Saturday, March 31, 2007

lenten journal: timing

One of the crucial elements of the function kitchen is timing. Most everything is done in stages and needs to be finished just before it is served, so the food is fresh and attractive – both of which can be difficult when you’re trying to get the meals to two hundred people at the same time. The salads are made, put on racks that resemble a medieval torture device, and then the rack is wrapped in plastic and stored in the walk in refrigerator until five or ten minutes before they are served, when we cut open the plastic and descend on the salads with our squeeze bottles full of dressing. If the dressing goes on too soon, the salads are limp; if it goes on too late, the salads are, well, late.

We have a general idea of the schedule for serving, but every event is a little different, both in the way it is planned and the way it plays out. How we timed the meal at tonight’s wedding was not quite the same as the night before, or the one tomorrow. We expend a lot of energy trying to get the perfect the timing; the truth is, I think, it matters and it doesn’t matter. The folks in the room came to celebrate a wedding, not to stand in awe of my culinary prowess.

Palm Sunday marks the turn towards home, as far as Lent is concerned: Easter is in sight and, for most churches, we gear up one way or another to move intentionally through Holy Week. Palm Sunday is also Passion Sunday for some, which I suppose came about, in part, because of the reality that many people won’t participate in services other than Sunday, so the gradual reliving and retelling of the story is lost on them. If they are going to be a part of our journey through the Cross to the Resurrection, then they need to hear it tomorrow. So many churches divide their worship services starting with palms and ending with the Crucifixion, which I think is a good thing, since there is no need for a spoiler alert: we all know where the story is going.

At our church, we begin by gathering before church in the garden to bless the palms and then we process, singing, into the church to begin worship. The idea is wonderful and has been logistically challenging to coordinate the singing on the outside of the building with the music and singing on the inside. We’ve tried several things – opening windows (too cold), strategically placing choir members along the path – and some have worked better than others. Over the years, we’ve gotten better at it and we’ve learned that part of the deal is those of us processing into the church are never going to be exactly in sync with those inside until we all get inside together. That was never the point. We process because we, like the people in Jerusalem that day, are trying to understand who Jesus is and what he has done for us.

The first time around, I’m sure there was a much smaller gathering of the faithful at Golgotha than on what we have come to call Palm Sunday. Even the first Easter was not so well attended. I wonder how many years on it was before churches began putting out extra seating for the “Easter crowd.” I don’t know of any minister who doesn’t wonder what could be done to get more of those who come primarily on Christmas and Easter to participate more regularly and meaningfully in the congregation. The reasons for why people don’t find a more significant connection are as varied as the number of them who come: grief, pain, indifference, priorities, hurt feelings, time, to name a few. But on Easter, and maybe even Palm Sunday, they’re in the room.

Let’s start there. Don’t worry about the timing. Feed them.

I have mixed feelings as we gather in the garden with our palms each year. We wave our fronds and sing hosanna, emulating the people who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem, yet, as I read the story, we are emulating people who sort of missed the point. The king they were cheering for was not the one coming to town. Jesus rode into town on a donkey, not a valiant steed. Did they not notice that as they cheered? Whether fair-weather or faithful, few if any knew where the path they lined with their coats was heading. My feelings get mixed because I have a hard time coming to terms with identifying with them, which I need to do if I’m going to get to Easter. I miss the point too, even though I’ve always waved my palms knowing where the story goes. I still miss the point, sometimes.

The timing of the week is significant from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday. We’ve worked hard to outline the courses and to move with intentionality. We know where the story is going and there is still room for surprise. Though we have done this many times before, just as I know the way an evening rolls out in the kitchen, there is still room for surprise, thank God. Some people will sit down for all the courses, some will show up only for the appetizers or the entrees, and there are seats for all, if we’ve done our job well.

“I love to tell the story,” the old hymn says, “for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.”

In my kitchen, I get the food ready and work to serve it well, but I don’t get to sit down and eat. At church, we are those we prepare the table and who gather around it. We are the ones who both issue and receive the invitations, the ones who tell the story and who need to hear it. May we serve whoever shows up and sit down and eat whenever we can. It’s not the timing; it’s the meal.


Friday, March 30, 2007

lenten journal: work in progress

Today held a small and important victory for me.

One of the challenges in cooking for large functions is figuring out how much to make. We have a “banquet and event order” or BEO that delineates how many people are eating each entrée offered, but how many pounds of mashed potatoes we make is up to me. As far as appetizers go, I’m told to make a cheese platter or an antipasto tray and then what different passed hors d’oeuvres were requested, but nothing is quantified other than the number of folks coming to the event. All of a sudden my job becomes a word problem:

If one hundred and fifty people are coming for dinner and you are supposed to make sausage stuffed mushrooms, chicken satay, goat cheese and eggplant crostini, and coconut shrimp, how many of each hors d’oeuvres do you make?

Chef says there are formulas to help answer the question, but my guess is they play it safe. Catering concerns are supposed to create the illusion of excess. We’re supposed to make too much food so the people at the party think they’re getting their money’s worth because there’s so much left over. Making too much is easy to do and is too easy an answer. The first couple of weeks I was doing functions, I made as many pieces of each appetizer as there were people at the event: one hundred people, one hundred bacon-wrapped scallops. If there were one hundred people and four hors d’oeuvres, I made four hundred pieces and had most of them left over.

Today, I took a different approach. The BEO said a hundred and twenty were coming to the wedding. I made a hundred chicken satay, a hundred stuffed mushrooms, a hundred coconut shrimp, and I put the eggplant mixture in a pastry bag and piped it on to the crostini each time I made a tray so I could save the bread to use for croutons. When cocktail hour was over, all the shrimp was gone and I had ten mushrooms and eight satay for the servers’ snack.

Like I said, it was a small and important victory.

I kept thinking about the Truth Shop as I cooked today: do I want the whole truth or a partial version? The unquestioned belief in the food industry is more is better: always make too much, always hedge your bets, never tell the customer you’ve run out of something.

Why? Why? and Why not?

I’ll keep working on both my questions and my answers.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

lenten journal: every last one of us

Of my two days off during the week, Thursday is usually the run-the-errands-and-hang-out-at-Panera-with-Ginger day. Not his week. I met with my spiritual advisor this morning because he’s going to be gone for the next couple of weeks, then I went to work because there was a function this evening (I was off yesterday), and then I came home to hang out with Ginger and watch Grey’s Anatomy, which was a rerun but one we’d not seen.

I jumped the gun a little bit in spiritual direction. When Ken asked me how Lent has been for me I ended up talking about resurrection, even though we’ve still got a week to go. Actually, I think he brought it up. I talked about my realization this week that I had made it through the winter without a major depression. What I see looking back is I started seeing Ken in October 2005, when he challenged me to figure out what I most wanted to do with my life, determine what it would cost to do it, and then figure out how to pay the bill. In December 2005, I committed to writing regularly – five days a week. In October 2006 I chose to step out of professional ministry and be the spouse of the pastor rather than the pastor. I also became a full-time chef. Though I can see only through a glass, darkly when it comes to where this road is going, I like and trust the direction in which I’m headed.

“It sounds like resurrection to me,” he said.

The conversation that ensued will show up again in my writing, I’m sure, because it was rich. What comes to mind now is a comment he made a few moments later:

“I think most people are afraid of resurrection.”

His words were like a finger on the “Play” button and my mind was the CD player. Resurrection is about more than death. Jesus pushed beyond the known boundaries to show what was on the other side. When we talk about what is happening in Darfur and feel overwhelmed or helpless or even indifferent, resurrection calls us to push on through to find what is on the other side of those feelings, just as Jesus pushed beyond the tomb or walked through the walls to get to where the disciples were. Resurrection means we are not confined by the boundaries to which we have become accustomed, or which make us comfortable. Ken responded by quoting the story, "The Truth Shop" by Anthony de Mello by heart:

I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the name of the shop:


The saleswoman was very polite: What type of truth did I wish to purchase, partial or whole?

The whole truth of course. No deceptions for me, no defenses, no rationalizations. I wanted my truth plain and unadulterated.

She waved me on to another side of the store.

The salesman there pointed to the price tag. "The price is very high, sir," he said.

"What is it?" I asked, determined to get the whole truth, no matter what it cost.

"Your security, sir," he answered.

I came away with a heavy heart.
I still need the safety of my unquestioned beliefs.

When I came home tonight, I found this comment on an earlier blog entry:
Milton, would you think about, and comment on, the story that aired tonight on All Things Considered about the UCC congregation and the man who is a registered sex offender?

I always appreciate your insight,
Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California is struggling with how to respond to a twice-convicted sex offender who asked to join the church. The man visited the church for a few weeks and then came to the pastor and told him who he was, what he had done, and that he wanted to join the church because it was a community where he felt safe. The pastor introduced him to the congregation at the end of worship one Sunday, explained the situation, and then asked the man not to come back until the church had figured out how to respond.

I’m writing about this as a fellow struggler and a fellow traveler in the UCC, not as a critic, judge, or any kind of expert. Ginger and I have no children of our own. I was not abused by any adults as a child, though we have a number of people close to us who were. I’m aware of the damage that lingers in their lives alongside of the healing.

When I asked Ginger about it, she said, “I’ve thought about this a lot. That’s why I went to the police station to find out who is on the sex offender registry in Marshfield. If someone came to us, I would want us to welcome them and I would want us to be very clear about what the boundaries were: they could never sit near children or sit near where the kids come for the children’s message; they could never teach Sunday School or be in the Sunday School area; they could never talk to a child one on one; I would assign a deacon each week to stay with them during Coffee Hour and to help them keep the boundaries.” She continued, “We are called to welcome everyone and we also know the high rate of recidivism for sex offenders. The issue is how do we make everyone feel safe, the offender included.”

She was talking about resurrection: beyond death, beyond violence, beyond abuse, beyond despair, beyond comfort. No wonder it scares us. The watchword of the UCC these days is “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” Situations such as this provide the opportunity for us to step into the heart of those words. Whoever and wherever are expansive and exhaustive. The whole truth of Jesus’ resurrection is God’s grace is unlimited and unearned for all of us.

Every last one.

I will pray that Pilgrim Church will be able to incarnate that grace as resurrection people in wonderful, frightening, and uncomfortable ways. And with that prayer, I send them a song I remember from my days leading youth camps. It was recorded by the Lost Dogs ten or fifteen years ago and is a wonderful expression of the wideness of God’s mercy.
"Breathe Deep (the Breath of God)"
music and lyrics by Terry Taylor

Politicians, morticians, Philistines, homophobes
Skinheads, Dead heads, tax evaders, street kids
Alcoholics, workaholics, wise guys, dim wits
Blue collars, white collars, warmongers, peaceniks

Breathe deep, breathe deep the Breath of God
Breathe deep, breathe deep the Breath of God

Suicidals, rock idols, shut-ins, dropouts
Friendless, homeless, penniless and depressed
Presidents, residents, foreigners and aliens
Dissidents, feminists, xenophobes and chauvinists

Breathe deep, breathe deep the Breath of God
Breathe deep, breathe deep the Breath of God

Evolutionists, creationists, perverts, slumlords
Deadbeats, athletes, Protestants and Catholics
Housewives, neophytes, pro-choice, pro-life
Misogynists, monogamists, philanthropists, blacks and whites

Breathe deep, breathe deep the Breath of God
Breathe deep, breathe deep the Breath of God

Police, obese, lawyers, and government
Sex offenders, tax collectors, war vets, rejects
Atheists, Scientists, racists, sadists
Photographers, biographers, artists, pornographers

Breathe deep, breathe deep the Breath of God
Breathe deep, breathe deep the Breath of God

Gays and lesbians, demagogues and thespians
The disabled, preachers, doctors and teachers
Meat eaters, wife beaters, judges and juries
Long hair, no hair, everybody everywhere!

Breathe deep, breathe deep the Breath of God
Breathe deep, breathe deep the Breath of God
Yes. Every last one of us.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

lenten journal: it is well

A short story came bubbling out of me tonight. It's raw and maybe even unfinished, but it's what I wrote, so I will share it.



Cal realized he’d forgotten his reading glasses when he sat down in his second row pew and opened the worship guide. He could read the bold print, but couldn’t decipher some of the smaller instructions. He wasn’t worried though; he’d been in church all of his life and things just weren’t that different from week to week. The best news for him was he didn’t have to worry about hymns because he knew most of the favorites by heart. When he came to words he didn’t know, he just sang the word “watermelon” over and over so people still thought he knew them all by heart.

When the organist began to play the introduction to “It Is Well With My Soul” he was transported: this was one of his favorites. Since the song was reflective, the congregation remained seated. When the intro finished, he began to sing,
When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul
He lost himself in the lyric and was only slightly aware at how quiet the people were in the pews around him. He could hear one (maybe two?) voices from the choir loft. “It’s a grey morning,” he thought, “maybe everyone is just feeling solemn.” When the chorus came, he could hear everyone:
It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well
With my soul.
When the song was over, Dave leaned up from the pew behind Cal and said, “Nice job, buddy. That first verse was supposed to be a solo from the choir.” Cal tried to laugh it off – and did as far as Dave knew, but he felt like an idiot. When the service was over, he skipped Coffee Hour and went on home.

Brenda took her solos seriously. She didn’t feel she could do a lot of things well, but she knew she could sing. And she loved to sing. When Roscoe, the choir director, asked her to sing the first verse of “It is Well” as a solo to lead the congregation into prayer time, she jumped at the chance. She loved the hymn and even knew the story behind it, which she promptly told to the rest of the choir: “Horatio Spafford lost all of his possessions in the Chicago Fire and then lost all four of his daughters when their ship crashed into another as it crossed the Atlantic. Only his wife survived. A few weeks later, while he was on a ship going to meet her, he said he passed near the place where his daughters died and the Holy Spirit gave the words to him. “

For full effect, Roscoe chose to play the hymn on the piano. When she heard the first few notes, she quietly cleared her throat and then began to sing precisely on cue. But she was not singing a solo. There was another voice, another voice not in the choir loft. The voice was singing well, but the problem was the voice was singing at all. She looked around until she spotted him on the second row, singing with his eyes closed. She couldn’t get his attention to wave him off. She couldn’t set the mood she wanted for worship with someone else singing along because he hadn’t paid attention to the instructions in the bulletin. For all of her hard work, what people would remember was the guy in the front sang when he wasn’t supposed to. All her hard work, her prayers, her attempt to make worship more meaningful had been sunk by the phantom singer. The song had been ruined, she thought as she sat down when the hymn was over. She felt a little hurt, a little slighted, a little disregarded, but mostly like a failure. She had failed and it wasn’t her fault. She had one gift to bring to worship and someone sat on it. How could she offer a broken gift?

Charley always got to church on time and he always sat in the balcony, which, in this little church, was a single row of chairs. He mostly came to church because he had nowhere else to go and the folks here didn’t seem to mind him being around. In fact, they were pretty good at including him in things, even though faith was new to him and he’d only been coming for six or eight months. He liked to come early to hear the choir practice. When he sat down, he could hear someone telling a story about one of the songs and how it had been written because the man lost all his children.

Charley knew that feeling, too. Since his ex-wife had moved, he didn’t even know where his children were. She made it clear he didn’t deserve to see them because of all he had done. He didn’t know what else to do but agree with her.

When it came time for the song, the lady who had told the story stood up to sing. Charley had heard her before. She had a beautiful voice that was strong and soft at the same time. But when she started singing, it wasn’t just her. There was a male voice coming from the front of the church. Even though he never turned around, the two singers were right together and sounded beautiful. Charley was sure they had practiced a lot to be able to sing so well without being able to see what each other was doing. He read the words as they sang and tried to join in with the rest of the congregation, but never mastered more than the chorus: it is well, it is well with my soul.

He wondered if the writer really felt well in his soul as he stared into the sea that had swallowed up his daughters, or if he was trying to convince himself he could feel that way. All Charley knew was the words felt true when he heard them and he needed something to feel true, even if only for a moment.

Charley was coming down from the balcony just as Brenda was moving to hang up her choir robe in the closet next to the stairs. “I liked the way you and that guy did the hymn this morning,” he said. “It touched me.”

“It was supposed to be like that,” she said before she could catch herself.

He smiled and shook her hand as he moved to the front door.

“Thank you,” she said.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

lenten journal: sing for peace

I don’t remember when I decided I was going to end my correspondence with “Peace, Milton.” I know I’ve done it long enough that I don’t remember when I didn’t.

I do remember the day in 1989 when I came upon David Wilcox’s first record, How Did You Find Me Here?. The now defunct Sound Warehouse in Fort Worth had a special rack where they drew attention to up and coming artists – usually singer/songwriters – who were a little under the radar. That day I bought Wilcox’s record and Shawn Colvin’s first CD, Steady On. I think part of the reason I bought David’s was I thought it was a clever title for a debut album. I called my friend Billy, who was living in Austin at the time, only to find out he had bought the same records on the same day. Over the years, I collected quite a few of his records and several of his songs have become permanent fixtures in the soundtrack of my life. I firmly believe his song “Show the Way” should be our national anthem.

Billy called this week to say Wilcox had a new song on his website he thought I should hear. You can hear it too, by following this link. The song is called “Three Brothers” and yearns for peace in the Middle East through the metaphor of family.

All three brothers loved their father,
but he's brought them here today

To see these papers and these lawyers,
and divide the old estate

All three feel that they're the favorite,
he loves each of them the best

But these documents he gave them,
will now put them to the test

So they open all the writings
that will prove the rightful heir

To this home that they remember,
and the right to settle there

Their own sister is a prisoner,
they don't see her face to face

They've not heard her song of beauty,
or felt the movement of her grace

She lives live behind those bars of steel
and waits for her release

Will she die or will we see
Jerusalem In Peace

Each one looks at what he's given,
and he studies what he's shown

They hold their maps that show possession,
of this place they've called their home

At first they sigh with satisfaction,
when they see what's on their maps

Each one's given all he wanted,
but the boundaries overlap

So do you wish us to be brothers?
Father help us understand

Or will we each kill off the others
to claim this same piece of land?

Do you mean there to be hatred
in this place you built to last?

And will faith just die a prisoner
in the dungeon of the past?

She lives behind those bars of steel
and waits for her release

Will she die or will we see
Jerusalem In Peace

She lives behind those bars of steel
and waits for her release

Will she die or will we see
Jerusalem In Peace

Jerusalem is sending her voice
from inside the prison of disbelief

Stand up you people of the one God
to bring about her release
I looked up peace at and two of the definitions were” the normal, nonwarring condition of a nation, group of nations, or the world” and “the normal freedom from civil commotion and violence of a community,” which struck me as strange because I’m not sure there are very many people in this world who see peace as normal from their experience. War is more normal than peace in our world, especially, it seems, war in the name of God. How can we think of peace as normal when so much of our world is fueled by violence?

I’m not sure the way to peace begins with everyone coming to the table to voice their demands. Somewhere pretty early in the conversation, someone has to say to the others, “I see your point.” Peace has to matter more than power for the violence to stop. Peace has to matter more than pride, more than security, more than history, more than land. More than anything.

A number of years ago, Ginger and I went to Israel and Palestine. We visited friends who were living in Bethlehem at the time and saw how the Palestinians were prevented from getting to work and were turned back at the Israeli checkpoints for no apparent reason. We saw how the people collected all the rainwater they could because the Israeli government cut off the water supply indiscriminately for days at a time. We were in our hotel in Jerusalem getting ready to go on a day trip to Masada when word came that a Palestinian suicide bomber had blown himself up on a bus in the middle of the Israeli side of the city. Now – a decade later – the news still sounds the same.

Our hotel sat at the top of the Mount of Olives. From the front veranda we looked across the Kidron Valley, past the olive trees that had been there since Jesus’ time, past the cemetery that filled up most of the valley, over the path that led to ancient steps that went up to a gate through which Jesus was taken the night before he was crucified, to see the Old City. That hotel is no longer available to tourists because the violence has only gotten worse.

When I write about stuff like this, I have to fight back two thoughts in order to write. One is that very few people will comment or engage because the problem feels overwhelming, as I have seen happen when I’ve written about Darfur. (I don’t mean that to sound like I’m trying to guilt you into commenting; I just crave a real conversation about this stuff). The second is I can’t make a difference as one person, one writer, one alleged peacemaker. For Wilcox to post a song about peace he has yet to release to see what he can stir up moves me. All the diplomats from Henry Kissinger to Condoleezza Rice haven’t been able to do much with their summits and strategies, why not try singing?

Perhaps what started as a solo will blossom into a mighty choir.


Monday, March 26, 2007

lenten journal: forgiving judas

I’m still turning part of John 12:1-8, the gospel passage from Sunday, over in my head:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the village of Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. They gave a supper for him there, and Martha waited on the party while Lazarus took his place at table with Jesus. Then Mary took a whole pound of very expensive perfume and anointed Jesus' feet and then wiped them with her hair. The entire house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot (the man who was going to betray Jesus), burst out, "Why on earth wasn't this perfume sold? It's worth thirty pounds, which could have been given to the poor!" He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was dishonest, and when he was in charge of the purse used to help himself to the contents.
As Ginger repeated John’s words about Judas being a thief and using the group’s money as his own personal discretionary fund, I jotted down on my order of service, “Why did Judas get to stay?”

The first thing I need to do here is issue a disclaimer. I’m not willing to entertain the notion that God somehow placed Judas amongst the disciples because God needed him there for things to play out according to plan. I won’t entertain the idea (well, I guess I could tell it a couple of jokes – but then it would have to go) because it’s not consistent with who I trust God to be. If God is love, then God doesn’t assign people to be villains for the sake of the greater good. Whatever God did in Judas’ life it had nothing to do with betrayal. Now on with the countdown . . .

The question haunts me because I don’t think Judas was a bad guy. We don’t know much about him beyond what the gospel writers tell us. There’s no back story, no explanation of his mood or motivation. Since the gospels were written after the fact rather than as journals in real time, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus colors almost every reference to him along the way. He begins to take on the same role among the disciples that Bill Buckner plays in Red Sox lore. We would not have had to wait until 2004 to win the World Series if he had not let the ball go through his legs. For years, people could hardly say his name without cursing or crying. And so it is with Judas. But what did they know of him at the time? Did they know he was stealing from their bank account? Why didn’t they give the job to someone else? Matthew was good at accounting. Did they feel he was toxic from the beginning? Did they cough the word “bastard” into their fists every time he walked in the room?

The past couple of weeks our schedule has shifted to where Ginger and I watch a movie over breakfast a couple of mornings a week. If we don’t do it then, we never get to see movies together. This morning, we watched Half Nelson, the story of a junior high history teacher who is also a crack addict. Here’s the way the web site describes the story:
Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a young inner-city junior high school teacher whose ideals wither and die in the face of reality. Day after day in his shabby Brooklyn classroom, he somehow finds the energy to inspire his 13 and 14-year-olds to examine everything from civil rights to the Civil War with a new enthusiasm. Rejecting the standard curriculum in favor of an edgier approach, Dan teaches his students how change works ‚ on both a historical and personal scale ‚ and how to think for themselves.

Though Dan is brilliant, dynamic, and in control in the classroom, he spends his time outside school on the edge of consciousness. His disappointments and disillusionment have led to a serious drug habit. He juggles his hangovers and his homework, keeping his lives separated, until one of his troubled students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him getting high after school.

From this awkward beginning, Dan and Drey stumble into an unexpected friendship. Despite the differences in their ages and situations, they are both at an important intersection. Depending on which way they turn ‚ and which choices they make ‚ their lives will change.
Dan keeps talking to his students about dialectics and how opposites bring about change in human history, even as the opposites in his own life pull him apart. He is conflicted, sad, creative, stupid, desperate, sympathetic, and despicable all at once. And so it is with Judas. He doesn’t appear as a single-minded antagonist determined to destroy his nemesis. I don’t think Judas saw Jesus as an enemy or a threat. My hunch is he saw Jesus as naïve and did what he did to force Jesus’ hand into taking more evasive action. Maybe John’s take on Judas’ question about the poor is off the mark. Or, like the crack head teacher, maybe he wanted to follow Jesus and he was a liar and a thief all at the same time. His opposites pulled him to kiss Jesus in the garden and then to commit suicide.

Judas was not the only one who betrayed Jesus that night. Peter denied even knowing Jesus even as he stood almost within earshot of where Jesus was being questioned by the religious leaders. He denied Jesus and he cursed him and then ran away and wept. Peter was his own bundle of contradictions. Yet Peter got to live through his shame and find himself bathed in forgiveness at a beach side breakfast as Jesus asked, “Simon, do you love me?”

He never got to ask Judas that question.

Judas got to stay because Jesus called him to be a disciple just like the other eleven. To say he was called to be the catalyst for Jesus’ death cheapens and distorts what it means to be called of God. Jesus saw something in him that Judas, evidently, couldn’t see. I have no doubt, had Judas lived, that Jesus would have said to him, “Judas, do you love me?”

And I can hear Judas answering much like Peter, “Lord, you know my heart, despite what I have done. Yes. I love you.”

In my mind’s eye, they embrace as Jesus says, “You, too, feed my sheep.”

I trust, somewhere beyond what we know as time, they got to have that conversation.


Sunday, March 25, 2007

lenten journal: the do of milton

Church started with a smile for me today.

After our call to worship, opening hymn, and prayer of confession, someone reads the Psalm of the Day, which today was Psalm 133:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,

on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!

It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!

For there the LORD has commanded
the blessing, life forevermore.
I was listening, not reading, and was very taken with the image of the oil running down off the top of Aaron’s head. It sounds like they emptied the whole bottle on his head, leaving it to run down the sides, perhaps filling up his ears, and (at least in my imagination) down his face until it seeped out of his beard, all of it ending up dripping down on his collar and probably ruining his robe. Though I’m not particularly an oil and lotion person, the image was moving to me. Then came the next line.

What I heard was, “It is like the Do of Herman.”

There is the Tao of Pooh – now there’s the Do of Herman, I thought. Next I wondered who Herman was and what exactly he did to make his “do” so important. The contrast between Aaron sitting and letting the oil roll down over him in quiet abandon to the moment and Herman only being known for what he did also jumped out at me. Wherever Herman is, I hope he’s finally been able to quit doing for today and can get some rest.

The Do of Milton knocked out my usual and always enjoyable Sunday afternoon nap because I had to cook for a wedding at the Inn. Ginger and I ate lunch together and then went about our separate “dos.” I got to the Inn about one and dove into the list of things we needed to get ready. Alfonso and Pedro worked alongside of me most of the day. For someone who speaks a limited amount of English, Pedro has an amazing vocabulary when it comes to American popular music. He sings along and knows all the words, even though he doesn’t necessarily know what all the words mean. My favorite is hearing him sing along with Gnarls Barkley, “Does that make me crazy?”

While we were plating up the first course, Pedro looked at the others in our assembly line and said, “What’s wrong you people? No one smile. No good. Only Milton and me happy everyday.” I’m always happy to work with Master P.

No two ways about it, I’m a messy cook. Well, perhaps a better way to say it is I get messy when I cook. By the time the day is over, I’m wearing small pieces of everything I made like merit badges proclaiming my accomplishments. Some marks are more permanent than others, leading me to change from white chef coats to black ones a couple of weeks ago in the spirit of the eternal question, “How do you tell when a brown towel is clean?” Most of my merit badges became invisible on my new dark uniform and, according to Pedro, the black is quite slimming as well.

For both the weddings this weekend, I had to make pizza to serve at the end of the night when the couple’s closest circle of friends remained to finish out the evening, which meant I had to flour the stainless steel table to roll out the pizza dough, which also means I did a good job of flouring myself in my new black coat. Regardless of my fashion sense or color scheme, I’m going to get messy when I cook. Messy is part of the deal.

Ginger preached on Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with perfume and then wiping them with her hair, an act that was both beautiful and messy. Jesus’ feet may have been clean, but I assume Mary must have had to wash her hair the same way Aaron had to shampoo to get all that oil out. She did a wonderful, extravagant, messy thing – the stuff real relationships are built on. As Ginger said, “Intimacy is messy.”

She also opened her sermon recounting an experience we had in Israel several years ago that bears repeating.

We spent about ten days in Israel and Palestine with a tour group of Christians mostly from mainline denominations, going to a number of sites of interest to our faith. As our tour guide often told us, most all of the sites had churches built over them and many of the sites were not the actual places where the events took place, but the “traditional” site, which I took to mean the place where it was most convenient to build a church.

When we stopped at the Jordan River to see where Jesus was baptized, the spot was not exact and was not covered over by a chapel. There were some seats and some changing rooms and a small concrete walkway down to the water’s edge that made it easy to kneel and touch the water, or, as we had planned, to be baptized. Our little band gathered around and read scripture together and then we very quietly and reverently came forward in single file for Ginger and Skip, the two ministers leading the trip, to mark our foreheads with water.

Shortly after we began our time of worship, another bus pulled up that was carrying a Pentecostal church group from somewhere in South America. From the place where the buses parked to the water was about fifty feet of gentle slope leading to the river. The group got off the bus singing hymns and clapping. Their pastor was wearing his robe and was leading the group. About three or four steps from the bus, he broke into what Ginger referred to as “a middle aged sprint” for the river and, without breaking stride, left his feet when he reached the concrete walk and leapt spread eagle into the river, gloriously belly-flopping and sending quite a wake our way. His congregation was not far behind, running and jumping into the water, and then they clapped and sang and splashed in the water like kids at bath time. They didn’t think about getting back on the bus in wet clothes or what was coming up next. They were in the water with Jesus and they weren’t going to hold back a thing.

Get wet. Get messy. Dive in. Have fun. Crack open the perfume and stink up the place.

Seemingly unusual messages for Lent, perhaps, but I think not. Does that make me crazy?


Saturday, March 24, 2007

lenten journal: thankful words

The Boston Marathon begins each year in Hopkinton, Mass. and wind their way through other towns and suburbs until they get into Boston. Between the 20th and 21st mile is Heartbreak Hill, which is often the stretch of the race that determines the winner. It’s not that the hill is so big as much as the incline comes after having run over twenty miles. With two weeks left until Easter, I’m feeling the burn myself.

If you pay attention to the small print, you can see each of my entries is usually posted in the last whispers of the day: 11:56, 11:49, and so on. Some nights it’s well after one before I finish writing, but Blogger marks the time I open the new post window, not when I actually post. On nights like tonight, I find myself driving home from work wondering what I can write about, trying to think of something to say. More than once, I’ve stared at the screen for who knows how long, waiting for inspiration. Since Gracie likes to get up between 6:30 and 7, and I’m the one who will wake up when she barks, my nights have been short.

So, as the days begin to rise toward Easter and I’m just getting home from an eleven hour day, I had to push myself to do more than sit down and tell you I was too tired to write tonight. While I was in the shower, I realized I couldn’t do that, not because of a sense of obligation, but because I love doing this. When I look back over the winter (I’m speaking as if the season past tense even though I drove home from work in the snow) and see that I was not depressed for the first time in five winters, I see that what was different this year was I wrote regularly. I’ve written over 300,000 words since I started the blog in December of 2005. I’m better at both writing and living because of it.

So, at the end of this long day, I’m sitting at the keyboard typing with a deep sense of gratitude that I’m able to write, that you are willing to read (and sometimes respond), and that the light really does shine in the darkness such that the darkness cannot extinguish it.


Friday, March 23, 2007

lenten journal: enough

As I was busy at the Inn today, getting ready for the weddings this weekend (one Saturday, one Sunday), I heard a story on NPR about TGI Fridays’ new “Right Portion, Right Price” menu (four items) that are thirty percent smaller in portion size and $6.99 - $8.99 in price. The interviewer asked the CEO for Fridays why they were making such a move, to which the executive answered, “We figured people were tired of eating half of their food and then taking the rest of it home so it can sit in the refrigerator for three days and then get thrown out.” He went on to talk about wanting to do something healthier and something that gave people an option to eat less.

The line of questioning then moved to the economic feasibility of the change. Less food and lower prices mean lower sales numbers as well. Can you make money in the restaurant business by teaching people to push away from the table? Once again, lines from old comedy routines coming rushing forward from the deep recesses of my mind. I don’t remember which comedian told the first one. He talked about waiting tables in an all-you-can-eat place and going up to someone who was about to leave and saying, “Sit back down. You’re not through. The sign says “all you can eat” and I don’t think you’ve reached your limit. You’ve eaten a lot, but that’s not all you can eat.”

The second comes from Paula Poundstone, who said servers in restaurants ought to be able to cut people off the same way bartenders can tell people they’ve had enough to drink. As I sit here typing and carrying an extra forty pounds of my own, I think she may have a point. In these matters, I’m a true American: I don’t know when to say, “Enough.”

Enough: sufficient to meet a need or satisfy a desire; adequate.
Molly Ivins wrote a column years ago when Texas was trying to come up with a new slogan to put on its license plates to replace Dolph Briscoe’s classic, “Drive Friendly.” Her suggestion was, “Texas: where too much is never enough.” The Lone Star state is not so different from any other in that regard.

Between basketball games tonight I stumbled on to 20/20 where John Stossel spent a whole hour on “Enough!” (his exclamation point), looking at people who had gotten fed up with something going on around them to the point of doing something about it. He talked to a guy who started an organization that is working to make televangelists more financially accountable, a woman who is trying to get “baby mamas” and “baby daddies” get married, and a group of people who intervened at the scene of a highway accident to keep a cop from shooting an injured dog. Stossel closed the show by asking, “Have you gotten fed up with something in your life enough to take concrete action to do something about it? We want to hear your story . . .”

I started reading The Tipping Point this week, which is a book about how change happens. The author’s thesis is, as you can tell by the title, things have to reach a tipping point – that moment when the small things stack up to create what he describes as “an epidemic,” or significant change. One of the stories I’ve been following this week is the growing pressure on Robert Mugabe, the dictatorial president of Zimbabwe, to step down. He has wreaked havoc and terror on the people of his country for years and years, but things appear to be reaching a tipping point, despite his brutal tactics. Inflation is at 1700% annually (if you bought a gallon of gas today at $1.65, this time next year it would cost over $27) and people are growing tired of his senseless torture and killing of most anyone who disagrees with him. Though this situation does not appear to have reached a point of change as far as most of the world is concerned, Zimbabweans are ready to lay down their lives for change, even if no one else comes to support them. They’ve had enough.

I’m troubled that I’m paying twenty cents more for gas than I was a month ago.

One item in our produce order today was strawberries – two hundred of them. The wedding couple on Sunday wants strawberries served with each glass of champagne. (They must have seen Pretty Woman.) The berries we got came from Chile. They traveled over two continents, being sold and resold by who knows how many people, and were still cheap enough to be used as a garnish on a glass. Perhaps it would have been enough to have passed out the champagne at this March wedding, or else to have gotten married when strawberries were in season.

The rest of the menu is a Boston Bibb lettuce salad (wrapped in cucumber with grape tomatoes and carrot curls), rock shrimp with kalamata olives and tomato-basil sauce over penne, filet mignon with roasted fingerling potatoes and bundled root vegetables or statler chicken breast with herbed risotto and asparagus, and wedding cake. There are also passed hors d’oeuvres, a cheese display, and an antipasto platter.

I don’t mean to pick on the happy couple. From time to time, I’m challenged to come to terms with the fact that I work in an industry that encourages excess, at least on some levels. This is one of those times. As easy as it is for me to disparage the national chain restaurants, I have to give it to Fridays. They are taking concrete action to do something where few others have done anything at all. Sunday night, I may talk about how much excess food we are sending out, and I’ll still keep filling the plates. Maybe we won’t fill them quite so full.

Some days while I’m chopping and stirring and thinking on these things, I wonder if a restaurant can be a fair trader, environmentally conscious, economically fair to its employees, thoughtful in its portioning, clear in its identity, affordable in price, hospitable in atmosphere, and profitable. (I realize I’m not inventing the wheel here – I’m sure it’s being done somewhere and it’s just that I don’t know about it.) A place like that would be enough for me.

Enough – that might even be a good name for it.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

lenten journal: just notice

It could have been a roomful of friends gathered for coffee, based on the way they greeted one another and talked, cups in hand. They were meeting in a church parish hall, where the congregation normally gathers for coffee hour after morning worship; these folks would easily fit in.

It could have been a book group, or even a Bible study, based on the way they gathered around big tables set up in a square, shared readings, and then told their own stories.

It could have been a group gathered for a cause, based on the passion with which they spoke and their determination to succeed at their task.

It was the Alcoholics Anonymous group where I took my friend this morning. I had never been to one. The room was peopled with about twenty folks of varying ages who didn’t look any different than anyone else. Actually, the way I first noticed them was in thinking that I didn’t stand out in the group. I looked just like them and, like them, I headed to the coffee pot as soon as I walked in the room. There were announcements, some reading from the Big Book, and then the person chairing the meeting told his story and then opened it up for anyone else to speak. Eight or nine people raised their hands.

As each one began, they would say their name and then add, “And I’m an alcoholic.” The entire group would respond with a warm hello. When they were finished, the group would thank them in unison. Their various stories hung between the group’s words like a hammock between two palm trees, offering comfort and rest. The topic today had to do with acknowledging our Higher Power. Many talked about their struggles with faith, about bordering on agnosticism, about having to learn about grace. One man, a tall, sturdy, Liam Neeson-looking character, spoke about advice he had gotten from his spiritual director: “just notice.” “If I need evidence of God,” he said, “all I need to do is just notice what is going on around me.”

I noticed the people in the room, once again: the old man with the big glasses who spoke of the grief of losing his wife, the two guys in the back who looked like they were on their way to a Sox game, the woman who made the lemon squares, the woman in the wheelchair, the guy with the pony tail that chaired the meeting, and my friend, who looks a lot like a hobo at the end of a long trip right now, who sat silently with head down for most of the meeting. I noticed the hope in their stories informed by pain and desperation that gave them reason to trust that life would not always be as it had been. They were making intentional choices to change.

Nora Gallagher
tells of her encounter with a woman who suffered from such a severe depression that she had to be hospitalized from time to time.

“I go to the Oaks when I cannot stand it anymore,” she said. “We call it the Schiz Ritz. I read the words over the door when I go in, each time, and they give me some kind of dignity.” And then she paused and collected herself and said, “And it is where my daughter is now.”

And then the woman read the inscription on the bottom of her apron. “Non est vivere sed valerie vita,” she read: “Not only to live, but to live valorously.” And if we had been the magi then, we would have gathered our gifts and traveled toward her, toward someone who was not only willing to shape her vulnerability into words but brave enough to speak them. (183)
When the meeting was over, I noticed the way in which the big guy who told us to notice and the pony-tailed man traveled toward my friend and began to talk, offering their gifts. They had a book of all the meetings in the area. They asked a few questions. They told a little more of their stories. They wrote down their phone numbers. When my friend said phone access was difficult right now, Liam Neeson replied, “Anyone can find a way to get to a phone,” and then he smiled.

When we got in the car, my friend didn’t seem to know what to do with a roomful of people who understood, who wanted to help, and weren’t going to take any excuses.

The King James Bible says the prodigal son went into the far country and wasted all of his money and a good bit of his life on “riotous living,” which is a wonderfully evocative phrase. When he turned toward home, I don’t think he ever imagined another chance to live valorously, as if he had ever lived valorously. He came back to be a slave mostly because his father’s slaves ate better than the pigs he had been eating with. On the long and dusty walk home, he practiced his speech, hoping for a chance to beg forgiveness from the father he had wounded so deeply.

By the time the son got to make his speech, it was moot: the father had already forgiven him and had moved on to throwing a welcome home party. As grateful as the son must have been, I’ve often wondered if the party was painful for him. My sense is before he left he was an entitled brat who probably made life miserable for the very servants who were now blowing up balloons and filling ice buckets. He had ridden away on a cloud of pretense and pomposity only to come back empty-handed and embarrassed. It might have been an easier night if they had made him a human piñata. Did they really believe he could shift from riotous to valorous living? How could they believe when he didn’t?

Grace hurts, sometimes, because we have to grow into ones who are able to receive it.

Tomorrow will be the third day of my friend’s sobriety. I keep praying they will be able to grow into the grace that surrounds them.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

lenten journal: what I can do

While I was preparing for the weddings at the Inn this weekend, I listened to a story on All Things Considered about some people in Missouri going to a class to become storm spotters. The reporter began by talking about all the new technology NOAA has at its disposal and then went on to quote one of the meteorologists who said the best way to know about the weather was to talk to someone on the ground where it was happening. He went on to describe what he was trying to do in the class: “You do not have to attend this class to spot a mile-wide tornado producing 250-mph winds bearing down on Osage Beach. If I can put you in a position to identify the type of thunderstorm you're dealing with before the storm produces its weather, in particular tornadoes, then we can save lives together.”

From my vantage point in front of the TV, being a meteorologist – at least the TV variety – seems like a great job. You get to play with some cool toys and you can be wrong fairly regularly and still get paid. In New England, they even get to hedge their bets on the high and low temperatures because of the variety of landscape. This morning one of them said, “The high today will be 41 to 46.” I often think of George Carlin doing Al Sleet, the “Hippy Dippy Weatherman”: “My apologies to the former residents of Pocatello, Idaho. That storm caught you folks napping, man.” Meteorology is by no means an exact science, yet we often look at the screen to see what the weather is rather than look out the window.

Beyond chill factors and heat inversions, the most difficult forecasts to make involve the weather of the heart. The internal tornadoes steal up stealthily and can do some serious damage. I spotted one tonight after work and spent the evening with the one caught in the turmoil. They would move around their apartment as if they were having an out of body experience, then plop down in the big leather chair and say, “What should I do?”

This past weekend on the retreat we looked at the story of Jesus’ healing of the man at the pool at Bethsaida. The guy had come everyday to the pool for thirty-eight years, hoping to be healed. But he could never get to the water first, since he was lame, so he had set himself up to lose. Before Jesus healed him, he asked a question: “Do you want to get well?”

It’s one of my favorite questions in the Bible and also another place where I wish the gospel writers has conveyed more of the tone in which the words were spoken. It could be asked like a truck stop waitress taking an order, a therapist waxing rhetorical, or a friend trying to figure out how to help. (I’m sure those are not all of the options.) What I hear in Jesus’ voice is informed compassion. He can see both the man’s pain as well as the way in which the man has set himself up to stay in pain. If he’d been at the pool for thirty-eight years, then a good bit of his identity was wrapped up in being the lame guy who never makes it to the water. To be healed would mean he was not that guy anymore after a lifetime of living that role. Did he want to get well?

One of the other stories we read was from Acts 3 where Peter and John encounter a different lame man begging at the city gate as they entered. “We don’t have any money,” Peter said, “but we’ll give you what we have. In the name of Jesus, get up and walk.”

When Ginger and I first moved to Boston, that story came to life in a new way. We were trying to help start a new church (and quickly learned neither of us is much of an evangelist). We, too, had very little money and also faced a pretty steep learning curve when it came to becoming a part of Boston life and culture. We talked about how we would finish the thought: we’ll give you what we have. In the name of Jesus . . .

The pain my friend is bearing is their story to tell, not mine. How I help bear the load is mine. The storm has been raging awhile, so there’s already a good bit of damage done. When they survey the wreckage, they feel worthless. “How many chances do you get before God gives up on you?” they asked.

I know the answer to this one experientially: “As many as it takes. God doesn’t give up.”

I meant the words when I said them and then realized the only reason I know they are true is because they were incarnated to me – someone let those words become flesh in my life. If my friend is going to believe them, I must inhabit them in the days (months?) to come. I can’t give up either. In the morning we are taking the first step together: I’m taking him to get help.

Whether the storm damage is irreparable to their family, job, and life is a question that won’t be answered quickly. Whether they want to get well, or are willing to do what it will take to get well is still up for grabs. But they said yes to going to get help tomorrow. In the name of Jesus, I can go and take them to where the help is.

I want them to get well, too.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

lenten journal: yes, you can

For most of the Marches we have lived here Ginger and I have spent a day together at the New England Flower Show. For the first few years, we would forget it was going on until we saw an advertisement and then we’d scramble to get to the Bayside Expo Center before it closed. Six or seven years ago, we discovered we could join the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and get free tickets with our membership that were mailed to us in February and gave us time to plan when we wanted to go.

Our day at the show has a very particular arc. We enter the main exhibit hall, drop off our coats at the coat check (since Spring doesn’t follow the calendar in these parts), and then walk through the exhibits in the main hall. This year, my favorite was a series of dining tables set in garden settings, each one done by a different group or company. The place settings, centerpieces, and decorations gave a hint of what kind of meal might be served at each table. Some of them gave me the sense that whoever decorated them never thought about sitting down to eat, only having people stand around and talk about how pretty the table looked.

The theme for this year’s show is “Yes, you can!” which I think has more to do with encouragement than with granting permission. I suppose they wanted us to look at the tables and the arrangements and the landscaping exhibits and think, “We could do that in our back yard.” I like the idea – though, for some of the things, a better theme would be “Yes, you can -- if you have a bunch of money,” in the same way Steve Martin used to joke, “OK, I’m going to tell you how to be a millionaire. First, get a million dollars.” One of the reasons I go to the show is to be inspired to think about getting our garden ready for Spring and about what I vegetables I want to plant, even though we are weeks away from any serious planting. From our visits to the Flower Show over the years we have gotten some great ideas and learned we can do a lot of things, even without a huge bankroll.

Once we circle through the main hall, we move to the exhibit hall in the back of the building. Our most important stop is the first: the Iguana Cantina, a Mexican food booth done by the Cactus Club restaurant in Boston. They have a small counter that seats four where we have margaritas and quesadillas and have a conversation with the guy running things who is one of the managers from the restaurant in town. Every year we have a different conversation with him. This year’s focused on two things: his almost one-year old daughter and his love of winemaking.

I loved how animated he became as he talked about making wine in his basement. He has barrels from both France and America. He buys the grapes from the Napa Valley. As he talked, his story meandered from remembering his father and grandfather making what amounted to spiked grape juice when he was a kid to his dream of creating a business where he could help people make their own really good wine. While he talked, the people working with him were handing out beers and burritos as fast as they could and he never lost track of his task at hand. I suppose it could also be said the other way around: as he dished out the food like a short order cook he never lost sight of his dream.

Across from his booth was one of the event banners: “Yes, you can!” I hope he saw it.

We’ve talked to this guy for at least the last three years, which means his dream is aging right along side of the wine he’s making. If his dream is to come true, it will be because he was willing to carry it to term, to live through the discomfort and hope of the gestation period, however long it may be. (That’s probably about as far as a male writer can carry a pregnancy metaphor without losing credibility.)

Dreams don’t come true overnight, anymore than gardens grow quickly. I planted Brussels sprouts last June and ate them in October. The trees we planted six summers ago only now are beginning to shade our front porch from the afternoon sun. All we could do was plant the trees, tend to them, and wait for them to grow. Some dreams take money, but all of them take time.

After lunch, we walk up and down the aisles of the exhibit hall, looking at the various gardening tool demonstrations, fence and stone displays, statuary stores, artists’ booths, and, of course, the fudge vendor. We rarely buy anything other than food and drink, except the occasional Christmas or Mother’s Day present. (We found one of each.) Then we go back to coat check and leave the flowers for the cold wind of the parking lot and the drive back home.

Though the wind did blow today, the cloudless sky meant there was not as much snow in the yard when we got home tonight as there was when we left. Spring officially snuck in tonight, but will also have to wait awhile to come true in these parts. By Easter, perhaps, the daffodils along our front fence line will begin to poke their heads up, followed by the tulips. When the hostas begin to come up, I’m going to have to split them this year because, five years on, they are huge and need to be thinned out. I’ve also got to move several things around one of the hydrangeas because I was shortsighted in my planting a couple of years back and didn’t leave enough room for it to grow. I planted it as it was, not as it could become. Though our garden is mostly perennials, there is much to do to keep it growing and healthy. Though I think I know what’s there, I’m always surprised.

Tomorrow I will head back to the Inn to cook and dream about where my cooking will lead me someday. I have a brochure from the Flower Show. Maybe I’ll put it up on the bulletin board under my to do list.

“Yes, you can!”


Monday, March 19, 2007

lenten journal: conspiracy of peace

Some days I think there is a conspiracy among our customers at the Inn. We will go days without selling much of a particular menu item and then sell ten or fifteen of that item in a couple of hours for no apparent reason. I think the customers are messing with us. My working theory is they gather at the convenience store across the street and decide what one thing they all will order and then stagger the times they come into the restaurant to eat. At other times when they know we are short staffed, they wait at the store until they get a group and then all come into together. I’m thinking of demanding the security tapes from the convenience store so I can prove my point.

When my brother was in junior high, he and some of his friends decided they would see if they could get everyone in the school to slam their locker doors at the same time. In those days (as some of you will remember), the hands on the big clocks that hung in the hall jumped from one minute to the next. They chose the minute exactly in the middle of the afternoon passing period and decided they would do nothing more than tell people and ask them to pass it on: “Locker slam at 1:32.”

Miller said at 1:30 he began to notice how many people were standing at their lockers, trying to look as though they were doing something. When the hand jumped from 1:31 to 1:32, a boom reverberated up and down the concrete halls of school and the teachers couldn’t think of anything else to do but start handing our detention passes wholesale. I think their rationale was anything that organized must be wrong.

Tonight, the customers conspired to see how many could order sauerbraten, which is the German version of pot roast. More than half my tickets wanted that dish and all but ate up what I had on hand for the evening. They scared me so much that I started preparing a new batch so Chef can finish it up tomorrow (the meat has to marinate overnight).

While we were on the retreat this weekend, several thousand folks conspired to gather in Washington DC to protest the war in Iraq. A significant part of the protest was the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, the combined conspiracy of most everyone from Adventists to Catholics and Pentecostals to the UCC. They worshipped together in the National Cathedral on Friday night and then marched on the White House and the Pentagon in an expression of nonviolent civil disobedience. There were no detention passes handed out, but two hundred people were arrested. Their web site described their purpose in this way:

Some have asked why our faith-based action in Washington, D.C., is a Christian event and not a multifaith one. All of us who have planned this event highly value interfaith collaboration. Our purpose is to share a vision of how all of God’s people – of all faiths – can live in peace. As Christians, we are keenly aware of the way that Jesus consistently surprised his friends and his enemies by responding in love to those who attacked him. Further, the gospel makes clear that there is a direct connection between the work of doing justice and being peacemakers. Therefore:
  • We remind ourselves of the life and teachings of Jesus as the Prince of Peace, the lover of enemies, and the reconciler of the world.
  • We ask God to work a change of heart in our elected leaders who have carried out this war in all of our names, and we ask for God’s forgiveness for the suffering of so many in Iraq and the United States during the course of the war.
  • We accept responsibility to witness to our faith, especially Jesus’ hard teachings that secure communities are built on the foundation of living in right relationship with one another.
We look forward to the day when all people know that the word “Christian” means a movement that yearns and aches for the Kingdom of God to come here on Earth with people of all faiths.
One of the reasons it is significant to me that this particular protest was explicitly Christian is the justification of the war in Iraq often carries religious overtones, as if the war is Christian vs. Muslim. Bush intimates, often without much subtlety, that God is on our side because we are fighting for freedom and God is for freedom. I’m proud of the people who conspired to say God is for peace and so are many American Christians.

As of today, the number of Americans killed in Iraq is 3218.
The number of wounded is more difficult to nail down, but is over 26,000.
The number of Iraqi dead is between 60,000 and 65,000.
The amount of money we have spent waging the war is nearing $410 trillion.

Those numbers were shouted at me from the various web sites keeping count. The political rhetoric is too often snide and damaging from both sides of the aisle. So to see this picture of a conspiracy of peace at work helped me. They worshipped together, prayed together, walked together, and some even spent the night in jail together, all in Jesus’ name.

I remember the day my brother came home from school and told me about the locker slam. He was invigorated by his ability to call people to action. “Next week we’re going to boycott the rolls during lunch,” he said. (And they did.) Last month, he led a group to Guatemala on a mission trip. He’s never stopped trying to gather a crowd to change things. I hope he never does.

Jim Wallis and others have done great work calling Christians to be peacemakers. I hope they continue calling us to conspiracy.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

lenten journal: steal away

Here’s a sentence I’ve never written before: I went on a youth retreat this weekend so I could get some sleep. Thanks to my usual Friday-Saturday schedule at the Inn, I had more time to doze while I was out in the woods with twenty teenagers than I normally have on a weekend night. Life is full of little surprises.

Retreat. I got to thinking about the word on the way home. It is a noun:

  • withdrawing especially from something hazardous, formidable, or unpleasant
  • going backward or receding from a position or condition gained
  • withdrawal of a military force from a dangerous position or from an enemy attack
  • a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, or study: a religious retreat
  • a place affording peace, quiet, privacy, or security
  • to treat again
I realize I’m mixing nouns and verbs in those definitions, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities of what it might mean to say I was on a retreat this past weekend. I don’t think we were withdrawing for safety or strategic reasons, nor do I think we were conceding any ground we have gained. Those definitions give the word a tinge of defeat. Yet the same word can hold a great deal of power. We withdrew to be together, to focus, to pray, and to learn. If anything, we gained ground.

The final definition is the simplest, but it also leaves me with a question. Does it mean to treat again, as in to repeat a medical regimen or procedure, or does it mean we all get seconds on ice cream?

I’m back in Marshfield tonight and I’m both refreshed and ready for bed. We left the campground early enough this morning to get back to Hampton in time for the regular worship service. Though that had not been the original plan, it worked out well and we all managed to stay awake during the service. After church, I went to lunch with my friends and then they took me to the airport to catch my flight home. I checked my bags and began to run the gauntlet that is the security check.

The first person I had to face was a young man sitting at a table who checked my boarding pass and my driver’s license. I put my carry on bag onto the belt, took off my shoes, and emptied my pockets to go through the metal detector. One man was looking at the x-ray screen and a couple of others were standing around. Another came by with a cup of coffee and they began to joke with each other. The guy behind me in line shot them a concerned look, as though he didn’t know how to interpret their shared humor. Did that mean things aren’t as serious as we are being led to believe? Did that mean they weren’t doing their jobs? Is it OK for the TSA to have a little fun? About that time the metal detector went off and things were back to business.

The fact that those folks are even there is evidence that we as a society – as a world – have retreated from a position gained, from something unpleasant to a place where we live in fear of an enemy attack. We have retreated and put them on the front lines, as if the inconvenience they put us through is to remind us we can’t let our guard down. We rely on them to save us from terrorist attacks and tubes of toothpaste that are too large so we can rest more easily.

These folks have thankless and difficult jobs. It was nice to see them laughing.

Our time in the woods this weekend makes me think of the old spiritual:
steal away, steal away
steal away to Jesus

steal away, steal away home

I ain’t got long to stay here

I’m having fun with words tonight. Steal can mean either moving secretly or unobserved (as it does in the song), or taking or appropriating something without permission.
steal away
Appropriate it. Take away and bring it here where we can experience the sense of relaxation, the sense of adventure, the calm, the relief away brings.
steal away home
We stole away. We retreated to a place where we affirmed each other out loud in ways we don’t do so much in the back of forth of everyday. We sat out under the stars and made s’mores around a bonfire. We pulled most of the mattresses off our beds and stacked them in the main meeting room so we could do our own version of WWF wrestling. We played spades, ate whatever we could find, talked a lot, and laughed ourselves silly. We stole away. Hopefully, we brought some of it back home with us.


Friday, March 16, 2007

lenten journal: myth makers

I’m a couple of hours away from heading off into the wilds of the Tidewater area of Virginia for a youth retreat. If predictions hold true, I won’t be able to post again until Sunday, since no one expects we will have any sort of Internet access at the campground. As hard as it has been raining today, I’ll be happy if the rooms are warm and dry.

My friend Charles drove me to the Jamestown Settlement Museum so we could feed our inner history geeks. Much of the museum has been recently updated in preparation for Jamestown 400 (the 4ooth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown), or as it is billed here, “America’s 400th Anniversary.” When we purchased our tickets at the museum, the woman asked where we were from. When I said Marshfield, Mass. and told her it was just north of Plymouth (which is “America’s Hometown” where I come from), I couldn’t help but notice a little bit of competitive disdain in her look. I wonder if she picked up the same look in my eye.

The exhibits were excellent and informative and were laid out well. As long as we timed our sojourn to fall between the teeming hordes of energetic, cabin-feverish fourth graders, we got to read the explanations and watch several short movies and slide shows about the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of those we call the first settlers. Actually, the exhibits tried to follow three strains of people: the Native Americans, the English, and the Africans. In one of the summarizing pieces, the narrator said something to the effect that Virginia had been created when these three groups came together. Though I understand the spirit of the statement somewhat, I couldn’t help but think the Powhatans were already here, the English invaded, and the Africans were dragged kicking and screaming. That voice had to be a white man talking.

I remember Dr. Wallace Daniel, my favorite history professor at Baylor, reminding us that history is written by the winners. You don’t go to England to find works on how we won the Revolutionary War, if you catch my drift. The winners are the ones who get to grow the story from history to myth, in the Joseph Campbell sense. He describes the four purposes of myth as follows:

One's mystical. One's cosmological: the whole universe as we now understand it becomes, as it were, a revelation of the mystery dimension. The third is sociological, taking care of the society that exists. But we don't know what this society is, it's changed so fast. Good God! In the past 40 years there have been such transformations in mores that it's impossible to talk about them. Finally, there's the pedagogical one of guiding an individual through the inevitables of a lifetime. But even that's become impossible because we don't know what the inevitables of a lifetime are any more. They change from moment to moment.
Our American myth begins with merchants, soldiers, and outcasts who sailed from England for the purpose of getting rich, settled in a place that looked good but had no potable water, were duplicitous in their dealings with the folks who already lived here, and considered anything (and most anyone) their property. By the time we get through telling the story, we end up with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because we were the winners and that’s the myth we need to “take care of the society that exists.”

Our roots are in Jamestown (and Plymouth), and we are more than those roots. We have grown into the myth in many ways, and we hide behind it as well. We use it to justify our actions and to challenge ourselves to grow into who we hoped we would be. We need our story to find our place in this world. Telling our story is not the hardest part. That comes with learning to listen to the stories and myths of others, stories where we are not the ones cast as heroes.

The theme of the retreat this weekend is “Best of Friends.” The youth group at the church here is healing and rebuilding and trying to figure out who they are and what they mean to one another. I’m going to spend the weekend with fifteen or so high schoolers and a few adult sponsors talking about seeing the church’s story as “being in the company of friends,” as Gallagher calls it. We will be leaning into the other three purposes of myth -- mystical, cosmological, pedagogical – as well as a little bit of taking care of the church as it is, though that’s not the real point.

To me, one of the hard things about tying teenagers to myth is few actually feel like the hero, the winner, in their story. The history of most any adolescence is hard to write because it feels like a losing proposition to most all of us, at least in the living of those days. As an adult trying to coax the stories into daylight, I have to make sure I’m listening to their story, to their myth-in-making, and not looking for an opening to say something brilliant like, “I know just how you feel,” or “That’s just part of growing up,” or “One day you’ll look back on this and laugh.”

Adolescence happens only in the present tense. There is only Now; there is no Not Yet.

The words that come to mind first are those of Uncle Walt, as Mr. Keating called him:
O ME! O life! . . . of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—
of cities fill’d with the foolish;

Of myself forever reproaching myself,
(for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—
of the struggle ever renew’d;

Of the poor results of all—
of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;

Of the empty and useless years of the rest—
with the rest me intertwined;

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—
What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;

That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

We tell our stories, and we listen to them, to remind ourselves of what has been true about us since God breathed us into existence: we matter. Everyone from George Bailey to Napoleon Dynamite is tied to the same myth of grace and hope.

And I’m off to listen and tell the story again and maybe dance a little. I've got some sweet moves.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

lenten journal: traveling thoughts

Today requires a helping of grace: I fell asleep last night, thanks to some Benadryl, and missed keeping my Lenten pledge to write. I’m challenged to remember the point of my Lenten reading and writing is to deepen my faith and focus, not to have a perfect record. I’m trying to meet the challenge.

My task today was to travel. Ginger drove me to Logan Airport early this morning and I caught a flight to Newport News, Virginia to spend the weekend with friends (and one of my godsons) in Hampton and lead a youth retreat for their church. Between a couple of short naps on the ninety minute flight, I finished Practicing Resurrection. (That’s sounds as if I’m now ready to try resurrection for real.) I learned two new words today from my reading I would like to share with you.

inchoate (in-KOH-it or in-KOH-eyt) – adjective
  1. not yet completed or fully developed; rudimentary.
  2. just begun; incipient.
  3. not organized; lacking order: an inchoate mass of ideas on the subject.
I’d heard the word before, but had to look up the meaning. I like the way it sounds, for one thing, and I think it will be a useful addition to my vocabulary. The second word is even better.
arcana (ahr-KEY-nuh) – noun, pl.
  1. a secret; mystery.
  2. a supposed great secret of nature that the alchemists sought to discover.
  3. a secret and powerful remedy.
Gallagher used the word as she quoted from lectures by William Countryman, a New Testament scholar on the West Coast.
‘Arcana are secret because they cannot be; because there is no simple way to understand the world.’ Each of us has a special knowledge of life because each of us is ‘standing in a spot no one else occupies.’ Each of us has a unique perspective on the world, born of our own vision and experience . . . It is from this perspective that each one of us can reveal to another person our own arcana, our secret knowledge, about life‘s mystery or meaning. We absolutely depend on this in one another, because no one of us can know enough. Or, put another way, we are built to be dependent on each other to piece together how to live. No one person is supposed to have all the goods. We are built to be dependent on each other to be whole. (161)
For some reason, there was a baby exodus from Boston to Newport News this morning. I counted six mothers who got on the plane, each with two small children. One was already seated as I boarded. Her little boy, who looked to be three or four (like I know how to tell how old a kid is) saw me and said, “This is Anna, my baby sister. She’s new.” I said welcome to Anna and sat down only to hear him say the same thing to most everyone behind me as we boarded. We were a hundred or so people bound together by our common destination and little else, each of us with our own arcana. I wondered what each of us might tell the new kid. I wonder what she might be able to tell us.

I remember reading in one of Madeleine L’Engle’s books about a little girl who was not quite as happy as the boy on my flight when her mother came home with a new baby brother. She made no secret about her disdain for the tiny interloper. Then, one night, nothing would do but she be allowed to go into his room by herself. The parents were a bit worried, but they let her go in and stood at the door to watch. The little girl went up beside the crib and leaned between the wooden bars on the railing. “Tell me about God,” she said. “I’m forgetting.”

Gallagher also helped me remember something else. Eleven summers ago, I participated in the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop just outside of Toronto. I spent a week writing, reading, and listening, sharing a dorm with about thirty other writers who were trying to figure out how to tell their secrets. I’m still marked by those days. One of the sessions was on the business part of writing and the buzz that summer was about a first time novelist who had gotten a significant contract based solely on her query letter. Her name was Anne Michaels and the book that grew out of that letter was Fugitive Pieces. Gallagher quoted her:
If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently,” says a character in Anne Michael’s novel, Fugitive Pieces. ‘If you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another.’ (176)
I’ve moved around so much in my life that I’ve never felt a singularly enduring attachment to one particular landscape. When we lived in Kenya, I remember seeing the Ngong Hills each day as we drove to and from school, “ngong” being the Swahili word for knuckles since the hills had the shape of the knuckles on a giant’s hand. The only enduring sense the geography of north and central Texas left me was that of being the ant under God’s magnifying glass in the summertime. Green Harbor, where we live now, offers the long slow curve of Duxbury Beach as it runs out to Gurnet Point; the tides that come in all the way to the sea wall each night and change the face of the beach when they go back out; and the marshes that stretch out like carpet behind us, changing colors with each season. The mix of green space and concrete in Boston is perhaps the landscape that feels most home to me, but in moving I learned I am rooted more like a potted plant, able to be transported and still grow, than an old oak, whose roots go deep, deep into the ground. In some sense, my roots are inchoate, not yet fully developed.

How I understand the world is not so much in places as in people. Here in Hampton, whose landscape has all the nuance of a bowling lane, I find my roots in my godson and his sister and parents. Home will always be a moveable feast, as long as I’m moving with Ginger. The mystery, to me, is that we are connected and dependent over time and distance. Wholeness has more than one address.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

lenten journal: incidental affirmation

I went to the Inn for a couple of hours today to help with a corporate event that was scheduled for all three meals. The breakfast was continental and I was able to prepare the fruit tray before I left last night. Lunch was not complicated, but was going to require a little bit of time and they wanted it right at noon. Since (how shall I say this?) I find it easier to deal with mornings than Chef does, I said I would get the lunch set up. Most of the orders were off our now defunct lunch menu, but three people wanted chicken salad sandwiches, which meant I needed to make chicken salad.

I couldn’t bring myself to do the standard sort of thing, mixing a little chicken with some diced celery and carrots and throw in a little mayo. I couldn’t do it, so I made it on my own terms with the help of a few things I found in the walk in: red onion, Major Gray’s chutney, Dijon mustard, flat leaf parsley, and red grapes. Now we’re talking chicken salad.

Chef joined me about ten till twelve and we put the meals up together. As we were finishing up he said, “You’re doing top quality work these days.” He continued, “You work hard everyday, but I think some times it just helps to say stuff like that out loud.”

Yes. It does.

The power of incidental affirmation is not to be underestimated. Chef didn’t wake up thinking, “I’ve got to make sure and compliment Milton today.” I’m not sure he was awake when he said what he did. In the moment, he let his thoughts become words and his words become an unexpected gift for me. Though I have confidence in my cooking, I carry a professional sense of insecurity because I’m still pretty new to the game. I’ve only been doing this for about five years, and most of those part time. I want to know if I’m doing a good job.

One of the people I see every Monday is the delivery guy for one of our food purveyors. He comes in the back door of the kitchen with a hand truck of things to go in the walk in and says, “Hey, buddy” and I return the greeting. He always asks where I would like him to leave the stuff. He always gets the order right. And he always has a smile on his face. When he finishes, he says, “See you next week, buddy” and I tell him thanks and to have a good day. We have never exchanged names or much conversation other than our ritual greetings.

Last Wednesday, the sales person for the company came by to see if we needed to order anything and, as I was talking to him, the delivery guy crossed my mind. I asked the sales guy who drove the truck on Mondays and he told me the guy’s name was Raymond. I said, “He does a great job. He always gets the order right and he seems like a nice guy. I just thought I’d pass a good word along for him.” The sales guy made a note on his laptop and went on his way.

On Monday, Raymond came through the back door with a big smile and a more robust spirit than usual. “There’s the man,” he said. “How’re you doing?”

“Good, Raymond,” I answered.

When I think of the power of affirmation, the best example I know in my own life is a story I’ve told many times. If you’ve heard it, bear with me.

In tenth grade, my family was on leave from Africa. We lived in Fort Worth, Texas and I went to Paschal High School, my sixth school in ten years. My youth minister was a guy named Steve Cloud. He was everything I was not: athletic, tall, handsome, and together. I was (felt) short, fat, and completely out of place. I can remember sitting on the edge of my bed at 3362 Cordone Street, looking in the mirror, and wishing I could be anyone else but me.

One day after class, I went by the church to see Steve. He called me "Flash." I was anything but: five-two and slow enough to finish next to last in the hundred yard dash during PE at school. He suggested we go out and shoot some baskets on the church parking lot. I was (am) the world's worst basketball player, but I went with him. One of my lame two-handed set shots missed everything and the ball rolled across the parking lot that sloped away from us.

"You get it," I said disgustedly.

I can still see him walking across the lot, picking up the ball, and walking back toward me with it propped on his hip back lit by the fading afternoon sun like he was in one of those old Kodak commercials (can’t you hear Paul Anka singing, “Good morning, yesterday . . .”). He put his arm around me, including me in the moment, and we turned to go back to his office.

"Flash," he said, "One day Trish and I are going to have a kid and I hope he turns out exactly like you.”

I lost track of Steve a long time ago, but if I found him and said, “Do you remember that afternoon when you said . . .?”, he would not remember. Though I have no doubt he meant what he said, it was incidental contact for him. His words, however, kept me alive through high school.

The hard thing for me about telling that story is I don’t want it to end up as a Kodak commercial or a sappy sermon. I’m not feeling sentimental here. Steve’s words to me were so important that I was out of college before I told anyone what he said. I hid the words in my heart as if they needed to be guarded and cared for. I was loved just like I was.

Just like I was.

As much as I’ve worked to learn that love is not earned and that I’m as created in the image of God as the next person, when words like Chef’s come along, it’s the tenth grader inside of me who hears them and holds them close because he’s the one who needs most to trust that they are true.


PS -- I've posted the salmon recipe as requested.