Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Route, a Rut, a Routine

I never had a job with a route before this one. I was never a paper boy or a bus driver. When one has a route, one is not rewarded for creativity or innovation. People like it not to be a surprise when their trash will be picked up. They tend to like it to be on the same day of the week, preferably at the same time. The simplicity of this form of physical routine has been refreshing, almost therapeutic, for me. I loved my Monday mornings this past year jumping on the truck in my grubby clothes after spending the previous day leading church services and interacting with lots of people--going from robes to rags.

There is a certain amount of routine to religious leadership and religious life, but not nearly so much simple routine as hauling trash. The routine sets one's mind free (potentially) to notice things, to experience surroundings, to simply be.

But routine easily becomes a rut. Pure drudgery. Living deadness. The difference is in the mind.

Route, routine and rut all come from the same root. Nice alliteration, eh? They have to do with an established, well-worn path. A couple years back I bought my mid-life crisis car. A Mazda Speed 3. Looked like a grocery-getter, drove like a bat outa hell. I took it up to Brainerd Raceway for Track Day with a friend who drove his Porsche 911. We got personal coaching from professional drivers and I had one of the most fun days of my life.  What intrigued me was that the teachers insisted horsepower did not matter as much as the ROUTE. Or, as they called it, the LINE. To prove the point, one professional took his Dodge Caravan onto the track while we were all tearing it up. He went head to head with a Corvette, and whupped him. Because he tracked the right LINE.

Professional drivers make smooth moves. They are not jerky and impulsive. They are not racing to get ahead, but focused on this curve, this shift, this move. I did a funeral for an old woman whose grandson raced NASCAR. He told me that in the heat of a race (and I mean heat; track temps get up to 120 degrees and these people wear the equivalent of snowsuits), at 200 mph. he can not only see the candy wrapper on the track, he can read the brand. He can see his family in the stands, and he finds inches between cars to be a mile. This is what routine can do. One can be transported to another level of consciousness when one enters with entire focus into a routine. Spiritual mystics know this.

When I climb onto the garbage truck, I enter the zone. It is all about the line. Time slows down. I am transported into another plane of consciousness. I see every wrapper and my powers of observation expand. This is why I call hauling garbage my spiritual practice. Plus I pick up the wrapper and throw it away. Or on the floor of the cab.

Monday, June 29, 2015


The best part of being a teacher is to learn from my students.

Let me introduce you to a student of mine, an amazing artist of the spoken word, who graduated this spring from the University of Minnesota in Youth Studies and Communications. This piece was inspired by the murder of a close friend and is a reflection on the funeral where they spoke of her friend as now being an "angel." I invite you to listen and pay close attention to this gritty, sublime poetry by Brynne Crockett, BdotCrock. She's been my teacher, even as I have been hers. Her words:

"Being an artist from North Minneapolis, a place so beautiful, yet painted so ugly by news sources, I feel its my duty to do my own type of reporting about the things that take place in my neighborhood. The song Angel is just me giving my viewers a glimpse into the sad reality that we are losing young people too often to gun violence. One of the young people I worked with for many years had been recently killed and I had a hard time dealing with the whole situation. As an artist sometimes the worst times bring out the best art and that's what this song and visual is about. I wanted to bring attention not only to the lives we have lost but also to how many more we will lose if we don't do something about it. The other artist on this song is another young person I work with that is very passionate about these issues as well. It was only right I had a youth bring their perspective to this song. I hope it moves people or at least starts the conversation!"

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Chaplain Jack Carty, An Unsung Soul

The many comments I received personally about the previous post made me appreciate again the power of stories, especially life stories gathered when someone has died, to give life to the living. I am particularly fortunate in this way, having gathered and been touched by countless such tales. The following is about an unusual friend who died five years ago, almost to the day, and is reprinted from an op-ed piece I wrote in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. 
Some people leave an indelible imprint in your life. Jack Carty entered mine when I became pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Paul. Jack lived on nothing, an incarnation of the spirit of Saint Francis, one who possessed little but felt rich in God's grace.
Chaplain Jack Carty was a Lutheran pastor. His life work was ministry. His congregation: people in the Ramsey County and Hennepin County jails. Jack loved his work because he loved people, the people who for whatever reason had become incarcerated. Reasons did not matter to Jack. He called his flock "Angels with Dented Halos." If Jack had a dollar for every imprisoned person with whom he prayed, he would have been a multi-millionaire. Instead, he died a pauper. He would not have had it any other way. He embraced poverty. A member of my parish took a concern for Jack, seeing the holes and patches in his pants. He offered Jack money to buy new pants. Jack refused, insisting that any money given him would go to the ministry. Furthermore, his pants were an emblem of the material poverty of his service to the poor.
Jack was a fixture in the Midway. People remember the man who walked with cloth bags full of papers and God-knows-what from bus stop to church to the Arby's where he would meet with the likes of me for coffee (diet Coke for him), or with someone recently released from jail, to see how they were faring. I recall, vividly, a conversation at the Midway McDonalds when I dared suggest he pursue part-time employment to get a financial foothold. He became angry with me for suggesting he compromise his ministry to the needy for his own material needs.
Parish ministry in his younger years brought him disillusionment over church politics and pettiness. The stress and depression he felt contributed to the dissolution of his marriage to a woman of whom he only spoke highly to me. 
He did not marry again. For the last 30 or so years his parish became, as was said at his funeral, "the area covered by MTC bus lines." The world was his "parish" and I somehow became a member.
He'd call about once a month. His typical message, "The Lord put it on my heart to come and see you. I stopped by and you were not there." I would call him back, thinking, "If the Lord led you to stop by, why didn't he send you when I would be there?" We'd meet for "coffee" and he would share messages he received in prayer for me. Regardless of the uneasiness I often felt with such "messages," I always knew this was a person who prayed and cared for me and the people I served. A week ago Jack called my home. He spoke with Andrea, my wife. "Tell John I would love to have coffee soon." Two days later, the Synod office called with the news Jack had died. "We knew you had a special relationship with him. The hospital is trying to find any family of his." Jack had few living relatives, and it hit me that I was among his closest friends. My heart wept. Jack tended to call at crucial times. He could sense when things were hard, and offered his humble presence "any time." He did not presume answers or solutions, just support. I was one of his parishioners, along with MTC bus drivers, McDonalds workers, inmates and jail staff, pastors and supporters of his ministry, who came in numbers to his funeral to pay respects. One pastor friend, noting that Jack had no retirement plan to speak of, mused, "Maybe this was Jack's retirement plan." He was 65. Knowing Jack, no retirement would be preferable to the eternal rest for which he hoped.
It has been a passion of mine to realize a most simple truth: Every other person in my life is just as much a "me" as "I" am. Everyone shares the sense, the most sacred sense, that "I am a person, a being-here." Most of us live day to day, regarding others as beings that serve — or do not serve — our interests, desires or goals. Jack did not regard others this way. He felt honored, though he was not much honored outwardly, to serve the forgotten and the outcast. He cared, and had the greatness of soul to identify with other sacred souls, however troubled. Including me. Rest in peace, Chaplain Jack Carty. You are honored and appreciated by many who are not regarded as great in this world.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Springtime Tale of Death, Garbage, and New Life

This was my view just two days ago, Saturday morning. The returning radiant warmth and light of the spring-sun played upon the living and the dead in this small, humble church graveyard in Stillwater.

I was with her family to bury her.
Like every phrase we use to describe death, "bury her" feels wrong, or, at least not quite right.  Nor does "laid to rest," "passed on," "passed away," or even "dead" (and certainly not "in a better place," which bears the taste of saccharine). In the face of this ultimate, and most ordinary mystery, language--and attempts to "make sense of it"--fail.

Perhaps especially in this case.

She was 64 and died in her house. In a fire that started from a worn electrical wire. She could not escape, so she crawled into the bathroom where she died of asphyxiation.

Then came the "making sense." The media explained: "There were four-foot stacks of items; clothing, stuffed animals, throughout the house." This made it difficult for her to escape and for firefighters to rescue her. Then they quoted an expert on "hoarding," to voice the moral of the morality tale.

It's not untrue, but it's not right either. To the reporters' credit, they did not reduce her life to this. Much also was said about her love, generosity, and dedication to her work. But that's not what drew attention to the story. When I mentioned to anyone that I performed her funeral, the response often was, "Oh, the hoarder. I saw it in the news."

When viewed from this perspective, that story seems to make sense:

Yet the funeral gathering provided a fuller story:
Like the rays of sunlight shining on the dead leaves and the graves, this remarkable woman was re-membered in personal stories. The room was packed. Coworkers from two previous jobs turned out in force (with a substantial collection they had taken up). A former boss cried as she recalled how she was so much more than an employee, taking care of her children--and dog--as though they were her own.  Nieces and nephews recalled her taking them on trips with Conway Twitty playing on the 8-track. Childhood friends remembered the sassy, tough girl who never forgot them. One coworker held up an engraved snow-globe she gave her, and another a porceline cross with the "Friendship Creed." Her neighbor wept.

Everyone knew that the smoke that killed her was partly from burning items that she had picked out, not for herself, but for people she loved. For them. The Macy's dress shirt she got for a dollar. To give, and to spend time with friends and family, was her treasure. She was not a hoarder. She was not crazy, but quite sane.

To me, "hoarder" applies to people who have a million times the money they need to live on, and keep accumulating. We call them "wealthy." But this woman embodied a passage from the Sermon on the Mount: "The meek shall inherit the earth." Her love and generosity shone in the faces of those who gathered. She was simple, caring, and joyful. Her riches were relationships. The fire that took her was in tragic relation to all of it, but not the result of who she was.

Her house was on my garbage route on Mondays.
I have not verified whether our truck picked up her trash specifically. It is Monday morning now, and I will check. Her brother told me her house was not a "trash house." She was impeccably clean.

Because of all of this, I have been moved. Her life has spoken to me. Her radiance has invited new life in many people, even from the grave--so to speak. Who among us does not live with some insanity? But how many of us channel our crazy energies toward simple generosity, love and care? For this is what gives life. Like a snow-globe...

Saturday, January 17, 2015

What a Treasure!

I am so lucky.

I get to hang on the back of a truck as it motors around the streets and alleys of St. Paul. A treasure hunt, and they pay me for  it. The work is simple. My mind is free, my body active, and my eyes alert. The trash yields treasures, and sometimes the timing is uncanny (literally, right out of the can).

Last month I opened a lid and there was an unused furnace filter, just our size and in time for our quarterly change. Saved us $30. Trash provides in mysterious ways.

I needed to drill a hole through metal on my scooter. Fortunately, Trash had provided a full set of carbide tipped drill bits a month earlier, plus two drills, cordless and electric, to choose from. 

My colleague, Marc, has a spiritual gift for turning trash to treasure. I placed my order with him for a cast iron skillet in perfect condition and it arrived the next day.

Here it is next to the beautiful Calphilon pan I found earlier.

I am beginning to develop a hagiography (theory of saints) around this, and suspect Saint Oscar (the Grouch) is the patron saint of trash. And we thank him for these blessings. Let me share a few of the hundreds we have received:

Oscillatin fan
Argentinian motorcycle boots. My size. This after a trip to New Orleans in em.
Leather jacket. Yup, fits.
Ok this is good. Charlie wanted a disco ball for Christmas for some weird reason. I ordered one from a store that was out of stock. For months it did not arrive. I cancelled my order. Then this appears in the trash, boxed and never opened. Exactly the one. Kid you not.
One of the drills. Makita. 
The other, with jigsaw cousin.
We only buy natural, non corn syrup, peanut butter, but apparently Oscar wanted Charlie to have the candy she loves. Sealed still of course, like the case of Betty Crocker toll house cookie mix that lasted a whole summer. 
Unraise those eyebrows!