Bagpipes on Maroa

Sarah*, my friend and associate pastor, asked me to pick some things at her home to take her wedding this weekend.

That’s why I drove north on Fresno’s Maroa Avenue around 7:30pm on Tuesday evening and saw the man playing bagpipes.

It all happened more quickly than the time it took you to read this sentence.

My car was jammed with a ficus tree, a stool, a large metal pail, and many other items all mysteriously connected to Mike and Sarah’s wedding. (I didn’t ask, I just loaded the car!) I loafed along at thirty or so miles an hour, mind wandering as a long day finally concluded. Then I spotted a man with bagpipes, standing at the far end of his driveway.

We made eye contact for a split-second. He played. I drove.

End of story? Not really. What was he doing there? Why was he, clearly Hispanic (though perhaps he had Scottish ancestors), playing a bagpipe?

*     *     *

Richard Brautigan wrote short stories in the 1960s and 70s. I lost track of his career years ago, but I remember his stories were truly “short” and often comical. Like, for example, his “The Scarlatti Tilt.”

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.**

Now that’s a short story!

And yet it tells a full, complete tale. And it’s as funny as it is sad, especially if you have heard someone learning to play a violin. It takes an awful lot of awful noise to attain the violin’s exquisite sound.

So I think of that guy and the bagpipes. I can imagine—and I might be totally wrong!—a little bit of his world. Of course he’s playing a bagpipe closer to Maroa Avenue than his home. His family and neighbors won’t let him do anything else! I further imagined that, though he doesn’t have any Scottish background, he’s part of a military outfit that uses bagpipes for ceremonial purposes and he volunteered to learn the instrument.

And then I also thought that he . . .

In those split seconds, I imagined many scenarios. Doing that reminds me of how complex we humans are. We all pass lives each day we know nothing about. We look at a stranger and see a glimpse of a face, a bagpipe or briefcase in a hand, a business suit or sweat pants the attire, and then they are gone.

I try to remember the beauty and pain behind every face I glimpse. They, like me, lead complex, grand, disappointing, worrisome, wonderful lives.

There are so many Gospel scenes of Jesus having brief encounters with people. The “woman with the hemorrhage,” the “Gerasene demoniac,” the “Syrophoenician woman,” the children he held in his arms, and so on and so forth. In every Gospel account, they come and go, glimpses all. Of the many themes of our Gospel tradition, the encounter with the stranger continually challenges me. How will I see the stranger? How do I imagine their lives? Will I remember they are more like me than different from me?

Every single person is a gift, with a life rich and textured. And every day, we glimpse the other. And they us. We barely know each other, but we are all glorious children.


* I stumbled across this essay from May, 2003. I am long gone from the church I then served. Sarah, in 2003, was soon to marry and soon to leave for southern California. A few weekends back, I saw her and Mike again. How delightful! She’s an Episcopal priest now. I wish I’d asked them about the ficus.

**Found in Brautigan’s REVENGE OF THE LAWN (Simon and Schuster)

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D is for . . .


I don’t believe in demons. (Actually, I do.)

As I understand the world of Jesus—first-century Palestine—demons were a dime a dozen. Illness? It’s a demon. One person murders another? Maybe one or both were demon possessed. In that time, hugely influenced by numerous faith traditions, demons and demonology helped answer hard questions. I remember one seminary professor mentioning how few references there were to “demons” or evil spirits in Hebrew traditions, and how many there were in Persian “cosmology.”* Every faith tradition becomes influenced by others.

Contemporary medicine helps us understand that seizures have nothing to do with evil intentions and much to do with a treatable illness. And, with appreciation for the entertainment value of BREAKING DAWN or TRUE BLOOD (and other cinematic, and darn good looking, demons and vampires), I don’t worry about bloodsuckers stalking me on my morning walk.

But we all know demons, don’t we? Make up your own list, but mine will include the interior whisper of envy whenever I compare myself to another. Or the convenience of labeling someone as politically or religiously different (thus, more dimwitted) than me.

Beware. There be demons. Doesn’t one of the silly “legends” about vampires indicate there will be no image in a mirror? Hey, I see myself in the mirror! I’m okay! But sometimes when I look, I also hear that whisper of envy or remember how I often I labeled strangers, and therefore became a “demon” to others.

*Of course, you may have your own vaguely remembered professor or pastor or other revered expert who said something completely different, but let’s not quibble over broad generalities and scholars who are all convinced they are correct.

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A Pillow Cool On Both Sides

Since 2006, Dos Equis beer has run an ad campaign about “the most interesting man in the world.” The so-called most interesting man does and says things equal parts extraordinary, useless and foolish.

One of the comments I enjoy, done in a voiceover, sonorously announces, “Both sides of his pillow are cool.” How silly. But I also think: that’s my quest on a hot summer night. Please, a decent sleeping temperature and a cool pillow and life will be good. I will have, as I restfully slumber, a hint of heaven.

The 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for July 17, 2011

“And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” (Genesis 28:17)

Ah. Heaven.

I’ve been considering heaven because of Jacob, one of the most interesting men in the Bible. He’s the one after “and” in the great trinity of the Jewish fathers of faith: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As believers and readers, we follow his complicated, engaging story from womb (where he battled brother Esau) to the grave (where his battles finally end and he desires to be buried by his father and grandfather). Jacob the battler was also a liar, doubter, believer and schemer. One who sought the Holy and yet so often seemed more concerned with raising holy hell.

Jacob also gave us a dream of heaven, one I memorized as a kid in Sunday school. Then, where mostly we talked about how Jesus loved the little children, Old Testament references were minimal and sanitized. None of my Sunday morning teachers mentioned Jacob’s less-than-redeeming features. They were ignored or glossed over. But the ladder to heaven tale, well, that was interesting! Remarkable. Memorable. Kid friendly!

As a kid, I didn’t know the Jacob of Genesis 28 was—again—on the lam. Now I know the Bible never ignored the awkward truth of “and Jacob,” for he was escaping his brother’s wrath when he settled down for the night and used a rock for a pillow. On that night, this “most interesting man” probably wasn’t concerned about his pillow being cool on both sides. How could he not lie awake, troubled by those primal feelings of regret about the past and a longing for a better future? How could sleep, true rest, ever come?

And yet it does. He dreams. Angels ascend and descend on a ladder between heaven and earth. The Lord arrives in this dreamy night, sidling up to the ne’er-do-well grandson of the father of three faiths, to vow—once again—Jacob will be blessed, will birth a people and nation, and will always have God by his side.

The dream ends. But doesn’t the ladder stay? Isn’t there for Jacob, and all who would follow, a sense of connection to God’s promise of blessing, to God’s longing for us to believe the Holy will always be by our side? Jacob’s story is not about a man who sought a place called heaven, or even searched for God “above” or “below.” Instead, unexpectedly, as surprising as a rock aiding sleep, or a pillow cool on both sides, heaven-as-hope is revealed to him within the best of dreams: God, always present, believes in us.

As an adult, I don’t think (or believe) of heaven as a place I can define with words or impose my version of a divine address on its description, but I revel in daring to believe it’s all around me. In the Realm of Heaven Jesus referred to, heavenly moments are gifts where we are in communion with others. If there be a metaphoric ladder, the rungs are named forgiveness and compassion and radical hospitality and . . . Continue reading →

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