A Trio Sitting Out the Season


{Lent…40 days…40 panoramic photos, and some reflections on the images}

I quote myself here:

Seasons Smile
Winter’s smile was icily sinister.
Spring’s will be warmly sympathetic.
Summer’s smile brightly inviting.
Autumn’s gently reflective.
Mine is always seasonally appropriate…
except when the climate is laughable.

Above is another “drive-by” photo. All winter we’ve passed those three hay wagons (or whatever the official name for them is), and I’ve thought about taking a picture of them. On the way to church one Sunday, we stopped, I pulled out the camera, and took the shot. I’m thinking that today’s theme could be “seasons.”

Here are pieces of farm equipment standing idle for the winter months. Do I see a small plow there, too? And maybe a rake? Not much use for them on a frigid Upstate New York farm from fall harvest to spring planting. So there they are parked.

I’ve previously written in these “pages” that I like living in a part of the world with four distinct seasons. Every season has its blessings. Every season has something less than a blessing to endure. But the rich variety of weather events, of colors and temps, of light shows and seasonal activities — I’d be bored if I lived anywhere else. This is not to judge my Florida friends or south Texas relatives. I’ll admit that our northern winter lasts a little too long here, but I can take it. We lived through 27 hot, humid Virginia summers, so some slush or black ice is tolerable.

As the ancient philosopher of Ecclesiastes sang, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” And so sang the pop version by the Byrds:

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

We lived in Vermont for ten years. Though winters were long and harsh, spring would come gloriously. And seemingly suddenly. Once the snows had melted and the ground had thawed, the khaki colored lawn “greened up” almost within a day or three. And citizens of the Northeast Kingdom made up for winter’s drear with flowers lining walks, colorful gardens, window boxes…as if to say to the world, “Look! We’re alive! And we can match your southern blossoms and blooms with our rosy floral resurrections.”

Spring here in New York State is just as appreciated and celebrated as in Vermont. We might join New Englanders in shivering through an Easter Sunrise Service, but when April arrives, we are ready for our migrant birds to resume their posts at the feeders, for jonquils and daffodils to push through thawed soils, for opening day at the ball park, and for pumping up bike tires.

Summer will come, and there will be those Florida days when the AC saves our sanity. But for the most part, we’ll enjoy every meal on the back porch, when I take over some of the cooking on the grill. (I rarely order salmon in a restaurant because no one does a better job than I at delivering a truly succulent salmon steak.) We’ll take longer bike rides, hike in the cool glens and forests, take in the longer hours of daylight while listening to the peepers and chirping insects in the not-quite wetland beyond the backyard.

And then autumn in New York. Not quite as garish as the Vermont maples, our leaves will turn brilliant reds, yellows, and golds on the hillsides, and cooler breezes will mean a light jacket as we ride the bikes in a nearby park. Here’s the bonus pic of the day: that nearby park in autumn.


Hickories Park

I can identify with that Sinatra signature song “The September of My Years,” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.


One day you turn around, and it’s summer
Next day you turn around, and it’s fall
And the springs and the winters of a lifetime
Whatever happened to them all

I have been blessed with all the seasons of life, with a few more calendar pages to turn, season-wise. (Please…not actual months; we’re talking figuratively here…I hope.) The “September Song” sings of days dwindling down to a precious few. Again, figurative! But, yes, seasons. Our childhood, then adolescence, the young adult years, and before you know it, you have children who speed into adolescence while you haven’t finished growing up yourself! Then grandchildren. The seasons of life. “Whatever happened to them all?”

Again to the image at the top — a time to plant, a time to reap, and there in that photo, a  time to be idle for awhile. To await. Rest. Prepare. And then, engage again. Hook ’em up to the tractors and put them to work in summer’s heat and fall’s harvest.

I write in Lent. Where, while not exactly stationary, the Church and its people of faith slow down to await, to rest, to prepare. We breathe more deeply in Lent, I think. Meditate more mindfully and reflect more intentionally. The season of lengthening days will culminate in an Easter sunrise hard to believe, a surprising burst of daylight difficult to take in with eyes so used to winter’s subdued rays.

For everything there is a season. A time to die, and a time to be born again.

Turn, turn, turn.
















Our Road in Winter

{Forty days of Lent 2018, and forty images prompting a writing exercise. Proceed at your own risk. I’m pretty ticked off that WordPress didn’t save my previous draft and I am about to rewrite with a chip on my shoulder. As I said…your own risk.}


I was a good scout growing up, not the official Boy Scout goodness, but honest, loyal, and kind. And I obeyed the rules. Mostly. I wasn’t sinless, but I tried to do the right thing.

Most of us aren’t big fans of rules. We don’t like to be limited or to be told what to do or how to do it, even if the rules mean well. Yet, rules are important to set some moral, ethical, or organizational standards. Or, safety standards. Imagine highways without speed limits, a government with laws, Presbyterians without that “decently and in order” thing.

Many of life’s rules are unspoken, but some are made perfectly clear in words. The first rule I remember wasn’t, “Don’t play in the street.” That may have been said, or shouted, but the one I remember very clearly was spoken by my Dad when I was in about second grade.

I had learned the “choosing rhyme,” eeny-meeny-miney-moe. Because it contained the racist “n-word,” I doubt I was taught it in the classroom. I probably heard it from classmates on the playground. But when Dad heard me saying it in the front hallway of our house (see? a clear memory), he told me that in our family we didn’t ever use that word. “Well, what should I say instead?” I asked. He repeated the rhyme to me saying, “Catch a doggie by the toe.” And that’s the rule I kept forever.

A few years later, when we had moved into a house only three blocks from the Susquehanna River, I heard another rule stated plainly. “Don’t go near the river.” Dad couldn’t swim, and he didn’t want us kids anywhere near deep, flowing water. Since I hadn’t learned to swim either, it was an easy rule to follow.  Within a year or so of that rule, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a flood wall between our street and the Susquehanna. That meant it was easier to follow Dad’s order.

When even later in my senior year of high school I took driver’s training, not only did New York State have some strict rules of the road to follow, it was Dad again who suggested his own rules. Among them, when you drive down the street, be aware that at any moment a child could dash between two parked cars. And keep your car in gear at stop lights, not in neutral, in case you have to move quickly in an emergency situation. Dad’s rules I drive by even today.

As we grow older, we realize that some rules no long apply. They are suspended because they are archaic (the Apostle Paul’s rules to women: keep your heads and mouths covered in church), silly (no whistling on the Sabbath), or were wrong-headed to begin with (“whites only” restaurants and drinking fountains).

I finally broke that rule about the river when I was an adult with children of my own. I visited my hometown with my young son and we found our way to the banks of the Susquehanna, and watched the river run. I realized that I had missed something in my childhood, the calm beauty of that place that looked across to an island I had never seen before. I guess we might say that some rules do wear out. (Credit Dad though: I never fell in!)

And there are the misfits and rebels who escape the constraints of rules by bending, conveniently forgetting, or just plain breaking the rules in order to “go where no one has gone before.” Steve Jobs no doubt broke a few rules along the way. Someone has said that though rules may not have been made to be broken, they were made to be tested.

Essayist and critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote: “Rules and models destroy genius and art.” The photo that heads today’s entry and prompts this essay of mine may signal proof of Hazlitt’s theory. What do you see in that panoramic photo? Our semi-rural road, winter thaw, looking west toward the golden glow of sunset. Looking into the sun. That breaks a long-held rule of photography. The first camera I ever owned was a Kodak Brownie Holiday Flash that used 127 film. And the first rule I learned was, “Always keep the sun at your back.” That way, your subject will be well-lighted.

What a dull photo that wide shot would be if I had followed the old rule. We’d never see a picture of a sunset or sunrise. Here’s still another example of shooting right at the sun. There’s a cairn (see a previous entry here) as seen in the Canadian Rockies. Backlighted. I love it! To be sure, theIMG_0741re are still some reasons to avoid pointing a camera directly at the sun. You can permanently damage the camera’s image sensor, melt something critical, or just flood the film (film?) with too much light. But still, that first photographic rule is one I’ve often left behind.

Jesus certainly broke a number of rules. The beloved story of the “Good Samaritan” illustrates the bending of a couple of rules until they shattered. In his ministry he was accused of breaking the Sabbath rules, touching the untouchables, and, eventually, committing the crime that got him crucified: sedition.

Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Tutu… breakers of rules…and heroes.

What am I advocating here? Nothing. I’m just saying that God gave us heads and minds inside those heads, so that we can measure the alternatives that life brings, and make good choices that contribute to the common journeys we share along roads like the one pictured above. Before the sun sets on our lives, let us consider what guidance is truly helpful and just, what leads to civility, yes, but also to peace, the Shalom that is the best rule of life.

{Another rule I must abide: back up your work, Jeff. It’s a simple step really. Save it!}






Trucks, Ready to Rock

We’d been driving by this line of trucks along New York’s Rt. 17 for years, sometimes more than once a day. Finally, seeing the potential for a panoramic photo on a weekend when the trucks were all present and accounted for, I took this photo. The two trucks in the foreground made the shot all the better. Happenstance makes for good pictures.

As these trucks rumble past on the highway on work days, you can glimpse the company slogan: “We Rock the Southern Tier.” So, a theme for today’s image? Power comes to mind. Upwards of 500 horsepower, I’d guess. Front axle weight 20,000 pounds. Best guess. And they haul rock. Big boulders down to smaller stone. And anything else you want.

These trucks communicate power, yes. Another word comes to mind. Macho. Short for machismo, meaning, according to my old dictionary, an “exaggerated sense of masculinity stressing courage, virility, aggressiveness, and domination of women.” I mean, look at those trucks, man! I can’t help but wonder if the company has any women behind those wheels! Since they can’t discriminate in hiring, they must have. But, still…

You remember that saying, “The only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys?” Our stereotypes often spring from deep-rooted prejudices and archaic models. (Or, vice versa?) And macho stereotypes abound. I kid my wife sometimes about my compact SUV: I’m taking the “truuuck,” I say with the southern accent I learned after 27 years in Virginia. I suspect that many of the pick up trucks I see around the semi-suburban neighborhood here are unneeded male accessories. Driving a truck is, well, kinda manly.

The best-selling motor vehicle in the USA? The Ford F-Series pick-up. [I can’t help but hear our Virginia church secretary Opal Keller refer to the genre as a “pick-’em-up-truck.”] I know trucks can be handy, utilitarian, a helpful vehicle if you are into construction, heavy household projects, hunting, that kind of thing. But don’t you wonder if just maybe some of those trucks were purchased for the image, or for how the vehicle makes the driver feel about himself? Strong. Powerful. Just a tad macho.

I fully acknowledge that women also buy trucks, and drive them. Just as women are  likely, maybe even more likely to get a tattoo. Wasn’t the case when my uncles got theirs during WW2. It was a “guy thing.” And guns. Can’t get much more macho than guns! And the bigger the toy… the more dangerous to us all. Really need a truck that size to park in your driveway? Really need a gun that size to hunt deer? But it sure be manly, huh? Except that women are also arming themselves heavily, certainly more so than, say, four decades ago.

We spring from the image of power (as suggested by the photo of many, many powerful heavy hauling trucks) to empowerment. Men may still like to practice their swagger, get their carry permits (or not bother), and smoke their stogies, but whatever stereotypical images of macho power they once enjoyed are being shared now by em12525283_927926670657742_668031892565673463_opowered women.

Here’s another photo, a bonus pic today. It shows the dedication of the village municipal building in my hometown. The year was 1961. Look at the dignitaries. Men. All but one, and she is in the back row, far right, difficult to see in this small image. All the local civic power was in the hands of men. And in that era, the same was true of the church. Women had their “circles,” but men made up the clergy and the governing boards. By the end of that decade, however, the culture was changing. Remember? “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Women had their own cigarette. Baby.

But cultural changes come slowly, and while women gain power on every front, there remain brutish discrimination in industry and business, gender bias in politics, and sexual harassment wherever men objectify women. As I was thinking about this, the Sunday newspaper arrived with an article from the AP by Matt Sedensky. The headline: “Efforts to decode men gaining steam in #MeToo era.” The story was about Professor Michael Kimmel’s leadership in “masculinities studies.” To summarize his focus one might say Kimmel is interested in issues of gender equality, from men’s misdeeds to more general men’s studies. One of his books is entitled Manhood in America: A Cultural History, and another is Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.”  

To quote the Sedensky article,

At a recent [SUNY] Stony Brook workshop Kimmel held for a group of invited students, Alicia Jones was among those taking part in an animated discussion of the difference in perception of what makes a good man versus what makes a real man.

Manhood. Guyland. Machismo vs. the Gentle-man. What about the power? The power of love? Can we men become aggressive enough in love, agape love, to forswear domination, and celebrate the equality our Creator intended (no matter what the patriarchal biblical writers and historical church leaders believed…at the time)? Shared power doesn’t diminish our strength, but shows our commitment to courageously build a world where Adam and Eve, Sarah and Abraham, Barbie and Ken, Gloria Steinem and Michael Kimmel will live in harmony and grace.

And rock the Southern Tier and the global community together with mutual respect, equal pay, and shared leadership.







cairns in Glacier Park

Cairns In Glacier National Park

{Forty Days in Lent, and forty wide pictures from my albums…a discipline of almost daily writing which you are invited, though not required, to read.}

I border on being a hoarder. I know that there are some deep psychological reasons for such behavior, but I haven’t researched the data or gone for counseling. That is my confession. And this is my salvation (in this regard anyway): my beloved Joan is well-organized, tidy, and, if this is not redundant, orderly. And, though there are some little stashes and shallow piles where I leave some debris, I try to pick up after myself so as not to embarrass her when company comes. Also, the older we get, the more we are cautioned about having things to trip over.

So, evidence of my inability to toss stuff is not necessarily visible when you see our home. But the nook where I write? Bookshelves full, some clutter on the floor begging to be filed (in one place or the other), and the odd CD, knickknack, and scribbled note. The closet behind me? Boxes of memorabilia (some of it family history stuff, fairly important), CDs of maybe 75 of my old radio shows, and the general clutter you probably have in your closet.

And there’s the attic. Lord! (That’s a sincere prayer, nothing “in vain.”) I don’t have room here to catalog the stuff there’s room for up there. Let’s just say that my record collection and audio tapes have somehow survived the range of Upstate New York seasonal  temperatures, and weight of the material I intend for multiple scrapbooks tests the rafters and plywood floors. Scrapbooks. Scraps. Uh-huh.

I’m heading toward my mid-’70s. It is time to “downsize.” We are in Lent. It is time to “give up” something, right? Last year, we joined those who had determined that we who wallow in our affluence could easily sort through our abundance and give up something from a closet or drawer each day for forty days. Joan said a sock wouldn’t count. Had to be a pair! So, we did that. And it was hard for me. Because, as I said, I border on being a hoarder and I hold on to stuff. For some reason (see paragraph 1) I have trouble letting go. To illustrate: I had worn out a radio station t-shirt, and it was clearly time to dispose of it. But I held on to the memory of it by…don’t judge me … taking a picture of the logo.

That picture is in my files around here somewhere…

The photo I chose for this pathetic profession of weakness shows a couple of piles of rocks on the shore of a lake in Glacier National Park. The piles are called cairns. Originally, cairns were meant to be memorials or landmarks, but these days they are usually just playful signs that someone passed by and left their harmless, and temporary mark. Kids see the stones as prehistoric Legos. Adults? The jury is out. But the word so apropos to today’s reflection is “temporary.” Neither of the little rock piles seen in my photo is there now. Maybe someone respected the stacks of stones for a while, but eventually some meanie kicked them over, or a strong wind, or rising waters.

I’ve noted in my blog on a previous occasion a book from decades ago entitled “Celebrate the Temporary,” by Clyde Reid. The book’s blurb says Reid’s thesis is to issue “an invitation to live more fully in present experience, rather than focusing life in the future or the past.” I read the book back in the ’70s. I liked the book. I believed the book. But I did not heed the book. I still save stuff from the past thinking it might serve some purpose in the future. What makes me think someone died and made me an archive?

Is this junk that surrounds me a burden? Does it weigh me down? Does it affect my spiritual life? It must. Because I’m writing about it. A voice inside (no, it’s not Joan; I said inside) says, “Let go!” Let the clippings, the old sermon files, the VHS cassettes, the t-shirts GO! Empty those boxes in the attic. Clean out the books you’ve saved, the ones you’ve read and won’t read again, and the ones you’ve merely saved thinking someday you might read them. Let go!

Or, maybe I could just stack the books into cairns in my workspace here, monuments to good intentions never carried out.

I’m going to do something now that I haven’t done in any of these Lenten reflections over the past several years of “Peace, Grace, and Jazz.” I’m ending with a prayer. You needn’t join me, unless there is some clutter, physical or spiritual or emotional, in your life that you’ve been intending to toss out. Here is a mash-up of biblical phrases and present concerns:

Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know my going out and my coming in. You know my piles of stuff, boxes of memories, and things to avoid tripping over, both literally and figuratively. You have given me such blessings in the past; I have the evidence. But my future is in your hands only. I must learn to trust that. So, let me more fully live in this moment, the gift of this present time. Free me of what has been and liberate me from the fear of the future, that I might now live and move and have my being in you. God, help me to let go of all that clutters, and to grasp the treasure of this very day.



Having Spent the Night in Our Backyard…

{After today, only 13 more panoramic photos to prompt an off-the-cuff, onto-the-page essay of some sort. Lent 2018}

We’re used to deer in the yard. In Ithaca, living by Cayuga Lake, deer wandered through our woods, eating from shrubs and flowers, looking longingly at the bird feeders. And here in Owego, it’s not uncommon to see a herd of six or eight grazing in the back yard. Yesterday in the snow we saw evidence that at least one deer had bedded down for the night in the foot-deep white stuff. The scene above shows three fawns who spent the night in much more pleasant weather, early last summer. Their moms were nearby in a neighbor’s yard, but these three enjoyed a sleepover under a big pine.

On seeing this photo in the local paper (I submit them now and then), a friend pointed out that even at this age, the young fawns instinctively sleep facing different directions, to guard against predators. The other thing we noted was their sizeable ears, able to detect the quiet advances of potential enemies.

When we see deer from the bedroom windows first thing in the morning, they are often quite a distance from the house. But if I click my wedding ring against the window glass, those ears perk up, the heads turn, and sometimes the deer move quickly away. Their hearing is acute to say the least.

Yes, it’s the ears in that photo that prompted my thoughts for this reflection. I’m wondering about the difference between hearing and listening. I’m not even going to the dictionary on this one. If my biologist son were here, I’d consult him though. No doubt, with those ears the deer hear. But are they always actively listening? I think of hearing as often, but not always, something passive, sounds always around us, heard, but not exactly tuned in. Like background music.

Joan and I still laugh about something that happened in a restaurant in Nova Scotia. We had been seated, glanced at the menu, and I just happened to hear the theme from the movie “Dr. Zhivago” (“Lara’s Theme”) playing from the speakers overhead. A few minutes later, I went to the restroom and the music was piped in there too, and…odd… it was still the same song. I returned to the table, and “Lara’s Theme” was still playing. I told Joan that the same song had been broadcast overhead since we had arrived. We stopped to listen. Then we heard an almost imperceptible skip, and the song repeated from somewhere near the beginning. We giggled at that. (We are easily amused.) When the skip occurred again, we laughed. And again. Lara persisted.

The meal arrived, and I asked the waitress if she were aware of what was going on. She said she never heard the music as she worked. We told her what we were laughing about, asked her to listen a moment, and <skip> there, it happened again! She said it was a CD, and now and then, the audio got “hung up.” She’d take care of it. She left, and took care of it. Different song now. We ate. And up came “Lara’s Theme” again. And sure enough, came the skip, and through the rest of the meal, Dr. Zhivago joined us at the table. I know; there was much more to Nova Scotia than that. But the memory still brings smiles.

The point: the server never heard the music. She paid no attention, and the constant audio throughout the restaurant never gave her pause, until we urged her to listen. Then she heard it. As I write this, Schumann’s “Symphony No. 1 in B Flat Major” is playing on the turntable. (Yes…a vinyl LP.) I can’t write if Billy Joel is singing or Carole King or Sinatra. Lyrics interrupt my own words, but instrumental music is easier to tune out. Sorry Schumann, but that’s the way it is. For me. Not for everyone. Many others can’t think, write, or do anything more than listen as music plays from the stereo woofers or MP3 ear buds. They listen for themes, and cannot escape the cantus firmus when it rolls around.

I know the music is there, projecting from the bookshelf speakers. I can hear it. But I’m not listening right now. Well, now I am, because I’ve drawn my own attention to it. In fact, I may have to turn it off soon. I can’t hear myself think.

Since no tree has fallen in the forest with no one around, I needn’t contemplate that issue. But here’s what I do think about. The sounds around us that we hear, but don’t listen to. The listening that we do, but then don’t really hear. Both hearing and listening involve more than auditory function, more than the equipment mounted on both sides of our heads. There is also the mental processing of what enters the ears, comprehension and understanding. And caring.

In the old sitcom, Frasier Crane’s opening line as he answered his radio talk show phone calls was, “I’m listening.” It was his job as a psychiatrist and as a radio host, so one would hope that he did indeed listen. Though it was broad comedy, the “I’m listening” line is an assurance that we would all appreciate in real life.

With smart phones and computer screens demanding our attention, has this happened to you? You’re speaking with somebody face-to-face and their eyes glance toward a screen. It means they may be listening, but not hearing you. Or, hearing you, but not listening? Either way, it says, “I don’t care.” Yes, I confess I’m one who has been enticed toward digital content when an actual person assumes, hopes, I’m paying full attention to her/him. It’s embarrassing to me, and hurtful to the other.

Listening…hearing…getting it. “I hear you,” we say. That means we get it. We understand. Message received.

A theological note here. In 2004, the United Church of Christ initiated a campaign called “Stillspeaking.” That’s the abbreviation for the longer phrase, “God is still speaking,” a way to remind adherents that God’s voice was not locked into the canon of Holy Scriptures, never to be heard anew. It was the UCC’s method of preaching inclusiveness, to be the church:


– Where God is all-loving and inclusive
– Where the Church of Jesus Christ welcomes and accepts everyone as they are
– Where your mind is nourished as much as your soul
– Where Jesus the healer meets Jesus the revolutionary
– Where together we grow a just and peaceful world.

As a Presbyterian I can buy into that with no trouble. Because if God is still speaking, and I believe with all my heart that God is, then the only way to hear is for me to listen. To actively listen. Pay attention to the Spirit. And stay tuned.

If God is clicking on a window, I’d better keep an ear out.




Lake Susan, Montreat, NC

{During the forty days of Lent 2018, I am writing some reflections on panoramic photographs I’ve taken over the years.  Full disclosure, finally: most of these images were taken in a standard format and merely cropped to the wide view. But, so what?}

The image above may not be the iconic photo Montreaters expect to see of their beloved North Carolina “mountain retreat” setting. The massive stone façade of the Assembly Inn hotel as seen above the placid Lake Susan is the more familiar view (just below). Still, this panoramic image communicates the serene beauty of the place that Presbyterians, especially the “southern” ones, call their Mecca.

Montreat is more widely known maybe as the long-time home of the late Billy Graham. He lived in the hills, quite a hike from the conference center.  Montreat’s main gate is just a few miles up the road from Black Mountain, and that village is not far from Asheville. And surrounding it all is the Smoky Mountain range. A friend once admitted he wasn100_0405‘t a fan of Montreat because the high mountains encompassing the retreat and conference center made him feel terribly claustrophobic. But everyone else I know so loves Montreat that they dream of living there year-round, a four-season Eden, but with clothes on.

I was a seminary student from “up north” when I first heard of the place from my Southern Presbyterian classmates. They spoke of it so highly that I was immediately suspicious. Then I attended a conference there one summer. And then another. And then led several, maybe a dozen, and went back summer after summer. Youth conferences, music and worship conferences, peace gatherings, meetings…staying in that hotel, or in the dorms of Montreat College, or in rented cottages and homes, and for many years enjoying the grace of hospitality offered by dear friends, the Williamsons. 2333-1Joan and I looked forward to those music conferences like Trekees look forward to the next Star Trek big screen epic. We also looked forward to the day when we might look at real estate there. Then we did. And put that dream away very quickly. ($)

Climbing Lookout Mountain, walking the hilly roads through the area, attending the events in Anderson Auditorium — those opportunities would never be taken for granted by those fulltime citizens of the Montreat municipality, anymore than a Vermont farmer in the Northeast Kingdom would take the daily view of Mt. Mansfield for granted. But making the place a retreat destination is very special, an occasion of spiritual growth, continuing education, and shaping community with friends old and new.

Yet back home, finding that particular geographical sacred space, that place set apart for special times and holy possibilities is something that surely feeds the human spirit. It may be enough to spend a Saturday fishing, or to sit in the local library apart from the busyness that normally occupies our energies. Perhaps a hike in a nearby glen or a bike ride along a rail trail will help us accomplish a kind of retreat. Whatever turns you on, or around.

There was a time when church doors were open 24/7 for anyone who needed a rest from spiritual weariness or personal strife. Doors are locked against fear today. No quiet prayer in the pews is possible, with few exceptions. We have to create our own retreat spaces elsewhere. A garden bench, a labyrinth, even a table in a café in its off hours– these are ripe for private retreats, however short.

The thing about a big summer conference at Montreat like the ones we participated in is that schedules are usually full, people are everywhere…paddle boating on the little lake, heading toward the bookstore or toward some ice cream, racing to a seminar. Even the Lookout peak can be crowded on a sunny afternoon. So, you see that stone bridge in the panoramic photo? That’s often a good place to stand, somewhat apart from the rest of the retreating world, and watch the swan or the ducks. Retreat from the retreat, as it were. And ponder. Anything.

I only went to church camp twice as a kid. I couldn’t swim, so a week on a lake had absolutely no appeal to me. But when the camp took place at a conference center with a pool, I gave it a try. At the end of my second summer’s week-long “retreat,” we high school youth were to go off by ourselves with a small candle, find a place apart and light the wick, and then stay there in silence until the candle was close to going out. I chose a small wooden bridge over a stream that ran through the conference center property. I stood there by myself, candle flickering against the night breeze, and I did what was expected: meditated, prayed, and wondered. Even as the silence was broken by those who had blown out their candles and ignored the directions for being silent until cabin time, I stood there. And fifty-seven years later I remember that night, that bridge, that brief but oh-so-holy retreat.

We miss Montreat. We’re a number of miles away, way up north of it, and even going for a week there seems expen$ive. But while it may not be Eden or Mecca, it is a very profound reminder that spiritual getaways and personal escapes are good for the soul. A week? Yes! A day away? Sure! Take an hour’s break and breathe deeply? Of course.

Mountains, beaches, deserts. Or, a candle on the kitchen table. Locale is one thing, but the main thing is… make your getaway!






Dairy Cows, Nichols, NY

{Another day in Lent 2018, and another panoramic picture from my digital albums. And another chance to write something. Something. (There; done! Well, not quite…)}

We toured an organic dairy farm last summer and met these cows. They watched us with no little curiosity, and we returned the gaze. They didn’t watch long, though, with that yummy feed there to munch on.

See the ear tags? Cows are tagged in different ways, depending on the farmers’ own needs or desires. Numbers and colors help identify, for example, a cow’s weight or age, or even who its mother was. Gender, too. One farmer tags the calf’s left ear if it’s a heifer, and the right ear if it’s a steer. Record-keeping is important to farmers. When did this cow have her last calf? How many has she had?

As we watched these girls eat, the farmer told us that his adult sons who oversee the dairy have named each and every cow, and there are about 120 head there! Their names are there on ear tags, too, but I’m told that the sons know the herd so well, they really don’t need the name tags; they recognize each cow that they milk.

Imagine coming up with over a hundred names. And we’re not talking “Bossy” here, or Elsie. Some have cute names, but many have just plain, regular names. Minnie. Freda. Thomasina. (Not that Minnie isn’t a cute name…)

I doubt very much if the cows come when called by name. I know for a fact that they don’t moo each other by name. Names aren’t that important to them. But those names are kind of fun for the farmers. Maybe they wouldn’t be so likely to name beef cattle. Milking Sally twice a day is one thing. Sending Tommie off to slaughter might be a different story. Don’t name an animal that will one day be your supper.

An aside (as if this whole blog thing isn’t a massive, wordy aside): Skip this paragraph if this sounds familiar. Phil the Rooster? Visiting a Vermont heifer barn one day, we learned that a rooster named Phil owned the place. If he didn’t like your looks (or maybe if he did!), he’d nip your legs with his sharp beak, and keep you where he wanted you…out of the barn. I chuckled at the warning, until Phil spied my smile and raced at me, his beak nearly breaking through my jeans to nab my flesh. Phil continued to be a bother, until he became soup. Phil soup. Good riddance, if not good soup.

So, this ear tag thing has got me thinking about names, and names lead me to giving some thought to identity. Remember the Jim Croce hit song, “I Got a Name?”


Like the pine trees lining the winding road
I got a name, I got a name
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad
I got a name, I got a name
And I carry it with me like my daddy did
But I’m living the dream that he kept hid

I like that line: “I carry it with me like my daddy did…” Most of us have surnames we inherited. We are in a long line of generations with some variation of our family names, and traditionally, it has been our fathers’ surnames we’ve been given. These days, for many, that tradition is changing and some hyphens join the family names of both parents. My wife Joan has completed some genealogical research on both sides of my family, and I realize my surname Kellam is just a small branch of my family tree.

We will go to England soon to explore where my forebears lived, farmed, hid (!), built and served churches, and had babies. We’ll go to the towns of Kilham and Staunton, names I carry, but with different spellings. My mother’s side of the family has no English villages bearing her names, but we’ll travel to a number of places where her ancestors lived, moved, and had their being. We expect to find little or no actual evidence in the form of grave markers or ancient records, but just to walk the streets, worship in the pews, or stand outside a home where my forebears lived…well, there’s both mystery and connection there. All those places and people had something, however minute, to do with who I am.

My nametag might read, “Hello, my name is _________.” The pen inscribes, “Jeff Kellam” in that empty space. But who am I, really? Put a title there, if you like. Reverend. (Just don’t ever make the grammatical mistake of calling me a “reverend.” The word isn’t a noun!) Does the title tell you anything? Beyond some presumptions? I got a name, yes, but what is my identity as a person, as a family member, as a native New Yorker? As a child of God?

Some of us have names to live up to, or to live down. Our names are like the connective tissue of a community. Meet John Doe and you want to connect him to the Jane Doe you went to school with, or the Dr. Doe who tried to teach you high school physics. Someone might assume this is the Doe family that sold cars or that served time or that built the biggest home in town.

Some of us change our names. And not just from Susan to Susie. A life changing event or a spiritual awakening might prompt a complete name change to reflect one’s being, in a way, born anew. Sounds biblical, doesn’t it? Think Pharisee Saul and Apostle Paul. But I’m also thinking of my delightful and treasured friend Lucy whom I first met as Bonnie. First and last names changed to reflect a new person within and without.

Within the universe of cyberspace are folk who make up identifiers, not wanting their actual names to be known publically. Like authors’ pseudonyms or an actor’s stage name, there are those who hide or back away from their given names. Except for my old citizen band radio “handle,” I’ve gladly used my full name, even as a radio “personality.” I’ve stated it fully: Jeffrey Stanton Kellam. Mostly because I honor both sides of the family from which I’ve come.

Still, deeper than the name is the rich identity we all grow from infancy on. Our character, learnings, relationships, choices, self-reflection, service to others — and the love that we receive and offer…these make us who we are far more than our “handles.” Read the ear tags of the cows and you learn something. Drink their milk and you learn more.

I’m smiling because that isn’t as silly or profound as it sounds. At well over a thousand words, I just needed a closer. Peace to you, whoever you are.