Monday, December 27, 2010

The joys of winter gardening

As the rest of the country reels from blizzards and hunkers down for an impending ice age, I am enjoying one of the perks of being a Los Angeleno: winter gardening.

After a week of drenching rain, the LA sun burst forth in all her glory, the May flies swarmed in the humid air, and an inner voice whispered, "It's planting time!"

Since I missed the fall deadline for planting seeds. I went to OSH to buy potted plants. As I filled my cart with my favorite winter veggies, I inhaled the heady and intoxicating smell of humus---a high that gardeners cannot resist. I felt a rush of joy and remembered what Adam told Eve in Paradise Lost: "Not for irksome toil but for delight God made us." In case you're wondering, the delight that Adam was referring to was gardening.

Yesterday I planted my potted veggies in my kitchen garden--a one-by-twelve-foot strip of land next to my back door where I grow greens and herbs for salads and cooking. It wasn't very onerous work since last year I painstakingly prepared the ground, using a pick axe to bust sod that had turned rock hard and didn't want to relinquish its grip. Last year's sod-busting nearly killed my back. This year the soil was soft as cake as I gently turned it over with plastic hand digger. I planted lettuce, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, collared greens, parsley, cilantro, onions, etc. I also harvested a half dozen exquisitely delicious tomatoes from my last tomato plant, which has not only survived, but thrived.

Gardening has been a passion of mine most of my life. When I was in grad school, and spent much of my time in the library, the garden was a godsend--a way to get out of my head and down-to-earth. One of the best lessons I learned from grad school was how to grow basil and make pesto.

When I was living in an apartment in West Philly during the Quaker phase of my life, I had an urban garden which inspired a poem I called "The Surrender Garden" (instead of "Victory Garden") which I will quote later.

Today I began turning over the soil in my front garden. That's a bigger task than my kitchen garden since it's ten by fifteen feet in size, but since the sod was busted last year and I used lots of grass clippings as mulch, the soil was soft as putty and swarming with earthworms--a good sign of soil health. I was able to turn over half the garden in half an hour without straining a muscle.

I plan to use a seed catalogue this year and experiment with plants not easily found elsewhere--brussel sprouts, beets, asparagus, arugula, and some purple potatoes.

There is no end to the joys of gardening, whether you do it in the winter, spring, summer or fall. For me, it's a spiritual practice that brings the body and the soul in harmony with the Ground of Being--the Creator and Sustainer of Life--and always fills me with deep gratitude. As the Psalmist says, "Taste and see! the Lord is good!"

The Surrender Garden

(for Wendell Berry)

I farm a room-sized plot of earth
where once a factory stood.
In spring, I'm met by eager volunteers--
onions and leeks, Swiss chard and kale
green and sweet as those in paradise.
But as I turn the soil for the first time,
bricks the size and shape of potatoes
stick in my digger's stubborn teeth.
My brow sweats. My winter-weary muscles ache.
I feel the effects of the fall.

My seeds are scattered to the sound
of kids and cars, trolleys and boom boxes.
I use my hands instead of a digger
because I love to mold and stroke the earth,
to feel it touch my skin.
I sit in my garden like a kid in a sandbox
and think of my Greek grandfather
for whom gardening was no game.
With the sun and rains
weeds rise up like angry peasants
insisting on their squatter's rights.
I can't blame them.
I've been an absentee.
Down on my knees, I make a space
for my seedlings as I pull the weeds
carefully by the roots,
roots that go on and on
like my compulsions and obsessions.
This is the work that never seems to end,
the work my father and his father handed down.

Some evenings I come here simply to sit alone,
and watch things grow.
It's quiet and still as a church.
At the far end of the garden
a woman waters her flowers,
and the smell of wet earth rises
like a prayer, an offering,
into the darkening sky.

Philadelphia, 1985

Saturday, December 25, 2010

One of the best Christmas gifts ever,,,,

I took my homeless friends Melissa and Shaun to lunch today. As readers of this blog know, Melissa is a homeless woman who has adopted me as her "father-in-Christ." She calls me daily on her cell phone and we get together once a month for lunch.

Melissa has had a tough life. She is around 30 years old, crippled due to neurofibromitosis, and lives on $930 per month SSI. She also has a 11-year-old daughter whom she adores, but she cannot live with because she can't afford to provide her daughter Kristine (not her real name) with suitable housing. Kristine has lived with foster parents, and now with Melissa's parents, who have given Melissa a hard time since she was a baby. Through much of her life, Melissa has experienced rejection from her parents, who sent her to foster care, and even now side with Melissa's abusive husband rather than with their own daughter. This Christmas Melissa's parents would let her have Xmas dinner with them and her daughter only if Melissa agreed to buy the food!

Melissa remains cheerful, nonetheless, and is grateful that she has Shaun as her boyfriend and caregiver. Both of them became Christians around five years ago and have been faithful and supportive of each other ever since. It never ceases to amaze me how they manage to stay together under such trying circumstances.

I couldn't think of better Christians to spend Christmas with, so I invited them to lunch. They were thrilled not only because they have no money with which to buy food, but also because no one has ever taken them out to dinner on Christmas. This was such a special occasion Melissa even wore makeup--something she has never done before!

I picked them up at a donut shop in Torrance near the cheap motel where they live. We drove to Norm's for lunch but it was so crowded we decided to go elsewhere. We were on our way to IHOP when Melissa pointed out a hole-in-the-wall cafe called "Mrs. G's."

"Let's go there," said Melissa. "It's got good food and it's cheap."

"Money isn't a problem," I said. "Let's go to a nice place."

"This is a nice place," Melissa replied. "I've taken my daughter there. Twice."

That made it a 5-star restaurant, as far as Melissa is concerned. Any place she has been with her daughter is golden.

As far as I'm concerned, Mrs. G's had only one thing in its favor. It was very quiet. Virtually no one was there, even though it was Christmas. That's because it's not the kind of place that middle class families would go to for a holiday meal. It had the funky look of a 50s diner. The plastic covers on the chairs were repaired with Scotch tape. But Melissa assured me the food was good. She always orders the same thing: steak and eggs.

During our leisurely meal we had a good time talking about various things: family, religion, politics. Shaun is very articulate and we share most of the same views about political matters.

Melissa doesn't think much of politics. She likes to talk about people, particularly those she has been able to help. And she always has at least one memorable story.

"A friend of mine has mental problems," Melissa explained. "I was helping him and he told me I was from another planet. I said, 'What do you mean? I'm not an alien!' He goes, 'I know you're not an alien, but you're not from this world. You're an angel.'"

Shaun and I both agreed Melissa's friend got it right: she is an angel-in-training, earning her wings every day on the streets.

They gave me a Christmas card and when I got home, I read it and was deeply moved. It proved to be the best gift I've received this Christmas. Here's what it said:

"Dear Anthony, Well, Christmas is here again , and we have the herculean task of trying to put into words what you mean to us. You are a friend, a mentor, a cheerful well-wisher, and a father-in-Christ to two people who desperately need all those things. We love and think of you all the time. You can never know how much you mean to us. Merry Christmas, Melissa and Shaun."

I don't know how to put into words how much Melissa and Shaun mean to me. All I know is that when I am around them, I can feel the presence of Jesus and of angels and other blessed spirits, and I am grateful, beyond what words can tell. And I am sharing this with you so you will know that Jesus wasn't kidding when he said: "Blessed are the poor" and "Tis better to give than to receive..." When you give to the poor in love, what you receive back is priceless.

If you'd like to see a youtube of Melissa and Shaun, taken when I treated them to a Thanksgiving dinner, check out:

This will open your eyes (and hopefully your heart) about the plight of the homeless.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Real Live Baby Jesus Touches the Heart of a Greedy Kid

For a number of years I helped my wife with the children's program at her Methodist church. I served in a variety of capacities: helping with crafts, serving snacks, leading discussions, and dressing up as various biblical figures from Moses to Jesus for Vacation Bible School and skits. It was fun, but we sometimes wondered how much of an impact we were having on the kids. Some were churched, some unchurched, and some came from families so alienated from religion and God you wondered why they left their kids with us. The cynical answer: we provided free child care!

I remember in particular an elementary school kid named Katie whose mother had a bitter divorce and was extremely cynical about everything. As a result of emotional neglect at home, Katie was unbelievably needy and greedy. Whenever we offered prizes to learn Bible verses, Katie was always anxious to get the "best" prize. And if she didn't get what she wanted, she would start crying like a pre-schooler.

Like most girls her age, she was an avid consumer and utterly Machiavellian when it came to manipulating adults. I remember overhearing Katie and some other girls talking about various ploys to use in order to guilt-trip parents into buying stuff they wanted.

Katie had no idea about God or Jesus when she first came to our Kids' Club, but gradually she got the idea that Jesus had something to do with being nice and loving people. But her main goal in Kids' Club was to act the main part in skits and get all attention and prizes she possibly could. And heaven forbid that she shared anything with anyone else!

I often wondered if our efforts to teach the message of Jesus made any difference in the lives of kids like Katie. I remembered the cynical saying that the church provided just enough of a dose of Christianity to insure that people were immune to it for the rest of their lives.

The test of my faith (and hers) came one Christmas when we took our Kids' Club to Manhattan Beach to take part in the Journey to Bethlehem (see This is an amazing experience, the Renaissance Faire of Christmas. Members of this church go to astonishing lengths to re-construct the village of Bethlehem as authentically as they can, with little shops, stalls, goats, donkeys, and people dressed in biblical costumes. As in Renaissance Faires, people learn how to act in character, whether they are Roman soldiers, shopkeepers, or religious figures. Kids of all ages, from 5 to 85, love this experience which brings to life the nativity story.

As you enter the Bethlehem, you are given shekels, tokens that can be used to buy cookies and cider, time in the petting zoo, and other goodies. Naturally, Katie and the kids took their shekels very seriously and hoarded them for just the right purchase.

After a while, some angels appeared on the rooftop of a nearby building, illuminated by spotlights and surrounded by clouds formed by dry ice. With a fanfare of trumpets they announced the birth of a Savior in the city of Bethlehem. Everyone looked around to see what would happen.

At first, nothing seemed to be happening. You almost didn't notice a man with a donkey, his pregnant wife precariously perched on the donkey's back. It was so crowded this unremarkable couple were almost invisible, just as they would have been in real life. Soon people began noticing and followed the couple as they made their way to a stable. There a line formed and we all waited for the opportunity to see the baby Jesus,

Katie was beyond herself with excitement, and so were all the other kids. It was a long, long wait---maybe five or even ten minutes--but it seemed forever. Finally, we got to the inside of the stable and there was Mary with her baby. Not a toy baby, as we expected, but a real one--a baby maybe six months or a year old, but still, a real, live baby!

Katie and there other kids were of course in awe of this unexpected miracle, and she was not alone. All of us felt wonder at the mystery of this real-live baby in which the Divine Light glowed. Katie turned to me and said very quietly and seriously,

"Can I give the baby Jesus a present?"

"Of course," I said.

With great care Katie reached over the fence and gave Mary her shekels.

Katie's face was glowing in a way that I had never seen before.

At that moment, I thought that perhaps our efforts hadn't been wasted. I knew the somewhere Jesus was smiling as he accepted this love gift from one of his broken, but nonetheless beloved and lovable children.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Audacity of Love

I bring greetings of peace and hope, both of which are in short supply during this holiday season. Two years ago we elected a leader who campaigned with a message of hope--the audacity of hope, he called it--but it's hard to see signs of hope in this dark political climate:

  • The US has the highest rate of child poverty, homelessness, and incarceration in the industrial world.
  • The US has the highest health care costs and the poorest health outcomes
  • The US is still the "largest purveyor of violence in the world"(to use MLK's phrase)--with the lion's share of our budget going to war--and our country still practices torture, despite claims to the contrary.

  • When we learn the dirty secrets of the US empire and transnational corporations through the courageous expose of Wikileaks, our government tries to destroy the messenger rather than take seriously the message.

  • Taxes are cut for the rich and the middle class, and raised for the poor, while benefits for the poor are slashed. And our president has the audacity to tell us this is the best we can hope for!

Many of us have been led to despair because our hopes in Obama were based on a delusion-the delusion that we can transform our society simply by electing a new leader who will "fix" our problems.

This hope was not well grounded. We need to be the change we want in the world, and we need to put our faith into action. Hope without faith in the Divine--the Divine in each of us--is vain, and faith without love (faith in action) is dead.

Love and faith are what empower us to do what needs to be done to justify hope.

What gives me hope is not an idea (though clear thinking and sound analysis are very important), but the Spirit embodied in people. People committed to making this a better world are the ones who are helping to bring the Heavenly Kingdom down here to earth, where it is desperately needed

So instead of talking about my own efforts, as I often do in my holiday letter, I'd like to share with you the people who give me hope. Let me begin with the people in the top picture: the members of the Parliament of the World's Religion ( who went with me to Melbourne, Australia, for the largest interfaith gathering in the world. These dedicated peace makers work unceasingly to create interreligious understanding both locally and globally

I am also inspired by Melissa and Shaun, a homeless couple who have embodied faithful love and hope in spite of tremendous challenges. Melissa doesn't let her disability get her down, and Shaun also remains cheerful despite life's vicissitudes. I plan to take them out to lunch on Christmas this year since I can think of no more fitting way of celebrating the birth of Jesus than by sharing a meal with those He dearly loves.

The next picture shows Dick Bunce and Steve Rhode, both members of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace ( As former president of the So Cal chapter of ACLU, Steve has been an courageous defender of civil liberties. He also works with Progressive Jewish Alliance, Death Penalty Focus and other good causes. For the last couple of years he has served as our first Jewish president of ICUJP and brought to our group his amazing intellect, compassion and passion for justice. Dick Bunch, a Methodist pastor, has also worked tirelessly for peace and justice, and for the welfare of the mentally ill.

Pictured on the left are two other dear ICUJPers: Grace Dyrness and George Regas, pastor emeritus of All Saints and founder of ICUJP. George is such a well-known and beloved interfaith leader that nothing needs to be said about him other than he is a joy to be around. He radiates honesty and joy (and also happens to be Greek, like me). Next to him is Grace Dyrness, a professor at USC, and a community organizer, who works for the homeless and other marginalized groups both here in the USA and around the world. She deserves to be called Amazing Grace!

Two other dear members of our Beloved Community showed up at the ICUJP holiday party: Shakeel Syed, the ED of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, and Peter Laarman, the ED of Progressive Christians Uniting. They are both champions of justice and peace, and dear friends.

Next are two pastors, Pastor Diane Rehfield (a Methodist) and Pastor Judy (a Presbyterian) from the hotmeal program at Walteria UMC. These dear people not only do good, but also inspire others to do likewise. They are the salt of the earth, the leaven in the loaf, that Jesus spoke glowingly about. God bless them!

Finally there is the Rev. Louis Logan and his daughter Angelique. Louis arrived late for the ICUJP Christmas party this year because he had spent the night in jail. His crime? Protesting against the predatory practices of banks that have devastated the economy of disadvantaged communities like the black neighborhood he serves. He carried a sign that read: WE GET NOTICES, THEY GET BONUSES. The spirit of Dr. King lives on in this courageously faithful pastor.

There are just a few of the many people who are part of the Beloved Community here in Los Angeles--people I know and love. These are the people who give me hope--people whose Light shines in the darkness.

May all of us take time to pray, reflect, and connect with our own Inward Light. Take time to listen to what that Light is telling you to do. And then have the audacity to love, and to let your Light shine--in your family, your neighborhood, and around the world. Then truly the living Christ will be born where it really matters, in your heart and in the hearts of those around you.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"The Calling" and other treasures

This week I saw a preview of a powerful documentary that explores the feelings and motivations of young people who have "callings"--mostly religious--though one young evangelical Christian loses his religious faith and becomes a teacher (another kind of calling).

At the Actors' Gang in Culver City, where the screening took place, two of the young people in the documentary were present and answered questions. At another screening in San Pedro, a local pastor presided and led a discussion afterwards. This documentary lends itself to deep discussion and raises some searching questions for us to address, such as, What is YOUR calling in life?

As you can see from the trailer, participants in the documentary are very diverse--a Muslim woman who wants to become an imam, a Catholic priest, a Protestant youth pastor, etc.

Note that this two-part series airs on back-to-back nights December 20 and 21 at a special time - 9 PM on PBS nationwide. For trailers and other info, see and

Speaking of previews, I have been working on a new blog for the Quaker Universalist Fellowship at This blog will be formally launched in January 2011, but if you go to this site now you can connect with our Quaker Universalist Fellowship website which contains a treasure trove of interesting stuff about Universalism and Interfaith. The most recent post is a pamphlet about a recent trip to Iran taken by Steve Angell, a professor from the Earlham School of Religion.

I am pleased to be on the board of Quaker Universalist Fellowship as well as of the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference--two national Quaker organizations devoted to promoting understanding among peoples of different faith traditions. This new blog will report on the important peace-making work of both these organizations

In keeping with the interfaith spirit, I want to wish you all a happy Hanukwanzamas!

Monday, December 13, 2010

"We Loved As Best We Could"....and other pearls

I think of poetry as the soul's "pearl of great price." Pearls are beautiful, yet they were not created to be beautiful. They were made by the oyster to protect itself from a painful foreign substance, like a grain of sand or grit. Slowly and painfully, the soft innards of the oyster transforms the irritant until it becomes a thing of beauty, a lustrous pearl.

I find that poetry is the soul's way of transforming the pain of love and life into something lustrous and beautiful. It is a slow, inward process--a miracle of tranformation.

Over the last few months, as my heart opened up like an oyster opening its shell, I found myself writing a series of poems, some of which I have shared on the blog. This week I was pleased that "The Western Friend" published this poem I wrote two months ago, just as I met a new friend who entered my life like Blake's grain of sand:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour....

At an art gallery in Bergamot Station

with the curiosity of a scientist
and the searching eye of an artist
you puzzled how
these boulder-sized stainless steel cubes
were crumpled like boxes of Kleenex
with such amazing artistry they seemed alive
gathered in a circle to worshipor just breathing

the answer was simple: a vacuum pump
sucked all the air from these perfect cubes
and the weight of the atmospherewe take for granted crushed them
into living forms

is it not so with us
when we let ourselves be emptied
and let the Unseen have its way
nature abhors a vacuum
but the Spirit loves and needs our emptiness
so we can be crushed and molded
into perplexing beauty

Over the next two months our relationship unfolded, and many beautiful pearls were created:

Vesper Light

meditating with the scent of sage
filling the room with a sense of peace
i think of You
night-blooming jasmine,
pulsing with fragrance too sweet,
too potent to put into words

i think of You walking on streets
transmuted by the cool of the evening
and wisps of vesper clouds
floating in the western sky
with their underbellies soft and pink
and a belt of cobalt blue
darkening and deepening beneath them
and masses of wine-dark clouds
like mountains, islands, forests rising from an unseen sea
as if daring a painter to paint them or a poet to describe them

i think of You when words fail and the heart is at peace
what else is there to think of but You?

closing circle at pendle hill
at close of day, just before bedtime,
a circle of Friends sits and reflects
on a bowl of autumn leaves
so vibrantly colored they don't seem real,
and listens to poems we have known for years
read by an aging English couple
slowly, deeply like the echoes in a well
the mournful choir of gnats....the wild swans of Coole....

familiar words, yet able to surprise us still
to charm into stillness with their old magic

but then a deeper magic
surprisingly appears
amidst these gray heads and fallen leaves
i think with gratitude
of You, a flower
unfolding its pale pink petals
against the endless blue
horizon of your eyes
in the warm, throbbing
springtime of my astonished heart

Counting the days

As the train pulled out of the station,
another day of traveling,
another day without you
movies starring us
recur in my mind,
some reruns
that make my heart smile,
some still in the storyboard stage
with the same recurring questions:
is she the one, the one for me,
am i the one, the one for her?'
am i? is she? what next?
what next? what next?

all aboard! the next stop is....
the train moves on and on and on
all I know is
i count the days
until i see you again

An exchange of dreams

She: i sink into the dark, the place
where the dark one sometimes comes
my panther, my spirit guide
when i hit rock bottom
the floor was luminescent green
and i sat and waited
sometimes he comes and carries me away
in his great paws
sometimes he eats me, crunches my bones
but i don't mind
i don't feel any pain, just surprise
and once he ate my arms
and i was glad---out of the bloody sockets
four arms grew
four new arms with which to create new art!

now i am sitting and waiting
on the green luminous floor
and he appears,
only he is not black but silver gray
like your hair--
he crouches and waits, watching me
and i sit and watch him watching me
and feel at peace

He: i rose out of my bed
and glided towards the front door
opened the doorknob and flew away
into the clear blue sky
and looked down at the beautiful vistas
mountains and valleys and endless blue seas
and i was not afraid
i was being held by the loving hand
of My Beloved

Then suddenly and unexpectedly, the dream ended, with this pearl of a poem emerging after a week of pain:

“We loved as best we could”

One morning you suddenly left
on my doorstep
a package of memories--
all the gifts I'd ever given you--
with a note labelled "returned to sender,"
and I recoiled in shock...

It was as if you burned down
our lovely hanging bridge,
a bridge constructed lovingly
of bits of wood and straws and
lollipop stems and paper flowers glued on,
and ropes of candy necklaces--

a bridge of dreams
over a gorge thick with mist.

For days the smoke and mist were so thick
it was impossible to see
and the sound of water
thundered so resoundingly
we couldn't hear a thing
but the echoes of our own words
of explanation,

Sick at heart,
we watched the fragments of our lovely bridge
caught in whirlpools
spinning helplessly round and round
until carried away downstream

Then a paper airplane glided to the shore
with a simple message
"we loved as best we could"

And the smoke and mist cleared
just enough to see
on the far, far distant shore
a tiny figure waving her hand
whether to say 'goodbye' or 'hello'
I couldn't tell

Beloved Friend, Source of All That Is, I give thanks for the "perplexing beauty" of life and love, with all its pain, and joy.