Category: Dialog

The Dilemma of Enjoying Fountain Pens

is, what happens when one has no more to write? Do I put the pen down or – and what is worse? -risk flagrant frivolity? Ten pages full of practice signatures anticipating future relevance. But what, in the absence of something clear to say, are the alt…

Working through the Matrix, or, Struggles and Humility

It’s odd, sometimes, to see the ways that life may form apparent coincidences. At times, I want to be like Morpheus from The Matrix and assert that there is no such thing as coincidence, only providence. And me being me, I might say only Divine Pr…

Plowing for Justice

Beginning a new job carries with it many firsts:  first paycheck, first vestry meeting to lead, first major decision, etc.   Most of these get covered in seminary, or at least a nice pamphlet from Forward Movement or the Alban Institute.  (Tips: only change things you really have to at first.  This should never include […]

Bonsai! or, Seeking the Good, the True, and the Beautiful

Okay, so: storytime. But at the risk of killing the story, let me give you some background.

What I have discovered while training with the Army is that structures that the Army builds are uses are very functional, but seldom are pretty. In fact, there are very few beautiful things when one is training with the Army. Things tend towards function and uniformity, which makes sense, because it’s the Army and that’s kinda what we do most of the time. When you go downrange and into the trees, maybe you could look toward the foliage for something beautiful, but more than likely you will be counseled to smell the roses later, if any drill sergeant finds out what you are doing.

However, during training last summer, there was one jarringly beautiful thing that I remember. At Fort Leonard Wood, in the Central Iowa Chapel, there were huge stained glass windows in the worship space. I wish that I could find pictures of that stained glass, because it made me stop and catch my breath after all the camouflage and foliage that I had been looking at…

Here’s where the story starts:

I don’t remember how far into training I was that I finally wrote to my wife and told her that we were going to go look at beautiful things when I got home. But I did write that and we did go find beautiful things when I was done. We went to the Como Conservatory in St. Paul. Took plenty of time in the greenhouse, and the zen garden, we walked through the Como Zoo that day, too. But what especially held my attention that day was looking at the bonsai trees.

I’m fairly confident that most folks are familiar with bonsai. If nothing else, most are aware that it is a process of training vegetation over the course of years. Many people think it’s just the tiny trees, but in the picture above, the tree was about as tall as I was. In many bonsai, the training may be conducted by using wires and bamboo frames, in addition to the trimming. I think that the Como Conservatory has a really great representation of the art form. So what struck me with this one particularly was that part of the tree that had died was being used as a frame to support the rest of the tree’s training.

This coin is actually available from the Daily Stoic

What I anticipate is that, since this is bonsai and a part of the Japanese Garden at Como Conservatory, there was no small measure of yin and yang intended with this. But more of what I was struck by was the Western concept of momento mori, or “Remember your death.” I think momento mori is something used by teenagers when they’re trying to be edgy and goth, but more to my point, I think it is better suited to remind us that none of us gets out of this life alive. And, at times, it may be the case that you carry around a totem to remind yourself of this idea. And in fact, whomever began training this tree decided that the tree would be wound around the sign of its death.

I had something of a visceral reaction to this tree. The placard said that it’s and Eastern White Cedar, which I like (cedar always seems to have some kind of gravitas to it). But more specifically, bonsai is always intentional. And so when someone decided to build new life on a previous death experience, that’s resurrection if I’ve ever heard of it.

There was another tree in the bonsai display that I also want to tell you about, dear readers. I don’t know whether this one was actually in training as a bonsai, but it was in with all the other bonsais, so therefor I’m going to tell you about it. This one seemed to do nothing but proclaim death and resurrection, on more than one level.

This tree was never supposed to grow. I mean, that’s what usually happens when something is irradiated. The camphor tree that gave the seed that this one sprouted from stood about a half a mile from ground zero in Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. I can’t imagine what kind of obliteration that tree was surrounded by. And really, the fact that the tree gave viable seeds after that is astounding enough. But as if to make death and resurrection all the more real, there are seeds of friendship and cooperation between Nagasaki and Saint Paul; they are sister cities.

I mean, why should any city in Japan work with another in the US? Obliterating someone with nuclear weapons has the ability to drive a wedge between people. But nonetheless, here in front of me, was a tree that’s parent should have died, in a city where it’s seed should never have been given as a gift. And yet. 

Resurrection is a beautiful thing. I’m grateful when I get to experience it.

King of Pogs

I made a joke the other week that the only thing that has changed for my preaching during the Trump Administration has been that I can no longer write sermons prior to Fridays.  Nowadays, enough horror will occur later in the week that people need to hear it addressed. This week, with the several high-profile […]

All the cool kids quote Hafiz

I went to clergy conference this week, where my former liturgics professor was the keynote speaker.  There were two of his former students present, and we took joy in sharing with him the numerous times he lapsed into his trademark phrases: citing the pitfalls of the Enlightenment, name-dropping Lathrop, Kirsteva, and Kavenaugh, and warning us […]

Bucky Hunting™ (or, The Things You Can See by Looking)

For me and my two oldest kids, this summer is all about the Buckys.

No, we’re not picking up extra jobs for some added cash on the side; we’re all-in on Dane County’s #BuckyOnParade promotion, which has filled the county with 85 life-size Bucky Badger statues, each decorated by local artists around a different theme. #BuckyOnParade activity books make it easy for kids to keep track of both the Buckys they have found and the Buckys they are yet to find, and certain milestone achievements (10, 25, and 50 Buckys collected, respectively) can be acknowledged and rewarded at local establishments with ice cream coupons, temporary tattoos, etc. The kids are up to 61, eager to claim their 50 Bucky prize from the Dream Bank.

People are roaming Dane County (my kids and I covered over nine miles on foot these past two days) and finding each other, along with the Buckys, and the whole thing has given the summer a delightfully playful aura and an imaginative way to build community. Equipped with sponsorships from local businesses and a scheduled end of parade auction in September, the promotion has already raised a lot of money and awareness for local charities. The whole thing is pretty brilliant and fun.

Part of the point of the project is to pay more attention to the county we call home. So Buckys are strategically placed in locations that, if one seeks out enough of them, eventually take a person out of her comfort zone or cause him to see his place in a way he hadn’t before. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, Bucky Hunting™ is an exercise in the truth that you can see a lot by looking.

Of course, implicit in the challenge is the suggestion that there is much about the places we call home that, day in and day out, we take for granted or don’t see. Our lives, with their rhythms and routines, necessitate that we privilege and prioritize those parts of our surroundings that will rise to the level of Things That Receive Our Attention. So we sport our filters, because noticing everything would exhaust us. A simple example is the lament I hear from so many students on campus: that they’ve never been in a richer academic environment, and yet to do what that environment requires of them in their studies often necessitates that they ignore the vast majority of that which lies beyond their particular discipline.

It is a real gift to be given a game that invites us to see again what we have grown blind to seeing.

In addition to rediscovering the beauty, opportunity, and myriad amazing restaurants in and around Madison, I hope my fellow Bucky Hunters have been fortunate enough to have seen things that unsettle them. I hope they have met new friends like Skip, whom Jude and I met under the Warner Park Pavilion. We were there for water and a bathroom break, not quite decided between following the barn swallows a little longer or seeking out Broadcaster Bucky. Skip came up with a four-pack of tall boys and a small bottle of vodka. He greeted us warmly. We visited for a while before Skip looked over his shoulder and said kindly, “Y’all are going to want to be moving along. There’s a group of folks coming who are going to drink too much and this will be no place for your son.” I thanked him for the warning, and we talked a little longer about Marvel comics and movies before moving along.

“Daddy, why is our friend Skip going to drink like that with his friends?”

“Because life can be challenging and painful, it’s not always fair or right the way things go or what people have to go through, and drinking can be a way to hide that pain for a little bit. But the pain doesn’t go away for long, and drinking like that can make things more painful. You need to know that, if you ever find yourself in that kind of pain, you can ask for help.”


“Yeah, buddy?”

“I’m glad we met a friend. Skip.”

“Me, too.”

A couple of days later, we were on the Square, this time with Annie, and I was expecting to run into friends, because Madison is a small town kind of city. I hadn’t realized how, after six years in Madison, many of the friends I would recognize were those experiencing homelessness or transitioning out of it, who had visited St. Francis House through the years. We don’t give financial assistance at St. Francis House, but I try to make time to listen and be present to all of those who come through our doors. That day on the Square, it was hard not to notice that photos of the children with certain Bucky statues required careful staging, if those still sleeping on the sidewalks of the Square were to be omitted from the official record of the Parade.

We were still on the Square some time later when a woman called out to us. “Did you and your kids get a picture with the Bucky on the steps of the jail? It’s a good one!” I shared that we had, that the kids loved the piece. “Of course,” she said, “I wasn’t there for the Bucky, but it was good. I was there to see my friend. I hoped to pick him up today. He’s scheduled to be released today, but they’re closed for the holiday.” I cringed my bafflement at the thought of a holiday keeping a man behind bars. “I’ll pick him up, if all goes well, on Wednesday.” “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I hope you can pick him up Wednesday.” That Bucky is called “The Power of Working Together.”

I share these things, I hope, without either self-righteousness or shaming. God knows I have no grounds for either. Day in and day out, I feel a combination of profound inadequacy and humbling wonderment that my presence, in all its inadequacy, with no promise of improvement for the various and difficult situations I encounter, is received with warmth and generosity.

So the Bucky walks have filled me with gratitude for all of those who walk as and with those that most days go unseen, when our days are filled with more than wide-eyed wandering, in search of Buckys. I hope the Parade reconnects us, or gives us the next piece of an imagination for how we might be connected, we who pass our days mostly invisible to each other. I hope the Buckys make space in us for us to rediscover how we are implicated in each other’s lives, how we belong to each other, and what acknowledging our belonging to each other might look like, we who are neighbors, strangers, and – with God’s help and mercy – potentially friends.

2018 Gathering of Youth and Children’s Ministry Leaders

From an invitation sent out locally. Will you help us spread the word? peace, jonathanDear friends,I’m writing you to invite you and anyone you’d like to invite to the 2nd Gathering of Children’s Ministry and Youth Leaders, July 21, 2018, at St. F…

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Continuing Education

On Saturday, I went to my first diocesan event in Central New York. Here’s the thing with diocesan events:  I consider them a win if they are unremarkable and contain one or two pieces of information I can use.  Occasionally, diocesan events descend to the point where they test my continuing belief in my vocation, […]