Cardinal Fears

Wild wings flashing



thrashes enemies,

marauders of his nest,

his mate,

his reddened honor.

Daylight wakes his vigilant defense.

Each window shows the face

          of his antagonist,

            the face

            he pecks

            and claws,

          feathers littering his battlefield.

The face he can’t defeat

          is his,

                        his talons,

                        his beating wings.

He beats relentless

          on the wall of mirrors

          holding him

          until the darkness comes.

Posted in Poetry and Songs | 1 Comment

Music and Dance in our Mountains

The New York Times columnist David Brooks (whom we affectionately call Rabbi Brooks) has written recently about the virtues of small towns and local governments. Our town of Waynesville is a poster child for his Washington reveries. (Shh, don’t pass it on. It will drive up the real estate…) Not least among its opportunities is the wealth of music and dance that fills the town each July.

Folkmoot, arguably the largest folk dance gathering in North America, has once again brought dancers from around the world to our streets, halls, and fields. Local high school and college students, along with host families, serve as their guides through ten days of dance, music, and even a little tourism in Cherokee or our local parks.

With the Cyprus Group, hosts, and guides at Folkmoot

For me a special treat was the visit by the Kyrenia Youth Centre Association from North Cyprus. We were able to have dinner with them and share my book, whose pictures fascinated them with possible images of their own ancestors, their clothing, and their way of life at a mine that most of them had heard about. While the details of Cyprus’s recent difficult and divided history were lost on most of my neighbors, people were able to get a taste of the vibrant energy of the people of Cyprus, the richness of some strands of their heritage, and, if nothing else, where this almost mystical island is. Their dances with twirling sickles, balanced water glasses, or slapping boots delighted kids and grownups alike. The women’s dresses and the men’s sashes colored the air. In their trail were splendid dancers from Mexico, Thailand, the Czech Republic and other lands. All of this hosted by a town of ten thousand people.

At the same time we have hosted, with our church as the venue, the 49th year of the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival. Pianist and composer Inessa Zaretsky, of the Mannes School of Music in New York City, coordinates this remarkable series, which brings top flight quartets, singers, and instrumentalists from all over the country. The five concerts included the counter-tenor Nicholas Tamagna as well as world premiers of pieces by Inessa and by Alyssa Weinberg, who also was present for conversation afterwards. Performances by the Enso, Jasper, and Tesla string quartets were augmented by visitors from Boston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and other orchestras. Getting to breath our mountain air and enjoy the vistas of forested mountains were hopefully some of the benefits they received even as they shared music from Bach and Beethoven to Webern and Dohnányi.

This, too, is the result of years of work by local volunteers whose world is rooted in this community but whose vision embraces the globe. While each community has its own resources, visions, and energies, the spirit of collaboration, openness, and hospitality is exportable. I hope each of your communities has these qualities and that you have found ways this summer to coax and nurture them in the face of this world’s cruelty, bullying, and indifference.

Well, these are my notes from summer music and dance camp. Hopefully my web site and computer problems are behind me and I can look forward to more conversation with you in the future.

Posted in Arts, Cyprus, Personal Events, Public Life | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Poetry and Public Prayer

We Americans are once again in a full-throated struggle over the viability of our republican institutions of constitutional government. The would-be despot our founders feared has indeed seized administrative control of our national government while the party he commandeered knuckles under and his political opponents suffer in retreat. In the midst of this, I am thinking about poetry and public prayer. I invite you to reflect with me as I struggle with this matter.

The first hurdle is to stake out an understanding of this often murky and sentimentalized human activity. I understand prayer as the attempt to affirm the dialogical character of the universe in the face of its seemingly mute determinism or caprice. Prayer is speaking to an Other where there seems to be no other. In that sense it creates the beginning of a drama in the midst of mindless necessity or mute incoherence. As an entry into a dialogue, it trusts that the core of reality is not only dialogical but in my theological perspective is the relationship we call love. Prayer, then, is the act of entrusting ourselves into the underlying powers of love constituting the universe. It is an attunement to the underlying dialogue of creation. As an overture to relationship it is an affirmation of the underlying covenantal character of creation. The web of trust, promise, and reconciliation that is known in covenant-making is the expression of the unyielding fidelity of love known in prayer.

Praying is an action in words, even in our thoughts. Sometimes it escapes into sound, whether of one person alone or in a small group. When it emerges as an act of a whole group we call it public prayer. There it arises in the bond between an enduring group and what I would call its leading partner in time. This kind of prayer is not the colloquial speech of an individual to a friend, but words and phrases burnished with memory and common use across generations. As with the mihrab in a mosque, it is a door into the way ahead that bridges our origins with a possible future.

This form of prayer undergirds the language of an enduring public. Indeed, it constitutes the core of a public’s life. The peculiar public we call the church, the ecclesia, lifts this dynamic up in an obvious way. But the work of prayer in its many obvious and derivative forms binds any vital public into a history of promises, gratitude, brokenness, healing, and hope. It makes of this particular people a “person” in a cosmic drama. When such a public loses this possibility of dialogue with the transcendent power beneath its life, it begins to dissipate into the aimless wandering and warfare of individuals without a past or future. Because prayer affirms the underlying dialogical character of reality, it can form us into the citizens who engage in the public work of dialogue that seeks to nurture the common world entrusted to us by the Creator. That’s why I’m thinking about it today.

But then we come to the challenges. At the same time we have to recognize the terrible distortions that can arise from this peculiar power of public prayer. The powerful in any society can seek to use it not to open a pubic up to a transcendent dialogue but to mask their own venality, greed, or inhumanity. In a frantic search to reclaim the promise of public prayer, some of us Americans want to impose old Christian forms upon the conversation of the wider republic. Others cling to the quasi-religious shards of national anthems and pledges of allegiance redolent of slavery, jingoism, and self-delusion. This tendency to corruption is why genuinely public-forming prayer must be kept separate from the grasp of governments and those who would lead them.

What we should be struggling for apart from the power politics of the moment is deep publics of prayer within our religious and cultural traditions that offer language, poetry, song, and aspiration to feed the poetry and prayer of the wider public. We need to re-mine what Robert Bellah and others have called our civil religion to recover the way toward a care for the land, for the stranger, and for each other, weak and strong, old and young. In that prayer we affirm that we are part of a larger drama framed in a transcendence that inspires, judges and humbles us.

The second challenge we face is in our image of the One with whom we are in prayer. While prayer is the nuclear power within a public assembly, not all prayer fits the building of a true republic built upon the conversation of a people. Much of our inherited prayer was formed around relationships between a despot and his (almost always “his”) subjects. It was not the dialogue of citizens, but the petition of a vassal to a lord. (Our very word “prayer” comes from the Latin word for entreaty or petition.) This is the kind of prayer that has returned to haunt this republic now in the grip of a despotic personality who cannot engage a conversation, much less a negotiation, among equals.

But the alternative to this entreaty of vassalage is not the folksy familiarity of much of popular Christianity. Chatting with Jesus in the garden does not contest the truncated despotism of traditional prayer, it only hides from it. To constitute a genuine public rooted in circles of conversation, debate, negotiation, and agreement, we need genuine public prayer committed to a republic that honors the dignity of each participant. To do that, we need to feed once again on the poetry and song that lifts us into the dialogue constituting all creation—the power and fidelity of love.

In this pursuit truly public prayer has a loftiness in which the words lift off the page of personal idiosyncracy and familiarity. It has a cadence that enlists the beating of the heart, a flow that calls the legs to dance, a visionary image that lets the eye behold a larger world. This is the bond between a truly public prayer and poetry. In poetry the words soar beyond a simple utility to seek a wider realm beyond the everyday of neat connections lodged within our grasp. This is why good poetry is prayer and public prayer most properly is poetry.

Poetic public prayer may be a truly subversive act in the face of the bullying torrent of crudities that assails our republic from the despot who now seeks to tyrannize over it. In the beauty of truly public prayer we can enter into the public whose president is God and whose constitution is God’s covenant of love with all creation. It is a prayer no government can or should control but in the end a true republic needs the graceful frame of this transcendent dialogue.

As always, your own reflections would be most appreciated.

[The long silence since my last post was due to the hacking of my subscriber list and program. I hope the repairs and introduction of a new subscriber program will prevent future problems. Thanks for your patience!]

Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs, Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | 4 Comments


[To My Readers: My posting has been delayed while a tech crew repairs my hacked subscriber list. I hope to be up and running by June 26. Stay tuned!]

It’s hard to get through the news these days without hearing a call for “conversation” about a pressing public issue. It is a word constantly on our lips. The question I have been trying to address for the past twenty years is whether it is a practice embedded in the habits of our souls. This work of forming our deepest being in the art of conversation occurs in the Roundtable Worship that I have been involved with for many years.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “conversation” meant “general deportment or behavior.” By extension it meant the deep intimacy of sexual intercourse as well as the public life of social interaction. Only gradually did it come to mean the verbal interaction at the heart of both intimacy and publicity. The breadth and depth of its historic meanings point to a profound reality constituting our humanity. We are lives in relationship, relationships knit together by language and consummated in love. This is the divine reality of human life.

The Roundtable Worship in my own church community has been engaged in this work of forming our souls to conversation for over 15 years. Out of this intense circle of conversation have come public conversations about immigration, sexuality, and, most recently, gun violence. In these more public circles of conversation we seek to draw people into common work to claim a greater peace, justice, and well-being for our world.

The circle of conversation, we believe, is at the heart of a great work of reconciliation that flows from the spirit undergirding creation itself. In this circle each person claims an equality of presence, both in speaking and listening. As a symbol of this relationship of speaking from the heart and listening with all the senses we use a talking piece. It gives authority to people who might otherwise remain silent. It instructs the voluble to listen with respect and learn about the other. Such a talking piece was used recently by members of the US Senate to create a conversation that helped unravel an impasse in that legislature. I am always amazed at the power it brings to our gatherings.

This power of the circle conversation occurs in a sacred setting in which we create a world apart from the jangle of media and the anxieties of everyday obligations. Perhaps you could measure the welfare of a society by the degree it enables people to experience this sacred circle of conversation. What supports for body, mind, and assembly are necessary for this event? Maybe this would replace the measurements of GDP and stock market indicators. Think about it.

This conversation cannot exist simply as a power of the participants. It depends on our trusting that there is a Spirit of reconciliation at work in this process. It is the manifestation of a faith in how reality is structured and guided toward its ultimate realization. The conversation is always about more than our souls. It is about the world’s struggle toward its proper flourishing. It is about our roles in the greater drama of God’s work of reconciliation.

This is what Conversation means to us as a form of behavior, disposition, intimacy, public expression, and spirituality. As you hear the word around you, I hope you will find ways to lead yourself and your fellow citizens to the deeper levels of its meaning. Of course, if you want to reflect more on this, you can read the Introduction to Roundtable Worship that we wrote a few years back.

I share with you our most recently liturgy from our own Roundtable and invite you to use it any way you wish. Let me know what happens!

Roundtable Gathering

May 20, 2018


Call to the Table                                             (adapt. from Praying with the Earth)*

Clear our heart, O God,

that we may see you.

Clear our heart, O God,

that we may truly see ourselves.

Clear our heart, O God,

that we may know the sacredness of this moment. 

In every moment may we see you, serve you,

see you as the Living Presence underlying every presence.

Clear our heart, O God,

that we may see.

ALL: Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

Song of Gathering:

“Walls Mark Our Bound’ries”            Ruth Duck and Jim Strathdee

Remembrance (Unison)

               As your breath formed order out of the chaos of the waters,

So the dry bones of a people stirred to life in the desert of despair.

As the breath of Jesus’s lips brought life to dying children,

So the giving up of his breath filled the world with his life.

As the breath of God brought new life to the lovers of the crucified,

So their breath has brought us to their circle of your reconciling peace.

Thanksgiving (Unison)

O God, the Breath of Life throughout Creation,

In your breath we have each minute of our life. In the bounty of your earth we find the energy to walk your land. In each listening ear we find your own, in each word of thanks and praise we find the hope that leads us on. For this table and this company, we give you hearty thanks and sing our gratitude:

We give our thanks to you (4x).

We give our hearts to you (3x), because you first loved us.

Sharing at Table

            “Bread for our Bodies”                        ”Drink for our Spirits”

A Reading:

John 20:19-23

“The Power of the Circle,” by Black Elk

The Conversation:             “Life in the Circle of Reconciliation”

Gathered Prayers

The Hope Prayer

O Source of Life, You alone are holy.

Come, govern us in perfect peace.

Give us today the food that we need.

Release us from our sin as we release our enemies.

Sustain us in our times of trial.

Liberate us all from evil powers.

Guide us in your justice, wisdom, and peace. Amen, Amin, Ameyn

Reflective Moment

Words of Commitment

In God’s love, we will seek the path of reconciliation.

In God’s power, we will walk the ways of peace.

In God’s wisdom, we will struggle for God’s justice in this world.

In God’s mercy, we will seek to care for Earth, our home.

Prayer for Peace:                                                (adapt. from Praying with the Earth)*

O Breath of God, we pray for:

Peace where there is war, healing where there is hurt,

Memory where we have forgotten the other,

Vision where there is violence, light where there is madness,

Sight where we have blinded each other,

Comfort where there is sorrow, tears where there is hardness,

Laughter where we have missed life’s joy, and

Laughter when we remember the joy.

Amen, Ameyn, Amin.

Blessing Song:

Go now in peace, blessing and blessed,

Grounded in God, healing and whole.

Go now in peace, blessing and blessed,

Grounded in God, filled with God’s love.


*(Prayers adapted from John Philip Newell, Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace [Eerdmans, 2011].)


Posted in Public Life, Roundtable Ministries Project | Tagged , | 2 Comments