Thursday, December 28, 2006

not keeping time

My beautiful lapis blue 1997 Jeep Cherokee Sport turned 166,000 miles today and it’s still going strong. Watching the odometer flip made me think about the waning days of this year and what awaits us in the next.

Is this an ending or a beginning?

For my car, on a day long before it became mine, there was Mile One when all but the last numbers on the odometer were zeroes. A little over two weeks ago, I marked the day I came into the world: my Day One. I missed being born on the eleventh by a little less than two hours.

The odometer counts actual miles. I stack up my years from the day I was born. Yet, when it comes to our calendar, our choice to begin our year on January 1 marks nothing more than our arbitrary decision to say our year begins on January 1. The Hebrew calendar marks the beginning of the year usually in what we call September and says we are in the year 5767. Because their years are of different lengths, the Chinese New Year is in either January or February. This coming year, 4705 (The Year of the Boar) begins on February 18. The Islamic calendar marks the year as 1427. The Hindu calendar, which is quite complicated, marks the new year in May and sees this year as 5108. The Coptic calendar sees the year 1724 beginning on January 1. Best I can tell, this is the year 1376 on the Zoroastrian calendar and the year begins in March. The Baha’I calendar uses the same date for New Years and marks nineteen months of nineteen days. For them, we are in the year 163 BE (Baha’i Era).

Quick – tell me what day it is.

In Time Lord: Sir Sanford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time, Clark Blaise tells the story of how Fleming came up with and implemented the idea of standardizing time after he missed his train because the time at the departure point and the time at the arrival point were not synchronized. He’s the one who decided the day should begin at midnight because sunrise wasn’t quantifiable. One of the people Blaise quotes in the first chapter is George Smoot, whose cousin, Oliver, was used by his fraternity brothers to measure the length of the Mass. Ave. bridge across the Charles River when he was a student at MIT. Instead of using a standard measurement, they used something they knew. Today, current students at MIT can tell you the bridge is 364.4 Smoots and one ear, but few – if any – know the length of the bridge in feet and inches.

Blaise also says:

First of all, time comes in two distinct varieties: the untamed mysterious Time, born with the big bang itself, and civil, obedient standard time, as in “What time is it?” or “How long has this been going on?” It’s not clear that the same word even applies to both, or what the nature of their relationship, if any, might be. Perhaps time should have two names, like “horse” and “equus,” the one to stand for hardworking, domesticated time, that which we control and can describe – the calendars, clocks, minutes and hours of the civil day – and the other for the untamed and unnamable, that which nature has not yet released.
I love that last phrase: that which nature has not yet released.

We can measure the time that has passed – or at least give ourselves a way to think we can – but we can’t quantify what is still to come. We may have things on the books for 2018 or 2029, but who knows how far away they are. Who knows if we will even be here. We can’t even see the next sunrise until the light is already breaking on the horizon.

One of the things Ginger gave me for Christmas is a Watercolor Lesson-A-Day Calendar. I enjoyed working with watercolors a number of years ago and Ginger wanted to encourage me to get back to painting, so she gave me a calendar that calls me to pick up my brush everyday. I spent a lot of years wanting to be a writer without writing. As I wrote the other day, this has been a year where I marked the days by spending time at the keyboard putting words together. I have no idea of where the words or paints will take me, but I’m going to use them to mark my days to see what nature might release in the sunrises still to come.

“Stack up the stones,” Joshua said, “so when the children ask what the stones mean we can tell them the story.”

One of the things I gave Ginger for Christmas was a recording of me singing, “When You Say Nothing at All,” one of our favorite songs. I learned how to use the GarageBand program on my MacBook and turned my office into a little studio. I also went to the Apple Store for instruction. One of the biggest challenges was learning how to keep time as I played and sang, which meant I had to learn how to play consistently with the beat so I could use the drums and bass sounds stored in the computer.

It’s a funny phrase: keeping time. It can’t be done.

Time moves less like the clicks of a metronome and more like the meanderings of a small stream as it pushes its way through the valley, running over stones, cutting into the soft clay, winding back and forth as it finds its way to the sea. I learned early that Christian theology holds that time is linear: history is going somewhere. The contrast was with those religions that see time as a circle: the great mandala. I don’t think it’s either/or, but both/and. Like any good story, the history of creation is going somewhere, though I doubt seriously that any of us has yet to peg the ending. And the cycle of life, from sunrise to sunset to sunrise, year to year, generation to generation, goes around and around, even as we, as a planet, circle the sun. The circle is one of the archetypal images of creation, from the life cycles of the tiniest of insects to the awesome wonder of the galaxies. We are circling on our way to somewhere.

When I write again, it will be a new year because we have deemed it so, even though it is only four sunrises away. As the sun and moon traverse the sky, I will make my circles to work (again), to church (again), and come home (again and again), as I do my part to unlock the time that nature has not yet released, setting loose the untamed and the unnamable.


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

looking back

don't eat alone is one year old today.

Corndogmatic mentioned a meme that's going around where you post the first line of the first post of each month as a way of reviewing your blog for the year. I've altered the idea a bit, going back to pull out some quotes along the way that point to some of things that matter most to me.


"A crazy guest eats and leaves right away." (Arabic proverb)
12/28/2005 – “staying at the table”

In the midst of all the tossing about, I feel these are very pregnant days, if I might change metaphors. We’ve been busy before. We’ve had weeks with more on our plates than we know how to eat; this is not that. As Bill said to Ted (or the other way round), “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.” Something is happening. Something is growing. Something is about to be born.
1/27/2006 – “building a mystery”

Every trip to the supermarket, it seems, is a test of faith. Globalization means that my picking up grapes from Chile in the dead of winter means some poor farmer is taking it in the face. I have more fresh produce available to me in the dead of a New England winter than the people who live in the countries that grow the stuff ever get to see themselves. So I’ve joined the growing band of folks who are working hard to figure out how to eat more locally and challenge the big corporations.
2/05/2006 – “we are what we eat”

Faith, however, is not about civil rights; it's more than that. We are called to love the world -- everyone not because it's the legal thing, or even the moral thing, but because it is the truest thing we can do. There is a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea, says the hymn. From the beach at the end of my street, the sea is endless.
2/25/2006 – “open and affirming”

But to ride the monster -- to come to terms with the depression being part of me, rather than an unbeatable foe and let it take me down, to submerge me until I could learn how to breathe and see and hear in the dark -- offers a ray of hope. At the deepest, darkest places I find I do bump into both grace and danger, healing and wounding, life and death, not as polarities, but as creative tensions that offer me the chance to grow and learn and thrive: to begin to feel whole.
3/05/2006 – “riding the monsters”

Jesus was saying live the kind of life that will get you in trouble with the authorities. Love so emphatically, so prophetically, so audaciously that you could be construed as criminally subversive. When we talk about the “crosses we bear” as the hardships we live with, or the difficulties we face we are missing the power of the image. The call is to be holy terrors, to make nuisances of ourselves and wreak havoc in Jesus’ name.
3/12/2006 – “wreaking holy havoc”

Life is not an equation. Whatever my body is doing chemically is not the story of my life, even for today. As the snow falls, the animals huddle close, calling me to hear the strange harmonies that unlock walls, redeem destruction, and echo deep into the darkness.
4/05/2006 – “things to think”

Centering may be a better word. I’m a little over six months away marking my first half a century on the planet and walked today where Paul walked forty of my lifetimes ago, as he walked over ruins of those who had been there six or eight lifetimes before that. Two thousand years feels like a close connection when I think of it as forty lifetimes. We have accumulated more than two thousand years of living just by adding up the ages of the people riding on our bus. Stretched out over centuries it is a long time; imagined as a connected web of human existence it is not so far away.
4/25/2006 – “what history looks like”

We walked home under the moon, below the old city walls, and surrounded by the crowds and the beautiful sights, sounds, and smells of the abandon that flourishes within a celebrating community. We have walked today in the footsteps of our faith, in the heritage of our history, in the delight of discovery, all the time wading in the deep, deep river that is our common humanity. Faith, says Frederick Buechner, is a journey without maps. Ah, but with all these traveling companions, it’s not so hard to find our way.
5/06/2006 – “out for a walk”

I don’t want to forget what’s important, or be a slave to the immediate, and I have to come to terms with my limitations. As much as I would love to champion most every cause I come across, I can’t do it. There are too many important things for me to keep track of them all. That’s a hard truth for me to face.
6/05/2006 – “keeping up”

Love gets lived out in daily tasks and responsibilities, helped along by washers and dryers and mixers and grinders. Getting a new one reminds me why it was there in the first place: we decided to live our lives together.
6/22/2006 – “appliance time”

Ken Lay dropped dead in his vacation home in Colorado. One news account said it might have been caused by the stress of the trial and the verdict. Evidently, he felt little stress in committing the crimes, which leads me to my second thought. His death demonstrates the uselessness of the death penalty: Ken Lay is dead; nothing had been made better.
7/06/2006 – “life sentence”

Sometimes I’m caught by surprise by the sacredness of simple things.

Caught the way a child is caught when he jumps off the side of the pool into his waiting mother’s arms, gleefully giggling the whole time. Caught the way an expression is caught in a photograph, a two-dimensional picture holding layer upon layer of memory. Caught the way a fly ball is caught when the outfielder lays himself out in a desperate dive and comes up with the ball in his glove.
8/03/2006 – “caught by surprise”

We’re created in the image of a go-for-broke-swing-for-the-fences-what -can-I-do-next-man-that-was-fun-do-you-know-how-much-I-love-you-you-ain-t-seen-nothing- yet-I-saw-this-and-knew-you’d-like-it-what-do-you-say-we-skip-school-and-go-to-the-beach- drive-with-the-windows-down-singing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs kind of God who does miracles and other things with an extravagance we can’t explain and we live much of our lives in fear. How can that be?
8/21/2006 – “bartender jesus”

A rabbi, a priest, a physicist, a yoga instructor, an auto mechanic, a bag piper, a farmer, a ballet dancer, a soccer player, and an economist all go into a bar. I’m not sure where that story goes, but it will be better than one that begins, “Six teachers (or accountants, or artists) locked themselves in a room together and said, ‘Good. Now we’re safe.’”
9/19/2006 – "einstein’s ipod”

There’s an ad campaign for something called Tag cologne that makes it seem as though any teenage girl who smells it on a boy will immediately disrobe. There’s something in the attitude towards the girls in those commercials that is kin to the shootings. Everything from Hooters to hip hop is telling our girls they are expendable. They are the targets caught in our cultural crosshairs.
10/03/2006 – “missing the point”

There is an ongoing lamentation to our humanity: we, like the leaves, will only hang on so long before we fall. Hopefully, we, too, can go out blazing. But there is a melody more enduring than the sounds of grief and pain, a song that permeates life at every level, one that we were given from birth.
10/22/2006 – “how can I keep from singing?”

And when I feel overwhelmed, I let my world get smaller. I can't find the answers to my life, so I quit listening to all the questions. But there aren’t answers, only a call which requires that I listen and look up to hear and see more than me.
11/14/2006 – “it’s a small world”

Memory is essential to purpose and compassion. Let us look beyond the slight of hand that tricks us into thinking the immediate is all that matters. Look up. Look in. Look out. I can only see what I can see; the same is true for you. Together we can assemble a perspective of purposefulness with eyes open wide to let all the light in.
11/30/2006 – “the vision thing”

We grow like Jesus grew. I’ve walked the earth now almost twenty years longer than Jesus did in his lifetime; my grandmother just tripled Jesus’ age when she turned 99 a couple of weeks ago. For all of us, the years happen a day, a moment at a time, in both significant and insignificant increments.

Christmas is coming incrementally for us this year, just as life and faith come day after day. And I still have time to hang the lights.
12/18/2006 – “an incremental christmas”


Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

the morning after

Mary rose before sunrise;
The baby was still sleeping,
As was Joseph and most of
The animals, except for one cow
Who looked a little sheepish.

The shepherds were long gone.
In their excitement, they had not
Cleaned up well after themselves.
The Magi were resting somewhere,
Waiting for night and the Star.

But Mary did not yet know
Of gold and myrrh and frankincense,
Neither did she know much about
Motherhood, messiahs, or
Life beyond this nativity.

I am up early with a cup
Of coffee and a donut
Of a dog asleep in my lap;
The house is quiet. Christmas
Has come and is fading away.

I know little of parenting, or
Babies, or what to do with
Swaddling clothes. I do know
Christ is born again, for the
Fifty-first time in my life.

In my mind’s eye I watch
Mary turn back to the stable
When she hears her little one cry
For the first time on his first
Morning; she is smiling.

My dog perks up her ears,
As though she, too, hears
The crying, and looks up at me.
“Merry Christmas,” I say,
Wondering what gifts have yet to be opened.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

advent journal: I sang for my president

My favorite caroling memory happened when I was in fifth grade in Lusaka, Zambia. Christmas came in the summer there, so we sang in shorts – actually, our Wolf Cub uniforms. Our den mother announced that we were going caroling at State House, the presidential residence. We practiced hard to sound good. None of our voices had changed, so we did our best Vienna Boys Choir impersonation. I was a first soprano and can still remember the descant on “The First Noel.”

A couple of nights before Christmas, we walked up to the front door of the home of President Kenneth Kaunda and our den mother rang the bell. The president and Betty, his wife answered the door (they did know we were coming) and we began to sing. Zambia had only been independent for a little more than a year, so seeing him was seeing someone larger than life: this was the man who led us to independence. Now he was listening to us sing “Joy to the World.”

After we finished singing, President and Mrs. Kaunda invited us inside for tea and biscuits (which is British for cookies). We sat in a parlor with our president having snacks. Then he said, “You have sung for us about the birth of Jesus Christ. Now I would like to sing for you of my faith.” He sat down at the piano and played and sang “The Lord is My Shepherd.”

Not long after we moved to Marshfield, I was listening to The Connection, a call-in show on NPR and Dick Gordon announced that Kenneth Kaunda was his guest. I dialed the number and one of the producers answered. “I grew up in Zambia and would love to just say a word of appreciation to him,” I said.

“Well,” she replied, “as much as I would love to let you do that, this is a radio show and you’re going to have to make it more interesting.”

I told her the story and she asked me to hold. The next voice I heard was Dick Gordon saying, “Our first caller is Milton from Marshfield. Go ahead, Milton.”

I recounted that night to a man I consider one of my real life heroes and he remembered it. All these years later, I had the chance to thank him for that night and for the life of integrity and faith he has lived. Most of Africa has never gotten to experience much beyond What Might Have Been. The population of Zambia today is nearly forty percent HIV positive. Through both hope and adversity, Kaunda has shown himself to be a person of tenacious faith who has incarnated love and compassion.

One of the songs we sang that night is an odd British carol that I learned to love. The king in the story reminds me of the man I first knew as President.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about

Deep and crisp and even

Brightly shone the moon that night

Though the frost was cruel

When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me

If thou know'st it, telling

Yonder peasant, who is he?

Where and what his dwelling?"

"Sire, he lives a good league hence

Underneath the mountain

Right against the forest fence

By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine

Bring me pine logs hither

Thou and I will see him dine

When we bear him thither."

Page and monarch forth they went

Forth they went together

Through the rude wind's wild lament

And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now

And the wind blows stronger

Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page

Tread thou in them boldly

Thou shalt find the winter's rage

Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod

Where the snow lay dinted

Heat was in the very sod

Which the Saint had printed

Therefore, Christians all be sure

Wealth or rank possessing

Ye who now will bless the poor

Shall yourselves find blessing

Friday, December 22, 2006

advent journal: samuel's song

I realize I just posted a story a couple of days ago, but this one feels right for tonight. It was also written for a Christmas Eve service and was inspired by my wonderful red-headed godson, Samuel.


Samuel’s Song:
A Story for Christmas

by Milton Brasher-Cunningham

Once upon a time – that’s how stories start,
At least all the good ones that pull at your heart –

But that would mean this one happened one past December;
Yet I think, if it did, we would surely remember

And we would be different – marked, as it were,
If this trail of events had already occurred.

So here is a story of a Christmas to come,
In a time much like ours, In a place we’d call home.

It was the night before Christmas, or sometime that day
And Samuel was thinking about the cool Christmas play

They had done at the church on the Sunday before
And he wished he knew someone who could tell him some more

About shepherds and mangers and prophets and things,
But mostly what it sounds like to hear angels sing

Because that was the part that attracted him most:
When the shepherds were sung to by the heavenly host.

Samuel didn’t know a lot about shepherds and such,
But he figured that they didn’t look very much

Like him in his bathrobe with a towel on his head;
So at pageant rehearsal that’s just what he said,

Though not expecting to bring his teacher to tears
By asking if all shepherds bought their clothes at Sears.

Yet bathrobe and all, he was struck with deep wonder
By the choir of angels and it caused him to ponder

What all they could change and what joy they could bring
If the angels would only come once more and sing

To the poor and the hungry and those out in the cold,
To parents and children, to folks young and old.

‘Cause the shepherds were moved when they heard the song
And came out of the cold to a place they belonged;

They were poor and outcast, so the minister said,
And then angels showed up and sang up over their heads

Of how Jesus had come to bring love and light
And so they were changed on that Christmas night.

He looked for the angels as he walked downtown
In the big crowds of people who were gathered around

The shops and the stores getting last minute stuff --
Though most of them seemed to be in quite a huff.

In all of the noise, the clack and the clatter
There was no room for angels: that’s what was the matter

Thought Samuel as he watched people caught in the fray;
How could this be such a terrible day?

He scoured the sky with all of his might,
But nowhere – but nowhere – was an angel in sight.

He walked out of the store and into the street
And there on a park bench he happened to meet

A woman who sat without boxes or bags,
And was dressed not in warm clothes, but mostly in rags.

She was mostly invisible to the folks passing by,
But something about her caught Samuel’s eye

And his heart -- for he knew she was out in the cold,
A lot like the shepherds in the story of old.

He wished that the sky would fill up with a song,
And the angels would tell her how much she belonged

But there weren’t any angels up over their heads,
So Samuel decided that he’d sing instead:

Gloria in excelcis deo
Gloria in excelcis deo

He finished his song and she looked with a smile;
For no one had noticed her in quite awhile.

She opened her arms to give him an embrace
And he saw the kindness alive in her face

And he knew that he had to keep singing his song,
But what he didn’t see was she followed along,

So when he paused at the bus stop to sing once again,
The woman was with him and she joined in.

Gloria in excelcis deo
Gloria in excelcis deo

From the bus stop they headed straight into a store
And this time the voices amounted to more

Than just two, there were three, six and ten,
Each time that he sang, the choir grew again.

Gloria in excelcis deo
Gloria in excelcis deo

Until finally it seemed every one in the town
Had stopped all their shopping and put packages down

To join in the song that the angels once sang
And together their voices all joyfully rang

Gloria in excelcis deo
Gloria in excelcis deo

When the singing was finished and people headed for home,
Samuel and the woman were once more alone

And were back at the bench where they first had met
And she hugged him up tight; “You’re an angel,” she said.

I wish that we’d had the chance to be there that night
When everyone took the time to sing with delight

As if angels surrounded as they sang along,
As if the world could be changed by a sweet simple song.

Oh, we are: for tonight the babe will be born
Into our world, our time, to bring our Christmas morn.

Shepherds ran to the manger when they heard that first song;
Tonight open your hearts and lets all sing along:

Gloria in excelcis deo
Gloria in excelcis deo


Thursday, December 21, 2006

advent journal: what you goin' to be?

One of my favorite people at work is Pedro, one of our dishwashers. He is Brazilian and is still working on learning English. He and I have struck up a friendship and I look forward to him coming in each evening because I know I’m going to be greeted with a big smile, a big hug, and a big “What up?” He gets to work about five or five-thirty after working construction all day, so about seven he is ready for something to eat. Last night, he came to my side of the line to ask me to fix something for him and the other dishwasher. He said it this way:

“Milton, can you please make two hungrys for me and Viviana.”

I knew exactly what he meant and fixed their dinners and I’ve spent some time since thinking about the way he chose his words, wondering if he might be on to something. Instead of saying, “I need a nap,” how about, “I need a sleepy,” for instance. I remember an old interview Bill Moyers did with the poet Carolyn Forche in which she talked about how her immigrant grandmother used words functionally: instead of calling it a colander, she would ask for the “macaroni stop water go through” and everyone knew what she wanted.

I don’t know much Portuguese at all, other than my one unintentional pun. I also don’t know much about the lives of most of the folks I work with, other than what I see in the kitchen; they don’t know much about me, either. We come together to do our jobs, then we go our separate ways.

Today, I didn’t have to go to work and I spent the day working on my present for Ginger, which I can’t tell you about since she reads the blog, and eating lunch with my friend Doug for our Support Group Christmas Party. Doug and I go to different places for work and then come together to not talk about work and really get to know each other. Regardless of what Doug does to pay the bills, he is a painter. He gave me one of his paintings for Christmas. Over the last few years, he has spent a lot of time and energy learning about painting and honing his skills. Based on the piece hanging in my house, he has spent his time and energy well. Based on our conversation at lunch, he’s not spending his time and energy, he’s investing it. This time last year, I was determined to feel like a writer rather than wish I was one, so – with much help from Gordon – I started this blog. Tonight marks my 250th post, which was my personal goal before the anniversary date on December 27. I can say I’m a writer.

The BRH Choir put out a Christmas album while I was at Baylor and it included a song I had not known before then that I thought of driving home from my time with Doug and our quest for being more than doing. It’s called “Baby, What You Goin’ To Be?”

Baby, Lying in a manger, slumbering so sweetly,
What you goin' to be?
Baby all the world is watchin',
all the world awaits to see,
what will you be?
Baby sleeping in a stable, underneath the heavens,
what you goin' to say?
Baby, did you bring the Good News?
Did you come to light our way?

Oh, look, see the cattle asleep, see the shepherds beside,
See the Wise Men, they bow unto you.
Are you the one who was meant to be Master?
To bring in the Kingdom too?


Baby, Hope of all the people,
what you come here to do?
What you come to say?
Baby, can you be the Savior?
Come to save the world one day?
Baby can you be the Savior?
Come to save the world one day?
Baby lying in a manger,
will you save the world one day?
As someone once reminded me, we are human be-ings, not human do-ings.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

advent journal: a faraway christmas

Driving to work this morning, I was thinking about what I might write when I got home tonight. Though a couple of things came to mind and the day offered its own stories, what seemed ripe to share is a story I wrote for our Christmas Eve service a few years back. As you will soon see, I want to be Dr. Seuss when I grow up. Forgive the indulgence, enjoy the story, and take time to read it out loud.


A Faraway Christmas

by Milton Brasher-Cunningham

As we gather together on this Silent Night,
To sing ‘round the tree in the soft candlelight,

From a Faraway Christmas, from time that’s grown cold,
Comes a story, you see, that has seldom been told.

Of all of the legends, the best and the worst,
From Christmases all the way back to the first,

This little tale isn’t often remembered
From then until now, down through all those Decembers.

But I found an old copy tucked away on a shelf,
And I turned through the pages, and I thought to myself,

Of all of the times between now and then,
This is the Christmas to hear it again.

Once upon a time in a place we might know,
‘Cause their woods, like ours, often fill up with snow,

Was a small little hamlet -- a Long Ago Town --
Of no great importance, or no real renown,

Filled with people who seemed fairly normal to me,
With names like Francesca, Francine, and McGee.

They had puppies and children, ate bread and ice cream,
They went shopping and swimming, they slept and they dreamed;

They laughed and did laundry, they danced and they dined,
And they strung Christmas lights on the big Scottish Pine

That grew in the square in the middle of town,
And when Christmas was over, they took the lights down.

They read the newspaper, they sometimes told jokes,
And some of the children put cards in the spokes

Of their bicycle tires, so they made quite a din
Till it came time for parents to call the kids in.

Yet for all of the things that kept people together,
The nice festive feeling, the Christmas Card weather,

For all of the happiness one was likely to hear,
This Faraway Christmas was marked, mostly, by fear.

Well, yes, they were frightened -- but that’s still overstated;
What bothered folks most really could be debated.

Some were tired (exhausted), some were sad or depressed,
Some -- the best way to say it -- well, their lives were a mess.

Some felt pressure from not having paid all the bills,
Some were keeping dark secrets that were making them ill;

Some felt guilty and thought they were headed for hell,
But the town seemed so happy, who could they tell?

So everyone kept all their feelings inside,
And wished they had someone in whom to confide,

To say, “Life is lousy,” or “I’ve made a mistake,”
Or “Sometimes I’m so sad I don’t want to awake,”

Or “I miss my Grandma,” or “I loved my cat,”
Or “I never, no never get my turn at bat.”

Everyone kept it in, no one said a thing
Until once Christmas Eve, when the man they called Bing

Came to turn on the lights on the tree in the square
And nobody -- not anyone -- no one was there,

And he looked at the lights as he sat on the curb
And he said -- to no one -- “I feel quite disturbed;

“I know that it’s Christmas, when I should feel warm,
But I don’t think this year that I can conform.

It’s been hardly two months since my friend passed away;
How can I smile when he’s not here to say,

“’Merry Christmas’?” he asked and burst into tears,
And all of the sadness from all of the years

Came out of his eyes and ran down his cheeks,
And he thought he would sit there and blubber for weeks.

When Samantha showed up -- she had not been expected --
And sat down beside him ‘cause he looked neglected.

He looked up through his tears, she said, “You look kinda bad.”
And he answered, “The truth is I feel real sad.”

When she heard those words, tears jumped straight to her eyes,
“The truth is,” she said, “I tell too many lies.

I want people to like me, so I try to act cool,
But deep down inside I feel just like a fool.”

So they sat there and cried, like a sister and brother,
And were joined by one, and then by another,

With a story to tell and feelings to free,
And they wept and they hugged ‘neath the big Christmas Tree.

Can you imagine how many tears fell,
After all of the years that no one would tell

How much they were hurting, how broken or mad,
How long they had smiled when they really felt sad.

How long does it take to clean out your heart,
To get it all out, to make a new start?

That answer’s not easy to you and to me,
But they found out that night, those folks ‘round the tree.

They cried until daybreak, till the first rays of dawn
Broke over the tree tops and spread ‘cross the lawn,

in the new morning light Bing could see all the square;
He also could see the whole town was out there.

They had come through the night, first one, then another
To sit down together like sister and brother

To pour out their hearts for the first time in years,
And let out their feelings, their sadness, their tears.

Samantha stood up and then turned back to Bing,
“You started us crying, now help us to sing.”

So he started a carol, the one he knew best,
About joy to the world, and it burst from his chest.

The others joined in, not because they weren’t sad,
But because they’d admitted the feelings they had,

Everyone sang along, both the sad and the scared,
Because true friends are found when true feelings are shared.

There’s more to the story, but our time is short,
Of how life was changed I cannot now report,

But instead I must ask why this story’s forgotten;
It’s not hopeless or humdrum, it’s not ugly or rotten.

Do you think it’s because people said how they felt,
And if we tell the story then our hearts, too, might melt?

What if we spoke the truth, what if we named our fears,
What if we loosed the sadness we’ve tied up for years?

Would we ever stop crying, would the dawn ever come?
And like those in the story, once the tears had begun

Would we sit on the curb, first one, then another,
And talk about life like sister and brother.

Oh, that is exactly why I chose to tell
This lost little tale we know all too well.

Our world is no different; we’re frightened and sad,
We feel helpless and hopeless, and certainly mad,

But none of those words is the last on this Night
That we wait for the Child, that we pray for the Light,

That we sing of the good news the angels did bring,
And we wish for peace, more than any one thing.

Yes, this story that came from a Long Ago Town
Of no great importance, of no real renown,

Could be ours, if true feelings were what we would say;
And we’d find such a Christmas not so faraway.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

advent journal: god bless my family

Ginger and I got one of our Christmas presents early tonight: Jay took us to the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus “Home for the Holidays” Concert. Chad, the organist and choir director at the church in Hanover is the musical director for the group and we know a couple of folks who sing in the choir, so I was psyched to get to hear them. They lived up to my expectations. It was a wonderful evening.

Along with the obvious holiday emphasis, the other theme that ran through the evening was that of family. Between songs different choir members told stories about growing up, about their families of origin, and about their chosen families. The stories were full of both pain and hope, as any good story is. As the evening drew to a close, they sang a song called “God Bless My Family.” The chorus said:

all of the family my life has given me
from the corners of the earth
to the beaches of the sky to love eternally
though my heart aches everyday
this Christmas I will find a way
to let each face I’ve loved shine out in me
God bless my family
I got to talk to my brother today. I’m twenty-one months older than he is, which means there have been times in our lives when the age difference felt insignificant and other times when it felt like a huge cavernous gulf between us. At fifty and forty-eight, we seem to be pretty much in the same boat. I’m deeply grateful that he and I are related because our interests are different enough that we might not have crossed paths otherwise. I’m glad I’ve known him most all of my life and that we shared a roof for so many years. I’m glad we’ve had to learn how to communicate and live out our love for each other. I’m glad we’re getting to grow old(er) together, even though we are separated by several states and a lot of miles.

I spent an hour today with Don, the pastor at the Hanover church where I worked for three years. We’re family by choice, finding a sense of brotherhood in the many hours and cups of coffee that fueled our ministry together. I also called Doug, the other charter member of the Pastoral Spousal Support Group (OK, the only other member) to tell him the Social Committee had dropped the ball on our Christmas party so we were going to have to schedule it on our own. He and I are going to have Mexican food on Thursday. We’re related to one another by our love for our minister-wives, our willingness to explore interesting ethnic cuisine, our senses of humor, and beer.

Last week, both my parents and my in-laws were here to celebrate my birthday. I’m grateful that I got to turn fifty with all of them around the table, along with Cherry, Jay, and Eloise who are among my chosen family. I loved blending the two together as we stuffed our faces with Brazilian food.

Ginger and I are a little over a month away from having known each other eighteen years. We met on a weekend youth retreat and the short version is I followed her around until she would go out with me. (I can say that shamelessly because she married me.) No one in my life has made me feel like I belong more than she has. I have learned more about love and what it means to be family from her than I can tell.

Family has not been an easy concept for me. I know there were many years I made my brother and my parents wish they were related to someone else as I tried to figure out how to let them or anyone else get close to me. In my twenties, when things between my parents and me were most distant, I can remember praying that my father wouldn’t die before we had a chance to get things straightened out between us. I still don’t want him to die, but I can say the air between us is clear and good. If something does happen, we’ve both said what we need and want to say to one another. (Yet another thing I learned from Ginger about what it means to be family.)

Most all of the men in the chorus tonight were old enough to have had to grow up coming to terms with their sexuality in less than hospitable environments. Some were ostracized by their families when they came out, others were embraced. What was clear as they stood shoulder to shoulder, one hundred and fifty strong was their harmony was something more than musical and the family they were singing about something more than sentimental; they were a family whose arms were open to anyone else who wanted to join in.

The last verse of Lyle Lovett’s song, “Family Reserve” says:
and there are more I remember
and more I could mention
than words I could write in a song
but I feel them watching
and I see them laughing
and I hear them singing along
God bless my family.


Monday, December 18, 2006

advent journal: an incremental christmas

My day was bookended by memorable phrases.

I was listening to On Point on the way to work this morning. Tom Ashbrook was leading a very interesting and rather animated discussion about the possibility of sending a surge of additional troops into Iraq as a way to make things better. William Odom, a retired Army Lieutenant General and former head of the National Security Agency, was wonderfully articulate in his criticism of the idea to the point of out right ridicule. In the process of making his comments he described what we are doing in Iraq as “colonial ventriloquy,” meaning we prop up the Iraqi forces and put words in their mouths and guns in their hands and our lips never move.

What a great choice of words. I’ve been trying all day to figure out a way to work it into conversation.

“Enough of this colonial ventriloquy; get back to work.”
“I’ll not be the dummy in your colonial ventriloquy.”
“I’m considering a career in colonial ventriloquy.”

I never had an opportunity.

Tonight Ginger and I took the pups for a walk when I got home from work. Orion was out with his dog, Sirius, right behind as well, dodging clouds in the night sky. While I was cooking for Lobster Night in America, Ginger was hosting Sisterhood of the Spirit, a women’s group in our church. It’s good for us to schedule a party of some sort every now and then because it makes us clean up. I also finally got our big, lighted wreath hung on the fence in front of our house. We moved and straightened things last night and this morning and Ginger came home from the office early to finish decorating. As we made the turn towards home with the Schnauzers, Ginger said, “I guess Christmas is coming incrementally this year.”

This has become an incremental Christmas.

Christmas is a week away and I still have lights to hang on the porch and things to do around the house. I have groceries to buy and food to prepare. I have purchased most of the presents I want to give, but they still need to be wrapped. And I could use a whole day just to call friends I’ve wanted to talk to during these days but have yet found or made time to do so. Life, this year, feels like one of those Advent calendars where you get to open a door each day to see what’s behind, each picture taking you one step closer to Christmas. The challenge, I suppose, is to make the increments intentional: to move toward the Manger and then beyond, since the birth is just the beginning.

Jesus came incrementally, too. As Luke described Jesus as a twelve year old: “And Jesus matured, growing up in both body and spirit, blessed by both God and people.” (The Message)

In the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell’s character only prays to “Dear Lord Baby Jesus” because he “likes the Baby Jesus best of all the Jesuses.” This scene around the dinner table would make a great lead-in for a discussion on prayer.

If Jesus had not been born, we would not be who and where we are today, but the birth in and of itself is not what matters most in the story of Jesus’ life or our lives as his disciples. What matters is he grew and matured and incrementally became the one we read about in the gospel stories beyond Bethlehem.

Yesterday morning, when I entered the worship service as the prophet Zephaniah, the little boy who was playing the role of Jesus in our Christmas pageant was sitting on the front row. I came down the aisle singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell and turned to face the congregation right in front of him. He was spellbound. I don’t think he blinked, much less took his eyes off of me. The little one who played Jesus in the first pageant I saw here in Marshfield was with the five year old angels up behind the pulpit this year, having moved up incrementally through a couple of years of being a sheep and a shepherd without speaking lines.

We grow like Jesus grew. I’ve walked the earth now almost twenty years longer than Jesus did in his lifetime; my grandmother just tripled Jesus’ age when she turned 99 a couple of weeks ago. For all of us, the years happen a day, a moment at a time, in both significant and insignificant increments.

Christmas is coming incrementally for us this year, just as life and faith come day after day. And I still have time to hang the lights.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

advent journal: uncomfortable manger

Church today, for me, was an experience of non-sequiturs tethered together by Coffee Hour.

On the heels of an experience that came close to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, we had our monthly Church Council meeting, which involved discussions about everything from window shades to stewardship. Everything we talked about was important to someone in the room and we all worked hard to listen to one another and respond. Compared to many church meetings I have attended, we do a pretty good job of being Christian to one another, yet -- for me -- the meeting was uncomfortable because I didn’t leave the Parish House with the same sense of joy I had when I walked out of the worship service.

Maybe it was just me.

There are days when I think – no, I feel – that really buying into the hope that comes from following the star to the manger is naïve. “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth, peace,” sang the angels. It makes me wonder how long it was after they left the manger before the shepherds were dickering about whose turn it was to feed the sheep.

On the world stage, this week was marred by the Holocaust Denial Conference in Tehran (I think they had a different name for it.), as people got together to show how hatred blinds us to truth (though that was not their agenda). “Love your enemies,” Jesus said; “be good to those who hate you.” He also told us to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile. He was serious.

I heard a story on NPR this afternoon about the record bonuses given out at the investment firm of Goldman Sachs: $16 billion.

That’s right: $16 billion.

It averages out to $600,000 per employee, though the distribution is not quite so equitable. The top tier of folks were getting $100 million each.

That’s right: $100 million each.

ABC News posted a great article giving some perspective on what a person can do with $100 million.

You could provide immunizations for more than 40,000 impoverished children for a year ($37.5 million), then throw a birthday party for your daughter and one million of her closest friends ($60 million). You'd still have enough to buy a different color Rolls Royce for each day of the week ($2.5 million).

You could feed about 800,000 children for a year ($60 million), recreate the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes and Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston weddings four times over ($16 million), buy one of Mel Gibson's private islands ($15 million), and still remain a millionaire nine times over.

You could pay Harvard tuition for more than 1,500 students who couldn't afford it ($70.5 million), provide health care to over 1,000 Americans for a year ($7 million), and still have enough to buy a different Brioni designer suit for every single day of the year ($6,000 suits for all 365 days would cost $22 million).

You could take everyone in the country of Grenada to a Broadway show, then buy the most expensive apartment in New York City (a triplex penthouse at the Pierre Hotel, $70 million), and still have an extra $15 million dollars in your pocket — over 300 times the median income of the average American household.

You could buy every person in Kansas City a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes (147,000 pairs of $400 shoes comes out to about $60 million) and still have $40 million dollars left — that's more than 500 times the average doctor's salary in the United States (about $80,000).

You could buy 1,000 gala tables at your favorite charity's ball ($10 million), provide winter blankets for 350,000 children in developing countries ($14 million), personally pay Derek Jeter's salary for a year ($21 million), and still buy your own private Boeing jet ($55 million).
My standard disclaimer at this point is I don’t understand how and why so much profit can be made without producing anything. From where I stand, I mostly notice the jobs that are lost in the mergers and acquisitions and the growing distance between the rich and the poor in this country and around the world. I must also say, as one who lives with a fairly steady feeling of anxiety when it comes to personal finances, it’s easy for me to become judgmental and indignant towards people who make that kind of money. Even easier when I have no idea who they are. I want to send them a copy of Jesus’ encounter with the one we have come to call the Rich Young Ruler and hope that most of those billions would end up building schools and hospitals around the world rather than buying new BMWs. Maybe some of it will.

I read tonight that TIME magazine’s Person of the Year is us. They didn’t pick a world leader or celebrity. The cover has a computer screen with a mirror so we can see ourselves, the great democratizers of the planet thanks to all the time we spend on the World Wide Web.
But look at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
Part of the reason Church Council struggles is we are trying to deal with specific issues and look at the bigger picture at the same time. Both are crucial and the creative tension between them is not a comfortable place to live. Church done well is rarely comfortable; meaningful, hopeful, welcoming, encouraging, challenging, embracing – but not comfortable because we are called to be faithful to the point of feeling foolishly naïve, trusting that we can both glorify God and bring peace on earth by the way we treat one another in Jesus’ name.

The only way the folks at the conference in Tehran or the offices of Goldman Sachs can believe their perceived reality is a credible way to live is to let their world be no bigger than themselves. If we stare too long into the cover of TIME this week we can fall prey to the same self-focus, just as we do when we are more concerned with the safety of our endowments than the expansiveness of our calling as a church. We didn’t earn our money anymore than the folks at Goldman Sachs earned theirs.

I was one of the Magi in the pageant today, which meant I stood at the back of the sanctuary until almost the end of the story. When the shepherds moved from the fields where they lay on the right side of the pulpit to Bethlehem on the left side, they came up one aisle, past us kings, and down the other aisle to find Mary and Joseph and the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger. They high-fived us as they went by saying, “We saw Jesus! We found the Baby!” Then we all sang together
let every heart prepare him room
and heaven and nature sing
Somehow, between shepherds in bathrobes and lighted sneakers, angels with cardboard wings, and Jesus in footy pajamas we brushed up against what it might have felt like for Mary and Joseph in the barn behind the Bethlehem inn watching what unfolded around the manger.

I’m sure it was amazing; I doubt it was comfortable.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

advent journal: lives in the balance

While my parents were here they wanted us to open our Christmas presents early so they could see how we liked what they got us. I love mine –- they gave me an iPod Shuffle. The postage stamp-sized gadget holds two hundred and fifty songs. I loaded it up for work this week with some Steve Earle, Jess Klein, and Jackson Browne to keep me moving while I was doing prep work by myself in the afternoons. Browne had been a big part of the soundtrack of my life since I bought his first record in high school. Today, I was caught again by his wonderful lyrics like these from “Fountain of Sorrow”:

Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn't show your spirit quite as true

You were turning 'round to see who was behind you
And I took your childish laughter by surprise
And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes
Or these from “For a Dancer,” which always makes me think of Ginger:
Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
I don't remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you'd always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you're nowhere to be found
Twenty years ago, he came out with a record called Lives in the Balance that had a harder political edge than anything he had done because he became passionate about the mistakes our government was making in Central and South America. Now, in 2006, the song sounds as if it were written yesterday. Here are the lyrics and a video of the title track.
I've been waiting for something to happen
For a week or a month or a year
With the blood in the ink of the headlines
And the sound of the crowd in my ear
You might ask what it takes to remember
When you know that you've seen it before
Where a government lies to a people
And a country is drifting to war

And there's a shadow on the faces
Of the men who send the guns
To the wars that are fought in places
Where their business interest runs

On the radio talk shows and the T.V.
You hear one thing again and again
How the U.S.A. stands for freedom
And we come to the aid of a friend
But who are the ones that we call our friends
These governments killing their own?
Or the people who finally can't take any more
And they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone
There are lives in the balance
There are people under fire
There are children at the cannons
And there is blood on the wire

There's a shadow on the faces
Of the men who fan the flames
Of the wars that are fought in places
Where we can't even say the names

They sell us the President the same way
They sell us our clothes and our cars
They sell us every thing from youth to religion
The same time they sell us our wars
I want to know who the men in the shadows are
I want to hear somebody asking them why
They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are
But they're never the ones to fight or to die
And there are lives in the balance
There are people under fire
There are children at the cannons
And there is blood on the wire

As long as I’m relying on him for most of the words tonight, here is the closing verse of “For a Dancer”:
Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don't let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound
In the opening verse of the passage I will read as the prophet Zephaniah in church tomorrow, he sounds as if he is speaking to dancers as well:
Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem!

At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you;
I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered.
I will give them praise and honor in every land where they were put to shame.

At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes," says the LORD.
And so we wait.


Friday, December 15, 2006

advent journal: following stars

In Arabic poetry, there are four great subjects worthy of the poet: love, song, blood, and travel. Roger Housden writes:

These were considered the basic desires of the human heart, and thus travel was elevated to the dignity of being a necessity for any human being who is truly alive. The Romans felt the same way. Plutarch tells us that before the departure of a ship in stormy weather, the captain would pronounce that “to sail is necessary, to live is not.”
Though I know they aren’t supposed to arrive until early January, my favorite characters in the Christmas story are the Magi, the Wise Men, the Three Who Kings of Orient Were. They are the out-of-towners, foreigners, the mysterious ones, the only ones away from home, and, perhaps, the least likely to end up in the Nativity Scene.

David Lynch
has made a new movie, Inland Empire. I heard an interview with him on WBUR, our local public radio station, in conjunction with the screening of the film at a local art house. Laura Dern was also interviewed about her role in the project. She is a regular fixture in Lynch’s movies and was interviewed about her role in the new film. For all the movies that left me intrigued and confused (Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive), he made two of my all-time favorites, The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, both of them about the journey of the discovery of what it means to be human.

For this one, Lynch didn’t begin with a screenplay, but used a consumer-quality digital camera to film scenes as they came to him and then used those as the raw material to construct a movie from the parts, almost like putting a puzzle together without having the picture on the box as a guide. Dern talked about the challenge and frustration of making a movie that way, and about the authenticity it created. “One of the dangers for an actor, when you know where your character has been and where she is going, is to feel as though you need to telegraph some of what is coming to the audience, but life doesn’t work that way.”

The Magi embody what Laura Dern was saying about the daily unknown with which we live: all they knew to do was follow the Star. Our days dissolve one into the other like scenes in a movie, but without a formulaic plot or any indication of what the larger picture is, for the most part. We have very few moments where we can feel the orchestra begin to swell in the background to tell us a dazzling song and dance number is about to begin. We rarely get the kind of split screen effect they use on 24 to let us see what is happening in several different places simultaneously. And we don’t get to see all the loose ends tied up in a heartwarming ending very often. We have way too many scenes that go nowhere. The cosmic, or even existential, significance of misplacing our keys, picking up a box of Cheerios, or hanging up on a telemarketer is rarely unearthed in the movie that is our lives.

My fascination with the Gift-Bearing Bunch has led me to assemble a small collection of poems that look at them from a number of different angles, some even in response to others. (One person put many of them in a sermon here.) This trio that comes cameling in from off-camera with unbelievably odd baby gifts, unnerving kings, and willing to go wherever the Star took them are the quintessential Adventers, even though we ask them to wait until we are through waiting ourselves. They didn’t hear angel choir – or any voices for that matter, they were not steeped in Judaic prophecy; all they had was a light they had to wait until dark to follow. Traversing afar must have been hard enough, but doing it in the cold dark desert night only made it tougher.

In The Straight Story, David Lynch tells the true tale of an elderly man who gets word that his estranged brother is ill and decides to go see him. He can no longer see well enough to drive, so he takes his riding lawnmower cross-country – nine hundred miles – to get to his brother’s house, not knowing how he will be received. The movie is the story of not only his journey, but the journeys he interests along the way. A runaway teenager shows up at his campfire one night and they talk about family. A woman whizzes past him on a country road only to hit a deer not too much father along. Here’s the scene from the screenplay:

Alvin drives up to the woman. Alvin executes his slow dismount. The woman glances briefly at Alvin but barely registers his presence because she is so distraught.

Can I help Miss?

No you can't help me. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. No one can help me.

Alvin moves around to the front of the car. He notes that the car has quite a few dents. We see that the woman has struck a nice eight point buck. Alvin's face shows relief. All the while the woman rants and paces.

DEER WOMAN (cont'd)
I've tried driving with my lights on. I've tried sounding my horn. I scream out the window. I roll the window down and bang on the side of the door and play Public Enemy real loud...I have prayed to St. Francis of Assisi...St. Christopher too, what the hell! I have tried everything a person can do and still every week I plow into at least one deer. What is it?

Alvin shakes his head. She now begins walking around the car, the mower and Alvin. She flails her arms.

DEER WOMAN (cont'd)
I have hit 13 deer in seven weeks driving down this road mister and I have to drive this road every day 40 miles back and forth to work. I don't know what to do...I have to drive to work and I have to drive home...

She pauses. Takes a deep breath and looks out over the flat landscape. She turns and pats the deer carcass.

DEER WOMAN (cont'd)
He's dead.

She starts to cry.

DEER WOMAN (cont'd)
And I love deer.

She turns and climbs back in her car. She backs up and sprays gravel as she accelerates away. Her front fender falls off and she runs over it. Alvin watches her drive away, then looks down at the deer.
The colorful band of characters that end up at our mangers and mantles had no idea that was where they were going. Much as Laura Dern described, they simply played their daily scenes without knowing much of how they were connected, only that they were. We label our days – Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow – to give ourselves the same sense. Yet, how things stack up feels more like the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”:
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself – well . . . how did I get here?
We were breathed into being by the One who hung the Star the Magi followed; by the One we rehearsed the choir that sang to the shepherds; by the One who became fully human from birth to death and beyond; by the One who calls us to mark our days but not try to explain them, to know the Old, Old Story and tell it freshly every time. As W. B. Yeats wrote in his poem, “The Magi”:
Now as at all times I can see the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
Star of wonder, Star of Light, guide us to thy Perfect Light.


Thursday, December 14, 2006

advent journal: wake up

My birthday means I’ve made some additions to both my literary and music libraries. One of the volumes I got to spend a little time with tonight is Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden. The second poem is one by the marvelous Spanish poet, Antonio Machado called “Last Night as I was Sleeping” (translated by Robert Bly). Perhaps because I’m running on fumes and ready for some sleep the title pulled me.

I was also attracted because I love Machado’s poetry. Even in translation, there is a rhythmic beauty that pulses in ways English cannot on its own. His words are invocation, evocation, and benediction all at once. Housden quotes two small sections from Machado’s “Moral Proverbs and Folk Songs,” one of which says:

Beyond living and dreaming
there is something more important:

waking up
Machado is a poetic alarm clock calling us to awake, look, and listen. His words are those of a prophet. Here’s the poem:
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a spring was breaking

out in my heart.

I said: Along which secret aqueduct,

Oh water, are you coming to me,

water of a new life

that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a fiery sun was giving

light inside my heart.

It was fiery because I felt

warmth as from a hearth,

and sun because it gave light

and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that it was God I had

here inside my heart.
I don’t remember dreams very often. I wake knowing that I dreamed, but with little clue to what they were about. Ginger remembers her dreams with all the detail of a forensic investigator and is able to learn a lot from them. The word dream is more alive to me when it means hope, possibility, or expectation. That one word is used for both is worth noting because I think both kinds of dreams are connected: both speak of our spirit finding voice and sight – waking up. Phillips Brooks must have understood the connection when he wrote:
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Dreams carry some of both hopes and fears, as well as a good dose of the unknown and the unexplainable. They also chip away at our senses of adequacy and control because they are packed full of paradox. The best thing a dream can do for us is to make us wake up. For Machado, waking was a spiritual act. Speaking to Jesus he said,
All your words were
one word: Wake up.
Wake up to a spring breaking forth, to golden bees, to a fiery sun, to God. Wake up to hard choices and good friends. Wake up to transformation.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

advent journal: a heart with wings

The first event of my birthday was Ginger giving me a t-shirt that read: “fifty is the new thirty.”

I then had a wonderful breakfast with Ginger and both sets of our parents at Percy’s Place in Plymouth, a wonderful breakfast cafe that boasts the biggest breakfast menu in New England and has good biscuits and gravy (not easy to find in this part of the world). After the meal, I got to open presents. All the gifts were thoughtful and meaningful and made me feel both known and loved. My parents gave me a four-volume scrapbook of my life – a two-year labor of love on my mother’s part. It is truly a treasure.

When we left the restaurant, Ginger drove out of town in the opposite direction of home. As she continued to drive, the road became less and less habitated and I had no idea where we were, but I knew it was going to be good. One of the traditions Ginger and I keep on our birthdays is to do something we have never done before. The something may be big or small, but beginning a new year with a new adventure is our way of looking to the future with open hearts and minds. While I was trying to figure out what was going on, she made one of several turns and we were driving on a road that ran beside the Plymouth airport. As she turned into of the driveway of the Alpha One Flight School, she said, “You’re going to take a flying lesson.”

How we got to that point goes something like this: Ginger was trying to think of a surprise for me when she found a coupon for a one hour flying lesson in the Val-Pac envelope that comes in the mail (see, you knew you ought to open that thing), called them and made the reservation. What the hour involved was about twenty-five minutes of orientation and thirty-five minutes of flying. Jeff, my instructor, was a great guy who enjoyed helping me mark the beginning of my fifty-first year. He walked me around the plane, talked about how to check it before take off, and explained how the different flaps and things worked. Then we got inside the Cessna two-seater and he explained the different gauges, switches, and levers.

The first thing I had to learn to do was steer with my feet. The rudders and the brakes are controlled with foot pedals, which were quite a challenge. We serpentined to the end of the taxi way and then Jeff talked me through turning the plane onto the runway. He raised the throttle and we began to gain speed as we moved down the runway. “Pull back on the yoke (airplane for steering wheel),” he said, which I did and we were airborne. We flew at about 2500 feet over Plymouth Harbor. I could see the beach near our house, which was not far away, as well as Provincetown and the Boston skyline in the distance.

Once we reached the altitude he wanted, he taught me how to gauge how the plane was sitting relative to the horizon and then told me to make a 360 degree turn and come back to where I could see the same view of the bay in front of me. I stepped on the rudder pedal and turned the yoke and the plane banked into a circle. When I made it all the way around, he had me do the same to the right. Then he began to talk about stalling, which he said is what most folks worry about when they get in a small plane. As he talked, he instructed me to continue to climb slowly. He wasn’t increasing the throttle, so we keep losing airspeed. When we fell to forty knots, a small alarm began to go off. He asked me how we could increase airspeed without opening the throttle; I answered by going down instead of up. He told me to lower the nose of the plane and head down, which I did – quickly. For a moment, it felt like we floated.

He smiled. “Most people are a little more frightened of that particular maneuver than you appear to be,” he said.

As we gained speed, he had me make the reverse move to slow us down and I could feel the increase in gravity as we started to climb. I was laughing out loud. We made a wide circle around the airport and came back in to land and I foot-steered us back to the hangar once we were on the ground.

Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

Until today, I don’t remember ever thinking about what it would be like to fly a plane, or wishing for the chance to do so. After my hour in the sky, I’m ready to go again (though flight school is not in our budget anytime soon). The experience reminded me I’m not through discovering or experiencing the wonder of living on earth.

We ate dinner at Cafe Brazil, also in Plymouth, where we were joined by our chosen family members that live in the area, and then Ginger took me into Boston – under the guise of taking Jay and Cherry back to the train – where I was surprised by friends who span all of our time in New England at one of my favorite haunts, The Burren. We laughed and talked until we had used up what was left of my day. Again, I left feeling known and loved.

All of my life, my birthday has been on the way to Christmas. When I was a kid, my parents didn't decorate until December 13 so I wouldn't feel like my birthday got swallowed up by the holiday. Becoming intentional about observing Advent has meant erasing that line, but my day has only grown in meaning. The photographs in the scrapbooks stack up like stones in an altar to show me a picture of the “me” it has taken fifty years to build. My family and friends gathered remind me that the building project has been a community effort: they are helping me to become who I am, just as I am a construction worker in their lives. Ginger, who has been a part of almost half of my history, stokes my dreams into a blaze of imaginative possibilities that give my heart wings. We drove home tonight under a starlight sky and she reached across and took my hand, as she has done countless times before.

I trust there are still countless times to come.


Monday, December 11, 2006

advent journal: you say it's your birthday

I'm minutes away from completing my fiftieth year on the planet. I would like to anticipate that moment by paying homage to those with whom I share a birthday:

  • 1673 Ahmed III 23rd sultan (Turkey, 1703-30)
  • 1745 John Jay diplomat (NY-Governor)
  • 1792 Alexandros Ypsilanti Greek resistance fighter
  • 1805 Henry Wells founder (American Express Company & Wells Fargo & Company)
  • 1805 William Lloyd Garrison abolitionist publisher (The Liberator)
  • 1821 Gustave Flaubert Rouen Normandy France, novelist (Madame Bovary)
  • 1835 Georges Jean Pfeiffer composer
  • 1863 Edvard Munch Norway, painter/print maker (The Scream)
  • 1913 Jesse Owens US, track star (4 golds 1936), spoiled Hitler's Olympics
  • 1914 Patrick O’ Brian, England, novelist (Master and Commander)
  • 1915 Frank Sinatra Hoboken NJ, singer/actor (old blue eyes/chairman of board)
  • 1923 Bob Barker Darrington WA, game show emcee (Price is Right)
  • 1924 Edward I Koch New York NY, (Mayor-D-NY, 1977-89)/judge (People's Court)
  • 1925 Cora Lee Johnson social activist for rural poor
  • 1928 Helen Frankenthaler New York NY, abstract expressionist artist (Arden)
  • 1938 Connie Francis Newark NJ, singer/actress (Where the Boys Are)
  • 1940 Dionne Warwick East Orange NJ, singer (Solid Gold, Way to San Jose)
  • 1942 Mike Pinder Birmingham England, rocker (Moody Blues)
  • 1943 Grover Washington Jr jazz artist (Mr Magic)
  • 1943 Dickey Betts West Palm Beach FL, guitarist (Allman Brothers-Ramblin' Man)
  • 1946 Emerson Fittipaldi Brazil, Indy-car racer (over 10 wins)
  • 1952 Cathy Rigby McCoy Los Alamitos CA, gymnast (Olympics-4th-1968, 1972)
  • 1957 Sheila E. San Franciso CA, disco drummer (Krushgrove, Holly Rock)
  • 1962 Tracy Austin Rolling Hills CA, tennis pro (US Open 1979, 81)
  • 1970 Jennifer Connelly Brooklyn Heights NY, actress (Labyrinth, Rocketeer)
  • 1970 Madchen Amick Reno NV, actress (Shelly Johnson-Twin Peaks)
From depressed artists to race car drivers to lounge lizards to psychic friends. Go figure.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

advent journal: ice cream hopes

Earlier this week, Ginger asked me about buying ice cream for a Sunday School special event. She needed restaurant sized quantities, so I went to by East Coast Paper, a local restaurant supply, and ordered three gallons each of vanilla and chocolate for Ginger to pick up Saturday morning. Last night, on my way home from work around ten-thirty, I called to let her know I was headed her way and she asked if I would go by the store and get the sauces and sprinkles and whatever else I could think of for the kids’ party. So I did. I got home about eleven-fifteen.

This morning, as we were preparing to sing our congregational benediction, Ginger stood up and told everyone what I just told you and then announced that I had actually bought all the elements for my own birthday celebration at Coffee Hour, along with everyone else who has a birthday in November and December. She and her partners-in-crime had taken a ten-foot gutter, lined it with aluminum foil, and then scooped the ice cream into it to make one giant banana split. We each grabbed a plastic spoon and began adding sauces and so forth and had ourselves a grand old time. Only about a half a gallon of ice cream was left when it was all said and done.

I certainly did my part to make it disappear.

I can’t think of a much better celebratory substance than ice cream. (Guinness would be the one exception – put them both together . . .) I would rather eat ice cream than cake, as far as birthdays go. The one essential word I learned in Turkey that served me well as we traveled last spring was “dondurma” – ice cream. And let me tell you: they know how to make ice cream.

I loved sharing the sundae with all the (other) kids who stood wide-eyed waiting for the word to dive in. Though a couple of people assumed they would be able to stake out a small section of sundae as their very own, I encouraged folks to dive in wherever they wanted to. We weren’t going to get sick; we were having too much fun. Besides, it’s the joy that’s contagious.

I have a friend who was born on the same day as I was, but some years later. His life is falling apart right now. He feels alienated and alone. He is alone. The possibility of his being infected by joy is slim to none these days. I thought about him driving home from church and wished I knew a way to help him feel celebrated and included. My wife and my church family gave me an amazing gift today because they took the time to make me feel their joy in my being on the planet. I’m even more grateful that this year, short days and all, I’m not feeling depressed and am able to feel celebrated and loved in a way I have not been able to do the past few Decembers.

Even if my friend had been in the room today and we had all sung to him, he would not have felt any less alone. He is despairing to the point of hopelessness right now. Thanks to Sheep Days, I learned something about hope and waiting this week:

In a recent editorial in the Christian Century, John Buchanan noted that the Spanish word (and I will add, the Portuguese) for “to wait” is “esperar.” Being a little too close to the language to realize this myself, he pointed out to me that this is also the same verb we translate in English as “to hope.” It is true. In the Spanish brain, there is no differentiation in the actual words “hope” and “wait,” though I presume that just as we English-speakers have words that mean two things, context is everything (example: “wait” in the sense of passing time before an appointed event and “wait” in the sense of serving a table in a restaurant). “Hope” in Spanish is “esperanza,” derived from “esperar.”
The wise men had the wherewithal to follow the star, believing it was a sign of someone they had been waiting for, but the angels had to go and find the shepherds in the field who lived at the margins of life, slept in the pastures, and were waiting for little or nothing because there was little or nothing to wait for.

“Joy to the world,” sang the angels. Even for those who were not joyful.

When I was doing CPE at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, we were talking in seminar one day about how to be with people who were in situations that appeared hopeless to them. The chaplain leading the seminar said, “Sometimes all I can do is say, ‘I can see you are feeling hopeless right now. Perhaps the best thing I can do is offer to hope for you.’”

This is a birthday to remember for me; for my friend, it is one to forget or simply live through. And I plan to live thought it with him, hoping where he cannot that life will not always be the way it feels to him right now.