Thursday, May 29, 2008

darkness on the edge of town

Thanks to the folks at DirecTV, we have XM Radio in our house. Thanks to XM Radio, we have a channel called “The Village” that is all acoustic singer-songwriters. I play it when Ginger isn’t home, just as she listens to the disco station when she is alone in her car. When she came in from her meetings the other night, she left it playing while she got settled; I was writing. When she came back into the room, I had moved to the living room and was sitting on the couch. When she asked what I was doing, I answered, “Listening.”

The song was “My Father’s House” by Bruce Springsteen from his Nebraska album, which ought to make most anyone’s top ten list. The whole record is achingly sparse and beautiful. The song says,

Last night I dreamed that I was a child
out where the pines grow wild and tall
I was trying to make it home
through the forest before the darkness falls

I heard the wind rustling through the trees
and ghostly voices rose from the fields
I ran with my heart pounding down that broken path
With the devil snappin' at my heels

I broke through the trees, and there in the night
My father's house stood shining hard and bright
the branches and brambles tore my clothes and scratched my arms
But I ran till I fell, shaking in his arms

I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart
Will never again, sir, tear us from each other's hearts
I got dressed, and to that house I did ride from out on the road,
I could see its windows shining in light

I walked up the steps and stood on the porch
a woman I didn't recognize came
and spoke to me through a chained door
I told her my story, and who I'd come for
She said "I'm sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore"

My father's house shines hard and bright
it stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining 'cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned
After the song was over, Ginger came back into the room and said, “You want to know why you’re depressed? You listen to depressing music.”

We both laughed.

The evening came back to mind when I got to work this morning and one of the chefs (who also lives with depression) chose Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town as our morning prep music. I told him the same story I told you and we laughed again, then we moved on to talking about what the singer and the songs have meant to us over the years. Somewhere after we stopped talking and I was kneading the dough that would become the English muffins (our homemade hamburger buns), Bruce started singing “Promised Land.”
On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert
I pick up my money and head back into town
Driving cross the Waynesboro county line
I got the radio on and I'm just killing time
Working all day in my daddy's garage
Driving all night chasing some mirage
Pretty soon little girl I'm gonna take charge

The dogs on Main Street howl 'cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man
And I believe in a promised land

I've done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start

The dogs on Main Street howl 'cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man
And I believe in a promised land

There's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain't got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted

The dogs on Main Street howl 'cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man
And I believe in a promised land
I believe in a promised land...
For a guy from New Jersey, Bruce has spent his fair share of time in the dark and in the desert – at least in his songs. He’s always taking to the road, with despair driving and hope in the sidecar, the two inseparable traveling companions somehow, moving between the wounds of all that has been left unfinished and unatoned and the wonder of the cleansing storm that wipes things clean. We’re all on the same road between houses that hold the hurts that don’t heal, the places that have been vacated or abandoned, and the mansions that are being made for us, fueled by both hope and despair.

And I’m sure when we get to the Promised Land there will be no disco.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Christine's blog at Abbey of the Arts has been one I've visited regularly for about as long as I have been reading blogs. A couple of weeks ago, she offered me to take part in one of her "sacred artists interviews" that she does from time to time. She posted it yesterday. Here's the first question:

Are you rooted in a particular faith tradition?

I was born into a Christian family that was also Southern Baptist. I turned one on the ship going to Africa, where my parents served as missionaries, and left the continent for good on my sixteenth birthday. During those years I was exposed to Christians of many denominations, many of whom my parents took seriously as colleagues in ministry. As an adult, I have found my home in the United Church of Christ and it’s gospel of extravagant welcome.

You can read the rest of the interview here.


Monday, May 26, 2008

my back pages

It would be interesting to trace the transformation in American society that broke the link between popular religion and high intellectual achievement, between religious enthusiasm and generous and transformative change. In my experience, many of the schools in the old abolitionist archipelago are entirely forgetful of their history, or are embarrassed by the little they know about it, in most cases because they are very progressive and enlightened and therefore do not wish to trace their paternity to a clutch of fiery preachers, and in some cases because they are piously conservative and do not enjoy association with a clutch of New England radicals.

Marilynne Robinson, "A Great Amnesia" in Harpers Magazine, May 2008

Good and bad, I define these terms

Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.

Ah, but I was so much older then,

I'm younger than that now.

Bob Dylan, "My Back Pages"

I do wonder how you went from ministry at Pecan Grove, Texas to the UCC church and working as a chef, but maybe that is a long story?
It would be fascinating if you are ever in the mood to tell it.

Brenda, in an email to me

I’ve been turning Brenda’s request over in my mind for several days. I wish I knew a way to tell a short version, or to tell one in which I didn’t feel like I was leaving out major chunks, or running the risk of being misunderstood. That said, the practice of trying to tell the story has been an important one for me, so it feels worth sharing.

One more thing: this version is more of an emotional landscape than a chronology or even autobiography. I tried to find the line that runs from the God I first knew as a little boy to the God I trust now.


I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know that God loved me. I was born into a strong Southern Baptist family where my parents sang hymns to me to put me to sleep (many of which I still know). When I was five years old, I gave my heart to Jesus. I wasn’t converted. I’m not sure I became a Christian in any understandable sense. I didn’t turn from a life of sin and sex and drugs. I did what a five year old would do: I gave my heart away. Then I told my three-year-old brother he was going straight to hell if he didn’t give his heart to Jesus. Ah – memories.

As much as I knew God loved me, I’m also pressed to remember a time when I didn’t feel like that love (or anyone else’s) had to be earned, or I had to prove myself worthy of receiving it. As far back as I can remember being loved, I can also remember not feeling like I was enough, in most any sense of that word. I worked hard to be good, to be best, to be at the top of the heap. It wasn’t a competitive thing for me, primarily; I just wanted to prove myself. I was a fairly compliant teenager. I didn’t get into a lot of trouble because I was mostly worried about disappointing my father, the preacher. It was many years before I realized I had had a hard time figuring out where God stopped and Dad started. The good side is that dynamic kept me out of a good bit of trouble. The downside is I defined myself by who I thought people around me wanted to be. I took my cues from them.

I went to Baylor University primarily because that was where all of my family had gone. I didn’t even apply to another school. I “surrendered for ministry” (an interesting Baptist phrase) primarily because that was the family business. I started pastoring (at Pecan Grove) at the end of my junior year because a family friend who had pastored there called and said he thought it would be a good match. I graduated from college and moved up I-35 to Southwestern Seminary because that’s where everyone else was going. Again, I never thought to look anywhere else.

All of them were good experiences. (OK – the group of us who hung together at Southwestern to survive were worth remembering; I have done my best to never step on that campus again.) I pastored that little church for four years. I loved my time at Baylor, even though I feel far from the person who walked that campus. Even as I was doing all the right things, my inner contradictions were breaking the surface. At the end of my first semester of seminary, and after Alabama had drubbed Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, I stood on a table in George’s, a legendary bar in Waco, after way too many beers and sang, “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.” Most of the crowd knew the words and sang along. I didn’t know what to do with feeling somehow at home in that bar, even as I felt at home at church.

I don’t want to over-romanticize the moment. I was dead drunk and making a fool of myself. My internal conflict lasted long after the hangover was gone, however. To speak in the terms of the emotional landscape I mentioned at the first, the way my heart has housed my insecurities has always pulled my gaze to the margins. I’ve never felt as though I had a guaranteed place in the in-crowd, so I’m drawn to the others who stand outside the circle, for whatever reason.

The fundamentalist overthrow of the Southern Baptist Convention began while I was in seminary. The fight was then, and continued to be, much more about politics and power than it ever was about theology. The push to get everyone in lockstep let me know I was quickly becoming a Baptist at the margins of the denomination.

After seminary, I moved east from Fort Worth to Dallas, at the suggestion of one of my professors, and completed eight units of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), which was sort of like emotional surgery without anesthetic. The premise of the program is you learn who you are by examining what you say and do – scary stuff for a guy like me who didn’t know how to integrate the various faces I presented to the world around me. Needless to say, I found my way to therapy. From there, I found my way into youth ministry, in large part because I had been doing youth retreats and people told me I was good at it.

I was the Minister to Youth/University at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas for six years. I was good at it. I loved working with junior high and high school kids – their lives were at the margins. My memories of high school were mostly of wishing I could have been anyone else but me. I knew their pain, I took them seriously, and I loved them. It was good combination. As the eighties drew to a close, the denomination I knew was falling a part. The hardliners were vicious and tenacious and those who saw themselves as moderates had been caught by surprise and were left to define themselves by who they weren’t rather than who they wanted to be. (I understood the dynamic quite well.) It all served to make me mad.

One of my former professors told me he thought I should start working on a PhD in New Testament at Baylor, so I did. I drove from Fort Worth on my day off and took two seminars that fall. In January I met Ginger and, for the first time in my life, felt unconditionally loved. By the end of the spring semester, I decided I wanted to be in love with her more than I wanted a doctorate, so I withdrew from the program. We married in April, 1990. Though I was happy in my work, we were both feeling more and more alienated from Baptist life. We needed to be in a more open place. A perfect storm of a new pastor at UBC who wanted to see me leave, a realization on my part that I was going to explode in anger if I didn’t get out of Texas, and a chance to go to Boston to try and start a church led us to move to Charlestown in August of that year.

For four years we worked to start a church in our neighborhood. We both had to get other jobs because of the way the whole enterprise was funded. Ginger managed a group home for troubled adolescents and I got a job substitute teaching. The church didn’t take. We realized we weren't evangelists. Ginger moved to a job as the youth minister at First Congregational Church, Winchester. She went on to transfer her ordination to the UCC (boy, is that the short version!) and we found a home at the church there. I was raised – well, I think -- in faith by a very conservative denomination and found a home in the most liberal mainline Christian denomination – “the last house on the left,” as they say. And I am at home here.

I went back to school and got my teaching certification and my masters in English because a position opened. Once again, I loved being with the kids. Ten years of bureaucracy and the coming of standardized test took their toll. I also struggled with grading. I hated it. For me, good teaching meant inviting the students into an honest relationship of trust and sharing. I wanted them to feel safe enough to risk and grow. Then came the end of the semester and I betrayed the whole enterprise by saying, “Your life is a C.” At least that’s how it felt to me, the one who felt as though he wasn’t that good at making the grade.

When we moved from Winchester to Marshfield, I stepped out of the classroom and fell off into the bottomless darkness of depression. Looking back, I can see where it also showed up along the way, but for about eighteen months all I could do was get out of bed, walk the beach, and try to write poetry. Early in May eight years ago, Ginger said, “I know this has been hard, but you have to make some money.” I spent the next week driving all around the South Shore trying to figure out what I wanted to do. For the first time, I was looking for a job based on what I wanted to do, not because someone told me I was good at it.

I came home with two jobs. The first was a part-time gig at the South Shore Music Circus, a summer open-air music venue. I went in to see about a stage crew job and got hired as security, thanks to my size and my shaved head. The other was a cooking job. I knew the kitchen was a depression free zone for me, so I thought that might work professionally. I talked my way into a job at a small place that was just opening. By the time the restaurant did open, I had to take time off for a church mission trip. I got back to find the chef and the owner had gotten into a big fight the night before and she had fired him. I was the only one in the kitchen who spoke fluent English, so she put me in charge. Joao and Carlos, the two very capable Brazilian cooks taught me how to do my job. The restaurant didn’t last but six months, but I’ve been cooking ever since.

When we moved to Durham, I moved as a chef. Fifty-one years on, I’m doing what I most want to do: cook and write. I’m a member of a church of ”extravagant welcome,” which comes through in what we say each week: whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. I have dear friends who have stayed in Baptist life. I couldn’t do it. My anger would have gotten the best of me. I don’t do well when people are drawing lines to decide who is in or out, who is acceptable or not. (I make that statement to say more about me than them.) I’m a part of a people who ordained a black man to pastor an all white congregation before the Civil War, who ordained women sixty years before they could vote, and who ordained the first openly gay man as pastor in the seventies. I belong to a church that looks to see who is standing at the margins and brings them in. I belong here.

I’m almost halfway to fifty-two and I still can’t remember not knowing that God loves me – that hasn’t changed. What has changed is I’m better at trusting that God loves me because I’m breathing, because I’m here and created in God’s image. That’s enough.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

living history

We stepped back into the history of our church today for our annual worship service at O'Kelly Chapel, the birthplace of our congregation (as explained by this plaque):

We had an amazing cool, sunny spring day for our gathering, which included dinner on the grounds following worship.

We used the old hymnals, which meant we got to sing a lot of old gospel songs I grew up with, using the old pump organ and the piano in the chapel, niether of which had been tuned in some time. We augmented the accompaniment with fiddles, guitars, and harmonicas.

Being in that wonderful old wooden room with the gentle breeze blowing through the open windows made me want to know more about how we got from there to where we are now. If you come out of the chapel grounds and turn left on Highway 751 all you have to do is stay on the very same highway until you get into town and come to Pilgrim UCC on the right. The spiritual journey of our congregation is more complicated and interesting; the path is not quite so direct. Most any faith journey is full of twists, turns, and surprises.

To stand knee deep in a history I don't know was fascinating to me because I found much there that felt familiar. The old hymns were the same ones I grew up singing in the Baptist church. The old wooden building was much like my seminary pastorate in central Texas. But I felt something more profound than my personal connections. I caught a sense of the line of faith that connects us all across the ages; our church history doesn't end at O'Kelly Chapel, but runs through it instead, one thread of a web of grace and love that has caught us all.

Like the old song says:

All glory and praise
to the God of all grace,
Who has brought us and sought us
and guided our ways.

Hallelujah! Thine the glory
Hallelujah! Amen.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory
Revive us again.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

it's my job

A few weeks back I was on my way home from work when Ginger called to say the main sewer line running from the house to the street was blocked and she had called a plumber, but he had not yet arrived; if I needed to go to the bathroom I should stop somewhere on my way home. I was working nights then, so the plumber showed up a little after eleven and worked until almost two – spending most of the time in the crawl space under our house. Ever since I’ve been thinking about jobs I wouldn’t want to do but I count on others to do so I can live my life. They run the gamut from the plumber under the house to the checker at the grocery store (or most any retail gig, for that matter) to pretty much anything in the accounting field. And that’s just for starters. I dare say most of the jobs that help to provide the goods and services I’m accustomed to having are jobs I wouldn’t enjoy.

I like planting my vegetable garden, but I wouldn’t want to be one of the migrant workers that are responsible for most of the produce we buy. I wouldn’t want to be a truck driver or a toll taker. I wouldn’t want to work on any kind of assembly line or power plant. I wouldn’t want to be a garbage collector or the person who has to take returns at Lowe’s. I wouldn’t want any kind of job where I had to answer the phone all day, though I’m glad someone is there when I call Mac tech support or Durham One Call. And they’re nice when they talk to me.

Mac McAnally wrote a song a long time ago called “It’s My Job” that I find myself humming these days.

In the middle of late last night I was sittin' on a curb
I didn't know what about, but I was feelin' quite disturbed
A street sweeper came whistlin' by, he was bouncin' every step
It seemed strange how good he felt, so I asked him while he swept

He said, "It's my job to be cleaning up this mess
And that's enough reason to go for me
It's my job to be better than the rest
And that makes a day for me."

I got an uncle who owns a bank, he's a self-made millionaire
He never had anyone to love, never had no one to care
He always seemed kinda sad to me and I asked him why that was
And he told me it's because in my contract there's this clause

That says, "It's my job to be worried half to death
And that's the thing people respect in me
It's my job but without it I'd be less
Than what I expect from me."

Now I've been lazy most all my life writin' songs and sleepin' late
And any manual labor I've done was purely by mistake
If street sweepers can smile then I've got no right to feel upset
But sometimes I still forget
'Til the lights go on and the stage is set
And the song hits home and you feel that sweat

It's my job to be different than the rest
And that's enough reason to go for me
It's my job to be better than the rest
And that's a rough break for me

It's my job to be cleaning up this mess
And that's enough reason to go for me
It's my job to be better than the rest
And that makes the day for me
I often forget what an amazing gift it is that I get to choose to do something I love. It’s a gift that I get to choose, period. If I pay attention as I look at those around me, I see a lot of folks who aren’t afforded that chance. I get to talk about calling and purpose and passion when I talk about vocation; not every job holds those kinds of possibilities. I know there are those, like the street sweeper in the song, who take pride in what they do even though their job choices are limited. I also know there is a lot of value in manual labor because I am a manual laborer. And there are lots of things I don’t want to do that I expect to be done so my life can go on.

This afternoon I bought groceries and the checker and sacker were both gracious and engaging. As I pushed my cart away to head for my car, one of them said, “Thanks for shopping with us today.”

I think I’m the one who needs to learn to say, “Thank you” much more frequently – like it’s my job.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

can we talk?

“Baptists don’t baptize infants,” I heard some say not long ago, “they ordain them.”

In the spring of 1977, in the summer after my junior year in college, I was called as pastor of Pecan Grove Baptist Church near Gatesville, Texas, which meant I needed to be ordained. In early June, an ordination council was convened (right before my ordination service) and pastors and deacons from the other local churches came to ask me questions. One of them said, “How do you explain the Trinity?”

“If I could do that,” I answered, “I’d write a book.” Everyone laughed and we moved on to the next question.

In the years following, I’m not sure I’m any closer to an explanation, but I do have a greater understanding of who God is. It’s not for nothing that Genesis recounts God saying, “Let us create humanity in our image.” The plural pronoun points to the relational complexity of God from the first. It also makes me think of the opening of Mary Oliver’s “Poem”:

The spirit
likes to dress up like this:
ten fingers,
ten toes
Whoever God was (is) from the beginning, incarnation and relationship burst from the core of God’s being.

On Sunday mornings at our house, we watch TV preachers while we’re getting ready for church. I’m not sure it gets us ready for church, but it’s what we do. This morning, we split time between Ed Young, Jr. and Joel Osteen. Young was talking about how to be “good and angry” and did some good work talking about how our anger is fed by fear, so we had to learn how to face our fear in some other way than exploding in anger. Osteen was talking about broadening our world, encouraging folks to do things they had never done before because it was the only way to keep growing.

Somewhere in the middle of the second sermon, I looked at Ginger and said, “They say some good things but I’m not sure they are ready to live with the consequences of their theology.” I don’t know that for a fact; it’s a hunch on my part – maybe even a prejudice. But my comment came back to me in the middle of the wonderful sermon preached by Carla, our Minister of Christian Education, who was recounting our church’s decision, in 1964, to baptize an African-American child. The pastor had made it clear he was going to do it. The deacons met and voted to support the pastor. One of the deacons came home and told his wife about the meeting. “How did you vote?” she asked.

“As we were talking,” he said, “I thought, ‘How could I vote to not baptize a child?’”

On this Trinity Sunday, our church, along with many other UCC churches around the country, was beginning a “sacred conversation” about race. The idea grew out of the initial burst of media coverage of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who is a UCC minister. Our denomination (like it’s predecessors) is committed to a theology of justice and inclusiveness. We ordained an African-American man to pastor an all white congregation before the Civil War. We ordained women sixty years before they could vote. We ordained the first openly gay pastor in the early seventies.

“Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey,” we say, “you’re welcome here.”

“God is still speaking. There is more light yet to break forth.”

The consequences of that theology call us to do more than play into the media feeding frenzy or run for cover or do anything other than try to come to a deeper understanding of one another, each of us created in God’s image – and this time working hard to begin a meaningful and redemptive conversation about race. Carla was not far into her sermon when she quoted Rev. Peter Gomes, who spoke recently to a UCC clergy gathering here in the Triangle. Gomes was clear in placing at least part of the blame for how Wright was perceived and received by the American public: “Jeremiah Wright was preaching the gospel. What are you preaching that no one recognized it?”

Carla went on to say we might think Wright was wrong in claiming the US government might have had something to do with creating AIDS, yet our government did do life-altering, if not damaging, medical experiments on African-American men without their knowledge as late as 1972, which is the same year Jeremiah Wright became pastor of Trinity UCC in Chicago. Though I have no desire to ask God to damn anyone, he is right about our lack of care and concern for the poor and marginalized in our nation.

I’m not trying to write in defense of Wright as much as work to follow the consequences of my theology. Beginning a sacred conversation about race on Trinity Sunday makes sense to me because believing that we are created in the image of a God who could be the One being baptized in the river, the voice in the heavens, and the dove descending all at the same time; the God of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, of Jacob and Esau, of Cain and Abel; the God who, through the course of human history, has called humanity to come to terms with the inextricable connections between us: we, like God, are many and one at the same time.

One of the working definitions of racism Carla used today was “choosing my rights over your humanity.” Not your race. Your humanity – as in, like my humanity. It sounds a lot like Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves – live as though they were as human as we think we are.

Our nation was nearly one hundred years old when we went to war against each other, partly over issues of race and humanity. Two hundred years on saw us still hedging our bets when it came to seeing all of us as fully human – and it wasn’t simply a “southern” issue. The Boston Public Schools didn’t integrate until the mid-seventies. I dread the presidential campaign in the months to come because I expect a whole lot of dehumanizing racist rhetoric to hit the airwaves at full volume, doing its best to shout down any meaningful conversation.

If we, as people of faith, are not willing to throw open our hearts and talk to one another then the toxic tirades will destroy us all. The title of Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope was taken from one of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. I love the phrase because it is prophetic and pastoral, renewing and redemptive. We are audacious to hope for a world where we could move as fluidly in relationship as the God in whose image we are made, that we could grasp, as Paul says in Ephesians, how deep and wide and high God’s love is so that we would trust that love as the environment in which we relate to one another, rather than the vitriol and violence that fuels what passes for conversation in our wider culture.

If I am to come to terms with the consequences of my theology, these words are a good start. They are the prayer of confession we prayed in unison in church today.
Living God, we come before you and each other today to search our ways and thoughts and to acknowledge the truth of our personal and collective journeys, in holy anticipation of your transforming grace.

We confess how often we neglect to respond and refuse to listen to your voice calling us into communion with you and into your cleansing love.
We prefer to listen to ourselves.

We confess our often we neglect and refuse to heed the cry and pain of all our neighbors on life’s journey.
We prefer to listen to ourselves.

We confess how often we neglect and refuse to address the legacy of genocid, slavery, and colonialism
We prefer our slanted histories and selfish liberties.

We confess how often we neglect and refuse the unity of your one Spirit over all the earth.
We prefer the prison of our pride and divisions.

We confess how often we neglect and refuse to stop the hate, oppression, and violence inflicted on those who are different.
We prefer our own safety and comfort.

We confess how often we neglect and refuse simply to love you with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves.
We prefer to love our gods and ourselves more than we love you and each other.

Loving God, we repent of our neglect and refusal to follow your ways and thoughts. We pray that you will have mercy on us, forgive us, and free us to know, embrace, and live truthfully and wholly in you and in each other, now and always. Amen.
I think I’ve got my work cut out for me just coming to terms with the consequences of that prayer.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

choosing peace

A little over a month ago, my friend Billy sent me a link to a talk given by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, who spoke at the TED Conference, which I had never heard of before but evidently involves a whole bunch of really smart people. The folks at TED want to get good words out to as many folks as possible, so they allow people to embed their videos as long as we link back to them. You need some time to take it in – because her talk is eighteen minutes long – and it’s worth taking the time.

In her closing comments, Taylor says, “We have the power, moment by moment, to choose who and how we want to be in this world.” The context of her words is her years of researching the two hemispheres of the brain and her surviving a stroke. The choice she lays out is between the right hemisphere of the brain, which connects us “with the life force power of the universe” and helps us feel our interconnectedness and the left hemisphere, “where I am an individual separate from everything else.” She goes on: “The more we choose the peaceful circuitry of our right brain hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world.”

The distinction she makes resonates with me because I know what it feels like to feel connected, whether I’m cooking or writing or painting or singing or just walking in the neighborhood with Ginger and Ella. I also know, when I turn into my task-oriented self, how easily I can see nothing but my stuff and my schedule and my way of doing things, which creates peace in no one, including me. Her words leave me these questions:

Is there a way I can choose to live my life in such a way as to see all of it as a creative choice to wage peace?
Can I chose to expand my consciousness to recognize when I have ceased to be a peacemaker without facing some major calamity?
Why is it so hard for us to be peacemakers?


P. S. There are new recipes here and here.
P. S. My Red Sox are showing. Take time to see this video of Manny catching a fly ball, high-fiving a fan in the bleachers, and then making a double play all in one motion.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

minor league play

Crash Davis couldn’t do anything but play baseball.
With a name like that, what else could he do?
Quick – name all the baseball players you know
named Milton. (You get my point, I’m sure.)

Twenty years after Crash and company graced the
silver screen, I stood on the deck above the first base
grandstand in the house that the movie helped to build
and picked up the foul ball that fell at my feet.

The ball was foul, product of bad swing. Only a few
folks around us sharing in Clergy Appreciation Night
sponsored by a local funeral home – even noticed.
There was no great story attached except for this:

For the first time in my life, I got a baseball at a game.
I came home with a token of the game I love and
cannot play. I wasn’t even breathing through my
eyelids. Good times never seemed so good.


Monday, May 12, 2008

were you there?

I love live music. I love being in the room for those one of a kind moments that can’t be replicated. I saw Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and Buddy Miller a few summers ago on their “Sweet Harmony Musical Revue” tour. The evening was full of amazing things, but the hallmark was David Rawlings, who is known for his old school acoustic guitar, strapping on a Fender and tearing up the night with Buddy Miller. There aren’t any recordings, any YouTube videos (I checked); either you were there or you weren’t.

I was in Tarrrant County Convention Center when B. B. King opened for U2 and then came back out for the encore and they sang “When Love Comes to Town.” Some of that did end up on film, but not Bono turning to Edge as King left the stage and saying, “For a minute there I felt like a musician.”

Ginger and I sat in a small jazz club in Cambridge and heard Jimmy Webb sing “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” and I understood those songs differently when he was finished.

For all the moments I’ve gotten to share, I’ve missed even more. For all the times I’ve seen Springsteen, including the last concert in the Boston Garden, I didn’t get to see him play Fenway Park and open the show with “Dirty Water.” I simply wasn’t there.

I’ve spent the day thinking about those being there moments because we got news this morning that Vera, one of the dear souls in Marshfield, died over the weekend. She was well into her nineties and full of great things. When I shaved my head during coffee hour as a youth mission trip fundraiser (talk about your being there moments), Vera kept a lock of my hair. I was not there when she died; I won’t be there for the funeral. It is the third significant funeral I’ve missed since we moved south. We shared seven years of unrepeatable life together with the folks at North Community. As I grieve those who have gone on, I also grieve not being there. I must also say the grief is matched with gratitude. Of all the days and all the places on earth, I got to spend seven years there, years filled with moments from mission trips to memorial services, coffee hours to confirmations, dinners and dances, smiles and tears.

When I used to walk the beach in Green Harbor looking for sea glass, I was often struck by the fact that I had to choose a path when I walked; I couldn’t cover the whole thing. Unless the shiny little piece of refuse happened to be in the path I chose, I didn’t find it. Conversely, had I chosen a different path, I would not have found the glass I brought home after each trip.

I’m in Durham now, so I don’t get to be in Marshfield for Vera’s funeral. My path leads me to different things, such as what I saw in church yesterday. We stood up to sing a hymn and Bella, a wonderful little girl stood up between her parents and put her arms around them as they sang. They returned the embrace and I couldn’t help but take a picture with my phone. It’s the kind of scene Vera would have liked.

In my youth ministry days, I worked hard to get every kid I could to go to youth camp or whatever retreat we had planned. Once the bus loaded, I chose to be content with those who attended and would tell them, “We will never again be this collection of people in this place at this time. Let’s make the most of it.” Over the years I’ve realized those retreats were no different than everyday life , which is a string of unrepeatable moments and gatherings, only a fraction of which I can attend. Billions of people have come and gone without my knowing them. Millions of concerts have played that I have not heard. And – in this giant universe – I got to be the one whom Vera asked to give her a lock of hair.

That’s the way love comes to town.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

swinging with the spirit

We wrapped up Pentecost by watching the Red Sox game with friends. At one point, the commentators took time to talk about how quickly a batter has to decide whether or not to swing at a pitch. They showed the action in super slow motion, with a digital clock in one corner of the screen. On average, the batter has one quarter of a second to decide to swing or not to swing.

Our friend Terry said, “We don’t see and hear with our eyes and ears; we see and hear with our brains.”

Before the eyes have really had time to focus, the brain has already sized up the pitch and sent the message to the legs to dig in and the arms to start swinging to send the ball searching for the fences, all in less than half a second. All the hours spent practicing in the batting cages pay off because the body knows to trust itself and do what it has been prepared to do, which is an amazing and beautiful thing to behold for a baseball lover.

My earliest understanding of Pentecost was that the disciples spoke in different languages, thanks to the hair-singing descent of the Spirit (did anyone else think of Michael Jackson’s Pepsi commercial?), astounding those in the crowd. Years later, I figured out it was not that they spoke different languages but that the folks in the crowd heard their own language as the disciples spoke. They weren’t seeing and hearing with their eyes and ears, or even their brains, but with their hearts. Some heard nothing but a rushing wind and a bunch of gibberish, leaving them to accuse the speakers of being drunk on “sweet wine.”

“Seriously?” asked Peter. “It’s nine in the morning.”

Ginger spent a good part of her sermon asking what we need to do to talk about our faith and our church in a way that others can hear it in their own language, so they will know they are loved and welcome in Jesus’ name. Her sermon and the Sox come together for me because I think each day holds any number of opportunities where I have a split second to decide whether or not to swing, if you will – to try to speak the language of Love in a way that can be heard by everyone from Ginger to the guy at the convenience store to the people I work with in the kitchen. Occasionally, like a batter with a 3-0 count who knows a fastball is coming down the pike, I have some time to think about what I want to say, but most of the time the chances come quickly and I have to hope I have prepared my heart well enough to see and hear – and act – before I am conscious of the opportunity.

If today is the birthday of the church, as we say, then we do well to notice it began with people speaking and acting in a way that allowed those who were listening to hear of God’s love in a way they could understand – in a way that let them know they belonged with the beloved. That is our foundation, our heritage, our fundamental calling. And so I wonder tonight: who am I practicing to become? how am I training myself to respond to those around me? how does my life speak and what does it say?


Saturday, May 10, 2008

cheese plate communion

It was a perfect night.

The four of us sat around the iron table on the patio of La Hacienda and shared an evening filled with wonderful Mexican food, frozen margaritas, friendship, laughter, and stories – all a part of our celebration of Ginger’s birthday. It was not the only food of the day. During our time in New England, one of the rituals for Ginger’s birthday was a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to wander and wonder among the paintings and then to share the cheese plate in the museum café. We didn’t make it to an art museum yesterday, but we did end up at Six Plates, a wine bar owned by a new friend here in Durham, that has a great cheese plate to keep up our birthday tradition. My girl likes her some cheese.

As Ginger told of our travels from cheese plate to queso and chips, our friend Lindsey said, “You all are such creatures of ritual.”

Yes, we are.

Ritual is best defined as “meaningful repetition” – repeating those things that help you remember, as the old saying goes, who you are and whose you are. So we end up in a Hard Rock Café on our wedding and engagement anniversaries, we chase down a good cheese plate on Ginger’s birthday, and we keep repeating any number of little sayings and actions that remind us of the promises we are committed to keeping, transforming daily doings into something sacred.

The repetition is a stacking of time, each experience laid one on top of the other, so that when we return to repeat it again we do so from a new perspective. All the years of cheese plates give us a different view of what it means to be together, to be alive in this world. One of my favorite stories is Joshua’s telling the people of Israel to stack up the stones after they had crossed the Jordan so that when the children asked what the stones mean they could tell the story of their deliverance, over and over again.

If ritual is meaningful repetition, habit is the opposite – repetition that grows out of convenience, compliance, or just because: unexamined repetition. Where habits grow like kudzu, rituals have to be cultivated and nourished. We have to keep stacking up stones and slicing cheese if life is going to mean something.

When Jesus first passed the bread and wine, he said, “As often as you do this, remember me.” As a chef, one of the ways I like to interpret his words is to think he was not so much envisioning a Communion service at church as much as he was talking about meal time in a more general sense: every time you break bread together, remember. Let our meals be rituals and not habits.

Soon after Ginger and I started dating, I cooked dinner for her. I sautéed some chicken with pasta and alfredo sauce. She loved it and it became one of our ritual meals, which we call Saturday Night Chicken, since it was a Saturday night when we first had it together. Now it’s a meal I prepare, particularly when we have gone through a busy or stressful time and I want to reconnect. All the meals over the almost twenty years since I first served it to her stack up to give a great view of who we are and where we have come from together because we eat and remember.

Rituals are the raw material from which we can build of our lives a mountain of memories, offering us the chance to see that we have come from God and we are going to God, that we are inextricably connected to one another by the grace of God, and, even in the scope of so grand a universe, it matters that we celebrate with cheese plates, over and over again.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

primary day in north carolina

They gave these to us as we left the polling station -- ain't that America . . .


Sunday, May 04, 2008

shall we gather at the river?

It’s late and I’m restless. After the two deaths last week at our church here in Durham, word came that one of the dearest souls in the Marshfield church died unexpectedly. Grief, like my depression, sends me searching for songs in the middle of the night, mostly looking for old friends to comfort me. I found a few at church this morning in the hymns we sang. The postlude was "Shall We Gather At the River."

ere we reach the shining river
lay we every burden down
I rode the river of new technology tonight that is YouTube, finding all sorts of old friends camped out along the way. Somewhere in my sojourn, I landed on a song I had not thought of in years, perhaps: Gary Chapman’s “Sweet Jesus,” a haunting melody that captures the paradox of faithful grieving and the kind of hopeful suffering Ginger preached about this morning, following 1 Peter’s lead:
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (4:19)
Here are the lyrics:
Sweet Jesus

There is a river running through this town
It carries the water
There isn't any way to slow it down
Or make it stop
I was a baby when the big bridge fell
So I don't remember
But I have listened to the stories well
And so I know
They were falling
To the surface
They were calling
To their God
And their cry was

Sweet Jesus, please won't you catch us, save us
Sweet Jesus, please won't you hear us crying

Fishing for luck beneath the bridge that day
A man in his eighties
He saw it happen and began to pray
As he dove in
He found a mother and a baby boy
They both wouldn't make it
The mama handed him her only joy
He took the child
Then he was swimming
Like he was twenty
He made shoreline
Then he died
And his thoughts were

Sweet Jesus, please won't you catch us, save us
Sweet Jesus, please won't you hear us crying
He was crying

I miss my mother and the brave old man
Though I never knew them
They are the soul inside the man I am
I bear their dreams
And I am walking
In their footsteps
I am talking
To their God
And my cry is

Sweet Jesus, please won't you catch us, save us
Sweet Jesus, please won't you hear us crying
Sweet Jesus, please won't you catch us, save us
Sweet Jesus, please won't you hear us crying
We're all crying

There is a river running through this town
It carries the water
There isn't any way to slow it down
Or make it stop

Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, beautiful river, gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.


Saturday, May 03, 2008

note to self

In the quiver of lies called depression,
the name of the sharpest arrow is
You Have Nothing To Say. Forget
what the flowers told you, or the gift
from the little one in front of you at
the drive through when she smiled.

How can you give voice to the joy of
a snuggling Schnauzer, or speak to
the grief that rises with the sun day
after day? Anything you say will only
reinforce your insignificance. No one is
waiting to hear from you. Stay silent.

Truth is not silent. You must speak
through the pain, of the pain. Silence
can’t hold healing. Name the lie. Write
into the night, fill any page with names
you can remember, stories you believe,
songs you know by heart. It matters.