Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Today on 60th at Lex I saw an unfamiliar car, a grand touring sedan, very large and impressive. Kind of ugly, though.

I crossed the street to look. It was a Maybach, a specialty label of DaimlerChrysler. They run $350,000. The plates said MD, and I noticed a parking privilege placard on the dashboard, for Cabrini Medical Center.

We might not like it that a doctor has that much disposable income to spend on an ugly car. (Though I'm sure it's got a great ride and great back seats.) But even if we don't like it, we certainly find it tolerable, and our whole health care system supports it.

In different centuries it was clergy who had that kind of excess wealth. We didn't like that either, back then, but we tolerated it, and our whole cultural system supported it.

I don't want to go back to that. But I do notice that, if money expresses cultural value, how much more our culture values the health of the body than the condition of the soul.

Mary from Midwood

Jesus was Jewish, right? Then how come his mother was a Catholic? I mean, she was born Jewish, and she had a bunch of Jewish boys (you can look it up) and she was kind of pushy about her oldest son's career (John 2), but how come on Good Friday she so quickly turned Catholic and became the BVM?

We were never able to turn her Protestant. We did it with St. Paul, we made him a Lutheran. J. S. Bach tried to convert her with his Magnificat, but she made him write it in Latin, not German, and she only politely applauded.

Bernstein made her Puerto Rican, and there's no Pentecostals in West Side Story. But at least he gave her back some real sexuality. Maybe someone could write music for the Magnificat that sounds like "I Feel Pretty." Only, in the gospels it's not about pretty, even though she's like a handmaiden in the palace kitchen that the king has taken notice of.

I wouldn't make her Protestant, but I would make her Jewish again. I'd put her in Midwood, on Avenue P, and have her fiance come from Borough Park. I would give her hair like Carole King, and her nose, and her voice. I want her to sing the Magnificat like, "I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet." You go girl.

Visionary Leadership

Being a "visionary leader" is all the vogue. From Washington to Wall Street to San Jose. Pastors are expected to be visionary leaders too. And that can lead to problems.

My second church was in the countryside of Canada. We had issues. Most of them were cultural. We didn't expect them, because these were Dutch immigrants and their children, and I am considered very Dutch (by Americans) and I even speak the language. But we all found out I was more New Yorker than Dutch. The streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant are not a good nursery for a Dutch personality.

I was out of sorts there. I was determined to love the landscape (a matter of principal for me) so I used to take long walks around the church. The land was flat and open, with straight dirt roads at half-mile sections, and all wide fields with the odd stretch of bog or bush. There were birds and foxes and deer, and you could hear coyotes at night. Parishioners would drive by, see me, and offer me a ride. They didn't get what I was about. Why should they?

We had a conflict raging during my third year there, and my wife and I went for some counseling to an Anglican priest who specialized in helping clergy. One week my assignment was to think about "my vision for my church."

As we were driving to our appointment I told my wife Melody that if she promised not to laugh, I would tell her my vision for our church. When I told her, she broke her promise. I said that, to be honest, if I really tell the truth about my vision, judging by my doodles in my study, my vision for our church was a big tall steeple with a bell in it that you could see and hear from all around the countryside.

Romantic, sentimental, or just plain foolish? If it was right for Groningen and Utrecht and Chartres and Salisbury and thousands of villages in Europe and New England and Quebec, why not our corner of Ontario?

When the guy said "vision," I responded with something visual. I am told that I am overly literal. I always got the color "aqua" wrong as a kid because I thought it should be the color of water and that was kind of brownish-green, like the East River at 67th Street, or at the Battery.

A decade later, in my fourth church, in Michigan--a great big thing with a proud congregation--we were spinning our wheels, and so one of my predecessors, Bud Ridder, whom I came to love, took me out for lunch and said, "Dan, what's your vision for this church?" Oh no, not that again.

I remember going home and thinking, "Vision shmision, they asked me to come here to be their pastor, and I came. What else do they want. I have no vision for this church. I have a scripture lesson every week to preach on and they have kids for us to catechize and troubles for us to help them through. They asked me to be their pastor. Here I am. Who said anything about a Vision?"

So I spent the next year working on my "vision." I attended seminars and confabs. Finally, one day, it hit me, in California. My buddy Orville and I were driving up to Big Sur. We had just attended a conference at the Crystal Cathedral and it was "vision" from morning to night.

Orville was driving, he was turning right at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and I said, "Orv, I have to go to Brooklyn." He asked why. "Because I suddenly see what my vision is, and if I tell my church they won't want it." He said, "You don't know that. You have to give them a chance."

I did. I presented it. They turned it down. Definitively. They said, "We like you, Daniel, as our pastor, but we don't like your vision, we don't want to go where you want to lead us."

Eventually I got to Brooklyn. I told the search committee the same things I had said in Grand Rapids, and they said yes.

And last week, a new person at our worship service told me that what she felt in our church was "room." I was moved and more than gratified to hear her say that because "room," a visual category, has been a key part of my vision for Old First. If she felt it, it means we are achieving it, and that suggests that I am, at least minimally, a visionary leader.

I guess it's a good thing we already have a big steeple. (It might be the tallest in Brooklyn.) Otherwise I'd be imagining that all day. And as I tramp around this landscape (which I have loved since my childhood), nobody stops to offer me a ride.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Or: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I am a bad Protestant. I love to get ashes on Ash Wednesday, which is a very Catholic thing. The badge of repentance is a badge of joy to me. And when I see other smudgy foreheads on the streets of Park Slope I am most unsuitably delighted. The secrets are out. We are all remembering that we are dust, and that to dust we shall return. I feel like we're all floating in the air of Brooklyn, catching the light as it comes down.

Even more, I love to give ashes, or, in technical terms, to "impose" them. We had the church open all day yesterday, from morning to night, and I spent a very inefficient and wonderful day stationed in the sanctuary, giving out ashes as people walked in. We had more than a hundred this year, very few of whom I knew. I love how this opens us to our community, welcoming "whosoever will," no questions asked.

It is a privilege to do this. I figure just about everyone was having an exchange with God, some contact with divinity, some permeation of the boundary with transcendence. Many people just came in and out. Just as many stayed to pray or meditate.

One woman came in, told me she had never had ashes, asked what it meant, decided to try it, knelt, received them, and then, with sudden tears, told me that her prayer had just been answered! She went to a pew and sat in silence. Holy smokes, what a privilege.

Old First must be getting known as a place to receive ashes. We have our regulars now, from the pizzeria, the bank, the hospital, Con Edison, and real estate. We always have cops, which means a lot to me, because I know what they do for our community and what they carry and how little they are paid.

This year we had crews of firemen from two different trucks. They line up in their boots and suspenders and jackets (not their helmets!), and taking turns they kneel. I put the ashes on their foreheads, I tell them to remember that they are dust and to dust they shall return, and I am moved to be doing this, and I think, who the hell am I to have this honor? I'm giving them ashes? I telling them about dust? These guys should be saying it to me! But, then, I am just the vehicle for something greater than myself. Their business is not with me, but with God, and I just happen to be the coupling. But still, I consider it a very great honor.

The day is framed with opening and closing services. Here the people are mostly from Old First. I like this because it's people I know and love and we are sharing something. The sign is minimal but the depth is great. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. Together we accept our mortality, and our need for mercy, and the gift of repentance. It is very much like a children's song. I think that Ash Wednesday makes the lightness of being to be quite bearable.