Saturday, September 29, 2007

classroom expectations and hopes

I expect the world from my students and myself each and everyday. I live with our failures to meet these expectations because my hopes remain. Last night at parents night, I tell those who enter my classroom about my hopes. Those parents, who don't venture in to what one student calls the Stratz Lair, have to be satisfied with the view from the sidewalk outside my window. Maybe they hear the jazz piano playing of Marian McPartland.

I see some linger looking at the aloes. Maybe they hear hope in my voice.

Early on I speak of hopes for a young man to fight off the OCD intensified fears which slows him down so much. My desire is for him to see that jumping into something, even if it turns out terribly, is a better life than being stuck in front of a blank physics assignment.

But most of the evening is spent with parents whose children attend one of my horticulture classes. I speak of the year they will experience, the career ed goals I will focus on, and I also answer a question expressed by one mother, "Is this the best place for my nearly-old-enough-to-graduate son to be?" I don't know for sure, so I say something like this.....

I would love for all of my students to develop the passion, skill, talent, strength, and luck to graduate into a job working with plants. But I would also be well pleased with them gardening at home, caring for an aloe in a sunny kitchen window, cooking with fresh peppers, or being stopped while walking by a patch of globe amaranths and say, 'how beautiful, I grew them once.' I hope that in experiencing horticulture they will learn that with compassion, life can flourish. By the end I have convinced myself and a parent or two that horticulture is far from a waste of time.

The parents leave. I turn off the jazz, say goodnight to some friends as we head to our cars, and head home.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hermeneutics of Consent stir me up

Things have changed. I am now comfortable with taking the Bible into my heart, not just my mind. It was hard work because I now see my heart was guarded by very talented stoic soldiers and I had to ask these internal guards to leave my heart open to attack by emotions. They listened. It is still hard work, for the Bible challenges me.

I think of my time at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville. Spend a week in silence, allowing for at least three hours of reflections on the Bible each day, and something has to crack. I didn't know what I was headed for on my first long retreat, I thought it would be a break from the daily routine, relaxing, a vacation. In my room was a suggestion, "Read and reflect upon Psalm 139." It ripped into my heart possibly even killing a stoic guard along the way. What emerged at first was anger and sadness which had been there for over 30 years. Four days later, God's love began to fill in the space which had been emptied.

Things have changed. A few weeks ago while worshiping at Wernersville, the beginning of Psalm 139 was read, while we chanted on being wonderfully made. I can believe, even with our flaws, that God creates us wonderfully. Is it that what we deem not wonderful, is truly wonderful? I see this as true. I struggle.

But God is never finished. Last week, my spiritual director directs me to Psalm 139, and now I am to face that God has chosen to create me in this way, at this time, at this place, with these joys, and with these pains. Again my faith is challenged to believe in a God who chooses so much, but I surely didn't chose these things, so who did. Was it God or was it nothing?

There are extremes here and I know folk at both ends, but I don't want to be in either camp. I can't imagine God choosing every thing that happens, and I can't imagine God having no choice. I explain this to my spiritual director who says profound things like, "this is good, you are awake, the exercises are getting things stirred up inside of you."

Saturday, September 22, 2007

time for a friend

I am behind in grading my students work, I scramble to be prepared for teaching, my garden at home has been neglected, and I am falling further behind in my readings for the graduate class I am taking. However, I have found time to pray for an extra hour each day (by getting up early) because I have started Ignatius's spiritual exercises in everyday life. Prayer is a fine time to discern what needs to be done.

Three weeks ago I heard some sad news. Two weeks ago I walked a labyrinth and that news came into my prayer. A friend at work has gotten some rotten medical news and is at home hoping for a miracle. As I sat in the middle of the labyrinth God says, "Tell me you don't have the time to go visit the man. The man who has greeted you with kindness for ten years." What could I say to that?

His wife is an avid gardener and requested help dividing day lilies and irises which are taking over portions of her yard. She pointed out that the day lilies were a favorite of his. I e-mail her telling her I wanted to get some so that I could bring them to work and create a garden with my horticulture students.

I was well into getting myself sweaty and dirty when he came outside with his feeding tube. We sat in the middle of an amazing garden. While I drank water, we chatted. We spoke about spiritual retreats, the school we work at, the garden, his diagnosis, and Psalms. I have heard he is praying psalms every night. I tell him psalm 139 is important to me, and it turns out that we share favorite psalms. He tells me how he watches the Christmas Carol each year because of a recitation of psalm 139.

An hour or so later I was headed to the school to unload a car filled to the brim with lilies and irises. I am physically and emotionally drained. The day is near over and all of the things which I have fallen behind are still on my to do list. I do believe I discerned correctly on how I spent this day.

Tonight my prayer takes me to the idea of God creating us out of nothing each moment. I sense this is how miracles can occur. In that instant of being recreated, maybe, just maybe healing can occur.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Hermeneutics of Discernment.

At this stage the idea of the Bible being a sacred text became a possibility in my thinking. I began to trust it as a place to search for answers. And that brings to mind how the United Church of Christ here in southeast Pennsylvania has hired a woman to be a spiritual leader for the conference. A month ago, she bowed in front of me as we leave a Mexican restaurant and says, "Oh great spiritual master."

I say, "No, taking classes to get a masters in spirituality does not make me your spiritual master."

she bows again and like most times we get together we laugh and smile.

Things started when I began to Walk With God. The PA southeast UCC'ers have a yearly spiritual retreat at a place called Mensch Mill. I have been to most but not all of these annual events. Sadly I will not be there this October because I am expected to be at work that weekend for professional training. I wish I could call out spiritually ill. I do take spiritual health days, but this weekend I can't get out of without major frowns from bosses.

Time with the Bible has led to it sinking from my head to my heart. Lectio Divina has been introduced on my retreats. One Lent I spent Saturdays travelling to be in a group of UCC'ers who took a spiritual journey together reading Joyce Rupp's Cup of Life.

The Bible has many images and names of God and it was during this stage that I let that list grow. The hermeneutics of Antipathy had blacklisted names, now I could begin accepting God in different ways.

I remember reading the Bible one day and coming across Jesus as master. It jumped out at me because it was ready to be considered. Yes, healer was easy, but master for me was not. I had thought of master as one who commands because of a need to exploit and control, not as one who guides through love. To this day some of the commands are difficult, for example I have yet to sell all my possessions to follow Jesus. That is when God, the one who forgives us, comes to mind. The one who celebrates each year as more and more of our money is given to those who feed the hungry, house the poor, and care for the abused. Well, I hope there is celebration.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Hermeneutics of Appreciative

When I returned to church ten years ago, I decided that if I would ever leave the church again, I wanted to know what I was leaving. So, I became a lay biblical scholar among other things.

I read the Bible from front to back and discovered a thing or two (thousand) along the way. Psalmists wanting enemy children bashed on rocks comes to mind. At that time , I had many doubts about God and so I think it was read with this lens of hermeneutics between me and the written word.

It carried forth into the time I began to lead adult classes at my church. I would go to commentaries and then talk about the meanings of Hebrew and Greek words. Talk about what was happening when the text was written. Talk about the story being told. If memory serves me as I reflect on this, it was this talk that was primary to my lessons. Reflecting on how the story touched my life was low on the priority. How scholars and authors across time had been touched by it was primary. I was in search of knowing what Christianity was about, not yet open to feeling an emotional response.

The above image of the mountain speaks to me as I think of one class which I taught. With concordance in hand I found fifteen passages from the Bible which mentioned a mountain. Each person in the adult class randomly chose a passage and then read it out loud. It was a whirlwind trip from here to there. Fascinating, but there was no time for reflection. They were read to tell the stories in the Bible, not to tell the stories in our hearts. I am looking at this image of a distant mountain seen through weathered rock. The mountain is framed. I am not seeing the full picture or fully experiencing the mountain.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Hermeneutics of Antipathy

Pileated Woodpecker
Originally uploaded by ann j p
this is stage one of five during which I will travel with the help of some new big words provided from my professor at Chestnut Hill College. Ok, so I am blogging to get started on a paper due any day now.

When I was an undergrad in the early 80's I was given a paper to read in one of my environmental science classes that stated with some certainty that the mess we humans had created were all caused by Christians. It was all because God told us to subdue the world. At the time Ronald Reagan was president, James Watt was by his side, and I was an angry young man having just experienced a general lack of joy for three semesters at a conservative Presbyterian college. So it made sense to me. The Christians that made it into the media truly did seem to have a lack of concern for the ecology of the planet.

So, I became a humanist and saw more and more "deleterious consequences for human life" perpetuated by the Bible. Apparently this is what a hermeneutic of antipathy sees and looks for in the Bible. I still see it, but I see more.

So, why a photo of a Pileated woodpecker. The first one I ever saw made my heart leap for joy, something my stoic self tried to prevent. I was an undergrad. My love of nature had warmed my heart. My association with a group of like minded students had led me to the Smokey Mtns and there I saw this woodpecker the size of a crow. I have seen many in Pennsylvania since then, but that was my first sighting, and the joy leaped through my body. An early seed to break the antipathy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

creation today: it is still good

When I returned to church 10 years ago, I had plenty of doubts and some of them I was sure would stay with me forever. I did not want to touch the first chapter of Genesis, but I did.

It had to compete with my biology degree and interest in evolution. How could the two go together? Wasn't this whole subdue the Earth thing the main reason the planet had environmental issues?

The first break in the fence around my heart happened with the repetitive phrasing of God sensing that creation was good. Who could argue with that? Creation is amazing, if not always gentle and non-violent. The amazement I felt deep inside me that led to my studies in biology seemed to be shared with God. That was good.

Later a minister asked if I would help him with a project. He wanted to rewrite the creation story as if the Hebrews knew what we think we know today. So there we were with Big bangs, and interstellar dust, laws of physics and bacteria, evolution and hominids. But through it all, I wanted those words: and it was good. Pleasing to God.

Talking about cells today in my anatomy class a student said, "all cells come from cells." I agreed, but asked what the problem was with that statement, and soon enough I was asked where the first cell came from.

I said, "It is a mystery. A mystery that can not be explained. No scientist or theologian can tell us with certainty how or why that first cell came into being. But we can be happy that it did."

For it was good.

The images featured here were taken by Margaret. We are at my work place. She played with the camera at night and I watered the flower garden. The Lyng's sunflower I am stretching for once stood over nine feet tall before the weight of the flower bent it over. It took me 18 years to get to six feet, this plant only took 3 months to tower over me.

I am still filled with amazement at what has been created and what has evolved.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

paired down

Last night there were no drums, horns, piano, or vocals; but Dave Holland brought his bass and Steve Nelson showed up with his vibes. And part one of Lafayette College's jazz series, which are all duets, began.

Easton, PA is a bit of a drive, but it is familiar territory for this guy from the Lehigh Valley. What we experienced was beauty. Two masters who have known each other for years having fun; playing together.

I thought of collaboration and doubts arose that I would never experience what these two men were experiencing. I thought of my life with Margaret. I thought of how radically different this seemed from the music I heard on the Dave Holland Big Band CD, which I had once checked out of a library. I thought of how these instruments are usually drowned out in larger groups. I began to see it as two solos constantly intermingling. But as important and profound as these thoughts might be, what I wanted to focus on was the music and stopping my ever floating brain became the problem.

On the silent retreat I had wondered how a person could be aware of being with God and being mindful of the present moment. My brain concluded that it was impossible.

In the ten days which I have been home, I have discovered that an internal chant of "I am here" or "Be still," has led me to be able to focus on everything from hugging Margaret, to praying liturgy at church, to listening to jazz duets.

so much for conclusions of my ever so large brain.

special thanks for Justin Oakman who took his camera to a jazz concert and caught the two men alone in one image.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Childhood memories

seen at a quilt show, name of  quilter sadly forgotten
photo by Wayne Stratz

   I have few clear memories of my early years and two that I have, my mom told me never happened. It must have been in dreams that I fell down stairs and that I got off the school bus a stop or two early. My childhood is a bit fuzzy, so I may be wrong on this, but I don't think the Bible was read much in my home. I do remember a Bible, the cover was white. I don't know what the translation was. I do remember a picture book of Bible stories, but again the memory is fuzzy.

We went to St John's Evangelical Lutheran church in Bath, PA. This I know. We sat on the right hand side, a few pews from the front. My grandmother sat in the back row with lady friends. Pappy did not come to the church. I know I learned the classic Bible stories in Sunday School. Went through a confirmation class during the 1970's. The Bible was not a huge part of my life outside of Sunday mornings. But when I returned to it in my 30's. It was familiar.

I remember things now, maybe because of repetition. The end of the service was a hymn. When it was over we would stand in silence as the organist played the tune one more time. I would compose lyrics in my head. After church we would drive a short distance to my grandma's house where Pappy would finish meals with a slice of bread smothered with apple butter. After lunch Mamie would bring out the quilts she was working on that week. I can still see Pappy enjoying good food, and Mamie flinging her quilts out into the air for us to see.

Sunday, September 2, 2007


Originally uploaded by stratoz
In the silence of Wernersville I went to flickr, clicked on YOU and found me in this photo which Margaret took a few days before I left for the retreat. Not only did I see that I was wonderfully made, but I greeted myself in my flaws. Flawed but wonderful am I.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

before the last 54 hours of noise

My creaky car door slammed into the silence. I had just dropped a load of stuff into my car when I made the noise. It catches the attention of the Sister (who ate the tomato salad!). I walk over and say, "They pay me to make that noise to announce the end of silence."

she says, "it could use some WD4o."

She walks back the the center, and I to the UCC cemetery. Birds are few, but I stop and look to the left and up and there is the moon in the morning sky. I ask Sophia for reminders to get me through my life. To stop, to ask for stillness, to be gentle, to be aware of God's unfolding creation.

At 8 am I enter the dining hall, the silent breakfast is ending and I am pleased to see the woman mentioned above sitting down to eat. I sit down and have a conversation. We are joined by a priest from New Jersey, a Sister from NYC, who happens to be the woman who shared the bench with me; and another Sister, who says I am sweet because I had told her in passing that I had appreciated her piano playing through a door the other night.

As the non-Catholic in the group I get a lesson on what is happening in the Catholic universe and we get to know each other. They ask me how it was to be the only man in the feminine images of God group. I say, "we only met together once and I had the longest hair." I clear my dishes and walk over to Father Sneck to ask if I am Catholic enough to sign the Catholics against the war petition.

It is mass where the emotions start to fly. We leap in by singing Lover of Us All.... "with sun and moon we dance with joy...." Father Sneck leads the service and as he always does leaves most of the homily to us. Most of those who do choose to talk mention the fire alarm, the sweaty building, the 12 hours with non-flushing toilets. I say something like this:

"Part of my packing is randomly choosing 20 or so jazz CD's. Somehow I chose at least 4 versions of the standard, "What's New." What's new is Sophia. Sister Maria with much courage directed me into painful places and Sophia provided the gentleness to find healing My hope is for that gentleness to stay with me when I leave and interact with my wife, my students and the rest of creation."

The closing song is "We Are Called" We close out our time together with so much heart felt spirit I am overwhelmed by joy once again. I thank the Jesuits whose worship has helped so much on this retreat. I tell father Barron how the birds brought his message back to me last night. Goodbyes done, I discover a Men's room is now labeled Women. They are ready for us to leave.

I think of writing once more as I step outside, but I run into my bench sharing new bird watching buddy. She is telling me about her trips to Africa and I am telling her the names of the birds, and have gotten to white-breasted nuthatch when another Sister comes over and says, "Wayne, you are gentle."

I try to dismiss the compliment and say, "I have some moments...." But she cuts me off, and as she waves goodbye says, "We all have those."

In a few minutes I am driving through the gates filled with hope. Three times my hand reaches to turn the radio on, and each time I stop myself, for this drive will be in silence.