Monday, December 8, 2014

Making Room

During Advent, we await Christ by preparing our busy hearts to accommodate the incalculable abundance of God’s love for the world and all of us, God’s beloved.

The image that keeps occurring to me is a tiny, cluttered apartment suddenly having to accommodate a building-sized, heart-shaped pillow. The pillow’s so big that its unyielding, irresistible cuddliness flattens the furniture against the walls and then, like rising Tollhouse cookie dough, oozes through every door, window, and crevice.

There’s so much pillow that there’s no room for anything else.

Such is the gift of Christmas, if fully accepted – ours heart so full of joy, forgiveness, and a yearning to love God and others that there’s no room for the familiar old furniture.

We will always resist being rearranged to that extent. And why shouldn’t we? What’s at risk of being moved out of the way usually isn’t anything so bad as the opposite of the godly virtues, which is to say despair, vengefulness, and all consuming regard for ourselves. We’re entitled to like our furniture. We inherited some of it. As for the claw and ball table leg where we keep stubbing our toe in the dark -- well, we do manage to avoid it most of the time. Moving things around just creates new ways to risk getting hurt.

Bishop Bruce with food bankers
We might be so content with the status quo that we’ll figure out how to confine the giant heart pillow to the spare bedroom. Instead of letting Christ consume us, we’ll coexist. We’ll spare our Lord a ventricle and a few subsidiary veins and arteries, just occasionally letting him flow into the whole expanse, such when we’re holding a baby, listening to Handel, or seeing a sunset -- or on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings, when we’re in church.

If our hearts are prone to constrain Christ’s abundance, so are the churches we build in his name. We set them up just the way we like them, fill them with nice people such as ourselves, and then do things the same way over and over again.

Make no mistake: If you’re like me, church’s congeniality and predictability help make the experience holy. Just to expose the limits of my metaphor, I don’t propose moving any of our beautiful furniture. But how could we throw our doors open wider and let more of the giant pillow out? Could we do even more to turn our community’s face to the world?

Bishop Bruce and Roger Bradshaw
Bishop Diane Jardine Bruce posed this question to your parish leaders during her visit in October, when she invited us on a neighborhood walkabout followed by a conversation about what we had observed. Our group included Mother Martha, People’s Warden Gregg Stempson, Bishop’s Committee members Phil Bowman, DJ Gomer, Dave Nichols, Paula Neal Reza, and Erin Schwarz, and me.

We explored neighborhoods within walking distance of our church and talked about how their residents would love St. John’s if they gave it a try. But standing on the sidewalk looking across at our beautiful campus, we wondered how we appeared to them. It’s the church with the expensive private school, someone said. “What does ‘Episcopal’ even mean?” someone else said jokingly. “Is it hard to get in? What are the requirements?”

Bishop Bruce was delighted to see St. John’s outreach in action. She consecrated our School’s new “Seeds of Hope” garden, where we’ll grow produce for those in need, and dropped by the Rancho Santa Margarita food bank, where Roger Bradshaw and his St. John’s crew comprise the core volunteer group every third Thursday.

These new outreach and community ministries (others are Happy Hour, St. John’s Moms Club, and Caregiving Mosaics) naturally suggest others. Demographic data that Bishop Bruce provided revealed that 15% of our city’s population is Hispanic. Our walkabout group wondered how welcome those neighbors feel at St. John’s. What if we provided a translation of our services into American Sign Language? An obvious reply is that no one in our congregation is a member of the Deaf community. But that might change if we provided the service.

Your parish leaders were amply inspired by Bishop Bruce’s visit. Still, we all have more than enough to-do lists this time of year. Advent is less about doing than being – being ready, open, and vulnerable. Advent people and churches will inevitably be changed by Christ’s love. I can’t wait to find out what St. John’s becomes in the new year. I can’t wait to see who we really are.

This post was originally published in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fatal Overreach

Writing and talking about Michael Brown, whom police officer Darren Wilson killed on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, people have a tendency to leave out one of two details: Either that he had just committed a robbery or that he was unarmed. Wilson's critics describe Michael as an unarmed teenager. Wilson's advocates say robbery suspect. It's harder to argue that Michael is an innocent victim if you mention that he was the criminal suspect about whom Darren had just heard from his dispatcher. Saying Darren's innocent is a harder sell if you acknowledge that Michael wasn't carrying a deadly weapon.

Put the two together, and you get "unarmed robbery suspect." Google it and see how few hits you get. There's too much ambiguity in the phrase given the emotional freight that's being conveyed by the preponderance of the commentary about the case. We're naturally tempted to overlook gray areas while using a narrative to prove a larger point. It's especially in the nature of politicians, pundits, and interest groups to turn those caught in tragedies such as Michael's and his grieving family's into object lessons. But Darren Wilson didn't deserve to be indicted because of the existence of institutional racism. By the same token, he doesn't deserve to be absolved just because most police officers do the best they can under difficult conditions while running the risk of being turned into scapegoats for broad inequities and injustices for which virtually none of them is individually responsible.

At the core of our common life is the principle that a person suspected of committing a crime is judged strictly by the facts. In this case, after an a violent struggle over Wilson's weapon in his car, Michael fled and then turned and lunged toward Wilson. Was the officer expected or entitled to shoot him? That would seem to be a question that any number of police academy instructors should be able to answer.  If I were writing the rule book, I'd be inclined to say, "Do whatever you can to avoid discharging your weapon until you see that the suspect is armed." Of course I've never been in such a situation myself. The experts, many of whom have been, disagree with me. Wilson probably shouldn't have confronted Michael while he was still seated in his cruiser. He should've made sure he had access to mace or a Taser before trying to detain Michael.

But once the confrontation reached the street, even the New York Times called Wilson's use of deadly force "standard police procedure." If that's really the case, it's hard to second-guess the Ferguson grand jury. If Wilson had been tried, he probably would've been acquitted. Michael's advocates might have been less outraged by an unfavorable jury verdict than they were by the grand jury's decision. But again, the facts of the case, not the motive of managing public moods and opinions, are supposed to govern whether someone is charged or convicted.

Still, I'm troubled by something that Wilson claimed in his interview with ABC News: That he saw Michael reach inside his waistband. The youngster had no weapon. Pretending to go for one while moving toward an armed officer whom you've already assaulted would be tantamount to committing suicide.

So we should consider another possibility. In the ABC interview, Wilson said he wouldn't have done anything different. It would be reckless to say otherwise with a federal civil rights lawsuit pending. But a normal person would be prone to anguished second thoughts, wondering if his ten shots were justifiable. The St. Louis County DA claims that those who testified that Michael raised his hands over his head in a gesture of surrender were misremembering, their imaginations stimulated by their anguish at the tragedy of his death. It seems more likely that Darren similarly imagined Michael's threatening gesture than that the college-bound young man committed suicide by cop.

By speculating as I have, I'm not accusing Wilson of lying. Just of having a heart in pain.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Brittany, Deb, And Cindy's Story

Cindy Campbell and Deb Ziegler of St. John Chrysostom Episcopal School in Rancho Santa Margarita once compared notes as neighbors, parents, and teachers. Soon they may have something else in common: the incalculable pain of losing a child.

Ziegler's daughter is Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old Southern Californian and St. John's School alumna who moved to Oregon this year to take advantage of its right-to-die law. Diagnosed on Jan. 1 with terminal brain cancer, not long after her marriage to Dan Diaz, Maynard announced that she would end her life once her symptoms, including seizures and searing headaches, become unbearable. While she has chosen Saturday, Nov. 1, she reserved the right to delay her death depending on her illness's severity.

By going public with her decision and associating her name and story with Compassion & Choices, a right-to-die advocacy group, Maynard has sparked a heart-wrenching debate in churches, workplaces, homes, and the media about doctor-assisted suicide as a last-ditch expedient for those who are hopelessly ill. It is legal in four states besides Oregon: Vermont, Washington, Montana, and New Mexico.

At St. John's, we're praying for Brittany, giving thanks for her courage, and faithfully joining in the national conversation she has inspired. (As one of my colleagues pointed out, no less an authority than Anderson Cooper of “60 Minutes” erred in his pronunciation of our famous alumna's name. For the record, she is Brittany me-NARD.)

Cindy Campbell, our middle school principal, is preparing for the far more difficult work of consoling a grieving mother, should Brittany die as she has planned. Cindy has known Deb and Brittany since 1987, when they and the Campbells became neighbors in a development near St. John's called Robinson Ranch.

Ziegler soon distinguished herself at St. John's as a superstar middle school science teacher. Colleagues say she was ahead of her time. Under the leadership of head of school Michael Pratt, in 2014 St. John's adopted the innovative, interdisciplinary STEAM curriculum, combining science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. “In a way, Deb was doing STEAM before STEAM,” said Sheryll Grogan, a St. John's faculty member who worked closely with Ziegler.

Among her innovations was the Invention Convention. Campbell said that Brittany invented a device users could wear while applying hair spray so it wouldn't get in their eyes. “If she'd patented it, it may well have found a market,” Cindy says.

A straight-A student at St. John's, Brittany graduated from Santa Margarita Catholic High School and from UC Berkeley. After Deb Ziegler left the St. John's faculty in the early 1990s, she and Cindy Campbell remained friends. In 2009, she consoled Cindy over the death of her and Gregg's eldest son, Joey. Cindy never wanted or expected to have the opportunity to repay Deb's kindness. Now both mother and daughter have asked her to do just that.

“She has reached out to me as a mother who has lost a child and asked that I help her with this,” Cindy said last week. “Brittany has also asked me to be there to help her mother with the reality that Deb will be living without her.”

I thought of asking Cindy what she thought about Brittany's decision to end her life. I didn't, and I won't. It would be logical enough journalistically, but it seemed inappropriate pastorally, like an invasion of a friendship's privacy and a distraction from the ministry of love and support Cindy will undertake regardless of her feelings about Brittany's choice.

We have been talking openly about it at St. John's Church, however, both informally in the hallways and in two ministry settings: our monthly support group for caregivers, and our periodic “Sunday News” current events discussion.

Our members' reactions tend to match the national mood. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the spring of 2013, 49% of U.S. adults disapprove of physician-assisted suicide and 47% approve. In contrast to other social and cultural issues, such as same-gender marriage, the numbers are relatively unaffected by age. Fifty-four percent of those ages 18 - 29 and 56% of those over 65 disapprove. The most amendable cohort is people ages 50 - 64, of whom 44% disapprove and 51% approve.

Brittany and Dan at their wedding last October
Brittany Maynard recoils from the word suicide, which normally denotes a dark and sometimes inexplicable act. She says she loves life and doesn't have a suicidal bone in her body. Advocates prefer the phrase “death with dignity,” which is, after all, their mission. Virtually no one who advocates for the right to die has motives other than compassion for those who suffer. Such compassion is a core ethic of our faith and practice. It's also hard to imagine looking someone in the face who is experiencing hopeless, unbearable pain and urging her to endure even more for the sake of a principle.

Still, the issue entails considerable tension and even paradox, and we've touched on these in our parish conversations. What if doctors can reliably promise patients that palliative care will protect them from the worst ravages of disease while giving them even a little more time to enjoy sunsets, Mozart, the Rolling Stones, and fellowship with loved ones and friends? Should those suffering hopelessly from the agony of schizophrenia or depression be empowered to end their lives? Are physicians being asked to compromise their often praiseworthy and even vital impulses to extend life?

On the other side of the debate, some ethicists argue that human freedom includes the right to decide whether to live or die. Besides, surely no one of right mind wants to die when the possibility and anticipation exist of some decent quality of life. Right-to-die states take special care to ensure that doctors not collaborate with patients who aren't thinking clearly or rationally.

Our church is debating these questions nationally as well as locally. In a 1994 resolution in Indianapolis, General Convention said that while euthanasia was “morally wrong and unacceptable,” doctors should be allowed to administer extra painkillers, even if it hastens death, as long as they intend to relieve pain rather than end life.

Addressing the related issue of physician-assisted suicide, our church's End-of-Life Task Force, reporting to 2000's General Convention in Denver, recommended that the church oppose the practice because it “sets ourselves up as gods in the place of God,” marginalizes the role of caregivers at the end of life, erodes our faith in physicians, and risks tempting sufferers to think they should die to avoid burdening others. Reflecting on the task force's work and acknowledging her own ambivalence and discernment, Bishop Suffragan Mary Douglas Glasspool of the Diocese of Los Angeles wrote last week to colleagues and friends that Brittany Maynard's experience gives communities of faith an opportunity to discern God's will - “not just an opportunity, but an obligation.”

At St. John's, we agree. As a first step, we are renewing our efforts to make sure our members have looked ahead to their own and their loved ones' last months, days, and hours. For instance, everyone should study and fill out "Five Wishes," an easy-to-use anthology of end-of-life instruction forms first published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and now available in 26 languages, thanks to a grant from the United Health Foundation. Each of us should also fill out a Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form; California's is available here.

We'll do this good, necessary, difficult work in thanksgiving for own Brittany Maynard, who, with her devoted mother, excelled at science and now calls society to be relentlessly discerning about its end-of-life ethics even as it continues to advance in life-saving medical technology.

This article was originally published by The Episcopal News at the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It Takes A Parish

Max and Elizabeth
I’ve never been prouder of a thumb’s up.

Early this year, I asked our Max Mizejewski, who died Sept. 19 when his Cessna 162 crashed near Borrego Springs, to read the manuscript of my political novel Jackson Place. Max was a war hero who barely survived the 1967 crash of the Huey he was piloting.

Much of the book concerns the Vietnam War. Since I didn’t serve, I feared writing inaccurately or blithely. Two weeks later, Max handed it back with a smile, a few words of encouragement, and a thumb’s up. That was all I hoped for. Max used language carefully. He didn’t gild the lily or stop to smell the roses unless there was time on the schedule and the olfactory episode had been thoroughly mapped out.

Sometimes he didn’t have to speak at all. St. John’s friends sitting in pews behind him say they’ll never forget the Sunday we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the “Star Spangled Banner.” He stood ramrod straight for all three verses, facing the front of the church and saluting. Then he hugged Rebeca and their daughter, Elizabeth.

It was five days before his death. May they always remember the deathless energy of his embrace. May we all remember the energy with which he lived and his example of uncompromising devotion to those he loved.

Max wasn’t the only St. John’s resource I tapped. I invited Trinh Hinson, who was born in Vietnam, and her family to point out any egregiousness in my descriptions of Vietnamese society and places in and around the city that was once called Saigon. Gerry Larson, internationally noted scholar and Presbyterian pastor, asked incisive questions. Our meticulous head of school, Michael Pratt, who has a PhD from Harvard, said he was pleased to have caught relatively few punctuation errors and then wrote a generous review on Amazon. Fellow Detroiter and thriller aficionado Tom Tierney thought I got both the politics and the Motown scenes right.

Cover painting by Robin Rogers Cloud
Andy Guilford was patient indeed, permitting me to feed him chunks of text as they came off the printer and making more great suggestions than I can count. I wrote three drafts of one section before getting a favorable ruling from the bench. He did question why I missed no opportunity to portray Richard Nixon sitting in an easy chair, his feet on an ottoman, while he twirled and chewed on his reading glasses. Had I forgotten writing about the eyeglasses just five pages before? If I may, Your Honor, we call that a leitmotif, I said carefully.

All their good advice notwithstanding, considerably better than the text is the cover, which is based on the work of Robin Rogers Cloud, acclaimed plein air painter, associate professor of art at Saddleback College, and member in good standing of the St. John’s Altar Guild. If you’re Robin’s friend on Facebook, you’re enjoying her exquisite paintings, including those she made during her summer in Montana with the St. John’s Swansons.

After finding the courage to ask an artist of Robin’s stature to help, I suggested a pretty painting of the leafy row of townhouses in Lafayette Square opposite the White House, where much of my story’s action occurs. Robin asked what the book was about. I told her Nixon doesn’t resign in August 1974 and moves into 716 Jackson Place so Acting President Ford can use the White House. In that case, Robin said, it should be scary: “Think Edward Gorey.” Of course, it’s perfect.

The contributions of LEM coordinator and former Nixon chief of staff Kathy O’Connor are also too numerous to mention. I borrowed a description of a child's first glimpse of a baseball diamond from one of my own Vaya columns last year (thanks, editor Linda). I fretted over a paragraph in which Mitch realizes that Emily loves him. Finally, I tried the passage out on participants in one of our Tuesday evening Bible Fellowship meetings.

My fellow pilgrim Gene Giordano gave me permission to use his last name for Nixon aide Ron Ziegler’s bartender at the Carlton in Washington. Gene will forgive me for saying that Mizejewski would also have suited my tough, fiercely loyal character.

I also consulted authorities in the outside world, including famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward. But I couldn’t have done it without St. John’s. One is blessed to have such collaborators, in ministry and in life. Someone said it take a village to raise a child. It took a parish to write a book.

This post originally appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Serendipity Doo-Dah

It was a Cinderella story.

We dedicated the old, private Nixon library, where I served as director beginning in 1990, on an oppressively hot day that July. We had four presidents at the dedication ceremony, including Richard Nixon and the incumbent, George H. W. Bush. We threw a glittering fairy tale ball at the Century Plaza in Los Angeles with an open bar, attended by the noblest political hacks from every corner of the kingdom.

We called what we had constructed in Yorba Linda, around Nixon's humble birthplace, a presidential library. It had gleaming new galleries, shiny terrazzo floors, exquisite bathrooms, and a stately reading room for scholars.  It cost a then-princely sum of $25 million. The epic buildings and grounds definitely looked presidential. But the shoe didn't fit, because we were a stepchild, reaching for a birthright to which we weren't entitled.

It wasn't hard to see why. Within our heavily fortified walls, in all our 13 acres, there wasn't a presidential document to be found -- not a memo, a letter, a scribble, a tape, or even a tape gap. Someone claimed we had secret UFO records, which would've been useful if it were true. But Nixon's White House records, including the infamous secret tapes, were all back in Washington.

We opened an archive with pre-presidential records in 1991, but it didn't convince scholars that our hearts were pure. Besides, the phone book didn't say we were the Nixon pre-presidential library. As at all new libraries, our museum put the best face on our man's legacy. But unlike our better-heeled cousins, we couldn't say that scholars and the public could walk around the corner and get the straight story of Nixon's presidency in the records. To see those, people had to visit a National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facility in Alexandria, Virginia or, later, College Park, Maryland.

We buried Mr. Nixon on the grounds in 1994, beside his first lady, who had died the year before. In the years that followed, as his co-executor I helped settle two pieces of federal litigation that had kept the Yorba Linda stepchild from joining the libraries which, beginning with Herbert Hoover's, are all run by NARA. One lawsuit had to do with access to Nixon's tapes, the other compensation for Congress's taking of all his White House records.

That done at last, we notified Uncle Sam that we were prepared to receive callers. But he was a reluctant suitor. For several years, the phone never rang on Saturday night. If you think I'm about to stretch the metaphor to include a dowry, you're right. We finally had to pay a lobbyist with ample Democratic bona fides $1 million to get legislation written in the House permitting NARA to ship Nixon's records out of Washington to Yorba Linda and paying for an archives wing for the documents, gifts, and tapes.

Along the way we withstood Nixon's fractious family (which torpedoed my first effort to federalize the library in 1996-97 because they thought, wrongly as it turned out, that there would be a bigger pot of gold if we kept fighting in court) and political hacks hanging around at court who were mad that we were paying big bucks to fancy Democratic lobbyists instead of good Nixon cloth coat lobbyists.

Finally, it all came together. By the spring of 2006, our courtship was on the brink of consummation. The glass slipper was tickling our toes. All we needed was a federal director -- somebody who was, frankly, not I. Archivist Allen Weinstein and his deputy, Sharon Fawcett, asked me for names. I gave them just one: Timothy Naftali, a Cold War scholar who had run a groundbreaking presidential tapes project at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Within days, they'd offered him the job. In an article announcing the Naftali appointment, the LA Times' Christopher Goffard wrote:
John H. Taylor, executive director of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation, called Naftali "an independent-minded straight shooter" and "an ideal choice" for the job.

Taylor said Naftali's work with presidential recordings was particularly relevant, because the National Archives plans to transfer nearly 4,000 hours of Nixon's presidential tapes to the library, many of which are difficult to hear.
Tim meets the press
After we handed the library over to the feds in 2007, I remained as Nixon foundation chief. Though friends now, Tim and I had our ups and downs. When I complained about Tim to Allen Weinstein, he reminded me that Naftali had been my idea. When I complained to Naftali, he reminded me that I'd asked him to take the job. Weinstein compared us to squabbling brothers. Our skirmishes were trivial compared to the systematic although impotent assault that the John Dean-hating disciples of disgraced Nixon aide Bob Haldeman mounted against Naftali to try to stop his new Watergate exhibit, which opened in 2011.

I left the library in 2009, pleased, at least, that it was safely in federal hands. I never expected anyone to celebrate my years in Yorba Linda. Tim and I both are here to say that if you want to make friends, don't be director of Nixon's library. My able successor at the Nixon foundation, former Nixon chief of staff Kathy O'Connor, who also ran afoul of the good old Haldeman boys, can sympathize.

And yet I write today to battle for my footnote in Nixon library history. Two weeks ago, from their publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I received a complimentary copy of The Nixon Tapes by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter. Their 758-page book of transcripts is a vital addition to the Nixon bibliography. In the acknowledgements, the authors mention Naftali's work with presidential recordings at the Miller Center and then write:
[S]o it was serendipitous that the National Archives selected him in 2006 to be the first director of the federalized Richard Nixon Presidential Library...
Serendipity is chance, accident, or coincidence. Naftali's appointment was none of these, and saying it was not only obscures my role, incidental though it may have been, but also suggests that the then-archivist of the U.S., no mean scholar himself, had blundered into a smart pick, like Percy Spencer's accidental discovery of the microwave oven.

I actually thought that this was a small thing among gentlemen of the realm. I have a passing acquaintance with Brinkley. He reached out to me when it seemed the Nixon estate might be in the position to help with access to the tapes. I've also known Nichter for several years. I admired his efforts to make the Nixon tapes more broadly available to the public. We had lunch a few months ago. Last week in Washington, he graciously acknowledged the NARA archivists who faithfully cared for and processed the Nixon records while absorbing undeserved, politically inspired criticism, including from those of us on the Nixon side.

So I wrote them both an e-mail praising their work but saying that I felt as though I'd been written out of the story. I asked that they alter the wording in subsequent editions. I didn't suggest how that might be done, but as I look at their phantasmagorical sentence, it seems to me that just changing "serendipitous" to "appropriate" would do it.

Brinkley didn't reply, but Nichter did. Rejecting my claim, he plunged his lance in deep. "This is the first book of its kind," he wrote. "We expected that one of the criticisms we would get is that we didn't do enough in some shape or form. That often happens to those who are trying to start an entirely new conversation." So I'm not only out of line with my request. I'm nipping predictably at the heels of courageous visionaries. It's after midnight, anyway. I'll just head back to my pumpkin.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


We think, and rightly so, that we have a lot to teach our young people. But just as often, as our wonderful St. John’s youth leaders will tell you, the wisdom flows the other way around.

The photo shows eight-year-old Sierra Schwarz at a recent meeting of the St. John’s Parish Council, on which her mother, Bishop’s Committee member Erin Schwarz, serves. Sierra just happened to be reading a biography of Elizabeth the Great, founder of the Anglican Church and royal protector of the Book of Common Prayer, which unites Episcopalians to this day.

In a just few years, Sierra will be eligible for youth group – whose middle and high schoolers recently gave me a lesson of their own in Anglican theology.

For a couple of years, I’ve experimented with a deconstructed Holy Eucharist service that puts enormous emphasis on congregational participation. I first used it when Thom’s, Orange County’s so-called emergent community, worshiped at St. John’s. For the 2013-14 year, I adapted it for our monthly Youth Eucharist services.

If you listen carefully to the Eucharistic prayer on Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday, you’ll hear the whole history of human experience. The wording varies from rite to rite, but the story’s always the same. God’s creation began in unity and love and fell into disunity and sin, to be called back to oneness in Christ.

During my deconstructed service – you might have called it a messy mass -- I closed Elizabeth’s prayer book and invited worshipers to retell the creation story in their own words. They took turns elevating the bread and wine, and we said the prayer of consecration together. By your Holy Spirit, make this bread and wine into your body and blood. (Don’t worry. I had a bishop’s permission!)

I thought that by stepping back from the familiar liturgy and celebrant’s role, I was giving people a renewed sense of ownership and individual involvement in a powerful sacrament that Jesus Christ gave not to the church but to the whole people of God. Hoping to attract a younger generation of skeptical seekers, many churches are experimenting with this kind of liturgical democratization, giving congregations a larger voice in worship, deemphasizing the ordained orders, and setting aside the old prayers and music.

But as it turns out, my experiment wasn’t that popular with the new generation at St. John’s. During their postmortem meeting at the beginning of the summer, our young people said they wanted the old service back.

Don’t get me wrong: Before last year’s experiment, Youth Euch was hardly the drill from Sunday morning. Using music and other means, I did my best each month to vary the first part of the service, the Ministry of the Word, when we hear scripture, share a homily, and pray for our needs and those of others.

But when it comes to the second half, the young people missed the solemnity, piety, and predictability of the prayer book mass, the words we all know and the traditional roles we play. Whatever we’ve experienced in the course of our day, whatever sadness or joy, we come together and bind ourselves to Christ and one another just as we have for 2,000 years. The Lord be with you. And also with you.

Patti Peebles, our chaplain and youth leader, put it best when she gave me the kids’ verdict on my messy mass. “They’re Episcopalians,” she said.

Elizabeth would be proud. And so am I. 

This post first appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Jackson Place," Ch. 1: Just Watch

Painting of 716 Jackson Place by Robin Rogers Cloud
People sometimes tried to sneak into the White House. Tonight, Emily was sneaking out.

As she opened the door of the northwest gate, the one closest to the West Wing, she smiled guiltily at Carl, the handsome uniformed Secret Service agent who always flirted with her. She only had trouble with high heels when she was nervous, and she had never been more nervous in her life. Stepping over the threshold of the little guardhouse, she tripped and almost fell flat on her face.

“Are you okay, Miss Weissman?” he said, jumping to his feet and peering over the reception desk. As she recovered her balance, he looked at her calves and ankles with an expression of deep concern.

Photo by Paul Matulic
“Eyes front, officer,” she said, smoothing her pleated skirt down the front of her thighs. Carl studied this maneuver as well. “I’m just going out for a second. Be right back.” She opened the door facing Pennsylvania Ave.

He called after her. “Strange night to go out,” he said.

“Strange night, period,” she said, waving so Carl could see she had her wallet and ID. The door clicked shut behind her. The sidewalk was crowded with protestors and tourists, who were all dappled with long summer sunset shadows. The mood was momentous and festive at the same time. She felt dozens of eyes glance at her for a minute. Nobody recognized the short redhead in the navy blue dress.

She smiled to herself. Maybe they wondered if she was the secret love child of the president and his notorious redheaded secretary, Rose Mary Woods.

Then she realized that in two and a half hours, they would know exactly who she was.

It was 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 8, 1974, the day the White House had reliably informed its press corps and the world that President Richard Nixon would announce his resignation.

She turned east, crossed 15th St., walked half a block south, and entered the Old Ebbitt Grill, inhaling air conditioning and the smells of cigar smoke and frying cheeseburgers. She walked quickly along the bar, hoping she didn’t run into anyone from the office. A flight of stairs at the back led down to the rest rooms and a small row of phone booths.

She entered one of the booths, closed the folding door, and took a deep breath. Then she dialed home, reversing the charges. Her father answered, which he only did when he was expecting a call or was worried about something. Otherwise it would ring until Elijah came back or her mother finally picked up. He told the operator he would pay for the call.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call for your anniversary on Tuesday,” she said.

“Your mother was a little disappointed,” he said in his kind voice. Emily could picture him in his plaid sweater and corduroy slacks as he sat at the kitchen table with the Detroit News. Her mother was probably still at the sink, washing the dinner dishes. “I told her you were busy, getting ready for tonight.”

She closed her eyes. Busy didn’t quite capture it. She had been conspiring fiendishly to shatter her colleagues’ lives and plunge the nation into chaos. She wondered if her parents would ever speak to her again. She said, “Did you guys have fun? I hope you took mom out.”

“Top of the Pontch, after work,” he said proudly. They couldn’t quite afford it, but Emily’s mother loved the view of the Detroit River from the restaurant in the Pontchartrain Hotel.

“Well done, dad,” she said. When he didn’t respond right away, she said, “I wish I could tell you more about what I’ve been up to.”

They had gotten used to Emily not being able to talk about work. “We trust you,” he said. “At least it will be over soon.” Sidney and Marian Weissman had despised Richard Nixon for their entire adult lives. They’d voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and George McGovern in 1972. In 1969, they’d even gone to a demonstration against the Vietnam war at Wayne State University, during the October Moratorium. She had been in college in Ann Arbor and had called her father and asked if the Revolution offered a senior citizen discount.

She’d always been more conservative than her parents. They had raised her with a heart for justice and those in need. She’d just drifted toward the political center. They’d finally come to terms with it. But they couldn’t hide their disappointment when she told them she was going to work in the Nixon White House at the beginning of the Watergate summer of 1974.

Emily heard Marian say something. Her father said, “Your mother asked about Irwin. When does he plan to take the bar? You still seeing him?”

Sitting in the darkness, twirling the phone cord with her free hand, she smiled. Sidney’s Irish Catholic bride had become a card-carrying Jewish mother, always wondering about her boyfriends and their professional prospects. Her last year of law school in Cambridge was a breeze. Irwin Fried had been a pleasant distraction. But he was too serious and not sexy, and he didn’t like the Rolling Stones or baseball. “Tell mom sorry,” she said.

“I didn’t like him, either,” he said. “So we’ll see you soon? I assume you’ll get some time off.”

Emily said, “Dad, I need you and mom to watch tonight.”

“Like we’d miss it? Your mother and I have been waiting to see Nixon get what he deserves ever since Alger Hiss.”

Emily and her father had been having this argument since she was in high school. Hiss was a New Deal-era diplomat whom a friend, Whittaker Chambers, had accused of being a Soviet spy. As a young congressman from California, Nixon had ridden the case to political superstardom. “Nixon was right,” she said. “Hiss was guilty. Besides, you were grateful for Vietnam. Remember we said a prayer for the president because of the draft, because Bennie didn’t have to go.” Benjamin was her little brother, now in his last year of college.

“He should’ve ended it four years ago,” he said.

She pressed. “He ended it.”

He relented. “Blessings on him for that. Blessings on you, too. You’ll come see us soon?”

“Please, dad. Just watch.”

Jackson Place, a novel, will be published on July 21 in print and e-book at

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Amid A Crowd Of Stars

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

With my mother at Easter
W.B. Yeats’ “When You Are Old” appears in A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, published in 1952 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. My copy has an inscription on the endpaper: “To Harvey on Christmas 1955 with deepest affection from Louis.” Harvey Taylor was my father, Louis Cook my godfather. Handsome Detroit newspapermen, for years they competed for the affections of my lovely newspaperwoman mother, Jean.

I was 14 months old that Christmas. Louis’s inscription expresses magnanimity in defeat. Still, he had probably guessed that alcoholism would destroy my parents’ marriage. Louis told me years later that he’d driven my father to more than one AA meeting. Six-foot-five in his stocking feet, gentle and strong, winner of the Bronze Star in World War II, Louis was biding his time.

In November, my mother moved to Yorba Linda, leaving behind the Pasadena house she bought half a lifetime ago when she got a job editing the old “View” section of the Los Angeles Times. A few years later, she became associate editor and one of the nation’s top female journalists. Kathy and I have been cleaning out her house, the work of many middle-aged children. There isn’t much left. Needing homes are the wrought-iron coffee table she loved and a long, Ponderosa-style dining room table and chairs she had made for the dinner parties she loved to throw.

All I really care about are the things she wrote. A commencement address she delivered at Mount St. Mary’s College. An article entitled “What Is An Episcopalian?”, which she wrote for the Detroit Free Press in 1961, when our General Convention was called in Motown. Her elegiac features about the 1965 murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo. Diary entries, including one on the date of my birth saying I weighed eight pounds, and it hadn’t gone easily. About a year ago, her advancing dementia robbed her of the pleasure of reading these aloud to visitors.

And then there are the letters. Especially Louis’s.

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

My mother wouldn’t marry Louis, which I always wanted her to do, since he was my father for all intents and purposes. She never really explained why, and now, she can’t. Her eyes sometimes glimmer when I mention him or my father. She doesn’t remember her devoted second husband, Richard Lescoe, at all.

The surpassing gift is that she saved about twenty of Louis’s love letters. They’re all written on old-fashioned newspaper copy paper. He never dated them. He wrote one, addressed “Dearest,” during his first visit to New York City, where it appears he was attending the famed Al Smith politicians’ dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria as a member of a Free Press delegation. It must’ve been about 1966, when he and Jean were in their forties.

“I have at last found the milieu for which I was born,” he wrote. “Nowhere in Manhattan can be found a gayer, more suave, more sophisticated man of the world than I. Especially since I stumbled out of a bar taking with me somebody’s Kuppenheimer overcoat. Unfortunately my victim’s gloves don’t fit me but they are Sak’s gray suede and I cut quite a figure dangling them carelessly in my left hand as I saunter down Park Ave.”

My mother loved John F. Kennedy, and at the black tie dinner at the Waldorf, lifelong labor organizer Louis encountered JFK’s nemesis and my future boss. He wrote, “I hesitate to mention this, darling, but Nixon is a fairly engaging character at close range.” Later, my mother managed to convince herself, but not me, that she had voted for Nixon, which made it easier to accept that her son was helping write his books. Her willfulness and my immature frustration made our relationship difficult. The dementia has taken all that away, too. I don’t think she’s ever been happier, nor have we ever been so close. And that is Easter.

And bending down beside the glowing bars
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

This post appeared originally in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church.