Wednesday, February 28, 2007

lenten journal: abrigar esperanzas

I’ve spent a good deal of the day thinking about hope, thanks to a passage from Nora Gallagher’s book where she talks about Thomas’ encounter with Jesus after his resurrection and about the doubt Thomas expressed prior to seeing him.

There’s a phrase in Spanish: abrigar esperanzas, to shelter hope. Thomas may have been working hard not to believe the disciples’ story so to shelter hope. Hope is like love, maybe worse. It has to do with what is not yet, what is unseen, an architecture of dreams. If Thomas hoped to see Jesus again, and it turned out to be a hoax, what then? (52)
I think part of the reason it stuck with me was I was at a meeting at church last night and as our time was winding down the conversation turned to The Jesus Family Tomb, a new book and TV documentary coming out just in time for Lent and Easter. While many of us see this season as one of preparation, those in Christian marketing, or determined to market to Christians, see this as a season of sales. I’m sure this book and movie won’t be the last. One of the folks in our circle said, “I don’t think it’s true, but if it is, the implications for Christianity are enormous. I heard his sentiment as a variation on Gallagher’s question: if we believe in Jesus and it turns out to be a hoax, what then? How do we shelter hope?

According to, hope means “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.” They also include an archaic definition: to place trust. The meaning has moved from trust, which is steeped in relationship to more of a synonym for optimism. When Barack Obama spoke at the last Democratic convention, his said:
I’m not talking about blind optimism here -- the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.

Hope -- Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!
Hope is audacious, but not as a political slogan. And I think it is this kind of rhetoric that made Barbara Ehrenreich’s anger so apparent in her essay, “Pathologies of Hope” in the most recent issue of Harpers.
I hate hope. It was hammered into me constantly a few years ago when I was being treated for breast cancer: Think positively! Don’t lose hope! Wear your pink ribbon with pride! A couple of years later I was alarmed to discover that the facility where I received my follow-up care was called the Hope Center. Hope? What about a cure? At antiwar and labor rallies over the years, I have dutifully joined Jesse Jackson in chanting “Keep hope alive” – all the while crossing my fingers and thinking, “Fuck hope. Keep us alive.”
Her words made me think of the scene in Terms of Endearment when the doctor tells Debra Winger she has breast cancer and then says, “I always tell my patients to hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” to which Shirley MacLaine replies, “And they let you get away with that.”

Ehrenreich finished her article by quoting Camus, who said we draw strength from the “refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.”

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

What I realize, reading back through her article, is I think of hope in the archaic sense, more akin to faith than optimism: the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. The paradox is rich and demands trust: finding substance in the not yet and evidence in the invisible. I’m not sure hope calls us to rally as much as resolve, and less to positivity than perseverance.

I like Gallagher’s phrase: the architecture of dreams.

One of the most beautiful buildings I know is Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston. From its terra cotta colored exterior, with all the spires and coves, to the intricacy of the interior, with the variety of stained glass, the elevated pulpit, the murals on every wall, and the gold plated reliefs of the disciples encircling the Communion table, it takes my breath away. It is truly sacred space. It is also obvious that every move made creating the structure was done with intentionality. And before any bricks were stacked or mortar mixed, an architect imagined it and drew the dream into being. Those blueprints were the substance of things hoped for.

Hope is not positive or even wishful thinking; hope is hard work.

Hope needs sheltering. From one side come those who would water it down, who continue to say all it takes is a positive attitude – we just need to be hopeful; from the other side, are those who think we must just come to terms with the fact that life sucks and we die. If we have no expectations, we can’t be hurt or disappointed. When I look at Thomas, I think part of his reticence was he had not experienced what all the others had. The reason none of them had doubts is they had seen Jesus. He may have had his doubts, but he went to the room and waited. When Jesus came, he offered himself to Thomas. We’re the ones who stuck Tom with “Doubting” as a first name, not Jesus.

I’m not living a live-action version of the Three Little Pigs, where James Cameron and his film crew come in dressed as wolves and blow the church down with their boxes of bones. The shelter of hope is not made of straw, nor is it built on sand. I trust in the love and grace of God because I’ve got the scars to prove they are real.

I hope that’s enough.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

lenten journal: the secret

One of my favorite people at work is Pedro, our head dishwasher. He is Brazilian, works a construction job all day before he washes dishes from five to twelve five nights a week, and he has a kind and gentle spirit. When he walks in the back door of the restaurant to come to work, I say, “Master P” and he says, “Mister M” and then he gives me a big hug. Last night it was just the two of us in the kitchen.

As we were working he said, “Is anyone in your church have construction business?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “What do you need?”

“My other job gone now. For three weeks, I come only here. It’ s no good.”

He’s right. What he makes an hour is not a living wage in Massachusetts. I told him I would see what I could find out for him. He, like a lot of the people I work with at the Inn, lives on the edge of poverty. And it’s a slippery edge, too. Vivianne, one of the other dishwashers, also cleans houses. We have hired her to clean our place from time to time. Last week, she couldn’t come because her little girl was sick. I know she doesn’t have health insurance. This week her car broke down. I’m sure she was counting on being able to earn the extra money.

I mention them because of what I saw this morning on the Today Show. They interviewed a guy promoting a new book and DVD called The Secret, which was something called the Law of Attraction, a “scientifically proven phenomenon” by which we can have or be anything we want if we just want it bad enough. If by science you mean a televangelist in a lab coat, then I guess he’s right. He went on to say this secret has been known for centuries by people like Shakespeare, Beethoven, Victor Hugo, Emerson, Lincoln, and many others.

I found a twenty-minute clip of the movie online, which was packaged like The DaVinci Code, and watched because I wanted to be able to be better informed before I started writing tonight. Before I say more, let me share some of the quotes from the movie:

  • “The Law of Attraction – thoughts become things -- always works every time for everyone, no exceptions (which means, of course, if your life sucks it’s because you’re a suck magnet)
  • “When you focus on the things you want, the law of attraction will give it to you every time; when you focus on the things you don’t want, they will show up over and over again.” (This is not new. Televangelists had their own name for it: “Name it and claim it.”)
  • “Everything that’s around you right now in your life, including the things you’re complaining about, you’ve attracted.” (The guy on Today even had the nerve to say he wasn’t casting blame but responsibility. Either way, you’re still a suck magnet.)
  • “Every time you look in the mail expecting to see a bill, it will be there.” (Silly me. I thought the bills came because I turned on lights and ran the water.)
  • “You are the creator of your destiny.” (No pressure there.)
Some of the examples in the movie left me incredulous: a man was caught in a traffic jam because he thought he was going to get caught in traffic when he left the house; a woman who thought her cancer would go away and it did (which means, according to this law, that those who die of cancer thought they would). It became very clear to me that the reason I live with clinical depression must be because I brought it on myself.


Newsweek quotes Rhonda Byrne, the Australian woman who is behind the book and the movie, as saying the way to lose weight is to quit looking at fat people.
Based on what she calls the "law of attraction"—that thoughts, good or bad, "attract" more of whatever they're about—she writes: "If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it." So if you're having trouble giving up ice cream, maybe you could just cut back on "The Sopranos" instead.
When the talking heads in the movie spoke of the specifics, they said we should think about what kind of car we wanted to drive, what kind of house we wanted to live in, what kind of job we most wanted to do, what kind of luxuries we wanted to own. It seems laughable to me that a secret known by Shakespeare and Lincoln would find it’s best application in being used as some sort of cosmic gift card. Forget freeing the slaves, start thinking about some serious money:
Believe and know that riches are yours, and feel the feelings of having them now. The more you can feel it, the more power you will add to bring it to you.
I’ve got a secret: these people have been listening to Robert Tilton. They took his stuff, replaced “God” with “the universe,” and started looking for suckers. And its’ working. This week there are 1.75 million books in print and 1.5 million DVDs sold. (But no one's made a fart tape yet.)

If you go to Tilton’s web site, you can get How To Pay Your Bills Supernaturally and How To Be Rich & Have Everything You Ever Wanted for free (if you make a small donation). In Tilton’s earlier incarnation, one of my seminary roommates and I sent our names in just to see what he would send us. One week – and the mailings came weekly – we got a cardboard wallet with instructions to put fifty dollars inside and return it to Tilton and God would pay the bills. I think he meant his bills, not ours.

So I rather than help Pedro find another job, I just need to tell him the secret: he’s a poor, struggling, construction worker/dishwasher who is struggling to make ends meet because he’s a magnet for that kind of pain and he looks at way too many other poor immigrants. If he were just white, American, and rich things would be different. Until he changes his stinkin’ thinkin’, the universe is not going to vote for Pedro. As for the folks in Darfur, they’ve created a horrible situation with their thoughts of hunger, war, and rape. If only they had dreamed of owning BMWs and living in Beverly Hills.

After all, it always works every time for everyone, no exceptions.


Monday, February 26, 2007

lenten journal: talking ourselves into being

The last of my Books for Lent arrived over the weekend.

I would not have known about it except I’m one of those suckers who clicks the link at that says, “We have recommendations for you.” Perhaps they know me better than I think they do.

The book is called Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian by Thomas G. Long. He begins with this premise:

We talk our way toward belief, talk our way from tentative belief through doubt to firmer belief, talk our way toward believing more fully, more clearly, and more deeply . . . When we talk about faith, we are not merely expressing our beliefs; we are coming more fully and clearly to believe. In short, we are always talking ourselves into being Christian. (6,7)
I’m not too far into the book, but his clever turn of phrase seems to be working out for him. He certainly set me to thinking how we are changed by our words. Or perhaps unchanged or even petrified. If we can talk ourselves into something, we can talk ourselves out of it as well. We are created in the image of a God who spoke all of creation into existence. We were talked into being human. As we talk, we give ourselves clues as to who we are becoming.

Many years ago, I was going to speak at a youth camp for a church in East Texas. I was a youth minister at the time. The group was big – almost two hundred kids – and they were excited to be at camp. The youth minister stood up at the first gathering and said, “OK, I know you all aren’t going to follow the rules this week, but I’m going to tell them to you anyway.” With that sentence he spoke a week of chaos and frustration into existence. He talked the kids into being young surly ne’er-do-wells and they lived up to their calling. I went to camp with my youth group a couple weeks later and a little wiser. In the front of the camp notebook, which everyone got, it said:
  • Live, act, and speak like the children of God that you are.
  • There is a bus that leaves from Giddings for Fort Worth everyday.
In six summers of camp and numerous other retreats and gatherings, we never had a problem that required anyone to get on a bus and go home. We talked ourselves into having a great week.

I talk myself out of being in shape. There are any number of things I would rather do than work out at the gym, but that’s not the reason I don’t get there. I talk myself into believing there are other things that need to happen first. I plan to go. I even carry my gym bag in the car with me. But then the day goes the way the day goes and my bag travels with me unopened. I struggle to learn how to talk myself into a new attitude.

Ginger and I talked ourselves into getting married and continue to talk ourselves into a deeper level of love. I’m speaking more literally than figuratively here. When we realized we were getting serious and headed for marriage, we made two choices. (Actually, Ginger made two suggestions and I agreed.) First, we would not go to sleep angry. If things were not right between us, then we stayed awake until we cleared the air. There were some late nights early on as we learned how to talk ourselves into deeper trust and forthrightness. The second thing was similar: we don’t go to sleep without hearing about how each of us spent our day. By being committed to these two things, we have talked ourselves into a great marriage, even if I do say so myself.

I talked myself into being a chef. I have a – how shall I say this? – fairly diverse employment history. I’ve chosen jobs, or let them choose me, because someone talked me into it by telling me I was good at whatever it was and these people needed that job done. It’s not that I regret my major vocational choices; it is that none of them were things I talked myself into doing. When I started going to spiritual direction about a year and a half ago because I wanted to talk myself into a better sense of vocation, Ken, my spiritual director said, “You have to figure out what it is you most want to do, what the price is for you to do it, and how you’re going to pay that bill.”

What I found was I love to cook and write more than anything else. I’m still talking myself into the implications of what that means for my life, but I am cooking and writing pretty much everyday. For me, writing is one of the best ways to talk myself into a better sense of being, particularly writing in the conversational context this forum provides. Reading supplies the other side of the dialogue.

If words are the seeds of faith, then every conversation is planting something. We are talking ourselves in some direction. If we aren’t talking ourselves into a deeper faith, then what are we talking about? The strength of the possibilities is one as good as the questions we ask as we grow.

(OK. I need to talk myself into a different direction. This is turning into a sermon and that’s not what I was trying to create.)

On the way to work this morning, I listened to half of my Valentine’s present from Ginger, Shawn Colvin’s new CD, These Four Walls. The last cut is a cover of the song “Words,” which I remember first hearing done by the Bee Gees (before Saturday Night Fever and falsettos). The last line of the chorus says
it’s only words
but words are all I have
to take your heart away
In the beginning, God said . . .

They’re never “only” words. We’re always talking ourselves into something.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

lenten journal: meals and memories

Wedding season officially began today at the Inn. Weddings in New England are not the finger-sandwiches-in-the-Fellowship-Hall affairs I was accustomed to attending in churches across Texas. You don’t have a reception, you have a meal – and you stay all day. We have at least one wedding on the books every weekend from now until the end of November, along with all sorts of other functions, which means we will feed anywhere from one hundred and fifty to five hundred people in our function hall every week for the next seven months.

And it’s beginning to look like I’m going to be the chef running the function kitchen.

Life is funny. Less than two months ago they were laying me off and now they want me to take on a bigger job. I’m not sure how all of that is going to go, but for this week, I was the Function Chef, which is a lot like being king of Rhode Island: I was in charge of a very small crew. It was me and Alfonso, a Brazilian high school student who works for us on weekends. Together he and I prepared the following menu for one hundred and twenty five people:

a cheese and fruit display
an antipasto display
bacon wrapped scallops
chicken satay
brie and apple puffs
lobster fritters
Caesar salad
Statler chicken breast with teriyaki mushroom demi-glace and red onion jam
roasted salmon with lemon sage beurre blanc
scallion and truffled whipped potatoes
haricot verts (that’s green beans to you and me)
He and I did all the preparation on Friday and Saturday and served it this afternoon, with some help from the dishwashers when it came time to plate the entrees. Of the five of us gathered to put chicken and fish on the plates, I was the new guy. When we started to work, Pedro, my favorite dishwasher, said, “Milton! First time in charge.” Then he patted me on the back and smiled. I may have been the one in charge, but I was not the one who knew all the details. Things went well because I leaned on the ones who did know – Pedro and Alfonso and the other Brazilians – to show me the ropes. They knew when to put the plates in the warmers, when to put the dressings on the salads, how to stack the filled plates in the warmer, and lots of other stuff. I asked for their help and they made us all look good. The day went really well. If today was any indication, we are going to have a good season ahead of us. I made a point of thanking my crew over and over for the job they did today. They don’t get noticed much.

Wedding season. It makes it sounds like a sport, as if some months ago the call went out for “brides and grooms to report.”

I went upstairs at one point this afternoon after the meal and the crowd was on the dance floor moving (notice I didn’t say dancing) to the beat of some wedding disco standard. For them, it was The Afternoon; for us it was the first of many. I worked hard to give them the best food I could, but I still don’t know their names. It was their wedding; it’s my job. We were all part of the same event but did not find the same significance and we will carry away different memories.

Some of the things I want to remember from today are cut the wedding cake in smaller pieces, don’t start dressing the salads until the begin the toasts or the lettuce gets soggy, seventy pounds of potatoes is more than enough to feed a hundred and fifty people. I imagine the couple’s memories will run more along the lines of the old Sinatra song:
some day, when I'm awfully low
when the world is cold

I will feel a glow just thinking of you

and the way you look tonight
I cooked one other meal today. Ginger and the staff at church asked me some time ago to provide a meal for a Leadership Appreciation Brunch after worship. Everyone serving on a committee or singing in the choir was included. About forty people stayed for the meal. I prepared it along side the wedding stuff over the last couple of days, so all I had to do was finish cooking it today. I served a pineapple and roasted corn risotto-stuffed chicken breast with a sweet chili glaze and lemon sage beurre blanc (yes, the multiple use of the sauce was intentional) and green beans. The meal went well but the memory I took away was Ginger and the other staff people taking time to call everyone by name and talk about how they had led us and served us as a church. We were all invited to fill up on food and affirmation. The comments were well-articulated memories of specific talents, words, and actions that spoke to our connectedness. Though being a part of the church means different things to different people, the memory we all were asked to carry away from our time today was it matters that we are here together for these days.

One of the members of the youth group asked me earlier if he could help this morning, so I had another high school student – Nick – working with me much like Alfonso does at the restaurant. While we painted the glaze on the chicken, I found myself explaining what was in the glaze and why we were doing it as we were. When I caught myself, I said, “I’m teaching like you asked me how to do this. You may not be interested, but I can’t guarantee I’ll stop. I like talking about this stuff.”

He laughed and said he liked cooking and was having fun. I kept talking as promised.

Tomorrow we move on to new meals, new marriages, and new meetings (I thought I’d keep up the alliteration). Oh – and new memories.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

lenten journal: shield the joyous

My day started with a bowl of Cheerios, a cup of coffee, and this prayer of Saint Augustine, which is part of the Compline in the Book of Common Prayer and found in Nora Gallagher’s book:

Keep watch dear Lord with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.
She records her brother’s response:
Shield the joyous. I like that. When you are joyful, you need a shield.
I read the prayer to Ginger as she was getting ready for work and she repeated the phrase thoughtfully: “Shield the joyous.”

I’m a big fan of verbs. They’re the best card we have to play in English. When I studied Greek in seminary, I learned that language was driven by nouns, which could be packaged in several different cases. Not English. We rely on action – and the verb is the action word – so much so that we try to turn our nouns into verbs. My new pet peeve is people saying they “were gifted” something. No. We already have a verb for that: they were given a gift. All of that to say I went back to the prayer to look at the verbs.
  • tend the sick
  • give rest to the weary
  • bless the dying
  • soothe the suffering
  • pity the afflicted
  • shield the joyous
The five verbs that precede shield feel like the natural partners for the needs to be met. What we can do best for those who are sick is tend to them – take care of them. The answer to weariness is rest. Bless is packed full of forgiveness and compassion for those who are coming to the end of their days. Certainly those who are suffering need words and actions that lessen the pain. In Augustine’s day, pity was not about feeling sorry for someone but was also a word of compassionate action. All the recipients are vulnerable and fragile. In Augustine’s mind, so were the joyous. They needed to be shielded.

Joy is fragile.

I’ve never really thought about it that way, which makes me feel kind of stupid because the more I think about it the more obvious it seems. It’s fragile because it’s fleeting. Whatever the moment or the experience, there’s another moment quick on it’s heels. Perhaps that was part of Jesus’ point on the mountain after the Transfiguration when Peter wanted to build a small hotel and stay up there, caught in a moment of joy. “Wrong,” said Jesus in so many words. “We’ve got to go back.” When the returned to the others, everyone was in such a frenzy that no one asked what had happened. I realize there’s room to talk about joy as something at the core of our beings, thanks to God’s presence, but when we experience joy it’s at the thin places of life when it rises to the surface. Those don’t last long.

Joy is fragile because it’s unfamiliar. I work with a lot of really good people who I think don’t expect joy in their lives. They know about the pursuit of happiness and love to have a good time, but as I watch some of them they seem to have allowed themselves to choose to believe that this is the way life is: you go to work, you party when you can, and you live with a lot of shit. Some of them have good reason to think that’s the way life works, based on what they’ve been through. It makes me sad and it makes me understand the prayer better. If I could give any of them a chance to expect joy in their lives, I would want them to be shielded long enough to know it was real.

It’s also fragile because it’s so basic. In the Periodic Table of Life, it is an essential element, just like suffering. Though I make no claim to being any sort of scientist, I’m going to take my shot at a chemical analogy. I think I remember (from some chemistry class long ago) that some elements are not stable enough to hold together when they hit the air. They have to be protected, shielded, if you will. (And I know you will.) So it takes a lot of work to figure out how to make use of the substance because you have to live with the fact that it’s probably going to fall apart.

I don’t mean to sound as pessimistic as that last sentence felt when I reread it. Joy is essential to the fabric of our humanity and it isn’t stable when it hits the air. (I think I’ll move on.)

Though I read his prayer over breakfast, Augustine was praying at the close of the day, which is when I’m writing. He prays for those who have to work the night shift, or are keeping watch, or whose grief has taken away any chance of sleep, and then he moves to his list of vulnerable ones: sick, weary, dying, suffering, afflicted, joyous. As much as anything, he seems to me to be praying that we could all get a good night’s rest from the circumstances of the day. As Hedwyg quotes Madeleine L’Engle, “The problem with life is that it’s so damn daily.”

And we are so damn human.

The house is quiet now. All three of my girls did their best to stay awake until I got home from a very long day at work. Our friend Jay is spending the night, so Lola is keeping him company on the couch instead of being tucked in with Ginger and Gracie upstairs, as she always does when he stays with us. The night will be a short respite for us all because tomorrow already feels as though it is rushing to get here. As I think about Augustine’s prayer, I can name at least one person I know that fits each definition, so I will close by writing it one more time:

Keep watch dear Lord with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.


Friday, February 23, 2007

lenten journal: in harmony

My reading this morning came from one of the books I got for my birthday: The Intellectual Devotional. The subtitle is great: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class. The book is a series of daily readings, each day of the week focusing on a different field of knowledge.

Monday – History
Tuesday – Literature

Wednesday – Visual Arts

Thursday – Science

Friday – Music

Saturday – Philosophy

Sunday – Religion

Today’s topic was melody. The entry began:
Melody, often referred to in everyday speech as the tune, is perhaps the most immediately recognizable element of music. A melody can be played on one instrument or many and, along with harmony and rhythm, is considered one of the three basic elements of all music.
Driving home from work tonight I started thinking about some of my favorite melodies. The one that stuck in my mind was an old American folk tune, “The Water is Wide.” I particularly love the way James Taylor sings it.
the water is wide I can’t cross o’er
neither have I wings to fly
give me a boat that can carry two
and both shall row my love and I
I realize I’m typing lyrics and not melody, but I’m counting on you to sing along at home. There are a lot of tunes that can get down inside of me and pull up all kinds of emotions. What I realized as I thought about them on the way home is the melodies that move me are the ones that lend themselves to harmony, because of the three basic elements of music, harmony is the one I love most. As long as I’ve been singing, I’ve looked for the harmony part.

In ninth grade I got a record player of my very own to keep in my room. We had a stereo in the living room, but the record player meant I could listen to my music in privacy. The next thing my parents gave me was a pair of headphones and they thought they were all set. They were wrong. One of my favorite records was Crosby, Stills, and Nash – the one with the three of them sitting in front of an old house – that had "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," "Marakesh Express," and "Helplessly Hoping," among others. I would go in my room, put on the ‘phones, start the record, and lay down on my bed to listen, and to sing along.

I sang the harmony parts. All of them. What the rest of my family heard was only me, singing at the top of my lungs and changing from part to part, which sounded a lot like a howling cat on crack. Their revenge was I sang with my eyes closed. So they all stood at the door of my room and laughed until I opened my eyes and found them there.

Good times.

In college, I remember buying James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, still one of my favorite albums. All those years later, I was still sitting and listening and singing along, once I’d heard a song one time. The record is full of great harmonies, but I had one unsurpassed moment my first time through. He started singing “Long Ago and Far Away” –
long ago a young man sits and plays his waiting game
but things are not the same it seems as in such tender dreams
and then the harmonies came in
slowly passing sailing ships and Sunday afternoon
like people on the moon I see are things not meant to be
I couldn’t believe it. But there was more. He began singing the chorus
where do the golden rainbows end
and then Joni Mitchell’s voice came in behind him
where do the rainbows end
and it may have been my best moment ever listening to a song. Her harmony line still grabs me by the heart.

One of the things still on my To Do List, as far as my life is concerned, is to sing in a bluegrass band, mostly because I think it’s the best music for harmony. The simple melodies yearn for company and make room for layer upon layer of voices. I also like it because the harmonies are found rather than predetermined. Though I’ve been around music all of my life, I can’t read it. I learned to play guitar by ear and by learning chords; I find the harmony part by listening and joining in, or learning it from someone else. Growing up Baptist meant learning a lot of good old gospel hymns, which carry the same kind of invitation. One of the curious things about many modern hymns is they are written to be sung in unison and without harmony. I think they are making both a musical and a theological mistake.

At the risk of offering my third big metaphor in three days, which feels a little excessive even for Lent, my other realization driving home tonight was I’m built to not only sing harmonies, but to live them as well. I like being the pastor’s husband rather than the pastor. One of the things our congregation expects with some regularity is in the middle of a sermon or another part of the service, Ginger will say, “Milton, would you sing this song?” and I stand up and sing. I don’t know it’s coming, yet I’ve been harmonizing with her long enough to not be surprised. I know my part: she’s Gladys Knight and I’m a Pip. No -- The Pip.

At the Inn, one of the things I do best is get things set up for Chef before the dinner rush. I know him. I can tell when things aren’t going well, or he feels isolated. I know how to find the harmony part that gets him back to the melody and we both have a good time. It happened again tonight.

If I ever got to meet Joni Mitchell, I’d have a lot of questions. But I would certainly put on my James Taylor record and say, “Tell me what that moment was like.” I don’t expect she would have an answer, but I’ll bet we’d listen to the song over and over again before she went home.


PS -- There's a new recipe.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

lenten journal: the lay of the land

My friend, Doug (aka Pork Butt, for those who read the comments on this blog), is a surveyor. Before we became friends, all I knew of surveying was in the glimpses I had of the guys in orange vests holding poles by the side of the highway while another guy looked through some sort of viewer. During our regular lunches –also known as meetings of the Pastoral Spousal Support Group -- I’ve learned a bit more about the field, but I’m far from an expert. What I now know about the two guys by the highway is together they provide the perspective that allows for the land between them to be properly mapped. You have to have a second point of reference from where you are standing to get an accurate reading.

I started three books today as a part of my Lenten journey, all three memoirs: Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace by Nora Gallagher; A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah; and The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection by Michael Ruhlman. I picked up Gallagher’s book because her other memoir, Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith continues to be meaningful to me. This time she’s writing about learning to deal with the grief of her brother’s death. John Stewart’s interview with Beah sent me looking for the second book, in which the author tells how he lived through being a child soldier in the civil war in Sierra Leone. My friend Mia sent me the third book some time ago and I’m just now getting to it. The author chronicles seven chefs trying to pass the Certified Master Chef exam. In some sense, each writer is telling the story as a way of getting (or giving) some perspective, asking us as the readers to hold the other pole.

That I got to read most of the day was the result of pulling a muscle in my back yesterday (doing nothing). Since the weekend holds a couple of long days at work, I decided to take it easy today. Ruhlman got the lion’s share of my time because his account of the grueling ten-day chef’s exam reads like a thriller. I couldn’t put it down until I found out how the test came out. Seven chefs began the ordeal, all of them qualified and successful in their own restaurants and/or careers. Three made it through all ten days and only one became certified as a Master Chef mostly because those judging the tests were culinary inerrantists, demanding a level of perfection that saw no other pole in terms of the skill and creativity of those cooking beyond their own need to see themselves as the banner carriers for Auguste Escoffier, the chef whose name is above every other name in cheffing circles.

The first year I taught at Winchester High School, I was taken by surprise. My Honors Brit Lit kids came to class like it was their job. They worked hard and I worked with them as though none of us had anything to prove. We all had a blast. During the summer between my first and second years there, I lost sight of the sense of trust and resulting freedom that had made the class both enjoyable and meaningful and fell into thinking that my job was to uphold the standards of Honors classes. Though I had my reasons at the time, looking back from where the poles are now for me, I see I lost sight of something simple and important. I began teaching the subject rather than the students. I lost sight of the people in the room in my search for perfection.

When Ishmael Beah spoke with John Stewart, he talked about perspective in his own way. The government soldiers who forced him into service gave him an AK-47 and lots of drugs, one of which was a combination of cocaine and gunpowder. Beah said he lost sight of his humanity. By some amazing turns of circumstance, he ended up in the US with people willing to love him back into being. He had to learn how to sleep again, he said. Over time he began to remember what it felt like to be human and felt compelled to tell his story. “Your book made my heart hurt,” Stewart told him.

As someone who lives with depression, I was moved by Gordon’s reflection at RLP of the humanity two years of depression had taken from him:

I had thoughts that were not based in reality. Do you know how frightening and horrifying that is to a person like me?

At one point I decided that my wife of twenty years no longer loved me. I thought that, baby. THOUGHT IT.

And I thought that the people in my church didn’t like me anymore and were probably talking about how to fire me without totally devastating our family. I figured they would be nice in the way they did it, but yes, people were talking about me and trying to find a way to get rid of me.
Our humanity suffers any time we lose sight of our connectedness.

Gallagher actually made mention of the surveyor’s poles in the section I read today. Her brother had been a surveyor for the Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico before he got cancer. She writes:
In order to survey, Kit said, you always have to have two points. In a photo, he leans over his tripod looking through the scope high above Otowi Bridge in northern New Mexico, sighting a distant point on the other side of the river. Below him are mesas dotted with pinon trees, a river gorge, a line of blue mesas, and beyond them nothing but a line of clouds in the sky. He marched through salt cedar and tamarisk, the bosque thick with snakes, finding the landmarks that aligned with each other. He could map anything. I thought of him then as making sense of geography. (27)
When Doug talks about people hiring him to survey land, he says it’s often to settle a dispute and determine where a property line really is. When the result isn’t what the clients want, they get perturbed. Doug smiles and says, “Look, this is not interpretation; this is just the lay of the land.” Sometimes, I suppose, the geography of the heart is not any easier to make sense of than the reality of the landscape that surrounds us. Both require more than one set of eyes.

Brian was one of the chefs who didn’t pass the test. It was his second attempt and second failure. Ruhlman describes Brian’s guilt and grief at missing his two-year old’s birthday because of the exam and then describes Brian getting in his Jeep and heading home to his wife and five kids, as well as his successful restaurant, gaining a better sense of perspective with each mile away from the test site. Beah found a new view through the eyes of those who loved him back into humanness. Gallagher tells of those around her who helped her grieve and discern where God was to be found in all of it.

Finding the lay of the land takes more than one point of view.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

lenten journal: lenten reduction

One of my regular tasks at the Inn is making the demi-glace, which is one of our “mother sauces,” providing a base for a number of our dishes. Our version is not exactly the old school French cuisine version, but it tastes good and it takes a long time to make. On Monday mornings, I begin by putting fifty pounds of veal bones onto baking sheets and roasting them for three or four hours. In the mean time, I rough cut ten pounds each of celery, carrots, and onions, which all go in the big fifty gallon kettle, along with all the herbs I can find, a big can of tomato paste, extreme amounts of red wine, and water. When the bones are done, I deglaze the pans with red wine and all of it goes in the kettle. By about four o’clock, I set it to simmering and I leave it cooking until I come back on Wednesday morning. By then, the liquid has reduced by about a third to a half.

I drain and strain what is now a rich brown liquid and put it in the square skillet, adding some more water and red wine and then I bring it to a boil and let it reduce by a little over half. By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, I’m ready to strain the sauce one more time and put it in containers to cool. What started as almost fifty gallons of water and eighty pounds of ingredients reduces down to eight to ten gallons of demi, which will last three or four days. On Saturday I will start the process again to finish on Monday. We always need more.

As I was working this afternoon, I heard an interview on NPR with Dennis Ziegler from Tulsa who owns a company that supplies ashes to churches. He described how they took the palm fronds (what a cool word) and dried them and then burned them to make the ashes. He said two thousand pounds of palm fronds (just had to write it one more time) reduced to forty or fifty pounds of ashes.

I’ve held the ashes of both Hannah and Phoebe, two of our beloved Schnauzers, after they died. What was left of our dear little dogs could be held in one hand. In both cases, Ginger and I took their ashes down to the beach at low tide and scattered them across the water in the moonlight. In those moments, I was reduced to tears.

In the kitchen, we reduce sauces to intensify both substance and flavor. When we get ready to plate an order, we put a ladle full of sauce in a sautĂ© pan and let it simmer on the burner until it’s thick enough to grab the steak and hold on as we pour. The flavor becomes rich and intense. If we didn’t take time to reduce the sauce, the whole dish would be something other than what we intended. It takes time and patience to reduce everything to its essence. Of course, we have to pay attention. There is a point where the sauce can move rather quickly from reduced to burned. No one is interested in those ashes.

As a part of our Ash Wednesday service tonight, we moved from taking Communion (by intinction) to being marked with the ashes from fronds of our own. As I dipped my bread in the cup, Dana, one of our seminarians, said, “From ashes you came and to ashes you will return.” As Ginger marked me, she said, “You are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God.” In that moment, my faith was reduced to an intensity of both body and flavor. The service congealed both truths into one: I am a fleeting image of God. It’s not about being eternal, it’s about being right now.

Monday nights are my night to run the kitchen, which means I get to come up with the special for dinner. Since it is the first night of the week (and after the weekend), I have to make a special out of what we have. What I ended up serving was an eight-ounce sirloin steak (with a caramelized red onion teriyaki demi-glace – reduced, of course) and two crab stuffed shrimp (with a lemon thyme beurre blanc) served with a warm fingerling potato salad and fried green tomatoes (I married a girl from Irondale, Alabama; you don’t think I know how to make those?). The plate was beautiful and it tasted good, as well. And, for at least one night, a few folks in New England learned that fried green tomatoes are something other than the name of a movie. But cooking is a temporary art form. My creation stayed intact only as long as it took to get it to the table. When we closed the kitchen Monday night, that was the end of that special. My calling is not to make pretty plates for a display case or for posterity, but to make food for folks who are hungry right now. And then it’s time to do it again.

No matter how many times I make demi-glace, it’s always time to do it again.

No matter how many meals I make, there will always be another ticket.

No matter how many times I hear I’m created in God’s image (even if I’m a firefly in the universe), I will always need someone to tell me again.

When we reduce existence to it’s essence, we come down to daily living. I quoted it yesterday and we read it tonight: “Consider the lilies,” Jesus said. He went on to say we need not worry about anything other than today. One of my favorite benedictions in church is “The Lord bless you in your going out and your coming in.” When you think about it, that’s pretty much what we do on a daily basis: we go out and we come in. Either way, we’re blessed. I like the image of God in that blessing because God's presence is infused into every small and seemingly insignificant move we make filling our lives with the substance and flavor of Love, over and over and over again.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

lenten journal: don't read alone

I woke up this morning to images of Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. Today is Fat Tuesday. Based on the way I ate yesterday, it was Chubby Monday. Like the old blues song says:

They call it Chubby Monday
I got Fat Tuesday on my mind . . .
In our house, today holds two traditions: Ginger clears the house of anything chocolate and I start putting together my reading list for the season to serve as raw material for my daily commitment to writing. This year, the process is a bit different because I’ve been writing regularly all year long. In the past, the forty-odd days of the Lenten season were when I wrote consistently. A couple of years ago, I kept writing weekly after Easter. Since last Lent, I’ve written five days a week on average, finally allowing myself to really feel like a writer. The reading list, therefore, takes a different place in the season because, thanks to work, writing, and other choices, I’ve not been a consistent reader. I want to be consistent in the practice of reading.

I stumbled on one of the books I’m going to carry with me in the bookstore today: Life, Paint and Passion: Reclaiming the Magic of Spontaneous Expression by Michelle Cassou and Stewart Cubley. While I was waiting to meet Ginger for our Tuesday afternoon Panera date, I started reading and came across these words:
Our experience, after working with many different types of people, is that a hidden wave of passion lies just below the surface of most people’s lives, a passion yearning to be liberated from the paralyzing myths of talent, skill, inspiration, accomplishment, success and failure, and just plain not being good enough (xix).

At a certain point you must make a choice in painting between the process and the product . . .You cannot serve two masters. You cannot embrace product and process at the same time. If you paint freely, you will most likely end up loving what you do because of your intimacy with it, but in the meantime it is necessary that you let go and surrender. You do not need an incentive. The process is enough (23).
As I copy the quotes, I’m thinking of my artist friends, who work hard on both product and process, and wondering how they hear those words. I hear them with a poet’s ears: as metaphor. I find a deep and resonant attraction to art as metaphor for faith. God created us and the universe with reckless abandon, an obvious sense of humor, and, it seems, a passion that grows out of process much more than product. (Seriously – what’s up with the manatee and the platypus?) The earliest chapters of the Bible remind us we are created in the image of our Creator and imbued with the same sense of passion and play.

“Consider the lilies,” Jesus said.

“If you want to see God’s realm, become like a little child.”

Jesus said that, too.

Where the analogy between art and faith becomes even more interesting is when we begin to talk about how to be an artist within a community of artists. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen something painted by committee. That thought’s a little sobering. Can we paint with passion and abandon if I want to draw purple flowers in the same place that you are determined to paint pink polka dots? It reminds me of Woody Allen’s essay years ago called “If the Impressionists Were Dentists” in which he wrote as though he were Van Gogh:
Mrs. Sol Schwimmer is suing me because I made her bridge as I felt it and not to fit her ridiculous mouth! That's right! I can't work to order like a common tradesman! I decided her bridge should be enormous and billowing, with wild, explosive teeth flaring up in every direction like fire! Now she is upset because it won't fit in her mouth! She is so bourgeois and stupid, I want to smash her! I tried forcing the false plate in but it sticks out like a star burst chandelier.
As a community of artists, process becomes the product, in a way. The calling is to come together, create together, and encourage one another. As soon as we allow ourselves to believe that the institution is the product, all the color drains from the room. What if we were determined to create an environment that freed one another from “the paralyzing myths of talent, skill, inspiration, accomplishment, success and failure, and just plain not being good enough”?

Lent traditionally has the rep of being a dark season when some think the point is to remind ourselves we are lower than pond scum (but saved by grace) and others see it as a walk through the Valley of the Shadow on the way to the Cross. A former choir director thought Lent was the time to sing “all the bloody songs.” Certainly, Lent is a season of reflection and focus. We are on a journey that takes us to Death before we can experience Resurrection. They don’t call it ASH Wednesday for nothing. And, if passion is artist’s fuel, Lent is also a season to create, to live with the same abandon, even if the nights are long and cold. In the quiet, perhaps, our “hidden wave of passion” can finally break on the shore.

Part of the reason I add things to my life during Lent is I don’t learn much from giving stuff up. I just get surly. Another part of adding things is it makes me come to terms with time, which is one of my most precious commodities. “I didn’t have time” is one of my favorite rationalizations for why things don’t get done. So, for Lent, I will engage in the creative process of making time to read. I’m not after product. I’m not assigning myself the task of finishing all the books I put in the stack for the season, or even having to mention them when I write each night. If Lent is the canvas, then my books will be my brushes. I’ve always loved to read, but many of the books I’ve read have been to fulfill an assignment, to give an assignment, to lead a discussion, or to mine for quotes. My reading today calls me to think about how I can read without adding up the pages or trying to make a point. Perhaps I’ll pick up a random volume each day and see what I find. Perhaps I will juxtapose passages from unrelated texts. Perhaps I’ll just read for a half an hour and then begin to write. Who knows.

What I do know is it matters to me to create in the context of community. I’m a more faithful writer because I come to this page most everyday because I know you come around as well. I don’t like to eat alone; I’m better when I don’t write alone.

I guess I won’t read alone either.


Monday, February 19, 2007

waiting for billy collins

I don't know what made me think of this poem tonight. Perhaps I'm just missing my friend. I wrote it several years ago after he and I went to a Billy Collins reading. For whatever reason, tonight seems like a good night to let it see daylight again.

Waiting for Billy Collins
for Jack

We are in the stand-by line
for a sold out poetry reading;
(now you know we live in Boston. . .)
Ten or twelve of us chain
Down the side of the building
Like beads waiting to be strung into
A necklace of hope.

Almost everyone has a paperback in hand --
But not of the poet we have come to see;
(that would be uncool. . .)
The books are credentials for the conversation.
We flash them like driver’s licenses in a bar,
Giving ourselves permission to become
Intoxicated on metaphor.

We toss around the names of poets,
Both famous and unfamiliar.
(I know someone you don’t know. . .)
We do agree we don’t understand
Wallace Stevens but he’s good, yes, very good;
And, of course, we must make mention of
The red wheelbarrow.

The guy behind us likes
To dress up like Walt Whitman,
(coming soon to a school near you. . .)
And he seems to think that every
Poem we discuss is about him;
No one else in our quixotic queue appears
To have come to that conclusion.

I am standing with Jack
Between Walt and a guy we’d rather talk to;
(I brought a friend instead of a book. . .)
We are each other’s ticket into the evening.
Yes, we came to hear the poet,
But if we don’t get in the theater
We have lines of our own to deliver

At a nearby pub. The important thing
Is to get to spend time together.
(surely someone won’t show up. . .)
But I keep hoping we two can enter the ark
And set sail on the poet’s words,
Hearing each syllable of hope and humor
As metaphor of our friendship.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

let's go to the movies

I saw a promo for the Oscars next Sunday and it got me thinking about movies that have moved me for various reasons, so I thought I would share a few, in no particular order. These are ones a little out of the mainstream; all are worth chasing down at your local video store.

Bottle Rocket (1996)

This is, I think, the first collaboration between Wes Anderson and Luke and Owen Wilson. Owen plays Dignan, a guy who has a seventy-five year plan for how to be a successful criminal, which he describes well. The comedy is off the wall and you have to watch it more than once to make the most of the side comments.

Miss Firecracker (1989)

I've mentioned this movie before. Holly Hunter plays a young woman determined to win the Miss Firecracker Pageant in Yazoo City, Mississippi. What unfolds is a deeply resonant story of family, dreams, failure, and grace.

Cry, the Beloved Country (1995)

To say I love this movie is to say a great deal because the novel from which it is adapted is one of my favorite stories and Stephen Kumalo, the man at the heart of the story is one of the great characters in literature. This movie was the first independent movie produced in post-apartheid South Africa and is worth seeing again and again and again (after you read the book over and over).

The Elephant Man (1980)

David Lynch's movie is based on the life of John Merrick, who was known as the Elephant Man because of his deformities. Anthony Hopkins plays the doctor who befriends him. One of my favorite scenes is Hopkins' questioning his motives in helping the man, because his compassion brought him some fame.

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

Peter Weir directed Mel Gibson in two of his best movies: Gallipoli and this one. The movie is set in Indonesia during the political turmoil of the 1960's. The key character is Billy Kwan, played by Linda Hunt (a role for which she won an Oscar). This movie works on lots of levels.

The Killing Fields (1984)

Before there was Law & Order, Sam Waterson played Sidney Schaunberg, who was a reporter for the New York Times during the Cambodian War and won a Pulitzer Prize for his stories. Dith Pran was the Cambodian who helped him. When the Americans evacuated, Pran and the other Cambodians who had helped them were left at the mercy of Pol Pot, who was out to kill pretty much everyone who disagreed with him. This is an amazing story of our human capacity to both endure and forgive.

The In-Laws (1979)

Yes, I said these were movies to watch more than once. I suppose I should also say you have to give yourself some time to recoup between viewings. I will close my list with one you can watch as many times as you want. This is one of the funniest movies ever. (The remake a couple years back sucked, by the way). Peter Falk is a former CIA guy who is pretty much of a loose cannon and Alan Arkin is a Manhattan dentist who has never colored outside the lines. They are great together.

There are more where those came from. I would love to hear the movies that matter to you.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

farther and faster

The phone rang about 5:45 this morning: Ginger called to let me know she was getting on a flight and would be in Providence by 7:30. I got there about 8:00 and we left around 10:00. One of her bags has still not made it home. I drove her straight to the church for a meeting and I ran errands until it was time for to pick her up and take her on a Valentine’s date (Mexican food) and then home for a well deserved and anticipated nap. As usual, while I was driving around, I was listening to NPR. On Point was focused on the legacy of Carl Sagan ten years after his death. One of the questions Tom Ashbrook asked was what advances had been made in astronomy and physics since Sagan died. The answer intrigued me.

What we know now that we did not know a decade ago is the universe is both expanding and accelerating. (Sagan only knew it was expanding.) Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the scientists being interviewed, said the implication of that combination meant that astrophysicists of the future would not see the same sky we see. A time will come when it will look as though we are alone because the universe will have expanded so far and so quickly that we will only be able to see the planets closest to us. He went on to say it’s important for us to keep and preserve good records of what we see so people in the future will not think it has always been the way it looks then.

We live in a time when we are able to see deeper and farther into space than anyone who has lived before us, thanks to Hubble and the like, and we are people who can see less of the stars than anyone who has come before because we have been too busy making lights of our own. When the Psalmist, captured by the wonder of the night, wrote,

I often think of the heavens your hands have made,
and of the moon and stars you put in place.
Then I ask, "Why do you care about us humans?
Why are you concerned for us weaklings?” (Ps. 8:3-4)
he saw a sky crammed full of stars with his naked eye. For centuries, ships determined where they were on earth by what they could see in the heavens. The sky that was familiar to them and the stars they knew by name are not things most of us know anymore. From our back deck here in Marshfield I can see more of the night than I could in the city. My incredibly amateur eye can recognize the Pleiades, Ursa Major (since when does a bear have a tail?), Casio Pea, Orion – my favorite, and Sirius (the dog star, not the satellite radio). I know the names because they have been passed down, person to person, over the centuries, but the list of names I know is far shorter than those known by those who named them to begin with. As my universe has expanded to include iPods and oil fields, hard drives and Hubble telescopes, I’ve lost sight of what was once the common field of vision.

About a decade ago, I remember reading that the body of knowledge in the world doubled every five years, which means there is now four times as much to know as there was when I first learned that bit of information. When the term “Renaissance Man” was coined to describe someone who pretty much knew everything, knowing everything was an accomplishable task. Now there is too much to know before we even get to the stars. Tyson is right: as the universe accelerates, we are left to assume the universe is only as big as what we can see.

When it comes to the stars, we measure distance in time: light years. If the scientists tell us a star is three million light years away, then the light we are seeing is three million years old. What we see on any given night is light that is old and tired and yet new to us; we have no idea what is really happening where that light began. What looks like a sky full of lighted dots to us is a panoply of history, a polyglot of light we can barely begin to translate. It makes me wonder if the first draft of Psalm 8 went something like, “Who are we to think we matter at all?”

When we lived in Boston, one of our favorite places to take people who came to visit was the Mother Church of Christian Science. The main sanctuary has a beautiful dome. About the second or third time we visited, I noticed the room was considerably lighter. I asked the docent leading our tour what had happened. She told me they had been renovating the dome when they discovered skylights that had been painted over during World War Two. Once the war was over, people forgot to uncover them and they had stayed dark for over fifty years. I was struck by the fact that the church had met in that room every Sunday since the windows had been darkened and yet still managed to forget what they had done as life accelerated and moved away from the fear that caused them to paint the skylights to begin with.

We, as human beings, have already forgotten more than we have discovered. A trip to the Mayan ruins or the Pyramids will bring that home in hurry. One of the fallacies we have bought into in our age is that an accelerating universe means we have to keep looking ahead if we want to keep up. What I continue to find to be paradoxically true is most of the meaning I’ve been able to make of my life and our world comes from looking back and taking in the light that finally reached me. We get some sense of ourselves in our universe from the records we keep and the stories we tell. However fast and far we are flung by the centrifuge of existence, what makes us human is our capacity to remember that the oldest, most tenacious, and most permeating light is love. We are not alone.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

near miss

I called Ginger to wake her up this morning and to tell her the morning flight that was going to bring her home was delayed at best. By the time I was ready to go to work and she was ready to go to the hospital, we knew the flight was cancelled. She went to the Birmingham airport to sort it out and let me know later she had gotten on a 6 pm flight that would get her to Providence at 10:55. As I was leaving work this evening, she was going through security in Birmingham. He plane for Baltimore took off before I got home and had a chance to check the connecting flight.

It was cancelled.

Ginger will call in a few minutes to let me know she is spending the night in Baltimore and to tell me what time to meet her in Providence in the morning. We gave it our best shot. For us, Valentine's Day will be February 15.

She's closer to home and I'm glad. I'm glad most of all because I'm home. Now I've got to go find my Billy Joel CD.

when you look into my eyes
and you see the crazy gypsy in my soul

it always comes as a surprise

when I feel my withered roots begin to grow

well I never had a place
I could call my very own

but that's all right my love

‘cause you're my home

when you touch my weary head

and you tell me everything will be all right.

you say use my body for your bed

and my love will keep you warm throughout the night.

well I'll never be a stranger

and I'll never be alone

wherever we're together

that's my home.

home could be the Pennsylvania turnpike

Indiana's early morning dew

high up in the hills of California

home is just another word for you

well I never had a place

that I could call my very own

but that's all right my love

'cause you're my home

if I travel all my life

and I never get stop and settle down

long as I have you by my side

there's a roof above and good walls all around

you're my castle, you're my cabin

and my instant pleasure dome.

I need you in my house

‘cause you're my home

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

heavenly day

Ginger is coming home tomorrow for one main reason: it’s Valentine’s Day.

We had only been dating a couple of weeks when our first Valentine’s Day came around. I took her to the Hard Rock CafĂ© in Dallas because that was her favorite place. Though we had not been going out long, we both had a sense that something important was happening between us. A live band was playing that night. In the middle of the set, the lead singer proposed to his girlfriend and they brought champagne out to everyone. Ginger and I both spilled our glasses. She looked great that night – and she had on a hat (after all, it was the late 80s). The hat I remember because when we got to the car and I went to unlock her door, I kissed her – and it was a great kiss, enough to knock her hat off.

I’m saving another one for the airport tomorrow night.

At work the other day someone was writing off Valentine’s Day as another “Hallmark Holiday.” They said they didn’t participate because they thought the whole thing was overly sentimental and commercial. A third person standing there asked me what I did for Valentine’s and I said, “Commercial or not, I figure I’m not going to miss a chance to tell Ginger how much I love her. I’m in for the roses and the chocolates – the whole bit.” The date is arbitrary, as far as I’m concerned, but loving my wife is too much fun to let cynicism win the day.

The other nemesis of love is obligation. Most all of the male DJs I heard today were reminding their (mostly male) listeners to get their flower orders in so they didn’t end up in the dog house. Our NPR stations use the day as a fundraiser, offering to send roses and chocolates for a pledge to public radio, thus killing two obligations at once. In church we make the distinction between habit and ritual. Habit is doing something because you’ve gotten used to doing it that way or you feel like you have to do it that way. Ritual is meaningful repetition: you don’t have to keep the tradition but you do because it’s meaningful and you take time to remember why it means something even as you do it. Eighteen Valentine’s Days into our relationship I’m grateful for the marker, even as we stack up the stones once again.

When I talked to Ginger last night, she said her father had had a rough day and he and her mother had gotten cross with each other at one point. Ginger talked about what a tender moment it was to watch them work to find each other, knowing they had hurt each other’s feelings and wanting to make things right. “You could just see how much they love each other,” she said.

The story reminded me of a verse from Marc Cohn’s song, “True Companion”:

When the years have done irreparable harm
I can see us walking slowly arm in arm
Just like the couple on the corner do
'cause girl I will always be in love with you
And when I look in your eyes
I'll still see that spark
Until the shadows fall
Until the room grows dark
Then when i leave this earth
I'll be with the angels standin'
I'll be out there waiting for my true companion
Just for my true companion
Both Ginger and I uncharacteristically asked for specific things this Valentine’s: she asked for me to get the house cleaned before she came home and I asked for Patty Griffin’s new album. I listened to an interview with her on NPR, where they also have a link to hefr new single, “Heavenly Day.” Once more, she is providing the soundtrack of my life:
Oh heavenly day, all the clouds blew away
Got no trouble today with anyone
The smile on your face I live only to see
It's enough for me, baby, it's enough for me
Oh, heavenly day, heavenly day, heavenly day

Tomorrow may rain with sorrow
Here's a little time we can borrow
Forget all our troubles in these moments so few
All we've got right now, the only thing that
All we really have to do
Is have ourselves a heavenly day
Lay here and watch the trees sway
Oh, can't see no other way, no way, no way
Heavenly day, heavenly day, heavenly day

No one at my shoulder bringing me fears
Got no clouds up above me bringing me tears
Got nothing to tell you, I've got nothing much to say
Only I'm glad to be here with you
On this heavenly, heavenly, heavenly, heavenly
Heavenly day, all the trouble's gone away
Oh, for a while anyway, for a while anyway
Heavenly day, heavenly day, heavenly day
If the weather forecast is correct, Ginger’s going to fly in with a Nor’easter tomorrow afternoon and we will drive home together in the snow. The roses will be waiting at home; I’ll take the chocolates with me to the airport. This year is hardly fifty days old and we have already dealt with my job loss and her father’s cancer. Come Thursday morning, she will head back to work and we will try to find our usual rhythm. I’m glad tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, Hallmark or not, because I get a chance to do my best to make it a heavenly day for her.

Even if it is just for a little while.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

a better picture

Here's what we know tonight -- the big news first: Reuben's pathology reports came back this afternoon and they showed no lymph node involvement. They found nothing beyond the tennis ball-sized tumor they took out when they removed the lobe of his lung, even though the type of cancer has shown itself to be quite agressive based on how quickly the tumor grew. What that means is he does not have to undergo any other treatment but will have to go for regular tests. We are grateful. I got a message from a good friend who is also an oncology nurse who talked abut how great it was that Reuben only had to live "under surveilance." I don't think I ever considered that to be a hopeful phrase until today.

Reuben moved to a room on Saturday and is beginning to walk the long road of recovery -- literally. His Alzheimer's seems to show itself in his "sundowning" most every evening: he becomes more disoriented as the sun goes down, which is a quite common condition with Alzheimer's patients. He is in good spirits and is only grumpy when people try to give him too many instructions. I told Ginger I thought that was more of a Brasher family trait rather than something having to do with being in the hospital. (You can't believe how many times I've told that joke.)

There are still more hills to get over and more road we cannot yet see and what we see today is hopeful and has offered some relief. "Don't worry about tomorrow," Jesus said, "for today has enough trouble of its own." Those words are deeply resonant tonight.

One of the coolest things Ginger told me was when she went to the mailbox on Saturday there were seven cards for Reuben and Rachel and all of them were from our church here in Marshfield. Their outpouring of support reminds me of the way the early Christians were describled by those outside of the church: "Look at how they love one another."

We feel loved and blessed and strengthened. Thanks to all of you for your prayers and support as we prepare to get over the next hill.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

through a glass darkly

Reuben went into surgery about eleven, Birmingham time, and the surgery was over around three. The good news was he came through the surgery without any complications, which was one of our concerns beforehand. The hard news is they had to take one lobe from his lung and the mass in that lobe was malignant. Our new word for today is adenocarcinoma. The more detailed pathology report and the tests on his lymph nodes will not be back for a couple of days, so we must wait before we can see what the next steps might be.

I sat in the coffee shop this afternoon trying to write as I waited and could do little more than wait. Tonight, I don't have more words than these. I'm grateful for the prayers and words of solidarity. I'm also aware of some of you who are facing harsh realities of your own in these days. Please know my prayers are with you.

Some day, Paul said, we will see face to face, but not now. Not now.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007


My day at work was different than usual because I spent it in the function kitchen getting ready for a big wedding expo we have this weekend. The Inn hosts over one hundred weddings a year and they throw a couple of these bashes to let the wedding couples taste all the things they can choose for their dinners. The day was different mostly because I was by myself. The function hall is a different building than the restaurant. I like the work because I can get lost in the tasks at hand and the time passes quickly. I tuned the radio to NPR and started on my list: I made three different kinds of soups, mashed potatoes, and pan fried German potatoes (for the restaurant), pulled the stems out of 250 mushrooms, cut up five boxes of fingerling potatoes, roasted chicken to make chicken salad, and finished making the demi-glaze I started on Monday. There’s a calming effect to being so focused on the task at hand because I’m so captured by the moment. The repetition doesn’t get boring to me because the motion is useful and purposeful. I’m doing good work.

When I’m on the line in the restaurant, there is a sense of immediate gratification because I finish a dish and then put it up for the server to take to the waiting customer. I get to see fairly immediate results. Preparing for a function has a delayed payoff. Several days from now I will see my work begin to take its final form. For now, I am called to find satisfaction in the preparation. That I enjoy cutting up potatoes and pulling the stems out of mushrooms lets me know I’m doing what I was made to do.

I also love that I’m getting better at my job. Working in the function kitchen allows me to learn about another aspect of professional cooking, which will make me better all the way around. I’m grateful that I get to do what I love. I know that’s a gift.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

all we can see

Ginger’s on her way to Birmingham and I’m sitting in Panera, trying to get my post written before I go home to console Schnauzers, which will take up the rest of the evening. They hate suitcases.

When we moved from Texas to Massachusetts sixteen and a half years ago, one of the biggest adjustments was the difference in landscape. There are places in Texas where you can wake up in the morning, look west, and see what people are doing on their porches in Tucson. The reason the stars at night are big and bright is you have a 360-degree view of the horizon: you can see them all. Massachusetts is a little more claustrophobic. If there aren’t hills, there are trees preventing you from seeing what’s around the bend. Though things – and people – are packed much closer together, there’s no place to get a clear view of it all.

If life is a highway, then it’s a lot more like Massachusetts than Texas. The other thing about Massachusetts that makes that statement even more true is we don’t believe in street signs. If you are new here, you never know where you are.

Ginger is flying across America without being able to see over the next hill, which for our family is called Thursday. She has yet to talk to the doctor or get a clear picture of what the surgery is going to entail, but, even if she knew that, we still can’t see beyond Thursday. Some time, probably in the afternoon, we will top the hill and see what the next stretch of life looks like. More than likely, there will be another obstacle keeping us from seeing too far down the road.

Sunday after church, I was talking with someone about the things I had written about Darfur. She said she didn’t know what to feel other than overwhelmed. I said what I’m trying to figure out is what lies beyond overwhelmed and helpless. The more we talk and pray together, the more we will be able to come to a place we cannot now see.

I remember hearing Bonnie Hunt on Letterman several years ago talking about writing comedy. She said the challenge is to get past the easy stuff, which is the sexual and vulgar stuff. So, when she goes into a writing meeting, they take the topic or idea and let themselves get all the vulgarity out of their systems, understanding they have not yet really begun to write until they get over that.

I’ve always imagined some of the first white people to get to the Grand Canyon coming over a small rise and all of a sudden being at the edge of that giant rift. In my mind, the old timer turns to his wife and says, “Well, Martha, I think we’re going to have to go around.” Either that, or they settled there and opened a bed and breakfast for the others they knew would be coming.

I resigned from my job as a minister because I believed I was answering God’s call on my life to follow my passion to make good food for people. Twelve weeks later I got laid off. Two weeks after that, I went back to work with a raise. All the planning in the world couldn’t have gotten me ready for that turn of events.

If such is the topography of life, we have to choose how we are going to navigate and travel. Last night coming home from work, I got behind a car going thirty-five on a road where the speed limit is forty-five and the Massachusetts drivers add on another ten miles per hour. Let me be clear: thirty-five was their top speed. Every time the road curved in the least, they hit their brakes, as though that somehow made them safer. What they didn’t realize is they turned themselves into a hazard. The other extreme is to go pedal to the metal until we top one hill too many and end up going all Thelma and Louise into the canyon below.

Both approaches are based on fallacies. Being overly cautious doesn’t change the truth that life is not safe; being cautious is not the same as being intentional. Living without caution doesn’t change the truth that freedom is not the same thing as license.

One of the things I love about Mark’s account of Jesus’ life is most of Jesus’ contact with people happens in the context of interruptions. When he got up in the morning, the disciples didn’t greet him with a schedule for the day: “First, you heal the blind man. Then on the way to lunch, a woman is going to touch the hem of your garment and be healed, and then you will feed the Five Thousand.” Jesus just started walking and as he topped each rise he dealt with what was in front of him – all the way to Golgotha.

Eighteen years ago last Sunday was my first date with Ginger. I took her to see Lyle Lovett back when Lyle had one record and played really small rooms. When I took her back to her apartment, I said, “I really like you and want to see you some more, but this next month is crazy and I don’t know when we’ll be able to get together.” By the end of February – twenty-four days later – I had seen her everyday but two. If life is a highway, I started taking a new way home – past her house. Now, eighteen years later, I don’t know how to think about life without her in it.

Rachel and Reuben have been married for fifty years.

We talk about “getting over” illnesses and problems as though getting over means getting past. Sometimes, like this Thursday, getting over means coming to terms with what’s ahead on this journey without maps. The significant markers are those John used to describe Jesus: “Knowing he had come from God and was going to God . . .” With those brackets around our lives, we know there is love beyond whatever is over the hill.


Monday, February 05, 2007

schnauzer nap

One of the best parts of my day is coming home to Lola and Gracie, our two miniature Schnauzers. In the midst of all that is going on, I offer a poem on the lighter side because it's where I needed to go today.

taking a nap with my schnauzers

tuesday afternoon
my day off
we have finished
our lunch and retired
to the sectional sofa
some people are at work
others are out walking
both people and dogs
but we are not concerned
we’re going to sleep

my dogs rest more
easily than I
they don’t weather
any guilt for the birds
who won’t be chased
the passers-by
who won’t be scolded
the toilet paper
that will go unshredded
while they slumber

Gracie lies with her head
tucked in behind mine
she whispers her secrets
then stretches out
on her back
all four feet
flying in the air
as though the couch
were a magic carpet or
a slow moving raft

Lola climbs on top
of the back cushion
a little night watchman
taking her station
not wanting to miss a thing
when I have settled
she will move down
next to me
spine against thigh
and snore

once I’ve dozed off
they wake each other
and watch to see
if my leg twitches
or my arm jerks
and turn to each
other and say
“people dream,”
then they slowly
close their eyes

Sunday, February 04, 2007

for the living of these days

We are headed into a difficult week.

We got word a few days ago that Ginger’s father has to have a mass removed from his lung. He’s already survived a battle with throat cancer. When a spot showed up a couple of years ago, they tested and said it was scar tissue. Now there’s a mass. Over the past year, we have watched him begin to slip slowly into Alzheimer’s. Now there’s a mass. Ginger goes to Birmingham on Tuesday to be there for the surgery on Thursday.

For obvious reasons, Ginger carried all of these things into the pulpit with her this morning. She was preaching from the lectionary, so she was talking about Jesus telling the disciples, after they had fished unsuccessfully, to cast out their nets again in deeper water. She began her sermon this way:

On February 3, 1937, she was born in the south the third child of four, the baby girl, and was very cute. However, this particular combination could prove to be a hindrance. As a result of my mother’s birth date, birthplace, and birth order, she was well loved and cared for -- even spoiled -- until her father died when she was fifteen. Then she (without much choice or option) became the primary responsible party of the household. Her little brother was too young and the others were expressing their grief in a myriad of ways. She had to cast her net, if you will, into deeper waters than she had ever known.

Through the years, my mother continued to take care of her mother and siblings and watched them die one by one. Now she is caring for my father who has Alzheimer’s and who will have major lung surgery this week. Again she is casting a net in deep and unknown waters as she learns to take on my father’s role of driving roads beyond their immediate community and as she faces the possibility of living alone for the first time in her life. She can curl and become immobilized or, like the disciples, she can move into uncharted territory casting her net into waters that seem to be without.
It’s true: my mother-in-law turned seventy yesterday. Of our four parents, she is the last to do so and, because we made a big deal for the other three, she has reminded us for several years that her seventieth birthday was coming. Ginger spent several hours (no, days) selecting, collecting, wrapping, and mailing seventy presents as my mother-in-law hoped she would, since we did a similar thing for my father years ago. Ginger spent an hour and a half on the phone yesterday while Rachel opened her presents with glee. Now, in the first week of her seventy-first year, she is taking her husband to the hospital.

Whatever my father-in-law understands or doesn’t understand about what is going on with him, he is being quintessentially himself. There has never been a day in his life when he didn’t feel “fine, outstanding, wonderful,” regardless of the circumstances. When they talk to him about the surgery, he simply says, “Whatever will be, will be.” This is a man who trusts God with the reckless abandon of a child jumping off a porch into the arms of a waiting parent. Though all of us have a strong sense of God’s presence in these days, he is not feeling the burden of the questions that have fallen on the rest of us. The doctors are operating to learn what is going on inside of Reuben as much as they are to remove the mass.

It’s a strange word. The dictionary gives lots of definitions; two stood out to me:
  • A lump or aggregate of coherent material: a cancerous mass.
  • Public celebration of the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant churches.
In one of English’s little ironies, the word for cancer and Communion are the same.

Our opening hymn this morning was “God of Grace and God of Glory,” one of my favorites. Some of the words in the second verse stuck out for me today:
From the fears that long have bound us,
Free our hearts to faith and praise.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage

For the living of these days,

For the living of these days.
Whatever happens on Thursday may create as many questions as it does answers. We are living through something that requires faith, wisdom, and courage of us. Though the prospects seem about as hopeful as the disciples’ after a long night of fruitless fishing, Ginger is right: the best we can do is head into deeper water and cast our nets, trusting that God will provide sustenance for the living of these days, whatever they may hold.