Monday, April 30, 2007

whom would jesus torture?

I’ve got something I’ve been carrying around for a few days I have to get on the page.

Last Wednesday, the NPR program Here & Now aired a segment on a congressional hearing on our government’s practice of “extraordinary rendition,” which sounds like more like a critique for a performance on American Idol than it does something that deserves congressional attention. As cool as it sounds, it’s not fun and games at all. Rendition is the practice of our government finding ways to hand over political prisoners to governments that will torture them for us, since our constitution forbids us from treating people that way. Our government has sent people to Syria and Egypt, among other places, just because we suspect they know something – not because we have anything more tangible than a hunch – and let those governments beat the living daylights out of these people.

If that doesn’t send a chill up your spine, wait until you hear what Michael Sawyer, a former CIA officer who helped create parts of the program, had to say in the hearing. When he was asked about the fact that many innocent people had been rendered, he said, “No one really cares what happens to these people. Let me rephrase that: I don’t care what happens to them.”

William Delahunt, one of our Massachusetts Congressmen, asked, “What about those who are ultimately proved innocent, even after being tortured.”

“Well, mistakes are made.”

“So they’re mistakes,” said Delahunt.

They’re not Americans; I really don’t care.” Then Sawyer laughed.

The congressman who had invited Sawyer defended his stance by saying something about our living in a time of war and having to do these things. He’s got it backwards: we are at war because we do these things. If our fear and anger has reduced us to people who don’t care about anyone’s life but our own, then we are not so easily distinguishable from the terrorists we are so determined to exterminate. Yes, I know we live in a dangerous world and there are people who would like to do us harm. I saw the Twin Towers fall just like Michael Sawyer did. But I refuse to accept his definition of reality. Torture will never sow the seeds of peace.

Yesterday, I found this new poster on the Amnesty International web site:


I like the sentiment, yet I have to say believing in America isn’t going to change much. These are days that call for an extraordinary rendition of our faith, a brazen articulation and incarnation of Jesus’ words:

“Love your enemies; be good to those who hate you.”
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
“Love everyone as I have loved you.”

Do we think Jesus was being hyperbolic or sentimental or unrealistic? Do we assume somewhere along the line the caveats he added at the end of those imperatives were somehow lost in translation? (“Love your enemies; be good to those who hate you – unless, of course, you can find someone else to torture them.”) At the heart of our incarnational theology is the reality that all of humanity is connected. When people die in Darfur, we die. When our government arranges for people to be tortured, we are tortured. Jesus pointed that out as well:

“When you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me.”

Torture is wrong. Rounding up people on the basis of fear and suspicion and flying them halfway around the world to throw them in prison without any rights is also wrong. Justifying any of it with the idea of making the world safer for us is both wrong and misguided. Jesus never called us to be safe. He didn’t call us to take care of ourselves first. He did call us to love the world, over and over again.

I don’t know if Michael Sawyer is a Christian, so I can’t speak to the ethic that guides him. I also don’t expect our government to be Christian in its actions because it’s not Christian. I do pray that American Christians will grow in their courage and compassion to be peacemakers instead of seekers of safety. The people being tortured are someone’s father or brother or son, someone’s wife or mother or daughter. Before they are suspects, or enemy combatants, or even terrorists they are human beings just like me. Whether they choose to be a neighbor or an enemy, they are people whom Jesus called me to love.

I can’t condone their torture under any circumstance.

No, that’s not an easy statement to live with. Our world is dangerous and there are people who would like to do damage to as many Americans as possible. That’s the life they have chosen. I have to decide whether my choices will be determined by my fear of being hurt by them or by my commitment to follow Jesus’ life and teaching.

You would think the choice was obvious.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, April 29, 2007

no end in sight

When we were in Istanbul a year ago, Ginger and I were both taken by the calls to prayer that went out from the mosques five times a day. Istanbul has more mosques than Dallas has Baptist churches, so the various calls wound together in a haunting sacred harmony that moved us both, even though we could not understand the words being sung. Then we noticed that we were the only ones on the street who stopped to listen or notice it was time to pray, a realization that saddened us both.

Our worship service has a fairly regular form, particularly at the beginning: the prelude is followed by announcements, then a choral introit to mark our move from having gathered to beginning to worship, and a responsive call to worship. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I’m about as attentive as the people we saw on those Istanbul streets until we get to the first hymn, but today the call to worship grabbed me and held on.

Here’s what we said:

Nothing we do is complete: No statement says all that should be said; no prayer fully confesses our faith; no set of goals or objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow or maybe die; we water seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise; we lay foundations that will need further development;

We provide yeast that leavens far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and we can find in that realization a sense of liberation that enables us to do something and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning; a step along the way.

It is an opportunity for divine grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the results.

We are workers, not master builders; we are prophets of a future that is not our own.
(adapted from a prayer by Oscar Romero)
On the day following a weekend where I worked twenty-five hours out of thirty-six, on a day that marks the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Darfur and a rally in Boston (among other cities) I was too tired to attend, on a day when more car bombs went off in Iraq, on a day when I awakened thinking of two or three things I had promised to do by today and had not yet completed, I was greeted with an invitation to come to terms – even to embrace – the finitude of my humanity: I’m not everything – perhaps not even enough -- and I’ll have to learn to live with that in Jesus’ name.

Then we sang:
There is a balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul
and
O, love that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer fuller be
George Matheson, who wrote the hymn, said this about his composition:
My hymn was composed in the manse of Innelan [Argyleshire, Scotland] on the evening of the 6th of June 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life.
What happened was he told his fiancée he was going blind and she walked out on him because she didn’t want to be married to a blind man. The words that came so quickly to him, in the face of his humanity, were “O, love that will not let me go.”

I am not enough and I am loved unfathomably. Talk about your creative tension.

The sermon was about Tabitha, whom Peter resurrected after she died because the widows she cared for implored him to do so. Her vocation in the church was to take care of the widows, among the most disenfranchised of people in that time. Though the church had other people, perhaps, who could have picked up the ministry, the widows convinced Peter that Tabitha’s life was essential to them and so he “woke her up.”

Ginger’s question for us, as she unpacked the story, was, “Is our church like Tabitha: so vital that we too need to wake up because people are counting on us?”

One of the terms we imported from French so we didn’t have to figure out a way to translate it and could sound cool when we say it is raison d’etre: reason for being. If we can’t be enough, then why are we here? There is more to life than quiet desperation or pompous grandiosity. Our reason for being is not to justify our existence or prove we are worthy of our creation. We matter because we’re breathing. We are wonderfully created in the image of God. Our raison d’etre, therefore, is to create and sustain life in what we say and do for and to one another.

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, one of my patients taught me the difference between thinking of herself as living with cancer, rather than dying with cancer. The change in vocabulary gave her resurrective possibilities even in her final days on the planet. I’m not called to be essential, important, or famous; I am called to be creative – to give life, to sustain life, to love life every chance I get.

I heard yesterday that, in his new book, Pat Robertson predicted the world was going to end today, April 29, 2007. That’s one way to kill your book sales. Since he’s in Virginia, I’m assuming he was talking about Eastern Daylight Time, which means I’ve got about an hour and a half once I finish writing. My guess is I’ll be here for breakfast and beyond. The unintentional humor in his prediction notwithstanding, I don’t find much that helps me. The One he’s expecting is coming with fangs out and teeth bared to wreak havoc on the world. Telling us all to look busy because Jesus is coming doesn’t call us to live, but to fear. The point of the Rapture is to make sure we know some of us are getting left behind.

It sounds like he’s expecting a bomb in Gilead.

I can’t get it all done. When my life comes to an end, I will leave things unfinished. (Hell, I’m doing that already.) I will never be enough and I can’t allow myself to be satisfied with what I perceive as my limitations. Tabitha woke up because of the creative power of those around her. When I take my place in the creative lineage of the people of God who are committed to incarnating love any and every way they can, I am taking my place in the realm of God that is unending. I am a prophet of a future that is not my own. However my life comes to a close, whatever happens to this planet we inhabit, love never dies.

And it never, never lets go.

Peace,
Milton

baby got book

You have to see this:




Peace,
Milton

Thursday, April 26, 2007

poetic punctuation

I’ve got a poem I’ve been working with for awhile about punctuation. I decided now is a good time to talk about it because of the poem of the day from Poets.org, which deals with the same subject.

Appeal to the Grammarians
by Paul Violi
from (Hanging Loose Press)

We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we're capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
For speechlessness and all its inflections,
For up-ended expectations,
For every time we're ambushed
By trivial or stupefying irony,
For pure incredulity, we need
The inverted exclamation point.
For the dropped smile, the limp handshake,
For whoever has just unwrapped a dumb gift
Or taken the first sip of a flat beer,
Or felt love or pond ice
Give way underfoot, we deserve it.
We need it for the air pocket, the scratch shot,
The child whose ball doesn't bounce back,
The flat tire at journey's outset,
The odyssey that ends up in Weehawken.
But mainly because I need it—here and now
As I sit outside the Caffe Reggio
Staring at my espresso and cannoli
After this middle-aged couple
Came strolling by and he suddenly
Veered and sneezed all over my table
And she said to him, "See, that's why
I don't like to eat outside."
The poem made me laugh out loud and also made me go back to my poem and make the necessary choices to finish it. Here is my offering.
Can You Help Me?

I would gladly give up
the exclamation point!
or eliminate the ellipsis . . .
in exchange for more
interrogative punctuation.

The single combination of
curve and dot is not
enough to delineate
and describe the
questions I have.

I need marks that
reflect what I’m asking:
is there any milk?
is not the same question as
will you forgive me?

How are you?
The question is in dire
need of punctuation to
differentiate between
compassion and pleasantry.

I have casual questions,
rhetorical questions,
nagging questions,
philosophical questions.
You're up to the challenge;

you did so well with the semi-colon.
That’s all for today. Period.

Peace,
Milton

a sticker for everyone


Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

a good word

Affirmation is life-giving.

When I was teaching high school, I started putting stickers on vocabulary quizzes (and then on other papers and tests) for good grades. The kids went nuts over them. I was teaching junior Honors Brit Lit and they were clamoring for Sponge Bob stickers. I know how they feel. I started back to Weight Watchers a couple of weeks ago. They give you a star for every five pounds you lose. A small, very disposable, gold star. I got my second one on Tuesday. I think I'm as excited about the little sticker as I am about losing the weight.

A good word goes a long way.

Maggi Dawn affirmed me this week by giving me a Thinking Blogger award. I greatly appreciate it. (I would also like to say thank you to two other folks who did the same while I was writing my Lenten Journal. I intended to follow through after Easter and lost track of your comments.) The award is a meme that began with this post.

One of the things I like about the meme -- besides getting an award (my first) -- is it's designed to foster greater affirmation. Maggi mentioned me as one of five blogs that make her think; my task is to do the same. Here are some folks who feed me:

tgraypots web log is a wonderful mixture of pottery, faith, and a fair amount of pizza, as well as other cool food. Reading Tom's work has led me to some great stuff on learning to eat locally and ethically. The passion and tenderness with which he writes is contagious.

Spilt Milk is a blog I discovered recently. Tee's writing is thoughtful and challenging. She writes about some of the political issues in our world with a personal touch -- particularly when it comes to Christian - Muslim - Jewish relations. Her writings and links took me to both Hometown Baghdad and Raising Yousuf, Unplugged.

Look What Love Has Done
is a blog with which I've had a connection almost since I started blogging. She was one of the first people to begin to comment with some regularity. Beth writes beautifully and poignantly about what she is learning about faith and family in these days. Her latest post is about affirming her son. She's a good mom.

Closeted Pastor is a new find for me. Cecilia writes about pastoring and working through not yet being able to come out to her congregation. I'm hopeful that she will find affirmation and encouragement here among the blogs to help her move toward feeling more integrated. I'm thankful I get to be a part of the journey.

Simply Simon is writing about "life, food, faith, and the city" -- the city being Melbourne, Australia. Simon is a professor, writer, cook, and all around interesting guy. There's lots of stuff going on at his place. He's one who helps me to keep paying attention.

There are others that move me (as it is, I managed to sneak in a couple). Today, these are folks I want to affirm as blogs that make me think. I'm grateful for the connections.

Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

naming the animals

In the weight of these times, I found myself looking for a little relief tonight. And, since we are in the waning days of National Poetry Month, I offer yet another poem.

Naming the Animals
“Our job is to name the animals,” she said.
“All of them?” he asked.
“Why? Where do you have to be?”
She smiled.

“Aardvark -- your turn,” she said.
“Dog.”
“Platypus.”
“Pig.”

“That’s a bit plain”, she said.
“Well -- what would you call it?”

(pause)

“Pig is OK, I guess.”
“Keep going,” he said.

“Salamander.”
“Sheep.”
“Okapi.”
“Cow.”
“Gazelle.”
“Fish.”

“I have to stop you,” she said.
“Why?”
“Fish won’t do.”
“But wasn’t it my turn?” he asked.

(long pause)

“Poisson,” she said.
“Pwa -- who?”
“I switched to French."
“It’s still a fish,” he said.
Peace,
Milton

Monday, April 23, 2007

global days for darfur

Yes, I know I'm posting a couple of times today. I wanted to talk about the blog tour, but the thing most on my mind is the Global Days for Darfur initiative taking place this week around the world thanks to the Save Darfur Coalition. The volume of voices calling for significant action to save the people of Darfur is rising and things are beginning to happen. This could be a pivotal week in holding our world leaders accountable for changing the plight of the people who are being raped, starved, and murdered in the Sudan.

Please take time to look at the site.

You can find an event in your area here.

You can download a faith action packet with worship resources here.

The time is now for us to step forward and save our brothers and sisters.


Peace,
Milton

(Photographs are from SaveDarfur.org)

blog tour

There's a new site worth visiting (actually a new version of something already going pretty well called The High Calling of Our Daily Work, which looks at what it means to be called to our vocation whether or not that means we are professionally spiritual. They have some great stuff. I particularly like the categories things they explore: work and family, gifts and talents, leadership, excellence, integrity, attitude, professional relationships, and service. The site is easy to navigate and full of good things.

You can sign up for a free membership here.

Then you can take the blog tour to some of these sites to see who hangs around at High Calling:

Gordon Atkinson
L. L. Barkat
Gina Conroy
Craver VII
CREEations
Mary DeMuth
Karl Edwards
Emdashery
Every Square Inch
Green Inventions
Amy Goodyear
Marcus Goodyear
Al Hsu, Jennwith2ns
Charles Foster Johnson
Mike McLoughlin
Eve Nielsen
Naked Pastor
Ramblin Dan
Charity Singleton
Stacy
Camy Tang
Writer… Interrupted

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, April 22, 2007

the country of marriage

We are more together than we know,
how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?

-- Wendell Berry, “The Country of Marriage”


Ginger and I celebrated our seventeenth wedding anniversary yesterday. We both had full workdays: I had three functions and she had a funeral, a wedding, and a fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration to attend. At ten o’clock last night we pulled out of the driveway to make the forty-minute trip into Boston and the Hard Rock Café, where we go every year because we got engaged at the Hard Rock in Dallas. (Last year, we were at the Hard Rock in Athens.) I didn’t have a function on Friday night, so we had talked about celebrating then, but neither of us wanted to settle for not being there on the actual day. We got home a little after one and went to church feeling tired this morning.

But it was a good kind of tired.

April 21, 1990 was Earth Day, Paula Abdul Saturday (according to VH-1), and our wedding day. In the seventeen years since, we’ve shared four addresses in three different towns and two states, had five Schnauzers, two washing machines, five computers, and six cars. She’s seen me go from working as a minister to an English teacher to a minister again and then a chef. I typed and edited as she got her doctorate. We had no way to anticipate then where life would take us. All we knew was we wanted to be together, wherever we were going. We knew we were moving to Boston, but we had no idea we would be living the life we are today. Regardless of our address, we have made a home in the country of marriage, an unbounded land that calls us each day to a journey for two.

From time to time, Ginger asks me where I think I would be if we had not married. My answer has always been the same: “I don’t think I would be alive.” I don’t mean to be morose or hyperbolic; I don’t know how to picture having lived these years without her. When I look back over these years – my struggle to find my true sense of vocation, my depression, to mention a couple of things – I know I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve been sustained and even reclaimed by the way she has loved me. Maybe I answer the question that way because the prospect is unimaginable to me: I don’t want to know what it would have been like to live without her.

If this sounds over the top, then so be it. And I have one more thing to say. I’ve gotten to do some pretty cool stuff in my life. I’ve worked hard to learn a lot of things and tried my hand at any number of jobs and hobbies. I’m proud of my work and my accomplishments. And what matters more than anything else in my life is I got to be Ginger’s husband. Regardless of how the rest of my days add up, to have spent these years with her make mine an extraordinary life.

I am a proud citizen of the country of marriage.

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, April 19, 2007

response

I’m thankful I woke up this morning late enough to miss NBC’s airing of the video of Cho Seung-Hui that he mailed before he started shooting people in Blacksburg. I don’t want to see it. I know I don’t need to. What I did read were the anonymous comments from one angry person to Tracy’s wonderful post at Spilt Milk. If you could scream when you write, this guy was yelling at the top of his lungs about how crazy and angry all the Muslims were. I don’t think he saw his own irony. I read a sad story on Raising Yousuf about a Palestinian woman’s difficulty leaving the Amsterdam airport just because she was a Muslim woman.

The level of violence we reach in the name of “securing the homeland,” or whatever name we use to say we want to be safe, makes me angry. To avoid adding to the violence and turmoil, the best things I know to do are add a new recipe and turn to poetry.

Response

Fear is hand delivered:
trench-coated high
schoolers, hijackers,
car bombers,
suicidal shooters.

Fighting to feel safe
is like eating gravy with a fork.

Get on a plane.
Go to class.
Drop off the kids.
Cross the street.
See what happens.

Life doesn’t follow
an ascending trajectory.

Fearing and fighting
are not our only options.
We can choose faith --
drop our guards
and our guns.

We won’t feel safe, secure
or even in control.
Waging peace
has never been
for the faint of heart.
Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

blogganelle

I found a new blog recently called Poetry Thursday. They have all kinds of cool stuff -- columnists, writing prompts, thoughts on poetry, and poems themselves. One of the posts this week talked about the villanelle, a very strict poetic form that requires not only a specific rhyme scheme, but also the repetition of particular lines. Two of the best known villanelles are Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night" and Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art."

The form attracted me today as a metaphor for life. In these days full of violence and questioning, it struck me that we have to work to find a form for our expression and action. As we try to figure out how to respond to the world around us on multiple levels, we need some sort of rhyme scheme, if you will: some way to not only articulate our faith but to give it form in a way that connects us in the same manner that a great poem speaks from deep to deep.

All of that said, I took my shot at a villanelle today -- my first successful effort. I don't claim to be anywhere close to Thomas or Bishop, nor do I claim it necessarily lives up to the metaphor; I'm just putting it out there.

Blogganelle

I call my blog “don’t eat alone”

and wish for friends at every meal

as I keep cooking in our home


or at the Inn that I don’t own

my joy with food I can’t conceal

I call my blog “don’t eat alone”


the kitchen is where love is grown

at least, for me, that’s been the deal

and so I cook to make a home


‘cause home is not a place I’ve known

since I grew up on wing and wheel

I call my blog “don’t eat alone”


the ache for home lives in my bones

belonging I most want to feel

so I keep cooking my way home


following crumbs that love has strewn

to what is real – (more than ideal)

I call my blog “don’t eat alone”

as I keep cooking in our home
Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

common bond

Besides trying to figure out how to create another sidebar on my blog, I spent a good part of the evening reading how various folks have responded to the killings at Virginia Tech. My heart aches for the families and friends of those who were killed, for all the VT students who never imagined their college days would be so indelibly marked by such an horrific tragedy, and for the school and city officials who have become the targets of so much of the rage that can’t find any other resting place.

We woke up this morning to Matt and Meredith sitting on the campus lawn in Blacksburg with a “special report.” They, along with who knows how many different media outlets, both large and small, descended on the college so we all could have up to the minute coverage. They went to commercial with a special logo and subdued music. One of the reporters did a small piece interviewing a handful of students and closed by saying something like, “They are still trying to figure out how to get on with their lives.” They’re going to be trying to figure that out for a long, long time.

The phrase that hung with me was one I heard repeated several times today: this was the largest killing spree in our nation’s history. Hyperbole or not, the statement is jarring. In all our years as a nation, not until 2007 did we have a day when a person killed over thirty people at once and then killed himself. For all practical purposes, he was a suicide bomber. Blacksburg, it seems, is not that far from Baghdad.

Our local news tonight began drawing lines from Boston to Blacksburg, making note of the kids from New England who were killed. Part of what the news people incarnate is our desire to not let those folks hurt alone. We want them to know this is our pain, not just theirs. Some from our neighborhood died too, we say. In a week that marks the anniversaries of the deaths at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and the shootings at Columbine, we are all working hard to be galvanized by our pain, to share the weight of sorrow, to walk together through the valley of the shadow.

It’s good and important work.

We come together because we find comfort and strength, because we can incarnate love and grace to one another; because it hurts too damn much to be alone. Here, at the heart of our pain, comes the call to widen the circle of those who hurt like we do. Hardly a day goes by that thirty people don’t die in Iraq because of a suicide bomber. The people in Jerusalem and Gaza live with the same fear. This week the same thing has happened in Algiers and Afghanistan. Three hundred and thirty die everyday in Darfur. Everyone who dies is someone’s daughter, mother, son, father, friend. Our shared grief is the common denominator.

Since I grew up far away from my extended family, I didn’t go to a family funeral until I was almost out of high school. My first funeral during my seminary pastorate was only the second funeral I had ever attended. The funeral director in town was a retired minister and a great guy. He saw the raw fear in my eyes as I met with him and the family. “Come by in the morning,” he said, “and I’ll show you what to do.”

The man who died was a poor country man. His wife found him on the floor when she came back in from the garden. They were dirt poor. If they had lived in the city they would have been homeless. In the country, they lived in a shanty that was falling down around them. I drove up to their house and the widow met me at the door. I was at a loss as to what to do and, as she expressed her sorrow, I blurted, “I know how you feel.”

She stopped crying and looked up at me with astonishment. “Do you really?”

“No,” I stammered. “I don’t. I just didn’t know what to say.”

About that time, one of the women of the church – a widow for twenty years – knocked on the door and came in all in one motion. She kept moving until she was sitting next to the woman and had her arm around her shoulder. “Vergie,” she said.

“Thank you,” said the woman.

I watched the two women hold the sorrow like an infant, as though they had given birth to hope in that moment. After a little while, the woman looked up at me and said, “He was a good man.” And she began to tell me stories.

I have no idea what it feels like to be a student at Virginia Tech any more than I can grasp what it feels like to live in Baghdad or Darfur. In the past couple of years, I’ve stood with two close friends at their parents’ funerals. I don’t know what that feels like either. What I do know, from being with those friends, is it mattered I was there. It mattered that I called, that I noticed, that I reached out. I’ve missed some of those moments in the lives of other friends and it mattered when I didn’t show up as well.

When we talk about Darfur, the prevailing response, often, is we feel overwhelmed by the distance, by the problem, by our own pain. That we can feel a sense of solidarity with the students in Blacksburg gives me hope that we can find a sense of connection and commitment to the pain beyond our comfort zone. Grief does not have to drive us to fear or isolation. Clamoring for safety doesn’t bring much in the way of comfort. Compassion – voluntarily entering one another’s pain – is how we both grow and heal.

Peace,
Milton

Monday, April 16, 2007

storm story

We wanted to be a part
of the grand equation:
a nasty nor’easter,
an astronomically high tide,
a new moon --
so we set out in the dark
and the cold, blowing rain
toward the sea wall
to see the storm.
The wind drove us home.

This morning we could see
the flooded road
from our kitchen window.
“Why do you think
they call it Canal Street?”
she asked, smiling.
The tide was coming in
again as I left for
work, thankful to have
four wheel drive.

We like to have storm
stories, telling where we
were when the winds
howled and whirled,
when the tree fell or
the power went out:
stories of survival.
I was miserable walking
last night, but that's not
how I'll remember it.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, April 15, 2007

new eyes to see

One of the things about Jesus' healing miracles is he asked different things of different people. Sometimes he simply said, "You're healed" and that was that. On other occasions, he asked questions first or told them to do something. Jesus healed one blind man by putting mud on his eyes and then telling him to go and wash. The first time, the man could only see partially. The people look like trees, he said. Jesus repeated the application of the mud and the man could see after he washed a second time.

Sometimes we gain our vision gradually, if not incrementally.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has offered the world an unprecedented view of the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. In conjunction with Google Earth (a program you can download for free), the museum has made it possible for us to see current satellite photographs of the areas of Darfur that have been plundered, burned, and destroyed. By clicking on the links, you can find photographs, video, and personal testimony to what has happened and what is going on now. Whatever we choose to do or not to do, we can no longer plead ignorance.

If you're looking for some way to be a part of the solution, savedarfur.org is organizing Global Days for Darfur -- April 23-30. They provide ways to find out what is happening in your area. You can also plan an event and register with them to get the word out.

I wrote a few days back about the move to use the upcoming Olympics as a way to pressure China into action on Darfur. Things have moved quickly on that front according to this New York Times article.

I also found new eyes to see a part of the world we hear a lot about, but see very little. Healing Iraq is a blog with words and pictures about life during wartime. Hometown Baghdad is a video blog put together by some guys living there who travel around with hidden cameras to chronicle what life is like. Here is a sample of their work.




After watching and reading, I feel like the man might have felt after the first mud was washed from his eyes: I can see things moving, I just can’t quite make them out. For all of the noise that gets made about Iraq on our side of the water, I had very little idea of how people went about their daily lives. I did notice that, while all our news outlets talked about the bombing of the Iraqi parliament and what it meant that the Green Zone had been compromised, the Iraqi bloggers talked about the loss of the bridge – that’s what mattered most to them.

We are being given a chance to see in ways we have not before. May we wash our eyes clean so we can see clearly and respond with intentionality and determination.

Oh -- and apropos of nothing, there's a new recipe.

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, April 12, 2007

do it again

From a food standpoint, the wedding this coming Saturday is unusual by Inn standards: it’s all appetizers. Since there is a food minimum the bride and groom must spend to have a Saturday night wedding, there are a lot of appetizers: 330 of each item. And there are ten items. I’ve spent the last couple of days in fairly repetitive motion getting ready for the weekend. Today I finished wrapping the last 150 of the scallops in bacon, cutting and coating all 330 of the sesame chicken, and cutting, seasoning, and cooking nearly 700 crostini for two cold apps. Tomorrow I’ll work on a couple of terrines for the cheese trays, cut the veggies for the vegetable platters, and finish the chicken satay – another 330 pieces.

My days are rarely as solitary or repetitive as today. Since I had some things I wanted to do this afternoon, I went in early – about nine – and was the only one in either kitchen until about one-thirty. When I have to do things over and over, I tend to turn it into a puzzle of sorts, trying to figure out how to do it most efficiently. I laid down a long piece of plastic wrap on the stainless steel table and then put the bacon slices out in a row – about five feet of them, cut in half – with the bowl of scallops at one end and the baking sheet at the other. I moved down the row, placing one piece of scallop on the end of each piece of bacon, and then rolled each one up and put it on the sheet. My system let me make 150 of the scrumptious little things in about fifteen minutes.

When my brother was in college, he worked one summer in a Solo Cup factory. His job, eight hours a day, was to stand in an assembly line and when the person next to him had stacked the cups he pulled a plastic bag over them and moved them on to the person with the twist ties. He was the only one on the line who had not worked there for at least ten years. I worked six hours yesterday and five today because I didn’t want to do one long day of repetition, much less a decade.

When we were more short-staffed during the winter months, Chef ordered some pre-made hors d’oeuvres from one of our food suppliers because we couldn’t spare anyone to wrap the scallops by hand. The appetizers were of good quality and helped us meet our obligations, but it troubled me that they all looked exactly the same, even if they looked better than what I can do myself. As I worked today, I noticed the scallops didn’t look exactly alike even before I tucked them into their pork-flavored shrink wrap. When things start looking too perfect or too consistent, chances are we’ve lost the human touch.

One of the things I’ve learned to appreciate about Chef is he doesn’t demand the plates in the restaurant go out looking exactly the same. If you come in and order the Statler Chicken Breast, you’ll get garlic mashed potatoes, the vegetable du jour, and the wild mushroom sauce, but how the plate is presented is up to whoever is cooking that night. It frustrated me at first, but then I realized I was frustrated because I thought my way was the right way and the others were not so enlightened. I had to let it go. We aren’t stacking cups; we’re making meals.

Chances are most of the people ordering the food won’t notice what we notice back in the kitchen. Chef loves garnishes (or, as Ginger calls them: “the extra green stuff that messes up the plate”). He likes to think of new and different things to finish the plate before it goes out. I imagine few, if any, of the diners get the same kick out of the finishing touches as he does, but they are his way of putting his signature on the dishes he makes over and over. What we send out as one in a series, the customer receives as one of a kind. When one of the folks at the wedding picks up a scallop Saturday night, they won’t be wondering why it doesn’t look like the other 329. They will encounter one scallop wrapped in one half piece of bacon. They will probably not stop to wonder who wrapped up the little jewel anymore than I think about the Solo cup people with any sort of regularity. They don’t think about my working to create a couple of hundred individual encounters.

Much of life is spent repeating. We get up, go to work or school or wherever we go. We have some sort of routine that calls us to do the same things over and over more than we do new things. In the midst of the day to day, the things we do over and over are not necessarily the same each time, any more than all those scallops look exactly alike. The details are never exact from time to time. We move, like a server passing hors d’oeuvres, offering what we have to those with whom we come in contact. We may feel like we offer the same thing over and over, but those who receive it see something new, even as they miss the details we worked to display. Or they may see it as a part of something bigger.

Why should they notice the appetizers Saturday night? After all, they’re coming to a wedding. My job is to help create an evening that will help build an indelible memory in their lives for years to come. The food matters, but it’s not the point.

Except for me.

Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

once more, with filling

As I was eating breakfast, the dentist's office called to tell me I was supposed to get my teeth cleaned in March and missed my appointment. There are probably a couple of therapy sessions full of reasons why I didn't go in March. Tonight, I'm choosing to deal with them in poetry.

Once More, with Filling

I’m not sure why I feel the

need to say anything at

all except your fear is worse

than mine. You have to

have a filling replaced. You,

who treasures her teeth, who is

so faithful to brush and floss.

My mouth has more drilling sites

than a Saudi oil field. This is new

to you, not me. “It’s not so bad,”

I say because I am not the one

subject to the white-knuckled,

chair-gripping, teeth-clenching truth

that you’re never numb enough.


I sit down in the waiting

room and open my novel;

behind the closed door they hook

up the suction on your lip.

The dentist brandishes a loaded

syringe, aiming – she says -- to kill

the pain. As the novacaine kicks

in, she dons a mask and blocks the light

with her face, and closing on your

biscuspids, her drill droning, she hides

her glee behind the paper stretched

across her smile. You scream, but I don’t

hear. I finish one chapter and start

another; she continues her attack.


We trust the torturer since we can’t

see inside our own mouths. She talks

about decay and plaque, tells us

our gums are receding, as she pokes

and scrapes and commands us to spit.

We can only lie there slack-jawed,

imagining what life would be

if we didn’t believe this gum-gasher,

this dealer of dread, this sadistic
seer
and sayer of all things teeth.
We are falling prey to a diabolical

plot to control us with spikes

and mirrors and laughing gas.


I drive you home, wondering

why we don’t trust our tiny

tusks to Crest and Scope, brushing

and flossing, saving ourselves

the terror and torment of

these trips, skipping these bouts of

anxiety. Would we find we don’t

need the pain she offers, or would

we count the years by the teeth

that dropped from our heads,

even as we saved them in a shallow

bowl, until there was no recourse

but to slink into her lair and gum

the words, “Pwease hewp me.”

Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

acquired taste

About a month ago I got an invitation to do a cooking demonstration for a group at the church where Ginger used to serve. They asked me to cook something and talk about how cooking feeds my soul. Today was the day.

I chose two recipes. One is an old family favorite, Taco Salad, which was what we had for lunch most every Saturday. The other was one I adapted from a recipe I found in Food & Wine and I called Brussels and Berries, which would have been something I would never have eaten growing up. Brussels sprouts are an acquired taste for me, as are several other vegetables and several dark beers. What is it within us that calls us to acquire tastes – to come to a new understanding through experience and effort -- that doesn’t necessarily come easily or naturally? What changes?

When it comes to food, sometimes changing the way it’s prepared opens the door to a new experience. I remember hating zucchini as a kid because it only showed up in a casserole my mom made. I didn’t know of it any other way. My mom is a great cook, but even the memory of the way that casserole looked and smelled makes me want to run screaming from the room. She didn’t make it often, but when she did my brother and I had to stare it down at the table since we were expected to eat what was put in front of us. Once I met the squash in something other than that dish, I acquired a taste for it. I love to cut it in thick, long pieces and put it on the grill in the summertime. I even grow it in our small garden.

I grew Brussels sprouts last year as well. They look a lot different in the garden than they do in the store. The little cabbage heads grow on a thick, woody and leafy stalk and they take forever to do so. I planted in May and didn’t harvest until late September. What I learned about cooking them was to do more than treat them like little cabbages. Instead of just boiling them (there’s not too much that tastes good boiled), I learned to half them and drop them into a hot pan with a little oil and sear them. It makes them crisp on the outside and brings out a nutty taste; from there I can add different kinds of liquid to soften and flavor them (I’ve got a good recipe here).

Let me put it this way: Brussels sprouts are the Tom Waits of vegetables.



Peace,
Milton

Monday, April 09, 2007

national poetry month

Though we are nine days into April, I think there's still time to notice that it's National Poetry Month.


I offer a selection of links to help you celebrate and explore.

Here are some places you can sign up to get a poem everyday by email:

The Academy of American Poets Poem a Day
The Borzoi Reader
The Writer's Almanac (continues all year)

Here are some great resource sites:

The Academy of Amerian Poets
The League of Canadian Poets
A list of American Poets Laureate (with links)
The Favorite Poem Project (with videos)

Here are some poets worth knowing (not an exhaustive list)

Nathan Brown
Jimmy Santiago Baca
Naomi Shihab Nye
Linda Pastan
W. S. Merwin
Wendell Berry
Billy Collins
Mary Oliver
Stanley Kunitz

And finally, I offer a poem. The beach here in Green Harbor changes everyday. At high tide, the waves come all the way to the sea wall and when they retreat they leave something different each time.

What the Tide Takes Away

We walk the same stretch of sand
Whenever the tide is low
To see how the waves that wandered
All the way up to the sea wall
Repainted the beach
Before they retreated.

We walk on the damp, packed sand
Dropping our words among the rocks and driftwood,
Among the shells and sea glass,
Pounding our feelings
Into the ground with every step,
Leaving them behind like footprints.

We are not walking away.
We are walking together,
Leaving a trail of words
And emotions in the sand
At low tide, at sunset,
On our way home.

Tonight while we sleep
The tide will come, the waves will
Wash back up to the sea wall
And wipe the sand clean,
Along with our footprints,
A quiet, grand gesture of forgiveness.

Here's to all the place words can take us.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, April 08, 2007

lenten journal: life, clearly

I began my evening by checking in on Bloglines to see what various people had to say about their Easters. I found these words from Diana Butler Bass quoted on Scott’s blog, Nachfolge:

The resurrection is not an intellectual puzzle. Rather, it is a living theological reality, a distant event with continuing spiritual, human, and social consequences. The evidence for the resurrection is all around us. Not in some ancient text, Jesus bones, or a DNA sample. Rather, the historical evidence for the resurrection is Jesus living in us; it is the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, bringing back to life that which was dead. We are the evidence.
I love the heart of what she is saying and I got tripped up by the word evidence because I’m not one who feels my faith is something that needs to be proved or defended. When we studied apologetics in seminary, I never got past the idea that we were somehow saying we were sorry for something, even though apology has more than one definition. I think of evidence, first, as a courtroom word, but it, too, has more meanings: the etymology of the word from the Latin means “obvious” and “clear.”

We are those who make the Resurrection obvious or clear.

Here is what was clear to me today. I woke up this morning thinking about the last time we celebrated Easter. Ginger and I were in Athens as a part of her sabbatical on Orthodox Easter.
About ten till twelve, the priest went behind the doors and all the lights went out. Then he emerged with a big candle -- a torch, really -- and those closest clamored to light their candles from his and then began to move through the rest of the congregation. When all the candles were lighted, we all began to file out into the square in front of the church. The priest followed, chanting the whole time, until midnight came. He cried out in a loud voice, the bells rang, and fireworks went off in the street behind us. Everyone began to turn to one another:

“Christos anisti!”

“Alithos anisti!”


The translations are (according to the guy at the hotel):


“Christ is risen!”
“He has really done it!”


(I kept imagining a Greek teenager translating that: “He is so resurrected!”)
The day here was clear and cold. The winds of resurrection had a bite to them, but that didn’t stop my favorite tradition at our church. We have two services on Easter: a reflective service with Communion at nine and a family service at eleven. Ginger introduced the second service by saying, “If you came for a reflective service, this is not it.” After the service comes the best part: the egg hunt in the cemetery. In a tradition that long proceeds our time here in Marshfield, the children pour out of the church building and into the graveyard looking for the brightly colored eggs the youth group had hidden, if by hidden you mean left in fairly plain sight. Even in the cold, the parents and other adults stood as the children let life loose among the tombstones. (Note to self: ask for a good digital camera for Christmas.)

Many of the names on the markers are pivotal to the history of our congregation; some can still be found in those who fill the pews. The children in the cemetery made clear what’s been handed down, what is alive among and within us. We live among the tombs, well acquainted with death. We have all come, as Julie Miller sings, by way of sorrow. The graves are real and they are not the final word. Life goes on beyond the grave, beyond ourselves, beyond all we can imagine.

One of the kids was baptized today. In our UCC tradition, one would normally assume I was talking about a baby, but the little girl is almost ten. Her family was not in church when she was born and she asked to be baptized. I had the privilege of sitting next to her during worship. I, too, was baptized on Easter Sunday. When Ginger asked her if she wanted to follow Christ, the girl nodded her head energetically before she remembered she was supposed to speak the answer: “I do.” Her actions made her heart clear before she even opened her mouth.

Easter is the one holiday I don’t cook at home. The day is so full Ginger and I have not figured out a way to do everything and get home and eat before we fall asleep for the afternoon. Our intentional family here in Massachusetts is a little scattered, so we met in Boston at Stella for brunch. The food was yet another testimony to life (if you live anywhere near Boston, go eat there. Really. Quit reading and get to eating), as was the Easter Hippo I got in my basket. We sat at the table for a couple of hours, as is our custom, eating and drinking, talking and laughing, marking another moment in our lives together that makes clear we are better together than any one of us would be on our own.

I closed my Ash Wednesday reflection with these words:
One of my favorite benedictions in church is “The Lord bless you in your going out and you’re coming in.” When you think about it, that’s pretty much what we do on a daily basis: we go out and we come in. Either way, we’re blessed. I like the image of God in that blessing because God's presence is infused into every small and seemingly insignificant move we make filling our lives with the substance and flavor of Love, over and over and over again.
The truth in those words is clearer to me now than it was some forty days ago. Here are a few more words I wrote this morning before church, at Ginger’s request:
In the Garden

“He is not here,”

the angel said --

speaking of Jesus --

the only time those words
held any comfort.


“Where did he go?”

she asked,
confused
and mostly
afraid
that things
had gone
from dead to worse.


“Mary,” he said

and she came to life

among the tombs,

the stone rolled away

from the door of her heart.
Christ is risen. He really did it!

Peace,
Milton

PS – for those of you who found this blog during Lent, my writing continues beyond the season, usually five or six days a week. I hope you’ll continue to check in. Peace.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

lenten journal: dawn on me

I see more sunsets than sunrises at this stage of my life.

Tonight, I stepped out of the kitchen to take a short break just as the sun had disappeared below the horizon. Just above the silhouettes of the rooftops, the sky was still bright, but as my eye moved upward the brightness turned to a burnished orange and then through whatever spectrum of shades it takes to get to azure blue. From the azure, the blue deepened, as if my eye were sinking into the depths of the ocean rather than the expanse of the sky, until the blue was black enough for the stars to shine. Night fell softly like snow or a gentle rain rather than a guillotine.

Daylight comes the same way, just in reverse.

Most of the nights during Lent have required of me to write in the dregs of the day, so I’m usually under a deadline since we choose to say our days begin once the clock strikes twelve. The reason our days begin then is it was the only way to standardize time – or so said Sir Sanford Fleming, who developed the idea so trains could run efficiently. To standardize things required an arbitrary starting point: midnight. We‘ve continued to play with our clocks over the years, acting as if we can make time do what we say, but a day doesn’t begin in the middle of the night.

My days usually begin with Gracie, our youngest Schnauzer, pawing at my head to wake me up. If that doesn’t work, she lets out one pointed yelp right in my ear and then licks me when my eyes open. All of this happens somewhere between six-thirty and seven. As the days grow longer, her paw will move into action earlier, I assure you. Summertime around here means the windows are open all through the house. Most New England homes don’t have central air, so we turn on fans and pray for a sea breeze. Those early summer mornings are filled with waking sounds of birds and waves and people in our neighborhood, all sliding gradually into the beginning of the day.

In the world Jesus knew, days began and ended at sunset. What came first everyday was rest. Or maybe they ate and then went to bed. Halfway through the day, they got up and worked and walked and did whatever they needed to do before the day was over. We think of light as the beginning of the day; for Jesus, the day began in darkness and finished with light. They ate supper first and sang lullabies first. Dawn came later.

I wonder why we changed. (Actually I kind of wonder – my comment is mostly rhetorical.)

The day was half over when Mary went to the tomb to care for Jesus’ body. I can’t imagine she had rested well. The stone had been moved and Jesus was not where they had laid him, but the light fell gradually on Mary until it dawned on her what had happened when Jesus called her name. And just as it takes a while for the morning sun to vacuum up the shadows left from the night before, so the light moved gradually across Peter and John and the other disciples, finally landing on Thomas.

One of the reasons I’m glad life circles around to the Resurrection every year is I know I need to hear the story again because there is still much about faith and life that needs to dawn on me. Here in the dead of night, halfway through the day, I’m waiting again for the dawn, for my every morning metaphor of midday sunrise, to call me again to trust and follow the Risen Christ.

And this night, most of all.

Peace,
Milton

Friday, April 06, 2007

lenten journal: a matter of trust

Ginger and I left for work about the same time this morning. She went to be a part of the town ecumenical Good Friday service and I went to work to get ready for a wedding tomorrow and the Easter Brunch on Sunday. While she read through the last words of Jesus, Alfonso and I were making hors d’oeuvres for two hundred. As far as I know, I’m the only one at work for whom this week is spiritually significant. No one is antagonistic when I talk about faith matters or what’s going on at church. Some have family connections to a church, but it’s more like a nationality rather than a faith connection. It makes me sad to think Easter means this will be a busy weekend for brunch. These are good people – people I like working with. For whatever reasons, they are not engaged by the story that has me by the heart.

After work I met Ginger at Panera for some reading time. The place was bustling with folks drinking coffee and chatting, a few families having dinner, and small gangs of teenagers just hanging out together on a school holiday (at least in Massachusetts). It looked like any Friday. Whatever the day meant to me, they were marking time in other ways.

As the gospel writers recount the events around Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, they tell it as if all of Jerusalem was captured by his fate: the crowd waving palms at his triumphal entry, the mob who shouted for him to be crucified, the gathering at the cross to watch him die. I have no doubt there were sizeable crowds at each of those happenings and I imagine there was a larger portion of Jerusalem that was too caught up in getting ready for Sabbath to notice what was happening, or to worn out or disinterested or busy to pay attention to what was happening to Jesus.

Not everyone saw or heard the story unfold the way it has been passed down to us.

At Pentecost, the believers and seekers heard the gospel proclaimed in their indigenous languages. Yet, we are told, those who did not believe simply heard the sound of a rushing wind that carried no particular translation. If the answer was blowing in that wind, it blew right on by much of the crowd.

I remember seeing Field of Dreams for the first time and how I was moved by Ray Kinsella’s pursuit of his dream, as well as his dream’s dogged pursuit of him. To me it remains one of the great stories of grace, forgiveness, and hope. A few weeks later, I saw a news report saying George Bush the Elder had seen the movie and responded by saying, “If someone understands it come explain it to me.” I was incredulous. How could he not get it?

I felt superior then. That’s not how I’ve felt today.

Growing up Baptist taught me to think of all those people who didn’t see what we saw when we looked at Jesus as lost. Some of them were. Some of us were, too. But were they lost just because they couldn’t find themselves on our map?

In the languages of Jesus and the early church, faith was a verb. All we have is a noun. We don’t faith anything, we have faith, making it sound like we possess it or carry it around in our pockets. The verb we often use is believe, which is not the same thing in my mind. As always, it makes me think of an old joke: a person’s got to believe in something; I believe I’ll have another beer. We came up with a language that is driven by verbs – the action words – and we didn’t give ourselves the vocabulary to incarnate our faith.

The difference between those who followed Christ and those who went on their way, or those who heard God’s message in their own words and not just white noise, is not that one believed the “right” things and the other did not. The verb we’re looking for is trust.

I don’t believe in Jesus; I trust him.

I trust the darkness of today is not the last word.
I trust that the story doesn’t end with the Resurrection.
I trust God never quits looking for us and that God finds some people in different ways than I was found.
I trust there are times when God speaks to some and I’m the one hearing nothing but the wind.
I trust Jesus is who he said he was.
I trust my faith makes my life worth it, regardless of what comes next.
I trust, as we say in the UCC, that God is still speaking.
I trust God is speaking to more than just me.
I trust God expects to speak through me, both because of and despite me.
I trust God’s love is the final word.

I trust it will be a word we all can hear.

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, April 05, 2007

lenten journal: sounds and shadows

Of all of our services of worship during the year, the Maundy Thursday service is perhaps the most meaningful to me, and the most disquieting. At our church, we share Communion and also have a Tenebrae service, which is a liturgy that has roots all the way back to the fourth century. The word tenebrae is Latin for shadows. The service consists primarily of reading the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion in sections and extinguishing the light in the sanctuary gradually after each section until the room is dark, save the light of the Christ Candle. Everyone leaves in silence. We will gather again on Resurrection Sunday.

Though the passages are read thoughtfully, the candles put out quietly, and the service has a meditative tone, there is something visceral and unsettling about the experience, so much so that I find I’m almost agitated when I get to church on this particular Thursday each year. For much of the gospels, Jesus is the subject of the sentences; on this night he becomes the Direct Object of vicious verbs: they kissed him, betrayed him, abandoned him, spat on him, slapped him, whipped him, flogged him, beat him, questioned him, mocked him, ridiculed him, put thorns in his head, dragged him out to Golgotha, crucified him.

With each action, another light went out in the sanctuary. Those of us reading last did so by a single candlelight. The darkness outside the church was on pace with our failing candles, shadows pouring through the windows as we grew our own inside, until there was one light. One single light.

In our service, the final acts are for Ginger to carry the Christ Candle out of the sanctuary as we sing “Were You There.” Tonight, the choir sang the first verse, the congregation sang the second verse, and I sang the third from the balcony as the candle left the room:

were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble . . .
I left the verse unfinished and turned to ring the church bell thirty-three times to commemorate each of the years Jesus walked on the earth. As those tones drew to a close, Ginger returned the candle to the front of the church and we sat in silence. People then left when they chose to do so.

Our church bell is as quaint as they come, just like our white clapboard New England church building. A rope hangs down in the balcony from the steeple and requires a fair amount of effort to render a ring. Outside the church, you can hear the bell. Inside the church, you hear the muffled sound of the bell, the scrape and moan of the rope going back and forth, and – tonight – the labored breathing of the middle-aged man pulling hard on the rope and trying to keep count of the tolls. At about number twenty, I must say I wished Jesus had died a few years younger. At thirty pulls, I was glad he didn’t live to be my age. When I got to thirty-three, I stopped the rope from moving and the bell from ringing and I sat down in the nearest chair, my arms weak and my shoulders sore, to catch my breath as everyone else sat in silence. I thought back to the first hymn of the evening:
I take, O Cross, thy shadow for my abiding place
When I was working as a minister at another church, I decided to get the point of my sermon across by having the people in the congregation move around. (I’m trying now to remember exactly what the point was.) I wanted those on the right side to move to the left and vice versa as a tangible way of showing our need to find new perspectives in our lives. There were a couple of things I had not anticipated logistically, but things went pretty well. The following Tuesday at deacons’ meeting, I asked for feedback, since it was something they had not done before. Everyone seemed to appreciate the idea except for one who said with a perturbed tone, “I come to church to feel comfortable.”

I knew right then I was not going to be one of her favorite preachers. As the old saying goes, I think we ought to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. On my way to work today, the discussion on NPR centered on pressuring China to bring about change in Darfur, since China is one of the few governments in the world that has a relationship with the Sudanese government. As one guest noted, "China buys 2/3rds of Sudan's oil. China's investments in Sudan have made the US sanctions irrelevant largely in Sudan." Much of the discussion centered on using the 2008 Olympics, scheduled for Beijing, as a focus of shaming China into action. One of the callers said something about moving slowly because so much was at stake politically. Eric Reeves who was pressing the issue said to the host, “I’m on Darfur time, so I don’t care about the politics. On Darfur time, ten thousand people die every month. On Darfur time, four and a half million people have been displaced and are in need of urgent attention right now. On Darfur time, there is no room for political maneuvering; we must act now.”

I wondered, as the bell was wringing me, how the people outside the church tonight interpreted what they heard. We, on the inside were keeping time with each toll, counting the years of Jesus’ life, watching the lights go out and the shadows grow, setting our hearts and our clocks for Easter. For our neighbors around their supper tables or in front of their televisions, I wondered if they were curious or annoyed or nonplussed. I was moved, rattled, exhausted, disquieted, encouraged. After everything, shadows and all, the light was still burning.

I could see it through the window, even when I got to my car on the other side of the street.

Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

lenten journal: hanging by a thread

Over the past couple of weeks, Ginger and I have had a couple of movie dates over breakfast. Both our schedules have pulled us out of the house in the evening, so we have fed our film habit in the mornings. This morning we watched an amazing piece of art and prophecy: Children of Men.

The story is set in 2027 and presents a frighteningly plausible vision of the future. There are no flying cars or laser toys, nobody dodging bullets like The Matrix, just a world that appears to be the result of things we have set in motion now: global warming, terrorism and the politics of fear, the flu pandemic. The human race has become infertile and the world is made more tenuous when the youngest person on the planet, “Baby Diego,” dies – he is eighteen. Theo, the main character played by Clive Owen, begins the movie as one who copes with all the pain and horror by disengaging from life. Part of the story is his waking up to the pain, as well as to the possibility of hope.

The movie echoes one of the crucial themes of Holy Week: our enduring hope often comes down to holding on by a thread. When John wrote, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it,” I imagine he was thinking of a small single oil lamp that continued to burn rather than a giant bonfire. If the light were going to remain, it was up to that one small flame. Today is the anniversary of a day when hope took a severe hit as Martin Luther King, Jr. fell to an assasin’s bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and the thread was not broken. My friend Billy and I wrote a song about it called “Down with the Ship.”

martin was ahead of his time
time was so far behind

he had no eye for an eye
in his point of view
what he could see

it was a beautiful dream

the trouble with dreaming things

is seeing them come true


when you’re sailing on the high sea

when you set out on a hope trip

sometimes you get to your bright tomorrow

sometimes you’ve got to go down with the ship


martin had the fight of his life

stared right into the enemies’ eyes

tried to wake them from their comfortable lies

that’s how ships go down

he wasn’t praying for a long white robe

prayed for strong hearts and hands to hold

for people right here to sing and know

that we shall overcome


when you’re sailing on the high sea
when you set out on a hope trip
sometimes you get to your bright tomorrow

sometimes you’ve got to keep sailing on the high sea

believing love has got a firm grip

and you’ll get to your bright tomorrow

sometimes you’ve got to go down with the ship


the truth won’t die just because your hero falls

someday all flesh will stand to see it all

and we’ll go sailing on the high sea

and we’ll set out on a hope trip

put our eyes on a new horizon

and don’t look back

we’ll go sailing on a high sea

believing love has got a firm grip

set our eyes on a new tomorrow

set our hearts to go down with the ship


sometimes you’ve got to go down with the ship
When you read King’s sermons, you can sense he knew he wasn’t going to be around to see his dreamcome true. The night before he died he even said, “I may not get there with you . . .” And he finished his sermon, checked into the motel, and got up the next morning. As we relive this week, it seems obvious that Jesus knew those whom he had counted on to stand with him were falling away. He told Peter he would deny him. He told Judas to go and do what he needed to do. The disciples didn’t come through. When Jesus prayed, “If there’s any other way,” part of his anguish must have come from a profound sense of loneliness and desertion. If the light were not going to go out, it would be because Jesus moved beyond death and anger and indignation and betrayal to forgiveness.

If there is no forgiveness, there are no stories, there is no life. The light goes out.

This afternoon, I found this poem in my email from Ken, my spiritual director. It was written by John Shea (I think this is him here).
Prayer for the Lady Who Forgave Us

There is a long-suffering lady with thin hands

who stand on the corner of Delphia and Lawrence

and forgives you.

“You are forgiven,” she smiles.

The neighborhood is embarrassed.

It is sure it has done nothing wrong

yet, every day, in a small voice

it is forgiven.

On the way to the Jewel Food Store

housewives pass her with hard looks

then whisper in the cereal section.

Stan Dumke asked her right out

what she was up to

and she forgave him.

A group who care about the neighborhood

agree that if she was old it would be harmless

or if she were religious it would be understandable

but as it is…they asked her to move on.

Like all things with eternal purposes

she stayed.

And she was informed upon.

On a most unforgiving day of snow and slush

while she was reconciling a reluctant passerby

the State people

whose business is sanity,

persuaded her into a car.

She is gone.

We are reduced to forgetting.
Hope is not sane or safe, and is often scarce when compared to fear or cynicism or despair, or even sin. On any given night, the darkness is larger than the flickering flame. When the nay sayers confronted Jesus about forgiving a man’s sins, Jesus asked, “Which is easier: to forgive his sins or to heal him?” Jesus did both. Forgiveness doesn’t come easy, whether we are the forgiver or the forgivee, but it is the fuel that keeps the light burning.

I was reminded again today it will not go out.

Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

lenten journal -- to know and to be known

I talked to a friend today who had just returned from a workshop on using “emotional intelligence” in dealing with conflict. The term was new to me, but is a rather well formed theory and/or practice it seems. I’m struck more by where the idea of emotional intelligence took me than learning what the whole deal is about. If I’m emotionally intelligent, do my “smart” tears, like smart bombs, know where to fall?

I was teaching high school when the idea of “multiple intelligences” first began to come into prominence. I found there really is something to working to give kids – or anyone else – a chance to show how they understand and express things, whether they feel word-smart, music-smart, people-smart, or nature-smart. It challenged my educational intelligence: could I look up from my lesson plans long enough to notice who was not getting the opportunity to show their smarts?

Ed Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy came out during that time as well, causing quite a discussion about what we should all know in order to be able to converse with one another and maintain some sense of American community. As an English teacher, I was often a part of discussions about what books the students should read. Was there a “canon” of essential (to some, sacred) texts? Was the point to be multicultural? Was it about reading specific books or teaching kids how to read meaningfully? I wrote my Masters thesis on “Teaching The Scarlet Letter in a Multiethnic Setting” because seventy percent of my students were nonnative English speakers and first generation immigrants. To them, reading about the Puritans was multicultural literature.

One of the terms that showed up in the little reading I did online about emotional intelligence was “emotional literacy,” which connected in my mind with Stephen Prothero’s new book Religious Literacy, in which he seeks to contend with the lack of religious knowledge in this country, particularly among those who say they believe in God. Here are some of the things he found:

  • half of all Americans cannot name one of the four gospels
  • a majority cannot name the first book of the Bible
  • sixty percent of evangelical Christians think Jesus was born in Jerusalem
  • fifty one percent of Jews think Jesus was born in Jerusalem
  • ten percent of Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife
  • many high school students think Sodom and Gomorrah were married
  • a third of Americans don’t think Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount
  • seventy five percent of American adults think “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible
And that’s just the Judeo-Christian stuff. Dig in on Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam and we know even less. I have yet to read the book, but I found this quote in one of the reviews of the book:
"Some friends tell me that they don't bring their sons and daughters to worship services or talk with them about their faith because they want their children to be free to choose a religion for themselves. This is foolhardy…. [I]f you offer them nothing, you are telling them that religion counts for nothing."
Religion is a problematic word for me. I don’t think of it as a synonym for faith necessarily. Religion represents the bureaucratic, self-perpetuating institution rather than the relational, spiritual, mission-minded church. As far as words go, I’m all for losing my religion. I am, however, interested in what it might mean to be spiritually intelligent: to be God-smart. “Have this mind in you,” Paul wrote, “which was also in Christ Jesus.” Evidently, this idea has been around for a while. As we make the journey through Holy Week, both Paul and Prothero make me wonder if most of us know where we are going. And it also reminds me of an old joke about the small town pastor that visited regularly with the village drunk, trying to convert him. One day the drunk said, “You think I don’t know the story. I do.” He began to give a fairly accurate telling of the events of this week, right up to the stone being rolled away from the opening of the tomb; then he said, “And when Jesus comes out, if he sees his shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter.”

In one of the more interesting twists in the English language, for a long time the word know was used to mean sexual intercourse as well as mental perception or understanding. In the KJV, Adam “knew” Eve. (For one of my seminary friends, that turned the inscription on the oracle at Delphi, “Know thyself,” into a stealthy way to curse at someone.) The connection, I think, is that knowing is an intimate act. To know someone is to be invested deeply in their lives and they in yours. To know God – to be God-smart – is being vulnerable and intimate with the Very One who knew us, as the psalmist says, before we were even born.

One of the things we share in common with the disciples who walked with Jesus is how often we prove that we act like we know what’s going on while we show that we’ve missed the point. The gospel accounts of Jesus’ last days before his death show again and again that those who had been with him for three years and had heard most of his parables and seen most of his miracles still didn’t really know him or understand what he was doing. When Jesus was arrested and killed they denied him and scattered into the night as though they were taken completely by surprise. To be a part of a lineage of faith that connects back through two thousand Easters, we share an amazing resemblance to those we so easily see as less than spiritually intelligent.

Thank God the focus of our faith is not on who is smart enough to connect with God. “We see now through a glass, darkly,” Paul said, “but one day we will see face to face.” When that clarity comes, I don’t expect a quiz, but I look forward to knowing and being known.

Peace,
Milton

PS -- there's a new recipe.