Little Trees

“Let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”

Pslam 96:12


This afternoon we drove to the National Arboretum to view the fabulous bonsai collection.  Even though it was a warm and sunny day, some might wonder about why one would go and see trees, many of which had lost their leaves–it is, after all, the end of November.  However, I find this time of year, after the deciduous bonsai trees have lost their foliage, to be one of my favorite times to see these amazing specimens.


With the canopies of their leaves gone, you can see how they have been trained and formed–many of them for well over a hundred years of time.  One of the oldest bonsai trees in the world resides in this collection (a pine tree that has been in training since 1625, being cared for by one family now for six generations).  Each of the trees is the result of thousands of hours of care and attention.   Each is unique and beautiful.  Of the many dozen trees that comprise the collection, there is one that stands above the others, in my opinion:





You can almost feel the mighty rush of wind blowing to the left as the tree tries to grow to the right.   Much like how we can sometimes feel the force of God moving in and around our lives, blowing us one way as perhaps we try to go the other.


I’ve grown and trained bonsai for only a small amount of time now, but I marvel at just how many hours of work it takes to shape and prune, to fertilize and water, to care and fuss over my small collection of trees.  The master bonsai grower considers every twig of every branch,  examining and thinking about them in terms of how each fits into the whole movement of the branch, and then how that branch in turn fits into the shape and overall movement and shape of the tree.


In so many ways we are like these trees, being pruned in places to promote new growth, being watered and fertilized, each leaf examined, each branch considered…and at every moment tended to and loved by God.


Yesterday I’m sure there was a moment when you stopped to give thanks…for family, friends, those you love and who love you–your list was your own.  Today, stop and give thanks for the many ways that God has shaped and formed you, in moments of joy and sorrow, with people who love and care for you, with people you can’t stand or find difficult in the best of times, with your own will and character that are also gifts from God.  God continues to love and to form you, and will every moment of every day of your life.  You are beloved of God, worthy of God’s time and attention, worthy of the master of all creation’s care and tending to, becoming the glorious work, the prized possession of God.




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The Road to Gratitude

It would be fair to say that I am not the world’s biggest opera lover, but maybe that’s the advantage I had last Saturday over some of the true opera lovers who were at The Washington Opera’s production of Appomattox by Philip Glass. True, at intermission I wondered aloud if it would have been so hard for Glass to have written at least a little bit of melodic line, but by the end of the three hours I was convinced that all of the work’s elements – singing, orchestra, libretto, set, acting, combined with the current events we are living out in our country – came together to create an experience far more expansive than just opera. In fact, I came to believe that something as ordinary as tunefulness wouldn’t have served the already melodic rhetoric of Martin Luther King any better than the profanity of Lyndon Baines Johnson (and there was plenty of LBJ’s profanity in the libretto). The music was in service to the whole, simply adding another dimension to the emotional connection Glass must have hoped we would make with a story that deals with the ugliness of racism in two different centuries, and the pragmatism in 1865 and 1965 that tried (even largely succeeding we could say) to move an unwilling American culture forward.

It’s Thanksgiving Day in 2015. One hundred and fifty years after the negotiations of Generals Lee and Grant to end a civil war without humiliating those defeated in war. Fifty years beyond the work of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. I don’t think anyone today is pretending that any of this work to end division and racism is done. Where do we find room in our hearts then for gratitude when we see so much hate around us? We know the answer, I think. It begins with the small things that are huge in our lives – family, friends, homes, enough to eat, meaningful work. And then it moves on to the story-telling that helps us to understand all sides of our personal and collective histories. It continues with openness to the emotional connections that come through words or actions or music, or even at the opera when all of those things merge. Finally, it includes the ability to move beyond our fears and prejudices and experience the whole fabric of life, knowing that we have a simple choice between feeling hatred, indifference, or gratitude.

If story-telling, whether in opera or around the Thanksgiving table, seems like a strange step on the road to gratitude, take the time to listen to this TED talk today and then see if you don’t agree that story-telling is actually an essential step towards gratitude. And that gratitude is an essential step on the way towards a more peaceful world.


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UnknownYesterday afternoon, I turned on the radio, and All Things Considered was doing a segment on French’s green bean casserole. You know the stuff: canned beans, mushroom soup, fried onions from a third can. It embodies everything awful about 1950’s cooking, except that it is utterly, improbably, satisfying. It tastes of home, even if your mother never made it.

Yesterday, it also soothed my soul. It brought a whiff of the normal world. After a month (three months? five months?) of heartbreak, each and every time I turned on the radio or looked at the paper, it felt wonderful to hear something redolent of joy: Thanksgiving, cooking, gathering with the friends of your right hand. A break from horror, if only for a day.

The stores were full of it: towers of broccoli, heaps of brussels sprouts, a vast array of pies. At least twice as much as usual, as if the proprietors expected everyone in DC suddenly to begin to cook. Perhaps we should, at that. There is something wonderful in feeding the people you love, choosing to spend an hour making something you know will bring them joy. It’s a way of participating in their lives, sustaining them in all the good they do and are.

The first Thanksgiving came in the midst of a hard time. A raw continent, settlers who’d left brick homes in a settled land for log cabins that barely dented the cold, crop failures and the death of half the settlement. We forget that, in our plenty. It was a celebration,i_first_tg_painting not of abundance, but of survival. Seizing the joy of the each day, not knowing what the next would bring.

We who live comfortable lives have lost the gift for it, that way of seeing our lives. We cling to the good things, seek to make them last forever. I suspect most people do. But the truth is, even one day of peace is a blessing. One day of abundance is a gift many do not know. Being able to look at the faces of people dear to us is not something we should take for granted. When the Pilgrims left England, when my own ancestors left Russia and Poland, they knew they would not see their families again. That must have been the hardest part of it: not venturing into the unknown, but leaving behind what was loved.

Fall Vines MU HiResSavor it, tomorrow. The turkey, the pies, the laughter, all of it. Turn off your radio, and have one day of joy. The world will be waiting for you when you choose to join it again. But this, too, is the world: friendship and peace and joy — leaven in the loaf, the pearl of great price, the small seed of God that is waiting to run wild, to enter our hearts, to bind up all this sorry world and make us whole.

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Who am I? Why am I here?

In her sermon at the diocesan confirmations at the Cathedral a couple of weeks ago, Bishop Budde told the confirmands how important it is to become – to be – your unique self. The temptations to be other – to be less — are powerful.  There are, after all, no guide books, because no one ever in the history of the world has been like you.  You are meant to be you, and if you are not, if you imitate someone else, the world is deprived, is the poorer, for the lack of what you are and what you are meant to do.

Whenever I hear this line of thought, some of the figures that come first to mind are creative artists.  Indeed, the very first person who came to mind shortly after and reflecting on her words was Mick Jagger.  Can you imagine anyone more perfectly epitomizing being true to what one is and was meant to be.  Regardless of your taste in music, you cannot but be in awe of the constant flow of new musical creations from his mind – the constant surpassing of any boundaries, of forces that would hold one in check.  But that was just the first name that came to mind.  What is true of him is equally true of Cole Porter, of Mozart, of Frank Lloyd Wright, of Margaret Mitchell.  I would add to this panoply inventors and scientists, each in their own way and in their own fields listening to that inner voice which gives them the confidence and strength to go where no one has gone before, believing in themselves and in their calling, beset and harassed as they often are by the doubts of skeptics, as was Thomas Edison.

It isn’t only those in fields that lead to world fame that do their work on earth by being true to themselves and to their calling.  I include one of my personal heroes, Dr. Frances Kelsey, a medical officer with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who 50 years ago saved thousands of babies in the United States from being born with no hands or feet, as was happening in Europe, because she stood firm against tremendous pressure from the pharmaceutical industry and refused to approve a drug, Thalidomide, for sale in the United States.

No, this applies to every field of endeavor and not just in our occupations, but in every environment of which we are a part. You may find yourself being the lone voice in a group flirting with some action you know to be wrong, called to turn their hearts and their minds.

I thank you, Bishop Budde, for your words and guidance.  There is no more important message to convey to young people.

“No one hides a light under a basket, but puts it on a lamp stand so that all may see.”

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 24-November-2015.

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plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Hello, and Happy Monday.  The church calendar helps us remember significant lives in the long history of the church.  Today’s calendar helps us remember Clement.  Clement was the third Bishop of Rome.  Schnabel ClementNothing is known of Clements’ two predecessors and the only reason we know about Clement is because of a letter he wrote to the church in Corinth.  Here’s part of the letter:

“Happy are we, beloved, if love enables us to live in harmony… We should be humble in mind, putting aside all arrogance, pride, and foolish anger.  Rather, we should act in accordance with the Scriptures, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘The wise must not glory in wisdom nor the strong in strength nor the rich in riches. Rather, let the one who glories glory in the Lord, by seeking him and doing what is right and just.’ Recall especially what the Lord Jesus said when he taught gentleness and forbearance. ‘Be merciful,’ he said, ‘so that you may have mercy shown to you. Forgive, so that you may be forgiven. As you treat others, so you will be treated. As you give, so you will receive. As you judge, so you will be judged. As you are kind to others, so you will be treated kindly. The measure of your giving will be the measure of your receiving.'” 

If one reads the tea leaves in the letter (written in 96 C.E.) it’s abundantly clear that the Corinthians aren’t getting along.


The Apostle Paul visited the Church in Corinth in AD 50/51.  Paul described his visit as “painful” and the subsequent letters that he wrote to them (1 & 2 Corinthians) address fundamental and ethical differences between them (meaning he and them as well as them and them).  While at his pastoral best Paul writes that the Corinthians were a “richly gifted community” (2 Cor 2.1; 7.16) they were also richly opinionated… and not afraid to express their opinions!

In reading Clement’s letter to the Corinthians it seems that Paul’s letters didn’t settle any of their differences nor did they affect much change in the way the Corinthians behaved with one another.   If a generation is about 25 years then nearly two generations later, when Bishop Clement decided to write the Corinthians his own letter, their arguments were nearly 50 years old!

The family gatherings this holiday week will undoubtedly be a reminder to some; a reminder that in regard to our differences, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!   Hopefully our abiding differences won’t frustrate our thanksgiving.

Clement ends his letter to Corinth with these beautiful words, words that might well be instructive for some of us this week: “Sharing then in the heritage of so many vast and glorious achievements, let us hasten toward the goal of peace, set before us from the beginning.  Let us keep our eyes firmly fixed on the Father and Creator of the whole universe, and hold fast to his splendid and transcendent gifts of peace and all his blessings.”

Happy Monday and Happy Thanksgiving!




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Carrying the Seed

“Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”

Psalm 126:7


Often, while in the deep darkness of our grief, sadness and even anger we cannot see how or when we will be restored to wholeness.  Sometimes we even refuse to see what may be a brighter path ahead, instead remaining mired down in our sorrow.  Yet even then we are carrying the seed of gladness and restoration with us.  That seed is our knowledge that we are beloved of God–the God that is ever faithful and ever loving.  When we allow that seed to sprout within us and take root inside of us we will again return to that place where we are filled with joy.  And not just filled, but overflowing…which allows us to scatter our seeds of God’s love.  Thus, the Kingdom of God spreads, grows and thrives in the world.


In Christ,


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This coming Sunday, as well any other I hope, demonstrates how music contributes to the rich variety of worship that is possible in a liturgical setting. When I planned the music this past summer for what I guessed would be a gray, cold November day, I didn’t really think about wanting to show two ends of a beautiful music spectrum. But I’m glad it does, because I’d like to think it represents not only who I am, but what this place and the Episcopal Church are all about.

I had the good fortune to visit Argentina this past August and experienced some of the musical traditions that make not only tango such a potent part of that country’s culture, but also the older, indigenous folk traditions that inform the music of Ariel Ramirez, composer of Misa Criolla, which will be sung during the 9:15 service at St. Alban’s. It’s one of the first mass settings not written in Latin, composed shortly after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s, and incorporates the rhythms and instruments from different regions of Argentina.

More recent news, and much older music, is involved when celebrating the 2006 inclusion of 16th and early 17th century composers William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and John Merbecke on the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar with a commemoration on November 21 of these three rock stars in the Anglican musical tradition. Their music will be sung during the 11:15 service at St. Alban’s this Sunday. All three composed in a world that veered between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and back again. These were treacherous times and it is as much a testament to their political savvy as to their creativity that they were able to flourish as composers for the Church of England.

With both Misa Criolla and the traditional Anglican music of Byrd, Tallis and Merbecke we are immediately connected to other times and places. All of this music has its own kind of beauty, and all of it ultimately reminds us that the joy of connecting with other times and places is really the joy of connecting with God.

I have been carrying with me since last Friday’s attacks on Paris a poignant memory from this past July, when a choir from St. Alban’s went to France. During a dinner in Paris one evening, musicians were entertaining us with show tunes while choir members sang along. We then requested two songs which we wanted to sing for them – America the Beautiful and La Marseillaise. A surprising number of choir members knew the French words and it was an emotional moment for everyone in the restaurant that night. Vive la France. Long live our connections to other times and places and people.


A Collect for November 21
O God most glorious, whose praises are sung night and day by your saints and angels in heaven: We give you thanks for William Byrd, John Merbecke and Thomas Tallis [and Ariel Ramirez] whose music has enriched the praise that your Church offers you here on earth. Grant, we pray, to all who are touched by the power of music such glimpses of eternity that we may be made ready to join your saints in heaven and behold your glory unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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