Thursday, May 28, 2009


It’s a cold, rainy weekend at the end of May. Must be time for the Greek Festival. Every year, those poor Greeks pick the crumbiest weekend of the year for their baklava, gyros, and souvlaki.

I went tonight, an annual tradition since coming to Long Island. This is my sixth Greek festival. I don’t know why I look forward to this like I do. While I was eating my Greek sausage, with grapes and bread and drinking Greek beer, watching the mist dripping off the blue and white canopy, I thought about that.

The only thing I can come up with is the Greek Festival represents all the good things I had hoped for in moving to Long Island. Coming home to NY and the city, feeling like I was among my own people again finally. Sitting among the Greeks, celebrating the diversity. The world was big here. It was generous. How easily it made room for you, for your few bucks all in a good cause. I could breathe. The Greek music, the raffles, the food and the drink. You would never see anything like this in PA. In PA, they would have the vapors and condemn this as immoral, especially for a church to do.

The first festival 6 years ago was about 4 weeks after we moved here. The boxes unpacked and put away, we were finding our way around and at least the immediate blocks were familiar. The call was still new, and hopeful. I didn’t know the full story of Epiphany yet. There was only promise, and hope and here I was, the newest member of the neighborhood taking part in my community.

Every year the Greek Festival rolls around as a reminder of those times. A little bit of the freshness, the wonder of this new place taken as it presents itself, none of the subtext visible yet, is there for the taking again, served up along with my gyro, an Athonos beer, and the baklava I will carry home in the white Styrofoam container.


They give tours of the cathedral, and the cathedral is absolutely gorgeous. Telly Savalas was a member of that parish, and gave the large narthex window. Just a bit of local color.

Seriously, I could be Greek Orthodox in my next life. I love the richness, all the missing bits of this weird American Bapto/Methodo Protestantism that you can never really completely escape here, filled in and fleshed out, and it’s like hearing a symphony live, after listening to a transistor radio plinging in your ear the rest of the year.

The Orthodox bring the whole cast of heaven along with them on the journey of faith. A rich raucous mob that sweeps you up and wants you to eat, eat. My sense is that the Orthodox are never lonely. There is always some heavenly ne’er do well at your door to be entertained.

Still, I had to smile, overhearing one of the tour guides, a typical lay person from the church, leading a group on a tour through the sanctuary. Very admirable. I stood apart, because I know I am a pain in the neck about this stuff. There I was, standing in the richness of glittering icons, the sacred chanting coming through the speakers, the faint traces of incense from the vespers liturgy, while the woman obviously trained not to assume anything at all about the people who would be coming through on the tours, explained about all the mosaics. They depict scenes and events from Jesus life she explained patiently.

I loved the woman’s explanations. She literally had explanations for everything.

She explained that Jesus didn’t go to school. He worked with his father as a carpenter until he was in his 20’s. We don’t know anything about Jesus from 20 to 30. We know that he was in the desert. Then, he started preaching when he was 30, and the first thing he had to do was prove to the people that he was the Messiah, so he did lots of miracles and things. He healed people, like this woman, who is Peter’s mother in law. Then he had to prove he was the Son of God to the apostles too.

Here is where Jesus walks on the water and Peter says, “I can do that too!” and he does, until he starts to drown and Jesus has to save him and that proves to the apostles that he is really the Son of God.

Ah, the sweet mystery of it all. I lit a candle, left a dollar offering and walked home in the mist. I’ll be back tomorrow for the baklava.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Empty House

Footsteps echo
all the doors ajar
showing their black seams
bright squares hanging
on the bare walls
what do we take
when go?
what do we leave behind?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

266, the Sum of Democracy

In the April 20 edition of the New York Times, the front-page headline over a one inch column of print declares that two terrorist detainees were waterboarded 266 times by the CIA, according to declassified CIA documents. One detainee was waterboarded 183 over a span of 30 days. That breaks down to 6 times a day.

Here’s what I continually come back to, in the mind numbing brutality of this…some one counted. Someone, after each session, recorded it, faithfully, dutifully. 266. Not 265. Not 260. Not more than 100 times, not more than 200 times, not even less than 300 times. 266. Thinking it important. Thinking that someone would want to know.

Did they write this in a notebook? A little black book with spiral binding? Did they develop their own shorthand? Did their language grow more spare as the number climbed, no longer words but simply letters and numbers, gasping for breath, W B 8/15/02?

Did they stand off in the corner, scribbling the details, a few drops at a time, while the events were still fresh, the floor still wet? Or did they wait until the end of the day, sitting alone at a computer in a dark room with a single bulb burning above the keyboard, and blurt it all out at once?

And, what did they want from those who would read it? Praise? Understanding? Pity? Admiration? Respect? Gratitude? Protection?

After 266 times, does any of that matter?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Everything Overlooked (a poem in one try)

I have turned off the TV
to write this
and now the night's neglected children;
the ticking cuckoo clock,
the refrigerator humming,
the traffic hissing on Fulton,
the spattering rain on the windows,
the sighing floorboards,
the walls shifting the change
in their pockets,
the dried yellow ficus leaf
dropping to the blue rug,
step into the room from out of the
blaring shadows
stand here blinking,
shifting noiselessly
from foot to foot
"we have someone for you to meet,"
they say
and this scrawny thing steps up
looking defiant and lost
and they say, "it's your life
we've done the best we could with him
take him now, he belongs to you."
But I'm not falling for that again
what do they take me for anyway?
I grab the remote
it's 11:03 and I'm missing the news.

Copyright: Charles Oberkehr

Thursday, April 02, 2009


When you look into the mirror
You are not alone
Every year someone else is with you
Relatives you never knew
In ragged wool coats from the old world
Big dreams and lint in their pockets

Who am I? you will ask them one morning
In a moment of weakness
Do not expect an answer
Beyond the nose on your face.

copyright: Charles Oberkehr


Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Jesus realizes that his hour has arrived, when two Greeks seek him out. That always seemed an odd bit of trivia to me, more suited to Jeopardy than the Gospel of John. Jesus spoke with Samaritans, lepers, women, tax collectors, Roman soldiers, religious and community leaders. What’s the big deal about a couple of Greeks?

Then this text was read at our bilingual contemporary worship Sunday night, the appointed text for the 5th Sunday in Lent, and I realized what a big deal it was. Here we were, navigating the fault lines between English and Spanish, Black, White and Brown, Young and Old, Traditional and Contemporary; all in an effort to embody a larger reality. Something more true and foundational. We felt like a flame clinging to the match in the teeth of fierce cultural (even congregational) winds.

For the first time, I heard this little reference, which acts almost like a throwaway line in the narrative, as a critical marker at the intersection of the Kingdom of God and the Powers That Be. These two Greeks seeking Jesus out is the reality of the Kingdom’s presence that breaks into the world like a raging flood, washing the flimsy pilings out from under the houses of fear and isolation the world builds on the shore of diversity, in order to take advantage of the lovely view.

Of course Jesus knew that the end was near when these Greeks came looking for him. How could he not know? He was beginning to transcend the barriers of culture, the boundaries between communities---the inviolate borders that exist between people and which serve the interests of those in power.

Jesus threatened to make all of that irrelevant not by slicing and dicing people up into new groups, but by drawing a big circle around all of them: Jew, Gentile, Samaritan, Greek, Male, Female, Gay, Straight, Sinner, Redeemed.

It struck me how tone-deaf we are today in the church toward this marker of the Kingdom. We still treat it like a throwaway line in the Passion narrative, while we collude with the Powers That Be to preserve our institutions as much as the Scribes and the Pharisees ever did.

The world draws us to it like iron to a magnet. We drag our faith along with us, and the world turns our faith into traditions and gives it back to us de-fanged and de-clawed. Traditions are faith tamed and made manageable. They are to faith as the cardboard cutouts of celebrities we stand next to like tourists having our pictures taken.

Can we hope to be the church and ignore this central component of the Kingdom that breaks down our Us and Them world into the Family of God? Can we continue without understanding that our faith, by its very existence, calls into question the Powers that Be every single day.

These Greeks coming to seek Jesus out were the down payment on a new world order that unites instead of dividing, by holding up the one thing that trumps all else. The all en-compassing Love of God that transforms everything, even the judgment of the cross, and makes us new here and now.

Monday, March 16, 2009


We all begin here:
the silent enormity of
eternity’s bored stare;
the wish before the candles
are lit,
the pointy hat,
the elastic cutting your chin.
One morning you stand before the mirror
fogged with steam
a rainbow of clarity
rubbed in with a towel
and the familiar face
you’ve been attending to for years
hands you a note from your father.

The clean white page
is the measure of the universe
it is E=MC2
it is every pair of socks you packed
and carried from place to place
and never needed.
You are as inconsequential
between the margins and the faint blue lines.
Your pen is filled with smoke.
The angels will fly through the words you write
blowing them apart
like the wise gray heads of dandelions
muttering their little pronouncements
straight from the mouth of God.

Copyright: Charles Oberkehr

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


When my wife left for work this morning
I bolted the door,
(a dead bolt it just occurred to me)
because out of the blue
(or maybe not)
the click of the cylinder
reminded me of dying.
I went back to the kitchen
to finish my breakfast and coffee
considering that maybe my life ends
just this easily
a flick of the wrist
and eternity is as inconsequential
as a bowl of half warm oats
and a newspaper forever waiting to be read.
And then my father
(dead eight years)
sat down in his checkered robe and slippers
his hair going in a thousand directions at once
and took the Sports page.
I started to object
but who knows when forever
actually starts
everything immutable is in parentheses
the rest is up for grabs.
Tonight my wife
will turn her key in the lock
with a flick of the wrist
and (God willing) announce “I’m home”
(at least that’s what I’m expecting)

Copyright Charles Oberkehr, 2009

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Big Night Finally Arrives

Last night, we held our first bilingual contemporary liturgy, getting it in under the wire before a major winter storm hit. Today there’s a foot of snow on the ground, and I am letting the flu-ey bug that I held at bay with varying degrees of success yesterday, have its way with me.

Even with forecasters calling for a violent nor’easter to hit just about the time the liturgy was supposed to begin, we managed to have about 30 people there. Not bad for a first try.

On Thursday, we took out a section of 5 pews to make a place for the musicians and singers to be in the nave on the same level as the congregation. The young people loved it, the older folks…not so much. At the 10:00am service there were a lot double takes, smiles and frowns.

During the sermon, I said that some people will love this and some will hate it. But whether you love it or hate it is really beside the point. The point is whether arranging the sanctuary this way helps us to further the mission of our congregation. Will we be able to reach people with this liturgy and this arrangement that we wouldn’t reach otherwise? That’s really what it’s all about. If it doesn’t do that, we put everything back and try something else. I can see some people are going to have to chew on that awhile.

We had two keyboards, a teenage girl on the drums who insisted that her grandmother get her there so she could play, two guitars, and four singers. Being on the same level with the congregation lent a sense of intimacy to the liturgy. The whole thing lasted about 50 minutes. Snow was just beginning to fall as a few of the people were leaving. Two widows who live in the same building were beaming as they left. They said how exciting it was. I watched them cross the snowy street to their apartment building. Of all the people I pictured coming to this service, I never would have imagined it would be someone like them. God always has something to surprise you up his sleeve.

Inside, most of the people were talking in the aisle. There was a sense that the wind had shifted, and there was a kind of freshness in the air, like after a rain. We still have a lot of wrinkles to iron out, but there was a sense in the sanctuary that something unique had happened and even the imperfections were part of it. Maybe the most important part.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I used the word confused
With my grandson
While we put the blocks away
Sorting the yellow triangles,
The blue circles and the red squares
Through the corresponding outlines
In the container lid
Like a crime scene on Sesame Street.
He repeated the word
Not knowing what it meant.
In love with the sound I suppose
Rolling the syllables joyfully
With the soft dexterity of the tongue,
Again and again
Until it grew large enough
To contain his delight.
This is how we learned
Before we stepped back from our lives
and stood before consciousness’s long mirror
Adjusting our collars and smoothing down our hair
Before what we loved
Became complicated with meaning
And eclipsed by our own reflection.
Back in those sweet days
When one thing followed another
As easily as these blocks
Slip through the empty space
Made especially
With them in mind

COPYRIGHT: Charles Oberkehr 2009

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Nuts and Bolts

We have swung the publicity campaign into full gear. Posters are going up around the neighborhoods, and an email campaign has started. It’s time for some of the nuts and bolts decisions to be made.

The biggest so far is where to have the liturgy. We have a large, gothic sanctuary, which is beautiful but not very flexible. Pews are fixed and the altar is against the wall. There is really no room for instruments. They never envisioned anything more than the organ when they designed the space. Those are just some of the minuses.

The pluses are that the sound system and the piano is there already. The drums and the guitars are portable. There has been some grumbling about drums and such in the sanctuary, but that’s been isolated. We can always set up a free-standing altar for the liturgy.

I guess my biggest concern is expectations the sanctuary imposes on the liturgy. The idea for this liturgy is to help all of us relate to our worship experience in a new way. That includes how the Good News is communicated in a new way and how we might be an inclusive community through this liturgy. Some sacred cows are sure to bite the dust here. Trying to do all that in the sanctuary may be the equivalent of new wine into old skins.

My inclination now is to set up the auditorium downstairs into a worship space. That poses a different set of logistical challenges, but at least it puts everyone on equal footing. Everyone already has an experience and an idea of worship in the sanctuary. Whatever happens will be judged against that experience. No one knows quite what to expect from a liturgy in the auditorium though.

As March 1st draws nearer, I am feeling more than ever how important this initiative is for our congregation and our community. There is so much division, fear and isolation in our communities, and it can be so strong, even within our own congregation, the resistance to something new and unknown. Still, the Spirit blows where it will. I pray our sails are set in the right direction on March 1.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Charting a new course in bilingual ministry

We've set a date to begin our new bilingual ministry "Somos El Cuerpo de Cristo" "We are the Body of Christ" Sunday, March 1st. 7:00PM. Keep your fingers crossed and please keep praying for this fledgling ministry.

The idea is to use music to bridge the language barriers, and make the liturgy active, culminating in the action of gathering at the table for the meal. The key for this liturgy will be interaction and participation. I imagine us trying to develop a sort of liturgical sign language, focusing on music, dance and the visual arts as the universal platform for the spoken word.

There have been so many false starts in attempting bilingual ministry here. The prevailing two church model, or tenant/landlord, has been a bust, twice. Trying to fold a new model of a unified diverse congregation into an old envelope has been disappointing. But there have been glimmers of hope from that attempt. Sparks to cup with your hands so that they may grow to a new flame. So, I think it is time for a new approach. New skins to hold the new wine of a bilingual inclusive congregation.

I'll keep you posted on how things are developing. Especially on the "demons" in the form of unexamined expectations this brings up in the "established" group. There has been a lot of that, and its not really surprising. It's sort of like the kick when you fire a shot gun. Enthusiasm in whatever form it takes, digs squarely into the shoulder of the one who pulls the trigger. The bigger the blast of enthusiasm, the bigger the kick.

All I can say so far is for a leader to expect that and know how to exercise self care so that you can keep the vision moving forward. Keep your shoulder loose, so to speak, so the kick back doesn't set you down on the seat of your pants. The biggest thing you can do is to keep standing. Whatever that takes.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Journal entry

I am lost. It makes no sense to pretend otherwise. I have been walking in circles for weeks. My mouth is full of bitterness. My eyes burn. The ground gives way under my feet.

I don’t know how to get my bearings. All the old tricks have been exposed. I try to read, but the book in my hands is a mirage, the words shimmer and dance with neither meaning nor nourishment.

I have nothing to say for myself. It all sounds like the muttering of derelicts wandering the fluorescent-lit grocery aisles among the bright boxes of oatmeal and detergent at midnight.

I have no baptism to account for this. The heavens have not opened. There has been no heavenly voice. There has been no wild man with reservations. No devil to grant permission; no stones and no bread.

There is no justification for any of it. No ransom note, no telltale sign.

There is only the clock unwinding on the mantle, one thundering tick at a time, and this long scarf of smoke outside my window, unraveling in the crimson January sky.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Beginning

The American savior machine is rolled out and cranked up. Bush and Cheney they seemed so small...bugs out from under the magnifying glass. We give and we take away. They scurry off into the future, and when they return, it will be in the rosy glow of our collective short memory.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Important perspective

Given the one sided nature of coverage around this issue, I think this is an important perspective for us.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Thoughts for the day of Epiphany

Here's the thing I just don't get. You'd think a star that could literally point out a baby in a haystack would be pretty hard to miss. And yet, everyone is oblivious to it except our three travelers from the East.

Is everyone so caught up in the daily grind of life in Bethlehem that even a star moving through town goes unnoticed? How could the majesty of God be so obvious to foreigners while the citizens of Bethlehem could be so oblivious?

I can't help but wonder, what stars are shining in my life right now, that I am too dense, preoccupied, oblivious (fill in your own adjective) to notice? Prayer may be nothing more than opening our eyes to the shining wonder of God's presence in the present moment.