Tuesday, July 31, 2007

empty chair

Christine posted this wonderful picture a couple of days ago with an invitation to respond. Here's where the picture took me.


empty chair

what is
the difference
between
open space
and emptiness?
vacancy
and opportunity?
barrenness
and belief?

in one of
my favorite stories,
Ian had a chair
in the shape
of a hand
an open hand
a tender hand
God’s hand
to hold him

I drive by
furniture stores
yard sales
sometimes
hoping to see
any chair
that might
offer me
the same invitation
Peace,
Milton

P. S. -- There's a new recipe.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

that'll leave a mark

On the same Saturday morning, while I was out running errands, I learned of two endings: the Weekly World News is ceasing publication and Annie Dillard is not going to write anymore.

For those of you who may not frequent supermarkets, the Weekly World News is the tabloid of tabloids, leaving behind celebrity gossip for tales of the apocalypse, Elvis sightings, and miracle cures. Where else could you learn that Moses wandered in the wilderness for forty years because he lost the map? Once it’s gone, who will tell us beavers have OCD? Or give us pictures like this?


As I’ve stood in checkout lines over the years, I’ve wondered who bought the paper. (OK, I bought a couple of them for youth group gags.) I don’t think I ever saw someone put one in his or her cart, but the paper was there week after week, billing itself as “the world’s only reliable newspaper.”

Who will we rely on now?

Scott Simon played his interview with Annie Dillard
(which she notes was recorded some time ago) since she has a new novel, The Maytrees. Dillard’s writings have spoken to me over and over again through the years, her thoughtful and often audacious take on the world challenging both my faith and intellect. These passages from Holy the Firm are good examples.

If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness . . . The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn't flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.
The creation is not a study, roughed-in sketch; it is supremely, meticulously created, created abundantly, extravagantly, and in fine... Even on the perfectly ordinary and clearly visible level, creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable and apparently uncalled for. The lone ping into being of the first hydrogen atom ex nihilo was so unthinkably, violently radical, that surely it ought to have been enough, more than enough. But look what happens. You open the door and all heaven and hell break loose.
I’d never heard her voice before. She sounded harsh and crusty, like the rocky New England shoreline on which she lives. The last section of the interview caught me by surprise:
“So, do you write everyday?” Simon asked.

“I do when I’m working.”


“So you’ll take some time off?”


“I’m tempted now to take the rest of my life off.”


“You don’t have another book working at the moment? You don’t want to?” He spoke with tenderness. She did not.


“This one just about killed me. It took ten years. And you write and you write and you write and you throw it away and you throw it away and you throw it away,” she said laughing. “And in those ten years I probably could have done something more useful, although I’ve always wanted nothing more than to add to the literature.”


“I just wondered – not to turn myself into a career counselor . . .” They both laughed.


“I’m not being totally truthful with you. I can’t write anymore. My fingers can no longer type, they can no longer write by hand; I don’t know how I’d be as a chisel. But the fact is that was the great story – The Maytrees was the great story -- and I’ll never get another story that good. People want people to keep doing what they want. People want to change and grow.”


“You want to do something different?”


“I want to change and grow.”

Ginger preached on the Lord’s Prayer (Luke’s version) this morning, informing us she was going to look at the spirit of the prayer in its totality rather than going phrase by phrase. At one point, she quoted the African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet,” and then read the prayer again:
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.
In a world where thousands upon thousands die of hunger everyday, how do we pray, “Give us our daily bread?” Who is “us”? Who am I praying to be fed? How are our feet moving to feed “us”? In a world in which violence is the primary currency, how do we pray, “Your kingdom come?” How willing are we to wage peace?

“We’re all going to leave a mark,” she said.

What came to my mind first was someone crashing into something and the other person saying, “Ouch! That’s going to leave a mark.” What kind of mark will we leave?
It could be a wound, or a scar; we could be doing damage. It could be a mark like a child writing with a Sharpie on the living room wall, an unappreciated creative expression. It could be marks of growth moving up the doorjamb of existence. It could be a handprint on the hearts of those we have loved.

Two of Dillard’s statements have haunted me since yesterday:

“And in those ten years I probably could have done something more useful, although I’ve always wanted nothing more than to add to the literature.”

“I want to change and grow.”

I felt sad when I heard her say she could no longer write. What she wanted out of life was to add to the literature, which she can no longer do. Her words have fed me and now I know there will not be any more of them. Yet she is resolved rather than resigned. She wrote “the great story” and now is ready to see what the days ahead can hold, even if she can no longer write or even travel.

I struggle with her stance because, I think, I have yet to find my great story. It’s taken me half a century to figure out my best creative medium; I’m just now starting to draw on the wall. I, too, want to change and grow. And I trust, as one created in the image of the Creator who marked up the universe with uncalled for extravagances and intimacies, that there are great stories still to tell.

Peace,
Milton

Friday, July 27, 2007

signature moves

Every so often, when I sign my name,
the person behind the counter says,
“That’s quite a signature,”
as though I’ve done nothing but scribble.
“No one else can imitate it,”
is always my answer,
“that’s what makes it my signature.”

My morning movements are as much
a signature as my recognizable scratch,
my hands moving from muscle
memory to trim the strawberries
and stand them up to slice, then
splaying them out like pages, and
surrounding them with the blueberries

I picked myself the other day;
they taste like the neighborhood.
The fruit sits on a plate we’ve had
as long as we’ve been married,
when I first began to work on a
new signature because my name
changed along with yours,
as we wrote something new together.

And then there’s your coffee:
mostly-milk-one-Splenda-put-it-in-
the-microwave-for-one-minute-thirty-five-
seconds-before-topping-it-off.
My hands move with the same confidence
I show when I sign my name.
This is who I am.

This is who we are.
I can’t think of one without the other.
The daily mixture of fresh and
familiar, what is known scratched
on the surface of this new day,
held together by a hyphen,
my favorite piece of punctuation.

Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

this can't wait

I'm not in the habit of posting more than once a day, but I can't keep today's poem from The Writer's Almanac to myself. The poet is Eleanor Lerman. She rocks.

Starfish

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life's way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won't give you smart or brave,
so you'll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.
In the "Literary and Historical Notes," also from The Almanac, this note apropos of trains:

It was on this day in 1814 that a man named George Stephenson made the first successful demonstration of the steam locomotive, an invention that would fuel the Industrial Revolution and dramatically affect the settlement of North America.

Stephenson had never had any formal schooling, but he taught himself how steam engines worked by taking them apart when they broke down, and eventually he learned how to build them from scratch. He made his first successful demonstration of the new invention on this day in 1814. His engine pulled eight loaded wagons of 30 tons about four miles an hour up a hill.

By the 1830s, trains were already traveling 60 miles an hour. When the first transcontinental railway lines were completed in the 1870s, a cross-country journey that had taken several months suddenly took only seven days. The railroads shrank distances and increased the speed of life, while fueling America's economic expansion and industrialization.

Thanks to Garrison, Eleanor, and George.

And the starfish.

Peace,
Milton

taking a train to church

One of the things I love about the connections created by blooging is the chance to take part in, or at least listen in on, conversations I might otherwise miss. And, once again, it also means there is more to learn. One of the words I read a lot, in relation to conversations on the church, is emergent, which, I confess, I’m still trying to understand. Since moving out of Southern Baptist life and into the United Church of Christ over fifteen years ago, I’ve lost track of much of what was being discussed in evangelical life mostly because I was so discouraged by watching Baptists beating up on themselves and so encouraged by the new home I found in the UCC that I just didn’t listen. Writing this blog and reading others has reconnected me to some of that conversation as well as finding out about some of the others taking place in and between other denominations.

And I keep hearing the word emergent, alongside of words like organic and evolutionary. I resonate with the desire to see the church be vibrant, essential, and effective in our world and I struggle, some, with what I read as I try to understand. In all the talk about emergent I have listened to, one of the things I hear underneath (whether it’s being said or not) is that churches like mine don’t measure up somehow because we aren’t “emerging.” I feel a little bit like Jefe in this exchange with El Guapo, his leader, from the movie Three Amigos:

JEFE: I have put many beautiful piƱatas in the storeroom, each of them filled with little surprises.

EL GUAPO: Many pinatas?

JEFE: Oh, yes, many.

EL GUAPO: Would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?

JEFE: A what?

EL GUAPO: A plethora.

JEFE: Oh, yes, you have a plethora.

EL GUAPO: Jefe, what is a "plethora"?

JEFE: Why?

EL GUAPO: You told me I have a plethora and I just would like to know if you know what a plethora is. I would not like to think that a person would tell someone he has a plethora and find out that that person has no idea what it means to have a plethora.

JEFE: Forgive me, El Guapo.
As I was Bloglining this morning, I came across this quote on Randy’s blog (where he was quoting this guy who was reviewing a book by this guy):
If the people who built the railroads in the United States were actually interested in transporting people, they would now own the airlines.
What I hear when I read those words is the railroads are antiques at best and useless at worst. If I translate the metaphor to apply to the church, which it was intended to do, I go to a railroad church that doesn’t get it and has lived out it’s usefulness. We need to learn how to fly if we expect God to do anything in and with us. While we’re looking out the windows of the train, faith is flying overhead.

If we’re going to talk about organic churches, I go to one. My little church began as a neighborhood church in 1735, breaking off from the First Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts (as in First Church, Pilgrims, you get the idea) because they wanted to worship closer to home. From it’s birth it was a community church and it has remained true to that vision. It’s never been a big church, but the community has never been big either. We’re too comfortable being a community church and have a hard time when we talk about growing, and we are church in the truest sense. Maybe the fact that the Northeast is one of the few areas in this country where the trains still play an important role in our transportation is not for nothing.

The problem with the train-plane analogy for me is I don’t think the church has to choose to be one or the other. If you were to drop our church into the middle of Boston or any other big city, we would neither survive nor minister effectively because we would not be an organic expression of faith in those places, just as an edgy, postmodern, urban fellowship would not draw a crowd in our little town for very long. Both expressions of faith and community, along with a plethora of others, are needed if we are going to give voice to the many dimensions of God’s love and grace. I can’t ride the train from here to Singapore and I would be stupid to try and fly the fifteen miles from my house to Quincy. To borrow from another Steve Martin movie, perhaps we would do well to think of planes, trains, and automobiles.

The first place I read the word emerging in relation to the church was in Marcus Borg’s wonderful book, The Heart of Christianity, where he talked about the church in North America having both an existing paradigm and an emerging paradigm. He was clear to say from the beginning that he was not trying to create a dichotomy as much as describe these two genuine expressions of faith as it gets lived out in the church existing alongside of each other. Though his take on the emerging paradigm is not the same as the current emergent movement, his point is still valid. It’s hard to build a community of faith when the founding vision is “at least we’re not those guys.”

One of the other blog conversations I listen in on centers around eating locally grown food as much as possible. One new word I’ve learned is locivore, as in one who eats locally. I wonder if it, too, might be helpful as an ecclesiological metaphor. One thing I do hear in the emergent emphasis on an organic church. For all that can come out of worldwide connections, the power of the church to live out its faith happens locally. The creative paradox of our calling is we will change the world by meeting the needs in front of our face.

I’ll give you a specific example. I think our church would be transformed if we did two small things: moved all our committee meetings to one night of the month and allowed people to serve on only one committee. Those changes would mean we would either involve more people and/or let go of the stuff that no one feels called to do, and create time when we could get together for discipleship and fellowship. Right now, we get together for worship and committee meetings; there’s no time for anything else. If we created the space and time to be together, we would change ourselves, deepen our commitment to Christ and to one another, and have room to dream about how we can reach out to love our community and our world. It would be an organic and evolutionary move.

Would that make us emergent?

Peace,
Milton

Monday, July 23, 2007

the rest of the story

There’s always something new to learn.

As many times as I’ve either heard or read the parable of The Good Samaritan and the story of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha, I’d never thought about the two being connected until Ginger mentioned it in her sermon last Sunday. Both are stories about people stopping along the way and, I suppose, about people who don’t stop.

The parable has always been the easier story for me to take because I can more easily put myself in the role of the guy who stops. I’ve always been attracted to the people at the edges, the ones who feel left out; they are the ones I gravitated to as a youth minister, as a teacher, and in just about any other situation. But Jesus’ visit to the sisters is more problematic. When our house fills up with company, I’m the one in the kitchen while most folks are on the couch talking. I’m not necessarily alone in the kitchen, but I’m working hard to make sure everyone is fed. And I love it. I like swirling around making sure bowls stay filled, food is served hot, and people don’t go away hungry. When I do stop to talk, I always have one ear listening for the timer so I don’t burn whatever is coming out next.

I’m also not much of a meditator. (Is that a word?) If I sit quiet and still for twenty minutes, I fall asleep. I’m thoughtful and reflective, intentional and focused, but I’m not particularly quiet. I think if Jesus stopped by here, I’d be most likely to say, “Come talk to me in the kitchen while I finish the crab dip.” (That’s Ginger’s favorite; I figure he’d like it, too.) So the way I read Jesus’ admonition to Martha is less about her doing and more about her complaining that Mary was just sitting around. Martha doesn’t sound particularly joyful in her hospitality, I must say, in the same way that the religious leaders in the parable were so consumed with duty or privilege that they couldn’t afford to be compassionate. It wasn’t on the schedule.

Garrison Keillor is hitting home runs over at The Writer’s Almanac this week. Today’s poem was by one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye, whom I’ve quoted before. It sounds like something Jesus might have quoted right alongside of his words in Luke 10.

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
I looked back at the two stories in Luke and noticed that both are somewhat unfinished. We never hear from the lawyer after Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”; we never hear what Martha says or does after Jesus tells her, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

At Vacation Bible Camp, Ginger was taking prayer requests from the kids one day when one girl asked that we pray for homeless children. Ginger agreed and talked about how some children live on the streets or in cars. Another little girl said, “People live in their cars?” She was incredulous, so Ginger talked about it some more with the hope that the seed planted in our prayer time would grow kindness in her heart. Certainly, the lawyer original question was intended to be more quiz than conversation. What I hope is he realized he was the guy in the ditch who needed a neighbor as much as anyone. Naomi is right: kindness grows out of sorrow.

My image of how the day was going for Martha when Jesus arrived is she had to improvise. I don’t think they were expecting him, since I don’t imagine he was on a specific itinerary. Based on the tone of her comment about her sister, I also imagine whatever she was preparing to feed Jesus wasn’t going well. Maybe she burned the pita bread or the hummus was runny. Maybe she cut her finger or burned her arm pulling something out of the oven. Maybe she was pissed because she was the only one who knew she was having a hard day. Maybe Jesus was saying, “Why are you taking your stuff out on your sister?” Martha had not yet been able to see, as Naomi says, “the size of the cloth” of kindness.

Jesus counted Mary, Martha, and Lazarus as friends, so I have to believe the conversation didn’t end at the height of the tension where Luke stopped his story. Jesus touched a raw sibling nerve with his words; there was more to be said.

I tried writing a couple of endings and everything I came up with felt forced or trite. What I see as I write is I have a lot at stake in Martha finding some redemption. I know her well; I need for her to come off better than she does. No, it’s not so much about how she appears as needing her to find some healing in the story because I think Jesus’ words must have hurt. She was trying hard and came up short. Somehow, I think that feeling was not unfamiliar to her. Whatever happened, I know Jesus was kind and found a way to say she was the one he was looking for and he needed her to stop just long enough to understand.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, July 22, 2007

acceptance speech

I've got more thoughts running through my head than I can get organized into anything coherent tonight and so I offer this wonderful poem I found today at The Writer's Almanac. The poet is Lynn Powell.

Acceptance Speech

The radio's replaying last night's winners
and the gratitude of the glamorous,
everyone thanking everybody for making everything
so possible, until I want to shush
the faucet, dry my hands, join in right here
at the cluttered podium of the sink, and thank

my mother for teaching me the true meaning of okra,
my children for putting back the growl in hunger,
my husband, primo uomo of dinner, for not
begrudging me this starring role—

without all of them, I know this soup
would not be here tonight.

And let me just add that I could not
have made it without the marrow bone, that blood—
brother to the broth, and the tomatoes
who opened up their hearts, and the self-effacing limas,
the blonde sorority of corn, the cayenne
and oregano who dashed in
in the nick of time.

Special thanks, as always, to the salt—
you know who you are—and to the knife,
who revealed the ripe beneath the rind,
the clean truth underneath the dirty peel.

—I hope I've not forgotten anyone—
oh, yes, to the celery and the parsnip,
those bit players only there to swell the scene,
let me just say: sometimes I know exactly how you feel.

But not tonight, not when it's all
coming to something and the heat is on and
I'm basking in another round
of blue applause.
Peace,
Milton

Saturday, July 21, 2007

unbreaking the circle

Back in the early nineties, the town of Waxahachie, Texas almost became famous for something other than the fact that my grandmother lives there. It was to have been the home of the Superconducting Super Collider, a fifty-four mile underground oval where super charged protons would be sent around in opposite directions and then collided when they made the circle, offering scientists to the chance to see what particles came out of the collision.

I have no idea what I’m taking about, but I did find this explanation from a guy who worked on the project (which was scrapped in 1993):

Imagine two rings of metal pipes, eighty-seven kilometers (fifty four miles) in circumference, running through a concrete tunnel several meters below ground. The pipes themselves, separated vertically by seventy centimeters (about two feet), are only a few centimeters in diameter. They are under high vacuum and encased in powerful electromagnets held at an ultra low temperature.

Inside the two pipes, narrow beams of protons whirl around the tunnel in
opposite directions at nearly the speed of light. The particles in these beams have been accelerated to an energy of twenty trillion electron volts. This is a huge energy for a single particle to carry: particles emitted by radioactive minerals reach energies less than one millionth as great.

At a few special points around the ring, in cavernous underground experimental halls, the beams are made to intersect. Although most of the protons simply pass by each other, there are so many protons in the beams that head on collisions occur a hundred million times every second. In each collision, energy of motion is turned to enormous heat in a tiny fireball.


From within this minute cataclysm, a shower of sub-nuclear particles among them, perhaps, a new and exotic one speeds fleetingly outwards. Sophisticated electronic detectors catch these evanescent particles, recording their speeds, directions, and types; and physicists around the world analyze these records for clues to the innermost nature of matter and the forces that hold it together.
Ginger and I went to the funeral of the spouse of a friend who lives in a nearby town. The last time we had been in that room was for their wedding two summers ago. Ann and Becky (not their real names) had been together for years and had two children, Massachusetts’ validation of equal marriage allowed them to become legally what they already were practically and spiritually. Last summer, Ann found out she had a rare form of cancer. This summer, she died.

Becky, the pastor of the church where the service was held and one of Ginger’s friends and colleagues, started the service with what she called “The Opening Act,” a sing-a-long with the choir and her playing guitar. And we sang,
will the circle be unbroken
by and by, Lord, by and by
“That’s a question,” I thought to myself -- and then I thought of the Super Collider and what new things we see when things collide at the speed of life and leave us reeling in the wake of the explosion. I didn’t know Ann well, but the more I listened to her friends and family talk about her, the more I wish I had. We would have liked each other. She was a cook, a lover of food, a voracious reader, a teacher in both her character and her vocation, and one committed to hospitality. The four hundred or so people who packed the little church sang and talked and laughed and cried and told story after story. The altar was decorated with particles of the various aspects of her life. On most every wall were pictures of her with her kids, with Becky, with friends, at church. She was smiling in all of them. One of the things people talked about over and over was Ann’s determination to find meaning in her cancer. She wrote, she read, she talked, she prayed, and did everything she could think of also looking for “for clues to the innermost nature of matter and the forces that hold it together.”

And we sang and talked and prayed and laughed and cried trying to make meaning of her death. We left the church and stopped at a Dunkin Donuts so we could debrief and shift gears before I had to go to work and Ginger had to come home to finish working on her sermon. As we relived the service, I said, “As I watched us join together in the ritual of remembering, the phrase that kept running through my head was ‘hopeful futility.’” She nodded and we talked awhile longer.

Ann left behind a twelve-year old daughter and a nine-year old son. “Mama Ann,” as they called her, will not be there as they grow up no matter how many pictures are on the walls and how many stories Becky tells. Ann won’t be baking any more cakes or be there to be the catalyst for church dinners. She is gone. Dead. Therein lies the futility – a powerful word, but not the final one.

Hope inhabits the stories and the pictures, the joyful singing as tears ran down faces, the incarnational collision of grief and grace that creates possibilities for what “eye has not seen and ear has not heard.” Ann is with God. One day, we will be, too. Therein lies the hope. We will be with God. That’s the second half of the verse:
will the circle be unbroken
by and by, Lord, by and by

there’s a better home a-waiting

in the sky, Lord, in the sky.
I kept thinking about the question in the song as I cooked tonight, and began to hear it asking God if the circle would be repaired, or healed, on day: will it be un-broken? Will we realize how connected we are to God and to one another? Will we see what God can create out of the particles left from the collision of existence? The image that comes to mind is all of humanity sitting in a circle with God. There might even be a campfire. (Ohh – S’mores, too.)

My faith matters to me, mostly, because of what it means to me as I live these days. If Heaven were the only reason for believing, I don’t think I would make the choice. Today, as we sang of “being there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,” which sort of freaked me out as a kid, I realized I like the circle image better than the calendar. We all came from God and we are all going back to God. When the circle is unbroken, when it is complete, who knows what new possibilities will spring forth.

Peace,
Milton

P. S. -- I've posted the Chicken Marsala recipe.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

telling a story

I worked on the line at the restaurant for the first time last night, my previous days there having been spent proving my prowess as a prep cook. It was a good night to learn: busy enough to let me see most everything on the menu, slow enough to not put me “in the weeds,” as we say. I had a chance to see Chef at work, both in the way he ran the line and in the way he puts food together. The special last night was a pan-seared lobster stuffed halibut served with a mushroom-stuffed potato pancake, beurre blanc, and an artichoke and tomato salad. Here are some of the things I learned about Chef working with him last night:

  • he likes the sauce to go on the plate first, underneath the food;
  • he moves and works deliberately and intentionally;
  • he has a girlfriend who is also a chef;
  • he doesn’t like a lot of noise on the line (it’s an open kitchen);
  • he is generous and kind with his employees;
  • he’s a good teacher and looks for teaching moments;
  • he doesn’t waste time or food;
  • he loosens up as you get to know him;
  • he likes things to be clean;
  • he keeps up with everything in the kitchen;
  • he doesn’t ask as many questions as I do;
  • he has regard for everyone in the kitchen;
  • he pursues excellence quietly and diligently;
  • he’s a big Sox fan;
  • and I’m not sure he knows what to do with my exuberance.
Part of working on a kitchen line is remembering you are incarnating someone else’s vision for the food. What I bring of myself is my passion, my expertise, and – when asked – my imagination, but my job is to create what Chef has envisioned, to make his plates look and taste good. I could see him watching me just as I was watching him, paying attention to how well I learned and remembered as he showed me how to put each dish together, as he explained what mattered most to him in the way the kitchen ran, and as he noticed how I completed the more mundane tasks I was given or I knew had to be done (there are always tomatoes to dice). When the night was over, we both knew each other a little better.

Since my life is shifting back to the Restaurant Standard Time, Ginger and I began our morning with Breakfast Theater, since it’s the best time to watch a movie together. Today’s feature was 10 Items or Less, starring Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega. It’s a small independent film about “him” (Morgan Freeman) doing research for a part in a small independent film by going to Archie’s Ranch Market, a rundown grocery store in a poor part of Los Angeles. Paz Vega is Scarlet, the checker in the “10 Items or Less” line. The movie happens all in the same day and is as light and charming as it is thought provoking. What Freeman sees as research for a role, Scarlet lives as real life: what she sees as a job interview, he calls an audition. But Freeman is more than a thoughtless voyeur. He studies everyone he sees, from the file clerk to the guys at the car wash, trying to learn from the way they practice their crafts and embody their roles.

“Did you know,” he says to the file clerk, “you deal with each folder for exactly two and a half seconds? That’s amazing.”

I don’t think the file clerk had ever thought of himself as amazing, particularly for going through stacks of file folders. He didn’t know he was telling his story.

The relationship between Freeman and Scarlet is not romantic, and yet the movie explores the romance in two people taking time for each other, even if that time is part of one day. “We live, we work, we’ll never see each other again,” they say as they part ways, both changed by what the other saw in the details.

Even after one evening, I’m a different cook in this restaurant than I have been in other kitchens. The Inn was fueled by chaos, even on its best days, and I learned who I needed to be there to not only survive but to produce. My new Chef works hard to create a humane and humanizing environment, without chaos, and invites me to realize both what a kitchen can be and that this is the kind of kitchen I was looking for all along, though I had never seen one.

The joy Freeman took in watching people act their parts in life was helpful to me. Watch folks for a little while and you start to learn their story, or at least begin to get an idea of what questions to ask. I stopped at our local grocery store to get a salad for lunch. The woman at the counter is there most every time I go in and she is always smiling and engaging the customers in a way uncharacteristic to New England, though her accent makes it clear she’s from here. When I finish typing, I’m off to the gym where the woman who sits behind the counter seems rarely happy. Her age and accent are not much different from her counterpart at the sandwich counter, yet their takes on life appear at opposite poles, at least in the way they tell their stories at work.

I’m at the beginning of a new chapter in my story and already I feel my character growing and changing in my new environment: stuff to learn means room to grow; new faces mean new opportunities.

I love a good story.

Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

reuben

My father-in-law is in the middle stages of Alzheimer's disease. He and my mother-in-law left yesterday after an extended stay with us.

Reuben

Leah knew she was unloved

until she held the boy,

her firstborn,

and she named him Reuben:

“See, a son,” it means;

a love carrier --

“Because God has seen

my misery.”


The Reuben I know is a twin,

next to last in family line

a love carrier, too --

the hardest working man,

his blue eyes smiling

like a sunrise.

His labor, however, is not his legacy,

but the brilliant light I saw
in her eyes

and so I asked to be family.

He has loved me

like a son,

even when he didn’t understand

why I was cooking

or my earrings.

His faith stands as tall

as his shoulders;

love as deep.


He’s fading like an old photograph

left in the sun too long

I can still see him

the spark in his eyes that once

shone indelible now a dim

blip from a beacon

in an ocean of loneliness;

we haven’t enough

line to throw . . .


Whatever happy endings are,

they are not this.

This is wrong.

This is wrong. This is wrong.

Being right about that

changes nothing.

When he sits and stares into air,

looking for everything,

my heart hurts.


Reuben has lived a life of love.

We, the Loved, are a living

altar of humanity,

called and collected to remember

all he has forgotten,

all he has given.

I wish that felt like enough

but it isn’t enough.

It just isn’t.
Peace,
Milton

Sunday, July 15, 2007

no enemies, only neighbors

I took my trip on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho today, as did many of you who are in churches that follow the lectionary, and listened again to the parable we have come to call The Good Samaritan. Many of Jesus’ parables have gotten misnamed over the years -- the three in Luke 15 for example: The Lost Sheep should be The Good Shepherd, The Lost Coin should be The Persistent Housewife, and The Prodigal Son should be The Loving Father. I think, however, that we labeled this one pretty well because the Samaritan is the one who drives the point home.

When the lawyer quoted The Law back to Jesus – love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself – and then asked who his neighbor was, he was expecting a theological discussion, not a call to incarnational living. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. In this parable, he changes his vocabulary from enemies to neighbors: love your neighbors as you love yourself – oh, and by neighbor he meant anyone that’s not us.

That’s a tougher road to take than the Jericho Road ever was.

One of the best sermons I remember on this parable focused on the guy who was beaten up, though I can’t remember who preached it. The preacher said, “Everyone thinks the Samaritan is the Christ figure in the story. I think they’re wrong. Jesus is in the ditch.” Everyone is my neighbor because Christ is in all of them. Ginger made the point this morning by recalling the closing scene of the trial in A Time to Kill. Jake Brigance is a lawyer defending a black man who is on trial for murdering the white man who raped his nine-year-old girl. The jury is all white. Jake struggled the whole trial with how to get people to see something other than race. He has a breakthrough in his closing argument:

I want to tell you a story. I'm going to ask you all to close your eyes while I tell you the story. I want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to yourselves. Go ahead. Close your eyes, please. This is a story about a little girl walking home from the grocery store one sunny afternoon. I want you to picture this little girl. Suddenly a truck races up. Two men jump out and grab her. They drag her into a nearby field and they tie her up and they rip her clothes from her body. Now they climb on. First one, then the other, raping her, shattering everything innocent and pure with a vicious thrust in a fog of drunken breath and sweat. And when they're done, after they've killed her tiny womb, murdered any chance for her to have children, to have life beyond her own, they decide to use her for target practice. They start throwing full beer cans at her. They throw them so hard that it tears the flesh all the way to her bones. Then they urinate on her. Now comes the hanging. They have a rope. They tie a noose. Imagine the noose going tight around her neck and with a sudden blinding jerk she's pulled into the air and her feet and legs go kicking. They don't find the ground. The hanging branch isn't strong enough. It snaps and she falls back to the earth. So they pick her up, throw her in the back of the truck and drive out to Foggy Creek Bridge. Pitch her over the edge. And she drops some thirty feet down to the creek bottom below. Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood, left to die. Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she's white.
Several of the jurors visibly flinched. They saw a little girl they knew and loved and that changed them. Love and pain are the common denominators of our humanity. Such is the profound power of the Incarnation. No enemies, only neighbors.

The parable is even more difficult to live because it pulls us to both compassion and justice. When we see the images of the victims of the genocide in Darfur, or any one of the civil wars going on around the globe, the call to do whatever we need to do to save them is crystal clear, even if our resolve to figure out how to live that calling is still muddled. But the racial tension between the Jews and the Samaritans adds another layer. What if it were Osama in the ditch? Is it still Jesus, too? How can we be at war with our neighbors in Iraq and Afghanistan? How can I stop to help someone when I know they want to kill or hurt me because they think I represent my government? Am I really supposed to stop to help heal someone who stands for things I’m against?

This neighbor business is messy, difficult stuff. I have a hard enough time with my actual neighbor who sits and his porch and yells at the driver of the ice cream truck to turn off the music. If only Jesus had met him, I’m sure the parable would have had at least another paragraph of exceptions.

Our foster daughter drove out from Boston with her girlfriend to have dinner with my in-laws before they go back to Alabama tomorrow. When she got in my car to go to dinner, she said, “I’ve got a CD you’ve got to hear” and put in James Morrison’s Undiscovered. He’s a young British singer who has both soul and substance. Here are the lyrics to the title tune:
I look at you, you bite your tongue
I don’t know why or where I’m coming from
And in my head I'm close to you
We're in the rain still searching for the sun

You think that I wanna run and hide
I'll keep it all locked up inside
I just want you to find me
I'm not lost, I'm not lost, Just undiscovered
We're never alone we're all the same as each other
You see the look that’s on my face
You might think I’m out of place
I’m not lost, no, no, just undiscovered

Well the time it takes to know someone
It all can change before you know its gone
So close your eyes and feel the way
I'm with you now believe there’s nothing wrong

You think that I wanna run and hide
I'll keep it all locked up inside
I just want you to find me
I'm not lost, I’m not lost, Just undiscovered
We're never alone we're all the same as each other
You see the look that’s on my face you might think I’m out of place
I'm not lost, no, no, just undiscovered
I love that: I’m not lost; I’m undiscovered. Though they seem worlds apart, my own need to be discovered in the ditch is not really so far from my seeing Jesus in the ditch whether I’m looking at a transient or a terrorist. We are called to discover one another, or perhaps to discover the Jesus in one another.

No enemies, only neighbors.



Peace,
Milton

Saturday, July 14, 2007

hunting and gathering

Since I had to work yesterday, I didn't get to go to our Friday Farmers' Market in Marshfield, so I set out today to find a couple of farm stands and buy vegetables and fruit for the week ahead. As I was driving down Route 123, I saw a sign that said, "Blueberries Next Right," so I turned in the dirt driveway, parked my car, and walked up to where two people were sitting at a table covered with large cans. I had landed at Tree-Berry Farm and it was pick your own blueberries.

"What do I do?" I asked.

"Take a bucket, follow the signs, and then bring it back when you're done picking and we'll tell you what you owe."

I learned I was picking highbush blueberries (I assume there must be a lowbush variety). There were rows and rows of bushes and about twenty of us out picking. I think I was the only one who wasn't with a family. I filled my bucket about three-quarters full and went back to the table. He put the bucket on the scale and said, "You've got about two pounds. That will be four dollars and eighty cents."

I didn't tell him about the seven berries I ate in the field -- the freshest I have ever had, but I did let him keep the change from a five.

From there, I drove a little farther into Scituate and found a farm stand without a name, but with some great native strawberries, summer squash, and zucchini. I picked up a quart of the berries and an arm load of squash.

"Nine sixty," said the woman at the register as the man standing next to her bagged the squash.

It wa then I realized the other five I thought I had in my pocket had been spent at the store this morning when I made a quick dash to buy syrup for our waffles. I only had five ones in my pocket.

"I'll have to put the berries back," I said. "I don't have as much money as I thought."

"Oh, no," said the man. "Take the berries with you. You'll be back and you can bring the money then."

I thanked them and drove home to fix lunch for my father-in-law and water my own garden. The tomatoes are still green but getting bigger, the chard is going strong, and I got one squash of my own this week and made squash croquettes.

There's no great point here other than man, I had fun.

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, July 12, 2007

working my way home

I sat down to write tonight and began by first by checking in at Pandora, which is a really cool music site that lets you set up your own “radio station” where you designate the artists you want to hear and then they surprise you with some others based on your music genome. I’ve created several stations, but the one I clicked tonight was “Boys with Guitars” and the first song up was one by Paul Simon off of his album Surprise. As I was collecting my thoughts and feelings, I heard him sing,

I figure that once upon a time I was an ocean
But now I'm a mountain range
Something unstoppable set into motion
Nothing is different, but every thing's changed
I spent my day caught, or maybe pulled, between who I was and who I am. This morning I met with my friend Ann who is in seminary (and also wife of Doug of Red Sox jinx fame) and taking a class on Missions. She asked to interview me for a paper on missionary kids, or MKs for short. She had done a good amount of reading and research getting ready for our time together and the quality of her questions helped me not only to remember things but to feel them as well. We talked about all the places I lived, all the schools I attended, what I remember about moving all the time, what it was like when we came back to the States on leave. I talked so much we ran out of time before she ran out of questions; we’re getting together to finish up the interview tomorrow morning. When I left her house to walk back up to the church for the closing session of Avalanche Ranch, I realized I was all stirred up.

This is the fourth summer I have been the song (and dance) leader for VBC. Many of the kids who have come have been there all four years. They have lived in the same house on the same street in the same little seaside town all that time. I was twelve years old before I knew people like that even existed. We were on leave and living in Fort Worth and I was going to Hubbard Heights Elementary School. I came home from my first day and said to my mother, “I met the weirdest kid today. He’s lived in the same house his entire life.”

“There was a kid like that in my class, too,” my younger brother said; “in fact, there were several of them.”

“I hate to tell you boys,” my mother said, “but I’m afraid we’re the weird ones.”

At least I was twelve before I had to learn that particular piece of reality. I went on to talk with Ann about how home -- as a place -- is not something I know. (For those of you who have read this blog for awhile, I know this is a recurring theme; here’s hoping it’s not also repetitive.) There’s not an address anywhere I can drive or fly or walk to and say, “I’m home.” The house from which I write tonight is home because of Ginger and the pups, but when we move one day it will slide off somehow like every other place I’ve ever lived. I told Ann I used to think it was because I had never lived anywhere long enough to grow roots, but after spending all but three months of my married life in Massachusetts I think perhaps I don’t have roots to grow. What I know of home is in faces, not places.

I look at the careers that have found me and the one I have chosen and I’ve spent most of my life both searching for and working to create home. Last Sunday, as folks took Communion, I sang,
come home, come home
ye who are weary, come home
earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling
calling, o sinner, come home
That’s what I want church to be: home, which is why the administrative side of pastoring exhausted me. When I taught high school English, I wanted my classroom to feel like that as well, which is why having to give grades ate me alive. I know that’s why I choose to be a chef because cooking makes me feel at home and makes me feel like I can help to create home for others.

Tonight was my first night at the new restaurant. The people are really nice and the other folks in the kitchen were both helpful and friendly. The place is set up and maintained well and everyone seemed to work with a sense of collegiality and intentionality. The only thing that made it difficult for me (other than everything being new) was Chef had called me back after saying I was going to be Sous Chef to say the owner had decided to delay opening for lunch until September, so what I thought was going to be a full-time position is going to be a part-time line cook for awhile. I had planned to dive in and be at work again and I’m going to be prepping and learning and standing on the sidelines for at least a couple of weeks instead.

I don’t get to feel at home just yet.

I’m sad because I got my hopes up. I’m grateful because I have a good job in a good place with good people. I also feel good because he had to do some work to make room for me, which makes me feel like he wants me there. And it’s hard being the new kid in a room where everyone already knows each other. As many times as I’ve been that kid, I can’t say it has ever gotten easier.

When Ginger got home tonight after a meeting, I had dinner ready for her and then we took the pups on a walk to the water. I tried to start unpacking much of what has made it to this page as our Schnauzers dragged us around the block under a starlight sky, anxious to get back home to the couch and the cookies. I suppose my life today feels as different from what I knew growing up as an ocean from a mountain range. In some sense, nothing is different -- if home is a place, I’m never going to find it – and, Paul Simon is right: everything has changed; I’m at home tonight because I’m with her.

Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

free fall

in the moment between
the orchestra tuning and
the curtain going up
lies a space big enough
to hold our expectations

in the last moment before
the wheels touchdown
and grab the runway
as we catch our breath
and let go of our fear

in that one moment before
beginning -- when we know
what’s coming but not here
yet – that one moment
full of waiting room before

we climb up on a time
and the moment is gone
along with our memory of it
until the next time the air stills
and we free fall in possibility

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

a boy named sous

I got the gig!

It’s no Holy Grail, but there was much rejoicing. Yay!

In between the opening and closing sessions of our Avalanche Ranch VBS, I drove down to Plymouth to talk to the Chef and came back with a job as his sous chef. I’m pumped. I call back tomorrow to find out my schedule. It is a salaried, full time position: five days a week, dinners only, and Wednesdays and Thursdays off. Along with Chef, my coworkers are from Greece, Pakistan, Italy, France, and Brazil. My place on the line will be the fish station to start and then I will rotate through to learn all the stations so I can run the kitchen when the Chef takes his days off.

Here are some of the things I will learn how to prepare:

Prince Edward Island mussels steamed with pinot grigio and Rayes lemon pepper mustard, slivered shallots, flat leaf parsley, and giant garlic crostini

Carpaccio duo of yellowfin tuna and Atlantic salmon with marinated artichoke hearts, saffron aioli, capers, red onion, extra virgin olive oil, and crostini

Pan roasted Atlantic salmon with baby gnocchi, Portobello mushrooms, spinach, and sweet vermouth Dijon cream

Jumbo shrimp and local sea scallops with snow peas, bell peppers, cilantro, and slivered scallions in a coconut curry broth, wasabi whipped potatoes

Pan seared Atlantic halibut with sweet corn, green bean and roasted mushroom succotash, wilted Swiss chard, and lemon chive butter sauce

Cilantro pesto encrusted yellowfin tuna with veggie sweet pepper, cucumber, and red onion salad, sticky rice, and citrus mirin dipping sauce
And that’s just the fish station. I think this is really going to be a good thing. To top it off, I got home to find a message from one of the other restaurants where I left a resume asking me to call. Now I get to call and say I’m already employed. I’m thrilled and grateful.

Thanks for your prayers and encouragement.

When I got back to Vacation Bible Camp (our kids don’t like to call it “school”), I was just in time to do my thing as song leader. I’ve got this goofy cowboy hat and I get up in front of the kids and we sing and dance together, if by dancing you mean thrash around in joyous abandon. One year, a kid went home and was practicing the song he had learned when his dad asked him what he was doing.

“I’m dancing,” he said.
“That’s not dancing,” his dad answered.
“It’s how Milty does it,” the kid replied with confidence.

This year’s theme, Avalanche Ranch: A Wild Ride Through God’s Word, chooses different stories to focus on different aspects of God’s nature. Today’s was “God is with us all the time” and the story was Joshua telling the Israelites to stack up the stones for an altar after they had crossed the river, my touchstone from a couple of nights ago. We whooped and hollered and sang:
you better hold on tight
‘cause it’s a wild ride
Then, of course, we danced – my way. I love that we are teaching our children that we belong to an untamed God who is full of as many surprises as promises. In one of my other favorite theological movies, Three Amigos, they jump on their horses after thinking they saved the town, and Steve Martin says, “We ride,” and they tear off across the desert. In the next scene they are in the middle of nowhere and Martin Short asks:
“How far do you think we rode before we stopped and asked for directions?”
“Oh, just three or four miles,” Martin replies.
“Faith,” says Frederick Buechner, “is a journey without maps.” One day the Israelites are one side of the river and the next they have crossed over without getting their feet wet. One day I the function chef and the next I get fired by a crazy owner only to find get hired, not too many days later, by a good guy I don’t even know because I saw his restaurant across the parking lot from the Unemployment Office.

As long as I’m referencing movies, we went to see Evan Almighty the other night. It’s a variation on the Noah story. At one point, God is talking to Evan’s wife who doesn’t understand why her husband is doing what he’s doing. God says, “When someone prays for courage, do I give them courage, or do I offer them the opportunity to be courageous?” For all my uncertainty and even insecurity, I’ve been given an opportunity to do what I most want to do in what appears to be a healthy restaurant environment. About all that’s left for me to do is walk in on my first day and say,

“My name is Sous*. How do you do?”

Peace,
Milton

*with apologies to Johnny Cash.

Monday, July 09, 2007

enough

I have a job interview tomorrow.

Last Saturday I made a cold call on a restaurant that happens to be across the parking lot from the Unemployment Office (excuse me – the Career Center). It’s a funky little place with a really cool menu that runs ads on cable from time to time. As I was walking up, one of the cooks was picking fresh herbs from the bed planted in front of the restaurant. I asked if the chef was in and he told me to speak to the manager because the chef was on vacation. The manager and I had a nice conversation. He took my resume and told me the chef would be back Wednesday and to come back Thursday if no one had called. Later on that afternoon, he called me at home to say he thought I should call the chef at home, which I did. The chef called me back today. He sounds like a great guy and he knows his stuff; he trained at the CIA (that’s Culinary Institute of America, not the spy place). I go in to talk to him tomorrow about a sous chef position.

Six summers ago, I drove around trying to talk my way into a cooking gig. The chef at the little place where I started asked about my experience and I talked about church suppers and pancake breakfasts. A couple of jobs later, I hooked up with a friend who is also a chef and followed him to a couple of places. He is the one I worked with at The Inn. I’ve worked hard to learn my craft and improve my skills and I have still felt like I should put an asterisk at the end of the sentence where I talk about being a chef: (*his friend got him in the door). I am a mixture of confidence and insecurity when it comes to vocational things. I think I always have been.

As much as I know I have the chops to work in any kitchen, the work ethic to do things well, and the willingness to learn what I don’t know, I am surprised that a chef called me about being his assistant because of how I look on paper – not because I know someone who called in a favor, or he’s desperate to fill a position, or he’s feeling unusually compassionate. He thinks I can do the job because I have the experience to do it. I’m not a beginner anymore. I think I have a harder time convincing myself than I do anyone else.

He asked me two questions I found interesting. First, he said, “What area of the kitchen do you feel is your strong point?”

I thought for a few seconds and told him I felt I was a fast learner and I was good at keeping up with details in figuring out how to get the orders out and done well. I know how to look beyond the task that is in front of my face to see what needs to happen next to make things run smoothly. And then I said, “I also love being a part of a team. Working together to make things go well is really fun for me.”

Then he asked, “Are you self-taught?”

Professional cooking is made up of those who went through formal training and those who learned as apprentices without sitting in a classroom. Both are legitimate paths as far as the restaurant business is concerned. He, as I mentioned, was formally trained at the CIA. I would be one of the apprentices.

“Yes,” I answered.

He went on to talk about how most all of the folks in his kitchen were self-taught – and most of them had been with him five or six years. He also talked about how he enjoyed training and teaching people. (I think he must be one of the good guys.) As I’ve reflected on his question as my evening has worn on, I want to go back and answer differently. I’m not self-taught; I’ve been taught by everyone I’ve worked with.

Joao taught me how to make foccacia bread.
Carlos taught me how to make soups.
Kevin taught me how to flip eggs.
Sunichi taught me how to make maki rolls.
Eric taught me how to make a beurre blanc.
Jason taught me how to make Chicken Marsala.
Bill taught me how to test how well a steak is done.
Gigi taught me how to use the Fry-o-lator.
Jose taught me how to run the big dishwasher.
Alfonso taught me how to cut fruit with flair.
Pedro taught me how to make mashed potatoes for 300.
Robert taught me how to run a kitchen . . . and so on.

I’m not self-taught; I just like to learn.

Kasey Chambers is an Australian singer I came across a few years ago. On her album Barricades and Brickwalls she has a song that begins:

Am I not pretty enough
Is my heart to broken
Do I cry too much
Am I too outspoken
Don't I make you laugh
Should I try it harder
Why do you see right through me
Enough is a hard word for me, something that stays mostly out of reach, particularly if I think I’m responsible for proving my value. Very few times in my life have I felt like enough on my own. OK, probably never. If, however, I think of myself as not alone but as standing with my teachers and those whom I have taught, then I can begin to feel differently.

I am enough because I am not alone.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, July 08, 2007

q and a

Ginger and I had a conversation with our friend Jay over coffee Saturday afternoon as we talked about the questions that shape our faith. Often, when people talk theology, the vocabulary centers on issues, which is ultimately polarizing, I think, because they end up doing things like taking a stand and defending a position. Neither of those verbs facilitates discussion or relationship, both of which are crucial to faith. Questions, on the other hand, are invitations to conversation, if they are asked honestly.

As someone has said, our answers are only as good as our questions.

Maggi Dawn has a great post asking about the word “missional” as an adjective churches use to describe themselves. The growing list of comments shows how important it was that she framed her thoughts as a question rather than an issue. She was clear about her thoughts and feelings, but in a way that invited others to do the same where we could all learn from one another.

My friend Gene pastors a church in Plano, Texas. One of the ways they choose to talk about faith is with “Life Mission Questions,” which they describe as follows:

  • How do I live as a Christ-follower?
  • How does your life express your worship of God?
  • How do you partner with God to rescue those around you?
  • What have you done to strengthen your core relationships today?
  • How do you act more like Jesus than when you first met him?
  • How do you invest your time, talents and treasures to serve God and others?
Though I understand the value of our creeds has they have been handed down, I find much more resonance in faith expressed as interrogative rather than declarative or even imperative. Several years ago, my friend Billy and I wrote a song in which we tried to ask questions that matter. Here are the lyrics to “The Question Pool”:
where did I leave my plastic halo
why can’t I speak to my good friend
am I sleepwalking through the best years of my life
how long is too long to pretend

what do I owe my parents’ generation
what do I want and who would know
can I live on answers that were handed down to me
do I just hold on or just let go

I am drinking from the water blue
down at the question pool

what is lying over my horizon
what am I afraid of going through
if whatever happens come to push me past the edge
will all I believe in still be true

I am drinking from the water blue
down at the question pool
I wonder what it all comes to

why am I moved by stories of Eden
what does its lovely sadness mean
am I a traveler who cannot remember home
why do I cry sometimes in dreams

I am drinking from the water blue
laying down at the question pool
The final lyric took shape as we poured over page after page of questions we had written down or solicited from friends or read along the way. When life is distilled to a set of principles, we begin to set as though we were made of plaster of paris, becoming more and more rigid and brittle as time passes. If our faith is fed by questions, we have the chance to keep growing and changing as we learn more about our God, our world, and ourselves. My seminary ethics professor began the semester in the fall of 1978 by saying, “The issues that will be at the forefront during your ministry are probably not even in sight right now. Therefore, you have to learn how to think and question so you will have a framework to deal with what is to come.”

Our answers are only as good as our questions.
In The Return of the Pink Panther, Clouseau sees a man on the street with a dog next to him. “Does your dog bite?” he asks.
“No,” says the man.
Clouseau reaches down to pet the dog and the pooch almost rips his hand off.
“I thought you said your dog did not bite,” Clouseau exclaims.
“It’s not my dog,” the man replies.
Let me say again, our answers are only as good as our questions.

As we talked together on Saturday, the question that intrigued me most was, how do we live out our faith without it exhausting us? We know we are called to live out our faith in our world. We don’t know how to deal with life in both the micro and macro. How do we ask questions about Darfur that will energize us to creativity rather than futility? How do we do church in a way that feeds the community instead of church life being an endless stream of committee meetings? How do we learn to say, “This is the day our God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” and really mean it? How do we live so that when we are asked how we are doing we can answer something other than “I’m really busy” or “I’m really tired”?

When Billy and I came up with the metaphor of the question pool, we imagined a place that fed and invigorated us: to drink from the question pool would be to drink the Water of Life. If we really asked what we owed our parents’ generation, or what the Eden story really had to say beyond the creation wars, or how our faith was changing as it was tested, we thought we would be on a journey worth taking. Over a decade later, I still feel that way.

Truth grows in the face of questions the way my tomato plants are responding to the summer sun. Questions cause love to grow: that’s how the uncharted territory or a relationship becomes a home. Faith grows with questions because the point was never the answers anyway.

“I will give you water and you will never be thirsty again,” Jesus said to the Samaritan woman as they stood by the well in the heat of the day.
“What kind of water is that?” she asked.
“Exactly,” Jesus replied. And then he smiled.

Peace,
Milton

Friday, July 06, 2007

stacking up stones

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is Joshua telling the people to stack up twelve stones from the Jordan River for an altar after they had crossed through the river on dry ground.

And then he told the People of Israel, "In the days to come, when your children ask, 'What are these stones doing here?' tell your children this: 'Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry ground.'" (The Message)
What speaks most to that story is the idea of marking a place to come back to as a way of remembering, as the old adage goes, who we are and whose we are. Bob Bennett sang about what I'm talking about in a great song called "Altar in the Field":
I'll build an altar in the field
Where I'll remember
Understanding stacks of stones mean different things to different people as they find them along the way, I want to stack up a few of my own. Today marks my 401st post since I began my blog on December 27, 2005. I started writing about "food, faith, family, and friends" as a way to help me learn how to live with my depression and to connect beyond myself, both of which are inextricably tied together in my life. Stacking up the stones right now helps me because my depression is a rising tide these days.

For many years I've said I wanted to be a writer. Until I started writing this blog, I had a hard time feeling like one. Stacking up the posts like stones helps me remember I am a writer. It's an altar to which I plan to return again and again.

Peace,
Milton

P. S. -- There's a new recipe.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

tonight

we walked the beach in the dark.
I feel like I’ve walked all day in light
that’s been retreating like the end
of a silent movie, shrinking to a pin spot
and then disappearing into the certain
defeat of the black screen.

Sometimes I imagine a hand reaching out
of the shrinking circle, halting the darkness.
Then a second hand, and a third break away
the sides of the circle, as though it were
a thin facade and the light floods in
like a rain-swollen river.

Most of the time, however there are no
such hands; the light disappears and
the darkness remains. I’m left standing
as we were tonight, under a moonless sky,
with only your hand to hold,the consequence
of the love you’ve chosen to give.

Just before we turned for home you said,
“Say some love words -- you’re the writer.”
I had no words. All I could do was pull you close
and hold you, the dark hanging heavy
as humidity and the shallow waves of low tide
keeping rhythm with the night,

marking time till daybreak.

Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

what's cookin'

I went looking for a job today.

I’ve made only a marginal effort since I was fired from The Inn because I knew I was going on mission trip and had a couple of other things on the calendar and I couldn’t see starting a new gig by saying, “Oh – and I need the next two weekends off.” The summer stretches out from here, however, and it’s time to get back to work. My first stop was a small pub in our neighborhood that had been recommended to me by a guy who used to tend bar at The Inn. I talked with the owner and left a resume, but he said the kitchen was staffed right now.

“But you never know in this business,” he said and laughed.

My second stop was a high end restaurant on the other end of town. When I was laid off back in January I had a promising conversation with the chef there and almost went to work for him, but then The Inn called me back. I entered through the kitchen and asked to if Chef was available. The guy cutting the swordfish went to check and then said, “He’s busy. You wait three minutes.”

The chef I met back in January was not the guy who came to find me, but he was someone I knew. Two summers ago, when I was working in Kingston, he was the sous chef, biding his time until he could open his own restaurant in Cambridge, which he did. He got good press, took his best shot, and ran out of money. The former chef moved to a local country club and this guy took over. I told him what had happened to me and we had a good chat. If nothing else, I think it will turn into a weekend gig. We’ll see.

Someone told me once that there are a handful of people that staff the kitchens of restaurants on the South Shore and they just keep trading places with each other. After today, I’m willing to give that theory a little more credence. And I’m thankful that’s how life is here. Selling myself is hard for me to do, much less making cold calls. I got my other restaurant jobs because Chef called and said, “Come work for me.” This time, I on my own, marketing my skills, acting like I know what I’m doing. Though I’m confident when I’m cooking, I’m much less so when I’m job hunting. Flirting with rejection is not much fun. It's easy for me to hear "We don't need anyone in the kitchen right now" as "I'm a failure." I know better, but I have to consciously work not to let my insecurities get the best of me. After all, the New Chef took a shot at his dream of owning his own place and failed gloriously.

"Hey," he said smiling, "that was the first one."

He wants his own place more than anything and enough to know it's going to take some time and a lot of patience. For now, he's continuing to hone his craft and nurture his dream. His day will come.

Mine, too. (I'm saying that mostly for my benefit.)

I know enough about how the business works to know I’ll need to go back again on Thursday afternoon and “check in.” I will either walk out of there with a job, or I’ll come home and print more copies of my resume and try again next week.

That’s what’s cookin’.

Peace,
Milton

I am a patriot

I do a fair amount of listening to country music, but I’m always a little gun shy of my radio this time of year (no pun intended) because the closer we get to the fireworks the more often they play Toby Keith singing about putting a boot up anyone’s ass who disagrees with our government, or – inevitably – I’ll hear Lee Greenwood sing about being proud to be an American.

I’m not proud to be an American.

I can’t be since I had nothing to do with my being an American. I can take pride in things I’ve cooked or written because I did those things, but I’m an American by circumstance, by geography, by fortune. I feel grateful. I feel responsible. But I’m not proud.

Another way to think about pride is to define it as arrogance: rather than it being a sense of accomplishment, it is a sense of entitlement. I’m concerned for our country because I think the latter is the image we project to much of the world, whether we intend to or not. We come across as though we see ourselves as The One Who Know Everything or The Ones Who Are Convinced Everyone Wants To Be Just Like Us.

The analogy that comes to mind is a scene from The Breakfast Club after all the kids (Brian the science nerd, Andrew the athlete, John the angry kid, Allison the outcast, and Claire the popular girl) have become vulnerable with one another:

BRIAN: Um, I was just thinking, I mean. I know it's kind of a weird time, but I was just wondering, um, what is gonna happen to us on Monday? When we're all together again? I mean I consider you guys my friends, I'm not wrong, am I?
ANDREW: No...
BRIAN: So, so on Monday...what happens?
CLAIRE: Are we still friends, you mean? If we're friends now, that is?
BRIAN: Yeah...
CLAIRE: Do you want the truth?
BRIAN: Yeah, I want the truth...
CLAIRE: I don't think so...
ALLISON: Well, do you mean all of us or just John?
CLAIRE: With all of you...
ANDREW: That's a real nice attitude, Claire!
The scene continues:
BRIAN: I just wanna tell, each of you, that I wouldn't do that...I wouldn't and I will not! 'Cause I think that's real shitty...
CLAIRE: Your friends wouldn't mind because they look up to us...

Brian laughs at her.

BRIAN: You're so conceited, Claire. You're so conceited. You're so, like, full of yourself, why are you like that?
To turn the world into a high school detention hall may seem simplistic, but hear me out. We are a lot like Claire: she’s not mean or vindictive; she is uninformed and arrogant. She has been taught she’s better than others and has not heard voices telling her otherwise until that Saturday in detention. (Wouldn't that make a great Security Council ice-breaker: OK, if your country was a character in The Breakfast Club, which one would it be?)

When we were in Greece and Turkey last year, almost every hotel had CNN International on the television. The same alleged news organization that fills our homes with endless teen drama queens and pontificating pundits has an international channel that is informative and articulate. I can only assume they don’t want us to see it lest we become informed and realize the world is not what we think it is. We are being taught not to question, not to act, even not to care.

Almost twenty five years ago Little Steven Van Zandt, of E Street Band and Sopranos fame, wrote a song called “I am a Patriot,” which I first heard on Jackson Browne’s wonderful 1989 record, World in Motion. In the video clip I found of Little Steven, he makes an impassioned and linguistically colorful introduction to the song, imploring his audience to question everything and then he sings:
And the river opens for the righteous, someday

I was walking with my brother
And he wondered what was on my mind
I said what I believe in my soul
It ain't what I see with my eyes
And we can't turn our backs this time

I am a patriot and I love my country
Because my country is all I know
I want to be with my family
With people who understand me
I got nowhere else to go
I am a patriot

And the river opens for the righteous, someday

I was talking with my sister
She looked so fine
I said baby what's on your mind
She said I want to run like the lion
Released from the cages
Released from the rages
Burning in my heart tonight

I am a patriot and I love my country
Because my country is all I know

And I ain't no communist,
And I ain't no capitalist
And I ain't no socialist
and I sure ain't no imperialist
And I ain't no democrat
And I ain't no republican either
And I only know one party
and its name is freedom
I am a patriot

And the river opens for the righteous, someday
I love the honesty of the song: “I am a patriot and I love my country because my country is all I know.” Van Zandt names our love of family and want of security right along with our call to question what is going on and work for justice. My friend Gene pastors a church that talks about Life Mission Questions, which I find wonderfully resonant. The answers we find, my friends, are only as good as our questions. In that spirit, I have a few I think we need to ask more emphatically.
  • How can we hold people indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay without telling them or anyone else why and then talk about human rights to other countries?
  • How can we complain about countries seeking nuclear power and/or weapons, even threatening war if they continue, when we have them and intend to keep them?
  • How can we continue to staff military bases in countries all over the world when we would never let anyone set up a base on our soil?
  • How can we spend a billion dollars a week on war and not have universal health care our citizens?
  • How can we work to end terrorism without working passionately and relentlessly to end poverty?
  • Why do our presidential candidates have to raise millions of dollars to get elected?
  • Why don’t we think of the other countries of the world as colleagues rather than subordinates?
  • Why aren’t the voices of healthy dissent louder in our country?
  • Why are all our issues described as polarities?
  • Why must everything be either red or blue?
  • Where are the courageous leaders who are willing to do something other than raise money, worry about being electable, and pander to multinational corporations?
  • Where are the real journalists?
Feel free to add your own.

I am a patriot and I do love my country, even though it’s not all I know. I do think the river will open for the righteous someday and, as Martin said, justice will roll down like water. Liberty and justice for all – all the world.




Peace,
Milton

P. S. -- There's a new recipe.