Harold Fry, Walter Mitty and Me

I am a pilgrim at heart.

One of my earliest memories is of my dad coming to say goodbye to 4 or 5 year old me in the dark hours of the morning as he headed off on a business trip to a magical, faraway place called Switzerland. That seemed to me to be a lot like Disneyland but for grownups.

I can still smell his cologne, feel his freshly shaven face on mine as he whispered his love and promised soon to return, and I knew the black fancy car was already out front waiting to whisk him away to the airport and off to his adventure. More than anything in the world, I wanted to go too.

The urge to travel, or more specifically, to journey, I am sure is etched deep in my DNA, and throughout the years of my life I have traveled as time, opportunity and good fortune have permitted.books

I have been transported by the requisite trains, planes and automobiles. I have traveled on foot, by bike, by boat and, dare I admit it, even in my imagination, but some of my favorite journeys have been by way of books and the millisecond frames of provocative films. My own story seemed best told as a pilgrimage, a travelogue of interior places, even though physically I rarely left the confines of my living room. The Spirit, however, seems uniquely undeterred by what we think of as boundaries of time and space. The world of the psalms, I discovered, was a place where past, present and future were all accessible, where physical space dissipated in ways that defied explanation, where the longest, most arduous portions of my journey were mysteriously begun and completed in the span of a few silent, still, knee-bent hours.

And so it should come as no great surprise that when my family made a bee-line for the Waterstone bookstore that was a mere stones throw from our Trafalgar flat last week, I hiked up my skirts and joined the mad dash. It should come as no further surprise that the book I selected and started thumbing through on the walk back, nose book-ward and thus running into people and trees, was aptly titled, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. The book tells the story of a simple English man, a few years into retirement, who sets out one day — in yachting shoes and a slight jacket — to walk down the lane and post a letter to a dying friend, and ends up walking the entire way across England to deliver the letter in person. His motivations are breathtaking — simple, painful, archetypal — and like most motivations for most of us, they are inaccessible to him until he actually begins to walk. It is in the walking, in the hunger of journeying, the leaving behind and the stepping forward one foot after the other, that he matures, a process that begins with a wrenching self-knowledge and ends with self-offering and joyful abandon.

I finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage somewhere over Greenland. The plane was dark, most were asleep, and I felt an exquisite sadness that there was no one else on that plane who knew Harold Fry, no one with whom I could reflect upon his well-traveled road. I blew my nose and dried my tears, sat for a spell in the dark, and pondered it all. Finally, feeling somewhat blue at having to say goodbye to Harold, I decided to see if there were any movies worth watching.secret_life_of_walter_mitty_ver7

My sister-in-law had posted on Facebook a few days earlier that she and my brother had immensely enjoyed the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and seeing it there on the console I pushed ‘select’ and settled in to see what it was that captured Joe and Camille’s affection.

To my surprise and delight, Walter Mitty — like Harold Fry, like me — is a pilgrim.   I won’t spoil the movie for anyone interested, but suffice it to say that Walter, like Harold, can’t entirely figure out exactly how he ended up in the life he’s got. In his imagination, Walter is a different sort of person living a different sort of life, a life diametrically opposed to the real one he finds himself occupying. In the beginning, his journeying is all in his imagination, but as the film unfolds we realize that Walter’s imaginary life has imperceptibly done a deep work in Walter, enabling him to take an actual journey in the real world — a pilgrimage by plane and helicopter, by skateboard and bicycle, in the company of drunks and gurus and in the end, entirely alone. He traverses continents, runs toward active volcanoes, travels backwards in time to his childhood, and forward into an unknown future by way of relationships. In the end, Walter — like Harold, like me — is made new by his quest which began in imagination, was fueled by hope and hunger, and resolved ultimately in a quiet assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

Perhaps all pilgrimages are ultimately about faith.

From the Rabbi: The Most a Poem Can Do

Bringing Four Worlds Together 

Slide1Stanford professor John Felstiner, reflecting on Paul Celan’s poem Es Stand, commented that the most a poem can do is to bring four worlds together through its metaphors or images. “And when it does,” he said, “the poem becomes explosive.” These worlds are the natural (creation), the spiritual, the political/geographical, and the personal.

When we apply the four worlds of the poet to David’s psalms, we can begin to appreciate their enduring significance through their many layers of memory. First, there is the historical situation that places them in the context of David’s story. Second, we find Israel using David’s psalms in new situations with different liturgical settings. Third, these prayers take on greater significance as they give shape to Jesus’ prayers. Finally, as we are “in Christ,” David’s psalms become our prayers.

I experienced the explosive power of the poem on my second visit to Romania in 1989.

While we were studying the David/Jonathan story, several agents from Romania’s secret police (the Securitate) were searching for us in the forest in order to arrest our hosts for housing us (it was illegal to have foreigners in their homes without reporting it to the police) and conducting a Bible conference. In the midst of their intrusions into our camp, four brothers (all were named Jonathan, as if by divine coincidence) put their lives on the line to protect us from the police. img124

I had never experienced this kind of sacrificial love before. It was as if the ancient David/Jonathan story was being re-enacted right before our eyes. At one point I took my position on a secure height to watch for any agents who might be coming up the road, while the Romanians took cover inside a large tent to worship and study God’s word.

Sitting in silence I began meditating on Psalm 27. David’s metaphors broke my soul wide open.

When evildoers assail me
      to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
      it is they who stumble and fall. (Ps 27:2)

On four different occasions, the Securitate came to devour our souls, but each time they stumbled and fell. And then I read further in the psalm:

                  For he will hide me in his shelter
                        in the day of trouble;
                  he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
                        he will  lift me high upon a rock.
                  And now my head shall be lifted up
                        above my enemies all around me,
                  and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of  joy;
                        I will sing and make melody to the Lord. (Ps 27:5-6)

As I was reading these verses, I could hear the voices of the Romanians singing their songs of praise concealed “under the cover of his tent.” The David story and song that had shaped Jesus’ story, was now shaping our lives in this new setting on a hillside in Costeşti, România. I was overcome with the joy of having a small part on the stage of God’s wondrous drama of redemption.

This explains why certain hymns or spiritual songs evoke strong emotions within us, while others may not. When specific lyrics give voice to significant experiences in our lives, or to emotions we haven’t yet been able to articulate, or evoke layers of memory and accumulated emotions, they can stir our hearts to the core.

The hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” has always been a favorite of mine. I came to appreciate it first for its lyrics that give voice to trust and contentment at a time of loss. My appreciation was heightened when I learned the occasion for which it was originally written.

But it wasn’t until I sang it with a couple grieving over their six-year-old son at Stanford Hospital, that its power became explosive. As Timothy had only hours left to live, we lifted our voices to sing the hymn. I didn’t remember the second verse, but the nurse taking care of Timothy did. And she did not hold back. With her full-throttled voice she boomed out the second verse. When she did, it was as if angels came into the room and flooded us with a peace I can only describe as transcendent. Suddenly the hospital room was transformed into the gate of heaven. I watched in awe as a mother held and caressed her dead son. Then Timothy’s nurse washed his body with as much dignity as if he was Jesus. The sting of death had disappeared, totally.

That Sunday at church our worship leader had selected the hymn not knowing what we had experienced earlier in the week. As the words rang out, I looked behind me and saw Timothy’s mother singing, tears streaming down her face. We made eye contact in the secret acknowledgement of what God had done that week. Such is the power of the poem.

[1] John Felstiner, Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 268.

From the Rabbi: “Daughters, the doorway to a father’s heart”

Scholars tell us that over thirty percent of the Hebrew Scripture is poetry. 4-006_017Man’s first speech recorded in Genesis 2:23 is an exquisite poem of appreciation and praise, celebrating his wife’s equality.

This one at last, bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh,

This one shall be called Woman

for from man was this one taken. (Gen 2:23[1])

Exuberant lines spill over with exultation. No other form of speech would do, which may suggest that poetry is our highest form of speech––that which elevates us, making us feel wholly human and alive. Stanley Kunitz writes,

Poetry is the most difficult, the most solitary, and the most life-enhancing thing that one can do in the world. The experience of love and the creative act are the supreme expressions of the life force. They do more than express it; they refresh and renew it and give it back, magnified.[2]

For David poetry was not only the vehicle of articulating and processing his lament, but it was also his primary expression of thanksgiving and praise, so much so that he mandated it for future generations in Israel’s liturgy.


Becky and I getting acquainted.

“He (David) appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, even to celebrate (“to lament/petition”) and to thank and praise the Lord God of Israel.” (1 Chron 16:4)

In Israel it was a sin for the king not to offer public thanksgiving when God had answered his prayers. This is what David means by paying his “vows.” Though I did not discover the gift of poetry until I was thirty-seven, I have found to be a supreme delight in articulating my appreciation to God for the incredible gifts of daughters he gave to Emily and me after the death of our first two children, David and Jessica. After Jessica died on December 4, 1976, Emily and I wondered if we would ever experience the joy of being parents.

But the next day a strange sensation came over me. I felt as if God was doing something to intervene on our behalf. I said to Emily, “Let’s not put the baby furniture away like we did last year. Let’s just pray for a baby.” And that is just what we did. I asked Walt McCuistion, one of our pastors, to share the news of Jessica’s death with the congregation and to make our prayer request known. When I mentioned to him the feeling I had experienced, he indicated that he felt that same sensation of faith. Emily and I were too numb from grief to attend the service that night. After the service I received a call from Walt. He said that after he shared the news of Jessica’s death, his wife boldly asked God to intervene give us a baby by Christmas.

At the service was a young girl whose roommate was pregnant and due to deliver a baby the next day. Up to that point in her pregnancy, she had not told her doctor that she was interested in adoption. He had eighty people on a waiting list. After hearing our story, she said she wanted us to have her baby. Hearing the news, I felt an inconsolable stab of joy.


Emily and Becky bonding.

The next evening we drove to an attorney’s house to make legal arrangements for the adoption. I’ll never forget Emily asking, “Do you think it is okay to pray that the baby might look like me?” After we arrived the attorney shared with us notes from the birth mother about her personal background and that of the father. As we listened to her personal profile, it was as if she was mirror image of Emily. We were caught in the amazement of something wonderful, much bigger than ourselves. Legal matters progressed quickly, but the birth was delayed two weeks. Finally, on December 18, one week before Christmas, Becky was born. As the attorney drove us to the hospital he asked us what we were going to name our new little girl. “Rebecca Louise” was our reply. He quickly responded, “Why don’t you name her Noelle, since she is your Christmas gift?” And so her name became Rebecca Noelle, our Christmas joy.

Becky entered our lives like a bundle of joy and dried our tears. As Becky grew, she became bold, audacious, daring to go anywhere, and to try anything. She possessed great social skills that made her comfortable with adults as well as her peers. She also exuded a self-confidence that stretched beyond her means, sometimes got her into trouble, but always kept life interesting. Whenever Becky was around, you were never bored. As parents, she always welcomed us into her world and I was honored to coach her softball team during her high school years. She had a keen love for music and would often play the piano after dinner. She was unashamed to sing. Some of my favorite memories are of her singing scores from Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera at the piano while I dried the dinner dishes. I miss her voice terribly as our piano lies mute since her departure. I dedicated the poem to her on her graduation from High School, June 8, 1995 and re-read it to her on her graduation from nursing school in June of 2013. She is married to Corey and has two daughters, Mary and Emily, and one son, Wesley.

A Shout of Joy Comes in the Morning
Clothed in darkness
shrouded with pain
my soul poured out like water
drenched by heaven’s rain.
Was it not enough to journey to Moriah
to leave our first born, days from his birth
that he might reign above
an angel not destined for earth?
But now death’s dark shadow crushed my chest
to steal again the light of day and with it, dreams
and to stand before an empty crib, silence screams
no daughter to place upon a breast.
Would our home never hear an infant’s cry,
or see a mother’s gaze enfold a child
for whom she feeds,
would I never ever be a dad on earth.
But God,
bent the heavens and came down,
he heard the cry of this poor couple
and considered our low estate.
And did He delay?  Not even for a day!
Before Jessica found her place of rest,
he sent a messenger to pray,
“By Christmas Lord, and do not delay!”
With such strange inward stirrings
we knew, we knew a baby was on the way.
and while we waited expecting you,
he turned our darkness into day.
He bent the heavens and came down
he rode upon a cherub and flew,
he sped upon the wings of wind.
Oh, how my anticipation grew.
This is Rebecca Noelle,
heaven’s gift, Christmas JOY,
first carried, then caressed,
at last one to be laid upon breast.
A gift of grace from God alone,
who delights to repair a broken heart,
by breaking in from without
a New Creation to impart.
O Rebecca, will I ever forget that Day,
when I learned what it means to pray,
and see him touch our lives,
and turn our darkness into day.
And from that day
the void that grew,
that gaping ache,
he has filled with you.
Your vivacious smile,
your spirit bold,
unthwarted, undaunted
living life in ways untold,
To shatter walls,
fearing no place and no one,
but gathering all,
What you have been to me,
from those dark days,
so long ago yet so near,
words cannot tell, except to say,
“Tears may come to stay the night,
But a shout of joy comes in the morning.”
You have brought me more joy
laughter and song,
than ten sons.
How can I ever forget memories
etched upon the heart, playing ball,
being a dad, a coach, a friend,
even a Swiss comedian.
But what I’ll miss the most,
is that sweet angelic voice
which lighted among us
unashamed to sing and praise.
And now Rebecca, leave our nest,
take off and fly amidst the clouds
touch the sky, see his face,
but most of all, feel his grace.
But as you leave, glance back, and know
that though we shall never be the same,
it will be enough for me, your Dad,
if you take thought from whence you came.
Yes, these were the days
when words of the Ancients came true,
he bent the heavens and came down,
and dried our tears with you. 


Our three daughters, Katie, Jenny & Becky.


[1] Robert Alter, Genesis, Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 10.

[2] Gary Pacernick, Meaning and Memory, Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2001), 38.