Since my posts sometimes cluster naturally, I compile them and post them as one long document. Nothing fancy. No images.



(Main blog, daily posts)


Heart Butte School, Montana (Non-fiction, the school and its community.)

Robert Macfie Scriver and Art: An archive. Books by Mary Scriver

ON AMAZON: "Bronze Inside and Out: a biographical memoir of Bob Scriver" and "Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke: sermons for the prairie."

Friday, July 29, 2016


One of my feeds is Steven Pressfield Online ( who wrote a much praised book called “The War of Art.”  It’s meant to echo a first century Chinese treatise about actual military theory.  I didn’t catch on for a while.  The blog is encouragement and guidance for writers, like those struggling with

His first book, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was published in 1995, and made into a film of the same name, starring Will Smith, Charlize Theron, and Matt Damon, and directed by Robert Redford.  His second novel, Gates of Fire, is about the Spartans and the battle at Thermopylae. It is taught at the U.S. Military Academy, the United States Naval Academy, and the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico.  In 2012, he launched the publishing house Black Irish Books with his agent Shawn Coyne.

So he’s out of the Hemingway context, tough guy, focused on success.  he says “I am a writer. I write about war—external wars and internal wars, wars ancient and modern, real wars out of history and imagined wars that exist only in speculation. Why? I don’t even know myself.”  

He fits very well in a specific American culture, which is not so much about war as it is about money.  That is, he does write, he knows how and does it well, but he also is selling to wannabe writers, which is far more a “certainty” than selling another book about war.  He’s our idea of being a leader, right down to a best buddy who has his back.  Recently he recommended a movie, though he had only watched the first half.  It’s called “I Am Not Your Guru.”  Actually, that’s the title after the colon, the more primary one is the name of the not-guru, Tony Robbins.

Tony Robbins

Pressfield was impressed.  I was, too, but I didn’t even make watching it to half.  This guy is like Burt Lancaster on steroids.  (Actually, they say Robbins had a pituitary tumor during adolescence.)  Maybe you don’t remember Lancaster — Pressfield is only four years younger than I am, so he remembers.  Most of the people in his movie are maybe thirty — just about old enough to hit their first real crash in life.  They come eagerly, easily swept away by the profanity, overwhelming confrontation, and a mosh pit of a crowd.  The course costs thousands.  Where do they get that money?  You could get about the same “hit” from a skillfully done church retreat.  Maybe not quite that level of adrenaline since they would be constrained by taboos.  

It’s New Age stuff.  He presses all the pretty well-dressed girls until they exude every Oprah cliché they know, and indeed he has cohosted programs with Oprah.  He’s like a toy superhero who folds into being a bulldozer.  Realistically, he got into trouble over “fire walkers” who evidently had too little faith and were badly burned by the hot coals they crossed.  He was from a Croatian immigrant family and as a child took a lot of abuse, plus responsibility for his sibs.  I find that relevant.

So then I watched a very different movie — also a documentary streaming on Netflix — called “Even the Rain.”  It was dedicated to Howard Zinn.  The extraordinary figure here is Juan Carlos Aduviri, who has multiple roles:  indigenous amateur actor, a John the Baptist figure in an historical film about the early Spaniards oppressing the indigenous people, and himself.  Or is his movie contemporary role, as a leader of demonstrations and a father, not actually himself?  He studied cinematography in the Municipal School of Arts of El Alto, where he became a professor.  He’s a little guy (has alway lived at a high altitude with a limited diet) with an incredible face.

Juan Carlos Aduviri

This is the trailer for the film.

I didn’t realize for a while that I knew some people who watched this revolution from an upstairs hotel window but also filmed some of it.  What was it about?  The diversion of water from the people by privatizing the government water sources.  Someone should force Missoula citizens to watch this over and over — they sold their water system and no one even noticed.  Now they're in court and lucky to be there.

The idea of this movie is simple: that people stay pretty much the same over the centuries; but the film is complexly layered as the actors and crew struggle to get their own project done on time and under budget while portraying the early Spanish taking cruel measures to get their gold. 

"Pocahontas" figure on the right.

There is a Pocahontas figure, a young girl who appeals to the producer.  A recent paper on H-Amerindian, the Humanities people, reflected on the enduring popularity of Pocahontas.  So the enlightened sophisticated people from the privileged world are there to “help”  the oppressed masses, who end up saving them instead.  

One of the most interesting passages is the attempt to recreate an historical event in which the mothers of the indigenous babies drowned them to keep them from the more cruel death of being torn apart by Spanish dogs.  The contemporary indigenous actors simply refuse.  No matter how much the director explains that they won’t really drown their babies, just wade into the water holding them, at which point the babies will be taken to safety, replaced by dolls.  The mothers explain that they won’t even depict such an atrocity.  And they make it stick. 

Later, in a scene where those opposing the Spanish invaders are crucified atop bonfires, it is so convincing that we are paralyzed in spite of knowing it’s a simulation — until the director calls “cut” and the victims step down.  But then, when we see rioting in the streets and soldiers shooting demonstrators, it’s hard not to half-expect someone to call “cut” so everyone can go home.  If reality, actual experience rather than theory, is a keystone of ethics, then no wonder we have a problem these days.  All is assumed to be trickery.

The privileged folks — who do have a conscience represented by a sympathetic woman with a videocam on her shoulder — operate on credentials, connections and bribery.  They work.  But the indigenous people are working for the survival of their children, a far more powerful motive.

It would be easy to displace this film onto our current Trump/Clinton fiasco.  Good guys on one side and bad guys on the other.  But the strength of the film is that it is packed with ironies, empathy that has no place to go.

Thursday, July 28, 2016


Abuse is about bodies, even emotional abuse since emotions are bodily states.  One of the great values of embodiment cognition theory is that is explains starkly what abuse does to children: it shuts down their intake of sensory information that is the basis of thought and understanding.  It makes them numb and dumb.  This is quite apart from invasive violence  bad enough that it causes the brain to skip to another “reality” which is called “dissociation.”

I could say that abuse makes children less human, makes them robotic zombies.  But that just adds more abuse, more blaming the victims.  It neither explains the causes and mechanisms of self-protection-by-shutting-out-feeling, nor gives any guidance for how to remedy the problem, so as to begin to feel again.  Nor does it help us recognize which behaviors are insulation, self-protection:  uproar, overeating, fighting, drugs, secrecy, denial, bullying, staying asleep, hoarding.  Not more wicked things to be stamped out, but things that were meant as protection.  Once we focus on what’s happening in bodies, we can see how adult predators use and encourage these emergency defensive behaviors for their own ends, maybe because they’ve been using them personally all their own lives.

If one is pretty successful at not-feeling, pretty soon the body itself begins to crave some kind of stimulation and what actually gets through the insulation must be more and more intense, surprising, forbidden, in order to get in there.  Until stimulation gets to the point of being scary, which means wanting more protection.  Until the protection itself becomes a source of death. 

Most body functions waver back and forth between extremes that could cause death, but sometimes the flow of variation in something like body temperature or blood sugar or sleep is wide and other times it is narrow, depending on the environment and the specific variable.  Managing oneself means constant monitoring.  The good news is that the brain itself seems pretty good at adding back neurons, connectome workarounds, and new tricks.

The first step in remediating the effects of abuse is safety.  Though the safety will have to be present and felt for quite a while before a traumatized person can trust it.  It may come in the form of attachment to another person they take to be protective.

The next step is recognizing and changing the behavior imprint, the games one has learned to play without knowing it — but change by replacement rather than erasure.  This means generating options, alternatives.  The more physical and sensory the better.  Skill-generating, success-providing.  And often one-on-one close contact and communication with someone skillful, but maybe over a game board like Parcheesi or a small task like washing the dishes.  Think speech therapist.

Someone somewhere is probably figuring out how to use emotional judo to block, disarm and re-interpret the domination games people play.  I wish they had more publicity.  Eric Berne’s book, “Games People Play,” is terrific and so is Steiner’s “Games Alcoholics Play.”  “Triangle theory” that shows how the offender/persecutor/rescuer/ structure of relationships is rigid and yet passes the roles around the triangle without ever revealing an exit.  As a theory this works as well for the whole culture as for families or other groups, esp. marriage.

In fact, kids raised by abusive adults become supersensitive to mood and devise a lot of techniques like distraction, abasement, disappearance, until they are big enough to blast back, maybe with fists or a baseball bat.  With all the thought going into training horses and pit bulls, there must be some of those techniques that will work with the mammals called human.

What I’m working from here is not some counselling handbook, but the study of thinking based on feeling which is rooted in cell systems — not some famous guy’s theories, but just ordinary experience in the world, that old Piaget and Montessori stuff about putting clothespins in milk bottles and stringing beads by tens.  But not excluding what we find out by watching closely people’s faces, sometimes in videos.

We learn how to be ourselves by confronting our environments and having reciprocal impact on it while it strikes us.  The most important part of our environments is always people.  From the beginning to the end they are the difference between life and death.

All this makes Mark Johnson’s “The Meaning of the Body” absolutely crucial in terms of helping youngsters traumatized and distorted by abuse.  There is always something in the “class” of helpers at the master’s level and above that prevents them from grasping that getting a kid clean, dressed properly, and at a higher reading level is not all there is to it, that there is something intractable, maybe ungraspable, about those “hard to reach” kids even when they are in plain sight at the same table.  Johnson explains that their different world-view is deep in the atoms of their cells, not just metaphorically but actually.  They are residual Romans, dazzled by the Enlightment and unable to look farther.

Then Johnson comes to what he considers both a remedy and a social solution:  art (pictures) and music, both of which can create meaning.  He spends some time vividly describing how Western thought, particularly philosophy of a certain kind, beginning with Plato and most emphatically and effectively through the Enlightenment, has scorned the arts and insisted that only logic, syllogism, words and propositions have qualified as thought.  That’s where all that theology comes from.  It is in the assumption that math-based science is “better” than the “soft” sciences.  It is gender-assigned: men are objective, women are subjective.  Anything “corticolimbic” is primitive, animal, and decadent.  One must be linear.

As it happens, my “ponder room” (the one with the throne) is always equipped with a big fat book worth pondering sentence by sentence.  Currently I’m beginning “The Silk Roads: a New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan.  His premise right away is that when trade opened between Pacific Asia and Atlantic Europe, Rome and Greece were stunned by the luxury of silk, spices, and slow-paced elegant living.  They had sought survival in Spartan endurance of hardship and focus on results beyond all else.  Now, in self-preservation, they stigmatized all luxury and specifically luxurious sex.  Art got caught in that contempt and near-criminalizing.  It was the Devil’s work.  And so seductive if you had enough money to buy admission.  Fleshly pleasures.

The social workers, formerly straight-A English majors who knew their grammar and even a bit of semiotics, are Spartans without thinking about it, earning virtue by confronting the sly camel traders from far away exotic realms where life is known to be a gamble.  Which one would you bet on?  Embodiment Cognition Theory addresses both.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Michael K. Williams as Omar Little

“YOU FEEL ME?” was the query by everyone’s favorite assassin on “The Wire,” Omar Little. (Michael K. Williams)  It’s a very apt phrase for those working out embodiment meaning in terms of the brain.  

When we say the word “grasp,” there is a faint sensory echo in the brain of actually grasping something.  That’s embodiment — that little ghost in there, in the body.  You FEEL grasping, actually and electrochemically.  This is NOT about the pre-frontal orbital abstracting abilities behind the forehead.  In fact, on brain monitors it might not even show up in one spot in the rest of the brain but be distributed around the connectome according to how the act of grasping was first recorded — maybe your baby bottle.

The first surface, the first muscle pattern, the first stress on the wrist bones, all processed into electrochemical traces in brain cells.  After that, the concept is there.  The word doesn’t come until much later.  Using it to denote an abstraction (grasping the truth) comes even later.

We’ve thought that words were the pinnacle and container of thoughts.  That was wrong.  The experience is recorded from the sensory qualities of the act, then it is somehow associated with others that are similar but indexed by the sensory qualities of each instance.  Finally a word might be assigned.  Then there is a cloud of associations around each word, where it was rhymed, when used in a poem, who often used the word, and so on.  None of this is in the famous pre-frontal cortex, but in an image of a page, an echo of a conversation, seen on some billboard passed during a long drive.

“Grasp” of vocabulary and abstract concepts depends on being exposed to them — words and categories — but more than that -- and earlier -- it depends on the original experience.  A person who has never grasped something (no hands?) will have to rely on watching and empathizing with the person who grasps, from his first crayon to the concept of “the end.”  It’s subconscious, not intentional, not a product of education — particularly the Germanic factory fodder kind of education many people get.
Or did you use fibertips to color?

Sometimes I talk to a Blackfeet kid who’s never left town and as I talk, I see his brain behind his eyes shutteringfluttering as he tries to “grasp” what I say about things he's never experienced.  Elevator?  Bookstore?  I said to a young woman in uniform back on her first leave, “But 9/11 was not planned by Iraq — most of the terrorists were Saudi.”  She was paralyzed for a moment while her brain went in and out of hearing what I said.  She couldn’t “feel” me.  She walked away.  

The same thing happened with the small town white kids.  Their life schema did not include what I said, it included only black and white and I was gray.  Their faces said, “Does not compute.”  They tried to feel as little as possible.  “Grasping” means your fingers get pinched and burned.  New ideas are dangerous.

Insisting that words are the same as “knowing” and that knowing lots of words means you are "smart" is a common delusion, esp in a 19th century rural culture that was largely immigrant and illiterate until world wars made reading important.  That was a short time ago.

The pre-existing culture where I am, the indigenous peoples, were an oral culture, who did everything face-to-face and — because of that — “felt” each other.  They had time, they grasped what they did even if it hurt, and when the Napi Yahki’s didn’t have time to listen to explanations, they just withdrew to wait it out.  There were lots of old tribal words and they were famously punished for using them, as though they were unpatriotic, the way the Euro-immigrants were punished for speaking Ukraine or Celtic or Spanish. It wasn't just the indigenous who were being pounded into a mold.

But the old feelings weren’t in the sounds — they were in the grasp of things, the tipi poles, the arrow shafts, the buffalo hide, the horse’s jaw, and the grasp of each other’s hands, “feeling” each other. Not just the things, but the motions of throwing or scraping or skinning.  There’s no use in learning words for things one has never experienced.  Unless it causes one to go looking for the experience, to recognize it when it appears.  The loss isn’t the words so much as the experiences, because those are contacts that access sensory memory.  To get back the vocabulary, one must live the lost life.  But it is gone.  Now we have new lives and words.  But it still feels the same to have a horse under you.

There’s a Blackfeet gesture meaning “everything you say, I take to my heart” which has come to be a sort of “amen” when attending an event with speaking.  The gesture is holding out one’s hands to the speaker, then pulling them back to one’s heart.  The neotraditionalists use it a lot.  So I taught it to UU congregations but then one day a man said, “I want to add to that.”  He gestured the opposite direction, from his hands on his heart to stretching them out.  “All that is in my heart I give back to you.”  We grasped it.  We always used both after that.  By now there need be no words so long as one can feel the message and respond to it.

Because I was curious about where “Saving Grace” came from, I googled the person, Nancy Miller, who was behind this series before Holly Hunter made it hers.  This is Nancy:  She’s talking about not just grasping something, but feeling that it is so important that it must be conveyed to others — so they can “feel” it.  Then arranging a forceful enough plot that the actors can form it into a kind of piston that pushes meaning into actions.  That’s what I mean by “designing ceremonies” — building that force into feeling that can be shared.  No noodling around in the soft familiar, no empty repetitions, no blurry dispersals of images. 

Nancy Miller

It’s a tall order and not something that be thrown together on a Saturday night, but it can be done by a group.  (Just don’t call them a committee, which is by now a crippling idea.)  Figuring out some exercises that will bond a small group together would be good.  Easy stuff like the trick of finding something in the environment, a rock or a flower or a scrap, studying it closely and then explaining it to someone.  More powerful for bonding than you might expect.  

Most of the theory of embodiment is still unfolding.  There are two kinds of structure involved: the brain cells and connections that come from sensory experience and the metaphorical abstract concepts that interact with each other.  Probably there are more confusions like those two.  Long ago when I said I was going to wait until computers were a little more easy to understand before I got into them, some wise person said,  “No, start now and grow with the computers.”  I didn’t do it quite soon enough.  But you've already got a headstart with feeling.  We all do.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

“LAST YEAR’S RIVER” by Allen Morris Jones

When I think about “Montana writers”, I can’t help interpreting them through the paradigm of “Montana artists.”  You MUST see them through some paradigm, lens, or principle because otherwise it’s just a whole lot of writers in different genres living across the contrasting localities of the state, through times that have crossed aeons (petroglyphs and dino bones).  So to say anything interesting or useful means specifying the approach to the subject.  Today’s approach is a little tongue-in-cheek.

I intend to be mercilessly personal, so allow for that.  My center in Montana is NOT academic, NOT urban, NOT in Butte, NOT on some scratchgravel ranch.  It’s not really even on the Blackfeet rez, though that’s a big part of it.  Browning, MT, is a lot of things to a lot of people, but for me it’s the beginning in 1961 and becoming a Scriver, which landed me right on top of one of the persisting tropes of Montana novels, which is the collision between Edwardian standards and money in the upscale East (in this case Quebec where my in-laws grew up) and the presumably primitive and brutal West.

I intend to be mercilessly personal, so allow for that. My center in Montana is NOT academic, NOT urban, NOT in Butte, NOT on some scratchgravel ranch. It’s not really even on the Blackfeet rez, though that’s a big part of it. Browning, MT, is a lot of things to a lot of people, but for me it’s the beginning in 1961 and becoming a Scriver, which landed me right on top of one of the persisting tropes of Montana novels, which is the collision between Edwardian standards and money in the upscale East (in this case Quebec where my in-laws grew up) and the presumably primitive and brutal West.
It’s culture versus passion. Or that’s the story. And it’s shaped by the Industrial Revolution: railroads, dams, and people with a lot of resource money looking for some way to keep from being bored to death. Dude ranches, pack strings, stately lodges — but the swimming pools were not quite ready yet according to this book.
Exciting events in the West included forest fires and being lost in blizzards, but just keeping warm and getting dinner on the table are always a challenge. Early automobiles were an adventure. This is Charlie Russell country — he called ’em skunkwagons. Remington is a dude Easterner, fat enough to make a horse groan, and really more interested in military men than cowboys. People from back east think Remington.

McClintock photo
The first Montana writers I knew about in Browning were James Willard Schultz and Walter McClintock. They were quite different from each other, Schultz going for the romance of it all and McClintock a photographer who liked domestic camp scenes. The Scrivers knew them since they traded at the Browning Merc, the Scriver family store. Schultz was disreputable and McClintock had back-east money and connections, which makes him a target for the more political historians. Walter does not appear on lists of Montana authors, but Schultz has whole societies devoted to his work.
The Montana writers I actually met, but didn’t know well, include A.B. Guthrie, Jr, Norman McClean, Russell Chatham, William Kittredge. But once past Richard Hugo, one is into a new stage, which includes my age cohort: Ivan Doig, James Welch, Mary Clearman Blew, Rick Bass, Judy Blunt, Peter Bowen. Then there are the “wicked” writers who preyed on local tribal families: Richard Lancaster and Ruth Beebe Hill. The writer who confounds everyone by writing more published Western genre books than any six other Montana writers is Richard Wheeler. He is consistently left off every list, even the wildly erratic Wikipedia entry which starts off with Governor Babcock and his wife, Betty.
If you’re looking at writing as being like art, one division is between those whose personalities are the point, like Ace Powell, and those whose works are never going to be in fancy galleries, but are woven into the community, like Al Racine’s church wood carvings and his Napi cartoons. John Tatsey’s newspaper column is rough and jokey, but for some that IS the essence of being Blackfeet. These are people’s works, nothing like the sophisticated abstracts we see now, guided by the AIAI in the Southwest.
All this fussing around is preamble for comments on a novel by Allen Morris Jones, who not only writes, but also edits the Big Sky Journal (  and runs the Bangtail Press. Literary Montana divides, if you are looking at it through media eyes, between east (Missoula) and west (Bozeman). There are a lot of ways to contrast them but since many of the ways are pejorative, I’ll refrain. Jones has moved around, but is now in Bozeman.

by Burl Jones
Burl Jones, the novelist’s father, came to bronze sculpture via dentistry and two years in St. Ignatius. He built a gallery/wildlife museum in 1984 to ‘87. If you think these imply any parallel with Bob Scriver, who came to sculpture through taxidermy and a lifetime in Browning and built a gallery/wildlife museum in 1953, you’d be dead wrong. Bob never had a son who wrote, but he had an ex-wife who writes — me, the last living Scriver wife. I’m not on any list of Montana writers. My book about Bob was published in Calgary, so that knocks me off the list. Maybe I’m an Alberta writer, since my book of prairie theology sermons was published in Edmonton, but my blog goes out over a Blackfeet rez url tower on the US side.
So this novel, “Last Year’s River” has a puzzling cover: a woman in a blue robe on the back of a white horse, lying down with her head at the tail end. The reins she holds have tassels on the ends. Jones likes tassels. I don’t know why.
I’m going to look at this book as an artifact. Published in 2001, almost twenty years since it was written. Events happen in 1924. Rather than chapters, 116 “beats”, each one an event, some very short. Vignettes. Framed as memories of an old woman but not in her voice. It’s a love story and everyone but the two lovers are merely shadows and plot devices. Nothing at all about indians. The support credentials of the author are top drawer: an ICM agent and one of the last “Development Editors,” Anton Mueller.  Houghton Mifflin publisher in 2001 means just before the big eTsunami hit the industry. Whoever did the line editing only flubbed badly once but it was funny: “roughed grouse.”

Ruffed Grouse
Today’s novel readers are mostly women and will love that pastel cover, love the writing, love the great conflagration that kindles sex in a beaver dam, and the sub-zero blizzard that ends the other man’s child on a cabin hearth. The “sneaking around,” compromises, and ecstatic stolen moments that fill the rest of the book are immersive, semi-poetic, and informed by the book “A History of the North Fork of the Shoshone” by Ester Johannson Murray, a Cody “local” historian. The southeast corner of Montana bears the same relationship to Cody as the northwest eastslope of Montana bears to Calgary.
So this is a Montana romance novel written by a man who dedicates it to his mother and her sisters, braided through with research and experience, easy to read on a Kindle in episodes. Right on top of one of the forces behind Western literature: culture v. nature.
I love high culture almost as much as the landscape. Today Burl Jones’ bronzes sell for three times the price of Bob Scriver’s. The moment Bob died, his museum was dismantled. People get bored — they want new things. But they can’t quite give up the old things either, so they hang on to their fantasies. It’s a little awkward. This book is for sale on Amazon for a penny. I paid full-price for a hard back. No regrets.
Dan Flores
“Big Sky Journal” is a luxury magazine. I ended up with a stack of them when Dan Flores’ series on Western art was developing before it became a book. I can’t bear to throw them out, but I have a nasty Puritan streak in me that says, “All this fancy stuff is not real, it’s just indulgence.” When do they slide the knife in? When do they get to the guts?

Monday, July 25, 2016


This material is from the second of my three projected "books" -- the one called "Come Through the Door" that is a kind of anthology of religious services.   Here are two more versions of services using the template that comes from Victor Turner’s three part crossing-the threshold, being together in the liminal space, return to the world, plus the “Dilation of the Spirit”.  It ought to feel familiar to Christians.

First Unitarian Church of Chicago

When I was in seminary (1978- 1982), we took turns presenting Vespers on Fridays at 5pm in the little side chapel of First Unitarian Church.  Most of the time the space was separated from the gaping cavern of the main sanctuary by a fire curtain, but one day that curtain was up.  Looking into that darkness, feeling the cool of the unheated stone space, sensing the ghosts of so many ceremonies, I had an idea.

The next time I did Vespers, I turned all the chairs around so they were facing through that stone arch into the void.  On a low table I propped the biggest mirror I could find and put the symbolic flaming chalice in front of it.  When the students and faculty arrived, they sat more quietly than usual.  It was winter.  We were exhausted.

In-gathering and crossing the limen:

Opening words In the diminishing February twilight, we’ve hurried along under the gaunt elms and the leering stone gargoyles of the quads.  As we do weekly, we gather at the end of an arduous week of plodding through snow and hunching over books.  We come to gather comfort and respite in our small community, not so much saints as friends.

Dilation of the spirit: 

Broken world:  We risk so much by coming to seminary.  We fail, we go too deeply into debt, we turn out to be unsuited for the ministry, and we surely lose our faith, because that’s what seminary is for -- to break open our simple faith and press us down into every resource you have.  Now we find out there is no God, there is no easy way, and we are no one’s heroes.

Healing:   We are dazzled by ideas we never guessed existed and join the historical pilgrimage of learning that stretches back for many centuries.  The world opens out before us and we will be welcomed into the company of scholars.  Just when we despair, we will discover a new strength.

Then the main sermon and prayer, which revolved around the idea of KENOSIS, the classic doctrine of emptying out.  All the time we continued to look into that black void with the comparatively small mirror and flame because it was such a good sensory metaphor.

Closing words:  This week has ended.  It is over.  We have left it.  Now we go into the weekend where we will be renewed and serve congregations all over the city.  Let us be light-hearted.

(All the words above are mine.)

In 1988-1989 I served as interim the Blackfeet Methodist Parish based in Browning, Montana.  I preached from the Bible-based lectionary:  Psalm 29, Isaiah 61: 1-4, Acts 8:16-17, and Luke 3:15-17 and 21-22.  The lectionary is created by a committee that shares among several denominations.  The idea is to suggest four verses:  one each from the Psalms, the Old Testament, the New Testament and a Gospel.  If the lectionary is followed through the year, the whole Bible is included.  They only approximately focus on a theme.   I felt I should use the lectionary because my formal affiliation had been Unitarian Universalist, which is not necessarily Christian, but this congregation was nominally Christian Methodist, so I should accept their discipline.   In practise, the congregation was pretty mixed general Christian.  In practice the church is more "community" than denominational.

Here’s a sample from January 8, using the same template as above.  The sermon title was “The Wind in the Trees” and dealt with the metaphor of the tree in many religious traditions.  (The words here are all mine.)

CALL TO WORSHIP  (Responsive)

We come again in this New Year to renew our faithful attendance at this house of worship.
The calendar has turned now and we look down the length of the months for a whole year to the next Christmas.
It is cold and we draw together as families and as friends in order to keep our hearts warm.
And we warm ourselves before this great flame of glory that we give the name of God Almighty.
May those who are frightened come to be with us here where we may comfort them.  May those who are joyful come to be with us here that we may rejoice with them.  May those who love life come to be with us here, for this is a place where we love life and all its beauty.


A great wind came last week to rip at our roofs, tear at our windows, knock us off our feet when we tried to walk.  Now it is stone cold and we must watch our fires to make sure they don’t go out, watch our children to make sure they dress warmly.  We feel fragile in such a world.  On the news we hear of terrorists and nerve gas and we hear the wails of the bereaved mothers.  We are very small, oh Lord, and we must trust others to guide our country through the perils.  Keep us from the loss of hope when the chance of peace is great, but the powers of hatred are still potent.  Let us never lose hope or confidence that good will overcome evil.  We falter.


Our God has made us various and resourceful, able to draw on each other’s strengths.  We are not alone in the world, for we have families, fellow country people, wise people, strong people, people who will be with us even as we are with our God.  For if we are unable to reach out for God, behold, the wind of His Spirit reaches us and lifts us up.



The change in our lives sometimes feels like loss, but other times it is a gift and we are glad to be different.  Some of the trees who live alongside us survive by dropping their leaves and growing new ones, and others survive by conserving and renewing the old needles.  In the coming week may we both conserve and renew, sending our roots deep into the soil of our world.  For through us blows not just the cold winter winds, but also the wind of the Spirit which lifts us up everlastingly.

It’s easy to compose a service like this if there is a clear focus metaphor (trees) and then a lot of sensory and immediate experience.  These will call out emotions and connections that would never be presented by logic.  But this sermon had a lot of history in it plus the theological concept suggested by Tillich, that the Cross is a tree and that the upright points at Heaven and the transcendent, while the cross bar extends along the horizon in immanent worldly fashion.  There’s a lot of material in Joseph Campbell and many others.  

Sunday, July 24, 2016


Yappie had been reading about ceremonies in an old anthropology book.  Now he was full of ideas and wanted to get everyone organized.  That’s how he got his name — he was always yapping at everyone to get organized, but they didn’t mind because he was always ready to share and update and all that.  He wasn’t a dictator.  He just liked lists: menus, orders of service, tables of contents and all that. This time his list had a half-dozen things on it.

“First we got to make a special space, protected and just for us.  Here’s this photo of a sweat lodge.  I know where there are a lot of willows growing in a ditch.  They’re pretty tall and I think we could make a kind of dome like a beaver dam.”

It took the whole day to cut the willow sticks, bury the butt ends in a circle and then bend them together at the top and tie them.  They were proud but it wasn’t a very secret space since anyone could see between the sticks.

“I have an idea,” said Noddie.  “I been watching where this garage had a tarp on it’s roof that was about to blow off and it finally did in that last storm.  It blew a long ways before it got stuck in a bunch of bushes.  We could put that over the top.”  So they went to get it and it took three of them to drag it home and spread it over the willow wands, but it looked cool.  They made a little entrance, just barely big enough for a boy to crawl in but there was room inside for all of them.

“We should have a campfire inside.”

“Naw, that’s too dangerous and the smoke would attract attention.”

“Wait a minute.  I got something stashed.  How many extension cords do we have?  And what’s the biggest flashlight we have?”

After a lot of scurrying around, they were ready to activate the treasure found at a garage sale: it was a tabletop mirror ball, like the kind that hangs in the middle of the ceiling at a dance hall and turns so that light splinters and moves.  They trained their flashlights on it and the effect was magical.  Now the space really was special.

“Okay, Yappie.  There’s your little sanctuary hide-out.  Now what do we do?”


“What’s that?”

“10PM we all meet here, but we need sigils.”

“What the heck is that?”

“You know, like Game of Thrones.  Each person should have an animal familiar, the way those guys have wolves and ravens.  I think we should have each have animals like the ones in the woods around here:  squirrel, fox, badger, pigeon . . .”

“A pigeon is not an animal.”

“Sure it is.”

“You guys are going off topic.”

So they all showed up and as each one crawled through the door, he announced his animal aspect:  beaver, coyote, gopher, garter snake. . .”

“A snake is not an animal!”

“Don’t be so damn picky.  You’re ruining the mood.” 

They sat in a circle on the blankets they had brought earlier.  In a while Yappie said, “Now we’re supposed to think of really bad things.”

“I ain’t gonna do it.  I don’t wanna think about bad stuff.”

“I’m not afraid to.  I say starving kids.”

“Abused kids.”

“Bein’ cold.”

“Nobody ever listening.”

They ran out — not of bad things, but of the energy to talk about them. Yappie let it be quiet for a little while.  Then he said,  “The next thing is to talk about the best stuff, the really sweet part of life.”

“Bein’ in love.  I loooove bein’ in love.”

“Dawn.  It’s always coming and it’s always free.”

“Pizza.”  It wasn’t that funny, but they were feeling the mood changes and needed an excuse to roll around laughing.  The light shards rotated around, bouncing off their faces and the underside of the blue tarp.

Yappie mused, “I’m a little stumped by this next part.  It’s the sharing of food or something.  I suppose drugs would really work, but we’re sworn off drugs.”  One boy blushed.  Maybe he’d wasn’t so good at swearing.

Another boy who often had trouble with storms of coughing pulled out a little flat box, throat lozenges — not cough drops like candy but little flat clay discs.  He solemnly doled out one each to their hands.  “They call these the fisherman’s friend because if you cough in a rowboat while you’re fishing, the fish hear it and take off.  You let these things dissolve in your mouth — it’ll take a while.”

They didn’t much like the sensation of the discs biting their tongues, but it wasn’t too painful to bear so no one spit out his lozenge.  “Now what, Yappie?”

He brought out one of his most treasured and, until now, secret little packets.  It was cards, but not traditional playing cards.  Rather these were “Good Medicine Cards” that sort of told fortunes.  Each card was a little story like a horoscope with a picture of an animal.  A couple of cards were missing but luckily every boy’s sigil had a card.  They read them out by the light from their flashlights.  “You know, my card really does seem like me.”

“Mine, too.”

“My card is nothing like my sigil.  Whoever wrote this was nuts.”  Always one guy who has to be different.  Is there an animal for that?

There were a few long ago church-goers whose memories had been jogged.  “We ought to have some music in here somewhere.”

Though it was the younger boys who were inventing this ceremony, the older boys had been interested and paying attention.  They were just outside the blue dome, listening and thinking about it.  One had suggested they bring their guitars, but they didn’t.  They always felt kind of protective about their guitars and being out in a damp night wasn’t a good idea, maybe.  

But then there was a soft chord: a harmonica from someone’s pocket.  Mournfully, he began a blues song and then it built into a wail of emotion.  Some of the young ones began to tear up.  Not crying — no, they wouldn’t cry.

In the end it wasn’t Yappie who put his hand above the turning, flashing ball and said, “Let’s swear.”  But it was a good idea.  Every boy piled his hand on and they swore:  “One for all and all for one.”

When they came out, the older boys had made a line and each boy was ceremonially and repeatedly hugged.  No, they wouldn’t cry.  It was the night air.

Anyway, they weren’t sad.  They felt better than they had for a while, more of a group, even the knotheads.  They went for pizza with arms over each other’s shoulders.  They didn’t sing, but someone knew some raunchy old Marine marching chants, easy to learn.


This story is to illustrate some of the theories I’ve been expounding on this blog.