Monday, March 31, 2008

these things

I spent the weekend leading a youth retreat for a church in Virginia where a good friend pastors. The group of fifteen included kids from seventh through twelfth grade. They are kind, gentle, fun, and welcoming people. The weekend was scheduled to take the word retreat seriously: we have a few sessions and a great deal of free time, which we used walking together, talking together, playing guitars together, and consuming an inordinate amount of junk food.

As I was driving up to meet them -- it’s been a long time since I drove north to Virginia (well there’s the opening line to a country song if I ever heard it) – I kept wondering how a teenager thinks about following Jesus in this overwhelming world, so I decided that’s what I would talk about. In the second session, we looked at the Beatitudes. We read them and then I asked, “Who are the poor in spirit?”

One seventh grade girl raised her hand, which she does every time there is a question, and she said, “I think they are the people who don’t know how much God loves them because they don’t love themselves.” There was an audible “Wow!” in the room and we all congratulated her.

“If that’s our working definition,” I said, “then what are they inheriting if theirs is the kingdom of heaven?”

Another seventh grader raised his hand. “I think of the kingdom of heaven like a big table where everyone gets to eat and there’s always an empty chair for anyone who wants to sit down.”

From what I learned about the kids in the group, they were well acquainted with grief. One kid’s dad just got back from Iraq and is a good candidate for the lead role in a remake of The Great Santini. The girl who talked about the poor in spirit pretty much described herself; the boy who talked about God’s extravagant welcome incarnated it, despite his own struggles and sorrow. There was plenty of pain to go around. Plenty of love, too.

The other thing I did as I drove to Virginia was listen to music. I burned a few CDs of songs my nephew, Tim, gave me when he was here and didn’t get through too many of them because I kept listening to one made up of original songs by him and his older brother, Ben. They call themselves, “The Olive Tree”. On the way home, I put the CD in again because I wanted to hear one song in particular, “These Things,” which Ben signs, hit me hard because I knew the back story. His aunt, on my sister-in-law’s side of the family, died of cancer last year, leaving a husband and two small children. Here are the words to the first verse and chorus:

my aunt she died and left my uncle dying in their room
the morning weighed a million pounds and he could hardly move
two children in the house somewhere who won’t come down the stairs
wondering what will life be without their mother there

he hits the door and hits the floor and give anyone a call
and I’m listening to his sister talk to him right down the hall
words of resurrection love and pain through the tears
and I hit the road to take for granted my mother’s still here

I think about these things
I don’t know what they mean
is there joy in suffering
I think about these things

it’s gonna be alright
it’s gonna be alright
though the darkness holds tight
we’re locked into the light
I called him to make sure he knew how the truth of his poetry had hit me – particularly the last two lines:
though the darkness holds tight
we’re locked into the light
Harlan Howard said, “Country music is three chords and the truth.” Though Ben and Tim write in a more alt-country vein, they prove his words.

When I left town, I thought I was going to speak. Thank God I had time to listen. It was when I did my best work.


Friday, March 28, 2008

to mac

"A good storyteller speaks a melody; in conversation there is melody."
Mac McAnally, in conversation at Blue Rock)

You’ve talked to me for years
and I’ve listened. Does that
count as conversation? I can
still see myself walking out
of Baylor Records with a copy
of Nothin’ But The Truth tucked
under my arm; I spent the better
part of the next week listening
to you sing and wishing I knew
your language. All these years
I’ve kept quiet, except to pick up
my guitar and sing your words
from time to time. Does that
count as conversation? And now
I see you sitting and talking
with my old friend – we’ve
listened to you together for a
long time – and he got to talk
back, and to keep listening.
I watched from far away and
imagined myself pulling up
a chair. It’s my job that kept
me from getting there; I
think you might understand.
I’ll have to settle for that,
and that I can keep listening –
oh, and say, “Thank you.”
I think that counts.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

lenten journal: my redeemer lives

I've been staring at the screen for awhile now, trying to think of a way to bring this year's Lenten Journal to an end and I have not found them -- at least, I haven't found words of my own. What I have found are words I first heard on Bob Bennett's record, First Things First: the hymn, "My Reedemer Lives," written by Samuel Medley in 1775.

I know that my Redeemer lives;
What comfort this sweet sentence gives!
He lives, He lives, who once was dead;
He lives, my ever-living Head.

He lives triumphant from the grave,
He lives eternally to save,
He lives all-glorious in the sky,
He lives exalted there on high.

He lives to bless me with His love,
He lives to plead for me above.
He lives my hungry soul to feed,
He lives to help in time of need.

He lives to grant me rich supply,
He lives to guide me with His eye,
He lives to comfort me when faint,
He lives to hear my soul's complaint.

He lives to silence all my fears,
He lives to wipe away my tears
He lives to calm my troubled heart,
He lives all blessings to impart.

He lives, my kind, wise, heavenly Friend,
He lives and loves me to the end;
He lives, and while He lives, I'll sing;
He lives, my Prophet, Priest, and King.

He lives and grants me daily breath;
He lives, and I shall conquer death:
He lives my mansion to prepare;
He Iives to bring me safely there.

He lives, all glory to His name!
He lives, my Jesus, still the same.
Oh, the sweet joy this sentence gives,
"I know that my Redeemer lives!"

I'm going to rest a day or two.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

lenten journal: could we start again, please

Holy Week has had to jockey for space on the calendar this week like an NCAA basketball player working to get in position under the basket. Monday was Saint Patrick’s Day. Tuesday, Barack Obama made his amazing speech on race in America in which, as John Stewart said, “talked to us as if we were adults. Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq even as we near the tragic milestone of the deaths of 4000 American service men and women there, not to mention the thousands of Iraqis who have perished.

In my reading today (and I can’t remember where I first found the link), I learned about a benefit that was held this week in New York for Jack Agüeros, a Puerto Rican poet who is living with Alzheimer’s and who writes psalms like this one, so applicable this week after Obama’s speech:

Psalm for Open Clouds and Windows

reserve a place for me in heaven on a cloud
with Indians, Blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians,
Portuguese, and lots of Asians and Arabs, and Hispanics.
I don’t mind if they play
their music too loudly,
or if they leave their windows open –
I like the smell of ethnic foods.
But Lord,
if heaven isn’t integrated,
and if any Angels are racists,
I swear I’m going to be a no-show
because, Lord,
I have already seen hell.

from "Lord, Is This a Psalm?"
Today, according to The Writer’s Almanac, marks the birthdays of Stephen Sondheim, Billy Collins, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’ll admit I’m more a fan of the first two than the last, yet Webber’s show, Jesus Christ Superstar, holds a special significance to me. The first live rock event I ever attended was a concert version of the musical that came to the Tarrant County Convention Center when I was in high school. My dad took my brother and me. I was mesmerized from start to finish. I saw the show years later in full musical form and have watched the movie more than once or twice. I think what pulls me most is the way the disciples are presented as both flawed and well-intentioned: faithful failures, if you will – like you and me.

As my personal calendar has run parallel to Holy Week, Good Friday and Holy Saturday have been unpacking and hanging picture days at our house. As the hours of the Crucifixion passed, I was driving nails into the walls to hold keepsakes to make our new house begin to feel like home – and I watched my fair share of basketball, a microcosm of my Lenten season as a whole: flawed and well-intentioned. In the midst of my tasks, I looked up tonight and it was dark outside, before I had a chance to mow the yard, and the metaphor was not lost on me. While I was busy doing what I was doing, Holy Week moved from the cross to the tomb and the darkest days of the year.

Our observance of Jesus’ journey through death should probably carry a spoiler alert because we know the triumphant ending before he even dies. As Tony Campolo has often said, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” Those who were with him in real time didn’t have that assurance. In Superstar, those who were left behind sing, “Could We Start Again Please.”

I've been living to see you.
Dying to see you, but it shouldn't be like this.
This was unexpected,
What do I do now?
Could we start again please?
I've been very hopeful, so far.
Now for the first time, I think we're going wrong.
Hurry up and tell me,
This is just a dream.
Oh could we start again please?


I think you've made your point now.
You've even gone a bit too far to get the message home.
Before it gets too frightening,
We ought to call a vote,
So could we start again please?


I've been living to see you.
Dying to see you, but it shouldn't be like this.
This was unexpected,
What do I do now?
Could we start again please?
I think you've made your point now.
You've even gone a bit too far to get the message home.
Before it gets too frightening,
We ought to call a vote,
So could we start again please?
Could we start again please? (Repeat 5 times)


Could we start again?
A significant source of the hope I find in the Resurrection is the stone rolls away to answer that question with a resounding, “YES.” As Kyle Matthews wrote,
we fall down, we get up
we fall down, we get up,
we fall down, we get up
and the saints are just the sinners
who fall down and get up
Today is also World Water Day. The event has gone largely unnoticed by the general public over the last several years, but the state of our world is such that, before long, we will begin speaking of water in much the same language we now speak of oil. Agüeros has a psalm that speaks to that as well:
Psalm for Distribution

on 8th Street
between 6th Avenue and Broadway
there are enough shoe stores
with enough shoes
to make me wonder
why there are shoeless people
on the earth.

You have to fire the Angel
in charge of distribution.

–from "Lord, Is This a Psalm?" (Hanging Loose Press, 2002)
As we prepare to start again come Sunday, let us pray for eyes to see that we are the angels of distribution, that we are the incarnation of God’s love in our world, that we are the conduits of God’s grace and not the arbiters of God’s judgment.

Could we start again, please?



lenten journal: in our own words

One of the things my friend Mia have in common is we both spent part of our adolescence in Kenya. She sent me a link today to the NPR program, Speaking of Faith with Katrina Tippet, which was new to me because it doesn’t play on our local station. This week’s program revisits an interview Tippet did with Jaroslav Pelikan, who died in 2006 and was an amazing church historian. She was talking to him about the role creeds have played and still play in Christianity.

The part that caught Mia’s ear, and that she passed on to me, had to do with the Maasai Creed, written by and for one of Kenya’s tribes. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Ms. Tippett: This is giving me a lovely and exalted way to think about a remark you make in your book, that one thing that someone who studies all these creeds, as you've done, is struck by is the sheer repetitiveness of them. Right?

Dr. Pelikan: You should try to proofread them all in the course of a few weeks, as we did, and then you discover just how — you wonder, didn't I just read this one yesterday?

Ms. Tippett: No, and it — but it's so interesting because I think that where someone goes when they hear that there are these thousands of creeds is that everybody's doing it differently all the time, and that's not really what you find. But I did want to dwell briefly on one that I sense is near and dear to your heart, which is this Maasai Creed…would you like to read some of your favorite?

Dr. Pelikan: Like most creeds, it is designed on a threefold pattern of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and comes out of the experience of Christians in Africa who were animists, fetishists who worshiped things in nature and the mystery of life and who then, upon receiving the Christian faith, began reciting the creeds as they had been taught, in this case by Roman Catholic missionaries, in other cases by Evangelical or Orthodox missionaries. But after a couple of generations of that, a Christian community gradually comes of age, achieves a level of maturation where you want to do it for yourself, do it your way, speaking in your context, using the images of your culture. And the question is can you do that without sacrificing the integrity of what you have received? It's easy just to repeat, but then it's not your own. It's easy to say what is your own as though nobody had ever said it before, but then the question is whether it's authentically Christian. And I think this manages to do both of those in a remarkable way.

Dr. Pelikan: "We believe in one high God, who out of love created the beautiful world. We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and [humanity], and showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by His people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He was buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch Him, and on the third day He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love, and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen."

Dr. Pelikan: Now for one thing, the Nicene Creed as well as the Apostles' Creed go directly from born of the Virgin Mary to suffered under Pontius Pilate. And the whole story in the Gospels…

Ms. Tippett: The life of Christ.

Dr. Pelikan: …yeah, is just leapt over.

Ms. Tippett: And that's what a lot of modern people have criticized in the creeds.

Dr. Pelikan: You go from Alpha to Omega. And here, see, He was born, as the creed said, He left His home — the creeds don't say that — and He was always on safari in Africa. When I read that the first time, a student of mine who'd been a member of a religious order, she was a sister, and she had been in a hospital in east Nigeria, and that's the creed they recited at their liturgy. And so she brought it to me, and I just got shivers, just the thought, you know, the hyenas did not touch Him and the act of defiance — God lives even in spite of the hyenas. But it's a good example of this model that I quoted earlier, that it is not enough to Christianize Africa. We have to Africanize Christianity.
Some time ago, I read an article online, whose link I can’t find now, making the case for the church to adopt the “Starbucks model” in relating to nonchurch folks. The author, a pastor as I remember, talked about how Starbucks has made us learn to ask for tall, grande, and venti sized drinks instead of small, medium, and large, and to learn all the espresso lingo as well. We’ve had to become initiated to be able to drink their coffee. The church, he said, should do the same with those who visit or come to see what is going on. Make them learn our language, our traditions, our way of doing things rather than trying to put what the church does in their terms.

When the Maasai speak of Jesus always being on safari doing good – always traveling – all I could think of was the sense of connection those nomadic people must of felt with him. He traveled all his life just as they did; he knew what it was like to be them. And when he died, the hyenas – the filthiest scavengers on the African landscape – didn’t touch him. I love the imagery.

When we were in Greece a couple of years ago, we arrived on the Saturday before Orthodox Easter and walked down from our hotel in Athens to the vigil that turned into celebration at midnight. One of the men at the hotel taught the Greek Easter greeting Ginger and me.

One person says, “Christos anisti.”
The other responds, “Alethos anisti.”

(I think I transliterated it correctly.) He then translated:

“The first person says, ‘Christ is risen,’ and the second person says, ‘He really did it.’”

As we wait for the Resurrection, may we tell the story in words we all understand.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

lenten journal: form fatigue

My most significant Christmas present came from my whole family: sessions with a personal trainer. Since the first of the year, I’ve been seeing Chad (or as I like to call him, “Hanging Chad”) and he has been kicking my butt. The sessions are paying off because I have significantly less butt to kick. One of the things I’ve noticed is he pushes me to the point of muscle fatigue, as he calls it, when I’m doing sets on whatever machine the gym imported from Guantánamo Bay. Today I asked him why he pushed so hard.

“When your muscles reach fatigue, they begin to grow,” he said. “If you come in here and do the same routine, even if you increase the weights, your body figures out what you’re doing to it and adapts. You won’t get the results you want. When you push your muscles to fatigue, you shock your body – catch it by surprise – and your muscles think, ‘Man, we’ve got to get with it to keep up with this stuff’ and they grow.”

On the drive home, my mind went back to the sleeping disciples:

And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, "So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."
The boys had hit the wall, much like I do in the middle of the second set of most any exercise Chad puts me through, and had fallen victim to faithfulness fatigue. Things were not staying the same and they were exhausted from trying to keep up with what was going on, not to mention to grief and uncertainty. One betrayed Jesus, hoping (I think) he would force Jesus to play his cards and finally become the kind of butt-kicking king the people were looking for. One got up from his nap and followed Jesus into Caiaphas’ courtyard only to deny even knowing Jesus three times. They all ran away after the crucifixion, hiding out in the Upper Room, or going back to their boats, to the same safe routine they had known before they got to know Jesus. All that trusting and believing had worn them out.

It had also prepared them to grow.

We shared Communion tonight as a part of our Maundy Thursday service. Communion is my favorite act of worship. Taking Communion by intinction (take the bread, dip it in the cup, take both elements at once – more casually, rip and dip) is my least favorite way of observing the sacrament. I love passing the trays down the aisle, being served by one person (“the priest at my elbow,” as Carlyle Marney said) and then getting to serve the next. I also love going to the altar and being served, as they do in Episcopal masses. In both cases, I feel like we expand the holy moment in the meal, taking our time to eat, to pray, and to be together. Intinction, for me, feels more pragmatic (my value judgment), as though we are working to get everyone fed and get on with things. It’s not what I’m used to, it’s not my style, it’s not my preference. When I sat down in the pew and saw the elements prepared for us to take and dip, I was called to exercise an unused muscle. I don’t know it’s name, but it’s the one I use when I have to come to terms with the reality that whatever is going on is not ultimately about me.

The last three times we’ve had Communion at our church it has been by intinction. I’m suffering from form fatigue. As I prepared for worship tonight, my exercise was to move from being bothered about the method of sharing the Bread and the Cup to relishing the fact that we had gathered to share the Lord’s Supper on the very night he had first served it to his disciples. Knowing the nature of Middle Eastern food, chances are there was a fair amount of ripping and dipping around that table. None of the methods of serving we employ exactly mimics what Jesus did around that table. What matters is the meal.

Maundy Thursday is one of my favorite worship services all year. And so I stretched beyond my preferences and critiques and stepped into the line of hungry believers moving forward to take and eat, symbolic in its own right of how we join the Communion of all the saints when we take and eat as all those who have come before us have done and all those who will come after us will also do. By the time we got to the part of the service for us to move forward, we had been sitting for a while. When I began to stand up, my thighs started to scream, still sore from Chad’s work on Tuesday. I had to stifle my groan and move as silently as I could to the front where I took the bread and dipped it in the cup and was nourished in Jesus’ name.

Truly, I’ve got to keep up with this stuff and grow.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

lenten journal -- jesus laughed

Tomorrow is the official beginning of March Madness, or the NCAA Basketball Tournaments for both men and women. In our area basketball matters perhaps as much as anywhere on the planet and the shade of blue you wear to the game is a crucial decision (Duke – dark blue; UNC – light, or Carolina, blue). In a test of allegiances for many, Maundy Thursday services will be taking place just as Duke takes the court against Belmont for their opening round game.

Tournament games are known for their big finishes. I knew an old man in Texas who thought all college basketball games should be two minutes long because everything that mattered happened in the last two minutes. Why bother with the other part? Good question, if only endings matter.

Truth is we live as though beginnings and endings are what matter most. Middles? Not so much. Even our ecclesiastical year turns from the climax of Easter to a liturgical drop off into “ordinary time,” which are the days we mark until we get back to Advent where we can begin again.

Even Holy Week has a middle. The big days are Palm Sunday (big start), Maundy Thursday (Communion), Good Friday (Crucifixion), Holy Saturday (Vigil), and Easter Sunday (Resurrection). But what of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday? What were Jesus and his disciples doing during the middle of the week? We have a couple of incidents and parables, but the gospel writers didn’t have much to say about these three days. Yet to get from the Triumphal Entry to Golgotha and then to the empty tomb, he had to live through Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. He had some ordinary time of his own.

One of the great omissions of the gospels is they give no account of Jesus laughing , or anyone else for that matter. They tell us that Jesus wept, but they never say, “Jesus laughed.” In the core of my being, I know Jesus laughed. Anyone who started the majority of his poems with, “A certain man had two sons . . .” knew how to tell a joke. Listen to the words. The rhythm is no different than, “A guy walks into a bar . . .” Intentionality is not synonymous with humorlessness.

Jesus’ laughter comes to mind because I know how crucial laughter is in times of grief. He knew the events unfolding were the beginning of saying goodbye to his disciples. Because they had identified with him, they were in great pain. They didn’t understand what was unfolding, but they knew things were changing. When I think about the three nondescript days in Holy Week, I imagine Jesus and his closest friends recounting memories, laughing, and crying. Seriously – all it would take would be a retelling of some of Peter’s exploits and the whole Upper Room would be in stitches.

This particular day was not an eventful one for me. I had to take inventory at the restaurant at Duke and do a couple of other things. I went by the other restaurant where one of the guys was talking to Chef about a difficult decision she had to make about one of her employees that we all knew. She said to him, “I’m feeling a little less guilty about it today.”

In a stroke of quick wit and friendship, he peered over his glasses and said, “You just took Kubler-Ross’ stages and banged right through ‘em last night, huh?”

And we laughed – and I saw how it helped her, even if just for a moment.

In my mind’s eye (my heart’s eye, too), Nameless Wednesday was not wasted, even though it was not recorded. I can picture Jesus and the disciples coming to the end of the day grateful for the ordinary day together. Maybe that’s how it happened. Maybe I just need some ordinary time of my own.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

lenten journal: tell me a story

When we lived in New England, one of the staples in my day was listening to a show called The Connection, a call-in show hosted by a man named Dick Gordon who had a marvelous way of drawing people into conversation and making connections for those who both talked and listened. One morning, he was no longer on the radio. WBUR made some (bad) choices based on the bottom lined and killed their best show. And I wondered what happened to Dick Gordon.

Soon after we moved to Durham, I was in the car listening to WUNC, our local and excellent NPR station, and heard a familiar voice say, “I’m Dick Gordon and this is The Story.” I had no idea he had come to prepare a place for me, or at least to help me feel more, well, connected to my new town. His new show is not a call-in, but an interview with a single person, usually, simply because he feels they have a story worth telling. Some of them are sensational, some quite emotional, some humorous, some wrenching, and all of them helping to paint a picture of what it means to be human.

Today, as I was driving to work, I came in on the story of Peter Turnley, a man who has been a photojournalist for a quarter of a century, and he was telling the story of his experiences as the first non-Soviet journalist allowed to see and record the aftermath of the Spitak earthquake in Armenia in 1988, when it was still part of the USSR. He talked about several things, but the enduring part of the story that was still very fresh to him as he told it, was one particular encounter (What follows is what I remember from listening and quotes from Turnley’s website):

I will never forget the man in Armenia in 1988 who had only the day before lost his wife, children, and his home, all casualties of a massive earthquake in which 35,000 people lost their lives. As I drove with my twin brother David in a Russian taxi in this devastated region, we stopped to pick up an elderly man who was hitchhiking. He sat in the back with me. I was so tired after days and days of work with little rest I was falling asleep and then I realized he was motioning to put my head in his lap and sleep. I put my head down and listened, first, as he recounted to the driver that he had lost everything and then, as I drifted off, he began to stoke my head and sing softly and beautifully in Armenian. (Turnley paused, his voice full of emotion.) I think he just wanted to be connected to life.

When we arrived at his village, Sptiak, he directed the driver tot he spot where his house had once stood; all that remained was a pile of rubble. He fell to the ground sobbing and pounding the earth for minutes. He then rose to thank us for the lift. We told him how sorry we were and that we had to go, but wanted to know if we could be of any help. The temperature was below zero Celcius, and the only things the man had were the clothes on his back. Still, he was determined to stay near the ruins of his home for a while longer. As we got ready to leave, he hugged us both for a long time and then offered me the wool scarf from around his neck. I declined politely. I’ll never forget that gesture.
Turnley was beginning to tell how that encounter had changed his life and the way he thought about his profession when I had to get out of the car and go to my job, so I didn’t get to hear the punchline, but I walked through the old stone buildings on the Duke campus a little changed myself.

Somewhere along the way today, I started thinking about this story, from Matthew 26:
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked. "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor."

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."
How ever cosmic the epic is, whether the aftermath of an earthquake or the road to the Cross and the Resurrection, the best stories gets told in the one on one encounters in the midst of the struggle and grief, where we fight to find our connection to life in things like lullabies and physical touch. One of the things I loved about Turnley’s story is he never talked about the pictures he took or how he photographed the man as he wept and wailed in front of the wreckage of his home. In fact, in the segment I heard, he never mentioned his camera. He just told the story of how he was changed by what the man did.

One afternoon in Marshfield, I got to speak to Dick Gordon. I called in because his guest was Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of Zambia. In October of 1964, the British colony of Northern Rhodesia became the free nation of Zambia, and Kaunda was our president. I say “our” because I was there. We went to City Stadium early on the evening of October 23 and watched all kinds of dances and exhibitions. A little before midnight, the band played “God Save the Queen” and we watched the Union Jack come down for the last time. At the stroke of midnight, the Zambian flag was raised and we all sang our national anthem together (we had been practicing in school):
Stand and sing of Zambia proud and free
Land of work and joy in unity
Victors in the struggle for the right
We’ve one freedom’s fight
All one strong and free
A year or two later, at Christmas, my cub scout troop went to carol at State House, the presidential residence. President Kaunda answered the door as we began to sing and, after we had finished, invited us in for tea and biscuits (cookies, to you Americans). While we sat in the big living room munching away and trying not to spill anything, he said, “You have sung of our Savior’s birth; now I will sing to you of my faith.” He sat down at the piano and sang and played “Psalm 23.” That moment indelibly shaped my life in Africa and, on that afternoon in Marshfield, I finally got the chance to say thank you.

I started listening to a story today of what happens when people connect and went from Durham to Armenia to Palestine to Zambia to Marshfield and back home. “I love to tell the story,” goes the old hymn, “for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.”

May those appetites never be satisfied.


Monday, March 17, 2008

lenten journal: be angry and sin not

I went to work today with great expectations.

Sunday night I had fun at work. About three weeks ago, we began trying a new thing on Sunday nights because they are usually very slow. We now do a “Sunday Night Special” that I serve from a buffet in the dining room: one meat entrée, one vegetarian entrée, each with vegetable and sides (last night was either chicken and cheese or sweet potato, mushroom, onion, and spinach enchiladas with red beans and rice and salad) for ten dollars. We’ve had a few more people each week and several who are return customers, not the least of which is a group of football players that come to eat. They were the last table, so after I served them, I spent some time talking to them and even learning their names. I left work feeling encouraged and exhilarated.

Today was going to be the day I broke out new menu items (pecan crusted monkfish with bleu cheese polenta and sweet corn sauce and spicy orange hummus, to name a couple). I had worked hard on getting things ready and was looking forward to a great evening. Then I walked in the kitchen to find out the person at our catering shop who does our ordering had failed to order any of my proteins. I was without my meat, fish, or chicken and had to scramble to pull things out of the freezer and make the best of what was available. I was livid. As Ginger will attest, I don’t do well when people don’t do their jobs well.

My friend John also knows this to be true. In a moment a number of years ago (and one I’m not proud of) we were in New Orleans one Sunday afternoon and John had to leave to get back to his church in Mississippi. When we got to the parking garage, the guy who had parked John’s car had failed to put the keys on the appropriate hook and had gone home because his shift had ended while we were eating. The woman behind the counter informed us that the guy must have taken the keys home with him, but didn’t seem to feel any sense of urgency in sorting things out beyond that point. I let my frustration get the best of me and said, “Let me get this straight: this guy’s job is park the car and hang the key on the hook. How could he forget to do half of his job?” When she did nothing to move our situation along, I picked up the phone and said, “Why don’t we call him to bring the keys back?”

I don’t remember exactly how the keys came back. I do know John got his car and the more I reflected on my words and deeds in the moment, the more embarrassed I became. I thought about that Sunday afternoon more than once today, mostly to help me keep some sense of perspective, because I could feel the other little details of the day – Ramon was forty-five minutes late, for instance – inviting me to believe, and even proclaim, that I was the only one doing my job. When I get to the place where I think I’m the only one who isn’t phoning it in or screwing it up, it’s a pretty safe bet I’ve lost my sense of reality.

The first challenge was to make sure my anger was addressed to the right person, and delivered in a way that was not damaging to him or the possibility of a relationship that will allow us to work together in the future. I believe the biblical phrase for all of the above is, “Be angry and sin not.” In the same vein, the second challenge was to make sure my anger didn’t come out sideways on the folks who were working with me tonight, particularly at the servers who take a fairly combative approach to life under the best of circumstances. The third challenge was to do my job well and make a faithful offering of the things over which I do have control.

One of the most intriguing Holy Week scenes to me is Jesus pulling away to pray and taking Peter, James, and John with him and then asking them to stay awake while he went a bit farther to ask God if there was a chance things might turn out differently. He went to pray three times and each time he returned he found the three men fast asleep on the job, failures at meeting his request, and he asked each time,

Couldn’t you stay awake with me for one hour?

No. They couldn’t.

Let me be clear here: I’m not drawing any analogies between my day and that night in Jesus’ life, as if to say Jesus, like me, knew what it felt like to be at the mercy of people not doing what they were expected to do. I thought about the story tonight because I wanted to think more about what I might learn from Jesus’ response to the failure of his friends to meet his one simple request. You see, my general response to that story is to see myself in the disciples. Sleep is my escape. In the depths of my depression, sleep was one of the places I could find some relief. The other was the kitchen. So I look at their inability to stay awake and I can postulate about the exhaustion of their grief getting the best of them. The fear and sorrow were too much. While Jesus prayed for his life, Peter, James, and John found their solace in sleep.

Admitting I’m much more like the dozing disciples than I am like Jesus, in this story or in most any situation gives me a chance to find grace and redemption in the ineptness and inefficiency I encountered today. I don’t know what was behind the missed orders. I do know the guy has a lot of stuff going on in his life that would make it hard for me to concentrate if I were in his shoes. I know the catering crew is diving into the busy season and are anxious about it. I also know missing my monkfish is not the end of the world, regardless of how world-ending it may have seemed twenty minutes before service.

About three verses after Jesus woke the tired three from their slumber, Matthew’s gospel recounts:

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus' companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. "Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
Kicking ass and taking names may feel good (no – it does feel good), but it is not the path of life that leads to resurrection and redemption. Be angry and sin not: get it out of your system appropriately, forgive, and move on. I worked hard tonight to not wrap my anger in the violence I so often use as a package. I think I was reasonably successful.

I didn’t find any ears on the floor when I swept at the end of the shift, so I guess I’ve got that going for me.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

lenten journal: breathing lessons

When Ginger calls us to worship each Sunday, after the announcements, she says,

Take a deep breath; now let it out.
Breathe in the breath of God;
breathe out the love of God.
As we stood in the spring sunshine this morning, our palm leaves in hand, I could see the faces of people as they inhaled sacred air, many of them closing their eyes, and then exhaled that same holiness after it had passed through their lungs, part of their DNA attached to the love of God they were breathing back into the world. The rhythm of the service was like breathing for me, inhaling a word or idea or song and exhaling a connection (sometimes serious, sometimes humorous) to the Larger Story Being Told. Then we sang as we processed together into the sanctuary,
Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
Hark! all the tribes Hosanna cry;
O Savior meek, pursue Thy road
With palms and scattered garments strowed
And all I could hear was the cranking guitars of Eric Clapton and B. B. King covering John Hiatt’s “Riding with the King.”
Get on a TWA to the promised land.
Everybody clap your hands.
And don't you just love the way that he sings?
Don't you know we're riding with the king?

It’s not the lyric as much as it is the song – and the sense that we are riding with Jesus through this week, moving from celebration to curses, from pain to death to resurrection. And that cranking guitar lick would make for a mean processional next year.

When we moved back from Africa to live in Houston, Texas, I started to Westbury High School in January, a week after everyone else had returned from the winter break. It was the first time I ever started a new school during the year and, of all the different schools I attended (ten in twelve years) it was the hardest transition to make. I signed up for drama class as a way of coping, I suppose. The people on the fringe were (are?) generally more welcoming. One of our first assignments was to lip-sync a song with original choreography. We were assigned the songs. Mine was Grover, from Sesame Street, singing,
Around and around and around and around; over, under, through.

The preposition song came to mind in church this morning as we sang, “Before the Cross of Jesus” as one of our hymns. It is a new(er) text set to the same tune as “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” which also includes a stanza that begins,
Upon the cross of Jesus mine eyes at times can see
The very dying form of One who suffered there for me
Beneath, before, behind, upon, around, within, without, through – together they describe the directions from whence comes the relentless love of God that will not be bound or blocked from getting to us. As the stanza finishes:
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess;
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.
We made the transition from Palms to Passion reading Matthew’s account from the Triumphal Entry to Jesus’ arrest. What caught me in the reading were the behind the scenes people that made the story happen.
Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away. (21:2,3)

"Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, 'The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.'” (26:18)
Either Jesus had messianic minions or he knew people – well – that we know little or nothing about. When I was a kid, I thought Jesus had a way of casting spells on people, as though when the disciples said the right words the guy just gave up the donkey and then regained consciousness later and wondered what happened to his animal. The truth is there were fringe people who helped Jesus follow his calling, encouraging him, providing for him, befriending him beyond the disciples we know by name. Whether it’s the Passion narrative or our life stories, lots of folks are never listed in the credits but were in the right place at pivotal moments, exhaling the love of God that we might breathe in hope beyond our understanding of the circumstances at hand.

Ramon, my line cook/dishwasher at the restaurant is one of those folks. He works hard, does good work, and goes unnoticed by most of the folks who eat his food. This afternoon, he was an hour late for work. When he came into the kitchen, I told him I was beginning to get concerned about him.

"I was at church,” he said. “I had to save my life."

Ginger closed her sermon with a prayer offered by Yousif Al-saka, an elder in the Presbyterian Church in Baghdad:
We beseech You, we humble ourselves for the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, to send your Holy Spirit to shade the land of Iraq,
so that peace may prevail in its dwellings, and the acts of violence, kidnapping and persecution may cease;
so that the displaced may return to their homes, the churches may reopen their gates without fear from shells and explosion;
so that smiles may be seen again on the faces of children that have been stolen from them here in this difficult time;
so that the elderly may lean back on their chairs in comfort and tranquility saying farewell to their children when leaving for school or work without anxiety or fear;
so that mothers think only of happy, prosperous, and peaceful futures for their daughters and sons.

O Lord, have pity on us, we Iraqis. Let the light of your face shine on us, bless us, strengthen our belief, and bestow patience upon us.
And then we sang:
What wondrous love is this?
Oh my soul, oh my soul.
What wondrous love is this? Oh my soul.
Breathe in the breath of God; breathe out the love of God.

Indeed. Amen.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

lenten journal: palm sunday eve

on the road home the miles feel
faster than those on the road
out of town – my body responds
from muscle memory, my mind
working like a pace car,knowing
what to feel with each passing
billboard, how long to wait,
how to titrate the anticipation.
familiar roads are shorter roads

the road from here to resurrection
is mapped in my mind (and my
heart), from palms to parables,
crowds to cross. I know the days,
the steps, the words, the mileposts.
my feet are covered with the
dust from the feet of disciples
who walked this way when the
road was not so well marked

and Holy Week had not yet
become so hurried or harried.
I don’t want to get to Easter
because the road is familiar,
or the liturgy expected. I want
to be stricken and surprised,
lost and found, broken and
spilled out; I want to find my
old footprints and know

this is not the same old road.


Friday, March 14, 2008

the green room

I walked the neighborhood
tonight to The Green Room,
our neighborhood bar,
“serving Durham since Prohibition”
in a small square building
whose green walls are as infused
with smoke as it is with stories.
Beer and basketball were my menu
tonight, as others shot pool and
played table shuffleboard,
each of us speaking to the other
as we crisscrossed the room
like billard balls on green felt.
Michael, the owner, sock hat
pulled over his head, smiled and
worked the room to create
another night that would sink
into the plaster and hold
the place together.
Six rules are posted at the register:

we don’t serve drunks;
use common sense;
respect others;
take care of the equipment;
no drinks on the tables;
don’t talk with your mouth full.

I kept the rules, watched
the game, and helped the
young bartender practice
the art of conversartion.
Then I finished my beer and
walked the block back home.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

lenten journal: peace and palms

Two unconnected things crossed my path today and I’ve been sitting here for the last half hour thinking about how they are connected. The first came my way through Jimmy, who served as a conduit to connect me to another guy talking about the fiftieth anniversary of graphic designer Gerald Holtom’s creation of the Peace Symbol, which was initially prepared for a protest against nuclear arms in 1958 in England. The story goes on to explain how Holtom came up with the design: he overlaid two letters of the semaphore alphabet, N and D, to stand for nuclear disarmament, and then put a circle around them. In writing to a friend about it later he said,

I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya's peasant before the firing squad. I formalized the drawing into a line and put a circle around it.
Out of his despair came one of the most enduring symbols of my lifetime.

A couple of years ago, I learned about Improv Everywhere, a group who likes to “create scenes,” as they say by getting people together (agents, as they call themselves) and doing something out of the ordinary to make people break out of their regular routines. Their latest mission is called “Food Court Musical.”

Whether it’s the peace movement or an improvisational flash mob, the questions are: How do you get people to look up from their Big Macs and notice what is going on around them. How do you push through the despair of the world’s situation or the complacency of people to find a way to move them? How do you keep from falling back into despair when they clap and continue shopping or put the symbol on a t-shirt and go on about their day?

At least, those are my questions.

Jesus had his own improvisational flash mob on what we call Palm Sunday, with people waving palm fronds and shouting, “Hosanna,” as he came into town. By the end of the very same week, the title of “King of the Jews” had taken a nasty, ironic turn even as many of the same folks waving palm leaves had taken to hurling insults and clamoring for his execution, making it seem as if despair had the upper hand, which it had.

Over the years, Palm Sunday has bothered me because I feel as though we wave the branches and sing, “Hosanna,” emulating the very crowd that turned on Jesus – and I’m not always sure we’re aware of the irony in our actions. Something in the juxtaposition of semaphore and singing in the food court made me wonder if I’m missing the deeper meaning by describing what I see as a well intentioned miss of the point. Perhaps that, on the last Sunday in Lent, all we know to do is wave palm branches like they did for Jesus speaks to the despair and disquietude of coming to terms with Jesus’ death. News this week of another incident of clergy abuse by someone I knew long ago, along with word that my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law found out she has pancreatic cancer days before her husband is to be deployed to Iraq, to the murder of a student at UNC who was apparently killed randomly as a part of a gang initiation, not to mention the larger crises around the world, and my arms sag like the semaphore signaler, palm fronds drooping downward in despair. How can I keep saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace?

A little over twenty years ago, Reagan bombed Libya in retaliation for the deaths of two American soldiers. A few years later, I was reading Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens, in which Willimon describes a conversation in one of the dorms (here at Duke) about how the church should have responded to our nation’s answering violence with violence. Willimon said something like, “The Christian response would have been for five thousand Christians to have flown to Libya as soon as Reagan started threatening to bomb so he couldn’t have bombed without hurting one of them.” Then Willimon showed his despair by saying, “There was a time when the church could have done that, but church today is incapable of such a gesture.”

Everybody shout, “Hosanna.”

I understand his point and I don’t want to let myself completely buy into his cynicism. Part of what Palm Sunday tells us is the church has been broken and flawed from the start. We’ve always been a conflicted and confused people. We, the body of Christ, have a hard time thinking beyond ourselves: our needs, our dreams, our fears. If the story of Easter depended on us, it would have ended on Friday, with the disciples sitting in the Upper Room talking about what might have been. But we are not the last word.

As our arms tire and our fronds fall to our sides, hope begins to take root in our despair and grace seeps into the cracks in our resolve and the contradictions of our collective conscience. We are not the last word.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve signed my letters and most anything else the way I sign each post on this blog: Peace, Milton. It is more than platitude to me. I know peace is scarce in our world, as much now as most any time in my life, which is only about a year longer than the peace sign has existed. If I truly ache for peace, then I have to move beyond the violence of words that criticize the church without offering something beyond the despair. Waging peace is not a solitary act. I do my best peacemaking when I am willing to see myself as one of those who waves palm branches with both commitment and contradiction, because I want Jesus’ entry into our lives to really change things – to really change us. I, too, am one of the broken and despairing ones, yearning for hope.

Aren’t we all.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

lenten journal: questions and answers

Since this is spring break at Duke, the campus restaurant has been closed and I’ve been working back at the restaurant where I started so I could earn my paycheck and also let Chef take her kids to Disney. I’ve loved being back over there. I like the menu (it’s fun to cook), but mostly I enjoy the sense of community. The kitchen is small and filled with cooks, whereas my kitchen at Duke is large and relatively unpopulated. There are a few new faces since I last worked there, one of which is Drew who is an awesome cook and a great guy. He and I got to know each other a little better tonight. He’s originally from North Carolina (from the county where Mayberry is, he said), went to culinary school in New York City and worked there for four or five years, and then came back to Carolina because, he said, “I felt like I was missing something.” He stirkes me as a pretty even-keeled person who doesn’t let much get to him.

Tonight, as the dinner service began to slow down, one of the servers asked him if he had ever been in the military.

“Why do you ask?” he replied in a somewhat suspicious tone, which surprised me.

“I don’t know. You just look like someone who might have been in the military, so I thought I’d ask,” the server answered.

“No,” said Drew, and the server went on about his business.

About ten minutes later, the server came back to pick up another order and Drew said, “Hey. I was in the military. I didn’t tell you before because I wasn’t sure what you were getting at with your question.”

“Nothing,” said the other guy. “I just wondered.” The conversation ended there, so Drew never shared what caused his hesitancy.

I know I’m a week ahead, but one of the most poignant scenes for me in the gospel story is Peter standing in the courtyard as Jesus was being tried by Caiaphas and the others. Of all the disciples, Peter is the most captivating for me because of his impulsiveness – sort of faith run amok. My friend Burt has always talked about Peter being the Barney Fife of the New Testament, Jesus, of course, being Andy.

When we tell the story about Peter’s denials, I think we move too quickly past the fact that he followed Jesus after they arrested him and was dangerously close to the room where he was being questioned and humiliated. I’m not sure Peter realized the danger of where he was until the questions started: “You were with him, weren’t you?”

“No,” he answered, perhaps, like Drew, unsure of what was behind the question.

They asked again, and he denied his connection with Jesus a second time.

When they said, “We can tell by your accent that you come from Mayberry,” he exploded, claiming to not even know Jesus. And then he ran out and wept. Jesus was dead before Peter got to straighten the whole thing out. I can’t imagine anyone more grateful for the Resurrection than he.

In a nation so deeply divided over the war, perhaps Drew had reason to be question-shy about his military past, afraid he might step on a landmine in our little kitchen by thinking it was OK to come clean. In our public lives, we have the option of telling or not telling about our past. I don’t know that everyone at the restaurant knows I’m ordained, or that I was a high school English teacher for a decade; I know most of them don’t know I play guitar or love to sing, or that I write this blog. I’m not trying to be secretive; that stuff just hasn’t come up yet with these new acquaintances and colleagues.

Peter wept, not because he had been less than forthright with a bunch of strangers, but because he had betrayed his friend and the one he trusted with his life – his Messiah. He had stumbled when it was time to stand and be counted.

One of my other favorite gospel stories is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. After their transforming conversation, she runs back into town – a town that wanted little or nothing to do with her – saying, “Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done.” Though the gospel writers don’t generally get high marks for effectively conveying tone, I’ve always heard a sense a comfort in what she said, which has always been a bit puzzling. For most of us, the prospect of someone – a stranger – telling us everything we’ve ever done would not necessarily be good news, but her words are good news, to me, because of words I hear her say when I read the story that were never written down: “Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done and still loves me.”

In a little bit, I’ll turn off this computer and the rest of the house lights and lay down beside someone who has incarnated that kind of love for me. The suspicion sown by strangers may cause us to hedge our bets and measure our steps and our answers, but love casts out fear and suspicion. I know someone who pretty much knows everything I’ve ever done and still loves me with abandon.

For each of the times Peter denied his Lord, Jesus asked, “Simon, do you love me?” and gave him the chance to repaint the picture, ultimately telling him to turn his pain into compassion: “Feed my sheep.” The Samaritan woman went to the very people who treated her like crap to give them a chance at finding grace and forgiveness. As many times as Barney was the laughing stock of Mayberry, Andy kept believing in him.

And then they headed over to Thelma Lou’s to watch a little TV.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

lenten journal: family matters

I broke my promise, or at least my practice.

I missed writing the last two days, even though my commitment was to write everyday during Lent. The combination of the move, trying to get the phone company to get wifi hooked up at our new home, work, and sheer exhaustion conspired to the point that I chose to sleep rather than write. It was a semi-conscious choice (because I was semi-conscious when I made it), but a choice nonetheless. Therefore, this season, I will also learn something about forgiveness. The point of my writing practice during Lent over the years has been to give me a sense of focus in working to intentionally live these days and to give me a sense of connection, which is why I write publicly. Missing two days doesn’t change either of those things, in the larger picture. Easter will still come.

The best part of the last two days was sharing it with our nephew, Tim, who came to visit. He is sophomore at Wheaton College, outside of Chicago, a wonderful musician, and all around great guy. He and some of his friends were coming to North Carolina to hang out and do some hiking and he took time away from them to come see us when he realized he was going to be close by. As far as I’m concerned, his visit was an incredible gift.

Because our families have never lived close to each other, Ginger and I have not gotten to be around Tim and his older brother Ben very much over the years. We have a good connection with them, but we haven’t been around each other to really get to know one another. Having him for a couple of days (he got to spend the first night with us in our new home) gave us time to relax and talk and move beyond the what-have-you-been-up-to-and-what-is-your-major kind of conversation. Tim and I also had a chance to spend a couple of hours, our two MacBooks connected by fire wire, swapping music files and sharing our favorites. I came away with about forty new CDs worth of tunes and came pretty close to doing the same for him.

Age is a funny thing. I’m about thirty years older than he is and yet that distance wasn’t part of the mix this weekend. I didn’t have to try and be twenty, neither did I feel compelled to take the I-remember-what-it-was-like-to-be- your-age approach. We laughed and talked and listened as ourselves talking to one another. There are things he knows about I want to learn and, I suppose, the reverse is also true. I knew him when he was a kid. It’s much more fun to let him grow up.

I was talking to someone the other day who is about eighty and preparing for surgery. She likes her doctor and she said, “You know how old he is? He’s forty-two,” in a tone that made it sound as if he was going to have to wash the sand from the sandbox off of his hands before he started operating. I wanted to say, “When you were forty-two, you didn’t think of yourself as a kid or as inexperienced. Why not think of him that way as well?” That doctor has probably spent half of his four decades honing his craft. He’s not a novice. She’s missing the chance to see him by keeping him a kid.

I think that’s part of the reason Jesus didn’t hang around Nazareth much. When he went back they kept saying things like, “Isn’t that the carpenter’s kid?” and “Hasn’t he turned into a handsome lad?” and “What are you going to do with your life?” He took his disciples and his miracles and went elsewhere.

I think we all want to feel as though we get credit for who we are, no matter the age. I know I think that’s true for everyone (though I’m pretty sure it’s not, at least at the intensity with which I feel it) because the lesson I internalized early in life was that love was earned, which means I’ve spent a lot of years trying to be enough to deserve to be loved. Staying a kid – or being treated as though you’re still a kid – doesn’t let me be enough. I, like Paul, want credit for putting away childish things.

Like Lazarus coming out of the tomb still bound up by the grave clothes, though I know how deeply and unconditionally I am loved by God and by Ginger (I’ll start with those two), I stumble around still tied up because I don’t know how to loosen and lose all that keeps me from being fully alive and aware that I am so loved.

The working motto of the UCC is, “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” The way I hear those words is, “When you come to church, you be you and will be who we are and move on from there.” Last night, I drove Tim down to meet his friends. As I drove back, listening to some of the music we had shared, I prayed when his friends asked how the time was one of the ways he would answer was that he felt like he could be himself and that we were ourselves around him. I wanted him to feel the way my Aunt Pegi made me feel every time I was around her.

Over the years, one of the things I’ve become aware of by watching families around me is that family doesn’t come easy for me, and I think I have a lot to do with why it doesn’t, much of which is connected to the whole love is earned thing. In a song I’ve mentioned before, Cliff Eberhardt’s “The Long Road,” he sings

there are the ones you call family
there are the ones you hold close in your heart
there are the ones who see the danger in you
and don’t understand
The song came around as I drove home last night after meeting Tim’s friends and I was thankful because I had been with him, my family, and it was good. He made me feel loved and understood; I hope I did the same for him.


Saturday, March 08, 2008

lenten journal: big day, few words

We moved into the house today for real. For the first time in eight months, we don't have a Pod in our driveway. The new place is stacked full of boxes and furniture several wonderful folks helped us carry in. In a few minutes, I'm driving up to Greensboro to pick up one of my nephews who called and said he wanted to come hang out for a couple of days during his spring break. And, at the center of local news, the Duke and UNC men's basketball teams are playing tonight. (The women play tomorrow for the ACC championship.)

I'm happy. I'm hopeful. I'm exhausted. More tomorrow.


Friday, March 07, 2008

lenten journal: second funeral

The lectionary passage for Sunday is John 11, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In these days when the flow of life runs counter to my finding time to write, I chase words like a salmon trying to get upstream. Though the gospel accounts don’t say so, reading it through my eyes it’s easy to imagine Jesus was hindered in getting to his sick friend by the circumstances of his life. That was my starting point for my poem tonight.

second funeral

When Jesus got word Lazarus was ill
he waited two days before he started
toward Bethany – not that far away.
You have to assume he had the best
of intentions, after all he was Jesus.

I know the story says he was sure
the sickness wouldn’t get the best
of his friend, but by the time he got
there, Lazarus was bound and buried,
When he got to the grave, Jesus wept,

then he called Lazarus out of the tomb
and back into life. The scene might have
played a little better had they undone
the bandages before Lazarus woke up.
We don’t know much else about him –

how long he lived, or how he felt about
his reanimation; how could he be the same?
No one recorded how much longer
he lived, or how those days played out.
The part of the story I wish I knew

was what happened at his second funeral.
I’ve always assumed he was outlived by
his sisters (they struck me as stronger),
so they would have buried him again,
this time without Jesus, who was gone.

Some things familiarity can’t soften.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

lenten journal: at home

I’ve only crossed the threshold a half dozen times,
sat on a folding chair in the dining room eating
Krispy Kreme doughnuts once and yet it feels
more like home already than this house we’ve
occupied since we came to town last year.

Occupied is the right word, like an invading
army occupies another country, or a passenger
occupies an airplane restroom. We’ve been
interlopers here, never once believing these
walls were strong enough to hold our stories.

I can stand in the empty rooms of our new home
and tell already it is more than a one-story house.
I can hear the conversation of friends around our
dining table, see the vegetables coming up in the
back yard, hear Ginger coming in the front door

as Ella slides across the dark hardwood floors
to greet her. And on a spring afternoon, several
springs from now, I can see us sitting on the
front porch, drinking sweet tea and Guinness
respectively, as if it had always been that way.


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

lenten journal: god is in the roses

When I get to work on any given afternoon, I have to walk through a wall of sound to get into the kitchen. The big boombox that sits on top of our giant mixer is blaring the Spanish AM station loud enough to curdle the milk. The good news is I get there at two and the guys who like listening to “La Recha” leave at three; that’s when I change it to NPR so I can get my news fix until dinner service begins. By about four o’clock I was weary of the endless analysis of Hillary’s victories and Obama’s delegate count and blah, blah, blah. I had heard most all of it on Morning Edition. There wasn’t much new to say, so they just repeated themselves and I started looking for listening alternatives. I noticed one of our take out boxes holding six or eight CDs, which I had never see there before, so I went looking for tunes and found “Black Cadillac,” the CD Rosanne Cash recorded after her parents died.

I’ve been a big fan of hers for years, so I was glad for the chance to hear what she had to sing, even if it was going to be background music. About three songs in, Ramon said, “What kind of music is this?”

For lack of a better label, I said, “Country music.”

“I like this a lot,” he replied.

I did, too. The record is full of grief and searching and love and even hope. When things slowed down at the end of the evening, I pulled out the liner notes and began to read the lyrics I had only been able to catch in bits and pieces, and I found this song, “God is in the Roses”:

God is in the roses
The petals and the thorns
Storms out on the oceans
The souls who will be born
And every drop of rain that falls
Falls for those who mourn
God is in the roses and the thorns

The sun is on the cemetery
Leaves are on the stones
There never was a place on earth
That felt so much like home
We're falling like the velvet petals
We're bleeding and we're torn
But God is in the roses and the thorns

I love you like a brother
A father and a son
It may not last forever and ever
But it never will be done
My whole world fits inside the moment
I saw you be reborn
God is in the roses
And that day was filled with roses
God is in the roses and the thorns
The images of God in the beauty and the pain is resonant even beyond the words. My sense is she wrote the song out of her grief rather than trying to make a theological point, so she ended up a lot closer to the truth of who God is and where God is in our lives. And her singing the truth brought me comfort.

Ginger and I are living days of roses and thorns as we settle in here in Durham, sliding back and forth between the grief of all we left behind in New England and all that is unfolding here and getting caught in the crunch of all the details that have to be attended to in order to make home mobile, at least for a time. We are not living the level of grief Cash knew in losing both her parents, but we are grieving, even hurting sometimes, alongside of feeling hopeful and excited.

And so I learn again the rose and the thorn draw life from the same stem.


PS -- There's a great live performance clip of the song here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

lenten journal: tender button

This afternoon I had my first experience attending the monthly meeting with the folks from Duke Dining Serivces. I had no idea what kind of meeting I was going to; I just knew I was supposed to go. I went with Tabitha, who is our floor manager and we met with two women who work for Duke, both of whom were very nice. One of them pulled two small packets of papers from a folder and handed them to Tab and me. As soon as I saw they were spreadsheets, I knew I was lost. We spent the next half hour looking at sales figures and talking about the four days last month when the money Tab turned in didn’t reconcile with the sheets they had, which then led to a discussion about our new computer system that doesn’t let Tab correct changes customers make to their orders without having to void the whole order and start over. My eyes were glassing over and I was slipping away until I heard one of the women ask Tab, “Do you mean you can’t make changes before you press the tender button?”

“We have a tender button in our restaurant?” I thought to myself. “Man, I’ve got to start pressing that thing.”

I could tell I was the only one in the room enjoying the poetry of accounting (reconcile, tender), but I let myself enjoy it nonetheless. Maybe I’ll install one in our new home. (We finally closed today!)


Monday, March 03, 2008

lenten journal: daffodil day

I was walking from my car to the kitchen this afternoon when I saw a little gang of daffodils in full bloom – on March 3. Those of you who live in non-New England types of climates may not understand the disorientation I experienced. I’m not used to flowers in March that aren’t either cut or forced. Ginger and I always went to the New England Flower Show in March because we were ready for a break from the winter that was far from over, so we walked around in the Bayside Expo Center and talked about what we would plant over Memorial Day Weekend.


I feel rushed. Even Jesus is coming out of the tomb early. He’ll be resurrected before the NCAA basketball tournament is over. I feel rushed, pushed, out of time with the world around me. I also feel out of words, which feels as unusual to me as daffodils in what should still be winter. I want to have something to say because I want to be true to my Lenten practice and I feel empty. It is not yet springtime in my mind (at least not tonight).

Beyond my shocking encounter with those little yellow trumpets, today was an exercise in frustration as we were unable to close on our house because of lawyer stuff. (If I actually understood what they were talking about, I would be more specific.) The closing will happen in the morning. we got that word late this afternoon. But it didn’t happen today and I think that’s part of my wordlessness. I’m caught in-between and I don’t find much else to say about it.

Well, that’s not accurate. I had a lot to say about it today, but most of those words were ones of frustration that were better kept to myself, or at least between me and Ginger. There’s sharing my experiences because I feel like I can use my words to connect with others and then there’s talking about myself because I need it to be about me. Most of my words today have felt like the latter and I think we’re all better off if I don’t inflict them on you.

Frustration aside, today was a good day. We did get word we will pass papers in the morning. Things went well at work. I love my job and my new town. I’m just tired and empty. I saw the flowers today, promising spring. My words just didn’t bloom like I hoped they would.


Sunday, March 02, 2008

lenten journal: doctor, my eyes

A little over a decade ago, when I was taking a novel-writing course through the Humber School for Writers, Timothy Findley, my mentor, would send notes on the pages I had written and often say, “You move from A to B without showing how you got there. If you’re going to tell a story well, you’ve got to let the reader travel with you.”

I thought about him this morning as we were reading John 9 together in church: the story of Jesus healing the blind man by putting mud on his eyes. All John says is Jesus told him to go to the Pool of Siloam (which means Sent) and wash his face and the man did so and came back seeing. What John didn’t tell us was how the man, while still blind, got from wherever he was when Jesus spat into the sand and smeared it on his face to the pool.

  • Did he have help?
  • Did he ask directions?
  • How did he know he could trust Jesus?
  • Didn’t people think he looked a little strange, or that even if he was blind he could have cleaned up a bit?
  • How far was it?
  • Was Jesus giving him a difficult task?
  • How long was he gone?
  • Did anyone see him wash his blindness away?
  • How did he know the way home?
Answering any or all of those questions would make for some good storytelling, if not subtext, and yet John wasn’t that concerned about telling a good story about healing as he was using the miracle as a lived out parable about, as Ginger’s sermon title said it this morning, “Obstructed Views.” The best part of the story is about what the other people couldn’t see, no matter how many times it was waved in front of their faces, and why they couldn’t see it.

Last Thursday as I was getting ready for the dinner service, I heard a story on Day to Day about Dr. Michael Lill, a physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center who specifically works providing “bloodless” bone marrow transplants to Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose beliefs will not allow them to have blood transfusions. One of the first questions the reporter asked him was, “Is it true you are not a believer yourself?”

“I’m on the atheistic end of agnosticism,” he answered.

Of course, she then asked why it would matter to him to help these folks who held a belief and a faith he did not.

He said something along the lines of, “I took an oath to be a healer. It’s up to me to use my creative knowledge to help heal people without demanding of them to give up what matters most, even if I don’t understand it.”

Talk about your unobstructed views. He probably heals them on the Sabbath just like Jesus did.

The reporter left out as many good details as John did:
  • How did the doctor begin working with Jehovah’s Witnesses?
  • How did he develop such regard for a faith he doesn’t hold?
  • What kind of resistance did he get from those he works with?
  • How hard was it for them to take him seriously and then to go through with the procedure?
The story she wanted to tell was more about a man who looked at what most people saw as an outlandish belief by an odd religious sect and saw people who needed help, even if helping them meant dealing with their self-imposed obstacles. Over twenty JW’s are alive today because of Dr. Lill’s vision. He didn’t ask them to change as much as he asked them to trust.

Something in the way he treats them, talks to them, responds to them gives them room to believe he is a guy who will do what he says. There must have been the same kind of tone in Jesus’ voice that would lead the blind beggar to give Jesus permission to smear the spit and dirt on his eyes, and something in the beggar beyond despair and desperation that allowed him to trust Jesus enough to go stumbling to the pool.

A friend wrote this week about a practice she has learned of a Daily Dangerous Prayer, which she described as “simply a verse of scripture that God puts in your path and says, ‘You need to dwell here.’” I hear the call to take up residence between the doctor and the beggar, the healer and the healee, both willing to see things in ways those around them are not.


Saturday, March 01, 2008

lenten journal: seven summers at the beach

We’ve just spent the last nine hours traveling miles and miles of interstate and classic rock and got back to Durham to find a small package on our doorstep I have been waiting for. Back in September I began putting together a book of poetry and recipes from this blog as a way to say goodbye to New England. The book is called Seven Summers at the Beach, which is how long we lived in Marshfield. I took advantage of a very kind offer from Jeff to do the design work and layout. (Big props to Jeff.) The book is now done, thanks to, and available at my “storefront” there. Though there is still much for me to learn on the marketing and publicizing end, I’m anxious to let you know the book is there. Lulu is a self-publishing site that prints the books as they are ordered. I got mine in about a week. It costs $15 for the print book and $8 for the e-book download. (I realize this isn’t necessarily the stuff Lenten meditations are made of, but this has been a long time coming).

If you’re interested, you can click the Lulu button to the left of this post, click on the book title above, or go to my storefront and follow the instructions.