Friday, March 31, 2023

Being Free

  I’ll admit it; I’m confused! I’m not at all sure what it means to be “free,” in the political world we live in these days. Some believe I should be “free” from the constraints of a government that has been “weaponized” against the governed. Others are focused more on economic freedom; “free” from rules, regulations and taxes. Still others want the “freedom” to have as many guns and weapons of war at their disposal as they can afford, with 75 mass shootings so far in 2023. Many resent any effort by government to interfere in their “freedom of choice,” when it comes to protecting their health; or they protest any effort to tell them what they can do with their own body. “Freedom of speech” is tested daily by lies on social media, and increasingly, in the halls of Congress; “freedom of religion” by a strident Christian nationalism. Teachers and librarians look confused and troubled, as their “freedom” to teach or share our history is restricted by politicians. The “freedom to assemble” in protest of environmental threats is restricted by corporations that hire law enforcement, and trigger happy officers that kill protestors like Manuel Esteban Paez TerĂ¡n. Sometimes young men of color are not “free” to walk the streets, or drive a car, without the fear of police violence.

Fortunately, if we are able to leave the politics aside for a moment, there is another way to understand “freedom.” Two experiences come to mind. The first was a call I received in the Chaplain’s office at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, where I was serving a semester as an intern. The Chaplain had just left, leaving me in charge. A patient was asking for prayer; would I please respond? Usually I went with the Chaplain, who offered the prayer; but with some anxiety I agreed and traveled up in the elevator to her floor, all the time trying to construct a prayer in my mind.

I found the patient attentive and appreciative that I had come. After our greetings were concluded and as I prepared to offer my prayer, she began praying! It was a prayer of thanksgiving! She offered names and places and events and gatherings and so many things that made her grateful for her life. It was probably the longest prayer I have ever heard (except for one minister whose name I won’t mention). The next morning she was gone. That’s “freedom;” the ability to pass on to the world of spirit with a clear and peaceful spirit.

On another occasion, a minister friend I had worked closely with for several years was diagnosed with a health issue that gave him short months to live. He called me to let me know. Then he spoke about forgiveness. He wanted to make sure he had never offended me, and if so, would I please forgive him. And I was to be certain, that if I had ever offended him, he was extending forgiveness to me. I found out later this was a process he used with many, intent on leaving this world “free,” from any brokenness or regret in his past deeds and relationships.

One might propose that the best end of life is to leave it freely and peacefully, without regret, satisfied one has tried to fulfill their destiny. I often wonder if there was an unspoken prayer of confession in the mind of the man who held my hand in a death grip, as he passed to the other side. What was it that made him hold on with such intensity. Something un-repented; unforgiven?

Ultimately, we simply are free! We are free to do as we will. We constrain ourselves or not. Others constrain us with our agreement, or not. But true freedom, according to Nelson Mandela, “is not merely to cast off one’ chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” We don’t leave bodies behind!

Virginia Woolf tells us, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

It’s true! You can censor the books and silence the teachers. But the fact is that Thomas Jefferson, the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence, to establish a new nation founded on principles of freedom and egalitarianism, owned more than 600 slaves during his lifetime; more than any U.S. President. This is a sad fact of history that will not disappear. (And try as you might to rewrite history; Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. God rest his lying soul at the end!)

According to the Buddha, “No one outside ourselves can rule us inwardly. When we know this we become free.” Politics is not ultimately about our individual freedom. It is rather meant to be about our social well being; enhancing that freedom of others, of all. It’s complex enough that it will lead to disagreements and debate. But it need not lead to divisiveness, fragmentation and destruction. Those who are free inside can become agents of freedom on the outside. May our political leadership be more centered in soul force; in freedom more than in fear.

“We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” (Faulkner)

Carl Kline

Friday, March 24, 2023

The birds are back!

 Several weeks ago I shopped for Black Oil Suflower seeds for the bird feeder. The supermarket was out of stock and all they had was a wild bird seed mix.  Not my first choice, but I was in a hurry so I bought 10 pounds of the stuff and filled the bird feeder.  I didn't pay much attention to it and at first, the birds seemed to be OK with the change.  After a week or two, however, the level of seed in the feeder seemed unchanged.  Very little activity.  Even the chickadees disappeared. The most telling observation is that even the squirrels were avoiding the ground beneath the feeder! 

I consulted with bird loving friends and they assured me immediately that it was the change of diet.  The birds were boycotting the wild bird seed mix.  I paid a bit more at the local grain and feed store and refilled the feeder with Black Oil Sunflower seeds and the birds are back.  It took all of about 2 hours before they returned to the feeder. The squirrels have returned.

At about the same time I listened to a podcast, an interview with an evangelical pastor of a church in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  His story was disturbing and heartbreaking.  He was leaving his congregation after a long period of what he had believed was a  successful ministry among his people.  The reason being that his congregation was more influenced by Fox News than by his preaching of the gospel.  The virulent rhetoric of the far right had taken root in his congregation and they could no longer hear the prophetic word from the pulpit.  He quoted another pastor saying "I get them for one hour on Sunday, Fox gets them for 10 hours a week."   

He had been trying to feed them the Black Oil Sunflower Seed but they chose the wildbird seed mix instead.  It is not likely that they will return to the "feeder."

Meanwhile, I heard in conversation with another pastor that her congregation has begun the disaffiliation process to separate from their denomination over the ambiguous and ambivalent wording in church law that continues to insist that "homosexuality is incompatiblewith Christian teaching."  Then a letter arrived from a cousin in North Carolina communicating that her church is in the same process.  Some 41 churches of the same denomination in Texas  are pursuing the same course.  In each case, the wild bird seed mix is not acceptable and they are seeking elswhere for their spiritual nourishment.

It is not likely that these birds will return to the feeder. Just as the birds at my feeder knew enough to look elsewhere for better food, church parishioners are seeking better nourishment through the truth of the gospel than they can find within their own denomination.  For them, the inclusive love and compassion and the call to seek justice and pursue it that reverberates through the entire Bible is the Black Oil Sunflower seed of life.

When I checked my bird feeder as I was getting ready to refill it, I noticed that most of what the birds had left behind was dessicated corn kernels - no life in them - totally unappetizing - even to me!  And I wondered what desperation or what hunger could entice human beings to binge on a steady diet of Fox News which does not support a robust and healthy spirit.  

Our little congregation is considered to be a "thriving congregation" when so many others are foundering on disagreement about how to be the church in the world.  I can't help but think that the commitment to "extravagant welcome and heartfelt service to one another, to the community and to the world" may be the answer.  We literally have to duck under the rainbow flag in order to enter the sanctuary.  The preaching centers on learning to live as "beloved community."  Generous servings of Black Oil Sunflower Seed. 


  As we continue to rebound from the Covid stresses on the congregation, more and more folks are returning to the pews because they find something there that they cannot find elsewhere - the truth- a steady diet of the words of Isaiah and Amos and Micah and Jesus calling forth in all of us the deep yearnings for a world soaked in compassion and generosity and lovingkindness and justice. 

Birds are smart - they  fly in search of better feed when what is available does not sustain them, but they will return  to the feeder again and again when the right food is available.  I feel gratitude for being in  a community where the birds are returning and the feeder is rich with all we need for a healthy and joyful life, blessing one another, the community and even the world with generous and spacious hospitality offered to all who enter the sanctuary.

Vicky Hanjian



Friday, March 17, 2023

"Learning To Walk In The Dark"

 “Learning to Walk in the Dark” is the latest book by Barbara Brown Taylor to come my way. I had read “An Altar in the World” earlier and found it wonderfully refreshing. Just the image of an altar in the woods or meadows, even on the beach or a mountain top, seemed so appropriate in a time when some seem to believe Christianity is best known behind closed doors; often closed to specific kinds of people; and in the meantime we cut down the forests, pollute the oceans, and continue to trash God’s good Creation.
We were talking about Taylor’s book “Holy Envy” at the Brookings Interfaith Council meeting the other evening. What is it we like about other faith traditions? It was a helpful conversation that allowed me to look closely at the gifts other traditions have given me, especially the practice of meditation I’ve adopted (or more likely, adapted) from Zen Buddhism. For me, it has been a practice of “listening” prayer, where one keeps the mouth shut and ears open.

As I was leaving the meeting I was handed another Taylor book that I just finished. This one is titled “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” Darkness has bad press! People are afraid of the dark; it’s when bad things happen. Darkness is the home of sin. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the darkness makes us soul-less.

Taylor deliberately explores the dark, including going caving, (not without considerable fright and trepidation), where she experiences total darkness. She spends an evening watching the darkness approach as the sun begins to set; observing the sunlight as it leaves and the darkness descends. She is more attentive to the seasons of the moon and the kind of light it gives to the earth. She ponders how we are so attached to artificial light, whether night lights along the floor, a lit clock or watch face, a light switch within a few steps all over the home. Oh, and don’t forget security lights that automatically come on with the slightest movement outside.

Reading this book reminded me of my camping experiences, especially in New Hampshire. For a few years I spent my summers working for the American Youth Foundation at one of their camps in the White Mountains. The campers lived in what looked like covered wagons, spread throughout the woods. Since most of the campers came from more developed environments, it was important they became comfortable with the darkness of their environment, especially as the woods closed out even the shimmer of the moon. I don’t think it was on my job description, but I became the person who took campers on night hikes. 

The first rule was, “no flashlights!” We would start our walk in the meadow where we could see, and gradually follow the trail into the darkest part of the woods, all the way in the darkness for what seemed like half a mile, to the openness of the beach on Dan Hole Pond. Along the way we would stop and listen for sounds. The frog hopping in the leaves sounded like a raccoon, or even a bear to some. One camper would travel some distance away from the group and light a match, so we would see how one small light illuminated a whole area of the forest. The feel of the feet on the path became more important than the eyes for telling the trail. By the time we returned to the meadow campers had a better developed sense of comfort in the darkness. Besides, they could always use a flashlight in an emergency to help them find their way to the outhouse in the middle of the night.

The camp was also the place where I chose to retreat for a few days one winter. I stayed in the director’s cabin; no heat except the fireplace; no running water, so I got it with a bucket from the lake; no electricity for lighting; no clock or watch. I rose with the dawn and retired with the dark.

One evening I read until late and the fire died. When I awoke, thoroughly rested, it was still dark outside. I made a fire, put the coffee pot in, and started reading. After one chapter, two, three; it didn’t appear that it had gotten any lighter outside. I went out to look. I could still see stars out over the lake and there was no light in the East. Curious, I went back inside to read some more. It was still dark as I read the last chapter. It was then that I wrote a poem titled, “What if the Sun Didn’t Rise?”

The sun; it’s our source of light and life, isn’t it? Even the moon reflects it. Hanging in our dining room window, we have a glass star given to us by our daughter. There are several facets that make up the points of the star. As it hangs in the window in the early morning sun, as it swings around from the energy of the heat radiating up from below, it casts these wonderful moving bubbles of light all over the dining room walls and everything in it. Some of that light goes into the darkest corners of the room. It’s mesmerizing!   

I know people like that! They can throw light in the darkest corners of our world. They can take us on night hikes through the forests of our lives and help us feel the path and learn to love the dark as much as the light. I think maybe they can do this because they have gone caving. They learned to enter total darkness and experienced a new kind of light that comes from the inside out, not the other way around.

As Taylor says, “It takes practice to keep stepping into la noche oscura, to keep seizing the night as well as the day. My hope is that when the last big step comes, both my legs and my heart will know the way.”

Carl Kline

Friday, March 10, 2023


This past Saturday had warmed up enough, that it seemed a good day to do some roof-raking. The snow was deep enough on the west roof, with more sliding down from the upper story, that I was afraid of ice dams and leaking into the ceiling.

Our roof rake comes in three pieces. When they are all connected, it’s about twenty feet long. Of course, the rake end is heavier than the other end, so one has to learn to hold and balance it in the appropriate place when walking to the work site. You also have to be careful you don’t accidentally hit the car in the driveway (or anything else), with the end that trails.

As soon as I left the shoveled path to the alley, I discovered the snow was higher than my boots, but there was another foot or so crusted over that would bear my weight. Unfortunately, that only lasted for a few steps, when I broke through the crust. It was a minor struggle to get to the west roof with my twenty foot rake and snow to my knees.

All went well till I moved to the west front porch roof. Sliding snow from above and a ferocious wind had packed snow, and now ice, high in the corner. My office window was completely covered. I began raking. But the packed snow was high and solid and I had to literally throw the rake into the drifts to bring it down. On one of those throws, I lost my balance and found myself laying sideways in a snowbank.

It was embarrassing, trying to get up with nothing solid to support my efforts, except the snow rake; and the rake was hanging on the edge of the roof with the other end stuck in the snow some distance away. When I finally managed to right myself, I quickly checked the neighborhood to see if anyone had seen me fall.


Laying sideways in the snowbank made me think of younger days. We used to play fox and goose. We would make a large circle in the snow, stomping down a trail. The circle would be cut with other paths and a safe spot in the center. Only one goose could be in the safe spot at a time, as the geese were chased around the trails by the fox. If you were caught, you became the fox. The best games happened when the snow was deep. Turning a corner at top speed people would slip and fall in the snow, off the trail. Sometimes, we might have to make a new trail as more and more geese found themselves lying sideways in the snow.

If I were a student at SDSU, I would organize a fox and goose hunt on the campus green. What a wonderful expanse for an enormous and intricate trail, big enough to hold fifty to a hundred; with several foxes identified by a red scarf or SDSU cap.

Or how about a football game? Our family used to play touch football in the snow. Once we played another family in the street in front of the house, while roads were closed. On another occasion, we played them in the parking lot across the street. There was also a football game on the snow covered ice at Oakwood Lake.

Have the Bobcats been having a friendly game of football in the snow?

I’m afraid in a culture so driven by productivity and busyness, snow is seen simply as an annoyance; a problem to be countered and cleared as quickly as possible. Thanks to my fall in roof raking, I was forced to remember other ways of connecting with snow; like snow angels; snow forts and snowball fights; snowmen and women.

Once a friend and I decided to climb in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in early spring. We weren’t aware how much snow there would be at higher elevations, and we weren’t prepared when we broke through snow crust up to our hips on the trail. It was difficult and frightening enough that we considered turning back. But we gradually learned how to get one leg out without plunging the other in as well, and before long, the deep snow subsided. We reached the summit to the most awesome sight we had ever seen. We were above the clouds. Only mountain peaks were visible in the distance. It was like standing on the roof of heaven; a spectacular gift after a snowy challenge.

On another trip in the White Mountains, I spent several hours sitting in a tree looking out at a snowy meadow, with the woods beyond. Birds came and went near my nest. I watched the sun reflected off the snow as it moved across the heavens. I watched the rabbits and deer making tracks in the snow. I watched in silence, a snowy field on a sunny afternoon; a most memorable experience.

There will likely be more snow before we see the spring. May we play as well as plough!

Carl Kline

Friday, March 3, 2023

And The Grief Goes On...


Some weeks are more challenging than others.  A brief phone call from the local funeral director brought the request for a funeral service in the coming week to attend to the sudden death of a 55 year old woman who left behind two 20-something daughters, an aging mom, two sisters and a beloved grandson.

A visit with the family and a few questions about the suddenness of the death of this all too young woman revealed a death by suicide precipitated by a long treatment for cancer complicated by bi-polarity.   I felt as though I had been delivered a blow to my solar plexus.  The ensuing conversation was subdued.  The family did not wish to share the hard truth and would allow people to believe that the cancer had done its work.

I thought I had managed the visit well but came home to so many questions about how to effectively care for this family.  The weight of it all settled in my body.  After a restless night, waking around 3:30 AM with no further hope of sleep, I indulged in my version of prayer which often consists of simply asking the question “What’s going on here?” and waiting silently for some  inner sensing of a response.   

Bingo!  My own sister died in an automobile accident at 55, leaving behind 3 daughters - all in their 20s - a bereft husband - traumatized sisters and brothers and an aging father who said “Why her and not me?”  The parallels were uncanny and helped me see immediately that 23 year old pockets of unresolved grief still hide out in my body.  It doesn’t take much to see the triggering link. The body doesn’t lie.

A guest preacher, Rev. Bill Turpie, was in the pulpit on Sunday.  He introduced us to the  Greek word splagchnizomai (splangkh-nid-zom-ahee).  It derives from a related word, splanxna, “from the inward parts, especially the nobler entrails - the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys.”

Splagchnizomai is gut felt compassion.  It moves the human being into action in expressions of lovingkindness.

There are a lot of benefits to being a “hybrid” spiritually.  Having the truths and metaphors of  Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism readily available sometimes makes it easier to work through issues that challenge my spirit.  Models and metaphors of compassion run throughout all three traditions.


When Moses encountered the Divine Directive in the Burning Bush, he heard “I have marked well the suffering of my people in Egypt…I have heeded their outcry…I am mindful of their sufferings” … the markings of splagchnizomai.

Jesus appeared, post resurrection, to his disciples and witnessed their fear and confusion - - offered them peace and the promise: “Lo, I am with you always.”  Splagchnizomai - - compassionate witnessing - - compassionate Presence.


Avalokiteshvara  or Kuan Yin, the boddhisatva of compassion is conceived as having a thousand hands, a thousand eyes, and with her/his head facing in 4 directions simultaneously, witnessing and hearing and responding to the cries of the world.

The world is drowning in a sea of profound grief.  In no way have we recovered or healed from the loss of millions of human lives to Covid 19.  In no way have we processed the loss of so many thousands of lives in the Turkey/Syria earthquake.  In no way are we keeping abreast of the loss of so many lives to gun violence.  In no way have we even begun to process the grief inherent in the loss of the integrity of this planet to climate change.  And the list goes on and on.  Humankind is engulfed in grief and it only takes one personal experience of loss to plunge any individual into the deep waters.

Splagchnizomai - - compassionate witnessing - - compassionate Presence - - compassonate action; the word sits there like a challenge. The call to compassion reverberates through the great spiritual traditions.  It is a daunting call.  Just for today, I take comfort and courage and direction from the words of Rabbi Rami Shapiro:

We are loved by an unending love.
We are embraced by arms that find us 
even when we are hidden from ourselves.
We are touched by fingers that soothe us 
even when we are too proud for soothing.
We are counseled by voices that guide us
 even when we are too embittered to hear.
 We are loved by an unending love.
We are supported by hands that uplift us
 even in the midst of a fall.
We are urged on by eyes that meet us 
even when we are too weak for meeting.
We are loved by an unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled,

Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;

Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;

We are loved by an unending love. 

Vicky Hanjian