Tuesday, July 10

Thirty Years of Regular Monthly Discussion

Madison Inter-religious Dialogue:
Thirty Years of Regular Monthly Discussion - July 11, 2018
A Reflection by Rev. Fr. John-Brian Paprock

Can a few local people from different faith traditions effect positive change in the world?

Part of a global movement of interfaith dialogue, the growing energy for a global meeting of religions, and growing interconnectedness through internet media, every local meeting of those of different faith traditions in person seem to add to a growing sense of hope and peace for the future of this world.

Thirty years ago, a committee was formed to have a centennial celebration of the Parliament of World’s Religions that had gathered in Chicago at the world exposition in 1893.  Thirty years ago, Joseph Campbell was interviewed by Bill Moyers about the Power of Myth, exploring the common themes in religious traditions. Thirty years ago, in the year of the dragon, the Madison Inter-religious Dialogue started.

As a newly ordained Eastern Christian priest in my first mission parish, I was eager to serve the community, not just our small mission, but the community at large.  I met with Charles Pfeiffer at Madison Urban Ministry and I asked where I might get direction for service.  I was grateful he recommended the newly formed group, MID. He said he didn’t really know that much about the new group, but did know one of the founding participants, George Hinger. 

I had studied various faith traditions and symbology, informally and formally, and delighted in the opportunity for conversation. I did not, at that time, appreciate the power of dialogue.

Feeling particularly young and secure in my faith, I joined the monthly discussion group during a time of exploration.  We all took turns leading a religious rite or ceremony with the group.  I spoke with my Orthodox Christian elders and leaders and was allowed to do a traditional Blessing of Water for Epiphany at the St. Benedict Center. I enjoyed all the presentations during that period of the dialogue.  

I wasn’t always able to participate in the dialogue. Either the time of day (a discussion at the dialogue for years, I recall), day of the week, or personal or professional issues conflicted with the meetings.  Nevertheless, the faithful note-takers of the group kept me informed with meeting minutes and announcements.  Knowing it has continued through the years has been a reassurance of the ideal of our common humanity – that we share this world and this existence with others who have different beliefs and perspectives – and still peaceful dialogue continues. 

One of my deep-felt understandings that the Madison Inter-religious Dialogue has affirmed is simple: we do not have to agree on anything to get along, we need only grow in respect and honor by listening.  George Hinger’s commitment to this principle has been inspiring.  Because of this, I am honored to have friendships and connections with people of many different faiths not just in Wisconsin, but throughout the world! Because of this, my own faith and devotion has deepened.

Thank you for the Dialogue and for the opportunity to participate. I am forever grateful for the experience.

God bless everyone who has been a participant in this Dialogue through the years (especially the faithful note-takers).  God grant you many many years!
May light shine in all our dark moments. May peace prevail!

Thursday, June 30

O Lord heal my heart

O Lord heal my heart that I may feel loved - clear the cries from my throat that I may praise Your wondrous good gifts in my life just beyond the veil of my tears. O Lord defeat the enemies of my existence both within and without that seek to take me from Your ways - let them not fill me with death and defeat and despair so that I am immobilized, nor fill my limbs with the heaviness of lonliness, nor fill my heart with the tears of abandonment. Show them O Lord how You will help Your servant out of the pits, how You will cover me under Your gentle wings so that I can be filled with the light of Your love and move me from the brink of harm, pain and woundedness. Show the enemies of Your servants how You heal Your servants and enable them for Your work and how You are a constant help in their hours and days of weaknesses. Lift me up above the caves of sorrow, so hollow, so empty. Help me get through the darkness. Help me O Lord for Your promises are great for those that love You. You lend Your strength, Your goodness, Your love to those in need when they ask. If there is anything that I have done that has taken me from Your holy and true ways, restore me and forgive me, treat me according to Your gentleness and Your mercy. Make my heart light and filled with love once again.

Saturday, November 14

Matthew's Voice

Matthew By The Lake - (Photograph by John-Brian Paprock, Paprock Photography 2015)
Taken along the north shore of Lake Mendota across the water from Madison Wisconsin in 2014

My younger brother Matthew died on November 3rd, 2015 at the age of 49 years old. I was grateful he asked for the opportunity to see him at the hospital before he died. He had requested the doctors do everything to keep him going until my brother (August), my sister (Dara) and I could be there. He wanted to celebrate his 50th birthday, but that was not until January. So, we decided to have a 50th birthday cake and balloons and a card on November 1st. He also wanted to watch his Green Bay Packers play - they played that night.
Celebration of my brother's 50th birthday - half a century of life! Before the Packer game. Photograph by John Summers.

At my brother's bedside on November 1st. Photograph by August Roderick.


Saying good bye was difficult - both a very loving and a very sad time. We played cards a last time. We remembered. We joked. We laughed. We cried. We forgave everything, he and I, for brothers often have some baggage that weighs on their relationship. He was freed from such burdens. I told he would be missed. I found an old picture of him and me in Chicago, before our  youngest brother was born.

Matthew (5 years old) and John-Brian (10 years old) in Chicago.
The only time one would be twice as old as the other. 
This picture is symbolic of the bond with my brother that would last a lifetime.
This is the letter I read as eulogy at my brother's Ninth Day Memorial at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Madison, Wisconsin.
Dear Matthew,
I want to hear your voice again, dear brother Matthew; the caring loving familiar voice of  my younger brother; the voice that joked and played and  laughed and, yes, fought, as brothers can.


I want to hear your voice again, even if it means listening to profound fear seeping through the joy and love during your last days; or listening to the lamenting of lost love, or the ranting of frustration with a system that you could not fight any more. I hoped you would fight back as you always did and hold your ground, but you could not this time. You always wanted to stand tall without help from anyone, until pain curled your back and walking required a cane.


In our childhood, we played together as best friends, especially during the lonely years when we moved from place to place with a mother who was searching for her own salvation and sobriety. She found both when we came to Madison. And you, my dear brother, found your very own home-sweet-home. You got to grow up here, attending every school year in the same school system. You found in Madison, a safe home base and friends, lots and lots of friends, many you have had most of your life. It seems proper to have finished your life here in Madison.


Yet, I would hear your voice again. That voice that would reach across distances of miles and weeks just to say “hello.”  I will miss our card games and our discussions of the spiritual and the mundane. I will miss watching football with you.  I am filled with joyous memories of our life as family and friends. 


I will always be grateful for the opportunity you gave us at the end. Thank you for the love you shared during your last waking hours. Thank you for the hug as I kissed your hand. I held it as tight as I could.  Thank you the shared tears at “good bye” and “good journey.” Thank you for being my faithful brother and my dutiful friend. My dear brother, I wish I could hear your voice and see your smile one more time, but I cannot.  You passed away quietly and peacefully in the evening of November 3rd.  We are brothers forever and I will miss you the rest of my life.  Eternal memory, my dearest brother Matthew.
Ninth Day Memorial service at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Madison, Wisconsin. November 12, 2015. 
Fr. Michael Vanderhoef officiated. The church Philoptochos Society made traditional koliva for us. 
The cups on the table were left after koliva was served to the ~50 people that came to the memorial. A
 picnic celebration memorial of my brother's life is being planned for warmer months at his favorite Madison park.

Friday, June 12

Home Town

Home Town Thoughts
by John-Brian Paprock

Until recently, I had no hometown. I realized recently that I always felt like a visitor, and not always a welcomed visitor. Now I understand some of this was an attempt to deal with a childhood of constant change and trauma.

By the time we arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, when I was 11 years old, we had lived in four states, two countries, five metropolitan areas, 14 addresses - and have been to 10 different schools. I guess the large metropolitan areas of Mexico City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas, and San Francisco all had an impact in my life, but Chicago and Los Angeles had the greatest. I lived most of my life in Madison - over 40 years.

Locations in Madison where I lived as a pre-teen and teenager in the 1970s. All the buildings were still standing in 2014
As a young adult, I chose to live in New York City, a profound experience that was the only time as an adult that I had lived away from Madison, Wisconsin, until I moved to Minneapolis in 2014.

Places in and around Madison where I lived as a young adult into 2013.
It is a profound sense of stability, even though I moved from Madison, it remains my hometown with all the memories, the ups and downs, the special nooks and crannies, that make a hometown different from any other place on the planet. I am grateful for my hometown - all the lessons and all the blessings that have contributed to the man I am today.  God bless Madison, Wisconsin.

Wednesday, June 10

I Don’t Want To Be A Bitter Old Man: A Reflection on Modern Aging

Paprock Photography 2015
Paprock Photography 2015
I Don’t Want To Be A Bitter Old Man: A Reflection on Modern Aging
by John-Brian Paprock
I don’t want to be a bitter old man or one slumped over in despair or shuffling in the fog of disappointment and regret. Yet, I have felt fragile and vulnerable more as a middle aged man than I have as a young adult. Back then I could take risks without contemplating the consequences or cringing at physical limitations, even though there were consequences and there were limitations. 

I have felt the dull shadow of death approaching as I grow older – and I wonder what I am afraid of.  I have lived half my life (I hope) without such angst. When I was younger, I felt the angst of being too young and without experience. Now, my angst is more about not seeing that what I have done has lasting value, not being able to tell what will I leave behind, and not being able to predict  my final years.  Will I be surrounded by loved ones or abandoned? Will I be forgotten even before I have left his world? Will I be impotent in the physical limitations of disease and old age?

In me there is such a strong desire to be alive until the day I must give my breathing.  Yet, I have witnessed so much neglect and abuse, so much disease and fragility among those that have reached old age before me.  At the same time, I know there are those that seem to defy this despairing and whimpering weakness to which I am admitting.

A friend is fond of reminding me that it is only today that we have to live. In today, there is always opportunity. I agree whole-heartedly agree, yet I squander hours in a melancholy daze of “what if’s” without feeling that I have any further chances to fulfill my life purpose.

Another friend reminds me of how much I have to live for by reminding me of what I have already accomplished in this life: helping others, benefitting society, my profession, projects finished and service fulfilled.  Yet, I have the nagging sensation that I have nothing, that none of that really matters.

A mentor of mine recently asked me to recollect what was going on in my life thirty years ago.  I recalled a bold young man that had moved to New York City to study and serve the community where he lived.  That mentor then asked if I could recall twenty years ago. I remembered a young father serving the Midwestern community where he lived with courage and innovation. I recalled fatherhood and leadership roles.  My mentor then asked if could recall ten years ago. And again, I could see that man, now entering middle age, serving the church and community in which he lived.  He then encouraged me to consider the decades yet ahead, asking me to think about the number of times I lost track of time while doing what was true to my heart in the decades past. I resisted acknowledgment of his wisdom.

Sometimes the sadness of my life is overwhelming and my periods of self-exile from the world preferable to the demands of my own egoistic impulses that are driven by lack of confidence in the face of social interaction.  I still feel like a bumbling 7th grader or eager-to-be-accepted 4th grader, not sure of my footing, not clear of my social standing. I walk out among my fellow humans often feeling naked, embarrassed without reason or cause, already sensitive and sore, bruised and vulnerable.

As a child, I was abused, bullied, sullied and humiliated. I was neglected, impoverished and ignored, damaged.  I was afforded a few adults and fellow children who encouraged me, stood up for me, asked of me one thing above all others, “Take the high road.” I had adults pray for me from distances that confounded me. God and His angels were there as I slogged through a painful childhood, bringing joys of the created world and thrills of creativity into my life.  Despite adult accolades in my youth and opportunities created by strangers and teachers, I would end up with dust in my mouth from a sudden fall to the ground due a certain naiveté, a lack of confidence, fears of the intention of others, my emotional need to be accepted.  This continued into my adulthood.  With every fall,  a more determined effort to get up again. In my youth, I had a grit and determination that neared foolishness.  In my middle age, getting up again seems much harder than ever before.

Perhaps it is the death of my parents, separated by nine years, which brings a sense of futility to surface, even though hereditary and emotional flaws may have origin in generations before them. Maybe I miss the better side of each of them, where I had occasional endorsement and encouragement for my talents and abilities. Regardless of the psychological and hereditary baggage that I carry for them and because of them, I genuinely miss them.  The loss has had a profound impact on my aging. I am an orphan adult. I grew up not trusting adults would be available when I was overwhelmed, but hoping they would. There is still a part of me waiting for a trustworthy adult, even though I have been fortunate enough to meet many of them. It is hard to admit that, as an adult, I too have failed myself. 

Maybe I set my goals too high. Throughout my life, it seemed possible that anyone could be a millionaire, rich and famous.  As I have gotten older, it seems less and less likely.  It even seems possible that I will end up in some institutional nursing facility, divested of my belongings, limited by rules intended for my safety and the frailty of old age; so easily forgotten by youth. 

Yet, in the midst of my angst and anxiety, my depression and fear, my lifetime syndromes and chronic health complications, my aches and pains of all sorts, there is the light of eternity stretching forth to meet me. When I am able to focus on that light, all the dark and creepy things seem to fade as though covered in a dense fog.  There seem to be two main contributing inward connections to that light. One relaxes the heart, the other relaxes the mind. In that relaxation, there is a peace – sometimes fleeting across the horizon;  however momentary, that peace is real.

The relaxation of my heart comes when I give loving attention and show compassion. It doesn’t seem to matter where I direct that love nor does it seem to matter if the other responds, as long it is genuinely felt by me.  Whether towards God in prayer and worship, towards a loved one in caring interaction, towards animals, plants, even insects, the appreciation of those  outside myself and beyond myself can bring me to a forever place and connect me to the light. This requires cultivating gentleness and compassion, forgiveness and selflessness – often difficult in this modern age of such ruthless individuality and sectarianism.

The relaxation of my mind comes when I let go of agendas and expectations, accept what is and what was, and allow my thoughts and sensations to be free in the experience of the present moment.  The present moment is that constant reality that ties that past to the future. It is where all decisions are made. It is a place where divinity can be felt and eternity can be known.  When I am present and available to life, I am living in the moment that is here and now. I am aware of my surroundings and I am able to access my uniqueness. I belong to the present moment always. I do not have to force myself to belong, to fit in. This is the place and time where my dreams and visions meet the awesomeness of reality. This is the place and time where prophecy is understood. It is the stepping off point for the rest of the journey and it is the forever place of the journey. As the saying goes, wherever you go there you are. 

In this relaxed mind and heart, I do not need to know the details of the future to be safe. I am comforted in my place in the created universe. I am unstressed about the timeline of my life, I can reflect on the details of my past without becoming enmeshed in the morass of shortcomings and short-falls. I can smile genuine smiles. I can love genuine love. I can be older.

Wednesday, January 21

Monumental Creativity

There is no question that I have been blessed by being in the presence of places of ancient sacredness whose spirituality seeps through the decades and centuries to the present.  There are some places that have an enigmatic circumstance in their creation.  Such are some of the large architectual and artistic landmarks.  They are intricate collections of stone arranged in a unique pattern that is also completely understood to be directed by human will. 

There are ruins of archeological significance that capture the imagination, like the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico or ancient cities abandoned long ago or just left over puzzles that has yet to be solved. These are not like skyscrapers or the modern giant shopping malls or warehouse grocery stores.

The first picture is one such place in Wisconsin. 
Bird Rock Effigy - Hager City, Wisconsin

Then these places of monumental art that have a particular spiritual quality to them. The builders have been individuals at the edge of their communities. Called crazy by some, eccentric by others, these builders and visionaries have been described honestly with all their quirkiness. The description could even be on the autistic by modern diagnostic standards. The places they have left us endure, complete with a certain intimacy that intrigue and baffle those that study them and write of their history. The explanations for building seem to be as distinct and different as the unique individuals who put extraordinary amounts of time, energy and resources into their creations.  At the same time, there is a similarity of form and structure.  There is no evidence these men even knew each other.  

[words, photographs and collages by John-Brian Paprock, all rights reserved]

Petrified Forest Monument Park in South Dakota

Holy Family Grotto in Wisconsin

Rudolph, Wisconsin

Holy Ghost park and shrine in Dickeyville, Wisconsin

Holy Ghost park and shrine in Dickeyville, Wisconsin

Holy Ghost park and shrine in Dickeyville, Wisconsin
Watts Towers in Los Angeles

Tuesday, August 7

Serendipity Art

Serendipity means a "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise"; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it, according to Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serendipity

Serendipity Art is art that you find when you were not looking for art. It is like finding a gem glistening in a damp cave or along a shallow river bank.  One is at once elated, excited and quietly looking around to see if anyone else noticed it as well. 

One such place of Serendipity Art is at the Atkinson Library (location: 1960 W. Atkinson Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53209 (414) 286-3000 ). It opened in January 1961 as the first in a 10-year program to provide large regional libraries spread throughout the City of Milwaukee. The beauty of the building's unique architecture, highlighted by a beamed, cathedral vaulted ceiling, woodwork and modern stained glass windows, was enhanced by a renovation project in the spring of 1994. 

The branch manager of the library was quoted at the library's 50th anniversary:  "Atkinson Library has a strong African-American collection, excellent career and small business materials, engaging programs for all ages and 26 computers with Internet access. The vaulted ceilings, many windows and woodwork make the library an inviting place to gather." (Brian Williams-VanKlooster in a celebratory hand-out at the library.)

But this is only the ambience that allows one to find Seredipity Art. Two stunning sculptures - one inside, the other outside - capture the essence of serendipity art. Both were done by local Milwaukee artists according to library staff, but preliminary research did not reveal names either. Perhaps, it is art of local angels.

The first piece is called "Four Frredoms" and the library staff had a handout that described the symbolism of the piece.

(written anonymously for the library semi-centennial to explain the sculpture)

An abstract sculpture. Each metal represents a different kind of freedom.

FREEDOM FROM WANT includes ornaments of the sun, half hidden by a rain cloud, the germinating seed, sheaf of grain, open book, flash of energy and five loaves and two fishes.

FREEDOM OF RELIGION consists of basic symbols of the six major religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Confucianism)>

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION is ornamented with a flying unicorn, a pajam-clad child with a book flying carpet, a ship at sea, a tree, and a flame of light.

FREEDOM FROM FEAR includes a brutalized figure of a man, armed with a club and rock emerging from an atomic explosion mushroom cloud.

Also depicted is a broken heart, finger of scorn, the prying eye, the lying tongue, fist and shackle, a listening ear and skull of death.

* * *
The second piece is a beautiful contemporary ethnic sculptured head that has no name. It stands in the middle of the library as a wondrous sentinel.

I was told that an anonymous neighborhood sculptor donated this piece to guard the library's extensive collection of African-American history - and so it does.

Serendipity Art can bring us into a location where we can be blessed with beauty and opportunity to know more about our fellow humans.

Look for Serendipity Art to lead you by your heart to places you will find insight and blessing. Sometimes, it will be found in the most unlikely of places.

Monday, May 14

A Story of Very Small Bear

[Note: A Story of Very Small Bear is a fictionalized account of real events by John-Brian Paprock. Just thought you should know...]

Not every toy and stuffed animal bought has the wondrous journey of the Velveteen Rabbit, although they all aspire to loved that much. Usually, reaching the high state of being loved and becoming real is reserved for the stuffed animals of children who must outgrow their beloved, yet will always cherish the memories of comfort afforded their youth. Even then, it is becoming more and more difficult for toys and stuffed animals to compete with video games and the Internet.  They are discarded sooner, before they can be loved enough to overcome the inanimate state in which they were created.

Occasionally, there are rare exceptions of the service of such comforting angels who come in the form of stuffed animals and become loved in such abundance that the length of time has little to do with the miraculous reality of protecting those that feel vulnerable or sickly. And it is no longer a precondition that the benefit only be available to the young, but to anyone of any age, if their need is sufficient.

This is a story of one lucky bear who happened to made at the right time and was displayed on the right shelf at the right angle to catch the attention of a hurried husband concerned for his wife's condition.

The bear wasn't particularly unique, being among many of his own ilk, except his eyes. His glistening deep blue plastic eyes sparkled real, or at least as real glass. Those blue eyes were sewn in such a compassionate expression it made the stitching of his embroidered smile seem equally compassionate. The husband, although hurried, was surprised how much the compassion expressed by a stuffed animal caught his attention.  He looked through the other small white bears gathered on the shelf (and even the shelf below). None of them had the compassion and earnestness of this special bear. 

As the husband carried the bear, he noticed that the bear had a hybrid stuffing that was sort-of beanie-baby type stuff and fluffy stuff.  His white fur was plush and soft. The husband found himself petting the bear's head as he stood in line at the store. He glanced around to see if anyone noticed and then, with some embarrassment, glanced down at the bear who seemed to be staring back at him knowingly, and with a compassion that made the husband less embarrassed and even a bit comforted.

"She will love this bear," he thought as he checked out and walked to the car. He glanced into the bag to see where the bear was among the groceries. On the right, next to a bunch of bananas and a bottle of ibuprofen sat the bear, smiling back at the husband as though he could hear the loving thoughts and feel the loving intentions.

 He arrived home, turning the kitchen light on with his elbow as he brought the bag of groceries and placed the bag on the counter.

"Is that you?" The inquiry came from the bedroom.

"Yes. It's me, sweetie. I got something special for you."

"Did you get milk?" He turned around and there she was in her pink bathrobe, grabbing the edge of the bag to peek. The all of the sudden she squealed (well, there may be more dignified words for the sound she made, but she did squeal).

"Awwww. He's so cute!" she said as she carefully pulled a small white furry animal from the bag. The bear was ecstatic for he knew he was made for her.  She delightfully and carefully placed in the palm of her hand so that he sat up as he did on the store shelf.  She stared into his face with such a smile. Her husband recognized her joy bubbling up as she began to giggle.

"Oh my, look at his eyes!" she exclaimed in a whisper as she stroked his fur around his ears with one finger. "They are so blue; almost as blue as yours, sweetie! Thank you!"  She turned and gave her husband a big hug and kissed him on the neck. He blushed a bit and giggled.

"I knew it as soon as I saw him," he said in a self-congratulatory manner. His smile was almost as big as hers.  The bear was inwardly at peace and immediately felt love for these humans. As she hugged her husband, she looked over his shoulder at the bear in her hand.

"He's perfect; just the right size. He is very small, but he is the exact size. He fits into my hand perfectly," she said with adoration as she closed her hand around the bear, softly. The bear let out an inward sigh that the humans could not hear. He felt completely safe and completely loved.

"Do you think the others will be jealous?" her husband asked jokingly, but this was a serious question to his wife.

"I don't think so," she said with a frown on her face. But as she brought the bear to her face for a close up view of his face, she shook her head.  "They will all love him. He's so cute and so full of love. He'll fit right in."

She ran back to the bedroom and introduced the bear to the other stuffed animals on the bed. Basil Bear was a new year bear 1998 and he was the elder of the bed.  There was Zachariah, a beanie-baby type lamb that comforted the wife through a major depression. And Purple Distressed Bear, who always helped when there was a lot of anxiety. And Yellow Bunny, whose name always seemed to be on the tip on the tongue and would always be remembered later. And Flower, a new bunny with pink ears with a flower embroidered on her belly. And a bedtime Topo Gigio, who only said the Lord's Prayer in Italian when his belly was pressed.

"And this is, um, well, this is Very Small Bear," she said as an introduction as she held her hand open palmed with the white bear to entire bed crew.  Her husband chuckled into his hand from the door. He was very happy that this small token of affection had brought so much joy. All of the sudden, she said, "I am so very tired."

"Is there anything I can get you?"

"No, please come to bed," she said as she curled into her side of the bed. The bed crew of animals at her head and neck in the middle. She held Very Small Bear in her hand. On her side, she looked at him closely, petting his head, staring at the compassionate expression and the sparkling blue eyes.  She sighed.  Her husband came over and helped her take off the robe and get tucked in.  She never let go of Very Small Bear. Looking into his face again and smashing their noses together, her husband could hear her giggle as she said, "You ARE a Very Small Bear."

He went to gather his books and the daily puzzle, go to the restroom and undress, so that he could lie next to his wife.  By the time he arrived at the bed, his wife was already asleep. It was not her fault she was so sleepy. The medicine made her very tired. She seemed to suffer so when she was awake. It was good that the medicine helped her sleep, he thought as he kissed her on the cheek and said softly, "Good night, my sweet wife."

She smiled but did not wake up. He notice that her hand was completely relaxed and yet Very Small Bear lay perfectly in her hand against her fingers with his head poking out.  It was almost as though he winked at the husband to reassure him that she would be fine; that all the love he felt for her was held in this very small soft furry stuffed animal body and, while in her hand, a transference of security, comfort, support and warmth flowed into her heart and melted away all illness, all pain in both of them.  The husband laid back, turned on his light and opened his book. Evey so often, he would glance over at Very Small Bear who joyfully continued his work through the night.

The amount of love Very Small Bear was almost too much to hold within his very small body. At one point, during the night, the wife's hand loosened enough, so that, when she turned, he fell to the floor.  He found himself quite animated, able to walk around.  He began to explore the area next to the bed, looking up at the wife and wondering how he was going to get back into her hand. 

The other animals of the bed, came to the edge and leaned over.  They had all sorts of questions, but none of them offered to help him back up to the bed. Finally, he asked directly for some help and they devised a way of reaching him with blankets and pillows cases and a few arms and legs. Topo Gigio said the Lord's Prayer in Italian, mostly because the wife grabbed him while she was sleeping. 

All of the sudden, she woke up, disrupting the bed crew's rescue plans. She ran into the bathroom. With the sound of the flushing toilet, she slowly walked back to the bed. She stopped abruptly and looked at her hands in the hallway light streaming into the bedroom.  "Where is Very Small Bear?"

She was distressed and began to look, calling for him, "Very Small Bear. Very Small Bear. Where are you?"

Her husband woke up and asked, "What's going on?"

"I can't find Very Small Bear," she said almost tearfully. And he began to look as well.  Just as he was reaching for the main light, she exclaimed "There you are! Don't wander too far away when you are on the floor. Remember, after all, you are a very small bear."

She pat him on the head and held him close to her. "Did she know?" thought Very Small Bear, but it really didn't matter. 

Very Small Bear felt he had found his purpose because of the ease of comfort he felt as she wrapped her fingers loosely around him. She kissed him on the head, curled back up on her side of the bed, and then quickly sat up. She leaned toward her husband and reached her empty hand for him.

"Thank you, my swee', so very much for the love of Very Small Bear. He fits perfectly and comfortably in my hand. It's like he was made for me. My heart feels better with him here. Thank you." She leaned over and kissed her husband.

He smiled and said softly, "Good night, my love, and good night, Very Small Bear."

the author sound asleep with the bed crew friends of Very Small Bear
some of the bed crew animals

a real very small bear
photo of baby polar bear
source: Facebook unknown

Sunday, April 22

Remembering Earth Day

The first Earth Day was established in 1970 by Wisconsin statesman Gaylord Nelson.  I was nine years old, but I already understood the natural world was a treasure that was freely accessible and glorious to behold.

photo by JBP c 2000

Some of my earliest memories are: shifting through the grass with my hand, following the ants and other small bugs crawling through the thatchwork at the base of the lawn; putting my face into red flower; playing with the garden snails after the Southern California rain brought them out in droves, giggling as they reacted to touch and breath; looking in Pacific tide pools filled with wondous diversity affected by every wave.

From the forest to the desert, from the ocean to the lakes, to the rivers, to the mountains, to the caves, I am truly blessed to live in a land rich in diverse natural beauty and a country with a rich history of those who care enough to help the future generations experience the same awe and wonder of nature.

It is in this love of God's creation that my love of photography emerges and extends to the interface of human creations and natural wonders, to the purely human creative urge from which all forms of art and expression find their beginnings and fruition.

But we have found out, after the industrial revolution of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, that our creative ability can have a devastating and polluting effect, poisoning the very elements of the natural and living world we need for any quality of human existence.  By the mid-20th Century, the damage we can inflict became painfully obvious to those who followed in the footsteps of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. The loss of the passenger pigeon through excessive hunting became a poignant example, among a growing supply of examples, that rang an alarm of an inter-connected and inter-dependent dying that would lead to our own human destruction.

Earth Day emerged as a single day every year for the remembrance of the beauty of creation and a call to action for every human being.

Litter and trash thrown along the roads and walkways, choked the scenic beauty of even the most rural parts of America, the Beautiful.  I remember the early Earth Day "celebrations" as days for picking up litter and trash. Now we have whole municipalities, states and nations dedicated to recycling as much as possible. In most places in America, there are laws that prohibit littering and encourage recycling.

In the 21st Century, the beauty and awesomeness of the natural world can be found in the densest of urban communities where parks and trees are demanded by citizens for quality of life. It can be found in the great expanses and wondrous scenic opportunities of national and state parks. Their protection and accessibility paid for by citizens through taxes, and encouraged by a clear conscience of voters, ensuring future generations and future centuries can bear witness to the natural world as we can today, one of the many Earth Days worth remembering.

photo by JBP c 2012

+ + +

For more information about Earth Day:
Earth Day: The History of A Movement
Some of Wisconsin heroes have been given special recognition:
Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame
Over 70 Hall of Fame Inductees: Wisconsin has historically pioneered new concepts and ideas. A number of progressive steps toward the conservation of natural resources have originated in Wisconsin, including: the first rural zoning law in the U.S., the first pilot soil conservation demonstration project in the U.S., the first general conservation curriculum, and the first bond issue for outdoor recreation.

Thursday, April 5

Good Bye Cantebury Love

I remember the moment
I knew I loved you.
It was a moment that I did not capture in a photograph, but it is indelibly etched into my heart; such precious spiritual moments are rare enough.
Cantebury's Coffeeshop was fairly busy that day. The sun streamed into windows. I sat with my coffee, blowing off the steam. As I blew, you sat down across from me.  You were telling me something significant at the time, but I do not remember your words.  The noise of the store became a background hum as the piped Renaissance music lilted through the air.  

I remember,
you tossed your hair
as you crossed your legs and
sipped your hot Chai tea.

I was,
at that moment,
completely smitten. 

Instead of an acquaintance that was becoming a good friend, you glistened like a pearl of great price, sparkled like a precious gem on some routine jewelry that when noticed consumes the attention so that everything else fades into the background.

Its beauty only glows and grows,
until it becomes the source
of light in any room.

Everytime I sat across from you,
for the years that followed,
I smiled
(if you take the time to remember every time, you will see my smile).

I smiled
as I saw that same pearl and gem
through your eyes
from your heart.

I attempted to get a photograph of that glow, that dazzling charm, that enticing and spiritual light. Several times, I almost caught it.

I always knew you were a gift to my lonely life and a companion for my journey. 
You had to leave for a while
shortly after that Cantebury afternoon.
When you returned, I knew I could not give you much,
but I did promise my heart and an adventure.

And years later, I am still smitten by 
that glistening pearl and
sparkling gem of your heart
that you were
that you are
that you will always be
to me.

I love you and will always love you
You no longer sit across from me
I will miss being in the presence of that Cantebury love
but the memory of that love
I discovered that afternoon
will endure

(photos and words by JBP April 5, 2012)

Sunday, March 11

Enigmatic AND Effective: Farewell to a Spiritual Light of Madison

Sunset at Holy Wisdom Monastery - March 6, 2012
Chuck Pfeifer's Farewell Dinner
photo by John-Brian Paprock
 Making Community Better Uniquely The Way God Made You

There are a few people in my life that have been crucial in my spiritual development. Charles D. Pfeifer has been one of those people. Past tense is used not because Chuck has passed on, but because he is leaving Madison, finally moving closer to his adult children and their families.  I am glad he will be an example of the good in humanity to his grandchildren.  That's part of the reason I am sad to see him go.

We have not been in much contact since his retirement from Madison Urban Ministry, but I have always known he was close by.  He has been a shining light among the people that make Madison shine among the cities of America.  I have made many referrals to him for spiritual counsel to those of similar thread.

There is so much about Madison and about me that would not have come about if Chuck was not seeking the good, the best of people and our community.  At the same time, he did not flinch in the face of true darkness that so often seeps into the cracks, blending into the floor or the walls.

During his 25+ years with Madison Urban Ministry, Chuck worked hard on the problems that seemed to be on the edge of people's consciousness and sometimes ignnored by their conscience - even if they were going to get around to helping with that problem at sometime. Chuck challenged the morality and the ethics of waiting around for someone else to do it. 

Charles "Chuck" Pfeifer
and Rev. John-Brian Paprock
March 6, 2012
photo by Christo
Under Chuck's sometimes reluctant leadership as executive director of Madison Urban Ministry: a model family program to help troubled families was started (aptly named Family Enhancement); as was a program to assist the elderly with home repairs and remodelling (Project Home); and, when I got involved, Chuck and MUM were in the midst of dynamic work to resolve homelessness in the Madison area.

I actually called Chuck 25 years ago, during the spring of 1987, when the date of my ordination to the priesthood was set.  I called about community ministry for the small mission in Madison I was being ordained to serve.  It turned out that as many things as we had in common, we seemed to have even more that set us apart.  Yet Chuck always seemed to dwell in our common-ness and I learned that, in actuality, we had much more in common at a deeper level.

We were from different Christian denominations, very different. He was a founding member of a progressive United Church of Christ congregation and I was an Orthodox deacon serving a mission chapel being ordained to Orthodox Christian priesthood. Yet our intellectualism left us both open-minded enough and curious enough to find ample common ground.  It also helped that were shared a similar heart, a deep and affectionate attitude to the poor and marginalized in society.

As a young Orthodox Christian man interested in serving humanity, I guess I was something of an anomaly.  Chuck was more interested in where my motivation for service was coming from.  After articulating my service motivation, he referred me to a couple of other people and institutions.  I found my way to serving in hospital chaplaincy and a few ecumenical activities, but it was the ideals of urban ministry that continued to intrigue me.

Charles "Chuck" Pfeifer
and Rev. John-Brian Paprock
March 6, 2012
photo by Christo

 When we had a nasty racial incident happen in Madison in the late 1980s, our self admired progressive city was confounded. Chuck and Madison Urban Ministry immediately moved to deal with the issues of racism.  We established a Race Relations Task Force and had clergy meetings, but the underlying problems of institutional racism proved to be a much larger issue than MUM had dealt with before.  Victories, even progress, was hard to identify at times. MUM itself would be transformed as we sought to heal racial inequalities and related problems.  25 years later and these issues still tug at the fabric of our society; as do all the issues that MUM had the foresight to grapple with.

Nevertheless, Chuck worked hard to have MUM reflect the needed changes we sought in our more-than-90% white city - a city that was seeing a dramatic increase in cultural diversity.  25 years later, that diversity continues to grow.  I was honored to serve as president the first intentionally culturally diverse board of directors of MUM.  It was an experience I will always treasure.

Chuck also surprised me by inviting Jim Forest, founder of the Orthdox Peace Fellowship, as the speaker at the MUM annual banquet that  year.  I have always felt honored and respected, safe, in my Orthodox Christian beliefs and with my cultural identity ever since.   

The depth of Chuck's spirituality and his continuing search for understanding of God's message to us made our discussions on spiritual and mystical topics treasured and memorable to me with their connectedness and in a certain quality that transcends information and even intellect, although we both use our intellects to arrive at that threshold.  There was always a pragmatism that grounded our conversations.

Compassion and love being principle qualities of spiritual development were not lost on a philosopher's intellect. Rather Chuck was able to demonstrate tremendous compassion and care. He was able to step off the platform of intellectual thought and direct his energy toward genuine concern.  This is a quality I admire and emulate, and, as a recipient, remain grateful.

So, I was personally invited to Chuck's farewell dinner. Among the invitees were many I recognized from ecumenical and interfaith activities over the years; many I admire for their spirit of good will for all people. I looked around at all the people and added my remarks to the accolades of the evening.  But, I asked myself, "do I fit in with this crowd?"

In my remarks that evening, I simply reminded everyone of the race relations era. I mentioned that when I met Chuck, I found it helpful to meet someone else who was a bit eccentric, even odd, that could do good in society. To which, everyone chuckled.  Then, I added that I most admired the questions he would ask.  "From one spiritual brother to another, keep asking questions," I said directly to Chuck and he nodded emphatically.

I reluctantly said good-bye to a gentle mystic philosopher, Charles D. Pfeifer, who ran an urban ministry and changed the direction of my own ministry, getting me to serve in a manner closer to the way God made me; a light that shines in my memory, helping me see the road ahead.

When I had the chance for a big mutual hug, I realized I had asked myself the wrong question earlier.  The question was not, "do I fit in with this crowd?" but "how do I fit in with this crowd?"  Chuck had always been my reminder and seeing Chuck brought me back to a core truth: I am already part of this community.  And he would ask, "So, what am I going to do about it?" 

Farewell Dinner for Chuck Pfeifer with aabout 100 of his invited friends
Sponsored by Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, Wisconsin
March 6, 2012 ~ Photo by John-Brian Paprock

Thursday, October 20

Native Honor and Faith in the Mountains

How many generations in this country before one can say he is Native American?" I asked an Obijwe elder in Lac Courte Oreilles tribal reservation several years ago.

Native America from Black Hills of South Dakota to the Rocky Mountains of Idaho
photos by JBP 2006
When one loves this land like their mother, that is when he is Native as we are Native to this land," he said. He went to explain that loving the land was a wholistic integration with one's environment, both spiritual and physical. I have learned to walk spiritually in the natural world by engaging physical senses and spiritual awareness. It is not that different from walking in the man-made world, whether religious or secular. I have had powerful spiritual experiences where the natural world meets the world of humans in the honoring of sacred places, the building of sacred space and the simple harmonious interaction with the world around us.

Medicine Mountain, Big Horn Mountains, Wyoming
photos by JBP 2006
I am not sure what makes a place more sacred than another, but everyone should take a pilgrimage to any of the sacred places in North America. And just be there for a while.

My family and I had decided to drive from Madison, Wisconsin to Spokane, Washington for a small conference. I looked at maps and websites for interesting places we could stop, knowing the sacred has been recognized and marked by those that have gone before us.

There are a few native sacred sites that are protected by law.  There are others that are protected by secrecy. In the middle of the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, high above almost everything else and several miles off from the parking lot, is the Medicine Wheel National Monument. It is an ancient ceremonial or astronomical site situated on a narrow ridge atop Medicine Mountain almost 10,000 feet above sea level.

Medicine Wheel aerial photo by Airphoto 2002
By ancestry, I am an American mutt, a human of mixed blood and genetic heritage.  If I was a pie chart, I am mostly of European ancestry, but have roots into the beginnings of the United States and Canada.  My great-great grandmother was native of the Mic Maq tribe in the Maritime Provinces of Canada.  I grew up largely unaware of this. I found out later that this was mostly due to a racial shame that was not discussed openly by my mother's family.  Blond and blue-eyed, my European ancestry was more obvious anyway. The Ojibwe always reminded me that I am "cha-mok-a-mon" - white man (literally "long knife" from first encounters with French trappers who carried a long knife).  Nevertheless, the Ojibwe elders helped me integrate many of the fractured pieces of who and what I am, have been and will become.

In the Black Hills of South Dakota is a place of ethnic pride. Crazy Horse Mountain honors Native America and is the vision of a Polish sculptor and his family!  Both sides of my family tree fully engaged in a mountain. I still smile when I consider the unusual ethnic combination outside of my family of origin.

We decided to stop at the Medicine Wheel high in the mountains.  The parking is several miles from the site. The walk is a continually climb, we were accompanied by yellow-winged grasshoppers that would click as they flew along the rocks. There were mountain flowers in bloom and a variety butterflies.

At the wheel, which is at at the edge of the mountain.  There is very little higher.  There was a sign and a national park ranger.  The sign was clear, only native americans were allowed into the actual wheel.  I spoke to the ranger and was allowed to enter into the center.  There, I prayed.

Five years later, there is a part of me still praying at that mountain top. 

Tuesday, September 27

Clarity and Reflection at Equinox

Fall Begins in a Reflection
Photograph by John Brian Paprock
Lake Wingra, Madison, Wisconisn 
September 2011

Upon the mirrored skin of a lazy creek at the edge of a spring-fed marsh lake, in a few fleeting moments, what is above can be seen in that which is below.

This has always been a reflecting time for me. A time for me to see things that have been in a new light, even as the day hours equal the night. 

From this time until the March equinox, we will be in natural darkness more than natural light.   

The light of the sun is precious and its lingering beauty moves to the southern horizon. 

At this time, the leaves begin their transformation. Their last breath, a punctuation of beauty that colors the trees in a broad paintbrush across the northern lands. 

The harvest begins in earnest as scholars erect pillars of academia.  All Hallow's Eve is around the corner and the Saints await our pleas for security. 

In reflection, at the changes of this season, we remember the places we died and the moments of our mortality.  And we reach for eternity in the light of fading days.

written near the autumnal equinox of 2011 by John-Brian Paprock  

Tuesday, June 21

Cathedrals are where Bishops and Angels sit in Los Angeles

Exterior of the impressive St. Leon Armenian Cathedral in Burbank
photos by John-Brian Paprock
The interior of St. Leon Armenian Cathedral in Burbank is inspiring.
photos by John-Brian Paprock
Los Angeles translates from Spanish to "The Angels."  In this megalopolis world city made of cities within cities, county lines that blur in the surrounding mountains, angels dwell. Certainly, they dwell in churches.  Cathedrals are churches that are elevated to a status of being the dwelling of bishops.  Usually at the population center of a bishop's diocese, they are usually known as large ornate edifices.  Every Orthodox and Catholic church usually has a bishop's seat, a large chair for the bishop when he visits and presides over liturgical functions. A cathedral is his permanent "seat." The faithful were encouraged to make a pilgrimage to their diocesan cathedral. Now, most cathedrals are welcoming of visiting faithful and open to others to visit.  During a September 2010 visit to Los Angeles, my wife and I were able to visit three cathedrals: St. Leon's Armenian Orthodox Cathedral, Our Lady of Angels Catholic Cathedral, and St. Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Cathedral.

These three were convenient "along the way" diversions; the kind of diversion from other items on a tourist itinerary that I have grown to appreciate.  My wife has learned to trust my intuitive and curious planning of such "along the way" diversions. There are always discoveries and insights when we allow our journey to include such sacred places.

We drove up on the Armenian cathedral  (pictured above) in the morning. I had heard that there were native Armenian stone craftsmen working on the building and on kachkars  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khachkar

Kachkars are large ornately carved stone crosses. It was relatively quiet there as workmen were putting finishing touches.  The Cathedral Stone Crosses were blessed and dedicated in a ceremony presided by the Armenian Bishop. http://www.armenianchurchwd.com/st-leon-cathedral-cross-stones-khatchkars-to-be-consecrated/

It was nourishing to wander around the Cathedral with so few people around; to be filled with the fragrance of incense from morning prayer and surrounded by ancient symbols of Christianity in such a modern building. The stone cutter did not speak English very well and I do not speak Armenian, but he was able to communicate that he was 4th generation craftsman. I was able to communicate how blessed I felt to touch the cross shapened by the loving and spiritual craft that is uniquely part of Armenian Orthodoxy.

Some may not fully understand the need for such monuments of the ancient church in the face of other needs. But when done correctly, a cathedral is not a museum of artifacts and history. It is a living spiritual and sacred space that can enrich and empower the seeker and the knower to climb to greater heights. At least, that is what they should do.  In the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, the creation of sacred space with sacred art and liturgy is so integrated with the spiritual life that they are inseparable.  As large as they can be, there is no "big box" church mentality.  Without the spiritual atmosphere integral to building space for the sacred to exist in this secular and material existence, all buildings made by man are empty and hollow structures that emphasize the profane or the secular or worse.  Nevertheless, inspired architecture can transcend purpose and bring us closer to the sacred regardless of human use.

So, the church building or the cathedral is intended to be a place that outwardly interacts with the world that surrounds it and hopefully can be a beacon of spiritual light and goodness in the neighborhood. Inwardly, from the Orthodox and Catholic perspective, it must be a place akin to heaven, like a ladder that leads the mind and heart upward even as the eye wanders to the pinnacle of the cross.
Of course, the City of Angels would have a Catholic Cathedral dedicated to the Lady of Angels in downtown LA
photos by John-Brian Paprock
Where the Armenian Cathedral is brand new, yet brings a deep sense of personal nourishment by tapping into the deep reservoir of the ancient faith of the Armenian people, Our Lady of Angels Catholic Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles carried its tradition in a modern context. The beautiful abstract architecture almost pulls one from the purpose of the building, were it not for the nuances of more intimate spaces where pieces of the extensive Catholic heritage of Los Angeles can be seen and felt. The angel theme is played over and over again, along with other Catholic themes.  We happened to visit during a ceremony for the Knights of Jerusalem, and the solemn public ritual was filled with reverence, even from the distance we watched. 

I found great comfort in the old statue of Our Lady of Angels, with cherubs dancing around and under Mary's cloak as she holds the baby Jesus. I remembered spending a long time looking at each of the cherubim and their faces when I was a child. Those child faces of the cherubs seemed safe and protected in the folds of Mary's cloak. Until I saw it at this visit, I remembered it as a dream or an image from a movie. Seeing it again, brought back a feeling of protection and safety I felt those times my family would visit the cathedral during the early 1960s. Regardless of my childhood tragedies, traumas and difficulties, I always felt there was an angelic presence that preserved me. That familiar feeling came back to me at this cathedral in that intimate side altar where this historic statue was kept behind plexiglass.  It was difficult to photograph at all - even harder when my eyes teared up over and over again.  

Angels are the theme, but the well-used grounds were filled with other art and beauty.
photos by John-Brian Paprock (except worship photo by Teresa  Paprock)
 Perhaps St. Ephrem Cathedral is more modest in physical comparison with the other cathedrals we visited, but the spirit was strong in more intimate places. We missed morning services and arrived to find the building empty, yet a door was open.  It was a welcoming experience even without the attendance of clergy.  We even looked for clergy and knocked on several doors, but the nursery school and day care providers were the only people there and had their hands full with the children. It was clear that this community service was integral to the Cathedral's work in the neighborhood, as the children were as diverse as the surrounding urban society.  

The Syriac Orthodox Cathedral of St Ephrem in Burbank
photos by John-Brian Paprock
The interior of St Ephrem Cathedral  in Burbank  is full of intimate spaces
photos by John-Brian Paprock
It was the intimacy that gave us comfort in our prayers at the Cathedral. We lit candles and added our prayers to the space already filled with prayer and incense earlier. It was as though we were able to participate in the spiritual extensions of those prayers.  I have had this experience before in sacred places - time collapses and the beneficent quality of all the prayers, hopes and dreams in that place are almost tangible. Every place dedicated to bring us closer to sublime divinity should evoke such feeling. The truth is that they are not all so blessed.  After visiting thousands of historic churches and sacred places of diverse traditions and even religions, there is something of a mystery in the reason that some places are spiritually enriched while others are spiritally bankrupt. Sometimes, the presence of holy ones can be felt like angel wings glancing the cheek can felt if one can be quieted and centered and willing to be spiritually nourished.  I am glad in my heart that most of these places are still available and open to the seeker and the knower. I am glad in my heart that we had the chance to visit many of these special places, including the three Cathedrals of Los Angeles. If every place and time could be so nourishing, so nuturing, so compelling, so transcendent, then perhaps humanity would not need these places of angels and bishops to remind them of the deeply spiritual reality always available to us if we seek to know it.