Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Burning last year’s palms to make ashes for Ash Wednesday tomorrow. Now, I’ll smell like pot all day…

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

St. Placid, whose name I took on when I became an Oblate of St. Benedict 25 years ago. St. Leo Monastery, St, Leo, Florida

The urns of the ashes of monks at St. Leo Abbey awaiting interment.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

15 years cancer-free

Today, I am 15 years cancer-free. 

I am very grateful! 

Celebrating the day in Florida! 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017

This great sign is in the First UCC Church in Moorhead, where dear friends Chris & Eric, and Nick all attend 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

I was baptized in this font in Bethlehem Lutheran Church, on this day many years ago…
This reflection of the Warhol Marilyn print above my fireplace was reflected by the morning light onto the back window, making it look like Marilyn is staring back from the back wall of St. Stephen’s next door.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Monday, February 6, 2017

Paper Doves, Falling at 25

25 very long years ago today, my first book of poems, Paper Doves, Falling and Other Poems, was published. It seems like a lifetime ago. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

5 Epiphany

February 5, 2017

Matthew 5.13-20

+ Every so often, you will hear me talk about a saint or a famous person on Sunday mornings. Often times, that person ties in to the saint we commemorate on Wednesday nights.  The reason I put these people forward for you is simple. Sometimes we need to see that we are not alone in our struggles as Christians. And our Christian lives can often feel like a major struggle. And you know what: it should. Nobody promised us an easy romp through sunlit flower gardens as Christians. To be a Christian should be a brave thing. It should be a radical, countercultural thing. It should mean that we live our lives just a bit differently than everyone else. It means that we see life a little bit differently than everyone else.

I know a lot of people these last months have been talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Certainly, we, here at St. Stephen’s, have been speaking of him as a result of William’s study last fall. And I think he is VERY appropriate for our times.

But, for me, the person I have found myself going to in these last few months is someone I have mentioned before to you. The writer and theologian I have been returning to again and again to help me sort out my feelings about what’s going on in this world is none other than William Stringfellow.

You may remember me talking about him. If not, no worries. I’ll catch you up.

William Stringfellow was an amazing theologian, writer, lawyer, who was active in the mid-to-late twentieth century.  As a lawyer, he defended poor black and Hispanic people in Brooklyn in the 1950s.  In the 1960s he defended such unpopular causes as clergy who marched on Selma, as well as the always enigmatic Bishop James Pike when he was brought up on heresy charges.  In the 1970s, he actually subpoenaed the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, John Allin, regarding women priests presiding in churches (Allin was opposed to women priests). In 1970, he very famously harbored the late, great Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and activist, Father Daniel Berrigan, at his home when the FBI was seeking to arrest Father Berrigan on charges of burning files from a draft board. Stringfellow later  called for the resignation of Richard Nixon’s presidency years before Watergate.

His private life too was very radical for its time.  Stringfellow lived openly and unashamedly from the 1960s through the 1980s with his partner, the poet Anthony Towne.  In 1967, he and Towne moved to Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, where they developed a semi-monastic life together and were eventually wholeheartedly welcomed into the somewhat insular year-round community at Block Island.

But in addition to all of this, Stringfellow was also, brace yourselves, an Evangelical Episcopal Christian.  He was an ardent student of the Bible and wrote extensively on how our lives as Christians must be based fully and completely on the Word of God.  Mind you, he was no fundamentalist.  He was no Bible-thumper.  But he was an evangelical, before that word got hijacked and made into something else. An evangelical in the best sense of the word is someone who looks at life through the lens of scripture.  And that is what Stringellow most certainly did. He was a careful, systematic theologian who simply saw all life through the lens of scripture.

And, very importantly, he was a radical. A true radical Christian.  He was a conduit, at times, through which the Word of God was proclaimed. Stringfellow, who died in March 1985, was and is an important theologian for us right now.

I have asked myself many times what Stringfellow would be thinking of the world in which we now live. And actually, it wouldn’t be that hard to figure out the answer to that question.  Stringfellow was often described as a stranger in a strange land.  I love that description. I certainly have often felt that same way in my own life at times.  Maybe that’s why I like him so much. Because, let’s face it, if we, as Christians, don’t feel like strangers in a strange land in our following of Jesus, we’re not doing it right.

So, why this talk of William Stringfellow?  Well, in our Gospel for today, Jesus talks about salt and light. You are the salt of the earth, Jesus says. But our usefulness as “salt” is only good enough while we still have “taste.” He then goes on to say, “You are the light of the world” but then proceeds to say that the only effective light is one that is uncovered.

In our lives as followers of Jesus, our calling is to be salt with taste and unhindered light. Salt with taste. Unhindered light.  This is what we should be.  Not sweet, nice, polite Christians.  Not Christians who hide behind their Bibles and the status quo. We are to be salty and bright as the dawn.  

Yes, it’s good to be a follower of Jesus. But—and I firmly believe this—to really follow Jesus, to really follow him to the end, we have to do one very important thing:

We need to be radical in our following, radical in being salt with taste, radical in being unhindered light to this world. Radical like Stringfellow. Radical like those first followers. Radical like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Desmond Tutu and all the great followers of Jesus.  

Being radical in all of these ways means being salt with taste and unhindered light. It means stepping out into the unknown and actually doing something about the unfairness and injustice of this world.  And doing that is frightening to most of us. It certainly is to me at times. Or, rather, it might  simply not be practical. We have lives, after all. We have families. We have jobs.

OK. Maybe most of us will never be Desmond Tutu. And I hope no one here this morning will have to make the ultimate sacrifice that Bonhoeffer made with his life.  But we can be William Stringfellow, looking at life and the events of this life through the lens of scripture.  And doing so, trust me, will make one radical in our own lives.

We can—and should—stand up and speak out for Christ and for all of those people Christ commands us to love.  In our own lives, when we hear people being racist or homophobic or sexist or running down Muslims or simply being rude, we can simply say, “No!” “Stop it!” We don’t have to be jerks about it. We don’t have to overturn tables and break things. We don’t need to throw a tantrum.
But we can’t be silent. Silence in the face of injustice is not an option for us who follow Jesus. Our simple “no,” our simple “stop it!” said with conviction and purpose, often carries the greatest weight. Simply refusing to listen to such rhetoric, simply refusing to allow such talk or action in our presence is often a quite radical statement. And do so with our understanding that this is exactly what Jesus is saying we must do to be his followers is the way we can truly embody the Gospel.

When we do so, even in some small way, we are the effective salt of the earth. When we live our radical lives as followers of Jesus, we are a light set on a lampstand.

As I said, none of this is easy. Remaining tasty salt is not easy. Being a light on a lampstand leaves us exposed and open to every wind that blows through.
In our lives as followers of Jesus, there will be moments when it is hard. Hard to be a Christian. Hard to believe as a Christian.  And, often times, hard to live with other Christians. It gets a lot harder when we take our Christian faith that next step and become radical Christians—Christians who, in the holy name of Jesus, stands up and speaks out in love to those forces at work in this world that seek to undermine peace and justice.

But these are just the realities of what it means to be a light on a lampstand. This is what it means to live in community with one another. And the only response we can have to all of that is love.

We must love. Our love must shine brightly. The Holy Spirit, which dwells inside each of us, must be the fuel for the light within us. And loving people who hurt us, or intimidate us, or make us uncomfortable is incredibly hard. Let me tell you! I have been there. I know.

But we don’t have any other options as Christians, as followers of Jesus. We don’t have the option of curling up and shutting down. Silence and inactivity are not options for us who follow Jesus.

The only option we have is the love that was infused in us by the God of love, whom we serve.  And that love is not silent. That love is not sweet and safe. That love is quite loud. There are times when I wish I didn’t have the deal with these things. There are times when I wish everyone just liked me and I liked them. There are times when I really just don’t want to speak out. There are times when I just want to listen to the news and just not be angry or frustrated.  Or better yet, I wish I could just simply ignore the news.  Life would be so much easier.  
But, sadly, that’s not reality. We are here. We share this earth. And what effects one person effects us too. We’re all in this thing together, as a song by Old Crow Medicine Show goes.

No one is expecting us to be perfect Christians. Trust me, we all fail. We all falter.
We all make mistakes. Following Jesus does not mean that we will never trip up or fail. Following him does guarantee that we can pick ourselves up and continue on, broken and wounded as we are sometimes.

I can tell you this: my life as a follower of Jesus has never been easy. Oh, have I fallen more than once on that path. I’ve tripped up majorly at times. There were moments when I wasn’t even certain I wanted to go any further. But I have. We all have. All of us here this morning have pressed on, going forward, striving and failing and striving again. And it’s all good. Even the trip-ups are all right. It’s part of our journey in Christ.

Yes, our Christian life is hard at times. Loving each other is hard at times. Loving ourselves as God loves us is sometimes the hardest of all. Living our lives in Christ is really hard. And living radically in Christ is especially hard.

But when we do this, we truly do become the salt of the earth. We truly do become a light set on a lampstand.  And when we are—when we are a light unhindered, a Christ-infused light shining brightly for all the world to see, sharing the light of Christ with others—we are doing what are meant to do as Christians, as followers of Jesus.

So let us not put our light under a bushel. Let us not grow frustrated. Let us not let the tiredness and fatigue that sometimes comes upon us win out. But let us be infused. Let us be rejuvenated.

And let us shine! Shine brightly! Shine radically!  Shine without apprehension or fear. Let us shine! And when we do, others will, as Jesus tells us, see our good works, and we will truly be giving glory to our God in heaven. Amen.

The beautiful urn for my dear, dear friend Gretchen (and her lovely dog, Scout), made by her brother. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Gretchen Carlson Kost

 (July 1, 1974-January 30, 2017)

Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
Fargo, ND

Revelation 7.9-17

+ For those of you who do not know me, I am Gretchen’s priest. For almost 13 years, I have very gratefully served in that capacity. Now, I know that on the surface that sounds so nice. It sounds so…holy. If you didn’t know Gretchen or me, you would think, just by my saying that, that we were nice, sweet, clean-cut, cookie cutter Episcopalians.

But…sadly, no. The reason our relationship worked so well is that there was nothing sweet or clean-cut in either of us. Well, she was sweet at times. But, we were boisterous, outspoken, unabashed liberal Christians, who shared very clear and vocal opinions on almost every issue, whether it be women’s right, or GLBTQ rights, or just basic equal rights. We were pretty much outraged about all the same things.  We talked politics and social issues.

And music. We shared a very deep love of music and many of the same bands, especially from the 1980s and early 1990s. It was not, as you can guess, the typical priest/parishioner relationship

I first got to know Gretchen and Rob in that fortuitous hot summer of 2004. Weirdly enough, Gretchen and I shared many friends for years before that. We knew many of the same people. But somehow we never really knew each other, outside greetings here at Gethsemane Cathedral on Sunday mornings.

Gretchen was diagnosed in May of 2004. The following month, in June, I was ordained a priest. And the following month after that, in July, the Dean of this Cathedral at that time, Steve Easterday, called me into his office (I was serving here at the time as a priest at that time). He asked me if I would be willing to pay a visit to Gretchen and Rob. There were two reasons he asked me, I think:  the first reason was that there was only four years difference between us in age. And the second reason was that two years before, in 2002, I also was diagnosed with cancer, which, let me tell you, was a very traumatic in my life.  So I knew in a unique way where Gretchen and Rob were in their lives in the aftermath of that diagnosis.  So the Dean no doubt thought I would be the perfect one to visit her.  

But as I drove over to their house in Moorhead that hot summer afternoon, I really didn’t know what I was going to say or do.  I wasn’t certain what Gretchen would want from me. And I wasn’t certain where she would be emotionally in the whole process.

Well, I didn’t need to fret that much. Although Gretchen was scared, although the future was unknown, the person I came to know that day was a strong woman filled with life. And she was a fighter! And we very quickly bonded, as did Rob and I, and Gretchen’s parent’s Kathy and Bruce.

Slowly, as time went on, she was healed.  It was truly a miracle! We were all were amazed and thankful. Life went on. I visited first of all, every week, then every month. In fact, in those almost 13 years, I don’t think there was a month I didn’t visit.

Gretchen fought back, became stronger than ever, lived her life fully and completely. And soon, there was Hattie and then Beck. I got to baptize each of them.

Now, again, it all sounds idyllic. But, there were issues sometimes. We didn’t always see things face to face.  The biggest issue we had in this time was my becoming vegan. Oh, poor Gretchen—and especially Gretchen’s mom, Kathy—it was a decision that was not met well. It became too hard to feed this crazy, insane vegan priest a meal. So, we would have dessert instead whenever I visited. But, Kathy, I’m just letting you know: I really missed those meals. And it’s really the only time I’ve ever actually regretted being vegan.

Those visits were wonderful though. Every time I visited Gretchen, she always wanted me to do one thing: She always wanted me to anoint her for healing, even when I thought: why are we still doing this? You’re healed, Gretchen. We don’t need to be doing this anymore.

But there was always a bit of fear in the back of her mind. It’s a fear I know well—that any of us who have had cancer knows well—that fear that it will come back.
Now, as I’ve shared this story with people, I hear again and again: “everyone should be so thankful for those 12, almost 13 years.” And, trust me, I am. But…
I am also really angry today. I am selfish. Maybe I’m ungrateful. But...there should’ve been more. It should’ve been more than 13 years. It should’ve 30 years. Gretchen should’ve seen those children grow. She should’ve grown old with Rob. There was so much life ahead of her.

And in this last month, and especially last few weeks and days, let me tell you: my most common prayer has been a fist shaken at the sky. Now, mind you I love God. Anyone who knows me knows I love God. But I am angry today at God too. (We know we can be angry at someone we love). And it’s all right to be angry about this.
Maybe I’m not really angry at God. But I really am angry at death, and I’m angry at that damn tumor, and I am angry at the unfairness of this all. It’s unfair. This should not have happened to someone like Gretchen. This should not have happened to Rob and Hattie and Beck and Kathy and Bruce and Greg and Grady and their families. And to all of us, who loved her.

Gretchen did not deserve this. And that makes me very angry! I’m really angry that there wasn’t more time.

But, for those of us who have faith—faith like Gretchen—and let me tell you, Gretchen had faith—a fierce, strong faith in Christ—for us, even in the face of this gut-wrenching pain we feel today, even in the face of our frustration and anger and sadness, we know…

We know that the God of love in which Gretchen believed so strongly, really was with her. The fact is, she was spared so much of what she feared. She was spared a nursing home. She was spared paralysis. She left this world surrounded by those who loved her. She left here knowing she was loved and cherished. She left here hearing all those wonderful, amazing comments people were texting and leaving on Facebook and on her CaringBridge site. She heard them.

For those of us who have faith, we know: This is not the end. In that beautiful reading we just heard from Revelation, we heard:

These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
   and worship him day and night within his temple,
   and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
   the sun will not strike them,
   nor any scorching heat; 
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
   and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

God has wiped away every tear from Gretchen’s eyes. She will never cry another tear. We…well, we are not so lucky. At least right now. We have not yet emerged from our great ordeal. But we do know that, one day, our tears will be wiped away for good. These tears we cry today will be wiped away. And it will be a great day.

All this reminds us that our goodbye today is only a temporary goodbye.  All that we knew and loved about Gretchen is not gone for good. It is not ashes, in that beautiful urn. It is not lost forever from us. All we loved, all that was good and gracious and beautiful in Gretchen—all that was fierce and strong and amazing in her—all of that dwells now in a place of light and beauty and life unending. And we will see that dimpled face again. And we will hear that wonderful, incredible laugh again. We will see her again.  And it will be beautiful.

Anyone who knew Gretchen well knew there was one book that meant everything to her—To Kill a Mockingbird. A few days ago, after she passed, I got out my well-worn copy of the book, and found a passage I underlined many, many years ago. In so many ways, it captured Gretchen. And I think these words speaking loudly to who she was and to how we can respond to so many things in our world at this time (which weighed heavily on Gretchen in these few months). Harper Lee writes:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

Gretchen saw it through, even when she knew was licked. She showed us all true courage, true strength, true determination. She showed us what real courage was. And we should be grateful for that.

We will all miss her so much. I want to say I will miss her, but I know that if I make that statement as a statement, I will start crying. And I’m going to try real hard to not cry right now. We will all miss her.

But I can tell you we will not forget her.  Gretchen Kost is not someone who will be easily forgotten. She is not someone who passes quietly into the mists. Her fierce determination lives on in us. Her strength, her dignity lives on Hattie, in Beck, in Rob and Kathy and Bruce and Grady and Greg and in all of us who knew her and loved her.

At the end of this service, we will all stand and I will lead us in something called the Commendation. The commendation is an incredible piece of liturgy. As a poet, I can say it’s an incredible piece of poetry. But it’s more than poetry. In those words, we will say,

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

And it will end with those very powerful words:

All of us go down
to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia,
alleluia, alleluia.

That alleluia in the face of death is a defiant alleluia. It is fist shaken not at God, but it is a fist shaken at death. It is the fist Gretchen shook at death. Not even you, death, not even you will defeat me, Gretchen seems to say. I will not fear you. And I will not let you win.

Let me tell you, death has not defeated Gretchen Kost. Even at the grave, she makes her song—and we with her:

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

It is a defiant alleluia we make today with her.

So let us be defiant. Let us shake our fists at death today. Let us say our Alleluia today in the same way Gretchen would. Let face this day and the days to come with gratitude for this incredible person God let us know.  Let us be grateful. Let us be sad, yes. But let’s remind ourselves: death has not defeated her. Or us. Let us be defiant to death. Let us sing loudly. Let us live boldly. Let us stand up defiantly. That is what Gretchen would want us to do today, and in the future.

Into paradise may the angels lead you, Gretchen. At your coming may the martyrs receive you. And may they bring you with joy and gladness into the holy city Jerusalem.

Oh, Gretchen, how I will miss you!


7 Easter/The Sunday after the Ascension

  May 21, 2023   Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-17     + As many of you know, these last five years have been hard years for this old prie...