 miles from our house.  It is lovely now, and will be spectacular in a few weeks when the leaves start to turn.

I so much enjoy being this close to nature.  The picture at the top of the blog is taken less than a quarter mile from our house, at Robinwood Park, a place I like to go for a quick morning or late afternoon walk.  Both of these places are maintained by the city, and are free for all to enjoy.    Around Goose Lake, we saw people swimming and fishing, and an occasional non-motorized boat, as well as fellow walkers and dogs.

It is said that humans have an innate need to connect with nature–the modern term for this is biophilia, which is also the title of a book on the subject by the Pulitzer prize winning biologist Edward O. Wilson.  Growing up across from Lake Huron–which looks more like an ocean than a lake, since you can’t see the distant shore–and only a few miles from a national forest, I think I imbibed this at an early age.  In addition to swimming every day in the lake as a kid, on Sundays we sometimes went for drives and nature walks in the forest—the row upon row of  stately trees a legacy writ large of the Civilian Conservation Corps, some thirty years before.  Now, in my sixties, I am very happy to be back again surrounded by lakes and woods.  The mountains in this part of the country are an added bonus, gentle enough to climb, yet affording the physical perspective of nature’s beauty that age is giving me mentally.

Further in summer than the birds….

When I came home last night from a weeklong stay in Ohio, a single cricket was chirping.  In a couple of weeks there will be a chorus.      By the end of August, there will be thousands of them, singing  through the night and falling silent only with the rising sun.

The sound of the crickets takes me back to middle and high school, and memories of my dad reading  the poems of Emily Dickinson.  For whatever reason, he was fascinated by her, and collected all her poems, letters, and many critical works on her poetry and life–long before she became a popular figure.   I will never forget the night he introduced this favorite to my mother and I at the dinner table:

Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now

Before Dad explained this poem to us, I had attached no sense of time to the sound of crickets.  I simply never noticed they began to chirp only in late July, and by the end of August are in full harmony—gradually dying off as the leaves turn and summer slips into fall.   And I think, neither had he.  From then on, even after  I grew up and moved away, we listened in unison, no matter how far apart we were, for the inevitable sound that came every year on late July or early August nights, the sound of “Further in Summer than the Birds.”    When  I went to Japan, Dad was eager to know—could  I hear them there?  (Yes, suzumushi, bell crickets, figure in Japanese poetry and art as well, and have even been kept as pets.)

Though both my parents are gone, once my birthday is past in mid-July, I still tune my ear to that first faint raspy chirp, that I know will soon become a “spectral Canticle.”  It leaves me with a bittersweet feeling—the end of summer, the years that have slipped away, and the impermanence of all living things, including those we love.

Omega

Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York is one of my favorite places in the world.  A former Yiddish arts camp founded by the Sholom Aleichem (creator of Teyve, from Fiddler on the Roof) Institute, it was taken over in 1981 by its founders  as a healing and holistic health and spiritual retreat  for adults, and has continued to grow ever since.  I first went to Omega in the early 1990s, and, with the exception of the years I was in India  and China, have continued to return ever since.                                                            

This weekend I attended again, meeting my friend Greta from Michigan, and as always, came away  refreshed and thought provoked by the lovely campus, wonderful discussions with new friends, and healthy and organic food.

Omega has grown a lot  over the years since I first started going there, adding a meditation center, Ram Dass Library, and most recently, a state of the art facility for sustainable living and water reclamation.   Operating from the end of April to the end of October, it offers more than 350 programs  ranging from yoga to arts, crafts and  spiritual studies.

This time I attended a workshop given by Sam Keen, a philosopher and graduate of Harvard Divinity school, of Calvinist background, who offered a workshop on “What’s Next–Planning for the Next Decade.”  I thought that was a particularly appropriate workshop for me, and I enjoyed it immensely.  It was a time to reflect on what Sam called “unused futures”–dreams we had as early as childhood that we may have put aside–as well as how we use the time we have, opening our minds to our wildest dreams and gradually whittling them down to what we will do, and reflecting on the gifts we want to share with the world.  Many people in the session–about 30 altogether–were, like me, celebrating a milestone birthday–50, 60, or even 70.  One woman who had written two mystery novels in her 60s was there now,  at the age of 70, to figure out how to share her writing with the world and further express her creativity.  A  doctor in the process of winding down his practice was contemplating his next step–Doctors without Borders, a long held wish to be a standup comedian, or ???  Several others had either just retired or were on the verge of doing so.   All held a fervent wish to find or act on  a passion and  contribute to the world.  Sam himself, who turns 80 this year, was doing the work himself.  As one person remarked, it is a luxury of our era (and perhaps of living in a developed country) to be in this position.

On a more somber note, during the evening we saw a documentary that Sam and director Bill Jersey had made in the 1980s, called “Faces of the Enemy.”  I don’t recall seeing it then; it appeared on PBS, but it is as relevant today (despite the dated hairstyles) as it was 25 years ago.  Weaving the story of a disturbed and  unrepentant  man who was influenced by the propaganda of the Christian Patriots to brutally murder a family of four because he was told they were Communists, with the images that Sam collected from history and around the world, it shows how societies have depicted their enemies  by comparing them to animals, monsters, and even Satan.   It lays out  how ordinary people can become incited to hate and even kill, by repeatedly seeing images and hearing propaganda depicting the “enemy” as less than human.  Most interesting to me was an interview with a Vietnam war veteran, who talked about the fine line in the military between motivating soldiers to kill without inciting them to bloodlust–depersonalizing the enemy without dehumanizing him.  This documentary was created during the Cold War, when Russia and Communists were the enemy.  Unfortunately, it is equally relevant today.