Friday, February 29, 2008

lenten journal: life goes on

Ginger and I (and Ella) got up early this morning and drove to Birmingham to check in on Ginger’s folks and to see Lola and Gracie, our other Schnauzers who are now living with my in-laws because they have been so helpful to Ginger’s dad who has Alzheimer’s. We got here mid-afternoon and have spent the day talking and laughing and playing with pups. I also spent some time making soups and stocking the freezer with things for Rachel and Reuben to eat. About noon tomorrow, we will make the return trip to Durham (with Ella) so Ginger can preach on Sunday, I can cook Sunday night, and we can close on our new home on Monday! Oh, yeah – our house in Marshfield is officially sold as of this afternoon. Almost three months to the day that we arrived in Durham, we are finally getting to settle in.

Our traveling today and the fact that I have to go to the Krystal for free wi-fi, coupled with Blogger deciding to be down when I had time to write has thrown off my schedule, but I will have more to say in the morning. For tonight, in the symphony of emotions we have played today I’m aware of the melody of grace underneath it all. Things are not perfect. Some things are not even good. Watching Ginger’s dad disappear before our eyes is heartbreaking. At the same time, witnessing the unabashed affection between him and the little grey dogs is healing for us all. One day after another, life goes on. Even adding an extra day doesn’t change that fact.

Life goes on. Tonight I hear hope in those words.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

lenten journal: put your heart (here)

I don’t do well in small spaces.

When life becomes claustrophobic – when my world begins to feel small – I get nervous, agitated. I don’t like feeling that I’ve gone through my day (or days on end) without doing anything more than dealing with my stuff. Between being ill, trying to negotiate the pedantic morass of selling and buying houses (could they make it any more difficult?), and dealing with relational issues at work, my world feels as though it is closet-sized and I’m looking in rather than out. I don’t like the feeling.

It was with relief and gratitude, then, that I stumbled on to today’s offering at The Writer’s Almanac, part of my daily practice of trying to look beyond and above, to find this poem by Canadian poet, Robyn Sarah:


It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be.
It is possible that we are past the middle now.
It is possible that we have crossed the great water
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side.
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now
we are being given tickets, and they are not
tickets to the show we had been thinking of,
but to a different show, clearly inferior.

Check again: it is our own name on the envelope.
The tickets are to that other show.

It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall
without waiting for the last act: people do.
Some people do. But it is probable
that we will stay seated in our narrow seats
all through the tedious dénouement
to the unsurprising end — riveted, as it were;
spellbound by our own imperfect lives
because they are lives,
and because they are ours.
Her name was new to me, so I did a bit of digging and found the poem is part of a collection called A Day’s Grace. I also found an interview, which held this response to the question, “How does spirituality inform your writing?”:
“Spirituality” isn’t a word I’m comfortable with, but if God is dead I must have missed the obit. (Don’t people confuse God with the belief in God? Belief may be dead — at least as a fundamental common assumption of our culture.) Can I talk about how spirituality informs my writing — no, I don’t think I can. But that doesn't mean I don’t think it’s central. I think it probably is central. About the best I can do is to come back to that gasp of responsiveness to the world — the poet’s “O.” I try to be receptive: to the moment, to the world — of which language is a part. I try to keep myself open, to pay attention. To pay attention to the things that come my way, my daily “givens” — and to pay attention to language, as my chosen medium of response to those givens. In Hebrew the expression that translates as “Pay attention” is “Sim Lev.” It means, literally, “Put Your Heart (here).”
Jesus’ biggest temptations were about being everything to everyone, or capitalizing on people’s vulnerability to grab power; I think mine center around thinking life is going to be something other than what it is: one of these days I’ll get through all of this daily crap and get to the real stuff of changing the world and all. From that mindset, the daily details turn to drudgery because they are meaningless obstacles to what I need to be doing to feel as though I matter, creating a slow leak of grace from my life that is suffocating because the details don’t end and life is what it is.

And the poet says, “Put your heart (here).”

My world is small, by any measure. The ticket with my name on it is to a specific and short-lived show that will be missed by most of humanity. My world is small; our God is not. If I am most tempted to clamor for a bigger world as a way to a more meaningful existence, then I am most called to dive into the details, such that I begin to see just how much grace my little world can hold if I pay attention to all that passes so easily as incidental.

Jesus came to earth and spent his days walking and talking and eating and drinking and having any number of inane and, I’m sure, somewhat irritating conversations with both his disciples and the religious leaders who opposed him. He didn’t hold a World Evangelism Conference or plan Jesuspalooza. Perhaps it’s not so much that my world is small as it is my world is only as claustrophobic as I allow it to be. I can choose to see only the drudgery or I can put my heart (here) and discover the expansiveness of grace that underpins it all. If I’m paying attention, then the details, whether large or small, offer me the opportunity to be a conduit of that grace. If I’m focused on having a ticket to the wrong show then I contribute to the walls closing in on all of us.

Eugene Peterson’s version of Micah 6:8 says it well:
But God's already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don't take yourself too seriously— take God seriously.
(The Message)
Justice, mercy, and compassion need specific street addresses in order to take root and grow. Grace needs a face, and hands and feet. Even under the canopy of as grand a gesture as the universe that surrounds us beyond our comprehension, it is the specificity of the Incarnation – that God put God’s heart (here) – that redeems the drudgery or the details and breathes hope into our imperfect lives. The tapestry of grace is being woven one small stitch at a time.

The best I can do with my life is to pay attention: to put my heart (here).


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

lenten journal: write up

I’m happy to say I’m beginning to feel better. Not yet one hundred percent, but better. Thanks for the kind words and prayers.

I had a fun thing happen today. The Duke Chronicle is the independent student daily newspaper at the university and they ran a story on three changes in Duke dining services; I’m one of them. They even came up and took a picture. And they said:

Though not a location for a brief meal, the Faculty Commons hopes to cater to a broader audience with the promotion of former line chef Milton Brasher-Cunningham in January. His background and experience are varied and his ideas and management skills will benefit the service, Elizabeth Tornquist, a member of the eatery's staff, wrote in an e-mail.

"We are delighted to have him and feel that he will continue our Executive Chef Amy Tornquist's tradition of serving fresh local foods, prepared with imagination and skill," she said.
I feel like I’m finding a rhythm there and things are going well. Tonight when I went out into the dining room to see how folks were doing, one of the students said, “Dude, you’re the guy in the paper.”

That’s me.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

lenten journal: haiku

my head is stuffy
my body's falling asleep
I'll write in my dreams


Monday, February 25, 2008

lenten journal: the score

Cold/Flu/Whatever This Bug Is -- 1
Milty -- 0


Sunday, February 24, 2008

lenten journal: acceptance speech

Tonight we only had two people come into the restaurant. I’m beyond trying to figure out how all the different things on the schedules of the Duke students affect when they come to dinner, but tonight left me puzzled. Ramon and I got a good bit of prep work done for the week ahead (I’m assuming more than two will show up the other nights this week) and I got a chance to get to know our new server who started just a few nights ago.

I came home from work in time to watch the Academy Awards with Ginger. Something about the juxtaposition of the three of us doing our job in an empty room at the restaurant and the actors and directors and other technical artists being given Oscars for their accomplishments struck me. Most jobs don’t give awards, or give time to say thanks to one another.

It must be difficult to be nominated because you have to go to the awards prepared to both win and lose. You have to think about who you would thank and what you would say if you won and you have to just sit there if you don’t. How can you truly prepare for both moments?

I wrote something down

on the off chance that I won
to say thanks to all the people
who got me to this point:
family, friends, colleagues, cabbies

you drove me, pushed me, loved me,
challenged me, called me, fought me,
encouraged me, found me, loved me
some more. You really thought I

could do it. You saw things in me
I wasn’t even looking for, aired up
my dreams, gave wings to my wonder,
and set me free to fly. Thank you

is what I want to say, but I
didn’t win. What I wrote will
stay here in my pocket. May I
say, “Thank you,” anyway?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

lenten journal: pledge of allegiance

Sen. Barack Obama's refusal to wear an American flag lapel pin along with a photo of him not putting his hand over his heart during the National Anthem led conservatives on Internet and in the media to question his patriotism. (AP)

Pledge of Allegiance

I was eight years old when they took down
the picture of Queen Elizabeth over the blackboard,
ending her reign over the classroom, making
way for our new President, Kenneth Kaunda,
as we stood and sang, “Stand and sing of Zambia.”

I was eleven, sitting in the middle of the front
seat of his old Ford pickup, listening to the radio
somewhere in East Texas while he went in to
buy some unfiltered Lucky Strikes, when they
said Bobby Kennedy had been shot to death.

I was twenty-one, on a bus in Lenningrad,
going to see the memorial for all those who
had died in Hitler’s vicious siege, when a man
-- a survivor – offered to give me everything
if I would promise it would not happen again.

I was thirty-five, teaching school in Boston,
and talking with one of my Chinese students.
When I mentioned Tiananmen Square, he
looked up at me and said, “I was there.”
That’s as close to freedom as I ever stood.

I am fifty-one and they want me to believe
that what matters comes down to lapel pins
and hand signals. I don’t believe them.
I pledge allegiance to the God who made us
and calls us to stand together in love.


Friday, February 22, 2008

lenten journal: the untidy closet of the heart

It was an odd place to find a poet. She was seated at the end of a long conference table (the kind that hosted meetings that were anything but poetic) in a room, not much bigger than the table, designed for getting to the point rather than ruminating in metaphor. Yet, there we sat, some twenty odd folks (and I do think most of us were odd) on the ground floor of the Duke Clinic building, waiting for words to get us through the day.

I was there by happy coincidence. While everyone else had some connection to the hospital, I had come by way of Garrison Keillor, and then Barbara Crooker’s own website calendar, to take my seat next to her son-in-law who was also the one who had put the web site together. The event was sponsored by the Health and Art Network at Duke (HAND), which is a group that meets together regularly (they’re meeting next Friday to discuss James Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat”). I don’t know much more about them than that. I’m taken by the idea of intentionally looking at healthcare with an artist’s eye and, I’m assuming, vice versa.

As Barbara read her poems, she dropped details of her life like breadcrumbs, leading us to the deeper connection we shared as human beings. She has a new collection from which she read, Line Dance, and the title poem is less, she said, about the Electric Slide than the kind of spontaneous dancing lines that form at wedding receptions, each person affectionately linked to one another. She read the title poem and I kept looking around the room wondering what connections they shared. From there I began thinking of lines of my own, including the one that ran from me to Jimmy to his construction partner who fell off a roof yesterday and was in a room in Duke Medical Center awaiting surgery on his two broken wrists. I was going to see him after the reading.

Barbara lives at the intersection of health and art. Her poetry reflected her acquaintance with grief and with joy and the groundwater of faith that fed her words and her being. She has an autistic son, survived a still birth, had another daughter survive a traumatic brain injury – and those were the things she talked about. When she read her poems, she used her words this way:


This week, the news of the world is bleak, another war
grinding on, and all these friends down with cancer,
or worse, a little something long term that they won't die of
for twenty or thirty miserable years--
And here I live in a house of weathered brick, where a man
with silver hair still thinks I'm beautiful. How many times
have I forgotten to give thanks? The late day sun shines
through the pink wisteria with its green and white leaves
as if it were stained glass, there's an old cherry tree
that one lucky Sunday bloomed with a rainbow:
cardinals, orioles, goldfinches, blue jays, indigo buntings,
and my garden has tiny lettuces just coming up,
so perfect they could make you cry: Green Towers,
Red Sails, Oak Leaf. For this is May, and the whole world
sings, gleams, as if it were basted in butter, and the air's
sweet enough to send a diabetic into shock--

And at least today, all the parts of my body are working,
the sky's clear as a china bowl, leaves murmur their leafy chatter,
finches percolate along. I'm doodling around this page,
know sorrow's somewhere beyond the horizon, but still, I'm riffing
on the warm air, the wingbeats of my lungs that can take this all in,
flush the heart's red peony, then send it back without effort or

And the trees breathe in what we exhale, clap their green hands
in gratitude, bend to the sky.
A phrase from one of her other poems stuck in my mind: “the untidy closet of my heart.” “Untidy closet” in a redundancy, as far as my life is concerned. I’ve never had a closet that didn’t look as if it had been ransacked. I don’t have to live long in a place before the tiny little space fills up with things and I lose track of what I have in there. When I begin digging and sorting, often times I become an archaeologist of gratitude, finding little pieces of memory and meaning that pull me back into the line dance of life that is larger than I am.

In the untidy closet that is my heart I will need to find room tonight for the words I heard today and the healing they carried as they fell on me.


lenten journal: changing the itinerary

My travel plans changed this morning. Ginger is not yet over her bronchitis and, well, for several reasons it makes sense to wait a week to go to Birmingham, not the least of which is Ginger and Ella can go with me. About the time I was deciding whether or not to go today, the phone rang and a blogging friend called to ask me to go see his construction business partner who fell yesterday on the job and broke a leg and both wrists; he is at Duke Medical Center. Barbara Crooker, a poet I’ve quoted a couple of times lately, is also reading there today.

We are a week away from closing on the sale of our house in Marshfield and, if all goes well, about a week and a half away from closing on the purchase of a house here in Durham. Needless to say, I’ve got plenty to do around here. Staying is not such a bad thing. The hardest part is shifting gears from how I thought the weekend was going to go to how it actually needs to play out. That shift always takes me a little while. As much as I like to see myself as spontaneous, once I get a plan in my mind I have a hard time letting go of it. I know my destination and I know how to get there, thank you very much.

The destination is still Birmingham, for all the reasons I mentioned in last night’s post. I had my itinerary all worked out: straight down the interstate, get it done, get back home. But I’m not traveling alone. As much as I know that, I need to be reminded – often.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

lenten journal: lenten journey

I’m taking the blog on the road this weekend.

One of our reasons for moving south was to be closer to Ginger’s parents in Birmingham. Her dad has Alzheimer’s and her mom has her hands full. They also have Lola and Gracie, our Schnauzers, who making things better there so much that Rachel refuses to give them up. A big part of the reason I’m driving over is to see all of them and another big part is to cook so they can have some soups and other stuff in the freezer for future consumption. It’s a little over five hundred miles from here to there: eight hours and fourteen minutes, according to Google Maps. I’ll take off early in the morning (well, early for me) and get back home sometime tomorrow night. The Cherokee is tuned up and ready to go. By the time I get back, it will have topped 180,000 miles and is still going strong.

In all of human history, only the most recent of us have had the opportunity to move around the globe so expeditiously. Thanks to my car and five hundred miles of interstate highway, I can make pretty good time – until I hit Atlanta. But it was not so long ago that the distance was marked in days, even weeks, rather than hours.

The technology will also let me do something different over the next couple of days as far as my writing goes. My practice for Lent is to write a thousand words a day. Giving myself the liberty of including today’s total in the mix, even though I’m only traveling Friday and Saturday, I’m going to find my three thousand words along the way, taking the opportunity to see what I can hear and see as I travel to be with my family.

I’ll see you down the road.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

lenten journal: song about the moon

The path from the restaurant to my car leads me across the heart of Duke’s West Campus five nights a week. Most of the time, not too many folks are out walking when I am, but tonight the Quad was rather well populated with students all standing and facing in the same direction and staring up into the sky. My first thought was they were waiting to see if the Pentagon was going to be able to shoot down its own spy satellite before it fell to earth. I finally asked a girl and guy who were standing near to the sidewalk.

“It’s a lunar eclipse,” she answered, “but it’s behind the cloud now.”

I had no idea that was even happening today. My NPR time gave me nothing but stuff about Castro and the primaries – at least those were the stories I got to hear during prep time. But as I kept walking and trying to look up to see if the clouds might part, I thought of Psalm 8:

I look up at your heavens, shaped by your fingers,
at the moon and the stars you set firm -
what are human beings that you spare a thought for them?
When I sat down to write tonight, I still had the moon on my mind. Ella came in and barked to be taken outside one last time before she went to bed and we stood out under what was by then a clear sky and a moon free of the shadow.

And I started thinking about songs. While Ella trotted in the dark carrying a pine cone in her mouth, I sang softly,
I’m being followed by a moonshadow
moonshadow, moonshadow
leaping and hopping on a moonshadow
moonshadow, moonshadow
My favorite part is the bridge:
will it take long to find me
I asked the faithful light
will it take long to find me
and are you gonna stay the night
Italo Calvino has a wonderful short story called, “The Distance of the Moon” (in Cosmicomics) in which he describes the time near the beginning of human history when the moon was close enough to touch. At high tide, people could reach the moon by ladder; they would visit and then get back before the tide went back out. The natural flow of the universe was to expand, so each night the distance became a little greater, as did the risk of climbing to the moon, until finally it was no longer in reach.

Perhaps we keep singing because we can’t get there so easily. And so Shawn Colvin sings (with Ernie)
So if I should visit the moon
Well, I'll dance on a moonbeam and then
I will make a wish on a star
And I'll wish I was home once again
Though I'd like to look down at the earth from above
I would miss all the places and people I love
So although I may go I'll be coming home soon
'Cause I don't want to live on the moon
No, I don't want to live on the moon
There are probably enough moon songs to line the lyrics end to end and reach the cold hearted orb that rules the night, but I think my favorite is Paul Simon’s “Song About the Moon” (from my favorite Paul Simon record, Hearts and Bones):
If you want to write a song about the moon
Walk along the craters in the afternoon
When the shadows are deep
And the light is alien
And gravity leaps like a knife off the pavement
And you want to write a song about the moon
You want to write a spiritual tune
Then nah nah nah
Song about the moon

If you want to write a song about the heart
Think about the moon before you start
Because the heart will howl
Like a dog in the moonlight
And the heart can explode
Like a pistol on a June night
So if you want to write a song about the heart
And its ever-longing for a counterpart
Write a song about the moon
The laughing boy
He laughed so hard
He fell down from his place
The laughing girl
She laughed so hard
The tears rolled down her face

Hey Songwriter
If you want to write a song about
A face
Think about a photograph
That you really can’t remember
But you can’t erase
Wash your hands in dreams and lightning
Cut off your hair
And whatever is frightening
If you want to write a song
About a face
If you want to write a song about
The human race
Write a song about the moon
If you want to write a song about the moon
You want to write a spiritual tune
Then do it
Write a song about the moon
Tonight was a good night at work. We were busy again – which is great news – and everyone did well. I reworked the dish the critic had maligned and it was better, too. As hard as I worked today, I came out into the night somewhat energized. Maybe the moon’s game of hide and seek and the folks staring together up into the clouds and stars was contagious. Maybe we were all a little bit washed in dreams and lightning. What I came to tell is the clouds passed and our shadow left the moon unscathed. I know because it didn’t take long to find me and send a shadow of its own while Ella searched for pine cones in its soft glow.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

lenten journal: listening and learning

As I was driving to work yesterday, I called Chef because I had a couple of questions. We talked about some of the changes I’ve been making at the restaurant at Duke, and I got to tell her I noticed the check average had gone up a dollar, which means we’re making some progress toward not losing money. As we were ending our conversation, she said, “You’re really doing a good job, Milton.”

Last night was our busiest night yet at the restaurant and I was also starting a new expanded menu, which meant Ramon and I had our work cut out for us. When I first took over the kitchen a little over a month ago, I knew there were only going to be two of us on the line and Ramon was just learning how to be a line cook. I cut the menu down to about four appetizers (soup, salad, fried calamari, hummus) and five entrées (steak, salmon, chicken stir-fry, veggie stir-fry, chicken sandwich). I changed how I presented the meat and fish every couple of days, but the menu stayed small.

Ramon and I have both gotten a better handle on the kitchen and he’s come a long way as a cook. The biggest problem to his progress is his lack of English vocabulary, not his culinary prowess. He has three or four dishes that have become his station and his learning more everyday. With that in mind, I was ready to up the ante on what we were doing, so our new menu includes:


  • homemade soup
  • small salad
  • fried calamari
  • cheese and fruit plate
  • hummus platter
salads (entrée sized)
  • eggplant salad: entrée-sized salad of crispy eggplant rounds topped with mixed greens, granny smith apples, feta cheese, toasted pine nuts, and artichoke vinaigrette
  • steak salad: slices of grilled steak over mixed greens tossed with dried cherries, bleu cheese crumbles, granny smith apples, spiced pecans, and balsamic vinaigrette
  • grilled chicken salad: grilled chicken breast on a bed of mixed greens tossed with honey-roasted peanuts, golden raisins, parmesan cheese & raspberry vinaigrette
  • honey chipotle glazed salmon served on a bed of mixed greens and coconut-raisin rice and topped with pineapple salsa
  • grilled ribeye steak with sweet and white scalloped potatoes, seasonal vegetable, and caramelized onions
  • cocnut curry shrimp sautéed with julienne peppers and snow peas in a coconut curry sauce tossed with linguine
  • eggplant parmigiana: layers of crispy breaded eggplant and cheese topped with homemade marinara sauce over linguine
  • chicken parmigiana: breaded chicken breast topped with homemade marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese served over linguine
  • tuscan chicken sandwich: grilled chicken breast topped with portabella mushroom and melted cheese with basil pesto mayonnaise on sourdough bread with fries or side salad
  • teriyaki stir-fry: chicken or vegetable

We had a little bit of a rush right at the beginning of service and things never let up. When all was said and done, the two of us served seventy-six dinners in about three and a half hours. Ramon and I were both running around and we were keeping up, even with the new dishes. A little after seven, one of the servers put up a ticket – fried calamari and coconut curry shrimp – and said, “I know this guy; we’re getting reviewed.”

Duke Dining Services sends people around to all of the restaurants on campus to grade and report on everything from the service to the meal to the look and feel of the place. The calamari is Ramon’s dish. He was getting hit pretty hard, but I saw no reason to step in. He does good work. I had my own set of tickets to deal with before I got to the shrimp. The dish took longer getting out than usual because we were busier than usual, but it went out just like all the other dinners. About eight, the server came back and said, “Here’s the review. You ain’t gonna like the comments.”

Here’s a tip: never bring bad news about the food to the chef when there’s still an hour of dinner service left. We were busy already and I tried hard not to pick up the paper and read it; I knew better. I couldn’t help myself and then I had to work hard to stay in the game until we finally stopped cooking a little after nine.

Under “Food Quality” he wrote: “I thought the food was disappointing and needed better execution. Use hotter oil to fry the calamari so it’s crisp. Season the food. Everything needed salt. Main dish was very bland.”

The grade he gave the food was G: Good.

One of other servers came back and could see my disappointment. I was wearing it like a chef’s coat. “Don’t let it get to you,” he said. “I know the reviewer. He’s an ass. You’re doing well. Forget about him.”

When I got home and sent my nightly email to Chef, I quoted the reviewer much the same as I have here. When she wrote back this morning, she said, “The guy is a snob; don’t let him get to you. Do go through the review and find the kernels of truth you can learn from.”

My two choices as I stood at the fork in the kitchen could not have been better delineated.

There are other comments on the page that make it clear the guy is not going to win Miss Congeniality. The tone of his writing carries more than an overtone of superiority and, in the heat of battle, Ramon’s calamari last night was not his best work. As for me, I’m still trying to figure out the coconut curry sauce for the shrimp. It hasn’t had the punch I’ve wanted. I tasted it when I got to work this afternoon. It was bland. The other entrées are in pretty good shape. He picked the one that is still in development, if you will, and it showed. He may be an ass, but he was right on this one.

I heard two things from Chef today that mattered to me. One was that I was doing a good job. I’m a person who responds to affirmation. Her words mean a great deal to me. The second was when she told me to look for what I could learn from the review and then – then let it roll off. Don’t take the feedback personally, just take it and go on.

We made some changes in the way we do the calamari this afternoon and they were nice and crispy tonight. I worked on the sauce, too. It isn’t there yet, but it wasn’t bland, I can tell you that. As we got to the parking lot tonight, I said, “Ramon, you did a really good job tonight.”

I’m not the only one who needs to hear it.


Monday, February 18, 2008

lenten journal: a good place to be

You will write about the sermon, right? Maybe on Monday? What it was like to mount the pulpit once again. How long has it been?
(Gordon, in a comment on my blog)

The last time I preached was October 1, 2006. It was World Communion Sunday, the fifth anniversary of the beginning of our bombing of Afghanistan after September 11, and my last day as associate pastor at First Congregational Church of Hanover, where I served for three years. Yesterday was the second Sunday in Lent, the anniversary of the day Pope Pius XXII declared Saint Claire of Assisi as the patron saint of television, and my first time to preach at Pilgrim UCC.

Part of leaving the church in Hanover was also choosing to no longer be a vocational minister. I was even listed as “retired clergy” in the Mass. Conference directory, a label I choose over that of my friend Joy who reminds me I’ve “left the ministry.” I feel called to cook professionally, to write as if it were a profession, and to be the spouse of the pastor on a personal level. Being Ginger’s husband is my favorite thing.

When Ginger asked me to preach because she and Carla, our associate pastor, would be on the Women’s Retreat, I was happy to accept. Part of the reason was, of course, because Ginger asked me. Part of the reason is I like getting a chance to say what’s going through my mind and heart. Most of the reason was I love worship and I love getting to help lead in worship.

I love being a part of the church and The Church.

Since we’re still not unpacked completely and my clerical robe is still in the Pod, I wore a suit to preach yesterday (an event in and of itself). I’m glad it worked out that way. I didn’t feel as though I was stepping back into a role I had chosen to no longer play. Instead, I felt more like it was just me doing my part in the service along with the liturgist and the choir and the other worship leaders. I don’t feel like a Reverend anymore. (Did I ever?) I do feel like a contributing church member. Yesterday, my contribution was the sermon.

Worship requires a recipe, much like cooking dinner. You have to figure out the ingredients and how they are going to mix together to make something compelling and comforting at the same time. The sermon, even as a part of the total mix, requires a recipe of it’s own: text, thoughts, connections, and people. Many years ago, Gene, one of my friends from seminary, was talking about what he was learning about preaching. He said when he tried to preach to everyone, he got to nobody. When he thought of five or six specific people in the congregation and wrote his sermon to speak to them, it felt like everyone came out of church saying, “I felt like you were talking straight to me.”

I’m grateful that we have been in Durham long enough for me to feel something other than brand new here and to have a few relationships that have moved past introductions to allow me to preach with specific people in mind. I’m also grateful that I think of the sermon as a conversation starter in the context of a community of ongoing conversation rather than a Word From The Lord.

As I’m writing, two things come to mind.

When I was growing up in Baptist churches, people who felt God calling them into ministry either “surrendered to preach” or “surrendered for special service.” There are a couple of blog posts at least dealing with that vocabulary, but I’ll have to do that another time. As a youth minister, I began to realize that the only time we made a big deal about someone following God’s call on their lives was when they “surrendered” for ministry. I don’t remember ever being a part of a service when we celebrated a young person feeling called to be a physical therapist or a carpenter or an accountant, an actor, a teacher, or a chef.

The other story probably happened not long after Gene made his comments about preaching. I was in a church in Central Texas where Miss America was scheduled to come and give her testimony. One of the men in the church said, “Why is it when we have someone special come to speak they have to be someone famous? Aren’t there any plumbers who want to talk about Jesus?”

I’m not saying ministry, as a vocation is something that is no big deal or doesn’t require special gifts and skills. One of the reasons I’m retired is I don’t have the gifts or skills to do the job in a way that didn’t eat me alive. The story is told of Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist and poet, being at a cocktail party when a physician approached her and said, “You know, when I finish my career as a neurologist, I think I’ll write a novel.”

“And,” Atwood replied, “when I finish my career as a novelist, I think I’ll take up brain surgery.”

I am saying there was something redemptive for me to step into the pulpit, not as a minister, but as a church member, as the spouse of the pastor, as Milton to speak my part of the conversation.

After church, Dewitt and Alice, two wonderful people I am getting to know, asked me to go to lunch with them before I had to go to work at the restaurant. While we ate, Dewitt was wonderfully specific about the things that had spoken to him in the sermon. He obviously listens better than I do on most Sundays.

The conversation continues.

I’m not sure if that answers your questions, Gordon, so let me try a bit more succinctly. Sunday was a good day. I stepped into the pulpit with those who have been church for me in the past holding me up and those who are becoming church for me sitting in front of me and calling me on.

It was a good place to be.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

lenten journal: how do I get there from here?

Genesis 12:1-4; John 3:1-17
A Sermon for Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Durham

It’s written matter of factly in our scripture passage this morning:

“Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,”

as though God and Abram were having a conversation. If they were, we aren’t privy to it. The chapter starts with God talking and gives us no background or context. If we back up into Chapter 11, we learn about Abram’s family tree, that he was originally from Ur (which is modern day Iraq), and that Terah, his father, had actually set out from there for Canaan, but only made it as far as Haran before he settled down to live out his two hundred years. We don’t know why.

Abram had been in Haran a hundred and twenty-five years or so when God spoke to him about moving on. He was settled and secure. God offered him promises and unsettledness – pack up everything, leave your family and friends and the land you know as home – for a reason: “and I will make you a blessing.”

Nicodemus was a settled man as well. He was a religious leader, which meant he both power and money. He heard Jesus speaking and came to find him to ask more questions, I think, but began with a statement instead:

“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus’ response – also in a matter of fact tone -- seems to indicate that he wasn’t interested in some sort of esoteric theological discussion. He wanted to make it personal:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Nicodemus got to hear the phrase “born again” before it was road weary and politically laden. He took it at face value, wondering how he could climb back into his mother’s womb and come back once more as a bouncing baby boy. The image is not a sentimental one, but a painful, messy, even bloody image. How could something as visceral as childbirth be repeated? And why would you want to do that?

After listening to Ginger’s sermon last week on the temptations of Jesus, I told her I thought they could all be summed up in one phrase: I matter most. The Tempter was trying to get Jesus to live as though he mattered most. From that perspective, these two stories could be summed up in an opposite way: God matters most. God is where things start and finish, God is the Alpha and Omega, the First and Last Word.

The other thing that struck me was something I remembered from a New Testament class many years ago. The temptations were not a one time thing for Jesus. Deciding whether to feed people to gain allegiance, or to use the miracles as a way to gain popularity, or to see the world as belonging to him were things Jesus had to stare down everyday. Our stories today are no different.

Abram left Haran and made it all the way to Canaan. He even built an altar at Bethel. Then a famine came and he and Sarai were forced to go to Egypt to find food. The man who had trusted God on the first part of the journey lost his nerve. As they got close, Abram told his wife he was afraid, when the Egyptians saw how beautiful she was, that they would kill him and take her to be with the Pharoah. His plan was to say they were brother and sister. Abram made himself safer, but he didn’t prove himself more faithful in what he did to himself and his wife.

I don’t mean to be too hard on the guy. Maybe he thought the journey to Canaan would be a one time thing: he would unpack at Bethel and then he would get to live two hundred years in the same place. He had hardly taken the saddlebags off the camels when it was time to go again.

Nicodemus shows up two more times in the gospels. In one scene, he asks a rather innocuous question as the other Pharisees are plotting to kill Jesus. Then he shows up at the tomb with oil and spices to pour on Jesus’ body. Perhaps the thought of outing himself as a “born again believer” was too much.

The sentence closest to the heart of our denomination over the last few years I, “God is still speaking.” Those are dangerous words. If God is still speaking – and saying the kind of things Abram and Nicodemus heard -- then the Bible is not an expanded version of Life’s Little Instruction Book or Robert Fulghum’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. God’s words to us are incendiary, and intentionally so. If we listen, ours are also. When the children lead us in prayer each week, here’s what we say:

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

The trip from Iraq to Israel was less complicated in Abram’s day and Nicodemus didn’t have to contend with globalization and climate change and a world as large as the one we know. So will we ever get to settle in the Promised Land or be born once and for all?

The short answer is no.

If birth is our working metaphor, then it is God’s womb we climb into over and over, and with each birth we see another way we are called to be the people of God, whether it’s figuring out how to respond to Darfur or Kenya, or how to meet the needs of the poor and homeless in our city and our nation, or how to hold our government accountable when they torture and abuse people, or how to handle our finances as a church so that we are faithful and generous stewards of what we have been given, or how to deal ethically in our business practices, or how to live with honesty and integrity as a church community. We are called to be born again and again and again, each time a fuller incarnation of the God who gives birth to us over and over and over.

John 3:16 is the first verse I memorized as a child. It begins, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son . . .” Not only is God still speaking, but God is still so loving the world that God continues to live in a constant state of labor, giving birth to us, the children of God, again and again, that we might be a blessing so the world may know how deeply that love runs. Amen.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

lenten journal: I don't want to be nice

Curious George has gone to Africa.

Sorry. I couldn’t resist. Bush is making a whirlwind tour of The Largely Ignored Continent, visiting countries not in crisis where he can point to what he has done to help them. Yes, my cynical sap is definitely rising. Kofi Annan has been in Kenya for a couple of weeks trying to do something to stem the violence firsthand, but Bush chose to go next door to Tanzania and let his Secretary of State go to Nairobi. None of them is going to Darfur.

Before you skip to wherever you’re going next, this is not going to be a rant. I’m headed to one particular thing I heard today on NPR related to the $19 billion Bush pledged five years ago to help fight AIDS in Africa. The money has been spent on AIDS and also to try and lessen the damage done by malaria and tuberculosis, and the money has helped. The NPR reporter noted before the aid was pledged, less than two percent of people with AIDS were able to get any help. That number has now risen to over thirty percent. Yes, that’s good news and . . .

We’ve spent twenty-six times that much on the war in Iraq, a number that is truly impossible for me to fathom. Over twenty million dollars clicked by on the counter here on the blog in the time it took me to write this post. It will only take five months to spend $19 billion in Iraq, not five years. Beyond feeling frustrated and helpless at the way the government spends money, I’m pulled by the numbers in a more personal way that makes me contemplate my generosity and values.

Some years ago, when the news still talked about Brad and Jennifer, Ginger talked in one of her sermons about the big deal that had been made because they gave a hundred thousand dollars to something. For the organization receiving the money, a $100K was a big deal, but when Ginger did the math as far as the gift as a percentage of income, it was the equivalent of she and I giving about five bucks to the cause.

All of it flows together for me when I look at the story of Abram because I keep thinking about what was at stake for him, and for Sarai, even though she doesn’t get equal billing. Genesis 12 opens with God telling Abram to pack up and move – no context or explanation. I looked back into the previous chapter to find that Abraham’s father, Terah, had been the one who originally left Ur (Iraq!) for Canaan, but only made it as far as Haran and settled there. We aren’t told why; he just stopped. Who knows if the prospect of taking up the journey was ever the topic of discussion over dinner, if Terah was going because God told him to go, or if he just felt like moving west and then got tired like the guide in Waiting for Guffman.

Abram and Sarai got to the land they were promised and built an altar of thanksgiving, but a famine came, so they went south to Egypt, as did Moses and Mary and Joseph, to name a few. As they came into the Negev, Abram got a little nervous. His wife was beautiful and he didn’t fancy himself much of a fighter, so he told her to say she was his sister so they wouldn’t kill him to get to her. She “went to live” with the Pharoah and Abram became a wealthy farmer, getting comfortable in Egypt the same way his father settled in Haran.

Abram’s plan worked well, I suppose, if you’re Abram. Sarai was the one who had to pay the bill. I imagine “going to live with” the Pharoah was a euphemism for more than doing housework and looking pretty at dinnertime. Sarai, who was barren and wanted children, was being forced to have sex with the Pharoah so Abram could get set up in business and not get killed. He probably thought he was doing her a favor.

Being compassionate is not the same thing as doing someone a favor or doing something nice for those in need. Being philanthropic – making sure we spread things out so everyone gets a little something – is not the same as being generous. One of our folks in Marshfield was so deeply moved by the plight of the victims of Katrina in Mississippi (who, FEMA said today, were given trailers contaminated with formaldehyde) that he continues to figure out how to get down there as often as he can to help people rebuild their homes. He isn’t being nice; he identifies with those folks, hurts with them, and hardly goes a day without thinking about what he can do to help. One of these days, we’re going to get a call and find out he retired as a CPA and moved to the Delta.

It wasn’t Abram’s idea to leave Egypt. Left to his own devices, I think he might have been the same sort of settled footnote as his father had Pharoah not found out he had been fooled and told them both to get out of the country. Abram made sure to take all of his wealth and comfort with them. But God’s promise wasn’t that Abram would be rich and comfortable.

“I’ll make you a blessing,” God said. Abram may have stopped listening after, “I’ll make of you a great nation.” (I like the way The Message puts it: “I’ll make you famous.”)

Being an American Christian means, for most of us, growing up with Abram’s sense of comfort and wealth, particularly compared to the rest of the world. We like feeling as though we are the chosen ones, God’s celebrities, able to do nice things for those in need from time to time without really grasping what our choices are costing those around us.

I say, “we.” I should begin by saying, “I.”

I’m thankful this story and others shows God works with and loves flawed people, otherwise I don’t know I could say, “I’m bound for the promised land.”


Friday, February 15, 2008

lenten journal: answering invitations

In getting to preach this Sunday, since Ginger is away on our church’s women’s retreat, I’ve been thinking about Abram and Nicodemus, the two stars of the lectionary readings this week, and tonight that’s led me to thinking about invitations.

As one who grew up Southern Baptist, invitation is a loaded word, tied to the altar call at the end of every service, calling people to conversion, church membership, or (as we often said) to “redecorate” their lives. As we sang the final hymn, the pastor stood at the front of the church and waited for people to step out into the aisle and come forward. On many occasions, the pastor would signal to the organist to pause and he (they were all men in those days) would implore us to not let the song end without responding to God’s call. For the most part, we all stood still and sang.

The hymns we sang were ones that spoke to our desire to be changed by our encounter with God.

All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give
I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live

I surrender all, I surrender all
All to thee, my blessed savior, I surrender all
The songs were filled with imagery of transformation:
Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way
Thou art the potter, I am the clay
Mold me and make me after thy will
While I am waiting yielded and still
The one I remember as the pinnacle of invitation hymns was
Just as I am without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me
And that thou bidst me come to thee
O, Lamb of God, I come
Thanks to YouTube, I’ve spent the better part of my evening alone flipping through gospel videos, listening to songs full of invitations to follow and calls to come home. I think about Abram, who hailed from what we know as Iraq, hearing God tell him to pack up and head west. The story is told in only a few verses because Abram didn’t do much talking; he packed up and left.

Nicodemus’ question to Jesus - and Jesus’ answer – unwittingly created one of the great dividing lines in Christianity, as some cling to the idea of being born again as label more than metaphor. Both were trying to come to terms with how we are changed when we encounter God. Neither had any idea how their words and actions would alter the landscape for those who came after them.

The story of our faith is a collection of short stories of individuals and communities of faithful followers who have answered God’s call to move and grow, or to be born anew into a world that needs a fresh incarnation of God’s love. Some of the stories are rich and full; some are tragic and some are laced with laughter.

In my musical journey this evening, I came across Mark Heard’s song, “Heart of Hearts”:
Tears in the city
But nobody's really surprised, you know
My heart's taking a beating
Existence is bleeding me dry, you know

But way down in my heart of hearts
Way down in my soul of souls
Way down I know that I am a fortunate man
To have known divine love

The world is in shambles
I'm just a young man but it's been getting a little bit old to me
I'm already aching
The years have been taking a little bit of a toll on me

But way down in my heart of hearts
Way down in my soul of souls
Way down I know that I am a fortunate man
To have known Divine love

Two in the morning
The siren is a warning that everything is not quite alright
The city is sleeping
I'm down on my knees in the night tonight

But way down in my heart of hearts
Way down in my soul of souls
Way down I know that I am a fortunate man
To have known Divine love

I still don’t know exactly where the sermon is going, any more than Abram knew how to get to Canaan. What I do know is I can sing a few more verses and prepare myself to be changed, converted, even born again once more.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
sight, riches, healing of the mind,
yea, all I need in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, thy love unknown
hath broken every barrier down;
now, to be thine, yea thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
As the old preachers used to say, close your eyes and make it a prayer.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

lenten journal: an open window

from the beginning, I suppose
the point of Lent was to do
something, or do without,
for forty days – but when they
started counting, they skipped
the Sundays (“Little Easters”)
so folks could catch their
collective breaths, or find
forgiveness, or just rest.

I knew one person who
called Sundays and Saint
days “windows in Lent,”
as though we needed fresh
air and light to seep into
these deep days of devotion.

whether Saint Valentine is
a window or a greeting card
is of no consequence to me.
With restaurant tables as our
bookends to the day, we began
over coffee and pancakes and
finished with late night snacks.
Because I’m in love I won’t write
a thousand words tonight

on purpose. I wanted to
keep my promise to practice
and I wasn’t going to miss
the breeze the blew in
the open lenten window
tonight when she smiled at me.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

lenten journal: kite juggling

I had no idea who Barbara Crooker was until a few days ago and now she’s made The Writer’s Almanac twice in the span of a week and her poetry is speaking to me. Here’s the one from yesterday:

In The Middle

of a life that's as complicated as everyone else's,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather's
has stopped at 9:20; we haven't had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don't ring. One day I look out the window,
green summer, the next, the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning's quick coffee
and evening's slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail, a metronome, 3/4 time. We'll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.
About a week into Lent every year I have to come to terms with time because writing a thousand words a night that make at least some sense takes so much of it. I started writing last Wednesday determined to write in the morning so I wouldn’t face the empty page when I got home from work at ten or ten-thirty. I kept that routine for about three days and ended up back in nocturnal mode because late at night appears to be where I can find the space and silence to write. The tradeoff is I don’t get to sleep as much. I think that’s why the first couple of lines resonated so much:
struggling for balance, juggling time
Some years back, one of Ginger’s colleagues from her doctoral program taught them how to juggle with scarves. The mechanics were easier to teach because the scarves floated more than they fell and, as Ginger pointed out, they looked pretty, too. It was my first encounter with kindler, gentler, juggling. At Quincy Market in downtown Boston, a tourist area, I watched a street performer juggle a bowling ball, an apple, and a chain saw that was running at the time. I wondered, first, how he learned to compensate for the differences in shape and weight as he threw the items up and down; I wondered second how he practiced. There had to be a first time, a time when he had no idea how it was going to go when he threw the chainsaw into the air and lived to try it a second and third and forty-fifth time. How long do you have to practice to be able to do this?

I’ve tried to learn to juggle and done OK at it, but both the prospect and the reality that I can’t always catch the balls makes it more stressful than satisfying for me.

When I was in sixth grade, my grandfather taught my brother and I how to build our own kites out of newspaper strips, flour paste, and wooden dowels. Once we had our masterpieces, he gave us each a mile of string, coiled up on a stick and ready to use. One appropriately windy afternoon, I went out into the big field beside our house (I think it was actually the back of a railroad yard) and set my kite sailing. I don’t know how long it took me to get the kite all the way out to the end of the string, my masterpiece flying a full mile away from me, but I remember getting to the end because it was then I discovered my grandfather had not tied the string around the stick. I stood in the field and watched my kite go on its own adventure.

That story popped into my head because I was about to write this sentence: life is a little like juggling with helium-filled balloons – sooner or later they’re going to get away. I told the kite story instead because, the reality of the juggling metaphor notwithstanding, the feeling I had watching my kite sail away wasn’t mostly about losing it. I felt pretty good about standing out there and working the kite until it had flown a mile away from me. As many times as I’ve told that story (and I repeat my stories, just ask Ginger), it feels somehow hopeful. I just stood there till the string ran out, flying my kite.

Today was going to be one of those days that I went all J. Alfred Prufrock on Durham and measured out my life in coffee spoons. I was to meet a group from the church for breakfast to plan our upcoming men’s retreat, then I was to meet Chef for our weekly coffee to talk about how things were going at the restaurant, and then I was to meet Ginger at the house of one of our church members for coffee with some of the other UCC ministers in the area. I suppose you can tell what I didn’t give up for Lent. What any of this has to do with juggling or kite flying begins with my sleeping through the alarm and missing the breakfast gathering. There just was not enough night for me to write and sleep and make it to Elmo’s. My choice was to see it as struggle and juggle or surrender.

Crooker traded in her timepiece to “caught between the mesh of rope and the net of stars” that was her backyard hammock where she could run out of time by lying still. I found moments in my encounters today when we were far more aware of the lines that connect us than we were where we needed to be next. I wasn’t juggling. I was being. As another of my favorite poets, Patty Griffin, wrote and recorded “The Kite Song”:
Little sister just remember
As you wander through the blue
The little kite that you sent flying
On a sunny afternoon
Made of something light as nothing
Made of joy that matters too
How the little dreams we dream
Are all we can really do

In the middle of the night
The world turns with all of it's might
A little diamond colored blue
In the middle of the night
We keep sending little kites
Until a little light gets through
It is the middle of the night and I am letting my words loose like little kites before golden slumbers fill my eyes. How can I help but wake up smiling?


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

lenten journal: joy and jesus

I don’t really understand surly.

I get depression because I live with it, but surly – the toxic kind -- is a different matter. The two servers who worked tonight, mother and daughter, make a good case for toxic surliness as a psychiatric diagnosis, again, in the same way I needed to see my depression as more than just being overwhelmingly sad. I say all of that not to judge them, but to try and learn something about how to work with them and how to understand them better.

One of the ministries of our church is working with ex-inmates as they try to assimilate back into society. A team of our church members meets with our “partner,” as he is called, once a month to listen, to encourage, and to hold his feet to the fire, as well. As a part of that effort, Ginger went to a training session tonight (that has a name I can’t remember right now) that had to do with understanding how we understand things – cognitive something or other. The woman who led the training used a dropped wallet as an example, going around the room and asking people what they would do if they saw someone drop their wallet. The different answers raised various ethical questions and revealed differing points of view. The leader went on to say in her experience with prisoners that they almost all saw the wallet as at least “finders, keepers,” if not a gift. We can rarely assume we share a common understanding of any situation or issue, which means, among other things, that we have to listen harder to each other.

What I know about the two women I work with, beyond our little restaurant is one important thing: the husband/father in the family died last April. Beyond that, I know they’ve worked at Duke for a good while and the restaurant where we work has pretty much been their domain. I also know I’m the new guy.

Tonight was one of those nights when I saw clearly that we don’t look at life the same way, fundamentally. The first therapist I ever saw told me, “There are two things in life you can change: how you feel and how you act and speak. You can’t change anything else.” His words have always proven true. Applied here, they mean my task is less about figuring them out and more about deciding what I am going to say and do and what I am going to choose to feel about it all.

Man, it would be a hell of a lot easier to just fix them.

My friend Joy Jordan-Lake has a new book called Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous: Ten Alarming Words of Faith, which is well worth the read, I’m proud to say, even though I’m only through about word five. As I’ve been thinking about the two women at work, I went back to something I read in the first chapter, “Resurrection”:

It turns out that the only people who can speak of resurrection with authenticity are the ones who’ve had a good whiff of the inside of a tomb. Resurrection is not a word you can tease and hold hands with for fun unless you’re informed of the risks. Because to talk about resurrection like a personal friend is to talk first about your close acquaintance with death. (3)
When I can be human enough to get over being annoyed and frustrated by their surliness, I see two people who know death far too well and are, like Jesus, acquainted with grief. You don’t learn to put up shields like that unless you were getting beaten a lot. In the process of learning to protect yourself, you learn to lash out as well and get in some good licks before the tide turns against you. I can’t change any of what was done to them or how they’ve learned to survive. I can change my being annoyed or frustrated as a result.

This following Jesus to the Cross thing is easier when it’s about special worship services and giving up something rather than having the road run right through the middle of my job. Joy, again:
“Holiness,” said Walter Rauschenbusch, “is goodness on fire.” This captures well the holiness – and danger – of Jesus, his power to attract and disturb, and even to destroy, before re-creation or redemption can occur. . . . Holiness, real holiness, the kind Jesus presents, is not about chains and checklists but hunger. And longing. Finding ourselves desperate for meaning, for purpose, for something bigger and richer and beyond the tawdry this-world that we let define us. Wishing to wipe down the slates of our pasts, clean up our acts, start over again. To live this time for something higher and wider and deeper. More wild. More dangerous. More destructive and creative. More holy. (44, 46)
When I think about being creative in the kitchen, I think about making something tasty out of what I can find there. This week, I’m serving a chipotle-mango glazed salmon over coconut-raisin rice with a pineapple-mango salsa, all because I found mangoes and pineapples and shredded coconut in the walk-in, a small can of chipotle peppers hiding on the spice shelf, and we over ordered on the golden raisins. A dish like that and it’s pretty easy to feel proud of myself.

But a night like tonight and some words from Joy and Jesus – remind me of the true creative and redemptive work I’m being called to do that has less to do with salmon and more to do with surly. When I was in seminary, entertaining delusions of doctoral work, I took a class where we read the Bible in French. The one thing I remember is the translation of “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” when we took the French word for word: “Blessed are those who make peace around them.”

Funny I should remember that now.

I don’t know what the days ahead will hold. I don’t expect to be sitting around in the dining room singing “Kum Ba Ya” anytime soon. I don’t expect them to change.

I’m trusting that I will, with God’s help.


Monday, February 11, 2008

lenten journal: random and radiant

It’s far later into the night than I intended to have to stay up to complete my daily practice. The thoughts running through my head are not original; in fact, all I can hear are borrowed words. There’s Barbara Crooker’s poem, “All That Is Glorious Around Us,” featured The Writer's Almanac last week. Here’s an excerpt where she quotes Mary Oliver:

It is the nature
of stone / to be satisfied / writes Mary Oliver, It is the nature
of water / to want to be somewhere else, rushing down
a rocky tor or high escarpment, the panoramic landscape
boundless behind it. But everything glorious is around
us already: black and blue graffiti shining in the rain's
bright glaze, the small rainbows of oil on the pavement,
where the last car to park has left its mark on the glistening
street, this radiant world.
I went looking to learn a little more about Crooker and found out she’s doing a poetry reading in Durham a week from Friday. I guess I know what I’ll be doing for lunch that day. I kept coming back to the Oliver lines because it struck me that we talk about God as the Rock of our salvation and Jesus talked about himself as the Water of Life.

I’m preaching this Sunday because Ginger is going to be leading our church’s women’s retreat. The two passages are Abraham being called by God to go find home and Nicodemus being told by Jesus he needed to be born again for faith to really take hold of him. I guess it was Abraham’s leaving home to find it that sent me on my next tangent. I remembered Frederick Buechner talking about a homecoming in his novel, Treasure Hunt. The narrator, Anton Parr, is coming back home after being gone for some time and his children have made a banner saying, “Welcome Home,” except one of the legs of the M doesn’t really show up, so the sign reads, “WELCOME HONE.”

“It seemed oddly fitting,” Parr says. “It was good to get home, but it was home with something missing or out of whack about it. It wasn’t much, to be sure, just some minor stroke or serif, but even a minor stroke can make a major difference.”

I don’t know how it happened tonight, but a minor stroke of some sort shut down the computer in the restaurant that allows the servers to charge the meals on the students’ meal cards. Our lead server, Tabitha, got the computer back on, but the numbers had to be entered by hand. Those minor strokes completely took her out of the game. She was seething to the point of hardly being able to converse. She was not even open to expressions of solidarity or compassion.

There was nothing to do on my part except to make sure the food was done well and done on time. The other server on duty made sure it got to the tables hot. Tab kept dealing with the mess and steaming with rage.

I couldn’t do anything to help.

We sold our house in Massachusetts (or we are in the process of selling it), but we didn’t sell it for as much as we owe on the mortgage. We’ve been in a bit of a quandary trying to figure out what to do and we weren’t sure how anyone could help. Today Ginger met with a man at a local bank and he knew exactly what he could do to help, and he did it. She called me at work to tell me the news. His minor stroke made a big difference for us to continue to move toward feeling at hone here.

While my day improved, Tab’s fell apart. We would both do well to read all of Barbara Crooker’s poem:
All That Is Glorious Around Us
(title of an exhibit on The Hudson River School)

is not, for me, these grand vistas, sublime peaks, mist-filled
overlooks, towering clouds, but doing errands on a day
of driving rain, staying dry inside the silver skin of the car,
160,000 miles, still running just fine. Or later,
sitting in a café warmed by the steam
from white chicken chili, two cups of dark coffee,
watching the red and gold leaves race down the street,
confetti from autumn's bright parade. And I think
of how my mother struggles to breathe, how few good days
she has now, how we never think about the glories
of breath, oxygen cascading down our throats to the lungs,
simple as the journey of water over a rock. It is the nature
of stone / to be satisfied / writes Mary Oliver, It is the nature
of water / to want to be somewhere else, rushing down
a rocky tor or high escarpment, the panoramic landscape
boundless behind it. But everything glorious is around
us already: black and blue graffiti shining in the rain's
bright glaze, the small rainbows of oil on the pavement,
where the last car to park has left its mark on the glistening
street, this radiant world.
I may read that poem again tomorrow.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

lenten journal: I want to be a christian

I don’t know where Duke students go on Sunday night, but it’s not to our restaurant. Kyle tells me they realize at some point on Sunday afternoon that they have been partying all weekend and they have class in the morning. Whatever the reason, Ramon and I had a lot of time on our hands. We cleaned and sorted the walk in refrigerator that was left in a bit of a shambles, I’m guessing, because the produce order came in late on Friday. Then we started working on some of our sauces and staples for the week ahead.

I would be more accurate to say I started working on the sauces. When Ramon finished washing the dishes left for him by the brunch crew, he asked what I was doing. I told him I was making marinara sauce, something we go through quickly with our new menu. Somehow I managed to be aware enough to realize he was really asking me to teach him what I was doing. The recipe is one I learned when I worked at the RooBar in Plymouth and I love it for both its simplicity and its taste. I was more than happy to pass along to Ramon what was passed along to me. I’m happy to tell you, too. The problem is, due to the quantities we work with, you will have marinara for the neighborhood.

I started by showing him the four food service-sized cans of whole Roma tomatoes I had brought from dry storage. I opened them into a large container, put on gloves, and began crushing them by hand. “Wait,” he said, and went to get a pen and paper. After the tomatoes were hand pureed, I put two cups of garlic in the food processor and pulsed it just enough to leave the cloves in small pieces. I put the pot on the stove, heated it, and added enough olive oil to cover the bottom. When it was hot, I dumped the garlic in and stirred it for a few minutes – just to give it some color. Then I added the tomatoes. (Ramon was taking notes in Spanish the whole time.) “Now what happens is we put it on low heat, stir it from time to time, and will finish it in about three hours when we add the basil.”

That really is it. The slow simmering of the sauce breaks down the tomatoes and pulls out their natural sweetness so you don’t have to add any sugar. I do add some salt and pepper, but it’s nothing but tomatoes, garlic, basil, and olive oil.

“You got it?” I asked him. He nodded. “Good. Next time you make it and I’ll go drink coffee.” He smiled. We both did.

When I saw him start taking notes, I knew I needed to pay attention to the moment for reasons of my own because the moment meant something different to him than it did to me. I love to teach, particularly in the kitchen, and, because of the way recipes get handed down, I consider most any of them to be public domain: I’m happy to share. Teaching him how to make the sauce also gave me a chance to break down the walls and get to know each other a little better. But what Ramon was after was something more than cooking or camaraderie. He’s learning to change his life, to move up the ladder (or at least the kitchen line) and be something other than a dishwasher.

More encounters than not in life carry such double meanings. The six students who came to eat tonight were looking for dinner in one of the university’s dining rooms. I was in the kitchen doing my life’s work, following my calling. I don’t expect they had any idea anymore than I know where they were headed next. That we miss out on some things is not all bad; perhaps it’s even necessary. I think back to the "Earshot" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where she ended up being able to hear what everyone was thinking and the weight of it all was overwhelming. I’m thinking more of the moments when we aren’t two ships passing, or pool balls glancing off one another; I’m thinking about the encounters when we stand facing one another, each from our side of the looking glass. How do I look past my reflection to see what you’re looking for?

When the Tempter came to Jesus, the overarching question was, “Don’t you see this can all be about you?” With that option never out of reach his entire ministry, Jesus spent most of his time noticing the people nobody else seemed to see as they went about their business. That he came out of the wilderness and began to surround himself with a group of disciples – people to teach – none of whom come across as honors level material, even in the best light. The Word became Flesh to teach classes in remedial humanity and talk an awful lot about forgiveness.

This morning we sang, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.”

I love the song for its irony. Any time I’ve sung it, I’ve been in a group who already identifies themselves as Christian. And so we sing, Lord, I’ve got the look and the talk and the ‘tude; now, I want to be a Christian in my heart: I want to be more holy, more loving, more like Jesus.

I want to be a Christian at work so I can remember I’m there to help Ramon rather than him being there to help me. I want to be a Christian at home and lift my head from my stuff to notice what Ginger needs. I want to be a Christian in my friendships, working to the friend rather than waiting or expecting to be befriended.

In my heart.
In my heart.
Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

lenten journal: the weight

We got to see Mavis Staples (whom I wrote about not long ago) and the Blind Boys of Alabama last night. Wait – there’s more. Yesterday morning, I got an email from the Duke ticket office saying we could come early and hear Mavis in conversation with Tim Tyson, who is a visiting professor at the Divinity School and the author of Blood Done Signed My Name, a forthright memoir of growing up in Oxford, North Carolina that begins with the cold-blooded murder of a black man because he said hello to a white woman.

Mavis talked about growing up as a part of the Staples Singers, the family group that started out in gospel music, became a central part of the music of the civil rights movement, and then went on to mainstream success with “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” When she talked about the last song, she even started singing the bass line:

do do do do DO do do dododo DO do.

She talked about what it was like to sing before Dr. King would speak, and about the songs that grew out of the long walk to freedom.

Once the Blind Boys had finished their amazing set, I moved up in my seat ready to hear that bass line for real. Instead, I heard another guitar progression that lives deep in my memory and she began to sing something I wasn’t expecting:

I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling ‘bout half past dead
I just need some place where I can rest my head
“Hey, mister can you tell me where a man can find a bed?”
He just shook my hand, “No” was all he said
I dug around a little to see what I could learn about the song, and I found these two quotes:
It sounds pretty New Testament - no room at the inn, but this Nazareth is set in an American landscape. (Peter Viney)
In a typical Robertson lyric, a century or so of chronological time is abruptly made to collapse between us and an event. Suddenly we are involved in it, hearing the contemporary voices, seeing things happen. (Clive James)
I felt it all fall on me as the bass line started for real in the concert and she began to sing:
I know a place
ain’t nobody cryin’
ain’t nobody worried
ain’t no smilin’ faces
lyin’ to the races
Time collapsed on a personal level back to my tenth grade year and me walking out of the house to get in the car to go to school, hardly away from the door before I could hear the radio and start singing along. I hadn’t been in the States since elementary school and had no idea of how to be an American, much less an American teenager.

Time also collapsed in the present tense even as I’m trying to understand what it means to be an American in these days. The move here to Durham has been profound for me, particularly in the sense of moving to a place where diversity gets lived rather than just talked about. Not since my days living in Nairobi or Lusaka have I been a part of such a multiracial society and it’s happening in a place that in my lifetime wouldn’t let people of different races eat in the same places and drink from the same fountains. I feel as though I’m walking on holy ground.

There they sat last night: Tim, a white man whose boyhood memory is of a black man being killed in his hometown and Mavis, who told of her grandmother keeping her from drinking from the wrong fountain down in Mississippi and we listened as they talked and laughed and then we watched as they embraced.

If time can collapse in a lyric, then it can collapse in a moment as well.

Mavis spoke at one point about those in the Civil Rights movement needing to move beyond “We Shall Overcome” to singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” The dream King spoke of has not yet been fully realized, but we keep walking forward. Alongside her words come some from Tim Tyson, taken from a Christian Century interview:
Ought we to teach this history differently?

We ought to teach an honest history, and avoid the celebratory and triumphal impulses of the kind that recently led the Japanese government to censor the history of Japan's bloody imperial conquests during World War II. That does not mean underselling our achievements or wallowing in self-flagellation. We turn to our nation's history, even its painful racial past, not to wring our hands but to redeem a democratic promise. At our best, we have sought to feed the hungry and free the oppressed. At our worst, we have practiced genocide and slavery. "The struggle of humanity against power," Milan Kundera tells us, "is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

Many in the mainline churches remember the civil rights movement as a kind of golden age, a time when churches were on the side of the angels. Is that accurate?

The church should never forget that mainline churches failed the African-American freedom struggle and mostly opposed it. The mainstream white churches of the South would not abide ministers who supported the movement. And though we think of the movement as based in the black church, most black churches were not part of the movement. Wyatt T. Walker, Dr. King's field general in Birmingham, estimated that in the spring of 1963, the movement had the support of 15 percent of the African-American ministers in Birmingham. The notion that the church stood up strong during the civil rights era reveals a dangerous moral amnesia.
The language of journey is the go to metaphor when it comes to Lent. We speak of struggle and singularity of purpose, of setting things aside and turning our hearts toward God. As time collapses to mark the path before me, I keep thinking about those who marched together from Selma to Montgomery, singing
ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
turn me around turn me around
I’m gonna keep on walking, keep on talking
marking up the freedom trail
Jesus is walking. Martin is walking. Mavis is singing; the Blind Boys, too. The great cloud of witnesses has gathered to see what we do with our leg of the journey.

They’ve put the weight right on us.


Friday, February 08, 2008

lenten journal: collide-o-scope

I don’t remember where I got the idea.

What I do remember is it wasn’t original to me. I handed out Post-It® notes to the twenty or so young people gathered in the large room of our retreat cabin and told them to rename the items they saw in the room. I led by example, writing the word “tree” on the small yellow square and pasting it to the lamp on the table.

“This is a tree,” I said.

Before long, the table became an aardvark. For the next ten minutes, we moved around the room renaming everything. The activity spilled into the sleeping quarters and even out onto the front porch. After everything was named, I told them to take another ten minutes to study what they had done and to pay attention to what they could see with the new eyes they had been given because of the new names. We moved from there to talk about how we could “break some stained glass” and open our eyes to new names for God in the world around us.

The experience came back to me last night as I was talking to Kyle, one of the servers at work who is also a student at Duke and involved in the theater department there. He told me about one of the drama professors who begins class each semester by going around and asking each student to say his or her name. Kyle said one of his friends said her name, Elizabeth, and the professor stood for a moment and then responded, “No, that doesn’t work for me. I need to call you Jane,” which he continued to do for the rest of the semester. The point of the renaming, which he did with most all of the students, Kyle said, was to shake them up and make them look at themselves differently.

As I drank my coffee this morning, I read my friend Billy’s introduction to his Blue Rock Review; this issue focuses on seeing. He centered his remarks around Marvin Gaye’s classic protest song, “What’s Going On?”:

But it’s the title line that truly catches my eye: “Talk to me so you can see what’s going on.” The song suggests that talking produces seeing. The claim is audacious – you cannot see but that you talk to me. “Can I get a witness?” says the preacher. We are somehow strategic in the clarity of each other’s vision. I see something possible, or hidden, or lovely, or frightening. Do you? “Do you see what I see?” asks the carol at Christmastime. Talk to me. What’s going on?

Dialogue is a kind of collision of visions. What you are holding now is a “collide–o-scope.”
Heidi is someone with whom I’ve become acquainted since I moved to Durham. She grows pea shoots, among other things. We use them at the restaurant in our salad mix and also as a garnish. Last week, I made a grilled salmon stuffed with spinach, sundried tomatoes, and pine nuts. It sat atop a serving of red beet risotto that was the most beautiful crimson color and was topped with a lemon-thyme beurre blanc and, finally, some pea shoots. The plate looked beautiful to me. About five minutes later, one of the servers came back and said abruptly,

“The girl wants to know what the green stuff is on top of the fish.”

She didn’t see what I saw. I’ll admit my first response was to turn into the stereotypical chef who stormed out of the kitchen, grabbed the plate from before the young woman and said something like, “You don’t deserve my food.” (Of course, I would need to say it in a fake French accent.) But I understood what she saw because I’m married to someone who has wondered out loud on many occasions why chefs feel the need to add unnecessary green stuff to the plate rather than serving simply what she ordered. She talks to me, so I can see what’s going on in the mind of those who order food to eat it as opposed to those of us who make it to be both edible and artful.

To rename such conversation as collision helps me see some new things. We talk about collisions mostly in the context of violence and accident: cars crashing together because someone didn’t see the other coming. But in this context, new vision comes out of crashing together with intention, hoping that the shards of curiosity, creativity, and even confusion reconfigure into patterns of hope and light so we can see what’s going on beyond the limitations of our labels, laments, and longings.

When my friend Doug was giving me a painting lesson a couple of weeks ago, he set up the still life and then began to talk to me about how to create the painting. As I began to draw and then paint, he would comment about how the shadows were falling differently than what I was articulating with my brush. A couple of times I said, “But that’s how it looks from where I’m sitting.” He was only two feet to my right and things looked different from there.

None of us has the definitive view. None of us has the answer or the truth left to our own devices and perspective. Yet, when we come crashing into the intersection of faith and life and relationship (can there be a three-way intersection?), we find new eyes, together: a collide-o-scope, for sure.

Rich Mullins -- a person, like Marvin, who was as complicated as he was gifted, sang:
And the New Jerusalem won't be as easy to build
As I hoped it would be
As I hoped it would be easy to build
But the New Jerusalem won't be so easy to build
There are many bellies to fill and many hearts to free
Got to set them free

But I see a people who've learned to walk in faith
With mercy in their hearts
And glory on their faces
And I can see the people
And I pray it won't be long
Until your kingdom comes
In the collision of our devotion and our despair, in the tension of the now and the not yet, in the crash of what is, what has been, and what is yet to come, and in the glow of the indefatigable light that cannot be put out by the gathering darkness, talk to me so we can see what’s going on.


P. S. -- I've posted the aforementioned recipes here and here.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

lenten journal: thickest skin

When I began working at the restaurant at Duke, my traveling companion was Ramon, a wonderful guy from Mexico who was interested in doing more in the kitchen than just washing dishes. He’s a good guy, he works hard, his English is limited, and he really wants to learn.

In order for the place to get on its feet, we are the only two in the kitchen. I get there early and do most of the prep work. He comes in and helps set up for the dinner service and washes all the stuff I got dirty during preparation. We cook together and then, at the end of the night, he washes dishes while I clean up the line and finishes by mopping while I take out the trash. I created a small menu that had good variety but was something we could do together, and I trained him on two or three of the dishes that became “his.”

Since we have started to find a pretty good rhythm, I upped the ante this week and added more dishes to the menu and gave him a couple more things to add to his repertoire, one of which was Chicken Parmigiana. I had hoped to start the menu on Monday night, which we expected to be slow, but Ramon ended up with the day off. Tuesday, when we did get it off the ground, was really busy, which made the learning curve all the more steep. We went through the steps together several times and even made a couple of practice dishes (also known as supper for the cooks). About an hour into the dinner service, we got hit pretty hard and Ramon ended up with five orders all at once. I had my own board full of requests, and so I didn’t get to check up as much as I would have liked. A few minutes later, three of the Parms came back because the chicken was not cooked all the way through.

Since we were in the middle of dinner service, there was not time to do much more than fix what was wrong and give some instructions to make sure it didn’t happen again – all in a rather task oriented manner. (I’m talking about me here.) I don’t mean I was angry or yelling, just that if we stopped too long we would lose track of everything else that was on the board; I had to keep things moving. Ramon responded well and finished the shift in good shape.

Which brings me to the other side of the line.

The two women who serve in the dining room get good feedback from our customers for their friendliness. In my three weeks there, that spirit has not necessarily carried back to the kitchen. I’ve made several changes in a place where change is not necessarily welcomed and I’m the only new guy in a while. They aren’t mean or disrespectful, but curt or terse in their interaction with me. And that’s when things are going well. When the dishes started coming back, my second concern (after fixing the food) was how it was going to play with the front of the house. When the shift was over, the servers cleaned up and left quickly, so we didn’t get much of a chance to talk about it.

I asked Ramon to come in an hour early yesterday because we had so much prep work to do after such a busy night. Tabitha, one of the servers on Tuesday, was working again. I watched as Ramon approached her and worked hard with his broken English to apologize for what had happened the night before. It took her a minute to figure out what he was trying to say and then I saw a side of her I had not seen before.

“You talking about the chicken last night? Shucks, Ramon, don’t you even think about it. Those people were fine. Nobody was angry or nothing.”

“But I sorry,” he said. “I made mistake.”

“Listen, honey, you’ve been working up here how long and that was your first mistake. That’s pretty good. Don’t you worry about it anymore.”

Funny – until that moment I had no idea grace had snuck into the room.

Bill Mallonee is one of the best songwriters around and works in parallel realtive anonymity to our life in the kitchen at Duke. One of the songs that sustains me comes from his Vigilantes of Love days, “Skin.” The chorus sings:

now look if you're gonna come around here
and say those sort of things
you gotta take a few on the chin
you talking about love and all that stuff
you better bring your thickest skin
sometimes you can't please everyone
sometimes you can't please anyone at all
you sew your heart onto your sleeve
and wait for the ax to fall
His words came to mind as I drove home last night because I realized, even in three weeks, I had let my skin thicken to the point that I didn’t expect grace to abide at work. I was allowing myself to become accustomed to the division between the front of the house and the kitchen, to the blank exchange when they placed orders, to just getting through it. Because one short overheard conversation, I saw the whole place differently, and the people in it as well.

Thick skin is no good when I let it grow over my eyes.

At the bottom of the index finger on my right hand are two calluses that have grown because of the way I hold my knife when I cut and chop, the kind of skin that thickens to prevent blisters and ongoing sores. Though I’m grateful for them, they don’t really work as Mallonee’s metaphor. The point is not to grow indifferent or impenetrable. The point is to keep growing, to keep coming, to keep talking about love and all that stuff with unflinching resolve, regardless of what is offered in return: to wear my heart on the sleeve of my chef’s coat and wait . . . .