Monday, December 31, 2007

thanks and yes

Ginger and I went to see No Country for Old Men a couple of days ago. I’ve been a huge Coen Brothers fan since a friend in Fort Worth took me to see Blood Simple. I can also quote most of Raising Arizona and Fargo. I knew I wasn’t going to the feel good movie of the season and I knew I was going to something that would keep me thinking for several days. I wasn’t disappointed. The movie is bound to win a few Oscars.

I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s novel on which the book is based, but the reviews say the film is very true to the book, so I assume it’s worth the time as well. The story is stark and dark and challenging. In a world full of violence, the characters make choices and deal with the consequences along with the parts of life that just happen. As Ellis, the father of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, says:

You can't stop what's comin'. It ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity.
You can’t stop it and you can’t see it. As this year rolls into the next, however arbitrary our calendars might be, we don’t know what’s coming and so we have choices to make about how we prepare for the uncertainty. What jumped first to my mind is one of my favorite borrowed prayers, by Dag Hammarskjöld, the former Secretary General of the United Nations:
For all that has been, thanks; for all that will be, yes.
How we choose to embrace what lies ahead is, in large part, determined by how we find meaning in what has already come and gone. Thanks comes before Yes.

In one of my favorite movies – also an Oscar winner, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are looking off the cliff into the water below as their pursuers are gaining ground. Sundance hesitates:
Sundance: I can't swim!

Butch: (laughs) Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you!

They jump – and live – and before long B. J. Thomas is singing “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head.”

Another gem comes from Tripper Harrison in Meatballs (not nominated for any Oscars):
And even if we win, if we win, HAH! Even if we play so far above our heads that our noses bleed for a week to ten days; even if God in Heaven above points his hand at our side of the field; even if every man woman and child joined hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn't matter because all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they've got all the money! It just doesn't matter if we win or if we lose. IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER! Rest of group: IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER...
With theologians like Paul Newman and Bill Murray doing such good work, how can we lose? The truth is the fall is going to kill us; we don’t get to hang out here forever. The truth is most of the stuff we think we have to have or do to make us matter isn’t going to be enough. Knowing that we’re going to die and come up short (not necessarily in that order), how can we choose to live in something other than a posture of fear and self-centeredness?

The answer for me is in saying, “Thanks.”

Gratitude gives birth to courage and hope. Gratitude lifts my eyes up beyond my little life. Gratitude opens my heart to love.

The year ahead doesn’t promise to be any less harrowing or hopeless than the one we are completing. There is much in our world that is dangerous, difficult, and wrong. We are in desperate need of leaders who don’t appear to be stepping forward. We have set things in motion we don’t know how to control in many different arenas. And – and – none of that gets the last word.
For the harvests of the Spirit,
thanks be to God.
For the good we all inherit,
thanks be to God.
For the wonders that astound us,
for the truths that still confound us,
most of all that love has found us,
thanks be to God.
Thanks and Yes.


P. S. – There’s a new recipe.

Friday, December 28, 2007

wise ones

Christmas was gone
before they got
to the manger,
with entourage

“We saw his star in the east,” they said.

Mary wondered why
a sign from God
didn’t get them
there on time

“You missed the angel choir,” she said.

Nevertheless they
knelt before the babe,
offering gifts and
hopeful hearts

“What matters is we made it,” they said.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

not alone

On Christmas Eve, I was driving home from finishing my shopping when Ginger called to tell me to expect to see a man in our front yard raking leaves. We had lots of leaves. Tim had knocked on our door asking for work so he could have Christmas with his daughter. When I got home, I took him a bottle of water and wrote down his phone number for future reference. He was doing a great job. He’s been unemployed for two months and thought yard work might be a way to get back on his feet. He had a gentle manner and a sweet spirit. When I came back in, Ginger said, “Once he showed up it felt like Christmas.”

A couple of hours later, I was in Harris Teeter (one of our local supermarkets) with Jay getting groceries for Christmas dinner. As I came to the end of the row, a man in a wheelchair turned to enter. We both stopped. I motioned for him to go ahead and he said, “Please, you first.” When I got even with him, I realized it was Reynolds Price, an author who has meant a great deal to me over the years, in particular for his books Three Gospels and A Serious Way of Wondering: The Ethics of Jesus Imagined. He smiled and I said, “Dr. Price?” He nodded and I continued, “My name is Milton Brash – actually that doesn’t matter. What I want to say is you have befriended me for many years through your books and I’m grateful.” He thanked me and we both went on our ways.

Today I worked the lunch shift at the restaurant. Evan is one of the guys I work with. He is the Sous Chef, and another quiet and gentle guy. In small conversations over the past couple of weeks, I’ve learned he as a philosophy degree from college and couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do, so he started cooking, which he’s been doing for a decade. He’s often a man of few words, but as we were doing prep work today, he asked me how I started cooking in restaurants. I gave him the short version (or as short as I can tell it) of how I fell into a clinical depression after my treatment for sleep apnea unmasked it and how, after doing my best to just get out of bed and get through the day for about eighteen months, Ginger helped me get out of the house since I needed to make some money. I started driving around the South Shore of Massachusetts, looking for something I wanted to do. I got a part-time summer job as security at the South Shore Music Circus, which meant I got to hear good music for free, and I talked my way into a cooking job at a small restaurant that was just opening.

I could see the resonance in his eyes when I mentioned I lived with depression. I could also see the connection when I said I had found the kitchen to be a depression free zone. However deep the gathering gloom, the light shines in the kitchen and the darkness can’t extinguish it. We talked about the theories we have of why it’s true: the very tactile, hands on work; the pace and busy-ness; the concentration required; the sense of accomplishment and the fairly immediate gratification in seeing your meal go out to those who came to eat; the sense of community that grows out of working together to make the place function well.

A month ago, I’d never met these guys. (OK, I did go to a Reynolds Price book signing in Boston years ago, but I’d never met him in his natural habitat.) I know them now because I entered their world, not they mine – they were here first. I’m new to this orbit. Here’s how life gets colored in: through chance meetings, incidental contact, meaningful coincidence. And in some cases, souls stick to one another – even in small ways – and we create something that wasn’t there before. I can see the seedlings of friendship taking root in my conversations with Evan. I feel compelled to keep in contact with Tim. I find it interesting, therefore, that I thought it wasn’t important to tell Reynolds Price my name. I was aiming to bounce off of him like a billiard ball, I guess; I wasn’t trying to be friends. I didn’t want to impose.

Friendships thrive on imposition, however, and give birth to good and unexpected things. In the summer of 2005, I met an old friend, Nancy, at the UCC Synod in Atlanta. The meeting was a surprise to us both since we had both been Baptists the last time we were around each other: she had been my pastor in Dallas. We found time to catch up and I learned she was a UCC pastor in Charlotte (at the home church of the associate pastor of our church here in Durham). She learned about my depression and my cooking and my trying to figure out a way to write. She responded by telling me about our friend Gordon’s blog, Real Live Preacher. I had never heard of a blog and I hadn’t talked to Gordon in a long time (our connections go way back as well), so I called to impose and learn. Thanks to his friendship and patience, don’t eat alone was born two years ago today.

The blog has fed me much like the time I spend cooking because I’m writing regularly, I’m working on my writing, and I’m doing it in the context of community. Whether you are a commenter or not, that you are reading is another inextinguishable light in my darkness. My aim has been to write about one thousand words a day (except when I write poetry) and to write at least 250 posts a year, which means I’ve stacked up almost a half a million words in the past two years, writing at first in the cracks of my life and then learning how to carve out time and keep my promises to myself. In the incidental contact that comes through these web pages, I’ve seen some friendship seedlings take root as well, nourishing me in ways I had not expected.

My depression has beaten me like a rented mule this past week. I’m hopeful it’s a seasonal thing rather than another long ride on the monster. However deep the darkness, I don’t eat alone and I don’t write alone: I am not alone.

I am not alone.

I know that tonight. I’m going to have to impose on you to keep reminding me.


Monday, December 24, 2007

advent journal: emmanuel

The sun is gone and darkness is settling down here. We're off soon to a potluck dinner at church and then a service together. Later, Ginger, Jay, and I will go to the midnight service of lessons and carols in Duke Chapel (Jay and I are even going to sing in the choir!). This year, I'm deeply grateful for the reality of the Incarnation. These are days in which living as a human being doesn't come easy for me; to think our God chose to join us leaves me feeling less alone, even less depressed.

Emmanuel, God with Us
(Amy Grant, Chris Eaton, Robert Marshall)

We dim the light
We stoke the fire
We breathe the ever-green
Young ones wait
While the old ones make up
Tales of how it used to be

China dolls, candy corn
Painted wooden toys
Treasures found to the wondrous sound
Of carolling the Savior
Born to us on Christmas morn

Emmanuel, God with us
Emmanuel, God with us
The son of Israel

And still he calls through the night
Beyond the days of old
A voice of peace to the weary ones
Who struggle with the human soul

All of us travelers
Through a gvien time
Who can know what tomorrow holds
But over the horizon
Surely you and I will find

Emmanuel, God with us
Emmanuel, God with us
The son of Israel

And the years they come
And the years they go
Through we may forget somehow
That the child once born in Bethlehem
Is still among us now

Merry Christmas.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

advent journal: bells and borrowed words

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
(Leo Tolstoy)

I'm trying to get down to the heart of the matter
but the flesh is weak and my thoughts seem to scatter
bht I think it's about forgiveness, forgiveness --
even if, even if you don't love me anymore
(Don Henley)

The two quotes were from Ginger's sermon today.

The poem below follows the pattern of Longfellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," one of my favorite carols.
I wish the bells on Christmas day
could toll and take our pain away
to ring out wrong and sound a song
to make our world feel whole again.

We’ve torn our hearts to shreds, it seems
and given up on most our dreams;
as wars persist we make our fists
and fight out of our fears again.

I’m not the first to bow my head,
knocked down by both my doubt and dread,
despite dismay I try to pray
that God would make us whole again.

The ring the bells, to my surprise,
“The change will not be planet-size,
you start with one and change can come
to make the world feel whole again.”

I thought how Mary’s gentle “Yes”
and Joseph’s ardent faithfulness
had birthed the boy and brought the joy
so heaven and nature sang again.

“Forgive, forgive,” that’s all I heard
and something in my spirit stirred;
I felt the tones deep in my bones
of how I might be whole again.

I wish the bells on Christmas Day
could toll and take our pain away,
but peace will come when one by one
we all learn to forgive again.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

advent journal: finding miltmo

Ginger made a quick trip to check in on her folks this week and our pups who are staying in Birmingham until our housing situation becomes more permanent. I drove her to the airport early Thursday morning and then decided to run a couple of errands on the way home. One was to go by the bank, or at least the ATM, to deposit checks that would enable us to pay our bills in the days ahead.

Bank of America has new ATMs here that no longer require an envelope to make a deposit; you feed in the checks one by one and the computer reads them and confirms the deposit. Thursday morning was my first time to use the new system. The first two checks went in easily and the confirmation. I put the third check in – the big one that really mattered – and the screen never changed. My ATM card and my check were in the machine and I had no way to prove it, no way to get them out, and no one around to tell since the bank didn’t open for another forty-five minutes.

I found a number for customer service and, after six or seven of those computer voices explaining my options, I finally got to a real person: Marie. I told her my story and the first thing she said was, “I’m so very sorry this happened to you. Let’s see what we can do to make things right.” And she meant it. I wasn’t expecting such compassion at all. The story goes on until the bank opened and most of the details are best spared. After we had tried all her options and she had contacted the computer people to see if they could manipulate the ATM from wherever they were (they couldn’t), she said, “I’ve notified the computer people to shut down the machine so no one can get to your card. Now let me give you a case number so we can follow up on your deposit. Once I give you this number, you will be contacted in about ten days with the results of our investigation.”

I was incredulous. “I can’t do that,” I said. “This money is going right back out to pay the mortgage and other things. We can’t wait ten days without creating some real problems.” I could feel the crush of the giant corporation beginning to come down on my shoulders.

About that time, a guy pulled up, got out of his car, and began to unlock the door to the building that housed the ATM. “Are you going in there?” I asked. He nodded. “Do you think you can get my card out of the machine?”

“I’m not allowed to do that,” he said. “Sorry.”

I went back to talking to Marie, who was still trying to figure out how to help me. I think she could sense the desperation in my voice. Moments before I was squashed by the impending weight, the guy inside opened the door and said, “Is this your card?” He was holding my ATM card.

“Yes,” I said. He handed it to me. “Thanks,” I said. “Any chance you can get my check out of there too?” He closed the door. I told Marie I had the card, which saved her continuing to tell me how I could get a temporary one now that the bank was open. She was trying to figure out how to help me get some sort of credit when the door opened again and the guy handed me the check.

“Wait, wait, Marie,” I exclaimed. “I have the card and the check. The guy in the room gave them both to me. Please don’t cancel anything. I can make the deposit.”

“Oh, Mr. Brasher-Cunningham,” she said, “that’s such good news it’s going to make me cry. I feel so bad about what you’ve gone through this morning and I was running out of ways to help. I think I’m going to cry I’m so happy.”

“Marie,” I said, “Your tenacity and compassion really helped me not lose hope. Thank you.”

“Oh,” she said again through her tears, “this really is a Christmas miracle.”

At the end of the first act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Rebecca Gibbs describes a letter addressed to one of her friends. The address read

Jane Crofut
The Crofut Farm
Grover’s Corners
Sutton County
New Hampshire
United States of America
Continent of North America
Western Hemisphere
The Earth
The Solar System
The Universe
The Mind of God
“And,” Rebecca says, “The postman delivered it all the same.”

When I walked out of work last night, I could see a few stars strong enough to shine over the streetlights. I couldn’t name them or even begin to guess how far away they were and how old the light was that was finally reaching me. What I did think was I’m looking out into the universe at a star from which my little planet couldn’t be seen with the naked eye: it’s too small. We don’t figure in the grand scheme of things anymore than Nazareth or Bethlehem mattered in the world they knew at that time. We feel like a big deal to ourselves because we’re the ones living out this small story.

I don’t know much astronomy, but I do know the skies change every night. The constellations keep time differently from us, meaning they might cross a morning sky or sneak by when our planet has its back turned. A few familiars come by often enough for me to call them by name (“Hello, Orion.”) but our encounters always carry a shimmer of serendipity: we never meet the same way twice. The night sky is also filled with rarities and once-in-a-lifetime moments, as Mary Chapin Carpenter sang about in “Halley Came to Jackson”:
It came from the east just as bright as a torch
The neighbors had a party on their porch
Daddy rocked the baby, Mother said "amen"
When Halley came to visit in nineteen ten

Now back then Jackson was a real small town
And it's not every night a comet comes around
It was almost eighty years since its last time through
So I bet your mother would've said "amen" too
The chances of me seeing Halley again in my lifetime are better than those of Marie, ATM Angel Guy, and me ever sharing the same orbit again. But this week, they looked up and saw me and I saw my way out of a darkening situation thanks to their lights of patience and perseverance.

In the vastness of our universe, my little dilemma didn’t even register as forgettable, yet, last Thursday morning in our town, I felt found.


Friday, December 21, 2007

advent journal: a forward God

As Jay and I were eating breakfast this morning, he began laughing at an email message he received, a Christmas letter from one of his co-workers. Her holiday letter of gratitude focused on forwarded email. Here’s part of what she had to say:

As another year will shortly be a memory, my heartfelt appreciation goes out to all of you who have taken the time and trouble to send me "forwards" over the past twelve months. Thank you for making me feel safe, secure, blessed, and wealthy.

Special thanks to whoever sent me the one about rat poo in the glue on envelopes because I now have to go get a wet towel every time I need to seal an envelope. Also, I scrub the top of every can I open for the same reason. Because of your concern, I no longer drink Coca Cola because it can remove toilet stains.

I no longer drink Pepsi, or Dr Pepper, since the people who make these products are atheists who won't put "Under God" on their cans. I no longer use Saran Wrap in the microwave because it causes cancer. I no longer check the coin return on pay phones because I could be pricked with a needle infected with some weird disease. I no longer use cancer-causing deodorants even though I smell like a water buffalo on a hot day.

I no longer go to shopping malls because someone might drug me with a perfume sample and rob me. I no longer receive packages from, nor send packages by UPS, or FedEx, since they are actually Al Qaeda in disguise. I no longer answer the phone, because someone will ask me to dial a number for which I will get a phone bill with calls to Jamaica, Uganda, Singapore, and Uzbekistan.

I no longer eat KFC, because their "chickens" are actually horrible mutant freaks with no eyes or feathers. I no longer have any sneakers -- but that will change once I receive my free replacement pair from Nike. I no longer have to buy expensive cookies from Neiman Marcus, since I now have their recipe. I no longer worry about my soul, because at last count I have 363,214 angels looking out for me.

Thanks to you, I have learned that God only answers my prayers if I forward an e-mail to seven of my friends and make a wish within five minutes. I no longer have any savings, because I gave it to a sick girl who is about to die in the hospital (for the 1,387,258th time). I no longer have any money at all - but that will change once I receive the $15,000 that Microsoft and AOL are sending me for participating in their special email program.
I am taken in by her wit and reasonably gentle sarcasm. I like it when someone can make fun of something with style. What I noticed during my day of cooking is the letter took me beyond the humor to somewhere more substantive. Once again, I’m taken by the verb, which I think of first as a direction rather than an action word: forward. We had our mail forwarded from Massachusetts – sent forward would be the fuller expression, which means it is catching up with us. Forward can mean prompt, presumptuous, progressive, and pertaining to the future. It can mean eager, advanced, and being ahead of current trends.

And it can mean radical or extreme. We belong to a forward God and, perhaps, a forwarding God, one who is out in front and catching up with us all at the same time. In the language of grace, forward is a word that means we’re surrounded, enveloped, challenged and comforted by the God who was and is and will be all at once.

The visceral reality of a birth in a feeding shed behind a tiny hotel in a land that knew little of wealth or health or hope, for that matter, means what is being forwarded to us is not an empty scheme or a devious trap. No, it’s the real deal: Love radical and extreme enough to awaken shepherds and sages, angels and animals; a Love so amazing, so divine that lays an unflinching and unyielding claim on our lives and calls us to forward that same love in the way we live with and touch those around us.

Jesus was born in the dirt and the straw two thousand years ago; move forward twenty-one centuries and we still follow the star and wait to hear the herald angels sing not so we can be thrown back into long ago, but that we might be forwarded into the lives of others who need to know a radical, extravagantly loving God who is also a little nuts and has a pretty good sense of humor.

I can picture God laughing at the email, if, of course, someone had forwarded it.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

advent journal: b-friending

Tonight I had the privilege of experiencing another blogging incarnation. Jimmy stepped from screen to real life and met me, along with my friend Jay, who is here for Christmas, at the Durham Pizza Palace, which professes to be the oldest pizza parlor in the Bull City. Jimmy greeted us with some Tupelo honey harvested from his own bees and a hug and a smile. We sat and talked long after we had finished our salads, pizza, and beer. We talked over the karaoke that peppered the evening with everything from “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” to “New York State of Mind” to “Call Me By My Name,” the self-proclaimed “perfect country song” (written by Steve Goodman and John Prine) because of the last verse:

I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
and I went to pick her up in the rain
but before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
she got run over by a damned old train

and I’ll hang around as long as you will let me
‘cause I never minded standing in the rain
you don’t have to call me darlin’, darlin’
you never even call me by my name
Most of the folks who took the mike did so knowing they were among friends, and forgiving ones at that. It was obvious we were in a room of people who knew each other, even as we were working to be better acquainted. Our technology affords us amazing ways to connect, even before we have adequate vocabulary to describe the connections. (We have e-mail for notes we send wirelessly; perhaps our friends we find while blogging should be called b-friends.) Something happens when we’re together in the flesh, looking at each other, talking, sharing food. A different kind of knowledge – the stuff stories are made of – gets shared and stored so that we can begin to be friends.

I’ve often wondered what possessed God to decide to put skin on. I wonder about the others involved, the timing. I catch a glimpse of understanding on nights like tonight, as Jimmy became flesh before my eyes and an abstract connection became a person who did call me by my name.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . .


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

advent journal: refracting hope

I worked lunch at the restaurant, which means I was up early and in the kitchen by eight this morning. When the alarm went off and I stumbled into the bathroom to put in my contacts, I found my left eye was not yet recovered from whatever irritated it last night and the contacts were going to stay in the case rather than caressing my corneas. It was at this point that the fact I packed my prescription eyewear in a place I don’t recall became more significant than it has up until now. I had to go to work – in the kitchen – in all my nearsightedness. I knew I could read the tickets and keep from cutting myself, but everything else would be out of focus.

And that’s how I felt all day long: out of focus.

I had already finished chopping the herbs for the Russian dressing when one of the other cooks said, “Doesn’t the recipe call for parsley?” I had chopped cilantro. I know the difference between the two by smell as much as sight, but I just missed it. I felt awkward in the very room where I am usually most comfortable. I was without confidence doing what I know I do well. I felt out of sync, out of rhythm, out of focus.

I drove home (yes, I drove carefully) wondering what life was like when no one knew how to correct vision. Eyeglasses, as we know them, didn’t begin to come into being until late in the thirteenth century. For all of human history before then, people had to live with their eyes the way they were. Their vision couldn’t be corrected.

I think it’s interesting we use that verb to describe how we help someone see. We don’t heal or adjust; we correct. As a former English teacher, I corrected more papers than I can remember, or wanted to correct for that matter. In the context of the classroom, correct meant pointing out what was wrong: “to point out or mark the errors in,” the dictionary says. The vision version of the verb isn’t about pointing out the errors as it is “to set or make true, accurate, or right.” Simply put, my contacts (and my glasses, when I find them) let me truly see. What the lenses do, in my limited understanding, is refract the light, or bend it so it hits my eye at a different angle, thus allowing me to see what’s in front of me.

I got home from work late this afternoon in time to throw a soup together for our potluck before our Blue Christmas service, which is a refraction of sorts, bending the light of the season to let our sorrows stand in full view. The sanctuary was dressed in candlelight as eleven or twelve of us gathered to help one another see more truly what it means that Christ is being born again in our time. We sang:

what can I give him, poor as I am
if I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb
if I were a wise man, I would do my part
but what I have to give, I will give my heart
At the front of the church was a Christmas place setting. When we came into the service, we were given small place cards and then invited to write who and what we miss this Christmas. We then came forward and placed our cards at the table as we heard
the depth of God’s love reaches down, down, down
to where we are until we’re found, found, found
a quiet word or none at all pursues the heart behind the wall
and to those who wait with darkness all around
the depth of God’s love reaches down
At the close of the service, Ginger invited us to come forward and stand in a circle around the empty place setting, now surrounded with the small cards. “Take your left hand and place it over your heart,” she said. “Now take your right hand and place it on the back of the person next to you.” As our hands moved, we refracted the love of God one to another, allowing us to see truly we were not alone, even in our grief.

While I was waiting on the soup to finish before I went to church, I decided to try my contacts again. Whatever had irritated my eye was gone and I could see. When the service was over, I had much the same feeling. My part tonight was to sing Andrew Peterson’s “After the Last Tear Falls.” The bridge says:
and in the end, the end is oceans
and oceans of love and love again
we’ll see how the tears that have fallen
were caught in the palms
of the Giver of Love and the Lover of All
and look back on these tears as old tales
because after the last tear falls
there is love, love, love, love
there is love
John says, in one of my favorite verses, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.” Tonight, I beg a bit of a paraphrase:

The light bends in the darkness and the darkness cannot keep us from truly seeing.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

advent journal: an old story

I have some things on my mind, but I also got something in my eye this evening that has left it difficult for me to see well, much less concentrate. So I offer a story (one I’ve posted before) that I wrote for a Christmas Eve service some years back. Here’s hoping it speaks to you.



A Faraway Christmas
by Milton Brasher-Cunningham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2007

advent journal: goodbye, old friend

In this week where the days are the longest, life is a little darker tonight. Dan Fogelberg died last Sunday morning after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 56. The note on his website reads:

Sunday, December 16

Dear friends,

Dan left us this morning at 6:00am. He fought a brave battle with cancer and died peacefully at home in Maine with his wife Jean at his side. His strength, dignity, and grace in the face of the daunting challenges of this disease were an inspiration to all who knew him.
I feel like I grew up with Dan Fogelberg. The first record of his I remember was Souvenirs, which came out the month after I started to Baylor. What better words for a teenager on the cusp of college than
love when you can
cry when you have to
be who you must
that’s a part of the plan
await your arrival
with simple survival
and one day we’ll all understand
("Part of the Plan")
My across the hall dorm neighbor had an earlier album, Home Free, which was another revelation. Then Fogelberg released five more records between my freshman year and my seminary graduation:
He gave me the soundtrack for some very pivotal years in my life, mostly marked by searching. Listening back through those songs tonight, I still resonate with the hope informed by an underlying melancholy that runs like a river through his music. He made my heart ache and strain to reach for the heights he described:
once in a vision I came on some woods
and stood at a fork in the road
my choices were clear yet I froze with the fear
of not knowing which way to go
one road was simple acceptance of life
the other road offered sweet peace
when I made my decision
my vision became my release
(Nether Lands)
When I was in CPE and particularly broke, all I could do for my family one Christmas was make cards and try to give them something with my words. I borrowed some from “Leader of the Band” to try and reach out to my father at a time when the distance was palpable.
I thank you for the music and your stories of the road
I thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go
I thank you for the kindness and the times that you got tough
and papa I don’t think I’ve said I love you near enough
The grace he offered his father in the song helped me begin to see a different path to take.

Dan Fogelberg also helped me know I was in love.

On one of my first dates with Ginger, we were driving between Fort Worth and Dallas and she said, “What’s the purse song?” I asked to repeat the question, which she did, and without to much time passing, I said, “Oh – Dan Fogelberg’s ‘Same Old Lang Syne’: ‘I went to hug her and she spilled her purse/ and we laughed until we cried.’”

Right then I knew something special was happening.

I saw him in concert once, before that night with Ginger. He played solo at Reunion Arena in Dallas; I had tenth row center seats – or should I say seat: I went by myself. A grand piano, a guitar, and a small table that held a glass half-filled with whiskey were all that graced the stage. He came out and played for nearly three hours, making it seem as though we were sitting in his living room. When he got to “Same Old Lang Syne,” he moved to the piano and began talking about the 1812 Overture. He went on to demonstrate that the opening notes on the piano are the same melody: da da da da da da da dum dum dum. “Stuff like this cracks musicians up,” he said, laughing harder than the rest of us. Then, when he sang, “I said the audience was heavenly, but the traveling was hell,” we cheered like crazy and he laughed again.

One of his best moves was to sing a duet with Emmylou Harris (also something I wish I could do): “Only the Heart May Know.” The song is a dialog between someone looking back on childhood and those things he remembers. He asks questions of them and they respond.
Silent Sea, tell this to me:
Where are the children
that we used to be?

(Silent Sea)
At picture shows
where nobody goes
and only the heart can see.
In the bridge they sing, “Friends we knew follow us through all of the days of our lives.” How amazing it is to look up and look back and see someone’s fingerprints all over your life because of the songs he wrote. Like Madeleine L’Engle, Dan Fogelberg is someone who befriended me and helped keep me alive in ways I didn’t understand until much later; maybe even tonight. I’ll never meet him, but, thanks to the songs, he’s not completely gone.
and if you ever hear them calling out
and if you've been by paupers crowned
between the worlds of men and make-believe
I can be found
("Scarecrow's Dream")
Even though I know how to get there from here (that’s a place I go quite often), I must say, "Goodbye, old friend -- and thanks."


P. S. – I couldn’t pass up this concert clip.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

advent journal: love songs

Joseph had lines in our pageant today. He said:

The road to Bethlehem stretches out behind us. It has been a journey of love: love behind us, love before us, love above us, love under our feet, love around us, love inside us. Only a short distance is left; the stable where we will rest is just up the path. Love will carry us the rest of the way.
His words reminded me of Dave Matthews' "Christmas Song," which is going to be a part of our Christmas Eve service. Here he is with Tim Reynolds.

Watch it a couple of times and you'll be singing, "love, love, love," all day long.

I found a Mary Chapin Carpenter song I didn't know called "Bells Are Ringing" adds a note of justice to the joy:

Bells are ringing, all over the world.
Bells are ringing, calling the light
Bells are ringing, all over the world, all over the world tonight.

Wherever you're walking tonight, whoever you're waiting for
Somehow, by the stable's faint light,
Peace in your heart is restored.

For a great take on an old favorite, here's James Taylor singing "Go Tell It On The Mountain."

John McCutcheon's "Christmas in the Trenches," is a song I first heard many years ago and found it to be hauntingly hopeful. He tells a great story leading into the song.

To send you on your way with a smile (after the tears), here's a video clip forwarded to me by a friend. The group is Straight No Chaser from Indiana University.

Everybody sing along.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

advent journal: joseph

After Annunciation

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.

(Weather of the Heart, Madeleine L’Engle)

Madeleine L’Engle played a big part in my understanding of both Advent and the Liturgical Year through her book, The Irrational Season, which draws its title from her poem. She wrote essays working her way around the calendar in church time – Advent, Christmas, Holy Innocents, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, Transfiguration, Advent – challenging me to learn to tell time differently. (I wrote more fully about this here.) Advent both began (“the night is far gone”) and ended (“the day is at hand”) her timekeeping because the Birth was the reason we have a calendar at all. Our year, our faith, our hope, begins here and calls us to expect a new year and to find new things in the Old, Old Story.
When I try to grasp the nature of the universe with my conscious mind, my humanly limited intellectual powers, I grope blindly. I come closer to understanding with the language of the heart, sipping hot bouillon and relaxing, standing by the dining-room window where I can no longer sit on the window sill because of our accumulation of plants – coleus and Swedish Ivy and ferns and alligator pears and philodendron and anything else we can coax to grow in the polluted air of the city – than when I think with mind alone. (4)
I’m sitting at my laptop in the makeshift dining room of our rent house sipping red wine instead of bouillon (not much of a bouillon sipper myself) next to the crush of crèches that adorn our mantle. Year after year, in quiet moments like these, the one in the story who pulls at me most is Joseph. While Luke’s telling provides the script for most of the pageants to be acted out in the next few days, with angels dropping in on Zachariah and Mary, Matthew writes about Joseph: Mary came up pregnant and they both knew he wasn’t the father, Joseph was trying to figure out how they could both step out of the marriage with the least amount of shame and scorn –
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:20-21)
After the dream, I imagine Joseph laying there wide-eyed (as if anyone could go back to sleep) and thinking, “Emmanuel – God with us. What am I supposed to do with that?” and then getting up to go find Mary. None of the gospel writers records any of Joseph’s words or feelings; all we are given are his actions: he stays with Mary, he takes her to Bethlehem, they flee into Egypt, and, as the boy grows up, he was his father. I did find one old ballad, “The Cherry Tree Carol,” that tells of Mary and Joseph being in a cherry orchard. She asks him to pick cherries for her and he tells her, rather snidely, to let the father of her child do it. It starts to rain cherries and he gets the point. (Fit that into your Lessons and Carols service!)

I don’t see him that way. As a carpenter, he was a guy who built things, who fixed things, who knew how to measure twice and cut once, who thrived on the kind of beauty that comes from precision as much as polish. When he found out Mary was pregnant, he wasn’t impulsive. He was thinking it through when the angel swooped into his dream. He moved from there to build a life for his family, such as it was, but all the measuring and planning the world could not have prepared him for what happened. The boy was born in a barn. People from shepherds to kings came to see him. They fled like refugees overnight because Herod wanted the baby killed. And that was just the first few months.

Like Mary, Joseph had to be filled with something other than reason – and fear. They had to swap angel stories at some point. He was the one given the name, which meant he would name the child as any father would do in those days. He grew into a role he never imagined he would be called to play and they lived out their days with a heartfelt understanding of the paradox of blessing: a life of meaningful pain and joy.

Down all the days, he still gets marginalized in most tellings of the story. He doesn’t do much more than lead the donkey and find a room, or at least a stable. I’m not pulling for equal billing, I just wanted to say when my heart hears the Story, I find deep resonance in this carpenter who chose to stay and stand with mother and child.


P. S. – Two things: the artwork is from Bee Still Studio (thanks to Karyn who has a copy hanging at her parents' house). Second, the Beatles had long since broken up before I realized Mother Mary’s words to the boys from Liverpool were straight out of Luke. Though it’s no carol, I hear it differently this time of year, both in light of the Season and as I often find December a dark month.

Friday, December 14, 2007

advent journal: house hunting

I’ve spent another afternoon
crossing thresholds
opening doors
picturing my furniture
in unfamiliar rooms

homes don’t change hands
without groaning
even breaking
I could hear the hurt
when I stood still

some houses hide their scars
under fresh paint
refinished floors
others are open wounds
crying for attention

I hope they understand
I’m a hunter
who is hungry
to find the right house
and come home


Thursday, December 13, 2007

advent journal: teach me to pray

In front of our church is a brick courtyard and over to one side stands a row of hand painted rocks, each one holding a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, thanks to our children. The tradition here, during worship, is for the children to lead the congregation in the Prayer at the end of the Children’s Sermon. Noticing that connection makes we wonder if I think too much and trust too little. Still, I find deep resonance in the disciples’ request of Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

When Jesus answered, I’m not sure he imagined we would be quoting the exact prayer every week in worship. Like any of our rituals, it can become overly fraught with familiarity or it can be an experience of revelatory repetition. For most of us on any given Sunday, it probably falls somewhere in between because prayer is hard to comprehend.

Here’s where I get caught. We still own a house in Massachusetts (yes, I believe I’ve mentioned that) and we’re trying to figure out how to get settled here. We need to sell our house up north in order to begin to plant roots here in the south. We haven’t had one offer on the house since it went on the market last August. I have prayed for the house to sell and I don’t really think God is a real estate agent. I think my life is shot through with God’s presence (as is all of creation) and I don’t always understand what that means. There are people who pray better than I who have lost their homes in this mortgage mess. If someone calls tomorrow and offers to buy our house and I attribute it as an answer to prayer, does that not imply, intentionally or not, that God somehow picked me over them?

I wish I knew what happened when I pray.

Luke records Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ request as brief and straightforward:

So Jesus told them, "Pray in this way:

‘Father, help us to honor your name.

Come and set up your kingdom.

Give us each day the food we need.

Forgive our sins as we forgive everyone who has done wrong to us.

And keep us from being tempted.' "

(Contemporary English Version)
I’m struck by the verbs in the prayer: help, come, set up, give, forgive, keep. They are all pointed at asking God to be, well, God. That helps me. I remember hearing Clyde Fant preach many years ago about the two most important statements the disciples made. The first was in response to Jesus asking who they thought he was:

“You are the Christ,” they answered.

The second statement was one the disciples made about themselves in a moment of conscious vulnerability:

“We are but human.”

If my prayer is for God to be God, then the first thing I’m letting go is my claim to that title. There’s also a second thing. I’m praying, implicitly or explicitly, for me to be, well, me. Regardless of the circumstances that swirl around me, I’m praying to be and to become the person I was created to be, which I think is another way of saying I’m praying to be faithful. It’s less about God fixing my stuff than it is about me retaining some sense of my place in this world. If God were in the wish granting business, I would like to go back and live the last seven years without having to live with depression. What I can see looking back is God never quit being God and I learned how to be someone who found God’s love runs deeper than my sense of worthlessness, which has helped me be a better me, a healthier me, and I hope a more faithful me.

When our house sells, someone will say, “God answers prayers,” which is a true statement. But I’m not praying for the house to sell. I am asking for wisdom to make sound choices in complicated times. I’m asking for patience and perspective enough to understand our world is not coming to an end because of the pressure we feel right now. I’m praying to remember the Lord is blessing me right now. I’m praying for eyes to see and ears to hear. I’m praying to be faithful. Jesus said God sees the sparrow fall; Jesus never said anything about God catching the sparrow.

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

advent journal: many happy returns

Growing up in Africa meant growing up with a number of British friends whose traditional birthday greeting was, “Many happy returns.” I was never really sure what it meant other than I was pretty sure they were wishing me a happy birthday. Tonight I learned it means, “Have many more happy days, especially birthdays.” I also found

Since the 18th century this has been used as a salutation to offer the hope that a happy day being marked would recur many more times. It is now primarily used on birthdays; prior to the mid 19th century it was used more generally, at any celebratory or festive event.
My morning started with a stunning spousal rendition of “Happy Birthday” followed by breakfast and cards. Ginger’s had this wonderful picture on the front

and the caption: “Does this hat make me look fat?”

She had a couple of things to do at the office and then we were meeting at the church to go lunch. My birthday traditions include doing something I’ve never done before (check: I’ve never had a birthday in Durham before) and eating in an ethnic restaurant that is new to me (check: she took me to the Palace International, an African restaurant – more later). When I got to church, the woman filling in for our office manager who is on vacation handed me a card from the Church Auxiliary which said:

The Lord is blessing you right now.

Forget wishes, man, let’s go straight for emphatic claims. I loved it. I needed it. I’m hanging on to that card. I may even carry it with me so the next time things get a little tense I can read it to myself or, better yet, pull it out and show it to whoever is the stress distributor and say, “Back off, man, I’m being blessed.”

The Palace was a small, bright, and sparsely decorated room with one server whose smile sparkled as much as the sunshine that poured in through the windows. Her accent was one of the happy returns of my day, taking me back to the familiar voices of my childhood. I asked to go there because I passed it the other day and saw a photo in the window with a caption that read, “Come taste our world famous samosas.” They were the first thing I ordered and became my second return: samosas were street food when I was in Nairobi. I loved them. (I posted my recipe here.) The ones at the Palace did not disappoint. I may have to go back in, like Buddy the Elf, and say, “Congratulations on having world famous samosas.”

We meandered through the afternoon and a couple of Durham neighborhoods looking at houses to see if we can get a sense of where we will live once we can sell our house in Marshfield (doesn’t anyone out there want to buy a house six hundred feet from Cape Cod Bay?) and move out of our rental. We are beginning to learn street names and are a little more able to understand how neighborhoods connect to each other, but there is still much to learn. We returned home so Ginger could drop me off and go to one short meeting at church and then she came back around seven so we could go to dinner. Though the restaurant was new to us, the event was yet another return because dear friends in Marshfield gave us the gift certificate to the Magnolia Grill before we left Massachusetts; it was fun to feel them at dinner with us, though I wouldn’t have been willing to share much of my wonderful food:
Grilled Georgia Quail on Butternut Risotto with Hedgehog Mushrooms, Overnight Tomatoes, and Pomegranate Molasses Jus

Chesapeake Bay Wild Striped Bass with Sneed’s Perry Littleneck Clam “Chowder,” Organic Kennebec Potatoes, Roasted Pepper, Spanish Chorizo, and Squash Ragout

Manchego Crème Brulee with a Sweet Spanish Olive Oil Crisp and Poached Quince
The food tasted as amazing as the text feels intimidating. I felt the blessing of the Lord with every bite.

Throughout the day, my mobile phone would ring and someone on the other end would begin singing. Their voices full of celebration and remembrances were carried by that familiar melody of return. It was not until I got home, though, that I realized I had voice mail and got to hear my brother, sister-in-law, and oldest nephew sing to me in the same fashion as they do each year. The best was I can describe it is to say I picture them getting in the car together, driving to a drug-infested neighborhood, buying some crack, taking it together as a family, and then calling me and singing. This year, they each sang different songs at the same time, best I could tell. The sheer lunacy of the whole enterprise makes me feel loved.

After dinner, Ginger and I returned home, or what passes for home right now. It’s home to me because I return to her. What I see from this side of her amazing eyes is God is truly blessing me right now and returns over and over to do it again and again just because I’m at home with her. Very little feels settled, I feel a few dark clouds on the horizon, and we are walking much like the Magi with only a little light to guide us, and – and we keep returning to each other day after day after day: many happy returns.

Yes, the Lord is blessing me right now.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

advent journal: nouvelle cuisine

Today was my first day cooking at the new restaurant. I did well and the learning curve was pretty steep. Thinking about my day, particularly in the context of these days of waiting and watching, led me to this poem.

nouvelle cuisine

I’m standing at the stove, staring into the sizzle,
waiting for the right time to turn the salmon.
The exercise is not new, but the kitchen is.
My mind tosses about like fish in the skillet,
wondering how context changes character,
what it means that I’m playing a new room.
I’m being me yet I have to wait to be recognized.

Jesus was cooking fish on the shores of Galilee
the morning Peter recognized the cook
and dove into the water to get to breakfast.
He walked the Emmaus road – Jesus, that is,
but no one recognized him until he broke the bread.
Not exactly cooking, but food let them see who he was.
That’s about as far as I can push the analogy except

to say I want to be known in the broiling and breaking,
to be seen in the motions of memory and making.
A day will come (will it?) when I grab the baby bok choi
out of the walk-in without asking someone where it is,
and in a moment no one else will probably notice,
I will feel recognized and received. For now I’ll cook
and wait for home to burn its way into my heart.

Monday, December 10, 2007

advent journal: rice and revolution

Apropos of nothing, I want to point you to an interesting web site I found through Africa Kid and the World: Free Rice. As a former English teacher, a lover of language, and someone who wants to do something about hunger in our world, I love this site. Every time you match the given word with the correct definition, you “earn” twenty grains of rice to be given to hungry people around the world. (The site is for real; the food actually gets to people.) Please make it a part of what you do.

My new Chef is an excellent entrepreneur. She began here in Durham with a catering company, which has continued to grow, has the new restaurant where I have been working, and also runs a restaurant on the Duke campus for faculty during the day and students at night. That’s where she sent me to work this evening and said, “I want to know everything you think about the place when I see you tomorrow.”

The kitchen is huge, the staff is small, and they do pretty good stuff. I liked the people I worked with, I had a good evening working there, and something wasn’t quite right. I thought about it driving home, thought about it some more in the shower, talked with Ginger a bit when I got here, and decided before I tell Chef my observations and evaluations, I need to ask a question: “What are we trying to achieve there?”

The things I noticed had to do with making things better: better organization, better kitchen setup, better menu planning – all of which would help increase business. They do a good job; I think it could be a great place. But what I may not know is the university may just be paying for a good place. If so, everyone may be helping to create exactly what they had in mind. If so, talking about how things could change is not necessarily helpful; if not, I’ve got some ideas.

When I taught high school English, I intentionally chose texts I hoped would be incendiary in class. I wanted the students to be changed by the texts, to ask uncomfortable questions, to drive their parents crazy, and to grow up to be wonderfully outlandish adults. What I learned in high school the second time around was mine was the minority opinion. Our schools are designed, for the most part, to raise good workers and good citizens, people who will mow their lawns and pay their taxes. Not too many folks are saying they want a revolution (even though most of the parents have Beatles albums).

Michael Foucault looked at prisons and schools as case studies to analyze the point or goal of society. Smith paraphrases him: “The disciplinary society forms individuals into what it wants them to be: docile, productive consumers who are obedient to the state” (92). Without going on another quoting rampage, Smith’s analysis of Foucault’s theory as it relates to the church led me to the same question I want to ask about the campus restaurant: what are we trying to achieve here?

In most every church I have been a part of, regardless of denomination, I’ve met people with young children who have joined the church – usually come back to the church after some period of absence – because “they want their children to go to be in Sunday School.” I’ve always thought it would be rude on my part to respond by asking, “Why?” so I haven’t, but I do wonder. Do they mean they want them to learn basic values so they will know how to be “good” people? How would they have felt if I had said, “Great!” and handed them this quote from Brian MacLaren:

One of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is to ask them to be conservative . . . If we want to be fair, we must teach the young to be revolutionaries, revolutionaries against the status quo. (Smith 21)
Status quo is Latin for you and me.

When I was a youth minister back in the day, as you kids say, I planned a mission trip to Uptown Baptist Church in Chicago. One of the most active kids in the group came and told me, in tears, that her parents would not let her go. Both of them were deacons and very active in the church. I told her I would talk to them. When I approached the father, he said he wasn’t sure it would be safe. I gave him my stock answer in those situations: every year we took a ski trip and I took forty young people, tied long pieces of fiber glass to their feet and threw them up on the side of a mountain. Never once did I have a parent question if they were safe. How could a mission trip we were going to spend in a church, when his daughter would literally almost never be alone or out of sight of an adult be more dangerous. His shoulders dropped and he said,

“I’m afraid if she goes up there and sees what is going on she won’t want to come back.” She didn’t get to go. She became a missionary.

Her parents were good people, just like the folks in the kitchen tonight are good people, and the school teachers, and the young parents returning to church. Hell, we’re all good people. I’m just not sure God’s point in breathing us into existence was for us to be good. We were created in God’s image to incarnate God’s liberating love and grace to the world around us, which means we are left with a bunch of questions, as I wrote about in a short column for our church newsletter:
The backdrop to Jesus’ birth was an occupied land in turmoil. The world was troubled and uneasy, and yet the angels came and sang about peace on earth. But how do we find peace?

How do we make sense and meaning out of our lives when most of the world is poorer, sicker, hungrier, and more frightened than we are? How do we focus on our families and the relationships that sustain us and find time and love to share with people in Iran and Indonesia? How do we invest ourselves in our local churches to do what it takes for us to become who God is calling us to be and find time and energy to generate hope and change in places like Darfur? How do we fight the good fights that need to be fought on our local levels to make sure our towns and cities are caring for our citizens and find energy and determination to bang our heads against the brick wall that is our national government to hold them accountable for their lack of coherent leadership? How do we save the whales, save the rainforest, stop human trafficking, feed the hungry, house the homeless, wage peace, demand equality, struggle with our own biases, cook dinner, get the kids to soccer practice, pay the bills, love our significant others, meet new people, care for our friends, take care of our bodies, get enough sleep, stay informed, have some fun, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?
I’m not going to answer those questions, by the way, I’m just throwing them out there.

We are waiting expectantly for the Birth, the Incarnation, the Sacred Scandal, the God’s release of Unadulterated, Undiluted, Unfiltered Love into the world. God call to us in this season is to be prepared: if we go to Bethlehem open-hearted, we won’t want to come back, or at least we won’t want to come back the same.


P. S. -- I have a short book review published here.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

advent journal: can we go caroling?

I didn’t grow up observing Advent, only Christmas. Even then the time was short: I have a December birthday, so my mother made a point not to put up the decorations until after my birth had been duly celebrated; my father liked the decorations to come down the day after Christmas, so the whole thing lasted about two weeks at our house. Short and sweet. As far as church went, no Advent observance meant December was the Christmas season, every service filled with carols as we worked our way to the manger.

My first real experience with Advent was through Episcopal friends when I was living in Fort Worth. One was the youth minister at the nearest Episcopal church and the other was one of the young people in my youth group who was from an Episcopal family. I remember going to the midnight service on Christmas Eve at All Saints Episcopal Church, with all the smells and bells, and being seated on the aisle at the exact point where the young man with the big ball of incense took it full circle and gave me a snoot full of scented smoke. I sneezed and cried the rest of the service. I’ve been an Advent fan ever since.

I love the intentional preparation, the meaningful repetition of the rituals, the lighting of the candles, all of it. And I sorely miss the Christmas carols. I know we get to sing them during Christmastide as we wait for the wise men to finally make it across the desert, but I miss singing them now, while we are waiting. I miss them because those songs are a good bit of what helps me to prepare, rather than just wait, and I feel like we’re unwittingly giving over the Christmas music to the malls and radio stations since we aren’t singing them in worship. I need someone other than Karen Carpenter to get me to Christmas.

greeting cards have all been sent
the Christmas rush is through
I just have one wish to make
a special one for you . . .
One of the things we have not done yet in our new place is put up a tree. We, like Mary and Joseph, I suppose, are in transition. We are renting a house here waiting for someone to buy or rent our house back in Marshfield so we can find our way to more permanent housing after the first of the year. We’ve worked hard to only unpack the basic things we need since we are going to have to repack it all in the Pod to move it to wherever it goes next. When we were filling it up in Massachusetts, we worked hard to pack in an order that would let us get to our most necessary things and our Christmas decorations were some of those essentials. When we got home from church this afternoon, I said to Ginger, “I’m going to find a tree. I can’t go any longer without a tree.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I can’t either.

Neither of us last long, sinus wise, in a house with a real tree, so I headed for the various big box stores around us to find an artificial one since we gave the our old one to the Marshfield Church before we left. I really haven’t been in stores much this season (I’m an online shopper) and was quite startled by the crowds and parking difficulties on a Sunday afternoon. I finally found our tree (pre-lit!) and assembled it in the living room in front of the window so our neighbors could see we were into the swing of the season. The lights have a built in twinkle to them and they warm up the house quite nicely. The will burn from now until the Magi arrive.

As I went about my Christmas tasks, I kept thinking about carols. As I put up the tree, I opened iTunes to see what Christmas music I had since the Christmas CDs are still in the Pod somewhere. The only full album I had was Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas. Just before the end of the record, he started to sing my favorite:
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven's all-gracious King."
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
I know one of the reasons I find such meaning in the carol is the images of darkness juxtaposed with hope have been deeply resonant as I have learned to live with depression. The song speaks, for me, to what I want to happen in and to my heart during Advent.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.
I did learn there is a verse that is omitted from most hymnals that would be worth singing this year. at least.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
One verse, in particular, touches me the most.
And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,

Who toil along the climbing way

With painful steps and slow,

Look now! for glad and golden hours

come swiftly on the wing.

O rest beside the weary road,

And hear the angels sing!
How can we wait to sing these words? How can we keep from singing? We know the song we all need to hear.
For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-encircling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
I can wait for Christmas, but I need to sing now. Can’t we start caroling?

P. S. – I couldn’t find Cockburn’s version to share, but here is a beautiful offering by Catie Curtis.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

advent journal: what I remember

A new acquaintance opened a door to some old memories for me this evening.

Thanks to the connections at CCBlogs, I found Peculiar Preacher, who turns out to be someone with whom I probably share any number of mutual friends since we both attended Baylor and spent a good deal of time in Texas. He wrote about going to see a new production of Man of La Mancha in Fort Worth and his dissent with the area theater critics about the quality and impact of the production.

My family was traveling between Africa and America (my parents were missionaries) in 1967 or 68 and we stopped in London for a couple of days to rest. My parents took my brother and me to see Man of La Mancha and we saw a rather legendary performance (I know now). It was the first time I had ever been to a stage production of that magnitude and quality. I was mesmerized by the experience and moved by the story. The Cervantes/Quixote character burrowed deep into my young heart and has never forsaken his residence there. I remember hearing “The Impossible Dream” before it became a lounge lizard anthem:

and the world will be better for this
that one man torn and covered with scars
still strove with his last ounce of courage
to reach the unreachable star
It’s hard to get a clean hearing of the song now.

My favorite character in the show was not Quixote, but Sancho Panza, his sidekick. In one of the final scenes, Quixote is dying and has allowed himself to believe his life has been a failure. Sancho refuses for that to be the last word. He begins to sing to the song to his dear friend and master, saying, “Don’t you remember? You must remember.” Quixote then revives to sing with his companion once more and then dies without taking the sense of failure with him. Such is the power of friendship.

I find myself in both men. I understand Quixote’s feelings of worthlessness when he is told his life has counted for nothing but tilting at windmills. Yes, I know the last sentence is a bit overly dramatic and I don’t know another way to say it. Part of what it has meant to be Milton over the years is feeling less than enough and always at least an arm’s length from whatever the dream might be. Those feelings didn’t consume all of my days, but they have been part of the package. I think those feelings have led me to live a lot like Sancho: I’m a good sidekick. I like being able to help those around me reach for their stars, feel like enough in their story, or simply live through to the other side of failure. Somewhere in the interchange, I get to feel like I’m enough as well.

Since I worked brunch today, Ginger and I both got to be home together tonight, each at our respective MacBooks writing away. I plugged the speakers into mine and turned on Gavin Bryars’ recording, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which is a classical piece built around the singing of a London street person. Here is Bryars’ description:
In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song - sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads - and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet". This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song - 13 bars in length - formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realized that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man's singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp's nobility and simple faith.
For all of our preparation during Advent, it’s difficult for us to access or replicate the desperation of the Incarnation on both sides of the equation. The second Broadway show I ever saw was Fiddler on the Roof. When the Russian soldiers come to tell the Jewish people they have to leave, one of them says, “Rabbi, wouldn’t this be a good time for the Messiah to come?” We tell the story and light the candles and sing the songs in ways that are meaningful and moving and full of good things, but rarely do we come to moments when we grab one another and say, “Don’t you remember? You must remember.” The divine desperation of the not-so-impossible dream that stands behind God putting skin on asks the same question: don’t you remember?
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries: "In the wilderness,
prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

A voice says, "Cry!"
And I said, "What shall I cry?"
“All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.”
(Isaiah 40:6-8)
We must remember.


Friday, December 07, 2007

advent journal: nothing to lose

When I went to work in the afternoon at the restaurant in Plymouth, I usually saw the pastry chef who did most of his work in the morning so the rest of us could have access to the prep area. He and I had worked together at another restaurant a couple of years back, so we had a good relationship and talked a lot about food. One of the comparisons I made was his job as a pastry chef was analogous to that of a scientist: he had to measure things exactly and weigh them out the same way each time in order for the tortes and tarts to come out the whey he wanted; my job as a line cook was more akin to improvisation: I knew my ingredients, I knew my kitchen, I knew the recipes – though those were given without amounts or measurements – and I responded to the tickets as they came in.

I thought about my analogy as I began working at the restaurant here in Durham: new menu, new people, new kitchen, new region – most all of it calling me to use what I know in new ways. My job for most of Wednesday night was to “run the line” or “expedite” the food, which means I took the ticket when it came in, called out what had been ordered, made sure the food went out on time, and told the food runner the table for the order and the places at each table for each plate. I had a blast. About nine-thirty, as business started to die down, we sent one of the line cooks home because he was working lunch the next day and Sous asked me to cover his station (I was going to get to cook!). At the same time, the floor manager came back and asked me to make her some dinner: “Anything you want,” she said. “I eat it all.”

I began to look around the line. I put a piece of salmon on the grill and, while it was cooking, took some of the diced roasted butternut squash we had and mixed it with some of the risotto. I also took some Brussels sprouts, maple syrup, and apple cider vinegar and fixed the little green guys my favorite way. None of what I did was on the menu, yet everything was right in front of me. The recipes came from what I already knew, but seemed new in my new environs. I didn’t make anything up, I just put the pieces I had together a bit differently. Such is the nature of improvisation.

As Wells talks about improvisation as his metaphor for Christian ethics, he says we have to get past some misconceptions about improv to make the metaphor work. Two of them are:

improvisation is about being original;
improvisation is about being witty or clever. (67)
The first thing that came to mind is my favorite piece of dialogue from the movie Fight Club:
Tyler, you are by far the most

interesting "single-serving" friend

I've ever met.

Tyler stares back. Jack, enjoying his own chance to be

witty, leans closer to Tyler.


You see, when you travel, everything

is small, self-contained--


The spork. I get it. You're very



Thank you.


How's that working out for you?




Being clever.



Well, uh... great.


Keep it up, then. Keep it right up.
I’ve turned those two things over in my mind a great deal today because they tempt me both: I like to feel original and witty, if not clever. Smart, too. The reality is, at the point where I dropped in to human history for my few minutes, there ain’t a whole lot of original, witty, clever, smart, or even funny that hasn’t already been done and done well. The best I can hope for is to learn from those before me and maybe, every so often, reconfigure things in a way that adds to what it means to be human.

Here’s another food example, which I use only because I was so knocked out by this dish. A new friend here in Durham opened his wine bar the night after we got to town last week. We went to check it out and it’s awesome. One of the dishes he had on the menu was cinnamon-crusted scallops. I’d never heard of the combination before. As I was writing this afternoon, I typed those three words into Google and was told I could find them on at least 214,000 web pages. As my seminary preaching professor once said, “Being original means knowing how to hide your sources.”

Thinking of him brings to mind another seminary moment. A large number of those in my circle of friends there had gone to college together, which means we had stayed up late together and had gone to a lot of movies together. By the time we got to seminary, a fair amount of our conversation was communicated in movie lines. (I still work that way.) One of the new additions to our circle in seminary said to me one day, “I need you to make a list of the ten movies I need to see so I can talk to you guys.” I still know him and most of the others and we still use the same lines, with a few new ones thrown in. We’re always looking for new material.

The thing that made it so easy for me to cook for the manager the other night, more than anything else, was her saying, “I eat it all.” The pressure was off. She wasn’t testing my abilities; she wanted dinner. I know how to make a good meal, so I did. The night went well calling the tickets because the folks I was working with on both sides of the line were pulling for me. The point wasn’t to see if I was going to screw up; the point was for us to work together to get good food out to the good people who had chosen to come to our place for dinner.

Last night on Grey’s Anatomy, one of the patients asked the doctor to wait to perform a rather precarious procedure until he wasn’t scared. One of the other doctors said, “It’s good that you’re scared; it means you still have something left to lose.” The sentiment worked in that moment, but it’s not a life lesson. Our Creator, the Grand Improviser who has the corner on Clever, Original, and Everything Else all the way down to Forgiveness and Grace, has left us nothing to lose. We are loved. We are valued. We are together. We are here on the human stage for our part of the play and we know, as I have said before (and John said of Jesus before me), we have come from God and we are going to God. Like JT says:
the secret of love is in opening up your heart
it’s okay to feel afraid

but don’t let that stand in your way

‘cause anyone knows that love is the only road

and since were only here for a while

might as well show some style

give us a smile
Remember: we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, not hecklers.


P. S. -- I've posted two new recipes -- here and here -- and neither one is original.