A New Year Wish

Happy New Year, to all my dear family and friends. To all my brothers and sisters. God grant us love among the ruins, peace in the chaos, and hope as we travel life’s often weary, and well trampled paths.


This is another exercise I wrote in 1999 at Ring Lake Ranch while on Sabbatical.  The assignment was to write about a religious artifact.


The transition from an edifice-oriented bulletin cover (featuring the same drawing of our church every week) to the denominational bulletin service was more controversial than I knew, I am sure.  But nobody involves teens in such matters and I knew nothing about how the decision came to be made.

When I began ushering at my church in the 1961, we arrived early enough to do a variety of chores around the meeting house.  We checked to be sure the doors were unlocked.  We turned on the lights.  We lit the candles on the communion table (there were no acolytes during the service in those days)!  Finally we began the longest and most tedious of jobs, folding the bulletin covers and sheets, and stuffing them with that week’s inserts.

We youth ushers-all boys of high school age-had the right to usher at the 9:30 service,  The grown men (mostly gentlemen our grandfathers’ age) ushered at the “main” service at 11:oo am.  While both women and men served as Deacons and prepared and distributed the Lord’s Supper, ushering was still a masculine privilege.

Our family had always sat at the right rear of the church.  Just in front of my Mom’s father and mother.  But as an usher who was a high school freshman with an agenda, the left side was the place to be.  Sure Pete Petersen, my first boss, a deputy sheriff and Democratic Party boss, sat on the right. Yes, my aunts and uncles were always by the right hand windows.  Of course, Miss Sparhawk, my high school French teacher, sat near the front in the right center.  And yes Jennie Cowles the children’s librarian was right next to her.

But on the left sat the Grays, the Costellos, the Smithsons, the Billinghams, the Brackovskis and the Buchanans.  And that meant that Shirley, Marie, Nancy, Jane, Donna, Patty, Lois, and Rebecca sat on the left side.  No more Sunday School for any of us.  We had all been confirmed and were in Pilgrim Fellowship.  My first Sunday,  Mark Grady and Bill Gerard chose the right side.  They were Seniors and had first pick.  My friend and classmate Jimmy DiSanto was amazed, “Are they blind?  Why are they letting us have this side?”  I had been waiting for this day and understood.  “They chose the right side so they can play with the lights, plus the usher on the extreme right always gets to take the attendance.”

We looked at each other and grinned.  In our gray suits, narrow nylon ties-with their helpful hints (Wear with brown sport jacket) printed on a tag on the back seam, hair parted in the Dobie Gillis style, we winked at each other, sure of our irresistablilty to our female classmates whom we would be seating in a few minutes.  And so it continued, week after week, passing out bulletins with stern Prophet’s faces to the girls of our dreams.  We were sure we were making a good impression on their parents, too.  Not knowing of course, that parental approval was the worst recommendation a young man could have.

In the kitchen

This is another of my writings from a 1999 seminar at Ring Lake Ranch.  On this day we were each given a photograph about which we were to write.  I was given a photograph of several grieving middle-aged folks standing in a kitchen.  This could be, continued as a short story. But that is a project for another day.  It is actually a composite of the dozens and maybe hundreds of such scenes that were a part of my ministry over the last 40 years.  Going into a grieving home is one of the most terrifying and satisfying works of ministry.  

The kitchen was spicy, clean and casserole crowded.  I entered, nodding at Mae Sweet who was leaving.   Her husband Ned, already starting the truck, had given the Vermont forefinger salute with his left hand as I drove past him into the barnyard.  As I entered the kitchen from the mudroom, the smell of fresh coffee, old tears, bourbon, beer, and beans announced the purpose of the day.  Phyllis Gould was washing the dishes.  “They are in the dining room, Rev. ” she said.  “want a coffee before you go in?”

“Not yet, thanks.  Maybe something in a little while.”

“Just holler.”

That dear old dread pulled again at my stomach as I went through the same door I had entered one or twice a month for the past three years.  The table was full and laden with cakes and pies.  A twenty-year-old with a John Deere green cap stood up and cleared a place for me unbidden.  Kissing an older woman on the top knot of her hair, the kid left, closing the door with had been half-open.

“Hi Paul,” said Frieda, “you know our sons Jim and Harold.

“Sure do.”  I shook their hands, noting Jim’s eyes meeting mine with what was nearly anger and almost relief.  Hal just shook his head as if he could shake off his grief.  “I’m really sorry.  I thought he was going to be OK.”

“I know, Paul, your prayers and all the church’s meant a lot to him.”

“We don’t want no hymns,” said Jim.  “We want it simple.”

Rochester VT is the best place I have ever lived. I was Pastor of the Federated Church for four years in the late 70″s and still have members of my extended family living there. It is a very positive community with a diversity and sophistication that come from the presence of a number of families who have “summered” there for generations, plus a great group of retirees. It is the coldest place I ever lived with the warmest people,

Irene cut all roads into the town, isolating the residents without power.  Read the reports online.  Look at the photos.  This is not the only town in Vermont to be so heavily damaged.  It is the one I know best.  Pray for the people of Vermont and for all who have suffered from this storm.  Most of us came through Irene easily.  Others did not.  We need to remember that.

Books I’m Reading

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (for the third time, 1967. sometime in late 70’s and now)
The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin B. Coddington (The “Bible” for students of the battle)
Americans in Paris: Life and Death under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass (A study of the important American colony of ex-patriots in America’s spiritual sister nation’s capital. England is only our blood relative.)
The Virginian by Owen Wister (The Cowboy Novel of all cowboy novels.)
and for fun Electric Barracuda by Tim Dorsey.
Yes, I am always reading several books at once…a habit going back to college when multiple courses all required reading ever day. I have several reading tables in different rooms….

The Shaking!

The recent earthquake in the mid Atlantic states has brought forth much comment. Californians chortle at our ineptitude and panic. Experts tell us what we should have done: don’t evacuate the buildings! Stay inside, away from windows, under your desks, in a doorway, etc.
The most interesting actual scientific explanation I read was that the mid Atlantic ridge (a different definition of mid Atlantic to be sure) is spreading and putting pressure on the North American Plate. The Spotsylvania Fault gave way, releasing the pressure, but the hard rock and lack of large faults east of the Rockies meant that the quake was felt over great distances compared to similar quakes west of the Rockies.
I am waiting for the politicians of a certain party, with their distaste for science, to give us an alternative account. I can think of two.
One. One of the four elephants holding up the flat earth sneezed.
Two. God is very angry with someone in Virginia. Though they will probably find a way to blame a certain person in DC, or someone in Maryland or New York for offending God.
Just you wait. You will see! and hear!

Ice Cream Communion

(As I mentioned in the previous blog, I will be sharing some meditations I wrote at Ring Lake Ranch in Dubois, Wyoming while on sabbatical twelve years ago.  This is from the second day of the seminar.)

We are a very religious family, a family of faith.  Certainly faith in God.  The Yankee Congregational God who shared time with the eclectic Swedish Lutheran God who reigned on Christmas Eve.  But we were most religious in the summer.  Ice Cream was a form of holy communion, better than wonderbread, safer than wine.  The holiest of all ice cream was a hot fudge sunday at Roberge Dairy in Bristol, Connecticut.

It was a twelve-minute drive in Dad’s Buick Special.  The dairy was at on end of an old creamery.  Once it was a working farm, but the fifties it was surrounded by houses, retaining an ample parking lot.  No one ate inside.  You couldn’t.  There was a counter.  There was a row of freezers behind the counter.  There was a bug zapper in the window punctuating the orders for pistachio, banana, coffee or strawberry with the quick zit of a mosquito or the drawn out of zapp of the moth.

We all went in together and stood in line.  Dad placed the order, as always, for four hot fudge sundaes and we watched the paper cups, straight sided bowls, holy vessels for the pure white of the vanilla ice cream and the grainy liquid brown of the fudge sauce.

Now let’s be clear.  A hot fudge sundae is not a chocolate sundae (which no one in my family ever thought of ordering).  No!  Chocolate from a brown plastic jar was okay for a chocolate ice cream soda with chocolate ice cream, but never for a sundae.  Hot fudge had to be locally made, thick, buttery and yes, still-grainy fudge, so hot it was a race to eat fast before the fudge melted the ice cream.  On the near-white ice cream and over the exotic darkness of the fudge was the topper of cream-real, airy, sweet, and billowy whipped cream with the wound of a maraschino cherry on top.  But never nuts!  Nuts confused the taste buds and were excessive.

Back we’d walk, carrying our cups-cherries long bitten and stemmed.  Back to the car, a hardtop with its windows down.  Back as quickly as we could, because Curt Goudy, our preacher, was about to deliver the tragic gospel of the Red Sox to us.  Bite of ice cream with a touch of red stained cream-strike thrown by Monbouquette.  Bite of vanilla and dash of fudge-hit by Runnels.  Spoonful of fudge and a kiss of cream-home run by Williams.