Friday, 13 August 2010

August anniversaries

August 14th 2000 was my last official day as Rector of St. Stephen’s in Pittsfield, MA.

Thus I had served in that parish for exactly 16 years, since my first day there had been August 15th in 1984.

August 15th 2000 was my first official day as Rector of St. James’s, Cambridge, MA. I was there through June 2006.

Thus I was Rector at St. James’s for just short of 6 years.

It’s hard for me to comprehend that I began in Pittsfield 26 years ago, and ended there 10 years ago.

It’s also hard to comprehend that I began in Cambridge 10 years ago, and have been retired for more than 4 years.

On August 15th 2010 I will be presiding at the Eucharist and preaching, as a “supply priest” at St. Hilary’s in Fort Myers, FL. It will be a blessing to be with a good congregation on my double anniversary date August 15th, and to have the honour of serving in the pulpit and at the Lord’s Table.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Never a muckraker. Ever a fine journalist

If one should mention the name “Ida Tarbell” to an American of my generation or older, she or he is likely to respond “ah the muckraker”. ‘Tis a pity that she is remembered mostly for this unfair sobriquet, pinned on her by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Ida was born in 1857 and raised in Titusville, Pennsylvania – an oil boom town.  (Remember that the petroleum business began in that State - think Pennzoil.)   Her family were pious Methodists who were much attached to the Chautauqua Institute.  Ida attended Allegheny College in Meadville PA.  She became fascinated by the physical sciences, but the fates had it mind that she should become a writer.

She began her career by working for “The Chautauqua Assembly Herald”, a monthly magazine devoted to the Chautauqua principles of self improvement via piety and education. Employed at first as a proof reader, she soon was able to use her superb ability to write.   She was badly treated by the magazine’s owner and editor (no one knows exactly what happened).

Ida then knew that in order to succeed she would have to “go it alone”.  She decided that she could best make money by living in Paris, where she could write articles on all things French for the American audience.

Ida lived in dreadful poverty in Paris until in 1892 “Scribner’s Magazine” sent her the (at that time) huge sum of $100 for her story “France Adoree”, her story about her French tutor.  This story brought her instant fame.  She was sought out in Paris by one Samuel McClure who recognised that she had the exact abilities which would help him launch a new magazine “McClure’s”.

Ida returned to the United States to become a partner and a writer for the new magazine.  It succeeded because of her. The magazine’s circulation increased by leaps and bounds because of her magnificent 24 instalment “History of the Standard Oil Company”. 

Her writing was careful and based on in depth research. She knew her sources, both people and documents. Ida was a meticulous investigative reporter.  The “History of the Standard Oil Company” exposed the predatory business practices of John D Rockefeller, the eminence grise behind Standard Oil, his building of a near monopolistic trust, and his ability to determine the price of oil – always to Standard’s advantage.

Ida Tarbell was a journalist without an opinion.  Thus her expose of Standard Oil simply laid out the facts – leaving the reader to form an opinion one way or another.  She had the integrity to do so even though her father and brother had been victimised by the Standard Oil trust.

 In the end Ida’s refusal to simply report without her expressing opinion was vindicated.   Her reports paved the way for the United States Congress to rule that Standard Oil was an illegal trust.  Standard was broken up into a number of smaller companies by Act of Congress.

Tarbell was also the author of influential books on Napoleon and Lincoln.  She wrote perceptive articles on Louis Pasteur and Emile Zola amongst others.

There is so much more about Ida’s work and life which I do not have time or space to report. Much of what I have written has arisen from my reading of a biography of Ida Tarbell by Kathleen Brady (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989).

Despite Teddy Roosevelt’s cavalier words, Ida was NOT a muckraker.  She was a fearless, courageous, hard-working and honest journalist of the sort which we rarely see today. 

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Tales of the Pets

There will be more about Ida Tarbell in a day or two when I have finished reading her biography.

For today: “Tales of the Pets”.

As  I move about my home Penne sits up and keeps just one eye on me, looking like the cartoon dog “Snoopy”. She does this in the hope, of course, that I am about to take her for a walk. She anticipates a walk whenever I get within 3 yards of the front door.

If I say “not now”, she will give me what I interpret as a baleful look, and then slink back to her bed.

The key words which tell her that a walk is in the offing are “where’s baby?”

“Baby” is a soft stuffed toy, created to look like a racoon. Baby is Penne’s constant companion. And when I utter the magic words “where’s baby?” my good dog dashes and prances with glee and presents her soft toy to me.

Then the fun begins. We tussle a bit before Penne will surrender baby to me. Then I throw this stuffed toy down the hallway so that Penne can retrieve it. In the meantime, Adelaide, the junior cat, stands at the ready. As Penne goes rushing by, Adelaide leaps and tries to “bat” Penne. (It’s almost as if those words “where’s baby” are also a clue to Adelaide).

Adelaide is utterly imperious. Whenever I walk by her she utters a commanding “miaow”, indicating that I should stroke her. Better still she will come to my bedroom door when I am working at my desk, and issue a very stern “miaow”. I miaow back at her, and she persists. She makes my role clear. She is instructing me to follow her. She will lead me to the door to the Lanai which she instructs me to open, so that she might gaze out of the windows at any and all small lizards.

Ada, the senior cat, is more laid back. She does her own sweet thing until I sit down to read. Then she presents herself at my feet and gazes at me. Just as soon as I put the book down she leaps up onto my lap, knowing that this is the time when I will stroke and smooth her.

0ther dog owners will probably agree with me when I assert that dogs understand words. This is made so clear to me when, whatever the day or time I say “let’s go in the car”. At these magic words Penne will prance, and dance, and sing. She will be wild with excitement until I open the car doors, whereupon she will leap into the back seats of my car.

I know that many dogs like car rides.

I have no clue as to which evolutionary need this meets.

I am also convinced that dogs know the meaning of human words.

If only they could talk back!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010


“He was the greatest genius of his time, perhaps of all time, yet he lacked the crown of greatness – that high wisdom born of reflection and introspection which knows its own powers and limitations, and never abuses them; that fine sense of proportion which holds the rights of others in the same solemn reverence which it demands for its own” (*)

 So wrote the fabulous Ida Tarbell in her biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.

I believe that Ida Tarbell  "hit the nail on the head" in her  definition of greatness.  It is also a fabulous description of wise leadership.  Would to God that our civic and religious leaders understood this.

 More about Ida in a day or two.

  (*)  From "Ida Tarbell. Portrait of a Muckraker". (Kathleen Brady, University of Pittsburgh Press 1989)

Monday, 9 August 2010

Purposefully deaf to the nuts of the right.

I am purposefully deaf when it comes to the Tea Party, the Republican party, the "Christian" right, and the anti-Obama wing-nuts.

I would be foolish were I to pay any account to their regressive/repressive/un-scientific  nonsense
I am far more intelligent and wise than they. So are you!

My left of centre/center stance is the one which leads to progress.

Join me in some hurrahs for progressive Christianity; for great science; for Darwinian truths; and for the welfare which an intelligent and wise nation enables for all its people.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Sermon for 8th August 2010, The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Boniface Church, Sarasota, FL

Sermon for 8th August 2010. The Revd. J. Michael Povey, at St. Boniface Church, Sarasota, FL.

Luke 12:32-40 32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

There is an old one-liner which asserts that an “Englishman is a self-made man who worships his creator”. The very wise Canon Ed Rodman of the Diocese of Massachusetts also has a one-liner. “Do not”, he says, “believe in your own propaganda”. We’ll get back to those one-liners in a bit.

During the first full year of my retirement from full time parish ministry I rarely attended Church. I made this conscious choice as I needed to re-discover two things.

The first was “who am I when I am not in a pulpit or at an altar?” It was utterly important for me to know if I had an identity other than the one created by my professional life.

The second was “If I am not paid by the Church do I want to be part of a congregation?”

I needed to play around with all the reasons why a person might, or might not attend Church. (I am not referring to St. Boniface in particular, but to Church in general).

The reasons are myriad. We sometimes attend because of the Rector, or despite the Rector! Good music attracts many to Church. Some are entranced by the dignity of the Liturgy or the beauty of a building. For yet others, Sunday Church provides an opportunity to make new friends, or to enjoy old ones. There are other reasons, and I had to weigh them all.

I rejected two possibilities.

One was “to have my spiritual needs met”. I believe that it is infantile and immature to believe that any Church should “meet my needs”.

It is the spiritual baby who believes that Church is here to meet her or his needs. Christian life for grown-ups is far richer and more challenging than that.

I also rejected the idea of coming to Church to “stay on the right side of God”. Human relationships are toxic when it is the role of one person always to “stay on the right side of the other”. In the same way, God does not call us to stay on her “right side”, but rather to have a mature partnership.

In the end, the reason I came back to Church is summed up in two words from the opening hymn. They are “ponder anew”. 

I came to understand that there are two parts of my life which I need to “ponder anew” on a regular basis.

The first is that I am NOT a self made man. The wealth of my life is not of my own creation. Rather, it is rooted in matters over which I had no control. For example, I did not choose my parents. But it was they who set me out on a life which has been filled with unmitigated blessings. And again, so many of those blessings came not because I had deserved or earned them, but because along the line this person or that person “took a chance on me”, and in doing so showed me that what I thought were barriers were no more than doors - doors which they opened!

The second is that my own propaganda is most often self serving and self-deceiving.

I began to understand that It is vital that I hear voices other than my own,  so that I do not begin to believe my own lies. (The most dangerous lies are those we tell to ourselves).

The voices I need most are the ones I hear from Holy Scripture. That’s why I am glad to be part of a Church.

It is in Church that I hear the Word of God, a Word which enables my life to be constantly re-aligned with God’s will. I need to hear this Word of God, particularly when that Word is challenging, difficult, uncomfortable and troubling.

I need, let’s make it “we need”, to hear such troubling words as the ones we read this morning about possessions. Hear them again “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven”

Ponder anew. Ponder about our possessions. Do we hold on to them so tightly that we discover that in fact we are not holding them, but they are holding us; we do not own them, they own us. Are any of us trapped by what we have? What do we own, but do not need? Would our lives be poorer or richer if we dared to sell a possession or two and used the money to give alms?

Ponder anew. Ponder purses that do not wear out.
If purses are designed to carry treasures, what are the incorruptible treasures borne in purses which never wear out? Here we are talking about priceless intangibles.

Let’s think of a few. There is character. There is integrity. There is truthfulness. There is graciousness under pressure. There is humility. There is the willingness to name our own wrongs. There is the discipline of forgiveness. There is the practice of the presence of God.

These are some of the assets which can never be destroyed. They are assets which will serve us well even if we are stripped of all earthly wealth and possessions.

They will testify not about what we have, nor about what we do. They will be a witness to who we are.

Many years ago I was interviewing for a new job. I was being questioned by a panel of four or five people.

One of them asked n important question. She said “just who exactly is Michael Povey?” 

That question has stayed with me.

It has moved me to be part of a congregation where I nwill hear the troublesome Word of God, a word which consistently asks: Who are you?


First ending: This is how I ended the sermon at the 7:45 a.m. Eucharist. I wasn’t too thrilled about it, so I changed the ending for the two later services.

Clayton Christensen is a Christian. He was a Rhodes Scholar and a business man. He is now a Professor at the Harvard Business School. David Brooks, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, relates that Prof. Christensen speaks of the “Summoned Life”.

According to Prof. Christensen, in a “summoned life” the vital question is “what are my circumstances summoning me to do?” That’s a grand question.

I come to Church to hear the gospel of Jesus. That gospel asks the deeper question: “What are my circumstances calling me to be?”


Second ending:

Recall with me a snippet from the biblical fairy tale about Adam and Eve.

When they had messed up, they ran to hide from the Lord in the trees. (There is a comical element to this in the very thought of Adam and Eve playing “hide and seek with God!).

In that tale,  the Lord God comes to the garden in the cool of the evening and cries out “Adam, where are you?”

I come to Church to hear an even more important question. I need to hear the Lord God askingwho are you?”